Monday, April 16, 2018

Explore NZ - Day 6 - 13 April - Whangarei to Whitianga

Monica and her husband, Tim, had travelled to India the previous year. They had been to Kerala, Delhi and Agra. They told me that they had thoroughly enjoyed their vacation because of the diversity they experienced there. Tim proudly mentioned how he put a cobra around his body and Monica said that that is his favourite story of his visit to India. Tim told me how he found the most fabulous mansions co-existing with what looked like bombed out shelters in Delhi. Most interestingly, they did not, at any time, feel threatened or challenged. They found the people helpful and ready with a helping hand. Tim and Monica manage the Continental Motel most efficiently and it is a comfortable place to stay overnight.

Even though dark clouds overhung in the morning the day panned out with glorious weather throughout. We had to bypass Auckland city on our way to Whitianga, which was the destination for the day. The route up to Auckland was almost a retrace of the drive to Te Kao on the first day, except for a small stretch. Petrol in New Zealand is very expensive; it is almost INR 110 per liter. However, that’s a small price to pay for clean air and a healthy life. Almost immediately after Whangarei is the small town of Waipu, which has Scottish heritage. I had to fight off the urge to take a detour from the highway to visit the famed Glow Worm caves.

Brynderwyn is a small town between Whangarei and Wellsford. The Brynderwyn Range has to be negotiated cautiously because of narrow, winding roads. Signboards restrict speed in the area due to possibility of accidents. Wellsford is halfway between Whangarei and Auckland. It is claimed that the name of the town is an acronym of the surnames of the first families that settled in the town! Despite the town’s low population commerce is brisk, being located strategically on the cusp between two important highways. We passed through the historic town of Warkworth, the founding of which dates back to the middle of the 19th century. Traffic became dense as we neared Auckland but did not cause delays. The impressive skyline of the CBD glowed in bright sunshine as we bypassed the lovely city.

The small fishing town of Thames lies about 120 km south east of Auckland. Closer to the town we started getting beautiful views of the coast lapped by the waters of the Firth of Thames. I stopped at what looked like a fishing harbor entry in the town and decided to break for lunch. We took seats at a ‘Fish & Chips’ restaurant that was located near a wharf built in the 1880s. While I ordered a portion of snapper (recommended by the girl at the counter because the catch was an hour or so back) the rest had sandwiches, fruits and orange juice. When the order was delivered I realized that I had not asked for a portion of chips; I presumed that all orders of fish would come with a portion of chips. Why call it a fish and chips restaurant if it didn’t? The preparation was oily and hot, but the fish was very fresh. The fish was covered in yards of paper, which all of us considered unnecessary. Maybe, it obviated the need to clean plates and was a better alternative to paper plates.

From Thames to Whitianga via the Coromandel Peninsula and Kuaotunu was a drive that transported us to experience trailers of Paradise. The name Coromandel has an interesting connection to the city I live in India. Coromandel is a Portuguese version of Cholamandalam, the Tamil word that signified the realm of the ancient Cholas. A British Naval ship by that name, HMS Coromandel, had stopped at the Coromandel Harbor for supplies in 1820 and the place derived its name from that. We crawled as slow as we could to absorb the bounteous sights of the islands, bays and beaches from lookout points and, sometimes, even stopping where we should not have; the beauty of Nature tempted us to break rules and traditions. At some points it was cold and windy. Even people accustomed to such weather conditions stayed not too long to take pictures and sink in the sights.

We reached Whitianga and Turtle Cove Accommodation at 5 pm. Whitianga is itself a beautiful place. Once we had lodged our luggage in the rooms we left on a walking tour of the town nearest our place of stay. That took us to the Whitianga Harbor, the ferry point, Mercury Bay and the Buffalo Beach. Restaurants and Cafes doting the waterfront looked busy, it being a Friday evening. Numerous private yachts were moored in the harbor.
We sat on a log of an old fallen tree on the Buffalo Beach, engaged in easy banter. I had fetched a 6 pack of VB Beer from a store nearby and was almost through the first pint when the first drops of rain made its fall. We didn’t wait long to take the cue and walk back to the backpacker accommodation. Once we reached the hostel rain became heavy. I overheard conversation among some of the youngsters, discussing plan for the next day, that the weather would be bad for the morrow. Anyway, we had enjoyed three glorious days of sunshine despite the worst fears when we set out from Auckland on the 11th.

Hetal and Mrs. Shukla made lovely pasta garnished with Heinz baked beans for dinner. I had Satay chicken with rice – another one of the Heat & Eat items. I sat for some more time in the dining area planning alternatives in the South Island, where weather was becoming nasty, I read.

Explore NZ - Day 5 - 12 April - Te Kao to Whangarei

The stay in Te Kao Lodge was decent; the toilet could be provided with a lock. Even though it had rained in the night and early morning it was bright when the luggage was loaded into the car. After a simple breakfast of croissants, muesli and milk we set off on the second day of the New Zealand tour. The itinerary set for the day was Cape Reinga-Topatupatu Bay-Waitangi Treaty Grounds-Paihia-Whangarei. Bright weather accompanied us all the way to Paihia, where we experienced the first drops of rain. Once we were in the rooms of the Continental Motel in Whangarei, after a round of grocery shopping in Countdown, the rains came down heavily. Monica told us at the reception that the morrow may see better weather conditions. We hoped so too.

Back to the activities of the day. Cape Reinga is only 40 plus km away from the Lodge. But, it took us nearly an hour to get there. Verdant hills, thick forested land, cattle and sheep grazing peacefully in vast fields, snaking roads and summits, brilliant views of the coast and ocean, framed against a blue sky, spotless at times, made us stop to enjoy them almost every few km. The distance to be covered in the day was not high and so we could afford the leisurely, almost lazy, morning. More so because the weather was holding.

Cape Reinga is the northern-most tip of the North Island. The Maoris believe that Cape Reinga is the place from where the spirits of the dead enter the underworld. From the Cape can be seen a clear separation marker of the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean. The meeting of the two seas creates a clash and unsettled waters is the result. Many whirlpools form in this area. The Maoris believe that it is a symbolic union of the male and female. The Cape Reinga headland, the Three Kings Islands and a spring in the hillside are closely interwoven into the Maori mythological belief of the return of dead spirits to their traditional homeland, Hawaiki. Opening the area to increased tourist inflows met with Maori protest as they deemed it to be an intrusion into their sacred areas.

We parked at the relocated car parking lot and walked on a glorious walkway to the lighthouse on the Cape. The present lighthouse was built in 1941 to replace another in one of the islands. The fully automated lighthouse has a solar powered beacon. A signpost on the Cape indicates distances to various places such as the South Pole, London, Sydney, Equator, Los Angeles and many other important cities of the world. The photo op situations are so numerous that one does not keep track of time. We walked back to the car park over a hillock that lent better views of the seas, coast and island faces. From Cape Reinga we retraced our steps back towards Te Kao and came to a signboard pointing in the direction of the Topatupatu Bay. It is a short distance of unsealed road from the main road. It has a lovely sandy beach to walk on and soak in the sunshine. Many campers were already cooking food setting off signals in the brain for a hot meal. Gannets and seagulls lazed on the beach foraging for their ‘daily bread’. The shallow shoreline is very inviting; I felt like wading into the turquoise green waters that had receded from the broad beach front.

The next invitation to explore was only a few km away, where a signboard points to sand dunes about 5 km away. We were really curious to know how there could be sand dunes in such a vast area of verdant hills and grazing pastures. The diversion initially took us to a few sheep pens. We saw the unbelievable sight of trained dogs shepherding sheep into their pens. Straying animals were ‘rudely told’ by the dogs to fall in line with others, or else! 2200 heads were herded into an enclosure on the side of the road and it was an experience that will not be forgotten easily. One of the guys there told me that wool will be sheared in the next three weeks.

The Te Paki sand dunes is a wonder. From the car park the desert like sand dunes looked awesome and unbelievable. Sand boarders borrow kits at nominal rates and go up the high dunes to do their stuff. Some of them do adventure stunts to capture them on camera. We had to take off footwear, hide them in the tall grass and wade across a shallow rivulet to get to the sand dunes. Warning signs have been put at many locations to warn those who wished to drive on the sand of the 90-mile beach. It said that many vehicles have been lost in such foolish adventures. The walk up the dunes was not tiresome as the sand was moist underneath, gave good grip and did not slip away under the feet. The sand dunes are constantly moving and creating new designs with the assistance of the strong winds that sweep the landscape. I was amazed to see remnants of shells atop the sand dunes. The views are stunning and the experience unparalleled. Blue skies, green forested and, flowing rivulet and a moist sand dune – a fantasy? Later I came to know that the sand dunes are part of the Ninety Mile Beach which runs north from the town of Kaitaia. This explained why the sand was moist and sea shells were found on top of the desert like dunes. Fabulous experience, all the way.

The exploration of Cape Reinga and its neighborhood was over for the time being. It was time to head to the next destination of Waitangi, which housed the treaty grounds. In 1840 was signed a historic treaty between the Maori people and the British Crown, which gave them protection from French forces as British citizens. This treaty is historically deemed to be the defining moment in the formation of the country, the basis of its constitution and preservation of Maori rights. The Waitangi Treaty Grounds is a protected heritage site and located in the small quaint town with the same name. The helpful lady at the reception told not to ‘waste’ money if we were short on time. She said that it would require at least three hours to cover it in haste and two days if one were to do justice to the visit. We got back on the road after getting some more information on what the site was significant for. 

Paihai, Archana had told me, is a coastal town not to be missed. When we reached there we knew what she had meant. The stunning views across the waterfront of the quiet town with lovely houses and small gardens in front of them, the undulating landscape and a host of cafes and restaurants make it truly the Jewel of the Bay of Islands. People were engaged in kayaking, swimming and fitness regimes when we entered the Alfresco’s waterfront family run café for a snack and coffee. The crunchy garlic loaf and Tuscan veg salad were extremely tasty. Raj, from Kurukshetra who served us, told us that summer is when the crowds overflow in the café.

The distance from Paihia to Whangarei is normally covered in 45 minutes. However, the direct road has been closed, Raj told us, for over two months. This meant a diversion of over 40 km to our destination for night halt. The drive was smooth and without any hassle. When we reached the Continental Motel, where we were booked to stay, Monica, who runs the establishment, heaved a sigh of relief. She said that she was unable to get details of my card that had expired! It was fortunate that she had kept the reservation and what happened in Sydney did not repeat. After check in and payment Monica showed us to the comfortable rooms and told us that retail stores and restaurants were within walking distance of the motel. We made a quick visit to the Countdown store for milk, bread and fruits. Rain had begun and it was getting heavy by the time we got back to the room. It was Carlsberg beer and a dinner of rice and Thai Green Curry before bed.

Explore NZ - Day 4 - 11 April - Auckland to Te Kao

I could hear the sound of roaring winds and heavy rain throughout the night. Inclement weather that had been forecast hit the city with redoubled force, with gale winds reaching speeds over 150 kph. The story of the morning was not very different. It had to be a wet start to the ‘Explore New Zealand’ expedition. Archana told me that the forecast was for more foul weather over the next few days. Kapil backed the car into his garage to facilitate easy loading of the luggage. Without that, in the rain, it would have been a difficult proposition. In any case, it was difficult because we were not travelling light and many bags of food did not help matters either. After considerable struggle, use of skill and muscle power fourteen pieces of different sizes were accommodated inside the car; would be great advertisement for RAV4.

We wore T-shirts of my company – Genchi Global – and went through a couple of rounds of photographs and goodbyes inside the house and in the garage before we finally embarked on the expedition. Within the city limits itself we found evidence of the lousy weather overnight that was continuing. Broken tree branches were everywhere, traffic signals were down at many locations and, as I heard later, 75% of Auckland city was without power supply. Last evening Kapil had talked about the Gannet colony in Muriwai Beach. Since it had got late last evening after the Museum visit, the drive to Muriwai had been abandoned. This morning Kapil told me that with the way the weather is, it would not be worth our while to go there. However, I thought that it would not be a bad idea to take a chance. I am not a gambler, by any chance. But, this time the paid off, and very well too. We were greeted by glorious weather as we neared the Beach and it stayed that way for almost the hour that we were there.
The black sand beaches of Muriwai, the holes in the rock and the Gannet Colony are reasons why it is a popular recreational center for Aucklanders. It is less than an hour’s drive from the city and the views are magical. Certainly, I felt, that this is a piece of Paradise.  I was glad that I had taken the decision to come to this wonderful place. The black sand of the beach comes from the iron content of volcanic activity in the past. The layers of rock on the cliffs is a majestic sight too. Some Gannets were on display too. They live in a colony among the rocks there. I was told that the beach and neighboring areas get awfully crowded in the summer months, especially on the weekends. Surfing, fishing and bushwalking are popular activities here. It started raining after some time, by when we had stored enough images of this paradisiacal land in the eyes and cameras. We used the rain break for breakfast inside the car.
The drive from Muriwai beach right up to Te Kao Lodge were frequented by stops at lookout points and scenic places. I took the State highways 16 and 1 through lovely little towns like Waimauku, Tauhoa, Wellsford, Te Hana, Brynderwyn, Whangarei and Whakapara. The green rolling hills with millions of cattle and sheep grazing unhurriedly with camera moments lurking everywhere the drive was a dream. We took as much time on the road as fellow road users would permit. They was no hurry. Visits to such places are not an opportunity one gets often when staying in a country far, far away like India.  The direct route to Paihai, highly recommended by Archana, was closed and a diversion board made us continue northwards towards Te Kao.

Nearly 150 km short of Te Kao we took a break in a small town called Towai. As we drove into the town we noticed the Towai Hotel. The building and hotel have been in service since 1872 and the present owner of the property, Matt, has done a fantastic job to make the restaurant, bar and even the toilets interesting and colorful. The walls of the toilets will certainly make you spill with laughter. A broken urinal has been used in the wooden sit out to pot small plants! We had coffee and some superb Garlic Loaf. Matt told us that the original building was moved to the present location using logs to make way for the railway line in the early part of the last century.

It was exhilarating to drive through many crests near Mangamuka. We took another short break at the Pukenui wharf to take in the superb views of the bay. A heavier than light drizzle drove us back into the car and onwards to the Te Kao Lodge, where we were the only guests. Irene Lee, the owner of the property had mailed me saying that we should complete dinner in Pukenui because there are no cafes and restaurants in Te Kao. We were prepared with food items to cook and the kitchen was decently equipped. Rain kept us mostly indoors and I was engaged in updating documentation. The excellent Wi-Fi connectivity helped.

Explore NZ - Day 3 - 10 April - In Auckland

The bad weather that had been predicted was coming to pass. It had rained intermittently all through the night and it was raining as I woke up. The skies were gloomy as daylight broke. It was certainly a dampener for a day of sightseeing. Archana told us that normally the rain eases up in the morning and gets back on track by late evening. To utilize the time in between we planned to start the day earlier than we had yesterday.

Visit to Cornwall Park, which encompasses the One Tree Hill, was planned as the first activity for the day. Anywhere from Auckland one can see the obelisk on the Hill. The Park is a huge 600 acre property and the vision of Sir John Logan Campbell, who donated a large part of his estate to a Trust, which manages the premises for the larger good of the people of Auckland. Many of the trees seen today in the Park were personally planted by the great visionary. Light rain was an irritant in enjoying the drive, because the stately trees, magnificently landscaped premises, huge oak trees and kauri plantations could not be enjoyed in a car. We parked and braved some of the rain. When it became a bit heavy we sought refuge under the awnings of a wooden lodge. I had to take a complete round of The Summit as road repairs were going on, before being told by the crew how to get to the Cenotaph point. It was so windy at the top we thought that we would be blown away. The center is a volcanic cone and the donor of the park is buried alongside the obelisk. The obelisk was erected in line with the wishes of Logan Campbell whose admiration of the Maori way of life and spirit was exemplified thus. The Summit gives fantastic views of Auckland’s harbors and city. On the obelisk are plaques that mention the first visit of the Polynesian Maori Kupe in 925 AD and the settlements that took place after 1150 AD, the canoes in which the organized immigration took place after 1350 AD. Standing there on the summit one gets a feeling of the historicity of the place and a kaleidoscope of thoughts train through the mind about the happenings with the passage of time.
The car had to be replaced, not because it was giving any trouble but because we needed a younger car for the tough trip that lay ahead with worsening weather conditions. When we explained the matter to the girl in the Apex Rental office she sounded quite uninterested and very iffy. Another girl took over the case and found us a newer car for which we had to pay AUD 80 more! Anyway, that was the need of the hour and paperwork and documentation was done at a leisurely pace. I tanked up the car we had first taken and returned it to the rental company. The replacement car had lesser boot space but had parking sensors and camera, which was a huge plus. We would somehow have to manage with the lesser boot space. Also, the gleaming red car looked more appealing than the grim black one that was replaced.

I was scheduled to meet Venkat in his office at 11 am to collect a copy of the newspaper. I rang him up to tell him that I would be a half hour late. Promptly at 11.30 we trooped into his modest office. He was at a meeting and we briefly met while accepting the copy with gratitude. The story had been carried very well and Venkat said that it had been well received too.

We had not taken a local Sim card yet and as it was getting to departure time from Auckland taking one became imperative. Each one decided to take one each with different plans for different requirements. The advice was to go in for Vodafone connection and we selected numbers and bought Sims from a Warehouse store. For activation we had to go to a Vodafone store. The personable young man at the store got all the three Sims activated as per our requirement in quick time. My need was more data, Shukla wanted freedom with calls to India and Hetal wanted only Australia and New Zealand calls free. After all this was done we met the Kauls in the food court of the Crowne Plaza Hotel. Archana and Kapil have their office in the Hotel Complex. Over lunch we planned the rest of the afternoon. Kapil suggested the Auckland Museum to appreciate the history and culture of the country and a late evening visit to Muriwai beach, if time permitted.

As it turned out the Auckland Museum occupied more time than we had anticipated because of the treasures in it. The Museum had closed by the time we reluctantly trooped out. The Auckland Museum is located on a dormant volcano and the building is itself iconic. The collection of exhibits started as early as 1852, I understood, from material published by the Museum. The development of the country from the early days of the intrepid Polynesian seafarers to the settlement by whites and beyond can be best appreciated here. Information about the importance of volcanic sites in the history of the region was indeed illuminating. The short documentary and simulation of volcanic eruptions made the experience truly graphic. The interactive section for children is something novel and unique. It was most interesting to watch parents and their kids teaching and learning there.

Dinner was once again at home. Weather not on our side for any late night ‘out-of-the-home” activity. It was turning and Archana told us that the next few days would be really bad. It had started raining quite heavily by the time I finished a bowl full of rice garnished with Dal, minced meat (Kheema) and huge prawns. Of course, the meal was after the, now usual, three pegs of Krakken. I have to get a couple of bottles of this discovery on the way home, I decided.

Explore NZ - Day 6 - 13 April - Whangarei to Whitianga

Monica and her husband, Tim, had travelled to India the previous year. They had been to Kerala, Delhi and Agra. They told me that they ...