Sunday 11 April 2010

Ka mate, ka mate! ka ora! ka ora!

So, North Island.

When planning our trip, we deliberately decided to spend the majority of the 30 days we were spending in New Zealand on South Island. This necessarily meant that our trip around the North Island was always going to be something of a whistle-stop tour. Hell, you can’t do it all in one trip anyway, so we’ll just have to come back, right?

The ferry journey to the North Island actually takes you not one degree further North on the map, taking you across the Cook Straights to Wellington, or Wellywood, if you are one of those people who believe that Peter Jackson and the Lord of the Rings films make this town a serious rival to Hollywood... they’re talking of putting up a sign and everything, although as one of the other suggestions is to put up those giant statues guarding the river in the LOTR films, perhaps this is simply the lesser of several evils....

This is New Zealand’s capital city, and it’s a nice town. Compared with some of the towns we’ve been in on South Island – Christchurch, Dunedin and the like – Wellington feels like a veritable metropolis. Mind you, we’re there over Easter Weekend, and the big city impression is somewhat diluted by the fact that it proves next to impossible to buy a drink in the centre of town on Good Friday without buying a “substantial” meal.... licensing laws that we had in England something like twenty years ago. It would be quaint if I wasn’t gagging for a pint. Still, on the other side of the scale is that fact that it is in a pub here that I order one pint of Monteith’s newly released Autumn Ale, and the barmaid brings me two.... both free as “the first round is on us”. Now that’s only to be applauded, no?

The highlight of our time in Wellington is undoubtedly a trip to the shop where I can make my own button badges (“the humans are dead...”). Oh no, that’s not it. It’s Te Papa, the national museum of New Zealand and an absolute marvel. We visited the Otago museum in Dunedin, but this is something else. I don’t feel the need to visit the special exhibition on Pompeii, but we do spend a happy day on Easter Sunday browsing through their extensive exhibits on New Zealand’s flora and fauna, on the geological forces that formed the country (including an earthquake house where you can experience an earth tremor), on Maori history and culture, and on how the land has changed since the arrival of the first people on the islands. It is interactive, beautifully done and very, very interesting. We have a slightly unusual introduction to the museum by following an improvisational comedy duo as they take us on an hour long tour and avail us of several interesting facts..... did you know for example that the red deer first arrived in New Zealand in the feathers of the native wood pigeon, but that over time the pigeon has got smaller and the deer has got bigger? Me neither, but why’s that any more ridiculous than a flightless bird with whiskers that lays an egg six times larger than it should be?

From Wellington, we head north to Okahune. This is pretty clearly a skiing resort, but the reason we’re here is to have a look at the chain of three active volcanoes in the Tongariro national park. This landscape was Mordor in the LOTR films, and the perfect cone of Mt. Ngauruhoe was used by Peter Jackson as Mount Doom. It’s a pretty impressively bleak landscape, but unfortunately we’re not sticking around, and after a short walk to goggle at snow-capped Mt. Ruapehu, we head off to Lake Taupo to admire New Zealand’s largest lake (nice, but not nicer than some of the lakes in Fjordland). We were planning on spending the night here, but content ourselves with a look at the Huka falls at the head of the Waikato river and at the thermal landscape of the Craters of the Moon. The Huka falls are actually far more impressive than I had expected – it’s where the Waikato river flows out of Lake Taupo and is forced through a narrow channel of harder, volcanic rock... resulting in quite an impressive surge of white water. The Craters of the Moon are our first glimpse of the geo-thermal landscape that is the defining characteristic of the area: it’s a walk around a field where steam pours out of cracks in the earth and where mud pools bubble furiously. It’s something of a preview of our next stop: Rotorua.

Rotorua is, of course, famous for its hot springs (as well as being the birthplace of the current Northampton and England hooker, Dylan Hartley).... what I didn’t know is that this area is sacred to the Maori and that 35% of the population of the town is Maori. We have a wallow in some hot pools, and marvel at the general stench of rotten eggs that hangs over the town, but by far the best and most interesting thing we do in town is to visit Te Puia, home of the Maori arts and crafts institute. They have a couple of great geysers here, and the usual steaming cracks in the earth, but they also have some really interesting cultural exhibits and performances. Unfortunately, the photos of my haka face haven’t come out very well, so you won’t be able to marvel at my performance with the locals, but you’ll just have to take my word for it that I was indeed most frightening to behold.... We also see some Kiwi in a special enclosure.  If the souvenir shops are anything to go by, it looks as though NZ is preparing for the extinction of their most famous bird by lining up the Pukekko as a likely successor..... well, let's hope it doesn't come to that.  They are ridiculous creatures, but they are also remarkable and actually quite cute, and it's a real thrill to finally see some, even if only in a shelter as part of a breeding program.

We head north towards Auckland, surviving a minor bingle when some bogan rams into the back of our van as we slowed down in traffic. The bank holiday traffic is awful, but as more than 25% of the whole country’s population lives in the city, perhaps that was predictable. We stop for the night outside the city and then pass through early next day on our way up to Whangarei. We’re not here to sightsee though, we’re here to dive..... just up from Whangarei is Tutukaka and the Poor Knights Islands, rated by Cousteau as the best sub-tropical diving in the world. Well, I don’t know about that, but I do know that we spend a day in this beautiful marine reserve, marvelling at the caves and arches of the islands and taking a couple of dives to explore the kelp forests some 15m below the surface. Not for the first time, and I hope not for the last, I’m really glad that we took the decision to learn how to dive. There’s something magical about floating through the underwater world and gazing at the marine life as it swims around you. Brilliant day. There are hundreds of dive sites around the Poor Knights, and we only see two of them. I’m sure you could spend a month just diving around here..... another reason to come back, I think.

By now, I’m really conscious that we’re racing around against the clock. The day after diving, we do a 600km round trip from Whangarei up to Cape Reinga and then back again, skirting our way around the Bay of Islands and missing out the Coromandel Region entirely... all worth at least a few days in their own right. Still, I was keen to see the meeting of the oceans that takes place at New Zealand’s northern tip. Sounds like a theoretical concept, right? But at Cape Reinga you absolutely can see the point where the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean, and it’s really very impressive indeed. The signpost here also reminds me quite how far from home we are. It’s a lovely spot and it seems to be set up as sensitively as possible to respect an area sacred to the Maori, but it’s swarming with bus loads of tourists and we decide to head back down the country almost as quickly as we arrived.

All that really remains is to return our van to Auckland and head off to San Francisco and then home, but as we’re now slightly ahead of schedule, we take a quick detour out to Whangarei Heads. We’re not here to sightsee, beautiful though it is (oil refinery aside!).... we’re here to buy chilli sauce. On our first night in the camper van, our next door neighbours --- heading off to Australia the next day – gave us some Streaker Chilli sauce as well as a few other bits and pieces. This sauce turned out to be absolutely magnificent: full of fire and smokey flavours. Although we looked, we couldn’t find it anywhere. As it happens, the address on the bottle was in Whangarei Heads, and as it was only a 60km detour, we drove out there and pulled up outside a house over the bay where we met the guy who makes the sauce and his two kids. He was thrilled and surprised that we’d made this little pilgrimage, but not half as thrilled as we were to be picking up some more of his sauce and the news that we could give him a ring and he would ship us more as we needed it to the UK. Brent – you’re a legend and your sauces are the business.

Auckland then. Well, I’d not heard a single good thing about this city since I’d been in New Zealand. Do you know what? I really like it. Some 30% of the population of the country lives here, and it really feels like proper, honest-to-goodness city. In comparison, even Wellington feels distinctly small town. There a shops, bars, restaurants, a nice un-showy harbour.... and the sun even comes out for us. I’m sure there are loads of really cool things to see around here, but to be honest, after the best part of a month, we’re just happy to have a proper bed and to potter about the shops.  This has been our third camper of the trip, and by now we're getting quite good at making ourselves comfortable with a dooner and all sorts.  Sure, a van this small isn't ideal when it's pouring with rain, but it's a hell of a lot easier to stay warm than it is to stay cool and we've had quite a cosy little nest in there and I was almost sad to be handing it back.  Almost.

As befits a country that is absolutely rugby mad, before we leave, we do manage to take in a Super XIV game between the Auckland Blues and the Cape Stormers at Eden Park.  The Blues lose, but Eden Park is going to be a venue for games at the 2011 Rugby World Cup, including the final itself.  As you might, expect, the ground is currently being extensively renovated, but it's still pretty cool to experience NZ's obsession at first hand.  After several World Cup disappointments since the first tournament here in 1987, the kiwis now have a distinct absence of humour about their rugby and approach it with deadly seriousness.  If they don't win next year, then I don't know how they'll react.... they're still talking about the referee of their 1/4 final defeat against the French in 2007.

In one of the best put-downs ever, a New Zealand Prime Minister once remarked that when a Kiwi emigrates from NZ to Australia, it raises the average IQ of both countries. Well, I don’t know about that, but I really, really liked New Zealand. Australia was great, but NZ is somehow on a much more human scale and has a much softer landscape. I’ve not been here long enough to do it anything like justice or to even do more than scratch the surface, but as I’ve started adding the word “eh” to the end of my sentences, it’s probably time to move on, eh?

Sweet as, bro.

So long and thanks for all the fish (and merino) Aotearoa. California here we come.

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