NZ Adventure 2013: Days 15 -30 (Part 1)

Mt Taranaki here we come!

Mt Taranaki here we come!

So, after a few rainy days, the sun returned and it signalled the next quest on the itinerary which was to visit Mount Taranaki and do a couple of walks around the mountain. I wasn’t going to climb to the top – that’s quite an undertaking that I wouldn’t have been happy with doing on my own. However, there were plenty of lower level walks that could be attempted from the Visitor Centre. Getting to the Tahurangi Translator Tower was a reasonably easy affair and got you to where the summit track begins, a fair way up the mountain with stunning panoramic views. It was quite windy though so that’s as far as I went upwards. Descending into the lush, almost sub- tropical forest, the trees were covered in moss giving the place a mystical atmosphere and it was easy to imagine being Frodo Baggins travelling through Fanghorn forest. Spent another day on a similar walk around the Eastern side of the mountain then it was time to move on.

An early start for the big drive down to Wellington which is where I would catch the ferry to the South Island in a few days time. I’m still gobsmacked by how quiet the roads are, even in the towns where you’d expect a reasonable amount of traffic at peak times of the day but… no. I’m travelling down the high street of a small town called Eltham at around 8:30 am in the morning. One would naturally expect it to be a tad busy with the locals going to work, Mums doing the school run, etc. but there was hardly anyone around, it was so quiet. Not that I was complaining. Driving around in NZ seemed almost as stress-free as a stroll in the park. What little traffic you came upon either quickly passed you from behind or let you pass if you came up to it. There seemed to exist this wonderful driver’s etiquette  brought about by just wanting to avoid any stress induced tailgating. As soon as a vehicle came up from behind which was obviously travelling faster than yourself, you’d let it by at the first opportunity and they’d do the same for you. Sometimes it felt like you’d got the whole road to yourself because there just wouldn’t be anything else in sight as far as the eye could see. It was wonderful!

After a brunch stop in Palmerston North, a few more hours on the road saw me me into the windy city of Wellington. I’d booked a campervan site at a motel just outside town. It wasn’t particularly pretty and the facilities were OK but it was the closest one to the ferry terminal which was just a 10 minute drive away. Having to check in there before 7:15 am in the morning, that suited me.

Wellington

Wellington

Thus, I had a few days in Wellington before heading over to the South Island after the weekend. The first thing I always want to do when arriving in a new place is just go for a walk and get my bearings. A modern, busy city centre but with a nice atmosphere, I love strolling around, having a pint and watching the world go by – you can’t beat people watching. One of the best ways to familiarise yourself with a place like this was to book a hop-on hop-off bus city tour. I did this the following day with another good walkaround.

Being the HQ of Mr Peter Jackson (LOTR) and the home of Miramar Studios, it was only right and proper to go and take a look at the Weta Cave where they create all the props and make-up special effects for the films too. Cuba Street was where all the hip young trendies hung out (including me of course!) and it was definitely seemed a central gathering point for island hopping backpackers.

The morning of my ferry trip came all too soon with a three hour sail over to Picton on the South Island. The early cloud dissipated as we got under way and we were treated to a green carpet of gorgeous landscape under a clear blue sky for most of the way.

The Awesome NZ Landscape

The Awesome NZ Landscape

I was going to head to a place called Nelson for my first stay on the South Island en route to the Abel Tasman National Park. It wasn’t too far from Picton so I’d be there around 2 pm, just right for getting settled in at the Holiday Park and finding a nice place to eat.

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NZ Adventure 2013 – Days 1 to 14

Auckland

Auckland

I’m hauled up in a place called Stratford. Not the place I and most people I know are familiar with but one that’s 12,000 miles away on the other side of the planet. The weather’s pretty grim at the moment but I can hardly complain. I’ve had almost two full weeks of gloriously hot and sunny weather and the rain has seemed like a refreshing change more than anything else. It’s forecast to clear up again tomorrow so today is a day for getting all those little jobs done like getting a haircut, having a shave, do some shopping and catching up on blogs I promised to write.

Each to their own but I find there is something intensely therapeutic to the mind, body and soul about travelling. I am in my element here and have been since day 1. The place is so well geared up for the traveller and lover of the great outdoors. Campervaning is most definitely the way to go as the holiday parks/campsites are so well equipped you just don’t need anywhere else – they put UK campsites to utter shame. Lounges with wi-fi, fully fitted out kitchens, laundry rooms, large showers with infinite hot water, etc., etc.The added bonuses of course is that everyone speaks English and they drive on the correct side of the road too.

Four days in Auckland to begin with in a nice hotel, ideally situated with a stunning view of the city having a room on the top floor. The city had a great holiday atmosphere to it with a mix of locals and tourists soaking up the sunshine. I love just walking around places like this but I did book myself on a number of tours to make sure I saw as much as I could.

Picked “Jucy Lucy” (my Campervan) up on the the 4th day and headed to a place called “Hot Water Beach” at the bottom of the Coromandel Peninsula”. Overnight there then up to the northern most tip of the Coromandel to do a coastal walk called the Coromandel Walkway. The trip up to Stony Bay campsite was an adventure in itself with a one hour drive along a roller coaster gravel track that was definitely more suited to a Land Rover than a Toyota Campervan but the reward was a beautifully located campsite perched right next to a blue sea in a secluded bay. The few neighbours I did have were very friendly and invited me over for a chat and a glass or two of wine. The walk was a 14 mile stroll (there and back) along some of the most spectacular coastline I’ve seen. It was hot and sunny and I just felt very privileged to be able to enjoy nature at its most beautiful. However, I was informed by some Kiwis a little later on that it would not have been as enjoyable in bad weather.

Jucy Lucy & The Crew

Jucy Lucy & The Crew

From Stony Bay, a good half a day’s driving right down to Rotorua with a lunch stop at Tauranga. Rotorua was a nice place but one did get a sense that the main holiday season was over as it seemed like a ghost town in the evening with just a sprinkling of locals, tourists and backpackers gathering at a few choice bars/restaurants near the lakeside. Spent the next day visiting one of the most popular Thermal sites and took a look at the Green and Blue lakes. Had a very nice Balti at a multi-award winning Indian restaurant.

Onward the next day to another lakeside town called Taupo. Did a nice walk to some rapids called the Huka Falls and enjoyed a steak washed down with a couple of pints down by the lakeside. I planned to do my first multi-day hike at the next place which would be the Tongariro National Park. This was a 3/4 day hike up and over what is called the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.

Landed at Whakapapa Village Holiday Park to spend the rest of the day preparing for my hike. It’s a totally different ball game when you have to be self-sufficient for a few days and carry everything you need on your back (except a tent and stove this time as I was staying in huts). There’s a very definite art in selecting what to take and what not to and keeping the rucksack to a reasonable weight, especially as the second day would be a fairly gruelling ascent. Weather forecast wasn’t looking too good either for the second day onwards. Anyway, set off reasonably early for the 3 hour, 10 km hike to the first hut the next day. It has been a long time since I’ve backpacked and carried a rucksack this heavy. Muscles you never knew you had begin to feel the strain. The second day’s ascent was not going to be easy, that was for sure. Landed at the hut at about 2 pm and soon after, my companions turned up who we’re to be a young German couple, a young Kiwi lady and three younger Kiwis who looked like they were a brother and two sisters fresh out of college and the warden. Everyone seemed friendly enough and we wiled away the evening hours chatting and playing cards.

Whakapapa Hut

Whakapapa Hut

An update on the forecast wasn’t good. Rain and, more serious, high winds. We would see what tomorrow morning brought. The forecast was accurate and a discussion with the warden took place. The Alpine Crossing over to the next hut was not advised. High winds can be positively dangerous on top. There didn’t seem much point in leaving the sack and doing a quick ascent either as it was all in cloud. Reluctantly, I made the decision to head back and get my refund on the other two huts. By the time I got back, the heavens started to open and it was pretty grim. I pitied the poor people I met on their way to the hut on my return. At least I’d had one decent day walking in.

I now just wanted to get to a place where I could rest up for the night and that ended up being a town called Taumarunui. The place was pretty dead but all I wanted was a decent meal and a good night’s sleep. Booked a cabin at the Holiday Park (run by a Yorkshireman) and went off in search of the only recommended restaurant in town. Spent ages looking for it and almost gave up. One last drive down the main drag and I finally spotted it – Jasmin’s Thai Restaurant, I must have been tired.

Felt more refreshed the next day for a drive down, what’s called, the “Forgotten World Highway”. A scenic route winding its way through the heart of rural New Zealand. Even though the weather wasn’t great, the scenery was awesome and I thoroughly enjoyed the drive. Ended up in Stratford about 3 pm-ish and booked myself into the Holiday Park, amusingly enough run by a Yorkshirewoman. Had a nice hot shower, did the laundry and decided to wait the bad weather out so I can grab some views and a couple of nice day walks around Mount Taranaki. That brings me to here and now writing this blog with a nice cup of tea by my side.

The Forgotten World Highway

The Forgotten World Highway

New Zealand Adventure 2013


new_zealand_3

THE DECISION IS MADE:

I’ve had a few adventures over my time in some wonderful places on this planet of ours but one place had eluded me up till now. New Zealand has, for a long time, been near the top of my wishlist of countries to visit but the sheer distance from the UK (a massive 27 hour non-direct flight) meant that, if you’re going to go, it’s best to make the most of it and see/do everything there is to see and do over there in one shot. The recommended timeframe for doing this seems to be about 2 months. Getting two months off work wasn’t an available option but waiting until I retired wasn’t something I wanted to do either. Two months in New Zealand either meant spending an absolute fortune if one desired seeing the place via an organised package tour and staying in hotel accommodation for the duration or keeping the costs down to a reasonable amount by choosing the popular backpacking or campervan method. I wasn’t too sure how I would cope with backpacking and walking the trails at 65 (that’s if I get to that age) so, the solution? I handed my notice in at work just before Christmas. “New Zealand. Here I come!”.

Being the other side of the planet and in the southern hemisphere, NZ time and seasons are as opposite to ours as you can get. The best time to visit, therefore, was deemed to be March/April which is just out of peak season and approaching autumn. I couldn’t waste too much time after leaving work so a flight was duly booked. Booked through Netflights.com, an Emirates Airlines flight to Auckland departing on Sunday 3rd March and returning 3rd May. The flight actually arrives in Auckland on Tuesday 5th March and, by that time, I reckon I’ll be truly zonked out with jetlag. On top of the flight booking then would be a 4 night stay in a reasonable hotel located in Auckland giving me some time to get over the jetlag and see what the city had to offer.

Cost Breakdown:

1.) Return flight from Birmingham, UK to Auckland,  NZ (Emirates) – £948.00

2.) 4 Nights accommodation at the Quadrant Hotel, Auckland – £353.00

3.) Travel Insurance – £125.00

GETTING AROUND WHILE I’M THERE:

Although the general concensus of opinion seems to be that getting around New Zealand is a doddle and is something you can, pretty much, sort out when you get there, I wanted a plan so there was a fairly lengthy deliberation on two options; Backpacker “Hop On, Hop Off” Bus or Campervan. There are distinct pros and cons to each of these options. The Backpacker Bus would be significantly cheaper and is a great way to travel around NZ if you’re a young student on a gap year on a budget. I’m not a young student on a budget though. I’m 51 years old, I’ve got a few grand to spend on this holiday and I can’t help thinking that I’d feel a little uncomfortable and out of place on these “party buses” they have a slightly tainted reputation of being – not that I’ve got anything against this. I’d have been all for it 20 years ago. You are also tied, to a certain extent, to a fixed timetable and itinerary. Campervan Hire, especially for two months, is not a cheap option but the biggest benefit by far with this is that you can go where you want, when you want and you have complete control over defining your own itinerary. You can also carry far more stuff along for the trip. There are hundreds of campsites all over New Zealand and you will always have a place to sleep the night . I took a deep breath and opted for Campervan Hire then booked a Jucy Cabana for 56 days, picking it up from Auckland city after my hotel stay.

Cost Breakdown:

4.) Jucy Cabana Campervan Hire for 56 days (inc. Insurance and GPS) -£2,286.00

The Milford Track:

One of the “must do” trails I wanted to walk while in New Zealand was the Milford Track, a 4 day trail on the South Island noted as being one of the greatest walks in the world. You have to get a permit to walk this trail and only 40 permits are issued on each day in the walking season. Hence, booking in advance is essential. Once I’d sorted my transport out, this was the next thing to see about. You can book online at www.doc.gov.nz  I’d left this a bit later than I should have done really as the earliest I could book the trail for was April 11th, this is heading towards the end of the walking season. I read that you can get all 4 seasons in one day on this trail and rain is almost certainly guaranteed. I’ll be walking it in Autumn so I’ll have to be prepared. The huts you stay in are booked at the same time as applying for the permit and transport to and from the start/end points can be also optionally booked. I’ll be heading for a campsite in Te Anau for 9th – 10th April. Optional bus and boat rides have been booked to get me to the start of the trail and back to Te Anau from Milford Sound (end of the trail).

Cost Breakdown:

5.) Milford Track Permit inc. Huts and optional transport – £184.00

ESSENTIAL KIT PURCHASES:

Going on an adventure is always a good excuse to buy new kit but there were a few items that were absolutely necessary for my trip to New Zealand. I’ve booked the Milford Track which is a 4 day trail and I’m hoping to walk a few others so the focus was to ensure I had suitable equipment to cope with multi-day hikes in, what could be, very changeable weather.

1.) Large Backpacking Rucksack:

sumo95

I’ve got an old Karrimor Jaguar that’s been around and seen a bit of the world. It’s still OK and could have been used but it’s not the most comfortable sack I’ve had and it’s definitely seen better days. I decided to get a new one and, as I’m always a sucker for state-of-the-art, went for the Haglofs Sumo 95. A flagship 95 litre expedition rucksack.

I was pleasantly surprised when I filled this up with stuff and tried it on for the first time. Although it looks really big (as you’d expect), it was very comfortable with excellent weight distribution. Apart from the usual three (top, middle and bottom) compartments, the rucksack has two additional zip pockets of reasonable size and a side zip for access into the main compartment making it far easier to get hold of frequently needed items. It has a hydration facility too.

Cost: £255.00

2.) Walking Boots:

Salomon_Cosmic_4D_GTX

I bought a new pair of walking boots (Salomon 4D GTX) for a trip to the Angel Falls in Venezuela in 2011. This included an ascent to the top of Auyan Tepui, the table mountain which the falls “falls” off. It’s a pretty serious undertaking with only about 100 people per year making the climb and I can understand why with the conditions and terrain you have to tackle – it throws just about everything it can at you. Needless to say, the boots stood up well, they were very comfortable and I didn’t get any blisters but they were all but demolished after an intense two weeks of getting hammered by water, rock and mud. I tried to restore them as best I could on my return home but the next weekend walking trip I did soaked them through again and one of the eyelets came off. I decided to get another pair for New Zealand.

Cost: £155.00

3.) Mobile Phone:

GALAXY_SIII

I’ve had just a company supplied Blackberry for a long time, never really needing anything else. Obviously, now I’m leaving the company, it’s something I will have to have anyway. The easiest thing for travellers to do is to buy an unlocked phone and use local Pay As You Go SIM cards. I’ve got an Apple iPad 2 so the logical choice may have been an iPhone but, after looking at a few reviews, went for the Samsung Galaxy S3. The more I’m using this phone, the more I like it. Plug it into a computer via a USB cable and it not only charges but transferring files is just a matter of copying them over from one folder to another – no stupid proprietary stuff you get with Apple. You can also insert a Micro SD card into it for additional storage. Again, a massive one over the iPhone. The screen is nice and large and it also has an 8 megapixel camera.

Cost: £430.00

4.) Waterproof Jacket:

paramo-alta2

After 25 years or more of  buying and using Gore-Tex jackets, I have come to the conclusion quite a few experienced walkers have arrived at with their experience of “waterproof” jackets. Gore-Tex is good at keeping the water out but it’s pretty hopeless when it comes to breathability. I almost invariably have a wet inner lining after being active for a while and generating internal heat whilst wearing a Gore-Tex jacket. This was the case when I recently tested my new walking boots out and went for a short walk. I was going to take just a Berghaus Paclite (one of two that I own) but after this last episode decided I needed a more effective solution. I’d discussed this issue with a friend recently which gave him the opportunity for giving much praise to a jacket he’d recently decided to acquire made by Paramo. This is a soft material jacket given a Nikwax treatment and is supposed to be not only waterproof but highly breathable. He said it worked and he’d never go back to Gore-Tex so, after reading a few more online articles from reviewers who, more or less, said the same thing, I decided to give one a shot. A Paramo Alta II was ordered.

Well, the first thing you notice about this jacket is just how soft the material is. You find yourself instinctively asking, “Is this really waterproof?” Being soft, it’s very comfortable to wear and I was pleasantly surprised with its weight – pretty light I thought. It’s not going to win any awards for style but give me function over fashion any day.

On its first real test, a walk around the country lanes on the snowiest day the country has seen, it fared very well. I was, maybe, a little too warm when walking with a fleece on too, so my base layer T-Shirt was a tad moist but the inner of the jacket was bone dry. I’ve no regrets with the purchase.

Cost: £220.00

5.) Trangia

Trangia Stove Set

I like simplicity and reliability when it comes to camping stoves and you can’t get much more simpler and reliable than a Trangia. I used to have one years ago but I’m not sure what happened to it. I don’t do much backpacking at all but I will be when I’m in NZ. They don’t recommend gas stoves on the Milford Track so a new Trangia it was.

Cost: £65.00

Over £1000 on new kit is pushing the initial cost of this trip to near £5K before I even get there but this gear will last much longer than two months (so long as I don’t lose it!). I will be reviewing each of the above items after I return from New Zealand. For a full kit list, see the next post.