Friday, November 12, 2010

Slow Travel

I've decided that I am meant for "slow travel." Whether hiking or walking or taking in scenery or visiting a museum or even making plans, I like to follow my own pace. Sometimes it is quite fun to plan a day chock-full of activities and meals and adventures, particularly if you have a time restraint. Some of my favorite memories include times where I planned out several highlights of whatever town I was living in, in order to show around a visitor who was only there for a short time. There are times, however, where one or two things per day seem to be plenty, and allow you time to relax and enjoy yourself for the rest of the day. This may sound lazy or boring, but I have come to really appreciate my down time when it comes!

I have been in New Zealand for a month so far, and I love it. I have had crazy busy days where I crash into my pillow at the end of the day, but I have also had a few laid back days where I accomplished hardly anything. Of course I enjoy looking back at the days where I can't believe that I did so many things, and went so many places, but they sure are tiring! I am beginning to prefer the days where I do one or two things of note, but also allow some time to breathe, to take in the world, to reflect, to stretch, and to write.

The very first day of my tour we went up to the Coromandel Peninsula. Now, I know there are lots of Kiwi/Maori names that you might read on my blog (and as I have found, they can be quite difficult to tell apart), but don't doubt yourself... if you have been following along, that one should sound familiar! I spent much of the road trip with Nate on the Coromandel Peninsula and was back already. We spent our first night on the Flying Kiwi tour at a campsite right next to Hot Water Beach. We arrived just after low tide, so promptly donned our "togs" (swimming costumes, as our tour guide defined the word) and grabbed our towels and shovels to dig some personal hot tubs. I was glad to have experienced the beach the week before, as this was in the middle of the day and it was quite crowded. We adopted a hole and expanded it to fit the group, practicing the science of mixing the near-boiling hot spring water with some ocean water for the perfect temperature. Some of us played around in the surf and I got to see a stingray almost a little too closely!

I am reminded now of something rather off-topic, however interesting. All of the dangerous animals you might encounter in nature in New Zealand are in the water. More specifically, the ocean. There are no snakes at all, no poisonous spiders, no bears or lions or crocs (or other large predators), not even any poisonous plants (at least not before you eat them). It has been deemed the safest "bush" (NZ word for woods/wilderness) to walk in anywhere and they say the most dangerous thing is the sun (which IS quite strong since there is a large hole in the ozone right above it)! This being said, it seems that most injuries in the bush would occur as a result of your own stupidity or unpreparedness. Of course, if you are using the ocean for recreation, you might encounter anything from jellyfish to sharks, and everything in between! This makes this country all the more interesting to me, and certainly makes life in the bush a little easier--and therefore more welcoming. Now, I haven't been to Australia, but it makes me wonder why bush-lovers would flock there (where most species of poisonous snakes live along with crocodiles and various other dangers) when there is such an amazing, varied, beautiful country filled with wilderness right next door! I suppose I ought to visit before I make such judgements, but would prefer to be able to take responsibility for my level of danger, rather than leaving it up to whichever predator decides to lurk around me!

Anyway, back to my point. After rushing to Hot Water Beach, we returned to the campsite to get going on the evening activities. We had the option of kayaking to Cathedral Cove for sunset (a bit of a daunting task with a still-injured hand), biking there from the campsite (hand, again, was still injured, and I was quite tired so hills didn't sound good), or getting a ride to the entrance of the walk (nobody else took this option, and I had already done it!) I had been up early to catch the bus into Auckland and, honestly, doing nothing sounded good. I decided to hang out around camp and ended up having a nice time preparing dinner with the tour guides and one or two others who stuck around. I enjoyed some wine and watched the sunset from our campsite. I almost felt silly for wanting to take it easy, after all this tour is all about go, go, go, but I am happy I listened to what my body wanted and it made my day much more enjoyable!

The next day we stopped at a scenic look-out and a beach for a short walk along our drive. There were also options to leave camp early in the morning for a cycle, and some more adventurous activities in the afternoon. I went zorbing and it was pretty fun! For those of you unfamiliar, that is where they place you inside a giant hamster ball and either strap you in or add some water before they push you down a hill. I chose the zig-zag water zorb (the thought of tumbling head over feet repeatedly was slightly nauseating), which felt a lot like a water slide. Definitely fun, but certainly a tourism-priced activity! We then headed to a wilderness campsite (complete with "long-drop toilets" as they call them) on a lake for the night. I was in the cook group that night and we made nachos for everyone with our little trailer kitchen.

In the morning, my tent mate and I decided to join the polar bear club and go for a swim. The water was so still and inviting, but it was a little hard to take off my down jacket in order to hop in! We made it out to the buoy and back (probably around 1/4 mile total) but it felt like a bad case of brain-freeze if you tried to swim with your head underwater! After a refreshing start, we headed to Rotorua. To locals, this is known as "Roto-Vegas" or just "Vegas." It is a geothermal hot-spot and the entire town wreaks of sulfur. It is quite a touristy town, and though the bubbling mud was a free stop, I did not pay to wander the enclosed area with brightly colored sulfur pools, reminiscent of Yellowstone. We then drove to Taupo and went to Huka Falls, which is the largest waterfall in New Zealand (not by height, but by volume). The water was so BLUE! The intensity of the falls was overwhelming and I couldn't believe how blue the water was! We took a walk down the river trek into town, and I stopped frequently to admire how bright the water was. We were told to bring our togs and take a dip, but the path led us up and away from the river, which had some fairly strong rapids throughout. Eventually, however, we found the unmistakable swimming hole.

Hot Water Beach was a neat experience, but I think this may have ranked above that for me! There is a hot spring that feeds into the river via a waterfall, and it produces some awesome little pools of various temperatures. Once again, too close to the source and the spring was too hot, but if you sat in just the right spot it was the perfect mix of freezing river water and boiling spring water! Beautiful. Not just the experience, but the surrounding area, the bright blue river, the sky, everything was beautiful! I even got to test out my camera's underwater features because the water was so clear! After this, we headed to our campsite for the night where we had the option to upgrade from a tent to a cabin (with a mattress) but instead I decided to downgrade. My tent mate and I set up our tent, but when I saw how clear the sky was and how bright the stars were shining, I couldn't bear to get in it. Instead I slept out under the stars, and counted shooting stars until I fell asleep! I know I got up to at least eleven...

The next morning came early as it was a big day. We had a shuttle picking us up at 6am to take us to the start of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. This crossing is one of New Zealand's "Great Walks" and is one of the top 10 day hikes in the world! The day portion of the Tongariro Crossing is 19.4 km long, which is about 12 mi, and takes approximately 7 hours to complete. The walk was pretty incredible. I remarked along the way about how many different textures we walked on in one day! Gravel paths, boardwalks, rubberized grates, rocks, mud, snow, sand, many different types of stairs, the list goes on. The crossing goes between two huge mountains, and cuts through a volcanic crater along the way. There were patches of snow and ice, emerald pools, red volcanic rock, occasional steaming holes, various rock formations, huge blue lakes, interesting vegetation, and sprawling countryside to see. The trek was intense at times, and for me required lot of short breaks to recover my burning thighs, but it was well worth it! I took my time (just as I like) and enjoyed the view, taking many pictures along the way. For the most part, I stayed with a group of 6-10 other Flying Kiwis and we paced ourselves pretty well. It didn't feel rushed, though we did think we would be the last group to reach the bus at the other end! (And I thought for sure I would be writing about yet another hike where I was last to return, yet this time it was somewhat intentional since I was looking out for/sticking with some members of our group with a slower pace.) As it turned out, several others from the bus decided to take the trek at a much faster pace, and add in a visit to one of the adjacent peaks along the way (which added a significant amount of time). I was the 11th (out of around 22) to reach the bus, and boy did it feel good to take off my shoes and sit down! I even had time to repack my backpack with all my belongings, as I hopped off the bus on the way to our next stop.

I am happy to say I have done at least part of one of New Zealand's Great Walks, and I'm even happier to have done it before the peak tourist season. Apparently the Tongariro Crossing is quite popular, and at times I was disappointed with the number of people I could see on the track. Sometimes there was a queue going slowly up a long staircase and I felt like I was in a mall. I even passed some girls in skinny jeans and makeup! I guess seven hours doesn't seem like a lot of walking for some people, but I was definitely glad to be prepared for the varied elements, and was able to really enjoy the hike!

Once again returning from a tangent... the crossing was yet another example of me enjoying things at my own pace. I would not have such fond memories if I were rushed through the whole thing, and instead look back at it with a sense of accomplishment. In regards to my experience with Flying Kiwi, though I am glad I booked the tour for social and transport purposes, I think I could probably do with a slightly slower pace. Many of my fellow passengers are in New Zealand for only the length of the tour, or just barely longer, and therefore have to cram in as much as possible in a short time. For that, the tour is great! It provides ample opportunities for activity and adventure. I am glad that I have planned a few stopovers to spread out my tour, however, as I think 15 days of going nonstop would just be too much for me on this trip where I am discovering, and very much enjoying, travel at a slower pace.

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