Sunday, February 21, 2010

Tongariro Alpine Crossing, Ngauruhoe and Taupo (Days 3 & 4)

After a good night's sleep, I woke up to an empty room - although most of the Couchsurfers were still sleeping, it seems that the people in my room are just early risers. Walking out, I had breakfast and noted that the weather looked crummy. I was hoping for good weather so that I could go skydiving with a few others who were interested. Although I was relieved in one sense, I was more disappointed as I had convinced myself that I wanted to skydive in Taupo, one of the few places in the world where you can skydive from an altitude of 15,000 feet. I suppose I will just have to return some other day to do it. Along with the 134 metre Nevis bungee jump near Queensland, currently third highest in the world, this is one of the things I felt that I needed to do in New Zealand, but am also extremely frightened of. I just want to do it and get it over with so I can experience the rush before I decide to chicken out.

With the option of skydiving gone, I decided to join most of the other Couchsurfers to go visit some natural hot springs. As it was announced how much money people owe for the trip over breakfast, for the rest of the day I had people coming up to me to give me money. Even as we piled into the cars, I had to wait as people chased me down to pay me. After a moderate drive, we found our way through Taupo and to a nearby park. After a short walk from there, we arrived at a small footbridge over a stream flowing into the adjacent Waikato River. Spa Thermal Park is a free public area where a bore has been drilled into a reservoir of hot thermal water underground (or perhaps the pipe just helped guide the water from a natural stream in the area to prevent erosion?). It seems that many of the hotels, and even some residences in the area have bores drilled into the ground to tap the natural thermal water underneath. At Spa Thermal Park, the water is gushing forward, forming a cascade of water, which collects in a few pools before flowing over the rocks and into the Waikato River.

After changing, I stepped into the water. It was hot! It was at first quite painful, but after a while of getting used to it, it became quite comfortable. I found the water just bearable, slightly cooler than the hot springs of Japan and Korea. After sitting in there for a while and standing in the hot waterfall (without inhaling the hot water and having my brain eaten by amoeba), I decided to join most of the other Couchsurfers closer to the cold water of the river. Carefully stepping over the slippery rocks, I made my way down to the tiny cove where the hot water from the stream mixes with the cool water of the river. I spent most of my time here, moving around to adjust the temperature of the soak. It was also fun trying to find where the cold water and hot water formed gradients of quickly changing temperatures. Often, the hot water would be on top while the colder water would sneak in near the bottom. The temperature also changed with each person walking past or changing their positions, which made for quite a stimulating soak, trying to balance the hot and cold water for maximum comfort.

While soaking, I noticed a lot of debris near the bottom of the stream, and the rocks seem to be surprisingly stirred up by the water to drift casually back down to the bottom. Once in a while, I would see a white glob floating past, which I tried to avoid. Eventually, I realised that all of this was was actually pumice! I bet that I my feet were pretty well cleaned of dead skin from the hot water soak and walking around on beds of pumice! Once in a while, when I started to overheat, I wondered over the smooth rocks into the Waikato River. the water, flowing out from Lake Taupo, is perfectly clear, giving me pristine views of the rocks on the riverbed, tinted slightly in a shade of light aqua. The current is surprisingly strong here, and the river made for a great lap pool, allowing me to swim while staying in place. I was careful not to get pulled into the river though, as the current was quite swift and Huka Falls was only about two kilometres downstream.

After soaking for a while and taking some Couchsurfing photos of us sitting in the shape of the letters "CS," people started to get hungry, and as it was quite late in the day, we decided to go for lunch. When we left the hot pools, the parts of our bodies that were in the water were all glowing red. Driving into Taupo, we found a parking spot on the main road by the lake. It looks like there is some kind of speedboat race going on today, but we decided to go grab lunch first. I had lunch at a fish and chip shop as I have been craving fish and chips for a while now. After lunch, the race looks like it was over, so Tom and I visited a liquor store and decided on what we might get for the party that night. After that, we relaxed on a grassy park area near the lake by the car to wait for the others. Eventually, our driver, a South African, showed up, and we all had a good nap/relaxing time under a tree until the other two Couchsurfers showed up. After a quick liquor store stop, we were on our way back to set up for a BBQ.

We arrived back quite early, and after setting up and after a bunch of us tried to take a nap outside on the grass, I decided to take a quick visit to the neighbour's house where most of the tent city is set up. On Johanna's property, there were five or six tents, but at her neighbour's house, twelve tents were pitched in close proximity, forming small pockets of grass between the tents where I found people sitting, relaxing and drinking. That night at the BBQ, I had to run around collecting money from everyone. It was not fun. Although we only asked for, I think, $24 from each, about 10% were unhappy to pay or made excuses for paying less. In the end, since Kirin had made some allotments for people unwilling to pay (out of 60-70 people, there are bound to be some spoil-sports), it worked out. However, I made the bad mistake of mixing my money with the collected money, and when the accounting didn't add up as hoped, I decided just to give all of the money in my wallet, which I think means I ended up paying an extra $30-40. Well, I would rather have paid this amount extra than have accidentally taken other people's money (it eventually worked out a few weeks later). For the rest of the night, we drank a lot, had a spontaneous massage chain at one point, and just a lot of random fun. One of the most hilarious things I saw that night was when people were taking photos and people started doing "sexy" poses. When some girls asked a bunch of guys to get into "sexy position," everyone looked ridiculously gay, especially one guy who just turned around and bent over! Going to bed late, I drifted to sleep very quickly.

In the morning, after some final clean-up and accounting, we were ready to leave. We gathered on the lawn with the Couchsurfing flag to take a photo together. Johanna got a great shot from the second-floor patio of her house. A few days later, she posted a facebook photo showing an article from the Taupo Times about Couchsurfing and our visit! It was one of the coolest things I have seen from my involvement in Couchsurfing (see image at top of post).

Soon, we were off again. I was back in Tom's car, with Erica(?), recently from Ireland. Wes, who came in our car, took another car back as he had to be back in Auckland early. We decided that I would drive for a while, so today turned out to be my first driving experience on the other side of the road! Although we were supposed to meet at a petrol station first, it turned out that no one else stopped there - they must have changed the plans after we left. After contacting the others, we found that we were to meet in Taupo, so that is where I drove. The drive was relatively smooth, although I had to keep reminding myself to keep to the left when turning. And of course, I fell victim to that typical mistake people make when driving on the other side of the road for the first few times - I kept turning on my wipers when I tried to signal for a turn. After lunch in Taupo, during which Tom left me his keys without me noticing and almost losing them if it wasn't for the waiter bringing them back after clearing our trays, we were on the road again, to visit Huka Falls.

We had a very short stop-over at Huka Falls, mainly to take a few photos. Huka Falls is one of New Zealand's most popular tourist attractions, undoubtedly partially due to its proximity to Taupo. The falls are fed by the Waikato River, New Zealand's longest river, with an astounding flow rate of 220,000 litres per second. In this section, the river is squeezed into a narrow canyon between some solid-looking rocks, causing the flow to intensify to impressive speeds. The water spills out at the falls, it falls off a six metre cliff, but due to a five metre depth at the lip of the falls, the water appears to fall eleven metres into the churning pool below. The water is an unearthly shade of light blue. I judged that due to the high volume of water and short drop, it would be possible to survive going over Huka falls if you didn't get sucked into the powerful eddy currents. Returning to the car, I continued to drive, with our next stop being some natural hot springs near Rototua. The drive through this portion of the countryside was quite pretty, with gently curving roads in lush green fields, dense forests, and hills in the distance. There were numerous farmlands and one or two geothermal power plants as well. Every so often, there would be the smell of sulphur in the air. It was an easy drive following the convoy of Couchsurfing cars.

After turning down some small side roads, we arrived at our destination, an unsightly area just past a bridge, with some dirt shoulders in a small patch of woods on which one could park their car. There were only two or three other cars around so it looks like we effectively have this place to ourselves. After walking down a short track, we arrived at the junction between two murky streams where the air was filled with the smell of sulphur. While some of us changed and headed in the stream, some others decided to just observe on land.

This area was another great natural hot spring. The two converging streams means that once again, you get to choose what temperature you want your soak to be. Moving closer to the steaming hot stream gives you water hot enough to satisfy the people who like the hottest of soaks. Moving towards the cold stream gives you access to cool and refreshing water, and it was great to switch back and forth between the two. Best of all were large stones one could sit on at the bottom of the stream, so it was just like a hot tub except for the lack of backrest and bubbles. There are even half-burned candles placed in small holes in the steep banks and short cliffs surrounding the mixing pool. The cool stream also has a surprisingly strong current, and walking into it is like crossing a vertical wall separating the swift current with the still water. The water further downstream was also comfortable - warm and evenly mixed.

After a good soak, we got out and got ready to leave. It was at this time I discovered that on the other side of the road, there is a trail that leads further up the stream. I found that this trail leads to other, calmer hot pools on the stream, perfectly suited for sitting and soaking in some extra-hot water. It was also apparent that hot water is bubbling up through the ground all throughout the stream, as portions of the stream bed had bubbles rising through it and was extremely hot to the touch. Tom told me that this is where he was hanging out for a while. I still haven't figured out what this area is called yet, but it doesn't appear to be Kerosene Creek, which everyone seems to know about. Kerosene Creek is one of the most popular natural hot springs in the area, a hot water stream with some small waterfalls along it. Although probably much more interesting, it would have been much more crowded as well.

Soon, we headed off again. After a short drive, we turned down a few small roads toward an area where steam is rising up through the trees. As we stopped and stepped out, we were hit by an unpleasant strong smell, sulphur mixed with some other metallic and tangy chemicals. Walking up to a temporary fence, we can see a field of bubbling mud. Unfortunately, some kind of construction was going on, so the area was closed. However, after observing for a while, and after a police car parked in the area left, a bunch of us decided to duck through a hole in the fence for a closer look. There is a series of newly-constructed board-walks here, following a large U-shaped pool of bubbling mud. We stood there for a while watching the mud bubbling away among the trees and bushes around it. This was quite a large mud field with many centres of constantly bubbling and mud up-welling. Once in a while, there would be a few much larger bursts accompanied by large puffs of rising steam. It was quite entrancing to watch this volcanic activity, although the smell was quite disturbing.

After we all had our fill of photos, we continued on. We stopped in Rotorua for a short coffee and snack break, where a few of the Couchsurfers stopped to spend the night. The rest of the convoy stopped at Tirau, well-known for its sheet metal sculptures. The Couchsurfers split here, and we continued on our way back to Auckland. The drive around Rotorua was quite interesting, with steam rising up from various locations in and around town, sometimes from buildings, sometimes from what appeared to be empty fields and ditches. I made a mental note to come back to the Rotorua and Taupo area to explore some more of the volcanic features in the area.

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