Whitianga to Waingaro (Wiakato, New Zealand)

We pick up two hitch hikers as we leave Whitianga. They are an American and Canadian traveling New Zealand between outdoor guiding seasons in their home countries. They are good company and it’s interesting to learn about the best places to visit in Canada, a country we definitely want to make our way to at some point. We back track down roads we’ve traveled a few times the past few days until we cross the range into Thames where we part ways with our hitch hikers.

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Thames is a groovy town. At first it looks like a rural service town, providing support to local farmers requiring goods and services. But a shift of eyesight to look at the upper facades of the buildings quickly shows that this is a town with plenty of colour. The facades are bright and show the town’s century or more of history.

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At ground level the town is creative and fun. Op shops and eateries make up most of the storefronts. But the footpaths is where the action is at. There’s a massive teddy bear cafe complete with elderly bears sitting in wheelchairs. And someone has built a motorbike completely out of random spare parts, mostly from military weapons. We spend about two hours wandering town eating and browsing the shops.

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Leaving Thames we re-enter the Waikato basin with its rolling hills, green pastures and dairy cattle. This is the area we have liked best so far in New Zealand. While the mountains and coast are stunning, the rolling pastures feel homely. But then, despite being travelers, we do have an attachment to a homely sense of calm.

We visit my aunt in Te Aroha. I haven’t seen her in many years so it’s lovely to catch up. We missed her two weeks ago because she has a life (which is awesome 🙂 ). She has baked us a delicious apple tart and we sit chatting over the tart for about two hours. I learn more about her life than I ever knew before. It’s a blessing to spend this time with her.

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The sun is sinking low into the western sky as we leave Te Aroha for Waingaro. There’s quite a bit of traffic on the road for a rural area. Clearly lots of people work in towns and live on farms because the cars disappear down isolated driveways as we get farther from each town.

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Our Couch Surfing hosts aren’t yet home when we arrive. It’s cold and dark but we find their home easily. It’s in the middle of nowhere but there is a small town with just a camping ground, hot springs and pub about 10 minutes away. The pub is quiet but serves quite good steaks at a reasonable price and the kitchen is still open. Steak and chips are served with fried eggs and salad here in New Zealand. That’s what we buy. At home, steaks are often over cooked in pubs but here in New Zealand the chefs seem to err on the side of under cooking. I know which I prefer and it’s not the Australian way. Getting a medium-rare steak that is still on the rare side of pink inside is a real treat because at home medium-rare steaks are almost always on the well done side of medium.

We meet our hosts at their home and are still awake at almost 2am talking. We cover everything from criminal justice and social work (we all have experience in these fields) to international politics (a subject usually off limits to Australians) and our mutual favourite of travel. There’s something special about strangers opening their homes, lives and stories with us; especially when the sparks of friendship develop. Paul and I both hope we meet our hosts again somewhere in the future to continue the conversations.

Hamilton botanical gardens, Karangahake Gorge and shooting (Waikato, New Zealand)

Blue skies greet us as we wake to our second day in New Zealand. It’s a perfect day to check out th Hamilton botanical gardens about half an hour drive from my cousin’s home. We’d heard about the gardens from a workmate but hadn’t known quite what to expect.
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The botanical gardens at Hamilton are simply stunning. There are multiple rooms, each with its own theme. No room is an afterthought, with each being an exceptional example of the style it represents. There’s a Japanese garden of reflection, a Chinese garden of scholars, a colourful Indian garden complete with slightly off-white buildings, a structural Italian Renaissance garden, a controlled jungle tropical garden, vegetable gardens, a traditional Maori vegetable and kumera garden, and a rose garden that must smell amazing in spring. Entry is still free though a donation is appreciated for the upkeep and further development of the property.
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We drive over to Waihi to walk in the Karangahake Gorge. I appreciate my cousin for her tour guiding and for driving us to so many places. Karangahake Gorge is 100km (62 miles) from Hamilton so it’s quite a long way. But it is worth the effort. The Gorge used to be part of a gold mining operation and evidence still abounds, such as a rotting rusty machinery, a railway line and swing bridge (which have been rebuilt of course). It’s difficult to imagine that this shrub filled place of beauty was once alive with the sights and sounds of sluices, draft horses hauling trolleys and men digging tunnels. Dust must have flown through the air and rock falls must have been common. We spend our time walking along the paths and through the dark tunnels taking in the natural scenery.
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While we’re in the area we stop at the L&P bottle in Paeroa, the home of the L&P drinks so popular with Kiwis here and at home.
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We end the day at another cousin’s farm. His daughters are competitive shooters in a range of rifle disciplines such as trap and skeet. So he has a clay pigeon set up in his back yard and a rifle suitable for us total beginners. Neither Paul nor I have ever handled firearms before but my cousin is an excellent instructor. I manage to hit three of the tiny orange moving targets while Paul hits one. I n his defence, Paul only has one eye. He is right handed but it’s his left eye that still exists so, with a right handed rifle, he has to shoot from his non dominant side. He gets his distance correct often but shoots just to the left of all but one target. It’s fun and I wouldn’t mind trying again sometime at home.

We eat freshly shot venison steaks and sausages along with roast vegetables and salad for dinner. The venison is so tender and flavoursome. The salad is pretty with purple rosemary flowers and a delicious taste. Getting to eat home cooked meals is such a treat when traveling.

Te Waihou Walkway, Blue Spring, Wairere Falls and Te Aroha Museum (Waikato, New Zealand)

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We wake on our first morning in New Zealand to the most glorious sunrise from our bedroom window at my cousin’s home. I jump up and run outside in bare feet on cool wet grass to take a photo (or ten) of the magical moment. It’s our first glimpse of the landscape without the over of darkness. And what a glimpse it is.

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Our first stop for the day is the Te Waihou Walkway and Blue Spring. It’s about 45 minutes drive from our home for the night. The short walk is immediately beautiful! There’s dairy cattle grazing in a paddock and a few hundred metres further we see the blue waters of the creek that leads to Blue Spring for the first time. The waters are impossibly clear. It looks shallow but is actually deep. The green plants look like tall trees that sway in the currents below the water. It’s mesmerising. At a constant 11’C it would make an incredible place to cool down in summer (though swimming is prohibited at the actual Blue Spring).
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From Blue Spring we drive to Wairere Falls. Former Cyclone Debbie dumped so much water here that the falls are visible from miles away. My cousin tells us about a track to view the falls. It’s 45 minutes each way and has some steep sections. Sounds perfect so we turn off the road to take a short hike. The walk is pretty. The creek is flowing quickly and full of water. Each bridge across the raging torrents brings stunning views. Small rainbows form in a whisper of water slipping down a wall in long thin fingers.

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But the real majesty is waiting for us at the lower lookout. The waterfall is plunging down the cliff ahead of us. Words can’t do it justice. We eat lunch in awe of the view before the much easier walk back down.

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All I knew about Te Aroha was that my aunt lives there. She wasn’t home for a spontaneous visit but the nearby museum was open. For $NZ5 it’s a good value museum. Te Aroha was established for the purpose of being a bath town because of the natural thermal springs there. The first European bath was made in the muddy ground by burying a piano box. After that a number of huts were built around the various springs. Unfortunately, this affected the rights of Maori people who no longer had access at their traditional waters. At their height, the Te Aroha baths were a major tourist attraction for health and healing. After science disproved the curative properties of thermal baths the baths fell into disrepair until 1990 when restoration works began. Now there are two thermal baths, a foot bath and a public swimming pool.

We end the day at the Top Pub in Morrinsville where we take my cousin for dinner. It’s quiet but then there are  only 4.5 million people living in New Zealand and this is a particularly rural part of the country. The food is tasty and the atmosphere relaxed even though we have the place to ourselves. It’s been a brilliant first day.

Hello New Zealand

Hooray. We’re here in the Land of the Long White Cloud. It’s been a crazy short day because we left for the airport at 7.15am, waited for our delayed flight, got on a plane for 3 hours and it was already evening time when we disembarked in Auckland. A two hour drive through the darkness has taken us to my cousin’s home on a farm about half an hour from Hamilton. It’s awesome to see her and her teenage kids. I am as excited to spend tims with them as I am about the upcoming adventures.  Stay tuned for stories and photos. 

Mary Valley tourist drive (Queensland, Australia)

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Waffle On at Montville is one of our favourite places to eat. Annie and Adrian cook up the best Dutch food this side of the oceans. There’s croquette and friekendel speciale and poffertjes. There’s also Bratwurst and waffles from countries near The Netherlands. All delicious and served with a smile. And a great place to pick up from where we left off on our day trip last week and to pick up on the Mary Valley tourist drive.

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A short walk from Waffle On takes us to Chocolate Country, another of our Montville favourites. It would be so easy for us to buy one of everything in the shop but we settle on sharing four chocolates between us. With flavours like finger lime, lemon myrtle, cinnamon, lavender and all the regular favourites like strawberry and salted caramel, there’s something here for everyone. And the chocolate is gorgeously smooth too.

We follow the Obi Obi road down the mountain where we drove up the other day. The descent has a long gravel section with no few guard rails and a steep drop. It’s not for the feint hearted but perfectly doable in a regular car. I think the road is just closed to caravans.

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We don’t stop in Kennilworth today because we stopped here last week. Instead we turn north, following the road through a steep-sided valley and climbing up a range. There’s a bushfire burning at the entrance to the valley and local families are standing on the street watching the water bombing helicopters fighting the blaze. Of course they are concerned because if the blaze isn’t contained it will race up the steep sides of the valley, taking out their homes. It’s 43’C (109’F) out here today so there’s a real risk of this happening.

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Crossing the range we enter the Mary Valley proper. A massive bluff looms over the valley but the photos don’t turn out. The cattle standing in the fields don’t seem to care much about the extreme heat nor the views of the bluff.

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I last visited Borumba Dam a few years ago when it was the venue for an adventure race. Today we stop at the lake to take some photos and enjoy the view. I’m tempted to go for a swim but I don’t have any swimming clothes and we are going to see Paul’s sister later in the afternoon so I should be dry for that. I’ll come back on a day off to have a swim and kayak the lake now that I remember it’s here and that it’s less than two hours from home.

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The nearby town of Imbil is a conglomeration of historic buildings. The Mary Valley Rattler steam train comes here and it’s clear to see why. It looks like every building on the main street is from the olden days. It’s gorgeous. Most shops have signs on them saying that the staff are across the road in the pub. It must be the only cool place to be on this stifling hot day. Besides, this is country Australia – the pub is the most important building in town. The place where people come together to share stories, laughter and care.

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Amamoor is an even smaller town that doesn’t even have a pub. I’ve seen it signed from the Bruce Highway every time I’ve driven north through Gympie but only thought of it as the location for the annual Gympie Muster country music festival. That’s it’s claim to fame. Despite this claim to fame there’s not much here. But it’s worth a stop to admire the historic railway buildings and maybe buy a cold drink at the general store. The setting is picturesque and it’s a good escape from the hustle and bustle of city life.

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We end our adventure in Gympie where Paul’s sister lives. We hang out for a couple of hours before watching the sunset from the hill near the hospital and driving home.

North Pumicestone Passage paddle (Queensland, Australia)

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It’s been ages since Mum and I went paddling together. And I’ve never paddled at the northern end of Bribie Island. A friend of mine recently shared some photos of a paddle in the area and it inspired me so I invite Mum along for a day on the water. We launch at Golden Beach, Caloundra. Fortunately, a local warns us about the need to paddle a hundred meters north into the boating channel rather than having to walk a long way across sand banks on the more direct route to the island.

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Right from the word go I am struck by the clear water. It’s stinking hot (35’C) and humid. The clear water almost feels cool just looking at it.

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After entering the boating channel we turn south and drift / paddle with the tide and wind pushing us along. I am a little surprised at how quickly we are pushed along. It’s like being on a water slide without the crazy bends.

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Black lumps rise form the water. At first I cannot identify what the lumps are. But on closer inspection it turns out to be a huge flock of black swans with bright red beaks. I don’t have a reliable zoom lens on my phone camera so have to make do with a quick shot before the swans fly a short distance away from the boats.

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We drift and paddle for about an hour along the Pumicestone Passage. I had intended to travel towards Bells Creek but it’s so hot and Mum hasn’t paddled in ages. So, instead, I stop when I see a small patch of sand between the mangroves. We have to wade knee-deep through thick mud to get to shore but it’s worth it because it’s dry on the sand on a narrow ledge between two mangrove forests. I hang two hammocks, lay out a picnic blanket and we pull out some books. We chill in the wilderness for almost three hours. It’s a random place to rest so it’s kind of special.

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On setting off we thought the tide should have changed. Certainly the tide chart I used said it should have but it was still dead tide with a head wind. The paddling is still relatively easy though. Particularly because I’m enjoying time with Mum in nature.

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We stop at the Lions Park on Bribie Island to walk to the ocean side. It’s only a few minutes walk across the island here. All the while we can listen to the sound of waves crashing on ocean beach. Over on the beach we lay in shallow water for a swim. It’s great to finally cool off properly from the heat. And the clear water just demands entry.

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Leaving Lions Park we paddle across the Passage back towards Golden Beach. The water is so incredibly clear over the sand banks now that the tide has come in.

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Kite surfers zip across the water. And one of their dogs swims happily in the shallows. This is incredible!

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We beach the kayaks, take a swim, load the kayaks on the car and jump back into the water. It’s been a wonderful day.

Northbrook Gorge hike (Brisbane, Australia)

My sister mentions that her friends went to walk Northbrook Gorge at about the same time as I read a blog post from a mate of mine about his adventure in the same place. So we arrange to have our own adventure in this stunning place less than an hour from Brisbane. There’s two Couch Surfers staying at my home so I invite them to tag along.

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There’s a few websites sharing information about this walk and all mention different places to start this walk. We follow logic and drive up to Mt Glorious from Samford and then down the other side through the hairpin bends until we cross Northbrook Creek. We park on the opposite side of the road about 50m from the creek crossing where there’s space for about six cars. You need to be traveling in the opposite direction to see this sign but it’s a good marker for where to park.

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It’s a hot summer day so my nephew and I waste no time getting our feet wet. The creek water is cool and the gravelly creek bed is not too slippery. The rest of our crew try to keep their feet dry by walking along a feint trail next to the creek and rock hopping. I can’t be bothered with all that because we all know there’s a waterhole further up the creek that we will need to swim across.

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Navigation is simple. There’s no need to worry about a map, compass or GPS here. Just follow the creek upstream from the bridge (to the left traveling down the mountain). This is a fairly flat walk so it’s perfect for a hot day when we don’t really want to over exert ourselves. The colourful rocks on the creek bed are pretty and the plants create structure with both hard and soft fronds.

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We stop at the first gorge and pack all our gear into dry bags. There’s no more keeping feet dry now. We wade in and swim the last section of the pool where the water is too deep for us to stand. Warm rock walls stand above us. The walls here are not too high but there’s still a gorge feeling about this place. There’s a family who have stopped here for a swim and we can see why.

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Continuing upstream there’s a few more good deep swimming holes. The terrain has definitely changed since we entered the gorge areas. Gone is the shallow gold-brown water. It has been replaced by deep green-black pools that are deep enough to be refreshing.

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We swim across a deep waterhole that leads to a small waterfall that we need to climb. When I say “small” I mean small. From the bottom of the pool it looks like it will be a challenge to climb up into the big gorge above. But there are some rock steps to the right of the pool in a dark corner against the cliff face. Other walkers point these out to us to make life easier.

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My nephew splashes water against the rocks before we start the swim and the drops form a rainbow.

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The swim and short clamber are worthwhile. This second gorge is amazing. It’s short, narrow and deep. We sit down and unpack our lunches from our bags. We bought a barbecue chicken and salad greens from the supermarket, and fresh bread rolls from the bakery. It’s enough to feed a small army. Or at least the six hungry mouths in our group. It took us about 1.5 hours to get here. You could do it faster but we took our time and enjoyed the experience; I’m not into marching through the bush.

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We linger in the second gorge for about an hour, exploring a little further upstream through a big boulder field. And then it’s time to head back to the car. We retrace our steps downstream. My other nephew and I plunge on through the water while the rest of our group again keep their feet fairly dry.

I can’t believe I’ve lived in Brisbane all my life but never known about this swimming hole and walk.

Do not head up the gorge in wet weather or if storms are forecast because it would be a dangerous place to be trapped in rising waters.