Maoris and Kauris, vines and wines, rolling green hills and roads with thrills, roundabouts causing doubts, landscape that’s hilly and names that are silly, narrow roads littered with possum and people who are totally awesome. Welcome to New Zealand!
Driving towards Tauranga from Auckland’s airport, we stop to stretch our legs at Karangahake Gorge along the pristine Ohinemuri River. Glancing at the alluring gin-clear river, I’m immediately ruing the fact I don’t have a fishing rod to try and save the lithe trout teasingly finning about from dying of old age.
The NZ countryside is green and clean, and ornamented with one shitload of sheep. In the town of Tauranga our B & B lodging is a fully furnished cottage and lovely gardens with a hot tub and enormous avocado trees loaded with the nutritious fruit. The owner Rolf is one entertaining dude, with a wacky sense of humor and the endless energy of a Jack Russell terrier on amphetamines!
While chatting with Rolf beside a stream on the property containing large ugly eels, a large rat scurries past along the far bank. Rolf quickly bends over and grabs a massive lizard-green avocado that’s fallen to the ground, and with a powerful, perfectly aimed throw, splats the rat. Holy Guacamole, death by avocado; who knew! Also sharing our geography here is an ostentation of peacocks strutting about in a handsome attack, a resident beady-eyed possum, and a brood of chubby chickens with a ringleader Rolf has named Psycho!
We love the tree-house feel of our cabin, and keep all our drapes open to give the towering trees and bamboo a better view inside. Outside, a shrill lovelorn wail of libidinous desperation emanates from a cicada male choir, attempting to entice a mate after spending 15 years alone under the earth! These horny dudes reach an optimum screech that has the auditory effect of a screaming steam kettle; understandable I suppose, given the keenness of the poor little buggers to eradicate their ridiculously prolonged celibacy!
Tonight my ears perk up with another worrisome sound. Christine runs out of the bathroom frantically squeaking like a scalded hamster, having just discovered ‘La Cucaracha’. Catching her breath, she orders the villain’s immediate execution! A heroic intervention rescues my damsel in distress by way of a powerful ‘cockroachian’ sandal-splat that leaves a most revolting smear on the floor!
With lungs full of air and pupils full of sunrise, I’m running beside the town’s estuary and stop to ask three Maoris for directions. Noticing one has a shovel, I ask him what they’re digging. They tell me they’re preparing for a burial out on the island, but I see no boat. One of them, heavily stained with tattoos, widens his eyes, waggles his tongue, and says to me ‘now you gonna see miracle, man’!
With that, they walk out into the water getting farther and farther from shore, and my eyebrows travel north on my forehead as they appear to be walking on water. Apparently the illusion is created by a raised path built up just beneath the water’s surface that allows them access to the burial island at low tide.
At McLaren Falls Park we meander by green lakes with black swans, and through lovely ponga tree-fern forests before returning to the B&B amidst thunder and fauceting rain. Chatting to Rolf about this, the clown performs his anti-rain dance in the puddled driveway. Just back from a cement pour, he is quite the sight, all covered in cement and hopping around in gumboots while doing a silly gyrating dance that actually looks more akin to a large frog in a blender. Miraculously; a half hour later the sun emerges!
After four days of wandering shell strewn beaches, Papamoa, the town of Mt Manganuim, and the Mount, we drive on to the town of Rotorua. This is one of the country’s largest thermal areas and we immediately notice the air’s unpleasant smell of hydrogen sulphide. After spending the night, we awake to sullen weather and a spitting sky; so with the suntan lotion just a tube of discarded optimism, we opt to hit the road. Damn, if this soggy weather persists we’ll be going home with the tan of Michael Jackson.
Our next layover is stop is at Rangimarie Guest House in the town of Taupo, where we have the whole upstairs of the house, along with the use of a swimming pool and a hot tub set in private gardens. Our host ‘Taupo Joe’ is a transplanted Scotsman with a great sense of humor, and our sharp repartee is making our stay just that much more amusing.
Never before have I seen so many sheep. NZ apparently has 4 million people and 40 million sheep. In fact, one day whilst wandering about town we happen to notice a skittish ewe tethered to a signpost in town, so I sheepishly ask wisecracker Joe if this is the town’s recreation center. Sorry mate – my baaa-d!
The main purpose of our stay in Taupo is to tackle the famous Tongariro Crossing Challenge. This 19.4 km hike is billed as the best one day hike/tramp in New Zealand, and one of the top ten in the world. With the steep climbs and unpredictable weather, the estimated time to complete it is eight hours, and it’s imperative to be well prepared for a variety of volatile weather conditions. But what the heck, I reckon there’s a lot worse ways to spend a day than a robust work out on top of New Zealand’s finest ‘tramp’!
She turns out to be quite the tramp indeed; especially when slogging up the steep 378 steps of the aptly named ‘Devil’s Staircase’. However, our lofty effort is well worth it, as we’re rewarded with the spectacle of Emerald Lake and the Red Crater, used as the backdrop for many scenes in epic fantasy movie series called ‘The Lord of the Rings’.
During this hike, the fickle mountain weather has included sun, rain, thermal volcano, clouds, cold, and a bitter wind. Thank goodness we did our research, as being forewarned about the crossing’s ‘climate change’ and heeding the proper preparation has proved particularly prudent!
The spiraling hike down is equally as tough as the climb up, and turns our leg muscles into tapioca as we pass through distinct vegetation changes; from total barrenness at the top, to grass, bushes, small trees, and finally into the jungle-like forest at the base, where for some strange reason, we find ourselves bombarded by a battalion of deranged kamikaze Cicadas bugs. Clinging to our clothes like a bunch of bright broaches, the gaudy insects look like the love child of a grasshopper and Lady Gaga!
After completing the challenge in a respectable 5 ½ hours, we lie spread-eagled on the ground, awaiting transport back to base camp in the National Park. Back at Rangimarie we introduce our fatigued forms to the hot tub, and over a bottle of wine, contemplate the awesomeness of the day.
Today we hike to Huka Falls on the surging Waikato River, where the 100m wide river squeezes 220,000 liters of water a second through a narrow 20 meter gorge. After this rush, we continue on to the thermal activity area of Wai-O-Tapu; a prehistoric looking area with steam spewing from the ground and perpetually plipping and plopping pools of liquefied mud that could boil a person alive.
Some call this raw beauty, but the Hell-smell seems more reminiscent of raw sewage, and passing yawning craters called Devil’s Ink Spots, Devil’s Home, and Devil’s Bath, I’m thinking that if you ditch the ‘Dees’, you’re left with a ‘hole’ lot of ‘evil’ in this malodourous, nostril-pinching domain!
Named as “One of the 20 Most Surreal Places in the World”, Champagne Pool is a naturally colorful and dangerous hot spring that bubbles and fizzes like its namesake. Arsenic deposits form a ledge rimming the pool in what looks like bright pulpy carrot juice, and steam ascends from the boiling lake’s surface, while carbon dioxide gasses released from the bottom rise up to complete the stunningly, primal looking image.
Goodbying Joe and Taupo, we aim the car towards wine country; driving roads equal parts pavement and possum splat. The problematic possum are plentiful pests despised for ravenously devouring the vegetation. The huge numbers of careless carcasses littering the roads are referred to by locals as ‘Kiwi speed bumps’.
New Zealand has a plethora of head-scratching gobbledygook Maori names, including ‘Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateapokaiwhenuakitanatahu’; an absurd word for denture wearers to avoid unless they’ve doubled up on their adhesive! Roughly translating to ‘the place where Tamatea, the man with the big knees, who slid, climbed and swallowed mountains, known as ‘landeater,’ played his nose flute to his loved ones’; the mouth-mangling name clearly indicates the Maori do not suffer from Hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia!
In Napier we are delighted by our choice of lodging at ‘Mission B&B on the Avenue’. Owner Robert has a TV room with an incredible surround sound system, and invites us to join him tonight to in watching a Roy Orbison concert called Black & White Nights. Hilariously, the semi-sozzled Kiwi Kojak is wearing a Rod Stewart wig over a head as bald as my knee, and it looks like he has a porcupine stapled to his skull!
Last night we got a bit carried away guzzling great gobs of grape, and today we’re taunted by the ‘wrath of grapes’ lodged in the back of our skulls! Hoping fresh air will provide a cure, we visit Te Mata Peak in Hawke’s Bay followed by five hours of cycling on, over, and in; beaches, boardwalks, and vineyards.
Inky skies urinate on us yet again on our drive to Gisborne, or Gizzy as it’s called by the locals. Unable to find the accommodation recommended to us, we stop to ask a little old lady out for a walk if she knows the street’s location. ‘Why yes dear, just go left at the corner, then take the first right, I’m going there myself. Going to the home are you’? It seems there’s a senior care home catering to geezer and geezerettes on that same street and we chuckle, realizing we’ve just been unintentionally embarrassed by a senior citizen.
Negotiating slender roads through Waioeka Gorge, we’re dismayed to find a road closure at the tiny town of Matawai; whose only claim to fame is a bar with a stuffed two headed lamb that surely must have confused the hell out of its mother! Big rigs are stopped with the truckers milling about, as a massive slide has taken out the road up ahead. Since the alternative route is horrendous, we patiently wait for an update.
While passing time I start kidding around with some of the truckers, and conversation soon morphs into a friendly volley of insults, mocking each other about our countries and accents. Discussing NZ’s dangerously narrow roads, which they claim host accidents almost daily, one trucker tells me he was listening to a radio program when some woman with her knickers in a knot phoned in to say that truckers and their rigs should not be allowed on the roads.
Reaching the pinnacle of peeved, he phones the station saying: ‘I’m a trucker and I’ve got a message for your last caller. Please tell little Ms-nose-in-the-air that the bed she sleeps in was delivered by truckers, as is the food she eats, and the clothes on her back. And by the way, when she wipes her arse, it was also the truckers who provided the toilet paper.’ It seems that was suddenly the end of that topic. Told with his face in a huge grin displaying a failing grade in the dental category, his story totally ‘cracks’ me up!
Word finally comes down that clearing the road will take days, meaning we now have no choice but to backtrack and endure another daunting 11 hours and 700 km of driving over the narrow twisty roads. This is so discouraging, as we were only an hour away from our destination before the road got annihilated! Man, I thought today’s abominable driving was never going to bloody end. Wine please!
After resting back in Tauranga for a couple of days, we head north to the Coromandel Peninsula along costal roads so corkscrew-crooked there is a 25 km speed limit! After overnighting in Coromandel town, we continue on to Hahei, stopping for a little explore of Stingray Bay and Cathedral Cove’s postcardesque beach with the stunning rock arch featured in the Chronicles of Narnia.
Wondering where our next layover awaits, we pull into the shore town of Orewa. Known as the gateway to the Hibiscus Coast, this seems like as good a place as any to stay, and we check in at the Edgewater Motel. It soon comes to our attention that the toilet doesn’t flush correctly, and so I mention it to the owner. He brings out a bucket and replies, ‘No worries mate, a little low on water pressure here, just fill’er up from the fire hose’! The motel enjoys a private and charming setting on a sandy beach, and we love our funky little abode offering a dazzling view through vivid-red Pohutukawa trees to the ocean beyond.
Rising with the sun I’m off a run. This time I’m running the paths around the TeAra Tahanu estuary. Several kilometers in, I come to some rather gangly Pukeko birds held upright by monstrous feet, dressed in a black and blue plumage, and topped with an orange beak and bonnet. Mentioning these birds back at the motel, I ask our hosts if they are edible, and owner Les grinningly relates his granddaddy’s recipe for them.
‘So, you take the bird’, says he to me, ‘and put it in a great big pot; add water, then add a gumboot. Boil it up for about three days, and when it’s done, you chuck out the bird and eat the gumboot’! Well then, I guess our likelihood of a meal of Pukeko is slim to none; with Slim having just left the building!
In the 150 year old settlement of Puhoi, we stop for cheese tasting at a store with a sign out front reading ‘Cheese is Milk’s Leap to Immortality’. However, the store’s smell reminds my nostrils of unwashed rugby gear left in kit bag over the weekend! Across the street we’re lured into New Zealand’s oldest pub, operating since 1879. Inside, every imaginable inch is crammed with antiques, eclectic photos, farm tools, world currencies, pioneer newspaper clippings, passports, stuffed birds, and unusual odds and sods aplenty.
While sampling the grog in this famous bar, the waitress smiles at me and says ‘Oh, you’re in the special seats – look above your head.’ I glance up and see a sign that reads ‘Old Fart’s Corner’! Christine has a good giggle, while I start to wonder if I’m getting a complex. Perhaps this waitress and the old broad in Gizzy are in cahoots? Clearly these women have driven me to drink; bugga – it’s time for another muga!
After being at the wheel for 3,500 kilometers of slim Kiwi roads, we return to the airport in Auckland, elated to shed the pregnant roller-skate we’ve been driving. Our wander full days in this wonderful country have simply run away from us, bringing our amazing Kiwi time to an end; at least until the next time.
On the flight home, I manage to travel all the way back to Canada with a Naked Lady! No, not Christine, or any female of the two-legged variety, but rather, a bulbous plant collected in our travels. However, she and I are separated by a customs officer at the Vancouver airport, where regrettably I must bid adieu to the beautiful Belladonna plant before our final flight home.
Musing over our trip, we realize that although the weather offered more dispiriting drizzle than sun, it really didn’t matter; because the country, like the Kiwis themselves, is absolutely brilliant! Thank you New Zealand for your kindness and your beauty; it was a pleasure to meet you.
Mark Colegrave 2012