Trip to New Zealand; March 2011
- Auckland to Lake Taupo (113 Miles)
- Lake Taupo to Rotorua (40 Miles)
- Rotorua to Coromandel (127 Miles)
- Coromandel to Auckland
- Queensland to Te Anau
- Te Anau to Milford Sound
We had planned to emigrate to New Zealand back in June 2010 but our planned changed after Mark accepted a position with the cable company in Bend, Oregon – BendBroadband. Our permanent residency visas had been issued to us in March 2010 but were not valid until we visited the country. Although we had decided to settle in Bend we thought, baring in mind how our life plans had a habit of changing, that we needed to have a back up plan. With this in mind we decided to take a family trip to New Zealand to get our residency visas validated and at the same time have a holiday, during which time we could check out the place. We basically had to enter the country before March 5th, which was not entirely convenient as it didn’t coincide with any school holidays. As it worked out, when we returned from holidaying in New Zealand Jack and Emily we go back to school for one week and then it would be Spring Break. These things can’t be helped.
The run up to leaving for New Zealand was as ever a hectic experience. Mark was busy at work, putting in the hours to get things completed before heading out. Karen had volunteered to run an fund raising activity by the Middle School, called Shiver ‘n Shake, which involved tens of students braving the 10 degrees (Fahrenheit) weather and immersing themselves in a cold water pool. Brrrr! Added to this we also closed on buying a house. Stressful or what! Karen wrapped her event at around 2:30pm and dashed home, where we quickly turned ourselves around to head down to San Francisco to catch our flight out to New Zealand. We could have flown out of Redmond just 20 miles from home, but it worked out to be $1500 for us all to do this (compared to $4500 to fly to New Zealand). It seemed a good idea at the time, but this was winter in Oregon, and we could easily have been stranded by a heavy snow storm. With trepidation we watched the weather all week but luckily we missed the worst of the snow storms. It was still advisable to be prepared so we packed into the car snow shovels and blankets in case we got stranded. We had decided not to go all the way down to San Fran, so Mark had booked us into a hotel in Weed, California so 200 miles south of Bend.
The journey itself to Weed was not too bad. In some places there was still packed ice on the road, but our compact 4 wheel drive car coped with these with consummate ease. To get out from Bend to San Fran at some point we needed to cross a mountain pass, which we did at Mount Hebron. Happily we crossed over the mountains without a hitch. We arrived in Weed at about 8pm in the evening. It might be a mellow sounding place, but Weed is little more than a stop over town along i-5, with plenty of truck stops, cheap hotels and fast food chains. Our stopping place was the Comfort Inn, and was just you typical mid-range hotel a good sized room, not so comfortable beds and a breakfast that tasted little better than cardboard. We asked the evening receptionist about good places to eat, which is a bit of an oxymoron in Weed. She struggled to come up with the names of 3 places, one of which was the Hi-Lo diner where we had eaten before, not that this was recommendation but it is sometimes better to go with the devil you know. After gorging ourselves on large helping of omelettes, sandwiches and pasta we headed off for a nice quite sleep in the Comfort Inn.
Saturday 26th February 2011
The beds took their toll, at least on the grown-up Hoblets, who ended up with stiff backs from laying the night on the hard beds. No time for self-pity we still had 300 miles to go to get to the airport to catch our plane. We forced down the not so hearty breakfast and carried our bags out to the car. It was a beautiful sunny morning but it was freezing, overnight the temperatures had fallen down to about negative 10 Fahrenheit. Pretty chilly. It had got so cold Karen’s bottle of Oil of Ulay had set into a custard more than it’s usually cream like consistency. We were also greeted by the spectacle of the surround mountains, of which the most splendid of all was the imperious Mount Shasta. Whilst we were in almost becalmed surroundings the winds on the summit of Shasta were blowing the snow from the mountain, somewhat reminiscent of scenes we had seen on TV of Everest.
We set off South towards San Fran at a comfortable rate and made excellent progress. There was not enough time in our schedule for a proper lunch break so we resorted to our usual fare of Costco meals and ice cream. One thing we did plan to do as a fun break was to stop off at the Jelly Belly factory at Fairview, California. We had stopped there once with Laura but Jack and Emily had never been before. There was not enough time to do the factory tour, instead we walked around the store. Emily decided to try some of the novelty flavours, namely dog food, barf and pencil shavings. These flavour really authentic which meant Emily spat each one out after just one bite. After stocking up on some bags of Jelly Bellys as presents for our trip to New Zealand. A minute or two down the road we saw a sign for olive oil tasting – not exactly the same appeal as a wine tasting but there is nothing better than a good olive oil. This did not exactly work out as planned, but the owner of the store was a self-taught expert on the health benefits of virgin olive and in particular the levels of polyphenols. For over an hour we were assaulted by facts and information by this gentleman who appeared to have Aspergers syndrome – speaking at about a million words per minute. He had been experimenting on himself, like some mad scientist, for the last three years and had his test results published on poster boards on the walls of the store. It was actually very interesting, but were still staggering from the full on auditory assault. We left the store fully illuminated on olive oil and continued the few miles to San Fran where we parked up the car and transferred to the airport.
Monday 28th February 2011 – Auckland
The flight is long and tedious from San Francisco to Auckland, even if it been light outside there would not have been anything to look out the windows at for 13 hours apart from sea. Karen has drugged us with sleep aid pills and they seemed to work as we all crashed out for a few restless hours sleep. Behind the three seats occupied by Emily, Jack and Karen was a young mother with her young baby who struggled to sleep for most of the night and seemed intent to keep every one else awake. Apart from this the flight was bearable and the in flight food was passable.
We waited for the plane to empty before we left. The only problem with this strategy was that we found ourselves near the back of the line for immigration. Karen had thought as we had New Zealand residency visas we could go through the lines with the rest of the Kiwis, but her suggestions were ignored so like all good Brits we waited patiently in-line with the rest of the non-citizens. After a long flight queuing is the last thing you want to be doing. Fortunately you are not subjected to the Spanish Inquisition, unlike the US, when you enter New Zealand. We are soon on our way to collect our baggage. Cases in hand we only have one more obstacle to face before we are on our way – the bio-security check on our hand luggage. The consequence for smuggling in a single piece of fruit is $400, so we had cleared our bags of every food item. Or so we thought! Hiding, wrapped in a plastic bag, in the bottom of Emily’s backpack was a solitary apple. Whoopsy! Luckily they took sympathy with us, especially with Emily, who is now entered onto the International register of bio-terrorists, and let us through. Now to find our hire car, which turned out to be to Emily and Jack’s disgust an old bashed up Nissan Sunny, but at least it was the “Limited” edition.
Finally we were on our way. Our next stop was Browns Bay over in the North Shore District of Auckland, but progress was slow as we fought our way through the horrible rush hour traffic. At least it was a nice day and it was fun to see all the immaculately dressed children in their school uniforms on their way to school. Wearing school uniforms is a long distant memory for Jack and Emily, but we convince them of the merits of uniforms in terms of meritocracy and discipline. Hopefully the message got across. Finally we fight our way across the bridge into North Shore and decided to head our to Devonport to look across to the Auckland skyline. We were just killing time as we didn’t want to descend upon our hosts for the day at an unreasonable hour.
Finally we decided it was the right time to make our way to Brown’s Bay. We were not all able to stay in the one house so had been offered a beds for the night at our friends John and Heather Aplin’s and Andrew and Margaret Marriot’s. Jack and Emily were to stay with the Marriot’s and the grown-up Hobbs were to be at the Aplin’s.
We sat down for a much need cup of coffer and a natter with Andrew and Margaret. By this time Jack and Emily, who was suffering from a cold, were totally exhausted and took themselves off to bed. Not wanting to waste the opportunity for grown up time the rest of us set out for a stroll along the beach and quick bite to eat. We strolled from café to café with Margaret and Karen passing judgement on the presentation and “state” of the food in each establishment until we finally settled on one. It was a lovely afternoon and it was great to feel the warm sun on our backs after what seemed an already long winter back home in Oregon. Feeling more human we returned to the Marriots’ where Jack and Emily had awoken from their slumbers, we gave them a quick snack and decided to head out the Long Beach for an afternoon swim in the sea. Margaret who is sensitive to the sun dressed in about 10 layers of mismatched clothing before entering the sea, and it was a testament to her natural buoyancy that the weight of this clothing did not drag her down to Davy Joneses locker. It was wonderfully refreshing to be in the cooling waters of the Pacific Ocean.
Soon it was time to return as we had a dinner date at the Aplin’s house. We turned up on mass, with 11 people in total there. John and Heather prepared a wonderful roast beef dinner which we gobbled up and washed down with some great wine. A splendid way to end the day!
Tuesday 1st March 2011: Auckland to Lake Taupo (113 Miles)
We rose surprising refreshed after our travels the day before. Crossing the International date line had lost us a day but the time transposing from the West Coast of the US and New Zealand is almost 20 hours so we were not really suffering from jet lag. Today our journey was taking us about 180km south to Lake Taupo, the largest lake in Oceania. We decided to delay our journey out to miss the Auckland rush hour, so it was mid morning before we finally headed out to tackle the motorway and trek across the harbour bridge. Our decision was justified and it was not long before we were heading south out of Auckland.
The countryside was spectacular with mile after mile of rolling green hills and reminded us of the English countryside. The verdant nature of the vegetation is a clear sign of the abundant rainfall the makes New Zealand a bountiful agricultural economy. We had heard that there were 10 sheep for every person in the country but we actually saw very few sheep just fields filled with cows. Apparently the markets for lamb and wool have struggling in recent years and as a result there has been a significant decline in the numbers of sheep in this land, in favour of the cow. Our first destination en route was the town on Matamata which is bang slap in the middle of dairy country (hence the profusion of cattle). Matamata was not so many years ago not well known and certainly not a tourist destination but today it bustling with tourists. Back in the early 1990s the famous New Zealand film director Peter Jackson, now Sir Peter Jackson, was looking for locations across his motherland for his up coming trilogy of films, The Lord of the Rings. One important location was Hobbiton, the home of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins. So after scouring the countryside of North Island they settled on a sheep farm just outside Matamata. During the film making the actors were sworn to secrecy and it was not until after the first film was released was the location of Hobbiton announced. After the Lord of the Rings movies were made they sadly started to dismantle the Hobbit houses in Hobbiton, so all that was left we holes in the ground. Luckily for us back in 2010 Sir Peter Jackson was able to announce he was going to make a feature film version of Tolkien’s The Hobbit. So Hobbiton has been reconstructed and added to in preparation for the filming, it is now in pristine condition. Filming was due to start of March 1st 2011 – the day of our arrival, which we didn’t know at the time of arriving in Matamata. But luckily for us, but not for Sir Peter, filming had been delayed as Sir Peter had suffered a perforated ulcer.
We love the Lord of the Rings books and films, not enough to want to do the full tour of the filming sites, most of which are just locations in fields, but a trip to Hobbiton was a must. A bus took us from the centre of Matamata out to the film site. We had to sign a form to say that any photographs we took would not be published on Facebook or YouTube, a the film set is “shrouded” in secrecy – but not enough to stop hoards of tourists visiting. The trip took us 15 minutes and we were so excited as the Hobbit burrows came into sight, we all bounced off the bus with expectation. Our guide welcomed us, she also told us that quite often visitors turned up in “character” dressed as Hobbits or Elves. Apparently one large German gentleman, dressed as a Hobbit, claimed on arrival at Hobbiton that he was finally home. After his tour he refused to leave and it took security several hours to be persuaded to leave – as he took his departure he said like Frodo he was now taking his great journey. Strange! Sadly no one on our tour was dressed for Middle Earth. Our 90 minute tour was everything we expected and more. We had suspected that in the Lord of the Rings films Hobbiton was largely CGI but we are glad to report much of it was real. There are some tens of Hobbit burrows including Bag End. You can walk around the streets, look into the gardens and walk through many areas where scenes we shot for the film – for lovers of these films, which include us, this was a magical opportunity and to think but for Sir Peter’s ulcer we would not have been there.
All too soon our time was up and we had to leave, in our case without the need for the intervention of security guards. Our tours was not quite over. As previously mentioned Hobbiton is located in a working sheep farm and before leaving we had the chance to see a demonstration of a hunky guy shear a sheep – all testosterone, sweaty singlets and bleating. After all the clippers lay silent we had a chance to feed some of the shorn lambs some well deserved milk.
Then it was really time to head off to our destination for the night Lake Taupo. On the way we did have a pit stop in a little town called Tirau. During our tour around the USA in 2007 / 2008 Mark had got attached to roadside attractions like 80 foot high Holstein cows and 40 foot long otters. These tended to be the creation of desperate individuals trying to attract tourists to remote and desolate locations, primarily in the mid-western States. Well in Tirau some local chap had similar intentions, this time using corrugated steel and paint. We were drawn to 2 large building, one shaped like a sheep and another like a dog. Much to our delight the corrugated steel dog housed an ice cream store and we treated ourselves to wonderfully creamy honey and fig ice cream.
Fortified we continued our journey arriving about teatime at the Youth Hostel in Taupo. After a quick trip to the shops we set about concocting our dinner. The facilities were very basic and to make matters worst the hostellers had not be very diligent in cleaning up after themselves, much to Karen’s disgust. Anyway we survived the ordeal with out contracting salmonella and took ourselves to bed. Our room was toasty warm so despite our tiredness we struggled to get to sleep and had a fitful nights rest.
Wednesday March 2nd
I had booked us onto an early morning kayak trip on Lake Taupo. We rose early munched our breakfast and set-off to our 8.00 am rendezvous point outside the information office. The arrangements had been made at the last minute online and meet up details were at best sketchy and to make matters worst there were actually two information offices on the road were told to go to. We split ourselves up and waited and a few minutes later than scheduled our tour guide turned up in a van pulling a trailer with kayaks already loaded. Sorted! At least we thought we were the only problem was that he was expecting one person and the one person was none of the Hobbs family. Mark was supposed to have confirmed the booking the day before. What could have been a disaster turned out okay as the guide was a typically laid back Kiwi. We hopped on the bus with the one real customer, an Australian lady called Robin, who was visiting with her husband Michael. He was chilling out back at their hotel, preparing himself for the upcoming New Zealand Iron Man event taking place in Taupo a couple of days later (more on that later). A quick detour back to office later, for some more kit and we were ready for the off.
Our vessels were double sea kayaks. We had been in kayaks a few times before but never in sea kayaks with the rubber splash skirts, which look incredibly silly until you are actually ensconced in your kayaks. Lake Taupo is the largest lake in Oceania and is actually an active volcanic caldera. We asked the guide how likely it was to explode and he said not very and if it did we’d probably be the first people to reach orbit in a kayak – now that would be a claim to fame. Sadly the weather was not playing ball completely, it was cloudy and there was a bit of a wind blowing. With a lake of this size the waves can get to be a challenge, hence the splash skirts, but today it was not a real problem, although it was hard work paddling into the wind. Our total planned journey time was 3 hours – which is a long time if you’re not used to paddling for that length of time. Karen paired up in one kayak with Jack whilst Emily joined Mark. As it turned out Emily was more of a passenger so Mark had a tough time with the paddling. The goal of our journey was to travel our to some Moari carvings on some cliffs beside the lake. After about an hour or so after we reach the carvings which are spectacular but we are surprised and somewhat saddened to hear that the carvings were only 31 years old but as our guide pointed out in 500 years time they will be ancient. Still they were great to see and we enjoyed hearing the truly ancient stories depicted by the carvings. We pulled into a beach a little further down lake shoreline to enjoy some cakes and hot drinks, with our first taste of Milo, a New Zealand form of hot chocolate. It was then time to set-off back. The wind seemed to have turned around and we spent most of our time paddling into it during our return journey, but finally we rounded a promontory and headed back to shore.
We head back to the hostel for a bit of lunch, after which Jack and Emily play outdoor table tennis whilst Mark and Karen catch a few z’s.
Later in the afternoon we head back into Taupo which is only a short walk from the hostel. As we previously mentioned Taupo was hosting the New Zealand Iron Man event a few days after we were planning to leave town. This is a big event with over 1500 competitors from around the world. There are 3 disciplines in the Iron Man event; a 3.2km swim, a 180km cycle and 42km run all done consecutively. The top athletes complete their disciplines in around 8 hours. They must be bonkers! There is an official exhibition centre set aside for the event, with displays of bicycles, neoprene clothing and really expensive shoes amongst other things. It was great fun to look at the “cool” high performance gear. We decided to get into training to a1/10th Iron Man event!
Thursday 3rd March – Lake Taupo to Rotorua (40 Miles)
We woke to a gloriously sunny day in Taupo and decided to head out early to make the most of the day. The plan was to make our way to Rotorua, some 40 miles away, where we would be stopping 2 nights. During our stay in Taupo we had picked up leaflets about a place called Orakei Karoko, or the Hidden Valley. This place is a bit off the beaten track (as hidden valleys usually are) and apparently had some interesting geothermal features. During our previous travels we had been to some volcanically active places such as Iceland, Yellowstone Park and Hawaii so we had good idea what to expect as far as geothermal things go. What we did find was something very special.
The good thing about arriving early was that we had the place to ourselves. There is a circular path that takes you past an array of limestone terraces, hot springs, geysers and fumerols. The visitor centre sits on the opposite side of a very pretty lake from the trail and in the early morning sun we had a spectacular display of rising steam coming from numerous places in the dense vegetation across from us. From the visitor centre there is a boat which ferried us across to the trail head. We headed up the trail which took us past some fast bubbling hot springs and a glorious limestone terrace. The forest rose around us made up of an assortment of trees, including some primordial looking tree ferns. We would not have been surprised to see a tyrannosaurus rex come crashing through the undergrowth towards us. It was a magical place to be on that sunny morning and we really enjoyed meandering our way along the trail.
Sadly we had to leave the Hidden Valley and continue our journey on to Rotorua which we reached around lunch time. It was still a lovely day and the weather in these parts can be somewhat changeable so we pulled forward our plans from the following day to visit one of the local Maori cultural centres that pepper Rotorua. We chose the most renown cultural centre, Te Puia.
Our first port of call was to watch a performance of Maori songs and dances. Our group gathered underneath a shelter where we were met by a jolly lady dressed in traditional costume. She explained the ritual of what was about to happen, and from amongst us a chief was chosen to represent our tribe. Once these formalities had been completed a group of Maori warriors appeared from their meeting house and their chief came forward and conducted a ritual which was used to determine whether we had come in peace or were there to have a bit of a rumpus with them. They looked pretty scary and we were armed with nothing more dangerous than cameras, so we sensibly chose the peace option. Once we were all friends they invited us into the meeting house where our “chief” did the formal greeting with all the Maori warriors, touching of the nose twice over. Now it was party time and we were given a wonderful performance of traditional Maori songs and dances, ranging from love songs to the famous Haka war dance. Those Maori warriors look very frightening when they stick our their tongues and give you the open eyed stare – we were not tempted to laugh at them however silly they looked.
After the cultural performance we joined a guided tour of the rest of Te Puia. Our first destination was the Whakawarewatanga thermal reserve. ‘ Whararewarew’ is an abbreviated version of Te Whakarewarewatanga O Te Ope Taua A Wahiao, meaning ‘The uprising of the warriors (war party) of Wahiao’, often shortened simply to ‘Whaka’ by the locals. Like Lake Taupo, Rotorua is essentially in the centre of a giant volcanic caldera. Whilst this presents an element of danger from eruptions and earthquakes, it also provides a wonderful source of hot water and heat, which the Maoris throughout their history have take full advantage of. In the area is the spectacular Pohutu Geyser (meaning “big splash” in Maori) which erupts every hour, firing torrents of water and steam up to 30 metres in the air. These eruptions can last up to 10 to 15 minutes. There are some 500 hot pools and 65 geyser vents in the Whaka reserve and as with all thermal areas these can change overnight as the ground below is moving and continually reorganising its plumbing system. A short distance from the Pohutu Geyser us a particularly active bubbling mud pot, which over the years gas grown to be about 30 metres in diameter and is now threatening to consume the adjoining hotel complex.
It was soon time to move on and we walked through the Kiwi house (more on Kiwis later) and onto the carving and weaving schools. Sadly, over several generations, as in numerous native populations throughout the world, many traditional Maori skills have been lost under the pressure of burgeoning western influences. In an attempt to save the important heritage crafts and skills several schools have been established across New Zealand to try and preserve these aspects of Maori culture. The Maoris are tribal nation and as a consequence different tribes have their own stories to tell through their arts and crafts. Carving, or Whakairo in Maori, was more than just decorative because it provides a written record of Maori history and folklore. Te Puia’s Te Wananga Whakairo or carving school runs three courses teaching these skills.
After checking out of Te Puia we checked into the hostel in Rotorua. This hostel is quite big and is modern, and somewhat characterless. The rooms were very steamy and the weather was not even that warm! Anyway we quickly ate our dinner and set-out for the night market just a couple of blocks away. We wish we hadn’t eaten at the hostel as there were some yummy foods to be had, but we settled for an ice cream and took a walk down to the lake. It was getting chilling by this time and we were dressed for the warmth of the day so we soon turned around and headed back for our all too toasty room at the hostel.
Friday 4th March – Rotorua
When we got up this morning the weather looked less than promising! It had rained overnight and the sky was grey and threatened more of the wet stuff. We grabbed some breakfast and it was still day so we decided to head out to the near by Whakarenwarewa Forest, where there was reportedly a Redwood grove. We were not disappointed as the rumours proved to be true. The redwoods are not natural to New Zealand, in fact these are imported Californian Coastal Redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens). This particular grove was planted in 1901 as an experiment to provide a local source of timber. Unfortunately, the redwood trees grow quickly in the New Zealand climate which results in large cores of soft, brittle, low density wood – making them useless for lumber. The lumber man’s loss was our gain as we took a long walk through these magnificent trees. The shade provided by these giants has provided ideal conditions for large fern trees to thrive and the combination of the redwoods, tree ferns and misty dampness of the day created a primordial atmosphere. After a bit of debate on whether we took the 30 minute or 90 minute walk – Emily lost the vote – and we ended up taking the longer walk. The final part of the trail took us through the Redwoods, but from there we climbed upwards through more native vegetation. Whilst it was overcast it was hot and humid and we soon worked up quite a sweat, but the view through the openings at the top of the hill made it all worth while. The good thing was the second half of the walk was down hill!
The weather stubbornly refused to improve, in fact it deteriorated further! After our trek through the forest we decided to head out to Rainbow Springs Kiwi Wildlife Park, to find out more about Kiwis. This park is small but perfectly formed and we decided to upgrade our entry fee to include a guided tour of the Kiwi enclosures. The Kiwi is a strange creature, although it is considered to be a bird it has quite a few features that are more mammalian in nature. Whilst it has feathers and a beak, the rest of its features are more akin to an animal. The beak is flexible and is actually an extension of its skull. The beak is poked into the ground and is used to ferret out bugs which is the staple of its diet. Another unusual features of the Kiwi are:
- It body temperature is the same as mammals
- It has heavy bones filled with marrow (they are never going to fly!).
The Kiwi is about the size of large chicken. They mate for life and have one of the largest egg to body weight ratios of any bird; the egg averages 15% of the females body weight (compared to 2% for the ostrich). Enough to make your eyes water!
Before the arrival of man, birds had the run of New Zealand. The only animals around were bats. With no need to fly away from danger a number of birds decided to hug the ground and became flightless, and with no predators they flourished. The largest of these birds was the Moa which reached a whopping 3.7m (12ft) in height. Sadly, these birds were hunted into extinction by the Maori. The arrival of man also bought mammals. The rabbit was introduced as a food source, and they bred at an astronomical rate and there were no predators to keep the population in check and so they soon became a pest. To counter this pestilence the stoat and weasel were introduced which helped control the rabbits but they blighted the native bird population. At one time the kiwi population would have numbered tens of millions, now they are an endangered species.
Luckily centres like Rainbow Springs have been established to try and help out the ailing kiwis. The Centre’s staff go out into the wild and collect the eggs, bring them back and incubate them. Once the chicks are hatched they are kept in the sanctuary for 18 months before being released back into the wild. This eliminates the danger period in the wild of egg to hatchling.
Our tour took us into the hatcheries where we were shown the eggs being processed and incubated. Then we were taken to the viewing area. Kiwis are nocturnal so the lighting was dimmed, but we did get to see a couple of these amazing birds scuttling around looking for food. We immediately fell in love with the kiwi!
Whilst Rainbow Springs is focused on kiwis it does have beautiful grounds and host of other creatures; from native birds to domesticated animals to see. The weather was still not playing ball, so whilst we walked around the heavens opened and we got thoroughly soaked. This did nothing to dampen our enthusiasm to explore the park.
After exploring everywhere, including the splendid gift shop, we headed back to the hostel to dry out. Jack and Emily decided to hang back at the hostel, which gave myself and Karen some grown up time – which we used to spend at the Polynesian Spa, one of the many hot springs around Rotorua. Whilst the weather continued to be crappy it was still very nice to spend sometime chilling out in the hot pools.
Our final mission of the day was to return to Rainbow Springs after dark. Some kiwis were put out into enclosures with shin high fences; they can’t fly or even jump, so they there was no danger of them escaping. We were able to get up close to observe these plump and cuddly birds, further cementing our love affair with them.
Saturday 5th March – Rotorua to the Coromandel Penisula (127 Miles)
Today we left Roturua and headed north to spend some time in the Corimandel Peninsula before heading to Auckland and then on to the South Island. The Coromandel is a beautiful area of rolling hills and stunning beaches. Sadly, the rain from the day before continued to plague us; in fact we had a steady downpour all day long. Our destination for the night was the youth hostel at Opoutere. After a soggy trip it was a relief to reach the hostel which is a fantastic setting, which even the miserable weather could not dampen. We are not people who are put off by a bit of moist weather, we dropped our bags off and headed northwards to Hot Water Beach.
Hot Water Beach is an interesting place. There are two hot water springs rising from the ground from below the sands of the beach. At low tide you are able to go on to the beach and dig holes which will fill with piping hot water. A natural hot spa! Either side of low tide you will find a host of people making their way along the beach with shovels. Whilst Karen had packed the kitchen sink for our trip she had neglected to pack a shovel. Our timing was not great as the tide was coming in and covering the prime spots for digging, so we were only able to dig shallow holes with our hands to warm our feet. The water was far too hot for bare skin and were only able to bear the heat for a few seconds. Jack and Emily soon lost interest in this natural phenomenon and instead wanted to play in the powerful waves that were pounding the beach. This area has a bad reputation for rip tides so we had to settle for paddling in the waters, but it was a great way to end what had been a frustrating day.
All too soon we had to head back to the Youth Hostel. We set about making dinner during which time Karen, as is her way, started chatting to our fellow guests. They were mostly fellow Brits and all had connection with High Wycombe, which is where Emily had been born. So the evening had been great fun, with everyone exchanging stories about our travels. This is what Youth Hosteling is all about.
Sunday 6th March – Opoutere to Auckland (160 Miles)
Today was a low drive day around the top of the Coromandel Peninsula to Auckland to catch a flight to Queensland. We had an early start, but luckily the weather was clearing but far from perfect, so there were not many photo opportunities on the way. We decided to get our heads down and cover the distance as quickly as possible with the occasional stop as it took our fancy. As we neared Auckland we came through the quaint village of Clevedon, which has a vibrant arts and crafts scene. Luckily for us it was one of two Sundays in each month where they have a craft market in the village hall. Traveling as we were we couldn’t really buy much in the way of crafts, but they did have a snack bar with lots of homemade goodies for purchase. We gorged ourselves on sausage rolls, quiche and some delicious cakes. Unfortunately, on Karen’s piece of cake she found some mold on the bottom!
We got to Auckland in plenty of time for our flight to Queenstown. I was very excited to find out that our aircraft was one of the first in the world to be equipped for mobile phone use. Whilst I would have loved to try it out I was put off by the prohibitive price. Also, I am not sure I would like people talking away on their phones on a flight – so I would boycott this anyway!
After an hour and a half we touched down in Queenstown. The town is located in a valley surrounded by some very impressive mountains, which made our approach to the airport somewhat nerve wracking. The car rental desk at the airport had closed for the day (this is not a big International airport), so we had to walk to their depot. Fortunately it was not too far and the weather was great.
Queenstown itself is nestled on the shores of the crystal clear Lake Wakatipu, and is the adrenaline sports capital of the World. Here you can experience the whole range of extreme activities from skydiving to bungy jumping to heliskiing to canyon swinging … to name a few. When I booked the hostel it seemed a good idea as it was close to the town centre but I forgot to allow for the fact that the place is full of adrenaline junkies who not only play hard during the day but party hard in to the wee hours of the morning. Luckily we were only stopping the night. We quickly dropped our bags in our room, which was one of the more comfortable we had experienced on this trip, and headed out for some food. The staff in the hostel recommended Ferg Burger, which was only a short walk from the hostel. Ferg’s is an institution in Queenstown. It is a tiny store, with limited seating and only sells burgers, fries and drinks (including beer of course. Although it is a burger joint it is not fast-food! There is always a queue of people waiting outside from when it opens at 6:00 am until it closes at 5:00 am – it is apparently packed from opening until it closes. Ferg’s signature “dish” is the Big Al, which is made up of 1/2 pound of beef, stacks of bacon, cheese, 2 fried eggs, tomato, beetroot, red onions and lettuce. A sure route to a heart attack. Of course we had to try one of these. When our Big Al’s arrived they were the size of a small dinner plate and were so loaded they were collapsing under their own weight. Eating a Big Al’s elegantly is an impossibility and you need to have a shower afterwards to clean up.
We took our burgers and sat on a wall down by the lake to eat them. There was a lot things going on to amuse us while we ate our Big Als, including a concert in the park which was being staged to raise funds for the victims of the recent earthquake that had hit Christchurch.
Monday 7th March – Queenstown to Te Anau (88 miles)
Not being thrill seekers , our stay in Queenstown had been only a stopover. We rose early to head south to our next destination, the town of Te Anau. It was a glorious morning with just a few bubbly clouds in an otherwise deep blue sky. Before heading out we made a stop at the car rental store to exchange out our car for something a bit larger – so much for traveling light! Anyway, after a short delay we were soon on the road. The scenery in the South Island of New Zealand is stunning, whilst somewhat similar to Scotland and the Lake District back in England, it had is own characteristics that made it very special. We made several stops en route including a picnic lunch on the banks of Lake Wakapitu at a point where several stream fed into it.
After lunch we carried on further south leaving behind the lakes and imposing mountains to a terrain of rolling green hills and farmland, but nonetheless pretty. It took quite some time to cover the near 90 miles to Te Anau (which was only about 40 as the crow flies from Queenstown!). We arrived mid afternoon and are instantly in awe of the amazing setting of this small town. Te Anau sits on the banks of the largest lake in the South Island. On the opposite bank rose the imposing mountains that form the Fjordland National Park. Eager to find out more we dropped our bags at the hostel and walked into town to go to the visitor centre. The area is reputedly the hiking (or tramping as the New Zealanders call it) capital of the World, with numerous multi-day journeys into the surrounding wilderness. Sadly, in our short time in Te Anau we did not have the time to “tramp”, so we had to settle for watching the videos in the visitor centre.
Although we had reached Te Anau at the end of the day we had an evening adventure planned, an evening trip the glow worm caves. The journey started with a 40 minute boat ride across the lake. It was a little chilly but we were warmed by the scathing humour of the boat’s captain and the glorious view of the mountains in the failing daylight. After disembarking our vessel we took the short walk to the Visitor Centre, where we were split up into smaller groups. Whilst some groups headed off to the caves we hung back to get the talk on the geography of the caves and the biology of the glow worms!
Glow worms aren’t a finished product in terms of their life cycle. They are actually the larval stage of a winged insect much like the fungus gnat (sounds delightful, eh!). The glow worms themselves are about the size of a match stick, and they stay in that form for about 6 to 12 months, depending on food. Whilst glow worms sound like they should be cute and cuddly they are voracious carnivores.
They spin a nest out of silk on the ceiling of the cave and then hang down as many as 70 threads of silk (called snares) from around the nest, each up to 30 or 40 cm long and holding droplets of mucus. The worms glow to attract prey into its threads, perhaps luring them into believing they are outdoors, for the roof of a cave covered with larva can look remarkably like a starry sky at night. A hungry worm glows brighter than one which has just eaten. When prey is caught by a line the glow worm pulls it up (at up to about 2 millimetres a second) and feeds. If prey is scarce the larvae will turn to cannibalism, eating other larvae, pupae or adult flies. Not so cute or cuddly! The glow is the result of a chemical reaction that involves a waste product, in other words glow worm poo, and an enzyme. The glow emanates from a small area at the end of its abdomen.
At the end of the larva stage the glow worm becomes a pupa, hanging down from the roof of the cave. The pupa stage lasts about 1 or 2 weeks and it glows intermittently. The male stops glowing a few days before emerging, the female’s glow increases. The glow from the female is believed to be to attract a mate, and males may be waiting there when she emerges. The adults (of both sexes) cannot feed, and live only a short time. Adult insects are poor fliers and so will often remain in the same area, building a colony of glow worms. The female lays a total of about 130 eggs, in clumps of 40 or 50, and dies soon after laying. The eggs hatch after about 20 days and the cycle repeats. Doesn’t seem much of a life!
Enough of the biology lesson! It was soon time for our tour. After a few steps from the Visitor Centre we were at the mouth of the cave. The entrance was most definitely not built for Mark who almost had to bend double to get inside. Fortunately after a few feet the roof of the cave rose so we could all stand comfortably. The cave itself is relatively new in geologic terms so there are not many of the features you might look for in older caverns, in particular stalactites and stalagmites. What it does have is a very powerful stream of fast flowing water, the noise of which is almost deafening inside the cave. Crossing a bridge over the tumultuous water we look down to see a 4 foot long eel quite peacefully hanging around in the water, this is not what you expect to find deep inside a cave. We walked a few yards further, where we came upon a gushing waterfall with a scary looking whirlpool at its base. This was definitely not a place to fall in. Luckily there were some sturdy railings preventing this from happening. The next stage of our journey required us to climb into a somewhat rickety boat. The stream had been dammed at this point so it was not fast flowing so there was no danger of us being flushed over the waterfall. This boat was powered by our guide who used the ropes attached on the walls to navigate us along the narrow channel. This was to be the highlight of the tour. At this point they turned off the lights and you could literally not see your hands in front of your face, but the scene around us was not gloomy because above our heads, only inches away, was an amazing display of light from the resident glow worms. Because they are territorial the spacing between the lights was surprisingly even. It was astounding and we soon forgot the scary darkness around us. It was like looking up at a constellation of blue stars. Our journey took us to the end of the navigable cave and back, and we soon lost all sense of direction, which was little disconcerting. As splendid as the display was it was reassuring to reach the dock and have the lights turned back on!
This was the end of our tour and we sadly made our way back to our boat. Despite being early fall it was a chilly night and as the boat powered its way back to port, sitting up on deck was like being in force nine gale in the North Sea. Despite the cold we braved the upper deck as it was such a beautiful, clear night. Karen and Jack were looking for the Southern Lights …but they never showed!
Tuesday 8th March–Milford Sound (75 Miles)
Sadly the clear weather of the previous day didn’t make it into the next day, as we woke to a grey, cloud heavy morning. We had hoped for better as today we were making the 75 mile drive up to the spectacular Milford Sound. The ride itself is worthy of the journey. We journeyed north tracking the Southern Alps, passing through wide glacial valleys. Despite the not so good weather we made frequent stops along the way to take pictures of mirrored lakes and ice-carved landscapes. The road steadily climbs into the mountains, which offers spectacular views of glacier topped mountains. Luckily the weather had started to improve so we were able to enjoy the unfolding scenery around us. These mountains present an impenetrable barrier, but some intrepid Kiwis decided to make a tunnel through them. It seemed they miscalculated the challenge of the exercise but eventually blew and hacked their way through creating the Homer tunnel, the gateway to Milford Sound.
Shortly before reaching Milford we pulled off the road at a stop simply named the Chasm. Not knowing exactly what this was we had little in the way of expectations. We took the 20 minute scenic walk through the dense forest, our peace only being interrupted by a noisy and somewhat disheveled tour group. Crossing a wooden foot bridge we suddenly came across the Chasm. This is an example of the beauty that can created by the powers of erosion. Spectacular!
Eventually we reached Milford, which is very much the end of the road. Never ones to miss a boat (apart from our honeymoon trip to Ireland) we were of course early and waited for our call to board. By now the weather had started to improve significantly, and by the time boarding had started the sun was beginning to shine brightly through the breaking cloud cover. We were very fortunate, as with a mean annual rainfall of 6,813mm on 182 days a year Milford Sound is known as the wettest inhabited place in New Zealand and one of the wettest in the world. Rainfall can reach 250 mm during a span of 24 hours. The rainfall creates dozens of temporary waterfalls (as well as a number of major, more permanent ones) cascading down the cliff faces, some reaching a thousand metres in length.
Mark had chosen a boat tour which included lunch, so as soon as we climbed onto the boat we joined a queue for the buffet lunch, which turned out to be excellent. But we did miss the early part of our journey whilst we ate on a table with not such a good view!
Milford Sound is a fjord within Fiordland National Park and the Te Wahipounamu World Heritage site. It has been judged the world’s top travel destination in an international survey and is acclaimed as New Zealand’s most famous tourist destination. Rudyard Kipling called it the eighth Wonder of the World. Having not seen the 7th others it is difficult to argue with his claim! But it is certainly spectacular. The sound is surrounded by sheer rock faces that rise 1,200metres or more on either side. Among the peaks are Mitre Peak which rises 1,692 metres above the sound, the Elephant at 1,517metres, said to resemble an elephant’s head and The Lion, 1,302 metres, in the shape of a crouching lion. On the sides of these imposing peaks lush rain forests cling precariously, punctuated by spectacular water falls. Milford Sound itself is only 14 km in length and opens out onto the Tasman Sea.
After about 30 minutes of traveling our beady eyed captain spots a pod of dolphins and we pulled across to join them. Emily was in heaven as 10 or more dolphins ducked and dived around our boat in the glimmering waters of the sound –by this time the clouds had left us and we were bathed in sunlight. A rare occurrence in these parts!
Sadly we had to move on and the boat traveled down to the point where the sound opens out into the Tasman Sea, which is one of the wildest areas of open-ocean in the world. If we carried on our journey west for a day or two we’d eventually hit Australia. Although the sea looked calm today our mission was not trans-ocean so our captain turned us around back to the safety of the Sound. Although we have been referring to Milford Sound as a sound, it is actually a fjord. Sounds are actually formed by the sea flooding a river carved valley, whereas fjords are valleys cut by glaciers which are then filled by the sea. Milford was formed by glacial carving! It was also the last of the great fjords of Fjordland to be discovered, by Captain John Grono around 1812. Previous explorers like James Cook had missed it on their travels due to the disguise of the narrow opening in the surrounding mountains.
Our return journey down Milford Sound was even more fun than the outbound journey. Firstly we sailed past Seal Rock, which is a more or less guaranteed place to see seals basking in the sun. On this day there was not a lot of action but we still had the chance to spot a couple of young seals hanging out. The seals here are typically young males who have been evicted by the aggressive dominant males from the main seal colony a bit further along the coast. Next stop was the ever spectacular Stirling Falls which cascade 189 metres down the sheer cliff faces. Our tour boat nudged within a few feet of the falls, enabling those who were looking for a good soaking to get to the prow. As we pulled away from Stirling Falls we were once again greeted by our friends the dolphins who enthralled the passengers with their underwater ballet.
The last stop on our tour was Milford Deep Underwater Observatory which is nestled in Harrison Cove, beneath Pembroke Glacier.We disembarked our boat onto the floating observatory. There were a host of interesting displays telling stories of exploration and the geologic formation of Fjordland. Whilst these were informative the main reason for our visit was to see what was going on below the surface of the Sound.
Overlaying the sea water in the fjord is a layer of fresh water, the result of high annual rainfall in Fjordland. This, combined with the narrow shape of the fjord, causes a phenomenon known as deep water emergence where light is not allowed to penetrate past the fresh water. This creates a similar environment to the deep ocean at a much shallower depth, allowing visitors the chance to see deep sea species close up together with some wonderful examples of coral unique to this environment.
We descended 10.4 metres into the large, air conditioned underwater viewing chamber where we were able to observe the intimate and undisturbed life of this vibrant underwater community.
Sadly all good things have to come to an end and after glorious hours we returned to port and began our journey back to Te Anau.
Wednesday 9th March– Return to Queenstown
It was time to travel back from Te Anau to Queenstown for our return flight to Auckland. The weather had decided to reflect our dark mood, the sun hidden behind a thick blanket of cloud. It wasn’t the best conditions for sightseeing so we decided to hurry back to Queenstown and hunker down for the night – our only stop being a small roadside café. A regular homage to coffee is one of many bad habits we have picked from our moving to the USA (truth be known we never missed the chance to stop at a tea room in the UK either!).
We arrived back at the Youth Hostel, a different one from our previous stay. This hostel was out on the lake shore and away from noisy area of the town. We hoped for a good night sleep but Jack and Emily were determined to try out the waters of Lake Wakatipu. It was not clear what they expected from a lake fed from mountain streams and snow melt, except for it to be frigid. Needless to say their adventure was brief and we soon retreated to the warmth of our hostel room.
Our imagination had been sucked from us over the last week or so –so when it came to making that all important decision about eating we fell back on a trusted and known quantity … Ferg Burgers. If nothing else it leaves you with a full tummy.
Thursday 10th March – Auckland
This was to be our last full day in New Zealand, and time to say au revoir to the South Island and return to Auckland, which involved a short and uneventful flight!
It was somewhat misty and overcast on our return North – but we still wanted to make the most of time left here. Picking up our rental car we headed to the north shore to meet up with Andrew and Margret at the Arataki Visitor Centre which is the gateway to the Waitakere Ranges Regional Park, a 4000 acre area of pristine rain forest. When we arrived it was true rain forest weather, humid and sticky with some good old precipitation thrown in. To escape the rain drops we beat a retreat to the visitor centre which had some interesting displays on the flora and fauna of the area, as well as local Maori culture.
The great thing about New Zealand weather is that it can change quickly and soon large areas of blue sky began to appear about us. So immediately our thoughts turned from rain forest to beach. Not too far away was Piha beach, a beautiful spot but also known for being a dangerous place to swim or surf. As we drew closer the weather continued to improve and what had started as a “Manchester” day became a warm, late summer beauty. This area is also popular with film makers. The video for Shania Twain’s single “Forever and for Always”, was filmed on neighbouring Bethells beach, as was the movie “The Man Who Lost His Head”, and episodes of the U.S. TV series Xena: Warrior Princess. In fact fans (and yes there are some) of the buxom and feisty warrior princess continue to pilgrimage here to this day.
Piha is less famous amongst the tacky TV series groupies but is a wonderful place to visit. The curving beach is split by a large rock which promised great vistas across the area and by chance had a reasonably easy path to climb to its summit. No more invitation needed the, Hobbs and Marriot families made their assent and we were not disappointed by the spectacular views.
We made our descent and were positively hot whilst we got to the bottom. Of course this made the lure of the water irresistible and despite instructions not to get wet – Emily true to her nature managed to get soaked crossing one of the streams crossing the beach. Luckily we had some spare clothes in the car for her to change into. What a girl!
Friday 11th March – The Last Day
Oh my, our last day in New Zealand. We were sad to be leaving this beautiful country, but we left it with many fond memories of friends and spectacular scenery.
Our flights were scheduled for the afternoon so we did have a few hours for some final site seeing on the way to the airport. We decided to do a final, deep dive in New Zealand arts and culture by visiting the Auckland Museum. We had low expectations be we were pleasantly surprised at the range of quality of the exhibits here.
On the ground floor were he roots and evolution of Maori culture. There was a significant collection of Maori and Polynesian artifacts from weaponry through clothing to cooking utensils. As well as the small artifacts there were some humungous ones in the forms of traditional houses and war canoes. Jack as usual was attracted to the array of fearsome and often ornate clubs and spears that the ferocious Maori warriors bludgeoned each other and visiting colonists to death with.
The themes on the first floor moved from civilisation to the natural history of New Zealand. The exhibits are really well done and we particularly enjoyed the rich displays on volcanoes. Auckland is one of very few cities in the world to be built on an active volcanic field, with a major eruption every few thousand years. The last eruption in Auckland produced Rangitoto some 600 years ago.
One of the exhibits is set in the lounge of 7A Puia St, St Heliers and you get to view a terrifying new eruption in Auckland harbour through the home’s patio doors-supplemented by breaking news bulletins provided by a local news team.
We moved on to the top floor where the theme was all about New Zealand’s involvement in wars from the mid-1800s to the present day. The scene was set with a reproduction of an Auckland street in 1866. Following this we passed through a series of galleries moving us from the New Zealand Wars of the 1840s and 1860s and the Anglo-Boer War of 1899 to 1902 through the two World Wars to modern day conflicts. The New Zealand Wars were essentially a civil war and they have an ongoing impact on New Zealand society today. The Anglo-Boer War fought in South Africa is examined for the relationship between New Zealand and the British Empire at the turn of the century. In fact, the war was seen as one of the first steps towards New Zealand assuming her own sense of identity as a nation. In addition to the exhibits and galleries depicting wars there are also galleries remembering those Kiwis who died for their country during the two World Wars. New Zealand sent more men to fight in World War I, per head of population, than any other nation. 18,166 New Zealanders died from a country of only one million. This was a sombre but powerful way to complete our visit to the Auckland Museum.
With a bit time still left we got as close as possible to the airport before finding somewhere to hang out for the final couple of hours. Purely by chance we stumbled across Butterfly Creek, a small but perfectly formed butterfly sanctuary and petting zoo. Jack and Emily are really on the cusp of being a little too old for these type of places –but amazingly it turned out to be the perfect way to end our trip to New Zealand.
Now all that was left to do was travel the few miles to Auckland Airport, return our rental car and wait for our 12 hour flight back to San Francisco. The flight itself was uneventful but as we landed we heard the sad news of an 8.9-magnitude earthquake off the east coast of Japan. The quake was one of the largest in recorded history triggering a 23-foot tsunami and killing thousands of people.
One of the interesting things about flying back across the International Date Line is that we arrived back in San Francisco before we left Auckland (well not quite time travel). Although exhausted, Mark decided to make the eight hour drive back up to Ashland, Oregon where we planned to spend the next day catching up with friends before heading home to Bend.