Monday, February 29, 2016

Thar she blows

After our Coromandel interlude, it was time for our first night in the van, in Rotorua. Although apparently the van handles really well, it's a big beast, and with stops, we need to add an hour or two to whatever Google tells us the driving times are, especially if we encounter windy roads. So by the time we got to Rotorua, did a light bit of shopping, and checked into the motorhome park, it was early evening and that was us done for the day.

Our home on the road

The fridge (left) is literally bigger than the fridge in my apartment

The sad thing is, I actually did try to make the bed for photography purposes. Fail

Rotorua is well known for its thermal activity (and associated sulphurous stink), which we took advantage of by having a dip in the park's own naturally-heated hot pools (and a jump in the cold swimming pool, since the hot water quickly gets unbearable). Once some rowdy teens got told off by someone bigger and braver than us, the park quietened down and we had a pretty good sleep.

We were up relatively bright and early the next day for a short drive out of Rotorua to the Wai-o-Tapu "thermal wonderland". I've been before, but it's still a pretty amazing place - bubbling mud pools, geysers, lakes dyed all kind of crazy colours due to the strong concentrations of minerals leached out of the rocks by the boiling hot water, etc.

We first saw the Lady Knox geyser erupt promptly at 10:15 am - we heard some tourists nearby wondering "how the earth knows it's 10:15 am". The secret is that they put soap down the geyser, which breaks the surface tension, allowing the super-heated water below to burst forth. I've seen this decried on the internet as "fake", which I suppose it is, but there you go. If you want to see a show promptly at 10:15 every day, fake is what you get.


Soap goes in

Thar she blows!

The Lady Knox geyser and the mud pools are actually slightly away from the rest of the park, and you can visit them separately if you like (in fact, you can see the mud pools for free). The full entry cost like $35 per person, which is, like everything else in NZ it seems, pretty blooming expensive, but on the other hand, you get several hours of wonderment for your money, so probably an okay deal.

View of the mud pools

I took approximately a million billion photos like this and like 2 of them actually show the mud bubbling

I took so many photos at Wai-o-Tapu, this post will have To Be Continued. I'll just leave you with a photo of our new mate, Tommy Two-Hats, controlling traffic on the State Highway between Rotorua and Taupo.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Baches be crazy

As a Southern Hemispherean in the Northern Hemisphere, a reasonably frequent topic of conversation is the "crazy" concept of having Christmas in summer. There is always a certain level of cognitive dissonance involved, sure - virtually every single TV show, movie, song, book, tradition etc. that features Christmas shows a snowy scene presumably quite far removed from an actual Christmas in Bethlehem. Talk to any New Zealander, however, about the problem with Christmas in summer, and it's not the un-traditional nature of proceedings that jars, but rather that it forces all the summer festivities into a week or two around Christmas and New Year, when the weather is often unsettled, and leaves nothing fun to break up the winter. This is bad for those of you living in New Zealand, but for anyone in the Northern Hemisphere planning a trip Down Under, it's good news. Wait until at least after Waitangi Day (6th February) and you're likely to have great weather with fewer crowds (and escape the NH winter). We arrived in Matarangi on a Sunday, when there were a few people still on the beach, but on Monday and Tuesday we had the place virtually all to ourselves. Perfect!
The view from our free accommodation in Matarangi

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Coromandel dreamin'

For the first destination on our road trip, we were determined to bank some beach time before heading south (the Southern Hemisphere equivalent of heading north) and before autumn arrived. Picking the dates for our trip was a bit of a delicate balance - go too soon and you've used up most of your holiday time for the year (at least in Jules's case) right after the Christmas break, plus you're competing for space with innumerable families. Go too late, and you risk missing the best of the weather.

So far, mostly so good. We've reached Wellington - almost, Paraparaumu for those in the know - and hit our first big weather-related snag, in the form of a cancelled trip to the Kapiti Island bird reserve tomorrow. Big sad face. Otherwise, the weather has been mostly warm and sunny with a bit of cloud, which was actually quite good for our beach trip, otherwise it probably would have been too hot to spend any length of time out at the beach.

As it was, we stayed two nights and got three swims under our belts. We had been planning to go to Waihi Beach, which would have saved us having to drive up the Coromandel Peninsula and back. However, at our family barbecue on Saturday, one of my cousins offered us the keys to her bach (holiday home) most of the way up the peninsula, at Matarangi. It's hard to say no to an offer like that, so without even sleeping a night in the van, we were off for a 4-ish hour drive to our first destination.

The Coromandel is a lot more rugged than I remembered. The windy roads with a cove around every bend did come back to me as we drove, but I had forgotten the reasonably steep elevations. It was a beautiful drive, which I did my best to capture as Official Roadtrip Photographer (also Co-Pilot and Reminderer to stay on the Lefter). Talking of which, this is Jules's first time driving on the left, not to mention hauling an almost 8-metre long motorhome around, and he is doing a stellar job of both things. On roads like this, no less:

One of the many one-lane bridges we have encountered so far

Not much room for error here

But as you can see, the reward for going around those narrow, windy roads is the spectacular views of the coast.

(Presumably) low tide near Thames

Plus, when we got higher into the hills, some lovely views back the way we had driven to the water.

Monday, February 22, 2016

On a Mission

On Friday, after a grocery shop to stock up the campervan where I was scandalised by how much things cost now in NZ ($275 for like half a trolley of groceries), I took Jules to one of my favourite places in Auckland, Mission Bay. Across the other side of the city from where my parents are, it's a beautiful place for a drive on the harbour, a walk, to sit in a café or go to the beach. It used to be full of roller bladers too, but either they've moved on or have day jobs, since we didn't see any.

I have been known to be a bit down on Auckland in the past. I lived in Wellington for a bit as a student, and said thereafter that if I ever moved back to NZ, I would live in Wellington, not Auckland. Auckland has its issues - traffic, humidity, endless urban sprawl - which in turn generate further lifestyle problems, since it's hard to get that sort of relaxed, after-work drink vibe going when everyone has to get in their cars and spend an hour in traffic to get home.

But being able to spend a few days in Auckland as a tourist has helped me appreciate the city more. I've been reading various things on where to go and what to see in New Zealand - being from a place means that you're expected to be the all-knowing expert, when in fact most of the places on our itinerary I've never been to, or only once as a kid - and most people pan Auckland or say it's only useful to fly in to and start your trip shortly afterwards. It's not where I'd recommend people spend all of their time, of course, but after living in landlocked European cities for so long, the greenness of the city and especially the proximity, no matter what part of the city you're in, to not one but two coasts is actually pretty special.

This is illustrated pretty well by Mission Bay, which is really close to the city centre and has fabulous views across the water to the city and the extinct (?) volcano of Rangitoto (according to Wikipedia, this is one of 50 volcanoes in the Auckland area).

Looking towards the volcanic island of Rangitoto

Panorama with the city on the left

Downtown Auckland. The tall building is the Sky Tower, which is over 1000 ft/328 metres tall, making it the tallest man-made structure in the Southern Hemisphere (and probably way down the list in the Northern Hemisphere)

It got a bit windy out there

The view from my parents' house. If you enlarge it, you can see Rangitoto fairly central on the horizon, and (just) see the Sky Tower to the right of that (you can see them better in real life)
Afterwards, we stopped in for a coffee with my MA thesis supervisor, which was really nice, and then finished up the evening with dinner with friends. Today, there is not a cloud in the sky and we're heading for a family BBQ. I'll just have to be more careful not to get burnt, like I did yesterday - I must have forgotten that UV levels in NZ are a lot higher than Europe and the US. Oops!

Saturday, February 20, 2016

A walk in the bush

Auckland so far has been hot, humid, and sometimes rainy. Not quite the dose of New Zealand sunshine we were looking forward to, but it seems to be clearing up now. We ventured out between rain showers to do a short walk in the "bush" (forest) in the Waitakere Ranges, not far from where my parents live.

Being away for so long is helping me see my native country with new eyes, and having gotten used to European forests, the New Zealand bush suddenly looks quite exotic. New Zealand's long geographical isolation means many of its native species are not found elsewhere in the world (and accounts for the many flightless native birds and the lack of native mammals). The profusion of ferns and palm trees in particular makes the New Zealand bush quite visually distinct from forests elsewhere in the world.

Blue skies appeared towards the end of our walk

A giant kauri, about a thousand years old

One reason people may be more familiar with the look of the New Zealand bush these days is, of course, the Lord of the Rings movies (and The Hobbit I suppose, I haven't seen it). My mum remarked that, after seeing the films, she half expected to stumble across hobbits in the woods near their house. I thought particularly of the hobbits hiding from the Nazgul near the beginning of the first film.


When presented with some gnarled tree roots, however, I chose to channel my inner Gollum.

We finished off the day by going to a nearby RSA (this is I think like the Veterans' Association, assuming the Veterans Association runs pubs where veterans and general old people hang out) for a pub quiz. This was as much a way to stay awake until bed time as anything, since I'd been up for a few hours in the night and then woke up at 6 in the morning, yay. But we ended up taking out first place! Granted, not against the stiffest of competition, but since in Brussels we are always determinedly middle of the pack in our local pub quiz, it was a nice change!

I sadly won't be around to profit from the unbelievable prize

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Big Buddha: Day 2 in Bangkok

We ended Monday night with the most virtuous of intentions, made flesh in the form of an alarm set for 6 am the next morning. The idea was to get up bright and early, figure out how to get to the Grand Palace from our hotel (public transport links seemingly pretty poor) and be there by the time it opened at 8:30, to beat the crowds, the heat and the ticking clock.

What actually happened in the morning was that Jules turned the alarm off and I woke up at 8.15. Oh well, best laid plans of mice and men and all that. The pace of the morning did not exactly pick up from there, and by the time we got ready and ate breakfast, it was 10 am and our early bird dreams were dust.

Lacking the energy to come up with a creative way to get to the palace, we just hopped in a taxi for another frustratingly slow ride across the city. I will stop complaining about Brussels traffic after experiencing Bangkok! (Well, at least for a month!) That is, when we found a taxi that would take us. The first two wanted to take us on a "tour" of the city (including the "best tailor in Bangkok" aka the tailor with the best kickbacks for that particular taxi driver in Bangkok). Unable to agree either a price or a route, we were left walking along the road until we managed to flag another one down. This one was snacking on some sort of strong-smelling curry mix, which made me feel sick, but at least he took us straight to our destination instead of holding us hostage for the entire morning in a cheap tailor's.

We had changed plans over breakfast, daunted by the size and alleged crowds of the Grand Palace. Instead, we went virtually next door to Wat Pho, home of the 46 metre long Reclining Buddha. This massive, gold, reclining (yes) statue is definitely a sight to behold. Housed in a small temple not much bigger than the Buddha himself, he perhaps seems all the larger for the intimate setting which enables you to get glimpses of the different parts of his body between the pillars, before squeezing through the crowds for a perspective on the whole statue. For crowds there were also at this temple, manically taking photos and selfies at every turn (us very much included, as you will see). As you can also see, I was a hot mess in here, unbelievably hot and sweaty and limp haired.

Jules and Buddha's pillow

Crowds in the narrow temple

Pots for offerings to the shrine

It was a nice surprise, since we hadn't done too much research on the place, that there was a lot more to see besides the Reclining Buddha (although you couldn't really ask for much more for the 2.50 entry fee). You couldn't go into many more of the buildings, but it was wonderful wandering around the grounds and seeing all the beautiful temples. This was my first trip to Asia, despite it being very popular for young Kiwi backpackers, and I don't have much knowledge of or exposure to Asian cultures. Obviously it looked more or less like what I might have imagined, I have seen some photos and artworks etc., but for me at least there was a sense of experiencing something new and different that I wouldn't necessarily have visiting a European church. The colours and the intricacy of the carvings was beautiful, and there was also a general sense of harmony and visual interest in the way the complex was laid out, particularly the "forests" of chedi (small mound-shaped temples).

I made a monkey friend

And a lion (?) friend

Smaller than the Reclining Buddha, but probably a lot bigger than it looks here

Jules got a fancy new camera, so expect a lot more depth of field from here in

We could definitely have spent longer walking around, and it was a shame we missed out on the Grand Palace and the other important temples, but we were really glad that we got to go there and see Wat Pho. And once you got out of the temple with the Reclining Buddha, it wasn't so hot or crowded.

We had begged the hotel for a late check-out, so we could leave our bags in the room and come back for a quick shower and a change of clothes before heading to the airport, so we had to be on our way at about 12.15. Another semi-frustrating taxi ride back later, we got ready and were downstairs for the hotel shuttle back to the airport train at 2 pm. We were quite early for our plane, but between some pretty decent Thai food for lunch (finally a dish with plenty of coriander, it was strangely lacking from the other meals we had), picking up our bags from the left luggage and checking in, and doing some window shopping in the many airport stores, the time passed quickly.

We're in Auckland now, it's the middle of the night and I can't sleep. We arrived to grey, rainy, windy weather, with the city not looking its best, although it has cleared a lot now and I can see the city lights out the window of my parents' house. We didn't sleep a wink on the flight, and the plane was a bit smaller and more cramped than the first one (and with worse seat-back TV screens). Still, the break in Bangkok helped - unfortunately, we don't have a stopover on the way back, and the flights are an hour longer each, so there's 28 hours of fun to look forward to.