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Auckland to Victoria

Nov 6, 2010 – Saturday – flight from Auckland, New Zealand to Victoria, Canada

We have breakfast a bit earlier this morning, say our goodbyes to Margaret and her husband Graham, and leave Te Kuiti for Auckland airport by 8:30am. Graham suggests using the bypass around Hamilton, which proves to be valuable advice since I expect the traffic from all the activity around the World Rowing competitions being held in nearby Cambridge would hold us up. Our drive up to Auckland airport goes smoothly. We return the rental car to the lot by 11am and roll our bags across the lot to the front entrance to the airport. I find the Hertz counter and finish my business with them, so we’re done with the car. We then check in at the Qantas counter, and proceed upstairs to the departure area since we are now free of our checked bags

We have to fill in a departure form for New Zealand immigration. I guess they want to make sure we depart the country as we promised earlier. We then have to clear security twice – once through the normal airport security, and then again just before the gate. We speculate it might be caused by the USA demands for tighter security on US-bound flights. Qantas flight 25 pushes away from the gate on time at 2:10pm local time, and we are on our way back home. The captain says we will arrive about an hour earlier than scheduled, but we will hit some bumps along the way, especially at the start and end of the flight. We leave Auckland at 2:10pm local time.

Although the flight is an hour shorter, it is still 11 hours flying time. Being stuck in an aircraft seat for that long is pretty nasty, especially since I can’t sleep while flying. I get some good rests, however I’m pretty tired by the end of the flight. Dinner is served after departure and breakfast is served before arrival. Both meals are excellent, as I have come to expect from Qantas. They also supply free beer and wine with dinner and afterwards. Although I don’t indulge, many take advantage. We are given a personal kit containing a bottle of water and some snacks before the cabin lights are turned off. The woman beside me is a Dutch national who resides in New Zealand. She is meeting her husband in LA, and they plan to see the Grand Canyon in a rented motor home. I encourage her by saying I saw the Grand Canyon in January, so experiencing it in the winter time can be a great idea

We arrive in LA at 6am local time. I retrieve my checked bag and clear customs and immigration. As a Canadian, I get preferential treatment – no fingerprinting or photos are required and quick clearance (thank goodness). I get to wait in the LA airport for almost six hours before the Alaska Airlines departure to Seattle at 11:45am. I hate LAX. It is the worst airport – it’s dirty, confusing, there is a distinct lack of services, and the staff are hostile…and that’s just for starters. Qantas arrives in the Tom Bradley International airport, however Alaska flights depart from the domestic Terminal 3, so I have to walk over to the terminal, and then go through security again, despite being in transit. Since this is the good ol’ USA, security is special: take off your shoes and outer clothing in addition to the usual stuff we are all used to. The airport was being renovated in 2004 when I flew through here before from New Zealand, and it is still being renovated in 2010! Internet access for 24 hours costs US$7.99 from t-Mobile…there is no free Internet at LAX, unlike in Seatac and Vancouver airports.

Aerial view of Crater Lake, Oregon

Aerial view of Crater Lake, Oregon

Despite having to kill six hours here, I can at least mark each hour off knowing I’m getting closer to my departure from this awful place. I meet some nice people, and I am astounded at how productive Alaska Airlines gates are as I watch them move flights through each gate in under an hour! Eventually my flight to Seatac appears on the board for my gate; they load everyone aboard, and we depart on time. Ta da!

I have learned from past flight with Alaska Airlines that the in-flight meals are quite nice now that they charge for them. I have a grilled Panini deli sandwich and a Coca Cola to go with it for US$6. It hit the spot, since my last meal was the breakfast served aboard the Qantas flight before our arrival at LAX over six hours ago. I take a nice photo of Crater Lake in Oregon as we fly north.

We arrive at Seatac on time, and I manage to navigate from one terminal to another using those dreadful trains. The Horizon Airlines gate is just as entertaining as last time I traveled through here. Horizon provides connections to so many small airports in the sparsely populated parts of the USA: eastern Washington, Idaho, Montana, the Dakotas, and who know where else? Of course, they also fly to another little town: Victoria, BC, Canada – where I am heading.

My flight leaves about 15 minutes late, which is typical for Horizon, however when we arrive in Victoria, my bag is the first on the carousel – wonderful! The Canadian immigration officer greets me jovially and waves me through once he hears the story of my travels. I am met in the departure area and we drive home in the cold, dark rain. I am greeted by three animals as I enter through the front door. It is good to finally be home!

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Te Kuiti & Waitomo Caves

Nov 3, 2010 – Wednesday -Rotorua to Te Kuiti, New Zealand

We drive from Rotorua to Te Kuiti today.

We are staying in Simply the Best B&B, a farm stay located in small community of Te Kuiti, which is located just a few minutes’ drive from Waitomo and the famous caves. This B&B offers pretty basic accommodation, so I’m not sure I agree with the name! We knew it was a farm stay (our first on this trip), but we were unprepared for our rooms having no closets or dressers, and having to share a bathroom. Their website states “3 double rooms with private bathrooms”, however only one of the three rooms has an en suite, and that room was not offered despite us requesting it. Also, there is no wireless Internet. The back bedroom my friends are staying in is very small – essentially only having room for the double bed, with nowhere to sit and relax. My room is a bit bigger with two single beds, a sofa, and two chairs, however it appears to be a converted TV or family room. It has a sliding door instead of a real door, which means I have limited privacy and no security.

Despite these negatives, Margaret, the B&B operator is a real gem. She is exceedingly helpful, and makes our stay in this part of the North Island rewarding. Margaret recommends two restaurants in town, so we pick the first one and give it a try for dinner this evening. The Riverside Lodge is in a lovely location right by the river; however it is basically a bar that serves food. There are smokers all around, so we sit outside on the patio. Everyone looks at us as though we are from outer space and the service is exceedingly slow (we wait an hour). The food is good once it arrives.

Nov 4, 2010 – Thursday – Te Kuiti

The day starts badly, since Margaret makes us instant coffee this morning. She also serves us a continental breakfast instead of the full English cooked breakfast we have had at all the other B&Bs so far. The fresh fruit and rhubarb compote for the cereal is nice, and the endless toast and homemade preserves are appreciated, however the instant coffee is dreadful.

Marokopa Falls

Marokopa Falls

At Margaret’s urging, we drive out to the coast on Highway 37 to Marokopa, where there is a black iron sand beach. The beach and estuary area is quite spectacular. On the way out on the highway, we also stop to see Marokopa Falls, which is 15-20 metres high…an amazing sight. On the return trip, we see Mangapohue Natural Bridge, a land bridge caused by a river eroding limestone to punch a gorge through the rock. These are both great sights, and they are no cost. On our way home, we checkout the Waitomo Caves, but don’t go in since Margaret has booked us into the competing outfit Spellbound, which she promises is a better glow worm cave experience. We check out the competition while we are here, and find the rates are significantly more expensive than Spellbound. After we return home, Margaret makes us tea, which is very much appreciated.

Pavlova at Kai Cafe

Pavlova at Kai Cafe

We go out to a nice restaurant tonight called Kai Cafe, which is run by a local young man and his French wife (who does the cooking). The meals are a blend of French cooking and local tastes. I have the Filet steak, which is a “Scotch” cut (unlike any filet I’ve had in Canada), however it is a very nice steak cooked to order, topped with a creamy mushroom sauce and accompanied by roasted potatoes, fresh steamed green beans, and a grilled tomato. My friends rave about their main course selections as well.

Pavlova is offered for dessert, which we all agree is better than the Cherries Jubilee we were served aboard ship in the Pinnacle Grill. I have a Cappuccino, which is nicely made. The young man who runs the place is thrilled that we are happy with our experience. I add my favourable rating after returning home. Now called: Bosco Cafe on TripAdvisor

Nov 5, 2010 – Friday – Waitomo Caves

JoeTourist: Glowworm Caves &emdash; Exit to caveToday after breakfast, we leave for a 10am booking at Spellbound, the glow worm cave and dry cave tour located in Waitomo. It only takes us 10 minutes to drive from Te Kuiti, and the tour starts promptly at 10am – ending around 2pm. Our guide Norm gives us a terrific experience along the way. First he drives us about 20 minutes west of Waitomo to the entrance to a private cave which has a stream running through it. We don a hardhat with a light, get in a zodiac boat and slowly go into the cave to see the glow worms. We learn these are actually maggots, however they are tiny. They do indeed glow, and glow brightly enough to light the inside of the cave once we turn off our headlamps and become dark adapted. The glow reflects off the water, and I can see the other 12 people in the boat.

Norm hand propels the boat using an overhead cable, taking us within a few metres of a small waterfall before returning us to the landing. We then walk back to the entrance, leave our hardhats, and walk a few metres to the “coffee shop” where Norm makes us instant coffee, tea, or hot chocolate made from hot water stored in thermos. Biscuits to dunk complete the offerings. Toilets are also available nearby. There are wild Turkeys roaming in the pasture as we walk for five minutes to the dry cave, where Norm tells us he was one of the founders.

It is a superb cave with a walkway that goes for perhaps 300 metres or so. There is a large gallery, some air shafts, other entrances to see, and of course lots of stalagmites and stalactites. There are also some animal bones: some you would expect such as farm animals and possums; however there is also a skeleton of a Moa, an extinct bird which had a trachea, hip bones and big thigh bones. After exiting the dry cave, Norm takes us on a drive over some farmland along the ridgelines, and finally returns us to the starting point.

This evening we return to Kai (now called the Bosco Cafe) for our last dinner in New Zealand (and of the trip). I have the fish of the day (Snapper), which comes with oven roasted potatoes, green beans, and a very nice pesto topping, as well as some salad around the plate: a quite novel presentation with the salad. When we return to the B&B I get serious about packing – tossing out heavy paper and other stuff that is now useless. We settle our accounts with Margaret for our stay, however she only accepts cash, so that makes it a bit inconvenient. All the other B&Bs accept credit card payments.

Nov 6, 2010 – Saturday – New Zealand to Canada

We have breakfast a bit earlier this morning, say our goodbyes to Margaret and her husband Graham, and leave for the Auckland airport by 8:30am.

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Rotorua

Oct 31, 2010 – Sunday – Whangamata to Rotorua, New Zealand

We have a nice omelette for breakfast at our B&B in Whangamata, and then we depart for Rotorua. It isn’t a long drive today, so we detour to see Waihi Beach, which is yet another spectacular New Zealand beach, complete with a small town. We spend a half hour or so walking the beach, and watching the locals enjoying the beach with their families, since it is Sunday. We then resume our drive to Rotorua. The GPS takes us through the outskirts of Tauranga, and then we are into quite a remote area of New Zealand until we arrive in Rotorua.

Butter Chicken, Aloo Matar (potatoes & peas in gravy), Lamb Korma, rice and Nan bread at Lovely India restaurant

Butter Chicken, Aloo Matar (potatoes & peas in gravy), Lamb Korma, rice and Nan bread at Lovely India restaurant

Our B&B is located in a small community just south of Rotorua called Lake Okareka. At this location, we don’t have to put up with the sulphurous smell that is so apparent in the city, and we are hoping the light pollution may be subdued enough to allow us to take some astronomical photos of the night sky. Lake Okareka B&B is quite deluxe (now closed, but a new property, same owners & area), and our hosts Patricia and Ken are very helpful.

Once we unpack and have a bit of a rest, we drive back into town and have a look at the hot bubbling pools of water and mud in Kuirau Park, which is a civic park that is free admission. This evening, we go to the Lovely India Restaurant for dinner, and order the Butter Chicken, along with some Lamb and vegetable dishes with rice. The food is superb…the best Indian food I’ve had in a long time!

After returning to the B&B, Ken tells us he has found a good spot to observe the stars from. He shows us a lovely beachfront park which is only about a five minute drive away. An alternate site is the neighbour’s place next door to the B&B. They are away, so the place is dark, and it is so convenient. I setup my astronomy camera and take a time lapse sequence starting at sunset, however the clouds are factor tonight, so I call it an early night.

Nov 1, 2010 – Monday – Rotorua

Patricia makes us a continental breakfast each morning, accompanied with a savoury frittata. This is the only B&B who have a super automatic espresso machine, so I take advantage and have two Cappuccinos each morning!

Pukeko bird on the Lake Okareka Walkway

Pukeko bird on the Lake Okareka Walkway

Today is a down day, which means no activities involving driving. I catch up on my JoeTourist blog, sort through the hundreds of photos taken so far on the trip, do some laundry, and take a long walk around part of the lake. The Lake Okareka Walkway is a boardwalk over a marshy area of the lake where the wildlife are protected, so there is ample opportunity to see marsh birds such as Black Swans, ducks, Pukeko birds, and many other birds, including their young.

We drive into Rotorua for dinner, and after wandering around for a while, settle on Café Ephesus. This small, unpretentious restaurant is run by some Indians, but offers mainly a Greek menu with some Middle Eastern influences. We have a very nice dinner of a mixed Greek platter and a pizza, which we share around. We also buy a bottle of wine from a vendor across the street and bring the bottle to the restaurant. “Bring your own” is quite common in New Zealand restaurants – not something that is encouraged in North American eating establishments. Cafe Ephesus – TripAdvisor

This evening after dark, both my friend and I setup our camera gear again on the hill beside the B&B. It is quite cool this evening, so I leave my camera clicking away and retreat back to the warmth of my room at the B&B. I shoot a wide field time lapse video of the Crux-Centauri region: Alpha and Beta Centauri slowly slide below the hill while the bottom star of the Southern Cross moves north along the ridge line. Eta Carina is visible in the frame for the full duration of the video from 9:50pm to 11:45pm. This time of year is not ideal to observe the Southern Cross, since it is upside down and low in the sky. The Milky Way is clearly visible as a wide band of red visible behind the hills.

Southern Milky Way from New Zealand – a time lapse from JoeTourist InfoSystems on Vimeo.

HINT: Click on the little four segment icon beside the “HD” in the lower right corner of the video window to view the video in high definition mode.

Nov 2, 2010 – Tuesday – Rotorua – Waimangu Volcanic Valley

We drive the 17 kilometres south to Waimangu Volcanic Valley, which offers a very special experience with volcanic pools. Although publicly owned, this park is run by a private operator, so admissions are charged. We choose the self-guided EcoTours, since we feel it offers the best value: Walk/Hike and Boat Cruise option at NZ$77. Please note that discounts are offered, so check out the website and ask for the discounts at the admission booth.

Walking the 4.7km from the entrance to the lake jetty takes us about two hours at an easy pace. The slope in this direction is generally downhill, with a few steep grades and the occasional uphill section. Anyone who can normally walk this distance on flat ground should have no problem with this walk/hike. Be sure to take water and a snack with you, since there are restrooms, but no refreshment stands along the way. If you get tired, there is a shuttle bus you can catch in two spots mid way, as well as at the end where the boat jetty is located. We also take the boat tour of the big lake located at the end of the trails – Lake Rotomahana. It is worthwhile if for no other reason, to appreciate the sheer scale of the largest volcanic eruption which took place during human recorded history – Mount Tarawera in 1886.

Waimangu Volcanic Valley from JoeTourist InfoSystems on Vimeo.

HINT: Click on the little four segment icon beside the “HD” in the lower right corner of the above video window to view the video in high definition mode.

Nov 3, 2010 – Wednesday – Rotorua to Te Kuiti

We drive from Rotorua to Te Kuiti today. Along the way near Mangakino, we stop to see the Pouakani Toara Tree. We stop at the nondescript entrance located on Highway 30, and walk for 10 minutes to see this giant tree in the forest. It is immense…similar to the trees we saw in Costa Rica on the jungle walk. It is the largest Totara tree recorded in New Zealand, so it is certainly worth a look. Speaking of looking, the tree is so large it is difficult to see the whole thing from the forest floor.