It rained much of the night, and we woke up to find our caravan on a small island rising up from a sea of muddy puddles. But Richard managed to back out of our site between the trees, not get mired in the mud, and off we went, leaving the Tongariro Crossing behind. (We drove across the Tongariro Crossing – some people hike the 7 or 8 mile trek, which might be fun and interesting, but not in the frigid wind and pouring rain we encountered. Plus there’s some mountain climbing involved – and climbing a mountain or two in the rain is just not something either of us were thrilled to do.)
We headed to Whakapapa Village, along the west side of the route referred to as the Volcanic Loop. (Don’t laugh – it’s pronounced fah-kah-PAH-pah – and yes, in our minds it sounds obscene.) Whakapapa Village is a small town located at the base of Mount Ruapehu, the most active volcano in the region (until neighboring Tongariro erupted a week or two ago). Whakapapa is about halfway to the ski area – another 6 km beyond the visitor’s center, there was some snow at the ski lift. And the volcano alert is only a 1, meaning there are signs that Ruapehu is thinking about an eruption, but it doesn’t seem imminent. (Though volcanoes can be wily, as we all know.)
Anyway, Whakapapa is at 1100 meters above sea level, so it is COLD! And the same stormy weather that spawned the tornado in Auckland yesterday was still raining and blowing its way across New Zealand, so it was super windy at that elevation. And horizontal rain. We spent a few hours in the visitor’s center, which has two films: one covers the Maori legends about the creation of the volcanoes, as well as the history of the national park there (the land was donated by a Maori paramount chief, to become the first NZ national park); the second film was a more scientific explanation of geothermal, volcanic, and seismic activity in general and specifically in this region. Both films were very interesting, but the stage-set-props for the lava flow had me laughing (a giant plywood mountain with LED chase lights – c’mon now, that would make anyone crack up!).
The weather was still horrible when we left Whakapapa, so we headed south to the National Park Village, then headed north along a state highway named The Alpine Shortcut. Isn’t that a great name? Winding roads, dramatic hills and valleys, and through the same area as the Scenic Explorer railroad.
We decided to spend the night in Te Kuiti, a small town (some 4000 people live here) that is the sheep-shearing capital of New Zealand. (They claim to be the sheep-shearing capital of the world!) At the south end of town they have this crazy 21 ft high statue (which is quite hideous, and is made of cement-covered Styrofoam!) as well as sheep facts. Yup. One day of sheep shearing is equivalent to running a marathon or two, according to heart rate, respiratory rate, and calories expended. (One might include distance, if the person has to catch all of his sheep.)
There’s also a Maori community center (I think it’s called a paka), and a very interesting pavilion in a park – etched glass shows the history of the area, Maori carvings depict that aspect of history, and stained glass shows other influences. Really nice – much better than the sheep dude! (Who, at least, is wearing a shirt featuring the All Blacks rugby team symbol.)
We met two rather drunk 20-something young men – one tried climbing the sheep dude statue, got halfway, jumped down. I asked if they knew of free wifi in the area, and they ended up walking us down the street to point out the library, where we can find free wifi in the morning. The two of them were actually quite funny, and we ended up shaking hands goodbye (though I got a little hug from statue-climber guy) – it was very funny!
But typically New Zealand, we’ve found – people are very friendly, very chatty, and we’ve had wonderful conversations with people all over. We’re frequently asked where we’re from, and few people here know where the Caribbean is. (One shopkeeper had a wall map, and was amazed that the USVI wasn’t on it!) We had a nice evening talking to a couple in Mt Maunganui, and the Dutch couple at the motor home farm, and the hotel reception guy in Opononi, and on and on – everyone is friendly, open to chatting, helpful, funny and ready to laugh, full of suggestions about places to visit, and just generally very nice. We’ve both really enjoyed that aspect of NZ, meeting people and exchanging ideas and laughing and all that.