Bridal Veil Falls

Bridal Veil Falls has to be one of the most photogenic places in New Zealand. I went for the first time last weekend and I didn’t get a single bad picture. Choosing which photographs to use for this post was no mean feat!

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Bridal Veil Falls are located at the end of a very short bush walk near Raglan, just forty minute’s drive from Hamilton. The bush walk comes out at the top of the falls. If you want to see the view from the bottom, which you do, that means a lot of steps to conquer! But it’s not too strenuous.

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There are a lot of nice waterfalls in New Zealand. This is one of the best. If you’re going to be travelling anywhere around Waikato, Bridal Veil Falls is well worth the detour. It’s obviously popular with tourists – I heard a lot of English accents on our brief excursion!

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It wasn’t crowded, though. I suppose this is due to the fact that New Zealand is currently in the grasp of winter. The fact that it was winter, however, did nothing to diminish the experience. In fact, I’m incredibly glad it was winter – all those steps in summer would have been torture!

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Though I’m sure the pool at the base of the falls would look very inviting come summer, you’re not allowed to swim there. The quality of the water is too unhealthy, having flowed through prime Waikato farmland to reach its destination.

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Bridal Veil Falls are 55m high. They’re known in Māori as Wairēinga, or Water of the Underworld. They were quite amazing to watch from the bottom. The force with which the water hit the basin below was surprising, creating a great, white mist and waves that rippled continuously towards us.

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Bridal Veil Falls isn’t a daytrip – it’s barely an hour, really. There are, however, other nice places to go nearby. Whale Bay, for example, is a rocky beach with incredible waves. One look was enough to see why Raglan is famous for surfing, and Raglan town itself is lovely.

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10 Totally Awesome New Zealand Holiday Tips

New Zealand has so many great places to visit. I’ve written about a lot of them, here and on other websites. Lately, though, people have been asking me for some more general New Zealand holiday tips. So here they are.

1) Wear sunscreen.

Seriously, even if you think you won’t get sunburnt, you will. Hole in the ozone layer and all that. People have come to New Zealand from Sub-Saharan Africa and got sunburnt.

2) Swim between the flags.

The sea around New Zealand is dangerous, with strong currents that drag you under even when the waves are small. Don’t ignore the Surf Life Saving warnings, and don’t try to swim when the flags aren’t out.

yelloweyedpenguin3) Respect the nature.

New Zealand is an island nation with a delicate ecosystem. So many of its native plant and animal species are endangered. Think carefully about what you bring into New Zealand, resist the temptation to take natural “souvenirs” and try not to kill anything.

4) Be careful with your money.

New Zealand’s more expensive than people think. Some of the tourist attractions are extortionate, but you’ll be shocked by food and fuel prices too. If you’re on a tight budget, New Zealand’s the perfect country for couchsurfing, what with Kiwis being so friendly and laidback. To save money on food, shop at supermarkets and Asian grocery stores, but be prepared for shops to be closed on Saturday afternoons, Sundays and public holidays, especially in more rural areas.

5) Learn the road rules.

Warning SheepPublic transport here isn’t the best. No wonder so many tourists see little choice but to hire a car in New Zealand. The most important rule to remember is to DRIVE ON THE LEFT. (That did need to be in capitals. A surprising number of tourists forget this with occasionally fatal consequences.) When you’re driving in New Zealand, you also need to keep in mind that the country is bigger than you think, and full of hills and windy roads. The speed limits are probably lower than you’re used to as well. It’s easy to underestimate journey times.

6) Hire a campervan.

If you can afford it, this is easily the most convenient way to travel around New Zealand. You can hire campervans cheaply in New Zealand, especially in winter.

7) Don’t rely on your mobile phone.

When you’re travelling around New Zealand, you’ll enter some pretty remote areas and find yourself without a signal. Even the Waitakere Ranges Regional Park, for example, which is on the edge of New Zealand’s largest city, has very limited mobile coverage. Always tell someone where you’re going before you trek off into the wilderness.

8) Decide what kind of holiday you want before you come.

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Lake Tekapo, a point in favour of the South Island

The North Island is very different from the South Island, and you shouldn’t try to do both unless you’ve got at least a month to spare. Basically, the North Island has beaches and volcanoes; the South Island has glaciers and mountains. I go into more detail in The North Island vs. the South Island on Not Australia.

9) Beware Kiwi-isms.

New Zealand is an English-speaking country, but some of the vernacular may catch you out. Take, for example, the seemingly innocuous ‘yeah-nah’. When a Kiwi says this it can be, as a friend of mine put it, “affirmative, negative, or neither, or both.” Listen carefully. For more Kiwi-isms, see 10 Silly Things Kiwis Say.

10) Don’t go to Huka Falls.

All the tour buses go there and all the tourist information sites tell you to go there. They’re New Zealand’s most visited natural attraction. But they’re not THAT great. There are better places to see in your limited time here. Less crowded places. Trust me.

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The Best Place to Go in Hamilton

My family’s been to Hamilton lots since moving to New Zealand. It’s a nice city, despite the comments. (Kiwis think it’s boring. Young people call it Hamiltron, a nickname heaving with irony.)

UnicornThe Waikato River runs through it, there are a few nice restaurants, and it’s got a big, bronze statue of Richard O’Brien in full Rocky Horror costume, designed by Weta Workshop, because he used to live there. If that doesn’t make you want to visit Hamilton, here’s what used to be the official city slogan: Hamilton – more than you expect.

Seriously, though, you should visit.

The best place to go in ‘the Tron’ is the Hamilton Gardens. We go there every time. The gardens are impressive, varied and very beautiful. We rarely get round all of them in one go, but they’re free to enter, so you can go as often as you like.

There’s a lake you can walk around with a waterfall tumbling into it, a huge Victorian flower garden, a café and a giant chessboard, but they’re not the best bits. The best gardens are in the Paradise Collection.

There’s the Japanese garden, where you can sit in peaceful contemplation…

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There’s the English garden, which really did make me feel at home…

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There’s the Chinese garden, where you can have a lovely picnic next to a pond…

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The American garden, where you can cool your feet with a pleasant paddle…

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The Indian garden, where your senses are assaulted with vibrant colour…

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And the Italian garden, which feels as romantic as Romeo and Juliet’s Verona…

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And there are so many other gardens besides, with the Waikato River sailing past in the background. The only bad thing about the Hamilton Gardens is they can get really hot, so make sure you take a floppy hat.

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Our Campervan Tour of New Zealand’s South Island

When I was twelve years old, my parents decided to take the family on a special holiday: a campervan tour of New Zealand’s South Island. We had been living in New Zealand for over two years, having emigrated from Britain, but in the North Island. The South Island, as we were about to discover, is completely different. It is, in a word, magical.

I must admit, though, that I was not looking forward to sleeping in a campervan for two weeks. I was at that age when one especially prefers the privacy of their own bedroom, and I was bitterly disappointed that we could not afford to stay in a hotel every night, but that disappointment melted when we first climbed into our campervan at the depot in Christchurch. The whole thing suddenly became rather exciting.

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Lake Wanaka

The campervan we had was laid out similar to this one. My little sister immediately bagsed the double bed above the cabin, which you had to climb up a little ladder to get to and had its own curtain, so you could create a secret den for yourself. I was stuck sharing the double bed at the rear with my nana, but I was consoled by the fact that the bed was brought into being by transforming the dining table and the couches around it. It’s the small things that delight, isn’t it?

So, having arrived in Christchurch, we spent a couple of days exploring the city. Bear in mind that this was long before those terrible earthquakes devastated the central business district. If you wanted to follow in my footsteps that spiralled to the top of the cathedral tower, you would no longer be able to do so. Fortunately, what my family considered the best part of Christchurch – so much so that we went back there before returning the campervan at the end of our holiday – was relatively unaffected by the earthquakes: the Christchurch Botanic Gardens.

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Kaikoura

Cradled by the Avon River, the Christchurch Botanic Gardens are wonderfully tranquil. The twelve-year-old me thought that walking through them was like delving into a fantasy realm, crossing enchanted bridges and ducking under trees. They are the reason that Christchurch is nicknamed the Garden City. The best part is you can take a punt ride along the Avon River – it was one of the most relaxing things I can remember doing in my life. You can kayak along the river too, which I also did. It was a lot of fun – good for people who don’t want to kayak on rough seas – and, most importantly, I beat my dad and sister!

After Christchurch, Dad drove us in the campervan to Akaroa, a peaceful, French-influenced village on Banks Peninsula. This is one place I really want to go back to. It’s so romantic, full of old-fashioned cottages with beautiful front gardens, wine, cheese, craft shops and, best of all, dolphins. The Akaroa Harbour is only place in the world where you can swim with the world’s smallest and rarest dolphin, the incredibly cute Hector’s Dolphin.

Milford Sound

Milford Sound

Akaroa also had the best campervan park I can remember staying at: the Akaroa Top 10 Holiday Park. It was located on top of a hill with an amazing view over the sparkling harbour, and it had a pool and awesome playground for us kids. This was when I realised that campervans are better than hotels. You don’t have to unpack and repack all the time – with the exception of making sure things are secure for when you’re on the move – and you have the freedom to go wherever you want.

From now on, I’m just going to talk about the highlights of our holiday, as to describe the entire South Island would make for far too long an article.

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A Little Blue Penguin

There was the Little Blue Penguin colony at Oamaru: you can take evening tours where you see the world’s smallest and most adorable penguins waddling up the beach, having spent the day at sea, crossing right in front of you to return to their nests.

There was the Otago Peninsula, officially one of the most beautiful places in the world, right next to the city of Dunedin: as well as stunning views, serene walks and a castle, there’s the world’s only mainland Royal Albatross colony. Seeing the huge, fluffy, white chicks was fantastic.

The Otago Peninsula

The Otago Peninsula

There was Lake Wanaka, a gorgeous glacial lake with mountains in the background, which is brilliant for swimming in and not as cold as you’d think.

There was Franz Josef Glacier, which you can land on in a helicopter or climb on with ice axes or, if you don’t fancy an expensive tour, you can simply walk up to it like we did. It was truly awe-inspiring. If you want proof of that, I wrote a poem after seeing it.

The Shotover Jet

The Shotover Jet

Then there was Queenstown. Now Queenstown is the adventure capital of New Zealand. A few days there can bleed you dry, but – my goodness – I loved it. We did a jet boat ride in the Shotover River canyons. We’d been jet boating before in a few locations around New Zealand, including Lake Taupo, but this was by far the most thrilling of them all. It was the most scenic as well, as it was where they filmed the River Anduin scenes in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring – you know, the bit where they canoe past those giant statues?

The River Anduin wasn’t the only Lord of the Rings location we encountered on that holiday. We did a horse trek with the Glenorchy-based Dart Stables that passed through Lothlorien and along a ridge overlooking Isengard and the Wizard’s Vale. The horse I rode had actually been ridden by one of the Rohirrim. My mum was aching when we got back to the campervan that day, but I felt so alive.

The Wizard's Vale

The Wizard’s Vale

What was nice about having the campervan was we could have quick showers wherever we were. I mean we didn’t have to wait until we got back to a hotel, as the shower was in our car, as it were. This was most useful when we at beaches. The campervan was like our own private beach hut, somewhere to get changed right next to the sand, and somewhere to cook a meal too.

The Gates of Haast

The Gates of Haast

What wasn’t so nice about the campervan was waking up in the middle of the night whenever someone rolled over in their sleep, shaking the entire thing. It wasn’t nice being cooped up with a certain someone who snores like a dying wildebeest. It wasn’t nice using having to use the toilet after someone had just showered, as the toilet and the shower are in the same cubicle. But these, at least, are the only downsides I can think of.

All in all, that campervan tour of New Zealand’s South Island was the best holiday my family ever went on and I’d recommend New Zealand campervan hire any day.

Covering Gandalf and Bear Grylls in Cheese

Hello, everyone – I’m in Dunedin at the moment!

The last time I was here was nearly ten years ago when I was a kid, and we only stayed for a day or two before continuing on to the next stop in our New Zealand campervan rental, so it’s like I’m visiting it for the first time now and it’s awesome.

Awesome – there’s a well-used kiwi word that’s rubbed off on me. At least I’m not saying things like “sweet as”. I mean sweet as what, for goodness’ sake?

Anyway, I’m not going to write a comprehensive ‘what to do in Dunedin’ article until after I get back to Auckland. What I’m going to talk about this week is the Air New Zealand safety video. (My boyfriend and I didn’t end up hiring a campervan in Auckland and driving down like we wanted, as we were constrained by both time and money. Ah well. Flying to Dunedin was pleasant enough and took little over an hour and a half.)

I’m probably a tad late on the bandwagon talking about the Air New Zealand safety videos. They’ve been up on YouTube for eons. The most famous one was the one they made to promote the first Hobbit film: An Unexpected Briefing. You should have a watch if you haven’t seen it.

Yes, it’s incredibly cheesy. But that’s part of its charm. And, let’s face it, who would bother to watch the safety video all that carefully anymore if there wasn’t some novelty to it? I think it’s genius.

The success of the Hobbit safety video led to them using the same ‘cover popular figures with cheese’ principle for their next video, the one that my boyfriend and I got: The Bear Essentials of Safety with none other than Bear Grylls. Again, watch it.

It’s not as good as the Lord of the Rings one. Bear Grylls seems a bit too attached to that massive fish he’s using to represent hand luggage.

There have been other safety videos including Fit to Fly with Richard Simmons (!) and one featuring the All Blacks. Because this is New Zealand. Everything has to feature the All Blacks.

I can imagine if you were a frequent flyer with Air New Zealand, these videos would become incredibly annoying, but for the rest of us they’re a definite breath of fresh air.

Air New Zealand is one of the best airlines in the world and they have a pretty good sense of humour. They’ll be my first choice whenever I need to fly again, (which might be next year – an OE* in Europe!)

*Overseas Experience, a New Zealand term for an extended overseas working holiday, usually taken soon after uni graduation. Yes, New Zealand is amazing and I want to have a family here and grow old, but for young people who’ve been trapped here since childhood, it’s so very small and isolated, and most people my age have a manic desire to GTFO. If I – when I do go, I know I’ll be back.

Taieri Gorge

Yes, I’m writing about another gorge. Karangahake Gorge last week, Taieri Gorge this week – I seem to be gorging myself.

Sorry.

I was just looking through some family photos from ten years ago and was reminded of how pretty Taieri Gorge is. Of course, for me, it could never measure up to Karangahake, but my experience of Taieri was completely different: it was by train.

Taieri Gorge is in Dunedin. We went there on our first ever campervan holiday in New Zealand, because my dad is an insufferable train nerd and also, coming from England, we all kind of missed trains, not to mention the beautiful, old railway stations of which there are hardly any in New Zealand.

Dunedin has one.

This is it.

This is it.

From it, you can catch the Taieri Gorge tourist train, which takes you on an enchanting journey through dramatic scenery. Being twelve years old at the time, I gazed out of the window and imagined I was being whisked away to Hogwarts, which, I suppose, tells you how British the scenery seems. The journey, for us, was highly nostalgic.

As the train chugged along between lush hills and looming rocks, over meandering water and vintage bridges, I went to stand outside, at the back of our carriage. It got a bit chilly with the air rushing by, but it was thrilling, particularly the tunnels.

060 Reefs CuttingThe journey was quite long, so you get your money’s worth, but I imagine a child any younger than I was would get bored towards the end. Luckily, the train stops to let you get out and take photographs, and you can buy refreshments and souvenirs en route. Unluckily, one of the souvenirs – the one that my little sister had to get – is a train whistle, a wooden woodwind instrument that only plays one note in imitation of the ‘choo-choo’ sound that trains make. Imagine that in the hands of a nine-year-old, especially one that used to dress up as Thomas the Tank Engine.

Thusly serenaded, we returned to our campervan, eagerly anticipating the next stage of our holiday. Considering this is ten years later, I can safely state that the Taieri Gorge Railway makes for a memorable experience.

The Pinnacles, a.k.a. the Worst Experience of My Life

Wow – when I wrote this I didn’t think it would become one of the top hits for ‘the Pinnacles’! But as it’s getting lots of views now, I think I’d better state here, very plainly, that climbing the Pinnacles isn’t actually as bad as the title of this blog article implies.

When my family climbed the Pinnacles, over a decade ago, I was a teenager. At the time, I was extremely annoyed with my parents for forcing me to go and I told my mum, in a very teenage way, that it was the worst experience of my life. This article is written from the point of view of my whiny, teenaged self, with each of the complaints exaggerated for humorous effect.

I hope readers can see through the ‘unreliable narration’ and note that the Pinnacles DOC hut is, in reality, a great place to stay.

(You’d think I wouldn’t have to say all this, but, apparently, I do. Also, needless to say, I have since grown up and no longer consider this experience to be worst of my life. In fact I, along with the rest of my family, look back on it with laughter.)

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When I was a teenager, my family took a lot of trips around our adopted country, and I did my fair share of teenaged complaining. When we were travelling around New Zealand in a campervan, for example, I complained that I never got any sleep because of everyone else’s snoring and tossing and turning, and that I was going insane for lack of privacy and a proper bathroom. That was nothing, however, compared to how I complained when my parents dragged me up the Pinnacles.

According to the AA Travel website, climbing the Pinnacles is on the list of ‘101 Must-Do’s for Kiwis’. They’re in the Coromandel, up from Thames. We parked our car and set off into the wilderness. My little sister happily skipped ahead, wearing the new tramping boots she’d got for Christmas (– did I mention this was Boxing Day?) and I made my way in a more dignified manner, taking great care not to dirty my white trainers. Little did I know that by the end of this trip, I would be so far beyond caring about my trainers that I would wilfully wade into a river without first taking them off.

The first part of the trail was rather pleasant. The weather was perfect, if a little hot, and the going was good. The track was originally made in the 1870’s, for kauri loggers and their packhorses, and, after a while, I began to feel sorry for them. Most of the way up is rugged stone steps. Steps. Steps. Hours of steps. Being young and fit, however, and also a rock climber, I bounded up them, out ahead of the rest of my family. And, let me tell you, the views were spectacular.

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In fact, I would go so far as to say that the views were almost worth it.

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We made it to the top of the steps and up to the Department of Conservation hut, where we would be staying the night. Now I’d never stayed in a DOC hut before, but this was a lot more luxurious than I had been expecting. There was a massive covered deck with picnic tables that gave the feeling of being in a tree house, with a view that turned our meal of freeze-dried mash potato into a fine dining experience. The kitchen was really good, and we chatted happily with other trampers and the warden.

Now here’s where my complaints begin. Though the hut did have showers, they were cold showers. Still, I thought I’d brave one, until, that is, I washed my hands before eating and they almost froze solid. This was the middle of summer and washing my hands was a properly painful experience. Skip the shower, then. We were only staying one night. One thing you can’t skip, however, is going to the toilet.

Wilderness 5There were three long-drop toilets a short way away from the hut. And it’s lucky they were. Also, they had no lights in them. As soon as the door closed, not only was I plunged into darkness and set upon by flies, the smell was so bad I became dizzy and had to bolt outside before I actually went to the toilet, for fear of losing consciousness and falling down it. I spent the next few hours crossing my legs and trying to find the courage to go in the bush, but there was nowhere that was sufficiently out of sight and I knew how poor my aim was. Eventually, my mum had to stand holding the door of the end long-drop open while I went, so I could both see and breathe.

We later learned that the long-drops were emptied once a year: the day after we left.

Then there was the sleeping. Or lack of. There are a total of eighty bunks in the DOC Pinnacles Hut, and though there was nowhere near that many people the night we were there, the large bunking area echoed. Shivering in my sleeping bag on a hard mattress with no pillow, I was tortured all night long by other people snoring really loudly. In fact, at some point in the middle of the night, I jumped in my sleeping bag out onto the deck and read with a torch.

The next morning, me feeling not at all refreshed, my family wanted to climb the actual ‘pinnacles’ bit of the Pinnacles, which is a pretty much vertical ascent (with the help of ladders) that lasts for forty-five minutes. Not to mention climbing down again. The problem was, what with all the steps the day before, my thighs now screamed at me every time I lifted them. I knew I wouldn’t make that climb, so I stayed behind at the hut. So did my mum. So I can’t tell you what the view from the top was like.

After a boring wait for my dad and sister to get back, (at least I had my book, Terry Pratchett’s The Colour of Magic, if I remember rightly,) we had to repack our rucksacks for the descent. We each had a water bottle, but, of course, we’d drunk all the water from them on the way up. The only way to refill them was to boil water from the hut’s taps. And, I was horrified to discover, the water was still bright green after we’d boiled it. I stubbornly resolved not to drink it.

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And so we started down the track, down the steps. And, as I’m sure you know, walking down steps is far more punishing than walking up them. Now imagine walking down large, uneven, loose-stoned, slippery steps with a sheer drop on one side. For hours. And not in tramping boots, but squeaky-soled trainers. I couldn’t even enjoy the view, as, the entire way, I had to keep my gaze absolutely focussed on my feet in order not to fall. I can’t tell you how frightening it was. With every step I felt like I was going to fall head-first down the rocky mountain. My ankles cried. Blisters formed. My legs shook. And there was no respite. No flat bits.

I told my mum that I was in the most physical (and mental) stress I’d ever been in my life and that if someone had offered me cocaine at that moment, I would have taken it. Anything. Soon, I was drinking the green water like it was the nectar of the gods. Then it ran out.

We got to the bottom, of course. After hours of relentless torture. I was so angry with my parents for putting me through it that I stomped ahead to get away from them. My sister, not quite so angry, walked ahead with me. Drenched in sweat, smeared with dirt, my trainers ruined, we came to a river. I dropped my pack on the bank, ripped my T-shirt off and plunged into the water. It wasn’t that deep and was full of rocks that could serve as stepping stones and sunbathing platforms. I lay on one, my legs trailing in the water, eyes closed and turned up to the sun.

Wilderness 2I was beyond caring about anything, which was lucky because out of the bush came a couple of German guys in their 20’s, who tried awkwardly not to look at the topless teenager as they crossed the river in full tramping gear.

So that was my experience of the Pinnacles: the worst experience of my life. Funny thing is, though, every other person I’ve talked to who’s also done the Pinnacles really enjoyed it.

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