Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Adventures in the Northlands

After having a little too much fun at the bar last night (including a sambuca shot and a tequila shot, and dressing up in a sparkly pink fedora to accommodate the 70s/80s night theme) I went to bed just after midnight and dragged my sorry self out of bed 6 1/2 hours later to meet the bus at 7am outside the hostel. A company called Dune Rider picked us up in a specially designed bus/truck (the significance of its odd construction would be apparent later in the day). From there we headed out for a twelve-hour day so packed with new sights and activities (I took over 200 pictures) that I can't even begin to hope to describe it all here unless I typed all night (which I'm not going to do because I am so tired and would like to sleep for more than six hours).

We started with a coffee/lunch grabbing break in Waipapakauri, where some got their much-needed caffeine fix (I settled for a chocolate muffin), and picked up sandwiches and the like for our lunch, as there was no food service up at the Cape where we were headed. Then it was back on the bus, where Paul, our delightful driver from KariKari, provided all sorts of commentary about the sights outside our windows as we whizzed past them going the 100km speed limit (picture Riverside Road or Glenora Road with a 100km per hour speed limit, then imagine everyone drives just a little bit faster - and you're riding in a big bus. You understand why my anxiety kicked in a little bit). Mostly all dairy and sheep farms (Paul remarked, "It has always amazed me that people want to take pictures of sheep. All this beautiful scenery, and they stop to take a picture of sheep!" I can relate, Paul. I think that every time visitors exclaim and clamour to take pictures of deer at the Forest Museum), but also several (Māori defence hills, given away by their terraced sides where fences once stood), the Three Sisters (a rock formation), and St. Paul's Cap (also a rock formation).

Our first real stop of the day was Historic Gumdiggers' Park and Ancient Buried Kauri Forest. Tens of thousands of years ago, the entire Northlands was covered by a massive and ancient forest of Kauri trees (the largest coniferous tree in New Zealand). The first forest was wiped out by flooding at the end of the ice age 100,000 years ago, and the second forest by an undetermined cataclysmic event 50,000 years ago. The current theory is a giant tidal wave caused by an asteroid falling into the Tasman sea flattened the entire forest, which was then buried in mud and sediment. Some of the kauri trees were up to 2,000 years old, and had a girth of 12 metres! Due to the anaerobic conditions in the resulting peat bogs, and the lack of calcifying agents in the soil, the trees have been preserved, and the dug up wood is now referred to as "ancient kauri" and fashioned into many beautiful items (tables, dishes, frames, clocks, etc.) But the first main rush to dig up these trees was for their hardened sap, called kauri gum (what we in the northern hemisphere refer to as amber). It was discovered in the mid-19th century that this gum could be melted down and mixed with other chemicals to produce a water-resistant lacquer that was highly-sought after to finish stagecoaches and the like in England. Thus, the kauri gum diggers were born; those who came to seek their fortune digging for buried gum in the ground, but instead the vast majority found days of backbreaking monotonous work for very little gain. The Gumdiggers' Park has recreated the huts the gumdiggers lived in, and has preserved some of their original equipment and the holes they dug. It was a fascinating tour (given to us by a girl named Courtney, who reminded me eerily of myself as she walked around a forest talking to us), and I was sorry we couldn't stay to look around longer.

One of the interesting thing concerning the gumdiggers of the Northlands was it explains the mystery of why we call rubber boots "gum boots". These gum boots were commemorated in an entire fence strung with pairs of gum boots at the museum! New Zealanders seem to have a propensity for naming footwear: they call what we call sandals (or flip-flops, or what the Aussies call thongs) "jandals", a contraction of "Japanese sandals", after the style upon which they are modelled.

From there we headed off to Tapotupotu Bay - a camping and recreation area - and ate our lunches on a breathtaking beach with cream-coloured sand, contending with an army of seagulls trying to snatch our food away (I was mean and refused to feed them). Then it was off to Te Rerenga Wairua (Cape Rēinga)! Here is where the Māori believe their souls depart on their journey to the spiritual homeland by sliding down the roots of an 800-year-old pohutukawa tree clinging to a rocky cliff edge (called kahika by the Māori). As a sign of respect we were asked not to eat or drink anything in the area.

The Cape is not actually the northernmost point in New Zealand, but is significant enough in its own right for the spiritual reasons, and for the magnificence of watching the Pacific and Tasman seas crash into each other, creating some beautiful waveforms. The view (like so many others in New Zealand) is stunning... standing by the lighthouse built at the very tip, there is an end-of -the-world feeling as one looks out at a vast expanse of ocean.

We left the Cape and headed out to the sand dunes at the start of Ninety-Mile Beach. It was surreal... on one side is farmland, and on the other side of the road are dunes of sand, looking like they have been transported out of the Sahara desert and plunked down in New Zealand. Thus began today's physical activity: sand boarding! We took off our shoes and socks, grabbed a boogie board out of the "boot" of the bus, walked across the shallow river, and then slogged our way up to the top of the sand dune and threw ourselves down the hill! Fantastic fun, if not for the strenuous walk up the dune and the amount of sand that I inhaled and otherwise have stuck in crevices all over my body where I had no idea sand could get to (a shower is definitely in my future). Paul warned us not to bring our cameras out lest they be damaged by the sand, but I couldn't resist, and brought mine up to the top to take pictures that look like they could be screen shots from Lawrence of Arabia. I paid the price, however; sand got into my camera and it stopped focusing properly for the rest of the afternoon. I think I have it fixed now... we shall see how it behaves over the next few days.

Then came the most unusual activity of the day: we drove - in the bus, going about 90 km/hour - down Ninety-Mile Beach (Ninety-Kilometre Beach would be more accurate, actually). We were ON the beach! This is where the bus' truck-like chassis and gearing came in handy, designed so that most of the weight was on the rear driving axles, and minimizing the risk that we would sink into the sand (like some unfortunate vehicles we saw from years past, buried and rusting in the sand). To the right, waves crashing into the sand from the Tasman Sea; to the left, wind-swept trees planted to protect the planted crop of pine trees (native to California, but grown here in New Zealand for the forest industry). Although we didn't see any, apparently some days there are even wild horses that grace the sand dunes.

From there we headed to the Ancient Kauri Kingdom, a tourist trap store of things made out of the ancient kauri wood. The cool attraction was a giant spiral staircase carved inside the trunk of a massive ancient kauri tree, which accesses the store's mezzanine level. Now if only the Forest Museum had something cool like that... :-)

Our last activity for the day was stopping for a delicious dinner of fresh fish and chips at Doubtless Bay's (so named because James Cook wrote in his ship's log, "Doubtless, a bay", not wanting to explore it fully due to unfavourable winds) Mangonui Fish Shop. I made the mistake of going into the bathroom and looking at my face... yikes, sunburn and windburn! I will be slathering on the sunscreen, donning my hat, and avoiding the sun as much as possible tomorrow.

We were dropped off back here in Paihia at the Pipi Patch at 7:30, over twelve hours after we were picked up, and I definitely feel like I have had a full day of amusement and activity. It's taken me two hours to write all this up, and now I am heading off for a well-deserved shower (to try and dislodge the rest of this sand!) and then to sleep. Goodnight!


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