Monday, December 18, 2006

Greetings from a very wet Taupo (and I'm not just talking about the lake)

Wednesday 6th December 2006

Got bus from Albany to Perth. I think travelling such vast distances has been good for my patience as the 6 hours seem to pass quite quickly. It is noticeably warmer on arrival in Perth (30C+). I spent the afternoon updating photos online and then went for a long walk along the Swan River. It was beautiful in the evening sunshine, and interesting to watch all the locals cycling and jogging. After cooking and eating I had an early night to prepare for the long day/night ahead

Thursday 7th December 2006

I took it fairly easy in the morning, mainly staying around the hostel, prior to getting the airport shuttle bus at 3pm. I did some further stuff on the internet (managing to get some extra free time when the whole system crashed on me), cooked a leisurely lunch and read for a bit.

I met a chap from France (Thomas, from Annecy), while waiting for the bus. He had been staying in the room next to mine at the Perth City YHA, but we hadn't met previously. I spotted his french accent, so we started chatting from there...

Also spoke to a Kiwi (a person from New Zealand, that is, not a flightless bird!)) on the bus, so got some tips about where to go in New Zealand.

On checking in at the airport, Thomas discovered that his luggage was overweight (a bit like being in an episode of "Airport"). Some re-packing was required, before going back to try again. He had got the excess baggage charge down quite a bit, but there was still some money to pay (which he as prepared to do). The next problem, however, was that he only had a single ticket, and New Zealand immigration requires an onward ticket in order to let you into the country. He therefore had to buy an expensive (but fully refundable ticket) which could be reimbursed on arrival. Ah, the joys of antipodean bureaucracy!

We finally got our seats allocated (next to each other, so we could have some in-flight language lessons) on our third attempt and the kind ladies at the service desk waived the excess baggage charges (either feeling sorry for us, or won over by our anglo-french charm offensive).

Thomas proceeded to buy me a coffee as a thank you for my translation services.

The flight was really good, mostly spent chatting in French and English and drinking a very nice Pinot Noir. Didn't manage to sleep a wink, so I think the first few hours in Auckland will pass in rather a blur.

Friday 8th December 2006

Arrived in Auckland very early in the morning. Customs were kind enough to wash my boots (a bit of poo on one of them apparently) and took away my tent for a thorough inspection. The bloke in front of me had 2 big spiders in his swag, so I guess they have a good reason for making a thorough check. Still, it was a bit annoying that they had made a pig's ear of repacking my tent - I ended up having to spread it out on the airport floor and start again.

Got the bus into Auckland city centre and dumped my bags at the hostel (Auckland Central Backpackers - just off of Queens Street in the centre of town). Couldn't check-in until 11am so went for a coffee and pastry with Thomas. Lovely little cafe and excellent coffee. Good first impressions. Auckland seemed much busier than Perth, which made a nice change. Giant papier-mache (well, maybe fibre-glass) Santa attached to one of the buildings. Rather creepy looking, as it has a winking eye an a come-hither finger. A bit sinister and rather disturbing. The Daily Mail would be outraged and probably instigate a campaign for its removal.

Managed (somehow) to keep going during the day. Wandered around Auckland, did some food shopping (cheaper than in Australia - hooray), had a leisurely lunch/dinner and carried on practicing my French with Tomas, who is a really nice bloke.

Spent the evening with some more french-speakers (France/Quebec) and finally went to bed once the bar - right next door to our room (typical!) - had closed. This was at 11pm because whilst it normally closes at 7:30pm, there was a special party on (with pumping dance music - oh joy), to celebrate our arrival (?)...

Saturday 9th December 2006

Slept for 12 hours solid. Luckily not too noisy one the party had finished.

Spent the day making further excursions out into Auckland. Had lunch with Thomas in an Asian food court. $6 - almost like being back in Singapore. Booked bus up to Paihia and bought BBH card.

Later in the afternoon went to supermarket (again) to assemble picnic stuff. Took this up to the Domain for the Christmas in the Park extravaganza. Lovely park with museum in the background (the new atrium was opened by the Prime Minister the day before). The rain began almost as soon as we had sat down and opened the wine. It was really cold - my hands quickly lost all feeling. Up until that point the weather hadn't been too bad. There had been a brief band of rain on Friday evening and a couple of short showers during the day on Saturday, but out of the wind it had been warmish when the sun came out.

Still, we sat it out and munched on bread and salami... all the while enduring the awful entertainment. Perhaps that should be in inverted commas. It really was sub-Royal Variety Performance stuff: kids singing carols, precocious child singer-songwriters, assorted other tat. We made it to the interval, getting wetter and wetter all the time. By that stage we had had enough, so decided to head back to the hostel and eat our fruit-course (good strawberries) and finish the wine in the dry.

We finished off the evening by going to a couple of bars for a nightcap. Nice to be in the warm and dry...

Sunday 10th December 2006

Up (too) early to get the bus to Paihia. Beautiful journey - green hills, glimpses of the sea and estuaries along the way. Lovely stuff. Arrived at lunchtime.

After erecting the tent and eating I had a wander around the town before lounging on the beach for a couple of hours. Quite nice out of the breeze and in the sun. Otherwise pretty chilly. Seemed like a nice quiet town, with a lovely location looking out to the bay (rather unsurprisingly dotted with islands). Got some bits from the supermarket (including a heavily discounted bottle of Pinot Noir) and headed back to the hostel.

Really friendly bunch of people around the hostel (including a nice couple who are looking after the place while the owners are away). Nice courtyard for eating al fresco, although several layers are required.

Monday 11th December 2006

Beautiful sunny start. Starting to feel more human after a really good night's sleep.

Quite chilly, but the eat-as-much-as-you-possibly-can buffet breakfast does a good job of warming me up. Absolutely stuffed: minimum lunch will be required for the next week...

Got ferry across to Russell. Chatted with friendly middle-aged couple from Wellington (NZ, not Somerset) on boat. Lovely relaxed holiday atmosphere.

Russell is a really pretty little town. Clapboard houses (is that the right term? Anyway, painted wooden constructions) and lush green hills behind the town remind me of Carriacou. Gorgeous.

I spend the day walking all around the peninsula on which Russell sits. Amazing views from various lookout points - especially from the end of the peninsula: the 360 degree views of the bays and islands is indescribably beautiful. This, plus the fact that my camera has miraculously started working again, makes me feel almost euphoric. So much so that I even braved a swim in the freezing (16C) water. By this time the air was really warm, so it was actually quite refreshing (and the sea lovely and clean). Further walks through pretty, fern-filled woods led me to other nice beaches and viewpoints. I eventually worked my way back to Russell for the return ferry. All in all an amazing day.

Met some more nice people back at the hostel including Gallit (who went to Art College in Exeter), Simone from Italy (changing from French to Italian and vice versa seems to be getting a bit easier - maybe I'm learning to switch more quickly), Faye (from Coventry) and Colin (from USA, via Melbourne)

Got told off by the dragon-like owner for talking after the curfew (1 minute past 11pm). Her face is so sour she could curdle milk. It must be years since that last time she smiled. Luckily the gorgeous star-filled sky meant that I went to bed happy despite the altercation.

Tuesday 12th December 2006

Another gorgeous sunny day. And another gluttonous attack on the breakfast buffet.

Today walked to Opua and back. First up to the look-out behind Paihia (amazing views of the bay). Beautiful forests - still amazing to see so many tree ferns and other unusual plants. Feels like tropical rainforest. Track follows a ridgeline a few kms behind the coast. Unfortunately the trees obscured what would have otherwise been fantastic views (Dad, you would have been really irritated by this), but the tranquility and isolation (didn't see a single person) made up for it. Glad to be in the shade in actual fact as it is really quite hot by the middle of the day.

Joined gravel road and followed it down the hill to Opua. Lovely views as I approached the coast. Opua is a pretty little town/village. Loads of flowers and some stunning looking residential properties (probably all holiday homes).

The track then follows the coast back to Paihia. It's rather reminiscent of sections of the SW coast patch around the estuaries of S. Devon/Cornwall. I stopped for a brief snooze on the beach continuing.

Later in the afternoon I managed to have a Wood-style mishap while standing on a bench (rather precariously) to take a photo. I somehow lost my balance, slipped off the back of the bench, scraped my shin and took a chunk out of my foot. Luckily I had my first aid kit with me, so I was able to clean up the wound and apply a plaster (thankfully I was not seriously injured).

I hobbled back to the hostel - I was already nearly back when I had my whoopsy, so there wasn't that far to go.

Put feet up and had some wine for its anaesthetic effect. It was a nice Cab/Merlot from Hawkes Bay (I'm trying to drink local!), which goes rather well with my Spag Carbonara.

Spent the rest of the evening chatting with Gallit/Faye/Maya - the latter from Slovakia - very pleasant... helped me forget about the chunk missing from the foot.

Wednesday 13th December 2006

After two mammoth walking days I decided to take it relatively easy and do some organisational stuff. I decided that it would give me some peace of mind to know where I will be staying over the Christmas period (other people have spoken about places being booked up, etc.). I also had a lovely chat with Mum and Dad, making use of the free credit I got when buying a BBH Hostel Discount Card.

I found out about the Naked Bus from Faye (I'm hoping it won't be full of naturists). It has fares starting from $1. I managed to book a few cheap tickets online and even splashed out on a $6 fare. Naked bus can't quite get me everywhere that I want to go on the North Island, but it covers a big chunk. I will fill in the gaps with Intercity/Shuttle services.

I also called a few hostels, which responded with varying degrees of friendliness. One tells me that it is ridiculous to book so far in advance (the person on the phone made me feel really stupid for trying to do so), so I decided that perhaps I don't want to stay there after all. The Cat's Pyjamas in Whitianga seems really good, on the other hand (a lovely lady answered the phone and it only costs $12 a night for tent pitches). So I decided to stay there over Christmas. It's quite satisfying to have a plan - especially when it costs so little. I hope the South Island proves to be a similar bargain, but I rather doubt it, from what I've heard...

Another nice evening, out in the courtyard of the hostel. The friendliness of my fellow guests is the polar opposite to that of the owners. It is good that Gallit, Faye and Maya are all staying at the hostel until Saturday, like me, as that helps to give the hostel a really homely feel. They are also all going on the same trip to Cape Reinga tomorrow.

Forgot to say the exciting news that I found a Woolworths earlier in the day, which has a much better selection of foodstuffs than the Four Square in town and is still quite a bit cheaper than Australia, even in a touristy place like this. That's an added bonus for a food obsessive like me.

Thursday 14th December 2006

I managed a brief raid on the buffet table before catching the tour bus at 7:15am. It would prove to be a long day ahead (12 hours), taking in 90-mile beach, the Kauri Forests and Cape Reinga, etc. The Guide sounded just like Clive James, but without the sense of humour. He seemed to find it amusing to make unfunny jokes about Australians, women, rugby... groan. The selection of music was awful too. Instrumental (mainly saxophone) muzak versions of "classic" hits and Boney M's Greatest Hits on repeat. Joy. Luckily the sights compensate.

The journey up the coast is beautiful. More bays, estuaries, hills, forests, beaches. Lovely.

Our first stop was to look at the giant Kauri trees in an ancient forest. Nice boardwarlk through the forest, but quite cool in the cloud (it was the worst weather since Auckland, but at least it didn't rain.

Next we stopped at a bit of a tacky Kauri-wood souvenir shop for morning coffee. I resist both the overpriced coffee and the tat on offer in the shop. The drive along 90-mile beach was much better. It was really strange to drive along such a long beach in a Coach and the driver took great satisfaction in telling us all about all the people who has got stranded by the tide/caught in quicksand, etc.. The weather was still a bit overcast, but not too cold.

We stopped at some giant sand dunes for what proved to be the highlight of the day: boogie boarding down the dunes. It was quite a trek to the top (the dune must be 100m high), but was worth it for the views and the thrill of sliding back down and getting a lung/nose/eye/ear-full of sand!

Got to Cape Reinga about lunchtime. Interesting to think that there is nothing between us and Russia. Otherwise it is a bit disappointing. Have seen nicer coastlines in the UK. Ah well, at least I can now head South in the knowledge that I haven't missed anything... The drive back in the afternoon was a bit of a drag. We stopped at a nice beach for a late lunch stop, but after that it was just straight back down the road, only stopping a couple of times (for a refreshment break at the same tat shop as in the morning, and then a fish and chip stop for an early tea at 5pm. Naturally I declined on both occasions).

We were all pretty tired when we got back in the evening, but had another nice sociable courtyard dinner (with the bonus of finding quite a bit of good stuff in the "free food" box). Getting freebies are proving to be definite highlights of the trip.

Friday 15th December 2006

Morning spent gorging myself on breakfast, doing my washing, and beginning to write this (I am now finishing it and posting it from Taupo, where the internet connection is slightly cheaper and better).

In the afternoon I walked to the waterfall (can't remember the name - all the Maori names sound really similar to my ignorant western ears), through more forest and mangrove. Lovely walk and the falls were quite nice in an understated way, although the sign warning of raw sewage meant that I wasn't too impressed about getting covered in spray. I saw several interesting birds, including a Tui, which has white baubly things under its chin.

Another evening of chit-chat under the stars. The weather has been really good and so has the company. I really enjoyed my time in the Bay of Islands... it was very laid-back and relaxing. I'm sure it would have been a bit dismal in the rain, but so far I have been lucky...

Saturday 16th December 2006

I got really lucky and met a couple from Sheffield the previous day who were driving south to Auckland in the morning. They offered to give me a lift and so I was able to get a refund on my bus ticket. Maya from Slovakia also got a lift so we bought them a case of beer to say thank you (but still saved over $30).

We stopped at Hundertwasser toilets in Kawakawa en route. Really interesting to have a small culture fix after so much natural scenic beauty. The detail in the toilets is amazing, although it feels a bit odd taking photos of a thunderbox/pissoir (luckily no one was in there at the time).

The kind couple dropped me off right at the bus station in Auckland, so from there I jumped on my bus to Taupo. It was a long drive and the bus stopped twice for refreshment breaks, which was a bit annoying as I just wanted to get to my destination.

The drive was quite scenic, in an pastoral English kind of way. The weather was still quite good, so things looked especially nice in the sunshine.

Arrived in Taupo in time for my first Pak'n'Save experience (New Zealand's Lidl equivalent), which yielded a few bargains (e.g. heads of broccoli for mere pence!) and made me a happy bunny with a full shopping trolley and later an even fuller stomach (accompanied by more wine sampling).

The hostel seems nice. A bit bigger than the one in Paihia, but still friendly and welcoming. Went out for a drink with a few others (English, Danish, Australian, German), although the local Irish bar wasn't up to much. Quite a late night, so rather exhausted come the end after 9 hours travelling during the day.

Sunday 17th December 2006

Rather overcast today, with rain forecast for the afternoon. Still, it wasn't cold so I decided to get out early and walk up to Huka Falls and beyond. It was a beautiful riverside walk, with the river an amazing blue colour, even in the cloud. Passed some hot springs which flowed out into the river and thought about going for a dip on the way back (the trail was the same there and back).

Got to the falls quite quickly and was impressed by the flow of water (more a giant series of rapids than a waterfall, but stunning nonetheless). Decided to carry on along the trail to a place with another name I can't remember (it begins with an 'A'). There, the river has been dammed and the water is only released a few times each day. Luckily I arrived just in time to see the discharge and it was amazing to see how quickly the rapids filled with water after the gates were opened.

It seemed quite a long walk back (a good 3 hours each way) and the clouds were thickening all the while (it had been relatively bright in the morning). It was just beginning to spit with rain when I reached the hot springs so I decided to plough on back to the hostel instead. This was just as well as the rain increased in intensity just as I got back inside. Excellent timing and a really satisfying day!

The hostel is proving to be just as good as the previous one and I'm finding loads more nice people to talk to. Either I'm getting more tolerant in my old age (btw I have been asked for ID on several occasions - so can't look that old), am picking the right hostels, or just being lucky. Whatever the reason, it is rather nice and shapes your impressions of a place so much...

Monday 18th December

I don't think the rain stopped since yesterday evening, and it rained steadily all morning (and all afternoon... it is now 6pm and has just [finally] stopped raining). This rather scuppered my plan to walk up the mountain behind Taupo, and even my plan B of walking around the lake was scrapped when the rain refused to stop, even momentarily. Instead I went to the library to read some newspapers, and then to the supermarket... followed by long lunch, a snooze, several cups of tea and now some time in the internet cafe (5-7 is happy 2 hours, and therefore a bit cheaper). It really was a grim day weather wise, and the forecast is for it to continue in this vein for the next few days. Ah well, I have been really lucky thus far, and being in New Zealand, I know that I have to take the rough with the smooth and the wet with the dry. It is also a bonus staying in a nice hostel, with nice people as at least this provides a diversion from the greyness outside.

Several people did the Tongariro (sp?) crossing today in the rain (normally it is closed in bad weather but the forecast was much better than it actually turned out). They all came back totally soaked and miserable. You couldn't see beyond your feet, apparently. One chap got lost and only found the path when he heard voices in the distance. I'm glad I decided against it...

And there we are... just about up-to-date. At least if the weather continues like this I won't have so much to write about in the future!

Sorry about the epic posting. You've done well if you've got this far without falling asleep or needing a toilet break (even the spell check is telling me that it is too long!).

Time to go and eat my first New Zealand lamb (under 1 pound for two chops!), with ratatouille and sweet potato. Which rather calls for a nice bottle of wine, methinks.

Best wishes to you all,
James xx


Lottie said...

I'm thinking that my increasing intolerance to people is inversely proportionate to your increasing tolerance to people!! I'm liking the food theme running through it all and good to see that the wine consumption is remaining constant! Will try and email tomorrow morning (last half day before the xmas shutdown), but if not, have a fantastic Xmas at the Cat's Pyjamas or wherever it was and have a great New Year! Lottie xx

Dorchesterette said...

Happy Christmas, Glad to see your having a cool, foodie, boozy trip........ when you reach the South Island turn right and head for Abel Tasman and Old MacDonalds (campground), a moo moo here, a bah bah there - nice laid back atmosphere.......oh and it rains every day in the South Island! Look out for those sandflies and don't scratch the bites. x Steve, Jo and Ellie x