The trip from Hastings to Tauranga was more complex than it should have been. The only rental car we could find anywhere near us was in Taupo. So we caught a bus there, picked up the car and drove on to meet George. I hadn’t seen George since my last visit to New Zealand, twenty eight years previous. He was having a chat and a beer (naturally) with one of his neighbours in the evening sunshine. I introduced Nikki, and George led us up to his place, which sat high on the hill and enjoyed stunning views of Mount Maunganui. More fantastic views of the bay were had from the top of the mount, which is where George took us the following day. We also met up with George’s son Emil, with whom I share an Irish great grandfather. The nine year old boy had turned into a thirty seven year old man, but he was still entertaining company, as was his partner Ellen.
Staying at George’s gave us the chance to get into an über-chilled domestic routine for a couple of weeks. Nikki cooked her shepherd’s pie, which went down well, and was a welcome taste of home. George was disturbed when I told him that fish and chips in New Zealand were not as good as in Yorkshire. He took us to a chippy near the harbour, where I had to concede that they were not worse than the ones from home. However, Yorkshire fish and chips is still very high on the to do list, when we return.
George worked with Emil at their fencing business during the week, but still found time to show us round the place, including the small rural town where he was born. We also stayed over with his friend Johnny, who lived in the country near Hamilton. George had been friends with Johnny since they met on the rally scene in the eighties. George was the more talented driver, and Johnny the more talented engineer. They were both sports fans. We watched a mixed marshal arts fight broadcast from the states in the afternoon, followed by a rugby game featuring the victorious Waikato Chiefs, George’s favoured team. Next morning I got up early to do some yoga on Johnny’s patio. When I came in it was half time in the England v Ireland six nations match, and this time my team were victorious. New Zealand has a good time zone for international sports, at least for that weekend.
It was around this time that our next destination (Fiji) suffered a tropical cyclone. Our flights were still running, but we made a choice to stay on in New Zealand a bit longer. We loved the place, and decided that we would pack the tent back into the car and explored the Coromandel. First stop was Thames, where we picked up some food. We then drove into Kauaeranga Valley, and made our way to one of the DOC campgrounds (Whangaiterenga), which lay along it.
The Pinnacles was an excellent walk from there. Tramping up through the forest, we passed many school kids, who had been staying in the Pinnacles Hut further up the trail. The rangers at the hut told us they had been a bit of a handful the previous night. Viewing our destination, we thought we might need climbing equipment to reach the top. However, with some well laid out steps, ladders, and rungs along the trail, we made our way up. Thank you DOC.
The next day’s tramp led straight out from our campground. The first challenge was traversing the river without falling in, and getting all our stuff wet. The second was tramping along barely discernible tracks (thank goodness for the red triangle markers), over tree routes, muddy ground and rocks. We really immersed ourselves in the forest. After five and a half hours we made it to the huge Wainora and Cookson Kauri trees, in the heart of the woodland environment. An hour and a half later we were back in camp – tired, but we’d had fun.
Leaving Kauaeranga Valley, we stopped of at Hoffman’s Pool for a swim. The water was cool and deep in places. Nikki got chatting to a couple of guys on the bank. They had just jumped off the big rock at the side of the river. The water was deep enough they assured Nikki, and there was a rope round the back to help you climb up. Nikki said that I would be up for doing it – how could I refuse. It looked a lot higher from the top, but a short jump, gut-rush and splash later, and I was enjoying the adrenaline rush.
Next stop was Tapu, further up the east coast of Coromandel. Our campground was right next to the sea, where we had some stunning sunsets, and good swimming. The windy conditions exposed our tent for what it was – cheap. But with some careful positioning of the car, as a windbreak (Nikki’s idea), it managed to stay up for the two nights we were there.
Then we met Bronwen. We were hiking up through the river valley that led off from Tapu to reach another huge square Kauri (we like big trees). Bronwen was tending to her garden when we struck up our conversation, and she invited us in for a cup of tea on our way back from the hike. She also told us a place just up the road which did excellent carrot cake. It sounded good, so we brought her a slice to have with the tea. We got on like a house on fire, and Bronwen invited us to stay in a little guesthouse at the bottom of her garden. Her house had been constructed from Toyota shipping crates around forty years previously, and had a character and charm derived from the owner, and the fact that she had raised her four children there. She was living there with her beautifully named and serene dog, Ishtar.
Bronwen’s was very proud of her brother, who was probably the most famous tramper in New Zealand. He was quite literally a trailblazer. We had seen the Te Araroa on maps. Bronwen’s brother Geoff Chapple had been the first to walk its full length, and wrote books about it. She had also been a road manager for her friend Paul Uban, whose music we often listened to while talking (which we did a lot of). The river that ran through Bronwen’s garden was gentle enough that we could rock-hop our way up it. One day these words came out…
’Cross roots with boots and earthy glee
To rest beside the kauri tree
Climbing rocks to jump in pools
A quick’ning splash for tired fools
Pure flowing to alluring bays
Led by stars and risen sun
And having found this distant land
We reminisce from where we’ve come
Of journeys epic, small and grand
And how to play our human part
Through forests, ranges, peaks and plains
Hewn from mother’s trembling heart
To top it all off, we were invited to a ceremony organized by some of Bronwen’s friends in the area, who had been working with Auckland Zoo on Coromandel’s kiwi release programme. The young kiwis had been reared in the zoo, but were now being brought to Tapu, where they were being released into nearby habitats. It was exciting to see live kiwis, and you could sense how much passion and commitment the locals had for the project. The effort that was being put into maintaining kiwi populations in the wild is a great testament to the country’s national identity – much more so than the referendum on the flag design.
George called a couple of days later. His friend Kevin had invited us for a trip out in his yacht. We said our goodbyes to Bronwen, and made our way round the deeply beautiful Coromandel Coast to Whitianga, where Kevin’s yacht was moored. George and Kevin took the mickey about the small distance we had covered since setting off from Tauranga. Our initial travel plan had been more ambitious, but we knew we had found some good places, and made a special friend.
Kevin loved his boat, and we felt very lucky to be on it. He took us out of the mariner with the sun shining. Our only concern was the amount of sunscreen we had packed. Kevin and George were excited about the long line fishing equipment that they couldn’t wait to try out. It was a joy watching them assemble the rig, every completed task was celebrated with the phrase ‘piece of piss!’ Soon enough, we all found a role: put the bait on the hooks, attach the buoy to the long line, attach the hooks (around thirty) to the long line as it was being real out, attach the last buoy and release, steer the boat (that was always Kevin’s job). We then left the line floating in the sea and Kevin would guide the boat to where there might be some fish to catch using rods.
My rod fishing was so good that George and Kevin were giving serious consideration to throwing me overboard. I did hook some, but none big enough to keep. Nikki was the star, hauling in several decent size fish, mostly red snapper, and with George’s contribution, we knew that we’d be eating fish for tea. Captain Kev steered us back over to the long line. George hooked it out of the water and attached it to the reel, and started winding it in. Now came the moment of truth. Was the long line any good? The first three or four hooks had nothing on them. Then we saw a silver flash wriggling beneath the crystal blue waters. It was a good size, and there were more to come. Kevin filleted some of the catch, and cooked up a delicious fish supper.
We spent the next couple of days like this cruising around Great Mercury Island, occasionally swimming into secluded coves, and sunbathing on some of the prettiest beaches we’d seen anywhere. When it was time for us get back onto dry land, Kevin sent us away with an abundance of beautifully filleted fish. We had been lucky with the weather, while at sea. That changed on the drive back to George’s. It was like having buckets of water thrown at the windscreen for most of the three hour drive. We settled in for the night with another tasty fish supper.
The boat trip had given us a last taste of the New Zealand summer. Autumn was starting to set in and we were getting ready for our big flight to South America. George had been great company. We had spent some time talking about conspiracy theories, which can be fun, if you’re in the right frame of mind. Some people dismiss them all; some people believe them all. What is in little doubt is that the people who run the world have not always been entirely honest with the general populace.
I said goodbye to Emil the day after St Patrick’s Day. We toasted our shared great grandfather, and Emil showed me the mess that he had made of his cars in the demolition derby that he had driven in the previous weekend. He was off to Queenstown with Ellen at the weekend to do a bungy jump. Emil was not convinced it was a good idea, but George showed me the picture of their jump – they showed good form, and survived beautifully.
We said goodbye to twinkly-eyed George at the bus stop in Tauranga. He is a very sweet and generous man. Twenty eight years before, I had seen him get out of his Audi Quattro (which he still drives) in bare feet – cool guy.