Well – the caves turned out to be a bit more involved than either of us had actually anticipated. Our first clue to this was the dripping wet wetsuits we had to put on. Not impressed by that at all! We then had a 10-minute lesson on how to abseil before getting clipped on and sent down a small dark hole in the ground. It wasn’t a massive descent – 30m – but they had the rope set up to accommodate all the people in the group. Unfortunately for me that meant that I had to use the same rope as the 15 stone Danish guy, which resulted in my fear quickly turning into frustration and me having to ‘bounce’ up and down on the rope to get myself to go down at all. After this first bit we then clipped onto a flying fox and slid into the darkness admiring the glow-worms.
Our response to the 30m abseil and then the flying fox pretty much told us what we had suspected on the way to the caves. We were completed and utterly activitied out. Having jumped from one place to the next over the last 2 months, fuelled by experiencing the next adventure, we were exhausted. Bouncing along the river in a tube, the dark cave full of glow-worms provoked nothing more than a mild whine at how our wetsuits didn’t fit and the water was freezing. Nothing whatsoever mentioned about the spectacular hidden world we’d bought our way into. All we could think about throughout the 5 hours it took was how long was left and how soon we could get out of our wetsuits and help ourselves to the free soup. I’m sure under different circumstances we would have raved about it. As it was, when presented with a choice near the end of the trip (option one – climb up the waterfalls, really difficult as you have to climb up, then shuffle through the top of the waterfall where the water is trying it’s hardest to push you back down or option two – walk out the other way) my question of ‘which way is the quickest?’ dictated that we start the waterfall climb. We left after our soup taking only seconds to decide – no thanks, we don’t want the CD with the photos on. Sam & Andy did the same trip - so if you want photos, look on their website!
We drove off into the night looking for somewhere to stay but somehow managing to miss the turn for accommodation in each town we passed through! We eventually stayed in a holiday park in the middle of nowhere, which meant that we paid the same as usual but got a sink and a TV in our room (ah, the small things). The next day we carried on towards the Coromandel and found Whitianga and a hostel with a room for two nights. We killed time for two days, purchasing food for our camping trip, drinking, eating and finishing off the shopping for Christmas stockings.
On Christmas Eve we left for Stony Bay, right on the tip of the Coromandel, the car weighed down with food and drink. So weighed down in fact that as we drove the last 20km of gravel road the bottom of the car would occasionally scrape the ground, causing an horrific noise and invoking panic. The road was hideous and an accident waiting to happen. It was the kind of road that you should beep your horn when going around a corner to warn anyone coming in the other direction, the only problem being that if you did this, you’d have your horn on all the time. Now, Rob and I have been to many countries between us, and seen or experienced many of the roads and drivers in those countries and without a doubt New Zealanders take the lead in the terrible drivers list. Baring in mind we are drawing on experiences such as Lanzarotti bus drivers hurtling around corners on the edge of cliffs to the point where I threw up in my mothers sun hat and then stopping without warning to have a chat with someone else going the other way, Japanese drivers, Canadians, Americans, British, Cuban taxi drivers determined to get down the skinny streets of Havana as fast as possible while you hold your breath hoping it’ll make the car thinner. Kiwi’s are still the worst. In some ways you have to admire them, they have purchased their 4WD, it’s expensive and fast and is built for driving off-road. Which is effectively what this road was. What I think anyone’s neglected to tell them is that they aren’t the only one using the road, and they may have brakes and maneuverability on the loose gravelly roads, but not all cars do. You immediately understand why some of the road signs have the speed limit on and then the words “it’s not a target” written underneath! When anyone passed us we would be temporally blind for a few minutes because the speed they were doing kicked up all the dust, we flip-flopped between being glad we were in a hire car (as the scraping noises got louder and surely more damaging) and petrified someone was going to hit us and we would have to pay our $3000 excess. Never have I been so glad to see a campsite!
We set up our little tent, cooked some very un-Christmas Eve like food, drank one or two of the many bottles of alcohol and slept. Christmas day we thought would bring out the festive spirit in our fellow campers but everything was pretty quite and dull, until about 10.30am where people did seem to get a bit more festive. By then we had finished off a bottle of champagne so it may well have been that of course! We spent the day doing nothing, the bay was beautiful, but the wind was wicked and the temperature of the water very un-inviting. We continued to finish off our red wine supply, read our Christmas books, watch the first few episodes of season one of the Family Guy and have a very un-Christmas day dinner of chicken tikka masala!! Boxing day we got up early and threw all the stuff in the car and drove the worst of the 20km of gravel before stopping at a pay phone to call home. Most people seemed to be heading the same direction as us so it wasn’t nearly as scary on the way down, plus drinking all the red wine, beer and champagne had lightened the load on the car so it wasn’t scraping the gravel any more! We headed for Auckland for a quick stop and a lovely Thai meal (thanks Rob’s Mum and Dad) before heading up to Whanganui where we would do our last planned activity in NZ – diving the Poor Knights islands.
In Whanganui we stayed in a lovely hostel by the Abby Caves called Little Earth Lodge. Finally a room big enough for us to unload the car and sort out our rubbish! Again we managed to do nothing for a few days before organizing the diving trip, which was really good. Very very cold and has put both of us off cold water diving for a while! Lots of kelp and nudibranch and eels. On the second dive we went into a cave and you can pop your head out in an air pocket and take out your regs, have a chat etc. I found it a bit strange, especially as you look at your computer and it tells you you are 9m below the surface. Very strange. But it was well worth doing even though we only lasted 40 minutes on the first dive and 30 on the second because of the cold! After the diving we decided that we would head north and try and stay in Pahia for the night.
It was like Blackpool, but without the illuminations. I couldn’t believe how much it had changed since I was last there. With a quick check at a few hostels we left with a “good luck” from one of the hostel owners after I had turned down his offer of a double room at $120 a night and headed North. We found a run-down, full-of-weirdos campsite with cabins for $40 just outside Kirikiri. Bargain. The next day we drove further north landing in Pukanui and finding a very nice homestay farm place with a lovely room and good kitchen. We spent the night watching Star Wars (a very seasonal film!) and chatting with fellow guests (a Kiwi-English couple escaping Wellington for the holidays) and eating leftover food (tinned tomatoes).
The next day we decided that we would go horseriding. We booked it through the farmstay woman and got an indication of what it would be like from the fact that when we got to the town that it was in we had to go to the local shop and they would give us directions to the actual place. It was SO much fun. Rob had a horse that was aptly named ‘Stumpy’ and mine was called Troy. Being the second time Rob was on a horse he got the smaller one, and it being a totally relaxed kiwi experience we had no helmets or anything silly like that, just a wild horse that had been caught off the beach and tamed and a branch of leaves to urge him on if he happened to stop at any point! We rode thorugh the bush where our guide Brandon told us that you can pretty much eat anything that moves in there, and that it was all delicious. We went from the bush to the sand dunes and then over onto the 90 mile beach to have a run about and splash in the water. All good fun.
From the horse riding we headed north as we were half way to Cape Reinga anyway – we had a quick lunch stop and took some photos then headed back down the coast for ‘the farm’ where we were to spend New Year.
After New Year we made our way down to Auckland for our flight out to Tonga on the 6th. For our last night we spent an horrific night in what can only be described as a small stinky jail. It wasn’t actually a jail but I did think that auckland’s actual jail was probably nicer than this place. Top tip for Auckland? Do not stay in Surf ‘n Snow Backpackers – it sucks.
And to Tonga…