Day 3: November 12
Cambridge is in some of the best horse county in NZ; it is a real center for equestrian sports. We spent the morning seeing some nice horses and visiting several lovely farms.
Few horses live in stables in NZ. Most all of them stay out in the pastures 24 hours a day, and they wear New Zealand rugs, complete with hoods, in all weather. They are kept covered even when it is hot and sunny, to protect them from the sun. Even though it is cool and often rainy or cloudy, when the sun does shine it is very intense, due to the clear air and lack of pollution in that part of the world! The winds can be relentless, so most of the fields and paddocks have very tall dense hedges planted along the edges, to act as windbreaks and shelter for the horses and other livestock. In some cases these hedges were incredibly tall; we saw several that were over 20 feet high!
Leaving Cambridge, we headed north. We admired the beautiful countryside as we passed rivers, lakes and mountain ranges. The weather was pleasant; sunny with passing clouds and a good breeze. It reminded me a lot of the weather in England in the summer, warm enough for short sleeves when the sun was out, but passing rain showers could come along at a moments notice.
Again, I was struck by how many of the trees were totally unfamiliar; and many of them were enormous! Another thing we noticed was the abundance of citrus trees. I found this surprising, since in the US they primarily grow in very warm climates like Florida; but it seemed that almost every house had an orange or lemon tree. In fact, at our B&B, they had a tree with a lemon on it the size of a grapefruit!
We stopped in Tirau and walked up through the town, checking out the shops and admiring the abundance of flowers. The air smelled of jasmine and honeysuckle. We bought some jewelry made of greenstone, a type of jade that is found in NZ; I started wearing my new greenstone necklace right away. We stopped at an authentic Takeaway shop for lunch, where we had the most delicious fish and chips, served in the traditional way, wrapped in newspaper. We discovered that the fish and chips in NZ are beyond compare; the fish are encased in the most wonderful light and crispy beer batter, and the chips (French fries) are exceptional, and served in very large portions. But if you want tomato sauce (catsup) with them, you have to pay extra!
We visited a wine shop, and anticipating picnics, we bought several bottles of white wine. New Zealand wines have become quite popular, and we wanted to give them a try firsthand. Jineen had been reading about the Cloudy Bay vineyard, whose Sauvignon Blanc is considered by some to be one of the finest white wines in the world. We almost bought a bottle; but it was quite expensive so we refrained, figuring we could find it more economically later on.
Leaving Tirau, we headed north, towards the Coromandel Peninsula. The road wound through the Karangahake Gorge. We stopped there and took a walk along a path that went over a swing bridge and explored the site of a long-abandoned gold mine. Continuing on, we saw a signpost for Owharoa Falls. We turned off to investigate, and soon found ourselves on a small path through a forest of ferns that ended at the foot of a lovely waterfall. It was a beautiful spot, and not marked on any of the maps or in the guidebooks; the only way you would find it would be to notice the signpost and stop to explore. We were to discover many more such hidden spots as the trip went on!
We stopped by a roadside stand and bought strawberries, avocados and kiwis (the fruits, not the birds). Thus fortified we drove on, and before long we came to the Pacific Ocean. We passed lovely rolling green hills and mountainsides, and lush pastures with cows, right down to the oceanside. The road was very winding as it followed the coastline. I drove quite slowly; partly to enjoy the scenery and partly because I wasnít familiar with the roads. I pretty much constantly had someone coming up fast behind me and tailgating until they could pass. NZ has the same road-marking system as in the US, with a dotted white line designating a passing zone and a solid yellow one meaning you canít pass. The only difference is they pretty much allowed passing everywhere, including on hills and blind curves!
We came to Whiritoa, a tiny town right by the beach. We saw a B&B sign and knocked on door; we were hoping someone would be home, because it was the only lodging in town! It had not been listed in our B&B book; it was owned by an older lady who said she didnít advertise because she didnít like to make reservations by phone; she wanted to be able to look the people over before inviting them into her house. I guess we passed the test, because she gave us a room for the night.
After dinner in Whangamata, we went for a walk on the beach, in the dark. The waves came crashing in with incredible force; I couldnít imagine setting foot in that dangerous surf. It was a beautiful clear night with no moon, and a million unfamiliar stars bejeweled the sky. I could see half of Orion, sticking up-side-down above the horizon. I finally got my first look at the Southern Cross; the only other time I have been in the southern hemisphere was when I visited Africa, and there you couldnít go out to look at the stars at night for fear of being eaten by a lion!
Standing facing the Pacific with a strong breeze blowing in our faces, we presently noticed some pale lights flickering and shimmering in the sky above the ocean. We were seeing the Southern Lights! It was an enchanted evening. I saw a shooting star; but the night was so perfect that I didnít even remember to make a wish!
Day 4: November 13
We started out the day with an early morning walk on that beautiful sandy beach. The waves were still coming in quite strongly, but the surf was quieter than the previous night. We saw only a few other people; a couple of boys in wetsuits with their surfboards and several people walking with their dogs, otherwise the beach was deserted. We saw one lone seagull wading through the edge of where the waves washed up onto the beach. The sky was crystal clear blue and it was actually getting warm enough to consider swimming; but when the waves swirled around our ankles the water was icy cold and soon dissuaded any such notions!
We walked along the sand at the edge of the incoming waves collecting seashells. There was an enormous number and variety of shells, which lead us to ponder their origin. How do mollusks reproduce? Do clams have sex?
We reached the end of the beach, where big rock outcroppings reared up into cliffs. We found a little stairway that led up; we climbed to the top and sat on a ledge above the ocean and watched the Pacific waves crash against the cliff. We stayed there quite a while, just sort of contemplating. Watching the ocean brings a certain sense of calm or serenity; as each wave recedes you can feel your tensions go with it.
Leaving our perch above the water, we found a secret path. Following this, we wound along the ridge top with the ocean on our left; and in many places there was also a sheer drop-off to the right, down to a river below. The little trail climbed up and up, with spectacular viewpoints from the tops of wooded cliffs high above the Pacific. Then it wound down again, and came to a cave-like hole in the rock where a stream had carved through the cliff. The waves would rush in through the ocean-side portal and form a churning pool in the bottom of the cave, as the waters from the stream fought the incoming tide to reach the sea. The waves crashing in the hole made a noise like thunder.
The trail then climbed again, and gradually it grew narrower, steeper and more overgrown. We were soon forcing our way through shrubs and gorse bushes (which have formidable thorns!), and in places the path went along the brink of undercut cliffs, which seemed to me very treacherous. I love to stand in a high place and look out; but I have a considerable fear of heights, so I donít like to be too near the edge. At times I nervously shuffled along, desperately grasping at gorse branches where the path crossed over some narrow saddle of worn earth. And to think that I had entertained the notion of bungy jumping! No way; I couldnít even stand to look down from the ledge!
Eventually we reached the very top of the highest cliff, with a panoramic view of the ocean, the beach, and the islands in the distance. The path carried on down the other side, but as it had become almost impassible, we headed back.
Continuing on from Whiritoa, we headed north to Whangamata and then followed the west coast of the Coromandel Peninsula. This area was the former home of our B&B hosts, Harry and Isabel, and they had recommended it as a great place to tour. It was really a lovely area, with the road climbing through the coastal mountains, and spectacular views of the ocean. But the road was even twistier than the day before. As were most of the roads in NZ, it was well maintained and smooth; and littered with dead possums! Even though we were on the main route around the peninsula, it was fairly narrow and extremely winding. In many places there were huge drop-offs right at the edge of the pavement, and no guardrails! I was continually being tailgated and passed, often on blind curves, by locals who drove these treacherous roads at amazing speeds. Soon I adopted a policy where as soon as I glimpsed a car behind me, I would just pull over at the nearest wide spot to allow them to go by. Then I would continue on, soon to be overtaken again!
Most of the place names in New Zealand come from the Maori, the earliest people to live there. They were of Polynesian descent, and over a thousand years ago they crossed great stretches of open sea in small canoes to settle on these shores. We can only imagine the courage and luck it took for them to set out across the ocean, without any navigational equipment, to find and inhabit these islands that they must not even have known were there. They named the country Aotearoa, which is Maori for ĎLand of the Long White Cloud.í
We learned that the Maori language only has 14 letters; that is why so many of the names of places sound very much alike. It consists of the 5 vowels, plus, in no particular order, M, N, R, T, W, K, H, P, and G. We were always struggling with pronunciation; we would get tripped up on how to pronounce long strings of vowels, and consonants that had different sounds (for instance, Ďwhí is pronounced as Ďfí).
We continued on towards Whitianga (pronounced Fitianga) Bay. We were driving through beautiful farmland countryside, with steep green pastures for cows and sheep on long hillsides, and forested mountain peaks overlooking the shoreline.
At Whitianga Harbor, we left the coastline and cut across to the west side of the peninsula on route 309, a shortcut we found on our map. We had been advised that it might not be the best route to take because the road was very winding; but we thought it couldnít get any twistier than the coastal road we had been on.
We were wrong! The 309 started out as a sealed (the NZ term for paved) road, but it soon turned to unsealed (gravel). The road became more and more narrow, and as it climbed the mountain pass it was one hairpin turn after another. Soon I was creeping along at 10 kilometers per hour, clutching the steering wheel anxiously. It wasnít so much the sheer drop-offs right by the road that fell hundreds of feet, nor the lack of guardrails that bothered me; I was used to that by now. The really disconcerting thing was the way that in places part of the roadway itself had crumbled away over the brink of a cliff! Such hazards were occasionally marked with a small orange traffic cone; this led to speculation that for every such spot where the road had already given way, there were probably other bits that were ready to collapse into the abyss under the weight of our car as we passed over it. In fact, at one such spot where part of the road was missing on a hairpin curve, we could see a car upside-down in the bottom of a deep ravine! It had evidently ended up there, perhaps some years before, while trying to negotiate this road.
Despite the remoteness of the area we were in, we were surprised that we still encountered several cars on this tiny road. Presumably locals, they were of course traveling much faster than we were; I got out of their way as quickly as I could find a place to pull over for them to pass. Amazingly, even on this little gravel byway we passed a number of dead possums. We werenít sure if this was a reflection on how stupid and slow the possums are, or on how fast the locals drive!
Despite the hazards of the 309, we were really glad we had taken it. Jineen and I both love exploring the smallest roads we can find on our map; and this one had proved to be excellent. There were some beautiful viewpoints, and we really got a chance to see some of the more rural farmland of the North Island. We stopped to visit Waiai Falls (no idea how to pronounce that!), another lovely small waterfall along the road. As we descended the mountain and neared the western coastline of the peninsula and the town of Coromandel, we were treated to an amazing vista of the green countryside before us, rolling down to a turquoise sea.
Reaching the coast again, we headed north towards the tip of the peninsula. The shoreline was beautiful, with long green hills and mountains on our right, and the brilliant blue water on our left. The road often ran right along the edge of the water, with huge gnarled old trees clinging to the banks.
The air smelled sweet like honeysuckle; it was the scent of gorse, which was blooming in yellow all along the sides of the roads. We saw many bee hives and signs advertising honey for sale; we wanted to try some gorse honey! As we were driving through a valley along a stream, we saw a brilliant green parrot-like bird flying among the trees near the road; he was very beautiful! He had a long tail, and red and yellow on his head; we tried to follow him for a closer look, but soon lost him. We later learned that he was a native parakeet.
We followed a small coast road to Waitete Bay, but by this time it was getting late, so we decided that instead of continuing to the tip of the peninsula, we would head southwards along the coast to the town of Thames. After calling ahead to book a room, we then somehow managed to arrive at the wrong house. After a brief encounter at a very spooky B&B with a drunken old man who lived there, we found the correct driveway for our lodging for the night. This proved to be a lovely farmhouse, high on a hilltop, with a beautiful flower garden overlooking the valley. The couple who ran it had only lived there about a month; we were the first people to sign their guest book! We had a nice dinner at a restaurant in town called The Gold Mine, where we worked on sampling some of New Zealandís fine white wines (though they didnít have Cloudy Bay), and then we were off to bed. We were full of anticipation; the next morning we were heading to the South Island!
Day 5: November 14
When we woke up it was raining. We didnít complain, because so far the weather on our trip had been perfect; Jineen commented that when we travel together we always seem to have the ĎLuck of the Irishí in that respect. And so far we were having another charmed trip! We figured that it had to rain sometime, and that while we were driving back to Auckland Airport was a perfect time for it.
We hadnít been sure what to pack for this trip. Even though we were going for two weeks, we had wanted to pack light; but everything I had read had indicated that New Zealand was cool to cold, very windy, and could be quite rainy, especially on the South Island. Though November is late spring in the southern hemisphere, the guidebooks cautioned that in the mountains it could be very cold and snowing, and that in some areas it rains an average of 340 days per year. I had read numerous accounts of unprepared hikers caught in spring snowstorms. So in addition to warm sweaters and jackets, we had brought raingear, heavy winter coats, warm hats and gloves, and extra layers of longjohns. We had both also bought brand new hiking boots. We were not going to be caught unprepared. But of course, so much for packing light!
This became sadly evident when we went to check in for our flight to Christchurch. The first thing they did was to weigh our luggage, and inform us that we were 29 kilos over the inter-island weight limit. We hadnít known there was such a weight limit, nor did we have any idea how much 29 kilos was; but judging by the amount they charged us to bring it along, it must be quite a lot!
Flying south we couldnít see much in the way of the scenery, as the country was draped in clouds. It brought to mind the Maori name Aotearoa, Land of the Long White Cloud. But when we approached Christchurch the skies cleared and the sun shone, and by the time we landed it was a beautiful sunny day! We started to suspect that we had brought far too much in the way of heavy coats and warm clothes; the weather was much nicer than we had anticipated.
True to his word, the guy from Rent-A-Dent met us at the baggage claim with a sign. Cool! I have always wanted to be met at an airport by someone holding up a sign with my name! He had brought us our vehicle, a Honda CRV, a four-wheel-drive SUV. It was 4 or 5 years old and had well over 100,000 kilometers on it, but it was in good shape and proved to be a great vehicle; we got to know it well over the next nine days! The Rent-A-Dent guy gave us a brief rundown of its equipment and controls, including where the button was to open the hatchback; but unfortunately I neglected to pay attention to this last part. So later on when we wanted to open the back without stopping the engine to use the key, we couldnít find the release button, though we thoroughly searched the whole front of the car!
We had an appointment in the afternoon to look at several horses near Christchurch; but with several hours to kill in the meantime, we took the Old West Coast Road to the Waimakariri River Gorge. This was a wide flat rocky valley, with multiple channels of pale green water crisscrossing through stony shoals; the banks of this Ďbraided riverí were completely covered in brilliant yellow-blooming broom bushes.
At first the farming country was mostly flat crop fields, but as we headed west the land became gently rolling. We saw many horses standing in their paddocks wearing their rugs. In addition to cattle and sheep, we noticed pastures of deer and wapiti (elk), and several with alpacas and ostriches. We had known that NZ had huge numbers of sheep, but the variety of other livestock had been a surprise to us.
We noticed the larger fields were often sectioned off using electric fence, and large herds of sheep and cattle were rotated between small paddocks, grazing down one before being moved to the next. Almost every fenceline had high thick hedges or treelines as windbreaks. Soon we got our first glimpse of the Southern Alps; we could see the mountains rising up suddenly and majestically at the end of the plains. We could hardly wait to go to them the next day!
We had a nice healthy lunch of chips (French fries) at a small deli in Oxford; they really do chips right in NZ! We headed back towards Christchurch and tried two horses; while I rode them the wind was whistling through the fenceposts with a noise like banshees! We then found a B&B in Darfield; a nice home with a lovely garden. We went into town for dinner and wine, but the restaurant didnít have any Cloudy Bay; it was proving to be hard to find, and we were sorry we hadnít bought a bottle when we had the chance! However we tried the Stoneleigh Sauvignon Blanc, it was quite excellent, our favorite so far. We decided that a rating system was in order, and we awarded the Stoneleigh, three stars out of a possible four. We were in a nice mellow mood by the time we went to bed!