Sunday, December 6, 2009

Whakaari / White Island

Saturday, 31 November 2009, I arrived at the Foodtown on Quay Street. This weekend, I am going on a trip to Whakaari, also known as White Island, with a total of seven Couchsurfers from Auckland. The plan is to couchsurf at Grant's place in Tirohanga, about seven kilometres east of the district centre of Opotiki, which is about 45 kilometres east of Whakatane. The original plan was to meet at 4:30am as we were originally going to visit the island on Saturday, but thankfully, due to a booking mix-up, we now have our trip booked for Sunday, which means that we can meet at 8:30am instead as we are spending the night in Tirohanga. I gathered the Couchsurfers to be picked up here, Alejandra from Mexico, and Mita from India, both temporarily living in Auckland. Eventually, Kirin, one of the Couchsurfing ambassadors for the city showed up and we were on our way.

We settled into a long drive, about 300 kilometres to Whakatane. With the small, single-lane Kiwi roads, this drive takes around four hours. About 40 kilometres outside of Auckland, I saw the Bombay Hills for the first time. These ranges, near the town of Pukekohe, mark the divide between Auckland Region and Wiakato Region. A bit further along, traffic got a bit heavier as we drove around the Hamilton area, but it was still pretty smooth sailing. As expected, traffic was light once outside of the Auckland region. We drove over the Kaimai Ranges, and although not very tall, the hills were very abrupt, making for some spectacular views down the edges of the road. After a brief stop at Te Puke to get some cash and to contact the other parties, we continued on. Apparently, this area is considered the kiwifruit capital of the world, with the countryside covered with orchards filled with kiwifruit vines.

Eventually, we made it to Whakatane after driving through an area where the road was sandwiched between the sea and some sandy-looking cliffs in which there were holes with birds flying in and out of them. The pōhutukawa trees, which are colloquially called Christmas trees as they bloom around Christmas time, were also starting to bloom. From this road, we could see the small hilly Motuhora Island and White Island in the distance, low in the water. Here, we met up with the other car from Auckland, with carried a Kiwi, a Frenchman and a Canadian. We also met with an American living out of his car in Whakatane, looking for a way to get a job and a work visa so that he can continue to stay in New Zealand. We all grabbed lunch together in Whakatane, where I realised that food prices here are much lower than they are in Auckland. After a long and disorganised shopping trip here, we headed off to Grant's place in Tirohanga, where Kirin organised a Couchsurfing BBQ. As the plan was to have nearly 20 Couchsurfers there, I joked that this must be the largest Couchsurfing invasion of a town in New Zealand by proportion, as Tirohanga is only home to 1,200 residents. On the way over, we drove through some beautiful fern covered gorges carved out by a surprisingly small river.

As we arrived at Grant's place, we found that he already had two Couchsurfers staying with him, one from the US, one from France. After a visit to the beach, which is just behind his house, we all worked together in the kitchen to prepare a large dinner. As the night went on, more Couchsurfers trickled in, and it grew to be quite a large party. We also enjoyed the company of Bruno, a black Labrador Retriever, who was very social and energetic. During the evening, Grant took us down the road to his avocado orchard, where he showed us his avocado trees and how he cared for them. He even brought out his Hydraladder cherry picker, showed us the controls, and allowed us to take turns trying to operate the machine! On the Hydraladder, I was able to see the ocean in the distance and have a great view of the surrounding orchards and mist-covered hills. We also toured the octagonal house he built there, one of the nearly ten houses that he designed and built himself. It was quite a nice living space, and I could see a family living here quite comfortably among the avocado trees and ocean views.

As dinner was ready, we gathered in the back yard out of the rain under a huge rain shelter made from four posts and some kind of fabric. It turns out that Grant was religious and decided that we should say grace. With his suggestion, we did it in as many languages as people knew, including English, French, Mandarin Chinese (in which I tried my best, and it turned out better than I thought), Spanish, Hindi, and Swedish. Although I am not religious, I found it was quite a rewarding experience, having so many cultures brought together in this tiny town in New Zealand. It was a great meal, with steak, chicken, sausages, salad, potatoes, a variety of roast vegetables, and a giant pot of steamed mussels, not to mention beer and wine. After dinner, I stood there talking with people while slowly picking at the mussels. These mussels were really tasty, large and fresh. This must be because New Zealand is a large producer of mussels so that the ones we get here are of very high quality, especially considering how unpolluted the local waters are. It also turns out that the mussels in New Zealand are of a local variety, the New Zealand Green-Lipped Mussel, which may account for the size and taste difference, although I would imagine that at this point, these should be cultured elsewhere as well.

I spent the rest of the time after dinner chatting with various Couchsurfers and hanging out. Some of the Couchsurfers were hanging out by the bathtub in the yard with a fire under it to heat the bath, which is apparently pretty common in these parts. It seems that life here is very simple, and there are uses for everything. Paper towels were thrown into the fire, the mussel shells went into the compost bin, and food scraps and bones became Bruno's dinner.

Inside, I got into a conversation with Katrina, or Kat, the Canadian Couchsurfer from the other car, and a Canadian neighbour who moved to New Zealand twenty years ago. We found out that all three of us were teachers, and Kat remarked that all the Canadians she met in New Zealand were teachers as well! I wonder if this was a coincidence, or if many Canadians come to New Zealand to teach. As it came time to sleep, everyone found a surface to sleep on. It turns out that Grant has two guest bedrooms available, with some Couchsurfers setting up tents outside. Although Grant offered the use of his farmhouse as well, everyone decided to stay around the house, which accommodated the large numbers surprisingly well. I slept on one of the small mattresses in the living room.

I woke up at around 7am to the sound of breakfast in the kitchen after a short night of sleep. Having toast with jam, I looked out the front door to see steep emerald green hills covered by mist near the top, just beyond some pastures filled with grazing cattle. On the other side of the house was the path leading down to the beach. As we had breakfast, Grant went for his morning run, so we said good-bye. I was very impressed that Grant would trust leaving his house to over a dozen Couchsurfers, but he seems like a very laid-back guy, and has let Couchsurfers use his house before even when he wasn't there!

After breakfast, the Couchsurfers who were going to White Island packed into the cars and started towards Whakatane, where we were catching our boat. Today, we tried a different route, Highway 2, instead of the coastal route we took last night. After a delay caused by a wrong turn down a narrow road into a park, we were quickly on our way. I was enthralled by the scenes of green hills filled with fern trees rising above peaceful farmland. I thought this would be a great area to live for someone looking for a quiet, peaceful life.

After a short wait, everything was sorted, and trading in our strange metallic cones we obtained from the tour company desk, we boarded the boat for White Island. Sitting at the back of the boat, I watched the boat pull out of the harbour at Whakatane, past the Wairaka statue, the symbol of the town. As we pulled out of the harbour, the boat became shaky amid breaking waves. I made sure to enjoy these waves as the boat rocked back and forth. Little did I know that this was only a taste of what is going to be the best boat ride of my life!

As we headed out to sea, a few Couchsurfers and I walked up to the bow. We sat by the windows of the cabin looking out at the bow, enjoying the view of the open ocean ahead. As the boat sped up, the waves also increased in size. Eventually it got to the point where I became concerned that my bag might fall overboard, so I walked back to check. Walking along the outside deck, I had to hang on tight with both hands to prevent myself from falling over. Whenever the boat struck a wave, a solid wall of water would shoot up beside me up to my head to curl away and fall back into the ocean. When I was satisfied that my bag was stored safely, I carefully made my way back to the bow, where my seat had been taken. No matter, I sat at the very tip of the bow, on the right side. Although I now have to turn a bit to look ahead, this turned out to be the best seat on the boat!

The waves kept getting bigger and bigger. Eventually, the spray from the waves washed over the entire front section of the bow, with the exception of the very tip! The right side was slightly drier than the left due to the wind direction. Almost everyone who stayed were soaked, except for me, who was nice and dry with my camera, having a blast! By this time, many of the Couchsurfers had gone back to the back of the boat, and at least one person even fell over on the deck even though she was holding on tight to the handrails. I watched as the spray off the bow became taller and more violent. Eventually, the spray would consistently soak even the second floor deck of the boat. I had a blast leaning out in front of the bow, watching as the bow bounced off the waves. It was like riding a roller coaster, complete with having my butt leave the seat with particularly large waves. This went on for one and a half hours. While I was having the best and most exciting experience since arriving in New Zealand, a few of the other Couchsurfers were sick, including one who threw up. It turns that he wasn't the only one who threw up on that boat.

White Island slowly rose out of the ocean as we approached. When we were close enough, we can see that the island was giving off periodic puffs of smoke, which drifted slowly away from the island to the east. Sailing past the gannett colonies on green slopes which lead into trecherous cliffs, we could suddenly see into the crater and the constant steam rising from it. As our boat anchored itself offshore, we were taken in groups to shore on an inflatable dinghy, with the seasick people getting offloaded first.

The crater is a completely different world. It looked devoid of life, reeked of sulphur, and steam was pouring out of the fumaroles all around the crater. The floor of the crater is criss-crossed by dozens of streams ranging from light turquoise to a dark maroon gushing out of openings in the rocks. Given a helmet and a gas mask, we followed our guides for a walking tour of the volcano. Apparently, the previous eruption had not been predicted successfully, but luckily it happened late in the day when the tour was not running. With this in mind, we were given the instructions to duck behind the steaming mounds of earth lying around and put on our gas masks in the case of an eruption.

The tour took us around the crater past various fumaroles and streams, some of which we were told to avoid touching due to high concentrations of sulphuric acid. One of the streams contained water which we could taste, although as I was far back in the line of people at that time, I didn't see the exact stream the guide was pointing to and didn't want to risk tasting the wrong stream! Supposedly it tastes kind of like blood due to the iron and various other elements, such as gold and arsenic, that it contained. The tour took us up to the main fumarole, which was surrounded by boiling mud. The sounds of the fumarole, with a large volume of gas coming out of it at high speeds, made a sound that reminded me of a jet engine. Luckily for us, the winds were kind that day so that the steam was blowing away from us, allowing us a clear view. However, I decided to keep my mask on most of the time as I was developing quite a sore throat even with the candies they gave us to promote salivation.

The tour continued to the edge of a cliff leading to a large lake at the back of the crater. The pale yellow-green water was churning and steaming so that the entire lake crater was spilling over with a white mist. Supposedly this was an extremely acidic lake, with a pH of less then one. We were also told about how the level and colour of the lake changed over time as well. Although the lake is currently yellow-green, it was light blue just a year or so ago, and was very low. At one point, the lake was so full that geologists were even concerned that the lake could overflow and cause a lahar of acid into the surrounding waters!

On our walk back to the old dock, we passed many other sights such steaming mounds, more pools of boiling mud, colourful streams, and a variety of different gas vents. I found a cute tiny gas vent on the path puffing out steam and creating a delicate tower of sulphur crystals around itself. The tour ended with a stop at the corroded mining facility which had been abandoned decades ago after an eruption killed the workers there. While the metal machinery there had been heavily corroded, the wood beams were surprisingly well-preserved, possibly due to the lack of microorganisms due to the toxic atmosphere. In fact, our guides tell us that they switched to polyester uniforms as the cotton ones would get corroded away very quickly.

We had lunch aboard the ship. Enjoying the outside deck on the second floor, I noticed a sharp delineation between the murky waters near the coast and the clear waters of the ocean. There were also bubbles all around the area, which I learned was due to underwater vents around the volcano. As we sailed back, the weather was much nicer, although I still got soaked by standing near the front of the second floor external deck. I also enjoyed watching the wildlife around the boat, which included seabirds skimming along the waves and giant jellyfish as we entered the harbour. We noticed that there are many people with snorkels in the water near buckets on shore, which we assumed must mean there is something tasty that can be collected here.

On the drive back, we stopped in Mount Manganui, a hip beach town located on a penninsula tipped by the dominating Mount Manganui, for dinner and to see the beach. Although we wanted to watch the sunset from the mountain, Kirin realised that he had a Couchsurfer waiting in Auckland, so we drove back right after dinner. It was quite a nice drive with a few more sights to see out the car along the way, including the large L&P bottle in Paeroa. All in all, quite a rewarding and exciting weekend.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Shelly Beach and Rainy Day Around Auckland

On Friday the 20th of November, the school that I work for, Media Design School, had a Christmas party. Of course, this led to everyone staying out very late. I had a lot of fun seeing a few different bars and clubs around central Auckland after the official party. I particularly enjoyed a club called forté on Fort Lane, which was techno themed and had lasers casting dots on everything inside. In any case, I did not expect to do anything the next day, as I assume that both Steffan and I would want to rest for the day as we got back at nearly 4am.

Saturday, I was lazy and laid in bed until almost 2pm, trying to get as much rest as I possibly can. When I popped online, Steffan was there, and within half an hour, we were out the door. The weather was decent, so we decided to drive towards the west coast to explore the surroundings there, as we had visited the east coast for the past two weekends. Although we were hungry, we decided that we would try to find a place outside of Auckland to eat, as we could eat in Auckland at any time.

It turns out that we did not encounter any significant towns until all the way to Helensville, about 50 kilometres north-west on Highway 16. We literally walked from one end of Helensville to the other while looking for food. Unfortunately, it turns out that the restaurants and cafés in the tiny town were generally open to only 3pm. After a series of direction asking, leading us from the information centre to a café at the train station, we finally came across a restaurant that was open, the Art Stop Café at the southern end of town. Helensville, a town of just over 2500 residents, set below rolling green hills filled with sheep on the banks of the meandering Kaipara River, is the idyllic Kiwi small-town. I felt much better after a breakfast chicken sandwich with ham, which was much better and filling than I had expected.

After lunch, we decided to follow a map we picked up at the information centre towards Shelly Beach on the peninsula that leads up to South Head, where there are some lakes and large sand dunes. We decided to go to Shelly Beach as it appeared to be a location of interest, with photos in the information centre and a special mention on the map.

Unfortunately, when we should have turned onto a smaller road just outside of Helensville, we continued up Highway 16 towards Kaukapakapa, which one electronic sign referred to hilariously as "KKK." We realised that we were heading the wrong way just before reaching Kaukapakapa, 12 kilometres outside of Helensville, but decided to continue on for a little bit more, as there was a "scenic overlook" just beyond the town, according to a distance marking sign just outside of Helensville. We figured that if the scenic overlook was posted nearly 15 kilometres away, it must be a good one. When we arrived, we discovered that although the overlook did provide some views of the southern portion of Kaipara Harbour, the largest enclosed harbour in the Southern Hemisphere, the view was nothing to be excited over, definitely not worth posting about 15 kilometres in advance on an official road sign! I guess there is just not that much out here of mention in the boonies of Rodney District.

We doubled back and turned onto the correct route for Shelly Beach. As we drove on, the landscape became filled with farmland and native bush. We started entering stretches of ten minutes or more without seeing anyone else on the roads. It turns out that this part of Rodney District is one of the least populated areas within a short driving distance from Auckland, and it really does show. Eventually, the road led us to the small community of Shelly Beach on the shores of the Kaipara Harbour.

We arrived at Shelly Beach during high tide, so it was not very impressive at first glance. The beach is very narrow by the park, and there are some spots for tents and camper vans to park. However, Shelly Beach is quite appropriately named, as the beach by the water was completely covered in shells. Steffan and I strolled along the beach, and walking up a path, found a grassy park with gum trees leading to a small, informal neighbourhood of what appeared to be simple vacation homes. We attempted to follow a path down to a cove we saw from the park, but when this turned out to be a residential driveway, we retraced our steps back to the beach to follow the shore instead.

Following the shore past some rocks, we reached the more unique parts of Shelly Beach, although I cannot say that I really enjoyed it. The shores around Shelly Beach consist of vast areas of mudflats covered in a thick layer of gooey mud. I found it quite disgusting to walk through the mud, and I didn't have clean water to wash the mud off my feet as the water was so murky that I couldn't see past a few centimetres below the surface. As we were walking, we encountered a group of Māori kids with what appears to be a digging tool and a bag filled with shellfish. All along the muddy shore, we encountered shells and the occasional jellyfish.

Eventually, we found ourselves a few coves away from Shelly Beach. At this point, we were also quite far from the shore, across what appeared to be a large lagoon. There is a mysterious black gooey strand-like substance covering the plants in the lagoon, and there appeared to be thick layers of mud which formed wall, towers, and hidden mud wells below the sand. Although this mud looked solid, it was nearly impossible to predict where the ground would be solid and where your entire foot would sink in. Luckily, I had my shoes off, but Steffan's shoes and parts of his socks were completely covered in mud by the end of the trip. It was also hilarious that he had just cleaned his shoes off at a log a few steps before the worst section where his entire foot sank into the mud and his shoes became too muddy to even attempt cleaning. I was very careful to not step in the wrong place, as the mud has a strange soft consistency, was grey like concrete on top, and black like charcoal a few centimetres below the surface. I am still trying to figure out what causes mud like this, as I had not seen this before. I certainly hope it is not the pollution from the nearly farms.

Soon, it became too difficult to walk along the mudflats, so we decided to turn back. We took the first set of stairs we found leading up the shore. We were surprised to meet a local walking his dog on the mudflats on the way back, but he had hiking boots on, and seemed unfazed by the mud. He immediately asked us if we were from Auckland. I wonder if he knew that by seeing how muddy Steffan's shoes were, as it looked quite obvious that he had not prepared for the mud.

The stairs led to a concrete path among grassy lots and a few houses. There was a lot of construction around the area, and the path eventually turned into a sidewalk in a tiny neighbourhood that looked like modern suburbia in my home town of Richmond Hill, a suburb of Toronto. This path soon took us back to the park, which led us back to where we had parked. When we got back, the beach was much wider, although the newly exposed areas looked suspiciously like the mud we had just walked through.

Seeing that the sun was setting, we drove back to Auckland while Steffan and I had some even more deep conversations about our histories. When we got back to Auckland, I suggested checking out the Korean restaurants on upper Queen Street. We found one that appeared to be open, and happily discovered that it was open until 4am. We had dinner, soju, and numerous Korean beers among a good crowd of Koreans doing the same thing. We were surprised at how much alcohol some of the other parties had to drink. All in all, it was a good Saturday, and I went to bed happy.

Sunday turned out to be very gloomy and rainy. Still not feeling like staying indoors all day, Steffan and I decided to drive around. Seeing that we were both hungry, we decided to drive to Sylvia Park, the largest mall complex in Auckland. In fact, Sylvia Park had held the title of New Zealand's largest shopping mall for a short while until Westfield Albany opened in North Shore. However, with future expansion plans, Sylvia Park is likely to regain the title of New Zealand's largest mall, both in terms of floor area and number of stores, which it currently holds.

Although I like exploring areas with local culture, Sylvia Park felt surprisingly comfortable to me, as it reminded me of the large shopping mall complexes back home. It was no different than large malls of North America. It was clean, shiny, and surprisingly crowded. I joked that it seems like everyone in Auckland was walking around in the mall. With just over 200 shops, Sylvia Park was also quite large, although nowhere as large as the biggest of the malls I used to visit in North America. The mall was built to be very easy to access, and actually straddles a motorway and is located just beside a train station which connects directly to Britomart in central Auckland. I felt like a sell-out enjoying such a commercial space so much, but I suppose it did remind me of home. As with everywhere else in the Auckland region, its food court had a surprisingly large amount of choice compared to the food courts of North America. I had a delicious Indian curry and vegetable pakora for lunch.

After lunch, we resumed driving around. We drove through Otahuhu, Papatoetoe, Manukau, and arrived at the Auckland Airport. Some of the areas we drove through are considered some of the worst neighbourhoods of Auckland, and the buildings there did look obviously run down. When we got to the airport, I found that it was in fact more than just an airport, as they owned the land around the airport as well, which had been developed to have recreational facilities as well as shopping centres. In fact, Auckland Airport Limited is the third largest company listed on the New Zealand Exchange, measured in terms of market capitalisation. Here, we found a parking lot and observation area on the motorway located only a few hundred metres from the end of the runway. We sat there, with a surprisingly large number of others, watching the planes land. The majority of the planes we saw were small planes operated by Air New Zealand, but we did see a few large jets, including a Boeing 747. We wondered from what far-away place this plane has just flown in from.

Driving back, we stopped at small market between Manukau and Auckland which caught our eyes. It was located in a neighbourhood with a lot of Muslims. I picked up some spices, snacks, and drinks from the market. After spending far too long at the market considering its size, we decided that it was still too bright to go home.

We drove around and ended up at Point Chevalier, west of central Auckland. It was a relatively uneventful neighbourhood other than a park by the water. Although there was a beach, it was filled with rubbish and broken glass. We walked around the rocks a little, and found some interesting smooth rock formations, probably the work of water and wind erosion. There were also walls built into the rocks here, which we assumed to be breakwaters to prevent further erosion.

From here, there was a beautiful view of the Auckland Harbour Bridge against the backdrop of Rangitoto Island. The skyline of Auckland was visible to the right, with the tip of the Sky Tower poking into the low clouds. Since it was low tide, we could also see Meola Reef, also known as Te Tokaroa Reef. Meola Reef is a finger of land stretching two kilometres off the shore from the Auckland side of the harbour, stopping at within 500 metres of the northern shore. It was formed 20,000 years ago by a ten kilometre long lava flow from the Three Kings. I thought it might be cool to walk to the tip of the reef at high tide, but hearing that this area used to be the city's dump decades ago turned me of the idea.

On the way back, we made a brief stop at the park in Western Springs, where the water supply of Auckland used to be sourced from. The park was very pretty, filled with pūkekos, swans, and other birds. There was a beautiful pond in the middle of the park. The park is situated just beside the zoo, so that looking through some holes in the fence, we could catch a glimpse of a few zoo animals inside. While walking around, Steffan charged at a group of pūkekos, who all ran away which making a funny screaming sound which made Steffan feel bad. As we were leaving the park, we could hear the lions roaring against the darkening sky to announce their presence. It was a surprisingly low and reverberating sound which carried very well in the light breeze. We ended the day with a few drinks at The Chapel, a bar in Ponsonby, where there is a beautiful view of Auckland. We wished that the weekend could be longer so that we could fit more exploration in to each week.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Shakespear Regional Park

15 November, 2009. Steffan and I decided to take another day trip. Looking at Google Maps, we thought we would head to Shakespear Regional Park, located on the tip of the Whangaparaoa Peninsula, just a bit south of Wenderholm, where we visited last week. The Whangaparaoa Peninsula is a thin finger of land stretching eastward into Hauraki Gulf. It ends just three kilometres short of Tiritiri Matangi Island, which I decided would make a cool kayak trip one day, especially considering that Whangaparaoa is Māori for "Bay of Whales," as whales and dolphins visit this area regularly. For us, we were looking forward to another relaxing day exploring the spectacular scenery that the Auckland region has to offer.

The day started off rainy and gloomy, but we hoped for the best, as the weather in Auckland changes very quickly with both temporal and spacial dimensions (Kind of reminds me of quantum physics. So what if I'm a nerd?). As we drove, the weather did get a bit better. The rain turned into mist and eventually stopped. This time, we did not stop at a supermarket for quite a while. When we did finally stop, it was in the town of Whangaparaoa at the base of the peninsula. Whangaparaoa sits at the southern edge of the Hibiscus Coast, a coastal area covering about 25 kilometres of the Auckland region. The main population centre of this costal region is the built-up area stretching from Whangaparaoa to Orewa, where the majority of the 28,000 residents of the Hibiscus Coast reside. The Foodtown in Whangaparaoa was located in a small but surprisingly busy mall in the centre of town. Driving past here, the roads suddenly become more empty.

After a brief stop at Army Bay, where cars were parked on the sand and there appeared to be fishermen on the rocks in the distance, we tried to drive farther in to the park. It turns out we should have taken an earlier turn-off to take a road deeper into the park. Taking the road that we did, we ended up at the Waterfall Gully trail head lot at the western edge of the park. Here, there are numerous pūkekos wandering around, some of them approaching us curiously, probably trying to see if we had food to give them. I found these birds to be very interesting, with their purple body and exceeding long legs. I started calling them "tasty birds" as they looked like they could be quite delicious. However, it turns out that the Māori consider them to be a poor choice for food as the meat is supposedly sinew and tough. Still, I would love to try one someday as they do look quite tasty in my opinion.

We followed the Heritage Trail, which is a long trail that goes all around the park. Our first stop was down a spur track leading to Waterfall Gully, where there was a relatively large horseshoe shaped rock wall with water trickling down into a shallow pool at the head of a stream. The water looked amazingly disgusting, but the sound of the waterfall combined with the sounds of exotic birds and insects chirping set to the backdrop of a lush jungle-like forest was quite pleasing. I was especially impressed by some enormous gnarly trees with branches spread all over the canopy. These branches support numerous small epiphytes growing on the branches at various intervals. I am still working on identifying what species these trees and epiphytes are.

Continuing up the track leads to sections with various plant life and birds. There were small streams and bridges. The dense jungle with fern trees and various birds made me feel as if we were quite deep in some kind of tropical forest, but I knew that this was only a small patch of growth on the Whangaparaoa Peninsula, close to home (or at least my home in Auckland). There was one section filled with thick tangles of supplejack, which looked like thick black vines, stretching from the ground up to the canopy, sometimes forming thick interwoven strands 20 or 30 centimetres wide. They felt quite hard and woody to the touch. As I said to Steffan, as long as they don't start moving, I'm OK with them. Apparently, supplejack can be used to make a variety of things, from rope to fishing nets to baskets, and the roots is even used as a flavouring in beer.

As the track travelled east and up a hill, we suddenly found ourselves spat out of the forest and in front of a series of large fields, some with sheep and cows in them. Walking toward a wooden watchtower built around a water cistern, we came across a gate and a sign which told us that these farms belongs to us as well, as a part of New Zealand heritage. It turns out that parts of this park also serves as a working farm, with many of the tracks going right through the fields. One has to be careful to shut the gate behind them to make sure no livestock escapes. I thought having a "public" farm was a very cool idea, and had not seen anything like this in North America. Overall, I have found New Zealand to be much more laid-back in terms of safety, as people do not expect others to sue over the smallest things here.

When we reached the lookout, it was windy and started to drizzle. However, the weather quickly cleared up again, and we were even treated to small periods of sun and blue sky. In the distance, we could see the Barrier Islands, beyond which is open ocean all the way back home to North America. Closer to shore, we could clearly see the features on Tiritiri Matangi just across a small channel of water. On another side, we could see Rangitoto, and when the rain wasn't blowing around in the distance, we could even see the faint outline of the Sky Tower surrounded by the skyscrapers of Auckland City and North Shore City. We sat at a bench sheltered against the wind by the observation tower to have our lunch.

The weather continued to improve, and it became quite warm and pleasant. Walking south through the fields, picking our way through the animal dung, we arrived at Te Haruhi Bay, set along some grassy areas filled with pūkekos, which I tried to chase down and take photos of. I find it really hilarious how the pūkekos seem like they just try to nonchalantly avoid you as you approach, and then try harder to avoid you when they see you following them. Unfortunately, we travelled south from the observation tower, so we missed Pink Beach on the western edge of the park, set below rocky cliffs, from what I can tell from the map. We also could not enter the area to the north, as that served as a training ground for the Ministry of Defence (although it is possible to walk around the coast on the rocks at low tide and when the red flags signalling the use of live rounds are down).

We followed the beach at Te Haruhi Bay towards the east. This beach is filled with these long, narrow, conical shells. I was quite fascinated to discover that it appears as if each beach here has their own mix of types of shells. We followed the beach onto the rocks, which are surprisingly smooth here. There are many interesting rock formations, such as curved and folded striations along the rocky cliff, rocks with bubbles in them, and some rocks that looks like they are enveloped in other rocks. These are no doubt the result of extensive volcanic activity in the area. There is a very interesting section where the rocks form multiple mini-islands that you can walk around on if you hop over the water channels. Although I had a lot of fun, my pants got soaked from unexpected waves there. The rocks around this area also has strange bubble patterns embedded into it, which Steffan thought resembles animal prints at first glance. As we walked farther, we came across some fishermen on the rocks, beyond which is a deep channel of water that looked passable only if we are willing to get soaked or if we waited for low tide. I wonder how much it would suck if people decided to take the three hour walk around the peninsula at the wrong time and realise that they had to backtrack after getting so close to the beach at Te Haruhi. As we headed back across the rocks, we came across a black bird with a red beak furiously squawking at us for some reason. I was afraid that it would dive-bomb us if we got too close. As we got back near the beach, we realised that the tide had risen, and we ended up having to climb over the branches of some trees so that we didn't get too wet. I made a mental note to be more aware of the tide here, after running into tide-related problems for the second time in New Zealand.

We followed the Heritage Track back towards the car through the southern section of the park. We came across an old wool house and an old pillbox that was constructed as part of the defence fortifications during World War II. The track in this section is laid out in a very cool format. There is no actual track for most of it, but the path is made up of wooden poles painted with colours every few dozen metres. They are spaced at such a distance that each time you approached a pole, you would wonder where you needed to go next, and after a few seconds of looking, you would find your next way-point just before arriving at the marker. Because of this, the poles appeared to be placed in some very random locations.

This section of the track also led us through paddocks filled with sheep, who were grazing among the pūkekos. At first, I was quite apprehensive about approaching sheep, but Steffan said that generally, sheep are pretty safe to be around. Apparently everyone in New Zealand has been around sheep at some point. For a good portion of the walk, were were scattering sheep in all directions as we walked through the flocks grazing in the paddocks. They would sometimes look at us and bleat, but the worst they did to us was left us dried poop on the fields which we had to avoid. I wonder if anyone came to steal sheep here, as I did not see anyone else around, and there were dirt roads right beyond the fences and gates. I certainly hope that nothing dodgy happens in these fields at night.

The track eventually dumped us at Okoromai Bay, where there is a beach filled with shells. There are signs all over stating the limit on now much fish and shellfish could be gathered per person per day, which got me thinking that I should organize a shellfish gathering trip sometime. While we were there, there was not much sand visible here as it was all shells. The thick layer of shells even covered part of the grassy field. To be fair though, there may actually be a beach here, just that it is covered up by the high tide at that moment. From here, there is another view of Rangitoto and Auckland.

Walking across the peninsula, which is quite narrow at this point, we returned to the car. We stopped briefly in Matakatia Bay just outside of Shakespear Park to take a view of a curious island, called Kotanui, that looked like a giant cone standing in the water. I though it would be a really fun day to kayak there and climb it - if I knew how to rock climb. As we started driving back on the motorway, it became cloudy and started to rain as Steffan and I talked and got to know each other a bit better. We were glad that we left and returned at just the right time to enjoy a day outdoors without being rained on.

Monday, November 16, 2009


Sunday, 8 November, 2009. Over this week at work, I found that Steffan Hooper, a fellow tutor in the Games Department at Media Design School, is also interested in exploring the Auckland area. Steffan is a Kiwi who has been living in Auckland for a few years now, but personal and professional life has kept him busy over the past few years so there are still places in and around Auckland that he has not been to.

Today, we decided to visit Wenderholm Regional Park, situated on a peninsula in the Hauraki Gulf about 40 kilometres north of Auckland. The small spit of land is sandwiched between the Puhoi and Waiwera Rivers. Established in 1965, it is situated around the historical Couldrey House, also known as the "wenderholm," or winter home, as it was constructed to be used as a winter residence by politician and entrepreneur Robert Graham in 1868. We were looking forward to the beaches in the park as well as the numerous tramping tracks through the bush.

Steffan picked me up with his car. Driving over the Auckland Harbour Bridge, which in my opinion is like a lame version of the world-famous Sydney Harbour Bridge, I realized that this was the first time I will be in the North Shore, and in fact, north of Auckland, other than my visit to Muriwai Beach on the west coast a few weeks ago. Even during the weekends, the traffic across the bridge was surprisingly heavy, as this is the only connection between Auckland and North Shore. Apparently the government has been considering a second crossing for quite some time now. Everyone has been complaining that the government did not seem to plan for the long run when the bridge was built. In fact, the bridge has already been expanded once to double it's original size by adding "clip-ons" to both sides of the bridge. This expansion was necessary only ten years after the original bridge was completed in 1959. The cost of the bridge plus the expansion was significantly higher than what it would have cost the government to build an eight-lane bridge.

On the way, we stopped at a Foodtown to pick up some bread, meats, and other picnic foods. I decided that on these trips with Steffan, it would be fair for me to cover the food in exchange for use of Steffan's car, petrol, and driving.

We travelled up the Northern Motorway, Highway 1, which had a brief toll segment with bridges and tunnels. Steffan found this very surprising as he informed me that toll roads are relatively rare in New Zealand. Since the tunnel exits just before the turnoff for the park, we ended up driving too far north and ended up going to Mahurangi Regional Reserve after driving through a very scenic area filled with farmland on rolling hills. As with a lot of roads outside of the cities here, it was very narrow, with grass growing through the crumbling edges of the road, which gave it a very "close-to-nature" feel.

Mahurangi Regional Reserve was not that exciting, or at least the portion that we went to. There was a campground with many camper vans, and a reasonably long but very narrow beach. Around the beach was a grassy area where there were many ducks leading ducklings around. I found these ducks quite amusing, as they had tiny Mohawks on their head. We walked along the beach a bit, and there was a somewhat interesting area under a series of pōhutukawa trees. There were a few boats anchored offshore, and there was a pretty view of the lush green islands and surrounding peninsulas. Framing this view was a giant wooden picture frame with the name of the park written on it. Steffan told me that these are installed in quite a few parks in the area, which I eventually found to be true and quite amusing. Heading back to the car, we saw a map which indicated there was much more to the park, but we decided to head over to Wenderholm Park anyway since there some some beaches we wanted to visit there. I made a note to possibly come back and explore the rest of this park one day, as the map indicated that there was an island you can walk to during low tide! How cool is that? (Note: I later found out that there are quite a few islands in the Auckland area which one can walk to during low tide.)

A bit more of driving brought us to Wenderholm Park. As it turns out, there were a few groups having events there, including a volunteering group and a kayaking competition. This made for quite a full and crowded park. Over the course of our visit, the crowds dissipated, and the park was quite empty by the time we left. There was even a stall selling food, which I was tempted to visit, but felt that we had to eat our picnic food. We sat by the beach, ate, and walked around to explore.

We spent most of the time exploring the northern part of the park, a thin spit of land separating a lagoon and the ocean. On the west side, there were grassy fields and tidal mudflats filled with shells and grounded boats during low tide. I saw some huge, well-formed scallop shells in an area filled with shrubs growing out of the mud forming a thick network of air roots. Separated by a strip of large pōhutukawa trees, the eastern side features a wide, sandy beach looking out at the ocean, with a view of a town in the distance and the top of Rangitoto visible behind a peninsula. At the tip of this spit of land is a channel of fast-flowing water separating this park with Mahurangi. The mud here had a very strange consistency, as the top layer felt like dense foam. With each step, you would sink about 15cm into the sand without disturbing the sand around it, creating well-shaped vertical holes in the sand that do not collapse after stepping out. It took quite a bit of effort walking through here, and it reminded me of walking in deep snow. A bit higher up, near where the tide comes to a stop, is a vast, thick blanket of shells, whole and crushed. Digging into the sand, we discovered that this layer of shell mixed with sand is quite deep. I wonder how long it took to form this shell deposit, and how long these shells have been here. At low tide, the gently sloping peninsula comes to a rounded point quite far from the shore, with the shallow water gently lapping around its edges. From here, we can hear the bleating of the sheep on the farm across the channel.

We walked all along the beach and explored the area. The tide was heading out, which left a vast network of relatively deep channels of flowing water on a very wide beach. I waded through these channels and visited the variety of mini-islands that were carved out in the beach and surrounding mudflats. The southern edge of the beach came to an abrupt end at the base of some tall cliffs. We walked onto the exposed rocks at the base of the cliffs, exploring the variety of sea life in the tidal pools. One of the pools was filled with dozens of hermit crabs living in shells of various shapes, colours, and sizes. They seemed to be busy feeding in groups, but shrunk back into their shells quickly if we passed our hand over the water. The flatter part of this area is covered in a thick layer of Neptune's Necklace seaweed, which are strings of small bumpy beads filled with water, and globe algae, which look like green, wrinkled, thin-walled bladders on the verge of popping. It was quite a strange and creepy sensation to walk on them.

Although we could have walked quite far on these rocks, we decided to turn back as we did not know when the park was going to close. As we walked back towards the car, we came across the historic mansion, already closed for the day. We also found that this is where the tramping tracks start, leading into a dense jungle filled with bird sounds. Since it was too late in the day now, we thought this would make for a great second visit to the park.

We decided to take highway 17 back, as we wanted to visit some of the towns along the Hibiscus Coast. We drove through Waiwera, a tiny village with a thermal spa, and quickly arrived at Orewa, a town at the northern end of a stretch of populated area just north of North Shore City. We stopped here to visit the beach, which was enormous! Although at high tide, the beach is quite narrow and even disappears at some points, at low tide, it is a completely different story. The beach was very wide and long, stretching nearly three kilometres in a straight line. We walked along the north side of the beach and once again, climbed over various strange rock formations.

This time, we found two large caves, which appear to be accessible only during low tide. The inside of the caves were dark and filled with a white sand consisting of crushed seashells. In one of them, there were names of lovers carved into the rocks, which led us to think that dodgy things must happen there from time to time! One of the caves also contained a wall filled with evenly spaced snails, each with a drop of water on it, and each with a very creepy red dot on their shell. Around the area, we found many curious rock formations and blowholes, as well as round tidal pools filled with seaweed. One of these made a gurgling sound when waves forced water up through the hole and reminded me of a giant toilet as it emptied and swirled around.

Walking farther, we came across a beach filled with a dark maroon sand below cliffs where large mansions are situated, many of them with private steps leading down to the beach. I found many good specimens of conch shells here, and collected the best two I can find. We also came across a sea urchin on the beach, empty inside, but the spikes still moved around and responded to touch. As we walked to the end of this area, Hatfields Beach, we decided to turn back as it was starting to get dark.Walking back, I accidentally kicked a sea urchin covered in sand and sent it tumbling. I was scared to look at my foot for a few seconds, but realising that it didn't hurt that much, I was surprised to see that I had luckily escaped any punctures.

As we drove back, we talked about going on weekend outing often to explore the numerous natural treasures of the Auckland region. We both had a great day of wandering around beaches and exploring what the shores of the Auckland Region had to offer.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Waiheke - Day 3

As expected, I woke up early to the sound of children playing again. I spent my last hour or two in the house talking to Angie as she and the kids were preparing for a large family picnic on the east side of the island. Although I had wanted to see the sparsely populated farming side of the island, I decided that I didn't have time and it would be better to leave the eastern side to another trip. After a quick round of packing, I left the house at the same time that Angie and her family were leaving. My plan is to walk to Matiatia Harbour via Oneroa, enjoying the beaches and the sights along the way. Angie told me that if I was in a hurry for any reason, I can just flag down a car and ask for a ride as hitch-hiking is common practise on the island. I've found this to be very true, as I hitched a ride the day before (unintentionally!) and I've seem hitchhikers waving to the van as we were being driven around by Angie.

The first leg of the walk was pretty and green. I walked in a general western direction and followed any signs pointing to Oneroa I came across. The winding road led me up a large hill where I can see the water and the mainland and through native bush. I noticed that there were trees with yellow fruit on them. I saw kids climb up similar trees to pick the fruit on my walk yesterday. I was tempted to try some, but decided that perhaps I should do some research first. After further research, I decided that these fruit must have been loquats, which is what I had thought they looked like, but didn't realise that they grew on Waiheke. Apparently loquat trees were introduced to New Zealand and have been growing rapidly as a weed ever since.

After some walking, I saw houses on the hills a few hundred metres ahead, signalling to me that I was approaching a town. Luckily, this turned out to be Oneroa, the largest settlement on Waiheke, about six kilometres from Ostend. The first feature I encountered in town was Little Oneroa Beach, separated from the popular Oneroa Beach by yet another group of volcanic rocks. Walking around the beach, I found a path on the very eastern edge of the sand. This path leads straight up the hills around the area to a beautiful lookout. The water looked very inviting in the sunlight. It was blue and crystal clear, showing off the dark coloured volcanic rocks among the sand under the water. I followed this path a bit farther and wandered onto a rocky shore under the shade of a huge pōhutukawa tree. There were two boats under the complex root system chained to the tree. Looking around, I noticed that there was another shore beyond a group of volcanic rocks jutting into the water. I rolled up my pants, took off my sandals and waded through, getting my pants only slightly wet.

Arriving at a private little rocky shore surrounded by impassable cliffs away and volcanic rocks, I felt like I found a cool hideaway. I was happy to know that there are so many beautiful private places around here, only half an hour from Auckland plus a short bus ride. As others have told me, in New Zealand, you can find great little places where nearly no one can be seen, often even within Auckland city itself. I attempted to walk across the volcanic rocks on the other side of the beach, but quickly learned that walking barefoot over jagged volcanic rock is not a great idea! I did get a view to the other side, however, and discovered that lies beyond is just more, steeper volcanic cliffs. What caught my attention, however, was a small channel separating a small island of volcanic rock. I might have been able to wade over without getting wet if I had walked along the cliffs more, but I decided to give it up seeing that I didn't want to get my sandals wet. I figure that I might be back here sometime in the summer with swim trunks on so that I won't have to worry about getting wet while exploring.

I sat at the beach for a long time talking to my mum on the phone. Suddenly, I realised what I was seeing in front of me. A current of water flowing inland! Looking around the rocks, the water looked deeper than before! I decided I had better head back, and it was clear that the tide was rising. Seeing that I had even gotten wet wading over when the tide was lower, I realized that it wasn't looking good! Interrupting my conversation with my mum, I hurriedly put my pack on, rolled my pants up as high as they would go, and decided just to run through the gap as waves were starting to pick up. By the time I got through, my pants were soaked! Now that I was safely back near the path, I climbed up the giant pōhutukawa tree and sat there talking to my mum and enjoying the scenery. There was a family on the rocks about fifty metres away or so, fishing, with the waves lapping at the jagged rocks below. I had to leave after a while of talking, as soon as my pants became dry, since the wind was picking up, the waves intensified, and the sky became darker and darker as a thick bunch of dark clouds slowly approached from the distance.

I explored the surroundings a bit more and discovered that the patch of volcanic rocks between Oneroa Beach and Little Oneroa Beach were impassable without wading into the relatively deep water. I made a mental note to re-visit this area during summer when I can wade around and explore the various stone arches and shallow caves along the shore and in the water. The rocks there also have a very interesting pattern to it and looked like a series of strangely-shaped honeycomb with softer, eroded rocks inside. The walls of the honeycomb structure looked almost like rusted metal. I also enjoyed the view from these volcanic rocks, as there are flat areas here, which formed curious little tidal pools filled with snails, anemones, sea stars, crabs, and a variety of other underwater life. The waves crashing around the edges, throwing up white foamy spray also made for quite a dramatic view. I wondered how scary it would be if I saw a freak wave coming my way.

Returning to the beach, I continued my walk past the town centre, but not before stopping at a lookout at the end of a short trail following a jut of volcanic rock towering over the coast. From there, I could see a series of small beaches surrounded by interesting rock formations such as caves where the ocean lapped into. The town centre is a busy, relative to Waiheke standards, road filled with stores, restaurants, and bars. As with typical Oceania style, there were large awnings protecting the pedestrians from the weather, making you feel quite cosy in this tiny town centre. Following the signs to the Matiatia Ferry terminal, I walked out of town and down a long road. Luckily, the walk back to the harbour was quite enjoyable, as there was a series of tracks built into the surrounding hillside. Apparently I had three choices: the high track, mid track, and low track. After consulting the hand-drawn map, I decided to take the low track as I wanted to catch the next ferry to Auckland and not have to wait another hour for the following one. The trail system was very charming as all the signs were hand-painted. Some of the signs appeared to be nothing more than a few casual scribbles or a message carved into the wood. It made me feel like I had gone back in time or had travelled to some small village in a mystical land.

The tracks led me through bush filled with all kinds of vegetation. I had only seen two groups of people in the entire twenty minutes I walked the track, but I felt surprisingly safe and did not feel scared (expect for one section when I saw some pails and tubes - it probably belonged to whoever takes care of the tracks, but my imagination led me to be afraid of drug plantations). First, the track took me through a section surrounded by flowering tea trees on a grassy hill. It was dark under the trees away from the track. The trail then wound through grove after grove of cabbage trees, ferns, and plants with large, long foliage. It got quite dark in some parts of the track, but I still felt quite comfortable walking there alone. A few minutes from the end of the track, there was a tiny shed whose slanted roof fed into a large overflowing tank of water. A small spur with a sign labelled "pond" led to a tiny pond under a grassy hill hidden from the sun by the foliage of tall trees growing all over. There was a bench beside the pond to take a rest.

The ferry ride back was surprisingly unstable as the waves have grown in size. It was extremely windy. Seeing all of the boats on the sea, I wondered if I could have been in one of these boats if I hadn't taken that ride. It started raining half way to Auckland. I could see across the water that the rain would intensify as we got closer to home. Although most passengers moved down into the covered cabin, a few of us stayed on the exposed deck, some bracing themselves against the wind and rain in small areas on the side of the deck where they can sit under the walls. I found a spot beside a mast holding navigation equipment. This shielded me from most of the wind and rain, and allowed me to still maintain a 360º view of the area, where I can watch as the tall buildings of Auckland grew bigger and less grey as we approached. It started pouring as I got off the boat. By the time I walked home, my sandals were soaked.