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!

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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

Te Awamutu, or That Time a Chicken Burst Out of Our Laundry Basket

It’s one of those small towns you drive through on the way to somewhere else. It’s a pleasant, forgettable settlement whose only claim to fame is that Tim and Neil Finn (of Crowded House) come from there. I’m talking, of course, of Te Awamutu. (You may have driven through it.)

Te Awamutu War Memorial Park

Te Awamutu lies half an hour south of Hamilton, on State Highway 3. If you find yourself on a New Zealand self-drive holiday, you’ll probably pass through it on your way to Waitomo. When you do, stop. Make your way to Te Awamutu War Memorial Park off Mutu Street. It’s well worth a look.

Te Awamutu War Memorial Park

Te Awamutu War Memorial Park is an unexpectedly lovely place to stretch your legs. It has a beautiful colonnaded walkway entwined with roses, a tranquil pond with a fairy tale-esque stone bridge, the most interesting war memorial I’ve seen and, most importantly for me, an amphitheatre.

Te Awamutu War Memorial Park

It’s only a small amphitheatre, but it’s rather pretty, being decorated with stone relief carvings and surrounded by roses. Plays are often performed there, a couple of which I’ve been in. If you were wondering about the chicken from the title of this blog, here’s where it enters.

We were staging an afternoon performance of Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor, the most important prop of which is a laundry basket. (The play’s antagonist, Falstaff, is tricked into hiding inside it with hilarious consequences.)

Te Awamutu War Memorial Park

I should mention at this point that Te Awamutu War Memorial Park is absolutely teeming with ducks and chickens, both of which are very friendly. One particular chicken had come to see the play. It spent some time watching in fascination from the wings. Then, just before we were due to carry the laundry basket on stage, it jumped in.

Well, if it wanted to be part of the show, who were we to turf it out? We carried the laundry basket onto the stage, placing it in the centre as we were meant to… whereupon the chicken burst out, flapping and squawking, and ran away through the middle of the audience. There followed a little improvisation involving telling off the servants for letting a chicken in the house, which the audience found utterly delightful.

A Duck with Its Head in a Bucket

The abundance of amiable fowl seems to attract many locals to the park. Last time I was there, for an evening picnic with my partner, there was an old woman standing in the midst of hundreds of ducks, feeding them from a bucket. The quacking din was incredible!

We noticed one duck had outsmarted the others and was plunging its head into the old woman’s bucket whenever her back was turned. Of course, the presence of such scavengers can make for a less than relaxing picnic. It was a charming sunset, though.

Te Awamutu War Memorial

So don’t just drive through Te Awamutu – take a little time to appreciate the War Memorial Park. There’s even a free camping spot ten minutes up the road from it at Lake Ngaroto. It’s quiet with nice views and clean, flushing toilets – perfect if you hire a campervan for your New Zealand trip.

Te Awamutu Memorial Park

Hamurana Springs

Hamurana Springs, Rotorua, New Zealand

You know what’s great about my parents living in Tauranga? It’s less than an hour’s drive from Rotorua. Now I’m not saying there’s nothing to do in Tauranga – far from it, but Rotorua is a tourist mecca.

There are so many fantastic things to do in Rotorua that I’m not even going to bother listing them here. (See my Top 10 Things to Do in Rotorua and my How to Do Rotorua on the Cheap if you’re interested.)

Last weekend, I visited my parents for Mother’s Day. (For some reason, Mother’s Day in New Zealand coincides with Mother’s Day in the US; not the UK.) Given the year my mum’s had, I thought I’d better turn up in person.

I wanted to take her somewhere a bit different, so Rotorua was the obvious choice. But where in Rotorua? We couldn’t go to any hot pools, as she’s just had surgery on her leg. This also ruled out doing anything adventurous, or anything that would involve a lot of walking or standing around.

If you have any familiarity with Rotorua, you’ll know that doesn’t leave a lot of options.

Hamurana Springs, Rotorua

Hamurana Springs to the rescue.

The walk around Hamurana Springs is short, easy and surprisingly beautiful. Before we’d even got to the springs, I was marvelling at the giant redwood trees bordering the path. It was perfect for my mum, who’s being given another dose of radiation even as I write this.

Redwoods at Hamurana Springs, Rotorua

When you get to the first spring, there are two viewing platforms, one high up and one at the water. You don’t expect it to be quite so clear, but it’s magical. It’s the deepest spring in the North Island – about fifteen metres, though it doesn’t look it.

You’re not allowed to swim in the springs anymore, but many people bring their drink bottles to fill up. I realised that this is the vision many foreigners have of New Zealand, of pure, sparkling streams we can drink from at will. Yeah. Sure.

You may notice something in the water that seems to glow: it’s a painted stone. There are a few such stones placed in various spots around the springs. Trying to find them all is a lovely little addition to an already lovely walk.

Hamurana Springs

I couldn’t get over the way the water rippled, and the way the light reflected upon it. When the sun came out, the water turned the most gorgeous shade of blue. I hadn’t seen anything like it since the glacial streams of the South Island. I couldn’t resist dipping my hand in.

Ripples at Hamurana

The second spring is called Dancing Sands. In order to see why, you have to spend a few moments getting your eye in. As the water rushes up through the sand, it creates a myriad of miniature cyclones that dance upon the streambed. They look like swirls of fairy dust.

Of course, the truly magical part of Hamurana Springs is the colour of the water. It’s not just blue. Beneath the surface lies luscious, emerald foliage. In places, it looks almost deliberate, like the hedges of an underwater maze. Ephemeral sapphires await the daring adventurer.

Foliage at Hamurana

This wonderful walk is completely free, and only fifteen minutes from the centre of Rotorua. You have no excuse not to go!

Six Books, a Bach and a Wizard’s Robe

Getting away to “the bach” is a Great Kiwi Tradition. A bach is a holiday home, and it’s pronounced like a batch of cookies, not like the Baroque composer.

bach

Baches range from old shacks to modern mansions, although anything too “flash” isn’t really seen as being in the spirit. It’s supposed to be about getting back to basics; enjoying the beach with your family, free from technological distractions. As such, the traditional Kiwi bach is usually quite rundown. Worn-out couches, rusty kettles and board games with missing pieces are commonly found accessories.

Ruakaka Beach

Once you’ve arrived at your bach, there’s nothing to do except go to the beach. When I was younger, I despised it. I thought: I know we’re supposed to be grateful for the little things, but if you’re grateful for this, you’re an idiot. I mean this is the pinnacle of the Kiwi dream? This? But I think I get it now. “Getting it” could be to do with, you know, growing up, but I’ve also had some more positive bach experiences in the last few years.

Ruakaka Beach

I’ve had some “How’s the serenity?” moments:

Yes, that’s an Australian film, but you know… certain attitudes are similar.

Ruakaka Beach

Sometimes, having nothing to do except go to the beach is a good thing. You get there and suddenly nothing matters except the people you’re with. Earlier this year, my partner and I went to a bach with a large group of friends – a New Year getaway. The bach was in Ruakaka, in scorching Northland. When we arrived, Tim nearly passed out from the heat. Wading into the Pacific Ocean was absolute bliss.

Waipu Cove

As nice as Ruakaka Beach is, a short drive up the road lies an even nicer beach: Waipu Cove. After a couple of days lounging around in Ruakaka, Tim and I decided to visit Waipu. We returned with six books and a wizard’s robe.

waipucove5

Our friends joked that only Tim and Abby could go to the beach and come back with books and a LARPing costume. (And if you’re thinking but there are only five books in the photograph – I got another book after it was taken.) There was a mobile library at the beach, you see, and they had a table full of old books they were giving away.

Waipu Cove

“If every beach was like this,” Tim said to me, “we’d get you outside more.” True as that may be, even I’ll admit that Waipu Cove is worth visiting irrespective of the presence of a mobile library. Even the toilet block has a lovely mural painted on it, chronicling the history of the Waipu settlement.

Waipu Cove Mural

As for the wizard’s robe, that came from a junk shop on Waipu’s main street. (Waipu has a few junk – one might hesitate to call them antique – shops.) The town was settled in the nineteenth century by a group of Scottish immigrants who’d had quite a time of it. They were led by a very dour-looking religious chap who fell out with the Presbyterians in Scotland because they weren’t dour enough. He took some members of his clan off to Canada, but the whole thing was a bloody disaster, so they built themselves a ship and sailed to Australia, but Australia was too full of prozzies and booze, so they got another ship and sailed to New Zealand. There they settled, and when the dour guy finally died they let their hair down and started having all the fun they’d been forbidden from having because, apparently, God hates fun. This particular brand fun included nostalgic celebrations of Celtic culture, and Waipu holds annual highland games to this day.

Waipu Museum

That’s what I gathered from Waipu’s rather excellent museum, anyway. It’s worth a visit if you’re up that way. Here’s the website. Apparently, the highland games are worth a visit too. Here’s that website.

For more of my adventures up north, read What to Do in Kerikeri.