Saturday, November 28, 2009

NZ - Karagahake Gorge, Rotorua

My initial plan for today, as laid out the day before, was to get a room at Karagahake Gorge, located at the base of the Coromandel Peninsula.  Then the next day I’d continue onward to the coast and follow that around to ultimately end up in the lakeside town of Rotorua.  When I couldn’t find any lodging nearby the gorge, however, I decided to see if I could cram it all into one day.

A reluctant early rise had me out of Auckland nice and early for my first experience of motorways further outside the city.  Essentially… the motorways are really just country roads, albeit generally paved.  They’re about two lanes total most of the time and have a default speed limit of 100 km/h, unless otherwise indicated.

I stopped by a café along SH2 and learned firsthand that my feelings toward Kiwi food is about the same as my feelings toward English food.  There’s a good reason for that… they’re much the same.  One credit to New Zealand, however, is that at least their dishes have flavor.  It’s just not my kind of flavors.  Pies don’t refer to fruity desserts, rather they’re actual meals; and chicken pot pie is an actual pie – vastly different from the soupy concoction of the Pennsylvania Dutch that I’m far more accustomed to.  I have yet to happen upon shepherd’s pie, which is among my favorite of meaty pies… except for when I was in England, which is what I’d compare to the taste of cardboard.

The Karangahake Gorge was my first primary stop.  The Karangahake Gorge Historic Walkway was my first hike, first heading to the western side of the railway tunnel & then tramping eastward to the waterfall.  The waterfall was rather ho-hum, but the dimly lit railway tunnel provided for a couple eerie photos.

I followed up with a hike up to the Windows, which consists of some openings in the former mine’s tunnels peering over one of the side-gorges.  The very first cave I came up to caused me to hesitate… I pointed my flashlight into its pitch darkness and saw nothingness, even after taking a few paces in.  There was another tunnel which led into the mountain – again, my flashlight yielded an even deeper void.

So I stood about peering out over the gorge below.  It was peaceful; quiet.  The sky was overcast and it just felt like rainforest: birds, the sounds of water flowing below, wind in the trees, and a weird sound coming from my left… a very non-rainforest sound…. and a light moving about in the tunnel… OK, it only took me a split-second to identify the light as that of a tramper’s torch, but in the initial split-second I got a bit of cardiac exercise.

When two pensioners emerged from the darkness, I made the determination that maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t as deep of a cave as I’d thought.  Sure enough, just a few more paces in than I’d originally traveled was a slight bend in the cave which obscured a bigger bend… and right around that bigger bend was the other side.  There were several more short caves like this, each emerging at another window.

When I reached the last window, the cave gave way to a stair that continued onward to other sites – many of which I really wanted to explore; but I knew my time for this day was short considering I still had plenty of driving ahead of me.  On my way back I went by that first cave entry again, and this time I looked down the other cave that went into the mountain.  I went in a bit, around a curve, arrived at a junction, kept going down one, and soon enough opted to turn back.

The last thing I needed was for any myriad of possibilities to occur.  My flashlight batteries could die, even though I knew they were brand new Energizers.  Or a slight rumble in this seismic area could caves something in.  Or I could trip or hit my head.  Or I could hit some loose ground & fall into something below.  Or… wow, none of these thoughts ever ran through my head before I turned 25.  On my way back, even though I made only one decision when traversing the caves – going right when I hit a fork in the caves – I immediately noticed how easily one can get lost; both caves really did look the exact same.  Fortunately I remembered I had gone right, hence on my return I went left.

And as I was walking out, approaching the light of the outside, I flick off my flashlight, deftly maneuver around a puddle, and BAM my forehead smashes into a low-hanging beam.

What more, I nailed my head in almost the exact same place I hit it on Labor Day weekend.  That hit back in September occurred whilst body boarding at the Jersey Shore despite it being very very shallow.  I lost my balance in a wave and it through me down, smacking my head into the sand.  If you ever hit an old TV and watched as it jittered, flashed black & then flashed a bunch of scrambled colors just for a split-second… yeah that’s what my brain did.  With the amount of sand that got packed into my head, even today I still periodically have some sand grains that spill back out of my ear.  But anyway, I managed to nail my head in the same place again; but not nearly as hard this time around.

The next stop on my motoring journey was Mt. Maunganui.  It was a short hike, but it had a pretty decent steepness to it; or maybe it was just that my mind was rushed with thinking that I need to get to Rotorua by 7pm – when the hostel’s reception closes – and hence I was pushing myself harder than normal.  The views from the top were great, and the town itself was neat to drive through.  It looked like a pretty nice beach town, if only I had the time to stick around there.

Onto to Rotorua, I pulled in almost right at 6pm – traffic was a breeze getting into the area, and the roads were pretty direct.  I recall it quite well: it was along SH30A just as the intersection with Hinemaru St where the wind shared the sweet smell of sulfer with me.  Ahh, lovely rotting eggs.  Fortunately, it’s not a ubiquitious smell… but one that does come and go as the wind moves about.

While on the subject of smells: I do want to mention that the cities are totally devoid of the smell of urine.  Almost any other city in the world reeks of it, and my unscientific opinion largely attributes it to the cost of using the bathroom.  When even a small charge is imposed on such a necessity of humanity: people will do what they can to avoid it.  Indeed, I think I’ve typed several paragraphs for each of my past trips detailing my avoidance of paying for bathrooms.  In New Zealand, however, bathrooms have been 100% free, and public toilets are also readily available to complement the abundance of toilets in private establishments.  While you may be short on benches, you’ll never be short on a loo.  And while there’s a bit more sulfur, at least you have less methane & ammonia wafting about.

Back to the subject of Rotorua: I was staying at Rotorua Central Backpackers – a phenomenal place with fantastic management.  If I end up in this area on my way back, I will definitely be making an effort to stay here again.

I walked into a room with backpacks on all the beds apart from one, making it an easy choice as to where I was headed.  I began unpacking a bit when a girl walked in.  I did the usual 1-minute conversation you do with all backpackers: where are you from, where did you come from before here, where are you going, blah blah blah.  I then sort of went back to unpacking.

It was then that, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a bunch of arm movement but not much body movement.  I right-away thought it looked like she was changing… but owing to my being a nice guy and not wanting to intrude on someone’s privacy (even if they clearly didn’t require privacy) kept me focusing on unpacking.

The problem was that our one-minute conversation occurred while I was still busying myself with unpacking… and since I’m never one to back down from chatting to a lass, I was fully expecting to continue the conversation with her in just a few seconds… up until she started changing right there in front of me.  So my mind began calculating: do I restart conversation?  I always make eye contact & speak with my hands when chatting with women (though I’m the total opposite with men), but would the whole “eye contact” bit be inappropriate if she’s only in her underwear?

I recalled when I was in a very similar situation way back in 2001.  I was at the Ephrata Rec Center and a girl joined me in the hottub… I just made perfect eye contact at all times, trying my hardest not to divert my attention to where testosterone would sooner send it.  So I applied that here: I began chatting again whilst still looking away, watching in my peripheral vision for her to look my way; then I looked up, perfect eye contact, didn’t cause her to scream with revulsion & sprint out of the room, and all was good.

I gotta tell you, it’s tough being a guy.  We’re so simple, but dancing around a woman’s mind takes practice, patience, and care.

So striking up a real conversation beyond the standard backpackers’ fare, I come to learn that her name is Gitti and is from Munich.  She was wwoofing on a farm in the far north recently, then went to Auckland seeking work, then onto the Coromandel Peninsula, and then just arrived here mere minutes before I.

Within a few minutes, her ride from Coromendel walked in – a guy from Birmingham, England, to which I was quick to note that he did not have a Birmingham accent.  That’s a very very good thing.  My other roommates included 2 guys I didn’t get a chance to chat with, and then another German from… hmm… somewhere in Germany (I forget where).  They were all pretty cool, and I was amused when the two Germans learned that they were each from Germany, and they began conversing together in English...

I also came to the realization that everyone I’ve met is on holiday for months… that’s plural: months.  Whereas I’m just off and about for only one month, and that’s a long time by American standards.  The Birmie was recently laid off due to the economy & was traveling until he ran out of money, and Gitti seemed to be at a transitional point in her life where she’s trying to figure out just what exactly it is that she wants to do.  I forget what the other German’s story was, but I recall that between those guys & also the guys back in Auckland: I’ve been the only one that would return to a stable life back home.

The German guy headed out on his own and the Birmie left with two other English girls he’d met in Peru & were also now traveling around New Zealand via campervan.  That left Gitti and myself.  I was stuck trying to figure out what I wanted to eat, and from her story I knew that her financial capabilities weren’t tip-top: so I offered to treat her to a dinner so long as she could decide what to eat.  Soon enough we were off to wandering around town on the cool rainy evening, ending up grabbing some food consisting of a healthy salad for her, and a greasy & terribly unhealthy meal for me.  Alas, I think hers both looked & tasted better than mine.

We walked about a bit and I grabbed a cone of ice cream from this place highly recommended in my guidebook, and sure enough it was quite tasty.  I spent much of the time trying to explore just what exactly she wants to do with her life: seeming to at least get some headway on getting her to think about it, but not really identifying any specific prospects.

Back at the hostel, it occurred to me that I should’ve asked for linens when I first arrived.  With reception now closed, all I had was a travel blanket that may have come from my United Airlines flight to LAX.  It covered me, but only if I curled up tightly; so I spent much of the night rather chilled.  It didn’t help that I was right in front of the window.  While the service & facilities at the hostel may be great, the mattress was also not quite my style.  I’m not really sure whether I’d say it was too soft or too stiff… it wasn’t either, but it still just wasn’t quite my preference.

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