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Land of the Long White Cloud

26th Aug 2012

Eid is officially over ‎and it is back to work today after a lovely week off in New Zealand. A week ‎spent with my youngest son catching up with some friends on the North Island.‎

This journey was not planned, but when our Chief Executive kindly said we ‎could take the entire week off to celebrate Eid I booked a fare to Melbourne ‎to pick up Michael and used Qantas frequent flyer points to book our return ‎tickets to Auckland.‎

New Zealand is not the first place that you might consider visiting in late ‎winter but, having spent some time in Melbourne last August I took the chance ‎and it paid off. Although we had some rain in the first few days our week was ‎generally sunny and mild as we travelled to just a few of the beautiful ‎places in this wonderful country.‎

Our flight arrived at 5:30 in the morning and we picked up our hire car ‎without major drama at a hotel very close to the airport. I had booked the ‎car through a company called “GO Rentals” and they were super-well organised ‎and efficient, picking us up by shuttle from the airport so that we could be ‎in our car and driving south within an hour of landing.‎

Our planned destination for Sunday was Rotorua, home of some of the most ‎obvious volcanic activity in New Zealand and the Polynesian Spa which I ‎thought was exactly what I needed to unwind after around 18 hours in the air.‎

The drive south from Auckland is a pretty one and the scenery gets gradually ‎more stunning, the further you drive from the capital. Rhododendron trees ‎were in full, and magnificent bloom, and there was very little traffic as we ‎followed the Waikato River for much of our journey.‎

Rotorua (sometimes called “Rotten Rua” because of the smell), is intensely ‎volcanic. Hot mud bubbles in the local parks and the air is redolent with the ‎smell of sulphur. There are many places offering spas and using water ‎straight from the ground and there are lots of things to see and do in and ‎around the town including a luge, a cable car, and many lakes for fishing and ‎boating. We made use of the spa pools and enjoyed a few hours of relaxation ‎before getting back in the car to visit my mate, Grant, in his new home in ‎Hamilton.‎

Waikato RiverGrant and I have worked together on and off in New Zealand and the UK over ‎many years and it was great to catch up with him and Barbara. True-to-form, ‎we had been in the house a very short time before Barb was feeding us (hot ‎muffins straight from the oven) and we were enjoying a beer and a catch-up on ‎mutual friends and acquaintances. Michael and I by this time were taking it ‎in turns to nod off and, after delicious venison stew, we turned in a little ‎earlier than we would otherwise have done as we had a full day planned for ‎Monday.‎

Maori rock carvingsFishing! I had booked a trip on Lake Taupo, a lake within ‎a caldera that is bigger than the one at Yellowstone, is ‎about 90 minutes’ drive from Hamilton and offers some stunning scenery and ‎trout fishing. Kiwis are intensely protective of their trout and it is ‎illegal to purchase or sell these fish. The only way they can be taken is by ‎fishing and Lake Taupo is a key venue.‎

I had booked five hours for us on HMS Solamaar and the owner and skipper, Dan ‎Wood, lost no time in briefing us on the safety rules, before Michael, I and ‎Grant’s daughter Stephanie motored gently out of Taupo Harbor.‎

Michael at the harborLake Taupo water is very clear and clean and up to three or four metres you ‎can see straight to the bottom but it quickly becomes very deep and, on the ‎day, we were fishing at a depth of about forty metres. Our rigs consisted of ‎a plastic lure and a single hook which are connected to a special quick-‎release clip and lowered, with the aid of a winch and a 5 kilo lead weight, ‎to the appropriate depth. At this point the boat cruises along at a speed of ‎‎1.9 knots and the lure is kept deep in the water until it is taken by a fish. ‎We had purchased enough fishing licenses for four rods and so this is what we ‎used.‎

Fishing RodsWe did not have long to wait for our first “hit”, a trout took one of the ‎lures and the line disengaged from the clip in which it was held. By ‎disengaging the line, the fish inadvertently releases the tip of the fishing ‎rod which jerks upright and lodges the hook securely into the fish’s mouth at ‎that point. For the watching fishermen the result is obvious, the “action” of ‎the rod changes significantly and it is necessary to set the fishing reel ‎drag and to carefully but steadily bring the fish to the boat.‎

Skeet ShootingWe caught six fish on the day with several runs around the lake, lost a few ‎through our own errors and threw most back as they were a few centimeters ‎short of the 40 cm length necessary to make them legal size. We managed to ‎keep two fine fish which were enough to feed five for tea.‎

Interspersed with fishing Dan pointed out some of the sights from Lake Taupo. ‎Unfortunately it was too cloudy to be able to see the three mountains on the ‎South and Western side of the lake, Ruapehu, Hauhungatahi or Ngauruhoe but we ‎visited the Maori rock carvings at Mine Bay and were able to get a good ‎general impression of the size of the lake and the beauty of the region ‎surrounding it. Our boating trip was topped off with some clay pigeon ‎shooting from the back of the boat. a nice touch that saw us blow some ‎helpless clay birds to dust with a 12 gauge shotgun.‎

Huka FallsOn disembarking we took a short drive to see the Huka ‎Falls, the start of the Waikato River which we had followed for much of ‎our journey from Auckland. Huka Falls are breathtaking, not because of their ‎height, but because of the sheer quantity of water that empties from Lake ‎Taupo and the speed at which this happens. The falls also look very clean and ‎the color changes as the water boils in the cauldron that is, by now, the ‎Waikato river.‎

RhododendronWe returned for a second night in Hamilton, to share some fish and tequila. ‎One of the trout that I caught had yielded a good sized roe, so I salted ‎these with the hope of having some nice caviar in the morning. The result was ‎not too bad. The texture and size of the eggs was good but, unfortunately ‎trout roe is much more delicately flavored than the salmon roe that is ‎commonly used to make caviar these days so I am afraid I would not do this ‎again.‎

The BevinsTuesday morning saw the sun shining and we rose early to travel southward to ‎New Plymouth and the Taranaki region. Our first stop was the Waitomo Caves in ‎the Waitomo district. These limestone caves offer many opportunities for ‎caving adventures which I have done before, however this time (not relishing ‎the thought of diving in waterfalls underground in winter), Michael and I ‎elected to do a walking tour and to see the glow worms for which the caves ‎are famous. The tour commences with a video featuring some local people ‎talking about their spiritual connection to the land. This part of New ‎Zealand is fabulous and it is hardly surprising that the Hobbiton scenes from the Lord of The Rings films were ‎recorded nearby. However it was stretching credulity to new lengths to see ‎one of the people in the film at Waitomo (credited as an Amateur ‎Scientist) talking about his close encounter with little people near the ‎caves.‎

WaitomoLed by our guide, Christian, we entered the caves via the newly constructed ‎visitors centre and found ourselves being led through well lighted, white ‎stalactites and stalagmites down stainless steel staircases to a natural ‎underground auditorium, it is here we are told that many famous singers, ‎including Dame Kiri ‎Te Kanawa, have performed. It proved difficult for any of us to pluck up ‎the courage to do an impromptu X-Factor audition but, at our request, ‎Christian gave us a haunting rendition of the Maori love song pokarekare ‎ana which showed off the wonderful acoustic qualities of the cave.‎

At the bottom of the cave we climbed into boats on an underground river and ‎soon found ourselves staring upward in some wonder at a ceiling that was ‎ablaze with the blue lights of glow worms. This is an awe inspiring sight and ‎it can only be seen in Australia and new Zealand. An experience I would ‎highly recommend.‎

Before leaving the topic of limestone caves I would like to say that I have ‎visited caves in many countries and most of them I would not return to. ‎However the experience at Waitomo is not one to be missed. Possibly because ‎the tours are run by local people who feel a deep connection with the land, ‎or simply because the caves are less damaged and cleaner than those ‎elsewhere, whatever the reason they are not to be missed. My one criticism ‎would be the over developed commercialism that prevents visitors taking ‎photos for themselves. There is no justification for this, it is pure ‎commercial greed, there are no glow worms in many of the caves so these would ‎not be disturbed, and flash photography does not hurt limestone. I did not ‎invest in a camera so that I could buy your photos guys.‎

GorgeLeaving Waitomo, we stopped at Te Kuiti for its famous fush and chups. I’m ‎not sure why but this little town has a takeaway shop that sells the best ‎tasting potato chips in the world. For many years when I lived in New ‎Zealand, Te Kuiti was a regular stop on the drive from New Plymouth to ‎Auckland.‎

TongaporutuThe Taranaki region is separated from the rest of the North Island by a range of steep hills ‎hence to approach Taranaki from the north you drive along a winding road, ‎state highway 3, through the fabulous Awakino Gorge before following the ‎west coast across several rivers and through a few small holiday villages to ‎New Plymouth. This road is prone to landslides, or “slups” as the Kiwis call ‎them, and there are magnificent views, picturesque hills, and rivers and ‎streams at various points. Sadly no one has seen fit to put in a walking ‎trail or even to put stiles over the fences. This is a real pity in this ‎country which could offer so much to walkers.‎

We arrived in new Plymouth mid-afternoon and soon found the new home of my ‎good friends Peter and Sharon Bevins who made us feel at ease and welcome ‎immediately. It was not long before we were enjoying some good Kiwi wines and ‎Peter was telling us about an idea that some of his friends had had about ‎marketing New Zealand as “the Europe of the southern hemisphere”. We felt ‎that this was possibly not the best idea this century as NZ is somewhat ‎limited in some of the characteristics of Europe including, people, history, ‎architecture, art, ethnic diversity, industry, and general development. I ‎seem to recall that we agreed that, if anything NZ is what England would be ‎without any of those things, and strange vegetation and birds.‎

Mt TaranakiThe next day saw the sun rise, as it does, but free of clouds and shining ‎brightly. Michael and I had planned to do some walking on Mt Taranaki. Maori ‎legend has it that Mt Taranaki was once with the other three mountains over ‎near lake Taupo but one day, in a huff, the mountain had decided to remove ‎itself and has been sulking in Taranaki ever since. Whatever the reason the ‎mountain forms a spectacular centerpiece to the region and most of its slopes ‎are now national park. When viewed from the air it is striking to see the way ‎the boundary between parkland and farms is so clearly defined. The mountain ‎often has snow in the winter although the ski season is usually limited if ‎there is one at all. To get to the ski slopes one must park the car about a ‎kilometer away and walk a winding track that navigates a steep valley to the ‎foot of the slopes. This year there is snow on the mountain but the slopes ‎are closed so Michael and I walked to the slope and, a further kilometer up ‎to the snow line. This may seem easy but I can say definitively that it is ‎strenuous and that the path can be quite difficult to negotiate. The mountain ‎is clad largely in loose volcanic ash which can be quite treacherous and the ‎track to the snow fields is poorly maintained this year. The views on a clear ‎day are magnificent and on a very clear day you can see Mt Ruapehu in the ‎distance. We were prepared for climbing and walking having brought full cold ‎weather gear with us, however too many walkers on Mt Taranaki do ‎underestimate the speed with which conditions can change and it is not ‎unknown for people to perish on its numerous walking tracks.‎

Ski FieldFollowing our walk to the top of the snow field we drove around the mountain ‎to the south and di a much shorter walk to Dawson Falls. This is Mordor ‎country. On the south side of the mountain the forest gets little light and ‎the trees are festooned with mosses and lichens. It is quite eerie but ‎definitely worth a visit and actually pretty at the same time.‎

Wednesday evening saw us visiting the wife and children of an old friend, ‎Jamie Hodson, who passed away too early. It was great to see Karen and the ‎girls again and to meet her new husband Blair. We had a wonderful evening ‎reminiscing about the time that my partner, Betty, and I spent in Taranaki, ‎the friendships we had and the changes that we had seen. My memories of ‎Taranaki will always be fond and I am glad that Michael was able to share in ‎this evening of hospitality and laughter with such good hosts.‎

All too soon it was time to leave New Plymouth and to drive north to ‎Auckland. Auckland is the biggest city in New Zealand, home to the vast ‎majority of the population and situated on a picturesque harbor where it ‎hosts a wonderful multicultural mix of people. ‎

MiruwaiMy cousin (once removed), Doggy Dan and his wife Jenny ‎and two children live in a little town called Miruwai which is about 30 ‎minutes north of Auckland on the beach. As is the wont of beaches on the west ‎coast of New Zealand the sand is composed of pure black volcanic glass which ‎is fine as salt and glitters as it runs through your fingers. The waves are ‎superb for surfing and the sea has plentiful fish as well as hosting seals, ‎whales, and birdlife. Dan and Jen took us for walk with the kids on this ‎lovely beach and Michael and I were both suitably impressed with the quality ‎and richness of their lives in this lovely corner of the planet.‎

Dan and Jen made us feel very much at home and I only wish I had been less ‎sleepy and more able to help Dan to enjoy the tequila which we brought with ‎us. The trouble with travel from the northern hemisphere is that time zones ‎play havoc with the body and by 8pm, despite our best efforts I was unable to ‎stay awake and had to totter off to bed leaving Dan to contemplate the ‎tequila alone.‎

Our final morning in New Zealand dawned clear and sunny and following a ‎superb breakfast of fresh, untreated, cows’ milk (complete with real cream) ‎and free range eggs Michael and I set off to visit the Viaduct Basin where we ‎enjoyed morning tea, and superb New Zealand coffee (no one does coffee like ‎the Kiwis) before departing Auckland for Melbourne.‎

For some unfathomable reason a large proportion of Australians never get to ‎visit New Zealand. New Zealand is a country that the English language seems ‎inadequate to describe. Blessed with rainfall, sunshine, and hugely fertile ‎soils it offers an enormous richness of culture, activities, and experiences ‎that cannot be had anywhere else. I lived in New Zealand for around seven ‎years and, although I have seen and experienced and learnt much that I would ‎not have wanted to miss elsewhere there is nothing that quite compares to the ‎warmness, the welcoming nature, the spirituality, and the beauty of this ‎country.‎

Sunset

Melbourne

We had an uneventful trip back to Melbourne, enjoying the hospitality of ‎Qantas and the Qantas Club (before my membership expires) and arriving in the ‎mid afternoon. My two older children in Australia had agreed to meet us in ‎Melbourne’s Chinatown for tea and we had a really memorable meal eating some ‎pretty-authentic Sechuan food. This was a really nice end to a great little ‎holiday and it was great to be all together again.‎

‎’till next time. Au revoir.‎

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3 comments on “Land of the Long White Cloud

  1. Was good to see you both. Look forward to getting to Qatar next year.

  2. […] Passion for NatureBlack Water RaftingTop 5 Most Amazing Caves of our WorldAnnMarie's BlogLand of the Long White Cloud .recentcomments a{display:inline !important;padding:0 !important;margin:0 […]

  3. Didn’t know you’d written this. Good stuff.

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