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In mid October 2006 we flew down to Auckland from Shanghai via Sydney. It was 18 years since our last visit and that was also the last time Sue saw any of her family living there. It was also the occasion of her mothers 80th birthday so that there was planned a family reunion at Lake Taupo later in the month.
We were met at the airport and stayed with Fred & Maryanne Ockersee, Sues sister and brother-in-law for a week who took us around to see some of the places we had not visited previously. New Zealand has a unique flora & fauna, many of which which are under threat. On our first day we walked along the coast and admired the Pohutukawa trees whose roots were slowly being eroded by the sea. These trees are known as New Zealands Christmas Trees as they erupt in a mass of crimson blooms in December.
Occasionally Nephews Mike and Willem drifted in and out of the house, especially when Fred was barbequeing some of his fantastic beef steaks, best we had tasted in a long long time. The next family member we met was Garfield, the feline son of Sues brother Phil and his wife Gail. New Zealanders are very sport minded people and much of their time is spent watching their favourite sport which is Rugby Union. The All Blacks were touring Europe at the time so many beers were consumed in front of the telly! The England cricket team were embarking on what turned out to be disastrous test tour of Australia and, surprisingly, most Kiwis seemed to be supporting England over Australia.
We discovered that New Zealand had come on apiece since our last visit. The shopping was great, especially the food shops where you could buy pretty well any food item you could buy in Europe. Similarly the restaurants and cafes which had varied interesting menus which were inexpensive with good service and served the worlds best coffee.
On one occasion we had one of the best Indian meals we have ever eaten anywhere and the final bill was a fraction of the cost of the local UK Indian takeaway! Even a sumptuous seafood banquet at a top Auckland restaurant which included oysters and crayfish and a good Malborough Sauvignon Blanc did not break the bank.
It was time for us to head south. We hired a car from A2B car rentals in Auckland. This was another nice surprise as it only cost about $NZ1,600 from mid October to the end of December including a $NZ100 drop off fee in Wellington. This was for a family size Nissan estate, OK, it was not exactly new but it drove well, had air conditioning and suited us fine.
The main reason for visiting New Zealand at this time was to join in the celebrations of Joans (Sues Mum) 80th Birthday. We drove down to Palmerston North to collect her and youngest sister Frankie who had flown in from her home in Albury, Australia for the occasion.
We then drove up to Lake Taupo with Frankie continually marvelling at the green New Zealand landscape having just left the draught stricken State of Victoria which hadn't seen decent rain in four years. We stopped Waiouru for an excellent lunch of award winning pies looking out on the snow covered slopes of Mount Ruapehu then on to Lake Taupo to meet up again with the Auckland contingent and the last of the clan, Sues sister Diane, husband Mike and family.
Joan and Frankie shared a room at the motel and we were treated to a display of Joans nightwear and Frankie was just out of the spa! You must agree that they are both looking great for their age, especially Joan!
The next day we visited the Huka Falls. Lake Taupo is actually the remains of an extinct volcano. It is the biggest lake in New Zealand and covers an area of 616 sq km. It must have been some explosion that created this lake, the last one being only 1850 years ago and were it to happen again I doubt there would be much left of the North Island populace!
Many rivers drain into the lake but there is only one outlet which is the Huka Falls, a spectacular blue torrent of water plunging beween rock walls.
New Zealanders love adventure activities and seem to revel in putting themselves in harms way by such things as bungee jumping and jet boating at speed through rock strewn rapids. We were treated to one such adventire on the Huka Jet.
The driver introduced himself to us as "Crash" and advised if we felt scared then we should do what he did in that situation and close our eyes! We both sat in the front alongside Crash who, after the obligatory "spin" in front of the lady taking the photographs, proceeded to drive very fast downstream missing logs, rocks and trees by inches and spinning the boat at full speed in either direction, ensuring those on each side of the boat were given a thorough drenching in the process.
Back upstream to the base of the falls and Crash warns us that due to the aeration of the water he had to keep the boat moving otherwise we might sink but in case of engine failure, not to worry because you just had to hold your breath for several hours until you surfaced downstream!
Just so you get an impression of the amount of water coming down the Huka falls you can see the size of the Jet Boat at the base of the falls in the photograph above.
Back to the motel and then off to a lakeside restaurant for Joans 80th birthday celebrations.Here were gathered over 50 friends and relations from as far away as Australia to wish Joan many happy returns.
As you can see, yours truly entered into the spirit of things. It's always a pleasure to fraternise with Sues lovely sisters!
The meal served was absolutely first rate, Phil gave us the benefit of his wit with a horse race commentary followed by a nice little speech wishing Joan many more happy years and we all drifted back to our motel in an alchoholic haze!
Our farewells said we sped back down south to Palmerston. Here the weather took a turn for the worse. I had noticed that to the East of the dividing range is a rain shadow area.The prevailing weather systems seem to drift from the south west to the north east of the North Island and there is nothing between balmy Palmie and the Tasman Sea! Cold and wet for most of our time here I did manage one day up on the Ruahine range about 80km north of Palmie. I climbed from about 600 metres altitude where I parked the car up to the summit ridge of 1700 metres following a different ridge up and Dead Mans Ridge back down. What I hadn't bargained for was the large peat hags which covered the mountains above the bush line. One minute you seemed to be on firm ground between the tussock grass and the next step you disappeared "up to your ocksters in mud sir". At that altitude I had expected easy walking but after a round trip of about 10 miles I was completely knackered!
Having consumed all my water, the first Dairy (the equivalent of your corner shop in NZ) I found open was 60km south but that was the best milk shake in the world!
One evening we had an old girls reunion dinner; old school friends of Sues with two 80 year old Mums. We had breakfast with Barbara and John Trollope and family watching the Rugby (they will be in Paris for the world cup in October) and even managed a weekend in windy Wellington where we had to rope up to get across the road the second day.
But on this visit to Wellington we discovered Te Papa, a wonderful new national museum which tells the history of NZ geologically, ethnically and politically. It is completely free to enter, which in our opinion all museums should be ideally, so you can take the kids on a typically wet and windy day and spend a few hours without worrying about getting your monies worth. It will take you weeks to see everything properly. We took Joan on another visit later. Our knowledge of the country was now dramatically increased. Did you know for instance that New Zealand has more land under grass than any other country, or that 400 native species have been destroyed since the first Europeans arrived.
Friends of ours in Auckland, Terry and Byron Bently, had offered us the use of their holiday home (Kiwi's call it a beach Batch) on the Coromandel peninsula. This is situated due East of Auckland and about 50km as the crow flys but more like 100k by road.
The Bently Batch was at Paunaui. A place created entirely for people to build their holiday homes. It would probably be buzzing by the end of December but in early November the place was deserted and we cycled to the beach and sat sunbathing in solitude. The sea was a little cool for bathing so we walked to various high points and motored all round the peninsula.
Here I digress with a word on local pronunciations. Many of the place names in New Zealand are of Maori origin and it has become politically correct to pronounce them properly. Where you see a "Wh" it is pronounced as we would pronounce an "F" so Whangamata is pronounced Fongamatah and Whakapapa, well you get the picture. The Maoris have also declared certain places "tapu" meaning sacred and there was one mountain top on the Coromandel so designated that you were not supposed to climb right to the top. IMHO this is going too far. Access to these wild places may have to be controlled for conservation purposes but should not be restricted to any particular ethnic or religous group.
Across the whole of the Coromandel there once existed a huge forest of Kauri trees which were progressively felled for their excellent timber. Now protected by law this is one that escaped due to its unique square cross section. It was not considered to be particularly large in its day which gives one an idea of just have huge these trees were.
Following another brief visit to Auckland where we persuaded Fred and Maryanne to join us in Paris in October 2007, had various rendevous with Terry and Byron, Chris and Ernie Ward, Sues old friend Caroline Harkness and were treated to a pub lunch by David Holford, Sues cousin, where I supped the best pint of bitter in NZ with a mutton pie "made by a real Scotsman" according to the barmaid and she were right I reckon! Sues step sister Martha also put in an appearance. She was an early visitor to Phils bedside after he had succumbed to a recent heart attack. Martha is an undertaker and Phils reaction to waking up and seeing her was predictably animated!
We then headed down to Tauranga or more accurately Papamoa further south to stay with Mike, Diane and Gemma the Golden Retriever. Quite the nicest dog you could wish to meet.
As you can see this particular sister and brother-in-law are a pretty hippy couple, Gemma could not get her head round this dress which was the theme for Mikes work do. Tony was the obvious winner but I suspect that was fairly near his normal dress!
The sun shone continually here while it was wet and cold on the other side of the ranges. We dined out at the fish quay in Tauranga and voted it the best fish and chips ever, even better than Whitby in Yorkshire. We walked along the 30 mile long beach most mornings with Gemma who chased her tennis balls ad infinitum and met very few other humans. We spent a delightful day up the coast in Mikes RV (recreational vehicle) which is kitted out with every known mod con, tried and failed to teach Gemma to swim and ended up relaxing in a thermal pool.
Mike and Di had just invested in a 5 acre building plot in the hills above Papamoa. Just below their "section" is this little reserve complete with waterfall and swimming hole. This is the centre of the Kiwi fruit industry and we were given two carrier bags full by the farmer who sold them the section. An ex all black, his mate, Pinetree Meads, lives just down the road! I was well impressed!
We finally managed to drag ourselves away and continued our journey down the east coast and round the the eastern cape. The pohutukawa trees were now beginning to display their best crimson glory and what with the azure sea and green landscape with the road following the rugged coast presenting a new vista around each corner, it was a memorable drive.
Leaving a remote and somewhat basic motel on the East Cape we headed on down to Gisborne, a refined little place surrounded by beautiful beaches and quality vineyards. We were recommended a local Gewurtztraminer with a meal that night and so enjoyed it we visited the winery the next morning and bought a case. We then visited The Millton Vineyard south of Gisborne where the winemaker, who came originally from near Palmerston, introduced us to his complete range of organic and biodynamic wines. We emerged with a case of his luscious Chenin Blanc. Everywhere we now enjoyed the Jacaranda trees in full bloom.
Heading south again we came to an area of thermal springs so hired a private cabin for half an hour and luxuriated in steaming hot mineral water. We then changed and walked through one of the many trails through the local bush.
We arrived in Napier late afternoon and booked a room in an old hotel right in the centre. Most of the town was destroyed in an earthquake in 1935 and completely rebuilt in the art deco style.After the earthquake the surrounding land rose 2 metres and the sandy beach was replaced by a rocky one. Nearby Hastings was also largely destroyed and has some even better preserved art deco buildings.
Havelock North is nicely situated beneath an impressive mountain range which you can drive to the top of for a spectacular view across Hawke Bay. We lunched at a vineyard just south of Havelock North and then motored back down to dear old Palmie to spend Christmas with Joan.
The weather soon deteriorated and Christmas was more like the UK than NZ. Shortly before we left I suggested a quick day trip up to Mount Egmont now known by its politically correct Maori name of Taranaki. We started out in pouring rain but by the time we reached Wanganui the sun had come out and whereas I thought we might have an outside chance of seeing the mountain, as we drove north it gradually came into view in all its glory.
We drove up the eastern flank of the mountain to the information centre just below the snowline and walked to the 18 metre high Dawsons Falls. Our drive continued in an anticlockwise direction round the mountain to New Plymouth which was closed and back down the west coast to Palmie where the rain had finally stopped.
Our final day was spent visiting places of Joans childhood which she had never re-visited for over 70 years. Sues grandmother, Joans mother Blanche, was English who met her New Zealand husband in the UK when he was recovering from a wound received on the Somme while serving with the ANZACs in 1918. He returned to NZ, obtained a job as a shepherd on a station at Pukeroa a few miles west of Hunterville, built a house then sent for Blanche. Life on a NZ sheep station must have been a bit of a lifestyle change and Blanche did not settle well to her new life but Joan remembered it with affection as the home where she lived until she was 9 years old. Blanche died some time ago in Wanganui aged 99.9 years.
A visit to Marton where Sue and Joan were both born also bought back memories. Sues dad, Buzz, who died in 1966, still holds the record cricket score for the Rangitikei district of over 200 runs and the best bowling figures!
On 28th December we waved farewell to Joan and balmy Palmie, drove to Wellington and caught a flight to Melbourne. By the way, they charge you to get out of New Zealand and it is the one country where it can not be included in your ticket cost!