Another year has slipped past and what a year this one has been! I spent my birthday this year somewhat differently to last year's - at work. It didnt have the quite the carefree feel as my 27th which was spent basking in the Santiago sun. No, this year I had to WORK but that's life. The 5th fell just before Good Friday this year which meant that I had a long weekend to look forward to, so it wasn't all bad.
I got up that morning to a pancake breakfast which was a treat! Pretty nice start to the day. I had a phonecall from my Mum and grandmother too. When I got to work the girls there were some chocolates and a card. Just before lunchtime, I had a delivery of a large bunch of beautiful sunflowers from Joff which was a lovely surprise! The rest of the day dragged out as I waited for 4 o'clock to roll around. Finished work earlier than usual and went for a quick drink with my workmates before racing home to get changed. Joff and I were going to Orbit, the revolving restaurant at the top of Auckland's SkyTower. The restaurant itself is pretty cheesy but the view from the top is fantastic and the food was fab! You can barely feel the restaurant turning - it's very gradual - and it's nice that the view changes constantly. The icing on the cake was a birthday gift from Joff of a Sydney Harbour Bridge climb!!! Now, that I'm going to look forward to!!!
Next morning, we set off for New Zealand's Northland, somewhere I hadn't really explored before. The traffic leaving Auckland for Easter Wknd was at more or less a standstill for two hours, and it took us five hours to reach Whangarei. Still, the sun was shining and we weren't in any hurry, so we just relaxed and enjoyed the drive. Whangarei was dead when we arrived, being GoodFriday, and so we just sat on the grass by the Town Basin and had some tea and chocolate - fuel for the rest of the journey to Paihia. This was my second time in Whangarei, and both times it was lifeless. I wonder if anythign ever happens there.
We arrived in Paihia just as the sun was going down and found our hostel The Pickled Parrot easily enough. It's been a while since I've been "roughing it" and I was really looking forward to it again. The Pickled Parrot is a really cool hostel - very clean with comfy beds. The atmosphere there is spoiled slightly by the gestapoesque owner who marches around ordering people to bed at 11pm. I mean, I'm all for a nice quiet hostel but he was a bit over the top.
Once we parked and dumped our bags, we headed down the road to the waterfront to see what was open. Paihia is a picturesque little town situated at the mouth of the Bay of Islands. It was quite lively given the solemn day that was in it. We found a great little bar which was full of backpackers and had the best fish&chips I've ever had!! MELT IN THE MOUTH TERHAKI! Yum. Both pretty beat after the long drive, we headed back to the hostel and got an early night.
Next morning, we were up early to book a cruise of the Bay of Islands. After a fine breakfast (courtesy of the Pickled Parrot), we checked out of the hostel and made our way down to the pier. It was cloudy and didn't look like very promising weather. We set off from Paihia and made a stop across the harbour at the little town of Russell, which was once upon a time known as "the hell hole of the South Pacific" for its lawlessness and rampant prostitution. These days, its a sleepy little port and it certainly doesn't look in any way hellish!
The weather picked up immensely, and after about an hour of cruising, we came upon a large pod of dolphins, leading to a lot of excitement on the boat! They raced along with the boat for about 20 mins, performing and showing off to the gawping passengers. It would have been cool to get in swimming with them! We reluctantly left the playful dolphins behind and cruised on until we came to The Hole in the Rock, which as the name suggests, is indeed.....a hole in a rock. Still, we paused to observe it and ooh and aaagh, and there was a little buzz to be got when the captain revved the engines and hurried us through it sideways and out the other end. More ooohing. Also on the tour we got to see Bird Shit Rock (you guessed it, a rock covered in bird poo) with one sunbathing seal lounging on it, staring back at us. Along with this, the captain pointed out "The Lady of the Rocks" to us, whereupon we all intently studied a cliff face with our most interested looks on until the image dawned on us, some more slowly than others....:D. Heading back to Paihia, we navigated through the water channels between the islands and the captain pointed out various places of historical interest. All in all, it was a nice way to spend the morning.
We got back to Paihia around midday, grabbed some lunch before heading to the nearby Waitangi Treaty Grounds for a bit of a history lesson. That was pretty interesting, and it put a lot of things into perspective about New Zealand. One thing that really strikes me here is how "at peace" they are with their British "connection". It doesn't seem to affect them much, and they are perfectly happy, from what I can see, to be a Commonwealth country. I got a little bit peeved when I read the Treaty of Waitangi, which declared the Queen of England to also be Queen of Ireland. Hmph.
Anyway, the grounds are beautiful and hug the cliffs of the Bay of Islands. Probably the most interesting thing there was the Millenium War Canoe which is a sight to behold!
An hour and a can of coke later we were back on the road again, bound for Ahipara at the base of Ninety Mile Beach. Woo-hoo! I'd been looking forward to this for WEEKS! We made a quick pit stop at the little township of Kawakawa to see the famous Hundertwasser Toilets.
We arrived in Ahipara just in time for a walk on the beach to watch the sun going down. Our hostel Endless Summer Lodge was a treat and it was like staying at your granny's house! Huge comfy beds, freshly washed towels, a spotless kitchen with everything you could need to cook, and fresh flowers. I could easily have spent a few days here. Our hostess was about the same age as ourselves and was originally from Germany. She was immediately friendly and welcoming, and she sorted everything out for our trip to the Cape the next morning.
We woke to bright sunshine and the smell of the sea, and it almost felt as it I was back in Ireland again. The one thing I truly miss when I am away from home is the west of Ireland and the smell of the Atlantic Ocean. We had to drive to the nearby town of Kaitaia to connect with our tourbus. Part of me was thinking, why dont we just drive to the cape ourselves, but it is generally advised against driving on Ninety Mile Beach. Even though it is officially a state highway, there are numerous stories of cars braving the beach at the wrong time, getting bogged down in the shifting sands and being lost to the Tasman Sea forever. As it turned out, the tour was an inspired choice. We had a great tourguide who sang for most of the journey and, being a local Maori himself, was ginned up on all the local history. I don't think there was a moment during the day where we had a chance to be bored.
We travelled through some of the most remote land in the country, stopping to see the ancient buried Kauri forest and the redundant gum fields. There is a feeling up here of being cut off from the rest of the country somehow. The local schoolchildren even have to travel for 2 hours by bus to get to school back in Kaitaia. But it wasn't always so. When the gumfields were a lucrative source, the area was a bustling place, but once it ran out people started to move to the towns and cities and away from the area. The further north we travelled, the fewer houses we saw and the wilder the countryside became. Anticipation was building the closer we got to the Cape. The weather was amazing, and I just couldnt wait to see it.
Cape Reinga is the most northerly tip of NZ and has a very special place in Maori culture. Maori legend has it that when a person dies, their spirit travels north to the rock at the Cape Reinga, and from there their spirit leaps and says goodbye to this world. Leaping Spirit Rock is a beautiful spot and stands just below the lighthouse. A single gnarled Pohutakawa tree clings stubbornly to one side. Whether it's reading about the significance of this place to the Maoris or just being there, there is special feeling in this place where the two oceans meet (the Tasman and the Pacific). I imagine it would be a pretty dramatic picture in the middle of the storm with the waters clashing together. On this day, there was a gentle turbulence in the waters below. To the left of the cape lies Cape Maria Van Diemen with its inviting long golden sands. I just wished we'd had the time to climb down and do some exploring, but we were herded back on to the bus again just half an hour after arriving.
A few minutes down the road, our bus driver stopped at a beautiful secluded beach for lunch. You would never happen upon this place if you were travelling by yourself, and we had our lunches just sitting looking out at the blue blue sea of the Pacific. Absolute paradise......at least, as long as youre not camping there! According to our bus driver, this beach boasts mosquitos "the size of sparrows!"
Next up, SANDBOARDING!! This was brilliant fun, except for me huffing and puffing up the giant dunes with my plastic board flapping around in the wind and hitting me on the ass. I can't believe how unfit I am these days! Did I really do the Inca Trail just a year ago!! I need to get energized before I hit Asia!!!!!
Anyway....sandboarding was hilarious. A brilliant buzz. Got sand stuck in every possible orifice and pocket of course!
And to end the day we began the long drive down Ninety Mile Beach. Everyone was quite tired by this stage, and I just enjoyed spacing out the window watching the bus racing the tide. I love being near the sea. It makes me feel more alive somehow, and you never sleep quite so soundly as you do after a day breathing the sea air. After a fantastic feed of local fish in Kaitaia, we drove back to Ahipara and konked out.
I went for one final run around on the beach the next morning before we left. Back in the hostel's kitchen, another hosteller was gutting fish which he'd just caught, and some others were planning a day's surfing. I felt reluctant to leave really.We stopped one final time in Kaitaia for some avocado & bacon bagels and coffee before starting the LONG journey back to Auckland. For the sake of variety, and to avoid some of the heavy holiday traffic going down the east coast, we decided to take the less travelled and more remote route down the west. We weren't even really sure of where we were going but just thought we'd wing it. That proved to be a great choice. NO traffic! We had to take a little car ferry to the village of Rawene at one point which was a nice interlude on the journey. We stopped at a great coffeehouse called The Boatman (I think) in Rawene. There's was an artist's gallery attached, and naturally I couldn't leave there without some money parting from my fist. :D (Some things just dont change...). Further down the road, we came upon a beautiful Kauri forest which has the largest living Kauri tree in NZ. Had to stop there. It was just a short 5 min walk off the road, although was completely hidden among the surrounding trees. It was HUGE! Not as nig as the sequoia trees in CAlifornia, but still just HUGE! And it looked exactly like the walking trees in the Lord of the Rings (or, at least, I liked to think so anyway.)
The final leg of the journey back home was a little stressful with cop cars around every corner trying to bust poor holidayers for speed. It's hard for a girl with a bit of a lead foot, but I think I foiled em all! And I had Joff as my voice of reason beside me "What speed are you doin' there Irish...?"
We stopped at the pretty little town of Warkworth, not far from Auckland, for some wedges and a drink, and recalled the excellent wknd we'd just had. Now, there's only two things left that I want to do before I leave here in August - the Tongariro Crossing and skiing at The Remarkables!