Auckland – Hot Water Beach – Waitomo – Hobbiton – Rotorua – New Plymouth – Taupo – River Valley – Wellington
Arriving in New Zealand, we really didn’t have any expectations – high or low. We knew that the comparison with Australia was laboured and derided by Aussies and Kiwis alike, but we didn’t realise quite how different the two countries were until we had spent a little while in the coastal city of Auckland.
In this country we instantly felt at home. The weather was a little more British, the landscape verdant and gently rolling, and the people – well you can’t really put your finger on it, but the people just weren’t like the Aussies. The best comparison I can make is with the folk of the USA and Canada. For the most part the Aussies were more like their American counterparts – big friendly handshakes, transparent good intentions, barbecuing with fervour on the beach as though their lives depended on it. The Kiwis in general a little more reserved, far more laid back (almost horizontal), very friendly but not in-your-face friendly. They’ll do their thing and don’t mind if you’re coming or not.
The relationship of British settler descendents with the indigenous Maori seems a fair bit more comfortable than between white Aussies and Aboriginals, and although some blood was spilled back when the British arrived in 1769, they did not commit such heinous atrocities against the Maoris as they did the Aboriginals, and the acquisition of land was more by bargaining than pillage. Maori people naturally and rightly form a central part of Kiwi culture, and it was genuinely lovely to see members of all races integrated into society. The relationship just didn’t feel like an awkward lump in the throat like it did in Australia, although our Auckland tour guide did say that now only something like 4% of bigger cities like Auckland is Maori.
Auckland is a great city – yet everywhere we went in NZ afterwards, our fellow travellers described it as a ‘dump’ or ‘just another city’. I really didn’t understand this, as we had got so much out of our time there. Auckland is a big mainly residential city yes, yet it has so much to offer. There is a fair bit of history (for such a recent country), there are incredible islands to discover just off the coast, there are three defunct volcanoes to climb in the middle of the city for unbeatable 360 degree panoramas, there are shops galore on Queen Street, and plenty of culture around in the gallery, and the quayside buildings. Auckland would be an awesome place to live – it has a beautiful university for one, lots of really lovely parks, and one in three families owns a boat! I can only imagine those who derided the city had a bad experience staying there for some reason. We spent two days here before starting Kiwi Experience tour, and a further two afterwards.
KIWI EXPERIENCE TOUR
Feeling a little nervous we waited for our bus (The Big Green F*** Truck as it was known to some) outside a Base hostel at 7.30am on a Sunday. We were greeted by our driver who made a big deal of making us feel welcome. He was incessantly jolly. Except when he was annoyed, when he definitely wasn’t. Looking around, our fears were confirmed: we were the oldest on the bus. It was fairly busy, and after everyone had boarded (mostly first timers – I won’t bother explaining how Kiwi works) and as we drove to our first destination – Cathedral Cove, Dan and I muttered snide comments about the probable immaturity of the young people around us.
On our first supermarket stop (Pak ‘n’ Save; a revelation for us after the astronomically priced supermarkets of Oz), two girls who had already made a name for themselves for being a little chaotic, and who were late for the very first pick up were still wandering around the shop with a full trolley five minutes before we were meant to depart. I smugly pointed this out to Dan, tucking our bag of goodies away above our seats. Little did I know that these two would very soon (in fact that very night) become firm friends of ours, and prove my condescending presumptions about their arrogance wrong. Apart from the late thing. They would ALWAYS be late.
Here follow all the stops we made on the Kiwi Experience tour in the North Island:
Hot Water Beach
Can you guess what is so special about Hot Water Beach? That’s right; if you dig a few inches into the sand you encounter hot water. You might think that digging out a sort of seating area to sit in and chat with your new friends is a nice idea, especially if your bus driver suggests it, but it isn’t for a few reasons:
- There are only two opportunities a day to do this – when the tide is out. If you don’t reach the beach by the first time it is out (which you don’t), then you have to come down to the beach around 12am in the pitch black.
- It is probably pissing down with freezing rain at said time.
- Digging in wet sand and maintaining a trench-like shape is very difficult, as you will know if you have tried to create a moat around a sandcastle right next to incoming waves which you hope will fill it up. It is back-breaking, repetitive, unsatisfying work.
- You have to find a point exactly where the cool ocean will mix with the scalding 50 degree water perfectly so you don’t burn your botty as soon as you sit down. This is nigh-on impossible.
- If you do achieve said perfection, someone will notice and ask to join up their inferior pool with yours by way of a channel, and ruin the carefully cultivated temperature of yours.
- Once sat in the ‘pool’ you will get your arse covered in sand, and have to walk the ten minutes back to the holiday park in the pitch black freezing rain with a wet sandy arse.
- If you are a silly German teenager who brings his very expensive watch to the beach then you will learn an important life lesson about listening to your parents.
After HWB, we stayed in a place where there were some beautiful caves. I won’t go on too much about it, other than the driver told us not to do the cheapest tour of the caves, which was by boat, as he ‘wouldn’t even take my granny on it’. So we went on the walking tour, which was okay, a little cramped and difficult to hear the guide who was at the front of the single file line, but when we returned and realised that the girls who had ignored the drivers advice and paid half of what we did for HMS Grandma had had a wonderful time with great views of the glow worms and perfect sound quality from their guide, we were a little annoyed with the force with which the driver had given his opinion and guided us to pay more.
On the way to Rotorua, we were to stop at Hobbiton. We weren’t really keen, especially at $90, so didn’t sign up. However, the driver explained that if two more people were to sign up then everybody would get the tour at a rate of $70, so Dan and I were persuaded. The reason for the discount? When you arrive they normally drive you the five minutes from the shop and cafe down to Hobbiton itself in one of the Hobbiton coaches. But if your tour bus has more than 20 or so people who are going to do Hobbiton then your bus can go down with the driver. So in effect that’s a $400 five minute bus ride for everyone else.
Hobbiton was cool. It was actually pretty amazing to be standing on the set with the props and Hobbit holes which were all hand crafted out of wood, and looked for all the world as if a real Hobbit lived there. We had a brilliantly funny tour guide who managed to sidestep the fairly military timetable by encouraging us to take our time at our favourite parts and catch up with the group when we wanted. There were lots of incredible facts about the set, actors and films themselves which I won’t bother you with, but this was by far the best: Bag End in the book is overlooked by an old oak tree. This meant that when they came to film, they had to bring in a real oak tree, chopped down then nailed back together. Peter Jackson then comissioned 300,000 plastic ‘leaves’ to be made in Taiwan, which were individually attached to the trunk by hand. It is only if you look really really hard from the closest vantage point just by Bilbo’s Hobbit hole you can tell they aren’t real. And this ‘tree’ was on film for less than one minute…
(Click on each image to enlarge)
After the tour we got a drink of beer or cider in the Green Dragon Inn, which was fairly rushed. All in all definitely not worth $90, and probably not even $70, as it only lasted an hour or so, but we were pleased we decided to do it.
Next stop on the North Island was Rotorua. The driver warned us that we would notice the smell of the many natural hotsprings which steamed away all over the city out of cracks, manholes – any part of the ground where there was some sort of fissure as soon as we left the coach. But I don’t think any of us were expecting the sheer force of the eggy bouquet which attacked our nostrils. Later we would be chatting to an ex-pat who had been to Rotorua and wondered at the citizens’ ability to live there due to the constant stench. You know when people are from Rotorua she said. Needless to say, we didn’t stay ther more than the obligatory one night. That particular evening though, we did have the pleasure of experiencing a Maori village, including performances, food and drink.
In fact, we were not continuing with the Kiwi Experience bus for the next few days, but taking a detour with a hire car to New Plymouth to visit another cousin of mine and his lovely family. We had met his wife and first son, but they had subsequently had twins who were now a few months old. New Plymouth is another very liveable city. Not huge, but with everything you need, and New Zealand’s bog-standard stunning scenery on the doorstep. During our stay we visited the gardens and zoo in the centre of the city which my cousin had described as ‘just a park’, but which we found to be a beautiful place with views of Mount Taranaki, a Japanese-style lake complete with red painted bridge, maple trees and a lovely cafe with eccentric bubble man to boot. The break from the Kiwi bus was just what we needed, and it was fantastic to catch up with family who we hadn’t seen for a couple of years.
We had to get up to drive back the 300km from NP at 4.30am in order to catch the 9.30am bus from Taupo. Back to the bus, but this time with another driver. Scottie, or Nancy Boy as he liked to be called. I still cannot get over some NZ humour – its about 20 years behind the UK (or perhaps London specifically) in terms of how crude and offensive it is. Demeaning jokes about race, gender, sexuality are all fair game here, with mentions of dead babies and the strongest swear words possible thrown in for free. They see our flinching at these as us being overly PC, whereas we anticipate the day they look back and can’t believe they ever made jokes like this, the same way we look at comics from the seventies and eighties. Anyway, back to Taupo. The name is Maori and is pronounced ‘toe-paw’, but mostly people ignore this and revert lazily to the more English phonetic ‘tao-poh’ like we ended up doing. The town is on the edge of a beautiful lake, which we sailed around the first night on a booze cruise, having caught up with the original gang from the Auckland Kiwi bus. The evening was one of the best on the North Island that we had, with BYO alcohol and stunning views of the sunset over the lake. We moored by some magnificent Maori carvings which looked ancient, but were actually completed in the 1980s. Some folk, including Dan, were mad enough to jump in and swim, as NZ was still holding onto the final remnants of summer, and the lake wasn’t bitterly cold. Taupo is the base point for the Tongariro crossing, the ‘best walk in New Zealand’. But as we had had so little sleep the night before, and it required a 5am start we decided to give it a miss. I still regret this, but at 19.4km, I know there is no way I could’ve mustered the energy to do it, let alone enjoy it.
River Valley was possibly my favourite location in the North Island. Driving down to this very remote area I couldn’t believe we were in such a beautiful place. It was very Wales-like, but with even fewer houses. The lodge we would stay in was unique in that we had the option to sleep in 18 bed dorm. I think Scottie called it something like the orgy room, as the ‘beds’ are in fact one long platform where you all sleep side by side. Something akin to school gymnasiums after natural disasters, but where the people were choosing and paying to sleep there for fun. As it was the far cheaper option than the smaller dorm we opted for this. The lodge also boasted a bar (most NZ hostels do not allow alcohol), and don’t make you pay until the morning (“Where are you gonna run to?”). The scenery by the lodge is captivating, with steeply ascending wooded gradients either side of a shallow river which runs by the lodge, crossable only by swimming or a two-man pulley. But the main reason we came to the valley was for the white water rafting. Another first for us, and although I was pretty nervous about travelling down rapids in what amounts to a dinghy when I have a huge fear of drowning, it was one of the most fun experiences we had on the trip. The lead instructor even said that there had been one death at the lodge in the 20 years or so it had been open, which made our friend Alice, who was even more nervous than I was, nearly cry. It was expensive yes, but worth it.
It was our instructor’s last day, and he made the most of it. I hadn’t realised quite how hard work it would be, but we all worked as a team and nobody in our boat fell out (accidentally). The best thing our guide did in fact, was tell us to jump out of the boat and go for a swim at the earliest opportunity. After the initial shock this acclimatised us to the temperature of the water, and made us much less fearful of falling out, as we proved we could (eventually) climb back in. Surprisingly few Kiwi Expereincers joined the white water rafting, citing it as too pricey, but I reckon a few regretted this decision when they saw how much fun we had had upon our return.
The ‘Coolest Little Capital in the World’ (Lonely Planet) was unfortunately shrouded in cloud upon our arrival. I have to say we didn’t get the most out of it. It really was extremely depressing weather, which affected our feelings about the place. I often ponder this exact thing about tourists to the UK. If you visit London in a beautifully warm and sunny week in spring, you will go home filled with fantastic memories and photos of a sparkling city caught from the pods of the London eye. But chance upon it when (as usual) the sky is an impenetrable steely grey, and frozen rain batters you every thirty minutes, then you might take quite a personal dislike to our fair capital. I always feel bad for tourists who experience the latter. So I won’t bang on about Wellington, expect for the fact it had a great little night market where I ate Ethiopian and Japanese food (not a fusion; that would be weird), and that Te Papa Museum is incredible and well-worth a visit. Unfortunatley the hostel negatively affected our experience somewhat too. It was a Base, which doesn’t have a good rep anyway, but the first night we had a ‘free dinner’. Great! What was the veggie option? A plate of air with a side of tap water apparently, as they didn’t even serve salad or bread with the meat lasagne. Okay, fair enough, I think. I’ve been here a couple of weeks now, and am now aware that the Kiwi attitude to vegetarians is ‘Errrr…..’, even in big cities. So I ask if I can eat the pizza I have bought for dinner with everyone else who is having the free meal. No, sorry that’s not allowed. I have to say I did pull the discrimination against vegetarians card at the desk, and they admitted it’s a common complaint. Well sort it out then!
On to the south where I hope they cater for us a bit better ….