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Friday, May 25, 2018

Back to Australia

We returned to eastern Australia to find that it was fall (or autumn as they say). For the most part, these weeks were about catching up with family and friends: Jim and Liza in Sydney, Gez and Dave in the suburbs of Melbourne, meeting up with niece Bryony and her boyfriend, plus a couple rounds of “crazy golf” with Johanna in the city. From Melbourne we were flying to Perth, to start our first ever exploration of Western Australia.
We did also make time to visit a sight in Melbourne that kept catching my eye from the train station: the Immigration Museum.
My Canadian and U.S. selves
I have been an immigrant, or trying to emigrate, my whole adult life, which makes the subject of great interest to me. It was fascinating to see how perspectives of “white Australia” had changed over the centuries. Further, how does an “immigrant nation” reconcile its self-image with its indigenous inhabitants, until recently treated as a race doomed to extinction?
In 1967(!) there was a referendum to recognize Aboriginal people as citizens of Australia. To their credit, other Australians, who could vote, said Yes overwhelmingly.
It was also interesting to see statistics on who immigrants are, since here, as in other countries, we are very unpopular with some people.
Another fact I learned at the Immigration Museum is that visitors to Australia, many British and American, who overstay their visas outnumber asylum seekers by 10 to 1. In other words, people seeking refuge—a legitimate act by international agreement—are only small in number compared with illegal immigrants who happen to “blend in.” Here as in other countries I can think of, if people object to illegal immigration, they need to stop being hypocritical about who is staying and working illegally.

Anyway, it was time to move on. We were flying to Perth and picking up a camper van. Perth is the capital of Western Australia, and prides itself on being the most remote capital on earth. If you look at a globe, you can see it is not near to anything. As we were to discover driving north, the west coast of Australia is pretty remote too.

This was our first rental, as opposed to relocation, of a camper van in Australia, and I have to say it didn’t compare favorably with our New Zealand experience. While the other companies we’ve dealt with in Australia, Britz and Maui, provided us with great service, the Apollo place in Perth seemed inefficient right off. It took us forever to get served, and once our guy realized he wasn’t going to be able to “upsell” a bunch of stuff that we didn’t need, his entire demeanor changed. The van itself has been running just fine (fingers crossed) but, compared with our Tui van in New Zealand that was much older, the interior leaves much to be desired. Fortunately, the weather is so much warmer and drier here that we haven’t spent as much time in the interior.

Not to belabor design flaws, but how in the world is this same size of Hi-Top vehicle designed as a four-berth? If four people were traveling in this there would be no room at all for two people’s stuff (there’s barely room for ours). The presence of two extra seats, with the bed in the middle, means the bed is too short (we are 5’8” and 5’9”), and the kitchen being in the rear means in the middle of the night we have to climb out through the back. Not the easiest thing to do, even for backpackers more limber than we are. There is also far less gear in the kitchen than the Tui camper managed to fit. I don’t want to be a prima donna so I won’t moan about missing my cafetière, but a wastewater tank/hose would have been nice. “It just goes on the ground,” according to the Apollo guy. I’ve been using the bucket for this purpose, but really. Dishwater on the ground is not good enough for responsible camping purposes.

Despite all this, we rented a camping table and chairs (useful every day in dry Western Australia! Yay!) and set off boldly up the highway. Well, we tried to. Unlike in New Zealand where we were given a road atlas (a duplicate of one I had already bought), the Apollo people “don’t have maps anymore,” so we had only a map from a gas station. Which would have been fine, except we had no idea where we were in Perth or how to get out of it! The gas station woman could tell us where a grocery store was, so that was a start. At the post office next door, my luck changed. The whole staff stopped what they were doing and tried to give me directions out of town. One drew me a map while another said, “Oh, so-and-so goes to Cervantes all the time; let me ask her” and wrote down directions. The business of the post office, and the line of customers behind me, ground to a halt while everyone tried to help.

Nonetheless, we still had to stop at another gas station for confirmation that, somehow, we were going the wrong way. I asked again about State Highway 60 but “We don’t use numbers much around here,” the guy told me. 

“Yes, I’ve noticed that.”

Having never seen Perth except for its suburban outskirts, we eventually got on Highway 60 going towards Cervantes. (This is pronounced with a short a, but nevertheless reminds me of my old friend Fritz—Quixote—who used to call me Cervantes.) The road which nobody calls 60 is called Indian Ocean Drive on signs. This is a rather grand name. It seemed to be hours before we caught a glimpse of the ocean, but that was probably just because it had taken us so long to pick up the camper van and finally leave Perth. Cervantes isn’t very far north and I hadn’t expected we’d get there at sunset. The last time we saw the sun set over the Indian Ocean, we were in Mauritius!
Giant sand dune at sundown
The area is filled with giant white sand dunes, and I heard, rather than saw, interesting bird life throughout. Our campground was within view of the beach, which rather made up for the “coastal drive” which had not, largely, been coastal. The biggest attraction near Cervantes, though, a few kilometers south, is Nambung National Park and its most famous feature, the Pinnacles.

These are thousands of limestone formations that appear suddenly out of the white sand dunes within view of the Indian Ocean. Only a matter of public record since 1934, the Pinnacles really are mysterious. We didn't read any Aboriginal history relating to them, and there doesn’t seem to be a definitive scientific explanation for exactly how they formed. Something about the wind and sand in this part of the world. 

We drove through the Pinnacles on a packed sand road and then did the walk. Here I began to notice a distinct characteristic of Western Australia. The “trail” was just periodic markers; you had to keep your eye out for the next one or you could be lost in the desert. Yet no one appeared to have trampled the sand or driven where they weren’t supposed to. It seems that here is a place where adults are trusted to explore while taking responsibility for our own safety.

The other characteristic I’d already noticed was an exceptional friendliness. Take Margaret Stewart, the woman at the Pinnacles who told us all about the national parks pass, which for four weeks entitles us to visit all of WA’s national parks for less than the price of four days, without ever hard selling (it didn’t matter to her if we bought it or not). It was also from Ms. Stewart that I learned that Exmouth, our ultimate destination, is pronounced Ex Mouth, which sounds like a remembered kiss from a past relationship. 

We went away and considered, then came back to buy the pass. She glanced up and said “Yes, sir?” before realizing I was the same woman she’d been talking to moments before: “Oh, I’m sorry—I just saw the hat!” Don’t worry, Ms. Stewart; it happens all the time. We then instantly became “girls.” She was right about the parks pass, though. Even if we didn’t visit four of the parks in the course of our trip, and it seems likely we will, we will definitely spend at least four days in them.

Because, aside from the national parks and other designated scenic spots, it is a pretty bleak road trip. T. keeps saying that the highway paralleling the west coast of Australia is much more like she expected the Stuart Highway up the middle to be. Whereas it was hotter in central Australia in March, it did not appear to be the red dust desert of our imagination. In WA, on the other hand, once the ocean is out of view (and it almost always is, except for turnoffs to those specific places), you might as well be a thousand miles inland. Nothing but desert and acres of “station” (ranch) as far as the eye can see.

Of course this is why we travel: to see these places for ourselves and get our own impressions. T. has been on a roll with her observations lately. “Yeah, I’m never sure about being happy as a clam,” she said one day; “are clams really all that happy?” Or in the grocery store, when I suggested a jar of pasta sauce; it transpired that she had never made pasta before without homemade sauce. “What do you do with it? Just heat it up?!” It rather made up for the day when she “couldn’t find hamburgers” and I had to suggest, rather gently, that we buy some ground beef and just form our own patties…

The campground at Cervantes was very friendly too, and this established a pattern that would be repeated throughout WA. The strains of a guitar playing Pink Floyd, and the chit chat with German-accented people at the next campsite, were soothing sounds. Just as well because it was at this first campground that I discovered another of Apollo’s many sins: The water hose didn't screw into the spigot. I learned this at the expense of soaking my clothes. The prospect of not being able to refill the tank was not good, even if we weren’t planning to camp in remote sites.

“Remote” being relative. At the risk of repeating myself, this coast is not near anywhere else. I wouldn't say it’s hard to get to—the highway is paved these days, and there are airports—but it isn’t on the way to, or from, Australia’s more famous destinations. You have to want to come here. Unlike eastern Australia, WA is thin on the ground when it comes to rest areas or even recycling bins (they’re pretty good with aluminum cans, but we knew about them forty years ago). And the only “photo op” I saw for days was the Leaning Tree, which I didn’t photograph, because every tree we could see was bent from the wind in that same direction. 

Western Australia gives the impression of being behind on environmental awareness. Maybe it’s that for so long the state’s economy has been focused on mining, but the sight of cans and bottles flung onto the side of the highway is depressingly consistent. Ironic, too, because if you persist, as we have, you can be rewarded by some of the environmental wonders of the world.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Carry on regardless: Is checking luggage a deal breaker?

Whether your trip is short or long, The Discreet Traveler is all about traveling light. To many people, this means flying with only carry-on luggage, especially where (as on U.S. domestic flights and discount flights everywhere) checking bags incurs a fee. Here are the pros and cons of the carry-on only approach.
My Farpoint 55 backpack (includes 15L daypack, which detaches)
  • No wait to check in luggage at the airport. Personally, we almost always have to check in at the airport anyway, whether to show our passports or print our boarding passes. But I can see the attraction of heading straight to security.
  • No wait to pick up luggage at the carousel. Again, for many travelers this represents a significant time savings. I’ve rarely had to wait long for a bag, especially after clearing immigration for an international flight. But then there’s
  • No chance of a bag being lost. I haven’t had a delayed bag in years and never lost one, but it can happen.
  • This is true whether you check your bag or not, but limiting the size of your bag forces you to pack within those limits. Carry-on only is one way to help you pack light.
Could be a pro or a con:
  • There are restrictions on what you can carry on. Sharp objects are out, though this does not include the same things everywhere (tweezers?) Liquids, which in some cases includes things like deodorant or lip balm, have to be in containers 100 mL or less and go through security separately in a clear plastic bag. I’ve often wished I had my Swiss Army knife on these travels, but that would require me to check a bag on every flight. If checking a bag costs $25, it'd be cheaper to buy a disposable razor and sunscreen at your destination.

  • Many airlines, especially in Asia and Australia, have a weight limit, not just a size limit. Jetstar, for example, frequently weighs bags at the gate and charges A$160 (for an international flight) if your bag weighs more than 7 kg. On other airlines I have squeezed my 40L main backpack into an overhead compartment, but it’s rarely weighed less than 12 kg. Some travelers simply risk their bags not being weighed, but there are reasons for these limits. A heavy bag, especially a hard-sided case, can cause serious injury if it falls on someone’s head.
Of course, not all airlines have weight limits. Indeed, U.S. airlines have encouraged their passengers to carry on bags, presumably for cost-cutting reasons. Which leads to con #2:
  • Carry-on only can be a pain. There is always room to fit my 15L daypack somewhere, but with so many passengers in front of me hefting wheeled cases, I can’t count on having room for my main bag.
There are safety concerns here too. The more baggage there is in the cabin, the slower people are to get on and off the plane. And in an emergency passengers are known to reach for their stuff, even though the crew is forever telling us not to.

As you can see, whether to travel carry-on only is not a clear-cut choice for everyone. It depends on where and how often you fly, what your airline requires, what you’re comfortable carrying on board, and your budget. In the past year of travel we’ve checked bags every time; but in the next year, when we’ll be flying within North America, we may not do so. What I do think everyone can benefit from is traveling with a carry-on sized bag (my main backpack is very close, but soft-sided is easier to squeeze in than a suitcase). Traveling minimally is best for many reasons, and you then have the choice of whether to carry your bag on board.

One other tip: Whatever you carry, have a smaller bag, such as your daypack or a packing cube, that you can take out and use for items you want on the flight. That way you can keep it under the seat in front of you for easy access. This is useful especially if your bag has been stowed somewhere up the aisle or, worse, you’ve been forced to check it planeside.

Safe travels!
Had to replace my bath bag and am unreasonably pleased with this one. It’s made from recycled plastic bottles. Have not yet determined if the detachable mirror is a “sharp” for airline purposes

Friday, May 4, 2018

Weather with you: west coast and Northland, NZ

Probably the best known New Zealand pop songs are those by the Finn brothers. Neil was in the original lineup of Crowded House, and when Tim joined the band they had an international hit called “Weather With You.” While we were in NZ the iPod kept going back to this song, like a theme. I wonder why:
“Everywhere you go
Always take the weather with you”

We had three sunny days in New Zealand. One was the day we hiked from Hahei Beach to Cathedral Cove, on the Coromandel Peninsula. One was the day we made our way from Tongariro to Raglan, on the west coast. And the other was the day we took off from the camper van and joined a tour up to Cape Reinga, at the tip of Northland, the part of the North Island that stretches above Auckland.
As I wrote a few posts ago, New Zealand has some unique native wildlife. You might have wondered why the only picture I have of a tuatara, the little dinosaur, is from Auckland Museum, and the only picture of a kiwi is this:

The answer is, we tried but we couldn’t find any! We stopped at the Otorohanga Kiwi House and Native Bird Park on the sunny day. Before paying, we saw that there was a “tuatarium,” where they keep that species as well. You might have thought the sun would tempt a tuatara out into it, but George was hiding, unfortunately.

So we tried the kiwi enclosures. Both of them. Now kiwis are nocturnal, so I wouldn’t have expected to see one in the wild anyway. But neither of us saw anything in the nocturnal house. No movement, no creature anywhere. I remember nocturnal houses at zoos having a kind of purple light by which you could see the nocturnal animals. Maybe they determined that was bad for the animals. In any case, I’m happy Otorohanga has a sanctuary for kiwis and other native birds, but we saw nothing more exotic than a duck.
"Sometimes it's all about the kids having fun," T. said.
We continued to pass fun road signs. In Huntly there was a place called Cheep Liquor. Maybe it’s like Dairy Kreme—they misspell Cheep deliberately because it isn't really cheap. We also kept stopping at picnic places, which are everywhere along NZ roadsides, but have no other facilities such as toilets or trash cans.

It’s no wonder. Every man and woman in New Zealand is employed fixing various portions of road. Fortunately, since we were used to such a leisurely, winding pace, the road works everywhere didn’t slow us down much. We got lots of good views of the hills and then flatland along the Kaipara Harbour. Now we know why NZ looks so lush and green.

Arriving at Raglan, which is a surf town in summer, was a big relief. It wasn’t the season for swimming in the Tasman Sea, but we walked down along the black sand beach in time for sunset. The little boys playing there were charming, stopping their mom, me, and anyone else to tell about the “sea creature” they’d found in the sand.

Our campground was on a spit of land, so we took a footbridge over to the town. Not much going on, but there’s always fish and chips. Peter had warned us about “fush and chups” as they say in NZ. You order the kind of fish you want (from what’s fresh that day) and then wait for them to cook it right then, along with fresh chips. It would never work in a busy place, like Britain or Australia, but then I’d never even heard of the fish I had—gurnard. It was delicious. 

Walking back we could see a crescent moon, and the Milky Way. From sunshine in the morning to our starriest night, it was also the first day in New Zealand I hadn’t worn my rain jacket. At all. It was as if the country wanted to see the poppy T. bought me from New Zealand's Returned and Services' Association.

The next morning when I got up, there was a perfect rainbow standing right over the campground. It didn’t last long enough for me to get my glasses, let alone my camera. But I saw it.
We made our way along the west coast of Northland, camping the second night at Dargaville. We didn't go into the Dargaville Museum but we did stop there, for the views from the top of the hill. It's the site of a pa, a Maori fortified settlement. You can see signs of these defensive terraces around many volcanoes on the North Island. And there's something else outside the Dargaville Museum that I wanted to see: the masts of the Rainbow Warrior.
For those who don't remember, in 1985 the Rainbow Warrior was sunk in Auckland Harbour. She was a Greenpeace ship on the way to document France's atomic tests in Polynesia (it's amazing how many parts of the world were dirtied like this). New Zealanders were shocked to learn that a terrorist bombing had taken place in their country, killing a photographer. They were even more shocked when it emerged that the terrorists were actually French spies, acting on orders from their government.

The condemnation of France by its ally, the U.S.A., was tepid enough to anger New Zealand. This was one of a number of factors that pushed the New Zealand government to adopt an anti-nuclear policy and one of non-alignment with any of the nuclear powers, which it maintains to this day. Of course not all Kiwis are enamored of their country's distinctive stance. I imagine Canadian businesses are. 

Back to our road trip and the jewel north of Dargaville: the Waipoua Forest. We were on Highway 1, the main highway on the North Island, but there were still plenty of hills and twists for our driver to enjoy.

The Waipoua Forest is the best preserve of the kauri forests that once covered much of the island. We stopped and walked in the Trounson Kauri Park, seeing many of these enormous and ancient trees.

Then we found Tane Mahuta, Lord of the Forest. He, as the Tane Mahuta ambassador referred to the tree, is the largest kauri alive, and may have been living as long as two thousand years. “So when your castles and cathedrals were built,” said the ambassador, “he was already a thousand years old. And he is still living!”
Some sights are just said to be impressive, and when you see them, they don’t do anything for you. But Tane Mahuta is impressive.

We camped for two nights in Ahipara, at the bottom of Ninety Mile Beach. The beach is actually just under ninety kilometres long, but the holiday park is nice. A roaring fire in the communal room did not go amiss! The wind chill had been below freezing in Tongariro National Park.

It was from here that we booked a day trip up Ninety Mile Beach and to Cape Reinga. After all that driving, it was nice to have somebody else do it, not least because we were in a bus-sized dune buggy that actually drove up Ninety Mile Beach. 

There are a lot of Croatian names in Northland. Many Croatian people settled here to work at gum digging, which I finally learned has nothing to do with gum trees (eucalyptus), but the sap from kauris. People used to harvest this “New Zealand amber.” Now that the kauri is a protected species, it can only be harvested from peat swamps where the trees have been buried for hundreds or thousands of years.

Like a lot of other immigrants, the Croatians received a less than warm welcome, especially during the Great War when they arrived on Austrian passports. Maori people in the area called them tarara, which was what they joked the Croatian language sounded like. Today, many people in the area have both Maori and Croatian heritage.

I’m not sure how I feel about a beach that people drive all over, or as far as they can with a quad bike or 2WD. Probably like a jet ski, it’s obnoxious for anyone else who’s trying to relax on the beach, but it’s fun when you’re on it.

The forecast was right: it was clear and sunny all day. And our trip was good value for money. The 4WD took us to the top of the beach and then to the Te Paki dunes, giant sand dunes of white silica. Our objective here was to “surf” down the dune on old body boards. It was more like sledding than surfing, only it’s much tougher to walk up a sand dune than a snowy hill. On my second run I took the brakes off and let fly across the water at the bottom.
Photo courtesy of T.
Thence to Cape Reinga, the holiest marae or sacred ground in all of New Zealand. It’s where the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean.

Maori tradition also says that this is where souls slide down the roots of a lone pohutukawa tree, to begin their journey to paradise.

We walked down to the lighthouse, which dates from 1941. On the way back I had enough in my legs to climb up and over the bluff. Barely, after climbing the dune. I kept finding sand on my face and even in my mouth!

When Christian missionaries came to this country, they planted a lot of Norfolk pine. They liked the way the top of the tree resembles a cross. Our guide pointed this out and then I started seeing Norfolk pines everywhere—almost as often as maraes.

It was such a calm day that the usual mist was absent at Cape Reinga, and we were able to see across to the Three Kings Islands. We could also see the westernmost point of New Zealand, Cape Maria van Diemen.

Our lunch stop was at Tapotupotu Bay. The disadvantage of being with an organized tour is that we couldn’t walk to Tapotupotu Bay, or spend as much time there as we liked. But Auntie Joyce and her mate fixed us a very good lunch. 

That afternoon it was too warm for the communal fire. We sat in the sunshine back at our campsite, in the camp chairs. It was one of the only times we got them out. 

On our last full day in New Zealand, we made our way down the east coast. At some points the coasts are as little as 10 km apart. We had to drive mostly inland, as Highway 11 was closed south of Paihia, but we did pause for a bit at Doubtless Bay.

At Kerikeri we stopped to see the oldest stone building in New Zealand, the Stone Store. The nearby mission house is the oldest European building in the country. They are relics of Anglican missionaries, as are many of the cute little churches I seemed to see everywhere we went.

This is the region of the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, where Maori and Europeans first encountered and made treaty with one another (however often it would later be breached by the Crown). We couldn’t get there because of the highway closure, so I made a special pit stop instead.

These are the Hundertwasser Toilets in Kawakawa. Friedensreich Hundertwasser, an artist and architect born in Austria, lived nearby for several decades until his death. He was known for eco-works like these, featuring ceramic mosaics, colored bottles, and grass and plants growing on the roof. 

It was a very rough turnoff to Uretiti Beach, but it made for a nice final lunch stop. You just walk over a little bluff on a sand walkway and you are on the beach.

Before reaching Sandspit, our last campground, we meant to stop at a winery. As with the tuatara and the kiwi, I’d been pursuing wineries with no luck, and my luck was not to change. The winery didn’t do tastings on Mondays. The closest I got was the wine I bought in stores, or fireside at the Chateau Tongariro.

But better late than never, I sat at a picnic table—wooden! dry!—on our last evening. Our campsite looked out at Hauraki Gulf. I thought about what I would miss about New Zealand. The kiwi fruit, feijoas, Vogel’s crumpet-like bread. The campgrounds, which were all nice and had a powered site for us whenever we turned up. Not so much the rain or Bluebird “crisps” (there are only two or three in a bag, which is a relief).
Sunrise from our campsite
My abiding image of New Zealand will be those little boys on the beach. Kids, and some adults, running around the beaches and campgrounds enjoying themselves, and often barefoot! At Sandspit Holiday Park there were six boys of varying ages “challenging” each other to some kind of game. Another was tossing a rugby ball to himself. The TV lounge, which had old cinema seats installed (antique junk was the theme of this campground), was empty. The screen was dark.

Why would anyone turn on a screen? I’ve never seen a country more beautiful, anywhere in the world.

Monday, April 30, 2018

A fair-weather tramp: Rotorua and Tongariro

When I was reading up on this trip, I found out about the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. It is supposed to be the best day hike in New Zealand, possibly the world. But it’s 19 km long, and that’s about as long as the longest hike T. and I have ever done together, the Rim Trail of the Grand Canyon. (My mom and dad will never forget it.) Unlike the Rim Trail, you hike up (and down) a significant amount. Then, independently, T. mentioned the Alpine Crossing and what a spectacular “tramp” it is supposed to be. We agreed to try it when we got to Tongariro National Park.

First, we had a stop at Rotorua. It was easy to get there from Tauranga, because all roads lead to Rotorua. Katherine suggested we take the scenic, winding road (we should already have realized that all roads on the North Island, no matter how major, are scenic and winding). It was pouring rain, so we didn’t look for hikes along the way. Instead, we arrived at the visitors’ centre in Rotorua and asked an unsmiling guy if he had any suggestions for a rainy day.

He basically said no. I kept waiting for his inner Kiwi to emerge and be cheerful, but he was one exception to the rule. Even Rotorua’s museum, which I read was a good one, was a no go: it was closed in 2016 for not meeting earthquake standards. 
Here’s a hint: When travelers arrive on a rainy day asking what there is to do, don’t keep saying no to everything they suggest. We almost just drove out of town!

Which would have been a shame, because Ohinemutu was fascinating even in the rain. Ohinemutu is a Maori village where the meeting of Maori and European cultures is quite evident. So is the sulfury underground for which Rotorua is famous. Thermal pools bubble up from the earth seemingly everywhere, and can just erupt into people’s homes!
Steam from underground vents
We learned this from our own personal Maori encounter—not a commercialized cultural experience (there are lots of those in Rotorua) but a visit to St. Faith’s Anglican Church. “Welcome to our church,” one of the women said, and proceeded to tell us about the underfloor heating the timbered church gets from the geothermal source beneath. 

The most striking feature of St. Faith’s is an etched window that was done in honor of the missionaries who introduced the Te Arawa people to Christianity.

Here, Jesus is depicted wearing a Maori cloak and walking on the water. But instead of etching the Sea of Galilee, the artist has left the window clear, so we can see the actual waters of Lake Rotorua.

We also saw some native birds walking around—whio, or blue ducks. From the names on the churchyard gravestones, the mix of cultures is clear, as it is from the cenotaph on Lake Rotorua, just behind the church.

The god of war, so close to the Prince of Peace. I suppose they will both continue along together until the final victory some day.

We had our rain jackets, having never put them away since our arrival in NZ, but we were still tired of everything being wet. Luckily the Thermal Holiday Park was just down the road. The woman there was very nice, and gave us a campsite right next to the women’s bathroom. (All four of the previous rainy nights, we’d had a long walk.) The weather being what it was, T. thought it was an excellent opportunity to use the washing machine and, especially, the dryer.

I think at this point I should mention the camp chairs and table which, in a fit of optimism, T. had rented from the camper van people. We should have known when they weren’t included. The table is a collapsible thing, flimsier than something you’d backpack with, and once we had the legs out we never could figure out how to fold them back together. All we’ve been able to do with it is stand it on our campsites and try to dry swimsuits on it. But of course that didn't work either, because it rained so often.

The other thing that has proven utterly useless in our camper van is the chemical port-o-pot. We didn't want this, but they have to include it or the van can’t be labeled “self-contained,” meaning you can take it to any campsite (not just campgrounds with amenities included). As it happened we never “freedom camped” anyway, but who knows, in good weather we might have. When we are on the road this stupid pot sits in the back, framed by the useless table, which we can’t get back in its bag. Because of minimal space, once we set up camp, the toilet sits in the passenger seat.

We had no further ambitions than laundry in Rotorua, but later that afternoon the sun came out. Couldn’t miss a chance like that, so we made our way a few kilometers down the road to a forest park of California redwoods. Needless to say these are not native trees—they were planted in the nineteenth century—but of all the introduced species in NZ this is a rather benign one. We had a lovely walk.

Back at the campground, we took advantage of the thermal pools. It’s good that this part of the North Island has so many hot pools, because that’s one thing we could enjoy outside in cool weather. This night, it wasn’t even raining. Amid the sulfury smell, every now and then the misty clouds would clear and I could see the stars. For the first time in New Zealand. Good thing I kept my glasses on in the pool.

The sun was shining again the next morning when we headed towards Lake Taupo. We stopped off at Huka Falls for a short walk to the lookouts.

The Waikato River, the country’s longest river, is the only outlet for Lake Taupo, the country’s largest lake. It is forced through a narrow chasm at Huka Falls. 
Lake Taupo

 We continued towards Turangi where we saw some trees with striking autumnal colors. 

A scenic lookout shortly thereafter gave us a glimpse of our climactic goal: Tongariro National Park.

Our campground at Whakapapa Village featured yet more nice staff. We were greeted with “Kia ora,” Maori for hello, which is not uncommon in New Zealand. The campground had a bathtub, lots of hot showers, a drying room (where we finally dried those swimsuits), a nice big kitchen, and WiFi. What Whakapapa also had was a bad weather forecast. In fact, the shuttle bus that takes hikers to and from the Tongariro Alpine Crossing was not even running the next day.

“A fair-weather tramp” is how the Lonely Planet guidebook described it. The excellent visitors’ center informed us that the precipitation (you guessed it) was forecast to be snow at 1,500 m, plus there would be gale force winds at Red Crater, the high point of the hike. I pictured us slogging up and down in the snow for no views, and crawling along the ridge. A hike that would have put us at the limits of our collective endurance on a good day was not going to work in this weather.

But T. hadn’t bought all those layers for nothing. So the next morning we put on our merino wool and our rain pants and trudged off into the rain.

Here’s a thing about layers: Don’t wear cotton. Or if you do, don’t wear it next to the skin. Cotton’s wicking properties are so poor that you’d be better off not wearing that layer at all. Nobody got hypothermia during this hike, but at higher elevations it could be a different story.

Considering all the warnings, we got lucky with the weather. We set off on the Ridge Track, a short walk up through the beech forest where we were camped beside Whakapapanui Stream.

It was raining while we walked in the woods, but we were partially sheltered there. Then when we got to the ridge, the sky cleared. We even got some sun, and good views of two of the volcanoes in the park, Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe. The latter starred as “Mount Doom” in The Lord of the Rings films.
That only took half an hour so we went on to the Taranaki Falls Track, a two-hour loop. We started on the lower track and again, avoided much of the rain simply by walking through the woods.

It was coming down pretty hard when we got to the falls themselves. I asked some German-speaking women if they had just come from the upper track, to make sure we didn’t head off into an exposed wasteland! Luckily the rain eased off and we even got some sun over the tussocky-type landscape and the old lava flow that the falls plunge over.
There was snow higher up!
In the last, forested part of the hike it got pretty rainy again, and by the end we were getting hit with pellets of hail. Nonetheless, we got the sequence of weather in the right order. And when we got back we made the most of the drying room as well as hot coffee, Chunky Soup, and hot buttered toast.

There’s something I’ve learned in the past twenty years of traveling, and it holds pretty true for Europeans everywhere. If we run into Europeans outdoors doing something hardy, such as the women at the falls or the “kids” in the sea at Hot Water Beach, they are German. If we run into them in the camp kitchen, such as the three guys who were always in the kitchen in Tauranga or the family cooking in Whakapapa, they are French. Where are the British—holed up in their “caravans” reminiscing about their rainy childhood holidays? 

No, in fact we sat at supper (in said camp kitchen) with a young British couple who were preparing to do the Alpine Crossing the next day. Weather permitting. The shuttle was scheduled to run again, at least. It was the first day in a week that was not forecast to be “sh*t,” according to the young man.

Of course, I was bummed not to be going with them, but it had been a very cold afternoon. The sun had come out, and with it my down jacket! We took advantage of the clear weather to walk over to the Chateau Tongariro, a grand old 1929 hotel that had a roaring fire in the bar. It was the closest I’d get to a Hawke’s Bay winery.
Anyhow it was time to move on. The next morning while we were packing up the van (in the rain) I was at the door when T. emptied the kettle into a mud puddle, spraying both my pants legs. She apologized, but I started laughing hysterically. It was the perfect end to our alpine visit—everything so wet that the very campsite appeared to her to be a drain. Worse than Ireland. 

But there is a great story behind Tongariro National Park. Its three volcanoes (Tongariro is the other one) and the surrounding lands were part of the Land Wars, or what the colonial government called Maori Wars. In 1887, Chief Horonuku te Heuheu Tukino IV deeded the mountains to the government of New Zealand, on the condition that they become what was then only the fourth national park in the world. It was an extraordinarily farsighted decision by a chief who recognized that the land’s true value to future generations lay in its natural beauty, not in being divvied up for more pastures. It is also a good example of a government agreeing on this longterm interest with the people who lived in the place first, rather than simply taking land from them.

Bust of the chief, Whakapapa Visitor Centre
I am grateful for such foresight on the part of our ancestors.