Wednesday, 3 March 2010

On our return to Wellington, we were lucky enough to get our hands on tickets to the Wellington Rugby Sevens (thanks, Brent!). The Wellington Sevens. It’s rugby, Jim, but not as we know it. This is how I (Chrissy) understand what we witnessed: Once upon a time, some bright spark took a look at rugby, which is, let’s face it, dull and complicated. He decided to kick a few players off the pitch but, ye gods, it was even duller. What to do? Said bright spark noticed that no-one was watching. Well, I’m not going to insinuate that all alpha males are closet cross-dressers, but when the concept of fancy dress was introduced and all the men were actively encouraged to dress as women, viewing figures escalated. Well, the rugby-widow demographic were pleased no end because they could laugh at their menfolk and ignore what was going on pitchside (just like everyone else). Add lots and lots of cold beer warmed in the January sun and it was carnival, New Zealand-style.

As for our own costumes, the chaps were far too manly to don a Wonderwoman or Bruno outfit, so we went as a lounge suite (naturally). Mei had been getting over-excited about the whole rugbiness of the event for weeks, so when he discovered that I would be dressed as a bookcase, he spent a whole day feverishly wracking his underused brain for hilarious and topical imaginary rugby-related book-titles to write on the spines of the books which adorned my smock/bookshelf. If you care more than ten-thousand rugby fans, have a gander.

From Wellington, we headed up the East Coast to art-deco Napier, intent on getting our architecture fix. Helpfully, this is also prime wine country and the lack of photos attests to our dubious priorities. We managed to drum up enough sobriety for a long, early-morning (tide-dependent) rocky beach walk to a gannet colony; even the locals choose to go by tractor rather than walk. Now we know why.

From here, we lost a few days on a stunning beach north of Napier which may be called Wapatiki, finally heading inland to Taupo and soon enough, down to a great campsite at tiny Tokaanu. We loved the geothermal and spa pools here and, like many of the places we’ve been to, find it hard to pinpoint why it was such a great place to stay. Something, definitely to do with the generosity of our hosts. In the space of two days, they gave us milk, a trout, cakes, a towel and offered us (admittedly whilst drunk) unlimited access to their beer fridge. Or maybe it was the softness of the grass that made the place so special. This is important when camping without a mallet, we’ve discovered.

From here we walked the Tongariro Crossing, New Zealand’s best one-day hike, which really lived up to the hype - emerald lakes, volcanoes and sweeping views all the way across to Mount Taranaki. If there are no photos of staple tourist favourites Taupo or Rotorua (that we also visited along the way), this is probably because nothing could quite live up to Tongariro. It may also because tourists are lured to Taupo and Rotorua so that Kiwis can keep all of the truly gorgeous places uncluttered. We did, however, stumble across a lovely open hot spring pool during a riverside walk from the tiny but stunningly white Huka Falls near Taupo.

Rotorua is a good place to get a sense of Maori cultural tradition and to eat some tasty sashimi, but our true aim in visiting the town was an anthropological quest which reached its climax while camping at a hostel here. We had heard rumours that an incredibly rare and endangered species, the Inhospitable, Hostile Kiwi could be found somewhere in the North Island (although its existence is threatened by the Chillaxed, Welcoming strain). Suffice to say that the hostel owner fell into this endangered category, and we feel obliged to say that tourists should avoid at all costs disturbing the hostel owner in its natural habitat.

We’re even worse at planning than we are at reading maps so, having crossed diagonally from Wellington up to Hawkes Bay in the north east, we decided it was time to return south west again to see the glow worm caves in Waitomo. It’s a tourist cliché in New Zealand to go there, but it was surprisingly crowd-free and beautiful, both above and below the ground. We stayed in a proper bed in Waitomo, well a bunkbed at least, and the presence of a ceiling rather than mozzie-infested canvas above our heads gave us a taste for more of the same. Chrissy has relatives in Taranaki (home of Brent and Jermaine of Conchords fame) who have a dairy farm so we paid them a visit, and when they (Bronwen and Jim) offered us the option to stay indoors, we grasped it in our grubby hands (the grubbiness due to a messy introduction to the fine art of milking). Apparently cows are incredibly placid as long as their usual routine is maintained, but if you introduce a wild card - in the form, for example, of a couple of townie Poms - bombs away! They (whoever “they” are) say that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger so thank you, Jim and Bronwen, for making us stronger (if smellier) and for making us so welcome.

Our haphazard grasp of geography took us next to West-coast surfie mecca Raglan and then eastwards to the Coromandel Peninsula. Waihi and Oputere beaches set the tone for the rest of the peninsula – white expanses, few other people and pounding blue surf. The highlight of this region had to be our time in and around Hahei, which is a neighbouring beach to Cathedral Cove, where we walked and snorkelled. No highlight is complete without alcohol, however, and we loved spending a few drunken hours in the company of the Evans family at Purangi Winery. We were introduced to the merits of feijoa and plum liqueurs before finally settling a gert big bottle of lemon gin. The next few days were a haze of beaches, sun and merry spilling of tonic.

A few rudimentary days were spent in the lovely City Garden Lodge in Auckland, before we were due to fly to Santiago on the 28th. If you’ve read or watched the news (we hadn’t), you’ll know about the earthquake in Chile on the 27th. We felt pretty relieved that we hadn’t flown out a day earlier. LAN Chile airline put a few straggling travellers and plenty of worried Chileans up in the Holiday Inn for the night. The flight was back on the next day, but by this time we’d been advised to change our plans, so we managed to get on a flight to Buenos Aires on the 8th March.
So, the last few days have been part of a stolen week in Northland, NZ, where the sun is still shining, the campsites are ghost towns and where you can dig out pipis (little cockles) from the sand for your dinner.