FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Farewell to Auckland (again)

Posted in Auckland, New Zealand by folkestonejack on April 18, 2019

Our time in the city of sails has come to an end once again. The last few days in the city gave us a chance to check out exhibitions at the Auckland Art Museum and OrexArt, watch the beginnings of the field of crosses in the domain ahead of Anzac day, play a couple of rounds of mini-golf, meet some lovely horses, eat a final ice cream at Giapo and say an extended farewell to family. The last day is always a little strange, but a relaxed morning at the Pah Homestead was a good way to finish up.

One last sunset at Orakei Wharf

As ever, the end of one trip also means a bit of homework for the next. In the last day or two I visited the tourist information office near the ferry terminal and came out armed with a collection of DOC leaflets that have already helped shape the outline of a possible adventure for our return. I always find that when one trip closes you have the freshest sense of how to make improvements for next time. Our return flight routing definitely falls into that category!

I had come up with a clever plan to counter the jet-lag that usually floors me by flying to Dubai via Sydney, thereby getting in at midnight for a decent night of sleep. This strategy fell apart when the original flight was cancelled, due to the closure of a runway for maintenance. All the advantages of flying indirectly disappeared with that schedule change, but the airline showed little interest in a sensible adjustment. This left us with the best part of a day in Sydney.

It was perhaps a little cruel to see the Emirates A380 that had brought us to Auckland three weeks ago sitting on the apron as we boarded our Qantas A330 bound for Sydney. Nevertheless, I was determined to make the best of our new schedule, especially as it is unlikely that I will ever spend much time in Australia. Time to begin our slow four day homeward trek.

The Qantas A330 waiting to take us to Sydney

Our flight (QF146) took off on time, flying over the Manukau Heads with a superb view of the impressive line of cliffs we had been admiring from Whatipu just a few days earlier. The flight was relatively short, which was perhaps just as well with a malfunctioning in flight entertainment system and one of the blandest airline meals I have ever sampled. The sun was already setting over Sydney as we landed.

The day finally drew to a conclusion with a lovely meal at a glass-fronted restaurant overlooking the Sydney Opera House in perfect time to see a short firework display. Maybe it was always meant to work out this way.

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The desolate beauty of Whatipu

Posted in Auckland, New Zealand by folkestonejack on April 15, 2019

Our last adventure on this trip brought us to the spectacular and desolate wilderness of Whatipu, a black sand beach on Auckland’s rugged west coast. The drive out to the beach from central Auckland takes about an hour, with the final stretch from Little Huia on a particularly windy gravel road. It’s pretty remote so there was not much in the way of traffic, though it was something of a surprise to find temporary traffic lights (sensor operated) in the middle of nowhere after the road had been narrowed by some washouts.

Whatipu Beach and Paratütai Island

It is hard to imagine many people coming here at the best of times, but there are likely to be even less at the moment as many of the tracks in the area are closed due to the threat of Kauri die-back disease (entrances to the tracks are sealed off and signage blanked out). Thankfully, the beach and the track to the caves were still open (though not the camping ground near the caves). There were about five cars parked up when we arrived and that number stayed pretty constant throughout our 3 hour visit.

The reward for our slightly awkward drive was a wander through the scientific reserve with its beautiful combination of black sands, volcanic rock, wetland, dunes and wild sea almost undisturbed by other humans. It’s a popular spot for visitors of the flying kind too. As we explored we came across plenty of birds, including fantails, a spur-winged plover, black oystercatchers, paradise shelduck, pūkeko and some juvenile black-backed gulls.

Bluebottle at Whatipu

The black sands looked at their most desolate against driftwood that had been twisted into strange positions, including one that looked a bit like a crocodile waiting to pounce. There was a real threat here, albeit somewhat less deadly, in the form of stinging bluebottle jellyfish (otherwise known as the Portuguese man-of-war) that had been washed up onto the beach where they lay half buried in the sand ready for any unwary souls walking barefoot.

The waters here at Whatipu are pretty treacherous for all. The strong rips and currents mean that swimming is inadvisable and the threat to shipping from the constantly shifting sand is signalled by a lightbeacon (one of seventy five around New Zealand) situated atop nine pin rock. It is also worth being a little cautious around the land-locked cutter rock which half collapsed in 2007.

New Zealand’s worst maritime disaster occurred here with the sinking of the Royal Navy corvette HMS Orpheus on 7th February 1863. The corvette had ignored the signals issued by the Paratutai Signal Station and took an ill-fated course that saw her break up on the Manukau Bar with the loss of 189 souls. After further incidents the Royal Navy withdrew permission for their ships to enter the Manukau Harbour.

Driftwood at Whatipu

After exploring the beach we headed back inland and along the volcanic rock cliff face to the Whatipu caves. Hard as it is to believe, the largest of the caves (Te Ana Ru cave) once reverberated to the sound of music as revellers danced the night away on a kauri ballroom dance floor now buried underneath the sand.

There is more information about the history of Whatipu in the Whatipu Heritage Walk booklet provided by Auckland Council along with a map showing which tracks in the Waitākere Ranges Regional Park are still open.

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Takahē on Tiritiri

Posted in Auckland, New Zealand by folkestonejack on April 13, 2019

Our visit to Tiritiri Matangi island coincided with Takahē awareness month. The critically endangered takahē, are flightless birds with a large red beak and feathers in a beautiful combination of blue, green and turquoise. It is astonishing that they have survived given that how easy prey they are for predators, particularly stoats which began to decimate the bird population in New Zealand not long after their introduction in the 1880s.

Takahē on Tiritiri

The Takahē were thought to be extinct until a small population of the birds was discovered clinging to life in the remote Murchison Mountains of Fiordland in 1948 by Dr Geoffrey Orbell. The difficulty of the terrain, not ideal for a bird that would be more at home in flat wetlands, played a key part in their survival. The predators which had wiped out most of the species had been deterred by the harsh mountains and unforgiving climate.

The Murchison Mountains were closed to the public in the wake of the discovery and a conservation programme initiated to help save the species. Predator free island nature reserves like Tiritiri Matangi play an important part in this process as safe places for breeding and also act as a safeguard for the species if something catastrophic should occur to the wild population in Fiordland.

The very real threat to the species was illustrated by a near catastrophic loss when stoats breached the natural and man-made barriers in the Murchison Mountains in 2007, resulting in a loss of nearly half of the Takahē population within a few months. The official takahē population count for 2017 recorded a total of 347 birds across the country, including 100 breeding pairs.

Tiritiri Matangi is currently home to eight takahē. On our visit to the island we were able to see the family that tends to stick around the Lighthouse compound, a place they associate with safety. It was an absolute privilege to see these beautiful creatures at such close proximity and appreciate just how lucky we are that they have survived.

The beautiful colours of the Takahē in the midday sun

Throughout April the Department of Conservation rangers are feeding the takahē at approximately 1:30pm each day, but they were easily seen long before this offering plenty of photographic opportunities (all taken at a respectful distance using a zoom lens). I took a fair few photographs and then put my camera down to watch these charming creatures, seemingly wandering with barely a care in the world. A joy to behold.

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Bird paradise at Tiritiri Matangi

Posted in Auckland, New Zealand by folkestonejack on April 13, 2019

The predator-free wildlife sanctuary of Tiritiri Matangi island in the Hauraki Gulf is one of the conservation success stories in New Zealand, as well as a really rewarding day trip from Auckland by ferry. The promise of some beautiful autumnal weather persuaded us that it was time to find out what the fuss was about.

Trinity Wharf on Tiritiri Matangi

Tiritiri Matangi was originally a forested island but a couple of centuries of farming resulted in the loss of 94% of the native bush and with it much of the original wildlife. In the late 1960s Tiritiri Matangi Island was designated as a reserve but it was the bold plan of a couple of young academics that really put this place on the map. Their plan, to recreate a forest, saw thousands of volunteers plant 280,000 trees over a ten year period from 1984.

The successful establishment of a replacement ecosystem has been followed by the re-introduction of some of New Zealand’s rarer native birds, such as the takahē. Today, the island is a much loved open wildlife sanctuary with a dedicated volunteer base.

On boarding the ferry it was pretty clear that we were in the company of some pretty dedicated bird spotters, whereas I would struggle to name more than a handful of bird species. I can tell the difference between a parrot and a pigeon, but don’t ask me to tell you what a swallow or a finch looks like. Luckily, you can book a guided tour with one of the volunteers when you buy your ferry ticket.

Once we arrived on the island it turned out that almost everyone was going on a guided walk. Two options were offered, one through the oldest bush on the Kawerau Track and the other through the re-planted and much younger bush of the Wattle Track. We were among a relatively small number choosing the latter, a shorter walk, which we thought would make a good introduction to the island.

In our small group of around eight, we set off at a deliberately slow pace. It was a delight to see birds flying all around us as soon as we left the main road, onto the Wattle Track. Frequent pauses on our walk allowed us to take in the sight of Tiritiri’s native birds, especially around the feeders. Our guide helped us to identify the birds that we could see and hear around us, while explaining the current state of growth of the bush and the stage ahead.

Tūī

It was all surprisingly addictive, as well as wonderfully calming. We had many moments on our own in the afternoon, standing still and absolutely silent on the Kawerau Track as the birds ignored us and flew around our heads. Over the course of the day we managed to see saddlebacks, bellbirds, stichbirds, takahē, pūkeko, whiteheads, north island robins, kererū, tūī and fantails. There was also a kōkako flapping its wings high in the canopy above us, though I didn’t manage to catch sight of the bird itself.

As if the birdlife wasn’t enough, Tiritiri Matangi is also home to New Zealand’s oldest operating lighthouse, first illuminated on 1st January 1865. The lighthouse was the first to be built by the New Zealand Government and only the third constructed in the entire country. The prefabricated cast iron tower was manufactured by Simpson & Co in England, whose name can still be seen on either side of the doorway, and hauled up to the construction site by twelve bullocks.

The lighthouse at Tiritiri Matangi

Although you can’t go inside the lighthouse you can wander around the outside. The lighthouse, neighbouring signal station and the surrounding homestead are very photogenic. Hopefully, plans to open a Lighthouse Museum in the old workshop will come to fruition. In the meantime, a wonderful booklet to celebrate the 150th anniversary shares a little of its history and the life of the lighthouse families.

Our visit came to an end all too soon, finishing with a lovely walk along the Hobbs Beach Track to Trinity Wharf in perfect time to make the only ferry back to Auckland. The ferry schedule gives you just over five hours on the island which seems like alot until you start wandering!

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The Karangahake Gorge and Waihi

Posted in New Zealand, Waihi by folkestonejack on April 10, 2019

On our leisurely return to Auckland we spent a couple of days around Waihi, a location which offers a splendid array of quite different sights – the natural beauty of the Karangahake Gorge and the Owharoa Falls; preserved industrial remains at the Victoria Battery; the gold mines of Waihi and the surf of Waihi Beach.

The concrete base that supported the cyanide tanks at Victoria Battery

The Karangahake Gorge is a popular spot for day hikes, rich in natural beauty, but turn the clock back a century and you would have found a rather different spectacle. The area would have been dominated by cyanide tanks and large stamper batteries constructed to process and extract gold from the ore being mined in the area. The foundations of many of these still remain and can be seen along the many walking circuits, but it’s hard to get a sense of the scale of industrial activity now that nature has reclaimed the land.

A little further down the road, at Victoria Battery, you get a little more of the picture. The Victoria Battery was constructed to process ore from the Martha Mine in Waihi. Today, the Victoria Battery is a peaceful site with industrial remains nestled in a green landscape, but in its heyday this would have been a hellish place to witness with 200 steel crushers hammering way constantly and kilns burning non-stop. The crushed ore was mixed with potassium cyanide and the sludge generated by the process discharged into the rivers.

The discovery of gold re-shaped the landscape in other ways, with the construction of a hydro-electric dam on the Waikato River and the construction of the Paeroa-Waihi railway line. The latter is no longer in everyday use but you can ride a part of it on the heritage Goldfields Railway and walk another stretch on the Karangahake Gorge: Rail Tunnel Loop short walk.

The gold industry is far from finished. The open cast Martha Mine still sits at the heart of Waihi and remains open to this day, albeit a little quiet right now while measures to address a major slip are put into place. Once this is in place modern processes can extract gold that would have been impossible a century ago. A minibus tour from the Gold Discovery Centre gave us an opportunity to get a closer look at the mine and the plant where the ore is crushed and processed.

Martha Mine

One of the landmarks on the perimeter of the mine and its rim walkway is the Cornish Pumphouse, a relic from the mine dating back to 1904, which was moved by 300 metres at a cost of 4 million NZ dollars in 2006 when monitoring revealed that the historic building was tilting and that the land underneath was continuing to move. It’s one of a number of community projects that are going on in the town to give something back.

Our time in the area was limited but we saw as much of this fascinating story as we could and still found time to sample a few of the pies and slices that are sadly absent from the other side of the world!

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Sunset over Whakatāne

Posted in New Zealand, Whakatane by folkestonejack on April 9, 2019

After returning from White Island there was still plenty of daylight left, so we took a drive over to Ohope Beach, voted NZs most loved beach in a poll a few years back. It’s a gorgeous stretch of coast line and a popular holiday destination. On a quiet weekday it was more or less deserted. The beaches in New Zealand always seem to have a little surprise up their sleeves. In this case, the sea had perfected the most beautiful natural artworks on the beach.

Sunset over Whakatane

In the late afternoon I took another walk, along the waterfront, to the point where the Whakatāne river meets the sea and waited for the sunset. One of the landmarks at this point is the Wairaka statue, situated on a rock, which was given to the town on 27th November 1965 by Sir William Sullivan. It’s a landmark with a story.

Wairaka was the daughter of Toroa, Captain of the Mataatua waka (canoe). The men had gone ashore, leaving the women and children on the waka. While they were away the boat began to drift back out to sea. In Maori culture women were not allowed to touch the paddles, but knowing that they would be doomed if she did not act Wairaka picked them up and cried out “kia tū whakatāne au i ahau” to give her the authority to take the place of the men. Wairaka’s actions saved her people and gave the town it’s name.

The statue also turns out to be a popular pigeon perch as I discovered at sunset!

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Wanders around an active marine volcano

Posted in New Zealand, Whakatane by folkestonejack on April 9, 2019

A spot of good fortune saw the best weather of our trip coincide with our long awaited trip to White Island, an active marine volcano in the Bay of Plenty that was given its name by Captain Cook on 1st November 1769. It is believed to be around 150,000 to 200,000 years old and is the northernmost volcano in the Taupo volcanic zone.

White Island (Whakaari)

The 49km journey out to the privately owned island (on the Peejay IV) took around one hour and twenty minutes on a wonderfully calm sea, albeit with choppier waters for the final 10 minutes of our approach towards the island. Once we were moored offshore groups of eight were transferred to the island in an inflatable wearing life jackets, hard hats and gas masks.

On reaching the island we had to step up from the inflatable onto metal ladders set into the landing stage and then make our way across the boulders to the beach. The tour party was split into two groups of around 25 to take a walk around the inner crater.

First up, the safety briefing. Our tour guides stressed the importance of sticking to the path they had taken and not wandering off. To illustrate this point, they highlighted a relatively benign looking mound with a grey crust. These innocent looking sights are best described as egg shells as there is no way of telling how thick these crusts are from looking at them. Their hollow interiors could easily hide a boiling pool of water, mud or something far nastier.

Exploring White Island

Volcanoes can be unpredictable beasts so we were also given a run through of the evacuation plan in the event of an eruption. If the volcano starting spewing out rocks, the advice was to shelter behind even bigger rocks! Thankfully, this was reckoned to be quite unlikely. Volcanic activity is measured on a scale of 1 to 5, with White Island currently on 1 for ‘minor volcanic unrest’. In the past it has spent 90 seconds at 5 for ‘major volcanic eruption’.

The first groups to return to the island three days after the eruption of 2000 had no idea of the conditions they would find. They discovered that the ladders were encrusted with volcanic material which had not entirely set, giving it the consistency of chewing gum. Apparently, one of the tour guides picked up a large rock to show his group but dropped it as it was still hot. On reaching the ground it broke in half, revealing a still molten core!

In 2003 monitoring equipment was put in place, including 24 hour cameras that allow remote observation of activity in the crater. These have helped pick up recent developments, including clear indications that the crater lake is starting to reform.

Steaming sulphur chimneys

Our walk took us around the sights in the inner crater, starting with the strikingly yellow sulphur chimneys which were belching out steam. The potency of the steam was soon demonstrated when the wind changed direction and blew the steam towards us. We had all been issued with gas masks that we could use whenever we felt the need and boiled sweets to help generate more saliva (this was very effective at counteracting the effects of the environment on my throat) but on this occasion it was just enough to turn our backs to the steam.

The next stop was the crater lake, getting near enough to get a good view but not close enough to test how crumbly the cliff edge might be! From here, we headed on to a couple of streams with water coming from different sources on the island and got to dip our fingers in for a taste. The first had a flavour a bit like blood, showing the presence of iron, while the second had a tangy lemon flavour.

Finally, we reached the remains of the last sulphur mining operation on the island which finished in the 1930s. It was a pretty inhospitable and dangerous place to work, evidenced by the loss of all 10 workers from the operation of 1913-14 after a collapse of the crater rim caused a landslide. The remains of the factory amply demonstrate the corrosive nature of the environment.

The remains of the sulphur factory

The only survivor of the 1914 disaster was one of the camp cats, nicknamed Peter the Great, who was discovered by a re-supply vessel three weeks later. Peter was later re-settled in Opotiki and his long and happy life led to a long line of cats. Peter was supposed to have sired over 500 kittens and it is said that most of the cats in the area can trace a connection back to him!

Once our exploration of the rusting factory was complete we returned to the wharf, ready to make our way back to our ship by inflatable. There was time enough for a packed lunch (provided by the tour company) and a circumnavigation of the island before we headed back to Whakatane, accompanied for part of the way by a school of dolphins who happily played alongside the ship.

As well as taking boat trips to White Island you can also fly in by helicopter and mid-way through our tour we saw a couple of Volcanic Air helicopters arrive, swooping around the curve of the crater impressively and then dropping down onto the wooden landing pads. The view of the island from the air must be impressive, but I think I prefer the more relaxed views of our boat trip.

Our transport to and from the island – the Peejay IV

I was incredibly impressed with the efficient operation of the trip by White Island Tours, the smooth boat transfers to the island and the knowledgeable explanations provided by our tour guides. It has undoubtedly been the highlight of my trip to New Zealand and I would thoroughly recommend the experience. After all, how often do you get the opportunity to set foot on an active volcano?

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A hike around the Mt Tarawera crater rim

Posted in New Zealand, Rotorua by folkestonejack on April 8, 2019

Twenty one years ago I came to Rotorua in the depths of winter and booked a four wheel drive trip to see the crater at Mount Tarawera, a dormant volcano. Unfortunately, the day served up thick fog and I could barely see a metre in front of me. The tour still ran, but it was pretty pointless as the closest I got to a view was looking at the scoria at my feet. I thought I would never get the chance to go back and see the view again, however fate has led me back here to rectify that.

The stunning colours and dramatic scenery at the crater rim

Things have changed a little since my first visit. Public access to Mount Tarawera was withdrawn in 2002 so the only way to go up to the summit is through a tour with the licenced operator, Kaitiaki Adventures. Also, one of the three domes of the dormant volcano (Wahanga) is completely closed as it is considered tapu (sacred) having been used as a burial site by the Maori tribe that owns the site, Ngāti Rangitihi.

Our trip with Kaitiaki Adventures took us by road for thirty minutes, then up an increasingly bumpy unsealed road and finally on foot to the top. Once we got up there we could stand by the crater edge and see the challenge that faced us on our crater rim walk. The steep scree slope we would need to descend to get to the crater floor looked particularly daunting from our starting point. However, under the guidance of our guides nothing was impossible.

Our slightly daunting path to the crater floor!

Our walk around the top was pretty straightforward, barring for a bit of wind and the angle of the scree slope, while still sleep, was somewhat less daunting once you got up close. The trick of making a descent was to dig your heels into the scoria and lean back a little, rather than letting your toes lead the way, pulling you forward into a probable tumble. It also needed a little pace – the slower you went the more difficult the descent would be. Everyone made it down safely and enjoyed a little breather before the climb back out on the other side.

The walk around the crater rim was exhilarating with incredible views in all directions, stretching from Taupo in the south to White Island in the north. Up at the top you got a really clear view of the 17km long rift that opened when Mount Tarawera erupted on 10th June 1886. It was striking to think that the landscape in front of us was created in just one night of deadly and destructive explosive force.

The view from the top of Mount Tarawera

Although the access restrictions are understandably not popular with everyone it has allowed the landscape to recover, particularly with the removal of invasive plant species, and it looks gorgeous in its raw natural state.

I was grateful for a bit of luck that was lacking twenty one years ago. Our walk was carried out in near perfect conditions, but the next scheduled walk was cancelled due to the bad weather that was expected to hit mid-way through the afternoon slot. Thanks to our excellent guide and driver, Ben and Steve, for a terrific morning.

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Waimangu Valley and Wai-o-Tapu

Posted in New Zealand, Rotorua by folkestonejack on April 7, 2019

The geothermal delights of Rotorua have long been attracting visitors to the central plateau, but the sights on offer today are quite different to those experienced by the more determined tourists of the Victorian age. The reward for travelling to Lake Rotomahana by steamer, horse drawn coach, canoe and by foot would have been the extraordinary pink and white terraces.

The salmon pink siliceous sinter terraces at Lake Rotomahana were regarded as one of the natural wonders of the world. The spectacle had first attracted European visitors in the 1830s but the numbers really picked up by the 1870s after an increase in publicity ensured their existence reached a wider audience. All of that changed on 10 June 1886 when Mount Tarawera erupted.

Waimangu Volcanic Valley

The eruption created the Waimangu Volcanic Valley, the youngest geothermal valley in New Zealand, while destroying the pink and white terraces. It was assumed that no trace of the terraces remained, but a small piece was discovered at a depth of 60 metres in 2011. Today, visitors can take a walk through this young geothermal wonder and take a cruise on the lake. Sights include a steaming acidic crater lake, steaming cliffs, a multi-coloured terrace, geysers and an assortment of steam vents (fumaroles).

On our visit we had a couple of hours to wander along the set route through the valley, followed by a cruise around the lake and a bus ride back up to the entrance. In the afternoon we continued on to another geothermal wonder, Wai-o-Tapu, with some equally delightful spectacles, including extensive sinter terraces and a bright orange edged ‘champagne pool’ that was drawing gasps of wonderment from everyone as they got their first look.

The geothermal delights of Rotorua are astonishing to explore, but deserve a bit of time to see properly. I first visited both sites on a minibus tour in 1998 that only allotted a few hours to the two sites in total, whereas on this trip we were able to devote an entire day. It is perhaps no surprise that my main recollection of that trip were of running down the gravel tracks to try and see everything, rather than the spectacle I was supposed to be enjoying!

Champagne Pool at Wai-o-Tapu

I really appreciated the time on this trip to understand the events that led up to the creation of the natural wonders we can see today and the price paid by some of the unlucky tourists in the late 19th and early 20th century whose visits coincided with the most significant changes in geothermal activity. The most recent of these events took place in 1917 when the hydrothermal eruption of Echo Crater created Frying Pan Lake.

I think this is one of those places that you have to see for yourself, as no pictures can really do the place justice, but I’ve picked out a few shots to give a little flavour of the place.

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Geothermal delights at Orakei Korako

Posted in New Zealand, Taupo by folkestonejack on April 6, 2019

Our travels have brought us to Orakei Korako, a spectacular geothermal site between Taupo and Rotorua. The site is an interesting one, located across the waters of the Ohakuri Dam and only reachable by boat. It’s a little bit off the main tourist path so it doesn’t tend to get as busy as the geothermal sites in Rotorua but has been gaining more attention since Lonely Planet declared it as ‘arguably the best thermal area left in New Zealand’.

Across the water to Orakei Korako

The history of the site is a long one, beginning with the settlement of the area by the Maori tribe Ngati Tahu-Ngati Whaoa who used the natural geothermal resources in their daily lives. The spectacular formations have attracted visitors since the early twentieth century, though the waka that were initially used to ferry tourists across the water to the site have long since been replaced by more modern ships.

The colourful silica terrace that greets you when your ferry gets closer to the other side is simply spectacular and amply explains why tourists have made such an effort to come here over the past 100 years. At one time there were silica terraces of even greater repute at other nearby locations, though these have long gone. The Emerald Terrace is now the largest of its kind in New Zealand and what you see on the surface is only part of the story.

In 1961 the completion of the earthen Ohakuri Dam saw the water level rise 160 feet above the original water level of the river, submerging two thirds of the geothermal area. Today, the silica terraces continue for 35 metres under the lake hidden from human gaze. It is stunning now, so it is hard to comprehend how much more amazing it must have been in its original state.

The colourful sights of Orakei Korako

As we explored the site over the next hour or so we discovered more wonders, such as the ‘Golden Fleece’ terrace (a fault scarp formed in 131 AD); the Rainbow and Cascade Terrace; the ‘Kohua Poharu’ mud pools and the Soda Fountain.

The site also features one of only two known geothermally located caves in the world (the other is located in Sicily) possibly created by a massive geothermal eruption. Known as the sacred cave it holds a poignant plaque in memory of Atama (Adam) Mikaere who was killed in the Far Libyan desert, aged 22, in 1941. The inscription reads ‘His spirit hovers in this lovely cave where as a lad he guided and delighted visitors with his manly bearing’.

Who doesn’t like the sights and sounds of a bubbling mud pool?

Over the next couple of days we should get to see a few more geothermal sights and see the results of some of the volcanic eruptions of the past as we explore the area around Rotorua, but this was the perfect way to start.

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The Taranaki Falls and a little of Taupo

Posted in New Zealand, Taupo, Tongariro by folkestonejack on April 5, 2019

How do you follow an exhausting walk like the Tongariro crossing? According to the genius itinerary planning completed in the comfort of a desk in South London the answer seemed to be another hike! Hmmm…

The view at sunrise over Lake Taupo from our apartment at Oreti Village Resort

I had doubts about the plan as I headed to bed last night, but awoke feeling surprisingly fresh and ready to get walking again. A hike it was then. We drive south to the Tongariro National Park, parking up at Whakapapa Village near the incongruous hulk of Chateau Tongariro (a grand hotel built in 1929 to encourage tourists to visit the area).

The hike for today would be the two hour loop to the Taranaki Falls, choosing to start from the more exposed upper track as I think this is the easier way round and offers a succession of watery treats for the return leg.

After an hour of walking through alpine grasslands, red tussock, eroded volcanic soil and a forest of mountain toatoa we descended 100 steps to the satisfying sight of the falls. The weather was pretty grey, so I had plenty of time to muse upon my good fortune in doing the Tongariro Crossing in the considerably better conditions of yesterday.

My breath was taken away by the sight of the water tumbling 20 metres over lava flow which spewed from Ruapehu in an eruption 15,000 years ago. The way back offers further sight of the water flowing away from the falls, passing through a narrow gorge and over the Cascade Falls down to the Wairere Stream. There are a multitude of smaller delights, such as a small section of path completely covered in exposed tree roots. I have rarely seen a walk quite so varied. I was completely charmed by this.

The Huka Falls in Taupo

After a spot of lunch we drove around Lake Taupo to the Craters of the Moon, an hour long walk on a thermally warmed boardwalk around some smoking craters; the spectacular Huka Falls and a brief stop to admire the small wooden church at Mission Bay. A relatively relaxed afternoon which my tired feet certainly appreciated!

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Taking on the Tongariro Crossing

Posted in New Zealand, Tongariro by folkestonejack on April 4, 2019

I have been wanting to tackle the Tongariro Alpine Crossing for 21 years so when the opportunity to add it to our itinerary for this trip came up I grabbed it. The 19.4km crossing takes you across the volcanic terrain between Mt Tongariro and Mt Ngauruhoe, climbing 800m in altitude from Mangatepopo car park to the summit of red crater (1886m) before descending 1000m to the finish point at Ketetahi car park.

The sunrise over the Tongariro Crossing

Our accommodation at Oreti Village on the shore of Lake Taupo was a fair drive from the national park, requiring a drive through the darkness to reach the start point as the sun rose. The outlook for the day was good and thankfully the thick fog we encountered on the drive was nowhere to be seen as I started my walk. The advice given by the Department of Conservation is to begin before 8am, allowing plenty of time to complete the walk in daylight with plentiful stops to take in the scenery.

Although I was hiking on my own, I was far from alone. When I first read about the hike in the 1990s the Tongariro Crossing received around 20,000 visitors in a year but by 2015 that had risen to 109,000. I didn’t get the sense that this was one of the busiest days on the crossing and everyone was fairly well strung out after not too long. A key indicator of this was that the toilets placed strategically across the route never had more than 1 or 2 people queuing at most. Perhaps this is no surprise, this is the shoulder season and I was taking to the crossing after a string of fine days (hikers often funnel into the first fine day after bad weather).

A view across the south crater to Mt Ngauruhoe

I was glad to have worn layers of clothing to cope with the cold at the top and the sun-warmed slopes of the latter stages, having seen plenty of folk ill-prepared for the conditions that awaited them on the walk. It was a problem recognised about ten years ago, when the word ‘alpine’ was added to the name of the hike to stress the strenuous nature of the route. The weather forecasts suggest that a few days after my attempt the crossing will see the first snow of the season and temperatures at the tope are predicted to drop to -6.

The Department of Conservation provides a handy checklist of essentials for the hike. I was carrying the recommended amount of fluid (1.5 litres), plenty of food and scroggin to give me an energy boost when I needed it. I probably could have done without the bulky photographic equipment, but ditching that was never an option! One thing I really valued was a pair of tough, fingerless gloves that I could use on some of the rockier sections.

Incredible views abound in every direction

Before I started my walk I wondered how I would cope with the devil’s staircase, where you ascend from 1400m to 1600m to reach the south crater. It was an exhausting effort for sure, but for me the trickiest part would be the steep descent from the red crater on the loose scree. I stayed upright through my descent but could understand entirely those who had chosen to slide down on their backsides.

The scenery throughout the walk is marvellous and surprisingly varied. The view from the south crater to Mt Ngauruhoe was the first treat, especially with the low cloud hanging below the peak. The black summit is a brooding presence in the dramatic landscape and you could see why this was picked as Mount Doom for the Lord of the Rings films. That’s not to discount Mt Tongariro itself, which was thankfully well behaved on my walk. It last erupted in 2012, sending hikers scurrying down as fast as they could manage (it’s well worth reading the sign along the way telling you what to do in the event of an eruption just in case!).

First view of the emerald lakes

The biggest smile that crept across my face during the walk was on the first glimpse of the emerald lakes glistening in the autumnal sun. It felt like a terrific reward for all that initial effort, though it was a little sobering to realise that this was just the half-way point. I took the chance to sit down and eat my lunch by one of the lakes, watching as some Danish lads demonstrated their impressive skill at stone skimming after carefully selecting the best stones on offer.

The last three kilometres seemed like some of the longest of my life, so I was glad to have some music to help me through the final stages (a little bit of Strangeland by Keane and the most recent album by White Lies). I was very glad to see some familiar faces at the exit from the crossing. A car park has never looked so beautiful or been anticipated quite so eagerly!

Nearing the end

I took 7.5 hours to complete the hike, but that did include a 45 minute wait at one spot for the crowds and clouds to clear to get the perfect shot. I’m glad I wasn’t attempting this in high season or that might have been a complete impossibility.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and would highly recommend it. It is, without doubt, the most amazing hike that I have ever completed in my life and absolutely worth waiting 21 years for.

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A three cave day

Posted in New Zealand, Waitomo by folkestonejack on April 3, 2019

Our overnight stay in Waitomo allowed us to make an early start on three of the cave experiences available in the neighbourhood.

The caves have been receiving visitors since 1889, when the main glowworm cave was opened to tourists by local Maori Chief Tane Tinorau. The sight is now one of the most popular tourist attractions in New Zealand with coaches arriving through the day from Auckland and Rotorua. Most tourists only see the one cave on their tightly scheduled coach itineraries, which is a shame as the Ruakuri and Aranui caves are even more spectacular in my opinion.

First on our list was the Ruakuri cave, discovered some 400-500 years ago after a Maori hunter was attacked by two wild dogs (kuri) just outside the cave. The cave was discovered to be the den (rua) of the wild dogs. Once the wild dogs were dispatched the area around the caves became home to the local Maori population and the cave entrance was used as a burial ground.

Inside the Ruakuri cave system

The Ruakuri caves were opened to visitors by the Holden family in 1904. The NZ government claimed ownership and operated the caves until 1988 when the Holden family were able to re-claim ownership. However, with the dry access point through the burial ground out of bounds a new entrance had to be constructed. Many millions were spent digging a new and spectacular spiral entry point and the caves re-opened to the public in 2005.

The caves are now entered through a temperature controlled air-lock that makes it feel as though you are about to enter the lare of a Bond villain. Instead, what awaits is a wonderful walk through the caves on a series of walkways and bridges. The sights were a delight but as much as anything, it was the ability gto get up close to the glowworms that was realkly fascinating. We could see the glowworms moving about the rockface and all the threads they had dropped to catch insects.

Next up on our itinerary was the glowworm cave, which is the one most tourists see. It is a spectacular, if short, experience as you take a short boat trip in absolute silence looking up through the darkness to the thousand of glowworm tails that light up the ceiling. It was the most touristy of the three caves we entered but that doesn’t lessen the enjoyment.

I was particularly impressed to learn that since the cave was returned to the ownership of the descendants of Chief Tane in 1989 the majority of the staff working on the site are descendants of the chief and his wife Huti.

Inside the Aranui cave system

Finally, we visited the Aranui cave which was approached through a short walk through the forest accompanied by a couple of friendly fantails who hopped about and showed off us as we walked. Our wonderful tour guide Missy explained some of the useful plants we were passing and the Maori way of being guided by nature, eating the leaves that the insects have nibbled.

Once inside, we were once again treated to some incredible formations and a highly decorated ceiling, though I didn’t like the large wetas at the cave entrance or the information from our guide that they can leap a metre and cling on tightly! We all agreed that this was our favourite of the day. Across all the caves we were invited to spot the various shapes formed by the stalactites and stalagmites, which had included bungie jumping kiwis, a statue of the madonna and an elephant. The Aranui added an entrance guarding dragon to the list!

The three caves are very different and each has a special magic that makes it worth seeing. In short, it is well worth doing the triple cave combination.

The road to Marokopa

Posted in New Zealand, Waitomo by folkestonejack on April 2, 2019

Our trip to the central plateau began with the relatively uninspiring drive south on the motorway, escaping the humidity of the Auckland basin. At first the sights were pleasant but unspectacular, though I had to admire the people of Huntly for creating a lookout with a view of a power station. As someone with a love of industrial scenery that is something that really speaks to me!

Industrial scenery in Huntly

It was fascinating to see the snapshots of NZ life along the way, as well as more unusual activities such as tree felling (all road traffic was stopped in both directions for five minutes while a couple of trees in the adjacent forest were brought down) and a field of crosses being prepared in Ngaruawahia for Anzac day. We got more of a taste for local life in café stops along the way, sampling the baked treats and pies on offer.

The most surprising sight would have to be Hamilton’s oldest surviving church, St Paul’s Methodist church (1906), sitting in a green field site at Te Kowhai. The church was moved in January 2019 by Uplifting Homes in a remarkable 10 hour effort from Hamilton to its new location 15km to the south, ready to begin a new life as a cafe.

In the early afternoon we reached our accommodation for the night, the Top 10 Holiday Park in Waitomo, where we have a lovely two bedroom cabin with a fully fitted kitchen and shower. Once our tightly packed car boot was emptied (a masterpiece of jigsaw like arrangement) we headed back on the road with a lighter load to see the sights on the road from Waitomo to Marokopa.

The main attraction in Waitomo are the glowworm caves but the road to Marokopa offers some other treats that get overlooked by the majority of visitors – the Marokopa Falls, the Mangapohue Natural Bridge and the black sands of the beach at Marokopa itself.

First on the road is the Mangapohue Natural Bridge. An easy twenty minute loop takes you on a boardwalk through a limestone gorge and underneath a 17 metre high natural arch which is all that is left of an ancient cave system.

Marokopa Falls with a rainbow

Next up were the 35 metre tall Marokopa Falls, looking especially spectacular after a full day of rain yesterday with a heavy torrent of water tumbling over the undercut greywacke basement rock to a pool below. It’s not hard to see why these are described as the most beautiful in the country and to top it off the conditions had generated a rainbow over the river this flows into. This was an easy sight to see too, with a 10 minute walk from the road down to the viewing platform.

Last, but not least were the near deserted black sands of Marokopa beach. Starting from the small car park by the albatross anchor (a relic from a ship that foundered here in 1916 and remained on the beach for many years) we headed on to the sands for a walk into the wind.

The black sands of Marokopa

The views of the west coast from Marokopa are simply stunning and we pretty much hard to ourselves, barring a couple wandering arm in arm. It was hard to know where to look as there were wonders in every direction – the views along the beach and out to sea were beautiful, but the closer you got to the sandstone cliffs you could see the remarkable geology of the area and the rich fossil legacy. So much to absorb. Personally, I loved the striking mix of colours – black sand, white driftwood and orange cliffs. It was the unexpected highlight of the day.

Our day ended back at Waitomo, where we settled in to the cabin for the evening for a tasty meal accompanied by the first of many bottles from a box of Gibbston Valley Wines that we had brought with us!

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Familiar sights

Posted in Auckland, New Zealand by folkestonejack on March 30, 2019

Our base for the next three weeks will be the family home in St Heliers, a seaside suburb of Auckland sitting at the eastern end of Tamaki Drive. It has been three years since my last visit but was pleased to see that I could find my way around from memory. A little wander down to the sea front provided plenty of re-assuring sights and the temptations of Village Co-op Ice Cream Shop, though I resisted the latter for now!

The canopy of the Moreton Bay figs covers Tamaki Drive

One thing I had somehow quite forgotten were the two massive Moreton Bay fig trees that sit on Vellenoweth Green. The two trees are not too far short of 100 years and in that time have grown to a considerable size, completely covering the road with their canopy. Their aggressive roots have ripped up the pavement and no doubt disrupted any pipes that lay under the surface. It is not hard to see why they are not thought to be a good idea for roadside planting.

Over the next few days we plan to catch up with family, recover from our jet lag and relax a little before re-packing our bags for a trip to the central plateau.

Auckland to London (via Singapore)

Posted in Auckland, New Zealand, Singapore by folkestonejack on January 9, 2016

Our last morning in New Zealand before we head home saw the weather turn decidedly wet and blustery, rain hammering down a good six hours earlier than forecast. The apron at Auckland airport looked quite miserable and a complete contrast to the summery sight of a few weeks ago.

It was still raining as we boarded our Singapore Airlines A380 and the air hostesses had to tell us to mind the rain (dripping down across the doorway) as we stepped over from the air bridge. Our flight took off on time, with the ‘treat’ of a bumpy climb until we got clear of the clouds.

Sunrise at Changi Airport

Sunrise at Changi Airport

Singapore couldn’t have been more of a contrast with hot and sticky conditions to greet us. An overnight stay in airport hotel helped us get over the first flight before tackling the 14 hour second leg to London. Our room was air-conditioned, though we seemed to have it set to deep-freeze us overnight (quite a feat in the heat of this city). It had rained overnight, though it didn’t seem to have any effect on the heat.

It was great to walk out of the hotel and into the airport, ready to tackle our day locked in a film festival in the sky. Our flight made it into London Heathrow on time but half of our luggage had decided to stay on and enjoy the heat of Singapore for a bit longer. Grrr.

Postscript. Our remaining luggage was located after a couple of days, flown home and delivered by courier. Almost a happy ending if you overlook the items that went missing from inside the case somewhere along the way!

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An ice cream experience

Posted in Auckland, New Zealand by folkestonejack on January 7, 2016

Our afternoon stop for ice cream was probably the most enjoyable taste sensation of the trip to New Zealand and all the richer an experience for it being a complete surprise.

The quite remarkable Haute Cuisine ice cream parlour we had ended up in goes by the name of Giapo and is the brainchild of chef Giapo Grazioli. On his website Giapo declares that his mission is to change ‘the way people experience, see, feel and eat ice cream’. I’d say that he delivers this in spades from our visit.

The passion for ice cream comes across the moment you step through the threshold. No ice cream is on display, just a list of flavours and the dedicated staff ask you to judge the flavours on their taste alone. Once you have made your choice the care that goes into preparing the ice cream is astonishing and then you almost can’t bear to eat the wonderful artistic creations that are handed over.

A tarte tatin ice cream made with rosewood NZ apples came out with a delicate coating of sliced apple whilst my tiramisu ice cream came out covered in a coating of cocoa and a delicious core of liqueur soaked sponge. Needless to say, the ice cream at the heart of all these was astonishingly good. It’s incredibly hard to explain quite how good this stuff is, but if you take a look at the pictures of their creations on the Giapo instagram gallery you can at least see just how amazing they look…

It is a shame that I have encountered this so late in our trip as it is by far the most exquisite ice cream I have sampled anywhere. I was not at all surprised to learn that TripAdvisor has rated this place as the best ice cream in New Zealand and that other surveys have put Giapo in the top ten ice cream parlours in the world.

How soon can I come back to New Zealand to taste some more!?

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Pigeons, planes and putting

Posted in Auckland, New Zealand by folkestonejack on January 7, 2016

The morning saw me head to the Auckland Museum for an exhibition celebrating the 75th anniversary of Air New Zealand which is open in the special exhibitions hall until 22nd May 2016

A light amongst the trees on the Centennial Walkway

A light amongst the trees on the Centennial Walkway, on the walking route between the Auckland Museum and the City Centre

The early history of aviation in New Zealand is a fascinating story that I knew relatively little of until today. I was particularly struck by the enchanting notion of the Pigeongram service which began in 1897 with a letter delivered 93km to Great Barrier Island and was still very much in operation at the start of the twentieth century (the service operated for 11 years in total). It had some downsides, most notably that if the birds got hungry they ate the letters!

The footage of New Zealand’s first international airport at Mechanics Bay was equally fascinating. At this time there was no runway – instead, passengers travelled by flying boat, landed in the water and disembarked onto a pier (if the film was anything to go by, dressed in their smartest attire). Today, the site is a container port.

Besides a thorough history of the airline, the exhibition included recreations of the Solent flying boat and DC-8 cabins, information about the tragic disasters to have befallen the airline (such as the terrible Mt Erebus crash in Antarctica) and the future of air travel. All quite superb and well worth checking out.

A section of the Lost in Time golf course (complete with moving dinosaur tail!)

A section of the Lost in Time golf course (complete with moving dinosaur tail!)

After leaving the Auckland Museum behind I headed towards the city centre via the Centennial Walkway, an easy walk of some 15-20 minutes. The afternoon delivered some rather superb ice cream, a closely fought game of mini golf at another of the fabulous Lilliputt golf courses (complete with a memorable hole in a glow in the dark ‘gold mine’ section) and a quick dip into the Auckland Art Gallery (which I very much regret having too little time to do justice to).

To end the day we had a rather superb meal at the Sakebar Nippon Restaurant in Epsom (and the memorable experience of your arrival through the door being announced with drums) and a screening at the Lido a couple of doors down. The Lido is a rather lovely refurbished cinema from the 1920s with stylish lounges and the most luxurious of seats. A real treat.

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South to North

Posted in New Zealand by folkestonejack on January 5, 2016

Our South Island adventure came to an end this morning, having completed around 1000 miles on our circular tour. We made the short drive from Dunedin to the airport at Mosgiel, dropped off our hire car and checked our bags in for the one hour forty five minute long flight to Auckland. The airport is pretty small by European standards, but ranks as the fifth largest in New Zealand on passenger numbers.

Mount Egmont from the air

Mount Egmont from the air

The journey north gave us a much better view of the landscape, flying over the Pacific Ocean up to Christchurch before heading inland in the rough direction of Nelson. It was possible to see the east coast and the mountains at the same time for a good while after leaving Dunedin.

After flying over the distinctive curve of Farewell Spit we crossed the Cook Strait and hit land again somewhere to the east of Whanganui. The clouds obscured most of the lower North Island, but the peak of Mount Edgmont poked up above the cloudline. From here we skirted the west coast and I lost my bearings somewhat, though the familiar sight of Rangitoto visible in the distance was a clear sign that we had reached Auckland!

A stop at the Pah Homestead (TSB Bank Wallace Arts Centre) proved perfect for a spot of lunch to revive us (I chose a perennial NZ favourite – bacon and egg pie) before heading home to unpack and wind down.

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Street art in Dunedin

Posted in Dunedin, New Zealand by folkestonejack on January 4, 2016

The mental images that I construct when thinking of New Zealand invariably focus on the incredible natural beauty of the country, the many wonderful historic buildings from the late 19th/early 20th century and the seemingly endless options for thrillseeking experiences. On the whole, I haven’t tended to think too much about the wider urban landscape in all of this. However, my impressions have been challenged by the street art revolution taking place in Dunedin.

DALeast's depiction of the extinct Haast eagle

DALeast’s depiction of the extinct Haast eagle

It is quite appropriate that Dunedin is leading the way as this is the city that saw New Zealand’s first public Art Gallery and first Art Society. Indeed, it is fair to say that the foresight of the early advocates has seen Dunedin become one of the most exciting centres of street art in the southern hemisphere.

ROA's tuatara in Bath Street

ROA’s tuatara in Bath Street

The creation of works by Belgian artist ROA and Brit Phlegm in the city started the ball rolling in Dunedin and gave everyone an opportunity to see just how remarkable these pieces can be. Building on this, the first Dunedin Street Art festival in October 2014 saw invitations extended to some of the world’s most talented street artists.

Detail from Phlegm's piece on the wall of Vogel Street Kitchen

Detail from Phlegm’s piece on the wall of Vogel Street Kitchen

Today, there are currently over 30 murals to find in the city and more walls in the city will be painted by NZ and international artists in the first quarter of 2016 (for updates see the Dunedin Street Art facebook page). Most of the artworks are located in and around the Warehouse Precinct. A free map of the artworks is available from the i-Site in the Octagon.

A section of Phlegm's Song Bird Pipe Organ

A section of Phlegm’s Song Bird Pipe Organ

I rather like the fact that many of the artists have chosen designs that reflect or incorporate local references. DALeast has depicted New Zealand’s extinct Haast eagle, Phlegm’s Song Bird Pipe Oegan shows one of his myserious characters playing an instrument that releases native NZ birds (including the kākāpō, takahē and kiwi) and ROA’s native tuatara.

Dunedin already has alot to attract visitors but this is one development that will keep the spotlight on the city. I am sure I will be back someday to see the latest artworks.

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A stroll up the steepest street

Posted in Dunedin, New Zealand by folkestonejack on January 4, 2016

Our drive along the Otago Coast ended with our arrival in Dunedin around 1pm and a stop at one of the quirkier tourist sights located on the outskirts of the city – the steepest residential street in the world. It came into existence by accident – the early city planners applied a grid pattern to the land without any thought for the terrain.

Baldwin Street - the steepest street in the world

Baldwin Street – the steepest street in the world

Baldwin Street is relatively short at just 350 metres, but in that distance rises from 98ft above sea level to 330ft above sea level. At its steepest the slope of the road is 35% (19 degrees). The upper stretches of the road are concrete rather than asphalt to avoid the possibility of the road surface melting and running down the slope in hot summers! Each year a charity event here sees many thousands of jaffas rolled down the street.

I was daft enough to take a walk up from the bottom and can vouch for the steepness of the upper sections. It’s a surprisingly popular attraction and I was far from alone in this endeavour. At the top of the street you can find a beautiful painted bench and wall depicting the road you have just climbed up.

Other sights that we stopped at on our wanders around the city included Dunedin Railway Station (a rather curious confection in revived Flemish renaissance style), the First Church of Otago (widely regarded as the most impressive of New Zealand’s nineteenth-century churches), the Dunedin Botanic Garden (the oldest in New Zealand) and the Dunedin Cenotaph.

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The Karitane Peninsula

Posted in New Zealand by folkestonejack on January 4, 2016

After leaving Moeraki behind we continued on our drive south, before taking a turning off State Highway 1 around 35km out from Dunedin. This put us on to Coast Road, a wonderfully scenic stretch of road that follows the line of the coast through Karitane, Seacliff, Omimi and Warrington before connecting back onto State Highway 1). As well as offering some great views out to the Pacific Ocean it also crosses the South Island Main Trunk Railway in eight places.

Karitane and the Waikouaiti River

Karitane and the Waikouaiti River

The idea behind this detour was to see the old man and old woman rocks at Karitane, partly prompted by seeing so many paintings of these at an exhibition in Oamaru. However, there was much more to be seen on the peninsula than just these large pinnacle rocks and being a little off the normal tourist trail I had no idea just how beautiful this would prove to be when we got out of the car to explore.

The historic site of Huriawa sits on a promontory overlooking the small fishing port of Karitane at the mouth of the Waikouaiti River. On this site the fighting chief Te Wera and the people in his pā (a defensive settlement) withstood a six month siege in the mid-eighteenth century. In its day it was regarded as one of the most impressive fortified settlements on the South Island.

In 1998 the Crown returned the reserve to the ownership of Te Rūnanga o Ngai Tahu as part of the Treaty of Waitangi settlement. The site is now jointly managed by the Ngai Tahu and the Department for Conservation.

The rocky promontory at Huriawa

The rocky promontory at Huriawa

Huriawa is a quite beautiful and well maintained site, including some stunning views towards Karitane and the Waikouaiti River, two blowholes where the incoming tide is forced up through the rocks and some very dramatic rocky cliffs. To say that I was delighted by this unexpected find would be quite some understatement. It is a lesson that taught me that guide books, with their prescriptive lists of what is worth seeing, sometimes have the unintentional effect of blinding you to so much more!

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Wonders of the Otago Coast

Posted in New Zealand by folkestonejack on January 4, 2016

The sight of a beautiful sunrise in Oamaru gave us a superb start to our leisurely drive down the Otago Coast to Dunedin, punctuated by moments of delight as we visited some of the more picturesque spots that can be accessed off State Highway 1.

The boulders are scattered across Koekohe Beach

The boulders are scattered across Koekohe Beach

Our first stop brought us to the unusual sight of the Moeraki Boulders on Koekohe Beach. Across the beach some 50 spherical boulders are scattered, varying from 30cm to 2.2m in diameteter. It looks as though they have just washed up on the shore, but they are actually concretions that were formed 60 million years ago (described as somewhat akin to the way a pearl forms around a particle in an oyster). The boulders were once buried in the mudstone cliffs at the rear of the beach, but have been slowly released by the erosion of the cliffs.

Alternatively, the Maori see the boulders as the cargo (eel baskets, gourds and kumaras) washed ashore from the wreck of the great canoe Arai Te Uru. The reef which extends seawards from Shag Point is the canoe’s petrified hull and another rock nearby is the petrified body of the captain.

The Moeraki Boulders

The incoming tide around the boulders

Not all of the boulders have remained in situ – many of the smaller boulders were taken away during the Victorian era as objects of fascination and a few have made their way into museums (one of the larger boulders can be seen at the North Otago Museum in Oamaru). It’s a stunning natural phenomenon to see, but must have been even more spectacular before they became such a collectable prize. Thankfully, the boulders are legally protected today and it is forbidden to damage, deface or move them.

In one or two cases erosion has exposed the network of internal veins, causing the boulders to crack open like a rather robust egg shell. It gives a great insight into the structure of these remarkable objects.

The results of erosion

The results of erosion

Our timing was perfect. It was low tide when we arrived but you could already see that the tide was steadily creeping back up the beach, lapping over the first string of boulders (we timed our visit using the 2016 tide tables for Oamaru). Remarkably, the beach was virtually empty during our visit – there were just two cars in the car park when we arrived at 8.30am but a good 20-30 vehicles when we left around 10am.

I have long wanted to see the boulders and they certainly didn’t disappoint. I spent quite some time photographing them and could easily have spent much longer there! Afterwards, we headed to the Moeraki Café which served up some of the best ginger slices and muffins we have encountered on the entire trip. Treat upon treat!

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Silver Fern

Posted in New Zealand, Oamaru by folkestonejack on January 3, 2016

My trip to New Zealand has been a rare trip without trains, but at Oamaru I managed to see the rather distinctive Silver Fern Railcar operated by Dunedin Railways for The Oamaru Seasider excursion train during its hour long layover in the town.

NZR RM class Silver Fern at Oamaru Station

NZR RM class Silver Fern at Oamaru Station

I found an interesting spot to watch the Silver Fern leaving Oamaru, where the South Island Main Trunk Railway crosses Thames Street on the route south to Dunedin. I thought I would just see the railcar hurtle past but was more than a little surprised to see the railcar stop on the road and let passengers on from the street with the use of a step!

This railcar (RM24) is one of only three in its class, built by Nissho-Iwai in August 1972 and best remembered for their service on daylight passenger services between Auckland and Wellington up to December 1991. RM24 has been leased by Dunedin Railways from KiwiRail since 2012 and runs on regular excursions to Moeraki and Oamaru. It’s a beautiful looking vehicle and I’m glad to have seen one running.

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New Zealand’s coolest town

Posted in New Zealand, Oamaru by folkestonejack on January 3, 2016

Our drive through the rain brought us to Oamaru, a coastal town whose shortlived commercial growth left it with a portfolio of beautiful Victorian buildings and brought it to the brink of bankruptcy. It is also the destination that has raised eyebrows when I have mentioned it to New Zealanders, yet which Lonely Planet has described as New Zealand’s coolest town.

Oamaru at sunrise

Oamaru at sunrise

The arrival of persistent rain not long after we arrived threatened to put a dampener on our explorations, but we saw enough of the Victorian precinct to appreciate the drive to create something rather remarkable here, with a wonderful selection of art and craft shops, cafes and bookshops – all located in the most delightful of white stone buildings.

It is no exaggeration to say that the efforts of the Oamaru Whitestone Civic Trust and the small businesses occupying their impressive portfolio of carved stone buildings have really helped lift the town out of the decay that had absorbed it through the 1970s and 80s. However, it’s not the only draw – the town is also home to the North Otago Museum and Forrester Gallery (also in white stone buildings).

A short stroll away from the heart of the precinct you can find the Harbourside Station (trains operated by the Oamaru Steam Railway run here every Sunday) and the distinctive sight of Steampunk HQ (an unusual attraction with the most enthusiastic staff that I have encountered anywhere and the quite indescribable delights of a spectacular light show in a small mirrored room).

The former chief post office in Oamaru

The former chief post office in Oamaru

However, Oamaru is on the tourist trail for another reason entirely – penguins. Blue penguins, the smallest species of penguin, began nesting in a stone quarry here after it was abandoned in the 1970s. Today, the thriving colony is surrounded by a visitor centre and two grandstands which provide the perfect vantage point for watching the birds returning to their nests under the cover of darkness (you need to wrap up well as chances are that you’ll be in the grandstand for an hour or two).

The penguins started to come ashore in their ‘rafts’ at around 9.30pm tonight having assembled offshore first, their presence signalled by their distinctive quacking sound. Three or four rafts came ashore with a total of 205 penguins recorded by 10.30pm. When each raft come ashores the penguins make an almost comic mad dash for the entrance to their colony and shortly afterwards you can see them waddling to their nests in a more relaxed fashion.

One penguin had alternative plans, climbing through the fence into the spectator fence and hopped up onto the seating to the visible delight of a little girl on the next row up. After watching his fellow penguins for a bit he decided the life of a tourist was not for him and headed on to his nest.

The walk back to the hotel also included some unexpected close encounters of the penguin kind, such as by an upturned rowing boat on the harbour shore. A group of four blue penguins were pushing and shoving as they tried to get underneath and into the safety of the darkness! I now appreciated that the Penguin crossing signs along the waterfront road were no tourist gimmick.

One of the Penguin crossing signs on Waterfront Road

One of the Penguin crossing signs on Waterfront Road

It is also worth mentioning that the penguins are not the only birds to have appropriated land here. Spotted shags have taken over Sumpter Wharf, a rare wooden wharf constructed in 1884, using it as a spot to dry out after fishing in the local waters.

Postscript. It turns out that blue penguins on the Otago coast are actually Australian, having displaced the local penguin population when they arrived sometime between 1500 and 1900. Audio analysis has also revealed that they have a different accent to their NZ equivalents! The revelations have been made in a new study published on 3rd February 2016. The results have been summarised in the article Little blue penguins from Australia ‘invaded’ New Zealand.

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Pleasant Point

Posted in New Zealand by folkestonejack on January 3, 2016

The midway point on our drive from Tekapo to Oamaru saw us stop at the small country town of Pleasant Point and this turned out to be entirely appropriate – we were utterly charmed by the beautifully maintained historic buildings and the preserved railway that sits at the centre of town.

Legends Cafe

Legends Cafe

Our attention was drawn to the striking Legends Cafe and wandered inside. The building was originally the Post Office, opening its doors in 1912, but has been a cafe for many years and was to become the birthplace of the Denheath custard square. It was a good move to pop inside as we were soon served up with some of the most delicious treats that I have sampled on this trip to NZ.

As luck would have it, the day we drove through happened to be a steaming day at the Pleasant Point Railway which sits in the centre of town. We didn’t have time to stop, but it was great to see the first train of the day arriving (with a little 2-4-0 engine, D16, built in 1878, at the head).

Pleasant Point Railway operates on a one and a half mile line laid on the trackbed of the former Fairlie branch line. The branch line was officially closed on 2nd March 1968 and the original plan was to create a static memorial to the railway in the centre of the town, but over the years this has evolved into a rather marvellous operational line. Well worth a look if you are headed this way.

All in all, for an unplanned stop, Pleasant Point was pretty amazing!

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Tekapo and the Church of the Good Shepherd

Posted in New Zealand, Tekapo by folkestonejack on January 3, 2016

The shore of Lake Tekapo has been home to the Church of the Good Shepherd since 1935, which is probably the most heavily photographed church in New Zealand today (not least because it is a regular stop for coaches on their way to Mount Cook). A beautiful little church in a wonderful location.

Church of the Good Shepherd

Church of the Good Shepherd

I made my first visit to the church in August 1998 when there was still very little to get excited about in Tekapo, so I was a little surprised to see how much development has gone on in the past 18 years. An alpine village with hotels, shops and restaurants is all new since my last visit and further construction is underway. It’s all a part of a massive increase in building consents for Tekapo that shows no sign of abating (the article Tekapo’s Big Bang moment: why a sleepy village is taking off usefully explains the background to this). Nevertheless, it was a shock to see the density of the new construction and how this has encroached onto the grass domain that leads down to the lake.

Thankfully, the church hasn’t been swallowed up by development (although I don’t recall seeing the massive car park when I last visited) and still sits in an undisturbed setting of tussocks, matagouri bushes and rock.

The church was the first to be built in the Mackenzie Country with the foundation stone laid by HRH the Duke of Gloucester on 15th January 1935. The wild setting is not unintentional, for the builders were instructed to leave the rocks and matagouri bushes in place where they stood. Moreover, the stones for the wall were all gathered from within five miles of the site. It has become a very popular point on the tourist trail, though the 300,000 visitors a year has generated a few drawbacks.

I wandered down to the church a little before 6am to get a view of the church and the surrounding scenery just after sunrise (not that there was any noticeable difference on a cloudy morning like today). It was lovely to see the church with hardly a soul around, though that must be an increasingly rare experience!

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Northeast through Central Otago

Posted in New Zealand by folkestonejack on January 2, 2016

Another longish drive was required to get us from Gibbston to our next destination, Lake Tekapo, which I unhelpfully extended with a detour to see the lone tree in the lake at Wanaka. It all made for a day with considerable variations in scenery, reaching the most dramatic with the tussock landscape at the Lindis Pass on State Highway 8.

State Highway 8 at the Lindis Pass

State Highway 8 through the Lindis Pass

The Lindis Pass sits at an elevation of 971m, making it the highest point on the state highway network in the South Island. The road winds its way up through a scenic reserve with many different varieties of tussock spread far and wide, which all looked rather wonderful when illuminated by the sun. Astonishingly, the forecast for the next day was for snow which demonstrated how easily the weather can turn here.

A monument at the lookout on the northern side of the pass commemorates the release of seven red deer in March 1871 which is somewhat ironic as this has to be one of the worst imports from the UK from an environmental perspective. The deer had no predators and their population quickly spiralled out of control, resulting in overgrazed forests and the virtual wipe out of some native plant species. By the 1930s the government had classified deer as pests and measures to control the numbers of wild deer have continued ever since.

The other stops on our journey included the junction of the Kawarau with Roaring Meg, the historic old town at Cromwell, the waterfront at Wanaka and the small township of Omerama (our lunch stop).

The somewhat dubious appeal of Wanaka for me can be attributed to the tree in the lake that has been a gift to photographers – it seems quite possible that it is the most snapped tree in the country. You really need to be here at sunrise or sunset, preferably in autumn or winter, to capture it at its best but it was still interesting to see whilst en route to Lake Tekapo (take a look at tumblr to see some beautiful shots of the tree by other photographers).

The lone tree of Lake Wanaka

The lone tree of Lake Wanaka

At 3.14pm we arrived at Lake Tekapo and had some fun trying to locate the cottage we had booked for the night with the help of a route hand drawn by the owners on a map of the area, telling us that we couldn’t possibly get lost. I can only assume they had a moment of madness for this bore no relation to the real location. In fact, it wasn’t even remotely close! After circling the area three or four times we finally found the cottage and got settled.

The cottage was really rather quirky but very cosy with it. One of the quirks was a ridiculous number of doors (for example, the bathroom had four doors) and light switches that would defeat all but the tallest of guests! It delivered one of the most enjoyable nights of our trip with a hilarious game of Trivial Pursuits using a NZ set from circa 1983/84. I always seemed to get the questions about NZ personalities, politics and sport that I couldn’t possibly answer…

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New Zealand’s largest wine cave

Posted in Gibbston, New Zealand by folkestonejack on January 1, 2016

A suitably relaxed start to the first day of the year saw us head out in late morning, driving the short distance to Gibbston Valley Winery with the memory of their rosé wine still fresh in our minds from yesterday.

Gibbston Valley

One of the many vineyards in Gibbston Valley

The valley is dominated by vineyards today, but things were very different in the early 1980s when Alan Brady planted his first vines here. He went on to establish the first commercial vineyard in the Gibbston Valley and the winery followed in 1990. The scene today is somewhat reminiscent of the Rhine valley and the wine trail has become part of the tourist appeal of Queenstown.

Taking up the opportunity to go on one of the hourly tours of the wine cave proved to be a great move, giving a wonderful insight into the processes involved in winemaking in the valley. The wine cave itself was quite astonishing – a 1400 cubic metre tunnel and cave blasted 75 metres into the schist mountain twenty years ago (a feat that apparently took three months for the tunnellers who had previously worked on the Clyde Dam) and it remains unchallenged as the largest Wine Cave in New Zealand.

Our tour guide, Paul, explained that the cave provides the perfect environment for the 400 oak barrels of wine stored along the walls, though even in these conditions the angel’s still take their share (the breathability of the oak barrels allows the angels to take a 6% share of the wine through evaporation).

In the cool of the cave we sampled Gibbston Valley’s Pinot gris, Pinot blanc and Pinot noir as well as gaining an appreciation of the taste of wine taken straight from the barrel. The highlight was a drop of their rather fine dessert wine Late Harvest, a stunning blend of Riesling and Pinot Blanc, which was more than enough to persuade me to part with some cash for a bottle.

The wine cave

The wine cave

As if this wasn’t enough, a cheesery is located next door to the winery, serving up a very generous sharing board of cheeses, biscuits, grapes, cherries and chutney. In fact, sufficiently delicious that we had to make a stop on the way back to pick up some extra supplies for our evening meal!

It wasn’t all cheese and wine today, we spent a very enjoyable afternoon wandering around the historic gold mining town of Arrowtown with its rather splendid library (a modern building, built to a design intended to fit in with the historic character of the town) and the fascinating chinese settlement from the 1880s. It took great willpower not to walk into Gibbston Valley’s artisan café on Buckingham Street…

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Steam on Lake Wakatipu

Posted in New Zealand, Queenstown by folkestonejack on December 31, 2015

One of the enduring delights of Queenstown is the sight of the 103 year old twin screw steamer TSS Earnshaw plying the waters of Lake Wakatipu, where she has long been known as the ‘lady of the lake’. It is a fitting label, for she was constructed on the lake and has spent her whole life crossing from shore to shore.

Today, as a tourist ship, she makes regular crossings between Steamer Wharf and Walter Peak High Country Farm for Real Journeys – not so very far removed from her early days transporting passengers, mail and cargo from the railway into Queenstown and to the country stations dotted around the lake.

TSS Earnshaw on Lake Wakatipu

TSS Earnshaw on Lake Wakatipu

TSS Earnshaw was originally constructed at the yard of John McGregor and Co in Dunedin, then dismantled and the parts numbered. The parts were then transported across the South Island by train (rather appropriate, given that she was commissioned by New Zealand Railways) and re-assembled at Kingston, on the shore of Lake Wakatipu. After the successful completion of her trials she steamed off on her maiden voyage on 18 October 1912. The next day was declared a public holiday so that locals could experience the new ship – not something you could ever imagine happening today!

The steamship has outlasted her sister ships on the lake (PS Antrim, PS Mountaineer and SS Ben Lomond) by quite some distance (she was the sole steamship on the lake by 1950) and is now the only coal fired steamship still in operation in the southern hemisphere.

You can see more about the history of TSS Earnshaw on the website of the New Zealand Maritime Record.

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