Monday, December 8, 2008

Trails to Somewhere, But a Bridge to Nowhere

We had a bit of logorrhea that last posting, so we'll try to focus on photos in today's update, starting with a place in Hawera our New Plymouth friends suggested we visit,
which turned out to be one of the very finest history museums we've ever seen. It didn't just show you old tools, it showed you believable figures using them in realistic ways, and with considerable humor, as with this harried early-20th century farm wife, or the fellow in the outhouse rigged so that he lowered the newspaper and stared at you as you opened the outhouse door!
Boy, we both jumped! They also had terrific miniature models of Maori pa, or fortified hilltops.
While hiking, we've seen quite a few pa, as pacifism was not high on the Maori cultural agenda in the old days, but pa mostly just look like bare hills now.
These dioramas made them quite real, and help one understand why the British never fully dominated the Maori with military power. The two sides just wore each other out into a state of peace during the (relatively) brief wars that broke out in the mid-19th century between the two sides.

We did a bit of heavy driving for two days to and from Wellington, leaving the sightseeing there for our return, but did stop twice for photos of interesting roadways. Only two roads access Wellington, NZ's second-largest city, and this next photo is of one of them, a challenging route over the Rimatuka Range.
There was no shoulder at all on this twisty narrow road, not a bike-friendly place at all! The second shot is of Manawatu Gorge, and you can see the shoulder disappear. We watched a tandem couple ride through here (you can see them just left of the yellow sign if you look hard, or click on the image to enlarge it),
but this piece of highway was again a bit more death-defying than we generally opt for, though scenic as all get-out.

At last we came under the spell of Mt. Ruapehu, the tallest mountain on the North Island at 9100' and plunked almost precisely in the center of it.
After passing more than a few of NZ's 34 million sheep (look closely again and you can see over a hundred in this next shot),
we reached hiker heaven. Except that our first hike was over one of the hardest tracks we've been on in NZ, due to the water that has chosen to use the corduroyed trail as a stream bed for ever so far. But after a few kilometers of slop, it went from bad to good to great,

and took us to hundred-foot-high Waitonga Falls.

A short walk nearby then led to Mangawhero Falls, getting close to the tree line. The next day another hike on the southern side of Ruapehu took us across the Mangawhero River a bit further downhill, and
through a forest of rimu trees, a pine-like tree that has no North American cousins. Pretty impressive vines on that one tree, eh?

But what was that about a "bridge to nowhere," you're wondering? Well, NZ does have one, a real one not the mythic Alaskan one never built thanks to the ridicule of many people (none of them by the way named Sarah Palin, notwithstanding her pathological prevarications on the topic).
It was built by just two guys in the 1930's to assist farmers in an incredibly remote part of the Wanganui Valley. Alas, too remote, and by the mid-40s all the farmers had given up.
All the vegetation in this area is a spontaneous reclamation the forest has been making of land that would have been all treeless farming and grazing land 70 years ago. Near the bridge is this poignant memorial to three of the families who tried to make a go of it.

You can only get there now by canoeing down through class 1 and 2 rapids, or jet-boating upstream through class 1 rapids.
We chose the latter, plus the option to canoe back downriver 32 km (20 miles) over two days, with a stay at the Bridge to Nowhere Lodge midway, perched dramatically on a bend in the river,

and where Joe, our jet boat driver/lodge host loaded on the canoe for the ride further upstream, under canine supervision.

Joe was extremely personable, and set us up for a wonderful trip, notwithstanding a little rain on day 1.
As part of the package, we even had tea and cookies at the Bridge to Nowhere, which is actually a 40-minute hike in from the Wanganui on what's left of the old road, as the notorious bridge is over a side-stream running about 100 feet below the bridge. And it's not called the "Bridge to Nowhere" for nothing -- nothing wider than a mountain bike can access that magnificent bridge anymore.

The river was mostly flatwater, with occasional rapids, but in a deep, deep, DEEP gorge with almost perpendicular walls.
In the 20 miles of canoeing we did, there were only a handful of places where you could even get out of the boat, as at this one sandbar. Hopefully these shots give you some of the sense of grandeur and beauty we experienced.

All went well in the canoeing until the last rapid. At the next-to-last rapids we watched a German mom and daughter show us - unplanned - how to do the rapid backwards.
We did the last one forwards just fine, thank you, but the waves were two to three times higher than the sides of our canoe, and a few of the waves chose to douse Louise and fill our canoe with a few inches of water. Since this was only one or two bends in the river from the end, not a big deal. It was better than the group of 5 people we watched arrive from the 5-day version of the trip, through those class 2 rapids, who had a 60% canoe-overturning rate.
BTW, those blue barrels keep your stuff together and tethered to the canoe, but they are not perfectly waterproof, so we were very happy to keep the open side up on our canoe.

Two of the more interesting sights on the river were this two-part waterfall, and floating pumice. Joe told an amusing story of a German couple who dumped their boat on this perfectly flat part of the river by canoeing too close for a picture and thereby filling the boat to the rim in nothing flat. You know, the old "just a little closer honey and we'll have a terrific shot to show the folks at home." At least it didn't earn them a Darwin award.
The pumice is from the Lake Taupo explosion in AD 186, which we will say more about in our next blog entry, but suffice it to say that it is amazing to see it
entering the waterway in large amounts 1822 years later. Both days it floated by, hundreds and hundreds of these odd floating rocks, most of them peanut or walnut sized, but a few the size of a potato.

Well, back to Ruapehu in our cute little red car past some possum roadkill -- NZ's "favorite" roadkill and an Australian pest
that they would love to eradicate due to the damage it does to native animals and plants. We drove past some stunning views of the mountain and its next-door native the cone-shaped Mr. Ngauruhoe

to the ski village of Whakapapa, about 4000' above sea level, close to the tree line. We stayed at the Skotel, NZ's highest hotel and took this timer photo of ourselves having a picnic lunch on their deck, with Ngauruhoe behind us.

The hiking around there was terrific, so long as you didn't get lost taking the Whakapapanui Trail when you really wanted to follow the Whakapapaiti Trail.
These are a few shots from several tramps (NZ for hikes) we took of 1 to 2 hours from the lodge.

We'll close with a bizarre ski village a bit further up the mountain where various ski clubs have these uncozy-looking chalets, then two shots from our tramp around Lake Rotopounamu near the edge of the National Park,

and finally a view down to Lake Taupo, where we'll pick up the next blog as we enter the bizarre thermal world of Taupo and Rotorua.

No comments: