We took a spaceship black water rafting to Mount Doom

Our flight from Chile was pretty uneventful and we landed safely at the un-godly hour of 3:55am – 10 minutes earlier than expected. It turned out that 90% of the passengers were in transit to Sydney and as we headed for immigration, there were six booths open and only five of us to go through. Unlike Heathrow, the lady at the desk was extremely friendly, very excited to see our Antarctica stamps and even scolded us that we weren’t planning on going to the South Island despite her giving us a six month visa. She waved us through after wishing us a good stay and we headed for Bio-security to have our boots inspected.

The lady at this desk checked our declaration cards, “I see you’ve recently been in contact with wildlife – what might that have been then?”
“Penguins in Antarctica – but we hired boots and gave them back.”
“Fantastic! I’d love to go there one day. Let’s just have a quick look at your hiking boots then”
She glanced at them, saw they’d been washed and said “Great. Welcome to New Zealand!”
This laid back treatment wasn’t quite what we’d expected after we’d had to fill in the declarations that threatened your with all kinds of fines and imprisonment. This was a breeze.

Dave and Michelle (Daryl’s brother and girlfriend) were coming to pick us up so we had a coffee while we waited served by a lady who was far too bright and breezy for that time in the morning. When we got picked up a few minutes later we headed to Michelle’s house where we were invited to stay for a couple of days. Now, Michelle said she lived out out of the city ‘in the sticks’ and we were soon to find out just how true that was. We drove, and drove, and drove…and drove and eventually turned down a couple of dark lanes to her house, got out of the car and was greeted by the deafening sound of the cicadas (little cricket-like insects).

After a good sleep we spent the following day with Michelle and Dave in Auckland and went over to the small suburb of Devonport, climbing the hill with an old fortress on top to get fantastic views over the harbour and city – just as good as the Sky Tower only a fraction of the cost i.e. free!

We had a lovely dinner with Michelles parents and were reminded of our own little Star as Michelle has a cute Border Collie called Jess who was equally affectionate, but not half as mad and as Daryl kept saying, could have been the fifth Teletubbie due to his round smiling face. It’s a compliment, honest.

We left Michelle’s the next day to pick up our Spaceship. For those that think we’ve lost the plot, a Spaceship is a brand name for a ‘campervan’ that’s effectively a people carrier with the seats ripped out and a bed, stove, fridge and DVD player put in. We set off for our 10 day whistle-stop tour of the North Island…!

We headed for Waitomo and arrived as the sun was setting between the undulating hills and tor-like stone formations. After driving up a very long, windy hill we picked a spot at the side of the road and free camped our first night overlooking the valley. We made some dinner and as it had been a long day, retired early to watch a dvd ‘Vacancy’…in hindsight, watching a movie about a couple who break down in the middle of nowhere at night probably wasn’t the best idea when we were a couple in the middle of nowhere at night free camping! We spooked ourselves for a while and did wonder if it was the trees swaying in the breeze or something else…

…having survived the night however, we decided to go blackwater rafting and see the glow worms. If you’ve never done it before, this involves you wedging your backside into a rubber ring whilst floating down narrow caves and jumping off a few waterfalls, all in the dark while you watch the glow worms er, glow above your heads. All very pretty and magical except as the guide said, the glow worms actually only glow when they’re having a poo so really they’re all having the last laugh when we all come along with our mouths open gawping at them while they do their business on us having just and paid for the privilege. Nice. Daryl pointed out to the guide that he actually does it three times a day, seven days a week…who’s the bigger fool?! Oh, and we should just point out that ‘Black Water Rafting’ isn’t anything like the adrenalin-inducing ‘White Water Rafting’; it’s much more sedate and less taxing but sounds impressive – the ability to swim is optional.

After the rafting we had some soup and showers to warm up before driving south towards Tongariro. This took most of the afternoon and because we wanted to start a hike early the next morning, we thought we’d find a campsite near the trailhead. On the way we stopped at a lookout that had Lake Taupo stretching out below it as the sun was getting lower and we thought this was just too good a spot not to stop for the night, so we did. Unfortunately the beauty outside was marred by the ‘buzzzzzzzz’ of mosquitos inside so we lay there covered in insect repellent with a sheet over our heads. So much for romantically watching the sunset over the lake…

The next morning we were up and out and ready to hike by 8:30am at the meeting point in Whakapapa – this brings a juvenile smile as to pronounce this phonetically, the ‘wh’ is pronounced ‘f’ – work it out for yourselves.

The Tongariro Crossing is described as “New Zealand’s best one day hike” so was one we couldn’t miss. It’s basically a hike over the saddle of a volcanic range with amazing views, lakes, mineral colours and was the location for Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings. Evie has banned Daryl from making any geeky references. He said “OK, my Precious” 😉

The hike took about 6 hours and was challenging at times, especially in the blazing sunshine with very little wind or shade. It was however, very dramatic and unlike anything we’d seen before on a hike. We’re used to hiking in lush green mountains but this was just like the film – barren moon-like landscapes with lots of grey/brown stone and dust. Along the way this was broken up with areas of vivid colour such as the bubbling Emerald and Blue Lakes and the stunning Red Crater that were a complete contrast with the surround. On the way up, the landscape was really rocky with little vegetation, but as soon as we’d crossed over the top this changed to grasses, to flowers, to forest as we descended further towards the end.

A few hundred metres of the descent from the top of the pass were very steep with loose shale and it was difficult to keep your balance. As the driver had said “Don’t fall here; fall left and you’ll break your leg down the steep slope, fall right and you’ll break your leg and burn your feet when you land in the boiling hot water”. Great. Not that this bothered two women who RAN down the slope – idiots. Here we were in our hiking gear and sturdy boots but once again, we were the minority as others were doing the hike in trainers, hotpants and one girl even accessorised with a handbag! There was the option to climb another 500m up Mount Doom a la Frodo on the loose scree but a) we didn’t have enough time b) Evie wasn’t going to be Sam to Daryl’s Frodo. Spoilsport. We could see some guys scrambling around though and it didn’t look particularly appealing. Later on we saw a couple of guys in vests, shorts and trainers muttering that they could have got higher had they been wearing better shoes…

After the hike we headed to Taupo and treated ourselves to a real campsite with hot showers and electricity! The next morning we took a boat ride across the lake to look at some famous Moari carvings. Daryl thought these were some ancient carvings but it turns out they were commissioned in the 1980’s. They were still very impressive though and the boat ride on the lake was nice.

In the afternoon we went to Rotorura and visited Wai-o-tapu Thermal Wonderland. This was a very, very smelly collection of thermal sulphur pools and geysers that Evie had recommended from her previous visit. Despite the smell and heat, the natural colours and formations were very impressive although the naming wasn’t very original – every other formation was either ‘Devils…’ or ‘Hell’s…’.

As it was a holiday weekend we had been invited up to Michelle’s family beach house in Whangamata and on the way we were going to pass through Taurunga on the off chance that we could find Evie’s Aunt’s 80 year old cousin who she’d lost touch with. Needle in a haystack you might think…but to cut a long story short, we found him within 5 minutes of entering the city limits! We spent the afternoon with him before getting to the beach for a glorious flamingo-pink sunset at Whangamata.

From the beach we drove around the Coramandel over the next couple of days, taking in sights like Cathederal Cove; a beautiful beach with a magnificent rock arch, an amazing sunset as we cooked dinner on a secluded beach at Sailors Grave and we visited a home made railway at Coromandel that had taken 20 years to build and snaked its way up a mountain to offer magnificent views from the top. It rained when we were there so we saw great clouds.

Leaving Coramandel, we started driving back around the peninsula towards Auckland. As the afternoon wore on and the windy roads increased, we obviously started to run low on fuel. By this time it was about 7pm and the first few petrol stations we pulled into, proudly boasted that they were 24hour, provided that you could use your credit card to pre-pay the machine. This didn’t work for UK cards as generally they wanted a signature! So we pushed on, ever hopeful that the next gas station would be open. They weren’t. By this time we had been running on empty for a while and the warning light had been on even longer so we decided to pull in by the gas station and wait till morning. It was a hot, muggy night, the mozzie’s were swarming and were camped at a petrol station beside a main road – not our greatest camping spot to date. Because it was so hot in the van, we decided to leave the AC on for a few minutes to cool it down…and woke up in the morning with the fan was still blowing. Daryl said “Phew, its a good thing that didn’t drain the battery”. We saw the station was open so Daryl jumped in the drivers seat and started the van. It ticked a bit but didn’t start. Now, either the battery was dead or we had run out of gas, or both. How embarrassing.

Daryl went into the gas station and asked if he could borrow a container to get a few litres of gas. He got 5 litres, poured it in the tank, pumped the pedal and tried the engine again…still nothing. He went back and sheepishly asked if someone could give him a jump start. The station owner was very helpful and came out with a portable battery charger. We popped the bonnet and had a look underneath, only to find there were two batteries mounted on top of each other and the top one was a massive 24v unit for the secondary power (i.e. DVD player). The station owner said his charger wouldn’t work on that and went back to the station, suggesting that we ring the AA.

Evie suggested we call the AA, Daryl being a stubborn man, told her to be patient while he started unscrewing things and poking around. A few minutes later he poked his head triumphantly around the bonnet and said the good news was that the secondary battery was fully charged so we could watch DVD’s, the bad news was that the primary one seemed to be flat and power couldn’t transfer between them so we would need a jump start on the 12v battery.

Daryl went back to the station and this time the owner asked one of his customers to give us a hand. This guy was very friendly and more than happy to help because as he said “It’s a real bugger to be stranded in the middle of nowhere on your holiday”. He hooked up his jump leads and we were set and on the road again! The moral of the story is don’t turn the AC on and lie down for ‘just a minute’. Unless you’ve got the engine running or are in a house.

We drove north past Auckland towards the Bay of Islands and stopped along the way at Whangarei to visit Kiwi House, after all we cant come to NZ and not see a real kiwi! The kiwi house was run by a guy from Wakefield in Yorkshire who had a bizarre yor-kiwi accent. (Trust Evie to spot a northerner!) Eventually after our eyes had got accustomed to the darkness, we managed to make out the form of something moving. For some reason we expected kiwi’s to be small but this one was about the size of a football (soccerball for foreigners) and was only a couple of years old! Having met our objective, we carried on to Paihia on the Bay of Islands to book a dolphin watching trip. As we’d have an early start, we camped at the nearest campsite to treat ourselves to a hot shower…only to find that the site had just had a boiler failure and there was no hot water! To top it off, Evie came back from her cold shower to find Daryl stood holding a frying pan, dripping wet having just been caught in a downpour while cooking outside the van. There was a kitchen next to the shower block too…but she didn’t have the heart to tell him as he stood there muttering and wringing out his T-shirt. At least she didn’t complain the sauce was watery! – Daryl

Early the next morning we set sail in search of dolphins and hoped to swim with them if we found any. We’d seen plenty of wildlife in Antarctica but only one hour-glass dolphin so we hoped this was good. About an hour after we crossed the bay, we weren’t disappointed as we found ourselves amongst a pod of about 30 dolphins. Unfortunately there were some baby dolphins in the group so we couldn’t swim but it was amazing to watch them swim back and forth around the boat; they were being really playful, turning to look at us and jumping out of the water showing off. We couldn’t get enough but there were several young Kontiki tour members that obviously didn’t appreciate a rocking boat while they had raging hangovers and very little sleep. After a couple of photos, they slumped in the corner. Tsk, Tsk, youth of today eh?

Triumphant in our dolphin spotting we headed south towards Auckland and as it was our last night, we camped at a Government campsite beside Uritetti Beach at Bream Bay. Now, these campsites aren’t flash – long drop toilets and cold showers but they are very cheap ($7), clean and good value, compared to what we get in the UK. We had a nice walk along the beach and although the sunset wasn’t amazing, the moon rise was a deep golden colour and and a nice end to our camping.

On the way up, we had seen a sign for sheep dog shows and as we were missing Star, we made a point to drop into ‘Sheep World’. We weren’t expecting much but turned out to have a really good time! Sheep World is actually more than sheep as they have Emu’s, pigs, Llamas, miniature ponies, ostrich, eels, possums, a big cow, deer, ducks and of course sheep. We may sound like sheltered townies but we enjoyed petting them and feeding them all. We got chatting to the sheep sheerer and it turned out that he had only moved over 4 years ago from Bromley, Kent and learnt everything as he went along! He loved it and wouldn’t go back to being a caretaker at the school in London…

We dropped off our Spaceship back in Auckland and met up with old friends from our trip to Egypt six years ago. This was Donno and Jen who were now also joined by their little crocs (children) Emma and Alice. They have a great home on North Shore with a bush reserve in the back garden!
We had a great evening with beer and the obligatory barbie while catching up. Its so true that some people you meet travelling turn out to be friends for life…and a cheap place to stay.

The following morning, before we left them to meet another friend we met on the boat, we had a conversation about ‘its a small world’ experiences and thought nothing of it. They dropped us off in the city and we went our separate ways to meet our friend.

While waiting for our friend, Daryl hears his name called and turns around. He sees his friend, the trouble is that its not the one he was expecting, rather an old school friend he hadn’t seen in almost 10 years!! Yet again, we realised that it really is “a small world”. We couldn’t stop so took his number and promised to meet for a drink later that afternoon.

The friend we were meeting from the Antarctica ship was Robyn, who turned out to be Sir Edmund Hilary’s step-daughter. A really lovely lady who we spent the afternoon with reminiscing about our magical trip and watching NZ win the Luis Vutton Pacific Series yacht race in the harbour – as you do. Funnily enough, she said that if we ever were to go to Nepal, she has a few contacts. We bet she does as on the boat she was telling us stories about how her dad and Sir Edmund built a runway on the mountain on one of their expeditions!

After we left Robyn, we went back to Dave and his girlfriend and caught up on old times and friends – if we had stayed another couple of days, Daryl could have seen more school friends as one was flying out to get married! Never mind.

We went back to Michelle’s parents for one final night before we flew out at lunchtime on Monday as our kiwi chapter drew to a close. North Island was great so we cant wait to visit South Island another time but on to Oz!

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