New Zealand [week 11]

Week eleven began in a town of fewer than a hundred people and ended in a city of 1.3 million. Most of this was spent on the Coromandel, a rugged peninsula just east of Auckland with few people and many natural wonders. Driving around the Coromandel's roads, which constantly twist and turn to avoid these wonders, can be enough to turn even the strongest stomach, but the places they lead are generally worth the nausea.


Less than a minute's walk from our tent was Hot Water Beach. As the name suggests, the beach is noteworthy for the scolding water that filters through its sand to burn the feet of unwitting tourists above. Most of the tourists are witting however and purposefully mine the hot water using shovels rented from the local cafe. By combining hot with cold, it's possible to build natural jacuzzis along the shore.


Also nearby was Cathedral Cove, another tourist mecca. Here it is from above.


And here it is from below. This photo was actually taken standing inside the Cathedral: a giant church-shaped hole in the rock separating two beaches.


Absolutely great fun.


For our last evening together, our wonderful hosts prepared a vegetarian curry from the cafe they're allowed to use after it closes to the public at 4pm. It and the surroundings were delicious.


Our next stop was the harbour town of Whitianga, a short drive and ferry ride away. This scene reminded me of something from Jaws.


Similar.


From Whianga we headed east to Coromandel Town. There we met with Shep, whose rustic little home in the countryside we were allowed to share for the next three nights.


Sam with "Psycho" the cat. Psycho lived up to his name in a matter of hours by delivering us a lifeless rabbit whose only sign of injury was a neck twisted 180 degrees.


Shep was a charismatic guy with lots of great stories to tell. His job, in his own words, was to drive around and occasionally take pictures of driveways. Actually he worked for the council and was responsible for making sure the workers maintaining the roads were doing a good job. We spent a lot of time cruising around with him while he did the rounds, stopping occasionally to look at big trees.


We also spent some time investigating mysteries, like the mystery of why someone had bothered to tear off a large road sign only to transport it thirty kilometres into the forest and dump it there. This mystery remains unsolved.


Finally he took us up Shakespeare Cliff, which overlooks beautiful Lonely Bay.


On Thursday we said our goodbyes to Shep and boarded the ferry to Auckland...


...which emerged from the grey two hours later!

New Zealand [week 10]

We escaped boring Kawerau early in the week and headed straight for the coast, which we skirted for the rest of the week. It was great to be back in civilisation and not cleaning showers every morning.


The day before we left Kawerau, I decided to climb Mount Putauaki, a giant lump on an otherwise smooth landscape. The track was steep and overgrown but offered some cracking views of the town.


I could see the paper mill responsible for all the town's past success and future doom.


I could also see the distant Pacific Ocean. The further island is called "White Island" and the closer "Whale Island". You definitely couldn't have worked that out yourself.


Our first stop after Kawerau was Mount Maunganui, a lively beach community squeezed onto a narrow peninsula near the larger city of Tauranga. We found some boulders to climb on, always a great excuse to behave like a child.


I considered hurling myself from a cliff until I remembered I was no longer in Kawerau.


When visiting Mount Maunganui, it's almost compulsory to climb the extinct volcano which gives the town its name. Again, we were treated to some amazing views of the area. The tiny notch on the horizon is Putauaki, which I'd scaled less than a day before. My calves hurt just looking at it.


Maunganui and its reflected twin looking dramatic at sundown.


We spent a night in Tauranga before continuing north to Waihi, where we stayed with couchsurfer Austin for two nights in his beautiful home. Austin (named after the car, not the wrestler) was quite an inspirational character, having founded an IT business when he was just seventeen which now employs several of his high school mates.


Waihi is an active gold mining town with a gigantic open pit on its outskirts.


Huge trucks continuously ferry piles of rock from the bottom of the pit to the surface. Each tonne of rock is said to contain an average of three grams of gold, which somehow equates to $4 million every week.


We hitchhiked to the beach one day. On the way back, we were picked up by an empty school bus. The driver was very nice and agreed to drop us off somewhere that wasn't a school.


As it turned out, this wasn't to be our most eventful hitch of the week. The drive up the coast from Waihi to Hot Water Beach should have only taken an hour and a half but spread over five different vehicles it took quite a bit longer. I spent one of the legs in the back of a pickup truck.


When we finally arrived at Hot Water Beach we were greeted by our friendly hosts Claire and Tim who showed us our dwellings for the weekend, a giant tent pitched outside the cafe they worked at. Achieving free transport, food and accommodation all in one day was enough to make me grin like a fool.

New Zealand [week 9]

We've been travelling for two months now, which means we're half way through our trip. We celebrated this milestone in unquestionably the least-pleasant destination yet: Kawerau. Kawerau was once a prosperous town most notable for its huge paper mill. Over the years, the gradual decline of the mill caused by a shrinking newspaper industry has created a few problems for poor little Kawerau. This video sums up the place quite well.


We came to Kawerau - usually way off the tourist route - to work in a motel for a week for food and accommodation. It hasn't been much fun but we've made the most of a rare opportunity to be stationary and not spend any money for a while.


We spent our mornings cleaning rooms and our evenings preparing meals for the guests. My speciality was showers.


Kawerau holds the twin records for highest rate of unemployment and highest proportion of single parents in New Zealand. The town centre consists largely of boarded up shopfronts. The surviving outlets generally sell either fish n chips or liquor.


To make matters worse for already-comically-bad Kawerau, pollution from the mill combines with gases from the ground to produce a cocktail of sulphur and baked beans which permeates the whole town.


Of course, New Zealand being New Zealand, you only have to go twenty minutes down the road and through some wilderness to end up somewhere completely beautiful. This is Tarawera Falls gushing from a cliff face.


Downstream, the water is less violent, though just as cold.


I haven't tweaked this photo, the water actually looks like this.

New Zealand [week 8]

Week eight was shared unevenly between the central North Island towns of Taupo and Rotorua. The area is famous for its geothermal activity and both towns sit on the edge of lakes formed from volcanic craters.


Lake Taupo is the largest lake in New Zealand by far. Someone once told me Lake Taupo is so big it could contain the M25 motorway in England, which itself contains London. Unfortunately, this is impossible to verify without causing not only a vast ecological disaster, but also the deaths of thousands of motorists.


To get a better feel for the size of the lake, we went parasailing over it. Parasailing is a bit like walking an extremely powerful, aquatic dog on a windy day. We got some incredible views.


At one point, they stopped the boat and let us float down until our toes touched the water before accelerating and launching us back 800 feet into the sky, which was about as much fun as our faces suggest.


To relax afterward parasailing, I took a much slower cruise around the lake aboard an old sailboat called "Fearless". There wasn't any wind so we couldn't do any proper sailing but it was quite nice all the same.


When the captain asked if anyone wanted to go swimming, I literally jumped at the chance, despite being unprepared for such an eventuality. I swam in my boxers and had to dry them in the sun afterwards, which everyone else on the boat thought was very funny.


From Lake Taupo flows the Waikato, the longest river in New Zealand. I know what you're thinking: go easy on the water records Simon, there'll be none left for next week! And you're right.


Slightly further down the Waikato is a bridge where people congregate to swim. From under the bridge, a separate channel of boiling hot water flows from a thermal spring to mix with the cold river water and create a very pleasant medium. Navigating this bizarre mix of cold and hot water feels a bit like being in a children's swimming pool*.

*Sam's joke not mine.


The sun setting on our last day in beautiful Lake Taupo, with the volcanoes from last week in the distance.


Our next stop was Rotorua, a ninety-minute hitch up the so-called "Thermal Explorer Highway". We stayed with Crystal, a couchsurfer kind enough to offer up her small home to the pair of us, two Israeli guys, a Swiss girl and a perpetually drunk man of no fixed nationality. We had a great time and wish we could have stayed longer.


Rotorua is most famous for a couple of things: its Maori hertitage, and stinking. Unfortunately, due to the limited nature of our visit, we only got to experience the latter.


Hot, eggy gas escapes the earth from bubbling pools and special "ground chimneys" (this might not be their real name) dotted all over town. Kuirau Park is an especially severe case.


Horrible.


About 45 minutes walk outside the city centre is a giant forest with dozens of walking and mountain bike tracks carved into it. The tall, skinny Californian redwoods made Sam feel right at home.


Further in, the redwoods gave way to more native-looking ferns. This wonderful forest (which didn't smell at all) was probably our favourite part of Rotorua.