29 March 2012

New Zealand - North Island

New Zealand - North Island

Romantic notions of New Zealand are always conjured up by the title" Land of the Long White Cloud"
In Cape Town, the long white cloud means the South Easter is blowing, covering our beloved Table Mountain with it's table cloth, so hang onto your skirts and have a jacket on stand-by for the chill that permeates the air!

Nonetheless, this description of New Zealand just begs to be explored so we decided on a 3 week trip to see for ourselves this "Long White Cloud". Myth or were we just lucky? I hope it was the latter!

Landing in Auckland late at night after a very long flight, one would have thought we would have been exhausted? But no, we were too keyed up to sleep! Luckily, there was a 24 shop just opposite of our downtown hotel, so we stocked up on a sandwich and started to plan the days ahead.

After a decent breakfast the next morning, we headed to the ferry and Davenport. This North Shore suburb is host to the New Zealand Navy and also boast many interesting shops and restaurants. We admired  the views from North Head - quaint old timber houses with corrugated iron roofs still exist here. Next was a trip up Mt Victoria, the highest volcano on the North Shore at 87m. The views are glorious and there is a peaceful atmosphere. A quaint area just a short ferry ride from downtown.

Our bus ride to Kelly Tarton's Underwater World was entertaining as we could eavesdrop on the locals reminiscing about the "good old days" whilst feeling sorry for the current youth who have it quite tough!  Could that be us talking in 30 years time? Kelly Tartons is fascinating! We took a ride in the ice to see the King and Gentu Penguins - so freezing cold - I would not survive in those sub-zero temperatures! The complex has to make approx. 3000 kg of snow daily to ensure that these penguins have their "usual" habitat. A conveyor belt takes on on a ride between huge tanks filled with sharks, eels, stingrays, and myriads of fish. It's very well done and certainly worth a visit.

We did an organised day tour which included a drive through the America's Cup Village which was very interesting, then on to Mt Eden which is the highest natural point in Auckland and offers views all round. We were taken past the most expensive street in Auckland - but I must be honest and admit that Auckland is not the most attractive of cities in my eyes. A harbour cruise finished off the tour but again, we would have been better off taking a ferry to some interesting point as the commentary was barely audible and the lady doing the snacks/refreshments spent most of her time on the bridge!

 Auckland is known as the "City of Sails"and has a vibrant sailing fraternity. The city also hosts some of the major ocean races such as the Volvo Round The World Race during their stop-overs. A must see for any visitor whether a sailor or land-lubber, has to be the Sky Tower. It dominates the city and at 328 m is the tallest man-made structure in New Zealand.  The views stretch forever on a clear day and if you are truly brave (or crazy!) try a Sky Dive! Seeing these dives on TV is scary enough and I was certainly not going to attempt it! OK - Chicken, I know! There are many "learn English" places dotted all over Auckland to cater for the large Asian community living in the city. We enjoyed a lovely meal at one of the waterfront restaurants and discovered that our waitress was from Wales so James could have a good old natter. Truly a small world.

Our own self-drive tour gets us up early and anxious to be on our way in our nifty little red Ford. The traffic heading into the city is non-stop and we travelled about 40 kms out before seeing the green countryside. The city seems to go on forever and ever...it's huge and sprawling.

Our first exciting stop was for the Waitomo Caves, also known as the Gloworm Caves. One gets into a boat and it is pitch dark and eerie. I was freaking about us getting lost in the maze of tunnels until I realised that the boatman was holding onto an overhead rope so we were safe! The glow worms are in their thousands on the roof of the caves and these little lights are so spectacular one just wishes for time to slow down so that their glow can be absorbed even more. The silence, the lights, the dark water - all make for an amazing experience. The worms  make approx 4 threads hanging down from the ceiling to catch the insects that come in from the river. So when they are hungry, they just reel in the food! Wish I could do that! The Waitomo Glowworm Caves were first explored in 1887 by local Maori Chief Tane Tinorau and over a hundred years later have been handed back to the descendants of this family. The Glow Worms are unique to New Zealand. As with everything in NZ, there has to be some sort of exciting dare-devil activity and here one has the Black Water Rafting company to take you on a never-to-be forgotten  abseil, weave, jump and glide experience! We exited the caves through an arch in the cliffside which was just magic.

A walk up the hillside gave us great views over the valley and we were followed all the way by some twittering birds - it was uncanny as they followed us all the way down again and then flew off. They left us at the very spot where they first joined us - most odd but it made for an interesting walk!

Our first taste of Maori culture came in the form of a show at the hotel ion Rotorua. I fell in love with the Maori music instantly - it has a haunting quality that just pulls at the heart-strings and I was smitten from the first song. The dances with the poi look so easy and graceful but must be difficult to do. Poi is the Maori word for ball and this is a form of juggling where these balls are swung around the body to form different patterns and shapes. When the balls are lit by fire, it's even more thrilling. Great as an exercise for those who want to take up something very different! The Maori guys look very fierce especially when they wriggle their tongues. That's scary - these huge men with their monstrous tongues waving at you. Ugh!!  Many dances are very graceful and beautiful and the Maoris have a proud culture and most haunting music. Maori costumes are made from flax and natural dyes and one can find out more at the Maori Institute and Thermal Reserve.

Bubbling mud pools and spectacular geysers are proof, if one requires any, of Rotorua’s volcanic background. Thermal activity and throbbing mud pools, with clouds of very hot steam rising, amidst a very strong sulphur smell, mark this city of Rotorua quite uniquely. At the Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Reserve we enjoyed a 40 min walk around all the exuberant, smelly pools - it scary to think that perhaps you could throw your most hated enemy into this boiling hot cauldron - a witches delight! But thankfully, those were only my dark thoughts - they New Zealanders are more civilised than that!
The "Lady Knox" erupts daily but is helped on it's way by adding some soap powder to the mix. Sorry to disappoint but that's modern tourism for you!

New Zealand is synonymous with sheep - they are everywhere so a sheep show is another must see. We enjoyed one in the Agrodome in Rotorua where we were introduced to 19 different breeds of sheep. Can that be possible? They all look the same to me at a distance - maybe some are whiter than others! We were also enthralled by a very energetic display of sheep-shearing. The sheep shearers of New Zealand are a tough bunch and they are also very competitive - who would want to shear 700 sheep in 9 hours straight? Only a Kiwi! Some of the sheep used in the show are stars in their own right and one was prone to stomping his feet as if to say " leave me alone, buster" The sheep dog displays are incredible - these dogs obey orders instantly and know just what to do with a errant sheep. My highlight was feeding a little lamb with a bottle - no wonder I don't eat lamb anymore.  Such a cute little mite!

Our drive down to Wellington was very pretty and pleasant but the hotel, Abel Tasman was not too great. However, the city was bursting at the seams due to a rugby match so I suppose we had to be grateful for a bed. The breakfast must have been the worst of all in NZ. Wellington stole my heart - it's a beautiful city, albeit very, very windy. It's a very pretty city and the views from Mt Victoria are lovely. Our cable car trip to the Botanical Gardens was passed in delightful conversation with an ex Scottish lady who was very willing to chat and tell us of her longing for bonnie old Scotland. However, with children and grand-children in NZ, she was there to stay. The gardens cover 25 hectares and were first established in 1868. We enjoyed a leisurely walk amongst the trees and plants, partook of some lunch and then descended again in the cable car. A night time drive to Oriental Bay showed up all the city lights and we reluctantly headed for bed eventually.

The morning dawned windless and clear so the ferry ride to South Island was not too bad.
Thankfully for my motion sickness! Having seen the wind buffeting a plane tryng to land the previous day, I was so nervous about this ferry crossing but it seems my guardian angel took pity on me and all was well.

See you again on South Island!

© Judelle Drake

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