Floundering in the North Island

Trip Start Oct 01, 2008
Trip End ??? ??, 2009

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Flag of New Zealand  , North Island,
Sunday, March 8, 2009

Following a fleeting visit to the UK, we arrived back at Auckland after a few days on a small island in the Tonga group called Fafa Island. It really was a desert island with nothing to do but read, swim, snorkel, kayak, or walk around the island (which only takes about 20 mins) and we occasionally did more than one of these on the same day.   We had planned to visit the main island, Tongatapu, and the capital, Nuku'Alofa, which was only about 20 mins boat ride away, but Fafa was so idyllic that we didn't. We gathered from our fellow tourists that there wasn't  a lot to do or see on the main island, and we saw most of it on the drive from the airport to the port. Tongatapu was suprisingly flat but very green. We left on the same flight as the King of Tonga and so were treated to a military band playing as we crossed the tarmac!  It is the only sovereign monarchy in the Pacific and has never been colonised.  Captain Cook discovered the islands and called them the Friendly Islands, which is a very appropriate name as there are lots of smiling, happy faces. I'm sure most of my generation will remember the larger than life smiling figure of Queen Salote. The present King, George V, is her grandson and has been King since 2006.  The country is moving towards full democracy after riots around that time.  I would certainly recommend it for a short R&R holiday but, as it takes about 30 hours from the UK, it is no good for a long weekend.

We then had 6 days touring the centre of the North Island, visiting the Coromandel Peninsula ('where Kiwis have their holidays'), Tauranga, Rotorua, Lake Taupo and Hamilton.  What struck me is that NZ is indeed 'a Land of Two Halves'.  The North feels smaller, with more rolling hills and dales than the spacious, spectacular South Island.  And less sheep of course!  There is much more Maori influence here.  About 14% of the population of NZ is Maori and 90% live in the North Island mainly in Northland, Auckland, Waikato and the Bay of Plenty. The North appears to be  much more 'touristy' with bigger, busier roads and the towns are larger with more shops and cafes etc plus the beaches are busier with more facilities than the South.  Not that the South Island does not cater for tourists - quite the opposite, as all the towns have their i-Sites (with huge amounts of information for tourists), it just doesn't feel so 'touristy'.  I think it is probably that the North, with it's much larger population, has a lot more 'locals' who holiday there as the weather is, in general, better and more reliable and this makes it feel busier. 

Leaving Auckland Airport is a bit like leaving Heathrow and we certainly floundered a bit trying to find our way to the Coromandel Peninsula, as there seemed to be a dirth of signs.  However, to be fair, we didn't have a proper map (as you don't really need one in the South) and I suppose it was a bit like looking for a sign for Brighton as one leaves Heathrow!  The Peninsula is beautiful and well worth a diversion.  I think a lot of tourists do miss it out and go straight for Rotorua in the middle.  We stayed in Thames for one night in a great little motel.  Motels here can be superb. They usually have cooking facilities (including oven, microwave and fridge) as this one did, but will also deliver breakfast to your room and often have arrangements with local restaurants who will deliver a meal to you and charge the meal to your room.  I think many of the B&Bs are similar. Coromandel is a pretty little town.  We than drove across the Peninsula on a small, unsealed road to Whitianga (pronounced Fitianga). A great drive through mountainous pine forest and again, worth a detour. Whitianga is a port with a small but delightful beach and some very good restaurants. After lunch it was down to Hot Water Beach at Hahei - well named because between low and mid-tides you can hire spades and dig in the sand to make your own thermal spa! Unfortunately we were there at the wrong time but there is a pool of water on the beach which was warm enough for a bath!

Onwards to the Bay of Plenty and Tauranga, where we stayed for a couple of days with an old friend - Juliet Brown - who used to work with me in Theatre at St Anthony's and who also brought out the 'thespian' in me.  The name, Bay of Plenty, was again give by Captain Cook and is most appropriate.  It has a subtropical climate and there is not much that won't grow there, and faster than elsewhere.  Californian Redwoods grow 50% faster there than they do in California! We went to Te Puke (been dying to say that!) which is the kiwi fruit capital of the world and visited a kiwi orchard  - Kiwi360.  This is described as a 'theme park' but is actually a full blown working orchard which was really informative and I now feel like a kiwi fruit expert! They grow on vines, like grapes, and have to be protected from frosts.  They have to be thinned and pruned by hand, so their permanent workforce is 6000.  They hire huge numbers of bees from local beekeepers to pollinate the flowers!  As they are all hand picked, they employ an extra 28000 people during the harvest. These individuals are made up of locals, backpackers, students and the unemployed, as unemployment benefit is stopped locally over the harvesting months (April-June) unless you are unfit to pick kiwis!  Despite all of this, they still need to fly in pickers from the Pacific Islands to make up the numbers.  We saw an old sorting machine where, as the fruit are sorted by weight and not size or shape, it used gravity to help.  A great but simple idea. The video doesn't really do it justice - I was laughing too much to concentrate on the photography!  To those of you who mock the kiwi fruit as a passing phase of the 60s and 70s, remember that they contain 1.5 times your recommended intake of Vit C; as much potasssium as a banana; lots of Vits E and A; and the seeds are rich in omega-3 oils!  So get out there and buy - NZ of course (look for Zespri on the label).  We were invited to lunch and dinner in Rotorua by some friends of Juliet - Bev & Dave - who were kiwi fruit growers themselves at one time and we had a fantastic time with them learning even more about kiwi fruit in NZ, as well as discussing golf, medicine, politics and trying to put the world to rights.  Yet again, it was typical Kiwi hospitality and we were treated like lifelong friends with a generosity and warmth that seems to set Kiwis apart.
Tauranga itself is a pleasant town - more sprawling and larger than I imagined  but with lovely beaches, shops and restaurants and the ubiquitous extinct volcano - Mount Maunganui - at the entrance to the harbour. T he port is arguably the largest in New Zealand - although I think the Jafas disagree!   

We visited one of the shops in Grey Street - Books a Plenty - to say hello to Chris, the owner, who is the sister of Margy Bramley, one of our friends here.  One of the highlights of our time with Juliet was when she decided to take us 'floundering' in the estuary! She had never been before but had a harpoon(!), an underwater light and a table of tide times.  So, after a visit to the local Warehouse to buy a couple of pairs of water shoes for Lyn and myself, followed by a few glasses of wine, we set off in the pitch dark (no moon even) to cross into the centre of the estuary. After an absolutely hilarious hour of slurping sounds - as our feet (and legs) got stuck in the mud - plus fears of disappearing altogether and a lack of flounders (the tide hadn't quite turned), we retired back to Juliet's house for a bottle of Feijoia (pineapple guava) 'champagne' and lots of talk of our bravery and the ones that got away.  I think Juliet should make this a permanent part of the tourist itinerary in Tauranga! 
The geo-thermal highlights of Rotorua and the surrounding area will be covered in the next exciting instalment.........
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Where I stayed
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