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|Touring New Zealand 2002 part 1|
This year we flew out with Air New Zealand, an old favourite as they fly via Los Angeles with a huge luggage allowance (2 pieces each of 32 kgs). We did not need it all outbound but hope it will allow us to take back some of the books and other things we have gathered over the years. The major problem was that the security scares make it difficult to take hand luggage and we have a lot of electronics which can not go into a hold. The kit includes the Libretto sub-laptop and Mobile telephone which keeps us in contact, JVC Digital Video Camera and, Canon conventional camera, and GPS for sailing, not to speak of the old and trusty HP95 which I still use to write the newsletter - no waiting to boot up or fears of viruses here! We had to cut back on mains support equipment and virtually everything is now 12 volt and even then we really needed both the 7 kilos hand-luggage allowances.
After the long (35 hours door to door) but uneventful journey we were met at the airport by my niece Christine. We spent the first couple of days with her and Ralph in Auckland recovering, soaking up some sun and seeing in the New Year. Actually we just missed the New Year as the jet lag - or perhaps the excellent Selak's bubbly we had picked up to complement the comprehensive stock of Chris and Ralph - resulted in us crashing out a few minutes early.
It was also the time to sort out banks and wheels. New Zealand is remarkably free of the hassle - we reopened our "cheque" bank accounts providing us with EFTPOS cards, paid our bills for the sailing, moved money and set up, for the first time, telephone/Internet banking allowing simpler access from the UK. This was all done in little over half an hour without any of the need for paperwork, multiple proofs of identity etc needed in the UK. We have always had our accounts with Bank of New Zealand who have given us excellent service but most major NZ banks should be similar.
The next activity was to pick up the campervan from Rental Car Village. We have, as regular readers know, used them for many years and they have always done very well by us. It is very much a family business providing "no frills" campers which are excellent value. Keith believes in rewarding regular customers and we just email over as soon as we know dates and he always tries to make a better offer than the previous year. They are also steadily updating their fleet and this year we are the first hirers for a newly fitted out Toyota Townace. Their vehicles are often high mileage but are meticulously maintained. The basic fit out includes an extending bed and an awning which goes over tailgate allowing extra space and access to the cooker which is at the back.
This years vehicle has relatively a very low mileage (115,000 kilometres) and is the first automatic in their fleet - it turns out to be delightful and quiet to drive and petrol is so cheap (a third of the UK) that a slightly poorer petrol consumption is not a problem. It also feels as if it has power steering and we found the air conditioning was still fitted and working, we are not sure how we deserved that - we think it resulted from our email saying we were completely relaxed about what we got as long as the cigar lighter socket worked! I suspect it would normally be a lot more than their basic vans which have done us so well in the past.
We tend to use their campervans in a slightly unusual way - we have a tent and prefer to leave all our kit in the van and set up the tent. We have gradually compiled a list of what we considered essential kit for camping and some of the desirable items we have gradually acquired or been given such as the superb "Red Devil" barbecue. We also have a large box of reference books as well as a big collection of maps and leaflets. It has got to the point where it takes careful planning to fit it all in!
Time to move on to the start of touring. Jenny, my other niece based in NZ, with husband Kev, with kids Keri and Jaz, have bought a bach on Waiheke Island. We went across on the ferry from Auckland to join them for a couple of days. Waiheke is the largest of the Islands in the Hauraki Gulf (other than the Barrier Islands) with a permanent population of about 7000. It is served by frequent passenger ferries from downtown Auckland allowing commuting for work as well as the car ferries from Half Moon Bay which we used. It is primarily a holiday destination with the population quadrupling in the summer with many baches as well as more conventional accommodation.
Baches (also called cribs in some areas) are a very Kiwi thing. They started as extremely basic holiday accommodation in deserted areas, often coastal, built out of wood, fibrolite and corrugated iron (or whatever came to hand). Many have been in the same family for many generations and progressively extended. The Oxford Dictionary tells us the term bach is derived from the same root as bachelor - an undomesticated person living alone in simple surroundings. Baches are very much DIY enterprises and are often camouflaged to blend into the surroundings and built by those with an empathy for the land. There was a brief period when there were moves to close some of them down but the import part they have played in the heritage of NZ is now recognised.
Baches were places to get away from it all, for fishing not phones and books not TV. The originals were without electricity and with a long drop hidden nearby. Water came from a tank filled from the roof and the more sophisticated added an outside washtub and mangle. They were a place for lace curtains, candlewick bedspreads and home-made rugs on a varnished floor. Bunks were the norm and doorways were closed off by curtains. Outside would be a shower on the wall, a smoker for fish and a barbecue or a fire pit.
As time went on some gained electricity and a Zip heater with it's steam whistle and cut-out - many live on. Some baches even gained a huge curved front fridge, more for the fish than anything else and gradually oil lights and candles have been replaced by electric lights, even if the bulbs remain bare. Bachs often started out as something else - an old caravan or tram, extended and surrounded till the original disappeared.
Jenny and Kev's bach is rather newer, being built only twenty years ago and somewhat more civilised with an inside shower and toilet but without losing all the character. It is entirely built of wood with wood decking round the outside and is almost hidden by native bush to first floor level. The water comes from a tank fed from the roof in the traditional way, the floors are still varnished composite board and the bedrooms are only shut off by curtains. The cooking is a classic old electric stove and they are seeking a proper Zip heater for boiling water - in the meantime they get by with an electric kettle. There is no permanent smoker at present but we smoked fish in a portable smoker and barbecued in an old oil tin so it is getting there. Once it has the right mix of classic with a touch of civilisation they plan to let it out for part of the year - it will not be cheap but the opportunities to sample the best of New Zealand's past become more limited every year especially when it is only an hour from Auckland airport in a prime holiday location for Kiwis. Contact through me if you want to know more (sorry about this trial sales pitch on Kev's behalf for the web page!).
Waiheke has impressed us - previously our experience had been limited to a day trip on New Years day a few years ago when all we got to see were the tourist beaches accessible by the regular bus service. The beaches are nice, safe and empty by comparison to most round the world but we have got used to New Zealand beaches which are completely empty. It was great to be able to walk down to the nearest beach to Jenny and Kev's bach and have an evening swim but there were still a dozen people on the beach and even people using the free gas barbecues in the reserve.
There are compensations for other people using the island - we took them to an excellent winery lunch at Te Whau, a new winery and restaurant with the one of the best wine lists in the Southern Hemisphere and the food is out of this world. We arrived at close to closing time at three on the last day of the New Year break but they still found a table for six including the two kids. Service was a bit slow as they were fitting us in and the Pauline and I were warned that the fish platter we ordered would be short of their home smoked salmon as they had been blitzed over the New Year holiday. In the event they found they were also short of the scallops and offered it to us at half price, took one look at our disappointment and said it was on the house - we could not complain at that.
Both the Tuna and Squid were the best I have had and we have no idea how to start to copy them so it is definitely a place to return to. Their vineyard has only just come on stream but their Cabernet won prizes the first year and the new Chardonnay we tried (from three selected clones with a touch of Oak ageing) could well be another prize winner but note Waiheke wines are up to twice the price you would normally expect.
We went to Whakanewha Regional Park to look round and swim - perfect for the kids and the seabed at low water was full of Pipis, a small shellfish that you boil like mussels till they open. You can gather up to 200 a day per person in most areas. Pipis also make good bait especially when salted to harden them up. There was a DOC camp site at one end of the beach which was already half empty after the Christmas break - the season is short but it was still surprising that such a perfect spot would be so under-utilised - perhaps basic camping with a Dunny (long drop) no longer appeals to Kiwis.
The next day we were by ourselves and explored the far end of the island which has many deserted beaches, several of which we have moored off whilst sailing. I think it is fair to say there were more yachts than people on the beaches. We also found some wharves with plenty of free slots for fishing and we regretted we had not commissioned the fishing rods. The "target" for our trip to the east of the island was Stony Batter where there is a big underground fortress built in the second world war to defend the approaches to Auckland. It had three 9.2 inch battleship guns capable of firing a 1500 kg shell 45 kms. They were only fired once on test and never in anger. Somewhat poetically they were reputedly sold to a Japanese scrap firm after the war. We paid DOC a dollar to explore the maze of tunnels and another $2 for a map to escape. The MagLite given us for Christmas by Chris came into its own enabling us to explore this fascinating complex - another classic piece of kit to be added to the essential list!
We swam at Man-o-war beach before seeking coffee with cakes at a place which Jenny and Kev recommended because it commands spectacular views down on the islands of the gulf towards the Coromandel - we could see many of the harbours where we have moored whilst sailing laid out like a map. The only disappointment was that the visibility was limited to about 15 miles by smoke from the forest fires in Australia, which has been also giving spectacular sunsets and sunrises in much of NZ. On a really clear day one should be able to see from the Firth of Thames out to the Barrier Islands.
Overall we are quite impressed with Waiheke Island - it is possible to get away from the package tours and crowded beaches to coastline as good as you can find in NZ yet within an hour of downtown Auckland. It has at least one DOC basic campsite which did not look overcrowded even in the New Year week. I think we would return even if Jenny and Kev did not have a bach. Perhaps not for a first visit to NZ when there is so much to see but a good place to relax when gets tired of driving and an excellent place to recover from jet lag from Europe, gather a tan or commission ones fishing kit.
It is now time to return to Auckland on the ferry and head towards South Island via the Tokomaru Steam Museum (who we have been helping with a web page), Palmerston North to look up relations of friends and Wellington for friends and the ferry.
Packing went quicker than we expected and we had a unexpected free afternoon which we used looking round Cornwall Park and One Tree Hill, now sadly without it's tree. The tree was badly damaged a few years ago by a Maori activist with a chain saw and despite considerable efforts to save the tree it eventually perished. One Tree hill used to be a major Maori Pa (fortress) and one can still see the terraces and other signs of the days when up to 5000 could be protected within the Pa. We also looked at Acacia Cottage, once the home of Logan Campbell, the founding father of Auckland who donated the park to the city. The Cottage was moved to the park in the 1920s and has recently been restored.
We already had our bookings for the Wellington-Picton Ferry - made almost as soon as we landed. Tranzrail ensure that cheap bookings can not be made from outside of NZ by use of a special 0800 number so it is important to ring as soon as one arrives and avoid peak periods - even so we had been unable to get a booking South the day we wanted even at full price and in the end we settled for delaying both ends by a couple of days which at least secured a half price return.
With the van now packed and our plans better defined we rung Esma at the Tokomaru Steam Engine Museum and confirmed they would be in steam on the following Sunday but also received the bad news that Colin had not been well recently. We also made first contact with relations of a close friend who have recently moved to New Zealand and even more recently acquired a motel in Palmerston North, a mere 15 kms from Tokomaru and arranged to visit on the Sunday evening after the Museum. Planning was now as complete as it would ever be.
We thought we would have a change and not go South on our usual route via Rotorua and Taupo but instead cut across to the west and headed via Taumarunui for Ohakune. Ohakune is a major skiing centre in the winter but always empty in the summer despite being adjacent to the magnificent scenery of the Tongariro National Park. The National Park has high dessert plains and towering mountains including Tongariro, Ngarohoe and Ruapehu. We flew over the area in 1996 just before Ruepehu erupted reminding everyone once again that New Zealand sits astride the Pacific Belt of Fire. The Whanganui river, which will feature latter, has its source in the foothills of Mt Tongariro and flows via Taumarunui to Wanganui.
Ohakune was as empty as we expected and we could pick a very economical room at the Mountain View Motel with use of communal kitchens and lounges which we had entirely to ourselves.
This left us with an easy drive to Palmerston North where we made very welcome by Garry and Sally Rigby, relations of close friends Peter and Jacqui Ryder in the UK. Sally got a job at Massey University before they emigrated - it is now much more difficult to get jobs in New Zealand. Age, experience, a higher degree and a prior job offer in an area without Kiwi competition seem to be important conditions to be satisfied for a residence permit - the days when only relations or lots of money counted seemed to have gone and the hurdle is significantly higher than when we last looked seriously at emigrating 5 years ago.
The Camelot Motor Lodge they have is close to the centre of Palmerston North and the city is ideally placed to break ones journey from Auckland to Wellington and, of course, for the Steam Museum at Tokomaru. Palmerston North is not a "tourist" town and the motel gets most of its business from business and University visitors and therefore offers a very high standard of accommodation at very competitive rates. It made a very pleasant change from the basic accommodation we normally settle for in NZ - every room has fridge-freezer and microwave as well as the usual cooking facilities and all have air baths. The family suites even have dish washers! Unlike most motels it does not have a short tourist season so it would be well to ring ahead if you want to stay there.
Coming back to the Tokomaru Steam Engine Museum, the purpose of our visit. We got there just after they opened to get a chance to talk to Esma and Colin, who is now back on his feet. This time there were 8 static engines running inside, not all simultaneously as the boiler will not support them all, as well as two road engines outside and the train was in continuous use on a loop track running through the old Tokomaru station. Colin , unusually, had some extra help rather than his usual one-man-band running 8 or more engines simultaneously, each of which would in the their working life would have been run by one or more drivers and engineers.
I spoke of the museum a little last year in the newsletter and during last year's visit we spent some time talking to Esma. She subsequently sent me a Xerox of a very interesting book they published in the early days, which has unfortunately been out of print for a long time and said I was free to use the material, for which they have the copyright. I used it to set up a comprehensive web page on the Tokomaru Steam Museum, both for myself and as support for them. They have now commissioned a web site from a local firm which will shortly take over from my volunteer effort and should be available by now at http://www.tokomarusteam.com
The Tokomaru Steam Engine Museum is a must to visit if you have the least interest in Steam or industrial heritage. We have visited it four times so far and will go back again. They have an impressive collection of engine with over 50 on display. They are mostly from last century with an emphasis on farming, ice making plants, gas plants, generators and ship engines although there are many others on display or in storage. Many originated in the UK or built under UK licenses although the centrepiece of the collection is a huge refrigeration plant built in Milwaukee. It used to produce 200 tons of ice a day for the meat trade. Most of the engines were rescued from being scrapped and were in full time use until they came to the museum.
It must be the biggest and most comprehensive collection of working steam engines in New Zealand and quite possibly of the Southern Hemisphere. The most exceptional aspect is that it is almost entirely the work of one man, Colin Stevenson. It is owned and run entirely by Colin and Esma and, unlike almost all such enterprises in Europe, there is no large band of volunteers supporting them. On Steaming days they normally have a few paid helpers for safety considerations otherwise it is all their own work.
We had a spare day before we needed to be in Wellington so we doubled back a bit to Wanganui where we hoped to find that a second of the riverboats, the Wairua, would have been restored and in operation. It had unfortunately been delayed but we had a excellent trip on the only Paddle Steamer in New Zealand, the Waimarie. I will not say too much here about the Whanganui river as I covered it, and the river boats that served it, very fully last year and they is now a page on The Whanganui River and the Riverboats.
The Waimarie started life just over 100 years ago as the Paddle Steamer Aotea. She was commissioned for the Wanganui Settlers Steamship company, a brand new competitor to the established boats run by the Hatrick company which was to be largely responsible for opening up the Whanganui for transport and tourism. At the time Hatrick already had three steamers serving the Maori villages and tourists. The Aotea was built by Yarrow of Poplar London and shipped out in 64 crates with the boiler. Once in Wanganui the bolts used for initial assemble were replaced by rivets and it was in service within three months on the run to Pipiriki.
This started a fierce freight and passenger price war. To Hatrick, by now Mayor of Wanganui, a fight like this was like food and wine. The price war combined with low water levels making the run to Pipiriki close to impossible quickly took their toll on the new company. Within two years Hatrick was making offers to buy the Aotea for 3200 pounds which were declined as derisory - three months later an offer of 2000 pounds was accepted as by the Settlers Company which could not longer pay the wages of its staff. The Aotea was promptly renamed Waimarie, the Maori for "Good Fortune", prices returned to normal levels, as did the river and Hatrick's fortunes rose.
Hatrick's objective was to push the service further and further upstream to reach Taumarunui, which would soon become the Southern terminus of the new Northern Main Trunk Railway. As I explained last year the journey upstream to Taumarunui involves 144 miles of rapid strewn and ever shallower waters. In total 237 rapids had to be tamed by removing snags, blasting channels and construction of training walls to scour away silt and stones, not to speak of the development of the special "tunnel drive" boats. Tunnel drive boats were the precursors of jet boats and drew less than 12 inches and were shorter and narrower beam than an English narrowboat with powerful kerosene engines and winches to pull them through the worst rapids. The Ongarue reached Taumarunui in December 1903 coinciding with the arrival of the main railway from Auckland and established a world famous scenic route from Auckland to Wanganui and thence to Wellington confounding all the sceptics.
The Waimarie served on the first stretch up to Pipiriki where passengers spent a night in a new luxury hotel Hatrick built - it had electric before most NZ towns.They then transferred to one of the smaller boats for the next days trip to "The Houseboat" where again there was a transfer for the last stage to an even smaller tunnel boat.
It might be thought that the first stage where paddle wheelers were used would be easy but there were still a large number of rapids and at many the engines were augmented by men with long manuka poles punting the boat or by cables in the river which were picked up and attached to the winch to pull the boats through the rapids - we are not talking small boats either - the Waimarie was 100 ft long and 22 ft beam over the paddlewheels but with a draft of only 4 inches. The 55 miles to Pipiriki involved negotiating 42 rapids.
The Waimarie remained in service on the run up to Pipiriki, combined with various shorter tourist trips, until 1949 when she was due for her second boiler replacement. Whilst awaiting a change to a kerosene engine there was a tragic accident - a motor launch moored along side drifted under one of the paddle housings on a falling tide and tipped her over and she sank. Before she could be re-floated a flood filled her hull with silt making salvage uneconomic.
She remained sunk, but safely preserved under a layer of silt, for 40 year until a group of volunteers started a salvage operation. After the town had been scoured for very oil drum and plastic container for flotation she was pumped clear of the silt and reluctantly the mud released its grip and she was afloat again. After 7 years of restoration involving 67,000 hours of volunteer work and nearly $1.5M she cast off for her inaugural cruise exactly as the Millennium arrived with most of Wanganui's population of 40,000 watching.
She carried 25,000 passengers in her first year back in service and the lovingly restored engines are still as good as new after 100 years, 40 of then under water. The hull is now replated with thicker steel to satisfy modern regulations - probably not a good change as the original galvanised plate was designed to give. Regular replacements of rivets with temporary bolts was a feature of operation as the boats were dragged through the rapids and the flexing and denting usually prevented more serious damage. The occasional more serious hole was blocked with a sack of flour wedged in place which set to give a repair sometime good for three months! The Waimarie is now only used for trips an hour or two upriver in the tidal stretch so changes will probably never be fully tested and we forgot to enquiry if sacks of flour are still carried.
We had one of the regular two hour cruises and enjoyed it greatly - the ride is very smooth and quiet with only the splash of the paddles to disturb the peace. The fit out is impeccable but probably completely different to that of her working life when settlers would have fought for space with bales of wool, cans of kerosene and livestock on the open decks. Some things however do not change - passengers are still welcome in the engine room and even more welcome to shovel coal into the new boiler. Restoration in NZ can be a bit pragmatic - it is a case of the original axe with three new heads and four handles. Why not, the boats were changed from steam to kerosene and back, lengthened and shortened etc when in service as well as the extensive replacement of parts as one would expect when traversing hundreds of rapids every week on a fickle river capable of changing from being too low for navigation to floods of up to 60 feet on the upper reaches.
Another of the riverboats, the kerosene engined Wairua, is also being restored and should enter service latter this year. She is much smaller being designed for the middle reaches and we look forwards to a trip next year. I am writing this on the latest wave piercing catamaran on the crossing to South Island - a sleek aluminium vessel carrying 800 passengers and 200 vehicles at 75 kph but I doubt that she will survive for a century with the same engines! Even so it is an impressive ride across one of the challenging bits of sea in the world where wind and water are often funnelled into conflict between the islands. I am getting a bit ahead however.
We spent some time in the Riverboat Centre soaking up background from the many old pictures on display. We bought a couple more books - a fascination account of life on the river by an ex riverboat engineer, Alec Reid "Paddlewheels on the Wanganui" ISBN 0-473-02090-4 and a short booklet on the "Paddle Steamer Waimarie" by the Whanganui Riverboat Restoration and Navigation Trust Inc ISBN 0-473-07734-5
In the morning we had a quick look at the regional museum, one of the biggest in the country, with an extensive section on Maori Culture and a collection of 8 canoes including a 150 year old war Waka - it merited more time but we needed to head for Wellington. It did not open till 1000 so we took the opportunity to get the tyres checked on the camper and a couple changed before South Island as suggested by Thomlinson (Rental Car Village) - half an hour which we spent in the DOC offices opposite.
We got to Wellington in time for a quick walk downtown whilst Pete got his watch waterproofed at a fraction of the UK cost. It was then time to join John and Blyth at their house which is perched on a hillside overlooking the town with unbelievable views. Many of the houses seem to cling to the steep faces with parking spaces up impossible looking slopes or cantilevered out on wooden structures. We just made it up in Low on the automatic - it would not move in Drive and when we tried to reverse up the wheels just spun - Blyth said it was quite difficult when it got icy! We ate huge quantities of fish in the Tugboat restaurant - it is a not surprisingly a converted tugboat moored out on Orient Drive. When we left on the ferry we could look back to see four of the seafront restaurants we have been to on various occasions equally space along the waterfront.
The next day was pouring with rain and was spent in Te Papa (Our Place) the National museum which I have covered previous years, in particular the Maori Culture and Heritage sections so I will not inflict much more here but refer to the 6 Maori Culture pages already on the web site. Te Papa has however taken a great deal of effort to try to provide a cultural bridge . They have created a Marae - Te Marae o Te Papa Tongawera (a place for all of us) as a highlight of their exhibitions. It is not specific to any one tribe, it is a Marae for all peoples throughout Aotearoa and its kawa (customs) reflect that.
The Wharenui (Meeting House) is the focal point of a Marae and has great spiritual significance. Often it bears the name of a famous ancestor. The wharenui at Te Marae is named Te Mono ki Hawaiki (the link back to Hawaiki). Hawaiki is the name of the ancestral land of origin so providing the links to all people who come to Aotearoa. As you can see, the design of Te Mono ki Hawaiki is very contemporary, and perhaps controversial, using modern materials - the design and carving was carried out by Cliff Whiting the co-chief executive of Te Papa bringing together carvers and craftspeople from iwi and peoples throughout Aotearoa.
As I complete writing this section on the ferry entering the Marlborough Sounds there are Dolphins cavorting round the ferry amidst the spectacular scenery - it felt like coming home and deserted campsites beckon, an appropriate point to end this part.
Copyright © Peter and Pauline Curtis
Content revised: 11th May, 2002