On the other side of the world
11 April - 9 May 2012

Tuesday 17 April

It was a (relatively) early start to the day as the four of us took our turns in the bathroom before packing up, loading the car and setting off for our flight to Aukland. Dunedin airport is a long way outside the city - apparently sited there in optimistic expectation of an urban expansion that never quite happened - so I had a good long time to enjoy my final views of the South Island with its green, rolling hills. The airport itself was small and efficient (no problem with the self check-in machines here) and we smoothly proceeded through the various lounges and the customary security theatre onto the plane itself. The first part of the flight was alarmingly bumpy but as we reached our cruising altitude things calmed down and the flight passed quickly and easily.

View from Catherine's house, Whitianga

I don't know what it is about Aukland airport but there always seemed to be something going wrong or badly laid out when I passed through. As I made my way into the arrivals hall the signs saying which baggage conveyor was serving which flight remained resolutely blank while the tannoy announced that there had been a gate change and that passengers should ignore the departure boards "As they are wrong". Not a good sign. Despite this we found & collected our bags and made our way outside where, against all odds (and with very confusing signage attempting to trick & mislead us), we caught the correct airport parking bus and made good our escape. Twice now I had faced the challenge of Aukland airport and emerged victorious, would my third encounter on Friday be similarly successful? We will see...

We had a two hour road trip ahead of us and as honoured guest (and gawking tourist) I was given the front seat to take in the views and soak up the local colour. As we made our way towards Whitianga the countryside changed and began to look more exotic & unfamiliar, the hills grew taller and steeper (although staying very rounded) and palms & pampas grass began to appear and multiply on the hillsides and slopes. The road became increasingly twisty as we left the flat, open plains and switchbacked up & over the hills.

And then suddenly there was the sea! We came to a T junction and ahead of us was a wide, blue bay with a broad sandy beach, fringed by tall, green hills that broke into white cliffs at the waterside. The late afternoon sun lit it beautifully, just to complete the idyllic scene.

After the long drive/flight/drive, to say nothing of the MEDANZ weekend, we were all a bit worn out so after a light supper and a short walk around the block it was time for an early night.

Wednesday 18 April

Mercury Bay

With my MEDNAZ workshops done and no more teaching until... tonight, I had a day free to be a simple tourist again. Catherine & I drove into Whitianga from where we took a small ferry across the estuary to the imaginatively named Ferry Landing and from there set off on foot towards Shakespeare Hill Scenic & Historic Reserve.

It was a gloriously sunny day with just a hint of coolness in the air to keep it from feeling oppressive. We skirted the edge of Maramaratotara Bay before climbing up the path to the top of Shakespeare Hill, from where Mercury Bay lay spread out before us, glistening in the sunshine.

(Historical note - the name Mercury Bay comes from Captain James Cook who came here in 1769 to observe a transit of Mercury across the sun. There's a small memorial on top of the hill which (incorrectly) marks the site of the observations. And Shakespeare Cliff is meant to look like a profile of the Bard, although I couldn't see it myself.)

From atop Shakespeare's bonce we descended to sea level at Lonely Bay, a small, secluded beach which was apparently free of the Deadly Rips and other life-threatening currents that Kiwis and Aussies kept warning me about. We changed into our bathers, gingerly walked down over the sharp & pointy shells covering most of the sand, then strode into the water - accompanied by small squeals as we found out just how cold it was. Not what I was expecting but, as a lapsed Scot, not too terrible. After getting fully immersed (helped by the largish waves) it felt great to swim (although not helped by the largish waves) and we spent five or ten minutes out in the sea before deciding it was a little too cold and retreating back onto the sand.

Eggselect food too!

We continued our walk, stopping for lunch at the Eggsentric Café before taking a high path with more spectacular views over the surrounding area. The up & down nature of the land meant that most of the paths consisted of steep staircase-like sections with intermittent viewing points, several of which seemed to have been placed directly behind large trees which seemed a bit odd. Anyway, the views were many and splendid, the walk was challenging but not exhausting, the sun shone down over everything and all in all it was very good to be alive.

The Lost Spring spa

In the afternoon I'd been promised a visit to the local hot springs. I was expecting an isolated spot with steaming, noxiously smelling water bubbling up amongst dark volcanic rocks so it was something of a surprise when we drove along a suburban street and turned into one of the houses. Yet this was it, the Lost Spring spa. Passing through what looked like an ordinary house I found myself in the the lobby of a health spa, and after changing into my swimsuit and going out into the 'garden' I entered a tropical world with warm (verging to hot) waterways threading through lush, verdant growth.

The illusion was spoilt a little at close range - there was 'generic Pacific' piped music (thankfully not too loud), empty cocktail glasses lying around in clumps and the 'volcanic rocks' turned out to be painted concrete and a bit abrasive if you weren't careful (I wasn't and paid the price in lost skin from my elbow). But despite all this it was an excellent place to relax & unwind while swimming or bobbing around in the warm water. Catherine led me to the Crater Lake where the water was the hottest and we slowly cooked while sipping virgin piña coladas. Not a bad way to ease away our hiking aches.

For the evening I was 'back to work' - teaching at Catherine's local dance group. Despite only having a small circle I started on time and then, because it was a small circle, I let myself throw away my programme for the evening and follow my instincts. We ended up doing an odd and eclectic selection of dances (even for me!) including some I hadn't done in years. Everyone seemed to have a good time and it was reassuring to find I could still 'vamp' a dance session with minimal forward planning.

Lonely Bay, with Cooks Bay beyond

Catherine, alone in Lonely Bay

Into the wild interior

Catching the ferry back home

Thursday 19 April

Otama beach

Thursday brought another free day - in fact the first day without teaching or air travel since my trip began. After my (by now) usual routine of an early awakening, an hour or so's blog writing and a social breakfast with my hosts I joined Catherine in the car for another outing. Today we went up & over a high ridge on a ridiculously tightly turning metalled road to reach Otama beach, yet another stretch of golden, unspoilt sand lapped by an azure sea.

When we arrived at the beach it was crowded by Kiwi standards - there was another person on it. Luckily they were leaving and within a couple of minutes we had the place to ourselves.

Walking on the beach revealed a bizarre effect. As we walked, letting our feet brush along the surface, the sand squeaked. That's exactly what it sounded like, as if there were little mice just under the surface, complaining about the noisy folk overhead. The noise came and went, depending on the dryness, density or some other quality of the sand, and often caught me by surprise when it started up again. Very odd.

We strolled from one end of the beach to the other, chatting about this, that & everything. A swing, suspended from the branches of one of the tall trees that fringed the beach, provided a delightful distraction as we neared the far end, as did musing on the actions & motives of a Mysterious Red Boat loitering suspiciously just off the rocks. Strolling through this natural beauty raised some deep, almost existential questions within me, most notably "Why have I chosen not to live here?". There are obvious answers to this - could I find meaningful work? What would I do when not strolling on the beach? What would the New Zealand Immigration Authority have to say about this? What would my darling partner think about this? - but despite this it was interesting to ponder on what I wanted from/in my life.

Pondering the Big Questions of life

One thing I wanted, or at least had a hankering for, manifested almost immediately at Kuaotunu on the way back home - a locally famous shop that sold prodigiously laden ice cream cones. The 'single' (or some other misleadingly diminutive name) that I ordered came with two scoops each of two different flavours and in the hot (for me) weather provided a complex challenge for my tongue, how to devour the yummy confection without rendering it structurally unsound. I rose to the task and ended up with a full & happy tummy without losing anything to the pavement.

That afternoon both Catherine & Alistair were working so I took the opportunity to wander around town and get a feel for Whitianga. There were shopping opportunities aplenty with SALE signs sweeping through the retail outlets like a modern day plague but my mind wasn't really set on acquisition of stuff, especially as it seemed like most of it was made in China or somewhere in South-East Asia (as in so many places nowadays). I like buying things that have some sort of local origin when shopping for mementos & keepsakes (& gifts) but apart from paintings & jewelry there wasn't much in evidence. I dallied over some feijoa jelly (the feijoa is an tasty fruit that is very widespread but apparently not native to New Zealand) but I wondered whether a jar would survive my itinerary intact - better to get a friend to post me some if I was still keen after returning to the UK. I tried a few sun hats but didn't find one that I liked and none of the t-shirt designs caught my eye, so I just wandered around and enjoyed the sunshine.

One of the more prominent buildings on the shoreline (discounting the glass & concrete apartment blocks) was the Whitianga Museum, so I decided to see what it had to offer. There was minor confusion at the entrance when I paid my NZ$5 entry fee and was given a dollar back in change but after some puzzled looks & questions it turned out that I'd been charged the senior price. When I explained that I was still waiting for my bus pass there was an odd reluctance to accept the extra dollar, so in the end I popped it in the donations bowl and everyone was happy.

There were some interesting bits & bobs in the museum but 90% of it was geared towards Captain Cook's visit in 1769, presumably the most notable thing that has ever happened in Whitianga. I saw a film examining Cook's visit from Maori & European settler perspectives (which raised some interesting points), innumerable maps & descriptions of the event, a (nearly) full-size reconstruction of the main cabin of Cook's ship, and a huge collection of cannon balls, hooks & other nautical paraphernalia that had been fished out of the bay. Admittedly it was a small building and it looked like there wasn't a huge budget but it felt a bit over-fixated on Cook, there were small displays about logging, local education and other topics that I'd have love to have heard more about.

After a couple more hours of soaking up the essence of Whitianga I met up with Catherine & Alistair and after some down time at home we set out for a celebratory dinner at a swanky restaurant in town - my 'thank you' for being put up (& put up with) so wonderfully. In the middle of my tightly packed schedule I'd managed to have a real holiday and get a good taste of New Zealand. Tomorrow - Australia!

Abandoned shoes at Otama beach

Otama beach

Nearly sunken tree in Whitianga harbour

Whitianga shorefront

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