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.