Where east meets west: Arthur’s Pass

24 / 25 November 2019

At around 920 metres (3,000 feet) above sea level the Arthur’s Pass Road is reckoned to be the most spectacular highway to cross the rugged Southern Alps of New Zealand’s South Island. It was known to the Maori, who used it as a west-east trade route for pounamu (jade), but it was the goldrush of the 1860s that first drew it to the attention of European colonists.

Arthur’s Pass cuts through the Southern Alps

At the time when gold was discovered to the west of the Southern Alps most of South Island’s population was to their east. A practical way of transporting the gold to market was needed, and in 1865 a committee of businessmen offered £200 (equivalent to $NZ 22,000 in 2016) to the discoverer of the best route. The track that was later to become Arthur’s Pass was recognised to be the most suitable for a direct crossing. Construction soon began in earnest, and the road opened to coach traffic in July 1866.

The Arthur’s Pass Road opened in 1866, and although much upgraded it remains a significant engineering feat

Over 50 years later, 1923 saw the completion of a railway that followed the line of the Arthur’s Pass road. The railway and road through Arthur’s Pass were considered to be major accomplishments in opening up the west coast of New Zealand to settlement, and were also a catalyst for the creation of Arthur’s Pass National Park in 1929.

Wide, braided rivers are features of the eastern side of Arthur’s Pass National Park

The eastern side of Arthur’s Pass National Park is typically drier and consists of beech forest and wide riverbeds, while the western side contains dense rainforest. We’ve had our fill of rain on this road trip, so we stick to the east and on a day like this, when the sun’s shining and the sky is blue, it’s easy to see why the Park is a major tourist attraction.

Arthur’s Pass National Park

The Park is popular with what the New Zealanders like to call ‘trampers’ (hikers or walkers to you and me), and I’m sure it’s great to get off the beaten track and into the bush. But Mrs P and I have neither the time nor the knees for such exertions, so our sightseeing is limited to what can be done from a few scattered pull-ins off the highway.

Devil’s Punchbowl Falls

Unfortunately, therefore, we can only enjoy the Devil’s Punchbowl Falls from a distance. Water crashes 131 metres to the base of the falls, sending clouds of spray swirling and billowing into the air. Even from where we’re standing, looking pretty much directly into the sun, we can see and hear why this is regarded as one of the country’s most spectacular waterfalls.

Bealy Chasm falls

Above all, it seems to me, New Zealand is a land of water. Spectacular coastlines, magnificent waterfalls, powerful rivers and tumbling cascades. And rain, more rain than we ever believed possible. But not here and not now. Today we are blessed by the sun, and we lap it up while we can because it’s time to bid farewell to the mountains and head back to the coast once more.

Broom and gorse (“noxious weeds” to some) add a splash of extra colour

Akaroa is our destination, and on the way we stop off at the Sheffield Pie Shop. Although Sheffield is just a tiny village, the place is rammed. All the tables are occupied with people like us eating-in, while truckers, campervan travellers and sundry motorists drop in for a pie-to-go. There’s plenty of pies to choose from, including traditional favourites like Steak Pie and more experimental fare such as Mexican Nachos Pie.

The Famous Sheffield Pie Shop: You couldn’t make it up

I’m tempted to say you couldn’t make it up, but plainly someone has and Mexican Nachos Pie appears to be selling well. As for me, I wrap myself around a Moroccan Beef and Mango Chutney Pie. I can safely say I’ve never eaten anything like it before, and am pretty sure I’ll never have the pleasure again. But it is a pleasure, a pleasure to eat and a pleasure also to see this innovative small business defying culinary convention and building a massive reputation simply by making people happy.

I love this country.

The Catlins: waterfall heaven and sheep flock hell

19 November 2019

It rains a lot here. I reckon I might have mentioned that once or twice already, and the fact that this is quite probably the wettest spring New Zealand has known in a couple of decades is little consolation.

But things have got better in recent days. On the west coast it rained pretty much all the time for days on end, whereas here in the Catlins we at least get periods of cheerful sunshine mixed in with torrential downpours, spiteful hailstorms and banshee winds. And the good news is that, of course, all the water has to go somewhere. They say this place is waterfall heaven.

McLean Falls

Having parked up, the loop track to McLean Falls is meant to take us about 30 minutes, but our excessive activity of the last few weeks is starting to take its toll. We’re both carrying minor injuries, and hobbling along rather than striding out is the best we can manage.

But it’s worth the effort: at 22 metres high this is the tallest waterfall in the Catlins. We hear the tumultuous crashing long before we catch sight of it, white water tumbling heroically over the main drop, then cascading over a series of smaller terraces.

Worshippers in ancient Japan, followers of Shintoism, revered creations of nature which exhibited a particular beauty and power – such as waterfalls. Standing here today, mesmerised by the majesty of MacLean Falls, I think I can understand something of their viewpoint: this place is magical, spiritual even.

A monstrous, ill-disciplined regiment of sheep

Before long, however, we’ve gone from the sublime to the ridiculous. Driving to the next waterfall on our list we find the way blocked by a monstrous, ill-disciplined regiment of sheep moving en masse towards us along the gravel road. During our first five weeks in New Zealand we’ve seen fewer sheep than we’d anticipated. And now we know why: they’re all here, on this remote back road in the Catlins, standing between us and Purakaunui Falls.

I stop, kill the engine and wait for matters to unfold. The road is wide, so there’s plenty of room for the flock to pass safely. But they’re plainly spooked and having none of it. The guy driving them doesn’t help matters much, leaping from his quad bike, yelling and thrashing the road surface vigorously. With what? A crook? A branch torn from a nearby tree? A whip, maybe? I can’t quite see what Mr Whippy’s using – there are several hundred sheep in the way – but he’s causing a commotion, making one hell of a noise. And all to no good purpose.

The sheep are panicking, eyes bulging, milling around frantically. They don’t have the courage – or the wit – to move past my stationary Toyota Camry. Eventually a rebel group decides on full retreat, and makes a run for it past Mr Whippy and back up the road they’ve recently walked down.

They don’t have the courage – or the wit – to pass my stationary Toyota Camry

Old Man Whippy’s incensed, and sends his demented sheepdog off in pursuit. It catches up with the deserters and cajoles them back into the flock. Another gang of malcontents makes a new break for freedom. Once again the dog hurtles off in pursuit and ushers its quarry back into the fold. And still, not one single sheep will venture past my static motor.

Matters continue in this vein for some ten minutes. Mr Whippy’s close to apoplectic now, and I’m beginning to feel sorry for him. He’s trying his best, but clearly having one of those day’s that shepherds must dread. If I don’t take control of the situation he’ll most probably have a heart attack.

I fire up the engine, and edge forward slowly through the mass of crazed sheep, nudging them gently aside. At last one of them slips past me and into the promised land, a stretch of wide, totally empty and whip-free road behind the car. Where one sheep leads the others soon follow, joyously living up to their reputation.

At last the road ahead is clear, apart from Mr Whippy. He’s trying to regain his dignity, pretending everything went according to plan. As I drive past him I wind the window down and smile sweetly.

“G’day mate,” I say to him, waving cheerfully.

What a prat, I think to myself, seething silently.

Purakaunui Falls

“Like a wedding cake,” is how our guidebook describes the 20m high Purakaunui Falls. “Three tiers of splendour,” it goes on to explain, evidently clocking the fact that very few of us have a wedding cake fashioned from white water and mucky grey rocks. This all sounds a bit desperate to me, but when we get there we can see the waterfall is quite special.

The website waterfalls.co.nz says Purakaunui Falls is the most photographed waterfall in New Zealand. How do they know that? Are there armies of men with clipboards stationed at each of the 258 waterfalls on their list, interrogating visitors as they leave, demanding that all selfies be declared and counted?

Or is there a secret sliver of code in Instagram and Facebook, code that logs all photos of New Zealand waterfalls on to a mysterious Excel spreadsheet at waterfalls.co.nz head office?

Or maybe it’s just fake news, which seems to be all the rage these days? Whatever, Purakaunui Falls is pleasing to the eye and deafening to the ear, and definitely worth a visit despite our close encounters of the sheepish kind. However there’s no time to dilly-dally as we still have one more waterfall to visit today.

Horseshoe Falls

In fact, on our final trek of the day we get two waterfalls for the price of one. Horseshoe Falls and Matai Falls are located on the Matai Stream in the Catlins Forest Park, within a few hundred metres of each other. Both are given three stars by waterfalls.co.nz, one fewer than Purakauni Falls. By way of contrast Mclean Falls, which we visited first today, rates a massive five stars. So, in other words, we’ve got this all wrong, saving the worst until last.

Matai Falls

“Worst?” That’s way too harsh. In a land blessed by so many waterfalls there are inevitably winners and losers, and in the waterfalls.co.nz beauty pageant Horseshoe Falls and Matai Falls are – relatively speaking – losers.

And yet, if we had these waterfalls back in the UK folk would go wild about them, poets would pen verses in their honour and photographers would snap away at them madly in the hope of getting their work published in the annual Countryfile Calendar. Here, however, they are merely ‘also-rans.’

Which just goes to show that here, in New Zealand, we are indeed in waterfall heaven

The magic of Doubtful Sound

14 / 15 November 2019

We’re off on another cruise down one of the fiords that grace the coastline of this part of New Zealand, and this time we’re staying on board overnight. But Doubtful Sound is more remote than its cousin Milford, which we visited a couple of days ago. It’s about 50 kilometres (31 miles) from the nearest inhabited place, the small town of Manapouri, and is surrounded by mountainous terrain with peaks typically reaching 1,300–1,600 metres (4,300–5,200 ft). Along the coast, there are no settlements for about 200 kilometres (120 miles) in either direction.

Crossing Lake Manapouri

To reach Doubtful Sound we must first take a 45 minute boat ride to the far end of Lake Manapouri. When we disembark squadrons of murderous sandflies circle around us. Not many people come here, so when these wretched mini-Draculas catch our scent they swarm all over us in their thousands, all hoping for a blood-fest.

Waterfall and rainforest at the Wilmot Pass

Our specially commissioned minibus arrives to rescue us from our sandfly misery, and soon we’re off on the next leg of our trip. We travel for around 60 minutes on a gravel road, climbing up a mountainside to cross over the Wilmot Pass through Fiordland’s rainforest, and then descending on the other side to the wharf at Milford.

The gravel road does not connect with South Island’s main network of highways. It and the wharf only exist courtesy of the hydro-electric company that generates power on Lake Manapouri. The outlet pipe for the power station discharges into Doubtful Sound, and its construction and maintenance has resulted in the limited developments that has made tourism possible here.

Our first view of Doubtful Sound, viewed from the Wilmot Pass

This cruise is billed as an exclusive, luxury experience so there are just 10 passengers, plus the skipper and a chef who will attend to our every culinary need for the next 24 hours.

Of course “luxury” is difficult to achieve on such a small boat, but at least Mrs P and I are staying in the relatively spacious master cabin at the bow (or the sharp, pointy end, as Mrs P likes to call it.) We can feel the eyes of our fellow passengers boring into us as we make our way forward, past their lowly cabins to our own floating palace.

Our ‘palace’ at the ‘sharp pointy end’ of the boat.

Do we feel slightly awkward or embarrassed? No, not a bit. In life you win some and lose some, and this time we won big. Thank you to our agents, New Zealand in Depth, for being on the ball and making sure our name was at the top of the list.

By the time we’ve got ourselves sorted out in our cabin, a welcome lunch is being served upstairs on the main passenger deck. The skipper casts off and sets sail up Doubtful Sound, passing towering waterfalls along the way, while we dine like royalty.

Our cruise along Milford Sound took place on a glorious, sunny day. We thought that was great, but old Milford hands told us that the place has more atmosphere in gloomy weather. We visit Doubtful Sound on just such a day: grey, dull, and misty, and the place does indeed have a brooding, slightly eerie atmosphere.

A perch for our supper

One of the advantages of being on such a small boat is that it allows passengers to get closer to the water than was possible on the Milford Sound trip. Some of our fellow passengers enjoy a spot of kayaking, and there’s an opportunity to fish for our supper.

This handsome dogfish was released after the obligatory trophy photos

Personally I’m uncomfortable with the taking of any life for sport, so am delighted that the handsome dogfish is released from the hook and put back continue his life in the Sound. However perch make good eating, so I have no objections when it is despatched quickly and humanely, and served up to us a couple of hours later.

A rainbow stretches from side to side across the Sound

After a peaceful night’s sleep anchored in a sheltered cove we set off along the Sound again. Rain has set in, but it brings an unexpected bonus in the form of a bright, iridescent rainbow.

One of the very few other boats on Doubtful Sound

While in Milford Sound there were large numbers of tourist boats, here on Doubtful there are only a couple of others and although we see them briefly they are soon out of sight and forgotten. It feels as if we have the Sound to ourselves.

A shag in search of a late breakfast … or maybe an early lunch?

Except for the birds, that is. Mrs P is delighted to take this photo of a shag in flight, its head thrust forward as it makes its way along the water, presumably in search of a late breakfast or an early lunch.

Fiordland Crested Penguins

Bur pride of place must go to the Fiordland Crested Penguins. These birds are very rare, but this is now the third or fourth good sighting we have enjoyed in recent days.

Finally, after almost 24 hours on board, our Doubtful Sound cruise comes to an end. It’s been a magical experience, with majestic scenery, some great wildlife and superb hospitality from the crew. Definitely one of the main highlights so far of our visit to New Zealand.


On Milford Sound

12 November 2019

We open the curtains at our lodge accommodation with some trepidation. Milford Sound gets an average of 641 centimetres (252 inches) of rain a year, and is the wettest inhabited place in New Zealand, and one of the wettest in the world. Given our bad luck with the weather so far this trip, we could be in for another deluge here.

But, joy of joys, the sun’s out and the sky’s blue, so we make our way down to the harbour with a spring in our steps. We board our gleaming catamaran with a few dozen other fellow travellers and prepare to head out along the Sound.

Here’s a little question for you: when is a sound not a sound. Answer: when it’s a fiord (fjord). Sounds are carved out of the landscape by rivers, while fiords are scraped and scoured out of the bedrock by glaciers. Milford Sound was formed by the process of glaciation over several million years and should therefore more properly be called Milford Fiord. But what’s in a name? However it was created, Milford Sound is pretty damned impressive, with sheer rock faces on either side that rise as high as 1,200 metres (3,900 feet).

Within a few minutes of leaving the harbour we are alongside one of the Sound’s most spectacular features, the Lady Bowen Falls. As one of only two permanent waterfalls in Milford Sound, the falls provide electricity for the Milford Sound settlement by feeding a small hydroelectric scheme. It’s also the source of their fresh water.

As well as the two permanent waterfalls there are many others that appear after heavy rain. Because there’s been so much rain recently there are plenty of falls along the length of the Sound for us to admire. Our boat noses underneath one of them to give the passengers a closer look.

A plucky crew member, kitted out in waterproofs and wearing a long-suffering expression, is despatched to collect water as it cascades on to the bow of the boat. Glasses are then passed round, so we can all try mountain fresh, ice cold water. It’s a kind offer, but one I find I can resist without too much trouble.

The boat ploughs on, and we continue to enjoy the scenery. Rudyard Kipling came here, and reportedly described this place as the 8th Wonder of the World. That’s probably overdoing it a bit, but it’s easy to see why Milford Sound inspired him.

But it’s not just the scenery. The wildlife here is special too, and we are pleased to meet up once again with our friend from earlier in this trip, the Fiordland Crested Penguin. At first we encounter one paddling past our catamaran, seemingly unperturbed by our presence.

A little later on, close to the mouth of the Sound, the skipper edges close to the rocks where these penguins have been seen on previous trips, and we’re pleased to see one. The waves are crashing into the rock on which he sits. He looks uncomfortable, but I guess it’s all in a day’s work to a bird that’s adapted to live most of its life in the ocean.

Having reached the end of the Sound we turn, and edge our way back towards the harbour, passing waterfalls large and small. Stirling Falls is a massive 151 metres high.

We’ve opted for the super-deluxe trip, so we break our journey at the Harrison Cove Underwater Observatory, for a glimpse of life beneath the surface of Milford Sound. Here’s how they describe their operation:

You’ll descend 64 steps (10 metres) underwater into a large, fully air-conditioned viewing area where windows with excellent clarity open your eyes to this underwater haven. Unlike an aquarium, the fish are free to come and go; it’s the people who are contained.

SOURCE: Southern Discoveries website, retrieved 24 November 2019

The Observatory certainly adds a whole new dimension to the Milford Sound experience. The “black coral” – which is actually white until it dies – is delicate and beautiful. Occasionally a fish swims past, and we are told that if you’re lucky – we aren’t, sadly – you may even catch a glimpse of a penguin or a seal.

Milford Sound is regarded by many as New Zealand’s most famous tourist destination. It’s certainly big business. During our morning on the water we spot a number of other vessels undertaking similar cruises. But the Sound is huge and can easily accommodate the numbers, and I’m sure that all the visitors leave happy with the experience they’ve had. Milford Sound is a very special place.

Waterfall wonders and hairpin horrors

9 November 2019

We’ve enjoyed our stay at Wilderness Lodge, and were thrilled to get within a few metres of the amazing Fiordland Crested Penguin. But this place is horrendously wet. Hereabouts they get 3.5 metres of rain every year; that’s around 10 feet for Brits and Americans who haven’t got to grips with the metric system yet! So, as we continue our journey south, the waterfalls along the Haast River are working overtime.

Roaring Billy Falls

New Zealanders have named their waterfalls thoughtfully, so you’re left in absolutely no doubt what to expect if you visit one. Take the Roaring Billy Falls, for example. Now I haven’t got a clue who Billy was, but “roaring” tells you all you need to know. Even viewed from a distance through the mist and rain it’s a spectacular sight.

Thundercreek Falls

And what about Thundercreek Falls, just a few miles down the road? Again the name leaves little to the imagination, and at 28 metres high it’s hugely impressive.

Fantail Falls

The name Fantail Falls alludes to shape, rather than the volume of water that cascades down into the Haast River. Again, a magnificent sight after all this rain.

To be honest we’re getting a bit fed up with the rain, and would be glad of a couple of days of dry, sunny weather. But Mrs P phoned home this morning and learned that our area of the UK has been hit by unprecedented floods, so we’re probably better off here … after all you don’t see too many penguins in the English Midlands.

We’ve turned our backs on the coast and are heading inland in the direction of Queenstown. On the way we pass the historic Cardrona Hotel. Dating from 1863 it’s one of New Zealand’s oldest hotels.

This area’s heyday was during the mid-nineteenth century goldrush, when Cardrona town was a prosperous settlement and a significant commercial hub for the area. How things have changed … the town has since all but vanished, and only the historic hotel facade remains to remind visitors like us of the glory days.

We’ve chosen to take the scenic, more challenging route towards Queenstown, along the Crown Range Road. It’s the highest main road in New Zealand, reaching an altitude on 1,121 metres. The road is steep and twisty, with a series of eye-watering hairpin bends. At times it’s a bit of a white-knuckle ride, but the landscape is adequate compensation for the stress of the journey. The landscape is simply stunning, and at times reminds us of the Scottish Highlands.

We’ve seen a few vintage cars on the road today, and as we pull into a scenic overlook we find ourselves confronted by a splendid Austin 8. The driver tells us that there’s a vintage rally in progress to celebrate the opening of the Haast Pass in 1965, when the first car to travel the newly opened road was a 1930 Austin 7.

The pass was the final stretch of State Highway 6 – one of New Zealand’s major roads – to be built, and was not fully sealed with tarmac until 1995. A salutary reminder, I think, that much of New Zealand’s infrastructure was built relatively recently.

Having admired the Austin 8, and the dusting of snow on the mountains behind, we set off on the final stretch of our journey. Gibbston, our final destination, lies on the outskirts of Queenstown. For the next two nights we’ll be staying at a winery, which sounds like the perfect way to wind down after the challenge of all those horrible hairpin bends!

The Tawhiti Museum

25 October 2019

As we leave Dawson Falls Mountain Lodge we stop off at the waterfall after which it is named. The Dawson Falls are 18m high, and pretty damned impressive. Although in the UK we’d go wild over a waterfall like this, here it seems like business as usual, just another day another waterfall. But Mrs P and I aren’t complacent, we love waterfalls and stand transfixed in front of this one for several minutes, in awe of its power and its fury.

And so from the sublime to the ridiculous. The nearby Hawera water tower was built in 1914 as part of a strategy to control the wildfires that were ravaging the area at that time.  Water towers are functional pieces of architecture that are mostly not worth a second glance, but this one is strangely appealing in a brutalist kind of way.  Good job too, because at 55m high, it’s the one building in Hawera that you simply can’t avoid.

But today’s main focus is a visit to the Tawhiti Museum which is, as the saying goes, world famous in New Zealand. That being the case it’s unsurprising that none of our research in the UK had revealed its existence, and had it not been for a suggestion from a helpful staff member at the Dawson Falls Mountain Lodge we would never have found it.

The Tawhiti Museum is the creation of one man, Nigel Ogle. He’s an art teacher by training, but gave it up in favour of creating this unique museum which combines some traditional displays of “old stuff” with the innovative use of life-size scenes portraying rural and domestic life, and a number of intricate small-scale dioramas. All of the models, both big and small, are created by Ogle using the tools of his trade as an artist. This man is seriously talented, and a bit of a visionary.

This museum is a serious attempt at representing aspects of local history, for example the dioramas illustrating the movement of people and the fighting between the Maori and the pakeha (foreigners, Europeans) in the nineteenth century.

There are also life-size representations of scenes from everyday life in another era, such as the grocery store dating from some time in the mid-twentieth century.

But there’s also lots of fun to be had here. Ogle obviously has a thing about Wind in the Willows, and has themed his museum café accordingly.

A human-scale model of Mr Badger lounges in one corner, reading a tattered copy of Wind in the Willows, while various cabinets along one wall contain dioramas illustrating events from the book. It’s magical, in a weird kind of way.

And talking about weird, can you see that man sitting at the corner table, who’s just looked up from the magazine’s he’s reading to glance out of the window? He’s another of Ogle’s creations, totally convincing and indeed even just a little bit spooky.

I can safely say I’ve never before been to a museum like this. It’s a place where one can learn stuff, and also have fun at the same time. Isn’t that what all museums should be like?

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.

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.