Part 3: Feeling lonely, waiting for the clouds to lift
As I currently write this, I am in sitting in my car, in the rain, at evening, thankful that I at least have my laptop for company. I think I would get bored and even lonelier without it, because reading all the free visitor attraction brochures doesn't make one very contented. (Just to clarify, the brochures were free; the attractions are ridiculously expensive, though they sound like fun. I could go abseiling into a cave, river sledging, whitewater rafting, zorbing, skydiving, bungee jumping, street luging, four-wheel driving, land-yacht racing, jet-boating, or for more peaceful adventures go to Polynesian natural hot springs. And the list goes on. After all, I am in the adventure capital of the world.) So, yes, I admit I am lonely. I didn't think it would happen so quickly. I have traveled alone in several other countries, like Romania, Bulgaria, Belgium, and Canada, and found the freedom to do whatever I fancied quite freeing. No one to tell me we have to stop at the historical marker, or they don't feel like climbing such and such a peak. But I actually anticipated that I might get lonely on these travels in New Zealand. I have thought to myself that this may be the last great solo trip I go on. After all, I have to end my five-years-and-running single status soon before I become a priest. Alas, however, there is still hope for me even on this trip — my family is actually planning on flying out here and to Australia for two months to travel with me, and I hope to meet other young, like-minded people, especially once I get to the South Island. And I would like to even get a job and sort of settle down for a couple months come the winter season. (I can't keep driving around till it gets dark with faith I'll find some grassy picnic area or parking lot to camp in, once it starts snowing). Now, I am in Te Urewere National Park, and planning on doing a day hike tomorrow, and another the next day, here in these densely forested mountains, which wasn't on my list to do a day ago. Going here was my consolation for not being able to go out to the very active volcano of White Island and hike there. Apparently the whole island is closed to people like me who like to do things on there own terms, and is only open to registered tour groups (which cost over a hundred dollars, and won't let you out of their sight.)
By now, you've probably realized this e-letter doesn't just recount what I did the past weeks. I figured that I could probably ramble on a whole list of places I visited, like “I went mountain biking in Whitford Forest, visited a large kauri tree, hiked to Cathedral Cove on the Coromandel Peninsula and went snorkeling there, then dug my own hot pool right in the sand right on Hot Water Beach, then hiked for an afternoon through the rainforest to the voluminous 150-meter Wairere Falls that seem to come right from the top of the mountain, then visited McLaren Falls and Kaiate Falls, then took a space flight to Mars to check out the canyons there…” and you'd be like, “Wow, that's so cool you get to do all those crazy things. You are so fortunate, Johnathan.” And then I'd know I really was rambling on too much, and that'd I lost you in a list of far-off place names.
If you're really confused about what I've done this past week, chronologically, after the last e-letter I wrote about Northland and Indonesia, I ended up staying a week at the Fussner's house in Auckland because I felt sick and had a very painful ear infection. I felt bad about staying longer than intended, but made the most of my time by watching the entire season one of Lost on DVD, and the Lord of the Rings extended edition trilogy (to look at the New Zealand countryside in the movies). Then I finally drove south, first through the Coromandel Peninsula, and then southeast to the Bay of Plenty area.
The North Island is much more than just green grassy hills. Where the forest hasn't been cleared for pastures and farms, such as in the ravines draining down into the streams, or in the mountains, it is different world. It is a rainforest-wet, dark on the forest floor, with all kinds of vines and exotic trees I thought that as a kid thought went extinct with the dinosaurs (giant tree ferns, etc). I have spent many hours trying to get good photos of these forests, but somehow my pictures don't seem to convey the enchantment of the forest that I saw through the lens.
Well, what you just read above I wrote a week or so ago. Now, as I am sitting down the second time to add to this newsletter, it is again cold, dark, and rainy. In fact, the weather here in the North Island changes very quickly, often with several periods of rain and sun all in the same day. But in general, it has been very cold and rainy the last week. When the sun does come out a little bit, though, it gets quite hot. I am in a public shelter in a little village on the side of Mount Ruapehu, the tallest of the three active volcanoes in Tongariro National Park, and the tallest peak on the North Island. I have been waiting out the weather to climb Ruapehu the last two days. Today I actually made a summit attempt, but the conditions were dangerous – rainy, cold, windy, and zero visibility make for a deadly combination if you get in trouble. I hiked up from the ski area, to an hour above the top of the highest lift line, to a flat area – I think one of the craters near the summit. However, it was heavily sleeting, and very windy. It was a complete whiteout, where the snow and the sky were all one. In fact, there was such complete whiteness, and lack of any definition in the terrain, that I almost felt like I was in heaven or in that Matrix computer program where Neil first went after swallowing the pill, except for the five or six footprints leading away from where I stood. The top of Ruapehu is composed of several volcanic domes, so I could have easily gotten lost and or hypothermic if I kept going. To get back, I followed one footprint at a time. I made sure I stayed on the snow and not the rocks, so I could have these prints to follow back down. Later that day, the clouds lifted from the lower slopes a little, so I did a short hike to some interesting silica rapids, where a white mineral has been deposited from the tumbling water onto the streambed rocks. I also walked among the unique rock formations where some of the filming for Lord of the Rings was done.
The first day waiting out the weather, I spent my day walking to a couple falls (New Zealand should really be called “The Land of Waterfalls”) and at the visitor center, looking through all the New Zealand photo books and watching the films on the park's history. Looking at all the amazing nature photos really inspires me to take better photos; in fact, while here in New Zealand, I have come to terms with myself that I want to become a professional photographer, at least as a side career. I also read in the bookstore the Maori mythology surrounding the peaks' origins. There were originally four might mountain gods here: Tongariro, Ngaruhoe, Ruapehu, and Taranaki. They were all competing with each other for one woman mountain god, and in the end, Tongariro won, but lost much of its might (Tongariro, if you recall, is the smaller mountain Jonathan Nace and I climbed on the Tongariro Crossing), while Taranaki, very grieved, went west toward the setting sun, where it stands today. (After this, I plan to re-attempt a climb Taranaki.) On its way, however, it carved a deep wound in the earth, where the Whanganui River flows today (on the way over to Taranaki I would like to paddle down the Whanganui). I've noticed here in New Zealand there is a strong emphasis on remembering and reliving old Maori culture and mythology. Maori culture is an integral part of New Zealand, in public parks like Tongariro, in visitor attractions that celebrate Maori history and way of life, and perhaps most noticeably, in geographic names everywhere. Sometimes even tension exists between an English and a Maori name for a single place, like Mount Egmont/Taranaki, for example.
Before I got here to Tongariro National Park, you know I hiked in the northern section of Te Urewera National Park, in the central-eastern part of the North Island, which is a large reserve of native forest and lakes. Then I made my way to Rotorua, stopping for a dip in a natural and undeveloped hot pool along the roadside. The Rotorua area is best known for all its geothermal attractions. There are many hot springs and pools in the area one can go to relax in, but they are all private and developed. There are also many thermal parks featuring geysers, steam vents, calderas, boiling mud pools, etc, but most of these also cost to enter. I went to the Wai-O-Tapu thermal area, which is known as the most colorful thermal area in New Zealand, and my favorite sight there was this neon yellow/green pool. I have never seen such a bright neon color in nature before, and my camera did not do the color justice. Also while staying in the Rotoura area, I took advantage of the area's adrenaline attractions, by going Zorbing (rolling down a hill inside a huge cushiony ball), body flying (floating on a cushion of air above a huge and powerful fan below you), and whitewater rafting on the Kaituna River, which (at 22 feet) has the highest commercially rafted waterfall in the world.
After these activities, I decided to head back to the woods in southern Te Urewera National Park, where the admission cost is free. I hiked up one of the mountains in the area, checked out four waterfalls, hiked to Lake Waikareiti, and practiced my climbing skills on a 1,000-year-old giant Rata tree. I also purposely tried to get stuck in a maze of vines on the ground, and climbed yet other vines. I also spent two days hiking and photographing in the neighboring Whirinaki Forest Park, which features some of the few remaining old growth podocarp forests on the North Island. The trails to Arahoki Lagoon and to Te Whaiti Nui a Toi Canyon are especially enchanting. After driving two hours on dirt roads out of this remote area, I headed to Lake Toupo, and spent a day going to Craters of the Moon thermal area, mountain biking, and doing laundry. (I just realized today for the first time that I am a messy eater. Then I go around all day, and two more after that, wearing the same stained shorts, and not minding one bit. I just hope no one else sees me. So what does that say about me?) Then I checked out the off-the-beaten-track canyon called the Pillars of Hercules. And, of course, now I'm here on Mount Ruapehu, hoping tomorrow the clouds will lift.
Unfortunately, I can't update my personal webpage or my Webshots albums at this time due to computer restrictions. I am sorry for this disappointment. Happy New Year's!
Dec. 26, 2005