Monday, September 29, 2014

A Volcano, An Asylum & Kiwi Birds

August we decided to have a go at snow skiing here in NZ and the novelty of it was quite exciting to us for several reasons.  First of all, finding snow in August is quite an oddity.  Secondly, we were excited we wouldn't have to go the local mall like we did in Dubai (See it here) to find snow, it was going to be the real deal!     

We don't see snow in our part of NZ  but just 4 hours south is Mt. Ruapahu which is the only place on the North Island where you can snow ski.  When we originally planned to meet some of our lovely Tasmania friends there for a ski trip, we didn't know much about the mountain.  We only knew we were ready for some winter fun.  As the trip grew closer and all the reservations were finalised, we gathered a bit more details about the upcoming trip.

1.  Mt Ruapehu is an active volcano.  The mountain web page actually has directions on what to do should the volcano erupt.

"If a volcanic eruption does occur at Whakapapa, an audio alarm will sound from a series of speakers located around the ski area, at the same time a message is sent to a pager kept with the Ski Area Manager. In the event of a volcanic eruption, immediately move to higher ground and out of valleys. Stay in a safe zone until you receive further instructions from Ruapehu Alpine Lifts Ltd. staff. - See more at:"

2. We made reservations in this beautiful 1930 Chateau... that was once an ASYLUM.  Ok, to be completely fair, it was only an asylum for a short time during WW2 and originally was built as an amazing lodge to host travelers from all over the world.  With descriptions like the following, who cares that it was once and asylum?

 "V.I.P’s from around the world started to hear of the magnificent Chateau and began arriving from the four corners of the globe. The Chateau developed a reputation for hosting fabulous people and fabulous parties. 
After months at sea on rocking ships and then days or weeks traversing the most beautifully primitive of landscapes, they’d arrive to neo-Georgian luxury at its finest. They’d sweep up to the grand entrance portico with its dramatic columns. They’d marvel at the floor-to-ceiling arched Ngauruhoe Window as they took in its superb view of the mountains. They’d dine under magnificent chandeliers on the finest cuisine of the day, and enjoy long evenings in front of roaring log fires in the plush Ruapehu Lounge."

So regardless of previous volcanic eruptions & sleeping in a hotel filled with a dodgy history, we were excited to experience it all.  

But i will say my kids were quite nervous when they saw this picture in the gift shop upon arrival.

(Ash cloud over Chateau Photograph by Tim Whittaker)

Our asylum hotel just below the volcanic eruption ski slope they were going to ski. 

3. This was also the one place we were most likely to see the shy and elusive kiwi bird in the wild.

Our first glimpse of the hotel and the mountain was absolutely stunning

After unpacking, we admired the old architecture and charm of the historic hotel 

It was beautiful, filled with 1930's grandeur, had wonderful service and its past only added to its allure.
We settled into some cozy reading by the fireplace 

and massive windows with views of the mountains.

We took a short walk nearby in the bush and watched ferns and palm trees get dusted with snow.

New Zealand has an amazing variety of ferns but this was the first time we saw them in a background of white

Palm trees & snow flakes fraternizing

The kids were super excited to see even the smallest bits of snow even though it didn't stick.  That evening they set out in search of enough snow to build a snow man.  

The adults the other hand opted for a glass of wine by the fireplace.   When they brought us back a picture of their snowman, we couldn't figure out how they managed to find enough snow to build such a big snow man.

The snow sticks on the mountain but not typically down below by the hotel.

Their second picture told the rest of the story.

The next morning we headed up to the mountain for some skiing.  
We had to take a shuttle up due to road conditions and while waiting for the shuttle to leave, my poor children are reading information on the mountain and one of the pictures displayed on the brochure was of victims from Mt Vesuvius and the effects of volcanos.  Pretty much something like this...
Source: Museum Victoria

Kyle says, "Uh, mom, is this from Mt Ruapehu?!"
(i'm pretty sure this is the sort of thing that traumatizes kids.) 

However, once rationally explaining that picture was from a TOTALLY different place and time period, and prior to warning sirens (*eye roll*) traumatization was diverted.  

We realized there were other reasons this mountain was different.  Visibility was really bad and although there was fresh snow we still had to look out for rocks.  One run is aptly named "Rock Garden."  This was the first time i have ever skied a mountain with not one trees in sight.  It was a bit surreal. 

Regardless of the mental images of ash covered bodies, exploding mountains, and rocky runs, we managed mischievously held snow balls and big smiles

As it turns out the Whakapapa ski paths are super narrow with cliff drop off all around with little or no markings.  In the States dangerous areas are clearly marked and barricaded, but not so much here.  Although the majority of cliffs we saw were not likely to cause death to a skier, surely there was enough to cause serious injury.  We are smiling because at the end of the first day we all managed to survive.

Snow angels and icicles are a much safer activity

Back at the lodge we thawed out and filled up with High Tea.

The next morning we woke up to a full blanket of snow covering our hotel which made for an amazing winter wonderland in August.

(Yet another case for why Christmas should be celebrated in August in NZ.)

We never ended up seeing any kiwi, although we were told their foot prints are often found in the snow first thing in the morning.

In the end we had a lovely time with our friends and enjoyed taking in another new experience.  When the trip was over and we arrived back home, my kiwi friends asked what i thought of it.  Only after i relayed to them some of the stories did they provide me with gory detailed stories of the 2007 eruption where a guy lost his leg, or the year where there wasn't an official eruption but there were rocks that were "spit out" and caused others to be seriously injured. And yes, the runs do seem quite narrow and dangerous.  For the record eruptions occurred in 1945, 1995-1996, 2006, 2007, with warnings in 2008, 2011, 2012   *Wide eye*

Although, it certainly wasn't the best skiing we have ever done we can now check off bucket items # 101 Ski on active volcano and #102 Sleep in an old Asylum and #103 Hunt for kiwi foot prints  (Which for the record was never even on the bucket list but certainly worth adding now that we have done it)

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Population 1

We have come to learn that New Zealand is an island surrounded by islands.   Te Ara website says the following...

"New Zealand is a nation of islands.  The mainland is flanked by more than 600 smaller islands that lie within about 50 kilometres of the coast...."

Until recently, we have only ventured out as far as the island Waiheki which is known for its amazing wineries.  Yesterday we "had a go" at a unique island experience. 

Population 1
Kiwi Birds 40+
Which means the kiwi BIRD out numbers the kiwi PEOPLE :-)
Photo credit:

MOTUIHE is an island with a colorful past but currently is being developed as a natural reserve for NZ nature and wildlife.  In a nutshell they are replanting the island with native trees and bushes and relocating native animals, like the kiwi, to help them thrive.  (No we didn't see any.  Kiwis birds are nocturnal and extremely shy.  They are mostly monitored by video surveillance on this island.)   Although the island is not closed to the public, ferries do not regularly run here so you either have to take your own boat, or charter a ride.  

We left the City of Sails behind and voyaged out to the island with a group of students to participate in a tree planting project.

We sailed past other islands

past Lighthouses, and in and out of rain clouds,

past old volcanoes, till we finally arrived.

We schlepped our lunches, rain gear, water and sunscreen up the hill to our designated spot.  No stores on the island so we had to come prepared.  Being the token Americans, we needed a pack mule to carry all our provisions.  Kiwis have an innate ability to pack everything they need into the tiniest packs ever.  My pack was 3x bigger than the average kiwis' and filled with ONLY the above items.  When we finally sat down to lunch these people were pulling out cook stoves and various knitting projects on top of all their other supplies.  Still scratching my head....

One of the many things i love about NZ is that you can be looking straight ahead at the amazing view, dumbfounded at how beautiful it is and you suddenly turn around because someone calls your name and you realize there has been yet another brilliant view at your back the entire time.

At the narrowest part of the island the beach is only about 15 paces away from you on either side.

With a tractor laden with spades, saplings, bushes, flax plants and children, we headed out to preserve a bit of New Zealand nature.

The "1" 
A ranger lives on the island but must go back to main island for supplies.  No electricity only generators here.


Hard work was rewarded with a lunch break on the beach.  

Rope Swing!!

Little lunch was eaten but much fun was had.

It has been raining on and off all week with hopeful hints of spring here and there.  It was lovely to get off the big island and find a patch of sunny beach and soak up the island life even if for a brief moment.  Back in Auckland, just 30 minutes away, gray clouds and rain were waiting for us, but for a day we experienced history, exploration, conservation, new friendships and a warm sunny rope swing all on a nearly deserted island with a population of 1.