Caitlin and I made our way to Taupo with the intention of doing the Tongariro Crossing — a famous full-day hike along volcanoes, green lakes and the sight of Mount Doom from Lord of the Rings. However, the Crossing was closed due to weather for the entire time we stayed there. After checking with the front desk on the third day, only to be told the Crossing was canceled yet again, we signed up for a 3-hour sailing trip out on Lake Taupo. The sky was overcast and ominous, but we didn’t want our trip to Taupo to be in vain.
As I stepped onto the side of the sailboat and swung my left leg around some rigging, I looked up to see dark clouds covering the sky. Wind whipped through the harbor, forcing the water into the side of our boat and misting my thick, green raincoat. As we bounced our way across the water, our skipper, David, shouted information about the lake over the sounds of the waves. He was a grizzly Kiwi in his early fifties who had been leading three trips a day, every day, for 12 years. Lake Taupo, he told us, is 600 feet deep, the size of Singapore and can have waves up to eight feet tall. Apparently, the water is so clean you can fill your water bottle up off the side of the boat, but I didn’t test that particular theory.
The lake is lined with nice houses poking out of the tree line, but they are empty most of the year. These are summer houses for the couple weeks a year when city dwellers flock to Taupo on holiday. During the summer months, the population of Taupo jumps from 25,000 to almost 60,000, but on that cold day in October, I didn’t see a single person coming or going from any of the houses.
The sailboat was nearly capsizing by the time we made it out to the famous Maori carvings on the cliffs of the lake. The 20-foot engraving of a male face with traditional tattoos was commissioned in the 1970s and carved from a system of scaffolding. I can’t imagine dangling over the side of the cliff, let alone creating a beautiful piece of artwork at the same time. We sat there, bobbing and twisting in the water for a bit, admiring the impressive artistry, but then we came close to swamping, so David turned us back.
The wind was much calmer on the way back, so David let Caitlin and I try steering. I felt like a pirate standing behind the knobby wooden wheel, pulling it back and forth, but David was less impressed with my ability. Apparently I am worse at steering than the 12-year-old Russian girl he had on the last trip. I guess sailing isn’t my calling.
We were so cold when we got off the boat that we decided to head right back to the hostel and warm up with some tea. As we set our hot mugs down on a table, I turned around to grab some napkins and immediately saw a familiar face. A million years ago, during our last night in Honolulu, Caitlin and I befriended a British woman named Becky. We discovered that we were all on our way to New Zealand, but Becky planned to stop off in Fiji for a few weeks first. We had talked about meeting up in New Zealand at some point, but we all left Hawaii without exchanging numbers or even last names, so I figured we would realistically never see her again. But here we all were, overlapping for one night at the same hostel in the tiny town of Taupo. I was so surprised it took my mind a moment to process the absurdity of the circumstances, but then we all embraced like old friends. We decided to go to an Irish pub and compare notes on where we had been and what we had done.
The coincidences continued the next day when we discovered that we were all on the same 6-hour bus ride to Wellington together. We all disembarked the bus together in the rain and planned to meet up again while in the city.
The next day, Caitlin and I headed out to explore Wellington. We wandered around for a bit, and then found ourselves following signs to the Botanic Gardens. Soon we were trudging up huge hills and turning at random switchbacks. The last part was a hidden little alleyway with steep stairs and trees flowering over brick walls. I was quite warm by the time we reached the lookout, despite the cool day.
There was an adorable little cafe at the top so we got a tiny espresso and enjoyed the expansive view of Wellington for a while, then descended through the endless gardens. We worked our way down through native Kauri trees, Japanese waterfall gardens, Australian succulents and English rose gardens. The paths would twist and turn and intersect so that you always felt like you were the only one in the whole place. Little wooden benches were tucked away and overgrown with leaves and vines, clearly the perfect places to read a novel. It was the most impressive array of gardens I have ever seen.
We didn’t see everything in Wellington, but we knew we would be back for a few days after our two-week stint with a host family in the Wairarapa region.
Up next: Caitlin and Rose become one with the sheep.