New Zealand Diaries #7 (Courtesy Laura McCullough)

New Zealand part 5: Walking through Mordor

2 Jan. Wish we could spend more time in this cozy hotel room! It’s very comfortable. We decide to eat in the hotel, bacon and eggs. On the menu were two strange phrases: “long black” and “flat white”. We ask what they are: our hostess grins as she explains that it’s coffee!  Black or with milk. After we order, we notice a cute dog standing just at the door to the breakfast room. Obviously he knows he’s not allowed in, but he has two toys at his feet. We get up and go into the lounge to pet him. He’s adorable and very friendly. Our hostess explains that he wants to play. We toss a ball for him and he jumps to get it. Our hostess goes outside and flings the ball a few times. We play with the dog again after breakfast. Miss our kitties!

Hot cocoa in the room after breakfast: it’s meant to be made with milk and I used water, so to strengthen it we drop in a square of caramel chocolate. Pack up, chat with host about our plans. He recommends Hawke’s Bay for the wineries, just as our last host did. He also called the Park to see if the chairlifts were working–they just started up. He recommended taking the chairlift up to the top where there is a cafe. Drive back to Whakapapa, past hotels, to end of road. There is a store at the base of the lift where we pick up some amazing clearanced merino wool jackets from a company called Icebreaker. They serve us very well on the mountain. We buy lift tickets and the clerk recommends we go all the way to the top and walk down the Amphitheatre trail. Sounds interesting! 2 hours walk down the mountain. The clerk won’t sell a lift ticket to a kid in shirt and shorts–it’s too cold up there! There are jackets to borrow at the bottom but the shorts aren’t fixable. She also tells us there is a LOTR site just a short walk from this store. Yay! We walk out and see a rock wall. Gollum clambers down this wall in the night to sneak up on Frodo and Sam. It probably was also where F&S were climbing down and Frodo slips just above the bottom.

On to the chair lift! Kelly is nervous but willing. I don’t recall if I’ve been on an alpine lift or not–my only clear memories of a chairlift is our local ski slope. The lift operator tries to get the shorts-wearing guy in front of us to put on a winter coat, but the guy’s too macho (spelled S-T-U-P-I-D). As the operator helps us on, he mutters about idiots freezing to death. Then we are on and up! It’s a two-person chair and a long lift. Kelly does great. It is really cold. We have socks and shoes, lightweight pants, shirts, wool jackets, and windbreakers, and we are chilly. Gloves help a little. It’s sunny but very windy. Maybe a windchill in the 30s? The views from the chair are just stunning. It’s Mordor and Emyn Muil. We get off and straight on to the second lift–a 4-person chair this time. Kelly is comfortable enough to swing his legs a little. The posts have safety signs. “Get onto ridges when alarms sound.” “Follow the trails.” Our favorite: “Did you know? Volcanic mudflows follow valleys!” Then we’re at the top!

The cafe has magnificent views. We are above the lowest of the clouds. Sunny and cold. We order hot chocolate and sit in the sun. Inside. The hot cocoa comes with strangely flavored marshmallows. We are at 2020 meters, NZ’s highest cafe. The Amphitheatre trail is not marked, beyond one sign pointing to the right. We wander around a little looking for it, but no signposts or trailhead. We eventually give up and ask the lift operator, who is chatting with another employee. Great guy, who is heading out on the A. trail himself. He had a rucksack with a large drill and several 2″x2″ posts. He leads us maybe 1/2 a mile then tells us how to continue. There are 2″x2″ stakes that are our trail markers. They are maybe 20-75 meters apart. If we get to one and go about 20 m without seeing the next, back up and look around. Then we are off! It’s real ankle-breaker territory. There is a large patch of strangely squishy black rocky sand, big rocks, black beach sand. For the first 30 minutes or so the only life we see is a tuft of grass. Then more grasses, flowers, birds, flies. An amazing trail walk down the mountain. And it felt like Mordor. Barren, rocky, dark. The views are amazing, above the lowest of the clouds. It is very bright and sunny, making the sunglasses necessary. The winds are quite brisk when we are exposed, but the protected valleys are comfortable.

No real injuries on the descent, but we are both exhausted by the time we reach the bottom. So worth it! Get a drink at the cafe, then back to the store to the clerk. The employee up top told us we should let the clerk know how we liked the trail, so we told her it was great. Then a scary fun drive in the mountains. We stop in Raetihi for lunch, but it’s a dying town and most storefronts are closed. A grocery store is open, providing cheese and beef sticks and olives. A stop at the public toilets ends with me petting a very cute mini poodle who cuddles up to me while her owner chats with us.

The drive towards Wanganui is gorgeous, rocky, curvy, hilly. Views to evoke Scotland. Valleys and peaks, small plains in between. There are many rocky shoulders we curve around with fallen rocks filling the ditch. Once the rocks had fallen into the lane and hadn’t been removed yet. In many places the road had dusty circles where the rocks had hit and scattered dust. There are passing lanes every 10-20 km, in the flat parts. Windbreaks are tall trees grown into hedges and given a high & tight haircut by some strange machine. Kelly suggests it’s a very tall sheep whose sole job is trimming hedges to a neat perpendicular top. A sign advertises sumo suit and bouncy castle rentals. Now there’s a combination! Blueberries and…blueberry art?

A long fenceline is decorated with hundreds of pairs of old shoes. Maybe 50-100 m long. Strange! Kelly saw a smaller version later. We stop briefly in Wanganui for wifi, but the iSite is closed. Their wifi is still available! We book a hotel in Wellington. Walk to the Stellar pub for toilets and drinks. Kelly gets a Glasgow-based whisky. Back on the road again, and on to Wellington. The roads slowly get bigger as we get closer to the city. We follow a “free ambulance” vehicle for several tens of km. Sunset is around 2030 and is beautiful. Great views again. We find our hotel easily, car park right next to entrance.

We check in, and get a free room upgrade because so many of the housekeeping staff are on vacation our normal room isn’t clean. OK! The room is a small studio apartment! Separate rooms for bathroom and bedroom, huge main room with great kitchen—more usable floor space than our first apartment in St. Paul.  Best of all? A washer/dryer unit in the room! Hooray! Clean clothes! Also two doors onto a very long balcony with an uninteresting view. Unless you count the zebra-striped building across the alley interesting.

Head out for food and find the Steer & Beer. Their kitchen closes at 2200, and its 2145, but they’re willing to seat us as long as we agree to make up our mind quickly. We both get lamb burgers with beetroot: it’s a great combination. Then we stop at the corner store for breakfast food. We pay, head out, and the clerk stops us. Kelly’s muffin is past its sell-by date, so she runs to the display to get another for him. Collapse into bed; driving these roads is exhausting!

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I’ve been traveling in Hawaii and New Zealand and will be posting links to the pictures soon.

Whenever we travel my wife does a travel diary while I take most of the pictures. I use her notes as my references for later use for books and other things. She has been gracious enough to allow me to share them here on my site for those who are interested.