Sadly, our final night in Fiji was not a particularly restful one, being as Vickie had been comprehensively munched by mosquitos in a sort of insectoid parting shot, and spent the majority of the night getting in and out of a cold shower at roughly 30 minute intervals in a desperate attempt to quell the persistant itching. Needless to say, it was with heavy heads that we made our way over to Nadi airport.
Spirits were soon lifted however, as Nadi airport is one of the most pleasant little travel hubs that we've had the pleasure to venture through. Everyone was smiling, security was efficient and best of all, the duty free was plentiful. We stumbled across a bargin offer of two 1.5 litre bottles of spirits for a mere F$49 (about 8 quid each) and immediately decided that it would be churlish of us to pass up such a fine alcoholic opportunity to while away the long quiet New Zealand evenings in a drunken stupor.
Suitably armed, we boarded our flight to the land of the long white cloud. The flight itself was a relaxing one but for one problem. Dunc was highly absorbed in his favorite film d'jour - Batman Begins - when the plane began its descent into Auckland, necessitating the return of his headphones. Chuntering and grumbling to himself about the fact that he used to work for BA and knew that the in-flight entertainment didn't need turning off at all and that it was all rubbish, Dunc reluctantly stared out of the window for the remainder of our journey.
If we'd thought that Nadi airport was well-run, then Auckland airport seemed quite content to knock it into a cocked hat. We passed through copious amounts of bio-security and x-ray checks, but all the while were made to feel like welcome guests - a far cry from the intimidating and frankly ludicrously unfriendly approach taken at US airports. The smiling chap at passport control even offered us some tips of what to do during our stay on the north island, and seemed suitably satisfied when we informed him we would be travelling the country via Campervan. "Its definitely the best way, mate", he cheerfully announced, before stamping our passports and waving us through with a flourish.
A short trip into the city, and we arrived at our domicile, the Auckland International YHA. It was a most impressive hostel, filled with clean rooms, great facilities and friendly staff. If this was to mirror the rest of our New Zealand experience, then we considered how tricky it may actually be to leave the country when our time was up. We wasted no time in getting rid of our baggage before heading out to see what Auckland held in store for us.
Our habit of stumbling across places just as they are about to celebrate some sort of annual festival continued, as we found out that Auckland was having its annual fireworks display in the harbour and that, best of all, entry was free. In fact, our taxi driver had helpfully informed us previously that "If you hear loud bangs tonight, don't panic, its just some fireworks... we're celebrating fireworks night you know!". We didn't have the heart to inform such a friendly chap that we were well aware of fireworks night already, being as it all started in England with the cack-handed mr Fawkes, so we smiled politely and thanked him for the information instead.
Vickie was still struggling badly with the leaving presents given to her by the Fijian mosquitos, so we needed to seek out a pharmacy for some medicinal aid. Again, the seemingly inherent friendliness of Aucklanders impressed us when the little asian pharmasist behind the counter provided us with several free anti-histamenes to go with the cream we were purchasing because apparantly they work much better together, and it would save us spending $10 on a whole packet. Dunc was quietly impressed with this show of benevolance, and Vickie had to fight back the urge to throw herself, sobbing, at this mans feet and offer her hand in marriage when he handed over potential relief from her scratchy irritation.
Satisfied with this, an internet cafe was our next stop. The Korean owner proceeded to help us upload some pictures into our journal, and frequently passed on useful advice on which buttons to press on the windows interface. Ordinarily, this would seem a touch like teaching grandma to suck eggs. However, the entire interface of the PC was set to Korean, and Duncs pursed up face and confused grunts were clearly belying the fact that his grip of this ancient asian dialect was perhaps not all it should be. No wonder the place was so cheap.
The increasing asian influence in Auckland became more evident as we carried on towards the harbour. Every other restaurant, cafe and shop appeared to be either directed at, or run by, people of Japanese, Chinese or Korean descent. Far from finding this disconcerting however, we were more than a touch relieved not to see large volumes of American fast food outlets all over the place, and took pleasure in wandering down some of the many little side-streets off Queens Road before stopping at a cafe for some lunch and people watching.
That evening, the harbour was calling us and as we made our way towards it, we paused briefly to stop in a mexican fast food joint for dinner, before marvelling at the fact that a young woman appeared to be having a very dressy 21st birthday celebration in the restaurant. It seemed an odd venue when everyone was dressed up in their finery, tucking into a "Burrito with the works", so we left this surreal sight behind us and went in search of some explosives.
After much aimless rambling and looking confused, we decided that the most prudent method for us to find the fireworks would be to first seek out families that looked as though they were dressed up for a fireworks night, and furtively follow them to their desination. This proved rather trickier than we had at first thought. Firstly, people in Britain - when they are going to a fireworks display anyway - tend to wrap themselves up in a multitude of woollen items including bobble hats, scarfs, gloves and (In the case of Vickie), several pairs of trousers, jumpers, t-shirts and socks. Following these walking bundles of misco-ordinated clothing would not have been too taxing. However, being as it was coming into spring/summer time in New Zealand, many of the people wandering around simply looked like they were heading off for a bite to eat, or coming home from a day out. Several failed attempts to track a family (including some mildly comical episodes when we nearly followed a family into a multi-story car-park, and were spotted by some small children looking shifty, requiring us to head swiftly in another direction), and we decided to stop and ask someone. The aged couple we interrogated had completely forgotten that there were even any fireworks going on tonight, and seemed more interested in taking pictures of a cargo boat unloading in the docks than talking to us. We soon gave up on this and returned to our half-arsed attempts at spyhood.
Eventually, we lucked upon a gathering of people who seemed to be in the correct place, so decided it would be prudent to stop here for a bit and rest our now weary feet. Our confidence at being in a good spot was getting niggled at, however, by a steady stream of people wandering up to us looking confused and enquiring as to where the fireworks would be let off from. It seems that the Auckland event planners had done a fine job in keeping the locale of this particular display on a strictly "need to know" basis and clearly, the residents of the city "didn't need to know".
Nontheless, we stayed put, having found ourselves a spot sheltering us againt the incessant drizzle that began coming down earlier in the afternoon, and showed no signs of abating. Every now and again, the mild tedium was enlightened by grinning smugly at small clutches of people shivering past in their finest garb clearly on their way to a more expensive and less damp evening than we had planned for ourselves, but not having a lot of fun getting to their destination.
Now that the crowds had gathered (with not one person knowing if they were in the correct place), it was time for the pre-display entertainment. This consisted of a brilliantly incompetent fire-juggler who took great pride in skipping and mincing around the crowd, spinning various firey devices about his person. However, the combination of the slight rain and his seemingly endless lack of co-ordination, meant that any fires were spending more time out that on, and he took on the form of a crazy bloke playing with a couple of dishes. Immensly amusing stuff, we had to agree.
The entertainment was soon interrupted by a large bang, causing everyone to immediately turn their backs to the increasingly desperate fire-dancer and scour the horizon in search of fireworks. Everyone became convinced that they were in the wrong place and began flocking towards the sound, worried about missing any of the display. We rounded a corner only to discover that the fireworks had simply been some drunken chap on the back of his yacht, letting off a couple of rockets whilst chugging back on a few cold ones and marvelling at his unintentional power over the assembled throng. The dissapointment was tangible, and everyone soon grudgingly made their way back to their previous spots to resume their vigils. The fireworks themselves came and went all to briefly and, although impressive, we couldn't help but wonder if our time would have been more productively spent tucking into our duty free alcohol back at the hostel, before banging some pots and pans together and waving a cigarette lighter around gooing "oooh.... ahhh".
The following day, we resumed our exploration of New Zealands major urban area. The more we ambled through the streets and past the sights and shops, the more we got the feeling that Auckland bore a striking resemblance to a mini-Toronto. The skyline was similar but shorter, the aisan influence was similar, the city was built on a harbour and the people were friendly. Once we'd made this comparison, the rest of the afternoon passed uneventfully, with us occasionally pausing to remark "Ooo, its just like a little Toronto" every now and again.
Our meanderings eventually brought us to the Auckland Skytower, itself more than a little like a CN Tower that had shrunk in the wash. However, the skytower had one thing massively in its favour over and above the aforementioned Canadian goliath. In New Zealand, as soon as someone builds something tall, you can bet your bottom dollar that someone will soon start jumping off it. True to form, they had set up a Skyjump, allowing you to leap from 195m up the tower attached to a couple of wires designed to guide your decent to a target below. We watched, enthralled, as a couple of hardy types took the plunge. A prohibitive cost was the main thing precluding Dunc from having a go at it himself (at least, that was his story at the time), so instead we contented ourselves with admiring the commanding views from the observation deck.
Soon enough, it was time to leave Auckland so we checked out, stumbled across a couple of very good second hand bookshops (including a passing german chap who sold us his Australian Rough Guide for the princely sum of 4 pounds), treated Dunc to a much needed $10 haircut and went to pick up what was to be our home for the next month.
Upon reaching the Spaceship - the company we would be hiring our van from - office, we were more than a little excited to be introduced to our vessel, which had its own name emblazoned on the side of its bright orange hull. Apparently, our van went by the somewhat surreal monikor of "Gonad". We enquired as to exactly why they had named a van after a piece of a reproductive system, only to be told by the broadly grinning assistant that "Our manager thought it might be cool". Indeed.
We had elected to go for a "Spaceship" because we felt, as a converted people carrier instead of a traditional campervan, it would be considerably more nimble and easier to drive around the winding New Zealand roads. Plus the fact that it came with a DVD player, naturally. As we perused the list of additional accessories, and elected on a side awning to allow us to cook in the rain, a table and chairs, and the extremely necessary chilly bin to hold our alcohol, Vickie was more than a touch chuffed when they threw in a free camping toaster. The prospect of being "toastless" for a month had not been a pleasant one, and this twist of events appeared to visibly lift a weight from her shoulders.
A brief stop at a supermarket, and we were away. If we had been feeling at all homesick prior to now, those feelings were soon to be asuaged. As we left Auckland, the skies became grey and drizzly, and the rush hour traffic was heavily congested. We had never been so happy to sit in a traffic jam in the rain, and spent the next 20 minutes grinning at each other and commenting that it was just like being at home. Happy days. We pulled up at our first campsite and settled in for the night like a couple of over-excited children, highly keen at the prospect of living in our van and travelling around the country in our Scooby-doo esque mystery wagon, meeting friends and solving groovy mysteries. This enthusiasm was only slightly dampened when we pulled up next to our neighbours, who were secretively contained within a large, beaten up black bus with "Rock" splashed across the side. We briefly wondered whether the almost inevitable sounds of chickens being sacrificed at midnight would keep us awake, but soon pushed such thoughts aside when our super-noodles were ready for consumption.
Poring over our substationally well-thumbed copy of the New Zealand rough guide, we elected that the first port of call for us in our shiny spaceship van was to be the west coast, or more specifically, the small surfing town of Raglan. A very pretty drive took us into the town, where we pitched up for our first of many picnics, amusing ourselves by throwing leftover bread at the nearby sparrows, then watching a larger blackbird swoop in and muscle the little fellas out of it before taking the food off to her wailing and clearly ravenous offspring.
A brief exploration of the town later and we decided to head off to check out some of the surfers beaches nearby. It was a scene reminiscant of a guiness advert, with scores of lean, shaggy looking types racing to the beach clutching their surfing implements under their arms, before falling off, grinning at each other maniacally and starting the whole process again. It was a fascinating spectacle, but we eventually tore ourselves away from this when Vickie suggested a short drive through a nearby national park. From the map she was perusing, it seemed to be a handy shortcut towards our next destination. What we had clearly not allowed for, however, was the unescapable fact that the road was unsealed, much of it being along cliff faces and was also most definitely designed for 4x4 use only for the majority of the drive. This forced us to maintain a speed no higher than 30kph, for fear of ripping the suspension to bits and causing stones to career through our windscreen, which would have put quite the dampener on our trip so early on.
As we snaked our way through this mildly ridiculous stretch of road, we periodically passed some genuinely breathtaking scenery. The Tasman sea was far below us, and the hilly green magnificance stretched far above us and beyond into the distance. We had seen some spectacular stuff so far on our trip but somehow this isolated little country was managing to trump almost all we had witnessed. We continued ooh'ing and ahh'ing our way along the track, with Vickie noting our progress on the map at regular intervals, before furrowing her brow and remarking that this road may actually take a whole lot longer to navigate than we had originally intended.
2 hours later, we had covered approximately 20kms and were thoroughly worn out, possibly also suffering from some form of spinal compression, but nontheless more than a little in awe of the vistas we had witnessed, and highly pleased with the photos we had gathered along the way. When we eventually returned onto something approximating a proper road, Vickie pointed out that we were apparently quite close to a nearby waterfall, the romantically titled "Bridal Veils Falls". We elected to check out this hidden little site, even though we both concurred that we were considerably harder to impress in the waterfall stakes in these heady post Venezuela and Canada days.
The falls themselves were a short walk from the trail car park, so we jumped out and headed off, only to bump right into a bunch of school kids cradling a camera, boom mike, several scripts and a large plastic sword. Pausing briefly at this odd little spectacle, we concluded that they must have been filming some sort of Blair Witch meets Kill Bill home movie. Either that or happy slapping had reached a whole new level of professionalism since we'd been away. We bustled past them and continued to the falls, making sure to not look back. It was definitely worth the trip. The falls themselves were incredibly pretty, and in the sunlight, the evaporating water cast bright rainbows over the pool at their base. It was a captivating little sight and we spent several hushed minutes just gazing in silence at it before making our way past the weird camera toting juveniles and back to the van.
By this point, it was starting to get a touch late in the day, and the roads were not sealed for more than a couple of hundred yards at a time. As progress was slow, we chose to head straight to the sleepy little town of Otorohanga, home of a small native bird sanctuary. It was time to spot some Kiwi.
We pulled up at our little campsite to be greeted by a most chatty chap who waxed lyrical to us about the next door bird sanctuary (albeit only after a walk round inspection and in-depth question and answer session regarding the odd-looking bright Orange vehicle we arrived in), before playing us some taped Kiwi calls on his car stereo and informing us that we would be hearing some similar sounds approximately 9pm that night. This was a man who loved his occupation, and his enthusiasm was nothing if not slightly infectious. We decided to keep a keen ear out for the Kiwi calls that evening.
Our focus for this task was diluted somewhat, when one of us had the bright idea to crack open the large Vodka bottle, and pass the time while we waited with a copy of Sean Connery Alcatraz movie, "The Rock". A most entertaining and drunken few hours followed, before it suddenly dawned on us that in our hazy state, we had missed the Kiwi calls by a good couple of hours. Briefly chastising ourselves for this lack of concentration, we then sparked off a replacement activity. Vickie convinced herself that the call of a Kiwi was easily replicated, and promptly launched into a shrill attempt at reproducing it, pausing briefly between hollers to giggle remorselessly at herself and loudly proclaim to Dunc that "They sound just like this! They do!!".
The bright and effortlesly hot morning sunshine rudely awoke us all to quickly the following morning, and bleary eyed and fuzzy headed, we stumbled over to the bird sanctury, hoping quietly to ourselves that our potentially toxic Vodka and orange fumes wouldn't scare off or incapacitate any of its residents. Our tour kicked off in the specially designed nocturnal Kiwi house, where we observed a greater spotted Kiwi and very aged 35 year old brown Kiwi. When we inquired as to why the two birds were seperated by a fence, we were informed that the spotted Kiwi was highly agressive, and would attack and kill the brown fellow if it got close enough. Looking at these two dumpy little bundles of feathers shuffling around their enclosure, we couldn't help but feel slightly dubious at to this claim of lethality from such a silly looking creature. We were just about to question this statement when, almost on queue, the brown kiwi bungled a touch too close to the mesh fence, and recieved a kicking and beak stabbing of such unprovoked ferocity, that it actually made us jump backwards and inhale with surprise. Apparently, the old fellow was pretty senile, and kept forgetting that getting too close to the fence carried the risk of potential beaky death, only being reminded when the larger one began flinging herself at him with the savagery of a 1980's Millwall fan.
Feeling now a touch better educated on the whole "Judging books by their covers" issue, we continued with our wander around. Along the way, we saw many beautiful and colourful avians, but the highlight of the tour had to be the charming Kea enclosure. These cheeky and notoriously inquisitve alpine parrots are known for their many mischevious antics and highly tuned intelligence. As we approached the cage, we began daring each other to stick our fingers into the cage to see if we could tempt one of them over. We needn't have spent so long plucking up the courage though, as the second we got close enough, one of them bounded over and snuggled into our outstretched hands in a touching little display of affection. This wonderful feathered fellow was winning our hearts and before too long, he was added to the increasing list of animals that Vickie "Needs to have". The prospect of seeing some of these characterful parrots in the wild on the south island was now one we were most definitely looking forward to.
Next stop for us was to be the inland town of Waitomo, but our departure was delayed for a couple of minutes when Vickie passed a particularly cute little toy Kiwi in the gift shop, and spent the next five minutes pulling pouty faces and big eyes until Dunc relented and purchased the plush novelty. From now on, "Kevin" would be accompanying us on our global travels.
The tiny village of Waitomo has a huge reputation, as it is home to a series of cave networks, many of which contain a unique creature, the glowworm. This isn't strictly true. The glowworm isn't actually a worm at all, but as we found out to our slight displeasure, is the larval stage of the horribly titled Fungus gnat. As if this wasn't distasteful enough, we also found out that this insect is closely related to the common mosquito. Vickie suffered from phantom itching fits the whole drive there after hearing this news.
Nontheless, we decided to check out these caves, and duly pulled up in the village, paid our money and went on our guided tour. The caves themselves were a deeply eery and almost spiritual place, with what minimal light we were allowed bouncing off the varying formations of stalagtites, stalagmites and rock faces to create a wealth of different shapes and shillouetes. The guide was doing his level best to maintain this feeling of peace by talking at a near whisper during our tour. However, the atmosphere was being ruined by the only creature on earth more irritating than a mosquito, a screaming temperamental toddler. This howling beast refused to be quieted by his increasingly desperate mother, and everyone heaved an almost audible sigh of relief when she finally relented to his red faced demands and returned him to the surface, allowing us to enjoy the rest of the tour in peace.
A boat trip into a glowworm cave followed and as we drifted in complete silence through the dank dark depths, we stared in amazement at the sight of thousands of bright blue/green lights directly above us, coating the cave roof in a magical way, and giving it the real impression of a star-lit sky on a clear night. It was like something from a childrens storybook, and it was a real shame when our boat eventually passed through the cave mouth and returned us to the warm sunshine outside.
Our cave trip had taken less time than previously expected, which gave us a couple of hours to kill in the afternoon. A brief perusal of the leaflets in the information office and our rough guide brought up the fact that there was horse-trekking available nearby. Upon noticing this, Vickie suddenly snapped to life and began clapping her hands together at high speed while making a kind of "eeeee" noise. Horse-trekking was clearly on the cards.
Dunc however, was slightly less enthusiastic due to his deep seated distrust of our equine friends. Indeed, he had never even sat on so much as a donkey since he was 3 years old, and was more than happy with the status quo. Two things changed his mind. Firstly, the fact that Vickie clearly was not going to let the issue drop, and secondly, he noticed that the horses at the nearby trekking centre had starred in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, being ridden into battle by the heroic Riders of Rohan. Not only were we in Lord of the Rings country, but we had the change to mix with the glitterati. This was enough to sway him to give it a try, so we jumped in the van and made our way up into the nearby hills to find the trekking centre and adventure.
When we arrived, Dunc was more than a little relieved to realise that we were to be the only two people taking part in the afternoons trek. We kitted up and were introduced to our noble steeds. Vickie's horse was a lively, slightly stubborn female called bonny who apparently needed forceful telling otherwise she would just kick up a fuss and not do anything. Duncs mount was called Major, and was a 16+ hand fellow with a floppy fringe, and a slow moving, slightly dozy way about him. Apparently he was a little slow on the uptake but would plod along just fine if you let him. At this point, Dunc thought that the personality match of people to horse was just a little too spooky to have been accidental, but decided it would be best to keep such considerations to himself.
A brief crash course on what to do to control our respective steeds followed, and we were away. Dunc soon got wrapped up in a brief early battle of wills with Major, who seemed to steadfastly want to just eat (another similarity, he thought to himself later) and not go anywhere, and Dunc seemed unable to get the obstinate horse to shift. Just as the air was beginning to turn a touch bluer than before, Major seemed to relent, and the chaps managed to drift along behind the far more capable pairing of Bonnie and Vickie, who were no doubt sharing thoughts of "stupid boys".
We strode across some moderately demanding terrain, all the while observing the many bovine residents of the area, who seemed mostly indifferent but occasionally startled by our presence nearby. 2 hours and a sizeable case of saddle sore later, we drifted back to the stable, Vickie marvelling at the terrain and Dunc marvelling at the fact that he hadn't been kicked, thrown off, trodden on or eaten during his time on horseback. In fact, he rather enjoyed it.
Rotorua and Highway 1
A brief stoppover in the small farming town of Te Kuita, and it was time to head over to the North islands tourist destination par excellance, Rotorua, and its many thermal and volcanic parks. Pulling up into the town we were slightly dissapointed by the drabness of it all. The central area was downbeat and unapealling, and we were left wondering how this place had won New Zealands most beautiful town 4 years in the past 8. We couldn't help but feel that we had missed something about Rotorua the town, because Rotorua the wider area was indeed a beautiful place. One thing we definitely didn't miss however, was the heavy sulphurous whiff hanging over the town centre, giving everything the unpleasent smell of rotten eggs. The smell was due to the proliferation of volcanic parks nearby, but it certainly put us off having omelette for dinner.
Realising that there was not much in Rotorua centre to distract us, we decanted to our campsite early to relax, and spent a very pleasant afternoon by the river feeding some highly inquisitve ducks, walking to the shores of lake Rotorua and playing table tennis in the campsite.
The following morning, we were awoken by an invasion of Ducklings surrounding our van. Word of the previous days generosity had clearly got around, and now we were under "bread siege". We gave in to their quacky demands for a while, but time was pressing on and eventually, we continued on our way south. Next stop for us was the Wai-O-Tapu thermal park some 20km south of Rotorua. This was an incredibly colourful volcanic area, where hot mud bubbled in pools and the water in craters boiled away, blanketing the area with steam. The rocks throughout the park were stained a multitude of different colours such as Purple, Red and Yellow as though some giant overenthusiastic child had dumped van loads of powder paint everywhere. It was an otherworldy place and most definitely a fascinating one but for one thing. The stink. Oh, the stink.
To be able to provide a description of the noxiousness of the fumes eminating from almost everywhere in the park would take longer than we have here, but rest assured, it was the kind of smell that is so tangible, breathing through ones mouth is no defence because then, you just taste it instead. Initially Dunc thought this the perfect place to hide a number of potential "indiscretions". However, even his evil plans were soon overwhelmed when they strayed too close to a burping, bubbling pool of sulpherous mud and the wind changed, assaulting their senses with a barrage so terrible, it actually caused them to gag. Duncs t-shirt had to be used as a makeshift gas mask for when we were crossing some of the livelier parts of the park, and we couldn't help but wonder how anyone could work surrounded by this all day. Enough was enough and we made all haste south in search of cleaner smelling air.
While we were in Rotorua, we noticed a flier for New Zealands only genuine white water jetboat. Studying the map, we spotted that it was only a couple of km away from our current position, so we decided at short notice to give our adrenalin glands a good old workout and have a go. This was definitely no big money operation whe, as we pulled up to the small wooden hut, the only person there to greet us was a slightly doddery black labradoar dog, clearly torn between keeping his much needed place in the shade and greeting these strange new visitors. Intelligently, he elected to stay put.
A 30 min wait later, we boarded the boat with about 10 other brave souls, and were whisked off up the river. To say that the next 35 mins are something of a blur is a big understatement. We were whipped across churning white rapids - often causing the entire boat to streak into the air before slamming us back into the water - the driver also delighting in pulling sharp 180 degree turns, catapaulting us into each other and soaking us to the skin. It was a genuinely exhilerating experience, and we staggered off the boat and shakily made our way back to the van feeling on a definite endorphine high.