Posted by: Tanmoy Chakrabarti | February 9, 2009

Of Sheep and Volcanoes – 1

Intercity Bus

Intercity Bus

At around 9.00 a.m on February 6th, 2009, we left Auckland on an Intercity Bus to Tongariro National Park around 330 kilometers south (on the highway that connects Auckland and Wellington). It was Waitangi Day – a day of extreme historical significance to NZ and a public holiday for us. Although we weren’t on a guided tour bus, Naheena, our mate who drove the bus, ensured that we have enough knowledge about the places that we pass. His warmth, wit and knowledge made the bus ride a memorable one.

NZ is endowed with a diverse natural beauty. It is difficult to explain in words how beautiful the country is and you cannot possibly take pictures of everything that you see. As soon as we left city landscapes of Auckland we were greeted by beautiful countryside of New Zealand. The bus was scheduled to reach National Park at around 2.30 PM and the additional one hour that it takes to cover 330 kilometers is due to the two stopovers at Hamilton (to pick-up passengers) and at Te Kuiti for lunch.

The regions of Hamilton till Te Kuiti is situated in the Waikato district of the country. This region is also known as King’s country. When the Māoris were fighting their war against European invaders, Māori king, Tawhiao and his followers took refuge in the region. They stayed here for a long time and the region came to be known as King’s region. The region also has the famous burial grounds for the Māori rulers.

Both Naheena and his father became part of history when they were the selected as the official drivers for the funeral procession of Dame Te Atairangikaahu in 2006. While Naheena’s father drove the railway carriage that carried people to witness the funeral, Naheena drove a bus. Incidentally, Dame Te Atairangikaahuwho was the Māori queen for 40 years, the longest reign of any Māori monarch. She was immensely popular and people still remember her fondly.

The main city of the Waikato region is Hamilton, which is the fourth largest (in terms of population) city of New Zealand but is its largest inland city. Unlike Auckland, Hamilton did not seem like a busy city.

Waikato River

Waikato River

The motorway ran parallel to the Waikato river. Waikato, the largest river in New Zealand and was the main mode of transporting goods and people between Auckland and Wellington before the railway and motorway were built. The motorway was nicely built with café’s on the side of the road. As with any well-built highway, roadsigns are aplenty to help you reach your destination easily.

Naheena was impeccably witty. As soon as we got into the bus, he became a friend of every passenger through his commentary. He is a student in the university and does driving as a part time job. He is married recently and told us that he promised his wife that he shall work throughout his life so that she can shop. He apologized to us that he cannot solve any of our problems in our respective love lives but if we have any issues regarding the bus ride he would hope to resolve them.

His commentary was full of anecdotes. For example, he informed us that apparently NZ’s famous ice-cream brand Tip-Top got its name when one of the creators (still searching for an appropriate name for the ice-cream he created), was having lunch and someone mentioned to him, ‘Wow, that was a tip-top lunch’.

Naheena had an interesting way to request people to adhere to time lines at the stoppages. Though he acknowledged that, punctual people hardly ever get the credit that they deserve since none is there to appreciate, he also let the travelers know that whenever they are late they should click a picture of the bus from behind.

His way of making passengers aware of the non-smoking rule was interesting too. He said the one who smokes in the bus should be very fit since he has to walk the entire highway by himself after Naheena refuses to carry him.

I did not click a picture of his because at times people like Naheena get very conscious when they are asked to pose for a photograph.

We crossed the towns of Te Kuiti, which is the “Shearing Capital of the World”. The small city contains the world’s largest shearer, seven metres high. Some time back, the largest sheep show in the world took place here. In New Zealand there are 20 sheep to one human being. However, you don’t get to see sheep and cows roaming about in the streets as you get to see in India. While crossing the Te Kuiti region, we did see a large number of sheep on either side of the bus grazing around in glory. At Te Kuiti we had our lunch at Tiffany’s Resturant fondly named after the famous film ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’.

As we left Te Kuiti, we entered the Ruapehu district and crossed its biggest town Taumarunui. Taumarunui serves as the meeting place of the Whanganui and Ongarue Rivers. The city has a golf course that is listed amongst the country’s top 50.

Mount Ruapehu

Mount Ruapehu

We reached National Park Village at our scheduled time. Other than the motels, two skiing equipment hiring shops, couple of coffee shops, a bar, a departmental store, a railway station and a petrol pump the village hardly has anything. Situated in the Ruapehu district, the main attraction of the village are its volcanic mountains, lakes and bushes. There are lots of motels for tourists so that the village can serve as a base for anyone planning to tour around the district. The motels are self-sufficient in arranging for everyones needs. I believe the residents of the village rely a lot on Taumarunui town for their shopping, which is 45 minutes drive from the village. Having said that, it seemed the village relies mostly on tourism.

Interestingly, unlike the major tourist destinations in India, places in New Zealand are not overcrowded with shops selling memorabilia, food, photographers, ponies etc. In India though there is an argument that the ever-increasing population needs to have livelihood and they depend on the tourists in the remotest of places. However, there is no doubt about the fact that it spoils the nature. I have always failed to take any concrete stand on this particular issue. On one hand, I don’t like natural beauty being spoilt by humans and on the other I fear back in India we have so many people, how shall we hope to feed them? I can only hope that the people in India who are doing businesses in tourist destinations don’t cheat the tourists because of their ignorance. At least, that can uphold the sanctity of beautiful India.

Coming back to National Park village, while walking towards our motel, we saw the spectacular view of the family of volcanic mountains – Mount Tongariro, Mount Ruapehu and Mount Ngauruhoe.

Mt Ngauruhoe and Mt Tongariro as seen from the village

Mt Ngauruhoe and Mt Tongariro as seen from the village

The motel was named Adventure Lodge and Motel and is managed by an Aussie gentleman, his wife and his two grown up sons. When I say managed means there are no drivers, cooks, attendants and cleaners other than they themselves. The cottage we checked in was a studio unit with kitchen. However, since we booked a package our meal was taken care of by the family of managers. In most of these places, one has to pre-order the meals so that they have adequate time to prepare them.

As we checked into our cottage, one of the sons informed us that the next day if we intend to cross the Tongariro Alpine range, the shoes which we were wearing would be of no help. We need to have hunting boots, which we can rent from the ski-shop. Much later during our walk the next day we realized how valuable his advise was.

We spent the first evening by having a light early dinner, taking stroll on the highway and looking at the amazing mountain ranges that we intended to trek the next day.

The next day was the test of our first conscious decision to flirt with danger. We were excited about it.

PS: Just for information please find here a typical fire alert notice. Yesterday, notices have been issued by various district councils in NZ. This follows the terrible tragedy that happened in Victoria, Australia.


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