Showing posts with label nature. Show all posts
Showing posts with label nature. Show all posts

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

West Coast Finale, March-April 2018

Lipah, April 18th

For a Google map of this part of our trip, please click here.

Our very muddy launch onto the Whanganui 
The final leg of our trip around New Zealand's North Island began on March 15 when we drove north out of Upper Hutt, headed up the west coast.  Our first destination was Raetihi, a small tourist town north of Wanganui, a town where my sister Audie had once spent a year on a high school exchange. That first day we drove up the main highway to Wanganui, then turned up the scenic River Road to get to Pipiriki, followed by a stiff climb to Raetihi, up on the central volcanic plateau.  We stayed in a friendly AirBnB that night and had a look at weather forecasts.

Whanganui River
The plan was to spend three days paddling down the Whanganui River in canoes, but Mother Nature wasn't playing along.  March 16 was a complete washout, with rain all day.  We spent the day indoors reading and repacking gear for the river trip, then slept a second night at the AirBnB.  We had debated whether the $180 per person for canoe hire and transport was worth it, but in the end we were glad that we shelled out the cash for a fabulous experience.

March 17 dawned crisp and clear and we drove over to the canoe rental spot to park our car and be shuttled to our put-in point at Whangahoro.  There were two parties in the truck that morning:  ourselves and a Spanish-Belgian couple, Pieter and Veronica.  The boss of the rental agency, Trev, was a fount of local information, and told us that we were the first wave of canoeists to put in at Whangahoro since disastrous flash floods ten days before, during which the river level had risen 12 metres overnight.  The road leading to Whangahoro had been closed for repairs ever since, and had just reopened the previous day.  The launching site was under a thick, gooey layer of mud, and the river's course had shifted, resulting in an unexpectedly tough rapid about 10 metres after putting in.  Terri and I capsized here, hardly an auspicious start to the trip!

The Bridge to Nowhere
From that point on the river was much more placid in terms of rapids.  What it lacked in adrenaline, though, it made up for in scenery.  The Whanganui River is deeply incised into soft mudstone, resulting in sheer-sided cliffs.  This stretch of the river has no road access, and the early settlers in the area depended on river steamers to transport their sheep and wool to market.  It was a perilous existence in an unforgiving environment, and over the 25 years between the end of World War One and 1943 almost all of the farmers (who were allotted the land as returned veterans of WWI) ended up abandoning the struggle; the last three families were evicted by the government in 1943.  This has left a large swathe of land to return to native bush and provided a large nature reserve for tourists to paddle through.  We drifted and paddled along for much of the day, oohing and aahing over the landscape, before making camp at John Coull's campsite.  Despite being one of the last canoes to arrive (about 20 canoes from 6 different outfitters spent the night there), we got the best campsite.  We fried up delicious steaks, had a bottle of fine red wine and watched the rare native New Zealand bats (both the long-tailed and short-tailed) flying insect-catching sorties in the gloaming.  It was a perfect evening.
Layers of history that we were paddling through

Paddling bliss
The second day was more of the same, except even more fun.  It was another day of placid rapids and sheer cliffs, but enlivened by a midday walking excursion to see the Bridge To Nowhere, built to extend road access to the isolated farms in the late 1920s, but which was insufficient to save these economically unfeasible endeavours.  The road was abandoned because of persistent landslides--hardly surprising given the terrain and weather!--and now the bridge stands as a memory of a white elephant.  It's used now as part of a hiking and mountain biking track from Whakahoro to the Bridge To Nowhere river landing; this stretch is part of both the Te Araroa and New Zealand Cycle Trail routes that stretch the length of New Zealand.  Hikers and cyclists are usually picked up by jetboats that take them to Pipiriki, although they can also arrange to rent canoes to avoid using internal combustion engines.  Refreshed by this break, we rejoined the canoes and paddled to our campground at Tieke Kainga.  It was an idyllic setting and was also an active Maori marae, so we had a welcoming ceremony that risked being silly and touristy but instead was strangely moving.  There were only four canoes staying there that night (many others had camped across the river at another spot) and we sat around at supper (and at breakfast the next day) discussing travel, life, nature and possums.  The young son of the couple that run the marae went out with his father carrying a big stick to bash possums, but had no luck; a Spanish woman staying in our camp saw one later at night, but didn't have the heart to try to kill it, despite the fact that it is the most destructive predator on indigenous birds.
The steep cliffs enclosing the Whanganui River

A punga tree
Our last day of paddling, March 19th, was also the most action-packed in terms of rapids.  There were four rapids that we were warned gave us a reasonable chance of capsizing.  After a wonderful morning of paddling through the most vertical canyons yet, we fell in on the first major rapid, the aptly named Fifty-Fifty.  Luckily everything was in (mostly) waterproof barrels, as we were in the water for quite some time before being able to right ourselves.  This experience made us hyper-cautious on the next two, evading the main stream and its standing waves by slithering over rocky shallows.  We did manage to shoot the last rapid successfully, though, which gave us a sheen of respectability with the canoeists watching from the landing point just beyond.  Overall, the canoeing was a major highlight of our New Zealand adventures, especially as Terri had never done it before and we were both amazed at how utterly wild and remote it felt in the middle of the densely-settled North Island.

Headed up Tongariro

Our next port of call was the prosaically-named National Park, a small holiday town just west of Mt. Ruapehu and its ski fields.  Terri's friends Ross and Debbie have a small chalet there that they let us use, and we ended up sleeping there for three nights, glad to have a roof over our heads with cool nights and forecasts of more rain on its way.  The weather held good on the first day for our hike up Mt. Tongariro.  The Tongariro Crossing has become a mass tourism phenomenon, with thousands of hikers a day walking the trail, many inspired by the fact that parts of Lord of the Rings were filmed here.  We had heard of the crowds, the expense of catching shuttle buses and the restrictions on parking, so we decided to modify the classic route.  We parked at the Ketetahi trailhead at the north end of the crossing, the usual ending point, at 6:45 in the morning, and were amazed to find hundreds of cars already there.  Rather than following the hordes and catching a shuttle bus around to the other end of the trail, we set off to hike an out-and-back walk from where we were.
A New Zealand pipit

Steam rising from fumaroles at Te Maari, on Tongariro
The weather was perfect, with clear skies and cool temperatures, and we had the entire trail to ourselves.  We didn't meet another soul for the first three and a half hours as we climbed up through dense bush, then low scrub, and finally, at the top, alpine terrain.  One benefit of this was a series of encounters with birds, both the inquisitive, trusting fantail and the rarer endemic New Zealand pipit, both of whom followed us for long periods across the slopes.  To our left the steam vents of Te Maari puffed steadily; in 2012 they erupted and fired volcanic boulders onto the Ketetahi hut; we could see the damage, preserved for scientific purposes, in the structure as we walked past it.  Once we had crested the initial relentless climb, we peered out across a volcanic desert towards the craters near the summit of Tongariro, and to the symmetrical steep cone of Ngarahoe behind it.
Mount Ngarahoe, with a line of hikers crossing below it
We started to meet our first early-bird walkers as we crossed the plain towards the Emerald Lakes, and there we ran into Pieter and Veronica from our canoe trip, heading in the opposite direction.  We had one final steep grunt up a loose scree incline to the highest point of the Tongariro Crossing, where we stopped to admire the spectacular views up to Ngarahoe, down to the Emerald Lakes and across to the dramatic vents of the Red Crater of Tongariro.  It was a wonderful payoff for four hours of brisk hiking to stand in the middle of such natural dramatic beauty.

At the high point of the Tongariro Crossing
The return journey to the car began with a descent of the scree.  I love scree running, as it's a lot like skiing powder.  The pebbles of volcanic debris slide and roll under your feet, making it easier to slide and run than to walk slowly.  We both raced past long lines of slow-moving hikers, some paralyzed by fear at the unsteady footing; one unfortunate Korean woman was wailing uncontrollably as her boyfriend tried to talk her down.  At the bottom of the scree we stopped to devour a cold roast chicken that was the perfect picnic lunch, seating ourselves on the shore of one of the Emerald Lakes.  From there we joined the long lines of walkers stretched across the landscape, marching down to our little Mazda Demio eight and a half hours after setting out.
The tourist hordes descending the scree agonizingly slowly
We drove back to National Park a bit tired and a bit footsore, but elated at having seen such an iconic landscape and at having (half-) escaped the crowds.  In high season, it's said that over 3000 hikers a day undertake the Crossing, and it seemed like an underestimate that day.  I fear that with the growth of tourism and the global middle class, areas of famed natural beauty like the Tongariro Crossing will drown in the vast crowds that they draw.  Venice, the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Banff and Mount Fuji show the future awaiting many of the grand vistas of our planet.

Emerald Lakes, Tongariro

Terri and her first house, Taupo
We had planned to hike to the summit of Mt. Ruapehu the next morning from the top of the ski lifts at Whakapapa, but we awoke on March 21st to rain and low clouds, so that plan had to be scrapped.  Instead we drove to Taupo to see some of Terri's past life.  Our first port of call was the National Trout Centre, but we weren't there for the fish.  Instead, we had read that the Centre was helping in the conservation of the endangered endemic whio, or blue duck, and we wanted to see.  Whio are bred in captivity in several locations around New Zealand, but the chicks all end up at the Trout Centre for some survival training before they are released into the wild.  We were lucky; that was the last day that the chicks were in residence, and we watched them being captured by the staff to be shipped off to various rivers around the country.  We had looked in vain for whio during our canoe trip, so we were happy to see the 8 residents of the training program.  When we went for a short stroll along the river next to the Trout Centre, we were pleasantly surprised to see a wild whio swim by.  It was heartening to see this iconic species being preserved with the help of so many conservation-minded New Zealanders.

The town of Taupo is on the shores of the lake of the same name, and has become the epicentre of campervan tourism in the North Island.  The town is pleasant but not spectacular, and the crowds at sights such as Huka Falls left me unimpressed.  I did enjoy seeing the first house that Terri ever owned, along with the various houses (and a motel) that Terri's parents owned over the years.  I even saw the site of Terri's youthful thrill-seeking in swimming holes below a dam that would release water every afternoon with Terri and her friends in the pools.  There's a prominent "No Swimming" sign there now, probably as a result of her reckless exploits years ago.

A whio, or blue duck, on the Whakapapa River
March 22nd found us cleaning up the ski chalet and driving north to our next adventure, the Timber Trail, a mountain bike trail that we had heard a lot about.  We took a room in an AirBnB in the town of Manunui run by a Czech ski instructor and her Kiwi partner, a professional pianist, both of whom made for interesting conversations.  We spent the afternoon on a hike through the Owhango Reserve, a small patch of native bush beside the Whakepapa River.  The hiking was enjoyable, but the best part was seeing no fewer than 12 whio bobbing in the river, an encouraging sign for an endangered species with only a few thousand surviving individuals.  There were also other endemic species like the tomtit and the North Island robin present too, all testament to the efforts put in to rid the reserve of possums, stoats and rats; we saw many traps and poison bait stations beside the trail as part of this endeavour.

Riding the Timber Trail
Our ride along the Timber Trail was a lot of fun the next day.  We rented bikes from a South African family whose son drove us to the midpoint of the trail at Piropiro, telling us entertaining tall tales the whole way.  We had 45 km to cover to get back to the car, and it was slow going, with lots of climbing, mud puddles and narrow tracks to contend with.  Most of the trail ran along the route of a narrow-gauge railway built to carry logs out of the forest.  The bush has had numerous decades to regrow, and is now a dense tangle of native trees and plants.  It felt wonderful to be back in the saddle exploring a beautiful corner of the world, and I felt the call of the cycle touring world again; Terri and I hadn't toured in over two years, since our trip through Paraguay in January, 2016.  We got back to the car, muddy and elated, mid-afternoon and headed back to the AirBnB to recover.

March 24th found us driving east along the Forgotten World highway, a road connecting remote farms that history has more or less left behind, between Taumaranui and the Taranaki region.  These farms are near the farms abandoned along the Whanganui River, but were not quite as remote or as rugged and managed to survive as going concerns.  We drove along beautiful stretches of river (including the upper Whanganui), over steep "saddles", or passes, and through the quirky town of Whangamomona, a self-declared independent "republic".
Crossing one of the big suspension bridges on the Timber Trail
We stopped for a bite to eat at the Whangamomona Hotel and behind the gimmicky nature of the "republic", the deep roots of local history shown in serried ranks of photos on the wall of the pub bore testament to the spirit and determination of generations of settlers, loggers and farmers in this remote pocket of the country.  We made it to the other end of the Forgotten World and entered the prosperous farming territory on the slopes of the conical bulk of Mount Taranaki.  A lovely beach house renting out rooms on AirBnB was our home for the next two nights, and we walked along the wild black sand beaches of Oakura before returning home to eat and catch up with the American horse enthusiast running the place.

In the woods of Taranaki

My alien radio antenna, New Plymouth
I really liked the Taranaki region, perhaps more than any other corner of the North Island except for Northland.  We spent the next day poking about the regional centre, the city of New Plymouth, and I found it an appealing place, with an artsy feel to the downtown core and a well-engineered Coastal Walkway leading out of downtown along the ocean shore that provided a focus for strolling, running and cycling, while surfers and fishermen cavorted below us.  We stopped in at the local museum for a stunning display on life in the long-ago Permian period, and on local Maori history.  Around the corner from there, the Len Lye Museum highlighted the "kinetic sculpture" of a New Zealand-born artist of whom I had never heard, but who impressed me.  The focal point of downtown New Plymouth was another Len Lye design, the Wind Wand, a 48-metre-tall kinetic sculpture that flexes and rotates with the breeze.

Enjoying our Taranaki hike

Hiking Mt. Taranaki
Mount Taranaki provided our next outdoor pursuit, an overnight hike to a Department of Conservation hut.  We drove our car up to Dawson Falls Visitor Centre the next day, parked and took to our heels, carrying our packs full of wine and steak and other goodies.  We walked partway up the summit trail, having toyed with the idea of staying at the high Syme Hut for a summit attempt the next day, but swirling clouds and the number of people heading up ahead of us made us reconsider.  Instead we traversed the tussock grass for a while, getting sweeping views of the surrounding countryside and occasional glimpses of the summit, then dropped steadily downhill into dense native bush to Lake Dive Hut.  We had the entire hut to ourselves, although we had met a big school group who had told us they were planning to sleep at the hut too.  The views were magnificent, and we heard the distinctive call of a New Zealand falcon close to the hut, although we were unable to spot it.  It was an idyllic spot to spend the night, just Terri and I and the surrounding wilderness.
On the slopes of Mt. Taranaki

Terri moving through the tussocks on Taranaki
We took another, lower trail to return to Dawson Falls the next day and it was challenging, between the constant ups and downs across deep ravines, the washed-out sections of trail, the fallen trees and the general lack of maintenance of the path.  It was probably more tiring than the previous day's climb and descent, but also enjoyable for the isolation and for the flora of the forest.  When we got back to the car, we cooked up a big brunch of bacon and eggs before heading back to Oakura, this time to visit a Kiwi friend from our Leysin days who had returned to New Zealand to live.  She and her parents lived in a spectacular location atop the cliffs of Oakura, and I fell in love with the spot.  It was great to talk to her and to her mother and father about the area, about travel and living off the grid and fishing.  We had a fabulous dinner and slept well, despite heavy rain overnight.
Terri and the Marshalls, father and daughter

A flower on Taranaki
We paid the price for a late, lazy departure the next day when we arrived at our next destination, a funky off-the-grid hippy commune AirBnB named Hakea, in pitch blackness.  It was a deceptively long drive through miserable weather, but it proved to be worth it.  Hakea was a pretty place, inhabited by an interesting family, and provided lovely walks (between the rain showers) and a chance to read the best travel book I had read in a long time, Colin Thubron's magisterial To A Mountain In Tibet, which I devoured in a day.  We spent two nights there, resting and eating and relaxing.
Morning view of Taranaki's summit

Proud property owner:  Terri and her former house in Hamilton
Our next, and in some sense final, destination was the city of Hamilton, where Terri had lived during her university years.  We stayed with Ross and Debbie, this time in person at their house there, and spent a couple of days catching up with them, having last seen them in Bali last September.  The first afternoon we were there we explored more of Terri's past by visiting the campus of Waikato University and the house she used to own close by, then went to the stunning Hamilton Gardens with Ross and Debbie.  The gardens, subdivided into a dozen or more themed gardens, were wonderful, even with the hordes of Easter Weekend tourists overrunning the place.

Ross, Terri and Debbie
We started the next day with a hike/run up the Hakarimata hills outside Hamilton, and it was a challenging hill to try to run; I had to stop for breath about two thirds of the way up.  There were great views from the top as far as Ruapehu and Ngarahoe, and a fun atmosphere of dozens of other fitness enthusiasts running or powerwalking their way to the top.  After a lazy afternoon, we had a big barbecue with Ross and Debbie along with their daughter and her boyfriend.

With only two full days left until my flight out, we were almost out of time.  April 1st was spent driving back to Mt. Maunganui to pick up Terri's bicycle from storage at Jo Veale's place, with a pleasant hike around Lake Maclaren on the way home.  April 2nd we said goodbye to Ross and Debbie and drove north to Clevedon, where we visited Terri's friends Angela and Adam, three of their four young boys and their collection of vintage Land Rovers.  In their pre-child days, Angela and Adam had driven from the UK to Singapore, and we heard a few tales from the road and told a few of our own from Stanley's Travels.  That afternoon we met up with Terri's cousin Stewart and his wife Nicky for a brief hike in the Hunua Ranges, hearing about Stewart's participation in the Tour Aotearoa a few weeks before.  Then it was time to drive to Papakura and the only really dismal accommodation of the entire trip, a rather ratty AirBnB room.  The next morning, after a few brief errands, Terri dropped me off at Auckland Airport for my flight back to Bali.
Terri with Angela, Adam and three of their sons

Nicky, Stewart and Terri
Overall, I really enjoyed exploring the North Island in depth.  We managed to do quite a bit of hiking, with some paddling and cycling thrown in for good measure.  We saw lots of endemic bird species, plenty of stunning beaches and dramatic mountains, and plenty of native New Zealand bush.  We enjoyed lots of warm hospitality from Terri's friends and relatives (and my friend Eileen), and got a chance to get a feeling for New Zealand from the hours of conversation we had with people.  New Zealand is certainly a lot pricier than it was when I visited back in 1992 with my friend Hans, largely a result of the incredibly expensive real estate market.  Even staying as often as we did with friends and relations, we still spent a sobering amount of money, but we did have fun.  If I went back to the North Island, I would want to be on a bicycle, or hiking the Te Araroa, or maybe on a sailboat, as I feel that we saw almost everything we would want to see travelling as we did in a rental car.  Realistically, though, if we went back to New Zealand, it would be to see the wilds of the South Island next time.  Farewell, North Island, it was fun!

Saturday, April 14, 2018

New Zealand, Feb. 2018: The Northland Loop

Lipah Beach, Bali, April 14th

I have just gotten back from 7 weeks on the North Island of New Zealand and it seems as good an excuse as any to finally restart my travel blog, which has been inactive for most of the past year.  There will be more blog posts to come, on the New Zealand trip, other travels over the past year, and upcoming plans.  I haven’t been completely inactive on the writing front; I’ve just been diverting my scribbling energies into writing a book based on my Silk Road cycle ride, and haven’t been doing enough new travels to divert me from that task.

I've created a Google Map of this section of the trip that you might want to open in another browser tab by clicking here.

One of the Muriwai gannets in flight
I set off from Bali on February 13th to join Terri, who had set off a week earlier than me to catch up with her family.  It had been 26 years since my only previous trip to the country, and that had concentrated mainly on the South Island.  This time Terri and I decided to restrict ourselves to the North Island, both to see the attractions of this part of the country in greater detail, and to visit members of Terri’s large family and her sprawling network of friends.  We rented a small car, filled it with camping gear and set off from Auckland airport in high spirits.

We started off with a night in Auckland, visiting Terri’s cousin Jocelyn and her husband Bob.  We had a wonderful dinner and a quick spin around the bays around their house after I spent a few hours catching up on the sleep I hadn’t had on the flight over.  

A view of the wild west coast beaches of Muriwai
The next day we headed through Auckland and out west, across the Waitakere mountains to the wild black sand beaches of the West Coast.  We started with a visit to the clifftop colony of Australasian gannets at the small town of Muriwai.  I loved the energy of the pounding surf against the steep rock ramparts and the swirling aerobatics of the birds, which reminded me of birdwatching in the Falkland Islands back in 2015.  Then we drove north to the small town of Piha and spent a few hours hiking north on a good trail through the coastal bush to deserted beaches before heading back to the car.  It was my first time to really pay attention to New Zealand’s birdlife, and as I leafed through the pages of our newly-purchased bird guide, I realized that in comparison to most other countries, New Zealand has a very restricted number of bird species, and the most commonly seen are species from Europe or Australia such as sparrows, mynas, starlings and blackbirds that were deliberately introduced to the country by early European settlers.  These introduced bird species, and even more the land mammals such as stoats, rats, mice, hedgehogs, possums, cats, goats and deer that the settlers released into the wild, have had a catastrophic effect on the NZ ecosystem, driving many endemic bird species to the brink of extinction or over it. 
The view back down to Piha
The deserted beaches south of Karekare

We spent the night camped in a Department of Conservation (DoC) campsite full of large kereru pigeons, an endemic species.  We awoke to find the tent fly dripping with condensation from the heavy dew that we experienced every time we camped.  We spent the day on an even prettier hike, this time south of the village of Karekare, under steep volcanic cliffs and through extensive sand dunes, then through a fern-filled marshland on a new boardwalk and up onto a forested ridge providing spectacular views of the wild beaches.  The dunes were full of small ponds full of waterfowl, and the path was in wonderful condition, a contrast to Terri’s memories of muddy DoC trails from her youth.  We came back to the car smiling from 4 hours enjoyably spent, then drove north towards the dairy farm that Terri’s daughter Selena and her husband Michael run near the town of Wellsford.  We ended up camping in a free campsite nearby on the edge of a big inlet.

Terri and 4 of her 5 GKs
We spent the next day with Selena, Michael and their five young children, getting a tour of the farm and feasting on waffles cooked up by the oldest children.  In the late afternoon we said our goodbyes and drove off to our first AirBnB of the trip, a room in a house near the Dome Mountains owned by a Russian couple.  The setting was very peaceful and rural and we had a fun walk around the surrounding countryside before cooking up dinner.

The next day we had a double-header of pretty hikes.  We started out with a climb up to the summit of the Dome, a couple of hundred metres above the road, through a well-signposted forest that taught me the names of a number of the characteristic New Zealand native trees.  We saw our first tui of the trip jumping around in the forest canopy while emitting an impressive array of squawks, squeaks and parrot-like vocalizations.  We were to find that the unmistakeable voice of the tui is one of the most distinctive sounds of any NZ bushwalk.  From the top of the hike we had a clear view down over the main road and across the peaks of the Northland region, and were excited to realize that we were walking along a stretch of the Te Araraoa, the 3000-kilometre-long hiking trail that runs the entire length of New Zealand; we would encounter it several more times in the course of our travels.
Looking down onto the beach at Mangawhai Heads
Terri on the Mangawhai Heads trail

We had lunch, then drove north and east for our second walk of the day, the spectacular cliff-top trail at Mangawhai Heads.  It was one of the scenic highlights of the entire trip, a new walkway that clings atop precipitous cliffs over the east coast beach at Mangawhai before dropping down onto the beach for a scramble across the rocks onto the main beach of Mangawhai.  It may have been the single most impressive coastal panorama of our 7 weeks, and we both fell in love with the laid-back feel of the small town of Mangawhai.  We came back to the car and raced off north, past other pretty beach towns, to the city of Whangarei where we stayed with my old friend Eileen and her family on a wonderful sprawling property just outside town, had a big barbecue and soaked in their Jacuzzi staring up at the southern stars late into the night.
Reunited half a lifetime later with Eileen
Looking down from Bream Heads

We went off the next day for another hike, this time at Bream Heads, an hour east of the city.  It was a much higher, steeper and muddier track than at Mangawhai, but sweeping views provided ample reward for the additional effort required.  We retreated to Whangarei and another night at Eileen’s.  She and I hadn’t seen each other for 22 years, so there was a lot of catching up to do.
Terri and her niece Amy
Team Hundertwasser in Whangarei
The funky public toilets of Kawakawa
From there we were headed north, as far north as you can get in New Zealand without needing a boat, to Cape Reinga.  On the way out of town we stopped in to see the new downtown of Whangarei, neatly gentrified with cafes and a big sailing harbour, where a proposed museum for the artist and architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser is about to be built, after a quarter century of stops, starts and arguments.  Eileen has been involved over the last few years in these efforts.  We also caught up with Terri’s niece Amy, recently moved to Whangarei.  The drive north was a long one, through intermittent heavy rain from a passing cyclone, Gita, which meant that the Bay of Islands, a famous scenic highlight, ended up being scratched from our itinerary.  One place that we did visit were the quirky Hundertwasser Public Toilets in Kawakawa, surely the most beautiful public toilets in the world.  We ended up stopping for the night at another AirBnB run by an energetic Filipina woman on a dairy farm an hour’s drive south of the Cape, where we repacked for a two-day hike, leaving behind some valuables that Terri was concerned about having in our car overnight.

Terri with the Cape Reinga lighthouse behind
Me looking down on Te Warahi Beach
Our overnight trek south from Cape Reinga ended up being one of our favourite parts of the entire New Zealand trip.  We drove north, leaving our car at a little campground and catching a very expensive lift to the end of the road.  The cyclone had passed and the weather was sunny and clear.  The views were incredible, over an ocean boiling with massive swells that were crashing into high cliffs.  We shouldered our packs and set off from the Cape Reinga lighthouse, headed south along the first section of the Te Araroa trail.  The trail alternated between clifftop and beach sections, and the first beach section, dropping onto Te Warahi Beach, featured a rather dicey descent where a rapidly rising tide almost swept Terri away.  Once we were safely onto the sand, the walk along the wild, windswept dunes was exhilarating, and we were lucky to spot a blue penguin, the smallest penguin species in the world, standing on the beach, looking so bedraggled and bemused that we wondered if he was lost or disoriented.  A couple more beaches along, we found our DoC campground, the Twilight campsite, situated atop another bluff with breathtaking views over the pounding ocean.  It has recently been upgraded, with new toilets, a cooking shelter and a solar-powered water pump, and we had the place entirely to ourselves.  Grilling steaks and sipping a lovely NZ merlot, we spent a memorable evening.  Terri channeled her inner muse to come up with a short poem about the penguin:

Poor little pengy washed ashore

A more forlorn thing I never saw
Battered by Gita's cyclone roar
Stranded alone forever more.

Looking back north to Cape Maria van Dieman
Sunset over Twilight Beach
A New Zealand pipit seen near Twilight Beach
Our first view of Ninety Mile Beach

The next day we hiked further south, over more headlands and then down onto Ninety Mile Beach (it should really be called 85 Kilometre Beach; there’s a bit of hyperbole in the name), a huge length of undeveloped sand that ran south to the horizon.  We marched along it for a couple of hours, past hundreds of gulls and oystercatchers, before turning inland along the Te Paki stream.  We had to walk up the riverbed, often through the shallow stream, flanked by huge sand dunes.  Eventually we came to a roadhead where we stuck out our thumbs and got a lift back to our car with a young South Korean woman who was on a working holiday visa, a very popular way to see New Zealand.  We packed up the car and drove south, stopping to explore the Karikari Peninsula which Terri had heard good things about.  We eventually camped in another DoC campsite on the peninsula, an idyllic spot next to yet another beautiful beach.
Pied stilts on Ninety Mile Beach
To you it's a river, to the DoC it's a hiking trail.  Te Paki Stream
The dunes across the inlet from Opononi

From there we continued south, past the Bay of Islands, where I got third time lucky on the weather.  Despite its fame as a beauty spot, neither Terri nor I were very impressed with the place, as it’s awash in overseas tourists and very overdeveloped compared to the beautiful places we had seen further north.  Having ticked that box, we drove south along the west coast, past Maori villages, wilderness, the spectacular beach town of Opononi and eventually the kauri forests.  We stopped at Tane Mahuta, the largest surviving kauri tree, for photos.  Kauri are an iconic species of the New Zealand native bush, but between rampant logging in the 1800s and 1900s and an outbreak of a fungal disease, kauri dieback, the future of these forest giants looks a bit grim.  We camped for the night in Trounson Kauri Forest, an example of a “mainland island” pest-free wildlife sanctuary.  We spotted a rare native bird species (the stitchbird) and heard brown kiwis calling at night, but we had no luck spotting them on a nocturnal ramble through the woods. 
Mighty Tane Mahuta
Some of the big kauris in Trounson

Just before we camped, with the last scrap of phone signal (always an issue in rural New Zealand), I sent off an e-mail to Quality Schools International, a chain of international schools, who had offered me a teaching job for next academic year in Tbilisi, Georgia.  I enjoyed each of the three trips I have undertaken to Georgia over the years, in 2009, 2011 and 2015, and I decided to accept their offer.  I am looking forward to exploring the Caucasus mountains in greater detail, as well as perfecting my Russian language skills and making a start on Georgian.

Patterns in tree bark, Trounson
We awoke on February 24th to a loud chorus of birdsong emanating from the forest, always a good indication that the efforts to trap and poison the plagues of rats, possums and stoats have yielded good results at Trounson.  We had another walk through the forest in daylight:  it was an enchanting, mystical place dripping with moisture, ferns, moss, fungi and lianas.  We heard kiwis again, and spotted a couple of baby birds hidden inside a decaying tree trunk.  The rest of the day was devoted to driving south through dairy farming country, via a quick social visit with Selena, Michael and their family in Warkworth. 

The beach at Tawharanui
In search of a place to camp for the night, we blundered into another great conservation spot on the Tawharanui Peninsula.  The campground was full, but we took a couple of hours to wander through the replanted native bush in search of rare birds, and were rewarded with encounters with both the pateke duck (the brown teal) and the North Island robin.  The entire peninsula has been fenced off (with the fence extending deep underground) and the introduced pest species have been removed.  This provides a model for the long-term goal of eliminating these species entirely from the entire country by 2050, an objective recently announced by the government.  We took our leave regretfully and ended up camped cheek by jowl with hundreds of other campers in a grim, expensive holiday park in the village of Sandspit.
The kotare, or sacred kingfisher, seen at Tawharanui
The North Island robin, Tawharanui
Sandspit rock formations

Sandspit redeemed itself partially the next morning when we wandered along its beach and found beautiful sandstone formations.  We didn’t linger long, though, as we had an appointment to keep with Terri’s long-time friends Gavin and Michelle.  They live in Algies Bay, just south of Sandspit, and are keen outdoors folks.  One of their favourite pastimes is sea kayaking, and they happened to have a spare tandem kayak for Terri and me.  We loaded up the kayaks and set off after lunch for a brisk 2-hour paddle out to Motuora Island, another predator-free offshore refuge.  It was perfect weather with very little breeze or swell, and we had a wonderful crossing, even spotting 4 more blue penguins swimming in the bay.  We could see all to way to the North Shore of Auckland in one direction and out to Great Barrier Island in the other, a huge marine playground.

Loading up the kayaks in Algies Bay
When we got to the island, we were amazed to find that we were going to have it entirely to ourselves overnight, as the few daytrippers loaded up their boats and headed off in the late afternoon.  We went for an exploratory walk, then settled in for a delicious meal of grilled steaks and couscous.  Once the sun had set, we headed out again for a night walk.  As had been the case in Trounson, we could hear kiwis calling in the darkness, but both Gavin and Michelle said that they had never been lucky enough to see one in the wild.  Fortune was smiling on us, however.  We spotted a couple of moreporks, a delightfully named native owl that are more frequently heard than seen.  We turned back towards the campsite, having given up on kiwis, when suddenly there was a crashing in the bushes and a brown kiwi came tearing out onto the path.  He took one look at us and our lights, turned tail and was safely back in the undergrowth within a few seconds, but it was long enough to get a good look at him.  We were elated as we trooped back to our tents.

Fearless adventurers about to embark
The paddle back to the mainland the next day was a bit harder, as a brisk breeze had sprung up overnight, kicking up a noticeable swell.  We took a different route back, ending up in an estuary in which a tall ship, the Spirit of New Zealand (used for school groups) was moored.  We paddled right underneath her, feeling dwarfed in our kayaks.  The trip finished with a shuttle of kayaks back to Algies Bay and a great meal with Gavin, Michelle and their newly-arrived niece and nephew-in-law from Australia.  I really enjoyed sea kayaking, as it’s something I’ve never really done, at least not overnight.  It’s a different way of seeing the world, and allows access to very different places than you can get to by hiking or cycling while still getting lots of exercise.

Overall, our 13 days in the area north of Auckland were a major highlight of our New Zealand experience, jam-packed with activities, spectacular scenery and memorable wildlife encounters.  It was almost sad to head south on February 27th, passing through Auckland on our way down the east coast of the North Island, which will be the subject of the next blog post.  I hope you enjoyed reading about our trip, dear readers.  You might also want to cast a quick eye over a Google Map of our trip, found here.
Terri and I in paddling action