Category Archives: North Island


DSCN7381As New Zealand’s largest city Auckland has quite a different feel to it than Christchurch or Wellington, both of which seem to have retained a bit of small town charm about them as they’ve grown.  Not that Auckland is unpleasant, or at least the bits of the city centre that we’ve seen anyway, but the place has a little bit of big city bustle about it that we’ve not experienced elsewhere in New Zealand.  After five weeks of what’s been a very rural experience it feels ever so slightly frenetic., but perhaps that’s just a sign of a busy town and a healthy economy.

IMGP4465That said, you can’t build a city on the edge of the Pacific Ocean without it taking on a maritime character and Auckland has done that very successfully.  We spent a couple of very pleasant hours this afternoon walking through the harbour area and ogling some of the significant nautical hardware moored alongside.  I’ve avoided calling them yachts because these titanic (!) vessels are about as far away from my experience of yachting as you can get.  No doubt a helicopter is an absolutely essential accessory if you own something that’s the size of village and cost rather more than the GNP of a small country – jealous, me, surely not?

This morning we met with Ed Verner , a chum of sons Richard and Thomas, who made the move to Auckland around three years ago and is now prospering here as a professional chef.  It was great to hear how well he and his partner Laura are doing and to hear something about their plans for the future.  Good luck Ed, and thanks for finding the time to meet up.


Heading back towards Auckland

We had a bit of a technical disaster the other evening.  Before we set off on our travels I’d cunningly copied a number of films from DVD onto my ‘tablet’ for viewing during the holiday – among them I’d included all 20 episodes of The Killing – in Danish with English sub-titles.  Anyway, we got as far as Episode 13 to find that for some reason the last eight episodes had been copied without subtitles.  It took about two minutes to realize that our command of Danish is limited to two words – ‘smorgasbord’ and ‘sauna’, neither of which seems to come up too regularly in The Killing. So now we’ll have to wait until we get home to find out whether Troels did the dirty deed, whether Sarah Lund will marry Bengt move to Sweden and live happily ever after, and if Meyer is going to smoke himself to death before the end of the series.

For the last two days we’ve been heading south back towards Auckland.  Tonight is our last night in the van and then we’ve got a couple of nights in a hotel before we fly off to Bangkok with a night’s stopover in Sydney on the way.  Time for reflections then……..

  • New Zealand is a truly fabulous country – virtually everywhere we’ve visited has been absurdly stunning, in fact I can’t think of one part of the country we’ve seen that I wouldn’t be happy to return to, or recommend to others.
  • The North and South Islands have their own characters but the differences are more subtle than you’d expect – the South is probably a tad more spectacular and wild but the North is no less beautiful and perhaps has the edge when it comes to beaches.  The fact of the matter is that it’s not a question of either/or …. if you’re coming all this way, make the time to do both North and South Islands.
    • People talk about New Zealand as being like stepping back into a UK of 20 or 30 years ago but I’m not sure that’s quite right.  Yes, it’s much quieter, less crowded and more relaxed than the UK of 2014 but there’s something else as well.  I can’t recall the UK as ever being quite as ‘chilled’ as most of the Kiwis we’ve met have seemed to be.  I’m sure that it’s not perfect and as a nation they have some social and cultural problems, but the national character and very obvious focus on enjoying and protecting their environment is hugely attractive.
    • ……….and contrary to expectations it has been possible for Denise and I to live in the confines of a campervan for five weeks without coming even remotely close to killing each other!

      Denise in one of her moods after four weeks in the campervan with John
      Denise in one of her moods after four weeks in the campervan with John!

Hokianga Harbour and the Kauri Forests

For most of our time in New Zealand we’ve tended to spend every third or fourth night on commercial campsites and in between we’ve ‘freedom camped’ on sites provided either by the Department of Conservation (DOC) or by the local town or regional authorities.  These vary in providing absolutely no facilities, other than the space in which to park your van or pitch your tent, to well organised campgrounds with toilets and some even provide showers, kitchens, power etc.  Even the commercial sites are inexpensive by European standards, with most charging around $20/adult whilst the DOC and other sites charge around $10, or in some cases are free.  It’s a good system and means that there’s no real need for campers to stop where they’re unwanted or to pull over on the roadside for the night.  One word of advice; if you are going to use the DOC sites be sure to get there in good time as even out of peak season the better ones tend to fill up by gin time.

Sunday night we were on a well-provided DOC site on the edge of the Trounson Kauri forest sitting just to the side of Highway 12 which runs down the west coast of Northland.  Much of Northland, Auckland and the Coromandel Peninsula were once covered in mixed forests dominated by the mighty kauri, the world’s second largest tree, but by the early 20th century nearly all had been felled, either for their magnificent wood or to make way for agriculture.


The only two remaining extensive pockets are the Waipoura and Trounson forests which are well worth a visit just to marvel at these enormous trees, the largest of which can live for 2,000 years and reach 50m in height and 20m in girth.  It’s an interesting fact (not a lot of people know this) that it’s now illegal to fell a kauri except in particular circumstances which include culling a diseased or dying tree, or when constructing a ceremonial war canoe – imagine explaining that one to the Cotswold District Tree Protection Officer!


Hokianga Harbour is one of those places that needs to be seen in the sunshine.  Fortunately the clouds parted and the sun broke through just as we arrived, so the view from the café as we tucked into our daily latte and muffin was to die for (we’re easily pleased these days).




Waitangi and Matauri Bay

IMGP4341We all know and understand that Britain (with or without Scotland included) is the centre of the known universe; so we probably shouldn’t find it surprising that key events in British history are taught in New Zealand schools – you know, Kings and Queens, how we beat the French (several times), how we built and lost an empire, that sort of thing.  So how much do we Brits know about New Zealand’s relatively short history?  Not much if my meagre store of knowledge is anything to go by.

Anyway, all that was put right today by our visit to the very beautiful Waitangi Treaty Grounds where we were given an excellent summary of ‘everything you need to know about Kiwi history but were afraid to ask’, followed by a very enjoyable ‘cultural experience’ which included, among other things, half a dozen scary looking Maori boys and girls sticking their tongues out at us and threatening us with clubs and spears.


Not your usual welcome, admittedly, but really well done and very effective.  In point of fact it would probably have been even more effective if it hadn’t coincided with a powerboat race taking place on the Bay of Islands and passing within 400m of where we were stood.  Sadly, when it comes to volume even a Maori Haka can’t compete with forty or fifty 350HP Mercury outboards at full chat and a slack handful of low flying helicopters screaming overhead!

boat and heli

Our drive up the coast from the Bay of Islands took us to the beautiful Matauri Bay where we swam and explored yet another practically deserted, fabulous beach.  Overlooking the bay is the monument to the Rainbow Warrior which, those who remember the 80s will recall, was sunk by the sneaky French Secret Service in Auckland Harbour – need I say more?


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.