Thursday, January 8, 2009

1/8/2008 - Lions and Tigers and . . . Kiwis? Oh, My.

The weather in this place is very changeable. When I stepped out of the tent around 8:00AM, completely clouded over. By 9AM, completely blue sky. Good day to have a clean slate. After talking to Rick this morning, decided on the zoo. It is apparently a solid one.

I also learned from Rick about the store of food that is ripe for the picking in the morning - the stuff that other people leave behind in a giant pile. He scored a couple of fresh kiwi fruits, I managed a bag of muesli. It tastes better 'cuz it's free.

IMGP1180.JPG Avast ye, maties - I've plundered the camp, and taken this muesli. Yar.

Off we go to the zoo. It really is a nice one, well-kept and clean. Lots of families, kids, the usual. And us. It was NZ$19 admission.

IMGP1181.JPGPretty bird! Pretty bird! Can you say "pretty bird"? (Name that movie in the comments section for bonus points)

Interestingly, no bears in this zoo. They did have the requisite elephants, monkeys, reptiles, birds, and a really cool tunnel they keep completely dark for the kiwis.

IMGP1184.JPGThe rope crossing was one of the preliminary festivities to the crowd favorite: monkey knife fights.

IMGP1182.JPGThis turtle and I had an instant connection: He is the slowest thing on four legs, I am the slowest thing on two wheels.

Grabbed some lunch around 1PM. I chose the hot dog. Hot dogs in New Zealand are one of the weird quirks of this country - the hot dog is some sort of plasticy sausage, and they cut the bun vertically rather than horizontally. All in all, ballparks all over America can rest easy tonight knowing that the secret to a really good hot dog has not, at least, made it to New Zealand.

IMGP1186.JPGI mean, come one. Vertically-cut bun? Obviously dyed plastic-related mystery meat sausage? Play-Doh makes a better version than this.

They fed the spider monkeys and the lions for the crowds, though, which is good. I didn't see them actually feed the lion, and just saw it gnawing on a limb:

IMGP1198.JPGLioness gnawing on a bone. I wish I could say that it was her camouflage that made her hard to see, but really it was my picture taking skillz.

It made me wonder a bit when I saw this sign by the alligator area:

IMGP1194.JPGThe alligator looked plastic, but was very real.

I definitely did not throw anything at animals after that.

Despite having them stuck in a small enclosure, I still have not seen a kiwi. They were apparently hiding in their den, continuing my streak of kiwi-lessness.

One really cool thing that I had not seen in any other zoo was a network of tunnels under the meerkats with places you could pop up, protected by a plexiglass bubble, to check them out. I didn't see meerkats, but I did see a different animal.

IMGP1200.JPGThis particular species, or homo erectodorkus, wears hats to suggest status. This particular male of the species must be near the top, even for a country close to Australia.

IMGP1193.JPGManaged to find the elephant, my ear-brothers.

IMGP1188.JPGRick, pointing to the rare and endangered Sea-Gull. It was a real treat.

Eventually, got tired of animals and made it back to the camp. I took a little siesta with a cool breeze drafting through the tent.

Woke back up again and it was STILL nice and sunny. Time for some activity. I fired up the ol' Bluebird and headed up to Mt. Eden, the highest point in the Auckland area. It is an old volcano cone, and rises about 600 feet. Good place for a run.

It actually didn't take long to get to the top thanks to the steepness of the trail. Only in New Zealand will you find the downtown of the biggest city in the country overlooked by grazing cattle - I passed a herd on my way up and had to play avoid-the-fresh-manure (sort of like hopscotch with worse consequences for messing up) on the trail.

IMGP1206.JPGAuckland from the top of Mt. Eden.

IMGP1207.JPGThe volcanic cone. It is considered sacred to the Maori, so of course later a bunch of tourists were messing around in the bottom of it despite the signs to the contrary.

Ran back down the mountain and then around the town of Mt. Eden - a very ritzy place with some higher-class shops and nice houses.

Once finished running, headed back up to the top by car and read my book for an hour and a half, despite the gusty winds.

IMGP1211.JPGSun setting over Mr. Eden

IMGP1212.JPGMy glitzy shot of the day, caught the moon and the city together.

Drove back and made dinner, scrounging some vinegar, olive oil, and pepper for the bread I had. Tried to make tuna+pasta+tomato sauce, not actually as bad as it sounds. A quick shower and I am now in the tent.

Tomorrow, planning on taking the car back. Should hear something about the bike. E-mailed them today to see if we can get some arrangement going where I would pay for it, and they would refund money based on the warranty outcome. I've lost about 10 days of bicycling and it is starting to wear on me - I only have about 6 weeks to go 1500 miles or so. We shall see how it goes.

1/7/2008 - A Three-Hour Tour

Out of bed and breakfasted fairly early today, nothing starts a morning off right like the colon-cleansing power of Muesli. I catch up with Rick, and ask if he is still up for snorkeling. He does not recall this conversation, understandable given that the amount of free alcohol (passed on by people leaving New Zealand) had been substantial. Nevertheless, he is up for it.

As parking in downtown Auckland is expensive, we figure the bus is actually going to be the way to go, and there is a bus stop right next to the campground.

IMGP1157.JPGBack of the bus - old school bus habits die hard.

This particular bus ends up winding its way through south Auckland and doesn't deposit us on Queen Street (downtown) for about an hour. Rick and I talk pretty constantly during this time, and I find out that he has a friend living in south Auckland that has been robbed multiple times, twice by the same guys. Manukau (where the campground is) is in south Auckland. Maybe I can find a better place to spend time.

It doesn't take long to find the ferry across to Waiheke Island. We grab a bit of early sushi lunch for the ride.

IMGP1158.JPGOn the top of the ferry with sushi. Delicious, but it is like playing with fire - if I eat too much sushi, I get queasy. Being on a boat can make me queasy, too. Luckily, no rice and chicken was horked today.

The ferry ride is about a half hour. It pulls into Waiheke around 1:00PM. Very little rolling.

IMGP1159.JPGAuckland downtown from the ferry.

IMGP1161.JPGComing into Waiheke Island. Lots of little sailboats, big houses on the shore. The island is a lot bigger than this picture makes it out to be.

After hopping off the ferry, Rick and I decide to make it to the closest town where I am planning to rent snorkel gear. Rick already has his own. There is a nicely-marked path that says it leads to town. Foregoing the bus (spent plenty of time there already today), we decide to hoof it.

The path is quite nice, but terminates at a random road with no signs or any indication of the direction of the town. We stop at a winery which is nearby to ask for directions. "That way," says a rather disinterested looking lady, pointing (I now think) in a random cardinal direction. We head down the road she pointed toward, and eventually run into some people who tell us that the town is the opposite way.

Finally come into town.

IMGP1162.JPGThe biggest town on Waiheke Island. It looks like every house has a view. The telephone wires are just a bonus.

I check 4 or 5 different stores, no snorkel gear. At the last store, a lady tells me to "just head down the road" and I'll find a surf shop next to a grocery store. Rick and I start walking. Houses are less crowded out here, no sign of stores. We happen by a young woman sitting at a bus stop, and ask again. "Oh, she means the store in Onewangi. That's a long way from here." After talking for a bit, she convinces us that the beach in Onewangi is a lot better than Enclosure Beach anyway, might as well take the bus. The three of us hop on and travel the 10km to Onehangi. Would have been a long walk. Glad that the third set of directions was the charm.

Gretel (the girl on the bus) meets up with her friend in Onewangi, and the four of us stop in at a cafe for a quick beer prior to swimming. Aurora (the friend) is in the New Zealand army. I held back from saying what I am sure everyone thinks - There is a New Zealand army? She is about to head over to do peacekeeping in the Solomon Islands, and is pretty excited about it.

IMGP1166.JPGAurora, Gretel, Nick, and me. Aurora looks angry in this picture, but I think only because she had just made a New Year's resolution not to drink alcohol.

We eventually parted after a bit and Rick and I headed for the beach.

IMGP1168.JPGWorth every minute of the three hours we spent getting here today.

A beach like this would be completely covered by people in the US, I think. Here, there was a scattering of people (mostly tourists) along the sand, but plenty of room to roam and to swim.

IMGP1173.JPGSwimming. The water is cool, but not cold. The sun helps a lot.

There is just enough wave activity to body surf, too, which is one of my favorite beach activities.

IMGP1174.JPGDon't laugh too much - taking a one-handed shot while body surfing is not as easy as advertised.

Spent until about 5:30 there, then figured it would be a good idea to make it back. The bus was waiting as we came up off the beach, so ran and hopped on sopping wet. I pity the poor person who sits in dry clothes on that seat after me.

The busses, incidentally, take our day bus passes, which means we travel for free.

Back to the ferry, which is just about to leave as we get there. I can't seem to find my return ticket, but the guy lets me on anyway. It shoves off almost immediately.

IMGP1177.JPGOther islands between Waiheke Island and the mainland. Doesn't look like the same kind of vertical adventure that Tongiriro Natl Park was.

IMGP1178.JPGComing back in to Auckland. Note the large "mombrero" in the lower left.

It's been a long day, so Rick and I find some food, at a little Irish pub just off of Queen Street. Fish and chips, and they are excellent. But the best part of the meal was the Guinness.

IMGP1179.JPGMuch of the meal was the Guinness itself.

Headed back on the bus, another hour. By the time we made it back, it was about 9PM. I end up asleep by 9:30. It's been a long day, with about 6 hours of traveling to get 3 hours on the beach. Oh, well, it's a hard life.

No word yet on the bike. Will hopefully find something out tomorrow!

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

1/6/2009 - Random Notes

Today, I have planned a pretty boring schedule. I have to make it back to Auckland as I am taking the car back in tomorrow morning early. That means I get to drive about 3 hours and have to find a campground that has room for me. I figure I will camp there, leave all my stuff with their office, and then pick up my bike and ride it down through the city without the trailer. I'll be able to cross on the ferry and will be past the south side of Auckland if I stay in Manakau, making it easier to start out the next day.

The only flaw in this plan is that I do not know when the bike will be done.

The morning is filled with the thrill of laundry, which has needed to be done for some time judging by the musky odor of the car. Mmmmm.

IMGP1152.JPGImproving the smell of my car, one article of clothing at a time.

Head out around noon. It is another beautiful day.

IMGP1153.JPGCrossing over the Coromandel Peninsula - once again, glad I can car this one. Steep and curvy.

It takes a few hours before I finally make it in to Manakau, south of Auckland.

IMGP1155.JPGSome more typical New Zealand scenery, mostly to make all of my Alaskan friends stuck in the deep, dark winter jealous.

Find a Top 10 Holiday Park for NZ$15 per night - perfect. Call the bike shop - they sent my frame and derailleur (both parts of it) to the company to figure out the warranty. Should hear back from them in another 1-2 days. More waiting.

It's a little late, unfortunately, to do a whole lot of outdoors stuff by the time my tent is set up. Instead, I read and drink Diet Coke (I'm watching my figure, you know).

IMGP1156.JPGMan, I wish I could be running room to room in some clinic right now. Would be so much more fun!

I meet up with a ragtag group of travelers and we have a few beers. Rick (a Canadian) and I plan to do some snorkeling tomorrow. Ramona, Jo, Ernest, John, and Rick come from Germany, Switzerland, Korea, New Zealand, and Canada, respectively. It's the freakin' United Nations all over again.

This is a short post today as I have to run, but will do more tomorrow.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

1/5/2009 - Hot Beaches

Part of the fun of this trip is waking up and not being entirely sure what cardinal direction you are going to take that day. That was the case this morning. It is now Monday, and my car has to be in Wednesday morning. I've exhausted the main things I would like to do in the Taupo and Rotorua area. Probably shouldn't go south anymore, just more to drive tomorrow.

Spent some time reading and decided that a nice, comfortable beach would be nice. The Coromandel region is an area I am not planning to visit by bike, and it's in the general direction of Auckland, so it seemed a good choice. It'll be about a 3-hour drive at least, depending, of course, on road windiness.

I head to the local internet place and do some Skyping. No word yet on the warranty request, maybe tomorrow.

Picture 6General map of where I've been in the car so far - Waitomo Caves, Taupo, Rotorua, Tongariro Natl Park. The green line heading up on the right side is today's drive. The little peninsula that it is sitting on is the Coromandel Peninsula. The little dot at the end of that is Whitianga, my goal today.

The drive is easy, scenery particularly nice as it continues to be sunny.

IMGP1129.JPGThere were acres of land without telephone poles, but I managed to get one!

I ended up coming through Matamata. To those uninformed, this is also known as. . .

IMGP1132.JPGThis guy reminded me of a patient of mine. This picture is precioussssss.

Yes, Hobbiton from the Lord of the Rings. The cars in the background would suggest that life has become easier for the little folk.

IMGP1133.JPGArea around Hobbiton.

I had actually come through Matamata about four years ago. Though they continue to hold trips to the place where the movie was filmed, the town itself has decreased the "hobbit-esque" theme somewhat in the intervening time. I am sure that this will change once the next major movie is filmed.

As I came closer to the Coromandel Peninsula, it became much more steep, further cementing my plan NOT to bicycle this area.

IMGP1134.JPGOne of the small towns in the Coromandel region. The road eventually cuts across the mountains ahead. Very nice when you are burning gas rather than calories.

The road soon wound around the very craggy coast, often from higher elevations.

IMGP1135.JPGLooking out over the eastern coast of the Coromandel peninsula. I have no idea what the name of those islands are, therefore, from now on, they will be named Armstrong Island and Cox Island. You heard it here first.

Eventually, pulled into Whitianga. Pretty little town right on the beach, with a nice harbor. I set up the tent - by that time, it was about 5PM. Decided on a run to settle the soreness from the hike yesterday.

IMGP1136.JPGThe town is to the left of the picture. Few people out on the beach despite the perfect weather.

Ended up a ways back in the harbor.

IMGP1139.JPGLooking south toward the little inlets. Advantage of this picture is that I could test the white balance right off my chest.

While running, stopped in at an information center and found out the best times to check out the close-by Hot Water Beach. It is a pretty amazing spot where a hot springs bubbles out right under the beach. All you have to do to have your own, personal spa is to dig down to it and let the hole in the sand fill up. It only works at low tide, though, which is 7PM through 10PM tonight. Perfect way to relax after a run, I think.

Made a quick dinner, then off to Hot Water Beach - it's about 20 miles.

IMGP1141.JPGThis is the Cold Water Beach next door to the Hot Water Beach.

As I came closer, I realized that I may not be the first person that discovered this particular area.

IMGP1143.JPGApparently, there is no warm water in the rest of the country. Dang.

I quickly learned a few things about this area. First, and most importantly, there are no warnings about the heat of the water, which (defying physics) may have actually been well above the boiling point in some areas. Amazingly, just two feet away from there, it may be perfectly comfortable or even cool. Setting up my pool was an exercise in controlling the warm flows and cool flows.

IMGP1144.JPGAhhhh. Perfection.

Occasionally, a particularly large wave would come along and roll over the primitive walls set up around the pools. Luckily, kids with shovels build them back up. It seemed to be quite a game, and it helped to refer to them as the "castle walls".

It's a fun group of people here, talked with a number of people including an actuary from Trinidad who now lives in Canada. Cool guy, has done a lot of traveling, recommended Jordan as a place to go. Also mentions that Trinidad has one of the highest murder rates per capita in the world. I think I will probably NOT go there for the time being. We chat for probably an hour while lounging in the pool.

IMGP1146.JPGChild labor laws are lax on this beach. Excellent.

Also meet some people from Britain (they seem to be the biggest travelers to New Zealand) and talk with them until, finally, two giant waves crash over the whole scene and destroy the walls to the point that even child labor cannot repair them.

It's dark by that time, so back I go.

IMGP1148.JPGJust after the tsunami waves destroyed the pools for good.

A VERY cold shower at the top of the beach gets most of the sand off, but a hot shower back at camp really feels good. I end up talking to the people in the campsite next to me for quite a while, as they are offering beers. They are three younger guys from the south part of the north island, and I had helped them repair their broken tent pole. By the time I climb into the sleeping bag, it is midnight and I drop off immediately. Tomorrow, probably will head back to Auckland and set up a place to put my stuff while the bike gets finished up. Let's hope it is that easy.

Monday, January 5, 2009

1/4/2008 - Frodo and Sam were Wusses

At the end of yesterday's chapter, I was sitting in an internet place in Taupo, ready to head to the national park for the Alpine Crossing. Right about that time, it started dumping rain.

IMGP1061.JPGStormy Lake Taupo. This was between dumps of rain so that I didn't get soaked taking the picture.

Regardless, I drove the 45 miles to a full campground in the national park. Luckily, I have a small tent and was able to find a spot to park, so all was well, if damp and muddy.

By the time everything was set up, it was 8:30PM, and I headed to bed. I had set up transportation to the beginning of the trail and back to the car from the end of the trail, and went for the earliest time they worked - 6:00AM. That means a 4:45AM wakeup. Why so early? The track itself is about 19km long, but there is a side trip to a certain mountain, Mt. Ngauruhoe. This is known to mere nerdy mortals as. . .

Picture 3MT. DOOM.

There is a trail that runs off of the main trail and leads to the top of Mt. Doom. The words describing this trip include "dangerous", "not to be attempted in bad weather", "must be in good physical shape", and "volcanic activity may be present". Check the above picture for confirmation of all of these. I did not see any "orc crossing" signs.

It adds several kilometers to the total distance of the trip, as well as an additional 2500 feet of elevation. Bring it on.

So, I roll out of bed at 4:45 AM. It is chilly outside - there is frost, a first time for me on this trip. Love that -15 deg sleeping bag. Camp is put away prior to the usual power-packed muesli and milk. My day pack has been set up since last night, with plenty of water, food, and raingear. The shuttle shows at the right time, and drops us (a group of about 8 early-morning idiots) off at the trailhead.

I am determined to finish the entire hike in time to catch the early bus back at 3PM.

IMGP1066.JPGJust at the trailhead - I took this picture while walking to avoid any time wastage.

It took about 20 minutes to really warm up, then the vest came off. First 45 minutes was easy, then the Devil's Staircase started - not quite as bad as it sounds, as the excellent trail provided actual steps up most of the time.

IMGP1073.JPGLooking back past the very odd volcanic formations on the Devil's Staircase

IMGP1074.JPGFirst sun I got to see thanks to the mountain shadow.

At the top was the sign for Mt. Doom.

IMGP1076.JPGI look excited at this point.

The trail to take up the mountain is completely up to you. It really doesn't matter as the whole thing is made up of scree (loose rocks and gravel). It doesn't look so bad from here.

IMGP1078.JPGIt is good for my morale that I have no sense of scale, as a human-sized object on the side of the mountain is not even recognizable.

So off I went. Easy at first, the grade rapidly steepened and the loose gravel got worse. Luckily, the weather held.

IMGP1083.JPGAbout 2/3 of the way up, more layers removed. Smile is a bit more forced, I think. The picture just above this one was taken from that flat area at the bottom of this picture.

The further up I go, the slicker is the scree and the steeper the grade.

Picture 4I never resorted to this on MY trip to Mt. Doom, hence the title of today's entry.

The last bit (basically, the top of the cone) made me feel like a Looney Tunes character trying to run on ice. Slipped a lot. I guess Nike Pegasus shoes are not REALLY appropriate for this.

At last, made the summit.

IMGP1086.JPGLooking down into the cone. It's Sunday, so they turn off the fire and brimstone.

Just to show how easy it actually is, I dangled the only ring I had on me over the Mt. Doom crater.

IMGP1087.JPGOne keyring to rule them all, one keyring to find them. . .

Once again, Frodo was such a wuss, taking months to make the journey here. Probably because he was so dehydrated from all the crying he did in the movie. I only cried, like, once or twice on this climb.

The view was spectacular. And it was smoking.

IMGP1084.JPGMt. Doom apparently didn't read the surgeon general's warning.

IMGP1088.JPGIMGP1089.JPGIMGP1090.JPG(I kind of screwed up the last panoramic, but you get the idea).

IMGP1091.JPGWindy up here - the gusts give you a little kick in the gut every time they push you toward the crater cliff.

It took just over an hour to make it to the top, and just about the same amount of time to come back down. That didn't include the time to return to the top from several hundred feet down to retrieve my sunglasses that I had expertly left up there.

That stuff is SLICK! Altitude at the top was about 7500 ft, a climb of about 4000 feet from the start of the trip.

IMGP1092.JPGThe terrain going down. When you hear me complain about it, just remember the angle. Rocks loosened from above didn't stop rolling.

I was the 4th person to the top today, but there were a lot more attempting it as I came down. A few didn't look quite ready for the trip and turned back.

A few energy bars at the bottom, and the trek was continued - still another 13 km to go, including a couple more climbs.

Easy going compared to the mountain, the only obstacle that caused problems now were passing winded tourists. Apparently, this walk is more popular than I thought. Despite the many people, the scenery was definitely worth the work.


IMGP1101.JPGMt. Doom from the ridge of the next mountain over.

IMGP1103.JPGRugged and sharp.

Finally make it to the top of the last climb of the trip. More volcanic gasses came directly from the hillside.

IMGP1104.JPGSmoke came out of the ground right next to the path. It smelled GREAT! The ground all around here was nice and warm, though.

Descended into a couple of pools, then Emerald lake.

IMGP1107.JPGVolcanic pools, I thought, but they were cold.

IMGP1113.JPGEmerald Lake. It's a green if you were wondering.

Pretty soon, the reward for all that climbing started - the downhill. There was not a single uphill from that point on. Started dropping through different zones of vegetation fairly quickly.

IMGP1114.JPGStony alpine, to. . .

IMGP1116.JPGTundra and grass, to. . .

IMGP1118.JPGMore grass and waterfalls, to. . .

IMGP1119.JPGScrub and low bushes, to. . .

IMGP1121.JPGFull-blown forest.

This last bit lasted for awhile until, finally, the car park came. Total of about 21km (including the side trip), 5500ft of elevation gain (and loss), and some seriously tired legs. I made it in 7 hours, which meant that I even had to wait for the early bus (as it didn't leave until 2:45PM).

Back to the car, and decided on Taupo for the night again - I REALLY need a shower. Took one last picture as I left.

IMGP1127.JPGMt Doom, now shrouded in clouds and looking much more sinister and movie-like.

Grabbed some food on the way - Clif bars only do so much for an appetite. Burger King for the road. Whoppers are just as good here, and their fries are better than US Burger King, as well.

Set up camp at a campground and took my shower. Not sure why I am still feeling so awake.

As it stands, I am in the main area of the campground, and a big group of boys have started an impromptu game of cricket, so think it is about time to head out. Will plan to check on the status of the bike tomorrow morning. Will have to head back to Auckland to a campground as I only have the car until Wednesday morning. Will no doubt be sore tomorrow, anyway.