January 2-7 North Island
Nice surprise at the airport in Brisbane – we are bumped up to business class. This means a pleasant sojourn in the private lounge, with all the cappuccinos and gluten-free muesli bars you care to consume. Lots of other foodstuffs and beverages too, but that was my choice.
Onboard the newly-configured 747, we were ushered into soft leather lounger seats. How can I explain what these are like? Think angle parking. Instead of rows, these seats are angled so that my head is by the window but my feet are angled out towards the aisle, supported by an ottoman. If I choose to recline the whole thing tips and tilts into a bed, a quilt settles over me and heaven descends to earth ...at least in terms of airline travel.
Too bad we scored business class on the 2.5 hour trip to Auckland when I had no interest in sleeping instead of the 18 hour flight home to Vancouver when I just know I will be wedged into the economy-sized rack.
The food was forgettable – a Sweet Pea Aspic with Seared Tuna – this means “raw”. Some other bits and pieces like very stinky cheese and a wine so dry it made my eyes water. The dessert, however, was a winner – macademia nut ice cream with passion fruit topping. I cannot help it. I am a pleb in the gastronomic department.
All of this was served on a huge dinner table covered in a linen tablecloth. Would be a perfect working surface too. I cannot help but think of how hard I have struggled to use my laptop on those tiny little lap trays in economy. And when the fellow in front of you reclines his seat, forget it. Snap shut the laptop.
I’ve heard it repeated over and over again that Bill Gates never flies anything but economy because he thinks it is a stupid waste of money. Well, he is wrong. If I were rich, or even significantly better off, I would certainly fly business class on the long hauls. Oh, the bliss of fully extending one’s legs, never mind having them supported, of being able to work or read or do anything on the table/tray in front of you.
Being such VIPs now, we swing into Auckland and our luggage comes off the plane first. But my crutches, which had been sent into the oversize bin did not come out. We waited and waited and waited. Finally I went down to baggage services where they asked me to fill out a lost luggage form then wait around Auckland for them to be delivered to me when they found them. I insisted that someone go back and look again ...and sure enough, they had fallen into a crevasse. So finally, long after every other passenger on the 747 had passed through customs and quarantine and every other kind of control ...we limped on through.
At the bio-control we lost Jake. If you remember, Jake is the kangaroo skull Steve picked up on the Nullarbor Plain. Jake was affixed to the front of the van and served as mascot over some 22,000 km. If we wanted to keep Jake we would be required to pay $31 for fumigation and come back for him ...so we waved goodbye and he hit the dustbin.
Next morning the campervan jockey showed up promptly with our ride. The van is a real disappointment – ancient looking rattly thing – 1991 – fifteen years old. The fellow said it just had a new engine put in. It is a Ford econoline van and the configuration is completely different – with the bed in the front – and a narrow alley-style kitchen at the back. We will need to put the bed up each morning. It will all be a bit of a tight fit. It is also gutless and very hard to steer – no power assist. But after a stop for groceries we head happily down the road from Auckland towards Hamilton, on Hwy 22, the back road. We are hightailin' it out of Auckland now, but will see the town on our return back through the North Island in a month.
Forty-seven km down the road, the engine seemed to be missing. Then the tappets started in, there was a big bang, a loud squeal, and the truck ground to a stop.
On the basis of a lady limping on a stick being more likely to be allowed into someone’s home and the fact that I’d previously had all the interactions with the campervan company, we decided that I would set off looking for a phone.
At the first house, I met Shane, coming out of his garage. He asked if he could help me. We called the campervan company, who said they would send a tow truck and told us to find a comfortable motel until they sorted this out. Shane and his little girl drove us back into town for the night and we settled in to wait for news. Much thanks to Shane for helping us sort this all out.
In the morning, the campervan company informed us the van would be some days being fixed, so they delivered a car to us. We were invited to continue our trip, staying in motels at their expense. They would catch up with us when the van was fixed. We set off again.
What we saw today, driving down Hwy 22 towards Hamilton was incredible – lush rolling hills deeply dented and dimpled, covered with soooo many woolly white sheep. The literature says there are 20 sheep for every person ...that makes 80 million sheep. We’ve only just begun!
That evening we enjoy a visit with an old mate. Steve lived in New Zealand during the 1960’s and Ken was a young fellow he worked with at the time. It was as simple as looking in the phone book, making a call, and here they are, jawing away as if it were yesterday. Kiwis are proving to be very friendly folk.
to Te Kuiti
We’d decided that if the van is not ready soon we would be happy continuing the trip with the car. It is a 1999 Nissan Bluebird. Nice and sporty and zippy – yet it has a 4 cyl engine so it should be good on gas. It runs like a top and we both enjoy driving it. Such a treat to drive such an agile vehicle, and automatic ...after months in an ungainly, standard shift campervan.
So, we crunched the numbers and figured that if we could get the car for under $30/day we would break even if cabins/motels were costing $90 per night. We called the campervan company up and made them that proposal ....they agreed to $27 per day, all inclusive of insurance, unlimited km, etc. We are set.
Our plan is to try and stay in the low-cost cabins that we've used before in caravan parks in Australia. These cabins are either fully self-contained with kitchen or ensuite, no kitchen, or no ensuite. If you don't have a kitchen you use the common camper's kitchen. If you don't have an ensuite you use the amenities block just as you do in a campervan. With that in mind, we buy a small cooler for $5.95, an icepack for $3, two plates, two bowls and some cutlery.
Caravan park cabins usually charge a fee to “rent” bedding and linens so we also get a duvet for $30 and pillows for $5 each. We already have the sheets we bought for the campervan in Australia, as well as our beach towels. With folding chairs at $7 each, we are equipped.
So we set off back down the road. We often run into brown signs that indicate a "tourist drive." Unless we are in a hurry we try to take these, even when we have no idea where they are going. On this occasion a tourist drive lands us at the Otorohanga Kiwi House Native Bird Park. This is a great little bird park, specializing in rehabilitating and breeding kiwi. We were just in time to see the kiwis fed. In the wild they would feed on worms, beetles, caterpillars, larvae, cicadas, spiders and berries. Here in the park they get an oatmeal mix that is studded with sultanas, tofu, julienned beef heart, minced meat, bananas, and vitamins. They are lovely birds, very affectionate with the caretaker feeding them, seemingly loving to have their necks scratched.
I doubt we will see one of these in the wild as they are pretty rare now and nocturnal ...so this was very interesting. One of the kiwis was quite a character. He is a very old bird, in excess of 15 years. He is nearly blinded by cataracts and his hips and legs are crippled by arthritis. He has a grey-white plume that stands up on the top of his head ...not unlike his namesake, Rod Stewart. Despite his age and infirmities, “Rod” is obsessed by the comely sheila next door, determined to breed till he dies in the act. Naturally this resulted in many rude comments about Rod.
From there we carried on to Waitomo Caves. These are the famous glow worm caves and they are very cool. They start off looking like any other of the spectacular limestone caves that we’ve seen elsewhere – dramatic bone-white stalactites and stalagmites. In this case there is a magnificent cathedral hall – an ornate high-ceilinged gallery that reminded me of the Uffizi in Florence.
But it gets better ...you go down into the bowels of the cave system and board boats that float through an underground river. The dark is lit by thousands of little glow worms, sparkling like stars in a black, black sky. Just gorgeous. The boats glide through the water silently, the guide pulls them along a cable.
The only thing that spoiled it was an adorable baby ...adorable above ground, but once we got into the pitch dark, the baby started screaming. Cannot blame it, but he carried on for at least half of what should have been a quiet, ethereal experience. In fact, the guide had asked us not to talk because the glow worms turn off when they experience sound vibrations. I may sound like a grumpy old woman, but there are places that babies don’t belong – like dark and spooky caves.
On the road again we made it to the town of Te Kuiti where we are encamped in the cutest little cabin. It is tiny ...just holds a bed and a kitchen table with microwave, toaster, kettle. There is a fridge and TV. Everything we need. We use the amenities block just like we would if we were in the van. There is also a fully-equipped campers kitchen if we need it.
The cabin is neat and clean and cute. It even comes with blankets and linens so we don’t have to get ours in from the car. Lying in bed I look up at the ceiling and see that the cabin is exactly the size of three 4’ x 8’ sheets of plywood – 8 feet by 12 feet in size final size.
Soooooo we are one day into our “new” trip, this time in a car and with a cabin costing $40 instead of $90 we are ahead by $50 already. Steve is very pleased and we are happy campers tonight. We were feeling pretty disheartened the last few days ...feeling like maybe we should be going home ...the fun had gone out of things ...but now we are content again.
This is a beautiful road, undulating through the full folds of mother earth’s most fertile hills and valleys. The lush hillsides look like they are terraced, but they are simply the well-trodden paths of the sheep and cattle who graze unconcernedly along the most amazingly steep inclines.
Along the way we passed through New Plymouth. Had a picnic on the waterfront and watched the big whoop in town, the Wind Wand, wave around in a most mesmerizing fashion. This is a sound sculpture, a bright red 45 metre carbon-fibre tube topped with a light globe that glows red in the dark – apparently. We didn’t hang around till nightfall. It was actually erected posthumously. The artist created the vision in 1962 and erected small scale versions of it in Greenwich Village and Toronto, but the materials did not exist to complete the full version until polymer engineering caught up to artistic vision in 2000 and the wind wand was erected, 20 years after artist Len Lye’s death. His actual vision had 125 such wind wands swaying in the wind together ...that would be something to see.
From there we travelled up to the North Egmont Visitor Centre on Mount Taranaki. This is a dormant volcano that rises to 2518 metres, a snow-capped summit. It last erupted in 1755, not so long ago. It is a beautiful climb, up a narrow, tree-shaded track to what is about the half-way point on the mountain.
At the Visitor’s Centre you can see a visual-arts show that explains the history of the mountain and outlines both the scientific and the mythological aspects of its geology. The show costs $2. There is a modest interpretive centre, good viewing galleries of the summit, and a restaurant. Although, the restaurant, just a modest cafeteria really, had some very hefty prices on the menu. Breakfast was $19.50.
When we were there the mountain was partially concealed by cloud cover, the summit playing peek a boo with us ...but we understand that in this area it is unusual to have totally clear blue skies so we were content.
After the mountain drive we continued on around the coastal route, stopping in to check out some of the surfing beaches. These are located around the perimeter of the Taranaki Peninsula and are indicated on the highway by brown signs that simply state “Surfing Beach” with an arrow and km indication. It is never more than a few km so they are easy to check out.
We ended the evening in Wanganui, a pretty town. Here we discovered the “Top Ten” Tourist Parks. These had been recommended to us by others and we are glad we followed up because we now have an easy way to find accommodation.
These parks are set in pretty, locations on the outskirts of towns. Last night’s was right on the Wanganui River. They have a range of accommodation – from tent and caravan sites to standard cabins, cabins with kitchenettes, cabins with ensuite bathrooms, to full motel-style accommodations.
For example, our standard cabin was $44. A cabin with kitchenette was $64 and a cabin with ensuite was $98. By comparison, a powered campsite was $28.
The standard cabin comes with a double bed and two bunks, a desk and chairs. We use the common amenities block to shower and toilet (just as we would if we were in the campervan), and the camp kitchen to cook. The camp kitchen is clean and fully equipped with fridges and freezers, stoves, grills, barbeques, kettles, microwaves, toasters, etc. There is also a dining hall and a lounge with games, television, and internet connections.
So for $44 we have everything we need and it is all very clean and tidy. The bed has a bottom sheet and pillows. We provide our own top sheet, quilt and by choice, our own pillows. We also provide own towels.
Walking to the shower tonight there is a tiny hedgehog in my path. Never seen a live one before – just the chocolate version.
In the morning we head off again, proceeding down the west coast towards Wellington. But before we leave Wanganui Steve checks out the elevator that goes from the bottom of Durie Hill to the top. It was built to service the hoi polloi at the top of the hill ...so they could easily move from the city centre to their homes without the necessity of taking the long and winding road. You go into a tunnel at the bottom, then ascend via the elevator to the top - for $2.
Trying to find the elevator we come on a weekend market. These are always a great source of local colour, never mind gifts and souvenirs. This morning we don't find any gifts, but do enjoy the cappuccinos and fresh muffins.
As we carry on towards Wellington, the scenary is not as remarkable. At Otaki we take the 19 km diversion out to the Otaki Gorge. Nice drive but have certainly taken better drives. We also check out the beach at Otaki. It looks cold and the surf is wild and breaking all over the place. The surfers have abandoned it, but not the kids. They will swim in anything.
One thing that is remarkable here are the lovely agapanthus that have sprung up wild along the roads and in the fields. These are either a bright blue or crisp white, and have large, multi-flowered heads on tall stalks. We seem to have lucked into their blooming season. I used to have one at home, until I accidentally put a spade through the bulb.
Once into the Wellington area we take a run down to the docks to check out where the ferry leaves from in the morning, then back out to the suburbs to check into our cabin here. It is more than acceptable and we are cosy and happy here. Lovely sunset tonight.