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Published: February 28th 2010
On the legendary Napier to Taihape road.
It had been a long time between visits to my beloved home country, but I still managed to take Ursula to New Zealand in the same decade I left... just. We arrived at Auckland airport on the morning of December 31st 2009.
We immediately made a bee-line to Auckland's one universal spiritual focal point: the café. We managed to stop for breakfast 500 metres short of my mother's house - who I haven't seen for eighteen months - so that I could experience the primal joy that only a well-made coffee and an eggs benedict could possible engender. Ah... home.
Now that my mother lives in Titirangi, in West Auckland, I am by genetic association a "westie". This means I wear tight black jeans and have a penchant for heavy metal and big dogs. Ursula and I had just picked up a hire car for our trip in one of the centres of Westiedom, New Lynn. My English girlfriend had been in New Zealand for less than ten hours when I took her into New Lynn's beating heart: Lynn Mall. This is a mall in which I have always lost my sense of direction and found my sense of
desperation. But on this day everything seemed perfect. Shop workers were friendly and chatty, goods were cheap, and the Japanese lunch was excellent.
That afternoon, we also experienced another side of West Auckland. Having been away from my homeland for three years, the mental image that encapsulates what I love and miss the most is the view from the hill above Piha beach, looking north, seeing headland after headland receding into the distance, fading towards Muriwai and beyond. All dense bush and startlingly blue ocean, and the perpetual roar of the fierce Tasman Sea swell pounding against rock. Nothing had changed - as if it would have!
We had arrived at 7.30am, after cunningly timing our sleep on the two 10.5-hour flights so that we were full of energy on arrival. Our confidence slowly turned to arrogance as hour after hour passed without
the slightest hint of jet lag, and we began to believe we were truly immune. Then on the stroke of 10pm, of nowhere, while sharing a bottle of Dom Perignon with my parents and family friend Lynn, exhaustion hit. "Crash and burn" doesn't even describe it - we were asleep within minutes, and the fireworks
Catch of the day
A 54cm snapper. I got lucky!
and party of the decade passed us by in blissful slumber. No regrets!
In true New Zealand style our first barbeque of the new decade was not long coming. My father hosted a get-together where Ursula met my blond and photogenic nephew Jett. Jett likes feeding cats and pushing large wheelie-bins enthusiastically around gardens.
The collection of wine that I had stored at my mother's turned out to be a little bit more "fun-sized" than I had remembered. But never mind - I packed them up in a suitcase and we left Auckland for an epic road-trip of the top half of the North Island, filled with dairies (Kiwi-speak for newsagents, but better!), steak and cheese pies, op-shops, cafés, vineyards and empty stunning beaches.
First was north to Whangarei to visit my friends Rob and Jess. Jess is an urbanite to the core, as am I, so I was extremely lucky considering they were two weeks away from leaving their little version of paradise at Whangarei Heads to move closer to the big smoke in the south. To paint a picture, this is a big house right on the shoreline with a view over the brooding profile
This photo is not doctored!
of Mount Manaia, covered in native bush. I had been to this house before - although not to the now infamous party where the guests had a hangi (a traditional Maori feast where meat is cooked in an underground furnace) where someone accidently set fire to the entire peninsula. Oops.
Rob did give Ursula and me a show though. Despite the fact that the weather, although warm, was decidedly ropey that day, Rob was determined to take us out fishing in his boat. Jess was wise enough to decline. It was windy and choppy - the sort of weather where I think "at least my mother doesn't know the potential danger I am putting myself in". We drove to three different beaches before Rob found a place where we could launch the boat. The ride out to his fishing spot just beyond Bream Head (another forested, brooding mountain) was punctuated by many layers of swell and the boat smashing against the sea. Only at the very point that we finally stopped did the level of waves become vaguely bearable. We didn't have long to fish - perhaps 45 minutes.
The only time I have been moved to superstition
From the Harbour Bridge. A familiar sight to any Aucklander.
is sitting on a fishing boat - I will sit with my eyes closed with the fishing rod in the water chanting quietly "here fishy fishy, here fishy," etc. Ursula caught several
snapper, one of which was large enough to keep. Rob caught a Kawai (good for smoking and sashimi). Meanwhile the chanting was to no avail and we were quickly running out of time when - hello! - there was a seriously hefty pull on my line. With the amount of effort required to pull it up, Ursula was starting to think I was being a weakling, considering she had already pulled up five fish with her girly arms. The next thing we knew the fish was upon us! At first Ursula thought it was a whale!! Then we calmed down
and realised it was just a snapper. A very big snapper! If you think there is an element of hyperbole about this story, please refer to photo. That evening Jess employed her own unique skill-set to cook said fish. It was enough for all four of us with left-overs.
Our road trip then entered its southern leg, starting with a trip to Rotorua. My extended family and
I are lucky enough to share between us a bach on the shore of Lake Rotorua in sleepy Ngongataha, just outside Rotorua. For any foreigners reading this, "bach" (pronounced "batch") is the North Island term for a holiday home, without any posh connotations. At the behest of my grandmother and her siblings (three out of four who survive, pushing ninety), the bach has been deliberately maintained as a time capsule. I
first went aged five (in 1985) and it was already retro then. 25 years later, not a thing has changed - the dusty National Geographics, the framed pictures of ballerinas and cruise ships.
Rotorua is, always has been and will remain, awesome. There is nothing quite like showing someone for the first time a bubbling mud pool, or acting nonchalant when a newcomer is hit by the odd sulphuric smell that permeates the town centre when the wind blows off the pools. On our second day we visited the famous Maori village Whakawerawera, inhabited by around 20 Maori families who perform daily cultural displays, give drily amusing guided tours, and prepare their meals in bubbling hot springs (you can cook a chicken to perfection in 12 minutes). When
the males watching the cultural display were requested to join in a haka (traditional Maori war dance) I duly obliged, but only realised on seeing Ursula's photos afterwards that I was the sole person on that stage truly going for it. She was in tears of helpless laughter when I returned to my seat!
Next were Napier and Gisborne. The east coast in January was burnt dry and yellow. Throughout our trip we developed a pattern of staying with friends and sharing some of my rapidly diminishing wine collection with them. In Napier we stayed with Malcolm, who was looking after the house of a cat fanatic. The living room had an elaborate cat-gym as its centrepiece which, judging from their obesity, the cats never used. In Gisborne we stayed with Anna, an important old friend of mine, a doctor and a fancy dress shop owner. She gave us a taste of the thriving Gisborne social scene with a rip-snorter of a beach party.
In Ohakune, a skiing resort at the foot of Mt. Ruapehu on the Central Plateau, I relished the opportunity to share with Ursula another integral piece of the fabric of New Zealand society: the
With Rob, Jess, me and Anna
motel. Ursula described it as like walking onto the set of Psycho. The man who looked after the place looked askance when she asked him how much we needed to pay for the use of the public spa. It's free of course!
Another epic road-trip - this time along the "forgotten world highway" - took us west to Taranaki, with the omnipresent Mt Fuji-esque Mt. Taranaki looming over everything. We stayed with friends Al and Cherie, and further dented my wine collection over a couple of fiendishly competitive card games. There had been a recent police bust where a large number of fishermen and been caught illegally smuggling Paua. Al had to bite his lip when his landlady, who had a pronounced lisp, commented "how can people be so shellfish?"
Back up in Auckland it was very difficult to achieve anything strenuous. When every day is beach weather and you live extremely close to numerous beaches, there's only one sensible thing to do, so Ursula now has a pretty comprehensive knowledge of Auckland’s sandy coastline. The most memorable was undoubtedly the glorious snorkelling beach just off Goat Island where we headed with my father one blue day, topping
There's always a bigger fish. I caught it.
it off with our sixth and final vineyard and a drink at the notorious biker hangout, the Puhoi pub.
We spent the evenings of the final week catching up with a lot of important and all-too-infrequently-seen friends: Simon & Misako (whose ex-flat in Borough we now gratefully inhabit!), and Zoe & Tavish, to name a few. Simon lives the life of a true bon vivant, working (among other things) as a food critic for Metro magazine, so he was the person to consult about the best destination for our big "farewell dinner" with my mother on our final night. Ursula quickly became extremely confused as to why all the restaurants in Auckland seem to offer a "Digger Station" menu. What is this Digger Station: a strange converted warehouse...? Thankfully, she figured out before truly putting her foot in it that this was, of course, the NZ accent version of "dégustation". Ah, the joys of the language barrier! We joyfully sampled said menu at the French Cafe, one of Auckland's best restaurants (the food is neither French - nor is it a cafe). Six courses, two-and-a-half hours, three full stomachs. London, eat your heart out!
A special thanks to
Friend Rob gutting fish
Suddenly feeling very popular!
the people we stayed with: Jess, Rob, Malcolm, Anna, Al, Cherie, and of course my mother, to Granny Bobby for the loan of the bach, to my dad for a couple of great days out, and to all the friends and family who made the trip back home such a memorable triumph.
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