Wednesday, 26 October 2011

New Zealand Week 7: Whitianga, Hahei, Thames, Auckland, Sydney, London

October 18th - 19th. Whitianga - Hahei - Thames - Miranda - Auckland

Tuesday 18th Whitianga, Coromandel. I parked-up yesterday afternoon in the small town of Whitianga, another small town-at-the-end-of-a-stretch-of-water place, quiet just now (apart from a dozen or so rugby fans I find in the local bar), but clearly busy with yachties at weekends – there are many moored in the marina.

Small and a little sleepy it may be but it has an alert and active local council, which is seeking the views of the town residents on updating its tsunami evacuation procedures.
This may interest the oenophiles amongst you. In the four good restaurants I’ve eaten in, the wine list has been laid out by grape variety – that’s not too unusual you’ll say. But after the standard white headings of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris etc, there comes a listing ‘Aromatics’, which includes Reisling, Gewürztraminer, Viognier/Marsanne. Similarly with the reds. After the usual Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot etc. there is a section ‘Red Varietals and Blends’ which includes Cab Shiraz, Cab Merlot, Shiraz/Grenache/Mourve. This seems a great way of drawing attention to those less well-known wines and perhaps encouraging people to try them.

Across the bay from Whitianga is Hahei, where I fancy doing what will be my last tourist-type trip. There are four must-see places on a short stretch of coast. With sufficient time one can park up and walk the several miles of cliff and beach, but I’m short of time so am drawn to the Hahei Explorer, a trip by sea to the same places. A ‘phone call establishes that I’ve already missed the 9am sailing (the best time to do almost all these sea-based activities is in the early morning, when the weather is generally better), and that serious rain is threatening the 14:00 trip. Can I be on the beach at 12:45? I get there on time and find I’m the only one, just me and Shane Harnett, whose business this is. The boat is
a rigid inflatable, with a powerful Volvo motor on the back, and is on a trailer, behind Shane’s tractor. It’s shoes and socks off, and into the water to help launch it – I wasn’t expecting this bit, but its fun.  It normally carrying parties of eight, and with only me, it’s a bit light and high in the water, so we have a very bouncy trip – quite exciting.

The first thing to view is Champagne Bay, a small beach with a wall of rocks above in very warm, almost pink, stone. Next is the Blowhole, which we enter by steering Explorer though a tiny opening in the rock, and then enter a very dark cave. This opens up into a cavern, an enclosed chamber, which rises 80 feet to a ‘ceiling’, arching in above us, rather like inside the dome at St Paul’s. Topping it is a small opening to the sky, lined with trees standing round the edge. Spectacular.

Looking up at the top of the Blowhole

I’m still admiring and photographing this as we exit into some light and Shane decides a squall is imminent. We make a fast dash across the bay, with the Explorer hitting each wave with such force that I’m constantly thrown up off my bench, thankfully holding on with my non-camera hand. I’m not sure my chiropractor would approve of the shocks to my spine. We get to Orua sea cave where we shelter, although we are both well soaked, until the worst of the rain/hail has cleared. This time we emerge to some blue sky – amazingly fast changes to the weather.

Shane turns us round and we head north, around Mahurangi Island, and in a wide arc to approach Cathedral Cove from the north. This is quite a famous spot, partly because it has been used as a film location. (Narnia - Prince Caspian)

Cathedral Cove

Three things stand out from this short trip:
First, the rocks of the cliffs have such amazing colours, which I haven’t noticed at all over the past six week – presumably because I’ve normally been standing on them, peering out to sea. And then the rocks have such intricate patterns of lines, slashes, whorls. One young boy, a recent passenger of Shane’s, asked why the rocks had Chinese writing on them; a shrewd question. Finally, how quickly the weather changes. There can be blue sky and sun in front of us, but grey menacing clouds racing in from the other direction. All mariners know this but to landlubbers like me it’s a surprise.

It is very hard to photograph today, from a bouncing boat, and with so much water around that I’m worried about the camera, so I’m pleased that some shots have come out well.
Our time is up and Shane’s partner Robyn is waiting to meet us back on the beach as another burst of heavy rain is starting. Out of the boat, into the water, pull it up, and secure it onto its trailer. Just time for a quick photo, and then a barefoot walk to the van to change into dry clothes. What fun, and an ideal way to see those sights if your time is short.
Shane and Robyn Harnett

In dry clothes and with a coffee I now head back through the Coromandel Forest from the east coast of the Peninsula over to Thames on the west. I overnight at what is my poorest site of the whole six weeks (perhaps least-good would be better) – Dickson Motor Lodge - but it is only $20/£10 for the night.

Wednesday 19th Thames, Cormandel. My very short visit to the Coromandel Peninsula is over and I must return to Auckland for my last night in NZ. As every morning, I look over the map to see what is on my route and might be interesting. I don’t want to simply drive back to Auckland. I’m in that ‘I must squeeze in just one more thing before I go’ frame of mind. On the map I see ‘Hot Springs’. It will mean a short detour but that’s fine, something else new on this holiday-of-new-things.

In fact I miss the turning, a consequence of the laudable rules in NZ which strictly control roadside signs and advertising. Back home you could expect a sign about some tourist spot perhaps ¼ mile before the turning, and then another one at the turning. Here, you’ll be allowed just the one, small and discreet, placed at the very turning. Miss it, or see it at the last moment, and you may have to drive quite a few miles to find space to turn round. That’s what happened to me with the Hot Springs – I never visited them.

So I changed plans and drove on to Miranda. I’d already been to Geraldine, a small place near Christchurch, and any village with that sort of name sounds enticing.  There is a nature reserve, run by the Department of Conservation, based around the Firth of Thames wetland, miles of mudflat and muddy estuary. Many of the sea birds have come here from Alaska and Siberia, over 12,000 kms away. The landscape is found in few other places in the world, being a series of shell ridges, on top of the mud. The Miranda Naturalists Centre provides visitor and educational activities, there are many walks, and some discreet hides for watching the birdlife. I join a few twitchers for the walk over the flat, marshy land to the edge of the reserve. Some people have brought binoculars, others have telephoto lenses on tripods. I struggle a bit with my point-and-shoot camera, leaning it on a fence post. It is interesting, but bird-watching isn’t really for me. I am taken though by this specimen, which looks a little oriental, standing so elegantly on thin legs.

Back on the road, a very minor road, a sign appears “Major Intersection Ahead”. When I get there, I spend a full three minutes looking at my map, then re-turning the radio, and not a single vehicle passes: “Major” indeed – just another deserted NZ road.

Two hours later I’m back in Auckland, at the lovely Remeura Motor Lodge, for my last night in New Zealand. Before I get too misty-eyed there is work to do. The van goes back to the hire company tomorrow, and as it’s been my car, office, bar, kitchen and bedroom for the last six weeks it needs a really good clean and tidy. I also have to pack luggage for the flight to Sydney tomorrow, and wash some clothes. Just as I finish a really thorough clean and brush-out of the grubby carpet the heavens open and the grass patch outside my doors becomes a mud-bath. Now how do I get in and out without undoing all my work of the last three hours? Remuera Motor Lodge has been an ideal base for my three visits to Auckland. Well equipped, close to shops and cafes, it is handily placed for bus routes into the centre of the city
I have touched on this previously but want to repeat how much I’ve enjoyed Auckland. Perhaps I should recognize that the Lonely Planet / Rough Guide readership is largely the youthful backpacker, student adventure crowd, so for them perhaps the city compares poorly against Queenstown and other South-Island activity spots. For me, though, it’s a fine city of about 1.4 million people of many ethnicities, clean and well run, with decent modern architecture, and sitting in the middle of an isthmus with harbours on both sides. I like it and would be happy to return.

Thursday 20th. Auckland. The van is checked in at the United Campervan depot at the airport and I find I’ve driven 5,320 kms (3,303 miles) in the last six weeks.

For anybody interested in coming over to NZ here’s a tip: The main campervan hire companies often find they have too many vans on the south island and need them relocating to Auckland; or alternatively find they have too many up north and want some moved down to Christchurch. What they need are drivers, and you can be one, paying typically just $5 a day for the hire of the van; they will pay for the diesel and the ferry ticket, and give you five days to get from one place to the other. Seems a great bargain to me. Just type “campervan relocation nz” into Google and follow the links.

Farewell Auckland

An easy flight to Sydney, just over three hours on Air New Zealand, and another chance to see that great safety video. Do have a look; it’s a novel way of getting an important, although tedious, message across to weary travellers :

Sydney: I’m staying in the Radisson on Liverpool Street, with a huge bedroom, and balcony. First off, a haircut and smarten up. I feel a bit like Crocodile Dundee, just arrived in the Big City after six weeks camping in the outback.

I read in a local paper that the British and Irish Lions are touring to Australia in 2013. Hmm..I wonder if I should….might need to talk to the bank next week.

Younger readers look away now (anybody under 40).
“I think I might take some photographs tomorrow”. That’s what we used to say at some point during the annual summer holiday, in the days when a camera involved rolls of film, expensive processing, and some care about what you shot. We were really cautious about shooting loads of pictures, knowing it was another added cost to the holiday. Then in the ‘90’s digital cameras arrived. No purchase and no processing. So now we shoot hundreds of images, at every opportunity, and later erase a large percentage of them. My camera itself is so small, so light, that I always have it with me. How times change.

It is 8 years since I was last in Sydney (to see Jonny Wilkinson drop ‘that’ goal) and on that trip I didn’t bring a camera at all – how weird. This time I’ll head down to Circular Quay to get some classic Sydney shots. The city feels much busier than I recall, more bustle, faster traffic, with many new skyscrapers, best seen from across the harbour. The business district appears less formal, many people in t’s and flip-flops; I don’t remember that. Has it really changed so much, or is my memory wrong?

A good long walk, a shower, dinner, and then into the biggest bed I’ve seen in some years.

Friday 21st. At Sydney Central station, a déjà vu moment, and then I remember I have been here before. In 2002 my first visit to Australia was to speak at a conference in Melbourne. I decided to get the train up to Sydney. It is a 12 hour trip and friends in Sydney were shocked, and a little embarrassed for me; only very poor people would train that route.

Today I’m on a smart double-decker train, so take the upper level on the left hand side to get the best views. I’m heading south, down the coast, to Scarborough, a journey of about 70 minutes. I’m off to see an old friend, Cass Jones and his wife Alison. Cass and I first met at drama school in 1967, he was my best man, and our paths crossed many times in my theatre years. He’s been living in the centre of Sydney for the last 15 years, but two years ago decided with Alison to build their own home. It is five minutes walk from the Scarborough station, in a stunning location, perched right on the cliff – literally perched – looking at the ocean. They drove concrete piles into the rock and built the house on top. Not only are the location and the view stunning, the house itself is beautifully designed, and built with great care for detail. It’s a dream, and I have a wonderful 24 hours with them, walking on the cliff road, visiting other local towns, having a fish and chip lunch on the beach at Thiroul, and a delicious dinner. This home shows that marvellous results can be achieved by clear and thoughtful clients, teaming up with talented architects, and a top-class builder.

Perched on the rocks

Evening drinks at the edge of the ocean

Saturday 22nd. The drive back to Sydney, which passes through the Royal National Park, takes about 90 minutes and I can see why Sydneysiders would want to move to the coast: it is so easy to commute to work in the city and yet have a beach life too.

It is eight years since England won the 2003 Rugby World Cup, right here in Sydney, and eight years since I saw Tim and Natalie Slessor. She and I worked on a project at the BBC back in 1998, and we have kept in touch over the years. They looked after me when I first came here in 2002, and in fact it was their suggestion that I should return in 2003 for the Rugby World Cup, which England won.

This evening I meet up with Natalie, and with another of my close ex BBC chums, Ricky Johnson, who she also knows well. Ricky moved out here with his wife Mel in 2003, and like Natalie has started a family. We have drinks, dinner, a good old blether, and will see more of each other tomorrow.

Sunday 23rd October, Sydney. It is 27 degrees at midday, the sky is blue, and I walk over to Circular Quay to get the ferry to Manly, which is crowded. On weekdays these boats are an essential part of the city’s transportation system, taking thousands to work. At weekends they are more about families and tourists heading for various beaches.

The Manly ferry passes the Sydney Harbour Bridge

Natalie and Tim were living in this house above Manly when I last saw them, but at that stage they didn’t have children. The demands of a growing family led to a need for more space, which they have cleverly solved by extending upwards. From the road it looks like a completely new building, the white upper level gleaming in the sun. Inside, it is filled with light, has acres of new space, and extends outwards onto a deck and garden.

The old Slessor House

The new Slessor house

They have invited a crowd of friends and family for afternoon of drinks on the deck, and to watch the rugby – the Final – on tv.

Natalie has ‘outed’ me on facebook as supporting France, which I am for two reasons. The All Blacks will surely win but I want them to be tested, to have to fight for it, to play real top-flight rugby (we haven’t seen much in the whole tournament), and also because I like France, the French, their country and culture. I also know that on a good day the French can play great rugby, with real flair and determination.

And so we sit down to watch the Final – an incredibly tense and close match, and France have certainly ‘turned up’. Led by their brilliant captain Thierry Dusautoir they put in an enormous effort, and are unlucky to lose by just one point. For most of the second half 4 million New Zealanders must be reliving their worst fears – yet another loss, and this one at home and as the host nation. But they scrape through and are duly crowned as the Best in the World. I’m delighted for them, and the people of NZ, but I’m also pleased that France put up such a great showing, perhaps causing many people to re-asses their view.
Under the headline Rugby World Cup 2001 final: France lose but gain the respect of the world” Richard Williams writes a very fair assessment of the game:

Within 10 minutes of the final whistle this appeared on Twitter: Well done NZ! Now rwc2011 is over can @johndeedesign come back? Ella misses her g'pops!
We all sit down and dine and drink into the night. It has been another really lovely day with good friends.

New Zealand - World Champions

Monday 24th. Sydney. The Aussie newspapers report the result of last night’s game, but in a sports-mad nation, it doesn’t get quite the coverage it will get ‘over the water’ where they have declared a public holiday. I can’t find a New Zealand Herald anywhere in Auckland.

It is the last day in Australia, and the last day of my long trip. I start the chore of collecting my belongings together, and make a half-hearted attempt at packing my stuff. But the daytime temperature is 34 degrees, so I wisely have another look around the city, heading east to the old Parliament buildings and the Domain.

The shops are selling-off RWC merchandise, heavily discounted, much of which was always grossly overpriced anyway. I try to buy just one t-shirt at each world cup, which is how I came to have a ‘France 2007’ shirt to wear yesterday. I still cringe when I see the official 2011 England shirt, a truly awful piece of design, with its dreadful ‘Olde England’ font.
Nowadays there is less evidence of unofficial shirts, the RWC lawyers presumably cracking down on such frivolity, but I always keep my eyes open for such things. I still have a Ripcurl tshirt from 2003, which used RWC on it, but beat the lawyers by putting a cross through it! My favourite this year is below, which I bought in Dunedin. It’s a clever play on the English Rose, and was designed by local company Wrookie Monster. They also did Ireland and Argentine versions, with a Shamrock or Jaguar. You can buy online here:

Tuesday 25th, Auckland. I go downstairs for a cooked breakfast in the Radisson: the restaurant tv is showing the Wales v Australia game. I’ve had enough rugby, and sit with my back to it. The morning passes with a quick walk around the block, and an hour in the hotel’s Business Lounge, writing up this blog, and some emails.

Sydney airport departures

I’m on flight BA 16 Sydney to London, with a short stop in Singapore. I’m surprised to find it’s only about 50% full, with a lot of empty seats in business and first. I heard that BA was pulling out of the Australian market – is this the reason, or will it fill up in Singapore?
The pleasure of podcasts. I downloaded some in Sydney to listen to on the long flight. The first is a Radio 4 Food Programme, and the subject is the growth of street food in Los Angeles. This whets my appetite for the forthcoming meal, only to be disappointed: the BA inflight meal is poor, dull roast chicken, served with vegetables so overcooked they should have been pureed. The grey plastic cutlery doesn’t help, the label on the Spanish white wine says it’s ‘a fun wine’. Why Spanish when you are flying out of Australia?

On the plane I read an extract in The Australian from the biography of Steve Jobs, which is published worldwide today. It deals with the role of Jonathan Ive, the chief designer of all Apple’s products, who managed to forge an exceptionally close and personal relationship with Steve Jobs. I wonder how the company will survive the recent death of Jobs, and how Ive will continue to break new ground, without his soul mate. I also wonder how the two of them would set about designing the interior of a 777 aircraft, in fact the whole flight and passenger experience, which on today’s evidence needs some improvement.

The stop in Singapore is only 75 minutes, for fuel and a new BA crew. I had hoped to be able to buy a UK newspaper, although the chances of the Guardian are remote, but can’t even find a newsagent in the vast terminal. Back on board, although there is no apparent increase in the number of passengers, I count 11 cabin crew, here to serve a plane running at about 50% capacity. It seems a little overmanned to me; there are 14 passengers in my section of 34 seats. The benefit to me is a bank of four seats across, all to myself. They do offer a newspaper though – the Mail on Sunday.

Throughout the flight I have kept my wristwatch on Australia time, to help me ‘manage’ my body clock. Two hours out from London a hot breakfast is served. Since leaving Sydney I’ve had dinner (roast chicken), cups of tea, a sandwich snack, a bar service at 3 am, followed at 4am by another dinner (roast chicken again) and now brekkie. Is there room for an exercise bike on these planes?

So I’m now over London, nearly home, after 25,000 miles flying and a further 5000 kms driving. That’s all for now folks. Time to recover my luggage, change currency, and get home. There’ll be another post next week, a sort of Best of the Trip, with some Reflections on the Rugby.

There are many more photographs illustrating the week above at:

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