One of the highlights of the trip so far has got to be walking through the arrivals gate at Auckland airport to see Kate and Jono (one of my school friends and her Kiwi husband) waiting to pick us up. It’s been over 7 years since Kate and I spent any real time together (and 4 years since we last saw each other!) but you know that you’re true friends when you pick up right from where you left off and needless to say, moments later we were jabbering away as if we’d just walked out of school!
Kate and Jono had planned our entire 2 weeks in New Zealand in secret and refused to give anything away. So the whole trip was a complete surprise to us (a total novelty on our travels so far) and it was both hugely exiting and absolute luxury not to have to be booking hostels, reading the guidebook and planning transport as it had all been done for us.
So off we set in our “battle wagon” (her Dad’s enormous people carrier) with a chilly bin (translation: cool box) of surprises and a ton of luggage from the airport to our first secret destination: the Coromandel Peninsula in the northern part of the Bay of Plenty where Kate had snagged us a bargain at two amazing adjoined studios in Hahei..a far cry from the hostels we’ve been used to. And then, to James’ delight, Kate cooked proper bangers and mash for our first meal. Kate had also managed to pick up a few other treats to remind us of home including Branston pickle, Heinz ketchup, humus to name a few. In fact we did exceedingly well at once again eating our way around the country satisfying all the cravings we were having.
The following day we had eggs and bacon for breakie(!) before setting to the Lost Spring hot springs with a chance for me to try out my new bikini (the old one having sadly passed away…there’s only so many times you can sew it tighter once the elastic has gone!). But I don’t think we knew what heaven was awaiting us…a gorgeuos spa with multiple thermal pools both in fairy-light lit caves and out surrounded by native bush. All the pools are at different temperatures and you can luxuriate in the warmth even when it’s raining while the waiter brings you a “smooth virgin kiwi” or some other delight (a cocktail in case you’re wondering) – very luxurious indeed. After a good while relaxing (and spotting a couple “rooting” in one of the caves – I don’t think you need a translation!) we stepped out for a spot of lunch and tucked into some enormous burgers served with beetroot – a Kiwi tradition apparently.
After lunch we drove along the 309 road home famous for its views and also for it’s curves! Apparently it is thought the name comes from the number of turns on the road and though we tried we couldn’t quite count them all. But Jono did a sterling effort on them all despite his broken ribs which I suspect hurt alot more than he ever let on. We stopped several times for the stunning views and walked short trails in the bush to admire the gorgeous greens of the ferns and kauri to name a few. Jono’s knowledge of the plants was better than any tour guide we’ve ever had! After another day on the peninsula where we explored Coromandel town and some of the beaches in the rain (we are visiting in the winter after all!) we headed up to a fantastic railway, built by a slightly eccentric man heading up a hillside in the bush. It was a semi artists colony type place which was very interesting and the views from the top with the clouds rolling around the peninsula were out of this world.
It was then to head to Tauranga and our first view of Kate and Jono’s amazing home (via an Indian restaurant…BEST curry in a long time!) We managed to spend a lovely few days there enjoying the sights and sounds of the town, “tramping” up the Mount (translation: hiking – the word was a source of much hilarity throughout the trip) and walking along the beach with my cousin Nick who also happens to have moved to the same town co-incidentally! One evening we did an incredible trip in double kayaks (known by the guides as “divorce boats”) at sunset to see some glowworms. The excursion included mulled wine, cheese, olives etc and I tell you, I never want to kayak in daylight again! It was so much fun paddling along in the dark and incredibly peaceful. The glowworms were just the most gorgeous little things and I was rather disappointed to learn they only live for 5 days (having no mouth!) so there wouldn’t be much point trying to bring some home.
Jono also took us over to Waikati (sorry if it’s spelt wrong guys?!) to see the farm where he grew up. Calving had just begun and there were about two dozen calves for Kate and I to play with. James was less convinced however and was sure that they turned extra aggressive whenever he came near! That’s city boys for you…We had great fun at milking time, (James even managed to attach the milking equipment to a cows udders – though there was a bit of cow shit involved) and feeding the newborns. Kate very impressively managed to tube feed a weak calf too – I never thought I’d say this but she’d make a very good farmer’s wife!
Then the next phase of our surprise itinerary rolled around…and off we set early one misty morning into the unknown. Our first stop was at a kiwi fruit farm where we took part in wine and spirit tasting (not bad for 9.30am – and kiwi wine is surprisingly tasty) before making our way to Rotorua. We wandered around some lakes and have morning tea (our NZ daily ritual) then headed to a luge for a couple of hair-raising highspeed down hill jaunts (and a nice leisurely chairlift back up) & a skyswing overlooking the main lake. Now at this point I really didn’t know what a skyswing was. And with hindsight that’s a good thing as otherwise I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have done it. But with tickets bought we duly climbed up into the 3 seat swing and were strapped in with no less than two separate seatbelts. Never a good sign. And then James was given the instructions that as soon as we were lifted to the maximum height he was to pull the cord that would drop us freefall and then swing us back and forth. As we were nervously lifted, Kate decided to tell us a tale of how seatbelts don’t always work (or something equally terrifying) but weirdly neither J nor I can remember it as I guess the adrenalin was pumping a little to hard by then. Anyway, time came to rip the cord but it didn’t work the first time then suddenly we were falling. I don’t remember alot after that apart from repeatedly saying “it’s not that bad, it’s not that bad” over and over. It wasn’t that bad – but I’m glad it’s over.
After all that excitement it was definitely time for some relaxation so off we set to a natural thermal area where you walk around the park watching boiling mud, steam rising from the ground, hot waterfalls, a mud volcano and luminous yellow sulphur deposits. It was absolutely stunning – a totally lunar landscape. It’s a very strange feeling walking over earth that you can see steaming all around you and knowing that the ground is almost too hot to touch beneath your feet. We managed to then catch a Maori carver at work who let us try our hand at carving. We then went off for a nice spot of relaxing…our own private mud bath using natural mud from the thermal park and then a sunset soak in toasty high-sulphur water. Yum. All finished off with a hotel overlooking more thermal pools and (more!) tasty food at an amazing restaurant that was so good we went back for banana, syrup and bacon waffle specials the next morning.