Gas Masks and Volcanoes

If you are ever near Whakatane, New Zealand and are looking for something to do, you must go on a tour of White Island located in the Bay of Plenty. White Island, also known as Whakaari, is NZ’s most active volcano! It sits 30 miles off the coast, and you can only access the island through a chartered tour. We did the White Island Tour aboard the cruiser, PeeJay.

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The night before we departed, we stayed in one of the homes associated with the tour company. Compared to the close quarters we had been sleeping in, this was like a mansion! In the morning, we prepared for the trip by making sure we had sturdy, close toed shoes, on and had removed all of our silver jewelry. This was actually no joke, they had warned us that the metal could become tarnished in the acidic environment on the island. In fact, I couldn’t remove one of my upper ear piercings, and it is slightly darker than it was before the adventure. We signed waivers before boarding, acknowledging the dangers of visiting this active volcano.

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The boat ride out there was a little rough. It was a tad bit rainy, but not bad enough for the tour to be cancelled. Kendra and I opted to sit out on the balcony instead of being cooped up inside with the all the other passengers. It was pretty foggy out, so we had a bit of a hard time seeing too far, but we laughed and swapped life stories during the hour boat ride. Right before we got to the island, the crew members handed out hard hats and gas masks, and instructed us on the dangers of entering the island. The volcano sits mostly under the sea, so when you step foot on White Island, you are stepping on to the crater complex. We were warned that on a volcanic activity scale of 1-5, this volcano usually sat around a 2. In case of an eruption, we were to run far away from the open crater and vents, and get behind something to avoid flying volcanic matter. We were also not to wander very far from where our tour leader was, as you could accidentally step on to a hidden hot spot.  Finally, we were provided the gas masks because of the sulfuric steam. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this, but we were warned.

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We got on a dingy that took us to shore from the main vessel. Kendra and I were in awe, taking so many pictures. One of the guides laughed at us and told us to keep moving, as there were much better pictures to be taken ahead.  We walked across gray, ashen land tinted with streaks of yellow from sulfur, towards a steaming section of the island. These steaming fumaroles were bright yellow, and the gases they were emitting were intense! Even with the gas masks on, your throat was burning, nose was running, and your eyes were watering. The smell was a sharp, pungent odor of sulfur. Everyone started coughing, and the guides passed out hard candies for us to suck on. This actually helped a lot. I pressed my gas mask close to my face, and eagerly moved forward with the rest of the group.

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I can’t really describe the island as anything other than alien. I honestly felt like I had stepped on to another planet. It was incredible, I was filled with an alluring sense of danger mixed with a childish sense of awe and amazement. Walking around, there were chunks of scoria and bright yellow sulfur on the ground. There were pits of boiling mud scattered throughout the island. Towards the back end, there was one very large crater with a lake similar to those we came across while hiking the Tongariro Crossing.

image                         I mean does that not look just like an alien creature that would crawl out of a volcano??

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We started circling back to the front of the island. One of the guides told us about two fresh water streams on the island. He said we could taste test both, one was supposed to taste like iron and the other was to have a citrus taste. He was right! I touched my finger to the water in each stream, and timidly gave them a try. I was scared I might get some weird bacteria but it was cool to say I tasted volcano water.

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This is the stream that had the citrus taste.IMG_0843      This stream had the iron taste, it’s nifty how the colors align with the tastes.

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At the front of the island where we had docked, lies the remains of a sulfur mining settlement that had been destroyed in an eruption in 1914. The guides told us the story of how this lahar eruption killed 10 unfortunate souls, but left a surviving camp cat alive. People continued to mine the island, but eventually stopped as it wasn’t producing the amounts of sulfur wanted, not to mention the risks of being on the island were too high. As I explored the remains, I wondered if these men had been aware of the danger of working and living on the island.  I wondered if they knew what was happening when the volcano erupted. It’s crazy to think about because we could have reached the same fate, wandering about an active volcano with such leisure.

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Our two hours of exploration were up, and we scrubbed our boots to clean of the ash and chemicals before getting back on the ship. The crew passed out a packed lunch for everyone as we sailed around to the other side of the island. Here you could see a large gannet population and several fur seals lounging on the rocks. The fog had lifted at this point, and our trip back to the mainland was sunny and relaxing.

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PCH Pit Stops

Kendra and I were making our way to Whakatane to take part in a White Island boat tour. I know I previously mentioned I’m not a fan of tours, but this one was a definite exception as it’s a tour of a dangerous, remote volcanic island, only accessible through a charter company. We were traveling up the East Coast via the Pacific Coast Highway and made several pit stops along the way. And no, California is not the only place to have a PCH.

We started our journey on the PCH after finishing up our tractor ride at Cape Kidnappers. We did make a quick stop at Te Mata Peak before getting too far out of the Hawke’s Bay area. Te Mata Peak offers spectacular 360 degree views of the city, coast, and a couple mountain ranges. We watched a couple paragliders take off from the steep edge and relaxed in the shining sun. I snuck in some quick yoga stretches and head stands, and we hit the road again. The rest of the day was pretty uneventful, and we stopped in Gisbourne for the night.

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Gisborne is a unique spot because it is the place where you can see the sun rise before anywhere else in the world. Luckily we were staying at a cute Airbnb right on the beach so we didn’t have to go far to catch the sunrise. We were even lucky enough to see it set right from our balcony as well. We awoke at 5:30 and made our way to the patio to catch the sun steadily ascend into the sky. It was a gorgeous morning with orange and pink soaked skies.

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After making some breakfast, we got on the road again. Our next stop was the Tolaga Bay Wharf. It is the longest wharf in New Zealand, totaling 660 meters in length. That’s roughly seven and a half football fields! It was such a beautiful day, and walking around in the warm sun along the warf and the coast was a real treat. At one point in a daze, I walked out to some rocks looking for a small cave like opening in the cliffs I had seen from the warf. All of a sudden a massive wave came crashing in, and I had to run back to the safety of the shore to avoid being stuck out in the rising water.

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Our next stop was in Tikitiki to see the Maori church called St. Mary’s. This church was built in 1924 to commemorate the fallen Ngāti Porou soldiers during World War I. It sat up on a little hill, surrounded by colorful flowers and trees. The church is unlocked and you may enter free of charge, remembering to be respectful of the sacred space and to turn off the lights when leaving. The Maori architecture, stained glass, and carvings in this building are beautiful. I will talk about the Maori a little more in a minute, but their artwork, mythology, and culture within New Zealand is fascinating. I am ashamed to say I did not do a good job of getting pictures of this place. I have this horrible habit of not being able to stay awake in moving vehicles, so I was incredibly groggy during some of these stops, and not completely with it. A big thanks goes to Kendra for the picture of the pulpit section of the church (and for the last warf picture above).

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We veered off the PCH again to see the world’s largest and oldest Pohutukawa tree in the township of Te Araroa. New Zealand is incredibly culture oriented. So, this tree has a name, and a story behind it. That’s how pretty much everything in NZ is though; behind every landscape or archaic architectural structure, there is a Maori story of how it came to be. The Maori were settlers from Polynesia who came to NZ around 1280 AD. You can see evidence of their culture all over the island. There are pous (similar to a totem pole) carved in many places as well as churches, and sacred land areas (we came across one while hiking the Tongariro crossing.) The All Blacks even do the Maori “Haka” dance, a war dance, before each rugby game. Any way, this Pohutukawa tree is around 600 years old and its name, Te Waha-o-Rerekohu, means “mouth of Rerekohu.” Rerekohu was an ancestor from the area who would store food near the pohutukawa.

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For our last stop on this road trip, we headed down to see the East Cape lighthouse. The road to the lighthouse is 22km long with no outlet, the end being where the lighthouse stands. This also marks the most easterly point of the New Zealand mainland. We made it a pretty decent ways along before we hit construction that closed the road down. I believe there was a washout or something of the sorts that made the road impassable. We were pretty disappointed, turned around, and headed back along this curvy, coastline road. The rest of our travels along the PCH were just as beautiful. The road was winding and narrow, with incredible views of the rugged coast. However, I was excited when we reached our final destination of Whakatane, and could start getting ready for our adventure on White Island.

Cape Kidnappers

On our way out of Napier we decided to do a tractor tour of Hawke’s Bay’s Cape Kidnappers. This is usually a 16 km hike along the beach that is very tide dependent. You can only complete this hike when the tide is out. Given our last two days of extreme activity, we opted to do the tractor tour. Personally, I’m not a fan of tours as I’d much rather have the freedom to do as I please, and take my time looking and exploring the things I find interesting.  But I didn’t have much of a say so on this one and we set off as the sun was rising across the ocean.

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The morning was very foggy, but it added to the character of the looming cliffs along the beach. Essentially, Cape Kidnappers is a long peninsula with steep, white cliffs lining the beach. If you look closely at the cliffs, you can see the different layers of marine sediment from millions of years ago. You can clearly see fault lines where earth quakes and volcanoes have displaced the levels of the deposits. Towards the end of the peninsula, you will find the breeding and nesting sites for thousands of gannets, a large sea bird that flies to New Zealand from Australia for its breeding season. If you were able to see the land located at the tops of the cliffs, you would find the famous Cape Kidnappers golf course.

The intriguing name, “Cape Kidnappers,” comes from a story dated back to October 15, 1769. A local New Zealand tribe, the Maori, attempted to kidnap one of Captain Cook’s crew members. Cook was a British explorer who had been mapping out New Zealand’s coast line at the time. The Maori pulled up alongside Captain Cook’s ship, the HMS Endeavor, offered the crew some fish, and pulled a young boy onto their boat. The boy was able to escape after Captain Cook’s crew opened fire on the ship, giving him a chance to jump overboard and swim back to the Endeavor. Cook left the peninsula immediately, documenting the experience in his journal, and dubbing the peninsula “Cape Kidnappers.”

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The fog cleared up enough so that we could get out and explore the end of the peninsula. We walked up through a sheep and cattle field to get to a rather large nesting point for the gannets. These are beautiful white and yellow birds that spend a lot of time in the water. They were very loud, squawking at any bird that got too close to their personal nest, which wasn’t very hard to do considering each nest was about a foot apart. A couple birds would fight, wrestling each other and battling it out with their impressive beaks. After observing the birds for a while, Kendra and I headed back down to the beach to admire more of the cliff side views. The beach itself was beautiful and we saw a fur seal resting on a large rock far out in the water. Soon it was time to get back on the tractor and head back. I will say the tractor ride was relaxing, despite the scolding I received for climbing up on a small rock to get a better angle on a picture I was taking.

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Napier Wine Tasting

Another day that started out simply enough. Kendra and I had left Tongariro and were now staying in a cute place on the beach in Napier. We were in wine country and couldn’t wait to take part in a wine tasting bike tour. After a morning beach walk, we headed over to a lady’s home where she rented out bicycles for people wanting to visit the vineyards. She handed us, what we would later discover to be, a poorly scaled map and we were on our way.

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Maybe we should have known better than to trust the map we were given. But this lady ensured us it was only 10 minutes to the first vineyard. About 45 minutes later we were finally arriving at the first listed stop. This vineyard was Abbey Cellars and it was our least favorite. The guy serving us was “meh” and the wine was not that tastey. We had a quick cheesey flat bread snack and biked to the next vineyard. It took us about 15 minutes to get to this one and we getting a little more suspicious about the distances shown on this questionable map. The wine here at Alpha Domus was much better. The atmosphere was a little more lively and there was an adorable pup running around greeting everyone. We were eager to get to the next winery which didn’t look too far, 5 minutes perhaps. However, about 20 minutes later we arrived at Sileni Estates. As far as taste goes, third times the charm! Kendra and I loved the wine here and got a couple bottles to take home. Unfortunately, this is also where things started to go awry.

The lady helping us out as Sileni Estates swore up and down the next winery was only a 15 minute bike ride away. We were slightly skeptical because the map had so far led us astray but she kept telling us, “No, it’s so close!” The wineries were closing in 45 minutes and she promised we’d make it in time to the next listed vineyard. Ash Ridge Wines was our goal and we biked and we biked and we biked. At this point I was starving and beginning to fall out a bit. Cars were flying by us on the street and we still hadn’t seen the winery. About 5 minutes after the wineries closed we came up on Ash Ridge; mind you that’s about an hour after our Sileni Estates departure. Kendra was my life saver and biked ahead down the long dirt drive as I walked beside my bike towards the vineyard. She convinced the cook to make us paninis and explained to him how we were so lost and kept getting told massive underestimates of how far apart the wineries were. He couldn’t believe the last lady told us Ash Ridge was close, “That’s at least 9km away!” he exclaimed.

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Our return bike ride home was exhausting. We were done. The only thing we had going for us was the beautiful scenery. Other than that we were so ready to ditch the bikes, get some decent food, and rest our tired bodies. I forgot to mention that the day before we had hiked the 2o km Tongariro Crossing, plus the extra distance we added running after our shuttle and hiking around town looking for a ride to Tongariro. Oh yeah and one weird thing we kept noticing on our bike ride was how many dead birds there were! It was strange, I mean really, they were everywhere. We finally made it back to the lady’s home 2 hours later, after a few wrong turns. Thank God. We later mapped out the distance we biked and it came out to about 36 km. So much for our leisurely planned out day of getting a little tipsy on good wine and cheese plates, and hello to a  decent day of Tour de France training.  All in all, Napier did not leave the best taste in my mouth but at least we did get a good bottle of Pinot out of it.

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The Tongariro Alpine Crossing

This day is one I will never forget. It started out simply enough, Kendra and I were to catch our shuttle at 6:15 AM to make it to the crossing by 7:15 AM so that we had ample time to get back to the shuttle at the end of the day. We layered up and packed up a hearty lunch with several snacks, mentally preparing for what everyone kept telling us was one of the hardest hikes they had ever gone on. We walked out to meet the shuttle at 6:15 and there it was… anddd there it went. We looked at each other for a split second in sheer panic, breakfast bagels in hand, and started sprinting after our shuttle, screaming at them to stop. After about two blocks, we stopped, completely dumbfounded by what had just happened and decided to walk to the i-site to see what we could do. Well unfortunately the i-site didn’t open for another two hours and no one was answering the phone for the shuttle company. Kendra and I were pretty angry and had just added an extra 2 miles of running to our already lengthy 20 km trek that was ahead of us… if we made it there. We had to make a decision. And that decision was to hitchhike. After several failed attempts, we found a young couple in a camper van filling up at the local gas station. We asked where they were headed and wouldn’t you know! They were headed to the end point of the crossing! All we had to do from there was convince a shuttle to take us to the front, and wouldn’t you believe it! They were taking the same shuttle that had left us! This amazing couple took Kendra and I to the end of the crossing, we secured a spot on our original shuttle after guilting them about leaving us behind, and made it to the start of the crossing, only an hour and a half behind schedule. We couldn’t help but laugh at what had happened and we were so excited to get our hike started.

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At the start of the crossing, there were hundreds of people. It was slightly overwhelming. It was a pretty chilly, windy day so I couldn’t imagine what it was like crowd-wise on a nice, warm summer day. However, once we got started the crowd thinned out a bit and we got so hot! The first section of the trek started on  a boardwalk overlooking a field of lava rock. We arrived at the first pit stop, Soda Falls, in about an hour and had to strip down to our base layers. Ahead of us was a steep incline known as the “Devil’s Staircase.” Kendra and I handled it surprisingly well. We took a couple short breaks to drink water and eat a granola bar, but we couldn’t believe that was all the “Devil’s Staircase” had to offer. At one point, we even asked fellow hikers if that was really it or if there was another intense climb we hadn’t arrived at yet.

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At the top of the staircase, you had the option of hiking to the summit of Mt.Nguaruhoe (Mt. Doom from Lord of The Rings) or to continue on the alpine crossing. We chose to pass on the summit hike as we were already running behind and it looked like something that might be slightly out of our physical abilities for the day. (Neither of us had done a mountain hike of such length and caliber before, so we wanted to make sure we weren’t dying and rushing at the end of the day.) If I ever return to the North Island of New Zealand, it is definitely something I would like to accomplish. As we continued on the crossing hike, we walked across a nice flat segment in between the two volcanoes, Mt. Doom and Mt. Tongariro. It was spectacular. There was no plant life, just tan colored sediment and snowy leftovers from the winter season.

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Kendra and I arrived at the next incline, very steep, but not as lengthy as the last. One section offered a metal chain for you to grab on to in order to help you up the icy rocks.  The view from the top of this final climb was more than breathtaking. I can’t even describe the beauty of the volcanoes and the surrounding mountain ranges. To one side of this 360 degree lookout, you had this incredible view of Red Crater. If you scanned over a bit, to where the trail was headed, you saw the Emerald Lakes followed by Blue Lake. Further still, you saw the Tongariro Volcano summit, and completing the full circular view, was Mt. Doom and its respective lake. Pictures cannot portray the beauty of this place. We proceeded to take a few hundred pictures and adventured off the path to get up close and personal with some of the sights.

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Climbing back down the other side of what we had just climbed up proved to be difficult and hilarious. We sat just off the side of the trail and watched people slip and slide down the trail of volcanic ash. Some falls were easily predictable, and as long as no one got hurt, we let out a few giggles. It was all in good fun as I took a spill myself, quite gracefully I might add, while we were descendingthr steep slope trying to get a better view of the yellow and green sulfur lakes. Around the three lakes, there were pockets of steam billowing out from the ground. Each lake had its own vibrant color. The first one that we came to was the largest, filled with bright green water within its center that was surrounded by a thin yellow ring along the outer rim. The second was the smallest and more of a pastel aquamarine color that reminds me still of an Easter egg. The third lake was my favorite. Its water had a translucent turquoise color towards the center that darkened quite a bit on the edges. It was absolutely beautiful. We decided to eat our lunch here before continuing on across the valley to Blue Lake and beginning our descent down the mountainside.

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Blue Lake was incredible as well. It sits up alone after you cross the valley between the Red Crater, Emerald Lakes, and Mt. Tongariro. Kendra and I sat here for a bit as well since we had made decent time so far before we decided we had better get going. I didn’t want to leave but the shuttle would be waiting and we had taken enough pictures and mental snapshots that the views would last a lifetime in our memories.

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The descent, in my opinion, was the hardest part! My poor toes were constantly smashing into the front of my hiking boots and my knees, which are prone to soreness from IT band problems, began to send me little hints that they were not happy. There were a few more volcanic vents we passed by, including Te Maari Crater which had erupted most recently in 2012. Several signs warned us to keep moving quickly through this volcanic hazard area. After we were done hiking down the open volcano side, we entered a beechwood forest with more warnings to keep moving as we were in a lahar (lava flow) region. At this point we were more than ready to reach the end and when we finally saw the parking lot with all the shuttles we were relieved to be able to sit down and take off our packs. It had been quite a memorable day and we laughed as we thought back to our panic nearly 11 hours earlier when we thought we wouldn’t even make it to the start of our hike.

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Tongariro National Park

Tongariro National Park quickly became my favorite spot we traveled to on this trip. It was so incredible. The park consists of three active volcanoes that are clustered around each other. These volcanoes are surrounded by rain forest, scrubland, and gravel fields at different, respective altitudes. There are a number of different trail options and we decided to hike the 6km trek to Taranaki Falls first. The trail leads you through alpine grassland into a beechwood forest that winds alongside a river. There were several smaller waterfalls that we passed along the way to the larger, punch bowl waterfall that we were aching to see. It did not disappoint. Kendra and I sat beside the powerful waterfall for quite a while, laughing and taking in the views (and the mist, as it slowly started to soak us and our belongings.) You can get a view from every angle of this waterfall; we walked behind it, around it, and above it. Each spot being just as spectacular as the last. You could see amazing views of the three volcanoes, Mt. Ruapehu, Mt. Ngauruhoe (Mt. Doom for all you Lord of The Rings fans), and Mt. Tongariro, as well.

After we had completed the waterfall walk, we drove up to the top of the Whakapapa Village to see the ski field on Mt. Ruapehu. (Side note: “wh”in New Zealand is pronounced “fa”… we had a good chuckle over that one.) If you want to talk about incredible views, let’s talk! It was like stepping in to a volcanic battle zone. Mt. Ruapehu is composed of andesite, which is just old volcanic rock. I had never seen anything like it. There was still plenty of snow on the upper parts of the ski field, but it had mostly melted where we were exploring. We walked up to the famous Mead’s wall, from the LOTR movies, that overlooked a gorge of lava rock with a small flow of water drizzling through it. Mt. Doom was looming in the distance and the site was absolutely breathtaking. There was one more waterfall that we wanted to catch before it got too late, so we headed back down the volcano for our final mini trek of the day.

Tawhai Falls was our final exploration spot. It didn’t take very long to hike down to, thank goodness as it was starting to get a bit chilly. It was a beautiful little area, allowing Kendra and I a chance to practice messing around with our photography skills. This particular waterfall was also a part of the LOTR’s movies, featured as “Gollum’s pool.” It was actually pretty incredible seeing this beautiful waterfall in “real life” and seeing how the artists manipulated it to look so creepy in the movie.

I could have explored Tongariro for hours longer, it would honestly take a few days to see everything, but we had scheduled our alpine crossing hike for the following day at 6 AM, so we headed back to our lodge to get some rest and carb load on spaghetti to prepare for our 20 km hike.

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Turangi, NZ

I flew halfway across the world to travel around the North Island of New Zealand with a childhood friend of mine, Kendra. Her family lived across the street from mine in the small town of Ames, Iowa. The last time we saw each other was briefly a few years after my family left Iowa, at the age of 7. We had been AIM friends as little girls and once Facebook became a thing, we connected there and managed to stay in touch over the years. Kendra had been living in Auckland on a working-holiday visa and I offhandedly mentioned how I’d love to visit. The rest was history.

So here I was traveling to a foreign country with someone I hardly knew, but I couldn’t have been more excited. We instantly reconnected and started our adventure by heading towards Turangi, NZ with a pit stop at Huka Falls and Lake Taupo. It was incredibly rainy, but Huka Falls was gorgeous. The water was a cool blue, cobalt color and was crashing through the narrow Waikato River bed. Waikato River is New Zealand’s longest river and it drains Lake Taupo, New Zealand’s largest lake. Lake Taupo was an impressive site as well, although the cold wind and rain definitely weren’t fun to battle. So, we kept driving onward to Turangi.

Upon arriving in Turangi, we checked in to our lodge. Creel Lodge was a very comfortable and cozy place to stay. There were flowers blooming all around our cabin, and birds flying and chirping all over the property. We had chosen to stay in Turangi so that we could make it over to Tongariro National Park for the alpine crossing hike. After checking in at an “i-site” (an information hub) we discovered we would not be able to do the hike until a day after we had originally planned, due to poor weather conditions. This meant we had to stay an extra day in Turangi, which wound up being a massive blessing in disguise, as it gave us an opportunity to explore other areas of Tongariro we hadn’t originally planned on seeing.

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CO>>LA>>NZ

October 29th, 2015. The time had come! My trip to New Zealand by way of Los Angeles was finally here. I would be spending three nights in LA with two of my close college buddies, after which I would be boarding a 17 hour flight to Auckland, NZ.

It was starting to get pretty chilly in Denver when I boarded my flight to LA, so the warm California temperatures were slightly comforting to this Florida girl. Upon landing, a friend of mine who had been traveling around the states, picked me up and we headed to over to Venice Beach. Venice was full of interesting characters and fun booths selling various artwork and nick-knacks. After lunch we drove over to a beach in Malibu and walked around the somewhat rocky shoreline. There were quite a few surfers out in the water, but the waves seemed unusually tame for what I imagined California beach waves to be. We meandered along, admiring the luxurious beach front homes and eventually made our way back towards Hollywood, where a mutual friend of ours, who works on a couple Showtime series as a set designer, lived.

From his studio apartment, we could take a walk down Sunset Boulevard or catch the subway to another part of town. Sunset Boulevard was an experience all in its own, from impressive street performers to a questionable man selling baby turtles in jars, the hustle and bustle was all very exciting and very different than my slow paced Denver life. We made several stops in the massive record store, Amoeba, which I absolutely loved! It was so much fun picking out records and jamming out to them back at the apartment! We had a fun-packed few days, catching a bluegrass concert, the Gator football game at the local Florida alumni bar, and celebrating Halloween at a small house party.

My flight to Auckland came quickly and soon I was flying miles and miles over the Pacific Ocean. Flying with Air New Zealand was a novel experience for me. It was so nice! We had pillows and blankets, a personal t.v. with more shows and movies than you could possibly expect to make an easy selection from, and free dinner, breakfast, and wine. After an exceptionally long flight and more sleep than I expected to get, the plane finally touched down in Auckland. To my surprise, I was arriving in the country at the same time as their famous All Blacks rugby team. They had just gotten home from winning the World Cup and there were thousands of people awaiting their arrival at the airport. This caused a bit of a hiccup for me, as I was meeting a girl friend of mine that I had not seen in over 15 years. Somehow we found each other with ease despite the mad house, and my two week adventure of New Zealand’s North Island began.

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