The Forgotten Highway From Hell!
6/5/12 - 6/5/12
Sunday, May 6, 2012; 10:20 p.m.
Day 2 in Rotorua started slowly after amazing massages in the New Zealand equivalent of a Roman spa, but these mineral baths were set in warm stones overlooking a sprawling, sparkling volcanic lake. The Polynesian Spa is definitely a tourist attraction, so I'm not sure just going for the mineral baths would be enough to endure the trap. But, the massages and other therapies offered there are so unique (warm bath massages, or bubbling mud baths with the geothermal mud to name a few) make it a must do. The only albatross in the whole idyllic scene were the 300 yapping Japanese tourists also enjoying the geothermal wonders of Rotorua. And here I thought they only went to Disneyworld.
After navigating no wireless connectivity at the Rydges Hotel, our accomodation for the short stay, we set out in search of breakfast. The Rydges was actually very nice. It's only blemish was that it didn't offer wireless anywhere other than in the lobby, and charged .76 a minute for it. Are you kidding? You want me to pad down to the lobby at 11:00 p.m. and then pay you a fortune to do it? I don't think so. We did end up trying to use it with Margaret's laptop; she fought with it first in the name of a few emails and I fought with it thereafter in the name of a few more, but we ultimately got the $30 or more of charges removed to make up for the pain. The Rydges came through. I'd stay there again.
After a lovely breakfast of fresh fruit and Muesli, we headed off to the Skyline gondola ride and luge runs. That was such a blast. The gondola ride up the mountain was beautiful. Great pics. We took a long walk further up the mountain for a few additional photographic opportunities and then it was time to play. The blokes have this thrill ride down (pardon the pun). They've set up luges on wheels to run down three distinct tracks laid with concrete, with ski lifts to bring the riders and the luges back up the mountain after each run. Really great fun. We did the "beginner" run the first time - Margaret turned into a speed demon and easily won that battle round. Intermediate next, which was much faster and really exhilerating. Again, she is clearly the more dare-devil of the two of us and once again could have had her hair and nails done by the time I came to the end. Show off! That was enough for Rotorua, so we headed to Lake Taupo, a much larger geothermal lake about 60 km south.
More moutainous terrain to navigate and it was my first time behind the wheel. The left-sided wheel no less. I can't tell you how much fun Margaret thought it was every time I turned the windshield washers on when I went to make a turn! This driving on the left-hand side of the road is absolute brain science. Now try it up the side of a mountain at 100 km. Thrill ride number 2 for the day. I did manage to get us to Lake Taupo in one piece though. It is breathtaking. As you near the sparkling panaramic crater, you can see steam rising from various locations on the mountain side. Signs along the route point out the various natural springs and mineral pools. This part of the journey was well-marked and fairly easy to navigate. Lake Taupo itself is a fairly good-sized, well-laid out town with alot of charm and character. It apparently holds a big draw for backpackers and "trekkers" (kiwi for hikers), as well as skiers and cyclists. Naturalists of all shapes and sizes abound. This was a really neat place and our only regret was that we didn't have more time to explore it.
Off then to start the, what we thought was going to be, relatively short ride back to New Plymouth. This is where the real fun began. It was about 4:30 by that point and we had about a 150 km drive back to Marge's flat (note that 1 km = .621 miles). The only problem with that is there is a mountain range standing between Lake Taupo and New Plymouth. Hmmm. The map said we could take Hwy 43 from a little town about 30 km south of Lake Taupo that runs due west and is the most direct route to New Plymouth. Alrightie then - how hard could this be? We set off with visions of amazing views and a relaxing sunset drive back home. Stupid American tourists. The views were spectacular, so we stop several times for pics. I'm still driving at this point and relatively confident that I'm not going to kill us. That's before we go . . . Up, Up . . . Up. It's also about 5:30 in the afternoon and we're heading due west, which results in a little phenonomen called GLARE. We continue to go up . . . up . . . up and the knuckles continue to get whiter and whiter. I think I probably held my breath for about 30 minutes. Not sure how beautiful it was (Margaret said it was pretty fantastic, when she was able to peel her eyes off the sheer cliff that fell off just 6" from her side of the car). That's when the road signs just disappeared. What signs? There would be a small sign that pointed to the town we were looking for and then nothing. No highway sign, no speed limit sign, just a random street sign that pointed this way or that, but to no where in particular. No towns, only sheep and cows and moutains in-between. We continued to follow the lake, though, being that the map showed that the road winding around the giant midnight blue pool would eventually intersect with Hwy 43. Ok then. We see the sign for one of the marker towns for our destination, and even though it looks like it's going in the wrong direction, we take it. Yes, it is wrong, but the mistake lands us at the shores of Lake Taupo, with the mountains in the distance and the moon rising in place of the setting sun. It's a jaw-dropping, once-in-a-lifetime moment where two moutain peaks cradle the moon between them, rocking it gently in the darkening sky. We wondered why a half dozen kiwis were all rigging up tripods at the water's edge when we spotted them and quickly swooped down to ask for directions. I was still oblivious to it until I saw Margaret scrambling to get hers. I so hope the photos do that moment justice, but doubt they will. It was magnificent.
Ok, so one of them confirms our wrong choice in direction and points us back on track. He never says anything about embarking on a journey through the dark on Hwy 43. We wondered later if he was being malicious, or just didn't think that through in light of my interruption of a once-in-a-lifetime photographic moment. We'll never know. Off we go and, just as he indicated, we find our turn about 10 km up the road. The sign for Hwy 43 does reflect that it is also referred to as "The Forgotten Highway," which Margaret recognizes. She's driving again at this point, and tells me that two of her co-workers recently took the drive and commented on how it wasn't worth all the hype the tourist papers made it out to be. The sign also says that it's 153 km to whatever the town is that we were shooting for (can't remember the name now - the memory has obviously been overtaken by other events), which wasn't far from New Plymouth. Margaret hesitates for a minute and then we go for it. How bad can it be?
3 1/2 hours later we're through the worst of it, with about 1 hour still to go. Seriously. To appreciate this, you have to understand that 153 km is approx. 95 miles. The average speed limit is anywhere between 80 km to 100 km, or so the sign says (there are multiple locations where the signs indicating hairpin turns ahead give a recommended speed of 45 km). It takes us over 3 1/2 hours to get 95 miles! Over the course of that long, painful drive in pitch black moutainous terrain, we saw 4 cars (yes, only 4), 18 houses (over 3 1/2 hours folks), 11 possums, 4 hedgehogs, approx. 25 deer, 1 cow (sitting about 2" from road on the left - no shoulder), 1 sheep (sitting about 3" from the right-side of the road - no shoulder), 8 fog pockets, 2 bunny rabbits, 2 jack rabbits (we named one of them the "hauling @ss bunny" cause he raced the car and almost won!), 11 one-lane bridges, 4 railroad crossings with stop signs only, 2 railroad crossings with no signs at all, 2 mud-slides, 8 km of gravel roads (after Margaret brilliantly uttered "at least the road is not gravel"), approx. 50 colllective miles of rock slides that actually landed in the road (40 miles that didn't), 1 one-lane tunnel that had its own internal rock slides on both sides of the only lane it had), and 48 yellow signs indicating hairpin turns ahead. It gives new meaning to "up, up . . . up" and "down, down . . . down." I don't think either one of us have ever been so happy to see flat road and a convenience store sign.
Welcome to New Zealand. Pics soon.