Ten Days in NZ: Odds & Ends

How to make a ten day vacation last 6 months? Write a blog! With one week left before my Malay Peninsula holiday, I’m finally publishing the last of my adventures in the Land of the Long White Cloud. There are several smaller adventures that I enjoyed around New Zealand that didn’t make it into their own full post, so I have assembled them here along with the story of my last day in New Zealand. Odds:  Onehunga & Shopping (Auckland), Kuirau Park & Wai-o-tapu Geothermal Wonderland (Rotorua), Narnia (Whangarei), Stargazing (Waitomo). Ends: Planetarium & Cornwall Park, a  farewell to Aotearoa.


Onehunga, Auckland: Cute Shopping & Best Bacon Ever

I wanted to try to find some items that are rare/impossible to find in Korea, so I decided to check out the premier outlet shopping center on my first morning in NZ before leaving civilization. The Dress Smart outlet is in Onehunga, so I set my GPS a220px-onehunga_mall_layout_in_onehungand headed over early so I could snag a parking spot and some breakfast before the shops opened. In the States, Outlet malls are often far from the cities or even the suburban sprawl and exist as sort of concrete islands in what is otherwise quite unattractive farmland. Imagine my surprise when the GPS led me to an adorable little neighborhood, streets lined with tiny cafes, boutiques and thrift stores. Onehunga is adorable.

I parked the car and wandered over to find breakfast where I discovered New Zealand bacon for the first time. I’m familiar with US style bacon (cured belly meat, thinly sliced), and what we call “Canadian” bacon (from the pork loin, more like cured ham), but this was the first time I had ever been served this unique blend. “Middle bacon” served in NZ and Australia comes from a middle area of the pig so as to include some of the back (common in English bacon), some of the loin (Canadian) AND some of the belly fat (American), so it’s basically the best of all bacony worlds 20160814_094812combined and explains why it both looks and tastes like US bacon and Canadian bacon were fused together in some kind of mad-biology experiment went right. If you are a bacon fan and you are unable to get yourself down under, I highly recommend making friends with a butcher to see if you can persuade them to sell you some of this stuff.

After breakfast I walked back to explore the mall. Although I didn’t end up buying much, it did give me a really good idea of the types of shops and clothing that are available and popular in NZ. Shoes are clearly the most expensive basic clothing item in NZ. It’s interesting to see what’s expensive and cheap from place to place. The Converse outlet store was selling hightops (my preferred shoe) for 100NZD (about 73USD). I can buy the same shoe on the website for 55USD. I also looked for some better weatherproof shoes for my journey through the bush (and I plan on doing more hiking in Korea when the weather cools off), but there just weren’t any shoes that came close to being an improvement on my Chucks that were less than 200$… at the outlet mall!

Conclusion: Onehunga is adorable and worth the visit.  Dress Smart is probably best for shoppers who are looking for nicer clothes and not so much camping/hiking gear.

Whangarei: Breakfast in Narnia

Whangarei was a quick stop over between Bay of Islands and the Coromandel Peninsula where I planned to check out the Waipu Caves and the Whangarei Waterfall. I got one more fun surprise there when I set out to find breakfast. This trip wasn’t really about food, but I couldn’t resist the opportunity to visit a place calling itself Narnia.

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It turned out to be a simple cafe with a standard range of NZ cafe food. This is much superior to US cafe food and may include things like Eggs Benedict, or smoked salmon omelettes. The portions are generous, the food is fresh and often free range, and it tastes as good as a promo picture looks. 20160817_105844There were of course posters of the Narnia movies and copies of the books around the place, and some artwork on the walls by local artists. It wasn’t until my meal was finished and I went to find the restroom that I stumbled upon the most Narnian feature of the cafe. The back seating area (and restrooms) were through a hallway that had been hung on either side with fur coats so that you had to push past them in order to enter. It was very subtle, because even though I had seen things hanging in the hallway, I had not really realized what it was until I felt the fur on my hands as I pushed my way through to the other room. The strange and sudden realization that the otherwise very ordinary cafe had worked in a hidden-in-plain-sight magic wardrobe made my whole breakfast even better.

Rotorua: Kuirau Park & Wai-o-Tapu

market-timeWhile I was in Rotorua, I had planned to take a lazy walk around the Saturday Market and Kuirau Park (a free park that has geothermal activity). The market was a cute little local flea market kind of affair with folks selling used clothes and books, antique jewelry and dishes, and a whole lotta food stalls selling Kiwi and Maori foods. I had been hoping for more handmade goods, but it was still fun to wander around and I picked up my souvenir gifts there from the one handmade stand I found: a lady who made skin balm from the native medicinal kawakawa plant.

20160820_104641Kuirau park is interesting. It’s got lots of mud pools and a hot lake that are all gated off to keep kids or drunks from wandering into them. It also has public foot baths using the thermal waters so people can come by and have a nice warm foot soak. I suspect the park is nicer in any season besides winter because there are a lot of trees and flowerbeds as well that were bare, and what looked like fountains that were turned off for the season. However, it’s free, so I do recommend at least stopping by if you’re in Rotorua, especially if you’re thinking of doing other geothermal parks. Several other blogs I read recommended this as an alternative to Hell’s Gate unless the mud bath is on your bucket list.

Wai-o-Tapu, Geothermal Wonderland

20160820_114946_1-animationWai means “water” and tapu means “sacred”. This area is known in Maori as the sacred waters. In addition to the free hot springs, there is also a free to view mud pool and gyser (the Lady Knox). The only pay to play activity is the colorful geothermal park. In fact, it is the most colorful in Rotorua and in my view, ranks up there with Yellowstone. Most of Rotorua is shades of gray and brown (mud), but I’d seen some stunning photos of Champagne Lake and decided it was worth the 23$US to check it out.

Waiotapu has 3 trails that cover multiple types of geothermal activity. I found the shortest trail to be the least interesting because the craters are just large holes in the ground. The outer trails are where the magic happens, so don’t get discouraged. Go all the way around the park. The map says it’s 75 minutes to walk all three trails, but if you stop to admire the view and take photos it’s quite a bit longer, 3 hrs in my case. The park is so colorful because the various mineral deposits along with resident bacteria create a stunning palette. Unlike the considerably more neutrally toned hot springs I was soaking up the day before, the mud and waters in the park here can reach boiling temperatures (100C/212F) so don’t think about dipping your toes in!

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The walk starts with a series of craters that can display different shades based on the mineral content of the gases escaping, but the first exciting view comes in at stop #5: the Artist’s Palette. This stunning body of water does indeed look like a giant paint palette with different colors scattered around. It is followed by a series of soft jade colored pools and above ground mineral deposit formations. It’s hard enough to describe these and not entirely effective to capture them in photographs. There are shades of blue and green that are almost milky or opalescent. There are bright splashes of sulfur yellow and dark inky black mini-pools. Some of the pools are still, but others bubble with heat and escaping gases. The ground formations look like they belong in caves but are out in the open, creating textures and color delights that range from the tiny few cm across to the large petrified waterfall.

The third part of the trail leads steeply upward through a forested area. There are lovely vistas of the colored pools, and if you’re willing to make the extra hike all the way out to the Lake Ngakoro Vista, you will be rewarded with a stunning panorama and a long distance view of Mt. Doom (Ngauruhoe). I have to admit, realizing my whole hot spring adventure was “in the shadow of Mt. Doom” made my inner geek girl squee and I may have taken a few dozen photos from this spot.

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As you come back down the trail, it rejoins the second loop at the Champagne pool. This 20160820_142200.jpgdazzling body of water is the one you see on all the websites, brochures and billboards for Waiotapu because it’s deep blue water and vivid orange shoreline are such a visually striking image. Combine that with the meandering edge of the built up lip of the lake and you are just left gaping at the majesty and variety of nature. I also discovered the reason it’s called Champagne. There are teeny weeny bubbles effervescing around the pool giving it the distinct appearance of champagne in a wide glass sending a constant stream of tiny bubbles out into the world. The extreme heat of the pool combined with the cool late winter air meant that there were great plumes of steam rising up from the water and obscuring the far shore. It made for a dramatic landscape, but I did get dosed with some intensely sulfur smelling fumes when the wind shifted. Other than that, the park didn’t have much of an odor.

20160820_144422.jpgThe Champagne pool may be the star of the park, but it’s not the last surprise on the trail. After passing by a few more craters, you reach the final stop, “The Devil’s Bath”, which is a deep sided pool of the most florescent neon toxic waste movie effect from the 1980s colored water you will ever see. I’m sure you’re looking at the photos going “no way”, but yes way, Ted. A few more sight seers came around the corner while I was staring at it and were equally blown away. My best guess for what causes the crazy green shade? Bacteria, chlorophyll loving bacteria. Weather the colors of Waiotapu come from animal, mineral or vegetable, it’s a great way to spend a few hours in between hot springs. Check out the full photo album on FB, here.

Waitomo: Stargazing in the Southern Sky

I had such a good experience with the YHA in Rotorua, I decided to go ahead and book with the same company again in Waitomo. Despite being part of a chain, the two hostels could not have been more different. Rotorua YHA was a giant multi story, multi building complex akin to a college dormitory. It was also walking distance from lots of amenities including food, banking and entertainment.

The Waitomo YHA, however, was more like a farmhouse. There were maybe a dozen rooms, and a large wood-burning stove/fireplace in the middle of the common room, plus a baby sheep and baby goat on the premises in addition to the farm dog. It was clean and warm, so I’m in no way complaining, but it was a much yha-waitomo-juno-hallbigger difference than I had anticipated. I even saw an advertisement for a horse exerciser position that offered room/board/caving and a little cash, clearly intended to attract backpackers to the job. The hostel was walking distance from the main tour company that offered trips into the caves, but not much else. Because of the isolation, a local cafe did a pick up service to bring guests over for a meal and a beer.

After dinner it couldn’t have been later than 8:30 at night, but the moon wasn’t up yet and the sky was clear as glass. I could see more stars than I’ve seen anywhere except some remote mountains and deserts. I remarked on the view to the driver, but he said that it wasn’t really much compared to the “real” views of stars they get, and that he’d come to take the whole thing for granted. He forgot people in the city couldn’t see it every night.

Despite the chill in the air (aka, winter), I couldn’t just go back inside, so I turned off the back porch light of the hostel and lay down in a hammock where I could look up without straining my neck. It was awe-inspiring and disorienting to see so many stars, but recognize none of them. I’m not an astronomer, but I went to my share of planetarium shows as a kid and I can pick out the big dipper and Orion easily enough. But even if I don’t know the names of all the stars in the northern hemisphere, I know the patterns as familiar.

Imagine you go to the same Starbucks every day, then one day you walk in and the whole shop has been rearranged. You couldn’t say where everything used to be, but you know that it’s different now. These were stars, the same lights and shades of color I was used to, but sprinkled unfamiliarly around the sky. What’s more, there was a patch of milky space that was clearly not a cloud but something much farther away. I’ve seen an arm of the Milky Way once or twice, it’s hard to see in the US anymore because of the huge amount of light pollution everywhere, but if you go far enough into a dark zone you can see it. This had a similar quality, but the shape was completely wrong. I couldn’t tell if I was looking at a part of the Milky Way or some other nebula deep in space. Either way, it was entrancing.

53ff6124cc72cb8388240908b242e4a0The only constellation I’d heard of for the southern hemisphere was the Southern Cross, featured on the NZ flag. I looked for it, but at the time, I wasn’t totally sure if what I saw was the constellation or my wishful thinking. After all, how many patches of 4 stars can look like a cross if you’re trying to find one? I stayed outside until my fingers got numb, soaking in the interstellar beauty and realizing once more, NZ had granted my wish. Before I came, I thought about how much I was looking forward to seeing the night sky from the south, yet until that moment, every night I’d been outside there had been either cloud cover or a bright full moon, making the stars invisible. Yet here on my last night in the bush, the night sky collaborated to put on just one more show.

Auckland Take 2: French Food, Planetarium & One Tree Hill

From Waitomo I drove back to Auckland. I found that driving away from the twisting, unlit roads that had so vexxed me just 9 days ago was sad and difficult. As the roadways became wider, straighter and streetlights appeared at regular intervals I began to feel that my time in wonderland was over as I drove back into the land of the urban and the mundane. I managed to negotiate a parking place at my hostel in the city and decided that if I was going to be urban, I might as well enjoy the city for what cities have to offer and I took myself out for a lovely meal at a nearby French restaurant.

Although there were many amazing looking things on the long menu, I decided to go with a set out of some nostalgia for my all too brief visit to France. I got a marrow bone with toast for an entree (appetizer), a duck confit for the main dish, and an apple tarte tartin for desert. I also found a type of wine on the menu that I was unfamiliar with called a Viognier and decided to try that.

20160822_211246The marrow bone was a huge bone, cut in half longways and sprinkled with a crust of herbs and sharp white cheese (perhaps a parm or asiago). If you’ve never had bone marrow, and are not a vegetarian, I would like to recommend it. It’s basically like meat butter, which is to say it’s rich rich rich like the best butter you can imagine but instead of tasting like cream, it tastes like the meat of the animal from whence it came. You will not ever have a cut of meat, however well marbled, that is as rich and decadent as bone marrow. As I scooped the marrow from the bone and spread it on the toast, I wondered briefly if I’d made a mistake in ordering so much food when the first dish was so intense.

I drank water with the bone marrow dish. Only after it was cleared away did I taste the wine for the first time. It was a light and pleasant white. The internet tells me Viognier is similar to Chardonnay, which I can see, although this particular bottle (no idea) was to my mind, neither especially sweet nor dry and certainly not oaky (a common way to age Chardonay). It was a good match for the meal and highly drinkable. I’m not a sommelier so I’m not going to get much more descriptive than that about the wine, but it’s my new second favorite white (Gewurztraminer is still number one).

The duck confit on the other hand is something I could talk about at great length. This magical way of preparing duck in it’s own fat produces some of the most tender and flavorful results you could hope for, but on top of the “regular” process, this restaurant had decided to serve the duck in a spiced candied orange sauce. 20160822_213413.jpgThe duck rested atop some caramelized onions and roasted potatoes which were themselves drowned in the heavenly sweet and spiced sauce. Atop the duck rested the candied and stewed orange slice and a small tomato, the sweet and tart qualities of which were complimentary to the sauce. At first glance I thought it was a version of orange duck, but then as the spices reached my nose and soon my tongue, Christmas exploded inside my head.

It was decadent, and the crisp Viognier was a good break for the sweetness of the sauce and richness of the duck itself. It took me a long time to work my way through the meal, not just because I wanted to savor each bite to combine different layers of ingredient in different ways and experience all the flavor combinations, but because I had to pause and wait for my stomach to make more room. When the waiter with his thick French accent came by to check on me, I told him I hadn’t had food like that since the last time I was in France he smiled demurely. I don’t know how many Kiwi’s have a chance to try real French cuisine, but he was clearly pleased that I made the comparison between the homeland and his little restaurant down under. I’d had duck confit in France, but it was lightly seasoned and focused mainly on the flavor of the duck. This warm citrus holiday spiced version just about blew my mind!

20160822_215921Finally, I considered myself conquered and had to leave some of the veggies behind to save space for my tarte tartin. This is a sort of upsidedown caramelized apple pie with ice cream on top. It was wonderfully soft and well flavored without being overly sweet. The caramelization left a light and pleasant bitterness, and the apples themselves brought a bit of tartness. In the end, I couldn’t manage more than a few bites and felt horribly guilty for letting such a culinary treasure go to waste. I apologized to the waiter, trying to assure him the tarte’s taste was not to blame for so much of it being left behind. I finished off the evening with a digestive (because boy did I need one by then) of green Chartreuse which is a fabulous herbal infusion made by French monks that is basically like Absinthe’s grown up, more erudite older brother.

Planetarium

I took advantage of my last day in the city to pick up items that aren’t readily available in Korea (deodorant, peanut butter cups, jeans my size), and as my shopping came to a close, I realized I still had several hours before I had to drop the car off. I began to think about some very sage advice I’d read about vacations: the first and the last thing you do set the tone of the whole trip because the first sets your expectations for the trip itself and the last seals in your memories.

I decided to have one more glance at Google Maps to see what was around me and noticed a little spot marked “planetarium” only a short drive away. I stared in disbelief. One more time, New Zealand had heard and answered my wishes. Just two nights before I had lay in that hammock under the unfamiliar stars wishing I could learn more about them and here was the planetarium practically right next to me! Of course I had to go.

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It turns out that the Stardome Observatory & Planetarium is inside Cornwall Park, which is famous for One Tree Hill, one of the two main (natural) high points in Auckland to get a panorama of the city from and highly recommended on the short list of free things to do. The Stardome itself has a free gallery exhibit as well. I looked on the website to try to find times for the planetarium shows, but all I could find were things about Pink Floyd.

I decided to go in person and find out what I could, hoping that they had regular shows on the hour or something similar that I could at least use to get a general idea of what I’d been looking at the other night. As I was waiting for the lady at the counter to finish helping someone else, a young woman in employee garb came out from the back and started talking in a clearly North American accent. When I had my chance, I asked her where she was from and how she came to be working at the planetarium in NZ so far from home. It turned out she was also from my mom’s hometown! After our chit chat, I remembered to ask about the shows. I told her I wanted to learn more about the southern night sky. She pulled out a brochure with the show times, but the next one would sadly not start until after I had to be at the airport. I explained my predicament, thinking maybe I could have a look around the gallery or have a few specific questions answered when suddenly she said, “do you have a little time now?”

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It turned out that she didn’t just work there, but ran the planetarium shows for the school trips that came through. Since the school day was over and the evening shows had yet to start, the viewing room was totally unoccupied and she offered to provide a private mini-show!

She went through a hasty review of the northern hemisphere, comparing Seattle and Busan for me before moving on to Auckland. It was great to be able to review my little bit of astronomy and get to ask questions as they popped into my head and the relevant images were on the screen. The Auckland night sky was much less impressive than what I’d seen in Waitomo. She pointed out a few familiar northern constellation inverted. It hadn’t even occurred to me to look for any, let alone to turn them upside down to see them from the southern perspective. She filled my head with facts and tidbits on star names, distances ages and whole new southern constellations.

Finally, we left Auckland for a night sky that she said was probably more like what I got in Waitomo and sure enough, the distinctive milky glow was right there. It turns out that it is part of the Milky Way, but not an arm like we see in the northern hemisphere. It is the center of the Milky Way itself. And if that wasn’t cool enough, there’s a void in th9029405_orige milky light caused by dark dust in the way that the Maori people identified as a type of constellation by negative space rather than connecting the dots. It’s an emu.She also taught me how to find the Southern Cross and use it and the Pointers to find due South. It’s not quite as convenient as having Polaris, but it was fun to see it in action.

The whole thing was much shorter than a show would have been, but it was absolutely a highlight of my visit to be able to get a personal tutor and starshow to help me better understand the southern skies. We stood around chatting outside the theater area for a good long while afterward about astronomy, science, history, neuropsychology and a plethora of other fun learning topics. I got the impression she’s a person I could easily be friends with if we had the chance.

The Last Farewell From One Tree Hill

I left the planetarium feeling wholly reassured that my final memories of New Zealand would help make a great last impression. I didn’t have time left to walk around the park. The airport was only 15 minutes away, but I had to fill up the tank and navigate traffic. Pulling out of the parking lot, however, I noticed a map of the park and decided I did have enough time to drive around the loop road and go look at the famous One Tree Hill.

Cornwall park is a large green space in the middle of a fairly urban area, but it’s not just any old inner city park. I drove down tree lined roads with daffodils in bloom. I passed a hillside of sheep and lambs as well as a field of cows. There were even a few chickens wandering around. As a final farewell, it brought back the pastoral beauty of the previous week’s travels. The view from the top was a complete 360 of Auckland starting with the wide greenbelt of the park itself, and ending with the sea and distant mountains with the bustling metropolis a tiny strip of urbanization in between. I watched the sun sink low and turn the blue-white sky into shades of gold and gray. Then I got back into the car and drove off to the airport. I could not have asked for a better farewell from Aotearoa.

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The experiences and memories from this very brief trip are now woven into the fabric of who I am. Every trip, every new place, person or experience changes us, some more than others. New Zealand may be one of the most magical places I’ve had the chance to experience and for whatever reason, my entire trip there felt like I was really connecting with the spirits of the land through the soles of my feet as the Maori myths imply. Ten days is too short a time to know if it is a place I could call home, but I know that Aotearoa and I are not finished with each other yet. I will be back someday, to walk more paths and breathe more forests and bask in the gifts of beauty and serendipity that are offered.

Ten Days in NZ: Mostly Waterfalls

Still in the northern peninsula through day 4, I spent the afternoon of day 3 and the morning of day 4 at 2 spectacular waterfalls, then my afternoon attempt to go caving was subverted by a subterranean river and a lack of waterproof shoes, and turned into beautiful hike up the mountain instead.


Haruru Falls

After my exploration of Russell, I made it back over to Piahia (where I’d left the car) with enough daylight left for my other nearby photo-op: Haruru Falls. GPS told me the falls were a mere 10 minutes up the road and I had seen signs for them on my way in to town the night before. I expected to be led to a car park from where I could walk to the falls. In the US, nearly every natural sight worth seeing is a goodly distance from the road. It’s a serious effort to protect things from commercial development in the US and most of the State and National Parks have a sort of buffer zone of nature between development and whatever the highlight of the park is. Yellowstone Falls, for example, requires a long drive through the park and a longer hike through the woods before you can view them. While I was living in Washington state, I pursued a couple waterfalls. One fall was used as the backdrop of an expensive country club and I only got to see it because I went to a wedding there. Most falls that were free to view, however, came with a hike. My favorite one, Murhut, is a long drive down a winding gravel road and a mile of hiking up the trail… and that one’s considered close.

So, when I parked by the Hururu Falls signs that came just after the bridge over the river within easy view of the main highway and some nice suburban looking homes, I expected a walk. Nope. The falls are actually visible from the bridge itself and not in a binoculars way, but right there. I scarcely had to walk a few meters to be right on the edge of the river looking down over the tumbling water. Looking up, I could see people’s homes. This waterfall was practically in some backyards. I didn’t know it at the time, but this comes back to the public waterways laws in NZ, which meant that the homeowners and land developers couldn’t claim the land on either side of the river, making the falls a free public trust.

20160816_164233Waterfalls are a rare occurrence in my life but I treasure them. I ended up climbing out on the rocks to get close and then just sitting and breathing it in. There’s some kind of chemistry that happens to air that’s churned in a waterfall and it makes us feel better, happier (negative ions, no really, look it up). There was a trail along the river, but I’d had a full day of dolphin swimming and island hiking already and was content to soak in the late afternoon sun on the water and watch the rainbows dance in the spray above the valley below.

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I made it back on the road before dark, but I had to pull over a few more times just to watch the sun set over the hills and the painted pink clouds opposite dancing around the near-full moon.

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Whangarei Falls

Whangarei waterfall is quite a bit taller than Haruru but not so wide. There was some construction at the view point near the car park and I was a little underwhelmed by the viewing angle provided. Haruru had been so impressive and I was feeling out of sorts form a morning social media mishap (never read the comments!). I was hoping that the mere sight of some stunning falls would blast me back to happiness, but it wasn’t quite so simple. I looked at a nearby map which indicated there was some kind of loop that led down to the base of the falls and took about an hour to walk so I decided to go for it. This time, the nearness of the urban life wasn’t quaint and attractive, it was orange, brash and constructiony, so I was hoping to put that behind me on the trail. As I crossed the grated bridge at the top of the falls, I tried to scrounge a little whiff of negatively ionized waterfall air to bring my mood back in line with my environment.

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The trail led briefly along the edge of a field and then back into the woods on the other side of the river. There were some stairs, but it was mostly gentle switchbacks and the fresh air of the river and woods was a treat to the senses. I had a nice leisurely walk down to the riverbed and by the time I emerged from the woods to see the falls properly, I was much happier. Good thing too, because Whangarei Falls are best viewed from the bottom. It was still morning and the light was coming in from behind the top of the falls. The river appeared to be transforming from light into water as it dove from the cliff. There were side trails around the small pool at the base allowing visitors to get up close views of the falls from several angles. I found a little shaded area that blocked the sun from my eyes and my camera lens for some great photos, then wandered around the bridge and the small beach where some ducks watched me and the other tourists with suspicion.

Water is one of the most cleansing experiences we can have, not just to wash our skin, but also our hearts and minds. Water that is still and reflective, water that is rushing, or water that is testing the very boundaries between itself and the earth or the air. A waterfall does all of these. The more of them I visit, the more I love them. I thought I was lucky in Seattle to be near so many good waterfall hikes, but clearly I knew nothing of what it really means to have accessible waterfalls. Just one more reason NZ is awesome: the Queen’s Chain!

Waipu Caves

I did have one more event for the day before an especially long drive for the night, so with some reluctance, I headed back up the other bank to return to the car park and on to Waipu Caves. It’s about 45 minutes from Whangarei and reputed by online sources to be a free cave where visitors could view glowworms with only the aid of sturdy shoes and a flashlight. We have unguided cave walks in the US, several in Washington state.  I spent some lovely summer weekends exploring them before I got this blog up and running. We really did go in jeans, jackets, gloves and good shoes with some flashlights and it was great. It didn’t seem odd to me that similar caves could exist in NZ. However, my sources were less than forthcoming.20160817_143921It turns out that there is quite a bit of water in the Waipu caves, and on top of that, they are subject to flooding if it rains too much. It hadn’t rained on me much in my visit but winter is the rainy season there. Just inside the cave mouth I encountered a stream that blocked my path entirely. Now, if the weather had been warmer, if I’d had spare shoes, if I’d had (most importantly) another person there for safety, I might have kept going and braved the wet and mud for the experience of seeing glowworms. But as it was, looking at wet cold everything with no spares, and the very real possibility of slipping in the mud to become hurt or stuck with no help made me turn back. I like doing crazy things and I’m usually ok with getting dirty, but in the end, life safety won the day, and I decided I’d just have to see glowworms in Waitomo instead.

After exploring the shallow cave entrance, I decided to walk up the trail into the hills above the caves. I’m not sure whether to call these land formations mountains or hills. They are largely made of rock, and that’s mountainy, but they are not that tall, which is hilly. Plus, many of them have been deforested and covered in grass for the sheep and cows to graze on. Farm in New Zealand doesn’t equal crops, it equals herds. Either way, the sign said it was a 2km hike, which didn’t seem bad. Off I went, forgetting in my enthusiasm that my hiking style was likely to make this 1.5 hr walk actually take 3 or 4…

20160817_150251The park service in New Zealand hasn’t really mastered the loop trail and this was no exception. The trail led up to a single point and returned along the exact same route. It was marked by the occasional tiny orange triangle nailed to a tree and for a while I felt like an intrepid explorer in Middle Earth. The forest was deep and green and dotted around with huge rocks that looked like nothing so much as Bilbo’s trolls turned to stone and broken down. I even found one that looked like a giant stone foot! Other places the rocks became less like the remains of curving carved statues and more like the square blocks of a fallen castle or fort, like the ruins of Cair Paravel. Of course, all the rocks are natural formations from glaciers, but it was fun to imagine. This part of the hike is the easiest and quite possibly the lovliest. If you’re here for a short visit, I’d say it’s worth it to walk as far as the bridge, at least.

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20160817_152219.jpgBeyond the bridge the landscape changed. The rocks all but vanished and the type of plants completely altered. Now instead of lush green trees there were scraggly gray thorn bushes taller than me that were growing their first bright yellow spring flowers. This let out into another forest, but much more jungle/rainforest in theme than the boulder-filled fantasy below. There was a stretch of farmland too, which I thought may have heralded the end of the trail as it led onto a nice little grassy terrace with a view all the way to the ocean, and a little wooden bench to sit and rest. This bench would be my second recommendation for turning around if you’re getting tired. 20160817_164605The view is nearly as good here as it is at the top, so unless you’re an achievement junkie like me and just need to say you got there, it’s a fine place to end the hike. Or you can look for the little orange triangles on the gate past the bench and keep on trekking up. It’s a lot of up, and mud, through what is fundamentally a rain-forest.

20160817_155447I came across a goat on the path with her baby. They were both snowy white and I stopped to watch them for a while before they crashed off into the undergrowth. I hadn’t seen any goat farms around, just sheep and cows so I wondered if she belonged to someone or if her ancestors had escaped captivity, and now she and her kin roamed the park lands wild. After much muddy trudging, I emerged into daylight again only to be greeted with a fence and a businesslike sign advising me that I had reached the end of the trail and should now turn around. No monument, no viewing platform, just this electric fence and sign. The sign informs visitors that they are welcome to admire the view from the property line, but to be cautious as the fence is live. Ok then. It was a nice view, but there was not much room to move around and nowhere to rest, so I soon headed back down the hilly mountainside to find the bench I’d left behind.

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The trip back down was less strenuous but not really faster. Steep muddy slopes and slippery steps meant I had to go slow and cautious, because spraining an ankle up here would not be a good time. I actually did slip in the mud once and was worried I may have sprained my wrist landing (it seemed ok by the time I went to bed that night). However, because I was moving slowly, I wasn’t making much noise and managed to sneak up on some little evening critter digging alongside the path for dinner. It had ears shaped like a rabbit’s, but shorter, and a long bushy tail, though not ringed like a raccoon’s. It reminded me of a gray-tone version of Pikachu. I tried to get some pictures, but the low light made it difficult and eventually the wind shifted enough for him to notice me and he took off up a tree. I have since identified the adorable furry mess as a brushtail possum, pictured below in a zoo setting. This was another surprise since the opossum in North America is a kind of drowned rat looking thing that is usually associated with roadkill and dumpster diving. The brushtail possum was imported from Australia for it’s fur, which explains also why I kept seeing clothing items of wool and possum in gift shops.

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When the silent spell of wildlife watching passed, I realized that it was quickly getting dark, and I tried to hurry on back down the trail. It had taken me about 2 hours to reach the top, but I stopped a lot, so I was hopeful returning would require fewer stops to admire scenery I’d already seen.  The whole thing was like walking from one fantasy land into another, Middle Earth, Narnia, Fern Gully, Jurassic Park… it’s one thing for a landscape to be beautiful, but it’s wholly something else for it to be 4 landscapes at once!

Back at the base, I took another gander around the cave entrances, refusing to believe that this was really it. I had a brief conversation with some folks waiting in their car who hoped to see the glowworms in the entrance once it got to full dark. As tempted as I was to stay and see if that worked. I had an appointment with low tide in a town 4.5 hrs away and almost exactly that much time to get there, so I had to wish them luck and hope that the next caves would treat me better. My post-holiday research has since revealed that the cavern with the glowworms at Waipu is the third chamber and requires special equipment, experience, and should not be done alone. I’m still not sure if it’s possible to see any in the entrance, but I did find out later that night that it’s possible to see glowworms outside of caves.


The northern peninsula alone offered many splendors and wonders. I hope you’ve enjoyed the journey so far and that you’ll stay tuned to see the Coromandel Peninsula and the unique Hot Water Beach! Enjoy the full photos from Haruru, Whangarei and Waipu on my Facebook page. Thanks for reading!