“I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all the kinds of things you can't see from the center.” Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Where in the world is Karamea?

Karamea is on the west coast of the south island of New Zealand, around the corner from the Abel Tasman park. To get there, you have to first get to Westport and then drive north for about an hour and a half, through twisty, winding mountains and along the Tasman Sea.  I flew down to Nelson and rented a car from there. Why did I choose to go there? Because I'd seen photos of the area, and it appeared to be a wonderland. Also, Air New Zealand had a "grabaseat" fare for relatively cheap, and I could get the time off work.  Drive time from Nelson was about 5 hours with stops. I picked up a couple of young women hitchiking, who were going to Karamea to hike the the Heaphy track.  One was another American. 
On arrival, I visited the information center for maps and directions to my lodging, the wonderful bed and breakfast, Kuaka Cottage.
It reminded me of some of the places Darin and I stayed when we travelled to Alaska. One of the owners, Mark, grew up in Homer, Alaska, so that figures. He and Hanne built this out of the local limestone. They were very helpful and welcoming to me, and served excellent breakfasts and dinner, much of it from their garden. Hanne recommended I drive to Kohaihai beach for a swim in the river after my long drive. It was absolutely gorgeous and with only a few other people around, I felt like it was my own private paradise.
This river empties into the ocean, which is just off the left side of the image.  I walked the beginning of the Heaphy track, up the hillside in the picture above, to view Scott's beach on the other side of the hill. All of the walks I did in the Karamea area were extrememly well maintained, with excellent bridges, easy grades, and well marked paths.
The next day I drove into the Oparara Basin, which is about an hours drive from Karamea  in the Kahurangi forest. The drive is primarily on a rough gravel road with unending curves and steep climbs, which was doubly adventuresome for me as the rental car I was driving was a manual (stick) shift. I used to drive a manual in the US, but using the opposite hand for shifting was a bit challenging at first. I had arranged a tour of the Honeycomb Caves, as this area is only accessable by tour.  The reason for restriction is that it's full of moa bones, and already several tons of bones have been removed. It's also 13 kilometers long, so someone could easily get lost or hurt. There are 70 entrances, and only a few are easily accessable, meaning you could accidentally fall into a hole, as did the moa, and never get out alive.
Obviously, the bones in the next photo were reassembled into the shape of the moa, which was a flightless bird that was unique because it lacked vestigial wings (that is, evolutionarily, it never developed wings in its history).  The other cool thing about moa is that there were eleven species at one time, and their only predator was the (also extinct) Haast eagle. In the Oparara basin, the cave guide said no native Maori people lived and hunted this area.There were 6 or 7 different species found in just the Honeycomb Hill Caves.
After the cave tour, we had a picnic lunch and I walked to the other amazing parts of the park.  The Oparara Arch, the Moria Arch, and two other caves (much smaller, easily accessable) were all relatively close together. I spent the day going "WOW!" and taking photos. 
There is so much old growth forest here, I could totally imagine moa and dinosaurs running around.  Despite the perfect weather during my visit, this area gets 6 METERS of rain a year, so it is a rainforest. The other thing I love about the Oparara is that there are giant carniverous land snails here. Doesn't that sound primeval and frightening? It's a bit of a misnomer, the name "giant snails", as they fit in the palm of your hand. I like to imagine them as 7 feet tall, slowly, quietly, sneaking up on you in the still forest, sliming you as your screams are drowned by soft, cold flesh. Ah, I must write a screenplay! Then I can have an excuse to go back to Karamea to film there. In fact, though these snails are endangered, they can be found very near my home in Swanson, in the Waitakere hills west of Auckland.  I have not seen one in the wild yet, as they are nocturnal. 
I had time for one final walk on the way back to Nelson.  The Charming Creek Railway walk follows an old private small railway, used to take coal (I think) out of the mountains, via a stunning gorge. This walk has tunnels and a high, narrow wire rope bridge to a gorgeous waterfall.
Again, it was all for my private enjoyment, as I passed only one person on the way in, and two on the way out.
I stopped in Westport to buy some of the excellent Blackball salami products. They are from the west coast of the south island, so hard to get in Auckland. The other thing I found in Westport was an apple variety called Smitten. I ate this apple on my walk to the Oparara arch, and it was an ecstatic experience. According to this blog article, it's been developed for export, and this explains why I've been unable to find it at any of the markets in Auckland.  I certainly hope this changes, because I want more. If you're lucky enough, you might find it in North American markets soon. 
To finish off a great trip, my flight from Wellington (where I had to switch planes) to Auckland was on the fancy new All Blacks plane.

 Very nice plane inside and out.  Too bad the woman behind me insisted on changing her kid's diaper on the seat. She did it as the plane was loading and didn't want to go back to the toilet area. Then when she tried to get the stewardess to take the dirty diaper when collecting trash, she was told to take it back to the toilets, which of course she didn't.  I guess I should't be annoyed by this behavior, considering that I have seen parents holding their children to piss next to cars in a parking lot of a pet shop, and signs in some toilets that say "please do not stand on the toilet".  I guess I should get over it, as I'm planning a trip to southeast Asia at the end of the year.  There, I expect I'll tolerate all sorts of weird cultural norms.