“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J. R. R. Tolkien

"Everybody dies. Not everybody really lives."

The saddest sound in the world is a man saying, "I wish I'd have done that."

Monday, September 5, 2011

New Zealand on our Own

“Shaving their bums” is not a memory I expected to bring back from New Zealand but these words from a local sheep rancher stick in my mind. We were cruising down a lonely country lane on the North Island when we spied a dog working a flock of puffy white sheep in an adjacent field. The dog was gradually herding the sheep toward a long low shed near the end of the field where three men were stooped over, working the animals. We stopped, hoping to see a sheep shearing in progress. “Hey mates,” a tall wiry man caked in mud called to us, “come on over.” Except once we slogged through the deep mud to get to the shed we saw they weren’t shearing sheep—at least not the entire sheep. The sheep’s caked and clogged rear ends were getting all the attention and we got the questionable privilege of viewing this delicate process up close.

Not something you see on the agenda of a packaged tour. Which is why we prefer the spontaneity and surprises of simply getting in a car and striking out cross country on our own. And New Zealand is the perfect place to do that. Apart from the unfamiliarity of driving on the left side—which quickly becomes more familiar--road signs are in English, roads are generally well maintained, and traffic is practically nonexistent once you leave the cities.

We mapped out a two-week route beginning in Auckland on the North Island and ending up in Christchurch on the South Island. In between we planned to hit some of the major attractions and still leave time to just ramble at our whim.

Auckland discombobulated us. Everything we had read about New Zealand led us to believe that the country was rural and bucolic but we dropped into a modern, bustling center of commerce. Perched on the edge of the Pacific, Auckland’s 350,000 residents seemed to be all business, hurried and harried, much like those uptight corporate types that are fixtures of large American cities. But as we explored the downtown area, another facet of the city emerged—an air of adventure and fun that we would surface as a recurring personality of the country everywhere we went. We shopped along unremarkable Victoria Street, with the usual line up of boutique shops and restaurants, but then stumbled across Quay Street, a short, almost hidden lane with quaint pubs packed with a vibrant mix of young free spirits and middle-aged artist types. We took in the Tower of the Pacific, a 600-foot tall glass and metal skyscraper that dominates the skyline and presents a very ordered and disciplined face to the city, but we also watched people queue up to bungee off the tower’s upper floors. We ferried over to Devonport and walked through the town’s back streets, viewing its pretty Victorian houses and hiking up to Mt. Victoria, which provided a grand vista of the bay bracketed by the Auckland skyline.

Once we left Auckland we discovered that the rest of the country bears little resemblance to its capital city. We consciously avoided the main thoroughfares, opting instead for secondary roads, and headed south for the Waitomo Caves, famous for their endemic population of eerie glow worms. Admittedly a tourist attraction, the caves are still well worth the visit. The entrance is a drive-up located right on the road and you can stop and buy tickets on site. The cave tour is actually a boat ride through the high ceilinged labyrinth with the attraction being the tiny glow-in-the-dark creatures that cling to the cave ceilings and suspend short silky strands down to entrap passing insects and other food sources. Thousands of pinpoint pricks of light gleam in the inky blackness of the cave’s twists and turns, and the specks of light above reflected in the water underneath provide an eerie and memorable spectacle.

We headed down highway 3 to Rotorua, through a sweet green valley that curled gently among farms and forests. Houses were few and far between and we passed through a half dozen wide-spot-in-the-road towns, most of which consisted of a few houses and maybe a farm implement business or garage. In the tiny town of Benneydale, we stumbled into the deserted Benneydale Hotel where the proprietor seemed flabbergasted to actually have customers walk in the door. Clearly not too many tourists make this stop. We had an excellent meal of fish and sausages amidst a motif of beer signs, a wall plastered with pictures of the locals in various stages of inebriation and posters of the beloved All Blacks, the national rugby team.

Rotorua smelled of sulphur—an unpleasant byproduct of the town’s plethora of geysers and steam vents. The odor is quickly forgotten as the town’s scenic location on the shores of Lake Rotorua and its green Government Gardens located near the city center grab your interest. The Princes Gate Hotel, a rambling 1880’s-era Victorian-style inn conveniently located at the front gate of Government Gardens, offers quaint accommodations, with a warm, wood-paneled off-lobby sitting area and outdoor garden dining complete with steam heated pools. South of the town are the geysers, with hiking trails winding around numerous active vents and geysers. Also here are Maori-run venues that provide a glimpse of native culture and customs such as native dance, wood carving, and traditional hangi, feasts featuring meat prepared in the time-honored Maori method of cooking over hot stones. We chartered a boat and fished the deep clear waters of Lake Rotorua, hooking a number of 4-5 pound lake trout which we took directly from the boat to one of the local restaurants for preparation. Fresh New Zealand fish from boat to table in less than an hour, with all the fixings. Rotorua has a fairly active nightlife, with the Pig & Whistle Pub and a couple of nightclubs on Tutanekai Street being the local hangouts.

We headed on to Nelson, which, with its meticulously maintained art-deco buildings, can best be described as passing into a time warp and coming out in the 1920’s. The city sits on the eastern shore of Tasman Bay with a narrow pebbled beach between the calm bay waters and the city storefronts. Apart from the picturesque buildings, the main attraction in Nelson is the Possum Store, offering everything possum-related.

Possums are to New Zealanders as Osama bin Laden is to Americans. A New Zealander would as soon compliment an Aussie as hug a possum. These introduced critters have overpopulated to the point of ecological disaster, stripping the countryside of vegetation, plundering native bird eggs, and otherwise exhausting their welcome. The national sport seems to be squashing the slow moving animals as they trundle across the roads and drivers can be seen careening down the highway, swerving toward them in murderous attempts to contribute to possum family planning. Possum carcasses litter the roads and are invariably squashed flatter than a fritter as succeeding drivers ensure that yes, that possum is indeed dead. In keeping with this cheery philosophy, the Possum Store has stuffed possums, possum recipes, possum fur coats, and a shoot-a-fake-possum arcade. Don’t miss it.

After a night hitting the clubs and bars of cosmopolitan Wellington, we caught a ferry across to the South Island. The Western shore of the South Island is a rocky and rugged landscape of rocky cliffs, lush rainforest, and windswept mountains. On the shoulder of this coastline is Punakaiki Rocks, one of New Zealand’s most breathtaking natural areas. Hiking out to the rocks to view the surf crashing into the rocky formations and spewing upwards in spectacular natural geysers is not to be missed.

Further south we arrived at Franz Josef, the staging area for treks onto Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers. These massive ice flows dominate the area landscape and are a major tourist draw. The area abounds with hiking, camping, helicopter, and biking concessions so picking your method of approach to the glaciers is an easy propositions. We opted to hike to the glaciers’ bases first to get a feel for their massive proportions. Both are huge but Franz Josef seemed more dramatic to me. The fractured and tortured face is a near vertical 500-foot jumble of ice with a torrent of milky white water and tumbling ice boulders flowing out of an ice tunnel carved in the center foot of the icy face. You can hike up onto the glacier with a guide, but the hike is strenuous and if you suffer from vertigo, forget it. If you forego the glacier hike, hiking across the tumbled scree alongside the river of glacial water makes for a dramatic trek. We hitched a helicopter ride onto the top of the glacier, rising up from the cloudy sky on the valley floor at Franz Josef into the brilliant clear skies above the glacier. The bright afternoon sun hitting the white and glacier ice was near blinding and the deep crevasses that striated the glacier’s back glistened a brilliant cerulean.

Queenstown is the adventure center of New Zealand and it was bustling with young and athletic types. Take your pick here; jetboating, bungee jumping, horseback riding, biking, parasailing, hiking—you can try a new pursuit every day for weeks and not get bored. We spent a day jetboating and horseback riding and closed out our Queenstown visit with a shared a bottle of wine on the shores of Lake Wakatipu, the Impossibles Mountain range reflecting off the cool blue waters.
Last stop: Christchurch, a very proper and British feeling city. We arrived during the Annual Buskers Festival and dozens of street performers were singing, dancing, juggling or performing other, more arcane shows in the shadows of imposing cathedrals and buildings. After taking a punt ride on the gentle Avon River flowing through the city center and viewing exhibits at the Art Museum, we took in the architecture before hitting the pubs and restaurants. The Bog, a lively Irish Pub on Cashel Street, was hitting stride with a Celtic group playing traditional Irish folk music and the crowd bustled with lots of hot young bodies hitting on each other.

The next morning we opted for a day trip to the seaside village of Akaroa and a boat trip out to the ocean to spot Little Blue penguins, endangered Hector’s dolphins (which repeatedly shot through the water alongside the boat) and New Zealand Fur seals lounging, pups and mothers, on the rocky shoreline.

Two weeks of leisurely driving, picking and choosing our next destination and seeing the finest of this lovely country at our own pace, provided the perfect alternative to a structured package tour. If you want to avoid the tourist rut and experience your own customized adventures, New Zealand is a hassle-free place to make your own way.

Len Foote Hike Inn

I’ve spent thousands of hours in the wilderness, from the tundra of Alaska’s Denali to the jungles of Costa Rica. In all that time I’ve seen dozens of different kinds of animals—gray wolves, grizzly bear, caribou, elk—but I’ve never seen a bobcat, that fairly common wild feline of the southeastern states. So when I see my son Val ahead of me on the trail silently motion for me to catch up with him, bobcats are the last thing on my mind. After all, we had just left the parking lot in Amicalola Falls State Park in northern Georgia less than an hour before. We are barely three miles into Georgia’s Blue Ridge Mountains and, although the mountains are relatively untouched, this is far from a secluded wilderness. Yet he had met a bobcat in the trail.

We were hiking up into the mountains of Georgia to spend a night at the Len Foote Hike Inn, a cozy backcountry lodge that opened in 1998 and has quickly become one of the most popular attractions of the state’s park system. We had briefly looked at the topographic map of the area and the trail to the lodge didn’t look too strenuous; still, our experience with mountain hiking had taught us that hiking in the Blue Ridge is often an exhausting slog up steep and rocky trails. So we came prepared for a long hike over rugged terrain up the side of this mountain. What we encountered instead was a delightful trek through blossoming mountain laurel thickets and across splashing streams. Which is why we were so surprised to meet a bobcat—we felt like we were on a stroll through a park instead of way back in the mountains of Georgia.

That’s what I like about Len Foote Hike Inn—you’re only five miles from civilization but you feel like you’re dozens of miles into the backwoods. You can leave the crowds, traffic, and hustle of modern life in the parking lot and barely three hours later plant yourself in a comfortable Adirondack chair on the wide wraparound porches of the inn and sip a steaming cup of hot chocolate. The temperature differential between the inn and the state park can also be dramatic. The day we hiked to the lodge it was almost ninety degrees when we left the parking lot; at the lodge it was a cool and refreshing 65 degrees.

You also don’t need to worry about traffic and noise at the inn; the only way to reach it is by foot on the narrow trail we just hiked. But that has not deterred a steady stream of hikers from trekking up the mountain to experience the inn’s unique mixture of simplicity and comfort. The lodge is a modern rustic structure that looms suddenly out of the lush hardwood forest as you approach. It is a complex of twenty rooms surrounding an airy, two-story central lobby, an attached dining room, bathhouse (with hot showers), and a gathering room. The central lobby is designed with lots of glass, the result is a feeling of being outdoors while indoors. The sleeping rooms are small but adequate. Bunk beds and a shelf line one wall, on the other wall hangs a mirror and wooden clothes pegs; that’s about it—this is not a four start hotel stocked with all the amenities but it is comfy and inviting. The inn sits amidst a lush forest of mountain laurel, rhododendron, and majestic oak and hickory trees. These is no other sign of civilization for miles around so even when the lodge is full, there’s plenty of rambling room on the grounds and in the surrounding forests. If for some reason you get the urge to roust yourself out of your chair, you can follow the trail past the inn further up to Springer Mountain, the southern end of the Appalachian Trail, four miles away.

This will work up your appetite for the inn’s excellent meals. The cook rings the cast iron dinner bell which brings guests from all parts of the forests and grounds. Dinner is served family-style at long tables in the dining room. On our visit we shared our table with the night’s other nine guests, hungrily wolfing down a hearty meal of lemon pepper chicken, twice-baked potatoes, broccoli, peas, macaroni salad, potato salad, and the best homemade cornbread in northern Georgia, with cupcakes and ice cream for dessert.

We dawdled over after-dinner coffee and hot chocolate with our fellow guests, getting to know each and then waddled into the Sunrise Room, where a well-stocked library and games kept us occupied until late evening. As dusk settled over the surrounding countryside, we wandered back out to the porch and watched as the fading light turned the sky into inky blackness. Sitting 3100 feet up near the peak of a mountain in the Chattahoochee National Forest, the inn offers a scenic panorama of the surrounding area. Off to the southeast we could see the twinkling lights of the city of Dahlonega. But to the east and north all was dark, the thick forests undeveloped and pitch black.

The mountain air quickly cooled as the sun set and we headed for our room. The rooms are unheated but the stacks of fleece and wool blankets in each room will fend off all but the coldest nights. It got down to 48 degrees when we were there but we were warm and toasty in our room and fell asleep to the hooting of an owl.

We awoke to something quite different; the pounding of a drum. Penny, our cook, was giving us fair warning that the sun would soon be rising over the eastern horizon. Trust me, this is a sight that is worth stumbling out of a warm bed for. We gathered on the eastern slope of the mountain and watched the orange sun tiptoe up over the hills. A great send off for our hike back down to the real world.

Details: The Len Foote Hike Inn is located at Amicalola Falls State Park near Dawsonville, GA, about four hours from Huntsville. The Inn is open year round. Reservations are required and accepted up to 11 months in advance. Call 1-800-864-7275 for reservations. Call well in advance, the popularity of the inn means that some date fill up quickly. Rates are $65 per night per person (children under 12 are discounted) and include dinner and breakfast. Weekdays are often available but weekends may be booked up several weeks in advance.

(This article originally appeared in the Nashville Tennessean)