|Our big coach tour of the north today. Not being a big fan of coach tours I was a little sceptical but tried to keep an open mind. We hopped on the Fuller's coach at around 7.15 am and we head off north in the company of our guide and driver, Alex (another Scot who, it turns out, also escaped depressed 1970s Glasgow and made a new life here). We drove through what I suppose is more typical New Zealand landscapes - rolling green hills littered with sheep. The early morning light made dramatic shadows and long thin clouds wrapped themselves around hill tops like feather boas. It's going to be a good day I thought.
We stopped very briefly at the Puketi Kauri Forest, an ancient tract of original woodland that is now a protected reserve. We wandered beneath these giants and took photos which inevitably will fail to capture the scale of the trees.
However, our adventure really began when we got back on bus and headed out of the forest. A petrol wagon drove at speed towards us along the narrow gravel track, forcing Alex to swerve more than he wanted and stranding the bus in the soft clays at the edge of the road. Although we were never in any danger, the bus was tilting quite badly we all got off the bus. Fortunately, a rival tour bus came along and tried to help us out but to no avail. Instead, it was decided that we would all get on this bus and continue our tour with them until a replacement coach could join us later.
So we restarted our tour in the company of Barry, a really down to earth Kiwi who loved the sound of his own voice, which is handy for a tour guide. To be fair to him, he was pretty funny although he had a tendency to build up to all his jokes by repeating the phrase "Ladies and Gentleman" in true club style. We travelled on through Mangonui (meaning Big Shark) and stopping for coffee at Taipa (famous being the place where Kupe, the discoverer of New Zealand in Maori legend, first set foot on the island). We moved on to the grandly titled Ancient Kauri Kingdom, which turned out to be a large shop/café/sawmill/workshop, selling goods made from Swamp Kauri, rather than the Disney style adventure park it seemed to promise. Best feature was the slightly kitsch but ultimately brilliant staircase carved out of a single Kauri stump. If I built a house I would definitely have one of these. In the meantime, I took the opportunity to buy some Kauri wood and gum as raw material for some amazing sculpture that I have yet to conceive of. Failing that, it will serve as firewood when I'm stuck on a hill in the middle of nowhere.
We pushed northwards having rejoined Alex in a new coach. We eventually running out of land at Cape Reinga, and hopped of the coach and took in the grand views from the Cape. Apparently this is where the Tasman Sea officially meets the Pacific Ocean and, looking out to sea, one could see where the two bodies of water smash into each other beneath the boiling white surf. Also another place of Maori significance, this is the place where the spirits of the dead make their way before their final descent into the underworld.
Next stop were the sand dunes at the northern end of Ninety Mile Beach. We stopped the coach and joined another group of tourists in order to hurtle down a long hill of sand on a foam board. It was pretty good fun and not quite the un-environmentally friendly activity I had initially thought it was. With my conscience at ease, Kate and I went for a second run.
We next headed down the famous Ninety Mile Beach (the pedant in me noting that it is actually nearer 90km) in our coach. Having already trashed one coach on a forest track, we would've been within our rights to expect a few problems driving along a sandy beach in a fully laden coach. However, the coach, we were assured, was specially designed for this type of journey, and anyway the sand was mostly very hard packed. Our fears were unjustified and we cruised along at a fair pace (presumably because if we stop, we sink). We made a quick stop to see an example of what happens when you try to take ill-equipped vehicles along the beach and hit quicksand. The passengers in the car were quite lucky to get out in time and apparently they were picked up by chance by a passing fishermen. However, people have been know to die here.
We drove on to Waipapakauri for lunch, after picking up a huge amount of plankton that was washing onshore as we drove through the surf. The long journey back to Paihia took us back through the towns we passed through in the morning, Alex telling us more about the flora and fauna of the area.
Back in Paihia, we stroll along to Tides restaurant for a fairly mediocre meal and manage to digest the day's touring, if not the food. Back to the hotel and bed as we have an early start tomorrow.