MistyNites

My Life in Motion

Archive for the month “June, 2013”

New Beginnings

As circumstances have prevailed, I have found myself making a new beginning in the city of Christchurch. When I arrived here over a year ago, I was shocked and a little bit dismayed at the state of my soon-to-be home city. Sixteen months on, and I am now proud to be a part of the city’s new beginnings whilst I strive through my own. It seems somewhat fitting to make a leap of faith with a new country, a new lifestyle, and a new partner in a place that is making itself new too, albeit after a much more dramatic upheaval than my own.

I arrived in New Zealand with no set plans of where I would end up, how long I’d stay, or how easily I’d get work. As I travelled round the North Island of New Zealand, another story to my life was unfolding, only this one was unplanned and unexpected. For this one was a love story. I had been in contact with an Aucklander, thanks to a mutual friend, who had moved to Christchurch prior to me arriving in the country. As time went on, our communications evolved into a meeting and a shared life in this changing city.

In September 2010, Christchurch was rocked by an earthquake which was followed by a series of aftershocks, the most devastating of which struck at 12.51pm on February 22nd 2011. Multiple buildings collapsed, trapping and killing people within, and bringing the city to its knees. Over the successive 2 years, the city has battled to restore order and business to the devastated city centre and crumbling suburbs amidst a mess of red tape, cordons, and dissatisfied people.

When I first arrived in Christchurch, it was an overcast, rainy day in February 2012, and honestly, I thought I’d made a big mistake by agreeing to live here. My tour guide and new partner, drove me round the edge of the ‘red zone’, the cordoned-off city centre, and out to the suburbs to show me the damage. I was shocked and unprepared to see the empty plots of land, the half-demolished buildings, and the abandoned houses overgrown at every turn. There were pot holes and cracks in the road all over the place, and streets that were supposed to be flat were full of uneven humps and bumps. Even the bridges were out of alignment.

 

Those first few months, the aftershocks were very regular and took a bit of getting used to. They varied in strength and depth, and many of the first ones were early in the morning, so I would be woken by the bed shaking gently from side to side. As time went on, I got used to the little ones, but every now and again something stronger would rock through the ground, and it was more unsettling to be sitting on the couch when the television and the balcony doors started rattling whilst the couch jerked underneath me. I haven’t experienced anything stronger than a 4.8mag aftershock, but after starting to work in the city, I regularly came across people with all sorts of stories from that day in February. Even the gentle shake created by a truck driving past was enough to set off palpitations in some people.

When I first arrived, the ‘Red Zone’ encompassed a large part of the city centre. I could see through the fences, but not very far, and having never seen the city before, I had no idea what was gone, or what I was missing out on within. I was very curious though. Looking at images on Google street view and relaying that onto what I saw in real time, didn’t help me. One of the poshest hotels in the city, the Crowne Plaza which stood domineering the corner of Durham St and Kilmore St, began to be demolished a couple of months after my arrival. Not yet having a job to go to, I spent many days at the fence line watching it being nibbled away by ‘Twinkle Toes’ the largest ‘claw’ of its type in the Southern Hemisphere. A year later, and it is hard to remember how it looked when it was entire. In its place, the large empty foot print has been converted into a quirky bar and cafe, made out of wooden palettes. At the time of writing, a large archway had just been constructed on the site too.

 

In August 2012, the Newstalk ZB building became the first, and to date, only building in Christchurch (and indeed New Zealand) to be brought down by implosion. After its neighbouring buildings were demolished, an auction was held for charity to win the right to press the button that set off the charges. It was a cold, grey Sunday morning, but myself and my partner joined the massive crowd that gathered to watch New Zealand history in the making. It was a proud building where it stood, but it took only seconds to slide gracefully to the ground in a pall of dust, its crumpled shell looking mournful where it lay. It was the most people I had seen in one place within the city, but amidst a quiet jabbering, the crowd dispersed afterwards into the surrounding streets like a mist.

 

The ‘red zone’ shrunk in little patches, each new area being filled with nosy citizens wandering in a daze through streets they no longer recognised. Many of the empty areas have become temporary car parks, and thanks to a charity project called Gap Filler, temporary art works pop up in various spaces to give colour and interest and joy to the beleaguered people of Christchurch. Where once there was a building there would appear a football pitch, or a mobile dance mat, or a sculpture, or a painting, or a square from a Monopoly board. Where once there was a business, there appears mobile cafes and takeaway trucks to offer somewhere to eat when many eateries are closed or out of reach.

 

Initially, there was no way to see inside the ‘red zone’ but in the winter of 2012, a tour bus was allowed exclusive access. On signing a disclaimer, it was possible to go ‘beyond the cordon’ and drive through the deserted streets of the city centre. It was eery, and strange. Many locals were on the bus with me, and I could overhear them discussing their sadness about one business or another being missing, or how they couldn’t orientate themselves without the usual landmarks or street names to guide them. Then we reached Cathedral Square, the biggest issue of contention with the rebuild. The Christchurch Cathedral is the iconic building of the city, and probably the building who’s future has caused the most debate. When I first saw it (albeit through a fence), the tower had lost its top. The second time I saw it, on the bus tour, the tower had been nearly completely pulled down. Before anything else could be done, the political debate had flared up so much, that the demolition was halted whilst the various parties fought it out. A year later, and there has been no perceivable progress. The experts can’t agree on the safety of the building, and the safety of a rebuild, and there are those traditionalists who want it restored brick by brick. Then there are those who want a tasteful replacement built that will be safer whilst still providing the city with an iconic building.

 

In 2013, things have progressed so much that the ‘red zone’ barely exists anymore. Most of the streets are now open to at least pedestrian access if not traffic as well. There were around 1900 buildings earmarked for demolition in the city, and now the city is a patchwork of empty ground and lonely buildings stood solitary where once it had neighbours. I can’t imagine this city in any other way, and in some little way, I feel sad that the city is to become built up again, as it is currently nice and ‘open’. Part of the plans for the rebuild involves keeping buildings capped at a 7 storey maximum, and there is to be a lot more green space created within the city limits, so I for one, hope this is enough to keep some fresh air in the place, and allow light to get into the streets below.

 

Every few weeks, myself and my partner take a walk round the city centre to see the progress and the changes. Some streets are so empty now, but finally, the hotels are starting to reopen and businesses are returning. Cashel Street was previously one of the main shopping precincts. Half of it is now devoid of buildings, and the other half has been transformed. Christchurch is known as the Garden City, and its two city icons were probably the Cathedral and Hagley Park. Now, the city is famous for cranes and shipping containers. Where once the skyline was dominated by tall buildings, it is now dominated by tall cranes, and in many places, shipping containers have been collected for use in all sorts of ways. Cashel Street is one example. When there were no buildings to trade from, shipping containers were stacked together, painted in vibrant colours and kitted out to allow a shopping ‘mall’ to be created, and this is the Re:Start Mall on Cashel St. Here, you can buy food and coffee, and shop for souvenirs, clothes and homewares. On weekends, there are often street performers drawing a crowd, and it has become a popular place for locals and tourists to go.

 

Away from the city centre, the shipping containers have been used as storage, but more importantly, they have been used for ballast and support. On the road to Sumner, a beach side suburb round the coast, the cliff crumbled during the earthquake, taking homes and large rocks with it. Parts of the cliff are still unstable, and so the roadside is stacked high with shipping containers to protect road users against any falling debris. Many of these have been painted with murals to detract from the ugly reality of the container’s presence and purpose. Within the city, some of the facades of old-fashioned buildings are currently being supported by these same containers whilst the building is resurrected behind them.

 

The housing situation is an entirely different matter. Whilst, in my opinion, the city centre is progressing, the reality of suburban rebuild is causing a lot of distress. I have driven down ghost streets, where every house has had to be abandoned, or streets where only solitary houses remain where all its neighbours have fallen down or been pulled down. There are streets in the suburbs of Christchurch which look like the Apocalypse struck. The term liquefaction was a word I had never heard before moving here. Having spoken to people outside of New Zealand about it, it appears to be a little known effect of earthquakes in the general public. Most people think of the ground shaking causing cracks and buildings to fall down, but in areas such as the eastern suburbs which were built on marshland and sandy soil, they suffered another problem: liquefaction. Water-saturated sediments in loose soil fragments act like a liquid in an earthquake, and essentially push up through the path of least resistance to bubble or pour up through the ground. The result is pools or waves of silty thick liquid coating the ground in surprising depths and then drying like clay. It also undermines the ground surface creating hidden sink holes that claimed many vehicles. People had to dig out their homes and cars afterwards. The sewage, water, and storm pipes took a hit, and many people were left for months without plumbed-in sanitisation, having to empty their toilets into silos in the street, and to this day, many of the drains still struggle on a rainy day leading to flooding. The water table also shifted. Christchurch has two large rivers flowing through the region, and under the ground are multiple streams. On an aerial view of the city, you can almost map out the path of these underground streams based on the pattern of damaged buildings. In the suburbs, the river bed rose, and the banks dropped, meaning that many streets now sit below the water table. This can be seen on a drive round the streets that line the Avon river where many of the houses sit on a lean.

 

Things are starting to return to a level of normality though. Homes are being fixed, new homes are being built, and as much as buildings are still coming down in the city centre, new buildings are finally going up in their place. There are now more and more cafes, bars and restaurants to visit. Businesses are slowly beginning to return to the city centre, and whilst roadworks are still the norm, traffic is finally starting to move through the city centre again. Importantly, the tourist attractions are re-opening as well. In Cashel St is Quake City, a relatively new museum set up to commemorate and inform about the earthquakes of the region. The Gondola up the Port Hills to the south of the city reopened earlier this year, and the view from the top is amazing. On one side is the beautiful Banks Peninsula with Lyttelton harbour, and on the other is the expanse of the Canterbury Plains with Pegasus Bay, and the Southern Alps on the horizon. It is a popular site for paragliders. On the ride up, it is possible to see some of the damage created by rockfall from the earthquake, and at the summit are various walking routes to explore.

 

In the city itself, there are now various guided tours around what used to be the ‘red zone’ giving the history of the place. The river Avon offers the chance to go punting, and the magnificent Hagley Park with the Botanical Gardens are perfect on a sunny summer’s day for a wander or a bike ride. The Gap Filler mini-golf is a city-wide golf course, taking you on a wander through the city whilst playing some ridiculous holes of mini-golf, 1 of which is creatively made out of material to resemble the rebuild of the city. Outwith the city is the fantastic International Antarctic Centre, all about Antarctic exploration as well as a blue penguin rehabilitation centre, and beyond there are all sorts of parks and recreation areas such as McLeans Island and the nearby Orana Wildlife Park. There is plenty of reason to come to Christchurch, and with an ever-evolving city centre, and an optimistic blue-print planned for the new City of Christchurch, I am hopeful and excited for the future of the city that I now love and call home.

 

Notes from the North Island, Part 2

Taking a scenic drive across the Coromandel Peninsula on board another Stray Bus, our tour group spent the night at Hahei on the east coast of the Peninsula. Our cabin was a short walk from a beautiful beach, and from there, a group of us went kayaking to Cathedral Cove, a stunning natural phenomenon up the coast, and famous as a scene from the Narnia movies. The kayaking was immense fun, and I saw my first blue penguin whilst out in the bay. We enjoyed a hot chocolate by the cove, and a swim in the bay before heading back to Hahei in the afternoon sun, kayaking through a sea cave on the way. That evening, we drove to Hot Water Beach for the low tide. There is a natural thermal vent below this beach meaning at low tide, the sand acts like a spa pool, and it was teaming with people trying to find a spot to sit in the baking sand. In some places, where the hot gasses bubbled up through the sand, it was too hot to touch. In the lowering sun, my upper body was beginning to feel the cold whilst my feet were so hot that I had to dance from one foot to the next.

 

Heading south-west, we spent the night at Raglan. The weather had turned to greyness and rain, but our hostel was nestled neatly in the bush outside of town, and it made me feel a world away. Raglan is a surfer’s paradise, but aside from surfing, there isn’t a lot to do there. Around the hostel, there was a couple of bush walks which were a challenge in the mud, and at night-time the driveway lit up with glowworms. A few of us had signed up to a sunset cruise round the harbour at Raglan. I spent the whole cruise chatting with the other travellers from my bus so much, that I missed the entire commentary and indeed a lot of the scenery. To this day, I have no idea what we were supposed to have seen on that cruise, but the stay at Hahei and the hike and cruise at Raglan had allowed me to get to know the other backpackers very well, and I was quite sad to bid them farewell the next day.

Waitomo day was one of my most favourite days from my time travelling the North Island. Famous for its glowworm caves, I had made the decision to separate from my tour group to allow me to do a longer, more intense cave experience than what was allowed with the tour. I signed up for the 7hr Lost World experience which started with a 100m abseil into a giant hole in the ground which marked the entrance to the cave system we were to explore. The abseil mechanism was designed to be dependent on weight – the heavier you are, the faster and easier you descend. As a small-framed person of just 60kg, I wasn’t heavy enough for gravity to aid my descent. Instead, I had to use my arm strength to winch my way down the entire 100m. I was physically exhausted by the time my feet touched the ground, when everyone else had glided down with the minimum of effort. We enjoyed lunch here, before bidding the daylight goodbye for the next few hours. The journey through the caves involved a lot of rock scrambling and wading through the water. At times, the water was deep enough to swim in which was actually quite hard due to the weight of water-filled gumboots on my feet. At times we had to climb up over rocks, and jump from rocks into water pools below, and a couple of times, we had to negotiate waterfall climbs, 1 of which I struggled to swim against the flow of water, and had to be pushed up from below. At one point, we turned off our lights and negotiated the cave in darkness, trusting our hands to feel our way through the chamber. Finally, after squeezing through a letter-box shaped gap in some rocks, we came out into a large cavern with a handily placed rock in the middle. Sitting ourselves down to catch our breath, we were instructed to turn off our lights, and every one of us let out a noise in awe as we were instantly lit up by a cave full of glowworms. In every direction, there were thousands of little blue lights illuminating us like stars in our silence as we sat in our own thoughts marvelling at these little creatures. We must have sat there for a long time, but none of us wanted to move. Eventually though, we had to continue with our journey, and after a couple of turns, daylight could finally be seen again. It was a moment of sadness to leave the cave behind, and embrace the daylight again, but we still had quite a walk, first up the stream, then up over the hills to get back to our starting point where a tasty barbeque awaited our triumphant return.

 

The region of Waitomo is littered with caves. The following day I met up with a new tour group and we wandered through some bushland to visit some smaller caves before leaving the area behind. We spent the night at a Marae, a tribal house where we were treated to a traditional night of Maori dance and culture. Several of us went white water rafting as we headed south to Rotorua, joining our crew by the Kaituna river. Our guide Gofor, took us on a short and sharp ride down a 2.5m waterfall, followed by a 1m waterfall. A short paddle down the river we reached the top of a 7m waterfall, the highest commercially rafted river in the world. Going down, meant being submerged under the wash of water at the bottom, and there was a brief moment where I was unsure if I was still in the boat or not, and which way was up. Thankfully, we returned to the surface all intact, and all present in the boat. Already soaked, we all jumped out the boat to swim down the next rapid before climbing back in ready to splash through more waterfalls.

 

Rotorua was a delight, albeit a smelly one. The Earth’s crust is so thin here that there is geothermal gas pockets littered around the region. Even the homes are warmed geothermally through the ground, and it was amusing to wander the streets and parks of this town to find steam escaping through cracks in the pavement, and colourful sulphuric lakes bubbling away. The strength of the sulphur smell in the air varied day to day: some days it was barely noticeable, others it caught the back of my throat. Even if you couldn’t feel the earthquakes taking place beneath the ground, the sudden blast of rotten egg in the air alerted the nose to the knowledge that there had been one. Nowhere I’ve been since comes close to the uniqueness of Rotorua.

 

Again using Stray, I joined another tour heading east from Rotorua round the east cape to Gisborne. It was a nice intimate group of just 6 of us, with our local guide, and we took the scenic coastal route to Marehako bay where we stayed in the middle of nowhere at a lovely little hostel. Our host took some of us out on his crayfishing boat to collect his pots, and we got to help out, hauling up the pots, and sorting out the catch. The physical work was a nice distraction from the Captain’s aggressive rantings about the hardship of Maori people in New Zealand. He got my hackles up and lost any sympathy I may have had for his plea when he said that the IRA in Ireland had the right idea. After a brief kayaking trip round the bay, I enjoyed swinging in the hammock in the back garden whilst the crayfish cooked.

 

Our guide seemed to be the best of friends with the accelerator pedal, to the extent that he loved taking corners on the wrong side of the road to save him having to use the brake. It made the drive seem slightly rushed, and left a few of the passengers feeling a little bit queasy. The road followed the coastline, and out at sea I could see White Island, one of New Zealand’s active volcanoes, smoking off shore. We visited the country’s longest pier, as well as some movie locations from Boy, a famous New Zealand movie. Our beach shack in Gisborne was utter bliss. Just back from the beach, it was isolated and idyllic, and came with its own jacuzzi which we all squeezed into in the evening. It was a great place to be lazy in, and it was our last night as a group.

 

I left this group in Whakatane, stopping here for one purpose: to visit White Island. Since finding out about this place after arriving in the country, I had been determined to get out to it. At the time of visiting, the volcano was on alert level 1 and it was smoking away on the horizon, visible for miles around. It took 90 minutes to sail out to the island, and it was an awesome sight to behold: an active volcano pumping out steam and gas. We transferred to a small boat to ride ashore and then we followed a route round the island to get as close as was safe to steaming sulphuric vents, and the bubbling magma within the volcanic crater. This was another of my favourite days in New Zealand, and was like walking round another planet. Leaving the volcano behind, the boat took us round the island, where we disturbed a shoal of flying fish, which can fly a surprisingly long distance out of the water.

 

There is a beautiful bush walk from Whakatane round the coast to Ohope. It follows the coast, giving fantastic views of Whakatane itself as well as looking out towards White Island in the distance. From Ohope beach, the route cut inland through more bush, and I stumbled across a group of wild boars which came crashing out of the bush ahead of me giving me an immense fright.

 

Back in Rotorua, I spent a few days enjoying the thermal parks. First up was Waimangu Thermal Village which was my favourite. A 3 hour stroll alongside steaming ponds and bubbling streams brought me to a large lake where a boat took me around the crater lake to see more steaming vents. Further south were some large steaming mud pools which made a cool noise when it bubbled up from below. Round the corner was the Lady Knox geyser, a natural geyser that was supposed to be one of the most predictable to erupt. The brochures had its eruption as daily, but I was rather disappointed to get there to discover the whole thing is staged. Apparently, it naturally erupts on a 24 – 72hr basis, but in order to attract a regular crowd, they stage an eruption every day by throwing a sulphur block inside the vent. Admittedly, it was impressive when it went off, but for me, the event was marred by the unnaturalness of the spectacle. I have a bit of a dislike for manipulating nature in order to entertain tourists. I would much rather accept the unpredictability of nature when I turn up somewhere – this is the norm when going wildlife spotting, and so it should be with geothermal behaviour. Further down the road was Wai-O-Tapu, one of the region’s most famous parks, and it was mobbed, much more crowded and compact than Waimangu. I hate feeling rushed, and we were given a very strict time limit to get round the whole park and back to the bus. That being said, it was still an amazing place to visit, like being on an alien planet. There were blue pools, and green pools, and orange pools and red pools, some steaming, some bubbling, and all amazing to wander around.

 

Aside from the geothermal activity, Rotorua is famous for another thing: the birthplace of ZORB. Imagine your pet hamster running around your living room inside a plastic ball. Now enlarge the scale multiple times, add a hill into the scenario and replace the hamster with yourself, and you get the idea. For added pleasure, throw a bucket of water into the ball with you, and you get aquaZORBing. I did the dry ZORB straight run first, strapped into the inside of the ball and released in a straight line down a hill. It was not as enjoyable as I had been led to believe, the changing pressures on my head leaving me feeling rather uncomfortable. After posing for a photo at the bottom, I headed back to the top of the hill and this time went aquaZORBing. I had picked the zig-zag track which added to the general sloshing effect of spinning around the ball. I absolutely loved it, and climbed out the ball drenched but with a big grin on my face. After drying off I headed to the nearby gondola for a spectacular view over Lake Rotorua and the city on its shore. But the real reason for going up was the luge. From the summit of the gondola are 3 luge tracks: beginner, intermediate and advanced. I took a run on each, building my confidence and letting my speed pick up. Like the ZORB, I could have easily done many more runs, but if there is one thing that New Zealand excels at, it is eating up travelling funds by offering so many activities!

 

On the road south are a few streams that locals know are thermally heated, and after a brief swim in one, my journey continued south to Taupo. Outside of Taupo is the impressive Huka Falls which can be reached by road or by a lovely walk along the riverside from Taupo itself. Above the waterfall is a gorge that compresses the flow of water into a raging bubbling torrent that thunders over the falls with great speed and power. A lovely 2hr walk further down river was the Aratiatia Rapids. A mere trickle of water flows through the gorge until a few times a day, the sluice gates on the dam open up and a building torrent of water slams through creating an entirely different vista. Lake Taupo itself is also beautiful. The main settlement is on the north shore, but heading round the north-eastern shoreline is a walkway that allowed a day of meandering round the lakeside for an alternate view of the surrounding mountains. The lake is huge, and the far shore seemed so far away from every conceivable angle.

 

For the most part, I had been lucky with the weather on my North Island travels, but now my luck started to peter out. From Taupo, I was booked to go to the Tongariro National Park to do the popular day hike of the Tongariro Crossing, but the next few days became a blur of grey skies and frequent downpours. After several hours on the road, with poor visibility, and barely able to see the surrounding mountains on arrival into the park itself, I came to terms with the fact that the hike was not going to happen on this visit. Over a year later, and it is still high up on my New Zealand to-do list.

West of Tongariro down a long and windy single track road high up on the edge of a ravine, is the Blue Duck Lodge in Whakahoro. The people that own it are keen conservationists, trying to help the local population of Blue ducks that are on the endangered species list. The lodge offered multiple activities whilst we were there from horse riding to hunting, and as it had ceased raining by this point, I opted to go horse back through the valley. Unfortunately, by the time we were kitted up and on the trail, the rain started again with gusto, and our path became quite muddy at times. Like the road that had brought the bus there, the trail was also high up the ravine, and at times I worried about Mick the horse losing his footing and sending us over the edge. It was a sedate walk otherwise, but eventually, thanks to the worsening muddy conditions, we had to curtail our ride and head back. One of the other backpackers from the bus had opted to go hunting for goats which are deemed as an introduced pest, and as a result, dinner was a delicious goat curry.

 

My timing was the cause of the next lot of problems. I had unknowingly worked my way to Wellington to coincide with the Homegrown Festival, a music festival celebrating New Zealand-grown bands and music. Discovering this only a few days before my arrival, I struggled to find an affordable place to stay for more than a couple of nights. In the end, I had to curtail my stay in the capital city as well. Whilst there though, the good weather returned, with barely a sniff of the wind that the city is famous for. My favourite thing about Wellington is the waterfront, and the promenade that sweeps round the bay. At some point of every day I was in the city, I made a point of walking at least as far as Oriental Bay where there was a shop selling delicious gelato, if not further round the headland towards the marina and airport beyond. A good slog up Mt Victoria provided a 360 degree panorama of the city and the suburbs around, and I managed to revel in the sight in near-peace for all of 10 minutes before 7 coachloads of tourists arrived in quick succession and took over the place. I discovered later that parts of the woods that coated the hillside were used in scenes for the Lord of the Rings movies, and on a later trip to the city, I took a movie tour, getting to be silly and re-enact some of the scenes. I immensely enjoyed a visit to the Weta Cave too where a behind the scenes tour gave an insight into the making of props and weaponry for various movies. Aside from the movie industry, Wellington has a massive social vibe catered for with more coffee shops and bars than could ever seem possible, and my favourite haunt on each visit to the city is Parade cafe, or Boat cafe as it is now known, which is inside an old tug boat tied up by the promenade on the way to Oriental Bay.

 

The weekend of Homegrown approached, and the lack of accommodation meant that after 6 weeks, it was time to bid the North Island farewell. I was booked on the Interislander ferry to Picton, and the day couldn’t have been more glorious, with the sun high in the sky, barely a cloud visible and the calmest, smoothest sea. I was brimming with excitement on this day, because after 6 weeks of travelling solo, I was finally on my way to the South Island to meet a man with whom I was very close, and as it turned out, that meeting was to change the course of my life.

Notes from the North Island

There’s nothing worse than arriving late at your night’s accommodation to discover you are locked out. I reached my hostel in Ponsonby, Auckland an hour later than I’d expected, at nearly midnight and the place was fairly dark and closed up. Thankfully someone inside responded to my banging on the window and let me in the building, but then I still had no access to my bed. The manager had left for the night, and there was much phoning around and waiting before finally, someone got back to me, and I was given the code access to retrieve my key and reach my bed.

My first day in Auckland, and in New Zealand, and it was raining. The sky was grey, and I spent the day wandering around the city’s streets, getting my bearings in the incessant drizzle. It is a weather pattern that I have come to associate with Auckland – despite multiple trips here since, I seem to be cursed with the weather. After a month living on island time, Auckland seemed in a constant rush, and it took a bit of readjustment to return to the status of being a nobody in a big city. The lousy weather put a general damper on my spirits those first few days, and I really didn’t think much of the city at all. Over a year later, and I now love Auckland and look forward to those occasional visits that I make to the city. I love the sea, and am happy anytime I can wander along the shoreline and listen to the waves, the seabirds, and watch boats coming and going.

 

After a couple of days of bored wanderings in the rain, the sky finally started to clear a little, and after a wander around the Silo park by the waterfront, I headed up the Sky Tower for a panoramic view of the city. For the first time, I could appreciate the layout of the city, seeing the City of Sails in all it’s (albeit overcast) glory, with Rangitoto Island guarding the harbour entrance in the Hauraki Gulf. It was easy to pass the time till sunset, watching the city light up in a sea of golden lights. Rangitoto Island is one of many volcanoes in the region (Mt Eden and One Tree Hill being two others), and the most recent to erupt. Walking around the island, which is reachable by ferry from Auckland, is like tramping across a newly-cooled volcano, with large flows of scoria sweeping across the landscape with very little vegetation growing through. The highlight of visiting Rangitoto, aside from walking up to the crater rim, is walking through some lava tubes, 1 of which is high enough to stand up in.

 

Across the harbour is Devonport which is worth the short ferry ride to get away from the crowds of the city. Hiking over to North Head and Mt Victoria gives a great view of the city skyline, and I spent an afternoon wandering around some old barracks, and hiking through some underground tunnels in between more rain showers. After a gentle stroll along the gorgeous beach on the north side of the isthmus, there was time for a refreshing beer in a quaint little bar in the suburb, before catching the ferry back to the city.

 

The best thing about Kelly Tarlton’s Sealife Aquarium is the free shuttle bus. Out of nowhere in the downtown traffic comes a large shark on wheels to gobble you up and spit you out at the aquarium along Tamaki Drive. Like my home country’s most famous aquarium, Deep Sea World in Edinburgh, it is best enjoyed as a child. I am fascinated by marine life, and I remember loving Deep Sea World as a child, but somehow as an adult, these places fail to impress me. Part of it may be perspective: I remember Deep Sea World feeling huge and immense, but as with Kelly Tarlton, it doesn’t take long to go round all the exhibits, and the penguin enclosure was disappointing with it’s hurried ride in the Hagglund cabin, not to mention the poor view if sitting on the left side. Thankfully, this has been more recently altered to allow a walk-through of the enclosure instead which I’m sure makes this exhibit much better.

 

On my first trip out of Auckland since arriving in the country, I headed out to sea to an island where most Kiwi’s have never been: Great Barrier Island. On the outer edge of the Hauraki Gulf, is a place of paradise and tranquility. The ferry ride over was bliss in the sunshine, and I was kept company by an Aucklander who regularly came out for a fishing trip with some old friends, and we chatted the hours away. We stopped first at Port Fitzroy to the north, and then followed the coastline south to Shoal Bay. I was surprised by the size of the mountains, and the land was thick with lush vegetation. On the trip down, a pod of Bottlenose dolphins played beside the boat, breaching and entertaining us with their antics. I’ve seen this species of dolphin in both Scotland and South Africa, and I don’t remember them being as large as these individuals were.

 

I had planned on dumping most of my stuff at the left luggage at the harbour in Auckland, but due to a mis-timing with the bus, I had arrived at the ferry with just 2 minutes to spare, and ended up having to lug my 17kg rucksack with me. I was exhausted and sweaty by the time I hit the main road, so I was very grateful to bump into Buddy on his quad bike who lived on site at the hostel I had booked, and he drove me the rest of the way there. Unfortunately, the weight of my backpack on my back pulled me backwards off the quad, and I spent the last few metres gripping onto the quad with my legs, hanging horizontal off the back of the quad with my backpack dragging along the ground. Thankfully my new friend was a true gentleman and managed to contain his laughter quite well.

The location of the Stray Possum Lodge couldn’t have been better – it was nestled in a thick forest of tree ferns and nikau palms, and when I stood on the balcony, I was surrounded by the thrum of cicadas, and the call of kakas flying through the trees. Behind the hostel was a private path through the forest to a walking track which led to several secluded bays with aquamarine-coloured water. I lingered at 1 of these for a while, soaking up the solitude, before following the coastline north to Tryphena where I had a tasty dinner at an Irish restaurant. I stayed here too late, and the darkness swept me up as I headed home. I was grateful for the lift offered by one of the locals, and was entertained by a drunk passenger who spent most of the 10 minute drive swearing and slurring.

 

The following day, I trekked back to Tryphena for breakfast and followed the road over the mountain pass to Medlands beach. The east coast of Great Barrier Island is all about surfing, and I could see from the summit why this was the case – the waves pounded into the shore from the Pacific, driven inland by the curvature of the bay. I set my sights on some hot springs marked on the map further north, and continued hiking through Claris and beyond, heading along a seemingly endless road until finally I found the start of the hike. After over 4 hours walking, it was hard to hide my disappointment on reaching the hot springs to find 3 muddy pools that barely reached mid-calf in depth. But I hadn’t hiked all this way to just turn back, so I sat in the lovely warm water and contemplated the long hike home. The heavens opened and in the rain, with very sore feet, I began the long trudge home. The rain grew heavier and heavier, so I was grateful for the continued kindness of the locals, being picked up after just half an hour and returned to Medlands beach. After jumping out the car, it was less than a minute till another kind-hearted soul picked me up again and drove me over the mountain pass to Mulberry Grove. She was a lovely, chatty lady who filled me in on the goings on of the island, and it reinforced my already growing opinion about the friendliness and overall happiness of the Kiwis that I met.

 

The last day on Great Barrier Island was sunny, but very windy. After a hair-rising ride on a quad bike courtesy of one of the hostel workers, I spent the morning sunbathing on the beach, accidentally starting off my patchwork of lobster skin that was to develop over the coming weeks. Word reached me that the wind was putting my return sailing to Auckland in doubt, and I waited at the wharf unsure of what would happen. The waves were high, and I watched the ferry struggle to berth. Given the wind direction, the whole 2 hour ride home was a painful ride of slamming up waves and crashing down from the crest to the swell below. The staff struggled to see to the many people succumbing to sea sickness, and we were all confined to our seats, the lurching and slamming making walking around too dangerous. In the darkness we finally entered protected waters with the Coromandel coast offering some shelter, and we limped into Auckland in the dead of night.

Waiheke Island is a much more developed and populous island than Great Barrier. Popular as the weekend playground of Aucklanders, it is a hilly island, something which I hadn’t fully considered when I hired a mountain bike and set off on a trip of discovery. The bounty for slogging up the hills was the view over the coastline, looking down on some beautiful sandy beaches, and enjoying the fast descent down winding roads. From Oneroa to Onetangi and beyond, I soon realised how unfit I was on a bike. It had been over a year since last I had ridden one, and my muscles just weren’t up for it at all. On my second day of biking round the island, I had to give up and head home, after maintaining a poor average speed. Stopping in a nature reserve on route, I took a break from the bike for what I thought would be a 45min stroll. Instead, 2hrs later after discovering part of the track was closed, and having to take a detour, I doggedly climbed back onto the saddle. The delight at the hostel was a swimming pool to take a dip in on my return. Barely warm, it helped ease my muscles and sore feet after all the days of hiking and biking.

 

The Coast-to-Coast walk is a 16km (one-way) walk spanning the city from the Manukau harbour to the Waitemata harbour. It is an excellent day walk to meander through several suburbs of the city, joining up several of the city’s landmarks. Starting at the city Viaduct, I headed south through the city streets, past the university, and through the Domain towards Mt Eden, an extinct volcano. The crater rim was crammed with tourists on such a gorgeous hot day, and I bumped into some fellow Scots at the summit. The view back towards a now very familiar skyline was beautiful. It was a sweaty trek further south to One Tree Hill where I enjoyed a well-earned lunch break, and then a further slog up yet another extinct volcano before continuing through the outer suburbs to the end of the walk. After 5hrs walking, I opted to skip the bus ride home, and headed back the same route towards Ponsonby. My reward for all my exercise was a massive blister and a painfully cracked heel.

 

I bought a pass on the Stray bus network as a means of touring the North Island. Stopping for a couple of night’s in Whangerei, a place where most tourists pass through without stopping, I was rewarded with some beautiful forest walks with a stunning waterfall, and an amazing viewpoint over the city and its marina. Out of town were the amazing Abbey Caves, the poor man’s Waitomo. In the middle of nowhere are some free-to-access explore-at-your-own-risk caves. Equipped with my head torch, I ventured in for my first experience of glow-worms, following the stream through one of the caves, then sitting in the darkness surrounded by tiny blue lights. One of the caves also had a little cave lobster swimming around in the cave pool, which appeared out of nowhere in a fast dart when I put my foot in the water, giving me a fright.

 

North of Whangerei is a bird rescue centre where I met my first kiwi bird. The man that ran it was so passionate about his work, and the kiwi so used to people that we all got a chance to stroke it and feel its soft feathers. The drive north to Paihia at the Bay of Islands followed a stunning coastline route and I was excited to arrive at one of the places I had dreamed about visiting for a long time. I had booked a day of sailing around the islands on board a yacht skippered by a Canadian. The weather was poor when we set off but quite early on we were joined by a pod of Bottlenose dolphins cavorting through the waters in our wake. We sailed amongst some of the many islands, before anchoring off Motuarohia, and then swimming ashore. By this point, the sun had broken through the rain clouds and I naively expected the sea to be warm. I got quite a shock jumping in to the freezing cold water in my bikini, so I was glad to go for a hike once ashore to build up some body heat again. The view from the lookout at the height of the island was amazing, made more dramatic by the looming dark clouds that worked their way off on the horizon. After swimming back to the boat, a few of us went snorkelling in the bay prior to enjoying a wonderful home-made lunch courtesy of Captain Mike. The ride back we took under sail, and Mike let a couple of the passengers have the wheel. Not being a sailor, and having never been on a yacht before, I was rather unnerved by the extreme lean of the boat at times. There was more than 1 occasion when my feet came awfully close to getting a soaking, and I worried about capsizing, but Mike kept things under control, and we arrived back in Paihia in the late afternoon sunshine.

 

Cape Reinga marks the most northern point of New Zealand, and just like the Bay of Islands, it was a place that I had been keen to visit for a long time. Setting off on a coach tour from Paihia, we stopped briefly at Doubtless Bay, another bay of immense beauty further north, before visiting a Gumdigger’s Park to visit an exceedingly old tree. I would have happily skipped this for the sake of more time at the Cape, but as it was, we got an hour there, which was not long enough. There was a multitude of coastal walks that I would have loved to do, and I could have easily sat on the cliffs, staring out at the gorgeous scenery for hours, but alas, I felt rushed to make it back to the bus in time for its departure. We headed south on the western coast of the Cape this time, and headed onto one of the entrance ways for 90-mile beach (which is actually only 55 miles long). Parking up next to a giant sand dune, we hiked up in the hot sunshine to the dune summit, then proceeded to ride a sand board back to the bottom. It was so much fun, that I slogged up that dune a further 2 times to enjoy the ride back down again. After a drive down the seemingly endless beach, we headed to Mangonui for what is supposed to be New Zealand’s best fish and chips. Coming from the land of deep-fried food, I was rather disappointed. Give me Scottish fish & chips any day!

 

Around the bay from Paihia is Waitangi where the historical Treaty of Waitangi was signed. The view from the grounds back across the bay was beautiful, but my main purpose for heading this way was to hike to Haruru Falls. I had been told that the hike was better than the Falls themselves, so after over an hour hiking along the river’s edge through bushland, I was gleefully surprised to happen upon a beautiful wide waterfall. It was a popular spot, and I sat for a while enjoying the noise and the sight. One of the things I love about travelling, aside from exploring new places, is the random conversations that can be had with complete strangers. This was one such occasion where my daydreams were interrupted by a fellow backpacker who just so happened to be staying at the same hostel. As a solo traveller, I enjoy my own company immensely, but it can be lonely at times, so the company of a fellow traveller is always appreciated.

 

Another day of cruising the bay followed, this time on a catamaran, and straight away we came across some Bottlenose dolphins. Heading out towards the edge of the Bay of Islands, we sailed to, and then through, the ‘Hole in the Rock’ at Cape Brett. From there, I disembarked on the stunning Urupakapaka island for a day of exploring. Whilst hiking the coastal route on such a gloriously sunny day, admiring a 360 degree vista of utter beauty, I became convinced fully of my need and want to stay in New Zealand permanently. What had originally been planned as a 1-year adventure, was now, I was sure, going to be a permanent move to the Southern Hemisphere. Life couldn’t get any better than this day. There was not a single piece of this island that was not beautiful, and no matter which direction I looked or how far round the coast I hiked, I could see blue-green sea, green bushes, and sandy beaches, all gleaming under the sunlight from a cloudless sky. Catching the last ferry back to Paihia, we happened upon more Bottlenose dolphins, and I was daydreaming to myself about how perfect a day it was, when rounding the headland into Paihia I saw thick black smoke billowing from the street where my hostel was. A feeling of dread took over me as I impatiently waited to dock, then disembark. For the whole walk home, it appeared the smoke was coming from the hostel, but on entering the street, it was soon evident that it wasn’t. The house across the road was engulfed in flames, and an explosion within made the fire worse. It was a sadly public moment of grief for the home owners who ran up to the house right at the point of explosion, having been out for the day.

 

It had been an incredible trip so far around the Hauraki Gulf and Northland, but my New Zealand journey was just getting started…

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