…As we wrapped up the morning leg of the tour, we changed from our minivan to a bigger bus where we met our guide, Kevin, and other tourists who had signed up for the wilderness part of the tour – two old American ladies who were not up for walking much, a quiet Australian, and another mum and daughter pair, also American. Everyone was lovely and chatty, exchanging pleasantries till our first and most important stop…lunch. Lunch was at a bakery, the pies of which Kevin swore by. We sampled a bit of the warm vegetable pie, but with a long day to go and my tummy’s abysmal track record, I decided on a safer alternative – a banana, salted crisps and a nibble of the cake we’d picked from a Japanese bakery opposite our hotel.
We drove from the Pacific coast all the way across to the Tasman coast. Our destination was the Waitakere Ranges Regional Park , a far cry from the hustle and bustle of the city of Auckland. What I found rather amazing was how incredibly close everything is, it’s just about an hour’s drive from the heart of Auckland to the ranges which is way shorter than my work commute used to be! At the ranges, we took a tour of the Arataki Visitor Centre, picked up some souvenirs (I admit I’m a sucker for 3D puzzles and now I’m into wooden puzzles).
But for me, more than the visitor centre which is trying to preserve the Maori heritage, I was drawn by the splendid view, made even more splendid by the clear day which meant we had visibility all the way till Sky Tower. It really means something else to live on an island…surrounded by all that water. Here we learnt how Auckland is pretty much self-sufficient when it comes to their water supply- being blessed with good rainfalls, Auckland’s dams, like the one in the Waitakere, provide upto 80% of the city’s water. Coming from a desert, albeit with beaches in every emirate, I find it surreal to be surrounded by all this water.
We enjoyed the view with the help of some handmade vanilla ice-cream and strawberry syrup in a yummy waffle cone (Danish Delight- you can’t miss it) and then made our way to the Karekare Falls. The road leading to Karekare reminded me of the road up to Nuwara Eliya in Sri Lanka – being narrow, winding, two way with speeds to thrill, but it was not dizzying which is a definite plus! Now I almost didn’t get to see the waterfall, because mum was scared off by Kevin’s warning of a steep initial climb down. She finally relented when Kevin said he errs on the side of caution and was exaggerating how steep it was…and so I got to see my first waterfall ever and what a fall it is.
Surrounded by greenery, faced with a waterfall with a sound to calm your soul, and a bench to sit on, I was ready to pitch tent here as another place I’d love to live. In the rock face off towards the left, you can in fact spot some houses and I couldn’t wonder what it would be like to live in a place so remote. It wasn’t easy to part with Karekare but since getting left behind is not an option, we had to move on, this time towards Piha, with its famous black sand beach with a diversion first into the rainforest.
As we headed into the rainforest, we had to first disinfect our shoes. Kevin explained that the Kauri were currently being faced with a disease called dieback which spreads through the soil and the root system (I know understood why biocontrol at the airport had been so strict about bringing soiled shoes and equipment into the country). We saw a number of native trees such as the Pohutakawa but the main purpose was to see the stump of a Kauri, a pitiful legacy of an era of logging (30m to the first branch…they probably felt like they had stumbled across a goldmine). The size of the stump itself was so big that you had to wonder just how magnificent the whole tree would have looked. Just thinking that made me feel upset, so I opted not to take a picture with the stump, as many tourists do, simply because it felt cruel to smile next to silent dead stump.
We left the rainforest and continued towards Piha. The first view of Piha is stunning, with the imposing Lion Rock standing guard, but it is nothing compared to actually being on the beach itself.
It was so incredibly sunny that day that trying to take a picture to capture just how black the sand was, was a lost cause, which was not necessarily a bad thing because it meant we had more time to enjoy ourselves and take everything in. The black sands are comprised chiefly of iron and titanium and glittered in the sun as far as the eye could see. It was as though someone had liberally sprinkled glitter all over the beach. It was a relief to know that no one has yet figured out how to separate the titanium from the sand… when that day comes I wonder if Piha will stay the same.
And while it was sunny, it was equally cold, with bracing winds which meant we couldn’t stay out for too long, but it was a sight I’m not likely to soon forget. I wish I lived here point three of this tour. As we wrapped up at Piha, we were taken to one final stop… to see a living Kauri. I cannot decide what made me sadder, seeing the stump of the Kauri, or seeing this magnificent Kauri surrounded by none of its kind. We had to see the Kauri from an elevated platform, further precaution to protect the roots by preventing any possible contamination). There is one thing I found decidedly spooky about this place…the absolute silence. Where are all the animals I wonder? No sound of a bird, no rustle of leaves, no insect to swat away… nothing but a forest seemingly without residents.
As we headed back to the hotel, I couldn’t help but think of what Kevin told us of how native animals have been pushed to the brink of extinction thanks to the introduction of cats, dogs, rats, pigs and possum.
I wrapped up the day at the conference banquet were I met a Saudi from Um Al Qura University and a very Jet-Li kind of Chinese assistant professor working in Singapore. I was glad to have met each of them for different reasons. Mr. Chinese was very well-travelled and gave me a top tip, that if travelling to China, I should not miss out on the 6 hour climb up Mt. Hunashan in Hefei to see the Sea of Clouds, a feat he had accomplished three times. Mr. Saudi was flying out on the first day of Ramadan, and I was flying out on the second. When I told him I was concerned how I would be able to fast… in a word, he was able to make everything okay – Rahma.
And with that I had to get ready for Day 6, also known as the Day of the Presentation.