Friday, March 5, 2010

Waitakere Ranges

Sunday, 17th of January, 2010. Today, I am going with about 50-60 Couchsurfers to the Waitakere Ranges to take the Rain Forest Express. The Rain Forest Express, located only 40 minutes from downtown Auckland, was built in 1931 to aid in the construction and service of the Upper Nihotupu Dam. This extremely narrow gauge track has found a new life as a tourist attraction, bringing eager tourists six kilometres into rain forests of the Waitakere Ranges to the Upper Nihotupu Reservoir.

After a drive up narrow windy roads, we arrived at Jacobson's Depot, where the tracks start. As more Couchsurfers arrived, we spent the time chatting, and I got a head start collecting money from everyone as I was the treasurer for the trip. This went surprisingly smoothly, with no hitches whatsoever. I found this fascinating as one Couchsurfer observed that things seemed to be done efficiently and correctly because no one blamed anyone else. When anything needed to be done, there were numerous volunteers and no complainers. I thought this was a great example of how an organisation should work together. Everyone was also quite happy with the price too, as due to the fact that we had so many people, we were able to charter an entire train, so our ticket prices were reduced to $19 from $25. We even had our trip extended to four hours from three hours as we were able to schedule in a BBQ as well.

As the train pulled into the station, we were all amazed. Even though we saw the flimsy-looking narrow tracks, the train was still smaller than what we expected. The train looked like an over-sized model train set. We all squeezed in to the carriages, which barely fit two people side to side. My head was just about touching the ceiling as I sat straight up. One side of the train was fitted with windows, and the other is a simple latching door. As we all settled uncomfortably into our cramped seats, we started forward.

Following the large water mains beside the track, we headed into the dense Waitakere rain forest filled with ferns, palms and other dense foliage closely surrounding the train carriages. As we gained altitude, we were treated to spanning view of the forest and water below. One of the most scenic spots was a stop on the longest of the nine wooden bridges along the track. Spanning a deep valley filled with fern trees, it felt like were were in the midst of a dense jungle, with no trace of the city only half an hour away. I took the opportunity to check out the engine of the train, which was tiny but filled with gauges and even had a small storage locker.

Although the bridges were spectacular, I enjoyed the ten tunnels much more. Each of these tunnels were extremely narrow, barely fitting the train inside of it. Some tunnels were coated in smooth concrete shells, some were supported by rough wooden trusses, and some tunnels were nothing more than long carved holes in solid rock. It was a lot of fun watching the foliage folding over the top of the train as we entered the tunnels, soon followed by darkness, then the dimly lit walls of the tunnel moving by just outside the sides of the train as my eyes adjusted. As we went through one of the caves, one of the conductors jumped out at a particularly wide section of the cave and pointed the flashlight at the wall. As we rolled past, we could see large, spindly looking cave wetas jerking around, apparently confused by the light and noise.

The train stopped just short of the dam, where a new station was being constructed. As we walked to the base of the dam, we can see a spillway into which a surprisingly small pipe was shooting out spiralling water at a surprisingly high speed. After some photos, we followed a set of steep staircases up the side of the dam, which led up to a walkway along the curved top. From here, we could see the reservoir on the other side, which appeared not to be at its maximum capacity judging by the bare earth around the water. The dam around the reservoir also did not look very new, as there were metal posts that were completely rusted through. To the other side, there was a wonderful view of a long steep valley filled with rain forest plants. It was kind of calming to listen to the water spilling into the forest and enjoying the light drizzle making small rings on the surface of the reservoir.

As we walked around the dam, we noticed that there was a trail leading into the forest from one side of the dam. Unfortunately, there was not enough time to explore this trail, but perhaps next time there would be. After a while, we followed a service road from the other side of the dam to a small clearing where the train was waiting for us. There were toilets, a grassy field with a nice view down a valley, a shelter with picnic tables and a large BBQ there. We set up for a BBQ, and spent a good amount of time cooking, eating, drinking and chatting. It was glorious to watch the amount of food on the grill at maximum load.

As we boarded the train to return, we decided to head to Piha beach for a quick visit as it was still early in the day. On the way back, through one of the particularly long tunnels, the conductor turned the train lights out, revealing patches of bright blue-green pinpoints of light on the tunnel ceiling. It was quite amazing to watch as we rolled past patch after patch. These were in fact the famous New Zealand glowworms. They were surprisingly bright. I had seen these lights on the way into the Waitakere forest, but wasn't sure if these were the glowworms as they were so unexpectedly bright. In fact, they looked like the bright tacky fibre optic effects in theme park rides.

As we arrived back at Jacobson's Depot, I explored the old rusting steam train engine on display there, one of the engines which used to run on this unique track. It was cool pulling open the front of the boiler to reveal the various tubes inside.

From here, we made a quick stop at the Arataki Visitor Centre, the main visitor centre for the Waitakere Ranges. There were some interesting displays inside including a giant piece of kauri gum, some wetas and some stick insects. There was also a great view of Manukau Harbour from here where one could watch air planes line up for final approach. There was also an amazing view of Auckland City and North Shore City from here too, with Rangitoto directly behind the Sky Tower. We took turns taking photos in one of the picture frames installed in strategic locations in all of Auckland Region's parks. I took a cool one where I jumped from the frame, so I would have been floating in the middle. The man from Quebec who took my photo on his camera (he was a professional photographer) still has not sent me that photo yet...

From here, we drove to Piha, first making a stop at Kitekite Falls, accessible by a short hike through a kauri forest. Due to the Kauri Dieback crisis in New Zealand, there were cleaning stations along the trail to disinfect shoes with, preventing the spread of the deadly parasite. During the hike, one of the Couchsurfers showed us how to pull up the stalks of one of the plants growing in the forest. The base of this plant was edible. It was crunchy and had a delicate savoury taste to it, which reminded me very much of heart of palm. I'm not sure if I'll trust myself to pull up the right kind of plant by myself, but it is something to keep in mind as the stalk was quite tasty!

After a short tramp, we came across a clearing in the forest from which we can see Kitekite Falls. Kitekite Falls is an impressive multi-tiered waterfall, with the lower tiers taller and wider than the upper tiers. It is what you would think of when imagining a typical tropical waterfall hidden in the jungle. There were some people playing around the falls, and I heard that there might even be cool pools and parts of the waterfall one could slide down hear the top. As we descended the steps leading to the pool under the falls, a bunch of the Couchsurfers jumped in to swim at the base of the falls. I decided not to join as it was quite cold and I didn't have a towel. It was overcast and it started raining, and I got wet anyway. This also reminded me of the time I swam under Taughannock Falls in New York State close to Cornell University, where I went to school. Taughannock Falls is even taller than Niagara Falls, and the force of the water pounding down was quite exhilarating. However, five minutes after swimming away from the base of the falls, some huge boulders fell directly where I was swimming just minutes before! That's when I decided not to swim into tall waterfalls, although Kitekite Falls did look a lot safer, with less loose rocks than Taughannock Falls.

After the swim, we made our way to Piha Beach. This was actually the first time I had been at Piha, so I was quite keen to explore the area. Jake and I walked up Lion Rock, the landmark geologic feature at Piha. Unfortunately, we found that we could only walk halfway up the rock as the top portion was closed after a rock slide a few years earlier. Even from here, the view of the beach was impressive - a wide, expansive beach below us with large surf pounding far up the shallow sandy embankment. Here, we decided that we wanted to go for a swim, so we changed up here away from everyone else. Later I realised that probably most people could see us changing, as I could see most of the beach and pretty much the entire town on the hills behind us!

A few of us ran into the water, which was surprisingly comfortable after a few minutes of acclimatising. The waves were quite large, and we spent some time trying to body surf, which we did more or less successfully. We were very careful not to go too far out, as the lifeguards were off duty at the time and Piha Beach is notorious for its exceedingly strong rip currents. I noticed that even when were were not in the rip, just ducking my head into the water and floating for two or three seconds would result in me being pulled in a random direction for two or three metres! I kept bumping into the others as I always underestimated how much I would get pulled along as I swam!

From here, we tried to find what is supposedly one of the best fish and chip places in New Zealand, but failed. We ended up going back to Titirangi, a small town just past the Waitakere Ranges on the Auckland side, for dinner, where I gave the money I collected to Kirin. Most of us ate at a Chinese and fish and chip shop. I enjoyed my fish and kumara chips and a delicious Memphis Meltdown ice cream bar, which Wes, another American that has been in New Zealand for some time, agreed was the best ice cream around. A Finnish girl, I think by the name of Pii-Tulia, was showing us some of her pole acrobatics moves on a nearby street sign, which was one of the random moments of the night. After this, it was home time, early enough for a relaxing Sunday evening before work the next day.

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