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Published: March 14th 2018
The Indian meal was bloody good – if you’re in Napier, go eat there. But I wouldn’t bother going to Napier just for the curry. Consistent with most of the places we have visited so far on the trip, the natural setting is lovely; the place a bit, well, tired? Maybe that’s being unkind, there is nothing really to fault but it could be that I am ready for a little more sophistication after almost three weeks motorcycle touring in New Zealand.
For breakfast in The County Hotel I restricted myself to toast and honey - Crystal Meth Girl seemingly had a day off which was a good start. The skies were heavily overcast though, and the three-and-a-half-hour trip that we had in front of us to Rotorua promised to be, like Marge Simpson’s bowling shoes, warm and moist. We got going at around 0930 as we wanted to do some splooshing around in hot springs later that day before dinner and so we headed up the coast on SH2, past the airport, intending to take SH5 that struck inland towards Taupo. We had been on the bike less than fifteen minutes before we saw the electronic road sign declaring
SH5 to Taupo closed due to landslides, at which point the heavens well and truly opened (again). We immediately took shelter in an unmanned gas station (of which NZ has many) to fully kit up in wet weather gear. Whilst doing so, we were engaged in cheery conversation by several truckers and a highway maintenance worker who drew in for gas, the latter of which had been working on the road slips since three AM and who mentioned that the road would be impassable for at least twenty-four hours. The alternate route was at least six hours in these conditions. I didn’t have to consult with Pam on this one, she was quite happy that I immediately called John to come pick us up and to sling the bike on the trailer.
The van took us over the central mountains on the now metalled Taihape-Napier road, through the charmingly named township of Gentle Annie. I’ve exhausted my supply of superlatives and analogous landscapes so suffice it to say it was hilly and beautiful. The rain even slackened at various points, so we could see where we were going. John and his mum jabbered away to each other whilst Pam
and I read in the back, looking up occasionally through the steamy windows as yet another vista point came and went. Skirting past Lake Taupo and the town of Taupo itself, we stopped to look at the Huka Falls on the Waikato River that drains the lake. It’s a mean sight, with two hundred and twenty thousand litres per second spurting through a fifteen-metre-wide canyon. It generates electricity for Mighty River Power and special gates control the flow, so much so that there are parts where you can go fishing in waders when the waters are being diverted through the turbines. John tells us of one of his old teachers who got caught out as the torrent came back on; stranded on a shoal, all he could do was lean into the current until he was finally swept away, his body to be found several days later.
Our room at Prince’s Gate Hotel in Rotorua is fine, in my book. By this point of the holiday, however, Pam has begun to think that, when describing the hotels, John uses the word “eclectic” when he should be using “shoddy”; she turns on me as we enter, demanding another room. I
mansplain to her that there is little to be gained by this course of action, even though we are here for two nights, and give her a kiss and cuddle instead. Thus appeased, she gets ready for dinner which we have at the excellent Atticus Finch on Eat Street. Bugger the hot springs, I’m ready for a beer.
In the morning we take advantage of the nice weather and head over to Te Puia, New Zealand’s geothermal and Maori cultural centre. It was definitely a worthwhile trip on all fronts. Plenty of exhibits and things to examine from the Maori cultural perspective and some fun with geysers too. Did I forget to mention that the whole of Rotorua smells of rotten iggs? Maybe not rotten, but iggy certainly. And here at Te Puia it is stink bomb central. In fairness, on arrival it does hit you a bit, but as your olfactory organ tires easily, you don’t notice it after a while. In fact, you could say it adds a certain ambiance to the place. Without doubt, however, one of the biggest hits of the holiday (at least for me and Pam) was the unexpected delight of seeing real,
live Brown Kiwis in their special Kiwi House. Now, generally I am dead against zoos and animal exhibits for simple entertainment, but this facility is part of the conservation programme for this nocturnal and endangered species. The house has reversed day and night, so that inside it is pitch black during the day, allowing you to see the birds awake and active with the aid of gentle infrared lights on the handler as she sets out feed for the birds. These cute, fluffy balls scuttle around very engagingly and we were immediately smitten. Interesting fact: the egg they lay is roughly 20% of their bodyweight, the largest of any bird. They’re about the size of a chicken AND THEIR EGG IS SIX TIMES THE SIZE!
Done with Te Puia, we nip back into town, because it’s time for lunch with Wozz. Several years ago, we did an African bike holiday and decided to have helmets painted as a memento of the trip. This time I thought I had left it too late, but then I came across Wozz in the nick of time. Wozz (or Warren Houston) is an airbrush artist based in Rotorua and four weeks before we
left for New Zealand I found him on the web, liked his work and asked him to paint us some for this trip. He agreed, I bought a couple of helmets off a NZ web store and got them delivered to him. The newly painted helmets were in Nelson when we got there. Wozz, like all Kiwis that we met, was friendly and charming and, as you might expect, a little alternative. It was like meeting Billy Connelly’s twin brother who, when separated at birth, had been shipped out to NZ and raised by hippies. Quite the muso too, being a drummer and working band member. After lunch we toured Rotorua by foot with Wozz as he pointed out various murals and artwork around town that he was responsible for. We said goodbye and thanks for all the lids with a quick photo outside the hotel.
The next day is, thankfully, bright and beautiful because today is a bit special for me. At my age, most of the fads of youth, the fanaticisms that come and go, the utterly absorbing interests in rock bands, female tennis players, motorcycle racing heroes, or even the more grown up reverence of scientists,
thinkers and business gurus have come and gone, one fascination driving out another. Of course, I still pay nodding respect to obsessions past; Keith Emerson, Barry Sheene, Sue Barker (hang on a minute…), Richard Feynman, Steven Pinker, Mahan Khalsa to name a few. But the first cut is the deepest, as a bloke called Cat said once (don’t start me on that Stewart bloke). And the first cut of obsession was given to me by Tolkien.
I will not attempt to explain or justify it, nor convert the mocking sceptic. It is what it is. But I know many that share, to a greater or lesser extent, my delight in the mythology he created, of which the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit are but small, though elaborated, parts. Peter Jackson’s (or Sir Pete’s if you will) films I have set alongside the books in my mind as an alternative telling of the same events, and I am, unlike some others, quite comfortable with their inconsistencies of plot, motives, characters and timelines. But I will never forget the level of anticipation I felt in December 2001 as I sat in my seat at the cinema watching the Fellowship of
View from Bag End
Looks over the Party Field and tree, down to the Water, over the Bywater Bridge to the Green Dragon.
the Ring for the first time. After the “prologue” part of the film set out the backstory of the Ring, the film proper started in the Shire, specifically in Hobbiton. From the age of thirteen I had known an incompletely imagined landscape of fields, hobbit holes and inns, and only in my mind had I ever seen it before. And there it was on the screen in front of me after all those years. Today, I would visit it in person.
By which I mean the preserved set of Hobbiton from the Hobbit films, of course. When they made the Lord of the Rings films, they created temporary structures which were largely removed after filming. Realising they had missed a trick, the farm owners and Jackson did a deal and the Hobbit set was created from real construction material that would last. And on this day, it fulfilled its promise big time. The sun was out, the gardens in bloom and the butterflies everywhere, making the whole set look completely alive and real. Walking past Bag End, down the Hill past Sam & Rosie’s House (number 3), over the bridge by the Mill, and into the Green Dragon for a whole half of beer (I had two - it didn't come in pints) have provided me with another great set of Tolkien memories to set alongside the others. The fact that the gift shop had sold out of everything you might actually want to buy couldn’t spoil the day. My favourite story from Kate (our Hobbit Set tour guide) was of the 6’4” German visitor, fully kitted out in elven cloak and, presumably outsize, Hobbit attire. Halfway around the tour, near Bag End, he announced that this place was now where he lived. He remained there for a further five hours until closing time when security was called. After being escorted to the bus to be taken off-farm, he wriggled free, jumped the fence and ran off into the fields, declaring that he, like Bilbo, was going on an Adventure from which he may never return. I have a certain amount of admiration for that level of lunatic devotion. Respect, mate.
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