Monthly Archives: November 2013

Almost Aloha (Which They Do Not Say Here) Time

Not George

It’s now Friday noon-ish as I type this, and we leave for LA late tomorrow night. The main event of the last couple of days was a guided island tour which, given the 20 mile perimeter of Rarotonga, might seem a little redundant in light of our circumnavigation in our own car the day before. (Traffic here is pretty thin, mostly tiny cars and scooters, and moves within the stately island-wide speed limit of 30 mph. School zones are 20 mph.) But this was not so, and it was in fact quite interesting and a great deal of fun, just us and our voluble driver George, whom you do not see here at left.

George took a number of little back roads up into the hills and spent a lot of time pointing out various plants, which of course delighted Alice no end and put her into a frenzy of point-and-clicking. He was very knowledgable about many of the plants, with odd gaps regarding the ones that the locals themselves found uninteresting: it happened several times that Alice would ask about some nearby bush festooned with delicate, colorful flowers and George would admit with admirable candor, “I have no idea. We call it a weed.”

We also learned about the unusual property laws here. Property stays within a family, is owned absolutely, and cannot be sold outside the family. By “owned absolutely”, I mean that local law reflects property ownership to a degree that would be astonishing anywhere else. Owners pay no property taxes of any kind and can use their property for any purpose whatever; you could, for example, theoretically knock down your tin-roof shack (and their are a lot of them) and lease — but not sell — your land to a developer to build a tall if extraordinarily skinny high rise hotel. You could also bury dear departed Aunt Velma and Uncle Mort in a large ornate tomb in your carport, and believe it or not we saw quite a number of those. In addition to these little onsey-twosy gravesides, there are a large number of small cemeteries on private properties scattered all over the island, all very well kept with lots of flowers, and many with attractive ocean views.

Location, location, location

You will note that nearly all of the graves appear to be raised. This is just a local decorative custom (George opined that it was to make sure that Aunt Velma and Uncle Mort stay there); the graves beneath are the conventional 6′ deep.

The law about properties staying in families has some unintended side effects. If a particular family member owns a property that he has no use for but wants to keep, the other family members can force him to sell it to them if it remains undeveloped. So what you see are a lot of unfinished foundations (this counts as “development”) put in place by property owners who have otherwise permanently decamped to New Zealand or Australia, holding the property against their eventual theoretical return and leaving assorted seething relatives in their wake.

We also saw a lot of dogs (indeed, have been seeing them since we first got here). They’re everywhere, mongrelized to hell and gone, and they’re all really relaxed. Despite their ubiquity, they are not actually strays; almost all have owners and return home at night, but simply have the run of the island during the day and seem to be generally friendly… real islanders, all right. There are a couple from down the road that have adopted our hotel beach as their daytime home away from home, chilling out in the sand and playing with the beachgoers. (The hotel staff gently confiscated a 20 lb bag of doggie treats from one well-meaning guest; they don’t want the dogs getting too comfortable here.)

Our tour culminated in a garden where we were served about the freshest island snack imaginable: papaya slices covered in shaved coconut and sprinkled with lime juice, accompanied by fresh-baked banana bread. Every one of the ingredients in front of us had been on the trees surrounding us minutes or hours before. In fact, I opened the coconut myself, leading to the obligatory “Inept Tourist Opens A Coconut” photo op.

I escaped injury, sort of (and yes, that is George on the right).

Getting the husk off was a first class pain in the neck, as I remembered from my Hawaii days, but the rest of the operation went moderately smoothly. (And let me preempt any snarky comments to the effect that I am holding the machete upside down in the photo. You’re supposed to do it that way, cracking the shell with the dull part of the blade so that the pieces can be prized apart without spilling the juice inside. I spilled it anyway.)

We pigged out on papaya and freshly-grated coconut.  That, as it turned out, did not sit so well, and my digestive system rebelled. (Alice was unaffected.) I was an unhappy camper for the next 24 hours, which took care of my previously scheduled scuba dive the next day but was otherwise a bump in the road. We didn’t have anything planned for today so Alice is having a spa day: mani-pedi and something called a water massage, which to me sounds like a euphemism for something that they use to quell a prison riot.

Tomorrow, our last day, is market day in town. We are told that it is quite the diverse and colorful affair, so we are planning on taking the bus into town to visit (that would be the anti-clockwise route). Our flight to LA is a red-eye, departing at close to midnight, and the hotel has kindly allowed us to stay in our room until our scheduled pickup at 9:30 PM. That means that our final day is a full day so we are hoping to get some beach time in — maybe a little afternoon kayak trip around the motu in the lagoon offshore from our hotel. If I get ambitious I’ll write a final journal entry about the day, but otherwise this is it for this trip. We’re in LA for a day, leaving about 11AM Monday and getting home at something like 8PM.

This has been a helluva retirement kickoff, and the list of amazing things that we’ve experienced is pretty daunting in retrospect: scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef, helicopter ride over Ayer’s Rock, desert hike through Kata Tjuta, sunset dinner in the Outback, touring the Sydney Opera House, kayaking on Doubtful Sound, hiking on Fox Glacier, train ride across the Southern Alps, playing in a thermal waterfall, tubing 200′ underground through a glowworm cave, snorkeling on a Pacific atoll…it’s just what we wanted, and now we’re ready to return to whatever post-retirement real life is supposed to look like.

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Categories: Australia/New Zealand | Tags: , , , | 4 Comments

A Dot in the Pacific

As I mentioned at the end of the last post, we are now happily ensconced in Rarotonga, which houses the capital and is the most populated of the Cook Islands. Which is not saying much: Rarotonga is a speck in the ocean, more or less circular in shape and only six miles across, with a permanent population of 9,000. Pretty much everyone lives on the coast, for the simple reason that starting inland barely a quarter mile from the coast pretty much everything looks like this:

The whole island looks like this

That is mist shrouding the peak on the right. This is our first full day here, which started out gloriously sunny but clouded over rather suddenly around 2:30 PM. Anyway, you can now understand why the population is concentrated on the coast. Everyone is connected by a single main road — only one lane each way — that runs the 20 mile perimeter of the island. There is also a bus line that has exactly two routes, indicated on the display at the front of the bus: CLOCKWISE and ANTICLOCKWISE. (See, here in the Southern Hemisphere the buses circle in the opposite dir…no, wait, never mind.)

We are staying at the Muri Beach Club hotel, which is quite nice, one of the nicest on the island (though, like everywhere else on the island, you still cannot the tap water, though it is safe to bathe and brush teeth with). It is only two stories tall, which is as tall as anything is here, and our room is on the second floor overlooking the lagoon that surrounds the island. It’s a nice big room and the view is tough to beat. There is a tiny island, called a motu, in the lagoon about 150 yards from our room, and the water is shallow enough at this point that you can with a little difficulty walk across. Alternately, the hotel offers free snorkeling gear and kayaks.

One of the big activities at the hotel — and throughout the Cook Islands — is getting married. This place is such a draw for destination weddings that on the immigration form that you fill in on the plane before arriving, where you have to check a box giving your reason for visiting, there are separate boxes for “vacation” and “wedding”. We have been here 28 hours as I type this, and we have already seen three weddings on the beach outside our room.

You’ll note that I said that the island is surrounded by a lagoon as opposed to the open ocean. There is a coral reef about a quarter mile offshore that completely encircles the island except across one small bay. The space between the beach and the reef is thus a quarter-mile wide circular lagoon the diameter of the whole island, warm and blue, dotted with coral outcroppings, and mostly shallower than ~10 feet deep. Pretty nice! Insanely photogenic, of course, and with lots of snorkeling opportunities as well.

Today dawned clear and warm with a glorious sunrise over the motu, visible from our balcony. Our big plan for the day was to borrow snorkel gear and rent motor scooters from the hotel so that we could putt-putt about 2 miles down the coast road to one of the premier snorkeling beaches. We had hoped to rent a 2-seater scooter so that Alice could fulfill her lifelong dream of being a biker chick, but they only had the smaller ones available so she had to drive her own scooter. Neither of us had ever driven one before, and told the desk clerk so, but she was unfazed, saying it wasn’t much harder than riding a bike, and she would check us out on them. The only criterion was that we needed a Cook Islands driver’s license, and you will not be surprised to hear that she could sell us a temporary one for $5.

So, Cook Island license in hand, we set off on our scooters on our great expedition, an adventure that lasted slightly under 8 seconds, that being the time it took for Alice to pull away from the hotel portico and crash into the fence that had been inconsiderately placed at the edge of the driveway. No damage or injuries except for her ego (plus having to cope with a somewhat irritated husband), but the desk clerk started smiling a little less and confiscated Alice’s scooter. This left us with a transport problem, but the clerk observed that a small rental car cost only slightly more than the two scooters, so we opted for that slightly less adventurous solution. (I still reserve the right to rent my own scooter later in the week while Alice is getting a massage or something.)

We snorkeled for about an hour, taking a zigzag route from coral outcropping to outcropping all the way out to the reef, a quarter mile away. It was excellent, not up there with the Great Barrier Reef of course, but exciting and fun nonetheless. The’s quite a diversity of fish (the largest about 30″ long), coral formations, even some giant clams. The water was warm and visibility was about 25′, pretty good though nothing like Australia. In short, a successful expedition.

As long as we had the car we figured we might as well explore the island. We stopped for lunch another mile or two down the road, at a place with an infinity pool leading to the beach. We sat at a table at one end of the pool and we rewarded with a wonderful view, all shades of green and blue: the pool, the lagoon beyond it, the sky.

And so we continued around the island, taking a leisurely hour or two to completely circumnavigate it. We passed through the main shopping drag in town, a slightly ramshackle looking area with a lot of what you might call “island character”. We stopped at a beach that was nearly overrun with odd little sand crabs, their bodies black and barely more than an inch across, but sporting orange antennae and one enormously oversized pink claw nearly the size of their bodies. Very strange and comical looking– I will have to look up the name.

And of course we stopped at a store that sold black pearls, a local specialty (as is true throughout much of the South Pacific). No purchases yet but I am waiting for the other shoe to drop.

And that was our day. We have not yet lapsed into tropical indolence but we still have four more days. Tomorrow we are having a guided island tour (I think we just did that, without the guide); on Thursday Alice is having a spa day while I go scuba diving. So we have managed to stave off boredom so far…

 

Categories: Australia/New Zealand | 1 Comment

Auckland from the Top Down

I’m not sure whether I will be able to post this before we reach LA; we are airborne at the moment, en route to Rarotonga for our final “decompression” stop (5 days in the Cook Islands) and I have absolutely no idea what kind of Internet access we will have, if any. (One likely possibility is that we will have access at some insanely exorbitant price. We’ll see.)

We left Rorotua by car and took a deliberately circuitous route to Auckland, choosing to swing by the eastern coast of North Island to see the Bay of Plenty, which really ought to be a geographical name in a sword-and-sorcery novel. Our destination was an hour away: the resort town of Tauranga, which has a long and beautiful beach that is overseen by a single low forested mountain, Mount Maunganui, that rises a mere 760′ out of the end of the peninsula on which the town sits. Its base hosts a nice park and playground as well as the trailhead for the walking oath to the summit. The town itself is a very pleasant resort town, with a main drag leading down to the beach, lined with restaurants and souvenir stores. Flanking that street are a bunch of low-rise rental condos like you might see in any American beach town. On the inland side of the peninsula is a cruise ship terminal, and the Something-Or-Other Princess was in port, causing the Tchotchke Factor of the souvenir stores to go through the roof. 

There was a farmer’s market going on, through which we wandered happily for a little while without actually buying anything: a typical assortment of local produce, cheese, venison jerky (can’t possibly be as good as yours, Jon H), and honey. (Brief aside: honey is a very big deal in NZ. You see signs everywhere for farm stores selling it, and they are so sensitive about introducing pathogens that they specifically screen for honey in your luggage when arriving in the country; you cannot bring it in.)

We stopped for lunch along the street (venison burger! I ate Bambi! He was delicious!) then drove down the beach for a mile or so until we could find a parking place so that we could stroll along the surf for an hour so. The water was typically azure if rather chilly, and there were a couple of small treed islands a few hundred yards offshore. The weather was warm and sunny, there were a few swimmers and kayakers in the water and lots of little auger, limpet, and cone shells on the beach… an altogether pleasant scene and we have a ziplock bag full of shells to show for it. The beach is a good five miles long, curving around to make a scalloped bay, and at least 100 yards wide; in short, Tauranga would make a great little seashore destination. We considered trying to talk our family into coming here next year for our annual reunion beach vacation, but the ten thousand mile distance might be a tough sell.

Auckland addresses its feelings of inadequacy

For the next few hours we drove through rolling farmland that became gradually more populated as we approached Auckland, which is New Zealand’s largest city by far: at 1.5 million people, it contains one-third of the population of the entire country. It also has 400,000 boats distributed over a number of marinas, and for good reason calls itself “The City of Sails”. It has been the home of the America’s Cup, and it is also the temporary home to the biggest damn yacht we have ever seen, a futuristic behemoth the size of a cruise ship, owned (we were told) by some Russian oligarch. But mainly it is the City of the Tall Pointy Thing, a.k.a. the Sky Tower, that you see here.

The Sky Tower completely dominates the Auckland skyline for tens of miles in every direction. (It was only about 6 blocks from our hotel and somehow seemed to be visible regardless of what window in the building you looked out of.) It was built — the word “erected” seems particularly apt — in the mid-90’s and at 1,075 feet was at the time the tallest free-standing structure in the Southern Hemisphere. It is still in the top 10. There is a rotating restaurant, of course, and you can even pay to put on a harness and walk all the way around the outside of the observation deck on a catwalk that I expect seems way too narrow when you are actually on it. The observation deck, which we visited, is about 720′ up and includes a few places where the floor panels have been replaced by inch-thick glass, so you can stand on it and look straight down beneath your feet, which is kind of an interesting sensation. (Aside: I initially mistyped the word “interesting” in that sentence, and the iPad autocorrect changed it to “intestine”. I considered leaving it that way because it fit oddly well.)

But the big draw of the Sky Tower, among the universe of crazy people with $200 burning a hole in their pockets, is that you can bungee jump off it. Oh, yeah! The bungee platform is a little below the observation deck at about 650′ above the street. The mechanics are slightly different from a traditional bungee jump since you couldn’t use an elastic rope that long without bouncing around like a yoyo and smashing into the building. Instead, the harness is a cable on a high speed pulley that allows you to free-fall for something like 6 or 7 seconds before decelerating you towards the bottom. Think about that for a moment. Close your eyes and count off six seconds: “One one-thousandth, two one-thousandths, three one-thousandths…” Seems like a real long time to be falling like a stone, doesn’t it? Plenty of time to think about whether that cable is correctly attached, at least if you can hear yourself think over your own screams.

Of course, the 360 degree view from the observation deck is superb and gives a good sense of the topography of the city:

400,000 boats and extinct volcanos on the horizon: Auckland

The volcano-looking object beyond the peninsula is a volcano, Rangitoto by name. It is dormant; the locals hope it is very dormant. We took a harbor cruise that went past it as well as one of the major yacht harbors and under the bridge that connects the peninsula to the downtown area on the mainland. Other than the setting itself, which as you can see is beautiful, there was not a whole lot that interested us though it was fun to be out on the water. We also took a city tour on a small bus, which was more interesting: we stopped for a while at a couple of the city’s better known parks (Victoria Park) and gardens (Winter Garden) as well as at the Auckland Museum, perched on a hill overlooking the city and featuring many Maori artifacts and a cenotaph commemorating the famous World War I debacle at Gallipoli. That slaughter (I had not known) included a large number of New Zealand troops. 

I should say more about the Maori; they are a very important part of NZ’s story and we have kind of neglected them in our focus on caves and thermal parks and the like. They are far more integrated socially and economically into Kiwi society than the Aborigines are into Australian. Part of the reason for this is anthropological: the Aborigines are actually very tribally and linguistically diverse — there are literally hundreds of Aborigine languages — which made the Europeans’ divide-and-conquer strategy very successful. To this day the Aborigines are very highly marginalized in much the same way that Native Americans are, with rampant alcoholism, nearly total unemployment, and a shattered family structure. 

The Maori have fared much better, in part because they are a single people with a single language (the language, by the way, being in the Polynesian family and thus very close to Tahitian and Hawaiian, as I think I have mentioned). They were literally able to speak with a single voice and thus hold their ground politically. The culmination of their efforts was the Treaty of Waitangi in about 1840 in which the Maori were given property and citizenship rights and, in particular, were given back significant land holdings that had been confiscated. (These lands are not marginal locations like Indian reservations in the US but are often in key and potentially valuable places.) The treaty was far from perfect and a large fraction of Maori are still unhappy with it, but it is certainly a fact, confirmed by our own experiences in dealing with people here, that Maori are very much integrated into the scene. (As I type this while on the airplane, my seat mate is a Maori, complete with geometric tattoos on his arm.) There are still significant problems but the contrast with Australia is very striking.

During our bus tour we stopped at a coffee shop by a lake where, as it happens, a Maori children’s performing group in traditional dress was setting up in preparation for some kind of TV documentary. One of the guys overseeing it — a typical looking Maori, very big and very tattooed — asked where we were from (we hear the question a lot) and told me that he had attended high school for a year in Maine. (“I arrived in January. They told me the temperature was 21, and I thought they meant Celsius until I got out of the plane.”) We chatted for a while until the bus driver shooed me back onto the vehicle.

Tattoos are very, very common here, heavily influenced by the Maori. Most of the designs that you see are of Maori origin, swirling, barbed-looking geometrical patterns. A lot of white people sport them and of course all of the Maori. Seem of the older Maori have very elaborate designs over much of their bodies; we have seen a number of people of both sexes, some old, some not, with the tribal designs tattooed on their faces. One memorable sight was a very old woman in an airport with designs on her cheeks and chin.

Our touring complete, we returned our rental car. We have driven 772 miles according to the odometer (1245 km if you want to be picky about it) and filled the tank twice….at a little over $90 (US) a pop. Driving on the left side of the road was a piece of cake — you’ve pretty much got it after a few hours, and after a few days your brain has adjusted so completely that you don’t even notice it any more. But filling the tank at nearly $7 (US) per gallon… that, I did not get used to. Watching the dollar indicator on the pump roll over into three digits is sort of a religious experience, by which I mean crucifixion. (In case you were wondering, the NZ dollar is about $0.85 US.)

We got caught in a hellacious traffic jam en route to the rental car return, which highlighted another facet of Auckland: lousy traffic. Auckland is a very pedestrian-friendly city, which means that it is a car-hostile city, and jams can get messy. One of the contributing factors in the downtown area is the way pedestrian crosswalks are managed: at some major intersections, there is a pause between the red and green lights when traffic must come to a four-way stop and the pedestrians waiting on all four corners are allowed to cross in any direction, including diagonally. This is quite the sight — it makes traffic intersections look like a marching band display at the Rose Bowl — but is not conducive to driving across town. There is a public transportation system of buses only, with no light rail and no Metro, but it is not fully fleshed out. It used to be more extensive but the city fathers, in some poorly thought out spasm of America Envy, decided that they wanted the city to be more like Los Angeles (we were told that one of the city counsellors actually said this) and that people should travel by car. I am happy to report that the city fathers succeeded: Auckland is just like LA insofar as being very spread out and having standstill traffic. But all in all it actually seems like a very livable city.

We were picked up by cab this morning to go to the airport, and I was surprised that the car was rather more luxurious than the others we had been in. It was not until we got to the airport and the driver informed us that the fare was included as part of our tour — which it very definitely was not — that we realized that we had taken somebody else’s cab, more of a limo actually. Which means, unfortunately, that there was some pissed-off tourist back at our hotel that we could do nothing about. The karmic scales got slightly balanced a few minutes later, however, as we entered the airport to be greeted by total chaos at the check-in desk because the baggage conveyors behind the counters were on the fritz. A fair amount of baggage-schlepping ensued, but we nonetheless ended up in our flight. In about an hour (as I type this) we will learn whether our bags did too. If they didn’t, well, it’s a tropical island, and a very tiny one at that, so we probably are not going to need a lot of clothes.

Thus endeth our sojourn in New Zealand, and the running-around-like-lunatics part of our trip, which has now been underway for a bit over four weeks. It has been, as you know if you have been reading this journal, incredible. The next five days will determine whether we are even capable of lying on a beach for that long (word on the street is: no), but we’re gonna find out. I’ll have one more blog entry after this one, reporting on Rarotonga, though depending on the wifi situation may post them both at once from LA on the 10th.

POSTSCRIPT—-

We are now in Rarotonga and we do have wifi, after a fashion. So here is the view from our balcony. How’s the weather back home?

No snow expected today

 

 

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Take Me To The River

We drove the day before yesterday from our idyllic B&B in Taupo to the town of Rotorua, about an hour to the north. Rotorua is the epicenter — both literally and figuratively — of what for lack of a better term can be thought of as “geothermal tourism” in New Zealand. And there is a lot of it: the local economy depends strongly on the fact that NZ sits on the well-known “Ring of Fire” astride the intersection of two tectonic plates (the Australo-Asian and Pacific plates, thanks for asking), and the fault line runs more or less straight through Taupo and Rotorua. I think I mentioned in an earlier post that Lake Taupo is the largest lake in NZ; it is in fact the largest freshwater lake in the Southern Hemisphere, and is actually the remnant of a monumentally gigundous volcanic eruption that took place 28,000 years ago. So you know we’re talking about a region with major league geothermal activity.

Which is another way of saying that there are geothermal attractions of one sort of another pretty much everywhere, and Rotorua is the jumping-off point for many of them. What this also means is that Rotorua stinks. Not that it’s a bad place or anything — it’s actually quite a pleasant small town with some very good restaurants that we enjoyed. I mean it literally stinks: the town is enveloped in an invisible cloud of volcanic gases, hydrogen sulfide in particular, that smell like rotten eggs. As Alice so delicately and accurately put it: “In Rotorua no one can tell if you farted.” Probably not the best slogan to hang your tourist industry on, but it does have something going for it. (And of course, after a short while you stop noticing the odor.)

There are a number of geothermal parks in the area, and we spent a couple of hours at one of the larger and well-known ones, called Waiotapu. Its particular claim to fame is a locally well-known geyser called the Lady Knox geyser, which goes off at precisely 10:15 AM every day. You may wonder how this is possible, since even the most famously regular geysers, e.g. Old Faithful in Yellowstone, cannot be predicted with that much precision. The answer is, that it is possible to cheat.

First you have to know that, left unmolested, the actual period of Lady Knox varies between 24 and 32 hours. The second thing you have to know is that the way geysers work is that they have a narrow throat where cooler water is trapped, capping the pressurized superheated water below it. The blob of cooler water evaporates, the throat is suddenly cleared, and the hot stuff beneath blasts out. As the pressure is released and the eruption ebbs, the water in the throat cools and blocks the entrance, and the cycle begins anew. And so as long as there is adequate pressure underneath it to support an eruption, anything that in effect clears the throat will cause one.

Soap-fueled geyser

The “anything” in this case is soap flakes. Soap is a so-called surfactant — we’ve moved on from geology to chemistry here, so please make sure you are registered for this class before we continue — which means that it reduces surface tension. By pouring soap flakes down the geyser hole, you greatly increase the evaporation rate of the blob of water that is blocking the throat and thus hasten the eruption. And so at 10:10 the friendly ranger comes out and gives a little spiel about geysers, and at 10:15 he pours a bag of soap flakes down the throat of Lady Knox — who, by the way, looks like a cute little volcano about 4′ tall, rather like someone’s high school science fair project — and steps away. A minute or two later soap bubble foam starts pouring out the top like an overflowing dishwasher, and a minute or two after that, FWOOOM! A blast of hot water and steam erupts to a height of 35′ or so, then eases up and continues spouting 10′ high for the next 15 minutes or more. Here it is in action (photo at left).

Well, this was cool enough, but not exactly earth-shattering. Alice was rather disdainful of the whole thing, having visited Yellowstone, and repeatedly pointed out that Old Faithful is much more impressive and does not require performance-enhancing soap flakes.

This, in fact, was a recurring theme of our visit to Waiotapu: every time we passed a boiling lake, or a steaming crater lined with sulphur crystals, or a white salt flat covered in silica, Alice would observe that the one in Yellowstone was better. I finally threw her into a smoking crevice filled with boiling mud and yelled “Is Yellowstone better than THAT?”

Well, no, I didn’t actually do that. But I threatened to, which worked pretty well insofar as I stopped hearing disparaging comparisons to Yellowstone. Anyway, we actually quite enjoyed it, and here are a couple of pictures of typical volcanic stuff that we saw there.

Smoking crater with pool of crude oil at the bottom. Alice says the craters at Yellowstone are better.

 

Boiling mud flats. Alice says the mud flats at Yellowstone are better.

 

Multicolored steaming lake. Alice says the lakes at Ye…oh, forget it.

Our next stop was our long-awaited jet boat ride, which as it turned out was a real highlight of the trip for reasons that are only partially connected to the boat ride itself.

The jet boat is an open-air outboard motor job that seats about twelve people on three rows of benches. The motor is, I believe, a salvaged Saturn V engine or something comparable, given the amount of noise and thrust that it generates. As it happens, there was only one other couple on the boat with us, a pair of ridiculously attractive Austrian 20-somethings who were seeing the country in a rental camper van. Our guide was a blonde, athletic surfer-type named Adam, cheery and knowledgeable.

This is probably a good place to go off on a tangent about the gestalt of New Zealand tourism. In a nutshell, Kiwis seem acutely aware that tourism is a major economic driver of the country and act accordingly. That is to say, pretty much to a greater degree than anywhere else we’ve been, everything is well organized, clean, and generally functioning the way it is supposed to. Everyone seems to know what they’re doing and, as nearly as we can tell, reasonably enjoy doing it. With the exception of one slightly crabby bus driver — the one who almost made us late for the Wellington ferry — we’ve been genuinely impressed with the degree to which people seem inclined to personally engage us, whether in casual conversation or when helping us out with something. (The waitress at the excellent Italian restaurant where we ate dinner this evening overheard Alice asking to borrow my reading glasses for the menu since she had forgotten hers, and came over to offer a pair of glasses that Alice could borrow. Tell me if you think that would ever happen in an American restaurant.)

Kiwis all seem to have an easy sense of humor and an (unfeigned, as nearly as we can tell) interest in us; the conversations always seem a lot more than pro forma. (I am not sure why this makes me think of it, but one pleasant farmhouse restaurant that ate at while on the road was called the Quarter Acre Bistro. The menu had what appeared to be a typo, offering a “1012m2 Salad”. I pointed it out to the waitress and asked what 1,012 square meters was; without batting an eyelash she said “A quarter acre.” Which, by god, it is.) Anyway, the attitude and competence of all the service people here — desk clerks, tour guides, and so forth — have definitely enhanced our experience. Adam, our jet boat driver, was a good example: he was knowledgable, even speaking a fair amount of Maori and knowing a lot of the history, and genuinely enthusiastic. He was vocal about loving his job and wanted to share his enjoyment with us. (He succeeded.)

Anyway, back to the boat. We headed downstream for about a half hour at a pretty gentle pace, meaning that the motor was roaring at only 100 decibels. Every now and then Adam would cut the motor and we would drift with the current, past forests and  dairyland and through a broad canyon with steep treed walls about 80′ high. During these times he would talk about the local wildlife, birds in particular, and even managed to draw a response from the woods when he did some bird calls. We eventually reached some shallows and climbed out of the boat into surprisingly warm water — fed by thermal springs, of course, hence the mild temperature.

Fat people and claustrophobes not welcome

Dressed in bathing suits, upper-body thin wetsuits, and shod in hideous plastic Crocs footware for protection from rocks, we hiked a few hundred yards though the river bed till we came to a slot canyon. And when I say slot, I mean slot, as you can see at right. At its narrowest point — and I say “point”, but it went on for some ten yards or so — the channel was less than a foot wide.

We moved along very slowly, as you can imagine, placing our feet carefully to avoid stepping into holes, as the warm fast-moving water tugged at our legs, sometimes only a few inches deep, sometimes as deep as two or three feet. The rocks, thankfully, were worn smooth and often covered with moss, so it was not hard to guide ourselves along the rock face with our hands. But it was a pretty narrow squeeze, no question about it; there were times when our backs were against the rocks and the opposite surface only as inch or so from our faces. (Why do we get ourselves into these situations? Two days ago we were doing the same thing, on our backs, in an inner tube, in a cave 200 feet underground. At least here the water was reasonably warm.)

The crevice went on like this for 50 or 75 yards, then eventually opened up into a clearing as the riverbed made a sharp right bend. There was a thermal source at that point, and the water temperature rose very noticeably. We followed the bend, enjoying the balmy water, and a few yards further downstream the gorge started to close up again, fortunately not nearly as narrowly as before. There was a fairly straight path along the riverbed through the next slot, and we could see our goal, which was this paradisiacal twin waterfall:

Now that we made it here, we are not leaving.

At this point, just before we passed through the crevice to the falls, Adam said, “OK, this is it. You are now six years old. Strip down to your swimsuits and go play.” Oh boy.

Niiiiiiiiice.

This was a little piece of Eden, which we felt we had earned by right of our arduous passage through the dreaded Squeezy Rocks of Claustrophobia. The falls were about 15′ high, thunderously loud, and — here’s the good part — heated by an underground thermal spring to a temperature of 89 degrees F. Niiiiiiiiice.

The operative word was “frolic”, as long as you didn’t worry too much about keeping your balance: they’re certainly not huge as waterfalls go, but water weighs about 60 lbs per cubic feet, and when you drop a continuous stream of many cubic feet of water from a height of 15′, it carries a fair amount of force. Standing underneath it was to get a hell of a massage, and though I am definitely not a massage person this felt pretty damn good. The pool at the base of the falls was maybe 3′ deep, so it was relaxing just to kind of soak in it and let the momentum of the water splashing off the cascade kind of push you around. There were only four of us plus the guide, and there were two cascades, so there was plenty of opportunity for everyone to play around, squeezing behind the falls or just lying flat across a boulder at the base and letting the torrent massage your back. Like I said, niiiiiiiice.

We stayed there for maybe 15 or 20 minutes and could have happily stayed longer, as you might imagine. Since there were four of us versus only one guide, we briefly considered the possibility of outnumbering him and simply staging a sit-down strike, demanding that we stay overnight and that he come back and pick us up tomorrow. But we were concerned that they had our credit numbers on file, and so the plan was regretfully abandoned.

Adam, being a Kiwi tour guide, knows how to operate every known type of camera, and so used our respective cameras to take photos of various permutations of us at play.

Come get us in a week or so.

Alas, at the appointed time we made our back out along the river bed, through the slot canyon, and into the boat. It was during the return trip, back upstream, that the “jet” in “jet boat” became important. This thing packs a 500HP engine and has a top speed of about 50 mph, which is pretty damn fast on the water. It either has an extraordinarily strong and responsive rudder or side jets for rapid steering, because the trip upstream was quite thrilling: we would, for example, come screaming at an angle at one or another of a pair of obstacles (say, two small islands in the river), when Adam would throttle down and turn the stick and we would suddenly swing abeam and drift crabwise, sideways at high speed between the hazards. The highlight — the big adrenaline rush — was when he would head straight at some imposing potentially fatal obstacle, say charging at 50 mph at a vertical canyon wall, then yank at the wheel at the last moment and send the boat into a high-G 360 degree turn in place. Pure thrill ride…Six Flags stuff, to be sure. It was a lot of fun.

So it was a hell of a day: geysers, boiling mud, high-speed boat ride, riverbed hike, squeeze through a slot canyon, hot water waterfall massage. Today we’re heading off to Auckland for two nights, our final stop in New Zealand before heading to the Cook Islands for five days of enforced decompression.

 

Categories: Australia/New Zealand | 3 Comments

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