Whanganui (Manawatu-Wanganui, New Zealand)

A sliver of sunshine filters through the clouds. It seems almost surreal after the rain and cyclonic weather that has been floating around.

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We head up to the Whanganui River Road. We’ve heard it’s beautiful and the river is the town’s biggest draw card. The tip was true and the Whanganui River Road is a classic drive. Mind you, we don’t get far before a landslide blocks our path. More experienced locals or people driving 4WDs would get through. But I don’t want to be that tourist who took the wrong risk. So we turn around.

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This isn’t a bad thing though because Whanganui has so much to offer. The Bason Gardens were created as a labour of love by a local many years ago. It’s now a large botanical garden where families are taking picnics. We sit a while in a picturesque gazebo before exploring the conservatory and house garden. This is a place to take your kids to run, play and instill a love of plants.

We follow the road down to the windswept black sand coast with it’s ever present tsunami warning signs. There’s no surfers today for the sea is brown with run off from the flooded rivers. However, there are two local men on quad bikes collecting drift wood.
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We drive back to Whanganui along country roads. We have no need to rush. We take a short walk along the beach at Castlecliff where the Whanganui River meets the sea. Green grasses blown in the increasingly strong winds. A long brown line extends across the sea about 400m  (1/4 mile) from the river mouth. Waves crash oddly where the force of the muddy river water meets the blue storm churned sea.

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Returning to Dolphin Townhouse we relax for an hour before driving to the local movie cinema. It’s cute on the outside and still in 1960s style inside. We watch Beauty and the Beast. The picture and sound quality are surprisingly good. A vocal old drunk storms out partway through the second song complaining that “there’s too much singing blergh”. Everyone giggles and settles in without his muttering. Children run around behind us, making stomping noises throughout the entire movie but that’s what little boys do when they watch a movie chosen by their sister.

And so ends our day in Whanganui.

Oaonui to Whanganui (Manawatu-Wanganui, New Zealand)

Our stay with Andrew amd Suzie has been so relaxing. The past two nights have felt like we were staying with relatives, not strangers who opened their home and lives to us. We’ve played with their big boofy dog, petted their cats, shared meals, swapped storied and watched some tele.  I’m almost sad our stay has to end yet excited about what lies ahead.
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Andrew recommends Dawson Falls on the slopes of Mt Taronake. He also gives us a tip about where to park to reduce the distance to the falls given my injury and the wet weather.
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Te Rere o Noke (as the Maori refer to Dawson Falls) drop 18m off a cliff formed by volcanic activity thousands of years ago. The path leads through an almosy fantasy like forest with gnarled trees, glossy green moss and black soil. I definitely must come back to New Zealand to hike some more. The falls are equally magnificent. They are loud and rough.
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We continue our drive through the farmlands between Mt Taranaki and the sea. There are odd mounds everywhere that look like the remnants of an eruption. I’ve never seen this kind of landscape before so it intrugues me.
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New Zealand is far more rural and isolated than I had anticipated. Red tin sheds and old houses dot the landscape.

Stratford appears as if from nowhere. There are no distance signs in New Zealand to announce the approach of towns. An art gallery is the main attraction for the town. It’s a groovy place with some gorgeous pieces. We buy two pottery monks.
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Eltham is a short drive away. The art gallery is closed when we arrive so we walk through a nearby garden.  There’s a wall of toys accompanied by a faerie chapel and castle. It’s adorable. The toy wall and garden was created after a local found a toy on her garden and placed it on a wall in the garden. The toy garden grew as more people placed toys there. Today, the founder’s ashes are housed in the faerie chapel. The art gallery is open after our walk. It’s a lovely collection and we buy some prints.

Our next stop is Hawera where there is another gallery and also an art school. The art world is in safe hands. We buy some paintings and the artist happens to be onsite. She signs the works.

It’s raining now and Cyclone Cook is racing towards Whanganui where we will stay tonight.  We’re not concerned though. Checking into Dolphin Townhouse we are greeted by our friendly Air BnB host. She has left us a wealth of local information, including the timetable for the local cinema. We have the townhouse to ourselves so can cook a meal, relax and sit out the storm.

Oaonui and New Plymouth  (Taranaki, New Zealand)

Mt Taranaki is hidden behind a thick layer of cloud. I guess we won’t be seeing the majestic volcano today. Mind you, with my hip still sore that’s probably a good thing because it reduces the temptation to go hiking.
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We drive back to New Plymouth instead while our hosts go to their respective work. New Plymouth is the largest town in this part of the Taranaki. It’s little more than a village but the distinction between city, town and village is broad here in New Zealand with its tiny national population. But an artistic village it is.
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Our first stop is an art gallery dedicated to Len Lys. He created the wind wand on the waterfront. It’s all modern art and I find it dull. Lots of empty space and random objects that someone has called art. I’m not sure that I agree that coloured rods scattered around the gallery is art. Each to their own. And the exterior of the building is worth visiting with it’s wave of mirror wall.
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Puke Ariki is nearby so I hop over there next while Paul walks. It’s drizzling so there’s no point staying outdoors. Puke Ariki is a large museum that covers local and natural history. We borrow a wheelchair so Paul can push me around and rest my hip. We learn about the natural history of Mt Taranaki, which developed and collapsed many times over thousands of years. The display of Maori history is respectful. I think about the stories we have heard from white people over the years about the relationships between Maori and European New Zealanders. There is much myth in the stories that Maori were not dispossessed, for the display we read at Puke Ariki clearly shows a tale of dispossession. Downstairs is a brilliant display about bugs. It’s aimed at children but we have fun there. We play a game about attracting bees to the garden and dress up in insect costumes.

The wind wand is at the end of the street visible from Puke Ariki. It’s just a big red pole with an orange light on the end that moves with the wind. I don’t even bother to take a photo.
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We drive back to Oaonui, stopping at all the beaches along the way. The black sand beaches are pretty. Sure, I’m not as likely to swim here as on a white sand beach but that’s just a trick of the brain. Funny how that happens. For surfers, though, this stretch of coast is a draw card with reliable waves. Every town has at least one surf shop and the beaches are all signed from the highway.
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We stop at Cape Egmont Lighthouse. The museum is only open during the weekend and today is Wednesday. But the drive along the coast road is eerie enough to keep us interested. Eerie because the beach is strewn with massive boulders that can only have come from a violent volcanic eruption. In the wind and drizzle it feels like this could happen again any time, even though the last eruption was in the 1750s. A dilapidated house just adds to the mystery.

It’s late afternoon when we return to our Couch Surfing hosts’ house. Andrew and Sue are fantastic hosts with the perfect Couch Surfing set up. We cook a meal to share, eat together and watch some television between conversation. It’s been mother brilliant day in New Zealand for us.

Morrinsville to Oaonui (Taranaki, New Zealand)

We have a long drive ahead of us today from Morrinsville to Oaonui where we are Couch Surfing for the next two nights. It’s probably a good thing because my hip is sore (most likely hip bursitis) and I am finding walking near impossible. A day in the car looking at scenery is a good way to force me to rest (we do stop in Cambridge though to pick up some strong pain killers and anti inflammatory mediation).
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The landscape of our drive is everything the New Zealand tourism board promises in their advertisements of this country. We start in the flat Waikato basin, passing dairy sheds, and black and white cows. It’s quite a contrast to our scruffy dry grasslands with brown beef castle at home. Almost imperceptibly we leave the Waikato basin behind at Awakino. We’re now on the rugged west coast with it’s sense of isolation.

We stop in Mokau. The town is tiny but has a museum (the lady there calls it a treasure trove). The museum houses a vast array of historic stories both Maori and European. My favourite display is definitely the pianola, which still works. I’ve never seen  one in action before.
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It’s a pity the weather is not great today and that my hip is so sore because there are many beaches to explore. There’s even a Three Sisters, which are reminiscent of th 12 Apostles on our own Great Ocean Road in Victoria. But we make do with what we have and tomorrow I’ll buy some crutches so I can get around more easily. Besides, the views from the road are magnificent.
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Our Couch Surfing hosts live on a farm in the middle of nowhere. It’s quiet and Mt Taranaki watches over the area witih authority. Even half hidden in the clouds the mountain is a strong energy. We chat over a roast lamb dinner. I enjoy hearing the stories of our hosts who are true locals to the area. That’s why we Couch Surf, to meet new people.

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.