Up Top Down Under, Underground in the Middle, and Sailing Away into the Sunset

Since we recovered from our New Year hangover, we have been to the Northern tip of New Zealand, Cape Reinga. The Maori name is Te Rerenga Wairua, which means the departing place for the spirits. It is also the point where the Pacific Ocean meets the Tasman sea. Having driven up in foul weather, we were glad to get a stunning day for our time there. The views were sensational, provided you moved a few Japanese out of the way first.

Our journey up to Cape Reinga took us through Kauri country. Kauri are the largest of the trees in New Zealand, and incredible to look at. They can reach 20 ft across, and over 100 ft tall, and are almost perfectly circular. Their grey trunk rises like a granite column many metres to the first branches, which are huge themselves. We met a woodturner in a place called Dargaville, who showed us his workshop, and the amazing things he creates. Kauri trees are sacred in Maori culture, and he is only allowed to turn wood that has fallen naturally and been buried in swamps for thousands of years. His most prized wood is green Kauri, which is incredibly rare – it is only formed when another species of tree grows above one of these buried Kauri, and the roots of the live tree cause a reaction in the brown, grainy wood of the Kauri, turning it a deep, jade green.

Also on our Northland excursion, we visited the giant sand dunes at Te Paki, rented a body board, and spent a few seconds rushing down the steep-sided dunes, and most of the rest of the hour walking back up to go again! We watched other tourists try to stand up on the boards, catch the front edge, and after a painful but hilarious face-plant, go tumbling to the bottom in a storm of arms, legs and sand.

These dunes are part of 90 Mile Beach. It is actually only 63 miles long, but Sixty-three mile beach just doesn’t have the same ring to it. That said, it is quite cool to stand on the beach and not be able to see either end – the horizon comes first! Also quite cool is the sand – it squeaks as you walk on it. You can check out the video on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cvWsAPCUGq8

On rainy days we visited every winery we could find that had free tastings (there are many!) as well as scoring free fudge and free Macadamia chocolate in Kerikeri in the Bay of Islands. The weather was woeful when we were there, but we still wanted to see a little of it and drove another crazy NZ gravel mountain road (4×4 recommended, underpowered cowprint van not so much) to get to Russell. Determined not to pay for more accommodation than necessary we tried the “we’ve run out of petrol, officer” trick again. We weren’t lying, and the only petrol station was shut. We got talking to a guy who owned a geocache site we were at (a bench made of electric pylons and associated gubbins). I was standing in his flowerbed as he drove up. He showed me where the cache was, then let us park up on his lawn overnight!

Before breakfast the next morning we rescued an old man with a boat, who couldn’t get it up the ramp onto his trailer. Then we spent the day geocaching our way Southwards on the stunning TwinCoast Highway. We saw some amazing surf spots, cool rocky bays with pounding waves, and a group of young Maori learning to paddle a traditional Waka with outrigger.

We stopped briefly in Auckland and later in Levin with old schoolfriends of Chrisie’s Mum’s, and we are eternally grateful to both for giving us such good company, food, and home comforts to break up the slightly cramped and grubby life that is travel in a Toyota Townace. Both understood totally what travellers need, and the order they are required in: Shower, Food, Wine, Washing Machine, Wine, Bed!

Our journey South was broken up by a stopover in Piopio, in the Waikato region. We arranged a CouchSurfing host at very short notice, as we needed somewhere to park near the Waitomo Caves. The guy who hosted us was great. Running one and a half farms on his own, with some 400-odd sheep and about 200 cattle, he was probably glad of a few extra helping hands. We spent a couple of nights with him, moving livestock, breaking the quad (he broke it, honest), sorting 250kg of newly-sheared wool into different grades, cooking good, honest food, and chatting economics way into the evening.

The Waitomo Caves area is host to scores of companies willing to exchange (lots of) your cash for a variety of underground experiences. We chose the Legendary Blackwater Rafting Company, on the recommendation of some friends. Their cheapest option, the one we chose, is a 3-hour cave tour in a lorry tyre inner-tube. We spent an enjoyable few hours jumping backwards off waterfalls in the dark, floating down gentle rivers with vast numbers of glow-worms overhead, and holding on tight down a few rapids. The glow worms were brighter than we expected, and twinkled and sparkled in colours from white to emerald green. Their light was just bright enough to see by after a while. It was good, but not quite as exciting as we had expected.

We worked our way all the way down the North island to Wellington, and spent a great day around NZ’s capital, after another night trying to sleep for free by leaving the van in a Forest Park car park, then coming back to it at nightfall, after the gates were locked. Well we can’t leave now…

The Museum in Wellington, Te Papa, is well worth a visit (especially given that it’s free!). We wandered around the city for a few hours, following a couple of Geocachers from place to place for a bit (we let them do the work, and picked the caches up once they’d gone), then hopped on the ferry to Picton, after another epic feed at Burgerfuel. South Aoteroa here we come…

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