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Touring New Zealand 2012 - Part 1

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We flew to New Zealand on Thai Airlines via Bangkok for our first time. This was because we thought it was time to make use of our remaining Star Alliance Air Miles before the rules changed any more making them completely worthless and the only available outward flights in the Star Alliance Group were on Thai. Even with free flights we had to pay £400 each in airport and other charges but it was still cheaper. The first sector to Bangkok was full but the old style 747 had a good seat spacing with comfortable seats but had none of the services such as seatback entertainment now considered standard and the film shown appeared to be in Thai with subtitles – the food was good as were the Campari’s and beer but forget the wine. Arrival procedures at Bangkok were quick and efficient and our luggage went straight through. We had several hours to explore the terminal and make use of the free Wifi. The terminal was enormous and there were lots of free samples to graze.

The next leg was in a 777 which was actually much less comfortable than the old 747 although there was modern seat-back entertainment and a good selection of current and classic films to watch. Both legs took off late in the evening local time so one had the chance to grab some sleep as well. Food on the second leg was also good and the aircraft was not at all full – we had an extra seat between us and some people at the back had secured three seats and were stretched out asleep – just like the old days. It was not clear why they were so unpopular compared to Air NZ which rarely has a spare seat or has the recession bitten much faster than we have realised and are all airlines flying partly empty.

We landed on time and cleared customs and the MAF inspections in reasonable time. We picked up an airport shuttle to take us to Rental Car Village to collect our van. Grant had previously emailed to say he had picked out a good van with two side doors for us but when we arrived we were presented with a number of choices and picked a slightly old van which had two doors and a high roof which gave us a bit more space. We have been using Rental Car Village (used to be Thomlinson) for many years and they have always given us excellent service. The vans are not new but are well maintained and we have done huge mileages and taken them everywhere with far less problems than our cars at home doing far less miles. We generally do not actually sleep in them but that is because we have so much kit stored in NZ which includes a tent which is probably big enough to drive the van into! Again we have written a lot in the past so will just keep to repeating than we are very happy to recommend them.

The next four days were spent with family and we ended up in doing very little of note largely because the weather was unusually bad. We do not seem to have even taken any pictures! The first two days were spent with my niece Christine and Ralph in their new house near Riverhead – they now have a large plot of land with huge possibilities and stunning views through 270 degrees as it is high in the hills. It currently has a workable sized Lockwood house. They have now seen all the seasons so can make informed plans on building. We chilled out after the journey and ate and drank exceedingly well. Ralph has built a large pizza oven outside and it produced an excellent starter to share, followed by a beautiful slow-cooked leg of lamb – the animal used to graze on their grass.

It was then time to head to my other niece Jenny and Kev, Kerri and Jaz on Waiheke Island. They have a number of rental properties and they had been good enough to store all our kit in a dry ‘cellar’ under one of those. We keep almost everything in large storage bins which keep out most of the dirt, water and wild life and can be moved straight into the van and we also have a few round totally waterproof containers for more sensitive items and the kit we take sailing. That only leaves big items like fishing rods and folding chairs loose and at risk.

We only stayed long enough to pack the van as Kev already had his mother staying and his brother and wife also arrived our second evening. We will come back to see them properly and hopefully do some sailing on Shanti, Kev’s trimaran. Again we did very little in the time there as Pauline was packing the van – she was inside there for hours during torrential rain – it has been the worst weather for years and we have never seen such rain for long periods in the past. We were sleeping on a floor so we got to know their new puppy quite well, a delightfully German Shepherd cross collie who is already very well trained and behaved but quite big and friendly. We arrived late on Friday ad caught the Ferry back very early Sunday. It should have been 0730 but they rang to say the normal ferry was broken and the replacement was half an hour earlier – at least we had a NZ mobile otherwise we would have missed it as it is only 500m from Jenny’s house and there is only a 15 minute check in. We booked a return for the outward and then back in March and the middle trips are using returns from Waiheke at local rates which are much cheaper and have movable return dates.

We decided to have a couple of days in Rotorua on our way South. We had made arrangements to see our friends John and Blyth in Wellington on Friday evening and catch a ferry to South Island on Sunday morning. This gave us 5 days on our journey from Auckland to Wellington and the weather forecast definitely ruled out camping for a few days and there is always something to do in Rotorua. We drove down on main roads because the more interesting backroads are always prone to minor slips in the sort of weather we were suffering – we saw quite a few little slides down to the roads as it was. We stayed at the Manhattan Motel – we have stayed there before so we got a slight discount to $75. The Manhattan is the old style motel that we prefer, only has a small number of rooms and has the big advantage of being very central – the are always lots of motels seeming to offer good rates up Fenton Street but then you need to drive into town. We ate in the Pig and Whistle the first evening – their barbecue spare ribs were the enormous plate we have become used to and had even bigger lashings of plum sauce but they no longer do the kumara wedges – Pauline had to settle for the normal ones which were far too many for us to finish.

We had a number of short walks round town and we started on the lakeside walk which should have taken us first to the Polynesian Pools (an area of thermal pools) but the path was waterlogged in many areas and final closed due to the flooding and we had to divert inland to reach the pools. We walked round Kurai Park which has a lot of thermal activity and is right in the centre of town.

Our next stop was at Napier and we took the direct route as we were still cautious about slips on the back roads. We stopped at the Esk Valley winery and had a talk to Sue who is the manager who we have known for a long time – her daughter used to live close to us in England. As usual we stayed out at West Shore at the holiday park where we had one of their small kitchen cabins for convenience – we booked a similar one (cabin 6) for the Art Deco Festival next year. We will say little about Napier itself as we have written about it and the Art Deco Festival so many times before. We walked round town – art deco shop, antiques, ocean promenade and pretty pedestrian shopping streets and also bought a bottle of Stonecroft Serine Syrah from the wine tasting rooms in case they were closed at the winery, and collected lots of information. Napier is gradually changing - we noticed that the area of vintage and secondhand books in the antique arcade had been replaced by more expensive new stuff. Lots of the 'art deco' dresses were brand new, and imported.

The next morning it was lovely and looked very clear. Our first target was the Telegraph Hill Olivery where we had the Esk Valley winemakers lunch a couple of years ago to stock up with a good olive oil. as well as the cooking one we already had in hand. We ended up with far more than intended as they had samples of all their dressings and chutneys as well as 4 oils. It is surprising how different the oils are when you have a tasting. We bought a large one kilogram container of their Date Olive and Orange Relish which we are using to top up a smaller jar we had already bought in town – it is much better value in large containers from the olivery. At the end the owner took us round the back to see the sorting of the olives which are kept salted in barrels for 6 to 9 months before grading and packaging or cooking. Every olive can be traced back to an individual olive grove and picking, in some cases to the tree.

We had set off with the eventual expectation of going for a few tastings and a winery lunch at either Craggy Range or Elephant Hill but decided to go up to the top of Te Mata Peak for the views on the way. They were incredibly good with extreme visibility and one could see the whole of Hawke’s Bay laid out below, even as far as the Mahia Peninsula. We set up our folding seats and sat there entranced reading a couple of books and watching the paragliders in front of us for hours until we felt we would turn into lobsters. We went back along bits of the coast including an ice cream at Haumoana and then sat and watched the surf until it was time to go back and have a bottle of Esk Valley wine and watch the sun go down.

We left Napier and used the route 50, partially because we could bypass the centre of the town as we left from West Shore, partly because it took us through the wine areas and partly because we had picked up a Heritage Trail leaflet for “Highway 50 – Central Hawkes Bay. The road goes through the famous Gimblett Gravels area, and although it was Thursday we tried to visit Stonecroft. They are usually only open at the weekend. The cellar door was as we remembered but no-one was at home. We assumed they were working as most of the other vineyards were busy spraying. Continuing along route 50, most of the sites of interest were off to the side but there were sufficient places of interest close to the main road to make it worth while. The whole area started life as native forest which was developed into the present farmland by cutting, clearing and milling – at one time there were 15 sawmills in the Tikokino district alone. Now it is farmland used mainly for grazing and it is known as totara country because the many remaining totara trees give it a park-like effect. One first passes Gwavas Garden Homestead which is owned by the Historic Places Trust but only open by arrangement. We stopped at Tikokino which is a small settlement with a convenient off route Domain parking with a big information board for the area and facilities. It used to have one of the octagonal blockhouses made of totara slabs as a refuge in the land wars of 1868-9 – it was demolished and the blocks used for road culverts.

Our next stop was a longer one at Ongaonga, a village whose remaining historic buildings have been largely categorised by the Historic Places Trust. It sat at the join of 4 major tracks and in 1900 was a major commercial centre but today is very quiet and seems in a time warp. The shop looks almost original and has elderly petrol pumps outside, it seems well stocked but unfortunately it did not sell scoop ice cream. Opposite was an interesting multi purpose business which mixed building, joinery and farm machinery with undertaking services. There is a museum complex with buildings moved and preserved from other sites - it only opens from 1400-1600 on Sundays but one can walk round many of the buildings. One feature is that the old jail cells have been converted into toilets. There was also one of the classic SF70 backwoods huts, the Broom Hut, built in 1964 and one of over 600, now coloured bright orange so it could be located from the air in emergencies. It was relocated to Ongaonga in 1995. The DOC field centre is on the same site and is in another building moved to Ongaonga and painstakingly restored. We took a lot of pictures.

We rejoined the Route 2 through Danneverk, a nice town we have stayed at before, and shortly afterwards discovered the main road was closed due to major slips in the Manawatu Gorge. This has been a common occurrence but this time the slips were very major and had resulted in a closure since August. We were diverted onto the ‘Saddle Road’ which was very slow as it in turn was breaking up under the additional traffic and there were a series of roadworks while it was being patched up. It would however be well worth a diversion in the future as it takes one past Te Apiti, the first major Windfarm installed in NZ. There are over 50 huge windmills, each of which generates 1.6 Megawatts over a wide range of wind speeds and the saddle has some of highest and most predictable winds in NZ. I am far from convinced about the practicality of large scale wind generation but even so they were impressive and much quieter than the early ones and had a certain magnificence in that particular scenery stretching as far as the eye could see over the top of the ridge.

Once we were back on the main road we had to double back to join the 57 as we wanted to stop off and see Colin and Esma at the Tokomaru Steam museum. We have written about the museum many times so will say little other than that it is a ‘must do’ even when it is not in steam. We spent several hours with them getting up to date and eating Esma’s superb home made fruit cake and biscuits with coffee. Both seem younger every time we see them and in November 2011 Colin has won a major award in the region.

We spent far longer than we intended and only had time for a brief stop in Shannon which has a good bookshop (closed) and collectables (expensive) before continuing to Levin where we were looking for a basic cabin as heavy winds (100kph) and torrential rain was forecast. We had to settle for a tourist flat which was more expensive but absolutely excellent as the cabins were all packed with vegetable pickers. The forecast was right, the rain was torrential during the night, and we were very glad we were not in a tent.

By the morning however the skies were clear and we had a pleasant run into Wellington. We stopped briefly at Archway Books at Pakarau. We saw the Overlander – the regular scenic train service between Auckland and Wellington which takes 12 hours. It was much shorter than we expected with only 3 or 4 carriages including the observation car. As we proceeded we noticed there were a large number of rail replacement buses and eventually came to an area where they were trying to replace the overhead power lines for the railway, presumably brought down by the winds and rain overnight – it seemed the diesel drawn Overlander was the only passenger train to get through.

We got to Wellington at about 1100 and intended to park Downtown where we thought there were some free moorings but they now have parking meters and a swinging $4 per hour so we worked out towards Te Papa. The outdoor car park next door was cheaper, $10 for 12 hours, and we had just parked when a kind person came up and gave us their day long car park ticket as they had finished in town. Wellington is a lovely town and arguably the best capital city in the world but it kept up its reputation as ‘Windy Wellington’ - we could barely walk into the wind along the waterfront it was so strong. We walked through the centre and bought steamed BBQ pork buns from a stall ($2.80 and huge) before ambling back, now downwind, along the waterfront. We spent some time in the Museum of the City and the Sea which has changed a little since our last visit. It still has a film and information on the Wahine ferry disaster but it is a very sanitised and politically correct version whilst in the old days it was much more about what could be learnt from such incidents, discovery of the causes and attribution of the blame which are all integral parts of avoiding future disasters.

We then continued along the waterfront back to Te Papa, the National Museum which again we have written about at length in the past. We looked at the area covering the original arrival of the Maori Wakas (canoes) which changes on a regular basis to cover different wakas. On our previous visit the people from Wanganui had a special exhibition; now the area was devoted to the Tainui people. One new exhibit to us was the Britten V1000 Motor Bike which took a number of World Records including and flying one meile records, an all Kiwi winner which followed in the footsteps of the Bert Munro's "Fastest Indian" which we plan to see in Invercargill.

It was then time to work our way up to John and Blyth who have a house hanging high on the hillside with views to die for over Wellington. The evening was spent eating, drinking and generally catching up with what we had done over the last year.

We had a slow start to Saturday with a big breakfast and then joined John and Blyth on their way into town for their regular visit to the Farmers Market at Hill Street to stock up with fruit and vegetables for the week. We bought some Vacuum packed Venison Sausages and half a red cabbage which we left in the car and then broke away for a few hours. We were next door to the Anglican Cathedral of St Paul which we had never visited. It is very new and was only finished in 1985 replacing two earlier Cathedrals of St Pauls in Wellington. The organ dates back to 1880 largely coming from the earlier Cathedral but has been completely rebuilt and extended to have 3500 pipes, 81 stops and 4 manuals on the master console as well as a two manual console down in the nave. We were fortunate as it was being played during much of the time we were there. It also has the largest peal of bells in the Southern Hemisphere at 14 of which 8 bells came from a dismantled church in Northamptonshire. The other bells are new and three recast in Loughborough from bells from the original previous St Pauls. As we were leaving we discovered that St Pauls is twinned with the Cathedral in Lichfield which had close links to Bishop Selwyn who was the first Bishop of New Zealand

Opposite the Cathedral were the main Parliament buildings – we decided to walk through the grounds and take some photographs as it was, by now, a glorious day. When we reached the entry to the Beehive we noticed that there was free guided tour starting at 1300 – in two minutes time! We dashed in and after our Swiss penknives were discovered in the Xrays and measured to ensure the blades we less than 6 cms we were admitted just as the tour group started to watch the introductory video. All our bags, cameras and phones had to be left in a secure luggage area and we were lucky – there were only three tickets left when we arrived and the group was starting its tour up the stairs. It was a fascinating and instructive hour where we saw round almost everywhere as the House of Representatives was not sitting. The elections in November 2011 resulted in a new set of MPs, and they took their oath of allegiance in the presence of the Lieutenant Governor representing the Queen on 20 December. They will all start work on 7 February. We have had private visits and tours round both Houses in the UK and the differences were interesting. The Upper House is no more as it never did anything but rubber stamp the House of Representative decisions including the Bill to disband them – many wonder if they even noticed it! The lower house is much smaller than the UK at 120 and there is seating for everyone which to a large extent is fixed which makes it easy for the TV. The procedures are rather similar as one might expect although they currently have a version of proportional representation. In the recent election in 2011 the people had the chance to reaffirm that they wished to continue with proportional representation which 57% voted in favour of but in subsidiary questions the highest numbers would have been for a return to ‘first past the post’ if a referendum had been called. - all rather confusing..

We were taken through parts of the Beehive, the parliament building including both the House of Representatives and the Upper House, the Committee Room for the Maori Committee, the cellars where we saw the Earthquake isolation and various sections of the library – all classic buildings and architecture. Last year we purchased a 'coffee table' hardback book about the House of Representatives which has details and pictures of everything we saw, so we will definitely add more text here later.

By the time we left most of the day had passed so we walked along to the Cable Car to take us to the top of the Botanical gardens. We found a book on a seat in the carriage which marked as being a member of bookcrossing.com, a scheme where one reads and passes on books to others – one can login and track their travels. We had a look at the top area of the gardens which was new to us including the Krups gun captured during WWI and now the sole surviving example – it fired a 135mm shell up to 16 kms using a 42 kg change. We also saw the various observatories and a very unusual sundial where one stood on a position determined by the time of year with hands above ones head and used ones shadow to get very accurate time. We returning past the cable car to walk up the last section to John and Blyth. We ate out in Petone (285 Jackson St) at Mr Ji’s Kitchen where we had an excellent Traditional Chinese meal – we had the set meal for 4 at $28 which we just managed to finish – We had to work hard to keep up as we, as usual, used chop sticks.

The weather calmed down overnight as promised, and we had a much more placid crossing on the than we had expected across the Cook Strait which can be a wicked piece of water. We left five minute early (at 1020) on the The Anhura InterIslander Ferry and arrived on time.

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