Sunday, 17 March 2013

First, build your raft

Random adventures in the North Island of New Zealand, February 2013

A familiar troll in a Wellington museum,
 and a character from the hobbit.
Our first impressions of the North Island weren't great. It was a windy, rainy ferry crossing, with low cloud completely obscuring the scenery of the Marlborough Sounds as we left the South Island, and the pungent aroma of a lorry full of pigs wafting up to the ferry's viewing deck.
We arrived in Wellington, New Zealand's capital, at rush hour and found ourselves in traffic on a motorway (or as close to a motorway as NZ gets- there was more than one lane). That night it rained so hard that the campsite flooded and we had to wade across to the toilet block. It wasn't a good start. 
Luckily there were some good museums in Wellington to pass a very stormy day here, but even as the weather improved our first few days travelling up the North Island didn't bring any highlights. We wondered if it was a mistake to be spending a whole month here. The mountain scenery we loved in the South Island had all but gone and settlements marked in bold on the road atlas, which would have meant a farm and a petrol station (if you were lucky) in the South Island, were sizeable towns here, with shopping malls and traffic lights. However, this sudden dearth of mountaineering opportunities led us to seek out new adventures, and we soon found ourselves back out having fun. 

Cape Egmont lighthouse and Mount Taranaki
First stop was the ridiculously conical volcano of Mount Taranaki. This peak rises straight out of flat farmland, like a child's drawing of a volcano. It is 'The Lonely Mountain' of Lord of the Rings, and features in almost every set of pictures you see of New Zealand, but is far enough from any other attractions that not too many people travel to it. The peak is ringed by 'Surf Highway 45', so the appeal of both waves and volcano views was too much to resist.

Waves on 'Surf Highway 45'
We camped by a picturesque lighthouse out at Cape Egmont, and Karl surfed the clean lines of a barrelling, shallow wave there, as well as the famous and popular 'Stent Road' break (so iconic a surf spot that they've replaced the road sign with a boulder as it kept getting stolen). 
After K's morning surf, we headed inland and up the jungle covered slopes of Taranaki itself. The tramping here was tough but fun- climbing steeply through dense vegetation, but topping out with great volcanic views. We 'speed tramped' a 3 day route in a day and a half, camping in an incredibly photogenic spot by a tarn. From inside the tent we enjoyed a perfectly framed view of the volcano reflected in the waters of the tarn. It was a much better walk than we expected, and led us to realise we had been hasty in our initial judgement of the North Island.

Camp with a view
Tramping in Taranaki National Park

Tropical scenes reminiscent of Fiji
From Taranaki we travelled to the rural Whanganui river region where Waitangi day celebrations were underway,with river boat races, food and music. It was bizarrely similar to Fiji day- another celebration of freedom from British rule that we'd enjoyed back in October. There is a much greater Maori population on the North Island and this is reflected culturally. The people, buildings and even the scenery look very similar to what we experienced in Fiji. It's strange but true that New Zealand manages to remind us of both Scotland and the South Pacific islands!

Tongariro's Emerald Lakes
Next we travelled inland to another volcano system. The famous Tongariro Crossing is dominated by the cone of Mount Ngurahoe, which looms over some classic volcanic scenery and the pretty, brightly coloured Emerald Lakes. It's a very popular day trip area, so we needed to find a way of beating the bus loads of people that would arrive mid-morning. The answer; a long walk in the evening before, a wild camp on the volcano and a dawn start- the lengths we go to avoid a crowd! 

Mount Ngurahoe from Tongariro
It must be one of the most surreal places I've spent a night- on the black sand beach of a solidifed lava slope, with weird knobbly rocks all around us, like strange creatures turned to stone. We had a magical view of the low clouds over the farmland below, with the peak of Mount Taranaki floating above them far away, looking every inch the Lonely Mountain itself. It was an amazing volcano camp experience. 
The Tongariro Crossing walk itself was good, but a little over-rated compared with most of the much less well known walks in New Zealand. This is THE tramp that most visitors to New Zealand tick off their list of must have experiences- we can't complain as I suppose it keeps everywhere else so very quiet!

Tubing the Mangetopopo
Whilst in Tongariro, we'd hoped to catch up with some friends we'd met while mountaineering in the South Island. Helen and Niv work at an outdoor pursuits centre here, and had promised to show us some off the beaten track adventures in the area. Unfortunately, when we came through they were both busy on expeditions, but their colleagues soon had us set up with maps and instructions for a day's tubing on some nearby rivers. Our truck inner tubes hadn't seen much action for a while, but all that was about to change! The rivers were a little shallow, but it was still a really fun day travelling through some lovely clear waters populated by the rare Whio, a native duck. It gave us a taste for this minimalistic style of river journeying, and we found ourselves pondering how we could take tubing a step further...

Starting our 'tramp'n'tube' trip
The answer came in the dog-eared 1986 'Classic Kiwi Adventures', a pocket guide we'd found in a second hand bookshop, which introduced us to the unusual sport of 'tramp'n'tube'. 
The idea was simple enough- hike with your inner tubes and gear upriver, pump them up, tie them together to build a raft, then float back downriver. We had the time, and we were certainly up for the adventure!
The suggested spot was well off the beaten track, with a 60km drive on a gravel road, winding between dry grassy hills and forest. Arriving in the late afternoon, we started the 4 hour walk up the Mohake river. We packed a rucksack as light as we could, bearing in mind that everything we carried would be coming down the river with us. The walk took us up, through scrubby forest and above high cliffs over the gorge-like Mohake river, to the tubing start point at some geothermal pools, where we arrived just after nightfall. We pitched our tent, and slipped into the water. Lying in a hot pool drinking wine, listening to the flow of the river, a view of the milky way above and the star-like twinkle of glow worms in the grotto like surroundings; it was an improbable start to the adventure that was to come.

Little raft, big river
The next morning it was time to build something vaguely resembling a raft. We tied together our 3 inner tubes, loaded it with our rucksack, pulled on wetsuits and then- the moment of truth- dragged the whole contraption into the river to see if it would float!
Luckily it all worked remarkably well and we started our rafting journey. On our walk in we had only gained glimpses of the river below, as the path winds between forested bluffs and high cliffs, but we did know there was no shortage of white water. We ended up losing count when we reached over 20 sets of rapids. They were all supposed to be grade 1 or 2, but we're pretty sure a few of them crossed into grade 3. 
The advantage, or disadvantage (depending on your outlook), of tubing compared to more conventional rafting is that you're actually in the water. This doesn't give you much opportunity to view the river ahead or scout out the coming rapids, but it does make for a very fun ride. Mostly it was a case of going with the flow, clinging on and hoping for the best. Surprisingly stable, we only capsized on a couple of occasions, although we did hit more than the odd rock.

Negotiating a shallow rapid
It was one of the craziest things we've done in New Zealand, and we wouldn't have set out without the knowledge that the rapids were manageable, and crucially that there were no surprise waterfalls downriver. It was also very comforting to have a commercial rafting company there, by chance. They were doing a rather more expensive version of our own trip: heli-rafting! They were amused by the bewildering sight of 2 people floating down the river on tubes, alongside their fully kitted and loaded raft. Apart from the odd taunt, 'Is this how you conquered the empire?', they were very gracious to share the river with us. It took us about 5 hours to complete the journey, only a little longer than their big raft. The team even stood on the bank to cheer us as we finished, extremely handy as otherwise we would probably have missed our exit point and continued all the way to the sea. I'm not sure quite how much heli-rafting comes in at, but we're pretty smug that our adventure cost a total of £10 (tubes AND pump!), and we're certain that our river journey was more fun!

The professionals show us how it's done!
The river exit point and that night's camp were brilliantly situated next to another set of free geothermal hot pools, on a wooden deck overlooking the valley. It was the perfect spot to spend the evening relaxing and soothing those rafting bruises. We were left with the conclusion that tubing is a very much under-rated sport!
Celebrating our survival in a hot pool at the end of the day

Exploring the Abbey Caves
The rest of our time in the North Island has been a little more conventional. There's been no shortage of things to see and do, and it's not been at all difficult to keep away from the more touristy and commercial spots. Even in the very developed thermal resort of Rotorua there were lots of steaming holes in the ground, bubbling mud pools and surreal boiling hot waterfalls that could be reached without paying the high entrance fees of the various 'geothermal villages'.
There have also been undeveloped caves to explore, and the magical experience of turning off our torches to experience the light of the glow worms which can cover the cave ceilings. These little worms and their twinkling threads look so much like stars you start imagining the constellations above you. We've also enjoyed many clear nights gazing at the southern night sky, and learnt a little more about it from an astro-photographer staying in the same campsite as us, who gave an impromptu talk on what was up there.

An empty beach near the Bay of Islands
The coastal scenery as we've travelled through the north of the country has been outstanding, and we especially love some of the beaches of the Coromandel peninsula, just south of Auckland, and the Bay of Islands area a little further north. We've done some excellent snorkelling amongst kelp forests, especially in Goat Island marine reserve, where we were surrounded by large snapper and had sting rays glide by. 
Stunning Cathedral Cove, reached through a sea arch

Karl hugs a young Kauri tree
Cape Reinga, at the far northern tip of the country, has a real 'journey's end' feel to its lighthouse and huge sea views. Up here in Northland everything seemed big- from the horizons to the trees. There are giant sand dunes; beautiful golden mountains with clouds of sand swirling around their peaks and ridges, where we tried a spot of sandboarding. In the northern forests huge kauri trees survive in protected pockets. These trees can live well over a 1000 years and the largest, Tana Muhata, has a trunk girth of 13.8m!
Apart from those first few days in 'Windy Wellie', the weather has been amazing for us throughout our month here- it's actually been proclaimed a drought, with a nationwide fire ban and water restrictions. 
We have loved travelling in our van and have camped in some beautiful spots on the coast and at lake shores, swimming almost every day. There have been quite a few waves to surf and body board, and the end of summer water has been warm enough to leave off the wetsuit.

Giant sand dunes of Northland
Enjoying campervan life

So, there might not be any proper mountains in the North Island, and our walking boots have barely got any use, but we were so distracted by everything that there is up here, we stopped noticing! 
The days have flown by, as they have a tendency to do, and before we knew it we found ourselves with just 2 weeks left in the country and a campervan to sell...
Time to head to Auckland.  


On the beach in Coramandel

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