This holiday season, I feel great sympathy for Santa Claus and the extreme journey he takes around the globe each year as he delivers presents to all the children of the world. My own journey may not have been quite as arduous as Saint Nick’s, but traveling half way around the world for over 24 hours straight at Christmas time was still quite ambitious and worth every minute. Instead of finding neatly wrapped presents under a tree in my living room, my gift was a few days on the warm sand of New Zealand under the indigenous Kiwi Christmas trees!
This brief pit stop on the North Island was a great way for Lars, Sam, and I to take some personal time and break up the long monotony of air travel on our way to Antarctica. We arrived in Auckland midday on December 24th after losing a day at the International Date Line and proceeded directly to Waihi Beach at the north end of the Bay of Plenty. This sleepy beach town was in the midst of experiencing exceptionally nice weather which made the stunning coastline appear all the more breathtaking. The laid back attitude of the beach town was easy to adapt to during our first day, and we continued to enjoy this easygoing life on Christmas Day during a gorgeous hike up the coast to another cove and a tropical waterfall. Kiwi families were out and about on the trails and beaches after celebrating Christmas at home in the morning which was an interesting contrast to our usual expectations of a Christmas afternoon spent in the snowy North. Be sure to check out the photos below, or click here to open the photo album in a new window.
Colonial British countries, including New Zealand, have instituted a holiday immediately following Christmas called Boxing Day. Apparently this day’s name is derived from boxing up donations to send to charity after experience great wealth the day prior, but I think it is more likely just a great reason to keep the holiday season momentum going. Our last full day of vacation was spent celebrating Boxing Day with throngs of tourists and locals alike at a curious natural feature up the coast on the Coromandel Peninsula called Hot Water Beach. The ocean’s edge in this location just happens to coincide with a geothermal site that heats subsurface water and drives it up to the surface much like the thermal pools in Yellowstone National Park. However, the exact locations of the hot springs are limited to a few hundred square meters and are only accessible within 2 hours of low tide, so when tourists descend on Hot Water Beach, they do so in throngs. And when you add the fact that it was Boxing Day when we visited this attraction, you can only imagine the mad scene that ensued. In fact, the experience was both simultaneously hectic and ordered in the way of a beehive. After I caught a few waves on a rented surfboard, I perched my GoPro on a precipitous cliff high above the scene and captured this panoramic time lapse that does a nice job of conveying the natural and cultural oddity of Hot Water Beach.
We knew that our days on the beach were limited, and this morning we parted with the Bay of Plenty for a quick, 1-hour flight to Christchurch on the South Island which is our launching point to Antarctica. Upon arrival at the Christchurch airport, we were greeted by a representative from the United States Antarctic Program (USAP) who briefed us on our schedule for the next two days and warned us that aftershocks are persisting from last week’s earthquake. The news was not meant to be frightening, but it was a somber reminder of the natural disasters that have struck this city twice in the past year. Although we had heard of the damages the city had sustained, we boarded a bus to view them first-hand. Initially, we concluded that perhaps the damage was not as bad as reported, but upon further exploration, we came across a city that looked war-ravaged with closed streets and fatally compromised structures. The downtown was barely passable as a place worth visiting at all, but farther away, the smaller buildings showed less damage. Unfortunately, the city’s namesake church was irreparably destroyed in last year’s earthquake when its high steeple toppled to the ground, and now construction towers scrape the sky in its absence. On a more positive note, the Canterbury Museum survived these recent natural onslaughts, so we are planning on a quick visit to it and the adjacent, lush botanical gardens tomorrow morning prior to our departure to the cold, white South.
In 24 hours, I will be stepping foot on the most remote, the highest, driest, windiest, oddest, and of course, the coldest continent on the planet- Antarctica! Stay tuned!