January 30: Wellington to New Plymouth
The road trip begins. We pick up the car at Wellington airport and head north along the coast. I am the only person from the group who is comfortable with driving on the other side of the road, so I do most of the driving, at least in the beginning. It is a long and rather boring way, mainly because I encounter huge troubles with finding a decent radio that doesn’t play the same 5 songs in loop, 3 of which by Ed Sheeran. (Seriously, to honour the rich and beautiful history of british rock and pop music, it would be for the best if the UK revoked Ed Sheerans passport, thus preventing him from spreading the horror abroad. Call me unromantic, but I think that if a whining man gains international success precisely because of his whining, well, there’s your answer to what is wrong with people. Everything).
Anyway, I am getting a bit heated up…the highway is a bit inland and no spectacular views are at hand until we reach Taranaki. I suspect it is normally visible from much further, it is one of the most prominent mountains in the world after all, but the day is hazy. According to a Maori legend, when volcanos were disputing favours of a beautiful mountain Pihanga who they were all in love with, Tongariro won and banished Taranaki to the other side of the island, where he hides himself in clouds most of the time and mourns his lost lover. Tongariro, on the other hand, comes up with an occasional eruption to remind Taranaki where his place is and prevent him from trying to steal his woman back. I am hoping that if it all ends in a violent eruption (and one day it inevitably will), Pihanga will have the last word.
First view of Mt. Taranaki:
We stop for lunch on Otaki beach and reach New Plymouth at sunset. Eating outside of the normal hours is a major issue. No lunch after 2pm and no dinner after 8.30 pm (kitchen’s closed) seems a bit extreme to me. Also, coffee shops close at 4 (you’ve had enough caffeine for the day) and it looks like in the evening people drink at home. Maybe New Plymoust isn’t a very lively town to start with, but no restuarants, no visible pubs on the main street, and a supermarket that stops selling booze at 9.30. Oh well, early night then.
January 31: New Plymouth to Taupo
Another gorgeous day. Trekking to the summit of Taranaki (Mt. Egmont) is out of question, because we need mountaineering equipment, and going on the 3 days circular hike around the mountain is not feasible either, because the girls don’t have enough time. But there we do two fantastic short walks at the feet of Taranaki, an 1.5 h long loop to Wilkies Pools (where I of course jump into the river, it is a pool after all), and another 1 h loop to Dawsons Waterfall.
Trekking in Mt. Egmont National Park:
After lunch we drive to Taupo, following probably the most beautiful road I have ever seen, the 150 km long, winding “Forgotten Highway” that connects the town of Stratford with Lake Taupo. The Kiwis have a surreal sense of humor. After you leave Stratford, there is a sign that tells you that the next petrol station is 150 km away, which is very considerate, however it makes no sense to put the sing 20 km behind the last available garage. “Next petrol station in 150 km, tank right here” would be logical, not “by the way, you should have tanked 20km ago”.
Driving on the Forgotten Highway does not take the forecasted 3 hours, but more like 5, because after every pass unveils another beautiful view over another valley, and we stop every 10 minutes to take pictures. The scenery makes you believe that if you sit somewhere and watch for long enough, hobbits and elves and centaurs will really start popping up all over the place. I am willing to give it a try and wait if Viggo Mortensen suddenly appears, but apparently such things don’t happen. Damn.
February 1-3: Taupo – Napier – Taupo
Change of plans and we head for Hawke’s Bay instead of going towards Rotorua, driving through another beautiful road with the extravagant name of “Thermal Explorer Highway” towards Napier, famous for wine, fruit and art deco architecture. Now, don’t get carried away. I understand that the architecture in NZ is more centered on constructing rather than building, and that a town with an aesthetic concept is rare, but don’t expect too much. Napier is charming and has a good vibe (and superb restaurants: try Pacifica and Bitronomy), but if you come from a place that created buildings in art nouveau purely for the purpose of building a monument to the style, and the city that actually invented the real thing is just two hours flight away, you look at the three streets in Napier that may carry some resemblance to liberty architecture, you cannot help thinking: “yeah, right”. I don’t mean to be horrible and I am not trying to offend, but let’s face it: people don’t travel to NZ to admire historical architecture, people come here to see the breathtaking nature. And I guess I’m a european snob, too.
On the other hand, we get to sample a lot of local wines, I manage a quick catch up with a friend who works in his family’s winery, and when I actually manage to shake off my hangover and wake up on the following morning (read: lunchtime), we drive to a nearby beach and just chill, because the sea doesn’t look too inviting. I am personally guessing Napier must be better is you organize for someone to drive you to one of the many wineries, but as we don’t drink and drive and it seemed unfair towards one of us not to drink, we skipped this.
PS: I know I probably sound like I’m bitching, but I’m really not. I love New Zealand. I just struggle with taking anything, including myself, too seriously.