Monday, March 12, 2007

The Fuljames Rapids

I've realized why in the grand scheme of things New Zealand is the best country in the entire world for study abroad: it has absolutely everything cool you could ever imagine doing as a college student crammed into a conveniently small location. Want to descend onto a field for the weekend to go camping with your 200 new best mates? Check. Want to go whitewater rafting and kayaking in a pristine river with no other tourists? No problem. Want to go to a wicked party and stay up until all hours dancing to a great band? Done. Want it all to cost no more than NZ$20? Of course!

In case you can't tell, I have done absolutely everything on above list in the span of about 48 hours. I went out with the Canoe Club on their annual big trip to the Waikato River, which is home to the Class II Fuljames Rapids that you see in the video above. This area is about three and a half hours drive from Auckland, so I got together my sleeping bag and pack hitched a ride Friday evening with two other students. Hooray for the weekend!

Saturday- the debauchery begins

I have been accused by some of making New Zealand sound a lot nicer than it really is in terms of weather- isn't it supposed to rain all the time and make you feel rather miserable? I find these comments a bit out of place because, honestly, I can count the number of times on my right hand that it's been overcast and raining this past month. Plus we all know it's not like I left some idyllic climate behind in Cleveland, so I don't know what all the fuss is about.

Plus, every once in awhile in New Zealand you sleep your best through a cold night and wake up to this-

Ugly, isn't it? Luckily the misting fog cleared up by 10am, which was just about the time we headed for the water. Here's a better shot of what our campsite looked like during the rest of our trip-
The field we were camped in was actually just some farmer's field conveniently located right next to the Fuljames Rapids where we ended our river runs. One of the most interesting things about the location, beyond the miniature town that sprung up there during Friday night, was how in the past year the farmer decided to plant the entire field with turnips. Lots and lots of turnips. Apparently they're good for winter feed for livestock, but college ingenuity found that they have other applications as projectiles to shut people up with and as makeshift cricket balls.

But anyway, I didn't go to Fuljames to discover how well a turnip splatters when you hit it with a cricket bat (I think). So when everyone was ready we drove up the river a few klicks and separated into groups of people who wanted to whitewater raft or kayak, and I opted for the latter. I'd never done either before and decided it would probably be best to raft down the river before doing anything too rash, and in all honesty the prospect of whitewater kayaking made me a bit nervous.

Whitewater rafting, for those of you who have never tried it, is a fun and relatively simple operation: you perch on the side of your glorified dinghy, and paddle like hell whenever the instructor in the back tells you to. You also don't get too worried about learning that your instructor's never actually been an instructor before, splash the other rafts as hard as you can whenever you come near each other, and don't be nervous about jumping off the ten-foot jetty at the halfway point everyone is required to jump off of. Ho-hum.

This stretch of the Waikato has three major sections of rapids by the way, the largest of which (Fuljames) is pictured here. The river is also quite nice because the geothermal activity in the area heats up the water on the edges so it's suprisingly warm and hosts the lovely additional sight of steaming water along the edges. This means that if you're keen to take the advice of the instructors and swim through the rapids for kicks (there are no rocks here), you won't regret the experience because it is really fun and the water's nice and warm anyway. If you're particularly crazy like me you might even do it twice!

After the river adventure, the rest of the daylight part of Saturday was spent eating, napping, and talking to various cool people. After the lovely sunset, we got ready to go to the nearby town of Taupo and invade one of the local pubs, which we accomplished by cramming an average of 45 persons into our scant 15 person vans. The subsequent party was great- most notably, I won a few pool games and hence won my drinks for the night instead of purchasing them. This trick gets easier as the night progresses, obviously, but is nonetheless a good one to learn!

We left the pub at midnight to discover that an amazing Auckland band had set up in our beloved campsite, so we danced until the wee hours of the morning. I stayed awake until the band left at 3am myself- when was I again going to dance in a New Zealand turnip field?

By the way, I forgot to note that our trip/party was supposed to be around a "hippie" theme. I have no idea who though this up, particularly since they never had a theme in previous years. Plus in my mind any group of youths living in a field in the Middle of Nowhere, New Zealand isn't all that different from a band of hippies anyway.

Sunday- can you believe all this happened in a weekend?

On Sunday I woke up and donned my swimsuit and wetsuit top, ready for adventure. You see, somewhere during the course of the past 24 hours I decided that I was going to whitewater kayak because the worst that would happen was I would fall in, and I was pretty ok with doing that. Besides which, a little thing like whitewater kayaking was nothing compared to some of the things I've done in my life, right?

Well guess what? I thoroughly enjoyed it. I suprised myself by being pretty good at it too- I only fell in once, at the very last bit of Fuljames where the rapids were cresting several feet, higher than the waves seen in the above video taken the afternoon before, which I am told is exceptional for someone who's never done it before ("how is your hair so dry?!" was a favorite instructor quip along the way). I guess all that lake kayaking has paid off!

The trick to whitewater kayaking, by the way, is to keep two things, your cool and your boat's direction, at all times. To do this you need to keep loose and flow with the water, use your your full body and paddle to keep your balance, and above all keep your boat pointed with the flow of the current! Rapids are similar to the wake of a boat on stillwater- you need to go straight into them because if your boat is oriented wrong you will become very unstable.

There are other two things I really liked about whitewater kayaking by the way besides it just being more exciting than stillwater: your paddling energy is used for steering and the like instead of for moving forward (the current takes care of the latter very well), and you get whirlpools and such in the water that form and break apart very quickly. Perhaps it's because you don't get them in lakes, but the whirlpools fascinated me.

After the awesomeness known as whitewater kayaking was over it was time to break up camp and head back to Auckland. My adventure for the day wasn't over, however, because along the way the two students I was travelling with (who have lived in New Zealand for several years) conferred a little and then turned to me.

"Do you want to go to the spa in Rotorua?" they asked.

"Really?!" was my immediate excited response, because I wasn't certain if I'd heard them right. Rotorua, you see, is the tourist town of New Zealand because it is based right in the center of all sorts of geothermal activity- sort of like Yellowstone if they built a town in it. As for the spa part, well, going to the spa is this wonderful idea my Hungarian side understands quite well because the Barlangfürdő (Cave Bath) is just down the road from my cousins' house in Miskolc-Tapolca, Hungary. In the context of geothermal springs, going to the spa means going into the equivalent of a natural hot tub and relaxing a bit, which is arguably the best thing you could possibly do after a weekend of camping and hard-core watersport.

So we headed the mere 30km to Rotorua and went to the Polynesian Spa on the edge of the lake. This spa overlooks Sulfur Bay on Lake Rotorua (yes, the entire town smells just as good as that name implies), and per the sign outside it's consistantly voted as one of the top 10 spas in the world. So we spent a good hour relaxing in a pool outside whose temperature was at 40 degrees Celsius, all the while watching steam endlessly rising off Sulfur Bay. It was really fun and exactly what I needed, but to be honest the Barlangfürdő is a whole lot better and cooler than the Polynesian Spa any day (mert tudom, hogy ha eszt olvasod akkor kivancsi vagy errol!).
Once we were done spa-ing it was time to grab some dinner and head back to Auckland, where I promptly collapsed on my bed and slept for an ungodly number of hours. I will tell you though, the past weekend was the most fun I've had in a long time and was exactly the sort of thing my wildest study abroad dreams encompassed. So many things in the past few days simply would never happen in the States, from the casual air to the pristine wilderness, and if this were the only thing that happened during my time here I'd argue it was well worth it.

But I've still got some time here, which I'm really happy about! I think I'll devote a good chunk of it practicing my rollover so I'll be an expert when I come home and buy a sprayskirt.