Tuesday, 12 January 2010

3 weeks in New Zealand

My time in New Zealand was spent with my boyfriend Mike, our families and our friends. It was a fantastic few weeks, catching up with Mike and getting to know his family and country.

Our travels took us north of Auckland to Northland – a secluded region, rich in Maori culture (and in some towns, gangs) and boasting a spectacular coastline of sandy beaches, marine reserves and giant sand dunes. From there we travelled via a wedding in Auckland, to Rotorua (aka Rotovegas because there is a fair chance you’ll leave with a substantially lighter wallet due to it being a ludicrously expensive tourist trap). From here we headed down past lake Taupo to the Tongarairo National Park where we completed the Tongarairo Crossing – one of New Zealand’s Great Walks.

It was then time to meet Mike’s family down in Hawkes Bay. We enjoyed a superbly sunny Christmas there before heading up for a second wedding at Mahia beach. From here we headed to Mike’s family bach in Waimarama – a beautiful beach resort with fishing, paua diving and body boarding all close at hand. For New Years I headed down to Wellington to catch up with my close friend Vicky where we danced the night away in an Irish Pub. Back to Waimarama for a few days before heading back down to Wellington with Mike for Vicky’s birthday. Again, we headed back to Waimarama before hitting the roads back to Auckland a few day's later to catch up with friends and my cousin and his family.

My New Zealand tour was too brief and all a bit frenetic but it was great to head back there. As we travelled around the north island, Mike would ask me on an almost daily basis what my highlights and low lights were. Having sat and thought about it a while, I thought it only fitting to mention a few of them. So, in no particular order, here are some New Zealand highlights:

1. Matai Bay: tucked away on the most northestern point beneath Cape Reinga was Matai Bay – a beautifully secluded, white sand bay where we and a couple of spear fisherman had the beach and the sea to ourselves.

2. Mussels in pots: as an island girl who likes her mussels in a shell, I’ve spent years poo-pooing Kiwis who persistently told me how great pots of mussels are. Well, I take my hat off to you all…they are yummy! (garlic flavor is a particular favourite of mine)

3. Pies: if I had a penny for every Kiwi and Aussie I heard grumbling about the quality of British pies I would be almost a millionaire. So, with all the hype, Mike and I went on a taste test around the north island. The result: yep your pies are superior and yes Mike those from BJ’s bakery in ‘the Sting’ were among the best (I would, however, like to state that your sausages are quite frankly...crap!)

4. Getting into hot water: just out of Taupo is a park that leads down to the river. Head through the park and you come across a thermal spring that runs down to the river’s edge. Jump into the river here and the water is beautifully warm. Here you can laze around in the thermal pool and while away the afternoon. Why spend money going to a spa for hot pools when nature creates them for free?

5. A Welly New Year: an Irish pub, a Kiwi band playing all the classics (Johnny Cash, Nirvana etc) and one of my closest mates who I had'nt seen for nearly two years made for a pretty awesome New Year in Wellington

6. Flat whites: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, nothing beats a flat white for coffee. Why they’re an endangered species in the UK I’ll never know!

7. Coming face to face with a stingray: at Goat Island marine reserve you don’t just have giant snapper and blue cod to contend with, but a fair few stingrays heading into the shallows to sunbathe. Mike and I had seen a stingray swimming about further out but as we headed back in to shore (I was stood up at this point about to wade the rest of the way in) Mike suddenly did an impression of a drowning dog. There was a lot of spluttering, splashing and gurgling as he attempted to notify me (snorkel in mouth) that there was a stingray right in front of us. In fact, Mike had virtually swum into it before it’s beady eyes gave it away. So there it was, a beautiful blue coloured stingray sat sunbathing quite happily right on the edge of the shore.

8. Meeting Isabelle: Isabelle is the first baby in our family. I only have three cousins and it is Ian and his wife Belinda who were first to have a child. Unfortunately, it’s not often I head to NZ so it was fab to meet her at their Auckland home.

9. Rockpooling: you never really grow out of turning over stones and seeing what lies beneath. On a day out at Waimarama with one of Mike’s nephews we walked round to an area called Cray Bay at low tide and spent a good hour messing around in the rock pools. They were fantastic, housing everything from crabs and paua (abalone), to weird looking starfish with long, skinny legs and black, quick moving sea slugs

10. Fishing: from yanking out crayfish pots to see what was inside (I measured rather than yanked) or sitting idly with a rod, to diving for paua then filleting and tucking into proceeds an hour or so down the line, I loved everything about fishing (except maybe the big swell on our last fishing trip!). Whilst at the beach we enjoyed fresh seafood on an almost daily basis, even slicing the fish raw and enjoying sashimi literally minutes after we landed the boat. A seafood fanatic's paradise!

11. Children: children were a big feature during my stay in NZ. Whilst I’ve never really spent any time with children, Mike has seven nephews and a neice all under 5 and half. Whilst having eight children (sometimes more if there were visitors) about was, at times, frenetic, it was also a lot of fun. It was great to watch them at different ages and see each of their personalities shining through. What’s more, I discovered that I am actually capable of holding a child without dropping it…I guess that bodes well for any children I may have in the future!

12. ‘Fush and chaps’ at Mangonui: It has to be said that the fish and chips in New Zealand are pretty good and those at Mangonui fish shop are among the best. However, whilst their chips may contain more potato than grease, and thus probably class as a better chip, I did find myself hankering after the quadruple cooked, grease fests that we do so well in the UK

13. Meeting the locals in Omapere: you know that feeling when you walk into a bar and everyone turns around and stares, well that’s exactly what happens in Omapere. You walk in and the locals (a fine collection of mullets on show) whisper among themselves and check out the foreigners. This would be perfectly understandable if we’d dropped in on a bar in the middle of nowhere where locals had never come across a foreigner but this is the ONLY bar in Ompaere and Omapere is on the tourist trail. This would suggest that each and every night (despite their experience of foreigners), the locals turn around and stare at that day’s bus load of tourists as they pop in for a drink before eating at the only restaurant…very amusing!

14. The Tongariro Crossing: the Tongariro Crossing is a Great Walk for very good reason. Crossing between three active volcanos (the snow covered Ruapehu, the cone shaped Mount Ngauruhoe aka Mt Doom from Lord of the Rings, and the wide craters of Tongariro) trekkers are greeted with stark volcanic scenery, turquoise blue lakes, steam from hot springs and inordinate quantities of shale. Unfortunately, we missed clear skies by one day and ended up walking in less than ideal conditions (considering all my trekking gear was in a box on a ship somewhere in the Indian ocean). This meant we were defeated by the weather as we attempted the additional climb up Mount Ngauruhoe. Nevertheless, it was a truly spectacular trek and one I will definitely do again.

A humble encounter

After driving the short drive back to Cape Town (and getting lost a couple of times along the way) we headed out to the infamous Robben Island – home of the jail where Nelson Mandela was held for 18 years of his 27-year sentence.

We arrived on the island where we hopped on a tour bus with one of the most irritating guides ever for a guided tour around the island. Whilst annoying in his delivery, the guide was hugely informative on the struggle against apartheid. I knew apartheid was a recent phenomenon but for this most primitive of mentalities to have been in existence during my lifetime is pretty shocking. What I didn’t realize was the outcry that apartheid sparked across the world after the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960. I never realized, for example, that factory workers in Ireland had gone on strike against the import of South African products to their factory, or that Oxford and Cambridge university students not only demonstrated against apartheid but the universities actively supported prisoners on Robben Island by enabling them to read degrees via correspondence courses.

The island tour took us to the limestone quarry where prisoners were made to chip away at toxic limestone in blistering heat. Instead of succumbing to conditions, the prisoners used this time to further their education and even the education of the prison guards who watched over them.

When we arrived at the prison, we left the bus behind and were met by a revolutionary: an ex-inmate of the prison in fact! He gave us a tour of the prison, showing us the very room in which he had been held captive. Even in prison, apartheid had a firm grip on the inmates. Our tour guide showed us meal cards that listed out the daily food allocations for inmates: there was one list for whites and coloureds (who were mixed race or asian) and another, with a lesser amount of food, for blacks. The purpose was to split the inmates on racial grounds; they would eat together but what they ate was defined by the colour of their skin. The guide explained that what actually happened was that the white and coloured inmates would share their food with the blacks as a demonstration of unity against apartheid thus undermining attempts by the prison to create a rift between races.

When our guide spoke to us about the fight against apartheid it was seriously moving. He explained that as a student he and other students had attended the rally at Sharpeville when police opened fire, killing and arresting many of them. Our guide was among those attacked and spoke emotionally of the horrors of rape and beatings that his female comrades endured after their arrests. After the massacre, he left South Africa for Angola where he took up arms. He returned to South Africa ready to fight for freedom on behalf of the militant arm of the ANC. Here he was arrested and charged as a revolutionary fighter before being imprisoned on Robben Island. He spent 17 years in prison, some years served alongside Nelson Mandela.

Today he stands before people of all colours, in the same room in which he spent many of those years talking matter-of-factly, but without hate or bitterness, of his part in the fight. It was truly humbling to be sat in my white skin before a black man who had been utterly oppressed by other whites and yet not to hear words of revenge but words of forgiveness and reconciliation.

To see how far South Africa has come since Nelson Mandela’s release in 1990 is impressive. For oppression to have been overturned and to see blacks and whites working and living, for the most part, in harmony is truly amazing. Whilst the country still has a fair way to go before blacks and whites are true equals, (in education, health and economic status for example) there is a real feeling that an awful lot has been achieved in the relatively short time since apartheid came to an end.

Whales at dusk

Today was a long drive, partly due to distance and partly due to a couple of detours we made. We were heading to Hermanus, famed for its plentiful whales and great white sharks. During the winter (June through November) Southern Right whales frolic by their thousand in the bay on which Hermanus is situated. Unfortunately, we were out of season but I still clung to the hope that we might see one or two.

The drive took us down to Cape Agulhas– the blustery, southernmost tip of Africa. Artists flock here to derive inspiration from the wild weather and isolation, and small galleries line the road as you head out to the lighthouse sat on the edge of the Cape. A brief Kodak moment in front of the lighthouse and we were soon back in the car and out of the wind.

To head to Hermanus there was a short cut through a national park marked on the map. We found the turning and thought we’d cut a bit of time off our journey. Boy were we wrong! What the map failed to mention was that we had a 40 odd miles of un-Tarmaced, gravel road to content with. Horrid Henry rattled and shook as he rumbled slowly on. It was fun at first but it quickly grew tedious as we inched our way along the map towards our destination. Every now and then we’d stop to remove a tortoise that naively thought the middle of the road was a good place to chill.

Finally, after what felt like an eternity behind the wheel we rocked up at the Zoete Inval Travellers Lodge in Hermanus (An extremely well organized backpackers that even had a jacuzzi for guest use). For dinner we headed to a seafood/sushi restaurant called Ocean Basket (a chain that’s the equivalent of Pizza Express for seafood) with spectacular views out across the bay. We were fortunate to be given a window seat so we had full panoramic views of a bay minus whales. Throughout the meal we’d peer out to see if we could see a whale and had almost given up hope when suddenly there was a disturbance in the water and two magnificent flukes flipped slowly and elegantly out of the water as the whales slid beneath the waves. The whales appeared a few more times before disappearing out of view completely. This magnificent sighting more than made up for the 12-hour drive!

Two nights in Knysna

Two nights of backpacking accommodation was enough for my travel buddy and I was duly informed that in Knysna we’d be relocating from skuzzy backpackers to something a little more upmarket.

Well, ‘a little upmarket’ is a bit of an understatement: we actually stayed in The Tonquani Lodge and Spa (Wellbedacht Lane, Knysna). Tucked away in a beautiful wooded area this lodge was nothing short of spectacular. Each room was in fact a chalet complete with personal swimming pool and braai area, kitchen, plasma screen TV, two fantastic double rooms…oh and a bottle of complementary port (Yum!)

On our first day in Knysna we headed out to the Featherbed Nature Reserve. Once again we were the youngest members of the tour (average age 60+). It was a lovely couple of hours though with fantastic views over Knysna and the Knysna Heads (where the river meets the Indian Ocean). That evening we had a lazy evening in with pizza, port and a DVD.

After booking the obligatory spa treatments, our next day was spent at Plettenberg Bay. Thinking it would be a quaint, picturesque little bay we arrived utterly unprepared for what we came across. The school year was most definitely over! Draped across the sands of this uber modern bay – complete with tower block hotel – were hundreds of 16/17 year olds each showing off their pre-university to-die-for bods in skimpy bikinis and designer board shorts. This was the playground of the sons and daughters of the rich and famous: the girls were manicured to the extreme (yep…apparently make up is the done thing at the beach), the boys were 16-year-old boys desperately trying to be men. It made for uncomfortable viewing for Amrita and I who had well over a decade on all of them. Furthermore, we had no beachwear with us and sat in our shorts on a patch of sand very much on the outskirts of the action. There we sat and watched and marveled at how simple life is to be 16 with the whole world ahead of you!

A couple of hours later and we too were manicured: I opted for a pedi whilst Amrita treated herself to a massage. On our way back to the lodge we’d also picked up food so, rather than clubbing it up with the nubile young things, us nanas opted for bubbles and a braai on our very own braai in front of our very own small-but-perfectly-formed private swimming pool.