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Monday, 15th November 2010
This is about a two-week trip I made to New Zealand in November 2010 to see family out in Auckland (Virginia's sister's family,) and to do some tourism. The family part of it was very pleasant, more than justified making the trip, but this article is going to focus on the tourism. NZ is a nice place to me, more livable than the UK, Auckland itself has many uncrowded beaches, good standard of living, and a wide range of scenery and worth seeings.

When to go is a good question. Late November is just coming into summer for New Zealand so that's good, the weather was fine for my visit (when I left it was about 25C in Auckland.) It is coming towards the end of the school year (NZ school years are calendar years) and this means school trips are in season. School parties impacted two of the trips I made (to Tiritiri Matangi and White Island.) The kids were barely supervised which didn't help. I don't know if the end of summer would be better from this point of view.

The flights are painfully long and boring and uncomfortable, taking over 30 hours door to door. I changed planes in Hong Kong each way, first time I had been to the 'new' airport on Lantau Island. Going out I had 9 hours to wait there (Cathay Pacific had cancelled one of my flights and put me on a later one.) While you're not allowed to carry water through the security checkpoints you can buy water to take on the planes (or fill bottles from water fountains.) For the first time I checked in online and chose a seat before getting to the airport - was bemused that just minutes after checking became available most of the seats had apparently gone. Perhaps Cathay Pacific block a lot of seats out for some reason. I went for window seats because:

* You get at least one elbow rest

* You're less disturbed by people and trolleys wandering along the aisles

* Window seats get just that little extra space over other seats

* The risk of having food or drinks or overhead luggage fall on you is less
This visit I took some money as a Travelex card. This worked wherever I used it (petrol or accommodation or car hire.) Not sure the exchange rate was the greatest, but it offers a level of security. May well use that again.

The next time I travel I'll aim to take something like an iPad. Most of the airports and places I stayed in offered free Wifi, and having a notebook makes sense. Also next time I travel I'll investigate taking a mobile phone into which I can buy a SIM card out there. This time I bought a phone out there for the trip then left it behind (the phone cost only NZ$55.)

Managed to make it to Tiritiri Matangi, an island nature reserve where imported species like the Pacific rat have been eradicated. In 2006 the weather was too bad for the sea crossing. Pacific rats came with the Maoris rather than the Europeans. The absence of rats means endangered native birds can live in safety, and species like stitchbirds,saddlebacks, tuis, rifleman, NZ robins and NZ pigeons can be easily seen. I didn't need the monoculars which I had brought! Takahe are even a pest round the visitor centre. We were lucky enough to see rarities like the kokako on our good guided tour which was very informative. The island is commonly known as "Tiri" which sounds like "Terry." Besides eradicating pests like the rats, trees have been systematically planets on the island and sugar solutions provided to feed the birds. "Tiri" serves as as a breeding colony from where juvenile birds are relocated to establish colonies elsewhere.
One high point of this trip was doing the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. My base camp was Discovery Lodge, a good place to stay. Helpful staff who gave good advice for the hazardous undertaking, called me by name which made feel like a friend not a guest, I was defeated for a while by the shower having to set blue rather than red to get warmth. We started the crossing at 6am, rather early, but there are advantages in not climbing in the crowds or the heat of the day.

A few kilometres into the 19km plus tramp a sign said STOP, warning you to be prepared for what followed. If I had known how hard the crossing was I wouldn't have tried it. Going up it seemed like I had to stop every few paces for my heartrate to drop to normal, in places the screes were treacherous and I slid more than I stepped, coming down my feet and legs were suffering from repeated heavy footfalls. My ears felt the cold, could have used the Mongolian style head covering one crosser had. As everyone overtook me began to worry if I was going to get round before the last shuttle. Could only admire those who were running round!

Having said all that this is a beautiful walk to do. You go from tussocks in the early dawn, through gorses and high heather, across patches of ice and snow, gambol through glacier valleys, wander beside hidden streams in beech forest, descend screes overlooking alien emerald lakes, look down through the clouds at enchanted Lake Taupo far away, cross craters with brooding volcanoes overlooking, hunt for the path in fell mists, see and scent sulphurous smoke from many-coloured rocks. One has indeed wandered onto sets for an epic film as parts of Lord of the Rings was filmed here. Like many experiences this is best shared, I lost a lot by being the cat that walked by himself.
I went to the Rotorua area again for some more fumarole action, this time to the Waimangu Volcanic Valley. My legs were still war wounded after the Alpine Crossing so the steep descents were painful. Waimangu has a very sweet pale blue lake (I'm quite into collecting lakes of different colours.) It also has a very good terrace part of which looks like a giant has been icing a cake. The earth itself bubbles and fumes and puffs here. Happily there was a bus which I caught back up the hill to save my lower limbs!
Even more magma hotspot activity was provided by the boat ride to White Island, courtesy of White Island Tours. The island itself is privately owned, not everyone has their own volcano. I stayed at the White Island Motel, and very good accommodation it was. White Island is a live volcano, with occasional pyroclastic eruptions - part of the reason that sulphur mining on the island was abandoned. One is issued with a hard hat and a gas mask for the trip around the crater, necessary due to the fumes. The guides warned us to follow the path carefully as in places the ground is uncompacted ash one can sink into. Steam continuously belches from many parts of the crater, at times engulfing you - you're conscious of being on top of a boiling kettle. The yellow of sulphur stains the streams and cracks, the lake is a luminous bloodless green.

Complementing nature's extreme are the remains of the last sulphur mining activity, gaunt ruins fit for a Wild West film. The boat toured the outside of the island to see gannets nesting, Pohutukawa trees growing, blue Mau Mau fish swimming and purple jellyfish jiggling. We didn't spot any whales or dolphins on the way back to Whakatane. I did learn that Whakatane is really said Fakatane (the Wh in Maori is typically a F sound.) Happily the seas were very gentle, this meant transferring from the launch to the island by inflatable boat wasn't too hard on my nerves. The captain was laidback, steering with his foot! A good trip apart from the party of schoolboys running around unsupervised.
My tourism finished with a limited detour up into the Coromandel pensinsula (I did learn that Coromandel is said Coromandle rather than my attempt of Cor-ro-man-del.) As Cathedral Cove was used in the second Narnia film I felt I ought to go and see it. I walked from the carpark near Hahei, but it would have been interesting to do the boat trip. By then I was running out of stamina for more tourism, not only physically but also mentally. Cathedral Cove has very eye catching scenery, a good place to have a picnic and just be. I have trouble just being.

As I explored a little more of New Zealand I also explored the fantasy world of Deltora books published by Scholastic. The books by Emily Rodda was being read by the relatives I visited, and I sped my way through what was to hand. Not bad for what they were - sometimes I muse that somewhere like Deltora is as real as somewhere in the physical world if I can't be there. From the point of view of someone who plays puzzle games the Deltora books are interesting for the number of puzzles in them. On the flight back I also on a whim bought and read Maddigan's Quest by Margaret Mahy. This I did like, will try more by the same authoress.