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.
Grant 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.
Fishing! 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.
Lake 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.
We 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.
We 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.
On 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.
We 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.
Tuesday 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.
Led 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.
Leaving 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.
The 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.
The 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.
Following 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.
My 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.
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.