High Tea at the Chateau Tongariro

Tongariro National Park is home to the most stunning scenery in New Zealand’s North Island. It contains three major volcanoes, Tongariro, Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe, which, come winter, are adorned with snow. Nestled at the foot of Ruapehu is a gorgeous 1920s hotel, the Chateau Tongariro. From the outside, it looks almost like a cake with delicate layers of sponge, pastel blue, pink and yellow. On the inside, it’s all red velvet and golden chandeliers, far too opulent for the likes of us, peering sheepishly around in our damp anoraks and hiking boots.

Chateau Tongariro

Like many tourists before us, we gaze longingly at the menu of the Ruapehu Room before deciding it’s too expensive. Besides, they won’t let us pass beyond the ornate panes of glass with their gilded letters dressed as we are. We opt instead for High Tea overlooking Ngauruhoe, a friendly alternative for the riffraff, it seems. We book a table for the next day when, hopefully, the weather will be better. So far, the national park has been entirely shrouded in white, which, while pretty in its own way, rather defeats the purpose of coming here.

High Tea

The next day arrives and we are seated directly in front of the grand Ngauruhoe Window. And we can’t see a bloody thing. This is what Ngauruhoe is supposed to look like:

Ngauruhoe

This is what we see:

Despite the weather, I’m very happy with our High Tea. It is, in fact, the best High Tea I have ever had. Firstly, the tea selection is divine. I can barely decide what to have and when it arrives, it’s with a couple of absolutely beautiful cups. By coincidence, I’m wearing a top with a similar pattern to my cup! My partner can’t resist taking a photo:

High Tea Chateau Tongariro

The food component of the High Tea is presented wonderfully. Each one of the miniature sandwiches is a taste sensation – fresh salmon, chicken and truffle pâté, etc. – and the morsels of sweets look too good to eat. There’s even a couple of tiny cups containing green tea crème brûlée. I’m in my element. Even the consistency of the miniature scones is perfect.

High Tea

When I’ve finished eating, I have a snoop around every corner of the lounge. There’s a billiards table and piano; a cosy fireplace and a bookcase. I want nothing more than to curl up with my Alan Bennett book and an endless supply of that posh tea, but I can’t. We’ve got a walk to do. Not the famous Tongariro Crossing, as it’s a tad dangerous to do in winter and, besides, it’d be a waste to do it without the views. Instead, we’re heading out to Taranaki Falls.

Chateau Tongariro

Wish us luck.

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Mangapohue Natural Bridge

A natural bridge… Sounds cool, right? We thought so, which is why we went to see the Mangapohue Natural Bridge before leaving Waitomo.

The weather was lovely. Considering the especially rainy winter we’d had, we counted ourselves lucky. You might well ask why we’d decided to take a trip at that time of year. Simply, campervans are lot cheaper to hire in winter. It also makes for an easier trip, as you don’t have to worry about booking anything in advance, and a more peaceful trip, as you get beauty spots and sometimes entire campsites to yourself.

Mangapohue Natural Bridge was one such beauty spot. We began the twenty-minute walk with little idea what to expect. The path was gentle, leading us over a manmade bridge into a modest gorge. It continued as a boardwalk overhanging a stream. I remember the light being particularly pleasant: sunbeams had draped themselves amongst the branches above us like gauzy scarves.

As we made our way along the stream, a strange feeling started tingling inside me. “I’ve been here before,” I said. “With my parents.”

Then, as soon as the natural bridge came into view, I knew it. I didn’t remember being there as such, but I recognised the view from one of my own photographs! (I’d even used the photograph before on this blog!) How I managed to forget the sight of it, I’ll never know, because it was magnificent.

Straddling the stream was an enormous limestone archway, complete with scraggly stalactites.

From a certain angle, part of it seemed shaped like an old-fashioned lock, which gave me serious Alice in Wonderland vibes. Sunlight peered into the archway, jostling with a group of cabbage trees for a view.

We ascended a flight of steps curving up to a wooden platform, where we stayed for some time. It was a location straight from a fantasy novel, one of the more subdued scenes where the heroes stop to rest and the young would-be lovers sneak away for a moment, only to be interrupted by another party member as it’s too early in the narrative for them to kiss. If there had been any trolls under this bridge, they would have been friendly ones.

The rest of the walk wasn’t quite as epic, but that hardly mattered after we’d seen. As something free to do in Waitomo, the Mangapohue Natural Bridge is something you should definitely experience, along with the magical Ruakuri Walk.

When we got back to our campervan, it was time to get going to Tongariro National Park. We stopped for lunch in Taumarunui, a mostly dull town with a few quirky touches, such as this ornamental shop front…

We also popped into an antiques shop – because I can’t walk past an antiques shop – that turned out to be owned by a fellow British immigrant. We got talking, and even though she wasn’t a northerner, my accent started mimicking hers, getting stronger and stronger until we left the shop. Any other immigrants notice their accents doing that?

By the time we reached Tongariro National Park, it was almost sunset. We checked into what turned out to be an excellent campground, Plateau Lodge, in National Park Village, before driving into Whakapapa Village and up the side of Mount Ruapehu, a snow-covered volcano that’s popular with skiers. We didn’t enter the ski resort: we just wanted to catch some sweet views before bed. Which we did.

If you’re interested in hiring a campervan like this, by the way, visit www.wendekreisen.co.nz – that model’s also for sale, newly built, at Campervan Sales.

Anyway, cheers for visiting and make sure you pop by next week. I’ll be posting an article about what we got up to in Tongariro National Park, more specifically, High Tea at the Chateau!

Marokopa Falls (and a Taste of Fame!)

I’m sitting in Hamilton’s Italian Renaissance Garden and my day has just been made.

It’s sunny, but cool. Tim’s working next to me and my parents are geocaching in one of the other gardens. It’s the school holidays, which explains all the children. Spring is very much in evidence.

Italian Garden, Hamilton, New ZealandI should be working too, but I can’t: my brain’s still swooning from the dizzying heights of fame.

It’s finally happened, you see.

A complete stranger approached me – here in the Hamilton Gardens – and said, “Are you Abigail Simpson? I read your blog!”

Oh. My. God.

Definitive proof that Poms Away isn’t read merely by friends, family and that person who keeps clicking on it after typing ‘amateur hairy chinese bush’ into a search engine! (One of my earliest posts describes the kiwi as a hairy fruit, also known as a Chinese gooseberry, that grows on a bush. I can only imagine the searcher’s disappointment.)

Marokopa FallsBut anyway.

I’m supposed to be writing more about mine and Tim’s recent campervan trip. We did so much in nine days. I’ve spent the last three Poms Away articles describing places in Waitomo alone! We were there two nights. Before leaving for Tongariro National Park, we took advantage of a sunny winter morning to see Marokopa Falls and the Mangapohue Natural Bridge.

You may as well, as we did, visit Marokopa Falls and the Mangapohue Natural Bridge at the same time, as they’re just up the road from each other. Marokopa Falls are at the end of a really short track. You pretty much just park up and you’re there. Here’s a picture of our two-berth campervan rental at the side of the road, with sheep in the background just so you can be sure it’s in New Zealand:

Campervan Marokopa Falls

I hesitate to say that Marokopa Falls are beautiful, if only because I always seem to be visiting waterfalls and they’re all beautiful. I mean I wrote an article about the best waterfalls to visit in the North Island for Not Australia and I can’t say Marokopa Falls are any better than any of those. They are fairly impressive, though. Marokopa Falls are quite wide and there’s an interesting rock formation down the side.

Marokopa Falls

I’m not saying Marokopa Falls aren’t worth visiting, but if you’ve only got time to do one or the other, definitely do the natural bridge. Mangapohue Natural Bridge… well, actually, I’ll leave that for my next article.

Marokopa Falls

Oh, just FYI: the picture at the top of this article wasn’t taken by me. It’s a public domain image from pixabay.com. The other photos are mine, though.

Also, I had a go at making an ad for one of my other sites, www.trippla.nz – what do you think? Does it look like a “real” ad?

New Zealand road trip itinerary ideas

The Cave at the Edge of Reality

Waitomo Glowworms

It wasn’t raining, but it had been. The air was as grey as the carpark behind us. Before us, the path disappeared into the moist, black trees. Everyone we’d met in Waitomo had told us to do this, so here we were. At dusk. In winter. Entering the bush at such a time went against everything we’d been taught about staying safe.

“It’ll be fine,” I said, turning my head torch on. “It’s a popular walk in a thickly touristed area. It’s bound to be well signposted.”

Waitomo CavesI must admit, I felt a shiver of excitement as we started down the path. We weren’t doing anything forbidden, but the hairs on the back of my neck strained against the darkness. I jumped at the shadow of a man that turned out to be a wooden post; again at the shadow of a snake that turned out to be a branch.

New Zealand doesn’t even have any snakes. I knew that. It must have been one of those deeply ingrained ancestral instincts…

“Tim?” I asked, just checking he was still near.

He was.

It was probably different in summer. In summer, the path was probably teeming with tourists and their torches. But in winter, the only sound was the river, amplified by the night.

The river was barely visible, even when I shone my torch directly onto its frothing water. It was like the silvery, gossamer ghost of a river.

Waitomo CavesSo far, we hadn’t seen any glowworms. Seeing glowworms was the whole point of this walk. It was why everyone had told us to do it at dusk. I used my torch as sparingly as possible, trying to get my eyes to adjust.

Through the black branches above us, the grey sky seemed like pieces of a shattered mirror. Gradually, they lost their lustre. Electric blue pinpricks began to appear in the fabric of the night. Then the path turned and rose. It was bordered on one side by a towering wall of earth that had, apparently, been festooned with blue fairy lights. They could have been leading the way up to a Christmas grotto.

As we climbed the slope, I leaned in to look at them. They were indeed worms, so tiny that Tim couldn’t make them out, but I saw one or two moving. They pulsated grossly, sliding amongst their silken hammocks. Many droplet-adorned threads dangled like beaded curtains, as though each glowworm was a fortune teller in a gaudy tent, crouched over a blue crystal ball.

I tried to get a decent photo. Tried.

Waitomo Caves Glowworms

We passed a few small caves before the path turned into a tunnel. A tunnel which was barely wide or high enough to walk through. A tunnel which, I slowly realised, was crawling with F**KING ENORMOUS TUNNELWEB SPIDERS. They were everywhere, either side of me and above my head! I hunched my shoulders and pressed my arms into my body, trying desperately not to scrape the walls, or touch a web with my face or hair.

“One question,” said Tim, turning to look at me in the tunnel. “Where’s Shelob?”

I laughed, but a certain piece of music started playing ominously in my head.

Lucky I’m not a true arachnophobe, I thought. When I write about this walk, I’ll include a warning.

We emerged from the tunnel with no arachnid-based incidents to report, onto a boardwalk. I think there was water below, but it was too dark to tell. I turned off my head torch and suddenly we were floating in space, surrounded by blue stars.

Waitomo CavesI hated to turn the torch back on, but it would have been dangerous not to. The stars disappeared, replaced by rocks and earth and ragged foliage. We made our way down some slimy, wooden steps and were soon at the mouth of a large cave. More steps wound down into it, into the stalagmites and stalactites and shimmering curtains of stone. Some of the stalagmites looked like big, dribbling candles, except they were growing up from the ground, rather than melting. Others looked like dildoes.

The steps ended on a platform overlooking an immense cavern. This was the end of the walk.

“Abby,” said Tim. “Turn your torch off.”

I did. Blue stars materialised on the roof, densely packed as though forming a celestial pathway. I wanted nothing more than to follow the pathway as it curved around a corner into the unknown, but, you know, I would’ve fallen to my death. I felt like I was standing at the very edge of reality. My heart was filled with the universe…

Waitomo CavesThen Tim kissed me.

In life, very few moments are as perfect as they are in stories. This moment was.

So, cheesiness aside, the Ruakuri Walk is well worth doing when you’re in Waitomo Caves – and make sure you do it in the dark. (And take torches.) It only takes an hour and it’s free. If you’re scared of spiders, however, be warned: it will take you a great deal of mental fortitude to make it all the way!

The Ghost of the Waitomo Caves Hotel

Waitomo Caves Hotel

I was twelve the first time we visited Waitomo. We stayed at the historic Waitomo Caves Hotel. Part of it was almost a hundred years old! The part our room was in, I think. The Victorian Wing. There was also an Art Deco Wing, built later. I was amused at what passed for historic in New Zealand.

As is the law with historic hotels, Waitomo Caves was said to be haunted. I don’t know why; it just was. It was certainly very creaky, but I didn’t see any ghosts. Unless you counted the hotel itself: the ghost of its former grandeur.

Waitomo Caves HotelThere was something about it, though. Something that made me want to ride a tricycle though its corridors croaking, “Redrum!” – even though I hadn’t see The Shining at that age. My little sister and I were told off for running down the corridors.

I suppose it was beautiful, but not very. The perfect example of faded grandeur. The restaurant was nice, though. It was first time I ate chicken in a creamy, lemony, white wine sauce with tarragon. And kumara chips.

In fact, it was because of the restaurant that I was looking forward to returning. Not to stay the night: it’s not really worth doing that. Just to have a look. You see, I’m twenty-six now. My partner and I recently travelled through Waitomo on a campervan trip. We had dinner at the hotel.

Waitomo Caves HotelThe restaurant’s changed hands since I stayed there. It’s now a rather touristy seafood place. Waitomo isn’t exactly famous for being near a large body of water, but there you go. The food looked good, anyway.

It’s still very posh. When my partner and I arrived, we felt a bit awkward asking for a table, as though we shouldn’t really have been there. Much too grand for us. Thankfully, it wasn’t expensive. Despite the ostentatious surroundings, the food was the same price as in most restaurants.

I liked the fact that the food was Polynesian-themed, mostly kaimoana – seafood. I immediately ordered the Ika Mata, a raw fish salad I’d fallen in love with in Rarotonga. The food was lovely, but it – and the restaurant’s cartoon fish logo – was at odds with the setting.

Waitomo Caves Hotel

I feel like if you go to the Waitomo Caves Hotel expecting a classy, old-fashioned establishment in which you can live out your grandiose fantasies, you’ll be disappointed. If you go expecting to find ghosts, you’ll be disappointed. But there is one ghost.

The ghost of the Waitomo Caves Hotel is the Waitomo Caves Hotel.

Lost World Cave Waitomo

To read about my actual caving experiences in Waitomo Caves, see Into a Lost World on this blog and Waitomo Caves on MyNewZealandCampervanTrip.com

Into a Lost World

Lost World Cave Waitomo

We’d both visited Waitomo before, but this time it was different. This time, we were visiting as adults – without our parents!

It was oddly exciting. Here we were in this natural playground, this magical landscape of caves and glowworms, and we could do whatever we wanted.

Lost World Cave WaitomoThere was no one to tell me I couldn’t go black water rafting because my little sister was too young, and it wouldn’t be fair if I got to go black water rafting and she didn’t, would it? There was also no one to pay for me to go black water rafting. (Oh, the dilemma of adulthood!) Besides, it was winter. We weren’t too keen on riding a rubber ring down a subterranean river in winter.

Instead, we decided to do something even more expensive: a dry caving tour involving rock climbing and an underground flying fox. Because an underground flying fox sounded awesome.

Lost World Cave WaitomoThe tour was called ‘Lost World through the Window’ and, as soon as we descended into the cave, it was easy to see why. It was like passing through a faerie portal, entering a whole other world beneath the forest floor. A great hush came upon us; slowly our ears filled with the echoes of rushing water.

The cavern was so large that the bottom, far below us, was lost in mist. Looking back towards the silhouetted entrance, it seemed a giant maw with ragged stalactites for teeth. Shards of sunlight fell into it like rain, quickly swallowed. I could have inhaled the sight all day.

Climbing just feels right.

The flying fox came next. It was fun, but it would probably have been more fun if I had been scared. As a rock climber, I’m rather blasé about dangling from ropes. I hadn’t been climbing in ages, though, and this tour reminded me how much I love it. I mean there was no serious climbing involved – more scrambling, arse-sliding and balancing along ledges with only a couple of ‘cowtail’ ropes preventing a fall into the darkness – but it was enough.

Pretty sure Tim’s only pretending to be freaked out here…

I imagine some people would have freaked out at the thought of the abyss below them. I nearly slipped into it once, but, of course, that’s what the ropes are for.

At one point, we passed a large, dead spider. And then another large, not-so-dead spider. Tunnelweb spiders – not to be confused with the deadly funnel-web spiders of Australia – apparently take a ‘dead man’s shoes’ approach to real estate.

(One feels New Zealand’s first home buyers could stand to learn from this example.)

Waitomo Caves“They don’t like building their own webs,” our guide told us. “They prefer to wait around until some other spider’s finished building their web – and then kill them. There’re lots in this part of the cave.”

The tour finished with an ascent up a series of long, metal ladders, which were freezing on the fingers. I wished the journey could have lasted longer – I was just getting into it!

I burst into the daylight feeling utterly alive. I’m glad we were able to do something adventurous and out of the ordinary this winter.

Vikings, Trolls and a Magical Gateway

Streets in Norsewood

There’s something strange going on in Norsewood. A small, sad town on the way up to Napier, its main tourist attraction is a shop selling woollen socks. Most people don’t bother looking further than that, but I’m glad I did. Like I wasn’t going to explore a town whose street names include Odin, Thor, Hengist and Horsa!

Campervan in Tongariro National Park

My partner Tim and I were on a New Zealand campervan hire tour of the central North Island. (That’s why I didn’t post anything last week.) After a couple of days around Tongariro National Park, we were driving towards Napier and decided to spend the night at Dannevirke Holiday Park, because it had received excellent reviews on the Rankers Camping NZ app.

Dannevirke Playground Viking Longship

The first thing you notice upon entering Dannevirke is a giant Viking. That’s because Dannevirke, like the nearby town of Norsewood, was settled by Scandinavians. Dannevirke literally means Danes’ work. The roadside barriers in the town centre are decorated with shields, there’s a miniature windmill in the town square, and the children’s playground features a Viking longship!

Fantasy Cave, Dannevirke

Unfortunately, there wasn’t all that much for us to do there, and the Fantasy Cave, which looks delightful, albeit tacky, was closed. We decided to continue on to Norsewood. It was a little eerie when we arrived. No one was about, although, to be fair, it was raining. We popped into the information centre: a tiny room devoid of human life.

At least there were people in the café, which was actually quite nice. Outside, three ugly trolls were waiting for us. They led us into the Pioneer Cottage Museum. I’ve explored many such cottages throughout New Zealand and this was definitely one of the best, although the cardboard cut-outs of the early settlers were very creepy – especially when the lights suddenly went off!

Norsewood Trolls

You turn on the lights yourself when you go in, and they only stay on for a few minutes at a time, you see. I was in the barn at the back of the cottage when it went dark, surrounded by scary farming implements and sour-faced settlers, including an old woman who looked like a cross between Peter Cushing and blue vein cheese. It was like I’d suddenly entered a horror movie. I was half-convinced the figures would come to life and converge on me!

Stavkirke in New Zealand

Across the street from the Pioneer Village is a place called Johanna’s World. It’s advertised as having a traditional Norwegian log cabin, a troll cave and the southern hemisphere’s only stavkirke, or stave church. (If you don’t know what they are, google it – they look really cool!) When we stood at the wooden gate, looking in, there was no one there. It kind of seemed like someone’s garden, but there was no sign telling us not to go in, so we opened the gate.

CatImmediately, a cat came running up to us. It was super friendly, but still managed to be regal and authoritative, demanding much attention. When we started to explore the attractions, it followed us.

“Are you our tour guide?” I asked it.

It meowed affirmatively.

The cat accompanied us around the log cabin and the stavkirke. There was still no sign of human life. I began to suspect that our feline tour guide was Johanna’s World’s actual tour guide, turned into a cat by some malign magic.

“It must be the trolls’ doing,” Tim agreed.

Norsewood Troll CaveThe troll cave was actually quite disappointing. It’s not a real cave, but a children’s playroom inside a storehouse. Of course, there were no children there.

“Are we even allowed to be here?” Tim asked.

I had no idea, but the cat was delighted with our presence, and that was good enough for me. I was sorry to leave it.

We had a last look around the village before heading off, checking out an old, wooden gaol and meeting a pair of affectionate horses that stared mournfully after us as we walked away. Had all the humans in Norsewood been turned into animals? No, of course not – what about the people in the café? It was then that we discovered the Gateway.

Gateway Garden, Norsewood

We almost missed it: a tiny garden tucked away in a corner. At the back, partially obscured by foliage, was a gateway – but a gateway to what? Feeling rather like Lucy stepping through the wardrobe, I stepped through the gate and found… nothing. Just the back of the garden, a narrow strip of earth and a high fence.

“Maybe the portal only appears if you believe hard enough,” said Tim.

So I took a deep breath, pictured Bifrost, the rainbow bridge that connects our world to Asgard, and jumped through the Gateway.

Norsewood Crest

I landed on the earth in front of the fence.

I must not have believed hard enough.

Norsewood PostSo that was Dannevirke and Norsewood. If you’re into history, fantasy or Norse mythology, I recommend having a look around both, if you happen to be in the vicinity of Napier. Otherwise don’t bother. The one person we did meet seemed thoroughly confused as to why we’d want to be there. It was an old, scruffy-bearded guy in a battered pickup truck.

“Are you lost?” he asked.

“No, we’re just looking around,” Tim replied.

He gave a sceptical shrug and drove off, leaving us to wonder whether we’d just escaped the local serial killer. Either way, it was time for us to be moving on.

Norwegian Log Cabin