Highlights from Our NZ Trip

New Zealand continues to amaze me. Even after all these years, I’m finding new places to visit and being re-enchanted by old ones. My recent New Zealand campervan trip was a perfect example of this, a journey of discovery and rediscovery. I’ll be writing more detailed articles about each of the places I visited, but first, here’s a list of the highlights…

1) Waimangu Volcanic Valley

This is one of the many ‘geothermal wonderland’ attractions you can visit around Rotorua. I’ve been to a few of them over the years, but this was my first time at Waimangu. It’s a pleasing walk, following a steaming stream down towards a picturesque lake. The colours along the stream are beautifully psychedelic, as you can see.

2) Stonehenge Aotearoa

I only recently learned of the existence of New Zealand’s very own Stonehenge, and I have to admit my expectations weren’t high. I mean I’ve seen the actual Stonehenge, as well as Castlerigg, Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar. I was pleasantly surprised, however. Stonehenge Aotearoa is totally worth visiting.

3) The Putangirua Pinnacles

I’d wanted to see the Putangirua Pinnacles for years, but they’re rather out of the way. I’m glad I finally made it, although the walk there was more difficult than I’d imagined! It was used as a filming location for The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and is an excellent example of badlands erosion. Marvelling at a landscape so different from what one usually encounters makes for a great day out.

4) Rivendell

This is a place I didn’t plan on visiting, but when a nerd sees a sign reading only ‘Rivendell’ they can’t not follow it. The light was fading and there wasn’t much time until the park gate would be locked, so I rushed off to find the House of Elrond. Or, at least, the patch of forest they’d filmed it in. It was quite lovely, actually.

5) The Edwin Fox

I first saw the Edwin Fox on Neil Oliver’s Coast: New Zealand. It’s right next to the Interislander ferry terminal in Picton, the last surviving Australian convict ship in the world. It was built in India, saw service in the Crimean War and ended up retiring in little, old New Zealand. It’s really cool to explore.

6) Founders Heritage Park

Nelson is best known as the gateway to Abel Tasman National Park, but Founders Heritage Park is worth visiting too. It’s an especially pretty historic village, featuring a windmill, a church and a charming street of shops. I recommend taking a picnic on a sunny day, as the café only sells freshly baked cookies! Look out for event days.

7) Omaka Aviation Heritage Museum

This place is so cool – and I’m not even interested in planes! There are two sections – WWI and WWII – that you pay for separately. If you only have time for one, do the WWII bit, but they’re both awesome, with dramatic displays that bring the pilots to life. It’s all wonderfully atmospheric.

8) Kaikoura

Kaikoura is famous for whale watching and crayfish eating, but my favourite part was going down to the beach and seeing the seals. The snow-capped mountains in the background were just a bonus! You can go kayaking with the seals, which I really wanted to do. They are some quite nice shops in Kaikoura too.

9) Castle Hill

My immediate impression of Castle Hill was it would be the perfect filming location for an epic fantasy story. There isn’t an actual castle there, of course – New Zealand doesn’t have any castles, but the natural rock formations are incredible. Adding to the epic scenery, the hill is surrounded by mountains. It’s now officially one of my favourite places in the world.

10) Arthur’s Pass

Arthur’s Pass Village in Arthur’s Pass National Park is the best place in the country to encounter wild kea. And boy did I encounter them! You can find out more about kea in this article, but basically, they’re super-intelligent vandal-parrots that like breaking into campervans. Here’s a photograph of one trying to break into a rental campervan’s roof hatch – directly above my head.

DSC_0781_edited

11) The Canterbury Museum

I only wandered into Christchurch’s Canterbury Museum because it was free. I ended up being quite glad I had. As well as a Victorian street, a gallery filled with antique furniture, ornaments and clothes, and various other exhibits, it has a replica of that mad paua house – know the one I mean? This old couple who lived in Bluff covered every inch of the inside of their house with paua shells, and left their collection to the museum!

12) The Giants House

The Giants House belongs to an artist in Akaroa. You can pay to wander around her garden and I highly recommend you do, especially if you’re a fan of Gaudí or Hundertwasser. The brightly coloured mosaic sculptures are simply delightful. My nana visited it years ago and she won’t stop going on about it!

13) Oamaru

Finally, I returned to Oamaru! The gorgeous Victorian Precinct has a steampunk art gallery, a museum in which you can dress up in Victorian garb, vintage clothes shops, an old-fashioned bakery, a whiskey distillery, and one of the best second-hand bookshops in New Zealand. On top of that, Oamaru has penguins, lovely public gardens and a cheese factory. I can’t wait to write more about it.

14) The Moeraki Boulders

I’d been to Moeraki Beach and seen the boulders before, but – damn – they’re cool, aren’t they? Like alien eggs about to hatch, as my friend put it. I don’t remember there being quite so many tourists on my first visit, though! It was difficult to get pictures without people in them.

15) Larnach Castle

I know I just said New Zealand doesn’t have any castles, but it has this colonial mansion on the Otago Peninsula. It’s actually worth a visit. There’s a café in the ballroom that does posh tea and scones, and the house and garden are fun to explore. It’s an odd but pretty mix of stately home and colonial villa.

16) Lake Tekapo

One of the loveliest sights in New Zealand is the small, stone Church of the Good Shepherd perched beside the bright, turquoise water of Lake Tekapo, against a backdrop of snowy peaks. When it’s not swarming with tourists, that is. You’d probably have to go at dawn to get a decent shot. I retreated, defeated.

17) Rakaia Gorge

Excuse the inevitable pun, but Rakaia Gorge is gorge-ous. The bridge is kind of iconic. I just passed through this time, but there’s a campground and a stunning walkway. All the braided South Island rivers are breathtaking.

18) Whitecliffs Boulders

Like the Moeraki Boulders, but in a forest – sound appealing? I thought so, and they were even more magical than I’d imagined. It was like walking around inside a fairy tale! Bugger to get to, but I guess I’ll write about that another time.

So those were the highlights of my latest New Zealand campervan trip. I had such a good time. Now it’s back to reality. Circe, my tortoiseshell-tabby kitten, hasn’t left my side since I returned!

The Ethics of Owning a Cat in New Zealand

A few years ago, a certain would-be politician became New Zealand Cat Enemy Number One. He denounced cats as sadistic serial killers and called for their eradication. Not only did he want every stray cat to be killed, he wanted people to stop owning cats altogether. Of course, the national outrage was great and ensured many ailurophiles would never vote for him, regardless of what his party’s cat policies actually were. The thing is, though, he wasn’t wrong.

I love cats. I’m known as a crazy cat lady. I’ve just spent the better part of five months fostering seven kittens and their mother. I’ve watched them grow from this…

weekoldkittens

… to this…

kittens

… to this…

kittens

… and now my fiancé and our flatmate have adopted three of them between us, Lennon, Loki and Circe. In fact, this whole article is nothing more than an excuse to show you our most adorable cat pictures!

Why, then, do I agree with New Zealand Cat Enemy Number One?

Well… I do and I don’t.

kittenThe thing you have to remember about New Zealand is, before humans colonised it, there were no cats. In fact, there were no land mammals at all. (Well, there were bats, but they only ate insects.) In a world without mammalian predators, New Zealand’s native birds, such as the flightless kiwi and kakapo, thrived. Then humans came, bringing with them rats and dogs and possums and cats, and bird numbers plummeted – the flightless birds didn’t stand a chance! Now, many of New Zealand’s native birds are endangered and cats certainly don’t help.

It’s not just that cats – yes, even pet cats – hunt the native birds. They also contribute to the spread of toxoplasmosis, a parasite that can harm other animals. My little sister studies wildlife conservation, and she goes on whole rants about why we shouldn’t have cats, or should at least limit ourselves to one cat per household. When I told her about our fostering plans, she got annoyed that we were rescuing unwanted cats rather than putting them down. It’s not that she doesn’t like cats either – we grew up with them in our home.

kittenswithswordsThat’s where I draw the line, though. I see nothing wrong with getting cats off the streets, desexing them and giving them a good home. I agree that you should have to desex your cats by law, unless you have a breeder’s licence, and that you should take steps to protect the native wildlife around your home. Obviously, the easiest way to do this is to have an indoor-only cat, but I also feel like it’s kind of cruel to keep cats inside their whole lives. For me, the best solution seems to be building a cat run in the garden, especially if you live in the country.

If you live in an apartment, I suggest taking your cats for walks on leads. Yeah, it’s a little weird, but it’s becoming more and more common. Maybe it’ll be the norm soon. We’re going to try it with ours… Wish us luck.

I guess I feel a bit guilty. Owning a cat in New Zealand is a bit dodgy, ethically speaking. But I’m not going to not have cats because cats are gorgeous and funny and cuddly and enrich our lives infinitely. If New Zealand ever decided to ban cats, (which it won’t,) I would seriously consider emigrating. I have a purring kitten on my lap as I write this and it just feels right.

gingerkittens

Baby Fur Seals and Other Animals

Fur Seal by Lucie Simpson

While I’m off travelling the world, my little sister’s having her own adventure in the South Island. She’s studying wildlife conservation, which, for a girl who’s been obsessed with animals since infancy, is a dream come true. Here are some of the photographs she’s taken of the animals she’s encountered. These first few are New Zealand fur seal pups. Credit, obviously, to Lucie Simpson.

Fur Seal by Lucie Simpson

Fur Seal by Lucie Simpson

Fur Seals by Lucie Simpson

Fur Seals by Lucie Simpson

Fur Seal by Lucie Simpson

How gorgeous are they? Now for some kea.

Kea by Lucie Simpson

Kea by Lucie Simpson

Kea by Lucie Simpson

Wait… is this one a takahe or a pukeko? (Lucie will not be impressed I had to ask.)

Okay, one last one…

Oh, South Island, stop being so gorgeous.

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!

Our First Year in New Zealand

I’ve been going through Dad’s old photographs, watching my sister and I grow up. The photos from 2001, our first year in New Zealand, brought back so many memories: places I’d forgotten we’d visited. I thought I’d share them with you now.

I was ten years old when we moved to New Zealand; my sister was seven. Dad emigrated six months before us, so when we finally arrived with Mum, he was bursting to show us the places he’d discovered. He couldn’t even wait for us to get over our jetlag!

It was the middle of winter, but the weather was still nice. Dad immediately took us to buy wetsuits and surfboards. I’d never been surfing before, as we’d lived nowhere near a beach in England, but I took to it at once. It was like riding a rollercoaster!

My sister enjoyed it too, at least until we realised her lips had gone blue! Maybe surfing in winter hadn’t been such a good idea after all. My sister had already thrown up in the local newsagent’s after OD’ing on kiwifruit, the first time we walked into town. She can’t stand kiwifruit to this day.

Despite the rocky start, and the frankly comical number of accidental injuries she gave herself that first year, my sister thrived in New Zealand. She’s a true nature-lover, so New Zealand is the perfect place for her. She’s currently down in the South Island studying wildlife conservation.

I, on the other hand, didn’t thrive. I missed England too much. I still managed to have fun, though, whether playing at Kariotahi Beach,

Kariotahi Beach

crawling through lava caves on the island volcano of Rangitoto,

Rangitoto

or pretending to be Merlin at the Waikato Museum.

Waikato Museum

We visited Auckland Zoo a lot,

Feeding Giraffe at Auckland Zoo

saw many of New Zealand’s North Island waterfalls,

Hunua Falls

had a ride on the Glenbrook Vintage Railway,

Glenbrook Vintage Railway

and found this old plane that someone had converted into a garage somewhere out in the wop-wops.

We went to Cathedral Cove,

Cathedral Cove

the Auckland Domain,

Auckland Domain

the Hamilton Gardens,

Hamilton Gardens

and so many other places – I’m not going to list them all. But I will mention Muriwai Beach so I can show you this picture Dad took.

Muriwai Gannet

It sure was an action-packed first year in New Zealand!

Finally, here’s a picture I found of our first Christmas in New Zealand.

It’s me and my sister jumping on our new trampoline. You couldn’t do that on Christmas Day in England!

Cute Animals and Hay Fever

Ducklings

“That’s how we know it’s spring,” Tim said as I tried not to sneeze on a duckling. “Cute animals and hay fever.”

I backed away, drawing out one of my carefully rationed tissues. Pollen filled the air like fairy dust, glistening as it swirled around the trees at the Taitua Arboretum. To be fair it wasn’t just hay fever – I was (and still am) fighting off a bad cold.

We were at the arboretum because my parents were visiting. We’d been before, but until now we’d never seen it bathed in sunlight. It was a little bit magical.

arboretum

Fluffy, yellow chicks flurried about in the undergrowth. (We couldn’t believe how many chickens there were, actually!) Fantails flitted coquettishly along the branches. Tui serenaded us from above, ducklings begged us for food, and geese drifted towards us. (Tim has a history with geese; perhaps they sensed this as they drifted away again quite quickly.)

fantail2

I felt like a mucus-laden Disney princess. We even found fairy doors on a couple of tree trunks.

doorintrunk

The most magical sight, however, was this.

sunonwater

The photograph doesn’t really capture it, of course: the golden beams of sunlight filtering through the branches; the branches bowing to kiss the surface of the pond; floating leaves forming an illuminated path to the far bank, upon which sits a bench in a sheltered clearing… All rather inviting.

stonecircle

The Taitua Arboretum is a lovely, peaceful place to go for a walk that I imagine would be great for kids. I look forward to visiting it next season. Hopefully I’ll be able to breathe properly then!

Another Reason to Visit Hamilton

Sumatran Tiger Hamilton Zoo New Zealand
Brown Capuchin Monkey Hamilton Zoo New Zealand

Brown Capuchin Monkeys

Hamilton Zoo is a lot more than it first appears. It may not be as grand as Auckland Zoo, but it is certainly as good. Many say better. I went with my parents and boyfriend last weekend, and we found it more pleasant to walk around than Auckland Zoo. More intimate; more trees shading the paths.

Chimpanzee Hamilton Zoo New Zealand

Chimpanzee

Auckland Zoo has more animals than Hamilton Zoo, but Hamilton Zoo is almost twice as large as Auckland Zoo in terms of land area. In fact it feels deceptively large. Entry into Hamilton Zoo costs $22, which is an absolute bargain, and it’s wonderful to see the animals in such massive enclosures.

Sumatran Tigers Hamilton Zoo New Zealand

Sumatran Tigers – aww!

The Sumatran tiger exhibit was especially impressive. When we arrived, three of the tigers were sleeping all snuggled up together. It was a mother and two cubs, although the cubs were a year old and didn’t look like babies anymore! I spent a long time ‘awwing’ at them, but was soon reminded that tigers aren’t always so cute.

Ostrich Hamilton Zoo New Zealand

Ostrich

One of the other tigers looked like it was actually trying to stalk the keepers that had come to feed them! The keepers were safe on the other side of the fence, of course, but it was only a few months ago that one of the Hamilton Zoo keepers was mauled to death by one of the tigers.

Cheetah Hamilton Zoo New Zealand

Cheetah

Thankfully, the tiger in question wasn’t euthanized. It was just being a tiger.

Hamilton Zoo doesn’t have any lions, but it does have some rather majestic cheetahs.

Giraffes Hamilton Zoo New Zealand

Giraffes

It also has giraffes, rhinos, monkeys, meerkats, red pandas, chimpanzees and an array of other creatures, including native New Zealand birds and reptiles.

Hamilton Zoo has the largest free flight aviary in New Zealand, complete with pond and waterfall.

The meerkats were adorable. One of them seemed intent on digging a tunnel to Spain, (Spain being the antipode of New Zealand,) and was already well on its way.

Meerkat Hamilton Zoo New Zealand

Meerkat

The giraffes were spectacular, but their limelight was stolen by the rutting blackbucks that shared their enclosure, almost beneath their notice.

Rutting Blackbucks Hamilton Zoo New Zealand

Blackbucks

The kea were amusing – as if one could expect anything else. They are, after all, New Zealand’s funniest birds. One of them was playing dead right next to the fence. Very convincing. It even had a wing cocked at an odd angle!

Kea Hamilton Zoo New Zealand

Kea

And no, it wasn’t actually dead. It realised we were onto it and shook its head in annoyance. Apparently, it pretends to be dead a lot. Maybe it’s part of an elaborate escape plan.

All in all, we were walking around the zoo for three hours. We needed all day, really. We only just got round everything before the place closed, and we could have spent so much longer with many of the animals. I definitely want to go again at some point.

The gift shop and the café are nothing special, but there’s a playground and some okay picnic areas. The main focus is on the animals, which is as it should be.

Sleeping Peacock Hamilton Zoo New Zealand

Peacock