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|Touring New Zealand 2001 - part 1|
This time we flew out with Singapore Airlines with a change at Singapore. The weather in England was bad when we left - the Thames outside the house was just starting to fall after being at the highest levels we have had in the twenty years we have lived beside the Thames. The forecast was not good and we had snow overnight with 4 inches settled by the morning and no sign of thawing. We needed walking boots for the trip to the station and left lots of extra time and contingency to get to the airport and found that there was a flight four hours earlier still boarding with spaces. Singapore airlines transferred us on and we just made it still in walking boots. We ended up however with a row to ourselves with virtually the only empty seat on the aircraft - we guess they had a group who could not make it through the weather and were very glad to swop for a later aircraft.
This gave longer in Singapore where we would otherwise have had a tight connection. Singapore airport is one of the more pleasant airports with areas laid out as lakes with Koi Carp and orchid gardens. As an aside, Koi Carp are considered noxious (ie an extreme danger to wildlife)in New Zealand and ownership is illegal - there are even pictures beside many lakes. If we had been a bit quicker there are bus tours for in transit passengers with over four hours before departure. Overall Singapore airlines seemed fine and we have got used to the long tedious trip by now.
We spent the first 5 days in Auckland staying with my two nieces and families - not a lot which will be of interest to others during most of the time. We did however go out with Chris and Ralph to have a pub lunch close to their home in Mt Eden Auckland at the pub first open since the area became dry in the thirties - we did not realise that local area authorities still had such powers in New Zealand. There are still many areas which only allow drinks to be sold with meals and it is only during the last year that any supermarkets have been allowed to sell beer.
The other activity in Auckland which is of interest to other visitors will be Banking. New Zealand Banks seem to be very much more flexible than those in the UK. We have a bank account with BNZ (Bank of New Zealand) and they had our new EFTPOS (debit) cards ready at the Airport branch for us on arrival and we went into the branch local to Christine and reopened a current account in a few minutes and had it linked to our cards. Current accounts incur a small monthly charge in NZ but they are quite happy for us to open and close one for a few months every year without any cost. Interest rates for "term" deposits are also better than we can get in the UK so it sensible for regular visitors to open a NZ account and keep a float in NZ.
Once the New Year period was over we picked up our camper from Thomlinson (Now called Rental Car Village) who provide simple campers at a very good price. Although the vehicles are far from new we have covered tens of thousands of kilometres much on gravel roads during previous visits without any serious problems and as regulars we have always had a very good deal. We tend to use them as a large suitcase and for cooking whilst we sleep in our dome tent - this is partly because we have gathered up so much kit after many years coming over and partly because it nice to be in the open and be able to appreciate the dawn choruses etc.
This year our vehicle is a Nissan C20 (Vanette) with a good mileage on the clock (420,000 kms) but it seems to have been refitted completely inside with new seats etc and the engine has obviously been rebuilt or replaced recently as it uses no oil - everything is simple reliable and works and at cost of far less than a basic hire car from one of the big names. You have to be very careful when you get a big name hire car in New Zealand as most have restriction about use on gravel roads which rules out most of the best of the country.
Vehicles seem to last much longer in New Zealand than other countries and maintenance, repairs and parts are very cheap compared to the UK or Europe. There is no production of cars in New Zealand and many are imported second hand from Japan. The situation is now better but in the early days many were "clocked" and had been driven hard so look carefully if you consider buying. We have done the sums and hiring for a few months at the rate we get is still just cost effective for three months. You see many older cars on the roads and I heard recently that the average age of vehicles being registered, including new registrations, is 11.2 years in New Zealand putting our hire close to being an average age.
We checked out the camper with a quick trip round to see Rob at Charterlink and to pay our debts using our brand new EFTPOS card - problem one, they have a $3000 per 24 hour limit so be warned! We hope to sail up the coast from Auckland to the Bay of Islands, about 200 kms at the end of our time in New Zealand and we spent some time looking at maps and discussing moorings etc. Rob seems to know the whole coast intimately and the information will be very useful. We have used Charterlink for many years but it was nice to meet the new owner after many emails.
Now we were set up with transport we stocked up with food and headed for the Coromandel. The Southern end is under two hours from Auckland - the Coromandel forms the East side of the Hauraki gulf. It is a lovely area with hills in the middle and a coast lined with Pohutakawa trees and little bays and rocks for fishing. The Southern end is much more accessible and has a lot of small houses, motels and holiday parks, the North is completely unspoilt with slow access via winding rough gravel roads along the coast plus a couple which cross the central range. The dividing point is at Coromandel town on the West side beyond which most hire cars are prohibited.
We stopped the first night at a small motel in Waiomu bay which has rooms within 5 metres of the shore to get ourselves organised. We stayed there once before when we had the unfortunate experience of having Pauline's handbag with passports etc stolen but that is a story told before (his 3 years in jail must now be up). We had not expected there to be anywhere free so close to the new year but it looked as if there were some vacancies all the way up the coast.
It was then on North into the bits of the Coromandel which few visitors reach. There is no accommodation other than a series of Department of Conservation (DOC) basic camp sites with little more facilities than a few long drops and sometimes a tap but set in the magnificent scenery. We stopped at Fantail Bay where the site is almost like an amphitheatre surrounded by Pohutakawa and other trees stepping down towards the sea. There is a little stoney beach where boats can be launched and a rocky point for fishing.
Water is provided from a dam high up across a small stream flowing down past the camp site. Lower down the stream there are some swimming holes which can be accessed up a now almost overgrown track. They are also in a little amphitheatre in the natural bush overhung by tall trees. The water is stunningly cold but Peter did have a brief swim. The water is deceptively deep close to the water falls and one could swim small circles. The camp warden said there use had fallen since he had put in a couple of basic cold water showers run off the dam water which also have rope "hoists" for suspending the black bags showers which people leave in the sun to warm.
The weather was glorious by now with severe risks of sunburn with the sun near overhead, few clouds and visibility of 50 or so kms - we decided to stay put for a few days. The first was just spent lazing around and fishing, without much success, off the rocks. Nobody seemed to be catching much from the shore and many of the people in the site had "tinnies", the small aluminium fishing boats with outboards trailed behind their cars or campers and they seemed to have no trouble in getting a decent catch of Snapper which were being smoked by the camp wardens wife in a simple home-made smoker - we were given some and it was glorious.
We bought a small smoker in a sale in Auckland powered by meths which we have yet to try but hers seemed very effective and very cheap so I will give a description in case anyone wants to try their hand. It consisted of an old large deep roasting tin with lid with a rack (from a grill pan??) inside on which the fish was laid. The fish was first gutted and the head removed split open, flattened out and "marinated/salted" for 30 minutes to an hour with a sprinkling of an equal mix of salt and brown sugar with a few herbs and pepper. The bottom of the tin was covered with a few millimetre thick layer of Manuka shavings, the fish laid out on the rack and the whole think put a few centimetres above a standard camping gas stove for about 15 to 30 minutes. The result is super hot smoked fish which will keep for several days. Manuka shavings are for smoking are easy to obtain in New Zealand and are considered to be the best wood for smoking. Manuka is also known as the Tea Tree and is a small scrub which is common over most of New Zealand with a small white flower. It got the name tea tree from Captain Cook who made a brew from it when he arrived to cure the scurvy in his crew. In England wood prepared for smoking is less common I would suggest Oak would be a good start, perhaps turned into shavings with a power plane - just make sure the wood has not been treated in any way!
The remainder of the time at Fantail was spent in trip up to the end of the road to Fletchers Bay where we camped a few years back. It is again a nice site - bigger and less sheltered than Fantail Bay. There were a number of large groups still left from the Christmas period with big wood burning stoves and water heaters set up. In fact the warden seemed to have scattered a number of huge tree stumps round the site each with an axe for chopping them up.
There is a third even larger DOC camp site between Fletchers and Fantail at Port Jackson. It is a long shallow strip following the beach and always seems to be the most popular although it lacks all the attractive Pohutakawa trees and shelter of the other sites. They are all full over the Christmas period but the groups depart over the New Year leaving plenty of space even in the first week of January.
The last morning we got our first serious exercise of the holiday on one of the tracks out of Fantail which was described as three hours return up to the bush line by DOC. We had intended to amble up to what looked like a nice view down on the campsite but ended up going the whole way having not found the viewpoint. We got some magnificent views as we climbed, looking over the whole Hauraki Gulf from Little Barrier Island, up the coast past Kawau, down to the end of the Firth of Thames and into the Tamaki Straight and could even see Auckland. We could not find out what height we reached but guess we must have been well above a thousand feet judging by our view down onto all the Islands. We found the viewpoint over the campsite about two thirds of the way down and got back to take the tent down after one and three quarter hours.
We went into a commercial camp site on the edge of civilisation back at Waiomu Bay and had a cabin as some big storm clouds were brewing and we wanted an early start to get up into the Gold Fields at Broken Hills the following day. The cabins did not look very special but had cooking facilities, a fridge and a reasonable double bed for only $38 (say 12 pounds sterling) and gave us the chance to get showers and do our washing in the camp laundry before an early start for Broken hills, a DOC camp site in the a historic goldfields area we have been to a couple of times before.
The camp site is has stunning scenery in the middle of the old Broken Hills and Golden Hill Goldfields on the banks of the Tiarua river. It was surprisingly for empty so early in the season and we had achoice of pitches and a nice area almost to ourselves.
We did a number of the shorter Goldfield walks the day we arrived which gave us a chance to look at the sites of the three main Stamper Batteries, two of them have quite a lot of remains and one can piece together a lot of the history. We also walked up to look at one of the old water races complete with a series of short tunnels used to supply water to the Pelton wheels (turbines) used to power the Government Stamper Battery just below. Unfortunately nothing remains of that battery.
We have a fascinating book "Coromandel Gold - A guide to the Historic Goldfields of the Coromandel Peninsula which has a lot of background and maps of all the major Goldfields and associated information producing a practical guide for visitors to experience something of the 'magic' of the old mining areas from the surviving features - long abandoned tunnels and shafts, crumbling foundations of Stamper batteries, rusting pieces of machinery and disused tramways and water races.
There is far too much to cover here about gold mining but I will attempt to give a brief flavour in a few lines. The Bullion (Gold and Silver) is mostly concentrated in "reefs" of Quartz which were followed underground and largely mined by hand during the important initial years. The Quartz was then broken up to cm size pieces in jaw crushers then Stamper Batteries were used to pond the quartz to a fine sand releasing particles of Gold. The Stampers crushed the ore by lifting and dropping huge iron stamps onto the ore. The stamps were raised and dropped using cams driven by water wheels, Pelton water turbines or steam engines. Once reduced to a fine powder the initial separation was on vibrating water covered tables or amalgamating tables covered with a thin layer of mercury on the surface which trapped and amalgamated the gold. A lot was missed and the heavy 'tailings' were then further treated in Berdans - inclined, revolving cast-iron basins containing a heavy iron block. The slow revolving action ground the sludge even finer enabling even tiny particles of Gold to be freed and recovered by amalgamation with mercury which was in the bottom of the Berdan. When the Mercury got thick the amalgam was separated by squeezing the paste through a chamois leather and distilling off the mercury from the Gold and Silver which was melted and cast into bars. These techniques only extracted about 50% of the Bullion and were latter augmented by a Cyanide treatment which increase the extraction to about 90%. The whole process from hand mining underground to use of mercury and cyanide was not the most healthy way of life!
Gold was found relatively late at Broken Hills in 1893 and major development did not start until 1907 and processing in 1910 with most of the extraction depending on use of Cyanide. You can see the remains of the 4m diameter vats of cyanide in the Broken Hills sites as well as the foundations of the Stamper Batteries and power houses. The goldfields round Broken Hills were largely exhausted by 1913 by which time only 55,000 oz of bullion had been recovered. Because the field was fairly recent it is better document than many and our book and the DOC information have some good photographs of the various batteries, aerial ropeways etc taken when they were in use.
The second morning we were woken at 0530 by the most incredible dawn chorus, stating with Tuis and Bellbirds and building up till it was almost deafening. The forecast was not good so we set off early on our major walk taking us up to where the mines were sited. We saw many of the old adits (mine tunnels) some still open for exploration. You can also see the site of the aerial ropeway which transported the ore right across the valley to the Golden Hills battery we looked at the previous day. The highlight of the three hour walk was going through the Collins Drive - a 500m tunnel from one side of the hill to the other. Fortunately we had a couple of torches with us. By the time we got down the mist was coming down and we took the tend down still a bit damp. At least we had not suffered the flash floods promised for the area overnight!
Whilst we had been eating supper the previous evening we noticed that one of the tyres was looking decidedly bald on one side so we stopped at an isolated garage which quickly changed the tyre for by UK standards a modest $90 - I dread to think what it would have cost away from a main town in the UK. We rang into Rental Car Village and they agreed we should also get the tracking checked which we did latter in Rotorua and, as we expected, it seems one of the previous hirers must have kerbed it. Again the cost was very modest by what we are used to at $45 - NZ seems much more used to maintaining rather than a throw away culture. I have found another reference from the AA to the average age of cars as 10.5 years in 1999.
After the short delay we were on our way heading towards the area round Whakatane as we hoped to take a boat trip over to White Island, the most active thermal area in New Zealand. Last time we went we were issued with gas masks and needed them a good part of the time. On the way we went through one of the fruit areas and were amazed to see Avocados on sale at fruit stalls at 20 for $2, fruit is always cheap but it is difficult to see how they could pick for that and it was not just one stall either. We stopped briefly in Katikati - the mural town where there are more pictures covering the walls of houses every time we pass through - to pick up a brochure and phone number for the PJ, the boat to White Island. Unfortunately when we called them we discovered the weather had been worse than we realised to the South and several trips had been cancel with more expected.
Next stop was the Morton vineyard, another regular stop. They not only make excellent award wining wines but also have an excellent vineyard restaurant. We were too much too late to eat and we also picked a bad time to purchase as all the previous reds had been sold and the next years wines were not due to be released for another few weeks. We however tried their various whites and stocked up with their fizzy, one of our favourites.
We changed our plans seeing the weather did not look promising for White Island and swung inland from Tauronga to Rotorua and the Top ten camp site. Seeing it was getting late we rang to reserve. We usually have one of their excellent value Tourist flats but they had all gone so we settled for a basic cabin the first night then shifted over for the remaining three nights we planned to stay. In the evening we went to the Pig and Whistle - a pub which owns a micro brewery and is built in an old Police Station originating from 1946 - interesting architecture. For a change we had the good, if a little fizzy, Snout Dark Ale. They also have Verdict Bitter, a traditional brown beer, batch brewed and incorporating pale and dark malts from fine NZ barleys with an addition of NZ hops, (regarded in NZ as the best in the world) and also Swine Lager, which we have never sampled. It had been a long day and we had enormous plates of spare ribs with a side plate of Kumara chips before rolling back to our cabin.
In the morning whilst eating breakfast out side on a picnic bench there was a small shake. They occur two or three times every day although this one was slightly more noticeable and we were told it was about 4 on the Richter scale. Rotorua and the surrounding thermal areas sit right on the pacific "Ring of Fire". Whilst the tracking was being sorted on the van we went round town and then set out for Hells Gate. Rotorua is in the middle of the thermal areas and there are many worthy of visit - all are different and it is difficult to prioritise them. We have seen most of the well known ones in the past but Hells Gate is one of our favourites. It has some of the hottest pools - one is at 115 deg C which is hotter than the boiling point because of graphite in suspension being heated by the steam. It is an easy hour visit, fairly representative and never seems to be full of people.
On the way back we diverted to look at the Blue and Green lakes - almost adjacent but very different not only in colour but in character. We then had a look at Lake Tarawera which reputedly has some of the best fishing as it is full of 4 kg trout. You are not allowed to buy trout or even have it in a restaurant unless you have caught and supplied it - one day we must try one of the fishing trips on the lakes however they are not cheap and one could easily spend several hundred dollars to catch supper so we settled for cooking our own Steak. The evening ended with one of the typical New Zealand sunsets which one never tires of.
By now Pauline's teaching commitments were starting to become urgent so rather than log up an enormous Internet bill on the mobile we investigated one of the local Internet cafes the Cybershed. We had a long interesting chat to the owner and he tried to persuade us the best way would be to use our own Libretto via his network - it all initially looked very simple as we have a network card but it would have involved changing quite a lot of the network settings which I have carefully tuned to reduce the chances of being hacked into - I would not recommend connecting your own machine to an Internet Cafe network unless you know exactly what you are doing. Whilst in town I also bought a new battery for the Mobile Phone, considerably larger than my existing one, for $79 in Dick Smiths, a chain of electronics stores offering good value in most major towns - rather equivalent to Tandy's or Radio Shack.
In the afternoon we did the walks round the lake which can be accessed from the middle at the Polynesian Pools. They are not well publicised perhaps because they take you through some interesting thermal areas that are free. In the evening we had a quick meal at the Mexican Restaurant/take away on Fenton St before sorting out Pauline's OU stuff at the Cybershed. It is the first time we have used an Internet Cafe and one seems almost unrestricted in what you can do. We took great care to delete and clear cached files and recycle bins etc but from the look of the machine nobody else cared. The owner said there is very little problem in NZ.
Next day went to another of thermal areas - Wai-O-Tapu which is probably our favourite with it's Champaign Pools as well as many other features. The champagne pool is always gently steaming with thousands of tiny bubbles rising to the surface from the very blue water and is surrounded with a shelf of bright orange-red deposit before it plunges far too deep to see. We often prefer not to drive to watch what many see as the major attraction, a geyser which always erupts at 1015, but instead walk round in the quiet - the place is completely empty for 45 minutes - but return to see it the following day as the tickets are not dated. This time we got there early enough for a quick work round before going to see The Lady Knox Geyser. The geyser is provoked to erupt by the addition of a little soap - it was discovered by prisoners doing their washing in a nice warm pool who got up a nice lather then had it all blasted 20 meters into the air. On a good day it goes at least that high and can play for up to half an hour. We then returned to Wai-O-Tapu and, by walking round the wrong way, managed to avoid the worst of the rush. On leaving we had a look at the bubbling mud on the loop road - it is always worth a look and is free. This time some it was especially good and I hope I have some video from which I will be able to extract some spectacular stills.
We then continued to Waimangu where you walk down through a long and active valley with huge hot lakes. One is a magnificent pale blue - it was higher than we had previously seen and only a couple of meters from the top. There is much to see and the area is very active so it is always different. A new boiling spring had just started when we last went two years ago which covered the old path so you are now on an elevated wooden walkway through that section. The old path is now scarcely visible under a whole new terrace which has been deposited.
The walk takes a couple of hours down to a picnic area overlooking the Warbrick Terrace, one of our favourite features although a little subdued this year. We then continue for a 15 minute bush walk and took the optional boat trip round the crater lake Rotomahana which was formed along with the rest of the area in the 1886 eruption which destroyed the fabled Pink and White Terraces. The 4 hour eruption blasted 22 new craters along a 17 km fissure line. The trip is expensive but a worthwhile extension to the day and gives a scale to the magnitude of the eruption. The new lake Rotomahana which was blasted out covers 7 square kilometres and is up to 200 meters deep and an area of 15,000 square kilometres was covered up to 22 meters deep in mud and ash. There have been many less major eruptions since then, the last significant one being in 1951.
In the evening we went to a Hangi and Cultural introduction to the Maori at Maori Arts and Crafts centre at, another major thermal area on the edge of Rotorua. A main feature of Whakarewarewa is a geyser called the Prince of Wales Plumes which used to erupt randomly a few times a day - it is now playing all the time which is another example of the continual changes in the thermal areas which make it possible to return time after time without becoming bored. A Hangi is a Maori way of cooking which in most places involves cooking in a deep pit into which stones heated in a fire are dropped the food is wrapped and put on top and the whole covered with soil for a few hours to "steam" the mixture of meat and vegetables and blend all the flavours. In Rotorua and other thermal areas the hot stones are not needed as the pits are made over natural steam vents which cook the food. Before we started the main part of the experience we were taken round the replica Maori village and saw such things as bird traps and stores.
The cultural experience was extremely disappointing and they missed many opportunities and even the food was mostly European with no explanation of what was typical. If it had been billed as entertainment it would have been acceptable but that was not the case. We have had much better experiences in a hotel in the past which made it even more disappointing. We walked out before the end and had a lengthy, and hopefully positive, discussion with some of the hosts/organisers. I will go into it more fully on the web site in due course.
It was now time to leave Rotorua and on our way South we went to another thermal area called the Craters of the Moon which differs in several ways from the others mentioned above. Firstly it is free and therefore fairly empty as it gets no publicity and there are no incentives for tour buses to come. Secondly it is a new area of activity which only started when the geothermal power stations disturbed the balance in the area. It is very active with vast new craters and is continuously changing. Last time a big section was closed and the paths have been extensively re-routed and there are long sections on slightly raised wooded walkways with the ground too hot to touch and covered in small hissing steaming vents either side. It does not have any geysers at present but currently has some bubbling mud. It is worth visiting but is poorly signed - it is on the main Taupo Rotorua road where the 1 and 5 are merged about 5 kms from Taupo.
We were still undecided one our destination until we reached Taupo which was heaving with people so we decided to continue on towards Napier on the Route 5 over a series of small ranges. I am sure we must have been on the road before but we found a super new waterfall which we must have missed before. By now the clouds were brewing up and the clouds were down onto the top of the hills providing some memorable views impossible to capture on film - one looked down from the saddles onto a spectacular landscape in all shades of green from dark emerald to the lightest green merging into greys and whites formed by swirling mist, rain and cloud.
The next part will start in Napier, the art deco town at the centre of the Hawkes Bay wine region.
Copyright © Peter and Pauline Curtis
Content revised: 26th September, 2001