It has been a crazy couple of weeks, so this is a long one.
(Huh-huh, huh-huh, I said "long one!")
PART I: THE TAUPO TRAP
I was going to leave Taupo on the 14th but I stayed until the 20th. I did this for two reasons. #1 – I wanted to do the Tongariro Crossing but the weather was bad, and #2 – I decided it would be more fun to do St. Patrick’s Day with the friends I made over the past three months rather than celebrating with strangers in Wellington. I am glad that I stayed, but it was an exhausting week of good-byes and partying. It was not a clean break.
I fell into what is known locally as The Taupo Trap. In a nutshell, The Taupo Trap is a phenomenon in which foreign travelers stop off in Taupo to work for a little while but end up staying much longer than expected. They typically get paid just enough to live, eat, and have fun, but not quite enough to move on to somewhere else. Inevitably, friendships and relationships spring up. People get comfortable and attached. Also, there are tons of things to do in Taupo (in summer at least). The lake, rivers, mountains and forests are beautiful and the nightlife is pretty damn good for such a small town. Taupo is a nice place, and it wouldn’t be a sad fate to stay there permanently. Buuuuuuuut, I only have a one-year visa and I had to get moving before the weather turns too cold to enjoy the great outdoors.
A couple of weeks before I left, the last girls moved out of the house I was living in. Thusly, the Rotokawa House mutated into a multinational testosterone-fueled flophouse. Burping, farting, and ball scratching increased exponentially. Beer was ever-present and the dishes were never, ever clean. Broken glass and cigarette filters littered our yard. I am pretty sure that Domino’s made at least two deliveries each day. Even when it was warm outside, someone was always stoking the wood-burning stove. One of my Kiwi flatmates had a runty Jack Russell terrier named Nevis who had a gum infection, a broken foot and liked to shit all over the place. I will not miss that dog. Interestingly, the house was much quieter after the girls left. Dudes are much less chatty when there are no ladies around to impress. Still, I sort of miss the place. I made a few good friends there and had some fascinating wallpaper (see below).
I was getting sick of my hair. It hadn’t been cut since late October and was getting a bit high-maintenance. After weighing the pros and cons of growing it long again, I resolved one night to buzz it all off… almost. I decided that I wanted to have a Mohawk for a day. My friends with hair clippers were happy to help out, and for roughly twelve hours I got in touch with my Native American roots and sported a very floppy Mohawk. I didn’t have the industrial strength gel that would have been necessary to keep my hair sticking up, so I finished the shaving job off the next morning. Woo hoo! No shampoo for at least two months!
St. Paddy’s Day was predictably crazy. The partying began early and didn’t quit. It was great to have a last hurrah with my newfound friends in Taupo, but it ended badly. After I went home for the evening and was getting ready for bed, I took a bit of a spill. It was pitch black in my room. Something was in the middle of the floor when it shouldn’t have been. Whatever it was, I tripped over it and did a faceplant on my carpet. My nose gushed blood and I got some minor rug burn on my face. Back in my senior year of high school, my anatomy teacher Mr. Platt warned all of us to be wary of injuries to the area between our eyes and the tip of our nose – an area he called The Danger Triangle. According to Mr. Platt, a harsh blow to The Danger Triangle could easily bring about one’s demise. Remembering that sage advice, I ran to the bathroom and cleaned up my nose. It didn’t take long. The next day I emerged from my room with scratches on my forehead and nose. With my freshly shaved head and facial injuries, I looked the part of an English football hooligan after a night of pints and punches. I wish I HAD been in a fight. It would have made a much better story.
PART II: THE FOOTSTEPS OF DOOM
I got back on the Stray bus on Tuesday morning. We headed for the untamed wilderness of Tongariro National Park and its famous walk, the Tongariro Crossing. The Tongariro Crossing is a roughly 10-mile trail through the volcanic areas of Mt. Ngauruhoe and Mt. Tongariro. Anyone who has seen the “Lord of the Rings” movies has seen this place on film. It was used to film many of the scenes where Frodo, Sam & Gollum are climbing up Mt. Doom. It is incredibly rugged, bizarre and awesome. Mt. Ngauruhoe (pronounced “Now–roo–ho–ee”) was amazing to behold. It is only about 2,000 years old and is perfectly conical. It last erupted in the 1970s. Some people in my group actually climbed to its summit, even though our driver told us we didn’t have enough time to do it. I wish I had gone with them.
Instead, I stayed to the track, which was nonetheless astounding. There were incredible rocky slopes, green and blue thermal lakes, red volcanic craters, steam rising from the ground, and endlessly breathtaking views. It was unlike anything I have ever seen before. The whole walk took about five hours and I’d love to do it again someday.
After a day’s rest, I went up Mt. Ruapehu, which was in the news recently. Two days before we arrived in the park, the crater lake at the mountain’s summit burst through its natural dam sending tons of water, mud and rock down into natural spillways for miles around. This kind of landslide is called a lahar (nope, I hadn’t heard that word before either). It went down the opposite side of the mountain, so we were never in any danger. In the winter, people ski down Ruapehu on the Whakapapa Ski Field. In the off season, you can take a chairlift a good way up the mountain for hiking and sightseeing, which looked pretty damn cool to me, so I did it.
The rocks on Ruapehu were incredibly jagged. It seems amazing that if I came back in only a couple of months, those rocks would be under several feet of snow, with thousands of skiers sliding gracefully down the slopes. This area was also used in “Lord of the Rings,” and I found myself in a similar predicament to Frodo & Sam at the beginning of “The Two Towers.” I was climbing over a bunch of rocks when the clouds rolled in. Neither I nor the weird South African guy I was climbing with could tell where we were going in such poor visibility. When the clouds lifted, we realized that we were going in circles. After that, we stuck to the marked trail.
PART III: WINDY WELLINGTON
The next day, we began the trek to Wellington. Along the way, we stopped to see some of the debris from the lahar. I am guessing that we were at least ten miles away from Ruapehu’s summit, and there was mud everywhere (check out the photo below). Pretty cool, especially since there were no human casualties, injuries, or even property damage. The rest of the ride was pretty uneventful – lots of farmland and sheep.
We arrived in Wellington in the late afternoon. It is a beautiful city and kicks the crap out of Auckland. It lives up to its nickname, Windy Wellington, as it lies at the southern tip of the North Island. The Cook Strait, which separates the two main islands, is a major bottleneck for winds that otherwise get stuck on New Zealand’s mountain ranges. Physically and atmospherically, Wellington is like a miniature San Francisco. There are steep hills and harbors all over the place and unlike Auckland, it is very compact and has a lot of character. I dig it.
Of course, Wellington is home to Peter Jackson’s many filmmaking enterprises. There are several tours one can take to see the moviemaking sights in the city. Instead of paying $100 to have some dude show me around, I decided to seek these spots out myself. It wasn’t hard. The “get off the road” scene from “The Fellowship of the Ring” was filmed in Mt. Victoria, a big public park within walking distance from my hostel. I’m pretty sure that I found the spot where the Black Rider first sniffs out the hobbits. If not, it sure looked like it. I also made my way over to the rather spooky neighborhood of Miramar, which is home to Weta Workshop, Weta Digital, Park Road Post, Camperdown Studios, and Stone Street Studios. Compared to the filmmaking facilities I’ve seen in the States, these studios are pretty small and unassuming (from the outside, at least). Park Road Post has a cool Frank Lloyd Wright-esque design, but the other buildings looked right at home next to the construction and automotive enterprises that surround them. It just goes to show that talented people with vision and ambition can make great movies without Hollywood’s grandiosity. Currently, the second “Narnia” movie is being shot there and I saw some signs for the art department for “Avatar,” James Cameron’s first movie since “Titanic.” I will definitely be checking this place out more after my loop of the South Island.
My face has healed up nicely, and I will probably stay in Wellington for a couple more days. There are lots of sights I still want to check out. I still have to book my ferry to the South Island and hope for good weather. It was a lot tougher to leave Taupo than I thought it would be, but I am loving the new places I am seeing and the people I am meeting. Everyone should come here sometime in their life.