After a brief few days in Sydney following an action-packed week in America I found myself on board yet another flight, this time bound for Auckland on the north island of New Zealand for a month in the country that the natives call ‘Godzone’ i.e. ‘God’s own country’. Based on what I had heard from friends and relatives who have visited New Zealand I was expecting big things and, at time of writing, I am yet to be disappointed.
I was, however, told not to expect too much from Auckland and once again this advice proved accurate: The city struck me slightly as a poor man’s Sydney with inferior versions of the Harbour Bridge, Tower and ‘Star City’ casino, (the Kiwi version being called ‘Sky City’). Auckland is called home by around a quarter of the residents of New Zealand – around one million people – which means they are often referred to as ‘Jafas’ i.e. ‘Just Another Fucking Aucklander’. Charming.
I flew to New Zealand with my cousin Paul and his girlfriend Lou with the idea of travelling round some of the north island together in a car which we were to buy as soon as we got to Auckland. Lou went to stay with family on the second day so Paul and I set out to delve into the (very) used car market of Auckland. I have a pretty much flawless record of catastrophic car purchases so I was happy to let
Paul take the lead on this one and we soon found ourselves the new owners of a tasty little Subaru Legacy (subsequently and inexplicably to be called ‘Rod’ by Lou) with only 280,000 kilometres on the clock and only 300,000 dents and scrapes on the bodywork (a total which was later to be added to twice – once when I reversed into a picnic table and then again when an idiotic Maori drove into the back of us). Paul and I decided to celebrate the purchase with a marathon drinking session, a particularly reckless decision given that I was to be collected at 7AM the next morning for the start of a trip north of Auckland.
By luck rather than judgement, I awoke with fifteen minutes to spare the following morning and managed to get myself onto the bus in time but stupidly managed to leave four days worth of laundry in a bag in the hostel which subsequently ‘disappeared’; I suspect that the Nomads hostel in Auckland now has some particularly snappily dressed cleaners. Annoying but these things happen though.
The trip was a four day excursion to include the Bay of Islands, Ninety Mile Beach and Cape Reinga (the northern most point of New Zealand) and despite my phenomenal hangover, I was looking forward to seeing some of the country and escaping the urban sprawl of Auckland. Our driver / guide for the first part of the journey up to Paihia in the Bay of Islands introduced himself as ‘Metro’ which struck me as a slightly odd name but my fellow travellers soon informed me that all the tour bus drivers have unusual monikers – ‘Scratch’, ‘Handbrake’, ‘The Hoff’ and, my personal favourite, ‘Captain Planet’ were amongst other examples. Metro did provide some interesting commentary on the route up to the Bay of Islands though, albeit lifted directly from the Lonely Planet guidebook, but I did harbour some slight concerns about his geographical knowledge of that part of the island especially when, during one toilet stop, I asked him how much further it would be to our destination. “No idea” came the encouraging reply.
In fairness Metro managed to get us to Paihia intact although a quick scope round the town on my part revealed it to be a fairly standard tourist trap with the usual assortment of bars, restaurants and travel agents that normally fill these type of areas. Faced with such an uninspiring sight I did the only sensible thing and headed to the nearest bar with some new found friends from the bus. As a consequence, the following morning I was heading further north towards Cape Reinga on yet another bus with yet another hangover. My headache and feelings of nausea were soon forgotten once we headed into the countryside of Northland – which can probably be best described as the English countryside on acid and is reminiscent of the landscape of Greendale (home, of course, to Postman Pat).
The rest of the trip incorporated a drive along the spectacular, if erroneously named ninety mile beach (it is only actually forty miles long), some more sand-boarding (more successfully than my last
foray in Port Stephens – the key appears to be to lie face down on the board rather than sit on it) and a trip to Cape Reinga itself where the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean meet. All hugely scenic with the trip sound tracked by a running commentary from our enthusiastic and likeable bus driver (didn’t catch his name but I’m sure it would have been something ludicrous) who clearly took great pleasure in describing this often overlooked part of New Zealand; he was typical of the Kiwis though – probably the most genuinely friendly and welcoming nation of people I have come across.
Over a few beers the following evening I met a few more of my fellow-travellers including a few from the ‘Kiwi Experience’ tour – a company with something of an 18-30 style reputation. A notoriety that one of the guys by the name of Panda seemed determined to live up to by exposing himself on a fairly regular basis; it came as no real surprise that the next time I bumped into him, a few days later in Auckland, he was midway through a cat food eating contest.
A couple of days later I returned to Auckland to be reunited with Paul, Lou and Rod and we were also to be joined for a few days by a former colleague of mine from Sydney – the memorably named Penny Lane. After a traumatic exit from the city which was punctuated by repeatedly getting lost as well as some disturbing noises and smells emitting from Rod we headed south to our first stop, Corremandle Beach.
New Zealand is roughly the same size as the UK but has only one twelfth of the population and this difference is obvious as soon as you leave an urban area – you can drive for hours and only see two or three other vehicles; a far cry from the daily horrors of the M25 and it makes driving a truly enjoyable experience. Or at least it would have done if we weren’t living in constant fear of the car’s engine exploding.
We were due to be camping and Lou’s uncle had kindly lent us a tent, a decision which he probably now regrets as we managed to rip a hole in the fly sheet within minutes of removing it from its bag. As it turned out we only spent one night under canvas at that site – the following morning it looked like rain so, hardy campers that we are, we retreated to the more salubrious confines of a log cabin.
After a couple of relaxing days in Corremandle we departed for Hot Water Beach, so named because if you dig down a couple of feet in certain areas of the sand you can discover pools of water warmed by underground thermal activity. The Rough Guide did warn that the beach can be busy and that ‘altercations’ had occurred when people had become overly territorial about their holes; bearing that in mind we tooled up with a couple of rented spades and headed for the beach at low tide. What greeted us was something akin to Benidorm at its worst – hundreds of people crammed into a small area of the beach, some smugly sitting in their steaming pool, others digging desperately as close to the thermal area as possible. I can easily imagine how ‘altercations’ could occur – in peak season the beach probably resembles the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan. After skulking around this scene of chaos for a few minutes it became clear that we were not going to be able to get a spot in a prime location so we improvised and started digging a deeper than average hole a few feet from the main area. The plan, I’m sorry to report, was not successful and after digging down about four feet and spending ten minutes sitting in tepid water pretending to ourselves that it was getting warmer – during which time we were mockingly photographed by a group of tourists – we admitted defeat and retreated to our cabin to be consoled by a cheap box of wine.
The next day we headed to Rotorua – a town which you can smell long before you see it as it is the site of some major volcanic activity. This is obvious from the all-pervading Sulphur smell which, admittedly, you stop noticing fairly quickly and also by random plumes of smoke emerging from the ground and bubbling pools of mud dotted across the town. It’s a pleasant enough place to stay though with plenty of activities to keep you occupied including luging which I tried my hand at. Luging is basically a cross between go-karting and tobogganing whereby you career down a hill whilst simultaneously trying to crash into other people and knock them off the track. Or at least that’s the way that we did it anyway. Great fun.
Penny and I also visited the nearby ‘Thermal Wonderland’ of the Wai-o-Tapu volcanic park which featured a geyser which is primed to erupt each morning by dropping a bar of soap into it and
various other bubbling, steaming and (in a couple of cases) luminous-coloured lakes. Much of it was indeed spectacular but the whole park did have a slightly sterile, Disney-esque feel to it from the staged geyser eruption right through to the paved path which led around the entire area; this did detract slightly from the experience but it was still well worth a visit.
After Rotorua where we bid farewell to Penny Lane as she was heading to the south island, Paul, Lou and I headed to the enormous Lake Taupo which covers approximately 616 square kilometres and is overlooked in the distance by a huge snow-covered mountain – another stunning scene. New Zealand really is enormously pretty and, seeing as most people say that the North Island is the least attractive of the two, I could only wonder at what lay in store on the South Island.
The two days we spent in Taupo were marked by steadily rising temperatures which actually seemed to increase as the day went on, not that I was complaining – the weather in Sydney before I left had been less than pleasing and there is actually a cyclone predicted for when I return just before Christmas which could make camping an interesting and potentially airborne experience.
Our next stop of was at the hilariously named Whakupapa, admittedly this is only hilarious if you are aware that the correct Maori pronunciation is ‘Fuckapapa’ which caused no end of amusement for us as you can imagine, particularly when it was repeatedly mentioned by an elderly lady. Whakupapa was to be our base for the feared Tongaririo Alpine Crossing and when I say ‘feared’ I should clarify that it was mainly feared by me due to my aversion to any strenuous physical activity. The crossing is a relatively challenging 19KM hike across Mount Tongariro and, despite the fact that it was about twenty five degrees by 8AM and I
felt like I lost at least a stone during the walk, it was absolutely worth it. The eight hour journey demonstrated perfectly the diversity of New Zealand’s geography and also how rapidly it can change – one minute you would be walking alongside a babbling stream cutting through a rocky landscape, the next crossing a barren Martian scene, then scaling a steep mountain before descending through scrub land and into a thick forest. The crossing also took in a mountain which had literally exploded under the force of some previous volcanic activity – a truly awesome sight as well as, bizarrely considering the temperature, a few patches of densely packed snow. A tough but rewarding experience although my legs weren’t feeling particularly rewarded the following morning.
After Whakupapa we headed to Napier on the east coast of the North Island – rated as on of the top-thirty ‘must do’ things in New Zealand by the Rough Guide. One can only speculate at the financial inducements or sexual favours bestowed upon the authors of said travel guide by the tourism board of Napier in order to secure this endorsement as the town would be on my personal ‘must not do’ list. Napier’s main selling point is its architecture – the town was razed by an earthquake in 1931 and the decision was made to rebuild the town’s buildings in the ‘Art Deco’ style popular at the time. Admittedly this decision has left the town with some mildly diverting structures but unfortunately these have been used to house pretty bog-standard shops which could be found in any crappy little town. Combining this unhappy setting with a horrible, filthy pebble beach makes Napier one to avoid in my humble opinion and luckily the following day I was on my way to Wellington,my final stop in the North Island.
Wellington was recently voted ‘Coolest Small Capital in the World’ and, despite my all-too-short time in the nation’s capital – it was easy to see why: It’s an enormously attractive, laid-back city with a great night-life, beautiful harbour and some very pleasing buildings. It was unfortunate that I only had a few hours in the city to explore before boarding my flight to Christchurch, gateway to the South Island.
More next time.