19th Dec 2011 - 25th Dec 2011
Back to New Zealand!
Over a year in the planning, and more than two years after we left, we’ve made it back to New Zealand!
After a 27 hour journey from Heathrow to Auckland via San Francisco (about which we’ll not spend too long discussing, other than to point out that the United Airlines are a bit shite & Air New Zealand have a very funny flight-safety video & an unnervingly good-looking cabin crew) we were more than a little bit tired as we picked up our campervan from Jucy Rentals just outside the airport. We’ve used Jucy the last time we were over here in October 2009 and then a month later in Australia too. This time, we’d gone for the Jucy ‘Condo’. It’s a vibrantly shocking pea-green, it’s got marginally more power than a dead possum when it comes to climbing hills… it’s still the best campervan we’ve ever had!
On our first visit to New Zealand we didn’t get to spend much time in Auckland (we had the small task of getting married in the South Island and had to head that way pretty sharpish) and we weren’t that impressed. In hindsight we probably formed our opinion too quickly, and whilst the sunny weather may have helped, this time around we really quite enjoyed the place. True, it’s got all the flaws of any major city - a McFastFoodOutlet on every other street and the obligatory drunk person asleep on the side-walk at midday - but, there’s also some good points too. The views from the Sky Tower are impressive, the open-air stalls in Aotea Square are vibrant & colourful and the food at Simon Gault’s Euro restaurant is just stunning!
After the hustle and bustle of Auckland, it’s easy to forget just how uninhabited & remote other parts of New Zealand actually are. After all, the majority of the population of the country - let alone that of the north island - live in the city. Within a few short miles of leaving our campsite in Takapuna Beach, we were trundling down to the kind of arterial route more akin to north Norfolk than Surrey. The number of cars on this winding single-lane highway quickly diminished too; the further north we went, the more it felt like it was just us and the open road. Wonderful.
Our next stop was the town of Russell up in the fabled Bay of Islands, in the north-east of the North Island. We didn’t get to visit this supposedly truly beautiful part of the country on our first visit and where eager to see if it was as pretty as people made out. As we waited in line for the vehicle ferry to take us from Opua across the water to our destination we sensed that the area wasn’t going to disappoint.
Sure enough, Russell was lovely. A quaint township of white picket-fences and seafood restaurants at the edge of the waterfront. Said seafood was excellent, the sunset over the harbour-front stunning and the views from our campsite overlooking the Veronica Channel were magnificent. The following morning, before heading onwards to Cape Reinga, we paid a visit to Long Beach. This is the kind of beach that’s so beautiful it would be rammed full of holiday-makers if located in Europe. Yet not here. No, here in New Zealand you get to walk hand in hand along one of the best beaches in the world with barely another soul in sight…
The drive to Cape Reinga all the way up in the north of the country was one of breathtaking scenery punctuated by small blink-and-you’ll-miss-them townships. The kind of places with one street, a local store and a run-down pub complete with an outback-style porch covered in peeling paint.
To be fair, there probably were a few of these places that you could genuinely miss; you only have to raise your eyes fractionally above the horizon-line here to realise that New Zealand is a country of big, big skies. Distractingly so! One of the things we’d noticed - and loved - about our first visit is the size of the clouds over here. They seem to dwarf the land below & give an almost unnerving sense of scale to the landscapes that we just don’t get back in the UK. As we drove ever northward, on ever more winding roads, even the vast, empty & windswept 90 Mile Beach, which we stopped at along the way, couldn’t compete with that sky.
Cape Reinga itself didn’t disappoint! As we neared the top of the country, giant sand dunes, thick fern-filled forests & green rolling hills sandwiched the road. Closer still and there was a real sense of the land thinning; we could see the Pacific Ocean to our right and the Tasman Sea to our left. Finally we reached the end of the road and were greeted with some of the most breathtaking views. 180 degrees of sea-meets-horizon sparkling in the sun. It’s at times like this you remember just how small and insignificant you really are.
We stayed overnight just a few kilometres down the road at the equally picturesque Tapotupotu Bay, in a campsite with a hole-in-the-ground loo and no showers or any other facilities. It was here we both heard that familiar dreaded high-pitch whine of a mosquito in our ears. Safe to say, the place was teeming with the little buggers. Insect repellent on & hoods up, we sat side by side on our bright pink folding camping chairs (don’t ask!) and maintained a furtive look-out as the sun set & we drank a couple of well-earned beers. Despite being bitten several times, the view of the bay with the waves crashing on a deserted beach & the bottles of Tui East Indian Pale Ale made it all worthwhile.
The Giant Te Paki sand-dunes are just that. Giant.
Heading south from Cape Reinga, we pulled up & parked in our trusty Jucy camper & from east to west these huge golden dunes completely filled the field of vision. We could see people, small specks in the distance, on the ridge high above us. Feeling a little adventurous and displaying a youthfulness that belies our years (and hip joints) we decided to rent a couple of boards and give sand-boarding a go…
Climbing up the dunes was both an arduous and surreal experience. Walking on them was like being on Tatooine; hot, desolate and strangely other-worldly. Particularly after the cool green surroundings of Tapotupotu Bay just a few minutes earlier. At any moment we expected to bump into a slightly effeminate protocol droid.
Breathing heavily, it was literally a case of one step forwards, two steps back. Sweating buckets, lips cracked and mouth dry we stumbled, delirious, in the blazing sun up the side of the granular mountain clutching onto our boards.
After being overtaken by several annoyingly fit, slim & tanned fifty year-old French tourists, we collapsed in a dehydrated heap at the top.
Sliding down a 100ft sandy slope - so steep you can’t see if anyone is walking up it when you crane your head over the edge - on a tea-tray might not seem like a great deal of fun on paper. In reality it’s a blast.
We might be sore and aching & be finding sand in our nether-regions several days later, but we’ve still got it…
We needed somewhere to stay for a few days over Christmas Eve and Christmas Day and, as often happens when you’re travelling, the choice of location was more of a happy accident than design. We found a lovely campsite, right on the banks of a river at the bottom of a valley in the Kauri Coastal region, near to the Waipoua Forest (home of the impressive 2,000 year-old ‘Tane Mahuta’ Kauri tree). Although we’d quite recently spent Christmas abroad (in Melbourne in 2009), it’s still strange to be in such warm climes over this period. The weather really has been lovely since we arrived; in the mid twenties every day. It doesn’t stop people wearing Santa hats or decorating their tents and campervans with tinsel though!
One week in and insect repellent is more important than deodorant, we’ve camped rough and skipped showers in favour of a wet-wipes special, sunglasses & flip-flops are not only the norm, they’re a necessity and - oh yes - the bandannas have come out of retirement…
We’re travelling again.
We’ve missed this!