At the time it was just a legend, a land of fire and ice far across the ocean. They were not really interested in this new land. They were very content with where they were. It was warm and tropical here, a place with abundant fish, coconuts and breadfruit, all they needed. However, it was their destiny to journey westward in a migration for all mankind, after all they were the greatest seafaring explorers the world has ever known. In their sacred canoes they set off from their now mythical Hawaiki traveling ever westward, into the land of the setting sun. They did not know where this new land was, but their navigators possessed great powers, enabling them to know the forces of nature. They would find this land by the feel of the ocean swell, and with the help of the sun, stars, moon, the heavens and the Gods themselves. On their journey to their new home, they discovered and populated many islands in the archipelagos now known as Micronesia, Polynesia and Melanesia. Ultimately they arrived in their destined new land. Like all things, they meditated upon its nature and called it Aotearoa – Land of the Great White Cloud. Today we know this place as New Zealand.
The Maoris named the mountain range surrounding Piha, Waitakere, or cascading waters. This mountain range and coastline, just an hour outside of Auckland is one of the most spectacular places on Earth. The place is alive with the call of the Tui and Mynah birds, and the ever present water songs of falls, rivers and the Tasman Sea. Piha opens its splendor to you quite suddenly as you round a mountain curve to behold a lush green semi-tropical rainforest spilling down to the sea. For all its renown, Piha still retains its essential nature and charm. It is a mix of Maori legend and New Zealand surf and bush town. Here you will find the Piha Surf Club where you can sit seaside and enjoy any number of New Zealand’s finest seafood dishes, steaks and ale. Other spots provide a different glimpse of New Zealand culture as you feast on fried calamari, fish and chips at tables alongside lawn bowling greens.
KareKare Beach is one of those places that seem to harness the elements of nature in perfect balance. The black sand beach of KareKare is the perfect border between an aquamarine blue ocean and the surrounding emerald green forest. It is also one of the stops along one of the world’s most spectacular coastal hikes. The length and duration of the hike is entirely up to you, anywhere from a short day hike to a 50 mile multi day adventure. The short trek from Karekare Beach to Pararaha provides a perfect glimpse of the wonders you will encounter along this trek. Here you find prehistoric Ponga Fern Forests that tower above you blocking out the sun with their long interlacing thousand fingered fronds.
Mynah birds call out from all directions, and during the Christmas season, spectacular Pohutukawa trees are everywhere bursting into a towering red flame. The essence of this place is beautifully captured in a plaque that adorns a simple wooden bench on the cliffs high above KareKare ─ Stay awhile, listen to the ocean, listen to your heart, remember the good times and be at peace.
Hot Water Beach
Hot Water Beach is one of those amazing places that is better than you could ever have imagined. It is quite simply a miraculous place. Set before you is a beautiful pastel blue bay, against a crescent of soft white sand and rolling green hills. As you walk barefoot along the beach you come to places where the sand is hot beneath your feet, with steam rising and the smell of sulfur in the air. Here you simply dig a hole in the sand and create your very own hot mineral bath, compliments of the geothermal hot water river that flows just beneath the sand at the edge of the Pacific Ocean. The area that you dig in is only exposed at low tide. So each and every day and night provides an ever new surreal bathing experience. This is especially true at night. Under the stars and moon, clouds of sulfurous steam drift across the beach as you soak in your steaming hot mineral bath listening to the laughter of those around you, sharing an experience you will never forget.
The New Zealand People
Along with the scenery, it is the people that make New Zealand such an incredible place. Their spirit, generosity and friendship make you feel very welcome and at home. The people here have a different sense of time, time to help, to share, and get to know you. It does not matter that they do not know you, they will take as long as needed to make sure you get to where you are going, that you are ok, and that you enjoy the experience along the way. For them it is the journey that matters, not just the final destination. New Zealander’s like Tad, Joe and Harry are what life is really all about, they make the journey all the better for knowing them.
Route 309 offers a variety of encounters unlike any other road you are likely to travel. For starters it quickly turns into a river of very dangerous slippery red clay in the all too frequent downpours of the Coromandel Peninsula mountains. Since it is impossibly narrow logging road, with endless blind curves, this can make for heart stopping moments, when you encounter enormous trucks loaded with tons of trees appearing out of a misty nowhere directly in front of you.
Aside from being a shortcut over the mountains, Route 309 provides a glimpse into some of New Zealand wonders. At 4.7 kilometers you come across the Waiau Waterworks. Only in New Zealand could you imagine finding such a perfect blend of art, eco-inventiveness and time. Time to imagine what could be, given the proper use of water, kinetic, wind and solar energy. Here you will find acres of water-powered tea-kettle ferris wheels, bicycle powered water pumps, a water powered music box, giant water-powered clock and flying bicycles. As advertised, Waiau Waterworks is a Whimsical Wonder. Further along Route 309 you come to Waiau Falls and then to a stand of ancient Kauri trees. These massive trees, some as wide as a two lane road are among the most massive trees in the world. Rightfully so, they are revered by the Maori as the Lord of the Forest. Ancient Kauri trees, some over 2,000 years in age seem to be made more of stone than wood, standing as timeless sentinels to a distant past.
Rotorua, Lake Taupo and the surrounding area are revered by the Maori as sacred ground. Here the elemental forces of nature and the Gods are present like few other places on Earth. Gurgling, spitting, erupting geysers, and pools of boiling glowing orange and green water obscure the landscape with clouds of intensely hot steam. Situated between Rotarua and Lake Taupo is Hoku Falls. Like Niagara Falls, it is a sight not to be missed. Viewed from above, the falls glistens snow white against emerald green water. On closer inspection, as you walk across the bridge that spans the narrow gorge that unleashes the falls, you can not but marvel at the force of nature. The roar of billions of gallons of water fills your ears drowning out all conversation. The force of the water as it hurtles off the cliff causes it to create a transparent emerald green jewel that ultimately shatters into a trillion snow-white shards.
Te Anau, the starting point for the Milford and other world-class treks comes as a bit of a surprise. It is small New Zealand bush town meets upscale Manhattan trekker. In this one main street town you will find $1,000 Icebreker sweaters and all kinds of the most expensive trekking gear in the world. Not to be outdone by the trekking shops, restaurants like the Red Bluff and others feature amazing fare like wild venison over New Zealand sweet potatoes with grilled asparagus and portabella mushroom, or a backstrap of hare over risotto. This is all accompanied by some of the finest locally brewed beers in the world.
Milford Trek is quite simply amazing. It is a water wonderland with thousands of waterfalls, some as high as 2,000 feet, hail, snow, ice, mist, fog, rivers, lakes and glaciers. Aptly so, the trek starts with a boat ride across Lake Te Anau to the trail head. Everything here is tranquil, as you approach the reflection of the mountains that encompass the five-day trek. From the shore of Lake Te Anau you hike along an emerald green river that you cross time and time again, via equilibrium altering suspension bridges. Along the way, if the sun is shining, you will find beautiful swimming holes to enjoy. As the second wettest place on Earth, your experience here is pretty much guaranteed to be a wet one. Many times, it is 24/7 wet. This can and does quickly turn the trails into rivers of water. But in New Zealand this is no deterrent to hiking on, with trail markers that are six feet high to guide you through the water, no matter how deep, that you will be hiking through.
Along the trail, at varying intervals are the Milford Trek Huts. Each Hut is unlike the next, some are quite spartan, others feature blazing fireplaces, with large rooms to warm yourself and dry out your gear. As you progress along the hike, the inside of the huts become a rain forest of dripping wet multi-colored parkas, rain pants, ponchos, backpacks, and for the truly unfortunate, soaked sleeping bags. Those who do not come well prepared and waterproofed for this hike, suffer extreme consequences. Even with the very best gear, under a deluge of all-day rain, and hiking along trails that are covered by a torrent of water, everyone is guaranteed a thorough soaking.
The best thing about the huts is that they are communal in every sense. You all sleep in bunk beds in rooms of up to 8-10 people. All the cooking is done together in one massive kitchen. Here you will see every kind of meal, and cuisine from around the world. from dehydrated instant hot water meals, to elaborate, multi-course, gourmet feasts, all packed in on someone’s back. The communal nature of the huts helps to create friendship and support among the forty some souls that make up each independent group of hikers. While many languages are spoken here, there is a unity and a bond. That transcends cultures, created by the extreme conditions.
Along the way you will see things that you simply can not imagine. Sutherland Falls is one of those sights. Here you will experience one of the mightiest waterfalls in the entire world, a waterfall that seems to be a living, breathing thing. The volume of water in this fall is so massive that it creates a wind so strong that you can not stand against it, a roar so loud that you can not shout above it. Standing before the fall, with the wind and spray causing your body to sway back and forth, you literally breathe in the spirit of the falls and carry that spirit as a part of you forever, the ultimate nature therapy.
Founded by Scots, who named it in Gaelic after their beloved Edinburgh. Dunedin is New Zealand’s oldest city and is well known for its Scottish heritage. Knowing that it is named after Edinburgh tells you a great deal about this wonderful place. Like Edinburgh it is a center of great learning, culture and beauty. In fact, many consider Dunedin to be the cultural capital of New Zealand. With the beautiful Dunedin University, Otago Museum, numerous art galleries, designer stores, restaurants, pubs, and musical performances, Dunedin is a whirl of non-stop social and cultural activity. In addition, due to its extreme location, at the very tip of the Otago Peninsula the area attracts many rare creatures, including the extremely shy yellow eyed penguin. For those interested in the island cultures of the Pacific Ocean, including the cultures of Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia, the Museum’s exhibits from Hawaii, Easter Island, Tonga, New Guinea, Fiji, the Cook Islands, Vanuatu (the land that has always existed) and other Pacific islands are not to be missed. A central focus of these exhibits are the deities of these cultures, and the representation of the islanders’ Gods in wood, stone, ferns, and other materials. The Vanuatu tree fern sculptures and the wood carvings of the Cook Island deities are unlike anything you are ever likely to see.
Story and Accompanying Photos by Joe Prickitt