Dave's Treks

Thursday, March 31, 2005

Monday, March 6 till Thursday March 10 – North Island, New Zealand - Lord of the Rings, Tongariro Crossing and Beyond…

We arrived in Auckland, rented a car (Our 5th rental of the trip so far) and were off to the races. We decided to go to a place called Matamora, which featured prominently in the Lord of The Rings (“LOTR”) movies. As you can see from the shots below, it was the place they filmed the Hobbit village scenes at, which was known as Hobbitown in the movies. We went on a tour that the owner of the property runs, which shows the sets that are still left. Normally film companies remove all of their sets after a shoot (and in fact are usually required to by contract). Almost all of the main scenes filmed in New Zealand were in fact filmed on public lands, and as a condition of the permission to film on these lands, the Lord of The Rings folks had to remove all traces of their sets. As such, many folks are disappointed when they try to go on LOTR tours, because they often digitally composited several places into one place which never really existed, removing tress or mountains that didn’t fit their vision of the filming. They also have people who go on Lord of the Ring tours of New Zealand, where they spend up to 2 weeks visiting LOTR sites – in fact we met one such group of about 20 folks when we were in Te Anou, with people from 20 to 70 on that tour…lets just say they are a bit fanatical when it comes to LOTR – not that I know any fanatical fans of things like Star Trek or Star Wars, mind you…)

The site of Hobbitown is one of the few sites filmed on private land, but even still the LOTR folks intended to remove their sets and return the land to its original state. However, it rained during the time they started to take the sets down, and because of the mud and bad conditions, the crew asked if they could postpone taking the sets down for a few months till things dried out a bit. During that period of time, the first movie came out and the owner started having tourists showing up wanting to see the set of Hobbitown. The owner decided to try and preserve the site and open it for tours. Unfortunately, some of the sets had already been taken down and others were incomplete. For some reason, probably having to do with the rights to LOTR characters and the like, the owner is not allowed to restore the place to the way it looked during filming. As such, they have pictures of what things looked like. You need to use your imagination a bit, but I found the tour to be very interesting because it showed you many of the behind the scenes things that occur on a film set, and enough of the site remains, especially the famous tree that Bilbo Baggins disappeared under in the first movie. It was a bit expensive though, as many things seem to be in New Zealand – but when in Rome….You can see some of my shots below, including the sheep that seem to inhabit the place and leave their ‘byproduct’ all over the place – its on as sheep farm and they let the sheep go everywhere! They even have shoe brushes to wipe your shoes off when you leave!

Anyways, that night we drove to where we were staying, south of a large lake called Lake Taupo, in a place called Turangi.

The next day we went hiking in a beautiful park nearby, the Tongariro National Park. The park has an interesting history. It was the first National Park in the New Zealand and the 4th one established in the world, in the 1880s. It came about because area was a sacred area for Maori and the Maori chief in the area, Te Heuheu Tukino IV, was afraid that the area would become overrun by westerners, which would affect the sacred nature if the place. As such, he deeded it to the New Zealand government as a park. Quite foreseeing, since that really did the trick of preserving it till today. For more information on this, see the following site:


The first day, Monday we went on a short, 2 hour hike to a waterfall near the visitor center in the park, with some nice views along the way. We also drove to an area known as Lake Taupo, which is a resort town similar in its own way to Queenstown on South Island. They have bungee jumps and all sorts of adventure stuff in the area. It’s also a very pretty town on a very large lake. We ended up renting bikes and having a nice ride for several hours along the shore of the lake. The lake shore was filled with pumice, which for those who don’t know, are rocks that are so light (mostly made of air) that they can float. They were cool, so I collected some and had it shipped home. They weighed very little, after all! I have a shot below of what one looks like, in fact!

The second day we went on a great hike known as the Tongariro Crossing. It’s a 17 km, 10 mile hike through varied terrain, including volcanic craters, hot springs, scenic views and forests. The only thing negative about the hike is that it’s known as the best 1 day hike in all of New Zealand. As such, it was quite crowded with people. We went on a midweek day (Tuesday) in the off season between the end of summer and Easter, the equivalent of going in September after school starts, yet there were still 300 people on the hike that day! On weekends they can get over 1000 people, in fact. If you look closely at the first Tongariro Crossing shot below, which was a steep hill we all had to climb, you can see at least 100 people ahead of us – they look like little dots on the landscape!

The hike was very difficult, and it was surprising to see how unprepared some people were. The hike goes above an elevation of 5000 ft and is above the tree line in that area. As such, it can get quite windy, foggy and cold at the peak elevation, with temperatures in the 40s (single digits in Celsius), yet some people were dressed in shorts, did not have warm clothing, etc. Also, there were people of all ages, from an Israeli family with a 5 year old to people in their 60s (maybe even 70s?!), yet it was a very difficult hike. Besides being long, having several very steep portions and changeable weather, it had one extreme section. Basically, you had to climb for about 20 minutes, on the highest portion of the hike, at a 45 degree angle. This is not so bad, except when you add in the fact that there was fog so thick that you often couldn’t see more than 20 ft in front of you. Also, did I mention the winds? You had 20 – 30 mph winds, and it was an exposed rock face. So all this combined made it one of the more challenging things I have yet hiked. Then when you got to the top, and thought it would be easier and all downhill at that point, you realize that downhill can be harder than uphill. The slope of the downhill portion (which goes for about 20 minutes) was about 60 to 70 degrees, so steep that you literally would slide down with the rocks, like a mini avalanche. All in all, a challenging hike in good weather, death defying in bad.

The hike has some varied terrain, from volcanic features, craters, hot springs and thermal features like the red crater (pictured below), scenic views and ends in a nice forest. In a way, once you got used to the people, it became quite fun meeting different groups of folks and chatting along the way. Certainly a very unusual experience, to be on a long difficult hike and feel like you are in Times Square at times!! At the end, we all had to wait for our buses to pick us up, since the hike is a one way hike in one direction. You can see a picture of some of the folks waiting below in fact.

The next day, Wednesday, we went to some of the thermal areas around Lake Taupo, near an entire thermal area called Rotorua. Throughout the world, there are less than half a dozen true thermal areas, which means that they have a large combination of hot springs, geysers, bubbling pools, mud pools, steam vents, terraces and other types of thermal features. All of these areas, of which Yellowstone National Park is the most prominent, are in heavily volcanic areas. Basically, they are all caused by magma heating water near the surface and this heating causes the water to force its way to the surface, with all different types of effects. These places are rare because magma does not usually linger near surface areas, and over time these thermal areas change, day by day and year by year.

In fact, some geysers and the like are very short lived and peter out in a matter of weeks or months, others go for decades. You just never know. You can see some pictures from two of these areas, Craters of the Moon and Orakei Korako, below. Having been to Yellowstone previously, which has 70% of the world’s active thermal features, this was a nice place, but had little on the scale of Yellowstone. But it was worthwhile to visit since we were in the area and each of these things are different in their own way. We then ended the day by driving to Auckland for the night.

The next day, Thursday March 10, we had a whirlwind tour of Auckland. We had to do things quickly because we had a flight that night to Fiji and only had the day to cover Auckland. We went to few very pretty scenic lookouts, and saw some nice sights, such as Roto , an extinct volcano which is now an island in Auckland Harbor, which is pictured below. We also visited a very fascinating place, the Kelley Tarleton Antarctic Center, which is essentially an aquarium. I usually don’t enjoy aquariums, especially having seen some of the fish and mammals up close in the Great Barrier Reef, yet this was different.

One thing is that they fish are presented in a different way. They have one tank, where I photographed the ray, below, which is at chest level, so you can see some of the fish from above or even out of the water, like the rays, part of whose body comes about 1 foot out of the water when they are near the surface. So you can be much closer than in other aquariums. Also, the main tank is designed in such a way that you are beneath the tank and go through the area on a moving walkway, inside a clear plastic tunnel – its cool because the fish can come right next to you and above you – you can get a sense of this in one of the pictures below. But the main reason most people visit Kelley’s is for the Antarctic materials. They have recreations of the huts and equipment that the original explorers of Antarctica used, as well as many photographs and films, and even the deerskin sleeping bags and package food that they used in those days. Hard to believe, with the primitive equipment they had, that they could survive in such conditions. Some didn’t make it, in fact!

The best part, though, are the penguins. They have some beautiful penguins who ‘live’ at Kelleys, and what makes this special is that the penguins are in a sealed area which is temperature regulated to minus 20 or some such. In order to properly view them they have you travel in a vehicle inside the penguin area, which protects you from the cold, so you can get pretty close to the penguins. There must have been about 30 penguins, at least, and each are 1.5 to 3 feet high – they also have an area where they show the penguins swimming, and they really look like they are flying because they flit about so quickly in their ‘tuxedos’.

They go so fast in the water, it’s almost impossible to photograph them. I didn’t have any luck, that’s for sure! All in all, a great place to visit. We also went to the shul in Auckland, where they have a school and a kosher shop with food and the like, where we were able to purchase some much needed kosher food – they import just about everything from Australia, most of it by boat a few times per year.

We then went to the airport and boarded flight number 12, for Nadi Fiji.


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