MistyNites

My Life in Motion

Archive for the tag “Auckland”

Summit, Sea and Middle-Earth

I found myself with a few spare days ahead of a couple of much anticipated trips. Still in blissful naivety of what was to come in the following months, I boarded a plane to New Zealand’s largest city, Auckland, in early February 2020. Being a Saturday morning, there was a small market on downtown in the city so after dumping my bag at my hostel, I headed to the Britomart and out the far side of it to take a nosy. I’ve visited Auckland many times in the 9 years that I’ve been living in the country. Like Sydney, another place I go back to time and time again, I have my favourite parts that I make a point of going to every time, and in addition I do my best to explore somewhere new or do something different. In the case of Auckland, my favourite thing to do is to head to the viaduct and wander around the waterfront.

 

Normally I take the direct route across the bridge that raises and lowers to let the boats in and out, but I decided to wander around the other side of the Viaduct Basin and meander below the apartment buildings that circle it. I grabbed a light lunch at a cafe before continuing round as the sun intermittently popped through the circulating clouds. At Karanga Plaza is one of my favourite spots to take a photo of the Sky Tower. Like Sydney and the Opera House, I can’t imagine Auckland without the distinctive spire of the Sky Tower. It’s strange to think it was only completed in 1997 when I was already a teenager. As I stood near the steps by the edge of the marina, my attention was suddenly pulled to a movement in the water. To my delight, a large eagle ray was gliding through the surface water. I was the only one to see it, and it was gone before I could get my camera out to get a picture, but I love those moments that are yours and yours alone, a sneaky moment with nature that nobody else spots.

 

Despite being a busy city, Auckland actually offers a lot for nature lovers. Straddling between two harbours, it is nestled into the perimeter of the Hauraki Gulf, a large harbour with a winding coastline made up of both the mainland itself and a series of volcanic islands. I decided to book myself onto a whale and dolphin watching cruise for the afternoon. I’d last done this trip in 2015 where I’d witnessed a Bryde’s whale out near the Coromandel Peninsula. This time around we sailed out into a sunnier Gulf and looked and looked and looked. I’ve been on a lot of whale-watching trips around the World and had had a 100% success rate until a trip from Picton a couple of years prior had failed to spot any humpback whales. As time went on, despite the glorious sunshine and harbour views, we failed to find any marine life. I’d just started to right off the trip as a run of bad luck when we eventually found a pod of common dolphins, my favourite species of dolphin as they chased down fish to the delight of the Australasian gannets that dive-bombed into the ocean around them.

Different dolphin species demonstrate very different behaviour traits. Whereas bottlenose dolphins are much more interactive and acrobatic, travelling in smaller social groups, common dolphins tend to keep their eye on the prize: locating food, and they also usually move in large groups. They’re also very fast to surface, making photography a challenge. I had at times to remind myself to just enjoy the view, as I sometimes get so wrapped up in trying to get a photo that I forget to actually be in the moment that is playing out in front of me. That being said, I got one amazing photo that I love, and otherwise I enjoyed watching the gannets shoot through the sky like arrows as the dolphins herded the fish below the surface. Every now and again I spied a petrel in the mix too. I’ve become a bit of a bird enthusiast since living in New Zealand. What we lack in native mammals here we make up for in birds, and I pay so much more attention to the fauna when I’m out and about.

 

Being summer, there was still a good few hours of daylight left when we returned to the marina. I’d spotted a place that had an interesting looking cocktail at Wynyard so I meandered back across the bridge and settled down at a Chinese restaurant for a delicious meal and a beautiful pink cocktail. The SARS-CoV-2 virus had been making its way around the World by this point, although it hadn’t yet reached our shores. February marks Chinese New Year, a time of year that normally sees an influx of tourists from China. There were still a lot of international tourists, but I noticed not just the reduction in number of Chinese tourists, but also how this particular restaurant was comparatively empty compared to those around it. In fact, everyone else at the restaurant conversed with staff in Mandarin, and I had wondered at the time if there was a bit of racist avoidance of the place. Sadly, even the normally welcoming and laid back country of New Zealand has its racist backbone.

 

I had an early rise the next morning to catch a bus out of the city to somewhere I’d wanted to go to for many years. A couple of hours south of the city is the unassuming town of Matamata. But it is what lies on its outskirts that is the lure to movie fans from around the World. Back in 2001, when I was at university, I, like many others, made a special trip to the cinema to see the first Lord of the Rings movie. If someone told me then I would end up living in New Zealand, I would never have believed them, but yet a decade later I left my home country of Scotland to emigrate there. Now I was on route to Hobbiton, the film set of the Hobbit village that was left intact after the Hobbit movies were filmed and is now a popular tourist attraction. Several of my friends had visited in the past, and I was quietly excited to finally make it there myself.

After a brief respite from breakfast somewhere along the way, we pulled up at the tourist centre to wait for our tour to begin. Whilst I would have loved to have just had free range of the place, you can only visit on a guided tour, meaning booking into a timed shuttle bus that drives you from the main centre, across the farm to the entrance into Hobbiton. There you are taken around a set route by a guide, to curl around past familiar Hobbit holes towards the Green Dragon Inn. The farm itself seems so quintessentially New Zealand, as across the road near the entrance was a load of sheep grazing some crops against a backdrop of rolling hills. As often happens in summer here, there was a bit of a drought going on, making a lot of the landscape quite yellow and brown. And yet, as we reached the film set itself, it was transformed into greenery, as the landscape was clearly being artificially hydrated to maintain the aesthetic.

Firstly, we stopped by the Hobbiton sign before descending through the trees and popping out at a vegetable patch. Looking up the hillside there were Hobbit holes a-plenty, a series of colourful round doorways under turf humps. Whilst not a die-hard fan, I liked the franchise enough to be enchanted by the place as we moved from residence to residence, past small rocking chairs and clothes-lines draped with Hobbit-sized clothing. While almost all of the Hobbit holes are purely a facade, there were a couple that we were able to get right up to or pose by, including one where the door opened into a small vestibule to allow photographs to be taken as if we were going inside. It was a gloriously hot day and I was so happy to be there.

 

Finally, after working our way up the hill at the back, we found ourselves outside Bilbo Baggins’ home, complete with ‘No Admittance, except on party business‘ sign outside. From there, it was a matter of wandering down the other side of the hill to come out at a pretty stone thatched building with a water wheel, and a gorgeous little stone arched bridge that led across to the Green Dragon Inn. Inside, I claimed my cider, part of my admission ticket, and enjoyed it as I wandered around looking at the gorgeous wooden beams and authentic signs on display. Outside the inn, a small lake provided some stunning reflections on such a sunny and still day. I could have sat here for hours just enjoying the weather and the view. The attention to detail everywhere I looked was incredible, and I’d happily come back another time and do the tour all over again.

 

To break up the two hour drive back to the City of Sails, we stopped at Hampton Downs motor park, just a little past half way. I’ve watched the odd bit of motor racing over the years here so recognised some of the cars and names that were displayed across the place. It was a non-race day but the display showroom was full of freshly waxed racing cars, and outside the building there were a few cars racing round the track. I had enough time to watch them do a few laps as well as spot a car doing doughnuts in the skid zone.

 

Back in Auckland, I jumped on the ferry across to Devonport on the opposite side of the harbour to the CBD. It’s only a 10 minute ferry ride, and it was a gorgeous evening as I headed over. I decided to have an early dinner, eating at a Greek restaurant on the main street, before heading up the hill, breathless on a full stomach, to reach the summit of Mount Victoria, one of the 53 volcanic cones that dot the greater city landscape. By now evening, the views over to Rangitoto Island and the city of Auckland were divine. I sat for a long time at the top watching the sun lower and the sky change colour. I made the decision to wait for sunset, and in doing so, the colours in front of me glowed through shades of yellow, and orange before the sun dipped below the cloud line at the horizon. Then the pinks and purples burst out, and the city turned into a sparkling electric light show as the various skyscrapers illuminated against the darkening sky.

 

The purple hung around in the air for quite some time, and below me a constant flow of boat traffic moved in and out of the harbour, they too glowing against the dark water as they zoomed across the surface. Ever aware of the need to get back for the last boat, I eventually had to haul myself away from the view and head back down the hillside to the wharf. As the boat left Devonport, I noticed the Sky Tower was putting on a light show, changing through a series of bright colours, switching from blues and purples, to reds and greens. I wandered through the city streets catching glimpses of the light show as I headed back to my hostel.

 

The next morning after grabbing breakfast at a popular and crammed cafe near to my hostel, I took a wander into Albert Park, passing a myriad of sculptures and finding an alternative viewpoint for the Sky Tower. Down from here, I cut towards Chancery Square where I was amused for a while by a gull that kept challenging its own reflection, thinking it was another gull. Then, because I love it there so much, I headed back to the Viaduct, at first watching the boat life come and go, before parking up on one of the giant wooden loungers on the plaza to just enjoy the sunshine. When at last it was time to head back to the airport, I found myself with a window view for the flight back to Christchurch, flying over Taranaki which looked bizarre without any snow on it. Landing at Christchurch airport, I headed home, excited about my return to the airport the next day for the start of a week long adventure far out in the Pacific Ocean.

Auckland and the Hauraki Gulf

Feeling sick has to have its perks. Or at least that’s what I’m telling myself after wasting the whole weekend lying on the couch at home with a virus. Due to a mix of life, travel and mental health lows, keeping up with my blog has been very hit and miss this past year, and as such, I’m a whole year behind in recounting my travels. So I might as well take the opportunity that the virus has provided me, to try and catch up.

I had the luxury of having my birthday off work for several years in a row, so when last March I worked on my birthday for the first time in a while, I decided to try and get a weekend away to make up for it, booking flights to Auckland and a trip to do something I’d wanted to do for some time. My partner had been up to Auckland two months prior for a family event so I was supposed to be heading up on my own, but after he decided later on that he’d join me, we found ourselves at Christchurch airport booked on two separate flights with two different airlines. We effectively raced each other up the country. My flight was scheduled first but was delayed causing a bit of jovial banter between the two of us. In the end though, it didn’t matter. We made it to Auckland well enough and were met at the airport by my partner’s friend who drove us into the city.

It was a scorching sunny day in the City of Sails, and New Zealand’s largest city was living up to its name that weekend as the Volvo Ocean Race, the World’s biggest ocean race was currently taking place in the city. It brought back memories of my time in Cape Town in 2005 when the race had stopped by there, and the vibe around the harbour front was incredible. The race itself was on a break the day we arrived, but there was plenty of action on shore with the teams milling with the sponsors, drinks flowing and exhibits for city goers to have a look at. This event oozes money, and it was very clear to see this walking around, but it was still really interesting, and even without the event running, I just love the views of the Auckland skyline with the sails in front of it.

 

We spent the morning walking around the Viaduct and Wynyard Quarter where we grabbed some food at one of the pop-up venues that had been erected. I had been living with anxiety by this point for nearly 2 years and a message from work put an end to my buzz. For all that social media can do to suggest that people are constantly on a travelling high, I’ve had several trips away tarnished by having to fight through some rather low bouts of mental health. My partner and his friend did their best to buoy me up, and thankfully there was plenty going on to distract me and pull my mind away from my thoughts. Before heading into the city to check into our hotel we managed to squeeze in amongst the crowds to see some boats take off on a race around the harbour. Beyond that we had an evening planned out at Western Springs for the Speedway, an event which I’ve been to a few times with my partner and his friend. It’s a fun night out with a variety of race styles and good family entertainment. Sadly, at the time of writing, Auckland City Council has very recently made the Speedway homeless, and its future in the city is unknown.

I had an early rise the next morning to head off for the trip that was my whole reason for coming up. My partner was to spend the day hanging out with his friend, but I headed down to the ferry terminal to catch the Fullers ferry out into the Hauraki Gulf. One of my favourite things about the region is the myriad of offshore islands that can be visited, offering anything from wineries and swimming to camping and volcanoes. In the first few weeks of my time in New Zealand, I explored the wilderness of Great Barrier Island (to this day, still one of my favourite parts of the country), cycled around the popular Waiheke Island, and explored the volcanic landscape of Rangitoto Island. This time I was headed to Tiritiri Matangi Island, one of the country’s pest-free islands that is open to visitors. Like Ulva Island in Southland that I’d visited the month before, Tiritiri Matangi is promoted as a bird-lovers’ paradise, and being a bit of a closet birder, I was keen to get out there and see what was on offer.

As always, getting out on the water in Auckland is a delight, seeing the city skyline from an alternate viewpoint as well as getting amongst the myriad of boat traffic that plies the busy waterway. Leaving the city behind, we passed Devonport then Rangitoto and headed up to Gulf Harbour where we collected more passengers. From there, it was just a short hop across to the island itself. I’d left the city in sunshine and unfortunately arrived in a bit of a haze. Being a Sunday, the boat was also very full and as we all disembarked, I was keen to get moving and leave the crowds behind, but the rangers stopped us at the wharf to give us a briefing on how to conduct ourselves on the island, taking up a bit too much of the precious time that we had before the sailing home.

 

From the wharf, there were several routes to choose from: a direct road to the lighthouse to the south, a meandering route along the headland to the same destination, or a beach walk to the north. This meant that there was at least a bit of immediate dispersal of the large amount of people that had arrived on the boat, and it was possible to start seeing some wildlife quite early on. I took the Wattle Track, the non-direct route to the lighthouse, and straight away saw some Hihi, or Stitchbirds, and some large Weta, a rather incredible insect that is endemic to New Zealand. Although we’d sailed a good bit away from Downtown Auckland, it was still possible to see the distinctive Sky Tower in the hazy distance, and the volcanic dome of Rangitoto Island stood off to my right.

 

I detoured just before the lighthouse to follow the Ridge Track to the nearest high point to survey my surroundings. I spotted a Sacred Kingfisher on a flax bush, a shy bird that I’ve found difficult to photograph in the past, and I could see across to the dramatic cliff face of Gulf Harbour. The island’s visitor centre is next to the lighthouse, and here was the busiest place I came across on the whole island. I didn’t hang around long, passing it by to skirt behind it to the lighthouse itself. Although it’s not open to the public, it has a commanding presence on the headland and the lawn around it was filled with a mix of people and birds.

 

Round the corner was a house used by staff that had a glorious viewpoint out over the ocean, and from here the east coast track took a northerly route. This track was glorious. Leaving the lighthouse behind, it stuck to the cliff top and skirted round the various coves as it went, losing and gaining altitude as it needed to, and providing a fantastic and near constant view of the rocky coastline and the pounding waves below. There were various viewpoints on route and I caught glimpses of pied shags in the trees and got close ups of the melodic birds that live in the New Zealand bush, such as the tui, one of my favourite birds to hear whilst out hiking. Tui are present in pockets of the South Island, but aren’t common around Christchurch where I live, so it’s always a novelty to see and hear them when I’m somewhere away from home. I’m yet to capture a photograph of them that truly displays their shining feather colour, but I did finally manage to get one that showed off their pretty ‘bow-tie’ feathers.

 

On the headland before Pohutakawa Cove I spotted another Sacred Kingfisher, and beyond here, I took the option to skirt round a couple of lakes that created a small wetland. It was peaceful here with surprisingly little visible life compared to other parts of the island, but it did provide a bit of shade. There may have been some wispy high cloud and haze but it was hot and there hadn’t been much in the way of shelter from the strong sun overhead. Just beyond here the path came to its end at the most northern end of the island, and then it was time to work my way back to the pier via the west coast.

 

As I followed the Ngati Paoa track to the Ridge road, I was in a little bit of a reverie when I was startled by the movement of two grey birds in the bush to my left. It was a fleeting glance that was over before I knew it, but I was excited to realise that what I’d just seen was the North Island Kokako. This bird is really rare to see in the wild, and its South Island variant is thought to be extinct. That being said, suspected sightings in the not-too-distant past have resulted in a $10,000 reward being issued to anyway who can provide verifiable proof of the South Island bird’s existence.

 

I was only on the Ridge road for a brief while before I cut down to the Tiritiri Matangi Pa where I once again had a view across to Gulf Harbour. I took a bush walk round the Totara track where I found a quail with her chicks, and then followed the Kawarau Track through thick bush past the loud North Island Saddleback, and down a steep decline to reach Hobbs beach. The clouds had moved in by now turning the water a cold shade of grey, and here I found a lot of the people that I’d come over with, who were lounging on the beach with their picnics whilst their kids played around the rock pools and the shallows.

 

As I meandered along the Hobbs Beach Track towards the wharf, the other visitors began to gather up their gear and join me on the meander back. I could watch the Fullers ferry draw in from afar as we plodded our way to meet it. There wasn’t an immediate need to board, so as the crowds gradually materialised from the various paths to congregate at the pier, I cut back up the road a little and found myself face to face with pukekos, dust-bathing sparrows, a lone kakariki and more quail. When I returned to the pier, the ferry was well through the process of boarding, and I frog-marched down the pier to head on board. I left the island very satisfied with the chilled-out day that I’d been much in need of, and a multitude of endemic birds spotted.

 

It was just a quick jump across the gap to Gulf Harbour where I disembarked. A large marina here seems to scream about the riches that live around here, but it was a more convenient location than downtown to meet up with a friend that lives away from the city. When we eventually reached her place I was quite jealous of the bird song that serenaded her back garden, and after tea and a catch up, she ran me to Albany where I met up with my partner and his friend for a belated birthday dinner at a much loved Mexican-themed restaurant. By the time we were heading back into the city, the light was dulling and we crossed the Auckland Harbour bridge as the city lights came on.

 

As I like to make the most of my weekends away and as I had been originally coming solo, my return flight wasn’t until late in the evening on the Monday. My partner would have preferred to return earlier, and when we woke to torrential rain that continued for the entire day, I was a little deflated to see that on this occasion, he would have been right. As it was, we hid out in shops and then at the cinema, trying to kill time before grabbing our stuff and heading out to the airport. It was a shame to lose the benefit of the third day, but I returned home satisfied. I always try to do something new whenever I return to Auckland, and bagging Tiritiri Matangi had been just the ticket.

Old Favourites

I regularly need to pinch myself when I think how unbelievably blessed and lucky I am to call New Zealand home. I will always be a proud Scot, but there’s something about New Zealand that makes me immensely happy. I love getting out and exploring new parts of the country but I also love revisiting some of my favourites. I love living in Christchurch in the country’s South Island, and I can’t imagine living anywhere else right now, but at least once a year, I try to get up north to visit Auckland, the country’s largest city. It was the place where I touched down when I first arrived here, nearly 4 years ago, and I have spent many days here exploring different aspects of the city and its surroundings. I have my favourite places that I like to go each time, but I also try to go or do something new too.

This past weekend, I headed up for the first time in nearly a year. The weather played ball, and for the most part, I got to soak up the sun whilst making the most of the place. The greater Auckland population is over 1.5m compared with Christchurch’s roughly 360,000, and with the latter still in the throes of a post-earthquake rebuild, it is nice to escape to the Big Smoke and experience the goings on of a big city. Usually there is another reason to head north, and on this occasion it was to support some of my fellow pole dancers in a national competition. There were some amazing performances and it was lovely to see several people from the studio I attend winning awards.

But the most exciting thing about this trip, was the boat trip that I treated myself to the next day. Aside from travelling, I have a major love of all things cetacean, and am always eager to get out to sea at any available opportunity. I had discovered a couple of years ago that a whale and dolphin safari is available from downtown Auckland, and now was my chance to head out for a new experience. The weather conditions couldn’t have been better and it was a lovely calm trip east to the dominating Coromandel Peninsula that juts sharply out into the Hauraki Gulf. A convergence of currents here brings blooms of both phytoplankton and zooplankton which attracts Bryde whales and common dolphins on a regular basis, and Orca and bottlenose dolphins on a seasonal or sporadic basis. Any or all of these was going to keep me very happy indeed.

 

There was a while where it looked worryingly like there wouldn’t be a sighting. I’ve been lucky enough to have a multitude of whale watching trips under my belt, and not a single one of them has occurred without a sighting. But I’m always aware that there could be a first time, and I was starting to think it might be this one. But finally the call came out that a whale had been seen popping its head out the water straight ahead, and finally, not far off the Coromandel coastline, we came upon a Bryde whale lunge feeding. It repeatedly threw its head straight out the water before rolling onto its side. After a few lunges, it stopped feeding and swam around us from a distance. I’d last seen this species 10 years earlier in South Africa where the sightings had been so brief that I had managed no photographs, so it was fantastic to get a much better viewing this time round. We spent some time watching it move around us for a while before we went off in search of dolphins. Common dolphins are my favourite species of dolphin, and I was thrilled at the prospect of seeing them again. My memories from my only sighting of them are fading as again it was a brief occurrence in South Africa 10 years ago. We took a long route north then west back towards Rangitoto island, but alas it was not to be. The crew told us that it didn’t happen often, but I was gutted to see no dolphins on this trip.

 

The next day, I decided to revisit a place I hadn’t been for nearly four years: the observation deck of the Sky Tower. Auckland’s most iconic building, it was officially opened in 1997, three years after construction began. Like the Sydney Opera House in Australia, the Sky Tower had its critics, but like in Sydney, it is hard to imagine the skyline without this building now. Next to the SkyCity Casino, the entrance is underground, and then the elevator with its partly-glass floor whisks you up to the 51st floor to the lower of two observation decks. From here there is a 360o view of Auckland and its surroundings. It was an awesome thing to do when I first arrived in New Zealand as it helped me get my bearings in such an expansive city, and on a second visit it was just nice to see everything from above again. Like many buildings of its type around the world, there are sections of the floor made of reinforced glass so that you can stand over the massive drop and laugh as people either jump up and down on them or scare themselves silly on them.

 

On the 60th floor is a smaller observation area, but the glass up here is tinted differently, so I personally prefer the view on this floor with regards to being able to take photographs. The day I was there, there were two men doing repairs on the outside, suspended off the side of the building in harnesses and inside a ‘bucket’. It’s definitely not a job for the faint of heart. There are a few adrenalin activities available from the Sky Tower itself. It is possible to do a Sky Walk where you are harnessed up on a platform outside the building on the 53rd floor for a wander round. From here, it is also possible to do a harnessed base jump down to the ground. I don’t remember there being the Sky Jump there last time (although it’s quite possible I was oblivious to it!), so although I knew about its existence more recently, I didn’t know a lot about it. As it turns out, you can be merrily looking out the window on the 51st floor to be caught off guard by a human being hurtling past the window towards the ground. It was funny hearing the gasps when people on the observation deck weren’t expecting to see this! I’m thinking next time round, this may be my new experience to try in Auckland!

 

A trip to the City of Sails isn’t complete for me without a wander along the foreshore past the ferry terminal, the viaduct and beyond Wynyard Quarter to the marina. With an estimated 1 in 3 households in Auckland owning a boat, there is a plethora of boats in the marina, and the harbour is always full of boats, both private and commercial, chugging past. In the summer months, large cruise ships dock regularly, dwarfing the neighbouring Hilton hotel. There is also a multitude of spots to get a different angle of the stand-out Sky Tower dominating the Auckland skyline. It’s a view that’s hard not to fall in love with.

City of Sails

Nestled on an isthmus between the Waitemata Harbour to the north, and the Manukau Harbour to the south, Auckland provides plenty of options for water-based activities, with a high-population of boat ownership in the city lending the city its nickname as the ‘City of Sails’. Living in a small city undergoing a rebuild and redevelopment, it can be refreshing to get away from it all and visit a vibrant city with such a beautiful skyline. Both within the city boundaries and within reach on its outskirts, there is always plenty to explore.

I have visited Piha beach, to the west of Auckland, twice. It is a winding drive across the Waitakere Ranges National Park, and as ruggedly beautiful as it is, I’m always slightly disappointed with the place when I get there. Piha itself is small with little to do there, and the water is too rough for my swimming capabilities, and on a sunny day, the black sand burns to the touch. On a poorer day, the wind whips in from the sea and it feels exposed and dangerous. The draw card back there for me is to climb Lion Rock, the distinctive coastal rock that juts out from the beach, and can be ascended when the tide is right. One of these days I’ll get up there.

 

The Waitakere Ranges National Park is a hiker’s paradise. Within easy reach of Auckland city, it is littered with hiking trails of varying lengths and difficulties, as well as a golf course and some stunning coastal views. Again, I’m yet to manage any of the hikes, but on this visit I was taken on a drive through the park, and this time stopped at the main visitor centre from where the famous Sky Tower of Auckland was visible to the east, and the sea was visible to the west. It was a scorching day, and the surrounding trees were filled with the thrumming sound of thousands of cicadas. It is one of my favourite sounds in nature, and always makes me think of summer days in the countryside.

 

That night, my partner and I partook of an Auckland tradition: visiting Franklin Road on the edge of Ponsonby to view the famous Christmas lights. Every year, many of the properties on this street deck their frontage and gardens with all sorts of glowing festive displays and the street becomes jammed with locals and tourists alike who wander up and down, serenaded by carol singers and musicians. The pavements are crammed with people, and the last few nights before Christmas are particularly busy with everyone jostling through the crowds.

 

No trip to Auckland is complete without visiting Mission Bay and/or St Heliers. Round the harbour from the city centre, these lovely suburbs feel a million miles away from the towering buildings of the city centre, but Mission Bay especially gets very busy on weekends and public holidays. One of my favourite ice cream parlours, Movenpick, has a store here and I love to walk through the park and along the waterfront whilst I devour one of their milky delights. The beach here is relatively sheltered and the beaches at both suburbs are a good spot for a bit of swimming and paddling.

 

After a quiet family Christmas, on Boxing Day we headed into town and caught the ferry over to Devonport. I hadn’t been there since that first week after I moved to New Zealand 3 years ago, and we wandered round Torpedo Bay and up the hill at North Head to the old war gunneries on the headland. The pohutakawa (Christmas) trees were in full bloom, in glorious red, and the place was littered with families enjoying picnics on every spare spot of grass around. We followed the path to the summit and enjoyed the view back across the harbour to Auckland’s skyline before following the coast round to Cheltenham beach on the northern side of the peninsula. From this side, Rangitoto Island stood proudly across the waters. After a beautiful lunch in one of Devonport’s delightful eateries, we caught the ferry back to downtown. On route, there was plenty of opportunity to see why Auckland is known as the city of sails with a plethora of sailing boats dotted across the water.

 

One of the highlights of a trip to Auckland at this time of year for my partner is the Boxing Day Speedway. A sport I knew nothing about prior to meeting him, I’d been to a meet in Christchurch a couple of years ago where we got splattered in mud. In the baking late afternoon sun we roasted ourselves whilst the rounds were raced, viewed by an exceedingly packed crowd.

The following day we went to the second meet of the season as well, and sweated the hours away under another fiercely hot sun. The track ran differently both days, making for very different conditions which meant a thrilling watch on both days for very different reasons.

 

Our last day in Auckland was spent wandering round our favourite haunts, mainly the Viaduct and marina on the waterfront. Every time I go there, I walk to the same places and take the same photos over and over again, because it is such a beautiful sight. Like many cities, the commercial parts of the city is nothing to write home about, but like my favourite city, Sydney, Auckland has made good use of its waterfront position, and I love nothing more than to stare out to sea or to ogle at the Sky Tower from every possible advantage point. Auckland will always hold a special place in my heart because it was where I spent the first few weeks of my life in New Zealand, and I never fail to find an excuse to go and visit.

Aotearoa Road Trip

It is a long drive north from Christchurch to Auckland, and we had a few days to get up there for Christmas. Setting off early from the South Island’s largest city we made it to Picton, the departure point for the Interislander ferry, with the afternoon to spare. I’d previously just passed through Picton swiftly on my first arrival in the South Island nearly two years previously, and finally I had a bit of time to enjoy it. Picton is a beautifully set harbour town nestled within the Queen Charlotte Sound at the top of the island, and it is the gateway to the north. Due to its location, it is also the gateway to exploring the sound itself, with multiple boating options, and departures for the Queen Charlotte hiking track as well. But with my love of cetaceans, I was drawn to the wildlife adventure, and headed out for a few hours on a wildlife spotting cruise. There is plenty of bird life here, and we saw the very rare King Shag, a species that only exists in this one location in the entire world, and has a population of only about 500 birds. We found 2 sunning themselves on a rock amongst some more plentiful cormorants. We stopped off at an island far up one of the channels which, following a brief hike to the summit, gave a fantastic view of the peninsulas around us. Heading back to port we finally came across some of the shy and rare Hector’s dolphins that were busy hunting for food in a sheltered bay. We were even lucky enough to see another rare animal, the little blue penguin out for a swim. Away from the ferry terminal, Picton has a small beach and a large marina, and there are a few local walks that can be taken from there which offer alternate views of the sound. In short, I love Picton, and the Queen Charlotte Sounds is a definite gem in the South Island’s crown.

 

The original plan had us catching the early morning ferry to Wellington, allowing us to drive quite a way up the North Island before pausing another night. Unfortunately, right before the peak season started, one of the ferries lost its propeller and went out of service, completely disrupting the schedule of sailings. As a result, our crossing was delayed by 7hrs, and we set off north in the early afternoon. The cloud hung over the South Island as we sailed through the sounds, but as we entered the Cook Strait, the sky above us was clear, and we had sunshine for the rest of the crossing. It is a beautiful 3hr sailing: firstly there is the stunning sight on either side of the boat of the peninsulas and islands of the sound, then as you cross the Cook Strait, you can see along the coast of the South Island spreading out behind you whilst the North Island comes clearer into view ahead of you. Tracing the coast of the rugged North Island coastline for a while, the ferry eventually enters the narrow entrance into the wide expanse of Wellington harbour, and the view to the east is of barrenness, whilst the view west is of development with planes coming into land at Wellington International airport and pleasure boats sailing around Miramar peninsula. As the city centre looms closer, the lovely Oriental Bay with Mt Victoria behind watches as the ferry makes its final approach into dock.

 

We headed straight out of Wellington on state highway 1 (SH1) as soon as we got off the ferry. Snaking out the back of the city, the highway initially follows the coastline travelling up the Kapiti coast with Kapiti Island visible just off the shore. The region makes an exceedingly tasty ice cream, but today we were just passing through, eager to get some kilometers behind us on the next leg of the journey. We spent the night in Foxton, a rather unassuming little place that neighboured Foxton Beach, which had, as the name suggests a beach. There was a glorious sunset that night which we watched from the warmth of the truck, facing the lapping sea as it hit the shore.

 

SH1 continues snaking north, and as it does so, the scenery changes dramatically. From the Kapiti coast it turns inwards and cuts through a rolling green landscape rife with gorges and forests and rolling green hills. Then it turns into Desert Road as it gains altitude, and from here, on the edge of Tongariro National Park, on a clear day, you can see ‘Mt Doom’, or Mt Ngauruhoe and its neighbouring volcanoes. Within the national park there are 3 distinct volcanoes which were the filming location for Mordor and Mt Doom in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The vegetation in this region around SH1 is barren and dry, resembling a desert, and with its altitude and exposure to the elements, it is the most commonly closed road in the winter months. At the time of writing, I have driven this road 3 times, each time in the summer months and each time, the volcanoes have been partly or completely hidden from view. Despite this, the stark scenery is still mesmerising. Eventually though, the great expanse of Lake Taupo, the largest lake in New Zealand, comes into view, and SH1 follows the eastern edge of it up past the town of Taupo itself where we took a brief stop to stretch our legs. Rounding the top of the lake, the highway then heads north-west towards Hamilton and Auckland beyond. My memory of Hamilton was very vague, and last time we had driven through from a different direction so I saw much more of the city this time than I had last time. What impressed me about the place was the large gardens and river walks which I hadn’t seen before, and in the glorious hot sunshine, the place looked lovely.

I will always love Auckland. It doesn’t matter how many times I go there, I always find my way down to the Viaduct and the road round to Mission Bay and beyond. The sight of Rangitoto Island across the harbour, Auckland’s most recently active volcano, and the Sky Tower amidst the city skyline, always bring a smile to my face and make me feel at home. I always make a point of getting round to Mission Bay and going to Movenpick for the most delicious ice cream which is best enjoyed sitting by the beach. After taking a walk along the Viaduct, we took a drive round to Saint Heliers and up the hill to a lookout on the tip of the coastline which gave a perspective on the city that I had never seen before. On Christmas Eve, once the sun had gone down, we headed into the city centre to walk up Franklin Street. Every year in the run up to Christmas, the houses on this street are decorated with bright and flashing light displays. What started as one household has now become an annual tradition with houses trying to out-do each other with their displays. It has become an attraction, and the walkways were packed with people taking photos and videos and carrying their young children on their shoulders so that they could see. On top of this, the cars were queuing to drive up and down the street leading to traffic jams at the top and bottom. People were carol singing in the street, a balloon artist was making shaped balloons for the kids, and a coffee shop at the top end was doing good business selling hot drinks whilst people wandered around. It was amazing to witness.

 

After disappearing to Queensland for a week, we returned to Auckland in the new year and had a week before we needed to be back in Christchurch. Joining up with some friends, there were 4 of us setting off on the next leg of our road trip round Aotearoa. The Coromandel coast road was something I had wanted to do since skipping across the peninsula on my last visit. The weather stayed with us and with blue skies, blue seas and green hills surrounding us, it was a beautiful drive. Hugging the coast for most of the drive up the western side, it cut inland for a while and climbed up to give us some amazing views, before heading back downhill and eventually coming out at Coromandel Town where we based ourselves for the night. From here, we headed further north on the unsealed road to Fantail Bay near the tip of the peninsula. The road comes to an end a little further along the coast from here, so we headed back to town to relax. Near the marina, there is a path winding up to a lookout which affords a wonderful view of the town itself, the hills behind, and the coastline around. It was an uncomfortable hike up in my jandals but the view was worth it.

 

The following day we were intent on staying one step ahead of the weather. We could see some unsavoury weather heading our way, but it was coming from behind us, so we got round to Hahei as fast as we could. On the east coast of the peninsula, Hahei is the nearest place to Cathedral Cove. Last time I was here, it was a beautiful sunny day, and we had kayaked here prior to taking a swim in the surf as it lapped gently on the beach. This time round, we walked from the car park along the coast and down the steps to the beach. Straight away I noticed the stark contrast: the tide was high, covering half the beach and also making passage through the cave a bit wet and hairy; and the sky was grey and the sea a little squally making a swim out of the question. I was a little disappointed. But we managed to have some fun trying to get through the cave from one beach to the other without being drenched by an impending wave. Some of us were more successful than others. It may have turned into a dull day by the time we left, but the crowds were still coming in waves. On the trail from the car park I was excited to come across a stick insect, a creature which went through a fad as a popular pet for a while in the UK when I was in primary school, and had never actually seen anywhere else. In fact, I didn’t realise they existed in New Zealand, but as it was wandering across the path, I lifted it up and let it wander across my arms for a while before setting it loose on a tree. Sometimes the simplest things give enormous pleasure.

 

Finally, the bad weather caught up with us and the heavens opened. We were shrouded in rain for the drive to our next stop, Mt Maunganui where we waited out the rain watching a terribly long movie at the cinema. The clouds only lifted as the sun lowered to the horizon and we had to wait till the following day to see this place in its full glory. In stark contrast to the neighbouring Tauranga, a very industrial harbour settlement, Mt Maunganui is a beautiful town nestled on a peninsula on the great expanse of the Bay of Plenty, with an apparently endless stretch of beach spanning its length and capped at its tip by the mount that gives the place its name. I walked along the beach from our motel towards the mount, breathing in the sea air and smiling at the other people who were out enjoying the sunshine. At the base of the mount I joined my friends whereby we first circled the base of the mount due to a slight navigational error, and then as the day heated up, we started the slog to the top. From a distance it looks like an easy walk, but close up it is evident how steep the sides are and as a result, parts of the path involve either a lot of steps or a steep gravel path. But the view is very much worth it. Looking out into the expanse of the Bay of Plenty in one direction, the peninsula of Mt Maunganui stretches inland in the other direction, and the port of Tauranga and Matakana Island can also be seen. By the afternoon, the sand was almost too hot to walk on, and we lazed on the beach soaking up the rays and paddling in the sea. I had heard a lot about Mt Maunganui and it certainly didn’t disappoint.

 

Heading south, we skirted Lake Rotorua and headed straight for the ZORB centre. I couldn’t believe the change in the place in 2 years. Last time I was there, I got a printed certificate when I signed up, there were lockers to store my belongings, I got a free digital photo to upload direct to the internet, there was a dedicated desk for ordering photos, and the high quality photos came on an official looking CD in a ZORB-shaped container. Stepping into the office this time round it was sparse. The lockers had gone, the photo desk had gone and it looked run down. The certificate on sign-up was only available via email (and to this day the email has never come), the photos were of a noticeably poorer quality (and it took an hour to get them), and they were presented on a plain CD-R in a plain CD case. Despite plenty of people being there, the whole experience just screamed out that the company is struggling financially which is a shame. With a competitor on the main road whilst they are hidden away down a back road, perhaps their business had taken a bit of a hit. I was nervous about injuring my back, as I had spent the previous 4 months recuperating from a back injury, but after a solo run down the zig-zag hydro-slide and a dual run down the straight hydro slide, I came out soaking wet and happy. It was a beautifully sunny day, and with a regular run of people coming down the hill, we stayed and watched for a while.

 

Back towards town, we pulled in at the Skyline Gondola and headed up Mount Ngongotaha for a view over Rotorua and the lake of the same name. The real reason for coming up was to do the luge, a milk-cart style rally down a variety of tracks winding down the side of the hill. I’d loved this last time I was here and with a competitive boyfriend it was inevitable that we would stop here on this trip. With 3 routes to choose from: scenic, intermediate and advanced, I did each run once, and again noticed that things had changed in the 2 years. This time it was merely the route which had had a few new chicanes put in, and I was sadly beaten on every single run. Still, it was a good feeling for me to be able to do something fun after all the months I’d previously spent unable to do much exercise.

 

Following the Thermal Explorer Highway south, we passed a multitude of geothermal parks before arriving in Taupo on the shores of New Zealand’s largest lake. Taking a break from motels, we pitched our tents for a couple of nights at the back of town and settled into holiday park life. The rain rolled in the next morning and everything took on a grey hue but by lunchtime the weather had eased slightly. We took a boat trip out onto the lake for a water’s view of the town, but more specifically to go and see some impressive Maori carvings. Viewable only by boat round at Mine Bay, they may only be about 40 years old, but they are impressive none-the-less, in particular the giant face carved into a large rock face. To the side of this are lizards, dragons and more faces, and we hovered there for a while taking it all in.

 

On getting back to shore, we headed out to the Craters of the Moon geothermal park, one of the cheapest of the paid parks in the area. It was a relatively new geothermal area, having been created when a nearby power station was being built. The earth’s crust is exceedingly thin in this part of the world and there are bubbling pools and steam vents in abundance in the region around Rotorua and Taupo. I am fascinated by volcanic and geothermal activity so wandering around these parks has me in my element. The park itself is mainly a large open space filled with steaming vents of varying sizes and intensities. The ‘rotten egg’ sulphuric smell was thankfully barely noticeable. There was little to compare it to the two parks I had been to on my previous visit but it was still worth the wander around, and there are still other parks I would like to explore on future visits. Back at the campsite, wandering around in the dark by torchlight, I got a thrill when I came across a live possum halfway up a small tree not far from our tent. Its eyes glowed in the torchlight and it contemplated me as I contemplated it. This was the first real sighting I’ve had of a possum in New Zealand despite estimated numbers being in the millions. I’ve seen plenty of dead ones driving around the Port Hills in Christchurch, and on 1 other occasion seen the rear end of one running away in the distance, but this very cute little creature was close up and in no hurry to go anywhere. I savoured one of those glorious private moments that are yours and yours alone before it eventually scarpered off into the gloom.

 

The temperature had started to drop, and on arriving in Tongariro National Park at our next lodgings in Ohakune, as the clouds lifted and fell over the mountains, we could see that fresh snow had fallen. Suddenly, we were in a 3-layer of clothing situation, a stark contrast to just a few days before. Whilst the boys hit the pub, my friend and I took to the hills and went for a walk through the forest and across an alpine region to the park’s highest waterfall, an impressive 39m. On arriving there, a lot of the waterfall was hidden behind trees, so we didn’t linger long, but on the way, during a brief break in the clouds to let the sunshine through, we got the best view yet of Mt Ruapehu. I had been keeping an eye on the weather whilst we were so close in Taupo in the hope of finally being able to do the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, an impressive day walk across a couple of volcanoes, an experience which had eluded me last time. Alas, for the second time, the weather got the better of me, and I had to accept that once again, it wasn’t going to happen.

 

Paraparaumu is a lovely seaside town on the Kapiti coast. Kapiti Island sits directly out to sea, but otherwise the coast is exposed to the full brunt of the Tasman Sea, and the stretch of sandy beach is littered with an incredible amount of flotsam. For me, a lover of sea air, I was thrilled to be back by the coast again. A relaxing walk along the sand was followed up by fish and chips which seemed so fitting. Growing up in Scotland, battered fish and chips was always such a ‘Scottish’ thing, a weekend treat until the day I moved out of my parent’s home, but even on the other side of the world it is loved just as much. I don’t eat it very often, but when I do, it conjours up so many memories of Scotland and just feels so normal.

 

Even a brief trip to Wellington has to involve a trip to my favourite cafe, the Boat Cafe on board a converted tug boat. It was a beautiful day and the small beach at Oriental Bay was dotted with sun worshipers and a volleyball tournament. We only had a few hours before our ferry south so it was a brief respite by the sea before a brief catch up with family who lived in the city. Before we knew it, it was time to get round to book in for the ferry. With the ferry port being across the bay from Oriental Bay, it was an excellent spot to watch the ferry come in and dock. This was the smallest ferry of the fleet which didn’t take long to explore before I found my prime viewing spot on deck to spend the crossing. The sea looked and felt calm but there was a wicked wind whipping around the ship as we left the safety of Wellington harbour and headed out into the Cook Strait. I could never get tired of doing this crossing, the view is just spectacular, and although it feels so familiar, every time I ride that ferry, it still feels like a new adventure. On this crossing I was overjoyed to see a whale in the distance behind us. It was the blow that alerted me to its presence, a tall blast of steam shot high above the waterline, followed by a dark shape breaking the surface briefly. This occurred several times before it got too far away to keep a track of with my eyes. It was hard to determine the species, but given the location and the elongated back with lack of obvious dorsal fin from a distance, I’m assuming it was a humpback whale.

 

The sun beamed down on us for our passage through the Queen Charlotte Sounds, and disembarking at Picton, we continued south to spend the night in Blenheim. Notorious for it’s closeness to a multitude of wineries, we were here primarily to break up the journey home. Having said that, I’m glad we did, for the simple reason that we ate at a fantastic restaurant with probably the best chef-come-waiter that I have ever met. Next door to our motel was Gramado’s, a Brazilian bar/restaurant. Our waiter, who was also one of the chefs, was from south Brazil, and he sat with us and spent time talking us through the menu, and giving us suggestions on what to try and what drinks to have. He was enthusiastic with a permanent smile on his face, and his attitude was infectious. The cider he recommended was delicious and sweet, the white wine he offered was local and scrumptious, the Brazilian bean stew he recommended to me was amazing, but at the end of the night, he brought us out a Brazilian delicacy to try: barbecued chicken heart. Of the 3 of us, I was the only one who tried it, and I ended up having 2. As a vet, I sometimes find it difficult to eat some cuts of meat without analysing the anatomy first (a trait which can be quite displeasing to other diners who join me on a trip to Nandos!). This was no exception. I’d never looked at a chicken’s heart before and I couldn’t eat it without first looking at the various blood vessels poking out of it, and examining the cut surface with each bite I took. I’m not normally an offal eater, but despite the slight mental battle I had to overcome with the thought of what I was eating, it was delicious.

 

The drive from Blenheim to Kaikoura and south to Christchurch is stunning. Past wineries, rolling brown hills, and pink salt pans, it hits the coast and hugs it all the way to Kaikoura. The sea is turquoise blue and crashes on the rocks right by the roadside. At Oahu, the New Zealand fur seals come ashore to sleep and there was a nursery of babies playing around a rock pool when we stopped to watch. As Kaikoura approaches, the Kaikoura Range shoots up on the inland side of the road, and from Kaikoura south the road winds through tree-strewn valleys and hillsides, cicadas thrumming loudly as we drove. It was magical, and sums up everything I love about New Zealand: the Great Outdoors.

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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