So thanks, woods. You've been good to me.
We've been lucky to live within steps of a nature reserve. (Granted that does mean extra mosquitoes when hanging out on the porch at night, but nothing is perfect.) Beaches come with so much work (getting sand out of your clothes, constant sunscreen application, burning anyway) that as much as I love and appreciate all the beautiful beaches, nothing can beat the cool shade of a dense forest. Needless to say, having one right outside my door has been my own little version of heaven. In moments when I've felt stressed, overwhelmed, cynical, or any other choice sentiment from the emotional grab bag of adult life, these woods have been a balm to my wounded sense of wonder. I love the hypnotic, mythical bird songs, the helicopter-like flutter of wings flapping at high speed overhead, and even the relentless buzz of what must be a million cicadas. And I love all the damp, earthy smells that change with the seasons. On one walk, right around Christmas, I swear I could smell cinnamon, and then later on, ginger. I rounded a corner on the path and found this:
I had no idea what ginger and ninjas had to do with each other (aside from being famously Asian) until I found this article from the Wanganui Chronicle:
What a delicious problem. I'd be happy to take some of that extra ginger off their hands--you know, to help the cause.
Another day I took a different turn on my hike and the woods opened up into this flowery clearing.
Suddenly I looked up and found myself face to face with this beauty. In that moment I would not have been surprised if a pegasus had swept me up and sequestered me off to some enchanted castle where I would sleep for 100 years and...you see where this is going.
In that moment it felt like magic had not abandoned me. As we get older I think we need those moments more than ever.
So thanks, woods. You've been good to me.
Ok, I'm going to get artsy on your for a minute: I love the painterly way the fronds overlap and crash into each other and the kind of pulsating, outward movement in it. Always love a pretty tree.
This photo also courtesy of the Hunua Ranges and Josh Salim.
The signs told us the hike would be 19k long, but according to my phone by the end of the day we'd done 32k (about 20 miles). However, there's always the possibility that my phone is full of it.
The night before embarking on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing we had honest to goodness plans to go to bed early and get lots of rest before our all-day tramp. Then we started a puzzle with a couple of South Africans, and...we were up until 10:30 doing that puzzle. We're reckless.
We got up before dawn so we could drop our car off at the end of the trail and then take a shuttle to the beginning. I definitely recommend getting an early start. Apparently some people have done it in as little as 7 hours, but I'd be surprised if those people ever stopped to look around. It's hard work, so you might as well take your time and enjoy it. Given that we're not very fit, have a penchant for lots of mini picnics, and a tendency to wander, we took closer to 12 hours to complete the whole thing. Another good reason to get out early? Dawn over Mt. Ruapehu. For us it was all aquamarine with neon pink clouds that wisped over the mountains like a rooster's tail. Just unforgettable. It's the best thing I have ever wiped fog off a car window to see. (So far.)
What I don't recommend is going on Waitangi weekend. There were so many people on the track, and there were times, especially at the beginning, when we felt like cattle. I'd love to go again another time when there are fewer people out. Also, be prepared for really harsh sun. I needed sunglasses even before the sun crested over the mountains. Once it rose over the ridge I could barely see my feet in front of me. Until the sun got a little higher in the sky I could only take in the view if I hit a patch of shade or stopped and turned around, which always startled the herd.
That said, it was still an awesome experience.
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing starts off pretty easy for the first hour or so, until you hit the stretch known as The Devil's Staircase. Hearing that name I imagined almost a sheer vertical climb, so when I saw the stairs were like those I'd seen on lots of hikes before, I thought the name was a bit over dramatic. I was being cocky. These stairs kicked my butt. They just go on and on! Further down the track there's a part that involves hoisting yourself on a chain along slippery rocks, and I had an easier time doing that than climbing these stairs. Thankfully after that the trail flattens out for a while as you pass through this ashen, sort of martian-feeling valley. The ground gives a little under your feet like a mix of sand and...maybe styrofoam? It's hard to find something to compare it to without saying, "it was like a volcano."
The weather was nice and clear as we were passing Mt. Ngauruhoe, but then, as if it knew we were watching, dark clouds began building over the summit. I think this mountain's a bit of a show off.
We were able to stay ahead of the weather for most of our hike, and it was amazing to be able to see it moving over the landscape. There was a point, about where we reached Red Crater, when I could actually see patches of rain coming down in the distance. It eventually caught up with us around the Emerald Lakes, but luckily the rain was sporadic and we didn't get too wet. Plus, seeing it pucker and ripple the surface of the green water was pretty cool.
The walk down to the lakes is really steep and it's all loose earth, so slipping around is inevitable. It's not very kind to your knees and you will get rocks in your shoes. That's just a fact. Although this is probably a terrible and dangerous idea, I couldn't stop thinking about how much fun it would be to sled down instead.
After the lakes the crowds thinned out. Although it's posted as a one-way hike, I saw a lot of people turn back the way they came. As long as the weather isn't too wet, I could see that going fine, although you do miss out on some beautiful stuff by going back early. The rest of the hike isn't as famous as the first half, but it was honestly the part I enjoyed most. Maybe it was relief at not being around so many people, or it could have just been refreshing to see land looking kind of green again after so much volcanic rock. There are some stunning steam vents, gold and grey colored streams, and it's such a nice, gentle slope down that it feels really relaxing by comparison. Eventually the plants grow thicker, the trees get taller, and you're back in the familiar world.
Then you realize how exhausted you are.
This year is the first time Josh has ever had a birthday in summer, so I wanted to take full advantage. I had a lot of ambitious ideas, but as teaching swallowed more and more of my time those crucial planning hours evaporated in front of me. Suddenly it was Friday afternoon--the day before we had to leave--and I barely had a plan. So, at the eleventh hour, this is where we landed.
By the way, if you're looking for a cheap way to spice up any special occasion, add two types of public transport and a blindfold. Passersby were really into it, shouting, No don't go that way! Danger! Josh wouldn't stop guessing where we were going, and every time he got close I'd laugh nervously, so then I had to start laughing nervously at everything just to cover it up. It turns out I can be a really terrible liar. We got a little carried away with the game walking from the bus to the ferry, and with 5 minutes left to board we had to run to the boat. At this point I could have let him take the blindfold off, but I hate to ruin a surprise, so...instead I put one hand on my shoulder, grabbed the other and said, Josh, we're going to run.
I am married to the best sport on Earth because--we did. We ran. And no one died.
We landed on Waiheke and went straight to ziplining. Here's what I've learned from the experience: it's mildly terrifying for the first few seconds, then it's amazing. You stabilize. For a moment, careening through the air becomes normal. You look down at the canopy dipping far below you and it's breathtaking. Then your realize you're rushing at high speed towards a platform on the other side and your heart jumps into your throat like you're seconds from death. So that's the formula: mildly terrifying, then awesome, then actually terrifying.
I found the key to this last part was turning around at the last moment so you come in backwards and you can't see when you're going to stop.
If there's no time to react, there's no time to panic.
They're not kidding when they say it's addictive. That moment in the middle--that moment of amazing when you're flying through the air like a god--that's the part you come away with. After three different runs, we didn't want to stop. We were ready to zipline everywhere.
Here's the fastest zip we did, at 60 kilometers per hour. I'll warn you, I scream through a lot of it. You can tell the part when it hits "amazing" by when I start laughing in between screams.
Things go slightly wrong.
So here was where poor planning started to take its toll. After we finished zipping and hiked back to the starting point, we took a shuttle into Oneroa and walked to where we were staying for the night. I booked us a tiny cabin at a backpacker's outside of town called the Fossil Bay Lodge. Turns out, it's also a local Kindergarten. As if New Zealand wasn't already cute enough.
Unfortunately plans of us in a tiny blue cabin were never meant to be. We arrived only to realize that I'd booked for the wrong night, and they weren't expecting us until the next day. Summer Saturdays are busy, so they were completely booked up! It was going to be near impossible to find another place to stay on the island on such short notice. Thankfully, Kiwis always seem happy to roll with the punches, and the owner was able to offer us a storage space they'd been renovating into a little apartment. Our bed was just a foam mattress on the floor but it was comfortable enough, and we had our own bathroom. It turned out to be a nice setup.
The road to fanciness is long and confusing.
I planned just enough time for us to walk from our hostel to our fancy vineyard dinner reservations. Unfortunately, since I threw this all together in an hour the day before, I just printed myself a map and ran out the door. I didn't expect that the map and the directions would be so out of sync! Given the choice between the two, I usually trust a map, but in this case it was the wrong choice. It took us 20 minutes in the wrong direction!
So there we were, two minutes shy of our reservation and in the completely wrong part of town. We stopped to ask for directions and wound up catching a ride to the vineyard.
Again, a Kiwi saves the day.
Waiheke has its more modest side: it's home to plenty of lower income families and what is possibly the world's smallest used car dealership (a grand total of three cars), but it's also rife with vineyards and million dollar holiday homes. The restaurant where we had dinner was firmly on the fancy side of the spectrum.
I have to admit, as much as I live for good food and beautiful scenery to look at while I'm eating it, expensive restaurants make me feel like I'm taking a test. How do I need to speak/sit/stand/walk/order/pretend not to care about the prices/use a fork to pass? And is "pencil shavings" something I want my wine to taste like? I asked the waitress, and she didn't really get it either. The food was really delicious, but not so delicious that we didn't enjoy the next morning's normally priced breakfast even more. (Although it's really hard to compete with breakfast. #BreakfastIsSexy) The best part was the otherworldly view. I know I keep saying it, but I can't stop thinking about how bright the sun is here, and how completely that changes the mood of everything it touches. It turns shadows on the wall into detailed, ever-changing landscape paintings, and it makes everything around you seem slightly off, so it feels possible that you're not on Earth at all--that you're actually having dinner off somewhere on Naboo or in King's Landing or in some other fantasy world--that what you're looking at is not the sun, it's a star.
And we didn't walk home under the moon. It was a moon.
I'm a sucker for Christmas carols, so we decided to join in on a Christmas Eve service and really do it up. Ironically, this church was least spiritual place we visited over Christmas. At first we were tickled by rows of palm trees wrapped in twinkle lights and two theatrically dressed ushers: one as an angel, the other (my favorite) as a camel. We walked inside to a theatre with enormous screens overhead, alternately magnifying what was happening on stage and playing scenes from big-budget bible movies like a religiose version of Madison Square Garden. The singers mostly seemed to be auditioning for NZ Idol, but there were a few genuine, lovely voices in the bunch, and we were just starting to get into the holiday spirit when the sermon started and killed it for us completely. It was everything you could possibly dislike about church in one rambling homily: sanitized, impersonal, and at moments even intolerant and petty. The pastor came off like a Ken doll turned bible salesman, leaving us with an icky feeling that was absolutely the opposite of Christmas. It was an off start to what turned out to be a glorious holiday together.
On Christmas morning we jumped in the car and headed north, stopping at Whangarei falls, where people were out splashing around and enjoying sunny Christmas picnics. Later we drove further north and wandered around Paihia for a bit, enjoying the scenery, people watching, ordering takeaway; you know, the usual stuff. ;)
On Boxing day we made our way up to 90 mile beach, which is a bit of a misnomer. It took missionaries three days to travel along the entire length of the beach on horseback, and since they could normally travel 30 miles per day, they did a little simple math (hrmm 30 x 3 = 90) but forgot to take into account the extra time it takes horses to travel on sand. It's actually only about 55 miles long, but let's be real, that's still pretty impressive. It's a beautiful white sand beach and also officially a public highway (no joke). We weren't sure Lady Waka could survive the trip, otherwise we would have been all about taking this way to the northern tip of the island.
This beach is also the road Maori believed spirits traveled on their way to the afterlife, up towards Cape Reinga, where it seems every rock, tree, hill, and stream contributes some spiritual meaning. There's a hill where spirits stop to rest, followed by another where they wave goodbye to their living relatives. They descend down into a valley towards a swampy stream where insects drone, then on to the last rocky projection of coast. As I understand it, somewhere around here is a stream where waters from the east and west coasts meet, and this sacred water is said to cleanse the spirits before they move on to the next life. Once the spirits have passed this water, there is no returning to the world of the living.
Reinga in Maori refers to the underworld; its full name, Te Rerenga Wairua means 'the jumping off point of the spirits'. Below on the bare rock you can see a pohutukawa tree which has somehow survived the harsh wind and salt, but never flowers. Spirits descend on the roots of this tree to the point where the Tasman and the Pacific meet: the entrance to the underworld, Hawaiki.
One of the most interesting things about Hawaiki is that it's both a metaphysical and a physical place, a place of origin and final destination. I've read that many other Polynesian cultures share this concept of a spiritual point of departure towards this place, but traveling further north the spot on each island begins to angle westward into the Pacific, pointing towards some mysterious, but specific location.
The road trip continues...
The best trips we have together always seem to be the ones that are fluid; we have some general ideas, but ultimately go wherever the road leads us: usually to ice cream. That's how we wound up in Opononi: a town that looks straight out of a scene from Boy. There's a great view of the giant sand dunes from there. The weather was beautiful, so we hung around the docks and enjoyed a couple of cones of hokey pokey and passionfruit ice cream. The window where they pass out the cones and the counter where you pay are in adjacent buildings, and I'm not sure what there is to stop people from walking away without paying. Very trusting. In the window there was a sign asking for yarn donations for a crochet class at a nearby prison. Taking turns jumping off the docks, a few kids found some seaweed and started throwing it around, streaming bright and rubbery through the air.
Our ice cream cravings satisfied, we took a short drive to walk through the giant kauri forest and visit Tane Mahuta: Lord of the Forest, aka the largest standing kauri tree. This tree plays an important role in the Maori creation myth as the son of the sky (his father) and earth (his mother). Tane Mahuta drove a wedge between his parents, pushing his father higher and higher, allowing light to come between them. Then Tane clothed his mother with vegetation, giving us the world as we know it. Since it is Christmas, I should point out that this tree is estimated to be about 2,000 years old (maybe more), meaning it would have theoretically been around during the lifetime of Christ.
Although the Lord of the Forest and its fatter counterpart, the Father of the Forest, were both impressive, for me the most striking spot was at the Four Sisters: a set of towering trees that are believed to have spawned from four seeds of the same kauri. Apparently this is rare, as kauri normally grow alone. I've looked for stories surrounding the Four Sisters, but I haven't found any. If anyone comes across anything interesting, give me a shout!
There's a good reason our childhood stories are filled with enchanted forests: forests are enchanting. There's something really magical about the light, and how it's so densely unorganized, mysterious, teeming with life; each tree is an ecosystem in itself, and realizing that makes the whole of the woods feel like a galaxy.
As it coincides with summer break, most Kiwis use the Christmas holiday as an opportunity for a family summer vacation. That, and the fact that we're getting into the high tourist season made it extra lucky that we were able to find an additional night's booking last minute. When we spoke to the woman who runs the place we found she gave us a choice between two old campers they'd converted into small cabins, saying simply that one was closer to the bathroom. Neither of us really mind a walk to the bathroom, and we relish a bit of seclusion, so I forget why we chose the closer one. It was clearly the right choice though, because then the owner admitted, "Oh good, that's the one with the view."
She was not kidding. This was our view:
The view at night was equally, differently beautiful. The moon was so bright it almost hurt to look at it. Then, when I woke up at around 4am, I found fog moving in from over the sea between the mountains. It's enough to make you want to give up sleeping altogether.
Actually, that got to be a problem throughout our trip: there was so much beautiful scenery that I felt like I was straining my eyes trying to take it all in. (My life is so hard right now, I know.) Closing them felt like a necessary evil.
As an extra perk, on the way back home I met some Italians! Christmas present from the universe? I think so.
Whew! Well that about sums up our Christmas road trip. We're back in Auckland now, enjoying Auckland things. If you've made it to the end, we applaud your dedication, and we hope your holidays were fabulous, whatever form they took.
Merry Kiwi Christmas!
Like our photos?
You can thank the talented
Josh Salim for taking most of them. Check out his other work at joshsalim.weebly.com
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