The Craters of the Moon

The first time I saw the Craters of the Moon, I was crying. The hot, white, sulphurous fumes mingled with my tears, which made my face feel very strange indeed.

I was crying because I was tired, and because my family had just had an argument. I don’t remember what it was about. Perhaps my sister and I hadn’t wanted to visit any more tourist attractions. It was late and we were hungry, but here Dad was, dragging us around yet another site of supposed interest. I didn’t know or care what the place was. I was determined not to enjoy it.

The funny thing is, though, I enjoyed it immensely. I enjoyed it so much I was eager to go back years later. I couldn’t even remember it properly, but I knew it was special.

Craters of the Moon

The Craters of the Moon are just outside Taupō, the last stop on the campervan trip I recently took with my partner. I simply had to see them again. If nothing else, I remembered the feel of walking amongst them. I’d stomped off alone, half-running along the boardwalk, and suddenly I was entranced by the mystical landscape around me. Such wonder made the anger I had for my parents seem insignificant. I was lost in the billowing fumes rising from the muddy craters.

The mud was an odd colour. In fact, the whole landscape was a bit off, as though someone had sat down to paint it, but hadn’t had the right pigments.

Craters of the Moon

My partner and I paid the entry fee – $8 each – and set off along the boardwalk. I could still feel the tears on my face: cool and fresh when the wind licked them; hot and tingly when the fumes did. Of course, I wasn’t crying this time. I was an adult and I had chosen to come. I just hoped I wouldn’t be disappointed; that I hadn’t built it up too much in my mind. (Or my partner’s.)

“It doesn’t look much like the moon,” he said.

He was right, of course. But it did, I thought, look like a Victorian artist’s rendering of the moon. Picture a cartoon featuring the adventures of an intrepid space missionary reaching out to the lunar inhabitants; perhaps planting a Union Flag atop one of the larger craters. Very steampunk.

Admittedly, it’s not one of the best geothermal attractions in New Zealand, but at $8, it’s worth checking out. You can spend an hour wandering around it – more if you allow yourself to become mesmerised by the craters. My partner and I didn’t have time, unfortunately, as we had to return our campervan. I could have gazed into a few of them for ages.

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Our Day in Taupō

Maori Rock Carvings, Lake Taupo

The majestic rock carving you see behind us is at the edge of Lake Taupō. It’s the face of Ngātoro-i-rangi, a semi-legendary priest who navigated a canoe to New Zealand from Hawaiki, the mythical Polynesian homeland.

Maori Rock Carvings, Lake Taupo

The romantic in you may fancy it ancient, but it was carved in the 1970s by one of the subject’s descendants. You can only see it from the water. The best way is to book yourself a kayak tour, but you can also catch a scenic cruise.

Maori Rock Carvings, Lake Taupo

This is what we did. It was winter, okay? We went in a replica steamboat. They gave us complimentary wine and cocoa. It was the final full day of our North Island campervan trip. We’d camped for free on the shore of the lake, and so had woken up to this:

Lake Taupo

After wandering through a market that just happened to be on, we headed to the information centre to plan our day. The town of Taupō itself isn’t very impressive, but the range of activities you can do around it truly is.

Huka Falls Jet Boat

Though we ended up going for the more sedate options – the aforementioned cruise and, later, a twilight soak in a geothermal spring – we could have taken a jet boat ride to a volcanic wonderland, or gone white water rafting, bungy jumping or even skydiving!

Huka Falls

With little time left to us between the Māori Rock Carvings and the hot pools, we became Taupō tourist clichés and visited Huka Falls. We’d both been before. They’re so visited because they’re incredibly powerful, a god-like stampede of water forced between narrow banks.

Huka Falls

You can go right up to Huka Falls in a jet boat. Tim did it with his family when he was a kid. (My family did one of the other jet boat rides when I was a kid.) We watched a jet boat spinning around like one of those ground bloom flower fireworks before heading off.

Huka Falls Jet Boat

There was something else I was determined to do before we left Taupō, something I remembered doing as a kid. It was awesome, but I’ll have to leave it for my next post. In the meantime, here’s a cool picture you can share on Pinterest:

Maori Rock Carvings, Lake Taupo

The Art Deco Delights of Napier

I used to think the east coast city of Napier was boring. We had a holiday there when I was a child. As far as I was concerned, the only things to recommend it were a beach – hardly unique in New Zealand – and a dolphin show. (I know. Don’t worry: that particular attraction has long since ceased to exist.) I was wholly unappreciative of Napier’s main draw, an abundance of beautiful Art Deco buildings.

NapierYou see, Napier was devastated by an earthquake in 1931. It was, in fact, the most devastating earthquake in New Zealand’s history. Despite this, they did a much better job of rebuilding it than has so far been done of rebuilding Christchurch. Of course, it was rebuilt in the style of the time, so I suppose we can be thankful that the earthquake happened in the ’30s instead of, say, the ’60s. The result is an Art Deco paradise, a situation of which the city takes full advantage.

From vintage car tours to Art Deco festivals, Napier is the place to go if you like to party like it’s… well, actually, maybe not 1939.

It also has a science museum, a Victorian prison and a chocolate museum, which is why my partner and I decided to spend a day there on our recent campervan trip. As it turned out, we didn’t end up visiting any of those places – I got too distracted shopping! I hadn’t been to Napier since that childhood holiday and, apparently, the intervening years were time enough for me to develop an interest in 1930s fashion.

Napier

There were antiques shops, vintage clothes shops, costume shops, and, naturally, Art Deco souvenir shops galore – and all encased within gorgeous façades! There was even a sword shop. If only it hadn’t been raining, we could have strolled along Napier’s famous Marine Parade, an extensive seafront stretch of pleasant gardens and decadent architecture. Even before we’d left, we’d decided we had to return one day.

Elephant Hill Winery

The other main draw of Napier is its abundance of nearby wineries. We ended up having dinner at an extremely posh establishment called Elephant Hill, only because it was right next to a fantastic free camping spot. The restaurant’s atmosphere was surprisingly cosy for such a modern-looking place and the food was divine. I had beef tartar with mustard ice-cream, which was as weird as you’d expect, but an utter taste sensation.

Elephant Hill Winery

As for the free camping spot, I highly recommend seeking it out. It was right on a stony beach, wonderfully peaceful, and had a nice toilet block. We parked our campervan so the back doors faced directly onto the Pacific Ocean, the theory being that we would open them in the morning for a glorious sunrise. But it was winter and, predictably, cloudy. The site is called Clifton Road Reserve and you can find it using this free camping map.

Napier

I can’t believe I ever thought Napier was boring. Now I can’t wait to go back!

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!

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

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

A Look Inside the Oldest Library in New Zealand

The Oldest Library in New Zealand

You wouldn’t expect to find New Zealand’s first library down an unassuming street in Tauranga. Nor would you expect it to contain a secret trapdoor, under which treasures (and people) could be hidden in the event of attack. Imagine yourself crammed into the 1.8-metre-deep oubliette, trying not to make a sound as invading enemies stomp across the floorboards inches above your head, tearing your precious books from their shelves.

A Beautiful Book at the Elms Mission Station

Thankfully, the library was never actually attacked. It’s a tiny, wooden building on the edge of the Elms Mission Station, completed in 1839. The Elms, then known as Te Papa Mission Station, was established by the Reverend Alfred Brown, who was sent from England to educate the children of other New Zealand missionaries. Living at Te Papa was risky: the spot chosen for the mission station was prone to bouts of intertribal warfare.

Reverend Brown was keen to spread Christianity to the native tribesmen. He taught as many Māori as he could how to read and write, and about Western agriculture. (Or, as the European immigrants of the time no doubt saw it, how to be civilised and farm properly.) Our tour guide at the Elms was, however, proud to point out that Reverend Brown supposedly treated his Māori pupils as friends and fellow human beings, rather than as savages to be tamed.

The First Library in New ZealandIt was Reverend Brown who built the library. He needed to keep his extensive book collection safe and dry. William Gisborne, a nineteenth century New Zealand politician and fellow English immigrant, described it in the following words:

“The room was surrounded with shelves, on which large volumes, heavy to carry, and I daresay, heavy to read, gloomily reposed, while, from among, above and below them long rows of tempting, rosy-cheeked apples, brightly reflecting the ruddy fire, shone in delightful contrast with their more sedate brethren.”

Chapel Bell, The Elms, Tauranga(This quote comes from the Elms Mission Station’s website.) As for the rest of the mission station, you can explore the garden by yourself for free, but if you want to enter any of the buildings, including the library, you’ll need to pay $5 for a tour. I found the tour a little awkward, as it was just me and my parents being talked at by an old lady who was obviously used to addressing tourists and children who have no knowledge of either English or New Zealand history.

The other buildings include an almost puritanically bare chapel, an old workshop, a fencible cottage – if you want to know what the hell fencible means, read my blog about Howick Historical Village – and, of course, the main house. I was delighted to discover that it had a games table, though it’s nowhere near as big as mine and Tim’s monstrosity. (Risk is one of our smallest, least complicated board games. We need a big table.)

The Elms Mission House Games Table

Is it worth visiting? Yes, if you’re interested in the history of Tauranga. There aren’t any proper museums in Tauranga, (except Classic Flyers,) which is surprising. I mean my family moved to Tauranga when I was fifteen and it’s only just occurred to me that it doesn’t have a museum like most places… How odd. So, for now, the Elms Mission Station is the best we’ve got. Apparently, they’re planning to build a proper museum, to go with the city centre and harbourfront upgrade, so hopefully, in a few years…

The Elms Mission House, Tauranga

Of course, if you’re a bibliophile you’ll no doubt already be planning a trip to the Elms Mission Station. While you’re there, check out my list of free things to do in Tauranga.

The Elms Mission House, Tauranga, New Zealand