We spent a short and very chilly 2 weeks in the UK for Christmas with family and friends. Thanks Jenny and Paul for generously hosting Christmas dinner for us all.
Sue and Martin took us out for a boat ride at New Year in Poole Harbour and put paid to any thoughts we might have had about ever sailing in England again. It was actually snowing. Cheers guys.
After getting thoroughly chilled we were off to warmer climes, a parallel universe in the New Zealand summer.
Our previous trips to NZ had been 3 weeks and 2 weeks due to annual leave restrictions. This time we had a whole 10 weeks stretching out before us. Heaps of time to tour the whole country I thought. Stu stubbornly insisted on limiting us just to the north island as we travel very slowly these days, so we were fortunately nowhere near the terrible earthquake in Christchurch, though we lived through the extensive daily news coverage, until it was totally eclipsed by the awful earthquake and tsunami in Japan.
After spending a couple of weeks in Auckland helping Stu's dad, Phil, and his wife, Yvonne, move house, and buying a car, bikes and clothes, and borrowing camping gear we set off on our adventures around the north island. Not a lot is cheap in NZ anymore, except cars, diesel and good wine.
We were fortunate to have an Auckland base for so long, as a cyclone hit the east coast with flooding and many remote routes were cut off by land slips. Campsites were abandoned and it would have been a real miserable reintroduction to camping.
As we are mariners, we looked at the long range real weather forecasts, and knew when we should stay home. During our camping trip many friends kindly put us up for a night or two, and cooked for us, so we had lots of nights not blowing up airbeds or stumbling around in the dark looking for the toilets. Strangely, most Kiwis seem to go to bed at 9pm, and there were 'lights-out' and 'no noise' rules in all the campsites from 10pm – just when we're getting ready to go out normally! A bit of a culture shock. We even got told off for having a glass of wine in front of the TV at 9.30pm in one camp. We'd been caught on the security camera - naughty naughty indeed!Good thing we weren't up to anything else.
There is a wine glut in NZ and Australia at the moment, so to accompany the fantastic food available we had cheap and excellent wines – now we are spoiled for ever and I will never touch another drop of Turkish wine as long as I live.
There is a vibrant immigrant community in NZ, so as well as the interesting faces of the indigenous Maori, and Pacific Islanders, there are many people from South America, India, and Asia. You can travel without moving in the city. We ate at food halls where you could eat cheap authentic Thai, Malaysian, Korean, Chinese or Indian food for peanuts. This was real bliss after all the Med food we've had for 4 years. Many NZ restaurants are busy trying to recreate fancy versions of Med food but we took full advantage of as much Asian food and chilli as our tummies could handle.
We thought it would be good to get fit and do a bit of cycle touring, but we were quickly disabused of this notion after just 30 minutes cycling on one road. NZ is the only country where I have had a beer bottle thrown at me from a car, or young people who think its a laugh to stick their head out the window and shout boo as they go by to try and make you fall off. Even without these shenanigans, kiwis are not cycle friendly,and there a frequent fatalities on the roads. Most roads are just the 2 lanes, and not that busy, so people take stupid overtaking risks, and don't realise how much space cyclists deserve. So, we took advantage of the excellent offroad rides made available in forests and national parks. Many of these parks have segregated areas for horse riders and walkers and the bike tracks are signed and graded for expertise, and one-way so you don't have head-on surprises, and new tracks are constantly being added to the network. Shame these guys don't design the roads like that.
One other less than pleasant aspect of NZ society is the threat of car break-ins in car parks. Not just remote ones either. You can't leave any valuables in your car while you go walking (unless you're in a campsite), so I often lugged a heavy backpack around the beautiful native bush walks. Broken glass was in evidence pretty much anywhere we left our car. I guess in the UK you would be paying to park, so there would be some security provided and therefore car crime has become less evident of late. We had no incidents ourselves, but this apparent undercurrent of crime is a sad dent in the otherwise wholesomeness of NZ. The green of the bush, the dense blue sky, abundant birdlife, air so clear you constantly squint, the warm sun, rolling surf and improbably infinite sand beaches more than make up for the slight nagging worry that your personal effects might right now be being traded for drug money, and the car will be a bit draughty on the way home.
We put our fitness to the test at Tongariro National Park, and did the famous Tongariro Crossing of the not long extinct volcano. It was a hard going 18km, especially as I got a heel-sized blister in the first hour of seven. I was not alone, in the backpackers where we stayed there were many bandaged wounded feet, happily clad in flipflops for days afterwards.
Talking of pubs. They are very strange places in NZ. Not like cosy meeting places in Olde Englande. They have long high tables for throwing your fighting opponent over, high chairs for falling off after too many beers, a number of loud drunk people looking like they're about to fight or fall over. The rest are out back playing the 'pokies' or electronic poker slot machines. For normal people who don't need to fight or fall over while drinking, socialising is done at each others homes, with BBQ food or nibbles, and very pleasant it is too.
NZ toilets deserve a mention too. On the 10 point scale that marks features such as locks, paper, water, seats, soap, flush, and absence of biology, they come out highest on our international scale so far. Southern Italy and France are joint lowest by the way. Even in the Department of Conservation campsites in NZ the long drops were not the objects of horror one might imagine. These sites were to be found in many beautiful spots, in forests or beaches and have just the basic facilities, usually only cold water for showers. Only £4 per night per person. The other campsites have fantastic facilities and higher prices £15-20 pppn, but with kitchens, with free use of crockery, pots and pans, microwaves, kettles, BBQ's, TV rooms (with rules)cheap laundries, some with swimming pools or adjacent to a natural spa.
We tried to visit as many spas as possible. Some are sulphury and smelly, some cleaned and filled daily, others large pools with added chlorine for hygiene. None of them were easy to swim in though, I think due to the minerals.
There are very strong tidal rips and currents on many NZ beaches too, as the high rate of drownings testifies in the summer. I guess in the Uk we have strong tides too, but a lot less people brave the water there. Most NZ beaches have a lifeguard on duty, and you have to swim between 2 flags, usually only about 20m apart. You can often see the rips in the patterns of the waves outside the flags, so you don't mess about there. The guards are very skilled at riding a rescue RIB with outboard in large waves, and there are annual contests to challenge their skills.
So after all this sunshine, fine dining and wine drinking, we have to haul ourselves back to the real world where there isn't an ensuite bathroom and hot water doesn't gush out of the shower, and there is no dishwasher or washing machine or car. But once we've done the boat jobs and have relaunched we will be surrounded by our clear blue infinity swimming pool, and we'll take our simple Mediterranean inspired lunches and suppers in the cockpit looking out at a new bay each day, I guess it won't be so bad.