Zorb and Other Rotorua Fun

It’s an easy drive down the road to Rotorua. Erica even drives for a little while. It’s time to try the Zorb. This is a plastic, air-filled ball that looks like a large hamster ball. There is a place on the way to Rotorua, about the only place in the world with these things.

A giant conveyer belt lift that takes the ball up the hill where you climb in and they shove you down a track with berms on each side to keep the ball on track. It’s about 20 seconds of rolling and costs $45, so we give it a miss, but watch for awhile.

Alright, well let’s go soak in a pool. There’s some free camping and a thermal valley south of town. This area is actively volcanic and sits above a great fault. The pressure heats the water underground and it bubbles out at near-boiling temperatures all around the area.

At Waiotapu there’s a boat to some tracks and no pools but very expensive for the walk. Obviously confused the front-desk girl whips out a map since this must be a constant problem and shows us where we can go just down the road for a soak.

It takes us some time since even with a map we’re prone to get lost but eventually pull in to the parking lot. For two dollars more than the entry we can also camp and decide to spend the night at the pools. The boy behind the desk looks all of 15 and is missing most of his lower teeth.

By sleight of hand I wind up getting a deal on the place. It’s one of those times when you hand a big bill, in the middle of the person counting change realize you have something that’ll make the change easier but since he’d already started counting and tried to start over by re-exchanging the bills around I wind up with 10 dollars more than I should have and after hesitating and holding it all for him to look at decide it’s time to soak and bid him well.

While sitting around soaking and enjoying the place we read in the paper about the Dutch tourists. There is a little profile about them and how they were migrating to New Zealand and have now decided to leave. Their home town is in shock. They are grateful for all the donations sent in by concerned citizens but must leave. There are also some questions posed to other travelers. The girls we parked next to in Reinga are quoted as saying they had no idea as they don’t read the news while on vacation.

The next morning starts off with filling the Bedford’s fresh water tank and then climbing out of the valley up a steep hill. Two things become evident immediately. The camper won’t shift gears and the brakes are not right. It won’t shift in to the smaller passing gears and it sounds like the thing has air brakes. A pop-whooosh sound greets every push of the pedal.

Broken Down (again)

We now have new brakes and a reconditioned master cylinder on the Bedford. It’s a good mood that takes us over the hills and on to Café Eutopia we spotted on the way up. It’s an eclectic hodge-podge of rounded structures, with outside and inside areas running together and reminds both of us of something out of Dr. Suess. It’s in a town called Kaiwaka (lit. help canoe, or helmsman in Maori) and is known as the “City of Small Lights”. I am agitated by this moniker and am still confused what they might mean by that.

It’s getting late and we’ve made it back through Auckland. I need a rest and we switch seats. There’s a campsite north of Rotorua we want to hit and there’s maybe two hours of driving left and it’ll be a late dinner when we make it. We fill at a BP off the highway and go about another 10 minutes when a hissing emanates from the hood and I sternly tell Erica to pull over and shut off the car. We’ve blown a radiator hose.

Trotting back to the BP station cars honk at me traveling both directions of the motorway. At the station I see there isn’t an auto shop; no hoses to be purchased. As I am walking out I turn around and ask the lady behind me which way she’s heading and explain my plight. I hop in her car (which has a bad radiator leak) and we head back in to town, arriving at the auto shop about one hour after it has closed.

Cathy is the driver’s name and she is a kiwi packing inspector, probably in her late forties. On the way back to the Bedford at its broke-down location she rings up her dad to ask if he might have a hose around. He’s a bit of a tinkerer and fancies the old Bedfords, having one at his place. No luck. Erica and I spend the night on the side of the road, taking some notes of our travels so far to pass the time.

In the morning I strike out again and find a hose. I go to the roadside and stick my thumb out. Erica arms herself with the Leatherman knife and locks all the doors. Nobody is slowing for me. A group of kids go by, they’re yelling something and – oh! – are throwing something, too. I duck to miss the waded paper and murderous thoughts trail through my head. Right behind that a guy in a small car pulls over.

It takes no time to get to the auto store, buy the hose and get back. John, a fireman and recent divorcee, wants to get this over with and watch the All Blacks game starting at 9am and is expediting as much as possible. He even attaches the hose for me and discovers the alternator is loose, probably leading to the overheating and hose busting. As we’re wrapping up Cathy pulls in to see how we fared on her way to a friend’s to watch the game and make sure we’re OK. I wonder if she and John would like… nah. I think I’ll keep my head down.

Bedford Broken in the Bay of Islands

It’s a winding road from Kaitaia over to the east side of Northland. We are coming over a big pass slowly and it’s nice to make the top and pick up a little speed, except the van is not slowing down. I down-shift and drive slowly around the turns when the van starts to make a strange knocking noise. That’s it, I pull over and getting the thing to fully stop takes some effort. After wiping the sweat off my brow we decide it would be best to stop at the next service station we come to. This happens to be in Kapiro, a little town outside of Kerikeri and right next to the Bay of Islands.

Our man Martyn is an older lad and has been in the country about a year now, from the UK. He looks at the van and remarks about how he thought he’d escaped those beasts when he left, having worked in a Bedford motor pool for some company in London. His mate tells us of buying one for 35 quid and selling it for 200, running the crap out of it the meanwhile and really enjoying the thing.

It’s going to be awhile and we get a ride from the girlfriend of Martyn’s son to Karikari and the Top 10 Holiday Park. We grab some beer and dinner from the store and watch Martha Stewarts’ Apprentice with some of the others, yelling at the screen. The kitchen is set up like a test kitchen and makes us feel exposed to the scrutiny of all the other backpackers cooking their pasta dinners.

There’s a nice path along the river that we walk through dense vegetation to a lovely waterfall. We visit Rewa’s fishing village. It’s a mock-up of an old Maori town and full of information and native plants.

It’s across from the Stone Store, one of the original Pakeha (the Maori word for Anglo) buildings built by a missionary a couple hundred years ago. We start learning of the brutal Maori warrior spirit and of tribes taking each other out through the country. With the introduction of the musket they can go from hand-combat to point-and-click killing.

It’s going to be awhile on the van as Martyn cannot locate the parts needed and we decide to hitch a ride towards Paihia, where the Treaty of Waitangi was signed. This was the treaty put forth by the British for the Maori tribes to give sovereignty to the Queen. They were led to believe that no land would be taken away, when in reality shady land deals and a policy of assimilation was rapidly depleting the traditional lands. It made the Maori just a little mad, there were violent land wars, and disputes are still brewing today. Written in 1840 the Treaty wasn’t officially recognized until 1975.

The first guys to pull over are hard working, mullet-wearing men out of the bush with a sunny attitude dragging a trailer laden with construction equipment. They are very chatty and interested in our story and question us the whole ride. They are going a different way and drop us at a big intersection where we easily pick up another ride.

The driver is an older man in an immaculate Kia that he drives all around for business. He used to have a postal route and so did his wife, but they have sold those and now he writes travel articles about different holiday parks.

Writing an article about a holiday park at the base of Haruru Falls he asks if we’ve heard about the couple being abducted and insists on driving us there. Although he’s “not a racist”, he speculates that it was probably “the fucking blacks” that carried out the crime.

We stay quiet as he drives us past his little house. More than happy to fill in the silence with his own diatribe, probably confusing our shock with awe and a willingness to hear all he has to say on any matter. But he does take us right to the ferry for Russell; a town he thinks is a lot nicer than Paihia.

He turns out to be right. Looking for accommodation we’re pointed in the direction of the End-of-the-Road backpackers. It’s up a steep hill climbing past an old church, overlooking the harbor. The sliding glass door is wide open, and a note informs us that Moana will call later to see how you’re going. It’s a cozy two-bedroom home and the type of place you wish was yours.

It’s time to wander back down the hill and have a look around. We are in the travel booking office and I notice the name badge has Moana on it, so I ask if she’s the one with the place. Turns out she is and introductions are made and then a nice trip among the islands is booked.

Next we go in to the liquor store/video shop to browse the booze and flicks. I ask if there are DVD players available. Coughing and spewing phlegm in to a wad of tissue the woman at the front desk tries to tell me that there are only video players. Appalled by her actions and wondering why she won’t just turn her back and deal, we slink out of the shop with her hacking away.

It’s a little grey out for our trip among the islands, delivering mail to boat-access only homes. We lunch in a little bay with lambs and their scat dotting the grass and take the Underwater Adventure! in a cheesy little submarine, decked out with silly submarine crew banter and sound effects. It’s really a hulking boat with most of it below the water line and windows looking out.

Since it’s a little stormy out the water is occluded but we can still see large snapper chomping on the bait flung out by the staff as we slide about 200 yards from the wharf and back.

We get back in and Moana finally calls at the house. We chat for awhile and Erica mentions that she’s a teacher. Turns out the town is looking for a teacher for one year and encourages us to go to the area schools’ garage sale the following day. We do before heading to the ferry and learn the job comes with a house situated at the top of the hill and the principal encourages Erica to apply.

After exiting the ferry we get two quick hitches back to the garage, which is fortunate because of the rain. The first talks of his experiences in Canada. He was obviously wowed by the wildlife and we swap stories of the Canadian Rockies. The second is a younger man, recently married and is hard at work selling the area when we tell him we’re looking around for a place to live. All the Kiwis are rightly proud of the area they live in and are convinced it’s the best the country has to offer.

Dargaville to Cape Reinga

In the morning we again find ourselves in the ubiquitous Warehouse to pick up a few forgotten things. It’s touted in these parts as a sure sign that Dargaville is a real town.

While standing in line Erica asks if I can believe the headline. No kidding, it’s just like Whale Rider, 100 pilot whales strand and 37 die! No, the other one titled “Tourist Couple Suffers Attack“. It seems a Dutch couple migrating to New Zealand were camping in a parking lot, which closes for the night, at Haruru falls on the east side of Northland and were abducted. It is a horrific story and just happened last night. They are pursuing the attackers.

We eat a large ‘truckie breakie’ at the local café and read the paper, and then head out towards Cape Reinga. This is one of the noisiest rides I’ve ever been in and that includes grunting diesels. There is the engine sitting between us whining away, the sound of the wind coming through every crack; of tires on the pavement. It can’t be drowned out by music since the radio doesn’t work but it’s such a loud thing I don’t think any speakers could overcome it.

There’s also some other peculiar things about this mobile home of ours. Little bits of foam have to be stuck in the glass to keep it from rattling. The passenger window is nearly impossible to roll up or down. There are many switches on the dash that do nothing.

It’s a long haul and we stop along the way at the Tree House Hostel, on the other side of the Hokianga Harbor from Rawene. This is the first place we’ve seen that we could imagine living in.

It’s a very large harbor and is dotted with little villages along its borders. The hostel is run by a couple Aussies and they are chatty and friendly. The place is lovely; they’ve spent some time planting over 8,000 trees on the property.

We take a couple walks through the towering Kauri trees in the Waipua Forest. It is an incredible place, with tree ferns leaning over us and bird song loud and all encompassing.

The Kauris are massive, and like the Redwoods and Giant Sequoias, it’s hard to imagine people looking at them with anything but quiet respect, instead of the lust to hack them all down for profit. The Maori say a prayer before cutting a tree, planting the same variety when finished.

The Kauri tree Tane Mahuta (Forest Lord) stands 15 feet thick and 60 feet to the first branches.

After a long nap we head towards Ahipara, a very nice town on the south end of Ninety Mile Beach and it is another place we could see living in.

Getting back on the highway in Kataia, we attempt to quickly pass through this bland main town in the area but get stuck again at the Warehouse to pick up a bike rack so they are out of the way and we can move around a little more freely inside the van. Only a little more freely as the ceiling is only 68 inches up and requires stooping and makes for some corner finding with the top of the head.

Cape Reinga is at the end of a dirt road and is where the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean. At the tip is a pohutukawa tree where the Maori believe the dead slide down the roots to the sea, climbing back up at a point on Three Kings Island in the distance where they bid farewell before heading back to Hawaiiki-A-Nui, the land of their ancestors. The pohutukawa is also known as the Christmas tree for its bright red blooms in the summer.

There is a nice beach nearby where we decide to spend the night. Heading down to the little bay I notice that the brakes feel even softer than when I was test-driving it, and they even smell a little when we get to the bottom. It’s a fabulous bay, with a stream trickling in. We park on the grass and some Swedish girls pull in next to us in their little van. It’s still early in the season and fairly uncrowded.

A Bedford in Kewerau

By 7am we’re up and travel south a few hours to check on the Bedford we found on TradeMe (since sold) and have dreamed about since before leaving the States. We breakfast at the Prancing Pig in some small town, having bad coffee and good bacon. Erica turns the headline of the paper to me. ‘Winds Pummel Auckland’. Turns out that record winds sustaining over 150 kph (100 mph) were causing a lot of trouble and even killed a man when a tree toppled and crushed him.

Continuing on with the directions I printed out from the Wises street map site has us turning at every intersection we encounter. This is the best online map in the country as all the important ones from the States haven’t infiltrated these parts with their flawless directions. These are flawed. The default is most direct route, which keeps us cutting across the motorway but not on it.

It’s actually a very nice drive, wandering through the farmland and north of Lake Rotorua. In the middle of the excursion I pull over and switch with Erica. She gets her first taste of right-hand driving. Sitting on the left the phantom braking is just hurting my leg with the straining. I flinch from how close we come to the side of the road. Now I know why Erica was so alert and grippy while I drove.

Things settle down and we talk about the remoteness of the land, how nobody in Auckland had ever heard of a Bedford, and to start dreaming of our travels once we have our new car. I take that back. One guy had heard of the car, an older phone repair guy who was fairly encouraging about it, pointing out that if it’s an old ambulance it was regularly serviced.

The estimated three hour drive takes us around five hours, but the directions do take us right to the doorstep. We’re greeted by two little Jack Russels and one larger woman. She has salt-and-pepper hair cut to chin length, a few bracelets and appears to be in her mid-sixties. She shows us around her roses and then invites us inside. Her husband Paul is currently out in the Bedford, getting the carb adjusted. He had the van fully serviced the day before but feels there’s a little flat sot when accelerating.

He’s had a stroke three years ago. She had a baby when she was sixteen and gave it up. They met again last year when the daughter decided to find her. She shows us around her house, at all the pictures she’s drawn. There is a fair amount of Psalms and other inspirational messages decorating the walls and furniture tops.

In the midst of this Paul comes in. He’s a stout fellow with close-cropped white hair, a beard and glasses. He constantly laughs vigorously with the abandonment of a little boy.

We continue to talk about their lives and drink tea, while Paul pets a cat with one ear missing down to its head, gone from cancer.

If Sharon hadn’t mentioned the stroke, we wouldn’t have known. They are both ministers with the Assembly of God, which explains all the religious artifacts.

It’s getting late and so Sharon offers us lunch. We sit down to prayers and sandwiches of canned corned beef and sweet mustard. It’s now time to hop in the van and take it for a drive. Paul backs it out of the driveway as I am a little nervous about driving it off.

After some time we switch, and Paul asks me if I like the way it handles. I mention that the brakes seem soft and he points out that it is carrying a full tank of fresh water and that the grey water hasn’t been dumped for some time.

Other than that, it seems to drive fine. It has a new Warrant of Fitness which is an inspection needed every six months for any car on the road and is a lot more thorough than an emissions test back home.

The van itself is a modified ambulance, made by a company out of England. It has a Holden 3.3 liter flat six, automatic transmission and no power steering. The radio doesn’t work and one of the roof vents was sealed shut from leaking. Somewhere along the line the inside was handsomely done up by a boat builder. It does have a flush toilet, sink and stove. There is tons of storage but it is small enough not to make us too nervous on the small roads in this country.

We get back to the house and Paul leaves us alone to talk about it for a while. It’s so nice on the inside. It’s been sitting around since the stroke three years ago and before that, sitting in a woman’s yard since her husband died and left her depressed. If we take this, we’re done looking and can get out of the hotel and rental car. Let’s buy it!

The town of Kewerau is so small that we have to drive to Whakatane to do the banking. I make it to our bank with about two minutes to spare and get the check for $11,500 to Paul and we go for a coffee.

Paul talks about the stroke and all the speech and physical therapy. Relearning how to walk, talk and write. He still can’t walk and talk, because both acts require too much concentration to perform. We then drive to the gas station and dump the waste. Paul buys a fill-up and we’re on our way.

Erica follows me in the rental and we stop in Te Puke, a small fishing village on the coast with some rugged looking folks shuffling about in their gumboots, for dinner. We find a fish shop and order the $10 special. Four fish, two sausages and chips. Erica gets an L&P to drink. They’re tag line is, “World Famous in New Zealand”. Yes, but not heard of outside the country.

After dinner we slowly grind over a big pass with grand views of the valley below. Darkness makes its way over to us as we get to the bottom and it’s now my turn to fill the tank. It takes $100 to fill and I start to feel slightly ill. We’re maybe half-way back to Auckland.

We had left Whakatane around 5 pm and snake in to the airport to drop off the rental car around 11:30, exhausted. Fill the van again and start looking for the rental company and cannot find it. We ask the cops walking around the international terminal, and they invite Erica in to the ‘Authorised Personnel ONLY!’ area to draw a map; so much for drum-tight security.

After the car gets dropped we find our way back to the hotel and hunt for parking. The Asians are whooping it up at the nightclub next to the hotel. There is a couple in a car and I ask if they will be moving soon. They answer in the positive, and don’t move apparently studying for a final in the car. We wait for 10 minutes or more and watch them before moving on

Our First Day in Zed

It’s cool to be in the Residents line for Customs, even though the wait is a drag. With our three trolleys of bags and bikes, we’re directed to inspection by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF) to make sure we aren’t bringing in any foreign matter on our gear. As I am explaining how carefully I cleaned everything since I knew we would go through this, the inspector picks off a blade of grass from a hiking pole.

We are forced to wait even longer while our poles, tent and boots go to some back room to be examined further. The inspector, an older blonde lady, helps push a trolley along as we are obviously burdened by all our trappings and she ‘doesn’t have anything better to do’. Fortunately nothing is confiscated so my cleaning job must have been acceptable.

Not surprisingly, the belongings won’t fit in the economy car we rented. The rental company fishes out a Subaru wagon for the same price and we are barely able to stuff everything inside it. Hurtling along the motorway we miss the turn to Auckland and find the road while meandering around side streets.

Once in town we can’t find the hotel. It’s one block past Grafton Road and when we get to the next block; it isn’t the street name we’re expecting. Around and around we go, wondering what they had done with the street the hotel is on. A resolute look at the map shows there are two Grafton Roads and we drive on to the second one to find the hotel standing right where the directions lead.

The hotel that I had meticulously researched and booked because of all the accoutrements they touted at such a reasonable price turns out to really suck. The elevator smells of stale B.O. trapped in the PVC pipe they had hung in some sort of mod decorative statement gone wrong. All the Asian students party there, cooking fish and giggling loudly to the wee hours of the morning. Internet is advertised, but not offered. Parking is nowhere to be seen and charged at eight dollars an hour when we do find it. We are, however, notified of an upgrade to a 2 bedroom with kitchen upon check-in.

We are desperately trying to get our affairs together; opening a bank account, trying to get a SIM for our U.S. phone to no avail, checking out some campers online at the library we want to look at, and other meaningless boring necessities.

Walking the same few blocks we get bullied by the wind; watching trees, signs, and other large detritus tumble down the road. Cars are veering and having trouble sticking to a straight line from the gusts.

International Flying – Unconscious Style

What a mess we have around us. All the gear that we’ve drug across the country is now spread around the floor of our friend’s apartment in Hermosa Beach. With the hazy conviction that comes from drinking the beers always necessary in any move, we’ve jumbled things in to four large piles of rubble sorted by weight and are busily stuffing it in to the check-in bags, trying to keep the weight of each the same.

It’s all zipped up and Dan and Danielle come home to whisk us off to LAX. It’s a very short distance away but with all the world’s hostilities I want to get there at the recommended three hours prior to departure to ensure we make it through any checks for contraband, like shampoo that someone might try to smuggle in its original bottle and delay the whole process.

The line is about four people long and we can see the airplane we’ll be riding on from the street. We get our boarding passes and our luggage checked in. We’re a little over the allowance, but so close we don’t get charged the extra weight, just the third baggage charge for our bikes. Outside I can see Dan and Danielle in a constant embrace, faking a long farewell to keep the cops from making them move the car. With passes in hand we find a hotel with Dan driving and order drinks and some appetizers.

Our theory for comfortable international air travel is simple. Find the best seats available for the plane on SeatGuru, keep drinking throughout the day, and after the first movie pop in an Ambien and say goodbye to consciousness for awhile. This theory is proven well. We have plenty of leg room, the rest rooms are right there, and we spread out in our seats on the last row. I can’t make it through ‘Click’ and Erica is not doing any better with ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ so she fishes out the sleep medicine. Are we landing all ready? Neither of us twitched until the pilot announced landing in New Zealand.