This week’s guest story takes us all the way to heartland New Zealand with Cate of Caffeinated Traveller. Cate’s first encounter with travel began at the age of four with a taste of a chocolate found in a Christmas package from abroad. Ever since that first bite, she began a personal quest for more of the “sweet stuff” which has evolved, over time, into a quest for caffeine. Originally from New Zealand, Cate has lived and travelled extensively through Australia, Asia and Europe and was recently introduced to Central America. She tries to visit New Zealand often, packed with a laptop and a camera.
OFF THE HIGHWAY
In search of a volcano in heartland New Zealand
It was yet another day of bad weather. Heavy snowfalls were expected in the mountain regions along with rain in the low lying areas. I groaned at the radio announcer, as he delivered his hourly dose of gloom, slightly annoyed at his celebratory tone. Outside was wet and bone-chilling cold – one degree Celsius – unchanged since yesterday.
Winter had swept its way through New Zealand from its Antarctic home, with a ferocity unseen in decades, turning the countryside into a boggy quagmire and the mountains into a winter’s paradise. One thing was certain: both ducks and skiers were happy.
“If we leave now, there’s a good chance of catching the mountain before it snows.” My mother, self-appointed hotelier, chef and now, local tour guide, jingled her car keys, waiting for a reply.
Twenty minutes later I was nestled in the backseat of the car looking out the window for signs of a mountain peak as we – mother guide, US geologist boyfriend and I – made our way towards the rural farm town, Taihape.
It had been a weeklong quest to photograph the volcanic peak Ruapehu centrally located in New Zealand’s north island, a fifty minute drive north from our holiday base. The active volcano had been elusive and moody all week, covered in cloud all day, revealing her beauty during the inconvenient night hours.
On a clear day Ruapehu’s ethereal appearance dominates the horizon luring hikers and campers to her base and skiers to the summit. By mid-morning, the clouds were scattered enough, leaving the surrounding landscape clear and lifting my expectations for the first time that week.
“No, I can’t see it.”
I followed mother-guide’s voice and eyes to a gap in a terraced-river valley where the peak could usually be seen. There was nothing, just an ominous-looking sky. It was snowing heavily on the mountain.
Taihape sat over the next hill, a small historic farm town, important a century ago when the main trunk line made its way across iron viaducts into the heartland of rural New Zealand. Things had changed and the boom disappeared, taking the town’s heart and most of its people away, until recently.
In the late 1990s, Taihape reinvented itself as the rest-stop for travellers – cafés and boutiques reclaimed the town’s empty buildings enticing visitors with quality gifts, home-style foods and coffee usually found in cities. I was tempted to stop but the quest was turning into a chase and time wasn’t on our side.
Our car sped along a quiet back road travelling in a different direction to the volcano, past a gorge and creek I frequented as a child during the hot summer months. Soon the bush lay beneath us revealing a canopy of ancient native trees smothered in an ancient looking creeper – old man’s beard – as the locals called it. This clematis plant, with its fine hair-like flowers, stubbornly latches onto trees like a beard to a face, creating a nightmare for conservationists in their efforts to control its rapid growth.
Farmland started to envelop the bush as we moved further from the town. Evidence of early settler practices could be seen across the rolling hillside and farms: abandoned barns with collapsed roofs and glassless windows sat next to blackened tree stumps with roots too deep to move – all left to rot over time.
I shifted my gaze to the horizon. The weather had quickly closed in making visible objects into mirages. Our car slowed down and parked up on the edge of the gravel road.
Mother-guide turned and gave us the news. We had to make a choice – keep moving or return home, possibly stopping at one of those cafés on the way. I didn’t reply.
Suddenly she pointed to a small building in a paddock below. The steeple and cemetery gave its former purpose away; an old wooden church stood alone among the sheep, locked up and tired yet serene and graceful. It was another example of the pioneering era, only this time it was indigenous – Maori.
There had been a race between the English Protestants and the Irish Roman Catholics to outdo each other in numbers of churches and patrons during the European settlement of the nineteenth century. There was also a race to christen the native population first.
Maori settlement history changes with the terrain. In the Ruapehu region where I was staying, Maori had lived there long before the Europeans. Newer tribes had come with the arrival of Christianity following the new faith. Despite colonial attempts to assimilate Maori, their culture had thrived and not been eradicated. Meeting houses – marae – continue to draw their people for social gatherings and serious discussions. Like many other indigenous cultures, decision making is a group consensus.
I took a closer look at the church, searching for signs of the old meeting house. Following its community, it had moved to a higher place on hill, still open for business.
Enrapt, I quickly forgot about our quest. My mother’s stories revealed a piece of the country unknown to me, as she segued from one story to the next while the car wound its way around the hills.
I started to see the land differently: the lush green from the volcanic soils, the occasional tear in the earth revealing a chasm made from tectonics eons ago; and the barren windy plains of a volcanic plateau sprawled out in the distance created by Ruapehu, her two dormant siblings (Ngaruhoe and Tongariro) and the powerful in-law, Taupo, asleep under a lake further up the island. The country here is uncommonly rich in human and geological history.
We came to a junction and stopped.
No one spoke.
“Well?”, I asked curbing my enthusiasm.
My boyfriend turned and faced us both, grinning like a child.
“The fun has only just started.”
We drove off towards the darkening sky. Our quest was back on.
[images courtesy of Joseph R. May]