A Travellerspoint blog

Our Journey to Mordor...

I mean, Tongariro National Park

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jeannine and I both loved The Lord of the Rings trilogy of movies. It’s pretty neat finding spots where they were filmed. Today we drove south to Tongariro National Park which served as the land of Mordor in the movie. The name Tongariro comes from the Maori words tonga (south wind) and riro (carried away). The park has three mountains… Tongariro, Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu. Mt. Ngauruhoe is 2287 meters tall and was used as Mt. Doom in the movie due to its conical shape. A large cloud settled in over Ngauruhoe making it impossible to see the top but it was still impressive. We did a little hiking near the mountains to get a look at the beech forests and alpine shrubs, but we didn’t do the longer hikes up.

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Mt. Doom!

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Area that represented Mordor in The Lord of the Rings.

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Falls near the mountains.

While driving back to Lake Taupo we took a moment to go to a scenic overlook and found this cute little black bird with a white tuft on its throat singing a song.

We later drove back toward Taupo where we were staying. Taupo lies near NZ’s largest lake which was formed after a giant volcanic explosion. Now it’s a peaceful place to sip some coffee and watch black swans bob around.

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Scenes from Lake Taupo.

We finished the day with a drive over to Huka falls. We thought the falls were man-made, but when we arrived there we read they had been formed over millions of years. As falls go they were small, but the impressive to watch thing water rushing through a tight channel from one lake to another. The speed and power of the water put on quite a show.

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Huka Falls

Posted by Aeren 15:00 Archived in New Zealand Comments (3)

Of Glowing Worms and Dark Caves

Visiting New Zealand's Sacred Areas

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We have finally arrived at our last destination… New Zealand. Jeannine’s college friend, Franz, picked us up at the airport in Auckland and we spent two days meeting his family and seeing Auckland. Franz told us that since he moved to Auckland in 1997, its population has exploded and the infrastructure is not set up to handle it. The roads are overcrowded and housing prices have shot up. Besides European and Asian immigrants, Auckland has attracted a large population from the nearby Pacific Islands.

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View of Auckland's skyline from Mt. Victoria

I’m sure many of you have heard about the Maori people of New Zealand. The Maori are NZ’s indigenous people who were featured in the film The Whale Rider. They have been recognized in a larger way than indigenous in other countries due to the Treaty of Waitangi which was signed between the Maoris and the British Government. Many battles and land grabs later the Maori aired their grievances at the Waitangi Tribunal and have gained much of their land and rights back. Their culture and art pops up everywhere you go and their language is taught to all school children. Franz’s six year old son was learning counting, colors, and the days of the week in Maori.

Franz took us on a drive through the downtown and over to Devonport, a North Shore suburb with a historical flavor. We walked passed Victorian architecture and ancient trees to get fish and chips at a local pub. He then drove us up Mt. Victoria (an old volcanic cone) which gave us a grand view of Auckland and the harbor.

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Scene from Devonport

It’s springtime in New Zealand and there are wonderful flowering trees and plants everywhere. This, of course, means that it’s time for the allergies to ignite. My cold has evolved into a steady nasal drip and Jeannine finally gave up and stuck a Kleenex in her nose to catch the constant flow.

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One of the flowering trees causing our allergies. It's called the bottle brush tree by the locals.

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We got to see a Rose Festival at Devonport. Not only were there tons of roses but they had music and plenty of food too.

Monday morning we drove down to Waitamo Caves for a tour. Caves among the Maori were considered places of magic, wonder, and at some point they were also burial grounds and their status is generally sacred. The tour included the Glowworm Cave and Aranui Cave. No photography is allowed at the Glowworm Cave to protect the worms. The beginning of the tour was mostly a discussion and identification of limestone caves followed by the standard description of cave jargon… stalactites, stalagmites, columns, etc. Railings and platforms make this an easy cave to walk through. The thing that made it special were the glowing worms, which aren’t really worms but the larva of the fungus gnat that emit a glow to attract their food. OK, it sounds creepy, but they are pretty cool. We caught glimpses of the worms in the dark and at one point we were very close to the worms and could see the long threads that extend from their bodies to catch flying insects to eat. We descended to a dock in near total darkness and got into a boat. It felt like the scene in the Harry Potter movie where Dumbledore and Harry sailed across a dark lake to find Voldemort’s horcrux . We were asked not to talk so all I could hear was water dripping in the darkness. As the boat moved silently forward we looked up and saw thousands of blue/green dots in the ceiling. It was like seeing a clear starry night; they even looked like they twinkled because of the movement of the threads. The boat ride only took five minutes but it was magical.

We took a lunch break at a cool looking café called Huhu near the caves. We hadn’t read anything about it, but it’s modern industrial look appealed to us. As it turned out the Lonely Planet Guide for New Zealand listed it as the best place to eat in the area. The café sits on the second floor and has a balcony with a spectacular view of the hills which resembled the hills used for the hobbit shire in Lord of the Rings. It was easy to imagine a little hobbit house in the hills. Often when going to remote tourist locations the food is not up to par with the wonder of the local attraction, but Huhu was the exception! If you find yourself in this area, this is definitely the place to eat.

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Can't you imagine a hobbit coming out of these hills?

After lunch we headed out to Aranui cave. Aranui was a walking cave with the added bonus of a 30 minute bush walk after the tour. We were not disappointed. Aranui was opened in 1910 for the public and as usual in that time people were careless, taking souvenirs by breaking off pieces of the formations and carving names inside the walls. Some of the damaged formations continue to grow because the perpetrators only touched the piece they removed and not the formation above the break. Oils found on the hands rub off on the formation and essentially kill it since the limestone deposit can’t adhere to the oils. In recent years they’ve worked hard at educating people and maintaining the cave with better walkways. The cathedral hall, the largest room in the cave was very beautiful and unlike the Glowworm Cave, we could photograph to our heart’s content in this cave. The tour lasted about an hour and when we exited we headed out to the bushwalk which took us to a couple of natural cave viewing platforms for some spectacular views of the river below the cave.

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Scenes from Aranui Cave

We left the Waitamo area on our way to Taupo. Driving on the left hand side of the road, so far, has been uneventful and not as bad as I thought it might be. The GPS reminds me to drive on the left hand side of the road when I turn it on and Jeannine reminds me to stay to the left when turning. So far those two warning mechanisms have worked well and I’ve had no mishaps. I think downloading the GPS maps for Australia and New Zealand were a good investment. It certainly saves a lot of time not having to look up the maps to get to where I’m going. I shaved at least an hour off our trip to the caves; Franz said it would take me at least 3 to 3 ½ hours since I was new to the area and I made it there in 2 hours 15 minutes without speeding. Got to love modern technology!

Posted by Aeren 15:47 Archived in New Zealand Comments (0)

From Royal Park to Manly Beach

Seeing Sydney's natural areas

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I stopped blogging for a few days to recover from this cold; it’s amazing how much the not so common cold takes out of you. I was feeling a little better yesterday so we decided to visit the Royal National Park and turn in early. The park was founded in 1879 along the rugged coast a short trip south of Sydney. We drove down to the park and stopped at the friendly tourist center to get a map and a coffee. As some people sat down to eat their lunch we noticed a flock of cockatoos descend down to sit right next to them. The lady at the snack booth told us they love people food and will snatch your sandwich right out of your hand if you’re not careful. It was nice to get such a close-up view of these beautiful (if aggressive) birds.

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From there we drove into Wattamolla Beach and started hiking north on the Costal Track to Little Marley Beach. The vegetation was rugged and scrubby, usually just over the tops of our heads. Some amazing flowers were hidden among the thorns. When we came to Little Marley Beach but it should have been called Little Marley Cliffs. We were several 100 feet above the pounding waves on some sandstone rocks. After admiring the view and taking pictures we hiked back to the car.

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We next drove south to Garie Beach which was a real sandy beach. In this area the park turned into a rainforest with palms and eucalypts trees.

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The next day we Couchsurfed with a woman who lived in Manly …“Seven miles from Sydney and miles away from cares”. Manly is a 30 minute ferry ride away from Sydney’s city center and is full of neighborhoods and shops that lead down to the beach. Our hostess had a lovely condo overlooking the harbor and we enjoyed watching the sun set together.

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Sydney’s beaches tend to be small sandy coves surrounded by large rocks and pounding surf and Manly beach was no different. We walked down the hill and crossed The Corso which is a pedestrian avenue which runs from the warf to Manly beach. Then we strolled down to the beach and on to Cabbage Tree Bay where there was a pool dug into the rocks and Shelly Beach. We doubled back up the hill passing million dollar mansions that overlooked the beaches. Later that evening we met up with our Couchsurfing hostess and had a nice visit over dinner.

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Posted by Aeren 15:08 Archived in Australia Comments (1)

I've Got the Blue Mountains Blues

Getting sick is no fun

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So here’s the challenge, pick up a rental car at the airport, drive on the left hand side of the road, watch the cars, watch for speed cameras, be careful with the rain and drive 1 ½ hours to the luscious Blue Mountains. I felt a cold coming on in Sydney, but we went ahead with our plans. By the time we got to the Blue Mountains I could tell a serious cold was in the works.

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These mountains, just west of Sydney, were well-traveled by Aboriginal tribes but to the early British settlers they were a barrier to expansion. It took twenty-five years for them to find a way across the maze of steep drops and tall canyons. Now the area is a national park and covers about 200,000 hectares of land. The mountains are quite tame for the modern traveler. Setting sniffles aside, we walked on some easy trails near the hotel and made a quick stop at the most heavily visited spot in the Blue Mountains…. Echo Point and three rocky outcroppings called The Three Sisters. We saw a trail leading to the sisters so we walked over to them and down a steep staircase called “The Giant Stairway” which goes down to other paths but also has a ledge that leads to the first of the three sisters. You can actually stand on the first one.

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According to a legend of the Gundungurra people the three sisters were originally three young women who were in love with three young brothers from another tribe. They were forbidden to marry the brothers so a tribal war began over the issue. The sisters were turned into stone by the village spiritualist to prevent their being captured. However, the spiritualist was killed in the battle so the sisters remain stone to this day.

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We saw wild parrots and cockatoos flying through the forest.

Today, I pay the piper for those lovely walks yesterday. I slept fitfully (but at least I slept) and when I got up in the morning there was no doubt in my mind that we’d need to spend another day here…not to tour but to rest. After talking to the manager and paying for another night I slept until 12:30 when we decided I really needed to get a bite to eat. Jeannine and I are both happy with my insistence we go hiking yesterday. Today there is a fog so thick you can barely see your hand in front of your face. To make it more fun, I drove into the little town because I didn’t want to worsen my cold. If anyone has read Bill Bryson’s book on Australia the chapter on Katoomba is what we are living right now.

Posted by Aeren 22:25 Archived in Australia Comments (3)

Cold Water and Warm Days

Not exactly swimming weather

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We had a treat and saw this kookaburra in a tree near our hotel.

Beaches are one of the reasons people come to Australia and we chose today to check out a Sydney beach. We went for Bondi (pronounced ‘bond-eye’--they insist on using a long ‘I’ sound to pronounce it) since it gets so much publicity in the guidebooks. The train drops you off at a station some distance away, but there are have buses running from Bondi Junction to the beach. Australia is just coming out of winter so the trees are flowering and people are filling the buses to get to the sand. The amount of sand is tiny… just .6 miles, but it’s delightful. It’s surrounded by deep blue water that was FREEZING (at least that’s what Jeannine said, I wasn’t about to enter water that made people blue in the lips) it also explained all the people wearing wet suits when they were surfing. It has a rocky coast with a hiking trail along the edge. We hiked on part of the Coastal Walk towards Tamarama Beach in hopes of seeing the “Sculptures by the Sea” that we’d seen announced at the visitor’s center. About half way there, we ran into people putting up large sculptures on Marks Park. Silly us, we thought it was a sand sculpture competition (like at California beaches) we were amused to see real sculptures. Evidently this is an annual festival (Sculptures by the Sea) that happens at the end of October. At this point we had to turn around to get back to our hotel and change in time for a show at the Opera House. Well, it wasn’t in the actual opera hall but it was a play being put on in the small playhouse in the side of the Opera House. That night we went to see “The Taming of the Shrew” with an all female cast. I don’t know if Shakespeare is rolling over in his grave, but we were rolling in the aisles from laughter. It was well done! Outside the Opera House they had an area with live music and drinks and it was packed. They really know how to capitalize on this famous place.

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Scenes from Bondi Beach

The next morning we woke up and went straight to The Rock’s Saturday market. It was a sunny morning and lots of people were out. The Rocks were the site of the First Fleet’s arrival in 1788 to drop off convicts from England. Tents were put up on the sandstone outcrops that give the area its name. Now it’s an area of colonial buildings that have been restored and developed. We strolled around the market looking at arts and crafts and then decided to walk to Surry Hills to find a used book store where we could drop off some books that were weighing us down.

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Saturday Market at the Rocks

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Exhibit at the Contemporary Art Museum

We passed through The Royal Botanic Gardens and Hyde Park which featured huge fig trees and Archibald fountain. We enjoyed watching kids chase giant bubbles that a man produced by pulling a large string through a bubble solution and then raising it to the wind. Everyone seemed to be enjoying the weekend. We got to the address of the bookstore and it was gone so walked over to Crown Street to find some lunch. It was a very artsy area with a lot of character and we found a cute place to eat. After eating I was feeling worn down (catching a cold) so we walked up to King’s Cross to catch the train back home. Sydney has really got to get its act together with the signage for their trains. We’ve been riding the trains for three days and we still can’t figure out the system. We usually end up asking someone where to go. After experiencing other train/subway systems that were much better (like Hong Kong’s) we would highly recommend Sydney look into this.

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Scenes from Hyde Park

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Surry Hills wall art

Posted by Aeren 04:07 Archived in Australia Comments (2)

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