MistyNites

My Life in Motion

Archive for the tag “Wellington”

Autumn Roadie: Christchurch to National Park

The first six weeks of my life in New Zealand, back in early 2012, were spent exploring the North Island. But after setting up a life in Christchurch, in the country’s south island, aside from flying up to Auckland and Wellington from time to time, I haven’t really explored or re-explored the rest of the north island. In the 5.5 years that I have been here, I’ve managed to explore the vast majority of the country but there are still some pockets left to conquer, and in particular I had a hike that I was keen to do but had been thwarted from doing on two previous occasions. So with a week off for my birthday in March, I decided that I was going to head north to do the hike no matter the weather, and faced with the decision of flying to Wellington then relying on public transport, or making a road trip (or roadie) out of it, I had no doubts in my mind I was going to drive myself there.

But just as my previous drive north to hike the Queen Charlotte Track had been disrupted by the closure of State Highway (SH) 1 post-earthquake, this trip too would be longer than anticipated. I had booked the ferry and all my accommodation in October last year, so I had a morning of work to get through first before what should have been just a 4hr drive to Picton from Christchurch. Instead, I was forced to follow SH 7 through the Lewis Pass and onwards through Murchison, and St Arnaud to Picton. I’d had to take this same route for the hike in November, and it had taken 6hrs, but to add insult to injury, just a few days before I was due to leave, a bush fire sprung up on SH 7 and the road closed briefly. As it turned out, this drive couldn’t have been more different than the last time.

SH1 between Christchurch and Picton was always the main thoroughfare between the two settlements, and freight typically travelled by train between them. Now, with both the road and railway out of action, the traffic volume, and in particular the massive increase in heavy goods vehicles using the inland route, the road surface has taken a drumming. With speed restrictions due to road upgrades and slow moving vehicles through the twisting pass, this route is now at least a 7hr drive. It was a beautifully sunny day, and after having done a morning at work, it was a tiring and rather relentless drive, requiring a lot of concentration. The area of the bush fire was still smouldering as I passed through the now blackened landscape, and as the road twisted onwards, spots to overtake the slower HGVs were precious in their rarity, meaning I was reluctant to stop anywhere lest they catch up with me.

And so I ploughed through Springs Junction, skipped past Maruia Falls, ignored Murchison, and only pulled in at Lake Rotoiti where I knew I could stretch my legs and use a restroom. When my partner and I stayed at nearby St Arnaud for the first time a couple of years ago, the place was like a sleepy little village, more commonly full of Kiwis than tourists. Now, the traffic passing through is massively increased, and there were more campervans there than usual. There happened to be a boat show on that weekend, so the waterfront at the boat launching part of the lake was pretty busy, but I pulled up near the pier, where I went for a brief walk to stretch my legs. I love the view here. Unfortunately the sandflies love it too, so any outdoor time needs repellant, otherwise relaxation here can quickly be ruined.

 

Time was not on my side though. The evening was stretching on and I was keen to stop in and say hello to a friend that I would be passing by on route. The reception for my accommodation in Picton closed at 9pm so I was running tight on time to make it there. I had an all-too-brief catch up over a cup of tea in Renwick, near Blenheim, but then it was time to crack on in the dark. It was a little hard to see the potholes coming without the benefit of daylight, but finally I was in Picton, my rest stop ahead of my morning sailing to the north island. I ended up in the exact same room that I had stayed in after completing the Queen Charlotte Track in November last yr.

The following morning there was a beautiful clear sky. It takes a bit of time for the sunlight to creep over the mountains that surround Picton, but I knew it would be a beautiful sailing through the Queen Charlotte Sounds and across the Cook Strait. I’d used the ferry between the islands three times before, but always on the Interislander ferries. For the first time I was using the opposition, Bluebridge. Once on board, I grabbed myself a take-away breakfast and headed up to the outside top deck to watch the changing view of what I think is the most beautiful ferry crossing in the world. The first 1.5hrs of this sailing is curling through the stunning sounds, surrounded by rolling hillsides which hide secluded homes overlooking sparkling bays. The sea was calm and reflective and near Picton there were even some people out on kayaks following the coast.

 

Past East Bay, the route turns a near 90 degree angle, then turns again to cut through between Arapawa Island and the mainland peninsula. Finally, through a dramatic gap in the rocks, it pushes forth into the Cook Strait, the body of water that separates the two main islands of New Zealand. The Cook Strait can be notoriously rough, but on a good day it is a smooth crossing, and I remained outside watching the South Island grow further away and the North Island become sharper through the haze. It takes about an hour to negotiate this section of open water, and there was a little chop on the sea, but nothing that the boat couldn’t handle.

 

Finally, in the middle of Fitzroy Bay, the ferry turned to point in towards Wellington Harbour, and that familiar sight of the country’s capital city. After a wash-out of a New Year’s trip here, it was nice to see Wellington basking in the sunshine again, and I wore the smile I always get when an adventure is coming. Whilst driving in the north island is no different than the south island, this would be the first time I’d been in control of a car in the north island, and as silly as it seemed, this just added to the feeling of being on an adventure. By the time the ferry had berthed, and the announcement had come to return to the car deck, I was excited to get going.

 

After disembarking, I headed straight onto SH1 and left Wellington behind. Climbing up over the hills at the back of the city, SH1 winds its way north, cutting across to reach the Kapiti coastline at Pukerua Bay. A large section of the highway here had been upgraded to an expressway since I’d last passed through, so it was easy to get many kilometers behind me at a good pace. After a while, the coast remains close although hidden out of view. I passed through Foxton where my partner and I had spent the night on our way to Auckland back in late 2013, and finally I reached Bulls, a town which always stuck in my mind from 2012 when I stopped here whilst traversing the island on a Stray Bus pass as a new arrival. From this point onwards though, I was touching new territory for me. My destination was National Park on the edge of Tongariro National Park, and whilst I could have gotten there by staying on SH1, I had decided to follow SH3 to Whanganui (also Wanganui).

With a reputation, I discovered later, for gang-related incidents, I went there without knowing this, and on such a sunny day, I really liked the place. I parked up on Anzac Parade opposite the Wanganui City Bridge, from where a long white tunnel leads underground to an elevator shaft. Built in 1919, the Durie Hill elevator is a kooky tourist attraction taking you up inside the hillside for $2 cash each way. It is a rattly piece of equipment but it does the job, and at the top, the building that houses the elevator also doubles as an observation platform, from where there is a cracking view over the city and the river that snakes past it. Behind it is the tall War Memorial tower. 176 spiralling steps lead up to the top which again gives an impressive view of the city and its surroundings. It was windy up here, and the horizon was a little hazy in places, but I could see both the volcanic Mt Ruapehu in Tongariro National Park as well as the equally volcanic cone of Mt Taranaki in Egmont National Park. I was excited because the previous 3 times I’d driven through Tongariro National Park, the cloud cover had been low and I’d never actually seen the summit of her famous volcanoes, so this was my first sighting of the impressive Mt Ruapehu summit.

 

After soaking up the view on both building’s roof platforms, I retreated back down the rickety elevator and along the extensive tunnel once more before driving across the Wanganui river and parking up in the city. On face value, the city’s waterfront was pretty. The river was rather brown, but there was a pleasant boardwalk along the riverside, with an interesting orb sculpture as well as a paddlesteamer moored up for interest. I cut up from the riverside to Queens Park where the city’s war memorials stood amongst some galleries and sculptures. Despite it being a hot and sunny Sunday, I had the park to myself, and the city was quite a quiet place to be. After a wander round here, I cut through Majestic Square and up onto the hillside overlooking the stadium at Cooks Gardens, before cutting back to the main thoroughfare of Victoria Avenue. Returning to the riverside once more, I returned to my car having fallen in love with Whanganui, but in need of heading ever onwards.

 

The Wanganui river is the largest navigable river in New Zealand, and following SH4 it is possible to follow it upstream to the north. Its origin is Mount Tongariro in the National Park of the same name, and I decided to take the scenic route north by cutting off the main highway and sticking to the road that hugs the river. Almost immediately the Whanganui River Road snaked up a hillside and presented me at lookout spot with a beautiful view up the river valley. In the far distance, the snowy summit of Mt Ruapehu glistened in the sunlight. I was very glad I took this detour. Although the road conditions weren’t great (it is technically a sealed road, but there was a lot of resurfacing going on when I passed through in early March), the views were incredible. It also felt nicely isolated and peaceful with only a handful of other cars travelling the same road, and whenever I stopped, I was serenaded by cicadas. The river flowed peacefully through the ever changing valley, and although it was quite a time-commitment to take this detour, it was worth every minute.

 

It was some time though, before eventually I reached Pipiriki where I took the turnoff to lead me up and through a forestry zone. For more than half the distance, it wound its way through the trees, up and over and around the rolling hillside. When eventually the trees came to an end, and the open countryside spread away before me, I could once again see Mt Ruapehu and this time just beyond it, the distinctive cone shape of Mt Ngauruhoe (better known to some as Mt Doom in the Lord of the Rings movies) peaked above the horizon behind it. Reaching Raetihi, I rejoined SH4 heading north to pass the western flank of Mt Ruapehu on route to National Park village. I’d unknowingly stayed here before back in 2012, but at the time the weather had been so abysmal, there was no view to speak of and I had no idea how close I was to the volcanoes at the time. This time though, I could see they were right in front of me, although the cloud bank had started to move in for the night.

 

Pretty much everyone at my hostel was there either before or after walking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, New Zealand’s most famous and most popular day hike. It would have been a beautiful day to have done the hike, and I wondered what weather those hiking it the following day would get for it. I had a 4-day hike ahead of me, so after rearranging all my hiking gear, I set off to one of the few places to eat in the village, The Station, which is a cafe by day and restaurant by night. Being a Sunday, they were offering a roast dinner which I duly took up the offer of, washed down by some cider. The following day was my birthday, and as I would be without phone signal or internet for nearly 4 days, I found myself having a video call with my brother and nephew in Scotland, whilst in the middle of the restaurant. Finally though, it was time to retire, for the next day, I would finally be setting off on a much-anticipated hike.

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A Capital New Year

Whether it be self-inflicted or societal in origin, I always feel an inordinate pressure to do something exciting for New Year’s Eve (or Hogmanay as it is known in my native Scotland). In the northern Hemisphere, this means either shivering outside in the cold with a thousand layers on, or packing into someone’s house or a local venue to share in the festivities. In the southern Hemisphere where summer is in full swing, for me at least, it generally means escaping somewhere for a holiday or mini-break to enjoy some warmth and sunshine. Or so was the plan, anyway.

On a clear day, the flight from Christchurch in the South Island to the North Island of New Zealand is always worthy of a window seat. Hugging the east coast, we flew over the Southern Alps and stunning coastline. The flight to Auckland usually takes in the sweeping expanse of Golden Bay and Farewell Spit, but on this occasion, on route to New Zealand’s capital city of Wellington on a lower altitude flight path, and with cloud hugging the west coast, this landmark point was out of sight. On arrival, we wasted no time at all catching the bus to Courtenay Place in the city centre (or central business district [CBD] as it is called here). It had been some time since I’d last been in ‘Windy Welly’, a city that I’ve always enjoyed visiting. Following the November 14th earthquake, although the epicentre was in the south island, Wellington such as it is, suffered some damage also. Here, on Courtenay Place, a whole facade of businesses was fenced off and closed down. Suddenly, Wellington reminded us of Christchurch, a city that for years has been defined by cones, fences and cranes.

 

After checking in, my partner and I took a wander along the main streets of the CBD and were shocked at how deserted the place seemed. We’d been there in summer and winter in the past and this was the quietest we’d both ever seen the place. It was a sunny morning though, although the cloud was building, and we took the famous cable car up the side of the hill to the top of Wellington’s Botanic Gardens. Next to the top station is one of those postcard views of the city and harbour, especially when the cable car slides into the view. Sprawled across a steep hillside, the Botanical Gardens has plenty of colour-coded options for walking routes, and we picked a route we hadn’t done before to get us to the bottom. Once there, a marked route leads back into the streets of the city.

 

On a whim, my partner suggested we jump on a train and go out to one of the suburbs. Not knowing what was there, but always eager to do something different when I return to a previously visited city, we checked out the timetables and bought ourselves a ticket to Upper Hutt. For 45 minutes we followed first the Wellington shoreline and then the Hutt valley to reach our destination. The scenery wasn’t particularly exciting and as it turned out, neither was Upper Hutt. My partner had been convinced there was something to see there but couldn’t think what it was, but as it turned out there really is no reason to visit as anything other than a resident. We did a circuit round the main streets, the outer park and then back to the train station where we then waited for the return train to Wellington. Still, not every new experience is exciting, and we laughed at ourselves for the randomness of our failed spontaneity.

Back in Wellington we took my favourite walking route round the foreshore to Oriental Parade. The sun was shining gloriously but unfortunately the wind that the city is famous for was so strong that we were being whipped by sand from the small beach as we walked along. We got our customary ice cream which is always a must at the beach only to find it hard to enjoy with the added flavour of sand, and in my case my hair blowing onto it all the time. In the end, we decided to retreat for a bit to have a rest ahead of the night’s festivities. Like many big cities, there was a public firework display to mark the coming of the new year. We wondered if the wind would put a stop to it, but we never got word to say it was cancelled, so as the evening wore on, we set about heading out for dinner.

 

Like Melbourne in Australia, another city famous for its eating and drinking culture, Wellington has a great selection of places to eat and imbibe, and like its bigger Aussie brother, wandering down an alleyway can often yield a secret and intriguing find. Down one such alley we found Little Beer Quarter, a neat, slightly grungy bar that served us a delicious pizza. After a while we headed off to catch up with my partner’s cousin who was working in a pub on the edge of the CBD. Even though there was no change in time zone and no jet lag to contend with, we were both tired, so decided that instead of going to the midnight fireworks, we’d go for the 9 o’clock display then head back to the pub to hang out. But with a cider in hand and some dessert in my belly, I found myself struggling to stay awake. During the process of drinking and chatting we found ourselves too late to go to the fireworks and shortly after 9, we decided to have an early night. It didn’t take either of us long to drop off to sleep, although I awoke to the sound of fireworks and was delighted to discover on looking out my window, that my room was facing the ocean and I had a prime view of the display. My partner slept through it, but I watched the flashing lights until they finished and promptly returned to bed. This was the exciting action-packed Hogmanay of a 33-year old.

Well waking up on the first day of 2017 was rather different to what we’d closed our eyes to the night before. It was torrential rain and blowing a gale. There was little incentive to get moving, but mid-morning, we found ourselves in a nice cafe near the hotel where we had a lovely breakfast and caught up with my partner’s aunt who lives in the city. Unlike me, who was off work for 4 days, my partner had to go back to work that night, so after brunch, he made his way to the airport to catch his flight home. The airport in Wellington has a reputation for some rather dramatic flying conditions, and with the rate of rain and wind, I was in no way envious of his flight that day. I on the other hand, sought out one of the city’s main indoor attractions, the Te Papa museum. I’d been there before, and worthy as it is of a visit when in the city, it is far from my favourite museum. But at the time of visiting, there was a temporary exhibit called Gallipoli: the Scale of Our War which I was very keen to visit. With models constructed by the Weta workshop (of Lord of the Rings fame), it had rave reviews, and although the exhibit was free to enter, it was so popular there was a queuing system to get into it.

Also on at the time was another special exhibit with an entrance fee, known as Bug’s World. With giant bug sculptures again thanks to the Weta workshop, this was an awesome exhibit even if it was largely aimed at children. With bug-related science experiments, and giant moving bugs, psychedelic colours and loud noises, it was busy, stimulating and very popular. From there I headed straight downstairs and joined the very long queue for the Gallipoli exhibit. Coming from Scotland, where history lessons revolved around the British army’s involvement in the two World Wars, I knew nothing about Gallipoli when I moved to New Zealand. But since then, between both Australian and New Zealand museums, I have picked up a lot of information about this famous battleground. At times when scenes of modern warfare are so rife on the daily news that it is possible to feel numb about it all, it takes a well-designed exhibit to grasp the frustration, heartache, and dizzying waste of life that is the reality of war. Spread through inter-connecting rooms, the main draw of this particular exhibit are the larger-than-life but amazingly realistic figures that depict particular people from the annals of history. A lieutenant, a medic, a nurse and a collection of other soldiers are impeccably detailed right down to the hairs on the legs or arms.

 

I hadn’t planned on staying at Te Papa beyond that exhibit, having seen the other unchanging exhibits before, but the weather was still diabolical outside so I ended up jostling with the large crowd that was also hiding out in the museum. But even having seen it all before, I managed to kill a few hours here before eventually having to brave the bad weather again. I found a nearby place to eat dinner which was understandably packed, before retiring to my comfy bed with a bag of junk food for dessert and an evening of holiday movies to watch.

The next morning it was still raining, although thankfully not as hard as the day before. Prior to coming to Wellington, I’d planned on spending a day out on Matiu Sommes Island, a bird sanctuary out in the harbour, but the poor weather meant there was no point, and I’d reluctantly canned the idea. My other desire for this visit was to go to Zealandia, a wildlife ecosanctuary on the edge of the city. Another outdoor activity, I toyed with the idea of canning this too, but decided that the rain was of a level that could be tolerated, and so I headed down to the visitor information centre in the CBD from where a free shuttle bus takes you to the entrance of the sanctuary. In the end, despite the drizzle, this was the highlight of my whole trip.

A 250-hectare fully predator-fenced ecosanctuary designed to allow a small spot of New Zealand to return to its wild origins sits a mere 4km out of Wellington’s CBD and as obsessed as I am with native fauna, for me it was paradise. For a country famous for its landscapes and its controversial ‘100% Pure’ slogan, the New Zealand of today couldn’t be more different from the New Zealand of the past. Before man invaded, burned forests for pastureland, and introduced non-native mammals, historically, New Zealand was a land of dense jungle-like forests filled with a cacophany of birdsong, and prowled by large creatures such as the Giant Moa and their equally large hunter, the Haast’s eagle. Now, thanks to industrialisation, farming and the ever-present bane of hungry predators, there are many woodlands and forests that lie eerily quiet, many rivers that have changed their course, and many species that have fallen into the abyss of extinction. The videos and displays within the visitor centre are a real eye-opener to the negative impact of humans on an environment.

But outside was what I really enjoyed. There are a choice of walking paths to take, with most people following the main, low-level circuit to the upper dam and back. But in reality this is a mere fraction of the sanctuary’s size, and there are rougher hiking tracks heading further into the bush from here. I had arranged to meet up with my partner’s aunt again that afternoon, so I restricted myself to the main track and a few side tracks to places of interest. Firstly the track followed the lower lake to a lookout near where some shags were nesting, and some juveniles were evident amongst the adults, neither perturbed by the constant flow of people passing nearby. Near here, I was excited to see a sign saying takahe were nearby. A relative of the comical-looking pukeko, these stocky flightless birds are severely endangered, having already been thought to have become extinct before later being rediscovered. I’d never seen one, and struggled to contain my excitement when one came wandering down the path ahead of me.

 

Past wetlands and into the woods, I was acutely aware of the impressive volume of birdsong. Nowhere else in New Zealand had I heard this much life in the forest and it was incredible. More so than this was the sightings of bird species I’d never seen before including some Kaka, a species of parrot. I adore Kea, the smaller alpine parrot that lives in the south island, and it was a total joy to see the larger Kaka, another vulnerable species. They were loud and rambunctious and a total pleasure to watch. Skirting the upper dam where the surrounding vegetation was thick, I took a side track which was deserted in comparison to the main track, and there I came across the noisy antics of the North Island saddleback, another bird I’d never seen before. Reportedly recovering in numbers, I’d never even heard of them before, but one in particular, which given its behaviour I assumed it was a fledgling, was so unbelievably loud for such a little bird.

 

On my way back to the visitor’s centre, I spotted a tuatara, a native reptile that outlived the dinosaurs. Technically wild, all the tuatara in the ecosanctuary are tagged, and are known to reside in specific locations making them semi-easy to spot. Past them, a side track took me up the hill to a cave which is open for a distance to enter. In the darkness, you would have no idea what was in there with you, but the torchlight on my phone illuminated an expansive population of cave weta. Weta are a group of insects endemic to New Zealand which includes the Giant Weta, one of the heaviest and larger insects in the world. On my first sweep with the torch, the weta within the cave looked quite small, but as I turned round to face the opposite wall, I was suddenly presented with some rather large specimens that had been hair-raisingly close to the back of my head just moments before. Insects don’t normally bother me, but these large creatures with their swaying antennae were big enough and close enough to my face to make my skin crawl. Still, I was fascinated enough to suppress this sensation in order to look at them for a while.

 

Following lunch at the visitor’s centre, I was picked up and whisked away to the hillside suburbs to the south, first visiting the giant Meridian wind turbine overlooking the city, and then heading to the southern suburbs on the coast where the waves pounded angrily on the shore. It was cold and grey overhead as we drove round the coast briefly before I was taken to the renovated Roxy Cinema in Miramar, a beautifully restored building outside of which stood a statue of Ian McKellan as Gandalf the Grey from the Lord of the Rings franchise. Miramar is the realm of Peter Jackson, the film director, and round from here is the Weta workshop which I visited on a previous occasion and is well worth a tour around. But now it was time to retire, and my partner’s aunt cooked me a lovely dinner before I headed back to my hotel for the night.

 

The next morning it was torrential rain again. It had been such a frustrating trip this time round, and I really wasn’t feeling the love for Wellington on this occasion. Being a public holiday, it felt like large portions of the city were closed down, and zones of the city were like a ghost town. I was struggling to find things to fill my time with. I’m not a fan of art galleries, and with all the usual things I like to do outdoors, I found myself back at Te Papa where I once again waited out the rain. In between breaks in the showers, I took a brief wander around the marina, before eventually finding a movie to watch at the Embassy Theatre. This was the location for the grand premier of the Lord of the Rings trilogy movies, but unlike the Roxy Theatre which had been lovingly restored, the Embassy Theatre looked drab, old and greatly in need of some TLC. It was still raining when I left the movie a couple of hours later, and with nothing else to do, I simply retrieved my stuff from the hotel and headed to the airport. Taking off in the rain, the plane arrived back in Christchurch to relatively clear skies. With an approach heading right over the city, it was a welcome sight to be back home after a washout of a weekend in the capital.

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. King ShagThere 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. Queen Charlotte SoundWe stopped off at an island far up one of the channels which, following a brief hike to the summit, Queen Charlotte Soundgave a fantastic view of the peninsulas around us.Queen Charlotte Sound 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. Queen Charlotte SoundsWe were even lucky enough to see another rare animal, the little blue penguin out for a swim. PictonAway from the ferry terminal, Picton has a small beach and a Picton marinalarge marina, and there are a few local walks that can be taken from there which offer alternate views of the sound. The view from PictonIn short, I love Picton, and the Queen Charlotte Sounds is a definite gem in the South Island’s crown.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PictonThe 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. Queen Charlotte SoundsAs a result, our crossing was delayed by 7hrs, and we set off north in the early afternoon. The north coast of the South IslandThe 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.Interislander passing along the south coast of the North Island 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. Miramar PeninsulaTracing the coast of the rugged North Island coastline for a while, the ferry eventually enters the narrow entrance into the wide expanse of Oriental Bay, WellingtonWellington 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lowering sun at Foxton BeachWe 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. SunsetWe 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 ‘Mordor’, or Mt Ruapehu 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.

Rangitoto IslandI will always love Auckland.Auckland from the Viaduct 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. Auckland skyline from Saint HeliersThe 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. Franklin RoadOn Christmas Eve, once the sun had gone down, we headed into the city centre to walk up Franklin Street. Franklin RoadEvery year in the run up to Christmas, the houses on this street are decorated with bright and flashing light displays. Franklin RoadWhat started as one household has now become an annual tradition with houses trying to out-do each other with their displays. Skytower on Christmas EveIt 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. Coromandel PeninsulaThe Coromandel coast road was something I had wanted to do since skipping across the peninsula on my last visit. Coromandel coastThe weather stayed with us and with blue skies, blue seas and green hills surrounding us, it was a beautiful drive. Coromandel coastlineHugging 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. Coromandel TownFrom 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.

 

 

Coromandel coastThe 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. HaheiOn the east coast of the peninsula, Hahei is the nearest place to Cathedral Cove. Cathedral CoveLast 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. Cathedral CoveThis 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. Cathedral CoveBut 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.

 

 

 

 

 

Mt MaunganuiFinally, 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. Mt MaunganuiThe 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. Mt Maunganui from the mountIn 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.

ZORBingHeading 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. Lake TaupoThe rain rolled in the next morning and everything took on a grey hue but by lunchtime the weather had eased slightly. Maori Rock CarvingWe 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.Craters of the Moon 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. Craters of the MoonIt 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 over a million. 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.

Mt RuapehuThe 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. It continues to remain uncrossed out on my New Zealand ‘Bucket List‘.

Kapiti IslandParaparaumu 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.

WellingtonEven 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. Interislander arriving at WellingtonWe 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 south coast of the North IslandThe 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. The north coast of the South IslandI 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. Queen Charlotte SoundsOn this crossing I was overjoyed to see a whale in the distance behind us. Queen Charlotte SoundsIt 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. Queen Charlotte SoundsIt 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PictonThe 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.

Drive to KaikouraThe 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. Kaikoura coastlineThe sea is turquoise blue and crashes on the rocks right by the roadside. New Zealand Fur Seal pupsAt 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.South Island driving 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, 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. Cathedral CoveOur 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. Cathedral CoveWe 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. 100m AbseilI 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. Bidding Farewell to the DaylightWe 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. Struggling up one of the waterfallsAt 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. Maori EntertainmentWe spent the night at a Marae, a tribal house where we were treated to a traditional night of Maori dance and entertainment. Several of us went white water rafting as we headed south to Rotorua, joining our crew by the Kaituna river. White water raftingOur 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.

RotoruaRotorua 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. RotoruaEven 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.

East CapeAgain using Stray, I joined another tour heading east from Rotorua round the east cape to Gisbourne. 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. CrayfishOur 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.

East CapeOur 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. White Island visible from the East CapeThe 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 Gisbourne 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.

 

 

 

White IslandI left the 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. Walking round White IslandIt 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. White Island's volcanic craterWe 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.

 

WhakataneThere 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.

Frying Pan LakeBack in Rotorua, I spent a few days enjoying the thermal parks. First up was Waimangu Thermal Village which was my favourite.Mini geyser at Waimangu 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. Boiling mud poolFurther south were some large steaming mud pools which made a cool noise when it bubbled up from below. Lady Knox GeyserRound 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. Mineral deposits, Wai-O-TapuFurther 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. Devil's Pool, Wai-O-TapuI 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ZORBingAside 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. RotoruaAfter 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!

Huka FallsOn 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. Aratiatia RapidsA 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 TaupoLake 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.

The countryside of WhakahoroWest 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. WellingtonMy 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. WellingtonA 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. Gollum at Wellington AirportI 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 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 meet a man with whom I was very close, and as it turned out, that meeting was to change the course of my life.

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