Sunday 29 November 2020

Return to Rotoroa

Talk about island-hopping. From Waiheke to Tiritiri Matangi on Thursday, then back to Waiheke, and off again to Rotoroa yesterday. I was last there three weeks ago, to witness the release of a kiwi chick into the island's safe and pest-free environment, to grow big and strong enough to return to the wild on the mainland. I came again to get the more usual visitor experience: of escaping the city rat-race - well, Waiheke in my case - for the peace and laid-back relaxation of the island. Except it's not. Peaceful, that is.

Since the Salvation Army addiction treatment centre closed down, and the lease was acquired by the island's Trust, masses of work has been done by eager volunteers, and, after just ten years since the revegetation of the island (which had been cleared for farming) the bush is back and burgeoning. And with it, the birds - which are SO NOISY! There are oystercatchers on the beaches, putting on broken-wing dramas to draw you (me) away from their nests, squawking piteously. There are pukeko darting about everywhere on the open grassy areas, hooting away, plus weka, ditto. Tui are a constant, running through their huge repertoire of calls from above; fantails twitter, kereru coo, takahe squeak - and also boom, oddly. It goes on and on, even at night, when kiwi are added to the roll call.

Of course that's not a complaint, and I loved it all. Having done the guided tour last time with ranger Milly Lucas, this time I just wandered, looking for birds and frogs, and having a very relaxing time. The ferry was busy today with people taking advantage of the discounted fare to take part in Experiencing Marine Reserves, which hosts snorkelling events, everything provided, and free. The volunteer hosts were all full of enthusiasm, and it was well done, but the downside of the Hauraki Gulf is that it's so thoroughly fished that even the reserves aren't exactly teeming yet. While I was waiting for the ferry on the jetty at Orapiu, a chatty man was delighted to catch two very respectable snapper in just fifteen minutes.

The EMR event was at Ladies Bay, a long, sandy beach where the women being, er, hosted by the Sallies could swim - round the headland was, of course, Mens Bay, which was a bit more boisterous. The water looked lovely but I knew from recent experience on Waiheke that it wouldn't be warm. It was good to be able to borrow a wetsuit, even though it's always such a demoralising experience, getting into one - and out again. Such a struggle. Plus, it turns out that no-one can take off a front-zip wetsuit without assistance: getting it off your shoulders is impossible.

My home for the night, Oranga, was one of the four rentable houses on the island - spanking clean, remarkably well-equipped, private and very comfortable. I would happily live there, as would many others, judging by the comments in the Visitor's Book. Paradise, oasis, sanctuary, magical... one person was on their 6th stay there; and some came regularly for Christmas, which seems a lovely idea to me.

This morning I was very smug about tracking down the pair of takahe with their chick, exactly where I calculated they would be. That pleasure was diluted, though, by finding a dead penguin on a beach, sadly. Then I spent ages vainly trying to photograph a whitehead - they are so fast, they just dematerialise the instant you (I) click the shutter. Fun, though. 

Finally, it was time to head to the wharf to catch the ferry back to Waiheke, after a properly lovely time. It was only slightly marred, while we waited to board, by an OWM volunteer chatting with Milly, who was being amusing about her husband. "But you married him," he said. "And gave him a male heir." When I asked what difference it made that the child was a boy, he was satisfactorily nonplussed, I'm happy to report.

Friday 27 November 2020

Loo view

Pardon the indelicacy, but when I sit on the loo in my bathroom at night, I can see, flashing out in the blackness, a lighthouse signal, every 15 seconds. So it was satisfying, yesterday, to go to Tiritiri Matangi Island to spend the night in a bunkhouse just a hundred metres or so from that very lighthouse.

That wasn't the main purpose of the visit - although it's a classically attractive lighthouse, the oldest one still operating in NZ (since 1865), and stands next to an even more appealing watch tower. No, the main draw to Tiri for its visitors is birds. Once extensively farmed, cleared of almost all its virgin forest, it was the first island to be the subject of an intensive, and unique, revegetation and pest-removal programme that started nearly forty years ago. 

Volunteers and government agencies worked together and planted over 300,000 trees in just ten years, most of them grown from seed collected on the island. Now, it looks wonderfully natural again, and the birds love it. So did I - especially after the noise and chaos of the endless roadworks on Quay Street, it was so lovely to be delivered by ferry to the island where all you can hear is wind, waves and birdsong.

There are over 70 species resident on the island, including kiwi and takahe, and also, I was really thrilled to hear, kokako. This is a hard-to-see bird about the size of a tui that has the most beautiful call: haunting, melodic, so tuneful. When you return to Auckland airport after an overseas trip and walk through the carved archway on the way to immigration, that's the song you can hear. It's gorgeous.

Not quite so gorgeous is the accommodation there, for spoiled people like me. It's a bunkhouse, with rooms sleeping 4-6, with a shared kitchen for preparing the food you have to bring yourself. But an island visit is all about being outside, exploring, bird-watching and listening, so that didn't really matter. 

It was a short night anyway - we were all out after dinner, wandering around in the dark hoping to hear and see kiwi. Which I did, thanks to some kind and sharper-eyed people who pointed it out to me, scuttling across the track. Then, we were all up early next morning to go and hear the dawn chorus in the bush: just glorious! So loud, and varied, and musical - perhaps not quite what Capt. Cook's crew complained about down in Fiordland back in 1770, disturbing their sleep, but much better than most people have heard. The same nice people as yesterday showed me a tuatara they'd spotted that I would certainly have walked right past.

The island is very pretty too: it helped that the pohutukawa is just coming into flower now, but the beaches are lovely, the cliffs dramatic, the sea a beautiful blue, and the views long and wide. If not quite clear enough today to see Waiheke Island from there, let alone my toilet. Probably just as well.

Tuesday 24 November 2020

Trains and boats and planes

What a joy it is, when public transport works as it should! And, to be fair, as it usually does, in my experience: so, well done, AT. Today there was a seamless transition from ferry to train, which took me into the trackless (well actually of course not, seeing as how I was on a train) wastes of southern Auckland, to Papakura. There I was met by Gary from Ardmore Airfield, and the rest of the day was all about planes.

Not your boring everyday Boeings and Airbuses, but aircraft full of personality and awesomeness, dating from 1912 to 1964 - famous and iconic planes including Tiger Moth, Harvard, Skyhawk, Mustang, Aermacchi, Fokker, and even a Polikarpov. I first saw one of those at the Flying Heritage Museum near Everett, Washington state, about ten years ago. That was where I first heard the amazing story of the Night Witches, women who insisted on doing their bit for Russia in WW2, and ended up becoming the Germans' worst nightmare, swooping silently over the lines at night and shoving bombs out over the side of their open biplanes. Astonishing.

Regular 😀 readers will recall that I am an airman's daughter, so it was especially interesting to me to follow the rapid progression learner pilots like Dad - teenagers! - would have made, from Tiger Moth to Harvard to Kittyhawk and then into action, with the enemy shooting at them from the ground and from other planes. Getting up close to the planes and seeing how basic and flimsy they are was a real education, and very sobering to consider.

There are two hangars, WWI and WW2, with most of the planes owned by syndicates of enthusiasts, but the whole set-up owing a huge debt - fortunately, just of gratitude - to a man who turned up unannounced one day, saying he'd just won $24 million on Lotto, had set his family up, and now was "going to do what I want". Which was indulge his passion for planes. So what had been a very small hobby arrangement has now become an impressive collection of over 30 assorted aircraft, almost every one of them capable of being flown.

Which is why I was there: to publicise their upcoming Warbirds on Parade event, when there will be a number of air displays including a bi- and tri-plane dogfight, and, star of the show, an actual Spitfire showing off and fixing forever in everybody's memories that unmistakable throaty clatter - which I last heard in 2018 as I walked along the top of the White Cliffs of Dover one bright summer afternoon... 

Sunday 22 November 2020

Definitely a lovesome thing. God wot.

Somewhat reluctantly, we skimmed up to reception at Kinloch Manor in our little golf cart, and surrendered it before driving away homewards. But not straight home. Trusting to the GPS, we headed off on relatively minor roads towards Hamilton, where I had an appointment. To be honest, my sense of direction was bamboozled by the route, and we could have been anywhere. But though it was so unfamiliar, it was certainly scenic. We followed the Waikato for a while, and then headed into the hills, going through few little towns, so I was relieved eventually to reach the outskirts of Hamilton.

Here I was to explore one of the treasures of what would be NZ's most mocked city, if Palmerston North hadn't bagged that title. I don't really know why people laugh at the Tron, and honestly, if Hamilton Gardens are any indication of its worth - well, shut up right now. They are magnificent! Also, big.

They cover 54 hectares, much of it the usual expanses of lawns, with rose gardens, rhododendrons, big trees, lake and so on - but, most notably, also including 21 enclosed gardens, each with a separate theme: Japanese, Indian, Italian, tropical, surrealist, modernist, Tudor, sustainable - and more, so much more. They are all beautifully designed, immaculately kept, colourful, interesting, and so photogenic that they are irresistible these days to Instagrammers wanting the perfect backdrop for their selfies.

I wandered for ages, fascinated, and could have spent much more time there if I didn't have a long drive ahead of me and a ferry to catch. I never got to Sissinghurst while I lived in England, but I truly think that Vita Sackville-West would be impressed by what Hamilton has. I certainly was, and would go back again any day. Great work, Kirikiriroa!

Saturday 21 November 2020

Two sorts of watering

It's just lovely, to start your day sitting in a window with a view like this. And, happily, it continued in much the same vein. After breakfast (pretty good Bircher muesli, I'm pleased to say - regular 😀 readers will know I am an expert on the subject) we went into Taupo to get more story material. First stop was the Taupo bungy, which I'd last seen from below, kayaking past along the mighty Waikato. 

The novelty here is that, first, it's from a 47m high clifftop; and then that you can do it tandem, or as a swing. I was surprised it was so busy - there was a constant stream of people flinging themselves over the edge - and disappointed that they were all so cool about it. I mean, not one person screamed! Did they not realise they had a performance to put on for us spectators? I suppose it's because bungying is so businesslike and run-of-the-mill these days - although also still enough of an event for people to do it, like one man I watched, to mark special days - for him, his 60th birthday.

Next came the Hole In One Challenge - where you hit a golf ball from the shore and try to get it into one of the three holes on a pontoon moored 102m out in the lake. Obviously, you buy a bucket of balls, up to 50, although the supremely self-confident can just have one go, for $1.50. I don't know if anyone has succeeded doing that, but they do average a hole-in-one about every fortnight. And someone scored the $10,000 prize for the hardest hole two years ago. They go out with a snorkel and dive for the lost balls every day, since you ask. 

We called in then at l'Arté Café and Gardens, in Acacia Bay, which is a lovely example of outdoor mosaic work, if not as over-the-top impressive as the Giant's House in Akaroa. It's really pretty, and I was especially taken by how comfortable the cushions on the sofas were, in the open-air living room. They were obviously modelled on real bottoms. It was colourful and pretty, and fun, and there was lots of art tucked away around the garden to discover, as well as a studio to nose into. Pretty good coffee, too.

I went next to explore Woody's Place, which is an art gallery near Kinloch Manor, and where, once you've got past the soppy Labrador begging for pats, there's heaps to admire and enjoy inside. Woody himself was there, working at his - of course - wood-turning in a dark and crowded workshop next door. In the gallery were paintings, photography, pottery, jewellery, furniture and more, all well done and well-priced. No photos allowed there, so instead here's one of the iconic McDonald's DC3 back in Taupo:

Kinloch itself was next: I expected it to be full of retired people but actually, there were all sorts and ages of people wandering the streets and along the lake shore, and it was nice. There was even a free book and toy library in a little hut on the beach; and the Tipsy Trout café looked good. Boy, though, the marina! So many expensive-looking boats! And there was a housing estate that looked eye-watering.

And then it was back to Kinloch Manor for another really lovely dinner, in the library this time. I had to skip the soup because, despite resolutions, I was unable to resist the canapés beforehand; but the rest of it was so delicious, my mouth is watering just remembering it.

Friday 20 November 2020

To the manor

How exciting! We didn't only leave Waiheke today, we left Auckland! What a thrill, after so long, to hit the actual road and go somewhere else. Not that it's anywhere we haven't been before, numerous times, mind: Taupo, a huge, deep lake in the middle of the North Island, formed by a volcanic explosion so powerful that it formed a hole, rather than a cone. 

Our focus this time though is the little settlement of Kinloch, around the edge of the lake from Taupo town. This is where Kinloch Manor sits, on a hill in the middle of the golf course - the only one in NZ designed, and played, by Jack Nicklaus, golfers are excited to point out - the main building channelling a castle vibe, the villas low-profile in the surrounding grounds.

Ours is very lovely, with a beautiful view out across the lake to the distant mountains volcanoes, huge bathroom with standalone bath, big comfy bed, absurdly well-equipped kitchen (I mean, who would use that when the restaurant is so good, and, to be frank, you're comfortable with paying so much for the accommodation that self-catering is surely irrelevant). Best of all, though, is the electric golf cart supplied for easy access to all parts of the property. Good fun! The only down-side is that the metal Labrador at the entrance to reception looks so sad...

I nipped out to get a bit of story material at some hot springs I hadn't been to before: Otumuheke Stream, with a little cluster of hot pools just before it flows into the Waikato River, and which is free to access. It was a bit of a mission to find, to be honest, mostly owing to my inevitably choosing the wrong direction when presented with a choice, and ending up in the wilds of a sports park. After beating my way off-track through the bush for a bit, relieved as ever that bears, snakes and pumas weren't part of the picture, I found the back way into the pools, which were pretty, beautifully warm, and patronised by people who had simply strolled there through the front entrance.

Back at the lodge, there were complimentary (disclosure: it's all complimentary for me) canapĂ©s on the terrace watching golfers battling with some of the course's 172 bunkers. Then followed a truly delicious five-course dĂ©gustation dinner at a table right in the window with a great view of the sunset over the lake, flocks of welcome swallows flitting about just outside, and ducks waddling over the greens far below. After such a big dinner, I would have been waddling myself, back to the villa - except, with the golf cart, happily there was no need. 

Thursday 19 November 2020

Crowning glory

Time has been passing unexpectedly quickly - various national elections, the relentless creep of Covid, vaccine buzz, family stuff will do that, of course. Not as much time as since 1981, of course, but tonight, watching (with so much of the world) The Crown, the eve of the royal wedding felt very fresh.

In episode 3, Charles stands at the windows of the Palace, watching fireworks - and I remembered that I watched those fireworks too, that night, in Hyde Park, in a crowd more vast than any I've been part of, before or since. Actually, to be a stickler for fact, Charles and most of the royal family (but not Diana) were out there in the dark with me too, rather than having a dramatic conclave in the Palace. After all, it was the most spectacular display - massive fireworks that went on and on, a huge Catherine wheel, cannons, band music, choirs... oh, and a bonfire that Charles lit, the first of a trail of beacons that led away across the country.

Even more memorable, though, was being literally swept along afterwards through the dark by the crowd, like an ocean, with absolutely no chance of choosing my own direction. It was actually quite frightening. But we made it out, and eventually onto our train home - the milk train, stopping and starting all the way to Gloucester, pulling in finally at about 5am, with just enough time for a bit of a zizz before we had to get up again to watch the lead-up to the wedding itself, the streets outside completely dead as everyone in the country sat glued to their screens.

Charles and Diana came to Gloucester in December that year, going to a service in the city's magnificent cathedral, and we saw them as they left on a snowy winter's morning, Diana in an enviably stylish big coat and muff. It was my least personal royal encounter, of several over the years I lived in England, which included suddenly noticing that on the other side of the car window I was standing next to at the Badminton Horse Trials was the Queen Mother herself. At the same Badminton, equally distracted by the horses, I had to have it pointed out to me that the grey I was admiring was actually being ridden by Prince Charles. Plus, of course, there was the garden party I went to at the Palace in 1982.

The Queen and Prince Andrew (and the old Duke of Beaufort) at Badminton

It was lovely to see London in the programme, looking so fabulous, and so familiar: the steps up to St Paul's, the Victoria monument opposite the Palace, the Mall. It reminded me of being there, in August last year, and the perfect, sunny day I had, the last of my Silversea cruise. I left the ship, which was moored right by Tower Bridge, in the morning, took the tube to Buckingham Palace, did a tour around the rooms, so big and high and opulent and gorgeous, and then walked back through summery St James's Park, to Downing Street, past Big Ben to the Thames, and along the Embankment to climb, eventually, the Great Fire monument and finally return home to Silver Wind for my last night onboard. 

It was a brilliant day, and a happy ending to a cruise that actually had gone really badly, almost ruined by our both getting terrible, terrible flu that laid us out and left me with a permanent cough, to this day. Except, in other news today, it's been found that some people in Italy had Covid months before it was first recorded in Wuhan in November. I wonder...?

Saturday 7 November 2020

Good luck, Koanga - kia kaha!

I went overseas today! Well, across a bit of water to another island, so that counts, right? Even if it was only a 10-minute trip. It started a bit excitingly, as the tide was high and the ramp up onto the ferry was angled at pretty much 45° but after that it was a super-quick slide across from Waiheke to Rotoroa Island.

It's a pretty little island, only about 80 hectares, with some sandy beaches, a couple of hilly bits, and lots of bush and birds. That was why I was there: today they were releasing onto the island a kiwi chick called Koanga. The island is a pest-free sanctuary, and it's used as a crĂšche for kiwi chicks, till they're big enough to stand up for themselves against a stoat or other predator. Operation Nest Egg collects eggs from the wild, using radio transmitters on adult kiwi males (who do all the hatching - fair enough, too, since the female has to grow and lay an egg that's about 2/3 her body size. Ouch!)

The eggs are hatched at Auckland Zoo. The chicks then come to Rotoroa for a year or more till they're up to 1200g, and finally they're returned to their point of origin. It's a lot of bother to go to, and expensive, too, but the kiwi is unique, and a national icon, so there's no choice. Besides, it's fun and interesting.

There was a big crowd there to see the release, and learn all about it, and a somewhat sleepy Koanga (kiwi are nocturnal) was paraded around for everyone to see, which was pretty special. Then he was popped into an artificial burrow in the bush and left to emerge tonight in his own time, and explore his new home.

Then we all went off to explore it too, first on a tour with Milly Lucas, the resident and very enthusiastic ranger, and then by ourselves. Even without the kiwi, it's an interesting place to go to, since for over a century it was used by the Salvation Army as a retreat for thousands of addicts - first alcohol, then drugs - where they would be sent to do a hard withdrawal, spending their days working, and expected to go to church at least once daily. There's even a set of two jail cells for those who got bolshy.

The farm they worked is gone now, the cleared bush replanted by volunteers and growing impressively well; and most of the buildings have been demolished. I enjoyed exploring the various tracks, spotting other birds, and especially coming across a dam (pond) where I couldn't see, but could certainly hear, many many bell frogs croaking fit to burst. At one end of the island is a striking memorial sculpture of granite rocks, with lovely views over towards the Coromandel Peninsula, where the kiwi eggs come from.

And then it was time to head back to the ferry, everyone relaxed and chatty, having had a good time. Me too - which is just as well, since I'll be back here again in a few weeks, to stay overnight. But not in a cell.


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