A seven hour drive stretched ahead of us as we said goodbye to Taupo and trundled out of town in our third van in ten days on the long and winding road southwards to Wellington and our last stop on the North Island. The weather was fair and we were in good spirits despite the long journey ahead.
Rather than taking the direct route along the state highway into Wellington, we decided to take the more scenic Tongariro National Park route and encounter the gargantuan Mt. Ruapeho that had been the subject of many of the exhibits and videos we had seen in our last couple of days in Taupo and the surrounding area. The landscape was barren in the foreground with the imposing and foreboding mountain range rising through the mist and clouds in the background. The area we were in was used extensively by director Peter Jackson during filming of the Lord of The Rings trilogy (Mt. Doom and Mordor scenes were filmed here.). The low clouds and mist were obscuring our views of the top of the mountains (Mt Ruapehu is one of three big mountains in Tongariro National Park) and we couldn’t see the summit of
Ruapehu which had spectacularly blown in 1995 (which incidentally, was the year Matt Le Tissier was awarded Goal of the Season in the Premier League) and 1996 but we continued to head towards it and the area that was filmed and used as Mordor in Lord of the Rings.
Once we reached the foot of the mountain we came across a mock Chateau that serves as a high class hotel and was used by the cast and crew of Lord of the Rings during filming. It looked very bizarre and alien in its surroundings amongst the windswept plains and rocky hills at the bottom of Ruapeho. We didn’t drive any further up the mountain towards the ski fields because there were warnings about ice and snow, which would have meant us having to fit the van’s snow chains and after the problems we have been having, we didn’t want to tempt fate and cause any damage!
Soon after leaving the National Park we came across, by accident I admit, the site and memorial of the Tangiwai Disaster. On December 24th 1953, Mt Ruapeho had a breach of its crater lake and tons of debris flowed down the mountain
in a sludgy river which swept the Tangiwai Bridge away minutes before a packed commuter train from Auckland to Wellington was due to cross it. The train driver was unaware and the train plunged off the bridge into the fast moving river below, killing over 150 passengers, in the nations worse train disaster. It was a sobering moment after all the amazing sights we have seen over the last few weeks.
The rest of the drive (another 5 hours) was a feast of scenery with a great view of Mt Ruapeho from the south side and the lush meadows and rolling hills of the countryside as we entered the south part of the North Island. The sun shone for a couple of hours and as evening approached we got to see the ‘long white clouds’ that New Zealand is named after. Aotearoa (the Maori name for New Zealand) means Land of the Long White Cloud and as the sun dropped lower in the sky, these wispy clouds floated above us and provided a fitting setting for the beautiful green land we were driving through.
We arrived at the campsite just north of Wellington after dark and once we were
set up and plugged in, we discovered to our dismay that yet again, the van had problems. Major problems. The entire water system was broken, with leaks coming from the fresh water and the waste water tanks. We tried to keep a lid on our anger as we emailed the van company and then called the service centre. We discovered that the local office for Backpacker Campervans was on the same site we were, so we were up at 8am and in their office to make our displeasure known! To be fair to the staff in the office they were very helpful and immediately swapped our van for an upgraded and newer van. A Mercedes with 100,000 miles on the clock rather than a Volkswagen with 200,000. We have had no further problems with this one this week, and have since received an email from the company explaining why we had all the problems and offering us a week’s refund, so hopefully that is a line drawn under that episode and we can continue with our holiday in peace!
Once the van was sorted, we spent the day in Wellington, the capital of New Zealand and a city that very
much reminded us of London, albeit a lot quieter and right by the sea! Our main stop was the magnificent Te Papa museum, of which the natives are justifiably proud. Te Papa means Our Place in Maori and the museum was a homage to everything New Zealand, from an exhibition about its volatile position straddling two tectonic plates and the destructive results of this to a strange video montage about New Zealand’s modern history to an interesting hall filled with information and exhibits on the formation of the islands and how the native flora and fauna have thrived or suffered with the coming of the Europeans to New Zealand. We spent a good few hours exploring and adding to the knowledge we have already picked up on this trip. I am fairly confident that we will score full marks if New Zealand or Maori culture are subjects on any pub quizzes upon our return! What was also impressive about the museum (especially after the smaller more specialist museums we have visited since May) was how technically slick (much like Matt Le Tissier in that respect) and interactive Te Papa was. From sitting in a mock house whilst it shook with
the ‘aftershocks’ of an earthquake that struck the island in 1987 to a 14 metre satellite map of island that when stood on projected iconic images of the area onto the walls around us. It was a great way to end the last couple of weeks where we have learnt and experienced so much about the history and ancient cultures of this country.
The afternoon took on a slow pace as we wandered the streets of Wellington, browsing in shops and occasionally bumping into random things, such as an American bagpiper who gladly played requests because we put a dollar in his hat on the floor. Naturally we chose Scotland the Brave and it brought back memories of a sunny afternoon in May! According to most of the guidebooks we read in the lead up to visiting Wellington said that no visit to the city wouild be complete without riding the red cable cars to the top of a hill in the city. Being the tourists we are, we duly obliged and climbed inside one of the cabins, painted red and with antique style wooden furniture inside. Wellingtonians in days gone by would use these to commute and they
have been running for over one hundred years. At the top we were treated to the most enthralling museum so far on our journey… The Cable Car Museum! It consisted of one of the original cable cars and a few newspaper clippings about the cable cars on the walls! Fascinating!
After a walk through town we found a little Japanese restaurant that had been recommended
to us by Sally and Logan. Rachel was particularly interested and excited about this place, as it specialized in sushi on a conveyor belt, something she said was on her list of Things To Do Before You Die! Forget the Grand Canyon, active volcanoes in New Zealand, Niagra Falls, just make sure my wife has raw fish that moves round and round in front of her eyes and she is a happy bunny! The food was delicious, we had many different dishes including teriyaki chicken, shrimp tempura, and flying fish eggs and were well and truly stuffed when we left. I learnt something else about my darling Rachel on that Saturday evening: Don’t let her be the one who reads the bus timetable. Otherwise, she will make you leave a bar which is nice
and warm to go and stand in the cold waiting for a bus that wont actually arrive for another 48 minutes! (48, bye the way, is the number of penalties Matt Le Tissier scored in his career.)
The weekend was rounded off by a 3 hour ferry trip across the Cook Strait from the North Island to the South Island. The weather was very misty which put paid to us seeing the spectacular scenery of Marlborough Sound on the way into Picton, South Island. The trip was uneventful and we were soon back in the van, leaving Picton for the next stage of our adventure. Which, in true soap style, you will have to tune in next time to hear all about! The first couple of days on the South Island have been truly memorable and included a wine tour of the famous Marlborough vineyards and seeing the magnificent wildlife of the east coast of the island.
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