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Friday, 26 November 2010

16 - 23rd November, Taupo - Taupo

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With so much of the North Island still left to visit, we made the decision to hire a car in Rotorua, just for one week, so that we could travel over to the west coast and see Mount Taranaki and the New Plymouth coastline. It was a decision we were pleased we made, due to the vast distances we needed to cover and the ever shortening time frame that we have placed upon ourselves, so that we might be able to reach South island by Christmas. We were able to get a car for $249 for the week, that’s £125, it was a Nissan 4WD thing and it did the job well. A couple of days ago we drove from Rotorua to Taupo to Couch Surf with a really nice guy called Terence. He comes from an enormous family, hundreds of cousins, aunts, uncles and children. He has had such an interesting life, spending 10 years of it working on the oil rigs in the north sea which gave us both something to talk about, given my recent background, working with Juice DBT up in Aberdeen, helping to encourage better communication between the rig workers. During his time it was very much ‘every man for himself’, people didn’t really take the time to talk over the job in hand, or the jobs of other rig workers. My role within Juice was to help highlight the different attitudes and behaviours that abound on oil rigs and help the rig workers to identify some useful tips to enable them to continue to communicate the right way while out at sea. I learnt a great deal about the life of the oil rig workers during that period. Terence lives by himself in the town of Taupo, within spitting distance of Lake Taupo and he welcomes all travellers to his place, from all over the world. He is one of the most accommodating, generous and selfless men I have ever met. The evening we arrived there he insisted on cooking dinner for Mel and I and three others, 2 German girls and a girl from Singapore. He said to us that we should help ourselves to anything in the kitchen, if we could find it, we could have it, if we couldn’t find it, then he didn’t have it. That way, he said, we wouldn’t have to keep asking questions. We were truly humbled by the man’s generosity and the next morning when we left, we made a pact that we should return some day.

It was an early start, the morning we left Terence’s place - it was our intension to drive to a campsite known as the base camp for a hike which has been referred to as the best in the world; the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. We were hoping for a good nights rest before joining the many other travellers who had the same plan. That didn’t come to pass though, as our tent continues to make sleeping rather difficult. I woke up at 4am, soaked in condensation. We had chosen not to open the fly screen that night because of the biting insects and that, coupled with the altitude, meant that the inside of our very expensive, but third rate tent became unbearably wet. The tent is called ‘Vango Spirit 300+’ and it cost us a lot of money (over £300). We haven’t been satisfied with it from the off, it is constantly getting wet inside; we even had to re-waterproof the outside after it started to leak in Brisbane. We contacted Vango in Scotland and they basically told us to stop bothering them, so they could go and hide their heads in the sand a bit longer and maybe count their money for a while. My advice – don’t buy their products!

Not to be deterred, we made our way by mini bus to the start of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, a little bit groggy, but ever keen to see what all the fuss was about. The hike began in the early half-light of a fresh morning. We could see some small patches of snow on the higher ground as we began our walk. There was a lot of heather on the lower hills and some really pretty daisy-like flowers contrasting the rusty colours of the plants around them and the rock beneath. As we moved onto higher ground, the plant life began to lessen and different volcanic rock formations with streams fed by springs took over. Some of the rocks were very similar to those we encountered on Rangitoto Island; large rivers of porous, rough and jagged stones, massive rocks which must have been lava bombs, were all around us on the ascent. We were hiking up the western side of the volcano and from there we could see Mount Taranaki, all the more impressive when you consider that Taranaki is on the other side of the island, hundreds of kms away. In the crater of the first volcano and making our way towards a higher summit it felt like another world, so many different rocks and sand lying, lake-like all around us. In the next crater, there was a collection of emerald lakes, heated by the volcano and fed by springs and snow. The pathway took a turn for the worse at this point though and I fell over a couple of times. I wasn’t the only one falling over. As most of the hikers were slowly, gingerly slipping and sliding perilously close to oblivion; enter an American couple who were arrogantly running down the slope, such a shame that he fell over and cut his leg to ribbons just near one of those lakes!

Mel and I found a quiet spot to eat our packed lunch, looking out over a lake, enjoying boiled egg sandwiches, breakfast bars and bananas, then we made our way down towards the car park on the northern side of the volcano formations. Some of the signs on the pathway warn you about the possibility of an eruption and what to do in that event – effectively run, as fast as you can! Once at a lower altitude; the pathway began to take us through a really thick area of native bush, Manuka, Tree Ferns, Mosses, Palms and lovely bird life. We were stuck behind a group of German hikers for a while and Mel was translating what they were saying to each other. Apparently they were discussing ‘Tim-Tams’, an Australasian chocolate biscuit bar which is famous for the ‘Tim-Tam Slam’. They were drooling over how amazing it is to bite off the opposing corners of them and then suck tea or milk through the biscuit before slamming the rest in your mouth. The feeling was mutual. We spent the rest of the 6 hour hike dreaming of chocolate and drinking in the surroundings.

Our next port of call after doing the Tongariro Crossing was to drive to New Plymouth via the very scenic ‘Forgotten World Highway’. To be perfectly honest, there are very few highways in the UK that I would consider scenic – too many cars, filth everywhere on the sides of the roads, expensive petrol stations with nothing but processed food and disgusting toilets for respite – we all know what to expect. However, much to my surprise, the ‘Forgotten World Highway’ proved to be the best drive I have ever made in my life. In well over 3 hours, we saw maybe 10 cars and a couple of motorbikes, a good start. The landscape we drove through was very much like driving through little pieces of heaven. Picture rolling green hills, lambs, cows, horses and picturesque farmsteads, trees of every size and colour, thick rainforest vegetation, filled with beautiful bird song, wild mountain goats, sunshine in a cloudless sky. We drove through an amazing deep gorge where we looked up at vast, sheer cliffs which sprouted tree-ferns and lush green plants. Towards the end of it all; we saw Mount Taranaki, looming large on the horizon, appearing to be hovering above the low lying cloud, the snow covered volcanic summit rising majestically up into the deep, blue sky as the sun began to lower, changing the colours and textures of everything around. We were, once again, blown away by an awesome sight.

In New Plymouth we were hosted by another couch surfing couple called Barbara and Craig. They generously let us sleep in one of their spare bedrooms, make use of the facilities in their beautifully finished house and they were extremely nice people into the bargain. We really enjoyed our time in New Plymouth. It is a contemporary city with Art Galleries, Theatres, shops and a volcanic, black beach with brilliant surfing, not to mention piles and piles of brilliant driftwood. If we owned a car with a trailer I would have collected lots for ornamental purposes. Towering over the entire region is Mount Taranaki. You really should take a look at our photos (when we eventually have good enough internet to upload them!) to get some idea of scale of Taranaki.

Because of the mineral rich soils in the region, gardeners and public gardens in particular thrive. We visited two gardens; ‘Tupare Gardens’ and the ‘Hollard Gardens’. The high acid levels of the soil make for great growing conditions for Rhododendrons, Azaleas and Hydrangeas and there are great collections all over the city. In the first of the public gardens we visited, there are some trees which have grown unnaturally quickly over the years, including a copper beech and a Tulip tree, both of which grew to more then 50 feet tall in just 12 years. You don’t have to be an expert to see the attraction of landscaping in this environment. We love gardens, after all, we were married in the Botanic Gardens in Brisbane, and they are always a refuge and a contrast to everything else around them. Having the time to enjoy them without anybody else around allowed us to fully appreciate them. Fragrant roses, song thrushes in full voice, pristine lawns, Victorian style glass houses and blue sky’s. A real treat.

The following day we left New Plymouth and made our way up and back across the country towards Taupo again. It was raining a lot so it was a good day to be in a car, rather than on a bike. Terrance offered to put us up for another night and we took him up on that and we were really pleased that we did because there was a real eclectic bunch of travellers to share conversation with over dinner. Just before we arrived at Terrance’s I had a bit of an accident at a petrol station, spilling fuel all over my trainers and shorts. Somewhat frustrating as it meant that I had to spend the first hour of my evening hand washing them in an effort to get the smell out. Not to worry though, when I eventually emerged from the laundry room I was treated to a lovely Thai curry and coconut pudding coupled with great conversation. French, Estonian, Scottish, English, Maori and Finnish nationals were represented, and between us we really did put the world to rights.

The following day we had to make our way back to Rotorua in order to pick up our bikes and to return the car. That is where we are today. I am currently sitting in the games room of the ‘Cosy Cottage’ campsite. The news is on at the moment. It is coming live from Greymouth on the south island. 29 coal miners have been trapped after an explosion 6 days ago and the C.E.O of the company is giving a press conference, updating the media on their progress in trying to rescue the men. It doesn’t look good for those poor men; if ever we needed a bit of perspective in the world then this is it.

Our next destination is the east cape, we have couple of couch surfing places lined up, including the opportunity to learn about bee keeping from a lovely couple who have offered us a bed for a couple of days, and we will also be meting up with Auntie Margret, a relative of ours in Napier City. We have booked our ferry from Wellington to Picton which departs on the 21st of December and it is our intention to be in Nelson for Christmas. From there we intend to get some fruit picking work which will take us into the New Year.

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