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Touring New Zealand 2009 - part 1

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We arrived at London Heathrow to find that our Air New Zealand flight, NZ1, was due to depart over an hour later than on our ticket. We found out because we wondered why the gate was not open, and then we read the departure board. This meant that our new scheduled arrival time in Auckland via LA was now 0745, a much more civilised time of day than the 0615 we had been expecting. So it did have advantages. After British Airways moved into Terminal Five, Air New Zealand now depart from Heathrow Terminal One, and they have a special area. It is much nicer than the chaos of previous years in Terminal Three. There are also lots of shops, mostly more expensive than in the High Street in spite of being Duty Free. However, Pauline found that the little Harrods had some special sale offers of Christmas goodies and bought a nice Wedgwood Christmas tree ornament for our friends John and Blyth in Wellington, as well as a Christmas pudding for Colin and Esma at Tokomaru and a little teddy bear. The teddy bear became a gift for Grant and Jui whose first child was born in Auckland just after we collected our campervan from them.

Other changes on the flight were that it was now an Airbus instead of the usual Jumbo, so the seats were 3-3-3 instead of 3-4-3. We chose two seats in the middle, and were lucky that there was no-one sitting next to us on the first half of the journey from London to Los Angeles. Pauline had just started an Ehrman tapestry – of a tabby cat called George. So she wanted to make sure she had a middle seat and then only Pete was in danger from her needle. We always ask for an aisle seat for Pete so that he can stretch out his legs.

We landed on 1st January, and caught a shuttle to Chris and Ralph. We had already been warned that they now had two dogs. We had got to know Scarlet over the previous visits, but not the new dog Tulah. Chris does some work for the Dog rescue, including fostering dogs, and she just had to keep Tulah, who she described as a boxer-cross-stunted-mastiff. The two dogs seem to be getting on quite well together. When we arrived we could hear their barking from the main road. Chris was also sometimes looking after a dog from her neighbours over the road, and one afternoon there were three boisterous dogs playing in the house and garden.

We expected to sort out our finances on arrival, but NZ banks are closed on 1st and 2nd January. Then there was a weekend so we could only sort out our money on Monday 5th. We collected our campervan on 2nd January from Rental Car Village, and had a long chat with Grant and Jui. Unfortunately we did not yet have our BNZ bank account sorted, so had to pay them with a credit card. We were pleased that the van had doors on both sides. It is so much more convenient than having just the one sliding door. After our usual trip up to Devenport for fish and chips, and Bayswater to visit Charterlink, which was also to check the vehicle was OK, we sorted all our stuff stored in the garage and loaded up the van.

After two days with Chris and Ralph we were off to Waiheke Island with the campervan using the vehicle ferry from Half Moon Bay. We like to stay with Jennie and Kev and the kids, but this year Kev's Mom was visiting too, and staying in their spare room. Jennie offered us their cottage 'Patangatanga' instead, which was between tenants. It was great - a very nice 3 bedroomed traditional Kiwi bach, but with all the necessities of life – fridge, freeezer, washing machine, TV. The only problem was that it was quite a long walk in the evening back from Jennie and Kev. But there was a good taxi service when their hospitality was too good, which was not infrequent.

We stayed for five days and this enabled us to have a nice day sailing round Waiheke with Kev on Almarga, their 37 foot Pivar Lodestar trimaran. The day was a bit too calm and we had a few knots under sail at times so we had to try out his new engine, which could give a cruise of 6 knots and well over 7 if needed. Our Christmas present is to be the use of the boat to go up to the Bay of Islands later in the year. We believe that they do not take long holidays afloat, and Kev wants to come with us up to Tutukaka and then continue to the Bay of Islands. They have friends who have a mooring we can use at Tutukaka, which will be more convenient than anchoring or organising a berth in the marina.

Another favourite trip to the west of the island is Stony Batter where there is a big underground fortress built in the Second World War to defend the approaches to Auckland. It had three 9.2-inch battleship guns allegedly capable of firing a 1500 kg shell 45 kms. They were only fired once on test to 20 kms but never in anger. Somewhat poetically they were reputedly sold to a Japanese scrap firm after the war. On a previous visit we spent a long time talking to Pam who has been one of the main instigators in the restoration and we learnt all about the progress in bringing back typical engines to drive the generators, hydraulic systems etc. Various parts have been obtained from similar batteries round the world, such as Gibraltar and the massive diesel engines (called Tom, Dick and Harry) were, and probably still are, under tarpaulins in the local supermarket car park awaiting an offer at the right price to transport them the last few kilometres. The current quoted costs for the last 10 kms are more than the previous 10,000!. We always have our own torches so we paid DOC a dollar to explore the maze of tunnels and another $2 for a map to escape.

By Tuesday 6 January we really needed to sort out our money and the branch of BNZ in Waiheke was very helpful. We still cannot understand why our money was re-invested in a term deposit account when we expressly told our own branch that it should be sent to our cheque account but finally we can pay our way.

We caught the ferry back to Auckland in the early morning of 8 January and had another evening with Chris and Ralph before finally heading south. They started to teach us how to play backgammon, and insisted we borrowed one of their boards so that we could play while we were away. It is one of the oldest games and combines some luck with a lot of strategy and tactics.

So, on 9th January we were finally off on our travels.

We plan to stay in the North as last year ( 2008) we spent almost all our time in the South Island. We have a broad travel plan. The idea is to spend just under 2 weeks in the Coromandel, and starting from Auckland it depended on the weather. The forecast was good for camping and so our first night was under canvas at the Department of Conservation camping ground at Broken Hills, between Thames and Tairua. It is one of our favourite places, when the weather is good. There are several nice walks through the old gold mining tracks. We did our food shopping at Thames and then headed for the hills. Pauline is still teaching for the Open University, which she greatly enjoys, but one of her students assignments was due on 9 January. So she spent most of the time working, whereas Pete was able to do a short walk into the old gold mining areas, visiting the sites of the Broken Hills Battery and the Golden Hills Battery. We planned to do the longer walk through Collins Drive and the water race tunnels the next day. At dinner in the evening there was a loud shout. Pauline had lost a large amalgam filling, and so a conflicting priority was to find a dentist for her. The camp manager had a telephone book and was able to give us the numbers of two dentists in the next town on our route, Whitianga. Mobile coverage was only back at the main road, and neither dentist answered their phone at the weekend. We decided to go and sit on the doorstep when they opened on Monday morning and so after just one more night we drove on to Whitianga. It is a beach town on the east coast of the Coromandel, but the only dentist which was available would not do an emergency repair and offered an appointment some two weeks later. However she said that there was a dentist back in Thames who did take emergency work. The tooth was not hurting so Pauline bravely decided to continue the camping holiday and hope that the tooth could wait until we got back to Thames.

We stocked up again on food; there was a new supermarket on the outskirts of Whitianga, New World, and we knew that as we headed north everything would be scarcer and more expensive. From Whitianga we went back to the west coast, to the main town in the area, Coromandel town. On our last visit to the area we had seen a nice camping ground at Long Bay, a few kms outside the town, and we hoped there would be space for us there. It was on the beach front. We were lucky and there were two possible spaces, and we went and looked at them. They were both just the right size for our tent, and had electricity so we had lighting and Pauline could continue to work. We booked for two nights. Long Bay had a second camping area, at Tucks Bay, which is the next beach and is a more simple camping area with a typical DOC toilet and water which has to be boiled. Again it is beachfront. We walked around to it, and were tempted, although we had already installed ourselves and our tent at Long Bay.

Pauline continued working and because there was no mobile signal at Long Bay we drove into Coromandel town to send off her marked scripts. It gave a chance to look around the shops, buy bread and some more veges', and have an ice cream. To augment our chilly bin capacity we bought a NZ$9 white insulated box which was so good we went back for a second one.

From Coromandel there is a good sealed road north as far as Colville, and then it was just a few kms to Otautu Bay. We stayed there several times in the past, having discovered the bay when we were sailing and dropped anchor there. The old chap who used to run the site had died, but the new owners were very friendly. We were offered a camping pitch in Block 5 – they have 5 different fields of which numbers 1 to 4 are mostly occupied by caravans and have direct beachfront access to the ocean. Block 5 was the last along the road, and was close to the wharf, but it was still only 5 minutes walk to the beach. We had a nice sheltered slot, number 31, with a nearby DOC-style toilet. There were normal toilets and showers at the top of the field. On our first night there was the most spectacular thunder and lightning we have ever experienced, accentuated by only being separated from it by a thin layer of tent – it was like a flash going off even inside with flashes right above us then an eerie calm in the wind and no rain but lightning strikes in every direction right round us – we got up and watched for half an hour after banging in every tent peg for luck. We also found the level of the water in the tidal stream beside us was only a foot or so below the tent so we were hoping there were no flash floods ! We were fortunate but further north there was much more rain, and flooding in some parts of the South Island.

We decided to stay at Otautu Bay a second night, and during the morning drove along unsealed roads up the west coast, past our favourite DOC camping at Fantail, and then through the DOC farm park at Port Jackson until we reached the DOC camping at the very end of the road at Fletchers Bay. The weather was very clear. We stopped at an orientation table and could clearly see the Hen and Chickens, some 86 kms in the distance. It was a wonderful view with the edge of the Mercury Islands in the one direction, and Bream Tail to the north, as well as the obvious outline of Great Barrier Island immediately in front. In fact, Fletchers Bay is around the top corner of the Coromandel, and is just on the east coast although it is at the end of the western road. It was a perfect place for lunch. There is a walkway between Fletchers Bay and Stony Bay, the matching DOC site which is reached from the road on the eastern side. For many years we have wanted to do the walk between the two, but it is almost 4 hours each way, and to do the return is a long day of walking. There is also a commercial tour from Coromandel town which includes a one-way walk, but at NZ$95 per person it seems expensive. We reflected and returned to Otautu Bay.

The next day we took the road along the east coast, through Port Charles and Sandy Bay and finally
reached Stony Bay. On our previous visit there the park had been full of young lively cows but this time it was all peaceful. It was good weather, and we spotted a nice sheltered place for our tent. We parked the van, said 'hello' to our new neighbours, and set off on the walk back towards Fletchers Bay. After climbing up from Stony Bay it is a nice gentle path as far as the Lookout, followed by a rough descent to Poley Bay. This was all completed in under 2 hours. Although we were only one hour away from Fletchers Bay we decided to turn back at Poley Bay. The walk from Fletchers Bay to Poley Bay will be easy next time, to complete the walk. We met new campers in the slot next to our vehicle, but there was still space for us to set up our tent behind, and we settled down for a pleasant evening. We knew that a new family group would be arriving in the morning and that matched our plans. We were going to be heading south and everyone was happy.

From Stony Bay the unsealed road goes back through Sandy Bay, for swimming, then we continued to Coromandel town. For a change we stayed two nigths at the Family Park of NZ. The weather was predicted to be bad and we wanted to find a cabin. Their cabins are also associated with the backpackers hostel, so the communal kitchen contained crockery and cooking utensils, but only two sets of electric rings. There is a nice small Museum and after reminding ourselves of the gold mining history of the area we got to chatting with the staff. We said we liked walking and wanted to explore the old gold area and he suggested two walks for the following day. The first went from behind the old Coromandel Hospital, into the Taumatawahine Scenic Reserve, and we were told to walk straight up, not take the short circular walk which left from the same place. In the event we did both. The first walk, signed on the gate as the Success track, headed straight up into the bush. It was a good path of 4WD standard. After 30 minutes we reached a new seat at a lookout point. We continued further and met other hikers who explained that the path continued up to the skyline. It was not a loop track and we turned around. Hidden at the side was an adit and we were told there were several, if you knew where to look. We assume the Success Track was associated with the old Success Mine, which we had seen in the Museum. In the afternoon we did the Kauri Block Walk, and we set off from the Wharf around a hill which was a pa, returning on the road along McGregor's Bay. We decided to eat dinner in the Coromandel Hotel opposite where for NZ$22 each we had an enormous roast pork Sunday lunch with six different veges followed by lemon meringue pie and cream. We could hardly move, even when it was washed down by two pints of beer.

Monday morning, and Pauline hoped to get her tooth repaired by the dentist in Thames. We set off very early, hoping to get there by 0900. Unfortunately there were slow road works, and at 0855 we were still crawling along the coast road. Then we saw a NZTelecom phone box and were able to get a booking for the afternoon. There was now plenty of time, and we drove into Dickson Holiday Park, just to the north of Thames and reserved a kitchen cabin. It is a Kiwi Holiday Park, and we often stay there. The rest of the day was spent shopping in Thames. The Pak N' Save supermarket enabled us to replenish our wine and general food stocks, and Pauline found a shoe shop to replace her broken hiking sandals. Being typically undecided she bought two different pairs and was in a good mood when she reached the dentist. Half an hour and NZ$180 later her filling had been replaced and she was much more cheerful.

We booked to stay in Thames for two nights, so there was one whole day to explore the Kauaeranga Valley. This is a kauri logging area at the end of an unsealed track, some 20 kms from Thames. Between 1870 and 1924 approximately 70 kauri dams were built in the area. They were often tripped in sequence, sending millions of feet of timber down river. After a chat with DOC staff at the Visitor's Centre we set off to look at the various camping paddocks. It was suggested that we first take the short walk at the end of the road, and that for later there was also a nice loop track to a kauri dam. The short Billygoat Landing walk involved crossing a river, and there was a swing bridge so we did not need to get our feet wet. Only 20 minutes each way, there were views of the Billygoat Falls and the Billygoat incline site. Sandals were fine, but we definitely needed walking boots for the second walk to the Tarawaere Dam.

Our original plans were for just a short walk going clockwise around the loop, but we made good initial progress and decided to complete the entire loop. The outward walk involved some rough tracks with lots of tree roots as hazards. The walk was well signed, with orange plastic triangles, and then suddenly the triangles stopped. We wondered what to do. The area was a mess of fallen trees and wooden planks. Then we noticed large metal bolts sticking out of the trees. We had arrived at the dam without realising. Pete scrambled down the stream bed and came upon a DOC information board. Now the only problem was to find our route out. Eventually we found the orange triangles again. This part of the path was hard. We crossed and re-crossed the stream, boulder hopping, so often that we lost count. At one point we wondered whether it would be easier to just walk down the middle of the stream. Finally we reached the end of the loop track, and then we knew exactly what was involved in going back. The remains of the kauri dam were scattered and it was hard to see exactly how it had worked, so we parked at the Visitor's Centre and did the short walk to see the one-third size replica of the same dam. This made it all much clearer.

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