Showing posts with label backpacking. Show all posts
Showing posts with label backpacking. Show all posts

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

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!

Monday, April 16, 2018

New Zealand, March 2018: Down the East Coast

Lipah, April 16th

To see a Google Map of this part of the trip, click here.

Once we had headed south from Algies Bay and left the Northland behind after two enjoyable weeks there, Terri and I set off on a tour of the east coast of the North Island.  We had an appointment to keep on March 12th with Terri's sister Karen in Wellington, but other than that we were fairly unconstrained in our schedule.  Since this was the part of New Zealand that Terri had grown up in, there were plenty of family, friends and mementoes of her youth for us to visit, inbetween hikes, scenic detours and birdwatching.

Bar-tailed godwits at Miranda
We passed through Auckland's sprawl with only one stop, buying homebrewing and winemaking equipment at a shop that was billed as Home Growing and Home Brewing.  The guy at the till clearly was a keen home grower and had been sampling his own wares; he was too stoned to be of much help in answering questions.  We bought what we could, then headed east towards the Firth of Thames, through pretty rural villages surrounded by horse farms.  The Firth of Thames is a major bird migration site for waders, some of whom spend the rest of the year in Alaska.  The main birdwatching spot is at Miranda, and the Department of Conservation have done sterling work in setting up bird hides and staffing the place with very knowledgeable volunteer ornithologists.  We spotted the New Zealand endemic the wrybill, the royal spoonbill, the red knot and the bar-tailed godwit.

Thousands of godwits take to the air at Miranda
The godwits are the world champions of long-distance migration; when they leave New Zealand they fly to East Asia for refuelling, then on to Alaska.  Coming back, they fly non-stop across the Pacific, covering 11,500 kilometres in 10 days, for an average speed of nearly 50 km/h.  It's an astonishing feat of endurance for a bird with a mass of only about 400 grams.  Sadly, rampant draining of wetlands for industrial development in China and South Korea is depriving them of their refuelling stop there, and godwit numbers, along with those of many other migratory waders along the East Asian Flyway, are in precipitous decline.  It was heartening to see so many birds at Miranda, and the efforts that New Zealand is undertaking on their behalf; it would be nice if South Korea and China were to put out the same effort.

Terri and her cousin Mark, keen adventure racer and cyclist
From there the grey skies started to open up on us, making the drive through the scenic Karangahake Gorge a bit less picturesque.  It's an old gold mining area, and we were en route to the town of Waihi, where gold is still mined today, to visit Terri's cousin Mark.  We stayed a couple of nights with Mark, whose father Ian was the younger brother of Terri's father Jim.  We had a fun night hearing about Mark's various adventure races, both those that he organizes and others in which he's a participant.  

The next day we headed out on bicycles to ride along with friends of his who were passing nearby as part of the Tour Aotearoa, a bicycle "brevet" (not exactly a race, but like a race) along the 3000-kilometre New Zealand Cycle Trail, a mixture of beaches, back roads, logging roads, old rail lines and single track that links Cape Reinga to Bluff (the entire length of the NZ mainland).  The Tour Aotearoa is a clever marketing event, staged every two years, sending out groups of 100 cyclists at a time from Cape Reinga.  We had breakfast with Mark's two friends at a cafe in Hikutaia, then rode 20 kilometres chatting with them about cycle touring and their experiences so far.  It was great to be back on a bicycle saddle and talking with other keen cycle tourists; Terri is certainly thinking of riding a good chunk of the trail sometime in the next couple of years.  We pedalled back through the Karangahake Gorge, which was much prettier in the sunshine.

Terri, her aunt and uncle and three cousins (and one husband)
The next day we met up with the rest of Mark's siblings along with their mother and father, all of whom live in Waihi.  It was great for me to meet them, and for Terri to get a chance to talk to them outside the context of funerals, which is sadly where they had been meeting over the past few years.  After a long, spirited conversation at a cafe, we bit them a fond farewell and headed off north towards the Coromandel Peninsula, a place dear to New Zealand hearts for its wilderness and its hippy, off-the-grid reputation.  The first port of call was the town of Whangamata, where Terri's parents had moved back in the 1990s so that her father could do more fishing in the ocean.  We found a couple of the houses that her parents had bought and renovated, took a few photos, then drove further north towards the most touristy place we had yet visited, Hot Water Beach.  For the first time in our travels, we entered into the raging torrent of overseas tourists in campers and campervans who wash over New Zealand every austral summer.  The beach has a trickle of geothermally heated water just below the surface of the sand, so if you dig a hole in the right spot, you are rewarded with your own hot spring.  The problem is that with too many people on the beach, all the right spots are taken, so you end up with lineups of hopeful bathers vulturing around, trying out abandoned holes and waiting for others to leave.  The water was pretty hot, but not very deep, as the sand constantly falls into the hole and refills it.  It was kind of fun, but not nearly as satisfying as I have had in Japan, on places like Shikine Island south of Tokyo.

Cathedral cove on the Coromandel
From there the tourist trail runs a bit further north along the rugged coast to Cathedral Cove, or rather to its parking lot, inconveniently located several kilometres from the trailhead, presumably as a means of forcing people onto overpriced shuttle buses.  We skipped the buses and walked briskly, racing the 6:30 closing time for the parking lot, out over the headlands to the cove.  It was definitely photogenic, but the grey skies robbed the rock faces of their colours.  We walked back along the beach trail into town, beating the deadline by half an hour, and then drove off to figure out where to spend the night.  We ended up opting for a DoC campsite on the other shore of the peninsula at the foot of the hike to the Pinnacles.  After a stop for fish and chips, we drove over a sinuous mountain road through dense fog, a white-knuckle experience amplified by passing the site of a spectacular multi-car accident.  When we finally arrived at the campsite, we found signs announcing that the Pinnacles track was closed due to storm damage, and our campsite looked very wet and unappealing in the continuing rain.  We ended up bedding down on our air mattresses under the shelter of the roof of the closed information centre.  It was a cozy, dry place, but no sooner had we fallen asleep than a carful of drunks arrived, car stereo blaring and loud voices slurring imprecations.  We stayed out of sight, hopeful that it wasn't a modern-day incarnation of Jake the Muss and his friends from Once Were Warriors, and they drove off soon afterwards.

New Zealand dotterel on the shore at Matarangi 
It was still raining the next morning, so we packed up the car and headed into the regional centre of Thames for breakfast and then further up the west coast of the peninsula.  The road was under heavy reconstruction after storm damage from a January cyclone, but the scenery was very pretty.  We ended up near the northern end of the peninsula in Coromandel Town, a hippy centre set in the midst of postcard-perfect sheep farms, then headed south along the east coast of the peninsula in search of a rare endemic bird species, the New Zealand dotterel.  In the small, pretty town of Matarangi we parked and walked along the wild, deserted, wave-tossed beach for a long way Terri spotted a dotterel in the distance.  We stood and watched through binoculars as it slowly worked its way along the sand, then realized that there was another one further back, and then two fluffy chicks.  It was heartening to see a fairly endangered bird fighting for survival against the odds and producing offspring.  The first dotterel eventually approached close enough to snap a few photos, and we strolled back along the sand pleased with our detour.

The view from the top of Mount Maunganui
From there we put our foot down and drove south to the once-small town of Omokoroa, part of the booming suburban sprawl of the Bay of Plenty, centred around Tauranga.  Another of Terri's father's siblings, her Auntie Lois, lived there in a farmhouse with her husband Phil.  On three sides, their hilltop farmland is now surrounded by suburbs, warehouses and construction sites, but they still have a magical view out over the water.  We arrived to find Phil chasing down sheep.  Their daughter Phillipa lives right next door with her Canadian husband John and their three children, two of them very keen horsewomen.  We would make Auntie Lois' welcoming home our base over the next few days of social visits, starting with a delicious stew that first night.

Uncle Phil, Terri and Auntie Lois

Terri and her younger brother Trevor
March the 3rd found us busy socializing.  First up was Terri's younger brother Trevor, whom we met for a coffee and a catch-up.  Then a long chat with Odette, Terri's friend from her Japan days.  We got in some exercise with a brisk walk up Mount Maunganui, a peak that looms over Tauranga Harbour, before one more social call on a friend from Terri's military days, Mandy, and her husband Len, recently back from a couple of years of cycling based at the foot of the legendary Mont Ventoux in Bedoin.  The day finished with an evening of socializing with Philippa and John and their children, featuring some of the daughters' wonderful wildlife and horse-themed paintings and even me on the piano.
John, Philippa, their three children and Terri

Playing with my macro lens to look at fungi
The following day we fled from social engagements and went for a long trek in the hills inland from the coast.  We tramped for four and a half hours through lovely native bush on the Lindemann Road track.  It felt good to have a long walk after lots of sitting in cars and on sofas, and we even finally had brilliant sunshine to do it in.  We went through some family history and old photographs that evening with Aunt Lois and Uncle Phil, hearing stories of Terri's father and the other siblings, and of the colourful founder of Omokoroa, a retired minister of independent means from Tasmania who was a direct ancestor of Uncle Phil.

Rob Veale and I doing some product placement for their place
March 5th found us back at the foot of Mount Maunganui, catching up with Jo and Rob Veale, friends of Terri whom we had last seen in Livingstone, Zambia a year and a half ago when they were volunteering at Terri's pre-school and elementary school project, the Olive Tree Learning Centre.  They have settled back into New Zealand life, with Jo running a big backpacker's hostel close to the beach in Mount Maunganui.  We met her and Rob there, and escaped the hustle and bustle of the hostel to grab a quick coffee across the street with Jo.  It was strange to see familiar people in completely new surroundings.  Mount Maunganui is very gentrified and affluent, with soaring property prices and lots of new residents and foreign tourists drawn to its surf beaches, while just inland is the centre of NZ's booming kiwi fruit and avocado industry.  It's a very pretty place, but rather too bustling and glitzy for our tastes.

Pretty Lake Okataina, near Rotorua
Steven, Toni and Terri at a joyful reunion in Rotorua
From there we drove inland an hour to Rotorua, famous for its thermal hot springs.  I had been to them before, as had Terri, so we opted instead for a hike around gorgeous Lake Okataina, where we had the trail entirely to ourselves under sunny skies.  The forest was impressive native bush, but we had little luck spotting endemic bird species; there must not have been enough effort put into trapping the local possums and stoats.  Afterwards we drove to the house of yet another member of Terri's extended and welcoming family, her cousin Steven and his wife Toni.  We ate a lavish barbecue and drank lots (too much, perhaps) fine Central Otago pinot noir wine while catching up on more family stories and the rally car driving exploits of their son Sloan, about to head to Finland to pursue his passion.
Rotorua redwoods

Redwood bark, Rotorua
We set off slightly bleary-eyed the next morning, but a hike through the redwood forest of Rotorua cleared our heads and lifted our spirits.  They are, of course, an exotic tree, introduced from California, but their majestic size made for an air of solemn sanctity, broken only by a party of remarkably loud Korean tourists whom we quickly left behind.  From there it was a long day of driving in the direction of Gisborne, Terri's childhood hometown.  We drove through the long and very pretty Waioueke Gorge, and when we found a perfectly idyllic DoC campsite at Mangonuku, well off the road and beside a rushing river, we decided to call it quits early and treat ourselves to a rather brisk swim and a lazy late afternoon of reading and juggling.

March 7th saw us get up and have a quick hike, interrupted by heavy storm damage to the trail, then complete the journey to Gisborne, where we undertook a trip down memory lane.  Terri spent the first 17 years of her life in that city, and we visited three of the four houses where she lived over that period (the fourth was demolished and rebuilt some years ago).  It had been almost thirty years since Terri's last visit, and although very little had changed, it was still hard to find some of the houses.  Gisborne is a bit like a Kiwi version of my hometown, Thunder Bay:  a bit isolated and out of the way, very blue-collar, and not participating in the population growth and housing boom engulfing much of the rest of the country.  We met up with Terri's next door neighbours for the first 10 years of her life, and caught up with the intervening decades that afternoon.  Vicky, the older sister, and her husband have a wonderful older hilltop house surrounded by aviaries of exotic birds, and it was an atmospheric place to stay.
The house in Gisborne where Terri spent her first decade

Terri reunited with her childhood next-door neighbours
Vicky's hilltop house in Gisborne
Pouawa Beach
The next day we went for a drive along the beaches stretching north of town, getting as far as Tolaga Bay.  We parked the car and had a very pleasant ramble over the headlands and into Cook's Cove, a sheltered inlet where Captain James Cook visited on the first British exploration of New Zealand.  We drove back to Gisborne and had a wonderful evening of fine food, wondrous wine and convivial conversation with Helen and her partner at his beach house.  We were glad to be sleeping indoors that night, as an apocalyptic thunderstorm hammered Gisborne overnight.

Cooks Cove, near Tolaga Bay
That rain played havoc with our onward travels the next day, and we only made it as far as Wairoa, after a long soak in the hot springs at Morere and a quick poke around the wind-lashed Mahia Peninsula en route.  The rain was torrential and made for alarming driving, and it felt good to relax and sleep in an AirBnB room instead of pushing on.

March 10th dawned grey but not actually raining, and we spent much of the day driving south towards the town of Masterton, via a country fair just outside the city of Napier.  The skies cleared gradually, and we entered Masterton under brilliant sunshine.  We stayed with another old friend of Terri's from university days, Vivienne, and had a wonderful evening of food, conversation and (for the benefit of Vivienne's high school son Liam) magic tricks and math puzzles.

Looking out at Kapiti Island from the coastal trail
March 11th found us hiking along a spectacular coastal walkway along the Kapiti Coast, just north of Wellington.  It's a fairly new track and up to the high standards we had come to expect, with hundreds of stairs up the steeper sections and a few swaying suspension bridges.  We were high up above the traffic of the main north-south highway, and had sweeping views out to sea to Kapiti Island, and south to the shores of the South Island.  It was a really beautiful place to get in a little exercise.  We camped that night in a Wellington Regional Park, Battle Hill, where we were one of only 4 camping groups in a huge campsite.  I was impressed throughout our stay with the general quality of DoC and regional park campsites:  well situated, with good, clean facilities and reasonable prices.
A bridge on the Kapiti Coast Trail

The view from Battle Hill
The next morning we got up, packed up and went for a hike to the top of Battle Hill, a key site in the British conquest of New Zealand.  The British defeat of the Maori chief Te Rangihaeata opened the Wellington area to British conquest and settlement.  The view from the top, over a sheep farm, pine plantations and a distant motorway construction site, emphasize how much the landscape has changed since 1846 under British settlement.  We drove out towards Upper Hutt with a stop in Porirua for a stroll along a boardwalk through a bird-filled marsh.  

The Norris clan welcomes Aunt Terri and a Canadian interloper 
Upper Hutt is where Terri's sister Karen and her husband Joshua live, along with three of their five adult children.  A fourth, Luke, was visiting from his home in Germany, and was leaving the next day, so we had timed our arrival so that I could meet four of Terri's five nieces and nephews in one place.  (The fifth lives on the South Island.)  It was great to meet the Norris clan after having heard so much about them over the years.  

A charismatic tui with his stylish ruff
Back from the brink:  a takahe at Zealandia
We visited two of the best sights in Wellington during our stay in Upper Hutt. We visited Zealandia, another "mainland island" predator-free sanctuary on a valley just above the central business district of Wellington.  It's been fenced off, and possums, stoats and rats have been exterminated from the entire valley.  As a result, it's a vision of what much of New Zealand could look and sound like if the ambitious Predator-Free 2050 plan comes to fruition.  We loved Zealandia, and spotted many of the native bird species that we had been reading about in our bird guide.  My favourite was the takahe, a bird regarded as extinct from 1898 until their rediscovery in 1948 in the remote mountains of the southwest South Island.  They are still extremely rare, with a population of about 300.  They have been introduced to various predator-free offshore islands and mainland reserves, and Zealandia has four of them.  They are massive, chunky birds with heavy beaks and powerful legs, and it brought a lump to my throat to see a creature that so very nearly went the way of the dodo.  
A kaka at Zealandia

A North Island saddleback at Zealandia
Takahe were only one of the star attractions, though.  We also saw the north island saddleback, the kaka (an endemic parrot, very comical in its antics) and the kakariki, a small parakeet which we saw for a few fleeting seconds.  On our way out, we also saw some tuatara, a strange lizard-like creature that seems to be a holdover from the age of the dinosaurs.  We walked out of Zealandia mightily impressed and heartened by the conservation efforts we had seen there, as well as in so many other spots in the country.  If only other countries would do as much, the natural world would be a lot better off.

A kakariki (red-crowned parakeet) at Zealandia
The prehistoric tuatara at Zealandia
The following day we went into downtown Wellington again, this time with Karen and Joshua, to visit the wonderful National Museum and to stroll around the harbour area.  The museum was outstanding, with a moving exhibit on the New Zealand experience at Gallipoli, as well as a superb natural history section.  There was even the only colossal squid specimen on display anywhere in the world.  
Joshua, Karen and Terri in stylish Wellington Harbour

Inbetween these touristy things, we had lots of chances for Terri to catch up with her sister, and for me to talk to various members of the family.  It was a wonderful few days, but eventually, on March 15th, we had to bid a reluctant farewell to the Norrises and start driving north for the final leg of our trip, up the west side of the North Island.  The east coast had been great fun, with the biggest highlight being all the hospitality offered us by Terri's huge cast of family and friends all along our route.

Sunset over Upper Hutt