BootsnAll Travel Network

Highs and Lows

I am in Wellington right now, the capital of New Zealand. Today was a nice day. The weather was good, I saw a lot in my short time here, and am getting some things done. My time in Wellington did not start off so great yesterday, and I had what was probably my first “bad” day. When you travel for an extended period of time, you come to expect some bad days here and there; a bad meal, a missed train etc. I think that is the main reason many Americans don’t travel overseas for vacation. Since we don’t get a lot of time, we want to go somewhere easy, where they speak English, they have food we like, they pick us up at the airport and all that. We don’t have the time or energy to try and figure out the language or the public transport. So we go to resorts in Mexico or someplace similar so we don’t have to worry about anything. Which is perfectly understandable if you just want some rest and relaxation. However, since I am traveling for a long time overseas, I was sort of surprised everything was going so smoothly, until yesterday.

I woke up in a hostel in Turangi, where I had spent the previous two nights in order to walk the Tongariro Crossing. The “Crossing” as most travelers refer to it, is considered the best one day walk in New Zealand. For a country with hundreds or thousands of walks, this is quite a compliment, and has much to live up to. I had wanted to do the Crossing since I started planning my trip to New Zealand and it was recommended to me by a few people to get my hiking legs. Considered a difficult hike for 18 km and taking about 8 hours, I wasn’t sure I was up to it. I arrived in Turangi from Rotorua with Birgit, a German woman from Heidelberg whom I shared a room with in Rotorua. We got along well and both realized we were on the same route south, so we decided to head to Turangi together to do the Crossing. Many people stay in the bigger town of Taupo for it, since there are other activities in Taupo that people like to do, most notable is sky diving. A bunch of Irish people I was talking to in Rotorua were trying to convince me to go to Taupo with them to skydive, but they were a few days behind my schedule. Since I had lost a few days recovering from my hangover after Walt’s 30th birthday party, I couldn’t affort to hang out in Taupo for any more time. Plus, I was chicken.

Rotorua is basically a big thermal reserve, and smells completely like rotten eggs. Your clothes begin to smell after a while and though you get used to it, the mornings are a big wake up to a sulphur smell. I stayed at a great hostel called the Funky Green Voyager, which was recommended to me by Phil who drove me to Rotorua. After our hangi the first night, Birgit and I went to Te Puia, a thermal reserve with geysers and hot springs and a Maori school. It was pretty interesting, especially the demonstrations on weaving and carvings. But the geysers were kind of disapointing if you’ve seen Old Faithful. Nevertheless, they are proud of these thermal areas and their healing properties. I spent that night at Hell’s Gate, where you bathe in the mud of the thermal reserve and then go into the sulphur pools, both are thought to cure many diseases and skin conditions like acne and eczema. I don’t know about that, but my skin felt awesome afterwards and I was so relaxed I could barely move. It helped my sore muscles after the Lost World, and was a little treat before the big Crossing.

So I was a little scared of doing the Crossing, since many people said it is really hard. I couldn’t remember one time in my life I had walked for 18 km straight, let alone uphill and for 8 hours at one time. I knew it would be hard, but the sights were supposed to be totally worth it. And they were. The shuttle bus picked us up at 7am, and we started the hike around 8:15am. The first half hour was an easy stroll through an old volcano bed and grassy hills. But then we arrived at the Devil’s Staircase, aptly named. This was an excrutiating climb up, taking about an hour over huge boulders, basically pulling yourself up with your hands and arms. Sitting at a desk for 8 hours a day filing paper doesn’t really prepare you for this, nor does going to the gym for an hour three days a week. Birgit was a little more fit than me, but luckily she liked to stop and take loads of pictures, allowing me time to catch my breath and prevent myself from throwing up. It was a hot day, about 28C and sunny. We were lucky as sometimes it can rain or be cloudy, and you won’t be able to see any views. But it was also really warm and we quickly started sweating and losing fluids. I drank a liter of water in the first 4km. Since there is no drinkable water on the track, you have to carry everything with you. On the advice of previous crossers, I brought two liters of water and one liter of a sports drink with me, plus any food I needed for the day and warm clothes in case it rained or got cold on top on top of the mountain. Some people said it was absolutely freezing when they were up there, but we had a perfectly beautiful day.

At the top of the Devil’s Staircase, most people stop there for a short rest and snack and take some pictures. There was another shorter climb after that and a leveling off through an old valley, until we reached the South Crater. After a 15 minute break, we continued on, reaching the highest peak at about 1800m and a view of the Red Crater. Since Mt. Tongariro is a volcano, there are some great view and landscapes along the route. After you pass over the summit, you look down at the Emerald Lakes, three lakes which glow a teal color from the different minerals coming from the volcano. We were lucky the sun was shining, as sometimes the fog settles in and you cannot see the lakes. On our way down, we had to basically slide down a scree slope of lose rocks to reach the Emerald Lakes, which was pretty nerve wracking. I’m really glad I decided to bring hiking boots with me, as some people had just gym shoes on and were having some problems. I could definitely envision some sprained ankles along that huge track. We ate lunch at the lakes, and then our hike was about half over. We then walked through another old volcano valley of little vegetation and then climbed up into the hills overlooking Turangi. We walked about 2 more hours, slightly uphill but also level at some places, until we reached the Ketatahi hut, where people who are doing longer multiday hikes stay the night. We ate a quick snack and continued on, finishing the hike at exactly 3:57pm, three minutes before the first shuttle bus left. The last hour, aside from the Devil’s Staircase was the worst for me. We couldn’t see the end of the trail, so we had no idea how much longer it was. I could only concentrate on picking my legs up and making them move forward. When Birgit thought she heard a bus engine, I thought she was hallucinating. But we actually made the first bus, surprising both of us as we thought we were moving pretty slow compared to other people. The walk was indeed a great one, a physically demanding hike full of rewards. My legs were actually shaking at the end and when Birgit when running for the bus, I just called out that I absolutely could not run and to tell them to hold the bus. But I felt like I had really accomplished something after that, and we shared a bottle of wine back at the hostel, ready to move on after such a great day.

Little did we know that the following day would be so crappy. Our bus to Wellington was about 6 hours long, and would not have been so terrible had it not been sweltering in there. I finally got up to ask the driver if he could turn the air colder and he said it was as cold as it gets. Birgit and I were booked in separate hostels and I was supposed to get a shuttle driver from my hostel. When I got off the bus, he was motioning at me to come on. I needed to grab my pack out of the bus and say goodbye to Birgit, so I asked him to wait a minute. He said he couldn’t really wait. That put me off a bit, as I have not met one Kiwi yet who has been remotely rude like that. So Birgit and I parted ways and I arrived at my hostel, Rowena’s Lodge. This is the first recommendation from my guidebook that I truly was unhappy with and I’ll definitely let them know about it. I checked in and paid for my two nights, and went into my dorm room. The floor looked like it hadn’t been vacuumed in weeks. Okay. So far, not a big deal. I put my bags down and did a quick tour of the hostel. The kitchen was really tiny and crowded and seemed like a mess, but sometimes hostel kitchens aren’t the greatest. But it was the bathrooms that really got to me. There was so much hair on the floor of the shower, they looked like little black mice. It was the kind of bathroom that you’d be dirtier coming out than when you went in. I was completely grossed out. Now, I am fully expecting places like this in Asia or Africa, but I am also not paying about US$15 a night for it there. And there is no reason for it in NZ. I have had nothing but great hostels so far, and was truly shocked at the state of this place.

I quickly left the hostel, past some scrungy looking guys out front and went to find Birgit, since her hostel was only a block away from mine. Since my shuttle bus driver wouldn’t give her a ride, she took the regular bus and arrived a few minutes before I found her. She was also not happy with her place, but not nearly as grossed out as me. So we decided to go for a walk, and came upon the Wellington YHA. YHA, or Hostelling International as they are known in the States, is an organization that owns hostels all over the world, usually very clean, reliable hostels, but can be kind of sterile and boring. After Rowena’s Lodge, sterile sounded too good to be true. They still had availability for the next night, so I went back to the hostel to refund my second nights stay. He was kind of weird about it but handed me my money, and something clicked in my brain and I said, “Actually, I’m going to leave tonight so I need to get my bag out of the room.” He kind of looked at me funny but didn’t say anything. I packed up my stuff and got ready to leave, handing him the key. He finally asked me why I was leaving, and said very nicely and not in earshot of other guests, “I’m sorry, I just don’t feel comfortable here. It’s very dirty and I don’t like it, so I am going to another hostel.” Now, being used to customer service in the States, I was taken aback by his reaction. He basically gave me this sneer of disdain, shrugged me off and scoffed, like I was the one who was crazy. That made me realize my decision to leave and eat a night’s stay was the right one. I arrived back at the YHA, and booked myself into a slightly expensive but clean room with ensuite bathroom. When I told the reception what happened, she said they get at least one person A WEEK who cancels their booking at Rowena’s. You would think they would get the point.

After all this mucking about, it was almost 8pm. My day in Wellington was wasted, I was hot and tired and hungry. Birgit and I grabbed some dinner and she went back to her hostel, prepared to check out the next day and come to the YHA. Normally, I am not such a picky person. I am fully prepared to stay in not so great places, but I just got a bad vibe and grossed out feeling about this place, and it was the first place I didn’t feel comfortable leaving my money belt in my room or sitting on the toilet. So losing the equivalent of US$15, or a bottle of decent NZ wine, was worth it to me.

I woke up today refreshed and ready to start a new day. Since I only had one day before leaving tomorrow for the South Island, I had loads to do. The big thing to do in Wellington is the Te Papa National Museum, which had a lot of Maori exhibits and some information about the forming of New Zealand. All very interesting, but I thought the museum in Auckland was way better. Then I went to the City and Sea Maritime Museum, a smaller museum but pretty interesting. I caught the famous cable car up the hill and up to the Botanical Gardens. Strange, I have now been to three Botanical Gardens, one in Sydney, Melbourne and now Wellington, but have never been to the one in Chicago. After strolling around the Gardens, I walked to the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary, a huge reserve in a suburb basically, where they installed a predator free fence. Most of NZ wildlife are birds, and many are flightless due to evolution. (Creationists, stop reading now. ) When the land mass of Gondwana began to split apart, the only mammal to survive in modern day NZ was the bat, also a flying animal. All the 4 legged creatures currently in NZ were brought in by Maori or settlers. Because many of their native birds were flightless, like the kiwi, they soon began dying out as they had no defenses against the possums, stoats and cats and dogs. So this sanctuary put up a fence, killed all the mammals inside it’s boarders and released many endangered birds into the sanctuary, many of which are now breeding again. It is starting to be a success story for the native New Zealand wildlife, and many birds on the brink of extinction are making a comback. It’s amazing how one bad day can color your picture of a place, and how another good day can make you forget all about and want to keep on going.

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One response to “Highs and Lows”

  1. Uncle Chuck says:

    Kirsten, I Know I am commenting somewhere in the middle, but I wanted to get some kind of History before going back to the more detailed events leading up to New Zealand. I’ll keep in touch as I get more time to sit down and read some of your exciting days. Nice to see you make some good friends as you go along. We Love you and take good care of yourself and enjoy it all. You should be very good at this traveling stuff, you had some pretty good teachers. Love Chuck

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