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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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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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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Railways in retreat

Posted in Auckland, New Zealand, Wellington by folkestonejack on March 28, 2013

Although my trip to New Zealand didn’t have a strong railway theme, I was still interested to take a peek at the railway systems in Auckland and Wellington.

A ADK class diesel-multiple unit crosses Hobson Bay on 24th March 2013

A ADK class diesel-multiple unit crosses Hobson Bay on 24th March 2013

The railway system in New Zealand reached it’s highest passenger numbers in the early decades of the twentieth century. Indeed, Te Ara states that ‘in the early 1920s, when New Zealand’s population was only just over 1 million, NZR was carrying 28 million passengers a year.’ As with many other countries, the railways in New Zealand have been in retreat since the 1950s and today the country is very much oriented towards road and air travel.

The commuter systems around Auckland and Wellington are pretty much the only passenger services that see regular use by New Zealanders, with the long distance trains on the south and north islands now solely the preserve of tourists. Even these are under threat, with rumours that KiwiRail is to suspend its Christchurch-Picton passenger service over the winter months.

On my first visit to New Zealand in 1998 I travelled on the overnight Northerner train from Wellington to Auckland, a service which ceased to operate in 2004. The Northerner ran from an impressive station imbued with 1930s grandeur at Wellington to a landmark station in Auckland of similar vintage. However, the location of Auckland’s station and the facilities available on arrival were somewhat less impressive than its southern counterpart.

The old Auckland Railway Station, now luxury flats

The old Auckland Railway Station, now luxury flats, on 23rd March 2013

Auckland Railway Station was located close to Mechanics Bay, which was not great for visitors heading to the city centre and not brilliant as a transport interchange either – I was certainly left scratching my head in 1998 after arriving and finding my way out of a side exit (the main station building didn’t appear to be in use by this time).

I was not surprised to learn that the station had closed in 2003, to be replaced by the Britomart Transport Centre which is well located for the central shopping district and just over the road from the ferry port. Although this is a relatively recent replacement, the building it inhabits is even older – a former Edwardian post office that somehow manages to look as though it was always destined to be a railway station!

We stopped by the former Auckland Railway Station, since converted into luxury flats, around sunset. I thought nothing would remain that I would remember from my last visit but was most surprised to see that a couple of the old platforms still remained at the back, canopies intact.

The old terminus at Auckland at sunset on 23rd March 2013

The old terminus at Auckland at sunset on 23rd March 2013

The network in Auckland is currently diesel operated but work is steadily progressing to electrify the system. I expect it will look quite different the next time I visit, so it seemed appropriate to go out early one morning and get a better look at the diesel units as they crossed the Orakei Basin (a lake created by a volcano) and Hobson Bay. It’s a beautiful location to watch the world go by. The Orakei Basin Walk takes you alongside the railway and round the basin, using newly a constructed boardwalk and bridge.

A two car diesel multiple unit crosses the Orakei Basin on 24th March 2013

A two car diesel multiple unit crosses the Orakei Basin on 24th March 2013

There is no doubting that Wellington is the railway capital of New Zealand. The electrified network in the city is an important part of the local transport infrastructure, which is most obvious during the rush hour. Until relatively recently commuter services were covered by three classes of electric multiple unit, but the last units of the oldest class – commonly known as English Electrics – were withdrawn in 2012. The english electrics had given impressive service given that they were first introduced in 1938.

Ganz-Mavag ET class trailer car 3148 at Wellington Railway Station

Ganz-Mavag ET class trailer car 3148 at Wellington Railway Station

Today, services in Wellington are covered by FP class (Matangi) units, which first entered service in 2010, and EM class (Ganz-Mavag) units, which first entered service in 1982. According to current plans, the remaining EM class units will have been replaced with new Matangi electric multiple units by 2016.

It always seems slightly strange coming to a country where the railways are not an essential part of the national transport infrastructure, since this is what I have grown up with in the UK and Europe. It is a good reminder to me not to take such things for granted!

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Peak to peak

Posted in Auckland, New Zealand by folkestonejack on March 28, 2013

A few days on from our visit to Rangitoto we visited two more of the volcanic cones and craters in the Auckland volcanic field – One Tree Hill and Mount Eden. The two cones provide some of the best viewpoints over Auckland, but are also great places to see in their own right.

One Tree Hill (Maungakiekie) is a 182 metre tall volcanic cone which sits amidst the green splendour of Cornwall Park. At its peak is an obelisk constructed in 1940 that Sir John Logan Campbell, ‘the father of Auckland’, intended to stand as a record of his admiration of the achievements and character of the Maori. Sir John Logan Campbell’s home, Acacia Cottage, the oldest extant timber building in Auckland, can also be visited in the park.

Mount Eden at sunset

Mount Eden at sunset

Mount Eden (Maungawhau) stands 196 metres above sea level with a crater that is 50 metres deep. Running into the grassy crater was one of the terrifying and thrilling experiences that children could sample in years gone by, but today visitors are restricted to the very pleasant – and much more sedate – walk around the rim of the crater. As Auckland’s highest natural point it is a major draw throughout the day and we made two visits here, in full daylight and at sunset.

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Bean Rock

Posted in Auckland, New Zealand by folkestonejack on March 25, 2013

No trip out to Rangitoto would have been complete without a moment or two spent gazing at the rather lovely sight of the hexagonal Bean Rock lighthouse which is now the last surviving wooden cottage-style lighthouse in New Zealand.

Bean Rock Lighthouse

Bean Rock Lighthouse

The lighthouse was named after Master P.C.D. Bean of HMS Herald, who assisted the first surveyor of Waitemata Harbour in 1840. A few years later the first beacon was erected on the rock. The lighthouse visible today began operation in 1871 and was occupied until 1912, when it was automated.

A threat to replace the lighthouse with an altogether more modern design (on account of the badly degrading kauri timber frame) was seen off by local opposition in the 1970s. In 1985 the cottage was lifted from its legs, restored on the mainland, and then returned to its prime location at the entrance to Waitemata harbour.

Bean Rock Lighthouse and the Massey Memorial

Bean Rock Lighthouse and the Massey Memorial

The families of the keepers lived across the harbour in Devonport, in sight of the lighthouse but frustratingly isolated from it. Rather wonderfully, Ivan Anderson, whose father was keeper between 1909 and 1911, recalled how he would exchange news with his father by torch after learning morse code. Talk about finding a way round the impossibilities of the circumstances you find yourself in!

You can read more about the history of the lighthouse at Maritime Museum: Bean Rock Lighthouse, Auckland Museum: Bean Rock Lighthouse and Lighthouse Digest: Bean Rock Lighthouse.

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Rangitoto

Posted in Auckland, New Zealand by folkestonejack on March 25, 2013

A bright morning promised much for our trip out to Rangitoto Island, a volcanic island in the Hauraki Gulf that last erupted around 500 years ago. It is both the largest and youngest of the volcanic cones and craters in the Auckland volcanic field, as well as being a nature reserve.

The Auckland Harbour Bridge and Rangitoto

Auckland Harbour Bridge and Rangitoto

The island is home to the largest Pohutukawa forest in the world and a programme to re-populate the island with native wildlife has seen a number of species gradually re-introduced, making this a rather remarkable place to visit.

The island has many attractions for sightseers – the distinctive looking lava fields, the lava caves, the lighthouse in McKenzie Bay, a few remaining historic baches, a controlled mine base and a military observation post at the summit of the volcano – not to mention, the further attractions across the causeway on Motutapu island.

The summit path cuts through the lava fields

The summit path cuts through the lava fields

The view from Rangitoto

The view from Rangitoto

It’s not possible to cover all of the island’s sights on a single day trip so we settled for a combination of a walk to the summit, the lava caves and a wander around the baches near Rangitoto wharf after arriving on the 9.15am ferry. The walk to the summit took us just under an hour from our arrival point at Rangitoto Wharf. Initially, the track takes you through lava fields of black rock but switches to forest as you get closer to the summit.

The summit

The summit

Once you get close to the top a viewpoint gives you a fascinating view into the crater, now completely covered in vegetation. It’s so lush that it is hard to believe that at one time it was completely barren (as the illustrations on a nearby display board show). A further short climb from here takes you up to the summit where another track circles the rim of the crater. The summit includes wonderful views out over the gulf and back towards the centre of Auckland city, as well as more information about the military history of the island.

The lava caves

The lava caves

On the way back down from the summit we made a detour to visit the lava caves, effectively two short stretches of interconnected tunnel left behind after the passage of molten lava. Although a fair amount of natural light filtered in to the cave today, we did need a torch to get a good view of the loose and rocky tunnel floor.

Rangitoto Wharf

Rangitoto Wharf

At the time of our visit some construction work was taking place at the wharf which limited the degree to which we could wander around the island’s perimeter, but this was probably for the best as it focused my attention on the remaining historic baches (small holiday homes, mostly built in the early 20th century) around the wharf and the rather incredible natural wonders in this small area. Indeed, I spent a good hour or so wandering round taking photographs before it was time to board the last ferry back to Auckland at 3.30pm.

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City of sails

Posted in Auckland, New Zealand by folkestonejack on March 24, 2013

The moniker of ‘City of sails’ captures perfectly the essence of the wonderful waterfront views available from Auckland and Devonport, although as well as yachts there are a wonderful array of vessels from cargo ships to schools of kayakers to capture your attention. I am easily distracted by such sights – over the last week I seem to have taken far too many photographs of ships in Auckland Harbour, at the naval base at Devonport and the container terminal at Mechanics Bay!

Auckland - City of Sails

Auckland – City of Sails

As far as I am concerned, nothing can be more perfect than finding a pleasant spot in the sun at Devonport and spending a few lazy hours watching the world drift by.

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Sunday in the city

Posted in Auckland, New Zealand by folkestonejack on March 24, 2013

After a busy week, a more relaxed Sunday was definetly most welcome. The day began with a morning trip down to the Orakei Basin to take a few photographs, before heading over to Bastion Point and the grounds of the Savage Memorial, which offered a quite superb view across the harbour.

Bastion Point

Bastion Point

Later in the day I took a wander up Queen Street to take a closer look at a building that had caught my eye a day or two earlier. The distinctive building, on the corner of Symonds Street and Grafton Bridge, turned out to be a tram shelter built by the city council in 1910. A wonderfully colourful mural of an autumnal woodland scene has been added to the building and compliments it perfectly.

Finally, in the evening we headed out to Ladies Bay to watch a cruise ship sail out of Auckland at sunset. The sunset fizzled out a little too quickly under some deep grey clouds but it was still a beautiful place to end the day.

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Exploring North Head

Posted in Auckland, New Zealand by folkestonejack on March 23, 2013

Although it is hard to imagine now, fears of Russian attack in the late 19th century prompted the rapid development of a series of forts to defend Auckland harbour from attack. To make the most of a fine day we headed across the water to Devonport and set about exploring the surviving defences at North Head historic reserve.

At North Head three large gun batteries were constructed in 1885 to defend the Rangitoto channel and the inner harbour. The fact that it makes such a terrific viewpoint today tells you everything about you need to know why the defences were built here.

The view from North Head

The view from North Head

To get the most out of our visit we took the self guided walk (available as a leaflet from the tourist information centre in town or online at North Head Historic Walk) which makes a great job of explaining the sometimes curious layout of the complex. The DOC website suggests that the walk should take 60 minutes but we spent closer to 90 minutes taking a leisurely stroll along the route, lapping up all the information proffered at each location. There is also a short film on North Head’s history available in one of the rooms that soaks up a bit more time still.

Entrance to the hidden world of North Head

One entrance to the hidden world of North Head

As you get down to the lower levels there are some fascinating surprises, such as a searchlight emplacement which hides the entrance to a chamber known as Annie’s Cave, reputedly built by convicts. It’s not mentioned on the display boards, so you really need the self-guided walk leaflet to guide you in. Indeed, it is fair to say that the leaflet is invaluable in navigating the entire complex in a logical fashion.

I love the fact that the site has been opened to the extent it has – you can wander around the top, explore the tunnels and experience the gloom of the interior. It’s the sort of place I would have loved as a child and it probably brought out more than a little of the big kid in me today!

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Relaxing in St Heliers

Posted in Auckland, New Zealand by folkestonejack on March 16, 2013

After a few days on the move it was good to finally reach the land of the long white cloud this morning.

We are staying in St Heliers, one of the eastern suburbs of Auckland. The area picked up its name on the strength of its resemblance to St Aubin’s bay, St Helier on the channel island of Jersey, a place I am certainly very familiar with. I could see a degree of resemblance as we walked along the front.

St Heliers

St Heliers

After months of drought the city was just starting to feel the effects of a storm coming in across the islands. Although not as hot as it has been, it was still incredibly humid but this didn’t deter us from a walk down to the beach and then up to Achilles Point. A memorial at the top commemorates the bravery of the crew of HMS Achilles in the battle of the River Plate in 1939.

Once we had walked back down the hillside we rewarded ourselves with a beer at a local bar. Our energy levels were already dropping and jetlag finally claimed us in early evening.