Tuesday, July 21, 2009

New Zealand - Choice Bro' (Part I)

A few months back I was trying to decide on where to head for my sole week of leave for the year. Asia was my immediate choice but was priced out of the market for a short trip. So I decided to check out the New Zealand options. It ended up being so cheap that it would have been criminal not to make the most of the off season deals - $260 return flights on Qantas to Auckland and $35 a day for a medium campervan!! The credit card was charged up and we were on our way.

Day 1 saw me catching a 4am bus to Sydney international airport to meet up with Rach and board our flight for Auckland. An entire day of commuting had us arriving in Auckland late in the day after losing two hours in time difference. We arrived to a windy and rainy evening and picked up our van. I must say, driving a large vehicle, in a strange city, during evening peak hour, in the dark and rain, was slightly unnerving. The GPS came through and after a dinner of pizza and beer by the fire at the local pub we eventually bedded down at the Caravan Park for our first night in New Zealand. Within hours of hour arrival we had already had the obligatory ‘choice’ and ‘bro’ thrown in to common conversation. We definitely felt we were on holiday.

Day 2 – Auckland to Russell

The weather forecast wasn’t looking overly promising, especially considering the North of the Island had just been hit with massive storms – a tree had fallen on a caravan killing a young girl, coastal houses had been dislodged and trampers had been lost in national parks due to bad weather. We headed North anyway and the clouds parted.
Almost immediately immersed in rain forest we decided to stop for a couple of short walks and museum stops. The most amazing part was the immensity of the Kauri trees. One of them had a girth of 13.8m at its base!!

Can you see Rachael at the base of this behemoth?

By the time we reached Russell, in the Bay of Islands, we had seen a major city, open highway, quaint farming villages, dense rain forest, fierce coast lines and finally beach side tourist towns. The funniest part was the fact that everything seemed a little similar to Australia but just different enough to make it feel like what Rach described as ‘a parallel universe’.

We caught the vehicle ferry across the bay to Russell and headed out for dinner at a local bay side pub. Seafood and beer was the choice of the day before we again relaxed by the pub fire.

Day 2 – Russell to Coromandel

We awoke to crisp blue skies and headed back down to the bay for a coffee and a look around before we headed South along the coast.

The roads we quite windy and we ended up covering 60 or 70 km in a couple of hours (which may have been a result of my photographic tendencies), it was quite a work out at the wheel of the beast.

Back through Auckland and West to the Coromandel Peninsular where we hit more windy roads, this time at almost sea level before we hit the Northern most extremity and crossed the green grassy range to spectacular views.

We roamed around the small town of Coromandel and decided to stop for a beer at the Star and Garter Hotel while we waited for the restaurants to open. The huge selection of Monteiths beers ruined that plan as we settled into a tasting session and ended up ordering food from the counter; the good new was that the food actually came from a selection of restaurants surrounding the pub, that’s community spirit.

Day 3 – Coromandel to Rotorua

We left Coromandel along the same road we arrived after some advice from the locals. I was lucky enough to meet the local constabulary and receive a small fine for doing 25 over the limit through a small town. The policeman was a good guy and said he didn’t want to ruin our holiday so reduced the fine to $NZ120!!!

Coromandel was famous for its smoked fish, so we bought a sample pack before we left.

We stopped at a cheese factory for morning tea and left so satisfied that we skipped lunch.

Next major stop was Rotorua, the journey was a mix of farmland, rolling hills, gorges and townships.

We really knew we were in thermal country the minute we spotted huge plumes of steam rising randomly from bushland, so as soon as we hit town we went for a stroll in search of warm water.

The natural springs didn’t look too inviting so we headed to the Blue Pool, built in 1933 and sporting warm water of around 38 degrees.

And of course the only heated camp sites in the world!!!

That night saw us back in town enjoying Mexican dinner, then beers at a couple of the local bars, one packed to the rafters with locals and travelers performing live music. A great way to end the night.

Day 4 – Rotorua to Taupo

It came as no surprise to Rachael when before out departure I warned her that she would need to amuse herself for half a day when I went mountain biking in Rotorua, I had heard amazing things about the place and couldn’t wait to sample the singletrack.

I’d been warned of the guy who hired bikes from the local trail head and within minutes realised why he had such a bad reputation. Starting off by ignoring me as he was “waiting for a group of six to arrive”; he then insulted his own wife and told me I had to wait for her to organise a bike for me as he was busy waiting. Once his wife arrived (and he was still ‘waiting for the group’) she organised a bike in a mater of minutes. I had a look at the map and asked him if the trail was well marked, he replied that it was not marked well enough for Aussies. At this stage his wife began apologising for his behaviour stating that he had previously thought i was British, as if that mattered. He topped the cake when he started complaining that my ‘foreign’ pedals (EggBeaters) had threaded his cranks and that his ‘local’ eggbeaters don’t have that problem. I then remarked that of my seven pairs of the very same pedals I had never had that problem. From that point on there was silence until he virtually shoved the bike at me and I rode off. Morale of the story, DO NOT hire a bike from Planet Bike.

The trails were quite impressive and I had a great few hours exploring. Signage was excellent with all trails well marked and most junctions sporting an area map so that you could orientate and continue. As far as its reputation as being the best in the world, well, I’d have to pass on that claim; it was great but suffered from overuse and lack of flow in a lot of areas. I still maintain that Canberra trail builders are fantastic and have left me spoiled in that regard.

Covered in mud I met Rachael back in town and utilised the van’s shower to clean up before we had a look at the museum. It was housed in the original ‘bath house’ of Rotorua, which, back in the turn of the century was claimed to hold magical healing powers. It was quite an eerie place to visit as the old baths and vacated rooms still contained the original fittings; including electrical sockets for the electroshock therapy!!!

We headed for Taupo and arrived just in time for a coffee and slow walk along the lake before checking out the North Island’s most visited attraction, Huka Falls.

Again we enjoyed some fantastic dinner before sampling a selection of local pubs, what a life.