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!
Escaping February’s frigidity, we rent a car at Auckland’s airport and point it towards Tauranga. While stopping to stretch our legs at Karangahake Gorge along the pristine Ohinemuri River, I’m ruing the fact I don’t have a fishing rod to try and save the alluring trout lazily swimming about from dying of old age.
The NZ countryside is green and clean, and the countryside ornamented with a shitload of sheep. In the town of Tauranga our B & B lodging is a fully furnished cottage, including the use of the lovely gardens with enormous avocado trees and a hot tub. The owner Rolf is one entertaining dude with a wacky sense of humor, and exuding the endless energy of a Jack Russell terrier on amphetamines!
While chatting with Rolf beside a stream 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. Death by avocado; who knew! Also sharing our geography here is 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, especially when opening the drapes to give the trees and towering 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 generate a decibel level that sounds like a screaming steam kettle; which I suppose is understandable given the keenness of the poor little buggers to end their ridiculously prolonged celibacy!
Tonight, however, my ears perk up hearing a shriek of another kind; one containing snippets of a newly formed language. Christine runs out of the bathroom having discovered yet another form of wildlife; ‘La Cucaracha’. Catching her breath, she orders the villain’s immediate execution! A heroic intervention rescues my damsel in distress by way of my powerful ‘cockroachian’ sandal-splat that leaves a most revolting smear!
With lungs full of air and pupils full of sunrise, I’m off on a run 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 the monster Maoris 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, distancing them farther and farther from shore. My eyebrows jump halfway up 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, allowing them access to the burial island at low tide.
At McLaren Falls Park, we meander past green lakes with black swans and lovely ponga tree-fern forests, before returning to the B&B amidst fearsome thunder and a 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. I shan’t soon forget his silly gyrating dance which actually looks more akin to a large frog in a blender. Miraculously; a half hour later the sun emerges!
After enjoying four days wandering the shell strewn beaches, the Mount, Papamoa, and the town of Mt Manganuim, we drive on to the town of Rotorua. This is one of the country’s largest thermal areas and we immediately notice the air is invaded with the unpleasant smell of hydrogen sulphide. After spending the night we awake to a sullen and spitting sky, and with the suntan lotion just a tube of discarded optimism we opt to hit the road again. Damn, if this soggy weather persists we’ll be going home with the tan of a vampire.
Our next stop is the town of Taupo, to locate our lodging at Rangimarie Guest House. 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 the jovial harassment and banter back and forth 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 sheep tethered to a signpost on the main street, so I sheepishly ask Joe if perhaps it 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 suggested time to complete it is eight hours, and it’s imperative to be well prepared for the 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 really does turn out to be quite the tramp, especially slogging up the 378 steep steps of the ‘Devil’s Staircase’. However, the photogenic spectacle of Emerald Lake and the Red Crater, used as the legendary backdrop for many scenes in ‘The Lord of the Rings’ movie, is worth the effort. We stop only briefly for a snack from our pack as the penetrating chill at this elevation has us eager to begin our descent.
During this hike, the fickle mountain weather has included sun, rain, thermal volcano, clouds, cold, and wind. Thank goodness we did our research, as being forewarned about the crossing’s ‘climate change’ and proper preparation has proved particularly prudent!
The hike down is equally as tough as the climb up, turning 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. For some strange reason in the forested area, we are bombarded by deranged kamikaze-like Cicadas bugs. Clinging to our clothes like a bunch of bright broaches, these gaudy insects look like the love child of a grasshopper and Lady Gaga!
After completing the challenge in a respectable time of 5 ½ hours, we flop out on the ground wearing a relieved smile while awaiting transport to base camp in the National Park. Back at Rangimarie, we drag our fatigued forms, along with a bottle of wine, into the hot tub to ruminate over the day’s awesomeness!
Today’s trek is beside the surging Waikato River to reach Huka Falls, where the 100m wide river squeezes 220,000 liters of water a second through a narrow 20m gorge. We then continue up the road to the thermal activity area of Wai-O-Tapu (secret waters) which looks quite prehistoric with steam spewing out of the ground and the perpetually plipping and plopping pools of liquefied mud that could boil a person alive.
Some call this raw beauty, but the Hell-smell is more reminiscent of raw sewage. Passing the yawning eerie craters called Devil’s Ink Spots, Devil’s Home, and Devil’s Bath, I’m thinking that if you ditch the ‘Dees’, you have 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 brilliantly bright and pulpy carrot juice. Steam ascends from the boiling lake as the carbon dioxide gasses released from the bottom rise up to create the stunningly primal looking image.
Leaving Taupo we aim the car towards wine country, driving over roads equal parts pavement and possum splat. The problematic possum is despised, as the plentiful pests ravenously devour the vegetation, and the amazing numbers of careless carcasses littering the roads are referred to by locals as ‘Kiwi speed bumps’.
Examining our map, it seems most places have Maori names; starting with the letter ‘W’ and ending in a vowel. Apparently NZ has some 366 places that fall into this category; and that’s just cities! Then there’s the odd name like ‘Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateapokaiwhenuakitanatahu’. Similar to a stuck keyboard, this Maori mouth-mangler’s English translation is ‘the place where Tamatea, the man with the big knees, who slid, climbed and swallowed mountains, known as ‘landeater,’ played his flute to his loved one’. The absurd word indicates the Maori do not suffer from Hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia!
Arriving in Napier, we’re delighted by our choice of lodging at ‘Mission B&B on the Avenue’. The owner Robert has a TV room with an incredible surround sound system, and invites us to join him to watch a Roy Orbison concert called Black & White Nights. In between pouring wine, Mr. Sophistication is wearing a Rod Stewart wig over a head as bald as my knee, while playing a mean air guitar with a TV remote in each hand!
Last night we got a bit carried away guzzling great gobs of grape, and today suffer from the ‘wrath of grapes’! 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 are urinating on us yet again on our drive towards 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 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. 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 small town of Matawai, whose claim to fame is a bar with a stuffed two headed lamb, which 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 our conversation soon morphs into a friendly volley of insults, ribbing each other about our different accents. Discussing the 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 should not be allowed on the roads.
He’s pissed, and 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, and told with his lopsided grin and a failing grade in the dental category, his story totally ‘cracks’ me up!
Word finally comes down that clearing the road will take days! Bummer; now we have to backtrack, enduring another daunting 11 hours and 700 km of driving; sharing the narrow twisty roads with the mega trucks. This is so discouraging, as we were only an hour away from our destination before the road got annihilated! Man, I thought todays 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 over much of it! After overnighting in Coromandel town we continue on to Hahei; stopping for a little explore of Stingray Bay and Cathedral Cove’s postcardesque beach and its 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 mentioning this 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’! I have a chuckle and do as suggested. Located on a sandy beach, the setting is charming, and we love our funky little abode with a view through vivid-red Pohutukawa trees to the ocean beyond.
Rising with the sun, I’m off running the paths around the TeAra Tahanu estuary. Several kilometers in, I direct my feet past some rather gangly Pukeko birds, help upright by monstrous feet and dressed in black and blue plumage, topped with a bright orange beak and bonnet. Discussing these birds back at the motel, I ask our hosts if they are edible, and the 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 serving 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, and 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 – time for another muga!
After driving 3,500 kilometers of slim Kiwi roads we show up back at the airport in Auckland, elated to shed the pregnant roller-skate we’ve been driving. Our wanderful days in this wonderful country have simply run away from us, bringing our amazing journey to an end.
On the flight home, I manage to travel all the way back to Canada with a Naked Lady! No, not Christine, or anyone else 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 sadly I must bid adieu to the beautiful Belladonna 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 New Zealand, like the Kiwis themselves, is absolutely brilliant! As long as there’s breath in our lungs, the country and its kindness will always be remembered fondly.
Mark Colegrave 2012