Touring With the Danes
Part I – North Island
On February 11th, leaving ourselves a good amount of leeway, we loaded up the car and headed for the Auckland airport, where Bjarne's parents (Lizzi and Helge) would be arriving the next morning. We envisioned a long evening of enforced relaxation in a motel room. About 40 km outside of Whangarei, that plan went up in smoke... well, actually, steam. We had a blown radiator hose! After uttering a few bad words (just me, really, Bjarne is much better behaved), we headed back toward Whangarei, wondering what the chances were of getting the thing fixed or of renting a car on a Friday afternoon. We nursed the vehicle along for a short distance but didn't have enough water to continue. Very soon after we started walking to a gas station, a friendly Kiwi pulled over. He drove us to the station to get water, and even waited around to take us back. Thanks!
By stopping every 10 km to add water, we made our way to a service station where we were attended to very quickly. We were back on the road by 4 pm, and not out of as much money as we feared. However, the delay meant we reached Auckland in time for rush hour; by 7:30 we finally found a placed to stay. We hung out in the lounge and got reminded that we aren't missing very much by not having a Television.
Bright and early Saturday morning, the Danes invaded NZ; they were surprisingly chipper after such a long flight. We stuffed them and their gear into the car and took the scenic route out to the Coromandel peninsula. As with most scenic routes, it took awhile to get to our destination (a holiday park in Thames) but the view was quite lovely. Lizzi filled us in on their travels to that point and other news from home, while Helge complained that she should save some news for later, reassuring us that all was as normal with them.
Thames, where we stayed, used to be a hot spot for gold, so there were abandoned mine shafts nearby. We went on a fairly strenuous and long hike the next day along a trail that passed by some of these mines. Like almost all trails in NZ, it had a great deal of up hill. At the top there was a great view of the west coast of the peninsula, where we watched some little sailboats racing, and, in the case of one, capsizing. The trail went through a thickly forested area, with many fern trees and some palm trees (call Nikau palms, meaning 'no coconuts'). The mine shafts were dark but Bjarne had cleverly remembered to bring a flashlight. He went the furthest into the caves, reporting back about some creepy crawlies with: beetle-like bodies, 2 to 4 inches; 6 long legs, jointed like a Daddy Long-legs; and very long antennae. We learned later that these are Cave Wetas, and that they have relatives who don't live in caves and grow to about 6 inches. With such a glowing description of the lovely fauna in the caves, the rest of us didn't venture into as many caves as Bjarne did. Now that I think back to it, I can see that Bjarne was displaying the early symptoms of fever... gold fever that is.
The next day we drove along a gravel, lumpy, bumpy, hilly road to a trail leading to Castle Rock. The trail gradually became even steeper and rougher than the one from the previous day, but other tourists coming down assured us that the view was well worth the trek. About 45 minutes later and 20 feet from the top, Blammo! A squall blasted us with rain and high winds. We huddled into what shelter we could as the wind whipped around. I was nearer to the top so I scrambled up to for a peek. I thought I could at least take a picture for the others to see, but the rain was so thick I couldn't see anything. The water was now gushing down the path, making the trail muddy and slippery. We slowly and carefully scrambled our way down, worrying that one of us might slip and get hurt. At the car, we took a photo of our soggy selves, but it didn't seem to convey just how bedraggled we felt. Chocolate cheered us up and we continued on to the next tourist destination, a pretty little waterfall where we had our lunch.
It was a busy day for sight-seeing. Next on the agenda was Kauri Square, where there is a small patch of Kauri trees that narrowly escaped the wholesale logging that had decimated the rest of the Kauris on the peninsula. Kauris were particularly desirous because they are huge and grow straight, without a lot of lower branches. Some of the trees had lived for thousands of years and could provide enough lumber for 2 or more houses. The ones we saw were only about 600 years old (later we saw an 800 year-old).
We landed in Cooks Beach, where Captain Cook had spent some time. In neighbouring Mercury Bay, Cook had observed the the transit of Mercury across the sun, which allowed him to accurately calculate his longitude (a much harder task without GPS). There were a couple of memorial stones in the area to commemorate Cook, but they were rather uninspired. Perhaps they were intentionally low key, as there are rather mixed feelings in NZ, and other islands, about old James (an informative and quite funny book on this topic is Blue Latitudes). It was interesting to imagine how the area looked when Cook first arrived.
The next morning found us all sipping wine. Contrary to what some may believe, this wasn't a usual morning activity for us. The small, family-run winery just outside of Cooks Beach was remarkable not only for its Kiwi and Feijoa products, but also for a very friendly, funny and informative host. This fellow provided us with lots of information about the wines (for example, kiwis for wine are picked much later than those for export, to allow the sugar content to increase), as well as a many general NZ facts. We left with a Kiwi wine (made from the fruit, not the bird!), and a Feijoa liqueur (Feijoa is a mango-like fruit). Not a bad start to the day.
The beaches were calling out to Lizzi, who loves the ocean and could hardly wait to jump in. The beach we stopped at had large waves rolling into shore. They made me a bit nervous, but the folks who lived on the west coast of Canada for years weren't fazed a bit, and immediately began attempting to body surf. It was pretty fun, although the force of the waves was very effective at cramming sand under the bathing suit. Over the next four weeks, we were to spend many hours at beautiful beaches throughout NZ.
That night our accommodation was a little unusual. For almost the whole time the folks were here, we stayed at Holiday Parks, which are all over the place, and have cabins available. These vary in price and quality, but overall, are a pretty reasonable option. If the cabins themselves didn't have a little kitchen, the parks always had a communal kitchen. This evening we stopped at a B&B but the price was much higher than we were willing to pay. However, the owner decided to make us a deal and just charged us half the price, and included the food for supper if we would prepare it for him and the other guest staying at the B&B. The host's wife was away and he was tired of cooking. The supper, of which a huge ham formed the centrepiece, was great, as our host kept pulling more things out of his fridge for us to cook up. Breakfast was also yummy. Our host indicated the night before that he would prepare a nice 'fry-up' for breakfast: eggs, toast (with marmite, if you like), bacon, potatoes, and cooked tomatoes. To Danes this feels very much like supper. To me, it's a great treat. Thus, I almost flipped when I overheard Lizzi saying to our host that cereal would be just fine. Fortunately, I got my two cents worth in and we left nicely stuffed.
The next few days were spent on Freya, sailing from Whangarei up the lovely east coast to the beautiful cruising area of the Bay of Islands. The light winds meant we motored for a lot of the time, but also made it easier to spot cute little Blue penguins in the water. One of our anchorages was in the very picturesque Whangamumu Harbour. From here, one could hike for about 3 hours to Cape Brett, where there is a lighthouse, which, like those in Canada, is now automated. We walked along the shorter trail that followed the shoreline, enjoying the smell of the manuka trees baking in the sun, and the sight of the gnarled Pohutukawa tree-roots twining around anything that would give them a grip along the weathered banks. This harbour also had an abandoned whaling station to explore. The whalers there had used large nets off the coast, which slowed the leviathans down enough for them to be more easily harpooned. They were then towed into the harbour and processed. At one time there were many whales in that area around Cape Brett; we haven't seen any.
Whangamumu Harbour was also the site of The Great Tea Experiment, or more aptly, the Appallingly Awful Infusion Adventure. Manuka trees are also called tea trees because of the tea made from the dried leaves. We had tried (and liked) some Manuka tea, which is supposed to have antibiotic properties and other good things about it (meaning it is now an expensive item at specialty shops). We figured: how hard could it be? We picked some leaves from Manuka trees (we think) and boiled up a large potful fresh. Anticipating an enjoyable cup of tea from the leaves of our labour, we sipped from the steaming mug. Hccht-ptooee! What a horribly bitter taste! We aren't quite sure what we did wrong but decided to keep our day jobs. Oh wait...
Urupukapuka Harbour once again provided us with a great anchorage, and some good trails for tramping on. Our quest for ice cream came to a sad end at the cafe in nearby Otehi Bay, where, not only was there no ice cream, but also an out of order milkshake machine and an empty popsicle freezer. These are just some of the hardships we have to endure. The next morning, Lizzi and Helge were interested in more land time, while Bjarne convinced me to hop in the cool and murky water for some snorkeling. The view was not very exciting until I noticed a large flat thing that looked like a rug. Suddenly, a graceful ripple moved along it and the large ray swam off, quickly passing out of sight.
A few days later found us back on four wheels, heading for Rotorua, one of NZ's hot spots – literally. The town has steam rising up all over the place, with hot pools and boiling mud puddles scattered throughout. Of course, the town also smelled like sulfur. At the park we stayed at, they had made use of one steam outlet to make a steam oven. We enjoyed some corn-on-the-cob which we had tossed in with the husks on and left for 40 minutes. Easy-peasy. We also enjoyed a nice soak in the park's tubs, which were filled with mineral water from a hot spring. Rotorua is on the shores of a pretty lake by the same name. Around the lake, sand becomes hotter and hotter as you dig down. The lake itself is very shallow; it never went deeper than mid-thigh for the 300 or more meters that I walked out, making it a bit disappointing for swimming purposes. Still, as a Great Lakes gal, I was happy to be in fresh water again. We did see a whole bunch of black swans, who didn't seem to mind the shallowness. On the shore of the lake there is a lovely little church, the interior of which is covered in intricate wood carvings and weaving, all in traditional Maori style. Even more interesting, was an etched-glass window looking out over Lake Rotorua, which had an image of Christ wearing a Maori cloak; the figure is cleverly positioned such that it looks like he is walking on the water of the lake.
The large and active Maori community in Rotorua caters to tourists who want a glimpse into the traditional Maori way of life. There are various concerts and feasts (Hangi) to choose from. The one we attended was supposedly smaller and more traditional than some of the others, although there were about 150 people there. Over the evening, we saw how strangers were greeted with a rather fierce dance, many other dances, some games that were meant to keep reflexes sharp, and some traditional garb and tattoos. The tattoos used to be done by cutting open the skin with three separate instruments and then pounding the pigment in, using Albatross bones sometimes. Thus there was a lot of scarring, and the extensive tattooing some had took a lifetime to acquire. Each tattoo had meaning, sometimes reflecting accomplishments. Women often had tattoos on their chins, making them look a bit like they had goatees. The pre-dinner show was great, despite the deluge pounding on the roof. We saw some of our supper being pulled from the the earth oven, where it had been smoked for hours. There was lamb, pork, chicken, kumara (a type of sweet potato), and potatoes cooked this way. Some of the food took on quite a smoky flavour, which appealed to some, but not so much to me. A lot of western-style food was also served up, to satisfy everyone. We certainly didn't leave hungry. The evening concluded with a short bush walk, where we saw glow-worms and learned about some of the local plants like the silver fern. We all agreed that it had been a wonderful evening. I could have stayed longer in this very interesting town but we had a ferry to catch in Wellington, the capital of NZ.
We drove along an aptly named Desert road, marveling at how the landscape can vary so much over such a short distance. Off to the west we could see the dreaded 'Mount Doom' (of Lord of the Rings fame) shrouded in mist. Its real name is Mt. Ngauruhoe. We didn't spot any Hobbits, however. One could go to Hobbiton and see some Hobbit holes stripped of any props for a mere $50 per person. Good grief! I'll just rent the movie, thanks. It was hot in the car, a fact we dealt with by pausing for ice cream. When we reached the west coast we stopped at a beach, where some playing in the waves took place, followed by game of catch that transmogrified into a 'hockey' game. I guess that would be sand hockey; like the USA-ians, NZ folk specify ice hockey if they ever have cause to mention it. Mostly, they are only interested in Rugby and Cricket. We arrived at our holiday park with time for a nice walk in the evening, and an early bedtime as we had to get up at 0600h for the ferry.
The NZ ferry system is quite expensive and not nearly as efficiently run as BC Ferries (one of the benefits of seeing the rest of the world is coming to appreciate one's own country). A 2h45m passage with a car and four adults costs about $260, the marshalling area is just one large parking lot, and ferry loading takes almost an hour. However, it did get us across Cook's Strait and into Picton on the South Island. The scenery was lovely, drawing many people outside to take pictures and enjoy the view.
Whew! We made it to the South Island...