Posts Tagged With: Hiking

Cathedral Cove and Waiheke Island

After Hobbiton, it really felt like our trip was starting to come to a close, but we still had a few fun activities left. One that I was really looking forward to was a day at the beach at Cathedral Cove and had my fingers crossed for nice weather. We stayed in a small town called Hahei at this lovely backpackers lodge and spent the afternoon exploring around the town – getting ice cream, walking along the beach, and having a few local beers. Beach towns always have a great vibe and we felt really relaxed.

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The next day the weather was great and we decided to skip the water taxi and hike out to Cathedral Cove, but not before renting some snorkeling gear at the local dive shop. It’s not too long a walk to Cathedral Cove, about an hour, and there are gorgeous views of the ocean and cliffside all along the trail. We took our time on the way there and decided to stop at the first beach to do the Gemstone Snorkel Trail. It’s basically a series of buoys in the water that you can snorkel between and there’s supposed to be all kinds of cool fish.

I ended up having a great time, but I’d advise that if you’re visiting Cathedral Cove, the snorkel trail is really better off done by boat. It is a little bit of a swim to get out to the buoys. I’m a strong swimmer and a former lifeguard, so I thought it was fine, but I was concerned about Seth and would really have felt better if we had lifejackets, which we didn’t. Seth swam out to the first buoy, but it was his first time snorkeling and he couldn’t really get used to it and had no where to stand up, so he bailed, but I had a great time swimming around. I didn’t end up following the buoys, but rather just swam around inside them until I found the fish. I did a bit of research after and I’m pretty sure I saw some blue maomao, red moki, banded wrasse, and maybe some snapper. The red moki was my favourite and looks like a zebra fish.

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We continued on along the trail until we finally arrived at Cathedral Cove! It was a weekend, so it was a bit on the busy side, but we found a nice little spot at the back of the beach to hang out for the day. The main feature of Cathedral Cove is the archway/cave that goes through the rock from the first beach to the second beach. There are several sea stacks around and beautiful golden sand, so it makes for a really picturesque location. Plus the water is really warm, so I had a blast swimming and we spent a ton of time in the water since it was so hot. Seth tried out the snorkel again and had a lot more fun with it in the shallows. We found some more fish swimming around and Seth was way more interested (then I would have been) in all the organisms growing on the rocks.

We planned to take a water taxi back, but there were so many people using them that it was a 2 hour wait to get on one, so we just walked back to Hahei instead and grabbed another ice cream before hitting the road for the last part of our road trip.

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It was back to Auckland for round 2. Although we didn’t actually end up spending that much time in the city. We wanted to finish up most of our food, so we had dinner at the hostel and had a lazy evening. The hostel was pretty interesting actually, it’s basically an old train station that has been reconverted into a hotel/boarding accommodation. So half the people actually live there for months at a time and the lobby is a huge train station entrance.

Our next day was devoted to a trip to the nearby island, Waiheke, which is known for it’s wine. It’s about a 45 minute boat ride to get there and we had booked a hop-on hop-off tour for the day. It was still a bit too early for wine, so we did the first part of the bus tour, stopping for an hour at the local beach, before starting our wine trail for the day. New Zealand definitely has some good wine, but it also makes for a pretty expensive day. Very few places do free tastings, so you usually have to pay $10-15 for a tasting. We each had our own for the first few places, but the more liquored up we got, we started sharing the tastings instead.

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I think we ended up doing 5 wineries. We had a light lunch at the first one, Wild Estate, and Seth went for a beer tasting since it was also a brewery. We stopped briefly into Stonyridge, which is one of the island’s most well known and most widely found wines. It was one of my least favourites though and I only ended up doing a small sample. Gorgeous views though! Next we went to Tantalus, which was probably my favourite of the day. It has this gorgeous building and the truffle fries were TO DIE FOR. The wine was great too and we each did a taste, but I still dream about those truffle fries.

The last two wineries were more memorable for the views. We went up the hill to Batch Winery, which has an amazing view looking out over the island, and then finished at Mudbrick (another really popular winery) for one last taster. In terms of decor and landscaping, Mudbrick was probably my favourite, It’s on the west side of the island and had a great view looking out over the water to Auckland. Plus the buildings are all made of a pretty red mud brick and there were flowers and a lavender garden sprucing the place up! We did stop briefly in the village to do a little shopping around before heading back across the water to Auckland.

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Categories: Exploring New Zealand | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Hiking Mount Doom

I was so nervous about hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. After the disaster that was Fox Glacier, I was really weary about hiking in less than ideal weather and I really wanted to enjoy the hike. The shuttles said they would be going ahead for our second attempt, but it was calling for a cloudy day with rain in the afternoon and temperatures as low as 0 degrees. I wasn’t sure if it was even worth doing the hike if we weren’t going to see any of the views, but I was incapable of walking away from a hike to Mordor.

In the end we decided to go for it and I went on the most over-prepared hike of my life. I must have been traumatized from my experience on the glacier because I packed SO MUCH extra clothing and food, it was a little out of hand. Even though I snowshoe all the time in Canada, everyone had me freaked about about the “cold” temperatures. One part of me was like, “wear two pairs of pants for the cold!” while the other part was saying, “you snowshoe in below zero temperatures all the time and you never wear two pairs of pants!” I did wear the extra pair of leggings, which was a mistake and I ended up ditching them at the first outhouse we came to, so needless to say I was desperately over-prepared.

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But none of that ended up mattering because we had the most awesome hike! The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a 20km hike that goes right through the national park, crossing over Mount Ngauruhoe, past the red crater, and around Mount Tongariro back to the road. I hiked a volcano once before in Costa Rica, but this was totally unlike anything else I’ve ever done. It was super overcast when we started and we couldn’t see any of the 3 volcanoes in the park, so I wasn’t super optimistic. But the landscape is still pretty neat. We started hiking through some low shrub areas and as we got closer to Mount Ngauruhoe, the landscape started to become more barren and interspersed with volcanic rock that had been catapulted in all directions from a previous eruption.

We were really lucky and the clouds started to lift just as we were approaching our first view of Mount Ngauruhoe, also known as Mount Doom. It’s unreal because you can actually see the lava flows coming down the side of the mountain where they eventually became too viscous or cool to go any further. The volcano is still active and you do feel somewhat like you’re tempting fate by even attempting to hike through – especially so soon after the eruption at White Volcano, which occurred 2 days before we flew to New Zealand. All our friends and family told us to “have fun and maybe stay away from any active volcanoes”, to which we politely nodded and pretty much ignored since the whole center of the North Island is all active geothermal wonders.

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The two islands are pretty interesting in that they’re located so close to one another and form 1 country, but geographically have nothing to do with one another. The South Island is all about mountains and plate tectonics, while the North Island is entirely volcanic. There were no shortage of warnings as you approach the volcano though. Apparently on average someone is airlifted out of the park by helicopter once a week, so it’s obviously a dangerous place. Though the risk seems to be from adverse and unpredictable weather conditions and people underestimating the difficulty of the hike (it’s 20km long!) versus any risk from volcanic activity. But the signs all warn to turn around if you’re struggling or if its so cloudy you can’t see the volcano (fortunately we could).

The trail loops around the base of the volcano to Soda Springs, the only freshwater source we saw for another 15km, before starting to climb up the side of the volcano. It’s an easy walk until that point, but then you finally start climbing, which most people hate but I was excited for. So many of the hikes we’d done had been valley hikes and I was excited to finally climb something! The views as you climb up Mount Ngauruhoe are awesome looking back at the trail you’ve come from. Eventually you branch off the volcano and hike over the ridge next to it and start down into the South Crater.

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This is when the scenery really changes and I felt like I was hiking on Mars. There’s absolutely no vegetation and it’s just a straight shot across the red soil of the crater to the base of Red Crater. So you do get a respite from the climbing before starting up the side of the Red Crater to the highest point on the trail. This was probably my favourite part of the trail. Before you get to the Red Crater, you have to climb back out of the South Crater. From the South Crater ridgeline, we had an awesome view looking down into a very barren and mordor-like scene. Looking back we had a perfect view of Mount Doom, which the clouds had finally totally cleared off. Then you start hiking the Red Crater and have no idea where you should be looking because its so steep and the views are amazing on all sides.

The Red Crater was very different again. It’s hard to get an idea of the scope of the crater until you actually hike down the other side and look back at it, but it’s exactly as its name suggests, a giant red crater that’s still active and smells of sulphur with steam literally coming up out of the ground. The whole area is steaming from various vents and despite how cold it was up there, it was easy to find little hot spots.

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Our timing really couldn’t have been better. We got to the top for one last view of Mount Doom before the clouds ate it up again, and then rushed over to get a look at the little alpine lakes on the other side. There’s several brilliant green lakes and giant blue lake in the distance. We added a layer and enjoyed our lunch looking down at the lakes from the top.

I can understand why they make everyone hike in the same direction on the track. it’s a steep hike down the other side of the crater on a scree slope that I would hate to have to hike up. We did some exploring around the little lakes before crossing the bottom of yet another crater to climb up to Blue Lake. This is where you get the best view looking back at Red Crater, which really puts into perspective what you just climbed. It clouded in pretty fast at Blue Lake and finally started to drizzle, so we didn’t spend much time there and started to move on as we were still only a little over halfway through the hike.

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As soon as you leave Blue Lake though the landscapes change again entirely. Hiking the volcanoes and craters really felt like being in a wasteland, but as soon as we rounded the corner of the lake and started hiking down the other side, it was like coming back to Earth. I still wouldn’t exactly call the vegetation ‘lush’, but it sure felt that way after hiking across a volcanic desert. From there the last 8km are just winding back down the side of the mountain to the highway. There’s a great view of Lake Taupo and you can still see steam coming from the Te Mari Crater, which last erupted in 2012. There’s chunks of volcanic rock spewed across the landscape, which is a good reminder of the danger still associated with the park. The Te Mari Crater erupted in 2012, putting holes in one of the huts on the Tongariro Great Walk. Fortunately no one was injured, but only because the eruption took place in the middle of the night in winter. There was no prior warning, so had it been any other time of year, there almost certainly would have been fatalities.

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It’s definitely a sobering reminder and it seems lucky they’ve avoided disaster in the park up until now. One of the placards by Mount Ngauruhoe told the story of a school group that was hiking the volcano in the 1970’s when it suddenly started erupting, cutting off the way back and forcing them to have to evacuate over to the Red Crater. Fortunately nothing of the sort occurred on our journey. The rain disappeared as quickly as it had started and we had an uneventful hike down to the end of the trail. We felt really accomplished when we finally reached the end and had our car waiting for us!

I’m so glad we weren’t too jaded from the glacier experience to try this hike as it ended up being one of my favourite parts of the trip! We had a lot of fun goofing around on the trail, re-enacting the Lord of the Rings and taking pictures of me pretending to me Frodo, Sam, and Gollum at various parts of the trail. It’s not a hike to underestimate, but it’s also not a hike to miss!

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Happy New Year Fox Glacier

Our plan was to heli hike Fox Glacier on New Years Eve. There’s two glaciers open for tourism along the West Coast of the South Island: Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier. Both are only accessible by helicopter and offer a wide range of tourist activities on the glacier. So we signed up for a half day hike on Fox Glacier. We had pretty mixed weather throughout the trip, but we got a few really nice warm days in Queenstown and the forecast indicated that would continue into the New Year, so we were optimistic about the hike. But the closer we got to Fox Glacier, the less sure we were that the hike would go ahead. It was quite nice looking out towards the ocean, but the clouds were all clinging to the mountains and you couldn’t see any of the peaks.

There was nothing we could do, so we settled into our hostel and crossed our fingers for the next day. Our flight was scheduled for 8am and it was really cloudy when we got up. We walked over to the tour center and they started explaining their refund policy, which really wasn’t a good sign. So we changed our tour to 1pm, hoping the clouds would clear our by then.

In the meantime, we decided to go for a little hike around Lake Matheson, which originally was our plan for the afternoon. The lake is famous because on a sunny day, you get great views of Mount Cook reflected in the lake. We couldn’t see any part of Mount Cook, but we anxiously kept checking the clouds, which didn’t seem to be lifting at all. When we returned for our afternoon flight, we were told that one was cancelled too. It was a huge disappointment because I’d really been looking forward to both the helicopter ride and the hike. We had to drive 6 hours the following day, so we didn’t really have time to spare, but we decided to make one more attempt for the 7am flight the next morning.

There’s not really anything else to do in Fox Glacier on a cloudy, drizzle day, so we drove a half hour to Franz Josef to go to the hot pools. Before we found them though, we stumbled upon a kiwi park and decided to visit. We ended up having a great time! Since kiwi’s are so endangered, there’s tons of eco-sanctuaries around the country and a lot of organizations seem to breed kiwi to boost the populations. Overall there are 5 different species of kiwi, the rarest of which is the Rowi. It’s a small kiwi that’s only found in one sanctuary in the nearby area, so the kiwi park was breeding the Rowi and had young kiwi in their enclosure.

Because kiwi’s are nocturnal, they have the whole enclosure reversed so that it’s night during the day so that visitors can see the kiwi. The enclosure is lit by red lights so you can see them snuffling around. Only one was out while we were visiting, but he was very active, feeding all over the enclosure, so we got a good look at him and watched him for ages. To boost up their attraction a bit, the kiwi park also has an exhibit about glaciers and a tuatara enclosure.

We moved on to the Franz Josef hot pools after that and had a relaxing afternoon lounging in the pools. I have to say, it was definitely one of my more boring New Year’s though. We didn’t want to stay up too late since we potentially had a 7am flight, so we played a game of giant chess at the hostel and went to bed pretty much right after midnight. We were really only interested in spending time together though, so it didn’t really matter.

And our first day of 2020 ended up being a real day to remember. We packed up the car at 6:30am and were dismayed to see a lot of clouds still hanging over the mountains. We knew the flight would be cancelled, but we still had to show up to get our money back. To our shock though, in the next 20 minutes the clouds totally moved out of the valley and we were told that the 6am flight hadn’t gone, but our 7am flight would be!

Things got a little hectic after that – staff gave us all the equipment we’d need for the hike, weighed us for the helicopter, and blasted through all wild risks associated with an activity like hiking a glacier. Then they gave us a tiny pack for the rest of our things and rushed us onto the bus to the chopper. It was a little overwhelming and I had to leave a bunch of my things behind because they wouldn’t fit in the helicopter bag. Our group had 3 tours of 11, so overall it took 6 helicopter rides to get us all on the glacier. It’s only a 5 minute ride and they cycle 2 helicopters through, so it does go pretty fast.

It may not be a long flight, but it is really cool to fly up the valley to the base of the glacier and then actually land on the ice. We ended up being in the first group, so we took off with our tour guide pretty quickly. Fox Glacier is a pretty rugged place. I’ve hiked to some other glaciers in BC, but I’ve never really been on them and the topography of Fox Glacier was really interesting. Up close all the ice looks a bright blue colour, but it never really translated that well to my photos. There’s a lot of interesting ice features, like mountains, caves, and waterfalls. We were all given crampons to wear and our guide had an ice axe to navigate a track for us. It was all pretty interesting to look at and though it was cold out, we were mostly moving around, so it wasn’t too bad. Admittedly it’s pretty slow going, but that’s because there’s no set path and you have to create a trail wherever you go.

We explored around the area for the better part of two hours and then things really started to go downhill. All of a sudden, we looked back at the path the chopper had flown up the valley and all we can see is this mountain of fog rolling up the valley. Everyone else was like, “Oh wow, look at that fog roll, that’s amazing”.

But I am a Newfoundlander, so when I saw the fog rolling, I was like, “we need to get the F out of here.”

New Zealanders are some of the nicest people and you have to admire their laid back approach to life, but during my time in New Zealand I learned that they also have a bit of a laid back approach to safety that I could never really get on board with. I’ll admit I started to lose my cool a bit when I saw the fog rolling in. I think I would have been a lot more chill if it had been a day earlier, but I’d watched that fog hang around the mountain the entire previous day and I had 6 hours of driving to do if we wanted to make our 3 day kayak trip the following day. So I wasn’t really in a patient, easy going place. Plus I’d left half of my warm gear back at the base camp in all the confusion of packing the helicopter bag.

Our guide started joking about us maybe having to spend the night on the ice, which apparently happens to tour groups on average ONCE A MONTH. I was like, “okay, so are the helicopters on their way to come get us?”, and he laughed and said, “no, they’re out on scenic flights, but they’re sending them down.” Apparently the fog had moved back into the valley while we’d been up on the glacier and while the scenic flights all landed, when we got back to the helicopter landing area, we were told they couldn’t come back for us right now.

And this horrible feeling of dread just settled right over me. It was only 11am, but I was convinced we were going to have to spend the rest of the day and the night on the glacier. There’s nothing you can do about it. I was worried and disappointed about the potential for us to miss the kayak trip, but I think mostly I was frustrated by my own lack of preparedness for such a situation. I pride myself on always having my 10 essentials and being prepared for scenarios like this. But I hadn’t brought a lunch that day and so much of my warm gear was sitting back in the lodge. It’s a really horrible feeling. The tour company does have a bunch of lock boxes up on the ice that are apparently filled with tents, sleeping bags, and dried food; but it wasn’t really a comfort to me as someone who has snow camped before because I knew it would only be survival gear.

Admittedly, I was one of the more concerned tourists. It seemed to be everyone else’s first day in Fox Glacier and I don’t think any of them thought we’d be there for long. This was probably a healthier attitude to adopt as I can be a bit of a worry wart. Although I won’t berate myself for it because I really don’t think the tour company communicated the risks to us adequately. They’d had cancelled flights for days and I think they made a poor decision to send a group up in questionable conditions. It’s the darker side of their laid back philosophy to life. Although our tour guide didn’t really help. In that moment I needed reassurance and distraction, not a 24 year old cracking jokes about sleeping on the ice.

Once you stop moving, it does start to get quite cold, so they had us all huddle under a tarp to trap our body heat. It was actually a lot warmer at first, but as the hours stretched on, people started getting bored and were coming and going from the tarp shelter a lot, which really reduced its effectiveness. I was getting pretty cold, but at least I had lots of food in my pack. It was discouraging though because the clouds kept moving in and totally filling the valley, leaving no visibility, then they’d start to clear again and give us some hope, only to cloud back in. I was convinced it was going to do that the whole day.

Eventually though, we got word that they had a “window” to come up the valley and they were sending the choppers. It’s all pre-numbered, so you have no control over what helicopter you’re on, but fortunately we were on the second one. I was afraid to hope, but eventually we heard the first helicopter coming up the valley. They loaded the first chopper and sent it off and when we saw ours coming up the valley and it was such a relief! I’ve never been so excited to get in a helicopter, but also so excited to get out of it.

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It didn’t actually look too bad coming down the valley, but as soon as you land on the ground it’s a lot easier to understand why the choppers couldn’t come and get us. The valley was totally filled with cloud and a literal window in the clouds had opened that looked up towards the glacier. They wanted to get everyone off the glacier as soon as possible, so they hurried us off and sent the helicopter back up immediately. While we were relieved to be back on the ground, the window was getting noticeably smaller and we really wanted the rest of our group to get out as well. I think they did get our whole group out, but the window did close up again and there was a second group up there that I don’t actually know if they were still stuck or not. We had a lot of driving to do, so we couldn’t stick around to find out.

If I hadn’t had the opportunity to do the hike, I would have been super disappointed about it, but the hike was really marred by the experience. At the end of it all, we only spent an extra 3 hours on the ice, but it really was the longest 3 hours of my life. It totally makes for a great story to tell now and I’m definitely able to laugh about it. But I also don’t think I could recommend it to other people. It’s a lot of driving to get there and the glacier is really the only attraction. So it sucks if you go all the way there and then miss it. And after my own experience, I’d say not to hedge your bets. Don’t go if the weather is at all questionable. The problem is, if the flight goes, they won’t reimburse you, so they are kind of forcing you to go in a way, which I don’t like in this kind of adventure activity. If it really is true that one group a month gets stuck up there, then I really think they need to rethink some of their policies, or at least how they communicate the risk.

So it was a rough start to the new year, but I’ll also take it as a sign that 2020 is going to be full of adventure – and I do love a good adventure!

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