My tribute to Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park

By June 17, 2016 #40trails, #CatTravels, Musings, The Daily Dish

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I was eight years old when lava fountains from Kīlauea Volcano began building a cinder and spatter cone hundreds of feet high, spewing thick, chunky lava that later wiped out the towns of Kalapana and Kaimū on Hawaiʻi Island. More than 100 homes, a church and a store were buried beneath 50 to 80 feet of cooled lava.

The images that flashed on TV during the local newscast back then were both frightening and mesmerizing. I couldn’t tell you anything else that happened in 1983.

A decade later, I found myself standing on a rocky ledge above the Pacific Ocean, under a canopy of stars, the soles of my hiking boots tacky from the heat of the lava surging beneath us. You could taste the thick, sulfuric heat. The only light illuminating our dangerous trek came through the cracks in the ground, the incandescent orange glow of lava flowing from Pu‘u ʻŌʻō vent, under this crust of harden lava, toward the ocean.

I stood there, watching 2,100-degree molten lava flow into the churning ocean, sending steam plumes into the dark sky. I was witnessing the birth of land, the physical growing of the island where my mother was born. Here was the newest landmass in a solar system that’s more than 4 billion years old. It was as humbling as it was surreal.

At the time, I was attending the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, schizophrenically majoring in both English and geology. It felt like dating two guys who have nothing in common: I was committed to the preppy path of nonfiction prose and composition pedagogy, but I was completely smitten by the rugged allure of planetary volcanism and plate tectonics. While I spent most of my time in college penning critical analyses of important literary works, I snuck out on weekends to hike around craters and through lava fields. Books ignited my imagination, but geology made it all tangible and real.

I was chaperoning a Geology 101 weekend field trip to Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park, a 323,431-acre expanse of land that spans various climates and encompasses two active volcanoes, including Kīlauea, the world’s most active. Like the National Park Service, this national park, one of five on Hawai‘i Island alone, is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.

Six of us had decided to meet after dinner, “borrow” the rental van, and hike across a lava field at the end of Chain of Craters Road, where we knew lava was pouring into the ocean. We had grabbed a bottle of whiskey and picked some ‘ohelo berries to offer to Pele, the volcano deity who resides in Halema‘uma‘u Crater, you know, just in case.

We chatted excitedly on the drive there, the adrenaline coursing. We had just snuck out of the dorms at the Kīlauea Military Camp with backpacks stocked with water, extra jackets, gloves, flashlights, snacks and Band-Aids. Seeing the lava flow at night would be an unforgettable experience—and we weren’t going to miss it.

The hike to the flow was treacherous, even with headlamps and flashlights. The landscape, desolate and wild during the day, was even more barren at night. We walked to the rhythmic sound of harden lava crunched with each step, trying to avoid the deep crevices that often occur as lava cools. It was like walking on glass.

The heat was heavy and palpable, rising from the cracks beneath us. I could feel the warmth and intensity through the thick soles of my hiking boots. I wondered how close the lava was to the surface of rock I was walking across—and whether we should have listened to our geology professors and stayed in bed.

We walked for miles, now in silence as we struggled to steady our footing and navigate our way to the ocean. We could only hear the gentle crashing of the waves somewhere off in the pervasive dark.

After what seemed like hours of walking, we stopped at a ledge and just gazed, completely enthralled, at a steady flow of lava cascading into the ocean below. The crackling of fire, the glowing red waves, a sky blanketed in twinkling specks of light—these remain some of the most indelible images I have in my mind. It was a quiet drive back to the camp.

Though I have hiked through the park dozens of time since then, I have never returned at night. It’s a gift to see the lava in such a peaceful and personal way. And one gift like that is enough for a lifetime.

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Wishing pets lived forever

By June 14, 2016 Musings, The Daily Dish

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Not a day goes by that I don’t miss my first dog, Joey, a black-and-white papillon.

Every time I visit my parents, I expect to see his nose under the front gate or run toward me once I swing the garage door open.

But he’s not there. And it’s been eight years since he died.

I think about that a lot, now that I’m the proud owner of three pooches. Opae, Sunny and Indy are still young — 7, 6 and 5, respectively — but I know there will be a time when we have to say goodbye. And I really, really, really don’t want to.

How it is that these we bond so fiercely with these furry creatures? I’ve lost my grandparents, but I don’t expect my Grandma Ann to greet me at the door whenever I go home for Sunday dinner.

I try not to think about “that day,” though I worry every time we have to take one of the dogs to the vet with something — an upset stomach, lethargy, a strange lump — and I can’t imagine I’ll be able to deal with the loss of these dogs.

My dear girlfriend, a fellow dog lover, just lost her beloved chihuahua after 14.5 years. Sam was sick, though the vet said he was putting on a convincing act that he was OK. He wasn’t. And in just two short weeks, his health drastically declined and my friend had to make the tough decision to put him down.

Just thinking about it makes me well with tears.

The animal-human bond is incredibly strong. There have been studies done — including a 1988 study in the Journal of Mental Health Counseling — that show our connection is often closer than with other humans. Thirty-eight percent of people surveyed said their dogs were closer to them than their closest family member.

And grieving over the death of pets is comparable to that of losing a family member or close friend. Sometimes it’s far more intense.

So what do we do? We can’t stop life — meaning death — from happening. All we can do is love our pets, appreciate every moment we have with them, feed them well, exercise them often, hug and play with them as much as possible.

I know the day will come, and I’ll never be ready for it. But at least I know our three dogs lived a full life. I guess that’s all we can hope for.

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#CatTravels: One last look at New Zealand

By May 26, 2016 #40trails, Videos

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#CatTravels: Fur seals and alpaca, oh my!

By April 25, 2016 #CatTravels

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There were two things on my do-to list for New Zealand — and both involved animals.

And lucky for me, I was able to accomplish both in one day.

Turns out, watching fur seal pups swim to a waterfall just so happened to be on the way to the other animal I wanted to see, the alpaca.

Let me give you a brief description of both.

The New Zealand fur seals, or Arctocephalus forsteri or kekeno in Māori, are a species of fur seals found on rocky shores throughout mainland New Zealand, the Chatham Islands, the Subantarctic islands, and parts of Australia. There are about 200,000 of them in the world, half of which are in Australia. Unlike sea lions, these fur seals have pointy noses and are smaller in size.

Alpaca is a domesticated species of South American camelid that looks a lot like a small llama. They’re found mostly in the Andes of southern Peru, northern Bolivia, Ecuador and northern Chile, often at a very high elevation (even up to 16,000 feet above sea level). They’re prized for their fiber, which is used for making a variety of clothing and textiles.

And I wanted to see both.

First, the fur seals.

On South Highway 1, en route to Christchurch from Picton, there’s a phenomena worth stopping for. During the winter months, fur seals swim up the Ohau Stream from the ocean into a waterfall pool. Sometimes there are hundreds of pups frolicking here!

Of course, I needed to see this!

The start of Ohau Stream Walk, where you can see fur seals in the wild.

The start of Ohau Stream Walk, where you can see fur seals in the wild.

The adorable fur seal pups. OMG.

The adorable fur seal pups. OMG.

The drive to Ohau Point Seal Colony in Kaikoura from Picton takes just under two hours. The Ohau Stream Walk is well marked, so finding it wasn’t difficult at all.

We parked in a gravel lot by the ocean and ran across the highway. (There’s also a parking lot right at the trail head on the mauka side of the highway, but parking was easier here.) It’s a quick 10-minute walk to the waterfall, where dozens of seals were swimming and playing. (The waterfall is part of the Ohau Point Fur Seal Sanctuary and is home to an estimated 3,000 seals.)

On the very short trail to the waterfall — and fur seal pups!

On the very short trail to the waterfall — and fur seal pups!

Another part of the trail. We could see seals from this bridge!

Another part of the trail. We could see seals from this bridge!

The scene at the waterfall. It was glorious!

The scene at the waterfall. It was glorious!

It was a bit surreal, to see all of these seals playing — and in the wild. I stood on the rocks — you’re not supposed to get too close and I’m pretty sure the water would have been way too cold for me to jump in, anyway — and took it all in. Seals were twisting and turning in the water, wrestling with each other, even jumping from the waterfall into the pool. Just having fun. It was awesome.

After about half an hour of gawking and cooing over these adorable creatures, we hopped back in the car and made our way south to Canterbury, just outside of Christchurch, the largest city in the South Island.

I had booked two nights at the Silverstream Alpaca Farmstay, a charming bed-and-breakfast on a working alpaca farm.

Kit and Sheryl, the couple who own this farm, have been raising alpacas since 2000. They have more than 200 alpaca now in all four colors (white, gray, brown and black).

Our accommodations at the alpaca farm.

Our accommodations at the alpaca farm.

The farm has two luxurious self-contained cottages that sleep up to five people and include a full kitchen and carport. We even got farm-fresh ingredients such as eggs, bread, butter and bacon for breakfast every night.

Staying here wasn’t cheap — $250NZD a night — but it included a very personal tour of the farm. That, alone, was worth it.

The farm’s primary revenue stream is exporting live animals — meaning, it’s a stud farm — and Kit and Sheryl’s alpaca can be found all over Europe and Asia. And their animals have won every major alpaca show in New Zealand.

If you want to see the best alpaca, this is the place!

Before the formal tour, we got to walk one of the farm’s friendliest alpaca.

Yes, walk! We walked an alpaca!

A six-year-old female tame enough to walk!

A six-year-old female tame enough to walk!

This female was hand-raised and comfortable about people. She was six years old — alpaca live to about 20 — and was the sweetest thing. I wanted to bring her home!

The actual tour consisted of bottle-feeding baby alpaca, one as young as a week old!

And we learned a lot about these gorgeous animals, too.

In addition to being adorable, alpaca are easy to raise, too.

Alpaca are “opportunist browsers,” meaning they’ll graze most grasses and foliage of trees without stripping the bark. They also munch on hay.

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Alpaca give birth to just one baby with each pregnant. Baby alpaca are called cria (cree-ah) and are between 13 and 17 pounds at birth. They stand, drink and run within a few hours.

There are two types of alpaca — Huacaya and Suri. Huacaya make up about 90 percent of the alpaca in New Zealand.

There are two types of alpaca — Huacaya and Suri. Huacaya make up about 90 percent of the alpaca in New Zealand.

Part of the farm tour is bottle-feeding baby alpaca. This one is just three months old.

Part of the farm tour is bottle-feeding baby alpaca. This one is just three months old.

I wish I could bring one home with me!

I wish I could bring one home with me!

Aside from being adorable, alpaca are prized for their luxurious, soft, warm fleece.

Aside from being adorable, alpaca are prized for their luxurious, soft, warm fleece.

These animals were so peaceful and relaxed. They can kick and spit (like llamas) but only when provoked.

These animals were so peaceful and relaxed. They can kick and spit (like llamas) but only when provoked.

This baby alpaca was just a week old. She was born premature and was living in the couple's home, where she was being hand-raised. Such a cutie!

This baby alpaca was just a week old. She was born premature and living in the couple’s home, where she was being hand-raised. Such a cutie!

Just one full day in the South Island and I ticked off two items on my list.

Now if only I could swim with penguins…

***

Follow my adventures in New Zealand on Instagram (@catherinetoth), Twitter (@thedailydish), Facebook (/thecatdish) and Snapchat (@catherinetoth). #cattravels

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#CatTravels: Crossing the Cook Strait to Picton

By April 23, 2016 #CatTravels

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We had settled on visiting both North and South islands on our first trip to New Zealand — not entirely advisable since we were there for just nine days — and now we just needed to figure out how.

How were we going to get there and how were we going to get back.

We could always fly. Airfare between Wellington and Christchurch, the largest city on the South Island, is about $150 one way. (At least during the time we were there.)

You can also skydive — yes, skydive — from Wellington, fly across the strait, then jump out of a plane into South Island. (Don’t believe me? Click here.)

But we wanted something more scenic and less expensive. So we opted for the ferry from Wellington to Picton, a small town located near the head of the Queen Charlotte Sound, making it a major transportation hub.

There are two operators — Interislander and Bluebridge — that run ferries between Wellington and Picton daily. We opted for the first one, mostly because of reviews I had read online.

The cost was reasonable — $65 USD per person one way without a car. (It costs more, starting at around $200, to bring a vehicle.) And though it takes longer — three and a half hours versus one if you fly — the experience of traveling across 58 miles from North to South Island is really unforgettable.

We booked our tickets online — it’s cheaper — drove our Hertz rental car to the ferry terminal at Aotea Quay and left it there. (Hertz doesn’t allow its vehicles across the ferry, so you drop one off in Wellington and pick up another in Picton.) Then we waited in the terminal, where there’s a café and several computers with Internet access. (So Internet café!)

Inside the ferry terminal in Wellington.

Inside the ferry terminal in Wellington.

On the sun deck of the Kaitaki.

On the sun deck of the Kaitaki.

Inside one of the cafés on board.

Inside one of the cafés on board.

Look! Hawaiian pizza!

Look! Hawaiian pizza!

At 9 a.m. we boarded the Kaitaki, the operator’s largest ferry with a capacity of 1,650 passengers and 600 cars. The ferry has 10 decks, four of which are accessible during the ride. Decks 7 and 8 have eateries and cafés and a gift shop. Deck 2 features a play area for kids and a theater. (During our trip, “Revenant” and “The Good Dinosaur” were playing.)

But we spent most of our time on the top sun deck (Deck 10), where we could watch North Island fade away and South Island slowly come into focus.

The Cook Strait lies between the main islands of New Zealand, connecting the Tasman Sea to the Pacific Ocean. It’s 14 miles wide at its narrowest point and considered one of the most dangerous and unpredictable waters in the world.

It’s named after the explorer Capt. James Cook, who sailed through it in 1770. In Māori its name is Raukawa or Raukawa Moana, which may mean, “bitter leaves.”

The first person to swim the strait in modern times was Barrie Devenport in 1962. He completed it in 11 hours, 13 minutes. By 2010, there have been 74 single crossings made by 65 people and three double crossings made by two people.

I’d rather ride a ferry, personally.

Sailing on the coastline of South Island.

Sailing on the coastline of South Island.

More of the South Island coastline.

More of the South Island coastline.

Within a couple of hours, we were sailing along the rugged coastline of the South Island. The west coast of this island runs 19 miles long along Cloudy Bay and past the islands and entrances into the Marlborough Sounds. As we approached the island, we could see a group of tiny islands offshore called The Brothers. They look identical in size and shape, and this small chain is a sanctuary for the rare Brothers Islands tuatara, a reptile endemic to New Zealand. The largest of the two islands is the site of the Brothers Island Lighthouse, built in 1877.

It was cool to see the island this way, to breathe in the sea air and drift past rolling hills, isolated beaches and aquaculture farms. (Salmon or mussels, maybe?)

The view from the ferry is the best part of this journey.

The view from the ferry is the best part of this journey.

Such a pristine island. We were excited to explore it!

Such a pristine island. We were excited to explore it!

While we were standing on the sun deck, marveling at the beauty around us, a group of dolphins — bottlenose, common and dusky dolphins frequent the strait — pulled up alongside the ferry.

I mean, seriously? Does it get any better?

Arriving in Picton!

Arriving in Picton!

By 12:30 p.m., we were pulling into Picton and starting our new adventure on a new island.

And our rental car was at the dock, waiting.

***

Follow my adventures in New Zealand on Instagram (@catherinetoth), Twitter (@thedailydish), Facebook (/thecatdish) and Snapchat (@catherinetoth). #cattravels

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