Saturday, 8 October 2011

NZ North Island - Auckland to Whangarei

Auckland at night
I had been looking forward to getting out of the heat and humidity of the last 3 months in Asia and into the NZ springtime, but on landing at Auckland International I realised I was under-prepared for the temperatures. With gritted teeth I walked out of the plane in a T-shirt. Where had my Northern roots gone? It was only 15 degrees, I used to be able to do winter nights out in Sheffield in just a T-shirt.

I was just one of thousands travelling to New Zealand for the Rugby World Cup and the excitement in the country was evident. The guy at passport control chatted with me (talked at me) for 10 minutes about England's fly half problems while people waited in line behind.

NZ is a special place and I hadn't really appreciated it until passing through customs. There are signs all over warning of the risks to NZ's delicate habitat. Bringing in fruit and vegetables is prohibited and even hiking boots need to be declared, as they may be coated in soil that can contaminate the native environment. This delicate environment is mostly due to NZ's relative isolation from continental landmasses. When the supercontinent Gondwana started to split around 180 million years ago dinosaurs ruled Earth. NZ and Australia gradually moved away from the supercontinent and their isolation allowed evolution to run its course almost independently. As a result there are no mammals native to NZ, except for bats and marine mammals. Some native birds lost their ability to fly as they simply didn't need it. Until mammals were brought over by the Polynesians and Europeans, these birds had no natural predators. Authorities in NZ take the preservation of NZ's natural environment very seriously.

I spent two days in Auckland, watching rugby all afternoon and adjusting to the new timezone and climate by buying ales and warm jumpers. Auckland museum had some good exhibits but its in-house Maori cultural show was pretty cheesy. I treated myself to some western food in restaurants with menus with words like "jus" and "reduction". Bliss.

I picked up my hire car - a white, automatic, Nissan Sunny (remember, I'm trying to do this on the cheap) which tracked to the left at low speeds and to the right at high speeds (I'm not even sure that's mechanically possible) - and drove 170 miles north to the Bay of Islands. The main motorway in North Island stretches from Wellington in the south to Cape Reinga in the very north. To call it a motorway is doing it a favour - once you're out of Auckland it's essentially a single lane road.

Bay of Islands
On a good day at Cape Reinga you can actually see the deep blue Pacific and the blue-green Tasman sea mixing together, but as weather wasn't ideal and it was getting late I headed to to Paihia on the northern coast. A picturesque bay but nothing much to see here, just more rugby and great wine and satisfied my cravings for western foods, which by then had moved on to nachos. The hostel had a weird nautical-theme and had a piano right outside my door which we weren't allowed to touch. It's been three months since I dropped mine off in storage and haven't played since. The gods are teasing me.

I planned to skirt through North Island pretty quickly as I've been told by lots of people that the South is amazing. It had taken a while to plan, but I had a rough route in mind which would take in a few World Cup games. The first of which was Japan vs Tonga in Whangarei. The town itself was very small and accommodation for the game day was totally booked up. The nearest bed I could find was a small village called Ruakaka, about 25 miles from the stadium.

The game was terrific. Not many Japanese are aware that their country was competing but the supporters who made it over were fanatical. North Island as has a huge Pacific Islander community so this made for a terrific atmosphere, and all the more exciting when the stadium caught fire - mild panic only started when the tanoy announced that "the fire was under control" and fans turned round to see the 5 metre flames for the first time.

Sipi Tau, the "Tongan Haka"

Not a great pic, but there's the little fire if you don't believe me

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