Here we are again on our travels. This time we are half a world and 13 hrs away down in the land of the long white cloud – New Zealand. It’s a place we have always wanted to visit but only now are we able to devote 6 weeks to travelling around this country; it’s been worth the wait.

We boarded our flight bound for Kuala Lumpur a week ago last Sunday in a snowy, icy and very cold Heathrow to be told by our captain that there would be a slight delay whilst they de-iced the wings. Very reassuring! So we watched a chap on a cherry picker spraying Halfords de-icer and antifreeze on to the wings, checking to make sure he hadn’t missed a bit! It worked because we took off and landed in Kuala Lumpar some 12 hrs later but at 7.00 am, 8 hours ahead of UK time. We had decided to stop over for the night in KL to break up the journey and went to a very nice B&B close to the airport. We were able to relax for the day and have a swim to ease our aching muscles. The following morning it was up early to take the train to the airport for our 11 hour flight to Auckland where we arrived at gone midnight to be faced with a very long queue to get through immigration because 3 flights had arrived together. We got to our Auckland B&B about 2 am and just fell into bed.

Auckland is a large, bustling city but the interesting bits are in a very compact area around the port and business district. It’s called the city of sails and, indeed, we saw a huge catamaran, built by Luna Rossa for the America’s Cup and decked out in the vibrant red of the sponsors, Prada, being put through its paces out in the harbour. Its massive sail could be seen even when we visited the top of the 328 mtr Sky Tower during the day. From the tower you get a fantastic view of the city and the sea surrounding it. There are thousands of sailing boats in the harbours and you realise how much of the city is built upon hills. Something you also notice when you try and get back to your B&B, only to get lost and have to take the bus! We certainly enjoyed our day in Auckland – despite me temporarily losing my credit card at the sky tower. Fortunately, it was picked up by a visitor and handed in to security from whence we were able to reclaim it when we noticed it missing. A close shave that one. Our B&B in Auckland was really wonderful, a real home from home. Beth, the owner, was so lovely, lively and fun and bore a passing resemblance to Helen Mirren, though with a very Kiwi twang! The home made muesli, yogurt and jams went down a treat and though our visit was brief it was a very relaxing start to our trip.

Eschewing (as we frequently do) the usual tourist route (Auckland, Bay of Islands, Rotorua and Wellington) we headed off to the East coast via the Firth of Thames and the Miranda Shorebird Sanctuary. This took us down some lovely east coast countryside and a lovely fish and chip lunch at Miranda. We don’t normally do fish and chips but just couldn’t resist a treat; and very good they were! The shorebird sanctuary turned out not to have many birds, this being summer and we decided it was too hot to hike out into the mudflats to find any so we pushed on. Regrettably, we had to give the Coromandel area a miss as we needed to get much further south. Next time perhaps as it is supposed to be beautiful. We motored down to Tauranga Harbour which was a very lovely area before making a final dash for Whakatane in the Bay of Plenty.

By now we were very tired as we’d been travelling about 7 hours. We stopped to buy some food at a supermarket as we hadn’t ordered an evening meal at our B&B because we wanted to be flexible. The trouble is that Ashfields B&B is actually about 19 klms out of Whakatane, the nearest town of any note with restaurants to eat in, so we thought we’d just have a cold supper in our rooms. Well, Russ and Kate, our hosts, must have known that we’d be late, tired and hungry because Kate had made a meal, just in case we wanted it. The answer to that was, just give us half an hour to have a quick shower and a G&T and we’ll be right with you.

Kiwis are very friendly, kind and hospitable people and within a few moments of sitting with Russ and Kate, sharing a lovely, home cooked, tasty meal and a superb bottle of NZ wine, we felt that we were staying with long time friends. Russ is a Kiwi fruit grower and we learned all about the highs and lows of growing kiwis. After gin and wine the principal thing I remember is that Golden Kiwis are much tastier than green but for all Russ’ tuition on the subject that’s about all I recall!

Now, 23 Hepburn in Auckland is a lovely traditional clapperboard house and we thought it charming and beautiful. Ashfields quite simply took our breath away. We thought, is this space all for us? Set in magnificent gardens the house is surrounded by a large wooden decking which in the UK might look ostentatious but out here, in the middle of the countryside, looks perfect. Our suite had a lovely, light filled bedroom, a small but well appointed kitchen, a gorgeous bathroom with walk in shower and an enormous sitting room; you could hold a party for 30 people in there and still have room. And all this just for us two. We were in 7th heaven and this was just day 3 of our holiday.

Like everywhere we’ve seen in New Zealand so far, Whakatane itself is set in some stunning scenery with a gorgeous coastline. The light here is fantastic and you can see for miles in the gin clear air (you’ll have gathered that gin is our favourite tipple). The town is quite quaint from a UK perspective and is surrounded by hills into which we trekked; or tramped as they call it here (I call a tramp a vagabond but there you go). It also has the Ohiwa Harbour; not a manmade structure but a series of inlets and mudflats which are excellent for birdlife. We took a walk out to the Ohiwa sandspit reserve to look for the rare and protected New Zealand Dotterel. A tiny shorebird, the colour of sand they are extremely difficult to spot and have been reduced to about 1700 in number. And, yes, we did see one and were absolutely chuffed to bits. I know it’s hard for non-bird watchers to understand getting excited over one tiny bird but get excited we did!

We were very sad to leave Ashfields and our new found friends after only two days but we needed to move on to Napier down on Hawkes Bay. The road from Whakatane (pronounced Fackataney by the Maoris) to Gisborne goes through the incredibly twisty but naturally scenic Waioeka Gorge. It’s hairpin bends most of the way and this is what makes driving in New Zealand so challenging and exhausting. It takes hours to travel distances which might take less than an hour back home. But the rewards are marvellous. We actually by-passed Gisborne because we’d spent so long driving the gorge, doing a little walking and bird spotting. We wanted to visit the Mahia Peninsula south of Gisborne, again in our quest to bird watch. It’s a lovely spot with an interesting lagoon and fabulous coastal views. Well worth the detour, though as a consequence it did mean that we got into Napier rather late. But we’d brought supplies with us and were able to make a meal in our little French style cottage.

We were again staying outside the main town area in a place called Hawk Hill; and yes it did have its own resident Swamp Harrier (or Harry the Hawk as he is called) patrolling the hill on which a delightful little cottage stands. Owned by the friendly and ever helpful Noel and Karen, this was a self contained cottage done out in French rustic style. It was secluded and cosy but the big draw, for us, was the commanding view it gives of the Estuary below and of Napier and the surrounding area. And I do mean commanding view. From just above the cottage you could see about 320 degrees all round. If Ashfields was a stunning property, Hawk Hill was a stunning location. Because it was so private and secluded we slept with the curtains open and at 6am were treated to lovely sunrises. I didn’t even need to get up and disturb the slumbering Jane (though I did, of course, just to photograph the spectacular early morning light). In the evening we had the moonrise – on one memorable evening a red moon rise. What could be more perfect?

Napier was more or less razed to the ground by a massive earthquake in 1931. It was rebuilt in 1930s Art Deco style and a walk in the central district is quite interesting. It’s mostly just the facades of the building now that are recognisable art deco but there are still a few shops and hotels with original features. It makes for an interesting half day excursion. Another excursion is a visit to the Australasian Gannet colony at Cape Kidnappers, which was obviously going to be a big draw for us. The Australasian Gannet is, as its name implies, not a native species. The birds mate for life but only really come together in New Zealand where they raise their chicks in large colonies. The Kiwis do like to go in for packaged experiences and so we joined a rather kitsch trip which involved a large number of tourists boarding trailers (albeit with moderately comfortable seats) to be drawn by tractors for about an hour and a half along the beach (carefully timed to avoid high tide), eventually fetching up at the protected area where the Gannets nest. To be fair, our driver did impart some very interesting information along the way about the geology, fault lines, earthquakes, etc. so it wasn’t totally Disney.

The hike up to the colony was quite challenging in the mid-day heat but it was well worth it. Many hundreds of Gannet were perched and you could get incredibly close, with great views of fledglings and Gannets flying hither and thither, feeding young, waddling about but totally unconcerned at the folks poking cameras in their faces (or is that beaks?). So ungainly on land, these birds are great flyers and although we didn’t see them fishing they are fantastic exponents of dive fishing. All in all we had a brilliant day.

Napier is in Hawkes Bay, a justly famous wine growing region. And everywhere you look there are vineyards and wineries. So, of course, we just had to go on a wine tour. We started off at the Mission Winery which was very close to our B&B. It is the oldest winery in New Zealand and started life as a seminary. What those priests got up to, eh? Anyway the building is lovely and although it was too early for wine tasting we just had to buy some of the bargains on offer, didn’t we? (Bargains in NZ are a bit of a misnomer; let’s say, not outrageously more expensive than in the UK) After this we took a ride out into the country and somehow or other found ourselves at another winery. Don’t know how that happened – I blame the satnav myself! So, after tasting a number of excellent wines, getting thoroughly befuddled in the process, we purchased a few more. By now it was lunchtime and a cidery/brewery had been recommended to us for lunch. So we had an excellent lunch and a tasting of six different beers. I could get used to this!

Our cottage in Napier was perched above the estuary and we had fantastic views of water birds, Black Swans, Pied Stilts, ducks, geese and the totally wonderful Royal Spoonbill. It was very hard to leave such a wonderful location but leave we had to, after four wonderful days. When planning our trip we were determined to go to the Tongariro National Park, an area of volcanic mountains famous for hiking possibilities. We were keeping it flexible in case the weather wasn’t too good. Well, it seems we’ve arrived in the best summer weather NZ has had for many years and the weather is fantastic. Blue skies and 29C. What heaven! Tongariro comprises three mountains, all volcanic and one, (Tongariro itself) venting at this moment. They have featured in the Lord of the Rings films (we met a chap who had been an Orc in one of them!) and Mt Nguarahoe is Mt Doom, for those who have seen the film. And utterly spectacular it is too. Yesterday we did three short(ish) treks around Mt Ruapehu which still has snow on it and which looked beautiful. Today we did one of the most (if not THE most) challenging hikes we’ve ever undertaken. This wound its way around Mount Doom and on up towards Mt Tongiriro for incredible views of old craters, emerald pools, evil looking vents and fissures and tough, very tough, lava flows and moraine. It was an utterly exhausting walk but was so incredible. The views from the top were nothing short of spectacular.

We were so exhausted that tonight all we could do was go and pick up some Fish and chips for dinner. Washed down with a bottle of Mission Estate Sauvignon Blanc it was a meal worthy of a first class restaurant!

We are now in Wellington and will take the 8.25 ferry to the South Island tomorrow. We’ve had a fantastic time in the north and have had perfect weather. Whatever tomorrow brings it will be different.
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