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North Island of New Zealand: Auckland, Surfing, Kayaking, Caving, and learning the Haka

NEW ZEALAND | Tuesday, 2 December 2008 | Views [1136]

I finally have a bit of downtime. It's been a really hectic week and a half (that's it?) since I left the lazier pace of life in Brisbane. I've been on a whirlwind tour of New Zealand's North Island for most of that time.


When I left the Auckland airport, the blast of cool air that hit me was a fantastic welcome from the stifling heat building up in Australia. The morning I left I woke up in a sweat.


I was in Auckland two days longer than planned, because of the tour's stupid booking system and partially my own carelessness. It's a fairly big city, which is always a novelty for me, and there's at least a few days worth of activities, so it wasn't all bad. 

The highlight of my first full day was hiking around Rangitoto island, just 25 minutes away by ferry from downtown Auckland. This is a volcanic island just 600 years old. Auckland itself is pockmarked with other dormant volcanoes in its suburbs, another of which, Mt. Eden, I climbed a few days later for spectacular views of the city at sunset. Exploring dormant volcanoes is becoming kind of routine for me - there were those I saw in Australia as well as Arizona.

But Rangitoto, while not all that pretty itself (lava flows covered by shrubs) has some pretty cool lava tubes. I forgot my flashlight, but they were short enough to avoid total darkness. It was cool just to find the caves in the woods and then explore them on my own without tour, commentary, or a walkway with floodlights.

The next day was spent at the Auckland Museum, which is really fantastic. It covers Maori and Pacific Islander history and culture, natural history with emphasis on New Zealand, and NZ war history. It's much more concise and less aged than the Museum of Natural History in New York, and not as kid-oriented as the Smithsonian. $5 well spent.


When I finally got on the tour, our first stop was Hahei, which mainly features spectacular coastal scenery, including eroding volcanic remnants with dramatic high cliffs just offshore. The tour is hop on, hop off, so I took an extra day here to explore. This included kayaking the next morning, which was, according to the guide, the best day that week, and he probably wasn't lying - the sea was lake-like, with some of the prettiest water I've ever seen in a temperate place. We circled an offshore islan, went through a sea cave, and then ended up at Cathedral Cove, which is a white-sand beach with iridescent green water that for all the world looks like it belongs in the tropics. It also features some of those eroded volcanic columns dotting the bay, and a very large sea cave (the "cathedral"). The only sad part here was an injured baby penguin that had washed ashore.


Midday was spent at Hot Water Beach, where I had my first geothermal experience in New Zealand. There's a thermal spring under a large portion of the sand on this beach, and people dig holes to have their own little spa. Some of the sand is so hot that you can't even do this, or walk on it, lest you burn your feet! You may be able to see the steam from the sand in the photo I included (link to the right).

As if that wasn't enough, there's also a clifftop walk along the Hahei coast, which might have even been better than kayaking, because of the fantastic views of all of the islands in the bay, and some beyond. The trail also goes through thick tropical-seeming forests with giant fern trees. There's even a place to snorkel along the trail, of all things. There's no coral, of course, but still a great variety of fish, a stingray, and even the kelp on the rocks looked pretty. This was a place that was trying really hard to be tropical but nevertheless had a temperate climate - the opposite of the Whitsundays, which seemed more temperate than they were.


It was one of the best days I've had on this trip, and that night was spent revelling with the people I'd be on tour with for the next few days.

Surfing was on the intinerary next, at Raglan beach, on the North Island's west coast. This is also an area of fantastic coastal scenery, but different also - here the beaches were some of the widest I've seen, with fine, gray (perhaps volcanic?) sand, framed by steeply rising green mountains. And the surf was huge, and consistent - I wasn't good enough to really even get past the break unless there was a pause. And even when I did, the breaking wave was too big to catch, and I wiped out every time. However, the whitewater from these huge waves was more than adequate to catch a fairly good ride, especially on the softboard I had. And the crowds? On this fantastic beach, the only other surfers were other clumsy tourists like me, and not many of them! The real surfers were on another nearby beach that was even better.


The whirlwind continued with caving the next day. I was torn between the "adventure caving" option, with waterfalls, rappelling, and rock climbing included, or the easy one with tons of glowworms - and there's nothing quite like either, as far as I know, in the US. I went for the adventure cave, where we were geared up with wetsuits, rappelling equipment, and a helmet with a light. The cave is on someone's private farm, unmarked, and it's just a little narrow crevice to climb down into. Once in the cave, we immediately rappelled down further into a vertical shaft, maybe 75 feet or so - this was fantastic, as I had always wanted to do true-grit caving like this. It only got better when we did two more rappels, these shorter, but waterfalls were pouring down these ledges. It was a guided tour, but not even that easy - you had to really pay attention to what they were saying and do it quickly. Often this involved finding a hidden hole, barely enough to squeeze through, which also had freezing water flowing through it. At the end, there was a rock climb that was tough enough to make my fingers numb, and I had to use every once of strength to pull myself up. It wasn't for everybody, but that's what made it fun. The cave formations and the few glowworms in the cave seemed pretty ho-hum in comparison to the adventure of actually getting through it.

That night was the Maori cultural experience included on the tour. A very clever Maori entrepreneur named "Uncle Boy" has groups over at his marae (meeting house) for a night of food, dancing, and an overnight stay. After dinner, the "chief" from our group (a elderly frenchman, nominated by Uncle Boy) has to take part in this elborate ritual involving some kind of token he had to pick up from the ground, while a Maori (see the photo with the teenager with a spear, outside) approached aggressively, making contorted faces and pointing his spear. If he (the "chief") screwed it up, we'd have to leave - which I'm sure isn't true, but Uncle Boy seemed quite serious.

After this ceremony, (which fortunately went without incident) we solemnly entered the marae, rubbing noses with the Maori dancers and singers as we went in. They did a few dances and songs for us, but the main emphasis was on OUR performance - the men were taught the haka, which is the Maori war dance (still performed by New Zealand's national rugby team before each match). It involved a lot of stomping, grunting, eye popping and tongue sticking out, and so much leg slapping that the next morning my upper legs were bruised purple. Meanwhile, the girls learned how to twirl pois, little swingy toys on the end of a string. I definitely felt more in touch with Maori culture, although it was hard to shake that this was, after all, a commercial enterprise. These people spoke english first and didn't wear their silly dancing garb or pop their eyes on a daily basis. But it did make for some good photos.


The rest of my adventures in the North Island will be up soon. Stay tuned!

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