THERE AND BACK AGAIN - robmellors

RETURN TO THE NORTH ISLAND

All the nice girls love a sailor, so they say, and sure enough, as soon as we were aboard the ferry from Picton to Wellington, Jane went and had a long chat to the Second Mate, George who was photographing the loading of the ferry in time lapse photography. Well, that's what she told me! The upshot of this chat was that we were invited up to the bridge.

Once the ferry was under way and out of Queen Charlotte Sound and as it sailed into the Cook Strait we were escorted through locked doors up to the topmost floor of the vessel. Up here, as you might expect, the view was fantastic - virtually 360 degree and all behind glass so that there was no cold wind to ruffle our hair. George (who was German, as it happens) gave us a tour of the bridge - the radar, autorudder, engine controls, etc. He pointed where the power line which comes up from the south island makes landfall providing power to the North.

He's a keen birdwatcher and identified a Giant Skua for us. He's also got a captain's ticket for three masted sailing ships and his ambition is to work on a scientific survey ship in the Antarctic. I hope he makes it because he's a very intelligent man with a lot of talent and the hour we spent up on the bridge with him was fascinating. It made the journey pass by in a flash.

We had made no plans for our return trip to Auckland other than being booked into our B&B three days hence. So, we just started driving to see how far we could get before tiredness set in. The first hour or so out of Wellington was very frustrating as we just seemed to drive through town after town and the traffic was very heavy. However, after Levin it seemed to ease out a little as most traffic headed off to Palmerston North. We just continued driving but at one point caught a very fleeting glimpse of Mt Ruahepu, shimmering in the distance and with a coating of snow, looking like a Christmas Pud dusted with icing sugar. That sealed it. We would drive until we reached Ohakune, where we had stayed in January, when we had done the tough and demanding Tongariro Crossing.

We reached Ohakune rather late and somewhat hungry but found the only decent restaurant chocker. There was only one thing for it - the Four Square supermarket for a bottle of Peter Yealand and the chippie for some excellent fish and chips. The chippie in Ohakune is brilliant so, for all our Kiwi friends, we recommend it!

The following day we went into the Tongariro National Park to do some walking. Low level stuff this time - we couldn't risk Jane's arm on another dodgy high level track. But we had a brilliant day in the bright sunlight and the mountains were gorgeous.

Back in the car we took off again heading for Taupo, not because we were desperate to visit it but because it was about the right distance away for a convenient overnighter. Taupo is famous for its lake, the Huka falls and the geothermic pools in the area. But the town is also without much charm (at least, for us). Noisy bars, too much traffic, too many tourists. Not our kind of place but it sufficed for a night.

For our penultimate day in New Zealand we first visited the Hidden Valley. A number of people had told us this was a much quieter and in many ways nicer alternative to Rotorua. The geothermal pools, geysers, etc are situated at the side of a very beautiful and, indeed, quite hidden, valley. Not so hidden that there weren't any other visitors but the big tour groups just don't come here. You take a small ferry a short distance across the lake and then wander up past boiling water springs, geysers which blow every few hours (not when we were there), bubbling mud pools, etc. You get used to the smell of sulphur after a while and it's a very lovely place to visit. Low key, very well laid out and well worth going out of your way to get there. We were told that the best time to go is in the winter when you can see steam rising from all over the hillside in the colder air but it was still a very worthwhile diversion.

We bypassed Rotorua and headed to Tauranga on the east coast. Set in the vast expanse of Tauranga Harbour it has a great waterfront with bars and cafes with live music at many of them. As the sun was shining we decided to sit and have a beer and listen to the music. No sooner had we sat down with our drinks than the band announced they were taking a break! Oh well, it was very pleasant sitting watching the sun go down.

The following day, our last in New Zealand, started off with rain. Not at all what we've come to expect from the Land of the Long White Cloud! By the time we'd made it to Auckland the sun was out again and at our B&B we got a great big hug from Beth, the owner, and a lick from Finn, the Boxer dog.

The B&B (23 Hepburn) is in one of the chic districts of Auckland - Ponsonby. The high street is full of shops and restaurants and in the early evening these are crowded. We hadn't booked anything so were very lucky to get a table at a bistro for our last evening. Now, throughout New Zealand we haven't seen much showy celebration of Christmas. The odd artificial tree and a few lights but in the middle of summer these don't seem quite right. However, in Ponsonby there is a street, Franklin Road, which bucks the trend. Here virtually every house in the road is decked out in huge Christmas light decorations, often covering the whole front of some very big houses. There are lit up with Santas and Reindeer and sheets of lighting. It's like a scene from a Disney film.

But the thing is that this one street is such a big draw that, after 9.30 pm, when the sun has gone down, it seems as if the whole of the city has come out to look at it. There are traffic jams on the Ponsonby Road and down into Franklin Road. Our B&B was so close that it was an easy stroll to the lights and a very slow shuffle up and down both sides of the street with literally thousands of other Kiwis and visitors. Most of the onlookers are families so there are countless kids going Ooooh and Aaaah and people being photographed against the backdrop. We're used to having Christmas lights in the UK but never have I seen so many people just walking and driving up and down one very small street out of the countless thousands in a city. It was a real Christmas carnival atmosphere and rounded off our 6 week trip brilliantly.

Oh, and one last thing. In Tauranga we emptied the car so that we could pack up as much as possible for our long trip home. Underneath the passenger seat I found the Swiss Army penknife that I'd lost some weeks back. And what's this poking out of the seat rail underneath the driver's seat. The car key that I'd lost back in Hanmer Springs, of course. OOOPS! Do I keep this to myself and throw it away or do I admit to Jane that all my diligent searching of the car back in Hanmer Springs had failed to locate what was always there? Well, I came clean, of course. I think she's forgiven me and when we returned the car to Apex they agreed to refund the NZ$455 they'd charged me back in Christchurch.I pointed out that I'd been given a NZ$70  discount by the kind people in Christchurch so I wanted only NZ$385 back. The girl looked puzzled. "Well", she said, "they shouldn't have given you a discount so I can only refund the full amount."I shrugged my shoulders. You lose some, you win some.

See, I told you right at the start of my blogs that those Kiwi feathers were lucky!

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