Exploring the Earth and Sky of the West

Posts tagged “Bay of Islands

The Bioluminescent Bay of Islands

Writing a blog entry about spending several days in New Zealand’s equivalent of Hawaii is a bit emotionally trying when its been raining pretty much non-stop here in Dunedin for the past week.  In the interest of my loving readers though, I shall bravely attempt to press on.  Good thing this is written on a computer screen otherwise the copious teardrops would likely render my handwriting even more illegible than usual.

Let me introduce the Bay of Islands:

Panorama from the summit of Waewaetorea Island

Pretty, yes?  The Bay of Islands was the only destination we had reservations for prior to the trip so the first half of our journey was scheduled around being there on Tuesday in order to go on an overnight exploration around the Bay on a ship called The Rock.  We arrived in Pahia, the only town of significant size in the area, on Monday night in some of the heaviest rain I’ve ever seen. We had been intending to camp, but the rain and wind was bad enough to make even Jim Cantore squirm so we ended up pursing alternative accommodations.  We briefly got excited about the prospect of staying at  a hostel with a pet parrot but we ended up negotiating a cheaper rate elsewhere.

In a reflection of the good fortune we experienced throughout the trip, by morning the weather had cleared and our concerns that the cruise we had planned our trip around would be canceled were abated.  We spent the morning exploring Pahia, which essentially consisted of walking up and down two streets, wandering along the beach, and attempting to mask our pasty white skin tones that betrayed our South Island origins.  While a pleasant enough town, Pahia was easily the most touristy place I’d been in New Zealand so far (note: this all changed when we went through Rotorua later in the trip…).  Once of the things that I’ve really enjoyed about traveling around New Zealand so far is the (relative) lack of commercial exploitation of the country’s major attractions compared to the US.  Even though I’ve been here at the tail end of high-season, most of the places I’ve been have been delightfully non-crowded and in many places, finding so much as a single gift shop has been difficult.  Not so in Pahia.  Tacky souvenir shops and gaudy “EXPERIENCE NATURE AT IT’S FINEST! SWIM WITH DOLPHINS AND WHALES!!!” signs and banners advertising cruised on multimillion dollar, noisy jetboats were everywhere.

Late in the afternoon, we headed down to the wharf where we were shuttled out to The Rock on a old, slightly sketchy motorboat named the Climax (for reasons which will not be elaborated upon here).  The Rock is a two story former vehicle ferry that was converted into essentially a floating hostel a few decades back.  The upper deck consisted of bedrooms and dorms for up to 30 people while the main deck was a kitchen, lounge, bar, and general hang-out area.  The first evening on the boat consisted of getting to know the other passengers, fishing for snapper off the back end (ahem…stern) of the boat, watching our friend eat the still beating heart of the fish we caught for dinner, a delicious steak and snapper dinner, and in one of the highlights of the trip, night kayaking around the bay.

Approaching the Rock

Onboard the Rock

The excitement in the kayaking did not lie in the kayaking itself but in what was living in the ocean.  The waters around the Bay of Islands are abnormally clear and also happen to be home to a organism known as Noctiluca scintillans, a plankton like creature that absorbs sunlight during the day, and, due to chemical reactions of which I do not know the precise details, emit shimmering blue light when disturbed after dark.  This phenomenon is generically known as bioluminescence and if you take a long exposure photograph of the Noctiluca, they look like this.  (needless to say I was killing myself for not bringing a tripod…)  The “disturbing” in our case was kayak paddles.  With every stroke of the paddle you were rewarded with a quick flash of glittering blue light alongside the boat.  Jumping off the boat into the water was even more impressive.  It was seriously one of the coolest, and yet most bizarre things I’ve ever seen in my life.

View from the back of the boat at sunset

Day 2 on The Rock was packed with more fun activities.  First thing in the morning we spent about an hour or so snorkeling along the coast of one of the islands for kina, a common and extremely spiny type of sea urchin that was to become part of our lunch later on.  After the snorkeling, we headed over to  Waewaetorea Island, upon which we were the only inhabitants for the next several hours.  Climbing up to the summit of the island offered an absolutely phenomenal panoramic view of the Bay of Islands, which interestingly was one of the first places in New Zealand to be inhabited by the native Maori coming from Polynesia, and also the location of the first European settlements in New Zealand in the late 1700’s.  I would have had absolutely no objections to staying on this island for the rest of the trip, active volcanoes and other attractions be damned.  The weather here was probably the best I’ve experienced during my time in New Zealand, 75-80 degrees and hardly any clouds in the sky.

The delicious innards of the humble kina

As far as I can recall, the 22 or so hours we spent on the Rock was the longest period of time I’d ever spent on a boat in my life.  While I was strongly in favor of stowing away in the engine room, my traveling companions kindly reminded me that if I stayed on the boat, there would be no one to drive the rental car.  Alas, we returned to Pahia in the afternoon to proceed with the rest of our trip.

And thus concludes this blog entry. I’m going to go back to freaking out about the fact that I only have slightly more than a month left here now…adios!

Beach on Waewaetorea Island

A 9-day Quest for Mexican Food

I am reminded of  a Bowling for Soup song in which the protagonist of the ballad exclaims: “Besides, the Mexican food sucks north of here anyways.”  Even though it is quite possibly the most poignant (only poignant?) lyric the band has ever written, it is nevertheless a delightfully insightful rule that I have found applies quite consistently in the United States.  However, it would seem that if one goes far enough south of Texas, this rule gets taken to a new extreme: Mexican food will disappear entirely.

Anyways, last week was Fall Break (or Spring Break as everyone in the U.S. keeps calling it even though the weather is decidedly NOT spring like here in Dunedin) and I seized the opportunity of a week without classes to travel to the North Island of New Zealand for the week.  Since one frequently hears rumors that the holy grail does indeed exist up in Auckland (New Zealand’s largest city at over 1.5 million people), satisfying our Mexican cravings was a major goal of the trip from its infantile stages.

Yup, that's a baby lamb drinking from a bottle. Aww.

The nine days on the North Island (abbreviated NI from here on out…) were absolutely fantastic if not a bit chaotic.  The NI has a dramatically different feel than the South Island, much of which probably has to do with the fact that it was consistently a good 20 or more degrees warmer than it has been here in Dunedin.  In general, it is flatter, more pastoral, and has a much higher population density than the South Island but is most definitely not lacking in spectacular sights and scenery. Over the course of 9 days, we managed to put about 2500 km (thats 1500 miles for those of you who are metrically impaired) on our cheap-as Nissan Sunny rental car.  As the sole member of our group able to legally drive said rental car, all the driving fell on my shoulders, which apart from the fact that it basically meant I could take us wherever the heck I wanted (muwhahaha!) got pretty old after the first few days.  The North Island (and New Zealand in general…) is deceptively large.  It may look super tiny on a map but in reality it takes a shockingly long amount of time to get places since virtually all of the roads are two-lane narrow winding highways (for those of you from AZ, imagine roads like 89A through Oak Creek Canyon being the principal highways in the country and you’ll get an idea of what I’m talking about) on which it is rarely possible or safe to go more than 50-60 mph. Add to this that the fact that NZ radio SUCKS (in retrospect, I am convinces that more than 70% of the songs we heard were either Bruno Mars or Katy Perry) and that our rental car was only equipped with a cassette player and the driving part had the potential to get extremely monotonous. Fortunately, there was good conversation with my three traveling mates (when they weren’t all asleep that is…) so the long drives were bearable.

The whole crew on the summit of Waewaetorea Island in the Bay of Islands

The radio was also our main source of news for the week which was good because it alerted us to the fact that the national guard had been called in to one of our intended destinations to evacuate people due to flooding. (Apart from that little tidbit, there was apparently some sort of wedding in England that seemed to prohibit any station from actually discussing any relevant news.)   Indeed, our visit coincided with some pretty extreme storms across the NI which forced us to alter our intended itinerary quite a bit. When all was said and done, we had only spent a few nights in the places where we had originally intended but we managed to position ourselves so that we arrived about a day after the downpours everywhere we went.

Kayaks on the beach at Waewaetorea


Mount Ngarahoe (a.k.a. Mt. Doom) in Tongariro National Park

We began our trip by driving up to Christchuch the night before flying up to Auckland.  Let me just take a moment to say that domestic air travel here is an absolute joy.  Want to bring a 15 gallon bucket of water (or any other liquid, gel, or aerosol) on the plane?  No problemo!  I get to keep my clothes, shoes, AND boxers on when I go through the metal detector?  Why how considerate of you!  We literally arrived at the airport about 20 minutes before our flight was to depart and had no problem checking in and moving through security before our plane left.  In Auckland we picked up the rental car and spent the first few days exploring the Auckland region, hiking along some fantastic beaches, and touring Hobbiton from Lord of the Rings (before which I had to sign several very official looking contracts promising not to divulge anything I saw or heard because they are currently preparing to film the Hobbit there).  Then we moved north, intending to visit the most northerly point in NZ, Cape Reinga (to which we never made it), taking a boat cruise around the tropical paradise known as the Bay of Islands, and, from the “would have been nice to know that before spelunking barefoot for two hours” department: wading along an underground stream in  an undeveloped cave home to a population of carnivorous eels.  Our last few days we’re spent amongst the mountains and volcanically active regions of Rotorua, Lake Taupo, and Tongariro National Park before finally moving on south to New Zealand’s capital, Wellington, and flying back to Christchurch.

Spray paint street artist, Cuba St, Wellington

My total picture count for the trip was somewhere in the vicinity of 1200 and since I’m going to be painfully re-introduced to the “study”  portion of study abroad this week (I think it says something about the academic rigor of an institution when I can basically ignore schoolwork for a month and then come back and have a week that is only slightly more hectic than an average week at Whitman. But I digress…), it will likely take me a while to get through them all.  As I do, I’ll post more on some of the more interesting places we visited over the course of Fall Break.  For now though, it’s essays, exams, and lots of geology for the rest of the week.

Oh yeah, we found the Mexican food.  A not too impressively sized burrito was $14. Enough said.

Sunset over Lake Taupo