Bay of Islands, New Zealand – Russell and Paihaia

27 03 2013
Palm Tree Paihaia


My hike on Mount Ruapehu, during the quest for Mount Doom a few days ago, with its cold wind and hail, served to spike my desire for warm sandy beaches and days spent doing nothing at all, relaxing under palms, soaking in the warmth and blue seas. So I could hardly wait to arrive at Paihaia in New Zealand’s Bay of Islands! I was also anxious to visit the hamlet of Russell across the bay.

The Bay of Islands sits in a sub tropical latitude and draws lots of visitors. Kayaking, snorkeling, whale watching and sailing are popular activities. It’s got warm tropical breezes. Seaside sun-drenched Paihaia, with warm breezes, boat tours and ample lodging, is a good choice for a base camp for exploring this area.

Our suite at the Dolphin Motel was modern, with a dishwasher, and an eight minute walk from the beach in Paihaia. Paihaia is a small town catering to tourists and a vacation home for Kiwis.

There is a two mile stretch of beach meandering in either direction from the town’s centrally located pier – all accessible by walkway. Kayak rental shacks lie along the way. I stopped in and grabbed a boat for two hours for $15.00.

Paihia kayaking

My quickie kayak tour near Paihia

Paihaia has its fair share of touristy shops and touristy boats taking people to swim with the dolphins. But don’t get any ideas that it’s some giant Cancun filled with fast food joints. Not here. It still retains a quiet atmosphere and home grown tourist trade. For example, I watched as a dinner boat prepared for the evening. The “Mom” was putting together an obviously labor intensive hand made meal for the two dozen or so guests. Yes, I did see a 1,000ft cruise ship anchored out in the bay. But only a few of its guests came in via its launches.

Elwin, Angelique and I arrived late in the afternoon and had a nice meal by the water. After a stroll by the water, we’d figure out what to do tomorrow. I knew that for me – all I wanted to do was to have no plans whatsoever, and just let my spirit decide and explore, poke around. No time in the car.

So morning arrives, and Elwin and Angelique have decided to get back in the car and drive all the way to the tip of New Zealand – some two hours distant. I could not fathom any more time in the car even if it meant some glorious maiden at journey’s end. All I wanted this day was to walk – to explore the Paihaia area and maybe Russell, across the Bay. And I wasn’t disappointed.

I left the Dolphin Motel about 8:15 a.m. and investigated the opportunities at the Paihaia pier. I saw a passenger ferry docked and inquired of its pilot what was the deal. She told me it’s real simple. The ferry goes back and forth between Paihaia and Russell all day and it’s $12 round trip. It’s about a 20-minute trip across.

Leaving Paihaia

That sounded great! So, I got on the 8:30 ferry and arrived in Russel before 9:00.


Super cute Russell homes

Wow! Russell is a combination of Nantucket and Bermuda! It has the white washed super clean, neatly manicured gardens like Bermuda but the buildings are wooden like Nantucket. It looks historical because it is. Russell was the first European settlement in New Zealand.

And Bougainvillea flowering everywhere.IMG_0319  As it was still relatively early I was in the mood for breakfast.

One of my dreams all this trip was a quiet meal right on the sea. Russell offers exactly that!

The Russel waterfront is a beach with a walking friendly path right behind, tables, with a hotel or two and some eateries right there.


IMG_0288After a little walk I settled on a breakfast joint and was treated to a wonderful breakfast! Only one hiccup. The tomato jar, which I thought was ketchup, had bbq sauce in it. So I got up to switch it for ketchup. No less than three steps away and my breakfast was gone! Snatched by aggressive seagulls waiting for anyone leaving their table alone!

I was only casually aware of the seagulls. Yet, they were keenly watching all the tables by the beach – ready to pounce on any unattended food!


The staff at the cafe took pity on me, and gave me a replacement meal. Thank you!

Taking it slow, I watched as Russel opened its eyes to the day.

I had read in Lonely Planet about various boating activities in the area. You have a choice of snorkeling, dolphin watching, sailing, kayaking, swimming, even paragliding.

As I slowly had my breakfast and sipped coffee, I watched as the operators I read about made their way to the pier, and prepared for a day out. There were some charter sailboats, the dolphin quest boat, etc. Nothing seemed rushed. A fishing charter awaited its guests.


Then sailboats began motoring out for a day on the bay, and two 100ft+ mega yachts came to anchor. I was super excited for tomorrow because I had arranged for us to sail a 50 foot C&C sloop on the bay! I am a lifelong sailer and I’d seen all the sailing in New Zealand – I wanted to do some of it for myself. Yesterday, on the road, I’d used Lonely Planet to reserve the Phantom, a beautiful red C&C 50.

Here’s their promotional video – pretty much captures it – swimming off the boat, and a yummy lunch, all day, including snorkeling gear for about $90 US. It will be great!

Rolling Hills to 22 Volcanic Craters Overnight: Waimangu Volcanic Valley

23 03 2013

Mt Tarawera, at the end of Lake Rotomahana, split on both sides during its 1886 eruption.

Rotorua New Zealand was our next base camp. Rotorua sits on top of the country’s largest thermal system. Right inside the city of Rotorua, there are active geysers! And for hundreds of square kilometers around Rotorua, there are towns with mineral springs, mud pots, geysers, cracked mountains like Waimangu Volcanic Valley – it’s very evident that Planet Earth’s violent, and sometimes beautiful, geologic forces shaped, and are shaping the very area under your feet!

We were really interested in experiencing some active geology first hand. We’d heard Waimangu Volcanic Valley was pretty interesting. We drove out there. Not knowing much about it, I was not prepared for what I was about to witness!

A spring along the hike

A spring along the hike

We arrived at the park entrance, and picked up the guide pamphlet. It is a self-guided hike assisted at certain points by a shuttle. Reading the introduction, my jaw practically hit the ground.

This is a 17-kilometer-long valley. It contains the world’s largest hot spring, and once contained the Waimangu Geyser, the world’s tallest, reaching 1,500 feet! That’s taller than the Empire State Building. In fact, the entire valley was created in ONE DAY!

Steaming hot mineral deposits

Steaming hot mineral deposits

That’s right. If you can imagine. This was not fiction written from a novelist’s pen. It actually happened. This valley was someone’s ranch, just rolling scrubland hills. Then without warning, on the evening of June 10, 1886, Mount Tarawera, at the end of the valley, split open and erupted. Immediately following no less than 22 volcanic craters along the 17-kilometer valley were born. Plus a gigantic thermal geyser and hot spring area formed. It was the first time in recorded history mankind witnessed the birth of a geyser field!

The Tarawera volcano and craters of the Waimangu Volcanic Valley’s 1886 event are the sites of the largest eruption in New Zealand’s recorded history.

At the time, in 1886, the valley was devastated just like Mount St. Helens. What was once a lush forest with vibrant wildlife was laid to waste, nothing was spared. Atomic bomb shock waves flattened everything and ensuing pyroclastic flows atomized what was left. It was not long before the world learned of the fantastic event and tourists flocked to see the spectacle.


Until 1904, there was a building for viewing the geyser, and then another eruption destroyed it and soon after the geyser ceased. As with Mount St. Helens, life began to retake the moonscape, and within a few decades, the valley regained its lush look. Except for the fact that there remained a few geysers, a huge lake, steaming rivers, hot springs, and hills that seem to smoke!


This geyser reached 1,500 feet!

Today visitors can hike the valley all the way to the end, where they can take a boat to see more amazing geologic features on the lake formed by the eruption. From that end point, a shuttle moves you back to the start.



You can make out craters, still smoking, in the forest

All along the way, there are more than two dozen amazing sights to witness!

The river flowing through the valley is filled with hot springs along its path. So, as you walk along and witness its flow, you’ll see how mineral deposits shape everything.

There are beautiful bird songs from bell birds and tuis. In the lake, I can count 91 black swans milling about. It becomes hot. Sometimes, you can smell sulphur from the steaming vents.

If you are seeking some hiking, exercise and really want an in depth up front experience of what earth can do, this valley will not disappoint!

New Zealand: Hiking to Mount Doom in Tongariro National Park

17 03 2013

WitIMG_0254h the meteorologists blowing the forecasts day after day, I decide to forgo hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, fearing repeated pestilence! Tongariro National Park area forecasts were for it to improve after midday, and I simply was not going to take a risk of getting stuck out there. But Elwin took his chances, suited up and boarded the early morning shuttle to the trailhead. His path would take him directly across Mordor along the base of Mount Doom, known outside Lord of Rings fiction as Mt. Ngaurahoe.

Angelique and I would instead hike a trail stretching Whakapapa Village, on Ruapehu, to Mount Doom. This way, we would be able to turn around if squalls materialized. This day dawned exactly as yesterday, with clouds and bright sky all at once. With Elwin gone, we headed to Whakapapa Village and began our hike.

The trail wound across red tussock fields and down into tree lined creek beds. It was 40 degrees Fahrenheit, and the breeze, for now, was light. Optimistically I wore shorts, and a baseball cap, and wore a soft shell. I had a ski hat in my pack, but no serious rain gear.

Rain threatened right from the start and I could see it was snowing higher up on Ruapehu. It was predicted to gradually get better during the day. But I just didn’t trust. Angelique was very positive and encouraging. That was good, but she didn’t have gear to withstand an alpine squall should it come, and foolishly neither did I. I had the gear at the Rainbow Motel, I just didn’t bring enough today. I kept thinking how it was summer – forcing the issue!

IMG_0257There were a few people out hiking. Including a USA geology student group of perhaps 20. Here, as elsewhere, the trail is incredibly maintained and developed. It’s been somehow graveled and sometimes has long stretches of wooden platforms.

While we can see Mt. Ruapehu, and we know where Ngauruhoe should be, it stays cloaked in clouds. There is snow on the higher slopes from yesterday’s storms. Blue sky comes and goes.

Every so often the wind would pick up and I’d get pelted with rain drops, and fear some drenching downpour might come. But then, it’d pass by and we could see down into the valleys for miles. When the wind did build sometimes I got very chilled.

As I was still nursing plantar fasciitis my pace was inhibited and it wasn’t long before Angelique pulled far ahead. After 90 minutes I reached the top of a rise and when I got there, I could see all the way to Mount Doom. And, Angelique probably a half mile ahead! I knew with my foot pain I probably shouldn’t keep going. But I worried for her – she wasn’t dressed right, should a real drencher pass through! She was too far for yelling. Then something happened that nailed the point home.


Waiting for Mount Doom…

The wind built, and it started sleeting. My baseball wasn’t enough. The wind blowing on my forehead in between my hat and glasses made my skin feel numb. Shit! I thought. Reluctantly I started back…feeling just wrong. And in disbelief that it’s SUMMER! I was thinking, I might as well be on Mt. Hood, Oregon right now! It was so true. Sleet falling in sheets all around. Mount Doom would not show itself.

Another hiker similarly dressed passes and pauses – he starts putting on the additional leggings he has in his pack. I thought to myself, I am a guide and I KNOW BETTER! I have been in the Himalayas, Andes, Alps, Adirondacks, the Rockies and Cascades. What was I thinking? Baaahhh!

Then the squall passes and it warms up a bit. Maybe I dodged a bullet!

I pause to have some water and a power bar from my pack. It’s really beautiful up here. Then I notice my ski hat! It was in there all this time and would have made a difference. But I forgot about it. Well, I’m wearing it now!

As I sit replenishing my energy, something wonderful happens. It is the first time Mount Ngaurahoe appears in 100% full glory. Wow! It really is a perfect cone.


So beautiful, draped in a fresh blanket of snow. I’m completely taken by the sight!

Then Angelique appears…and wonders what happened? She seems just fine – I just say my foot plus lack of gear made me rethink. But she’d wanted to press on! I felt guilty and maybe unsure. But we started back. It was on the way back I knew I really needed to turn around.

I was still experiencing foot pain, so, sadly this was today’s limit. I don’t understand, as I was able to go six hours in Abel Tasman National Park – yes with some pain, but today was worse. Pretty frustrating.

I was glad, though, to catch a glimpse of that mountain. Wow.

Back at the Rainbow Motel we find Elwin has already returned, and he says it was the best part of the trip so far. Yes, he had to hike through a foot of snow in spots, but it was so incredible to be up close to so many volcanic features. It was a real black Mordor up there, without living things – just a volcanic wasteland. There were amazing blue lakes, but also steaming fumeroles. Just like in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. I hope to get his pictures!

Well, our next destination will be Rotorua and the geysers in that area…

Tongariro National Park and Mt. Ruapehu Serve Up Pestilence from Above and Below

13 03 2013

Mt. Ruapehu

Tops on our bucket list for New Zealand’s North Island was Tongariro National Park. New Zealand’s oldest national park is a high altitude volcanic wonder. Inside its borders is 9,177 ft Mt. Ruapehu, the country’s largest and most active volcano. New Zealand’s largest ski area, Whakapapa, lies on its slopes. Plus 7,513 Mt. Ngauruhoe, a perfect cone with a blackened, smoking plateau beneath – which was filmed as Mordor and Mt. Doom for the Lord of the Rings movies. Tongariro lies under the other two and is composed of multiple cones.

Model of the three volcanoes

Model of the three volcanoes

Rained out in Wellington, we hoped the improving weather forecast for the park would turn out to be true. We stayed at the Rainbow Motel in Tokaanu, on the southern shores of Lake Taupo – 40 minutes from the park.

The entire region sits directly on top of clashing of the Australasian and Pacific Tectonic Plates, and thus is full of volcanoes, geysers, hot springs, calderas, and endures the occasional earthquake. Our accommodation at the Rainbow Motel had two single rooms plus a bed and couch in the living room, with kitchenette facilities. While the bed was positively awfully unsupportive, the Rainbow Motel has one perk which served us marvelously. Sitting on top of a geothermal area, it sported hot spring baths!

Often lauded as New Zealand’s greatest hike, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing was a must-do. This challenging all-day hike climbs in between Tongariro and Ngauruhoe and takes hikers directly into Mordor! It is full of blackened fields, sapphire volcanic lakes and steaming, stinking fumeroles. Elwin and I were itching to get on it. It is not possible to get to the trailhead by your own car. You must ride a bus which takes hikers inside. The hike is supposed to be one-way. Hikers meet the bus at the other end of the crossing.

This day we planned to hike the slopes of Ruapehu – taking a chairlift to a high trailhead. We drove up to Whakapapa Village, which is the base area for hikes on Ruapehu. But today hiking was not to be. Completely at odds with the meteorologists forecast, we find everything closed due to wind, rain, snow, and even more!

Wind/rain/volcanic activity conspire to ruin our day!

Wind/rain/volcanic activity conspire to ruin our day!

In fact the Ruapehu volcano itself was adding its mischief to ruin our day…throwing threats of eruption and lahars at us! NO hiking today. With 70 kph winds, possible eruptions, and lahars, the chairlift was closed as were most of the trails!


So, sulking, we headed back to Tokaanu to figure out what to do. On the road we see a sign for hot springs.

With a day to fill, we had nothing to lose! So we checked out the Tokaanu Thermal Pools. We weren’t interested in soaking in the pay-to-soak part of the park.

However, there is a trout stream and free walk amongst very interesting hot springs, thermal pools and plopping mud pots.

If you recall the Lord of the Rings movie “The Two Towers,” the scene of the “Dead Marshes,” where Frodo is advised “Don’t look at the lights!” in the water, you know what it’s like here. There are wooden walkways meandering amongst completely transparent steaming pools which tempt one to look deeply. So deeply you feel drawn in!

Trout like cold water. Interestingly there is a cold water stream running right through the area, and it’s choked with rainbow trout! We walk a bridge across and 4-5 pound trout swim beneath.

Now what to do? Well, we are very close to Lake Taupo. So we choose to hike a ways along its shores.

Lake Taupo is another geologic wonder. This lake is a caldera formed by one of the largest eruptions on Earth in the past 25,000 years. I kept thinking about another caldera, Crater Lake in Oregon. And one of the largest eruptions in human history, Tambora Indonesia. And Lake Tahoe.

For comparison, let’s look at surface area. Lake Taupo=238 square miles, Crater Lake=21 square miles, Lake Tahoe=192 square miles. Depth: Taupo=616 ft, Crater Lake=1,949 ft, Lake Tahoe=1,645 ft. Volume: Lake Taupo=14 cubic miles, Crater Lake=4.5 cubic miles, Lake Tahoe=93 cubic miles. So although Lake Taupo has the largest surface area, Lake Tahoe dwarfs Lake Taupo in total volume. Lake Tahoe is big AND deep!

Everybody likes volcano eruption comparisons. You probably have heard of Mt. Mazama, which blew up to make Crater Lake. Or, Tambora. Or, Krakatoa. But you might never have heard of Taupo. Let’s see: Tambora ejected 38 cubic miles of matter, and is the largest eruption in recorded history. Krakatoa, the loudest in recorded history, ejected 13 cubic miles. Mt. Mazama, 93. But Taupo’s Oruani eruption ejected 330 cubic miles of matter!  The Volcanic Explosivity Index is a 1 – 8 scale with 8 the highest. Krakatoa is 6, Tambora is 7 and Taupo is 8. Why have you not heard of it? Because it was before human history, 26,500 years ago. So, this entire region of New Zealand’s North Island seethes with the earth’s violence!

All along its shores are feather light rocks. Can you guess what type?

If you guessed pumice you are right. Pumice is ejected by volcanoes and is full of air pockets from the gas. Back at the Rainbow Motel, we soaked ourselves in the on site thermal baths. That made for a relaxing day, despite the weather. We’re crossing our fingers for a hike tomorrow.

The InterIslander Ferry: Crossing Cook Strait to Wellington, New Zealand

7 03 2013

Looking down at the incoming ferry. Obviously ours is superior!

It is time to leave New Zealand’s South Island Behind and explore the North Island. We find it interesting how lots of visitors skip New Zealand’s North Island. It has volcanoes, Mount Doom, Auckland, incredible wineries, Australasia’s largest lake, quiet bays and beaches, and the warmest areas in the country – like the Bay of Islands! We took the Interislander Ferry from Picton to Wellington.

The weather forecast was still calling for an approaching Antarctic storm. I expected a full-fury crossing and was looking forward to it. But it was not to be. The crossing turned out to be uneventful, except for the last hour – winds built tossing the few private yachts that were out in Cook Strait making their way to Wellington.

This ferry takes a route from Picton, on the South Island, to Wellington. It takes us across the Cook Strait, which can be one of the world’s most treacherous seas. Tides and winds funnel through the two islands.

The ferry’s route takes it along fiords stretching to the northeast. I estimate the mountains to be 800 – 1,000 feet above the sea – slopes mercilessly ending into the water.


The ferry is one of the biggest I’ve ever been on, with at least 10 decks. There are two bars, a cafeteria, top deck, a sleeping area with airliner seats, a private party area, a game area, a movie theater, and even an area where a magic show for kids is going on.


Looking out to the Cook Strait

Tucked into the finger-like bays are harbors, each filled with sailboats. I’m impressed Kiwis take sailing seriously! I notice the tide is moving very fast.

So, if you were to kayak here knowing the tides and working with the current is a must.

Out in Cook Strait I am amazed that it is only blowing 15 knots. Not the ominous sea of lore!

But as we get within 4 miles of the North Island, the wind picks up tremendously. Skippers of private sailboats on their way to Wellington have their hands full managing their yacht’s’ position amongst the waves. Once we make the turn into Wellington, the wind builds even more. I’m on the top deck inside looking out a windshield and people going outside have to use all their strength to push the door open against the wind!

Wellington Harbor is beautiful, full of sailboat masts. We’ll be spending a day here tomorrow, but I bet it’s going to be a wet one!

Kayaking New Zealand’s Abel Tasman National Park

5 03 2013

Which beach today?

Today we kayak Abel Tasman National Park! This park is arguably labeled New Zealand’s best kayaking destination. While I tend to disagree, it is undoubtedly a dream come true for sea kayakers. And we’ve been looking forward to this the whole trip!

Pre trip briefing for the paddlers

Pre trip briefing for the paddlers

We have been watching the weather closely, and right on schedule (for this vacation) another Antarctic storm is due sometime today. When we get to Marahau Sea Kayaks kayak outfitters in Marahau, the staff is fretting because the storm is due about mid day, when all their novice kayak renters are going to be out in the park. They are two steps away from cancelling everyone. But they decide to let people go out, hoping the storm is late.

Because I am a kayak instructor/guide, they let me rent a single kayak and let us go out by ourselves. I go over the safety issues and equipment with Elwin and Angelique. Plus explanation of the parts of the kayak, adjusting the seats and footrests. Then on to a tutorial on paddles and how to hold the paddle.

While we are getting ready, the local instructors are prepping groups to go out. They are going through the same procedures as we. It’s interesting to see how they do things in another country. Actually it’s incredibly similar to home!

We trailer the boats to the put in.

We trailer the boats to the put in.

Once we launch, I give Elwin and Angelique, who are paddling a tandem kayak, a quick course on efficient paddling, how to go forward, stop, turn, and go backward. And of course the capsize drill.

Then it’s time to head off! Because of the potential storm, I plan to head north up the coast, and check out the two offshore islands first before the storm closes in. They are Adele Island and Fisherman Island.

Let me just say it. It’s NYCE! Niiiiiice! Really nice. Those sapphire blue waters, limestone formations, warm air and rhythmic ocean swells, plus the salt air are just wonderful. Yesterday I spied a perfect lunch spot on a beach on Adele Island, which had several kayaks on it. We’re heading there.


Heading across to the beach for lunch

But when we get there, the beach is missing. That’s because the tide has covered what I saw hiking yesterday.

So instead of lunching here, we head across to the mainland to another, very small, golden sandy beach for lunch.


Angelique unpacks lunch!

It’s about noon, and the storm hasn’t arrived yet. We lunch and relax and soak it all in.

We really enjoy the beach. Still, I have to note that there are some motorboats in the area, a few jet skis, and some larger boats carrying up to 40 tourists which ply these waters. So it’s not the untouched, ultimately quiet spot I wish it were. It’s a magnet because of its beauty. The other thing is we are here in New Zealand’s high holiday season. So, Kiwis are on vacation all over the country. The schools are closed and people take off for a good part of January every year! So like us, they are on holiday, too.


We head back to Marahau because I spot wind waves in the distance, an indication the storm may be on its way.

About 45 minutes into our return, it doesn’t look quite so bad, so we decide to head back out to the islands for a closer look. Then we’ll turn back toward Marahau.

We kayak right to the point at Fisherman’s Island and then head straight for Marahau. This takes us across the bay. One choice would be to head along the shore. But that would take longer.

Thirty minutes into our journey a squall approaches over the mountains behind Marahau.

Paddling across with the storm coming over the mountains

Paddling across with the storm coming over the mountains, easy before the squall hits.

I can see it’s raining in the mountains, and expect it to make its way to us. But right now it’s fine where we are. We paddle on. Twenty minutes later, I can see gusts visible as black spots on the water heading our way. As they, and wind waves hit us, I have us head directly into the wind, because Elwin and Angelique don’t have experience with sideways waves. Angelique really likes paddling aggressively! At that point, this direction would take us ultimately to a point protected from the wind, and we could snake along the shore protected from the wind – which was coming from the mountains behind.

Mother Nature was kind to us today. Just as it came, the squall dissipated and moved on. We didn’t even get a drop of rain. With that, we redirected back across the bay to Marahau. Everyone today managed to get in a good day of paddling today, but gray storm clouds were making their way across the mountains.

All I can say is we go our paddling day at Abel Tasman National Park! We had fun and Mother Nature held off for us this time!