Travel tales #11: Prison, earthquakes and wineries

I am writing up my gap year travels from 2006-2007 so that I can self-publish a book to pass on to my niece and nephews. I hope they will read about my adventures and be inspired to explore themselves…I hope you enjoy my travel tales.

Napier, New Zealand, March 2006

I set off from Taupo with a small group of people on a minibus (instead of the usual coach) on a Kiwi Experience trip called ‘East As’, which was billed as an ‘off the beaten track’ tour around the East Cape of New Zealand.  I love seeing places that not everyone has the time or opportunity to see, and when I think back now to my travels, this trip was the highlight of my two and half months in New Zealand.

The route from Taupo to Napier was long and windy, through country roads and past mountains, and I really felt that I was leaving civilisation behind for a while. I wasn’t short on time so I decided to spend a bit of time exploring Napier, and then pick up the next bus coming through a couple of days later.  I had read in my Lonely Planet about a ‘stay in somewhere a bit different’ place, and duly booked in to Napier Prison Backpackers.  The prison was decommissioned in 1993 and turned into a hostel, and there were many original features throughout – big scary wooden doors that you needed a code to get through, barbed wire along the top of the walls, and you could even choose to stay in an old solitary confinement cell!  I stayed in a dorm called the ‘Remand House’, and I wasn’t feeling too bad until a young Scottish guy called Robbie, who was in the bunk next to me, told me that our dorm was right next to the old suicide watch cells, that the old Death Row was just outside, and to top it all off the prison was built on the site of an ancient Maori burial ground.  That was just what I needed to hear before I was about to go to sleep!  Earplugs firmly in and head under the covers, I actually managed to sleep better than I thought I would. (Incidentally, earplugs are a backpackers best friend and I got so used to them that I couldn’t sleep without them for some time when I returned home from my gap year!).


The ‘welcoming’ Napier Prison Backpackers

The majority of people staying at NPB were working as fruit pickers so the place was virtually deserted during the day.  I went exploring on my own and joined an ‘Art Deco’ guided walk, which was really interesting.  A massive earthquake measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale destroyed the city of Napier in 1931, and they managed to rebuild everything in just two years.  Given it was the 1930s, many of the buildings in Napier were rebuilt in a beautiful art deco style – pastel colours and lots of geometric shapes such as sunbursts (representing new hope), zig zags, zuggarets and featuring the independent woman, as it was a time that women were seen as strong for helping the city get ‘back on its feet’.  The tour finished at the Art Deco shop where we watched a film about the period.  Napier is where my love and appreciation for the 1920s and 30s began – the fashion, the style, and the way of life really appealed to me.


One of the many beautiful art deco buildings in Napier

I also had an enjoyable visit to the Napier Museum, which had a lot of displays and information about the big earthquake.  I was beginning to comprehend the devastation that the major fault lines running the length of New Zealand can cause.  Over 15,000 earthquakes are recorded in New Zealand each year by seismographs, with 100-150 of them large enough to be felt, and I was feeling a little apprehensive as to whether I would experience one during my time there.  To calm my nerves, I decided it was time for wine!  I booked through ‘Grape Escapes’ to do a tour of four wineries in the Hawke’s Bay area, and tasted many a grape as well as some delicious local cheeses.  To this day, a New Zealand sauvignon blanc is my favourite white wine.  I ended up staying up until 3am the next morning talking ghosts and earthquakes with my dorm buddy, Robbie, whilst sampling my bounty purchased from the wineries.  Unfortunately, my hangover and I had to get up at 6am to catch the next Kiwi Experience ‘East As’ tour coming through town…I dread to think what first impression I made on the those I joined on the minibus that day!




Links to previous Travel Tales
#1: Nerves
#2: Departure
#3: Tug boats, peaks & pandas
#4: Islands, animals & markets
#5: Sunshine & hostels
#6: Fun & feijoa flavoured vodka
#7: Bays, bravery & the meeting of oceans
#8: Dolphins & premieres
#9: Glow-worms & geysers
#10: Thermal baths & wonderlands