Leaving our lovely bach in Coromandel was a bit of a pull but we had to head south down to New Plymouth and Taranaki. A long tiring journey of over 400 Klms but for the most part the road wound through some lovely countryside, particularly once we neared the West coast near Pirongia. Here the hills began to be interesting making the driving more than just a chore. From Te Kuiti the road followed the Awakino River through some gorgeous limestone scenery which reminded us of the High Peak District in Derbyshire.

We finally arrived at our destination some 8 hours after leaving, though we did stop frequently so it wasn't all non-stop driving. Most visitors to this area seem to head for New Plymouth where the accommodation options are greater. However, we wanted to get as close as we could to Mt Taranaki, the perfectly shaped volcano cone which dominates this area so we decided to base ourselves in the town of Stratford.

Imagine, if you will, leafy, tree-lined streets, a winding river with swans gliding past and students rowing, a sleek modern theatre with thespians lying on the lawns rehearsing their lines. Well, imagination is what you need for Stratford-on-Taranaki, because it's nothing like that! It has one major road running through it (and, yes, we did just see a house - a whole, single storey house - being driven on a huge flatbed truck down this road with a small truck following on which a big sign warned - HOUSE AHEAD), a motley collection of shops, the odd restaurant, some motels, a railway (which only seems to carry one freight train every two days) and a clock tower.

Said clock tower seems to be Stratford's pride and joy. Built in the '60's to a very kitsch mock-tudor design it has two figurines representing Romeo and Juliet which, like a cuckoo clock, come out and instead of cuckooing, quote lines of Shakespeare. Now, you'd expect old R&J (familiar initials, huh?) to come out on the hour, every hour so you'd have a chance of listening to them declaim their texts in perfect Shakesperean Kiwi English. But that would be to forget that these are thespians, darling, and they couldn't possibly manage 24 performances in a day. They need to rest, don't you know. Apparently, they only walk the boards at 10 am, 1 pm, 3pm and a major performance at 7 pm. To our eternal shame, we haven't managed to get to hear a single performance so we cannot tell you what immortal lines of the Bard's they speak.

It's not only Romeo and Juliet who mark our greatest dead playwright. Virtually all the streets in the town are called after Shakesperean characters or have a Stratfordian connection. Cordelia St, Tybalt St, Hamlet St, Verona Place, Cressida Ave. Even our Motel is called Antonio Mews. Thankfully, it's not 500 years old! So Stratford, at first glance not a place you would necessarily choose to stay, does have many redeeming features, including Colonel Malone's Bar and Restaurant in which we have eaten every night. I don't know who Col. Malone is or was but the chef in this place is just excellent. Some of the best food we've ever had in NZ.

However, we didn't come here for the food but for the walking. Mt Taranaki is New Zealand's youngest volcano and last erupted in the mid 18th century. Technically, it's not completely dormant but doesn't seem inclined to go off any time soon. It rises from the surrounding plain in an almost perfect cone and we had been wanting to get close to it ever since we saw it last March from a height of about 30,000 ft when we flew over it.

Then there was not a cloud in sight and the air was gin clear. Eight months on the situation is not quite the same. Up to now we have been having perfect weather with clear skies and very high temperatures. Based on met office forcasts we decided to come to this area now rather than on our way back up in December. We were told today that these forcasts are only 40% accurate and we can attest to that because we've had mostly cloud and rain whilst we've been here and managed only the briefest of glimpses of the top of the mountain (still snow covered).

However, we are not disheartened and it is not for nothing that we lugged anoraks, waterproof over-trousers, rain protectors for backpacks and all manner of wet weather gear with us when we flew over. We knew we'd need them. So, yesterday we went walking up to Dawson Falls. It was raining gently and the cloud came down but that just made it more atmospheric. Today started brighter so we hiked around the Northern face of the mountain through lovely dwarf forest. Luckily, we had finished our walk by the time the heavens opened. As I write the rain is hammering on the tin roof of our room but we don't care. We've had a lovely few days here and the surrounding countryside is lush and green (all that rain, you see). We may not have seen Taranaki in all its glory but who cares. Something to come back for!

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