Caught by the Taranakis

Trip Start Nov 08, 2003
Trip End Oct 22, 2004

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Saturday, September 4, 2004


After a night of rain we woke to a nice bright and breezy day for our drive south through Auckland and down along the west coast of the North Island. Shunning State Highway 1 we hung a right onto the winding scenic route of SH22 via the town of Pukehohe but before long the fuel gauge was creeping towards empty so it was back on to the main highway for the safe haven of a BP in the town of Ngaruawahia (pronounced . . . with difficulty).

For the third time in two weeks we passed through the uninspiring outskirts of Hamilton and after an hour we'd arrived at a very wet Waitomo Caves for our second attempt at seeing them. To begin with we booked into the local van park which was now resembling a swamp before heading up the road to join the 3.30pm tour of the caves.

We were guided around a fraction of the 28-mile network of underground limestone caves through three levels known as the Banquet Chamber, Pipe Organ and Cathedral with 'tites' and 'mytes' galore, and our thirteen year-old guide took great pleasure in pointing out look-a-like rock formations culminating in one that resembled Tony Blair having his fingernails pulled out while a mustachioed cigar-smoking man stuck pins in his eyes . . . but you had to look VERY closely and if you wish for it enough it may come true.

'Le Cave de Resistance' was nearly upon us though as another staircase led us all down to the Glowworm Cave where we boarded a boat in darkness for a tranquil ride through a grotto. Our guide pulled us along on overhead ropes and as we entered the darkest part of the tunnel we looked up to see a million twinkling green fairylights hanging from the roof of the cave. These glowworms were trying to attract a mate but they'd have to be quick as they're all born without mouths so they've got three days before they starve to death. Talk about pressure to perform. If we had a Pound for every cave we'd visited on our travels we'd be . . . 4 richer.

Back at the van we hibernated for the evening from the constant pitter-patter of tiny sleet.


We left Waitomo early to head south on SH3 leaving behind the province of Waikato for Taranaki's coastline through three-hours' worth of scenic reserves and hairpin bends, and soon our arms were aching and longing for a nice boring straight Australian road. State Highway 3 weaved its way around the coast and finally came to a stop in New Plymouth, Taranaki's principal centre.

We drove into town and quite liked what we saw, a city full of old and new architecture with a smart seafront, good shopping and an impressive backdrop of a dormant volcano in the distance. We strolled around the busy little town with ultra-friendly shop assistants and after a quick chat with an insane Cornish girl in a sports shop we ventured into Dick Smiths Electronics, famous for stacking them high and selling them cheap. It was here we came across THE bargain of the century, a tiny black and white TV for just over a tenner with a screen the size of a couple of cigarette packets. Soph, who was now drooling uncontrollably, handed over $36 and skipped out of the store like an athlete who'd just done the 800m/1500m double at the Olympics which as we know is nigh on impossible . . . or is it? The Office was on tonight so you could understand the elation.

Along the road the faint call of a modern art gallery could be heard beckoning us through its pretentious doors, so like the cult members that we are, we donned black polo-necks, angled our heads and entered the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Zealand's only modern art gallery. The standard paintings of nursery quality were glanced at and dismissed as usual but in one room we found what is known as by us culture-vultures as 'kinetic sculpture', a collection of oversized steel Chief Executive's desk toys that rolled, waved and bonged after the push of a button. It was by far the highlight of the gallery and was worth the admission price in itself, which incidentally was 0.

We then walked to the seafront where a big red 'wand' sculpture took pride of place, before we headed to our site for the night for a pasta dinner while watching the Brentmeister-General on a tiny screen with perfect reception.


We left New Plymouth to head further around the coastline on State Highway 45, otherwise known as Surf Highway 45, with the striking image of the volcano, Mount Taranaki, in the distance.

It was a magnificent (I feel I must use that word if it's OK with you) sight being the perfect volcanic shape with a nice blanket of snow capping it. But soon the clouds were rolling in and within an hour the mountain was gone and the rain had come.

160km later and we were in the charming town of Wanganui with examples of Victoriana poking out from behind every streetlight, and it was the streetlights themselves that illustrated it the best as baskets of flowers hung from original gaslights that lit avenues full of wrought-iron street furniture and preserved buildings and it was no surprise the high street was called Victoria Avenue.

Although we'd have loved to spend more time here, our ultimate goal today was to reach the Tongariro National Park where we planned to learn the art of hurtling down a snowy slope on a couple of planks of fibreglass before jumping on a chairlift to repeat the whole pointless exercise over and over again. As you can tell I wasn't up for the idea but with the brunette threatening to do a runner with half of my 2,000 fortune I was forced to comply.

God must have been listening to my relentless moans as we headed 60km north along a rolling SH4, and as we rounded a corner we were met by the sight of a tree lying across the road from a dangerously recent landslide. God works in mysterious lumberjacking ways as a tight gap underneath it allowed only cars to squeeze by but it was going to be impossible for us. Oh dear, what a pity, never mind.

We swung our thankfully large van around and headed back towards Wanganui for the night, arriving at the local caravan park just after dark. We had a fishy dinner of mussels and seafood chowder before turning on our new favourite toy to watch New Zealand play the Aussies down the road in Wellington, and from what we'd seen of the ad breaks, the All Blacks seemed to be New Zealand's only celebrities as a string of adverts for Phillips, MasterCard, Milk, Coca-Cola and Ford were rattled off, all starring the players themselves.

Sadly there was an alternative route to the North Island's ski fields which we'd be taking tomorrow, so join us then for a few days of snowy gymnastics . . .

Gareth & the Brent-meister General
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