Monday, 23 April 2012

Kiwi Truths: Ten Things I've learned in New Zealand

Now six months into my Kiwi adventure, the journey I’ve embarked upon has been as much a slingshot up a learning curve as a trundle across New Zealand. In this post, I’ve selected just a few of the quirky things - some peculiar to NZ, some applicable to life as a whole - that I've picked up from people and experience along the way.

1. Nothing tastes better than a fish you caught yourself.
Fishing in New Zealand isn't just a hobby, it's a integral part of kiwi lifestyle and culture. "The most important things in New Zealand are your boat and your bach" observed one Bay of Islander I spoke to. Almost every household in the country seems to have some seagoing vessel or other trailered up in their driveway, and every weekend boat ramps and fishing spots swarm with activity, abuzz with the whir of 2-stroke engines. Harbour fronts and jetties are populated by parents teaching their toddlers the basics of angling, and at every rocky atoll you come to there is always a lone fisherman stood stoically beside a 12ft surf-casting rod while the waves burst over him. Though not quite as hardcore, I've gone from knowing zilch about catching a fish to being able to paddle out on our kayak, catch, gut, fillet, and cook in as many ways as you'd care to mention. We've fried it, barbecued it, steamed it, chowdered it, smoked it and even eaten it raw, marinated in lemon juice and coconut milk. Delicious.

2. Anyone performing the Haka is terrifying, no matter who they are.
Whether you’re watching the All Blacks, a show at a traditional Maori ‘village’, or a tribe of school kids stamping their feet, grasping the air and chanting in unison, a Haka is always fearsometo behold. I happened across a school performance in central Rotorua, and can confirm that, despite the fact the kids can’t have been much older than eleven or twelve, it genuinely scared me. It’s a display of practice, discipline and ferocity, and I for one would not have anything with which to display in answer.

3. Kumara are the best root vegetable. Ever.
Though lumpy, misshapen, and with all the aesthetic appeal of a bull’s scrotum, Kumara are downright delicious.New Zealand’s sweet potato will enhance any recipe when used as a replacement ingredient to your bog-standard king Edward, but best prepared in a Hangi (a geothermal oven/hole in the ground).Watch your vitamin-A levels and the smile on your face grow as you munch. 

4. There are very few issues that can’t be solved with a chainsaw.
This seems to be a logic held by most Kiwi blokes. Before heading out to New Zealand, I had expected to end up falling into a culture of holistic communes, dreadlocks, and people who insist on slinging fire-poi around a beach as soon as the sun sets. In reality, New Zealand is a society built on manliness, on things that guzzle petrol and make loud noises. It’s flannel shirts, beards, and more tree management companies than you can shake a Manuka branch at. I’d stab an educated guess that at least eighty per cent of any commercial break on NZ television is made up of advertisements containing men shouting loudly about power tools.

5. It’s impossible to judge a drive time by looking at a road atlas in New Zealand. 
New Zealand has over two thousand miles less motorway than the United Kingdom, meaning that even the most major highways in the country don’t cleave their way  through the hills – they wind and knot their way up the slopes instead, often in the most bizarre, precarious route possible. Sadly, road maps here are rarely detailed enough to reveal the fact that what appears to be a course of flat, straight asphalt on the page is, in fact, a thousand metre climb and descent made in a noodle of hairpins. Consequently, what you predict to be an hour’s easy cruise can unexpectedly become three hours of engine-straining, hair-raising motoring without warning. Nice views though.

6.       The Kiwi has a rival.
That’s right, the humble Kiwi has an unlikely contender for the position of New Zealand’s national icon. Looking like the blue lovechild of a moorhen and chicken on stilts and strutting around with a misplaced air of dignity, the Pukeko was the surprise winner of the 2011 favourite bird competition. These squawking birds are seen in the warmer parts of the country, setting up camp in damp dwellings such as swamps and bogs. We lived amongst a resident flock of them in Rotorua, with Amy becoming thoroughly enamoured with them to the point of obsession. Whenever we pass one in the van, she insists on mimicking their shriek, grinning from ear to ear  - a habit I'm hoping will fade as we fade further south.

7. Freedom is shopping barefoot.
It may sound odd, but there are few things in this life quite as liberating as walking down a high street or around a supermarket with your feet as Mother Nature intended. In New Zealand, it’s the done thing, unlike the UK, where you’re shunned as too poor/mentally unstable to be a part of societal comfort. It’s often too warm for shoes, and why waste a small fortune on jandals (Kiwi term for flip-flops) when you’ve a perfectly good pair attached to you free of charge? New Zealanders seem to cycle, skateboard, even apply for jobs barefoot, all in the comfort that it’s a perfectly normal thing to do. Streets are clean here and shards of broken glass are rare, so you can walk around, soles to the ground, without the niggling fear of being struck down by hepatitis lurking at the back of your mind. Good for the heart, great for the sole.

8. How to speak Kiwi.
When immersing yourself in a culture, learning the native linguistic peculiarities is essential. Making even the smallest effort (and getting it wrong) is enough for the locals to see you're at least taking the time to embrace more than just the sightseeing. On North Island especially, place names are predominantly Maori in origin, and pronunciations can easily go awry. Perhaps the most helpful tip is know that 'wh' is pronounced as an 'f' or 'ph'. Rawhiti, for example, is rarfitee, or Whitianga is fiteeanga.
But it's not just the Maori spellings that can catch you out. New Zealand English has its own curious habits. Somewhere, at some point, someone decided, infectiously, that saying 'ay' at the end of eighty percent of sentences uttered was how it should be done, and it stuck. I've still not quite worked out whether it's turning the sentence into question, and I've often found myself wondering how or even if I should reply. Other lexical oddities include: saying the word 'heaps' heaps; saying 'good on you' heaps; and calling you a 'hard-case' heaps, ay.[?]

9. Humans have a lot to answer for.
New Zealand is the epitome of natural beauty, a country defined by its ability to let you escape into the most breathtaking landscapes, virtually devoid of signs that humanity has ever been there. But as you explore the tracks and trails and natural history, you realise just how close we, in typically colonial nineteenth-century style, came to buggering it all up. From the extinction of the Moa, an enormous flightless bird, caused by early Maori hunting, to the virtual annihilation of kauri forest, New Zealand's natural resources have been scarred by the tortures of human population. While its unique rainforests were exploited for their gum and timber during the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the incidental introduction of mammals  into its ecology caused by fur traders is something from which Aotearoa's bird life may never fully recover. It's only in the past sixty years or so that a concerted effort has been made to end the destruction caused by possums, stoats and rats, and even now many methods to cull or trap them are still in question. The threat to habitats still comes from farming and industry, but their impact is minimal in comparison to what it used to be. The country is now a champion of conservation on a domestic and international level, but you can't help feel that it wouldn't have had to be if we hadn't made such as mess of it in the first place. New Zealand is a prime example of the fragility of the environment, and, consequently, how to protect it.

10. There's too much to see and do.
Six months in, and we've barely covered half of North Island, let alone South. Better get a move on...

Sunday, 15 April 2012

The Bay of Islands Part Two: Farm Life

Our occupation as ‘farm hands’ in the Bay of Islands was a job neither of us are likely to forget. Everyday life on the farm involved charging around on quad bikes while chased by the resident dog, trundling around in the tractor, and generally immersing ourselves in the glorious subtropical environment.

A standard morning commute
Toiling amongst the fields and paddocks meant that we were brought (sometimes uncomfortably) closer to some of New Zealand’s indigenous wildlife: Weta, enormous cricket-like beetles; six-inch-long stick insects; bright green Mantises that would pray quietly on your shoulder without you noticing; Cicada the size of mice, with a penchant for waging kamikaze into your face, clattered loudly amongst the trees. Abound with creepy crawlies, the bush and paddocks were a natural haven for birds, and we worked in the company of herons, kingfishers, Amy’s beloved Pukeko, turkeys, bright green Kākāri (parakeets) and the endangered Brown Teal duck. Though we weren’t fortunate enough to see them, the local forests were also home to a healthy population of Kiwi.

Just across the road was a secluded bay with easy fishing where we found ourselves accompanied by inquisitive Eagle Rays and Stingrays gliding by the water at our feet while we cast in the quiet evenings. The waters teemed and danced with baitfish as Snapper chased their prey, and we would watch as Mullet would  spring rhythmically in gracefully arcs out from the glassy water.

Only a few moments’ drive from the farm, hidden amongst the hills of dense Mānuka (Tea Tree) and Totora stand some of New Zealand's most magnificent natural wonders: Kauri. 

Enormous twin-bole Kauri looming above the local forests
I’ve mentioned these arboreal giants in passing before, but they’re deserving of much more. Growing only in the country’s subtropical northern quarter, they’re a living relic of a prehistoric New Zealand, where lack of human interference and introduced predation meant that the forests could flourish without restraint. Sadly, the immense Kauri forests were one of the main natural resources New Zealand had to offer at the turn of the 20th century, and very rapidly the they had sacrificed their timber for short-term economic growth. Today, these barely ten percent of these gargantuan trees exist, and only in pockets of Northland, Auckland and the Coromandel, made all the more special by their scarcity. We were fortunate enough to have one of the largest and oldest remaining on our doorstep, a unique twin-bole kauri, thousands of years old and reaching almost 50 metres above the forest floor. Several other giant kauri exist in the country, the grandest and most visited being Tāne Mahuta (Lord of the Forest), a 2500 year old behemoth near Dargaville, but our local grove, tucked off the beaten track, was wonderfully quiet and all the more personal.

Culvert pipe installation. More fun than it sounds. Honestly.
Working on the farm exposed us to dimensions of Kiwi culture that are easily missed as a tourist. Some aspects we loved, and others took us out of our comfort zone. We were taken rather aback when we were handed a duck - fully intact but for the signs of a shotgun wound, and still rather warm – as a meal, and had to quickly learn how to gut, pluck and butcher it. Hunting here is a big part of life, and Amy couldn’t believe it when she saw two men proudly haul an enormous pig onto the ferry one day as she went to Paihia. At times, the farm seemed like a boot-camp for masculinity, where conversation rarely strayed from guns, chainsaws and engines, but we never minded, because we were a part of something we'd never been before.

Above all, I consider my time up north as an education. Before, I’d  have barely known where to start if you asked me to put a fence up. Ask me to install agricultural electric fencing now, and I’ll ask where your wire strainers are. I can now confidently wield a chainsaw, drive a quad bike, and even install a culvert pipe. Okay, so they sound like boring skills, but the experience was epic.

Sunday, 8 April 2012

The Far North

The weather deteriorated as we drove further north, and by the time we’d reached the start of the 20km of loose gravel track to Spirits Bay, the rain formed a relentless cascade down the windscreen. The unsealed road wound its way through the bush, dipping and climbing, all the time buffeted by strengthening wind and rain. Worryingly recent landslips covered half of the track, forcing the van to negotiate its way between piles of freshly exposed tree root and red clay on one side, and terrifyingly steep drops on the other. “Maybe we should have waited for next weekend”, I said with exasperation as we narrowed another hair-raising corner.

But Amy was nothing if not stoic, "Knowing us though, the weather next weekend will be even worse, and we’ll never get up here, so we shouldn't complain”, she said. And, as ever, she was right – we couldn’t not see these places just because the weather didn’t show them in their best light; that’s a mentality best saved for the tourist, not the traveller; and in northern New Zealand, with its humidity and temperamental climate, adopting it would often mean you wouldn’t see anything. 

Eventually we arrived at Spirits Bay DoC campsite, and determined to let the rain dampen anything but our resolve, we did the honourable British thing: threw on our cagoules and trudged, heads bowed to the wind and rain, to the beach. 

I’d read somewhere that Spirits Bay is considered the most supernaturally-active place in New Zealand, with strange, distant figures seen walking in the twilight towards the ocean, paying no heed to the calls of others. I'm confident that these eerie beings are, in fact, hardy British tourists, made oblivious to anyone else by the deafening thunk of sidewards rain hitting their anoraks, determined to see the seaside no matter what the weather brings.

The coastal perfection of Spirits Bay
The next morning couldn’t have been any different. The piercing squawk of a Pukeko outside the van heralded a bluebird dawn, and we knew we’d  made no mistake in coming here. The departure of the cloud revealed Spirits Bay for what it really was; radiant in platinum-white sands and sapphire waters, divided by the thunder of heavy waves. After a morning of basking, we decided to make the most of the clear weather while we could, packed the van and headed back  along precarious gravel road to the iconic Cape Reinga.

The Tasman (left) and Pacific (right) do battle.

The cape marks the tumultuous confluence of the dark, cold Tasman Sea on New Zealand’s west coast, and the mighty glistening Pacific on its east.  A lighthouse perched atop the cliffs overlooks the engagement of the two in constant battle, their waters broiling and churning in a maelstromic embrace. Incredibly, you can even distinguish the two oceans in their different hues of deep blue.

The spectacular, spiritual Cape Reinga. 
At the foot of the craggy headland, a wizened Pohutukawa tree marks the place where Maori belief says the spirits of the recently deceased make their descent beneath the waves on their journey to the underworld. There is something unequivocally asomatous and ethereal about its stark, lonely silhouette clinging to the rocks as it gazes north across the vast emptiness of the Pacific, and it’s not hard to imagine how its ancient gnarled branches and roots could be seen as a portal to the afterlife.

The good weather unveiled the beauty of the peninsula as we trundled back down - enormous sand dunes and dazzlingly white spits, rolling hills, and the seemingly endless Ninety Mile Beach - an unbroken stretch of sand that extends, rather confusingly, for sixty miles, forming the an arcing crest at the top of New Zealand. 

The horizon is lost in the waves and sand of Ninety Mile Beach.

Sections of Ninety Mile Beach act as a dubious highway along the peninsula for the daring motorist – daring, that is, if you’re driving a fully-laden 1.6l rear-wheel drive. We’d managed to get our van stuck in a small sandy rut before in Piha, but I wasn’t going to be dissuaded. Why drive on tarmac, when there’s a perfectly novel, slightly more dangerous alternative running parallel? Thankfully, my gung-ho decision to take on this granular motorway paid off, and for the 20km between Pukenui and Waipapakauri, the tyres of our van enjoyed the freedom of beach driving, while we enjoyed the genuine adrenaline rush of wondering whether or not we were going to become sand-bound.

Everything about Northland seemed wonderfully pristine and idyllically empty, just as we'd imagined New Zealand would be. 
The sun sets over the Karikari peninsula.

Monday, 19 March 2012

The Bay of Islands Part One: Old Zealand

Heading out on another fishing trip!
Before me, a vast, sail-shaped black rock erupts from the dark blue water like the dorsal fin of some immense breaching leviathan. Behind me, the gentle pulse of the Pacific Ocean is interrupted by the splash of Blue Penguins weaving their way between the undulating swell. Above me, the sky is a sheet of solid blue, punctuated only by a punishingly hot sun. And, in the shadowy depths some hundred metres beneath the boat I'm in, a Barracuda finds the bait on the end of my line, signifying the start of a tiring battle to bring it to the surface.

Welcome to the Bay of Islands.

Here, New Zealand’s eastern stretch of Pacific coastline is shattered; an exploded diagram of almost one hundred and fifty islands, islets and inlets. Together, they form a natural breakwater, reducing the brutal Pacific swells to a calm lagoon of dreamy aquamarine waters teeming with an incredible abundance of sealife. 

This is something that has not gone unnoticed to Kiwi anglers, and, beyond the photos of prize-winning Marlin proudly hung in the window of each fishing shop, it means the seafood here is exquisite. While the Duke of Marlborough in Russell offers the premium, mouth-watering game fish steaks, there's a price to match; but excellent, flaky, musky fish can be had at the town smokehouses at a fraction of the cost, and even Paihia's Chinese restaurant, the King Wah, offers enormous, deliciously fresh local scallops as part of its budget all-you-can-eat buffet.

New Zealand's oldest building, Kerikeri
The Bay of Islands is the closest thing to Old Zealand as you’re likely to find. These inlets, alcoves and beaches boast the country’s oldest house (in Kerikeri), oldest Church (Russell), its first licensed pub (Russell), first capital (Okiato) and, excitingly, even its most ancient petrol station (Russell, again).

With palm trees perched above red clay cliffs, the landscape here looks like it has been pulled from a chapter of Treasure Island or a scene from Pirates of the Caribbean. Long Beach, a bay hidden just behind Russell’s little peninsula, marks the point at which Captain James Cook first weighed anchor when he reached this country. Two and a half centuries later, the HMS Endeavour still wouldn’t look out of place if it were to hove into view! And if the area's history wasn't rich enough, the Waitangi Treaty - signed across the Bay in 1840 - holds the same cultural clout to New Zealanders as the Declaration of Indepedence to Americans.

Our plan was to find work at a holiday park near historic little Russell – a cleaning job we’d arranged through Backpackersboard. Excitedly, we took the little car ferry at Opua and soon found our destination, but after just a night, we realised it wasn’t quite for us. Whereas our holiday park team in Rotorua felt like a family unit, here the staff seemed more like uncannily identical drones of eastern European guys who rarely spoke, all under the rather stringent direction of a terse Australian woman.

A few weeks earlier, we’d seen an ad looking for a couple to carry out some housework and help with farm jobs for a roof over our heads and few dollars, but by the time our email had been received, another pair of backpackers had beaten us to it. Though a bit of a long shot, I thought I’d email the guy again, and as luck had it, the position was vacant again. “So you’re working at Animal Farm?” asked a gruff northern English voice asked when I called. “Get the f**k out of there. They’ll have you working eight hours for just to park your f**king van. Just pack your things and come here and work for me – I’ve got some mulching for you to do”. 

Somehow, the colourful language and prospect of making wood mulch had a strange appeal - or at least more appeal than cleaning toilets - and, once again, Amy and I fell on our feet.

Following vague directions out of town, we pulled up to the gates of a ranch surrounded by nothing but fields and forest, owned by an eccentric ex-pat who greeted us at the bottom of his long gravel driveway, surrounded by dogs. We were led to a newly-built though rather unglamourous-looking barn, but it soon transpired that we weren’t going to be sleeping in a pile of hay. Tucked into the side of the main barn was our own little suite, furnished with all the basics – that is, if you include a 47-inch television and Lay-Z Boy as basic… The setup was sweet as!

Sunday, 12 February 2012

The Coromandel

After two months of living and working in steamy Rotorua, we finally bid farewell to our friends at Cosy Cottage and made our way north to the Coromandel Peninsula.

Here, a column of broken peaks devoured by thick forest rise steeply from the white beaches and spectacular coves of the South Pacific coastline on one side, and from the bountiful Firth of Thames and Hauraki Gulf on the other. We had seen the Coromandel before, or at least its silent silhouette in sunset from across the Firth of Thames a few weeks after arriving in New Zealand, and had been itching to explore it properly ever since.

Across the Kopu Bridge, the colourful town of Thames acts as the gateway to the peninsula. The discovery of gold amongst the forested gullies here led to a series of rushes during the latter half of the nineteenth century and saw the town flourish, increasing still as the Kauri logging industry boomed until the nineteen-thirties. Thames still carries that old-time prospectors’ feel in its architecture, while its hills still bear scars, pock-marks and tunnels within the forest. But gone are the days of panning and crushing. Instead, the community is now built on fishing and tourism, as an entrance to an easy escapism for Aucklanders, and the natural wonders that lie on the roads beyond. 

Before we came out here, I envisaged the idyll of spending a little while each day sat on a rock beside the sea and catching our tea. So, having no idea about how to go about this, it was something I was keen to learn. when Helen offered us the chance to join her and her friend Nigel on a little excursion, Amy and I leapt at it, though we both shuddered slightly when they told us that we were leaving at five in the morning. Sure enough, we were up early and headed out to Kaiaua, a little village by the Hunua hills whose shore is dotted with the buoys of mussel farms. Okay, so fishing off a mussel farm might be cheating a little bit, but this was our first time, so I think we should be let off the hook (sorry all).

The sunrise over the peninsula revealed as calm waters as one could ever hope for, and Helen's little tin boat chugged us out into the glassy sea, coming to a stop a few hundred metres from the mussel-clad ropes and buoys of the farms. Within moments of casting, I felt a tug on my line, and I reeled in our first catch, a young Snapper. As per Maori tradition, we let the first catch go as thanks and respect for the ocean. But, soon enough Amy had hauled in her first keeper, as had Helen and Nigel. Each of us were bringing in Snapper , Kahawai (sea trout), and Yellowtail. At one moment, Nigel saw his line snapped by a stubborn ray that refused to leave the seabed!

I was amazed by the strength of some of the little guys; there were a few moments when I thought I was reeling in a prize-winning kingfish before watching a little tiddler no bigger than my palm flutter up to the surface, and some of the bigger ones really have to be fought for. By nine o’clock, we’d caught enough to feed us all for the next couple of nights, and we made our way back to land. It was a perfect introduction to a major part of New Zealand’s culture, and it’s safe to say that both Amy and I have caught the bug. It’s hard to convey just how much better fish tastes when you’ve caught it yourself, as well as knowing that it was as sourced as humanely as possible with no by-catch. We were, and are, incredibly grateful for having Helen’s tuition, and our fishing escapades since have been happily successful!

If the western coast of the Coromandel is for those who enjoy eating fish, then its eastern shoreline is for those who prefer to watch them. The clear seas are a diver's heaven. Nigel had very kindly lent us his kayak, meaning we could venture out on the sea together. With the promise of perfect weather, we took the opportunity to paddle our way around some of New Zealand’s most awe-inspiring scenery – Mercury Bay. We trundled over the seemingly endless incline of state highway twenty-five between the mountains and over to the other side of the peninsula. We spent the night at Broken Hills DoC campsite – its name a legacy of the gold mining company that once scoured this area – nestled in the shadow of the peaks and turrets of the Pinnacles. Dawn preceded a flawless morning of empty blue skies and no wind, so we quickly made our way to the beachside town of Hahei.

As I pulled up at the beachfront, I’m pretty certain I felt the thunk of my jaw hitting the steering wheel, dropping hard enough to sound the horn. The scene was unreal: the azure blue of the sea was embroidered with emerald green, flecked with the glisten of the sun, and interrupted only by the march of an ancient volcanic archipelago of islets, sea stacks, and arches. The only sound was the gentle rhythmic thrum of the Pacific ocean against the bright white sand.

We were soon out on the water, and spent the next few hours paddling around the tiny rocky islands and their weathered buttresses, before landing on one of the country’s most celebrated beaches: Cathedral Cove. Here, the beach is split in two by a great sea arch carved into white cliffs. The place is a paradise. We sunned ourselves, splashing in blissfully clear waves, before heading back to Hahei and driving a few miles south to another remarkable place: Hot Water Beach.

New Zealand’s volcanic wonderments are integral to the country's character, and few districts are without their own claim to geothermal fame. The Coromandel Peninsula’s geothermal jewel in its crown is surely this place. As the tide lowers and the surf recedes, hot springs emerge through the sand. We arrived at high tide, but already people were starting to try and pinpoint the whereabouts of the hot sands. Amy and I were some of the first to find a spot – all we had to do was shuffle our feet an inch or so beneath the surface and the sand was scorching - the heat there is unbelievable! As soon as one person had identified a spring, crowds of people appeared, spade in hand, to dig themselves a spa of their own. After an hour of dredging and building little sand walls, there were countless pools spread out across the hot beach. It was incredible to think that the boiler responsible is a hundred and seventy million years old.

We drove past the town of Whitianga and pulled up in a layby in the hills for the night. As dusk fell on another unforgettable day, the forest’s nocturnal insects and birds began their evening chorus. We fell asleep happy that one call rang out above them all: the shrill cry of the Kiwi.

Friday, 20 January 2012

The Great Lake Taupo

At the geographic centre of New Zealand's North Island lies a volcanic crater. Spanning the size of a small country, the crater is the site of one of the largest documented eruptions in human history, darkening the skies of ancient China and even Rome. Today, the basin formed in these cataclysms is submerged beneath the hundred and ninety metre deep waters of Lake Taupo.

It is almost inconceivable to imagine that the small waves that lap the shores of Taupo have been swept over a dormant caldera that last exploded as recently as 2190 years ago. The vast body of water seems more like an ancient sea than a crater lake; its deep blue waters are framed by coves and beaches softened with white pumice sands that formed during one of the massive volcano's many eruptions, while in every direction the steeples and turrets of volcanic vents stand as brooding sentinels in the edge of the landscape, reminding you that this is most definitely inland.

Fed by the glacial streams and filtered rhyolitic rivulets of Tongariro National Park, the water has the incredible clarity of a mountain stream: a window into the depths of North Island before it tears itself into the mighty Waikato - New Zealand's longest river. Our visit to Lake Taupo began here, at its outlet, where the lake's restive soul detonates into some of the world's most stunning rapids - Huka Falls. Here, the Waikato is forced from being a hundred metres wide to just fifteen. The falls aren't the biggest, nor the tallest, nor the widest, but there is something spectacular and terrifying about seeing such a quantity of water writhing and churning its way down a narrow gorge with an almost supernatural, sentient ferocity.

There's no real way of grasping their power or volume without seeing them properly. Telling you that there is the equivalent of five olympic swimming pools pouring out each minute does not them justice. Huka Falls are a thunder of bright aqua green and bright white foam, the whirling waters never making the same pattern twice. Then, after a few hundred metres, they crash out of their canyon into a maelstromic plunge pool eleven metres below, where their rage swirls back into a calm, resuming the journey to the country's west coast.

Needless to say, we played extreme Pooh Sticks on the bridge above.

I won.

After our visit to the falls, we made our way to the lake itself. The town of Taupo is small but busy; a hive of tourists and thrill seekers booking their jetboat trips to Huka Falls, their skydiving and their bungee jumps. Meanwhile, the locals sun themselves on the lakefront as jetskis, speedboats and yachts slice and skim their way over the surface of the water. The bright blues and greens of Huka Falls gave a strange sense of invitation, so we were itching to get into/onto the lake. We made a short journey away from the busyness of Taupo to a sheltered cove on the Western edge, Acacia Bay. The waves became ripples here, and our kayak ownership meant we could explore further out. The clarity was startling. Even a long way out, shafts of light were reaching the bottom metres and metres below with no hint of murk or silt to obstruct them. The submarine landscape was just as mesmerising as the hills and cliffs above the water line.

We spent the evening with a friend of Amy's and were stoked to be given the opportunity to borrow their housemate's paddleboard the following morning. As a sport neither of us had ever tried but always wanted to, we were out on the water early on. Unfortunately, the wind had picked up and the chop grown bigger during the night, but we were unperturbed and spent a few hours clumsily wobbling from side to side in hilarious slapstick fashion before finally getting the gist of it. We both came away from the lake smiling, and made another addition to our already overfull arsenal of hobbies.

We had the intention of kayaking our way around Lake Taupo's western shoreline to view a unique piece of Maori craftsmanship: thirty foot carvings in the cliff sides of Mine Bay, reachable only by boat or kayak, but the strength of the prevailing wind took the appeal off the idea, so instead we went to visit something equally fascinating...

Downstream of Huka Falls, the Waikato River is held back by the concrete and metal of Aratiatia Dam. Below the dam, the exposed gorge has been carved into curvaceous grooves and soft, alien formations by the power of the river, but for much of the time, the rocks are dry, with just an iridescent pool of azure blue resting in the valley floor. Then, three or four times a day, the river is unleashed.

Sadly, there are no cries of "Break the dam! Release the river!" save for those in my head, but a horn sounds through the valley as the gates slowly crank open just enough to transform a trickle to a torrent. The effect is strange: like the sunset, it's barely noticeable through a constant gaze, but look away for a moment and suddenly the difference is colossal. Water leaps up with such a force that it's easy to see why the adjacent rock faces are so smooth, ground down by the blasts of current that strike them.

The incumbent great lake of Taupo makes it hard to imagine that it hasn't always been there. And, while the the plethora of colourful volcanic valleys, terraces and geysers are fascinating, they're simply little reminders that Taupo's creator is sleeping; dormant, but still very much alive.

Friday, 6 January 2012

Christmas in New Zealand

 Christmas at home is an occasion built almost entirely around keeping warm in the winter months, so when it's spent in the summer of the Southern Hemisphere, the traditions and habits seem a little unnatural and redundant. We tried our best to fire up the same excitement for the festive season we'd have in the UK, but no matter how much mulled wine we drank and mince pies we scoffed, the sensation that it was Christmas failed to stir itself. So when it came to the 25th, we'd long since realised that trying to recreate anything like our usual festive traditions was a waste of time. Aside from a tiny tree erected on our van's dashboard, we ensured that our first Christmas in New Zealand was going to be completely different.

On the beach with our tiny tree.
The day promised to be hot and sunny, so where better than the beach to enjoy our antipodean alternative? We headed straight out to Mount Maunganui - a stunning cove on New Zealand's Bay of Plenty coastline overlooked by Mauao - an ancient volcanic core that juts out into the turqoise Pacific waters. The area itself was one of the worst affected by oil slick caused by the grounding of the Rena, the stricken cargo ship that lay fractured on the Astrolab Reef 10 miles out. But aside from its listing silhouette on the horizon, and a few recent shark sightings, there was no visible sign of any of the effects. The beach was pristine, and the waters were clear, and the waves were perfect. 

As a present to ourselves, Amy and I had invested in a second hand sit-on kayak a few days before Christmas so that we could really enjoy and explore the lakes and coastline as we travelled round the country. We'd found ourselves seething with jealousy each time we'd seen something casually float by, so we thought it was about time. Needless to say I spent all morning playing in the surf, paddling with a big grin on my face! Amy was in her element, basking on the beach like a lizard.

That afternoon, we fired up the barbecue. We filled ourselves with big skewers of prawns, with snapper, with juicy corn-on-the-cob, and enormous fillet steaks while we made the most of the beautiful weather. We returned to the campsite that evening to find our friend Helen on reception duty so we spent the evening enjoying more food, bottles of wine and a cheeseboard. Some old habits die hard!