(Originally published November 14th, 2009)
Hello again from the bottom of the world.
I have been exploring up in the mountains (that would be Tongariro National Park) and then we made out way to the coastline. Here I saw black sand beaches for the first time right along the west coast of New Zealand. Of course, this is the Tasman Sea. Out on the beach and on a rocky wharf, I ran out with the water crashing somewhere below and black sand pelting my face. This all felt really great.
We stayed in an interesting place called Raetihi a couple of nights ago. At first glance, this seemed like a ghost town except for a relatively kept up piece of road down the center of the town. I met a business guy from Auckland who had come down to this town to help rebuild it a little bit. He talked about how the town was depressed but work was being done to put the place back on the map. He runs a little hostel for backpackers who journey on into Tongariro National Park which is nearby (The Tongariro Crossing is apparently a very famous walk).
While in town, I got some food at the Angel Louise Cafe. This was owned and run by a sweet old lady who fixed me up a wonderful steak sandwich with onions and plum sauce. She also made me breakfast the next morning- eggs on toast. All of this was wonderful. Speaking of cuisine, New Zealand is similar to the States in that regard. There are some things that are different for instance, they put beats on your cheeseburger as opposed to tomatoes. I also had a decent steak one night at the “Railway Station” in National Park. The steak seemed to be boiled and was put over mashed sweet potatoes.
Anyways, back to Raetihi. We stayed at the Snowy Waters Lodge which is owned by a lady named Sandy. This was, by far, the most hospitable place that we encountered (people were nice everywhere but this place went even beyond that). Sandy had worked in Auckland for years and had commuted down on the weekends to fix up this lodge which she has now owned for 3 years. This is her dream come true. It was fun to meet a Kiwi so impassioned and seeing their dream become a reality. Did I mention this place was only $25 dollars a night (and this in New Zealand dollars)? A steal of a deal. Of course, she mentioned that most of her clientale comes in during the winter months (June, July and August). The place was pretty empty during the late spring here except for another nice couple from Hamburg, Germany who told me lots of great things about the Black Forest and Munich.
All that to say…Raetihi…looks like a ghost town but is a wonderful place.
From there we ventured up to take a boat up the Whanganui River and into Whanganui National Park. This was a beautiful ride and our guide was named Brent from Maori descent. Of course, he knew lots of history when the Maori used to inhabit the land (before colonization) and the different places they lived. The river was like glass and one could easily see the reflection in the waters as we cruised along. Not much manmade around, just pristine nature. There was a couple in the boat with us from somewhere of the north island. They informed me that this was also a famous “walk” of New Zealand (I guess there are about 12 walks) but this walk, one actually did by canoe. Sure enough, we saw a lot of canoers including a couple from Belgium that were rafting the river.
We got out of the river and took a decent hike (New Zealanders think of “hike” as just a walk so they call a longer excursion in the woods “tramping through the bush”). This expedition of tramping through the bush led us to the bridge to nowhere. No, Sarah Palin was in no way involved with this bridge. This is a concrete bridge that was built in 1935. On either side of this bridge, is complete forested terrain. Hence, the bridge to nowhere but ironically, its hard to even get to the bridge to have it lead a person to nowhere. Our guide said there were about 40 families who the government gave this land to after World War 1. They gave them the land to farm which seemed like a bum deal to me. This was incredibly forested and hilly landscape which would have made farming difficult. They built this bridge hoping to develop this spot a little bit more but it did not come to pass. The bridge was built and stays.
Today, we drove from New Plymouth which has a pretty cool museum (which is free) and features Maori history and natural history of the area. Going up to New Plymouth, we had splendid views of Mt. Taranaki (or Mt. Egmont is the British name given by explorer James Cook). This mountain is on the west coast and is an active volcano. They are all active around here.
We also visited the world famous Waitomo caves. This was a huge cavern discovered in the 1800s and really no amount of description could do this place justice. Apparently, there have been famous singers that have come through and sung in a room of the cave that has been deemed the cathedral. Recently, they said Justin Timberlake and Alicia Keyes had come through. Historically, the Beatles once sang there on one of their travels. At the bottom of the cave was a boat (and underneath 6 meters deep of water) that took us further into the cave and gave us a sight of glowworms which are native only to New Zealand and Australia. Glowworms emit light to attract insects which they eat. They hang thin, spiderweb like material to trap insects. They were mostly on the ceiling of this cave which gave the impression of a massive starry night overhead…even though we were in a deep dark cave. This was really something!
We are in Hamilton and nearing the end of our journeys in New Zealand…at least for now. It will be hard to leave this place and I still have not been to Wellington (the capital that is south of the North island) or the south island at all. Perhaps a future trip sometime.