Lake Wainamu

Lake Wainamu is a place not many people know about. Out at Bethells Beach, on Auckland’s west coast, it’s a peaceful spot of understated beauty, surrounded by low hills. You get to it either by trudging across sand dunes for about ten minutes, or by walking along a shallow river. The river way takes longer, but is less strenuous. Besides, it’s usually too hot to walk across the sand dunes barefoot; walking through the river is nice and soothing.

LakeWainamu9

Lake Wainamu is great for swimming in, being so calm. It gets very deep very quickly, however, so I wouldn’t recommend going in unless you actually know how to swim. Swimming isn’t the only activity on offer at the lake, though. The sand dunes slope down to the river pretty sharply, making them the perfect place to try sand surfing. Definitely take a boogie board with you and slide on down!

LakeWainamu3

You can also walk around the lake; there’s a proper track that does a full circuit. It takes an hour or two, but it’s worth it because hidden away behind the lake is a rather pretty swimming hole with a waterfall. Be warned, though – it’s bloody freezing! At some point around the lake track, close to the main beach, there’s a tree that leans out over the water. Local kids like to use it as a diving board.

LakeWainamu8

I’d recommend wearing old clothes and shoes when you visit the lake, because everything gets full of black sand. Black sand is notoriously clingy! I’m still scraping it off my scalp from two days ago and, yes, I have washed my hair! It is luxuriously soft, though. And the silvery dunes are starkly beautiful.

LakeWainamu7

Countless films, music videos, TV series and adverts have been filmed on the dunes. You can well imagine Xena having an epic duel across them, and we passed yet another film crew when we were there two days ago. They wouldn’t tell us what they were filming, but there were two guys in suits with guns. I didn’t envy the suited-up actors – the sun was blazing! I’d resorted to using my umbrella as a parasol:

LakeWainamu2

My boyfriend, being a tough Kiwi, was less prepared. Even though our group was planning on walking to the lake over the dunes, and not through the river, he didn’t bring shoes. He thought about bringing shoes, but then did the usual Kiwi thing of thinking ‘she’ll be ’right’ and left them behind. Sure enough, the sand was far too hot to walk on, but – lo! – Kiwi ingenuity to the rescue! He fashioned shoes out of towels and walked to the lake thusly:

LakeWainamu4

So… Lake Wainamu. It’s ‘becoming far too popular with non-locals’ and it’s easy to see why. If you’re visiting Bethells Beach, give yourself some time to walk to the lake as well. It’s completely free and there are lots of things to explore. Here’s how to find it.

LakeWainamu6

Why You Should Visit the Arataki Visitor Centre

First time in New Zealand? Time to spare around Auckland? Head west to the Arataki Visitor Centre in the Waitakere Ranges Regional Park. It provides a fantastic introduction to life in New Zealand. You can learn about Auckland’s history, environment and wildlife in a wonderful setting with magnificent views, before embarking upon one of the many laid-back bushwalks in the area.

AratakiVisitorCentre01

The Arataki Visitor Centre is one of the first places I remember visiting in New Zealand. I was ten years old; the centre was great for kids and still is. In fact it’s got even better in the last decade. You could spend hours in the kids’ corner. I discovered so much and it was fun. I learned, for example, what all the different native birds were and what a weta looked like. (Answer: scary as fuck.)

AratakiVisitorCentre05

Recently, I went back for the first time in years. It still had the giant picture frame at the edge of the car park, overlooking the ‘natural masterpiece’-of-a-view. It still had the towering Maori totem pole that my little sister had climbed on, unaware that she was using the bottom figure’s penis as a handhold. But there was one important addition to the car park: a charming Danish ice-cream hut.

AratakiVisitorCentre03

The ice-cream was very nice, as were the freshly made waffle cones.

AratakiVisitorCentre02

I also found this rather pretty place for chaining up your bike.

AratakiVisitorCentre07

As you ascend the wooden ramp into the centre there are a series of balconies taking advantage of the views. In summer they’d make good picnic spots, but the wind was too cold to stay out long this time. Thankfully there’s a place to eat inside the centre too, not a proper café, but nice tables with snacks and hot drinks available. There’s also this rather lovely window seat.

AratakiVisitorCentre12

The inside of the centre has changed a lot. It looks all fancy now. The gift shop’s still the same, but there are lots of new displays. As well as informational displays about the natural and human history of the area, and about local conservation efforts, there are beautiful examples of Kiwi artwork and even live lizards! This is definitely somewhere international visitors should come.

AratakiVisitorCentre09

If you plan on doing any bushwalking during your New Zealand trip – and New Zealand is pretty much impossible to escape without doing at least one little bushwalk – then the Arataki Visitor Centre is a great place prepare yourself. There are people there who can advise you on where to go and how to stay safe in the bush, and there are heaps of free leaflets available.

AratakiVisitorCentre13

In fact the whole centre is free – did I mention that?

AratakiVisitorCentre08

The Arataki Visitor Centre is known as the gateway to the Waitakere Ranges. I think it’s also a great gateway to New Zealand in general. Make it the beginning of your New Zealand holiday. I know a few people who say it’s the first place the place they take friends and relatives when they arrive.  Other places nearby include: Rose Hellaby House, the Waitakere Dam, Fairy Falls and Bethells Beach.

Rose Hellaby House – Hidden Gem in the Waitakeres

The best places are the ones you find accidentally. For me, West Auckland’s Rose Hellaby House is such a place. On a quiet Sunday morning, my boyfriend and I were driving home after a party. Leaving our friends to nurse hangovers of varying severity, we had decided to take advantage of the cool sunshine and take the scenic route home. So it was that we were trundling along Scenic Drive, a winding country road with marvellous views over Auckland, when I spotted a sign next to a driveway that disappeared into the bush.

RoseHellabySignTim, who’s lived in West Auckland all his life, had never noticed the sign before. We had all day, so we turned back to investigate. The first thing we noticed upon the cresting the driveway was a garden gnome. Then, through an island of trees, there appeared a colonial-style house. Someone obviously lived there, so it seemed strange that it would be open to the public.

We got out of the car and followed a mossy path up the side of the house, discovering more garden gnomes along the way. Under the shade of an enchanting tree, draped in golden ribbons of sunlight, there was a bench. Next to it was a birdbath and, next to that, a cat. It meowed at us and slunk off further around the house, as though inviting us to follow. We did so, and were confronted with somewhere that immediately made us wish we’d had a picnic with us.

RoseHellabyPicnicAreaBehind Rose Hellaby House is a lawn on the edge of a cliff. There’s a picnic table and a lookout platform.  From the lookout platform you can see the forested hills and houses of West Auckland, the volcanoes and skyscrapers of the city centre, and out to the harbour beyond. There’s a helpful sign to point out exactly what it is you’re seeing. It’s a view you can look at for a long time.

But Rose Hellaby House isn’t just a great picnic spot. Someone does live in the house, but they keep part of it as a wonderful antiques shop. This is only open on weekends and public holidays, however, so it was lucky for us that it was a Sunday. Tim and I have a thing for antiques shops. The woman running the shop was lovely to chat to, even if she did mistake us for brother and sister.

She was also rather taken aback that we’d be interested in antiques in the first place, being so young. At that point, the cat we’d seen earlier came in and jumped up on a side table. I asked the lady if she was at all worried, having a cat in an antiques shop. She replied that the cat had only ever broken one vase, going after a fly in a window. How sweet.

So if you’re looking for somewhere to have a picnic in the Waitakeres, Rose Hellaby House on Scenic Drive is an interesting spot. It’s a real hidden gem. Rose Hellaby herself was interesting too: an adventurous, green-fingered philanthropist with a penchant for garden gnomes. She gifted her house to the people of Auckland to enjoy the views and gardens as she had. You can see a display dedicated to her at the Arataki Visitor Centre.

RoseHellabyHouse

Halloween and Bonfire Night in New Zealand

As I write this article, screeches, bangs and cracks punctuate my train of thought, accompanied by luminous colours at the dark window. It’s the fifth of November, but it won’t be for much longer.

I’m not celebrating – it’s a Tuesday night and it’s raining – and, besides, I went to a bonfire party last Saturday. I didn’t celebrate Halloween. That was last Thursday and my boyfriend had an exam the next day; Halloween isn’t that big in New Zealand anyway.

Some people would disagree with me – I mean it isn’t that big compared to America, or even Britain. It is celebrated: the occasional shop or café puts up decorations, one or two kids come to your door in token outfits, there are a few fancy dress dos… nothing major. Costume places make a huge effort, of course, but during my twelve years in New Zealand I’ve found that a much bigger deal is made out of Guy Fawkes, or Bonfire Night.

Because, you know, kiwis love explosions.

InfernoComing from Britain, Halloween in New Zealand has never seemed quite right to me in the first place. In the Northern Hemisphere, Halloween happens just as the world is about to be plunged into the darkness of winter; in the Southern Hemisphere, it happens as we’re entering summer. Nothing particularly spooky about that.

As for Bonfire Night, no one cares about its significance – it’s just an excuse to blow things up.

The sale of fireworks is illegal in New Zealand except for on the fifth of November itself and the three days preceding it, so you have to stock up in advance for your New Year celebrations. Also, rockets are banned. I found this fact disappointing when I first moved here, but so many people are irresponsible with fireworks that I’m now quite glad.

You always get teenagers sneaking fireworks into school and singeing their eyebrows. You always get drunken idiots holding them in their hands and firing them in any direction but the sky. And as for the people who aim them at animals… For some reason I find the thought of cruelty to animals worse than cruelty to other humans.

Thankfully, most people are responsible and all the bonfire celebrations I’ve been at have been good fun. Well… apart from this year’s. I’ve never feared for my life quite so much as at this particular bonfire party.

IMG_1072It was a large gathering. It took place on a big property with an appropriate field. There was an impressive bonfire going when we arrived.

There were three distinct groups of people: high schoolers, students and the parents of the high schoolers and students. Surprisingly enough, we, the students, were being sensible young adults, not letting off any fireworks, though this was because there were already heaps of fireworks going off around us. The high schoolers – (I find it amusing to be grumbling about ‘immature teenagers’ when I was a teenager so very recently) – weren’t paying attention to where they were pointing the fireworks, every so often sending one in our direction, causing us to scatter. The problem was that there weren’t really any safe places to scatter to, as, on the other side of us, the parents were being almost as bad, shooting fireworks into the bush!

It’s been a particularly dry year this year, so it was lucky the undergrowth didn’t catch fire. Oh, and just on the other side of the patch of trees was the neighbours’ house. But they were on holiday, so it was all right. Of course.

What’s the point of shooting fireworks into the bush anyway? You can’t see them properly. It’s a waste.

Maybe it would explain a lot if I told you that this bonfire party took place in West Auckland.

IMG_1083I attended another bonfire in West Auckland several years ago. It was in a huge field that had an old caravan in it. Someone had a dog that was running madly around and around the bonfire. Then someone threw a stick onto the bonfire and the stupid dog followed it.

It was fine! Relax! There was a hose on hand. Its fur was just a bit frizzled.

The best Bonfire Night I ever had was when my mum, my dad, my sister and I went to our friends’ house in… well I’d better not tell you where. My parents are teachers, and all their friends are teachers, and I was a student at the high school where my parents and their friends taught. And this house we went to was next-door to the school.

Now, this group of us, which included several teachers of this high school and all their children, had a load of fireworks to set off, including ground bloom flowers, those ones that spin on the ground and you can battle them like tops. The garden, however, was a bit small, and there was nowhere to safely set the ground bloom flowers off. What we needed was a large, flat, concreted or tarmaced area – where better than the school quad?

So we sent the little fireworks spinning off across the quad and had a lot of fun.

Then cold, harsh light of Monday morning came. I was in assembly and a rather annoyed school principal was standing at the lectern.

“I would like the students responsible for the large scorch marks on the quad to do the honourable thing and come forward.”

I sat there stifling my laughter as I imagined the sheepish looks that must have been crossing particular teachers’ faces. No one came forward.

new frame brazierI suppose a good thing about Halloween and Bonfire Night in New Zealand is it’s a lot warmer being outside than it is in England. It’s probably safer for kids to go trick-or-treating too. There are also more open spaces to let off fireworks, although you do have to be careful about starting bush fires. There are many ‘FIRE DANGER TODAY’ signs around the rural areas of New Zealand, which have a moveable arrow indicating the current level of risk. Depending on the ‘fire season’ and the council, you may need a permit to light a bonfire, but you aren’t likely to be granted that permit if the risk is ‘HIGH’ or higher. Just be sensible.

What to Do in Dunedin – Part 2

As my regular readers know, my boyfriend and I recently spent ten days in Dunedin. It’s a brilliant place, but due to my boyfriend’s mountain of coursework we didn’t get to explore quite as much of it as we would have wanted. We did manage to get a few days of exploring in, however, due to the fact that we were able to borrow his brother’s car. I do suggest hiring a vehicle to explore the outskirts of Dunedin, either an NZ car hire or NZ campervan hire, as buses out of the city are not very frequent.

I have to tell you about the day we drove out to Lake Waihola.

The weather was quite cold and windy, but wonderfully sunny. We had to pick my boyfriend’s brother up from Dunedin International Airport (I know, International – I was surprised at that too) in the afternoon, so we decided in the morning to check out Lake Waihola, which is just a bit further on from the airport, in Dunedin’s backwaters. It sounded nice, I mean, it was a lake. We thought we’d take a picnic.

Thing is, we didn’t have a water bottle, so my boyfriend – ever the inventive type – washed out a milk bottle and filled that with water. (In New Zealand, milk bottles aren’t glass, they’re plastic with handles.) Also, we didn’t really have anything picnic-y in the fridge. We had a bag of peanuts, but it was the sort of bag that tends to split when you open it and we didn’t have any other containers… so my boyfriend put them in a cooking pot.

Thus we set out for Lake Waihola. We drove past the airport and into an increasingly swampish landscape. There are two lakes around there, Lake Waihola and Lake Waipori, and an area called the Sinclair Wetlands, which is a haven for birdwatchers. We also saw a sign that said ‘Waipori Falls’ and thought, “Ooh, waterfalls. We’ll have to stop there on the way back.”

When we arrived, we discovered that Waihola was a small town – well a village, really – with a holiday park by the lakeside. As for lake itself…

dunedin1 002

It was normal. Disappointingly normal. I mean it was still pretty, but not for the South Island. In the South Island, you come to expect every natural feature to be awe-inspiringly beautiful. Lake Waihola just wasn’t.

Ah well. It was nice enough in its own way. It had a playground and a slide in the water – obviously a place locals came with their kids in the summer. We saw a pair of teenage girls walking along the lake front (wearing short shorts, so clearly local, as in accustomed to the cold) and eating ice-creams. So, naturally, we wanted ice-creams too. In pursuit of that goal, we headed to the lake front dairy.

(In New Zealand, a dairy is not just a farm with cows, it’s a corner shop or convenience store. I once told some friends back in England that I was popping to the dairy to get some milk and they thought if New Zealanders needed milk, they simply walked down the road and milked a cow.)

We walked into the dairy. Now, heaps of places that do ice-cream in New Zealand will offer you a choice of a normal cone or a more expensive waffle cone – it’s not uncommon. My boyfriend casually asked the lady behind the counter if she had any waffle cones and the look she gave him…

She paused, her face frozen in a sneer of surprise and disgust, and then said in a voice heavy with disdain, “You’re in New Zealand.”

I almost laughed, but I was too shocked. I wasn’t at all miffed that there weren’t any waffle cones. I wanted to say, “No, we’re in Waihola,” and ask if she’d ever left it, but refrained. My boyfriend was quite put out at being treated like a rich, ignorant tourist asking for caviar. He’s from Auckland. Now, people from the rest of New Zealand often regard Aucklanders as snobs, calling them Jafas (JAFA = Just Another F**king Aucklander), but, as my boyfriend emphatically pointed out as we left the dairy, he’s a West Aucklander, which is a whole world of difference.

If you’ve ever seen the hit Kiwi show Outrageous Fortune, they’re Westies. Or the fantastically funny New Zealand film Savage Honeymoon. They’re basically all pot-smoking, ex-hippy alcoholics with a penchant for goods that have fallen off the back of a truck. Come harvest time, police helicopters scour the West looking for patches of weed. But the best folks you could ever hope to party with.

When we’d finished our ice-creams, my boyfriend proceeded to drink his water out of his old milk bottle and he felt much better for it.

There wasn’t much else to do at Lake Waihola, so we got back in the car and headed back towards the airport, turning off down the road that pointed to Waipori Falls. The thing is we never found Waipori Falls.

We were on the right road – we were sure of it – an unsealed road that snaked up into the hills, through the bush and along the side of the Waipori River. A road that got more windy, more narrow and more on the edge of a cliff. We drove and we drove and we drove. Through a tunnel of trees that dappled the road with sunlight. Nothing. We drove. A huge silo. A hazard sign. We joked that we were entering a super villain’s secret lair. We drove some more. Still no sign of any waterfalls.

More sinister-looking buildings. We’d been driving along this narrow, windy, unsealed road at the top of a cliff for over half an hour now. Where were these bloody waterfalls?

We soon realised that we had to abandon our quest, or we’d leave a certain someone waiting angrily at the airport, so we turned around (with difficultly) and headed back. At least we’d come across one or two scenic lookouts over the river. We resolved to solve the mystery of Waipori Falls later with the aid of Google Maps.

dunedin1 003

Upon doing so, we were forced to discard our theory that a super villain was hiding in the hills beyond Dunedin. The sinister structures had in fact been, as our more sensible selves had suspected, a hydro power station. And Waipori Falls was not a secluded collection of waterfalls, it was a village: a village that, according to a 2012 Otago Daily Times article, has “no letterboxes, no shops, no service station and no street names” and consists of “33 houses nestled on hillsides.

“While there are one or two clusters of dwellings, most of the homes are situated far from their neighbours, separated by bush and a tangle of twisting roads. It was established by the Waipori Falls Company in 1902 to house workers building the company’s hydro electric generation scheme on the Waipori River, although most of the homes date from much more recent decades.”  You can read the whole article here – go on, it’s interesting.

The bush around the village is a popular spot for pig hunting. You can also fish, kayak, watch birds, tramp and go mountain biking.

There is a waterfall at Waipori Falls, but it’s called Crystal Waterfall. The photos of it are very pretty. I wish we’d actually gotten to see it.

But then we might have been kidnapped and skinned by a reclusive serial killer.

Next week: our day on the Otago Peninsula, featuring a couple of funny stories and an abundance of gorgeous views.

dunedin3 023