New Zealand

Now, explain to me again why we haven’t travelled to New Zealand before? It took a school reunion of sorts for us to decide to fly to our nearest English-speaking neighbour. Orlando’s schoolmate Helen visited us in December from her home in Connecticut where she works as a research fellow at Yale. She went on to NZ just before Christmas to visit Claire, another schoolmate, and we followed on Boxing Day.

Claire and her partner Garry live in Wellington, the capital. Wellington is right on the south coast of the North Island, and its climate tends to the cool, cloudy and wet variety. From sunny skies in Melbourne we arrived at midnight into a chilly, damp cocoon which my morning and settled into a gloomy 16C with thunderous skies and a wind that would cut you in half. We put on most of our clothes and braved it.

Wellington itself is tiny: apart from the Parliament building and the national Te Papa museum it would be hard to remember it is the capital. The city is divided into four “quarters”: the Lambton quarter, which is the shopping and commerce centre, the Cuba quarter which is the bohemian part of town, the Courtenay quarter with bars and restaurants (and the Lord of the Rings cinema, the Embassy), and the Waterfront. It is also the World Headquarters of the Verb. A plaque on the waterfront announced as much. I guess that’s a reference to all that bungee jumping and zorbing and what have you.

Orlando and I were staying in the Cuba quarter, actually on Cuba Street, and we met the girls for lunch in Ernesto’s (everything on Cuba Street has a reference back to Cuba, Havana or Ernest Hemingway). Then Claire took us on a bit of a walking tour of the main sights, before we got sidetracked into a bit of retail therapy and then coffee and cake. Whilst the three of them relaxed back into their teenage personae I just sat back and enjoyed the show. I had never been that funny at fifteen, nor that articulate, I am sure.

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After a brief pit stop in the Buena Vista Social Club, Orlando and I relaxed for a while in our tiny hotel room before heading off into the windy evening (I’ve never worn winter boots and tights in mid-summer before, not even in Ireland) to meet the others for dinner. We met in the Tasting rooms just across the street from the Embassy cinema, where the entire Lord of the Rings movies had their premiers. Peter Jackson, make of the LOTR movies amongst others, is a local man, and is singularly responsible for the phenomenon that is Wellywood. Claire and Garry said the pretty much most of their friends had one or other connection to moviemaking, whether it was direct or indirect like catering or logistics. Jackson has certainly brought a lot of money to the town.

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Next day, continuing the Wellywood theme, Claire brought us on a trip round the bays of the city. The mountainous scenery is reminiscent of the West Country in England or the west of Ireland, with little bays and a winding road that follows the coast. Claire pointed out lots of LOTR points of interest, like the café all the stars used to have lunch in (since shut down as the rents have all gone up), the beach where the hobbits frolic in the sea, Peter Jackson’s old house, and it went on. She also pointed out the King Kong ship which is lying in an old naval yard rusting to death.

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The view from Mount Victoria was wonderful (if a bit windy and cold). You could see the whole bay and city laid out before you, and on a good day I am told you can just about make out the South Island in the distance.

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A pit stop at Claire’s house introduced us to her two cats, Bill and Milligan. Bill is a big ginger tom, and Milligan is a permanently-startled-looking black cat with only three legs. I christened him Yoda as he tends to hobble along looking slightly fragile and ungainly, until something interesting happens (like lunch) when he careers along at frightening speed. I just fell in love with them both.

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Dinner that evening was in the Southern Cross, a bit of a Wellington institution. We sat outside to suit our two smokers which was fine for a while but froze me to death in the end. I could hardly get the heat back into me all night in bed.

An early start next morning saw us picking up our 12-seater minivan for the trip to Lake Taupo further north. Instead of the new-ish swish vehicle shown on their website, Europcar sold us a 10-year-old rent-a-dent, and didn’t mention anything to us. I swear the bloke was trying to shut up shop as quickly as he could before we figured out what was going on and ran back into the office. Anyway we had no choice but to the run with it, and it didn’t let us down on our epic journey. (naturally I complained and got lots of money off)

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It took about six hours to get to Taupo, and the landscape changed dramatically almost every hour. We drove past the coast with a view of Kapiti Island, and on through pastoral land (lots of sheep). We stopped for a photo shoot in Taihape, the Gumboot Capital of the World, beside the corrugated iron sculpture of, well, a welly-boot. Question: why isn’t Wellington the Wellington Boot Capital of the World?

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Further north the landscape changed to higher, more mountainous terrain, and then we entered the Tongariro National Park. Garry took over the driving along the winding road while we craned our necks for view of the three volcanoes, Ngauruhoe, Ruapehu and Tongariro itself. Ruapehu was the most spectacular, and indeed we didn’t get a good view of it up close as the summit was covered in cloud.

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Tongariro is your classic volcano-shaped mountain, snow covered near the summit.

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Soon we arrived a Lake Taupo, which instead of being a random lake (as I thought), is the biggest inland lake in Australasia. It is slightly bigger than the Isle of Man in size, and is actually in the crater of an ancient supervolcano which erupted in 180AD.

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The sun was out and the temperature had been rising since we left Wellington. Families were out kayaking and playing in the lake. The volcanoes rose above like a movie backdrop. It was spectacular. 
We quickly checked in and headed straight to the hot springs. After more than six hours of driving we soaked up the sun whilst lying in a 40C mineral bath. Divine.

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Naturally we headed for bar straight afterwards and sat on the verandah sipping bubbly or a G&T or a cold beer, gazing at the lake below us with the snow-capped volcanoes completing the view.

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The evening brought us to Finn’s Irish Bar (who were advertising topless waitresses later that night – very tasteful). We ate pizza in a local Italian restaurant who were tidying up around us it was so late (well ten o’clock) and then off to bed.

Next morning we visited the amazing Huka Falls, which is the place where Lake Taupo drains into the Waipate River. The river narrows into a gorge which means the water flows like a torrent, up to 200,000 litres per second. The result is dramatic and you can hardly hear yourself over the roar.

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Orlando and I, being from a drought-ridden country, stood in awe and not a little discomfort as the water surged past: it was more water than we had seen in two years and I vaguely wanted somebody to put the plug back in to stop it being wasted.

We took the long way home along the Thermal Springs Highway to Napier. It took two hours, with a bit of everything along the way – pine forest, rugged hills, beautiful valleys, gentle plains and huge vistas. Again, the landscape changed constantly and the narrow road twisted and turned like a roller coaster.

Arriving into the wine country of Hawke’s Bay, we finally reached Napier on the Pacific Coast. Napier was demolished in 1931 by a huge earthquake, and was completely rebuilt in Art Deco style. It has now become the self-styled Art Deco Capital of the World (there is lots of  Whatever Capitals of the World in NZ it seems). It is quite lovely, and apparently they have Art Deco weekends there where everybody dresses up in 1930s fashion and it’s all a bit tongue in cheek.

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The view of the Pacific was lovely I have to say, and the sun was still shining too.

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Further south the landscape changed again. We drive through a flood plain with huge mountains to our left and rolling pastoral hills to our right. Near Carterton, the sign for Aotearoa Stonehenge just had to be followed (Aotearoa is the Maori name for New Zealand – it means Land of the Long White Cloud).

A few kilometres off the road there it was.  A full-scale working model of Stonehenge (in its complete form not as a ruin) stood amongst some farm buildings. Apparently it is not an exact replica, as some measurements have been slightly altered to preserve the astronomical properties.

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Unfortunately it was closed (or perhaps fortunately: did we really want to pay $15 each to see a replica?) but we got a good view of it from further up the hill. For five people who have seen the original quite a few times, I have to say it was all slightly comical. It had a Field of Dreams thing going on: If you build it, they will come. And it looked so incongruous out there in the middle of nowhere on the other side of the planet!

Homeward bound, we drove through the picturesque town of Greytown and then along the windiest road I think I’ve ever been on. Called the Pakuratahi Forks, they dog-leg and hair-pin along a deep river valley. Spectacular and hairy, especially when you see that a lot of the road is protected only by fencing wire and a few dodgy-looking fence poles. The Armco barrier is not yet complete…

All in all, the five days we spent there were fantastic. I was already planning two trips back on the plane, one to see more of the North Island, and one to see the spectacular glaciated features of the South Island. I want to stand of Fox’s Glacier and eat Fox’s Glacier Mints.

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