Saturday, 24 June 2017

3 weeks in the land of Maori

The trip to the other side of the world...

Traveling to New Zealand from Europe, it's really worth researching your options... having paid €1'250 for the return flight from Amsterdam, I know that it was the cheapest ticket compared to a couple of other friends who have done this journey his year, however the reason for this "bargain" is that I had 2 transfers (within China: Beijing & Guangzhou), one of which with only 1,5 hours between the flights, which was a pretty stressful experience, given that luggage isn't automatically transferred to your final destination & you have to pick it up manually, go into the airport in Beijing, go through all the Chinese security as if you were travelling from China, check in your luggage again & only then hop on your plane...
It's not helping that service people's level of English in China is so poor that even getting the simplest answers to questions like: "Guangzhou - check-in/help?) isn't possible...
If you have hopes of making it to a close connection, make a fuss, tell everyone you're missing your flight, be persistent & don't give up at first 3 wrong (or completely nonsensical) answers :-)
Another thing is that China apparently has no referable laws (what is allowed to take with you in carry on & check in luggage): I got into an argument with the security official because he wanted to confiscate my power bank (mind you: it IS ALLOWED to take power banks with you in carry on, but his reasoning for wanting to confiscate my brand new shiny power bank was: "there's NO INDICATION OF THE CAPACITY of the battery, so you can't take it with you") funny fact: ironically & non-surprisingly, the power bank was manufactured in China...
Of course, the official could not (in any form) produce the "very recent directive" that he was referring to and which supposedly "forbid this specific type of power bank" (my suspicion was that he just like how it looked & wanted it for himself). So, only after having involved several other security officers, supervisors of the airline staff, writing down everyone's identification number in order to be able to file a formal complaint, had the "authorities" finally become more "compliant" & suddenly agreed to actually do what I've been asking for from beginning on: run a check by serial number (or cross-reference the purchase receipt) & see in the specifications what the capacity of the power bank was. "Official's compliance" reached its apogees when I was suddenly allowed to just go through security & catch my flight AND just take the power bank with me (really?!) on the condition that I would delete the data about their IDs.
After all that adventure, even having been abundantly sprayed with insecticide upon arrival by biosecurity "to prevent insect  infestation" (fair enough after 30 hours of plane-hopping), I felt very welcome & happy to stand on the land of kiwis & have the dodginess & corruption of Chinese authorities behind me...

Day 1: Auckland & Muriwai Beach

Landing in Auckland, we right away headed off to Piha in order to climb Lion Rock, explore the nearby beaches & visit gannets colonies before heading off to the Muriwai beach to watch kite surfers & finishing the day off by snatching a glimpse of the Sky Tower in Auckland from Stokes Point Reserve. Before leaving Auckland we admired some sheep grazing grass in the shade of the One Tree Hill monument and watched sunset at Cornwell Park...

Day 2: Coromandel, Waikato, Hahei & Cathedral Cove

Woke up in the mining town of Coromandel, then - traveling through a Pahutukawa tree forest in Waiau, at the PIG CROSSING, was fortunate to meet a friendly Kiwi farmer who let me pet one  (evidence below)! Later on headed off to Waikato & Hahei beaches to hike to Cathedral Cove, "polished" the afternoon with a beer tasting at The Pour House (7 Grange Road, Hahei Coromandel 3591) & finished the day at the remote Dickey's Flat campsite on the bank of the Ohinemuri river eating a home-made (lol, technically speaking: "a tent-made") Pavlova desert (apparently, a traditional Christmas sweet treat in New Zealand.

Day 3: Karangahake & Wai-O-Tapu

We woke up in Kaimai Mamaku Conservation Park, did the "Window Walk" in the Karangahake gorge, following a trail to (& through) an old mine along the former horse-driven tram tracks. After this, we drove south to Wai-O-Tapu, which is a huge (ca. 18 km2) thermal area, made up of a volcanic dome of Maungakakamea (Rainbow Mountain) & covered with collapsed craters (5 - 50 meters in diameter), water & steaming fumaroles as well as cold & hot boiling pools of mud & water.
The Taupo Volcanic Zone is generally recognized as one of the most active volcanic areas in the world. The water there can be so hot (up to 300*C) that it absorbs minerals out of the rocks through which it passes and transports them to the surface as steam where they are ultimately absorbed into the ground. You'll notice that it's also a remarkably colorful area: the colors are introduced into the area by various oxides: purple = manganese oxide, red/brown = iron oxide, yellow = sulphur ... It's pretty, but smells like hell (or rather: rotten eggs) because of hydrogen sulphide (H2S).
Before heading off to Rotorua for the night, we took a little dip in one of those pot pools next to the park.

Day 4: Rotorua, Whakarewarewa & Redwood National Park

We started our morning at Whakarewarewa living Maori village, which is situated on the thinnest crust on the Rotorua caldera (&, hence, is a huffing & puffing geothermally active area with akaline blue hot lakes & multiple hot air vents & geysers).
This geological peculiarity defines the life of the village, for example: due to the on-going geothermal activity underground, the bodies of people who died would be placed in tombs above the ground...
There's not much to do for the modern Maori in villages like Whakarewarewa, so they got creative: tourism guiding has been professionalized here since the end of the 19th century (our guide's family has been in the guiding business since 1874. Whakarewarewa village is basically comprised of 50 people of her extended family. 
After the guided tour, we saw a Maori Cultural Performance Show & ate a hangi sweet-corn on the cob cooked in the bubbling geothermal waters of Parekohuru geyser and served with butter, salt and pepper.
After "dipping" into the lives of Maori, we swung the Redwood national park/Whakarewarewa Forest to do a "Tree Walk", which is a walk on wooden bridges along the California Redwood Sequioia Sempervirens, the tallest living trees on Earth (with some reaching over 115 meters in height and 9 meters in diameter). The trees have been deemed Sempervirens ("everlasting" / "Evergreen") because of their seemingly timeless lifespans & youthful (I.e.  Green) color despite the fact that they can get as old as 1'000 years old! The Whakarewarewa Forest grove, however has "baby sequoias", which were planted in 1901, tallest trees here are 72 meters high & 2 meters in diameter.
The walk has info plates about certain the forest and the vegetation that you see around you as you walk. Most notably: ferns. New Zealand is home it almost 200 species of ferns of which more than 70 species have been found in the Rotorua district. Ferns belong to ancient groups of plants with long fossil records, extending back some 380 millions years. New Zealanders love ferns: ferns are work with a sense of pride in sports jerseys (all blacks), in the names of other national teams (Silver Ferns), as the insignia of Air New Zealand, and - more somberly - as a symbol of remembrance for New Zealand soldiers who served & died in the First and the Second World Wars.
We we there during the day, but one can also do the walk at night as it's equipped with lights (see pictures) that were specially commissioned from an internationally recognized designer David Trunridge. Manufactured from a revolutionary material, they are made from the wood waste of New Zealand grown Tatiana pine, bonded together with non-toxic adhesives and suitable for 59 years above-ground outdoor use. The patterns created between the radiating panels suggest the mottling of a bird's wing. They're named after three birds: miromiro-tomtit, Ruth-morepork & the katearea, the New Zealand Falcon.

Day 5: Tongariro Alpine Crossing

On Day 5 we did the Tongariro Alpine Crossing: a pretty awesome hike (mind you: I'm not a big hiker!) across volcanic terrain, full of steaming vents,  hot springs/waterfalls (Soda springs) old lava flows, water-filled explosion craters and stunning views of Mount Taranaki, Ngauruhoe, the Kaimanawa Ranges & Lake Taupo. The hike is ca. 18km long & takes about half of the day. We've seen various ages & levels of fitness on the path, but be prepared: your feet are going to hurt and no matter what season, you need to be prepared for all 4 of them: when you're doing the crossing, it might get extremely cold and windy, but if you're lower, it can be very hot and you'll need plenty of water (and don't forget your lunch!). 

Day 6: Otorohanga (Kiwi House) & Waitomo Caves 

Started the day at the Kiwi House to see a Kiwi, Kea (Alpine parrots) & Kaka/Weka (a.k.a. "bush hen") feedings. Then had some cereal for breakfast together with green kakarikas (indigenous parakeets) & learned to distinguish between a ferret, stoat & a weasel  (okay, maybe just in theory:-).
After this, we continued on to the Waitomo ("wai" = water, "tomo" = hole/shaft) Glowworm Caves for a tubing adventure with a backdrop of some bio-luminescent glow worms. LoL, did you know that the beautiful "glowy bits" is technically worm's poo?! :-)
Going into the caves in one spot & resurfacing at a different exit into a beautiful grove of Kahikatea trees (they have surface roots to pick up limited oxygen in waterlogged soils).
Later on, we spontaneously took advice from a tourism site lady & stayed overnight at a camping site next to the Aranui cave, doing (allegedly) the most spectacular short hike in New Zealand: a 30 minute bush walk along the river. It's pretty unique as cliffs on both ends of it are covered in glowworms, and when you walk there at night (you'll need to switch off your torch, of course), it's almost like a copy of the Milky Way in the starry sky...  Isn't that the perfect activity just before nighttime? 

Day 7: Road to Wellington, & the Picton ferry crossing.

That day wasn't extremely eventful as we had to drive for 500km from Waitomo to Wellington, drop off Nazar, my friend's nephew & change our rental car to hop on the Wellington-Picton ferry on time. Next day: Southern Island!

Day 8: Marlborough Wine Train (Blenheim) & Nelson.

Waking up in Picton (finally 7 hours of sleep!), we picked up a Marlborough Wine Trail map & headed out to Blenheim (kind of the "Porto" of the Marlborough country) for a wine tasting (now I know where those heavenly Pino Gris are made!), grabbing a couple of divine chocolates from the Makana boutique chocolate factory (Corner Rapaura Road & Odwyers Road, Renwick, Blenheim 7273) on the way.
From there, we headed out to Nelson (apparently, "the most livable city in New Zealand") to sample some beer & the local "church of ales". The Free House attracted our attention by having a sign at the entrance: "TAKE IT AS A SIGN"   ... & so we did (& were rewarded by a "Wheat Wacker" beer & some very "citrus-y" beer that only I could handle). After this we visited the actual Christ Church Cathedral & watched the sunset at Tahuna Beach & Marina before driving to Abel Tasman National park for some kayaking  adventures!

Day 9-10: Abel Tasman National Park: Kayaking into 2017 (& paddle boarding afterwards).

Being in New Zealand for New Year's Eve gave us an opportunity to celebrate it a couple of hours ahead of "European schedule" :-) So, we "kayaked into 2017" & celebrated by taking it easy, sleeping in till 8:30 & eating delicious leftovers from New Year's Eve (avocado sandwiches rule!). Afterwards Anton went off on a hike & I decided to finally learn paddle boarding, so I explored all the nukes & cranes of the Sandy Bay in Marahau, almost got carried into the sea by the extremely strong tide & was forced to "hijack" someone's yacht (that was conveniently parked in the middle of the bay) to take a rest. When the bay completely dried out at low tide, I drove up to the neighboring beach to have a look at the Split Apple Rock (a local natural "site") & then finished the day reading Lonely Planet, taking pictures of extremely pretty Kiwi banknotes  & drinking amazingly delicious berry cider before heading in the direction of West Coast before dusk.

Day 11: West Coast: Pancake Rocks, Greymouth & Hokitika

The West Coast of New Zealand is hemmed in by the Tasman Sea & the Southern Alps, which creates a very unique & beautiful environment. We started our exploration of that area from the Pancake Rocks - it's a Dolomite Point area around Punakaiki, where over the last 100'000 years layering-weathering processes (called 'stylobedding') carved the limestone into what looks like piles of thick pancakes. Pancake Rocks are ideally viewed at high tide (when the sea surges into caverns & booms menacingly through blowholes), but it's pretty at any time of day.
After this, we headed out to Greymouth, which is West coast's largest town ("Mawhera" in Maori) and also home of the infamous (marketed as rebellious / badass with a slogan "FOLLOW NO ONE") MONTEITH's beer. One understands where the rebellious nature of the brand comes from when one hear the story of the original founder of the company, who was jailed for illegal brewing & fined for £3, but being a badass & a rebell he was, he simply declared that he was unable to pay and spent 6 weeks in the slammer.
By lucky coincidence, we arrived just in time for the guided tour of the brewery (with lots & lots of COMPLIMENTARY beers included), so it wasn't an option to miss it.
The tour was pretty informative & comprehensive: going through beer's ingredients (water, hops, malt [barley] & yeast) & all the steps of the actual brewing process (mash tun, lautering, wart boiler, whirlpool, heat exchange, fermentation, heat exchange, conditioning, filter, bright beer)... At the end I also learned how to properly pour beer from the tap (you hold your glass at exactly 45 degrees to the tap, fill it up 3/4, aiming to have about 10-20mm of foam "covering" your glass (to keep the taste, which is especially important in larger glasses).
If you've got time, you could get yourself acquainted with the multiple stories about the region & factoids scattered around the walls of the brewery. Apparently, in 1773 Captain James Cook brewed New Zealand's first beer from molasses, Rinus & manuka. The beer cured scurvy, but failed to ignite interest in pub franchise. International success came just ... 138 years later.
We ended the day at a camping in Hokitika, a town which is the setting for numerous New Zealand novels, probably because around 150 years ago it used to be the largest town in all of New Zealand (today only a humble 2'967 people live here according to the last census). The town was founded on gold, but today the biggest excitement is around indigenous 'pounamu' (greenstone), which is something to definitely check out when you're there. 

Day 12: Franz Josef & Fox Glaciers & Lake Matheson

We woke up to typical kiwi 'delicacy' of pie & a flat white  ️ (I'm not sure these two were destined to be paired, but each was delicious in its own right). Upon consuming this unlikely food pairing, we started our day with a visit to a stone painting workshop & a 'pounamu' (green stone/jade in Maori) exhibition/shop (Mountain Jade) in Hokitika. Curiously, indigenous pounamu jewelry was priced almost twice higher than comparable "imported" types of jade, which made no sense economically at the first glance, however the shop curator explained: that, apparently, Maori own the rights to all pounamu in New Zealand, so - like in any monopoly - the prices aren't exactly competitive... In addition, jade in New Zealand is found only in rivers & Maori haven't yet figured out an efficient way to collect it, so it's basically manually collected by people who own exclusive rights to it... Based on the rules of behavioral economics you can imagine that the price tags on those semi-precious stones are more than "precious" to the ones who put so much effort into them ...
The goddess of rain decided to favor New Zealand's West Coast that day & so we had to explore Franz-Josef Glacier & Lake Matheson "Hedgehog-in-the-Fog"-style (Soviet classic cartoon reference for my fellow comrades).
Franz-Josef Glacier (yep, the glacier carries the name of the Austrian emperor, Franz-Josef, as it was first explored by a very patriotic Austrian traveler, Julius Haast who named it after his "boss" at a time". We took the trail with a dramatically romantic name "Ka Roimata o Hine Hukatere" ('Tears of the Avalanche Girl'): the legend has it that the tears of a girl - who lost her lover - froze into the glacier (if that was ever true, they definitely all unfroze today as it was raining cats & dogs   ). It's an 1,5 hour return walk from the glacier car park to the best permissible view of the glacier's terminal face. After having met a couple of hundred drenched-to-the-bone tourists in matching raincoats, we finally made it pretty close to the glacier's face (according to the local info-board: we were precisely 750m away). On this rainy day, the Franz-Josef glacier looked anything but royal & didn't live up to its "kaiserlich" name.
And so we understood why all commercial tours on both the glaciers involve a helicopter  ride onto the glacier  (& hence cost between $300 and $500 per person): unlike Icelandic glaciers, Franz-Josef & Fox  just aren't easily accessible (or even anyhow presentable) via foot-access....
After this rather damp  & cloudy experience, we knew that on this rainy day the only possible semi-success in the Fox glacier area could await us on a walk (ca. 1,5 h) around the waters of Lake Matheson ... However we only saw the reflection of the beautiful Mount Aoraki/Mount Cook on the numerous postcards & through creative interpretations by local artists at the nearby souvenir shop... Helas, it was too foggy & all of the mountains were enclosed in a cozy fluffy cloud, which, however, didn't aid our in vain photographic efforts.
Ah well... today "the kiwi showed us its very shiny bum" (see illustration of that - again, by a local artist - on the collage at the beginning of  Day 12 chapter).
But as we started driving in the direction of Wanaka, it did brighten up - as it always does after the rain ️-> ️so we didn't let our spirits be dampened by the silly rain & stayed optimistic about the beauties awaiting us during the rest of the trip!

Day 13: Lake Wanaka

Spent it mountain-biking around Lake Wanaka along Clutha river that begins at Lake Wanaka & flows south-southeast reaching the Pacific Ocean. The turquoise color of the river derives from glaciers in mount Aspiring National Park. With 570 cubic meters per second, Clutha is the largest river in New Zealand. It's also ranked as one of the world's swiftest rivers, traveling at about 15 km per hour (up to 25 km per hour during floods). I finished an amazing day by drinking a glass of amazing Pinot Noir from the Otago region (worth coming back for just for that reason!). As it was a chilled day, I won't make too long if a story out of it (especially because one of my "friends" commented regarding my previous post: "Are you aware how many words your updates have?! It took me 3 cups of coffee to get though it!" I didn't inquire further whether it was my terribly boring writing style or her very slow reading pace or maybe even her remarkable love for the caffeinated beverage itself that were the actual reason for the process taking so long, but made a decision to avoid further escalation of the discussion & leave this post short & sweet :-)

Day 14: 'Puzzling World' (Wanaka), Arrowtown & Glenorchy

Started the day at Stuart Landsborough's "Puzzling world", which is a nicely weird collection of curious stuff: starting with simple 3D holograms all the way to complex "engineered" illusions of water flowing uphill  & objects seemingly moving against forces of gravity. M.C. Escher's quote summarizes the spirit of the place: "Only those who attempt the absurd will achieve the impossible. I think it's in my basement... let me go upstairs & check"
On the way from Wanaka, we took the scenic Crown Ranger Road to Queenstown, dropping by Arrowtown, a settlement that sprang up in the 1860, following the discovery of gold in the Arrow river. Town is fun for a quick stopover to explore the 60 original gold-rush buildings & check out the 'Chinese Village' telling quite a sad (racist & discriminatory) story of Chinese gold diggers that arrived into Arrowtown in search of a better fortune (the attraction was  simply irresistible from the financial point of view: 12-14£ per year (annual wage of a laborer in China in 1871) vs. 77£ per year (salary of a gold digger).
If most of Arrowtown is sleepy &, honestly, if you don't have time, you might as well consider skipping it, a sweet highlight of the trip could be The Remarkable Sweet Shop (27 Buckingham Street) - notorious for its delicious fudge. But don't worry, if you're flying out of Queenstown airport, you might as well stock up on fudge there :-)
From Arrowtown we continued on to sleepy Glenorchy via Queenstown. Queenstown, btw, totally charmed my socks off. Framed by lake Wakatipu, this "improbably scenic town" would be, imho, "the best-town-to-live-in" in New Zealand" if I were to take a pick of all the places we've visited! And Lake Wakatipu is definitely one of the top most beautiful lakes I've ever seen... it's shaped as a cartoon thunderbolt, has 212km shoreline & reaches the depth of 379m (average is over 320m (!) ). It's pretty remarkable how clear it's turquoise waters are (& not only from an aesthetic point of view, but also from water purity perspective: scientific tests show that the water here is 99,9% pure (it's the clearest lake in the world, second only to Blue Lake (aka Rotomairewhenua) in Nelson Lakes National Park, non-coincidentally, also in New Zealand). It basically means that you're better off dipping your glass into the lake than buying bottled water!
Despite the fact that average annual temperature is around 10°C, by the time we reached Glenorchy, Anton was ready to take a dip, so I took a couple of (no pun intended) "freeze-frame" shots of him being joined by a couple of red-faced kids, whose parents were either training them for some kind of "Arctic swim" or just wanted to get rid of the little "rug rats".
We finished the day chilling with a glass of a local Otago Pinot Noir & reading Lonely Planet to make plans for the rest couple of days that we have left in New Zealand.

Day 15-16: Queenstown to Milford Sound & the Te Anau Road

Coupled these two days together as we spent a them in Fjordland, getting to (or being in) Milford Sound, driving from Queenstown to Te Anau (gateway to the Fjordland National Park) & then SLOWLY taking on the Scenic Road from there to Milford Sound, stopping at pretty places on the way. 
That area belongs to the Te Wāhipounamu National Park, a 2.6 mln hectares wilderness area & one of New Zeland's three World heritage areas (the other two being New Zealand Sub-Antarctic Islands & Tongariro National Park. "Te Wāhipounamu" in Māori means "the place of greenstone".
On the scenic road from Te Anau to Milford Sound, every stop had its own different charm, but  I'd particularly highlight:
1) "The Chasm" (definitely the highest "time necessary Vs. awesomeness of landscape" ratio: stone, beautifully carved by rain water rushing down the Darran Mountains into the Cleddau River Valley).
2) "Mirror Lakes" (nice reflections of Earl Mountains in tarns [= mountain lakes] ) - very easy 10 minute return boardwalk walk with a view of pretty forest.
Having done most of the Scenic Road, we stopped at the camping closest to Milford Sound in order to be able to be on time for our morning Cruise of the fjord that we booked in advance. That stop was Gunn's Camp, waking up there at 6 am to a calm flowing of a river next to snow-peaked mountains covered is rain-forest was quite a special feeling. We drove in the fog, surrounded by mighty 400 million years  old  'fjord' mountains of Milford Sound...
A note for the blog: definitely book cruises in advance (at least a couple of days if you want to have a spot, there're few opportunities to "spontaneously" join anything directly in Milford Sound (not unless you're staying there for a couple of days), be it a cruise or a kayaking tour. The drive was pretty spectacular & much more to my liking than the previous part of the journey (taller, more dramatic mountains, thicker rain forest, snow  ️"caps" on dramatic vertical mountains...).
The promised 'stop-you-in-your-tracks' Mitre Peak (Rahotu) rising from the dark waters of Milford Sound (Piopiotahi) totally lived up to the high expectations set by tourist information sites & all kinds of information brochures: it was truly one of the most photogenic & impressive places I've ever seen. The cruise we took was 2 hours long & was a very good choice as it was with a small boat, which meant we could come very close to the fjord, a tiny colony of seals waving to us with their flippers, as well as to several waterfalls (like Milford Sound's highest permanent waterfall Bowen Falls, 161 m), splashing everyone on board to the delight of kids & adults alike, reminding everyone that Milford Sound is one of the wettest spots in New Zealand (between 6'000-7'000 mm per year), where inevitably almost every rock face here becomes a torrent...

Day 17: Queenstown & the Chard Farm

Last day of our trip we spent in Queenstown. Things to do there: definitely do the skyline gondola,which takes you 790m above sea level and 456m above Queenstown for just 33$NZ. The observation deck has fantastic views of the city & the surrounding the Remarkables mountains (highest Peak: Double Cone, 2343 m) & Lake Wakatipu as well as - like in so many other places in and around Queenstown - yet another bungy jumping company with a provocative slogan "throwing people of ledges since 1988".
After this we headed toward the Underwater Observatory (a bit of a rip off, to be honest as for 10$ you only see what is immediately beneath the surface of the pier): 6 windows showcase life under the lake in a "reverse aquarium" (people are behind glass, so ducks & fish look at you & judge you harshly), one can see long-finned eel, rainbow & brown trout, salmon as well as very cute black & silver scaup ducks, which can dive up to 8 meters & stay under water for 45 seconds.
After that little underwater escapade we went on to the legendary Kawarau Bridge to look at some crazy bungy jumpers. Having established for myself once again that bungy jumping isn't something I'd ever want to do in my life, we drove to the picturesque Chard Farm (the most charming one of Gibbston wineries) to do a wine tasting. The concept of the tasting is absolutely lovely as it is FREE as long as you buy a bottle of wine afterwards. If you haven't been exactly "charmed" by the wines you tasted, they invite you to make a donation to a local charity, so it's a win-win for everyone in any case.