25 February 2011

Bay of Islands & Auckland

At the Haruru Falls
Our last two stops in New Zealand could hardly have been more different. The Bay of Islands, close to the northern tip of the North Island, was relaxed and scenic - a far cry from the hustle and bustle of the country's largest city.

Haruru Falls from our campsite
The Bay of Islands was also Barney's last stop before we returned him to his Jucy campervan clan (which we're both still quite emotional about!) We stayed in a gorgeous campsite in Paihia overlooking the Haruru Falls which, we were told, had been completely submerged in water from a cyclone three weeks previously.

Bottle-nosed dolphins swimming by the boat
Of course, the main attraction of the Bay of Islands is exactly that - the islands (144 of them, to be exact) - so, from the numerous different ways of getting out onto the water to see them, we decided on the most energy efficient option and took a cruise.

After passing several of the beautiful little islands, we were fortunate enough to come across a school of bottle-nosed dolphins who were happy to swim and play alongside the boat. Within minutes, they were performing in front of several boats.

From there, we went to Piercy Island, more often called The Hole in the Rock, before stopping off at Urupukapuka Island for lunch.

The Hole in the Rock
When we returned to Paihia, we saw that all the cafes and bars were showing news programmes and learned of the earthquake in Christchurch. Having been there only six weeks ago, and the fact that people around us were trying to phone friends and relatives to see if they were alive, certainly impacted on us.

Friendly graffiti
Our last night in the campervan was spent just outside Auckland in Long Bay Regional Park - a gorgeous place next to a huge flat stretch of sand only half an hour from the city centre. When we woke up the following morning, we felt a strange mix of relief and sadness. Barney had been our comfortable home-on-wheels for nearly seven weeks, but we were looking forward to being able to get dressed standing up and sleeping on a real bed!

Auckland skyline
After an emotional parting of ways, we wandered aimlessly around the city, taking in the sites before deciding to chill out in the hostel. Other travellers we had spoken to had been pretty negative about Auckland, and I can kind of see where they were coming from - there's not a great deal on offer for backpackers. However, we enjoyed our two days here, particularly having plug points in our room, a kitchen to cook in (as opposed to one gas stove!) and some good wine to get us in the mood for our next stop: the Cook Islands!


20 February 2011

Rotorua & Coromandel

Kuirau Park thermal springs in Rotorua - too hot for swimming!

After a relaxing spell in Taupo, and a dose of the cold for the two of us, we began our journey north to Rotorua. This place is a major draw for tourists because of its unusual volcanic activity. I had been  given a warning from Doctor Faye that the mud baths were smelly and unhygienic, so we decided to give them a miss, however, we did go and look at the thermal pools and bubbling mud of Kuirau Park. There were a lot of volcanic attractions on offer but having seen the craters and the mud pools, we thought it would be more appealing to spend our time elsewhere - at the luge circuit!

At the luge circuit - so much fun!
After a refill at Fat Dogs Cafe and a much-needed ice cream (it was just one of those days), we set off for the race of our lives. The luge, which is like Cool Runnings without the snow, was so much fun. After my appalling attempts at video games and golf buggy driving as a child, my family have been naturally worried about my driving abilities ever since. On the luge, though, I didn't crash once and even managed to overtake a couple of boy racers!

We continued our games day with a game of Yahtzee (which is still a sensitive subject for James) at our campsite, then it was onwards and upwards as we set off for a stop I had been really looking forward to - the Coromandel Region.

James could have stayed here all day
Just picture clear blue sea and white sand beaches and that pretty much sums up the majority of the region. Every corner we drove around provided another reason to stop and absorb the beautiful views.

Hard at work!
Our first night was spent in the Kauaeranga Valley on the outskirts of Thames (where our van was invaded with sand flies, as James' legs can now testify). Our road trip continued up to Whitianga and Hahei for the Coromandel's ultimate attraction - Hot Water Beach.
The area is a major geothermal tourist attraction or as James said when he looked down on the beach - a 'rugby scrum'! Hot springs filter up through the sand two hours either side of low tide and the water can be as hot as 64 degrees Celsius!

Hot Water Beach: a Coromandel tourist hotspot
We hired our spade (as you do) and followed the crowds to the steaming sand. The masses were densely populated around two areas with a free spot the middle. Thinking I had found the perfect place for our man-made jacuzzi, I instinctively walked towards the empty patch of sand and reacted by flapping my hands and jumping up and down in search of some cool water as I darted across the 64 degree Celcius sand, oops! The pain subsided quickly and I have to admit that I took a little pleasure in watching others make the same mistake!

After embarrassing myself with my Scottish squeals, we set about - or rather James set about - digging the (and I quote) 'best sand hole on the entire beach'. No, we couldn't settle for a small, shallow area in which to relax and enjoy the bubbling water, don't be silly! This was a mission not to be messed with! The digging began. I stood and took in the views, but before long a task had been set - to protect the fort... I suspect there is some history of competitive sand-castle making in the Tulloch household, am I right? Dutifully, I set about my task, and as the beads of sweat began to pour off James's face in his quest for success, our sand jacuzzi began to take shape. It was quite simply a work of art and something we finally got to relax in!

In our homemade jacuzzi!
We now have just one week left in our campervan with only two stops left to conquer - the Bay of Islands and Auckland. We'll be sad to leave Barney, but we're both very excited about staying in the relative luxury of a hostel!


15 February 2011

Tongariro National Park & Taupo

At the highest part of the Tongariro Crossing (the Blue Lake in the background)

The Red Crater
Often described as the best one-day walk in New Zealand, we couldn't pass up the chance to walk the Tongariro Crossing, especially when we found out that the unpronounceable Mount Ngauruhoe was used as the setting for Mount Doom in Lord Of The Rings.

At the Emerald Lakes
The first few kilometres of the walk were a gradual climb by the side of a little stream that opened out to the Soda Springs waterfall. After that, the track became extremely steep and we had to take rest stops every five minutes. The climb was made even more difficult because of the loose rocks underfoot (in winter it is covered in snow and apparently easier to walk on) but we carried on, despite a couple of moments where turning back felt more preferable.

We kept on inching our way up the mountain, until - thank goodness - we reached a plateau and realised we were standing close to the South Crater underneath the summit of 'Mount Doom' (whose seven-note motif from Lord Of The Rings was hummed most of the way up). Staring up at the conical volcano - which is still active - I was relieved there were no imminent eruptions expected!

Mount Ngauruhoe
Although we were feeling physically drained at this point, we knew it would be foolish to turn back when we were just one more steep climb away from seeing the Red Crater and the Emerald Lakes, so we carried on over the exposed ridge (thankful for the lack of wind).

A bargain at just $1380 (£650)!
When we finally made it to the top, what we saw blew us away. Below us were the three Emerald Lakes which appeared almost fluorescent green. The contrast of the dusty Red Crater nearby and the serene Blue Lake in the distance completed an unforgettable view.

At Honey Hive
By the time we had walked back to the campervan, we had been on our feet for seven hours, walked over nine miles (mostly uphill) and had sunburnt faces to prove it!

The next day, we headed towards New Zealand's largest lake and relaxed at a holiday park in Taupo, where we recharged our gadgets as well as our weary bodies!

Not quite a hole-in-one but pretty close - honestly!
On our second day, we saw the roaring Huka Falls and stopped in at Honey Hive, where we tasted and tested loads of honey products. We also went to New Zealand's largest underground wine cellar and walked past the expensive bottles with great care.

I also tried my hand at the Lake Taupo Hole-In-One Challenge. I had a few near-misses and unfortunately didn't manage to get my hands on the $10,000 prize. If it had been free to play, I would have been there for days on end!


12 February 2011

Wellington & Napier

View of New Zealand's capital from Mount Victoria lookout
Our North Island stint started when we sailed into windy Wellington.

Our first port of call was the Mount Victoria lookout to get a bird's eye view of New Zealand's capital city (and felt really guilty as we drove past a rugby team running up the steep hill).

In the futuristic Te Papa museum
After spending five weeks driving on the South Island's desolate country roads, my driver took a while adjusting to the sudden boom of city traffic. After ending up in the middle of rush hour, getting lost several times and a little temper tantrum (said driver had not eaten breakfast yet), we gave a sigh of relief after dumping Barney for the day in a multi-storey car park, showering and tucking into some poached eggs on toast... then our day could really begin!

Wellington's famous cable car
Te Papa Museum was first on the hit list; a place we ended up spending hours wandering around as we got a taste of New Zealand's heritage. We particularly enjoyed the exhibition of Brian Brake photo journalism.

Having spent the previous summer in the North Island, Faye was our tour guide extraordinaire. With two recommended eateries from her stay in Wellington, we decided it would be rude not to check them out! Sweet Mother's Kitchen caught our attention, partly because it was full to the brim with people sitting in the afternoon sun, but mostly because of the delicious smell wafting out onto the street - Faye's first tip got the thumbs up. We then tackled Tulsi the following day, enjoying the delicious Indian cuisine as we watched the Cuba Street crowds go by.

Playing mini-golf in Napier
Our first North Island faux pas was on the Wellington cable car. The train was built in 1902 to make better use of the city's hilly landscape and attracts lots of tourists who make their way up to the botanic gardens. I thought it was a circular route, until the carriage started reversing back towards the station - oops! Luckily, the driver was in a good mood and allowed us a second shot!

The colourful Clive Square in Napier
Following our stay in Wellington, we went a little off the well-travelled backpacker route and drove east to the city of Napier. Faye spent most of her summer here, so she was well equipped with some recommendations. The town was booming with people when we arrived and we soon realised why - Sting was in town for the annual Mission Winery concert. Unfortunately, we were a year too late to buy a ticket, however, we did enjoy the lively atmosphere of this idyllic Art Deco city. We stayed in our first ever Top 10 Holiday Park (the Disneyland of camp sites) where we were kitted out with a swimming pool, bar, Sky TV room and a big kitchen.

The disgruntled runner-up
Although we weren't quite brave enough to ask the children for a shot on the holiday park's jumping pillow, we did manage to squeeze in a very competitive game of mini-golf. James likes to insist on giving me a handicap of 12 shots to 'even things up'. I agreed, then made a mental note to try really hard to beat him. You will need to trust me that seeing his face as he counted the half time scores and realised I was only a couple of shots behind him (without the handicap, that is) was priceless! Ice-lollies were on James afterwards! Tee hee!


7 February 2011

Nelson & Abel Tasman National Park

Nelson's Tahunanui Beach

En route to Nelson - our last visit to a South Island city - we made an obligatory stop at one of the hundreds of vineyards. Pam enjoyed the tasting so much, she stumped up for a bottle of the Sauvignon Blanc (even I liked so it must be good!)

Tasting Marlborough's finest!
Our first evening in the city was a strange one. We walked around the streets and saw barely anyone else or an open restaurant or shop; it was like a ghost town. With nothing much to do, we went to the cinema and watched the disappointing True Grit, which I was surprised to learn has been nominated for 10 Oscars.

Neslon's Tahunanui Beach (Abel Tasman in the background)
Our next day was much more fun. With the temperatures soaring, we went straight to Tahunanui Beach, a huge expanse of sand with calm, shallow water and a backdrop of mountains.

We also ate our way around the brilliant Saturday market. Fresh cherries, cloudy lemonade, spring rolls, stir-fry chicken and sugar roasted almonds (possibly my favourite thing ever) were all devoured with aplomb.

Watching street performers in Nelson
In truth, Nelson was far from our favourite stop in New Zealand, however, it is the gateway to the Abel Tasman National Park (the country's smallest but busiest). We decided to go 'tramping', as the Kiwis call it, and arranged for a water taxi to take us to a place called Torrent Bay where we could walk the 16 kilometres back to our campsite. However, those plans were to change...

Cleopatra's Pool in the Abel Tasman National Park
The journey on the water taxi was so much fun! Sitting on the back of the speedboat, we got whizzed around a few of the sights by the skipper before we arrived at Torrent Bay under blue skies as the temperature edged closer and closer to the 30 degree Celcius mark.

Taking a rest!
After a tough 45 minute walk, we arrived at a stunning little place called Cleopatra's Pool. Clear water flowed between large rocks and there was even a natural waterslide. As we were desperate to cool down, we dropped everything (well, not quite everything) and went for a refreshing dip.

Anchorage (finally!)
From there, we continued on our way back to the campsite, though after a while, our 'tramp' had become more of a trudge. The sun was scorching and the heat was beginning to get unbearable. At Anchorage - the last place from where we could book a water taxi home - we did just that. We booked the last two available seats and learned that the north of the island was experiencing a heat wave and that the temperature was close to 40 degrees Celcius!

Stunning Anchorage Beach at the Abel Tasman National Park
The heat also proved too much for poor Barney, who decided he didn't want to start properly the following morning. Thankfully, the AA were able to give him the proper treatment he needed and he's back as good as new, which is just as well, as we're now heading to the North Island.

Next stop: Wellington!


5 February 2011

Hokitika & Kaikoura

Driftwood sculpture on Hokitika Beach
We ended our stint on the West coast in Hokitika, a quiet seaside town with a rugged shoreline much like you would find on the West coast of Scotland. Dubbed as the Jade captial of New Zealand, we wasted no time in wandering around all of the craft shops, watching the carvers at work and resisted the temptation to spend all our pennies!
The Australian Open final had been meticulously scheduled into our plan by James who had scouted out the perfect pub to enjoy the match. However, what we did not bank on was that the sleepy town comes to a stand still on a Sunday night at around 10.30pm - only half way through the first set! Back-up plans were being formed, but luckily the friendly bartender took pity on us and let us sit in the hotel's television lounge to watch the end of the match... Unfortunately, though, Andy Murray was easily beaten in straight sets, oh well! 
Jade carver at work
Driving from West to East, we had an overnight stop in the stunning Arthur's Pass where the native Kea bird rules the roost. One 'friendly' Kea started chewing our van's wing mirrors when we stopped at one of the lookouts. Lets just say that I was glad to be on the other side of the glass!
The Kea can be vicious!
Kaikoura was our next stop, a place we were both really excited to see, after Laura and Emma's high praise. We booked on the Dolphin Encounter tour but the tour was put on hold following forecasted strong winds but we got the go-ahead from the crew and, after squeezing into our wet suits, departed for the boat.
Beautiful scenery on the drive to Kaikoura
 The sun was shining and the boat ride out to sea was beautiful. We even spotted a few albatrosses flying alongside us. About 20 minutes in, the boat stopped and we were told to look down at the water and there they all were - a school of dolphins playfully swimming alongside the boat!

The company does not entice the dusky dolphins by using sound or food and it is not guaranteed that the dolphins will come freely, so we were delighted when we were told to jump in the water and go snorkelling alongside them. As soon as we were in the water, the dolphins were swimming up to us; some of them scooting past so quickly and closely that I thought they were going to swim into me! It was amazing to see, especially when they circled around, keeping eye-contact.

Dolphins swimming ahead of the boat
We had about half an hour in the water before the predicted winds arrived. The sea became a lot more difficult to swim in and the water from the waves  kept coming into our snorkels. The guides sounded the horn and we returned to the boat which was now rocking back and forth wildly.

We had to leave the friendly dolphins behind in search of calmer seas but the waves kept on coming and consequently, so did the necessary buckets for all the poorly customers! About a third of the passengers disagreed with the motions of the waves (myself included). Despite the shortened trip and the choppy boat ride, it was worth every minute to see the cute dusky dolphins - a real highlight of our trip!