I wond’r why there’s an air raid siren going off? Acclimatising to NZ life, while tramping around the North Island

While housesitting in NZ’s Northern Island town of Cambridge, we begun to feel truly at home. Not because Joella has found us a relaxing three week house sit, nor because Lollie the miniature toy poodle was very welcoming; but because of the weather. It felt generally quite a bit cooler than Australia, was often overcast, and seemed susceptible to sporadic periods of heavy rain in between sunny spells. In other words, New Zealand’s weather seemed as changeable as the UK’s 🙂

However, as we gazed out of the living room window one afternoon, waiting for the latest downpour to stop, our reminiscing of home was abruptly halted by something not at all familiar: an air-raid siren! We both looked at each other horrified not knowing what to do – I was certain that New Zealand is often referred to as the safest place on earth if there were to be a nuclear war. After frantically Googling our situation: ‘Air raid siren New Zealand’ we breathed a sigh of relief: These sirens are used to call the local volunteer fire brigade together – phew (although I hope the blaze in question wasn’t too serious)!

Potholing down Kani whani wha caves

Something else that made New Zealand feel more exotic despite the weather, was its place names; many of which have been either influenced or directly named by its indigenous, Maori people. This made it wonderfully entertaining (and often difficult) when attempting to plan out and remember ideas for day trips. Our first excursion, to the wonderfully sounding ‘Kaniwhaniwha caves’ is a great example.

The initial 45 minute Nikau walk was a nice introduction to New Zealand’s tramping scene, despite the odd bit of rain. It even included stereotypical views that briefly transported us to Middle Earth; featuring lush, rolling hillsides just waiting for hobbits to come bounding down. Other parts took us back to prehistoric times, due to the never ending ferns that surrounded us.

As we neared the two cavernous limestone caves before us, my anticipation jumped up a notch while reading the various safety notices advising of dark, wet, dangerous spaces that lay ahead. Having come prepared with head torches, we wasted no time in venturing forth into the darkness, like excited bats returning home after feeding. It wasn’t long until the last of the daylight had disappeared, and I made mostly feeble attempts to capture the eerie atmosphere using my camera, trying not to drop it in the murky stream that now covered all of the ground. 

As the ominous space tightened further, thoughts of meeting Gollum came to mind; so we decided to call it a day and crept backward out into the light.

Risky river crossings while tackling the Kaimai Heritage Trail

Despite the weather deteriorating in recent days, this didn’t stop us from hurriedly dolling on our outdoor gear, and enthusiastically jumping aboard Archie. This time we headed for the Kaimai Heritage Trail, to follow in the footsteps of early New Zealand mining and logging pioneers from over a century ago. 

After thoroughly cleaning our footwear, to help prevent Kauri Dieback – a disease that’s tragically killing swathes of New Zealand’s native Kauri trees, we set off into the the ominous looking forest. If our previous hike could be described as relatively easy, it’s fair to say this was at the advanced level! Not only was the ground well and truly sodden making it extremely slippery under foot; the terrain was also far more hilly and hard work.

But this didn’t stop us from having fun! At one point I had to re-lay a series of stepping stones that we assume had been washed away in a wild torrent; before carefully hopping across what was still a menacing looking stream. While scrambling up and sliding down steep hillsides, we got well and truly into the adventurous spirit of things; not caring about becoming ever more drenched and caked in mud. At least we had some tasty New Zealand apples to keep us going!

On the latter stages, while carefully traipsing down Butlers Incline, the path became startlingly steep, and we needed to watch our step so as not to trip on the many rungs of the tramway sleepers that still paved the way down. These tracks, and the various pieces of old, rusting machinery helped take us back to the 1800s – a time when horses were used to pull bogeys (carts) laden with earth (and some gold ore too hopefully). Thinking of how the workers had to spend almost their entire time outdoors no matter what the weather, made us feel especially lucky to make it back to our car, just before the heavens opened!

The best fish and chips in the Southern Hemisphere?

It had now been well over a year since we’d had decent fish and chips – Australia’s fish just doesn’t taste the same, and soggy chip-shop chips don’t seem to exist. So with that in mind, our tastebuds took us in the direction of Raglan – a small coastal town – in search of some battered delights.

Unlike the previous few days of treacherous tramping, today was a more relaxed affair that allowed us to take Lollie along 🙂 With no real agenda, we first took a wander past the hippie boutique shops, followed by a photo shoot with Lollie on a surf board protruding from a wall painted up as a barrel wave – gnarly! Raglan is in fact famous for it’s surf, and has even hosted the World Championships.

We were now ready for the main event: Raglan Fish! Brilliantly, it was perched upon the quay side offering fantastic sea views, along with fishing boats parked up right outside – I doubt we’ll ever get fresher fish and chips than this. While Joella nabbed us a picnic table outside and began defensive duties against the circling seagulls, I was left with the responsibility of ordering our lunch. Initially daunted by the extensive menu of mostly alien fish names, I was saved by the friendly server who recommended Blue Cod and Gurnard, based on my daft sounding brief of ‘not too fishy fish’.

As hoped, these morsels of gold along with their baton side kicks brought a smile to our faces, and gave us a tasty glimmer of home. Keeping cultural, we washed it down with a bottle of L&P – New Zealand’s famous sparkling soft drink, offering a refreshingly lemon hit.

Next on the days itinerary was a visit to Ngarunui beach, featuring black volcanic sand that twinkled in the sunlight, as we walked off our lunch, or run in the case of Lollie! After a good stretch of our legs, taking in the glistening seascape, accompanied by the soothing soundtrack of the relentless waves in the distance, we were ready to hit the road.

On our way home was one of New Zealands largest water features: Bridal Veil Falls, so we couldn’t resist stopping off for a quick peek. The initial walk following the Pakoka river, through native forest helped build our anticipation, all while the thunderous roar of the falls grew louder. After finally arriving at the top viewing platform we nervously peered over the edge at the plunging torrent crashing below us – what a site, what a sound! The midway and bottom viewpoints allowed to appreciate the scale of the falls further from different angles.  

Australia had been amazing, but New Zealand was definitely winning us over!

I wond’r if we’ll ever get there? Struggling to stop stopping, while beginning our tour of New Zealand

With over a week back in Sydney housesitting for my Uncle and Auntie, you’d forgive us for thinking we had ample time to spend relaxed mornings with Lillie the American Staffie, afternoons taking beautiful coastal walks and evenings sipping slowly on our sweet tawny (Port) from the Barrosa, before our New Zealand adventures. But no, with a flash the week was over before it had begun, and we found ourselves racing around like headless wallabies getting things ready for our hand over with Christa’s friend, who’d be taking on the remainder of housesitting duties before Martin and Christa arrived back from Germany.

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After successfully managing to squeeze in a photoshoot of our car and gear, ready to sell before our final departure back to the UK in October, we found ourselves checking in at Sydney’s International terminal the next morning. There, we treated ourselves to a Macca’s brekkie that was cleverly craned in from far above our heads, before then boarding our Latan flight to Auckland.

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Our scenic 5 hr flight featuring quality films and all inclusive seat-service, felt rather sophisticated when compared to our previous 2 months of travelling through the Outback eating Vegemite sandwiches! We were tempted to remain on board in Auckland, as the planes final destination was Chile’s beautiful capital: Santiago, although New Zealand should suit us just fine for now…

Once we’d landed and managed to navigate our way from the airport to the CBD via a Skybus, we checked into the ‘Kiwi International Hotel’; a small, but brilliantly located accommodation a short walk from downtown Auckland. We quickly dumped our bags and successfully sourced a fine curry followed by proper PINTS of Kiwi Monteith beer in a wonderfully old world establishment named ‘The Bluestone Room’; once a 19th century warehouse still decked out with its original Kauri timber ceiling atop volcanic stone walls.

Exploring Auckland

We woke the next day feeling rather jet lagged – not something we expected with only 2 hrs difference between Sydney and Auckland. There was only one thing for it; coffee of course! So with Joella’s artistic compass guiding us, we set off towards the hipster area of Ponsonby, providing awesome views of Auckland’s skyline while we perused the many boutique shops, charity emporiums, impressive street art, inventive sculptures and fortunately plenty of independent cafes… perhaps too many.

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As per the norm, we initially struggled to decide where we’d get our caffeine fix, but eventually settled for the ‘Bread and Butter Bakery and Cafe’, within a happening food market full of delis and stalls selling a variety of edible delights. I was satisfied with my cup of silky smooth Joe and savoury bread and butter pudding featuring rich cheese, flavoursome herbs, charcoal roasted veg and a pickled salad; although Joella wasn’t too impressed with her bland smashed avocado and soft boiled egg :-/

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After further boutique shop hopping, and perked up by a couple of coke spiders aka coke floats (McDonalds in NZ and Australia has a significantly different menu than to the UK), we jumped aboard a ferry over to Devonport – on the opposite side of the harbour from Auckland’s main CBD. Once docked, we zig zagged our way along the wharf and through the town, to begin our ascent of Mount Victoria; a prominent 100 metre high, dormant (still, we hope) volcano. Once at the summit we were treated with spectacular views across Auckland and far beyond, that I unfortunately struggled to capture in all its glory due to discovering some dust in my camera…

After taking in the eclectic mix of scenery sprawled out around us us, as well as the funny air vents camouflaged as giant mushrooms, we headed in the direction of North Head. There we were able to explore some old military bunkers and climb atop huge artillery emplacements from the 1800s, known as ‘disappearing guns’ due to their clever design, enabling them to be hidden from direct fire and observation. With our step count closing in on 30,000, we headed back to our hotel.

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That evening we met up with an old NZ mate of mine and his girlfriend, who I’d worked with in London a few years back. Pete suggested ‘White and Wong’s’, a fancy asian fusion restaurant down in Auckland’s Harbourside Wynyard Quarter. Over some tasty dim sum they serenaded us with a never ending list of spellbinding sites and experiences that lay ahead of us in New Zealand; it was near impossible to take it all in. But then we shouldn’t be too surprised given that Pete works on the Visit New Zealand website! It was a lovely evening, surreally catching up with a friend on the other side of the world. After an evacuation caused by a fire alarm tested our honesty (yes we did go back and pay, unlike many other diners), we called it a night and headed back to our hotel, itching to get going on our tour of New Zealand the next day.

Cruising through the Coromandel

Following an early start to grab a coffee in an old shopping arcade and a failed attempt to hunt down a secondhand NZ travel book (all we could find was a very out of date 14 year old Rough Guide), we arranged our free taxi ‘shuttle’ (please excuse the pun) to pick up our ‘Spaceship’… rental camper van. Despite opting for the second cheapest option, we were rather impressed with our NZ$19 (£9.80) a day Toyota Estima named ‘Archie’; featuring a separate sleeping area in the back, bedding, fridge, cooker and utensils! After a quick pit stop to buy a pricy camera sensor cleaning kit, then picking up supplies from Countdown – NZ’s Woolworths, we were on our way 🙂

Based upon Pete’s recommendations and a guide from the brilliant new ‘Roadtrippers’ app I’d just discovered, we headed in the direction of the famous Coromandel, to the East of Auckland, on the other side of the Firth of Thames. Once we’d arrived on the peninsula and began driving along the road that hugged the western coastline through various small towns with brilliantly exotic Maori names like Whakateke Bay and Raumahunga, we struggled to make much progress. This was purely down to how unbelievably gorgeous our surroundings had become, meaning we couldn’t stop ourselves from pulling over every 5 minutes to take even more photos. This was even before day became evening; resulting in the horizon turning a yellow gold, thus causing the general atmosphere to become even more breathtaking!

Eventually we made it to Long Bay campsite we’d shortlisted via the NZ WikiCamps app, just in time to watch a dazzling golden sunset. Drifting off to sleep wasn’t an issue, thanks to the soothing sound of waves in the background.

More scenic stops en route to Cambridge

We woke the next morning feeling full of energy; and not wanting to waste the day, skipped showers and got going after a quick breakfast with a view (and a quick go on the tyre swing). First we stopped in past ‘Driving Creek Railway and Pottery’ to take a look at their vintage train engines and colourful wares, before making our way down to Cathedral Cove.

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After eventually deciding where to park (opting for the closest, but priciest car park), we set off on the coastal walk, past the beautiful looking (and named) ‘Stingray Beach’ and ‘Gemstone Bay’, playfully jumping between boulders. Then it was on to the main event: Cathedral Cove – an enormous cathedral like tunnel, carved into the cliffside, separating two secluded white sand beaches. Our timing was impeccable, as we arrived just in time to seek shelter, as the heavens opened.

Before we knew it, it was time to make our way down to New Zealand’s Cambridge, where Joella had arranged a three week house sitting assignment. We were given a warm welcome from Paul, Mai and Lollie – their lovely miniature poodle we’d be looking after – before spending the evening chatting away over pizza and a bottle of tasty NZ Montana Pinot Noir. We’d only been in New Zealand for three full days and had already been blown away by its beauty; to say we couldn’t wait to continue exploring this magical land would be a massive understatement!

I wond’r why nobody’s parked here? Surviving a ‘Widowmaker’, while completing our 2 month loop back to Sydney from Adelaide

Having spent the last week cutting through Australia’s dusty ‘Red Centre’, you’d think we’d have been glad to reach the bright lights of Adelaide – but alas no. Being met with the usual sea of break lights that all too often blights a city, meant we soon wished to be back in the wilderness of the Outback… Fortunately, after checking into a pleasant campsite just a short walk from downtown, past the (eerie looking at night) Botanical gardens, our longing to be out in the wild soon took a backseat while we stretched our legs looking for a bite to eat. It seemed our luck was in; as we managed to source happy hour espresso martinis followed by flavoursome Bao! 

Controversial pints while exploring Adelaide

Following a run in with a barista after requesting to close the door – apparently the cafe needs to be kept below 5 degrees to keep the coffee beans fresh – we were soon buzzing for adventure thanks to some Aussie trademark, velvety smooth flat white coffees. Our journey into the CBD took us along the gorgeous green banks of Karrawirra Parri river, watched on by graceful black swans past the Adelaide Oval; a large imposing stadium, famous for hosting Aussie rules football and cricket matches.  

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First stop was to be the crafty complex of the Jam Factory – an inspirational makers workshop just across the street from Adelaide’s Convention Centre. Not only were we able to enjoy its gallery and shop, but we’d arrived just in time to be given a personal tour of the many studios; featuring a myriad of artists busy working away on their cosmos of creations including ceramics, woodwork, metalwork and glass. 

After taking in more galleries, we found ourselves at Adelaide’s famous ‘Central Market’ for lunch, which is apparently in the top 3 markets of the world – oh my days, we were in food heaven! Before a much needed disco nap, we stopped in past the Migration Museum for a sobering lesson on Australia’s colonial past, learning about the awful ‘White Australian Policy’ that sought to exclude people of non European origin (chiefly Asians), from immigrating to Australia.

That evening we tucked into some meaty goodness, in the form of $10 burgers at a local pub, washed down by so called ‘pints’ of beer, or so we thought… Despite the barman assuring me the suspiciously small glasses of beer were pints, a quick Google confirmed that shockingly Adelaide ‘pints’ are just 425 ml – equivalent to schooners in other parts of Australia – rather than 570 ml you normally receive back in Blighty. Despite the outrageously small beers and only having one full day here, we were glad we’d put in longer drives a few days earlier to make it possible – Adelaide is a gorgeous city that often gets overlooked by its bigger brothers: Melbourne and Sydney. 

Sipping ancient tawny (AKA port) in the Barossa 

Our next days drive was supposed to take us all the way to the legendary outback town of Broken Hill, but our plans soon changed while taking a detour via the world famous wine region of the Barossa Valley. Originally we’d solely planned to take a quick look at Jam Factory’s sister site, but soon got distracted by the neighbouring Seppeltsfield vineyard 🙂

There we checked ourselves onto the ‘Heritage tour’; one of many guided walks available. Fascinatingly we learnt of the original Polish owners plans to grow tobacco, but then jumping on the wine bandwagon back in the mid 1800s. Seppeltsfield is mostly known for their ancient tawny (aka port), including rather expensive bottles aged over 100 years – amazingly in fact, they have barrels from every year dating back to 1878 available to taste! Fortunately, not wanting to part with $150 to taste century old port, our tour gave us the opportunity to try some 27 year old, rich and delicious nectar, almost as old as Joella! Not surprisingly, we couldn’t resist grabbing a bottle of their Para Grand Tawny, before finishing our days drive in Yunta.

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One last Outback adventure in Broken Hill and Silverton

An early start the next day took us to the large outback town of Broken Hill by lunchtime; home to where the worlds largest mining company: BHP (Broken Hill Proprietary) was founded. After unsophisticatedly making Vegemite sandwiches in the back of our car while parked up outside the Tourist information, we grabbed ourselves some maps and gave our legs a stretch on a self guided tour of the relatively old (by Australian standards) town and its galleries.

Next stop was Silverton, which felt far more authentically outback and rural.  Pleasantly Silverton – once an old silver mining town – reminded us a little of Lightning Ridge; full of quirky artist folk and oddities. We didn’t have the urge to visit the Mad Max 2 museum (as this is where much of it was filmed), but did have a nosey around the many ruined houses and in some of the artist homes that had been set up as galleries.

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Following our lengthy walking sessions we needed to regain our sugar levels, so stopped by ‘Bells Milk Bar’, after having listened to an interview with owner on rural Queensland radio a few weeks back. There we gorged ourselves on enormous, lusciously thick vanilla malt milkshakes, while feeling like we’d time travelled back to the 1950’s, thanks to the suitably retro surroundings.

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Our day came to a spell-binding close atop of the nearby Desert Wilderness Sculpture Park; where the golden orange rays of the setting sun brilliantly lit up the intricately carved limestone structures. It was sad to think we were now done with the magic of the outback – Australia’s spiritual home; but did take some heart in the experiences and memories we’d had and will treasure forever. Then it was time for pot noodles and bed, back at St Pat’s Racecourse – another unexpectedly random camping spot just outside of Broken Hill, where we were guided to our ‘pitch’ in amongst the grandstands by a grumpy bloke on a quad bike.

Escaping a ‘Widow Maker’ en route back to Sydney

The next days drive needed to be a marathon 10 hour effort, in order to be back in Sydney the following day to house sit for my Uncle and Auntie. Therefore the only stop we had time for, was a toilet break at a lay-by, that had entertainingly been overtaken by a herd of intimidating goats…

As hoped, we successfully made it all the way to Dubbo that evening; an agricultural NSW town that unbeknown to us, would host a visit by Prince Harry and Meghan Markle a few months later, due to the severe droughts that plagued the area. Pleasantly we arrived in time to enjoy a few schooners of flavoursome, ice cold Pacific Ales at the Old Bank pub, to celebrate International Beer Day, before picking up some $5 pizzas at Dominos.

That evening we made a choice that could have cost us our life; to spend the night at a popular lay-by just outside of Dubbo. Despite arriving late, conveniently there was a perfectly sized space for us to park up, a short walk from the toilets. Annoyingly, after having setup our beds in the back, I remembered a comment I’d read on wiki camps earlier about dangerous gum trees, nicknamed ‘Widowmakers’. This label had come about due to their habit of dropping huge limbs without warning, at times of stress e.g. droughts, causing death to anyone unwittingly situated below. It was now clear why nobody else had parked where we had! Reluctantly, we shifted our gear off the drivers seat, so I could re-park safely away from the shadows of the murderous wood that hung above us.

Morning broke, and we were glad the same couldn’t be said for the tree boughs! Glad to have survived the night plagued by nightmares of splintering shrubbery, we quickly got back on the road. Following a brief stop past Mount Victoria and Katoomba for lunch, high up in the picturesque Blue Mountains, our 2 month Outback adventure came to a close back in Sydney where it had begun, some 12,000 km earlier. It was nice to be ‘home’, welcomed by beautiful Lillie the American Staffy, and cheeky cats: Bailey and Saskia, who were all happy to see us again 🙂