'We’ll find the most Northerly point of New Zealand,’ we decided, well, why not. This turned out to be Cape Reinga. We’ve been to John O’Groats and Lands End, as far north and south as possible on mainland U.K., been to Europe’s most Northerly point, Cape Nordkin in Norway, a wild and desolate place although the North Cape does have a sort of rugged charm.# Having been as far as it’s possible to go in New Zealand, it would now be necessary to go the extreme South. I could write an entire blog on Curio Bay at the bottom of South Island, but for now, just be reassured that we went there as well.
# It’s not a quest as such, but after the far northernmost tip of Europe we just had to join the dots and eventually stand on the furthest points of the compass of Europe.
Southerly, that’s the Punta de Tarifa, we've been there many times. To the West, not too far from the Punta de Tarifa in fact, the closest point to North America in Europe is Cabo da Roca in Portugal with a lighthouse perched on towering cliffs. We were amazed to find men fishing off the cliff edge, their baited line in the ocean hundreds of feet below.
That still leaves the most Easterly point of Europe and here I must admit failure. It depends what borders are in place at the time and although we’ve explored vast tracts of Eastern Europe, there were still options to go further. Somewhere in the Urals, I reckon, but who knows? I don’t.
Without appearing too anal, or straying much further away from the subject of New Zealand, without ever threatening to be actual ‘mountaineers’ we’ve also been to Europe’s (attainable without actual climbing) highest peaks, the Matterhorn and also enjoyed the (expensive but worth it) little train ride to the top of the Jungfrau.
Our various camper vans have climbed to 3,300 metres in Spain’s Sierra Nevada mountains, over the Col de L’Iseran in France and well into the clouds in Morocco’s High atlas. This little old Wicked van, however, was already showing signs of weakness. We’ll just settled for finding the North and South of New Zealand and forget about mountain passes.
The Bay of Islands is fabulous. Everybody we met in New Zealand told us so. Our second viewing, through a drizzle covered windscreen was no better than our first. Oh well, can’t have perfection every time.
We went to find 90 Mile Beach, the name confused us a bit as we’d already been to 90 Mile Beach quite recently, but that one was in Australia. Some of the little towns we went through on the way were really charming and were our first confirmation that much of New Zealand is like the England of our youth. Which can’t be bad. They wouldn’t allow our van to drive onto the beach, which is ‘only’ about fifty five miles long, not ninety, but 55 miles in length makes it still a very big beach. The Australian version really was 90 miles long, we walked on about five percent of it and it appeared endless.
Today wasn’t a day for beach walking or romping in sand dunes – both options were only briefly considered – so we moved on.
This trip wasn’t going very well so far. We got talking to a young couple from Hamilton who told us their home city was not to be missed. We’re easily swayed, so off we went to Hamilton, or Kirikiriroa if you need to know its Maori name. Somewhat disappointingly as Maori names are usually quite poetic Kirikiriroa just means ‘long stretch of gravel.’
A prominent notice board told us Hamilton is New Zealand’s largest inland city, situated on New Zealand’s longest river, the Waikato, and it’s a young, vibrant city with over 50% of residents under the age of thirty. Nothing wrong with Hamilton at all, a perfectly pleasant place. Would we go there again? Probably not.
Missing out numerous stops along the way and a random selection of free camp sites – well, there are honesty boxes if you want to contribute, but we never saw anyone go near them – we encountered the first hint of our next destination on the approach to Rotorua. It’s one of those places you can smell from ten miles away. (I know this as I was blamed for the rotten eggs smell of sulphur circulating around the van, unfairly on this occasion if not on others).
We stayed overnight at the campsite alongside the Blue Lake. There’s a Green Lake as well, next door, but the Blue Lake boasted a Top Ten camp site and we’d been told how good they were on several occasions already.
Next morning, fairly early, Marigold showed a certain reluctance to join me when I suggested going for a swim as the sun was already showing promise and the water was sparkling. There were a few swimmers out there already, wearing wetsuits! In this weather? Kiwis are wimps I decided.
I stayed in the water for about three minutes, came out chilled to the bone. I once swam in Loch Awe in Scotland in early May and thought I’d immersed myself in an ice bath. The Blue Lake ran it a close second. Marigold wasn’t impressed when I jumped back into bed in search of body warmth.
We found a viewpoint between the Blue Lake, Titikapu and the Green Lake, Rotokakahi. Titikapu is a base for water sports, but Rotokakahi is on private Maori land and entry is prohibited. They’re pretty close, but I found a noticeboard next to a Maori statue – always want to say ‘totem pole,’ but I’m pretty certain that’s neither accurate nor appropriate, but never did find the correct term – telling us the Green Lake is 21 Metres below the Blue Lake and it’s green because it’s shallower than the blue lake and has a sandy bottom.*
*Marigold reverts to sniggering infancy at any mention of bottoms, sandy or otherwise, and this occasion was no exception.
We reckoned the praise for Top Ten Camp Sites was fully justified and booked ourselves in for another night before heading off to explore the area. Everybody kept telling us the rotten eggs smell wouldn’t be noticeable after a while. Obviously two days isn’t long enough.
Holding our noses we went off to Hell’s Gate to find the source of the smell. This garishly signposted attraction boasted the highest thermal waterfall in the Southern Hemisphere. ‘Wow,’ we exclaimed. Or maybe we didn’t.
We can blame an Irishman for the name. George Bernard Shaw visited here in 1934 and said, ‘this could be the very gates of hell.’ Quite impressive for a renowned agnostic like Shaw. The local Maori chiefs had almost certainly never heard of George Bernard Shaw, but understood a marketing opportunity when they heard it and the English name from then on became Hell’s Gate.
It’s a fascinating place, wreathed in steam and mists with superheated mud pools bubbling away. The surroundings were spectacular with lush foliage and we found many large examples of the New Zealand rugby team’s shirt emblem, the silver fern.
The promised thermal waterfall, the Karachi Falls, was pretty impressive too. The water is about 40 degrees, a hot shower without risk of scalding, and was ideal for Maori warriors returning from battles as a means of washing off the blood of their vanquished enemies. We didn’t see any blood soaked warriors, but maybe it was still early in the day.
Hells Gate is 10,000 years old, give or take, and was once underground until one of the many eruptions that this area has had brought it to the surface. We were standing on one of the thinnest sections of the Earth’s Crust anywhere, the molten magma isn’t far below our feet. I read this on a noticeboard with considerable trepidation.
Later, after yet another café visit, coffee and a slice of carrot cake – this has been a common theme of this trip after discovering New Zealanders make brilliant carrot cake - we went for a stroll around the camp site to check out the other vans. Certainly our own 'Wicked' attracted attention wherever we went, but campsites are great for checking out the competition and we’ve also found fellow camper van folk to be among the most gregarious and friendly people wherever we’ve been.
A strolling couple, a fair few years younger than us, had asked us back to their van for drinks and returned five minutes later to extend the offer to include food as well. Of course we accepted. They could have been potential serial killers, but they were offering food and drink.
We’d noticed their van instantly on our previous wanderings: a vast behemoth bigger than some bungalows. When we turned up a couple of hours later at the appointed time, I was slightly disappointed at the absence of a butler, but the interior of the van reflected the opulence of the outside.
We realised at once that our hosts had spent the intervening hours demolishing a crate of beer, the evidence was under the table, and were both rather the worse for wear. As the beers had long gone, the bottle of wine we supplied became the first of many sourced from a larder almost as big as our van.
Terry and June, yes really, were from Otago and had been on the road, criss crossing both islands of New Zealand for 18 months. Terry said he was an ex-copper from the Drug Squad.
‘Put my papers in early, went on the road,’ he said, ‘have a few beers, smoke a bit of dope and throw myself into my music.’
‘It was that or prison,’ added the somewhat disloyal June, earning herself a drunken scowl. ‘Better not ask where he got the money to buy this thing.’
The evening went from bad to worse as the alcohol continued to flow.Terry’s claim to be a singer/songwriter, we soon realised, was somewhat spurious after he’d offered up his ‘latest ditty.’ His guitar playing talent was on the same level as mine (zero) and his singing voice made Tom Waits sound like Caruso.
Fortunately, we only suffered through one ‘ditty,’ the songwriting aspect being a match for his musical talents. We passed the point of no return quite early on when a glance at Marigold revealed she was enjoying herself. Other people behaving badly can be entertaining.
We ate charred but acceptable steaks cooked on a stove better than anything we’d ever seen in a house let alone a motorhome served with a brilliant salad and crunchy bread. As far as the food went, no complaints at all, but as yet another bottle of wine arrived, we’d long since reached the ‘enough’ stage.
‘No worries, more for us,’ announced Terry. ‘Anyone fancy a few mussels?’
Marigold shook her head firmly and I could plead a (genuine) seafood allergy while even June refused emphatically. Undeterred, Terry nipped outside and returned with a hessian sack of clanking mussels.
‘They’re not opening, Terry,’ June cautioned more than once as the great mussel cooking feast got under way. Marigold went for a look, they certainly weren’t, but Terry announced, ‘they’ll be fine’ and prised a huge number from their shells with a clasp knife before chomping them down.
‘Sure I can’t tempt you?’ He said. We declined in increasingly vehement fashion as the question continued to be asked while the level of conversation between Terry and June escalated from ‘tiff’ to full on warfare. We’ve come across many ‘bickering’ couples in the past, but nothing like this pair.
‘Why did I ever marry you?’ June asked. A very good question, I thought, but her follow up suggested there may be faults on both sides. ‘I’m still in touch with most of your family and some of your old mates and we always laugh at how pathetic you are.’
‘I thought my mates had better taste than to go talking to you.’
‘Why don’t you go off and write another rubbish song, Mister Shakespeare?’
You get the gist? Oh and Shakespeare a songwriter? Well, discounting the odd sonnet, that’s not the first name I’d think of when listing great song lyricists. He was a good source of insults though. If only June could offer up ‘more of your conversation would infect my brain,’ a line from Coriolanus which is virtually all I remember from one of the set books I supposedly studied at A Level.
‘Out of my sight, thou dost infect mine eyes,’ from Richard the Third is even better and was a phrase often used by one of my alleged superiors when I first started ‘proper’ work. Line Managers who can quote from Shakespeare are all very well, but when that’s just about the only talent they have the novelty soon fades away.
We left shortly after Terry dropped an almost full bottle of red wine on the cream carpet. Most of the insults had died away by now and the ill suited pair joined forces to mop up a vast spillage with dishcloths, making the damage ten times worse in the process. Our departure was virtually unnoticed.
Our van appeared ridiculously tiny on our return, yet hugely welcome as a means of escape from the evening’s madness. The next day we drove past Terry and June’s van on our way out. The windows and door were wide open and there were four red stained cloths on the grass outside the door. We assumed red wine, could easily have been blood, but we didn’t stop to check.
Our destination was Whakarewarewa Village, the ancestral home of the Tuhourangi, Ngati Wahiao Māori people – yes, of course I looked up how to spell that – and a real rarity for us as we usually avoid ‘ethnic village experiences.’ Yes, it’s tourist orientated, but as the blurb on the entrance noticeboard said, ‘an opportunity for unlimited access to an untouched geothermal landscape and experience the raw nature of Papatuanuku, Mother Earth.’
Quite a claim. Despite our misgivings, we loved it.
Cooking in boiling rock pools sounds scary and it’s perhaps not a task lightly undertaken, but at the time of our visit Health and Safety measures were in their infancy and we saw quite young children playing on the very edge of boiling lakes. A few of the local boys were diving from a bridge for coins thrown by tourists and we were relieved to see the water below the bridge was merely warm and not boiling.
This ‘attraction’ differs from the usual ‘enjoy a Bedouin meal’ or ‘dance with a nomadic tribe’ nonsense that’s basically exploitation for gain where bank clerks and shop assistants don the tribal costumes of their distant ancestors as an extra little earner. The Tuhourangi people have lived here for hundreds of years, this village is their home and their living conditions have genuine authenticity.
We liked the erupting geysers, more bubbling mud pools dried into fantastic shapes and even the singing and dancing show, which was a real surprise. We couldn’t fault them for effort, although Marigold reckoned she’d seen more than enough bare chested men sticking out their tongues at her for one day.
Try to stay with me, there's more to come yet.