Monday, May 7, 2018

A quick update from Bali

Cycling Georgia back in 2009

Trundling along the Danube, 2015
Just a quick update from our little pocket of tropical island life here.  Most of you, my faithful readers, are already aware of big changes coming in my life, but for those of you not yet aware, our time here in Bali is rapidly drawing to a close.  Not forever, mind you; Terri is keeping her house here which has been such a great place to base ourselves over the past year.  I've loved living here, doing lots of diving and snorkelling in the ocean and running and cycling in the mountains, and writing.  I'm halfway through the second draft of my book on my Silk Road cycle trip, having written almost the entire first draft here in my writing eyrie perched high on a hill overlooking the waters and sailboats of the Bali Sea.  It has been the perfect spot to write, and I am frantically trying to get through the hard work of the second draft before I lose this base.  We will certainly be back here in the future, probably living here again in a few years' time.

Sailing in Finland with my friend JP, 2015

Atop another hair-raising climb on the GR20 in Corsica
In February, when I was at the northern tip of the North Island of New Zealand with Terri, I received an offer from an international high school in Tbilisi, Georgia to teach science and mathematics there.  It's been almost 3 years since I last taught, and I've enjoyed my "pretirement":  cycle trips along the Danube and through Scandinavia; hiking in the Pyrenees and Corsica; a cruise to the Falklands, South Georgia and the Antarctic Peninsula; cycling in Chile, Argentina and Paraguay; working on Terri's pre-school in Zambia; our year-long African odyssey in Stanley; diving here in Indonesia and qualifying as a PADI Open Water SCUBA Instructor; hiking in New Zealand.  Of course, there was also the less fun aspect of my father's death last July, although being free to help nurse him through his final months was an important part of saying goodbye to him.  

Happy in Antarctica
Terri and some of the staff and students of Olive Tree
Riding the Carretera Austral, Chile
At any rate, I have had an incredible time on the travel front with Terri, and there is so much more that I want to do:  drive Stanley all the way around Africa; hike the fabulous mountains of Central Asia; explore Central America, northern South America and Brazil.  However after 3 years on the road, the sad realities of economic life dictate that I need to earn some money, and while I would have liked teaching SCUBA diving, teaching high school is a much more lucrative profession, particularly on the international circuit, and Georgia is one of the few countries that I was willing to come out of pretirement for.  I cycled in Georgia in 2009 and 2011, and skied there in 2015, and every time I really enjoyed the feel of the country, the culture, the people and the amazing Caucasus Mountains.  I accepted the job, and so in August I will be moving to Tbilisi along with Terri to start a two-year commitment.  I am looking forward immensely to living in Georgia:  the food, the wine, the opportunities to hike and ski, the chance to polish up my Russian and learn some Georgian, and of course getting to try to inspire young minds to love mathematics and science.  I am very excited indeed.

Wild camping in Botswana
Before we go, however, we are heading back to Namibia to pick up Stanley and take him for a spin for the next 7 weeks.  He's been parked in Windhoek, and we want to do more exploring of Namibia, a country that we really enjoyed last year despite having to curtail our travels because of my father's illness.  The plan is to drive less and stay longer in the various spots that we visit, particularly in the northwestern deserts.  It will be wonderful to restart Stanley's Travels, if only briefly.  

I want to spend July in Ottawa, visiting my mother and working on my book under her eagle-eyed editorial supervision, before flying to Tbilisi at the end of the month.  I have to nip over to Switzerland to pick up my skis and other winter sports gear that I stored in Leysin back in 2015, and then I will have a little over a week of liberty before orientation for new staff begins at the school.  I would like to spend that week exploring some corner of the Caucasus on foot with Terri; I have done plenty of cycling but not nearly enough walking in Georgia, and it's time to remedy that.  I would like to explore a leg of the newly-developing Trans-Caucasian Trail system, perhaps linking Tusheti and Khevsureti, or maybe between Racha and Lentekhi.  There is so much stupendous mountain scenery to explore that I am sure we will be kept busy every weekend for the next couple of years.  

Damaraland, Namibia
The plan for next summer is to go to Kyrgyzstan, my other favourite Silk Road country, and do some serious trekking there:  Lake Sary-Chelek; the Inylchek Glacier; the Turkestan Range in Batken province.  I'd also like to have a couple of weeks left over for more Caucasus trekking as well.  Then in 2020, when my time in Georgia comes to an end, I want to go back to Africa to take Stanley on his longest trip yet, up the west side of Africa to Europe, and back down the east side to South Africa.  

Moremi, Botswana
So much to see, so little time!  I hope to see some of you, my faithful readers, in Georgia for some skiing, some cycling, some hiking or some wine-tasting over the next two years, and I hope you continue to follow my adventures here online.

Bali sunset

Monday, April 30, 2018

Back In The Saddle: A Quick Bicycle Trip Around Bali

Lipah, May 1, 2018

Dozens of sails along the RollerCoastal
I got back to Bali about ten days before Terri at the beginning of April, and used some of that time to put right something that has been bothering me for months.  I hadn't gone on a bicycle trip in over two years, the longest such gap since 1994-97.  Terri and I rode our bicycles up the Carretera Austral in Chile, and around Paraguay, in 2015-16, and since then I have done lots of travel, but none of it on my trusty Rocky Mountain.  I decided that I should do a short jaunt around the eastern part of the island of Bali, and quickly charted out a 4-day itinerary to hit a few of the highlights that I had so far missed.  On April 8th I loaded up my bicycle very lightly (just two rear panniers, as I was going to be sleeping indoors every night and eating in restaurants) and set off to explore.

Eye candy along the RollerCoastal
Day 1:  April 8.  Lipah-Peneloka          91 km, 2660 vertical metres

The coast east of Lipah is very pretty indeed!
The first day was the hardest ride of the entire trip, with some 2660 vertical metres of climbing in some pretty intense heat.  I started off by riding the RollerCoastal, the back road to Amlapura, the biggest town in Karangasem Regency (in which Lipah is located).  I often ride part of this road as a fun morning outing, but I had never cycled all the way to Amlapura.  My nickname for the route tells you what you need to know about it:  lots of short, steep ups and downs.  The road climbs up and down over a series of sharp ridges coming down from the caldera of the extinct volcano that rises just behind Lipah.  Lempuyang and Seraya are the two highest surviving bits of a mountain that blasted itself to pieces sometime in the dim prehistoric past, but looking on a map you can see that there is a clear outline of what was once a much broader, higher volcanic cone.  It was a hot, challenging ride, with lots of it ridden in my lowest gear.  About two thirds of the way to Amlapura, the road finally became gentler, with better pavement and kinder grades.  It felt amazing to be back in the saddle, headed out for more than a couple of hours of riding.  I had missed the sensation of freedom and exploration that a bicycle tour always brings me.  The views along the RollerCoastal are sensational, with every headland bringing another vista of a black sand beach crowded with fishing boats, with the shimmering azure of the Bali Sea studded with sails beyond.  This stretch of coast has escaped tourist development, and the villages are devoted to fishing as they have been for generations.

Gunung Agung seen from Amlapura
After two and a half hours of tough riding, I got to the big city and had lunch in KFC so that I could use their free wi-fi; my SIM card had been locked by the government, and I was hoping to get it unlocked at the Telkomsel office in town, but I had forgotten that it was Sunday, and the office was closed.  I sat in the air conditioned restaurant, loaded up a Google Map route onto my phone and then set off northwest into the highlands under the fierce midday sun.

Lovely rice terraces on the way to Besakih
I had a wonderful view of Gunung Agung as I rode out of Amlapura.  The volcano has returned to its usual peaceful state after a few months of intense rumbling, shaking and puffing from September to January, and it looked magnificent in an almost cloudless sky.  I rode along the main road for a while until Google Maps directed me off onto a side road.  I am usually a huge fan of side roads, but in this case the side road was a tiny bit shorter by being a lot steeper, with a series of steep ups and downs through the spectacular rice terraces for which Bali is famous.  It was gruelling work, and when I finally re-emerged onto the busy main road, it was actually a bit of a relief to have gentler grades, despite the incessant noise of motorcycles and trucks and the standard Balinese maniacal driving style.  The road led around the western slopes of Gunung Agung, past the turnoff to Besakih, the main temple of the mountain and the starting point for climbing Agung.  I was definitely feeling all that vertical climbing when I finally reached the rim of the Gunung Batur caldera.  It was disappointing to discover that this was not the end of the uphill, as the road undulated, more up than down, for the next several kilometres until I got to the junction at Peneloka.  There a road plunges down to the shores of the lake, Danau Batur.  I was less than keen to lose all that hard-earned elevation, so I took a room at a hotel perched on the caldera rim, hoping for a fabulous sunrise view the next morning; it was already dusk by the time I climbed off my bicycle, legs weary but otherwise feeling pretty good.  A much-needed shower, a big meal and an early night completed the first day.

Day 2:  April 9.  Peneloka-Candikuning          65 km,  1510 vertical metres

Dawn over Batur
I was up in the predawn the next morning after the soul-satisfying deep sleep that comes after a big day of riding.  There was a pretty dawn light show in the eastern sky, but thin cloud led to rather flat, disappointing light on the new cinder cone of Gunung Batur.  I could see the headlights and camera flashes of hordes of trekkers near the summit; Batur is a popular climb for tourists, and has been sewn up by a local guiding association who make it remarkably expensive for a relatively short walk.  I felt no real need to climb the volcano, as there was plenty of exercise ahead, despite it being a significantly shorter and less vertical leg than the day before.  I took a few photos, stretched and juggled a bit to wake up, then climbed onto my bicycle.
Early morning light on Gunung Batur

Festival time
The road continued to climb, albeit fitfully, as I circled the caldera clockwise.  There was a lot of traffic on the road, as this is part of the main north-south route from Denpasar to Singaraja.  Luckily there was a festival at one of the temples along the route which closed the road to all but motorcycles and one lucky cyclists.  After 11 kilometres and some 350 metres of ascent, to just over 1600 metres above sea level, I was happy to turn away from the main road and start descending to the south.  I could see the mountains enclosing the day's destination, another volcanic lake called Danau Bratan, to the west, seemingly close enough to touch, but the jagged gash of a deep gorge means that there is no direct road between the two lakes.  Instead my route led me 25 km south to a crossing point, then another 25 km north again.  The southward leg was all downhill, making for an easy morning.  The scenery was appealing too, across volcanic highlands devoted to plantations of oranges, coffee and marigolds.  I had not breakfasted before leaving, so in the small village of Catur I stopped for a big helping of gado gado, one of my favourite Indonesian dishes, at a small roadside stall.  The woman running the place spoke exceptionally good English, and it turned out that she had worked abroad for over a decade in Turkey, the Maldives and Dubai.  She worked first as a masseuse, then as a massage instructor and supervisor, and had only returned to her native village to care for her aged parents a few months previously.  We chatted about travel, and it turned out that she, like me, is a big fan of Kyrgyzstan.  These sorts of serendipitous encounters with people along the way are one of my favourite aspects of bicycle journeys, and I pedalled off with my belly full and feeling good about being back cycle touring.

A well-travelled restaurateur in Catur

Volcanoes lining up from near Plaga
I lost altitude increasingly rapidly, eventually crossing one deep canyon and climbing into the small town of Plaga before dropping again to the main crossing over the Ayung River.  I was now less than 30 km north of Ubud and the landscape, all rice terraces and pretty ridge-top temples and villages, was very similar to the magical countryside that made Ubud famous (too famous, to judge by the appalling traffic that was choking the place the last time I visited, last September).  Now all that remained was 900 metres of regaining lost elevation.  It was a steep, hard grunt, but much of the way I was on a small side road without any traffic at all, so I had time to look around and appreciate my surroundings.  It was a bit grey and hazy, not so good for views but a welcome relief for a cyclist sweating his way uphill.  About 6 km short of my destination, I joined another major north-south road and resigned myself to more heavy traffic and obnoxious driving behaviour.  I finally got to the village of Candikuning around 1:30, found a cheap hotel, showered and then set off in search of sustenance, both physical and intellectual.
Highland plantations

Marigolds grown in the highlands
The former came in the form of mujair, the fish that is raised in fish farms in both Danau Bratan and Danau Batur; it was pleasant, but the sweet soy-based sauce was a bit strange.  I then wandered up the road to the Bali Botanical Gardens where I hoped to do some birdwatching.  I had read several accounts of birdwatchers who had seen a couple dozen species of highland birds in an afternoon there, but I was either incompetent or unlucky, or both.  I could hear birds calling high overhead in tall trees, but peer as I might through my binoculars, I couldn't spot anything.  It was a complete strikeout in terms of new species; at least I had a pleasant stroll through the gardens.  After a big dinner of nasi goreng, I was in bed early, feeling a bit tired.
Near Danau Bratan

Day 3:  April 10, Candikuning to Lovina        33 km  330 vertical metres

It was a good thing that I was in bed early, as I had not paid enough attention to the religious makeup of Candikuning.  Bali is mostly Hindu, but there are pockets of Muslims here and there, and Candikuning was almost exclusively Muslim.  I was sleeping with my earplugs in (Bali's obsession with roosters, along with its packs of feral dogs, make for noisy nights), but they were no match for the high-decibel call to prayer that shook my hotel at 4:30 am.  I eventually fell asleep again, but I was not a well-rested little cyclist when I crawled out of bed.

Overlooking Danau Buyan
The day's riding was amazingly short and easy.  I rode out of town along the shore of Lake Bratan, then along a level valley leading to two more lakes, Buyan and Tamblingan; all three are nestled under the caldera wall of another extinct volcano.  At Buyan the road climbed steeply up to the rim of the caldera and then continued fairly level, with expansive views of the lakes to the left and the ocean to the right.  I felt suspended in mid-air and it made for wonderful cycling, especially when the main torrent of traffic disappeared downhill towards Singaraja.  Not long afterwards I followed Google Maps down a very steep route to the tourist hotspot of Lovina Beach.  I had 1500 metres to lose over 15 km, an average gradient of 10%, but the first half was surprisingly level.  The second half, however, was precipitous, and my forearms were starting to cramp by the time I got to the bottom.  It was very pretty and there was next to no traffic, and I really enjoyed being so far off the beaten track.  At the bottom I was able to boil water from my bottles on my brake rotors; all that gravitational potential energy that I had gained the day before was converted into heat, a fact that pleased my physics-teaching brain.

I had stayed in Lovina one night back in November during a quick diving trip along the north coast, and I had been surprised at how tatty the village is.  I knew that lots of expats and retirees live in Lovina, and I was hard-put to figure out where.  This trip revealed another side of Lovina in the hills above the coast, where genteel villas have been constructed to catch the mountain breezes.  I stayed closer to the coast, in the cheapest hotel so far; 150,000 rupiah (about US$ 12) bought me a spacious room in a complex with a swimming pool and pleasant gardens.  I went out for a sizeable lunch, then ended up spending much of the afternoon catching up on my beauty sleep, undisturbed by any muezzins.  I went out for dinner that evening overlooking Lovina's rather underwhelming beach and listened to quite a good cover band before retiring to my room.
Danau Buyan

Day Four:  April 11, Lovina to Lipah         90 km, 740 vertical metres

The last day of the trip was a bit of an anticlimax.  After the mountains, climbs, descents and new scenery of the first three days, the final stage was a fairly flat, uneventful trundle along a road that I had travelled twice before in each direction on visa runs (Singaraja is the nearest visa extension office to Lipah).   I stopped in Singaraja and got my SIM card issue resolved, a process that took almost an hour as I was behind a line of Chinese visitors who had also been stymied by the government's obsession with having all SIM cards registered.  After Singaraja I was able to ride fast enough to generate some wind cooling in the heat of the day, and I made good time all the way to Tulamben, site of the USAT Liberty wreck and many more less well-known muck-diving sites that Terri and I have visited many times.  From there the road got a bit hillier, but I was still back in Lipah by 2:30, having taken less than four hours from Singaraja.  I was hungry and a bit sunburnt, but elated at having seen a few more corners of Bali by bicycle.  I can't wait to do more cycle touring (probably just weekend jaunts) when I move to Tbilisi in August!

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

West Coast Finale, March-April 2018

Lipah, April 18th

For a Google map of this part of our trip, please click here.

Our very muddy launch onto the Whanganui 
The final leg of our trip around New Zealand's North Island began on March 15 when we drove north out of Upper Hutt, headed up the west coast.  Our first destination was Raetihi, a small tourist town north of Wanganui, a town where my sister Audie had once spent a year on a high school exchange. That first day we drove up the main highway to Wanganui, then turned up the scenic River Road to get to Pipiriki, followed by a stiff climb to Raetihi, up on the central volcanic plateau.  We stayed in a friendly AirBnB that night and had a look at weather forecasts.

Whanganui River
The plan was to spend three days paddling down the Whanganui River in canoes, but Mother Nature wasn't playing along.  March 16 was a complete washout, with rain all day.  We spent the day indoors reading and repacking gear for the river trip, then slept a second night at the AirBnB.  We had debated whether the $180 per person for canoe hire and transport was worth it, but in the end we were glad that we shelled out the cash for a fabulous experience.

March 17 dawned crisp and clear and we drove over to the canoe rental spot to park our car and be shuttled to our put-in point at Whangahoro.  There were two parties in the truck that morning:  ourselves and a Spanish-Belgian couple, Pieter and Veronica.  The boss of the rental agency, Trev, was a fount of local information, and told us that we were the first wave of canoeists to put in at Whangahoro since disastrous flash floods ten days before, during which the river level had risen 12 metres overnight.  The road leading to Whangahoro had been closed for repairs ever since, and had just reopened the previous day.  The launching site was under a thick, gooey layer of mud, and the river's course had shifted, resulting in an unexpectedly tough rapid about 10 metres after putting in.  Terri and I capsized here, hardly an auspicious start to the trip!

The Bridge to Nowhere
From that point on the river was much more placid in terms of rapids.  What it lacked in adrenaline, though, it made up for in scenery.  The Whanganui River is deeply incised into soft mudstone, resulting in sheer-sided cliffs.  This stretch of the river has no road access, and the early settlers in the area depended on river steamers to transport their sheep and wool to market.  It was a perilous existence in an unforgiving environment, and over the 25 years between the end of World War One and 1943 almost all of the farmers (who were allotted the land as returned veterans of WWI) ended up abandoning the struggle; the last three families were evicted by the government in 1943.  This has left a large swathe of land to return to native bush and provided a large nature reserve for tourists to paddle through.  We drifted and paddled along for much of the day, oohing and aahing over the landscape, before making camp at John Coull's campsite.  Despite being one of the last canoes to arrive (about 20 canoes from 6 different outfitters spent the night there), we got the best campsite.  We fried up delicious steaks, had a bottle of fine red wine and watched the rare native New Zealand bats (both the long-tailed and short-tailed) flying insect-catching sorties in the gloaming.  It was a perfect evening.
Layers of history that we were paddling through

Paddling bliss
The second day was more of the same, except even more fun.  It was another day of placid rapids and sheer cliffs, but enlivened by a midday walking excursion to see the Bridge To Nowhere, built to extend road access to the isolated farms in the late 1920s, but which was insufficient to save these economically unfeasible endeavours.  The road was abandoned because of persistent landslides--hardly surprising given the terrain and weather!--and now the bridge stands as a memory of a white elephant.  It's used now as part of a hiking and mountain biking track from Whakahoro to the Bridge To Nowhere river landing; this stretch is part of both the Te Araroa and New Zealand Cycle Trail routes that stretch the length of New Zealand.  Hikers and cyclists are usually picked up by jetboats that take them to Pipiriki, although they can also arrange to rent canoes to avoid using internal combustion engines.  Refreshed by this break, we rejoined the canoes and paddled to our campground at Tieke Kainga.  It was an idyllic setting and was also an active Maori marae, so we had a welcoming ceremony that risked being silly and touristy but instead was strangely moving.  There were only four canoes staying there that night (many others had camped across the river at another spot) and we sat around at supper (and at breakfast the next day) discussing travel, life, nature and possums.  The young son of the couple that run the marae went out with his father carrying a big stick to bash possums, but had no luck; a Spanish woman staying in our camp saw one later at night, but didn't have the heart to try to kill it, despite the fact that it is the most destructive predator on indigenous birds.
The steep cliffs enclosing the Whanganui River

A punga tree
Our last day of paddling, March 19th, was also the most action-packed in terms of rapids.  There were four rapids that we were warned gave us a reasonable chance of capsizing.  After a wonderful morning of paddling through the most vertical canyons yet, we fell in on the first major rapid, the aptly named Fifty-Fifty.  Luckily everything was in (mostly) waterproof barrels, as we were in the water for quite some time before being able to right ourselves.  This experience made us hyper-cautious on the next two, evading the main stream and its standing waves by slithering over rocky shallows.  We did manage to shoot the last rapid successfully, though, which gave us a sheen of respectability with the canoeists watching from the landing point just beyond.  Overall, the canoeing was a major highlight of our New Zealand adventures, especially as Terri had never done it before and we were both amazed at how utterly wild and remote it felt in the middle of the densely-settled North Island.

Headed up Tongariro

Our next port of call was the prosaically-named National Park, a small holiday town just west of Mt. Ruapehu and its ski fields.  Terri's friends Ross and Debbie have a small chalet there that they let us use, and we ended up sleeping there for three nights, glad to have a roof over our heads with cool nights and forecasts of more rain on its way.  The weather held good on the first day for our hike up Mt. Tongariro.  The Tongariro Crossing has become a mass tourism phenomenon, with thousands of hikers a day walking the trail, many inspired by the fact that parts of Lord of the Rings were filmed here.  We had heard of the crowds, the expense of catching shuttle buses and the restrictions on parking, so we decided to modify the classic route.  We parked at the Ketetahi trailhead at the north end of the crossing, the usual ending point, at 6:45 in the morning, and were amazed to find hundreds of cars already there.  Rather than following the hordes and catching a shuttle bus around to the other end of the trail, we set off to hike an out-and-back walk from where we were.
A New Zealand pipit

Steam rising from fumaroles at Te Maari, on Tongariro
The weather was perfect, with clear skies and cool temperatures, and we had the entire trail to ourselves.  We didn't meet another soul for the first three and a half hours as we climbed up through dense bush, then low scrub, and finally, at the top, alpine terrain.  One benefit of this was a series of encounters with birds, both the inquisitive, trusting fantail and the rarer endemic New Zealand pipit, both of whom followed us for long periods across the slopes.  To our left the steam vents of Te Maari puffed steadily; in 2012 they erupted and fired volcanic boulders onto the Ketetahi hut; we could see the damage, preserved for scientific purposes, in the structure as we walked past it.  Once we had crested the initial relentless climb, we peered out across a volcanic desert towards the craters near the summit of Tongariro, and to the symmetrical steep cone of Ngarahoe behind it.
Mount Ngarahoe, with a line of hikers crossing below it
We started to meet our first early-bird walkers as we crossed the plain towards the Emerald Lakes, and there we ran into Pieter and Veronica from our canoe trip, heading in the opposite direction.  We had one final steep grunt up a loose scree incline to the highest point of the Tongariro Crossing, where we stopped to admire the spectacular views up to Ngarahoe, down to the Emerald Lakes and across to the dramatic vents of the Red Crater of Tongariro.  It was a wonderful payoff for four hours of brisk hiking to stand in the middle of such natural dramatic beauty.

At the high point of the Tongariro Crossing
The return journey to the car began with a descent of the scree.  I love scree running, as it's a lot like skiing powder.  The pebbles of volcanic debris slide and roll under your feet, making it easier to slide and run than to walk slowly.  We both raced past long lines of slow-moving hikers, some paralyzed by fear at the unsteady footing; one unfortunate Korean woman was wailing uncontrollably as her boyfriend tried to talk her down.  At the bottom of the scree we stopped to devour a cold roast chicken that was the perfect picnic lunch, seating ourselves on the shore of one of the Emerald Lakes.  From there we joined the long lines of walkers stretched across the landscape, marching down to our little Mazda Demio eight and a half hours after setting out.
The tourist hordes descending the scree agonizingly slowly
We drove back to National Park a bit tired and a bit footsore, but elated at having seen such an iconic landscape and at having (half-) escaped the crowds.  In high season, it's said that over 3000 hikers a day undertake the Crossing, and it seemed like an underestimate that day.  I fear that with the growth of tourism and the global middle class, areas of famed natural beauty like the Tongariro Crossing will drown in the vast crowds that they draw.  Venice, the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Banff and Mount Fuji show the future awaiting many of the grand vistas of our planet.

Emerald Lakes, Tongariro

Terri and her first house, Taupo
We had planned to hike to the summit of Mt. Ruapehu the next morning from the top of the ski lifts at Whakapapa, but we awoke on March 21st to rain and low clouds, so that plan had to be scrapped.  Instead we drove to Taupo to see some of Terri's past life.  Our first port of call was the National Trout Centre, but we weren't there for the fish.  Instead, we had read that the Centre was helping in the conservation of the endangered endemic whio, or blue duck, and we wanted to see.  Whio are bred in captivity in several locations around New Zealand, but the chicks all end up at the Trout Centre for some survival training before they are released into the wild.  We were lucky; that was the last day that the chicks were in residence, and we watched them being captured by the staff to be shipped off to various rivers around the country.  We had looked in vain for whio during our canoe trip, so we were happy to see the 8 residents of the training program.  When we went for a short stroll along the river next to the Trout Centre, we were pleasantly surprised to see a wild whio swim by.  It was heartening to see this iconic species being preserved with the help of so many conservation-minded New Zealanders.

The town of Taupo is on the shores of the lake of the same name, and has become the epicentre of campervan tourism in the North Island.  The town is pleasant but not spectacular, and the crowds at sights such as Huka Falls left me unimpressed.  I did enjoy seeing the first house that Terri ever owned, along with the various houses (and a motel) that Terri's parents owned over the years.  I even saw the site of Terri's youthful thrill-seeking in swimming holes below a dam that would release water every afternoon with Terri and her friends in the pools.  There's a prominent "No Swimming" sign there now, probably as a result of her reckless exploits years ago.

A whio, or blue duck, on the Whakapapa River
March 22nd found us cleaning up the ski chalet and driving north to our next adventure, the Timber Trail, a mountain bike trail that we had heard a lot about.  We took a room in an AirBnB in the town of Manunui run by a Czech ski instructor and her Kiwi partner, a professional pianist, both of whom made for interesting conversations.  We spent the afternoon on a hike through the Owhango Reserve, a small patch of native bush beside the Whakepapa River.  The hiking was enjoyable, but the best part was seeing no fewer than 12 whio bobbing in the river, an encouraging sign for an endangered species with only a few thousand surviving individuals.  There were also other endemic species like the tomtit and the North Island robin present too, all testament to the efforts put in to rid the reserve of possums, stoats and rats; we saw many traps and poison bait stations beside the trail as part of this endeavour.

Riding the Timber Trail
Our ride along the Timber Trail was a lot of fun the next day.  We rented bikes from a South African family whose son drove us to the midpoint of the trail at Piropiro, telling us entertaining tall tales the whole way.  We had 45 km to cover to get back to the car, and it was slow going, with lots of climbing, mud puddles and narrow tracks to contend with.  Most of the trail ran along the route of a narrow-gauge railway built to carry logs out of the forest.  The bush has had numerous decades to regrow, and is now a dense tangle of native trees and plants.  It felt wonderful to be back in the saddle exploring a beautiful corner of the world, and I felt the call of the cycle touring world again; Terri and I hadn't toured in over two years, since our trip through Paraguay in January, 2016.  We got back to the car, muddy and elated, mid-afternoon and headed back to the AirBnB to recover.

March 24th found us driving east along the Forgotten World highway, a road connecting remote farms that history has more or less left behind, between Taumaranui and the Taranaki region.  These farms are near the farms abandoned along the Whanganui River, but were not quite as remote or as rugged and managed to survive as going concerns.  We drove along beautiful stretches of river (including the upper Whanganui), over steep "saddles", or passes, and through the quirky town of Whangamomona, a self-declared independent "republic".
Crossing one of the big suspension bridges on the Timber Trail
We stopped for a bite to eat at the Whangamomona Hotel and behind the gimmicky nature of the "republic", the deep roots of local history shown in serried ranks of photos on the wall of the pub bore testament to the spirit and determination of generations of settlers, loggers and farmers in this remote pocket of the country.  We made it to the other end of the Forgotten World and entered the prosperous farming territory on the slopes of the conical bulk of Mount Taranaki.  A lovely beach house renting out rooms on AirBnB was our home for the next two nights, and we walked along the wild black sand beaches of Oakura before returning home to eat and catch up with the American horse enthusiast running the place.

In the woods of Taranaki

My alien radio antenna, New Plymouth
I really liked the Taranaki region, perhaps more than any other corner of the North Island except for Northland.  We spent the next day poking about the regional centre, the city of New Plymouth, and I found it an appealing place, with an artsy feel to the downtown core and a well-engineered Coastal Walkway leading out of downtown along the ocean shore that provided a focus for strolling, running and cycling, while surfers and fishermen cavorted below us.  We stopped in at the local museum for a stunning display on life in the long-ago Permian period, and on local Maori history.  Around the corner from there, the Len Lye Museum highlighted the "kinetic sculpture" of a New Zealand-born artist of whom I had never heard, but who impressed me.  The focal point of downtown New Plymouth was another Len Lye design, the Wind Wand, a 48-metre-tall kinetic sculpture that flexes and rotates with the breeze.

Enjoying our Taranaki hike

Hiking Mt. Taranaki
Mount Taranaki provided our next outdoor pursuit, an overnight hike to a Department of Conservation hut.  We drove our car up to Dawson Falls Visitor Centre the next day, parked and took to our heels, carrying our packs full of wine and steak and other goodies.  We walked partway up the summit trail, having toyed with the idea of staying at the high Syme Hut for a summit attempt the next day, but swirling clouds and the number of people heading up ahead of us made us reconsider.  Instead we traversed the tussock grass for a while, getting sweeping views of the surrounding countryside and occasional glimpses of the summit, then dropped steadily downhill into dense native bush to Lake Dive Hut.  We had the entire hut to ourselves, although we had met a big school group who had told us they were planning to sleep at the hut too.  The views were magnificent, and we heard the distinctive call of a New Zealand falcon close to the hut, although we were unable to spot it.  It was an idyllic spot to spend the night, just Terri and I and the surrounding wilderness.
On the slopes of Mt. Taranaki

Terri moving through the tussocks on Taranaki
We took another, lower trail to return to Dawson Falls the next day and it was challenging, between the constant ups and downs across deep ravines, the washed-out sections of trail, the fallen trees and the general lack of maintenance of the path.  It was probably more tiring than the previous day's climb and descent, but also enjoyable for the isolation and for the flora of the forest.  When we got back to the car, we cooked up a big brunch of bacon and eggs before heading back to Oakura, this time to visit a Kiwi friend from our Leysin days who had returned to New Zealand to live.  She and her parents lived in a spectacular location atop the cliffs of Oakura, and I fell in love with the spot.  It was great to talk to her and to her mother and father about the area, about travel and living off the grid and fishing.  We had a fabulous dinner and slept well, despite heavy rain overnight.
Terri and the Marshalls, father and daughter

A flower on Taranaki
We paid the price for a late, lazy departure the next day when we arrived at our next destination, a funky off-the-grid hippy commune AirBnB named Hakea, in pitch blackness.  It was a deceptively long drive through miserable weather, but it proved to be worth it.  Hakea was a pretty place, inhabited by an interesting family, and provided lovely walks (between the rain showers) and a chance to read the best travel book I had read in a long time, Colin Thubron's magisterial To A Mountain In Tibet, which I devoured in a day.  We spent two nights there, resting and eating and relaxing.
Morning view of Taranaki's summit

Proud property owner:  Terri and her former house in Hamilton
Our next, and in some sense final, destination was the city of Hamilton, where Terri had lived during her university years.  We stayed with Ross and Debbie, this time in person at their house there, and spent a couple of days catching up with them, having last seen them in Bali last September.  The first afternoon we were there we explored more of Terri's past by visiting the campus of Waikato University and the house she used to own close by, then went to the stunning Hamilton Gardens with Ross and Debbie.  The gardens, subdivided into a dozen or more themed gardens, were wonderful, even with the hordes of Easter Weekend tourists overrunning the place.

Ross, Terri and Debbie
We started the next day with a hike/run up the Hakarimata hills outside Hamilton, and it was a challenging hill to try to run; I had to stop for breath about two thirds of the way up.  There were great views from the top as far as Ruapehu and Ngarahoe, and a fun atmosphere of dozens of other fitness enthusiasts running or powerwalking their way to the top.  After a lazy afternoon, we had a big barbecue with Ross and Debbie along with their daughter and her boyfriend.

With only two full days left until my flight out, we were almost out of time.  April 1st was spent driving back to Mt. Maunganui to pick up Terri's bicycle from storage at Jo Veale's place, with a pleasant hike around Lake Maclaren on the way home.  April 2nd we said goodbye to Ross and Debbie and drove north to Clevedon, where we visited Terri's friends Angela and Adam, three of their four young boys and their collection of vintage Land Rovers.  In their pre-child days, Angela and Adam had driven from the UK to Singapore, and we heard a few tales from the road and told a few of our own from Stanley's Travels.  That afternoon we met up with Terri's cousin Stewart and his wife Nicky for a brief hike in the Hunua Ranges, hearing about Stewart's participation in the Tour Aotearoa a few weeks before.  Then it was time to drive to Papakura and the only really dismal accommodation of the entire trip, a rather ratty AirBnB room.  The next morning, after a few brief errands, Terri dropped me off at Auckland Airport for my flight back to Bali.
Terri with Angela, Adam and three of their sons

Nicky, Stewart and Terri
Overall, I really enjoyed exploring the North Island in depth.  We managed to do quite a bit of hiking, with some paddling and cycling thrown in for good measure.  We saw lots of endemic bird species, plenty of stunning beaches and dramatic mountains, and plenty of native New Zealand bush.  We enjoyed lots of warm hospitality from Terri's friends and relatives (and my friend Eileen), and got a chance to get a feeling for New Zealand from the hours of conversation we had with people.  New Zealand is certainly a lot pricier than it was when I visited back in 1992 with my friend Hans, largely a result of the incredibly expensive real estate market.  Even staying as often as we did with friends and relations, we still spent a sobering amount of money, but we did have fun.  If I went back to the North Island, I would want to be on a bicycle, or hiking the Te Araroa, or maybe on a sailboat, as I feel that we saw almost everything we would want to see travelling as we did in a rental car.  Realistically, though, if we went back to New Zealand, it would be to see the wilds of the South Island next time.  Farewell, North Island, it was fun!