Category Archives: New Zealand

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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KAWAKAWA, NEW ZEALAND – Hundertwasser’s touristy toilet

This has to be the world’s most photographed public toilet.

After we’d spent nearly four hours driving north from Auckland, the sight of any facilities was welcome. But these ones, in the village of Kawakawa in New Zealand’s Bay of Islands district, added a special magic to the relief. They were designed by the late, eccentric Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser. His adobe arches, the pillars like strings of giant beads, and the grassy roof with a large tree growing through it make this loo a pleasure to spend a penny in. And it was free.

It’s a bit of a rip-off of the great Spansih architect Gaudi (or a ‘tribute’ to him, if we’re being kind to Hundertwasser), but fun all the same. Hundertwasser did a great job of cheering up stuffy old Vienna with his quirky creations, and when he moved to New Zealand, the Kiwis were so impressed they gave him this lavatory to work on. Trademarks of his architecture are bright colours, rounded pillars, jumbled mosaic tiles and organic floors – organic meaning ‘not even close to level’. We once drank coffee in Hundertwasserhaus in Vienna and had trouble balancing our cups on the organically rocking table.

I can now assure you that using a Hundertwasser toilet is not so challenging, though in Kawakawa you should prepare to be interrupted by sightseers with cameras.
Then watch out for trains as you cross the street; a little steam engine puffs right down the middle of the main drag.

TRIP NOTES:

The best way to get to Kawakawa is to drive there.

Once there, you can pee for free.

PS. In his quest to make ordinary things look interesting. Hundertwasser also designed Vienna’s incinerator – surely the most spectacular one in the world. For photos of this result of burning ambition, click here.

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LAKE WAIKAREMOANA, NEW ZEALAND – tramping fabulous forest


Before the invention of the axe, most of New Zealand’s North Island was covered in forest, and not just any forest. Out of the island sprouted some of the biggest trees on the planet; kauri, beech, totara, rimu and the towering kahikatea, up to 60metres tall.

Little of it remains. The place has become a pine mine, with radiata plantations covering vast areas. We approve of plantation timber of course, but for tourists it’s not a pretty sight to see denuded hillsides dotted with stumps and heaps of discarded branches.

Fortunately there is one magic place where the old forest survives. Te Urewera National Park is the third biggest national park in the country and the biggest native forest area on the North Island.

To get there we negotiate a lot of winding bitumen and 15kilometres of gravel to drive in from the east coast. It’s slow going, and a relief to finally pull into the Lake Waikaremoana Motor Camp and admire the view – a wide lake, surrounded by thick forest, with the rocky outcrop of Panekiri Bluff hanging over it. By the Aniwaniwa Visitors Centre is a spectacular double waterfall.

Geologically, the 15kilometre long Lake Waikaremoana is brand-new. Around 200BC the Shaky Isles gave a little extra shake, and a mountain came rolling downhill, blocking the Waikare River and filling the gorge with a rock-pile 300metres high. A massive forest was drowned in the process, and even today when the lake gets low, the tops of ancient trees emerge from the water.

It’s a popular holiday spot for adventurous Kiwis, particularly those who love fishing, hunting and walking. The track around the lake is one of New Zealand’s Great Walks, rated ‘moderately easy’ and most trampers manage the circuit in three to four days.

Unfortunately I can only spare two days, but local DOC (Department of Conservation) Ranger Richard has plenty of other suggestions for me. ‘Why don’t you walk out to Lake Waikareiti? Sleep in Sandy Bay Hut – you won’t need to carry a tent.’

‘What’s the appeal of Sandy Bay?’ I ask. He points to an aerial photograph on the wall behind him. Mountains covered with virgin forest surround an azure lake, dotted with little islands. Sandy Bay Hut looks out at it all across a white beach. I’m sold.

Next morning, my hut pass in my pocket, I set out climbing up the Ruapani Track, which according to Ranger Richard will get me to Sandy Bay in six hours. At the Te Kumi stream the bridge has collapsed, but a little rock clambering gets me across with dry feet.

The surrounding forest is breathtaking; at least, I assume that’s what’s making me puff. It is a mixture of mighty beech and rimu, with lush tree ferns growing underneath. The beech branches twine overhead, dripping with moss and epiphytes. Their small round leaves cover the track with a carpet of red and gold.

Bird life is prolific. I spot various ducks on the little lakes I pass, while by the tracks are silvereyes, robins, tomtits and a detachment of riflemen – tiny birds with bills upturned like rifles at ‘present arms’. Chunky kaka parrots fly overhead and at one memorable moment a morepork owl glides silently to perch on a branch right in front of me.

It all puts a smile on my lips and a song in my heart. My lungs are too busy to join in the chorus, but I know they would if they could.

The track is well marked by clear orange triangles on trees, and someone has recently been along with a slasher to clear the undergrowth that had been overgrowing the path. Nonetheless, it undulates enough to have my legs chanting ‘Are we there yet?’ for hours five and six of the journey.

I’m pleased to see a sign ahead marking the turnoff to ‘Sandy Bay’ but a little fearful that it’s going to add ‘45 min’. Luckily it says ‘5 min’ and after creaking down the last few mossy steps, I’m there. Maybe Sandy Bay needs to add a snow-capped mountain to qualify as the most beautiful spot I ever seen, but it’s a strong contender for my most peaceful award.

The Maori people who lived here for undisturbed centuries were named the Tuhoe, the Children of the Mist. And there it is, clinging to the hilltops, as the setting sun turns the last clouds pink.

The hut is a typical DOC hut. It is basic but comfortable – twelve bunk beds with vinyl mattresses, cold water in the sink, table and benches, pit toilets down the track and a grandstand view of the lake. Guests need to bring their own sleeping bags, food and cooking stoves.

Hunting in parts of the park is encouraged. New Zealand is plagued by up to 80million brush-tailed possums, which were introduced from Australia in a failed effort to start a fur industry. Pigs and deer are pests too. Nevertheless, I’m nervous around guns and people who like them, so I’m disconcerted by the notes on my brochure, advising guests to ‘unload your firearm before entering huts.’ Fortunately I have the place to myself.

In the hut visitors’ book I read recent entries from walkers from nearby Gisborne, but also from Germany, the Czech Republic and the UK. The words ‘cold’ and ‘wet’ appear frequently, but so do ‘brilliant’, ‘beautiful’, ‘wonderful’ and ‘thank you!’
I add similar comments, and for good measure sketch a rough artist’s impression of a loch monster frolicking in the water at dusk. It feels like the place where that sort of thing could happen.

I’m out of mobile range and have no radio, so I know nothing of the latest financial crisis, car bombs, political wrangling or sports results. Sure, I’ll be walking back to them all tomorrow, maybe through the rain if those threatening clouds do their thing, but for the moment it feels that this is how life is supposed to be.

TRIP NOTES:

Getting there: Emirates flies to Sydney to Auckland for just over $500 return.
Buses operate from Rotorua to Lake Waikaremoana (4.5 hours).

Staying there: Lake Waikaremoana Motor Camp offers a range of accommodation from tent sites to self-contained chalets (up to NZ$78). Sandy Bay Hut costs NZ$15 a night, huts on the Great Walk cost NZ$25 a night and tent sites NZ$12.

When to go: The tracks can be walked year round, though the most popular tramping season is October-May.

Website: The DOC website has information about the Great Walk and takes hut and campsite bookings. www.doc.govt.nz.

OTHER GREAT NEW ZEALAND HIKES: HOLLYFORD TRACK – the most beautiful valley?

TONGARIRO CROSSING – the best one day walk?

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