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.

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.