Monday, 11 March 2013

Wellington and VOLCANOES!

It is a strange feeling to be moving slowly, slowly, closer to home and to yet still be so far away from it both in terms of time and space. Still, Wellington was a very refreshing change from Queenstown - unpretentious, laid back and very good fun. I had only planned to stay here for a couple of days but ended up staying for five - although this may partly have been due to bus prices...

Most notably, the city is covered in Lord of the Rings references - from the airport arrivals hall to the enormous and excellent Te Papa National Museum.

Upon my arrival, I was confronted with hordes of very drunk 16-year olds occupying the hostel and the entire waterfront where it was situated. I had arrived on the day of the Homegrown festival, which appears to attract a younger crowd who are still very keen to get as drunk as they physically can: the number of people who begged me to buy them booze when I went for an exploratory wander was astounding. While I am normally happy to help in these situations, I had to decline due to the police presence anticipating exactly this problem.

Still, the pedestrian malls lined with cafes and second-hand bookstores and other fun shops were a delight to wander along, and sometimes even sit down at (a rare pleasure when under severe budgetary constraints). An early highlight, though, came in the form of the Newtown Street Fair, an annual event I was lucky enough to come across.
Not sure if this guy was selling anything or showing off this mother of all oldschool bikes - either way, he'd be a great addition to the streets of Cambridge!

This was a standard arts-and-crafts type fair occupying some 10 streets in the city centre, with the subtle difference that there were several stages scattered throughout the area playing not washed-out oldies but live reggae and, in one particular case (bottom right), some pretty raw dubstep and even tekno. Since this attracted a sizeable crowd - not necessarily a given at a "child-friendly" day out - I could not resist a little dance here. Great way to pass the afternoon!

My best find, though, was this fantastic guidebook to a place that I had not expected to have a guidebook - and for just a dollar, too. Lonely Planet really do do it all...

Apart from this, my time in Wellington was mostly spent wandering more or less aimlessly and discovering a few pretty spots and odds and ends. The lack of any particularly outstanding events makes it a bit tricky writing about these few days; it is mostly the genuine, pleasant atmosphere of the whole city that made it such a pleasure to linger here. I did, notably, miss out on a pod of killer whales swimming into the harbour and spending about an hour messing about at the harbour wall; a stall owner told me about it when I wandered past the next morning.

Can't be too safe...

Once the time came to leave Wellington, however, I was excited to get stuck into my next bigger trek: the Tongariro Northern Circuit is a 4-day hike through Tongariro National Park, home to three of the last 100 years' most active volcanoes worldwide: Mts Tongariro (1500-odd m), Ngauruhoe (~2200m, better known as Mount Doom) and Ruapehu (~2800m).

While many Lord of the Rings locations, which are dotted around both islands, are almost indistinguishable from the surrounding landscape to the untrained eye now the sets have been removed, Ngauruhoe is immediately apparent as the fiery mountain it was in the movies. The first day's walk was a short affair through shrublands and up towards the saddle between two of the volcanoes:

My first campsite - Mt Ngauruhoe/Mt Doom in the background.
Here, at Mangatepopo Hut, I was treated to a fantastic sunset that lit up a mountain on the horizon in an ominous orange glow really quite reminiscent of Mordor.

I also got a little carried away upon discovering an orange blob high up on the flank of this mountain after the sunset had set, thinking it might actually be a lava flow. This was, of course, wrong and the culprit was just a reflection, but maybe the photo below, showing the irregular shape of the reflection, will go some way towards explaining...

Either way, it was the next day that proved to be the toughest in terms of walking. The ascent of 700m from 1200 to just below 1900m doesn't sound impressive in terms of numbers, but add a 20kg pack, annoying gravel which meant that each step involved sliding back down at least half the distance covered, and shoes entirely unsuitable for said gravel explain why I did break a very considerable sweat. Still, the effort was well worth it: as I climbed the saddle between Ngauruhoe and Tongariro volcanoes, plants grew scarce and then disappeared completely, to be replaced by rocky outcrops, old pyroclastic and lava flows and plains of ash.
New Zealand keeping it classy - an outhouse in Mordor...
One of Ngauruhoe's flanks, braved by a few hardy climbers willing to take on the one-step-forward-two-steps-back nature of 700 vertical metres of gravel and ash...
The high point of the track is reached at the Red Crater, at 1886m. The name is fairly self-explanatory, and also descriptive:
Fumaroles and their sulphurous fumes provide a heady scent of rotten eggs.

An old magma conduit(?), exposed by an eruption at the Red Crater.
At long last, a descent - but as it turns out the only thing more infuriating than climbing up a fine, gravelly slope is descending one. Following several breaks to empty my shoes of ash and debris and a few near-misses, though, I made it down to the tranquil-seeming Emerald Lakes... be greeted by an ominous warning:

Naturally, I had to stop now and again...too much scenery to admire!
An eruption took place here in August 2012 and destroyed part of a path branching off nearby; the possibility of further activity is very real.

Finally, after circumambulating the Emerald Lakes, the real, actual Mordor opens up ahead. As mentioned earlier, there is no need for a guidebook to tell you it's there; it looks exactly like it did in the movies, so much so that one almost wonders where all the Orcs have gone. The blue sky dotted with benign white clouds looks bizarrely out-of-place here.

Mordor took another couple of hours or so to cross, and I arrived at Otutere Hut a little overwhelmed by all the epic-ness I had just been bombarded with. The day wasn't quite finished with me yet, though - just near the hut I found a beauty of a waterfall tumbling down some 20 metres through and into lush greenery - straight out of the desolate plain I had just emerged from. Sunrise the next morning provided spot-on perfect lighting for it...

...and also for Mt Doom: the hut warden suggested I get up for 6.30am when the tip of the volcano is bathed in a red glow while the rest still lies in darkness. He was not wrong...

Mt Ruapehu also came out nicely...
The last two days provided a more tranquil wander through what started out as an ash desert and slowly mutated back into more verdant tundra-like shrubland punctuated by forests and the odd stream...

...and finished at the Taranaki Falls just outside the sleepy village of Whakapapa.

Phew! Bit of a marathon post, this - but hopefully the many photos make up for it...

The next one will probably be about the Cook Islands as my last days in New Zealand seem to be caught up with preparing for them as well as for Japan - I am only just starting to realise just how bewildering that country will be after all the anglophone countries I have been cruising through!

Furthest South

After another bit of a delay on account of there just being too much to do in New Zealand, here comes a bit of a rundown of the last couple of weeks, starting with the end of my time on the South Island. 

From Franz Josef, I hitched what just might be the best and luckiest ride of my trip: the second I put down my bags on the roadside and stuck my thumb out to passing traffic, a car pulled over - literally the first one that spotted me. I didn't think things like that happened, but there you go! It turned out to be a family who, by complete chance, I had taken a photo of the day before at Franz Josef Glacier, although we only realised this once I was in the car. The Kinlochs - Dean, Annie, Riley (10) and Claudia (8) turned out to be delightful company and the perfect ride: we ended up stopping at loads of little attractions and roadside scenic spots, making the long and beautiful drive to Queenstown all the more pleasant. 

Our first stop was at Fox Glacier. Practically down the road from Franz Josef, it looks far smaller on maps and photos but is actually a lot more impressive mostly because it is possible to walk far closer to it. The subglacial channels where water drains from beneath the glacier are also clearly visible and give rise to the river flowing downvalley. The second photo is of me with the Kinlochs. 

After this, the road to Queenstown became increasingly more scenic (I'm running out of superlatives here...), veering inland from the coast and across one of the major passes crossing the Southern Alps before descending again into the lake country at the southern tip of New Zealand. 

A valley completely shrounded in clouds. Dean steered the car right to the edge of the precipice, giving the kids a good scare!

Queenstown itself was even more fully booked up than can be expected for the high season on account of a concert held nearby which seemed to attract an enormous crowd of middle-aged people looking for a good time. With my tent, I was not overly worried about finding a spot to sleep - campsites never fill up completely - but I was in for a rather more pleasant surprise. 

Having been driven all the way to Queenstown - a 7-hour trip at our leisurely pace - the Kinlochs found they had a spare guest bed in their stunning motel room and promptly offered for me to crash there, and to then drive me part of the way to Te Anau the next day. Such a spontaneous display of kindness caught me completely off guard, but has reinforced my belief in Kiwis as generally amazing people. 

And so it was, after tasty steaks and cider for dinner - what a change from the standard backpacker fare of pasta and cereals! - that we continued on towards Te Anau together the next day. Te Anau is the end of the road as far as settlements in the Fiordland region are concerned, and it lies on the road towards Milford Sound, my ultimate destination down here. 

Just out of Queenstown, looking across at the Remarkables once more.
A short drive later, then, I said goodbye to this lovely family at the intersection where they'd be heading off in the direction of Invercargill, and was promptly picked up by a friendly 18-year-old German called Simon who slept on a mattress in the back of his sedan. Te Anau, being at just over 45 degrees southern latitude, was not only my "furthest South" but also my "furthest from home": 18920 km/11755 miles from Cambridge, and accordingly slightly less from Vienna and London. I had planned to do a bit of hiking in this mountainous area not dissimilar from some parts of the Alps, but as there were reports of the weather turning I decided to head to Milford Sound sooner rather than later: the 6-hour guided kayaking trip I was planning to do here was my biggest one-off expenditure on anything other than flights so far, and as such I figured it would be best to maximise my chances of fair weather. 

Early morning in Te Anau - it was getting rather chilly at this point, so the time came to break out the powertraveller stash...
The Milford Road is famous for its desolation and its rise to steadily greater heights into fiord country, but mostly it was littered with tour buses standing by the roadside disgorging camera-wielding tourists. I couldn't help but feel a little smug as Simon and I cruised past all these at our leisurely pace - although we couldn't help but stop and stare ourselves a few times...

The Homer Tunnel leading down to Milford Sound. Being used to the spotless, clinical tunnels one finds in the Alps, I was more than a bit surprised to find this rough-hewn, practically unlit, one-lane-with-passing-bays, steeply descending affair at one of New Zealand's main tourist throughfares! 
Milford Sound itself is an odd one. Enormous parking lots and the ugliest, most jarringly out-of-place grey-faux-marble boat/cruise ship terminal in history apart, it is a place of exceptional beauty. Since the internet is bursting with stock photos significantly better than mine, see here and here for what sort of place we're talking about. It really does have the lot - beautifully clear cobalt blue water (although it is normally murky due to sediment-heavy runoff, recent droughts meant it was nice and clear), steeply rising peaks some 2000m high, ice fields at their tops and waterfalls crashing down from phenomenal heights. And, let us not forget, a constant drone of propeller plane engines and cruise ships making an absolutely outrageous profit. A few of my own impressions of the place at daytime are below. 

Naturally, I couldn't miss the chance to try for some good shots at sunset, too - although to my dismay heavy clouds began rolling into the fiord in the evening, dampening my hopes for a clear morning the next day. This peak, illuminated by the last vestiges of the setting sun and reflected in a stagnant bit of water coloured red for some reason, is my only result even vaguely worth showing. 

Interesting light as the sun sets behind jagged mountains - it briefly illuminated the sky much like one of those giant Las Vegas searchlight things would.
The next morning, clouds lay heavy on the fiord. As expected, this meant that the peaks surrounding the water were out of sight, it did mean that the light on the water itself was a lot more pleasant while the sun burned steadily away at the layers of cloud above us. We saw the lot - during the 6-hour trip which saw us kayak from the harbour all the way out into the Tasman Sea (23km), we came across a pod of dolphins, a big and playful group of fur seals throwing themselves into various yoga-like poses - and a couple of rarely seen yellow-crested penguins which I completely failed to photograph but which were exactly as one might expect penguins to be: hilariously clumsy and dopey-looking. 


We also got to paddle past and under a few stunning waterfalls - the water crashing down from over 100m creates a fair bit of wind which pushes the kayak right back out of the danger zone once you stop paddling. 

On the way back in we were picked up by a speedboat - just as well, as my core was not impressed at this amount of kayaking and my knee seemed to have taken a hit from being pushed against the kayak's plastic hull for hours. As it turned out, the morning clouds were actually a blessing: by the time we hopped onto the boat, the sun was as bright as ever so we got the best of both worlds. 

Hitchhiking back out from Milford Sound had the potential to be a tricky affair due to a complete lack of good places for cars to pull over - but fortune was kind to me yet again. I was slightly confused to see a car stop for me which I had just seen go down to the Sound 5 minutes before - it turned out the driver, Beth from Michigan/Colorado, had gone to all the trouble of turning around to give me a lift out! My knee hurting from the kayaking to an extent that made me doubt I'd get much hiking done in Te Anau, I decided on a whim to go all the way back to Queenstown with her and chill there for a few days before catching my flight to Wellington.

This turned out to be a good choice as my knee took several days to improve so that I spent my days in Queenstown doing very little, and thoroughly enjoying it. It is, it has to be said, an almost ludicrously picturesque town, although its posh, Aspen-style shops did not really cater to my taste or budget. Still, walking around its fringes and finding pleasant spots to sit and read provided me with plenty of entertainment, as did a trip out the historic mining community of Arrowtown with Beth. 

Right - this concludes my adventures on the South Island. Hope this wasn't too long or gruelling a read - as always, feedback is much appreciated!