Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Albert Park Backpackers, Auckland, NZ

While I was in Taupo, one of my roommates, dubbed “Canada” for obvious reasons (or “Canadia,” when we were feeling cheeky) asked where I was going next, and I said Taurangi. When he asked what I was planning to do while there, I said I was thinking of doing the Tongariro Crossing, a day-long section of a 4-day hike through, you guessed it, the Tongariro National Park. “Don’t people usually do that from here?” he asked. “Um…” I very cunningly replied.

Turns out you can do the Tongariro Crossing from Taupo, but you have to get up about an hour earlier to catch the shuttle bus. I don’t like getting up early regardless, much less for a 18.5 km hike.

Did I not mention it was 18.5 km? It was 18.5 km. 11.49 miles. 1,967 meters, 6,453.4 feet up. Over volcanoes. Did I not mention it was over volcanoes? It was over volcanoes. Hiking. 11.49 miles. 6,453 feet up. Me. Seriously.


If you mention that you’re interested in going you get buried by various pamphlets that make you think that maybe this hike isn’t such a good idea. There are delightful snippets like “steep volcanic terrain,” “It is important to have appropriate outdoor clothing, equipment and fitness,” “be ready for any conditions,” “weather can change with alarming speed,” “there is no drinking water available between Mangatepopo and Keteahi huts,” “accidents can occur on tracks when trampers misjudge loose rocks or go sliding down the volcanic slopes, so watch your step,” – I could keep going, but I’m pretty sure you get the idea.


You also get a giant list of things to bring, including “gloves or mittens.” It being early summer I didn’t bring those, but my hostel supplied me with some red, waterproof over-pants. I tried the pants on, and if I pulled the elastic waistband up all the way I could theoretically go out with nothing else on and not get arrested. I didn’t, though. I also decided that my sneakers were good enough (they recommended sturdy boots), brought a band-aid in place of the first-aid kit, and neglected bringing a compass, but I did have 3 wool shirts and lots of food and water. (In the winter you should also bring an ice axe, crampons, and snow gaiters, and you can also consider – in any season! – bringing an avalanche probe/snow shovel and/or an avalanche transceiver).


I settled into my hostel – Extreme Backpackers – one of the few in New Zealand with its own climbing wall. It has a nice courtyard for lounging, so long as it isn’t raining, and some of the most sterile dorm rooms I’ve seen so far. I had a nice chat with a couple who had done the crossing that day, and were celebrating with fish and chips for dinner, They highly recommended it. The dinner, I mean. Well, and the walk, too, but emphasized the fish and chips.


One $35 shuttle booking later, I climbed into bed early and chatted with a roommate who was also planning on tramping his knees off the following day. We woke at 5-fucking-30am, and grabbed some breakfast before climbing into our shuttle bus. We ended up doing the first section of the walk together, noting that the first bit of the hike was supposed to be the worst. I had no idea.

At 6:57am we started our trek.


See this?


That’s a rather far view of the climb. The BAD climb. Unfortunately I was too busy trying to get oxygen back into my lungs to take too many photos of what I later learned is called the Devil’s Staircase, but here’s an idea:


That’s the view down. See how tiny those people are? It should give you some idea of perspective and steepness. Maybe. But it’s a bitch of a climb over loose rocks and dirt. My climbing partner stuck with me for a while, before finally taking off. As I climbed I decided that I probably could’ve lived without the little bit of character that would inevitabely follow the hike, but was too far up to go back.

When you finally (finally) get to the top (they recommend allowing 45 minutes to an hour to get up the Devil’s Staircase, and I won’t tell you how long it took me) you get greeted with this sign:


Volcanic Gas Hazard. Due to the increase of seisemic activity you are warned Not To Enter the Mt Ngauruhoe Craters.

Mt Ngauruhoe is a side walk up the side of Lord of the Rings’ Mount Doom (really!). It takes about 3 hours return (purportedly), climbing up a path of loose rock and dirt, combined with warnings of falling rocks kicked down by climbers up ahead. When the weather is clear there are, rumor has it, spectacular views, as well as the crater of Mt Ngauruhoe itself. Because it was cloudy (ahem), I decided to bypass the extra climb.


While I was taking a break, trying to regain control of my lungs I ended up in a political discussion with two Irish chaps. We complained together about the state of the American government (and, interestingly enough, what they said wasn’t nearly as harsh as things I’ve heard Americans say). They gave me some shortbread, I said I’d see them later, and took off down this way:


Believe it or not, this picture has not been sepia-toned. It really does look like that. And when I was in the middle I stopped, realizing that no one else was around (I might’ve also been a little concerned that I wasn’t going the right way), and realized it was completely silent. I’ve never been somewhere so quiet.

As I was getting to that short climb at the back, a chap who was doing the four-day hike encouraged me up. I asked if it was worth it. He said yes.


The view back over what I’d done was pretty good, too.

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And then I saw that there was more climbing ahead.


Damn it.


After some more astonishing views

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is the aptly-named Red Crater.


It’s surrealistically red and has an opening that would make Georgia O’Keefe proud. I just stood with my jaw dropped that something natural could make something like that, and that I was standing so close to it.

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Then, of course, having climbed so far up, the only logical next step was to go down. Way down.


The ground is so loose that every step sinks about four inches into the dust and silt. I only fell once, and was pleased that no one seemed to see it. For the first half I took all my years of skiing training under Hans Ze Skiing Instructor (my dad) (who is not, for the record, named Hans) I turned my body towards the mountain, and slalomed back and forth down the hill. When it got a little more stable I was able to stride down.


See the ground in the bottom right corner? That’s the grade and consistency of the trail. But once I did, finally, make it down (and without killing myself!), I got to see the Emerald Lakes.


It being cloudy it wasn’t quite as spectacular as it would be on a sunny day, but it was still pretty good.


I caught up again with the Irish chaps and spent the rest of the hike with them.


It being foggy there wasn’t too much to see.

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Once we got under the clouds again the views opened up again.

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We stopped for lunch at the Ketetahi Hut, which is near some more volcanic (or at least thermal) activity, where I ran into a woman that I’d met in Taupo.


She eventually joined the two Irishmen and me for the remainder of the hike down, down, down the hill.


And down,


and down.


We made it down in good time, half an hour early for the 3pm bus, and sat and chatted for a while.


But OH! Let me just tell you about what happened on the bus ride home. Well, first I couldn’t figure out which bus was mine because I couldn’t for the life of me remember what the outside of the bus I’d climbed into at 6am looked like. How could I possibly be expected to remember that?

I did manage to find the bus, and found myself behind someone who I can only guess is from Europe somewhere (he may have told me from where, but I can’t remember). He got into a conversation with the gentleman in front of him, an American. This, it turned out, was a mistake. Y’see, they started talking about the environment, and it turned out that the American was a stereotypical caricature of an American. Not by looks, per se, but certainly in attitude. He wasn’t sure that global warming existed, and if it did, he wasn’t entirely sure that it was due to humans, and if it was due to humans he wasn’t entirely sure it was a bad thing. Not only that, but he read this book, and it turns out that species aren’t going extinct as fast as they (“they” being scientists, I suppose) say they are – it is, as he put it, “bullshit.”


The chap in front of me tried to disagree, and eventually the American decided he couldn’t continue the conversation, and even put his hand up to show he was done. When the European tried to bring up sports as a safer topic, the American held his fist up, said the name of some (American) football team, and refused to say more. The European tried to ask the American’s young companion (either daughter or girlfriend) her opinion on the environment, and she smiled, shrugged, and said she didn’t know.

When they got off the bus I told the European that he’d done an admirable job. He told me that all the Americans he’d encountered had been like that. I assured him that I wasn’t, and promised that there are some people in my country with some sense in their heads, or at least a capacity to disagree civilly.


I would also like to note that the American couple went on the trip with just shorts and fleece jackets, no food, and one bottle of water between them.

I always like knowing I’m not the least prepared.

And the fish and chips were delicious.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Albert Park Backpackers, Auckland, NZ

I’ve mentioned once or twice how bad my sense of direction is, but in Taupo it’s completely nonexistent. I got lost so many times before finally finding my hostel, the Rainbow Lodge Backpackers Retreat. Yes, it’s really called that.

There’s not a whole lot to do in Taupo except see the lake. I saw the lake.


The real entertainment, however, were my roommates. I managed to find myself in a dorm with four men, who, I was warned, had the tendency to be a little wild. I took my chances. They were nice enough, and long-termers who managed to NOT sprawl over everything.


In every few hostels there’s the problem of long-termers. They’re people who have found a job in the area, aren’t planning to stay too long, but have been there long enough that their belongings have oozed onto every chair (if there’s a chair) and into every crevice, and over every bunk-rung. It makes it hard to figure out which bed is actually free, and where one’s own, neatly (ahem) packed belongings might find a spare square foot or three.

Point being, they’re deeply annoying.

At any rate, these chaps were fine, compared to some I’ve seen. I was taking a nap one afternoon when one of them came in, and since he was cute we chatted a while, and he regaled me with story after story about various times and places that he’d gotten drunk/stoned on herbal pills.

There are, mostly in the cities, shops selling party pills, these herbal (“herbal”?) pills that are supposed to be illegal already, I believe, but from what I hear they’re having some trouble with it. So if you want to have a “herbal high,” whatever that means, now’s the time, apparently.

So it was boring.


One of the others was showing off an… extremely intimate series of text messages that he was getting from a woman that he’d, ah, befriended a few days prior. Since English wasn’t his first language, and since he wasn’t experienced in writing such explicit texts (and apparently had no imagination) he decided to have one of our other roommates compose a message, and add to the bottom “I had someone else write this.”

I told him that was a terrible idea, and he didn’t get why, so I explained that she just might not appreciate the fact that he was showing her texts to everyone, he said, “Oh. I didn’t think of that.”

I honestly wish I was kidding.

In the meantime I learned how to snap beer bottle caps so they fly across the room, got nicknamed “America,” and met a Canadian who actually knew what contra dancing is (it wasn’t one of my roommates). Since, as I’ve heard, more people collect stamps than contra dance, this is saying something.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Mousetrap Backpackers, Paihia, NZ

The excitement in Napier is that back in the 1930’s it crumbled to the ground thanks to a giant earthquake. A bunch of money later the town (city?) was rebuilt in major art deco fashion.


The problem is that since most of the pertinent buildings are in the center of the business district, and most of them are two stories high, the storefronts have been ruined by becoming, well, modern storefronts.


So to get a sense of the way things were you have to keep your eyes up. It’s very touristy.

Like Oamaru, Napier seems stuck on the fact that their home is embodies a time period, and just hasn’t moved on from there. There are plenty of costume and antique shops where you can pick up classic clothing.


It made me covet a wool cloche hat something fierce.


Unlike Oamaru, people in Napier don’t walk around in period costume, but I like to think that they get together once a month and have a Roaring 40’s party, complete with Charleston dancing and cigarettes in long holders. There can’t be enough of a market for antique and costume shops otherwise, can there? Surely not.


One shop was even selling those spangly headbands with feathers on the side like flappers used to wear, and oh I wanted one! Never mind that I would never actually get up the courage to wear it, or that I could even necessarily get it home in one piece, I just wanted it. It didn’t matter.

I did manage to abstain, though. Because that's fun.

Another thing about New Zealand is that there have been a number of very large sculptures made from corrugated tin. I don’t know if this is a cultural thing or what, but it surprises me every time.


And I saw a guy bathing his dog in a fountain. Apparently the dog had found something rather smelly to roll in.


The real excitement about Napier, however, is something that most people don’t think to do. It’s in the Lonely Planet, but when I mentioned it to people they said that if they’d heard of it it’d never occurred to them to go.

It’s the Penguin Recovery Workshop at Marineland. It might sound a little boring in that educational kind of way (or educational in that boring kind of way), but it was fantastic. Marineland is part rehabilitation center for marine wildlife, part Sea World, but much smaller. Injured marine life is brought to them, and if they can rehabilitate and release, they do, but if the animal can be rehabilitated and can’t be returned to the wild then they keep them at Marineland where they either hang out in their pens (getting fresh sea water, which is filtered through the sea floor and pumped into their pools) or they get trained and put on performances.


The penguins don’t perform. I don’t think it’s their “thing,” regardless of what Mr. Popper would have you believe.


So. I was the only person doing the tour that day, and was met by two penguin wranglers who looked to be about sixteen, which made me feel old and weird, but whatever. They took me into the kitchen and showed me the various kinds of fish that all the animals get, pointing out which were the “McDonald’s” fish, which the penguins loved but if they got too much of it they wouldn’t eat anything else and would, of course, get fat. And perhaps make a documentary about it, I don’t know.


They grabbed a bucket of fish slices and invited me into the first penguin area. This is Twiggy:


Twiggy would hang around for the food.


I was told who each penguin was, and why he or she was there (one has a hunchback, one has a cricked neck). They weren’t terribly interested in coming over for food (they’re very shy, you see), but I got to feed one or two, and watch as they got tossed in the water to get some exercise.

Then we walked over to say hi to the gannets. They only have a few that belong at Marineland, and a bunch fly in and stay for the posh life.


They said something about this black one, but – heh – I don’t remember what it was, aside from the fact that it was a fair bit older than most, and also is very pretty.


We hopped into penguin enclosure number two, where there was another set of penguins waiting for food. Well, not really “waiting,” since they never got the nerve to come over to me on their own, but they ate when they were wrangled to my feet for a snack.

It's important to read signs

It’s important to read signs, you know.

This is Draco.

Me & Draco

Named, indeed, for the Harry Potter villain because he’s not so thrilled about being held, and has a tendency to poo on people. It was okay; I was thrilled enough for both of us. I fed him some fish, and he routinely mistook my fingers for food.

Draco eating my finger

That’s right, I’ve been nibbled by a penguin. It was awesome. AND he didn’t poo on me, so that’s pretty good too.

The next stop on the tour was the very incapacitated penguin pen. This held one penguin with a flipper missing, one with a flipper AND an eye missing, and Gonzo, who was without a lower beak, thanks to some errant fishing line. He really did look like Gonzo from the muppets.


They’d never make it in the wild, but they were doing just fine at Marineland. Gonzo took a while, but finally learned how to eat, by hooking his beak over someone’s finger and gulping down the fish offered with the other hand.

See how the pool behind me is round? Know why? It’s for the penguins with one flipper. Because they swim in circles. That made me laugh far more than is polite. And then the penguin pooed on me. I guess he didn’t think it was so funny.

I got to meet the quarantined penguins as well, and then wander the park. The animals there are hilarious. From hearing-impaired seals lazing about,


to seals with itchy noses,

Itchy itchy

to the princess seal who whines until she gets what she wants.


When the show started one of the seals would hang out by the door, watch the dolphins and seals perform, and bray. I’m not sure if it was jealousy or protest.

She was watching the show

Speaking of jealousy, I don’t think I wanted to work with animals more than when I saw this:


She’s a trainer and was great with them, showing how the huge male sea lions could talk, answer questions (pointing down was shaking their head no, pointing up was nodding), and do flips. I talked to her for while, and realized that if I was going to find myself stuck in anywhere in New Zealand it just might be there.

The reason I surely wouldn’t stay in Napier is that on Sundays the church bells start ringing at nine am and go on for a half hour. I would go some kinds of crazy.

Another charmer at Napier’s Marineland was a cockatoo who may actually just have a day cage there (a woman came by and took him away after a while). I was watching him and whistling, making due note of the “Bobby bites sometimes!” warning in the cage, when Bobby came over and said hello.

“Hi!,” I replied.

“Give us a scratch?” he said, cocking his head. “Oh ho ho ho,” I laughed, and braved that very large beak that parrots are wont to have, and skritched his neck. He tucked his head down and lifted some of his feathers to give me better access. Birds have very soft skin, I’ll have you know.

Some women saw me with my hands in the cage and came over. Bobby saw them and walked over. “Give us a scratch?” he charmed, offering his neck.

I’m in love with that bird.

Later I saw the women who had led me around take the quarantined penguins out for their daily exercise. There’s a waist-high pool in the middle of the walkway, filled with fish, and the penguins get tossed in one at a time. When they get to the edge they’re put right back into the middle again. After a few minutes they’re pulled out and toweled off gently, then put back into their pens.

My hostel, the Criterion Art Deco Backpackers, was mediocre. The living room looked rather spectacular, with very high ceilings, stylish (well, by 1930’s-1940’s standards) fireplaces, and pool table. My bedroom was small and packed tight with two bunk beds. Luckily enough I was the only one in there. I don’t know where anyone else would’ve put their luggage. I only stayed one night, and for the life of me now can’t remember why. I moved to Wally’s Backpackers, which may or may not have been a good idea.

Me & Draco

It had just been purchased not a month before I showed up, and some of the transitions were a little sticky yet. Even so, for a supposedly established place it seemed pretty devoid of decoration. And it needed new carpeting something fierce. Oop, apparently it just opened it 2003. I wouldn’t have guessed that.

I didn’t get a great feeling from the owner, but that may have just been a reaction to his constant socks-and-sandals fashion abomination. Lonely Planet calls it “slick urban hostelling.” Clearly our definitions differ.

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