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Our Travels in New Zealand Part 1

Author: Mal Part
Date of Trip: March 2007

Day 1: 1st February – Arrival in New Zealand

By the time we arrive in Auckland, we have been flying for almost 24 hours, and its about 36 hours since we left home on 30th January. Although we’re pretty much exhausted, there are things to do!

First job – get the car. I ring AA Car Rental using the 0800 number they’d given me and within 15 minutes we’re picked up and on our way to get our hire car. I’ve not told Chris, but I’ve gone for the “rent a wreck” option – it turned out to be about £10/day and over £200 cheaper than any other quote I received. I’ve been told to expect a Nissan Pulsar which, looking on the Internet, looks to be a pretty good car. When we get to the car rental office, I find we have a Nissan Sunny Super Saloon, but it starts well and has four good tyres! It won’t win a beauty contest, but the car’s okay.

New Zealander’s drive on the left hand side so I feel pretty much at home straight away. Since the car’s empty, the next job is to get some fuel. I’m immediately surprised to find out that petrol is only NZ$1.47 / litre (about 54p per litre).

The next job is to find our first motel. I’d pre-booked this from the UK – it’s the Aarangi Beach Motel in Mission Bay; it’s on the coast, just outside the centre of Auckland. We arrive at 10am so our room’s not ready and we have a long wait. Tired and unwashed (and unshaven in my case), we drive the short distance to the beach area, find a café and while away the time drinking coffee.

After a shower and short sleep, we make our way to the beach and find the Il Piccolo Restaurant. Chris has chicken and crème bruleé for dessert, and I have Red Snapper and Tira Misu. We get chatting to Malcolm – the owner (came from Surrey many years ago) – who tells us that the beach is man-made. Apparently, the local (Mission Bay) council paid for 6 million tons of sand to create it. After 36 hours of travel, it looks natural enough for me!

Day 2 – Auckland

Public transport within Auckland is very good, and since there’s a bus to the city from close to our motel, we use it. We have limited time here, so we decide to do the city tour. The tour bus is $7.50, and the ticket is good for other buses for a small ($1.20) flat fee. See Note below.

We have a ‘thing’ about tall buildings so, after the city tour, we head for the Sky Tower, NZ’s tallest building (and the tallest in the Southern Hemisphere we’re told). There are great views over the whole city, including the rather picturesque harbour area, and right out to the airport.

====================== Note: The exchange rate when we travelled was 2.7 NZ$ / £, so each NZ$ was worth about 37p. For simple conversions, use a rate of NZ$ 2.5 / £, so each NZ$ = 40p. Thus, $7.50 = £3; $1.20 is about 50p.

We take a walk around the harbour area to see if we can book a tour to one of Auckland’s many offshore islands for the next day – most guidebooks recommend it, and we have selected Tiri Island. Its real name is Tiritiri Matangi Island, but Kiwis shorten many of the original Maori place names to something that’s easier to say! Try as we might, we find that all the trips to Tiri are booked and instead we book a trip plus barbecue to Kawau Island.

We return to Mission Bay and seek out a restaurant called Ruan Thai – a man I’d met on the plane from LA to Auckland recommended it. He lived only a few 100 yards from our motel, and used this restaurant regularly! We dine and sleep well that night.

Day 3 – Kawau Island (Auckland)

Kawau Island is a whole day trip (2½ hours each way on the boat), with time on the island for a 1-hour walk through the woods.

The boat trip helps blow our cobwebs away and the walk certainly puts the life back in our legs. A former HM Governor of NZ once owned the island, and he built a fine mansion at the side of the bay. The land that he had cleared of forest has been put to lawn and gardens, and is preserved pretty much as it was in the late 1800s.

The walk was good, the island was ‘okay’, but what was special was the barbecue. We’d been given the, “Will you have the barbecue?” option when we’d booked and, since it meant we didn’t have to buy or create our own packed lunch and since it was only $18 each, we had said, “Yes please”. In truth, we didn’t have high expectations, and we’d no reason to change this thought when we saw a young lad trying to cook about 20 large steaks on barbecue that was far too small for the task, on the back of the boat.

Anyway, soon after we got underway for our return trip, a large steak with green salad and some trimmings was duly served. And, amazingly, the steak was brilliant – well cooked, tender and very tasty. We’d built up a bit of an appetite, but by any standard, this was a very, very good steak lunch. We ate every bit with relish.

I’m beginning to get some first impressions of New Zealand. Auckland has very little to do with the wider NZ, but already I can see that life is taken at a more leisurely pace. The in-town speed limit is 40km/h (25mph) and people stick to it. Everyone you meet has time to chat and they take that time to ask where you’re from, what you’ve done today and what your plans are. Everyone is friendly and everyone smiles.

Day 4 – Auckland to Paihia (Bay of Islands)

It’s quite a trek from Auckland up to the Bay of Islands (230 miles) so we set off fairly early after a small snack in our motel room for breakfast. Everywhere we go, our motel rooms have ‘the makings’ and we’re given a small carton of milk. They also have a toaster, so it’s no trouble to knock up toasted crumpets with jam and couple of cups of coffee or tea for breakfast. This becomes a bit of a ‘ritual’ for us, and we breakfast like this most morning on the trip.

On our way, we stop off to take a look at the Whangarei Falls since it’s only just off of the road. It’s a pretty spot with a sheer drop of over 100 feet of water into a deep pool below. A good platform has been built so that we can get a good view. We also stop for brunch at a roadside café – it’s really the “all day breakfast”, but its breakfast for us!. It’s a rural area, and the café is intended for locals rather than travellers …. The price reflects that; we pay $5 each for a breakfast of bacon, two eggs, sausage and a potato cake. The coffee was extra ($2 each), but you can get refills for free. We tuck in to our breakfast whilst watching Guernsey cows tucking into their grass.

Whangarei (said Fhan – ga – ray) is Auckland’s equivalent of London’s Watford, as in, if it’s north of Watford, its “Up North”. We are well north of Whangarei as we pull into Paihia – a seaside resort on the Bay of Islands.

Bay of Islands is a ‘must do’ tourist location in New Zealand, and I’ve picked Paihia because it’s as close as I could get to Waitangi, everywhere else being fully booked. Waitangi is where the treaty between HM Government and the Maori was signed and which lead to the creation of New Zealand as part of the then British Empire. The treaty was signed on 6th February 1840 – our Day 6 is 6th February, and my plan is to attend the treaty signing anniversary celebrations. But, I’m getting ahead of myself..

After checking into our motel – the Ash Grove – we spend the balance of the day looking around the beachfront shops and cafes in Paihia and select a café called “Nine” for dinner. There’s good reason to remember Nine because they got Chris’s order wrong! What was memorable was the way they managed their mistake. I’d ordered seared fillets of Blue Nosed Cod, and Chris had ordered lamb rump. My cod arrived but Chris got a lamb shank (and a big one too). Chris told the lad who delivered it that it was wrong – poor lad had only arrived from Suffolk a month ago – so he took it away. The waitress returned, said it was her fault, apologised and said that the rump would be a few minutes because it was being cooked from fresh. Eventually, the Suffolk lad returned with Chris’s rump (I’d finished) and said, “Now I have to hope that it was worth waiting for”. The head waiter checked with us to confirm that everything was now okay and, finally, the waitress that cleared the table asks, “Did everything turn out okay?” It did, the food was delicious.

We’d first noticed NZ car number plates in Auckland. They are generally three letters + three numbers; our car is BQB 322. But it appears you can have any combination of 1 – 6 letters or numbers providing it’s unique. As a result NZ’ers have their fun coming up with personal, funny or meaningful number plates. In the last few days we’ve seen “GOOFY”, “JJ” on a Jaguar, “HO HO HO” and “BEST MA”. We resolve to keep our eyes open for others on our travels.

Day 5 – Paihia

We’d planned to go to the beach for the day for a picnic and some sun, but the weather’s not good – there’s cloud and a bit of a wind blowing, a portend of things to come ……

Plan B is a trip to the historic town of Russell. Its just across the bay from Paihia but is separated from it by the outlet of the Waitangi River. As a result, it’s a 30km drive around the river estuary or a short car ferry across it to get to Russell – we take the ferry. In the Kiwi’s normal ‘no nonsense’ way, the ferry pulls into the car ramp, cars leave and we drive on without chaperoning; and all the time the ferry’s not tied up, just held in place by the engines and the skill of the skipper. Russell’s a pretty little town with many of its original buildings. The Navy’s in town for the treaty celebrations, so there’s an impromptu band concert on the green. But, the weather’s too cold for a dip in sea so we spend our time walking around the town, looking in the quaint little shops and eating our picnic of cheese rolls, fruit, cake and pineapple juice.

On the way back to the motel, we stop at Woolworth’s (see Note 1 below) and get some pasta and sauce for a dinner ‘in’. Its’ Superbowl day so I spend the balance of the evening watching the 4th Quarter and doing some route planning while Chris reads her book.

Day 6 – Waitangi Day

It’s Waitangi Day and we’re within walking distance of the Waitangi Treaty Grounds where the anniversary of the signing is to be celebrated. Since it’s a public holiday for all New Zealanders, it’s pouring with rain and blowing a gale, literally. Nonetheless, we head for the treaty grounds to see what’s going on …… In theory we can look forward to Maori dance and music, loads of food and craft stalls, a 21-gun salute by a NZ Navy frigate moored off shore, some more music from the NZ Navy Band and a flag flying ceremony at the very spot the treaty was signed.

In reality, much of this is washed out! The 21-gun salute can be heard but no ship can be seen, the rain is too dense. Most of stalls have not opened.

We’d not known before we’d arrived, but the treaty signing celebrations are much un-loved by the non-Maori New Zealanders, and the celebrations at Waitangi have often been more like riots. Maoris have used the day as a day of protest … In the past, these have mostly been about unjust treatment, poor or non-existent compensation for the use of Maori land, and the lack of recognition for Maori culture and traditions.

This year, the protest is about the Tino Rangitiratanga – the Maori Flag. The Maoris want it erected at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds alongside the other flags (see Note 2 below), and the local council have refused permission. Maoris nationwide are protesting the decision and Waitangi Day provides a focus for their protests.

=============== Note 1: In New Zealand, the biggest supermarkets are 4-Square, Countdown, Woolworth’s, New World and Foodtown.

Note 2: We get talking to some NZ teenagers – they call themselves “Maori cadets” – and I ask them about the flags on the big multi-flag flagpole in the treaty grounds. There’s a NZ National flag at the top and a Union Flag on one side. Then there’s a white version of the NZ National flag with red stars – it’s like the normal NZ flag, but on a white background not a blue one. There’s also a flag the ‘cadets’ called “the Maori flag”, saying it was given them by Henry VIII ??? It’s the St George Cross (red cross on white) but the top quarter near the flagpole is blue with 4 large red stars.

There’s a protester – a lone protester – at the base of the flagpole with a 5th flag – it’s red, white and black and is a stylised view of the Koru – the uncurling fern fond – a sacred symbol of the Maori. The Maori cadets tell us that this is the Tino Rangitiratanga flag, “the Maori Flag”; we’re told that Maori want it on the flagpole at Waitangi, on One Tree Hill in Auckland and on the Auckland Harbour Bridge, alongside the national flag. They seem as puzzled and confused as we are about all the flags ….. And all the fuss. The 21-gun salute heralded some even heavier rain, so after a quick look around the Maori war canoe and the treaty house, we head off back to our motel to get dried out!!! On the way back we pick up our first NZ meat pie for our lunch – it’s very tasty, with chunks of real streak instead of gristle.

The balance of the day is spent in our room – we have twin beds, a small kitchen, TV/Radio/DVD, a sitting area with easy chairs, dining table and two small chairs, and a bath/shower/WC – it’s very comfortable. I also use some of the time to get on the Internet and do some emails home.

Since were still pie’d out from lunchtime, we eat in on soup, pate and fresh bread rolls. The rain is getting worse. I watch England beat NZ in the ODI cricket – this means that England will meet Australia in the final of this tripartite competition.

Day 7 – Travel to Warkworth?

We breakfast on muffins and tea. The plan is to head to Warkworth for a two-night stopover before we head south of Auckland. But, the rain is still very heavy – there’s a minor flood outside our studio unit and there’s a thunderstorm raging. On the TV, we hear that a road/rail bridge has been washed out north of us and people have been cut off – they are likely to be there for several days! That’s all we hear because the power then fails!!!

We’d had some rain on our way up to Paihia, and I’d noticed that there was a water leak into the boot of my rent-a-wreck. I’d botched it up using some chewing gum, and when I was loading up the car I was very grateful to discover that it had worked. The boot was still very damp so before we set off I wrapped the cases in large black plastic bags kindly donated by the proprietor of the Ash Grove.

As we journey south there is little improvement in the weather. A forecast on the radio tells us that only the north half of the North Island is affected and the rain is mostly on the east coast. Our destination – Warkworth – is a coastal town on the east coast!!! So, while on the road, we make a new plan – head for the west coast!!!

We drop off State Highway 1 (SH-1) onto SH-16 and head for a place called Parakai – the Lonely Planet Guide says there are two motels, both with thermal pools in every room, and Chris is seduced by the idea. Before reaching Parakai, we drive through the Waipoua Forest on the Kauri Coast road. This route – via the coast road – is one of the top 5 drives in NZ says the guidebook, and it does not disappoint. Visibility could be better, but the near blackness of the forest and the steam from the recent (and current) rain make for fine scenery.

We stop off in the forest to say hello to a 2000-year old Kauri tree – a strange sort of tree really since it’s almost 40 feet around the base and shoots up, dead straight, for about 50 feet, and then splits into many very small trunks of no significant height or spread. It’s like a tree that been lopped and started to re-grow again, but this is how the Kauri grows apparently. They are a much-lover tree in NZ, especially by the Maori, who use them to build their long canoes. As we arrive, an extended Maori family are having their photograph taken in front of the old tree; Chris and I do the same.

The rain has stopped at last! We pull into the first lay-by to stretch our legs and warm ourselves in a sun we haven’t seen for three days.

When we get to Parakai it disappoints. It looks as if a couple of motel owners have tried to exploit the fact that there are hot springs in the area and forgotten that tourists need restaurants, shops and cafes; none of which can been seen.

We move on to Plan C – go to Muriwai Beach – the guidebook says it is well facilitated for tourists, and has a black sand surfing beach and a large gannet colony. Both of these it has, as well as a nice café where we take tea for two and a piece of carrot cake (which comes covered with caramel sauce and a 3” pile of fresh cream). The café’s proprietor tells us that there are no motels or hotels in town’ just a couple of B&Bs and a house to let. There’s also nowhere to eat! So we take in the scenery, finish our tea and move to Plan D.

Plan D is to head for Auckland, and we pick out a motel in Te Atatu, just north of the city– the Sunset Lodge – and arrive at 5-30pm, after a 230-mile drive. It’s a good motel with large rooms, and a build-in kitchen/dining area. At $95 for the night, we’re well pleased – we’ve travelled further south than planned, ‘saved’ a day (since we plan to move on tomorrow), found a cheap bed for the night, AND found the sun!

Tired, we sit out on the terrace sunning ourselves until it goes down at around 7pm. Since we’re in a gastronomic desert, we head off in the car. There’s a Wendy’s – no thank you. We ask a local Maori who advises us to head for Te Atatu North, near the Waitemata Bay. After 15 minutes looking around the Waitemata Bay area I espy a place with outside seating and good views across the bay to distant downtown Auckland and the Sky Tower. The place is called the Te Atatu Tavern and we dine on roast beef, seven vegetables (yes 7 – see Note below), gravy, a bottle of wine and coffee to follow for $58 total. That’s 2 meals, with wine and coffees, for under £22.

Day 8 – Travel to Waitmoto Caves

We are further south than planned and on good roads so the drive to Waitomo should be quick and easy, and so it proves. We arrive in the near-by town of Otorohanga at about noon and stop off in the high street for a lunch of curried vegetables in filo parcels with salad, homemade chutney and coffee.

Since we have no accommodation booked, we drop into the i-Site to see what we can get – see About: i-Sites in Section 4. A long conversation with Sue in the i-Site office leads to several major decisions: She tells us that Waitomo is all about the caves and the glow-worms – once you’ve seen them, you’re done. So, we re-plan to stay only one night, see the glow-worms caves in the morning, and drive to our next location tomorrow afternoon.

Sue books us onto the 9am cave tour and asks us about our plans for the coming weeks. She tells us that the inter-island ferry is getting booked up – we should book now. She checks our new dates (12th Feb) and books us on at a cost of $330 including car. She books our whale-watch trip in Kaikoura for the 15th Feb and also checks the Tranz-Alpine train from Christchurch and books that 17th Feb. Finally we get to accommodation and we pick out the Palm Court Motel, which Sue books for one night.

===================================== Note: Roast potatoes, sweet potato wedges, glazed carrots, cauliflower cheese, alfalfa, shredded carrot and broccoli.

Having got installed into our motel, we head off to Waitomo to gauge distance and time since we have an early start in the morning, with little room for error.

Glowing in the success of all our advance bookings, we dine out tonight. Otorohanga is not much of a town – it’s grown on the back of the near-by caves, but still only has a main street with very little behind it except the railway line. There are a couple of restaurants, and we pick out the Giant Wega – I’m a little worried because a wega is a large NZ bug! Anyway, Chris orders the lamb and roast vegetables (“And very nice it was too”), and I had fish, chips and salad.

Before our meals arrive, three ladies sit down close by and start chatting to us. They are sisters, all about our age; two live in NZ, and one has moved to Australia. They are a lively bunch and end up joining us at our table. We swap all the usual stories about travels so far in NZ, and the sisters tell us that they are on a genealogical discovery trip – their mother lived in Otorohanga as a girl, and had gone to school (on horse-back) in the town. She had married in 1939 and her husband had gone off to war – they had her diaries for 1939/40 and 1942/44. They hoped to find people that knew her so that they could start tracing back to their grandparents, and so on. Apparently, they had already traced their father’s line back to the 1600s.

We discover that they are staying at ‘our’ motel, so (after the obligatory group photograph) we all walk back together and they invite us in for coffee and biscuits. A long evening ensues, with discussion swing from Liverpool, to The Beatles, to the Maori, to British TV programmes, rugby and cricket, and Posh and Becks. But, by far the longest time was spent on Coronation Street – they are all avid fans, and we discover that NZ TV is about 9 months behind the current story line in England. So, we are incessantly pumped for information about what’s coming up next, what happens to Fred? … does Charlie get his comeuppance? …. how does Mike Baldwin die? …. and so on, and on, and on. We break up at about 11-30 since we have the cave trip booked for 9am the next day.

Day 9: Glow-worms and Travel to Taupo

After a breakfast of coffee and date scones with jam, we pack up and head off to the meet point for the Waitomo Cave trip. Wai is Maori for ‘water’; tomo is ‘hole’, so Waitomo is a hole created by water.

Our party for the caves numbers 8 – we two, a couple our age from Bury St Edmonds, and two young couples, one from Kent who now work in Boston, and one from Eire. Our guide is German and about 25 years old. We all get in the mini-bus and head off.

Chris and I are surprised to hear that we have a 20-min journey to ‘our’ cave – when we’d surveyed the area the previous day we’d seen a sign, “Cave Entrance”, just two minutes away from the meet point. Our German guide, who is a caver herself and who has a very good sense of humour, explains that we have made an excellent decision to select her tour company for our cave experience … As we pass the “Cave Entrance” sign, she explains that that cave is for day-trippers and large tour parties from Rotorua and Taupo – “the tour is only 20 min long, then you’re back on the bus” she tells us. “Your cave experience involves two caves, glow-worms in both and you get tea and biscuits”, she says.

The road soon deteriorates into a gravel track and becomes increasingly steep and narrow. But, our guide is a good driver and we soon arrive at the entrance to the first cave. Having gotten into our hard hats, we head into the cave, “lights on”. Once we reach the walkway inside the cave, it’s “lights off”, and we’re in the dark. The guide asks us to look up …. nothing. We get into a boat and the guide pulls us along on a rope that’s strung along the side and roof of the cave. As we look about, the glow worms come into sight – 100s of them, strung from the ceiling, their little glowing bums attracting flying insects into their nets strung from the ceiling.

Just as we are about to leave the cave, the guide says, “Look up”, again. It’s the same place as before, except that this time we see that the ceiling is covered in glow-worms! Of course, the first time around, our eyes had not adjusted to the dark so we couldn’t see them – a good lesson for budding astronomers.

The second cave has a few glow-worms, but this one is mostly about stalactites and stalagmites, and the bones of animals and birds that had fallen into the cave from holes above.

Tours done, we all enjoy a nice cup of tea and biscuits as promised, and its back into the mini-bus for the hairy drive back.

It’s just after 1pm and we’re on the road for the short drive to Taupo – we ‘get in’ at about 4pm, and immediately take a drive along the lake’s side to find the i-Site and get our accommodation sorted out. Taupo is a lake resort and fairly busy most of the year – lots of places are already full, so we have to settle for a family room at the Tui Oaks Motor Inn – it’s normally $165/night, but we get it for $135. Our room is large and comfortable, and we have views of the lake from a side window.

Day 10: Taupo

We have a busy day planned so we’re up at 8 and out before 9 after a breakfast of coffee with date scones and boysenberry jam.

Our plan is to do a lake cruise, so we get that booked first – we select the yacht Barbary, which starts an evening cruise at 5pm. Our main activity for the day is a walk so, cruise booking done, we head off to the end of Huka Falls walkway, which starts a couple if miles outside the town.

The pathway runs alongside the Wairakei River, the longest in NZ and the river that drains Lake Taupo, the largest lake in NZ. In fact, the lake is so large that Singapore could be dropped into it and would be lost.

The walk is ordinary, but the river itself is as beautiful as I’ve seem – aquamarine water and crystal, crystal clear. After about 2 miles, the pathway opens out to the Huka Falls themselves – the effect is dramatic and noisy. Naturally, all the elements of Kiwi exploitation of their points of interest are there: jet boats arrive on the lively side of the Falls and speed their screaming customers close to the white water, a helicopter swoops in for a closer look, while the Kiwi Experience tour bus ticks over in the car park. But, the Falls are exciting, a natural wonder, so, if no damage is done, why not exploit it?

We have a good look around and take a few photos, and then set off back along the walkway to pick up our car. The round-trip takes us just over 2 hours – a slow time for a 4-mile walk, but it’s hot, and they are ‘up and down’ miles, not flat ones!

Our next stop is “Craters of the Moon” – a small geothermal area a few miles further out of Taupo. It’s run by the NZ Dept of Conservation (DOC), who charge only $5 to get in, so it’s a bit of a bargain.

There are a lot of fumaroles leaking steam and one large pool of bubbling mud. It’s another interesting 45-minute walk and a good curtain raiser to the other geothermal parks we plan to visit later in our itinerary. Having built up a good appetite, we lunch on “Fush ‘n’ Chups” and a glass of wine before readying ourselves with warmer clothes for the cruise on the lake.

The lake trip is very exciting. The yacht was built in California in 1926 based on a Scandinavian design. It raced in the US and was owned by Errol Flynn at one stage, having won it in a game of cards. It reached NZ in 1947 and later became a protest vessel for Greenpeace before being wrecked in Auckland Harbour in 1976. Restored in 1982, it has been a pleasure boat on Lake Taupo since 1983. The Barbary is a ‘real’ yacht – the skipper uses the engine to clear the harbour area but, after that, it’s sail all the way.

The complement for the cruise is 12; the skipper, an Irish girl, 3 English couples, a German couple and two English girls travelling together. There is plenty of excitement on board.. Although we sail past some Maori rock carvings and other ‘interest’ points, it’s the sailing that makes the trip. There is a good breeze blowing, and the skipper asks if we’re all up for some real sailing? Getting a resounding “Yes” (that drowns out a couple of hesitant relies), more sail is added and the yacht leans over such that we are told to scramble to the upper side to balance it – we make excellent and exhilarating progress.

We return in the late evening and by this time the wind is quite chilly. We’re not very hungry and dine on nachos, wedges and beer before getting back for an early night.

Day 11 – Journey to ….. ???

We’re up again before 8am and pack up the car for the journey to …….. well, we don’t actually know? The plan was to do a stop-over in Palmerston North (see Note below), but Sue at the Otorohanga i-Site said that our planned route would be out of our way, and that Palmerston North had very little to recommend it She suggested sticking to the SH-1 and stopping somewhere on the west coast, just north of Wellington. So, that’s our plan …..

It’s a bright and sunny day and most of yesterday’s haze has already been burnt off – the lake is placid and beautiful – it accompanies our journey for the first 14 miles.

On the way, we see a sign for the NZ Army Museum – it’s in a very unlikely spot, and I’m not much on museums (especially ones about war), but it advertises toilets and the “Rations Café”. We imagine that the army serves big portions, so we stop for breakfast.

=================================== Note: Palmerston North is a strange name for a town. We later discovered that they originally named it Palmerston but had overlooked the fact that there was a Palmerston on the South Island. Mail got all screwed up so eventually made it Palmerston – North Island, which later got shortened to just Palmerston North.

While waiting for our “2 poached eggs on homemade bread” to arrive, a group of over-60 year olds at a nearby table get up and leave. They apologise for all their noise and explain that they’re off to a bowls competition and they’re excited! One holds back for a longer chat, and asks us where we’re off to? We tell him our plan, and he suggests a stopover in Paraparaumu – it’s where he lives!!! He recommends Wright’s Motel – “it’s quieter than the ones on the coast road” – and says that we should eat at the Deli Café overlooking the sea and Kapiti Island. Duly noted down, we head off with this as our new plan for Day 11.

Our journey south from Taupo takes us past the Tongariro National Park and its three major mountains – Ruapelu (3727m), Ngauruhoe (2291m) and Tongariro (1967m). They look very familiar – this range was widely used in the filming of Lord of the Rings (LOTR), and Ngauruhoe is Mount Doom in the film.

Eventually we arrive at Paraparaumu and find Wright’s Motel with no trouble; we pay $100 for the night and get the usual three-bedded room and free milk for a welcoming cup of tea. The room looks very familiar, and then we realise that it has the same bed covers as the Tui Oaks in Taupo – the motel we just left! We spend much of the rest of the day lounging about, sunning ourselves and drinking tea.

I take some time to up-date my journal and expenses account. Being away for over 6 weeks, two payments will be due on my credit card and I want a sense of what to pay off while we’re in NZ. I’d put sufficient money in our bank account and planned to use my debit card. But, basic bank debit cards do not work in NZ; only a VISA or MasterCard-backed debit card, or a full credit cards work. My accounting tells me roughly how much to transfer to MasterCard at the end of the month. The total to date is $2272 (about (£842). This sounded a lot until I realised it covered just about everything we’ve spent so far: all motels, all petrol, all meals, all excursions, the ferry to South Island and the TranzAlpine train tickets. I’m reassured.

Paraparaumu is a nice little seaside town and we take the time to have a walk around before dinner – there’s a great sunset over the sea, so I take some photographs in the hope that I’ve got THE sunset of all time. We also come across a second-hand car showroom. It’s fantastic; they have an amazing collection of classic British cars including many MG B GTs and a couple of Jaguar Mk 2s. We eventually pull ourselves away and find the Sunflower Café for a dinner of Tempura, Udon Noodles with Beef, cheesecake, espressos and a bottle of wine ($88.50).

Day 12 – Travel to the South Island

We’d missed out on the Deli Café yesterday because it’s closed on Sundays but, because we have plenty of time, we use it today for breakfast. Chris has scrambled eggs on bagels with bacon, and I have a “Farmer’s” – a mountain of breakfast foods including two eggs, a packet of bacon, toast, large sausage, mushrooms and potato cakes. Having put that lot away, we head off for Wellington and our ferry to the South Island.

Since we’re already closer than originally planned, we get there much too early for our 2pm sailing. To make use of the time, we visit Victoria Mount – a high point above Wellington from which you can view the whole city, the bay and the airport – it’s quite spectacular but a bit windy. We enjoy the view and quickly make our way back to the city.

In preparation for our return to Wellington in early March, we drop into the Te Papa Museum (NZ’s national museum) to pick up a guidebook. Te Papa is our only museum trip, and I want to plan our time there such that we see what we’re interested in and miss the rest. After a cup of coffee in their café we make our way to the ferry terminal and get aboard for the 3½-hour crossing to the South Island.

The Inter-Islander ferry is not Ro-Ro (roll-on, roll-off) – you get your car on board and do a U-turn on the car deck so that you can leave it the same way you got on – a slow and cumbersome process. It’s also hardly world class – much smaller than a cross-Channel ferry and not half as well appointed. But, there is café and there are comfy seats, so we have everything we need for the short journey across the Cook Strait.

The Cook Strait crossing can be very rough at times – the Pacific Ocean has been unchecked as it travelled 1000s miles and when it hits landfall in NZ, the powerful waves are channelled through the Strait since they have nowhere else to go. The winds do similarly. But today we get a calm crossing and we’re soon pulling into Picton (5-45pm) having been slightly delayed by a departing cruise ship – we hit the road at 6-15pm.

Our plan was to over-night in Picton and use it as a base for visits to wineries in the Marlborough district. But, our reading tells us that a town called Blenheim is a little further south, closer to the wineries and has plenty of motels. We head for Blenheim.

As we start to look for accommodation in Blenheim, all we see is “No Vacancy” signs. Our search circle widens and widens without luck. Eventually we hit on the Admiral’s Motor Lodge – it had one vacancy. It’s a large family room on two floors with 6 beds, but the manager lets us have it for ½ price – we take it gratefully. It’s ‘getting on’, so we unpack quickly and set off to find some dinner. We get another surprise – hardly any eateries.

This is rapidly becoming the strangest stop yet – lots of full motels, and a very few, mostly empty restaurants. We end up eating in an Irish bar, Paddy Barry’s. The manager tells us that there’s been a national wine and food festival in the town over the past two weeks – it only ended yesterday night – and suggests that many of the exhibitors/attendees may have stayed over for an extra night.

When we get back to the motor lodge, we get chatting to a couple of lads – they’re here for a lineman’s training course – a lot of the local motel’s customers are on the same course. They also tell us about Springland’s Restaurant – a local, out-of-town place – “it’s good, has big portions and it’s very cheap”! The new information solves our mysteries, and we sleep easy in our beds!!!

Day 13 – Wineries

After a bit of a lie in and a late breakfast, we start our day at the i-Site to get advice on winery tours and visits. We’d planned to visit Montana and Villa Maria wineries, and wanted to know their locations.

Since they had a cheap email connection at the i-Site, I take the time to check for messages and check bank balances. There’s news of SNOW in Essex, with an excellent photo of Jed and a snowman, and lots of emails for the contacts on my ‘Holiday’ distribution list. I reply to the emails, and since the bank balances are ‘good’, we head off for Montana Winery on the Kaikoura Road at 11am. Soon there, we check out the wines at the “cellar door” as the Kiwis call it. There are several wines we’ve never seen in England, but we’re very surprised to discover that the prices of the ones we do know are higher than they are in Tesco’s!!!! How can it be that a wine made less than 100 yards away and bottled in NZ costs more than the same bottle of wine almost 20,000 miles away? We’d first noticed this when we’d bought wine at local supermarkets – in fact, even Australian wines are cheaper than NZ wines. Notwithstanding the disappointment (!), we buy three bottles of wine and a bottle of bubbly for my birthday.

We had lunch in the Montana Restaurant – they do a Sauv. Blanc and Pinot Noir “platter”, which takes our fancy. This is food platter with three small meat dishes on it, and three complimenting wines to accompany each platter. At $25 per platter, this proves very good value, and the wines are excellent.

After lunch we did the winery tour – a young NZ’er took us around the crushing, fermentation and ageing processes, and we finished up with some wine tasting. There are only 10 of us on the tour (2 French girls, 4 Swedes, an English couple, and us) and in 15 short minutes of wine tasting, our guide imparts more common sense and knowledge about seeing, smelling and sipping wines than I ever got from Oz Clarke’s Wine Tour of France.

Having already had too much wine, we skip the Villa Maria winery and head back to Blenheim to walk it off before making our way back to the lodge for a lazy afternoon in the sun.

On our arrival, the two trainee linesmen had suggested Springlands as a good eating place, so we head off there for our evening meal. The two lads are already installed and tucking into their meal. There’s a fixed price meal ($25) – you get soup and roll plus main course with salad bar plus dessert buffet!!! The soup is Pumpkin; Chris has a sirloin steak and I have satay chicken with rice, and we both have a side salad. Then two visits to the dessert buffet follow; cheesecake with fresh fruit salad, then freshly made, cream-filled, brandy snaps. With the wine, our bill is $68 and, with a round of drinks for the two lads as a thank-you for their recommendation, we end up paying $73.50 (£27.25).

On our return, one of the lads is in the courtyard throwing a rugby ball in the air and catching it. It turns out that his mates have gone out for a drink, and he’s only 16 and was refused service. He comes from Harihari on the west coast of the South Island – the real NZ as he calls it. Harihari is a town of 800 people – you can tell he’s a small-town boy.

The course he’s on is quite an adventure for him – his first time away from home with people he doesn’t know. He chats away about having been to Christchurch once with his rugby team, and how Christchurch supplies most of the rugby players to the professional leagues – it’s clear he’d rather be out on the field practicing his rugby with his mates, and he tells me so. My guess is that he’s a bit home sick and he starts telling me about his dad’s failed transport business and he now drives a JCB for a living. With a, “Time for bed, hey”, he’s gone.

After a little accounting, I’m off to bed too – it’s a travelling day tomorrow, and we want to arrive early to avoid a long search for a motel.

Day 14 – Journey to Kaikoura

We’re on the road early for the short drive down the SH-1 to Kaikoura. The landscape’s odd – very hilly, but the hills are khaki coloured, with very few trees or bushes. Cows and sheep are also absent, which is very odd for NZ. It’s as if the hills are grass covered and the sun has scorched it.

The railway runs alongside the road for the whole journey, and a passenger train and a goods train add interest to the drive. For much of the way, the road also hugs the coast, and since this is the east of the Island, it’s the South Pacific Ocean we we’re looking at. The rollers are quite high, and they break and crash into the shore with dramatic effect.

By 12 noon were in Kaikoura and head straight for the sea-front area to look for a motel. Some are already saying “No Vacancies” but luckily we find the White Morph Motor Inn. The name has nothing to do with an unusually coloured cartoon character; a white morph is a large sea bird, a bit like a gull. The lady at reception says she only has one vacancy, but warns it’s next to the laundry. The mitigation is that the laundry shuts at 9pm and the room is only $100. We take it.

After unpacking, we head straightway to the i-Site to check if we need to do anything about our whale-witching reservations for the next day. The ever-helpful i-Site person says, “No, just turn up 30 minutes beforehand to check in and pay”. While in the i-Site, we run into the two French girls we’d met on the winery tour yesterday – they were trying to book a whale-watch too.

After a brunch of double eggs and bacon on toast, we make a plan to do a walk around the Kaikoura Peninsula!!!

Kaikoura is a small town. There’s a “high street” running directly off of the SH-1 – it hugs the shoreline of the peninsula – our motel is along this road, as is the i-Site office and all the cafés, shops, motels and restaurants. Beyond our motel there is very little except a car park at the end of the peninsula. From here starts a walkway that takes us around the balance of the peninsula’s headland, high up on the cliff tops. It’s the home of a seal colony and a wide variety of sea birds including: small penguins, gannets, cormorants and roaming albatrosses.

It’s an easy walk once you’ve climbed the zig-zag path that gets you to the cliff top. Again we run into the two French girls and pass some time chatting in broken English. Instead of retracing our steps, we decide to take the “shoreline walkway” for our return journey. The i-Site advisor had told us that this path is okay except for the two hours either side of high tide, when it gets dangerous. I’d noticed that high tide was about 9pm – we should be okay.

The shoreline was much more interesting – seaweed, shells, a closer look at the seals, and more interaction with the sea birds. We are unlucky with the penguins, they are probably at sea, fishing. The only one we see is a dead one; washed up by the incoming tide. But, the seals are entertaining and the sea’s always exciting.

Much of the walk is on cobbles or pathways worn by people and the sheep. But, towards the tip of the peninsula, the rock was only partially eroded – fingers reached out into the sea, and incoming waves crashed over them periodically and filled the small inlets. This made for an exciting and slightly perilous scramble up and down the rocks, timing each excursion so as to avoid the incoming swell. It was only 5pm, and I imagined that by 7pm (2 hours before high tide), it would be impossible to make this section of the walk without getting very wet!!!

By the time we get back to the car park we could both ‘feel’ our legs and our feet were aching from the scramble over the rocks and walking on the cobbles.

A chat in the car park reveals some useful information about eating in Rotorua – although our plan does not get us there until about 10th March, we make a careful note: It’s called the Skyline Restaurant, and it’s atop an exciting cable-car ride up the side of a hill that overlooks the lake and the town. There’s a $20 buffet and it’s excellent apparently – we’ll see. Our helpful advisor is killing time while his wife is doing the whale watch – he explains he’s a poor sailor, and had ducked out of the trip!!!

Feeling good after our walk, we wash up and head off for dinner at 7pm.

Kaikoura is the “crayfish capital of NZ”, so Chris decides she’s going for it. Even though the fish are caught off the Kaikoura coast, you pay the export price at all local cafes and restaurants – the only way to get crayfish cheaper is either catch them yourself, or to buy them uncooked from vendors alongside the road. In any event, we find a ½ crayfish with noodles for $35 for Chris, and I have fettuccini with mussels, white fish and calamari. With the mandatory bottle of wine, we have our first “over $100 meal”. But, we’ll never be here again hey.

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