25 April - 2 May 2010
A sad update: R lost her battle with cancer a few years ago. There doesn't a day go by that I don't think of her.
I leave Wellington on Sunday morning on the 7.25 am on the ‘Overlander’ train to Auckland and the journey takes 12 hours taking in 681 km, 352 bridges and 14 tunnels. The train is much smaller than the Transalpine and is reasonably full, which unfortunately includes a small whiney Italian child and a man with BO (luckily the latter doesn’t stay on the train for very long but the former does)
It’s also Anzac Day and I hear the guy sitting behind me telling his girlfriend that there has been a helicopter crash outside Wellington killing three service men on their way to the Anzac parade (it’s widely reported in the press the next day, all very sad and bitterly ironic)
Our first leg of the journey takes us through the Tararua Ranges, created by the same uplifting process that formed the Southern Alps: it stretches 100 km from the sprawling Manawatu Plain to the Rimutakas in the south and forms the backbone of the North Island.
Before we stop at Taihape, we are told to look out for ‘Mad Kevin’, an elderly gentleman who stands by the side of the tracks on a daily basis and waves a red flag at the train. He is not described by the purser as ‘mad’ but I am supposing that a daily flag waving routine is bound to send the sanest of people around the bend (or should that be track?). Taihape is famous for its annual gum boot throwing contest and displays a proud statue in the centre of the town to prove it. It is also home to a sheep dog contest which, ironically, starts off with a barking competition.
We now enter the National Park and get a glimpse of the North Island volcanoes of Mt Taranaki (2,518 m), Mt Tongariro (1,967 m), Mt Ngauruhoe (2,287 m) and Mt Ruapehu (2,979 m). Mt Ngauruhoe has erupted 45 times in the 20th century , most recently in 1977 and Mt Ruapehu is nearly half a million years old, has the highest peak and is the only one with glaciers.
This leads on to the Raurimu Spiral, built in 1898, and is a feat of civil engineering that allows the train to conquer the 132 metre height difference between the Whanganui River valley and the Volcanic Plateau. The train travels 6.8 km that, in a straight line, is just 2 km and it takes us a matter of minutes to reach the plateau.
We pass the Waikato River and it’s the longest river in NZ, running for 425 km and we also pass the graveyard of the Maori kings and queens situated on a very steep hill and very close to the train line. I am sure that this is not what they had in mind for their resting in peace.
After witnessing a beautiful sunset, we arrive into Auckland at 19.25 and the train trip has gone surprisingly quickly, all this despite a 40 minute stop for lunch in Ohakune (although the cafe was closed due to Anzac Day). R is there to meet me and we head off to her lovely 1920s Californian bungalow style home , home cooked meals, some sparkling wine and her colossal cats, Murphy and Zorro (her goddaughter, G, is also staying before heading back to med school in Hamilton)
R kindly takes me for a trip around Auckland the next day: Auckland is nestled between two harbours and 48 volcanic cones and by the 19th century, with European settlement in full swing, it was already a great trading port and a place of international significance. We have a wander along Mt Eden and have a look at a panoramic view of the city, its harbours (Manukau) and the Gulf, including the Hauraki Gulf Islands. You can also see One Tree Hill from there and on closer inspection, it shows evidence of earlier Maori occupancy.
I was going to spend a few days in Rotorua but I have decided not to on the account that I am a little weary with being on the move all the time and I need to save a few pennies, so it will be nice to be in one place for a bit (and R’s home is a lovely place to spend some downtime). Besides, I need to conserve my energy for my ‘cowboys and indians’ camping trip to Arizona next week!
The weather forecast for the week is mixed but the heavy rains come intermittently on Tuesday but this is the day that we have planned to visit to the art galleries and it holds off long enough for us to walk into the CBD (Auckland has an average of 245 days of sunshine annually). Moreover, there has been drought for a while, so the rain is welcome (although there have been heavy downpours and floods in the South Island near Te Anau and 793 mm fell in Fiordland National Park where I was two weeks ago)
Auckland is full of bespoke clothes shops and I ‘look but don’t touch’ in some of the lovely shops along the Ponsonby Road which was known as ‘The Cappuccino Mile’ in the 80s. The architecture of Auckland is very attractive as the houses are either San Franciscan bay villas or bungalow style and the old Settlers’ cottages all have beautiful balconies with ornate trellises (perfect for sitting on for those sparkling sundowners!) Unfortunately, the Auckland Art Gallery is closed for a major renovation project but we see some of the smaller galleries and I resist the temptation to purchase anything.
The next day we head for a drive to the ‘Wild West’ coast, through the Waitakere Ranges with its 17,000 hectares of forest and more 250 km of walking trails, where the Tasman Sea’s surf pounds onto the black volcanic Whatipu beach and it’s a sight to behold. We mooch along the beach and it’s an unusually still day (R is convinced that a tsumani is on its way and when we drive back to
Auckland we notice that it is tsunami area with warning signs for potential tsunamis).The beach stretches on for miles and one of the beaches there is Karekare, made famous by the film ‘The Piano’. We follow the track to the caves and in the 1920s, they used to hold dance parties in the largest one and apparently of the wooden dance floor is still buried under the sand floor of the cave.
Thursday is a beautiful and unusually warm day for this time of year and we walk into town to visit the Auckland Museum. It is NZ’s first museum, established in 1852, and is one of the most famous heritage buildings in Auckland and home to the world’s largest collection of Maori taonga (treasures), including rare carvings and one of the last great Maori war canoe used in battle. I inadvertently bump into the lovely Dutch couple that were on my Ayer’s Rock tour and they arrived in New Zealand yesterday – it’s a small world.
The Auckland Museum sits in the Auckland Domain on the edge of one of Auckland’s oldest volcanic cones, Pukekawa. It is thought to have erupted between 100,000 and 150,000 years ago and the early Maori cleared the slopes to create food gardens and later generations built terraces for homes, storage pits and garden sites. It was later drained by the European settlers and turned into playing fields and the present day fernery.
The Auckland Volcanic Field has about 48 volcanoes within an area of 360 square kilometres, from Pupuke in the north to Wiri in the south but it is unlikely that any of Auckland’s existing volcanoes will become active again, however, new volcanoes could be created at any time.
Again, Friday is another sunny day and we decide to go on a dolphin and whale watching safari - they boast over 90% dolphin and 70% whale sighting success but just not today! Sadly, we do not see any Big Nicks or dolphins and it’s more a case of big nicking. Still, it’s a lovely day and we sit on the deck of the boat and take in the beautiful surroundings of Hauraki Gulf and some of its islands of Waiheke and the Coromandel Peninsula. Luckily I don’t feel sea sick at all as it’s much calmer than the sea around Kaikoura and although they don’t give any refunds, we are presented with a chance to go on another trip which is valid for a lifetime, so I’ll take up the offer next time I’m in Auckland!
My penultimate day is spent driving up the North East Coast to the ‘world famous’ Matakana Famers’ Market (along with the town’s gourmet shops and boutique cinema) which is held every Saturday and has the most wonderful locally produced fresh delicacies. The area around Warkworth has a conservation park full of massive, native kauri trees and around Matakana is wine country, with close to 20 wineries offering a range of red and white varieties. It is also a gastronomic treat, growing everything from limes to persimmons, chestnuts to olives and venison to oysters.
The rain is intermittent but it doesn’t dampened our spirits (in fact the cheese lady was telling me that they desperately need the rain, so it has been most welcome in this area) and shopping ability and we then head to the 7km long Omaha beach, as I have seen a photo of some Maori statutes that I would like to see. Unfortunately, they are modern ones and I don’t find the one of the picture that I have seen in the Lonely Planet but we do find a smaller one and it is nice to have a quick walk on the beach before the showers catch up with us.
After a quick stop at Morris & James Pottery (the pottery is crafted from the iron-rich clays sourced from the banks of the Matakana River) for a pot of tea and some cake, we head back into Auckland via the coastal road and over the famous Auckland Harbour Bridge.
Tomorrow I am off to the States and my tour of the Grand Canyon and whilst I will be sad to leave NZ and the wonderful hospitality of all my Kiwi friends, I am also looking forward to the next chapter in my travels (I also only have one month left before I have to head back to Londres. Yikes)