New Zealand: the Last Two Weeks

The past few weeks have passed by in a flurry. This is an exceedingly belated entry written by the poolside in Fiji. These are more notes to myself I suppose, notes so I don’t forget. I spent some of today reading the handwritten drafts that eventually become my blogs. It reminds me to get my ass back in gear and finish NZ – the blogs are always better when they’re fresh!

Lord of the Rings: Part Two

Of course my Middle-Earth adventure couldn’t end in the South Island.

It began with the Tongariro Crossing. The crossing slithers its way past three volcanoes – including Mount Doom itself. The hike took six and a half hours. Mount Doom loomed over most of the track, enough to fire up images of Frodo and Sam struggling to reach the fires of Mordor. I didn’t climb the mountain itself. Adding another 5 hours to the already grueling journey did not seem like fun! In truth, it was actually less difficult than I imagined (I thought another Livingstonia… see Malawi entries). The toughest part was the middle, where the aptly named “Devil’s Staircase” is, and an interesting downhill section which involved half-skiing, half-sliding down a rocky slope. But the rest was fine and the views spectacular, especially of the red crater and the emerald lakes. The arid, volcanic plains. Definitely worth the effort.

The Tongariro Crossing was our last major activity (except gumboot throwing) on the Stray Bus. The next day, we dropped Lofty’s friend Wendy off at the airport and headed back down to Rotorua.

But not before stopping in Matamata, aka Hobbiton. If you though LotR tourism must have died out so long after the movies were released, this place proves its alive and well. On a farm a few k’s out of town is the only set left standing in all NZ. The famous hobbit holes of Hobbiton, left there because a fluke rainstorm prevented their deconstruction. The countryside had a vague brown tint to it, a result of a long drought. As it was the last tour of the day, there were only five of us. One was an animation director straight out of a Hollywood stereotype.

The Hobbiton set was by far the most elaborate tour I’ve been on. Huge photoboards displayed stills from the movie, to aid visualization. The tour guide knew exactly what she was talking about and filled us in on the little details. You had to be under 5’4″ to be a hobbit. They chopped down and then rebuilt an entire oak tree from a neighbouring farm. The farmers who owned the property looked at the location scout and asked: “Lord of the what?”


It certainly filled my LotR quota!

My Birthday

I spent the weekend of my birthday in the beautiful 300 Lake Terrace Apartment complex in Taupo. The morning broke clear and bright over the lake. I was treated by Lofty to an awe-inspiring eight-piece fry-up, incorporating every fried breakfast food you could imagine. Pure decadence. Then Sarah arrived in time to drive out for our skydive – my third! A paltry 12000 ft this time, but who’s counting? Next time has got to be a solo jump… There’s no better way to turn 22 than to throw yourself out of a plane. Trust me on that! We capped off an awesome day with molten lava cake (my fave) and Canadian Club and L&P (NZ’s drink of choice – even I liked it, despite its fizziness!)

The next few days in Taupo were spent productively at Killer Prawn golf ( a hole in one challenge we were thisclose to making), the Honey Hive (where we gorged on free honey samples) and wandering around Taupo itself. A fun town, now forever associated with some pretty amazing memories.

Storming it up in NZ.

…but before the storm, the quiet. We headed up to stunning Hahei Beach in the Coromandel peninsular. The drive was particularly interesting; bad gravel roads made our journey much longer than we planned, but we did get to see a square kauri tree.

We spent the next day just lying on the beach, reading. Bliss.

The perfect way to prepare for the night of mayhem that was my birthday night out in Auckland – and a huge Oasis reunion to boot. My amazing friend Isabel came over from Oz (well from the UK, but recently from Oz) and it was great to see her. We hit up the bars along Auckland’s waterfront after cheap drinks at the hostel bar… we met celebrities (okay, Brandon from Strictly Come Dancing) and wore cowboy hats and after that it gets a bit hazy! Suffice to say it was a good time.

The Oasis reunion continued the next afternoon, when we met up with “Driver Stu” for a rugby match, Blues vs. Bulls. Stu’s sister was one of the cheerleaders and it was fun to watch her warm up the crowd. We had really good seats and the game picked up in the second half. By the end of it, I think I had a basic understanding of the game… at least I could cheer in all the right places!

The next day was our last in NZ. Hard to believe after all this time! We did some last minute shoping and said goodbye to people in Auckland, met up with my parent’s friends in Parnell and spent our last night at Mike’s house in Pukekohe. It was hard to say goodbye to Sunny, and to Castle II, and to the camping equipment that had become our lives. But as it always happens in this travelling game, we had to keep moving.

New Zealand is amazing. I loved every moment of it. I loved driving its twisted roads, over one lane bridges and through mountains. I loved sailing its fjords and its islands, swimming with its incredible aquatic life. It is a country with so much to offer, whose few inhabitants care so much for the land they live on. It is a backpacker’s haven. A place of drama. And of solitude. And of perfect starry nights – the best I’ve seen anywhere in the world!

I wouldn’t hesitate to go back in a second.

And now? It’s on to paradise…


Maori Madness

The only issue I have with Stray is the constant early mornings. At least with the car you can dictate when you want to get up… 7:30am every day when you are on holiday is not always the most fun. But Stray is all about getting you “out there” and that generally means longer drives and earlier starts.

En route to Raglan

We leave Hahei at a suitably early time for the long drive to Raglan. There are a couple of stops along the way, including in Hamilton (where we watched the cricket) and in Paeroa, home of NZ’s “world famous” Lemon&Paeroa (L&P) drink. It’s fizzy, so obviously I don’t like it, but apparently it goes great with Canadian Club. What doesn’t mix well with canucks, eh?

Raglan itself is a surfer’s haven. Even the main beach isn’t so much sand as a grassy hill overlooking great surfing waves. A few of the people on the bus head off to learn how to catch a wave, but I’ve fulfilled my surfing quota for this holiday. The hostel in Raglan is nestled up in the trees and hosting a wedding, so unfortunately we can’t take part in the free flying fox. And after our bottle of pesto sauce goes missing, Lofty and I improvise a pasta with ingredients from our giant orange cool bag and the ubiquitous ‘free shelf’. Turns out great!

Blackwater Rafting and Maori Dancing

Waitomo is glowworm central. I had my first glowworm experience in Dunedin, where a path from our campsite led to a small enclave filled with the little lights (we only got a little bit lost in the dark, thank god for head torches). Waitomo is also home to ‘black water rafting,’ something that sounds different and cool but in reality is quite tame, at least by my adrenaline standards. We get kitted out in thick black wetsuits, helmets and ‘gumboots’ (aka wellington boots). After hiking through the bush (not fun in a wetsuit) we crawl down a small hole to get to the caves. Then it is a glowworm experience, and I have to admit it is pretty cool. Glowworms in abundance. They form constellations in the dark, and it’s hard to remember that we are underground and not outside, under the stars. Glowworms are actually fly larvae (aka maggots) and the light they produce is their waste product. That casts a different light on the star analogy. When we turn our headlamps back on, we can see the dangling strings of web they hang to catch their food. Each worm drops between 20 and 30 lines. In the light, you can see the larvae wriggling along their web like translucent liquid through a straw.

The first tubing tunnel is fun. We jump into the tubes from a tall ledge and float through in the dark. The tunnel is called “aria alley” and we sing everything from love songs to ‘Happy Birthday.’ After that it is a matter of crawling over jagged rocks, avoiding stalagtites (and -mites) and trying to keep the frigid water out of our gumboots.

Uncle Boy’s Maori Spectacular

“Uncle boy” is the enigmatic owner of a Maori homestead in Maketu. Stray advertises this as the best night on tour and the excitement is high. Uncle Boy gives us all a big welcome speech and we perform the traditional Maori greeting of touching noses. Then… eats! It’s not a traditional hangi (where food is cooked in steamy ovens in the ground) but the food is yummy anyway. The best part by far is the dessert… a delicious pavlova.

After dinner, the fun really begins. A group of young people (between 5 and 23) from the area perform a traditional Maori welcome dance for us. It’s one of the most unwelcoming dances you can imagine, as they make some scary faces with wide eyes and poking-out tongues. But we are assured that it only means good things… I can’t imagine what the first Europeans to watch one of these dances must have thought. They probably believed they were about to be killed and steamed in the hangi! The girls all have a ball on a string (a ‘poy’) which they twirl around with incredible skill. The boys are slapping their thighs and shouting and hitting each other with force, performing the ‘haka’. It’s these last two dances that we are going to learn. We’re split up into boys vs girls and the boys go into another room to learn the haka. All the girls are given a poy to work with and we are taught a basic (but tricky!) routine with a fair bit of shouting and looking scary involved… but mostly spinning and shaking our hips to the music. After about 15 mins of practice we are joined again by the boys and they give a stunning rendition of the haka! Talk about scary – but in a good way – for sure! It makes our rendition of the poy right after look positively lame by comparison. We all sleep en commune for the night and wake up (early) again, to head to Rotorua and Taupo for St. Paddy’s Day! Yes, this entry is that out of date… I’m trying desperately to catch up but there just aren’t enough internet hours in the day!


Stray bus!

Stray busI said I wouldn’t. After travelling with my own car for ages, watching tour bus upon tour bus descend on our pristine sights, I said I wouldn’t. But I have. I’ve joined the Stray bus. And frankly, I couldn’t be happier about it. Don’t worry, I haven’t abandoned Sunny (our rental car) completely – he is trucking Sarah to and from Auckland as we speak. But having the car by myself isn’t economical – gas prices are just way too expensive unless you are sharing the costs – and the bus is a fun way to meet new people and not have to worry about driving.

From Auckland to Hahei

I haven’t seen much of Auckland apart from where Sarah works and the front door of Base hostel. It’s somewhere I’ll explore at a later date, but we do get a great view of the city from the top of Mt. Eden, a dormant volcano. There is a huge compass there with distances on it, which reminds me just how far away I am from home!

We then travel up the Coromandel peninsular, another beautiful spot which is similar in a lot of ways to the Bay of Islands. Again, more stunning beaches – tough life, eh? The bus driver, Nana, drops us off at Cathedral Cove. We spend some time taking silly pictures and cursing other tourists who get in the way of the perfect shot… despite being annoying tourists ourselves.

We arrive back at the dorm to the smell of fish, sausages and lamb chops on the barbie… can’t say we don’t eat well on the trip either! After a huge feed, cooked by our awesome driver, we head out to Hot water beach. The sun is already setting and the beach is empty – that is, until we spot where the thermal pools are. There, despite the chilly early evening temperatures, girls are lounging around in bikinis and men in their swimsuits. The guys on the stray bus are carrying the shovels and preparing to dig. It takes a while for us to find the right spot (and eventually some of us usurp the holes already dug by other people) but once we do, hot water pools up out of the ground like an instant bath. The sea rushes up to the very edges of the pools, always threatening to cross and drown our hot baths with its cool, salty water but generally keeping its distance. The result is heaven. The water is a gorgeous temperature, as long as you avoid the places where it is scalding hot. We relax in the pools until night falls and we have to find our way back to the bus by moonlight.

Post-beach follows beer, poker and a discussion between myself, Manuel, Cameron (a fellow Canuck) and Lofty on what practical jokes to play on the other people on the bus… none are acted upon but I did learn never to share a room with Manuel.


From Beach to Sun-drenched Beach

Coastal drives seem to be the thing to do in NZ. All the North Island Kiwis we’ve met up with (some of whom have put us up for the night – thanks Mike and Jodi!) say “South Island has the mountains, but we have the beaches.” This is a claim we are willing to research thoroughly! Between Auckland and Whangarei (pronounce “wh” as “f”), there are so many nice beaches that it is almost torturous to those who have to stay in the car and drive by without stopping…

But we had to reach the Bay of Islands. Paihia is where our cruise departs from but it is more than just a pretty place. It is also home to Waitangi – the birthplace of New Zealand as a nation. Sounds cheesy, and it is. Especially after learning how badly they treated the original founding document (known as the Treaty of Waitangi – it was almost completely eaten by rats). But some insightful person realized just how unique this agreement between the Maori and the British really is. I’ll skip all my contemplation on how Canadian Aboriginal people could have benefited from such an accord.

The treaty grounds are beautifully restored and the Maori maere (meeting house) is awe-inspiring. The inside is covered by intricate wooden carvings and marginally creepy “tiki” dolls with paua shell eyes. We explored until it was time to head down to the wharf for our cruise.

Aboard “The Rock”

It turns out that our cruise is on board a very odd-looking, rust red converted car ferry. We met our dorm mates (assuredly two members of the Russian mafia torn straight from the pages of “Night Watch,” the Russian vampire novel I was reading at the time). Right away we are thrown into the fray and there’s a shooting contest – at which I am truly crap – and fishing off the back – I have photographic evidence that I caught something HUGE! Dinner is a bbq, complete with the fish (snapper) just freshly yanked from the water and some of the most enormous green lipped mussels I have ever seen. Delicious!

After tea, they pull some kayaks down into the water and we paddle into the night. The bay is home to bioluminscent algae. In English? Magic. As our paddles cut the surface, bright sparks of light jump through the water. A fish gliding through the dark looks like a shooting star. I feel like I’ve entered some kind of twilight zone where every movement I make in the water is accompanied by a glow of light.

It’s even better when we go for a swim. The water is cold but it’s hard to resist swimming with the phosphorescence. Underwater looks like a fireworks display. I wish it were possible to photograph the phenomenon, but it’s just something I’m going to have to remember, and talk about to everyone.

The next day, bright and early, we anchor close to a little shelf of rock and dip in the water. It’s here that we are diving for more of those great big green lipped mussels we ate earlier. Well, really it’s the crew that are diving for them – when they bring them up they split them open and hand them to us, so we can feed the fish with the insides. The fish come right up to our hands and chew at the mussel. Some of them end up nipping my fingers but its all in good fun. A couple of us try to dive for mussels ourselves – I can’t get down deep enough in one breath and once when I did, it is impossible to rip those buggers off the rock! Some are successful – not without a few scratches on their hands though.

We landed on one of the islands in the area and are treated to a little history of the area. After spending time kayaking around the coastline exploring caves and relaxing on the beach, we get back on the boat to taste some seafood delicacies – including sea urchin eggs and raw mussel muscle. Not too bad, but I wouldn’t pay $800USD/gram!

The Far Far North

A day in Maitai Bay is the perfect remedy to long drives. Located at the very tip of the karikari peninsula, it is a stunning curved bay with a campsite right on the beach. It is an uber cheap campsite too ($8 for both of us!). After that, we zip up Cape Reinga to the northernmost point in New Zealand. It is rainy and windy but that’s the perfect weather in which to see the Cape in all its wild and untamed glory. The very tip of Cape Reinga is sacred as the entrance to the Maori underworld… spooky.

The West coast of Northland is known as the “Kaori Coast.” Kaori are absolutely massive trees and forests of them used to cover the whole of New Zealand. Now, only a few exist, but the ones that do are absolutely enormous. We go out of our way to see the biggest and second biggest trees in NZ, both around 2000 years old.

The last stop on our beaches tour of Northland is Piha, on the outskirts of Auckland. The sand is dusted with an iron black coat, and the beach looks rugged and forboding. The surfers are amazing, taming the rips and tides we’ve been warned against swimming in. We arrive at sunset and take in the pinks and oranges that dance across the beach. I draw a huge map of the world in the sand. 

Unforunately for us, there is no petrol station in Piha. As we pull into the campsite, the fuel light gleams an ominous red. Come on Sunny! When we leave Piha the next morning, its a nerve-wracking 30km drive to the next fuel station, with me at the wheel absolutely petrified of breaking down. Never again!


NZ Catch-up, Part One

Wellington is a beautiful anomaly – bright blue sky one minute and stormy clouds the next. The single constant is the wind. It’s the one place I’ve been in the world where you can watch the weather change in front of your eyes. Looking up at the clouds, you can see them getting buffeted by the winds, moving them out over the Cook Straight.

To take advantage of the nice weather (and it was nice about 75% of the time – for the rest, see the fickleness I mentioned above), we venture up the cable car to the top of the Botanic Gardens. The walk back down into the city takes us past widespread vistas of Wellington and through beautiful rose gardens. We also check out the “Beehive” (a Wellington architectural icon), the Parliament buildings and also to our final destination – Te Papa.

Day at the Museum

Te Papa is NZ’s national museum and it deserves the title. Huge and sprawling, with four floors of interactive and interesting displays, Te Papa has to be one of the best museums I’ve been to in ages. I’m finding NZ Maori history really fascinating and there is no shortage of places to learn about it. Unfortunately, we are pressed for time and don’t get around the entire museum. I wonder if you can really do it justice, even with a whole day. When I make it back to Wellington I’ll pay another visit, that’s for sure.

Napier to Hamilton

I’ve got a lot of ground to cover over the next few blog entries – I’ve literally covered a lot of ground! Our stop in Napier wasn’t what we expected because of a bad turn in the weather. Maybe this is the curse striking again, but many of the farmers out there see it as a blessing! Napier gets its claim to fame by being flattened by an earthquake in the early 1930’s and rebuilt in Art Deco style. After a quick visit with Lofty’s friend Naomi and a tour of the earthquake museum we headed off to Hamilton to watch some test match cricket – Black Caps vs. England.

At last! Our luck begins to change. We arrive at the cricket grounds and the forecast is for sunshine. It is a good thing too, as we claim a spot of the grassy hill designed for spectators. Lofty fills me in on some of the rules and jargon of the sport and on the players (like Sidebottom – ha!) England are bowling. We spend the rest of the day sunbathing, picnicing and occasionally cheering the odd wicket (don’t I sound in the know?) The afternoon is languid apart from the jeers of England’s “Barmy Army” fan club – but I’m pleased to say I didn’t need to break out the book once!