Rotorua is the first place on the New Zealand bucket list; Lauren takes us there and gives us a guided tour even though she has seen it many times before. ‘Rotten-rua’she calls it, and it hits you before you arrive. The sulphurous whiffs only add to the magic for us. You can never tire of climbing into crystal clear water that looks cool but transpires to be pleasantly warm. What can wear a little thin is the umpteenth time someone asks, ‘you farted?’ – A great place for the chronically flatulent!
The next day our family visit volcanic White Island by boat trip – It is a landscape from a Sci-fi movie. We step from the boat in our gas masks, which I think are a little ‘health & safety’ over the top, but they add to the experience. The multi-coloured terrain is an exhilarating walk to the super-heated bubbling pools in the distance. I endeavour to explain how pressure super-heats the water, as the kids endeavour to exit left. We all survive, with room to spare!
Wiamana is outside Whakatane in the country, Maori country. It is where Lauren grew up and I have heard lots of stories about the sleepy place. The family ran the local convenience store for years and it is like something from the Wild West on a bank holiday. Alan has come with us all and is regaling us with fascinating stories. He used to have a single engine plane to get about, to visit friends further away. There is no law out here; it is lawless without being worryingly so. Lauren drove the family car from the age of thirteen, when I say drove, she would often go and pick Alan up from a pub in Whakatane after he had played the Hammond organ in there for the night – sensible enough to not drive drunk, but then being picked up by an emerging teenager! No one batted an eye-lid, can you imagine in the ultra-safe, risk averse countries some of us live in?
We stop at the tiny Maori cemetery on the way up into hills, on the way to swim in a river. At this point I don’t know the significance – it is where Alan will be laid to rest in a few weeks, among his ex-customers, neighbours, Maori friends, Maori Chiefs.
We leave the next day to get back to Don and Lauren’s house. I am certain I will see Alan again. Years always go by, and I always see him again.
After having the car serviced we are set to venture the short distance north to use Kerikeri in The Bay of Islands as a base. We stay at a backpacking hostel, as we do in most major cities on our antipodean travels. To the young independent travellers we meet, we are ‘cool’ and our children are told regularly, ‘you’re so lucky.’ Kerikeri is a lovely place, steeped in history, there’s something here for everyone, native and foreign. The picturesque Russell is short boat ride across the sheltered bay, or in our case in an amphibious craft, or yellow duck, the ones that tend to sink quite regularly, and worryingly, in England, more so when you think there’s only about three working in the entire tourist trade! Ours doesn’t bother and the exuberant tour guide gets us all to blow our decoy duck whistles to the slight embarrassment of the wife and the delight of the children, well, we’re tourists.
Russell is a beautiful spot, but it was not always so, Charles Darwin described it as ‘the hell hole of the Pacific.’ The main industry when he docked there in The Beagle in 1835 was prostitution and grog shops, and just to add a little balance, there was a mission. Now the only thing incarcerated in the original tiny prison/police station is a lawnmower.
A short walk up the hill to the church allows you to find the bullet holes in the walls and graves from the fighting between natives and the British. Across the far side of the bay is Waitangi Treaty Grounds (Flagstaff Hill) where the historic document was signed between the Maoris and the British, historic because it remains the only treaty of peace and mutual benefit between an imperial invading force and indigenous people! Of course the invading Europeans ripped the natives off, especially for land, but there is plenty of it, but look at how other indigenous peoples have been ‘treated’ by there more powerful invaders. Native American death toll is somewhere between 80-100,000,000 (I put the noughts in to emphasise the scale), and 20,000 Native Australians died at the hand of the white man, but that was mainly because there wasn’t many of them to start with and they tend to be dispersed to areas the white man didn’t/doesn’t want. So however unfair the original divvying up of the land in the surrounding area was in 1840, there is a meme of harmony that is tangible in NZ life, that is not by accident, that is due to dialogue and trust, and a piece of paper. Let’s not kid ourselves; had New Zealand been nearer to Europe and of more strategic significance, and not on the other side of the world, things may have been a lot different for the Maoris, as it was exactly the same authorities that wreaked havoc in North America and Australia!
We visit the world’s longest canoe down by the shore in the grounds, the war canoe with the unpronounceable name (Ngatokimatawhaorua), it is 35m long and can get you and 75 mates in for a paddle. I have seen this as a boy on Blue Peter (Children’s programme) and been fascinated by it. On the hill next to the flagpole is the original mission treaty house, which is the oldest wooden building in the nation, from 1822. Lauren has told us on two occasions to go and actively seek out NZ’s oldest stone building –The Stone Store, and on our last day there we do so, it is an uninspiring square utilitarian store in the guise of a house that we have driven by it several times and been too uninspired to pass comment, it was finished in 1836, which in the scheme of things, is not that old really. The only redeeming feature it has a lovely location by the water. We practise our invented enthusiasm in case Lauren asks us about it. The wife and I have a discussion on what native people feel patriotic about, and conclude it would not be semi-old stone store building or a barn for us. After our travels, because of our travels, we have a friend over from Australia, and he walks around the centre of Manchester agog, looking at buildings that are more than 200 years old. Somethings you take for granted if you come from the ‘old world’.
We are up early for a four-wheel drive bus tour to (almost) the furthest point of NZ, Cape Reinga. I’m looking forward to the 90 Mile beach, I’ve seen it many times on the tele and I like the idea of driving on a beach if not for 90 miles, at least a large part of the actual 64 miles it is. We stop to look at the magnificent Puketi Kauri Forest, which bores the kids, and seemed to have a similar effect on The Queen the last time she visited, judging by the rapidity of her walking, she did not appear interested in hugging a 2,000-year-old tree.
We are back on the coach and the next stop is sand boarding on the dunes at Te Paki. This gives me a realistic opportunity of breaking my neck and everyone else as well. The middle-aged tour guide/driver refuses to show us how to do it. We have already sand boarded into a lake next to Bethells Beach, but this dune is twenty times larger. I have very dodgy shoulders that dislocate if a sparrow farts in the distance; the right one stays in now due to an operation, but the left one is more subordinate. So I only have one objective as I’m pushed forward by the wife to make sure it is safe for our offspring – to try and keep my shoulders in their sockets. I clamp them, along with my arms to my body like I’m bungee jumping through hyperspace. As I’m inevitably launched into the air I keep my single objective in front of me. I land in the sand like dart, nearly breaking my neck, but my shoulders are still in place! Not helped as I struggle to my feet to start spitting sand unceremoniously, I’m like a sedimentary court-jester there to amuse. I recover, and goaded by the children and watching other people, realising the idea is to not try and hospitalise yourself, I join the queue and glide with penguinesque grace (in my own mind). I put a big tick on the bucket list, and in the notes I write, enough!
We climb up to the lighthouse at Cape Reinga and watch the mighty Pacific from the east fight against the plucky Tasman Sea from the west; the unsettled choppy waters are clear delineation, and a warning not to be foolish enough to get in. The Maori’s name it after a male and female respectively, what is happening as the two bodies of water meet, can only be classed as domestic violence! We stop at a gift shop on the way back to Kerikeri and purchase a kauri wood chopping board that I still treasure to this day as I prepare food.
We visit the quirky Hundertwasser toilets in Kawakawa and I buy shares in the steam railway that I know I will never see a dividend from, but in times like these I ask myself, what would Bill Bryson do?
On our journey up to Kerikeri we have stopped at a hotel/pub in the middle of nowhere. A guy from Cornwall is the sole person in there. I wander around the pub looking at the black and white photos on the wall; there are a few from harsh farming times of the past, that do not encourage you to take up agriculture. I can only assume the people stood next to their farm machinery and implements did not know they were having their pictures taken, or off camera someone is pointing a semi-automatic weapon in their direction. There are many of rugby teams; I have no idea where you would get enough people around here to form a team, never mind one to actually play against. It reminds me of those two pub football teams in the Channel Isles that play each other every week of the season. I go back and get chatting to Cornish man. He explains he is only here in New Zealand for two years so he can get into Australia. He has been at this pub for months, I lean into him and whisper conspiratorially, “You’re not being held hostage, are you?” He laughs, which I take as a ‘no’. There has to be easier ways to get into Australia, surely? – stealing bread! They are throwing English-speaking people in normally. I wonder if he’s still there in the basement on a dirty mattress auditioning for a part in Saw 17, or whatever number it is now.
A few days previous we have visited a chocolate factory, the girl is obsessed, and in a reverse psychology strategy we have concocted, we have told her she can eat as much as she likes on the way back to Don and Lauren’s. Both her parents are hoping she will vomit and be cured of her addiction – sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind! She doesn’t believe us when we say it. She hits her first Cool Hand Luke moment in Kawakawa and I offer to take her in to a newsagents to buy more supplies – the plan is working, but when I call her bluff and take her in she is in chocolate heaven and grabs more provisions! She stops masticating a couple of times, then she’s off again, she has won, she is officially an addict, and we are partly responsible, we are what is known in CAA circles (Chocoholic Addiction Anonymous) as ‘Parental Feeders’, we will probably end up in prison for historical feeder charges, except all the evidence has been consumed. We will cure her of her thumb sucking addiction by painting on a carcinogenic chemical (‘Stop-It’), banded in most developed countries in the world. We have come to the conclusion that more stick is needed, and much, much less chocolate-coated carrot!
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