Monday, April 2, 2007

Kawhia Warm Beach & Tongariro Crossing

(Quick note--"The Enterprise" entry was updated to include photos. Enjoy!)

After our short but pleasant stay in Waitomo with the caves and glowworms, Tyler and I decided to make our way to Tongoriro National Park, the location of New Zealand's most popular day hike (or tramp, as they are wont to call it). Our Lonely Planet guidebook description of the hike left a bit to be desired--nothing about how many kilometers or elevation gain--but it sounded fantastic. Views of volcanoes, some lakes, the whole bit. So we got back in the Enterprise and decided to start heading southward.

But to break up the trip, we decided to go a little out of our way to a small coastal town on the west coast of the North Island called Kawhia (pronounced "Kafia"). Nearby was one of New Zealand's famed "warm beaches," where geothermal activity creates warm water running beneath the surface. At low tide, you're meant to go out, dig yourself a little hole, and then have a nice, natural hot tub to enjoy on the beach. I was pretty excited about this, and even though the skies were grey and a little overcast, we headed to the beach, with lovely black sand dunes and the beautiful green-ish waters we've seen around NZ so far.

Black sand beach

At the i-Site in town, the woman had made it sound so easy. Just walk out, 12:30 or 1PM will be perfect, scratch your toe down into the sand to find a warm spot, then dig. So we walk down the beach and eagerly dip our toes into the sand. A little bit warm at first (I think the black sand just soaked up heat from the sun), then cold. Not what I expected when hearing about really hot water. So we tramp up the beach a ways. We try closer to the water. Farther from the water. Down the other direction. We try digging holes seeing if they'll magically fill up with hot water. All to no avail.

Tyler gallantly continuing the search for hot water

It's growing cold and windy, and I'm ruing the fact that I didn't ask for more explicit instructions and frustrated at the nice i-Site lady for not giving better information. But then we spy another couple arriving with a shovel. They must know what to do. They had heard that the hot water should be straight ahead from the dune entrance and that the tide was still too high. So we wait. And wait some more. Then search, again to no avail. Then a crusty New Zealand man comes roaring up on a 4x4. He must know what to do. We see him pick a spot, hitch up his pants and start digging around in the sand. Tyler went out to talk to him, which was interesting because we could only really understand about a third of what he said. But we found it--the elusive hot water. Finally, we could dig our toe down and feel noticeably hot water. Of course, it was also under about two feet of water, and it was nearing low tide. There was no chance we were going to be able to have the natural hot tub we desired, so we decided to continue on our journey.

Sarah and the black sand dunes, without her natural hot beach experience

We decided to break up the journey by stopping at a campground en route. Now, I must say, the Kiwis know how to do camping and road trips. The campsites we've stayed at so far have been incredibly well-equipped. At a minimum, they all include a nice "amenities block" which includes a kitchen with sinks and stoves/burners and bathrooms and showers--with hot water! In fact, the facilities at the campgrounds are almost always better than any other place we've stayed thus far on the trip. The nicer ones have swimming pools, lounge/reading rooms, playgrounds--something for the whole family. And it's a nice change of pace from hostels. We've gotten more opportunities to interact with interesting people, often older Kiwi couples, tooling about the country for one reason or another. While I usually want a little more seclusion when camping in the States, this is perfect for road-tripping across a country.

After our short sojourn, we continued on to Whakapapa Village (pronounced, as you might have guessed, "Fakapapa"), to the DOC (Department of Conservation) office, as well as some bars/cafes, and a campground. We arrived with plenty of rain and a fear that we were there too late in the day to attempt the hike, dreading another near-miss after the disappointment of the warm beach. The nice people at the DOC confirmed that we were too late and the weather was a bit nasty for the Crossing, but that there were some lovely hikes nearby and maybe the weather would clear soon, though the forecast for the next day wasn't any better.

In slightly sour spirits, we set off on a hike, debating whether to stick it out until Monday (it was Saturday) to do the hike, forget about the hike, or what. To our pleasant surprise, the hike they recommended, Tawanaki Falls, was indeed quite lovely. It passed through some alpine-y meadows, native forest, and then the falls were surprisingly impressive.

Tawanaki Falls

We decided to stay the night and test the weather the next morning. And fortunately--as is often the case--the weather turned out to be fine. Well, at least without rain, treacherous winds, or other conditions that would have made the hike impossible. I think it says something about Kiwis that the top day hike in the whole country is a 17K (~10 miles), steep trail. I can't think of many day hikes I've done in Washington longer than 6 miles, and the busiest trails seem to be those that are 2 miles and flat. (This is a country where they have zip lines and such at children's playgrounds.)

Tongariro Crossing Altitude and Distance Graph

Well, the reputation was well-deserved--it was a fantastic hike. I had wondered how the trail would handle those steep climbs. Switchbacks? Stairs? No, you basically are just scrambling up rocky mountains, following posts so you don't lose your way. We were especially glad that the weather held, as I think that might have taken most the fun out of it to do it in colder or wetter conditions.

Hikers above us on the first steep incline

The only downside was that the highest points were socked in with fog, so we didn't get to see the Red Crater or the volcano that had it's moment of fame as Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings.

What we should have seen:

What we actually saw:

This seems to be a theme in our travels. On our honeymoon, we did another great hike (Mount Rapinski in Haines, Alaska) that ended in much the same way.

Regardless, the scenery was like being in another world. We crossed through lava flows, what felt like the inside of an old crater, past sulfur-smelling hot springs, alpine meadows, and forest. All in all, quite worth the five hour trek!

Scenes from Tongariro Crossing:

Crazy dark and yellow ground between volcanic craters

Emerald Lakes, one of our first sightings after the fog at the peak

Lunch at Ketatahi Hut, with Lake Rotoaira in the distance

At the Ketatahi Hot Springs, there were rocks that rusted under the stream's flow

Steam from the Ketatahi Hot Springs

All in all, we felt really lucky to get to do the hike and have decent weather. Of course, after all that salubrious activity, we are back to wine country in Hawke's Bay!

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