Sunday, June 10, 2012

New Zealand, part 3 (2012)

From Te Anau, we took an 11 hour bus trip north to Christchurch and checked into our hostel around sunset.  Christchurch is the largest city on the South Island, and had recently been devastated by a series of earthquakes.  The first occurred in September 2010, and was a magnitude 7.1.  Nearly six months later in February 2011, a second earthquake struck with a magnitude of 6.3.  It was located closer to the city and the intensity was among the strongest ever recorded in an urban area.  This one caused major damage to the already weakened infrastructure, and 185 people were killed.   We arrived a few days after the one year anniversary of the second major earthquake.  We knew it caused major damage, but had no idea how devastating it really was until we got there. 
Our first clue should have been that we had a hard time finding a place to stay.  We did manage to find a room at the YMCA, which had just recently re-opened after major repairs.  After we checked in, we set off to look for some dinner.  We walked down the street past restaurant after restaurant, but all of the buildings were vacated.  We walked for about 12 blocks before coming across a Subway sandwich place.  It wasn’t what we were looking for, but we stopped anyway, not knowing how far we would have to walk to find another restaurant that was still in business.  We returned to our room that night and reconsidered our plans for Christchurch.  It seemed that just about everything was going to be closed. 
The next morning we walked across the street from the YMCA to Hagley Park.  This is a big beautiful park in the heart of the city with a botanical garden, and that weekend they had an outdoor art exhibit on display.  We spent a couple hours walking through the park, looking at the gardens and the art exhibits, as well the boats punting along the Avon River, which winds through the park.  We also visited the Canterbury Museum in Hagley Park, which was one of the few museums that were actually open.

Hagley Park
We also spent some time walking around the Red Zone, the devastated downtown core which was all fenced off and closed down.  It was eerily quiet on many of the downtown streets, and the lack of activity was disturbing.  Even a year after the earthquake, they were still demolishing buildings, and they had a long way to go before demolition was completed.  We read that the total cost to insurers was estimated at between NZ $20-30 billion.

Christchurch earthquake damage
When we were walking around, we stumbled on an area a few blocks just outside the Red Zone that was actually quite busy.  There was an outdoor shopping area, with all of the stores made from brightly painted shipping containers lying side by side and stacked on top of each other.  There were boutique stores, souvenir shops, bookstores, and food stands.  There were quite a few people there, and the retail shops seemed to be doing well.  It was nice to see some signs of recovery.

container stores in Christchurch
We only spent a couple days in Christchurch.  It was a bit depressing to see all of the empty buildings and streets.  The road to recovery will probably be a long one.  Many of the businesses have relocated to other parts of New Zealand, and a year later earthquakes are still occurring. 

Art installation 185 Empty Chairs, in remembrance of the lives lost
From Christchurch, we caught another bus and headed north.  The last stop on the South Island would be the city of Picton in the Marlborough region.  Picton is one of the two commercial hubs in the region located at the head of Queen Charlotte Sound near the northeast end of the South Island.  We spent one night there and didn’t do much other than walking around town, as it rained during most of our short stay.  The next morning we took the Interislander Ferry across the Cook Strait to Wellington, a three hour trip that covered 58 miles.  The ferries were huge compared to the ones we were used to in the Puget Sound, and we were a little surprised to see a train unloading as we boarded.  In all, we had spent ten days exploring the South Island, which was not nearly enough time.  There are so many things we missed, and we really hope to make it back sometime. 
Interislander Ferry in Picton
 After riding the ferry across Cook Strait, we returned to Wellington.  We enjoyed our brief stay there on the way down, so we decided to spend another day checking it out.  It is a very hip city with a big art scene and a nice waterfront.  It is also the capital of New Zealand and the second most populous urban area. 

We spent some time strolling through the section of town that houses Parliament and the other government offices.  It was a nice day, so we rode the tram up from the downtown area to see great views of the city and the bay.  The tram ends at a botanical garden and observatory, and we enjoyed walking around the gardens and taking in the great views.
We also spent a few more hours walking around the waterfront again and visited the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, which was free and had many interesting exhibits on the native Maori people.  The next morning we checked out of our hostel and caught the bus back to the airport, where we left the car.  It was nice to have the flexibility of our own set of wheels again. 

Our next stop was the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in Tongariro National Park.  This was a half day drive ending near the center of the North Island.  The Crossing is one of New Zealand's most spectacular hikes, and is the most popular one-day hike in New Zealand.  The closest town is Turangi, and since the trail begins and ends in different places, we would need to arrange transport. 
We stopped at the visitor center in Turangi, but we were informed that the track was closed for the next three days due to severe weather.  Apparently, the winds were forecast to build and eventually reach 60-70 mph by Saturday, so they closed the trail Friday to Sunday.  It was a bummer, but after the lousy weather we had on the Kepler Track, we didn’t want to take any chances.  We drove back to Napier and spent a couple nights hanging out with Matt, April, and Frazer, and then headed back on Sunday to do the hike the following day. 

When we got there, the weather forecast was stellar, as is often the case after a big storm blows through.  We spent the night in a hostel in Turangi and caught the 6 am bus to the trailhead.  The hike is in an area with three volcanoes and the entire trail, except for the final descent through the forest, is over raw volcanic terrain.  It is not a circular trail, so hikers are dropped off at the west side of the park in the morning and picked up at the north end of the trail by a bus in the afternoon.  The entire trail is 12 miles long and there are a couple of optional side trips that you can make.
The sky was just beginning to lighten as we started the hike, and the clear weather made it very cold.  We were bundled up in hats, gloves, and heavy coats and pants, as we started down the first section of track that wound up Mongatepopo Valley to the saddle between Mount Tongariro and Mount Ngauruhoe. Once you arrive at the saddle, you have a couple of options.  You can continue on the trail and just do the 12 miles, or you can do a side trip up either Mount Ngauruhoe or Mount Tongariro, assuming that you can do them quick enough to make it in time to catch the bus at the end of the trail.    

Adam and Di decided to do the side trip up Mount Tongariro (6,457 ft), which is estimated to take an extra hour and a half and is a gradual hike on a trail up to the summit.  Andrew decided to climb Mt. Ngauruhoe (7,513 ft) which is estimated to take an extra three hours.  There wasn’t a trail going up to the summit, and it turned out to be a challenging scramble on loose rock and then snow and ice on the top third. 
The views from both mountains were spectacular and the sky was really clear.  The snow and ice at the top of Mt. Ngauruhoe was striking against the black and red rock, especially on the rim of the crater. 

Base and summit of Mt. Ngauruhoe
After our side trips, we met back up on the trail, had some lunch and continued on.  The next section of the trek led through barren volcanic landscape.  There were solidified lava flows, active steam vents and several lakes along the way.  Some of the lakes were at near boiling temperatures and deeply colored by the minerals from the volcanoes.  It was a beautiful moonlike landscape. 
The trail finished with a final decent through a forest, which we rushed through in order to catch our bus.  With the side trips, the hike turned out to be about 15 miles, and we were exhausted by the time we reached the end.  It was definitely worth it though – it was probably the most beautiful landscape we saw while in New Zealand and certainly one of the nicest days.

Tongariro Alpine Crossing
We caught the bus back into Turangi, got in the car and drove that night to Rotorua about two hours away.  Rotorua is major tourist destination and known for its geothermal activity, including geysers and hot mud pools.  Adam’s trip was coming to an end, and we only had a day to spend in Rotorua.  Andrew and Adam rode the gondola up to take in some views of the city and Lake Rotorua.  They also had a luge ride at the top, which was even better than the one in Queenstown, and they took a couple of rides down that.
gondola and luge in Rotorua
Another attraction near Rotorua is the ZORB, a globe riding site.  Globe riding is the experience of rolling down a hill in a large inflatable globe.  Di’s cousins, David and Patty, had done it while in New Zealand and recommended it to us.  They have a wet ride, where you roll down in a globe partially filled with water, and a dry ride where you are strapped into a harness inside the globe.  Di was the only one who was willing to do it and she signed up for the dry ride since it was a bit chilly and she didn’t have her bathing suit with her.  It was an exciting 20 seconds tumbling head-over-heels down the hill.
ZORB near Rotorua
The next stop after Rotorua was Auckland, the largest and most populous urban area of New Zealand (1.3 million people, 31 percent of the country’s population).  The central part of the city is on a narrow isthmus between the Manukau Harbor on the Tasman Sea and the Waitemata Harbor on the Pacific Ocean.  It is one of the few cities in the world to have harbors on two separate major bodies of water.

Auckland is known as the city of sails, and while we were there, preparations were underway for the stopover of the Volvo Ocean Race boats, a round the world race.  We only had a couple days in Auckland and spent most of it just walking around the downtown area and the waterfront.  We also rode up to the top of the Sky Tower to see the views of Auckland and the surrounding area.  You can actually jump off the Sky Tower with a long cable attached to you and free fall before the cable slows you down to land near street level.  We decided to pass on that, but watched a few people do it.
Auckland sights

And, just like that, Adam’s three weeks with us were over.  We made our way to the Auckland airport to drop him off and say our goodbyes.  It had been a fast-paced visit, with a lot of ground covered in the short time he was in New Zealand.  We had a lot of fun and were sad to see it come to an end.