Previous segments of this blog post:
Tamaki Village – Maori tourist centre
Later we were taken to Tamaki Village for Hangi; it’s a Maori run operation, done for tourists, but the experience is so authentic and done with so much energy and enthusiasm you forget it’s a ‘show’ and find yourself immersed in a period of a time long ago. Our driver greeted us in over 40 languages; arriving at the village we were challenged by a young warrior – which was actually a spine chilling experience – then allowed to enter. After walking amongst a completely crafted village, nocturnal gloom pierced by numerous fires, we were taken through to a large hut and entertained with Maori dancing and songs, shown how ‘games’ are used to train Maori children for war. The conclusion to the evening was the Hangi, a feast of meat and vegetables cooked in fire pits dug into the earth- the meat was so succulent it literally fell of the bone. Lovely.
Leave Rotorua and head south – Lake Taupo – Tongariro National Park
Leaving Rotorua the next morning we continued driving south, towards Lake Taupo. A few interesting things to see and stop at within close distance of each other; Huka Falls; Craters of the Moon and Prawn Park (yum!)
The Huka Falls are a set of waterfalls on the Waikato River where the it narrows from 100 metres across into a narrow canyon only 15 metres across. The volume of water flowing through often approaches 220,000 litres per second.
A short drive from Huka falls. A wonderfully bleak landscape with huge grim craters, ground poisoned by volcanic minerals, void of vegetative life and seeping steam.
Another short drive. Big bowls of huge Malaysian prawns served with garlic, fresh bread and glasses of ice cold white wine. A must-stop-and-enjoy experience if you are in the area. They farm the massive prawns on site, made possible by the volcanic thermals warming the water.
First glimpse of Mount Ruapehu – when we first saw it there, on the horizon, we were struck by an irrational but overwhelming sense of awe tinged with fear. I pulled over on the side of the narrow road, got out and took this photo. Didn’t realise at that point that we would be sleeping at it’s base – or that five years later it would be the setting for an epic novel called EDGE.
It was the same day we had left Rotorua in the rain, driven down through Huka falls, and past Lake Taupo. Our destination was Whakappa Village in the Tongariro National Park.
The Park began with this steep ascent up through dense woodland, then we popped out onto this narrow road running along an immense barren plain; the light was grey and a feeling of bleak desolation settled on my mind; some of the drizzle clears and as if out of nowhere to our right are these vast, and I mean incredibly sized volcanos. The moment is burned into my memory because I vividly remember feeling scared, I felt fragile and vulnerable as a human being amongst this fierce display of Nature.
At one point I pulled over – there are no other cars – climbed out and stood there in the light mist, gazing up at these ‘god like monsters’.
Turns out Whakappapa Village was right between them.
The village is one street, a visitor centre, two hotels, a shop, a pub, and a cafe. It is a wonderful place. In the shadow of Mount Ruapehu (used as Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings), with views of Mount Ngauruhoe and the Mangatepopo Saddle, and of the surrounding lands for many dozens of miles. I instantly felt at home there.
Our hotel was Skotel, a rambling wooden structure that turned out to be my fondest memory of the entire trip. Just a lovely place. Especially our room, room 305, that was almost a pod attached to the outside of the main structure, with a wall of sliding french doors leading onto a small balcony that gave the most incredible views of the world. That night my fear quickly turned to awe as I admired those menacing volcanoes in a new light; and then the sun began to set and I was touched by the hand of an angel because I have never seen light like this. The sun set lasted an age, incredible colours banded the sky then merged into a blaze of golden light. I realied that as I was sitting there watching the sun slip beneath the rim of the world, the people I knew in England would be waking up to see it rising. I wanted to ring somebody back in England and ask ‘Can you see it yet?’
Skotel saw us stay there 3 days. The balcony of room 305 became a place of ritual; in the mornings I would sit there in the misty dew drops drinking hot chocolate, breakfast was toast with lots of penut butter and jam. Every night we ate sitting on sofas in the bar (the food there is superb), drinking wine and virtually falling asleep there, because everything was so friendly and cosy.
I’ve been mulling over the novel idea for ‘Edge’ for 2 years now and looking for a place to set it; I had been considering Champoluc in Italy, but this place just became it for me. So I’ll be renaming Whakappa Village to Taranaki Village, and the story will take place in the Zen Dow Resort.
This place and the landscape around it gave me massive inspiration for a huge section of the Yellow Dawn campaign book – “Shadows of the Quantinex“.
24 hours I was going to be climbing up the shoulder of this thing as part of a 17 km trek – the Tongariro Crossing.
So we signed-up to do the Tongariro crossing, transport organised by the good people at Skotel. We did a couple of smaller walks the day before. Beautiful weather and views.
We were dropped off at a hut at the base of an active volcano and told we would be picked up in 8 hours 17km’s away on the other side.
South crater. We had to clamber up a steep 200 metre ascent to get into this thing. This is the inside of a volcanic crater. It’s so big you can’t see the far side. Wonderful and eerie.
It is such an extraordinary climb. You’re aware that as a resident of the Northern Hemisphere, being here, so far south of the equator, you’re effectively hanging upside down… and now I am here, on the roof of the world – so it feels.
Oh my God what a walk back down…forever, unending, zig-zagging back and forth as we went lower and lower. A break for lunch, an hour resting with boots off… feet steaming, before the long final slog back to the rendezvous point. Getting back to Skotel we treated ourselves to a long dip in the hot tub. We were the only ones in there – big grins on our faces and real sense of accomplishment. Later, supping wine in the chilled-out bar with views of the surrounding landscape. I knew I was going to miss this place – massive high point. Time to drop low….
Leave Whakapapa , drive to Napier then a shabby escape to Wanganui
Tongariro, Whakapappa, Skotel, all of this was a high point of the trip (at that point) and seemingly hard to beat. There was a wonderful moment when before driving away, I took the car on my own and drove up as far as I could toward the summit of Ruapehu – soundtrack to The Beach playing on the cassette system. Really memorable and uplifting.
The next couple of days were grim. Long trip to Napier was a real let down: bad omen of a dead dog lying in the middle of the road. We tried to improve our situation and drove late into the night to cross from the east coast (Napier) to west coast and Wanganui.Okay sort of place.
Image is of a painting in a cafe we dropped into in Wanganui. We crashed the night at a b&b with a nice lady who wanted to feed us until we burst; and who had a strange hobby of collecting butter dishes.
Leaving Wanganui the idea was to travel Surf Highway, find some beaches, enjoy the circular drive that takes you in a big sweeping arc around every side of Mount Taranaki. Hmm. We later renamed Surf Highway into Surf Hellway. It was hot, boring, tedious and every place we stopped at just wasn’t our idea of fun. We couldn’t get off it quick enough, but of course, once you’re so far in you have to keep going.
Finally escaped Surf Hellway as the sun began to set; (memory of trying to race the sun to the western shoreline so we could at least see it set but even that failed this cursed day). The drive became enjoyable as we plunged South towards the big city of Wellington. Exiting Surf Hellway we caught a rainbow. Auspicious.
Wellington – Two Days and Nights
Wellington is vast, memory of cresting a hill and seeing the sprawl of city lights covering the hills around a bay.
Driving into the centre of Wellington was very cyber as we cruised through deep canyons of narrow streets with lots of neon in Eastern scripts.
Got into a hotel, headed out and immediately found a fab cafe called Expressoholics. Drank ourselves silly on wine until after midnight.
Next day had breakfast then parted company as planned, “See you at sunset”.
I did very little. Sat in cafes, thought a small amount about stories, walked and dwelled on what my life was about at the moment; found a place that sold audio tapes, I grabbed a handful and when I went to pay for them the assistant looked at me and said, “Let me guess, you’re cursed with a hire car that only has a tape deck.” Apparently the only reason the store continues to sell audio tapes is because of people like us. Wellington is a very nice place but I can’t say it touched my soul.
The following day I took in the Te Papa museum then joined Jo on the ferry across to Southern Island.
Ferry to Piction, South Island – One Night in Havelock then onwards to Nelson
3 hour ferry ride to South Island. Pulled into Havelock for the night. Delish green-lipped muscles as The Muscle Boys. Next day, the drive to Nelson – following the scenic route, was hard driving along a twisting road with tight curving bends, usually ascending or descending steeply at the same time.
We like Nelson!
By time we arrived in Nelson we both felt strangely flat, drained of energy by the drive from Havelock. However, after grabbing breakfast in a fab cafe (yummy salmon bagel and strong coffee) and checking into our motel and ringing up a couple of companies we got our agenda back on-line.
That afternoon we did quad-biking; about eight of us ride up into richly forested mountains, speeding along dusty trails, then carefully cornering on the switchbacks. Finally popped out on top and had a picnic with an incredible view of Tasman Bay. Getting back down, the guide let us burn off our adrenalin on a ‘fun’ track where you blast around two at a time, skidding on gravel bends and plunging through deep water.
It put both of us on a grinning high; drove back to Nelson and decided to find the beach there. We were delighted to find it was big, clean and almost empty. Chilled out in the late afternoon sun, happy with life and with this moment. Also, today was our One Year anniversary being together – we discovered the amazing Boat Shed Cafe Restaurant perched on wooden stilts over Tasman Bay, with an open balcony where you can drink divine wine, eat incredible food and with the sun setting around you and blazing off the tranquil water.
I think the wine and sunshine went to her head…
Next day we parted company; Jo went to lie on the beach, I took the car and drove West into the mountains toward Muchison and joined several people to go white water rafting. Great experience and probably my favourite activity of the trip; I loved the way a group of strangers suddenly had to act as a tight team as our guide shouted ‘Paddle forward,’ then, ‘Stop’, or warned us about rocks under our feet; there were long periods of just drifting along fabulous stretches of river where the water was so green and so clear you wanted to fall overboard, and other times when everything is a cacaphony of people whooping, guide shouting commands and water roaring around you.
Driving back to Nelson we met on the beach and chilled for the whole afternoon.
Abel Tasmin National Park & the drive to Kaikoura
If you get there early enough you can do a day of sea kayaking which looked like awesome fun, but we were in the mood to just drift around the vast deserted shoreline, with it’s distinctive yellow colouring – and GIANT wasps. One monster actually carried away a boiled sweet from the packet lying beside us. Mental!
We wanted to spend as long as we could in Nelson, so after getting back from Abel Tasmin we stayed there almost until nightfall. Then started our drive South to Kaikoura. An incredible journey for me. Jo was driving when the road hit the East coast and hugged it for 70 km’s. Memory: full moon in a solid black sky, vast ocean out to my left, jagged volcanic rocks piercing the shore, ripping the tide into a frenzy, my imagination locking onto HP Lovecraft, the Pacific Ocean, Polynesian cults, the basis of the Cthulhu Mythos, I’m looking at the ocean and I’m picturing the sunken island of R’lyeh out there, dark Gods spurting through the vast expanse of sea and space, suddenly the volcanic rocks morph into misshapen heads of beasts lurking by the shoreline, they turn those heads as we fly past in the car, the only vehicle on the road for miles.
Memory of finally looking away from the ocean to my left and looking at the bulwark wall of the cliff dominating the road on our right; looking up and suddenly seeing the incredible mountain range, snow white peaks gleaming in the moonlight above whisps of mist.
Enter Kaikoura. Complete contrast to Nelson. Seems to be one street and a railway line squeezed in between the sea and the mountain range. Check into a motel; odd that they ask for both nights payment in advance. Not until 3am that I discover why, when the first freight train rumbles by less than 10 metres from the window of our room. It was more amusing than distressing. Memory of lying down to go to sleep with the sound of the surf pounding through the window, images of a shark in my mind, a shark that is out there now, swimming, dead eyes glinting in moonlight lancing down through dark waters….
Swimming with Dolphins – Kaikoura
Next day up early, join a number of people on a fast boat, rubber-up into wetsuits and go looking for dolphins. This is not a tame swim with trained dolphins in a bay or pool. Our welcome brief tells us that the dolphins are totally wild, they’re not there to entertain us, indeed, it is we who will be entertaining them!
We were taken way out to sea, way out; the pilot of the boat grins as she says “Today is a good day, our spotters say there are hundreds of dolphins out today”
And there were. We see them, countless fins slicing through the water followed by curved backs skimming water then vanishing below the surface.
The boat takes us out into the middle of the pod, a horn blows and we all quickly slip off the sides into the water. This is my first experience of swimming in the ocean; the cold claws through my wet suit and clutches my chest, I can feel my breathing speeding up, a huge swell lifts me up, the boat is out of sight for a few moments, then I drop and now the boat is far away. Shit! I’m picturing a 3-D painting of the shore area, complete with an illustration of the several miles deep ocean trench we’re swimming above right now. Miles down.
I’m looking down, I’m underwater, and whoosh something streaks past beneath me. It’s a dolphin, suddenly followed by three more. I get a pulse of excitement. More arrive. I can see them in the distance with other swimmers, curving round in tight arcs and streaming past, or even just drifting for a good look. One dolphin approaches me and makes eye-contact, it’s incredible; then it banks into a tight curve, I spin myself round to keep up and we go round and round and round, so much I feel dizzy when I stop. Several more come over and do this.
After a while the boat crew call us back, we shoot further along to catch up with the dolphin pod, then all slip back in to be amongst them. Clambering up the steps and pulling yourself inside you’re struck by the rocking of the boat; your stomach churns, saliva pours into your mouth. A handy stack of buckets stood close at hand. After the final swim the boat crew attend to you, giving you hot chocolate, and sticking a hose pipe down your wetsuit to heat you up with warm water.
Back on shore Jo and I are in a state of awe. What an incredible experience. What a privilege!
You can make out the snow-capped mountains in the background. Along with Tongariro, Kaikoura was a soul-enriching experience. Truly, magical.
This beach went on forever, black volcanic pebbles that hissed with every retreating wave dragging them back. I spent an age sat on my haunches watching the waves coming in, and listening to it all and smelling the raw ocean.