Deciding to fly to New Zealand (NZ) for a holiday was not a hard decision nor did it take long to organise. We decided early (ie. Jan 2016) that riding and renting a bike was not practical given that we both just wanted to relax and cruise without the worry of having to cart all our camping gear for a short 3 week vaction. So motorhome it was. Several nights were spent seaching for them online and altho we settled on deals at the opposite end of the spectrum, my wife (as usual) won and we signed up for a 6 berth almost luxurious Mitsubitsi Fuso truck. Compared to our usual motorcycle camping this was going to be very cruisey!
Flying in to Auckland and being picked up by the rental representative of Walkabout Rentals, getting some some shopping done at 'Pack& Save' and departing Auckland by nightfall was not really planned but we were both keen to escape the big city syndrome. There was no real plan as to where we would go. So we tossed a coin and headed north to hopefully feel the last and final sunrays of summer somewhere around the Bay of Islands. Driving in NZ is pretty much en par with Aus with the exception of roadwork and warning signs. Somehow they are more down to earth and easier to understand. Clearly the road safety nazi's had not arrived in NZ just yet. We did have a GPS however few of the towns we chose were not in the library. Why does everyone think that Garmin Navigators are good????
Anyhow we got lost and ended up at Muriwai Beach campground just as the attendant was turning in for the night. First night in a rental motorhome was a bit of shock since we had been up since 2:15am that morning. Where are light switches, water pump switches, toilet buttons etc etc. All a bit much for couple of brumby tourists.
The next morning.....sometime late in the morning, it felt like we had arrived in NZ. A meandering visit to the amazing Gannet colonies nearby reminded me that there are some animals and birds that make me feel weak without any drive in my life. These Gannets hatch on one grubby guano-ridden shelf of Muriwai Bay and sit there for 6 months whist their parents fetch fish for them each day until their plummage turns black and white and they are strong enough to take flight. Miraculously they take off and fly to Eastern Aus to improve their maturity. All of a sudden after several years they return to the same shelf, mate and start over again. Amazing! No soft landing. Just straight into the school of hard knocks.
It took us another day of travelling north to really get into the swing of travelling in a motorhome. It was spacious, easy to drive and had all the bedding, kitchen and living essentials laid on.
The landscape was heavily modified through rolling hills and damp sodden floodplains. Sheep and cattle were the mainstay and after just one day I had decided that the immigrants of the time must have simply hated trees (ie native forests) when they began developing the land and yearned for anything that would resemble the motherland of rolling hills and wind breaks of feral exotic pine or poppla trees. The quaint little villages did in fact remind me of life in the UK without the traffic and population density. The difference was that locals were much more down to earth. They live in simple makeshift housing that was often not quite finished and seem to prefer being surrounded by a dearth of unused building material, old machinery and very used cars that just may come in handy one day. Those that were tidy little neat cottages seemed to be constructed to withstand the ravages of time for less than 10 years. Yet many have stood bravely for 50 to 100 years. Locals exhibit a very strong sense of community and all this inherent clutter was to ensure that they could always help thy neighbour or friend at the drop of a hat. The density of settlement was high and village/towns were mostly small. Nothing gave me the feeling that big corporations had much influence in rural NZ. The govt building inspectors must be very thin on the ground. But who cares!!!
After spending the next night at Pahi an insigificant little settlement located on the Aropoaoa River we met a retired couple (Tony n Lorraine) who were able to put us straight on many contempory issues and how NZers were facing up in the wider world. Tony owned a 45' cruiser but his wife preferred the motorhome. They recommended a visit to the Matakohe Kauri Museum and what a surprise it was! The history of the timber industry in NZ centres largely on the extraction and demise of the famous Kauri pine. The oldest living tree in NZ is estimated to be over 2,000 years old. However Kauri relicts that have been dug up after being submerged in swamps and then drained have been carbon dated at more than 40,000 years old. Furthermore the timber quality of these ancient trees is phenominal. The result is an industry based on highly inflated prices for even the smallest relict that is Kauri. It is truly a beautiful timber that is distributed throughout NE Aus and SE Asia. But NZ had the best and biggest examples weighing in at greater than 200 cu m per tree of wood. The history of its mining and extraction is simply a facinating rendition of hardship sweat and the establishment of a viable timber industry that survives even today. Sadly almost all of the Kauri has been extracted with what remains being locked up in reserves. Even a 600 year old tree weighs in at just over 1 metre in diam. Today it is all about commercial pine platations. They are everywhere and in most locations if it wasn't for these plantations NZ would be totally barren. They really have done a fine job of clearing the land to the point of non-existence of native forests.
Fortunately for us we were rewarded by travelling north via the Waipoua Forest which is an extensive reserve of native Kauri forest that has been protected and managed for its inherant conservation qualities. Staring up at a 2,000 year old Kauri tree was pretty inspiring to put it politely. We travelled north across the ferry at Rawene using back roads all the way to Ahipara where we stayed at a motor camp for the night. Other than having to eat the greasiest oily garlic flavoured chips I have ever seen in my life the trip was quite fun. Average cost per night for a powered site was around $40. The evenings entertainment was enhanced by meeting a bunch of South African bikers who all had chosen to live and settle in Auckland. I had some lively discussions about travelling in Namibia and Botswana which of course always got my blood flowing very rapidly. I have just got to do it sometime soon!
The next morning we headed north to Cape Reinga. The tourist trip goes via Ninety Mile Beach on a six wheel bus. We took the road in our comfortable motorhome arriving at a late 1pm. Afterall it was about 120kms and there was so much scenery to take in. The incessant 20 acs grazing paddocks gave way to some relatevely high scrubby moutains near the Cape. With poor soils and in some cases just solid massive sand dunes the vegetation changed quite dramatically. It was a tourist mecca and we didn't hang around too long. Afterall it was my birthday and we wanted to get back to civilisaton and acquire some artillery for the nights entertainment.
Having made good time back to Awanui we hit the 'Pack n Save' Supermarket and topped up our food and beer supplies and headed east to Mangonui via low flat poorly drained ag land to spend the night at Hi Hi Campground. It was small quiet and old fashioned in a nice way. Evidence of 1950-60's little holiday houses were still functional and available to rent. We made the best of the failing light and walked along a beach side track to find a GeoCache that Dell had identified. Geocaches were everywhere and it was only a matter of downloading them onto her GPS and Mb to identify caches as we were driving along the highway.
By the time we had walked back to the campsite it was dark, windy and promising to rain. Our Campsite host predicted that it would rain and blow for at least 3 days leading up to Easter. We were not disappointed as it bucketed down that night after retiring. Somehow having the motorhome was very reassuring that bad weather just didn't matter. Effectively we were insulated by being able to remain warm and dry in the van.
Driving for several hours doesn't really get one very far in this part of NZ. The roads are busy and incessantly hilly and windy. Housing density is high even in rural area. The majority of dwellings looked like retirees or holiday shacks. It was a complete mystery as to why there are so many people living in these areas. Welfare must play a huge role!! Cos not everybody can be retired. I joked many times about the fact that every man woman and child in NZ must have a car as so many houses had at least 3-4 cars parked in the yard. Perhaps they are not good mechanics and need a couple of spares on hand. With so many names that are impossible to pronounce we headed to Russell via a ferry. This little peninsula seemed very exclusive with many opulent very private little cottages appearing along the roadsides everywhere. That night we kinda got lost and ended up in a Maori community near Rawhiti in the middle of the Bay of Islands. The campground was vacant and just 100m from a peaceful beach. It doesn't get much better than this. Altho the weather was fierce we were protected from the high winds and regular showers. Just around the corner from this community was an exclusive luxury bay that had yachts hanging out everywhere....what a contrast. The next morning I chatted with Phil a fish out of water in many respects. However his lineage can be traced back to the early decendants of this bay. Despite his academic routes he comes back here regularly during sabaticals to research and act as a community liaison officer. His knowledge and interest in the locality gave me some very fine insights into Maori culture. Rawhiti was a dead end and hence we had to retreat back over the ranges on a rough corrugated road. to the main drag down to Helena Bay. We stopped for lunch at a local shop come tavern where we met an Austrian traveller. Schnapper and kumara fries for lunch was pretty damm tasty. With no real plan as to where to go we headed south towards Whangarei. However we were distracted by a series satellite dishes located several kms east of the highway. That is where we decided to camp. We counted about seven satellie dishes and stopping near one was kinda different....until we realised that these dishes were working all by themselves. In fact being only 100m from a dish that readjusted itself every fifteen minutes was pretty distracting with all the sqeaks, groans of electric motors whirring all night. Between the screaming winds, rain squalls and this damm dish I didn't do real well in the sleep department.
Auckland held no real appeal for us and we headed south on SH1 to discover Thames at the base of the Coromandel Peninsula. Historically Thames was a gold mining town that boasted more than 30 pubs and earnings in the $ millions in the first few years of operation in 1880. An historic tour was offered showing us some of the machinery that had been restored to recreate the feeling for us modern humans. Life was tough and cheap for the workers. And as usual only the select few made a lot of money and had something to show for their efforts.
The drive north (ie on the western side of the peninsula) is simply exquisite. The road meanders precariously along a rocky ledge several metres above high tide terraced by beautiful NZ Xmas trees whose roots just cling to the rocks and get a foothold in sold volcanic material. Several kilometers apart are dispersed quaint little dark sandy beaches some of which are accessible. However many have no access as there is no room to construct a carpark or pull-off. The villagers enroute are quaint and old fashioned indicating that 'batches' (ie second holiday houses) were a popular aquisition for many years. In fact I came to the conclusion that practicaly every city dweller must own a second 'batch' somewhere along the beautiful coastline of the North Island of NZ.
We drove north past Coromandel a very tourist oriented town but with a flair for arts and crafts to a picturesque camp ground teeming with caravans and motorhomes. We were just in time for a windy night that produced squalls and 'wet' rain for most of the night. This motorhome thing was proving to be godsend. We dined on fresh mussels the following day because that is what they produce on the peninsula. The actual home of the famous green lipped mussel the remedy for many an illness. That afternoon we ascended up over a steep rugged range and onto the east facing coastline that is as good as it gets anywhere in the world. Every turn in the road brings even more superb scenery and more exclusive holiday 'batches' to make anyone envious as hell.
Whitanga and Tairua were both tourist meccas with beaches everywhere one of which was aptly named 'Hot Beach'. The place was slightly remote but was teeming with tourists from everywhere especially China. This little piece of paradise was exactly 10m in area. Rather pathetic actually to see peoples from all over the world dressed in their bikinis all sitting facing each other next to a thundering surf with bums and toes esconced in a puddle of thermal water that oozed up through the beach. It gets even hotter at low tide we were told. The attraction was thermal water. But it was the social hub that made tourists want to flock to this unique spot.
We decided to free camp on a rural road that was located near a bridge at Hikuai. It was quiet and enhanced by a the fast flowing Hikau River that had swelled to twice its size after the recent heavy rains. The next morning was the first time for days that we had glimpses of blue skies and a sun.
The road south was incresingly busy with Easter traffic. This was peak season for Kiwis. Whangamata was almost a provincial town in size with its superb marine harbour, river and perfect surf beaches. Yet the majority of housing some appearing very luxurious and expensive intermingled with very basic old fashioned 'batches' were predominantly second holiday homes. A local was telling us that 70% of the houses were second dwellings and that some were worth more than a $ million. Some people were doing OK in this part of the world of yachts and cruising boats stacked up in the nearby marina. Thanks to Dell's interest in Geocaching (ref Geocaching.com for further info) we often ended in places that were interesting. Here the cache was located in the tyre of a kids playground. Hence there were people to talk to everywhere. Several more gold towns existed here near Waihi and we headed further south on busy roads to Tauranga reputed to be the busiest container seaport in NZ. Mt Maungaui was located right on the peninsula at the mouth to the port. The little Motorcamp ground was bulging with caravan and motorhomes to full capacity. And the reason was that right across the road was the tourist mecca full of high rise apartment blocks, cafe's and resturants to boot. It was all happening here. Prices for everything were inflated with a 15% surcharge making eating out a very expensive proposition. We did eat out at an Italian cafe with a Chilean waitress. At $130 for a basic brushetta entree, pasta meal, bottle of house red and one dessert, I considered that to be extravagant. We walked around Mt Mauganui the next morning. It was packed with jogging tourists all wanting to make out that were intent on setting an olympic record to complete the circuit. None were smiling and as far as we were concerned they were missing out on a very pleasant stroll with superb rugged views of the coastline. It was nevertheless a family affair with many joggers trying to push their kids in athletic looking prams as a well. This was a new perspective to NZ life one which we were happy to see but even happier to leave.
The next step was Rotorua. Geocaching took us to the banks of the lake and local thermal pools where buses full of chinese tourists mingled amongst the crowds of locals at the tail end of a market. At the dock was a plethora of tourist ventures (jetboats, helicopter and paddle boats) all vying for business. We headed east to a quieter location at L. Tarawera where we camped next to a peaceful boatramp used by the locals to launch fishing and recreation speedboats. A bar-b-que was situtated next to out motorhome and so we enjoyed bacon and eggs for breakfast before going for a swim in the lake. Yes it was cold but i enjoyed the invigoration all the same. This quiet lake community was again dominated by a community who all owned second holiday houses, something I could not quite get my head around. How could so many people in NZ afford to buy , enjoy and maintain these expensive holiday homes?