Flight of the Jungle Bee

Today I head out of Auckland. I’ll be back, but I have to go meet another man. His name is Frank and he’s an older man. He’s sixty three-years old; well, in dog years. In people years he’s nine. He’s a white, furry terrier and I’ll be staying with him in Taupo, while his parents are away traveling in Africa.

Frank the DogFrank and I met in a round-about way. When I knew I’d be traveling to Australia or New Zealand, I started checking out various locations in those countries for dog-sitting opportunities through two of the house-sitting websites I belong to (Trusted Housesitters and HouseCareers). I found one who was looking for someone with hospitality experience (that’s me!) as they own a short-term rental place. Unfortunately, they found someone before we had a chance to Skype. A few weeks-later, they E-mailed me letting me know that a friend of theirs was looking for a dog-sitter. We spoke via Skype and they were very flexible and, if the vote didn’t go for New Zealand, it wasn’t a problem for them if I didn’t come as they had another option. Well, you voted for Auckland which, at only a three-hour drive from Taupo, gave me a chance to live with Frank for a week. He’s got to be easier to deal with than Friday was (see Sleeping with the Enemy).

So now, I’m picking up my rental car. I’ve reserved it through About New Zealand Rental Cars. I found them through the New Zealand tourism website and got a great deal. About New Zealand rents cars which have aged-out of Apex, their other car rental agency. As I don’t believe in age discrimination, I’m all for supporting these older models and, at NZ$220 (US$148) for twelve days, it’s a great deal. Sure, there are a few bumps and scratches, but I like to think of them as scars; and I love scars as they mean you did things and had life experiences. I turn down the rental insurance as I’ve checked with both American Express and Citicards regarding the included auto insurance. While the basics are online, it’s great to call and check about these things. I used Skype to dial their toll-free numbers and found out that, while American Express has worldwide coverage, their auto insurance policy excludes six countries, one of which is New Zealand. I’ve confirmed with Citicards that there are no countries excluded.

I drive out of the place and head back to my AirBnB to pick up my bags (no need to pack nice as I just have to throw it in the car). I navigate the busy freeways heading out of Auckland to drive on the winding, hilly two-lane highways which weave through the rest of the North Island. As I’ve started later than I’d planned, and hope to arrive before dark (remember, it’s winter and gets dark early), I head straight for Taupo with only a stop for a quick lunch. The scenery is beautiful, even if it does rain most of the way. While I love rain, today it just feels cold and depressing. I’m homesick and have financial concerns, and the radio stations here are just bad. As my my mini speaker seems to being having some issues, I shove my iPhone into one of the small storage nooks in the car and turn on the music. The small space amplifies the music and I’ve McGyvered a speaker. (You can also drop your phone in a cup for the same effect; just be sure the cup is empty!) I sing along with familiar tunes to help lift my mood.

Steam VentsI’m driving on the Thermal Explorer Highway as I enter Taupo. This area is a geothermal area which provides wonderful viewing of steam vents popping up all over the place. It’s much like Yellowstone Park, only these go through towns and cities. Though I’ve heard about the smell of sulfur which supposedly permeates the place (and I’ve smelled this in Yellowstone), I don’t experience it on my drive in.

Lake Taupo

A view from Frank’s house

I arrive at about 5:30pm and wait a few minutes for Lauren, the homeowners’ daughter to return from work. She lets me in and introduces me to Frank (I think he likes me). Being further south, and with the winds coming across the mountains and over the large lake – the largest lake (in surface area) in New Zealand – Taupo is colder than Auckland. I’ve just spent four months in Southeast Asia and anything cooler than seventy-five degrees Fahrenheit feels cold. To add insult to injury, they’re having an unusual cold-snap, with it getting below freezing during the night. Oh, and I forgot to mention, there’s no central heat. My room has a space-heater, and other rooms have wall ones (not the good radiator kind they have in Europe) which I’m instructed to turn off during the day or when I’m out. The frigid bathroom ensures that my showers will be limited. Seriously New Zealanders, it’s the twenty-first century. I can get by without the jetpack I was promised as a child, but heat?

Lauren spends part of the next day showing me around the place, explaining how appliances work and Frank’s regular schedule. She’d planned to take the bus back to school but the bus can’t get here as the road from Wellington, where the bus is coming from, is closed due to snow and she must drive. As I stop at the grocery story, small flakes of snow begin to fall. Seriously New Zealand, central heating is awesome.

The next morning, I wake up early, stop by the freezing bathroom, quickly dress and, by 7:15am, I’m out the door and in my car heading out to Rotorua. Just about an hour away, the Rotorua-Taupo corridor is the Moab of New Zealand. Any adventure activity you could possibly want can be found in Taupo, Rotorua or somewhere in between. Today, I’m ziplining!

The drive is crazy beautiful, with a thick, white layer of frost covering much of the ground, and steam from the thermal rising up all around me. I drive through mountains and fog and, though it looks colder than cold (it is), it’s also surreal in its beauty.

Morning BeautyI’m scheduled to fly at 9:00am with Rotorua Canopy Tours and, with a quick coffee stop along the way, I pull up at their headquarters at 8:35am. (It’s literally a home-office, as the building is a house)

ZiplingAfter completing our paperwork on their iPads (this is becoming more common and, you heard it hear first, I predict the term “paperwork” will disappear from human vernacular by 2030) and agreeing not to sue if we do something stupid and die or get hurt, we step outside to get suited up. As my pretty, wool-coat which I had made in Vietnam is, well, pretty, it didn’t seem like appropriate attire to swing in the jungle so, between the fleece, sweaters and thermal shirt, I’m wearing four layers of clothing. The folks at RCT graciously offer another layer with a water/windproof jacket, a hat and gloves. More importantly, they offer harnesses with a variety of carabiners (the claspy, hooky things) and some other metal bits attached.

GuidesAfter getting all strapped up, we grab our helmets – a few of us are asked to attach the company GoPro’s to our helmets (do they not know how badly I want one of these? Big mistake) – and pile into their van. There are ten of us, ranging in age from low-twenties to sixties, plus our two guides, Abby and Dan.

After twenty-minutes, we reach the top of the hill and, following a fifteen minute walk through the jungle, we reach our first platform. Being the first, this one is on the not-too-long and not-too-high side, in order to ease us into this. Abby hooks me into the main cable and tells me to step down the stairs on the end of the platform which lead, well, nowhere. (The song, If I Were a Rich Man from Fiddler on the Roof comes to mind as Tevye sings about staircases, “And one more leading nowhere just for show.” Apparently Tevye had gone zipling.) I hold onto the straps which attach my harness to the cable, confidently step down the four steps (it’s all an act), lean back into my harness and pick my feet up. I scream and zoom (multitasking) and, a few seconds later, I arrive at the next tree with Dan applying the brakes so I don’t, literally, become a tree hugger.ZipliningWe next step up to a swing bridge, a bouncy bridge high above the forest floor. It looks scarier than it is, though, if you’re like Nan, one of the women on our trip, and afraid of heights, I’d imagine that it’s just as bad as it looks. I’m incredibly impressed by her, not only confronting her fear, but overcoming it.

BridgeYoga on BridgeWe continue on to more zips with names such as Robin’s Hood, Plight of the Kakapo (sounds like something a mother potty-training her child might say), and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. We also cross another swing bridge, this one with no cables along the side and which some hang over the side while I do a bit of yoga – a tree-pose in the trees (Namaste y’all).

EnvironmentalBefore, during and after, we have a chance to walk through the jungle with our guides, who show us some of the environmental issues within the jungle as well as the Forest Restoration Project which Rotorua Canopy Tours has developed and runs.

When we complete the course, we pile back into the van and head back to the office.

Tomorrow – Hiking to waterfalls

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