New Zealand For Kids- (continued)
by Lauryn Axelrod,
Wings over Taupo
From Rotorua, we headed to Taupo, a tourist resort built on the shores of a giant volcanic crater lake. The primary reason for going to Taupo was to go Tandem Skydiving, something Josh had always wanted to do. In addition to being the least expensive location in New Zealand for skydiving, Taupo has the reputation of being one of the most spectacular on a clear day.
And we couldn’t have asked for a better one. Cloudless blue skies, minimal wind, it was perfect. Fortunately, there was room for us to join one of the jumps that afternoon. All along, I had said that I would allow Josh to do it, if the company would take a 12-year old. “Of course,” they replied cheerily when I asked. “We’ve taken children as young as 2 and as old as 80!”
Next thing we knew, Josh was being suited up for a 12,000 foot altitude tandem parachute jump. I had staunchly refused to jump out of a perfectly good airplane believing that if I ever had to do it, I would go down with the plane first. But, after watching several planeloads of jumpers float gracefully to the ground with ear-to-ear-grins on their faces, I changed my mind and agreed to go with Josh, just in case he got frightened.
Josh wasn’t even close to scared, but I was petrified. The only consolation I had was that both he and I were strapped to big, strong, highly trained guys who were going to jump out of the plane and take us with them. We didn’t have to do anything but enjoy the 45 second freefall and several miuntes of floating beneath the colorful canopy to the ground.
When the time came to jump, our tandem masters turned our faces toward the camera to record our exit and then we were out of the plane. When I opened my eyes, I was falling at 200 km/h over the most spectacular scenery I had ever seen. All three snowtopped volcanoes of the Tongariro National Park were clearly visible and the sparkling blue waters of Lake Taupo were glinting in the sunlight.
45 seconds seemed like hours of jaw dropping exhilaration, and then at 5000 feet, our parachutes were deployed and we gently floated down to the ground. At one point I looked over at Josh, who was smiling like I had never seen him smile before. He was loving this. And when we landed, he came running up to me pleading if he could do it again, and again, and again.
But once was enough for me. Now I could say I had jumped out of an airplane. I had to come up with something else I would never do. But that’s one of the things about New Zealand: this is the adrenaline rush capital of the world. Never say never.
The next day, we needed to something a little less exhilarating. In the morning, we headed over to the Volcanic Activity Center, a hands-on museum for kids that expains everything about volcanoes, tectonic plate movements, earthquakes and other natural phenomena common to New Zealand. Lying as it does on the convergence between the Australasian and Pacific tectonic plates, volcanoes, earthquakes and other disasters are part of life here. It’s a great natural classroom, and the Volcanic Activity Center was a good way for Josh to learn more about the unique geology of the country.
In the afternoon, we joined a relaxing kayak trip down the clear blue-green waters of the Waikato river. We paddled gently past bush lined banks, looking all the way down to the bottom of the river whose water was as smooth and as clear as glass. We stopped to jump off a rope swing into the deeper part of the river, paddled beneath the bungi jumping platform (I’ll NEVER do that!), and stopped again where a hot thermal river joins the colder one to soak in the natural hot spring pools. It was a lovely afternoon and nice to get on the water, even if it was only for a few hours.
One of the most challenging and exhilarating activities in the North Island is hiking in Tongariro National Park. A high, windy plateau, with its own unique weather systems, the park encompasses three active volcanoes and one of the most famous day hikes in the country is the 8 hour Tongariro Crossing which takes hikers past sulphur lakes, across high ridges and within meters of snowcapped volcanic peaks.
We had moved to National Park Village in the hopes of making the Crossing. But like everything else here, the weather has to be on your side to do the hike. It wasn’t. We waited for three days, settling on smaller day hikes, and satisfying our climbing urges at the indoor climbing walls, before giving up our quest to tackle the volcano. But on the last day, we headed up to Mt. Ruapehu, an active volcano whose slopes serve as one of the area’s ski fields. Though there was still plenty of snow on the ground in the middle of summer, we weren’t here to ski.
The Whakapapa Ski Field was the film location of Mordor in the Lord of the Rings films, and we wanted to see it. As Mt. Ngauruhoe, which served as Mt. Doom in the films, loomed in the background, we made our way over the jagged volcanic rocks of the mythical Mordor, imagining armies of Orcs running over the desolate ridges. So, it wasn’t the Tongariro Crossing, but for us, it was better. We picked up a few rocks as souvenirs for some of Josh’s LOTR fan friends back home and promised that if we could, we would tackle the Tongariro some other time.
For the next three days, we wound our way down the North Island to Wellington, stopping in the pleasant riverside town of Wanganui to visit a Gypsy Fair and eat fish and chips along the riverbanks, and chilling out in Plimmerton, a lovely, artsy beach town only 20 minutes from Wellington center.
Like a little San Francisco, Wellington is a beautiful city built along the wide sweep of bays surrounded by green hills. The center of New Zealand’s arts and culture, as well as its capital city, Wellington’s downtown is filled with cafes and shops, while the outlying areas are wild, natural places with beach walks and hill tracks. While we could easily have spent more time in Wellington, we only had one day for visiting the Te Papa Museum and rollerblading along the waterfront.
The Te Papa Museum is one of the most fascinating national museums I have ever seen. Part natural history, part cultural history, part art museum, all things related to New Zealand are housed under one dramatic roof. We had come specifically to see the Lord Of The Rings exhibition, which featured detailed explanations of everything from special effects techniques to the making of armor.
It was a popular exhibit and it took more than an hour to gain entrance, but for fans of the films, it was worth the wait. Josh and I were fascinated by the computer programs used to generate the battle scenes, and by the intricacies of the models used to simulate buildings and talking trees.
But beyond the LOTR exhibition, the museum housed exhibits on geology, early settlers, Maori history, even New Zealand fashion! We spent a total of 6 hours inside, and by the time we left, we needed some fresh air and sunshine.
The waterfront is a popular strolling place, much like the America’s Cup Village in Auckland, and one of the favorite activites is rollerblading along it’s paved walkways. So, Josh and I rented some blades and spent the next hour or so soaking up the sunshine and breeze with the locals out for a walk. Dinner that night was in a local restaurant, one of many that serve foods from all over the world in this cosmpolitan slice of New Zealand.
One month from landing in Auckland, we had completed our journey down the North Island and were heading across Cook Strait to the South Island, where the wild beaches of the West Coast, the towering peaks of the Southern Alps, the mighty glaciers that reached the sea, and colonies of seals, penguins and whales awaited us.