Wednesday 24 February 2016

NZ Roadtrip Waitomo: Disaster 1, disaster 2, disaster 3

Because we'd taken a wrong turn on our way down, we didn't take the more obvious route north today out of Wellington, but headed eastish, over the Rimutakas to the 
Wairarapa. So first there was steep climbing up green and bushy hills, to stop at the top to view the Rimutaka Memorial. It was only erected last year, to commemorate the 60,000 soldiers who marched this way to war from 1915-18, from the army camp at Featherstone. Look they're breaking their march to have a cup of tea! Sweet. Shame about what came next...
Then we were down onto the plains, in Peter Jackson/James Cameron country, and stopped in pretty little Greytown for breakfast at the French Bakery. It wasn't really French, but it was the best pain au raisin that I've had for a really long time, so I recommend the bakery highly. We had a bit of a wander along the street: picket fences, neat gardens, heritage houses, museum, owner-operated shops, chocolate, collectibles... Small-town New Zealand at its best. It was a pity we had to press on, but it was a 522 km-journey today.
Back in the lumpy green country typical of the North Island, we stopped again in Eketahuna, which takes a perverse pride in being national shorthand for backwoods-type unsophisticated clunky country living. You can - and one of us did - buy tshirts with the slogan 'London, Paris, New York, Eketahuna'. I was more taken by the idiosyncratic numbering of these post boxes.
And so we pressed on, stopping next for a visit to the Tangiwai Memorial - marking the terrible night of Christmas Eve 1953 when a train heading for Auckland full of passengers heading home for Christmas plunged off the Tangiwai Bridge killing 151 people. The crater lake on Ruapehu had broken through its wall and a lahar, a 6m high tsunami, swept down the river, weakening the bridge supports. Though the driver braked as soon as he saw what had happened, the engine and five carriages were swept into the river. The sixth teetered terrifyingly and then fell too, but amazingly most of those passengers survived; as did those in the last three carriages left up on the tracks. It was a disaster. It escaped no-one's notice that 'Tangiwai' means 'weeping waters'.
The mountains were clearly visible as we drove towards Waitomo, Tongariro and Ngauruhoe in their summer brown but  Ruapehu still with Indian snow (ie, a patchy here and a patchy there - yes, old joke) - and all unmistakably volcanoes. We carried on through Taumarunui and Ohakune, through lush farming country, green and neat, populated by contented-looking sheep, cows and alpacas.
Waitomo was to be our last night of the road trip, so those of us in charge of organising accommodation (ie not the Poms, for whom we functioned as guides) thought it might be a jolly surprise for them to stay at Woodlyn Park. It's novelty accommodation: years ago we spent the night here in an old Bristol freighter; and this time we plumped for the train. It's an actual NZR railway carriage, converted as a sort of motel, with sitting room, two bedrooms, kitchen and bathroom out the back. Not flash, but fun. They have boat on a pond, and hobbit holes, too.
Unfortunately, it was also a bit cramped, and very hot and stuffy, having been shut up all the sunny day, so it fell a bit flat on arrival. Then we had to have three goes at finding somewhere acceptable to everyone for dinner in town that night, ending up at Huhu, which was new, friendly, busy and served excellent food. That smoothed things over, so when we returned to the now pleasantly cool carriage, the menfolk decided to sit outside on the little low deck for a nightcap. Or two. Or three.
The next thing that happened was that I was woken from my sleep to be told by one Pom that the other had fallen off the deck onto the wooden fence beside it, had injured his chest, and was in great pain. So, for the first time in my life, I rang 111 for an ambulance and waited with a torch in the dark for it to arrive from town. We were lucky that the sole-charge ambulance person was the wonderful Irene: short, sturdy, humorous, imperturbable and, most important, experienced, capable and efficient.

She'd seen it all before. "Alcohol, eh. It's ok if you can stay innocent through the night..." She did the examination and the tests, recorded it all on her iPad, uploaded it, dished out the painkillers and plenty of reassurance and advice, and then disappeared into the dark again, leaving us with an injured party (two broken ribs) and our final day in disarray.

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