Sunday, January 22, 2012

We bought a zoo!

Saw this movie today with Laetitia. It's about a single father and his two kids who need a change from their noisy and stressful city life, so they buy a house on many acres .. that just happens to have a zoo.

It's also about a family struggling to cope with the grief of losing a wife and mother.

And it's also about courage, adventure and (of course) true love.

It's a beautiful movie. Do yourself a favour and go see it.

(And either movies are getting deeper or I'm getting sappy in my old age, but I cried - several times.)

Friday, January 13, 2012

Auckland and home!

We drove south back to Auckland along Highway 1. A toilet stop in Whangerei turned into a delightful exploration of a lovely park, including a chicken(!) and a pukeko wandering about. For my Australian friends, the pukeko is like a larger and less timid version of our moorhen - here, try this video. (Sorry, no sound; the only sound recorded by my camcorder was the mower in the background.)

Lunch was a picnic beside the road in Wellsford. Eventually we made it to the Airport Harbour View Motel, across the bay from the airport. Our room was spacious and clean with a galley kitchen and a large ensuite. Our hosts (“under new management”) were very friendly and helpful. Highly recommended, if you have your own transport (it’s a couple of kilometres from the Onehunga Mall).

We went out for dinner to the Curry Leaf Indian Restaurant in the mall, after discovering in response to our inquiries that they only cook in vegetable oil. The meal was delicious and good value for money. Also highly recommended!

In the morning we packed our bags for the last time and put aside all the things we didn’t want to take back with us - cooking items mostly, and a little left-over food. Our friends Jacques and Sarah came to meet us at the hotel and collected these things, and then we went with them to a café for morning tea.

Finally we went to the airport and returned our car. We had driven it 5525km in thirty days.

We left Auckland at a little after 3:00pm and arrived almost four hours later at 3:50pm, getting back the three hours we lost on the way to Christchurch a month ago. My parents picked us up from the airport, and we met Laetitia’s parents at the Loving Hut at Mt Gravatt for dinner together before going home.

Thursday, January 12, 2012


On Tuesday morning we drove north from Auckland. We turned off the main highway to go to the Kauri Museum at Matakohe, stopping for a picnic lunch in Paparoa, the town before that. We were very pleased to see a sign in the park in Paparoa celebrating Christmas as Jesus’ birthday.

The Kauri Museum is excellent. We spent about three hours there and felt rushed. Seriously, you could spend an entire day there! They have so much information and so many displays. It’s wonderful. Just do it!

However we were due in Paihia so we eventually had to leave. We took the back road north from Paparoa, after asking for directions and advice a couple of times. It was a lovely scenic drive, not only shorter than returning east to Highway 1 first but also had little traffic.

In Paihia we stayed two nights at the Marlin Court Motel at the eastern end of town. Our room was spacious with a full kitchen and ensuite; highly recommended. Dinner was cooked in the room both nights.

On Wednesday morning we checked out St Paul’s Anglican, an old stone church on the esplanade, before making our way to the Waitangi Treaty Grounds. Somewhat tired from several cultural experiences already we chose not to spend NZ$25 each to go in; instead Laetitia bought a very informative book for only NZ$20. We tried twice (once from each end of the road) to get to Mt Bledisloe but unfortunately the road was gravel, which our hire car insurance wouldn’t cover. We visited Haruru Falls just west of Paihia, noting the brown tint to the water and guessing that to be due to tannins from the trees upriver.

Laetitia bought fish and chips in town and we returned to our motel room to eat lunch and have a nap.

In the afternoon we drove across to the west coast. (So amusing to be able to drive across the country in less than two hours! Okay so you can only do it this close to the northern end.) We wanted to see Tane Mahuta in Waipoua Forest, the largest living Kauri in New Zealand. And it is amazingly big, 1250 years old and 50m high! Yet at 14m in girth it is only small compared to some of the older ones that once grew here (as we discovered at the Kauri Museum). Such a huge and beautiful tree. Well worth going to see.

Can you see me at the bottom of this photo?
On the way back we paused at Hokianga Harbour for some photos, as the cloudy, drizzly mist was a little clearer than it had been on the way through earlier, and we also turned off to see Rawene where the ferry goes across to Kohukohu on the northern side. We finally got back to our hotel at 7:00pm.

On Thursday morning we headed south again, the end of our holiday in sight.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

North Shore Auckland

Monday night was spent at Albany Fairview Heights B&B in the North Shore area near Auckland. Our hosts Craig and Karen were very friendly and helpful and it was a delightful experience - highly recommended.

After a short nap we drove back into Auckland to see the view from the Sky Tower. Arriving at 6:02pm we serendipitously found a park on the street (Victoria St) only a block away in a section that was a Clearway until 6:00pm and then free parking (free!) until 8:00am the next day! Equally serendipitously we found a Loving Hut opposite the Sky Tower (also on Victoria St). We really like the Loving Hut in Brisbane (in Mt Gravatt), so we were very happy to give this one a try. It was quite nice, and all vegan of course, although not the same as the one we’re used to.

The view from 220m up the Sky Tower was, of course, spectacular.

Monday, January 9, 2012


On the way north we stopped in Maunganui, hoping to see the MV Rena on the Astrolabe Reef, but either it was too far or the weather was too cloudy and drizzly - probably both. However we did have to cross carefully to the beach as the esplanade was being used for a half-triathlon!

Once we got to the Coromandel Peninsula the roads through the forests were steep and very twisty.
Arriving in Tairua we discovered the reason for the long lines of traffic - there was a food and wine festival. Avoiding that, we stopped at the info centre to check our planned route, since two out of three of our maps said the road we wanted was unsealed. (Not to worry as it turned out, it had been sealed four or five years ago. What does that say about those other, only recently-obtained, maps!?)

Laetitia bought some hot chips to help against the chilly wet weather and we drove a short way further to Hot Water Beach where we ate our lunch in the car, watching the rain fall and the tourists on the sand and in the surf. Apparently you can take a shovel and dig yourself a hole in the sand, where you’ll find warm water from a natural spring. We were there at low tide, but the weather was far too unpleasant (wet, windy and cold) for us to try it ourselves - not that anyone else seemed at all deterred!

Then we drove on around the peninsula to Coromandel town. The last part of the drive includes a steep climb with many, many turns over a mountain pass and a scenic lookout at the top. Unfortunately we were in the clouds from about a third of the way up, so we didn’t bother stopping to look at the view.

We stayed two nights in a self-contained unit managed by Pottery Lane Cottages. Our unit was very spacious with a lounge and full kitchen and even a (free!) laundry! Unfortunately the bed sagged and in the end we found the couch in the lounge was at least as comfortable as trying to sleep with both of us in the bed.

We cooked dinner in our unit both nights.

The first morning we spent resting and doing some laundry (free!). We walked into town and found some delicious red lentil soup for lunch at Chai Tea at the bottom of the hill on the western end of the main street. Laetitia discovered quilt supplies at Stapleton’s at the other end of town (nice, friendly service - by a man!).

After lunch we went for a short drive. We had intended to go to Long Bay but that appeared to need access through private property so instead we went to Wyuna Bay. We also went for a walk along the Kauri Block track up to the Pa Lookout since it was a good day for a walk - overcast and cool but not raining. It was quite a steep climb and we were astounded when a group of cyclists passed us, carrying their mountain bikes up the stairs with them! The view from the top was fantastic.

Returning to town we spent a couple of hours catching up with email etc. before dinner.

The following morning we had to go to the Post Office. Laetitia posted the quilt material she had bought, back to herself in Australia, and I had to organise a pre-paid bag to send to the place we stayed in National Park because I had left my phone charger there. They will put it in my pre-paid bag and post it to me back in Australia. Sigh.

The cloud cover being lighter and higher than when we’d arrived, we decided to have another try at the scenic lookout on the hill on the way into town. So we drove up the steep switchbacks and were indeed rewarded with a beautiful view both ways (east and west) from the top. Well worth doing.

The drive south along the west coast of the Coromandel Peninsula was beautiful, winding along the coast. 
We stopped in Thames for lunch, which we ate under a large tree outside one of the two old churches there made from Kauri wood. That one was closed, but the other (St George’s Anglican) was open and so we had a look inside there after lunch.

Then it was west and then north heading to and through Auckland.

Saturday, January 7, 2012


We stayed the night at Maketu Hilltop Holiday Park in a self-contained studio with ensuite and small kitchen. It was quite comfortable, if a little small. The park is pet friendly - they even have several resident cats, dogs, horses and birds! (We only actually saw one cat and one dog, plus another visitor’s pet dog.)

Before dinner we drove down to the beach and checked out the memorial to the first Maori canoe arrival in the north and then one of the oldest churches in the region (closed, unfortunately, so we could only look from the outside). The sunset was lovely (the beach there faces north-west). Dinner was left-overs.

In the morning we left early for our long drive north up the east coast.

Friday, January 6, 2012


On arrival in Rotorua we paused briefly at the lake, where a couple of boys were first feeding and then getting chased by a dozen black swans and a sizeable flock of seagulls, before checking in at the Union Victoria Motel. Our room was large with a full kitchen and the motel had its own mineral spa and hot pools as well as a warm swimming pool. Recommended.

Let me start by saying that although the sulphur smell in Rotorua is unpleasant at times, it’s not nearly as bad as I remember.

After checking in we went for a drive to see the redwoods and a couple of lakes just southeast of town. The redwoods are on a reserve with a ridiculous number of walking, biking and horse tracks marked out. The visitor centre has maps and of course souvenirs. We decided to do the shortest course, the Redwood Grove Memorial Track, which took us somewhat longer than the suggested thirty minutes (because we stopped so often for photos, I assume). The trees were beautiful: thick (2m), tall (up to 70m!) and quite red. The bark on the larger trees was thick and deeply grooved (like, I could bury my hands in the grooves).

The park was evidently a popular place for local joggers and families as well as tourists.

Blue Lake and Green Lake are just a bit further away along the same road. Their Maori names are much more creative, referring to stories about the lakes. Blue Lake (Tikitapu, named as the place where the daughter of a high-born chief lost her sacred greenstone neck ornament) had many boaters, waterskiiers and swimmers. Green Lake (Rotokakahi, named “lake of the shellfish”) is a Maori sacred site and boating, swimming and fishing is prohibited.

We returned to the unit and cooked our own dinner. Plenty left for tomorrow too - good!

In the morning Laetitia tried the motel’s hot mineral spa (too hot and too smelly!) and then the warm pool outside (much better). Then we headed to Te Puia, a thermal area at the southern end of town, where we spent the rest of the day.

Te Puia is built around the traditional village site for the Maori tribe who run the place. Our entry fee included a “cultural experience” which consisted of a traditional tribal greeting (weapons, fanfare, singing and an offered fern leaf) followed by an invitation into their hall (after we removed our shoes). Inside they gave a show with more traditional greetings followed by some singing and dancing, including inviting audience participation.

We then went on the guided tour. I was pleasantly surprised by how knowledgeable our guide was and all the interesting things he told us about. We visited the weaving and carving schools which they have been running there for about forty-five years. Women and some men spend a year in the weaving school, while only men take three years to learn carving. We saw the kiwis in the kiwi house (although this of course was not our first experience in such a place, since we visited the Bird Wildlife Park in Queenstown). And we saw erupting geysers and boiling mud pools.

After the tour we lunched on our sandwiches (they have a café but don’t mind if you bring your own food; you can also go out to your car - or even drive into town - and re-enter later the same day with your ticket). 
Then we walked around the park on our own, taking our time and seeing the other cultural displays. There are several old geysers there, many of which still steam although extinct, and one which although dormant for many years has been showing increasing signs of activity.

The boiling mud pools were just as weird as I remembered.

When we arrived at the active geyser area there were two geysers going. To our surprise, they did not stop while we stood and watched - and walked around and watched - and sat and watched - and walked around some more. They just kept going and going and going! Far from the promised “erupts twice an hour” it seemed to be one continuous eruption for at least half an hour. I’ve never seen one going off like that before. Finally, just as we lost patience with waiting and started walking away, it began to peter out.

Much more exciting than Old Faithful at Yellowstone.

And then we drove away towards the coast to the north.

Thursday, January 5, 2012


We arrived at the Waitomo Caves at lunch time, and the information centre (“the only place in town offering unbiased advice”) was quite busy, so we ate our sandwiches on a park bench first. We booked tickets for a couple of tours, deciding in favour of shorter experiences, and paid $2 extra for a very informative walk through and twenty minute movie in the discovery centre right there - very worthwhile.

Glowworms are not actually worms but rather the larval stage of a fly, and they are hungry, carnivorous beasts! About an inch long, they drop several silk threads down from their nest along which they spread sticky globules. Other insects flying up from the water below are tricked by the glowing lights into thinking that the glowworms are actually stars, and they fly upwards - and get caught on the sticky threads! And yes, they even happily eat other glowworm flies.

We then checked in to our accommodation, Waitomo Caves Guest Lodge B&B. Our hosts there (Colin, Janet and Gypsy the dog) were very friendly and quite happy to give us some useful, biased advice about food and activity options around town. Janet also gave us a tour of their lovely garden the next morning. Highly recommended!

We did the Aranui Cave tour at 3:30pm and then the (“world-famous”!) Waitomo Glowworm Caves at 5:00pm.

The Aranui Cave is huge and beautiful, filled with spectacular limestone features. It’s quite well lit and easily accessible, and our guide was friendly and well-informed. We saw the Pacific Rim “Ring of Fire” fault line from below and above (a little scary!) with some very long stalactites hanging down (the longest apparently four tonnes of stone!).

The Waitomo Glowworms were amazing. I was not expecting it to be particularly exciting (having seen them before as a child) but the boat ride in the dark and quiet, the cave ceiling all lit up with glowing points of light, the reflections off the water, .. I was blown away.

Each tour was about 45 minutes long, and both are definitely highly recommended!

For dinner we checked out a number of options. The newish restaurant across from our B&B, the Huhu Café, was reputed to be very good and able to cater for special needs, however the chef was very busy when we dropped in during the afternoon to ask and said he wouldn’t have time to prepare anything special for us. Several other places couldn’t serve us what we needed. But eventually we found the Morepork Pizzeria up the hill behind Curly’s Bar, where I had a “vegetable stack” (really more of a skewer than a stack) and Laetitia had fish, chips and salad. It was delicious.

At dusk (i.e. around 9:30pm), at the recommendation of our hosts, we grabbed torches and went a short way along the Ruakuri bushwalk - and saw glowworms on the cliff walls and under trees around the river. The moon was close to full, so the real stars were not very bright - it was easy to see how insects might get confused about where the stars and sky were.

The next morning we returned to the Ruakuri walk to complete the full circuit in daylight. The natural tunnel through which the river flows was quite spectacular, and the path goes through some smaller natural tunnels as well. There were many steps on the walk, though, along with some steep inclines, and we were quite tired out by the end.

Our hosts recommended State Highway 30 “all the way” to get to Rotorua, which turned out to be a delightful scenic drive indeed. We stopped for lunch in Whakamaru, where we enjoyed a delicious pizza along with great friendly service and conversation at Fred’s Pizzeria. Very highly recommended!

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Tongariro National Park

On our way north from Wellington we stopped for lunch in a town called Bulls. We’re not sure whether it was named after a person or an industry or what! However we were most amused by the clever puns they had put on signs and murals around the town.

We stopped again briefly in Taihape (“gumboot capital”!?) for groceries. Laetitia got some material from The Quilted Gumboot (friendly, not the cheapest but not unreasonable).

As we arrived in National Park (that’s the name of the town) we had a lovely view of Mt Ngauruhoe, a.k.a. Mt Doom in the Lord of the Rings movies. Unfortunately we didn’t see the top of the mountain again the next two days!
There are many volcanoes and old craters in the area, several of which are still quite active.

We stayed at Plateau Lodge, a backpackers type of place on the north side of the town. We really enjoyed the fellowship of cooking in a large communal kitchen and eating in the common dining room and lounge area with many other guests. Our own room was small but comfortable. Highly recommended!

The main reason people visit National Park is to go hiking (or “trekking”). The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is supposed to be one of the best one-day hikes in the world, and we can quite understand why (other-worldly volcanic terrain, native forests, views from 2200 metres, opportunities to summit two active volcanoes..) however we did not feel we were quite up to the challenge at the time, and besides the weather was.. unpleasant. We did go to the visitor centre at Whakapapa Village and discovered that the chairlifts were not running due to the poor weather forecast (cloudy with increasing rain). We tried the road up to the base of the chairlifts anyway, but decided to turn back after going about a third of the way because although the landscape was amazing we were already in the clouds and it was getting darker, wetter and colder by the minute. Those staying at Plateau Lodge who did the Crossing told us that evening that indeed they did not see the great views (visibility was apparently about twenty metres) - but still they felt it was worth doing! So perhaps on a future trip (when we’re a bit fitter!) we’ll plan to spend a week in the area and wait for good weather.

Instead we did a shorter walk just off the road up to Whakapapa, and then we drove to the south end of Lake Taupo and back. Lake Taupo is bigApparently it (along with Lake Rotorua) is in fact an old caldera, i.e. large volcanic crater lake. (Must’ve been big volcanoes, eh!?)

We also stopped at a “thermal area” in Tokaanu, where steam was rising from the ground between the houses (also from a few places on the mountainside way above) and we saw a small geyser, some boiling mud and a few beautiful hot pools. Trout come there to spawn! They must like it hot.

We left on Wednesday morning, heading north again.

Monday, January 2, 2012


The drive along the north-east coast of the South Island was beautiful in the morning light. The clouds of the last few days were clearing and the road winds along with hills on one side and a steep drop to the ocean on the other. We paused at Ohau Point to see (and smell!) the seals far, far below on the rocks just above the surf. There were even a few younger pups there - very exciting! One of them seemed to be chasing a seagull, and kept getting disappointed when it flew away.

We were due in Picton an hour before our ferry departed at 1:10pm. Since we arrived about an hour and a half early we went into the centre of town and Laetitia checked out The Dog Box, a quilt and craft shop on the main street (friendly, decent prices even without the 20% off on the day we were there). We also drove a short way up Queen Charlotte Drive to the lookout and enjoyed the views out across the sound and back over the port to the town. We could see our large ferry docked and waiting. There was quite a lot of boat traffic in the sound.

When the time came we drove onto the ferry, parked as directed and went upstairs. It’s quite a large boat with several lounges, cafés and bars. We started on the sun deck on the roof, but moved down to the recliner lounge after a while when the wind got too cold for us. The crossing takes about three hours and the scenery is spectacular, especially in the sounds and the harbours at both ends.

When we reached Wellington we drove off the ferry and tried to find our hotel. It turns out there are two Mercure hotels and of course we went to the wrong one first! (Fortunately the other was only a couple of blocks away.) We think we were in the older one; our room was comfy enough for a small motel room but the building had a kind of old and tired feel to it.

Looking for dinner we walked down to and then along Cuba Street. The Vegetarian and Vegan Restaurant was unfortunately closed, however we did find a handful of other options and decided on a simple (and cheap!) meal from a Turkish kebab shop.

The next morning after checking out we drove into town to see the Old St Paul’s Church. When the new cathedral was built (which we also paused to have a look at - only the outside unfortunately, as it was closed since it was a public holiday) the old building was no longer needed as a parish church. It became dilapidated and was going to be demolished, but there were big protests at the idea, so instead the government bought the building and it was restored. It’s quite plain on the outside, but inside the timberwork in the ceiling and the stained glass windows are really beautiful.

And then we drove away to the north up Highway 1.

Sunday, January 1, 2012


Arriving in Kaikoura in time for a late lunch (and far too early to check in), we drove through the middle of town and decided after some dithering to try the Thai Siam for lunch. All the options we saw were quite expensive; it’s evidently not a cheap place to stay (we paid NZ$125 a night) nor eat out. Our lunch was tasty enough, but not really worth the price. Laetitia tried abalone (NZ paua in fact) and says the flavour was indistinct.

After lunch we checked in to our accommodation, the Comfort Inn Mediterranean Motel at the north end of town, and then visited the local quilt shop, A Patch of Country (good range of fabrics, friendly staff, more expensive - says Laetitia). For dinner we snacked in our room, which was spacious enough with a small kitchenette (full sink, microwave, electric frypan but no other hotplate).

In the morning we enjoyed a 40-minute guided tour of a limestone cave just to the south of town with a garrulous and enthusiastic guide. This cave was discovered by accident when the wall of the limestone quarry outside fell through. Probably there are many other caves in the area, but nobody has bothered looking for them.

We had lunch in town at Coriander’s Indian Restaurant, a remarkable find on the main highway rather than in the busy and expensive town centre. Our satisfying meal cost us less than $NZ40. Highly recommended.

After lunch we drove out to Point Kean to see the seals. The tide was out but starting to come back in, and we walked out over the rocks following the fishy smell. We saw three seals, one male moving around a bit and two females sleeping, as well as a variety of birdlife. In the car park there was a mother duck with three ducklings, all quite bold in looking cute and hopeful.

Then we drove just northwest of town to the lavender farm, where we enjoyed a leisurely stroll through the scent-heavy gardens. Already a little tired beforehand, the rich lavender in the air was enough to make me feel very sleepy, so from there we returned to our motel and I had a nap.

We had originally thought we might go whale-watching but the miserable weather (cold and occasionally drizzly) and the expense put us off.

Dinner was a stir-fry cooked in our room.

The next morning we left early because we had a ferry to catch just after midday.