Monday, November 29, 2010

The Kiwi House in Otorohaunga: 18 November

One of Ashley's and Ted's favorite stops on the long ride between Auckland and Wanganui was the Kiwi House in Otorohanga, near Waitomo, so of course we had to show it off to Grace.  The Kiwi, New Zealand's icon, is a sightless, flightless, nocturnal bird.  After the (enormous) egg is laid, the male sits on it until it hatches.  The highlight of the stop was seeing two kiwis being fed (their sleep cycles are altered through the use of artificial light.)  Our favorite kiwi, Atu, was a female spotted kiwi weighing about 2350 grams (quite large). She was unlike any we had ever seen before: rather than hiding under the bush, she scampered around her enclosure, played games with the keeper, and unlike her compatriot refused to go to sleep!

In addition to the kiwis, there was a large selection of other New Zealand animals and wildlife.  We had fun!

Large iguana!

Grace feeding the ducks -- of course!

Old Tuatara.  The tuatara is a prehistoric reptile.  One of the kids' favorite books was Old Tuartara.   The text was simple.  "Old Tuatara sat and sat and sat.  'Asleep' says the fantail.  'Asleep' says the fly. . . 'Not asleep' says Old Tuatara [as his tongue flicks out to catch the  fly!]"

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Volcano Country: Central North Island 17 November

 Time for Grace to take a road rrip (and a couple of days off school) with Grandmom and Granddad.  Destination: the Glow Worm Caves in Waitomo, the Kiwi House in Otorohanga, and stinking mud pools in Rotorua.

The drive took us up the middle of the North Island, or perhaps we should say through the center of Middle Earth, to the land of the volcanoes.  There are three active volcanoes in these parts, Mount Ruapehu, Mount Ngauruhoe, and Mount Tongariro.

Mount Ruapehu
The first as we drove north was Mount Ruapehu, 2,797 metres high, the volcano with the highest peak and the only one with glaciers.  It is also one of the most active volcanoes in the world, and the most active in New Zealand.  The last significant eruptions were in 1995-1996.   Spectacular eruptions resulted in the cessation of air traffic over the North Island.  Smaller eruptions occurred in 2004 and 2006.  Ruapehu played  Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Amy is convinced that almost all of the scenery on the  North Island is reminiscent of Middle Earth, as you'll see in a moment.  For more on Lord to the Rings locations, click here or here.

 Mounts Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe
As we continued on the drive north, Mount Ngauruhoe came into view. Mount Ngauruhoe, 2,287 metres, is the only one with a classic volcano cone shape, and can be seen at the right of Ruapehu in this picture.   Although Ngauruhoe has shown significant earthquake activity as late as 2008, it is basically dormant at present.  It was quite a sight, rising up  from the desert floor.  The desert is tundra -- not the sandy desert of the Gobi or Sahara. 
Mount Ngauruhoe rising from the desert floor

As we reached the southern end of Lake Taupo, the largest lake in New Zealand, we cut west from Turangi to Taumaranui, crossing from the Desert Road (Route 1) to the King Country (Route 4).  The view back to the mountain ranges put the three volcanoes into perspective.  Mount Ruapehu is the snow covered peak on the right.  Mount Ngauruhoe doesn't have as much on its west side; it is the conical peak in the middle of the picture.  The longer set of peaks to the left (north)  is Mount Tongariro.  In reality, Mount Tongariro is a volcanic complex with at least twelve vents: Mount Ngauruhoe is technically not a separate mountain but a vent of Mount  Tongariro.  Nonetheless, people refer to these as three separate volcanoes.  They are all part of the Tongariro National Park.  For more information, including the Maori legends about the area, click here.

South-west end of Lake Taupo

Lake Taupo, the largest fresh water lake in Oceana, is the crater created by as supervolcanic eruption which occurred approximately 26,500 years ago.  It has some of the best trout fishing in the world.  The geothermal activity in the area includes geysers, steaming craters, boiling mud pools and some of the largest silica terraces in the world.  But more of that when we get to Rotorua!

Grace below look out point on pass between routes 1 and 3.

As we drove further northwest through the area known as the King Country to our destination, Waitomo, the scenery was striking, like something straight from the Hobbbit or Lord of the Rings.  It is impossible to do justice to the views unless you are a professional photographer, but we tried below.

On to Waitomo!

Glow Little Glow Worm: The Waitomo Caves 18 November

For those of you who have not been there, Waitomo is a fairy land.  The name comes from two Maori words:  "wai" which translates as water and "tomo" which means entrance or hole. Waitomo can be translated as the "stream which flows into the hole in the ground".   There are more than 300 limestone caves beneath the hills of the Waitomo region, created by geological and volcanic activity over the past 30 million years. Cave features include the typical stalactites, stalagmites, and running underground streams.  The most unusual feature of all, however, unique to the area, is the New Zealand Glowworm.

The New Zealand Glowworm

A glowworm is not a worm at all.  Rather, it the larvae stage  of a two-winged insect or fly that grows as long as a matchstick and looks a bit like a maggot. The New Zealand glowworm is the arachnocampa luminosa. "Arachno" of course means spider-like; the name refers to the way glowworms spin long silky strings that act as webs catching flying insects like spiders do. "Campa means larva and "luminosa" means light-producing.  The glowworm attracts other insects by "lighting up."  The light is created through bioluminescence, a reaction between the chemicals given off by the glowworm and the oxygen in the air.  The reaction is actually a reaction involving the wastes generated by glowworm.  So -- putting the scientific name of the glowworm aside, we began to think of the glow from the glowworm as, in the words of a guide, "shiny maggot poo."  The light attracts flying insects such as mosquitoes, who fly toward the light and get stuck in the stick lines spun by the glowworm.  Ummm -- lunch!

We got to Waitomo on the evening of 17 November, and at the suggestion of our B&B hosts, took a nighttime walk through the Ruakuri bush.  The walk goes along a narrow stream that, at some point in history ran through the bottom of a cave.  Over time the ceiling of the cave fell in, so our walk along the stream took us through an area with steep walls along each side.  The reason for the nighttime walk: the walls were covered with glowworms!  Such a fantastic experience.

Grace at entrance to Waitomo Cave

The next morning, we were the first in line at the Waitomo Glowworm Cave, to take the tour down through the cave, where we boarded a boat and punted through ( and ultimately out of) the cave.  The cave was pitch black -- except for the millions of glowworms that covered the ceilings and walls of the cave, with the lights reflected by the black, still water of the river.

We are not professional photographers -- although we did buy a new camera for Gracie that we took with us.  But it is impossible to take good photos from inside a black cave, so we let our fingers do the walking and found these photos on the internet to give you an idea of what we saw:

Millions of Glowworms covering the cave ceiling

Glowworms Hanging from Rocks
Closer view of Glowworm Strings

Ruakuri Cave

 The Waitomo Glowworm Cave is only one of many caves in the area, and we thought we should visit a second, Ruakuri Cave, one of the newer ones to open to visitors such as us.  Over the past few decades, Ruakuri was one of the caves frequented by adventure seekers, who would abseil straight down 35 metres (over a hundred feet), go cave tubing down a river at the bottom of a cave black but for the glowworms overhead, hike the dark in the cave, going by flying  fox over chasms, and ultimately rock climbing back out.  More recently, they have constructed an amazing circular staircase descending over ten stories.  There is a fantastic photo of the staircase, but we think it is copyrighted, so here is the link.

Ruakuri Cave has always been a spiritual place for local Maori, who, amongst other things, originally used the cave as a sacred burial ground (or wahi tapu).  The cave was discovered by the Maori 400 to 500 years ago when a hunter  was attacked by two dogs living in the cave entrance. The hunter and this tribe tracked the two dogs back to the cave and found a large population of dogs there, whom they caught and killed -- and ate.  The name Ruakuri  has been translated as with "Two Dogs" or "Den of Dogs".  Later, the cave became a wahi tapu (sacred site) for the Maori, who used for burials and for storing important taonga (sacred or precious objects, like Taonga Glass).

By the 20th century the land had passed into the hands of the Holden family, who own it to this day, and the caves were first opened to the public by James Holden.  Sometime later, the government nationalized the Ruakuri Cave and others in Waitomo, thereby getting all the revenue from tours operated at the caves.  This lead to extensive litigation by Holden, and in 1988 or 1989 the litigation resulted in a decision for the local land owners, not the government, had the right to operate the caves below the land.  Today, the owners of the land above the caves, many of whom are Maori tribes, also "own" the caves but lease the land for tourism, getting a slice of the admission charges and providing labor.  To the right is the sign that Holden posted at his entrance to the Ruakuri Cave.

The trip through the cave, the longest tour in the area, gave us a fantastic view of the black water rafters tubing along the bottom of the cave.  Couldn't photograph that, but here are some of our other favorite pictures.


Limestone Curtains

Moa bones (black) and fossils (white) found in excavation of Ruakuri Cave

Pipe leading from ground surface to cave, used to dump concrete down shaft during excavation and construction of tour facilities.  When workers tried to put metal rods down the shaft (to avoid carrying them in through the river), the rods gained such speed coming down that they penetrated the rock below and went down several meters.


Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Whanganui River Adventures II: The Return to Pipiriki

 After our 6K hike to the Bridge to Nowhere and back, we boarded our jet boats for the return trip.  A few minutes out, however, the jet boat pulled over and unloaded all of its passengers with instructions that we were to navigate on our own -- by kayak or canoe.  Gracie, an experienced kayaker, received her own vessel and was the first to set off  downstream-- solo.  Amy and Roger, quite a bit less experienced, climbed into a canoe together and set off in not-so-rapid pursuit.


Victory over Adversity
Several kilometers downstream, a taniwha struck.  [For those of you who do not know what a taniwha is, see our entry of November 12: Kowhai Park (Wanganui)].  The taniwha took the form of rocks and rapids, toppling poor Gracie into the water.  As she and her kayak were swept away, Amy and Roger endeavored to maneuver their canoe to (a) catch the kayak, (b) get the canoe and the kayak to shore, and (c) do so on the same bank as where Gracie had come to rest.  Arriving the shore, Amy stepped out into what seemed like quicksand: the sand quickly swallowed up her leg to the knee, rendering her motionless (but still vocal, according to Roger).  Gracie appeared over the top of some rocks, a bit wet and sandy, but still clutching her paddle.  The vision of victory over adversity.  Grace and the kayak were reunited and she continued.  

A few kilometers further downstream, Gracie succumbed to exhaustion and agreed to accept a lift back the rest of the way.  It turned out that she made right decision. Although we had already traveled five kilometers, there was another five kilometers between us and lunch!

Amy and Roger continued in their little canoe.  The goal was to reach the lodge where a barbecue was awaiting.  Tiring with each stroke of their paddles, our heroes finally saw an end in sight: the other canoes pulling up at a sandy beach.  The critical judgment was whether to go right or left in approaching the beach.  Unfortunately, they made the wrong call, and while they were on the wrong side, the canoe was swamped by the wake of a passing jet boat belonging to another group.  The canoe, Amy, Roger and the camera slowly sank.  All survived except the camera died by drowning.

Which is why there are no more photos to entertain you today!

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Whanganui River and the Bridge to Nowhere 13 November

The Whanganui River was once a major highway to the sea, serving numerous tree milling and farming communities up and down its banks.  After World War I, many returning soldiers took advantage of a government offer to establish farms over a hundred kilometers up river from the city of Wanganui.  Farming required felling the native forest and replacing it with grass for sheep to eat.  The bright future these optimistic pioneers expected was rudely destroyed by three factors: the removal of the forests on the sides of the hills caused massive erosion, and the resulting mud slides destroyed the farm land.  A railway was built through the central North Island, opening up land there but replacing the river highway to the point that traffic on the river slowed dramatically, isolating the farmers from contact with the world.  Third, these "farmers" were not necessarily farmers; many (or most) opted to move back to towns.

Meanwhile, a road bridge was being constructed inland to connect the farms on opposite sides of the Mangapurua Stream, a tributary of the Whanganui River, over a very steep ravine.  This would be part of road system connecting these farms with the town of Raetihi to the east and the Taranaki area to the west. By 1936, when the concrete bridge was completed, the area was almost entirely deserted and the road was never completed.  The remaining farms were finally abandoned over the next few years, new forests replaced the grassland, the valley became known as the “valley of abandoned dreams,” and the bridge became reknown as "The Bridge to Nowhere."

In recent years, the bridge has taken on a new life as a hiking destination for tourists.  Some hike in (a three to four day tramp); others boat along the Whanganui River to the mouth of the Mangapurua Stream, then hike in 3K to the bridge.  We opted for the jet boat from Pipiriki, a small village some 70K upriver from the city of Wanganui and 31K from the Bridge to Nowhere.

Getting to Pipiriki was no mean task: it involved a hairy ride along a narrow, winding road, 15K of which was unsealed and a large amount of which was essentially one lane.  Erosion along the road can be treacherous, with the inevitable slips and washouts.  Not for the weak of heart!

Along the road is Jerusalem, In earlier days, Jerusalem or Hiruharama  (its Maori name), was one of the largest settlements on the Whanganui River.  Today, it is a small settlement of houses clustered around the Patiarero Marae.  Suzanne Aubert came here at the invitation of the Maori people in 1883.  Here the Sisters of Compassion came into being, and were formally recognised by the Catholic Church in 1892.  There has been a continuous presence of sisters in the local community ever since.  The Sisters (of which there are now three) are privileged to have the status of tangata whenua (native to the area).  A famous New Zealand poet, James K Baxter lived in Jerusalem in the 1970’s.  He was joined by a number of followers and a spiritual commune developed "to recover values New Zealand's Pakeha urban society had lost."  See his Jerusalem Sonnets (1970) and Jerusalem Daybook (1971).  (Hemi) Baxter is buried at Jerusalem.

At Pipiriki, we boarded, appropriately suited up (one  needs proper safety gear) for the 30K jet boat ride up to the Bridge to Nowhere.  (Roger and Amy are getting used to looking like twits!).  The journey took us through some spectacular scenery.  As we were the first jet boat of a group, the water ahead was quite calm, and acted as a mirror for the surrounding forest and hills. 

The hike into the Bridge to Nowhere took us through more spectacular forest growth, on a track maintained by the Department of Conversation (DoC).  The track got a lot rougher than the early part shown in the first picture, and included traveling over a lovely swinging bridge.

We finally reached what we thought was to be the highlight of the trip: the Bridge to Nowhere!  The three of us, however, decided that perhaps the bridge was inappropriately named.  Having listened in the car to dramatizations of two of the books in C.S. Lewis's Narnia series, we decided this was really  the Bridge to Narnia.  But where is Aslan?

Grace going Nowhere

Did someone say "Narnia"?

Stay tuned for the next exciting episode of our Whanganui River ventures!