Our New Zealand Adventure
January 2016 - week 1
Saturday 9th January 2016

Another long journey halfway around the world!

We had a leisurely start on Thursday, with our cab picking us up at 5.30pm. The journey to Heathrow was mainly on minor roads for the first part, with the bumpy surfaces leaving us a little sea-sick by the time we got to the airport. The driver even got us on to the M25 via the motorway services at Clackett’s Lane, where he even got a no-entry barrier to raise automatically for him!

We gave ourselves the luxury of a couple of hours in a nice lounge before the plane took off at a little after 10pm. We flew in one of those enormous two-decker AirBus A380s, and its entertainment system was top-notch – a choice of nearly 300 films to watch. It took twelve hours to get to Singapore, where we disembarked and waited for nearly three hours for another A380. This time we were upstairs. A nine hour flight brought us to Auckland and our hire car.

We checked into our hotel near the city centre then took its shuttle bus to the waterfront. We tracked down the nice bar where we’d had superb fish and  chips when we were here in November 2013 and repeated the delightful experience. By now, even though it was only 4.30pm local time, we couldn’t face any more exertions, so we came back to the hotel. We’re going to try to hold out until 8pm before going to bed, but I’m not sure we can last that long! After all, we’ve had over 40 hours of little to no sleep!

Tomorrow we’re meeting my cousin and his wife for a while, and then on Monday we set off for our driving tour of New Zealand.

We ate here last time!
Sunday 10th January 2016

We slept for eleven hours, which was hardly surprising. In fact, I’m not sure how we held out until 7.30pm last night before turning  out the light!

We’re staying at The Langham Hotel, which is 7/8 minutes by road from the waterfront area. It’s pretty much a business hotel by the look of it, and seems to get used a lot by tour companies to accommodate travellers like us. It’s pleasant but unremarkable, until you go for breakfast. The buffet is truly excellent, with a huge range of choices of delicious foods. It seems to emphasise, especially after the wonderful fish and chips that we enjoyed yesterday, that New Zealand really will be a gastronomic delight.

The hotel runs a shuttle bus to and from the waterfront area, but there’s a restricted service on Sundays. Since we wanted to be at the harbour booking office by 10.15 we decided to walk into town. Luckily, it was downhill all the way and took only 20 minutes, also giving us the opportunity to sightsee as we walked.
... this is what we had both times!
Harbour tour
We took the 10.30am harbour tour, and the fare included a separate return ticket to Devonport, just across the bay. The weather was very variable, with sunny intervals as we were leaving, heavy rain squalls while underway and sunshine on our return at midday – English Spring weather really!

The furthest point on the tour was Rangitoto Island. This was formed by volcanic activity only 6-700 years ago, and is now an ecologically-protected  reserve. New Zealand is desperately keen to hold at bay anything that could threaten its agriculture and ecology, which is why there’s an on-the-spot $400 fine if you’re caught with any of a whole range of fresh foods in your possession when you enter the country. Last time we were here Customs spotted a jar in Gill’s luggage on the x-rays and demanded to know what it was. It was jam that, amongst other things, Gill had brought with us for my relatives. If it had been honey that would have been a fine! That literally conservative attitude is applied to travel to Rangitoto, where they even expect you to thoroughly clean mud and muck from your footwear before arrival. When it comes to ecology people seem to recognise the reason for apparently petty restrictions.

When we arrived at Rangitoto the wind was gusting severely, and Gill, who never wears trousers, was in constant danger of doing Marilyn Monroe impressions, so after walking down the pier and taking photos we went straight back to the ferry for our complimentary tea and cake. It’s a shame that the weather has been dull and rainy for most of the day because no city looks wonderful under those conditions.

Back on dry land in Auckland we met up with my third cousin, Neil, and his wife, Pauline for a very pleasant chat over drinks and snacks at the Britamart railway terminal. They had travelled into the city on a previously-redundant railway line that had only been re-opened a year or so ago. It was nice to meet up with them again and to immediately recognise each other having only met once before
Rangitoto Island
Esplanade Hotel, Devonport
We parted with them getting back on a train and us going off on foot to explore the waterfront area a little more. There was a Sunday market near the marina, and lots of very busy cafes, bars and restaurants. Since we’d already eaten with Neil and Pauline we went back to the ferry terminal and used our free tickets to travel over to Devonport.

The first building you notice as you leave the ferry is the Esplanade Hotel – it wouldn’t look out of place in Torquay! We stopped here for drinks outside in the (by now) bright sunshine, local Sauvignon Blanc for Gill and a fairly bitter beer for me. Afterwards we walked along the nearby Victoria Street, admiring the Art Deco architecture and enjoying the incredibly peaceful atmosphere.

We took the 10 minute ferry trip back to Auckland, and, since there wasn’t a shuttle bus due for quite a while we took a cab back to The Langham, where we sat reading by the pool until the clouds rolled in again. Tonight we ate in the hotel restaurant.

Tomorrow we set off southwards towards the Coromandel Peninsula, where we’ll be staying for two nights in The Hidden River Valley. Apparently, the area is very undeveloped, with no mobile phone signal. The place where we’re staying also has no Internet access/Wi-Fi, so we’ll be silent for a couple of days.

Esplanade Hotel, Devonport
Langham Hotel, Auckland
New Zealand's unusual
ice creams
Monday 11th January 2016
Auckland to the Coromandel Pensinsula

We were both awake at 4am, so had a cup of tea and read. By 6am we’d decided to get up and make an early start, and we left Auckland a little after 8am. Gill knew that we’d be self-catering for the next couple of days and that we needed to stop for provisions somewhere along the way. Yesterday, Neil suggested Thames, which is about three quarters of the way to our accommodation at Wairua Lodge in The Hidden Valley.

Thames seems fairly typical of many New Zealand towns, built in a long, low rise strip along a through road, meaning that if you want to shop at both ends of the high street you probably need to drive between the two! Having done our shopping we drove on to Tairua, where we stopped for lunch. Ominously, heavy rain  started while we were there, but crossed our fingers and assumed that it would pass. Ooops!

A little further northwards on the Coromandel Peninsula is the ‘Hot Water Beach’, which Gill’s keen to experience. Geothermally-heated hot water rises to the surface on the beach, which has led to the local tradition of digging a hole in the sand to sit in and let it fill up – a sort of personal spa bath. You can even rent spades! We took a brief look from the car before driving on since the skies were very murky. We might well come back on Wednesday on our way to Matamata.

Window shopping?
Cathedral Cove Boat Tour
Cathedral Cove Boat Tour
Cathedral Cove Boat Tour
On-line, Gill had discovered The Cathedral Cove Boat Tour at Hahei and before leaving Auckland this morning she booked us on to the 2pm trip. They take 8-10 people at a time out on zodiacs (inflatable dinghies) on, ‘an hour long tour that travels along 14 km of magnificent volcanic coastline’. The white sand beach where the tour starts was virtually deserted, and on a hot summer’s day, like it should have been today, it would have been a superb place to spend time.

We put on lifejackets and set off on to a windswept, heaving, grey sea, with the ‘driver’ pointing out geological features and telling us some of the history of the area including the massacre of  small groups of Maoris by other, cannibal locals. Charming!

As we headed further into the bay the rain became torrential and squally, driven at us by fierce winds, and eventually we all agreed to head back to the beach, where the organisers gave us a 50% refund. In truth, they should probably have anticipated the poor weather and suggested that we should all come back tomorrow. We were both soaked to the skin and had to change before getting back in the car and heading for Wairua Lodge 30 minutes away
Cathedral Cove Boat Tour
Wairua Lodge
Wairua Lodge
Wairua Lodge
Wairua Lodge
Grounds of
Wairua Lodge
Approaching our destination the road grew steadily rougher, eventually becoming a gravel track. Just before the lodge we had to drive through a shallow river crossing that, it seems, isn’t always passable. The lodge and its associated buildings are set on a steep site in lush rain forest with huge trees and ferns all around. A small river runs through the lower part of the huge site, and several small waterfalls also feed it. It also has two ‘swimming holes’ where older children could have an absolutely wonderful time.

The owners live in the lodge itself, next to four cabins and the two bedroom ‘River Suite’ where we’re staying. All water used on site is either from rainfall or the river and is as fresh and soft as you could possibly imagine. In short it’s an ecological paradise.

We’ve discovered that there is Wi-fi within a very small radius of the front door of the lodge, so I’m hoping that we’ll be able to get this update off tonight as usual!
Grounds of Wairua Lodge
Grounds of Wairua Lodge
Grounds of Wairua Lodge
Tuesday 12th January 2016
Wairua Lodge

A little more about Wairua Lodge and its surroundings.

We were woken occasionally in the night by the sound of heavy rain on the roof, which doesn’t bode well for today. However, you have to say that it adds to the wonderful rain forest atmosphere around us. We’d prefer to see it in bright sunlight, of course!

Given the warmth, damp and greenery of the rain forest that comes right up to our windows Gill was sceptical when the owner told us that there is little to no insect problem here. However, that’s now been borne out by experience. And such insects as do risk buzzing around at night become a tasty snack for the local owls that come out at dusk – we haven’t seen then yet, but apparently four of them live in a tree very close by.

On Christmas Day, when Winnie was with us, Sarah, Carly, Gill and I played, ‘Balderdash’, which, if you don’t know the game, is pretty much, ‘Call My Bluff’. One of the extraordinary genuine definitions related to a New Zealand bird whose cry sounds like, “More Pork!” We were therefore amazed by the coincidence when the owner said that these are the owls that live here.

Last night we tried out the ‘Tree Top Spa’, which sits on the decking just a little way along from our rooms. It’s for use by all guests and has to be booked an hour at a time. It’s a spa bath in an open-fronted shelter that’s set high amongst mature trees and huge ferns, with a view downwards into a heavily wooded cleft in the landscape. You can hear the really quite loud rushing of the stream that runs at the bottom down towards the river. The owners have tried to make it as relaxing an experience as possible, with candles and a music system with a supply of ‘mood music’ CDs. The best bit is that they’ve installed three spotlights in the forest , and at night these pick out the textures and colours of the vegetation in a quite spectacular way. I’d challenge anyone, no matter how stressed, not to feel deeply soothed when relaxing in the gloriously hot water, chin-deep in bubbles, listening to rushing water and gazing on an ‘illuminated tunnel’ in the forest below. We’ve booked it again for tonight!

We got up this morning to the sound of more heavy rain, and after breakfast it was still gloomy, so we delayed going out for the day until 10.30a. We headed for Whitianga, which is less than ten miles away, and while were there the sun finally emerged. It’s a very pleasant little town with the customary high street strip of small shops, but also with a marina that clearly brings income to the community. Word has it that hippies ‘moved’ into the Coromandel pensinsula in the 1980s, attracted by its peace and low cost of living.
We moved on further into the peninsula looking for lunch and found it at Luke’s Kitchen in Kuaotunu, another little coastal settlement. It was now midday and had been sunny, but the rain caught up with us again as we were eating. We shared a big jug of White Sangria – luckily, with me driving, it wasn’t too strong – and had two dishes to share between us, Fish and Chips and a rather lovely pizza. Afterwards, we strolled to the nearby beach and Gill had a very brief paddle – the water was very cold!

Grounds of Wairua Lodge
'Tree Top Spa'
Then, off again to Coromandel itself. Parking in New Zealand outside the major cities seems to be a complete doddle as you can park easily (and for free!) in high streets. We stepped out of the car and directly into another ‘arty’ shop, but when we came out the rain was bucketing down, so we got back into the car as shoppers scattered. We waited a fair while for it to ease off, but eventually gave up and headed for ‘home’.

The shortest, but, it turned out, not necessarily quickest, route back was on a really poor road called ‘The 309’ since that was how many minutes it took to travel by coach between the two towns it linked in the days of stagecoaches. You simply couldn’t drive above 20mph due to the crumbling surface and muck on the road. The Old Coach Road, which it replaced, was even worse. ‘When overtaken by darkness or a stormy night, the mail always got through, with the driver feeling the uphill cliff face with his whip to ensure the coach wheels stayed on track and did not plunge in to the river below’. Even now there are huge, unprotected drops to one side or the other with the road sloping towards them. Not a relaxing drive for either of us! When we got back we found that there was mud plastered up both sides of the car – that’ll mean a car wash before we hand it back to Avis in Wellington!

Last night we sat down with a few DVDs and watched the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring, getting ready for our trip to ‘Hobbiton’ on Thursday, and tonight we watched ‘The Piano’, which was also filmed in New Zealand. Tomorrow we set off southwards towards Matamata where we’re staying overnight ready for an early arrival at Hobbiton.
'Luke's Kitchen'

Wednesday 13th January 2016
Coromandel to Matamata

It was apparent as soon as the sun came up that we were in for a nice day. It was unfortunate that it came just as we were leaving the Coromandel peninsula, but even so we’d enjoyed our time there enormously.

So, it was off southwards towards Matamata where we’d be staying tonight. The roads seem to be very quiet all of the time, making driving almost a pleasure. We’re still amazed at the amount of blue and white Agapanthus that grows wild along the verges beside all of the roads we’ve driven along so far.

It’s a three hour drive from Wairua Lodge to Matamata, so we planned to stop a couple of times along the way. As we approached Paeroa I decided to fill up with fuel and see if the service station had a car wash - yesterday’s mud coating had dried and was nearly up to the windows. We’d covered 500 kilometres (about 300 miles) since leaving Auckland with a full tank, and it cost about $50 (about £24) to fill it, which I thought was pretty good. Sadly, the service station had no car wash, but it did have a complimentary bucket of water and a brush, so I cleaned off as much mud as I could. When we stopped in Paeroa it was immediately apparent that I’d pretty much just spread the mess around a bit, so we need a car wash in Matamata!

Paeroa was probably the busiest town that we’ve come across so far, as usual laid out in a long strip. We treated ourselves to ice creams of a type that, until Monday in Tairua, we’d never seen before anywhere in the world. Scoops of vanilla ice cream are put into a clear plastic inverted cone and frozen whole fruit of your choice is added. A rotating corkscrew-like device is then forced down into the top of the plastic cone and the resulting mixture of fruit ice cream is forced out, Mr Whippy-style, into a waffle cone at the other end. It’s more interesting as theatre than anything else :o)

While I was eating my cone I checked my e-mail and was amazed to find that I’d received a message from a family member that I hadn’t heard of before. She’s the sister-in-law of my cousin in Auckland, and he’d just passed on my e-mail address and said that we’d be crossing to the south island at some point and would we like to meet up. Yes, we would!

We carried on to Matamata, first of all finding tonight’s B&B but not stopping, and then going into town for lunch. The tourist information centre there has been built to look like something from MiddleEarth, thatched roof and all! We then drove out to ‘Hobbiton’, where scenes from both Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit were shot as we wanted a quick look in the souvenir store. We’d been here two years ago on a cruise excursion but couldn’t resist another visit – we’re booked in for 9.30am tomorrow.

'Eldonwood' B&B
We then drove back to the B&B. Things were a little uncertain at first, as the owners didn’t seem to be expecting us. However, the paperwork that Gill had brought with her cleared things up and made them realise that the slip-up had been theirs. Luckily our room was free anyway. To make amends the owner hand-washed our car for us, which was really very kind of him.

It was now about 4.30pm and the weather was gloriously sunny, so we sat reading in the garden for an hour or two. Since we’d had a good lunch neither of us was particularly hungry, so we had a snack and a cup of tea in our room rather than going out again.

So, Hobbiton (again) tomorrow morning and then on to Rotorua and its hot springs.

Thursday 14th January 2016
'Hobbiton' to Rotorua

We had an early breakfast because we needed to be at ‘Hobbiton’ for our tour at 9.30am. Tours set off every 15 minutes throughout the day, and in peak season there’s no point in even considering a visit unless you’ve booked in advance because it gets so busy.

Last time we were there everything was new to us and the tour was over almost too quickly to fully absorb it all. This time we knew what was coming and could appreciate it better. The young guides who take you round are almost ridiculously well-informed about the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films and effortlessly field even seemingly obscure questions.
Peter Jackson found the area when flying over it looking for locations. He approached the farmer whose family owned the land and asked him to sign a confidentiality agreement before telling him what he wanted it for. Having secured the farmer’s OK he approached the New Zealand government to ask for financial support to make the three Lord of the Rings films. The Prime Minister informed him with regret that this was not possible, but said that troops could be made available. They were used for major landscaping projects and building a road deep into the site. When their work was done Jackson rewarded the soldiers by offering them roles as extras in his films. They were kitted out as orcs, notoriously one of the more violent and vicious races on MiddleEarth, and identified with their roles so closely that they had to be asked to ‘tone it down a little’.
There are round Hobbit front doors all around the site, but they’re all dummies, and most of the buildings are thatched. There are five permanent on-site gardeners whose work persuades visitors that this is a living community whose inhabitants you can’t spot at the moment, i.e. the gardens at each ‘home’ are full of colourful flowers and the vegetable patches are bursting with produce. This is certainly a great time of year to visit.
Bag End, 'Hobbiton'
'Green Dragon'
The large oak tree on the top of Bilbo’s ‘Bag End’ is now a fully artificial tree, but for the first films they used a real tree that they found elsewhere in Matamata, cut down, moved to the site and re-assembled, fixing artificial leaves to the branches for the final effect. The Green Dragon pub is a very atmospheric place, with a blazing log fire, low ceilings and a choice of drinks for departing visitors. They’re brewed specially for Hobbiton by a brewery in Hamilton; stout (dark), ale (bitter) and cider, plus a non-alcoholic ginger beer.

We enjoyed our return visit enormously, even if we felt that, at the end, we were almost pushed off-site when we’d have liked to linger a little. However, with the huge numbers of people passing through each day it’s understandable that they have to be very careful about possible congestion.

We stopped in the shop when we left and bought a print that had caught our eye – Gill was keen that we should bring back something to hang on our walls as a souvenir! We also bought me an amusing t-shirt, but you’ll have to wait to see it ;o)
We set off on the one hour journey to Rotorua at about midday, in the bright sunshine that had made our morning so pleasant. Along the road there were hardly any houses, and certainly no towns, but the road was more busy than we’ve been used to so far. The scale of Rotorua therefore came as a bit of a surprise. It’s a very busy place, with loads of shops and with a network of streets spreading away from the lake. We passed the two hours waiting for check-in at our next B&B exploring the town and then sitting by the lake with ice creams, watching the black swans and also seeing seaplanes taking off and landing.

'Green Dragon'
'Green Dragon'
'Green Dragon'
Leaving 'Hobbiton'
At 3pm we checked in at the B&B with a very warm greeting (and some chilled local Sauvignon Blanc!) from the owners. They’re in their seventies and are both retired teachers with a great interest in New Zealand’s history. They’re also very knowledgeable on Maori affairs, which made for a very interesting discussion when we came back from our evening’s entertainment
View from Serendipity Homestay
down to Lake Rotorua
Hangi pit
Maori Cultural Evening
This took place at ‘Te Puia’, a local centre celebrating Maori culture. We were amongst 120 guests who were formally welcomed on-site by a fierce-looking warrior and his entourage in a greeting ceremony. We were guided into one of those large decorated Maori meeting houses for a short show of their culture, with singing, dancing, women deftly swinging those pom-poms on strings and the men performing the Haka – for the last two items audience participation was invited and quite a few people were sporting enough to join in – not us, though!

On our arrival we were shown the ‘Hangi pit’. Traditionally, Maoris heated large rocks in a pit in the ground, removed the ash and then filled the pit with baskets of meat covered with sacking to keep in the steam. Then the pit was covered over with soil for several hours while the food cooked gently in the heat of the rocks below. It’s a bit more 21st century now, with the ‘pit’ covered with a stainless steel lid, which was removed so that then sack-covered baskets could be removed. While we were being entertained the food was prepared for our buffet, which we enjoyed a great deal.
Maori Cultural Evening
Maori Cultural Evening
Maori Cultural Evening
Waiting for the geyser!
Waiting for the geyser!
Before leaving the site we all went to the nearby geyser in the (thwarted) hope that it might go off while we watched. The air was full of steam and the smell of sulphur and nearby terrain was covered with solidified silica that had built up over many thousand years. Hot springs have always held great significance for humans, becoming engrained in local culture, so you can well understand why Maoris have long congregated in the Rotorua area.

We were back at the B&B at 9pm, and had a very interesting chat with our hosts about what we’d just seen, with them explaining more about the Maoris and their culture. When we retired for the night I started to write this update, but found myself falling asleep over the keyboard, so postponed writing everything up until the morning. We’ve just had breakfast, and we’ll shortly be setting off for Lake Taupo and its hot springs.
Friday 15th January 2016
Rotorua to Taupo

We left Rotorua at 10am, heading southwards for Lake Taupo. As usual, the roads were fairly empty and driving was a real pleasure.

We stopped twice along the way at places recommended to us by last night’s excellent hosts. 40 minutes down the road we came to the ‘Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland’, which is described as New Zealand’s ‘most colourful and diverse volcanic area’. It’s main attraction is the Lady Knox Geyser (pronounced ‘Gy-zer’) that ‘erupts daily at 10.15am, reaching heights of up to 20 metres. You may well ask how it is that a geyser can erupt at such a specific time every day. Well, we asked, and it seems that they drop soap into it every day about 25 minutes before they want it to go off. Cheats! ;o)

The majority of the site is peppered with craters and caverns, all with steam rising from them, some with boiling water deep down, some with boiling mud. A couple of craters were bubbling with black liquid and had been named The Devil’s Inkwells. Apparently the rising boiling water was passing through crude oil deposits on the way to the surface. The source of the boiling water lay 5 kilometres below the surface and registered 375 degrees Celsius.

The Champagne Pool was an area of shallow boiling water with a layer of white silica just below the surface. Scattered around were patches of colour; yellow, red, purple, blue and green. The colours were due to the subterranean deposits through which the rising water had passed. Yellow indicated the presence of nasties like arsenic and antimony.
Multicoloured deposits
Hot water lake
Waikite Valley Thermal Springs
We stayed about two hours before moving on southwards towards the Waikite Valley Thermal Pools that Gill was very keen to visit. This location consists of a series of pools of varying temperatures that you can sit in and relax. The whole site is supplied by a stream that, unbelievably, emerges from the ground on-site as boiling water. It is blown through jets into the air to cool it to less than 40 degrees before it is supplied to the pools. We tried out all of the pools, but Gill was a lot keener than me!

This morning Gill had received an e-mail from tonight’s hosts asking when we expected to arrive. They explained that they’d be working ‘in the garden’ and needed to make sure that they were near the house when we turned up. What they didn’t mention is that, at six acres, their ‘garden’ is more like a park
River of boiling water!
Waikite Valley Thermal Springs
Kauri Point
Our room is enormous and magnificent, with windows in three walls giving views over the gardens and way beyond. On arrival we were invited to join our hosts and two other couples for drinks on the enormous deck that goes three quarters of the way around the house. One of the couples was German, from Chemnitz, which is between Leipzig and Dresden. They apologised that their English was very poor, whereupon my German came in very handy again!

This evening our hosts drove us into Taupo, where we had a look around the town  before having dinner in a very nice restaurant. We both had Trevally, which is a meaty fish a bit like mackerel that neither of us had heard of before. Afterwards we took a cab back ‘home’.

We’re here for two nights and greatly looking forward to our stay.
Taupo Saturday market
Maori Carvings, Lake Taupo
Lake Taupo boat trip
Wairaki Terraces Spa
Gardens at Kauri Point
Gardens at Kauri Point

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