I blinked, 4 weeks flew by, and somehow I’m already back in my little room in Singapore pondering how it all passed so quickly. I knew before I left that 4 weeks would not be even nearly long enough to explore an entire country the size of the UK whilst also meeting up with friends and acquaintances, but I tried to pack in as much as possible whilst still allowing myself to enjoy being on holiday. For that reason, I’ve split the documenting of my travels around New Zealand into different parts in the hope that I can cover most of what I got up to. On Friday 12th of December I had my last day in the lab, and I’m pretty confident that I couldn’t have done any less work that day if I tried – I was simply too excited to concentrate. That evening our research group went out for our “Christmas dinner” which was a very interesting experience: chilli crab, shrimps, yam and bread rolls was certainly not something I had ever seen at a Christmas dinner before, but it was tasty and a fun evening. I then left myself the next day to pack and on Sunday the 14th I embarked on my journey. I arrived in Brisbane after an 8 hour flight and had 7 hours to wait there before my connecting flight to Auckland. Had I been more organised and had more money, it would have been nice to visit Australia for a couple of days on my way across but I guess that will be another trip in the future. Brisbane is on the very east coast of Australia but it still takes 3 hours from there to reach Auckland, putting into perspective just how far from Fife I was going.
When I finally arrived in Auckland, the bio-security staff must have thought I was mad as I grinned from ear to ear at the grey skies over the city. The temperature was less than 20 degrees for the first time in months and it was marvellous! I exchanged a bit of cash and caught the bus into the city. I bumped into another woman who was new to the country travelling from Canada and we ended up chatting as we started out respective journeys. We had a nice conversation and then she was gone. We didn’t exchange names because we didn’t need to. Just two travellers who’s paths crossed for a little while, which is something I have really come to enjoy whilst travelling. Auckland is a big, sprawling city but fortunately my hostel was in the city centre and very easy to find. Wandering around I think it reminded me most of Seattle, with its broad streets, hanging traffic lights and tall buildings. My first evening was very comfortable indeed as I was met by Arne and his girlfriend Anneleen, friends from Europe who had recently emigrated to New Zealand, and they invited me for dinner at their place. The food was incredible: not just Western food, but delicious home-cooked western food, and the company was even more enjoyable. I was utterly content, the evening passed by quickly (a running theme of my holiday) and I slept well despite the other 9 people in my dorm room.
The next day I explored the city further, walking up to one of the many dormant volcanoes over which Auckland lies and getting a great very over the metropolis. After my feet grew weary I visited the art gallery before taking the bus further north towards Maurangi Bay to visit the Gardiners: family friends who left Scotland just under 10 years ago. Unfortunately my school friend Liam was not home but I enjoyed dinner with the family, catching up after such a long time.
I checked out of the hostel the following morning and took the bus to Rotorua, a smaller town 4 hours south east who’s claim to fame is the many geothermal hot spots around the region. The smell of sulphur was almost overpowering and I was grateful for the rain that evening which seemed to lessen the intensity whilst simultaneously allowing the rising steam from the geothermal pools to appear even more mysterious. The weather brightened the next day and I ventured to Te Puia park to see the larger Geysers spewing water metres into the air. It was quite impressive and for the most part I managed to avoid the tourist groups. Whilst there I also watched a Maori performance and saw a live kiwi bird: definitely ticking some of those boxes for NZ travellers.
From the 18th of December until the 22nd, I took advantage of the hospitality of some other family friends in Ohope, a small town near Whakatane (which is a slighty bigger town) on the east coast. Admittedly it was very nice to be looked after for a few days. I sought only a roof over my head but whilst I was there I was well fed and entertained with all sorts of activities, from swimming in the sea and surfing waves (almost), to mountain biking and kayaking round the harbour. I woke up to the waves crashing just outside my window and each day was filled with sea and sun.
I said fairwell to my friends early on the 23rd and took and internal flight back up to Auckland on a tiny little plane which had only 6 other people on board – two of whom were the pilot and co-pilot! Although I had hoped to be waiting for him as his plane landed, Max’s flight was early and, many months after we said our goodbyes in Edinburgh, he was suddenly there in front of me on the very other side of the world. Magic. We picked up our hire car, which had been upgraded to an estate due to a roof-rack issue, and immediately sped off to the Auckland Uni Canoe Club (AUCC) lock-ups to pick out two boats to borrow for our trip. After that it was an easy drive south to a small village near Tauranga where I had hired a 1 bedroom studio – Kiwi’s call it a Bach – for us to spend our little Christmas.
Spending one’s first Christmas away from home is always a strange experience. Up until then I had been dreading it – being away from my family and celebrating in the summer had seemed far too strange. But with Max there and more adventure ahead of us it just became a fun day in which presents were exchanged and Skype calls home were made. Max agreed to uphold to British tradition and we celebrated on the 25th (not the 24th as in Germany). On Christmas eve we explored Tauranga, climbed the Mount by the sea and went swimming before feasting on some ‘kartoffel salat’ that Max made following his traditions. On the 25th we went kayaking on the Kaituna river. The run was much shorter than we had expected, taking about half an hour for us to leisurely make our way down. Sadly I didn’t have an SD card for my new GoPro so there is no evidence of our run. We enjoyed a mixed Christmas dinner that night consisting of corn on the cob, roast tatties and veg, and barbecued veggie sausages with gravy – yum! On boxing day we packed up and said goodbye to our little bach, driving west to the Waitomo Caves.
The caves were really cool, and the best part was a boat ride at the end of the tour which took us through an unlit water way that was filled with glowworms. They glistened like millions of stars above us, their light reflecting off the still water. It was pretty surreal. Shortly after emerging to day light again, we hit the road south and made it to a small free campsite (a bumpy field by a wee road) just as night fell and pitched our tent.
The 27th of December was definitely one of my favourite days of the trip: the Tongariro Crossing. With an early start we hired a shuttle to the start of the walk on the other side of the national park and walked about 23 km through the mountainous terrain back to our car. Inclusive in our hike was a detour that took us on a very steep scree slope ascent to the summit of Mt Ngauruhoe (pronounced Na-ra-ho-ee) which famously appears in the Lord of the Rings movies as Mount Doom. Is was an incredible day blessed with beautiful weather, and I think I’ll leave the pictures to do the rest of the talking on that.
Covered in dust and sweat we splashed out on a motel room that night rather than camping and enjoyed a hot shower and well-deserved bed. The following morning we drove down to Wellington, the capital of New Zealand, and after tramping up Mount Doom the day before, we thoroughly enjoyed some good food, the national museum, and to watch the final hobbit film in the city in which it was made.
That night we slept uncomfortably in the car for a couple of hours whilst waiting to board our 2am ferry that would take us across the Cook Strait to the South Island. Our adventure continued onward from there and included kayaking, glaciers and helicopters, all of which you can read about in Part 2.