My final exploration of New Zealand was up to the very northernmost section, the Northlands. I took a 4-hour journey from Auckland to Paihia with the most fantasticly and memorably named Naked Bus company. It was a great relief to discover that clothes ARE worn on this bus, mainly for the reason that my big bag cannot shut with all of my clothes, hoodies and jeans in it, there just is not the room! During my time away I have become an uber-bus-geek and always run for the front seats when boarding a coach; the view from that spot just cannot be rivalled and I figure if I'm spending hours and hours on busses, I definitley want to be able to see the land we pass through on the way to places. My driver northwards was a very friendly gentleman and I got talked to the entire way up!!
I arrived in Paihia in drizzly drizzly misty rain and windiness, a bit apprehensive as I had a boat cruise of the Bay booked for that afternoon. I need not have worried, the cruise was fantastic, inspite of the less-than-perfect conditions. This cruise was an afterthought; I hadn't planned on doing one but after reading several "there is no point in going to the bay of islands and not doing a cruise"s in various guidebooks, I decided that it was worth it to spend that extra $80. Silly really, if I had booked it together with my trip for the Sunday, I could have got a good old discount, but as it was I had to pay full price. It's all a learning curve!
So we set off on a boat built to take 120, with just nine of us on board [In my entire time traveling I have never been anywhere as deserted as wintertime bay of islands, it is like sidmouth in midwinter, a windswept, rainy, ghosttown.. in my hostel there are just FOUR guests!], as the skipper pointed out, we'd be okay if the boat sunk, with enough lifejackets to make a humungous luxury raft to sail back to shore on!
As we cruised out into the open ocean, as the captain had warned, it got REALLY lumpy! We were all stood up the front of the boat, holding tightly to the safety rails, like riding a rollarcoaster! I can imagine it would be a worst nightmare for someone that gets motion sick, but I loved it! It was exciting! Got a bit sprayed with seawater but it's all part of the fun. We sailed out and around and in amongst the islands, with commentry from the captain on their ownership and stinking-richness of some of the few elite mansions nestled amongst the trees with superyachts tied up outside and helipads on the roof.. also on the marine and bird-life around. We were all on the lookout for dolphins and it was ME that spotted them and gave the shout!! Sure enough, we were in a pod of around 20 pelagic bottlenoses, lazily hanging out around the boat, swimming back and forwards, coming up for air and jumping a bit. With the pod were three excitable and acrobatic babies; the adults were MONSTERS, the skipper estimated at up to 250kgs, that is a big dolphin! I've seen dolphins before, in the whitsundays, whale-watching from surfers paradise and from the shore, but this was by far the best experience so far. Because there were only nine of us on the boat, there was not competition for rail-space, no jostling to get a pic, we were able to lie belly-down on the prow of the boat and hang out heads over the side to get brilliant pictures of them directly below us. It was great.
After about 25mins of dolphins we headed onwards to Urupukapuka island, which has a resort on it, for a brief stop for (expensive and bad) coffee to warm up. Some of the passengers were spending the night on this island so it was just four of us on the boat back to Paihia.My evening was spent chatting with the three other occupants of the hostel, wild stuff.
On Sunday, I took a full day-trip up to Cape Reinga, at the very north of the North Island. My pickup was 7:15am for a long day. Our first stop was a boardwalk through an ancient Kauri forest. This forest is full of species endemic to NZ, the Kauri trees themselves are very slow-growing and live up to 300years, they are MONSTERS, massive and impressive and very 'tapu' or sacred to the Maoris. I turned left when the rest turned right and managed to do the loop walk alone and in silence, a far better way to experience a majestic forest than being one of a herd of twenty. Then we headed further northwards and onto 90-mile-beach, a beach that is actually 64miles long but kept its 90-name, which is also a road, like on Fraser Island. It was a much more enjoyable experience being driven by an experienced bus-driver than putting my life in the hands of a random fellow backpacker, I was still a little bit nervy about the sand conditions and crash potential, but much less so. It's an awesome feeling to be speeding along wide, flat, sand with dunes to one side and surf to the other. We turned off the beach and drove up Te Paki stream in between the dunes, to the site of massive, smooth dunes perfect for Sand-Boarding!! No, I didn't know what it was either. The driver handed us a bodyboard each from the lockers under the bus and we set off in a line climbing up this massive dune. At the top, stop, board on the ground, kneel in front of it, elbows on board, hold onto the nose, belly on, legs up, push off and GO! The way to control descent is using your toes as steering and brakes, I was a little bit scared and dug my toes in the whole way down on the first run, it was just so fast!! It was brilliant fun, rushing down the dune headfirst. A few people came a cropper due to not holding on tight, apparently the ultimate goal was to hit and clear the stream at the bottom of the dune, without capsizing. Some poeple did it, a few came off IN the stream, ending up soaking wet and with a mouthful of sand.
The driver told us afterwards anecdotes of sand-boarding injuries he has seen, including a broken neck, cracked ribs, missing teeth and cuts and grazes. Glad I was that he told us afterwards or I reckon I might not have done it atall, but I was glad I had because it was brilliant fun! Having initally intended to just have one go, 'just to see what it's like' I found myself climbing up and sliding down, again and again and again!
A well-earned lunch break at yet another stunning stormy sandy beach, necessary because our next stop, Cape Reinga, was so tapu to the maoris that you are not allowed to take food or drink on the walk there, they believe that Cape Reinga (Te Rerenga-Wairua) is the departure point for souls of dead people as they depart on the journey to their spiritual homeland of Haiwaki, an island that exists only in the legends and history. The story goes that the souls travel along the long ridge of mountains running to the cape, great lakes at the base of the valley formed by 1000s of tears shed by the departing souls, then they exit the mainland via an outcrop of three islands called Kings Islands, where the slide down the roots of a giant sacred 800yr-old pohutukawa tree. I LOVE the Maori stories, they are a lot more appealing than the aboriginal ones of dreamtime, and seem to be more feasible somehow.
Cape Reinga certainly seems like it would be an appropriate departure point for souls, right at the tip of the land; at "the meeting point" you can see waves crasing against each other out to sea, where the Tasman Sea to the west and Pacific Ocean (east) meet. I posted a postcard from possibly the most remote postbox on earth.
Cape Reinga itself is perhaps 3hours drive from Paihia. On the way back south we stopped at the overpriced but interesting Kingdom of the Ancient Kauri, referring to those trees that we had seen in the forest that morning. Being as they are protected, the trees cannot be cut down to have stuff made out of them but fortunately for those that want to make stuff out of Kauri, in this region there has been a lot of swampland in the past and buried beneath the earth can be found perfectly preserved Kauri trees from up to 45,000 years ago. They dig these up and make stuff out of them, including a staircase I ascended which was entirely carved from the hollow inside of a 4m-wide Kauri trunk. Impressive!
My last day in the Paihia was spent with two lovely ladies, Liz Reed, a friend of my dear grandmother, the two of them had worked at Bletchley Park together during the war, and her daughter Eila. I was extremely lucky to be shown around the historic Waitangi Treaty grounds by Eila, whose grandfather and great-grandfather were both directly involved in the formation of the treaty and development of the Treaty grounds as a public attraction. She was incredibly knowledgable about the really interesting and highly significant Treaty, which was signed back in 1840. Within the treaty grounds, we visited an impressive 35m long Maori waka (war canoe), a beautifully carved and woven Marae in addition to the Treaty House itself, which is now a great musuem. We had lunch with Liz at her house, looking out on stunning views over the Bay and a final wander around Paihia, up to some lookouts and into an old memorial church before jumping on the 4.30pm bus back to Auckland.
My final day in Auckland was unremarkable; I don't much like the city. So I am remembering my last day in NZ as being my one in Paihia. It was fantastic to learn that final bit more about arguably the most significant event in the history of the country; I feel as if I now have a more complete view of things here. I am flying out of New Zealand tomorrow at 6am, to go to San Francisco.
I am sad to leave; having loved Australia so much, I actually love New Zealand ten times more. Six weeks was just right but at the same time not nearly enough. Its scenery, its variety, its atmosphere, its people, the package is just perfect and I am CERTAIN that I will return one day, hopefully before too long, to do the things that I didn't quite get chance to do this time round. Oh, and if I move to the Southern Hemisphere, it is to New Zealand that I will be coming, hands down!