Most overseas visitors fly into Auckland, which is New Zealand’s largest city with a population of 1.3 million people. Immediately one feels that it is very cosmopolitan having a great mixture of peoples of diverse origin, particularly Asian and Polynesian, who have helped to create innumerable exotic restaurants, bistros and cafes.
The city sprawls around a narrow isthmus with Manakau Harbor on the Tasman Sea and Waitemata harbor on the Pacific Ocean making it a haven for yachts. It became world renowned for hosting the international yacht race, the America’s Cup, which New Zealand won two sessions in a row but last year lost to the Swiss yacht "Alinghi."
I was struck with the hilly nature of the city — after coming from flat Adelaide, the streets twist and turn, go up and down, so that it is very easy to get lost. A straight and level street seems impossible to achieve because the city is built on a young, undulating, volcanic landscape studded with extinct volcanoes and lava flows. There are about 50 ancient eruptive sites. Many suburbs cherish their little volcano, some 100 to 250 meters high, often complete with crater, such as at Mt Eden. All this past volcanic activity happened only a few thousand years ago and, now that the region is covered over with houses, gardens and streets, its fiery origin is largely forgotten.
To help lost tourists Aucklanders have built the "Sky Tower" downtown close to the waterfront and ferry terminal. This is a striking symbol of advanced technology being 328 meters high and the highest man-made structure in the Southern Hemisphere. It serves as a communications tower with a revolving restaurant near the top. Also it is a challenge for abseilers who like to show off their skills in the CBD.
Sky Tower can be seen from a great distance. You can say to your friend, "I’ll meet you at Sky Tower" without any ambiguity. It is next door to the Auckland Casino which is a terminal for the airport buses. From here you can venture forth to explore the city without fear of getting lost since Sky Tower, day and night, will always be visible on the horizon.
The Albion Hotel
A block or so west on Nelson Street is a watering hole worth investigating. Pubs of Victorian vintage in New Zealand are as rare as hen’s teeth and the few that have survived the ravages of earthquake, fire and wood rot need to be cherished. One such old pub is the wooden, multi-storied "Albion," established in 1864, which should be heritage listed. Resplendent in polished wood and old-world charm it is a great place for lunch and dinner far from the madding crowd, the wind and rain.
That Other Icon
Aucklanders are justly proud of their other icon "Rangitoto Island" but I have yet to meet one that has actually been there. It is a symmetrical volcanic cone rising some 260 meters high from the sea and complete with crater now well forested. Early in the morning and at midday you can catch a boat at the ferry terminal or get picked up at Devonport and visit the island for the day, returning by the afternoon ferry. This gives you several hours to explore the island. It takes at least an hour’s hike to get to the summit and crater rim, giving a fine view of distant Auckland City with its Sky Tower, and nearby Takapuna.
The trail is well posted with informative notices. Rangitoto burst onto the volcanic scene only 800 years ago, much to the surprise of some Maoris living on the adjacent island of Motutapu to which it is now linked by a causeway. They fled in terror from the clouds of steam, ash and lava erupting from the sea floor. Quickly it built up a cone of rough scoria and craggy basaltic lava flows of the "aa" type so named from similar lava found in Hawaii.
Rough aa-type lava
It pleased me greatly to see this strange two letter word actually used on an official notice. It is a wonderful Scrabble word and many times I have been challenged when using it. I suspect its origin may be onomatopoeic, like Morepork, the name of the New Zealand owl, which at night has the eerie cry, "morepork, morepork". "Aa" is pronounced ah-ah, and could well be the cry of the first native who tried to cross such a spiky lava field in bare feet!
A similar thought crossed my mind once when floating down a jungle river in Costa Rica admiring the sloths asleep hanging upside down from the branch of a tall tree. The three-toed sloth of Central America is named "ai" (another useful Scrabble word) which could well be the sound, "ah .. ee" in Spanish, emitted when it absentmindedly loses grip and plummets to the ground or with a great splash into the river.
In December, Rangitoto Island is a blaze of red from the flowering pohutukawa, New Zealand’s Christmas tree. Even when first explored by geologist Von Hochstetter in the 1850′s, the island was a barren, cinder cone, but now it is forested with occasional bare patches of daunting "aa" lava. It is worthwhile taking a flashlight in order to explore the wonderful lava tube cave that extends for a 100 meters or so about halfway up.
After a week in Auckland I hired a car to travel south to Wellington. I got a good deal on a Nissan 4-door automatic sedan which cost only NZ $174 for the week, quite a bargain. I enjoyed sighting the lush green fields of the countryside studded with umpteen white sheep happily munching away, so different from dusty, dry Australia where you count hectares to the sheep. My first stop for the night was Waihi, an old gold mining town, and still today there is Newmont’s large open-cut gold mine operating within a kilometer of downtown although you would never know as it is well hidden.
A Victorian masterpiece
I happily booked in to the Rob Roy Hotel, a masterpiece of Victorian, where on the main street it has a billboard advertising single rooms for $20 per night. This landmark pub was built in 1893 and is now a favorite with backpackers and other budget travelers. The bar is quiet and exclusive with a TV showing world news. The manager is a connoisseur of malt whiskies. I heard him relate to a customer that his bar staff had been instructed never to serve a malt whisky to a customer who wanted it mixed with soda or ice. Standards must be maintained!
Volcano at Sea
Next stop was Whakatane in the Bay of Plenty. Out to sea from the deserted Ohope Beach I could just make out on the horizon the shape of White Island some 50 km distant. The island is the top half of an andesitic volcano rising 320 meters above sea level. It lies in the NE trending Taupo Volcanic Zone which is formed by the subduction of the Pacific tectonic plate beneath the Australian plate of which New Zealand is part.
On my previous visit to New Zealand I did a fantastic day trip to White Island with PeeJay Charters of Whakatane. The company runs a 60 ft launch called PeeJay IV which can take up to 50 passengers. The whole trip takes 6 hours and costs $110. This includes 1½ hour boat cruise each way, 2 hour guided tour of the island, morning tea and lunch, so that by leaving at 8:30 am you will arrive back in Whakatane 2.30 pm completely reinvigorated and ready to celebrate your good fortune of being alive.
Approaching the crater lake and large fumerole
The trip is worth it for the voyage alone, to escape from the mainland and breath the fresh sea air and watch the racing dolphins. Once anchored close to the island jetty (now defunct) we had morning tea and received instructions on how to proceed safely for the guided tour of the crater. What an easy way to inspect the top of an active volcano! No nasty climbing involved — you just arrive by luxury boat.
We were each issued with a hard hat and gas mask, the latter being necessary where the trail ventures close to fumeroles belching forth sulphurous steam. Next we were systematically ferried ashore in an inflatable rubber dingy to where there are stark remains of former habitation. Rusty girders, an old boiler and machinery lie about as monuments to mining activities which ended in tragedy when an eruption and landslide in 1914 killed 10 miners. Sulfur mining was abandoned as being too dangerous. Now eco-tourism has taken its place.
It was weird to be on land totally devoid of vegetation – a lunar landscape but more exciting because there are no active volcanoes on the moon. We headed along the dusty trail leading to the center of the crater marked by a huge column of steam. From a safe lookout point we peered in amazement at the murky green crater lake full of sulfuric acid waters. We saw that the steam column roared from a vent to one side of the lake. What a thrill to play "Russian Roulette!" I wondered how much warning there would be of an eruption!
Sulfur crystals around the fumerole vent
On our return journey we donned gas masks and poked our way around a hillside alive with steaming fumeroles having vents encrusted with bright yellow sulfur crystals. A real hell on earth! We did not linger but were glad to get back aboard ship to breath the fresh sea air and have a nice lunch and cool beer.
The White Island Tour is a "must do" activity for tourists to New Zealand. It is an enjoyable way to visit an active volcano. On the world tourist scene I would rank the trip as on a par with Peru’s Machu Picchu and Chile’s San Rafael Glacier, so go for it!