Category Archives: New Zealand

WAITOMO CAVES, NEW ZEALAND – my life in their hands

My life hung by a thread...

If you’ve read other RT’s LOTR posts, you may already know about my fear of heights. You will understand that dangling on a rope 100metres above rocks is not my favourite place to be.

However, today I’ve learned to trust gear and trust guides. Continue reading

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WAITAKERE RANGES – a whip along New Zealand’s coast

Waitakere coastline - the orcas will be here in a tick.

Your time in Kiwiland is limited? Try a tramp in the hills just outside Auckland. Sweet as, bro!

Charles* was a traveller in a hurry; not an ideal trait in a tramper, it must be said. The Swiss banker had a four-week break from stuffing people’s cash into secret vaults, and was squeezing in a quick round-the-world trip. He’d just flown into Auckland from South America, and had another plane to catch that afternoon.

Nevertheless, he didn’t want to miss the famed NZ natural beauty, so Charles engaged guide Neill Sperath to show him some. Neill’s company is called ‘Time Unlimited‘, but he’s prepared to get a wriggle on if necessary. ‘T-I-M-E’ is an acronym for ‘To Integrate Maori Experiences’. Neill is German/Irish, his wife Ceillhe is Maori and together they run hiking, fishing and Maori culture tours in and around Auckland.

I could squeeze in a quick tramp too, so I was invited to tag along on their expedition into the Waitakere Ranges, less than half an hour’s drive from the centre of town. The Waitakeres are convenient, spectacular and perfect for trampers in a hurry.

‘How much walking do you guys feel like doing today?’ asked Neill.

‘Oh, as much as we can fit in,’ I said enthusiastically, given the early hour, ‘but I’m happy to do whatever Charles would like to do.’

‘To be honest,’ said Charles, lighting a fag, ‘I do not really like to walk at all.’

This was going to be an interesting trip. Continue reading

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CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND – a glimmer of good news on travel

Since I wrote about my plans to visit Christchurch, some people have contacted me asking about whether they should postpone or cancel travel to New Zealand. I’m writing from Sydney and have no special inside knowledge, but I have been watching the media and searching the internet for news of the transport and accommodation situation.

The loss of life is tragic, the search for victims is heartbreaking and rebuilding parts of Christchurch will take years. Naturally the media images focus on the worst affected areas, and give the impression that the entire city is a pile of rubble. But an estimated 85-90% of buildings suffered no major damage, and the stoical, resilient Cantabrians are keen to get back to normal as soon as they can.

Christchurch Airport is open and operating both domestic and international flights. Some changes of schedule are being advised.

The city centre is closed except to emergency services. Naturally sightseers would only get in the way and are strongly discouraged.

Hotels : Some, particularly those in the centre of town, are badly damaged. Others are structurally fine, but without water and gas and are therefore temporarily closed, they hope for just a week. However, according to my sample, most accommodation in the greater Christchurch area is open as usual, with many hotels and motels posting good news to that effect on their websites. Some advise those with bookings to ring, rather than email, to get a faster update.

The rest of New Zealand, including the region surrounding Christchurch, while no doubt emotionally touched by the disaster, was physically unaffected.

The bottom line is, unless locals advise me to postpone, I’ll be going ahead with my New Zealand trip this week and urge others to do the same. Make a generous donation to the relief effort, see a beautiful country, meet warm friendly people and spend some money. The Kiwis deserve it.

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CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND – to go or not to go?

Photo: John Kirk-Anderson, The Press

I can’t not write about this, because I was booked to spend a pleasant day sightseeing in Christchurch the week after next. My travel-writing trip was organised months ago, with adventures on the North Island, cycling round the South Island, and a short stop-over in quiet, pretty Christchurch before flying home.

Along with all Australians, I’ve been watching in dismay as the Christchurch earthquake tragedy unfolds. We’re supposed to have a rivalry with the Kiwis, but it’s a country we love and we have many New Zealand friends. It’s not right or fair, but it’s only natural that Australians should empathise with New Zealanders even more strongly than with victims of tragedies in farther-flung parts of the world. Continue reading

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LAKE TAUPO, NEW ZEALAND – geysers in the garden

Orakei Korako


186AD was a very exciting year around Taupo. That was when the local volcano blew its top, reddening the skies as far away as ancient Rome and China. Fortunately there were no thrill-seeking backpackers on New Zealand’s North Island at the time; the eruption would have, like, totally ruined their day.

When the dust cleared, a hole in the ground started filling with water, eventually becoming the biggest lake in Australasia. Note how Kiwis call it ‘Australasia’ when they want to remind us they have something bigger and better than our puny specimens across the ditch. Lake Taupo looks as cool and wet as any other lake, but it is still classified as a caldera volcano and a dormant, rather than extinct, one at that.

Taupo is a hot destination, in a particularly beautiful spot, with rivers, waterfalls, rolling hills and snowy peaks in the distance. Kiwis and international tourists flock there for adrenalin-pumping excitement. There’s skiing in winter and hiking in summer. There’s jet boating, bungee jumping, tandem skydiving and white-water rafting. If such experiences leave you wanting more action, after dark the bars throb and the nightclubs rock.

Garden of Wellbeing

But we went to Taupo for something much quieter – to see a little garden behind the Taupo Museum. It goes by the unwieldy name of “100% Pure New Zealand Ora – Garden of Wellbeing” and in 2004 it won gold at London’s famous Chelsea Flower Show, which features show-gardens from some of the world’s most exciting designers.

The Poms are hard markers. Just getting into Chelsea is a major achievement, and few gardens win a coveted gold medal. The Kiwis may have been the first ‘Australasians’ to do it, though their feat has since been matched a few times, notably by Aussie Jamie Durie in 2008.

After its Chelsea success, the Ora Garden was recreated here in Taupo with the help of the original design team and became part of the local museum. We’d only seen it on the telly, so we were anxious to see the real thing.

But first, on our way into town we stopped off to visit the area that inspired the Ora garden’s designers – Orakei Korako, or ‘place of adornment’, touted as ‘the best thermal area left in New Zealand’. Naturally it’s also the best thermal area in Australasia.

Many thermal resorts offer people the chance to bathe in hot water or cover themselves with mud. Personally I don’t see the point. I have a bath at home, and mud is something I normally wash off when I find it adhering to my body. Why would I suddenly want to wallow in it, just because I’m in New Zealand? It makes you smell a bit funny for a few days too, a local expert informs me.

I’m pleased to report that at Orakei Korako, visitors can look at the thermal activity, without getting down and dirty in it.

From the Orakei Korako visitors’ centre, shop and toilets (‘Guys-ers’ and ‘Gals-ers’) we could see across Lake Ohakuri to where white silica deposits spilled down into the water. The advertising calls the area the Hidden Valley, though it was remarkably easy to spot it from the clouds of steam rising out of the bushes. The place smelled a bit funny.

A little boat ferried us a couple of hundred metres across the lake to where a crowd of very excited, very noisy Singaporeans had just landed on the jetty in front of us. We politely agreed to take photos of couples standing in front of geysers – ‘Wait, we smile first. You press already? Thankyou sir. Thankyou very much.’ Then we moved on up the hill.

Signs warned of the dangers of stepping off the path. Scenes from the BBC TV series ‘Walking with Dinosaurs’ were filmed here, and though there was no T-Rex around, it seemed very unwise for those Singaporeans to be tiptoeing round the edges of bubbling pools to get better photos. Geysers can gush at any moment, the ground can cave in and you could end up with a picture of the kids taking their very last hot bath.

We found the features quite interesting enough viewed from a respectful distance, with extraordinary colours of orange and yellow silica surrounding steaming turquoise pools and plopping mud-holes. At the top of the walk was Ruatapu, a sacred hot water pool in a deep cave. An unexpected bonus was the lovely surrounding forest, and the views out over the countryside.

It took us an hour and a half to stroll the two kilometres of steps and boardwalk around the area, but it was time well spent. Then we drove on to Taupo, parked the car at the museum and walked straight through to the Ora Garden.

The New Zealand Garden Trust (also hard markers, I’m told) recently declared it a Garden of National Significance, ‘its strong design elements encapsulating spiritual qualities’. It was smaller than our backyard in Sydney. We thought we’d been clever landscapers, planting a few natives and sticking in a frog pond, but this Ora garden was in another league altogether.
Hot water bubbled from steaming ponds at the top of the garden, then spilled into a pool, down the long winding spine of a wooden lizard, sculpted by Lyonel Grant. Living ferns were carved with Maori designs. The inspiration of Orakei Korako was obvious. The replica silica terraces, created in Peter (Lord of the Rings) Jackson’s Weta Workshop in Wellington, were miniatures of the formations at Orakei and the garden’s little cave cleverly mimicked sacred Ruatapu.
Weaving all this together was a tapestry of lush ferns and other New Zealand natives. Remarkably the little garden seemed to change character radically depending on the angle from which it was viewed.

This Garden of Wellbeing certainly did its job and was truly a work of art. All right, I’ll go further than that. It was without a shadow of a doubt the finest Chelsea gold-winning thermally inspired garden of wellbeing in Australasia.

TRIP NOTES:

Getting there: Regular bus services also run from Auckland to Taupo (about 4-5 hours).

Orakei Korako is about a 25minute drive north from Taupo. Riverjet run boat safari packages from Taupo to Orakei Korako for NZ$145 including park entry. www.riverjet.co.nz

Further information: Entry to the Orakei Korako is NZ$34. Entry to the Taupo Museum and Ora Garden is NZ$5 .

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CATHEDRAL COVE, NEW ZEALAND – sea kayaking in mercury

Phew! Sea kayaking has been cancelled. Mike Grogan of Cathedral Cove Kayaks tells me when I phone to check, ‘Sorry if it messes up your plans, but the sea’s forecast to be pretty lumpy till Thursday.’

‘No problem,’ I say quickly, ‘Safety must always be the number one priority. I absolutely understand.’

I’m secretly relieved. Paddling looks easy enough, but I’m a complete novice and have no idea whether I’ll be able to last ten minutes before being totally exhausted. Moreover, my body is flexibility-challenged. Can I even squeeze through that little hole in the top of a kayak, and will I ever be able to straighten my legs again afterwards? Now I won’t have to worry about that till Thursday.

In the meantime, I have plenty of very important things that must be done around Mercury Bay, on the east coast of New Zealand’s Coromandel Peninsula. There are beaches begging to be strolled, mountains that need tramping and cafes that must be drunk in. Island cruises, fishing trips and glass-bottomed boat tours are on offer.

But first, I try Mercury Bay’s weirdest attraction; Hot Water Beach, where people rent spades, dig holes in the sand and sit in them for hours. Something volcanic is close enough to the surface to heat the ground water, which bubbles out of the sand at over 60 degrees, creating a natural hot tub.
At low tide, the spot is crowded with bodies lying in the pools like a colony of pink seals – backpackers, families, and oldies who have poured out of the tour buses. From time to time somebody with a spade builds up a sand wall to protect the warm bath from the incoming tide. Then the next wave floods the pool with cold water, and the bodies scream, scramble and scatter.

That sort of paddling is all good fun, but the kayaks are waiting at the tiny town of Hahei, and the forecast is fair for Thursday. It does look like kayaking heaven out there. Mercury Bay, named by Captain Cook while he was observing the transit of that planet, is dotted with little islands with clumps of trees on top. Along the shoreline, soft white cliffs of volcanic ash and pumice have weathered into extraordinary pillars, pitted with caves.

I’m told that, in the high season, whole flotillas of kayaks bump into each other as they splash round this coastline. But when Thursday arrives there are only three of us ready to paddle; instructor Mark in his solo kayak and my partner in the double one, fit-looking Joanne who’s done kayaking before and rowing too, she says. Great – she can sit in the back, flex her rowing muscles and steer with the foot pedals. I’ll contribute the essential ballast in the front.

Cathedral Cove beach


Mark gives us a quick equipment and safety lesson. I’m sure I look very fetching in my lifejacket and the rubber skirt designed to seal my body to the top of the kayak and keep out the water. Then Mark pushes us off and I desperately flail my paddle as we burst into the pounding breakers. Okay, they probably just look like little ripples to any wimps watching from the beach, but you should see them from low down in a kayak!

Once we’re through the foam the sea flattens out, so I open my eyes again and enjoy the sparkling view. We’re in the Te Whanganui A Hei marine reserve, so declared in 1992, after years of battles between conservationists and fishermen. Now fish stocks have risen dramatically, attracting seals, dolphins and even killer whales so everybody is happy.

We paddle out a kilometre or so to circle Motueka Island, with waves crashing on its rocky shores. Maori chief Hei named this island, because he thought its shape resembled that of his own nose. He must have been an interesting-looking chap, since Motueka has two large humps. The name of the town opposite, Hahei, means ‘breath of Hei’.

The swell is building. ‘There’s nothing between here and Chile,’ says Mark, pointing to the eastern horizon, ‘but you’re paddling well, so we can cope with this.’ We take his word for it, even daring to follow him towards the natural tunnel under the end of Poikeke Island. The surf carries us right through, as we ride the swell and steer nervously. Whoo-ooh!

After an hour in the kayaks we land at the much-photographed Cathedral Cove. Mark makes surprisingly good cappuccinos on the portable stove, and we explore the amazing cave and rock formations in the soft pumice. ‘Those two pillars used to be an arch,’ says Mark, ‘but the middle collapsed not long ago.’ Oh, really? Without appearing to hurry, I step nimbly out of the cave and admire it from the outside.

Getting the kayaks back into the sea should be a doddle now we’re old hands, but the surf is bigger than when we set out. The first dumper breaks full in my face. My skirt flips loose and water floods into the kayak. ‘Keep paddling!’ yells Joanne, ‘How can I steer when we’re not going anywhere??’ I can’t think of a satisfactory answer – besides, my mouth is full of salty water.

We burst through another breaker and reach flattish sea again. Ah, now we can gently paddle back past Stingray Bay and Gemstone Bay, looking with some scorn at the lazy wusses who have arrived there in powerboats.

On the way to Hahei we hear one more story from Mark, and a tragic one. Around 1820 the local Ngati Hei tribe stole a princess from their neighbours, who came with muskets seeking revenge. Many were massacred, and reputedly bodies were boiled at Hot Water Beach.

By now we’ve going three hours, and we’re ready to face our final tricky landing through the surf. Mark will paddle to the beach first, then guide us in with hand signals. Beckoning arms mean ‘paddle this direction’. Palms out mean ‘wait for the wave behind you to pass’. Hands crossed on the chest, like a laid-out corpse, mean ‘paddle backwards as hard as you can; the wave behind you is really, really big!’

It all goes swimmingly. We paddle, we wait, we paddle backwards, we surf in and thump onto the beach. There are handshakes and backslapping all round. I won’t make the K2 team in the London Olympics, but next time someone asks ‘Anyone for a paddle?’my hand will be the first up. Whoo-ooh!

TRIP NOTES

Getting there: Hahei is best reached by private transport, about four hours drive from Auckland.

Cathedral Cove Kayaks operates year round from Hahei. Half day trips cost NZ$95, full day trips NZ$150. See cathedralcovekayaks.co.nz

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