Friday, 7 January 2011

New Zealand: Back on the Road

So, on to country number eight, the penultimate of our grand tour, and one of the ones we've been looking forward to most.The flight to Auckland from Sydney was less than three hours but after getting up at three am to get to the airport we felt pretty jet lagged by the time we arrived. Our camper van wasn't due for pick up for a couple of days so we checked into a hostel (which suddenly felt very basic after our lovely, four star hotel in Sydney) and spent a couple of days hanging out in Auckland, shopping in the Christmas sales and seeing the sights in the city centre.

We booked our camper van with a different company to the one we used in Australia and since we wanted a fifty-day hire we just went with the cheapest one - except that the cheapest is a company called Wicked Campers and they garishly spray paint all their vans with embarrassing pictures and slogans - so we're not exactly inconspicuous when on the road (or trying to find a quiet spot to camp). It's amazing how much people are pre-judging us based on the van design and brand, and we're experiencing a lot more hands on horns and dirty looks from other road users, even when we're driving considerately and safely! That said, we do seem to get a lot of respect from the younger, backpacker types! On the plus side we did get a complimentary upgrade to a bigger van, so it's not all bad.

From Auckland we headed north, arriving in the Bay of Islands on New Year's Eve. Finding a campsite was really challenging as it's the Christmas holidays and all the Kiwis are on holiday too. We ended up parking on someone's front lawn for a small fee - cheaper than any campsite and right in the centre of town so we were brilliantly located for the fireworks at midnight and only a few minutes from the cafes and restaurants of the town centre.

We had a bit of an unconventional New Year's Eve celebration this year: instead of taking to the streets and joining the revellers in their mission to get drunk, we had an early night - or, rather, a pre-fireworks nap! Kev was suffering from a bit of a cold and I was just recovering from one so none of us was feeling great. Upon hearing the fireworks start at midnight we woke up, ran down to the beach and watched the spectacle over the water, then back to bed again!

Sticking with the unconventional theme, on New Year's Day I booked in to do a a tandem skydive over the Bay of Islands, which included a 30 minute scenic flight, then 70 seconds freefall before the parachute opened. We awoke to glorious sunshine and not a cloud was in the sky by the afternoon, making it perfect skydiving weather. Although I was a little bit nervous in the plane going up (and ultimately sitting in the door of the plane, about to jump), I absolutely loved it! I don't think seventy seconds has ever passed so quickly!
Kev, on the other hand, wasn't quite so keen to throw himself out of a plane and was quite content (albeit nervously) on the ground taking photos of me. Post jump, however, having seen me survive a skydive he's not quite so averse to the idea so watch this space!

Before heading back down south (of the North Island) we did a loop around northern New Zealand to take in some more of the scenery. We passed the pretty Hokianga Harbour and then drove down through the Kauri forests, including the enormous Tane Mahuta - a kauri tree that's thousands of years old and features in Maori legend. The roads are so twisty here it takes ages to get anywhere, but it certainly keeps you alert (if not car sick!) and there is some stunning scenery along the way.

Our final campsite north of Auckland was amidst a big kauri forest. As darkness fell we did a walk through the forest with red torches to try and spot kiwis (we're talking the flightless birds here, not the local residents). They certainly make a lot of noise, snuffling and scuffing about in the undergrowth, but despite hearing them I didn't get a glimpse of one. Kev however did see one, but only as it was moving away into the bushes.

Our next stop was Rotorua after a day's drive south. Home to Maori villages set amidst extensive geothermal activity: boiling, bubbling mud pools, flowing, steaming mineral pools and errupting geysers.The village we visited cooks all its food in geothermal pools and in 'steam ovens' a pit dug in the ground and covered with a wooden lid, so the vapour from the hot springs cooks the food by steaming it. We tried some corn on the cob that had been cooked in a muslin bag lowered into a hot geothermal pool - delicious!

The whole town smells strongly of sulphur, especially on a cloudy day - and it's a smell that you can never quite get used to, but worth persevering with in order to take in all Rotorua's sights and activities. The campsite we stayed on had four thermal pools, with water straight from the ground at a consistent temperature of 38 - 41 degrees Celsius, lovely for an early morning or evening soak before bed!

There's also an abundance of things to do in Rotorua and surrounds. I managed to resist the temptation to do bungy jumping (I'll save that for later on in the trip) and skydiving (to be done again if funds permit) but we did have a go at luge and white water rafting, plus I did 'Skyswing': a bungy style swing which swings you off the side of a mountain at a speed of 150 kilometres per hour!

Our rafting experience was good fun, but rather nerve-racking as we went over the highest commercially rafted waterfall in the world! It wasn't so much the 7 metre drop that was scary, more the risk that the raft capsises and we might all fall out! Fortunately it passed without incident!

Next up we continue our journey southbound: onwards down the 'geothermal highway' and through wine country.

Sarah & Kev xx

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