Archive for February, 2009

Cuba Street Carnival

wild wacky Wellington weekend – this time it was the Cuba Street Carnival on Saturday,
a regular two-yearly event (it takes that long to recover from the last one) which
fills up the centre of the city. Fortunately the torrential rain we had on Friday
stopped, and Saturday dawned bright and clear, if rather windy. The carnival mainly
takes place in Cuba Street (the hippy centre of Wellington) and Courtenay Place
(the main location for bars, restaurants and nightlife). We went down into the city
in the morning to see the stalls and other activities, including street entertainers,
dancing, body painting, six sound-stages and loads of various food stalls. We had
lunch from a stall, followed by a drink in one of the open-air bars near the sound-stage
where Latin music was playing.


came down a second time later on, when things had livened up a bit, and had another
good look round, fortified by donuts from a stall and ice coffees from one of the
Cuba St cafes; we happened to pass just at the right time to grab a table which
was well situated for people watching.  Later
we had a meal at Sweet Mama’s Kitchen, a Mexican-style restaurant in Courtenay Place,
and afterwards adopted our carnival ‘disguises’ while waiting for the evening parade
to start. It began at 9pm, heralded by fireworks, and was good fun. It is supposed
to be an illuminated procession, but some of the items would have been better in
daylight – they were very colourful, but not too well lit and lost some of their
impact. But the whole effect was good, with bands, floats, and loads of dancers
– including more belly dancers of all sizes and ages than you are ever likely to
see in one place. Some of the special effects were good, including the stilt walker
like a praying mantis, the flying saucer and the giant snapper. The whole thing
took over an hour to go past, and when it was finished there were so many people
crammed together that it was almost impossible to move. We didn’t believe that there
were so many people in the whole of New Zealand, and it was certainly the biggest
crowd we’ve seen since we’ve been here.


also dawned clear and bright, but it blew a howling gale all day. We went out to
the Miramar peninsula (between the airport and the entrance to Wellington Bay),
and eventually decided to walk up the west coast and back down the east. We managed
to complete the walk, but at times we were afraid the wind was going to pick us
up and dump us in the sea. It’s probably good that we’ve put on weight while we’ve
been here – it’s necessary to stay well anchored to the ground in windy Wellington!


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Rush hour on the Tongariro Crossing

Tongariro Alpine Crossing is one of the iconic walks in New Zealand – in fact
it has been described as “the greatest one-day hike in the world”. Nowhere else
would you be allowed, even encouraged, to trek across the surface of an active
volcano – and not just in ones and twos, but in hundreds. There are warning
notices at the start telling you how to spot the signs of a volcanic eruption
(such as ‘flying rocks’) and advising you to get off the mountain pdq if you do
spot them. The hike is officially classified as ‘challenging’, which in kiwispeak
usually means extremely strenuous.  We weren’t
sure if we were up to it – but we wanted to have a go.


Crossing is really big business: lots of companies exist solely to run busloads
to the starting-point (no other way of getting there) and collect them from the
finish.  (They also hire boots, hiking poles
etc to people who haven’t got their own equipment.)  The walk is weather dependent – not safe to be
on the mountain in heavy cloud, strong winds etc.  The transport people only decide at 2pm each day
whether they will operate next morning.  


last week, we were monitoring the Met Office’s website to try to assess the probability
of doing the Crossing on Saturday.  The weather
in Wellington was dreadful, so we were not hopeful, but surprisingly the forecast
for Tongariro National Park was reasonably good.  On Friday our chosen company (Tongariro Expeditions)
gave the go-ahead, and so we drove the 200 miles to Turangi, just to the south
of Lake Taupo, and set the alarm clock for an early start on Saturday.


walk is 19.4 kilometres, from the Mangatepopo car park in the west to the
Ketetahi car park in the north, and weaves its way between the multiple craters
of Mt Tongariro, passing close by the side of Mt Ngaurahoe (aka Mt Doom) on the
way. We drove to the end point, and were picked up by a bus which had come from
Taupo loaded with youngsters doing the walk. When we got to Mangatepopo we
found lots of other buses disgorging walkers, and one of the surprises of the
day was the crowds of people we were walking with pretty much all the time. The
start of the walk is gently uphill for the first hour, though quite rough
underfoot, until you reach the Last Loo at the foot of the Devil’s Staircase up
to the South Crater of Tongariro. This was a newly laid track, and easy underfoot
though very steep.


there the path is flat across South Crater until you climb up the far rim with
views to the east. There is a track up Ngaurahoe from here, for mountain goats
and the terminally insane, but most of us stuck to the main track, which climbs
up steeply along a fairly narrow ridge to get to Red Crater. This is a real
active crater, with steam and smoke coming out of it, and the highest point of
the walk is on the rim there. We were told “Don’t fall into Red Crater, because
you won’t be coming out” – cheerful.


path down to Emerald Lakes is steep and very slippery, being mainly volcanic
sand – it’s a bit like going down a sand dune, as it keeps slipping down in
front of you. We came down cautiously, and joined the crowds picnicking round
the Emerald Lakes. (There are three small lakes, more turquoise them emerald, but
absolutely stunning against the mountain backdrop.)  The path then crosses Central Crater on the
flat and climbs a ridge next to Blue Lake, with amazing views back over the
three volcanoes of the Central Plateau in a neat row. It’s downhill all the way
from there, down the north side of Tongariro to Ketatahi Hut (more loos,
hooray!) and then past the Ketetahi Hot Springs to the forest and on to the car
park. We made the entire trip in 8 hours and 35 minutes, including rest breaks
and taking hundreds of photos. We were amazingly fortunate with the weather, as
it stayed fine and bright all morning and only clouded over later when we’d
seen most of the really scenic stuff.


drove back to Turangi, had drinks in the pub and a soak in the hot tub in the
motel, and then went for a nice meal to celebrate both Valentine’s Day and
completing the Crossing. After that we felt fully recovered, and in fact found
it less strenuous than we expected. The worst part was probably the crowds (think
M25 in the rush hour, with people instead of cars), but it was a unique
experience and the scenery was unbelievable.  Definitely worth every step!

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Wellington’s Party Weekend

Last weekend Wellington turned into party central, as three main celebrations collided: Waitangi Day (February 6th), the Wellington Sevens rugby tournament, and Chinese New Year festivities. In the middle of all this we also managed to move house.


The Wellington Sevens is an international 7-a-side tournament, played last Friday and Saturday, and kicking off with a parade through the city on Thursday. But the main feature of the event is the way in which all the supporters, and pretty much everyone else, dresses up in outlandish costumes in order to attend the games, or just to charge from pub to pub. On both Friday and Saturday we spent a lot of time just wandering round Wellington, goggling at the weird and wacky outfits, and taking lots of photos. There were Roman legions, smurfs, fairies, pirates, witches, more Fred Flintstones than you can shake a stick at, and other costumes which boggled the imagination. It culminated on Saturday night with a big street party in Courtenay Place, which we joined in for a bit before tottering back to bed. England won the rugby, by the way, if anyone cares.


The 6th of February is a public holiday to celebrate the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, but the celebrations for this were slightly overshadowed by the Sevens. We went along to the concert in the park and watched the singing and dancing, plus the obligatory hakas performed by enthusiasts of all ages.


There was a week-long celebration of the Chinese New Year by the large Asian community. We went down on Sunday and attended an Asian market, as well as watching the parade with firecrackers and dragon, and enjoying the open-air entertainment afterwards. Altogether a big weekend in Wellington.

 On Sunday we also packed up from the house in Wadestown where we had been for three months and moved into a flat in Kelburn. This is light and spacious, with good access and not far to walk to work. It’s probably the nicest place we’ve stayed in during our time here – pity we’re only here for two months.

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Touring the North Island

Friday 23rd January we flew to Auckland, and on the Saturday morning
early we were waiting expectantly at the airport to greet Paul and Rosie as
they arrived after their 26 hour flight. We then had 9 days to show them as
much of the North Island as we could, travelling from Auckland to Wellington in
a hire car by a circuitous route. The first couple of days we spent in
Auckland, getting the big city experience for a change. The evenings we spent
at the harbourside, visiting the variety of bars and restaurants along there,
and enjoying the fact that it was warm enough to sit outside. The first night
they even had fireworks to celebrate our arrival!


in Auckland we took a boat trip round the harbour, and we also did a longer trip
out to Rangitoto Island, a fairly recent volcanic island just offshore. We took
a tractor-driven ‘train’ ride round the island, and climbed up to the summit to
get some good views. On the way back we visited Devonport, a smart suburb
across the water from the main city.


Auckland our tour took us back to the Coromandel, to enjoy the beaches and the
scenery in the sunny weather we were lucky enough to have all week. We visited
Cathedral Cove, and went to Hot Water Beach, where by digging in the sand you
can strike hot water and create your own spa pool. Sadly, all the best spots
were taken and our pools just filled with cold.


next stop was at Tauranga, on the Bay of Plenty. We stayed overnight in a
3-bedroom penthouse suite at a hotel in the city, and the next day visited
Mount Maunganui, a seaside resort more like Gt Yarmouth than anywhere else
we’ve seen here. We walked round the base of the mountain, which is extremely


Tauranga we zigged across country to Waitomo, to visit the famous caves there.
We had a long tour through a large and quite interesting cave, followed by a
shorter tour through another cave, in which we had a boat ride in the dark to
see the millions of glow worms shining on the ceiling. This latter trip was
slightly spoiled by a large group of loud Aussies on a ‘Value Tour’ who failed
to understand the guide’s instructions to keep silent.


zagged back across country to Rotorua, and saw some things there we hadn’t seen
on our first visit last May. One was the
Thermal Village, where we had a guided tour of a Maori village built right on
top of an active thermal area, with hot pools and steam vents coming up all over.
This was very  interesting, as they
showed us how they used the thermal energy to cook their food and heat their
baths. We also visited the newest thermal area, Waimangu, formed by the
Tarawera eruption of 1886. There is a 4km walk down a valley, with hot pools,
fumaroles and silica terraces to be seen, all very colourful, followed by a
boat trip on the lake with more thermal activity to see, and a bus ride back to
the start.


Rotorua we drove down to Lake Taupo, and saw the regular release of water from
a dam to flood the Aratiatia Rapids, which changes a gentle flow through a
rocky gorge into a raging torrent. While at Taupo, Sandie and Paul took a seaplane
flight from the lake over the Tongariro National Park, seeing from the air the three
volcanoes we would visit the next day.


The weather
was fine the next day, and we got excellent views of the three mountains – Tongariro
(the flat one), Ngaurahoe (the pointy one) and Ruapehu (the jumbly one). We drove
up to the ski area on Ruapehu, and walked over to Mead’s Wall, where some of the
scenes for Lord of the Rings were filmed. We got good views from there of Ngaurahoe
(aka Mount Doom). Sandie and Rosie went up in a chairlift, and later we all did
a short walk with more mountain views, before heading south for Wellington.


The drive
home was interrupted by a 1.5 hour traffic jam at Otaki, north of Wellington, though
finally we got through to the restaurant we had booked for dinner and had a recuperative
meal. Paul and Rosie stayed with us for three nights in Wellington, and in the evenings
we took them to visit some selected pubs and eateries in the area, coupled with
some driving tours of Wellington and its surroundings. On Wednesday morning they
headed off to Christchurch, to continue their travels round the South Island. As
soon as they had gone the weather turned for the worse!

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