Monday, 10 October 2011

New Zealand Week 5: Napier, Taupo, Auckland

Week Five: Napier, Taupo, Auckland, Waipu

See the photos which illustrate this blog right here:

Tuesday 4th October, Napier. I am staying two nights in Napier so this will be a day without driving. The forecast is for sunny spells early in the day, so I set off on the bike to explore Napier. It has a population of about 60,000 and serves as the key port for the export of the output of the whole Hawke’s Bay region: food, wine, and timber. It feels prosperous, and part of the bay is now a marina with the usual small flotilla of expensive small yachts, and new apartments overlooking it. The climate is apparently Mediterranean, and there is plenty of evidence of an outdoor, café lifestyle. The next part of the bay is the small but busy fishing dock and I can see plenty of fresh fish shops right alongside. The major fish wholesaler, Hawke’s Bay Seafood, also runs a bustling café and takeaway fish ‘n chip shop: that’s novel.

Modern Napier

Working along the bay I now come to the docks, with heavy duty containerization, massive piles of timber to be shipped, and a steady flow of hgv’s rolling in and out of the dock gates. I’m sure some will be shipping NZ wine to the wide world but I wonder what else is exported. Later I see that most of the containers have refrigeration units, so perhaps they are shipping fruit.

Next comes Napier proper, the shopping centre and esplanade. In 1931 Napier suffered a major earthquake, killing 261 people, and tearing the heart out of the town. As the town was rebuilt they decided to not replicate the former Victorian buildings but instead opted for the fashionable 1930’s look, with heavy use of Art Deco styling, which is now the dominant look of the whole town centre, complemented by a great many palm trees (see my photos of Napier, here).
Art deco Napier

Some parts of the esplanade remind me of ‘the front’ one would see in English seaside towns of many years ago. My black and white photo was an attempt to recreate that mood.
The district has also invested in some excellent ‘boardwalk’ walking, jogging, cycling paths, running 30 kms around the edge of the town and out into the surroundings. I used the one along the sea front for about 7 miles, eventually working my way back to Westshore, where I am staying, a cool beer and then a shower. Tonight I’m having dinner out, at a restaurant I saw well reviewed on Trip Advisor. Fox On The Quay (14 West Quay) is very good, a small place, only 36 covers, with a nice casual yet professional air. I have a very thick and creamy chowder, followed by a rack of Hawkes Bay lamb, in lime and cashew crust. The wines are splendid and I regret driving here – I should have walked. Of the 21 wines listed, the most expensive were $58 (£29), the average about $36 (£18) – great value.

It’s interesting to note that all the restaurants like this serve dinner from 5.30pm. When I commented on this it was explained that they take last orders at 8.30pm – horror. One old fashioned touch: when the food had been served, the waiter then offered to grind pepper over it, before I had tasted it, in the way that Italian restaurants used to do.

Wednesday 5th October, Napier. Up and out of Napier by 0915, along the coast a few miles before turning inland on Highway 5, leaving the ocean for the last time for a week.

Napier to Taupo

I’m driving up the Esk Valley, an area full of productive orchards and fields of fruit and vegetables, interspersed with vineyards. There are lots of sales ‘at the farm gate’ and its tempting to stop at several, but I’ll finish up with more than I can keep in my limited fridge, so I content myself with asparagus.

Stop for a coffee in Eskdale, at River Valley café, where the smell of frying bacon is too much and I succumb. This is about the fifth time I’ve stopped en route at what I assumed was a café, to find a small business which is first rate café plus gallery plus craft shop. Great places if you can spot them.

River Valley cafe

After some miles we start climbing and the countryside changes from the fertile valley to less craggy, rocky terrain. We’ve left the sun behind too and it’s misty, cloudy, overcast. I pass through a tiny village, noticing an old–fashioned filling station, and then a short time later a sign “no petrol / diesel for 100 kms”. We are now in dense forests, what I call Forestry Commission forests, trees blanketing every possible surface of steep hillside. There are many trucks heading south, at alarming speed on the narrow mountain roads, loaded with giant trunks presumably bound for Port Napier, and export, as I saw yesterday.
Further along I see areas that have been logged and left desolate, presumably a new crop will be planted soon, but just now it looks like a tsunami has washed right over it, tearing out everything.

Mountainside, after the trees have been stripped away

Exactly on 12 noon I arrive in Taupo, a town set on the edge of Lake Taupo, the largest lake in New Zealand. I park up, lunch, set out to explore in sunshine, and by 4pm it is pouring with rain, so I retire to a café and read the paper. As the RWC pool stages have concluded there are no mid-week games for the press to write up, so they are left with filling pages of print with “RWC not the lucrative bonus businesses expected” (Financial pages), the harsh treatment of Samoa (leader pages), Dan Carter’s groin injury (news pages, again), why everybody hates England (features).

Rain eases, head for my site, park up for the night, cook risotto, using asparagus and mint bought this morning. Chat with four Frenchmen in adjacent two vans about the weekend. We are all apprehensive about our respective teams – both sides viewing the players as ebtirely competent, experienced and skilled, but with doubts about he management and tactics. (The French have already terminated their Head Coach’s contract – three months ago!).

Taupo marina

Thursday 6th, Lake Taupo. So I didn’t see much of Taupo yesterday but I know it has the customary wide range of outdoor activities, and is noted for skydiving, watersports, rafting, and seaplane trips around the lake. Many speak of it as the North Island’s answer to Queenstown and certainly the centre has a great many backpackers hostels, and cafes and bars to match.

Today I’m making my last big drive, from Taupo northwards to Auckland, where I’ll rest for four days.

Just outside Taupo is ‘Craters of the Moon’, which I turn off to visit. It’s a geo-thermal site, described as ‘A Walk with a Difference’. I spend over an hour walking on paths and boardwalks through and around bubbling craters, steam vents, mud pools, coloured rocks, and striking vegetation.

It’s all natural, and sprang up in the 1950’s when a nearby power station lowered the underground water level. As hot water was withdrawn from deep within the field, the water level in the deep reservoir dropped and the remaining water boiled more violently, producing more steam. Large quantities of this extra steam were able to escape at ‘Craters of the Moon’ (I’m quoting this).

As you’ll see in the photographs the landscape is not unlike British moorland, with heather, gorse, moss, and outcrops of rock. From a distance you might think somebody is burning off some heather, or perhaps peat. It’s only as you get closer, and especially when you see the warnings, that you begin to understand the difference.
Before the track system was put in it was not uncommon for visitors to stray onto soft hot ground, resulting in burns to legs and feet. Activity in the thermal area changes and shifts, and over time the track system has been moved away from particularly hot areas. It’s quite quiet.

I can hear the birds singing, but they are some way off, in the trees. They must know not to come too close. There is the feint sound of the main road a mile or two away. But close-to there is nothing. Silence, steam, and some bubbling. It’s eerie, like a film perhaps. I can see why people are warned to not step off the boardwalk. It is so tempting to step forward to look more closely, especially at the amazing rock colours. That way lies danger, but it is all very beautiful.

Taupo to Auckland

From now on it’s Highway 1 all the way, with some of it running as 2 x 2 lane expressway. With a stream of old Genesis hits on my ‘new best gadget’ the miles quickly fall away.
Cambridge looks an interesting town, perhaps more akin to it’s US equivalent (Massachusetts) than English sister. It appears to be the centre of the NZ equine world, with many stables and breeding centres, lush paddocks and smart houses.

Moving north up the North Island I become aware of some differences with the South Island. Much more traffic, many heavy goods vehicles. Fewer displays of All Blacks support, more roadside advertising (almost unheard of in the south). Drivers a little less considerate – although nothing like UK motorists.

Stopping at traffic lights in Hamilton I’m beeped by the car in the next lane. I thought the thumbs up was in appreciation of my air drums accompaniment to “In the Air Tonight”. In fact they are England supporters wanting to exchange views on Wilkinson v Flood, and seeking a view on the likely score against France. We all five agree on Flood, and reckon it could be as close as three points either way.

Four weeks ago today I arrived in Christchurch; two weeks today I leave NZ and fly to Sydney.
I got the news of the death of Steve Jobs by a tweet to my iPhone. I write this blog on a MacBook. Each evening I load onto the same Apple computer all the photographs I have taken that day, and then, using iPhoto, I sort and edit them. The short video clips are stitched together in iMovie. As I drive I listen to music loaded onto my iPod, some of it purchased from the iTunes store. Most days I look at Facebook (founder Mark Zuckerberg was mentored by Jobs) to see what family and friends have been doing. Each morning I use Google Maps to check my journey that day (Larry Page, Google co-founder “He was very kind to reach out to me as I became CEO of Google and spend time offering his advice and knowledge”). Such was the influence of this talented man and the company he created, this is how it is woven into my life.

Auckland. I’m installed at my site by 4pm, with time to sit in the sun with a beer, slow down, and take stock. I booked this place (Remeura Motor Lodge) about 9 months ago because the quarter-final weekend is the busiest for whichever cities are hosting the matches. On this occasion it’s Auckland and Wellington. Thousands of fans from four nations will descend for a three-night weekend of rugby and fun. I’ve seen it before in Brisbane (2003) and 2007 (Marseilles). Here, the fans will be French, English, Argentinian, and New Zealanders. Every few minutes another campervan draws and by darkness they are squeezing into every available space.

Auckland waterfront

Friday 7th Auckland. A city of around 1.4 million and growing, Auckland is not as many think the capital – that’s Wellington – but is commonly called the economic powerhouse of New Zealand. Around 63 percent of its residents are of European descent, 11 percent are Māori, 13 percent are of Pacific Island descent and there is a growing Asian population of around 12 percent. In the last four weeks I’ve heard some people express criticism of this growing mix, which seems a shame. It is the financial and legal centre, and has spread widely (sprawled) over the last decade. It has no underground railway or tram system, and only a very limited surface train system, but there is a pretty comprehensive bus service which I’ll make plenty of use of.

I bus into the city centre in about 20 minutes, walk, soak up the sun, get my bearings, have hair cut. I go up and down both sides of Queen Street, the main shopping street in the centre, and then walk up to and along ‘K’ road, and onto Ponsonby Rd ( think Notting Hill meets Stoke Newington) and have lunch there after about three hours of walking in strong sun. Then its two buses back to my site because I have to pick up my van - I have a date.
Three weeks ago, sitting in Dunedin, I received an email from somebody called Alan Bevins. He has ‘discovered’ me thorough a blog post I wrote in 2009 about my cousins in the north of England. It turns out we are related (my mother was a Bevins), he is researching the family tree, and, surprise surprise, live just outside Auckland. So we arranged to meet, and I drive ten miles south to Manukau to find him and his wife Avril, and their collection of fine looking Montanhes Pyrenean dogs. Alan has spent over 20 years researching and piecing together the family, and has made contacts all over the world. My own efforts on this, of which I have been quite chuffed, pale in comparison. Alan gives me a disc with a huge number of trees and sub-trees which I will look through in the coming months. It is really interesting to swap information, leads and anecdotes, and we’ll certainly be exchanging emails in the coming months.

Fans of all nations have descended on Auckland

Saturday 8th There is a buzz on the campsite this morning. Eight young Kiwis are frying bacon and drinking beer at 06.50 when I walk to the shower, and there is that wonderful scent of French cigarettes in the air.  There are two big matches today: Ireland v Wales in Wellington, and England v France right here in Auckland. The winners will go through to the semi-final, the losers will go home. It’s Do or Die time.  England v France is always written up in the press as the meeting of two old enemies, a grudge match. I don’t agree. I have had some wonderful experiences watching France play rugby, and watching rugby in France. I’m sure I know who is going to win, and it won’t be my team.
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game's afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry 'God for Harry, England, and Saint George!'

Allez Les Bleus
But the rugby isn’t until late afternoon, and it’s too easy to fall into the trap of sitting around drinking coffee, walking the streets, and finding a bar, missing the chance to explore an unfamiliar city. I get the bus downtown to the main wharf where all the ferries depart for various of the islands which lie off Auckland city. In 20 minutes I’ve made the short hop across to Devonport – not strictly a city, as it is joined to the mainland, but it’s quicker and nicer by ferry. Devonport is a little like an old English seaside village – albeit with a naval dockyard attached. It has just two main streets, carefully restored, quite a few cafes and bars, and a decent hill at the back, Mount Victoria. I walked up it, quite a stretch on a hot day, although some folk chose to drive. The views from the top really are 360 degree, back to Auckland’s business district and the famous Sky Tower, across to the Museum, with the docks in front, and right round to the North Shore suburbs. Excellent and rewarding. The walk back down should take only twenty minutes, but in fact takes twice as long as I stop to chat with three separate groups heading up, the conversation triggered by my wearing my England rugby shirt, (well it is match day).

The grand opening of the RWC took place here in Auckland, back on September 9th, when the opening celebrations were followed by the All Blacks playing Tonga. The city’s transport system creaked that night, 2000 people never made it to the match, and a spat broke out between the city and the government. Now there is a big effort to avoid further embarrassment, and a multitude of schemes are in place to avoid further cock-ups, one of which is the Fan Trail, a 4.5 km walk from the city centre out to Eden Park. I’m happy to take it, and join others enjoying the sunshine, and entertainment en route.

Like many others I’m very early. Our kick-off isn’t until 20:30, but we all want to see the Ireland v Wales match on tv, starting at 18:00. Since Ireland thumped the Aussies in the pool stage they have become a star attraction, especially amongst Kiwis, who really dislike Australian Rugby.

An international team at Shooters

I’ve arranged to meet in a bar I don’t know, a man I’ve never met. David Morgan is the Creative Director of a design firm here, who used to work in London, and we have a mutual friend in Kate Mclaren who has put us in touch. David has bought along some friends, so we are two Scotsmen, an Irishman, a couple of Kiwis, a Welsh Kiwi, and me. The match is thrilling, really excellent, and the locals are amazed that two northern hemisphere teams can play what they like to call southern hemisphere rugby. Wales triumph, 22-10, and Irish hearts are broken. The former go through to a semi-final of whoever wins that evening’s match, the Irish will fly home tomorrow.

By 8pm Eden Park stadium is filling up rapidly. All weekend I’ve sensed many more French supporters in town than English, and their numbers are swollen by vast numbers of Kiwis intent on shouting for France. I‘m sure the expectation amongst England fans is low, mine is certainly rock-bottom. We have played terribly poorly in the pool stages and I have no belief that is about to change. The selections made by coach Martin Johnson have been very questionable, Jonny Wilkinson being just the most high profile. I’m not disappointed (well of course I am). The penalty count against England is awful, five in twenty five minutes. The only decent performance in my view is that of second-rower Simon Shaw, who comes on as a sub for the final 25 minutes. This man is 38 years old, and brings on a wise old head, and some experienced cunning, but it’s all too late. France have one of those days, when they just play lovely rugby, and everything falls into place, winning 19-12.

France go through, England go home

The England fans walk away very quietly to get the trains and buses back to the centre. I remember how magnanimous the Australians were to us after the final in 2003, and the French after the semi-final in 2007. I’m sure we can all reciprocate, but the worst part is the manner of the loss; awful, humiliating, disgraceful. The press down here will get plenty of copy out of this, following all the off-field incidents England’s squad have been involved in.
By the time I get back to the site, after midnight local time, the UK sports writers have filed their copies, which I read online. I go to bed very late, feeling lousy.

Sunday 9th. Another day, sunshine, a shower, and clean shirt with the England Rose design I bought in Dunedin. There’s lots of good banter around the site, and I’m delighted when a young Frenchwoman asks if I know how to refill the water tanks on her van? My opportunity to ‘reach out’ to our conquerors. We get it all sorted but her male companion seems very unhappy with our jolly banter. She then twigs that my t-shirt represents England (she thought I was a local). She blushes, and says she is impressed I’m being so helpful towards them. Ah, how sweet.

Two more huge matches today: Australia v South Africa in Wellington at 6pm, and the All Blacks v Argentina here at 8.30. Until then, another sunny day not to be wasted. I head off to the Domain. To us in Britain this is a park, usually the major park in any city. Think Hyde Park, Roundhay Park, or Heaton Park in Manchester. In Australia and New Zealand they are called the Domain, and Auckland’s is especially beautiful, being largely on a hillside, spread over several acres, containing sports pitches, free picnic space, botanic gardens, and the main Museum and war memorial. It is right in the middle of Auckland, and I find it filled with people running, playing sports, and just laying-out reading the papers.

Auckland Museum sits in the Domain

My route takes me on into the heart of University land, through the business district and finally down to the waterfront, an unremarkable area a few years ago but recently the site of a vast and determined clean-up and regeneration. The various harbours and wharves are crammed with expensive looking yachts, re-inforcing Auckland’s name “The City of Sails”. It is also now the site of the RWC Fan Zone, where I come across three of the victorious French players from last night. They are very charming and friendly, posing for photos and chatting to fans.

French Forwards: Julien Bonnaire, Julien Pierre, Lionel Nallet

The bar Shooters is again my venue to watch the first game on tv, this time with a group of Kiwis from the South Island. They are understandably apprehensive about their own game, in a couple of hours time, although the common view (right across NZ) is that the All Blacks will trounce Argentina. What they are really worried about of course is who they will be playing in the semi-final, and of course the final if they get there. Remember, this nation, regarded by all mature and sensible rugby watchers as the best in the world, hasn’t won a RWC final since 1987 – a source of huge national shame. They have consistently ‘choked’ at the quarters or the semis. So the Australia v SA match is of considerable importance.

Remember the t-shirt I saw in Nelson “I support two teams. New Zealand, and whoever is playing Australia”. They really don’t want their near-neighbours to progress. Australia win 11-9. The S Africa coach resigns the next day, and he and the captain blame the referee.

All Black fans pack Eden Park - hardly any other colour to be seen.

They say rugby is a religion here in New Zealand. Well, Eden Park stadium, shortly before kick-off felt like it was the second coming, or the Pope was visiting. Thousands of people, sitting patiently, expectantly, waiting to give homage to the great god, All Black Rugby. The faithful were robed all in black, very, very few wearing powder-blue Argentine shirts. I sat alongside four Australians, all decked out blue. (Mate, we’ll support anyone but the AB’s). Again, there are many seats empty, proof that the IRB is setting too high a price. The Blacks gave what I thought was a strangely unfocussed performance, although their individual skills are exceptional. It took 66 minutes for them to score their first try and for some of that time Argentina were in the lead. I think all neutrals would say that Argentina lost by giving away so many penalties, rather than by the AB’s having the dominant hand. At the final whistle the score was 33-10, but I’m sure I heard 50,000 Kiwis finally exhale a breath of relief. In fact an entire nation of 4 million was relieved. Remember, four years ago they fell out at this stage.

Argentina lose to the All Blacks

So a great weekend finishes, with the rugby results much as I had expected – I’d had France, Australia and the All Blacks to win, but couldn’t decide on Ireland/Wales.

Monday 10th October. Auckland. Several guide books and blogs had warned me off Auckland: “Not one of the world’s great cities”. Well that may be true, but I’ve enjoyed my few days here, there is plenty to do and I’ll be back to do some more, but for now I’m off up country to explore the region known as Northland.

After a couple of calls home by Skype, I’m away from Remeura Lodge by 11.00, and well clear of Auckland within half an hour. For motorists, and everybody in NZ is a motorist, the city seems well served by multi-level motorways. However the price is a large collection of expressways, ramps, flyovers and so forth, bisecting the city and dividing communities. Auckland of course is not alone in this.

There are grey clouds ahead, and the forecast is not good. The drive is fairly unremarkable, and apart from occasional stops for coffee and lunch, the only place I look around is Mangawhai Heads, a summertime resort which appears to embrace the surfing community. The long wide beach is deserted, as you would reasonably expect, apart from a couple of dog-walking families, until from around some boulders appear about two dozen young people, running, training, and doing uphill sprints. I can only assume they are a PE class from a local school.

PE at Mangawhai Heads

Very colourful rocks at Mangawhai Heads

My stop for the night is the Wildlife Reserve at Waipu Cove – it sounded nice when I read about it, and I’m sure is delightful in summer, but by 4pm it is raining intermittently, there are very dark clouds across the whole sky, and the winds are getting stronger. Also, I’m one of only three campers tonight. Apart from a very brief walk onto the beach, it’s draw-the-curtains time and cook up a big bowl of fettucine with mushrooms and ricotta. Time to write-up this blog and edit some photos. I can’t upload them tonight as usual – there is no wi-fi down here by the dunes, only back at the site office and it’s too wet for walking there. The night ahead is almost certainly going to be stormy.

My travels in Week Five: Napier - Taupo - Auckland - Waipu

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