For the History Buffs – Since Captain Cook brought the first sheep into New Zealand in 1773, the sheep population has grown to over 40 million. That represents twelve sheep for every person living in tiny New Zealand. However, although a large percentage of New Zealand’s economy relies on pastoral agriculture, in the past few weeks I’ve grown to appreciate that the country offers more to the candid traveler than just shorn sheep and stacks of wool sweaters. Indeed, there is more to New Zealand than just sheep!
I thoroughly enjoyed Wellington’s cosmopolitan vibe and abundance of coffee shops, but it was time to more on and explore even more of New Zealand. Once again, I boarded an NZ bus, but this time I was only traveling a few hours north to Taupo. (No more overnight buses on this trip!)
Beauty of Taupo -New Zealand’s scenery is constantly surpassing my expectations. As I drift from town to town, I am confronted with even more expansive, mirrorlike lakes, open blue skies, and striking mountains as far as the eye can see. Peter Jackson stubbornness with shooting and producing his LOTR trilogy on these wide unspoiled landscapes wasn’t out of mere patriotism. There truly can’t be a more scenic, visually hypnotic place on earth….and I haven’t even reached the south island yet.
I arrived in Taupo, a quaint and addictive little town surrounding the beautiful Lake Taupo. This majestic crater was formed by one of the greatest volcanic explosions in the past 5,000 years. What remains is said to be about the size of Singapore, which I imagine is quite large, but hardly up to par with the beauty of Taupo, New Zealand. An early morning walk along Lake Taupo is simply memorizing. If you catch the sunrise at just the right moment, you can’t really tell where the earth ends and the water begins. Now I’m sounding like Forrest Gump…..
Just Not My Lucky Day – Since I was anxious to do the Tongariro Crossing, I booked a shuttle bus to take me up to the National Park the following morning. After chatting with the nice ladies at the information booth, I concluded that I was nowhere near prepared for the day long trek. The mountain weather can turn nasty at any point and hikers often face extremely cold and rainy conditions. Just last month, an American woman died of hypothermia and two other hikers got lost and suffered deadly heart attacks in the middle of the night. Yikes! Though waterproof jackets and hiking boots are available, I packed two pairs of cozy wool socks, extra thermals for additional layers, and plenty of snacks and water for the day.
At 6:00 a.m. the following morning, there were five of us huddled together, watching our frozen breath rise into the blackened sky and eagerly waiting for the shuttle bus. Unfortunately, as the van swerved into the driveway, the stocky driver stuck his head out of the window and shouted at us to go back to sleep. Apparently the weather forecast had changed dramatically overnight and freak snowstorms and freezing conditions were expected. “The sun will come out tomorrow,” he said quite cheerfully and drove off with a roar. The others shuffled off to bed. I, on the other had, had guzzled three cups of coffee in the pre-morning hours and, thanks to the shuttle driver, now had themes from Annie running through my head. I couldn’t sit still at this point, much less cuddle up into bed. With all of this unexpected energy, it was the perfect time to go for a jog along a moonlit Lake Taupo….a perfect opportunity to watch the sun rise behind Mt. Ruapehu. Tomorrow was another day.
All five of us were ready to go at 6 a.m. the following morning…and the next. The same driver greeted us each morning with the same cheerful smile and sing-songy farewell. I think he missed his calling for Broadway. Finally, the National Park issued an alert and closed the mountain for the rest of the week. Although the skies in Taupo were crystal clear and cerulean, the clouds still hovered over the Tongariro Crossing, making the trail impassable and dangerous. I wasn’t too upset since I planned to return to New Zealand during the much warmer and hopefully, less snowy spring months. That simply left me with extra money to spend elsewhere. I love it when that happens!!!
Never Fret! There is ALWAYS something to do in Taupo – Taupo has plenty to offer the adventure seeker, coffee drinker, or lake-side dweller. Everything from hang gliding and white water rafting to boulder climbing and bungee jumping was available at my eager fingertips. Yes, I was eager indeed…but my wallet and the weather were not as cooperative. Water activities were a bit too cold at this time of year so I quickly vetoed both kayaking and white water rafting. Sky diving was next on my list and I was 1/2 hour away from jumping 15,000 feet out of a plane when once again, the faulty weather played havoc with my plans. This time it was due to high winds so we were asked to reschedule for the following day. By now, I was thinking that the Maori Gods were trying very blatantly to send me a message, “start small.” I’m not one to argue with island gods…..so horse-backriding it is!
A Girl and Her Horse – Galloping through the hills was fabulous. Absolutely amazing!! The other three riders in my group were advanced like me so we were free to roam the ranch’s endless acreage. My horse was named Mya, a beautiful white mare, highly spirited and incredibly competitive. She was used in the LOTR films and was so extremely talented that my skills weren’t quite up to speed with her potential. However, we had a fantastic time pursuing the other horses up and down the steep hills, careening through narrow gullies, and storming across vast stretches of meadow.
Mya hated having another horse in front of her so we spent a large portion of the afternoon at a full gallop, trying to outwit and outrace the others. It was utterly surreal to run across the mountaintops with nothing but a whipping wind and pounding hoof beats. Must be what Aragorn felt like! After my ride, I had good intentions to buy Mya and live in a little cabin high up in the hills with the sheep for company. Unfortunately, I was snapped back to reality much too soon when riding time was over, and I sadly unsaddled Mya and kissed her soft nose good-bye. I’ll see you again one day soon, my pretty.