For our 24th wedding anniversary we stuck with tradition and headed out to the mountains and Spruce Knob, the highest point in West Virginia. We have a cabin not too far away in the same county of Pendleton and stayed there for the long Columbus Day weekend.
The weather started out dreary, drizzly and cold and we were glad to warm up by our wood stove and the first fire of the season. A hurricane was pounding the southern states with rain and wind and we were glad to have it only bring a few heavy showers our way.
By Sunday, the skies were clear and blue with a cold, brisk wind blowing any lingering thoughts of summer far away. It was definitely Fall with all the rich smells and colors to go with it. October is such a beautiful month in the mountains.
We drove out past Franklin on Route 33 west and stopped at the Germany Valley Overlook, which is pretty no matter what time of year it is.
The road to the top of the mountain is paved these days, which has made it less of a dusty chore than it used to be. It is still narrow though, and we had to pull way to the edge to let those coming down pass by. Every now and then we glimpsed a flash of color, from a Sugar Maple or a tree harboring a bright red Virginia Creeper vine.
We drove on by the turn to the top and made our way over to Spruce Knob Lake to see how much color might be there.
It was gorgeous and the trees were further along than they had been in the valley below. It was so cold and windy that I needed to put my ear warmers and fleece on as soon as we got out of the car. We did not stay long because we wanted to get a hike in and had gotten a late start.
Backtracking towards the trail head we stopped at the campground to check it out, just because we never had . There are 42 primitive campsites-with outhouses, picnic tables and fire rings- on a one way loop in the woods. No views but still nice looking, fairly private sites.
There were only a couple of cars parked at the Allegheny trail head as we loaded our day packs and adjusted our boots.
We had hopes of finding some good views from the main Allegheny Ridge trail but were disappointed in that, and also because the gated trail had been recently traveled on by some huge vehicle that left mud and water filled ruts. It was difficult to get around some of the deep mud and I had it go over the top of my boots at one point. We decided to leave the main trail and take a side shoot instead, turning onto North Prong Trail and following it down into a quiet open valley.
Crossing the shallow creek numerous times, the trail became almost to narrow to find, through high summer weeds and amazingly thornless brambles. We eventually came out to an intersection with the Gandy Run Trail and followed that back towards our starting place. We saw hardly any wildlife and only two people the whole 3 1/2 hours we spent on the trail. Still, it was a beautiful day and much warmer and less windy down on the lower trails.
We got back in the car and drove up to the Spruce Knob viewing platform, the highest point in the state.
It was only 42 degrees F and the wind was blowing, as it always is up this high. Looking out from the top of the platform there is nothing but mountains and more mountains as far as you can see.
The Spruce trees sound like the ocean as the wind blows through them. Sometime, I hope to be up here to watch the sun set. Not today though.
Fall color is just starting and should be gorgeous in another week.
You can catch a tiny glimpse of the lake in the top left of this zoomed photo and the most color we have seen all day.
On the way down the mountain, we stopped for another great view to the East.It is always invigorating to experience Spruce Knob and we had another good day.
Back to our little cabin for dinner and warmth by the woodstove.
Out next destination is the Waipoua Forest where the remnants of ancient Kauri trees, some of them 2000 years old, are living out their belatedly protected lives.
There will never again be native Kauri forests like there were when the English first showed up on these shores. Between the massive deforestation of the past and the diseases and invasive pests of the present, the Kauri’s that are left are barely hanging on. Raised wooden walkways wind through the forest protecting the tender Kauri roots from foot traffic and the diseases carried by boots.
Each of the really old trees has been given its’ own name and a lengthy Maori legend to go with it.
A guide is talking story to a Maori family in their native tongue and we stop to listen to the musical language for a bit. Plaques along the way tell the stories in two languages for those of us not conversant in Maori.
After wandering around in the forest and communing with the ancient trees there, it started raining in earnest, so drove down to Matakoe and toured the extensive Matakoe Kauri Museum.
One of the things we learned about was the parasitic fungus that grows on Kauri tree roots which can be boiled down to reveal intricate “woods flowers”.
Kauri trees have been exploited for their beautiful wood, and for the sap, or gum, which can age into a type of amber, and which was exported during the 1800’s to make varnish and linoleum flooring, enabling many gum diggers to earn a living. Many tree climbers also worked bleeding the trees for sap.
Even after whole forests have been cut down or blown and buried into swamps by volcanic blasts, the wood and gum is still salvageable. Fossilized gum, like amber, sometimes has insects and plants embedded in it and makes into beautiful carvings.
I actually like the 45,000 year old swamp Kauri wood better than the fresher version. It has a deeper, more interesting character.
Woodcarvers are still able to dig up Kauri logs from old swamp grounds to get usable wood and gum. This museum is definitely worth stopping at if you get a chance. The displays run the gamut from pioneers to logging. The huge tree ferns we have been seeing everywhere make pretty wood too.
Tokatoka, the Volcanic Neck Climb
The day cleared up again as we left the museum and drove south for a short hike up a very steep hill, actually what was left of the center of a volcano.
Jeff made it almost to the top but his fear of heights suddenly kicked in just shy of the tiny summit.
The top was flat, and maybe 8 feet wide and 12 feet long with steep drop offs all around. The view was amazing though.
We had to back track a little ways North to find a campsite for the night. We were not ready to get closer to Auckland just yet. It is so nice out in the country.
Night 25, Dargaville, North Island, NZ
We spent the night in a campground in Dargaville which the owners had retired to about 14 months prior. Nice folks, who went out of their way to find us a motel near the Auckland airport to stay in for our flight out to Australia on Christmas day, the next (our 26th) night. We did our laundry and ate dinner while talking with them under the roofed over barbecue. The campground was nice and quiet on this pre holiday night and I could almost imagine doing something similar in our retirement. Almost.
Final Night in New zealand
The next morning as we headed into Auckland, we ran into our first serious traffic on the whole trip. Apparently everyone and their brother was escaping Auckland and traffic going north was bumper to bumper and barely moving. Our side was fine. We were the only ones on the planet planning to spend Christmas eve in an airport motel. We were also under a tight deadline because we had to get to our room, empty the van, take it to be washed and vacuumed and be back at the Spaceship place by 5pm.
The motel was the only night we had needed a reservation and it was the worst place we stayed. We were the only two people at the onsite restaurant for dinner and the two Indian women working there were watching a movie in their native tongue as we ate. Even though we did not understand the words, the movie was easy to understand- classic man meets woman, falls in love, blah, blah. It was a very strange way to spend Christmas eve.
In the morning we would catch a shuttle to the airport and bid farewell to this great country of New Zealand. We had such a great visit and there is so much more we did not get to see. Twenty six nights was just barely enough to get a good idea of the places we saw and it would be much better to spend a few months here, like the backpackers seem to do. I would have liked to do some long back country hikes or wander around on horseback, do a longer sailboat trip…It is one beautiful country and worth whatever it takes to get yourself there.
The next stop is in Perth Australia for a week with my daughter and her family, and then finally, home to the critters.
Ninety Mile Beach is on our left side, to the west, out of sight over the dunes, as we head north on Route 1F, the only paved road on narrow Cape Reinga.
Water is never further than 5 kilometers from us on either side. New Zealand did not officially go metric until 1976, but it is still strange that they call it 90 Mile Beach when I measure it at 90 Kilometers on my road map. Our rental agreement with the Spaceship people does not allow us to drive on this beach, but many people in four wheel drives, and even some tour buses, come up here just to do that. A stream bed serves as the beach access road.
According to the signs, you must drive on only the hard packed, recently wet, sand and know the tides so you don’t get stranded out there. I don’t feel a need to drive on the beach anyway, as I prefer the peace and solitude of walking. We opt to come back to this spot after driving out to the north end of the Cape , where the lighthouse is.
Cape Reinga is a deeply spiritual site for the Maori, and the DOC (Department of Conservation) has Maori guides stationed at the park ready to answer questions. Most of the guides we have seen during our month in New Zealand have been Maori’s and all of them have been friendly and ready with their stories. Quite often, they flow into speaking Maori and then have to translate for us. I am glad their musical sounding language has not been destroyed.
We are told that, at this most sacred site, out on a cliff, stands a single 800 year old Pohutukawa tree, named Te Aroha, that according to Maori legend, carries the souls of its’ people as they depart for the afterlife. The link will tell you more about that.
It is awesome to see this legendary and lonely tree still surviving and it does feel spiritual, even to us.
The Tasman Sea and the South Pacific Ocean meet in a visible line north of the light house, with different shades of blue waters headed right for each other, breaking into waves and then churning together.
It looks like a scary place to have to cross in a boat, even without the deadly rocks jutting out nearby.
A buzzing noise starts to intrude into my brain and as I look around for the source, Jeff tells me to, “look up, way up. ” Finally I see it, a square shaped drone cruising around, and then I locate the guy operating it. We wave to the drone as it takes our picture and then wander over to get a closer look as he brings it down to earth. It is a good one, homing in to base on its’ own when the battery gets low or you call it in. Usually they annoy the hell out of me but this guy is being careful not to buzz people too closely and the wind up here carries most of the sound away. Besides, the scenery is just to beautiful to let anything get in the way. We have seen many parks here where drones are not allowed, which I can appreciate. We can see a smaller cape to the west from the lighthouse hill without a drone.
There is a distance-to-places sign post by the lighthouse that everyone is getting their pictures taken at and one guy climbs onto the shoulders of another to put a flag on it.
We are as far North in New Zealand as we are going to get and the time to leave this wonderful country draws near. My least favorite part of any good vacation is when I first realize that I have to leave soon.
On the drive back down the peninsula we stop back at the 90 Mile Beach car park and walk down the middle of the shallow creek, between huge dunes, towards the beach.
Squeals reach our ears before we see the busload of tourists sledding down the huge sand dunes and across the creek. The dunes are steep, with a very long trek up to the top, and it looks like a pretty scary run, but we have done this before in Australia and don’t feel the need now. It is fun to watch them until the last bit at the bottom, where there is an abrupt turn onto the flat which looks harsh and possibly painful.
As we are walking the 3 kms to the beach, various 4-wheel drives pass us, splashing through the shallow creek and we decide there are just too many people around here. We decide to skip this beach and head south again, down the west coast towards some really big Kauri trees.
Kohukohu to Rawene Ferry
After meandering around some little country roads in the general direction we wanted we came to a dead end at a sizable bay. The road just ended at the water.
There was a woman sitting nearby who told us there would be a ferry after awhile and that it was a long way around otherwise, so we got out and waited with her. It was a small ferry, holding maybe six cars, and it ran mornings and evenings until dark so local folks could get back and forth to work.
It was almost Christmas and everyone on the ferry but us seemed to know each other and were wishing happy holidays. We were all dropped off on the other side in the small artsy looking village of Rawene, which I would have liked to spend some time in, but Jeff kept us moving.
We worked our way down through the little bay side village of Opononi and out to the Waimamaku Coastal Track at the mouth of Hokianga Bay. The gathering clouds kept changing the light and there was a great view back towards the village.
We were getting hungry and needed to find a place to camp but this coastal park was too gorgeous to miss. On the other side of the narrow harbor mouth was a giant sand dune lit up by the sun and the water was a glowing blue
Looking out to sea was even better with a shiny pewter sea.
And then looking back up towards the signal tower (think modern lighthouse) hill…Hard to believe this was all at the same time.
There was sea-sculpted sandstone in colors of rust, with embedded balls of minerals…
And windblown shore plants with trails disappearing into them,
Unfortunately, it was getting late, and we had to leave this gorgeous place or miss out on a fresh fish dinner at the local pub tonight.
We stopped on the way and got a campsite at the Opononi Holiday Beach Park, a great little place that had goats tethered out to mow the grass and which wasn’t even listed in our guide books.
The local pub was just down the road and we got a table outside looking over the bay. A statue of Opo the friendly dolphin sits out in front. The link has a great old filmstrip about this famous critter, which is amusing to watch. I was enjoying a beer and watching a few small fishing boats coming back in for the night as we waited for dinner. The fish was good and fresh.
Back at camp we checked out the kitchen block which had a big covered porch and views of the bay. There were three huge handmade wooden tables made of single slabs of the most gorgeous wood, which I think was swamp Kauri.
We walked down to the water and watched the sunset over Hokianga Bay.
In the morning , the baby goats were playing, jumping all around their mothers, bouncing off the banks. We stopped in at the info center on the way out where there was a long wall of murals outside about the history of Opononi.
One panel depicted the legs of the extinct 3 meter tall Moa bird. Another was about Opo. There were other panels about shipwecks, the signal light Kauri tree logging and Maori life.
We hated to leave, yet again. Places to go…things to see.
The Wooden Labyrinth
Next, we drive down a long, winding, gravel road through lush jungle-type greenery, with giant tree ferns and palm trees, and pull in at a sign for “The Wooden Labyrinth” puzzle shop. We are met at the door by Louie the puzzle maker, a happy man who hands Jeff a puzzle by way of greeting. Jeff works that puzzle out fairly quickly and Louie hands him another harder one.
While Jeff is working on that one he tells us he started out working on big Main Frame computers at age 19, back in 1969, and retired at 21, to make puzzles full time. He attends international puzzle parties every year where each person brings100 puzzles, and they exchange them with 100 other puzzle makers, so they each leave with 100 different puzzles from all over the world. He has thousands of puzzles in his shop, some his own creations, many from other places. Jeff was in heaven.
I talked with Louie and fed Mister Peacock bananas while Jeff made his puzzle selections. The elephant in the photo held a donation can for an elephant protection group. Then we went outside to do the maze. There were letter clues to collect to spell an answer to a riddle, and we ended up needing help to solve it, but it was fun. Our prize for finishing was a lollipop, which we didn’t deserve.
Mister Peacock showed us his beautiful tail on our way out.
We left Sapphire Springs in search of a really big Kauri tree that was supposed to live nearby. Kauri trees have beautiful, tightly grained, durable wood and huge forests of them used to cover the islands, but the original stands were decimated in the 1800’s and have not recovered. These days the oldest trees are given their own individual names and protected within parks and people are attempting to cultivate new groves of them.
The sign at the trail head has a cleaning station, with a boot brush and an underground tank with a spray nozzle to clean your boots before you enter the forest.
Every Kauri stand we come across has these stations in an effort to prevent the spread of a soil borne fungal disease, Phytopthora agathadicidia, that is now attacking the trees. It is good to see them trying so hard to prevent the disease, even though the chances are slim that it will help much.
After hiking for an hour and a half we figured out that we were on the wrong trail, and were instead in a young Kauri forest, so we had to go on down the road to the next trail head.
Once on the correct path, we quickly arrived at this tree, named Tuahu, which was huge and towered over the surrounding forest. We met a local man and his well traveled grandson while enjoying the tree. The boy was ten years old and had already been to the Grand Canyon and Mount Rushmore in the States.
As we resumed our drive towards the coast we came to an interesting looking park in a narrow gorge, with swinging bridges over the river, and decided to stop.
Originally a protected Maori gateway, this steep walled canyon became an industrial gold mine from 1883-1933. Thirteen levels of tunnels were chiseled through the mountain, and rails carried the broken quartz rocks along narrow ledges to wood fired kilns. The surrounding hills were totally deforested to provide fuel. After eighty some years, the trees and ferns have reclaimed the area
Today, the woods have grown back over the old mine buildings and some of the tunnels have walking trails through them,with swinging bridges criss crossing the river.
Giant tree ferns, flowers and lichens add color.
We finally make it to the coast and a stop at Hot Water Beach, a very strange place which seems like a normal beach until you realize that there are a lot of people and everyone is carrying a shovel.
We follow a string of folks out to a tightly bunched crowd, all madly digging holes in the sand and sitting in them as they fill with water.
It is pretty amusing to watch this whole process and although I am not digging, I can see where if you had a bunch of friends and some beer, it might be fun. Hot water seeps onto this section of the beach from a couple of 60 degrees C (140 degrees F) springs, for two hours either side of low tide. It is a small area and there is a fair amount of jostling for best position.
A flourishing business has evolved with shovel rentals, paid parking and cabin rentals nearby.
Our campground for the night, the Hahei Holiday Park is just a short drive around the cove. A couple of boys are doing a great job of miming a rope pulled taut across the road as we approach the entrance gate. We pretend to be held back for a few seconds before they collapse to the ground laughing and we give them a “Good job!” and a thumbs up. All the people that work at the park are in the middle of an outdoor Christmas party, so they tell us to park in an empty section and catch them in the morning. A thunder storm is brewing up black clouds as we find our spot and then quick head down to yet another beautiful beach before it hits.
As usual on most New Zealand beaches (except the hot water one) there is hardly anyone around and it is breathtakingly beautiful, with little islands off shore, long vistas, clean water, and clean sand. When the sky starts turning an alarming shade of green, we high tail it back towards the camper van, but the storm beat us back and we get totally drenched. The rain is coming down in buckets, wind is whipping the trees and we pile into the van and wait it out. Dinner does not happen tonight because the storm did not let up until late, so we just had a snack and lay on the bed reading and downloading camera cards for awhile. When it finally stopped raining we got out and set the tent up over the tailgate, went to the bath house and washed up and crawled into bed.
When I went to the kitchen in the morning for my coffee water, I was disappointed to find no table inside, only picnic tables outdoors, and since they were all wet from the storm, there was no where to eat and no one else around to talk to. I ended up using our own little table and chairs, which we hardly ever use, back at the van. This place looks like it is going to be a big party spot in a couple of weeks and they are booked solid. There are lots of different showers, a covered airing room to dry bathers and such and I notice how different the plumbing is here than at home.
The water pipes are all exposed and not insulated in any way, which probably means it does not ever freeze here. They are able to have wash stations and fish cleaning sinks and all outside all year round.
There are hiking trails and cool destinations close by and today we are walking out to Cathedral Cove so we get an early start.
Lucky that we did because the parking area is already getting
crowded and I imagine in peak season it is impossible to find a space. we have packed a lunch , swimsuits and sunscreen, since it is sunny and warming up fast.
We walk through tropical forest with openings into sunny meadows and views of the ocean.
Then down a steep path to a white sandy beach cove surrounded by cliffs and sea caves with the clearest blue water.
At his point we had to duck into a sea cave and change into swim suits.
We waded around and walked through the cool shady archway into another secluded beach with sea stacks.
It seems like this huge shady cave would be an excellent place to cool off on a hot day at the beach. It is open on two sides with great views of the water.
The day was warm and sunny, the water clear and still a bit cold, but we waded around, relaxed, and checked out the caves and cliffs until the tide came in too much. There were a few people here picnicking and a group of kayakers wandered in but it was not crowded yet. I wanted to stay here all day, scrabbling over the rocks and exploring further up the coastline but we had to walk back out through meandering pathways to the van and continue our journey. Darn it.
We headed around the Coramandel Peninsula on the road. There are tracks at the far north where no roads go which would be good hiking.
Colorfully painted beehives are randomly parked all over roadsides throughout New Zealand and we passed some of these on the way. I never saw any that were all one color.
Then we climbed a steep hill and dropped down the other side for a nice view of the west side of the Coramandel Coast.
We started to see fleets of fishing boats in the harbors.
Then there was a whole group of a Cormorant type bird called a Pied shag. I love the way they stand around and dry their armpits.
Jeff wanted to go into Auckland to get more information on the northern part of the island, right into the center of the city.
When the pedestrian lights are GO they come from all directions at once and totally clog the center of the intersection. No cars move, only people. There were a lot of people.
The i-site was a few blocks walk from where we parked, in the base of the big needle tower. Gathering travel information was a bust because the internet was down all over the city. No body knew what to do. I just wanted out. On the way, we watched crazy people suit up in flight coveralls to jump off the tower– from really high up. They were tethered to bungee cords and guy wires but it looked pretty scary. I just wanted to get out of town and our talking GPS kept turning us around in circles. We finally made it out and headed north again. Seemed like we drove all day long and we did not stop until we got to Waipu Cove, except for a quick stop at a super windy beach camp that was full anyway.
The camp at Waipu Cove was one of the nicest ones, with a cozy kitchen and shiny new bathrooms. Tonight is our twenty first night traveling around in New Zealand. We have another five days here and then we have a week in Perth, Australia.
We pulled into camp fairly late in the day and as usual, wanted to go right out on the beach. We had to cross a wetland to get to the dunes walk and they had a hand powered rope ferry to pull yourself across on.
I loved crossing the water on the little floating ferry and walking the winding path through the dunes. The wide open and deserted beach was one of the few where we actually found shells. There was no one out there but us.
There is only one other tent there tonight, although closer to the road there are quite a few cabins with folks that look like they are staying for long periods.
We cook our dinner at Waipu Cove and make ready for another day. It is peaceful and quiet and we can see a lot of stars out and hear the ocean. Tomorrow, there are the Waipu limestone caves that we have to explore