Auckland is situated on a very narrow piece of land, between Manukau Harbour in the West and Waitemata Harbour to the East - at the narrowest point there is only about one mile from side to side. This tends to split trips into quite sharp divisions - north of the city or south of the city.
What follows are brief notes on the places that stand out in my memories of what was a very enjoyable time living in New Zealand.
We spent much of the time fishing, having taken our dingy with us, but to do it justice you need to have a big boat for the Bay of Islands - we could only putter around the edge, and even then I was rather shocked at the size of the waves every time we left the lee of the immediate off-shore islands.
Weta? What's a giant weta? Its a huge cricket-like animal, up to 30 centimetres long, that makes noises like a cricket, and can raise it's rear legs over it's head and bring them down in front of it's body with a crash, when disturbed. We had permission to collect just one of these rare animals, remove it back to Auckland, record it's song, then return it to the island.
We drove up to Leigh, north of Auckland, and waited at the research station there for the weather to calm down. There are no jetties on Little Barrier, and it would be a wet landing over a boulder beach, so the boat would only go if a landing was thought to be possible. After two nights waiting at Leigh the wind had dropped a bit, and the skipper decided to give it a go, making no promises. The water was still rough, but once at the island we anchored offshore and lowered a dingy, which was used to ferry us close enough inshore to get out and scramble through waist-high surf over slippery boulders to the "beach". All this while holding our belongings, including delicate recording equipment, up out of the water.
Little Barrier houses a permanent ranger. At the time we visited the ranger and his wife lived on the island and their children spent the school holidays with them, boarding on the mainland during term. The ranger was a really nice guy, with lots of stories to tell about the island. He was actively working on eradicating the last of the feral cats on the island; feral pigs and goats had already been eliminated. We stayed in a set of research barracks near the ranger's house, and were made very welcome by the family. During the day we could wander into the garden, home to an incredible range of birds, attracted by feeding stations set up around the lawns.
For a small island, Little Barrier has an amazingly steep and high central mountain, home to the very rare stitch bird, at that time found nowhere else in the world (it has since been re-introduced to some other islands). The ranger took us out on a day walk to the summit of the mountain, and we managed to see a couple of stitch birds along the way, as well as some fantastic forest and an absolutely amazing range of fungi.
Our collecting expeditions were at night, and eventually, just as we were running out of time, we managed to find a small (10 inch - 25 centimetre) weta to take back with us. Departure from the island was on a much calmer day than our arrival, and we enjoyed a pleasant return cruise. On the way back we sighted a whale, and stopped to watch for a bit, then motored back to Leigh.
If you ever get the opportunity to visit one of the more remote islands off New Zealand, I can thoroughly recommend it if Little Barrier is anything to guide by.
The eastern coast is quite different, much wilder and more dramatic, and the forested areas on the peninsula are quite attractive places to walk.
Geoff also went on a more serious full-day caving expedition through parts of the caves not open to the general public, and found it much more interesting that the standard tourist trip. Incidentally, there are cave wetas, white and blind and smaller than giant wetas, down the caves.
Our first climb was up the northern slope to the Ketetahi hot springs, a bit short of the summit. We slept overnight in the car at the foot of the trail, and made an early start in the morning, with sky blue and laced with fluffy clouds. It isn't a tough climb, but it takes quite a while, going first through forest, then up onto the more sparse alpine scrubland. There were no other people in sight - it felt as though we had the mountain to ourselves.
By the time we staggered up to the springs the clouds had started to build up, still light and fluffy, but very low, turning into mist when they touched down on the mountainside. It had snowed overnight up here, and we sat on snow-covered boulders, with the soles of our boots in near-boiling water, enjoying the warmth of the steam. Around us were dozens of little birds, all living on the wealth of insects that lived in the warm thermal microclimate.
There were other people on the trail now, glimpsed as vague ghosts through the mist. Looking out to the south, source of the major weather in this area, we could see a build-up of darker clouds threatening, and headed down the mountain as fast as we could, knowing that it wasn't a good place to be caught in a storm. We heard on the evening news that a walker had been lost on Mount Ruapehu that day, caught in the white-out that came with the afternoon storm, a reminder that the mountains aren't quite as benevolent as they look.
Our second climb of Tongariro was with friends, on a bright spring day. We approached from the west, across the semi-desert scrubland then the long trek through the south crater, brilliant with white crisp snow.On the far side of the crater the wall provides access to the incredibly narrow and steep saddle that links Tongariro to Mount Ngauruhoe. Ngauruhoe was gently steaming, and in the far distance we could see a party of climbers setting off up the steep slope. We were headed in the opposite direction, literally crawling along the knife-edged saddle until it broadened out into a path.
Tongariro has several craters, and at this time of year they all required ice axes to cut steps up the ice. We weren't carrying ice axes, but followed in the fairly recent footsteps of a party who had conveniently chopped steps up to the red crater. The hot steam in the crater keeps it bare of snow, providing a rich red contrast to the surrounding white.
The return journey was back over the same path, but the hot sun had softened the snow in the south crater, giving us a very long and wearying slog back, sinking into the snow at every step. Looking back at Ngauruhoe we could see the climbing party descending the mountain, ice axes dug into the snow as brakes, while they slid down on their bums at an incredible pace.
There were lots of hightlights, but some of the best were: taking a ski plane up to and landing on the Franz Joseph Glacier (just the two of us and the pilot); flying around the summit of Mount Cook; driving through Haast Pass, with icicles dripping from the cliffs along the steep mountain road; Queenstown; the flight through the mountains to Milford Sound and the Sound itself; jetboating on the Shotover, amid rapids through ice-covered rocks; more jetboating - it was just great!