MistyNites

My Life in Motion

Archive for the tag “geothermal”

Autumn Roadie: Tongariro to Napier

It was a grey afternoon as I left Tongariro National Park behind to head north. On State Highway (SH) 47, I was covering fresh ground, but it wasn’t a long drive to reach first the large expanse of Lake Rotoaira, and then the car park for the hidden Lake Rotopounamu. Nestled on the slopes of Pihanga (a volcano that, according to Maori legend, was a maiden that was fought over by the warrior mountains, of whom Mt Tongariro was triumphant, getting to stand by her for the rest of eternity), the lake feels secretive and secluded. There were plenty of parked cars, but it appeared that most people were heading back as I was heading in, so it felt nice and quiet. A circuit trail heads round the circumference of the lake, taking about an hour. Despite the occasional drizzle, and the overcast sky darkening the waters, it was a pleasant stroll with an ever-changing perspective.

 

My bed for the night and my first chance of a shower in 4 days, was in Taupo, a town I’ve stayed in several times. I’ve always approached it via SH1 up the east coast of Lake Taupo, but I decided to keep west on this occasion to see a part of the countryside that was new. Taking SH 41, there were a couple of lookouts over the lake towards Tauhara, another volcano, in the far distance. But after just a short while, the road left the lake side behind and I discovered that this route didn’t really offer a lakeside view unless you took a side road. Turning north on SH32, I eventually reached a back road to Taupo that would allow me to visit Kinloch on the north shore of the large Lake Taupo. I was intrigued by the Scottish name, and arriving in the evening, it was peaceful and quiet.

 

With some chips from the local fish and chip shop, I quickly garnered some feathered friends as I sat by the beach to eat them. A heron waded in the shallows as a family played near the water’s edge. Behind me, a pretty little marina was packed with boats and a plethora of ducks slept, bobbing on the water in between them all. Despite being so close to Taupo which is a popular tourist spot, this place felt so peaceful and empty, and I could see the appeal of having a bach (a Kiwi holiday home) here. Taupo itself doesn’t really float my boat much. It’s always just a place to break up a journey, and that was pretty much its purpose this time round too. I checked into my hostel, had a lovely warm shower to clean off the 4 days of hiking, and headed off to a local restaurant for dinner.

 

After a delicious breakfast in a nearby cafe, I was quick to leave Taupo behind. I pulled in at Huka Falls and was appalled at the crowds here. Perhaps I’d just picked a bad time, as there were several coachloads of people milling around, but this was the busiest I’d seen the place, and it was very off-putting. I remember many years ago one of my colleagues at my old job in Scotland coming back from a holiday in New Zealand and proclaiming it a beautiful country but she wouldn’t want to live there on account of all the tourists. I thought it an odd comment at the time, but now having lived here for 5.5years, I really do see what she means. Whilst there are still plenty of untouched spots in the country, and areas that are more frequented by locals than travellers, the main places in the country can be rather unpleasant during the high season from November through to March. I stayed only long enough to take some photos and was quick to get on my way again.

 

Whenever I am in the geothermal zone between Rotorua and Taupo, I try and visit a different thermal park. First time around I visited Waimangu Volcanic Valley (which to this day remains my favourite) and Wai-O-Tapu (one of the region’s most famous). On a later trip I visited the Craters of the Moon, and on this trip, I was keen to visit one that had been on my radar for a while: Orakei Korako. At the end of a road in the middle of nowhere, the visitor centre is on the western bank of a narrow arm of Lake Ohakuri, whereas the thermal area is across the water on the east bank. Only accessible by boat from the visitor centre, it makes for a slightly more unique experience. The water had a glass-like quality to it as the little boat carried us across, and at the far side we were all greeted by columns of steam rising from the ground around us.

 

Previous volcanic eruptions have destroyed some of the regions most historically beautiful geothermal areas, in particular the famous pink and white terraces. From the dock, the boardwalk (which has a recommended directional route to follow) leads up past a large steaming rock that appears to roll down the hillside to the lake, even extending out of sight below the water. There is plenty to look at in the park as the route winds its way up and around a collection of steaming vents, bubbling mud and hot pools, and large patches of silica deposits that are variably stained with the colourful microbes that live in such hot and often acidic or alkalinic environments.

 

Living in the South Island where the island is dominated by mountains and lakes, and the driving natural force is earthquakes, it is easy to forget about this world of volcanism that exists in the North Island. A few months following this trip, through research for some coursework, I have gained a bit more knowledge on the geology of this fascinating zone, and whilst it can still be enjoyed without any knowledge about how this part of the world is formed, it is definitely appreciated more with even the lightest of research in advance. But like the other geothermal zones, Orakei Korako is a delight for the senses: from the sulphuric smell for the nose, and the hissing and popping sounds for the ears, to the colourful contrasts for the eyes. The only thing that cannot be experiened is touch, with many of the rocks and water spills dangerously hot or erosive.

 

After completing the almost figure of eight circuit of the park, I took the boat back to the visitor’s centre and pushed on. I had a long drive east to Napier on the Hawke’s Bay coastline, and I had no idea what was in store for me. It took a while to reach SH5 which took me south to skirt past Taupo before cutting east to the coast. It started off innocently enough, cutting across a vast plain and then through forests, before suddenly it cuts a winding pass through the Ahimanawa Range. For the most part following the gorge cut by the Waipunga River, I was blown away by this part of the drive, and it really challenged my car when the only overtaking zones coincided with an incline. I regularly spotted areas that would have been amazing to go hiking through, but unfortunately there wasn’t really anywhere to stop and take photographs, so I emerged on the other side with nothing visual to show for it. I did however find myself in sunshine, and coming across a multitude of signs for wineries. The great expanse of Hawke’s Bay greeted me as I turned onto SH2 to reach Napier, a city who’s charms were quick to wash over me.

 

Following the earthquake of 1931, New Zealand’s deadliest natural disaster, much of the city of Napier was razed to the ground. A widespread rebuild in this era has resulted in a predominantly Art Deco theme to parts of the city which now acts as a major draw card for tourists. Split across either side of a natural hillside and divided in two by the harbour, the main waterfront spans the long promenade of the expansive Hawke’s Bay, and it is behind here that the bulk of the Art Deco building’s lie.

I was delighted to discover that my hostel was across the road from an ice cream parlour and some creamy delight from here was the perfect accompaniment to walking along the foreshore. Starting at the Tourist Information centre with its unusual sculpture outside, I picked up a walking and cycling map of the city and headed back out where I was immediately greeted by a shiny open top car. In the sunshine it was a colourful place with sculptures on the street corners and the buildings of the high street were painted in a variety of pastel shades. From the lampposts to the street names and the facades, the theme was pretty solid throughout, and in some of the tourist stores, the staff were dressed up like cast members of the Great Gatsby movie.

 

By sheer coincidence, it turned out to be the opening night at the theatre for the stage show of Mary Poppins and I managed to score a ticket for later that night. Returning to the promenade, there was ongoing work here to upgrade the facilities, but there was a fountain and gardens to look at as well as a skate park and an old-fashioned open-air auditorium. I snaked through the various points of interest to return to my car before cutting round Bluff Hill past the harbour to the Ahuriri suburb where a collection of bars and restaurants line the marina front. It was Friday evening and they were all packed. I grabbed a pizza from a local takeaway and enjoyed it by the park before taking a wander around here. Eventually though, it was time to head to the theatre for what turned out to be a really enjoyable production. Exiting to darkness, the fountain at the park was lit up in ever changing colours, illuminating the night sky and there was an infectiously positive mood in the air as people moved between the bars. I was buzzing and on a high when I returned to my room to discover that I had it to myself. But just as I was getting ready to turn in for the night, late as it was my luck changed, and so began the most uncomfortable and unnerving stay at a hostel that I have ever had.

Fjords and Fire

Heading east from Höfn, Iceland’s Route 1 hugged the coastline briefly before turning inland and heading through a tunnel below the mountains, taking you from the south coast to the east coast. Emerging out the other side was like entering another world. Although the exit was only 1 mountain’s width away from the entrance, I’d entered from Höfn under overcast skies, and exited to blue skies and sunshine. I couldn’t believe it. The views of the snow-capped mountains under the blueness of the sky were spectacular and kilometre after kilometre, the road snaked around the coastline, the sea shimmering under the sunlight. Some fjords cut into the landscape, and the road cut inland following these fjords to their head before snaking back to the coastline again, including a section where Route 1 is unsealed. I’d previously driven on an unsealed section of road that was in the process of repair, and being a well-used road, despite the lack of tarmac it was still relatively good quality under tyre aside from the dust being kicked up.

View from Route 1 on the western side of the tunnel

Looking west back towards the mountain where the tunnel passes through, below the cloud

Eastern coastline

Snow-capped mountains flank the ring road

Cliff face next to the ring road

 

Where Route 1 turns inland, I decided to stick to the coastal road both for the scenery as well as the fact that it was sealed road. Route 1 itself is unsealed in parts on this inland section, and being a rental vehicle, I was keen to put the car through as little hardship as possible. At Stöðvarfjörður I stopped on a whim to visit Petra’s Stone Collection. In the settlement of her birth, lies the collection of geological stones and gems collected by Ljósbjörg Petra María over 80 years. Her house and garden are crammed full of them, and I decided to pay the entrance fee for a nosy around. There was a bus load of tourists leaving when I arrived so I had been intrigued to see what all the fuss was about. It’s an impressive collection, although it borders on manic hoarding, and it broke up my long day of driving just at the right time.

A mere sample of Petra's stone collection

 

At the head of the next fjord, I took the road cutting inland north to Egilsstaðir. It felt strange reaching a town again, and I drove straight through it to park up on the far banks of the expansive Lagarfljót river. From here, even in June, there was plenty of snow on the nearby peaks. There wasn’t a lot to keep me here, as I still had to reach my evening’s destination, so after a short break, I took the stunning Route 93 east to Seyðisfjörður. This section of road was spectacular. Almost immediately out of Egilsstaðir, the 93 climbs and zig-zags steeply up the mountain side. Near the top, a pull-in offers a good view point back down over the town and river below before the road reaches the summit of the mountain pass which was flanked by large stale snow drifts. Even the large lake next to the road was for the most part frozen. It was like driving through an icy wonderland in the height of summer, and I found it took great concentration on the road, as this was not a place where you wanted to go off the tarmac.

Egilsstaðir

Egilsstaðir from the view point

 

On the other side of the pass, the greenery returned, and as the road began its dramatic descent towards the head of the fjord, Seyðisfjörður peeked into view and the beauty of the fjord itself became more apparent. After a few corners, I noticed several cars pulled in at the side, so stopped to have a look. There was a view straight down the gully towards the fjord as well as the top of a multi-staged waterfall, Gufufoss. I did a bit of rock-hopping to find some solitude and a differing view of the top of the falls, before driving down to the bottom of the falls further along the road.

The first view of Seyðisfjörður

The top section of Gufufoss

River leading the way to Seyðisfjörður

Gufufoss

Gufufoss

Mountain view from Gufufoss

 

Nestled at the head of the fjord of the same name, Seyðisfjörður is the arrival port for the ferry from Denmark on continental Europe which arrives once a week. On sailing days, the place is reportedly bustling, but outwith those days, although I was far from the only tourist there, it was perfectly quiet and serene for my liking. I wasted no time in checking in and getting out to explore. It isn’t hard to find waterfalls in Iceland, and opposite the marina, a path leads up through lupins to yet another waterfall. The closer to the falls the path got, the poorer quality it was underfoot but it was worth it to see it up close as well as to get a bit of a view back down over the fjord and the town.

Waterfall in Seyðisfjörður

Top of the falls

Looking down on Seyðisfjörður

 

My favourite thing about the place was the buildings. There was very much a Scandinavian vibe here with the colourfully painted wooden-boarded buildings. I loved exploring it on foot, looking at the reflections on the water. I was lucky enough to find a place to eat in a recommended eatery, and tucked in to some local food and local beer. It was an eclectic little place and I really liked it. I had managed to secure the last available bed in all the budget accommodations here, and I was glad that I had as I was extremely glad I’d been able to include it on my trip.

Seyðisfjörður

Scandinavian building

Seyðisfjörður panorama

Office building in Seyðisfjörður

Seyðisfjörður kirk

Building in Seyðisfjörður

 

I’d planned a lot for the next day so set off early. I wound my way back across the scenic pass and back down the other side to Egilsstaðir where I rejoined Route 1 to head first north then west. I stopped at the Rjukani waterfall right by the side of the road which I had to myself at the early hour of the day. There is so much variety amongst the Icelandic waterfalls and all beautiful in their own way. But my first destination of the day was another of Iceland’s famous waterfalls. Full of paranoia with my rental car, I researched my route each night prior to ensure I was sticking to sealed roads unless unavoidable. Satisfied that I could get there on a sealed road, I crossed the barren tundra, following route 1, eagerly looking out for wild reindeer and unfortunately seeing none.

Rjukani

 

When I reached the sign for the waterfall, I duly turned off and shortly after, the tarmac ended and I was a little confused. I toyed with the idea of turning back and skipping the waterfall but I was really keen to see it so opted to push on. Unlike the unsealed section of route 1 from the previous day which had been well compacted and smooth, this route was stony, rutted and exceedingly uneven. I’m used to handling a car on an unsealed road as a lot of my tramps in New Zealand involve going down these, so I drove it a lot faster than many of the other cars I came across on the day. Even so, it was about 30km of track to negotiate and I was far from enjoying it by the time I finally turned in at the waterfall.

Reportedly the most powerful waterfall in the whole of Europe, Dettifoss was a sight to behold. The canyon itself was impressive, and as I walked along the edge of the canyon towards the falls, I noticed a lot of people on the far side of the river at another lookout, and there were a lot more vehicles and people there. It confirmed my suspicion that I had taken the wrong road, but as the mist of the falls was blowing up and over to that lookout, I told myself I was in the better spot. Regardless, the waterfalls were staggering, and the noise was incredible. A perfect rainbow arced through the spray across the river. There were plenty of vantage points, and even though it was a harder route to take, there were still plenty of people on this eastern flank of the river. I took my time walking back along the canyon edge taking it all in.

Dettifoss

Canyon downstream from Dettifoss

Dettifoss

Dettifoss panorama

Rainbow below the western viewpoint

Canyon panorama

Canyon viewpoint

Canyon downstream from Dettifoss

 

After quite some time, I went back to my car for the monotonous drive back to the tarmac. About a third of the way however, disaster struck. Perhaps I’d been a little confident and cocky with my driving, and I certainly didn’t see what caused the damage, but all of a sudden there was a loud bang and as I slowed the car to a stop and got out, I could here a hissing sound and watched as my tyre began to deflate before my eyes. Despite being 33, I’d never changed a tyre in my life. I certainly knew how to, but had never needed to, and out here in the middle of nowhere on an uncomfortable and dirty ground, I found myself rummaging in the boot of my rental for everything I needed. But it felt like out of nowhere I was suddenly surrounded by a multitude of other cars, all tourists, and all eager to help me. Despite my feminist protestations that I would manage, several men from two separate vehicles practically fought each other to help me. In the end I didn’t need to lift a finger, and before long I was thanking the family profusely and back on my way.

Only now I was on a space saving tyre, my pet-hate of tyres, and with no further back up, I was forced to crawl at an agonisingly slow speed back to Route 1. On reaching the tarmac, I spotted another car pulled over with a space-saver on, and we nodded a knowing smile at each other on passing. Even on the tarmac, the tyre limited my speed, and it felt like so much wasted time before I limped the car into Reykjahlíð on the shore of Lake Mývatn. There was a car garage on the edge of town but it was closed. Thankfully the visitor’s centre was able to phone someone to meet me at the garage in an hour, so after filling my stomach, I retraced my steps and pulled in. The man that met me was the only unfriendly Icelandic person I met on my whole trip. Being a Saturday, he made it very clear with what little English he appeared to speak, that I had inconvenienced him. He took one look at me and my tyre, and said ‘Road to waterfall?’, and then gave me a knowing look when I agreed. Clearly I wasn’t the only fool. After fixing the tyre and knocking out a dent, he in no way wanted to help me change the tyre back, demanding his money and hastily leaving.

In all, I had wasted nearly 3 hrs as well as some money, on what was one of my most packed days planned. I was quietly annoyed with my stupidity but was eager to get on with my sightseeing. Here I was in one of the main geothermal areas of the country and in several directions I could see steam venting from the ground. Backtracking east just over the hill I took the side road past a geothermal plant to Víti, a crater lake. A path leads around the perimeter of the crater above a blue lake below, and spanning out across a nearby valley is a massive lava flow. There is little vegetation here but the landscape is scarred with the colour of algae colonies that grow on the high sulphuric soils around volcanic vents.

Víti crater lake

Geothermal zone, Víti crater

Geothermal plant behind Víti crater lake

Steaming vent

Geothermal power plant in Krafla valley

 

The valley nearby was like exploring another planet. The hardened remains of a lava flow from a previous eruption of Krafla volcano scars the valley near the Víti crater, and wandering across it round an eroded path, there was steam billowing up through cracks and fissures as far as the eye could see. Under the grey skies, it felt rather dramatic and a little foreboding. I was in awe however, ever in love with geothermal zones since moving to New Zealand, and amongst the darkness of the hardened lava was the occasional burst of red or white provided by mineral deposits. I’ve previously walked on a lava field in the Galapagos Islands, but it was historical and very mature and weather smoothed. Here, the lava was relatively new and still crisp and rough.

Mineral lake near lava field

Crusty lava field

Walking across the lava field

Lava mountain

Lava field behind a mineral lake

 

Back towards Route 1 and almost directly across from the Krafla turnoff was the steaming area of Hverir at the base of Mt Námafjall. The clay soil here was pock-marked with bubbling pools of mud, mineral deposits and steaming vents. This area reminded me of some of the geothermal parks near Rotorua in New Zealand’s north island. The smell wasn’t too overpowering here though but there was a constant hissing noise as the steam was pushed out of the ground at high speed. A path leads up over Mt Námafjall to join up with some other geothermal sights in the area as well as the settlement of Reykjahlíð, and had I not wasted so much time earlier in the day, I probably would have walked up just for an overview of Hverir, but I decided instead to keep myself down near the action and wandered around the various pools at ground level. I was particularly enamoured with the chimneys which had been pushed up from the ground and were venting at an impressive rate.

Bubbling mud pool

Hverir

Steaming ground at Hverir

Steaming chimney at Hverir

 

I am one of those people that has never watched a single episode of Game of Thrones. I own the first book but have never actually gotten around to reading it. Back on the western side of Mt Námafjall, I took a back road to Grjótagjá, a little pool hidden within a cave formed by a lava fissure. According to my guidebook, it was the filming location for a rather saucy scene in GoT, but I just like exploring caves. There were a couple of entrances into it, and it was a matter of scrambling over some rather large rocks to get down to the thermally heated water within. Signs outside requested not swimming in the water, but historically people used to swim or bathe there as the water is a lovely warm but not hot temperature. When I returned home, I looked up the scene that was supposedly filmed there and it looks nothing like the little cave that I visited. Just above the cave off to the side is a massive fissure that cuts a large scar across the landscape. Some people walking nearby looked tiny in comparison.

Entrance to Grjótagjá

Grjótagjá

Fissure looking south

Fissure looking north

 

Thanks to the time wasted with my tyre misdemeanour, I sadly acknowledged that I wasn’t going to have time for a hike up a nearby volcano that I had wanted to do. Life always gets in the way of best laid plans. But even though evening was in full swing, there was still lots to see in the land of the midnight sun.

Never Far from the Madding Crowd

I had read that Iceland’s tourism numbers were fast exceeding its capacity to cope. Amongst these articles I read worrying reports about some tourists lack of respect at sites leading to erosion and flora damage by crossing barriers and straying off walkways. I’ve visited places before where natural beauty has been marred by over-commercialisation for the tourist buck (Niagara Falls in Canada being one example) or lack of crowd control affecting the experience (Macchu Picchu in Peru and parts of New Zealand being some examples), so I was intrigued to see how Iceland fared in this matter. Whilst some people like to wax lyrical about the difference between a tourist and a traveller, and what makes a person one or the other, the affect of global tourism opening up the world to more and more foot traffic, irregardless of the owner of that foot, inevitably has an impact on more and more places.

Having left the crowds of Þingvellir National Park behind, I made the drive to the second of the 3 main attractions of the Golden Circle: Haukadalur. There were people everywhere, on both sides of the road and wandering across at will when I arrived at the very large visitor’s centre. There were buses pulled up and all the car parks were full. I went round a couple of them before I was lucky enough to nab a space as someone was leaving. There were cars and people everywhere as I headed into the visitor’s centre for a look around. There were no free tables at the eateries, so I resigned myself to surviving on the cookies and hot chocolate I’d had earlier, and once again kicked myself for not taking the time the day before to visit a supermarket.

But my goal was to visit one of Iceland’s (and the world’s) most famous geysers, Strokkur. The ‘original’ geyser, Geysir, is in this area also, but Strokkur erupts so regularly, that its predictability has made it a large draw. A marked path leads to Strokkur past a bubbling stream and some small bubbling pools. Despite the signs warning about the risks of burns and not to cross the barrier, I saw several people stick a shoe or finger into various parts of the stream as they walked along.

 

Since moving to New Zealand, I’ve discovered that I love geothermal areas. It fascinates me to see steam billowing out the ground and I enjoy watching mud bubble. I joined the large crowd round the perimeter fence of Strokkur and joyously watched as it erupted and soaked some people across from me. Averaging an eruption every 6-10 minutes, it was easy to watch this happen over and over whilst wandering around the region. It was also amusing watching people trying to pose and take selfies right at the point of eruption.

 

Behind Strokkur was a lupin-covered hillside where a path lead up to the summit. I love lupins, and the purple contrasted against the Martian red landscape on one side of the hill and the lush green valley on the other side. In the distance, snow-speckled mountains donned the horizon and from my perch I watched Strokkur go through its eruption cycle as the crowds milled around. After coming back down, I had a look around a few other pools of note before retracing my steps back to my car.

 

The highlight of my day was what lay to the north-east. Following the road to the end of the tarmac, I turned in at another packed car park, and found the only place to park was at the end of the drive, right by the road. I hustled my way past a myriad of slow walkers and came out at the top of a cliff, hurried down some steps and raced over to the barrier at the top of the gorge. In front of me was the most beautiful waterfall I have ever seen: Gullfoss. The third icon of the Golden Circle, this staircase waterfall has an average summer water flow of 140 cubic metres per second and with the sun out overhead, a glorious rainbow arced over the cascade.

 

Following a lower walkway down towards the top of the waterfall, the roar of the water accompanies the changing vista as the river disappears into a deep crevice. I couldn’t stop looking at it, and clearly neither could anyone else that was there. It was hard not to get carried away with taking photos, there was just so much to take in. I enjoyed wandering along side the river on the lower walkway and then headed back up the stairs to get a viewpoint from above. I couldn’t get enough of it, and even if I turned my back on the falls and looked across the plains, I was gobsmacked to see an expansive glacier on the horizon. It was surreal. After doing my best to fill the memory card on my camera, I finally filled my stomach at the cafe before making a point of wandering along the lower path again, this time keeping my camera firmly hidden away.

 

When I returned to my car, parked as it was near the road, my vision was drawn to a hitchhiker trying to grab my attention. Normally I wouldn’t do this as a solo traveller, but I was going where he needed to get to, and it was hard to ignore him when he was right there, so I agreed to take him with me to Selfoss, my destination for the night. His English was broken, and I found it difficult to concentrate on both driving on the opposite side of the road as well as trying to interpret what he was saying. We managed to muddle through some reasonable conversation whilst I negotiated people on the road and my first experience of driving an unsealed Icelandic road until we parted ways on arriving in Selfoss.

Many of the accommodation places I stayed in in Iceland had a curfew time for checking in, and I was eager to get to Selfoss in time to get my key, so I didn’t stop anywhere on route. However, having checked in, and with hours of daylight still ahead, I backtracked to Kerið, a volcanic crater next to route 35. It has a small entrance fee to give access to a perimeter walk around the top of the crater and then down to the lakeside within. Although it was still daylight, the sun was low enough to put the lake into shadow, but it was a lovely spot to walk around. Back in Selfoss, I was lucky to get the last table at a busy little cafe for a late dinner. My body clock was confused with the long hours of daylight and eating dinner at 10pm became the norm on my trip.

 

The next morning I again realised that Icelanders don’t really do breakfast out. Nowhere was open to get a meal, and the cafe I had eaten at the night before only served coffee and cake when it finally opened. I took a brief wander along the river bank under the bridge where highway 1 enters the town, but then, like every day of my trip, I had so much to see and it was time to continue east.

 

Seljalandsfoss is a 60 metre tall waterfall not far off Route 1, and once again, it was a mission finding a place to park. Buses, camper vans and rental cars littered every spare piece of grass or gravel, and people were tripping over each other to get a selfie or a group photo. The sun wasn’t yet high enough to illuminate the falls so the area was in shadow. The path that goes behind the falls was muddy, and it was impossible to walk this route without getting quite wet.

 

Along from here, a path leads along the bottom of the cliff past a little stream and wildflowers to another waterfall, Gljúfrafoss which is hidden behind some rocks. Only a handful of people ventured this far and although it was still impossible to get the place to yourself, it was an altogether more intimate experience here and it was beautiful. I had noticed a couple of paths eroded into the cliff face, and assumed that this was evidence of people wandering out of bounds. I was quietly annoyed about people’s disregard for the flora here, but a sign at this second waterfall stated that they were in fact recognised paths but ones to be taken at your own risk due to the steepness of them. One led up to a rickety ladder which gave a precarious view down over Gljúfrafoss. The other led up the cliff face to the top of the cliff.

 

Assuming you have no fear of heights, this is a must-do here. The whole time I was at the summit, I saw only 2 other people and a path leads along the cliff in both directions. In fact it is possible to stand right at the top of Seljalandsfoss and look down over the falls itself and the tiny people below. It felt utterly peaceful up there and I watched the bus loads of people move on for the day knowing full well they’d missed out on this gem. Some fulmars nested on the cliff edge and I watched them for a while before picking my way back down the slippery path to the bottom. By now the sun had risen high enough to cast the falls into sunshine and I admired them some more before pushing east.

 

I remember when I lived in Aberdeen in 2010, the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland erupted, sending an ash cloud into the sky that disrupted flights in Europe for several days. I remember walking out my flat a few days later and smelling rotten eggs, the sulphuric smell drifting on the wind. I couldn’t believe that 6 years later I was driving across the land that had been affected by this eruption. Past here, I pulled in at Skógar, and followed the signs to Skógafoss, yet another of Iceland’s famous waterfalls. Despite the sun having been left behind and the skies thick with grey clouds, once more I played the car park game, driving round and round in an effort to find the slightest piece of unused gravel or grass to abandon my car on.

This waterfall falls down over what used to be coastal cliffs, but now sits around 5km from the sea following coastal retreat. A similar height to Seljalandsfoss, only much broader, the spray from the curtain whipped quite some distance from the falls, so anyone walking along the river bed was keeping their distance as they posed for their photos. I decided to risk my camera by marching past them all and skirting the edge of the rocks to not only get closer to the falls but to get out the way of those hanging back whilst managing some photos without other people in them. Then I headed up the cliff to a viewpoint overlooking the falls where there was a queue for the best vantage spot. Higher still, a platform has been erected at the top of the falls and beyond that, a stile leads to the start of a long distance walk up the river.

 

Like many people, I followed the river for a while past more waterfalls and round a few bends above the gorge. The further upstream I went, the more the crowds thinned out, and it was possible to again feel some peace away from the cacophany of voices. There was the occasional drizzle and a cloud hung low over the nearby mountain top. It was a beautiful and dramatic landscape even with the grey overhead. Back at the bottom of the falls, I noticed a lot of people were staying in the local campsite. There was certainly plenty of people coming and going, but still with an afternoon of exploring to do, I was hoping to leave the crowds behind as I forged my way eastwards towards the coast.

Aotearoa Road Trip

It is a long drive north from Christchurch to Auckland, and we had a few days to get up there for Christmas. Setting off early from the South Island’s largest city we made it to Picton, the departure point for the Interislander ferry, with the afternoon to spare. I’d previously just passed through Picton swiftly on my first arrival in the South Island nearly two years previously, and finally I had a bit of time to enjoy it. Picton is a beautifully set harbour town nestled within the Queen Charlotte Sound at the top of the island, and it is the gateway to the north. Due to its location, it is also the gateway to exploring the sound itself, with multiple boating options, and departures for the Queen Charlotte hiking track as well. But with my love of cetaceans, I was drawn to the wildlife adventure, and headed out for a few hours on a wildlife spotting cruise. There is plenty of bird life here, and we saw the very rare King Shag, a species that only exists in this one location in the entire world, and has a population of only about 500 birds. We found 2 sunning themselves on a rock amongst some more plentiful cormorants. We stopped off at an island far up one of the channels which, following a brief hike to the summit, gave a fantastic view of the peninsulas around us. Heading back to port we finally came across some of the shy and rare Hector’s dolphins that were busy hunting for food in a sheltered bay. We were even lucky enough to see another rare animal, the little blue penguin out for a swim. Away from the ferry terminal, Picton has a small beach and a large marina, and there are a few local walks that can be taken from there which offer alternate views of the sound. In short, I love Picton, and the Queen Charlotte Sounds is a definite gem in the South Island’s crown.

 

The original plan had us catching the early morning ferry to Wellington, allowing us to drive quite a way up the North Island before pausing another night. Unfortunately, right before the peak season started, one of the ferries lost its propeller and went out of service, completely disrupting the schedule of sailings. As a result, our crossing was delayed by 7hrs, and we set off north in the early afternoon. The cloud hung over the South Island as we sailed through the sounds, but as we entered the Cook Strait, the sky above us was clear, and we had sunshine for the rest of the crossing. It is a beautiful 3hr sailing: firstly there is the stunning sight on either side of the boat of the peninsulas and islands of the sound, then as you cross the Cook Strait, you can see along the coast of the South Island spreading out behind you whilst the North Island comes clearer into view ahead of you. Tracing the coast of the rugged North Island coastline for a while, the ferry eventually enters the narrow entrance into the wide expanse of Wellington harbour, and the view to the east is of barrenness, whilst the view west is of development with planes coming into land at Wellington International airport and pleasure boats sailing around Miramar peninsula. As the city centre looms closer, the lovely Oriental Bay with Mt Victoria behind watches as the ferry makes its final approach into dock.

 

We headed straight out of Wellington on state highway 1 (SH1) as soon as we got off the ferry. Snaking out the back of the city, the highway initially follows the coastline travelling up the Kapiti coast with Kapiti Island visible just off the shore. The region makes an exceedingly tasty ice cream, but today we were just passing through, eager to get some kilometers behind us on the next leg of the journey. We spent the night in Foxton, a rather unassuming little place that neighboured Foxton Beach, which had, as the name suggests a beach. There was a glorious sunset that night which we watched from the warmth of the truck, facing the lapping sea as it hit the shore.

 

SH1 continues snaking north, and as it does so, the scenery changes dramatically. From the Kapiti coast it turns inwards and cuts through a rolling green landscape rife with gorges and forests and rolling green hills. Then it turns into Desert Road as it gains altitude, and from here, on the edge of Tongariro National Park, on a clear day, you can see ‘Mt Doom’, or Mt Ngauruhoe and its neighbouring volcanoes. Within the national park there are 3 distinct volcanoes which were the filming location for Mordor and Mt Doom in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The vegetation in this region around SH1 is barren and dry, resembling a desert, and with its altitude and exposure to the elements, it is the most commonly closed road in the winter months. At the time of writing, I have driven this road 3 times, each time in the summer months and each time, the volcanoes have been partly or completely hidden from view. Despite this, the stark scenery is still mesmerising. Eventually though, the great expanse of Lake Taupo, the largest lake in New Zealand, comes into view, and SH1 follows the eastern edge of it up past the town of Taupo itself where we took a brief stop to stretch our legs. Rounding the top of the lake, the highway then heads north-west towards Hamilton and Auckland beyond. My memory of Hamilton was very vague, and last time we had driven through from a different direction so I saw much more of the city this time than I had last time. What impressed me about the place was the large gardens and river walks which I hadn’t seen before, and in the glorious hot sunshine, the place looked lovely.

I will always love Auckland. It doesn’t matter how many times I go there, I always find my way down to the Viaduct and the road round to Mission Bay and beyond. The sight of Rangitoto Island across the harbour, Auckland’s most recently active volcano, and the Sky Tower amidst the city skyline, always bring a smile to my face and make me feel at home. I always make a point of getting round to Mission Bay and going to Movenpick for the most delicious ice cream which is best enjoyed sitting by the beach. After taking a walk along the Viaduct, we took a drive round to Saint Heliers and up the hill to a lookout on the tip of the coastline which gave a perspective on the city that I had never seen before. On Christmas Eve, once the sun had gone down, we headed into the city centre to walk up Franklin Street. Every year in the run up to Christmas, the houses on this street are decorated with bright and flashing light displays. What started as one household has now become an annual tradition with houses trying to out-do each other with their displays. It has become an attraction, and the walkways were packed with people taking photos and videos and carrying their young children on their shoulders so that they could see. On top of this, the cars were queuing to drive up and down the street leading to traffic jams at the top and bottom. People were carol singing in the street, a balloon artist was making shaped balloons for the kids, and a coffee shop at the top end was doing good business selling hot drinks whilst people wandered around. It was amazing to witness.

 

After disappearing to Queensland for a week, we returned to Auckland in the new year and had a week before we needed to be back in Christchurch. Joining up with some friends, there were 4 of us setting off on the next leg of our road trip round Aotearoa. The Coromandel coast road was something I had wanted to do since skipping across the peninsula on my last visit. The weather stayed with us and with blue skies, blue seas and green hills surrounding us, it was a beautiful drive. Hugging the coast for most of the drive up the western side, it cut inland for a while and climbed up to give us some amazing views, before heading back downhill and eventually coming out at Coromandel Town where we based ourselves for the night. From here, we headed further north on the unsealed road to Fantail Bay near the tip of the peninsula. The road comes to an end a little further along the coast from here, so we headed back to town to relax. Near the marina, there is a path winding up to a lookout which affords a wonderful view of the town itself, the hills behind, and the coastline around. It was an uncomfortable hike up in my jandals but the view was worth it.

 

The following day we were intent on staying one step ahead of the weather. We could see some unsavoury weather heading our way, but it was coming from behind us, so we got round to Hahei as fast as we could. On the east coast of the peninsula, Hahei is the nearest place to Cathedral Cove. Last time I was here, it was a beautiful sunny day, and we had kayaked here prior to taking a swim in the surf as it lapped gently on the beach. This time round, we walked from the car park along the coast and down the steps to the beach. Straight away I noticed the stark contrast: the tide was high, covering half the beach and also making passage through the cave a bit wet and hairy; and the sky was grey and the sea a little squally making a swim out of the question. I was a little disappointed. But we managed to have some fun trying to get through the cave from one beach to the other without being drenched by an impending wave. Some of us were more successful than others. It may have turned into a dull day by the time we left, but the crowds were still coming in waves. On the trail from the car park I was excited to come across a stick insect, a creature which went through a fad as a popular pet for a while in the UK when I was in primary school, and had never actually seen anywhere else. In fact, I didn’t realise they existed in New Zealand, but as it was wandering across the path, I lifted it up and let it wander across my arms for a while before setting it loose on a tree. Sometimes the simplest things give enormous pleasure.

 

Finally, the bad weather caught up with us and the heavens opened. We were shrouded in rain for the drive to our next stop, Mt Maunganui where we waited out the rain watching a terribly long movie at the cinema. The clouds only lifted as the sun lowered to the horizon and we had to wait till the following day to see this place in its full glory. In stark contrast to the neighbouring Tauranga, a very industrial harbour settlement, Mt Maunganui is a beautiful town nestled on a peninsula on the great expanse of the Bay of Plenty, with an apparently endless stretch of beach spanning its length and capped at its tip by the mount that gives the place its name. I walked along the beach from our motel towards the mount, breathing in the sea air and smiling at the other people who were out enjoying the sunshine. At the base of the mount I joined my friends whereby we first circled the base of the mount due to a slight navigational error, and then as the day heated up, we started the slog to the top. From a distance it looks like an easy walk, but close up it is evident how steep the sides are and as a result, parts of the path involve either a lot of steps or a steep gravel path. But the view is very much worth it. Looking out into the expanse of the Bay of Plenty in one direction, the peninsula of Mt Maunganui stretches inland in the other direction, and the port of Tauranga and Matakana Island can also be seen. By the afternoon, the sand was almost too hot to walk on, and we lazed on the beach soaking up the rays and paddling in the sea. I had heard a lot about Mt Maunganui and it certainly didn’t disappoint.

 

Heading south, we skirted Lake Rotorua and headed straight for the ZORB centre. I couldn’t believe the change in the place in 2 years. Last time I was there, I got a printed certificate when I signed up, there were lockers to store my belongings, I got a free digital photo to upload direct to the internet, there was a dedicated desk for ordering photos, and the high quality photos came on an official looking CD in a ZORB-shaped container. Stepping into the office this time round it was sparse. The lockers had gone, the photo desk had gone and it looked run down. The certificate on sign-up was only available via email (and to this day the email has never come), the photos were of a noticeably poorer quality (and it took an hour to get them), and they were presented on a plain CD-R in a plain CD case. Despite plenty of people being there, the whole experience just screamed out that the company is struggling financially which is a shame. With a competitor on the main road whilst they are hidden away down a back road, perhaps their business had taken a bit of a hit. I was nervous about injuring my back, as I had spent the previous 4 months recuperating from a back injury, but after a solo run down the zig-zag hydro-slide and a dual run down the straight hydro slide, I came out soaking wet and happy. It was a beautifully sunny day, and with a regular run of people coming down the hill, we stayed and watched for a while.

 

Back towards town, we pulled in at the Skyline Gondola and headed up Mount Ngongotaha for a view over Rotorua and the lake of the same name. The real reason for coming up was to do the luge, a milk-cart style rally down a variety of tracks winding down the side of the hill. I’d loved this last time I was here and with a competitive boyfriend it was inevitable that we would stop here on this trip. With 3 routes to choose from: scenic, intermediate and advanced, I did each run once, and again noticed that things had changed in the 2 years. This time it was merely the route which had had a few new chicanes put in, and I was sadly beaten on every single run. Still, it was a good feeling for me to be able to do something fun after all the months I’d previously spent unable to do much exercise.

 

Following the Thermal Explorer Highway south, we passed a multitude of geothermal parks before arriving in Taupo on the shores of New Zealand’s largest lake. Taking a break from motels, we pitched our tents for a couple of nights at the back of town and settled into holiday park life. The rain rolled in the next morning and everything took on a grey hue but by lunchtime the weather had eased slightly. We took a boat trip out onto the lake for a water’s view of the town, but more specifically to go and see some impressive Maori carvings. Viewable only by boat round at Mine Bay, they may only be about 40 years old, but they are impressive none-the-less, in particular the giant face carved into a large rock face. To the side of this are lizards, dragons and more faces, and we hovered there for a while taking it all in.

 

On getting back to shore, we headed out to the Craters of the Moon geothermal park, one of the cheapest of the paid parks in the area. It was a relatively new geothermal area, having been created when a nearby power station was being built. The earth’s crust is exceedingly thin in this part of the world and there are bubbling pools and steam vents in abundance in the region around Rotorua and Taupo. I am fascinated by volcanic and geothermal activity so wandering around these parks has me in my element. The park itself is mainly a large open space filled with steaming vents of varying sizes and intensities. The ‘rotten egg’ sulphuric smell was thankfully barely noticeable. There was little to compare it to the two parks I had been to on my previous visit but it was still worth the wander around, and there are still other parks I would like to explore on future visits. Back at the campsite, wandering around in the dark by torchlight, I got a thrill when I came across a live possum halfway up a small tree not far from our tent. Its eyes glowed in the torchlight and it contemplated me as I contemplated it. This was the first real sighting I’ve had of a possum in New Zealand despite estimated numbers being in the millions. I’ve seen plenty of dead ones driving around the Port Hills in Christchurch, and on 1 other occasion seen the rear end of one running away in the distance, but this very cute little creature was close up and in no hurry to go anywhere. I savoured one of those glorious private moments that are yours and yours alone before it eventually scarpered off into the gloom.

 

The temperature had started to drop, and on arriving in Tongariro National Park at our next lodgings in Ohakune, as the clouds lifted and fell over the mountains, we could see that fresh snow had fallen. Suddenly, we were in a 3-layer of clothing situation, a stark contrast to just a few days before. Whilst the boys hit the pub, my friend and I took to the hills and went for a walk through the forest and across an alpine region to the park’s highest waterfall, an impressive 39m. On arriving there, a lot of the waterfall was hidden behind trees, so we didn’t linger long, but on the way, during a brief break in the clouds to let the sunshine through, we got the best view yet of Mt Ruapehu. I had been keeping an eye on the weather whilst we were so close in Taupo in the hope of finally being able to do the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, an impressive day walk across a couple of volcanoes, an experience which had eluded me last time. Alas, for the second time, the weather got the better of me, and I had to accept that once again, it wasn’t going to happen.

 

Paraparaumu is a lovely seaside town on the Kapiti coast. Kapiti Island sits directly out to sea, but otherwise the coast is exposed to the full brunt of the Tasman Sea, and the stretch of sandy beach is littered with an incredible amount of flotsam. For me, a lover of sea air, I was thrilled to be back by the coast again. A relaxing walk along the sand was followed up by fish and chips which seemed so fitting. Growing up in Scotland, battered fish and chips was always such a ‘Scottish’ thing, a weekend treat until the day I moved out of my parent’s home, but even on the other side of the world it is loved just as much. I don’t eat it very often, but when I do, it conjours up so many memories of Scotland and just feels so normal.

 

Even a brief trip to Wellington has to involve a trip to my favourite cafe, the Boat Cafe on board a converted tug boat. It was a beautiful day and the small beach at Oriental Bay was dotted with sun worshipers and a volleyball tournament. We only had a few hours before our ferry south so it was a brief respite by the sea before a brief catch up with family who lived in the city. Before we knew it, it was time to get round to book in for the ferry. With the ferry port being across the bay from Oriental Bay, it was an excellent spot to watch the ferry come in and dock. This was the smallest ferry of the fleet which didn’t take long to explore before I found my prime viewing spot on deck to spend the crossing. The sea looked and felt calm but there was a wicked wind whipping around the ship as we left the safety of Wellington harbour and headed out into the Cook Strait. I could never get tired of doing this crossing, the view is just spectacular, and although it feels so familiar, every time I ride that ferry, it still feels like a new adventure. On this crossing I was overjoyed to see a whale in the distance behind us. It was the blow that alerted me to its presence, a tall blast of steam shot high above the waterline, followed by a dark shape breaking the surface briefly. This occurred several times before it got too far away to keep a track of with my eyes. It was hard to determine the species, but given the location and the elongated back with lack of obvious dorsal fin from a distance, I’m assuming it was a humpback whale.

 

The sun beamed down on us for our passage through the Queen Charlotte Sounds, and disembarking at Picton, we continued south to spend the night in Blenheim. Notorious for it’s closeness to a multitude of wineries, we were here primarily to break up the journey home. Having said that, I’m glad we did, for the simple reason that we ate at a fantastic restaurant with probably the best chef-come-waiter that I have ever met. Next door to our motel was Gramado’s, a Brazilian bar/restaurant. Our waiter, who was also one of the chefs, was from south Brazil, and he sat with us and spent time talking us through the menu, and giving us suggestions on what to try and what drinks to have. He was enthusiastic with a permanent smile on his face, and his attitude was infectious. The cider he recommended was delicious and sweet, the white wine he offered was local and scrumptious, the Brazilian bean stew he recommended to me was amazing, but at the end of the night, he brought us out a Brazilian delicacy to try: barbecued chicken heart. Of the 3 of us, I was the only one who tried it, and I ended up having 2. As a vet, I sometimes find it difficult to eat some cuts of meat without analysing the anatomy first (a trait which can be quite displeasing to other diners who join me on a trip to Nandos!). This was no exception. I’d never looked at a chicken’s heart before and I couldn’t eat it without first looking at the various blood vessels poking out of it, and examining the cut surface with each bite I took. I’m not normally an offal eater, but despite the slight mental battle I had to overcome with the thought of what I was eating, it was delicious.

 

The drive from Blenheim to Kaikoura and south to Christchurch is stunning. Past wineries, rolling brown hills, and pink salt pans, it hits the coast and hugs it all the way to Kaikoura. The sea is turquoise blue and crashes on the rocks right by the roadside. At Oahu, the New Zealand fur seals come ashore to sleep and there was a nursery of babies playing around a rock pool when we stopped to watch. As Kaikoura approaches, the Kaikoura Range shoots up on the inland side of the road, and from Kaikoura south the road winds through tree-strewn valleys and hillsides, cicadas thrumming loudly as we drove. It was magical, and sums up everything I love about New Zealand: the Great Outdoors.

Notes from the North Island, Part 2

Taking a scenic drive across the Coromandel Peninsula on board another Stray Bus, our tour group spent the night at Hahei on the east coast of the Peninsula. Our cabin was a short walk from a beautiful beach, and from there, a group of us went kayaking to Cathedral Cove, a stunning natural phenomenon up the coast, and famous as a scene from the Narnia movies. The kayaking was immense fun, and I saw my first blue penguin whilst out in the bay. We enjoyed a hot chocolate by the cove, and a swim in the bay before heading back to Hahei in the afternoon sun, kayaking through a sea cave on the way. That evening, we drove to Hot Water Beach for the low tide. There is a natural thermal vent below this beach meaning at low tide, the sand acts like a spa pool, and it was teaming with people trying to find a spot to sit in the baking sand. In some places, where the hot gasses bubbled up through the sand, it was too hot to touch. In the lowering sun, my upper body was beginning to feel the cold whilst my feet were so hot that I had to dance from one foot to the next.

 

Heading south-west, we spent the night at Raglan. The weather had turned to greyness and rain, but our hostel was nestled neatly in the bush outside of town, and it made me feel a world away. Raglan is a surfer’s paradise, but aside from surfing, there isn’t a lot to do there. Around the hostel, there was a couple of bush walks which were a challenge in the mud, and at night-time the driveway lit up with glowworms. A few of us had signed up to a sunset cruise round the harbour at Raglan. I spent the whole cruise chatting with the other travellers from my bus so much, that I missed the entire commentary and indeed a lot of the scenery. To this day, I have no idea what we were supposed to have seen on that cruise, but the stay at Hahei and the hike and cruise at Raglan had allowed me to get to know the other backpackers very well, and I was quite sad to bid them farewell the next day.

Waitomo day was one of my most favourite days from my time travelling the North Island. Famous for its glowworm caves, I had made the decision to separate from my tour group to allow me to do a longer, more intense cave experience than what was allowed with the tour. I signed up for the 7hr Lost World experience which started with a 100m abseil into a giant hole in the ground which marked the entrance to the cave system we were to explore. The abseil mechanism was designed to be dependent on weight – the heavier you are, the faster and easier you descend. As a small-framed person of just 60kg, I wasn’t heavy enough for gravity to aid my descent. Instead, I had to use my arm strength to winch my way down the entire 100m. I was physically exhausted by the time my feet touched the ground, when everyone else had glided down with the minimum of effort. We enjoyed lunch here, before bidding the daylight goodbye for the next few hours. The journey through the caves involved a lot of rock scrambling and wading through the water. At times, the water was deep enough to swim in which was actually quite hard due to the weight of water-filled gumboots on my feet. At times we had to climb up over rocks, and jump from rocks into water pools below, and a couple of times, we had to negotiate waterfall climbs, 1 of which I struggled to swim against the flow of water, and had to be pushed up from below. At one point, we turned off our lights and negotiated the cave in darkness, trusting our hands to feel our way through the chamber. Finally, after squeezing through a letter-box shaped gap in some rocks, we came out into a large cavern with a handily placed rock in the middle. Sitting ourselves down to catch our breath, we were instructed to turn off our lights, and every one of us let out a noise in awe as we were instantly lit up by a cave full of glowworms. In every direction, there were thousands of little blue lights illuminating us like stars in our silence as we sat in our own thoughts marvelling at these little creatures. We must have sat there for a long time, but none of us wanted to move. Eventually though, we had to continue with our journey, and after a couple of turns, daylight could finally be seen again. It was a moment of sadness to leave the cave behind, and embrace the daylight again, but we still had quite a walk, first up the stream, then up over the hills to get back to our starting point where a tasty barbeque awaited our triumphant return.

 

The region of Waitomo is littered with caves. The following day I met up with a new tour group and we wandered through some bushland to visit some smaller caves before leaving the area behind. We spent the night at a Marae, a tribal house where we were treated to a traditional night of Maori dance and culture. Several of us went white water rafting as we headed south to Rotorua, joining our crew by the Kaituna river. Our guide Gofor, took us on a short and sharp ride down a 2.5m waterfall, followed by a 1m waterfall. A short paddle down the river we reached the top of a 7m waterfall, the highest commercially rafted river in the world. Going down, meant being submerged under the wash of water at the bottom, and there was a brief moment where I was unsure if I was still in the boat or not, and which way was up. Thankfully, we returned to the surface all intact, and all present in the boat. Already soaked, we all jumped out the boat to swim down the next rapid before climbing back in ready to splash through more waterfalls.

 

Rotorua was a delight, albeit a smelly one. The Earth’s crust is so thin here that there is geothermal gas pockets littered around the region. Even the homes are warmed geothermally through the ground, and it was amusing to wander the streets and parks of this town to find steam escaping through cracks in the pavement, and colourful sulphuric lakes bubbling away. The strength of the sulphur smell in the air varied day to day: some days it was barely noticeable, others it caught the back of my throat. Even if you couldn’t feel the earthquakes taking place beneath the ground, the sudden blast of rotten egg in the air alerted the nose to the knowledge that there had been one. Nowhere I’ve been since comes close to the uniqueness of Rotorua.

 

Again using Stray, I joined another tour heading east from Rotorua round the east cape to Gisborne. It was a nice intimate group of just 6 of us, with our local guide, and we took the scenic coastal route to Marehako bay where we stayed in the middle of nowhere at a lovely little hostel. Our host took some of us out on his crayfishing boat to collect his pots, and we got to help out, hauling up the pots, and sorting out the catch. The physical work was a nice distraction from the Captain’s aggressive rantings about the hardship of Maori people in New Zealand. He got my hackles up and lost any sympathy I may have had for his plea when he said that the IRA in Ireland had the right idea. After a brief kayaking trip round the bay, I enjoyed swinging in the hammock in the back garden whilst the crayfish cooked.

 

Our guide seemed to be the best of friends with the accelerator pedal, to the extent that he loved taking corners on the wrong side of the road to save him having to use the brake. It made the drive seem slightly rushed, and left a few of the passengers feeling a little bit queasy. The road followed the coastline, and out at sea I could see White Island, one of New Zealand’s active volcanoes, smoking off shore. We visited the country’s longest pier, as well as some movie locations from Boy, a famous New Zealand movie. Our beach shack in Gisborne was utter bliss. Just back from the beach, it was isolated and idyllic, and came with its own jacuzzi which we all squeezed into in the evening. It was a great place to be lazy in, and it was our last night as a group.

 

I left this group in Whakatane, stopping here for one purpose: to visit White Island. Since finding out about this place after arriving in the country, I had been determined to get out to it. At the time of visiting, the volcano was on alert level 1 and it was smoking away on the horizon, visible for miles around. It took 90 minutes to sail out to the island, and it was an awesome sight to behold: an active volcano pumping out steam and gas. We transferred to a small boat to ride ashore and then we followed a route round the island to get as close as was safe to steaming sulphuric vents, and the bubbling magma within the volcanic crater. This was another of my favourite days in New Zealand, and was like walking round another planet. Leaving the volcano behind, the boat took us round the island, where we disturbed a shoal of flying fish, which can fly a surprisingly long distance out of the water.

 

There is a beautiful bush walk from Whakatane round the coast to Ohope. It follows the coast, giving fantastic views of Whakatane itself as well as looking out towards White Island in the distance. From Ohope beach, the route cut inland through more bush, and I stumbled across a group of wild boars which came crashing out of the bush ahead of me giving me an immense fright.

 

Back in Rotorua, I spent a few days enjoying the thermal parks. First up was Waimangu Thermal Village which was my favourite. A 3 hour stroll alongside steaming ponds and bubbling streams brought me to a large lake where a boat took me around the crater lake to see more steaming vents. Further south were some large steaming mud pools which made a cool noise when it bubbled up from below. Round the corner was the Lady Knox geyser, a natural geyser that was supposed to be one of the most predictable to erupt. The brochures had its eruption as daily, but I was rather disappointed to get there to discover the whole thing is staged. Apparently, it naturally erupts on a 24 – 72hr basis, but in order to attract a regular crowd, they stage an eruption every day by throwing a sulphur block inside the vent. Admittedly, it was impressive when it went off, but for me, the event was marred by the unnaturalness of the spectacle. I have a bit of a dislike for manipulating nature in order to entertain tourists. I would much rather accept the unpredictability of nature when I turn up somewhere – this is the norm when going wildlife spotting, and so it should be with geothermal behaviour. Further down the road was Wai-O-Tapu, one of the region’s most famous parks, and it was mobbed, much more crowded and compact than Waimangu. I hate feeling rushed, and we were given a very strict time limit to get round the whole park and back to the bus. That being said, it was still an amazing place to visit, like being on an alien planet. There were blue pools, and green pools, and orange pools and red pools, some steaming, some bubbling, and all amazing to wander around.

 

Aside from the geothermal activity, Rotorua is famous for another thing: the birthplace of ZORB. Imagine your pet hamster running around your living room inside a plastic ball. Now enlarge the scale multiple times, add a hill into the scenario and replace the hamster with yourself, and you get the idea. For added pleasure, throw a bucket of water into the ball with you, and you get aquaZORBing. I did the dry ZORB straight run first, strapped into the inside of the ball and released in a straight line down a hill. It was not as enjoyable as I had been led to believe, the changing pressures on my head leaving me feeling rather uncomfortable. After posing for a photo at the bottom, I headed back to the top of the hill and this time went aquaZORBing. I had picked the zig-zag track which added to the general sloshing effect of spinning around the ball. I absolutely loved it, and climbed out the ball drenched but with a big grin on my face. After drying off I headed to the nearby gondola for a spectacular view over Lake Rotorua and the city on its shore. But the real reason for going up was the luge. From the summit of the gondola are 3 luge tracks: beginner, intermediate and advanced. I took a run on each, building my confidence and letting my speed pick up. Like the ZORB, I could have easily done many more runs, but if there is one thing that New Zealand excels at, it is eating up travelling funds by offering so many activities!

 

On the road south are a few streams that locals know are thermally heated, and after a brief swim in one, my journey continued south to Taupo. Outside of Taupo is the impressive Huka Falls which can be reached by road or by a lovely walk along the riverside from Taupo itself. Above the waterfall is a gorge that compresses the flow of water into a raging bubbling torrent that thunders over the falls with great speed and power. A lovely 2hr walk further down river was the Aratiatia Rapids. A mere trickle of water flows through the gorge until a few times a day, the sluice gates on the dam open up and a building torrent of water slams through creating an entirely different vista. Lake Taupo itself is also beautiful. The main settlement is on the north shore, but heading round the north-eastern shoreline is a walkway that allowed a day of meandering round the lakeside for an alternate view of the surrounding mountains. The lake is huge, and the far shore seemed so far away from every conceivable angle.

 

For the most part, I had been lucky with the weather on my North Island travels, but now my luck started to peter out. From Taupo, I was booked to go to the Tongariro National Park to do the popular day hike of the Tongariro Crossing, but the next few days became a blur of grey skies and frequent downpours. After several hours on the road, with poor visibility, and barely able to see the surrounding mountains on arrival into the park itself, I came to terms with the fact that the hike was not going to happen on this visit. Over a year later, and it is still high up on my New Zealand to-do list.

West of Tongariro down a long and windy single track road high up on the edge of a ravine, is the Blue Duck Lodge in Whakahoro. The people that own it are keen conservationists, trying to help the local population of Blue ducks that are on the endangered species list. The lodge offered multiple activities whilst we were there from horse riding to hunting, and as it had ceased raining by this point, I opted to go horse back through the valley. Unfortunately, by the time we were kitted up and on the trail, the rain started again with gusto, and our path became quite muddy at times. Like the road that had brought the bus there, the trail was also high up the ravine, and at times I worried about Mick the horse losing his footing and sending us over the edge. It was a sedate walk otherwise, but eventually, thanks to the worsening muddy conditions, we had to curtail our ride and head back. One of the other backpackers from the bus had opted to go hunting for goats which are deemed as an introduced pest, and as a result, dinner was a delicious goat curry.

 

My timing was the cause of the next lot of problems. I had unknowingly worked my way to Wellington to coincide with the Homegrown Festival, a music festival celebrating New Zealand-grown bands and music. Discovering this only a few days before my arrival, I struggled to find an affordable place to stay for more than a couple of nights. In the end, I had to curtail my stay in the capital city as well. Whilst there though, the good weather returned, with barely a sniff of the wind that the city is famous for. My favourite thing about Wellington is the waterfront, and the promenade that sweeps round the bay. At some point of every day I was in the city, I made a point of walking at least as far as Oriental Bay where there was a shop selling delicious gelato, if not further round the headland towards the marina and airport beyond. A good slog up Mt Victoria provided a 360 degree panorama of the city and the suburbs around, and I managed to revel in the sight in near-peace for all of 10 minutes before 7 coachloads of tourists arrived in quick succession and took over the place. I discovered later that parts of the woods that coated the hillside were used in scenes for the Lord of the Rings movies, and on a later trip to the city, I took a movie tour, getting to be silly and re-enact some of the scenes. I immensely enjoyed a visit to the Weta Cave too where a behind the scenes tour gave an insight into the making of props and weaponry for various movies. Aside from the movie industry, Wellington has a massive social vibe catered for with more coffee shops and bars than could ever seem possible, and my favourite haunt on each visit to the city is Parade cafe, or Boat cafe as it is now known, which is inside an old tug boat tied up by the promenade on the way to Oriental Bay.

 

The weekend of Homegrown approached, and the lack of accommodation meant that after 6 weeks, it was time to bid the North Island farewell. I was booked on the Interislander ferry to Picton, and the day couldn’t have been more glorious, with the sun high in the sky, barely a cloud visible and the calmest, smoothest sea. I was brimming with excitement on this day, because after 6 weeks of travelling solo, I was finally on my way to the South Island to meet a man with whom I was very close, and as it turned out, that meeting was to change the course of my life.

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