Waingaro to Auckland (Auckland, New Zealand)

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I wake to a heavy dew on a morning just warm enough to avoid a light frost from forming. I walk outside to talk to the alpacas and goats that live in our hosts’ paddocks. While curious, the alpacas only come so close to me. But the goats are fairly well climbing the fence for a pat. Our hosts got them from a children’s petting zoo so that probably explains the friendliness. We talk with our host again this morning and take ages to leave on our drive.

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But before we drive to Auckland we take a scenic detour towards Raglan, just south of Waingaro.

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A detour from our detour takes us to Bridal Veil Falls. My cousin told us about these falls two weeks ago but we didn’t have a chance to get here. Now that the sun is shining and we have plenty of daylight to make it to Auckland we can come here. The short walk to the top of the falls is easy. The 261 steps down the the base of the falls is a little more challenging and I’m glad my hip has settled a lot. And then there’s the 261 steps back up to the top of the falls. Thankfully the waterfall is so stunning that it’s no real hardship.

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We drive on to Raglan. This popular surfing town on the west coast is buzzing with backpackers. They are everywhere doing what backpackers do. This is the first time we’ve been in a Kiwi place that’s so popular with backpackers but that’s probably because we’ve stayed in random out of the way places without hostels. There’s an informative museum near the iSite. It’s not hugely impressive but worth a visit and tells a good story of the town. The surfing exhibition is my highlight. In a way the town is similar to many backpacker towns around the world. Everything has a price, the same tours are advertised on every corner (surfing classes, diving, caving and boat trips), and backpackers can be heard phoning ahead to hostels further along their journeys looking for dorm beds. It makes me think about that move The Beach with Leonardo di Caprio. That’s not a bad thing – it just is a reality. And it makes me glad we had a car and found ourselves in random out of the way places far from the tourist rat race. That said, we have a good laugh and enjoy an absolutely delicious burrito at a tiny hole in the wall place – one of the benefits of backpacker towns is generally the availability of fresh hipster inspired food that generally tastes great.

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We spend the rest of the day following Highway 22 to Auckland. I want to stop after every bend to take photos but have to resist or we won’t get anywhere.

Auckland comes as a shock to the system. After two weeks in rural New Zealand the traffic and close proximity of houses is crass and harsh. We have rented an Air BnB in Titirangi. Unfortunately, we arrive to discover it is nothing like what was advertised and the reviews are clearly fraudulent. It’s frustrating and annoying. We consider leaving but Auckland is so expensive and we don’t want to pay another $200 a night after we’ve already paid this place. Our mood does improve though after we find an amazing Nepalese restaurant in nearby Blockhouse Bay. It’s packed and takes over 50 minutes for us to be served our food but the time passes quickly watching the restaurant buzzing and discussing the highlights of our holiday. The food is so worth the wait. From memory the restaurant had the word Everest in the name.

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 ūüôā ). 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.
 

Taupo to Tauranga (Bay of Plenty, New Zealand)

After a late night completing the puzzle we are both slow to get going in the morning. Besides, the bach is so peaceful. We drive into Taupo to use some wifi and confirm the address of our Couch Surfing host tonight. Later we will discover I wrote the address down incorrectly but, for now, we feel secure in knowing where we will sleep tonight and set off north out of Taupo.

Not far out of town we pick up a British man who is hitch hiking his way to the Bay of Plenty. We offer to take him as far as the coast and then he will need to find another lift for the final short drive south to the town he is headed to. He accepts and our drive becomes quite a social affair. I never used to pick up hitch hikers because, in Australia, we are taught hitch hikers are dangerous and likely to murder or rob you. In fact, in any states, hitch hiking may even be illegal. But I changed my mind in Hungary some years ago when I met a man who had hitch hiked the world and told me of how fun it was. Since then I have met other lovely hitch hikers and now have no qualms if the person looks okay. It helps out the hitch hiker and it creates new human contacts for us in a disconnected world.

Rotorua comes and goes. We had thought about stopping but it looks like the sort of town that has worked out how to take our money quite quickly for relatively little reward. That’s the thing about New Zealand, it’s an expensive country¬†to travel. Food is expensive; even vegetables are more expensive than in over priced Australia. Accommodation is not too bad if you stick with Air BnB, which is a thriving industry here. But everything that can be seen and done is captured by tourism operators and, because people pay, the cost of paying is quite high. That said, if you stay away from the Rotoruas of New Zealand you can still enjoy a good budget holiday like we are.

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We see a sign to Okere Falls. With all the rain we’ve experienced that sounds like a promising prospect. ¬†And it is. The walk to the falls is relatively short. This used to be a place Europeans came to in the early days of tourism. And we still come. It is possible to book a rafting trip here or to watch the rafts descend the falls. But none appears to be departing for our viewing pleasure today. Possibly due to the high water levels after Cyclones Debbie and Cook. We explore the paths and walk down to a cave right near the base of one of the falls. Maori people used to hide in this cave to escape battles, particularly women, children and elderly who were not fighting. It’s loud in the cave as water rushes under the rock. Further down the path we come to a pool where water is churning a rope swing hangs from a tree. I wonder whether this is for rescue purposes or whether locals swim here. Surely the former I still more likely.

We drop our Englishman at the motorway and turn north while he travels south.
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Before long we are in Tauranga parking near a beach on a beautiful sunny day. It’s only about 21’C (70F) but feels like summer. It’s amazing how quickly the body adjusts to new surrounds. While we don’t swim we do take a short walk along a rocky outcrop to take in the views and watch the surfers riding waves. It feels good to be at a white sand beach again after the black sand ones we’ve been to. Somehow it feels more “normal” and safe. That’s silly because volcanic sand itself doesn’t make a beach more or less dangerous than any other. But still, black sand beaches feel somehow more dangerous. Probably due to the colour¬†of the water and a perception of what could be lurking below the surface.
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We eventually find our Couch Surfing hosts’ house after writing down to the incorrect address. Rachel is an awesome host. We spend the night sharing stories and eating food. Paul and I commandeer the kitchen, for which we are grateful because we have lots of left over groceries we won’t be able to use for the next two days and it feels good to share with our hosts who are so generous to let us stay in their homes and share their lives for a night or two. And, in this case, to share the most amazing ocean views.

While we didn’t do much sightseeing today, we did share the day with two awesome new people and that makes it a pretty special and awesome day.

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.

Leeuwarden (Friesland, The Netherlands)

Leo from Couch Surfing has kindly invited us to stay with him for a couple of nights while we’re in The Netherlands. He lives in Leeuwarden so that’s how we come to spend a day exploring the capital of Friesland. Our connection with Leo started after Paul put up a public trip to The Netherlands on his Couch Surfing profile. Leo made contact with us and said that if we plan to be in Leeuwarden we can stay. That’s all the encouragement we needed to make plans to be in Leeuwarden. We arrive last night after our day in Westerbork and feel instantly welcome. And it’s also a chance for us to experience a snippet of life inside the windows of the older style Dutch homes we pass when walking through cities. The kind with the large windows and high ceilings.

Leo has already left for work when we wake. He’s left us a spare key so we can come and go as we please. We decide to have something of a rest day that begins with a walk to the bakery and supermarket for fresh bread and ham. Leo has left some for us but we particularly want the experience of walking to the bakery to choose our own bread. There are so many types of fresh bread available here and we just don’t have the same choice at home (actually, the fresh bread at home is totally different to the light fluffy fresh breads in The Netherlands).
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Breakfast eaten we walk to Decathlon on the other side of the city. It’s my favourite shop in Europe. I buy roller blades that I intend to use for exercise at home. I haven’t skated in two decades but want to relearn. Roller blades are cheaper here in Europe than at home. We also buy two tennis rackets with bag and balls for sixteen Euros ($AU24) because we’ve been saying for years that we’re going to play tennis together once or twice a week. Now we have no excuse. 2017 is going to be our year of fitness and we now have toys to help us get there without making fitness a torture challenge.
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Leeuwarden is beautiful for walking so it hasn’t been a hardship to walk the 5km (3 miles) return to Decathlon and back. We stop often to take photos of life on the canals. There’s a range of boats and, as with every watery place I’ve traveled, fishermen.
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After dropping off our purchases and eating more fresh bread with ham at Leo’s house we set off for the afternoon to explore Leeuwarden. There are some museums here but we’re having a lazy day so just wander the streets a bit aimlessly, flitting from one place that captures our interest to the other.
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The city is old but also modern. The buildings and facades date back centuries but the shop fronts are contemporary. This is clearly a regular city, not a tourist town. It’s refreshing to be in a place like this where there are no tourists carrying Lonely Planets racing from one “must see” to the next. A place where the atmosphere is just normal not aimed at getting cash from our traveling wallets. Bikes are parked along the canals. Cars line the streets. And old buildings watch it all.
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Our find for the day is the PoesPas Cat Cafe (address: Noordvliet 11). We are both a bit thirsty and keen for a hot chocolate so start to look for a cafe. As fate would have it, the one cafe we pass is PoesPas. You are supposed to book but it’s a quiet day so we can enter. There are about six cats living here in this space. They are obviously much loved and rule the space. The cats walk on tables, play on climbing gyms and can also take a break by retreating to a quiet area away from the guests. It’s a cute place to stop for a while (unless you dislike cats ūüėČ ).

Given that it’s our second night at Leo’s house we decide to cook him dinner. We buy some groceries and cook up a Dutch dish: huttspot (carrot, onion and potato mash) with meatballs we bought from the butcher shop. Then we spend the night chatting with our host, sharing stories of our respective travels and homes. It’s the part of Couch Surfing that we enjoy the most. That and learning new recipes (we learned one from Leo last night).

Sunday morning in Probolinggo (East Java, Indonesia)

Last night Wijaya (our Couch Surfing host) told us that there would be a walking street at the Alun Alun this morning. So I wake early and am not disappointed.

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There are market stalls selling all manner of food, drink, clothes and trinkets. Without the usual buzz of scooters it is easy to meander through the crowd taking everything in. 

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In the Alun Alun itself young men play soccer.

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Roller blade in a small tiled area.

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And play volleyball.

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A crowd gathers as a monkey handler puts on a show. The monkey dresses up as a soldier and cowboy, pushes a kaki lima (food stall) and rides a motorbike. I suspend judgement on the grounds that a traveler should view events in context, recognising that judgement comes from applying our own cultural norms and expectations on those who allow us to be guests in their lands. And so I watch as children smile laugh and parents enjoy seeing their children happy.

We head to the Bromo for the day armed with hints and tips from our host. But I will write about that in a separate post.