Adventure Journal Main Menu: Esper E-letter #4, Dec. 2005

As I currently write this, I am in sitting in my car, in the rain, at
evening, thankful that I at least have my laptop for company. I think
I would get bored and even lonelier without it, because reading all
the free visitor attraction brochures doesn't make one very contented.
(Just to clarify, the brochures were free- the attractions are
ridiculously expensive-though they sound like fun. I could go
abseiling into a cave, river sledging, whitewater rafting, zorbing,
skydiving, bungy jumping, street luging, four-wheel driving, land
yacht racing, jet-boating, or for more peaceful adventures go to
Polynesian natural hot springs. And the list goes on. After all, I am
in the adventure capital of the world.) So yes, I admit I am lonely.
I didn't think it would happen so quickly. I have traveled alone in
several other countries, like Romania, Bulgaria, Belgium, and Canada,
and found the freedom to do whatever I fancied quite freeing. No one
to tell me we have to stop at the historical marker, or they don't
feel like climbing such and such a peak. But I actually anticipated
that I might get lonely on these travels in New Zealand. I have
thought to myself that this may be the last great solo trip I go on.
After all, I got to end my 5-years-and-running single status soon
before I become a priest. But being the free person I am, and enjoying
solo travel, I must be changing-I must be getting old! Alas, however,
there is still hope for me even on this trip- my family is actually
planning on flying out here and to Australia for 2 months to travel
with me, and I hope to meet other young, like-minded people,
especially once I get to the South Island. And I would like to even
get a job and sort of settle down for a couple months come the winter
season. (I can't keep driving around till it gets dark with faith I'll
find some grassy picnic area or parking lot to camp in, once it starts

So last night, while driving along the condo-lined beachfront of
Maunganui, seeing all the young people- always with their friends,
(and yes, I admit I went to some hot pools by myself!) -that's when I
came to the conclusion I was lonely. Which led me to my second
conclusion, which is that I am getting "distracted" by trying to visit
all these supposedly wonderful beaches (according to the same
brochures and free travel guides), when I really should be focusing
more on climbing the couple volcanoes here I had wanted to, and then
head to the South Island. Of course, now, I am in Te Urewere National
Park, and planning on doing a day hike tomorrow, and another the next
day, here in these densely forested mountains, which wasn't on my list
to do a day ago. Going here was my consolation for not being able to
go out to the very active volcano of White Island and hike there.
Apparently the whole island is closed to people like me who like to do
things on there own terms, and is only open to registered tour groups
(which cost over a hundred dollars, and wont let you out of their

By now, you've probably realized this e-letter doesn't just recount
what I did the past weeks. I figured that I could probably ramble on
a whole list of places I visited, like "I went mountain biking in
Whitford Forest, visited a large kauri tree, hiked to Cathedral Cove
on the Coromandel Peninsula and went snorkeling there, then dug my own
hot pool right in the sand right on Hot Water Beach, then hiked for an
afternoon through the rainforest to the voluminous 150-meter Wairere
Falls that seem to come right from the top of the mountain, then
visited McLaren Falls and Kaiate Falls, then took a space flight to
Mars to check out the canyons there…" and you'd be like, "wow, that's
so cool you get to do all those crazy things. You are so fortunate,
Johnathan." And then I'd know I really was rambling on too much, and
that'd I lost you in a list of far-off place names.

If you're really confused about what I've done this past week,
chronologically, after the last e-letter I wrote about Northland and
Indonesia, I ended up staying a week at the Fussner's house in
Auckland because I felt sick and had a very painful ear infection. I
felt bad about staying longer than intended, but made the most of my
time by watching the entire season one of Lost on DVD, and the Lord of
the Rings extended edition trilogy (to look at the NZ countryside in
the movies.) Then I finally drove south, first through the Coromandel
Peninsula, and then southeast to the Bay of Plenty area.

The North Island is much more than just green grassy hills. Where the
forest hasn't been cleared for pastures and farms, such as in the
ravines draining down into the streams, or in the mountains, it is
different world. It is a rainforest-wet, dark on the forest floor,
with all kinds of vines and exotic trees I thought that as a kid
thought went extinct with the dinosaurs (giant tree ferns, etc). I
have spent many hours trying to get good photos of these forests, but
somehow my pictures don't seem to convey the enchantment of the forest
that I saw through the lens.

Well, what you just read above I wrote a week or so ago. Now, as I am
sitting down the second time to add to this newsletter, it is again
cold, dark, and rainy. In fact, the weather here in the North Island
changes very quickly, often with several periods of rain and sun all
in the same day. But in general, it has been very cold and rainy the
last week. When the sun does come out a little bit, though, it gets
quite hot. I am in a public shelter in a little village on the side
of Mount Ruapehu, the tallest of the three active volcanoes in
Tongariro National Park, and the tallest peak on the North Island. I
have been waiting out the weather to climb Ruapehu the last two days.
Today I actually made a summit attempt, but the conditions were
dangerous – rainy, cold, windy, and zero visibility make for a deadly
combination if you get in trouble. I hiked up from the ski area, to
an hour above the top of the highest lift line, to a flat area- I
think one of the craters near the summit. However, it was heavily
sleeting, and very windy. It was a complete whiteout, where the snow
and the sky were all one. In fact, there was such complete whiteness,
and lack of any definition in the terrain, that almost felt like I was
in heaven or in that Matrix computer program where Neil first went
after swallowing the pill, except for the 5 or 6 footprints leading
away from where I stood. The top of Ruapehu is composed of several
volcanic domes, so I could have easily gotten lost and or hypothermic
if I kept going. To get back, I followed one footprint at a time. I
made sure I stayed on the snow and not the rocks, so I could have
these prints to follow back down. Later that day, the clouds lifted
from the lower slopes a little, so I did a short hike to some
interesting silica rapids, where a white mineral has been deposited
from the tumbling water onto the streambed rocks. I also walked among
the unique rock formations where some of the filming for Lord of the
Rings was done.

The first day waiting out the weather, I spent my day walking to a
couple falls, (New Zealand should really be called "The Land of
Waterfalls") and at the visitor center, looking through all the New
Zealand photo books and watching the films on the park's history.
Looking at all the amazing nature photos really inspires me to take
better photos; in fact, while here in NZ, I have come to terms with
myself what I want to become a professional photographer, at least as
a side career. I also read in the bookstore the Maori mythology
surrounding the peaks' origins. (There were originally four might
mountain gods here: Tongariro, Ngaruhoe, Ruapehu, and Taranaki. They
were all competing with each other for one woman mountain-god, and in
the end, Tongariro won, but lost much of its might (Tongariro, if you
recall, is the smaller mountain Jonathan Nace and I climbed on the
Tongariro Crossing), while Taranaki, very grieved, went west toward
the setting sun, where it stands today (after this, I plan to
re-attempt a climb Taranaki). On its way, however, it carved a deep
wound in the earth, where the Whanganui River flows today (on the way
over to Taranaki I would like to paddle down the Whanganui)). I've
noticed here in New Zealand there is a strong emphasis on remembering
and reliving old Maori culture and mythology. Maori culture is an
integral part of New Zealand, in public parks like Tongariro, in
visitor attractions that celebrate Maori history and way of life, and
perhaps most noticeably, in geographic names everywhere. Sometimes
even tension exists between an English and a Maori name for a single
place, like Mount Egmont/Taranaki, for example.

Before I got here to Tongariro National Park, you know I hiked in the
northern section of Te Urewera National Park, in the central-eastern
part of the North Island, which is a large reserve of native forest
and lakes. Then I made my way to Rotorua, stopping for a dip in a
natural and undeveloped hot pool along the roadside. The Rotorua area
is best known for all its geothermal attractions. There are many hot
springs and pools in the area one can go to relax in, but they are all
private and developed. There are also many thermal parks featuring
geysers, steam vents, calderas, boiling mud pools, etc, but most of
these also cost to enter. I went to the Wai-O-Tapu thermal area,
which is known as the most colorful thermal area in New Zealand, and
my favorite sight there was this neon yellow/green pool. I have never
seen such a bright neon color in nature before, and my camera did not
do the color justice. Also while staying in the Rotoura area, I took
advantage of the area's adrenaline attractions, by going Zorbing
(rolling down a hill inside a huge cushiony ball), body flying
(floating on a cushion of air above a huge and powerful fan below
you), and white water rafting on the Kaituna River, which has the
highest commercially rafted waterfall (22 ft) in the world.

After these activities, I decided to head back to the woods in
southern Te Urewera National Park, where the admission cost is free.
I hiked up one of the mountains in the area, checked out four
waterfalls, hiked to Lake Waikareiti, and practiced my climbing skills
on a thousand year old giant Rata tree. I also purposely tried to get
stuck in a maze of vines on the ground, and climbed yet other vines.
I also spent two days hiking and photographing in the neighboring
Whirinaki Forest Park, which features some of the few remaining old
growth podocarp forests on the North Island. The trails to Arahoki
Lagoon and to Te Whaiti Nui a Toi Canyon are especially enchanting.
After driving 2 hours on dirt roads out of this remote area, I headed
to Lake Toupo, and spent a day going to Craters of the Moon thermal
area, mountain biking, and doing laundry (I just realized today for
the first time that I am a messy eater. Then I go around all day, and
2 more after that, wearing the same stained shorts, and not minding
one bit. I just hope no one else sees me. So what does that say about
me?). Then I checked out the off-the-beaten-track canyon called the
Pillars of Hercules. And of course, now I'm here on Mt. Ruapehu,
hoping tomorrow the clouds will lift.

Please go to my photo albums to see many of
these places I have mentioned here. Unfortunately, I can't update my
personal webpage at this time also. And MERRY CHRISTMAS and HAPPY NEW