Travel Tales #15: Windy Wellington

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…and I hope you enjoy my travel tales.

Wellington, New Zealand, April 2006

After a few days staying with Charlotte in Lower Hutt, I made my way into Wellington to stay at the YHA Wellington City, which was a very large, clean and modern place, although I was learning that this tended to mean less friendly – there were so many people there that it was hard to make those connections that you tend to find in smaller, more homely places.  I nevertheless decided to become a YHA member as I liked the feel of them in general, and signing up entitled me to cheaper stays for the duration of my travels.

I found Wellington to be a lovely city, although after spending some time off the beaten track on the ‘East As’ trip and in smaller towns like Rotorua and Taupo, it felt a bit of a culture shock to be in the capital, and I remember realising that I was not a city girl at heart.

On my first afternoon in Wellington, I visited the famous Te Papa Museum, something that everyone I met recommended as a ‘must do’.  It certainly didn’t disappoint – it is an enormous building with brilliant exhibitions, and best of all it was free entry (there nothing more appealing to a gap year traveler than a freebie).

The following day, I took the cable car up to the Wellington Botanic Gardens and, neatly bypassing the Observatory and Cable Car Museum, I took a walk through the peaceful gardens, including the extremely pretty Lady Norwood Rose Garden.  On the way down, I walked past government building that is known as ‘The Beehive’ on account of its design.

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View of Wellington from the cable car

Wellington is referred to by many Kiwis as ‘Windy Welly’ on account of the strong winds that blast up the Cook Strait (which separates the North and South Islands) and into the city.  Apparently the wind has been known to knock people off their feet, and I certainly experienced some strong blasts during my stay.

I was starting to feeling a little lonesome on my own in the big city so was grateful to receive an invitation from Charlotte to join her, some friends and her brother Alex (who had arrived from the UK the previous day for a visit). We went out for the evening to some bars in Petone, where I rediscovered my love for NZ sauvignon blanc.  At the final bar we went to, I was told that we were sitting at a table next to Tana Umanga…a fact that was rather lost on me, but the cause of great excitement to the rest of the group since he was the captain of the All Blacks at the time!

The following day involved a much needed NZ brunch to soak up the excesses of the previous night, and then a drive up to a wind turbine on the top of a mountain just outside of the city (Kiwis would probably call it a hill, but it was a mountain to me!). There were amazing views from the top, and I was told that on a clear day you could see the South Island, some 90 plus kilometers away.

I was a little sad that the time had come to leave the North Island, and for a leg of my journey to be over already.  Additionally, I felt a little trepidatious about crossing the Cook Strait to the South Island (with my non-existent sea legs), but I also left feeling very grateful to have experienced all that the North Island had to offer – from bubbling mud pools and geysers, to homestays, farmstays, exhilarating horse rides and everything in between.

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
#11: Prisons, earthquakes & wineries
#12: Surf and scenery
#13: Farms & galloping horses
#14: Homestays & Wellington suburbs

 

Travel tales #14: Homestays and Wellington suburbs

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…and I hope you enjoy my travel tales.

Te Kaha and Wellington, New Zealand, April 2006

Our final leg of the ‘East As’ trip with Kiwi Experience took us to Te Kaha, where we had a ‘homestay’ with a Maori family in their extended house overlooking the beach. It rained the whole time we were there, but we did some exploring (and some of the group decided to go for a chilly dip in the ocean) and when the rain got too much we cozied up in the living room watching films and playing board games.  In the evening our host, Reena, cooked a lovely three course meal for 17.  We devoured pumpkin soup followed by a delicious hot buffet, then peach crumble and trifle.  It was lovely to have a home cooked meal and be made to feel so welcome, comfortable and at home.

After dinner we chilled out together and had some drinks, and one of the girls on the bus, Kerrie, was a medium so she gave some of us readings for $10 (about £3 at the time).  She told me I had a lot of ‘energy’…

Ten of us stayed in a big room that night, which was set out as I would imagine a boarding school dormitory to be, with single beds lining the walls (rather than the bunks that we had become used to).  It was great fun, and we sat in our beds chatting until we fell asleep one by one.  I felt like I really bonded with the group over the week and it was a real wrench to say goodbye to them all when we were dropped off in our different hostels the following afternoon.

A few of us ended up back in Taupo together so we met up for dinner that night, and afterwards found a local club to dance the night away in. I noted down the names of everyone on the bus, along with where they were from, and although I have seen none of them since I will remember that trip for the rest of my life.  So, thank you for the amazing memories and company: Jerry (driver, Taupo), Liz (Oxford), Ally (Yorkshire), Dominique (Bristol), Nikki, Naomi & Mandy (Hull), Luke (Cornwall), James (Somerset), Kerrie (Peterborough), Lisa (Kilkenny), Ruth (Thomastown), Leanne, Alma & Jane (Sheffield) and Seena (Denmark).

The following morning I was up early for the 8.00am bus to Wellington, the capital of New Zealand that sits near the North Island’s southernmost point on the Cook Strait. It was a long drive from Taupo so we didn’t stop much on the way, and on arrival I made my way out of the city to the suburb of Lower Hutt to stay with Charlotte, who had been friends with my old boss in London since they met at university.  I met her on my previous trip to Australia and we stayed in touch, and she had kindly invited me to stay with her.  Charlotte had set out from the UK on her own gap some years before and ended up stopping in New Zealand and not returning home.  I spent a lovely and relaxing few days at Charlotte’s, exploring the local area whilst she was out at work.  One of my trips took me to a small town called Petone, which is well-known for Jackson Street, a heritage-listed street of galleries, cafes, restaurants and shops filled with 1930s architecture. Petone is also known for it’s community characters who shape its atmosphere.  As 100% Pure New Zealand says:

In a walk down Jackson Street there is a good chance you will meet an Olympic champion, a Samoan chief, ex All Blacks, a politician, an international chef or people that simply just exude passion for the area

Flowing under the whole Hutt Valley is a natural artesian spring.  Te Puna Wai Ora, the spring of life, is a meeting place for people from around the region to get their free, untreated water straight from the ground, bubbling up through layers of rock and filtered naturally to the surface.

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‘Windy Wellington’

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
#11: Prisons, earthquakes & wineries
#12: Surf and scenery
#13: Farms & galloping horses
 

Travel Tales #13: Farms and galloping horses

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…and I hope you enjoy my travel tales.

Rangitukia, New Zealand, April 2006

Rangitukia is located about 10km from the East Cape, the most easterly point of New Zealand, and on the next leg of our Kiwi Experience ‘East As’ trip we stayed on a farm for the night called the ‘Eastender Farmstay’. Accommodation consisted of either a big dorm-type room or a little hut with two bunk beds in each, and I fortunately managed to bagsy a hut with my new friends Liz, Dominique and Ally.  Rangitukia feels like it is out in the middle of nowhere, surrounded as far as the eye can see by lush green fields and pretty farmland.  On our way into the settlement we saw small children riding their horses bareback on their way home from school.  Apparently, they get them riding from as young as two years old in the area.

Our guide, Jerry, explained that Rangitukia is a Rastafarian-Maori area, and we were greeted on arrival by Reg, who was an outgoing character with long dreadlocks piled on top of his head, a few gold teeth, and a metal hook for a hand.  His story (and I’m to this day still unsure as to whether I am inclined to believe it) was that he once caught a large shark when he was fishing, which he tried to kill, and it flipped round and bit his hand off!  Whatever the reason, it certainly didn’t hinder him in any way.  Jerry described him as a ‘demon’ on a horse, and told us a tale of when they had been galloping horses along the beach when Reg sped past him, holding onto the reins with his hook, and smoking a cigarette with his spare hand!

In the afternoon, ten of us decided to join Reg and Jerry on a two and a half hour horse ride.  We were told that this was not a horse ‘trek’, where the horses walk or perhaps trot around a set course, but an actual ‘ride’.  Now, I had never been on a horse before, and in hindsight perhaps should have seen these words as a warning, but easily singling me out as the novice of the group, Reg allocated me to Tip Top – a small horse who was apparently the oldest and slowest of the bunch.  I was more than happy to dawdle at the back of the group and take in the beautiful woodland scenery, and did so for a while, but when we reached the long driftwood-scattered beach Reg was having none of mine and Tip Top’s dilly-dallying.  He instructed me on how to ride standing up in the stirrups (apparently better when you’re learning as it’s easier on the derriere) and as the more experienced riders set off at a pace along the beach, I thought why not?  At this point, Tip Top decided to come out of his sleep-like state and canter at full speed along the length of the beach, whilst I did as I was told – stood up and held on for dear life!  It was really quite scary at the time.  Tip Top turned out to be strong and powerful and I feared a few times that I was going to come off him, but I could hear Reg shouting behind me in apparent delight, “Look at her go! Go Sharon!” and I was determined not to let him down.

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The beach we galloped along

 

I don’t know about Tip Top, but I was absolutely shattered by the end of our gallop. Jerry commented that he had never seen him go so fast, and couldn’t believe it when he noticed that he had broken a sweat!  No sooner had I calmed down from my eventful beach ride, we started on an incline to the top of a hill.  Once again, Reg instructed me to stand up in the stirrups and lean forward as the horse went up, and lean back as he went down.  We tiptoed down hills, splashed through rivers, and galloped up hills, with me hanging onto the Tip Top’s mane and reigns as if my life depended on it (which, to some extent, I suppose it did).  All was going well until my one of my feet slipped through the stirrup and I ended up literally hanging off the horse sideways and had to hoist myself back into the saddle…no mean feat, but I was determined once again not to hit the ground during a gallop.  Reg was quite impressed with me that day, announcing me as his star of the day when we stopped at the top of the hill for a much needed break.  At the time, I was just thankful to be alive, and my legs felt like jelly as the events of the last couple of hours started to sink in!  I will say now that the following morning on waking, I discovered that I had pulled, strained and bruised pretty much EVERY part of my body from my ‘horse ride’, but it was worth it for the unforgettable experience and beautiful views.

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Views of the surrounding farmland (farmstay on the left)

That evening we ate a hangi meal, a traditional Maori method of cooking food using heated rocks buried in a pit oven, and afterwards sat around a bonfire toasting and eating marshmallows. Some of the group had gone off into the night to do possum shooting, but hunting is very much not my thing, so the rest of us sat, drank wine, played with the farm puppies and chatted the night away under the stars.

The following morning I had a go at Maori bone carving, which provided me with a lovely pendant to remember my trip by.  To be honest, the guy who was demonstrating ended up doing most of my carving as I think he felt a bit sorry for me – every time I as much as lifted a finger I winced with the pain caused by my inexperience in horse riding!

All too soon, it was sadly time to say goodbye to Reg, the horses and puppies at the farm.  I’m sure I saw a mischievous glint in Tip Top’s eyes as we drove off, having successfully lulled everyone into a false sense of security that he was an old plodder.  The little tinker!

 

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
#11: Prisons, earthquakes & wineries
#12: Surf and scenery

 

Travel tales #12: Surf and Scenery

 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…and I hope you enjoy my travel tales.

Gisborne, New Zealand, April 2006

On the way to our next destination on the ‘East As’ trip, Gisborne, the bus stopped off at a winery for a tour and tasting. Still struggling with a hangover from the previous evening, I sipped water at the back of the group and felt rather sorry for myself.  I couldn’t face food either so had to sit that out when we stopped as well!

It was a long drive out to Gisborne, we covered about 300km that day on the bus, but it was definitely worth the journey.  Gisborne is a popular place for surfing and is absolutely beautiful.  We stayed in a surf chalet right opposite a long, straight beach with huge rolling waves.  I was fortunate to be allocated to the only dorm at the front of the hostel along with a few other girls, where a huge window looked out over the ocean.  As we didn’t arrive until late afternoon, we popped over the road to watch the surfers for a while, returning for a massive portion of home-cooked spaghetti bolognaise that had been rustled up by our driver (Jerry) and some of the others on the bus.  We all sat around a long table so that we could get to know each other, and I found myself in a very friendly group.

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View at dusk from our dorm window

I had a relatively early night and, having successfully slept off my hangover, the next morning some of us went over to watch the surfers again and have a paddle in the cool sea.  Some of the group had got up very early to watch the sunrise, as Gisborne is one of the first places in the world to see it each day, being on the eastern tip of the north island of New Zealand.  Others had gone for surf lessons, but I decided to save my money and energy for later on in the trip.

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Surfers in Gisborne

I was tempted to stay on a couple of nights in Gisborne, as it was a very relaxed and laid back place, but as the others on the bus were so nice and we all seemed to have clicked as a group, I felt like I would have missed out had they all gone on without me.  We had been discussing the previous evening that it was usually the people you were with that shape your trip and your experiences, so I decided to stick with my newfound friends and continue on my journey of the east cape.

On the way to our next destination we stopped off in Whangarai, which is the location of a famous Kiwi film called ‘The Whale Rider’.  Free from the bus, we climbed up a big hill to look down on the village. According to Jerry, residents weren’t too keen on tourists coming to gawp at them, so he found us (and them) a safe vantage point, which also treated us to stunning views of the ocean beyond the village.

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Whangarai

After a lunchtime stop at a pub by the beach, where we sat sunbathing on the lawn, it was time to head on to our farmstay, which was something that I was really looking forward to.

 

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
#11: Prisons, earthquakes & wineries

 

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!).

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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.

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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!

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Winery!

 

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

Travel Tales #10: Thermal baths and wonderlands

 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…and I hope you enjoy my travel tales.

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Rotorua Government Gardens

The following day, after a walk to the peaceful Lake Rotorua, I made my way to Rotorua Government Gardens, which felt like stepping into another world.  Away from bubbling mud pools, geysers and the stench of rotten eggs (sulphur), was a little oasis of perfect green bowling and croquet greens.  The old bath house in the grounds used to be visited by soldiers returning from war to benefit from the healing power of the thermal waters, and it now houses a museum. I joined a fascinating guided tour, which took me into the bowels of the building, and I was able to imagine what it was like when it was in use.

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Bubbling mud pool

Whilst I was there, a Maori woman told me about the viewing platform on top of the bath house that had been under construction and was open to the public for the first time for 75 years that day, so I took the opportunity to go up.  From the platform, I could see right across the town, and looking out to the mountains in the distance I slowly turned in a circle and appreciated that the mountain line didn’t stop, since Rotorua is built in the huge crater of a volcano.

There are trips from Rotorua to Matamata to visit Hobbiton, a large sheep farm that was converted into the hobbit village for the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  I am not a LOTR fanatic, so I didn’t do the trip, but one of my room mates at the hostel did, and she highly recommended it for lovers of the story.

I left Rotorua on a Sunday morning and boarded the Magic Bus bound to Taupo.  Our first stop on the way was at the Lady Knox Geyser that erupted at 10.15am every day.  The eruption was elicited by a guide who bunged a few bars of soap into it, which I figured was cheating!  However, it was very impressive seeing the huge plume of water and gas shoot up about 30 metres in the air.

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Lady Knox Geyser before and after

Our next stop was Waiotapu Thermal Wonderland, which was quite a sight to behold…we walked around craters containing thermal pools in various beautiful colours; a vibrant ode to Mother Nature.  In places the ground felt ominously hollow, which served as a reminder that volcanic activity was happening just underneath the surface.  I found this slightly unnerving!  As I was walking past the huge Champagne Pool (so called due to the gas that creates millions of small bubbles breaking on the surface) the wind was blowing all the hot, smelly steam from it across the path way and it was like walking through very thick fog.  I couldn’t see a thing, which felt rather precarious as I was imagining it would be all too easy to walk off the track and into a crater or a boiling thermal or mud pool…luckily I survived to tell the tale! 

Our final stop was at Huka Falls, a point at which the Waikato River comes to a narrow ravine for a few hundred metres creating dangerous looking rapids.  The thundering water was so loud, it sounded like a plane taking off.  We stood and admired, and took a few photos, before returning to our seats for the remainder of our journey.  On arrival in Taupo, the weather was grey and miserable; Kiwi summer appeared to be coming to an end.  I stayed in the Action Down Under YHA, where all the rooms were well heated, there was a comfortable lounge, and a large shared kitchen with a terrace attached.  I decided to spend a few days relaxing there before heading off on an exciting trip of the East Cape (more about that in my next post).  By this point, I was starting to realise that I enjoyed my own company.  Some days it was nice to meet and spend time with people I met, but it was good to have the choice about whether to.  I was also getting used to having rather short-lived friendships.  Frequently, I would meet someone I got on with, but either they or you was moving on in the next day or two, usually in the opposite direction to each other.  There was always someone to connect with at the next stop, hostel, or trip, so I was never alone for long (unless I wanted to be!).

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

Travel Tales #9: Glow-worms and geysers

 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…and I hope you enjoy my travel tales.

Waitomo and Rotoroua, New Zealand, March 2006

My first destination after leaving my lovely friends in Auckland was Waitomo, an area famous for its glow-worm caves. I stayed at the Kiwi Paka YHA, which was more like a lodge than a hostel, and as it was quiet I ended up with a four bed dorm to myself. Waitomo is a very small place with only 40 or so people living there full-time, and just a café and village store that make up the small centre.

I booked a place on a trip called ‘Spellbound’ that took a group of us by minibus to the Mangawhitiakau cave system just outside Waitomo.  Our first excursion was into a pitch black ‘wet’ cave.  Adorned with hard hats and head torches we climbed into a little boat and set off into the darkness, where we were told to turn our lights off.  Suddenly, it looked like someone had put millions of fairy lights on the ceiling of the cave, as the glow-worms appeared in the dark.  It was just beautiful seeing little lights stretching out as far as the eye could see.  Our guide told us that our night vision would improve slowly with the small amount of light emitted by the glow-worms, and sure enough after about five minutes I could make out everyone in the boat, where previously I could just see black.  The second part of the trip took us into a ‘dry’ cave where we got to see the majestic stalagmites, stalatmites and tomos, which are deep holes that lead up to ground level, and made me realise how far underground we were.

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Entering the glow-worm caves

It was just a quick stop in Waitomo, and the following day I hopped back on the Magic bus to Rotorua.  The first thing that struck me on arriving (as it does most people, I’m sure) was the very strong stench of rotten eggs due to sulphur from all the geothermal activity in the area. Rotorua lies on the ‘Pacific Ring of Fire’, and I felt very much aware that there was a lot of volcanic activity going on right under my feet.

I stayed in the Hot Rocks Hostel, which was a very nice place, and on looking out from the balcony attached to our room, I could see what appeared to be huge plumes of smoke coming from behind some trees. These impressive plumes turned out to be steam billowing up from the hot pools and boiling mud at Kuirau Park, a geothermal area literally over the road.  The first night I went along to the hostel’s ‘Lava Bar’ with my three roommates, who were from Germany and Ireland, where we had a few ‘bonding beers’ and discussed this strange and rather smelly place that we found ourselves in.

On my first day in Rotorua, I went to Rainbow Springs to visit the Kiwi Encounter, an organisation that is attempting to save the kiwi from extinction by collecting eggs from around New Zealand, incubating and hatching them, and when the chicks are strong enough to fend off predators (about 6-8 months old), releasing them back into the wild. It was a great tour, with an informative and amusing guide, and my highlight was getting to see three very cute kiwis in the nocturnal house.  We weren’t able to take photos in there, we weren’t even allowed to talk in case we scared them, but it may well be my only chance in life to see this rare and round little bird, so I was really pleased that I had been able to do so.

The next day I headed to Te Whakarewarewa which, believe it or not, is an abbreviated name – the full name is Te Whakarewarewawatangaoteoputauaawahiao!  This is the largest geothermal park in the area, and is therefore a very big draw for tourists.  We were carted around in an open bus to see all the bubbling mud pools and springs, and when we got to the geyser area the two geyers (called ‘Pohutu’ and ‘Prince of Wales Feathers’) decided to erupt and shot up in the air about 20m, which was a very impressive sight to behold.  My highlight of the day was the Maori concert which was performed there in the middle of the day.  People in traditional dress were singing and dancing, and they finished off with a haka…I had goosebumps from start to finish and found myself totally caught up in the story and emotion.

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Maori warrior at the concert

Te Whakarewarewa also houses the Te Puia wood carving institute and I visited their workshop to see people at work carving enormous and ornate wooden statues, which they have to train for three years to do.  I was so tired by the excitement of those couple of days, that I barely managed a couple of drinks in the pub with my fellow travellers that night, and had to retire early to the hostel where I fell gratefully into bed.  This travelling lark was certainly proving tiring…I was going to need to build up my tolerance!

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Te Puia wood carving institute

 

 

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

Travel Tales #8: Dolphins & Premieres

 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…and I hope you enjoy my travel tales.

Bay of Islands and Auckland, New Zealand, March 2006

Whilst in the Bay of Islands, I decided to use my leaving present from my job in London, which was an experience voucher, and I chose to book a dolphin watching trip.  I am certainly not a natural on the water, but the prospect of seeing wild dolphins was too big an opportunity to miss, so armed with my trusty travel sickness tablets I joined a small boat one afternoon with about 12 others and we set out to find a pod.

bay-of-islands

Beautiful Bay of Islands scenery

For the first couple of hours we didn’t see anything apart from the stunning scenery, but then we heard news from another boat that a pod had been spotted, so we sped off to find them.  When we did, I was surprised to see so many – there were about 30 dolphins bobbing up and down in the waves, swimming back and forth under the boat as we hung over the rails on deck, and sometimes jumping right out of the water.  There were some babies in the pod so we weren’t allowed to get in the water with them, since they have to suckle frequently and people getting in can upset this rhythm.  I thought I would be disappointed that we couldn’t swim with them, but they were so much bigger than I anticipated, and there were so many of them, that the prospect was rather daunting.  We spent a good hour hanging out with our new dolphin pals, taking photos and watching them play.  It was an incredible experience, and as the boat buzzed back to the shore, I reflected on how lucky I was to have had the experience.

dolphins

dolphin

About as close as you can get to dolphins without getting in the water

Later that night, my last one in Paihia, a few of us from the hostel found a beach café and sat outside chatting and watching the reflection of the moon bouncing off the waves.  It was so peaceful and serene, and I felt very grateful for my brilliant trip to the north of the North Island.

I arrived back in Auckland to warm and humid weather where I stayed with Coley and AD for a few days (again).  They were such superstars for putting me up/putting up with me so much in that early part of my NZ trip.  It felt like a proper home from home, experiencing day-to-day Kiwi life, meeting their lovely friends, watching the Home & Away Sunday omnibus, and having plenty of late-summer barbies.  Whilst in Auckland, I booked a hop on/off ticket on the Magic Travellers bus that covered the whole of New Zealand.  Considering most of the travellers I had got friendly with in Paihia were travelling on the Magic bus, I figured it was the right choice for me.

I did experience a few homesickness ‘wobbles’ during my time in Paihia where I really realised I was on my own, especially when feeling shy about approaching new people.  But home was only ever a text message away, and the family and friends that I contacted were a great comfort, plus they told me it was grey and miserable back home so there was really no point in returning!

On my last night in Auckland, Coley, Carolyn and I went to a film premiere that Coley had won tickets to, which was a comedy centring around four Samoan men in inner-city Auckland called ‘Sione’s Wedding’ (marketed outside New Zealand as ‘Samoan Wedding’), which was great fun, and there was a Q&A with one of the main actors before the film, which was an unexpected bonus.

For all the fun I had had, it was now finally time to leave the comfort and security of my friends in Auckland for the last time, and head off to explore the rest of New Zealand on my own.
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

Travel tales #7: Bays, bravery and the meeting of oceans

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…and I hope you enjoy my travel tales.

Paihia, New Zealand, March 2006

The Kiwi Experience bus picked me and some others up from the hostel at 7.15am for our trip to the Bay of Islands and our driver (‘Gibbo’), kept us very entertained on the long journey there. I had my doubts about using Kiwi Experience as it had a bit of a reputation for being a ‘party bus’ full of teenagers who, let’s just say, weren’t looking for quite the same cultural experience as I was.  I probably was one of the older travellers at the ripe old age of 26, but I didn’t really notice.  Although the drive was long, the scenery was so amazing that I was happily distracted for the journey…we passed through beautiful Doubtless Bay, past fields and fields of farmland, green terraced hills, volcanoes and along windy roads with sheer drops on one side and fantastic lush, green landscapes on the other.

The bus finally arrived in Paihia, the main town in the Bay of Islands, and dropped us all off at our hostels.  I stayed at ‘Pipi Patch’ for four nights, which I found to be very modern with dorms that were more like little holiday chalets, with only four bunks in each, a bathroom and small kitchen (such luxury!).  There was a nice holiday atmosphere about the place, a bar and a spa pool. They also did a barbie every night for $10 which included plenty of food and a beer, so I was sold!

On my first afternoon in Paihia, I walked along to Waitangi to have a look around the treaty grounds that I had read about in my trusty Lonely Planet.  This was the place that in 1840 that a treaty had been signed with the Maori chiefs on behalf of the British government, an agreement between two peoples to live and work together in one nation. It is still as relevant today as it guarantees the rights of both Maori and non-Maori citizens in Aoetaroa (the Maori name for NZ) – as you can tell, I was paying attention at the visitors centre!  It was interesting to walk around the traditionally decorated Maori meeting house (Te Whare Runanga), with the flagpole marking the spot at which the treaty was signed.

treaty-house-in-waitangi

Treaty house at Waitangi

Arriving back to the hostel, I felt a bit unsettled as I was sharing a dorm with three guys and couldn’t seem to get a conversation going with them.  So I decided to be very brave and took myself off to the bar.  It took all my confidence to ask two girls if I could sit with them…but on joining them I discovered that they didn’t speak English, so I found myself feeling pretty hopeless.  But just when I was about to give up and return despondently to my dorm, a bunch of English-speaking people who had buddied up noticed me and invited me to join them (the relief!).  They turned out to be absolutely lovely and included a couple called Tim and Anne from Canada, who really took me under their wing and made feel at ease, and an English girl called Georgina.  They helpfully told me about the other bus companies that traverse NZ, Magic and Stray, which were geared towards travellers of all ages, rather than the younger travellers of Kiwi Experience.  After a few drinks we were firm friends, swapped email addresses and promised to keep in touch.  I am so grateful to them for asking me to join them that night.

The following day was another early start as I was booked on a day trip to Cape Reinga – the northernmost point of New Zealand.  I went with ‘Awesome Adventures NZ’, and our bus driver (‘Orto’) was quite the character…his cackling laugh stayed with me for weeks afterwards!  He kept making jokes about his medication wearing off and drove the huge, yellow bus like he was a rally driver, which was pretty hairy at times, but it at least got us passengers talking as we exchanged worried looks with each other!  Orto treated the bus to many tales throughout the course of the day, and also plenty of traditional Maori music mixed in with some Fat Freddy’s Drop (a popular Kiwi band), played at the highest volume!

It’s a four hour journey up to the Cape so there were stops along the way to break it up.  One of which was a quick walk around the Puketi Kauri forest where we saw enormous kauri trees, some of them 1,000 years old and big enough that you can fit 13 people around them holding hands.

Arriving in Cape Reina mid-morning, we walked down to see a sight that I was really looking forward to …it is one of only a few places in the world where you can see two oceans meeting – the Tasman and the Pacific – and I wasn’t disappointed.  After a walk down to the lighthouse that marks the end of the land, just beyond you can clearly see two tides racing towards each other and the waves meeting and crashing and rolling each other.  I felt so privileged to see it, it really was breathtaking. Cape Reinga is a spiritual and sacred place – according to the Maoris it is where those who have departed life on earth enter the ‘under world’, and their spirits travel up through the Cape and out into the ocean.

cape-reinga

Cape Reinga

After the Cape, we stopped off at a lovely deserted beach for some lunch and a paddle and then moved on to the sand dunes for a go at sandboarding…I was expecting little dunes with people gliding down on a boogie board – but no, these dunes were enormous monsters, and people seemed to be whizzing down them on these little boards on their fronts at about 100mph!  I almost backed out but had a word with myself, and after a steep and precarious half an hour climb I was soon whizzing down the side of a golden sand dune on my front with only my feet for brakes and a mouthful of sand!  It turned out to be great fun and was over with far too quickly.

sandboarding

Sandboarding

We then went on to 90 Mile Beach which, as the name suggests, is an exceedingly long beach (actually ‘only’ about 60 miles) that was completely deserted apart from a couple of other bus tours. It was stunning, with huge rolling waves and nothing but sand and sea as far as the eye could see. Orto stopped the bus at the top so we could go digging for shellfish, which were sitting there just under the surface of the sand so were pretty easy to find.  Some people cracked the shells open and ate them raw, but I had been brave enough for one day with the sandboarding, so I politely declined!  We hopped back onto the bus and Orto took us thundering down the length of the beach, sometimes going in and out of the waves that splashed up the sides. He assured us that he hadn’t sunk a bus…yet!  We finished off the trip with fish and chips (‘fush and chups’ as the Kiwis say) looking out over the water, and on my return to the hostel I finished up the night with my newfound friends at The Lighthouse, the only nightclub in Paihia, until 3.30am! You could say that I fully embraced the backpacker lifestyle on this trip!
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

Travel Tales #6: Fun & Feijoa Flavoured Vodka

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…and I hope you enjoy my travel tales.

Auckland, New Zealand, March 2006

My last weekend in Auckland was A LOT of fun! Nicole and I decided to hit the town on the Friday evening, starting off in Soul Bar which was situated right on the harbour, and we had a lovely time drinking some amazing NZ sauvignon blanc and eating fresh salt and pepper calamari whilst looking out on the boats and the water glistening in the sun. We were joined there by Nicole’s friend Carolyn and her husband Guy, and with them ventured on to ‘Minus 5’, an ice bar where we donned big, fur lined coats, gloves and fluffy boots to keep warm whilst we drank out of glasses made of ice, served from a bar made of ice, as we admired the ice sculptures (you get the idea!).  When we came out we were a bit giggly, and the woman who took our coats back said it was because the oxygen levels were so low in there, but we figured it might have been down to the amount of alcohol we had consumed!

nicole-and-i-at-minus-5

Nicole and I enjoying cocktails in our ice glasses in ‘Minus 5’

Guy left us after the ice bar and the three of us decided to go on to a club, so we managed to hail a Jafa Cab – were red rickshaws that took you all over the city for free…we ended up at a club called ‘Boogie Wonderland’ which, as the name suggests, played retro music.  The dancefloor was made up of squares that lit up in different colours, and plenty of people were dressed up in flares and afros to team with the retro theme…very groovy!  Nicole introduced me to feijoa flavoured vodka (which when she described it sounds much like a gooseberry) that we drank with apple juice.  It was a great night spent on the dancefloor, and we all felt a little worse for wear the following morning!

On the Sunday we went to see the rugby – NZ Warriors vs. Melbourne Storm – at the Ericsson Stadium.  As Nicole worked for Vodafone who sponsored the Warriors we got free tickets. Unfortunately, they lost 22-16, but it was a great atmosphere and I really enjoyed the experience of going to a game.

rugby-in-auckland

A sunny game of NZ rugby

After my fun-filled weekend in Auckland I commenced my next trip up to the very north of the North Island, to the beautiful Bay of Islands. I booked a ‘3 Day Adventure’ trip through a travel agency in the city but wanted to stay in the area a bit longer so added on a couple of extra nights’ accommodation.  As the bus was picking me up very early the next morning I decided to stay in the city the night before rather than at Nicole’s.  As she dropped me off at the hostel it felt very much like leaving home again and I felt rather wobbly on my own, but I didn’t have much choice other than to get on with it.  I stayed in the Auckland Central Backpackers, which was a nice enough place with a great looking bar called and restaurant.  I wasn’t feeling quite brave enough to go in on my own so I retired to my bunk and tried to relax and get an early night, which proved rather difficult in a room full of strangers who were coming and going.  However, I figured this was something I was just going to have to get used to over the coming year!
Links to previous Travel Tales
#1: Nerves
#2: Departure
#3: Tug boats, peaks & pandas
#4: Islands, animals & markets
#5: Sunshine & hostels