Chapter 6: North Island, New Zealand

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In the Auckland airport, they reached the conclusion that I was a pothead (perhaps I should shower or shave one of these days) and subjected me to an hour-long interrogation where they swabbed down all my clothes to check for drug residue. They eventually released me (probably with a tracking device planted in my luggage) and I took the insanely expensive "cheap" way to get to town, the Airbus ($15rt). Anxious to try the local cuisine, I visited the Arirang barbeque restaurant; though the waiters didn't speak English very well (probably recently imported from their Mauri villages) they cooked up a mean spicy seafood soup with kimchee and seaweed. Then I did some stuff in Auckland which was fairly boring. Somewhere along the way, I had decided that it would be a good idea to bike around New Zealand - this would give me a chance to experience all the sights along the way where a bus may not stop and it would provide plenty of good exercise. I had never done much in the way of cycling and it had been months since my marathon training, but I figured I could handle about 150K a day and see most of the island in the span of 10 days. There were a few flaws in this reasoning that I perhaps should have seen coming; 1.NZ has hills, a phenomenon that coming from Florida, I had only a passing familiarity with; 2.there is a crazy wind in this country that is always against you and can stop you dead in your tracks even if you're on a 30% grade downhill; 3.I do in fact eventually get tired after maintaining a high speed for several hours at a time with a 20kg backpack. Despite all these facts, I set out on this ill-conceived venture the morning after my arrival in Auckland. The rental shop gave me a touring bike, helmet, repair kit, pump and lock for 10 days for 70 bucks. I had never ridden a road bike before, so after about 3km, I returned to the shop to ask them how to downshift. Earlier, the bike shop owner had instructed me to take the Great South Road to get out of Auckland; following signs for this, I arrived on a six lane highway where the speed limit was 130. This struck me as a bit of an odd bike route, but since this was the recommended road, I stuck to it. A kilometer later, the shoulder completely disappeared; huge semis were tearing past just inches away and every other person who passed would sound their horn and let loose a string of explicatives; I began to suspect I might be in the wrong place. Next I heard the blare of sirens and a loud speaker behind me; this was the first time I've ever been elated to be pulled over by a cop. The squad car escorted me to the next exit; when we arrived there, the cop just looked at me with a stunned expression and said something along the lines of "what are you doing??" It looked as if she might write me a ticket but after realizing I was just a stupid tourist, she was probably relieved that I was at least riding on the correct side of the highway, and simply pointed me in the direction of the real Great South Road and let me go on my way - probably a very good thing I wasn't taken in - with this on top of my record from the airport, I may have been deported. I followed the two-lane state road through a long series of suburbs; it was lined with car dealerships and fast food joints and for the most part was utterly boring. After several hours, I saw a sign for a honey shop which offered free honey samples and beekeeping demonstrations; since this was the closest thing to a tourist attraction I'd seen yet, I decided to stop. After sampling more varieties of honey than I had any reason to believe existed, I asked the owner where I was; she informed me that despite my long peddle, I was actually still in Auckland; she got on the net to find me someplace to stay. While this was going on, an employee from "The Strawberry Shack", an ice cream parlour next door, came over; somehow it was decided that she would take me to the beach for a swim after the shop closed in 5 hours. So with some time to kill, I biked around the surrounding farmland, saw a lot of sheep, a gliding club sending up gliders, and many new types of roadkill (4 hedgehogs, 2 bushy-tailed opossums, something resembling a lemur, and a large fish of some sort). When I got back, the Strawberry Shack girl was on her way out because she had broken the ice cream machine and they were forced to close 2 hours early. We threw my bike in the boot and headed for the west coast, picking up her friend, Mark, along the way. As it turned out, AJ (aforementioned girl) had spent half her life in San Diego; she was an Olympic track star and is getting ready to start Stanford law in the fall; you never know who you're going to find making ice cream. The west coast beaches were covered in black sand and the water temps were right around 15C, which, if you perform the standard conversion, you'll see is equivalent to the Fahrenheit reading of "really freakin' cold!!" The kiwis dove in but I was content to dip a foot and then go for a walk on the beach. There were a number of teenagers doing donuts on the sand, but in between dodging their speeding cars, I was able to admire the amazing cliffs that lined the shore and the fleet of hangliders and parachuters that filled the air. When AJ and Mark were sufficiently chilled, they suggested we go in search of food; when I asked what the popular local foods were, they said they knew a great fish and chips place; this turned out to be on the other coast, so after a quick 90 minutes of driving, we were sitting next to a shack on the white sands of the east coast, eating deep fried fish out of a rolled-up newspaper; this turned out to be ridiculously good, but since the sign out front proclaimed that this was New Zealand's "best fish n' chips," I would expect nothing less. Mark's parents lived a few miles up the coast in Miranda; they volunteered their guest house for me to use. In the morning, Mark's dad outlined a good route that would take me through flat farmland for a few hundred kilometers so I could stop in Matamata where Bilbo Baggin's house was filmed (not to be confused with Matmata, the Tunisian village where Anakin Skywalker lived). As I started on the ride, I came across Ngatea where the only attraction was the "world of gems" which turned out to be about as exciting as a pile of rocks. In Keripeki, I grabbed another staple of kiwi cuisine, the steak pie, to clog any arteries I might have missed with the fish n' chips. On the way to Paeroa, I passed the "Yesteryear barn" which was reportedly filled with "yesterday's treasures;" I didn't stop because I wanted to conserve momentum (a precious commodity while biking), but for the rest of the I day I couldn't stop thinking about what wonders this barn might contain - could it be comparable to "The Thing" of southern New Mexico, or might it be something even more spectacular? The town's main claim to fame was the "Lemon n' Paeroa" soft drink which carried the slogan "World Famous in New Zealand"; while exploring the one and only street, some random couple passed and asked where I was going; I told them Matamata and they replied that this was a boring farming village and the Hobbiton attraction would cost $35; they recommended that I instead head through Kangahake Gorge and down the coast to Tauranga; this brief bit of advice was enough for me to completely change my itinerary.

The road through the gorge was akin to Cali's Big Sur - winding back and forth over countless hills with no shoulders to speak of. I took a break from the fearsome trail to walk through a mile-long railroad tunnel; this had no light besides a dim lamp ever few hundred meters, so I stumbled through the dark on uneven pavement pot marked with pools of water. At the end of the gorge was the town of Waihi to which tourists flocked from miles around to see the still operational gold mine, which, to be completely accurate, is really just a massive hole in the ground. The next 40K were gruelling: there was little to break up the trip except for the occaional fruit stand (20 kiwifruits for a buck!). I finally arrived in the seaside town of Tauranga around 8; this place had little to offer besides many miles of upscale storefronts. The next day I set out for Rotorua; stopping at the Te Puki tourist office, I was told that the road ahead was extremely hilly and terrible for cycling; this would have been a useful tidbit a few hundred kilometers ago. On the outskirts of Te Puke, I stopped at the kiwifruit factory which offered tours in a train made of kiwi-shaped cars and sold everything from special kiwi-eating spoons (that were both a spoon and a knife) to kiwi toothpaste. Next it was onto Longridge Adventure Park; I couldn't put my finger on where the "Adventure" part of the name came in but they did have a petting zoo with giant eels and a Gollum the opossum among other things. After this, it was a 30km stretch of absolutely nothing - no fruits, no drinks (there was one place that sold $50/kilo South African beef jerky). The first tourist trap as I neared the city was a 1.7 mile three-dimensional maze; this was a glorified playground which took about half an hour to navigate; for once I was quite glad to be alone as the groups I encountered would endlessly bicker about the best way and it seemed as if they might never escape from those wooden walls. Arriving in Rotorua, I explored the reasonably-sized city which had a night scene about the same as any other town on the island - nonexistent - but did however have pools of boiling water and bubbling mud in hundreds of random spots, and a haze of steam and hydrogen-sulphide filled the air. I awoke early the next morning to the scent of rotten eggs and walked down to Kauru park; here there were dozens of steaming craters sectioned off by fences, as well as several areas encircled by caution tape where new activity had caused the earth to spontaneously break open and melt unsuspecting tourists. I went to the Redwoods forest where thousands of slightly confused Californian Redwoods grew to heights rivalling those in their native soil. From there, I raced to the Mauri Cultural Center to catch the midday concert which consisted of a bunch of scantily-clad people hitting the ground with sticks, flapping their tongues, and slapping their chests and butt-cheeks to catchy island tunes. In the same complex there was a "Kiwi Encounter" where a bird (not a fruit) supposedly lived; because of the animal's nocturnal nature, the room was completely dark and it was very difficult to say whether the furry outline moving about was really the rare, endangered bird, or just some imposturous beaver. Down the trail was a group of geysers; one was constantly erupting to a height of 3-7 meters, but the spotlight performance was one that erupted to 30 meters once or twice an hour; I never actually saw this or met anyone who had, and the staff seemed very reluctant to give any indication of the time frame when it might next occur, so I suspect it was just a marketing gimmick. I ordered a hangi, which is a traditional dish put in a woven basked, wrapped in soil and buried in the earth with hot coals for 3-5 hours; somehow the microwaved version they served to me in a Styrofoam bowl after 5 minutes didn't really have the aura of authenticity I was looking for. I had been warned about the uphill struggle to Taupo so I took a bus and arrived around 6. It was a very pleasant town and lacked the stench of the previous ville. My hostel was a dump but it appeared that I would have a room entirely to myself; however, I awoke at midnight to see a group of guys rushing out the door; I guessed they were robbing the place and shoved one of the mattresses up against the door so I would be tipped off if they returned; they were actually my late-arriving roommates and an awkward explanation of my barricade followed. In the morning, I biked up to the site of the Taupo Bungy Jump and admired the view of the drop to the river below; Taupo has a slew of reasonably-priced options for jumping off bridges/out of planes/etc, but because it was freezingcold, I was not really inclined to do any of them. The next stop was the moderately impressive Huka Falls, followed by another dose of geothermal activity at "Craters of the Moon;" here it was possible to stand over huge gaping holes lined with heat-loving ferns and a rainbow of colors where gases had died the rock. For lunch, I went to yet another honey-harvesting museum and sampled about 30 different varieties from hot ginger to peanut better. The only sights after that were the Arikaka dam which opened and noon and produced instant rapids, and the town museum which showcased a long and wholly uninteresting history. I biked around the lake to Turangi; this ride was not nearly as painful as the previous two and provided amazing vistas at every bend. The only reason anyone ever goes to Turangi is to do the Tongariro Crossing, the undisputed best one-day hike in the country. When I arrived at 6PM, everyone was either sleeping (having hiked the trail that day) or carbo-loading for the early morning start.

We took a bus to the trailhead at 8AM; visibility was nil but they promised it would clear up. About 800 people do the crossing on any given day and most start at approximately the same time, so for the first hour I was tripping over all the intolerably slow children and elderly who had taken the challenge. There are two side trips on this route - one is to the top of Mt. Tongariro at 1967m and is relatively easy, the other is to the summit of Mt. Ngaurohoe, more popularly known as Mt. Doom - this is considered extremely strenuous and is frequently lethal. A hostel employee had told me repeatedly that the latter trip was utterly amazing, but he said just as many times that I shouldn't do it unless conditions were absolutely perfect and to definitely avoid it unless I came up with boots; based on this, I resolved to do the wussy Mt. Tongariro instead. When I neared the turnoff for the mount, I spoke with a wizened old guy who told me that Mt. Tongariro wasn't worth the walk, and that Doom was incredible but I clearly wasn't equipped for it and my feet would be badly lacerated. I decided that, in the grand scheme of things, there were many things worse than lacerated feet (such as the hiker who had cracked his skull open the week before) and began the ascent up the steep volcanic cone (if Frodo could do it in his weakened state, I could surely do it with a good night's sleep, 2 liters of water and a bag of nuts and raisins). For a few hundred meters, I attempted to claw my way up the slipping rocks, but even the large, seemingly secure stones would just slip under my weight and slide down the mountain; at one point, a large boulder came barrelling down the mountain towards me, but at the last moment bounced off an overhead shelf and cleared my head by a meter. When a girl walked past me on her way down, I asked if there were an easier way, and she pointed through a break in the clouds to a long lava flow where everyone else was climbing up, aided by markers and plenty of good handholds. Moving over, I crawled up to the crater rim in about an hour and a half. I was up above a field of endless cloud and so could not see anything of the landscape surrounding the mount, but crossing a field of snow to get to the inner crater, I beheld a huge gaping hole from which past eruptions had occurred. I walked around the rim, witnessed unbelievable views of the surrounding countryside as the weather cleared up, and then began my rapid descent by sliding down the rocks, preceded by a minor avalanche as my feet stirred up thousands of stones on the way down. The next part of the hike took me up to a ridge where I could see a giant red crater spewing gas, perfectly clear blue and green lakes, and mountains covered in snow.

My side trip put me in danger of missing the last bus of the night, so I ran the last 10kms (all downhill along a mountain stream and then through a dense forest), hurdling over the hundreds of old people who had managed to pass me again. I finished the course in a record 4.5 hours andgrabbed the early bus back to town; I still had some energy left so I decided to move on to Taumarunui. A hot German girl staying in my hostel had led me to believe that hitchhiking was fast and easy, but no one wanted to pick up a guy and his bike; after an hour of waiting where dozens of SUVs and campers had passed me, a station wagon pulled over and took me 5 kms over a mountain to the next town up. Here, I tried to grab a ride for the next 50kms, but with no takers, I was forced to start peddling. The track was all uphill until I reached a point called "Waituhei Saddle" (pronounced "Way too high"), and then went downhill for the next 28kms into town. This part was visually stunning as it passed through hillsides of a green I would never expect in nature; I reached the town shortly after dark (around 9:30) and set about looking for a place to stay. All the hotels were closed so I inquired in a bar titled "Alpine Inn" whether there was any accommodation to offer; the manager replied "No, but you can grab a room upstairs, I won't charge you anything." On the next floor up, there was a dilapidated hotel that looked as if it had not been used in decades; most of the rooms did not have lights, locks (or door handles for that matter), or sheets, and many were littered with beer bottles and random debris. I picked the one that was adequately equipped and wasn't directly over the noisy bar, (probably stole the manager's place) and had a good night's sleep and a hot shower in the morning - not bad value for the price. In the morning, I headed 100km north towards Te Kuiti; this was the most boring trip yet - the only sign of civilization was one little store that was exactly 50km from each point; here all the random travellers who had haplessly ended up on this road had scrolled disturbing messages of hopelessness and fear on the walls. Te Kuiti was the "Shearing capital of the world"; as exciting as this sounded, I rapidly made my way north to Waitomo Caves. Unfortunately, I arrived too late to do any of the cool caving adventures (blackwater rafting, abseiling, etc.), and as an even greater disappointment, I missed the daily free shearing demonstration of a rabbit at the "Shearing Shed." I did a boring, over-priced 45-minute tour of the cave where they ran a big group through the stalactite-ridden caverns in about 5 minutes then threw us on a boat which was guided by rope through a cave with lots of little glow-worms. After this, I went for a moonlight bushwalk where I saw many more glow-worms on rocks and throughout the forest. I stayed at a hut owned by the caving society where I put my $12 in a box by the door and slept on a hard mat with no sheets; the caving guys all went on a club trip in the morning, but sadly did not bring me along. I tried to get to the nearby town of Otorohanga for a church service, but it turned out they only had Masses on the 1st, 3rd, and 5th Saturdays of the month, so I was left with nothing else to do but grab a bus back to Auckland. I spent a few days there, visiting Devonport, biking past countless beaches, going on a quest for the cityís best lollies, visiting a bar that was kept at 5 degrees below zero where everything was made from ice, and doing other random crap I donít really feel like writing about. --Actually the story of the lolly hunt will probably help accentuate just how boring the island's capital city is; one day I was reading in a newspaper I found on the street about a phenomenon known as the "$1 lolly bag" - apparently every convenience store throughout the country has on offer a mixture of candies of varying flavors and quality that they sell for a buck. The article rated several of these stores on such factors as quantity, taste, and freshness. I had never heard of most of the neighbourhoods that held these treasured mini-marts so I thought it would be an interesting challenge to seek them all out and see whether I concurred with their judgement. The search lasted several hours and covered an area 25kms across, and in the end, I accidentally went to the store next door to that which offered the city's best lollies and so my wanderings were all for naught (not to say that they were particularly worthwhile to begin with, especially since I don't eat sweets).

Auckland - big, beautiful, and oh so boring!


Don't mess with NZ, they've got a battleship!


Tropical rainforest? Nope, it's a well-watered hole in the middle of Auckland


Not a bad set of wheels


Minus 5 is one of the pricier places to have a drink in Auckland - $18 and they kick you out after 20 minutes


Maybe they could save a bit on electricity if they'd turn down the AC


Chairs - ice, counter - ice, glasses - ice, floor - not ice (good call!)


Cash register, shelves, sculptures - ice, ice, ice


No way I'm swimming in 15C!


Nothing enriches a natural beach untouched by human development like teenagers doing donuts on the sand


Lemon and Paiora soda - the town's one claim to fame and I never tried it.


An operational gold mine


Traversing the gorge


A mile-long tunnel with no lighting - what a great idea!

AAAAAAHHHHH!


The giant wooden maze that stol half an hour from my life - it looks so easy from here


Every petting zoo should have a nocturnal, disease-ridden pest!


Rotorua is just packed full of big holes that spew out smelly gases

Mud!

You can never have enough pictures of mud!


Anyone for a swim?


Despite its millions of tourists, New Zealand has managed to maintain an aire of quiet dignity


Not surprisingly, New Zealand is that the forefront of livestock technology - these are the newest in cyborg farm animals


No idea what this building is for


This geyser used to be 30 meters high, but then the neighbors figured out they could tap into it and take longer showers


They said no pictures in the kiwi house, but I took one anyway! Man, was that worth the risk!

Watch your head!


Locals seem a bit hostile


Lake Taupo

Super Loo to the rescue!

Non-descript rapids


More McDonalds should have a retired plane


In case you have a craving for those great inflight meals...


Every town needs a giant trout


Random Taupo sculpture


Craters of the moon


The Taupo bungee site - I can see it all just fine from up here, no need to dangle myself from a rope


The start of the Tongariro Crossing - they made this too easy.

The trail gets a bit more challenging


This track isn't really designed for the volumes of people that cross it each day - when are they putting in the moving sidewalks?


I know the mountain has to be around here somewhere


That doesn't look so tough


Scaling Mt. Doom


Something tells me I'm up pretty high


Is it summer yet??


Standing victorious atop the conquered Mt. Doom


Isn't there supposed to be boiling lava down there?


These signs always worried me - on this articular stretch, there were 5 of them in about 2 kms and then the road abruptly dropped into a giant hole


You know I was just thinking this country could use a bit more farmland!


Cruising down highway 41


Perhaps not the nicest place I've stayed, but you can't argue with free!


A rock with a sense of style


I've seen a lot of translations for toilet signs in my travels - here's one I never figured out.


A great view and a comfortable seat - what more can you ask for?