04.01.2007 - 26.01.2007 20 °C
Well I'm back...
I began January being glued to my new New Zealand guidebook which my mum had kindly bought me for Christmas. I've met a whole heap of people who never travel with a guidebook and I think I would quite like being one of those 'wherever the wind takes you' kind of people...but I'm still stuck firmly in the 'needing to tick all the essentials from the guidebook' phase..I'm still a novice of course...so I planned my final month in NZ fitting in as many of essentials as possible...
It all started with a diving in the Poor Knights Islands. Voted one of the top dive sites in the world by some famous diver...sounds a bit like Jacques Clouseau for the initiated. Although I'd never heard of this man, it impressed me enough to want to do a PADI openwater course with the result that I would be a certified diver and able to dive all the wonderful places I'm still set to go...Great Barrier Reef, Thailand etc etc. Opting for the course ended up meaning hanging around in Auckland another week. Auckland isn't so popular with travellers but I found it a somewhat underrated destination...there's a whole heap of things to do. You can jump off the skytower (I didn't do that), you can walk from coast to coast, about 20km (I did that..except for the last bit where I got a bus to my favourite veggie cafe instead...best salads I've ever tasted!) and you can even try your hand at a whole range of sports and activities that the city has to offer.
Nicola's family were the most hospitable hosts. They started me off on my adventurous month with a spot of kayaking in one of the bays. Sounds gentile enough you might think..but you'd be wrong...howling winds, horizontal rain and an inexperienced paddler..i.e. me. By some miracle, maybe all the yoga I've been doing, I didn't capsize. As I've already mentioned, however, kiwis are a hardy bunch and kayaking in cyclonic conditions is hardly enough to get their heartrates pumping. I didn't know this at the time however, so when I was asked if I wanted to try sailing next I giggled with delight..I had always imagined sailing to be a truly relaxing activity...sunbathing aboard a luxury yacht, dashing young men serving you cocktails (non-alcoholic in my case of course!) etc etc. It was not so....we sped off at what seemed to be about 100 miles an hour..I did everything possible to hold on but my balance seemed out of sorts and I feared at any moment I would be flung overboard. I looked at Nicola's dad...he seemed to be in full control of the vessel..he proudly informed me it was worth less than $NZ500 around 170 pounds...this is a boat we're talking about here! but I did notice looking down, that his legs were bleeding where the straps he was pulling on the boat to steer it (apologies I don't know the official sailing terms) were crossing his legs...I started to become terrified of the ropes inflicting the same fate on me so I crept even further up the boat and was now balanced even more precariously. Then Nicola's dad informed me that we were turning round and I should jump across the boat...this meant letting go, swinging myself under the sail in a crouching position whilst avoiding the lethal ropes and then finding a new point of balance. This particular exercise was then repeated on a number of occasions before I plucked up the courage to be asked to be let ashore again...all good...I survived my first episode of fear in NZ...but there were more to come...
The second came the week later..I refer you back to the openwater diving course as mentioned earlier! It all started tamely enough with a day in the classroom, however, things toughened up on day two when we had to practice the theory in the local swimming pool. My 'buddy'...you get given a buddy so you can look after each underwater...was a 15 year old kiwi boy...He was still in the stage of being afraid of talking to girls which posed somewhat of a problem but he seemed to warm to me eventually...when I talked to him about his love of sharks he seemed to be just fine. Anyway, my buddy was just brilliant at all the exercises...he had been snorkeling his whole life he informed me...he was horrified to discover that I never had..I can't say it had occurred to me that that would be even faintly relevant...but once I got into water and had to start practising breathing through my mouth and not my nose under any costs, I saw what he meant.
The two days in the pool were spent undertaking a whole host of exercises - taking a giant stride into the water, taking your mask off underwater and putting it back on again...sounds easy but actually you have to clear the water from your mask first which involves tilting your head down and then breathing out through your nose, holding your mask at the right angle and then tipping it up at exactly the right moment...towing a tired diver...also sounds easy but people are heavy and cumbersome wearing big metal tanks, even in water. What else? Oh yes, practising a CESA - controlled emergency swimming ascent...you ascend breathing out saying 'ahhhhh' the whole time and then there was taking your regulator (breathing device) out, filling it with water and then purging it, taking your weight belt on and off underwater, again sounds easy but actually tough because it changes your whole centre of gravity, controlling your buoyancy through your breathing, again sounds easy but it's hard to breathe out slowly enough to change the depth at which you float...basically all these things sound easy but aren't!
At the end of day 3, I was having nightmares about the four openwater dives on days 4 and 5. Thankfully, I was sharing a 12 dorm bed room in a really beautiful holiday park in Tutukaka with a lovely girl from Dublin...a fellow diver but with a fair whack of experience. Not sure what I would have done without her encouraging words! Anyway, day 4 finally came! I felt entirely doomed the moment we climbed aboard the boat and the skipper told us the seas were very rough today. Well he wasn't wrong! As advised, I sat at the back of the boat staring at the horizon..having taken my anti-seasickness ginger tablets and wearing my acupressure bands..I was well prepared after the Cook Strait crossing debacle! Flocks of people started joining me with many of them again making good use of the seasickness bags. Waves were crashing over the side of the boat but the sun was shining and I started chuckling to myself...this was just another of life's many tests I thought to myself...
We reached the dive site, thankfully in sheltered waters, and got kitted out. The seas in New Zealand are pretty cold, 19 degrees, meaning a thick 7mm wetsuit was required. Sounds nice and cozy but it also means you have to wear a lot of weights around your waist to compensate for the extra buoyancy. I was wearing 9kg around my waist..combined with my metal tank and buoyancy control device (BCD) I basically couldn't walk and had to be helped to the side of the boat for the giant stride in. This, thankfully, presented no great problems and I was ready for stage 2, coming down the mooring line. As you let the air out of your BCD, you slowly start to sink but you control the speed of your descent by holding on to the mooring line. Seems easy enough but you have to remember to equalize your ears every metre of descent..if you don't a painful pressure starts to build up in your ears..(akin to the type you sometimes get on flights - I know you'll understand Gersh!). At this stage, you must ascend slightly and make sure you have equalized or you can do yourself serious harm.
At this point it might be worth referring to all the dangers of diving. It required a whole chapter in our textbook. Starting off with lung overexpansion injuries, worst case scenario, death..that's if you forget to breathe at any point, secondly, decompression sickness...if you ascend too quickly nitrogen bubbles can get trapped in your body..also leading to possible death in extreme cases...nitrogen narcosis where you go too deep and start acting as if you're drunk and no longer consider safety to be of importance...i.e. you voluntarily throw away your air supply etc...also leading to possible death from drowning, then there's breathing contaminated air...also possible death from drowning and that's all before you've had the chance of being eaten alive by a great white, stung by a scorpion fish or speared by a stingray..this was just in the weeks after Steve Irwin..
Going back to my descent..I just couldn't equalize...I was the last member of the group still hovering a few metres below the surface. I could see everyone else a few metres down..the water was beautifully clear. My instructor, Michelle was lovely though..she signalled to me to be patient...it's funny how you just know what people mean underwater just from their eyes and some funny hand gestures, even through big plastic goggles, sorry masks! On my third attempt down I realised there was no more pain and I slowly got down to the seabed where I knelt down next to my buddy...he was ordered to grab hold of me tightly. I can report that this he did with great gusto. We had a little swim around and it was wonderful. Hundreds of beautiful, amazingly coloured fish swimming all around us as we weaved in and out of huge kelp forests. Kelp as in that very tall seaweed.
The second dive of the day was a little tougher because we now had to do the exercises we had done in the pool all over again but this time 10 metres down....I was slightly troubled..I thought all those exercises were over, but I managed them thankfully with no great problems. The third dive on day five passed without event...the sea had calmed down greatly overnight and I managed all of the exercises. I felt happy...my happiness was, however, to be short-lived. Michelle informed me that her and I should practice mask clearance and removal in shallow water..my heart sank. This was the exercise I had continually had problems with in the pool. The thought of doing this in the deep filled me with horror. I did what any self-respecting woman would do at this point, I begged. Do I have to do it in order to pass? Yes was the simple, yet brutal reply. So we practiced and I nearly choked from all the saltwater I inhaled. So there I was, so near yet so far. How would I do it?
Michelle agreed to let me do the exercise last of all meaning that I could be safe in the knowledge that we would be ascending soon thereafter. As we got to the dreaded moment, I took a few deep breaths and voluntarily slowly filled my mask with saltwater, remembering to close my eyes and remembering at all costs not to breathe through my nose. I stayed in that position for what seemed like minutes because I could feel my heart pounding so hard even in my wetsuit. I repeated over and over to myself that I could do it. Eventually, I plucked up the nerve, I held my head down and put my fingers on the top, outside of my mask. I breathed out through my nose hard and tilted my head up. I opened my eyes cautiously. 'Shit, still full of saltwater!'. Quickly, shut my eyes again and repeated the same exercise. Opened them again. This time half the saltwater had gone. I looked pleadingly at Michelle, she signalled to me to do it over again. I looked downwards and repeated the exercise for the third time. This time, I had done it!! Michelle smiled a huge smile at me and grabbed my arm and had her fists in the air in a victory sign. Then she showed me her little scribble board, 'congratulations you've passed' she had written on one side. She turned it round, 'I'm so proud of you', she'd written on the back. Then I started to cry....and then I realised where I was...12 metres underwater..and I stopped...
Back on the boat..I can't tell you how I felt..the closest I could describe would be elated....the instructors were all so lovely to me. Telling me they thought I was brave, doing something that so obviously made me feel afraid...Michelle urged me to dive again soon...I couldn't think of diving again at that point though...I just felt such an amazing rush the way you always do when you've faced a fear...learnt about yourself in the process and come through again the other side....
But there was no time to waste with self-congratulating..I jumped straight back on an Intercity bus and headed to Waitomo. I arrived quite early so thought I'd relax awhile. But really there is nothing in Waitomo..once you've booked your caving adventure..which I had done for the following day, the most excitement you'll get is at the local store. Actually on this particular occasion, going to the local shop turned out to be exciting because I met there my one and only yoga student to date, John from San Diego. We spent a bizarre evening together, eating pizza, playing Pool and then deciding that a 11pm yoga class in the stairwell of the hostel was a good idea. Needless to say we attracted a fair bit of attention....I even managed to meet another yoga teacher in the process...although he taught Bikram so thought that my tame Hatha yoga was a bit paltry...Bikram is that crazy fast yoga they do in 40 degree heat..that makes you sweat..a lot...it's taking over california!
The calming effects of the yoga prepared me nicely for the following day when I turned my hand to adventure caving. Recommended, nay beseeched upon me by Mr Mexico and also of course my beloved guidebook. The Lost World epic...it described itself...all I knew was that it involved abseiling 100 metres before spending 4 or 5 hours working your way upstream, clambering over rocks, squeezing through gaps, jumping through holes in the dark (they didn't tell us about that one!) and jumping into and off waterfalls....and that's exactly what we did and it was awesome!!!!!!!!!!! It's a given that I was totally petrified looking 100 metres down into the abyss but once I started propelling myself down really I couldn't think about anything other than the mesmerizing beauty of this huge cavern covered in ferns and shadowed with a fine mist as far as the eye could see...and all the clambering malarkey was just so so much fun...I couldn't believe that I actually wasn't scared..doing the kind of things that I normally would be petrified doing...especially the jumping off rocks into big pools...the clambering ended in an enormous cave lit up by millions of tiny little glowworms...incredible stuff...
From Waitomo I hopped on the train to National Park which would be my base for two days while I walked the Tongariro Crossing, the most famous and popular day hike in New Zealand.
I detrained (I heard that verb used on the train in Australia so it must exist, meaning to 'get off the train') and looked around me. The weather was just perfect, the sun was shining not a cloud in the sky. As I booked my transport to the track at the hostel desk, I asked the guy serving me what the weather was like for tomorrow. 'Well, it's meant to drizzle a little bit for the first hour but then it'll brighten up just like today', he said...magic...well when I woke up the next day the weather seemed a little bit worse than just a damp drizzle...it was a quite foggy...'it'll brighten up' we were all reassured...but that was ok...I was well prepared. I had my waterproof jacket...no waterproof trousers but my trousers were made of light synthetics that would dry quickly....I had two changes of clothes in case I got wet....(thanks Ad!)...plenty of food, plenty of water (it would be the first time I would use my platypus that I'd been lugging about with me since I left the UK. I'd wrapped everything in plastic bags in case my bag itself got wet. On the way to the track, I got talking to an Israeli couple who also happened to be on my caving adventure in Waitomo...my first hiking partners!
The track itself is 18.5km and the DOC (Department of Conservation) advise that it takes on average 6-8 hours to complete. The tramp (hike to everyone else but kiwis) itself is described as 'a rugged alpine trek'. i.e. it is the mountains. It is particularly noteworthy and considered especially beautiful because it passes some outstanding volcanic landscapes.
As it had been drizzling on our way up to the track we had all already got kitted out in wet weather gear. Well I say all of us but it was clear there were those that were woefully unprepared...more of that later. Anyway, I started the tramp with the Israelis. The first hour was easy enough. It was mainly all flat but the drizzle never eased up. It was the kind of rain that seems really fine but soaks you in about 5 mins. After 45 mins or so, my trousers were soaked through and sticking to my legs but after an hour or so, oh horror of horrors my jacket was starting to leak (I later learned that gortex can't leak and that it must have been getting soaked by my own sweat which couldn't escape because I'd failed to wash my jacket...nice!). After an hour, I felt thoroughly uncomfortable and I was already starting to feel the cold on account of being wet through. The Israeli boy decided to do an extra detour and the thought of standing around in the cold was too much..I left my first hiking partners and continued solo. This wasn't quite as stupid as it sounds as there were several hundred people tramping the tramp that day....this is no wilderness experience...I reassured myself with the fact that the weather would soon be brightening up.
In the second hour of the tramp the incline increased dramatically and I found myself clambering up rocks. The weather did not show any signs of improving..if anything, the driving rain had worsened. You might have thought at this point that it would have been more sensible to turn back...but this is one of the problems with the crossing...you have to carry on once you've started. You are transported to the beginning by a shuttle bus and then collected at the end...the nearest town is miles away and there would be little hope of flagging down a car as the road up to the crossing only leads to the crossing. So I had no choice but to continue. For the first time in my life, I was incredibly thankful for the fact that I was ascending...the climbing was tough but I didn't even notice...I was so cold that the shear fact that I was working hard meant I was noticing the cold just that little bit less. A guy in nothing but a T-shirt and pair of shorts passed me. I couldn't waste a second being concerned though..at least the weather would surely improve soon..
After another hour, we reached the top of this part of the ascent and I realised that a heavy fog was now drawing in. This was a significant problem. The track is not a clear path but is a route mapped out by markers. It was becoming increasingly difficult to see the next marker. Getting lost was not an option. I kicked myself for not buying a map and bringing a compass. If I lost the track, I would die in the mountains, it was as simple as that. I became more and more focused and increased my speed to keep behind another couple I could see just ahead of me. But increasing my speed was a risky decision in itself. I told myself to focus and not to slip at any costs. Breaking my ankle now would equal certain death. That might sound like I'm exaggerating but no one upon no one would have stopped for you in this weather. It was every man for himself. No one was speaking. There was no camaraderie like there usually is between hikers. By the time the emergency authorities would have been alerted you would have died of exposure. Even if they were informed in time, there was no way a rescue helicopter would have been able to fly or to land on the mountain in this conditions. I had to make sure I kept walking fast enough to stay warm and to keep other people in sight but not too fast as to risk falling.
I kept telling myself that the weather was bound to improve. The fog was so heavy at this point that you would never have known that you were sharing the mountains with a couple of hundred people or that there was stunning volcanic scenery all around...although you could smell the tell-tale sulphorous vapours. We walked along a short stretch of flat before starting another ascent. As we made our way up the mountain, the wind picked up and continued becoming stronger and stronger. I now had to worry about being blown off the top of the mountain. The ridge along the top of the mountain wasn't exactly a knife-edge but it could hardly have been described as wide. I kept to the lee side of the mountain, with the rationale that the wind would have to blow me further to blow me right off.
All this while, I was freezing freezing cold. I realised I was shaking and knew I would have to do a swift change of clothing or I was risking exposure and hypothermia but how without getting totally soaked in the process? I collared the nearest person, a youngish bloke with his girlfriend. More of them later too. I took off my waterproof and asked him to hold it over my head. With no thought for the indignity of it all, I stripped off right down to my bra and put on my dry clothes, but my hands were so cold I couldn't do my waterproof back up again. I had to be helped just like a small child. I felt brief respite. I was no longer wet on top but I was still freezing cold...my trousers were still sticking to my legs and my shoes were so full of water that I was squelching every time I moved. My spirits sunk...
My spirits sunk lower than they may ever have sunk before. The weather wasn't going to improve. I realised I had been in denial. It was time to accept reality. I just couldn't go on. I panicked. I just couldn't do this. I had only walked for 2 hours. I might still have 6 more of hours of this. I was actually terrified. I felt guilt. I thought of my mum, how could I be doing this to her. Why had I been so stupid to do this crossing in such poor weather when I had read all the material saying how treacherous the walk could be? Two women had died of exposure on the track a couple of weeks ago after becoming lost. I started to cry...at this point, a second army officer-style Dani took over. 'This is not the time for crying or to panic', she told me. 'There is no way out of this other than to keep going. If you keep going you will make it but you have to stay absolutely focused and you have to stay positive and believe that you can do it'. I felt almost as if grace had touched me and I felt I had it in me to go on. I carried on climbing up and up, just focusing on putting one foot in front of the other and moving.
I walked for another 45 minutes when I got to a sign. It said I had done 4 hours worth of the walk and that I only had 4 hours left to go...and I had only been going for 2 and 3/4 hours. For the first time that day I felt genuine happiness. There was a new strut in my step. The fog had also lifted slightly and the wind was easing now that I was starting to make a small descent. I walked for another hour maintaining my constant focus when I saw a trampers' hut in the distance. I continued with renewed vigour and fell into the hut which was chocker with hikers. I can't tell you the relief I felt taking my wet shoes and socks off and changing into my last dry top but it felt like heaven. Everyone in the hut was crammed around the small stove. I found a small gap and joined the party. As I gradually warmed up, I felt my sense of humour returning...although more likely this was hysteria brought on by the conditions...I discovered that other people seemed to be in the same slightly crazed mental state. As I looked around, I spotted some familiar faces. T-shirt and shorts boy had his hand on the stove...ON THE STOVE....at that moment someone smelt burning hair...the boy lifted his hands...'oh my god your hands are totally burnt'..I cried in horror...for it was true..his hands had been scorched by the stove...the red circles of the grate burnt into his palms. He looked at me with a manic smile and just laughed...Standing directly next to me was the girlfriend whose boyfriend I had exposed myself to. She was shaking uncontrollably and when I looked more closely I saw that her lips were totally black..'oh your lips are still blue', said her boyfriend gently as if he were commenting on a new shade of lipstick....we were all clearly delirious..
I spent a good 2 hours in the hut. The shuttle wouldn't be picking us up til 3pm and we had set off around 8:15am. Thankfully, the last 1 1/2 hours of the tramp were only mildly unpleasant. The track was quite well sheltered by trees at this point and although my legs and feet were still cold and wet my body didn't get cold again. We arrived at 2:30pm in time for the 3pm shuttle. So all in all the tramp took me 5 and 1/4 hours. I can honestly say that I have never walked so fast in my whole life. I had terrible blisters by the end but I hadn't even noticed them. I never once noticed getting out of breath or tired. It's amazing how when there is such a pressing need...staying warm and dry...your mind becomes solely focused on this and doesn't get distracted by lesser pains or discomforts....I had done it...I was so so happy...it had been such a tough day with more physical discomfort than I have probably ever experienced before in my life but I had dealt with it and I had come through the other side...I already felt like this could be a life-changing event for me….see part II….