New Zealand is a beautiful country but it is also very expensive. Everything costs and WIFI is no exception. Perhaps we were spoilt by free WIFI across South America, in NZ you can expect to pay an extra £2.50 for 30 minutes of WIFI on top of your pint (£5) or coffee (£4). For that reason the blog has been quiet of late. We are able to get occasional free WIFI in libraries but that time has been spent catching up on news, e-mails, tweets and the like. This is what we have been up to on the North Island:
We are now at a place called Winton on the outskirts of Invercargill, deep South on the South Island, its a desolate place similar to the American midwest. We picked up our campervan in Auckland almost four weeks ago after arriving from Santiago in South America. We initially headed North which was a mistake, we hadn’t done much planning for this NZ leg of the trip focusing instead on planning our route through South American. We basically sat in front of a map in the Auckland Skyway Lodge Motel (recommended) and in a somewhat jet-lagged fashion, we vaguely decided it seemed to make sense to head North and start the tour at the very top.
The next day after picking up our campervan from Wenderkrissen (recommended) we set off for Cape Regina, the most Northerly point of the North Island. It soon became apparent that we had bitten off more than we could drive and five hours after leaving Auckland we turned off for a Department of Conservation (DOC) camp ground which wasn’t even half way to our intended mostly Northerly destination.
We revised our plan that evening and decided to return to Auckland sooner than anticipated. We only had two weeks on the North Island and there were parts South of Auckland that we didn’t want to miss, Cape Regina would have cost us to much time. In hindsight we should have binned the Northland trip and instead headed South straight from Auckland on the first day of our road trip. Any disappointment offset however by the beauty of our first night campsite. The DOC hosts free, or low cost campsites all over NZ, this one was right on an isolated beach, picture postcard stuff greeted us when we slid the campervan door back in the morning. Our campsite luck was not to last until the second night….
NZ is known for its tolerance of “freecampers”, there is a debate about the exact definition of the term but we thought that it meant that if, (like us) you have a self contained campervan with a toilet, then you can camp any where as long as there isn’t a sign to tell you can’t. New to the game and keen to exploit of new found freedom, on the second night we spent sometime trying to find a decent layby. We eventually found a remote track about six miles out of the village of Russell. If the track was remote, the parking place we found on the track was remoter still, perfect and flanked at either side by a forest of ferns. Darkness fell as soon as we arrived and the tranquility of the layby was replaced by a quiet, stillness. Darkness plays havoc with the senses and we questioned whether it was safe and right to park where we had done. We were basically on the outskirts of a forest, up a dark track miles from civilisation, somehow it just didn’t feel right. We decided to put doubt to the back of our minds, “this is NZ, land of free living lets just go with it and stop being wimps”. With that we set about cooking tea and the heat from the gas rings caused fog to build up on the interiors of the windows behind the curtains which we had just drawn.
It was about ten minutes later as the Asparagus sizzled in the pan that we became embroiled in a scene similar to a crimewatch reconstruction. We were stood cooking in the back of the van when all of a sudden I heard a car approach up the gravel track outside. The headlights cast a momentary glow through the gaps in out curtains and the car came to rest right outside the front of the van – I knew we were in trouble.
Footsteps approached quickly outside, I didn’t get chance to sneak a peek at the person that had arrived in the dark to meet us and I didn’t really want to have face them but we had no choice, it was time to face my foe. I tentatively drew back the campervan door and was met by the dimly lit silhouette of a short Maori looking male wearing a black hoody – hood up, with his arms spaced provoctively by his sides, palms facing me, when I looked closer into the night I noticed his two front teeth were missing which added to his menacing demeanour. He was furious and launched into a verbal rant about how he was sick of people turning up on his “bosses land”, “my boss pays me to watch over this land” he kept repeating, “you’d better get out of here, I’m sick off you people, you can’t stay here”. My best Richard E Grant Withnail impression didn’t reslove the situation “I’m sorry, we’re leaving, we’re new to this, we’ve made a mistake” was my plea in defence. The Maori man kept on ranting and moving closer It was clear he was spoiling for a fight. My pleas of ignorance fell on deaf ears and scared for personal safety I decided to simply shut the door on him and to our relief he marched back to his car and drove off. I vaulted with speed to the drivers cab and it was all engines on. I sped off down the track with Tracy perched in the back balancing a frying pan of asparagus and pancetta on her knee.
It was a pretty unsavoury incident and it finished about 10pm as we found the sanctuary of a pay site in Russell. Since our naivety on that second night we have stayed on all manner of free camp sites without trouble. We have learnt to find free sites (via an excellent mobile phone app – Campermate) and most of them have signs at the entrance to car parks welcoming self contained vehicles for a maximum number of nights. We’ve stayed on beaches, lakes sides, up mountain passes and I currently write from a Golf Club car park. We made a mistake that first night, you can’t just park where you like. I ran a 5k in Auckland a couple of nights later and I recounted the tale to a local runner that I was chatting to post race. She explained the whole Mauri land situation to me and it put the matter into some perspective. As we drove back to Russell after the incident we past our aggressor he was stationary in his car taking to another two car loads of people. There was no one else around that night and I wondered if gangs of heavies are paid to roam the tracks and protect the land from trespassers.
The next day we headed back to Auckland and Paul took part in the Rat Race 5k getting slightly lost on in the last 2k and meeting a runner from Bourne, Lincolnshire who was also visiting NZ, it really is a small world. We drove on to “hot water beach” on the Coromandel Peninsula, staying at Cathedral Cove. The views across the Pacific were magnificent from that night’s car park and despite the touristy nature of digging yourself a hole on the beach, the hot thermal waters which spill into the hole made the next day’s experience relaxing and worthwhile. We drove on to Whakatane for a trip to the volcanic, “White Island”, the island was a highlight, we sailed by boat and walked through busy, colourful volcanic pools to arrive at the smouldering crater. The volcano is active and we could only pause briefly to take photos before retracing out steps back to the boat stopping to taste the ionised water from the natural streams. We also found out that our friends from back home got engaged in Whakatane some years ago, a special place for lost of reasons.
We then turned inland towards Rotarua where we spent time marvelling at the regions active thermal pools. The whole area is laced with funnels of steam coming out of distant bubbling pools in fields next to the highways. When you get a decent view, it is like looking at a scene from a children’s fairytale as the land is perforated by rising steam and frothing, colourful lakes. Waiotapu Pools were a highlight and we parked at an excellent site nearby where a modest overnight parking fee included the use of the campsites own thermal pools. We got up at 6am and had the entire complex to ourselves, we spent an hour relaxing in the outdoor baths whilst admiring the sun rising over the surrounding mountains – magical.
From Waiotau it was on past Lake Taupo (where we stayed at another great lakeside site) to Turangi were we arranged our trek across the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Billed as one of the world’s greatest one day treks it didn’t dissapoint. We wanted to do the crossing on our own but the information centre advised that we needed a guide as there was snow on the summits so we booked on an organised tour. There were 63 people in our group, too many for the two guides that took us across the mountains, one at the front and one at the rear. The spectacular scenery was matched by the spectacular weather, the sun was shining brightly affording clear panoramic views across the North Island. We climbed to approximately 2,500 metres, the snow was plentiful but we didn’t need crampons. At lunch we sat on the summit near warm volcanic rocks which provided natural heat amid the sharp cold breeze that was drifting across the tops it seems everything in NZ is covered by nature. After lunch we were able to walk ahead of the guide at our own speed and Tracy and I enjoyed a peaceful descent to the car park where the tour bus was waiting to take us back to base but not before enjoying a complimentary beer on the grass in the late afternoon sun.
We mozzied on to reach the West coast for the first time, stopping for the night at Wanganui. Wanganui was a bit of a disaster, we decided to stay on “pay site” to reap the comfort of a laundry, lounge and a hot shower after our Tongariro efforts. It turned out that the holiday park despite being on the beach, was in a really rough area, the first person I met was wearing an electronic ankle tag! The next day we swiftly departed towards Wellington for the ferry to the South Island. I was able to do my first park in Porirua on the Saturday morning and was grateful for the hospitality of the small group of regulars that make their event special.
We liked Wellington and spent a day or two pottering round the city and its museum before heading to the ferry for an early crossing of the Cooke Straight to Picton on the South Island.
About 20 years ago I traveled across the Irish Sea on a boat named the Isle of Innisfree. It was a seriously rough crossing, so rough that I remember the Captain coming down to the bar after he docked the ship in Holyhead and poring himself a whisky. The boat was later renamed MV Kaitaki and leased to the NZ based InterIslander group. After checking on Google I was amazed to find the ship in Wellington harbour on the morning of our crossing. The ship followed ours across the straight and I was able to get some pictures of the vessel in Picton harbour. I had sailed on that ship on a treacherous night two decades ago and now she was sat gracefully in the sunshine in clear blue waters at the other side of the world, a nice end to our adventure on the North Island.