Thursday, March 30, 2006

Day 4 - Rotorua

Breakfast was a simple affair this morning. Like many motels in NZ the Ascot on Fenton had its own kitchen, this was a luxury for us and we thought we had better make good use of it whilst we had it just in case we never saw one again.

Days are full in NZ, that's if you want to get the most from them in the short time that you have so I'd decided the night before we needed to stock up on provisions as I wouldn't be getting my usual holiday breakfast feast in some diner. Luckily we had a 24hr supermarket on the opposite side of the road to our motel.

Countdown Supermarket is one of the few NZ supermarket chains, (bizarrely Woolworths is another one), and in Rotorua it's a good place to hang out and see the many modern-day Maori people go about their shopping duties. Maoris are large, strong looking people, yes there is a lot of body fat but they are most definately not obese, they are more "well built" for want of a better term. Is this a modern day Maori meeting house? I'm not sure but not only were there Maoris shopping but there was also Maoris working there, and a lot of chatting and hanging around sharing stories just like in the traditional meeting houses. We do the same in the UK, back up in the north of England supermarket aisles are full of people hanging around gassing. Meeting houses indeed...

Digression out the way, breakfast today was simply fruit, toast and marmalade.

Lucky we ate breakfast too because little did we know that today was to turn out as probably one of our most energetic days of the holiday.

The agenda today was simple: hit the geothermal parks and hit them hard.

Billed as "New Zealand’s most colourful and diverse geothermal experience" Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland is like Walt Disney World on acid. As we approached, the entrance appeared shrouded in a mist of pungent steam. The whole place seemed to be on fire. From the minute you walk through the gates you are confronted immediately with the sights of naturally coloured pools, craters, bubbling mud and steaming ground. Unlike Disney though, everything you see here is real no matter how fake it may look.

This is one truly awesome place (oops there I go again, justified this time I feel though).

The trick with this place is to get there early, have a wander around for an hour and then at 10:15am head for the parks only geyser. This is a short drive away so you have to uproot your car from it's nice convenient parking spot and head with the masses back down the entrance road for 2 miles where you then park up again.

Now call me stupid but I figured that a geyser was a completely natural thing and I was prepared to be amazed at the Lady Knox Geyser's strict 10:15am prompt eruptive timekeeping. This isn't the case at all and Lady Knox needs to be aroused before she lets go...errmm.

At 10:15 a park ranger comes out, stands beside the good Lady and chucks a bar of soap into her to get her juices flowing (stop it now), and then procedes to tell you a potted history and exactly why the soap is needed (it acts as a catalyst with the acidic water).

All the time the Lady's bubbling away like an overflowing washing machine and getting more and more erratic until finally she let's go and the earth moves (ok, enough of this!).

The water gushes upwards to a height of around 15 metres in a pretty ferocious manner. Even with human intervention it's still spectacular and unmissable but there is still that slight disappointment that it's not wholy natural.

The whole thing lasts for around 15 minutes and then it's back in the car again to get back to the main park!

The rest of the morning was spent leisurely walking the three routes around the park taking hundreds of photos round every corner - of particular note is the unnaturally bright green pool near the exit. A wonderful sight to end our time here.

You will need to allow at least 3 hours to see the whole park and it really is well worth it.

Without a break we hit the road again...but not for long. On the road leading away from Wai-O-Tapu is a wonderful find - thermal mud pools, and hey these are free!

Here mud, in the form of a pool (errm), bubbles and spits in an erratic and sometimes dangerous manner (some of the biggest explosions shot out right over the fence) and again has to be seen to be believed.

Back in the safety of the car again we headed off to Waimangu Valley, another thermal reserve. This one is slightly different in that it's rather a large one, so large in fact that when you stand at the viewing point next to the ranger station at the beginning of the walk and look out across the valley it reminded us more of an American National Park like Yosemite. It's quite impressive.

$65 gets you a Waimangu Explorer pass which includes a walk and boat cruise. It was 1pm and the guide suggested that we could book onto the 3.40pm boat trip at the far end of the park, explaining that we should have plenty of time to see everything along the way. Satisfied that this would be the case we settled down to a quick pie (have I talked about pies yet? No time here anyway, it'll have to wait until later) and drink at the cafe before we set off.

Of course such confidence in our walking abilities cannot be garnered from our appearance alone, we are average hikers at best both on the inside and the outside! Feeling confident ourselves we set off...

Waimangu Valley is a whole different experience to Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland even though it's really just more of the same. The vegetation here is very lush and rainforest like with the valley itself housing curious but incredible waterways within its depths. Sheer rock forms hang over the valley, smouldering gently like a giant having a cigar, water bubbles along hissing streams lapping against copper coloured river sides and tiny holes in the ground spit hot water like it was their dying breath. Again, it's just incredible.

On the way we saw the most remarkable bright blue pool, steaming gently just like everything else. It was very tempting for a dip, so I fingers that is and boy was it hot, not boiling but not far off either. I wouldn't be doing that again in a hurry.

The walk here is tough, especially if you want to get the best views looking out across the volcanic lake, there is a choice though and you can either take the short cut to the lake or you can climb a bloody great big hill and add 45 mins to your journey like we did.

The views are worth it though, our only problem was that when we stood at the top looking out we could actually see how far we had to go and it was at this point we realised that it was a bloody long way to where the boat docks for the lake cruise.

With great regret we barely stopped for a couple of minutes at the top and then quickened the pace to get down again.
Getting to the bottom was only the beginning too and when we reached it we had an uneasy feeeling that we had a lot further to go.

Quickly we hurried past copper terraces and waterfalls with barely time for a photo, then all of a sudden we found a sign, a sign that told us that the boat was 20 minutes walk away and a look at the watch told us that we had 10 minutes to get there. We looked at each other and broke into a sprint.

Luckily the terrain was reasonably flat here and we reached the jetty just in time, hot, sweaty and breathless and glad to sit on a boat for a while and catch the breeze...and hey we weren't the only ones, another couple climbed onto the boat after us in exactly the same state.

Lake Rotomahana is a volcanic lake and is made up of 15 craters formed on June 10 1886 during the Mt Tarawera Eruption. Originally there were a number of pink terraces here, formed over thousands of years and visited by many rich tourists of the day but they were destroyed in the eruptions.

The cruise was really pleasant, and the captain was very friendly. It lasted about 40 mins. Our cruise ran a little over time and a gentleman on the boat was worried that he would miss the shuttle bus which would take us back through the park, but the captain assured him that he felt the driver would wait for him. After getting off the boat we walked upto where the bus stop was and sure enough the bus was there waiting for us but there was no driver to be seen so we all hung around and waited. 5 minutes later the captain from the boat turned up and climbed aboard the bus. He was the driver. No wonder he was so sure the bus wouldn't leave without us.

After a brief stop back at motel we headed off to the Skyline Gondola and Luge.

Now I'm not a big fan of gondolas/cable cars, they feel pretty unsafe to me and I had my reservations about getting in this one but it wasn't really that bad and certainly not our worst experience in a gondola on the that was yet to come.

The views over Rotorua City were great but the views aren't the only thing to do up here.

For a start there's the luge. Strapping a crash helmet on your head you sit in a toboggan like contraption with handbars to steer which also act as a brake. After choosing one of 3 levels of track you kick yourself off on a journey which takes you round hair pin corners at whatever speed you dare. Great fun for all ages.

Due to it being rather late in the day, it being our first luge and our bellies being empty we only did the one track here, saving our more courageous attempts for later in the holiday. Luckily there is a rather nice restaurant here which hosts a pretty impressive "all-you-can-eat" buffet, and features a lovely picture-window view across Rotorua. Recommend here is the seafood counter, the hot carvery and the desserts (obviously!).

This filled up our time nicely and was worth the $55 asking price, I say filled up our time because we were waiting for the sun to set before we could take our final photo of the day.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Day 3 - Auckland to Rotorua via Raglan

After a repeat performance of the previous days breakfast we bid farewell to Auckland and Devonport, it was a short-lived affair but I had the strangest feeling our paths would cross again before too long...maybe I'd read the schedule, who knows.

The road from Auckland to Raglan (our first stop off on the way to Rotorua), was a long one although this was more our fault than the physical distance between the two. You see we kind of got lost along the way, in all fainess for the first and only time during the holiday but as it was just the once we thought we'd do it in style.

State Highway 1 (SH1), runs pretty much from the top of the north island all the way down to the bottom of the south island, calling at many of the major places along the way. Raglan is located around 30kms away from the SH1 so it meant we had to head off the beaten track for a while. It wasn't long before we discovered that the North Island dwellers aren't that big on road signs, so much so they'd rather stick an old sign up that looks like it's sending you in the wrong direction than a new one that sends you the right way. About 30 metres after leaving the SH1 we'd found one of the old signs that lead us in what appeared to be the wrong direction, but we only drove for a mile or so before questioning in our minds the battered old sign and turning around to take the other, more friendly looking direction. Turns out the the battered old sign was indeed pointing the right way but it took us another hour, another 40kms and a loop jounrney to figure that out before we ended up at the battered old sign once more and returned to our original, once thought to be incorrect trajectory...40 minutes later we arrived at Raglan.

Raglan is apparently a surfers paradise, but there's one big problem with Raglan for many surfers...

...there's not too many waves. In fact some might say it's a little bit like a mill pond.

Raglan is quite a strange place really. There is a town here, right next to the sea with stylings which fall somewhere between colonial American and a seaside shanty-town.

It's a nice place to stop for lunch, just like we did. Then afterwards why not take a stroll over the bridge to the Butlins-type holiday camp sitting quietly on the volcanic black sand. Once here you can again search out the lost surf but don't expect to find any.

We were determined to find some surf though, not that either of us surf but it's just the principal of it by this stage. Getting back into our car we followed the coast for a few kilometers and eventually we did find some surf and 3 guys trying to ride it.

It wasn't the best surf in the world, this was obvious by the guys struggling to make the most of it in the water but at least there was some and it even looked like it could get pretty good there if the conditions were right.

Satisfied we turned around and made a short beeline for our next stop just outside Raglan.

Every country in the world seems to possess a Bridalveil Falls waterfall and NZ is no exception, in fact I think we may have seen 3 over there. This one though is around 20kms out of Raglan and after you park the car it's a short, easy going 10 minute walk to the top of the falls and another 5 minute not so easy going clamber down to the bottom. If you do have the ability and the energy though going the extra distance to the bottom is worth it.

The 55 metre high falls are spectacular and if the sun is shining you are guaranteed to see a rainbow in the mists.

Tired from the climb back up we retired to our vehicle, only to be accused of being a couple of pasty-white tourists. We had been spotted by a Kiwi fella who was playing host with his wife to an equally pale couple from the New Forest. Strange that you should meet someone so close to home, yet so far away from it. Again these Kiwis just fancied a chat, they really are that friendly and before long they were setting us straight on our pronunciations so we didn't embarass ourselves too much on our holiday.

Time was marching on and we had a bit of a drive ahead of us to get to Rotorua. Our original plan was to stop in Hamilton but as a friend once said "Time waits for no man..." and we really couldn't fit it in so we just skirted around the edge of it using the trusty SH1, seeing signs for Waitomo Caves along the way (something we wish we could've done, but couldn't squeeze it in no matter how we tried).

As we drove closer to Rotorua we were expecting to smell it before we saw it. People who have visited the place before us have told stories of how the whole place smells of rotten eggs, a smell so bad you can never hope to get it out of your clothes for the rest of the holiday. This isn't the case at all, in fact when we arrived in Rotorua and got out of the car at our motel there really was only a feint smell. I'll explain more about the reason why the city stinks in another post.

Rotorua is not only famous for smelling like eggs it's also famous for it's mineral spas. Everywhere you go in this city has spa facilities and our motel was no exception. Anne (whose Dad was from Halifax and her Mum from Hull), kindly introduced us to our large room, taking us firstly through the lounge, then the kitchen, past the bathroom, through the bedroom and finally out into the courtyard where we discovered our own personal spa.

Tacky, yet nice all the same.

It was our 6th anniversary that day, so after quickly settling into our outsized accommodation we set out to find that special place to eat.

La Vega Restaurant overlooked Lake Rotorua...

...and we had a lovely view of the sea planes bobbing on the water as we endulged in gloriously fresh seafood platters.

Can this country do no wrong? Even if it does smell a little of eggs.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Day 2 - Auckland

After a bit of an "up and down" jet-lag fueled, hot and muggy night we had our first delightful taste of an NZ brekkie cooked by our host, Shirley at the Bydand B&B. Fresh herbs, fresh eggs, fresh OJ soaked home mixed musli, everything was fresh! My eggs benedict-inspired dish was certainly a great way to kick the "lag" into touch.

The first thing we noticed when we arrived in Devonport was how much the place sounded like a jungle. God it was loud, it was one of the things that had kept us awake a little bit over the night and once again whilst sat at breakfast the true inner-ear decibel imposing level of the crickets, the birds and the general Dr. Dolittle appreciating nature of the place hit home. How could somewhere so close to a major city sound so much like it was in the middle of nowhere?

We hit the road after breakfast, by foot this time though and headed down through "the village" to the passenger ferry to Auckland. A short 15 minutes later and we were on the other side of the pond.

Auckland is an odd city. It's got one main st which slices through the centre of it (Queen St), and it's split up into around 5 different suburbs, all of which are within walking distance of one another. We pretty much walked our way around most of it within the one day.

Our first stop-off was at what is probably Aucklands most famous landmark, the Sky Tower.

Standing at 328m tall the Sky Tower is the tallest building in the southern hemisphere and like just about everything else in NZ you can chuck yourself off the top of it via a controlled free-fall style system.

The observation deck offers great viewing for this and even has a countdown to the next jumper so you can position yourself in front of the window for the perfect shot of your loved one as they hurtle past. Actually this isn't quite true, to give the jumper more of an adrenaline rush you hurtle down 30ft and then grind to a halt right in front of the observation deck where they spin you round like a pinata just long enough for everyone to get a photo...

...and then they let you freefall again all the way to the bottom.

It seems if the Kiwi's build it, the rest of the world want to jump off it.

Other more sensible things to do at the top of the tower include having a bite to eat in the cafe, having a full on lunch/dinner in the revolving restaurant, or you can go up another level via a lift and look down on the jumpers as they get strapped in.
Actually it was in this second lift that we encountered for the first time a favoured and well used word within the Kiwi vocabulary - "Awesome!". The Zealanders love this word and use it whenever and wherever they can, and seldom in the right context. In this instance somebody showed their liftpass ticket to the guide in the lift who responded with "Awesome!" I'm sure the ticket wasn't that awesome, in fact I can almost say he sees on average 200 tickets an hour during peak season but it just seemed to be his way of saying "Yep, you've paid the fee so you can ride the lift no problem".

Of course the view from the top was indeed awesome.

Yet the thing that struck us most wasn't the glorious 360 degree views. No, the thing that struck us most was that when you looked down and saw the streets of this mini-metropolis they were almost completely devoid of cars. This was at 11am on a Saturday morning, unbelievable! Where the heck was all the traffic? Not a sight you'd see from the London Eye, or indeed from the Empire State Building. It seemed that here people just don't drive into the city, or maybe it's just that there aren't that many cars. Either way it was pretty weird but also nice.

The view from the bottom wasn't bad either as right across the street was a branch of American family favourite diner Denny's.

Sadly we talked ourselves out of going there for a coffee as you can't go to NZ and go to an American least not on your first full day there.

After exploring the centre a little more we headed out on foot to the suburb of Parnell. Walking around Auckland really was a pleasure and our journey to Parnell was no exception. Roads are quiet, parks are quiet and there is something different to look at every few hundred yards.

Achitecture is diverse also with building styles ranging from 19th century England to Colonial Southern American. A stroll around Auckland can feel kind of like a stroll around a Disney park, and I mean that in a nice way.

Whilst on our walk to Parnell we also had our first taste of Maori culture when we came across a traditional Maori college complete with a training area and meeting house. It interesting to see such an ancient tradition mixed with a modern society campus.

Like Auckland itself Parnell sits atop a hill. It's best described as a small, late 19th century American mid-west town complete with wooden buildings and picture postcard quaintness. It's pretty. It's also a nice place to stop for lunch, so we did.

There isn't a lot to see here, but if you come to Auckland you really can't miss it out. There is certainly quite a few places to eat, drink and sit out in the sun and it feels like you really just want to stop and enjoy it for a while.

If you head on further down the road like us you'll eventually come across Newmarket. This seems to be where most of Auckland's modern shopping is, complete with boutique malls and outlets. Again there is not a lot to do here apart from shopping but it is nice to actually see where the locals go to do their regular retail therapy.

We realised by the time we had walked around Newmarket that we were pretty tired, in fact we hadn't realised how far we had walked that day but now the centre of Auckland seemed a very long way away. As luck would have it Auckland has a circular bus route which travels around the city both clockwise and anticlockwise. It is $2.50 a ride and that can take you just about anywhere.

We rode the bus all the way back to the other side of the city to a place called Victorian Market, which funnily enough does indeed house a market. It's an old brickyard type place with stalls set within the old factory courtyard and it's pretty touristy but it has to be done.

It was only a short stop here before we hit the shoe leather again and headed for the quayside where we had planned to eat that night.

The quay in Auckland serves two purposes, part of it is industrial and part of it is refurbished with restaurants dotted around the edge. It's a nice welcoming area, particularly after a long day wandering around the city.

Tonights feast was found within a Brazilian themed churrascaria style restaurant called Wildfire.

Here the idea is to eat meat and lots of it. When you arrive the rules are explained to you; Sit at your table and the waiters will regularly bring meat on skewers and carve it off onto your plate, if you want more leave the double ended cylinder on your table with the green side up, if you want them to stop turn it over so that the red side is up. Simple. What followed is what i can only describe as an amazing onslaught of meat, all kinds of meat too it just kept coming relentlessly.

I think I made a mistake here though. Kate suggested that when our plates are full we should turn the cylinder to red and only turn it back to green when we wanted more, I was worried though that by doing this the waiters would ignore us and never come back! Big mistake, the meat just kept on coming until before long it was all over and the cylinder had to hit red, there was no other option.

Packed full of meat now we left the restaurant and waddled back to the ferryport.

Now it just happened to be Devonports annual Food and Wine festival this particular weekend. Here you pay your $20 entrance fee, get a wine glass to hang around your neck and then wander around the stalls filling up your glass for free whenever you get the urge. Now we missed out on this but we did see some of the after effects of the event as people piled off the ferry from Devonport that we wanted to board for our return journey. It wasn't a pretty sight, the water was a little choppy and this mixed with unlimited glasses of wine wasn't a good combo for many and we couldn't help but smile as people staggered off the boat a little green around the gills and a lot worse for wear.

Thanks goodness we didn't feel the same way on the crossing back.

We did get a nice sunset though, which pretty much summed up a great start to the holiday.

Welcome to the Possum Pie Travelogue-blog!

Me and my infinately better half, Kate went on a brief but fantastic 22 day journey around New Zealand recently and I've created this blog as a way of documenting our travels and also to act as a simple guide for anyone else hitting kiwi-land in the future.

We are both heavily into photography and you'll see a few of the results along the way.

Please feel free to comment and share your own experiences too.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Day 1 - Devonport

The first day saw us arriving at Auckland International Airport in the early afternoon.

Obviously like just about every traveller we needed some form of transport in order to get around. This had been pre-arranged in the form of a car from the small but perfectly formed NZ rental car company EZY. These guys gave us probably the best experience we've ever had when hiring a car. The friendly guy who picked us up from the airport in a minibus was actually the same person who did all the registration details too, heck he even brought the car out for us and helped us with our luggage! They come highly recommended, the only downside is the car (a 2002 Nissan Bluebird), was around 4 years old with a few miles on the clock but it was very reliable and also a heck of a lot cheaper than the familiar larger companies. For 22 days the car, fully covered cost us just over £600.

Once in the car and armed with a handy free spiral-bound map of New Zealand EZY supplied to us, and personal directions to our B+B given to us by the nice EZY rep we finally hit the road and after short 45 minutes later on a kind-of motorway with nothing like the traffic on it that we see over here we arrived in in our first base - Devonport.

Devonport is a small, sleepy town (they call it a village), on the other side of the harbour to Auckland. From Auckland you can get to it in 2 ways, either over the Auckland Harbour Bridge or via the Auckland to Devonport passenger ferry.

Once settled into our B+B we set out to explore Devonport, it was already 3pm and a trip to Auckland seemed out of the question so the local town, sorry "village" had to entertain us for the rest of the day.

After an hour or so of wandering around it was time to find a nice coffee bar, one that served beer of course and reflect on our 23 hour journey and more importantly plan where and what we were going to eat that night!

Luckily Devonport is geared up for tourists doing exactly what we were doing and has a good range of places to eat, in fact it was here that we first discovered many
restaurants in NZ have a "bring your own" wine policy due to licensing reasons... which is nice.

That night we ate in a salsa bar called Los Incas. They do all kinds of spicy, mexican-style food and we can certainly recommend it, particularly the seafood platter which I indulged myself with!

After the food the jet-lag had caught up with us, in fact I seem to remember falling asleep at the table - not into my dinner you understand. Hey at least it wasn't a first date!