Dropping the Keys

I concluded my New Zealand experience with perhaps the most expensive mistake I have ever made. We had just finished unloading the camper van into our hotel room (our last lodging in New Zealand). Now we had to return the vehicle to Spaceships. I stepped off the elevator and, as I tried to shift my day pack from one had to the other, the van keys slipped out of my hands and dropped perfectly into the gap between the lobby floor and the elevator. They disappeared down the elevator shaft in slow motion as I howled “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” Rachel and the concierge rushed to my aid, unaware (as was I) that the problem was only just beginning.

Roaming Home

Roaming Home

It was a Sunday. The elevator service people were not available, and would not come out unless an extortionate fee was paid. I called Spaceships, who told me, to my genuine surprise, there was no spare key to that vehicle. They held out a vague non-committal possibility that there may or may not be a key hidden somewhere in the vehicle, then advised me to rent the car for an additional day so the elevator service folks could retrieve the keys on the following day. So I did, not really seeing an alternative. After confirming the extension, we wandered out to the van to check on the parking fees and timetable for Monday. To my horror, we realized it was in a “clearway”, which is a no parking zone during certain hours on specific days. Today was my lucky day. Tomorrow was not. The van would get towed first thing in the morning — hours before the elevator service folks would even consider taking a call.

After a brief, but public, expletive eruption on the sidewalk aimed at the clearaway sign, I decided to call a tow company to get the van towed to Spaceships that evening. It was dark by the time the truck arrived. There was still the off chance that there was a spare key somewhere in the vehicle, and I had my head lamp at the ready as the gregarious, sympathetic tow-truck driver jimmied the lock for me. I spent a good chunk of time combing every conceivable hiding place for a spare key, knowing deep in my heart of hearts there was no such thing. Exhausted, defeated, I shut the door and waved to the truck driver, indicating the van was all his. I didn’t stick around to watch the towing process, but rather trudged grumpily back up to my lovely, unobstructed view of the Auckland sunset.

Auckland Sunset

Auckland Sunset

The next day, the hotel called the elevator service folks, who promised to be there sometime in the afternoon. Coincidentally, one of the other hotel elevators was not working so they needed to make an appearance anyway. I took this as a good omen. Seeing as no one was willing to commit to a specific time, we headed out to do a little shopping for gear, in anticipation of Thailand and beyond. When we returned, we were presented with the keys and informed that we would have to pay for the service. I lost my cool and rapidly devolved into abuse and pleading. What was so especially galling about it, apart from the fact that I had been hemorrhaging money for almost twenty four hours, was that this was a discretionary decision by a petty manager to pass the costs of an unrelated service call on to me. Besides, I was never told I would be responsible for the service call either way. The injustice of it all rang in my skull for hours.

We proceeded to walk down the street to the Spaceships booking office, to hand off the keys. In a fit of spontaneity, we booked an overland tour through Laos with Stray Asia (a hop-on-hop-off excursion owned and operated by the Spaceships people). We left in high spirits, hoping to put the whole mess behind us. To this end, we made our way to the casino underneath Sky City (the Kiwi Space Needle), where I promptly won back, in a single pull, most of the hundreds of dollars I had dished out while desperately trying to return our rental van. I almost wept with joy.

The next day we were in Bangkok. I checked email for the first time in more than 24 hours and saw something from Spaceships. They informed me that they had not received the key and had ordered a replacement made. Evidently whomever I had handed it over to had not reported back to HQ, and I was being charged for the lost key. I lost my cool again, this time separated from the object of my ire by thousands of miles of ocean. In the comfort of my two-bit backpacker hovel, I carefully crafted a reply, explaining the misunderstanding, reminding them that I had just booked a pricey Stray tour, and embellishing the sob story to date. I held my breath for several hours before I got a response. They cheerfully refunded my money, and then I passed out.

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Me and Mount Doom

I was skeptical when we started out that day, given the uniformly crappy weather we’d experienced since the Bay of Islands (which is to say, the whole time in NZ). Low hanging clouds and drizzle moistened our ride in the shuttle van, and we were prepared to slog it out in the full wet, decked out in full raingear as we began our hike. But Mount Doom smiled upon us that day, breaking the clouds apart just long enough for us to complete the Tongariro Crossing. The mists of Mordor parted and the great fiery orb of the sun cheered the lunar landscape all around. I managed to snap a cheeky trailside photo of Rachel struggling to get out of her rainpants and long johns before the next wave of hikers rounded the corner.

The sun is comin' out!

The sun is comin' out!

Already the line of daytrekkers was practically continuous, a steady trickle of bodies in Smartwool and North Face moving up the shallow grade, eventually pooling at the base of the first steep incline. A healthy dose of switchbacking ensued, each step producing an enhanced view of the reddish black and totally inhospitable landscape tumbling down the steep slopes all round. The geologists and John McPhees of the world could read a history of profound violence in the colors and textures of the terrain. The rest of us would simply have to content ourselves with spotting possible Lord of the Rings locations.

After a fair amount of huffing and sweating, we arrived at the basin between Tongariro and Ngauruhoe, the twin volcanoes that the Crossing crosses between. To the left, a barren ridgeline masked the peak of Tongariro so that it was difficult to say where it began and ended. Ngauruhoe, on the other hand, was impossible to mistake. Mount Doom, the star of the show, loomed ominously in all its glory, a perfect iconic volcanic cone. I could just barely make out a small group of climbers attempting the summit by direct assault, which is to say, single file straight up. They were about a third of the way up and I couldn’t help but wonder if they knew about the gold.

Yes, there is a gold ring up there somewhere. I have this on good authority from a guy who manned the gift shop in Hobbiton (a permanent film set and sheep farm outside of Matamata). Some well-heeled fan had purchased a high-end gold replica of the One Ring for almost a thousand dollars and proceeded to charter a helicopter and hurl it into the Crack of Doom. To this day, it lies in wait for some unsuspecting Alpinist Gollum to chance upon it. Serious nerd points all around.

Rocking the Volcano

Rocking the Volcano

The basin was flat and dusty and had a reddish, distinctly Martian appearance, as opposed to the darker moonlike landscape below. It took no time to cross over to the next ascent, up to a low ridge that rose to the left. The ridge dropped precipitously away on the other side, and the wind at the top was burly, but the views were such that you couldn’t resist snapping that landscape photo despite the risk of getting blown off into oblivion. The ridge carried up to a smaller plateau and then climbed up to a singular peak over which the queue of hikers seemed to disappear, vanishing like lemmings over the edge.

At first I wrote this off as a deceptive perspective. As the peak grew closer, I became puzzled, even agitated, when the illusion continued to hold. One by one, they dropped off into oblivion, and I was next. By the time we reached the top, I could see that the peak was not dissembling after all, though the drop was less than lethal. The way forward was a gravel slide at a ludicrous grade, and dozens of people were busily picking their way down the loose volcanic crumble, moving rapidly downhill as gravity took control.

The view from here, the top of the Crossing, was literally and figuratively the high point of the hike. A full panoramic view encompassed both volcanoes, their attendant ridges and basins, and a sweeping horizon in all directions. A white blaze of snowdrift clung to Tongariro’s flank. Set in a deep gorge under some kind of natural Gothic archway was a blackened obscene orifice, a dragon’s lair or gate to hell. Below, at the bottom of the “trail” were two stunning blue tarins, little opaque pastel lakes encircled with thin wisps of sulfurous vapor. Beyond that, the trail dropped down into another basin and carried up to and along a larger, darker lake on its way out of view.

Poke Confronts the Hell Hole

Poke Confronts the Hell Hole

Tairns of Mordor

Tairns of Mordor

We skittered down the slope, digging heels in and filling shoes with pyroplastic pebbles. Rachel experimented with a few different footing tactics before settling on a dove-toed shuffle. She methodically scooted and snow-plowed while I hopped and stumbled down the chute. Before we knew it, we were lunching lakeside and looking up, watching the awkward parade of flailing hikers working their way down. The hard work was over for us, and we were still on schedule to rendezvous with the return shuttle.

Shuffling down the mountain

Shuffling down the mountain

Within a half hour we followed the trail through a cleft in the ridgeline and began the final descent in earnest. The rugged footpath quickly transformed into a manicured trail with artificial tread, convenient staircases, and the occasional bridge span to cross comparatively harmless gorges. The path crisscrossed the slope in broad shallow switchbacks, tripling the length of the downhill stretch but sparing our knees from a severe incline. Regular signage warned hikers to stay on the trail or else. At one point we passed a sign declaring that we’d crossed temporarily onto private land and, just in case we’d missed all the other posted warnings, it was especially important to stay on the path here. Somewhere out there was a hot spring that was off limits, the personal domain of some business interest or holdout country geezer. All who would attempt the Tongariro Crossing are hit over the head with dire warnings about trespassing. We, too, had been briefed while in the van on the ride out to the trailhead. It was hard not to dwell a little on this forbidden fruit, even occasionally looking over my shoulder as we dropped into the scrub brush that heralded the end of the hike. Even though I’d seen the face of Mount Doom, I’m still a little cheesed I couldn’t visit his steamy pimple.

The Path of Polynesia

Image of Maori Carving in Rotorua

I thought I knew New Zealand.

Having taken an early interest in the country’s pop music — specifically Crowded House — and knowing how to pronounce words like “Te Awamutu” and “Kare Kare,” I felt like a Kiwi myself. But our first hangi changed all that.

We had picked up our magical Spaceship campervan from the Spaceport (where else?) in Auckland that afternoon. By evening our Spaceship was hugging the slippery and curvacious roads of the North Island while I tightly closed my eyes and sunk my fingernails into the dashboard. The road to Russell, in the Bay of Islands was an endless maze of one-lane winding roads, which we found out later you could bypass with a quick ferry ride (thanks for nothing, GPS!)

Just outside of Russell we found a cute holiday park from the 1950s — a decade that is still alive and well in New Zealand. The proprietor confided to us in a hushed tone that she is originally Australian, but has lived in Russell for 20 years. She gave us a detailed map and advised us to be sure to attend the hangi tonight in town.

For a minute I thought it was the 1850s — but a hangi turns out not to involve a noose, sheriff and sheep rustler, but a bunch of food buried in the ground for a few days. A short walk to town and we saw the large white tent. The tent housed the ticket seller, a band, and five or six wine booths. Outside, hungry people surrounded the hangi pit and the local Maori chief blessed the food in two languages. All elbows, I made my way in for a paper plate heaping with smoked mussels, chicken, stuffing, yams and other treats. Fantastic!

That evening, I Skype my mom and describe the hangi. “Oh, that’s a luau.” My mom lived in Hawaii for several years as a child. The next day at the Russell museum, the connection was confirmed. Photos showed the Maori people wearing grass skirts. They are Polynesian! We had just come from Fiji and I suddenly saw the commonalities. I had always thought that, like Australia, the Maori had been in New Zealand 30,000 years. Turns out it’s just 700 years. Europeans have been in the New World almost as long.

The Maori call their homeland of legend, Hawaiki. Hawaii, anyone?Recent evidence, however, suggests Hawaiki was actually Taiwan.

In Voyage of the Beagle, Charles Darwin gives a savage indictment of the Maori (they would start a war because they had extra shot; missionaries would give them soap and beg them to use it) and of New Zealand. Saying of the land that there is nothing of interest for a naturalist. Probably because most of the unique bird species on the island are extinct and the country has only two land mammals — both bat species. (A friend we made on our Laos tour, Renee from New Zealand, told me she’d never seen a squirrel.)

The Polynesian connection also interested me because we had recently visited the Galapagos. Another of Darwin’s stop offs, its most conspicuous feature is the absence of Polynesians. Somehow, colonizing every island around the Galapagos, and missing no other Pacific Island chain, they missed or ignored the Galapagos. Very strange.

As it would be nice to see a bear or deer posing amidst the Kaori trees, this thought would give a shudder to any current resident. At the airport I was thouroughly examined for invasive species. Thankfully, none were found.

Further evidence of Polynesia was found in Rotorua, the stinkiest town in the world. There we visited the Maori theme park of Te Puia and saw some early dwellings and even a live kiwibird! The park had bubbling mud pools and a sulfurous geyser to rival Old Faithful. Every employee was Mauri. Much better work than casinos it looked like.

Back at the holiday park, our host said New Zealand is an example of race relations for the rest of the world and I would agree. It was obvious the two cultures live together and include each other in most aspects of their lives: sports, work, celebration.

I’m now planning a trip I call “The Path of Polynesia.” It starts in Taiwan and hits every island. All in a handmade canoe. Stay tuned.