Friday, November 30, 2012

Hot Water, Chapter 2

Nov. 30, 2012

Okay, the longer version – we drove from Piha to Hot Water Beach on the Coromandel Peninsula on Nov. 29.  Long drive, but not too bad – found a route that skirted around Auckland so we didn’t have to deal with city traffic with the big caravan, stopped along the way to stretch and such, and arrived at Hot Water Beach by late afternoon.

 Hot Water Beach’s claim to fame is that for about two hours on each side of low tide, people can dig in the sand in a certain area and natural hot springs under the beach fill the cavities with lovely hot water – though sometimes scaldingly hot.  People flock to Hottie Beach for the fun, and it tends to get quite crowded.  But it’s one of those things that happens in only this one spot, and we thought we’d give it a try.  However, there were signs all over saying that freedom camping (camping outside a trailer park) is NOT allowed, and we were trying to figure out how to work this out.

We arrived about 3 hours after low tide, and had the tide schedule in hand – and watched the families and tourists packing up and driving off, carload after carload.  (At least there weren’t any tour buses!)  We chatted with the young lady at the café right by the beach, and she agreed that if we had dinner and just hung out until the next low tide (3 AM), we technically wouldn’t be freedom camping and therefore we should be okay.  And that the park warden didn’t come by often.  And that she has seen penguins on this beach – once.

We walked on the beach, and tried to figure out where exactly the hot water area might be.  (There was some evidence of pool edges that were eroding with the incoming tide.)  We wandered a bit, then headed back for dinner in the caravan.  We (I) drove up the tsunami evacuation route, and found some possible places to sleep in the caravan – and finally decided on a gravel-covered turn out spot off the main road.  We came back to the beach, it grew dark, we watched the ducks wander around, Richard napped, I read.

The moon came up and turned the ocean to liquid silver lapping on a ghostly shore – it was incredible, some shadow world drawn in greys and silvers, with the moon shining down and reflecting on the water, almost brighter than the real thing.  Absolutely gorgeous!  A bit eerie, but gorgeous!  We both watched the waves, hoping to see penguins jumping out, maybe a dolphin or two – but only the silvery waves crashing on the shore.

One AM rolled around – time to head out and cross the small estuary, find a spot on the beach, and dig.  (No shovel – I was prepared to carry a large cooking pot with a long handle, I figured that was as close to a shovel as we had.)  It was cold, the wind was blowing, the clouds had moved off, and it was a wild and chilly night.

And Richard started having his lawyerly what-can-go-wrong thoughts.  What would happen if we scalded ourselves in the hot water, what would we do?  What would we do if one of us sprained an ankle?  Or we were pulled out into the surf?  You know, those kind of worries. 

So he talked me out of it.  I was tired, having stayed awake the whole time – but I really wanted to go.  However, we were the only people in sight.  We didn’t know exactly where to dig.  We’d get SO COLD coming back from the hot water area, about a 10-15 minute walk, soaking wet, walking in that wind.  So what could I do, I finally agreed.

Which meant we had to find another spot to sleep.  So at 1 AM we drove up to our scenic pull off area, parked, made the bed, and just fell into it.  We did pass two young people walking over to Hottie Beach, shovel in hand, ready to enjoy a hot spa pool in the moonlight.  I suggested we turn around and join them, but, well, we didn’t.  And I had a few minutes of panic on our overlook spot, feeling as if the caravan was rolling and we'd plummet off the drop - but I looked out the window and we obviously weren't moving, it was just my sense of unbalance or movement from the wind or something.

We slept until about 7 AM, when there was a brisk businesslike knock on the door – and there was Mr. Park Warden, citation in hand – he gave us a severe talking to, said he’s only giving us a warning (versus the $200 fine), and handed us a folder with a map of campsites, trailer parks, and the only two spots with freedom camping on the entire peninsula.  We thanked him for not giving us the fine, promised to be gone within the half hour, organized the caravan for travel, and drove back to Hottie Beach.

Breakfast at the beach – tea and coffee on the gas stove, scones from yesterday’s shopping trip – with a view of the beach and the bay beyond.  And suddenly, I realized that what I thought was a sailboat was disappearing and reappearing – which meant – it wasn’t a sailboat – and there was only one dorsal fin in the world that would be that large from that distance – and yelling at Richard, “Whale!  Orca!” I ran outside and watched as two orcas swam across the bay, surfacing to blow steam as their huge fins came up in tandem, patrolling the bay and then turning and heading out to the island in the distance.

It rained off and on, we watched more and more cars arrive at the beach, and suddenly it was all too much – we felt overwhelmed and unwelcome, and we left.  Drove back to the town of Tairui, along winding roads with sheer drops on one side and sheer cut rock on the other, and just relaxed a bit.  Stocked up on a few items, used the free wifi at the library, and discussed where to go next.

And we actually made an adult decision: we’d head south to Waihi Beach, and stay in a holiday park that had hot spring pools.  We’d get out natural hot springs, but we’d avoid another citation.  And the area is reputed to be beautiful but off the mainstream tourist route, which we both prefer.  So that was it.  We drove through the Coromandel Range and some river gorge, with more winding roads and heart-stopping turns and sheer drops and times it felt we’d scrape along the side of a mountain.  But we made it to the shore, we found the Athenree Holiday Park, and we immediately headed for the hot water pools.  (They actually have a swimming pool filled with 90 degree natural hot water, and then a hot tub with 110-120 degree hot water.  It was lovely and relaxing!)

There was an incredible sunset over the inlet or harbour here, we chatted with a few of our neighbors, but it general this is a very quiet spot, with the staff gearing up for the big holiday season when everyone shows up and things get crazy busy.

And tomorrow I’ll try to get some photos of the lovely mosaics surrounding the pools, featuring a variety of the birds in this area.  They were wonderful!  Also, I was yelled at by a great blue heron when I walked through the park, he was in the reeds and complained bitterly when my walking by made him decide to fly into a tree.  I apologized, but he continued to yell at me.

It’s been quite a day!

Thursday, November 29, 2012

In Hot Water

More to come - summary is that we're near Hot Water Beach (known locally as Hottie Beach) and we're going to go dig a spa pit.  Saw whales out in the bay this morning (Bay of Plenty).  Got a citation (just a warning) for illegal freedom camping.  Moved along.

Life is exciting!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Why Aren't There Penguins Here???

Nov. 28, 2012

We decided to spend a day or two at Piha – the camp is very comfortable, there are a few stores/cafés nearby for a hot lunch, and the beach with the rocky headlands at each end (plus the Lion’s Head rock in the middle) is dramatic and wild and beautiful.  And so is the water – long crashing waves, aqua water, just mesmerizing!

So we hung out in Piha.  I walked to the far north end where there are some caves, hoping to see some baby penguins and maybe a mama penguin or two.  Apparently there are three colonies of the small blue penguins here, one at each headland and one at Lion’s Head rock.  The penguins hang out around the rocks at night, though they burrow in the dunes to lay the eggs and raise their young.

I walked, and walked, and walk – reached a couple of huge caves – but alas, no penguins, no babies, nothing.  So I walked back to our caravan.

I did see a few more blue bottle jellyfish – you can see the long tentacles on one of these, and how large the blue bottle can get on the other photo.

I was also amazed by all the flowers that have adapted to growing in the sand – all kinds of daisy looking flowers, but in oranges, yellows, lavenders, and almost browns in with the orange – absolutely gorgeous!  I had a great time photographing the flowers, plus Lion’s Head rock from different views.  (It really does resemble the outline of a sleeping lion, although he has one finger sticking up from his front paw.  I’ll leave it to your imagination which finger it might be.)

Piha is an interesting little town – it’s divided into Piha and North Piha, though North Piha doesn’t seem to have anything other than bachs (also spelled baches – pronounced either like the composer, or like batches) – the Kiwi word for summer homes, usually near a beach.  These range from trailers permanently placed in trailer parks to small prefab units to huge luxury villas.  Some people live here year round, but many of the houses around here seem to have the curtains drawn and no one home.

Piha proper has the two cafés we’ve found, a post office to one side of our holiday park and the library to the other side.  We found an ice cream stand.  And that’s about it.  Oh, plus a rugby field, because what’s a Kiwi town without a rugby field?  Also a bowling club, but this isn’t bowling as in the US – this is field bowling, sort of like the Italian bocce ball.  Haven’t found the school. 

And car parks – lots and lots of car parks along the beach, north and south.  With, of course, designer rest rooms.  This is a surfing spot, and being only an hour or so west of Auckland, it seems to draw surfers on weekends and holidays.  Plus we’ve been told most of New Zealand is on holiday from mid-December to mid-January – the government shuts down, schools are closed for summer holiday, and everyone either goes camping or to their bachs.  (I think hotel, restaurant, and store workers might not have those three or four weeks off – but apparently everyone else is on holiday.)

So we’ve decided to spend another day in Piha, relaxing and enjoying this incredibly lovely place.  And I hope that finally, maybe, possibly, if I’m lucky, I can see a penguin in the wild!!!!

Monday, November 26, 2012

West of Auckland

Nov. 26, 2012

We decided that, in our haste to head north, that there was an area to the west of Auckland we still wanted to see.  So we left Whangarei early, and headed south.  We only got turned around and lost once, when we missed a turn off the Twin Coast Discovery Highway (and which was poorly marked).

Highlights of the trip:

Gorgeous scenery to the east, a group of islands named Hens and Chicken on our map.

A large and woolly sheep standing in the middle of the road, looking like a traffic cop facing us and ready to apprehend us for some kind of violation – everything short of an Official cap and a hand held high to force us to stop.  Mr Sheep turned at the last minute and ran in the same direction as us, but in the lane for oncoming traffic!  Luckily no traffic came before he jumped the ditch and leapt off the road!

A cow traffic jam.  Yup.  The cows were moved from one paddock to another, opposite the road from each other.  So we were there as the cows crossed the road.  Which created the cow traffic jam.  (We’re seen this with dogs assisting the farmer – this team, there weren’t any cow dogs.)

We finally reached Piha in the late afternoon, and the view from the top of the hill made it all worthwhile!  The giant rock formation in the middle of the beach is known as the Lion’s Head and glows golden in the setting sun.  It’s apparently a partially eroded extinct volcano.  The sand in all directions is black – dark grey underneath, but solid black on top!  Even the sand dunes are black!!  So strange looking, we’re all so used to seeing white or beige or light gold sand.  

This is a surfer’s beach, with rip currents and strong surf and apparently frequent rescues.  Plus the water is cold (so we’re not going in beyond our toes), and we saw blue bottle jellyfish on the beach – the nasty kind with long blue tentacles that wrap around your leg and sting/burn your skin.  Yeah, I think we’re going to walk the beach and dunes and enjoy the sunshine, and stay out of the water.

But the best news – there are a few penguin colonies on this beach!!!!  YES!!!!  The New Zealand Blue Penguin lives here, and I definitely will search out a penguin or two.  Or a colony.  This is penguin who apparently doesn’t want ice, just cold water.  I’m so excited to find out that there’s a chance of seeing a penguin here!

And yes, this is a tsunami zone, with tsunami warning signs, a siren at the caravan camp where we’re parked, and tsunami evacuation routes (and safe zones) marked all over the place. 

Exciting times!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

A Train, A Waterfall, A Jacuzzi

Nov. 25, 2012

We left the Animal Farm and drove back to Kawakawa, and hopped aboard Gabriel, the steam locomotive.  This lovingly restored original steam engine is run by a group of volunteers, all of whom are about as old as the engine, which was built in 1927.  There are two cars attached, one a closed carriage with cushy seats and a gift shop, the other an open carriage with benches – wonderful for watching the scenery, but full of smoke from the engine.

It was a short, 20 minute ride down to the end of the line.  There’s an old wooden trestle bridge, we were told this is the longest curved wooden railroad bridge in the southern hemisphere – but it is currently not steady or strong enough to hold the train, so it isn’t used.  However, this is the route the train took way back some 100 years ago, carrying coal from the hills to the river, then boats took the coal out to the coast for the steamships.  So it was all very interesting.

After spending some time in Kawakawa again, we headed south to Whangarei – another old town on an inlet with interesting activities all around.  We went to Whangarei Falls – the river comes over a lava flow that came across bedrock, and the water now plunges some 85 feet or so.  It was another beautiful, magnificent waterfall, and this one completely natural, no hydroelectric power or river diversion or anything like that.  I followed the path, which included scenic overlooks cantilevered out over the gorge; downhill switchbacks through the woods to the base of the waterfall, where I could see the columnar basalt all around the bottom (thanks, Dad!); climbing over a rather high but solid curved bridge over the pool; hiking back up the other side of the gorge; and then crossing the river on a rickety and dented metal grill bridge that sat nearly on the water, some 15 feet upriver from the fall itself.  Quite the thrilling hike!  I stayed on the path, as opposed to the woman I saw who climbed off the bridge and stood on a rock maybe ten inches from the drop.  It was gorgeous, and absolutely worth the trek!

At the car park, we tried to figure out where to stay – our guide with accommodations mentioned a holiday park adjacent to the falls reserve, but it was nowhere in sight.  We asked an older man who was walking his dog (a cute little fox terrier) – he chatted with us a bit, told us maybe around the corner because there was a backpacker’s lodge there, and we played with the cute doggie for a while.  Then we drove off, and there was the holiday park – we checked in, Richard was completing the paperwork, and Mr Doggie Guy showed up to invite us to spend the night at his house!  We thanked him profusely but both just felt it would be imposing, despite his saying that he and the dog get tired of each other’s company after a while.  We felt bad, but, well, it just didn’t seem like the right thing to do.  

Anyway, we’re plugged into the power, we had a dip in the hot tub, and we’ll figure out tomorrow’s direction.  

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Motor Home Farm

Nov. 25, 2012

We wandered around Russell a bit more (finding a lovely chocolatier who just opened that day – how do we manage that all the time?) and took the ferry across.  Our plan was to head to Kawakawa and then maybe beyond.  (Kawakawa has these incredible designer bathrooms that are known across the Northland and are even mentioned in all the guide books – but I’ll write a blog about them later on.)

We explored Kawakawa a bit, an artsy little town with murals and mosaics and, as mentioned before, the all important designer bathrooms.  Much of the artwork around town, as well as the entrance gate to the town, was also designed by the Austrian artist Hundertwasser.  Several storefronts also were changed to add mosaics, and the sidewalk was turned into its own piece of artwork.  

It's kind of like a tiny town designed by Antonio Gaudi!

There was an incredible mural designed and executed by the art teacher and her students at a nearby elementary school – apparently the design was used as a backdrop for a school production, entered into local contests, and won first prize.  Then someone came up with the idea of reproducing it on panels to be hung as a mural in Kawakawa, and so that’s what happened (with some grants and donations).  Gorgeous mixed media mural – painted background embellished with cut metal, plywood cutouts, and ceramics.  It has a wonderful flow, and is just beautiful.  I’ll try to contact the teacher (the email address was up there too) and we can correspond.

We found out there’s an old steam train that still runs from Kawakawa – a short hour trip – and decided that would be a fun activity for tomorrow.  That meant finding somewhere to spend the night.  We wandered into a lovely artsy store, and after chatting with the proprietor she suggested we try the motor home farm, a bit north of town.  We had seen this as we drove by, and laughed – are they growing motor homes there?  Is this where old motor homes go to live out their last days?  It was just a funny phrase to build on, but we headed the few kilometers north to check it out.

I don’t even know how to describe this experience. We pulled in at the sign, and parked amidst a number of caravans, only one of which was occupied.  (And that was a renovated school bus, with a Dutch couple who have been living in this bus for 2 years, traveling NZ – there are two sections that pull out to expand the living room and the bedroom – it’s absolutely incredible and gorgeous inside, with beautiful wood paneling and cabinets!)  Anyway, the couple greeted us, and no one was sure who was the owner.  There were a few men giving a cow an injection, and we waited patiently until they completed the task.

Turns out the owner, named Grey, is renting out spaces at $10 a night – our kind of price!  We had electricity, bathrooms, and a shower that didn’t work – for our morning shower, we hiked up to the house, past two hysterically barking dogs, and showered in the spare bathroom after Grey’s wife came out to greet us.  Uh huh.  Really.  (This is after I went into the shower by the van, found neither shower worked, and came out wrapped in a towel to find out what was going on.)

There were only the two caravans, us and the bus people, who stayed the night.  Grey showed us that we could go through the gate, into the paddock (pasture) and back, to have a bit of a hike and visit the two-day-old baby alpaca.  So we wandered past the field of geese, bypassed the horses, and ended up in what I can only describe as the graveyard for farm equipment.  Seriously, aging and rusting tractors and balers and who knows what else, all gathered in one section – along with a French fry machine, claiming it makes fries in 45 seconds.  There were parts of bicycles, a few washing machines, broken toilets, and a few abandoned cars.  Plus two white and one brown fully grown alpacas, and a tiny skinny little white alpaca who was very curious about us, and he gave a few prancing steps toward us before following his mother in the other direction.

Then on beyond the alpaca, another gate led us to the sheep – they greeted us with a few “ba-a-a-ahs” in husky voices, and a few babies looked up and said hello.  I tried getting the babies to come over for a pet and a photo, but they weren’t going for it.  Then we noticed one baby sheep (not newborn, but still quite young) who had been adventurous and gotten himself out of the pen and into the field on the other side of the fence – he was beginning to get a bit frantic with his ba-a-a-ahs, trying to get his mother to help him out.  She ignored him, knowing he had to learn from his mistake – but Richard and I tried to figure out how to get into the pen to walk across and help little lost guy.  (Couldn’t seem to get the chain off the nail holding the gate shut.)  We started walking around the pen, but then little lost guy figured out how to climb under the fencing wire, and was reunited with his mum.  So we didn’t need to rescue him.

All this with bunnies running and hopping up and down the hills and hiding under abandoned equipment and piles of wood and galvanized metal, geese quacking in the distance, and the local pookah birds flying by.  And, of course, walking carefully to avoid the various animals’, uh, leavings.

So then we walked back through the machinery cemetery, past the various corrals of animals, and back to our caravan sitting amidst the parked (and maybe abandoned) other camping caravans.

It was an experience!!!  Quite the place!  Grey told us that he’s half Maori (and there was a waka, a canoe, up in front).  A few people came by in the morning for a horse ride through the hills.  We did sleep well, and we’ll probably always laugh about the motor home farm for years to come!