New Zealand

Final Countdown: Bay Of Islands

Wednesday 4th December
I’d checked the pickup time the evening before and it said 7.30am but I had a gut feeling that I should arrive early just in case. When I was woken by one of those in the room at 6.10am (20 minutes before the alarm) I decided to get ready. I left the hostel at 6.50am with the intention of getting a drink and using the free McDonald’s WiFi but could already see a small crowd at the pick up. Venturing over I was told the time had changed and the pick up time was 7.00-7.15. Nice of Kiwi Experience to let me know!

As it was we didn’t leave until about 7.30am because 2 girls had been at the wrong location and had got lost en-route. Luckily they found us and we were able to set off. What had already felt heavy rain became even heavier and a great mist had descended up us making visibility from the coach windows non existent.

There was literally nothing to see outside the window and then rather suddenly the bus started to reduce in speed as we approached a hill. The 2nd kiwi experience bus I had been on had suffered the same fate as the first I’d been on and was breaking down. Only this time we were unable to limp home as the radiator had decided to drop its load into the road meaning we had no option but to pull over. An engineer was called but we were 40 minutes from the next city so in total were waiting nearly 2 hours. We watched a movie and with about 10 minutes remaining the picture cut out so we only had sound.

Eventually we were underway and made it to the scheduled toilet and lunch stop. As we approached we could see armed police everywhere and about 5 police cars. Whatever was going on appeared to be quite dramatic but luckily we were able to use the facilities despite initial fears we’d be waved on.

The rest of the journey was uneventful and when we arrived in Paihia it was still raining ferociously. We were over 3 hours late but even if we had arrived on time all activities would have been off. Luckily Aaron the guy I’d sat next to on the coach had my approach to the weather and neither of us wanted the rain to prevent us doing something. We therefore took the ferry over to Russell so we could see the first European settlement and what became the first capital…this was the cultural reason. The real reason was so we could drink at New Zealand’s oldest pub.

There were not many people on the boat and we quickly got in to conversation with our fellow travelers that were braving the conditions. When we arrived at the Duke of Marlborough pub we took a table and started to try and dry off. Another group looked like they were seeking a table so we invited them to share and got in to conversation with them as well. These were locals that apologised for the weather but said the region was in need of it as they’d had 6 weeks of sunshine.

When we left the weather appeared to be clearing and we could almost see the other side of the bay. This was only a temporary reprieve and it soon started up again with all the fury of before. I had a “nautical” rain coat on that had survived the Sicily Isles and Cornwall but it was no match for the New Zealand rain and my shirt underneath was drenched.

Returning back to the hostel, where the rest of the group had remained in the dry I had a shower then made my way to the BBQ that had been arranged. I stayed out for a couple of beers but i knew my time in new Zealand was coming to an end.

Thursday 5th December
I had a very realistic dream that I woke up, the sun was shining and I went swimming with the dolphins as planned. When I did wake up I couldn’t hear rain but could hear birds and thought maybe it wasn’t going to be a dream. i went in to the bathroom and opened the window to look out. In return I got a face of fierce windy rain. I knew my back up tour to see the Hole in the Rock and dolphins would be cancelled but I still went through the routine of walking to the Harbour ‘just in case’.

I wasn’t disappointed about not seeing or swimming with dolphins as I’ll surely get the chance in Australia… I’ll be there long enough but it was a bit of cruel blow that I’d be so close to the Bay of Islands but not actually see them. Even more disappointing was the confirmation it would be clear by the afternoon as I was leaving and knowing that every other day in the past month had been so perfect.

But you can’t control the weather you can only control how you react to it so I decided to go to the Waitangi Treaty Ground Museum. I got slightly lost as the rain continued to show little sympathy to my plight and nearly got taken out by a wave that came over the promenade on to the road but eventually made it.

I watched a short video before joining a guided tour by the 6th generation relative of the local tribe chief Hone Heke who was the first to sign the treaty and then the first to rebel against it when the mid translation between the British and Maori versions became a contentious (understatement) issue.

Apparently the local tribe are only now having their case heard which seems quite shocking especially as I understand that many of the other tribes have already had their historical grievances settled and that they’ve been compensated accordingly. On the one hand the video at the museum had portrayed the treaty as a positive, the birth place of the nation whereas on the other it appeared the guide I had still held a level of resentment towards it. I totally understood why they’d feel aggrieved and maybe I was just feeling touchy but being from ‘Mother England’ (not Britain) I felt partly responsible and slightly uncomfortable when it came to admitting where I was from.

We saw the giant Waka which is in the Guinness Book of Records, the Treaty House, one of the oldest buildings in New Zealand which had been restored and the Maori Meeting House built for the 100th anniversary. The meeting house was therefore meant to be symbolic rather than original. Located opposite the Treaty House it is meant to show the unity of both cultures and the wooden carvings inside represent each of the tribes across the country.

There was also a flagstaff marking the location where the treaty was signed. Unfortunately I assume due to the wind and rain none of the flags were flying but there should have been the three official flags New Zealand has had since 1834 and which are still maintained by the Navy. The flags are: The flag of the United Tribes of New Zealand, the Union Jack and the New Zealand flag.

After this I walked down to Nias Track to Hobson’s beach. This was the route William Hobson and his party took when they landed at Waitangi and made their way to where the Treaty participants were assembled in 1840. By now the sun was creeping through and I could make out shapes beyond Russell and I’d like to think they were some of the islands that gave the bay its name.

By the time the coach left it was getting very hot and on the journey back we stopped at the Whangarei waterfall. The recent heavy rain made this one look particularly wild especially as it was possible to get fairly close and it was a pleasant way to break the 4 hour drive.

We arrived back in Auckland on time and I got the Ferry to Devenport for the final time. Peggy and Peter collected me and we travelled to David and Clare’s house for dinner. As when I’d arrived about 3 weeks earlier the sun was shining. I will forever be grateful to them for their hospitality and for making me feel so welcome

The next morning after Claire had kindly washed and dried some of my clothes we departed for the airport. I can’t quite believe how much I have done in such a short space of time and I’m reluctant to check the final credit card statement but these memories will live with me and I don’t regret any of them…not even the whale watching camera breaking tour!

Next stop Australia – the main reason for me undertaking this little walkabout.

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Everybody Hurts: Christchurch

Tuesday 3rd December
My accommodation in Christchurch was the old jail house – part of the old jail that had been preserved and was now used as a hostel. The owners had made an effort to keep to the theme but walking up the stairs to the second level and opening the big heavy cell door I was relieved to see the beds were at least more than a mattress on the floor. I also discovered I was in a dorm of 6 sharing with Sina and Ashleigh so at least there were some familiar faces.

After our meal the night before our taxi driver had provided a bit of personal insight about the events of 22nd February 2011. We had noticed there were still a lot of road works taking place and the driver said it was because water and sewage pipes had been cracked so every road had to be dug up and relaid. He didn’t think the roads would be sorted for 10-15 years which was staggering. Worse still was the human impact in the poorest neighbourhood in the East of the city where we were told 10,000 houses had to be demolished due to liquidification. This equated to approximately 30,000 people who had been forced to leave the city, more than the entire population of Berkhamsted if it needs a context.

I had booked a flight for late in the afternoon because I had wanted to see how the city was rebuilding. Whilst I felt guilty for wanting to do this I also felt the that if I and other tourists returned and spent our money on the local businesses it would help the city to recover. Out in the suburbs where we had been staying the impact wasn’t quite so immediately noticeable. I’m not sure for example whether the jail house had suffered any structural damage. As we got closer to the city centre however the impact became obvious.

It was only 4 months ago that the main central area affected including Cathedral Square had finally reopened. I was walking in with Hayley and Karen and on the approach to the Bridge of Remembrance it was painfully evident the re-opening didn’t mean everything had been rebuilt or replaced. The Bridge of Remembrance had once been the main entrance to the cities historical heart however it was still closed and under restoration.

The second bridge we tried to use to cross over the Avon river was also closed and after walking past the punting office we finally found a open crossing. Walking along the main street and heading along in the rough direction of Cathedral Square we saw gaps where buildings had once been. Then we came to an open area where there was an isolated old looking wooden building that from the approach looked like it had been relatively unscathed but from the back had been completely ripped open.

We could see well known shops in the distance including Subway and Kathmandu and naively I thought these big chains had reopened already. They hadn’t, the buildings were empty but adverts and opening hours remained in place. The streets were mostly empty which made us feel like we were in one of those end of the world film scenes only this was very much real life. We could now see the top of the Cathedral so headed in to the square.

The damage the Cathedral suffered had been one of the most iconic photographs during the disaster(s) because the building had been the focal point of the cities heritage. From one side I was surprised at how intact it was and then I saw the damage sustained to the other side. The remains of the famous bell tower had been partly removed, but the front of the building had been demolished and near where the visitor entrance/ticket office was located there was a gaping hole in the ceiling. The area was also becoming over grown which I assume is a result of the legal battle over ownership between the church (who want to demolish it) and the heritage group (that want to preserve it).

There was some sign of life in the square as the tram had recently reopened and was shuttling up and down the street towards the Canterbury museum. We headed in the opposite direction towards the new shopping centre which has been built inside ship containers. It was a very unique idea and it looked quite good but a bit hard to comprehend that these approximately 10 containers were the cities main shopping district.

Karen and I continued on our way to the Cardboard Cathedral. I think I had half expected to see a cardboard cut out Gothic style building (like one of those 3D puzzles) but in reality it looked more like a plastic style greenhouse. Opposite was another fenced off area with a gap with nothing in it except for a small pile of stones in the centre. There were also some flowers and a poem tied to the fence and we became painfully aware this must have been the site where 115 people lost their lives.

We followed the tram tracks (though they were not running along this section) and we eventually came to New Regent Street which had been restored and the shops reopened. Trams were running from here on a short section to the Canterbury Museum via Cathedral Square and we decided to have a short ride. The driver gave a brief summary of some of some of the cities old landmarks and how the rebuild and restoration process was slowly taking place.

After about 15 minutes we arrived at the Canterbury Museum and after a brief walk around a few of the displays decided to look around the botanical gardens. On our way back to the hostel we bumped in to Sina and Summer and the 4 of us went searching for food eventually settling on a place that was recommended to us.

Sina, Summer and I had similar time flights so had opted to share the shuttle to the airport. There had been a mix up and another party had been forgotten and were luckily able to share with us. The driver was rather eccentric but a good laugh and we got to the airport in plenty of time. I checked in and waited at the gate before hearing an announcement that the flight would effectively be delayed until 30 minutes after it should have arrived in Auckland.

There were no further dramas and I arrived in Auckland over 1 hour and 30 minutes late and after taking the bus from the airport to the hostel went in search of Hell’s Pizza knowing this really was the last chance.

It didn’t look far on the map, a 20 minute walk but it was approaching 9.45, dark and starting to rain. I wasn’t sure if it would be open or live up to my memories and with a heavy heart decided to abort the mission.

I’d been attempting to contact Mitch as he was staying at the same hostel but without success and knowing I had an early start grabbed a takeaway and returned home. It was only 10.30pm and already everyone in my room was asleep which meant I had to creep around in the dark whilst I sorted my bag for the next day.

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Earth Song: Milford Sound, Lake Ohau and Mt Cook

Saturday 30th November
We said goodbye to 10 people at Queenstown and as the coach departed it felt rather empty as we began our journey to Milford Sound. Our first stop at lunch was to the small town of Te Anau which was our last opportunity to have contact with the outside world before entering the Fiordland National Park.

I hadn’t really read or seen any pictures about this part of the trip so didn’t have any real expectations except for the fact I knew it was meant to be spectacular mostly untouched scenery. Before entering the national park Craig made us close our eyes and put some atmospheric music on and then told us to open our eyes. The atmospheric soundtrack continued and combined with the low hanging cloud the scenery took on a mystical quality. Even with the summits covered in cloud the views from the coach were indescribably wonderful and we weren’t sure whether to look out of the left or right side such was the fear you’d blink and miss something amazing.

Our first stop was to the Mirror Lakes so named because on a settled day the lakes reflect the views of the surrounding mountains. Unfortunately the conditions couldn’t have been any less ideal. There was a slight breeze creating ripples, there was a bit of rain and the mountains were surrounded by mist anyway. Still it was a nice location, just perhaps not perfect picture weather.

After stopping at Monkey creek to get some pictures of the Upper Hollyford valley we continued travelling through the beautiful scenery and were given a brief description about how a valley is formed (by a river) and how a Fiord is formed (by glacier).

We got to the Homer Tunnel where a temporary entrance had been built because the original had been destroyed in a fairly recent avalanche. We stopped to get a few final pictures of the Hollyford valley before it started to rain/snow. Unfortunately the tunnel was only one lane and there appeared to be a problem with the lights so we were waiting some time. Eventually the lights did change and to the tune of Mission Impossible we entered the 1200m long tunnel. Next Star Wars was played and as the music ended we emerged to views of the spectacular Cleddau Valley.

We arrived at the wharf for cruises around Milford Sound. The weather was starting to improve and whilst there was still quite a bit of cloud the mountains still looked dominating. From a distance in particular it was obvious how much they towered over cruise ships of a similar size to ours.

The rain had made the main waterfalls particularly impressive. The rain had also created smaller waterfalls that would not have been there in drier weather and water appeared to be sluicing directly from the rocky cliffs. We went close to a number of waterfalls and having already broken one camera I was careful to make sure I was inside when we approached. I could see people on deck taking pictures up until the final seconds and then rushing away before the bow was swamped in spray.

The guide explained the water of Milford Sound is mainly fed by the Tasman Sea however due to regular rainfalls rain water washes sediment down from the cliffs which creates a darker fresh water layer above the warmer sea water. This creates conditions that allow deep sea water species to thrive despite in reality not being far from the surface. The guide also explained the area had been shaped by earthquake activity but that the region was overdue an earthquake by approximately 200 years.

The journey through the sound was over 2 hours and apart from the seeing the waterfalls and mighty peak of Mitre Peak we also sailed close to a New Zealand Fur Seal colony that were lazing on some rocks. We had also been told to look out for a rare breed of small penguin and amazingly saw three of the little birds despite the fact most would have begun their migration away from the region.

We were spending the evening at a chalet near to Milford Sound and that night we had a roast lamb meal at a nearby restaurant. If the weather had been nicer a walk home along the river may have been pleasant but it was cold and wet so we all boarded the coach when it was time to leave. Late nights, early starts and action packed days with no real naps were beginning to take their toll on my eyes and after a shower to heat up fell asleep.

Sunday 1st December
On leaving the accommodation our first stop was to ‘The Chasm’ which we’d had to skip the previous day as a result of the delays caused by the malfunctioning traffic lights to the Homer Tunnel. This area was in a forest location and had been created by a earthquake and the erosion of boulders as the Cleddau river plunged down waterfalls and forced its way through the narrow chasm.

On leaving the Fiordland National Park we stopped at The Anau and I saw a Kiwi Experience bus. This was a hop on hop off bus company so I wondered whether anyone from my first trip would be on it and I wondered how Phil and Simon were getting on. Then I heard my name and like something out of the “Truman Show” there they suddenly were with 2 of the girls from the trip. I’d had my haircut since seeing them all but we only had a few minutes to catch up before they had to board the bus to Milford Sound.

We then made our way back towards Queenstown briefly stopping at a town on the outskirts for lunch before making our way through the Gibbston Valley. The Gibbston Valley is the southern wine region of New Zealand and we were told how the sometimes harsh and unpredictable climate is combatted to protect the grapes.

We then travelled through the old mining district of Cromwell though we didn’t stop to see any of the remains of the old settlements. We did however pass Lake Dunston where part of the settlement of Cromwell had been located before the historic area was removed so a dam could be built. The region is now used for fruit growing including cherries and as with the wineries the owners have to combat the weather that doesn’t suit the fruit. We carried on to ‘Jone’s fruit store’ where I had a fresh kiwi fruit mixed with frozen yogurt ice cream.

We’d been told today would mostly be spent travelling but we were now on the final leg towards Lake Ohau crossing over the Lindis Pass in the process. During this stage we saw a wild fire slowly being controlled by a helicopter but it still looked pretty destructive and were told the story of Shrek the Sheep. Shrek was a sheep that went missing for a number of years and his wool grew very long. When he was found he became a New Zealand celebrity.

We were now in the Mackenzie District, named after a man that stole sheep at ran a farm in the area before he was caught. When we got to Lake Ohau the cloud of Milford Sound was a memory and we were presented with a fine view of Mt Cooks flat topped summit. A few of us walked down to the lake to get a better look of Australasia’s highest point.

Returning to the lodge we had dinner and a few games of pool. I was on the winning team for all three but can’t take much credit for the first as it was really down to Mike. However in the second and third matches Shane and I united as the Northern Hemisphere against the Southern Hemisphere. First in a match against Dee and Mike and then against Dee and Jacob. Despite a gallant effort, especially from Dee, Shane and I were in inspirational form especially once we’d had an opportunity to sing along to our war song “Fairy Tale of New York”.

By now the sun was finally beginning to set so I went back down to the lake to get some more pictures. Despite my main camera still being out of action I was pleased that my old camera was just about managing to do what I wanted it to capture.

We’d been told the night sky was particularly good for star gazing and that it was protected from further possible light pollution development. I’ve been to a number of places that have provided a dazzling amount of stars and this more than matched them and probably even beat Iceland. It really was something else to look at. I always enjoy looking up at the stars, it helps to ground me and makes me appreciate how small our planet is. I also always have that kid like hope that a shooting star (or a UFO – joke) will fly by.

Monday 2nd December
The sun was shining and as it was a clear day the beginning of our final day as a group was spent on a short drive to the Mt Cook National Park. From Mt Cook Village we went on a short walk to Kea Point which provided good views of Mt Cook, the Hooker Valley, and ice faces of other surrounding mountains. We’d been told to listen out for bits of ice breaking off the mountain due to the ice melting as the season moved towards Summer and as we waited to get on the bus we heard what sounded like thunder. We turned to see what looked like a small waterfall tumbling down the mountain side but what was actually ice.

Getting back on the bus we travelled more through Mackenzie country before reaching Lake Pukaki which was a particularly interesting turquoise colour. The reason for the unique colour of the water was ‘rock flour’ created when the basin was gouged out by the glacier moving across the surface leaving sediment in the melted glacial water in the process.

We stopped at the village of Lake Tekapu, on the shore of the lake with the same name for lunch and again had the opportunity to take pictures of a lake with snow capped mountains in the background. This village also had a church called the ‘Church of the Good Shepherd’. This was a fairly modern and unspectacular Church built in 1935 but its location has meant it’s become the most photographed church in New Zealand. There was also a statue of a border collie to signify how important the breed of dog has been to sheep farming and the Mackenzie economy.

Whilst we were in an area where farming is still so important we visited a sheep farm. Here we were shown sheep shearing and saw the border collie in action herding up the sheep. Next we had the opportunity to feed them and some held a very cute little lamb. I’m not sure how I expected the sheep to react when I stretched out my hand to feed it but I had certainly not expected it to try and start feasting on my hand like it did. There was a sheep called Mary that provided some amusement and it kept calling to us whilst we were given scones with jam and cream.

Our final stop before our return to Christchurch was Geraldine though this was just for the coach to be filled with petrol and we didn’t explore. Leaving Mackenzie country behind we crossed new Zealand’s longest bridge and we attempted to hold our breath the whole length to the sound of Chariots on Fire. There were no prizes except possible death so I gave up but two made it to the end.

As we crossed in to the Canterbury Plains we had another game of guessing the soundtrack this time to movies and then all of a sudden it was announced we were arriving at the Jail House. The tour was officially over. After checking in the majority of us arranged to meet up for dinner and that was a nice way to bring the journey to a close rather than a sudden stop which is what normally happens.

To everyone on the trip, it was an intense action packed 14 days, with something new to see and do everyday but it’s the people that make it extra memorable. I wish you all the best in your future travels and I’m sure our paths will cross again.

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It’s My Life: Fox Glacier and Queenstown

Wednesday 27th November
We drove through the centre of Christchurch and saw what remained of the Cathedral and the Central Business District on our way to pick up a new person.

Our first stop outside of Christchurch was a small settlement called Arthur’s Pass the highest altitude settlement in New Zealand and close to the pass of the same name. There was a Kea (a bird that looked like a fat parrot) walking around the village and he/she was the source of some amusement.

After leaving we went to a view point to look down on the new Otira viaduct built to replace the old route parallel to it. There were more Kea flying and walking around and two appeared to be feasting on the roof of the bus. At one point I had considered travelling the Tranz Alpine route by train so it was a bonus when I realised we would be travelling through on the coach though the cloud meant it wasn’t quite a postcard scene.

We carried on our journey and at lunch arrived in Hokitika where we saw a green jade factory. I asked the local camera shop if they had any advise with regards to my camera but was told I’d be lucky to find an engineer on the whole west coast of New Zealand. The manager overheard this comment and tried to help by cleaning the contacts with a cotton bud but as I feared the problem was more terminal than this simple solution.

Having located some food and found the beach was closed I headed back towards the centre of the town to visit the wildlife exhibition where if I was lucky I’d be able to see some kiwi birds in a dark room enclosure. It was only a small exhibition but they fitted in lots of different types of marine life including turtles and various fish. They also had New Zealand frogs and some lizards that are unchanged since the time of the dinosaurs. Entering the kiwi enclosure I had to wait for my eyes to adjust to the dark. After a few seconds I sensed movement on the opposite side so headed over and arrived to see a dark shape disappear behind a hut.

Luckily the kiwi came back out and came right up to the glass I was behind so I got a very good look at it. It was bigger than I had expected and I watched as it slowly lumbered along as it searched for food along the ground. I have to admit its appearance made me smile not just the way it walked and the long beak but it appeared to have a ridiculous grin on its face.

We also made a brief stop at Hari Hari where the Australian Guy Menzies landed/crashed following the first solo trans-Tasman flight.

Carrying on our journey we passed through Franz Josef and past the glacier of the same name but the cloud meant it was difficult to make out the valley. We crossed a bridge over a river and were told that much of the water was melted ice from the Fox Glacier giving it a milky looking texture. Shortly after we arrived in the village of Fox our stop for the night.

After dumping our bags some of us reboarded the coach to go for a short walk around Lake Matheson which is apparently known as the famous ‘mirror lake’. It wasn’t that clear an evening but the views were still nice though ripples on the lake meant I didn’t really notice it being any more reflective than other lakes I’ve seen.

After dinner some of us went on another short walk through a nearby forest in a search for glow worms. Craig told us all to walk in single file in the dark advising that our eyes would adjust to the light. I was fairly near the front and as we made our way along our eyes slowly adjusted but we still had to be careful on steps and when crossing a small bridge.

There were a number of glow worms clustered together in small patches and eventually we came to a stop. Craig explained that we had stopped at at tree where the roots had come out of the ground and that is what the glow worms hung off. The traps they made were not as long as in the caves because there was more risk of breeze but it was still good to see them. After a brief explanation about the life of a glow worm we headed back along the path now using torches making the return much quicker.

Thursday 28th November
The reoccurring theme of early starts continued for those of us who were doing one of the Fox Glacier hikes. I had always planned to do the heli hike especially after seeing the glacier hikers in Iceland but as I knew there was the pending cost of the camera repair I began to have second thoughts and considered the cheaper options. Luckily I’d had a final change of heart in Arthur’s Pass – YOLO – “you only live once”. The sun was shining and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky but we were still warned the flight could be cancelled. It wasn’t – in fact conditions were so perfect Mike our coach driver booked on.

In total there were 3 helicopters and I was to be in the second with a group of 6 with Jacob, Shane, Ainslie, Summer and Emma. I was in the middle seat but still managed to get a fairly good look of the scenery below. We landed and waddled down to the others were crouching and where the crampons were stored. The next chopper came in and we were told to keep our backs to it because we were soon pelted by loose ice.

With the crampons on it was much easier to walk, though all of us decided to use a hiking stick for a bit of extra stability. The glacier is constantly changing during the warmer months as it melts so the route taken by guides changes regularly. Both had been working as guides for a number of years and tried to give us an indication of how much ice had melted in the past 3 years.

Our first stop was a small ice cave which seemed impressive enough at the time but really this was just an appetiser because in the next one we were actually able to fit inside. We had to clamber down to reach the cave and getting up was a bit tricky but luckily the crampons held firm on to the ledges and no one slipped.

The surrounding mountain range was stunning and it was amazing how the ice just went right through the middle. After hiking along the top of the ice we came to a cave that we had to crawl through and I managed this particularly badly so ended up with very wet trousers. As it was hot they dried fairly quickly but I wondered how the others hadn’t ended up in such a state.

Next we went down in to an ice canyon; the ice towered over above us and this section really did feel like part of an expedition some of the great explorers would have encountered though I’m sure theirs were on an even grander scale.

Once we were out we started our hike back to the helicopter pick up and passed one of the glacier waterfalls. I have to admit in my opinion whilst the water was cold and refreshing it didn’t taste as nice as I had anticipated compared to say the Buxton spring water.

We had to wait a few minutes for the helicopters to return to pick us up and I was signalled to sit on the window side behind the pilot. Once we were in the air he suddenly started to perform a action that created a fair amount of g force. For a second I did wonder If we were about to crash in to the hill side but then realised it was because he had seen a rare breed of mountain goat. It was also particularly evident from above how much the glacier had retreated.

Back on the coach and our first stop was to the scenic Knights Point and which had a fine view of a crop of rocks just off the coast out to sea. It no doubt helped that the sun was shining and wet Kaikoura began to feel a memory.

We travelled along the Haast Pass Highway and our next stop was to the mighty sounding Thunder Creek falls. Some coach tours I’ve been on have had to have stops in the middle of no where at soulless service stations. Not in New Zealand. The drivers seem spoilt for choice for where they can pull over for a 15 minute break. Each stop uniquely spectacular and these water falls were no different, water crashing down in to the Haast river below.

We had a brief stop in the small village of Makarora where some decided to get an ice cream before we continued our journey past Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea. Maxine, our coach was struggling with an over heated engine and some of the hill climbs were painfully slow so with Queenstown below us we pulled over for another brief stop.

That night we went to Winnie’s for dinner where we were given so much garlic bread, chips and pizza even I was defeated. Just before leaving Winnie’s Greg, Shane and I had a quick skittle shot which sounded nicer than it was before we moved on to Ice Bar. This was the first time I’ve been to one of these bars despite wanting to do so for quite a while. We were given thick coats to wear and a pair of gloves which all seemed a bit extreme but on entering understood why. Everything was ice, the bar, the glasses and even the tables and seats. I had a cocktail called Happy Feet, named after the unfortunate penguin that got lost off the New Zealand coast and for which New Zealander’s raised lots of money to return it to Antarctica only for it to be eaten by a shark or whale a week after it was ‘free’.

After the cocktails a few of us had a flavoured vodka shot where the vodka was poured in to the top and you had to suck on a straw. We also had a couple of normal vodka shots and the alcohol was certainly beginning to flow. We left and returned to Winnie’s as they were offering prizes for winning various competitions. Shane and I performed a faultless version of a fish caught on a hook being reeled in and soon others took to the dance floor.

However after more skittle shots and a shot of black sambuca a highly controversial result in the limbo saw us all walk out in disgust. The guy that won should have lost in the penultimate round and the whole competition had seemed totally rigged in his favour.

Leaving we went to Buffalo which was utterly rammed. The early start was beginning to catch up with me and after performing my signature dance move for a bit, along with some of the ‘classic’ moves created at Pier Pressure in Aberystwyth I called it a night. I’d probably been asleep a couple of hours before Greg and Mitch returned in the process making our room the post going out hang out.

Friday 29th November
During the night my work colleagues had told me rain was predicted for Friday and I just hoped it would hold off long enough in order for me to undertake as many of the activities I had lined up for the day as possible. The first was the Shotover river Jet boat and because I’d decided to skip breakfast I went to the infamous Ferg Burger/Bakery for a much craved for bacon and egg roll before check in.

We arrived at the Shotover river which had once yielded the local population gold and caused Queenstown to grow in the late 1800s. The river is now cruised dramatically by speed boats which travel close to the rocky edges, rocky outcrops over shallow waters and perform 360 degree spins at speed. I was in a boat with Jesus, Shane, Greg, and the Streaky Bay girls.

I was sitting on the left side and each time we headed for the side of the overhanging rocks and branches I instinctively ducked. The guide/driver provided lots of interesting information whilst also being highly skilled at controlling the boat as there must have only been millimetres in judgement at some points.

My next activity was the canyon swing and whilst the clouds were beginning to build up at settle it didn’t seem to windy and was ‘safe’ to jump. I’d briefly seen Jacobs picture of him sitting on a tricycle and as this reminded me of a Simpson episode where Homer has to ride a tiny bike I decided i would do the same (Victoria said she had the same image when I told her how I’d opted to fall). I had also wanted to do a jump backwards as I’d already gone forwards when doing the bungy so prepared myself for two jumps. When I arrived I was put off by the cost of a second jump and photo packs especially as I still had hang gliding to come. I therefore decided to make my one jump memorable and asked if I could do the tricycle backwards.

Slightly lost for words as apparently I was only the second person ever to request that style of jump as it was particularly dramatic they started to hook me up. Sitting on my tricycle they pushed me to the edge and with a final shove pushed me off. Apparently my face was a picture as I disappeared over the edge and I was hardly surprised when I was told. Not knowing where I was falling was a weird sensation and I was in such shock I didn’t let out a sound until somewhat hilariously after I came to a stop I howled out youuuu orrrrns. During the fall I had performed a number of backward somersaults/flips and I clung to the bike handles knowing it would smack me in the face if I let go.

Being raised was more nerve racking than the drop because i had time to think and the machine appeared to be making various bolt breaking sounds and the cable shook dramatically. I looked down and wondered what my chances would be. Not good I figured as this was the highest canyon swing in the world. Soon I was at the top and having a laugh with the guides. The group declared the name of the jump should be “the Johnny Jump” and when it was pointed out to me I wasn’t actually the first I retorted with ‘but James Cook wasn’t first to discover New Zealand but history gave him the credit’.

I think that’s the first activity since my first sky dive in Switzerland that has given me a proper adrenaline kick and I was still buzzing by the time I got back to town. We decided to get a Ferg Burger and being overwhelmed by choice I got the Bengal Chicken because I was beginning to crave a curry and this seemed as close I’d get. I wasn’t disappointed and I can only hope that like Hell’s Pizza they decide to open a branch in London when I get back.

By now it was raining and I was told the hang gliding that morning had been cancelled and I didn’t rate my chances of the afternoon session going ahead. It was also to cloudy to make it worth getting the Gondola to the top of the hill and despite being a friday all of a sudden Queenstown looked a bit deserted. I’m not sure what most did but Greg Mitch and I stayed in until the time the group had agreed to meet for dinner. Mitch rather spectacularly crashed out because despite shouting his name and clapping my hands over his head he didn’t stir until the 8th or 9th attempt.

After eating we found an Irish Bar with a live band playing mostly modern Irish folk songs and after a request from Shane and I they agreed to play Fairy Tale of New York. We returned to Buffalo but we’d arrived earlier than the night before and it was mostly us and a group with one guy that was trying to claim the dance floor. The day had taken it’s toll and as I’ve failed to have a transiberian style nap in New Zealand I was in the second wave to leave and if hadn’t been the last night for so many I’d have gone much earlier.

Saturday 30th November
The departure time was changed from 7.15 to 9.15 and the extra sleep was much needed and as we left Queenstown I reflected on the fact it had met all expectations and could totally understand why it is such a popular place for backpackers to visit.

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November Rain: Nelson to Christchurch

Sunday 24th November
The approach to the South Island through the Marlborough Sounds was truly beautiful and so I made my way to the top deck. It looked calm from the comfort of our private lounge but I was nearly knocked off my feet by the wind. Once mother nature realised I was to heavy she attempted to take my bag off my shoulder and very nearly succeeded before giving up entirety. The scene then became rather peaceful before the ship turned and the wind started up again causing me to seek shelter below.

Once we were back on the bus we travelled through some lovely scenery before we stopped at the Forest Winery where we were given a brief history and introduction. Whilst I am not really in to my wines I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed the ones I opted to try but at over $28 NZ dollars per bottle I opted against buying anything.

After this we had a football match Australia and New Zealand (Alex, Hayden, Jacob, Mitch and Mike) vs the Rest of the World (Timo of the Netherlands, Greg of the USA, Shane of the Republic of Ireland, Liz of Columbia and of course myself). I have no idea who won but being from the Netherlands Timo “Jordi Cruyff” had all the skills and if we lost it was an injustice.

After leaving the winery we eventually arrived in Nelson. Two groups went sky diving but because my acrobatic flight had been cancelled I had a free afternoon where I tried to sort a few internet chores as we finally had free WiFi. I’d also realised my hair cut had caused me to burn quite badly – even though I’d put suncream on my face I’d clearly missed an area my hair once protected so I went in search of after sun cream containing aloe vera.

That evening we had a couple of beers at the hotel and a BBQ feast put together by our tour guide Craig and watched the DVDs of those that had sky dived. I have to admit I got quite envious watching them but I’ve been twice and the first time is still my most memorable because of the nervous anticipation which sadly can never really be re-created.

Monday 25th November
There was a now distant time when late starts and afternoon naps were a running theme in my walkabout journey but sadly for my eyes this hasn’t been the case in NZ. It was another early start today as we had to get a mini bus then a boat taxi to Torrent Bay. Here we would do another long day walk before being picked up at Onetahuti.

Boarding the boat we were towed by tractor to the sea. First we were taken to split apple rock – a large granite rock that had split in two. The boat had to stop a few feet from the beach so we had to get wet by walking through the sea which wasn’t the ‘positively barmy 28 degrees celsius’ on this occasion and felt rather cold.

As we were only a small group of 6 we decided to stick together knowing we all had to be in Onetahuti by 3.30pm and started walking at 10.10am knowing the guides had advised about 2 hours 30 for the first half.

It wasn’t like a British Coastal walk where you are on the edge of a cliff, open to the elements and battered by what ever elements the sky can think of. This was a lovely secluded bush forest (but without poisonous snakes, spiders and ants) which rolled down to meet the beach below.

We crossed over a swing bridge over the falls river which gave some good views and there was the occasional break in the trees giving us fine views of the turquoise water below.

We had a good pace going without anyone including me looking like they were about to collapse and after an hour and a half as we approached a sign realised we were well ahead of time. I therefore suggested taking a detour down to Sandfly Bay below and the others agreed that we might as well as the sign only said 5 minutes.

It was a lot steeper than we expected and a lot of clambering over rocks was required and I did start to doubt if it was worth the energy as we’d have to clamber back up eventually. We made it down and opted to have an early 30 minute lunch to give us energy to get back up. The bay had a number of big boulders that we were able to sit on and was it pleasant enough without being truly spectacular.

We carried on the walk and reached Bark Bay (the start of the Tonga Island Marine reserve) at about 12.30 so we’d walked further and had a big break in less time than estimated. The beach was a bit busier as it seemed to be the start for the kayaks but we’d already decided we’d only go in the sea at the end so after a brief stop carried on walking.

We got to a crossroads which showed Onetahuti in both directions but as one path was slightly back where we’d come we chose the other even if the sign did suggest it was an extra 0.5km.

The section after Bark Bay was shorter but much steeper. After a discussion about walking technique I tried pushing up from the glutes and this worked a set up muscles that were unprepared and soon we were all in need of a bit of Rocky.

After about 20 minutes a couple passed us and told us it was only 5 more minutes which gave us added motivation. We passed a short lived granite quarry and from that point it was mostly flat and downhill to Onetahuti and we arrived about an hour earlier.

It was pleasant to sit on the beach but the clouds were coming over and whilst it didn’t rain it was cold though I still braved a paddle in the sea. I think we were all slightly relieved when the boat to pick us up finally arrived. As I started to board a wave caught the boat and whilst it was all slow motion I couldn’t step up on to the lowered platform in time so ended up collapsing on to it as the boat knocked my legs from under me. It must have looked hilarious and I felt rather stupid but at least i hadn’t rolled back in to the sea. The life jacket provided some warmth and soon we were speeding off to find the seals.

The tide was high so we were told we’d have more chance of spotting them as they’d have less places to hide. It wasn’t long before we saw one on a rock and then another clambering out of the sea. They weren’t in a playful mood though so a decision was made to head for home.

That evening I was feeling hungry but when the meal arrived it was one of those appearance over quantity meals. I’m sure someone had spent a few minutes ensuring it was all presented nicely but I couldn’t have cared less and longed for the portion sizes of Mongolia.

Tuesday 26th November
It was raining when we started yet another early start and I decided not to get off the coach at our first break in Blenheim because there was nothing I could think of doing that could justify me getting drenched.

Just outside Kaikoura we saw the Point Kean Seal Colony and these were more active than the couple I’d seen the day before. Whilst it was lovely to see the New Zealand fur seals the rain meant the whole scene looked very gloomy and the small town of Kaikoura had a depressing look about it when we arrived.

Craig remained optimistic the dolphin swim would go ahead and I hoped my bad track record with dolphin encounters would end. In my whole time at Aberystwyth I failed to see even a dolphin despite there being a pod of over 100 in the area. I even twice got the special marine research boat from New Quay however my only wild life experience was a sea gull using me as a public toilet on one of the trips. South Africa yielded nothing of dolphins though I did see a Great White Shark leap out of the water to eat a bird. Australia provided nothing but a splash I missed and Iceland was at least able to provide a harbour porpoise.

I went to get some food from a cafe and put my swimming trunks under my jeans and made my way to the coach. The tour was cancelled which looking at the rough sea didn’t seem a huge surprise. The seal swimming and whale watching tours hadn’t been cancelled so having a choice I went for the seal swimming. I waited in the shop and eventually the organisers appeared. Cancelled. I felt a bit sorry for Craig at this point. As the trip organiser it must have been frustrating that the companies were leaving the decision to cancel until the time of departure and not making any effort to contact him.

I understood the reasons, it probably wouldn’t have been a great idea to swim with wild animals in bad conditions and although that was really my main reason for visiting New Zealand I’ll just have to find somewhere else. The whale watching tour was going ahead so I joined that. At least I thought i might finally see a dolphin.

We boarded the boat and we stormed out in to the ocean. The guide told us the region was popular with whales because there was a deep under water valley not far from the coast (or something like that – the constant rocking made it hard to concentrate). I was fairly near the front and the boat rocked from side to side and it was near impossible to see the horizon because of the waves that crashed over the bow. I haven’t suffered sea sickness since I was young and visited an Island called Lundy though my Whitsunday experience had almost put me off boats for life. That experience was certainly being relived though at least I knew this would last minutes not days.

We finally stopped and were allowed on deck as we had got to the area where the sperm whale had last been sighted. I grabbed my camera and waited for the David Attenborough moment. I had brought a new lens especially for taking pictures of animals from a distance and whilst I was getting a thorough soaking I didn’t care as my excitement rose. I was standing at the front of the boat with a view of the left and right side. I sensed my curse was about to be broken and felt a little less disappointed about the cancelled swim.

I took a picture of a seagull and checked the settings where ready. An announcement was made that the whale was about to surface due to the sounds it was making and i waited with anticipation. All of a sudden there was spray on the starboard side and there it was a huge Sperm Whale. I took a picture, saw it was a bit dark and changed the settings slightly then the whale lifted Its tail and splashed it in the water. Snap snap snap. Viewing them all back they were all dark. Then I noticed to my horror the error message “lens not attached”. The lens was quite clearly attached but my attempts to keep the camera and lens dry had failed. The camera or lens was dead.

I went inside to try and revive it, cradling it like a sick baby. The whale stayed up for about 15 minutes and I bitterly realised that in hindsight I could have stayed in the dry until it had been sighted. There had been no need to worry it would be a blink and you miss it moment. I suppose I should have at least taken a picture on my camera but I wasn’t in the mood.

Next they said there were some dolphins and I have to admit that some excitement rose when I saw them playing at the front of the boat and finally seeing them totally lived up to my expectations but I was gutted that I couldn’t get a picture. We also went past a seal colony, as many as we’d seen earlier in the day but far closer. Again more bitterness that I couldn’t take a picture.

The guy next to me started being sick and I looked out of the window and focussed on not being sick myself. I can’t lie it was a pretty miserable boat ride and likely to be more costly than the fee I’d paid. Getting on land it felt like I was still at sea. I spent the next couple of hours hoping the camera had miraculously healed itself each time without any joy.

I remained fairly philosophical about what had happened. It can probably be fixed and at least it wasn’t lost and the memory card was OK. I also discovered later on that I had packed my spare compact camera which I thought I’d left in Auckland. I became even more aware of the bigger picture in life when we got to our next destination – Christchurch.

I remember the day of the Earthquake on 22nd February 2011. Not only was I living with someone from New Zealand at the time but I had a number of friends that were from or visiting the country. I don’t remember if it was pre planned but that evening we went to Hell’s Pizza (see previous blog) for the all you could eat and they had a collection for the victims.

We were staying outside of the main city but just being in the area was a sobering experience, knowing many of those who served us had probably been there and been affected in some way. Mitch Greg and I had reunited our wolf pack and went in search for the Hell’s Pizza before deciding on KFC. It seemed there were no plans to go out and so our room became the hang out room but everyone had an early night as yes yet again it was another early start.

Wednesday 27th November
I hadn’t rushed to breakfast because despite them being our only included meal they had been very underwhelming. Arriving at breakfast I could see beans, bacon, sausages and egg. My excitement rose. A cooked breakfast. Woohoo. “Are you with Topdeck?”…”uuum yes” I replied – I guess the giveaway was the cookie monster t shirt which meant I looked like someone on a 20 to 30something coach tour rather than on some upmarket business trip. “Sorry you’re only allowed the continental breakfast and toast”. The toaster wasn’t even working.

I’ll make sure the next blog has a happier theme after all It’s better to dance in the rain than to wait for the storm to pass.

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Eye of the Tiger – Taupo, Tongariro and Wellington

Thursday 21st November
After leaving the village we made our way to the Huka Waterfalls on the Waikato river. The word Hukanui in Maori means Great Body of Spray and whilst it was a fairly small waterfall compared to some I’ve seen it was certainly producing its fair share. Unfortunately just as we got to the lookout viewing platform it started to rain so after a few quick pictures I had to run to get back on the bus.

Our next stop was to Taupo on the shore of the lake with the same name to get some food. I’d made the decision just before this that I would do the Bungy option available despite being told there was allegedly a link between detached retinas and the activity. I therefore decided not to eat anything and instead walked to the water front. I also walked past a barbers and looked at my watch…did I have time?  I saw Steph and Zeena and asking how long we had until the coach left i realised i had 12 minutes. I didn’t need to worry as it actually only took about 5 minutes for me to get my hair cut/shaved off. The decision had been made on the various train journeys because longish hair had been hard to manage and didn’t look good if uncared for.

I had chosen to do the bungy at Lake Taupo because there was a possibility of touching the water or even going right under the water (this would have the added benefit of washing my face of small bits of hair which had not been brushed off.

The location was stunning and I was surprised that I was actually able to take it all in even though I was about to throw myself off a 47 metre high platform. The nerves briefly surfaced when the first person jumped and all I heard was a blood curdling scream but the adrenaline soon kicked in again.

Eventually it was my turn. The final checks were undertaken and walking like a penguin I waddled towards the edge of the platform. 1…2…3…”Yoooouuuu Orrrrrrnnnnnsss!” As I plunged through the air I wasn’t really aware at the time that I’d gone over but my feet rather than head were leading the way. This meant that when I was flung back up in the air I performed a backward somersault action.

As I was leaving I saw some TNT magazines and so I quickly ran back in and on to the bridge asking someone to get a picture of me holding the certificate. Those on the coach didn’t understand the significance but as it was intended as bit of a private ‘joke’ there was little point in explaining the situation and I just had to accept they probably thought I was being a bit weird

Back on the coach we travelled through/past the Tongariro National Park which includes Mt Ngauruhoe more commonly known as Mount Doom following its star appearance in Lord of the Rings. We could see smoke rising from the various vents reminding us that the 3 volcanoes were still fully active.

The next morning we would be walking through the heart of it.

Friday 22nd November
We were up early as we needed a big breakfast before commencing the 19km hike which we were told would take anything between 6 to 8 hours.
The walk started off fairly steadily and we did the first 4km to Soda Springs in under an hour. This lulled me in to a false sense of security that we’d easily be able to do it in the 6 hours. It was shortly after this that the gentle slopes were replaced by steeper climbs and soon much slower progress was made especially as I’d never been through such dramatic volcanic scenery on foot so kept taking pictures.

Eventually after about 3 hours we were close to the Red Crater and I tried to convince a couple of people to do the Tongariro summit as a 1 hour 30 minute side trip. The clouds however seemed to be approaching so a group decision was made to push on which I admit I was later relieved about as I naïvely thought the downward section was going to be much quicker than it took.

The colours of the rock that made up the red crater made it look particularly spectacular and we were lucky to see it before it was covered in cloud. We carried on and could see the Blue Lake and Emerald Lakes in the distance but there was still one more summit left to climb so I put Eye of the Tiger on which not only motivated us a bit but caused a number of people we didn’t know to laugh and to walk with us. The water of the lakes were a beautiful blue and green and this was eventually where we decided to have lunch.

As previously mentioned I thought the downward section would be easier but this wasn’t really the case and it didn’t really help that the rain had started to settle in. We weren’t even half way and it was getting to the stage where whilst I hadn’t really been pushing myself I was certainly starting to feel the burn. The rain cleared up in time for us to see the smoke rising from the crater and a lake in the distance which we assumed was Lake Taupo.

We got to the Ketetahi Hut at about 13.45 and we were still about 1 hour 30 minutes from the car park. I was towards the back of the group as I didn’t really want to push to get the 15.00 pick up instead feeling it would be easier to get the 16.00 and take it easy. We had lost Mitch and Greg as they had climbed to the top of ‘Mount Doom’ but they caught us up and decided to run in order to catch the bus. This was fine by me as it would ensure the shower was free by the time I got back.

The final stretch was through a forest and due to the rain a small stream had grown wider and was flowing very quickly and we therefore had to carefully stand on the rocks and hold on to trees in order to ensure we didn’t fall in. The path seemed never ending but ended somewhat abruptly at the carpark. It was 15.12 so i’d done the walk in about 6 hours 45 minutes. Whilst I could have gone quicker and taken less pictures I’d paid for the day and wanted to make the most of it. The final steps were tiring but at the same time it was a shame when it was actually over.

Returning to the hotel I decided to make use of the free sauna (the decision had been made about half way on the hike), had a shower and joined the others for a BBQ style meal. I was exhausted and probably wasn’t the only one and once it got to 20.30 I was ready to head to bed

Saturday 23rd November
Despite an attempt to go to bed early I couldn’t really sleep and because we had a big drive to Wellington next morning we had to be up by about 5.40am. This felt horrendous after my lack of sleep and after the walk from the day before.

It was Timo’s birthday so the coach had been decorated and we all sang.
We went past a number of small towns one of which tried to attract tourists with a giant carrot but other than that the journey was a sleepy blur.

We arrived in Wellington around 11am and went on a small tour of the capital to see some of the main sites to make a decision about what we could do later that day. We were also taken to the top of Mt Victoria where there were some nice views of the city and bay. I’d already made plans to meet up with Hayden and Emma and by the time we checked in I was slightly late and I’d foolishly let my mobile battery drain. Luckily I was able to charge it and to let them know the address so they could pick me up.

Our first proper stop was to the cable car where we got the train to the top to see the botanical gardens and the carter observatory. After a brief walk around we went to our first pub and Hayden told me about the micro breweries that were starting up. I had forgotten to put suncream on during the final day in Rotorua and whilst I sat drinking my larger with a hint of ginger it was pointed out to me by a local how red my forehead was.

We returned to the bottom and walked around the harbour where locals were jumping in to an area of water. One guy climbed to the top, got there and clearly had second thoughts whilst everyone below waited in anticipation. Next we carried on to the main beach where I was told the sand is shipped in each year.

After this we looped round on to the main high street and as it was a very hot day we found another bar. After leaving something at the Opera House caught Hayden’s eye and on investigation it turned out the comedian David Strassman was performing that evening and there were still tickets available for the 21.15 show. I had planned to meet up with the others but I knew this would be more fun than a few beers.

We got some food at another pub where I saw England being destroyed by Australia in the cricket and returned back to the theatre.

Whilst the name hadn’t sounded familiar once I saw David Strassman stage on stage with the puppets Chuck and Teddy i realised I had seen him on TV before. I haven’t seen a show like it and it was so clever the way he was able to interact with the audience both as himself and as the puppets. The stage had also been arranged so the puppets could move in independence from him and part of the humour was that his subconscious (the puppet personalities) were trying to seize control of the conscious.

The encore was split in to two parts, the first was the puppets singing Bohemian Rhapsody and the second was the promotion of an app where you could ask Teddy or Chuck what would happen in the future. I have no idea if this really exists but for the purpose of the show it was a funny way to end it.

The show finished at midnight and whilst I text the others I didn’t get a response and was so tired I didn’t mind heading back to bed.

Sunday 24th November
Yet another early start as we needed to ensure we got the ferry from Wellington to the South Island. Whilst writing this blog we also spent the time playing a game on the iPad where you had to either act or describe various subjects e.g accents which created some amusement. I was meant to be flying a stunt plane that afternoon but unfortunately the company had double booked and weren’t available. This was a bit disappointing but I’m sure I’ll have the chance again.

After about 2 hours we began the approach to the South Island through the sounds…The South Island adventure was about to begin!

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Don’t Stop Me Now: Return to Rotorua

Monday 18th November
The day didn’t get off to the best of starts because during the night I had been in contact with my dad about the moneycorp card issue. Not only was it still not possible for me to load the moneycorp card but because I hadn’t really been using my new credit card I’d forgotten the pin to that which only really left the expensive debit card.

I waved the coach off from the hostel in Rotorua and an hour later boarded my own to Auckland which was almost totally empty. After a quick stop in Matamata, the closest town to where they filmed the Hobbit and where the information centre had been built in the shape of a hobbit house i was on my way again back to Auckland.

By the time I got to the ferry terminal I was about 30 minutes later than estimated however luckily Peter was still able to pick me up at the other end. Arriving back at the house we chilled out with a beer and Peggy showed me her pictures of her journey on the Transiberion railway in the 1970s.

Tuesday 19th November
In the morning I was finally able to speak to Halifax and they agreed to send the statement moneycorp required so I am hopeful the situation will be resolved soon. Peter had a job in Auckland so he was able to take me in directly. I therefore had a bit of time to book myself a hostel in Auckland and to finally get a new pair of walking shoes and a pair of sandals/jandals/thongs.

After using a bit of free WiFi in McDonald’s I went to the hotel pick up point. For a while it looked like I was going to be the only guy but a few more turned up. Some of the group had met a couple of days earlier and the rest of us had only just arrived so initially it was a bit difficult to integrate. The coach wasn’t full and it felt a bit quiet but as usual after the first stop (again in Matamata) there was a bit of movement and people began to settle.

During the next couple of hours Craig our coach driver sent round the list of activities for the next couple of days, tried to teach us a song to perform that evening (I believe it was ‘Run Rabbit Run in Maori) and made us do introductions at the front of the bus. I also spent the time chatting to those in the surrounding seats, two Americans (Greg and Jesus), an Australian (Summer) and two others.

It didn’t feel like long before we were in Rotorua and at the place to go Zorbing, though for copyright reasons they were known as Ogo. I had already decided before leaving I wanted to try this in New Zealand and that I wanted to do the zig zag course in the water ball.

I was second to go and whilst I tried to run and stand up as long as possible I lasted less than 5 seconds, as I tumbled down the hill and after a number of summersaults in a few seconds I eventually decided the easiest way was to sit whilst I rolled down. Eventually I was able to recover my composure and started to stand and then run before the above process was repeated for about a minute. I actually really enjoyed it, it wasn’t as adrenaline fueled compared to some activities I’ve done but it was fun all the same if a bit short.

Back on the bus and Craig continued to teach us ‘Oma Rabbiti’ and after a couple more practice’s we’d mastered the lyrics and timings without the need for words. Shortly after we arrived at the Maori Marae. The girls entered first because in Maori culture they were deemed more precious than men so it showed we were coming in peace.

We were led to the meeting house (which would later be where we would sleep) where the chief of the tribe welcomed us and sang a song before we rose and sang the song we had learnt. Next we undertook the Hongi greeting, the gentle pressing of noses and after this we were considered part of the family.

We had some food and were then given the opportunity to ask a member of the tribe some questions. I found this particularly interesting because we learnt the way the Maori heal involved energy and sounded similar to Reiki.

After the session I saw him speaking to one of those on the bus and got involved in the conversation. We ended up speaking for a further hour or more about various topics including the fact that the land is still seized from the tribes by the government for development. However to me this really sounded similar to the UK where the government is persisting with the new High Speed Train despite the protests or even fracking where the government has appeared to put an American Energy Corporations above their own local environment and populations wishes. Even the tribe representative agreed it wasn’t really persecution because they were offered payment (even if not the true worth).

We certainly lost track of time and when I got back to the main hall it seemed everyone was already asleep.

Wednesday 20th November
Most of us had an early start as we had a day of activities. I had opted to do White Water rafting however because the World Championship practice’s were taking place later that day we had to leave particularly early.

We arrived at the centre and after the usual physical battle of putting on the wet suit Mitch, Jacob, Timo Summer and I were sitting in the boat with our life jackets on and oars in our hands. Our guide gave us some key commands to practice – row forward, row back and crucially “get down”. This was the one to remember when we went down the waterfall. Also more ominously we were also advised what to do if we fell out…

The boat was taken to the river on the back of a truck but we decided to run as it wasn’t far. Mitch and Timo being tallest were at the front, Summer and I following their strokes in the middle and Jacob and the guide at the back. We were so busy focussing on the commands and strokes that we didn’t notice the guide telling us to row full speed head on in to the bank (which we did).

The rapids themselves weren’t as wild as I had expected but I guess we were tossed around a bit. The main event however were the waterfalls we would be going down. As we approached the first we got in to our positions and I gripped on tightly. As we disappeared over the edge we were soon swamped by the water but we had all stayed in.

When we got to the biggest we felt fully experienced however we could see someone in one of the other boats had fallen out. This one did feel more exhilarating. As we went over it felt like the boat was tipping on to its side and as we were near enough vertical I could feel myself lifting up so gripped tighter than I had before. It was all over in seconds but looking at the photographs the boat was totally submerged by the waterfall.

In order to celebrate our victory over mother nature, Summer and I were told to get in the front and the other guys were told to row in to the waterfall. If I wasn’t already wet enough, I was now completely drenched but it was good fun. As none of us had fallen out we were told to jump out which we did though I struggled to pull myself back in and needed a helping hand before we got to the final waterfall though I got in to position in time.

Once we had were at the bottom we all had another go in the front going head first in a waterfall but soon the adventure was over and it still wasn’t 10:00. We got back to Rotorua and as the rooms weren’t ready went to get a snack.

I had the afternoon to check out the town and discovered a Hell’s Pizza when walking with Amy and Mardi. This was particularly exciting for me because other than Santa Maria it had been my favourite pizza place in London before it closed. I went in and told the staff I’d been to the branch in Shepherds Bush in London and whilst I wish I could say they were as interested as me they clearly weren’t.

I explored the rest of the area on my own and walked around the lake up to what I thought would be Sulphur Point but what ended up being much further on. It was quite interesting to see the steam rising from the shore and as I wanted to know a bit more about the history I called in to the local museum and walked around the Government Gardens.

In the museum I was in time to watch a 20 minute video on how a volcanic eruption in the late 1800s destroyed a tribes settlement and some natural basth terraces that were considered the 8th wonder of the world. The eruption was blamed on a Maori legend and the greed of the tribe after they had started charging tourists visiting the area. The video included sounds and vibrations which caused two small children to be taken out in tears and their crying added to the realism of the catastrophic tragedy.

After the video I went on a guided tour and the history of the building was explained. The bath house was funded by the government but it never made the money expected nor was the building fully completed before it closed. The sulphur in the water and the lack of ventilation had meant that the building was difficult to maintain. At one point when it was reopened it was used as a nightclub and many of the original statues were damaged in this period.

We were taken to where the baths were located, to where the furnaces and pipes feeding the baths were located (one was still there and the damage caused by the sulphuric water was evident) and the roof terrace. The guide also explained that in 2011 the building was finally completed to the original plans.

The guide also took us to an exhibition on the local tribe who had donated various artefacts to tell their story and it included a moving tribute to their role in both wars. We were also shown information regarding the number of recent earthquakes and I was shocked to realise there had been 5 in Rotorua in the past week alone. We also saw the live webcams for the various active volcanoes 3 of which were in the Tongariro national park which we would be staying at. I noticed all these were code green but I wasn’t sure how much notice they would have if there were any eruptions.

Returning back to the hotel I joined Amy and Mardi in the bar before everyone on the trip headed to an Irish Bar. I bailed fairly early but it had been a good way for us all to get to know each other.

Thursday 21st November
Before leaving Rotorua we had the opportunity to visit the main attraction in the area the “Whakarewarewa Thermal village”. Here we were taken around the living village Whakarewarewatanga O Te Ope Taua A Wahiao (the gathering place of the army of Wahiao).

We entered using the bridge constructed over the river in 1885 (prior to this visitors were carried) and once in almost immediately saw steaming pools. We were shown the steam box hangi that is used to cook food in the ground and a member of another group asked if the food still tasted fresh despite the areas location. Our local guide said they couldn’t comment as that is the only taste they were used to which was a rather fair point.

We also saw some of the local baths (for the tribe) and whilst we couldn’t go in we were allowed to touch the water entering it. The water is meant to have healing properties and whilst it is not for me to say either way it certainly felt a bit oily and different.

Next we were taken to an area where we could see the two geysers (Pohutu and Prince of Wales Feathers) but sadly neither erupted during out stay. We also saw the local church where due to the geothermal activity bodies are placed in tombs above the ground and the Whare Tipuna (meeting house).

Finally we saw a traditional culture show which was very similar to the one I’d seen a couple of days previously and at least 3 of the performers were the same but this didn’t make it any less enjoyable. There was a slight variation because during the final section we had to take part in a routine.

As I found my way to the exit I quickly headed for the mud bath but it seemed that area wasn’t as well attended to as the baths and was a bit overgrown. The mud bubbled below but it was a bit underwhelming though I’m not really sure what else I expected.

As we boarded the coach i regretted not trying the Spa during my free time but during my two visits to the town I’d done a lot. Next stop Lake Taupo and the Tongairiro National Park.

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Adiemus – Geyserland Tour

Thursday 14th November
I won’t go in to details about the flight except to say whilst I’d tried to be polite and to charm the staff at the check in desk my attempts not only proved unsuccessful but downright backfired. I’d politely asked for a window seat but when I boarded I realised I’d been given a seat right in the middle of the plane towards the back. With 2 people either side I think most would agree these seats are not ideal.

It was also a strange sensation trying to work out what the plane was doing during take off – at one point it felt like we were going backwards. Arriving in New Zealand I realised that the immigration customs declaration form was as scary looking as the one I completed 3 years on my arrival to Australia. I wondered whether the Mongolian biscuits I’d brought for my New Zealand hosts would be ok. The queue through passport control was over 1 hour 30 and seemed never ending at times.

Eventually however I was out and searching for Peggy and Claire who I realised I’d never met and had no idea what they looked like. Likewise they probably had no idea what I looked like. Anyway thankfully they had a sign and soon we were in the car on a mini tour of Auckland.

First we went to ‘one tree hill’ a piece of land left in the early 1900s to be left as a park. The name however is slightly misleading and the one tree is now just a stump as it was cut down during a protest. Next we drove over the bridge and to Mission Bay. It was lovely to be shown around by some locals that were relatives of one of my aunts.

Eventually we got to Claire and David’s house which was probably about an hour out of Auckland. It was in a very rural area and the sun was shining so we sat outside enjoying a lovely home cooked meal (fresh vegetables!) some beer and a glass of wine. Peggy’s husband Peter joined us and time went by quicker than I think all realised. Soon it was dark and I realised I had to be up in 8 hours for my first tour so we left for Peggy’s as her house was closer to the Ferry that I could get to ‘downtown’ Auckland.

Friday 15th November
I was up very early to make sure we beat the rush hour I ended up getting the Ferry an hour earlier than expected and it wasn’t difficult to find the pick up point so I just sat outside and waited. Gradually other people turned up but they were doing a longer tour. In total there were 50 people which meant at the start no one really said anything because it was all a bit overwhelming. After our first stop for the coach driver to do the paperwork I finally spoke to the person next to me.

The sun was shining brightly and we were told that the sun was unforgiving like in Australia. This is due to the pollution caused by Europe and America which has destroyed the ozone layer…so Jeremy Clarkson and Top Gear you are wrong.

Our first stop was Cathedral Cove which was about a 45 minute walk from the car park. I took a minor detour to Stingray Bay in the misguided belief I would see Stingrays. I didn’t. But the bay was more secluded and  clearly only known to the locals. It was therefore less busy but very picturesque. It was quite steep climbing down and I started to wonder whether it had been the right decision considering the heat and that I still had another 35 minutes to walk before getting to Cathedral Cove

Eventually I got to Cathedral Cove and I could see why it was such a popular beach. There was a rock not far from the shore that a group had swum to and from here they were able to jump off. There was also a small cave which separated the two beaches making up the Cove. It was to walk through though the tide was in so the final bit involved a bit of wading.

Returning to our coach we were informed that we would not be able to go to Hot Water Beach until 22:00 when it was low tide. We therefore settled down for a couple of beers and fish and chips. Unfortunately it was fairly early and once the sunset it dawned on us we still had a couple more hours to wait and the temperature would only go down further.

Once it was 22:00 we headed down to the beach and it was cold. The sand was even colder and then we had to cross a small stream. I started to doubt whether the promise of hot springs under the sand would be fulfilled. I was fairly near the front and with the others announced the sand was was getting warmer then let out a yelp when we burnt our feet on one small area of sand.

We started digging and soon had our own self made hot tub. The problem was we’d dug a bit close to wear I’d burnt myself so this meant the water at one end was scolding. Despite the warnings members of the group at the far end of our pool, where the water was cooler, didn’t listen and occasionally ventured up and let out a yelp/scream.

Whilst the pool was warm the air was cold and it therefore wasn’t quite the experience we’d seen on the leaflets. Some therefore headed home early including it turned out everyone I was sharing with however I didn’t realise this until I returned back to find the door locked and everyone already asleep.

Saturday 16th November
Next morning we woke early and started the day with a walk along a disused mine tramway at Karangahake Gorge. During the walk we entered a number of tunnels and had to use torches to show us the way. There was also a number of long rope bridges that tilted erratically when ever someone stepped out of sync. The scenery was stunning but

We’d noticed during our first supermarket stop that New Zealand shops don’t do ready meals. Maybe it’s just the UK where this is popular or maybe New Zealand hasn’t caught up but the shops didn’t seem suited to solo travellers on a tight budget who don’t have space to carry large quantities of food, the means to keep the food fresh (if travelling on a bus all day), and ultimately don’t have time/are to lazy to prepare it. A small bottle of LP/Coke etc cost 3 dollars 89 where as a big bottle cost 3 dollars 29. I also asked if they sold cheap small individual cartoons of juice and was asked why the multi pack containing 8 was no good. Travellers to the UK from New Zealand have it easy in my opinion, though perhaps we’ve just become lazy and to dependent on the £3 meal deals.

My main reason for doing the Kiwi Experience bus in addition to my main Topdeck tour was to visit the Waitomo Caves. I had already arranged this before I was told by a colleague from New Zealand that I had to do Black Water rafting. I opted for the Labyrinth tour which was 3 hours and included jumping backwards off waterfalls, tubing and seeing a glow worm cavern. I also thought it included abseiling down in to the cavern however it turned out this was the slightly longer and much more expensive Abyss tour.

We put on our wet suits which seemed a physical enough challenge and made our way to a practice jump board where we got used to jumping backwards in to the water. Once that was done we entered the cave itself. We scrambled through the cave until we reached the a couple of waterfalls. Jumping off these when the water was rushing past was totally different to the practice session. After this we floated through the cave in the dark looking at the glow worms above and learnt they are actually maggots. Then there was a bit more scrambling before we reached a much larger waterfall before mor tubing.

After a while the guide told 4 of us it was shallow enough to stand up in. Jumping out I and the 3 girls quickly realised this was a practical joke and we had to swim to a ledge to get back in. One of the girls had already floated by and when she reached the next ledge I tried to keep her tube steady. In the process I was tipped out and had to scramble back in again. We were then told to turn our torches off again and to follow the glow worms above to find the exit.

Climbing up the steps my legs felt very heavy and my arms barely had any strength left to haul myself on to and over the final ledge. Eventually we were all out and after a hot shower and a hot soup I was able to assess the various additional bruises I’d picked up. It was great fun and challenging enough for me to feel I’d been tested especially as I’d not even been caving before.

That evening a couple of us shared large pizzas some of which we saved for next days lunch and had a couple of beers. A few beers and pizza was the perfect way to relax after a challenging afternoon in the wet cold caves.

Sunday 17th November
The first stop was to Ruakuri scenic reserve where we got to see the cave entrance where my tour the day before had ended. There was also a cavern to look in and a small group I was part of spent a bit to long taking photos which meant we had to miss out on a small waterfall to catch up. We didn’t want to be late on the bus because the punishment was to read a pre highlighted section of 50 Shades of Gray as one of the guys had been forced to do the day before to much amusement.

We started to smell Rotorua before we arrived in the geothermal town and it wasn’t soon before we could see the steam rising from the drains and the hot springs.

The activity I’d opted to do in the area was a tour of the Hobbiton movie set. Whilst I’m not the biggest movie fan, the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit books were two of my favourite books when I was younger and the idea of having a drink in the Green Dragon was too tempting.

The whole experience was a lot better than I had expected. I had anticipated maybe 6 or 7 houses made out of short life material and with no real depth to them (as the internal shots were obviously shot in a studio). Instead there were 44 hobbit houses, 37 houses for ‘Lord of the Rings’ making up Hobbiton and 7 that were built for the more recent (but prequel) ‘The Hobbit’. The houses were laid out as Tolkien had described them in his map, all the buildings looked totally authentic and had been built out of permanent materials. Even the small details were included – wheel barrows, spades, tables…the only thing missing were the hobbits.

We were told that Peter Jackson had chosen the area because of the mountains that made up the area and because it already included a small lake/pond. We were also told every effort was made to ensure there were no errors that die hard fans would notice. This included building a tree above bag end and replacing the apples on an oak tree with plums. Also one scene involved Frodo looking at a sunset however the sun sets in the opposite direction in New Zealand and filming therefore took place during sunrise.

Finally we arrived at the bridge passed the mill where there was a noticeboard with various notices you would find outside a newsagents but obviously for Hobbits. Crossing over the bridge we arrived at the fully functioning Green Dragon pub which was built after filming as the original temporary building was burnt down in filming when Frodo has his premonition of Hobbiton being destroyed. Here I tried the specially local brewed pale ale, stout and apple cider.

Returning back to the hostel we had a few minutes to get ready before leaving for the Tamaki Maori cultural experience. The bus driver made us perform various fun actions such as pretending our bus was a waka and taught our chosen chief how he should act in the arrival ceremony.

Arriving at the camp we saw the traditional routine carried out to determine if the visitors were friend or foe and once accepted we entered the village. This was very hands on and we were shown various traditional games and activities. I was part of a group picked to be taught and to perform the Haka. Having seen this so many times being performed in the Rugby it was a special experience and even though it was difficult to remember the exact routine it still felt very powerful.

Next we watched our freshly cooked food be raised from the ground and then saw a stage show where all the activities we’d tried were performed correctly. Finally we had our big feast. The food, especially the vegetables, having been cooked underground left a natural smokey/earthy taste and stocking up on free food when I had the chance I had two helpings. The desert was pavlova and the chief joked that this had been invented in New Zealand to be enjoyed by Australians and the world. I also decided to drink the local tribes alcoholic cocktail drink which tasted of kiwi fruit.

on our return back to the hostel the driver encouraged us to have a sing song and we performed an absolutely legendary version of Bohemian Rhapsody from start to finish. Returning back to the hostel we had a few drinks at the bar before I said my goodbyes. I was heading back to Auckland whilst the others would carry on to the south Island.

There had been 50 people on the bus, far too many to know in a few days and it wasn’t really until my final day that the group stopped being cliquey but it had been fun a few days. But I’ve learnt to put myself out there, not necessarily to force a conversation, but to at least say hello. After all we’re all here to explore the same country whilst having a good time…

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