Dear Family & Friends,

120,000 Frequent Flyer Miles, 16,400 Physical Miles, and 2452 Pictures later, I am back in Atlanta. Can you believe it? I can't. 4 1/2 months sure do fly by.

My last e-mail to you left off as I was completing my paragliding training on the South Island and was just taking the ferry across the Cook Strait to the North Island of New Zealand.

The ferry arrives in the Capital city of Wellington and is situated within a small hook on the southern tip and has become a major cultural center. The enormous Museum of New Zealand - Te Papa Tongarewa is Wellington's pride and joy. The museum highlights not only history of European settlers but also the all important locals - the Maori people. I basically spent most of the day there and still didn't see all of it. The best part of all - it is totally FREE!

Didn't stay long in Wellington as I had to make my way to National Park to prepare myself for the day long Tongariro Crossing. Standing near the center of the North Island, are 3 volcanoes (the massive Ruapehu (2797m), the conical Ngauruhoe (2291m), and the Tongariro (1967m). The 17km (7 hr.) Tongariro Crossing is one of NZ most popular and spectacular hikes. I met up with a Swedish couple and we decided to hike together. We made our way through lunar landscapes of smoking steam vents, colorful crater lakes and numerous mineral springs. Starting off on the lower slopes in a t-shirt and shorts, we could see the top of the volcano was covered in clouds. What we couldn't see was what was happening in those clouds. The higher we climbed, the colder it got, the wind was blowing, the fog thickened, and the snow started. Before we know it, we in a full snow storm and couldn't see more than 20-30 feet in front of us. No, I wasn't stupid enough to keep going in a t-shirt. I had planned ahead and had pants, a fleece and a jacket in my backpack. Since a bus was waiting for us on the other side, we trudged on. 7 hours later, we made it. (see picture) Despite there being virtually no view from the top, it was still a great hike and really challenged me and I would definitely do it again. Sweet as...

My next adventure began no more than 12 hours later when I arrived in the small town of Waitomo - home of NZ famous Waitomo caves. Here, 50 tourist buses show up daily to view several million glow worms. I didn't go for that, I was there for the "Gruesome Twosome" - an adventurous Abseiling and Caving tour I was booked on. First stop was the "Haggas Honking Holes" where we got into wet suits, helmets and decended into a series of caves by rappelling down waterfalls, squeezing through cracks and crawling on our stomachs with our heads just above the water. At one point we had to rappel down a waterfall, unhook ourselves from the line as water was streaming over us and crawl on our stomachs under a ledge about a foot high off the ground. Once under the ledge the guide told us we were to turn over onto our backs and twist so we could slide down feet first down a mountain stream tunnel/crack. All of this was alone and with a small headlamp. Sweet as... The adrenalin was definitely pumping!

Next on the "Gruesome Twosome" was the blockbuster "The Lost World". This is a 330 foot free hanging abseil into a world of mist, miniature ferns, and trees growing straight out of the vertical walls of the cave. It looked just like Spielberg film but was REAL! After the requisite safety talk we attached ourselves to our individual line, hung off the cliff, and began the 30 minute decent into the "Lost World". The feeling of hanging 100m over a dark abyss was exhilarating and "Sweet as...". (see picture)

Rotorua is hard not to miss. Just the smell of rotten eggs will make sure of that. It is center of the volcanic thermal activity and is caused by a fault running from WHITE ISLAND nearby. (worlds only current active volcano). The town has many thermal pools, each of which have many different temperatures. It was great to just sit in them an relax the muscles after all that hiking.

It was at the boiling mud pools that I met up again with Mandy and Martin, a S. African and Brit who had experienced the Mad Dog Body Surfing with me down in Queenstown. These two were genuinely friendly and fun to be with. I ended up traveling the last two weeks of my trip with them.

It was also in Rotorua where I finally met some New Zealanders. After going out a few nights of beer drinking, I picked up the phrase "Sweet as..." which NZers use to mean "cool" or "alright".

50KM off the coast of the Bay of Plenty, sheathed in it own cloud of steam and gas, sits Whakaari, better know as WHITE ISLAND - the only currently active volcano. It is made up of 3 distinct cones, two of which are extinct. The 3rd billows steam for miles. As with most great spots in NZ, there is a tour which takes you there. Upon reaching the island, we toured the lunar landscape, stepped over boiling sulfuric acid pools, and climbed the wall of the crater to look down at the steaming vents below. Due to the sulfuric content of the gases around us, we were all encouraged to wear gas masks as we saw fit. (see picture) On the way back from the Island, a pod of about 100 dolphins joined our boat for a little bow riding and playing.

Martin and I then took a couple of days and toured the Coromandel Peninsula. Two highlights of that area was another trek we did called the Coromandel Walkway stretching between Fletcher Bay and Stony Bay and stopping at the famous "Hot Water Beach". When the tide goes out, boiling water seeps up through the sand. We got out our shovel and dug a large hole and then added cool sea water turning it into our very own natural hot tub. It was sight you have to see however I won't include the picture here as I promised Martin I would embarrass his WHITE British chest next to my American tan. :-)

Shooting by Auckland, we headed north to the Bay of Islands which is the NZ equivalent to Australia's Whitsunday Islands. This paradise consists of 144 islands dotted along the northern peninsula. Mandy suggested we get one of the smaller sailboats who only take a few people and specialize the tour. It couldn't have been a better day for the sailing. The sky was blue and we had quite a wind. The captain let me pilot the boat and at some times, we had the boat up on its edge and the rail in the water. We were moving... For lunch we stopped in a small bay and the captain got out an inner tube gave everyone a chance to be pulled around. As I was on it, 2 dolphins suddenly appeared and swam with and around me. They dove and came up just next to me. I tried to pet them but they are just to shy (and quick). Talk about being in the right place at the right time. Mandy and Martin are still mad they didn't get the same.

Basically the last stop of my tour before heading to Auckland for my flight home was Cape Reinga. This is the most northern tip of the North Island and very sacred to the Maori people. It is here, where they believe their spirit leaves the Island when they die. Upon reaching the Cape, I can truly say I traveled from the very South (Stewart Island) to the very north. I just hope my spirit doesn't want to leave me yet.

Well all good things do come to an end. I made my way back to Auckland in time to sell my car. I ended up selling it for NZ$1000 ($300 more than I paid for it) which meant I had a free ride around NZ. I boarded my flight to San Francisco promising that I would return someday.

I decided to stop in San Fran for a couple of days and it was a good thing since United lost my only piece of luggage. (I eventually got it.) I visited Alcatraz, toured Castro, and rode the cable cars. I also got out to see my cousin Kathy and her husband Bruce.

Well now I am back in Atlanta staying at my friend Mikes house. I had a 2 ton box of mail waiting for me and it is slow going through that. In addition to that, I am planning the 2nd leg of my journey to SE Asia. I will most likely skip the month skiing that I planned as I realized I can spend 7 months in Asia for the price I would pay in Colorado. Therefore, sometime in January, I will head for China, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Burma, Malaysia, Borneo, Myanmar, and then head over to Nepal and India. That will bring me back in time in August for the GA TECH football season and let me be here to see TECH kick UGA's butt again for the 3rd year in a row. Sweet as...

It will be good to spend the Christmas holidays with my parents and friends. Speaking of X-mas, I want to take the opportunity to Wish you all the Very Best HAPPY CHRISTMAS and MERRY NEW YEAR. You will have to take these wishes in leau of my annual x-mas letter. I am just not going to have time to get it out. The heart is there though.

If you want to send me one though, my address is at my parents at the bottom of this message.

I hope you have had fun reading about my adventures as I have had doing them. Please let me know if you don't want to receive such in the future. I do read all your return mail and definitely hope you find the chance to update me on what you are doing.

Until next time...... Sweet As...



copyright © 2003 by Michael E. Hopkins - all rights reserved
revised NOVEMBER 2008