Farewell North Island, g’day South Island

27 October 2019

After 3 days in Auckland and a further 11 days on the road, during which period we drove 1,913 kilometres, it’s time for us to leave North Island. From our boutique hotel accommodation at Bushy Park we drive for about 90 minutes to the airport at Palmerston North.

On the way we pass through the town of Bulls, which boasts several life size representations of the animal in question modelled out of resin or bronze or whatever. And there’s also a large sign bearing the legend: “Bulls, there’s no udder place like it!” I’m easily amused, so that pun makes my day.

The flight to Christchurch in the South Island takes about an hour. The weather is fine and visibility is good, so Mrs P takes full advantage of her window seat and snaps away merrily at the snow clad mountains and rugged coastline, and the distinctively shaped Kaikoura peninsula.

Christchurch airport is remarkably efficient, and within a few minutes of landing we’ve picked up the second Toyota Camry of our trip, and head north towards Kaikoura, the very place over which we were flying less than an hour ago.

The outskirts of Christchurch have little to recommend them, but as we move further north the traffic thins out and the landscape gets more interesting. The weather is almost perfect, and the gales and torrential rain of North Island already seem like a distant memory.

The black sandy beaches are alien to our eyes, but strangely atmospheric. Not an obvious choice for a beach holiday, but that’s not why Mrs P and I are here.

The late afternoon light illuminates the towering Cathedral Cliffs at Gore Bay, on the approach to Kaikoura. Unusually these are inland cliffs, facing away from the sea, and the rock columns remind us of the pipes of a monstrous church organ.

On the outskirts of Kaikoura we call in at Peninsula Point. Rocks of all shapes and sizes rise out of the sea. Behind, we can see the snow-capped mountains over which we were flying just a few hours ago. This place is so picturesque; all it needs is a fur seal or two and it would be perfect.

And there he is, our first fur seal, lounging lazily on the rocks. Wild mammals were thin on the ground in North Island, and we’re hoping for better things on South Island. If Peninsula Point is anything to go by, we won’t be disappointed.

I think I’m going to like this place.

St Pauls Memorial Church, Putiki: a stunning church decorated in the Maori style

26 October 2019

The church at Putiki, in the suburbs of Wanganui, is nothing special to look at from the outside. We’ve already seen several others that are quite similar, and it hardly seems worthy of a second glance.

But inside is different: this place is a stunner. Here’s what the Visit Wanganui website has to say about it:

A special taonga (treasure) in Whanganui is St Pauls Memorial Church in Putiki. Filled with beautiful and intricate Māori carvings and tukutuku (wall panels), they weave a tale of the people and the land in this area that dates back to the 1830’s. St Pauls Anglican Memorial Church in Putiki, Whanganui, is one of the most intricately and beautifully decorated Churches in Aotearoa, New Zealand. This unique building is adorned with fascinating Maori tukutuku and lattice designs which speak of the history of the church and the area.

Source: Visit Whanganui website, retrieved 2 November 2019

It sounds like hype, doesn’t it, just the sort of thing you’d expect a promotional tourist website to say, but it’s bang on. The interior of this place is fabulous.

You have to pay for a guided tour, but it’s worth it to hear our volunteer Maori guide Simon tell us about the church’s history and explain how traditional Maori motifs were re-used and reinterpreted to spread a Christian message.

Simon also tells us that like churches the world over congregations are dwindling and most of those who now attend services are elderly. I worry about who will care for this magnificent building when the current generation of worshippers passes away. This place is a national treasure; it deserves to be better known and must be protected for future generations to admire.

So, if you’re ever out this way do make a point of taking the guided tour, and drop a few dollars into the donations box as you leave. This is a vital piece of New Zealand’s cultural history, and ordinary tourists like us can do their bit to help protect it,

Wanganui … officially New Zealand’s most beautiful city

26 October 2019

On 24 October Wanganui (a.k.a. Whanganui, the correct pronunciation of which, confusingly, is Fanganui!) won the awards for Most Beautiful City and Best Street in a competition run by the Keep New Zealand Beautiful organisation.

A couple of days later we roll into town to see what all the fuss is about. The main reason for our visit is to take a river trip on a restored 120 years old paddle steamer, but it quickly became apparent that Wanganui has a lot more to offer.

As we make our way down to the wharf where we will catch the paddle steamer we can see a row of elegant heritage buildings. New Zealand is a young country and inevitably buildings of age and character are pretty thin on the ground, so it was a pleasant surprise to see Wanganui has a few elegant examples. Reading up subsequently about the Keep New Zealand Beautiful Awards it’s clear that the town has many other fine historic buildings that we didn’t manage to track down.

Fortunately we are in Wanganui on a Saturday and are therefore able to enjoy “The River Traders”, a pop-up market with around 100 stalls. This weekly market reflects the history of this place before Europeans arrived, as it was a busy riverside trading site for local Maoris. As we wander around we can see it’s a hive of activity, with a variety of stalls selling food, craft products and much more.

We were happily enjoying ourselves nosing around the market when the unmistakable sound of Scottish bagpipes splits the air. Lots of New Zealanders are of Scottish descent, and it’s clear that – at least here in Wanganui – they’re working hard to maintain links with their heritage. The pipe band plays several sets in various locations in and around the market, and gathers an appreciative audience each time.

It is a slightly surreal experience, hearing authentic bagpipe music being played with such passion so far from the Scottish Highlands, but it adds to the atmosphere of what is clearly a thriving, lively town. This place has a wow factor, and it’s easy to see how the Keep New Zealand Beautiful judges would have been impressed.

Wanganui also boasts an exceptional water tower, even better than the one we saw in Hawera a day or two ago. Extraordinarily, and perhaps somewhat pretentiously for a tiny town on the opposite side of the globe, the Bastia Hill Water Tower was designed to reflect the arched aqueducts and towers of the water supply network of ancient Rome! It was built in 1927 and still deserves to be seen today.

When the time comes we make our way to the paddle steamer Waimarie. It was built by Yarrow & Co. Shipbuilders at Poplar, London in 1899 and transported to New Zealand in kit form, split across 73 separate crates.

As well as carrying cargo up and down the Wanganui River, the Waimarie (pronounced why-marry-ay) did a lot of business transporting tourists. Surprisingly perhaps, New Zealand was an upmarket tourist destination in the early twentieth century, and at a time when the road system was very limited river travel offered a good way of exploring the country.

Following an accident in 1952 the Waimarie sank, and was abandoned to its fate for 40 years. In 1992 a group of enthusiasts established a community heritage project to salvage, restore and operate the Waimarie once again. An amazing 67,000 volunteer hours later, the reincarnated Paddle Steamer Waimarie made its maiden voyage on 1 January 2000.

It’s evident from the moment we board that the volunteers have done a superb job. The Waimarie is now New Zealand’s only authentic coal-fired paddle steamer in operation and it is a privilege to sail on her for a few miles up the Wanganui River.

There is also something strangely satisfying in the fact that the Waimarie has returned to the role that she played for most of her working life, giving tourists a unique and restful view of this small corner of New Zealand’s North Island. Long may it continue.

Singing the All Blacks blues

25 October 2019

Ever since we arrived in New Zealand the country has been in the grip of World Cup fever. The rugby union World Cup is in full swing in Japan and the New Zealand All Blacks, the current holders of the title and widely acknowledged to be the best team in the world, are expected to win.

By world standards New Zealand is a small nation with a tiny population. Rugby union is the one sport at which this country excels, and as such it is a source of national pride which helps bring people and communities together.

All Blacks flags, shirts and memorabilia are everywhere

Unsurprisingly therefore, wherever we’ve been we have seen All Blacks flags, shirts and memorabilia, and ordinary Kiwis have wanted to talk to us about the competition in Japan. On our flight from Palmerston North to Christchurch we were even treated to some rugby-themed chocolate cookies. Over here, rugby gets into everything.

Rugby-themed cookies, courtesy of New Zealand Air

New Zealand have been doing very well, as expected, so your average Kiwi is feeling quite chipper. However in the semi-final they are to play England, who’ve also had a good competition to date. Over here the semi-final starts at 9.00pm, and our host at Bushy Park homestead has arranged for the match to be shown on a large-screen television in the lounge.

About 15 people are crammed into the lounge. Someone asks brightly “So I guess everyone here’s supporting the All Blacks?”

“No,” I reply in my best English accent, “We’re backing the other lot.”

A murmur goes round the room. It isn’t hostile – New Zealanders are decent folk, and the only people they really dislike are Aussies – but it’s more like an expression of pity. They know the All Blacks are the best in the world, and are worried that we’ll be humiliated when they give England a damn good thrashing.

The match starts and the Kiwis are confounded. The English are playing out of their skins and the All Blacks aren’t being allowed to settle into their normal rhythm. After a few minutes the English have scored and a sigh of dismay echoes round the room. Mrs P and I say nothing, just keep our heads down and pretend we’re not there. But inside we’re deliriously happy.

The New Zealand contingent are confident their boys will turn it around, but England continue to outplay them. Half time arrives with the All Blacks still well behind and looking out of sorts.

Our host, in an attempt to distract his guests from the disaster unfolding in Japan brings a Puriri moth for us to admire. There’s been a hatching this evening, and there are hundreds of them flying around the homestead.

Puriri moths are huge and green and, in the case of the males, desperately tragic. They spend up to seven years as a caterpillar and no more than two days as an adult moth. Their role is simple: to mate with a female Puriri, after which their job is done and they swiftly fade away and die. Such is their limited life expectancy that the males are born without mouths, so a post-coital snack is clearly out of the question.

I wonder, as we all gaze sympathetically at the wretched male Puriri, if this isn’t a metaphor for England’s game against the All Blacks, a brief and dazzling performance lasting just a few minutes followed pretty much immediately by an inevitable decline and fall.

But no, I’m being unnecessarily pessimistic. England start the second half as they ended the first, and although the All Blacks score they never seem likely to overhaul their opponents. Slowly, disconsolately, our fellow spectators quit the lounge before the game is over, quietly singing the All Blacks blues. By the time the referee blows the final whistle and England start their celebrations only Mrs P and I, and two grim-faced Kiwis, remain.

It has been an extraordinary experience, watching this match with a bunch of people to whom it plainly means so much. In the days that follow several New Zealanders speak to us about the game. They are magnanimous in defeat, and say their team was outclassed and England were worthy winners.

The New Zealanders are down but not out. Rugby union means far more to citizens of this country than it does to the English. There will be an inquest, a re-evaluation and some re-building. Probably a few heads will roll. But as Bill Shankly once said in relation to soccer, rugby union isn’t a matter of life or death in New Zealand: it’s far more important than that.

Don’t expect New Zealanders to be singing the All Blacks blues for long.

Bushy Park bird sanctuary

25 October 2019

In typical fashion, when the Brits colonised New Zealand they decided that although the land had promise, it was way too foreign. The solution, they determined, was to import some favourite elements of the Mother Country to make New Zealand feel much more like home.

What better way for the colonisers to make New Zealand feel like the land of their birth than to transport some familiar birds half way across the world and then release them to compete with an unsuspecting and ill-prepared population of native birds? For this reason, house sparrows, song thrushes, skylarks, blackbirds, goldfinches, chaffinches and many more species from the UK are abundant here in New Zealand.

House Sparrow – now probably more common in New Zealand than the UK

And it wasn’t just the Brits. The Aussies weren’t much better, nipping across the Tasman Sea to release some of their own familiar species such as Black Swans, Australian Magpies and Silvereyes.

To make matters worse, mammalian predators were brought to New Zealand and released, sometimes deliberately and sometimes accidentally. Rats, stoats, and possums now ravage New Zealand’s native bird species, which previously faced no such threats and were therefore ill-equipped to deal with the sudden influx of ruthless killing machines.

The combination of predation from introduced mammals and competition from introduced birds has been disastrous for New Zealand’s native birds. Some species have gone extinct, and many others can only be found on predator-free offshore islands. Our planned visit earlier in this trip to one such island, Tiritiri Matangi, had to be cancelled due to the weather, and we have therefore struggled to see many of the native birds that were due to be one of the highlights of our visit to New Zealand.

Bushy Park Sanctuary offers us the chance to put this right. This is a small area (100 hectares / 247 acres) of lowland rainforest surrounded by a predator-proof fence. The park and the homestead (grand farmhouse) bearing its name were gifted to conservation organisation Forest and Bird in 1962. The project to make this a special place for native birds has been managed by the Bushy Park Trust since 1994 and was encircled by a 4.8km pest-proof fence in 2005.

We are staying for two nights in the Bushy Park homestead, which has been converted into what we might describe in the UK as a boutique hotel. Built in 1906 in the Edwardian style, it is a Category One Heritage Building registered with the New Zealand Historic Places Trust.

Bushy Park homestead

To access the homestead and the adjacent sanctuary we have to drive through an airlock style double gate – one gate is always closed, which minimises the chance of predators entering the protected area. However, it’s obviously not fool-proof – or, to be more precise – possum-proof, as there are baited poison traps distributed throughout the homestead grounds and sanctuary.

Passing through the first of two gates designed to keep predators out of the Sanctuary

I must confess to having slightly mixed feelings about the poison. I know that the predators don’t belong here, and I also know that the native birds we’re hoping to see don’t stand a chance unless those predators are eliminated, but the poison inevitably causes suffering and a lingering death. As a matter of principle I don’t accept that any living creature should suffer at the hand of (wo)mankind, but without drastic intervention native birds will suffer and probably become extinct.

Fantail

Oh dear, what a conundrum. But what is absolutely clear is that the predator control and the reintroduction initiatives that have followed it have transformed the mix of birdlife to be found in this small area. As we walk though the forest and enjoy the sight of so many unfamiliar trees and other plants, our ears are assailed by the call of birds.

Hihi (male bird; the females are much less colourful)

But what we hear is not the type of birdsong that we’ve heard elsewhere in New Zealand, calls that are familiar from back home such as the blackbird and the chaffinch. No, these are the calls of native birds which are thriving in this tiny North Island sanctuary. And as we scan the trees and the bird feeders we spot the culprits, including Fantails, HiHi, Kereru, Saddlebacks and New Zealand Robin. Click here to see my brief YouTube video of the birds at Bushy Park.

Kereru

There’s a lot to enjoy and a lot to think about at Bushy Park Sanctuary. It demonstrates that with enough resources, and if we are willing to accept that the suffering of the poisoned is a price worth paying, small areas of the country can be reclaimed for native birds. It also demonstrates that those birds are magnificent creatures that deserve to thrive and to be admired by us, the architects of their decline.

Saddleback

But the New Zealand government has committed itself to ridding the country of rats, stoats and possums. It says

Predator Free 2050 is an ambitious goal to rid New Zealand of the most damaging introduced predators that threaten our nation’s natural taonga, our economy and primary sector. Join us in eradicating New Zealand’s most damaging introduced predators: rats, stoats and possums. Going predator free will bring us a huge range of environmental, cultural, social and economic benefits.

Source: https://www.doc.govt.nz/nature/pests-and-threats/predator-free-2050/ Retrieved 30 October 2019.

Sounds impressive, doesn’t it? But given the enormous effort that has gone into protecting just the 100 hectares of Bushy Park Sanctuary, is this realistic or merely fanciful? And considering the millions of living creatures that must be eliminated to make it happen, do the ends really justify the means?

New Zealand Robin

I don’t have the answers to these questions, and as a guest here it’s really not my business anyway. But it makes you think, doesn’t it?

Tongariro National Park

23 October 2019

After a night of torrential rain we awake to flurries of sleet and a bitter wind. It’s tempting to stay in our luxurious accommodation all day to keep warm and cosy, but unfortunately the power company’s disconnecting the supply at 9am for “essential maintenance,” so we may just as well go out and brave the elements. Our host is encouraging, saying that weather hereabouts is very localised, and so up the road there may be a heatwave. We have our doubts, but what the hell there’s nothing to lose.

Our plan for the morning is to drive to the top of a nearby mountain road to admire the view, but soon after setting off we learn that the road in question is closed by 20cm of snow, and is unlikely to reopen any time soon. Disappointed we head for the nearest café and console ourselves with a large mocha and a monstrous slab of cake.

Suitably refreshed we head back to Whakapapa, retracing yesterday’s journey. It turns out our hosts were right, the weather is better here although “heatwave” would be stretching a point. Nevertheless the view of the volcanoes is much better than 24 hours ago.

Tongariro National Park boasts several impressive volcanoes, including Mount Ngauruhoe at almost 2,300 metres. Mount Ngauruhoe has the honour of being New Zealand’s newest and historically most active volcano. There have been more than 70 “eruptive episodes” since 1839. However all has been quiet since 1975, so we are relaxed about the risk.

Unsurprisingly, given the weather at present, Ngauruhoe’s summit and high slopes are cloaked in cloud, but like a flirtatious stripper she teases and tantalises us with the occasional glimpse of what lies beneath.

As the minutes pass she becomes more and more daring, giving us longer and more revealing peeps at her wares, until finally she throws caution to the wind. The cloud that has hidden her charms for so long dissipates and Ngauruhoe stands before us, naked, glorious and unashamed. A classically shaped cone, the summit and upper slopes a dazzling white carpet of snow, she is magnificent. We’ve waited 24 hours to enjoy this sight, and it was worth waiting for.

Having had our fill of Mount Ngauruhoe, the last stop on our itinerary is the Tawhai Falls. The waterfall is 13 metres high, and like so many others we’ve seen on this trip it is magnificent.

But Tawhai Falls have another claim to fame, as a filming location for Gollum’s pool where Faramir and his archers are watching Gollum fish. There’s no sign of Gollum today, but who cares? Even without the Lord of the Rings connection this place is well worth a visit, and the frustrations caused by the weather yesterday and this morning are all but forgotten.

Things fall apart

22 October 2019

Things are falling apart.  Today we were due to take a boat trip on Lake Taupo, to see some Maori rock carvings that are inaccessible by land.  However, it was blowing a gale and the skipper decided it would be too risky – or perhaps more accurately, way too unpleasant – to sail, so he cancelled the excursion.   That’s three boat trips out of four that we’ve lost to the weather since arriving in New Zealand. I’m starting to think the gods have taken a dislike to us.

Speaking of things falling apart, my shoes have disintegrated.   I bought them just a few months before leaving the UK, but within a day or two of arriving here they were virtually unwearable.  Luckily Taupo has some decent retail outlets, so instead of visiting the Maori carvings we tour the town’s shoe shops. Thankfully I manage to get a new and comfortable pair of walking shoes without much difficulty, but that’s $137 I’ll never see again.

Newly shod, it’s time for me to take the wheel again and set off towards Tongariro National Park.  On the way we stop off briefly at South Taupo Wetland in the hope of seeing some interesting local birds while we eat our lunch.  Unfortunately the birds mostly keep their distance, but we do at least enjoy the view across Lake Taupo towards a distant volcano.

As we drive on the weather starts to close in ominously.  We park up briefly at the Makatote Viaduct which, when it was built between 1906 and 1909 for New Zealand Railways, was the tallest bridge in New Zealand. 

Our brief photo stop over, we continue on towards Tongariro National Park, which is famous for its spectacular volcanoes.  We drop in at the visitor centre at Whakapapa (confusingly, and somewhat alarmingly pronounced something like Fukka-puppa) before carrying on up the steep, winding mountain road, through dark and gloomy forest, until it opens up at a car park. 

As we look around us the top of the volcanoes are shrouded in low cloud, while the slopes are snow-covered. A bitter wind blows and sleety rain is falling, so we decide it’s time to beat a hasty retreat to a lower and more agreeable altitude.

With the weather becoming ever more threatening we conclude there is no further prospect of spotting volcanoes, so we head off to the little town of Ohakune for dinner.  This area is the self-proclaimed carrot capital of New Zealand, and the town boasts a children’s playground – called Carrot World, or something similar, I suspect – celebrating the orange root and its various veggie cousins. 

Dotted around the playground are large fibre glass characterisations of several vegetables, including a disturbingly phallic parsnip.  In retrospect this is all a bit odd, given how much kids the world over hate vegetables. Or maybe New Zealand kids do eat all their veggies, which could explain why they grow up to be such fearsome rugby players?  

But the most dramatic feature of the playground is a huge (and I mean monstrously huge) carrot on the roadside, announcing to every passing motorist that this town has truly taken the orange root to its heart.  Mrs P’s camera has barely been used all day, so she gets it out and snaps away merrily.

But, on reflection, if the best thing we can say about today is that we saw a big bridge and big carrot, then I must regretfully conclude that it has not gone well for us.  Things are indeed falling apart, and we can only hope for better fortune tomorrow.

Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland

21 October 2019

Another day, another geothermal area. We’ve left the coast and headed inland, back south towards Rotorua. We pass close to Waimangu where, a couple of days ago, we visited New Zealand’s newest geothermal area, a mere toddler at just over 130 years old.

Today, however, we’re at Wai-O-Tapu, which is at the other end of the age spectrum having been around for some 160,000 years. The management has lapsed into hyperbole, describing this place as a “thermal wonderland,” but I guess I can see where they’re coming from.

Wai-O-Tapu has the largest area of surface thermal activity in this part of New Zealand. It’s a a fascinating mixture of collapsed craters, cold and boiling pools of mud, water of various colours, and steaming fumaroles.

In many ways Wai-O-Tapu reminds us of parts of Yellowstone National Park in the USA, where the geothermal features are simply awesome.

Yellowstone is just about our favourite place in the world, so reminding us of it is a mark of just how good we think it is.

Of course Yellowstone is famous for its wildlife, and we’re pleased to spot some here at Wai-O-Tapu too. There are no bison or wolves, of course, but here in New Zealand small is beautiful so we are fascinated to watch a pair of Pied Stilts hanging out in one of the pools.

Before we leave the self-proclaimed and profoundly immodest Thermal Wonderland, we call in at the café for a well-deserved mocha. While we savour the sweet nectar, outside the window a Silvereye puts on a show for us. This bird is an Aussie invader that colonised New Zealand in the 1850s, at a time when traffic between the two British colonies was growing steadily. It’s now one of the most abundant and widespread bird species in New Zealand.

We first encountered Silvereyes in Tasmania a few years ago, and though we hadn’t expected to see them here it’s good to make their acquaintance again: they are very handsome birds. Click here for my YouTube video of his antics.

*

We are making our way inland to spend the night on the shores of Lake Taupo, and on the way we call in at the Huka Falls. As we already know from bitter experience, New Zealand has a lot of rain. As the mountains are high and all that water has to make its way to the sea somehow, lots of waterfalls are inevitable; Huka is just one of many we plan to visit during the course of our stay here.

But before we catch a glimpse of the falls we are distracted by a gang of tui causing mayhem in the car park. They are all going crazy in a Kowhai tree ablaze with bright yellow blossom, presumably robbing the flowers of nectar while chattering noisily with their fellows. Tui are real characters, and are fast becoming our favourite bird of the holiday. Click here for my YouTube video of their antics.

At last we tear ourselves away from the tui and have a look at the Falls. We’re expecting something spectacular, given the hard sell of the local tourist industry:

You’ll hear the Huka Falls well before you see them – it’s the sound of nearly a quarter of a million litres of water per second erupting from a natural gorge and thundering 11m into the Waikato River below. This incredible spectacle is the most-visited natural attraction in New Zealand – it’s hard to tear your gaze away from the endless, mesmerising torrent.

Source: Love Taupo website, retrieved 23 October 2019.

As always I treat the outpourings of marketing men with a healthy degree of scepticism, but on this occasion they’ve got it just right. Huka Falls are truly spectacular, and definitely worth a visit. But don’t, whatever you do, get too close and fall in while you’re taking a selfie: if you do your life expectancy will be just a matter of seconds.

A visit to New Zealand’s most active volcano

20 October 2019

White Island (Whakaari) lies 49km off the small North Island town Whakatane. It is New Zealand’s most active volcano, and is regarded as one of the world’s most accessible live volcanoes. Inevitably, therefore, we are keen to pay it a visit.

The trouble is, we’ve not had much luck with boat trips since arriving in New Zealand, and we’re worried that this might be the third in a row to be cancelled due to the weather. But for once the gods smile upon us. Although the sea’s choppy, the wind has dropped a bit and the captain decides it’s safe to leave the protection of the harbour.

As soon as we’re in open water the boat begins to bounce and roll on the waves. Mrs P and I have taken the precaution of having only a modest, light breakfast and so are untroubled by the motion of the ocean. Many of our fellow travellers have been less circumspect, and their breakfasts come back up to haunt them.

Pretty soon we’re passing the steep, heavily wooded volcanic island of Whale Island (Moutohora), which, being free of rats and other introduced mammalian predators, is now a haven for native birds. It’s an impressive sight, clad in thick vegetation and rising steeply from sea, but there’s no time to stop and admire it. The boat speeds on, its spray creating a rainbow that appears to sit over the top of Whale Island, while we concentrate on staring out to sea and ignore the moans and groans of our bilious buddies in the passenger lounge.

At last, after around 90 minutes, we make our final approach to White Island, from the centre of which rises a mighty cloud of steam.  It’s impossible for our little boat to land there, so we all clamber into inflatable landing craft to be transferred ashore. But not before we’re issued with our safety gear.

First there’s the life jacket, in case we fall overboard during the transfer.  Then there’s the canary yellow hard hat, in case the volcano has a hissy fit and starts showering us with rocks.  And finally we are handed a gas mask, in case the bugger tries to poison us instead. Bloody hell, this is supposed to be a holiday, not a training exercise for the Marines or the SAS.  Thank god we updated our wills before we left the UK.

As it happens the transfer on to dry land goes well, and nobody dies.  Once there we clamber over boulders and gather into groups to be ushered around the island by our guides.  There are stern warnings not to stray off the path: the crust in places is wafer thin, and beneath it lies pits of baking rocks that will fry you alive in seconds.  Nobody needs to be told twice.

The landscape is stark and barren, mostly shades of grey and white, but interspersed with splashes of vivid colour courtesy of the sulphur and other minerals that the volcano has spewed out over the years.  Inevitably a sulphurous stink hangs over the island, although to be fair we’ve experienced worse. We don our gas masks for a once-in-a-lifetime photo opportunity, but they aren’t really needed for most of our 90 minutes on the island.

Some of the dangers here, such as the steaming craters, are obvious to the naked eye but others aren’t immediately apparent.  The acidic nature of the rocks on which we walk doesn’t enter our thoughts until our guide, who does this trip most days, tells us he gets through a pair of shoes a month thanks to the acid that eats away at them every time he sets foot here.

As we cast our eyes over the grim wasteland that is White Island it’s difficult to believe people have ever lived here.  But they have, albeit in pursuit of the dollar. There have been several attempts to establish a sulphur mining industry, all of which failed due to the remoteness of the island and the inherent challenges of mining in such a hostile environment. 

Although mining continued sporadically until the 1930s the most notable event in the history of the industry was on 10 September 1914, when 11 men were killed by a massive landslide and the accompanying torrent of mud and rock (known as a lahar), caused when part of the volcano’s main crater wall collapsed. 

The outside world knew nothing of the disaster until the skipper of a supply boat sailed to the island on 15 September and witnessed the devastation.  He returned a few days later with a rescue party but found no survivors other than the camp cat, Peter. The Bay of Plenty Times reported on the scene that the skipper encountered:

He was confronted by “a scene of desolation”, according to the Bay of Plenty Times.  “The effect of the eruption seems to have been to throw the whole hillside overlooking the large lake and camp into the lake and over the whole surrounding area, completely burying the works, dwellings, boats, small wharf and all the inhabitants.  The camp was obliterated, the buildings being buried in about 20 feet of sulphurous mud.”

Source:  Article in New Zealand Herald, 12 September 2017, retrieved 21 October 2019

Interestingly Peter, the only survivor of the disaster, became a bit of a celebrity in his own right.  Having cheated death and used up eight of his nine lives, the cat decided to devote the rest of his life to debauchery.  After being repatriated to the mainland he played the mating game as often as possible and with great skill. He is reputed to have sired countless litters of kittens in his adopted town, and such was his reputation for sexual prowess that he became known locally as Peter the Great.

We may even have met one of Peter’s descendants.  We are staying for a couple of nights in a villa just across the road from the boat dock where the White Island cruise starts and ends, and on our return there we spot a black cat sauntering through the garden.  He has a spring in his step and a twinkle in his eye, as if he knows that greatness is embedded within his DNA. We bow respectfully as he passes but he merely glances at us disdainfully, as royalty does when in the presence of commoners.  He is clearly a cat on a mission, almost certainly a mission of the carnal persuasion.

Peter the Great would be proud of him.

The Maori way

18 October 2019

In their desperate pursuit of the tourist dollar most nations present a sanitised view of their history. The marketing men know that when on vacation most tourists want a bit of gentle fun and some light entertainment; very few want to be exposed to the inconvenient truths of the country they’ve paid to visit.

However Mrs P and I are made of sterner stuff. From the outset we’ve been determined that when we leave New Zealand we’ll know more about the Maori people than their traditional dances.

Kohutapu Lodge gives us better opportunities to explore Maori culture and the challenges facing the Maori people than the traditional New Zealand vacation would allow. Run by Maoris who are plainly determined that we should understand the reality of life for their fellow tribe members, Kohutapu Lodge offers a warts-and-all insight into life in the nearby Maori township of Murupara.

We learn about the desperate socio-economic plight of Muruparu residents, and the gang culture that thrives in this isolated rural community where opportunities for gainful employment are few. The people who run the Lodge are determined that their guests should be more than just passive witnesses to the realities of life in Muruparu, so they arrange for us to visit the local school.

The kids greet our group in the traditional way, and we then split up to play with them, to talk to them and maybe to inspire them to believe that their lives are not hopeless, that their fates are not already sealed by the accident of their births.

Mrs P and I also spend a morning with Ena, a resident of Muruparu who is a passionate advocate for her community. She tells it like it is, but is realistic rather than downhearted.

Ena takes us to a sacred Maori site, which can only be visited with the permission of the local tribe, to see the oldest Maori rock carvings anywhere in New Zealand. The carvings tell the story of the great Polynesian migration to the islands of New Zealand many hundreds of years ago, and Ena’s pride in their achievement is obvious.

Kohutapu Lodge also provides an opportunity to try out some traditional Maori crafts like basket weaving, and to experience a hangi, a feast cooked using heated rocks buried in a pit oven. Any food left over is distributed to the destitute of Murapuru the following day.

This is not a normal holiday experience; indeed I guess some people would say that it’s no holiday at all. But for us it’s just right. After all, what’s the point of a holiday if at the end of it you are as ignorant as you were at the beginning? Certainly, for Mrs P and I, it’s been a eye opener which will help to shape our sensitivities during the rest of this visit to New Zealand.