We're having one of our smoothest journeys with Boris the campervan for some time. No over-revving, no spluttering, no false starts. And it has been nearly three hours. We're on the Interislander ferry heading back to the North Island and Boris is in the hull.
We've had a couple of blissful days staying at a working farm on the edge of the Abel Tasman National Park. The sun has warmed us as we've walked through the park, swum in its bays, and taken the odd water taxi when destinations have seemed too far to walk. Kate's optimum walking distance is down to about 8km now, so we're gradually slowing down.
Boris too has been slowing down. We called in at a garage on the way to Picton, where mechanics confirmed we need to see an automatic specialist. So Boris takes on another drive - the scenic coastal road along the numerous bays of the Queen Charlotte Sound. It's stunning on the eye but hard work on the van - the up and down hills combining with more hairpins than a 19th century powder room to make for a very challenging drive. But somehow we make it, in time for
a fish and chip supper and early night before catching the ferry back to the North Island.
On arriving back in Wellington we head again for Mark's parents. We'll have two nights with them, catching up with folks we met back in the UK, enjoying Wellington's great coffee and cafes, and relishing the comfort of a proper bed. Wellington rocks.
Wellington literally rocks as we sit down for dinner with Mark's parents - an earthquake that begins with a gentle rumble, has a little pause to allow us to share confused glances, then gives us a good shake that leaves us in no doubt of what we've just experienced. We later learn that the quake measured 5.9 on the richter scale and was the biggest shake in the region for decades. Luckily its epicentre was 60km underground. We all have moments of quiet reflection between courses, grateful that the quake was no bigger and hopeful that it was not the first of many. We're reminded of nature's might.
On our way out of Wellington we finally get Boris checked in to see a specialist and the prognosis is not good. In fact, it's terminal. We call the
hire company to arrange for a van exchange, and agree on a meeting place for the next day.
We've not been to a winery for at least a few days, so make our way to Martinborough, a region claiming to rival, if not surpass, Central Otago in the Pinot stakes. It's a short drive which, you guessed it, takes us over a bunch of hills. If this country was flattened out it would surely be bigger than Australia. We visit a single winery in Martinborough before heading for the bigger wine region of Hawkes Bay, famed for its chardonnay and warmer reds. It's a four and a half hour drive.
We wake on a special day. If due dates are anything to go by then Bubs is half-baked today. The baby has been growing and showing and, most excitingly, moving, which has been joyful. We continue to debate whether or not we'll find out the sex at the next scan. We remain undecided.
Iv is keen to learn more about the grape growing process and figures a good way of going about it is to offer a couple of days work getting his hands dirty on a
vineyard. Though he would do it for free, he also reckons the possibility of being paid in wine isn't too far-fetched. Our enquiries over Hawkes Bay tastings however are not as fruitful as the wines, with it being a very quiet period in the paddocks. The winemakers are away, with lawnmowers taking their place in patrolling between the long rows of vines. We nevertheless enjoy the wines of Te Mata, Mission Estate, Black Barn, Church Road, and Craggy Range (a bottle of Syrah making it into our bags from the latter, destined for the long trip back home - it won't quite make it to Bubs' 18th, but it'll have a few years maturing on the bottom of the rack).
An early start the next day takes us to Taupo, where we have arranged for the campervan exchange to take place. We arrive with a couple of hours to spare, so head out on the highway which cuts through a hotspot of geothermal activity. There's a slight drizzle as we set off for a walk through the 'craters of the moon', a collection of the earth's pores which emit steam and bubbles. The rising vapour is accompanied by a
distinct eggy-fart stench that makes the 45 minute boardwalk circuit as long as anyone would care for. For us, it is too long. 10 minutes in and the drizzle has turned into a downpour, and we're soaked to the bone. There's not much for it but to continue our loop, taking the heads-down, shoulders-hunched posture that is universally adopted in heavy rain, and which universally fails in keeping any of us any drier. On finally making it to the van we strip off our coats, hoping that the steam rising from us doesn't carry the same whiff as that of the craters.
We pick up a girl who is hitchhiking in the rain. She doesn't seem to care where we're heading, so long as she is sheltered from the downpour, so she joins us on our next tourist stop - the Hukka Falls. The falls aren't your traditional falls, but rather a narrow section of river in what is otherwise a wide, fast-flowing body of water. The result is a hundred metres or so of rashing rapids that make us wish we had bodyboards, wetsuits and helmets.
We drive back to a Taupo campsite where we are introduced
to our upgraded campervan. Well, we say upgraded. It still has over 350,000km on the clock, and gives the impression of having been in a battle or two. But this van has a sun visor, central locking and electric windows. Superfly. We name her Frankie.
We bid farewell to dear old Boris, waving him off on his last journey to scrapheap heaven. He's been good to us. We put on brave faves as we try and become acquainted to Frankie by taking her for a spin around town. She's smooth through the gears, turns over quietly and without fuss, and does everything we ask of her. Yet she's missing something ... an unpredictability, a certain challenge that added that extra spice to any journey with Boris.
Our morning drive out of Taupo takes us through the apocalyptical wasteland of the geothermal national park, where smouldering craters line the horizon, giving the impression of a recent firefight. We're heading for the 'Thermal Wonderland' of Wai-O-Tapu. Depsite it sounding like an underwear factory outlet, we enjoy it. Our arrival coincides with the daily highlight - the dropping of the equivalent of soap flakes into the cone top of a geyser.
The mound of earth, resembling a mini-volcano, begins to bubble and steam, before the major eruptions start and jets of water are propelled skyward. The wind carries the spray over the onlookers, but fortunately the fluids have dropped in temparature by the time they make contact with the skin so as not to leave us pock marked like the surrounding earth. The geyser would normally erupt every 48-72 hours, but the daily chemical intervention, which we are assured is environmentally friendly, guarantees that nature performs for its expectant audience and secures the park its hefty gate receipts. Our ticket also allows us a viewing of an expanse of mud pools. They provide for much amusement, engaging us in a guessing game of when a steaming cowpat will next turn into an exploding one. Fast shutter speeds are poised to capture the results.
We gear Frankie up for one of the longest drives of our trip - from Taupo to the Bay of Islands, via Rotarua and Auckland. With only a couple of days left here, we're firmly in the territory of prioritising where we visit now and where will have to wait for our next trip. The Bay of
Islands get our vote, with its promise of scenery, serenity and the possibility of swimming with dolphins.
We don't do the coastal road of the far north any justice - it's pitch black by the time we reach it and we're desperate to reach our destinatation of Russell. We've been driving for hours and hours, it's a tough road to drive and it's pouring with rain. We distract ourselves from tiredness by compiling definitive all-time top ten lists - books, countries, drives, animals, films, wines, crisp varieties, chocolate bars....but begin to run out of worldy things to rank. We draw up shortlists of baby names, we test each other's trivia knowledge, and play i-spy until the darkness is about all we can see. Every now and again we are broken out of the trance states induced by the repetitive corners and the rain on the windscreen by the odd herd of cow standing bang in the middle of the road. We have to screech to a stop but they don't bat an eyelid. Nor do they move, obstinate buggers.
The weather is equally obstinate. It continues to rain. The following day we enjoy a much needed restorative day
in the bay with gentle walks, a massage for Kate, and books. And we book a tour. We made a commitment four weeks ago to try and swim with dolphins. We can see a pod from the quayside so figure this is as good a place as any.
We arrive at the launch early the next morning and can again see a pod swimming in the harbour of the islands as the boat pulls up. We're wearing our swimmers and eager smiles and soon find ourselves sitting on the front deck, our feet skimming the water and our guide and skipper naming the aquatic acrobats competing for our attention. Kate is unimpressed with whoever named one of the dolphins "sharkie". We're told we're amongst a 'megapod' which includes a bunch of juveniles and infants. The latter are occupied with jumping as high out of the water as possible, whilst their parents spear through the water for fish. Whilst a pleasure to watch, the existence of young dolphins also rules out the possibility of a swim (swimming with infant dolphins is prohibited by law), so we're thwarted again.
We consider booking a second trip, but are warned that the
weather is worsening, making finding the likelihood of swimming with smaller pods less likely. The winds even rule out a fishing expedition for Iv. But the rain cannot rule out a final ocean swim. We walk to a deserted beach where the grey waves are crashing on stones, shell and sand. The rain and wind keep the locals indoors, but a few watch from behind the windows of their beach houses as two Welsh folk strip to their bathers and race each other into the sea. It's the perfect end to our trip.
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