Australia & New Zealand 2009 - Railwaygardener

Australia & New Zealand 2009

It could only be a question of time before the need to visit North Island became acute. The time in question was two years, give or take, before an email from Southern Derek to Northern Eric raised the subject of a return visit. This time the northerner did most of the pre-planning, and pre-paying, basing the trip around a short time in Australia, visiting friends of long standing in Melbourne, and a longer time in New Zealand, in a campervan hired in Auckland. As a treat we were sure we deserved, not least because we were both two years older than the last time, we awarded ourselves a slightly larger van with the added convenience of a shower and a WC.

A planning meeting was quickly organised in Blair Atholl to firm up on the dates and flights. Emirates again seemed to offer the best value, again departing from Manchester to Dubai, and then on to Melbourne. One possible complication was that the working half of the duo had a course to run in Aberdeen for the two days immediately preceding the departure date of 12th March. The need for a timely return was therefore all-important, as there was little time to recover from any airport misadventures, such as fog, technical problems or booking errors. In the event, a colleague returning from Aberdeen to Manchester on the 11th suffered the ignominy, not to mention the inconvenience, of being bumped off the same flight onto the later one, due to overbooking. Whether she received a fistful of Scottish notes as compensation was not determined, but I was just grateful it wasn't me.

A conference on Scottish law in Dunblane offered an opportunity for a second planning event, albeit in the middle of a cold snap that in both length and intensity seemed determined to nail the concept of global warming for the lie that many believe, or earnestly hope, to be the case. A shovel and a sleeping bag were added prudently added to the luggage in the back of the car; fortunately they were kept there unused on both legs of the journey. We now had a possible itinerary, basically a clockwise trip around North Island, missing out Wellington and the western seaboard, plus potential visits to assorted relatives and friends.

The departure was uneventful, as were the flights, and this time there was no fog in Dubai to delay us. If anything Dubai airport was even bigger than before, with yet more acreage of departure lounge and shopping mall. We were met at Melbourne by Howard, of Howard and Liz fame, and treated to a weekend of warm hospitality and enthusiastic sight-seeing. The first day was spent dodging storm showers of considerable vigour and length, bringing much-needed rain to both city and countryside. We were given a tour of Melbourne's centre, including a brief sample of culture via a museum and concert hall. On account of good behaviour, Eric was released for a few hours later in the day to visit relatives across the other side of the city.

The second day included spotting various varieties of parrot, lyre birds, a koala and a kookaburra in the wild, and many more forms of life in a wildlife park. There the owners' enthusiasm for audience participation included watching live operations in the animal hospital, in our case it was a lizard having a cesearian. Later that day we also met, or re-met, our hosts' grown-up children and their thriving families.

Monday morning was an early start for the plane to Auckland, with jet-lag making a delayed appearance, after being held at bay for 48 hours by the sheer force of Howard's willpower. A phone call saw us picked up and taken to the camper rental office for much signing of complicated forms. On the way we diverted to what looked like a while-you-wait government testing station, apparently to check that our intended van had all its own complicated forms signed and sealed in the necessary triplicate. Our chaffeuse claimed that our choice of van was also her favourite, although quite possibly this was based on fairly limited driving and no sleeping. After a brief inspection of, and tutorial in, the vehicle we were free to set off. As before we drove only a brief distance to a camp site in Mangere, a suburb in the southern end of Auckland. After a shower and claiming of an unreserved parking spot with a metaphorical towel, we attempted to make contact with Warren and Glenn, friends of Eric from a few years back when they visited Edinburgh. Bizarrely the conversation from Eric's mobile could only be one-way, being able to receive but not send, so a public call box had to be used.

The Brookbank family turned out to be excellent and welcoming hosts and a convivial evening was spent going over old times in Scotland and exchanging family news. The latter became a three-way link-up when a text from Eric's wife Val gave warning of an imminent phone call from Scotland.

Next day we departed on our tour proper, driving southwards out of Auckland on Route 1, attained after really only a slight accidental diversion via Route going northwards. Auckland's suburbs are a smaller version of Melbourne's, going on for a considerable distance but with the added bonus of hills to test our slope-start abilities.. Eventually however the traffic thinned and we were out in the countryside proper, heading for the Coramandels. The first stop was for lunch at Thames, a small town of considerable charm on the edge of the region. A short walkabout revealed not only a School of Mines, complete with museum, but also a short length of large-scale model railway track. This was installed on the site of the original full-size railway station, now closed and moved elsewhere for preservation. The track was dual-gauge, roughly 6” and 8” so clearly some serious model engineering was being undertaken.

We drove a little way past Coromandel town, which looked a touch nondescript compared to Thames, an opinion quite the reverse of that in the Rough Guide to New Zealand. We booked in at a beachside motor park. This had a fine sea view, although the tide was well out revealing a rather drab seaweed-encrusted beach. This did not prevent Eric from going for a paddle, but the shallowness of the bay did prevent proper swimming. The evening meal was in the quieter end of a small hotel which seemed determined to celebrate St Patrick's Day (free irish stew with every two pints of Guinness consumed) despite the apparent lack of customers from that part of the world.

Wednesday was a railway day, in particular Driving Creek Railway and associated potteries. This had many of the features of the Darjeeling Railway, a DVD of which just happened to be on sale in the shop. Narrow gauge (15” to be precise), a steep, twisty trackbed, a multitude of small bridges and tunnels and a couple of Z-reverses to gain height. The use of two trains on the same track, separated only by the skill of the respective drivers and with not a signal in sight, was a novel experience. Clearly amusement park thinking had been used as much as conventional railway engineering.

We continued southwards along the east coast of the Coramandels, via some hilly terrain with a good selection of bends and gradients, as far as Whangamata. The main attraction here was the beach, with good surfing waves but again not so good for swimming, with uneven sand and a strong undertow. Not that the surfers we saw were particularly proficient. There was a choice of two motorcamps; after a comparison of external features we opted for the more central of the two, with easy access both to the beach and to the town's somewhat limited night-life. The latter did not include a great deal of choice over eating arrangements, unless it was a take-away one fancied. The most modern-looking was also the most empty, and, as we discovered later, up for sale. Fortunately Nero's cafe came to our rescue with a chicken and mango pizza that was both novel and tasty, preceded by chowder and mussels.

Thursday was another railway day, this time the Goldfields railway on the outskirts of Waini. This turned out to be a valiant effort to keep a historic railway operating on a shoe-string, using a small diesel loco, a couple of US-style coaches that had seen better days and an air-conditioned panoramic viewing car. This consisted of an open gondola with picnic tables. A tour party had bagged the better of the two coaches, so we started off in the other one, but soon migrated to the viewing car. The scenery it offered was varied and pleasing, as we made stately progress alongside a road whose users responded to speculative waves with much tooting of horns, thereby demonstrating that in a changing and uncertain world, the doppler effect is one of nature's constants. At the far end there was just time for a quick look at the tourist displays and the cafe and to buy the tickets that were unavailable at our starting point, before the return trip began.

We then departed for a fairly long drive south to the Rotorua area. We diverted slightly off the shortest route to take in Mourinhea, a large rock outcrop on a promontory at Tarea. On one side was a beach overlooking the harbour, on the other a couple of hundred yards away a much larger beach overlooking the Bay of Plenty and several of its islands. A good stop for a late lunch, before completing the drive to the Blue Lake motorcamp a few miles outside Rotorua. Our navigation was successful, another's less so, to judge from the frustrated phone calls to the camp office from a US citizen relying slightly too heavily on a slightly out-of-date GPS system.

After inspecting the lake's beach (made mainly of pumice pellets) and watching some again only moderately successful attempts at water-skiing, we dined at a small but busy cafe on the waterfront of an adjacent lake, in the process watching the effect of sunset on Mount Tanewea, a modest and somewhat Scottish-looking peak beyond the lake itself. Apparently back in the 19th century it had been considerably more outgoing, being an active volcano which decided to show the world literally what it was made of, emitting a shower of hot rocks and ash which buried an adjacent Maori village. Next day saw the beginning of the serious sight-seeing, firstly at another Maori village, one of two attractions sharing, somewhat uneasily, we found out, the same resource, namely geysers, steam vents, mud pools and similar artifacts. The village was in full occupation by an extended family of Maori, who provided the guides and the entertainment, styled somewhat inevitably as the 'Maori cultural experience'. It was actually better than it first sounded, as were the attractions, which were a touch nondescript at the beginning, but rapidly improved, to include such delights as communal baths and steam-heated cooking holes. The former apparently are in steady demand for Kiwi sportsmen of various types, for the better treatment of muscular injuries, and quite possibly for pysching them up to inflict yet another defeat on the hapless English. Or Scots.

In the afternoon we returned to our nature roots, and visited a wildlife part that, in contrast with Victoria State's somewhat drought-weary offering was positively bursting with energy and variety, in both animal and plant forms. Only the kiwi seemed reluctant to perform, despite some of them having their body-clocks altered to be awake during the day, for the better viewing by the paying public. Or perhaps because of it. However come 8pm the night-shift took over for both exhibitors and exhibited, and we were allowed to return and enter the now-open nocturnal enclosure. Once night vision had been established several kiwi were indeed in evidence, scuttling backwards and forwards across the rear of their pens, with occasional darts to the food bowl. Satisfied we had accomplished all targets, we ourselves scuttled off to the food bowl, in the form of a Thai restaurant in downtown Rotorua, complete with street theatre, or at least pantomime.

Saturday saw us depart on the long drive to Napier, broken initially by a stop at another thermal attraction, this time featuring a geyser which performed to order, or to be precise, to a dollop of Fairy Liquid or similar lobbed down its vent hole by the cheerleader. The rest of the attraction more than justified its billing, a series of craters, mud holes and steaming multi-coloured lakes that impressed at every turn. The drive south was uneventful and speedy on good, quiet roads through forest after forest of firs and palms. After booking in at the city-centre park we walked into town for a cheap and cheerful meal at the Breakers bar and cafe, returning just in time to miss the worst of some heavy rain, and in Eric's case to miss treading on a hedgehog claiming right of way across the campsite.

It being Sunday, the next day we had a bit of a lie-in, and it was after 9am by the time we emerged into intermittent sunshine and a cool-ish wind. After a leisurely breakfast we drove south a few miles along the coast towards Kidnappers Point, named by Captain Cook after a little local difficulty with the Maori. When the road ran out we walked through a somewhat tired-looking camp site and down onto the pebble beach for a few hundred yards, overtaken periodically by local fishermen on quad bikes and local youths on motorbikes. The cliffs above us were impressive, if just a little fragile in appearance, and we had no difficulty in heeding the advice on the notice board to avoid lingering close to the rock-face, and to be wary of the tide cutting off our retreat.

In the afternoon we returned to Napier's centre and split up, for some solo sightseeing and souvenir shopping. Eric climbed the heights of the Bluff, the better to view the surrounding seascape, while I took in a model railway display, to compare and contrast with domestic offerings. Big it certainly was, but not the best, a little tired, to re-use a phrase. At least they recognised the fact, and were actively seeking an assistant modeller. I considered volunteering my services, but I doubt whether they could afford my commuting expenses. And then it was back to Breakaways for more pie and chips, and death by chocolate. You only live once.

Monday morning saw us departing south-eastwards towards Wanganui, through mainly open countryside and level roads, albeit with some of the inevitable road works. Palmerston North could have been South, East or West for all the notice we gave it, passing through with barely a second glance. We stopped at Bulls, mainly to add to our pun collection, which the locals seemed all to happy to do, to judge from their signposting. The weather had turned distinctly cooler, so we awarded ourselves hot pies and coffee at a small bakery before crossing the road to visit a small museum. This turned out to be a treasure trove of rural history, with virtually every aspect of domestic and agricultural life represented. Eric was able to compare notes with the proprietor on how to run such a museum, he being an assistant deputy part-time curator at a similar establishment in Blair Atholl.

Wanganui offered two motor camps, one beachside and one riverside. We chose the latter, as we had done beaches before and this one might be a touch cool in the freshening wind. A good choice as it turned out, as the river site was pleasantly situated and pleasantly empty. Within minutes of our arrival the steam-powered river boat steamed briskly past, on the final leg of its daily afternoon cruise up the river.

We returned to the town to seek out some of its tourist attractions, stumbling first on a large shed containing a tram in the final stages of restoration. Despite it being propped up some considerable height above its bogies, we were encouraged to go aboard and inspect the handiwork of the small group doing the restoration. This we did, and were suitably impressed. Those present spoke warmly of the co-operation received from other tram and railway groups in various parts of both New Zealand and Australia, proving it is possible for a common interest other than sport to unite the nations.

Next stop was the Durie Hill Elevator, one of only two in the world to be buried in a hillside instead of inside, or outside, a building. In all other respects it was a conventional lift, operated by a lady a little tired of schoolgirls using the calling bell as a musical instrument. Eric chose the energetic route via the external steps, and we were reunited on top at the Memorial Tower, a 100ft high edifice built from fossilised shell rock. This offered, at the top of yet more steps, a fine view of the city and surrounding countryside. This apparently included South Island on a clear day, but the arrival of a sequence of south-easterly showers put paid to any hopes of seeing that far.

We returned to the town centre and discovered that Napier is not the only town to have Art Deco buildings. Whanganui also boasted a velodrome and the running track where Snell broke Elliott's sub-four-minute-mile record in 1962. The adjacent gardens also included an observatory complete with telescope, unfortunately open only on Fridays.

Next morning, the Monday of our second week, we paid an early-morning call to Bason Botanic Gardens, a few miles out of Wanganui on the New Plymouth road. This was bequeathed to the local council by the late Mr Bason, and a fine job he made of it too. The gardens and arboretum were extensive, with a lake and some small conservatories, all viewed in the peace and quiet before the first tourist bus, which arrived as we were leaving. We headed north on the road to Tongariro National Park, with its trio of starkly impressive peaks, one of which was a fairly obvious choice for Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings. On the lunch stop near to the turn-off the the park the daily Overlander scenic train stopped obligingly beside us for photos before moving on northwards. The passage of its southbound stablemate led us to wonder where they had crossed, and whether the northbound one was still there, and could be overtaken and viewed at the Raurima Spiral, a circular feat of railway engineering a few miles further on. As it happened we found the viewing point but not the train, or at least not until we had left the viewing point and gone to look at the station. At least we knew the timings, for a possibly better co-ordinated attempt the next day.

After booking in at the Whakapapa camp site in the middle of the park, and visiting an informative information centre, we decided to do what everyone else apparently does, and go for a short walk, or tramp as it is called locally. We choose the Ridge Walk, which offered some fine views of the mountains and of the Chateau Hotel, complete with 9-hole golf course. After a meal at the Chateau's cafe, the restaurant being a little above our station, we drove a mile or two up the road towards the ski lifts to catch the sunset, and watch a few others racing up the hill behind us to probably not quite catch it. On the way a little red light on th dashboard started to glow ominously – low fuel. We coasted back to the camp site, wondering if we had actually noticed a filling station at National Park village, 15km distant.

Next morning, after a chilly, starlit night, our van problems multiplied, with a flat battery to add to the fuel situation. We tried gingerly to bump-start it down a narrow track between sleepy residents just starting to stir and stumble towards the toilet block. The van declined to co-operate, so the camp office was visited to see if they might have such a thing as a pair of jump leads, preferably with a spare vehicle to attach them to. They produced an item as good if not better, namely a combined portable starting unit and tyre compressor. After a few minutes spent wondering which part of the engine consisted of the battery, we discovered a faded diagram that suggested two points which might accept crocodile clips. One was clearly an earth, and the other was not only surrounded in red plastic, indicating it was live, but also otherwise completely exposed. By elimination nothing else suggested itself, so we made the connections, pressed the switch, and we had ignition. The need to charge the battery made it sensible to delay our morning walk in favour of a trip to National Park to fill up and also check the tyres. This was done without further mishap, although a certain amount of ungainly manouvring was needed to line up first with the diesel pump and secondly with the air line.

Eventually all was done and we returned to Whakapapa car park to set out on a two-hour trek to Taranaki Falls. this was a pleasant walk through a mixture of open tussock grass and wooded gullies, the latter providing welcome relief from the heat of the day. The falls themselves were of medium intensity, but clearly showing the the potential for increased activity in the rainy season. Almost exactly two hours later we set off for another attempt at a rendezvous with a train at the spiral.

This time we checked with the station, to be told that the southbound train was 28 minutes late, and due in about half an hour. As trains in this direction pass through the spiral before reaching the station, there was clearly no time to lose. Pausing only to admire a Chevrolet older than both of us, and in some respects in better condition, we drove down to the viewing point and waited. And waited. About an hour later the northbound train obliged by showing glimpses of itself as it passed down the spiral towards Auckland. The fate of its southbound companion, and of the lunch waiting for its passengers at National Park, remains a mystery.

From there we made the longest drive of the trip so far, up to Raglan on the west coast of North Island, to a motor camp beside the beach known world-wide for its surfing. Also apparently for its surfing casualties, for as we walked across the bridge linking the camp to the town we saw a pair of coastguard ski-rescue craft being launched. Just for practice apparently, but interesting to watch none-the-less, as they swirled around the water, ejecting wet-suit-clad personnel to see how good they were at climbing back via the boards secured to the stern for that purpose. After a distinctly non-vegetarian meal at the Hotel we retired for an early, and somewhat warmer, night.

Another day, same battery problem. This time the site starter did not do the trick, due probably to a lack of its own charge. So we phoned the hire company, to be told to call the AA and get them to fit a new battery. After two more phone calls and two hours of waiting, the AA agent started the van in two minutes, but was unable to help in replacing the battery, in diagnosing its faults, or even in finding it. His best effort was to recommend we trawl local garages to find a replacement battery. However it was approaching 1pm, and we had kilometres to kill. So we set off for Auckland via the direct route, a minor road of many twists and turns through pleasant scenery and almost nil traffic. Lunch was taken not quite on the move but with the engine still on rotation, on the basis that a poorly battery does not get any better.

Back in our first camp site in Auckland we celebrated initially with our first ice-cream of the trip (and from a corner shop – do they not have street vendors in the North Island?) and then with an al-fresco Chinese carry-out that cost about the same as one might in the UK, but was of about twice the quantity. A pair of ducks sauntered hopefully by, but we declined their offer to finish it off.

Overnight we left the van to its own devices, and hopefully to recharge its battery in its own time. In the morning it responded by starting first time, albeit a little hesitantly, so we took it for a run around a fairly large block to encourage further improvement. Not wishing either to push or luck too far, or to incur what would certainly substantial city-centre parking fees, we took the bus into Auckland centre. Auckland is a well spread-out city and it took some time to get there, but eventually we arrived at Albert Park on the edge of downtown Auckland. After a saunter through the trees and flower beds we headed for some serious souvenir shopping, finishing up at the harbour. Eric opted for a cruise whilst I continued around the city, obtaining valuable contraband in the form of a photo of trains in the oddly-named Britomart Transport Centre, and a genuine copy of New Zealand Railfan magazine.

Our final morning in North island was spent in Blockhouse Bay, a beach area on the southern edge of the city. This was initially a scenic and peaceful spot shared with only a couple of fishermen, but it gradually filled up with families intent on testing the playground's many and varied facilities to the full. After a quick lunch we headed for the campervan hire depot to surrender our vehicle and give an account of its misbehaviour. Needless to say it performed perfectly in front of its owners.

The flights home were uneventful, although increasingly tedious, the novelty of long-haul flying having well and truly worn off. After a plane change at Melbourne, clear skies gave us some good views of Dubai and Iran, and (very) eventually the suburbs of Manchester appeared.

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