2004-02 (FEBRUARY, 2004)

Summer Holidays, Part One - New Zealand

Day 1 - Bobby, Andy and I deferred our departure from Sydney until Saturday morning and thus had a very early start. We were at Sydney International Airport by 05:30 and on a plane to Auckland by 07:30. We met Lynda and Coral, fresh in from their flight from London, just before boarding. Three hours, and some dreadful Qantas food, later we were in sunny Auckland. It was to be the last all-blue sky that we would see for some days. As soon as we had exited the terminal we found Mark and split up to find our respective vehicles - Bobby, Coral and Lynda were car-and-B&B-ing it and Andy, Mark and I were in a campervan (the 'Gooseberry Bus'). First stop was the Manukau Shopping Centre for some essential supplies (some cereal and 10 bottles of wine). Our destination for the evening was Raglan, two hours south-west of Auckland. The 'Silver Fox' (Bobby, Coral and Lynda's car) were well ahead of us and were solidly ensconced in a local pub by the time we arrived. The 'Gooseberry Bus' elected to get set up for their first evening instead of joining them. Raglan Motor Park was basic but sufficient and rather old-fashioned - a 20 cent piece discouraged the hot-water-wasters from the showers despite it being 20 years since 20c had had the value to carry out this function. We set up camp and began the process of emptying bags and filling every van cranny with items that we would not find again until we cleaned out the van 12 days hence. We collected together the supplies for a meal of pan fried chicken and joined forces with the salad-endowed 'Silver Fox' crew in their chalet. A fine meal was concocted and disposed of. Coral and Lynda lasted as long as their post-halfway-around-the-world flight-weary bodies would allow and retired early. Those that had come from closer at hand (or who had had a day or two to put their long flight behind them, in the case of Mark) batted on for another hour or two. The crew of the 'Gooseberry Bus' returned to their mobile home via the night-cloaked beach. We spotted stars through the scudding clouds and were serenaded by three happy, if somewhat drunk, locals before heading for our beds.

Day 2 - A civilised start and a slow breakfast saw us on the road by 10:30. Our goal for the day was the wee town of Waitomo, famous for its caves and glow worms. Our planned route had a number of things to see on the way, but, as is often the way with plans on holiday, a poor road map and guide book conspired to hold us to a day of getting-lost-on-back-roads. We saw almost nothing of the things we thought we would and arrived in Waitomo a little frazzled and flat. The weather had been increasingly signalling its intention to add to our misery by teasingly providing spells of sunshine just long enough to get us out of the cars and onto a scenic walkway before dousing us with rain. Our one blessing for the day was our accommodation in Waitomo (the first campervan park I'd been to with a free hot spa pool for the guests) which went a long way towards making up for the trails of our first real day on the road. The 'Silver Fox' crew lodged in a B&B much more to there taste than the breeze block hut that they had had the previous night. Obtaining our evening meal capped the day in a fashion consistent with the spirit of the day. The pizza restaurant we had spied on the way in was closed for a private function; the pub "didn't do food on a Sunday!" (said in a tone that indicated disbelief that people ate on the Sabbath); the Post Office Café served the kind of food that made one wish that the owners had stuck to selling stamps; which left the grand looking hotel on the hill. And 'looking' was a key modifier. It was a deeply odd place - obviously once genuinely grand, but now mostly just strange. It is an unwritten culinary law that one diner in a table of four or more will be the dumping ground for all the items that a kitchen adds to the menu to round it out, rather than because it has any skill in cooking said dishes, and it was my job to be that diner tonight. I was treated to a plate of well over-cooked pork covered in slowly stewing salad greens with a side order of 'mashed' potato which would have made a brick layers apprentice blush and followed this with a Mille Fille that rather resembled a stack of sausage roll casings with the meat poked out. A most odd meal in a most odd setting. We returned to our respective lodgings and retired after a trying day.

Day 3 - Today was, by consensus, a non-driving day. Lynda and Coral left us to pursue their own day's diversions and the rest of us met at 10:00 sharp to join our Lost World Adventure - a four-hour tour of a nearby cave system. Our guide was a quintessential Kiwi Adrenalin Activity Guide called Jack - a casual approach masking competent ability. He drove us up to the entrance to the Lost World Cave and we geared up for the novel process of entry to the cave - not on foot, but via a 100 metre abseil down the cave's main light-well 📷. Up to 8 people plus a guide can descend simultaneously and side-by-side from the lip of the cave's roof. The descent was slow and spectacular 📷. Amongst the oddities we saw as we descended were ??, strangely canted stalactites distorted by their interaction with the moss that grows on there sunward-facing flanks. By the time we reached the cave floor my legs had gone completely numb (thanks to a harness built more for long life than for comfort) and I had to rest until the blood flow returned. We then followed a swift-flowing river into the cave system proper. After a brief stop for photos and food, we headed off to find some glow worms to look at. Jack desanitised the guidebook-friendly description of these beautifully gleaming insect larvae by describing them as they really are: "cannibalistic maggots with glowing shit". Their magic was not marred for me one jot. Next up was a 33-metre climb up a vertical ladder to make some headway in our return to the surface - quite an exhausting task, I can tell you. The final stretch of our journey was comprised of a gentle scramble back to the cave system's entrance via vistas of reaching rock and ceilings glistening with silver drips. We returned happy to Waitomo. The adventurers found Lynda in the café and we joined her for a hot drink and a swapping of our day's experiences. She had been on the Glow Worm Cave tour and had enjoyed it very much. We split up for what was left of the afternoon and reconvened for our evening meal at the pizza restaurant. After a good meal, Mark, Andy and I elected to go for a walk to find a 30-minute bush track that had been recommended to us as an after-dark diversion by Jack, our caving guide. We spent an hour walking off our dinner with a very pleasant stroll, but failed utterly in finding the track Jack had recommended.

Day 4 - I slept in and missed joining Andy for her hour-and-a-half morning run. Oh, damn. We were on the road again by 10:30 and began with a little back-tracking to locate some of the things we'd missed on our way down to Waitomo. First up was the massive Marokopa Falls which required us to negotiate a storm-blocked track in order to get down to see it 📷. Second up (for me, anyway) was a muddy attempt to find the Piripiri Caves. Next we caught up with the 'Silver Fox' for a group visit to the spectacular Mangapohue Natural Bridge Scenic Reserve. Splitting up again the 'Gooseberry Bus' trundled its way to Rotorua via the scenic highway 30. We broke our journey for a late lunch at the splendid Bosco Café in Te Kuiti. Once ensconced in our lodgings in Rotorua we cooked up a mighty meal for the gang and the boys stayed up late drinking red wine and talking shite.

Day 5 - Today I felt like a day off, so I stayed behind whilst the others went off to explore "Roto-Vegas: Fartland of the North Island". I read my book and dozed and generally slobbed about. Bliss. The explorers returned late afternoon, clinking trinkets and souvenirs in hand. We got cleaned up for dinner and then treated ourselves to a posh night out a the scrumptious 'Herbs'. Double yum. After our meal Mark and I retired to a nearby pub to drink Leffe and talk shite whilst the rest went home to bed. The two boys batted on until 01:00 before being bribed to leave the bar with Jet Planes and Strawberry Creams by the two lovely bar staff. We cabbed it back to the campsite.

Day 6 - The boys had a bit of a slow start this morning. The vehicles went their separate ways. Andy, Coral and I headed for the Polynesian Spa, a collection of thermal hot pools, for a good soak to start our day. Andy and I then met Mark for some lunch. Tummies full, we filled the van with food and fuel and got on the road east. Our destination was the picturesque Waikaremoana Lake. And, boy, what a road. In my time I've seen signs stating "winding road next 5 km". Once or twice I've even seen "winding road next 10 km". But never before had I seen "winding road next 120 km". And they weren't lying - the longest stretch of straight road on the 60km section that we did to get to the lake was less than 100m in length. The scenery was breathtaking! We arrived at the lake with the sun low in the sky and some fierce looking clouds on their way in. We had time enough to check in, get set up and have the champers chilling in the lake before the storm hit 📷. And, boy, what a storm! We rather pitied the pair of Dutchmen in the tent next door. Our 2.5 tonne van was blasted by the gale and rain in an exciting and invigorating way. I slept like a baby (although that could have been the bubbly).

Day 7 - The stormy weather continued into Friday and grand plans to do a chunk of the Great Walk around the lake were switched for lesser plans involving chunks of bacon and a Great Fry-up. Another major decision of the day was to hire a chalet for the coming evening so that we could spend an evening with luxuries like a full-sized table to eat at and a full-sized double bed to sleep in. Andy & I moved in as soon as we possibly could and spent most of the middle part of the day dossing around. Mark went for a good, long walk instead. By mid-afternoon Andy & I were feeling a teensy bit guilty about having come all this way just to spend our day in bed, so we donned our walking gear and strung a couple of short tracks together to make up a pleasant 1.5 hour bush track circuit. One beautiful stretch took in a triple waterfall system and a 100-year-old all-wood 'traction-engine trailer' 📷. That night we took full advantage of our full-size kitchen, prepared a slap-up meal and played 'Cranium' until the wine ran out.

Day 8 - Another less-than-swift start today and a good deal of faffing saw us on the road by 11:00. Half-an-hour further along the road east we stopped in a gale-blasted look-out at the head of the lake, brewed coffee and made human kites out of our bodies and towels. The wind was ferocious! 📷 Continuing east we arrived at Morere Hot Springs by early afternoon. We did a delightful short bush walk around the predominantly Nikau palm forest and then relaxed in the hot pools that nestled beside a stream at the walk's terminus. After a long soak we stayed on for coffee and reading in the sun. On the road again we back-tracked briefly in order to join the road to the Mahia Peninsula, our destination for the evening. We checked out both available campsites and chose the one in the village of Mahia, right on the beach front. After parking up and settling in (we were experts at this bit by now) we all pootled off for a walk along the beautiful and windswept beach. Returning to the van to change and collect cash we were off out again, this time to find something for our dinner. Fish & chips & beer on the beach as the sun sets over the water is pretty hard to beat. Back at the van the night sped in and we read until the sky was full of stars. The night was not cold, the sky was clear and there was no light pollution to speak of - perfect star gazing conditions. We retired happy after a most pleasant day.

Day 9 - We spent a very pleasant morning and early afternoon on the beach. We were on the road again by 14:30 and began with a short jaunt further along the peninsula via an exciting ridge-top, metal road 📷. Back on the highway again we headed south to Napier. I drove all the way there and my casual driving style combined with the winding road to elicit many expletives from my hitherto relaxed passengers. Once in Napier we checked into yet another Top Ten Campervan Park (we should have bought the discount card after all) and took care of some long overdue household chores. Today was the final day of Napier's Art Deco Festival, but we had already missed most of the goings on. That night we dined out on passable curry before indulging in coffee and desserts back at Bobby et al's rather odd hotel.

Day 10 - Today was Explore Napier Day. Napier was levelled in 1931 by an earthquake measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale. Not much of the old town survived - what wasn't destroyed in the quake burnt down during the aftermath (all the water mains were destroyed when the land rose by over 2m during the quake). This left a blank slate that was cannily rebuilt in the style of the day - Art Deco. Today Napier is one of the world's best examples of an Art Deco cityscape. At 14:00 Bobby, Mark, Andy and I clambered into a 1934 Buick with our driver Clarence 'Bertie' Bertram St John Fitz Montague (bedecked, of course, in period costume) for an hour-and-a-half tour of the Art Deco buildings around the town 📷. We were treated to an excellent and in-depth tour. The 'Gooseberry Bus' crew returned to base for a spot of R&R before setting out again to find some dinner. We struck out for the port where a collection of new bars and restaurants had been set up. All felt that an unobstructed sea view was more important than protection from the elements, so we were forced to huddle down the back of our selected eatery. Once again I played the part of Kitchen Lightning Rod - my order of Irish Fish Stew turned out to be a slab of bread covered in two litres of weak cheese sauce. At least the Guinness was good. In bed by 23:30.

Day 11 - Despite a mildly boozy evening and a late-ish finish we were up and about relatively early. The 'Gooseberry Bus' was fed, watered, packed up and on the road by 10:00. Our destination for the evening was Taupo but I wanted to drive up via the Desert Road so the rest of the bus humoured me despite this doubling the length of the day's drive. We cut across country to Waiuru via the Gentle Annie high-country road. The weather along the Desert Road was mixed - clear and windy on he plain, but cloudy around the volcanoes. Of the three cones, only Mt Ruapehu peeked out from it's cape of cloud 📷. In Taupo we tracked down the 'Silver Fox' crew (who had taken the more direct route to the lakeside town) and got set up. That done we jumped in the car and drove to the beginning of the Waikato River Track and did the hour-long walk down river to the Huka Falls. This spectacular falls makes up for its diminutive drop (10 metres) with sheer power - 270 cubic metres (enough to fill 2 olympic-sized swimming pools) is ejected from the 5 metre wide mouth every second 📷. Quite a sight! We returned to the camp site, got cleaned up and then I cooked the gang a lorry-load of pancakes in honour of the Irish religious festival known as Pancake Tuesday. I'm looking forward to Corn Fritter Thursday and Guinness Saturday coming soon. We finished the evening with a game of 'Cranium' in which Mark and I got slaughtered by the McDonough Juggernaut.

Day 12 - Our van was up and raring to go this morning. Lyndy Mac cooked us all a slap-up breakfast and the days plans were laid. And then all the good intentions for a busy day melted away. We didn't get going again properly until 13:30. First up was the opening of the Waikato River Dam Control Gates, just above the Aratiatia Rapids, at 14:00 📷. This is done for half-an-hour every two hours in order to keep the rapids ticking over. Wow! Then we returned to the Huka Falls for a bit before joining my personal favourite, a jet boat ride up the river to the Huka Falls 📷. Cool, cool, cool! Home again after a few minor detours, we relaxed and read our books. Dinner was dial-out pizza from Hell including one of their dessert pizzas. The boys then called a 'Cranium' re-match and redressed the unexpected result from the night before. We also endured finishing off all the booze we had accumulated over the past 12 days. Shame. We went to bed at some point.

Day 13 - Our attempt to be on the road back to Auckland by 09:00 proved unsurprisingly optimistic. Andy and Lynda again treated us to a fine fry-up for breakky and we were on the road by 10:00. Our first stop was the very cute wee town of Tirau. The town's obsession with corrugated iron made for some interesting shop fronts. We visited the bee centre for a bit before going for coffee in the Poppy Café 📷. Next up was the town of Matamata, jumping off point for tours of the Hobbiton set used in the Lord of the Rings movies. Unfortunately the tour times did not gel well with our flight schedule, so Andy had to defer her much anticipated visit to Hobbiton. After leaving back our campervan and sorting out some left luggage, we checked in and went through security - to discover nothing but a vending machine on the other side. So Mark and I exited again and went to the bar for a few swift beers. Our flight to Christchurch touched down at 20:00. The 'Silver Fox' crew disappeared to collect their hire car, whilst the 'Gooseberry Bus' headed off to get a taxi. We all rendezvoused at our motel before I headed off to stay with Ma & Pa for the night.

Interlude and a Wedding - Christchurch, New Zealand

Day 14 - Today was 'Organise A Wedding Day'. I finally contributed to the organisational side of our Occasion by running errands all day whilst Andy got some preliminary primping and preening out of the way. My big achievement was, with Mark's much needed help, getting some shoes to wear. Phew! That evening the two sets of parents met each other for the first time (my Mum and Dad had met before, as had Bobby and Coral, but you know what I mean). Mum cooked up a storm for 12 people despite having one arm in a sling. She is such a show-off. Everyone seemed to get on well. The McDonough Travelling Circus returned to their motel whilst I stayed on at the Molloy Zoo.

Day 15 - 'T minus 1' today and time for a few last minute errands (flowers, etc.) before getting on the road out to Akaroa. Andy, Milly, Mark and myself drove over the hills and then Milly drove the car back so that the second family group could get out the next day. We checked in to our venue, Blythcliffe, and did some contingency planning in case the 'outside under the stars' plan had to bow to the weather. That done we did a run through of our service and then went to the pub. Everyone who had come over today was already in the pub and the booze and food flowed. Well the booze did - despite it being 18:30, it seemed to come as a shock to the kitchen that people might want food and thus getting fed turned into a bit of a shambles. At least the booze was OK. We spoke briefly to Mr Poole which was most excellent - he was being missed (serves him right for being so fertile, I guess). The night wore on, the Sambucha flowed and I had to do a runner in order to ensure I'd be fit for duty for the next day. Bugger. ;-)

Day 16 - The Big Day. I feel I should write lots about today, but I fear nothing I write will do the day justice. We had a magic day with a good chunk of the people we love the most in this world. Anyway, if a 'picture speaks a thousand words', there will be about 2.5 billion words over in the photo gallery some day soon - the smiles tell the story best.