Dave's Photo & Travelblogue

Photo shoots. World travel advice. Tips on Munich & environs.

Rotorua – Thermal Everything

I realized that a post from last month didn’t publish properly. So here’s a break between Thailand and Malaysia: a short flashback to New Zealand! On June 15th I woke up refreshed (and a bit cold) at the Cosy Cottage Holiday Park, in the thermal-spring town of Rotorua.

For those not familiar with such places, a holiday park is a combination of campgrounds, camper parking, and cabins / backpacker rooms. Like many places I’ve stayed in New Zealand, the heating in my backpacker room was not very good, so it pays to have a good sleeping bag if you travel in the winter. I didn’t, so I froze my arse off for two nights.

Cold room aside, his holiday park is pretty awesome. It has access to a beach on Lake Rotorua where you can dig a hole that fills with hot thermal water. Or you can soak in the thermal springs-fed hot tubs. For dinner you can cook food in a thermal-vent powered steam oven (more on that below).

Rotorua is all about bubbling, steaming hot thermal features – beaches, hot water, and boiling mud.

Boiling mud in Rotorua, New Zealand

By the way, try taking a picture of something that’s boiling. It’s not so easy! Boiling is all about motion, seeing bubbles rise and burst. A still frame of anything boiling is about one tenth as interesting as you might think.

Besides Rotorua town, I checked out two attractions: the Skyline area with a gondola, a tires-on-cement luge, and several other adventure activities; and Rainbow Park, a forest conservation area that helps raise kiwi birds and release them into the wild (among other things). Here’s a green tree gecko, a native of New Zealand:

A green tree gecko in Rainbow Park, Rotorua

To be honest, Skyline was a disappointment (seeing as I live near the Alps). The view was nothing spectacular. And I didn’t realize I could have hiked to the top of the gondola in about 15 minutes, rather than pay >$20 to ride in the (painfully slow) cabin. The luge was pretty cool – I would have done it a second time to try the “advanced” course if my gloveless hands hadn’t been nearly frostbitten from the cold.

I went back to Rainbow Park at night to get pictures of the kiwi birds. Unfortunately, just one was out and about, and he stuck to the darkest area in the whole enclosure. Since using the flash on nocturnal animals is strictly out, and I’d forgotten my tripod, here’s the best I could do. It’s a crop of a hand-held 2s exposure of a frenetic pecking bird. But it is a photo of the elusive kiwi!

A kiwi bird at Rainbow Park in Rotorua

It strikes me that “kiwi” can refer to a fruit or a bird, and is a friendly nickname for New Zealanders. So if you say “I had a kiwi last night,” it’s not certain if you ate fruit for dessert, broke a conservation law by eating endangered animals, or got lucky with a local hottie. Hmm…

Now, on to steam ovens! Here’s the rack of lamb before cooking:

Pre-cooking rack of lamb with rosemary

The lovely steam oven itself:

Volcanic steam oven at Cosy Cottage Holiday Park in Rotorua

And finally, the lamb after four hours of steaming in a volcanically-powered oven:

Rack of lamb cooked in a thermal steam oven

It’s very tender and moist, with a texture just like pulled pork barbecue! In fact, I’d recommend to use a lower grade of meat than prime rack of lamb, because I suspect this oven would make even the toughest pork or beef flake apart in moist tidbits. By the way, the cost of this hunk o’ lamb in New Zealand: $5 USD! I love this country.

Tomorrow, (a.k.a. 4 weeks ago) I’ll relate my visit to Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland. It definitely lives up to its name!

Posted 6 years, 8 months ago at 3:47 pm.

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A Wonderland of Volcanoes

Wai-o-tapu Thermal Wonderland sounds pretty cheesy, like something Weird Al might parody a la “The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota.”

It’s not.

Just 700 years ago, thermal/volcanic eruptions blew up this whole area and sprayed rock and ash all over the region.

Today you can see the remnants: a hotbed of thermal activity which somehow results in all the colors of a kid’s chemistry set, sprayed on the ground and leaking from various acidic pools.

The edge of the Champagne Pool at Wai-O-Tapu

Another strange feature is that visitors are constantly dosed with hydrogen sulfide gas, with very little warning about the dangers. At Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, I was constantly reading signs about dangerous volcanic gases; but on June 16th at Wai-O-Tapu, people were wandering around with toddlers (not recommended). Breathing a gas that converts to sulfuric acid when it dissolves in the moist membranes of your body (think nose, lungs, and eyes). So, if you’re pregnant or have small kids with you, think twice about visiting this park.

Since I have so many pictures and stories from Wai-O-Tapu, I’ll probably do a full article about it sooner or later. For now I’ll leave you with a picture of Lady Knox geyser, which would naturally erupt every 24-72 hours. In order to allow everyone to view it, they “seed” it with surfactant daily at 10:15. This basically forces the geyser into a regular schedule. The photo is a bit tweaked to bring out the rainbow:

A rainbow in Lady Knox geyser at Wai-O-Tapu

After Wai-O-Tapu, I decided to head to Coromandel Town. This turned out to be a much longer drive than I anticipated, because the last 50km of it is a super-windy coastal road going through a dozen tiny towns. But it did afford me a few classic (and sunny!) views of New Zealand’s beautiful coast.

The Coromandel coast near sunset

After arriving in Coromandel, I found a lovely Holiday Park where I could view the sunset from a beach. Here’s one of the best shots:

Sunset over Coromandel, New Zealand

For those who’ve been following me since Hawaii, you might remember the Green Flash, a strange atmospheric effect at sunset just as the sun disappears below the horizon. It only occurs when conditions are right, and just over the ocean (but apparently some very low and distant islands don’t disturb it). Here’s my latest flash:

The Green Flash over Coromandel, New Zealand

This flash was about 2 seconds long. I set the exposure compensation to –2 stops, so that I could capture more of the green color than last time. Success! This is a 100% crop (meaning this is zoomed in to show the actual camera pixels, and not resampled). The photo is not modified in any way! Now, I need some extension tubes to magnify my view a bit more. Mu-hahaha.

In the evening it was clear and a bit darker than I’m used to, so I tried some nighttime photography. However, it wasn’t anywhere near as dark as in the Peruvian rainforests. You can see the effects of even minimal light pollution in the bottom half of this photo.

Night Sky over Coromandel Town

I could barely see these trees; even after my eyes adjusted to the light they were just silhouettes. But in a 30s exposure, a few lights from nearby houses and roads washed out the horizon on an otherwise beautifully dark sky. I did see a shooting star – it was just a few degrees out of my camera’s field of view on one of the photos. So close.

Tomorrow I finally get on an Auckland ferry, and find a good spot for night shots of the city!

Posted 6 years, 9 months ago at 3:27 pm.

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Pineapple Park

Hostels in Hawaii vary a lot by island. On Oahu, the Waikiki hostels are plentiful and full of people to hang out with. But on Kauai, there are only a few hostels, which mostly didn’t look up to par for me (either zero security, or insane manager). I did stay in Camp Sloggett on Kauai, a cool campsite/bunkhouse which was deserted when I stayed there. On Big Island, there are a good number of hostels, and again they are rather empty in May.

Here’s a view of Pineapple Park Volcano, a great facility where I had some nice conversations with the owner, Doc Holliday.

Pineapple Park Volcano hostel on Big Island

Doc has hostels in Hilo and Kona (Captain Cook) as well. I stayed two nights at the Kona hostel and it’s also a very impressive facility as hostels go: lockers (bring a lock or rent one), free wifi, great (clean!) kitchen, clean rooms & showers.

One thing I’d mention: the Volcano place is mostly set up for large groups of researchers or students. If you plan to go there, be aware you might be the only one. It’s a bit remote and there’s no internet. But I enjoyed the solitude and relaxation for a couple days, and heard great stories from Doc.

Now, if you’re with a large group and plan to cook in (not go out to bars), the Volcano hostel would be the perfect place – it’s nicely set up and Doc has everything (grill, pizza ovens, refrigerators, even a scenic pond with what I think are taro plants).

Pineapple Park Volcano - grounds overview

It’s a little damp indoors, but surprisingly little mold/mildew. The whole place is very well kept. Location: about half an hour from Hilo, and half an hour from Volcanoes National Park. Allow about an hour to get to the lava viewing area at the end of Highway 130.

Thanks, Doc, for an excellent stay, cool Hawaii stories, and great coffee in the mornings! If I come back to Hawaii, I expect we’ll meet again at Pineapple Park.

Taro plants in the Pineapple Park Volcano pond

Posted 6 years, 9 months ago at 3:59 pm.

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Hypoxia at Thirteen Grand

Mauna Kea is the tallest mountain in the world, measured from the sea floor. Not the highest, mind you, but the tallest from base to summit. Its peak is at 13,796’.

Most people come to Mauna Kea, spend a half hour at the visitor center (about 9,000’), and drive straight up to the summit where most of the world’s finest astronomical observatories are located. Then they get altitude sickness: headache, nausea, shortness of breath, the whole bit.

That seems too easy to me.

Instead, I decided to climb up from the visitor center. The trail is a bit over six miles, and almost a mile of vertical. This was complicated by the cold I was coming down with, but I figured if that slowed me down enough, I’d just turn around.

Here’s a view of Mauna Loa on my way up. The younger sister of Mauna Kea, she is the largest volcano in the world by mass. There’s one larger volcano in the known universe, but that’s on Mars. See the web of different colors on the side? Those are lava flows from about every 20 years, going a long way back. She’s overdue to erupt again. Apparently I climbed Mauna Loa in a previous life, in 1834. The summit is 13,679’, deceptively high because the mountain has such gradual slopes.

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As I climbed, I wondered at the lack of signs showing how far along the trail I was, or how high I was. I guess some other hikers had the same thought. But apparently they had a GPS, because they left me this:

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At this point, my nose was running like a faucet. I felt a bit lightheaded, but that could have been from the cold or the steady uphill climb. One thing I’ll note about the hike: I’d heard it was rocky and the footing was bad. WRONG. Most of the hike is on sand-like dirt, so it’s a bit like climbing up firm sand dunes.

A few short sections were rocky, or made of pumice stones like those in a gas grill. I didn’t have any problems there, although I could see how someone that is not too coordinated to begin with might have issues after getting hypoxic from the altitude.

As I neared the top, the trail split and I gambled on which path was the real trail. I crested a hill and saw Lake Waiau –  “placenta lake,” where native Hawaiian chiefs used to throw their firstborn son’s umbilical cord to give the child a place in the afterlife as chief. I didn’t get any closer than this, because I didn’t want to go downhill and then back up again.

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Shortly after turning around at the lake, I saw some telescopes over the crest of a hill! Now I finally believed the mantra I’d been repeating for the last four hours: “I’m 80% sure that I’ll make it to the top.” You can also see a representative (if less sandy) section of trail here. It’s not so bad, eh?

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After a bit of a walk up the road (because the trail stops), I came to one final, sandy hill, higher than the last of the telescopes. The wind was whipping at 30-40mph+ (that’s 60kmh+), and it was a few degrees above freezing. With the wind and the slight hypoxia, it was so cold my fingers went numb in under 30 seconds.

As I neared the peak, I was unbelievably excited to have made it. Now I know how people feel when they summit Everest or a similar peak. I swear the tears dripping down my face were from the wind in my eyes, though.

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After hitchhiking back down to the visitor center, I waited around for sunset on top of a nearby ash cone. This strange slantwise effect must be due to the mountain’s shadow.

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Hiking up Mauna Kea was one of the hardest things I’ve done.

My hike was probably made much tougher because of this cold. I’ve been battling it for two days since Mauna Kea, though fortunately it isn’t too bad. Nevertheless, I may have lost the desire to hike up any 7000m or 8000m peaks someday. I’m not sure that 22,000’ and above is the place for me, sans oxygen.

But you never know… maybe I’ll change my mind. Anyone want to sponsor an expedition?

Posted 6 years, 9 months ago at 3:30 pm.

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Down the Barrel of an Active Volcano

Kilauea is pretty quiet right now. But that didn’t stop me from getting some good shots around Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island on May 29th. First, I had to laugh at this sign in the area for viewing steam vents and sulfur deposits.

Beware of earth cracks

Here are some cool sulfur crystals in an area where gases are constantly rising out of the ground. The smell reminded me of riding to altitude in the Otter with a certain skydiving friend of mine. You know who you are.

Sulfur crystals by a gas vent

Next I headed to Kilauea. During the day it’s just a smoking crater in a massive volcanic cone area. While that’s very cool, it doesn’t compare to the nighttime view (long exposure with tripod using the Nikon D90):

Kilauea at night

This is just the glow of the lava (which you can’t see) lighting up the smoke plume and the clouds that are rolling in.

I also drove down to the end of highway 130, where most activity in the last few years has taken place. Ever since the volcano started erupting outside the national park, there have been issues with access. Now they have a security company that corrals tourists to keep them a) safe and b) off private property. On the way to the county’s “viewing area” I passed this sign:

For Sale: 2 lots, oceanview

Take it how you will. As funny as I found it, the guy who’s trying to sell a chunk of land that is solid black lava probably isn’t too amused.

The old viewing area was overrun by lava three weeks ago (if only I’d been here then!). Now you can only go as far as the last point where the lava crossed the road. Unfortunately that’s pretty far from the active flows, which are pretty limited this week anyway. There’s not even much running into the ocean right now.

Most of the lava is pooling up on a hill, on private property, and not really flowing anywhere. If you try to approach it (and do get past security), you risk breaking through into air pockets in recently-cooled (and broken-glass sharp) lava or melting your shoes on still-warm flows. I might have chanced it during the day with some precautions, but my itinerary didn’t allow time for it.

Here’s the best shot I got from the viewing area at night:

Molten lava at the Highway 130 viewing area

Keep in mind this is a crop of a 200mm zoom photo, long exposure on a tripod. Probably only 2 or 3 people a day bring the right equipment and know-how even to get this distant photo. The flow you can see is probably 1-2 miles away. The glow on the horizon is clouds being lit up by the new area where lava is pooling. It’s not what I’d hoped for, BUT it is a photo of molten lava! Check that off the RTW list – haha.

Posted 6 years, 9 months ago at 3:59 pm.

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