Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Hamilton and then to the Airport

All packed and battened down. We have to return the van today at 3:30, so we have some time to enjoy our last day in NZ. First into Hamilton, for some coffee/chai, and some free community wifi, for this town is completely wired! Hallelujah! No free wifi is strong enough to post my blogs, so they are piling up and will now have to be posted from Santa Cruz. Sorry folks!

Next stop to see the statue of Riff Raff, and it doesn't disappoint. For Hamilton is the home of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, although it is hard to imagine this lovely, normal-seeming country town giving birth to the sweet trans-sexuals of Transylvania, but then, whatever. I paid my homage to one of my favorite films.

Today we visited the Hamilton Gardens, which have just won an international award for Best Gardens in the World or something like that. Free admission gets you into this extraordinary place where themed gardens abound. Here are some: Chinese Scholars Garden, English Flower Garden, Japanese Garden of Contemplation, American Modernist Garden, Italian Renaissance Garden, Indian Char Bagh Garden, Te Parapara Maori Garden, Kitchen Garden, Sustainable Backyard Garden, Herb Garden, Perfume Garden, Rose Garden, and so many more. They even have a gorgeous dog off-leash area and acres of rolling green lawns and woods. Again you could spend days in this city-run park, but alas we had a plane to catch. We had a superb Vietnamese lunch (Banh Mi Caphe) then raced out of Hamilton to the airport.

We bid a sad farewell to the camper van, then got to the airport only to find that our flight was going to be delayed several hours. Apparently they discovered a fuel leak, so they had to remove all the fuel from the plane, repair the leak, and then refuel. This took 4 hours, so we spent a lot of time at Auckland Airport waiting around, but also being thankful that somebody found that leak before we flew out over the Pacific! I'm writing this now in the plane after several hours sleep. We should be home soon!

Later: We Are Home!!!

Location:New Zealand

Wanganui to Hamilton

It has taken us a few days but we finally are getting into the swing of it in NZ, now that we are nearly ready to leave. One thing we learned a bit late is that many towns like Wanganui have community free wifi in certain areas. That Tuesday morning we went to a cafe at the "i site" to browse our emails and get directions for our next destination, Hamilton. We also went into a stunning art gallery featuring the work of Liyen Chong, who spent a year in the town artist residency program (Tylee) and made exquisite pieces, such as these two where she embroidered using her own hair. They are very small and delicate.

The drive to Hamilton was, as usual, spectacular: green, green, green; winding roads between steep hills dotted with sheep and baby lambs, some so high up they looked like small white rocks up on the steep slopes. We saw a lovely waterfall, and many fabulous birds.

Driving in NZ deserves some description of its own. It is refreshing. Roads are in consistently good repair, no potholes or bad surfaces. Everything is immaculately clean. There is no roadside litter. Signage is amazing. Everything is marked clearly, every roadside picnic table indicated ( and there are many provided). People travel at moderate speeds and cheery signs remind everyone of good safe driving practices. We may have been lost a few times, but it was clearly our own doing. The signs and maps provided are comprehensive, clear, and constant.

We have seen thousands of sheep and lambs in this country. It's no wonder that every city has merino wool shops with a wide range of clothing to purchase. In the Blue Mountains in Australia we both bought merino "skins", thin wool shirts worn like long underwear, because it was cold up there. I'm a bit embarrassed to say that we both have worn them day and night ever since, with only brief breaks to launder them and put them back on again. They are fabulous for an extra layer of warmth, yet seem to keep you cool when the day warms up. They don't smell even when you have had them on for days. I've gotten kind of superstitious about my "skin", feeling safe and happy as long as I have it on! Not sure how this will work out in SC, but at least winter is ahead of us, unlike here.

Hamilton is a big, modern town. This was our last night in our beloved camper van, and our "holiday park" was city owned and offered a wealth of great facilities. There were hot showers, laundry room, communal kitchen and dining, game rooms, kids playgrounds, places to fill your van with water and dump waste. The whole place was immaculate, quiet, and of course, green! This could really describe every one of the places we stayed. They have been uniformly great, well managed, and extremely quiet, spacious, well-thought out, and pleasant. Many are municipally run.

We had Thai food for dinner, then went back to pack up and clean our our van, in preparation for turning it in tomorrow. Tonight we laughed for a long time when we lay in bed talking. During the last week or so I've been startled awake a few times a night by what sounded like a loud drilling sound ( think machine shop) coming from her side of the bed. I've been assuming she had developed a new and peculiarly loud snore, but haven't said anything until now. She was embarrassed, astounded, and appalled. We laughed it off comparing it to her frequent commentary on my nose hair, and threats to go after me with scissors. Yep, we both have our little physical imperfections, we said, and we laughed for a long time together. Just as we were drifting off to sleep we both heard the sound again. Brrrrrrrrrrrrrrp! "Was that it?" she asked. Yes, it was, but it wasn't her after all. It was something in the camper van, perhaps a water pump or motor of some kind. More laughter, and finally to sleep.

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Location:New Zealand

Wellington, day 2 , then Wanganui

On our second day in Wellington we visited Te Papa, the huge museum that sits on the harbor edge. Here there are exhibits of history, natural science, Maori culture, art, and so much more. You could spend days in this place and not see all of it. We decided to focus on art (surprised?) and the first gallery housed many of the prize-winning costumes made in recent years for the WOW festival. This is a huge event like Santa Cruz' Fashion Art show on steroids. Combine Project Runway with Cirque de Soleil with Hollywood, throw in a bunch of amazing international artists and performers, and the result is a show unlike anything else. We saw a video of it at Geelong and were really astounded, so it was great to see the costumes.

We also saw a lot of beautiful Maori weaving, as well as some contemporary art. We were impressed that throughout the Museum, Maori language always comes first and English second, on every sign and exhibit description. This is usually true throughout NZ, showing a huge respect to the Maori population.

The museum is currently having a huge exhibit about T-Rex, that we didn't have time to see. But outside, in front, is a huge crate the size of a railroad car. Painted on the side it says "Live Specimen" with a painting of a Tyrannosaurus. When you walk near it, motion sensors detect your presence and huge roars come from inside the crate. Little children were delighted!

We also visited some contemporary art galleries in the city, then bought a take-away lunch and sat out in a giant sunny square on the harbor to picnic with dozens of other Wellingtonians who had the same idea.

Finally we drove out of town and headed north to Wanganui, our next destination. We found a campground right along the Whanganui River, featuring sheep and goats right outside the door. As we wandered around that town we really loved it. It is art centered (big art school here), and friendly and interesting. We had dinner "at home" in our camper van, then actually went out to the movies to see Gone Girl, which we didn't love. Oh well. It can't always be perfect!

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Location:New Zealand

New Zealand, Long Drive

Somehow I wrote this blog and it got lost so I'll try to reconstruct this day, however briefly. We drove from Katikati on a long haul down to the south to a tiny village called Ashhurst, near Palmerston North. It was another spectacular day. We went through Rotorua and the geothermal hot springs area. We stopped for lunch and some art-gazing at the lovely lakeside city of Taupo. In the afternoon we drove through high desert tundra where we could as easily have been in Wyoming surrounded by snowy mountain peaks. It was sunny, then rainy, then a little snowy, then sunny again. We went past innumerable small villages and grassy farms, saw the land flatten out then rise up sharply again.

Our destination was with friends, Laura and John, who entertained us for tea and then dinner and then breakfast next morning. They live out in the country. He is a retired professor, she an artist, both English born. We stayed in our van, but enjoyed hours of conversation with them.

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Location:New Zealand

The Coromandel Peninsula

This was where we woke up after our day of being lost and parking in the dark in a parking lot. We were in a secluded park on an empty, rocky beach, surrounded by birds.

This is the Coromandel Peninsula, also known as the Sea Bird Coast. It stretches along the Firth of Thames, a long, wide bay. There are thermal hot springs and mud flats at the lower end, and a mangrove forest at the northern end. In between is a spectacular drive along the water’s edge, where sea birds sit on every rock, and the trees are full of nesting white bellied cormorants and other birds.

This alternates with climbs up steep ridges where the vets of the velvety green fields below are breath-taking! This area is also known for scrumptious seafood, especially mussels and oysters. A smokehouse offers every variety of smoked seafood. Yum! We did a lot of happy tasting along this route.

Coromandel itself is a sweet small town. You can walk around it pretty quickly and explore all the little shops and eateries. Later that afternoon we drove back down the Peninsula and found a campsite called Sapphire Springs in a town called Katikati, where we enjoyed a hot spring soak before falling into our comfy van to sleep. Another delight in Katikati was finding the local farmers market, where we stocked up on fruit, eggs, and fresh baby asparagus. It is springtime, after all. Here is the brick oven on wheels at that market where they were baking fresh bread on the premises.

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Location:Coromandel, New Zealand

Friday, October 10, 2014

Bay of Islands, then lost again

This morning we took a passenger ferry from Pahia to Russell, a thoroughly charming small town on the Bay of Islands, which like its name says, is just that: a big bay dotted with something like 150 islands, many of them tiny. This is a volcanic phenomenon. Russell is tiny and consists of many white Victorian houses and hotels that run along the waterfront. Then the town spreads gently uphill along the slopes of the hills behind. There are hardly any cars there, and many cute little shops and restaurants. You can see the entire town in a couple of hours.

When we got back to Pahia we made a decision to head south to make up some lost time. So we drove down through Auckland, a long drive, and thought we would head over towards the east coastal area below Auckland. However our map shows only the big roads. I thought we could find our way to the sea if we just kept heading due east using my compass. How wrong I was! This time we got thoroughly lost in a winding suburb, ending up in cul-de-sacs that took us nowhere, and making big circles back towards the city. We stopped numerous times to ask for help, but many of the locals were as baffled as we were about how to get to the sea. To add to the mix, most place names over here are in the Maori language, so they are easy to mix up. So people would say "just go straight down Manawakea to Makenaroa, then turn right til you get to Takanamawa and keep going to Kawaneoa Street....." Ummmmm, yeah, sure!

Eventually we found the sea, but long before that Daniella announced that she was planning to kill me over this little incident! We had a nice dinner and made up and laughed about our two episodes of Lost in NZ, then drove on into the night looking for a campsite. Everyone says not to park on the roadside here because there are so many campsites, and there are, but not where we were. So we pulled into a tiny regional park in an area where we had seen no cars, no houses, no nothing for about 1/2 hour. Here we spent a completely silent night, undisturbed by anyone. When we woke up, we were on the edge of the Firth of Thames, a giant bay and bird sanctuary to hundreds of wading birds and others. It was a stunning place to be.

Location:New Zealand

Trounson Park, Ngawha Hot Springs, to Pahia: A Lost Saga

On Wednesday we left Christine's house with some excellent suggestions and headed north. First stop was at Trounson Park, a bush walk through a grove of kauri trees, which are NZ's oldest and biggest trees. Some are 1200 years old, 150 feet tall, and up to 9 Meters around (about 30 feet). But they are completely different from our redwoods. The bark is swirly and patterned like a patchwork quilt. The trunk often grows in a spiral. They are surrounded by tall tree ferns, and their upper branches are a habitat for more ferns and orchids -and of course a huge number of exotic birds.

We had a lovely, long walk there and then headed out to our next destination, we thought. But what we had understood to be a loop leading back to the main road turned out to be about a 40 mile long dirt road through a completely gorgeous rural area of pointy green hills and valleys, endless sheep and cattle farms, and eye-goggling views. Sounds like fun, right? Wrong ! All that time creeping along in that huge van, raising up a huge dust cloud behind us, wondering where on earth we might end up (road not on our maps) had us pretty stressed.

We finally emerged in a bleak little town called Kaikohe, and were we ever happy to be there! We got a little lunch and drove on to Ngawha Hot Springs, where we got out of our wool undershirts and into bathing suits to sample the 8 different thermal pools at this place, everything from "the Scotsmam" which was cold water to "the Lobster", the hottest, which seemed to actually be boiling with bubbles. It was a funky place for sure, but the price was right and after our hours on a dirt road, it was just the ticket!

That evening we found a really lovely "holiday park" campsite in the beautiful small town of Pahia on the Bay of Islands. There we were able to do laundry, have showers, and clean out the van in addition to having a delicious Thai dinner in town! Today we drove too long and saw a lot more rural scenery than we bargained for. Our internet access is sporadic, which is frustrating.

Location:New Zealand, northwest

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Te Kapuru, Glinks Gully, and another great visit.

On Tuesday we left Auckland in our grand and huge and luxurious camper van, and headed north to try to find a couple of friends. Sadly we missed the first one, took the wrong road and couldn't get turned around. But we will try again soon. The rest of the day we got accustomed to driving here, the mirror image of driving at home. After the first terrifying few miles it got easier, and by today we are old hands at driving on the left side of the road in a drivers seat on the right of the vehicle.

We drove through spectacular farm country, through tiny intersections called Dairy Flat and other colorful names that reflected the rolling green meadows full of sheep and cows. The green was electric, and the hills went up and down steeply. We finally, with great ingenuity, found our way to Te Kaparu, a tiny spot on a peninsula below Dargaville on the West coast. We had to stop and ask questions over and over again, but we made it. The map doesn't show any of the tiny dirt roads we traveled to find our friend Christine. She was a student in Daniella's class 3 years ago, and she lives in a spectacular rural area in a lovely home on a hill with a pond where swans were swimming with their babies, and the green land rolled out for miles in all directions. We could hear the roar of the Tasman Sea from her yard, and soon after we arrived she piled us into her Jeep and drove us further down her dirt road to Glinks Gully where everyone in her family has a "Bach" (beach house). This beach is huge. At low tide you can drive your Jeep for miles along it. When we were there there was nobody else at all. It was stunning.

Christine made us a great dinner and we sat in front of a fireplace and talked into the night before finally crashing into bed in our camper van. It was great to be with her. If anyone wants a spectacular and end of the road home in NZ, hers is for sale.

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Location:Puketona Road,Paihia,New Zealand