20 August, 2008

New Zealand Wrap Up

That wraps up our holiday in New Zealand. The map shows where we went, really only covering half of the North Island despite having over two weeks to travel. Even on that relaxed basis, we felt that we could have spent more time in the Coromandel (delightful because it was so quiet), the Bay of Islands (so much more to explore), the Bay of Plenty (which we just rushed too much), and all of the geothermal territory around Taupo and Rotorua (fascinating, but too commercial).

It was a great decision to rent a Peugeot diesel for our trip. This little car was so economical, aided immeasurably by diesel being cheaper than petrol in NZ, yet it was a great performer with ample power for passing slower vehicles on those few occasions the roads allowed it with safety. We enjoyed many refined features in this French car which are absent in our Subaru - such as automatic lights, automatic wipers (how do they work?), separate climate control for driver and passenger, and wing mirrors which retract when the doors are locked. The digital radio received NZ Radio National almost anywhere we were - what a great radio station!

In the car, we travelled 3449km, and the cost of fuel was $NZ12.48/100km.

We find that updating the blog is great therapy. It helps one to think about what we've seen and done. Internet connectivity was pretty good in New Zealand, but varied in its implementation. Only one place we stayed had no connectivity, and that was the B&B we used on arrival in Auckland. In anticipation of having to use internet cafes to post the blogs, we purchased $20 worth of credit on CafeNet. This was wasted - we never came across a CafeNet hotspot (even though we visit a coffee shop in almost every town), and never had to use one anyway because all motels we used had some form of internet access or other. Some had free WiFi (this is good, of course, but the free WiFi services were almost always problematic due to weak signal, confusion over WEP codes, and no technical support). Others had paid WiFi (some $10/hour which we thought to be expensive) which generally worked well. A couple had paid LAN in the room. One one occasion, we couldn't make this work and got our $5 back. One small motel had only dialup available, which we ignored, mainly because my Telstra iPass software overwhelms resourses on our geriatric notebook, and worse, changes PC settings without permission.

There's plenty we have not done or seen on the North Island, but sadly at this stage, it's not in our plans to return to New Zealand.

16 August, 2008

Back to Karekare

After being pretty well washed out in Rotorua, the next day dawned somewhat better, although, during the day, we still managed to be caught in the open during a heavy squall. The whole of the North Island that we have seen has been so boggy underfoot, that we now understand how the All Blacks are good at playing in the mud, and how the comic strip Footrot Flats came to be.

The road from Rotorua to Auckland is much better than the average country road that we've been on the last two weeks, and we were able to maintain very good speeds much of the way. A hail storm provided some entertainment. The passage through Hamilton and suburbs is, however, long, devious and slow, and reminded us of Albury before the bypass was opened. But the rest of the journey was very speedy and pleasant. A very cute frog-themed cafe on the (flooded) Waikato River somewhere along this journey gave us a refreshing break.

We arrived near Auckland early, and decided to have another go at Karekare Beach. This place, where a famous scene in The Piano was filmed, had eluded us on a previous visit. Today, we made it. The beach is about a kilometer from the closest car access, and we found our way there on a boggy, sandy, ill-defined track. The weather was overcast and squally, and a gale was blowing, so we did get a bit wet, but the beach was starkly beautiful, making it worth the effort of getting there. Vast areas of black sand, rough seas and leaden skies contribute to the rough beauty of this place.

It's a popular spot, and there were about 20 other visitors there enjoying this windswept land and seascape. It must be very crowded at Karekare Beach in summer - indeed it must be a different place altogether, because there is a surf club at the beach. You'd be suicidal to swim at this beach in conditions like there were today.

15 August, 2008

Wet and Steamy in Rotorua

Over the years we have travelled all over the world, and have never seen anything quite like Rotorua. We've been to hot springs towns in the Rockies, and in Alaska and elsewhere in New Zealand on other trips, but nowhere is the geothermal activity so extensive and obvious as it is here.

In many places on the drive in from Taupo, steamy vapours are seen to issue from rivers and cavities, and as you approach Rotorua, they become much more numerous. In Rotorua itself, the whole city seems to be a bubbling cauldron, with countless little patches of water giving off steam, some even bubbling away.

Geothermal watching is a very commercial activity in Rotorua. It costs $50 for admission to Te Puia, a Maori theme park with the best access to the Pohutu Geyser. Everywhere else is cheaper, but the locals know how to make a dollar from their great natural resource. Having said that, there are many places in town where these amazing sights can be seen, and sulphurous odours can be smelled for free.

After over two weeks of squally weather in New Zealand, the rain has now set in seriously and pretty well continuously. This limited our getting around a bit, and to keep dry during the steadiest of rain, we visited the Rotorua Museum, a magnificent Tudor style mansion, constructed in 1908 (opened 100 years ago today, as it happens) as a bathhouse. The building was never fully completed, but as a centenary project, it is now undergoing extensions to fulfil the architect's original design. The bathhouse was used for the rehab of injured soldiers after the first world war. The Museum is well worth a visit without needing rain as an excuse. The preserved bathhouse rooms are particularly interesting, as are the exhibits and the basement areas.

A cinema room shows a movie with the history of the district. This is fascinating, and extemely well produced. The New Zealanders involved had a wicked sense of humour, and did not take the movie project too seriously, making it very entertaining as a result. It is notable that the Maoris of the 19th Century discovered the value of money and how they could make it easily by charging the tourists to view the attractions. That fine tradition carries on today, as mentioned. It was a great surprise (for we did not know it was coming) when the seats "rattled and rolled" during the earthquake / volcano scenes.

To improve our spirits during the miserable weather, we spent a few hours at the Polynesian Spa. This is not a cultural experience, and we suspect it is not local Maoris making money out of this particular enterprise! The Spa is listed by Conde Nast Traveller as one of the "Top 10", and its adult pools and private pools are geothermal mineral water of various temperatures with great views over Lake Rotorua and its wildlife (mostly seagulls). This place is, unsurprsingly, really popular with Japanese tourists who arrive in busloads.Luckily the Spa is big enough to absorb them all comfortably.

14 August, 2008

Art Deco Heaven

Leaving Gisborne, there followed a long day of driving, a long winding road, thru hills and dales and across some gorges to Napier. Hawkes Bay is a beautiful, sweeping bay, with Napier nestled in it.

The Art Deco in Napier is really worth seeing, so we took a walking tour, with a volunteer guide, and spent a nice morning admiring the buildings there. After the devastating earthquake on 1931, the town was rebuilt in the style of the times, Art Deco. It was only in the 1980's that the town's people rallied and made moves to preserve the style from the ravages of developers. It was little too late for a few buildings, but Art Deco in the CBD area is mostly intact and is now a major contributor to Napier's prosperity. It now attracts crowds of visitors, with a big jazz festival, in the summer each year. The first photo shows a detail of the pavillion on Hawke Bay, and the second is the old fire station, damaged by the earthquake, restored in Art Deco style, and now the Art Deco centre of Napier.

Whilst in Napier, we met up and had coffee at Ujazi with a local author who is researching a book on a Napier actress from the 1920's who happened to marry a distant relative of Mike's. The author had rung us a month or two ago having found our family name in the Sydney phonebook. What a coincidence that we were going to be in his hometown so soon after the telephone call!

12 August, 2008

Wet and Dry

Coromandel Town is a most delightful place to stay, and also possibly the quietest we've ever seen, especially at night. Sadly, the time had come to leave the Coromandel Peninsula. We crossed it and came down the east coast. We planned to use the ferry at Whitianga to shortcut the road to Hot Water Beach, but discovered that it's a passenger ferry only. We also discovered that Whitianga is an exceptionally pretty town on Mercury Bay, and was worth more than the fleeting visit we gave it.

We went the long way round into Hot Water Beach. This has to be one of the most attractive ocean side beaches we have found. The sand is yellow, rather than the black characteristic of many New Zealand beaches (predominantly, the ones facing west?), and the water was most appealing, but still way too cold for a dip. The surf was very calm, but we have read this is one of the most dangerous beaches in the country.

The beach gets its name from two very specific locations along it where you can dig a hole in the sand, and sit in a pool of warm water, heated apparently from 5km down. The hot springs are under seawater most of the time, but become exposed only within 2 hours of low tide. The photo is of a poster at the beach, and shows just how close the low tide seawater is to the spring.

Hot Water Beach looks as though it gets very popular in summer, but even now, in winter, it would be a very pleasant place to spend a few days. There are some upmarket establishments there that look very comfortable, and the coffee shop was very pretty (and they rent out shovels for digging down to the hot water!).

But we had decided to put some kilometers under our belt today, and pushed on into and around the Bay of Plenty, eventually stopping at Opotiki as darkness approached, bypassing many places which clearly deserve more of our attention, but in two weeks you can't stop everywhere interesting. We had lunch in an old gold mining town, Waihi, and got lost following the main road through Whakatane. Obviously locals all know the way without the benefit of signage.

Approaching and passing through the Tauranga area we realised why we liked the Coromandel area so much. It was so quiet up there, but around the Bay of Plenty, we rediscovered traffic, and, on New Zealand roads, that's not pleasant. There are very few passing opportunities, and if you're behind someone slow, then, if they don't pull over, you just have to be patient.

The weather forecast was right, and the next day it was bucketing down rain. We had planned to do the trip to Gisborne the scenic long way round on State Highway 35, the coast road around near East Cape, as far east as you can get in New Zealand before Chile. This road had only just been opened after being closed by road slips from storms, and, in heavy rain, we thought "what the hell", let's go that way anyway!

It was well worth it. The rain came in squalls, and some of them were so intense we had to almost stop due to sheeting rain and almost no visibility. But the sheeting was fleeting, and mostly we were able to enjoy the scenery, and under leaden skies and with rough seas and black sands the rocky coastline looked most spectacular. The photo of Clare is on the gloriously beautiful, heavily driftwood strewn beach at Hawai on the west side of the East Cape peninsula. You can see the weather is being kind! The church in the last photo is near Waihau Bay, and contrasts starkly with the dark sea and sky, sitting on its own little point into the Bay of Plenty.

As we reached the east side, the beach sands followed what we now think of as a general rule, and turned from black to white. We went through numerous small towns on this long southerly leg to Gisborne, starting with the rather depressed-looking little village of Te Araroa. Other than the towns, which are located on very pretty bays, the road on this side avoids the coast, and passes through the ubiquitous hilly farmland.

The Lonely Planet guide advises travellers on a limited timeframe to avoid this road - nowhere to pass the "plethora of milk trucks, logging trucks and (unregisterable) ancient cars". Lonely Planet writers must only travel in summer because we encountered almost no vehicles at all, except in the towns, and cruised around the whole distance quite effortlessly.

We spent the night at Wainui Beach, a suburb of Gisborne, at a very luxurious motel. The beach here reminds us of Belongil Spit at Byron Bay. It is very heavily eroded by storms, and attempts to shore up accessways and properties look as though they are being successfully undermined by mother nature.

10 August, 2008

The Tip of Coromandel

The upper northern tip of the Cormandel Peninsula is all dirt roads but today we haved proved that it is worth the effort to drive them!

The day dawned frostily, but absolutely perfectly and stayed that way all day, a delightful change from previous days, and, according to the weather forecast, not what we can expect in days to come. It was very cold but 100% sunny.

With this good weather, we told our motel that we would stay another night, and set out. Frankly, this coastline is stunning, and photographs cannot do it justice. Rocky beaches are spaced by jutting headlands and backed with rolling hills populated by sheep (mostly) and cows. The animals rightly think they own these roads, and it took us some time to get by a few herds of both varieties.

Apart from a tiny general store at Colville, the top of the peninsula is devoid of any sources of sustenance, and at the motel we were warned to buy a sticky bun in Coromandel Town before leaving for the day. Instead, we took some leftovers from last night's dinner, and they served us very well.

We lunched at the very northern tip of the peninsula, a prominent hill called Mt. Moehau (photo of us). From there we also did an hour on the Coromandel Walkway. It was very scenic but very boggy, and our boots needed some attention on return. And Mike attempted a swim on the totally deserted rocky beach there, but the water was just too cold and he chickened out before full immersion.

The drive from Colville up to Mt Moehau is 66km return, and we saw only one other vehicle in this whole sector, amazingly for a Sunday. We think the dirt roads are discouraging for many New Zealanders, but of course Aussies think little of them. These roads are narrow, very twisty and steep with sheer dropoffs, but mostly good surface, but sometimes very rocky. There are hundreds of washouts from recent storms adding to the thrill of the drive.

We came back to Coromandel Town via the "scenic" route, by crossing the peninsula and coming down the eastern, ocean side. Still all dirt roads, but there are a few small townships here, not big enough for shops, and still no traffic. The Pacific coast scenery rewarded the extra distance, although the surf was very mild, and the view coming over the ridge into Coromandel Town was one of the best (photo).

09 August, 2008

To the Coromandel

After spending the night in Dargaville, we set off in the wrong direction for 20km. Eventually, we realised the error and turned back, to have a look at the Kauri Museum, at Matakohe, which was strongly recommended by Lonely Planet, and was excellent. Lots of displays of the logging and saw mill industries of the past, as well as the life style of 100 years ago. The re-creations using mannequins and old salvaged equipment were truly stunning, and this, together with furniture, old photos, clothing etc., made for a very interesting morning at the museum.

It was a showery day with bursts of sunshine. Then, anxious to have a fine afternoon, we set sail on the "Auckland bypass" to the west of the city, through farmland and Helensville. Signposting out of Helensville was very poor, but eventually we found our way onto the Scenic Drive, through beautiful rain forest, to have a look at Piha and Karekare Beaches. Piha was very scenic, ruggedly beautiful with its pitch black sand and windblown appearance. We climbed the hill on the beach (called Lion Rock) to meet the Mauri Princess, who looks out over the ocean there, it was indeed a wonderful place.

We were keen to have a look at Karekare Beach which featured in the movie The Piano. Who could forget the scene where the long boat is launched thru the surf, with the piano balanced over it? Not to be! The road down to the beach was closed due to land slips, after the severe storms which had lashed the North Island the week before we arrived. We had to make do with glimpses of it. We went 10km down Lone Kauri Road which was signposted to be an alternate route into Karekare, certainly did not appear on our map, but it was so slow and twisty that it was dark by the time we made it to the beach, which was not Karekare but some particularly beautiful unnnamed lost world further down the coast.

It had begun to rain seriously by this, so we headed into Aukland to spend the night. The rest of the Scenic Drive shows fanstastic glimpses of the city as it comes in from the south west.

A Thai meal was enjoyed for dinner on the Parnell Road cafe strip, and then, the next day, we set off for the Coromandel Peninsula. It was drizzling, but that subsided as we cruised along the beautiful coastline. We traced the road around the edge of Tamaki Strait, finding a cute coffee shop in a delightful little town of Maraetai, with a very friendly waitress. Amazing scenery, lots of inlets, with driftwood piles to explore kept us entertained for most of the day. We had a bite of lunch in Thames, and overnighted in Coromandel Town, very quiet and cold. The population swells in the summer, it is obviously a good fishing spot! We warmed up with a drink in the Star and Garter Hotel (1873), very nicely restored (the warning icons say no smoking, no dogs and no stilleto heels). This pub has a pot belly stove, and internet cafe, good coffee and cookies, and gets the local cafes to deliver food to the patrons. What a good business model!

08 August, 2008

The Far North

As we left The Bay of Islands, the thick fog which had blanketed the bay lifted to a breautiful day. The drive up the coast to Mangonui was along a lovely coastline, which was very quiet. The town of Mangonui, fabled for its fish and chips and architecture from the whaling days, was a charming harbour village. We were too early for the fish and chips, but enjoyed great coffee there.

Mangonui Harbour is an arm of Doubtless Bay which was stunningly beautiful, and from there we drove up a long skinny peninsula to Cape Reinga, at the most northerly tip of NZ. We saw a lot of Azure Kingfishers on this road.

On the way we stopped at the Ancient Kauri Kingdom at Awanui, where there is a staircase carved from an ancient Kauri Tree, and a display of furniture and carvings. The Cape Reinga lighthouse is solar powered, only 50w according to the sign, the only solar powered lighthouse we have ever seen. How a light of that power can be effective is amazing, but the sign there said that it can be seen for 19 miles. It stands where the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean. We saw it on a gloriously calm day, but we imagine the weather can be frightful in this totally exposed location. It's also unusual in that you approach the lighthouse from above it! (See photo.)

Massive landscaping was being undertaken at the Cape. There must be a lot of visitors here in Summer!

The west side of the peninsula leading up to Cape Reinga is Ninety Mile Beach. Vehicles are allowed on this beach but we didn't see any, and we note that that the speed limit is posted at 100km/hr. Reports are that many vehicles come to grief on this beach, and we could see why. At high tide it would be impassable, and at low tides, just plain dangerous due to soft sand and extreme isolation. Franky, we are not supporters of vehicles being allowed to drive along pristine beaches.

Near the southern end of Ninety Mile Beach, we had a look at one of the few road accesses to this beach, at Waipapakauri. This access point was seriously degraded and impassable except for high clearance 4WDs. Most of the damage here was probably done by recent storms.

After this trip, we stayed the night at Kaitaia, then set out heading south though the Kauri forests. The highlight of the day's driving was the ferry trip across Hokianga Harbour from Kohukohu to Rawene (photo), both very picturesque towns, which although small, appear to be thriving. The town of Oponomi is also beautiful, being
set at the heads of Hokianga Harbour and characterised by spectacular sand dunes. It was very quiet there with only locals about.

The road was twisty and slow as we passed through the Waipoua Forest, where the oldest known living Kauri tree is to be found (photo).

Beyond the forests, we had a good walk along Bayley's Beach, which was wild and windy, as our last call for the day. The town here is cute and funky, but we noticed a massive development taking place on the headland which will not help this particular ambience.

The West Coast, down which we are travelling, is not on the tourist trail, so it's very quiet and enjoyable, especially at this time of year. The tiny towns along the beach are replete with shacks and huts with only the occasional well built house. Locals obviously make good use of this coastline, and are probably grateful that it
is not too popular with tourists. Serious erosion of the dunes is a problem everywhere, a problem which is seemingly made worse by beach shacks being built too close to the edge.

We pulled in for the night at Dargaville.

05 August, 2008

Bay of Islands

The weather has improved in New Zealand's North Island. It's now mostly sunny, but frequently there are brief squalls of wind and rain, which are enough to keep everything wet, and requires us to keep our coats handy.

We managed a driving tour of the Devonport Peninsula, going up Mt Victoria and North Head, as well as along Cheltenham Beach, Narrow Neck Beach, Bayswater Marina and Stanley Point. The first photo shows the view from Bayswater across the marina to the Auckland Harbour Bridge. (They do bungy jumping from that bridge!) At North Head and Mt Victoria there are remnants of old forts first built to protect Auckland from the Russian attacks (which never happened). An impressive short DVD movie shows in a visitors' centre at North Head showing the history of the forts on this peninsula.

At Stanley Point, the city has only managed to preserve a single, tiny wedge of access and view to the harbour from private development. This is now the Cyril Bassett Lookout, in honour on New Zealand's only Victoria Cross in the Gallipoli Campaign. Bassett lived very close by, and no doubt used to look at the harbour from this precious spot.

We have now driven north out of Auckland to the Bay of Islands. A highlight of this trip was a diversion along the very spectacular Tutukaka coast (second photo), and we had a nice sandwich lunch in the little marina at Tutukaka township. We also enjoyed Whangarei Falls (third photo) which are extremely photogenic, and are running very well given the heavy recent rains.

We have stayed a couple of nights in Paihia (for the benefit of Australian's this is pronounced "pie here"), the main town on the legendary Bay of Islands. We took a commercial cruise of the bay, but the Fullers boat frankly had too many people on board for comfortable viewing and photography. This is not to say that it was overloaded, rather that it was too crowded to be described as a spacious sightseeing vessel. We would recommend trying another provider which has smaller vessels and appears to be less popular with bus trips, for only $2 more.

The cruise itself was excellent. The rain mostly held off, with only one squall, although it was cold and windy. The islands are truly spectacular, many are occupied with occasional holiday homes (some looked magnificent), so this Bay and its surrounds are obviously not protected by being a National Park as we would think it should be. There's lots of history in this bay, mostly involving unfortunate interactions between the Maoris and invading Europeans, mainly French.

The last photo was taken from a hill on Urupukapuka Island where we stopped for an hour or so, mainly, we think, to refuel the crew with lunch. We had fish and chips. This island includes a resort named after the American author Zane Grey (who liked the Bay of Islands for fishing and maybe writing), and the views from on top of the hills are splendid. It is very enjoyable walking up and down well grassed but a bit boggy sheep paddocks, climbing over the occasional stile.

We spent a pleasant hour in the historic and pretty town of Russell, originally a fortified Maori settlement with a name that meant "sweet penguin", but the victorious Europeans changed it to something they thought more pronounceable. In its early days it was a whaling town. It's most readily accessible by ferry from Paihia.

One night in Paihia we dined at Lips Beef and Reef Restaurant. This place is worth a mention because the food was "the best she's had in New Zealand" according to Clare. It was a totally unpretentious place, one we just chose walking by from the menu on the wall, and the wait staff that we met were extremely friendly. Such a pleasant eating experience leaves a very good impression of a town.

03 August, 2008

New Zealand Bound

On 1 August, we set out for two and a half weeks in New Zealand, coinciding (naturally, for those who know us), with a clogging weekend (the NZ national convention) to be held in Auckland. We had decided to spend three nights in Devonport, because it is close to the clogging location, Glenfield, and also has a ferry to Auckland downtown, so Mike could easily visit the city.

Our flight over was on Air Tahiti Nui and left at the ungodly hour of 07:10 (well, it was meant to anyway, it's actual departure was almost an hour late). We discovered that for such early flights there is no point following the official recommendation of checking in "at least two hours early". At 5am, the airport is virtually deserted, and the Customs and Immigration people don't start until 6am anyway, so you just have to wait. Clare enjoyed a coffee (damn the paper cup!) at Starbucks, pretty well the only retail shop open that early.

And the flight turned out to be operated by Qantas on a codeshare basis. So we tried our luck at the Qantas Club. We were told that we weren't strictly eligible to use the lounge because we were flying Tahiti Nui and "Qantas don't get any money from our ticket", but they let us in anyway.

The flight was uneventful. Our part of the cabin was mostly populated by well behaved footy players from the Newtown Jets. On arrival, the slowest part (as usual in New Zealand) was the passage through "biosecurity" which Aussies would call quarantine. New Zealand is really careful on this topic, and we suppose you can't blame them.

For this stay, knowing diesel is cheaper here than petrol, and to be different, we rented a diesel Peugeot. It's a delightful little vehicle, so great to get in a French car again with all its refinements. The drive to Devonport was predicted at 32 minutes by www.wises.co.nz but it took well over twice that long. The road in from the airport is pretty poor, and even modest traffic bogs it right down to a miserable crawl. Even on the North Shore, the trip along Lake Road into Devonport is a funeral procession.

We're staying at a little one room B&B we found on the internet in Buchanan Road. Our room is a very little standalone cottage at the back of the owners' house. It's just a bit on the shabby side of quaint, but lovingly cared for by the owners, who gave us a very friendly reception, and looked after us very well. The cottage is just that bit too small for people like us who travel with much too much luggage!

The clogging is at Glenfield, not to far from Devonport, but requiring another drive back up Lake Road, a few k on the motorway, and then a windy, hilly trip through the backblocks. Again, a little traffic completely clogs these roads, making the trips back and forth to the Glenfield Community Centre very slow. (At midnight, coming home, it's much faster.)

Auckland, and indeed all of New Zealand have endured over a week of very heavy storms from a confluence of low pressure zones over the Tasman Sea. There has been flooding, washaways, houses falling off cliffs etc., with the top part of the North Island copping the worst of it, and even the Pacific Sun cruise liner had to limp back into the harbour after scaring the wits out of its passengers (and injuring a few) in "huge waves and high winds". The liner is sitting in Auckland now getting all its crockery and other loose fittings replaced. This is just preliminary to saying that it's extremely soggy and pretty miserable in the city at the moment.

On Saturday, Mike caught the ferry into downtown. The winds had dropped, but the occasional mild rain squall passed by, making umbrellas and raincoats necessary for any outing. Mike had an enjoyable walk around the city, and through Albert Park and Auckland University, dodging between the drizzle patches and managing to stay pretty dry. Lots of Australians were evident in the city, identifiable by their "Wallabies" jerseys, getting ready for the Bledisloe Club rugby match at Eden Park.