January 1 - March 31, 2007

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HIGHLIGHTS

We're back!

We spent the last six months visiting home, exploring New Zealand and (of course) fixing our boat. This update will mostly cover our trip around NZ -- possibly the nicest country we have ever visited. Because we have so much ground to cover, this update will only go though March 31.

Here are a few highlights:

Sunrise at Mt. Ngauruhoe We climbed Mt. Ngauruhoe, otherwise known as "Mt. Doom" in the Lord of the Rings movies,
got into some cold places, Ken encased in solid ice
Bob helping Beth over a fast flowing creek got wet,
and Ken decided to jump off a bridge. Hamming for the camera

We won't try to present everything that happened, but we'll hit some high points and try to give you a feel for New Zealand and the New Zealanders.

We also include a little section on Lord of the Rings sites, for you LOTR fans.

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January, 2007 - Trip Home

We hadn't been back home to the States for almost a year and we were chomping at the bit to get back for a visit.

Seeing family and friends is intoxicating -- we just wished we had more time to see everybody. Beth's parents are such troopers in their emotional support of our adventure. Beth relishing her parents
Bridge blow out Even at 90+ years, Beth's parents are sharp as tacks and they totally crushed us at bridge.  
Brrrrr!!! The cold, wintry Wisconsin weather shocked our bodies. Guess we've gone soft after spending so much time in the tropics. Winter snowstorm in Wisconsin

We also visited Beth's sister and her family in Texas, Ken's sister and husband in New York, and other family and friends in the Midwest, making for a real whirlwind trip.

February - March, 2007

We took a month long road trip through stunning New Zealand. But first, an introduction to New Zealand and the Kiwis.

WHAT ARE KIWIS LIKE?

Basically, "Kiwis", as the New Zealanders call themselves, are really nice. One of our guidebooks compared New Zealand to a country "populated by Labrador retrievers."

The name Kiwi kind of sums it up -- Kiwis are cute, flightless birds. The Australians, who give everyone a nickname, came up with that one. (Americans got the less flattering nickname "septics" because "Yank" rhymes with septic "tank". Oh well.)

Here are a few samples of Kiwi culture:

One evening we shared a restaurant with a group of Kiwis who were on a coast-to-coast bike trip. After dinner they burst into boisterous song. When they saw us watching, they asked where we were from, and then proceeded to serenade us with songs from old Broadway hits.

At one point two middle-aged women sneaked outside around to the front window and "mooned" their friends through the window. We weren't quite quick enough with our camera to capture this unique bit of Kiwi restaurant etiquette.

"Surrey with the Fringe on Top"

New Zealand seems to love old time music. Walking down the street you hear songs by Petula Clark, Simon and Garfunkel, Bee Gees, Fleetwood Mac and other old classics. Much better than hip hop if you ask us. Guess we're dating ourselves.

Hitchhikers are not uncommon on the roads of New Zealand

Here's a sight you don't see very often back in the States -- hitchhikers. We saw hitchhikers everywhere because the Kiwis aren't afraid of them.

In a lot of ways, New Zealand reminded us of the US back when we were kids.

Even cheap motels supplied real carving knives, fancy corkscrews and all kinds of other useful stuff. Because nobody steals it! Kitchen facilities are standard in accomodations around New Zealand
Official looking ticket writer

Kiwis also obey the law. You won't get a ticket for hitchhiking, but you will almost certainly get one for not feeding the parking meters.

(You will also get a ticket for speeding. As Ken proved.)

 

Sheep rule the countryside New Zealand is big on sheep. There are about 10 sheep for every human! Sheep everywhere

 

Shearing sheep is back breaking work An expert shearer (left) in action. Zip Zip Zip and he was done! We got up close and personal with the sheep on one farm. The lambs are very aggressive when they sniff food. These little guys sure were hungry

 

  Sheepworld The Kiwi idea of a theme park.  
New Zealand doesn't have native mice (although foreign mice have set up shop). Instead, these giant cricket-like insects called "Wetas" filled the rodent niche. Now the Wetas are endangered, since those foreign mice and rats are pretty efficient. BIG wetas on display in a tree
Home grown cookie plane

We had to stop when we saw this over-the-top advertisement for chocolate chip cookies.

But the cookies were terrible. Lack of a decent cookie is probably New Zealand's major cultural shortcoming.

Kiwis tend to be in pretty good shape, including the kids.

Sea scouts taking to the water

Our boat dock sits right next to the "Shackleton Sea Scout" facility, and also right near a bicycle race track.

So we got to see how these kids stay in shape.

Many communities have bike tracks

 

Cricket match

New Zealanders love rugby the way Americans love football, baseball and basketball combined.

But they also play cricket.

Cricket batter

 

Elaborate homemade wooden camper

Kiwis have a reputation for ingenuity. A Kiwi farmer can supposedly fix any problem with a bit of number eight fencing wire.

Here's a practical example of that ingenuity. Pretty nice homemade camper van.

 

Kiwis also love to go barefoot. Everywhere. They kind of remind us of hobbits.

Barefeet in restaurant Shoes not required in the grocery store Young and old alike shun shoes

 

Duck family taking a shortcut

Even barefoot ducks don't get a second glance as they take a shortcut through a restaurant.

Well, actually the owner shooed them outside.

New Zealand used to be pretty puritanical. At one point it was illegal for farmers to let their cattle mate in fields next to a road!

But times have changed. Ironically this "Erotica" convention was in the South Island town of Christchurch.

Advertising for upcoming Erotica convention

At this point New Zealand tends to be pretty relaxed about a lot of things.

Legal party boosters We're not sure what this stuff is. We didn't try any.
But, not to worry -- these products have been tested! Australians as guinea pigs for this post-party drink

But that's city life. The countryside has a different culture.

Beth and Bob with Sacha, our delightful guide for our trip to Milford Sound

Beth and our friend Bob with Sacha, our charming tour guide for the day near Milford Sound on the South Island.

Sacha has a team of Malamute huskies and hitches them to a race sled in the winter. She rides her horses during the summer.

When her boyfriend wants a romantic evening he asks "Do you want to hunt rabbit, possum or stoat tonight, dear?"

Sacha also told us about the South Island town of Alexandra, and its famous "Easter Bunny Hunt". Last year they nabbed over 21,000 Easter bunnies!

(Rabbits, possums and stoats are all considered destructive, invasive species which lack natural enemies and deserve extermination.)

Sacha also said that the worst thing about tourists was that you couldn't hunt them, even during the official tourist season. She hastened to explain that we were "guests, not tourists". We didn't question the distinction.

THE ROADS

Driving here can be pretty challenging.

Even major highways rarely have more than one lane each way. Or any kind of shoulder. And the mountainous terrain makes for lots of hairpin turns. And they drive on the left around here. Ken did manage one speeding ticket on a straightaway, but most of the time we couldn't keep up with the Kiwis as they zipped around these curves. Ken has never had to admit that before!

A long drop on one side, a rock face on the other Lots of big double semi trucks Slowing down from 100 km to 25 km

When you get to a 25 kph curve, you better really go 25, even if you were just going 100. At 35 you might not make it around.

An escapee from an Emu farm

And then there are the obstacles.

Make way for cattle

 

Yikes! This road near Arthur's Pass has a concrete roof to channel runoff water and rubble over the highway.

Wonder how may wrecks it took to justify this kind of investment?

Runoff channeled over road

Only room for one vehicle on this bridge   New Zealand also uses one lane bridges, even on major highways. That's doesn't mean one lane each way -- it means one lane period.

 

Whoa!! Just when we'd gotten used to one lane bridges, we found this one. One lane for all the traffic AND FOR THE TRAINS!

We were pretty tense crossing this bridge. And we both yelped when a big shape appeared at the other end, while we were halfway across.

But it was "just" a big semi-truck, and he waited patiently for us as we finished crossing.

Bridge sharing lane with cars and trains

We weren't sure what we'd do if a train showed up -- go fast in reverse, we guess.

New Zealand Tour

Now we'll take you on a quick tour of the North and South Islands.

Ken and Bob on part of the Routeburn Track Our intrepid friend, Bob, would join us for a few weeks as we explored New Zealand.

We knew Bob was in tip top shape (he recently ran a marathon and climbed a mountain in the Andes), so we desperately tried to whip ourselves into some reasonable sort of shape before he arrived. After being boat-bound for so long, your legs turn to mush.

Farm Country

Mini tramp through New Zealand countryside We went on some mini-hikes in farm country to get our legs in shape. Walking sticks were a big revelation -- they made river crossings so much easier

 

Mother cow with calf

Farmers in NZ often allow hiking trails to cross their land.

But you have to watch out for what the cows and sheep leave behind.

 

Trail hazard

Guess that explains why the Customs and Immigration people check your hiking boots when you enter New Zealand. They're worried about farm diseases and they think EVERYBODY hikes in cow manure.

New Zealand countryside Even in farm country, the foliage has a strange romantic beauty. A tree with personality

Backpackers

Along the way, we stayed at a lot of inexpensive backpacker lodges (known simply as "backpackers").

Colorful backpacker sign

Backpackers have colorful names and clean but bare bones rooms.

Sleeping quarters at backpacker place

 

Nev arriving in style

You also meet some real characters at backpackers. For example Nev had come over from Australia to tour around on his recumbent bicycle.

Nev explained that he takes extended trips when the strain of married life becomes too great.

 

Nev displayed elaborate courtesy to Beth. For example he apologized to her every time he swore, which meant about two apologies per sentence.

We had heard that some traditional Australians behave this way -- a holdover from the old penal colony days when women were scarce and got treated like precious gems.

Nev showing Beth the fine points of his setup

 

Beth thought she could get used to this kind of treatment.

 

Beth considers a move to Australia

Thermal

New Zealand sits right on part of the "ring of fire" -- the ring of volcanic activity that surrounds the Pacific. Big areas of the North Island, like the Rotura area, display intense thermal activity.

Many years ago, the native Maori population used these pools for defense -- luring rivals into areas where they could be trapped against scalding, quicksand-like mud. Convenient for cooking them, too.

Now the Maori use the scalding mud to lure tourists. We were happy to play along.

Steamy mud pools simmer in the sun

We spent several hours at the Te Whakarewarewa thermal reserve, mesmerized by the ever changing formations and eruptions of the mud pools.

Mud erupting Mud ready to explode Airborne mud glob

 

Colorful mineral deposits

Mineral deposits form beautiful, but smelly, patterns on the landscape.

The native people used the natural "kettle" on the right to cook food.

Fresh water thermal spring

 

The Maoris call this active geyser "Pohutu" which means "big splash". Geyser Pohutu making an appearance

Te Whakarewarewa also offers a Maori cultural display.

Maori warrior enacting traditional greeting ceremony

This Maori warrior came out to offer a ritual challenge and invitation to our group -- either fight or enter in peace.

The Maori were famous warriors, who gave the British a very hard time and finally obtained pretty favorable treaty terms. (Which the New Zealand courts finally have started to enforce.) The Maori also fought hard and well in World War II.

Those warriors were probably in better shape than this fellow, who may have eaten a few too many Big Macs. But we chose peace anyway, as he was a lot bigger than us.

Arthur's Pass And Avalanche Peak Hike

We got to Arthur's Pass late in the afternoon on our first day with Bob, and decided to tackle the challenging Avalanche Peak hike despite the late hour. The trail signs said it would take six hours, but we figured that applied to old people, not the three of us! After all, it was only a few kilometers!

Breathtaking views from Avalanche Peak Trail  Looking down steep slope along way to Avalanche Peak Spectacular views in all directions

Yeah, a few kilometers straight up! We didn't get back until after dark, and resolved to treat these Kiwi trails with more respect in the future.

Carefully ascending steep section of trail Trail leads across narrow spine of mountain Taking a needed breather

 

On the way we sighted our first "Kea." Unbeknownst to us, these birds -- the only mountain parrot in the world -- are smarter than most riverboat gamblers, and slightly less honest. If you don't watch out, they will lie, cheat and steal the rubber gaskets from around your car windows.

But our first encounter was thrilling -- we thought we were seeing some rare creature soaring on the mountain thermals. Actually he was hoping to steal our lunch.

Bold kea is used to getting handouts

Lake Matheson

After crossing Arthur's Pass the next day, we stopped at Lake Matheson, reputed to be the most beautiful lake in New Zealand. There wasn't a whisper of wind in the early evening light. Everything seemed perfectly in place.

Beautiful Lake Matheson Duck floating across the quiet lake Breathtaking views could be had everywhere around the lake

 

Ferns cascade down the moist hillsides near the lake like waterfalls. A fern waterfall
Harvestman spider has a strange body shape The Harvestman spider, a form of daddy long legs, loves the damp foliage of the lake.

 

Silky spider sack

We saw some mysterious white silk sacs in the tall grass.

A little backlighting answered our question -- a nest full of baby spiders!

Baby spiders itching to get out

Fox Glacier

We planned to get up onto Fox Glacier, barely visible in the upper left of the picture.

New Zealand has over 3000 glaciers, including a few like Fox and Franz Josef that actually reach down into the rainforest.

Fox Glacier beckons in the distance
First ever helicopter ride for Beth We're not technical climbers so we decided to cheat a little bit, and we all piled into a small helicopter for the trip to the glacier.
The chopper made multiple trips to ferry our 20 person group to the glacier. Small helicopter ferried our group to/from the glacier
"Rapids" on Fox Glacier

A glacier is really a (very slowly) moving river of ice -- complete with "rapids," calm spots and ice falls.

Higher world temperatures have caused glaciers to shrink all around the world, but a fluke of local climate presently makes Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers advance several feet per day.

 

Our guide, Gerard (left) with Bob exploring the glacier We attached crampons to our boots and used walking sticks. But the going was very slippery and we had to look for chasms in the ice. Yawning crevasse on Fox Glacier

The glacier constantly changes, assuming fantastic shapes.

The ice left interesting formations as it melted and refroze Beautiful natural ice carvings Ice cave carved in the glacier

 

 

Ken encased in solid ice

We gingerly crawled and slid through some ice caves. The silence and eerie blue light of the cave made for a surreal experience. Easing through solid ice

After the helicopter brought us back, we decided to hike through the rain forest to the base of the glacier.

One of the many swing bridges leading over a chasm The trail took us across some narrow suspension bridges, and offered glimpses of the glacier cascading down the mountain like a frozen river (right). Fox Glacier flows like a river down the mountain

 

Ferns blooming near glaciers We saw ferns and other rainforest plants only a short distance from the icy glacier. Hen and chicks fern, with baby ferns growing on the main plant

The area around the terminal face (where the glacier ends) can be treacherous and we saw all sorts of signs warning us of the dangers of getting too close.

Don't fall in the water Don't get hit on the head Don't trip over the silly hikers

 

Fox Glacier terminal wall soars above the valley floor

Our pictures don't really do justice to the terminal face, which towers hundreds of feet above the river.

The river itself, fed entirely by melt water from the ice, is probably a hundred feed across.

Close up of the bottom of the terminal face

We heard big pieces of ice break off and crash to the ground.

Dramatic ice and rock formations get created and destroyed as the glacier moves Sculpted ice peaks soar precariously above the terminal face. Closeup of jagged ice peak on top of terminal face

Wanaka

Clouds kissing mountains along Crown Range road

We left the west coast and headed inland through the Mt. Aspiring Park to Wanaka.

We discovered the Cinema Paradiso in Wanaka on the South Island. You can snuggle up to watch the movie on overstuffed couches and chairs (or you can even find a seat in an old jalopy!).

They also serve wine, beer and fresh, piping hot, scrumptious chocolate chip cookies during the intermission -- much better than anything available in the stores.

Laid back movie theatre with comfy couches

Hiking In The Rain

After our long drive from Fox Glacier, we were ready to stretch our legs with a day hike to the Rob Roy Glacier.

It poured rain on the day of our hike -- not too comfortable, but it made for some spectacular waterfalls.

Waterfalls gushing and roaring   The rain powered terrific waterfall displays all day long. The force of the water was so strong, that some waterfalls gushed outward and even upward.
We were VERY wet all day, but kept warm by moving right along. Bob and Beth in the soaking rain
Bob helping Beth over a fast flowing creek The rain also caused creeks to swell and Beth had a hard time keeping her footing on the way across. Bob muscled her across a few creeks after she roped in. (While Ken helpfully took pictures.)
Back at the Backpacker lodge, it sure felt good to take a hot shower, put on dry clothes, and rest weary bones. Beth vegging out after a long day of hiking

Te Anua

When we're cruising, we mosey along, taking our time. But we were on the fast track with Bob and never stayed anywhere longer than a few days. So it was off to Te Anua and Fiordland.

New Zealand has many fantastic hiking routes and the Kepler track is one of the most famous.

The moss-encrusted woods along the Kepler Track had a quiet beauty. Moss thrives in the damp environment of the lower elevations along the Kepler Track
Mushrooms feasting on decaying plants Mushrooms and fungus of all varieties thrive in the moist environment.
Part of the Kepler track follows the Waiau River and we ran into some fishermen.

Fly fishermen returning from on outing

 

Gorgeous stream makes perfect trout habitat

Trout are not native to New Zealand, but the introduced varieties (rainbow and brown) thrive in many rivers and lakes. Fishermen come from all over the world to try their luck in New Zealand's famous rivers, and nobody complains about the "invasive" species.

Ken wants to try this next year.

Milford Sound Spectacular

The Southern Island's west coast offers some famously beautiful fiords, and we hired a small outfit called Trips 'n Tramps for a trip to Milford Sound. (Sacha -- the dogsled driving, possum hunting Kiwi Amazon -- drove our van and kept us entertained with a running commentary on South Island life.)

On the way we encountered our friends the Keas again.

Kea announcing he's king of the roost

Keas like to attack cars just for fun, and those hooked beaks make potent pry tools. This fellow didn't manage to cut the radio antennae, but he did rip out an eight inch piece of window gasket.

Everybody thought these little vandals were really cute -- until one landed on their own car!

Kea trying to cut radio communications
The road to Milford Sound winds through some strange scenery. At the Chasm (right), centuries of fierce water has sculpted the soft rock into swirling pools and waterfalls shaped like sink drains. Powerful water flows at the Chasm
Those Kiwi women are tough -- our guide on the boat was wearing shorts and sandals! Once we arrived at the Sound, we hopped on a small boat for a ride out into the Sound. We bundled up in long underwear, jackets, and gloves, but the cold temps didn't seem to bother the local guide. These Kiwi women are tough!

The whole trip was like being at a day long fireworks display -- where you were treated to one grand finale after another. No words can exaggerate the beauty of the place. Wow. What a visual extravaganza!!!

Fiords of Milford Sound extend into the bay  An ancient glacier shaped these steep walls. Imposing beauty of Milford Sound

We saw waterfalls everywhere. We could feel the cool mist from some of the falls.

Getting close to the misty falls Water flowing in sheets down the cliff face Thunderous waterfall

We watched these two fur seals conduct a very intense discussion. First one argued, then the other replied, and then they both flopped down and went to sleep. (Kind of like us, actually.)

Papa seal makes a point Moma seal has a few words to say Whew, all of that arguing was alot of work

 

Beth getting strapped in for another helicopter ride

On the spur of the moment, we took advantage of an opportunity to see the Sound by helicopter.

We need to get back to sea, where you can't spend any money!

Ken and Bob with front row seats

 

Unbelievable beauty of Milford Sound We had a breathtaking flight around the Sound and up into the glacier clad peaks. Closer view of spectacular Milford peaks

 

Basin of snow and ice A massive glacier fall Deep crevasses

 

Approaching glacier landing spot Finally the helicopter found a place to land. Brief stop on glacier near Milford Sound

Wouldn't want to take a slide down this crevasse!

We were pretty careful about where we walked -- for good reason.

Some of the other tourists (right) REALLY were pretty casual up there on the glacier -- maybe this is typical Kiwi snow attire.

Standard Kiwi attire for hiking on a glacier

Glow-worm Caves

Our tour of Milford Sound was fantastic, but we weren't done with the day yet. We had booked a tour to the Glow-worm caves near Te Anau for that evening. The ride into the glow-worm caves is very short and fast. But we did get to see hundreds of jewel-like glow-worm lights on the ceiling of the pitch dark cave. Glow-worms are gnat larvae and their organs give off a luminescent light to attract insects for food. Unfortunately, the cave guides don't allow pictures, even without flashes.

Sunset on Lake Te Anau We had a gorgeous sunset on the boat ride to the glow-worm cave. Quiet beauty on Lake Te Anau

 

Bob exploring cave near Kepler Hut The next day, while hiking a different part of the Kepler track, we took a little side trip to visit this cave. Stalactite formations draped the cave

Ken Faces Death

The Kiwis invented Bungy jumping, and Ken felt he couldn't leave New Zealand without trying it. So we stopped at the AJ Hackett Bungy near Queenstown on our way from Te Anua to Mount Cook.

Bob had jumped elsewhere several years ago and was satisfied to take pictures of Ken.

Beth decided not to risk her nicely healed ACL replacements and was also satisfied to take pictures of Ken.

Kawarau Bridge, home of the original AJ Hacket Bungy jump The AJ Hackett Queenstown location was the first commercial bungy jump. It is certainly a picturesque spot -- the bridge is 141 feet above the Kawarau River (aka the "River Anduin" in the Lord of the Rings).

 

Walking the plank

This is every bit as scary as you might think. "Helpers" tie your legs together after you don a harness. They figure out how long to make the bungy cord, based on your size and weight.

Ken asked for enough length so that he could touch the water with his hands. Hopefully their calculations are right!

Hamming for the camera

 

Who's holding onto my pants?

Ken was poised and ready to jump (left) but the guy holding onto Ken's belt wanted to do a proper countdown.

Finally Ken launched himself into the air.

Yaarrgghh!!!

Ken says that jumping off that platform took a lot more nerve than he expected.

Sure hope this rope doesn't break! That water looks REALLY close! Whew!

Grand Finale At Mount Cook

Bob's visit was rapidly coming to a close, but we managed to squeeze in a side trip to see Mount Cook.

The tallest mountain in New Zealand, Mount Cook soars majestically 12,200 feet into the air. It dominates the landscape.

Mount Cook is an imposing sight

 

Hooker Valley Trail alongside Mount Cook We got to the Mount Cook Village late in the afternoon but took advantage of the remaining daylight to hike the Hooker Valley Trail near the base of the mountain. Ken and Bob checking out the view along Hooker Valley Trail

The weather was perfect for a hike but we could see that it would not be a good place to be in nasty weather. There is nowhere to hide when the wind funnels down the narrow valley.

Finally we came to the cold lake at the terminus of the Hooker glacier.

Swing bridge traverses canyon on Hooker Valley Trail Glacier melt from Mount Cook Lake at the end of the trail was icy cold

We kept an eye on the ever changing weather. The clouds would creep over the top of the peaks and cascade down in billowy sheets to the valley floor.

Clouds rolling in and out over mountain Impressive cloud formations up mountain valley Clouds rolling down to swallow up valley

 

Kayaker disappearing in the froth The Hooker Valley River has a few sections deep enough for a kayak run. We weren't tempted, but this fellow and his partner made it look easy as pie. Brrrr, that water is REALLY COLD!

 

Hiking back to base camp with kayak in tow

We wondered how the kayakers got out after their run. Answer -- you hoof it with kayak in tow!

Mount Cook made a fitting conclusion to our trip with Bob. Spectacular beauty of Mount Cook sunset

We high-tailed it to Christchurch and dropped Bob at the airport. We felt in the best shape we've been in years and planned to look for some challenging hiking on our way back to Whangarei, where we left the boat.

But we took it easy for a couple of days first!

Christchurch

Gorgeous Christchurch College

We poked our heads onto the campus of New Zealand's oldest school, Christ College (actually what we would call a high school).

With its stunning gothic architecture, it looked just like Harry Potter's Wizard School.

 

Late for class The school boys (they're all boys) wear a very distinctive uniform -- complete with black and white striped ties and blazers. The place felt very English. Beth talks to Harry Potter

Back On The Road - West Coast

Pancake Rocks

True to its reputation, we had constant mist or rain once we got to the west coast. But that didn't stop us from exploring the amazing shoreline formations along the Truman Track near Punakaiki.

Powerful force of wind and water carves limestone rock faces

This was a quick hike -- the area (left) becomes submerged as the tide comes in.

At right, two giant parasitic rata vines straddle a huge kauri tree.

Gigantic Rata vine

Punakaiki is home to some bizarre limestone formations called "Pancake Rocks". Scientists don't have a good explanation for how these thin layers of rock get formed. But for sure tidal forces cut deep channels into the rock and the pressure of the ocean surge squeezed water through blow holes, making spectacular powerful geysers.

Water shooting up through blowhole Now you see it (left) and now you don't (right). We got pretty damp watching this surf geyser amidst the pancake rocks. Water receding from blowhole

 

Impressive waves crash onto the rocks The whole effect was very eerie in the foggy, overcast mist. We conjured up all sorts of wild creatures (right) from the shapes of the rocks. With a little imagination, you can see creatures in the rocks

Nelson

As we headed back north and east, the weather changed dramatically and we rediscovered the sun. We lingered a few extra days in Nelson -- reputedly one of the sunniest spots in New Zealand. Of all the towns we've visited in New Zealand, we liked Nelson the best.

The area is home to hundreds of artists and every weekend the town hosts a fabulous produce, craft and art market, along with music from local musicians. Just very homey.

Healthy river in middle of Nelson

And we were shocked to see HUGE trout right in the middle of town.

Gigantic trout lurking near shore

Nelson is also very close to spectacular hiking and boating areas. We walked for hours along the shore and were completely alone.

Graceful wave patterns along the shore Giant driftwood -- you can just see Beth sitting on one end Changeable weather moving in quickly

Finally we crossed to the North Island and headed back toward Whangarei. But we diverted to the Tongariro National Park and crossed our fingers that the weather would cooperate for a day trip along the Tongariro Northern Circuit. This trip (dubbed the "Tongariro Crossing") may be the best -- and one of the hardest -- day hikes in New Zealand. We weren't disappointed!

Tongariro Crossing

The Tongariro Park contains several active volcanoes. Just days before we arrived, park officials closed several roads when a "lahar" -- a flood of volcanic mud -- from Mt. Ruapehu threatened bridges and roads.

The park has a ski area, and the ski map (right) includes instructions about what to do if the volcano erupts! (Run like hell, basically.)

Mt Ruapehu -- an active volcano -- warning signs

The crossing takes at least ten hours, so we got a really early start.

Sunrise at Mt. Ngauruhoe We planned to climb the imposing Mt. Ngauruhoe (left) as part of the crossing. Mt. Ngauruhoe played the part of "Mt. Doom" in the "Lord of the Rings" movie.

 

Mysterious rock formations along Crossing trail We passed interesting rock formations on the way up to the base of Mt. Ngauruhoe. That mountain sure looked steep! Mt. Doom looms in the distance

The slopes of Mt. Ngauruhoe consist of deep volcanic ash, and climbing through that stuff was incredibly exhausting. The slope was so steep that Ken couldn't stand upright in his heavy backpack without toppling backwards.

We eventually learned to look for rocky outcroppings where the ash wasn't so deep, and to scramble up on all fours. We finally got to the top after 2.5 hours of some of the hardest climbing we've ever done.

The clouds moved in by the time we reached the top (below middle) so we didn't see some of the distant lakes. However, we did see nearby Emerald Lake (below left). We were surprised to see a ladybug (below right) up in this inhospitable place.

Up above the clouds Peering down into the caldera from the rim The only sign of life on top of the volcano

While it took us 2.5 hours to climb the mountain, we practically flew down. We pretended the ash was snow and we jogged/skied/slid down the slope in 45 minutes. It was really fun for a few minutes, but then it got a bit old. We were glad to be down.

Beth demonstrates how to slide down the mountain. She only fell on her nose once:

Running Skipping Skiing

We were ready to call it a day when we got to the bottom, but we couldn't stop to rest. We still had about six hours of hiking left! And if we slowed down, we would miss the last park shuttle and end up walking another ten miles to get out.

When we got down from the mountain, we were dismayed to see a group of about 70 college students on a class field trip resting at the base of the mountain. They were going the same way we were, and they weren't stopping to climb the mountain.

Tired or not, we got moving FAST, hoping we could stay ahead of the crowd.

Huge crowd of students resting at base of Mt. Doom
Student army on the move We were proud of ourselves, smugly thinking that we could out walk those kids. They really did look like an army, moving in formation, along the path behind us.

We turned our attention to the beauties around us. The landscape was very dry, windswept, and mostly devoid of vegetation, with lots of thermal activity percolating below the surface. The minerals leaching out of the soil created interesting patterns and colors.

Vast expanse of nothingness Rocks look like they are ready to topple over at any second Rich green color of Emerald Lake

Amazing lava tube and old lava flows

The lava tube formation (left) at Red Crater is awe inspiring. It's hard to convey the scale, but that crater is many hundreds of feet deep.

Ken found a nice toasty thermal air vent to warm his hands (right) from the brisk winds.

Natural heat

But we just couldn't move fast enough to stay ahead of those kids Some of them were actually RUNNING!

As they rushed past, pounding their knees and legs with each step, Beth said "I guess there really is a difference between young people and old people."

Ken replied "Yeah. Old people are smarter."

We had to admire them, though.

Students making double time

While we waited for our bus at the end of the trail, little groups of students kept straggling out of the woods. The ones who finished first were in great shape, but the last ones out looked a bit bedraggled. We were really impressed that they all made it.

As part of their class project, they had to give a survey to other trail users (like us). One of the questions was "Do you think the trail is too crowded?"

Twilight over Mt. Ngauruhoe So we said goodbye to a truly memorable hike.

Lord Of The Rings Pilgrimage

During our trip we kept an eye open for familiar locations from the "Lord of the Rings" movies. But we quickly learned that the contracts between the movie company, the New Zealand government the Tolkien heirs required destruction of all the sets. What an incredible loss of tourist-trap value! Only one of the original sets remains -- Hobbiton -- and only by a fortunate coincidence.

If you are a fan of the movies, we hope you will find these pictures interesting...

The deep gorge of the Kawarau River near Queenstown provided the location for the "Argonath" or "Pillars of the Kings" on the "River Anduin". Ken bungy jumped just around the bend. River Anduin and the Pillars of the Kings

The company filmed several scenes on Mount Victoria in Wellington. This secluded-looking park is actually right in the middle of a big city!

We never would have found the sites if a friendly Kiwi hadn't given us detailed directions: (1) spot where Frodo frantically yelled to Sam, Merry, and Pippin to "Get off the Road!" as a "Black Rider" ("Nazgul") approached (below left); (2) spot where the Hobbits slid down an embankment to escape the "Nazgul" (below middle); (3) embankment where the Hobbits hid from the "Nazgul" (below right). The third spot (the embankment) looked different in the movie, because the whole tree was artificial.

"Get off the Road!" Spot where hobbits slid off the road Hiding from the Nazgul

Putangirua Pinnacles along the southern coast of the North Island provided the location for the "Dimholt Road" or the path to the "army of the dead". This place had a fittingly stark desolation.

Putangirua Pinnacles tower above the landscape Column of compacted gravel perches precariously over the riverbed The towers almost seemed alive -- you can imagine faces in the sculpted formations

 

Approach to the pinnacles along the dry streambed Making our way carefully into the depths of the pinnacles Getting swallowed up by one of the numerous side caverns

Hobbiton And Bag End

Distinctive rolling countryside of Hobbiton "Hobbiton," alone of all the sets, still exists, on a private sheep farm near Matamata. You take a special bus, driven by one of the farm's owners, to see the location.

The movie makers were required by contract to remove all sets. However, the weather turned really wet as crews dismantled "Hobbiton" and they left one small section intact. Crews never returned to complete the removal and the farmer and his sons transformed the property into a mecca for Lord of the Rings affectionados. A significant portion of their income now comes from running tours on the property.

The remains of numerous "hobbit holes" line the hillside. All of the holes but one have been reinforced to make them safe for tourists to explore. Remains of Bag End
Last remaining original hobbit hole   Only remaining original "hobbit hole" facade. The facing structure is constructed of very flimsy material and nobody is allowed to enter this hole.
We got to climb around inside a reinforced "hobbit hole" and it was quite roomy inside. Looking out from a hobbit hole
Site of the party tree and Bilbo's 111th birthday celebration

The movie makers didn't need to do much to embellish the beautiful rolling terrain of the farm -- the natural character of the place captures the ambiance of the "Shire" perfectly.

Shreds of ribbons from Bilbo's 111th birthday party still hang from several branches of the famous party tree (tree on left side of pond).

We know this tour was the ultimate in touristy events -- but we were grateful that the farmer had the foresight to realize he had a special resource and was willing to open up the location to visitors like us.

Miranda Bird Sanctuary

We made one more stop before returning to the boat -- the Miranda Bird Sanctuary on the western banks of the Firth of Thames.

The unique wrybill is the only bird known to have its bill curve from left to right.

 

Amazing curved bill of the wrybill
Godwit steathily hunting for breakfast

This bird -- a "bar-tailed godwit," makes an 11,000 kilometer NON-STOP migration between Alaska and New Zealand. Think about how much energy that must take.

We learned that these birds are threatened by loss of wetlands habitat. Imagine what it would be like to fly thousands of miles only to find your destination had disappeared.

The Miranda center provided a nice ending to our trip. For most of the trip, we had focused on hiking and seeing the big picture. The center made us appreciate another, more delicate layer of New Zealand. Godwit and black stilt looking for crabs

We returned to the boat at the end of March -- thoroughly elated by the wonders we saw. But we were not satiated and we resolved to return to New Zealand next season to explore further.

Now we needed to get back to work and tackle a big list of projects. The major items included installing solar panels and putting in a more efficient refrigeration system. But more on that in the next update.