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Touring New Zealand 2006 - Part 1

We flew over with Air New Zealand to Auckland via Los Angeles. The big advantage of flying through Los Angeles is that you are allowed two items of hold luggage each of which can be up to 32 kgs rather than a maximum of 20 kgs total on most routings. Flying via the United States is however inconvenient because you are forced to clear immigration even when in transit - at least this time we did not have to take all our luggage off at Los Angeles, only the hand luggage. This year we were required to have a machine-readable passport in order to use the visa waiver scheme, and we were required to have fingerprints taken and also a photograph. Hand luggage limits have been tightened a little and depending where on the Air New Zealand web site one looks one may or may not be allowed a second small personal item or laptop and the total weight now seems to be reduced to 7 kgs. We now have a series of strong flat boxes which we can use for electronics in the suitcases but tried to carry as much as possible after the scandals of security staff opening suitcases and stealing the valuable contents. We have also obtained special padlocks which can be opened via a master key for luggage inspections rather than leave the suitcases open. Our luggage on NZ1 was not taken off the aircraft, so no problem.

The flight was long and boring as usual - we pick up a few books from charity shops and shed them as we progress. This time we held on to them and were able to sell them at a considerable profit later in a bookshop when buying some books on NZ heritage! The Air New Zealand food (and wine) is OK and service good - it was much better than Qantas with whom we recently flew to Australia although we noticed that selection has been reduced and starters dropped this year. This year we flew on one of the first of their refitted 747-400s with individual seat videos so one could select from a long list of films etc. Pauline watched all three parts of the Lord of the Rings in one session. The only disappointment was that the much advertised "The Fastest Indian" was temporarily off on both legs of the flight.

We arrived at 0530 and were met by Christine having cleared all the incoming inspections. All luggage is X-rayed on entry to check for illicit food or anything capable of harboring insects etc - our walking boots were inspected and our careful scrubbing was accepted and the Xmas cake did not interest them this year. The next couple of days were spent recovering with Chris and Ralph in Auckland during which time we organised our bank accounts at BNZ and checked our EFTPOS cards - everywhere takes EFTPOS, which is a low charge direct debit system. Current accounts in New Zealand have significant monthly charges so in the past we have closed ours when we leave the country and just maintain a savings account. We also have Internet banking so we can keep an eye on the accounts, transfer money and even pay the sailing bills without going to an ATM machine.

We collected our camper van from Rental Car Village the following morning. We have been using them for many years now and they have always given us a good deal. The vehicles are far from new but they have always proved reliable. Unlike the Wicked Camper we rented in Australia they have no exotic (or erotic) colour schemes and do not look like a hire van which can be an advantage. We have done many tens of thousands of kilometres in their vans over the years with only minor problems, other than one year when we had a head gasket blow. But that is a hazard with almost all Toyotas.

New Zealand has a different approach to cars and they are maintained in use for far longer than in the UK. Last time we checked the average age for re-registration of cars was eleven years. Little salt is used and with good maintenance it is not exceptional to find vehicles with over 400,000 kilometres on the clock in fleet use. We have had many vehicles from Rental Car Village with mileages over 400,000 kms with less problems than we have with new cars at home. We spent a while talking to the Thomlinsons, it is very much a family affair with daughter Helen and son Grant as well as other relations all owning and running parts of the enterprise - overall they have several hundred vehicles. Grant spends a lot of his time in more exciting parts of the world and also has comprehensive computer setup to enable him to keep in touch whilst mobile.

Rental Car Village are progressively updating their fleet, mostly with Japanese imports. The Japanese standards are so stringent that it become prohibitively expensive to maintain a vehicle over a few years old so many are exported to other Pacific Rim countries and now to the UK. Normally we have a fully fitted van but this time they had just finished checking and servicing two new arrivals, both automatics with big engines and even air-conditioning with only just over 100,000kms on the clock. An unfitted van was perfect for us as we rarely sleep in the van and the bed fittings just waste space for us. We picked the Mitsubishi and collected exactly the bits we needed from their stock including a separate gas cylinder for the "Red Devil" and a couple of tabletop stoves. Packing always seem to take a while as we have gathered up a lot of kit over the years including the "Red Devil", a portable camping barbeque and cooker which can run off the little gas cylinders as well as the large one in the van. By the time we have loaded our library of New Zealand books and a couple of camping chairs and a table there is little spare space so we tend to use a tent rather than sleep in the van - it is much more pleasant and one can hear the dawn chorus. The only downside is that one has to slow down and wait for the tent to dry in the mornings. We also make use of cabins when the weather is less good - a basic cabin with only a bed and power point is often little more than a tent pitch on a commercial camp site. Camping pitches range from $5 per person on a DOC site to $14 each at a good Top Ten (before discounts) whilst cabins have been as little as $25 and $35 is the level at which the tent wins unless it is too windy to be practical.

The next activity was a visit to Charterlink where we have become honorary staff issued with Charterlink caps thanks to the business we have brought them through our web site write-ups; one of our 'contacts' was collecting the following day. After a welcome cup of coffee, we spent some time looking over their new Bavaria 30 as an alternative to the trusty Raven 31 for next year when we will only be able to sail for a short time. It looks nice in many ways for a short charter and has all the electronic 'boys toys' you could ask for, and even has a self furling main (mast type). The downside of a large cabin is that it carries less water for a long trip (only 150 liters) and has less storage than the Raven. It only has a fridge, and no freezer. We were also a little concerned that it is very high out of the water and could be a handful in high winds. We are undecided - on one hand we feel we ought to broaden our experience however the Ravens, especially Largesse, have served us so well and are designed and built in NZ for NZ conditions.

The weather has been following an unusual pattern this year with several weeks with sudden short but extremely intense tropical storms in the afternoons. By the evening it was once more clear and we had another of Ralph's excellent barbeques after a trial packing of the van.

The next day we took the ferry to Waiheke Island to stay with Jenny, Kev and the kids for a couple of days. It started well with a an excellent lunch and wine tasting at Passage Rock Winery. We had a tasting tray of their red wines at $5 to go with the pizzas cooked in a wood oven. We recovered with a vigorous walk on the cliff paths from Orapui wharf to Pearl Bay which had excellent views out across the Tamaki Straight and we could pick out all the features familiar to us from sailing including Passage Rock itself and across to the Ruthe Passage and Ponui Island. It was very clear and as we drove and walked we could clearly see the whole of the Coromandel peninsula, Little Barrier and Great Barrier Island which was sufficiently low on the horizon that it looked like a line of small islands. In the evening Kev collected Green shell mussels and rock oysters from their beach and barbecued some fresh flounder for supper which was washed down with a bottle of Montana Reserve Merlot. The rock oysters have quite a unique and lively taste - they probably started as escapees from oyster farms but have adapted to the local environment - at least you know everything is fresh if you collect it yourself.

Pete recuperated in the morning with a brisk swim in their bay before we all went to Vino Vinos in Oneroa for lunch. We had a huge mixed plate of local breads, seafood and meats with whole roasted garlics. It was complimented by a bottle of 'The Sisters' Cabernet Merlot, Merlot and Cabernet Franc blend from Passage Rock that confirmed that some of the Waiheke wineries still offer excellent wines without having to pay the extortionate prices many ask, often for wines not entirely from Waiheke grapes.We returned on the ferry at 1800 and walked up through the CBD to catch a bus up to Christine's. Auckland has excellent and frequent public transport, even on a Sunday. Much of the public transport in NZ is now run by Stagecoach, the UK firm. It was then time for another superb barbeque by Ralph. After our lunch it did not seem possible to eat more but his pork fillet in a Mexican marinade with a chocolate sauce was just too tempting to resist and we virtually rolled into bed.

We completed the last of the packing in the morning and started the journey South. We stocked up with fruit, veg and avocados at one of the roadside stores beside State Highway 1. The first nights stop was in Rotorua and we stayed at the Monterey Motel, an old favourite near the lakefront and very close to the centre of town. We walked round and did a little shopping and checked out the phone tariffs to make sure we were set up correctly - there are always different deals. We made a gigantic guacamole from a few of the avocados which were already buttery ripe with home grown lemons, very different to those in the UK - so soft you can eat them whole. We finished off with a single course at the Cantina Mexico, another old favourite which has moved from Fenton Street to be virtually opposite the Pig and Whistle. We dropped into the Pig and Whistle but were disappointed they no longer make their own Snout beer and only had the Swine lager on tap.

In the morning we completed shopping round town and continued South. We had intended to stop at the Orakei Korako (Hidden Valley) thermal area but were short on time so we went to the Craters of the Moon thermal area instead which is free and offers a walk round a very active and rapidly changing area. Everywhere this year has been unusually green, a result perhaps of the big storm, and it certainly applied to the Prostrate Kanuka which is an unusual variant of the Kanuka Manuka family which can grow on ground which is unusually hot, up to 70 degrees centigrade. As the temperatures moderate it changes from a fully prostrate plant only 10 or so centimeters high to a more normal shrub. Manuka and Kanuka are sometimes difficult to tell apart and are both members of the same family that gives us Tea Tree oil.

We stopped on the way past Lake Taupo to pick up some replacement pumice. We checked out changes at the camp site we use beside the lake and had our first typical ice-creams, doubles almost too big to balance on the cones of Gold Rush and Rum and Raisin for a big spend of $1.80. After the lake came the long climb up to Desert Road, one of the highest main roads in New Zealand which travels as straight as a die past the central mountains of Ruapehu and Tongariro with their tops covered in snow. Our new GPS told us we were well over a thousand metres high. We diverted a few tens of kilometres to stay at Ohakune for the night at a Top10 camp site. They have added a lot of new cabins since out last visit and have got a bit expensive but we wanted to get an early start without having to take down a wet tent. Ohakune is a skiing site and tends to be very quiet in the summer although it is also a good centre for walks including the well know Tongariro Crossing, a walk we must do some time. Ohakune is big enough to have a New World supermarket so we stocked up before leaving.

We paused to look at the monument to the Tangiwai railway disaster in 1953 - one of the largest of all time. The Lions have put up a new and very comprehensive double sided board which has 62 'pages' which look as if they are reproduced from a book but we could find no reference to it. The disaster occured on Christmas Eve when the Crater Lake burst its banks and caused a huge tidal wave to sweep down the river valleys. This lahar flow swept everything in its course away including the railway bridge at Clear - the central support was on a 70 ton block which was swept away like a children's building block by the 6 metre high wave despite additional protection already installed to prevent scouring. This occured only minutes before the arrival of the packed express train, the 3 pm from Wellington to Auckland. A local saw the flood and ran down the line to alert the driver but in the dark he only had a couple of hundred yards to slow the train and the engine was still doing an estimated 40 mph when it plunged across the ravine dragging many of the coaches into the flood. Several were swept over a mile downstream, miraculously many remained on the rails and loss of life was huge. The accident happened at the worst possible time, just after the lehar had hit and the waters were at their peak. The response showed a great difference between the UK now and New Zealand - by two days later on Boxing Day temporary pillars had been erected for a replacement bridge and trains were running as usual within 6 days.

It was then on to Tokomaru to the Steam museum where we had coffee with Esma and Colin - last year we arrived just after their 50th wedding anniversary and sampled their cake so this year we had brought a Stollen from England. After getting up to date we went out with them to look at the latest acquisitions including a massive sheet metal press which had served in Germany throughout the war making aircraft parts before coming to New Zealand where it was in full time use from 1955 to the day it left for Tokomaru. The fascinating feature is that it still bears the marks of the Allies attempts to destroy the factory during the war and has deep pits and holes from machine gun and cannon fire from Typhoons - some look like frozen water splashes whilst others have penetrated the steel completely before being halted by the next layer. They do not seem to have affected production then or now. It is now in place in the workshop, no mean achievement as it weighs about 12 tons and needed 'adjustments' to their crane to lift it into position. It now awaits the cutting of a 4 foot deep pit into the floor and matching foundations before it can be utilised for repairing and restoring their huge collection of Steam Engines and other machinery.

They have an impressive collection of engines with over 50 on display. They are mostly from last century with an emphasis on farming, ice making plants, gas plants, generators and ship engines although there are many others on display or in storage. Many originated in the UK or built under UK licenses although the centrepiece of the collection is a huge refrigeration plant built in Milwaukee which used to produce 180 tons of ice a day for the meat trade. Most of the engines were rescued from being scrapped and were in full time use until they came to the museum. It must be the biggest and most comprehensive collection of working steam engines in New Zealand and quite possibly of the Southern Hemisphere.

Their other aquisitions are completely at the other end of the size scale. They have been given some magnificent models made completely from raw materials without any of the commercial castings and parts utilised by most model makers. Parts such as the flywheels have been cast and in some cases they have the patterns made in wood and used for the castings. Other parts have been machined from brass. They already had an impressive collection of models, mostly now run by compressed air, but these are definitely the gems in their set.

The models sit next to the huge engine powering the freezing plant and in looking at the contrast between the tiny casting for the model flywheel and the one towering over him Pete noticed what looked like a crack in the cooling plant flywheel which had been repaired. He was correct, in a way - the engine was built in the USA and there flywheels were often cast in one piece and then broken into two for assembly over the shaft unlike those built in the UK which were cast in two or more precision pieces then joined up. Every time we look round we see and learn more! For those of you who want to read more we have a complete page about the Tokomaru Steam Museum based on our earlier visits as well as their own web site.

We finally dragged ourselves away and stayed overnight at the nearby camp site at Levin which we found has just joined the Family Parks of Australia (FPA) group. We used them in Australia and several of our favorite sites have joined, including the one at Sandspit, so we decided to add one of their discount cards to those from the 'Top10' and 'Kiwi Holiday Parks'. These cards typically cost $20 and last for two years giving a 10% discount so our previous ones have quickly paid back and the FPA will cover our next trip Downunder. The FPA sites promise WiFi access at all their sites although there seems to have been a misunderstanding at Levin over which October the guy from the Australian FPA was due to install theirs! The FPA sites look as if the are competing with Top10 but at a better price and we had cabin 11 again, complete with loo, for $36 with our discount and all the facilities on the site were new or being revamped. The group in the cabin next to us had three model A Fords and other vintage cars were on site. We discovered they were all going to a rally in Invercargill with the main joining point for the cars being at Christchurch after which they were due to cross the central alps via Arthur's Pass - a challenging trip. The vintage car movement is very strong in New Zealand and we have often found cars from the twenties and thirties on remote mountain passes and goldfields we have struggled to reach in a modern vehicle.

In the morning we stopped in Levin outside a Noel Leeming electrical store as we had found on the internet that most of them had been equiped with NZ Telecom WiFi hotspots along with many major hotels. They were not open but there was sufficient 'leakage' to get a good signal in the front of the van. This was our first experience of a commercial hotspot although we knew the general principles from using free ones at airports etc. First you have to find and connect using the WiFi card (or Windows) software then open the browser which will divert all requests to a sign-in page where you can enter your existing username and password or buy a new one - the cost for the NZ telecom WiFi access 'code' is $10 per hour, excellent value compaired to a Mobile Telephone or even dial-up as you get broadband access speeds. We signed up for two hours ($20) access time. We initially had some problems but these were sorted out through the 0800 166 700 number which (unlike in the UK) was set up to be free via a mobile. For those intending to use WiFi it is worth noting that the Telecom system should automatically stop charging you after 2 minutes if you break the connection (pull the card out, turn off etc) but you should log off properly using a Pop-up window which shows how much time you have used and have remaining. Many browsers such as Firefox however block such Popups and you can also bookmark the login confirmation page and return to log out - this takes time so it is better to turn Popup blocking off before using a WiFi point via Tools -> Options -> Web Features -> Block Popup Windows and un-check the box (better still add the address to the allowed sites when you know what it is).

We then continued South,stopping at Archway Books (04 239 9221) just short of Wellington where we found one book we had been looking for at an acceptable price for several years namely "The Old Whaling Days" by Robert Mcnab, first published 1913 and republished as a New Zealand Classics Giant in 1975 by Golden Press (ISBN 0 85558 4327). ($55 asking price in moderate condition) It is the story of NZs wildest days (1830 -1840) when French, American and British ships scoured the coastline for the sperm whale, when violent crimes went unpunished because there were no laws and a British sea captain helped Te Rauparaha to slaughter an Akaroa chief and his people. This has completed our 'New Zealand Classics' collection. We were also pleased to find the book on New Zealand rail disasters which was the source of the boards at Tangiwai namely "Tragedy on the Track" by Geoff Conly and Graham Stewart (c) 1986 published by Grantham House - it covers Tangiwai and other major New Zealand Railway Accidents ($12 paperback in fair condition). We also found a couple more we did not know we needed including "Marlborough Journey" by A H Reed published by A H and A W Reed in 1963 - the story of his journeys in Marlborough at the age of 87 (First edition in moderate condition at $15). We however bargained for some reductions and also sold several of the paperbacks from the flight at a good profit so the overall damage was not too bad.

It was by now hammering down with rain so we were not overjoyed to be told that our room would not be ready for a couple of hours when we got to the Sharella Motor Inn in Wellington. This is conveniently close to the city for an early start for the ferry - we will have a longer stay in Wellington with our friends John and Blyth on our return trip who were occupied this weekend.

We drove around Oriental Bay whilst we waited for the room to be ready and found the main memorial to the Waihine disaster above the beach where most of the survivors came ashore. The Wahine was one of the ferry between Wellington and Picton which went onto the rocks with considerable loss of life in one of the ferocious storms which the Straits are known for - there is a exhibit in the Wellington Museum of the Sea and we bought a book on the disaster last year. It was then back to the Sharella where the room was still not ready but this time the delay was short. We have stayed before and the place has got steadily more and more run down on the outside and the trend is accelerating - it is however cheap and within walking distance of town, and our non-smoking room had a fridge and plunger coffee making. While we sat and had a coffee the plumber came to replace the broken toilet seat. Its other advantage is that it now has a Telecom WiFi hotspot in the foyer which enabled Pete to get the system sorted out - the initial problem seems to have been with the Levin Hotspot as Telecom had suspected so we had all the access there free.

In the evening the rain had cleared up and we walked into town past the Beehive and went to the Malthouse to sample the local brews and have a meal. It is on a first floor in Willis Street and has a big balcony as well as a large internal area. We are definitely getting very set in our ways and tend to return to places we have enjoyed in the past. The Malthouse claims to have a selection of 25 natural beers, the largest choice in NZ. They have tasting trays with 5 small glasses for $6 which makes an excellent introduction whilst one is deciding - we had the one with the beers from their own Tautara brewery. In general the beers had the depth and character of the better UK and European beers but, although brewed naturally, are served fizzy and very cold - many of the taps are covered in ice - it seems appropriate in the summer. They included a light and very citrus tasting pilsner style which we thought very good although we are normally not lager drinkers. We found they also had a genuine German beer from Hoffbrauhaus Munchen on tap which used to be the local beer at the Gliding site in Unterwossen when Pete used to glide there and also one we had drunk at the Oktoberfest. We had glasses of both to try and it made an interesting comparison - the Tautara initially seemed to have the edge but with time the classic german beer came into its own and although Pauline still favoured the Tautara we both agreed that the HB would be the better session beer drunk by the Masse (1 litre jug).

We the waterfront with its interesting sculptures, the huge old wooden building, the largest in the Southern hemisphere and now holding the DOC office, the Beehive and the modern sculptures outside with a theme of "The Navigator" .

It was then back to sort out packing ready for an early start on the Ferry to Picton for which we needed to checkin at 0715. Our ferry, the Kaitaki, was loading and so we were able to walk up and get a closer look at her. Staring at the paintwork we could just read that she used to be the Pride of Cherbourg, and is a very large ferry.

The journey is continued in Part 2 - South Island

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