Thursday, 3 August 2017

"The Antipodean Excursion" 4: Himatangi Beach, Otaki, Whanganui, Tongariro, Wellington

This update covers the rest of our activities on the North Island right up until our departure from Wellington on the morning of August the 2nd, bringing our time in the North, our time with Steve, and the first four weeks of our holiday to a close, so it seems as good a point to break off as any. Most of this time we spent at Himatangi Beach (or in the near vicinity, e.g. Palmerston North) but we certainly had the occasional opportunity for excursions away, some of which were among the most memorable on the entire trip so far. It's reached the point where I think the two of us could just sit around doing nothing for our two weeks on the South Island and we'd still be pretty content with one of the most active holidays we've been on!

Palmerston North didn't particularly excite us: we never really got to know it properly aside from it being the home of Massey University (where Steve lectures) and decent shops. The impression we got is that it's a good place to live (and to bring up children) but not an especially thrilling place to visit. I'll start instead with a quick plug for the YouTube feature Simon and I shot with Steve (above) - pretty ridiculous but nonetheless a lot of fun to make. It essentially consists of us running up and down a beach in NZ overlaid with the soundtrack to Chariots of Fire - though with a surprise or two towards the end! We shot it over a few days using Steve's drone (yes, the one we used at Whangamomona) on the beach not far from his house, with only the occasional hiccup impeding progress. Guest starring: a man walking his dog.

Himatangi Beach is a very pleasant area in general, as is Waitarere Beach a little further down the coast (though it was windier when we tried to use the drone there); Waitarere Forest was used as one of the locations in The Lord of the Rings - Ithilien - but isn't accessible to the public anymore, unfortunately. Slightly more accessible is Otaki Gorge, a lovely forested gorge with a sizeable river flowing through it, acting more or less as the foothills for a bigger mountain range extending beyond it. It was here that Peter Jackson and company filmed the Hobbits leaving the borders of the Shire. We went up in that direction for a hike that lasted a couple of hours, dodging the occasional landslip and rockfall (or, strictly speaking, their after-effects), and generally savouring the views.

Another delightful half-day trip took us to Pukeha Mount Bruce, a nature reserve about an hour away from Palmerston North. There we came across some of NZ's many endemic creatures, including beautiful pukekoes, keas, kakas (those are all birds, for the uninitiated) and Simon's particular favourite - and undeniable standout - the tuatara. The tuatara is a reptile which looks very much like a lizard but technically belongs to a different family altogether, a category so unusual and rare that the tuatara is the single remaining specimen. As a species, they were around at the time of the dinosaurs and are thus some of the oldest creatures on Earth. As far as we could tell, the tuatara achieves this astonishing longevity (and each individual lives 150-200 years) by ... not doing an awful lot. These guys are slow. They sit there in their terrariums, often beautifully in view as it happens, just existing in a quiet and unpreoccupied state. Possibly even more extraordinary, though, is New Zealand's national symbol: the kiwi. Described as the most un-bird-like bird in the world (it has strange feathers that look like hair, it cannot fly, it has nostrils at the end of its beak), this quirky little bird has become an iconic representative of these islands. They're nocturnal animals, though at Mt Bruce the staff "simulate" night conditions so that visitors can see them during the day. The truly exciting thing about the kiwis here though is that one of the two is a white kiwi - an incredibly rare result of a recessive gene, the only one of its kind in the world. She's called Manukura ("of noble status") and was as sweet as anything. (Oh, and I almost forgot - we also got to feed eels! From a bucket! In a river! They're beautiful creatures as well. Not at all slimy, and in fact rather velvety to the touch, and even gentle in the way they take the food from you. Most of New Zealand's eels get fished and sent to South Korea then turned into pet food which is exported to the USA, which doesn't half make my blood boil...)

Towards the end of last week we went for one last mini road trip - just a night away, though we packed a lot in to those two days. First we drove towards the Tongariro National Park again, hoping we could catch another glimpse of the elusive Mount Doom. Plans to see the real Mordor in the form of the Whakapapa Ski Field were thwarted by heavy snowfalls, so we gritted our teeth and carried on towards Whanganui. This is a huge river that thunders its way through this remote part of the North Island. with steep-banked cliffs on either side and acres of remote forestation. All Simon and I knew at this point was that we were staying somewhere along its banks, and that we had to get there "before dark", which seemed needlessly unspecific, and as Steve drove further and further down this incredibly remote valley - barely encountering a single car or building - we began to wonder where exactly we'd be passing the night.

Eventually, we received our answer (though not before I'd said "it doesn't look like you'd fit any accommodation down this steep and strangely uninviting slope. it's almost like where we're staying isn't even going to be here" and Steve commented "in a way... it isn't"). Upon parking, we found an enigmatic sign and a gong; we were instructed to sound the gong and await the cable car that would ferry us over the Whanganui River to the other side of the valley, where a beautiful chalet called the Flying Fox was awaiting us. Your car then stays the night where you've parked, while you bundle everything you need into this tiny, weedy-looking cable car and, nervously peering over the edge, totter over the river whilst dangling from a rope. But the welcome was warm, and we had every possible convenience you can imagine - an entire cottage to ourselves (the James K Baxter Cottage, named after a local and apparently much-loved Kiwi poet), with a beautifully stocked kitchen, a log fire, a collection of records and CDs, a guitar and a violin, a big collection of poetry (including lots of Baxter's), gorgeous paintings, a balcony verandah overlooking the Whanganui, and a home-cooked eggs'n'bacon breakfast brought to our table by the owners. One of the most memorable places to stay we've ever been!

The following morning it was time for slightly more dynamic transport: namely a jet-boat ride up the Whanganui. Driving north to Pipiriki, we arrived just in time for setting off, and soon we'd donned every layer of clothing we had with us as wind and spray whipped up around us. We went at a cracking speed down the river, weaving in and out between rapids, and were gifted with stunning views of the cliffs on either side as we made our way into ever more remote territory, the subtropical rainforest growing thicker as we progressed. For extra adrenalin, our driver made sure to do a few spins (in reality, 360 degree turns) in the jetboat: lots of fun.

At the half-way mark of this journey we had the chance to get out and trek up into the bush to see the infamous Bridge to Nowhere, a 130-ft-long, concrete-stone bridge suspended over a tributary of the Whanganui deep in the middle of the rainforest. It's incredibly incongruous: the bridge looks sophisticated and sturdy enough to have been made for crossing the Thames or the Seine, and yet here it is, utterly purposeless, without a single road leading to it or away from it. The history is fascinating - it was constructed in 1935-6 when a group of farmers were optimistic about taming this wild area, and farms were granted to soldiers returning from serving in Gallipoli in World War I. The hope was that a huge network of roads would be constructed in time, but the idea quickly turned out futile once it became clear nobody was going to make any money on farming in such a remote area, with no easy way to deliver your produce to anyone else (the cost of carting the materials for building the bridge was almost as high as the construction costs themselves). The farming families were all ordered to leave, many of them bitterly resentful of the way their plans had fallen through. But the bridge still stands there amid these exotic trees, a strange Tower of Babel for the modern age, and yet somehow far more melancholy.

Later that same day we went for Tongariro one more time, and very fortunately as it turned out, for the weather was pitch-perfect. Views of Tongariro, Ngaurohoe, and Ruapehu were as good as we could possibly have asked for - and we could finally see the acclaimed Mount Doom slopes where such iconic scenes from these films we love were shot way back at the turn of the millennium. The evening light was stunning, bathing the volcanoes in a pinkish glow. A perfect end to a perfect day. Not long after this it was time to say a sad farewell to Steve, with whom we'd had a great two weeks - from road trips to caravan camping, from flying a drone to watching the night sky of the Southern Hemisphere, from music recommendations to "House of Cards", it had been lots of fun. But the road goes ever on and on, so we shouldered our packs and headed for Wellington.

Wellington is certainly more interesting than Auckland, and luckily the weather held so we were able to appreciate it in a reasonable light (it's famously the windiest city in the Southern Hemisphere). The best vista of New Zealand's capital (but not its biggest city - that's Auckland by quite a margin) can be obtained by walking up Mount Victoria, a large greenbelt round the city centre which rises steeply upwards to a lookout point. Here, panoramic views unfold of the city, its airport, the bay on which it was built, and the sea stretching out into the distance. Mount Victoria is another famous Lord of the Rings shrine, in that it was here that filming commenced on the trilogy in 1999 (some of the earliest material shot - the Hobbits fleeing the Black Riders - was on the slopes of Mount Victoria).

As well as being home to Sir Peter Jackson and, in many ways, the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit film shoots (the studios are based here), Wellington is also the home to Weta Workshop, the company who did all the digital effects for the films and for many other films besides. If you're ever in Wellington, a quick visit to the Weta Cave is definitely worth your time - entry is free, if you don't want one of their lengthy tours, and you get to see a lot of the cool stuff they've developed over the years, from trolls to Gollum. Later that same day we wandered along the riverside parts of Wellington - which is all quite new, reclaimed land following their 1855 earthquake - where the famous Te Papa museum can be found. Its current exhibition is about WW1 - specifically, the battle at Gallipoli at which thousands of soldiers lost their lives for minimal gain, a significant number of them hailing from New Zealand and Australia. Weta had in fact fashioned some of the incredible large-scale figures for this exhibition, and it made such a difference to be able to see some of the individuals named brought to life in this way. The whole thing had a real focus on a few names and stories, making it much more real than it otherwise would have done. Sobering and highly recommended.

As they say in the film business: that's a wrap on the North Island. We left Wellington on a gorgeous morning with bright clear skies, taking the Interislander ferry through Cook Strait and, with much anticipation, towards the South... 

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