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