Oh the places you’ll go – Dr. Suess
Racing Tropical Cyclone Gita to New Zealand
November 1, 2018 – DSG
The Storm and the Airplane Head for New Zealand
The enormous Polynesian man sitting next to me on the airplane was visibly worried. Just a few days ago his home islands of Tonga had taken a direct hit from Tropical Cyclone Gita, the strongest cyclone in its recorded history. He was trying to make his way home from Utah to survey the damage and check on family and friends.
Gita had been menacing the South Pacific for weeks. Starting out as a tropical disturbance near Vanuatu, Gita moved east towards Fiji and then Samoa, gaining the strength of a category one tropical system on the way. Gita then doubled back to the west on a more southerly track and exploded into a monster category four storm before crashing directly into Tonga. Leaving Tonga bruised and battered, she continued west-southwest for several more days then began a giant arc to the south and then southeast somewhere off the northeast coast of Australia. From there Gita set her sights on the midsection of New Zealand.
We knew we were going to meet Gita upon or arrival in New Zealand. For days, as we prepared for our big trip, I tracked her path of destruction online and listened to all the latest projections from concerned Kiwi weather watchers. We were scheduled to land in Wellington, on the south end of the North Island, on February 21st, the same afternoon of Gita’s forecast arrival. Spaghetti charts were showing storm path projection lines all over the Wellington area. It didn’t look good, but I believed we had a chance to get into and then quickly north out of Wellington and away from Gita just in time. The race was on.
Last Flight to Wellington
After thirteen hours over the Pacific we arrived in Auckland on a beautiful sunny morning. A few puffy clouds accented a light blue sky over a bluer Waitemata Harbour. But, we had one more flight to catch. Wellington. Television screens in the airport terminal showed a powerful ex-tropical storm already beginning to lash the northern tip of the South Island. It was clear now that the center of the storm would pass not far to the south of Wellington within hours.
As we trudged through the meticulous New Zealand biosecurity process we were surprised to see that our Wellington flight remained on schedule. With little time to spare we made it to our flight and left sunny Auckland to fly right into Gita’s approaching outer edge.
An hour later our plane touched down in a gray and rainy Wellington. Shortly after de-boarding the airport PA system announced, “all flights in and out of Wellington now canceled due to Tropical Cyclone Gita.” Ours was the last Wellington flight out of Auckland before Gita shut things down. We had won the first leg of the race, but now we had to drive north out of Wellington just as Gita began closing in.
A Pinball Shot from the Vortex
Driving on the left takes a little getting used to. Years ago in the Virgin Islands I had picked up a rental jeep and immediately made a left turn into the wrong side of the road and had to jump the median to avoid angry oncoming drivers. In New Zealand I had to re-orient myself to left lane driving in a wind-blown rain on surprisingly busy and narrow Wellington highways. The giant windshield of our campervan kept fogging up, and until we figured out that we had to turn the air conditioning on to clear it, L was climbing onto the dashboard every two minutes to wipe away a tiny space for me to see into the traffic on NZ Highway 1. It was a hairy drive.
But, like a piece of debris spun out of the vortex of the storm, we broke through the rain-wall within an hour as we drove north into the green North Island countryside. Not far to our south Gita’s eye was now crossing the northern end of the South Island and the conditions in Wellington were deteriorating rapidly. We were high and dry now, free from the rain, but not the wind.
It was the strangest kind of wind I’d ever experienced. It would be perfectly calm and then the air would explode in all directions from nowhere. I had seen my share of gusty winds growing up in Colorado’s Front Range. But, I had never experienced this level of randomness.
Pigs and Chickens
It wasn’t long before we came to our first blow-down. A car was stopped ahead, southbound, with its flashers on. The driver was out dragging big leafy tree branches off the road. We pulled to a stop and I got out and helped. We soon had it cleared well enough, waived each other a thanks, and got on our way.
Our pretty two-lane highway passed mostly through open sheep pastures, but periodically dove into a tunnel of tree canopy. I would gun it through these tunnels as wind-snapped tree branches rained down like spears. We never took a direct hit.
After clearing a couple more minor blow-downs our luck ran out. We crested a big hill and saw some stopped cars and a group of people standing around a giant horizontal log. A huge tree had blown down right across the road and there would be no moving this one.
But, then something peculiar happened. The first stopped car made a right turn off the highway and drove right into a private driveway! And, then the next car did the same. As we approached, a friendly looking woman pointed us in the same direction and we found ourselves driving right through the middle of someone’s farm.
Pigs to the right, chickens to the left, we proceeded slowly around the back of the house, around the barn, past a beautiful orchard of pear trees, and came back out to the highway on the other side of the blown-down tree. Another nice lady met us there as we pulled up. “Nothing coming that way,” she joked as she pointed in the direction of the fallen tree.
See our dash cam view of the farm drive below:
See our full New Zealand video here.
We laughed, thanked her, and then proceeded on our way. This would be the first of many wonderful examples of Kiwi hospitality and friendliness we would experience on our trip. The people were as much a breath of fresh air as the stunning natural beauty of New Zealand.
A Perfect Riverside Refuge
The beautiful winding two-lane continued through more pastures and spear-tossing tree tunnels until we finally came to a discreet sign that said “Vinegar Hill Campground.”
Vinegar Hill Campground is a peaceful green meadow at the bottom of a little river gorge. The campground was nearly empty, so we had our pick of great spots right along the green Rangitikei River. A 300-foot bluff on the other side of the river blocked the gusting winds that were shaking the trees atop the ridge like rag dolls. As the winds raged above, it was almost totally calm down by the river.
Gita threw us one last haymaker that evening. As I was unpacking the van and L was in the campground shower, the serenity was broken by loudly cracking and crunching wood. I looked up to the bluff just in time to see a gigantic tree violently toppling over. It dislodged a dump truck sized ball of earth that came crashing down the bluff and into the river. A huge cloud of dust and debris blossomed over the river like a bomb. A few moments later, L emerged wide-eyed from the shower. She said the crash sounded so loud in there that she thought the tree fell right next to the shower stall. It was 100 yards away.
That would be the end of Gita for us until several days later when we would see the aftermath of some landslides and road damage in the northwest part of the South Island. The next morning we woke, well rested, to a beautifully calm and sunny morning in New Zealand. Onward towards Lake Taupo and Tongariro National Park.
New Zealand Travel Video
October 27, 2018 – DSG
This may be the best amateur New Zealand travel video ever made!!! Well, probably not, but I’m still quite proud of it.
Full disclosure: I do not own the rights to the partial songs featured. They are all cited in the video at the end. They are all listed again in detail in the video description below. If you like any of these great songs, please purchase them from iTunes or download them to your Spotify account or wherever you buy your music.
Part One – Intro
In the opening of the video you see a dash cam video of us driving through someone’s farm (with their permission) to avoid a downed tree on the highway. The second part of the intro kicks in with Magic Carpet Ride by Steppenwolf. You see a couple pictures of our sweet “Jucy” campervan and a random mashup of images and video clips from all over New Zealand.
Part Two – North Island
The second song is Down by the River by Milky Chance. This part of the video shows scenes from the North Island of New Zealand, specifically around Tongariro National Park, Lake Taupo, and Rotorua. The coastal scenes are from a fantastic twelve-mile beach trek along Cape Kidnappers in Hawke’s Bay on the east coast of the North Island.
Part Three – On the Sea Between the Islands
Song number three is Rolling Sea by Vetiver. This part of the video shows images and video clips from the beautiful Inter-Island Ferry as we made our way from the North to the South Island on a spectacular summer evening.
Part Four – Nelson Lakes National Park
Part Five – The Wild West Coast
Part Six – Lakes and Rainforest
Song number six is Humbug Mountain Song by Fruit Bats. Here we’ve headed back inland from the coast over the amazing Haast Pass and into the South Island Lakes District. Some scenes here are also from the rain forests of Fiordland National Park, one of the premier wilderness national parks on Earth.
Part Seven – Waterfalls
For the seventh song you hear Rodrigo y Gabriela’s beautiful version of Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven. These scenes are from a waterfall-filled trek into Mount Aspiring National Park.
Part Eight – The Most Beautiful Place on Earth
The eighth and final song is Lord Huron’s Ends of the Earth which takes you into one of the most beautiful places in the world–Milford Sound. We arrived to Milford sound early in the morning to dense fog, but just as our boat departed into the water, the fog broke apart leaving only remnants of snow-white clouds adorning the flanks of out-of-this-world peaks and their numerous waterfalls. We were lucky enough to also see dusky dolphins, seals, AND, penguins. It was a spectacular experience and a perfect capstone to our amazing trip to New Zealand.