Going Up The Country

Going to some place that i've never been before...

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Lake Taupo, Wild Swimming and Maori Rock Carvings

Travelling with three girls definitely has its perks. Hitching a lift on a speedboat full of wakeboarding dudes is one of those perks.

We arrived in Lake Taupo last night fairly late, but not too late to catch a pretty damn fine sunset over the lake with a nice cold beer. The campsite we stayed in however, left a bit to be desired. We opted for a free campsite we found on Wikicamps, but it was not the most pleasant experience. The campsite itself was huge, and resembled festival camping more than a campsite, with lots of tents packed in very tightly. The toilets ere in pretty bad shape, and it was fairly noisy. If you’re staying in Taupo, I’d advise against the big free camp – it’s worth paying the $6/10 for a local DOC camp.

Today more than made up for the campsites shortfalls. There is a famous Maori rock carving right on lake Taupo, that according to the Information site can only be accessed by tour boat. Thinking that maybe the Maori rock carvers didn’t have access to the tour boats, we wondered if maybe there was another way to see the carving, and after a bit of research discovered that you can actually swim to it. It was a long swim, and if you’re at all unsure of your swimming abilities I’d strongly advise against it, but if you’re a strong and confident swimmer it’s definitely do-able. The other option if you’re not such a strong swimmer is to take a boogie board or another flotation device with you.

The rock carving itself is impressive, coming in at over ten metres high, and only accessible form the water. The main carving is surrounded by several other carvings, of animals or other objects, each of which has its own meaning. Although the carvings look like some ancient artefact straight out of Indiana jones, they were in fact created in the 1970’s by Maori master carvers Matahi Whakataka-Brightwell and Jonathon Randell as a gift to the township of Taupo.

Lake Taupo Rock Carvings

The carvings were a highlight of our visit to Taupo, and if you’re looking for interesting, cheap and fun things to do around the lake, then the carvings should not be missed.

Kiwi Keith’s – a little slice of Kiwi Gold!

A hostel with a hot-tub? Count me in!

So after a night of horrible, gale-force storms that flattened all of the girls tents and soaked everything we own to the bone, we were forced to take evasive manoeuvres and check in at a hostel. The nearest town happened to be Napier, and by some miraculous stroke of luck the hostel we found was a bright yellow slice of backpacker heaven called Kiwi Keith’s. Kiwi Keith turned out to be a real person, and the owner of said hostel, and a lovely chap he was too, going out fo his way to fit us in – I think he could probably sense our soaking wet desperation. Strictly not a kiwi – he was born in London and lived for years in Australia, but who’s keeping score?

The hostel itself was fantastic, a collection of four individual houses each with its own kitchen, bathrooms and lounge areas, with a big outdoor area with picnic tables, a BBQ, a basketball ring, and best of all – a hot tub. Laundry was free, which is pretty much unheard of in my experience, and due to a few long term resident fruit pickers, huge bowls of complimentary peaches and apples in each house. If you’re looking for a place to stay in Napier, I highly recommend it – you will not find a better hostel on the North Island.*

Napier (or Ahuriri to give it it’s original Maori name) itself is a uniquely interesting town on the east coast of the North Island, south of Gisborne. The original town was established in 1851, but largely destroyed in the 1931 Hawkes bay earthquake, and rebuilt in the following years, which means that it has the largest concentration of 1930’s Art Deco architecture anywhere in the world – the self proclaimed ‘Art Deco capitlal of the world’. It is a quirky, fun place, and definitely worth a visit if you are a fan of Art Deco, and to be honest it’s worth a look even if you’re not. It has a friendly, laid-back vibe, some nice locally run shops and a weekly farmers market on Sundays featuring fresh, locally grown produce and artisan breads and cheeses.

Cape Kidnappers

Cape Kidnappers

We left Kiwi Keith’s (and Napier) this morning, and headed south along the coast to Cape Kidnappers, where they have the largest colony of Australian Gannets in New Zealand. Quite a sight (and smell) to behold! It’s a 10km hike down the beach to get to the colony, but well worth it, and with some stunning views along the way. The lazier tourists can choose to ride in a tractor trailer along the beach, but with the noise of the tractor and the speed of the ride you miss the whole sand-between-your-toes, soaking in the views aspect of this lovely (and pretty easy) walk. Definitely recommended.

*This review is my own honest, unbiased opinion. I have not been paid to write this review, or offered any incentive or reward from Kiwi Keith or any of his hostel staff.

Yabba Dabba Flume!

If The Flintstones did waterparks…

The Rere rockslide is a naturally-occurring gentle, smooth rock incline around 60 metres in length, located 50km west of Gisborne. It has been worn smooth by the continuous flow of water over the years, and is screaming out to be slid down. You’ll need a boogie board, or inflatable of some kind as it’s smooth, but not that smooth (I found this out by falling off my boogie board and doing almost the entire length on my back!). Gisborne iSite has boogie boards to rent for $20 each per dy, but for the same money you can buy one from K-Mart or Warehouse, and on a good day you’ll find a few lying around at the rock slide.

If you time it right and with a bit of a run up/push off, you can gather some pretty impressive speed, and make a good sized splash in the pool at the bottom. Climbing back up proved more difficult than getting down, but after few runs you soon get the hang of it. IT’s not like any other waterslide I’ve ever seen, and is well worth the detour from Gisbourne.

Standing on the edge of the world

Being one of the first people to see in the new day is a pretty special feeling.

New Zealand is the first county in the world to see in each new day due to its location just to the west of the International Date Line (IDL) – an imaginary line running form the north to the south pole at roughly 180 degrees east (or west!) of the Greenwich Meridian. It stands to reason then, that if you stand at the eastern most point (East Cape, just along the coast from Hicks Bay) of the eastern most country just before dawn, you get to be the first to see in the Sunrise. I’m fully aware that the IDL its just an arbitrary human construct involving time zones, but still, being one of the first few people on earth to welcome in a new day is pretty awesome.

Sadly for us the morning heralded a leaden, overcast sky, and so our sunrise moment was spectacularly unspectacular, with the day going slowly from very dark grey to light grey over the space of an hour or so. Still, we were the first people to witness that lovely grey transition, so I guess that still counts for something.

Hakuna Matata

Geysers, thermal pools and some Maori history

It’s been a pretty eventful few days. We visited Mount Manganui a few days ago, and the view from the top was pretty special. It’s a fairly quick and easy walk up to the top, it takes round an hour and the view is definitely worth it! After the walk we had a pretty relaxed day, spending most of it at the beach.. It was good to have a bit of downtime after all the activities and things we’ve been doing, and the beach at Mount Manganui is pretty special. A long, white sandy beach with warm, gentle waves, perfect for a swim and a beach nap.

We camped for the night at a free spot – a tip off from the Nottingham girls we’d met at Purangi winery. The campsite was one of the best free ones we’ve seen so far, with free gas BBQ, nice clean flushing toilets and sinks, picnic benches, and lots of grass for the tents. It was so good in fact tht we decided to stay for two nights, as did Emma, Bryony and Steph, and it was cool to hang out with some fresh faces for a while.

In the day between our two free camp nights we headed down to Rotorua, a tourist hotpot that promises all kinds of volcanic activity. We opted for a scenic hike through a redwood forest up to a vantage point where you can see the geyser – a great free alternative to paying the $40 or so entry to see it up close, and a good walk too.

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After the redwood walk we found the old historic Maori part of Rotorua, and after wandering aimlessly for a little while a kindly local man obviously noticed we looked a bit lost and gave us a mini guided tour of the area, including the volcanic spring cooking holes each house has in its garden, as well as the local Maori meeting house. The history of the tribes in the local area was really interesting, and it was brilliant to hear it directly from the lips of a descendant of one of the tribes itself. There was a small giftshop there run by a Maori traditional carver, full of amazing Maori carvings and artefacts, all sadly too large and heavy for a backpacker, but I did pick up a hand carved necklace with a ‘Koru’ pendant. The Koru is a traditional Maori symbol which signifies life, growth and harmony, and more specifically new beginnings – pretty apt for me after my last 12 months!

Maori Meeting House

After leaving Rotorua we headed 30km south, to Waiotapo Thermal Wonderland, a collection of lots of geothermal pools. The entrance fee of $36 dollars seemed a bit steep, but the park was interesting, and was definitely worth the money. The variance in the colours (and smells!) of all of the different pools is due to the different minerals present in each pool. The pools also vary in temperature from room temperature to scalding hot. Probably the most famous of the pools is Champagne pool, which has a bright orange perimeter, and is constantly bubbling with CO2, hence its name.

We’re camped tonight at Matata beach, a nice little campsite with hot showers and only $6 per person. Looking forward to a nice hot shower and washing some clothes after some serious hiking the last few days!

New Zealand Lamb

It’s no secret that New Zealand Lamb is pretty good.

Along with rugby it is one of their crowning glories, and I think I have figured out why. The reason that New Zealand Lamb is so damn tasty is because the sheep themselves are without a doubt the happiest fluffy little bastards on the planet.

Of course they taste good, they live in complete and utter paradise…

Table Tennis or Ping Pong?

Feijoa Liquer, Gin, Rum, Wine, and a little bit of familiarity.

It’s been a little while since I played table tennis, but I was still quietly confident that my skills would be serviceable. Little did I know that two of my new travel buddies were world championship level table tennis pros. It was like I was across the table from Forrest Gump.

After waking up right on the beach in the back of the car, and after a quick morning dip, we drove a little further along the gravel road to Fletcher Bay, where the Coromandel Coastal Walkway begins, a mid-level hike that snakes its way along the coastline and takes in some jaw-droppingly beautiful views along the way. It was a good four hour hike up at the lookout point and back, by which point we were a gasping, sweaty mess and a swim in the sea has never been more welcome.

Fletchers Bay

We had a fairly long drive down to Hot Water Beach, where we were planning to spend the night last night, so after some gargantuan sandwiches for lunch we hit the road, winding back along the narrow gravel road, taking in the eye-poppingly good views along the way.

As we neared out desitination, we realised that there were no campsites on offer near Hot Water Beach, save for a fully fledged holiday park, for $20 per person. After paying just $10 per person or less for the last week or so, this sounded less than appealing, and so we reverted to Wikicamps.*

*If you’re reading this in New Zealand or are planning on travelling here anytime soon, do yourself a favour and download wikicamps. It is a comprehensive list of all campsites, supermarkets, petrol stations and points of interest, including listing lots of free campsites that seem to not be listed anywhere else.

With a little help from Wikicamps we found a hidden gem, and my favourite place I have stayed so far – Purangi Winery. Having already undertaken a couple of wine tastings over the last few weeks, I was not prepared for what greeted us at Purangi. The deal was this, spend $20 on wine, beer or food and you get to camp for free in the grounds of the winery. Challenge accepted.

Purangi Winery

The cellar door was a well-stocked if slightly ramshackle room to the right of the main building, but the welcome waiting inside was pretty special. The bartender Danny was a font of information on the local area, the massive assortment of wines and spirits produced on the premises, and a heartfelt advocate of something called Feijoa. Its not often that at the ripe old age of thirty you get to try a new fruit, let alone one that is as refreshing and delicious as Feijoa. Resembling something inbetween a lime and a kiwi fruit, the Feijoa is a versatile little bastard too, something the good people at Purangi have taken advantage of with the production of their Feijoa Liqueur.

Next door to the tasting area was a pizzeria. After eating pretty healthily since I got here, and needing to spend $20 for the free camping, we ordered some pizzas, which turned out to be pretty good. The ‘Supreme’ featured anchovies, and in another first for me this week, mussels. I was dubious and curious in equal measures, but it turns out I need not have worried. Mussels on a pizza are a stroke of delicious seafood genius.

Purangi Winery Pizzeria

After eating outside we headed indoors for  look around and discovered that the pizzeria comes complete with a bar and a ping pong (table tennis?) table, where I soon discovered that Clara and Carole were pretty gifted at table tennis. After some discussion with Danny from the tasting room on whether it was called Ping Pong or Table Tennis, we moved back outside for more beers, and bumped into something unexpected.

When you travel literally halfway around the world, the last thing you expect to hear is a familiar sounding voice. Outside of the bar, we were kindly invited to join a table of three girls (So, to recap, at this point it’s now me and six girls) who had a distinctly familiar twang to their accents. All this way and I bump into two girls from Nottingham. Emma and Briony to be precise, travelling with a swiss girl called Steph, who they had met in Thailand and kidnapped, taking her with them to Australia and now New Zealand.

It was a fun night, helped along with copious amounts of wine and beer, and we were the last people there. Before going to bed we agreed to meet up in the morning and head off to Hot Water Beach together. Hot Water Beach is exactly what it sounds like. For a few hours either side of low tide, you can turn up with a spade, dig yourself a little hole in the sand at a certain spot, and it fills with amazingly hot water from geothermal springs deep underground. At least in theory.

We arrived in plenty of time to stake out a spot, but the beach filled up pretty quickly, and soon we were in the midst of a large crowd of people of all nationalities, stood around holding spades, poised ready for some kind of event that might spontaeneously happen. Everyone was eyeing each other, trying to work out where the best spot might be to hit hot water, in something reminiscent of a weird, sandy, semi naked gold rush. We waited for a few hours, until low tide, but even at low tide the sea was coming in too far and obliterating any holes that were dug almost immediately. After a few failed attempts, we decided to call it a day and head over to another nearby tourist magnet – Cathedral Cove.

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This time the physical location lived up to the expectations. The 35 minute hike down to the beach ended in a spectacular sandy beach, with steep, impassable cliffs on almost all sides, and a natural tunnel right through the cliff to Cathedral Cove itself. The cove was stunning, and less busy than expected judging by the number of cars in the car park. If you are short on time and have to choose, I’d definitely ditch Hot Water Beach in favour of Cathedral Cove. One of the highlights of the east coast so far.

Cathedral Cove

And then there were four

“You’re either the luckiest bloke alive or the unluckiest, and I’m just not sure which”

A lot has happened in the last 24 hours.

After saying my goodbyes to Jo yesterday evening, I decided that staying in a hostel after 5 days of really enjoyable camping would be a bad move, and seeing as I wasn’t due to pick up my new travel buddies until today, I had a night to kill. I decided to head out to Piha, a really nice surf beach just 45 minutes outside of Auckland.

Piha beach sunset

I arrived pretty late, and so after a quick walk down to the beach I decided to head back and call it a night. It was strange to bed down on my own after 5 nights of sharing the relatively small space in the back of Velma with Jo, but I did get a pretty good nights sleep with room to stretch myself out.

My plan for this morning was to get up early and squeeze in a breakfast surf session before heading back into Auckland, but that plan was foiled by the only local surf rental place being closed at 7am. I really need to buy a board.

I drove back into Auckland and made it just in time to pick up my new travel buddies. I’d posted a message on a few facebook groups about having space in my car for the road trip, and replied to a few messages, and in the end my travel buddies were Clara, A German/Portuguese girl, Amandine, a French girl, and her friend Carole, also from France.

I have to admit that I was slightly nervous about travelling with three girls, but within a few hours of picking them up I could tell that we were going to get on fine, we all had similar tastes in music, the food shop was unbelievably easy and everyone was pretty chilled. Our first night’s stop was in the Coromandel Forest Park, a stunningly scenic reserve in the Coromandel Peninsula, and just a few hours drive from Auckland, meaning we got there early enough for a quick hike.

We followed the signage for a quick 50 minute hike, but somewhere along the way we ended up on a fairly major trek, with over 20 river crossings (some of them almost waist deep to be waded through!) and didn’t get back to the campsite until almost nightfall. For anyone looking for some challenging but fun hikes, I can definitely recommend the Coromandel Forest Park.

Coromandel forest park hike

The next morning, after breakfast by the river we stopped in at the information centre to load up on some free maps and stock up on drinking water before heading north. We passed through Coromandel town, but didn’t stop and kept heading north, ending up at another DOC campsite at Port Jackson. The site itself was right on the beach, at the end of a 30km gravel road, which made me really glad that I’d opted for a car with four wheel drive.

The ranger at the campsite, a gentle, quiet man of around seventy five, was chuckling to himself as he checked us in, and after an inquisitive look from me he commented “Just you and these three eh? Nice. You’re either the luckiest bloke alive or the unluckiest, and I’m just not sure which.” This was answered by a swift smack around the back of the head and an apologetic smile from his wife. I smiled back and told him I wasn’t sure myself just yet, but that I’d let him know.

The campsite itself was another D.O.C. one, and we got a pitch right on the beach. I’ve camped a lot over the years, in a lot of different countries, and i’m struggling to think of a better camping pitch right now…

Beachside camping!

Walking like John Wayne

I finally got around to adding the last skill I needed into my end-of-the-world survival kit.

When the zombie apocalypse happens, and most people are running screaming from hordes of flesh-eating undead, I’m pretty sure I’ll be ok. Why? Because now, I can ride a horse. Along with the ability to start a fire with just sticks, and catch, dispatch and skin my own food I feel like this puts me in pretty good stead.

My friend Jo has been riding horses since she was small, but I’d never ridden a horse before (I’m pretty sure that plodding along on old threadbare donkeys at Blackpool pleasure beach as a child doesn’t count). As far as ‘firsts’ go, this one was pretty enjoyable. My steed for the morning was Poppy, an experienced and trustworthy horse that clearly knew what she was doing, along with being fully aware of how uselessly inexperienced I was. The trek guide took us down the beach, where Jo took great delight in getting me to try a trot, before graduating to a rising trot, and then finally persuading me that a canter would be a good idea.

It was easier than I imagined; you just have to kind of hang on and hope for the best, but I suspect that even though in my head I looked like a cross between Indiana Jones and Robin Hood, the reality was almost definitely less impressive. However graceful (or not) my riding style was, apparently I did well for a first timer, and our guide took us up into the cliffs above the beach a bit later on, a trek normally reserved for more experienced, confident riders. The horses didn’t enjoy the climb, but the view from the clifftop was one of the best views I have seen so far on this trip:

Clifftop horse trek

After all of the excitement and exercise, we felt like something a little more refined and sophisticated was called for, and so stopped off at a winery on the Northlands Wine Trail for some liquid refreshment. The owners were great, and after sampling all of their wares, including possibly the most delicious port I have ever tasted, we bought a few bottles and hit the road.

Sadly Jo has to be back at work tomorrow, so today was the last day of our Northlands road trip, and after the wine tasting we decided to head back to the yoga retreat she works at for a sauna and a dip in the pool. All in all, a pretty good day.

Wine Tasting, Hot Springs, Kauri and Kiwi

Sitting in a muddy hole for a few hours feels much better than you would imagine. Especially after ‘tasting’ some wine.

It took us a few days but today we realised our path had taken us pretty close to the Northlands Wine Trail. Armed with this newly acquired information, it seemed rude to not partake.

There are 17 wineries on the trail, so there is no shortage of choice. New Zealand’s wine industry is very new, but they already have some interesting and original blends of more traditional grape varieties, and surprisingly, some really good port. Im fully aware that it’s generally frowned upon to swallow the wine, but to be honest, it was so good it seemed as if it would be more rude not to. I even tried the Chardonnay, a wine I normally don’t get on with, and was pleasantly surprised.

After the wine tasting we felt the need for some liquid refreshment of a different kind, and our Lonely Planet travel guide suggested the Ngawha hot springs, apparently the best hot springs in the North Island, and for just four bucks too! We smelt the springs before we set eyes on them, as an overpowering whiff of rotten eggs crept into the car as we approached. The smell is due to the high levels of sulphur in the water, because of its volcanic source. The somewhat ghetto looking springs didn’t disappoint, with over ten different pools of varying temperatures, and each with its own specific healing properties, due to the different mineral concentrations within each pool.

We spent a good few hours sampling the different pools, starting with the more mild pools at around the mid to high thirty degree mark, and moving on to some of the hotter pools, coming in in the low fourties. We both tried ‘The Doctor’ named not for its healing properties, but because of the MotoGP connection – the temperature stays at a steady 46.

After the hot springs we were both too relaxed to drive any great distance and so found a small local camp in a farmers field. The woman who checked us in was friendly enough, with two gorgeous dogs, but the campsite itself was a little on the strange side, with the kitchen, toilet and shower being housed in an old cowshed, complete with old milking machinery, rusty chainsaw chains and dairy farmers publications dating from the nineteen sixties. As it was almost dark when we arrived, the surroundings were a little creepy, so after a quick dinner of risotto we called it a day, and left pretty early the following day.

Cowshed camping

Our campsite for tonight is Trounson Kauri Park, a NZ heritage site managed by the Department of Conservation (or as I keep referring to it the ‘Department of Conversation’ in a Monty Python-esque slip that Jo finds hilarious. We arrived pretty early, and had a pretty chilled day, mostly due to an entire day of rain that would give the UK a run for it’s money.

The intention was to stay up late and take a walk through the Kiwi reserve in the wee early hours. Kiwi are nocturnal, and notoriously shy, so a red torch is recommended, as wealth as a healthy dose of ninja-like stealthiness. By the wee small hours however, we had drunk far too much Fine Ruby to be in any way stealthy. Coupled with the puring rain, we decided it was best to rain-check the midnight ramble for another time. Probably for the best.

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