Then we launched a double-kayak out onto Lake Taupo, the first of two water excursions for the day, both scheduled 2 months in advance via the Taupo branch of Canoe & Kayak. The weather was overcast but we didn't mind - the important thing is that we didn't get rained out.
Lake Taupo has a surface area of about 240 square miles. Just for comparison, my current hometown of Oakland occupies an area of about 1/3 of that. It's the largest lake in New Zealand, and the center of much local folklore. It was created by a gigantic volcanic eruption approximately 26,000 years ago - the largest eruption in the world over the past 70,000 years. The volcano is currently considered dormant - not extinct - and sports a collection of underwater geothermal vents that support sponges and other invertebrates.
We set out from Jerusalem Bay, with a fine misty view of Mount Tauhara just beyond the sparkling city of Taupo, and headed counterclockwise around the lake, while our guide told us fun stories about the Maori tribes in the area.
In due time we encountered the Maori carvings:
These were created in the 1970's, the masterwork of a local artist (Matahi Whakataka-Brightwell) who managed to convince the tribal elders - who tightly controlled the development of the lake - that his creations would enhance tourism while also raising awareness of tribal history. They were created over a number of years, carved in sections during the few months of the year when weather conditions made work possible.
The main carving is over 30 feet tall, and is a likeness of a Maori navigator named Ngatoroirangi. The likeness is distinctive because of "ta moko" - the Maori tradition of physically modifying one's face with lines and other patterns to describe one's family legacy and position in the tribe. In other words, it's distinctive because he was the only one with this particular pattern, and it's also descriptive, because the pattern can be read like a code, conveying personal information about the bearer. Like how a marine will get a tattoo describing their rank or regiment, or a place where they saw action - but even more complicated and ceremonial.
Anyway, we only got about 15 minutes to float around in front of the main carving in peace, and then a couple of tour boats rolled up, stuffed with onlookers. We felt smug that we could actually touch the carvings while they could only look!
We paddled back the way we came, and stopped for a break at an outcropping of smooth rocks that presented an easy place to beach the kayaks. Some of us drank tea and ate snacks, and some of us went plunging into the water, which was surprisingly pleasant.
The guide claimed we could actually drink the water without fear, but none of us was inclined to test his claim!
All told, it was a fine outing on the lake, and it only used up the first third of the day. We rowed back over to our starting point, listening to more stories about the history and geography of the area, and then clamored into the company van and returned to Taupo for lunch.
Kerry and I walked around downtown in search of a restaurant, and passed by a store that reminded me of hipster culture back home:
I first heard of "shabby chic" a few years ago in the Bay Area. Apparently it's a style of decoration where you make your house look like the interior of an abandoned barn that kids have been using as a fort.
I find it both puzzling and hilarious that someone has opened a store dedicated to selling items that I might find sitting on the sidewalk in Oakland. The rent for this shop must be little or nothing, because I can't believe their margins are very big. Taupo is a big city by New Zealand standards, but is it big enough to support a store this frivolous? Who knows.
Anyway, Kerry and I ate some excellent fish and chips and home-brewed cider while we waited for our second tour to begin. On the walk back to the kayak place we met with a fellow cycle tourist who sounded remarkably like Cary Elwes:
Check out those knobbly tires!
He's originally from Alaska and has been traveling all over the world on those same tires. What I find most interesting about his setup, though, is the solar panel arranged on the back. I remember obsessing for months and months over the best way to charge my collection of gadgets on the road, and after all the dust settled, I faced the simple fact that I was probably never going to go anywhere more than two days' ride from a wall socket - and if I did, a cellphone would be worthless anyway. I wonder how and why this fellow reached a different conclusion? He's certainly more traveled than I am...
I didn't think to ask this question in the moment, though. We just chatted about our histories, took a photo, and moved on. Kerry and I didn't want to be late for our next excursion:
An easy float down a few miles of the Waikato River! We put in right around Pois Road. The water was quite shallow there, and when we stepped into our kayaks they pressed into the sandy bottom and wedged us in place. Here's a shot of Kerry pulling herself forward on one of my oars, next to our guide.
Once we got out into the main body of the river, we used the paddles only to make minor course corrections. The current was strong and steady.
Just ahead of us we could see a group of college-age kids setting forth on a collection of inner-tubes, tethered loosely to each other with rope. They had an extra inner-tube with a cooler jammed inside it, filled with drinks, that they would reel in and plunder from time to time.
I filmed a bunch of the trip with my hand-dandy head-mounted camera, of course! Here are some highlights.
I don't know what this little river island is called, but it's swarming with plants and birds:
Checking out a large rock under the water:
"Oxygen Weed" is an invasive plant, foreign to New Zealand, that has grown in great quantities since when it was accidentally introduced:
Part of the river has high canyon walls along it. This particular cliff has a bungee-jumping platform suspended above. Scary!
For the less adventurous, there's a hot spring a little farther along the riverbank, feeding into the river from a small waterfall.
The hot springs was choked with other tourists, most of them of the well-to-do European kind. It was odd seeing so many people here after seeing so few drifting on the river.
"This is actually a very slow day," our guide said. "In December you'll see well over a hundred people here, every day."
Kerry warmed up her feet in the water. I didn't feel cold and I didn't feel like swapping my clothes, so I just posed for a picture instead:
While we were loading back up, I made brief friends with an adorable local dog:
After that it was a short drift to a riverside campground with a crude boat ramp, where we disembarked. Our total distance doesn't look like much if you view it on a map, but it was a very relaxing and relatively inexpensive way to spend a couple of hours, especially after all the rowing we did earlier in the day on Lake Taupo.
Back in town we got thai food from a much better restaurant than the one we'd tried the day before. They actually served a thai iced tea! YESSSS!
We handed our laundry to the in-house washing service, and watched some Venture Brothers. It rained pretty heavily. We talked for a while about our plans: Should we leave here a day early, foregoing the unscheduled time around Lake Taupo, in order to get more wiggle room on our journey to National Park? We might need the extra time if one of the shuttle buses is too full to take our bicycles...
We decided to sleep on it. As we were preparing for bed, we heard a knock on the door and a man handed our laundry back, freshly washed and folded in the sack we'd provided. Good! No need to wait for that in the morning.
Sleep came easily since we were exhausted, but we woke up later when a group of people a few rooms down started making a huge ruckus, smoking and laughing on the front porch of their room. I walked out and asked them to keep the noise down in as calm a way as I could, though if they'd kept it up I would have probably lost my temper and yelled at them quite loudly. Kerry called the room service line to file a noise complaint but they didn't answer. Hoohah!