A Travellerspoint blog

Tongariro to Napier, 22nd November

sunny 24 °C
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Morning view of Mount Ngauruhoe, with a puff of cloud to the left - where the eruption took place!

The Tongariro Chateau doesn’t include breakfast as part of the package so this morning we ate muesli out of a glass whilst sitting in bed enjoying the early morning view of Mount Ngauruhoe. As the sun rose, the snowy slopes of the volcano lit up in shades of pink and gold.

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The active crater vents on Mount Tongariro

Driving through the Tongariro National Park, on our way to Napier we watched the volcano puffing away creating an ash cloud that has caused the Taupo airport to cancel most of the flights scheduled for the day. Even so, it’s sunny and warm and the ‘ash cloud’ isn’t powerful enough to darken the sky.

The route to Napier, took us along another Heritage Trail, a route that took us about 3 hours but which took 19th Century travellers 2 full days by coach. We passed through forests and mountains and rivers, all very beautiful but honestly, we are beginning to get scenic overload! The whole of the Taupo area and the rivers to the south are rich fishing grounds, typically rainbow trout waters. Every little community along the lake has its share of fishing tackle shops and places to hire everything from waders to a boat.

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One of the great trout fishing lakes in the Greater Lake Taupo area

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Diane, tasting the Linden Estate wines

Arriving in the Hawke’s Bay area we stopped at the very first winery we came to and enjoyed our first flight of tasting wines. It was the Linden Winery and right now, I’m sitting in The Scenic Hotel Te Pania in ‘Art Deco’ Napier, enjoying both a glass of Linden’s finest rose and the views from my window across Hawke’s Bay.

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Monkeh enrols as a GinSmuggler, with the view from our room in the background

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The Napier Daily Telegraph building, a classic ‘Art Deco’ design

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SKYDIVE, 21st November

sunny 22 °C
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Oh Wow! Oh boy, oh boy, we did it! Wheeeeee.....! Been there, done that and got the T-shirt (literally) which will be worn on high days (that’s a pun) and holidays henceforth!

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Keith & Diane, and the lovely pink skydiving plane

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The (parachute) Packing Monkeh!

We did the skydive from 15,000 feet – and survived! The whole experience was amazing, scary, exhilarating and over far too quickly. There’s no time to get frightened, before you know it you are suited up and ready to go. The tiny plane goes up and up, so high that we had to wear oxygen masks, so high that the landscape below is a blur of colours and the horizon is curved. Soon it’s your turn and you force your legs against the wind out of the plane, and then you are out, falling through the air at 200km an hour. Keep your legs back, keep your arms out, push your head back, so much to remember and all you want to do is look around you. Smile for the camera, wave at the camera, shout and scream but above all, hang on to Monkeh! (Yes, Jim and Katrin, I really did push Monkeh out of a plane at 15,000 feet and have the evidence....) (evidence to follow, as the photos are on a DVD and we do not have a DVD drive with us!)

Your mouth dries and your lips are forced against your teeth, you can feel the windrush distorting your face and suddenly, the parachute opens and it’s a slow spiral to earth. This was the part that made me feel giddy and sick and it was a battle to hang on to my breakfast, but the views over Lake Taupo and the surrounding mountains were wonderful.

We had videos made of our experiences which are so naff and embarrassing that I will have to be bribed by my nearest and dearest to make mine available for viewing. I didn’t realise that we sounded so BRITISH and so Gung ho!/Jolly hockeysticks!

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Eruption of Mount Tongariro, Te Maari crater, from Skydive Taupo

Whilst we were descending to earth, Mount Tongariro unexpectedly erupted. And so, as we drove to our hotel for the night, we watched plumes of smoke puffing from the volcano. Guess where we are staying? Tongariro Chateau of course! How’s that for being in the right place at the right time? Our room actually overlooks Mount Ngauruhoe, or Mount Doom for those of you who have seen the Lord of the Ring films, but we can see the real volcano plume from Mount Tongariro behind it! The hotel nestles in a gap between those mountains and the really big one, Mount Ruapehu. It is spectacular alpine scenery all around so would you believe that the first room we were offered gave us a view of the car park and a wall? Soon got that sorted!

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The view from our room of the perfectly conical Mount Ngauruhoe

It’s still quite warm here, despite how high we are, shirtsleeves and even shorts in the daytime, so it feels strange to look all around us at snow covered slopes. Everywhere in New Zealand is so perfectly landscaped and so neat that it seems as if it was all designed by Peter Jackson for his next feature film.

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Rotorua, 20th November

sunny 24 °C
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We had only the one day in Rotorua and there’s lots to see so we donned our headless chicken suits and set off to Wai-O- Tapu, which means ‘Sacred Waters’ in Maori. It’s an amazingly colourful volcanic region full of geothermal activity. The star of the show is the ‘Lady Knox Geyser’ (pronounced ‘guy-ser’ by the Kiwis).

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The 'Lady Knox' geyser

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Monkeh and the geyser

There are also volcanic lakes, craters, fumaroles, steam vents, mineral terraces and bubbling mudpools all in shades of greens, yellows, blues and purples caused by the different mineral elements in the waters. It’s called a ‘Thermal Wonderland’ and it really is like nothing we’d ever seen, or smelled, before (well, it smelled like rotten eggs, actually).

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Multi-coloured volcanic lake

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Sulphur Cave

Later, we returned to the town and visited the Polynesian Spa on the edge of Lake Rotorua. A big complex of mineral pools of different temperatures, which are supposed to have amazing health giving properties and which will cure everything from arthritis to warts! But we just enjoyed lounging in the hot pools, in the warm sunshine, looking out over the lake and mountains beyond.

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Diane, soaking in the Polynesian Spa

Fortified after our long walk around Wai-O-Tapu and soothed by our mineral soak, we were ready for a bit of culture. Many people we’d met on our travels had encouraged us to visit the small Rotorua Museum (in a lovely old building with a wonderful roof view) to learn about the Maori. I admit that I knew nothing of the history of the Maori people and had always imagined that they sort of started here! Instead I found out that they were part of a big migration from Hawaiki, wherever that might be, and some of their legends and beliefs are colourful and complicated. Many of the Maori settled in the Rotorua area to make use of the thermal pools for cooking and to keep them warm. Clever!

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Diane, on the Rotorua Museum roof

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New Zealand aka ‘Godzone’, 20th November

sunny 25 °C
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We seemed to be travelling all day on Friday with flights from Cairns to Sydney and then to Auckland, touching down in New Zealand at exactly midnight. So far, not one of our flights has taken off on time, usually the reason for the delay is something to do with safety but this one was ‘loading the catering...’ Well done Quantas!

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Grey Auckland

Our first NZ day dawned grey and drizzly, not at all what we’d signed up for, but our airport hotel room gave us a view over the harbour though, which was nice. We drove up to the top of Eden Hill overlooking Auckland, although with the wind, rain and mist, there wasn’t much to see. As we drove across to Whangamata (how would you say that? Wan-ga-ma-ta? No, the local pronunciation is W’n’g’m-taaahh... very confusing!) the weather improved and became clearer but still showery. The landscape was of green rolling hills and the main highway is only two lanes wide... two lanes, not two in either direction.

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NZ roads

Our hotel is Brenton Lodge and it is lovely. Only four apartments, with spectacular views out over manicured gardens and down to the coast. If there are hotels in Heaven, I bet they are like this one.

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View from Brenton Lodge

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Our chalet at Brenton Lodge

On Sunday we circumnavigated the Coromandel Peninsula by the coastal road. Everywhere you look, the view is spectacular. Hills and mountains covered in trees, lush green valleys where the sheep and cattle graze, rocky, babbling streams and the most glorious views across the coast to bays and islands. It is truly a most beautiful place. Coromandel Town is a throwback to the gold rush days with saloons and shops, and The Coromandel Smoking Company that smokes and sells anything that moves! The scenery on the west side is very dramatic, but on the east there are long deserted beaches. One of the more popular is ‘Hot Water Beach’, where there are hot springs beneath the sand. People dig holes which fill up with the warm water and then lie in them. You have to be careful where you dig though, for some of springs are amazingly hot, as we found out to our cost.

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View from Coromandel Peninsula

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Diane helps Monkeh at Hot Water Beach!

We were loathe to leave Brenton Lodge, and feared that the accommodation and location might spoil us for the rest of the trip. The owners looked after us really well and their food was spectacular but all good things come to an end and we set off on Monday towards Rotorua. As we travelled south, the landscape softened into rolling green hills more reminiscent of the ‘Shires’ and soon we arrived at Hobbiton.

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Approach to Hobbiton

The administration, ticketing and organisation at the entrance of the mighty film set was slow and chaotic to say the least but once we finally boarded Gimley, our ancient bus, and drove over the hills into Hobbiton it was magic all the way. There we were, right in the middle of the ‘real’ Hobbiton! The attention to detail, which you don’t really notice in the films, is amazing. There are far more hobbit holes than we expected, 37 in all, each with their own gardens and post boxes. They aren’t ‘holes’ at all, they look like proper little houses although, unfortunately, most are simply facades with nothing inside. It’s set out like a real village with the green and the ‘Party Tree’ and lots of flowers and vegetable gardens. The watermill stands on the lake and a new ‘Green Dragon’ pub is under construction. We had lots of photo opportunities, and Monkeh had a great time posing.

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Monkey visits a Hobbit home

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Monkey goes postal!

In the afternoon we drove on to Rotorua, centre of Maori culture and of geysers, thermal lakes and the ever present smell of sulphur.....

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Mauri war canoe (Waka)

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Ups and Downs in Cairns, 16th November

semi-overcast 27 °C
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Although I wasn’t too thrilled about being woken at 1.30am to be ready to leave by 2.00am on eclipse morning, the decision to leave Cairns and travel inland to a higher spot, west of the coastal mountain range proved to be a good one. We, the Astro Trails eclipse group, boarded 2 large buses, each with 50 people, 50 breakfast boxes and at least 50 tons of cameras, tripods, filters and other gadgetry, and off we went!

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Although it took the astro-nerds ages to organise all their stuff and we were late leaving (I could have had another half hour in bed, but it seems that they were all too excited to sleep), by 6.00am we were out in the bush at Campbell Creek (aka middle of nowhere) watching the sun through our fancy mylar glasses as it made its appearance above the treetops. We are, apparently, very fortunate to be allowed up here, the only tour group to have the privilege, but then, we are with Kate Humble and the BBC film crew (it’s not what you know, but who....). As the sun, with its little bite of moon rose, it became noticeably warmer and fleeces were shed, but as the moon moved further across the sun it went cooler again, darker and the birds stopped singing their morning chorus. At 6.38pm, exactly on schedule, the moon positioned itself perfectly across the face of the sun and we could remove our glasses and view the glorious, blazing corona with the naked eye and even safely through binoculars. Those two magical minutes of totality were what everybody had come for.

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As we travelled back to the hotel, the bus driver pointed out the sights - the rivers and creeks of the Tablelands, the gold rush trail, the Flying Doctor airport base and a ‘primary’ school, not for 5 year olds, but for children who had previously been educated at home in the outback, by means of radio and internet. The school is designed to help them all reach the same standard and to prepare them to move on to further education and employment.

Once back in Cairns we discovered that had we stayed at the hotel, which was an option, we wouldn’t have seen the eclipse as the sun was obscured by clouds at the critical moment. Good call!
The sun stayed out for the rest of the day and so, instead of going to bed as many of the party did (the ‘Do not disturb’ signs came out thick and fast) we went out to the pool to bathe in both the sun and the water. The one was very cold and the other very hot, so I now have a bright red tummy for my pains.

After looking up at the sky on Wednesday, we gazed down into the deep on Thursday’s Great Barrier Reef trip. You have to do it, you have to go out to the reef, but, frankly, when you get there it’s not really worth the effort nor the not inconsiderable cost. We chose a ‘small’ boat with ‘not many people’ to find ourselves jostling for outside seating with about 60 others. The tide was high and the sky was cloudy, the sea was rough and choppy. I should have been warned when people started passing seasickness pills around....... Needles to say, snorkelling was very difficult in the rolling waves, with the sea washing over the end of the snorkel. Without sunshine, the coral, such that there was, was lacking colour, and although we did see a metre long reef shark, there wasn’t an awful lot more marine life. To sum it up, too deep; too cloudy; too rough; too cold.

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A change of location and some sunshine improved the situation somewhat in the afternoon but the swimming was still very hard work in the rough sea. We decided that we are not pack-snorkellers and retired to the boat. We’ve been spoiled by the crystal clear water and sheer abundance of colourful sea life we’ve seen in Thailand and the Maldives, and by having a whole longtail boat to ourselves!
By way of consolation, the sun did put on another spectacular display for us, at sunset. It looked like an erupting volcano, or possibly a wildfire in the hills above Cairns!

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As a last night celebration we went for the ‘ice and fire’ buffet in the hotel. Unlimited chilled seafood, and also barbecued meats and fish with all the trimmings. I did wish that I’d starved myself for a couple of days beforehand but I still managed oysters, crab, prawns, barramundi and chicken, chargrilled steak, squid, and caramel banana pudding with ice cream ...... did I mention the puddings?

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