Man In A Suitcase

The Coromandel Peninsula

I followed up my visit to the far north with a few days being guided around the Coromandel Peninsula, east of Auckland across the Firth of Thames. Although European settlement began up north, it seems to have made more of a success of it down here; I saw a lot more towns than I had in the Bay of Islands. Captain Cook's time here is recorded in the place names: Mercury Bay, where he recorded the transit of Mercury as part of the great attempt to calculate longitude; the Bay of Plenty, named for its ability to feed his men; Poverty Bay, which turns out to be as fertile as the Bay of Plenty. (Hey, nobody's perfect.) The coast boasts beautiful beaches, dramatic cliffs and the most amazing blue water. No Photoshop tricks here, folks.

Coromandel is a great place to commune with nature. There's still a bit of native greenery that hasn't been supplanted by cash crop Monterey Pines. And the locals are working to undo some of the deforestation of the past couple of centuries. It'll take a while; New Zealand trees are not the speediest of growers. But in a few hundred years a lot more of the country will look like this. And it's not just giant trees and ferns, although I heard plenty about them. No, I also got introduced to lots of the things that crawl around inside damp caves. Like the weta, large native spiders that were as happy to leave me alone I was to stay away from them. (I hate spiders.) And glowworms. And little frogs hiding under rocks or bits of wood. All of which remind me of why I don't normally spend my free time exploring damp caves.

New Zealand split off from the Gondwanaland supercontinent well before the development of mammals. That's why there weren't any predators to bother all the flightless birds that developed there: the kiwi, the takahe, the giant moa to name just a few. Then man arrived to screw things up. And then European man made things worse, by introducing pests like rabbits, possums, wallabies and deer. But the lack of predators does have its occasional funny side. Where else can you see chickens wandering the roadside? Or, as in this case, following an errant tourist along the path to a good viewpoint, hoping in vain for a handout?

Gold has a big place in the history of the Peninsula. A lot of towns in the area came into being to support the miners, many disappearing just as quickly when the gold ran out. The mine at Waihi was operated from 1879 to 1952, digging out twelve million metric tonnes of ore in the process. Twenty years later, high gold prices and a more wholesale approach to getting at the ore led to the reopening of the mine on/in Martha Hill. Which has led to some interesting conflicts, as the pumping of huge amounts of water out of the mine and the development of sinkholes in the area have been joined in the minds of some conspiracy theorists. Lost your house in a hole? Coincidence, say the miners. Not our problem, says the local council. Leaving the homeowner, as usual, in a hole not of their own devising.

As tourism has grown in New Zealand, towns all over the country are making their bid for the attention of visitors. The little town of Katikati took a novel approach, memorializing its history in a series of murals along the main drag. And not just paintings; there are mosaics, bas relief and sculpture. Including the fellow at right. Barry is intended to represent a typical Kiwi, although he's perhaps a bit more tan than is currently fashionable. And he has an unfortunate tendency to lose his head. Sadly, vandalism is not unknown in the Antipodes.

My one great disappointment with the land of the Kiwi is that I never got a chance to sample a really good kiwifruit. Wrong time of year, they tell me. But I did get to see some on the vine. It's pretty clever, really; the vines are suspended on wires attached to high posts, making it easy to walk underneath and pick the fruit. At left are the familiar fuzzy green fruit we all know. The fruit at right belong to a new breed they call Zespri Gold. Gold fleshed, not as tart as the original and a lot less fuzzy, they're the Kiwis' attempt to take back some of the market from all those non-Kiwi kiwi growers. I for one am looking forward to trying one.

Rotorua, New Zealand

My tour of the east coast ended when my guide dropped me off in Rotorua, somewhere near the center of this misshapen island. But first I had to take a wander into the bush to watch the river rafters at play. I took my position on the observation deck with the other intrepid photographers and waited for the wily kayakers and rafters to reach the falls. It's rather a shame I encountered this scene so early in my trip. Another week or two and I might have tried it for myself. Then again, who would be there to take my picture?

Arriving in Rotorua is a distinctly olfactory sensation. As the North Island's centre for geothermal activity, the place has a certain fragrance that lingers on the senses. But it's something you get used to, neither so strong that it upsets your enjoyment of the area's many pleasures nor so gentle that you stop noticing. And the sight of those plumes of smoke rising from the Whakarewarewa Thermal Area, just beyond the local golf course at the far end of town, adds a certain drama to the landscape. Just think of the fun for the golfers, who get to add hot gas jets and boiling mud pits to the usual sand traps and ponds and such. Imagine trying to get your ball back from hazards like that!

Whakarewarewa is also home to the Maori Arts and Crafts Institute, which works to keep Maori culture and skills alive. The Maori have grand traditions of weaving and of carving wood, greenstone (jade) and paua shells; lacking a written language, they used their art as an adjunct to their oral history. Even the most mundane objects were decorated beautifully, like the pataka at left, the traditional food larder. One surprise to me was the carving at right, which combines the traditional stylized figure of a warrior with a much more accurate depiction of a rifle. Clearly, the Institute has an interest not just in preserving a heritage but in permitting it to accept influences from the larger world.

Whakarewarewa was my first stop on a whirlwind tour of several area tourist sites. Next was the Paradise Valley Wildlife Park, where I got a closer look at many native and introduced species. I'd seen pukeko wandering the fields in Coromandel; this was my first chance to photograph one up close. The pukeko is related to the larger, flightless and nearly extinct takahe. (The pukeko can fly; it's just not all that enthusiastic about it.) The park also breeds trout for sport fishing. Believe it or not, the only way to taste trout in New Zealand is to catch it yourself. The government is so concerned about poaching that it allows no commercial fishing of trout at all. A pity; I like trout. But I prefer mine grilled rather than poached.

Stop number three was at the Agrodome, where the focus is on sheep, sheep shearing, sheep herding and other family-friendly activities involving sheep. The herding didn't go quite according to plan; one particularly determined sheep managed to avoid being corralled no matter how hard the dog tried. Fortunately, he'd already done better herding a couple of ducks around the stage. Now that's entertainment!

My last stop of the tour was at Mt. Ngongotaha, where the skyride takes you up to nice panoramic views of Lake Rotorua and the surrounding area. (Lake Rotorua is a redundancy; Rotorua is Maori for "the second lake". It's a little like talking about the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles; literally "the the tar pits tar pits". But I digress.)

I guess a beautiful view isn't enough of an attraction for a Kiwi entrepreneur; there needs to be a little excitement too. So the mountain is also home to the luge, where you ride a low wheeled cart down the hill on a concrete track using a combination steering wheel and brake. And try to avoid getting airborne when you take a curve too fast. At the bottom there's an open air skyride that carries you and your cart back to the top to do it all again. Which, I am proud to say, I did.

I've been to Hawaii several times and have never felt the desire to attend a luau. (I did sit through Don Ho's show, which was every bit as awful as you might imagine.) But I was advised that the hangi, the Maori version of dinner theater, was worth experiencing. The trick is to pick the right one. And all the folks I met in Rotorua agreed that the Tamaki brothers put on the most authentic and interesting hangi and show. We were delivered by coach to the outskirts of the village, waiting in the darkness to be welcomed with the traditional challenge. We then filed into the village, wandering among demonstrations of traditional skills and entertainment. This was followed by a concert, where more of the Maori traditions and culture were explained. The meal itself was cooked in the traditional covered pit, although it involved many ingredients that arrived with Europeans. All in all, a fine experience. But if you're like me, you might want to consider smuggling in a bottle of hot sauce. A little extra seasoning couldn't hurt...

Never underestimate the value of luck to the photographer. Here are two images that are interesting in ways I never expected, much less planned. At left is the Rotorua Museum, housed in the city's former public baths. A guide in my hotel room described the museum as the most photographed building in New Zealand. So I took a walk downtown on my last afternoon to take a look at this landmark. I arrived near dusk, and somehow captured a golden glow on the structure, the vast lawns and the trees with the early signs of their autumnal color change. I'm particularly proud of this scene. Proud enough that it's now one of the desktop backgrounds I use on my PowerBook.

The next morning, I took a walk down to the lake to catch a last few sights before my flight to the South Island. While walking along the shore and admiring the seaplanes and the cruise boats, I noticed a pair of black swans. And watched as they entwined their long necks in an embrace. A perfect heart-shaped embrace, something I wouldn't have believed if I hadn't seen it. Fortunately, I managed to snap a picture before the swans reconfigured themselves. I wonder: Is that heart shape a regular occurrence? Or am I just luckier as a photographer than I deserve?

Mt. Tarawera

On occasion I supplement my couch potato adventures with something a little more strenuous and exciting. Like the day I went to visit Mt. Tarawera, a volcanic crater thirty miles east of Rotorua. Tarawera blew its top back in 1886, burying several villages and leaving behind a chasm four miles long and over 800 feet deep. The authorities closed the mountain to the public after a few motocross riders misjudged the road and sailed off into the crater. But there's a tour company that offers 4WD and helicopter access. Two other hardy souls and I took the 4WD option to the crater that crisp, clear morning. Then we went for a little walk inside. But first I had to snap the picture at right, a view toward the Bay of Plenty to the northeast. That island just left of center that looks like a whale is called Whale Island. (Really.) And you can just barely see the volcanic White Island in the far distance to the left.

Hiking up to the lip of the crater, my immediate reaction was "you expect me to hike down that?". The trail looked awfully steep. And to make matters even more interesting, it was composed of a thick layer of scree, bright and colorful volcanic rocks ranging in size from ball bearings to racquetballs. You don't so much walk on scree as you slide your way down through it. As I got comfortable being buried ankle-deep in little rocks I started to enjoy myself. And then I'd stop and try to turn around for a picture and discover just how stable my position wasn't. At right you can see where I've just come. Except it seems to me that the trail was a bit steeper than it looks from here.

We finally reached the end of the scree and enjoyed the sensation of walking the rest of the way down like normal people. Total vertical distance: around 300 feet. Then it was a pleasant walk along the floor of the crater, with a brief stop to remove the bits of lava rock from our shoes. Next came the steep climb back up, this time thankfully with relatively sure footing. Although I emphasize the word relatively; there was a fair amount of loose dust on the way up to keep me from getting too complacent. Still, it was all worth it, both for the feeling of accomplishment on such a perfect day and for the spectacular view back to where we'd come. A definite high point of a trip that didn't have much in the way of low points.

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 Comments to: Hank Shiffman, Mountain View, California