After four months of struggling to communicate in Portuguese, Spanish and French, we were looking forward to spending a month in New Zealand where people speak English – albeit with some funny vowel sounds.
Lots about New Zealand made us feel at home: the cold weather in June, the Queen on banknotes, driving on the left. And best of all being met at the airport by a friend – thank you Anya!
We spent the first couple of days with Anya (a lovely Kiwi gal I know from her days living and playing softball in London) in Auckland while we ran a few errands.
We picked up the campervan which was to be our home for the next month. This process took hours: there was a thick stack of paperwork to sign, a safety film to watch, and a mandatory tour of all the van’s features.
Finally we were allowed to drive away in this. We named her Gabby, inspired by the licence plate.
Roomy, isn’t she!? We were upgraded to a vehicle which can sleep 6 (which we initially thought was a stroke of luck but has turned out to be a pain. Imagine getting this beast in an average parking place, or around wiggly roads).
Next we had to pick up the package of winter clothes we had posted to ourselves from England – much needed to deal with the shock of cold weather after Tahiti!
Once all that boring admin was sorted we were free to explore. First stop was the Sky Tower in the centre of Auckland. We signed up for the “Skywalk” where you walk around a 1m wide platform which circles the outside of the building, 192m up. I’m sure this is just the kind of activity needed to cure Mark’s fear of heights…
Once we were back inside in relative safety, we got some more fantastic views of the “city of sails” at night:
We also did some sightseeing at ground level. The Auckland museum has some brilliant Maori portraits and an exhibition about the first successful expedition to the summit of Everest, led by New Zealand hero Sir Edmund Hillary. Frankly we thought the museum’s much hyped performance of the Haka (traditional Maori war dance, popularised by the All Blacks rugby team) was below par; the performers were more porky than petrifying and their moves were far from slick. But there will be other opportunities to see a good one, and displays like this giant bird made up for our disappointment.
The Domain is the park next to the museum which was lovely to walk through.
After getting engaged in Tahiti Mark and I went shopping for rings in Auckland. I had fun trying on obscenely OTT bling like this 5ct diamond worthy of Elizabeth Taylor.
In the end we chose a more understated, classic solitaire:
From Auckland we headed north to the Bay of Islands area where a friend of Anya’s has a pimping beach house which he very kindly offered to us for a night or two. Enormously grateful, thank you Robin!
While in Northland we savoured what could very well be the best picnic ever. In a sheltered bay we found a little place selling oysters, just $10 NZD (£5) for a dozen freshly shucked beauties plus a lemon twisted off a nearby bush to squeeze over.
We sat at a bench right next to the sea, unwrapped a loaf of artisan bread from a bakery down the road and opened a couple bottles of beer to say “cheers” to a memorable lunch.
Korororeka Oysters also had a smokery and we luckily happened to be there on “smoked fish Friday” (the locals really do use this term) – once a week, on Friday, the owners smoke piles of fat mullet to perfection. They are in high demand; just after midday they had almost sold out. Not sure why they don’t fire up the smokehouse more often than once a week!
We scored one of the last few whole smoked mullet.
This baby yielded two delicious meals: first tossed through linguine with olive oil (New Zealand produces some quality, punchy olive oils that deserve some shelf space in the UK) minced garlic, lemon zest and fresh parsley.
The remainder went into a kedgeree: flakes of fish stirred through rice flavoured with onion, ginger, garlic, turmeric, mustard seeds and other spices, finished with fresh coriander, parsley, mint, lemon wedges and hard boiled eggs.
Even with a meagre campervan hob, with such fabulous NZ produce it is easy to eat like kings!
With our appetites for seafood sharpened, we took advantage of a promotional offer to go fishing for a day from a charter boat off Marsden Point. We had to get up before sunrise: the early bird catches the fish!
These waters are full of fish, snapper in particular. I was useless and only caught tiddlers which had to be thrown back (in fairness, the minimum length for keeping was 30cm – I have definitely paid for fish smaller than the ones I was forced to reject!). Mark fared better, catching two decent sized snapper and this stunner, a John Dory!
John Dory is a beautiful fish to eat and this catch was the envy of the whole boat. It was so fresh we cooked it simply with just butter and lemon – perfect.
Some of the more experienced fishermen on the boat landed some whoppers like this 16 pound snapper.
We were even lucky enough to spot whales on the way back to land, an unexpected bonus!
As our confidence in handling Gabby on the road grew, we explored increasingly rural lands.
We really pushed the limits of our comfort zone…
We were bemused to read that a must see tourist attraction nearby was a public toilet.
Off we went to check out the apparently celebrated Hundertwasser toilets, named after the reclusive Austrian painter and architect who was commissioned to build the public toilets in Kawakawa after making the small town his home. The design is quirky and colourful, using broken tiles, bottles and wrought iron objects.
After we relieved ourselves we were ready to hit the road again. We couldn’t visit Northland without going to Waitangi, one of the most significant places in NZ history.
This is the site where, in 1840, a group of Maori chiefs effectively signed their country over to the British crown. Cultural misunderstandings together with some dubious translations of the Treaty of Waitangi text meant the chiefs did not really know what they were getting themselves into. The site now has a big whare runanga or Maori meeting house built alongside the colonial treaty buildings and the largest waka (war canoe) in New Zealand.
It also has a pretty large tree.
Many people told us not to bother spending too much time on the North Island and that it was all about the South, but we felt every day we spent in these parts was worthwhile.