03/03/11 - Waitomo to Taupo
Our trip to the underworld left Katie and me exhilarated. We immediately zipped over to the Ruakuri Natural Tunnel Track for a short hike through a canopied forest. It was a glorious day, and after feeling the bite of subterranean chill it felt great to loosen our limbs in the shade of summertime.
For those who aren't feeling the underground option, this hike on Waitomo Walkway is a great way to go. You can’t beat a casual stroll through aboveground limestone tunnels.
Going your own pace. Exploring to your heart’s content. Long ones, short ones, tall ones, and small ones; all pathways beautiful and inviting. At night you can even experience the glowworms themselves hanging from the surrounding vegetation. It’s probably a magical sight, with tiny specks of light twinkling all around, but we only got the chance to experience our short hike in the light of day. We weren’t disappointed, though, with the warm green atmosphere. To top it off, I got to climb a vine, à la Tarzan! (And then fall on my keister, à la moi). Nothing like a few bruises to remember a place by.
While hiking, Katie and I reflected on our trip thus far. Both of us felt fulfilled and content. Two years of planning and booking had paid off in spades. We didn’t have to waste any time hunting for lodging, booking an excursion, searching for the best deals and sights to see. Done and done. It left so much more time for relaxing and enjoying; tasting the flavors of New Zealand without worry or regret. We felt happy and blessed to be right where we were.
Our leisurely drive to Taupo was, once again, a visual serenade of sweeping farmland. Soft rolling hills of green with meandering livestock grazing in the sun. The land here calls to you; makes you ache to touch it. The soft ground. The swaying trees. The dips and folds of the earth. There’s a reason Katie and I have had more than one conversation about buying a farm and settling here. Anyone out there want to make our dream a reality? Invest in our sheep farm today. We have no experience, but are quick to learn.
By that evening we were rolling into Taupo while the sun set behind wind torn clouds. The lake stood gigantic and glowing in the dimming light. Numerous people were running and biking around the massive body of water and we knew right away that they weren’t doing it for leisurely exercise. They were training. Because in two days time Taupo would be hosting the 2011 New Zealand Iron Man. Katie and I were excited to see the competition front and center, and even more thrilled that we’d managed to find a place to stay during such a large event.
No Vacancy signs buzzed all around us as we drove down main street, finally arriving at Bradshaw’s Travel Lodge. This wasn’t a hostel, per se. It was technically a hotel, but the feel of it was identical to a hostel: Everyone had separate rooms in a home-style building, the cost was roughly the same, and there was a lounge area and shared kitchen for cooking. The only difference was that we got a free continental breakfast every morning. That was new! Otherwise it had all the classic signs of a hostel. Honestly, it would probably get more business if it declared itself as such, because it didn’t seem incredibly busy despite Iron Man being two days away.
That night we ate at Lotus Thai. It was simply fabulous! Seriously, it was one of the best Thai restaurants either one of us had ever been to. And not only was the food incredible, the water had ICE in it!!! Hallelujah! After dinner we went back to our room and fell right to sleep. Bradshaw’s Travel Lodge wasn’t anything fancy, but we were happy to have a roof over our heads for the next three nights instead of camping. And, as the days wore on, we were even more thankful, because what we didn’t know at the time was that our weather luck had officially run out…
The next morning was grey and moody. We ate our continental breakfast (Weetabix!) and drove over to Huka Falls. The falls was a frothy pale blue mass of water squeezing through a 10 meter wide crevice and gushing out the other side. The source: Lake Taupo. The result: The Waikato River. It wasn’t the size or height of the falls that was impressive, it was the sheer strength of flow that captivated me. Like a giant spigot that never turns off, that gushing gutter spews out one of New Zealand’s longest rivers. Daredevils have attempted kayaking through this rough exit, some have even driven a boat! No doubt many of these attempts ended with broken bones, or worse.
After Huka Falls we drove to the “Craters of the Moon” only to find it cost money to enter. Knowing that we’d see many thermal areas in Rotorua, we opted to skip the craters and move on to Honey Hive. This tourist trap grants you the opportunity to do a honey tasting, which is exactly the type of tasting I can fully support! Clove, lavender, ginger, manuka – tons of honey variations all dancing on my tongue. Not to mention the honey ice cream cone I ordered on my way out. (You know I can’t resist!)
Next up was Huka Prawn Park. Talk about tourism at its finest! Lightening struck gold with this amazing amusement park scheme:
Step 1: Create a prawn farm.
Step 2: Set up a restaurant.
Step 3: Reel in tourists by the dozens with the allure of prawn fishing and smelly water guns.
This place had it all: Water pistols powered by stationary bikes; A miniature ropes course; Fish feeding; Tepid pools of murky water with grimy prawn traps; A hot and stinky foot bath. Yes sir, we’d found paradise!
Katie and I kissed the park mascot, Shawn the Prawn, and proceeded to giggle across the grounds like crazy children. We hoisted up fake prawn cages, bounced over foot-high suspension bridges, and played “find the prawn” in the forest. (We counted 11 prawns but the sign at the end said there were only 9. Nice way to mess with children’s minds, Huka Prawn Park…) We were even treated to an old fashioned teeter-totter ride. Katie went hysterical every time I launched off my seat. No, it wasn’t the most sophisticated place in the world, but we enjoyed playing like kids again.
The Huka Prawn Park "fun" trail ended at the prawn restaurant, which had to sprint to in order to avoid a sudden torrential downpour. We managed to duck inside just before the full scale onslaught. Our table sat adjacent to windows that stretched from floor to ceiling. They were swung wide open, inhaling fresh puffs of air while water blasted pavement. We looked over the menu and did, indeed, order prawns. Sadly, the food was somewhat lackluster. Shawn The Prawn, as it turned out, didn’t taste as good as promised.
From that moment on the clouds above Taupo were kind to no one. Rain poured on and off for the rest of the day. It didn’t bode well for the upcoming Iron Man, which was to start at the next crack of dawn…
The rain was falling even harder and heavier when our alarm sounded at 5:30 the next morning. We weren’t about to miss the start of Iron Man, even if it meant facing a storm. Prepared to the teeth, we layered up under rain paints, raincoats, and ponchos; all our day’s necessities tucked into a backpack. The day greeted us black and wet as we walked onto the city streets.
Despite the nasty weather, throngs of people swarmed by the lakeside in the pre-dawn hours. From afar we could see hundreds of swimmers warming up in the shallows. Dozens of volunteers skimmed the water’s surface on surfboards and kayaks, getting in position for the race, while speedboats sped back and forth along the 2.4 mile stretch. The crowd around us sprouted umbrellas, and raincoats glistened under street lamps, but it’s safe to say that no one was as decked out in rain gear as the two of us. Not that I was proud of that fact. Honestly, I felt a little lame being so densely shrouded in waterproof clothing. But, hey, I was dry! Meanwhile, there were several people walking around in shorts, trudging through puddles of water with bare feet. Those Kiwis are a stout lot, to be certain.
At 6:45 the pro athletes started the race. They tore through the water with rapid strokes and stretched a nice distance between themselves and the amateurs. At 7 A.M. the gun went off and the official race began. Leading the men and women into battle was a traditional waka (canoe) helmed by Maori warriors. Their Maori chant bespoke of encouragement, strength, and power, as hundreds of bodies cut through water, en masse. It was a quite a sight to behold.
We stood strong under the drizzle until the race leader came into view. Once he was within reach of the shore we high-tailed it over to the bicycle station. By then the sun had risen, but it was still fighting through thick cloud cover. The day slowly brightened as we watched the first athletes transition from water to wheels. They never stopped moving, grabbing their gear from volunteers mid-jog before running to their bikes. Continuous forward motion. Spectators lined the bicycle starting point and cheered each athlete that zipped by. Each one of them had a 112 mile bike ride ahead, and the rain just kept on falling…
This seemed like a good time for us to go back to our room, wring ourselves out, and watch the race on the tele whilst eating breakfast and drinking tea in the hotel lounge. It was a fabulous plan, to be sure, but we hit a slight snag when we realized they weren’t telecasting the race! We hunted through channels while our fresh baked breakfasts cooled on the table. Finally, we gave up. At that moment a man walked through and struck up a conversation with us about Iron Man. He was there for the race not as an athlete, but as a trainer. He said that, unfortunately, they don’t broadcast these type of events in New Zealand. This surprised me, seeing as it showcased athletes from around the world competing in their very own country. Additionally, there were several past Iron Man champions competing. But there was nothing we could do about it. We simply sat down in the warmth of the lounge and ate our food in the peace and quiet of the morning.
Hours later we were back on the street watching intently as athletes transitioned from bike to feet. Now they had to run a marathon. A marathon! After everything else they’d endured they were putting themselves through 26 miles of torture. It was around this stage that I noticed the astonishing variety of men and women attempting this challenge. From chiseled chests to wobbly waists, they spanned the breadth of mankind. And we were right there, standing in the downpour, when the winner finally crossed the finish line. Cameron Brown, a New Zealand native. It was his 10th Iron Man win! The first thing he said in his post race interview? “That was a shitty day.”
I always imagined one would have to be cut like granite in order to complete an Iron Man. Well, I was wrong. I saw a wiry old man who looked like he was pushing 80 running the marathon. That meant he’d finished the swimming and biking portion of the race and was still going strong! This man was amazing! In general, watching this race made me realize how amazing people are. Their perseverance. Their willpower. Pushing through the rain and pain and coming out strong on the other side. It was inspiring...
That night we ordered Pizza Hut and sat in our room watching Xena on an ipod.