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|Touring New Zealand 2004 - part 2|
Leaving Auckland our first stop was Rotorua, which is in the centre of the thermal areas. Rotorua and the surrounding thermal areas sit right on the pacific "Ring of Fire". There are often small shakes and on a recent visit there was one whilst we were eating breakfast out side on a picnic bench. 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. There are a number of thermal areas of interest in the town itself as well as plentiful accommodation, economic restaurants and Internet Cafes. We come every time in New Zealand and often end up staying several days.
This time we stayed at the Monterey, which is very close to the lake and the centre of town and has a pool and its own thermal water bath as well as a free guest laundry we needed to use. We had one of the simplest rooms without full cooking but they can offer a microwave if required. It is run by an ex German couple who immediately recognise us and usually give us a discount as regulars (out of peak season) - try telling them you found them on our website and ask for a discount. It is certainly a place we can recommend if you are looking for accommodation right in the centre of town. We ended up the first evening for supper at an unpretentious but excellent Mexican restaurant on Fenton Street, which we have been visiting for many years, so we did not need the microwave.
To work off the meal we took a very pleasant walk, which has recently been opened, up round part of the Lake at Rotorua. It is almost in the middle of town but takes you past little beaches, through bush, through thermal areas on board walks and through various nature reserves, all with orientation boards It is not well publicised, perhaps because it takes you through some interesting thermal areas that are free.
The next morning we continued getting our communications set up. We bought a local Vodaphone pay-as-you-go SIM card for the mobile telephone and tried to get an interface cable for the new phone, so far without success. The SIM cards are only $35, including $15 of initial calls and fit most phones so it is the obvious thing to do if you are going to be in NZ for any length of time. Calls then cost 49 cents off peak, both local and amazingly to the UK.
It was then time to get in the van and head for the Wai-o-Tapu Thermal Area, one of our favourites - we have been to most of the thermal areas several times as they are always different and Wai-o-Tapu (Sacred waters) still remains the top of our list because of the range of features, good documentary boards and longer walks which take one away from the masses. We must have been recognised as regulars because we were presented with a complimentary entry.
One needs to allow several hours to do Wai-o-Tapu justice - fortunately the tours only allow a fraction of that and many of the best parts are almost deserted. Perhaps the highlight of Wai-o-Tapu is the Champagne Pool, which 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. Words alone can not convey the atmosphere of Wai-o-Tapu - sulphur from the vents condense into a myriad of tiny crystals gleaming yellow in the sun and dark pools bubble and swirl with indescribable noises, brightly coloured lakes and pools gleam sparkle and steam in the sun and water gleams on the primrose terraces. On leaving we took time to look at the bubbling mud on the loop road, this time more active than ever with mud bubbling and spurting into the air.
We did not have time to see another of the set piece areas but we spent the end of the afternoon round Kuirau Park, an area with a fair amount of thermal activity although right in the centre of town beside the hospital. It looked as if one area had been very active and was fenced off - we heard that it exploded and showered the centre of Rotorua with hot mud recently. Rotorua has been extracting a lot of thermal energy and water for heating houses, pools etc., and the council has been trying to restrict people from drawing out too much private enterprise thermal energy for their hot pools and heating as it was believed that it was causing some of the major attractions to be muted. The results of keeping the thermal power constrained were unexpected to the planners, if perhaps predictable to everyone else in a town where steam comes out of drain covers and holes beside the roads.
In the evening it was time to visit The Pig and Whistle for a beer from their own brewery (snout dark ale) and we had a snack of Kumara chips whilst waiting for two huge plates of spare ribs. We just struggled through it with the help of a few Snouts. The Pig and Whistle used to be the police station and was built in 1946 very much in Art Deco style but with some addition Maori themes in the decoration.
The next morning we decided to head for Wanganui and get there in time for a trip on the Paddle-steamer the Waimarie. Wanganui is where the Whanganui River reaches the sea. The river used to be the main route into the central regions almost as far as Lake Taupo. The riverboats had to battle in stages through 239 rapids up to Taumarunui, a journey of 144 miles. The boats were quite unique in design to cover the various stages and included steam driven paddle steamers on the lower reaches and the tunnel drive boats on the upper reaches. The Wanganui River became one of the most important tourist attractions in New Zealand. The adverts called it the Rhine of New Zealand or the Rhine of Maoriland and 12,000 tourists a year were being transported. There were stops at Pipiriki in magnificent hotel isolated in the backblocks, lit by electricity, which few cities in the world could then boast, and at a similarly appointed Houseboat.
Maori legend explains the formation of the Whanganui. Their tradition is that there was that there were original four mountains in the central peaks, Tongariro, Ngauruhoe, Ruapehu and Taranaki. The mountains were male and female and Tongariro had as his wife the enticing Pihanga. However Taranaki tried to seduce he beautiful Pihanga and a mighty battle of the mountains followed. When it cleared Tongariro had won and Taranaki fled in grief and anger to the sea and inland to stand forever in isolation as Mt Taranaki (Egmont). His track to the sea became a deep rift and the beautiful gorge was filled with gushing fresh water from Tongariro to heal the rift - the Whanganui River was born.
Why it is called the Whanganui is also explained by legend. Hau set off from Patea following an erring and absconding wife Wairaka along the coast. The first obstacle Hau met was a great river flowing westwards to the setting sun. He sat to consider the best way to cross the vast expanse of water and uttered these thoughts - "Too wide to swim, too deep to wade, I will wait for the tide to turn" from these thoughts he named the river Whanganui - literally the big wait.
The development of the river is largely attributed to one person, Alexander Hatrick who started the first regular steamer service in 1892 and by 1903 had services running right through to Taumarunui where they would eventually connect with the rail services and with coaches to Rotorua. At the height of the riverboat service there were 12 steamers and motor vessels as well as motorised canoes for times of very low water levels.
The Waimarie, on which we had come to travel, 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 Hatrick. 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.
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 day's 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 24 inches. The 55 miles to Pipiriki involved negotiating 42 rapids.
The Waimarie remained in service, 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.
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 welcomer to shovel coal into the new boiler.
Pete spent nearly half an hour in the engine room talking to Kevin Lane who had done much of the restoration of the engine and boiler. The original boiler was made by Yarrow & Co of Poplar in London and was designed for use in Torpedo Boats capable of reaching 32 knots. The beauty of the water-tube boiler design is that full pressure can be reached in only 55 minutes from lighting without stressing the boiler. On occasion they have taken the Waimarie off the moorings in 35 minutes. A replica boiler has been fitted as the original was beyond repair - it is on display outside the riverboat museum. The replacement only differs in that the ends are welded rather than riveted.
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.
Restoration in general in NZ can be a bit pragmatic - it is often a case of the original axe with three new heads and four handles. In this case 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.
The last morning in Wanganui we went to the Local Museum to continue some interesting research we have been carrying out. This section will eventually form an update to part of our web site where it will hopefully provoke some further work on a fascinating period in the Wanganui Riverboat story.
Hatrick used several large motorised canoes (Wakas), for use when the upper stretches of the river were too low for the use of his more conventional boats. We had been told by friends who are restoring Whanganui River boats that the biggest of the Wakas on display at the Whanganui Regional Museum was one of the canoes, used by Hatrick for these services on the upper reaches of the Whanganui. Last year we went to the museum, to look at the Canoes on display but it did not turn out to be quite that simple as we could not see the canoe which we had been led to believe had used by Hatrick and donated to the museum as the area was closed.
This year we had the chance to take a detailed look and personally confirm that the Te-Mata-O-Hoturoa that is exhibited as a 200 year old war Waka complete with bullet holes also has evidence on the underside of what are most likely to be propeller mountings and a hole for the shaft, exactly as on a picture which we have a copy of. Surprisingly none of the museum staff seemed aware of this modification underneath, perhaps because the restitution inside is so well done that one would never suspect unless one looked closely. Last year, although we were not allowed to see the Waka, we did persuade the Archivist on duty to let us look at some of the records and after a couple of hours looking through the files we became convinced that the Te-Mata-O-Hoturoa was unlikely to be the Waka donated in April 1939 to the museum by Hatrick, as we had been lead to believe, but we did found reference in their archives to it having been leased to him at some point as a motorised canoe. This must have been before 1909 when the main museum records about it commence. It is most likely this was a trial before he purchased the similar sized Wakanui (in December 1905), which was ultimately donated, to the Museum in April 1939. Surprisingly we could find no written records of the donation in the comprehensive and appropriate collection of Wanganui Museum records we were provided. We however understand that there is confirmation in Wellington in the ship registries of its removal from commercial use in 1939 and the donation.
This year we spent a long time talking to Michelle, the curator, who was most helpful and recalled that she had seen some records of a donation by Hatrick and also noted that several Waka have been passed to other museums since the 1930s - one to Canes Bay on the Banks Peninsular and another to Opitiki? One called the Mangaone also left the museum in the 1980s and another; the Pueriki has deteriorated, and is in pieces in the museum archive stores.
The museum also have the Te Wehi-O-Te-Rangi in safe keeping and we were allowed to enter the archival stores and see her - she was the fastest Waka on the river and has always had great symbolic importance to the local Iwi (tribes) so is most unlikely to be the Wakanui or used by Hatrick, furthermore there was no evidence she had been motorised. The Te Wehi-O-Te-Rangi has a significantly different shape to the other Waka, narrower at the front and perhaps deeper at the back, which could account for her superior performance in Waka races. We must thank Michelle greatly for the opportunity to see such a great Waka and hope that she can be restored to her original glory and that the owners will allow her to be displayed before she deteriorates further out of the water.
This all still leaves some interesting questions of how you there can be any ambiguities about the whereabouts of a Waka 66 feet long, allegedly contributed to a major museum. We hope the evidence of the motorisation of the Te-Mata-O-Hoturoa will stimulate somebody to look further into an interesting phase in her history and in parallel there will be efforts to re-discovery the Wakanui. If positively identified it could then be restored to the state it was in when it played such an important part in the river services when the steamers were unable to run. It would provide the perfect contrast to the original warlike purpose and the eventual peaceful use - the classic swords re-forged into ploughshares.
Our next stop was at the Tokomaru Steam Engine Museum - a must if you have the least interest in Steam or industrial heritage. We have visited it many times so far and have got to know Colin and Esme well. We were delighted that Colin has largely recovered from some major operations and we spent far too long chatting and keeping them from preparing for the imminent steaming weekend and laying concrete for a restored generator plant which will provide backup power. They have an impressive collection of engines 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 which used to produce 180 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 with support following generations and, unlike almost all such enterprises in Europe, there is no large band of volunteers supporting them.
We spent the night in a simple cabin at Levin before leaving early in the morning for Wellington to stay with John and Blyth. Far too much of the morning was spent trying to get our mobile connected to the laptop and Internet at the Vodaphone commercial centre. The USB link is fine but Sony-Ericsson has withdrawn the drivers for their older phones from their web site. James Parker must have spent nearly an hour and a half on the Internet and phone to Ericsson and his many contacts so far without success. We took solace in an excellent light lunch at Shed Five, another longstanding favourite. We just had entrees and sweets on a canvas-covered terrace beside the converted warehouse right by the inner harbour.
The afternoon was spent at the new National Museum Te Papa, which translates as Our Place. Te Papa is in general much more dynamic and interactive than most museums - it certainly lives up to the promise of "fascinating exhibitions, interactive displays and high tech fun". Te Papa is certainly not a conventional collection of dry artefacts and stuffed animals - it is about, once more quoting "a celebration of our people, our land and rich stories of our nation". This time our interest was in an exhibition from the Whanganui River Iwi. There was some fascination old film and pictures and another of the big war/transport Wakas from the upper Whanganui was on display.
On the weekend we went for a walk with John and Blyth in the Rimutaka Forest Park at Catchpool valley. The Rimutaka Ranges are the most recently most southerly mountains in theranges forming a spine down North Island. We have previously visited Featherstone at the other end of the range, where we saw the incline and Fell engines which hauled the early trains out of Wellington up onto the plateau - up to five extra engines with a rack and pinion drive would be added for the one in fifteen incline. Our walk did not involve severe gradients and was a pleasant two-hour walk out on the Orogorongo Track returning on the Five Mile Loop through some beautiful bush - mostly a mixture of black and hard beech.
The highlight was watching some Tuis; a local bird with a very interesting and distinctive song with a variety of fine notes which can be interspersed with clicks and grunts. We had heard their calls throughout the walk and then saw first a pair indulging in a bonding display then joined by another also displaying and calling in disgust from the sidelines. You rarely see them despite their load calls - they are also known as the parson bird as they are a deep, iridescent blue/black with a small white patch on the front of their neck like a parson's collar.
The last day was spent in Wellington on the water front at the Museum of the City and the Sea - this used to be a first class maritime museum but it has lost much of its interesting and certainly the controversial displays, for example about the loss of the Wahine, an inter-island ferry which went down in bad weather - they used to have a lot about the reasons behind such incidents, how they should investigated and blame apportioned. It now has lots of sanitised displays and cameos of people with a few associated artefacts but little from which one could gain any new insights or more important lessons one could learn from the past. In summary a good free entertainment centre but no longer a museum to stimulate the thoughts of young or old, regrettably an increasingly common failing these days.
Peter and Pauline Curtis
Most recent significant revision: 14th April, 2004