Category Archives: New Zealand

The sound of lava on willow

Friday 14th November – Monday 17th November
Rotorua to Auckland, North Island, New Zealand

On Friday, we took a bus from Rotorua to Hamilton, and then completed the Northern Explorer train route by riding on the Hamilton to Auckland section.

Our final few days in New Zealand were spent in Auckland. Although New Zealand’s capital is Wellington, Auckland is by far its biggest city, boasting some one million residents.

Rotorua to Auckland
Prior to catching our bus to Hamilton, we took a walk beside the lake in Rotorua, and saw the unusual (for us Europeans) black swans that live there.

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We had an hour or so to spare in Hamilton, so we grabbed a snack. Simon decided that a photo was in order, as he felt that a snap with this waffle, banana and chocolate combo should be the updated version of the ice cream sundae shot that my parents always took when I was on holiday as a child!

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Auckland
We arrived in Auckland in the evening on Friday, and we caught a glimpse of the Sky Tower (the tallest man-made structure in New Zealand) on the way to our hotel.

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Saturday was unfortunately rainy (although we can’t complain, as we have really had very few days of rain on our trip), but we did manage to have a look around the city. We used our guidebook to follow a bit of a walking tour of the city centre, taking in the modern Auckland Art Gallery building, Albert Park and the university area.

In the evening, we went to a city centre sports bar called Fox’s to watch the Four Nations Rugby League final between the New Zealand Kiwis and the Australia Kangaroos. The game was taking place in Wellington (about 650km from Auckland) and we would have loved to have been able to be there to see it live – rugby league is a less popular sport in NZ than rugby union, so we could potentially have got tickets – but the timings did not work out due to our flight on Monday. However, the atmosphere in the pub was great and we really enjoyed the match – particularly as the Kiwis were eventually victorious 22-18, after a close-fought battle.

Sunday was a brighter day and we kicked it off with a tasty breakfast in an alarmingly-named coffee shop close to the Britomart station.

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We then took the train a short distance out of the city centre to go for a walk to get some views of the city. We walked up Mt Eden, which is in fact a volcano (Auckland is a city built on fifty volcanoes – Mt Eden is extinct, but not all of them are!). The top of the volcano later formed a crater, which is sacred ground for Maori people.

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A sign at the summit confirmed that we were a long way from home!

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From there, we walked through to Eden Park, the stadium where the NZ All Blacks play rugby and the NZ Black Caps play cricket, to watch a Twenty20 cricket game between the Auckland Aces and the Northern Knights. It was mainly a family event, and only one stand was being used by the attendees (hence why the stadium looks deserted in our photos!). This was our first ever live cricket game (we’re definitely going to attend a game at Chester-le-Street when we get home) and it was fantastic to see some sport at the national stadium.

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We finished our day back in the city centre in the Britomart area, just behind the central station, which contains a great selection of shops, cafes and restaurants.

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Thought for the day
On one of Simon’s favourite sit-coms, The Flight of the Conchords (about a Kiwi band and their manager, trying to make it big in New York City), the wall of the manager’s office is graced by a tourism poster featuring a photo of sheep grazing on the rolling hills of the North Island and bearing the legend: “New Zealand – like Scotland, only further away“.  

In fact, and as much as we love Scotland, it seems to us that NZ really isn’t like anywhere else on earth: 

– This stunningly beautiful country, which is not much bigger than the UK, boasts beaches, volcanoes, geo-thermal pools, alpine mountains, earthquakes(!), cool cities, rainforests, glaciers and even fjords;  

– Its 4 million incredibly friendly residents seem to get along harmoniously, despite their varied backgrounds, with far less of the friction between original inhabitants and European colonists than is the case in other countries;

– 75% of the country’s energy needs are supplied by renewable sources, principally hydro power from the multitudinous rivers and geo-thermal energy from deep underground;

– Its legal system has managed to avoid a “compensation culture” by instituting a state-wide system to compensate victims of accidents and fine the perpetrators; and

– New Zealand has no snakes and only one (very rare) poisonous spider.  Add this to the fact that there are no large predatory mammals, either native or introduced, and you have a country where, unlike Australia, the wildlife is not generally out to destroy humanity (the geological fault lines are another matter, however…).

In other words, we loved New Zealand (or “Godzone” as it is sometimes known, after it was described by a poet as “God’s Own Country”). In fact, if we didn’t know better, we would think that the entire place had been carefully designed – perhaps by legendary Kiwi movie director, Peter Jackson…

When we first arrived, we kept saying to ourselves: “We need to do everything we can while we are here – we will never come this far again.” Within a week, our catchphrase had become: “Next time we are here…”!

Goodbye New Zealand – I suspect that we will be back.

PS The title of this post was inspired by our day of volcanoes and cricket. I think I missed my calling as a tabloid sub-editor!

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Rotorua smells

Tuesday 11th November – Thursday 13th November
Manakau to Rotorua, North Island, New Zealand

Manakau to Rotorua
Having said our goodbyes to Julie, Sam and Joe on Tuesday morning, Doug took us with him on his regular commute to Palmerston North (or Palmy, as locals know it), where we had some breakfast then picked up our train.

Once we were on our way, we passed some beautiful scenery, including views of one of a number of active volcanoes visible from the train line. 

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Unfortunately the rain set in while we were travelling north, meaning we saw a bit less of the National Park area than we’d hoped, but we were soon getting off in the city of Hamilton.

Hamilton station was a short distance out of town and we needed to get into the city centre to pick up our coach to Rotorua. There didn’t appear to be any staff in the station, but there were some maps, so we took one to figure out how to get downtown.  As we were looking at the map, a very nice guy came up and asked us where we were trying to get to. When we told him he offered to give us a lift, as he was going that way. We gratefully accepted…and chatting to him on the way in, it turned out he was the train driver who had brought us to Hamilton! Bonus marks to Kiwi Rail for their door-to-door service!

The coach journey was a bit late leaving and took slightly longer than planned, so we were already late as we arrived into Rotorua. This was made worse when the coach broke down about two blocks from our final destination! Luckily the driver was happy to give us our bags and let us find our own way for the last bit of the journey.

We were keen to visit Rotorua for two reasons – to see the geysers (and other geothermal activity) and find out a bit more about Maori culture – we weren’t disappointed on either count.

Cycle ride, Rotorua
On Wednesday we borrowed some wobbly bikes from our motel to cycle into Rotorua and explore some of the city. It sits on the shore of Lake Rotorua, which is actually a caldera (created 240,000 years ago, when the magma chamber under the volcano here collapsed). There is still a lot of geothermal activity in the area, including the geysers, and the city gets quite smelly, especially near to these active areas.  

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Rotorua Canopy Tour
An early start on Thursday morning and time to get a view of the area from higher up! The Rotorua Canopy Tour consists of a number of zip lines and wooden bridges, all in the beautiful setting of virgin forest. Only 5% of New Zealand still has virgin forest (which would have greeted Maori settlers when they arrived hundreds of years ago). 

The morning was huge fun, and our guides kept things interesting with additional challenges (we both managed backwards, but upside-down zip-lining was less successful!)

The Canopy Tours also take the conservation of the forest very seriously. Many of the birds that are native to New Zealand are under threat from introduced mammal species, such as possums, rats and stoats. As a result, keeping the population of these pests down is a big part of their work. They’ve come up with a great way of fundraising for this (in addition to the Canopy Tours themselves) – companies/individuals can ‘sponsor a trap’ and can even go online to find out how many pests their specific trap has caught and killed! The tour was massive fun, and it was great to see the contribution the company is making to protecting such an important historic environment.

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Te Puia
Te Puia is best described as a cultural centre, designed to protect and promote Maori culture. We decided to visit on Thursday afternoon/evening, to find out more. 

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Our visit started with a fascinating guided tour. Te Puia includes schools for traditional arts of weaving and carving. Weaving courses last up to a year, and carving for up to three years – small numbers of Maori are given scolarships, and visitors can see the students at work.

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The tour then took us to the geysers. The larger of the two, known as the Pohutu Geyser, can reach heights of up to 30 metres. It’s believed that the geyser has an underground system of one or more chambers, which are filled with hot water, steam and gases. The water in the chamber starts to boil when the chamber becomes sufficiently pressurised and hot. This forces the water up through the geyser vent, usually once or twice an hour.

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As afternoon turned into evening, we were taken to see our dinner, which had been cooking for several hours. The traditional method of Maori cooking is called hangi, and involves putting the food under the ground, on hot coals. We were taken to the hangi pit, as our feast was revealed (in the photo below you can see the pit with coals on the left, the food in the middle and the pit cover on the right).

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This was followed by a fantastic performance of singing and dancing by a group of men and women in traditional dress. Joanna joined some of the women in the audience to learn poi (which involves swinging a ball on a cord) and I joined a few of the men to learn the haka!

The evening was finished with the hangi feast, and a final visit to the geysers. All in all, a fantastic experience, and a great way to learn about Maori culture, while also supporting its future.

Alternative blog title of the day
Joanna wanted to call this blog ‘Zipedy do dah, zipedy ay, Maori oh Maori what a wonderful day’. I used my veto to prevent this happening. You’re welcome!

Kaikoura to Wellington

Saturday 8th November – Monday 10th November
Kaikoura to Wellington, New Zealand

Train journey, Kaikoura to Picton
On Saturday morning, we picked up the Coastal Pacific, travelling through to Picton in the north of the South Island.  The journey was stunning once more, and we we able to see some of the vineyards that New Zealand is rightly famous for.

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Ferry journey, Picton to Wellington
Saturday afternoon saw us on an Interislander ferry from Picton back to Wellington, on a journey that I (Joanna) am told was fairly calm – I cannot comment, as I was huddled below decks, studiously staring through the window at the horizon for the most part – I am a terrible sailor, which was not helped by the planned crew emergency drill that lasted for around an hour in the middle of the journey, culminating in a very bored “abandon ship, abandon ship” command from the captain…

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The first part of the journey takes you through calm blue waters, interspersed with beautiful green islands. You then leave the South Island to cross the Cook Strait, before heading into the harbour and towards Wellington. 

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Somewhat surprisingly, we didn’t actually travel north by any appreciable amount on our journey from the South to the North Island, as can be seen from the map below.

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Wellington Sky Show, Wellington Harbour
Another surprise on Saturday was discovering that Kiwis celebrate Guy Fawkes’ night, meaning that we were treated to an excellent pyrotechnic display in Wellington Harbour on Saturday evening.  As you may be able to hear from this video, the “oohs” and “aahs” that accompay fireworks are universal (although in fact, I think that the group standing behind us, who you can mainly hear, were actually British).

Walk to Mt Victoria lookout, Wellington
On Sunday we woke to a beautiful (and slightly less windy than usual) day in Wellington, so we took the opportunity to walk up Mount Victoria through a lovely park, to get 360 degree views of Wellington and its surrounding harbour/suburbs. Seeing the city in this context really gave a sense of the beautiful land and water that can the found in this part of the North Island.

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Another evening in Wellington also gave us an opportunity to return to The Email (see our previous post about Wellington) and find another restaurant to please our tastebuds. This time we went for Mexico which (unsurprisingly) served up some fantastic authentic Mexican food. Special mention is due for the dessert: fresh churros with xocolate sauce and crushed salted peanuts. 

Carter Observatory, Wellington
Monday was our last day in Wellington before heading back to see Doug, Julie, Sam and Joe for the evening. We had a couple of clear nights while on the South Island, but our knowledge of the Southern skies are limited (for which read: virtually non-existent). 

A trip on the Wellington Cable Car took us to Carter Observatory, where a visit to the planetarium gave us a crash course. A video about the search for life in space was followed by an excellent presentation by one of the Observatory’s astronomers about how to find your way around the Southern sky. It was slightly embarrassing that all the school children in our planetarium presentation knew more about the Southern Cross than we did, but at least we know now! 

Tradition of the day
The Carter Observatory also gave us a bit of background to some of the Maori myths and legends surrounding the night sky. We were particularly fascinated to learn about Matariki, known in the UK as the Pleiades or Seven Sisters, and one of my (Simon’s) favourite things to look for in the night sky (it’s actually a cluster of young stars, so looks fantastic even through binoculars).

Matariki disappears below the horizon in the New Zealand night sky around the end of April/beginning of May each year. It reappears about four weeks later in the eastern dawn sky, just before the sun. This usually marks the end of the old year, and is a time of reflection. 

The next new moon after this occurs is the start of te Whetu o te tau, the Mauri New Year (around the time of the shortest day in the southern hemisphere). Celebrations vary, but often involve rising before dawn to greet Matariki rising, songs, and eating kumara (a sweet potato) cooked in embers. It also represents the time to start preparing for the planting of new crops.

Kaikoura gets our “seal” of approval

Friday 7th November
Christchurch to Kaikoura, South Island, New Zealand

On Friday morning, we boarded the 7am Coastal Pacific train from Christchurch to Kaikoura, which means “place to eat crayfish” in Maori.  This small town, around three hours north of Christchurch, has an incredible setting, bounded by almost-unbelievably blue seas to the east and the Seaward Kaikouras (a mountain range) to the west.

There is a lot of whale-watching here, due to the deep ocean meeting the continental shelf, causing an upwelling of nutrients close to the shore.  However, given my aversion to boats we decided against booking such a trip – and were pleased that we had made that choice, when we arrived to find that many of the trips were being cancelled due to rough seas.

Kaikoura Peninsula walk
The weather when we arrived in Kaikoura was amazing, so we took advantage by going out for a 10km walk immediately after dropping off our bags at our hotel.

The walk took us around the peninsula, with fabulous views of the Pacific Ocean, beaches and nearby mountains. There is also a seal colony living there. They aren’t the easiest to spot…we actually thought there weren’t any seals on the shore until another visitor started pointing them out. We then realised there had been one right by where we had been standing!

[photos, from the top: enjoying the view from South Bay; two views as we walked to Point Kean; Seal Colony at Point Kean; the view from the esplanade as we walked back into Kaikoura]

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Video of the day
To give you a very small taste of the incredible beauty of this place, I took a 360 degree video of the view at Point Kean in Kaikoura.  I was going to say “please excuse the sound of the wind whistling past us”, but in fact that is all part of the experience!

Ain’t no mountain high enough (to keep us from Christchurch)

Thursday 6th November
Franz Josef to Christchurch, South Island, New Zealand

During our time in the South Island, we repeatedly heard that, due to the mountain range down the spine of the country, it is often the case that when it is raining on the west coast it is sunny in the east (and vice versa).  Therefore, we chased the sun to a certain extent during our time there, which meant heading back towards the east coast towards the end of the week.

Driving Franz Josef to Greymouth
On Thursday we drove back to Greymouth in the morning, stopping along the way for yet more photos of perfect glacial lakes, including Lake Mapourika.

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Bus and train, Greymouth to Christchurch
We grabbed a nice lunch in town, before our TranzAlpine journey back to Christchurch. 

Unfortunately a landslip meant we did the first part of the trip, to Arthur’s Pass, on a bus replacement service (an experience that was very familiar from home!). But this did give us the opportunity to see some different views, because at one point the train goes through an 8.5km long tunnel rather than over the mountains.

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We were also lucky that the weather was a little better than last time in some places, including at the journey’s highest point, giving us even more breathtaking views.

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On arrival back in Christchurch, we went for a meal in a pub in Riccarton, where we sampled a burger containing the “traditional” Kiwi accompaniments, beetroot and a fried egg!  I believe that MacDonalds NZ has just re-issued the “Kiwi Burger” for its 25th anniversary, although I can pretty much guarantee that the version served in the Fox and Ferret at Riccarton is better, despite the cheesy London Underground signs adorning the pub’s walls!

Road sign of the day
The driving between Greymouth and Franz Josef wasn’t too tricky on the whole (and we were certainly helped by the fact that Kiwis drive on the left, like we do in the UK). However, there were a number of single carriageway bridges, including one that was shared with a railway (trains have priority, in case that needed to be made clear!).

We were also amused by this road sign. Roundabouts? No problem. Level crossings? That should be fine, thanks. Roundabouts with a rail line going right through the middle of them? Excuse me while I concentrate for a bit…

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An ice experience: Franz Josef Glacier

Tuesday 4th November – Wednesday 5th November
Greymouth to Franz Josef, South Island, New Zealand

For many years I’ve wanted to see a glacier in ‘real life’, and being so close to Franz Josef and its glacier was just too good an opportunity to pass up. Unfortunately there were no trains available, so we hired a car to head a couple of hours down the west coast.

The journey took us through the lovely town of Hokitika, plus a few stop offs to admire some truly phenomenal views. This photo was taken at Lake Ianthe.

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We stayed for a couple of nights in Franz Josef so we had plenty of time on Wednesday to enjoy the area. We did a couple of walks – the first took us to within about 250 metres of the Franz Josef Glacier, through the glacial valley.

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There are 140 glaciers in total in Westland/Tai Poutini National Park, though Franz Josef and nearby Fox are by far the largest. Above them are mountain peaks over 3,000 metres high, including New Zealand’s highest mountain, Mount Cook (3,754m). The views were incredible – look out for the people towards the bottom right of the photo below, to get a sense of the scale!

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The second walk gave us the opportunity to explore the incredible temperate rainforest surrounding the glacier. Heavy rain/snowfall are a feature of the area – at the coast they get 3.2 metres of precipitation a year, rising to 12 metres on the slopes (hence both the glacier and the rainforest!).

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The walk took us past Peter’s Pool, a kettle lake formed by a huge block of ice left behind during the glacier’s withdrawal. When the ice melted it was contained in a depression, called a kettle hole, among the mounds of rock debris deposited by the receding glacier.

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It also took us to Douglas Bridge, which gave me an excellent opportunity to pretend I was in an Indiana Jones movie!

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After our walks we decided to rest our aching legs in the Glacier Hot Pools, close to where we were staying. The pools use glacial water and are in the open air, surrounded by rainforest. I’m also pleased to confirm that they were nicely heated so they were a lot warmer than the glacial water flowing close to the Franz Josef Glacier. A fantastic (and very relaxing) experience!

Fact of the Day
In 1943, a small plane crashed about 4km up the Franz Josef Glacier. Six years later, parts of the wreckage began to appear at the glacier front, giving an indication of the speed at which the ice moves (sometimes up to four metres a day, which is unusually fast for alpine glaciers).

Highlights of the TranzAlpine train route

Monday 3rd November
Christchurch to Greymouth, South Island, New Zealand

When we were researching our visit to New Zealand, we were keen to see how much of the country we could enjoy by train. And the TranzAlpine route definitely got us excited – taking you from the east coast of South Island to the west coast, it’s widely considered to be one of the most beautiful train journeys in the world. 

We were not disappointed. This spectacular journey leaves Christchurch across the Canterbury Plains, before heading up into the Southern Alps, then back down to Greymouth.

The train has the added advantage of an open carriage (cold and windy but fantastic for photos, as long as you’re quick!).

These are some of the incredible views we got to enjoy.

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Product of the day
Spotted on a box of cereal bars. Not quite sure how it feels to be ‘as happy as a box of budgies’, but we’re assuming that it’s a good thing! And if you’re wondering what jandals are, apparently that’s what Kiwis call flip flops.

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