New Year’s Day and it’s time to move on. We board the Waiheke ferry and then head south-eastwards then back up north towards the Coromandel Peninsula. Tommy entertains us with various podcasts to pass the time. When we reach the peninsula we decide to go the scenic route up the west side. First we stop off at Thames, the centre of the great New Zealand Gold Rush in the late 1870s. The mine here was the largest in the world at that time and 20,000 prospectors flocked to seek their fortune. Very few succeeded – less than 10% – and those who failed found themselves leading a life of drudgery underground where conditions were truly appalling. Thames had 120 pubs and three churches for the miners’ day off (says something about the poor devils’ priorities); now all that remains are some lovingly restored over-ground buildings and four stampers which were used to crush the ore out of the quartz – in its hey dey there were 800 of them and the noise must have been deafening.
From there we take the staggeringly beautiful coastline, lined with red-flowering pohukawa trees and holiday homes. It looks like the north of Scotland in its bleak beauty. The drive over the centre of the Coromandel over to Kuaotunu where we are stying is also spectacular. We have been recommended to stay at Kaeppeli’s guest house, owned by Swiss Jill, who is a fabulous hostess even makes her own compote from her plum trees. We are in our own cottage with amazing views over the bay and some foraging goats who take care of all our vegetable rubbish! At night we are serenaded by the neighbours’ bagpipes, which is rather surreal; the night air is further punctuated with the wail of the fire sirens calling volunteers to duty. Unlike Australia, NZ is not suffering but they are incredibly strict about fire management and on full alert. The hazy weather – ‘it will soon burn off’ says Jill, and it does – and cold wind are ascribed to the fires in Australia.
The next day we set of on the Matarangi circuit, a three-hour walk taking in the wetlands loop, a track through the threatened kauri forests, with lots of up and down but, again, fantastic views and luscious vegetation: I particularly love all the tree ferns and Ross is captivated by photographing the birds. Despite the stiff breeze, the walk is hot and later we repair to the stark beach – nothing between us and South America, but only Ross is brave enough to join all the hardy Kiwis in the sea.
Then its time to say goodbye to Tommy who is met at Tarui (home to the worst traffic jam we have seen in NZ) by his friends James and Clare and taken back to Auckland before going home. After we leave him we cross the Coromandel mountain range in a furious rainstorm (very Scottish!) but the sun comes out as we descend into the plain, passing though several roadside villages, made up of corrugated iron and wood houses; they remind me of South African dorps with their frontier farming style – and there’s the livestock of course, tightly packed in fertile fields. We are now traveling into Hobbit land and, indeed, the gentle rolling hills are very much like the Shire, although rather more cows and sheep than in the movie (everywhere!). Ross is in the dog box for not booking tour tickets so the nearest we get is our lunch stop at Matamata swarming with fans of all ages.
We arrive in Taupo, a huge volcanic crater lake in late afternoon. Our airbnb there is plain weird: a tiny bungalow, comfortable enough but cluttered, and it feels as if someone’s changed the sheets, cleaned and gone off for a couple of days as the fridge is full of food, including a rotting banana. Ross’s running chum from London, Cathy, lives here half the year with her husband Bruce and they entertain us to a cheering bbq with friends – plus a fabulous sunset, fuelled by that ash, we are told.
The brisk wind has not abated by morning – the lake has white horses and big waves – and we decide to make up for yesterday’s Hobbit faux pas by visiting Mt Doom, in fact the volcano Mt Ngauruhoe. We aim for Whakapapa, centre of the North Island ski industry and the famous Tongariro Mountain Crossing, one of NZ’s most renowned ‘tramps’ on the flanks of the snow-capped Mt Ruapehu and not for the faint-hearted. We content ourselves with a 6 km amble through the windswept volcanic landscape reminding us of Sam and Frodo’s journey to Mordor, the Taranaki Falls Walk, which is busy but rewarding for the falls, where we have a picnic lunch. It feels very much like a day out in the Lakes.
Thoroughly chilled by this expedition, we head back to the hot springs in Taupo, for a really good soak in their health-giving pools.
We are quite glad to see the back of the house in Taupo, though it did provide the shop where I bought a snuggly merino and possum wrap and some gloves. The cold has got the better of me! Now for Napier, a rather dowdy seaside resort town, with gloomy sea-front motels and a rather underwhelming aquarium. We missed the fine Art Deco buildings round the back built after an earthquake 1931.
So our luxurious and elegant cottage at the Craggy Range Vineyard is a joy to behold – and we have three nights there! Dinner is outstanding, washed down with estate wines of course.
But the wind has got up again and although Ross gets an early-morning run up the towering Te Mata peak, by the afternoon it is so strong that I am almost blown off the top. The next day it has dropped a bit and we do a 4 km circuit – again, scenery is stunning (can’t say that enough about NZ, it really is beautiful, wherever you are). The birdlife around the cottage is abundant – thrushes (so tickled to see them as rare in England), blackbirds, sparrows (tame) and some impressive crested Californian quail that peck around.
The next days are spent wine-tasting and grazing at various vineyards: Trinity Hill, Te Awa and Te Awanga. This area with its velvety-yellow hills, rocky outcrops, the small towns with their streets lined agapanthus, flame trees and bougainvillea, very much remind me of Zimbabwe or South Africa. Something about the intensity of the light. It’s very beautiful. The black sand beaches with their holiday huts are more like Devon or Scotland in their bleakness. Time passes quickly and soon we are on the road again, this time to Wellington, last stop of the North Island. It’s a long drive and we decide to break it at the Puhaka National Park and reserve, where they have several rare birds, including a white Kiwi!
We have been warned Wellington is sleepy, but we are very surprised to find it dead after 7.30, even on Cuba St, supposedly the hot-spot. In fact it’s lively during the day when we maximise our short time by covering more than 10 kms in 6 hours.
We start at the Te Papa museum. The Kiwis do this sort of thing really well – so much interactive stuff for kids, so informative and well-labelled, and scores of children every where, even in the National Art Collection. I particular enjoyed the contrast between teh settlers and the Maoris hung side-by -side and the marvellous photographs of tattoos.
There’s a wonderful Maori cultural section and a thought-provoking exhibition on the Gallipoli debacle, where the ANZAC forces suffered great loss of life; as with all WW1 stories it was the idiotic generals who gave no thought to their men’s suffering and got it so badly wrong strategically.
Strolling down from the impressive Botanical gardens – another well-thought-out attraction for kids, who are as usual running wild barefoot and enjoying themselves – we are yet again impressed with this small country. The waterfront is attractive, the sea is clear, there is no litter, it feels uncluttered and unpolluted. There is a lot of green everywhere and people are friendly and nice. We look forward to discovering South Island and its more rugged beauties over the next weeks.