FolkestoneJack's Tracks

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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A little scenery

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

The last day of the year could hardly have delivered a more perfect finish to 2015 with beautiful blue skies, bright sunshine and temperatures a good ten degrees warmer than yesterday. Taking advantage of this, we made a small detour to take a look at the incredibly photogenic Lake Hayes before heading in to the centre of Queenstown. It was already pretty clear that scenic views are not in short supply here!

Lake Hayes

Lake Hayes

Queenstown has a well deserved reputation as the adventure capital of New Zealand, but it is equally suited to a relatively relaxed day out with a lovely mix of waterside restaurants, well tended green spaces (like the rather lovely Queenstown Gardens) and incredible viewpoints.

The waterside at Steamer Wharf boasts a diverse collection of restaurants, but we opted for one of the newest – The Public Kitchen. The restaurant served up some terrific fare (my crumbed pork schnitzel with grilled blue cheese & sage was quite splendid) and introduced us to the superb wine from the Gibbston Valley Winery. As a bonus we got a splendid view of the TSS Earnshaw berthing alongside the wharf as our lunch came to an all too early close.

One of the less obvious delights of Queenstown is the indoor mini-golf course at Caddyshack City, located near the base of the gondola. It had become something of a legend from the tales I had heard of its all round marvellousness over the years, but had to admit that it lived up to this entirely with its inventive layouts and quirky features (check out the pictures of the course on Tripadvisor to see just how wonderful these are).

The Remarkables

The Remarkables

In the afternoon we took a ride up the Skyline Gondola to get the view whilst the sun was illuminating it perfectly. I could have stayed an awfully long time on the platform up there looking down on to the astonishingly blue water of Lake Wakatipu and across to the Remarkables mountain range. If I had been feeling more adventurous I might have attempted one of the longer walks that lead to even more thrilling views, but this was quite beautiful enough for me!

The preparations for the evening concert and firework display were well under way as we headed back into town, but we decided that the calm of the Gibbston Valley was the place for us in the final hours of 2015. We didn’t have much luck finding a channel broadcasting the traditional fireworks from the Sky Tower so settled for a quiet toast with Monteith’s Summer Ale. Roll on 2016…

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Driving up the devil’s staircase

Posted in Gibbston, Milford Sound, New Zealand by folkestonejack on December 30, 2015

The 186 mile journey from Milford Sound took us back through the Homer Tunnel and onto the state highway towards Gibbston via Te Anau and Kingston. It is a long and somewhat awkward drive that takes you considerably further away from your destination (as the crow flies) at first but it’s not without points of interest. The winding stretch up the side of Lake Wakatipu, known as the Devil’s Staircase, was particularly memorable with its rises and falls.

The Devil's Staircase

The Devil’s Staircase

The traffic flow on the first part of the route tends to be tidal, with very little traffic out of Milford Sound in the morning and plenty coming in, leaving us with a largely empty road. In contrast, the last part of the journey was the most painful, skirting Queenstown at a crawl before making it into Gibbston in late afternoon.

Our route took us past what remains of the Kingston Flyer, one of the most high profile steam railways in New Zealand but sadly out of action for a few years now. We stopped off at the Kingston terminus and could see the locomotives fenced off in a compound and the station building looking rather forlorn.

The line originally ran from Invercargill to Kingston, where passengers could embark on a steamship for the crossing to Queenstown. A small monument on the waterfront reminds us that the Wakatipu steamers Mountaineer and Earnshaw were assembled in this vicinity on 11th February 1879 and 24th February 1912 respectively.

The Kingston Flyer compound

The Kingston Flyer compound

In its preservation days the line that the Kingston Flyer travelled was considerably shorter, with its final incarnation seeing trains on the eight and a half mile line between Fairlight and Kingston. Neither location seems to have offered passengers much in the way of attractions besides a ride on the train which perhaps limited its appeal. Nevertheless, the railway has a gorgeous setting on the shores of Lake Wakatipu with the mountains as a backdrop so it is a shame that it hasn’t proved to be more successful.

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Milford Sound (or sharing paradise with the sandflies)

Posted in Milford Sound, New Zealand by folkestonejack on December 30, 2015

The Maori legend has it that the god Tu-te-raki-whanoa carved the southern fiords with his adze, getting closer to perfection with each attempt. Finally, he created the masterpiece of Piopiotahi (Milford Sound) with its breathtaking combination of mountain peaks and waterfalls.

Te-Hine-nui-to-po, goddess of the night, was far from impressed – fearing that man would want to live forever in such a paradise. To discourage such thoughts the goddess released the sandfly to torment any that dared to linger! And torment they do…

Milford Sound

Milford Sound

It is worth braving the sandflies to see Milford Sound, which really deserves the label of “the eighth wonder of the world” that Rudyard Kipling gave it (perhaps he had this in mind when he told a journalist that if you told him that the garden of Eden was located in New Zealand he would have believed it).

An incredibly generous gift of an overnight trip on the Milford Mariner gave us ample opportunity to see the sound up close and nothing can prepare you for how spectacular it is in person. No photographs can do this place justice, nor replicate the physical effects such as the incredible rush of wind that hits you as you sail out (a natural phenomenon with the sound acting as a wind tunnel).

Our cruise took us first to Anita Bay where we switched to kayaks or tenders to see some of the easily missed spots, such as the location of the garden used to supply the first walkers and the nearby hut (restored) of the owners of this business. The sandflies were incredibly active here, pouncing on anyone without the most liberal coating of insect repellent.

The black sandflies live up to the billing of “the most mischievous animal” that James Cook gave them in May 1773 after enduring the “swelling and such intolerable itching” that is their gift. In the early days settlers here protected themselves by covering themselves in seal fat, but thankfully no such extreme measures were necessary for us. The pioneers of the tourist industry were brave indeed!

The Milford Mariner in Anita Bay

The Milford Mariner in Anita Bay

We moored up at Harrison Cover overnight and I was more than a little surprised, but delighted, to see a dolphin come up to the porthole of our cabin in the early morning darkness. As the skies brightened we left the shelter of the cove and headed back out to the Tasman Sea, giving us some great views of the sound before the day boats started to ply the waters.

As we headed back to dock we took a good look at the seals sunbathing on the rocks and close enough to the Stirling Falls to feel the spray. Another fascinating sight to be observed was the way the water in the sound appears to ‘bleed’ which is simply the fresh water from the mountains lying on top of the salt water.

Our visit to the sound was in fine weather, following a dryish spell, so relatively few waterfalls were in action but if it rains you have the bonus of hundreds of additional waterfalls. Milford Sound is one of the wettest places in the world with annual rainfall of 6 metres, so it’s better to be prepared for it!

Milford Sound exceeded every expectation and is certainly worth the long drive, which to be honest, is pretty fabulous in its own right.

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Key Summit

Posted in Milford Sound, New Zealand, Te Anau by folkestonejack on December 29, 2015

The road north from Te Anau offers many wonderful sights that are easily slotted in to a trip to Milford Sound, but it is worth building in some additional time to take in the hike up to Key Summit, which New Zealand Tourism has described as the best Fiordland day walk. It was one of the first things on my list when we started making plans for a trip to the South Island and I certainly didn’t regret it!

The path to Key Summit

The path to Key Summit

The walk takes you up a short section of the three-day long Routeburn Track (one of New Zealand’s nine Great Walks) which curves upwards at a steady angle, making it an easy-ish walk to tackle. On this stretch the track offers a beautifully shaded path, under the forest canopy, which features a delightful waterfall and just enough glimpses of the mountains to encourage you onward.

About an hour into the walk you hit a clearly marked signpost indicating the short uphill track up to Key Summit (taking you away from the Routeburn Track) and from here on in the views just get better and better. As you climb above the treeline it is impossible not to be stunned by the incredible beauty that surrounds you – it is fair to say that I’ve never taken a hike that delivered a punch quite like this.

I took the trek up at a speedier pace than I should have, for fear of the clouds closing back in but I really needn’t have worried. The skies had largely cleared by the time I had cleared the treeline, though the few that lingered between the forest floor and the mountain peaks presented a wonderful sight in their own right as they mingled with the tree tops.

The view towards Mt Crosscut/Paekaru

The view towards Mt Crosscut/Paekaru

It is hard to imagine that the view from the top has many rivals – the 360 degree panoramic views over the Humboldt and Darran Mountains are simply breath-taking.

The summit also has the delights of an alpine nature walk leading up to a spectacular lookout with a view across to Lake Marian, a glacial tarn, with three peaks as a backdrop (Mt Christina/Te Taumata o Hinepipiwai, Mt Crosscut/Paekaru and Mt Lyttle/Puairuru). In absorbing this visual treat it’s easy to forget that all of this was carved by a glacier many thousands of years ago – what an achievement for a slow moving block of ice and rock!

At a reasonable pace the walk should take around three hours to the summit and back again, allowing plenty of time to soak up the view and take hundreds of photographs. I shaved a fair bit off that in my mad uphill dash, but I’m sure it is much more enjoyable if you don’t try repeating that!

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The road to Milford Sound

Posted in Milford Sound, New Zealand, Te Anau by folkestonejack on December 29, 2015

The 144 mile drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound presents one wonder after another, making it hard to resist stopping every time a sign highlights a new viewpoint, historic site or walk. However, it is quite impossible to do absolutely everything within a single day and still make it to Milford Sound in time for a trip on the water.

The Milford Highway

The Milford Highway

The skies were pretty grey when we made a start to our drive at 8.20am, choosing an early departure to give us a headstart on the coaches that come through here relentlessly later as morning progresses (the NZ Transport Authority advice states that most buses depart from Te Anau between 9am and 10am and advises independent travellers to hit the road before or after these times). The roads were fairly quiet, though we did have to weave our way through a flock of sheep along the way!

It is an astonishingly beautiful stretch of road to drive, even in the misty conditions that we faced this morning. At first you get delightful river scenes, fields full of pink and purple lupins and lakeside vistas but as you get closer to the Homer Tunnel the scenes become ever more mountainous and simply breathtaking with it. I anticipated this from everything that I read, but nothing quite prepares you for the scale of all this and the sense of wonderment you get from being surrounded on all sides by dramatic scenery.

The Hollyford River

The Hollyford River

Although you are, in effect, driving to the middle of nowhere, you know that you are not alone in your endeavour (in 2015 Milford Development Authority reported that 530,000 visitors had made it to Milford Sound whereas the figure forecast for 2016 is 650,000). A significant part of Milford Sound’s appeal comes from its remoteness and this impression is re-inforced by the notices reminding you that beyond Te Anau there is no mobile phone coverage and that there are no petrol stations or places to buy food on the Milford Road until you reach Milford Sound.

Over the years there have been a number of proposals to shortcut the route for visitors arriving from Queenstown (a five hour drive) including a road tunnel, a monorail and now an electrified railway with car shuttles which would run from a spot just beyond Glenorchy to a terminus near the historic Gunn’s Camp. Maybe the practicalities of providing capacity for the ever increasing numbers travelling here will make such a scheme a necessity at some point. However, I can’t help but feel that this would take away part of the magic of Milford Sound.

After a couple of hours driving we reached The Divide, the starting point for the hike up to Key Summit, and it was at this point that the first gap in the clouds opened up. I made a dash for the summit, fearing that the clouds would close in before I could take advantage of the change in conditions, but my luck was in today. In the meantime, most of the coaches between Queenstown and Milford Sound passed through, leaving the roads much quieter for our onward journey.

The Homer Tunnel

The Homer Tunnel

In the afternoon we continued our drive at a leisurely pace, stopping off at a number of scenic viewpoints over the Hollyford River and Valley before the entrance to the Homer Tunnel loomed before us. The tunnel was opened in 1954, some sixty five years since the idea was first proposed by William Henry Homer, providing a route through the Darran Mountains down the Cleddau Valley to Milford Sound. Traffic lights regulate one-way traffic through the tunnel during the summer months with a countdown clock on display to get you ready for your turn.

Before taking our position in the queue we had a wander towards the rockface where an impressively hefty block of snow and ice remained, having somehow defied the summer heat of the previous week. Everyone and everything seemed so small against the astonishing height of the mountains. A more sobering reminder of the power of nature can be seen in the memorial plaques to the men killed in the avalanches of 1936 and 1937.

A block of snow at the Homer Tunnel portal dwarfs a couple of visitors

A block of snow at the Homer Tunnel portal dwarfs a couple of visitors

Once we were through the tunnel we stretched our legs at The Chasm and enjoyed the rather more human-scale delights of the waterfalls on the Cleddau River. Our journey concluded in mid-afternoon when we arrived at the Milford Sound Visitor Terminal, a good hour or so ahead of our boarding time for an overnight cruise on Milford Sound.

The Department of Conservation have put together a good map showing the various stopping points on the road between Te Anau and Milford Sound. Our chosen stops were:

1. Mackay Creek (51 km from Te Anau) for a good view of the wild lupins
2. Mirror lakes (56 km from Te Anau)
3. The Divide and Key Summit (83 km from Te Anau)
4. A couple of pull over spots where the Milford Sound Highway runs parallel to or crosses the Hollyford River
5. Homer Tunnel (99 km from Te Anau)
6. The Chasm (110 km from Te Anau)

It was hard to believe that so much natural beauty could have been packed into 144km of road before we had even boarded our boat to explore Milford Sound and we had only sampled a fraction of the views on offer. It made me appreciate once again that you need plenty of time to do this island any justice!

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Travelling south

Posted in New Zealand, Te Anau by folkestonejack on December 28, 2015

I travelled south today, making my return to the South Island of New Zealand after a gap of nearly 18 years. On that occasion I didn’t travel any further south than the highway between Lake Pukaki and Lake Tekapo, whereas on this trip the same stretch of road will mark the northernmost boundary of our wanders.

On the approach to Mosgiel (with Kaikorai Lagoon and Green Island in the distance)

On the approach to Mosgiel (with Kaikorai Lagoon and Green Island in the distance)

Our trip started with an early morning Air New Zealand flight into Dunedin (well, Mosgiel to be precise), followed by a drive on the state highway to Te Anau via Gore. The first section of the route through the southernmost parts of Otago reminded me how sparsely populated this part of the country is, though I couldn’t help but laugh at the grim humour of the sign outside one town that read ‘No doctor. No hospital. One cemetery.’

Along the way we took a small side-trip off the highway to visit the lighthouse at Nugget Point which has been in operation since 4th July 1870. The fog that had threatened to delay our landing at Dunedin had largely lifted but the landscape here was still partially shrouded in a light mist.

Nugget Point

Nugget Point

The coastline on this stretch of the Catlins is pretty dramatic – the headland on which the lighthouse sits is surrounded by rocky islets (the Nuggets) which seemed to be a popular playground for seals. A little further back down the road is ‘Roaring Bay’ which is home to yellow-eyed penguins, though we were not surprised by their absence when we stopped by the hide here (they should have been out at sea catching squid for lunch).

After resuming our drive on State Highway 1 towards Gore we came to the relatively unremarkable town of Clinton, which gained a degree of fame in the 1990s after the election of President Clinton and Vice-President Gore. The stretch of road between the towns was re-labelled as The Presidential Highway and marked up with signposts and the Stars and Stripes.

Giant trout at Gore

Giant trout at Gore

A brief stop in Gore gave us a chance to admire a giant trout statue (along with a sign proclaiming Gore to be ‘World Capital of Brown Trout Fishing’) and grab a drink or two. Re-fueled and refreshed we continued our journey east, arriving in Te Anau at 4.15pm after a brief stop at the Wilderness Lookout (a viewpoint stands amidst an unusual piece of shrubland that gives a good impression of how the area might have looked eight to ten thousand years ago).

Te Anau is a curious but charming place, positioned perfectly as the last town on the road to Milford Sound and unsurprisingly dependent on the tourist trade (the number of beds in the town is almost twice the number of permanent inhabitants!). A one night stay was on the cards for us, before continuing our drive to Milford Sound in the morning. Time to grab some food and chill out!

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Sunday strolling along Tamaki Drive

Posted in Auckland, New Zealand by folkestonejack on December 27, 2015

A slow summer sunday with the temperatures rising to 26 degrees seemed to have drawn the entire population to the beaches in the east of the city.

I took a walk from St Heliers Bay to Orakei Wharf and back again, passing through Kohimarama and Mission Bay on the way. The views of the Hauraki Gulf and the Auckland skyline were stunning, even if a few of the locals I spoke to thought I was mad to say so!

The skyline of Auckland city viewed from Orakei Wharf

The skyline of Auckland city viewed from Orakei Wharf

The first Orakei Wharf was constructed in 1902, but the current structure dates to 1985. Today it is one of the most popular fishing spots in Auckland and was lined with anglers young and old during my brief visit.

A large portion of my walk followed the route of the Tamaki Drive Coastal Walk and the Orakei Local Board have produced a handy leaflet explaining the sights en route.

Aside from the many historic features (including gun emplacements and art deco fountains) one of the delights at this time of year is the proliferation of pohutukawa trees along the coastline with their fiery red blooms. The blooms peak in late December, giving the trees their popular name of the New Zealand Christmas tree.

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Boxing day in the Botanic

Posted in Auckland, New Zealand by folkestonejack on December 26, 2015

It is pretty clear to me now that no-one in NZ stays indoors at Christmas when such a fine summer day is presented to them. So, with temperatures hovering around 25 degrees, we headed for the 156 acres of green space on offer at the Auckland Botanic Gardens.

Ratiti Mya

Ratiti Mya

The fifth exhibition of Sculpture in the Gardens was taking place during our visit (29th November 2015 to 6th March 2016) providing an interesting 1.8km trail for us to follow through the various display gardens and across the central lawn.

All of the exhibits proved to be well worth a look, though my favourite was a set of seven steel birdlike sculptures by James Wright called Ratiti Mya. Other delights included Bing Dawe’s Titipounamu (a necklace of birds) and Graham Bennett’s Push away the Sky (a set of outstretched stainless steel figures facing the skies).

The trail around the sculptures is well signposted and you can also pick up a free map in the visitor centre. It is clearly a popular attraction, despite being located twenty minutes by road from the city centre. The gardens were already pretty busy when we turned up for our visit on Boxing Day and the overflow car parks were filling up fast, but in such a large space the visitors soon spread out and it felt far quieter than it really was.

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Christmas in St Heliers Bay

Posted in Auckland, New Zealand by folkestonejack on December 25, 2015

My first (and probably only) Christmas in the southern hemisphere has brought me to the delightful St Heliers Bay. As locations go, it is pretty hard to beat with a beautiful beach, thriving local shops and a wonderful view across the gulf to the ever-present volcanic island of Rangitoto (a bit like London’s Shard, it seems that you are never too far from a view of the island!).

A shifty character tries to break in to St Heliers Bay Community Policing Centre

A shifty character tries to break in to St Heliers Bay Community Policing Centre

I don’t think I have entirely adjusted to a hot and sunny Christmas – at first it seemed all wrong to wander into a shopping centre and see tinsel decked everywhere whilst the temperatures nudged into the high twenties. However, it is hard not to be drawn in by the wonderful location, the friendly atmosphere and the lure of Joshua’s mince pie ice cream from the Village Co-op Ice Cream Shop (located at 8 Maheke Street, St Heliers).

Our celebrations proper began with candelit communion on christmas eve at St Philip’s church with a congregation of over 200 packed into every available space. The sermon offered up a reminder of the story of a young refugee family from Bethlehem fleeing the horrors of their homeland, sadly all too relevant today. Afterwards, we caught up with the kind folk that had given us such a warm welcome and sampled some of the hundreds of mince pies on offer.

Christmas day began with overcast skies but the weather steadily improved through the afternoon, drawing Aucklanders to the parks and beaches with many a picnic lunch spotted on an afternoon jaunt. All of this was quite a contrast to the UK, where you are pretty much stuck for the day if you do not have your own transport (buses and trains were running here).

An afternoon drive took us to St Stephen’s Chapel, Judges Bay and to the Parnell rose gardens. It was lovely to see families enjoying their Christmas lunches in the sun or making the most of the weather for a paddle. Such a contrast to yesterday’s wet and miserable conditions!

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Island of hope

Posted in Auckland, New Zealand by folkestonejack on December 24, 2015

One of the most surprising aspects of my visits to Auckland has been a much better appreciation of just how much there is to see in the Hauraki Gulf. I have to admit that this is something that I completely overlooked on my first visit well over a decade years ago.

Our destination today was Rotoroa Island, out beyond Waiheke Island. It is one of the newest additions to the tourist itinerary, having only recently opened to the public after over a century as an addiction treatment centre run by the Salvation Army. Today, it is a wildlife sanctuary established in partnership with Auckland Zoo.

A view across Rotoroa Island towards Home Bay

A view across Rotoroa Island towards Home Bay

The island combines the history of its past life as a treatment centre with its new role as a sanctuary with some skill. Many of the historic buildings have been preserved (including a school house from the 1860s and a jail house where inebriated new arrivals were left to dry out) along with a museum that puts this story into context.

Although it is still early days for the wildlife sanctuary it is impressive to see the amount of work that has gone in to removing and replacing non-native plantlife and pests with some of New Zealand’s most endangered species (including takahe, pateke, kiwis and moko skinks).

Eventually, up to 20 endangered native species will be released onto the island. Next year will see tuatara added to the population. The programme of releases is well publicised, giving everyone the opportunity to see conservation in action.

The statistics on the plant front are equally impressive – over 400,000 native plants have been added to the island in the past five years alone, a programme of renewal that followed the removal of around 20,000 pine trees.

We had booked ferry tickets for what turned out to be the one dodgy day in a week of fine weather. However, we were lucky that the ferry ran aat all. It normally departs from Auckland at 8.45am and then stops off at Rotoroa en route to the Coromandel. However, the seas were too rough for that today so Rotoroa was the final destination (passengers for the Coromandel were put on buses).

A day was plenty sufficient to complete the walks around the northern and southern tracks of the island. Apart from the abundant wildlife and spectacular views, the walk offered up a rather marvellous sculpture by Chris Booth and a small cemetery for island inhabitants from the past century. We had hoped to have a dip in the water but this was not a tempting option in driving rain. If you do go for a swim you have to be a little careful as the north island weka like to go shopping amongst the possessions of unwary visitors!

The wharf at Rotoroa Island

The wharf at Rotoroa Island

It takes 75 minutes from Auckland to get to the island by ferry and as this is a pest-free environment you have to adhere to the important biosecurity regulations to avoid jeopardising all the wonderful work of the trust. There is no food to purchase on the island so everything has to be brought with you (in sealed pest-proof containers).

Our homeward ferry ride was a little rougher than the outward leg, with the rain having well and truly set in. It was barely possible to see Rangitoto or the Auckland skyline through the mist until we were right upon them. Regardless of the poor conditions it has been a delightful trip and comes highly recommended from this quarter!

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Youngster in the pack

Posted in Auckland, New Zealand by folkestonejack on December 21, 2015

After a weekend in the air it was good to step foot on NZ soil once again and be reminded of all the delights of my home from home.

Rangitoto

Rangitoto

Before jetlag claimed me for the night I had the opportunity to wander down to the bay for a view of Rangitoto, the youngster in the pack of islands in the Hauraki Gulf (at a mere 700 years old). I don’t think anyone can tire of that sight! Naturally, I had to take a snap or two…

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A380 to Auckland

Posted in Auckland, England, London, New Zealand, Singapore by folkestonejack on December 19, 2015

I am used to spending the Christmas break in the wintry setting of the UK and usually work the few days between Christmas and New Year. However, this year I am heading to the southern hemisphere for the holidays care of Singapore airlines.

Our Singapore Airlines A380 at Auckland

Our Singapore Airlines A380 at Auckland

The start to our travels were a little less than smooth – an unhelpful checkin assistant having failed to check our bags all the way through (a supervisor told us afterwards that this was perfectly possible, but by this time our bags had been sent down and it was now too late – arghh!). However, on reflection the most important thing was that we were on the plane as we gathered that it had been oversold.

I have seen a few A380s at airshows but never been inside one before. If truth be told, it didn’t feel any different to any other plane as we settled ourselves in for the thirteen hour flight to Singapore. One surprise was the sight of christmas garlands hung up throughout the cabin, a neat seasonal touch.

I am always amazed by how well anyone sleeps on these things, so tend to treat them as a night locked in a cinema (with the opportunity to discover films that you’ve never even heard of and might never normally watch). Our first flight was no exception to the usual pattern, with just 15 minutes of sleep and three films completed by the time we landed.

Thankfully, we had booked a night’s rest in a hotel in Singapore before taking on the next flight to Auckland. I wasn’t entirely looking forward to this, having been awarded the booby prize of a seat in the last row of the plane’s lower deck (theoretically a window seat, just missing the window!). It will be good to have some time to stretch our legs and chill out before this.

Farewell to Auckland

Posted in Auckland, New Zealand by folkestonejack on March 31, 2013

Our final day in Auckland has come around far too quickly. In anticipation of the long trek home we spent the day in a rather leisurely fashion, including a tasty lunch at Annabelles in St Heliers Bay with its lovely view of the waterfront. I have certainly come to appreciate the charms of the bay, which seems to ooze calm in a way that London never ever does! I am sure that life here has its stresses too, but for a work-free fortnight with family it was nothing short of idyllic.

The Auckland skyline

The Auckland skyline

Tonight, we set off on our homeward travels with a curiously timed departure at 23.59 that should get us into Hong Kong in early morning. The forecast there seems to have been improving as the week has progressed and thankfully the monsoon that was originally promised for our arrival seems to have passed over already.

Forts of the North Shore

Posted in Auckland, New Zealand by folkestonejack on March 30, 2013

On our last full day in Auckland we headed to the North Shore to see two of the fortifications that we had not managed to visit on our previous trip, starting with a stop at Mount Victoria Lookout and then moving on to Fort Takapuna historic reserve.

The lookout at Mount Victoria offers wonderful views across the harbour to Auckland city, Devonport, North Head, Brown Island and Rangitoto. The freighter E. R. Darwin (1996) was heading out into the Rangitoto Channel accompanied by a pilot as we arrived, a giant amongst the usual cast of yachts and fast ferries.

The view from Mount Victoria

The view from Mount Victoria

Apart from the terrific view, the stop gave us an opportunity to get a closer look at Fort Victoria’s disappearing gun which was installed with considerable effort in 1899. Indeed, they had to construct tram tracks just to haul it up the side of the volcanic cone. It is the last disappearing gun in New Zealand still on its original mounting and you really do need to see it in situ to understand how well it was hidden in its pit.

The gun could easily have reached the practice targets that were set up on Rangitoto, although in fact it has only ever been fired once with fairly disastrous results, breaking windows across Devonport!

Disappearing gun at Mount Victoria

Disappearing gun at Mount Victoria

A little further on, Fort Takapuna, built between 1886 and 1889, was another strong point in the chain of defences constructed around Auckland harbour at the time of the Russian scare. The fort and its surrounds have seen quite a bit of history over the years – including spells as a training school, a prisoner of war camp and a flu hospital. The interior of the fort is only open a few times each year but you can wander freely around the grounds.

It has a different feel to the other forts, partly down to the distinctive red bricks of the Victorian Fort and the stark appearance of the World War 2 defences. In particular, the three empty concrete shelters of the left battery (known as ‘Colchester gun covers’) create a dramatic impression. Originally the shelters housed four inch guns from the First World War battlecruiser HMS New Zealand, which were installed between 1938 and 1941. Later two of these guns were given to the Auckland War Memorial Museum.

Gun battery at Fort Takapuna

Gun battery at Fort Takapuna

The pitter-patter of the long anticipated weekend rain was getting steadily stronger as we walked back through the reserve so we didn’t linger long, but did stop for a moment at the Wakatere Boating Club Memorial Starting Tower which was erected in memory of those members of the club who did not return from the war. Against the darkening clouds it looked a particularly poignant sight.

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Pilgrimage to Piha

Posted in New Zealand, Piha by folkestonejack on March 29, 2013

A last minute decision to make a trip out to Piha, the birthplace of modern surfing in New Zealand, turned out to be the perfect way to spend Good Friday. A short spell in the surf, a hike up to the Kitekite falls and a walk up Lion Rock proved a great combination, if a little exhausting!

The drive out to the west coast took around an hour, taking the back roads on our way out of the city in order to avoid the inevitable snarl-up on the motorway as the Easter getaway began. On the way we stopped at a viewpoint close to the Arataki Visitor Centre (on Scenic Drive).

The view from Arataki framed

The view from Arataki framed

Auckland Regional Council have placed an empty picture frame in front of the view here that says everything that you need to know about the natural wonders on offer. Our onward route through the Waitakere Ranges continued to deliver glimpses of beautiful scenery before the crowning glory of the view over Piha beach unfolded in front of us. Having heard so much about this place I was pleased to finally see it for myself!

Piha Beach

Piha Beach

The tide at Piha was not due to peak until midday so there was still a window of two hours for surfing before the waters would start their retreat. I have never remotely contemplated surfing in any shape or form but was utterly fascinated by the skill involved as I watched surfers of all ages tackling the breaks. The thought that I might regret not having a go soon became impossible to ignore, which explains how I unexpectedly found myself wading into the water, waves crashing over the top of me as I fought against the tide with a board. Riding the waves back, albeit lying on a board, proved surprisingly exhilerating and it was not hard to see how compelling the sport could be.

A surfer takes on the waves at Piha

A surfer takes on the waves at Piha

Lifeguards in training

Lifeguards in training

The beach was busy but not too overcrowded, with most people congregating in the area that the lifeguards were monitoring between the flagposts. A TV crew were also around on the beach today filming the lifeguard training that was taking place. Indeed, Piha is also home to one of New Zealand’s most popular reality shows, Piha Rescue, which follows the lifeguards of Piha Surf Life Saving Club and this in turn has made the beach more popular.

Aside from its reputation as a surfer’s beach, Piha has much to offer any visitor with a number of walks starting at or near the beach. After a picnic lunch we took ourselves off on one of the many walks at Piha, heading up from the end of the Glen Esk Road to Kitekite falls.

Although the water levels were down to trickle, due to the ongoing drought, the falls still presented a picturesque sight. The pool at the base of the waterfall didn’t look quite as appealing a swim as the guide books suggested (again, probably the result of the drought) but this didn’t seem to bother a group of youths who were happily jumping in from the rocks. A short trek up the hillside took us to the top of the waterfall, with another pool to admire.

The waters at the top of the Kitekite falls

The waters at the top of the Kitekite falls

There are four large grooves at the top of the falls which mark the location of a dam that was originally intended to collect logs which could then be tipped over the edge, down to the mill. However, the first time the dam was tripped resulted in such a disastrous crushing of logs that this was never attempted again!

In the late afternoon I made the short climb up the remarkable landmark of Lion Rock, the eroded neck of a volcano, which has long been a popular attraction at Piha.

Lion Rock sits slap bang in the middle of the bay and is easily accessible on foot at low tide, although we saw people wading out to the rock long before this point. Today you can only climb partway up after a rockfall made the final part of the path too dangerous. Nevertheless, there have been some tragic tales of youngsters who have skirted the barricade to reach the top in recent times and met an untimely end.

Lion Rock

Lion Rock

On top of its obvious appeal to beachgoers, Lion Rock also serves as one of the most unusual war memorials that I have seen in my travels. Two panels have been inserted into the rockface to record the dead – the first for the employees of the State Sawmill, Piha Valley, who were killed or wounded between 1914-1918 and the second records the dead from 1939-45. Each year on Anzac day a procession out to the war memorial takes place at low tide which must be a rather remarkable sight to witness.

An unusual war memorial

An unusual war memorial

At the end of a surprisingly packed day at Piha I was not so surprised to see that I had taken hundreds of photographs, capturing everything from starfish clinging to the rocks in a concentration that I have never seen before through to the majesty of Lion Rock from umpteen different positions. It is probably just as well that there was no likelihood of an interesting sunset to photograph on this occasion!

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