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Our Travels in New Zealand Part 3

Author: Mal Part
Date of Trip: March 2007

Day 29 – It’s GLACIER Day

After a small breakfast in the room we go to town for a decent cup of coffee at the new Hukatere Centre – it opened for business this very day. The Hukatere Centre is a NZ$7million project to build a glacial experience without the need to go near a glacier! This is a bit cynical – it’s really a series of 30 foot ice walls; some vertical, some sloped and some with overhangs, and for $28 for 90 minutes you can don ice climbing gear and try your luck. The whole thing can be viewed from the café via a huge glass wall.

We get the very first coffees from the café and take them back to watch the first two ice climbers showing us their stuff. I have a chat with a ‘suit’ who is hovering around the café – he’s the manager. To add to his discomfort, I ask him what happens if the power fails? He tells me that the temperature inside the ice chamber is –100C in the morning and rises to –20C by the end of the day. He thinks that if the doors are kept closed they’d be okay for several days – a stand-by generator was being delivered in mid-April. I said I’d keep my fingers crossed for him!

Chris has a plan to walk up to the face of the Franz Josef Glacier and to a mirror lake, while I go off for my heli-hike. Paid from my birthday money, this involves a 15-minute helicopter ride over the whole glacier and nevé, a landing on the ice to allow our party to disembark for a 2-hour hike, plus the return to town afterwards.

The helicopter pilot gives the “go ahead” for the trip at 11-30 and we ready ourselves with socks and ice boots, water-proof jackets and ice spikes; and then head off from the heli-pad to the glacier. Each helicopter takes 5 passengers and, since I’m the ‘odd’ one, I get to sit alongside the pilot. This is great because I have an uninterrupted view of the glacier and surrounding mountains before we land on the ice high up on the glacier.

Our first 15-minutes on the ice are easy going so that we can feel our feet and get used to the ice spikes – the walking is largely flat, and there’s not too much free running water. I was surprised by just how much water was flowing on the surface – obviously, the glacier is melting all the time, but water runs in small rivers and waterfalls, later finding a crevasse or melt hole, and disappearing inside.

The Franz Josef Glacier is “fast moving”, unlike many of the world’s – it moves down its valley at an average of 2 metres per day. The glacier is magnificent; the ice is over ½ mile wide and up to 1,000 feet deep. Because it moves so ‘quickly’, the surface is chaotic: huge crevasses, pile-ups and frequent falls of ice from the higher levels – heli-pads on the ice have to be newly made on most days – our second guide cuts a new one while we’re hiking. Because of the “in sun light, blue wavelengths are reflected better by water” thing, the ice is a wonderful blue colour; adding to the beauty of the place.

The guide makes himself very clear, “Follow in my footsteps or I won’t be responsible for what happens to you”. He finds us some great man-sized crevasses and wonderfully shaped ice caves – great for photos, and we all take pictures of each other, as you’d expect.

All too soon, the guide announces that its time to get back to the pick up point, so we trek back down the glacier quickly.. How I did I don’t know, but in getting across a small crevasse I manage to catch my right boot’s spikes in the straps of left boot’s spikes! I had already launched across the crevasse at this point so, with my feet locked together, I land on the other side of the crevasse on my left leg. I’m in shorts, so the leg lands on the ice and breaks my fall – it’s little more than a stumble really. But, the ice is recent shattered by ice spikes – its like 100s of tiny razor blades; my shin and knee are cut to shreds, and blood flows into my socks and boots! It’s such a trivial thing, but the blood makes it look horrendous. The guide takes a look and asks, “Any pain?” I answer, “No”, and he says, “Good”. And that’s it; we proceed to the pick up point.

When we get there, the guide takes another look at my leg (which I’ve now washed off with some melt water). He reminds me that the ice on the glacier has been around for a couple of 100 years, and tells me to clean the wound with saline solution and iodine back in town; advice I take seriously and follow faithfully!

Chris has filled the car with petrol so we take off for Greymouth as soon as I get back – Chris is driving, my leg’s a lot more painful now I’ve warmed up!!!

The drive is quite dramatic. The SH-6 runs between the Southern Alps on one side, and the Tasman Sea on the other, with much of the road directly on the coast. Since a lot of the water/snow that falls on the Alps flows as rivers into the Tasman Sea, there are many, many rivers, and many, many bridges to cross on our way north.

We come across a new phenomenon …. I’ve mentioned one-way bridges before but on the West Coast we have one-way bridges that are shared with the railway!!! The train has absolute right of way, and access is barred by flashing red lights when a train is coming. Cars have access at other times, based on the priority markings on the road. Interesting.

We’d been to Greymouth before – it was the terminus of the TranzAlpine train ride from Christchurch – but we were only there for an hour. That had been enough to see the centre of the town so, once we’re unpacked, we head off to the nearest restaurant for dinner. Chris orders Lime and Coriander Chicken with couscous, and I order “Whitebait prepared to an original West Coast recipe”. Of her chicken, Chris comments, “Very nice”. Of my whitebait, I comment, “It’s a bloody fish omelette”; and it was.

Day 30 – The road to Nelson

In total, we have 20 travelling days on our holiday and there is a lot to see as we motor through some of the most dramatic and scenic landscapes around. There are also viewpoints and ‘points of interest’ at the roadside or close by that demand a stop and a look-see. The journey from Greymouth to Nelson was no exception and since we have plenty of time, we take the scenic route up the coast (SH-6) rather than the inland one (SH-7). All this leads to our longest drive on the trip – 309 miles.

The coast road is dramatic and rugged, and we are seduced by a sign inviting us to stop at the “Pancake Rocks” – they’re near Punakaiki, at Dolomite Rocks.

It’s an amazing series of wind- and sea-carved cliffs made from layer upon layer of limestone, each about 5” thick. There is a thin, softer layer between each limestone layer, and this has been weathered away to make limestone columns and cliffs that look like piles of pancakes. The sea has cut inlets into the cliffs, and erosion has left columns stranded close to the water’s edge. Blowholes have been created that whistle and boom with the noise of the in-rushing sea. DOC has built a walkway out across the structure so that visitors can get a better look at the sea doing it work; all in all, a great stop. Well done DOC – see About – Viewpoints and Walkways in Section 4.

At about lunchtime we drive inland, up the Buller Valley and alongside the Buller River. Towns are very infrequent and when “Berlin’s Café and Restaurant” comes into view, we stop for coffee and scones.

Inside the café, there’s a display and historical records of local earthquakes! I’m disturbed to learn that we are at the “earthquake centre of NZ”!!! There has been a “serious” or “severe” earthquake every 5 years or so since 1905, and some have been so bad that the river has been dammed and the road blocked by rock-falls for weeks.

A couple of English cyclists stop for a break while we’re eating our date scones and coffee. They’re riding a tandem and making their way to Christchurch, 175 miles away. They tell us that they’ve just been driven off the road by a sheep lorry – massive trucks with trailers, and sheep three storeys high. They’d managed to stay upright, but the guy is very annoyed and eventually gathers up such a head of steam that he telephones the police and makes a report.

Replenished, we head off and are soon pulling into the outskirts of Nelson – the third biggest city on the South Island (after Dunedin and Christchurch).

Nelson is made up of several districts and has subsumed some originally separate towns like Richmond, Tahanuhui and Stoke. Tahanuhui is the beach area and a quick look around on our way to the motel gives us the resolve to spend a day there – the beach is extensive and very accessible.

Our motel is the Milton Chalet – about 1-mile from the city centre, and set in a quiet, residential area; the proprietor advises us that a restaurant and a fish and chip shop are just along the road – great. Since we are here for 4 nights/3 days, we do a major un-pack of the car and all our clothes. Bit of a mistake this; before we can head off to town, we have to do a wash and peg it out to dry!

We tramp the main streets and Chris takes a look around the cathedral while I study the town map we got from the motel. I notice that Selwyn Place is nearby and recall from earlier reading that the maker of “The ONE Ring” used in the LOTR – Jens Hansen – has his workshop and studio there. We find it easily, but “Jens” is a jewellery designer, and all his ‘pieces’ are very expensive – he wants £700 for a replica of The One Ring – way to rich for me.

We’re not really dressed for dinner in town, so we decide that we’ll have real fish and chips for the first time in NZ. Most guide books say that they are as good as you can get and recommend them to all travellers. We order, “Two blue-nose and a scoop” from our local chippy – I wait for the order while Chris gets the plates warn at the motel.

While I’m waiting, I notice that you can place an order in person, by phone, over the Internet and via a txt! I watch our order’s progress with interest; it’s so different to the way we do it in the UK. First off, everything is cooked to order, no bits of pre-fried fish lying in a hot lock here. Our fish goes in one fryer, our chips in another. When 90% cooked they are combined and placed in a third fryer to finish, and when done are hung in their wire basket to drain. The order is then wrapped in white paper, spiked around the edge to let the steam out (and avoid the steamy fish making the chips go all soft) and we’re away. They are delicious and, when I look at the wrapping paper there’s hardly a mark from the oil. It’s a good meal, well cooked and nicely served.

That night, we spend a little time planning our time in Nelson… Saturday is market day, so that’s a must. I’d seen a sign along the road that said, “To the Centre of NZ”, so we decide to investigate that in the afternoon. Sunday will be our ‘beach day’, and on Monday we’ll go to Abel Tasman National Park – NZ’s smallest!

Day 31 – The Market and a Journey to the Centre of NZ

Buying presents is always a problem when on holiday, so our trip to the market was intended (at least in part) to let us see what’s on offer. We walk into town and quickly find the market around the back of Trafalgar Street. Nelson is known as a bit of an centre for artists, and the market reflect that with stalls devoted to all sorts of arts and crafts – paintings, photography, pottery, jewellery, woodwork, metalwork, knitwear, glassware, sculptures, objects made from empty beer and coke cans, and so on. There are also lots of specialist food stalls, including dried meats, fudge, connoisseur coffees, bread, local cheeses and (of course) pies.

All this is mixed in with the usual rag-bag of bric-a-brac stalls, second-hand book stalls and buskers – it makes for a busy and noisy affair.

We notice a NZ jade seller and Chris stops for a chat; there are so many stories about NZ jade; “it’s not really jade”, “it’s not from NZ, it’s imported from China and Thailand”. The first is right; ‘NZ jade’ is really greenstone, the centre of a very special, glass-like rock found only on the south west coast of NZ’s South Island. The second is obviously wrong!

The stallholders are a young couple from down near Franz Josef (greenstone country). He buys, cuts and polished his own stones, and had lots of examples on his stall. There’s a pile of necklaces at a very good price, so we ask why? He explains that people will not pay the economic price for polished greenstone – the cheaper examples (which seem perfectly okay to us) have not gone through the last 48 hours of polishing. But, he says, rub them between your fingers while watching TV and in a few weeks they’ll shine like a finished stone!

Chris takes the plunge (after a top-up of money from the hole in the wall) and buys one for family, close friends and a few others – job done!

On our way back to the motel we pick up the walking track to “The Centre of New Zealand”. Before heading off, we watch 30-minutes of a cricket match taking place on the Botanical Sports Field – it looks like a good standard of play, with the batsmen having the upper hand.

“The Centre of NZ” turns out to be at the top of a local hill reached only by one of the steepest walkways we’ve come across. It’s only about a ½ mile walk but it’s up, up, up and steep all the way. Panting and sweating we reach the top to find a plaque marking the spot; there’s a monument too. In the climb up, I’d figured out at least three different ways of establishing ‘the centre of a country’ and was disappointed when I read the plaque because it didn’t say what method had been used. I was left wondering how many “centres of NZ” there were, and why this one just happened to exactly on the top of a hill, and not in someone’s back-garden???!!! Anyway, this centre of NZ provides a great view across Nelson; it’s port, the beaches and the surrounding hills. Once we’d taken it all in (and a few photos) we head back to the cricket match for another short look, and then back to the motel.

Chris recalled that “Little India”, the restaurant we’d used in Dunedin, had a branch in Nelson and I took little persuading – an Indian it was, and much enjoyed too.

Day 32 – A Day on the Beach

After waking late and an even later breakfast we drive off to Tahanuhui Beach; about 2 miles from downtown Nelson. Sand, sea, plenty of toilets, a café on the beach, a picnic lunch, a few sea-side shops and some reading and writing soon see off the bulk of the day, and we make our way back by about 3pm. More reading and writing at the motel and it’s time to get ready for dinner – oh, how time flies. Another Thai and its early to bed – we have a full day planned for tomorrow.

Day 33 – Chris’s Birthday Treat

Abel Tasman National Park is a 40-mile drive from Nelson – it’s the smallest and most visited NP in NZ. Set with two sides to the ocean, the park is mostly native forest and a Mecca for walkers, bird watchers, kayakers, boat enthusiasts, campers and adventurers of all types. There are no public roads into the park but, uniquely (to us at least), is a water taxi system that gives sea-borne access to various beaches, coves and walkways.

We are booked with “Southern Exposure” water taxis for an initial ride from Marahau to Tonga Bay, real name Onetahuki Bay, but simplified by the white men our water taxi-driver tells us. But, I’m ahead of myself….

The water taxi office is hidden away in the very small and very spread out town of Marahau – we fail to locate it and have to ask the way from a Southern Exposure tractor driver working in the harbour. Ever helpful, as are all Kiwis, he radios the office and we get two bits of information: There’s no need to go to the office, “We’ll sort out payment later”, and, we are the only people booked onto the 10-30 taxi to Tonga Bay, so we’ve been ‘consolidated’ onto the Abel Tasman Water Taxi’s boat leaving at the same time. We are to go to their office and speak to Susan; our skipper will be Glenn.

All set, we meet up with Glenn in the car park – he’s half Maori and half Irish, and was born in Australia. In the summer he skippers the water taxi, in the winter he works for DOC culling wild boar in the forests. What a tough life! He tells us to get in the boat and put on our life jackets. I should explain that the boat is still in the car park, hitched to a tractor. When everyone’s aboard, we are driven to the jetty and backed into the sea ready to go.

The sea is calm – as flat as a pancake. Glenn fires up the engine and we’re away. Water taxis are general-purpose speedboats – ours has 14 seats but the largest boats have up to 44. We are fast, and Glenn is a good skipper, so we enjoy the 50-minute ride (including set-downs and pick-ups) to Tonga Bay.

Our plan is to walk from Tonga Bay to Awaora Lodge and then pick up a return taxi to Marahau (where our car’s parked). Glenn points out the walkway to the Lodge and tells us that it’s under water – it runs from the end of the beach, but a river outlet is swollen by the tide and stands between us and the land beyond. Glenn tries to manoeuvre his boat to get us to the dry side of the walkway but fails – he’s afraid of grounding the boat on the sand – and the tide’s going out to make his job harder. He drops us on the beach and tells us that in an hour or so, the tide will be down low enough to walk across to the walkway in knee-high water. With that, he’s gone.

There are two girls also stranded on ‘our’ side of the river inlet, and an ever-increasing number on the other side. The two girls have settled in for a bit of sunbathing; it’s a wonderfully sunny day, and the beach is beautiful. Eventually, two people on the other side venture across – they have only small bags and it’s no problem for them to carry them above their heads – they get across with water coming up to their midriffs only, so we decide to do the same.

Chris has her bathing costume on, but I’m in shorts. My underpants are wet for the rest of the day.

We’re soon done with the 1-hour walk to Awaora Lodge so Chris decides on a swim in the sea and I take a walk along beach at Waiharakela Bay (mostly to try to get my shorts and underpants dry). Once done, we return to the Lodge for lunch and … serendipity; Chris has been looking for duck on every menu since we’ve been in NZ, but without luck. But here, on her birthday, at Awaora Lodge, in Abel Tasman National Park, we have warm duck salad on the menu – she orders it, and a glass of Sauv. Blanc; while I have seared red snapper and a beer. Delicious.

The return water taxi is expected at 2pm, so we’re back on the beach at 5-to-2. The tide’s going out now and our taxi can’t get in because of a sand-bar just off-shore – our new skipper (Jeff) beckons us so we wade the 20 yards to the boat, and it’s wet shorts and underpants again – I give up!

We make several pick-ups on the way back and at one stop – Torrent Bay – a party of three who’d booked the taxi are not there? Jeff announces that we’ll wait awhile, and suggests a stroll or a swim – we wade ashore and paddle in the wonderfully clear, warm water. I figure that the salt water will help cleanse and heal my glacier graze.

All accounted for, we make our way and are soon back at Marahau and being towed up the beach by tractor. The tides way out now and it’s about ¼-mile between the sea and the beach road and car park – it all adds to the fun, being towed by a tractor, on a boat, across the sand and through the shell beds.

It’s an easy 40 miles back to Nelson and, since its been a bit of a tiring day (sea, sun, sand, swimming/wading and walking), Chris decides to delay her birthday dinner – we dine in the motel on fish and chips, since they were so good first time around.

Day 34 – Back to the North Island

For the first time since 7th February we are back on the itinerary I set up when we planned the trip. This is the day we get the ferry back to the North Island, back to Wellington. This time we’re on the BlueBridge Ferry – this has a fixed price (for people and cars) and is cheaper. The InterIslander Ferry is more like EasyJet – different prices for different days, for different departure times, and for bookings near the date of departure the prices also change; up initially, and down at the very end.

We take the Queen Charlotte Drive from Nelson to Picton. Not only is it less than half the distance of SH route, it hugs the Marlborough Sounds and drops into every bay along the way (before climbing out for the next). It makes for a spectacular and exhilarating drive, and one we enjoy immensely.

We have an hour to spare in Picton, so we down two flat whites and then do a walking tour of the harbour area and the shops. Picton is remarkably small given that its, “The Gateway to the South Island” ….. Two roads in, ferry out, a small port area, a small boating and yachting marina, a shopping street (called The High Street), and that’s about it. There is a ribbon development of motels (see Note below) and eateries along SH-1 going out of the town, but that’s small too.

We have usual frustration of waiting in the queue for the ferry; it all takes so long; check in, wait, drive to ferry, wait, drive onto ferry, wait for turn around to happen, and then park. All that said, the ferry between the Islands is very spectacular – it sails through the Marlborough Sounds, into the Cook Strait (from where you can easily see both Islands), and then into the massive Wellington Harbour. They’re all rather special.

We’re booked into the “Quest on Johnson”, right in the city centre and less than a mile from the BlueBridge ferry terminal. We’re quickly there. gets very quiet after about 9pm. We’re on the 8th floor – we soon know we’re in a city; this is the first time we’ve been higher that the first floor since we went up the SkyTower in Auckland on our second day in NZ!!!

We have a busy day planned for tomorrow so we’re unpacked, dined and into bed for an early night. I fall to sleep recalling some of the car registrations we’ve see lately: SMILES, OK and TAXSUX (on a BMW Z3).

==================== Note: If you need a motel in Picton, try the Americano Motor Inn, just off the High Street. It’s very central and some of the units are set above the High Street’s shops. I’d guarantee Picton.

Day 35 – Our One Day of Culture

Wellington – capital city of New Zealand – has been set aside as our one day of culture on this trip. In the morning we’re visiting the Botanical Gardens, and in the afternoon, Te Papa, the National Museum of New Zealand.

The Botanical Gardens can be accessed by road, by walking, or via a wonderful cable car straight from the city centre. Naturally, we take the cable car. AND, I achieve a personal FIRST – a concessionary fare of $2.00 instead of the normal adult fare of $2-50!!! This saves me 19p, my first benefit from passing 60.

The cable car rises up over the city centre, through the university area and ends near the entrance to the botanical gardens. They are set within the “green belt”; an area of land that NZ town planners seem to provide in many cities and large towns as a natural recreation and open space between ‘the centre’ and ‘the suburbs’. We’d seen it before, in Dunedin, and it works very well.

The gardens are very expensive and very hilly. We make a special visit to the herb garden, and Chris chats with the gardener who is tending the beds. They exchange stories and facts about herbs and plants used for medicinal and culinary purposes. We also walk around the rose garden, formally laid out with large beds for the various types of rose on show.

In Wanaka, I’d chatted to a botanist from California – he’d expressed his absolute amazement at the variety of flowers, plants and trees in NZ, and that they occur alongside each other, temperate varieties alongside semi-tropical alongside tropical varieties. Of course, this is very evident in the botanical gardens, with evergreens alongside palms trees, and succulents and cacti with pines inter-mingled.

The botanical gardens ‘done’, we return on foot along a specially constructed walkway back to the city centre. The walkway takes us through a cemetery and over the SH-1 motorway…. In fact, the motorway bisects the cemetery, and we read, “Over 3,000 lots of ‘remains’ had to be re-located into their appropriate sectarian areas of the cemetery when the motorway was being built”. We’d noticed Jewish and Chinese sections on our walk through, but we also read “over 1,000 sets of remains came from unmarked graves”. I’ve no idea how they worked out what “sectarian area” was “appropriate” for these?

It’s human nature I suppose, but we can’t help reading many of the headstones that lay near the walkway. Some are quite old by NZ standards, dating back to the early 1800s. The most tragic was of a family – the mother and father had lived well into the 20th Century, but their 5 children had all died between 21st December 1898 and 1st January 1899. It didn’t say what they died of ….

Back in the centre, we make our way down to Queen’s Wharf and along to Te Papa. I’d picked up a guidebook to the museum when we’d passed through on 12th February with the aim of planning our way around the museum. In part, this was how it worked out: we concentrated on floor 2 (New Zealand’s Fiery Origins) and floor 4 (Maori art and culture). But, in practice, we took in almost everything on these two floors and a lot more besides.

Te Papa is new, and benefits from modern thinking about how to lay out and display museum exhibits – it’s probably the best I’ve ever seen done, with lots of participative areas for children, and well-planned, clear descriptions for adults. There’s even a “Bush Walk” for those that only ‘do’ towns and cities – it includes a large collection of boulder-sized rocks that demonstrate the variety that can be found in NZ. Again, bush walk and rock display are well done and very informative.

Now, the reason for getting back onto the original itinerary, the reason for stopping in a city-centre hotel, the reason for being in Wellington on 7th March, were because we are due to meet someone. An ex-work mate of mine that I have remained in contact with is on a touring holiday in ‘Asia’ – he’s taking in Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong and New Zealand and as chance would have it, we’ve arranged to meet up in Wellington.

A little research on the Internet back in England, including a scan of Wellington on GoogleEarth, has helped me identify an umbrella-covered area outside The Event Centre on Queen’s Wharf as a meeting point. At the appointed hour (7pm), we make our way down to Queen’s Wharf and sit in a sports bar looking out onto the large umbrellas outside.

Just after 7pm, Jim and his partner. Sheila, wander into view. Although I’d told Chris about the meeting, Jim’s kept Sheila in the cark, and it’s a big surprise to her when I come running out of the bar shouting, “Jim Campbell! Sheila Campbell!”. I think we’d met Sheila twice before, but she doesn’t recognise us – just another vague person at one of Jim’s many “work’s dos” I suppose – I sympathised, I’m not very good at remembering people casually met, especially when you meet them again and it’s completely out of context. Anyway, they join us for a glass of wine (and then a bottle) as we discuss ‘war stories’ about our travels so far – Sheila is keen to pick our brains for ideas about places to go and things to do in NZ.

Jim is as enthusiastic as ever – for as many times as Sheila says she’d like to take it easy; see a few places in New Zealand and take a leisurely look around, Jim suggests driving to Auckland the very next day (409 miles). I think it’s Jim’s plan to do the trip we’re on in 15 days verses our 44 days! He’ll be saving time by flying out of Christchurch, but not that much!!!

I try to make constructive suggestions; in particular, I propose the option of using Wanaka as a base and taking a flying or helicopter visit to Mt Cook, the glaciers and Fiordland. I’m not sure Jim accepted this but Sheila was very enthusiastic.

After a meal in the sports bar we return to Jim’s and continue the discussions over a cup of tea and to collect an address I needed. Jim told me that Peter Clarke (another work mate who’d worked for Jim and I) and his wife, Christine, were celebrating their ruby wedding anniversary, and I wanted their address so I could send a card. (This I later did, in Napier).

Late for us, we leave at 11pm after fond farewells and good wishes for the travels ahead.

Day 36 – Travelling to Napier

We have a steady (206 mile) drive today to Napier – much of the journey north of Upper Hutt (just north of Wellington) is flat, with few towns, so we make good time (see About: Driving in New Zealand in Section 4 below).

We skip breakfast in Wellington and stop around noon in Dannewirke – there’s a 10-foot high, steel Viking statue as the town’s welcoming sign and the main square’s called Copenhagen Square, so I guess that this is where immigrant Danes settled in NZ. It’s a bit of a shabby town, but the coffee’s okay!!!

The towns of Hastings and Napier, and much of the surrounding area were completely destroyed by a earthquake in February 1931 – we’re again reminded that we are driving along the “ring of fire”, where the Pacific tectonic plate rubs against neighbouring plates! Both towns were re-built from scratch, and both in the art deco style; the only difference being that Hastings adopted more of the Spanish influence on art deco than did Napier.

Hastings is a handsome town, and we spend an hour or so walking the main streets and town centre, enjoying the colourful buildings – we have booked our accommodation ahead in Napier, so we’re in no hurry.

Booking ahead has its drawbacks as well as its advantages – see About – Booking Ahead in Section 4 below. One of the drawbacks is that you never know exactly where you’re going to end up. Chris giving directions, and as we pass through Napier’s centre and out the other side, and then through the port area and out the other side, I’m full of trepidation about exactly what we’ll find when we arrive at our motel. But, it turns out well. An area of newly developed properties arises, and we see our motel is right on Napier Bay – we get a room that opens directly onto the Bay with an unobstructed view across it to the hills beyond – it couldn’t be more picturesque.

I still have a ‘middle of nowhere’ fear, so we take a short walk, mostly to get a wine supply, but also to see what’s around us. Surprise, surprise, just to one side of us is a restaurant and across the road and down another we have a few shops and more restaurants. But, no wine shop. The woman in the grocery tells us that there’s a Liquor King down past the fishing harbour and “past all the restaurants”. A 15-minute walk takes us there, and we are ‘replenished’.

The sun and the views are too good to waste so we spend the rest of the day relaxing and re-planning the back end of our trip. I’d originally planned two days in Auckland on the way back, but we decide to stay on the Coromandel Peninsula (our last port of call) for those two nights, and drive straight from there to the airport. We don’t fly until 2300 on 16th, so there’s plenty of time to make the drive, dump the car and get to the airport. It’s a good plan and gives us 3 full days at the coast relaxing before we have to head home – magic! We sleep on it.

Day 37: Art Deco, and all that

We’ve come to Napier to see the art deco buildings (and to be by the seaside), so we decide to do a guided tour of the town in the morning. Our party is 31, so we’re broken into three smaller groups, and 3 “volunteer” guides walk us through the main streets and give us a lot of interesting information about the re-building of the town and how it was done.

We didn’t know that the whole area had been up-lifted by 7-feet by the earthquake, and were surprised to find out that the old sea wall, which had survived the devastation, was now high and dry at pavement level and had been incorporated into the sea-front promenade.

The town had been re-built from scratch in less than 2 years. In a stroke if genius, the local architects restricted the height of buildings to two storeys, made then of steel re-enforced concrete, and finished them with art deco decoration, a style that was highly fashionable in the early 1930s. Napier has now the world’s highest concentration of art deco buildings, and is the most complete example of the style anywhere.

Again we have a sunny day, so we spend the afternoon sitting, relaxing and sunning ourselves.

DAY 38: To Rotorua

The journey to Rotorua poses a few problems – there are three alternatives. The SH-5 is the most direct but takes us to Taupo (where we stayed on 10th February). Then there is the SH-2/SH-38 route, but this has a very long section on un-made road, much of it across the Ikawhenua Mountain range. Lastly, there’s the SH-2 all the way around the Pacific Coast and then SH-30 across to Rotorua. The final route would be more interesting, but it’s over 300 miles! We select the 150-mile route via Taupo, and look forward to seeing it again.

It’s an easy, fast-paced drive and we’re soon on familiar territory at the lakeside in Taupo. We pull up for a leg-stretch and coffee right in the centre of town – it all feels very familiar, even the ‘Art in the Park’ sale, which was on the last time we were here. Nothing tempts us in art sale so we stroll down the lakeside promenade and check out the “Hole in One” competition. This is another Kiwi rouse to part visitors from their money – you can win $5,000 if you get a hole in one. But, the green is less than 10 feet square, and it’s moored 100 yards offshore, in the lake!!! I’m not surprised to read that no one’s won the money yet in 2007, but there’s no shortage of punters willing to try. You get 10 golf balls for $20 – since golf balls sink, I wonder how collect them? Anyway ….. A Maori lad has a very good effort – he gets the height needed to bring the ball to a quick stop, but only one ball lands on the green, and that bounces off into the sea. We take our leave, and motor on.

Rotorua is a BIG place, and NZ’s top tourist spot – almost every traveller stops by and visits the thermal parks and Maori sites. Rotorua has the highest density of Maoris, and several ‘tribes’ have their bases in and around the town. There are several Maori villages, plenty of Maori shops and craft outlets, and you can partake of a Maori hangi (feast of meat cooked with very hot stones in a pit filled with earth).

We have booked into the Quality Motor Inn – Geyserland. At the time of booking the motel, I also booked a ½-day coach tour of 4 Rotorua sites including the largest thermal park and Maori centre: Te Anui at Whakarewarewa.

As luck would have it, our motel backs onto Te Anui, and we can see the bubbling mud pools and geysers from the motel’s gardens – you can smell them too!!! It does depend upon how the breeze is blowing, but if it’s coming from the wrong direction, the smell of sulphur (rotten eggs) is quite strong.

On our first drive into town (we’re 3km outside), we end up in the lakeside area and, since it’s Saturday, there are quite a lot of local people – mostly Maoris – walking or playing with their children. The lake is also quite busy; a water plane takes off, another lands, the helicopter spins up and is off too, while pleasure boats are docking and heading out onto the lake. A huge pleasure boat of the Mississippi paddle steamer type advertises an evening cruise with dinner, but we see that it’s a jazz band on board and decide against it. But, we’re hungry now, and head off to the café area.

We pick a restaurant: Chris has Caesar Salad with Chicken, and I have a pizza with chorizo and bacon topping. The chef makes a mistake with the croutons in Chris’s salad – they are rock hard, as if over-cooked in a microwave oven. I mention it to the waitress and she tells me “the boss will sort it out when you pay”. Come paying time, “the boss” tells me that the chef’s new – he’s used ciabatta for the croutons. I still think he’s overdone it with the microwave, but “the boss” gives us Chris’s salad for free – result.

We take a walk to the i-Site looking for ideas for tomorrow afternoon – our trip ends about 1pm and we have no plan for the balance of the day. The i-Site is very busy so we pick up a copy of “Thermal News – What’s on in Rotorua” and scan it for ideas. There’s plenty, especially if you want to throw yourself out of a plane, roll down a mountain in a plastic ball, or jump off the side of a cliff. I see that there’s a downhill motor rally but there’s no ‘where’ or ‘when’ details. Chris takes it off to a Maori security guard for help and they engage in an animated conversation as the Maori describes where the rally is being held. As an aside, the guard tells Chris that there’s only one event in town this weekend – the “Grand” opening of the new Rotorua Energy Events Centre. Apparently, the Prime Minister is attending!

The Rotorua Energy Events Centre is a multi-million dollar sports and commercial events centre – its right in the middle of the town – and there’s a free concert and firework display on Saturday, and Maori events and guided tours into the Centre on Sunday. We decide to investigate.

The concert’s already underway – the acts are hardly world class; the drummer of the first band is the music teacher at the local junior school, but they are competent enough so we sit for a while and listen (until our bums go dead from sitting on the kerbside). Back at the motel, it’s a dinner of nibbles and early to bed – busy day tomorrow.

Day 39 – Things thermal, and More

Our coach picks us up at 7-50 prompt. We have a very butch, German female as our driver, so everything is prompt! Our trip starts at the Te Anui Thermal Park (next door) … we could have walked there is 2 minutes, but …. I didn’t know that when I booked.

We are placed in the capable hands of “Philip”, our Maori guide. Well, he’s name’s not actually Philip, it’s Whelape (or something like that), but he tells us that Philip’s easier. Philip, our first gay Maori, gives us lots of information about the site and the part it plays in Maori legend, and then takes us on a quick tour of the main thermal areas. This includes the mud-pools we can see from our motel, and the main geysers, which that we can also see from our motel. As luck would have it, the “Prince of Wales Feathers” Geyser gets up a head of steam (literally) just as we arrive – it gives us a quite spectacular show, even showering the walkway and dispersing a crowd of giggling Japanese.

The second site is called, “Rainbow Forest” – a man-made centre set in native forest and enclosing a mountain stream, with pools of massive trout and eels. There are also some aviaries with examples of native NZ birds and, of course, a Kiwi House. Kiwis are nocturnal, so the Kiwi House was in darkness and we viewed the birds (two of them) foraging around their enclosed bit of woodland for bugs. They are the strangest bird – fat waddling body on stubby legs with tapered neck leading to a small head and long bill. They scurry around like demonic, over-fat gremlins, searching for food – quite a few visitors laughed as they ran about, stopped, put their beaks into the undergrowth, and ran off again. Our third stop is “Agrodome”. This is not a place for getting into a fist-fight, but a farm setting where you can learn about NZ’s agricultural heritage, a place to learn about sheep basically. There’s a lot of sheep, wool and weaving involved.

The main show, in the Agrodome itself, involves a humorous Kiwi sheep shearer introducing us to 19 of NZ’s 25 sheep varieties, starting with the Merino, the “King of Sheep” as he puts it. He shears a sheep, does a sheep dog trial on the stage with a dog and two ducks, and members of the audience milk a cow. The cow was so full of milk, its udders almost dragged on the floor – I’m sure it was hoping that the milk maid apprentices were more successful that they were – only 2 of 5 got any milk to show for their efforts. All in all, a lot more fun than I’d expected.

After the show we are treated to a real sheep dog trial, with real sheep. However. I got the impression that the sheep could have managed the obstacle course without the dog’s intervention!!!

Our final stop was at the Skyline Café; a little more fun than the name suggests. Attentive readers may recall that this is the place a guy in a car park at Kaikoura recommended to us – he said that they had an excellent buffet lunch and dinner.

You reach the Skyline Café via cable car up the side of the hill. At the top, there is an opportunity to luge down the hill, or swing on a ‘contraption’ that accelerates you to “150 kilometres per hour in under 2 seconds”. You could also get food and drink.

When we were there, the restaurant was totally booked out for a large group of Chinese, so we were stuck with the café. We had a plate of spicy wedges with soured cream, and then took the luge ride ….

A luge is flat piece of plastic, about the size of a domestic dinner tray. A luge ride involves sitting on the luge and sliding down a steep concrete path. Well, it was a little more sophisticated than that, but not much. We can steer our luges with a handlebar and slow them down by pulling on it. But, the path was still concrete and it was still steep – we were grateful for the crash helmets. It looked a lot more dangerous than it was – if you held the brake partially on, you could take a leisurely ride down the hillside. Naturally, if you let the brake off, you’d have quickly gathered speed, spun off into the woods and been lost forever – it’s the NZ way!!!

We have a coach shuttle back to the motel and decide to return to the thermal park for a slower, more complete look around in the afternoon. This allowed us time to take in some of the Maori village displays, as well as the Maori Pa (meeting place), and a demo of Maori woodcarving.

All the day’s activities have been in thermal parks, under the sun, or both. We are exhausted, so we spend an hour or two resting up in the motel before heading off to dinner in downtown Rotorua.

Rotorua is a strange place. It obviously benefits frpm all the tourist dollars – the new Events Centre, a spacious i-Site, a sumptuous museum, lovely gardens and lakeside, and so on. But, it’s fairly large, and there’s no obvious ‘centre’ or focal point to the town. The motels are mostly out of town, so local restaurants and shops have grown up to service their guests. In any event, we head for Tutaneki Street since it has several restaurants – we’d noticed them the previous day.

The menu outside an Indian again seduces us. We again over eat, and again have to take a walk to help work the food into out systems before driving back for an early night.

Before dropping off to sleep I recall some of NZ’s unique car registrations I’ve seen recently: MUMS MM (on a Morris Minor), TWIN MA (I assume a mum that had twins), JACQUI, SUE VEG (yes, on an old Beetle) and 1-TUNA-1 (must have been a fisherman).

Day 40: Coromandel Here We Come

Based on our new itinerary, this is our last drive to our last motel. We’re off to Coromandel, and Whitianga in particular – it’s an easy 150-mile drive, so we’re in no hurry.

The clouds had been coming in yesterday and there were a few drops of rain overnight – the clouds were thicker this morning. We had more rain on the way, and the further we went, the wetter it got. This was bad for several reasons …. The driving on the Coromandel Peninsula is slow anyway – the hilly terrain made for many slow bends and the regular logging trucks were difficult to over-take. The rain just made for even slower going. Also, this was to be our last stop and I’d paid a premium for the motel I’d booked from Napier 3 days before. I figured that, well, it’ll be our last few nights in NZ, so I went for a unit with a spa bath, large sun deck, and extensive sea views – I’d paid £20/night more than our normal budget. This will prove a poor investment if it rains all the time.

By the time we arrived, there was a slight but steady drizzle. The proprietor helped us with our luggage saying, “It’s going too rain soon, I’ll help”. He pointed out the features of the unit – it was everything I’d hoped it to be, and the sea views were really special. He also pointed out Middle Island in the bay – real name Motukonure Island – and a fishing boat that had come into the bay to shelter from the weather behind the Island!

The weather worsened over the coming hours, and Middle Island was ‘lost’ in the heavier and heavier rain. The wind got up too; pounding the front window of our apartment so heavily we thought it might be blown in. We battened down for the evening and watched the TV. It was this night that the NZ news reporter told us that “Hottenhan Totspurs drew 3 – 3 with Chelsea in the FA Cup”.

That night’s TV was fairly typical: There was “Intrepid Traveller”, where NZ celebs. make a taxing journey somewhere in the world. Last week was an ex-Auckland mayor in Malawi. This week it’s an ex-All Black walking to Annapurna Base Camp in Tibet. Then there was “Dragon’s Den”, a repeat of an episode already shown in the UK, but one I’d missed luckily. After that it was “Turn the Tables”, a kind of Kiwi “They Think it’s All Over”, but with a lot more questions about rugby and cricket. We tried to watch a film on Sky Movies, but rain fade meant we’d lost the signal! Nothing else for it – bed it is, with the fear that rain might stop play tomorrow.

Day 41: Whitianga

We wake up to a sun-filled room. It’s before 8 o’clock, and the sun’s breaking through the clouds on a distant Pacific Ocean horizon. The fishing boat’s are still hiding behind Middle Island, but there’s no rain and the winds calmed down.

We have a breakfast of muffins, jam, yoghourt and tea. I’m interested in getting out onto the Bay and doing a bit of sea fishing, so I ring one of the numbers I picked up at the i-Site. But, no one’s going out today because the sea’s too rough; I’m advised to ring back on Wednesday night. That done, we then drive off to Coromandel Town, about 25 miles away on the more sheltered west side of the peninsula for a bit of a look around.

It’s a bit of a disappointment. It’s a nice enough town, but it’s separated from the sea, and lacks the charm of Whitianga. Nevertheless we have a good walk about, and a drive to the close-by bay where commercial fishing boats still operate. In the i-Site we notice that there’s a local narrow-gauge railway that offers rides up into the hills above the town – it’s only $10, so we book ahead and head off for the station.

Well now, this railway is the 20-year hobby of a full-time potter and artist (Barry Bricknell). He surveyed the route, cleared the forest, laid the track, and built the engines and the carriages himself. The route is steep; it winds back and forth over several bridges, under three small tunnels, and ends at a look-out platform about 2000-feet above sea level. I say look-out platform, it’s actually quite a large wooden structure, big enough for the 40-odd people on our train trip, and big enough to act as a wedding venue (we’re told)! Apparently, the railway started life as a way of bringing wood from the hillside and forest back to Bricknell’s house and pottery kiln near the station. But, it got out a bit of hand.

The train’s route is ‘decorated’ with many pieces of large pottery, mostly in terracotta. To my mind, he’s a better railway engineer than he is a potter, but hey, what do I know. To his credit, he’s also planted 3000 native trees on the hillside and had cleared room for them to mature in competition with the introduced species that are there at present. This is major achievement and the whole party is really impressed.

Back at the station, we take the time to look around the pottery, workshops and yard. It’s everything you’d expect – pieces of pottery, wagon wheels, lengths of track, sleepers and strange pieces of ‘art’ everywhere. There’s also one of those multi-directional signposts saying things like “Trains this Way”, Eifel Tower 20,000 miles, and the like. I’m surprised to see that Auckland is there and stated to be 44 km (26 miles) away – by road, I know it’s 110 miles away, so I guess the sign means ‘as the crow flies’.

Back into Coromandel Town and we’re peckish so it’s Fish and Chips again; this time out of newspaper and eaten on a park bench. No fat on the paper again – how do they do that?

Coromandel is a long peninsula running north – south; it’s about 25 miles wide and 60 miles long. The SH-25 runs all around it from Whangamata in the south, east up through Pauanui to Whitianga, across to Coromandel Town and down the west coast to Thames in the south west corner. On most maps, there are only two roads across: the SH25A from Thames to Pauanui, and the SH-25 from Whitianga to Cormandel Town. But, in the LPG they mention “The 309 Road” – it crosses from just south of both Whitianga and Coromandel Town. It’s a much shorter route than the SH-25 and, as luck would have it, there was a free information sheet in the i-Site so I’d picked one up.

The info sheet on The 309 Road talks about a waterfall, a picnic spot and a Kauri Tree “glen”, and Chris is keen to take that route back – “Why go back the way we came?” I didn’t mention that there’s a 10-mile section of The 309 Road that’s not made up – it’s just a gravel track. We set off …..

In reality, even the gravel track is …. okay. No matter how good the road, progress would have been very slow because it’s so hilly and bendy. We were a bit spoilt by the waterfalls at Milford Sound, so the one on The 309 Road is a bit disappointing. But, the Kauri Trees are rather spectacular. Some in the glen are over 600 years old – still youngsters by Kauri Tree standards since a fully mature specimen can be over 2000 years old.

We’re back in Whitianga before 6 o’clock and spend a little time down at the harbour watching the ferry and checking out restaurants. It turns out that neither of us has a big appetite so we resolve to use up the provisions we already have in the apartment – we dine on an apple, cheese, crackers and tea, and I have a microwave steam pudding for dessert.

Day 42 – The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men

Again it’s blue skies and a sunny day so we decide to go for a walk.

Whitianga sits on Mercury Bay (so named because James Cook observed a transit of Mercury across the Sun here in 1790), and our motel is on Buffalo Beach (so named because one of Cook’s support ships – HMS Buffalo – sank just off shore). The Whitianga River enters the Bay at one end, and cuts off access to the promontory at that end. A small but very agile ferry crosses the river every 10 minutes or so; drifting the short distance across using either the sea’s current or the river’s as propulsion. We pay the $4 return fare, and we’re at the other side in no time.

A road meanders up and climbs over the promontory and into the next bay (Flaxmill Bay) – it’s deserted except for two Aussies who emerge from the bushes ahead of us. We get talking and they tell us of a pretty bay (Lonely Bay) just across the stream and over the hill – we head off in that direction. However, Chris is worried about the steam we’ve just crossed, “How high does it get when the tide’s in?” she asks. I have no reassuring answer, so we decide to go via the road route then, just as we start off again the skies darken and a drizzle starts. Concluding that this walk is doomed, we head back to a café we’d passed back on the road, order egg and chips and two flat whites, and sit out the rain.

By the time we get back across the estuary on the ferry, the sun’s out again! We decide to sit and watch the boats, half a dozen beach fishermen and the ferry going back and forth. After a spin around the shops for provisions (just wine really), we go back for a quiet afternoon’s reading in the sun (and wind, and rain) deck. DT, our guide at Milford Sound gave us some good advice about NZ’s coastal weather, “Never make a plan” – we’re coming to know exactly what he meant!!!

For the first night in three, we dine out, both of us picking the Moroccan Lamb Cutlets, mash and vegetables. I can’t resist the Bailey’s Bread and Butter Pudding; Chris has Espresso Crème Bruleé – yummy.

Day 43 – Sun and Sea

It’s a wonderfully sunny day, so I ring the fishing guy about getting out on the harbour. But, no luck, he reckons it’s still rough and thinks it will be Friday before he gets out again. Dam – I’d been holding back on fishing until we got to Coromandel, now I can’t get out because of the weather. Nothing for it, we’ll just have to sun ourselves all morning…

We’re in rush to ‘get going’, so we amble down to the harbour and get a cup of coffee. Later, Chris reads while I go and have a chat with the beach fishermen – it’s the nearest I’m going to get to holding a rod. The two I stand next to are up from Wellington for a break. I spend over an hour with them; they catch nothing, but don’t seem to mind and neither do I. Fishing’s like shopping, you don’t have to take anything home to say that you’ve been. By now it’s 5 o’clock so we make our way back to the motel to get ready for our last dinner in New Zealand!!!

We’ve picked out a restaurant called “The Fireplace” for dinner – no particular reason except that the menu looked varied and interesting. The main course was excellent and we shared a platter of local cheeses and homemade wholemeal crackers for dessert; needless to say, all washed down with a good NZ white wine.

Day 44 – Our Last Day in NZ

Well, this is it; our final day, the final packing of suitcases, the final loading up of the car, the final crumpets and boysenberry jam breakfast. The sun’s out so we have our breakfast on the sun deck overlooking the bay, sipping tea – what a pity it all has to end.

We take the SH-25 to Coromandel Town but this time we turn to Thames/Auckland – it takes us “down” the Peninsula (south) and all the time alongside the Firth of Thames. We’re in hurry, so we regularly stops are in order – our first is besides the Firth at a convenient WC location. There’s an amazing notice from the NZ Dept of Fisheries. It advises that if you are collecting NZ Green Lipped Mussels, you are limited to 25 per day per collector. The tide’s out so I check out the beach and, sure enough, there are plenty of mussels just ready to be collected by anyone who takes the time pick them up.

Since it’s much to early to head for the airport, we make our way to Pukehohe for lunch – it’s about 15 miles south of Auckland, and it keeps us clear of Auckland’s traffic and any parking problems.

It’s a nice enough town and we sit down at a local café A chatty waiter recommends the Red Snapper in Stella Artois Beer Batter with homemade tomato and tartar sauces. Since we’ve told him it’s our last meal in NZ, he says he’ll throw in a couple of seared scallops for good measure. Sold – we order it.

Again the choice proves excellent – 4 pieces of filleted snapper, three seared scallops on the side, and chips. The fish and chips are served in newspaper with top slit open to give access to the food – the scallops are ‘piled’ on top. We’re stuffed!

Pukehohe has more than it’s fair share of good car registrations. We spot I-WORK, 61 MK2 (on a 1961 Mk 2 Vauxhall Velox) and OLD BOY (which I sympathised with).

We eventually make our way to the car rental return, and from there to the airport. We’re 6 hours early so there’s plenty of time for shopping, snacking, topping up with nicotine and the like.

Since it’s hard to say anything interesting about 24 hours in the air, I’ve resisted writing about the return flights except to say that LA Airport (LAX) is, without a shadow of a doubt, the worst first-world airport I’ve ever used. It lacks everything a traveller needs: decent food and drink outlets, comfortable seating, convenient WCs, friendly and helpful staff, and a pleasant environment. Since the Dept of Homeland Security took over, transit passengers must now go through the US’s slow and laborious emigration procedure, collect their own luggage and go through customs just like an arriving passenger!!! You then have to check in to your onward flight. If you couple these two things together: poor facilities and lengthy procedures, it adds up to a very miserable time in LAX. Enough said.

Now, that was the report on LAX I’d expected to write, but things turned out to even worse. Firstly Air New Zealand managed to lose Chris’s main suitcase – it never arrived at LAX’s luggage carousel. (It turned out that our flight from Auckland was Air New Zealand’s London flight and Chris’ bag had been mis-handled into the ‘through’ luggage. It was waiting for us at Heathrow when we got there).

Secondly, Virgin Atlantic’s planes are now gated away from the terminal building, so it’s a 10-minute bus ride from the departure lounge to the plane – it’s stuck out at the end of the main runway. Just another annoyance to add to all the others.

But, redemption for LAX! The Virgin Atlantic rep at check-in told us about the Tom Bradley International Terminal and advised that we kill time there – we have 5 hours to kill, so we take his advice. We find decent shops, sensible rest areas, a couple of good restaurants and a roomy atmosphere. But, in summary, don’t use LAX. If you do, use US airlines because they have plane access directly from the terminal building. If you have time to kill at LAX, go to the Tom Bradley Terminal to kill it.

4 About….

The intention of this section is to give more detailed information about specific subjects. I’ve put it here so that the Day-to-Day account of the trip is not too cluttered.

About: Driving in New Zealand

A few facts first. You drive on the left. The national speed limit is 100 km/hour (about 63 miles/hour) on all roads that do not have a lower limit. In towns and cities it’s 50 kph (just over 30 mph) and there are 70 and 80 kph limits in built up areas approaching towns and cities. Around schools, the limit is 30kph – about 19mph. Seat belts are compulsory. Spot fines apply to anyone found speeding or not wearing a seat belt. However, you’re free to use your mobile phone while driving!!!

Now about driving ….. Most NZ’ers stick to the speed limits. The average speeds you can expect to do on a long distance drive in New Zealand is no better than 75 kph (about 45 mph). This sounds very low, but there are many reasons why: –

? Every town you pass through slows you to 50 kph, often after a lengthy 70 kph section on both sides of the town. ? The roads are very hilly and bendy, certainly on the South Island, on Coromandel and on all coastal roads on the West Coast. Advisory speeds for bends are as low as 25 kph (15 mph) and these are not uncommon. ? What is uncommon is anything but a two-lane road. There are very few motorways and dual carriageways are rare. What is more, there are only a few overtaking lanes. So, if you’re stuck behind a logging truck up in the hills, you’re there for miles and miles – its speed is your speed. ? Many (even most) bridges are one-lane only. You always have to slow down and often have to stop if you don’t have priority (and sometimes, even when you do)!

So, don’t plan to get places quickly; allow about twice the time you’d expect on a long drive in the UK.

All that said; New Zealand’s roads are excellent and well maintained for the most part. Kiwis are courteous drivers and NZ roads are often empty, especially on the South Island. Remember, NZ is a country with the population of North London – there’s only 1 million people on the South Island, and it’s bigger than England. All in all, driving in New Zealand is a pleasure.

About: Cars

When I picked up my 10 year old Nissan Sunny Super Saloon – one wheel trim missing – I thought to myself: this will be a bit of a disgrace in the motel’s car park. But, I’m happy to say that the Kiwi’s have an enlightened approach to cars. Once you move out of the cities, cars are old, unwashed and pretty much un-cared for – my jalopy fitted in just fine.

We saw more cars over 20 years old in NZ than anywhere I can remember (even more than India) – Minis, Morris 1000s, Austin 1100s, Triumph Heralds, MGAs, Mk2 Jags. Mk 1 Escorts, Ford Anglias and Capris, Hillman Minxs, and so the list goes on. Most of these old cars are being run every day. We spoke of a woman in Milton Street, Nelson – she was washing her 1965 Triumph Herald: “Yes, I use it every day – it’s a great little car”. In a car showroom in Paraparaumu there was an Austin Healey 3000, all the MGs from MGA to MGF, two Mk2 Jags and an old Mustang from the US. There was such an interest in the cars; the showroom was full of people. I even suggested to the proprietor that he charge an entrance fee – the NZ’ers have a genuine interest in old cars, and are not ashamed to be seen driving them.

About: WCs

NZ is ‘top country’ when it comes to the provision and cleanliness of public toilets. Not only in the towns but almost everywhere you stop there’s a WC close to hand. A scenic viewpoint 10 miles from anywhere; no problem, there’s a loo that smell nice, is clean, with paper, and somewhere to wash your hands and try them. There’s no sign of graffiti and no vandalism.

From one who needs a WC more than most – well done Kiwis.

About: i-Sites and DOC Information Points.

i-Site is the brand name for a nationwide chain of tourist information bureaux all across New Zealand. They are all excellent and all provide useful and friendly advice. Not only that, they will book any transport, accommodation or trips you are interest in, whether for the place your at, or anywhere else in the country and for any future dates. For example, I booked our ferry and Kaikoura whale-watching trip on the South Island from an i-Site near Waitomo Caves in the North Island.

Dept. of Conservation (DOC) Information Points, generally separate from i-Sites in big towns but combined with them on small towns, are also excellent. Obviously DOC Info Points concentrate on national parks; forest, mountain, scenic and nature reserves; and DOC walkways. Many of NZ’s best treks (tramps) are multi-day, so if you want to make overnight stops in a DOC hut or shelter, you book it at the DOC Info Point. Also, DOC limits the number of trampers on some walkways, so you have to ‘book a place’ with them, as you do for Ranger-led expeditions and guided tours. DOC also produces a stack of information about their activities, although there is generally a small charge – the DOC Pamphlet on Local Walks (and there’s one for almost every town) costs $1.

Both i-Sites and DOC Info Points provide an unrivalled range of detailed information sheets, brochures, and hand-outs – mostly free of charge. Staff are universally friendly and helpful. There’s always a free local street map at the i-Site, so it’s the obvious first port of call in every new town visited.

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