Monday, September 21, 2015

Wai-o-Tapu, Otumuheke hot stream, Huka Falls, and Tongariro National Park (Days 10-11)

It's a strange feeling, waking up every day and not knowing what the day will hold.  The days in September go by one by one, and I know that back at home, everyone I know is going about their routine.  I can even picture what I would have been doing if I were back at home.

But being on a vacation like this with no itinerary for weeks on end is something I've never really experienced before.  I've always had either a planned itinerary (when touring Europe as part of a choral group), or known the general area I was going to be staying and the general sorts of things I'd be doing in the small location I was in (e.g. spending time with family in Portugal, attending conferences in Seattle and Ohio, attending meditation retreats in Mexico).

This is completely different.  We have no idea what campsite we'll be in at the end of the night, what it will be like (it can range from just a place to park and not even a toilet, to access to communal kitchen/laundry facilities and actual flushing toilets with hot showers)... or even if our campsite will exist.  Perhaps people of different temperaments would adapt differently, but it was remarkably easy to adapt to this unknown schedule.

Last night, we needed to figure out where we wanted to go next.  Our eventual goal is Wellington so we can catch the car ferry over to the South Island, but one of the things we wanted to see, the glow worm caves at Waitomo, involved a bit of back tracking.  After some discussion, we realized that what we loved most about this adventure was the freedom to just drive and discover random out of the way treasures on our own, and not necessarily all the tours, as nice as they can be some times.  So we decided to leave the worms behind (there may be less well known opportunities to view them in the South, anyway) and continue on a meandering journey down the right side of Lake Taupo instead.
After cooking bacon and eggs (served with a side of kiwi fruit, of course) on our little campervan stove and eating it by a tranquil lake, we set off for the day.

Soon afterwards, we saw a sign with a photo of the stunning and strange Champagne Pool.  We thought we had missed our chance for this, and excitedly pulled over and made a spur of the moment decision to go into this geothermal park (Wai-o-Tapu) and view not only the fascinating orange-red and green steaming Champagne Pool, but also other pools of various colours - inky black, lime green, lemon yellow. J commented that she felt like she was walking on some strange planet.

After that, we continued our drive south along Lake Taupo, enjoying the beautiful views and stopping at some lookout points, including the incredible Huka Falls, the most famous waterfalls in New Zealand.  These falls appear an incredible icy blue colour, even on overcast days.  The fantastic colour is the result of trapped air bubbles.  The massive amounts of crashing water through the narrow chasm carved in the rocks was truly an incredible sight.

As we continued our drive we saw some girls in bathing suits going for a swim in the river, and realized there were probably many hot springs around in this geothermal region of the country.  A quick turn-on of our wifi allowed us to discover a free local place to go swimming in a hot spring.  We set our GPS for Spa Thermal Park, and after a ten minute walking the blustery cold wind, we found a lake with a little waterfall pouring into a charming place to swim, with several others already enjoying the hot, steaming water.  We made our way back to our campervan to get our bathing suits to change in the public washrooms nearby, and off to the stream we went.

It was kind of a surreal experience to step out of the cold spring wind and into a hot spring.  It wasn't just warm, but HOT.  I felt like a young child discovering the world for the first time.  It just felt so FUN to be playing in a hot waterfall.  We stayed for about half an hour, just enjoying this beautiful gift from the earth.

After we reluctantly got out of the magical hot stream, we continued our drive into Tongariro National Park.  This park is home to several volcanoes, including one of the ones used as Mt. Doom in Lord of the Rings.  We drove around the park, taking a few wrong turns as I tried to decipher the best way to get to the Visitor's Centre as light was fast leaving us.  The terrain up there was fascinating - black volcanic rocks strewn across the landscape, red and gold shrubs everywhere.  The usual rolling hills with sheep had disappeared.

At no point was this landscape more foreign and strange-looking to us as when we tried to find our campsite for the night, an alleged freedom-camp spot nestled between two volcanoes.  As we slowly drove up windy roads, we started to lose visibility quite quickly, and could barely see more than a few metres in front of us into the mist.  At one point, J exclaimed "Is that snow?!"  Indeed it was.  We were driving up the volcano with no end in sight and the alleged campsite nowhere to be seen, so J pulled into a mysterious parking lot that appeared out of the mist, turned around, and drove back down to another campsite close by, with more amenities.

While we were slightly disappointed to not find our first choice of campsite, it was very nice to have access to hot showers, laundry machines, and a communal kitchen where we could have more than one pot going at the same time and actually wash our dishes with hot water.

The next day, we explored the area a little more by daylight, but were not able to see any of the volcanoes in their true glory due to the grey rainy skies full of clouds.  On our drive back down, it was interesting to see the landscape slowly change from barren black, red, and gold to eventual green hills with sheep again.  We came across some stunning, majestic green mountains that were right out of LOTR's Middle Earth, and stopped to admire them for a bit on our way down to Wellington.
We made one final stop before arriving in Wellington - Otaki Beach, a beautiful stretch of beach with softly rolling waves.  We walked along this beach for about half an hour, enjoying the peacefulness, the natural beauty of the sound of the waves, and the sunset on the water.

The North Island has been an incredible adventure. I can't believe how much I've seen and done - dolphins, hiking on the rugged northern tip, sliding down a sand dune, hiking on several volcanoes, swimming in a hot spring, watching water explode from the ground, seeing landscape change from green hills to barren landscapes to incredible blue ocean views...

It's hard to take it all in sometimes.  In a way, writing and photographing helps me take it in better.  At the end of days with so much incredible newness, it's hard to know what to even think or feel about any of it.

What is it that drives some of us to seek so much of this kind of experience?  Maybe the South Island will hold more of the answers I seek.

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