An unexpected journey through New Zealand, December 2012

From September to November 2012, I had the opportunity to work at the Auckland Bioengineering Institute. Before flying back home, I took 4 weeks to visit the country, with my friend Daniel joining me from the start, followed by Florent 1 week later. The log book (in French) is available on this page, but here is an illustrated summary of this trip in English. Judging by my drawing talents, choosing engineering was probably a wise choice 😉

Our trip starts at the end of November 2012, a few days before the world premiere of “The Hobbit: an unexpected Journey”. By New Zealand law, nobody is allowed to ignore this national event, and the Auckland airport has therefore hired an annoying fake dwarf that I must endure while waiting for my friend Daniel, whose plane is unfortunately delayed

As Daniel discovered while going through immigration, having über clean hiking shoes is more important to enter New-Zealand than a Visa or a Passport.

 Of course we want to taste local product such as wine (which I didn’t have much opportunity to test during my three months stay at the Auckland Bioengineering institute, as male kiwis say no to wine (but yes to beer!)). However, we were quite surprised by the indications on the bottle (although it appears that flocculation of suspended particles using egg whites is also quite common in Europe, but producers are not required by law to write it on the bottle, and they don’t…). I suppose that it makes this wine non-Vegan. Well, that’s their loss!

We are then on our way for the Abel Tasman coast track and its tidal crossings with clearly stated rules defining when it is safe to cross. Apparently, DOC rangers follow other rules, but they are wearing adequate clothing (not very photogenic)…

As a visitor in this beautiful country, it is very important to adapt to the local customs and laws and not end up in jail. On the other hand, the ubiquity of the word “kiwi” and its different meanings may seem confusing at first, especially as only one of them can be legally eaten. The following guidance should help the unsuspecting visitor to stay out of trouble.

We met some German tourists. They seemed to like us…

The nice think about hiking, is that you have the time to discuss about very important matters, such as the optimal shape a seal should have (they are not yet there…)

We were quite surprised on our way back to Marahau using the Aqua-taxi that we actually got to stay on the boat while they loaded it on a trailer and drove through the village…

After the Abel Tasman coast track, we headed towards Christchurch, where our friend Florent is due to land and join us in our adventures. We stopped on the way at Maruia hot springs, where sandflies are enjoying themselves and our heads (the only part of our body emerging from the water). We have to watch out not to be too badly bitten, so that Florent can recognize us at the airport.

We are now near Mt Cook, ready for a small walk along Hooker Valley, but we first have to deal with a small incident.

The wind is blowing fiercely in the Hooker valley. In French, we literally say that the wind is strong enough to ‘dehorn’ a cow. As no cows were around, we couldn’t really check if it was true, but at least the wind was strong enough to take Daniel’s cap away…

When we think about New-Zealand’s untouched nature, we imagine breathtaking landscapes in absolutely peaceful surroundings. Well, this is generally true, except when a group of 40 teenage girls arrive where you are. “Sorry for deafening you” said one of their adult supervisors.

We are now around Te Anau, and on the Kepler track more precisely. Our first camp ground is a very lovely spot at Brod Bay, on Te Anau’s lake. Apparently, the sandflies are also fan of this location, and of us…

We also need to fill our bottles with water. Florent doesn’t like the idea to drink water that stagnated in a tank, and I try to convince him otherwise, until I see the colour of the water.

Any tourist guidebook on New-Zealand will tell you that the country is absolutely free from deadly predators and consequently extremely safe. This is of course a state-sponsored lie aimed at attracting the unsuspecting visitor. I have already mentioned one of those blood-thirsty beasts: the sandfly. Today we discover another one of them, as it seems that some monsters have been left behind after the filming of the Lord of the Ring trilogy, judging by this very official DOC track closure notice:

In Queenstown, it is time to use my gift certificate for the highest bungee jump in New-Zealand, generously offered by my colleagues of the Biomimetics lab, who naturally tried to scare me beforehand by telling me everything that can possibly go wrong. What they didn’t know is that even though bungee jumping is not a Swiss invention, we have also a strong tradition in killing tourists this way, thanks to a company named adventure world who managed to use too long a rope… In the end my jump was a lot of fun. The bungee company has a dubious sense of humour, judging by the signs posted on their bathroom doors and they apparently require all of their male employees to grow a 70’s porn-star style moustache. What are they doing during the low season?

Driving in New-Zealand implies of course to drive on the wrong side of the road (as opposed to driving on the right side…), but it’s quite easy to get used to it and we therefore laughed at the arrows painted at the end of every one-lane bridge to tell stupid tourist where they should go. Well we shouldn’t have laughed, because after all, we too are fucking stupid tourists…

After crossing Cook strait, we find a small camping near a beach that has a small bookshelf working on a leave one / take one principle. However the choice is scary as it is almost uniquely composed by cheap cheesy love stories not worth the paper on which it is printed, such as “The Texas ranger and the tempting twin”, “He is just a cowboy” or “The laws of attraction”

We then head for Mt Egmont (Taranaki), the lonely mountain. Why it is all alone on the West and not with Tongariro and friends is explained in a Maori legend by the fact the he was caught red-handed with Tongariro’s lover, and was condemned to a life of exile far from the volcano tribe. For all the Kiwis and sheep living between the Egmont and Tongariro national parks, let’s hope that Taranaki never decides to head home…

Last hike of the trip: the Tongariro northern circuit. During the first day, we passed a hiker with a golf club, which starts a nice conversation among us: What is he doing with this on a volcanic zone? However, after a bit, the conversation changes to a subject that kept us busy for the past few weeks: what is the drawing on the Cerebos salt-shaker? a) a puddle of salt (the kid is just emptying the salt saying “see how it runs” out easily)? or b) a chicken (in which case the kid should learn that before putting salt on poultry, it is necessary to kill it, pluck it and cook it. In addition, throwing salt on a live chicken is mean: imagine if it gets some in the eyes? Evil Kids!)

But interestingly enough, a golf club is not the strangest object we have seen people carrying along this hike, because a few hours later, we saw a girl with a Hula-Hoop. I don’t know if Hula-Hooping on the top of Tongariro is one of the “must do” activities in New-Zealand…

I already mentioned two deadly predators (sandflies and Nazgûl) inhabiting this country supposedly safe, and today, we discovered a third one, and probably the fiercest of them all: the volcanic flying rock, which attacks innocent hiker from above, devour their soul and feast on their entrails. We cross the zone cautiously, keeping an eye on the sky, with sweat dripping in our backs, until relieved, we see the sign indicating the end of the dangerous zone (the advantage of those deadly rocks is that they attack only in very well-defined zones). But what is Daniel doing? Oh, my gosh, he is taking a picture of the “flying rocks zone ends” and by doing so, has stopped in the deadly zone! Unbeknownst to him, but knowst to us, danger is lurking…

Unfortunately, we weren’t lucky with the weather, as it has been raining for most of the hike. However, the ranger at the hut tells us that is should get better today. It is still lightly raining when we start the 3rd day, but trusting the ranger, we expect the rain to stop anytime…

Last stop before Auckland: hot water beach on the Coromandel peninsula, where you can dig your own private spa in the sand. Of course, you need to dig at the right spot or you could be surprised.

In the afternoon, we reach Auckland. Dinner with part of the Biomimetics laboratory at the Sky Tower restaurant. As today is December 21 2012, the world is supposed to end, and I bet that the restaurant is Milliways, the restaurant at the end of the universe.

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