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Friday, May 4, 2018

Weather with you: west coast and Northland, NZ

Probably the best known New Zealand pop songs are those by the Finn brothers. Neil was in the original lineup of Crowded House, and when Tim joined the band they had an international hit called “Weather With You.” While we were in NZ the iPod kept going back to this song, like a theme. I wonder why:
“Everywhere you go
Always take the weather with you”

We had three sunny days in New Zealand. One was the day we hiked from Hahei Beach to Cathedral Cove, on the Coromandel Peninsula. One was the day we made our way from Tongariro to Raglan, on the west coast. And the other was the day we took off from the camper van and joined a tour up to Cape Reinga, at the tip of Northland, the part of the North Island that stretches above Auckland.
As I wrote a few posts ago, New Zealand has some unique native wildlife. You might have wondered why the only picture I have of a tuatara, the little dinosaur, is from Auckland Museum, and the only picture of a kiwi is this:

The answer is, we tried but we couldn’t find any! We stopped at the Otorohanga Kiwi House and Native Bird Park on the sunny day. Before paying, we saw that there was a “tuatarium,” where they keep that species as well. You might have thought the sun would tempt a tuatara out into it, but George was hiding, unfortunately.

So we tried the kiwi enclosures. Both of them. Now kiwis are nocturnal, so I wouldn’t have expected to see one in the wild anyway. But neither of us saw anything in the nocturnal house. No movement, no creature anywhere. I remember nocturnal houses at zoos having a kind of purple light by which you could see the nocturnal animals. Maybe they determined that was bad for the animals. In any case, I’m happy Otorohanga has a sanctuary for kiwis and other native birds, but we saw nothing more exotic than a duck.
"Sometimes it's all about the kids having fun," T. said.
We continued to pass fun road signs. In Huntly there was a place called Cheep Liquor. Maybe it’s like Dairy Kreme—they misspell Cheep deliberately because it isn't really cheap. We also kept stopping at picnic places, which are everywhere along NZ roadsides, but have no other facilities such as toilets or trash cans.

It’s no wonder. Every man and woman in New Zealand is employed fixing various portions of road. Fortunately, since we were used to such a leisurely, winding pace, the road works everywhere didn’t slow us down much. We got lots of good views of the hills and then flatland along the Kaipara Harbour. Now we know why NZ looks so lush and green.

Arriving at Raglan, which is a surf town in summer, was a big relief. It wasn’t the season for swimming in the Tasman Sea, but we walked down along the black sand beach in time for sunset. The little boys playing there were charming, stopping their mom, me, and anyone else to tell about the “sea creature” they’d found in the sand.

Our campground was on a spit of land, so we took a footbridge over to the town. Not much going on, but there’s always fish and chips. Peter had warned us about “fush and chups” as they say in NZ. You order the kind of fish you want (from what’s fresh that day) and then wait for them to cook it right then, along with fresh chips. It would never work in a busy place, like Britain or Australia, but then I’d never even heard of the fish I had—gurnard. It was delicious. 

Walking back we could see a crescent moon, and the Milky Way. From sunshine in the morning to our starriest night, it was also the first day in New Zealand I hadn’t worn my rain jacket. At all. It was as if the country wanted to see the poppy T. bought me from New Zealand's Returned and Services' Association.

The next morning when I got up, there was a perfect rainbow standing right over the campground. It didn’t last long enough for me to get my glasses, let alone my camera. But I saw it.
We made our way along the west coast of Northland, camping the second night at Dargaville. We didn't go into the Dargaville Museum but we did stop there, for the views from the top of the hill. It's the site of a pa, a Maori fortified settlement. You can see signs of these defensive terraces around many volcanoes on the North Island. And there's something else outside the Dargaville Museum that I wanted to see: the masts of the Rainbow Warrior.
For those who don't remember, in 1985 the Rainbow Warrior was sunk in Auckland Harbour. She was a Greenpeace ship on the way to document France's atomic tests in Polynesia (it's amazing how many parts of the world were dirtied like this). New Zealanders were shocked to learn that a terrorist bombing had taken place in their country, killing a photographer. They were even more shocked when it emerged that the terrorists were actually French spies, acting on orders from their government.

The condemnation of France by its ally, the U.S.A., was tepid enough to anger New Zealand. This was one of a number of factors that pushed the New Zealand government to adopt an anti-nuclear policy and one of non-alignment with any of the nuclear powers, which it maintains to this day. Of course not all Kiwis are enamored of their country's distinctive stance. I imagine Canadian businesses are. 

Back to our road trip and the jewel north of Dargaville: the Waipoua Forest. We were on Highway 1, the main highway on the North Island, but there were still plenty of hills and twists for our driver to enjoy.

The Waipoua Forest is the best preserve of the kauri forests that once covered much of the island. We stopped and walked in the Trounson Kauri Park, seeing many of these enormous and ancient trees.

Then we found Tane Mahuta, Lord of the Forest. He, as the Tane Mahuta ambassador referred to the tree, is the largest kauri alive, and may have been living as long as two thousand years. “So when your castles and cathedrals were built,” said the ambassador, “he was already a thousand years old. And he is still living!”
Some sights are just said to be impressive, and when you see them, they don’t do anything for you. But Tane Mahuta is impressive.

We camped for two nights in Ahipara, at the bottom of Ninety Mile Beach. The beach is actually just under ninety kilometres long, but the holiday park is nice. A roaring fire in the communal room did not go amiss! The wind chill had been below freezing in Tongariro National Park.

It was from here that we booked a day trip up Ninety Mile Beach and to Cape Reinga. After all that driving, it was nice to have somebody else do it, not least because we were in a bus-sized dune buggy that actually drove up Ninety Mile Beach. 

There are a lot of Croatian names in Northland. Many Croatian people settled here to work at gum digging, which I finally learned has nothing to do with gum trees (eucalyptus), but the sap from kauris. People used to harvest this “New Zealand amber.” Now that the kauri is a protected species, it can only be harvested from peat swamps where the trees have been buried for hundreds or thousands of years.

Like a lot of other immigrants, the Croatians received a less than warm welcome, especially during the Great War when they arrived on Austrian passports. Maori people in the area called them tarara, which was what they joked the Croatian language sounded like. Today, many people in the area have both Maori and Croatian heritage.

I’m not sure how I feel about a beach that people drive all over, or as far as they can with a quad bike or 2WD. Probably like a jet ski, it’s obnoxious for anyone else who’s trying to relax on the beach, but it’s fun when you’re on it.

The forecast was right: it was clear and sunny all day. And our trip was good value for money. The 4WD took us to the top of the beach and then to the Te Paki dunes, giant sand dunes of white silica. Our objective here was to “surf” down the dune on old body boards. It was more like sledding than surfing, only it’s much tougher to walk up a sand dune than a snowy hill. On my second run I took the brakes off and let fly across the water at the bottom.
Photo courtesy of T.
Thence to Cape Reinga, the holiest marae or sacred ground in all of New Zealand. It’s where the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean.

Maori tradition also says that this is where souls slide down the roots of a lone pohutukawa tree, to begin their journey to paradise.

We walked down to the lighthouse, which dates from 1941. On the way back I had enough in my legs to climb up and over the bluff. Barely, after climbing the dune. I kept finding sand on my face and even in my mouth!

When Christian missionaries came to this country, they planted a lot of Norfolk pine. They liked the way the top of the tree resembles a cross. Our guide pointed this out and then I started seeing Norfolk pines everywhere—almost as often as maraes.

It was such a calm day that the usual mist was absent at Cape Reinga, and we were able to see across to the Three Kings Islands. We could also see the westernmost point of New Zealand, Cape Maria van Diemen.

Our lunch stop was at Tapotupotu Bay. The disadvantage of being with an organized tour is that we couldn’t walk to Tapotupotu Bay, or spend as much time there as we liked. But Auntie Joyce and her mate fixed us a very good lunch. 

That afternoon it was too warm for the communal fire. We sat in the sunshine back at our campsite, in the camp chairs. It was one of the only times we got them out. 

On our last full day in New Zealand, we made our way down the east coast. At some points the coasts are as little as 10 km apart. We had to drive mostly inland, as Highway 11 was closed south of Paihia, but we did pause for a bit at Doubtless Bay.

At Kerikeri we stopped to see the oldest stone building in New Zealand, the Stone Store. The nearby mission house is the oldest European building in the country. They are relics of Anglican missionaries, as are many of the cute little churches I seemed to see everywhere we went.

This is the region of the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, where Maori and Europeans first encountered and made treaty with one another (however often it would later be breached by the Crown). We couldn’t get there because of the highway closure, so I made a special pit stop instead.

These are the Hundertwasser Toilets in Kawakawa. Friedensreich Hundertwasser, an artist and architect born in Austria, lived nearby for several decades until his death. He was known for eco-works like these, featuring ceramic mosaics, colored bottles, and grass and plants growing on the roof. 

It was a very rough turnoff to Uretiti Beach, but it made for a nice final lunch stop. You just walk over a little bluff on a sand walkway and you are on the beach.

Before reaching Sandspit, our last campground, we meant to stop at a winery. As with the tuatara and the kiwi, I’d been pursuing wineries with no luck, and my luck was not to change. The winery didn’t do tastings on Mondays. The closest I got was the wine I bought in stores, or fireside at the Chateau Tongariro.

But better late than never, I sat at a picnic table—wooden! dry!—on our last evening. Our campsite looked out at Hauraki Gulf. I thought about what I would miss about New Zealand. The kiwi fruit, feijoas, Vogel’s crumpet-like bread. The campgrounds, which were all nice and had a powered site for us whenever we turned up. Not so much the rain or Bluebird “crisps” (there are only two or three in a bag, which is a relief).
Sunrise from our campsite
My abiding image of New Zealand will be those little boys on the beach. Kids, and some adults, running around the beaches and campgrounds enjoying themselves, and often barefoot! At Sandspit Holiday Park there were six boys of varying ages “challenging” each other to some kind of game. Another was tossing a rugby ball to himself. The TV lounge, which had old cinema seats installed (antique junk was the theme of this campground), was empty. The screen was dark.

Why would anyone turn on a screen? I’ve never seen a country more beautiful, anywhere in the world.

Monday, April 30, 2018

A fair-weather tramp: Rotorua and Tongariro

When I was reading up on this trip, I found out about the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. It is supposed to be the best day hike in New Zealand, possibly the world. But it’s 19 km long, and that’s about as long as the longest hike T. and I have ever done together, the Rim Trail of the Grand Canyon. (My mom and dad will never forget it.) Unlike the Rim Trail, you hike up (and down) a significant amount. Then, independently, T. mentioned the Alpine Crossing and what a spectacular “tramp” it is supposed to be. We agreed to try it when we got to Tongariro National Park.

First, we had a stop at Rotorua. It was easy to get there from Tauranga, because all roads lead to Rotorua. Katherine suggested we take the scenic, winding road (we should already have realized that all roads on the North Island, no matter how major, are scenic and winding). It was pouring rain, so we didn’t look for hikes along the way. Instead, we arrived at the visitors’ centre in Rotorua and asked an unsmiling guy if he had any suggestions for a rainy day.

He basically said no. I kept waiting for his inner Kiwi to emerge and be cheerful, but he was one exception to the rule. Even Rotorua’s museum, which I read was a good one, was a no go: it was closed in 2016 for not meeting earthquake standards. 
Here’s a hint: When travelers arrive on a rainy day asking what there is to do, don’t keep saying no to everything they suggest. We almost just drove out of town!

Which would have been a shame, because Ohinemutu was fascinating even in the rain. Ohinemutu is a Maori village where the meeting of Maori and European cultures is quite evident. So is the sulfury underground for which Rotorua is famous. Thermal pools bubble up from the earth seemingly everywhere, and can just erupt into people’s homes!
Steam from underground vents
We learned this from our own personal Maori encounter—not a commercialized cultural experience (there are lots of those in Rotorua) but a visit to St. Faith’s Anglican Church. “Welcome to our church,” one of the women said, and proceeded to tell us about the underfloor heating the timbered church gets from the geothermal source beneath. 

The most striking feature of St. Faith’s is an etched window that was done in honor of the missionaries who introduced the Te Arawa people to Christianity.

Here, Jesus is depicted wearing a Maori cloak and walking on the water. But instead of etching the Sea of Galilee, the artist has left the window clear, so we can see the actual waters of Lake Rotorua.

We also saw some native birds walking around—whio, or blue ducks. From the names on the churchyard gravestones, the mix of cultures is clear, as it is from the cenotaph on Lake Rotorua, just behind the church.

The god of war, so close to the Prince of Peace. I suppose they will both continue along together until the final victory some day.

We had our rain jackets, having never put them away since our arrival in NZ, but we were still tired of everything being wet. Luckily the Thermal Holiday Park was just down the road. The woman there was very nice, and gave us a campsite right next to the women’s bathroom. (All four of the previous rainy nights, we’d had a long walk.) The weather being what it was, T. thought it was an excellent opportunity to use the washing machine and, especially, the dryer.

I think at this point I should mention the camp chairs and table which, in a fit of optimism, T. had rented from the camper van people. We should have known when they weren’t included. The table is a collapsible thing, flimsier than something you’d backpack with, and once we had the legs out we never could figure out how to fold them back together. All we’ve been able to do with it is stand it on our campsites and try to dry swimsuits on it. But of course that didn't work either, because it rained so often.

The other thing that has proven utterly useless in our camper van is the chemical port-o-pot. We didn't want this, but they have to include it or the van can’t be labeled “self-contained,” meaning you can take it to any campsite (not just campgrounds with amenities included). As it happened we never “freedom camped” anyway, but who knows, in good weather we might have. When we are on the road this stupid pot sits in the back, framed by the useless table, which we can’t get back in its bag. Because of minimal space, once we set up camp, the toilet sits in the passenger seat.

We had no further ambitions than laundry in Rotorua, but later that afternoon the sun came out. Couldn’t miss a chance like that, so we made our way a few kilometers down the road to a forest park of California redwoods. Needless to say these are not native trees—they were planted in the nineteenth century—but of all the introduced species in NZ this is a rather benign one. We had a lovely walk.

Back at the campground, we took advantage of the thermal pools. It’s good that this part of the North Island has so many hot pools, because that’s one thing we could enjoy outside in cool weather. This night, it wasn’t even raining. Amid the sulfury smell, every now and then the misty clouds would clear and I could see the stars. For the first time in New Zealand. Good thing I kept my glasses on in the pool.

The sun was shining again the next morning when we headed towards Lake Taupo. We stopped off at Huka Falls for a short walk to the lookouts.

The Waikato River, the country’s longest river, is the only outlet for Lake Taupo, the country’s largest lake. It is forced through a narrow chasm at Huka Falls. 
Lake Taupo

 We continued towards Turangi where we saw some trees with striking autumnal colors. 

A scenic lookout shortly thereafter gave us a glimpse of our climactic goal: Tongariro National Park.

Our campground at Whakapapa Village featured yet more nice staff. We were greeted with “Kia ora,” Maori for hello, which is not uncommon in New Zealand. The campground had a bathtub, lots of hot showers, a drying room (where we finally dried those swimsuits), a nice big kitchen, and WiFi. What Whakapapa also had was a bad weather forecast. In fact, the shuttle bus that takes hikers to and from the Tongariro Alpine Crossing was not even running the next day.

“A fair-weather tramp” is how the Lonely Planet guidebook described it. The excellent visitors’ center informed us that the precipitation (you guessed it) was forecast to be snow at 1,500 m, plus there would be gale force winds at Red Crater, the high point of the hike. I pictured us slogging up and down in the snow for no views, and crawling along the ridge. A hike that would have put us at the limits of our collective endurance on a good day was not going to work in this weather.

But T. hadn’t bought all those layers for nothing. So the next morning we put on our merino wool and our rain pants and trudged off into the rain.

Here’s a thing about layers: Don’t wear cotton. Or if you do, don’t wear it next to the skin. Cotton’s wicking properties are so poor that you’d be better off not wearing that layer at all. Nobody got hypothermia during this hike, but at higher elevations it could be a different story.

Considering all the warnings, we got lucky with the weather. We set off on the Ridge Track, a short walk up through the beech forest where we were camped beside Whakapapanui Stream.

It was raining while we walked in the woods, but we were partially sheltered there. Then when we got to the ridge, the sky cleared. We even got some sun, and good views of two of the volcanoes in the park, Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe. The latter starred as “Mount Doom” in The Lord of the Rings films.
That only took half an hour so we went on to the Taranaki Falls Track, a two-hour loop. We started on the lower track and again, avoided much of the rain simply by walking through the woods.

It was coming down pretty hard when we got to the falls themselves. I asked some German-speaking women if they had just come from the upper track, to make sure we didn’t head off into an exposed wasteland! Luckily the rain eased off and we even got some sun over the tussocky-type landscape and the old lava flow that the falls plunge over.
There was snow higher up!
In the last, forested part of the hike it got pretty rainy again, and by the end we were getting hit with pellets of hail. Nonetheless, we got the sequence of weather in the right order. And when we got back we made the most of the drying room as well as hot coffee, Chunky Soup, and hot buttered toast.

There’s something I’ve learned in the past twenty years of traveling, and it holds pretty true for Europeans everywhere. If we run into Europeans outdoors doing something hardy, such as the women at the falls or the “kids” in the sea at Hot Water Beach, they are German. If we run into them in the camp kitchen, such as the three guys who were always in the kitchen in Tauranga or the family cooking in Whakapapa, they are French. Where are the British—holed up in their “caravans” reminiscing about their rainy childhood holidays? 

No, in fact we sat at supper (in said camp kitchen) with a young British couple who were preparing to do the Alpine Crossing the next day. Weather permitting. The shuttle was scheduled to run again, at least. It was the first day in a week that was not forecast to be “sh*t,” according to the young man.

Of course, I was bummed not to be going with them, but it had been a very cold afternoon. The sun had come out, and with it my down jacket! We took advantage of the clear weather to walk over to the Chateau Tongariro, a grand old 1929 hotel that had a roaring fire in the bar. It was the closest I’d get to a Hawke’s Bay winery.
Anyhow it was time to move on. The next morning while we were packing up the van (in the rain) I was at the door when T. emptied the kettle into a mud puddle, spraying both my pants legs. She apologized, but I started laughing hysterically. It was the perfect end to our alpine visit—everything so wet that the very campsite appeared to her to be a drain. Worse than Ireland. 

But there is a great story behind Tongariro National Park. Its three volcanoes (Tongariro is the other one) and the surrounding lands were part of the Land Wars, or what the colonial government called Maori Wars. In 1887, Chief Horonuku te Heuheu Tukino IV deeded the mountains to the government of New Zealand, on the condition that they become what was then only the fourth national park in the world. It was an extraordinarily farsighted decision by a chief who recognized that the land’s true value to future generations lay in its natural beauty, not in being divvied up for more pastures. It is also a good example of a government agreeing on this longterm interest with the people who lived in the place first, rather than simply taking land from them.

Bust of the chief, Whakapapa Visitor Centre
I am grateful for such foresight on the part of our ancestors.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

The good, the bad, and the ugly: Coromandel and the Bay of Plenty

When my great-grandmother was born, at the end of the nineteenth century, only one country recognized women’s right to vote: New Zealand. The country has been going its own way ever since. Just a few years ago there was an election here and, no matter whom you voted for, the prime minister was guaranteed to be a woman. Imagine an election where being a woman was not even an issue.

There are a lot of good things about New Zealand. The weather, during our time here, has not been one of them. I’m not going to say that this is the longest stretch of bad weather I’ve ever been in, because I remember a month in Oxford when the cloud settled over the valley like a smothering blanket. Nonetheless, we’ve had rain more than we have clear skies, both day and night.

Our destination on the first day of our camping trip was Hot Water Beach. This name is somewhat misleading. You’re supposed to dig a personal spa pool, and then hot water bubbles up from the volcanic earth. We saw lots of pictures of people basking in these shallow hot pools. There were even warning signs about how dangerously hot the water could be. 

Armed with our rented shovels, or spades as they call them, we headed for where the map said the hot water was. Not where everyone else was digging—they reported tepid water. But the sun was out, and we enjoyed digging a very deep hole.
Photo courtesy of T.
We found, however, no water at all. Then we dug where everybody else was digging, and finally some water came in, but it was cold water from the sea. We were about to give up when some German young people (“kids” as they are to us) told us the hot water was in the sea!

So we waded into the Pacific and danced around for a while, getting our toes hot. It was fun, just not as advertised. That, in fact, would be a good slogan for our entire time in New Zealand.
Hot Water Beach
The Auckland Airbnb I mentioned in my last post was the coldest place I’ve been. I think that says a lot, considering we’ve been in a camper van ever since. (There was also the small matter of the guest bathroom being off the family kitchen, but never mind.) But now we were hardy campers, prepared for whatever we would encounter. We started with a lovely, winding, up and down drive across the Coromandel Peninsula, which is how we arrived at Hot Water Beach and camped at its “holiday park.”

We should have known en route that we were going to have to work for our fun in New Zealand. We stopped at a scenic lookout (one of many in the Coromandel Forest Park), but the view was not from the parking area. There was a walk up to it, a short but rather steep “track.” It was worth it though.

Despite the clouds, we were discovering another good thing about New Zealand: It’s beautiful. Around every bend. People kept telling me the South Island is more beautiful and if that’s true, I don’t know how I could ever endure traveling there. Here on the North Island we literally pulled over at a gas station to take pictures of the view from it.

The evening was cool and rainy. I could write that about many evenings in a row, but the new day was so much better. We actually got warmth and sunshine at Hot Water Beach. And by the afternoon, we were headed for Hahei Beach and a long, and fairly vigorous, hike to Cathedral Cove.

There was a nice variety of beach views on the way, and a couple detours to coves where you’d really have to snorkel to enjoy.

There’s also a World War I memorial forest en route. 
Cathedral Cove is only accessible down steps from the track, or by boat. It’s the highlight of this area and I could see why.
Te Hoho Rock, Cathedral Cove
I remember the verse to “Oh, Susanna” that went “It rained all night the day I left.” That’s what it felt like. It didn’t help that at this campground, ironically part of the “Top 10” chain, we were as far from the bathrooms (in pouring down rain) as it is possible to be. I’m sure camping under these trees is lovely on a dry night. T. made a dent in how miserable it all was by frying bacon and eggs in the morning. Anyone who grew up in England, Wales, Cornwall, or probably elsewhere in those islands has tales of camping in bad weather. Shivering in the rain in a caravan park is a rite of passage for British people, just as traveling and working overseas is for Kiwis.

We meant to make our way down the east coast of the Coromandel Peninsula, but somehow I missed a crucial turn (evidently this happens a lot). Suddenly we looked up at a junction and I realized we were not on the road I had thought, but instead were headed for a farmer’s field. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise though, as the road across to Waihi took us through the spectacular Karangahake Gorge.

We stopped, in the ongoing rain, for a snack and hot drink at Waikino Cafe. Waikino is where the Goldfields Railway runs to Waihi. We weren’t going to wait an hour and a half for the train, but the cafe was lovely.
Waikino Station Cafe also had a roaring fire inside.
Via an information sign there, I also discovered that just down the road was a walk to a grove of kauris, the great ancient trees that once covered much of the North Island. We drove down there and saw a bunch of high school kids emerging in rain gear. Their guides told us they’d been “tramping” for seventeen days!

I don’t know why but every English-speaking country has its own word for what I would call hiking. Trekking, hillwalking, bushwalking, or here in New Zealand, tramping. One of the tramping boys warned us “There’s a river,” and we smiled and waved as we headed down the track. Well, there was a river all right. The track continues on the other side, to the kauri grove. On a good day we might have crossed it via stepping stones, but it was all overflowing today.

No wonder the kids were soaked. They must have been so wet already, after seventeen days, that fording the stream was like nothing to them. 

There is a surprising number of one-lane bridges on the North Island. They are marked with priority arrows, so you know whether you or the other driver has right of way. They should try that in some other places. Other features I noticed on the way were tours of a kiwi fruit farm, an establishment called The Convenient Cow, and “Rifle Range Road—No Exit,” which sounded rather ominous.

We were to learn more about rifles, kiwi fruit, and a whole lot more at our next stop, Tauranga. We were headed there because a girl T. knew from the neighborhood growing up got in touch on one of those Internet groups and said, “If you’re ever in New Zealand…” Don’t say this to us because we will take you up on it. The next thing you know, we were seated around Katherine and Peter’s dinner table, learning that we’d never eaten a ripe kiwi fruit in our lives.

It’s true. Kiwi fruit is not supposed to be green inside. It goes red, and the only reason it’s green overseas is because they spray it with nitrogen to keep it perpetually green, on its long journey from NZ. Kind of like a green banana. Not that there’s anything wrong with green bananas but what if you’d never even known what they could taste like ripe?

Peter, whom neither of us had ever met before that evening, also cooked us breakfast in the morning. Oh, and they lent us a car. They may be “Pomkis” (half Pom, half Kiwi) but Katherine and Peter admirably carry on the hospitality we’ve encountered everywhere in New Zealand. It reminded me of the anecdote in Georgia Beers’s novel, 96 Hours, about passengers on U.S. planes who were stranded in Newfoundland in the days after September 11. One host family lends the main characters a car. “What is wrong with them?” one asks the other.

“They’re Canadian,” she says. 
The maple leaf flying in Tairua
We were staying five minutes away from our friends, at a campground that is also Fernland Spa. This meant free admission to the hot pool, fed by mineral springs. Much of NZ is bubbling away volcanically, and people here make the most of it by putting thermal pools everywhere, including at campgrounds. So we had a hot soak when we got there. A way to enjoy the outdoors on a rainy day.
Photo courtesy of T.
Our New Zealand friends also introduced us to local brews, Mermaid’s Mirth and Blowhole. So the next day we were feeling ready to tackle a day trip through the Kaimai-Mamaku Forest Park and over to Matamata.

Matamata was just a normal little New Zealand town until its residents were extras in The Hobbit movies. Through some deal that didn’t apply to The Lord of the Rings, they were able to preserve their Hobbit holes and various film set things, which now offers tours as Hobbiton. Now, I’ve been to the Harry Potter film tour twice, and never seen any of the films (the books are another matter). So we drew the line at Hobbiton, but did enjoy a break at the appropriately named Shire’s Rest.

We then stopped for a picnic lunch at Firth Tower. This tower was built back in the day as some kind of status symbol for its wealthy out-of-town owner; today it’s a museum. Its parking lot is also an example of one of the many bargain campsites scattered around New Zealand—provided you don’t want any facilities, such as showers. Good practice for America, I guess.

The weather was only somewhat cloudy that day, so we tramped through woods up to the lookout at Wairere Falls. 

These are the highest falls on the North Island, and I was glad to get a chance to hike properly, after the aborted attempt the day before. By the time we got back to Fernland Spa, we were ready for another hot soak. The weather even stayed dry long enough for me to sit out at the picnic table and write; most outdoor furniture has been too wet to use.

I drove the camper van over to Katherine’s the next morning, while T. drove the borrowed car. We returned that and said our goodbyes, and Kath sent us on our way with a big bag of feijoas, a fruit I’d never before heard of, let alone tried. They are absolutely delicious, and I’m already sad that I’ll never get them anywhere else (unless possibly in the sorry state of an exported kiwi fruit).
Still life with kiwi fruit and feijoa
So, New Zealand is good, apart from the bad weather. And the ugly? Apart from a few logging spots, I haven’t seen anything ugly. I don't know how sustainable the logging industry is, but we did see a whole crop of new little trees planted near some old ones, waiting their turn.
The cat that hangs around our Tauranga campground
I don’t want to end on an ugly note, so let me mention the domestic animals that periodically brighten our stay in various places. Cats, of course, are a real problem in Australia when they go feral and prey on native mammals. But at the Katherine campground we met a lovely Jack Russell whose name, I could see from his tag, was Bob. The reason we never provided a picture of Bob is that he was camera shy. He kept hanging around us at the bar, yet every time one of us made a move, off he went. Sometimes you just have to enjoy the moment.