North Island, west coast
Flying to Auckland (North Island, NZ) was exhausting, even with the break in Thailand. We quickly met Paul (Neil's best man) and got acquainted with our camper van. With match sticks in our eyes, we drove south west to Port Waikato, a small port on a very bendy but very scenic coastal road. This was to be the first night of many spent sleeping in several layers, under several blankets, listening to the rain on our camper van roof!
The next morning we pushed on to Raglan, a stunning beach further south. It's popular with surfers as the waves are fairly big and the beach is long and flat. The dunes and grasses behind the beach frame it so nicely. The driftwood is spectacular too. We've put some photos on flickr so you can see how beautiful it is.
We've quickly realised that the advantage of being in New Zealand off season is that the beaches are empty. It's so liberating to wander along such a sweeping expanse of sand with just a handful of surfers out in the waves and a couple of dog walkers on the beach. The locals are obsessed with keeping the coastlines and countryside litter free and work hard to prevent tourism or leisure having any impact on nature. Even dog walkers are limited to certain times. It really pays off; the air is fresh, the beaches immaculate and everywhere feels untouched and unspoiled. We enjoyed Raglan beach and the 'fush and chups' very much.
Our next stop further south on the west coast was New Plymouth, where Ireland's first group match, against the USA, was played. We met up with Mick and Peggy (Neil's uncle and aunt, over from Canada) here. As you'd expect, the Kiwis have gone mad for the Rugby World Cup, setting up fan zones in all the big towns with big screens to watch the matches on. All the shops are selling the official memorabilia and even in the smallest towns, each shop has picked or been allocated a team to support. They've all filled their shop fronts with themed displays based on their allocated country, which is pretty cool.
The stadium in New Plymouth is one of the smaller ones, which meant we were pretty close to the action, even in our cheap seats. We've put some pics on flickr to show how good the view was! The atmosphere was great, with loads of Irish fans turning out and quite a few Americans. It's amazing how far people will travel and how crazily they will dress to support their team. Rugby tops, scarves and flags are obligatory (fortunately we have all three). Additional wigs, hats and face paints are the norm. All in one body suits, national themed costumes and all over body paint are common place- check out the Americans in our photos!
The weather conditions were poor, both for us and the players. Our cheap seats weren't in the covered section and as the rain drove sideways we were grateful for our hot chocolate/beer/chips. The players looked like they were playing on an ice rink, with a ball that was as easy to catch as a large pat of butter. Fortunately this didn't prevent them from snatching victory from the yanks as we whooped and hollered from our very damp seats! After the match Mick found a USA after party, hosted by a local rugby club. It was brilliant fun and all the Irish and American fans partied together, pitch rivalry instantly forgotten. Live music, lots of dancing and crazy drinking games - a great time was had by all!