BootsnAll Travel Network

Exploring Above and Below New Zealand

The last week has been a week of extremes in exploration. I began with a look at the subterranean world below New Zealand in the Waitomo caves with a company called Rap, Raft, and Rock. Five other people and I were taken out to a farmer’s field on a misty Saturday morning. We were given wet suits which when put on are tight enough to send someone with body image issues running away screaming. We were then shuttled to what was literally a crack in the ground located in a sheep field. One by one we we abseiled (repelled) into the nearly 90 foot deep crack. This was the first time I had repelled since college. This repelling experience was very different as I wasn’t bouncing down a wall. I was actually dangling in midair, suspended by a rope, as I slowly let myself down to the bottom. At the bottom of the crack was a small cold river in which we would spend the next three hours wading and exploring. It was damp in the hole with the many sunlit cave walls covered with a green moss. We were given innertubes and waded up river out of the light (we had headlamps) to the point where the river plunged under the cave wall blocking any further egress. We were instructed to extinguish the head lamps and place one hand on the shoulder of the person in front of us. We began walking back toward the crack.

As our eyes adjusted to the darkness, the gloworms came out in all their glory looking like a green star lit sky. (Since then, I have actually had the urge to visit a planetarium) This is actually their purpose. Glowworms are actually the larval stage of a fly. During the larval stage they attach themselves to the cave roof and dangle down like sticky threads. They then begin to glow. Insect eggs get washed into the cave by the river. When the insects hatch, they instictively head toward the sky which in this case is actually glow worms. The insects get trapped in the silk threads and lunch is served. The glowworms were made to glow even brighter by the use of some sort of loud percussion device that the guide would use without warning us hoping to scare us. The glowworms get brighter due to the vibrations. As I said above, we spent the next three hours either walking or floating on innertubes looking at the glowworms and squeezing through tight holes in the cave or climbing around as the guide took pictures of us in akward positions. The trip was concluded with a 70 or so foot rock climb out of the cave. I was secured to a rope which was reeled in as I made my way up the wall. I did prettty well as there were plenty of hand holds. The only semi difficult part of the climb was a section that was somewhat inverted beyond vertical that I had to clamber over hanging on with all four limbs.

I left Waitomo and drove to Egmont Village at the base of Mt Taranaki (Egmont). Mt Taranaki was featured in the movie “The Last Samari” with Tom Cruise. It served as a stand in for Mt Fuji in Japan. The mountain is 8200 ft (2500 meters) tall. It is a conical shaped dormant volcano. To reach Egmont Village, I took a route called the Forgotten Highway. I can see why it was called the Forgotten Highway. The atlas and the lady at the information center forgot to tell me that it wasn’t fully paved. Someone “forgot” to clear the rock slides off the road causing me to wind my way around some very large rocks. Lastly, someone “forgot” to tell the large trucks (with large Drive Carefully stickers on the front) that I shared the narrow road with that they only have a right to half of the road. Despite this, the drive was very pretty as most New Zealand drives are taking me through farmland, canyons, and hills. I did pass someone who had just run off the road into the bush. He flagged me down and asked me if I had any rope which I didn’t. I also didn’t think my little Nissan would be up to the task of pulling a car back on the road anyway. I gave him a lift about a kilometer up the road to a campground where he found someone with a big truck.

Upon arriving in Egmont Village I checked into The Missing Leg Hostel, where due to the low occupancy, I had the share room to myself for two nights. I then drove to the visitor center at the base of Mt Taranaki to inquire about hiking up the mountain. The lady told me that if I were going to attempt to make the summit, I should do it the next day as the weather was supposed to be good. She also told me that someone else had just asked her about attempting the summit about five minutes before me. On my way back to the car, I met the person that she mentioned. He was a 38 year old Kiwi who had made the climb a few years ago. I spoke with him for a while and agreed to attempt the summit with him. I went back to the hostel and met a German couple (Germans are everywhere here) who had hitchhiked to the hostel to attempt to climb the mountain. They were in a bit of a pickle as they had no way to get to the mountain (a 16 km drive). I offered to take them with me, but warned them that I was leaving early in the morning. We were going to begin the trek at 6:30 in the morning as it takes 7-8 hours to summit and come back down. I spent the rest of the evening looking at the newspaper articles on the hostel wall. They were very helpful! They were about all the people that died or were hurt trying to make the summit throughout the years. (58 people have died in the 100 years or so that the mountain has been climbed.) The hostel owner also chimed in, warning us that the mountain was very steep and could become enveloped in clouds causing one to lose the summit route and inadvertantly wander off 300 foot cliffs. He also warned us that we should turn back if we hit large amounts of ice as it can be dangerous to traverse. Needless to say, I went to bed that night very apprehensive. I promised myself that I would only go as high as I felt comfortable and would not feel defeated if I had to turn around. After all, I didn’t climb Mt Doom as I thought it was beyond my skill level and this mountain was higher and steeper. The main difference though was that I would not be attempting this alone.

The next day we (Matias, Claudia, and me) drove to the visitor’s center which is about 3200 feet up the mountain. We met Guy, the Kiwi I had met yesterday. We began the hike up. The wind was blowing somewhat hard but the mountain was clear and looking very intimidating to me. The first part of the hike was up a steep logging road through the forest and past the treeline to a private lodge. I soon took off my jacket and hat as I was heating up from the effort. Past the logging road, a series of wooden steps (around 700) made their way up a rocky saddle in the mountain. I felt like I was climbing toward a Buddhist Monastery like one sees in the movies. So far so good. The steps ended at a steep scree field which made up the next 2000 feet or so of the mountain. Scree is the term used to describe a slope made up of very loose rocks and pebbles. Walking up the scree field was tiring and somewhat unnerving. It’s very slippery as rocks go tumbling from under your feet with every step. Also, it took me a while to get over the sensation that I would go tumbling down the slope off the mountain. (In reality if you fall you stop almost immediately). At this point, I thought about turning around but I didn’t as I really wanted to try to overcome my fear of heights.

The scree field ended abruptly at a section of hard rocks. We also passed through the first wispy cloud layer, so I was now looking down onto some thin clouds. The next section of the mountain involved scrambling up the rocks which usually involved engaging all four limbs. After a few hundred feet of the rocks, we entered the snowy part of the mountain. I continued
climbing and walking up the rocks avoiding the snow where possible. We made our way up to the crater which one had to traverse to get to the summit. The descent to the crater was full of ice which was too dangerous to try to descend. It was a 40 foot or so drop into the snow filled crater. No one in our group had ice axes or crampons which would have been required to get into the crater safely. I thought this pretty much ended the summit attempt but Guy seemed to think we could summit using another path. We had to descend about 500 feet and then go up what looked like a steep valley going up the center of the moutain. The valley was filled with rocks and snow. Guy went first testing the snow as he at least had walking sticks. We were only going to go up the valley if the snow was soft which would provide good footing. We made our way from rock section to rock section only crossing the snow when necessary. This was the worst part of the climb for me as I didn’t like crossing the snow. If one slides on the snow you don’t stop until you hit a rock. Fortunately, there were plenty of rock sections so I wouldn’t go sliding off the mountain. Three and half hours, and 5000 feet after leaving the visitor center, we made it to the top. The top of the mountain consisted of a small snow covered plateau with one small rock mound on top that one had to stand on to truly summit. We took turns standing on the summit and ate lunch at the top of the mountain. While we were at the top, a sightseeing helicopter flew by the mountain. We stood on the top waving. The helicopter actually turned from its course and flew over us a few times. The sky was perfectly clear and we could see for miles around the North Island. We were the first group of the day to make it to the top and watched other people make their way up the mountain. It looked like about 20 people were trying that day.

The next fun part then began. The descent. At least while I was going up the mountain I wasn’t looking down. This wasn’t the case going back down. We began the trip back down reversing the route we had taken to the top. Surprisingly, the descent was much less scary to me than the ascent. By this point I had gotten used to the height and it didn’t bother me so much anymore. I also had to spend time concentrating on the climb down and not the height. My descent was uneventful except for on the scree field. I got a little overconfident and began bounding down the slope. At one point my speed got out of control and I had to induce a slide to stop myself. Unfortunately, I landed on a rock creating a large bruise on my rear and tearing my hand a little bit. Despite this I made it down the mountain okay feeling very proud of myself and with only a bruise and bloodstained pants (I didn’t notice my hand bleeding on my pants until later).

The next day I drove to Wanganui. I was sore and stiff from my climb. I spent yesterday taking a drive along the Wanganui River Road. I stopped at an old flour mill and a Convent for the Sisters of Compassion. I explored the small church with Maori carvings and spoke briefly with one of the nuns on the site. There are eighty nuns in the order, but only one was on site. The river road is gravel part of the way and goes through several small towns. At one point the road was covered with a herd of no less than 100 sheep with no farmer in sight. I, along with three other cars, had to make our way through the herd. We drove very slowly to the right side of the road causing the sheep to all run off to the left. This was the only mass sheep herd that I encountered, but I did have to stop abruptly occasionally as I came across the odd sheep on the side of the road. They tend to bound off in unpredictable directions when a car comes.

I still have three days before I have to be in Wellington with the car, so I am not sure what I will do with the time yet. Once in Wellington, I will visit someone staying there who I met while I was in the US.

Tags: , ,

One Response to “Exploring Above and Below New Zealand”

  1. Gashwin Says:

    You don’t have body image issues? 🙂 Sounds like fun. I’m across the Tasman Sea from you in Brisbane right now . Sorry we won’t see each other. Enjoy!

  2. Posted from Australia Australia
  3. Rosemary Says:

    I am so enjoying reading about your adventure. You are doing a great job of describing everything. I saw your mom & dad 1 week ago and they looked good. Take care. Rosemary

  4. Posted from United States United States
  5. Joe Says:

    Wonderful stories! Wonderful pictures! I’m so enjoying your blog! Be safe. Have fun…

  6. Posted from United States United States
  7. Mom and Dad Says:

    Thanks for the pictures. They are beautiful!
    We love you.

Leave a Reply