Friday, April 10, 2009

Home again

Thursday 09 April Overcast

We were both awake rather early, trying to adapt between Hong Kong time and UK is quite difficult. After a leisurely breakfast, left the hotel by taxi and headed back to Heathrow. Although I could have quite happily climbed on another aircraft and headed out again, we actually found the signs for the Heathrow Express, the direct rail link between the airport and Paddington station.

The journey only takes about 20 minutes and we then had to stand on platform and wait for the midday train to Bristol. The train was very busy, but we had reserved seats, so less than 2 hours later we were queuing for a taxi at Bristol Temple Meads station. After 43 days and tens of thousands of miles we were back where we started, but after circumnavigating the world!

Trains, Planes and Taxis

Wednesday 08 Apr Overcast in Hong Kong 18C - Sunny in London 14C

It was an early start to a long day, up before 5 and in a taxi en route to Hong Kong Station at 0530! We had settled our bill the night before so checking out was almost instant from the Cosmopolitan. The streets of the city were deserted and the taxi whisked us down to the station in less than 15 minutes. At the station we discovered that we could check our luggage in at the station. What a great idea! It certainly made life easier at the airport end as we just had our cabin baggage to lug around. The journey between Hong Kong Station and the Airport takes 23 minutes and there are only 2 stops, one in Kowloon and the other somewhere on the outskirts of Mong Kok. This airport express train is most expensive than other options at $HK100 per head, but it is very quick and efficient.

Whilst other people arriving at the airport were queuing to check in, we strolled straight through to passport control and security, both of which were really quiet. Our plan was to get some breakfast at the airport and at first we began to think our choice was Burger King or Chinese breakfast consisting of congee, a sort of sticky rice gruel - mmmmh nice at 0630 in the morning. Luckily, we found an American Chain sportsbar place, Champions, which served fairly normal western-style breakfast. The only minor hitch being we had to wait until 7 for it to open.

Airport shopping reflected the shopping malls of Hong Kong with all the usual designer names, Cartier, Chanel, Bally, Dunhill and very expensive. The choice for realistic purchases was very limited. We even decided that SD memory cards for cameras were cheaper to buy in UK than at the airport. The airport building is very impressive though and absolutely massive.

Our flight, NZ39, left on time at 0830 with us sitting in the two back seats in economy, a window and an aisle seat all to ourselves. The flight was fairly full, but not completely so.

Our 13 hour flight route took us over China, around the east and then north of Tibet and the Himalayas, across Mongolia and into the 'Stans. Kyrgistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. Into Russian, we flew over Chelyabinsk and Kazan before heading into the Moscow area. From there, west out to Lithuania and Latvia and into the Baltic. Crossing southern Sweden, we then flew just south of Copenhagen, across Denmark into Northern Germany before crossing the North Sea. The UK coast was crossed at Clacton and then straight down to London and smoothly into Heathrow, a journey of just over 10,000km and we arrived at exactly 1430 after a flight of just over 12 and a half hours.

Although we had quite a bit of cloud at first, once we were round to the north of the Himalayas, we started to see mountain tops sticking out of the clouds. The the deserts of northern China and Mongolia were huge and very desolate. Russia, on the whole was still very snowy and lots of the rivers still quite frozen.

We managed to escape from the airport quite quickly and took a taxi to the Travelodge on Bath Rad for an overnight stop.


Tuesday 07 Apr Overcast with some sun 22C

The day seemed somewhat brighter and we had breakfast at the hotel again before taking to the trams. Conveniently, the tram from outside the hotel went directly to the Western Market where we wandered down to the Macau ferry terminal.

It was bedlam in the terminal with lots of ferries leaving all at the same time as well as the helicopter service to Macau. The helicopter takes 15 minutes and costs $HK2300 each on way, whilst the ferry takes an hour and is $HK230 each return! The transfer from the terminal onto the boat was a bit hairy as the swell was huge and everyone was being thrown around. The boat, a twin-hull hydrofoil, goes very fast. The journey, about 60km, takes you around some of the other Hong Kong islands before following the Chinese coast west to Macau.

Macau, previously a Portuguese dependancy, is now also a Special Administrative Region of China, the same status as Hong Kong. This means that British passport holders do not need a visa (unlike mainland China) and can stay for up to 6 months. This didn't stop us having to leave Hong Kong and have our passport stamped and then immigrate into Macau and get our passports stamped again. Needless to say, we had to go through the same procedure on the way back to Hong Kong later in the day.

On our arrival in Taipu, the city of Macau, I thought I saw some of the old Portguese quarter of the city, so we walked toward it. I was mistaken, what I had actually seen was a mini Las Vegas. Built next to the ferry terminal, is an artificial journey around the world. We could stroll through ancient Athens and Rome before walking past a Inca Temple, a Volcano and then Dutch and Portguese houses before ending up in New Orleans. All of this was artificial and built to entice visitors into the many casinos that exist in Macau.

We got somewhat lost at this stage, but a kindly gentleman pointed us in the direction of the city centre and we strolled there. In the centre, the new Hotel Lisboa is a stunning building built in the shape of a flower. The stem is OK, but the flower perched on top is quite odd and hangs out over the side of the main tower.

From here, we strolled up to the fort and gardens above the city which gave us a good view. The down side to our walk was the lack of footpaths or pavements. The route we took followed part of the Macau Grand Prix route; this years race is in September.

Finally back in the touristy area, we managed to find some lunch, a very good steak, fries, salad a coffee or pastry to finish all for about £10. Macau has its only currency which is tied to the Hong Kong dollar, so we didn't bother to exchange any money as the $HK is accepted everywhere.

We caught the 1600 ferry back to Hong Kong, passed through immigration again and then returned to the hotel. Once back there, I went down to Causeway Bay underground station and returned our Octopus cards and got $HK130 back - a great deal!

As we have an early start tomorrow, we eat in the hotel and head to bed early.

Cloth, Escalators and the Symphony of Light

Monday 06 Apr Dull and overcast 21C

On opening the curtains this morning, we were greeted by the sight of rain falling on Happy Valley Racecourse. The traffic too, was typical Monday morning, very heavy. Whilst having breakfast down on the 1st floor, the rain really started to hammer down. Plans for the day were reconsidered and after adding cagoules and umbrellas to the cameras in our backpack, we headed out to catch a tram into town.

Actually, by the time we left the hotel, the rain had decreased to little more than drizzle and we managed to trundle down to the Western Market on a direct tramline. The Western Market is an old red brick building left over from Colonial days and consists of three floors. The ground floor has several tourist shops and the third floor has cafes and restaurants. The second floor concentrates on selling cloth of every sort imaginable. There are rolls of cashmere for making suits, linen for shirts in addition to thousands of rolls of material for dresses, blouses, curtains etc. Some of the silks and brocades are particularly exotic and best of all, really inexpensive.

After wandering around, we walked into one crowded corner and immediatedly, bolts of cloth were enthusiatically unravelled and spread out and the merits explained. After carefully considering the various options we eventually bought several metres. Back in the main market we turned down a few more sellers before we chose a second shop and bought some more material. As we left the Western Market we spotted a potential lunchtime spot.

Outside the rain had stopped and we headed across the road to 'Chop Alley', a small pedestrian alleyway. Here, the craftsman traditionally carved stamps or 'chops' out of soft stone. Now, they still carve some, but they also sell rubber stamps as well. The craftsmanship of the carved versions are excellent. From here, we wandered a few more streets and came to 'Cat Alley Bazar', an area that sells 'antiques'. Some of the 'antiques are poor replicas, some doubtless genuine and expensive but there are some interesting things there, especially Chairman Mao memorabilia.

Lunchtime send us back to the Western Market and lunch in 'Das Gute', a very germanic sounding place. It was packed with lunchtime diners and indeed the menu had a pseudo-german theme to it, although unrecognisable as German cuisine! We had to wait for a table and eventually got packed in at a small table amongst the many other diners. The food consisted of soup, a main course and a coffee all for about £7-8. The Pork Knuckle and Bratwurst looked interesting, but nothing like I've ever seen before. Good food here, and part of a chain in Hong Kong.

Following lunch, we decided to visit the 'Mid Levels' of Hong Kong, a district on the lower slopes of the mountain. Access to this area is by escalators which take you from sea-level to several hundred metres up the mountainside. The escalators rise between buildings which are mainly housing and small businesses and are fascinating insight to domestic life in the area! Eventually, at the top, we wandered along to the top of the Zoological and Botanical gardens of Hong Kong. We weren't too impressed with the zoo, as the cages were quite small and the animals, mainly apes, looked thoroughly bored. By this stage, we'd had enough of walking, so we took a bus all the way back to Causeway Bay. On our way back to the hotel, we walked through the local market, full of traders selling vegetables, meat and fish along with other strange, exotic,unidentified dried products.

Later, sometime after 6, we headed back into town by tram to the Central Pier where we caught the Star Ferry across to Kowloon. Having found a suitable place by the pier in Kowloon to view the Hong Kong skyline, I regret to report that we made an investigatory visit to the 'Golden Archway' just to see what their standard of service is like! A quarter-pounder with jasmin tea seemed like a reasonable compromise.

Back at the viewpoint, we then enjoyed the 'Symphony of Light', a nightly free light-show played out from the skyscrapers of Kong Kong and Kowloon. The show which starts at 8 in the evening only lasts 15 minutes, but involves several big-name companies sponsoring rapidly changing light shows on their tower-blocks with the addition of lasers from the tops of the highest buildings. The music was a bit naft but the light show was worth the effort.

We headed up Nathan Road in the heart of Kowloon after this, just to look at the lights and nightlife. It is difficult to walk far before being accosted by people trying to get you into their tailors/photographic/jewelery shop for examine their wares. We also walked through one building which seemed to be full of people exchanging money.

Finally, we went back to the pier and caught the Star Ferry back to Hong Kong and from their a tram back to Happy Valley.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Parks, the Peak and Aberdeen

Sunday 05 Apr Sunny and hot 25C

Happy Valley Racecourse which we overlook from our room is a busy place. Although there isn't any racing going on, they only race here on a Wednesday, the sports fields in the middle of the racecourse are constantly occupied. There are several soccer pitches, at least two hockey pitches, a rugby field and a crown bowling rink. The whole area is floodlit and seems to have games going on from first thing in the morning until at least 11 at night. The whole area is surrounded by high-rise buildings, mostly residential, it is like a little oasis in the middle of the city.

Up quite early and ate breakfast in the hotel. Following that, we caught a tram outside the hotel and trundled down to the Admiralty stop. Sitting on the top deck of a tram is the best way to see Hennessy road, the main thoroughfare that the trams travel along. Sometimes the trams are nose to tail all along the road.

Almost every road going south from Hennessy is uphill and the road up to Hong Kong park is no exception. With the humidity today, it is warm work climbing up the path into the park itself. It is another oasis in the city and boasts fountains, lakes and waterfalls. It is also full of birds, butterflies and dragonflies. The lakes are full of Koi carp and terrapins. Up another hill and we reach the Aviaries. The first few contain exotic birds in their own cages, but beyond them is a huge walk-in aviary full of exotic species free to fly anywhere in the netted area. We saw some amazing birds ranging from bulbuls, to parakeets. Well worth visiting.

Outside the park we stop briefly at one of the intermediate stations on the Peak Tramway, but don't stay long when we realise that the trams won't stop to pick us up if they are already full, and they are certainly full. Walking back down to the bottom station we find a long queue snaking around the block waiting to buy tickets for the tram. We almost leave until we see a sign near the head of the queue telling us that holders of Octopus cards can leap-frog the queue! We still had to wait about 15 minutes, but not as long as some. The tram is a pretty amazing feat of engineering and grinds its way up to the top in about 5 minutes. The views getting better and better the higher you go.

At the top, there has been a lot of construction since I was last here. There are so many commercial ventures now at the top tram station it is a bit of a scrummage. We left the building without eating or buying anything and walked along to the Lion overlook. The views here are stunning even on a slightly hazy day like today. We stayed for some time staring over Hong Kong and Kowloon and watching the many Kites flying around the skyscrappers.

Failing to find a direct bus down to Aberdeen on the southern side of Hong Kong island, we opt for a small bus that plunges down the near vertical roads back to the centre of town. It is almost a white knuckle ride as the road has so many hairpin bends, is consistantly steep all the way down and the driver hurtles along at breakneck speed.

We get lost when we leave the bus at Central Pier and have to ask to find the stop for the number 7 bus to Aberdeen. Eventually, we find the right place and after a short wait board the bus that goes around the west of Hong Kong island and down to the south. In Aberdeen, the harbour is incredibly busy with fishing boats, ferries and sampans. The sampan owners have touts, all ladies, on the shore and it is quite difficult to avoid being pestered to go and take a sight-seeing tour on a sampan. For a price, and it isn't much, they will take you out to view the floating townships moored up behing the Typhoon barrier. Also moored in the harbour are the huge mega-large floating restaurants which Aberdeen is famous for. We manage to avoid all the blandishments of the lady sampan drivers and stroll along the water front. Apparently, whilst taking pictures near the fish market, a large rat ran almost over my feet to disappear into the market - lovely!

We find a different bus to take us directly back to Happy Valley that goes directly through the Aberdeen tunnel that cuts under the mountain. Later we stroll back town into town and find another 'no-frills' local restaurant and eat and drink well for about £40.

A Taste of the Orient

Saturday 04 April 27C Cloudy at first, sunny later.

Now here's a long day. Get on a Boeing 777 at 2330 on 03 Apr, take off at 0010 on 04 April and immediately change your watch back to 1910 on 03 April. Time travel is fun. As you will have guessed, Hong Kong is 5 hours behind Auckland and 7 hours ahead of UK. The flight was quite full, but we got seats we wanted, one window and one aisle, very cosy except for the Chinese man in between us! Nonetheless, both of us got some sleep, one of us managed over 6 hours out of a 10 1/2 hour flight!

Caught a glimpse of Cebu city and Manilla as we flew over the Phillipines and landed at Hong Kong just before 6 in the morning. Last time I was here, over 20 years ago, the airport was at Kai Tak, in the edge of Kowloon and the aircraft made an interesting approach around the skyscrapers of Hong Kong. Now the new airport is open on Lantau Island, things are different. Most people on the aircraft were continuing on to London, we didn't envy them that, another 12 hours to London. Immigration was very quick and straight forward and our bags arrived quickly on the carousel.

We made an abortive attempt to find the Tourism office at the airport and finally gave up after a kind person pointed us in the right direction for the bus into the middle of Hong Kong. The bus, number A11, was almost empty and took about 40 minutes to get to Causeway Bay. It is a good way of travelling as your get to see Lantau Island and Kowloon before diving into the tunnel under the harbour. The driver dropped us off as close to the hotel as he could, but is was quite difficult to find the hotel and downright hard work heaving the bags up and down stairs in the underpass needed to cross the road next to the hotel.

Although it was only 8 in the morning, the hotel found us a room which they desribed as having a big bed, which was two single beds. After rejecting this, they found us a 'nicer' room with a queen bed on the 12th floor directly overlooking the Happy Valley racecourse.

Following a much needed refreshing shower, we catch a free shuttle bus from the hotel to 'Times Square', a shopping mall next to Causeway Bay Mass Transit Railway (MTR). Once again we tried to find the Tourism Office and after discovering that there are 7 entrances to the the station, we finally find the right one, discover the tourism office and get some advice about transport in the city. We purchase a 'Octopus' card, doubtless the same as London's Oyster card, for $HK 150, which allows us travel on the buses, trams, underground, ferries and the Peak Tram. Any money left on the card at the end will be refunded - fat chance.

One of the best ways of seeing Hong Kong is to travel by tram. The trams follow a route that roughly follows the northern coast of the island. They are double-decker trams which look like London in the 1920s (in fact that is probably exactly where they came from). We rattled our way down to the Central district and then walked toward the Central Pier. As we walked, we found hundreds, maybe even thousands of Filipino girls gathered in the area. Apparently, they meet here each week, presumably to chat and meet friends. Many of them work as maids in the city.

After a very pleasant lunch on the pier sitting in the sunshine, we caught the Star Ferry across the harbour to Kowloon. We travel 'upper deck' for an extra 30 cents, very posh! The journey across Hong Kong harbour is great, the view of the city is fantastic. Once in Kowloon, we stroll up Nathan Road, otherwise known as 'Golden Mile'. The area abounds with shops selling the latest electronic gadgets and cameras.

Feeling that we have had quite a busy day all told, we head back on the Star Ferry, lower deck this time, and then catch the tram back to the hotel.

In the evening, we stroll down to Hennessy Road to find some food and march boldly into a Chinese Restaurant with no obvious english menu. We were the only non-Chinese customers, but they found an english menu and we had an excellent meal. As we ate, we carefully studied the other diners to see how they handled their chopsticks and food. We learned a few tips and didn't disgrace outselves apart from one of us refusing to drink the near obligatory tea.

The Leaving of New Zealand

Friday 03 April 22C Sunny and partly cloudy. Drove 50km

Cleaning up a hire car at the end of a rental period is fun. The things you find hidden away under the seat, in the boot, lurking in with the spare tyre. Today's haul included sea shells, a small kitchen knife, lots of travel brochures and a bag full of plastic cutlery. I can explain the cutlery and knife, we bought them when we arrived in NZ to use for al fresco lunches. I'm sure that the Motel at Orewa will be somewhat puzzled by the collection of things we left in their cubpboards which included, 4 roll of toilet paper, the aformentioned cutlery, plastic cups and plates, a jar of salsa (that had defied opening), half a loaf of bread and the remains of a jar of marmalade. The other thing about the car is not to get it too clean and tidy and, hopefully, any chips or small marks inflicted on the car on the gravel roads will be missed or ignored.

How did we get everything in the bags on our way out here? Several things have lived in the car for the last month, cagoules, snorkel and mask and fleece, now they have to be stuffed back into the bags again. One conundrum we have to puzzle over is our baggage allowance. From UK to LA and from LA to Auckland our baggage allowance was for 2 pieces of checked in luggage each, of indeterminate weight. For this sector from Auckland to Hong Kong, we have a baggage allowance of 20kg each. Could be interesting.

After packing the car one last time, we leave the motel and join the SH1 motorway back into Auckland. Once in the city, we follow the signs to the Airport through the suburbs of Newmarket and Epsom; what were those settlers thinking off when they named them? At the Airport we park and drag our bags inside and manage to leave them at the tourist information office for the sum of $NZ 30. Now the car really is empty.

Leaving the airport, we head across to Manukau and the Regional Botanical Gardens. These gardens are relatively new, only opened to the public in the mid 80s, and are still under development. Although the site is right next to the motorway, it is a great place to wander around. There are a mixture of formal gardens and informal collections of plants, shrubs and trees. The only down side was that they had emptied the two large lakes for cleaning. We wandered around for an hour or so and then ate lunch at the cafe in the gardens. Cafes in Botanical Gardens follow the same rules as those in garden centres, yummy imaginative food!

Eventually, we head back into the heart of Auckland to abandon our trusty, dusty, Toyata Corolla. Arriving at the rental office we park in a corner and then remember we have to fill the petrol tank. Back around the block for fuel and then hand in the keys. Car-less again.

We walk into town and buy a cheap guide book to Hong Kong as we realise that we have to figure out how to get from Hong Kong airport to Hong Kong Island. That may seen silly, but Hong Kong airport is on Lantau Island and Hong Kong island is some way away. From the bookshop we walk back down to Auckland harbour and on the spur of the moment, take the ferry across the harbour to Devonport.

Devonport is home to the Royal New Zealand Navy and also a very pleasant little laid-back town. After strolling around taking in the sights, we head back across the harbour to find something for dinner. We end up in an Italian restaurant with a balcony overlooking Queens Street, the main street of Auckland. The airport bus stopped almost outside the restaurant too, and after eating we waited for 20 minutes until a bus turned up and took us to the airport.

The baggage issue was apparently not a problem as the weight of our bags wasn't discussed other than to attach a label to both bags marked "Heavy". After passing through immigration again, we ended up sitting in the departure area for a couple of hours before boarding our flight shortly before midnight.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Tiritiri Matangi - An open sanctuary

Thursday 02 April Sunny and warm 21C Drove 20km

After buying some sandwiches for lunch, off to Whangaparaoa and Gulf Harbour to catch the boat to Tiritiri Matanga. The road from Orewa to Whangaparaoa consists of miles of housing broken up with strips of shops and, of course, lots of traffic. There is now a bypass around Orewa, so major road works are taking place on the sea front to change it into a mainly pedestrianised area. I'm sure it will look better by December 2009 when the work is due to finish.

Beyond Orewa, the road seamlessly changes into Whangaparaoa, a peninsular sticking out into Hauraki Gulf. The peninsular seems to be mainly areas of housing, some obviously very expensive. Most of the housing is clustered around a series of small bays such as Tindalls and Waiau. The best named areas go to Big Manly Beach, situated down Lady's Mile Road, and not far away, Little Manly Beach.

Gulf Harbour is a vast marina and housing development on the northern edge of the peninsular, it is all rather impersonal and there doesn't seem to be any hotels, motels or restaurants there either, all things I'd expect to see at a marina of this size. Nevertheless, the boats for Tiritiri Matanga (Tiri to the locals) Island leave from here just before 10-o-clock between Wednesday and Sunday. The wildlife gets two days off each week! The boat actually comes from Auckland and probably leaves as early as 9. Gathered at the marina and waiting for the boat were two school parties along with a handfull of 'tourists'. The kids were quite well behaved though, so it wasn't as bad as it might have been.

Once on board the boat, we got the mandatory safety and bio-protection briefings and then sat back for the 20 minute journey. The weather had changed dramatically from yesterday, light breezes and clear blue skies, the only sign of yesterdays bad weather was a bumpy sea.

Arriving at the island, we were given another briefing by a Department of Conservation Ranger before being divided into groups. The kids disappeared with their guides first and left our group of 6 to set off up the island. Our guide, a volunteer, was very knowledgable, especially about the plants and was able to describe how the island had evolved since it became a reserve in the 1970s. Unlike other island reserves that are carefully controlled and only very limited access is available, Tiri is open to the public, but visitors are encouraged to be responsible and not harm the wildlife.

During our stay on the island, we saw several rare and endangered species of birds. Bell birds were everywhere and we also frequently saw Stitch birds and Saddlebacks, both very rare. The usually Tui were to be seen to as well as Whiteheads and Robins. We also saw lots of red-crowned Parakeets and Pukeko. Up at the lighthouse, wandering aimlessly about, we saw to two Takahe. These birds are extremely rare, perhaps only 300 left on the planet. A large, chicken-sized flightless bird, they are very vulnerable to predation.

After lunch, we abandoned our guide and followed a path along the ridge of the island before plunging down another walkway down to Hobbs Bay. It would have been great to have had time to do some snorkelling in the clear waters, but we only had 25 minutes before the only boat left the island!

On the mainland again, we drove back to Orewa, stopping at two bays on the way. We just had to have a picture of Big Manly Bay, there should have been a 'Little Wimp Bay', but instead there was a Little Manly Bay.

Back at the motel, plans were discussed for our departure from NZ tomorrow over a meal in Orewa.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Flying cats and milk

Wednesday 01 April Rain at first then mainly overcast 18C Drove 230km

I woke up whilst it was still dark to hear the rain hammering on the windows. This wasn't entirely unexpected, as the forecast for Wednesday had been for rain and after several weeks of almost uninterupted sunshine, we could hardly complain. New Zealand is a very green country, clearly a sign that it rains regularly. The good thing, is that the rain is only expected to last until afternoon and then it should clear up.

I've never seen a flying cat. I confess that there have been times when I would like to have taught some cats to fly, but this time it was not me helping it along. Driving slowly along a rural country road somewhere to the south of Whangarei, as we came around a corner, a cat flew out of a hedge. I can clearly see it now, its legs spread out, airborne some 3-4 feet above a ditch by the side of the road. It was a black cat with a white chest. Some few inches in front of the cat flew a female mallard duck. Whereas the duck looked quite normal, if somewhat flustered, in the air, the cat looked rather shaken to discover that the ground was several feet below it. Needless to say, on contact with the ground, and lets face facts, that's the only place the cat was going to go, the cat did that thing where they sit down, lick their shoulders, and look it was all deliberate. I also have this vision of the cat making some minor contact with the duck as it flew off, and becoming airborne with it.

The road from Ngungara to Whangarei was wet all the way, but it eased off as we arrived at Whangarei Falls. In the interests of tourism, I donned my cagoule and walked down to the rather impressive falls to take a few photos. Of course, once I was several hundred metres away from the car, on the opposite side of the river, the rain returned with avengance. It's only water.

Once south of Whangerei on our favourite road, not, the SH1 we looked for a turn-off to get onto the rural roads again. At Waipu we joined Cove Road and followed the coast down to Bream Tail and Mangawhai Heads. A compulsory stop for coffee and a sneaky cake was taken here at a garden centre. Why do garden centres always have such good food?

Somewhere to the south of Mangawhai, the curious incident of the cat took place as we headed through some small roads still trying to avoid the SH1. Somewhere, and not easily followed on the map we have, we found ourselves on the Whangaripo Valley Road heading for Pakiri and Leigh. Luckily for us, the section that was marked as gravel road had recently been turned into a surface road. Just north of Leigh, we turned off to visit the Cape Rodney/Okakari Point Marine Reserve, also known as Goat Island. This small cove with the island just 100 metres off shore is supposed to be an excellent site for snorkelling and diving. Although it wasn't raining, the easterly wind blowing hard onto the shore put us off climbing into the water. It hadn't put off a school party all of whom were snorkelling just off the island; there must have been 40 of them. When I first saw them, I thought they were seabirds sitting on the surface, a look through the binos quickly identified them as human heads!

Further down the road at Matakana, we found an artisan bakery, a seriously tempted place to be. The filled rolls looked fantastic and the foccacia roll I had was excellent. Some of the cakes and pastries there were begging to be bought, but somehow we resisted the temptation.

We drove to Gulf Harbour on the Whangaparaoa peninsular to check out the boat times for our trip to Tiritiri Matangi tomorrow. Not a very pleasant place, just miles of housing, strip malls and industrial estates. We turned back to Orewa and found a motel by the sea to spend our last two nights in.

Oh the flying milk! As we were driving through Whangaparaoa, we came across a milk lorry in a side road surround by cartons of milk that had obviously come flying out of the unsecured side door of his truck, there was milk everywhere.

Poor Knight's Islands

Tuesday 31 Mar Sunny and warm 23C Drove nowhere

Up early to the sound of the alarm, not had to do this since we went to Karpiti Island some weeks ago. Todays call is to get me to Tutukaka marina in time to catch a boat out to Poor Knight's Islands. The islands were named by Cook in 1769 (I think), and apparently poor knight's were the common slang at that time for a breakfast dish that may have resembled French Toast. Quite what Cook must have been on when he made this observation is best left to the imagination, but the islands are the remains of a volcano and basically consist of the plug and residue of that volcano.

The islands lie 12 miles off shore and are a nature reserve, the waters around the islands are also a marine reserve. There are large fines for attempting to land and many reasons not to do so. The government had cleared the islands of predators by 1933 and since then, only native species live there. It is the only place in the world that Bullers Shearwaters nest, a bird normally only seen over the oceans. It is very clumsy on land and apparently lands on the island by crashing into the undergrowth, not always successfully. It is also home the largest colony of Tuatara, the last of the prehistoric lizards, the rest died out 60 million years ago! On top of all that, due to a major tribal spat in the past, the islands are also sacred to the Maori tribe that used to live there.

From the sea, the cliffs above the water often rise 100 metres sheer from the sea and there are only a couple of landing sites, the remainder cliffs and sea stacks. Below the water the cliffs fall another 60 metres sheer to the ocean floor apart from the odd sea pinnacle. The undersea life is unique in NZ in that several tropical species of fish either survive here or visit frequently. Indeed, today we saw tropical puffer fish schooling up near the surface. This sighting is pretty unique, the crew of the boat had only seen them the day before and these fish have never previously been recorded here. The underwater visibility here is stupendous due to two features; no significant rainwater run off from the land and the East Auckland current that washes through the area.

Stepping into the gin clear water with my buddy, Steve, I can see the anchor chain of our boat lying in kelp some 4-5 metres below us on top of a sea pinnacle. The dive site, on the northern island, Tawhiti Rafi, is known as Landing Bay Pinnacle. Once on the bottom, we set off down the side of the pinnacle to explore. At 20 metres, we started our circumnavigation of the rock pinnacle. The walls of the pinnacle drop from 5 metres all the way down to 60 metres almost sheer, and we can see the bottom at 60 metres from our chosen depth of 20 metres; fantastic visibility. Although the water is warm at this time of year, 22C today, it isn't warm enough to support hard coral, but is does have fantastic soft corals and sponges of every colour of the rainbow. There is also plenty of kelp and various nooks and crannies which hide Moray Eels and large Sea Urchins. After cruising around for 15 minutes, we move up to 12 metres and continue swimming around the pinnacle enjoying the busy sea life. As we ascend back up the anchor chain we are mobbed by small fish.

Back on the boat, we have lunch and then take a leisurely tour down to the channel between the north and south island. First we sail our large boat into a massive sea cave, we are joined a little later by a second boat. The cave dwarfs both boats. On around the southern, or Aorangi, island we see several large holes in the cliffs before we pass through a massive archway ourselves. I suspect it puts the 'Hole in the Rock' up in the Bay of Islands to shame.

On the western side of Aorangi, we drop anchor about 10 metres from 100m high cliffs in a small inlet. The dive site is called Oculina Point, but I don't know why. This time, once in the water, we stay on the surface until we reach the cliff and then drop down the cliff to 12 metres, once again in crystal clear water. Right in the corner of the inlet is a underwater sea cave, known as Crystal Cave and used in the movie 'Who Dares Wins'. It is easy to swim quite deep into the cave and looking back out to the open sea is magical with fish swimming against the sunlight streaming into the cave. We continue around the cliffs which fall away to 70 metres deep, now at around 17 metres, and find a very sleepy short-tailed stingray on a very small patch of sand. Beyond this, we find many nudibranchs or sea-slugs, some in the most incredible colours schemes imaginable. I disturb a large Snapper in a crevice and he gives me the 'eye' as he slowly swims inches from my mask. We are mobbed by Demoiselles everywhere we go and dazzled again by the soft corals and sponges. Finally, after 40 minutes, very reluctantly, we head back to the boat. What a fantastic dive.

Jacques Cousteau rated the islands as one of the Top 10 dive sites in the world, I can now see why. I for one, would say that is rates in my personal top 3 sites. The fish life is prolific and the corals and sponges incredibly vibrant. One of those 'go-there-before-you-die' places.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Tutukawa Coast

Monday 30 March Warm and sunny 22C Drove 161km

After a fairly slow start, left Paihia and headed south to Opua where we caught the ferry across to Okiato. The ferry is only takes 5 minutes to cross, but saves 60-70km for winding roads for local residents. We were lucky and the ferry left almost as soon as we drove on board. On the other side, we followed the road towards Russell, but just outside town headed off down the coast on the Russell road, named because before the ferry, it was the only way to get to Russell.

There was virtually no traffic on this road and it was a pleasure to wander along at 60kph and look at the scenery. The road follows the coast mainly and every now and again plunges down to sea level and a pretty beach before climbing back through native forest back over headlands. We stopped several times to take photos and eventually, near Helena Bay, stopped for coffee. The Gallery and Cafe is perched high above Helena Bay and has a slightly German theme to it in that they serve Kulmbacher beer and apfelstrudel! The food here looks fantastic but we can only report on the quality of the Ginger Slices with was most delicious, almost like ginger fudge on shortbread. The view, however, is the one of the most striking things about the place, it is enough to briefly push the taste of the cakes to the back of your mind.

Next to, and part of, the cafe is a gallery. The art work here was wonderful and it would have been very easy to spend several thousand dollars on some seriously tasteful pieces of art. Often when visiting a gallery, there might be one or two things that catch your eye, this gallery had lots that might have had your hand reaching for your wallet. Regretably, we didn't buy, but left thinking that much of the work would look at its best in a beautiful house in NZ rather that in Europe.

Not long after leaving the gallery, we briefly rejoined the SH1 at Whakapara. The road was busy with big trucks so we were glad to turn off again at Hikurangi onto the Marua road. This road headed through mainly pastureland toward the coast. At a T junction, we headed back onto the gravel at the Whananaki South road. This road, which was very busy going in the opposite direction, took us down to an estuary surrounded by mangroves and crossed by the longest footbridge in the Southern Hemisphere, if the tourist books are to be believed. The bridge, just wide enough for one person is nearly 500 metres from end to end. After a quick double crossing, we ate lunch underneath a shady tree.

Back up the gravel road, we joined the Matapouri road out to the Tutukaka coast. In Tutukaka, a stop was made to check arrangements for diving tomorrow. Next, we toured the area between Tutukaka and Ngungara (the first 'g' is apparently silent) looking for accommodation. For future reference, the Sands Motel at Whangaumu Bay looks good and is directly on a pretty sandy beach. The cabins at the Tutukaka campsite also looked OK. We settled for a studio room at the Tutukaka Coast Motor Lodge in Ngungara. The Motor Lodge has great studios for less than NZ$ 100 and we were the only guests.

Only a couple of hundred metres down the road is a small row of shops. A Hairdressers, a Superette (new NZ word for a mini supermarket), a small licenced cafe and the inevitable Fish and Chips shop. After a stroll along the waterfront we returned later the the cafe, 'Salt Air', where we had an excellent and cheap meal. The seared scallops were fantastic and I believe the lamb was pretty good too. The place might not look very special, but the food and service was very good.

Country Fairs and War Canoes

Sunday 29 March Warm and sunny 22C drove 50km

After a fairly slow start to the day, we headed back to Kerikeri to the annual 'Country Market' The market had taken over the middle of town entirely and the main road was lined with dozens of stalls. Some of it was the usual market 'tat', but lots were good craft stalls. It looked like the whole town and most of the local area had turned out to support it. The day was very warm and all the cafes in town were packed too. The 'Lions' were carrying out a noisy raffle right in the middle of it all, with lots of good natured banter going on. A most entertaining morning

Later, we headed back toward Paihia, but stopped at Haruru Falls to take a few photographs. According to the tourist literature, it is possible to swim and kayak under the falls. We saw the kayaks but no swimmers and didn't fancy a really cold swim oursleves. It would have been possible to walk from here down to the Waitanga Treaty grounds, but we drove.

On arrival, we stopped at the Waikokopu cafe situated in the treaty grounds and had an excellent lunch of sandwiches whilst we watched large eels swimming in the pond next to the decking of the cafe. The food is really good here and not too expensive.

After lunch we paid to visit the WaitangaTreaty Grounds, the place where the Maori people and British Government signed the treaty in February 1840, that still defines the status of New Zealand. The grounds were rescued by Lord and Lady Bledsoe in the 1930s and many of the original features including the original treaty house, have been preserved. The treaty house, home to the British Residency from the 1830s was well worth the visit. Many of the rooms have been restored as best as possible to the time that James Busby lived here. The adjacent Te Whare Runanga, the Maori meeting house is magnificent and has carvings from all the Maori tribes.

Also in the grounds is a Maori Waka or war canoe. The canoe named, Ngatokimatawharorua, is 35 metres long and it takes 76 paddlers to handle it safely on water. The canoe was made for the 1940 centenial celebrations.

After all the culture, a rest on the beach was required. There was plenty to watch at Ti beach on the northern edge of Paihia. At least one inept jet skier, one hopeless 'Wave Rider' and several small fast sailing boats provided the entertainment.

Back at the Motel, laundry featured in our lives for an hour before heading out for dinner at 'Vince's Fish and Chips'. In UK, I am not a lover of fish and chips. It always seems to consist of lots of greasy batter and little fish. Here, the batter is very light and just coats the fish which is almost always fresh straight from the boats. After a brief stop at the pub for a beer, it was back to the motel.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

We are sailing!

Sat 28 March Warm and sunny 22C Drove nowhere

Time for another day on the water and this time hopefully with sail power. Being in the Bay of Islands, the main things to do are all associated with the sea. It is possible to practice almost any water associated sports that you can think of here, and several you might never have considered. Since para-sailing, jet-boating and banana boats didn't appeal to us, going out for a day on a sailing yacht sounded good to us.

We met Mike and his boat Gungha II at the pier on Paihai just before 10, we also met Will, a Bristol backpacker who was also coming out on the boat. We then set off across the bay to Russell to pick up two German passengers, Martin and Johanna. In addition to our captain Mike, we had Jean-Luc on board as crew.

As the brief was very light, we set out using the motor to head out in the bay. We did manage to get the sails up briefly as we headed further out, but we had to use the motor a fair bit. We anchored in a small bay on one of the islands and climbed into the tender to land on the island. Martin and Johanna, took the two kayaks we had with us onto the island too. Jean-Luc then took us for a walk on the island explaining that there was a programme of planting going on to provide more native plants so that the wildlife can return. The view from the hill at the top was spectacular, and all of the bay was laid out in front of us..

After scrambling back down to the bay, we explored the pretty beach for a while. Eventually, everyone swam back to the yacht except Martin, me and Jean-Luc. I paddled back to the yacht on one of the kayaks, catching up with swimmers en route. Back on the yacht, we were handed wet-suits, masks, fins and snorkels and rapidly jumped back into the water. Almost under the boat was a large Ray whiles closer to shore there were several smaller fish and a small cave to explore. After all this exercise, lunch was provided by the captain and crew whilst we dried out in the sun.

Up with the anchor, up with sails and we set out into the bay again to try and sail again, this time with more success. We then spent a very pleasant and relaxing afternoon sailing on the bay. There was plenty of bird life to see too, and for the first time we saw lots of blue penguins and shearwaters.

Finally back at Paihai, we watched as two boats came in and landed large Marlin, of weighing 107kg and the other 93kg. They were an impressive sight, but it is a bit sad to see such magnificent fish laid on the wharf.

Dinner was 'al fresco' at a pub before returning to our motel room at the Abel Tasman.

Bay of Islands, sailing and not diving

Friday 27 March Sunny and warm 22C drove 124km

We had to leave paradise today. It was very tempting to stay another night in Coopers Beach, but we needed to move on. With the car packed, we headed south again on the SH10. We weren't planning going far, just down to the Bay of Islands.

The journey down to Whangaroa was familiar, but from then it was new territory again. The road was quite busy and was quite undulating. The views, particularly to the west, were very big. We started to pass through vast orchards of citrus fruit, apples, kiwis and passionfruit and shortly afterwards we dropped down into Kerikeri. This is a busy market town that has some of the oldest buildings in New Zealand in it. Down by the creek is a Stone House, somewhat unusual in NZ and next door a wooden mission house. Both were built by the earliest settlers. It was quite quiet at the wharf and very warm.

We had briefly thought about staying in Kerikeri, but decided to carry on down to Paihai and Russell to check out accommodation there. We had read that Paihai was rather touristy, so it was with some relief that we found the place quite quiet with plenty of good motels right on the sea front. We carried on to Opua and were lucky enough to drive straight onto the ferry across to Russell. Russell is a pretty town crammed into a small bay directly across from Paihai. We drove around and couldn't find any suitable rooms, so we headed back to Paihai and rapidly moved into the Abel Tasman motel located on the sea front.

As usual, we got a good deal with a kitchen, dining and lounge area with a separate bedroom with a a balcony and view looking out into the Bay of Islands. Additionally, we got free high speed wifi internet access.

Walking into town just 250 steps away along the sea front allowed us to look at some of the vessels plying the water here. Many of the them quite large and fast promising views of dolphins and trips to the 'Hole in the Rock', a sea arch. None of this appealled to us, so we booked to go out on a yacht all day tomorrow, then I tried, unsuccessfully, to arrange a dive on the Rainbow Warrior. The only chance to dive would have been Monday and in the end, a decision had to be made, Rainbow Warrior or Poor Knights Islands another day. Disappointing, but I've dived wrecks before whereas the islands are reckoned to be one the top ten dive sites in the world! Back at the motel, I managed to book two dives to the islands from Tutukawa on Tuesday. Fingers crossed for good weather!

The remainder of the day was spent enjoying our balcony and view from the motel.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Wine, sand and fish

Thursday 26 Mar Warm and sunny 22C drove 100km

After an excellent nights sleep, soothed by the sound of the waves gently breaking on the sandy beach just outside our motel room, we had a leisurely start to the day. OK, I know that sounds sickenly nice, but it really was, and doubtless still is, a great place to stay.

Down at Manganui harbour, the Tourist Information office was promising wifi internet access and , "Skype here now"! We were sold a card with 40 minutes access to wifi by the very hassled person in the office. There were some comfortable chairs to sit in and we got logged on quickly. What the person in the office hadn't said was that we couldn't log off once we'd logged on, so we wasted quite a lot of our 40 minutes. We had been hoping to hear that we could get some upgrades to premium economy class on our flight from Auckland to Hong Kong or from Hong Kong to London, it wasn't to be though.

The Karikari peninsular just to the west of Manganui, is a pretty rural place, but has lots of nice beaches and a winery on it. We first drove out to Matai bay at the northern end of the peninsular where sand dunes protected a pretty beach and then headed to the Karikari Estate winery. This winery is the most northerly in New Zealand and looks like it is still being planted. The winery covers more than 100 acres is planted with 8 different varieties of grape. Situated in a large 'mock' spanish hacienda style building on a hillside, it is surrounded by fields of vines on the northern facing slopes. It is all part of Carrington Farms, a leisure, golf and wine drinking venture.

A wine tasting tray of 5 wines set us back $NZ12, but there was enough wine for both of to try. We tried a '08 Cabinet Sauvignon first, after a while we could taste passionfruit in the wine, but struggled with the advertised taste of 'green peas'. Second was a '07 Chardonnay, made with grapes from Nelson in the South Island. This was quite smooth, but with a slightly peppery finish. Third up was a '06 Syrah which we initially thought smelled of bonfires, but later changed to caramel. It tasted of berries too. We next tried a '05 Merlot/Cabinet/Malbec which had a sort of creosote smell, but was plummy with a dry finish and finally a '05 Cabinet/Merlot/Franc which was smooth, but didn't really taste of anything. My favourite was the Syrah, whilst Lynn whent for the Sauvignon. Later we will try a bottle of '08 Chardonnay/Viognier that we have lurking in our fridge.

We headed into what was described as the commercial heart of Whatuwhiwhi. You can attempt to pronounce that 'what a wee wee', but it is apparently Fatoo-fee-fee. The commercial heart was fairly compact and the only food outlet sold us some sandwiches to take down to the beach at Puwheke. The drive there took us on a dirt road that meandered around in the scrubby bush, round two lagoons, and finally dumped us on a near deserted beach. In fact, shortly after we arrived, it was deserted apart from us. We had lunch on the beach and had a swim before anyone else arrived. The sandy beach stretched for miles, a very beautiful and peaceful place.

We returned to our wonderful beachfront motel (have you got the idea that I really like this place yet?) for a spot more sunbathing and relaxing.

Dinner in Manganui seemed like a good option again, but this time the Manganui 'Fish Shop' was fairly empty, so it would be fish and chips for dinner again. The fish shop serves fresh and smoked fish straight from the boats that come into the quay at Manganui, but also also serves fish and chips in a restaurant on decking over the water. Nothing flash here though, order your fish or whatever seafood they have, grab a beer from the bar and sit down at a bench until your freshly cooked meal arrives wrapped in paper at your table. This is slightly upmarket from the Fresh and Tasty of last night; it gives you plastic knives and forks to eat with rather than fingers. Delicious!

Cows, Cape Reinga and the motorcycles

Wednesday 25 March. Sunny all day 24C Drove 336km

I hadn't appreciated that I was travelling with a 'Cow Spotter'. I had no idea that there were so many different varieties of cow on the planet. Now I know, because someone in the car can spot a Herefordshire or a Holstein at a 100 paces. I admit that there are lots of different coloured cows here, I just thought they had interbred, but no, they are all different. Jersey and Guernsey cows are next to Friesians, Aberdeen Angus and Belgian Blues, there are probably Limousins and Charlois cattle too. I'm starting to bone up on sheep and pig varieties now in order to keep ahead of the game.

Up early and out of the motel by 0830. After refuelling, we set of up to the northern end of North Island. The main road, now named the SH1F, for reasons I cannot explain (luckily they found no reason to use the suffix T), heads north from Kaitaia for 110km where it finally stops at Cape Reinga. Most of the road has a good surface, but last 18 is marked as gravel on the map. Most of the road up to Waitiki Landing is undulating, passing through miles of farmland, mainly with cows and sheep on with a few fruit farms as well. We did see a herd of deer on one farm and a 'flock' of emu on another. There are odd glimpses of the huge dunes to the west, and Houhora harbour, then Parengarenga harbour to the east, as we head north. One spit at Parengarenga is entirely silica and looks blindingly white from a distance.

Just beyond Waitiki Landing, the road ran out and we headed up the gravel. I had read that the tour buses drive up to the Cape along 90 mile beach and then join this gravel road for the last 18 km, but we saw no-one as we headed north. Suddenly, we came to roadworks, they are trying to surface the road all the way up. Apart from one short stretch, where the grading machine had just ripped up the gravel, the surface was smooth for mud and gravel. After 11 km of gravel, the road was surfaced again, what bliss!

As we arrived at the carpark at Cape Reinga, a small tour bus was just heading off, this left only 4 or 5 cars and a motorbike! The area is sacred to the Maori as this is where the spirits of the dead climb down the roots of an old pohutukawa tree and leave the island to return to their spritual homeland of Hawaiiki. In respect of this, no food or drink are to be consumed here. The path down to the lighthouse at the cape, has boards explaining the significance of the area to the Maori. There were very few people down at the lighthouse and the views out to the Three Kings Islands 60km north. Although Cape Reinga is not the most northerly point of mainland New Zealand, it is the most northerly accessible point. Below the lighthouse, the Pacific Ocean and the Tasman Sea meet and the crashing of waves and chaotic swirling waters clearly show the two coming together.

Back up in the carpark, things were hotting up. Quite a few more cars had arrived along with about 30 motorbikes, we guessed it was a club out for a day trip. If we were correct, then it was a very big club. As we headed back down the road we passed loads more bikes heading north, maybe even hundred of bikes. The coaches had started to put in an appearance too, we congratulated ourselves on our excellent timing before driving as quickly as possible back 100km down the road.

At the foot of the peninsular at Awahui, we turned east along the north coast. A stop was made at Taipa for lunch at a motel, it looked quite nice but one of the staff serving lunch was particularly scary! Cable Bay, Coopers Beach and Manganui were only a few kilometres beyond Taipa and we started the hunt for accommodation. We found a nice spot, but the sign on the door said, "Back in an hour". It was difficult to know exactly when the might be, could be 5 minutes, could be 55! We headed 30km down the coast to Whangaroa, a small harbour nestled in amongst headlands and mangrove swamps. A very pretty little place, but no-where we fancied staying or eating, so back to Manganui again.

This time the owner of the San Marina was in. His reason for his earlier absence was easily explained, he had seen a fish jumping out in the bay, and suddenly got the urge to go fishing. He had popped out in his kayak with a rod and come back with a 12lb Snapper. The motel was right on the beach, the expression here is, "Absolute Beachfront", and a delightfully peaceful spot. It is really in Coopers Beach, but is hidden down behind a headland, in amongst some beautiful houses. The only sound here is the sea.

The beach beckoned, and after wandering just a few yards from our bedroom, we were on the beach. The sea was a little cool, but swimming was good anyway. Back to the patio ourside our room to sunbathe, dry off and look at a fabulous view.

Later, we drove back into Manganui, all of 2 minutes for dinner. Manganui is a very pretty fishing village lined with historic buildings. It is most famous these days for its Fish Shop and restaurant, people come from miles to eat there. It was busy, so we headed a couple hundred metres up the road to the Fresh and Tasty fish and chip take-away. The food here is equally good, very lightly battered harbour fresh fish and chips served in paper. Our cheapest dinner so far, $NZ 11. Just around the corner was the historic Manganui Hotel, where we downed a couple of beers.

Kauri forests and the West Coast

Tuesday 24 Mar Fine, sun and cloud 21C Drove 297km

Today, we spotted the German 1st Mechanised Tourist Brigade. The convoy was proceeding down the road in near identical motorcaravan emblazoned with their names on a sticker on rear of each van. 'Marlene und Helmut' and then 'Gisela and Eric' followed by a further 4 more. We have met a lot of tourists whilst we have been driving around, we are a mixed bunch. Apparently, Australians make up 40% of the tourists in NZ and we have met quite a few, they are very chatty as are the New Zealanders we've spoken to. The British, and there are lots of them, are sometime chatty too. We've seen a few Americans, lots of Dutch and now the Germans too.

After being woken by a lorry, we got up and left Warkworth quite early. The temperature in the morning was only about 9C.

Back on the SH1 we headed north into, appropriately, Northlands. Stopping briefly at Waiwhui to take a photo of an exotic cafe we continued to Wellsford and then Brynderwyn, which sounds rather Welsh to me. Here, we turned off onto the SH12 toward Dargaville. The road passed through miles of farmland, with sheep, cattle and maize in abundance. Once through Ruawai, the road follows the large Wairoa River up to Dargaville. From this small town, we headed north with the Tutamoe Range to our right.

After Kaihu, we turned off to visit the Trounson Kauri Park. The park is well laid out and has its own campsite attached. The walkway through the Kauri grove is well signed and informative. The grove, saved by a man called Trounson in the 1920s, is full of mature and young Kauri. After the excitement of seeing a Siamese tree the other day, we say lots more today, indeed we saw at least one quadruplet. The sheer scale of these trees has to be seen to be believed, they are very difficult to photograph.

After leaving Trounson and following another gravel road for 10km, we rejoined the main road and entered the Waipoua Forest. This forest is regenerating and covers thousands of hecares of hilly and mountainous countryside. Well inside the forest on a winding road, we came to the Tane Mahuta giant kauri tree. This tree named 'God of the Forest is 1200 years old and rises 18 metres before its first branches. The branches are covered in epiphygtes. After walking back to the car, we stopped for a 'toastie' at the mobile cafe parked in the carpark.

From here the road carried on to the coast at Omapere and Opononi on the southern side of Hokianga estuary and harbour. On the northern shore are giant sand dunes. We followed the coast along to the small ferry port of Rawene, a delightful little place. Having parked the car in the ferry queue, we wandered down the street to cafe overlooking the water to have a drink. Sitting on their overwater verandah, we could watch out for the ferry coming back across the harbour.

The ferry only takes 15 minutes and coasts NZ$ 14 per car and took us to the northern terminal at Kohukohu. We had considered stopping here, but the road was being ripped up and it didn't look too good!. After skirting the Herekino forest, we reached the coast again near Ahipara at the southern end of 90 mile beach. Not far from there we came to Kaitaia, quite a large town. We tried two motels before we found one with internet access. Not only did it have wifi access it was free too.

Later, we drove into town and found the choice of eating places to be very sparce indeed. Luckily, we saw a placard pointing us down a side street to the 'Bushman's Hut' an excellent steak house. It is highly recommended.

Thames to Warkworth and a beer tasting

Monday 23 Mar Sunny and warm 21C Drove 270km

After loading the car, we headed south out of Whitianga to Coroglen where we turned off onto the road to Tapu. Tapu is on the western coast of the Coromandel peninsular, so this was yet another crossing of the Coromandel range, and of course, it was on gravel. The road is 28km long and the gravel in very good condition and we made rapid progress up into the mountains. Shortly after crossing the saddle, we found a footpath to the 'Square Kauri'. The path, consisting of 187 steps (the Rough Guide says 178), is very steep and takes about 10 minutes of puffing and panting. The tree at the top is stunning. It is reckoned to be 1200 years old and is 41 metres tall and the girth is 9 metres. It is reckoned that the Kauri cutters left the tree because of its unusual shape.

On down to Tapu and surfaced roads again. The SH25, still part of the Pacific Highway, follows the coast of the Firth of Thames and is very scenic. Thames is a the largest town on the Coromandel and marked our exit from the peninsular. Just after Thames we crossed the Waihou river on the Orongo single-lane bridge some 470 metres long. Much of the road from here was through flat farmland and wetlands. At Waitakaruru, we turned north along the coast along the western side of the Firth of Thames. After stopping briefly at the Miranda bird-watching centre, we continued on with the sea one side and the Hunua range to the other.

The road continued on to Clevedon, where we stopped for lunch at the local deli. Once through Maraetai, we started to get into the suburbs of Auckland. After going though Howick, we were finally at the northern end of the Pacific Coast Highway, a road that we had followed all the way from Napier.

Once in Auckland, we joined the SH1 again, a motorway at this stage, right into the middle of the city before crossing the Auckland Harbour Bridge to the north. We stayed on the motorway until it turned into a toll road and left to drive into Orewa. Here, at the Tourist Information Office, we managed to book a tour to Tiritiri Matanga Island for the following week. With that job done, we continued on north to the small town of Warkworth.

Warkworth is a pretty town on the banks of the creek leading out to Mahurangi Harbour. The choices of accommodation weren't great and we were still trying to find the elusive internet access we wanted. The Central Motel was a little dated but was clean and well priced. They did claim to have wifi access, but we never managed to connect to it. Although our room was next to the main road, it was quiet all night, but in the morning, one of the other guests was a road-working lorry driver and he started his lorry at 7 in the morning!

We ate pizza in a small Italian take-away almost next door to the hotel and then walked on into town. Down a small alleyway, we found a Tapas Bar called Tahi. I can't report on the quality of the food here, but I can say that the owner is a beer expert! We were the only customers and got talking to the owner, a Kiwi, who was married to a German. He had lived and worked in UK for several years in pubs and bars, and his knowledge of English beers was huge. Unsuprisingly, he was also an expert on New Zealand beers, especially real-ale and micro-breweries. His other speciality was German beers, his wife was from Bavaria!

We tried several beers, no spitting here! I tried a malty Harrington Razor back first, very toasty. Lynn had a Mata Manuka beer, brewed with honey. The owner then gave us a glass each of Croucher Bohemian Pilsner which had delicious light fruity flavours. Next up for Lynn was a Mata Artesian beer, quite light, but still 5%abv. I had an Emmerson's Bookbinder, a new world beer that smelt of peaches and even slightly tasted of them, it was delicious. If you are ever in Warkworth, hunt this place out. I'm pretty certain that the food will be good too.

The 'Scuba Doo'

Sunday 22 Mar Mainly sunny and warm 21C Drove nowhere

After collecting some vital supplies from the bakery, mainly sandwiches, I headed into town to the Dive HQ, a sports shop in town. I quickly got sorted out with some diving gear and then strolled down to the Marina to help load the boat, the 'Scuba Doo'. I met the other divers as we walked down, Janice and Ash and their 5 month old son Amani from the USA, Ellie and Shane from Thames and Phil from Auckland.

We headed out of the the harbour and followed the coast round to Cathedral Cove before heading out to Mahurangi Island. We had a brief, but abortive effort to dive on the eastern side of the island, but the swell was too great, especially as all the other divers were novices. We motored around to the sheltered western side and Ellie and Shane jumped in first with me and Alex, from the dive shop, in shortly afterwards. As we were outside the marine reserve, Alex ws determine to find some decent crayfish and rapidly disappeared into the kelp hunting. I went fish watching with forays deep into the kelp to look for crayfish too. We found none that were large enough to catch, so after 35 minutes headed back to the boat. I enjoyed the dive as I hadn't dived for nearly 30 months and needed to remind myself of the basics.

We sat on the boat and ate lunch and drank coffee before we headed across to the mainland and Gemstone Bay. Here, we were back in the marine reserve, so no crayfish hunting this time. I dived with Ash this time, he was somewhat nervous as he hadn't dived for nearly a year. His bouyancy control wasn't good and consequently was hoovering air whilst he tried to sort himself out. Meanwhile, immediately we entered the water we were surrounded by Snapper and Blue Cod, some of the Snapper were huge. They were totally unafraid of the divers and followed us around all the time. I had heard that they do what their names says, and snap at fingers sometime. I kept my fingers well clear, but did come face-to-face with several large fish! We also saw Gurnards and Red Moki. Best of all, I found several crayfish, one male was enormous and quite agressive. Fortunately, crayfish don't have pincers, so are largely harmless. With Ash on reserve and me with still 120 Bar left we returned to the boat after 38 minutes.

At the end of the dive, we headed back to Whitianga where we arrived at around 4. The day served to remind me that I love diving and messing around on boats.

Trains, hunger and squids

Saturday 21 Mar A mixture of sun and clouds, generally warm. 21C. Drove 150km

The Coromandel peninsular deserves exploring. The scenery is fantastic and swathes of it are deserted. Mining and lumber have taken their toll on the mountains, but slowly the jungle is taking over again. Gold was discovered in the 1890s and evidence of the efforts of miners is still to be seen. Several places have old mining machinery on show, some still working. Most of the mine workings have been surrendered to the vegetation, and several tracks in the area warn not to leave the pathway as open shafts still litter the area. The Kauri logging also decimated the area, but once again, nature has taken over and most signs have disappeared. Fortunately, the Government protects those Kauri that still exist and encourages the planting of new trees. As the trees are known to have a lifespan of well over 1000 years, this is a very slow regeneration.

Over in Coromandel, we take the road north on the western side of the peninsular. Just outside down we come to Driving Creek Road. Not far up the road is the DCR, or Driving Creek Railway. This railway was the brainchild of Barry Brickell, a potter and rail enthusiast, who wanted to access the clay further up the mountain. Built over a period of 27 years, mainly by hand, the line climbs up the mountainside 120 metres in just under 3 kilometres. The gauge of the line is very small, only 381mm wide and winds its way up the mountain by means of spirals, zigzags, tunnels and bridges. The line is balanced on a narrow ledge all the way with the jungle only centimetres from the open carriages. The 'piece-de-resistance' of the route is a double-level viaduct with the train passing over the lower level first and then, after a few climbing twists and turns, over the upper level. Not long after this, the train, a diesel powered three coach affair, pulls onto a wooden deck projecting out over the jungle where is stops and then, after changing points, reverses further up the track. At the end of the track lies the 'Eyefull' tower, a lockout point with great views over the Firth of Thames.

Back at the pottery at the bottom, we head out and choose to drive further up Driving Creek Road which rapidly turns to gravel. Not the best descision really, as it is lunchtime and we have no food, just water. The road took us over the Coromandel range again and down into Kennedy Bay before we realised how far we were from civilization. Already some 15km into a gravel road, we press on through wonderful scenery and pretty bays before reaching a more 'major' gravel road near Waikawau. By now we had been 'doing' gravel roads for 30 or more kilometres, so turned back towards Colville where we finally regained surfaced roads again.

Colville is a very small community, but still manages a country store and, fortunately for us, a small cafe. It also has a community centre, and judging by the programme, it is pretty lively; there was an 'all-day jam' going on the day we were there. The road back to Coromandel followed the coast some of the way and is very pretty.

Back in Coromandel, we explored the town and ate an icecream because it was quite warm.

Heading back over the torturous SH25 towards Whitianga, we turn off at Matarangi looking for the beach. It had turned into a housing development that we got entirely lost in. Finallhy, we managed to escape and carried on east. On the road at Kuaotunu, we turned off and follow Black Jack road towards Otama and Opito beaches. The road was gravel, but soon deteriorated in roadworks to a rubble road and for a couple of kilometres the surface was appalling. Both bays were very pretty and had safe sandy beaches, but the sun had deserted us, so no swim\ming.

Back in town, we decide to eat out and find 'Squids', a very pleasant restaurant next to the Marina. Whilst we ate dinner, we were entertained by a wedding party having a sit down meal in the restaurant across the road.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Hot Springs, Beaches and Birds

Friday 20 March Cloudy at first, later mainly sunny 22C Drove 130km

After a nautical day yesterday, it was back to the car today. Once again we headed south out of Whitianga, which seems to be pronounced Fitianga, to find some beaches. There is a road just across the estuary from Whitianga, at Ferry Landing, but it is an 80km drive to get there. Twenty-six kilometres from Whitianga is a turn off to Cooks Bay and Hot Water Beach which effectively doubles back on the other side of the estuary.

Hot Water Beach is well known as somewhere you can dig a hole in the sand near the sea and it will fill with hot spring water. To modify the temperature, you just let seawater in to cool it down. The only time that this phenomena occurs is 2 hours either side of low tide. Arriving not long after low water, the car park was full and there were lots of people armed with spades on the beach already. We strolled across the beach to the small headland where the springs are and found one or two holes still being used by other people and the tide starting to fill them in. Digging your toes into the sand between theses holes and the sea was an unusual experience as the water under the sand was warm. One of the two springs on the beach reaches the surface from 2000 metres down at 64C!

Hahei was the next stop, situated on a huge sandy bay. At the northern end is a promentary with a carpark on it which marks the begining of the path to Cathedral Cove. After a brief photo-stop, amazed at the hordes of people climbing off buses to hike along the cliffs, we descended back onto the beach at Hahei.

After several hours of lazing on the beach here, we headed on north up the road to Cooks Bay. This is another long sandy bay with virtually no-one on it especially at the northern end where we saw huge shoals of fish splashing around just off the beach. An equally large flock of gulls was in attendence, diving into the water in a mainly futile attempt to catch the fish. Braving the water up to the waist, we stood in amongst the fish for a while. As we watched, a few gannets turned up to join in diving gracefully into the water, some catching fish.

The road continued north and we stopped at Ferry Landing for a coffee and a cake before driving up Shakespear Cliff to the lookout point.

Mercury Bay, where all these beaches and Whitianga lies, was named by James Cook on his arrival in NZ for the first time. The cliff was also named by him as he apparently thought the cliff looked like the bard. A commemerative stone has been placed on top of the cliff recording the occaision.

Finally, we headed back back to Whitianga and the apartment

Wot no Internet?

Thursday 19 March Mainly warm and sunny 23C Drove 80km

One piece of news that we did have last night was that the 'free internet' at 'Eleanor's Place' wasn't going to happen. We had asked the lady of the house, but she told us to ask her husband on his return from work. He didn't really seem to know a whole lot about it, but did say that if we plugged into the phone socket, we could use 'dial-up', but to let them know before we did. Not a good answer. Out notepad has no modem, and dial-up wouldn't support any of the things we wished to access anyway.

So this morning back to the Tourist Information office, to see if they could sort things out. Luckily, they refunded the rest of our money and got us moved into an apartment in the Marina Park Appartments. More expensive than we planned, but a great apartment and wifi internet access (albeit costing $NZ10 per hour). Not only that, but it also had free laundry facilities in the apartment, after we had just paid elsewhere!

We rapidly moved in to the new apartment and headed into town and booked a trip with Sea Cave Adventures for the afternoon. An enquiry was also made about doing some diving on Sunday at Dive HQ a local dive shop.

Following lunch in town, we met Dan down at the quay and climbed on board his boat, We crossed the harbour and picked up three more people before we headed up the coast. The trip took us out past Front and Lonely beaches and the imposing Shakespear Cliffs; the cliffs named by Lt James Cook on his visit to the area in the 1760's. A marine reserve has been set up here on the coast and has improved fish stocks hugely. The next bay was Cook's Bay followed by the wonderful Cathedral Cove, Stingray Bay and Gemstone Bay. Once at Hahei Bay we headed out to the islands and explored several fascinating sea caves where the roof had collapsed leaving a hole open to the sky.

Once back in Whitianga, we set out in the car to explore the gravelled road to Coromandel, the SH 309. This road is 22km long and gravel almost all the way, but it goes through beautiful mountains. Once over the Waia pass, there is a walk to a Kauri grove. The ten minute walk is well worth the effort as the sight of the huge trees is fantastic, they dwarf everything around them. It is a miracle that this grove of trees survived the log-cutters of the 19th century. Unusally, just a short distance from the grove, there is a 'Siamese' Kauri. Two trees that grew close together and as they got bigger, effectively combined at the base whilst producing two trunks.

Coromandel town is quite scenic, but we didn't stop. We took the other 'main' road back to Whitianga which is 44km long as opposed to the 22km gravel road. It is probably even more winding than the gravel road, but has good view from the summit.