Getting into Hot Water, Tractors and a Deflating Experience

Hot Water Beach on the eastern coast of the Coromandel Peninsula is apparently rated as Number 4 among the world’s top 10 ‘bathing experiences’ – I shudder to think what the other nine may be, or for that matter even to imagine how the judging was done and on whose evidence.  I do, however, remember a club in Hamburg many years ago where members of the audience could sit in a tub and have their backs scrubbed on stage if they were brave enough (no, I wasn’t – but I could name names if pressed) – that must surely rate as one of the ten?


Anyway, Hot Water Beach is a totally different experience; all you have to do there is stand on the beach at low tide and the volcanic gases bubble up through the sand at 60oC, which is hot enough to broil your toes if you stand still long enough.  Those who know the score come along with shovels and dig their own Jacuzzis whilst the waves do their best to spoil the fun.  Another unique Kiwi experience not to be missed.


Cathedral Cove
Cathedral Cove

New Zealanders really love their tractors.  I’m not entirely sure, and haven’t done a count, but reckon that every adult male Kiwi must own at least one tractor.  Big tracked ones, small grey antique ones – it doesn’t really matter what your particular penchant may be, there’s a tractor to suit each and every one in New Zealand.  On our travels we’ve seen them just about everywhere: in fields (obviously), on the roofs of buildings, even as ornaments in gardens – a sort of gnome substitute.  In a couple of the towns we’ve visited it seemed as though the only thing you could buy was tractors and things to fit on your tractor – you know, furry dice, seat covers, go faster tractor stripes, that sort of thing.  When we get home, perhaps I should get a tractor?

Sunset at Thames on the Coromandel
Sunset at Thames on the Coromandel

A flat tyre in Whangerei almost marred today’s drive from the Coromandel up through Auckland to the Bay of Islands – fortunately the spare was serviceable, the jack worked, I avoided having a heart attack and the guys in the local tyre repair shop were really helpful .  Ninety minutes and a little perspiration later and we were back on the road.


The Wai-o-tapo Thermal Experience and a big hole in the ground

We decided to drive cross-county from our overnight stop at Mangakino to the area just south of Rotorua where many of New Zealand’s thermal ‘experiences’ are to be found. Our route took us through an area shown on the map as the ‘Hidden Valley Thermal Area’, but whoever was in charge of doing the hiding had done an exceptional job because we saw no signs whatsoever of anything even remotely geothermal until we reached Wai-o-tapu – unless you count the temperature gauge of the campervan as we crawled our way up some pretty steep gravel roads along the way.  All very beautiful, but we were pleased to be back on sealed (tarmac) roads if only to end the incessant rattling of our 10 year old VW boneshaker.

Inevitably, most of the more spectacular geo-thermal sites are in private hands and the owners are understandably keen to make a few bucks out of the tens of thousands of slack jawed visitors who flock to gape at geysers and marvel at mud pools.


Denise getting a little steamed up about something .....
Denise getting a little steamed up about something …..

That said we thought that the ‘Wai-o-tapu Thermal Wonderland’ was pretty good value and it would have been better still if we’d managed to arrive in time for the daily spectacle of the Lady Knox Geyser being induced to do her thing when a member of staff pours soap down her vent (no way to treat a lady!). Nevertheless, the 90 minute walk around vents, craters and a succession of multi-coloured, bubbling pools was excellent and gave us a fascinating insight into the world just below our feet.

Perthy's trying to work out just how much of this custard he can manage!
Perthy’s trying to work out just how much of this custard he can manage!

We stayed last night at Waihi Beach and started this morning with an hour and a half’s gentle walk up the deserted beach collecting a variety of seashells along the way.  Getting back on the road again we stopped for our usual mid-morning coffee and cake at Waihi, which is a pleasant enough spot but seemed pretty unremarkable until we wandered up to look at an unusual and rather ugly monolithic building which sits in the centre of the town.


This turned out to be an ‘historic’ pumping house built at the beginning of the 20th century to keep the local gold mine dry – in fact it was judged to be so iconic that in 2006, when the 1,860 tonne building was threatened by subsidence, the mine owners moved it (in one piece) by 300m at a cost of $4.2 million just to preserve it for the community.  All very worthy no doubt, and symptomatic of New Zealand’s yearning for a history of its own, but talk about clutching at historical straws!

Yes, it's gold Perthy, but not as we know it.....
Yes, it’s gold Perthy, but not as we know it…..

Just behind the building, and almost in the heart of the town, is the gold mine itself.  Now operated as an open cast mine they reckon that they have to mine 1 tonne of ore-bearing stone to extract 11 grams of gold – that’s a concentration of 11 parts per million.   It’s already 190m deep at the centre and when they do finish mining they’ll have to leave it for 20 years before they can let it fill with water (which will take 5 years) and then the town will have its own lake – just what every self-respecting  New Zealand community needs.

Taupo, Wakapapa and then up to Mangakino

The drive up from Napier to Lake Taupo was pretty straightforward.  The wineries and serried ranks of vines stop pretty abruptly as you leave the Hawke’s Bay region and as the Thermal Highway climbs steadily back into sheep and cattle country.  There are a lot of sheep in New Zealand, but not, as we’ve been told, as many as in years gone by – it seems that the Chinese demand for dairy and beef products is growing at such a rate that New Zealand farmers can’t change quickly enough and the effect on the landscape is becoming obvious.  More and more irrigation to produce the lush pastures, hay and silage that cattle need and with it a progressive taming of the landscape – still, they have a lot of it!

The Huka Falls just north of Taupo
The Huka Falls just north of Taupo

Lake Taupo is the result of an enormous volcanic eruption in 186 AD, which is practically in living memory in geological terms.  The Taupo volcano spewed out 24 cubic kilometres of rock and ash (at least ten times more than Krakatoa and Mt St Helens combined) and covered much of the North Island in a layer of pumice.  Ash from the eruption was carried around the world – the Chinese noted a blackening of the sky, the Romans recorded that the skies turned blood-red and I imagine that flights in and an out of Heathrow would have stopped for a few days ………  Anyway, the crater it left behind has filled to become New Zealand’s largest lake, which is roughly the same size as Singapore.

Perthy explains about volcanos to Stella from Rio de Janeiro (some bears have all the fun!)
Perthy explains about volcanos to Stella from Rio de Janeiro (some bears have all the fun!)

We stayed overnight near the wonderfully named Wakapapa Village which was comfortable but cold!  If we’d thought about it we’d have realised that with the site at 1,200m it was bound to get a little nippy – but the ice on the windscreen in the morning was a bit of a rude awakening.

We spent this morning walking/climbing the 17km round trip from Wakapapa Village to the Tama lakes which sit in the southern face of Mt Ngaurahoe – no, we don’t know how to pronounce it, but with clear skies and bright sun, the views were spectacular, though we were completely knackered by the time we got back to the van.

A two hour drive this afternoon has brought us to Mangakino for a bit of well-earned rest and recuperation in preparation for ‘doing’ Rotorua tomorrow – pass me another glass of wine please Denise, I don’t think I can move!


Another monster photo day yesterday I’m afraid.  Quite why we should have felt the need to take hundreds of pictures of classic cars is beyond me, but there’s something instinctive about wanting to capture the beauty of a vehicle that someone has spent countless hours doing their level best to bring back to factory condition – or better.


Outside of a museum I’ve never seen so many wonderful classic cars in one place, and the fact that each and every one of these was running as smoothly as it did the day it came off the production line up to 100 years ago is remarkable.  Everything from baby Austins through to Studebakers the size of a bungalow, the exotic alongside the everyday.  Brilliant – even for those who aren’t dyed in the wool petrolheads.


The Deco Festival takes place in Napier each February to celebrate the town’s re-birth following the 1931 earthquake and the fires that followed, which together did a pretty good job of levelling much of the town.  Each year the locals and thousands of visitors from far and wide dress up in their 1920s and 30s finery and stroll or drive around the town, much of which was re-built in the deco style, enjoying the sun and the spectacle.  Highly recommended for those planning to pass this way at around this time of year.




Paraparauma up to Napier

We ‘ate out’ on Thursday morning, which is to say that Jim and Heather kindly gave us breakfast before we set off on our travels.  Jim also took us to a classic car museum (this is becoming a bit of a theme for this holiday) run by a friend of his.  Yet more wonderful veteran, vintage and more recent vehicles to make the mouth water – apparently New Zealand has the highest ratio of classic vehicles per capita anywhere in the world (again, not a lot of people know that).

Our route north took us past Palmerston North, so called because a South Island town grabbed the name Palmerston first and some way had to be found to differentiate them.  According to the Rough Guide an unimpressed John Cleese claimed “If you want to kill yourself but lack the courage, I think that a visit to Palmerston North will do the trick.”  The town responded by naming the local rubbish dump after him.  We didn’t stop.

Thursday night was spent in the metropolis of Porangahau Beach which is about 60 miles to the south of Hastings.  To say that it was quiet would be a bit of an understatement; there was one other vehicle on the (free) camping ground and during our walk down the 10 mile long fabulous beach the next morning we encountered only one other person.


Friday morning we drove up to Napier but stopped to visit Hastings which sits just a little to the south of our destination.  Apparently the two towns were hit equally hard by the 1931 earthquake but it was the consequent fires that did much of the damage.  Hastings had the good fortune to be sitting on top of a number of artesian wells whereas Napier’s water supply failed during the fire-fighting – as a result the rebuilding task in Napier was much greater and rather more of today’s architecture dates from that period which (according to the books) is a mix of Deco, Spanish Mission and Stripped Classical styles.  Anyway, both towns now celebrate their Deco heritage but Napier gets the lion’s share of the limelight.

Our arrival in Napier cunningly coincides with their annual Deco Festival when the town’s population and thousands of visitors suddenly step back 85 years, don their flapper dresses, straw boaters and  spats, climb into their Packards and Bugattis and paint the town red for a long weekend.   More of that in tomorrow’s blog – must dash, got to practise my Black Bottom!


Wellington and a visit to the Dryburghs

A five minute walk from our overnight campsite took us to Mana railway station and 30 minutes later and a couple of $8 fares we were in Wellington – parking the van in the centre of the city would have been a nightmare so this turned out to be a really good move.  If you come from Europe you probably don’t go to New Zealand to admire the country’s historic architecture, but as it happens Wellington has some real nuggets tucked away and has done a pretty good job of conserving them.  First stop was the Old Government Buildings which at first sight appear to be constructed of a cream coloured stone but actually turn out to be wood  – for some time it was thought to be the world’s largest wooden building, but, wouldn’t you know it, the Japanese have something bigger. (Not a lot of people know that).


A three minute trip by cable car from the heart of the central business district lifts you up a couple of hundred metres to a great viewpoint with views out over the harbour and out to the Cook Strait.  It also takes you to the highest point in Wellington’s excellent Botanic Gardens which must rank as one of the most interesting and best presented of all the public spaces we’ve seen in the many cities we’ve visited over the years. An hour spent sauntering down through the gardens and back into the city was time very well spent.




The evening was spent with Jim and Heather Dryburgh, 3/5 of their lovely family and a couple of friends Paul and Tracy.  Jim and I worked together in Blandford about ten years back and we last got together during my brief stay in Wellington in 2007.  It was good to catch up on the missing years and to make new friends in the process – thanks Heather for a lovely meal and great West Coast hospitality.

Picton across to Wellington

The ferry from between the South and North Islands runs from Picton to Wellington and is pretty much like any cross channel ferry, but without the duty free and fewer French.  The journey takes around 3 ½ hours and we were fortunate in having a calm, sunny day for our ‘cruise’, so for the first hour or so we sat ‘topsides’ and watched as the ship manoeuvred itself up the narrow Queen Charlotte Sound and even narrower Tory Chanel and out into the Cook Strait.  The route passes dozens of isolated houses and tiny communities which appear to be completely inaccessible other than by boat; although some were obviously holiday retreats the majority were clearly homes – presumably if you live somewhere as inaccessible as that you really don’t want your neighbour to pop round for a chat or calling in to borrow a cup of sugar.


Our arrival in Wellington coincided with rush hour and a traffic jam, but once we were out of the city we had an easy journey up to the freedom campsite we’d chosen on the west coast at Mana which is about half an hour out of the city.  Whether by discerning selection or sheer good fortune we once again stumbled on a nice quiet site with great views, (fairly) clean toilets and, as luck would have it, within five minutes walk of the railway station which we used the following day to pop back into Wellington for some sightseeing.  The campsite was also on the edge of a large and very well organised recreational area which was evidently the focus for just about any sport and outdoor activity you care to name – everything from dog obedience classes and Sea Scouts to kayaking  and cricket.  All part of the New Zealand lifestyle thing and very impressive.


Nelson and Blenheim

Denise had booked a hairdo for Monday morning so I spent the time writing up yesterday’s blog and re-packing the van ready for the second half of our New Zealand adventure.   With her majesty’s barnet sorted we drove the 50 or so miles from Nelson to Blenheim to visit the aviation heritage centre at Omaka, which is definitely worth a couple of hours of anybody’s time.  The museum houses a collection of twenty or so WW1 aircraft, some original and some faithful reproductions, and many of which are still airworthy.  Most of the aircraft are owned by Peter Jackson (of Lord of the Rings fame) and you can see his influence in the realism of the dioramas in which most of the aircraft are set – apparently his production company did much of the work.   Loads of other exhibits and lots of interesting research which is very well presented – definitely worth a visit, especially in this centenary year.


We found a quiet corner to camp on the edge of the Taylor Dam Reserve.  A pretty little place which for a change was teeming with birdlife – including a family of black swans.


A couple of days in Nelson

The last (and only other) time I was in New Zealand was as part of a round the world sailing jolly; having had a hand in the organisation I was fortunate enough to be able to take my pick of the legs and chose a 7 day jaunt across the Tasman Sea from Hobart to Nelson and then on to Wellington.  On that occasion I met up with Bernard Redshaw, a Kiwi who had worked with me in Blandford for several years, and so we couldn’t pass through Nelson this time without again touching base with Bernard who now lives in the town.

Nelson is a gem of a place tucked in at the end of Tasman Bay with a wonderful mountain backdrop and a lovely benign climate.  Having arrived on Saturday morning we spent an hour or so before lunch wandering around the weekly market which had a nice feel about it with genuinely local produce and nice knick-knacks – none of the mass produced tat that many ‘local’ markets in the UK seem to be full of these days.


The afternoon was spent wandering around the Museum of Wearable Art.  Now, those who know me could with some justification leap to the conclusion that a display of clothing made from materials such as wire mesh, pencils and cable ties might not necessarily be my thing – but on this occasion they’d be wrong.  It was simply fantastic, really well presented and well worth a visit if you’re in Nelson or want to spend a few minutes looking at the website.  As a bonus the Museum also houses a collection of about 120 classic cars, most of which are in concours condition and another hour or so was spent wandering happily down memory lane drooling over the exhibits.

Yesterday (Sunday) Bernard kindly drove us out to Lake Rotoiti which is about 50 miles to the south east of Nelson and a really beautiful spot.  We called in briefly at the ‘bach’ (country retreat) of one of Bernard’s friends, Pete, who very kindly gave us coffee before we popped down to look at his collection of ‘classic’ boats – as lifestyles go I’d say that the New Zealanders have got it just about right!

Greymouth to Woodstock (no, not that one)

 It rained overnight and as we drove north from Greymouth we ran into successive rain showers, which once again deprived us of the views of the Southern Alps that we’d hoped for.

DSCN6682 IMGP3709

We also ran into the most enormous ‘convoi exceptionnel’ coming south towards us, which forced us and all other vehicles to pull over to the side of the road to avoid being flattened by whatever it was they were moving – which looked something like a cross between a medium sized house and a Space Shuttle. As half of the road bridges in this part of the country are single track and look rickety enough to be used in a Disney theme park we couldn’t work out where it had come from or where it was going – but, believe me, it was big!


Driving in New Zealand is a fairly painless experience. With a national speed limit of 100km, which most motorists seem content to obey, both driver and navigator have time to enjoy the scenery – especially if you’re at the wheel of a clapped-out VW campervan which struggles to manage some of the climbs up through the mountains in anything greater than third gear. The other pleasurable aspect of motoring over here is the price of diesel, which at $1.50/litre is about half the cost of fuel in UK – though watch out for the sneaky tax on diesel vehicles, which I gather they levy at the end of each hire.

As we crept over the last of the passes through the mountains we left the last (hopefully) of the miserable weather behind us and dropped down into the Nelson Region which is known for wine making and fruit growing and ……. yes, you’ve guessed, more beautiful scenery. Staying at a place called Woodstock in a campervan appealed to something in the hippy side of my nature – though these days I’m more interested in free Wi-Fi than free love.