A visit to NZ’s most active volcano (White Island!)

White Island (or Whakaari to give it it’s Maori name) has been on my bucket list ever since I knew it existed. I’ve tried to visit it twice in the last year but each time the tour has been cancelled due to sea swells. And this has been frustrating as White Island isn’t round the corner – it’s a five hour drive across to Whakatane on the east coast. However, last weekend the weather looked promising and Sam’s dad had given us free reign of his little water-front bach down in rural Opotiki, so two car-loads of us optimistically left work early to take a road trip down.

On Saturday the weather was a bit pants – showers mixed with occasional bursts of sunshine. The rain seemed to hit every time we started putting on our shoes to go outside. A few friends headed out for a 90km bike ride (!!) and while we were invited to join them the rest of us decided to make porridge, light a fire and play board games.

When it got to the early afternoon we threw on rain jackets and headed down to the beautiful nearby beach to stretch our legs. While on the beach the sky cleared and the sun came out, so we rushed home to make a huge bonfire in the garden.

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We cooked up some fajitas, drank fireball whiskey and apple juice (so delicious – tastes like Christmas),  and sat around the fire, soaking up the beautiful star-studded sky.

Early the next morning we awoke to a phone call from White Island Tours to say sea swells were virtually non-existent and to get our butts out there asap! Woohoo how we rejoiced!! So we munched down some sea-sickness tablets, bundled into the car and tootled down the road to Whakatane to hop on the little ferry.

Tickets were super expensive – $230 each for the 90 minute ferry ride to the island and a 90 minute tour once there. But we had been told by friends that it was totally worth it. Forty or so of us squeezed onto the ferry and we were off. “Non-existent swells” my ass! The boat swung heavily from side to side and I soon started to feel pretty ill. So ill I couldn’t even laugh when Sam spectacularly tumbled of her seat onto the floor after one particularly heavy sway. I just had to mumble “Don’t worry – I’ll laugh about that when I get off the boat”. After a while one of the tour guides dragged me outside, thrust a sick bag in my hand and told me to keep my eyes on the horizon. I started to feel a bit better after that but was  hugely relieved when we finally approached the island. We were equipped with helmets and gas masks before being ushered out into a little dingy which shuttled us all a few at a time to the island.

White Island sits all by itself thirty miles out to sea, nothing else even remotely in sight of it. It is a steaming, Mars-esque 2km-wide active volcano, privately owned by some guy who bought it for $250 a wee while ago (apparently he just wanted to own a volcano). Back in the early 1900s sulphur mining was attempted but then rapidly abandoned when a lahar (volcanic mud flow) killed all ten workers. Nowadays there is one ferry tour a day and a private helicopter tour, and that’s about it. There have been a number of ash explosions over the past few years; however, no flowing lava, only fumaroles (openings in the earth’s crust which emit sulphur-thick clouds of gas).

I had deliberately not read up on White Island in advance so as not to ruin the surprise so I was just a little disappointed to realise there would be no lava on show. Although I was excited at the prospect of having to wear a gas mask!

We broke into two groups and were led on a tour around the island, up to the roaring fumaroles, bubbling mud pits and hot thermal streams. At times we were immersed in clouds of sulphur which burnt our noses and throats and induced coughing fits until we were able to apply our gas masks. It was pretty cool to be walking around on an active volcano, lava or no lava.

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Before I knew it we were back at the tiny jetty, looking our wearily to the ferry bobbing about in the waves.

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I was in the first dingy crossing, which was pretty ropey – almost immediately after setting off a large wave approached and crashed over the boat drenching us all, and it took a few attempts for us to get close enough to the ferry for us to hop out. As I looked around for a prime spot on the deck the tour lady came up to me and in a secretive tone pointed out “the only spot on the deck you’ll stay dry”. I sat down, gripping the seat hard as the boat rocked heavily from side to side, staring intently at the horizon. As we set off the waves immediately began crashing over the deck and – as promised – I realised I was the only one even remotely staying dry. Everyone else was soaked through within a minute.

Despite a very ill-looking Chinese man plonking himself down on a seat less than half a metre in front of me (directly in front of my view of the horizon), and puking his guts out into a sick bag, I managed to stay reasonably well. However, despite this, I kept up my “rigid seasickness face” in order to hopefully justify to the extremely wet people around me why I should keep my seat.

My overall views on White Island are thus: It was a long way to travel to get there and not a particularly scenic or relaxing journey. I wasn’t blown away by the volcanic activity (literally or figuratively) and was disappointed by the lack of lava. However, I’m glad I went as it was a pretty cool experience to visit an active volcano out in the middle of the sea, and the road trip with my friends was top notch as always 🙂

Start of the autumn adventures

In between the slightly crazy weather the various cyclones have brought us there have actually been a few nice bright weekends and of course being a Brit I made sure to soak up every last ounce of sun (definitely how sunshine is measured, don’t look it up).

Over Easter I headed a few hours north to Whangarei Heads with Colin, Nai and Adnaan for a mini kayaking adventure. And when I say mini I mean fifteen minute’s worth of kayaking from the mainland to tiny weenie Matakohe (Limestone) Island just offshore.

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Spot the kayak

Back in the day the island was used as a lookout for the local iwi (Maori tribe) before being turned into a major quarry and cement works in the 1830s. Sadly, by the 1960s the island was a degraded state, full of rubble and rubbish. However, the local community worked hard to restore it and nowadays it is a quiet and pretty little spot – just trees, beaches, and the ruins of the cement factory.

Colin and I met Nai and Adnaan on the island and we spent the afternoon wandering round exploring. The cement ruins were awesome – we joked that it was like New Zealand’s version of Angkor Wat, but in semi-seriousness, this is the level of history New Zealand tends to provide and I don’t think I’ve actually come across any other ruins since I’ve been here!

We had a really fun few hours on the island and didn’t come across another soul (sheep aside).   Then we kayaked back to shore and drove to a holiday park in Whangarei where we met up with lots of friends who were also up from Auckland, cramming into a little cabin to eat fish n chips, make our own tea out of kawakawa leaves, and play board games.

The next day we all convoyed out to do a six hour coastal hike up and around Bream Head. The views were amazing but it was pretty tough-going – lots of steep uphill slogs!

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Later that day we all parted ways, with Colin and I driving another hour north to the Bay of Islands. We fancied a more chilled out time the day after and so I suggested a nice stroll along the coastal walkway: Paihia to Opua;a ferry across to Okiato; and then up to Russell for dinner before catching a ferry back to Paihia.

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Oh my gosh the walk nearly killed me! It wasn’t particularly hardcore but went on and on (for 14km, I hadn’t actually checked the distance!) and for the last half hour I was just concentrating on placing one foot in front of the other and fantasising about getting to the pub at the end and ordering a nice tall glass of coke.

As an aside, when on hikes I can rate how dehydrated/sugar depleted I am by what level my fantasies have got to:

Level 1: Imagining drinking a pint of cold water

Level 2: Overwhelming cravings for Coca-cola or orange juice

Level 3: Fantasising about diving into a pool with my mouth open

Level 4: Fantasising about diving into a pool even if it’s filled with fish which as some of you know, is normally the stuff of my nightmares

The weekend after was ANZAC weekend and Colin and I headed five hours south-east to the little coastal town of Napier, in Hawkes Bay. This had been on my bucket list for a really long time as the history of the area fascinated me: Napier was destroyed by a huge earthquake in 1931 and rebuilt from scratch, drawing heavily on Art Deco architecture which was popular at the time. The town centre was awesome – I’ve never found New Zealand architecture very inspiring but this place was awesome and really interesting and cool to walk around. We had a lovely sunny chilled out four days ticking off all the must-do tourist activities in the area: wine tasting in the vineyards, exploring the art deco buildings, heading up to Bluff Hill lookout, and taking a little walking trail around all the cool murals dotted around. We also drove up to the remote Waipatiki Beach for an afternoon of geocaching around the beach and surrounding cliffs (definitely one of the best ways to explore an unfamiliar area!).

Ok I think I’ll wrap up there for now, still so many trips to talk about, ugh I’m so far behind!!

Hunt for The Squeeze

I wanted to spend my birthday weekend away doing something awesome but the New Zealand weather system was having none of it and it “weather-bombed” the whole weekend resulting in epic floods, land slides and a month’s worth of rain falling in a day. So I waited patiently until the weekend after when perfect sunshine was predicted every day.

So on Friday morning Colin and I secured the kayak to the roof rack and we headed off down south to Taupo. I had done a fair bit of research into cool-looking kayak trips in the area, and there was one clear winner. A kayak tour company and a kayak club made reference to a route called “The Squeeze” along the Waikato River which involved kayaking along a geothermal strip of the river before stopping at  “the squeeze challenge where you will disembark from your kayak into knee deep water, we take you towards a narrow gap in the cliff faces where we start maneuvering our way through narrow crevasses, climbing boulders and wading through warm waist deep water you emerge in stunning native New Zealand bush and where you can stand under hot flowing water falls”. 

Unfortunately I couldn’t find anything ANYWHERE on the internet about where the squeeze actually was, or really much about it at all. But we were convinced that if we scoured the river edge hard enough we would find it eventually… right?

We set off from Tutukau Bridge, rowing downstream through beautiful landscapes, noticing puffs of steam rising up from the trees and rocks along the bank every now and then. We stopped off several times at potential hot spots and but alas, no luck.

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Hot water but no secret entrance! 

Eventually we frustratedly agreed we had probably gone way past it and should turn back in order to get to our cottage before dark. Defeated, we headed back upstream after a good few hours on the water. The river had gradually turned into a lake resulting in mirror-clear water, which was pretty awesome.

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The next day – Saturday – we climbed Mt Ruapehu (more on that in a bit) but the Squeeze was praying on my mind so I returned to my phone for one last go at scouring the internet for any further clues about its location.

And this time I struck gold! Buried deep within a word document put together by a kayak group was the following picture:

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The squeeze was actually located at almost the exact spot we had admitted defeat and turned back! So we were up bright and early on Sunday for round two. This time we drove to Orakei Kurako Thermal Park (which was a bit closer), had a coffee and mince pie, and then set off into the water on our merry way.

Even though we had an idea of where it was, it was still pretty bloody difficult to find. However, we finally stumbled upon a little opening in the bush behind which lay a warm stream… jackpot!.

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Wooooo found the entrance!!

The water was warm which was pretty convenient as almost immediately we were up to our necks in it! We spent about five minutes clambering and squeezing our way between narrow gaps in the rock as the stream twisted and weaved its way through the forest (no photos as it was too dark and steamy for my GoPro!).  After a while it opened out into a shallow stream (still warm water) which we followed until we got to the end point: an open-topped cave (probably not the right term!) with a hot waterfall pouring down through it.

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The start, before it got narrow!
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Stream-walking
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Entrance to the waterfall
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Ahhh so nice and hot!

After playing round in the hot water for a bit we climbed up the rocks at the side which led to a large natural hot pool. Here we met two “proper-Kiwi” men, a term I use to describe the rugged country folk who stroll round barefoot, travel their farmland by quad bike and would probably wrestle bears if they existed in New Zealand. We had a good chat with them before they headed onwards and we had the place to ourselves.

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Before they left, the men told us about a stream off the river a bit further up which ends with a geothermal pocket of water. We decided to check it out so after a while of lazing round awestruck we bumbled our way back to the kayak and headed on to the stream. You could see the geothermal area from afar – there was steam billowing off it! We glided right into it, testing the water with our hands to make sure it wasn’t “kayak-melting” temperature (okay maybe that was just me). It was really hot in places!

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Steamy hot water!
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Dipping our toes in

We drove back up to Auckland very happy bunnies 🙂 Best. Kayak. Trip. EVER!!!! Can’t wait to return with friends/visiting siblings (hint hint).

Oh and on Saturday we climbed Mount Ruapehu! We were particularly excited about this as the climb wasn’t a clear trail; instead it involved following a pencil-drawn line across a topographical map. Our friend Steph had suggested we do it as she had been the week before and found a lot of the snow had melted, meaning crampons and ice axes weren’t necessary. She plotted out the route she took, which she explained involved a fair bit of rock-climbing up boulders on the ascent, and then sliding most of the way down it on her bum (following a snow chute). She also told us we could skip the first bit of ascent and take the ski lift for free if we told the lift operators we were members of the Alpine Club making our way up to the Club hut. This was amazing news as passes usually cost $35.

So we arrived at Whakapapa ski field just as the lifts were opening for the day, with me feeling particularly anxious about blagging our way up (my mum having instilled the fear of god into me about lying in any shape or form). We arrived at the same time as a group of five men who  began loading crates of food onto the chair lifts. After a few minutes of watching them, one of the men noticed us and called over to us: “Are you with the club?”

Ohhhh no.

After a slight pause we called back “Yeeeees….”, to which they replied, “Great, you can help us load on all the food then!”. At this point a scene played out in my head: us getting trapped in our lie and having to work at the club hut all day.

We loaded a few items onto the lift then subtly faded away into the distance to get a coffee and wait for everyone present at the ski lift to leave. Eventually the coast was clear and we returned. To my immense relief the ski lift operator waved us on without asking for our passes. Woohoo!

Perched at the top of the two ski lifts was a very inviting cafe where we munched on French toast while soaking up the beautiful mountain view.

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The ascent was pretty fun – despite having a topographical app on my phone which pinpointed exactly where we were, we still managed to spend most of our time not on the pencil-marked trail. At one point – as we were doing some pretty mean rock climbing – I glanced over to the right and noticed a faint pathway through a comparatively much flatter area. This happened on several sections of the ascent, but the climbing was fun (I had only one “Arghh this is too hard, I’m going to fall and break my back!” moment). After a few hours we had made our way to the top section, where other hikers emerged and joined us for the last part – a traverse along a ridge to a maintenance shed (and views of a glacier lake).

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Bit of snow on the ascent
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The ridge leading to the hut (sen in the distance)
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And back the other way behind us
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The lake

It was quite windy at the top so we sheltered behind the hut as we ate our crisps and cakes, and then studied the map to work out how to get onto the route down. The track was quite well-formed and we jogged our way down, marvelling at how easy the trail was in comparison to the ascent. And then we were suddenly on the edge of a cliff face and we realised sinkingly that this trail did not lead down. And thinking about it, Steph had promised a snow chute, and there hadn’t been much snow….  Then I became aware of something in the distance that filled me with dread:

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This photo doesn’t really do it justice, but that is an extremely long and steep slope, located several snowy patches to the right. We could see tiny people slipping, sliding and falling their way down the slope. We carefully scrambled and skidded across to it, failing pretty quickly to remain on our feet. I decided to slide down on my bum, which was great fun at first, but the snow was covered in a fine layer of grit and soon it felt like I was sliding down ice cold sandpaper. Not so fun. After that I stuck to sliding along on foot. I was grateful when we got to the end of the snow although the whole experience had been a bit of an adventure!

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The last leg

So there we have it – a fairly action-packed (belated) birthday weekend! It’s going to be hard to beat that one!

Mini Road Trip! (Christchurch to Queenstown)

We are lucky enough to have two public holidays in a row in January/February. This is only the case in Auckland – every city has its own anniversary weekend and Auckland’s just happens to be the weekend before Waitangi Day – and it means you can go on a ten day holiday and only have to take four days off work. Incredible! So Colin and I planned a mini roadtrip in the South Island, flying into Christchurch and then making our way down to Queenstown.

It’s interesting how different the south island is to the north island. The north island is beautiful – amazing coastlines, volcanos and regional parks – but the south island is STUNNING,10/10, WOULD RECOMMEND+++! There are glacier lakes every way you look, and the Southern Alps run down the middle meaning there are always mountains in the background of every view. The colour of the lake water tends to be a radiant shade of blue, and every tiny bit of the road trip was incredible. My jaw hung open; I regularly made comments such as:  (in a gurgly voice)”Ahhhhhhh” and “I can hardly take this all in!!” (five minutes later) “I’m still not taking this all in!!”; and I think I took video footage of about 50% of the driving time.

First on our list was a few nights in Aoraki/Mt Cook. We were staying in Mt Cook Village, which is a tiny scattering of buildings a half hour drive down a dead-end road and literally in the middle of nowhere, mountains all sides. We were staying at Mt Cook Lodge, and had a pretty sweet view from our window:

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On our first day we set off on the most popular walking trail in the area, the three hour Hooker Valley Track. This took us along Hooker River, which was a fascinating shade of pastel grey, and up to a glacier lake. The walk was teeming with tourists (ugh tourists, can’t they let us sight-see in private?!) but incredibly beautiful.

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On our next day it was a bit drizzly so we spent our time at the Information Centre museum and the exhibition in the Heritage Hotel, learning about the history of Mt Cook and the life’s adventures of Sir Edmund Hillary (who, years before summiting Mt Everest, was also part of the first team to summit the South Ridge of Mt Cook, NZ’s highest peak). I also spent time, in morbid fascination, flicking through the huge annuals summarising every tragic death that has occurred in the mountain range. And there have been a LOT.

The day after we had beautiful weather so set off early for the seven hour Mueller Track hike (the annuals perhaps highlighted to us that we were not quite ready for the South Ridge summit yet). This was a gruelling ascent, starting with endless flights of steps, followed by huge boulders which you have to rock climb over, and finishing with steep slopes of scree. And then once you’re at the top you have to turn around and do it all in reverse. Ohh my poor, poor legs! However, it was hands down my number one hike in NZ (and the most fun too). There were breathtaking views the WHOLE way. And I brought delicious cake with me to eat at our first stop 🙂

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Next on our trip was the lovely little town of Wanaka. Wanaka stuck out vividly on my previous trip to the area a few years before, as the number one place I would want to retire to in NZ. Beautiful, charming, chilled out place just down the road from the Backpacker Central that is Queenstown. We took a break from hiking and instead opted to do what turned out to be my favourite cycle ride ever (it was a holiday of firsts, eh!). We hired bikes, were dropped off in Hawea, and then spent three hours cycling for 30km along Lake Hawea and down the river back to Lake Wanaka. It was beautiful scenery the whole way and I physically couldn’t stop myself from taking photos every few seconds. 3-wanaka-33-wanaka-63-wanaka-8DCIM100GOPROGOPR0228.JPGDCIM100GOPROGOPR0235.JPG

Despite my significantly low enthusiasm for Queenstown centre (which absolutely can’t cope with the high volume of traffic and so is one big traffic jam… and good luck trying to park anywhere!) I had to appreciate the natural beauty of the area so we did decide to spend a few nights in the ‘hood. As our legs were mostly recovered from the Mueller Track we opted for another “all the way up then all the way down the same way” hike: The six-hour Ben Lomond Track. This initially took us up through a beautiful pine forest before emerging high above Queenstown and following alpine tussocks along a saddle. We had views down over Queenstown one way, and the Southern Alps the other. 4-ben-lomond-14-ben-lomond-44-ben-lomond-64-ben-lomond-7

We spent the remainder of our time basing ourselves in the tiny beautiful villages near to Queenstown (so we could take in the beauty of the lake and mountains while avoiding the huge crowds of backpackers). We stayed at Kinloch Lodge, where we did the first day of the Routeburn Track (one of the Eight Great Walks). Sadly the first day was really unimpressive in relation to the other hikes we’d recently done (it didn’t help that it was very cloudy and drizzly) which was a shame as once we got to the end we had to turn round and walk all the way back to the start again. However, the day ended with Venison stew and a late night soak in the outdoor hot tub (overlooking the mountains) so the day was redeemed.

We also stayed in Arrowtown, a “historic town” which in NZ-terms means many of the buildings date back to the late 1800’s (“Oh em gee, such history!” deadpanned the Brit) when it became a gold-rush town and was overrun with miners from Europe and China. Nowadays it is a quirky little village and had such a different feel to it than most other NZ villages I’ve been to over here. NZ doesn’t really do “quaint” – villages rely on the beauty of the surroundings  and not much effort goes into making the buildings charming. So that was nice, I wish more places here had the same level of charm.

We also stayed in Glenorchy and our final night of the holiday was at the amazingly random but cool Little Paradise Lodge.  An artist had spent the last 30 years turning the house and surrounding gardens in beautiful works of art. There were sculptures and art pieces in every nook and cranny and we had a lot of fun exploring it all (though two seconds in and Colin had already accidentally knocked a sculpture off the wall, so we spent our time carefully tiptoeing around after that! Also the garden was full of Chinese tourists who were happy to part with $15 in order to have a strictly 45-min maximum wander around).

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And then sadly it was back on the plane to Auckland, bye bye South Island, see you again soon! The South Island truly is a beautiful place but right now I prefer the balance of Beauty + City life (and associated ease of meeting people/making friends) + Best-Job-Ever  so I’m a happy JAFA* right now.

*Just Another F’ing Aucklander. How we are referred to by the rest of NZ.

South Island Adventures: “Sunny” Nelson

My aim for 2017 was to spend time exploring the South Island. Despite having been bowled over by it when I first arrived in New Zealand, vowing to spend as many weekends as possible down there, I’ve managed just one measly trip down to Christchurch in the two year’s since. So I’m feeling pretty chuffed that by February this year I’ve already made it down twice. I should really have set myself more goals…

My first trip was a five day holiday to Nelson with Nai for New Years. Our chief goal was to base ourselves in the sunniest region and frolic about in the sun. Our research pointed us to one spot: Golden Bay. Interestingly the promo blurb on the Golden Bay website included the line “Unless you’re a migrating whale, you don’t go past Golden Bay on your way to anywhere” which struck me as a unique promotional angle.

So bright and early on New Years Eve we flew down to Nelson, picked up our hire car, wandered round the awesome food and craft market and ambled our way along the beautiful coastline to the tiny village of Collingwood, stopping off at a few pretty spots along the way.

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Collingwood basically consisted of a pretty beach, a campsite (right on the water), a Tavern, a cafe, a Dairy and a town hall. We had decided to have a chilled out new years eve, potentially bringing in the new year at the Tavern or with others from the campsite. The weather was, however, looking a bit iffy. We managed to put up our tent and eat our takeaway dinner by the sea before it started raining.

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We then holed up in our tent, pondering at what time it would start to get busy at the tavern. The answer (as two five-minute wanders down the road proved) was that it wouldn’t. It would remain at the stage of “awkward school disco” all night, with everyone standing around the empty dance floor while the DJ played rubbish music from a dark corner of the room. We accepted defeat and decided instead to find people to hang out with at the campsite instead. However, by now the rain was pounding down furiously and all the campers appeared to be in their fancy mess tents, laughing away behind the see-through plastic windows.

So we retreated to our tent and ended up turning out the lantern at 11.50pm, deciding that waiting another ten minutes just to say happy new year to each other seemed a bit pointless.

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And that’s when the fun really started. The weather got progressively worse and worse to the point where we physically couldn’t leave our tent to sleep in the car as we were worried the tent would immediately blow away if we got out of it.We both put all our weight against the opposite tent poles to prevent the tent from caving in, while the rain soaked through and formed a mist around us. And this is how we spent the next five or so hours, awake and in despair as our tent was whipped about and pounded by the wind and rain. At 5.30am the outer layer suddenly broke free and it one swift movement (that I’d been preparing for over the last few hours) I unzipped the tent and grabbed it with one hand while propping up the tent frame with my shoulder and arm. Meanwhile Nai hurriedly made several trips to the car to empty all our stuff out the tent. Then – in a gale-force wind – we somehow managed to pull apart the various tent parts and bundle it into the car.

We then bundled ourselves into the car, which was now soaked through, and wondered what on earth to do next. Our plan of action involved a hot shower, dry clothes, and sitting in the communal lounge until the rain stopped. By 9am the rain was still going strong and we headed to reception to ask whether we could upgrade to a cabin the next night as our pitch was waterlogged and our tent destroyed. Sadly, the campsite was fully-booked, but they kindly decided to hire out the town hall for the night as the whole campsite was basically one big swimming pool.

Not really knowing what to do, we decided to drive 20 minutes up the road to the hippy town of Takaka, hoping to wile away the morning at the cinema. However, every film was fully booked all day. Now, up until this point we had remained in relatively good spirits. We had spent most of the night laughing in disbelief at how awfully our new years eve had gone, and even as we were sitting in puddles of water in the car after zero sleep all night we managed to find the situation pretty hilarious. But now… the grump was starting to kick in.

We pulled into the car park and decided to nap in the car for a bit. Woo New Years Day!

When we woke up we discovered that the sun had come out so we decided to take the opportunity to dry out the sopping wet tent. And it was as we were standing at the edge of the car park holding up the tent like a kite in order to blow it dry in the wind, that we caught the attention of our Auckland friend Dan, who just happened to be in Takaka and walking through the carpark at the time.

And then everything was good again. The sun had come out, we had discovered Dan (who was with our friend Ben and a bunch of their friendly climbing mates), and we had had a little sleep.

The rest of our holiday was spent exploring the beautiful coast along Nelson; eating chips with our friends; camping in Collingwood Town Hall; staying at a backpackers in Motueka; and picking up hitch-hikers who turned out to live a few roads away from us in Auckland.

What started out as surely the worst new years either of us have ever experienced, turned out to be a pretty sweet, relaxing (and mostly sunny!) trip away. The fact there was a “micro storm” purely in Collingwood on NYE – not even making it to the neighbouring town! – hit the national headlines. The irony of the situation (i.e. the fact we had been actively attempting to seek the sunniest spot around) did not escape us. However, Nelson had redeemed itself in our eyes and we left certain we would be back at a later date (this time without camping aspirations!).

 

South Island Adventures Part 2 to be uploaded once I work out how to deal with the fact this blog has run out of storage!

Christmas canoeing adventures

Christmas was drawing closer and despite my friend Nai and I promising to spend it together what with being “orphans” over here in New Zealand (Mum, you know what I mean, calm down) we had yet to decide on a fun plan. It wasn’t until December hit that we finally got around to sitting down and making plans. We decided to do something that had been on my bucket list since arriving in Zealand two years ago – the Whanganui River “Great Walk”. I’ve put that in inverted commas as the only walking involved was between the canoe and campsites. This was a three day canoe trip!

We booked a kayak rental company and a few campsites along the river and we were all set! A few days later Nai’s friend Amin asked whether he could also join us, and how could we say no? Seriously – how could we say no? We discussed this in depth.

I jest.

(Also, just so you’re getting it right as you read this in your head, his name is pronounced aMEAN). 

So on Christmas Eve eve the three of us set off on a four hour road trip south to the tiny village of Owhango, where our kayak company (Owhango Adventures) had offered us free accommodation for the night before our trip. The accommodation was sweet. Our own little apartment!

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The tour operator was a friendly guy in his sixties, accompanied by his ten year old Australian granddaughter, over for Christmas. She helpfully went round the apartment pointing out all the flaws until he shooed her back to the car. He also left us each one barrel to squeeze all our belongings for the trip into. And if it weren’t for our tents, sleeping bags and sleeping mats this would have been achievable! (Cue a slightly panicked phone call where we were assured he would bring along a large dry bag the next morning and it would all be fine).

We headed out for dinner at a nice little pub and then returned to open our Christmas presents. Mine and Nai’s friends from back home had created the most amazing pass-the-parcel style package for us which involved layers and layers of challenges, presents and activities and kept us in stitches for most of the evening. We had to make tiny puzzles, apply temporary tattoos to our bums, send them videos of silly dances, and eat Russian-roulette style jelly beans where you could end up with “dead fish” or “rotten egg” flavours.

The next morning we were picked up at 8am and down by the water front at 9am ready to go. Nai and I were sharing a double canoe while Amin had a single. We jealously eyed up his back rest, doubled-ended paddle and generally superior vessel. This jealousy continued for the next three days. And we were off without another boat in site!DCIM100GOPROGOPR0021.JPG

Our first day involved a 37.5km stretch of the river from Whakahoro to the John Coull campsite and took us six hours. During this time we didn’t see a single other person or object on the water.The banks on either side stretched out high above us as we paddled along at a leisurely-to-fast pace, taking in our beautiful surroundings: waterfalls, caves, sand banks, lush forest, the occasional goat.. I’d been worried about how my arms and back would fare with all the continuous rowing but actually what started out as a strong ache in my shoulders gradually dulled to what Nai and I decided was a “feels like we’re working out in a good way” kind of an ache.

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We had a brief stop for lunch on a little sand bank, where I tucked into my cheese, avocado and crisp sandwich, and then slathered on the sun lotion as -much to our delight – the sun had decided to emerge from behind the clouds. I discovered that I could canoe with my legs stretched out in front of me on the canoe rim while I rested back on the dry bag sunbathing. This made for a pretty chilled out final stretch.

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We spent the last few kilometers avidly trying to spot signs for the campsite as we were worried we would accidentally canoe right past it and that would be that (the current was fairly strong at times). Luckily it was well signposted and we were able to clamber up onto the shore fairly easily. We were the first to arrive! This meant we got our pick of camp spot, which after a lot of deliberation meant we somehow managed to choose the darkest corner which was first to plunge into the shade as the sun started going down. We spent the afternoon lazing in the sun watching all the canoes gradually arrive.

Our arrival:

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A few hours later:

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I then made myself dinner of chinese noodles which I proceeded to knock all over the counter and ground once it was ready. We were feeling pretty pooped by this point and Nai and I felt like particularly hardcore campers heading to bed before we even needed to use the lantern. There’s a brag… right?

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We were up at 8am the next morning for a bowl of porridge. Someone had put down a Christmas tablecloth which momentarily reminded us it was Christmas Day.

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And then we were off for day two: 29km to Tieke Kainga. I had opted to go at the back of the canoe this day and take charge of steering, just to stir things up a bit (pun intended). Unfortunately we headed out onto small rapids almost immediately after leaving the campsite and I hadn’t yet had a chance to practice, so we spent a fair bit of time spinning around, shouting “AHHHH” and trying not to capsize.  During one rapid I also managed to tweak something in my right wrist which *spoiler alert* would later lead to a painful tendon injury. However, the rapids soon settled which made for another lovely morning on the water.

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We decided to stop for lunch at the Bridge to Nowhere scenic walk. It was actually pretty hard work trying to moor up against the steep rock, and definitely not something Nai and I would have managed without Amin’s help.

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After a pleasant hour-return stroll to the bridge and back (we could confirm – it did indeed lead nowhere) we returned to find the mooring rock bustling with canoe and kayakers. We actually had to wobbily step across a few canoes to reach our own. Once we were safely in our canoe we realised with horror that the kayak next to us hadn’t been tied up and when we bumped it, it promptly started floating away down the river. This resulted in a flurry of activity and panic, during which Nai and I (as the only ones actually in a canoe) were instructed to chase the kayak. We busied ourselves with our first task: turning the canoe round (this required tongue-sticking-out effort), while everyone yelled out such helpful comments as “Go quickly!” and”Don’t let it reach the rapids!”.

We managed to catch up with the kayak about 50m downstream, and one of us grabbed the kayak while the other grabbed onto a rock. And then it quickly dawned on us that we didn’t know what to do next. The current was strong at this point and we would never make it back up to the mooring point. So we decided to stay put and hope that eventually Amin would come and rescue us. After a fairly long wait (was he actually standing about making small talk, surely not?) he casually paddled up to us and told us there was a plan: we should take the kayak with us and push it onto the next sandy bank we came across. The silly girl who somehow forgot to tie up her kayak would hitch a lift in her friend’s canoe.

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Heroes.

Our next camp site was not so easy to spot and we were very nearly swept right past it as there was a bit of rapid action going on. Luckily by this point my steering was on point and we managed to drag our canoe onto the rocks to moor it.

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Now, everyone should remember this name: Bridge to Nowhere Campground. Why? Because it was the best campsite I’ve ever stayed at. There was only one member of staff (it being Christmas Day and all, and basically empty) who met us with his quad bike and drove our barrels up to the camp spot. It was incredibly beautiful, overlooking the river.

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There were hot showers, an undercover kitchen, and lots of little quirky bits like this cool seat that offered a pretty sweet view:

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I treated myself to a Christmas afternoon snack of brie, crackers and a cider before Nai and I headed up a track towards the main lodge.

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View from the lodge:

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The guy in charge was a friendly man in his fifties (maybe) who opened up the lodge just for us and took us on a tour “behind the scenes” which involved exploring the farm and meeting the five crazy dogs. We also met a very cute domesticated lamb.

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W arrived back at the campground to find playmates! A couple from the UK who had just moved to New Zealand. And that was our happy lot for the night. We pulled Christmas crackers, shared ginger cake with warm custard, lit a bonfire (with permission of course) and played naff games. On of the games was the classic “Who am I?” where each person has a card stuck to their head. I mention this as Nai’s was “Fairy” and it went something like this:

Nai: “Am I a fictional character?”

All: “Yes”

Nai: “Am I the tooth fairy?”

All: *stunned amazement* “Well, maybe a distant relative.. you’re half right”

Nai: “Ah I’ve got it! Am I… a tooth?”

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This time we actually made it to night time before retiring to our tent. It was a fun night. Also I should mention that our campsite was directly opposite a (more expensive) DOC hut and campsite which looked nowhere near as fun and most definitely didn’t have hot showers, permits for bonfires, hyper dogs or quirky little bits of furniture. We felt very smug on the other side of the river

The next person who visits me in New Zealand will be taken to The Bridge to Nowhere campsite (there are cabins and lodge rooms too and you can also get there by jet boat, so no excuses!). Seriously: Best.Campsite.Ever.

We were at at 6.30am on our final day and MAN my right arm hurt. I munched down painkillers with my porridge and tried to man up. The sun had emerged early and it was as we were pulling away into the river that I realised I hadn’t unpacked my water, sun lotion or hat which meant I wouldn’t have them for the whole journey. Whoops. The last day was by far the most picturesque and we decided to go at a more leisurely pace so we could take it all in (and also so I could rest my arm every few metres). As we left so early we saw hardly any other boats which made for a pretty tranquil journey.

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We had been warned that if we were going to capsize it would happen on the last day so we were all braced for a plunge. However, the two main rapids were a piece of cake and even Amin – who eagerly launched himself straight into the heart of the rapid each time – remained safely upright (albeit flooded with water). We arrived at Pipiriki 21.5km later, where we were met by our man and taken back to our car.

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We were all feeling pretty chuffed with ourselves and despite my painful wrist, dehydration headache and mild sunburn I was feeling okay! Which was lucky as Nai and I had just bought ourselves kayaks for Christmas while crossing our fingers that this experience wouldn’t put us off. Roll on the summer kayaking adventures!

I’m so glad I finally completed the Whanganui River Journey. It was an incredible experience and an awesome way to preoccupy ourselves over Christmas when so far away from our families *cue violin music*

Adventures to Great Barrier Island

Great Barrier Island was named by good old Captain James Cook in 1769 due to the shelter and protection it provides to the Hauraki Gulf. Just thought I’d start with a fact there. It is a relatively small island (you could probably drive around it in half a day) and has a population of around 800 people. There is no electricity supply (people install their own generators) and there are no towns as such. It is basically just one big rugged unbuilt-up nature reserve, and just a mere 30 minute flight from Auckland. I had been itching to go for a while but wanted to wait until the weather was a bit better as there aren’t exactly any rainy day options.

Labour weekend in October seemed like the perfect opportunity to go. I was relying on the fact last Labour weekend was incredible weather and I spent it camping on Uretiti beach, even taking an early morning dip in the sea one day. I do vaguely remember thinking “wow, this weather was very unexpected after all the rain we’ve been having!” but I optimistically brushed those thoughts aside and booked our flights.

We had opted to fly to the island (30 mins) rather than take the ferry (four hours) as despite Colin’s fear of flying we wanted as much time on the island as possible. We arrived at Auckland airport to be met by a young man with a clipboard who told us to dump our bags in the corner and follow him round to the plane. No security checks or need for ID. We were expecting maybe a 20-seat plane  so imagine my excitement (and Colin’s horror) when we were led to this!

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The eight of us squeezed into the plane, put on our ear mufflers and gripped our seats as the pilot turned on the engines. The right engine kicked in first and the propeller on Colin’s side whirred into action. Then the pilot tried to start the left engine. Seven times. Eventually he turned to us and said what Colin and I later agreed was the least reassuring thing he could have said in the situation:

“Well that hasn’t happened before!”

He paced around outside the plane for a tense 15 minutes, during which time we all started pondering how much we wanted to remain on the plane if the engine did eventually catch. He returned and after a further four or five attempts the propeller finally rumbled into action and we were off! The noisy propeller was right outside my window and I momentarily forgot Colin’s anxiety as I commented “You know, I’m actually more worried the propeller will fly off and behead us than I am about the engine failing!”. On reflection, I could have been more supportive.

Despite the near-constant dread the engine was going to cut out at any moment, I did appreciate the beautiful scenery out the window. We were flying low over the Hauraki coast, travelling over little islands of all shapes and sizes.

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We arrived in Claris at 8am and in one piece  (after landing on the grass a few metres away from the landing strip) and the sun had its hat on. I was pretty certain I had booked a hire car but due to the extremely casual and relaxed manner of the woman (Val) who’s number I’d been given, I wasn’t entirely sure this wasn’t just a random islander who was renting out her own car for the weekend. Either way, the car was waiting for us at the tiny airport and we set off on our ventures.

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We had decided to spend our first day exploring the north half of the island, so after stocking up on food for the day in Claris, we slowly followed the road north. We stopped off for a stroll along the beautiful (and deserted) Awana Bay, followed by an hour hike up the Harataonga Walkway, where we ate our ginger slices while looking out on an incredible panoramic view.

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The only place with any form of accommodation in the northern half of the island was a Christian Retreat camp, which let us book a tiny basic room for $100. We rocked up in the afternoon to find their main attraction (kayak rentals) was closed for the weekend. The camp reminded us of the start of a horror film. Everything was just a bit too perfect and everyone we met very softly spoken and warm. We lazed by the water front and both accidentally fell asleep, resulting in a mild sun burn.

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Later, as we cooked our dinner (pasta, sauce and half a wheel of Camembert each.. the only dinner choice available to us from the Claris General Store) we noticed a pack of surgical gloves next to the knife rack and decided this would be the point in the horror movie where the  tourists started to realise something wasn’t right…

The next morning we were up bright and early for the centre-point of our trip: the Aotea multi-day hike. This is probably the number one reason most people have for coming to the island, and indeed what the others on our little plane had decided to get stuck into as soon as we landed. We amended the suggested hike slightly: We decided to do it in reverse, and in two days rather than three. What rebels..!

Our first day involved around eight hours of upwards tramping through the most beautiful landscapes – streams, wetlands, kauri forests, along old tramlines – with staggering views over the Hauraki Gulf at the top of Mount Hobson (the highest point on the island).

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We encountered only two other people on the whole journey, a friendly couple who were also staying at the Heale Hut for the night. This DOC hut was awesome. The best I’ve ever stayed in. The view from the deck alone! Plus the four of us had it to ourselves which was pretty sweet. The only downside was someone had left the tap on the day before and had run the water supply dry. Who needs water anyway? We lazed on the sunny deck chatting until the sun set.

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At this point – around 7pm – another couple turned up. However, Colin and I were feeling all socialised out so went for a wander around the area and then holed up in the bunk room playing games on my tablet.

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The next morning the (first) couple gave us two of their precious teabags, which was rather kind of them. However, we politely gave them back as a) we didn’t have cups, b) we didn’t have milk, c) we didn’t have any spare water, and d) we couldn’t be bothered to boil the water in a saucepan anyway. Nice of them though!

We left a particularly hilarious message in the Heale Hut guestbook before we left: “Thanks – we had a Heale-y good time!”. I also came up with a fantastic joke as I was putting on my boots which I ran inside to tell Colin: “I just found three spiders in my boot… I think they were networking!” Sometimes I am just too funny for people to handle (or respond to).

We set off for a leisurely three hour wander down the mountain. The track ended in the second best way possible (the first obviously being an English country pub, which is a rarity in New Zealand.. no one has yet thought to combine a walking track with a pub, which is just sheer madness!): natural hot springs 🙂 We changed into our swimming togs and soothed our aching legs in the warm water, which was super relaxing, particularly as no one else was about.

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Then we got pork belly burgers from a cute little roadside truck, and spent the afternoon exploring Medlands Beach.

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We checked into Medland Beach Backpackers which was the quaintest spot ever. We had our own little cabin in the middle of their farm.

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That evening we decided to head to the only place on the island serving up food – the Barrier Social Club, where we joined half the island for fajita wraps and a film  (The Room), which was projected onto a big screen. There was a very local/village atmosphere.

On our final day we decided to take one last drive along the east coast, stopping off at particularly pretty spots. At one point we walked over to an inviting cafe and very randomly found my good friends Jeremy and Lindsey sitting outside on a picnic bench. They were on a biking holiday with their friends and we caught up about our various adventures over Mochas and chocolate cake.

We had a lazy afternoon relaxing on Shoal Bay beach and then playing Monopoly Deal (nine games of!) in My Fat Puku cafe while we sipped on iced coffees.

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We were waiting for the rain to roll in (as forecast); however, it didn’t actually hit until we were back at the airport. This had the knock-on effect of delaying our flight by 90 minutes, and meant for most of the journey back we were immersed in thick clouds (it also meant my knee went numb from Colin’s death grip). The clouds cleared as we were flying over the airport, revealing jaw-dropping views of beautiful Auckland. After we had circled above the airport three times, I finally caught what Colin had been trying to mouth at me for a while (loud noise and ear mufflers if you remember):

“This isn’t Auckland Airport!!!!”

After a slight panic during which I fished out our electronic tickets and tried to find any mention of which airport we were due to land at, our plane changed course and trundled southwards to the airport our car was actually parked at. We were met by an airport buggy driven by our previous pilot. Our guess was that he had been demoted after the engine issues encountered a few days previously.

What an incredible four days – Great Barrier Island was such a beautiful rugged and sparsely populated place (well, in low season anyway!), where all the locals and tourists alike were super friendly and relaxed. I’m already starting to ponder when I might next return…