April, 2003. My girlfriend and I take a 30 hour flight via Korea to New Zealand. Great flight, dig those plastic trays of noodles and Miso soup. Delish.
Grab a ride out to Hern Bay to our friend’s apartment; sun is blazing, cicades are buzzing, can hear children playing in yard of nearby school, and I’m thinking ‘wow I’m on the other side of the world….’ and get a mental image of the Earth and me walking upside down.
The door key has been left as planned, Jo and I get inside without a hitch; seeing Rachel’s place my jaw drops, it’s utterly gorgeous; I laugh out loud, happy that my crash pad and base camp is so luxurious.
I went for a walk and thought I was okay (no jet lag) until I tried ordering a coffee and my brain turned to mush. Flat whites and Long Blacks are the right words to use! *smiles*
Grabbed our hire car: enter AMF 915, the car, the baby, the adorable cruise machine. It got nicknamed ‘A Mighty Fine 915’… this was after I got used to driving an automatic (including braking): cringy memory of pulling out of the car rental garage into a main flow of traffic and putting foot on brake pedal (however, used left ‘clutch’ foot’ which resulted in the car screeching to a halt, oops, bet those garage guys were shaking their heads convinced they would never see the car again!)
A couple days in Auckland and then we were gone:
Leave Auckland – Coromandel Peninsula – Waitomo
Leaving Auckland we headed South on the SH1 and instantly diverted from our itinerary by adding the Coromandel Peninsula into our trip. We tried to reach Cathedral Cove but time was against us so we settled for Whangamata which was simply fab. Big waves crashing down and almost nobody around; I jumped out my clothes and ran into the water – welcome to the Pacific Ocean. There was a guy standing nearby up to his waist, I exclaimed how amazing the beach was, he replied in a pure Kiwi accent, “Yeah, you don’t get surf like this in Weston-Super-Mare!”. I almost fell over laughing, Weston is a mud beach a stones throw from Bristol.
Then drove down to Waitomo; this was our first day of proper driving in the open country. It was beautiful; as we got closer to Waitomo the scenery changed and the lumpy green plains really reminded me of Hobbiton in Lord of the Rings.
Also discovered a total lack of radio stations; and on the rare occasion we did find one, it was either a) people talking, b) adverts, c) music from the 80’s. There was a real 80’s thing going on over there.
Waitomo was my first experience of civillisation outside Auckland, and our stop over since leaving the big city earlier in the day. We stayed at Juno Hall, a backpacker lodge, and I was struck by the contrast between city and rural.
We braved the Waitomo Tavern, that looked more like a community hall.
Woke up early next day, across the road to the Black Water Rafting, I blew my brain out on two cups of Atomic Espresso, before we all got rubbered up, grabbed a huge tire inner tube and clambered down into underground limestone caverns; I got to jump backwards off a waterfall in total darkness; float down an underground river gazing up at glow worms, it was like having the most incredible display of stars close enough to reach out and touch. Beautiful.
The plan had been to head to Whakatane to do a trip to White Island the next day; on the way we stopped off at Papamoa Beach, one of my favourite moments; the sea was warm, the waves massive, and I had delicious fish & chips served in newspaper, sitting in the sun looking out at the sea. Great moment.
White Island trip was fully booked so we juggled our itinerary and headed South to Rotorua.
Rotorua – Wai-O-Tapu
You smell Rotorua before you see it. Driving along at night the car was suddenly swamped by the musk of bad eggs; I turned to Jo and said, “Was that you?”
I was surprised by the grid-section structure of the city; very American but somehow much nicer. Our motel ‘Gibson Motel’ turned out to be a palace, there were so many different rooms and neither of us could believe how cheap it was. We even paid a little bit extra for a unit with a ‘mineral pool’. This sounded nice, and looked great, much like a circular ceramic spa-bool set into wooden decking outside our bedroom. I turned on the tap on got a whiff of eggs, thought it was just the pipes clearing themselves of gas; left it to fill for a while but when I came back to check on it I nearly gagged on the stench. It was an amusing incident.
We were tired so grabbed a bottle of wine from the garage across the ‘square’ then settled into to watch SEVENTH SEAL.
Next day headed out to Wai-O-Tapu, a geo-thermal area near Rotorua; approaching hills smothered in dense green tropical foliage, vast white plumes of steam slowly drifting up from it all. Saw the Lady Knox geyser, then did a two hour walk around various pools of sulphur and bubbling mud, well worth the trip.
Zorbing. First time I ever encountered it was here.