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Touring in New Zealand 2004 part 1

We flew over with Air New Zealand to Auckland via Los Angeles for the third year running. The big advantage of flying through Los Angeles is that you are allowed two items of hold luggage each of which can be up to 32 kgs rather than a maximum of 20 kgs total on most routings. Flying via the United States is however inconvenient because you are forced to clear customs and immigration even when in transit - at least this time we did not have to take all our luggage off at Los Angeles, only the hand luggage. The security has also been relaxed for in-transit passengers so we no longer had to go through the security checks. Hand luggage limits have also been relaxed a little and one is now allowed a second small personal item or laptop provided the total weight is under 10 kgs. We did however suffer one of the spot checks prior to check-in at Heathrow and had to empty a suitcase - oddly we were allowed to choose which one and, in compensation, we were sent straight through the first class check-in desk giving priority unloading tags on the suitcases.

The flight was long and boring as usual - we pick up a few books from charity shops and shed them as we progress! The Air New Zealand food (and wine) is OK and service good - they insisted on moving us and another passenger because one of our headsets was intermittent.

The next couple of days were spent recovering with Chris and Ralph in Auckland During which time we organised our ferry bookings to South Island where we will spend five weeks. You can not get any of the cheap tickets form outside of the country as you have to use a 0800 phone number for booking the cheap offers. Once the New Year weekend was over we made a quick trip to the bank (BNZ) where we reopened our current account and set-up our EFTPOS cards - everywhere takes EFTPOS, which is a low charge direct debit system. Current accounts in New Zealand have significant monthly charges so we close ours when we leave the country and just maintain a savings account. We also set up internet banking so we can keep an eye on the accounts, transfer money and even pay the sailing bills without going to an ATM machine.

It was then time to collect our camper van from Rental Car Village. We have been using them for many years now and they have always given us a good deal. The vehicles are far from new but they have always proved reliable. We have done many tens of thousands of kilometres in their vans over the years with only minor problems, other than last year when we had a head gasket blow. We have a few extra days this year to compensate for the inconvenience. Overall though we have probably had no more troubles than we have at home.

New Zealand has a different approach to cars and they are maintained in use for far longer than in the UK. Last time we checked the average age for re-registration of cars was eleven years. Little salt is used and with good maintenance it is not exceptional to find vehicles with over 400,000 kilometres on the clock in fleet use, this years Toyota Townace has 240,000 on the clock. We also spent a while talking to Grant Thomlinson who spends a lot of his time in more exciting parts of the world and also has comprehensive kit to enable him to keep in touch whilst mobile including a Libretto CT100, a newer version of our venerable sub-laptop used on previous trips.

Much of the time with Chris and Ralph was spent commissioning our replacement laptop for the Libretto, a four year old Toshiba Portege 3440CT which no longer has the power to satisfy my niece but should serve us nicely whilst on the move and will give us some capacity to download pictures from our Canon A70 digital camera. We can plug the camera card straight into the PCMCIA slot to avoid messing about with USB cables. Most of our cards seem to work with the new machine other than the interface to the Motorola phone, which is still giving major problems and is probably incompatible. The phone is however over 6 years old and needs replacing as the keys are very unreliable and we have an Ericsson T28s to replace it which is currently on a Vodaphone NZ tariff.

The only significant visit we made whilst in Auckland was to 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 people could be protected within the Pa. We also looked at Acacia Cottage, once the home of Sir John 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. The park has many magnificent mature trees including some drives of Pohutakawa, the New Zealand Christmas tree which turns bright crimson with its huge heads of flowers. This year the summer has been very hot and they were mostly over.

It was then time to head to Waiheke Island to stay with Jenny and Kev in their new house. We went across on the ferry from Auckland to join them for a week and to join up with my sister and brother-in-law who were also staying. It is set on the hillside above Takirau bay, a deserted beach beside a reserve with the most magnificent Pohutakawa trees. The beach has excellent swimming and the rocks at either end are supposed to be very good for fishing. Kev keeps a canoe down by the beach so one is never short of things to do. The house has a separate flat underneath which is normally let out during holiday periods.

Waiheke is the largest of the Islands in the Hauraki Gulf other than the Barrier Islands with a permanent population of about 7000. Frequent passenger ferries serve it 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 or more in the summer with many baches as well as more conventional accommodation. Jenny and Kev now have a series of baches, which are available on short, and long term lets as well as the flat under their house.

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 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 homemade rugs on a varnished floor. Bunks were the norm and curtains closed off doorways. 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 its steam whistle and cutout - 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. Baches often started out as something else - an old caravan or tram, extended and surrounded till the original disappeared.

Jenny and Kev's first Bach was 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 last time we were there. We have not stayed in either of their classic baches, one is on permanent let and the other available for holiday lets. If you try to rent a Bach in Waiheke, be warned, none are cheap as the opportunities to sample the best of New Zealand's past become more limited every year, especially ones in a prime holiday location only an hour from Auckland airport.

Waiheke has a growing reputation for its wines and over the last twenty years the number of vineyards has increased dramatically. The reputation was made by red wines from local grapes but nowadays many of the wines, in particular the white wines, are made from grapes brought in from other areas in New Zealand such as Marlborough.

Kennedy Point vineyard is just down the road from my niece's place and we went down to have a look round, taste the wines and also intended to buy some of their olive oil. Olives grow well on Waiheke and many of the vineyards have taken to growing and pressing their own olives for high quality oil. We were however put off by the prices being asked - $100 a litre seemed a little excessive even for extra virgin oil - perhaps acceptable for salads but not for cooking as we required. Waiheke wines from island grapes are not cheap either and you seem to pay a significant premium over wines from the mainland of similar type and quality although we will have to carry out some comparative tasting with wines we know well and like such as Esk Valley or Pegasus to be definitive.

Kennedy Point vineyard serve platter lunches, which we did not have the chance to try, but seemed good from what we could see - those eating looked very happy. The olive oil was from a selection of local olives but too expensive for our requirements for cooking. We tried both their classic 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon dominant wine and a lighter 'Vignette' 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon - both were very good. We also tried a 2003 rose made from locally grown merlot grapes without fermentation on the skins - we are normally not great fans of rose wines but it was quite good and a reasonable price for a wine from local grapes. This year we noticed that many of the vineyards seem to be producing rose wines from local grapes and made from a quick pressing of red wine grapes, as they should be.

We were particularly keen to visit the Saratoga vineyard as Megan who had found our write-ups of wine and Waiheke Island had contacted us a few months earlier on the web. The Saratoga vineyard is a family enterprise and Megan, it turned out, is actually living in Saratoga California, another area famous for small boutique wineries, which caused some confusion when we rang the vineyard and were then rung back from California. She fixed up for us to look round and we were entertained in style by her mother Pam. They took over the vineyard and winery quite recently and are making big changes including adding a large inside restaurant as well as a huge area of decking and outside covered areas for eating and tasting. It was chaos with much building works approaching completion for an opening planned just before the Waiheke Wine festival which is typically the very end of January - they should just make it.

We obviously could not try the food but the family also have several restaurants so it bodes well. They will also have a large capacity of up to 1000 for events and catering for up to 400 for special occasions. We tried several of the wines from their new winemaker and were impressed, especially by their rose, again from local grapes. It has already won prizes and has gained considerable publicity for the new name for the vineyard, their winemaker and the designs for their labels - the rose features a Pukeko, a brightly coloured New Zealand bird. The Veritas, a true Waiheke red was also excellent. Production from their 4 hectare vineyard is currently about 1000 cases a year, which they hope to triple. We look forwards to going back next year to try out their food.

The only Waiheke vineyard where we had a winery lunch was Passage Rock, at the South West end of the island, well away from the main tourist areas, but well worth the drive. We had one of their tasting trays of 4 wines and asked specifically for those from locally grown grapes and had the Piano, a very pleasant rose we had already drunk a bottle of with the family; the Forte, a classic Waiheke Cabernet dominant red; The Sisters a lighter red and a Syrah which we did not rate highly. Unlike most of the Waiheke wineries the owner/winemaker, David Evans-Gander has a formal winemaking training at the highly respected Australian Roseworthy College. We bought a bottle of the Sisters to try in peace and quiet.

The winery restaurant has table outside as well as some inside and the service was excellent - they accommodated every wish from a group of 7 plus two youngsters. Their speciality is pizza cooked in a wood fired oven - they have a large brick lined oven, like an old fashioned bread oven, but with a wood fire permanently burning at the back and just two pizzas are carefully laid in the front to cook. This means service is slow a and comes two by two but the results are well worth waiting for and one can fill in with garlic bread and excellent salads with feta cheese whilst one is waiting. This is definitely a winery and restaurant to add to our NZ winery web pages where the combination of winery restaurant and good wine to try and pleasant and informed staff are all-important.

Having got as far as Passage Rock winery one should explore 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 have found some wharves with plenty of free slots for fishing and regretted we had not commissioned the fishing rods. Locals and sailors not surprisingly, call the West end of the island the Far End.

A favourite "target" for our trips to the west of the island is 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 allegedly capable of firing a 1500 kg shell 45 kms. They were only fired once on test to 20 kms but never in anger. Somewhat poetically they were reputedly sold to a Japanese scrap firm after the war. On our last visit we spent a long time talking to Pam who has been one of the main instigators in the restoration and we learnt all about the progress in bringing back typical engines to drive the generators, hydraulic systems etc. Various parts have been obtained from similar batteries round the world, such as Gibraltar and the massive diesel engines (called Tom, Dick and Harry) are currently under tarpaulins in the local supermarket car park awaiting an offer at the right price to transport them the last few kilometres. The current quoted costs for the last 10 kms are more than the previous 10,000!

We have had a number of picnics on Waiheke and it seems easy to find completely deserted small beaches which are ideal - this year we went to Dead Mans Bay, where we had a grassy patch with small rocky beaches either side before the land climbed to a magnificent viewpoint out over the Tamaki straight. One could see back to Rangitoto, across to Auckland and in the other direct passed the end of the island and the real Passage Rock to the Coromandel in the distance. The bay had mussel farms and, not surprisingly, we went searching along the rocks and gathered enough for supper.

Mussels off the rocks need a lot of cleaning up on the outside before conventional cooking by dropping into boiling water, wine or whatever takes your fancy as they often have other shellfish attached to the surface as well as needing a good scrub. By far the best way of cooking is on a barbeque where one just cooks them until hey spring open and eats them immediately perhaps with a little freshly cooked bread. We had a barbeque at Jenny and Kev's place and collected enough of the rocks at the end of their local bay - hard work often up to ones knees in water even at low tide. Bill, a local and great fisherman told us not to worry about those with small crabs inside and that the crabs were themselves a delicacy when cooked in the mussel - Pauline was a little sceptical but Pete tried one and then went looking for the rest as they were most excellent, just slightly crunchy, like prawn crackers, and with a very delicate taste of crab.

Waiheke has impressed us in previous years with its rather quaint atmosphere exaggerating many kiwi customs. Where else would one find a cinema populated with old settees yet somehow getting a very exclusive first screening of the Lord of the Rings. It also has a fascinating and large Saturday market at Ostend famous for the eclectic mix of local people, produce, junk and treasures quite unlike anything we have seen elsewhere. The tourist beaches are nice, safe and empty by comparison to most round the world although we have got used to New Zealand beaches, which are completely empty. It is much better to be able to walk straight down from Jenny and Kev's to a sheltered beach, which is so little known that we rarely see another person. Pete swam hard almost every morning for best part of half an hour to exercise his shoulder. The last day meant a swim at 0630 watching the sun come up over the hills - even so the water was warm enough to be comfortable for half an hour although it was a bit cold getting out into the shade.

The highlight of our stay in the Auckland area was a trip on the Soren Larsen. The Soren Larsen is a square rigged Tallship, 145 foot long and built of English oak, the prince of woods for shipbuilding. She has oak frames with immensely strong double oak planking covered with an additional layer of New Zealand Totara to protect against shipworm in the warm southern oceans. She was built as a trading ship, the last of a line from a famous Danish shipyard and named after the shipyard's owner. After her trading days were over, she was lovingly restored, and is still often skippered by her new owner Tony. During restoration she gained her Brigantine rig and is perhaps the best known Tallship of all because of her leading role in the TV series The Onedin Line.

Since then she pioneered sail training for the disabled and then found her true home, along with Tony, in New Zealand where she runs a mixture of short sailing adventures and extended cruises round the Pacific. She has a professional crew of 13 and a voyage crew of up to 22 who are expected to work during the trip, although previous experience is not required. She is a serious ship; she has gone round the world twice since she was restored, including doubling Cape Horn under sail. She was the first square rigger under British register to round the Horn in nearly 60 years and the first all wooden square rigger to do so for a century.

Our trip, which was our Christmas present from Jenny and Kev, was only a day trip out of Auckland, which took us out past Rangitoto Island, up the Motuihi Passage and round Rangitoto back to Auckland. The winds were light and even with full sail, a magnificent sight, progress was slow and the engine had to be called into use to get us back at a sensible time. Although this was an experience trip everyone was called on to pull on lines to help raise and adjust the sails and there was an opportunity to go aloft. Pete dearly wanted to go up but the transition to the platform at the half way mark (circa 60 ft high) involved a short under hung section, which would have put unacceptable loads on his recently broken arm. He did however end up on the wheel for a good length of time as well as doing his fair share on ropes.

We spent a long time talking to the captain, Jim Cottier whose book "Soren Larsen, Homeward round the Horn" published 1997 by Bush Press of NZ, ISBN 0-908608-77-2 we bought and asked him to sign. Jim was the mate during the trip back from Australia via Cape Horn to the UK. His book makes fascinating reading with not only the story of one of the greatest voyages of a century, many old and new sea shanties, but also extracts from past days when schooners regularly made such journeys in conditions in which even today few ships choose to navigate. The Southern Ocean runs unbroken round the world and is the home of the great west wind system know as the roaring forties where sailing ships could run east round the whole world with only a few islands and the great Capes to impede their progress. The schooners could make up to 400 miles a day, braving icebergs and seas up to 80 ft in these, the worst seas in the world - many were lost.

The book also contains excellent photographs, many by Ian Hutchinson who came for a short trip many years ago, was on the trip round the Horn and is still a crewmember now. He gave a fascinating talk on the history of the Soren Larsen during our trip. Pete spent quite a while talking to him as he also looks after the Soren Larsen's web site.

We also persuaded the chief engineer to take us down into the engine room. The Soren Larsen still has her original engine, a huge 300 HP diesel weighing 12 tons which will last another 50 years. The drive is via a two bladed variable pitch propeller with lovely brass control gear on deck. The propeller is feathered and lined up with the keel when under sail.

We thoroughly enjoyed the trip and can recommend it without reservation. We would like to take one of the longer ones round the Gulf or up to the Bay of Islands if not round the Pacific and some time in the future.

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