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Helen & Sarah

...So my father has always told me when I've gone to him with my head hung low at difficult times in my life. However, huddled up in the tiny confines of our tent in an isolated spot on the Coromandel Peninsula - noted for its outdoor delights such as beautiful beaches and scenic walks - after a six-hour drive down from Northland, listening to the heavy incessant rain drumming on the canvas, this is not the first thought to enter my head... No more so when, the next morning, no break in the downpour, having decided to move on to somewhere with more wet-weather attractions, the car coughs and splutters but absolutely refuses to start. Battery? Starter motor? Alternator? I don't know - despite my ardent beliefs in women's equality I have never pretended or even greatly desired to know more than how to check the oil of my car (and this only after I had nearly blown an engine by letting it run almost completely dry). But I do know that the rain is hammering down and, exactly one week after handing over our precious money for the car, we're stuck in the middle of nowhere and it wouldn't ever occur to me to see an opportunity in this problem. After standing on the side of the road in the torrential rain, soaked to the skin, desperately flagging down the three cars which passed in two hours, asking for jump-leads and playing (or being?) helpless females while a kind Kiwi, (dressed head to toe in oilskins), sorted us out... we're enjoying the luxury of movement again, heading, reluctantly, for Hamilton. Our planned weekend lazing languidly on lush beaches - a reward after driving over 1500 kilometres in one week - has been brutally superceded by foul weather and the necessity of sorting the car out, which, we've discovered, is also leaking oil at a rate of about two litres a day. Sorry, dad, but I still can't see any opportunities here.

Photos of New Zealand: Helen Gilchrist

So, what consolation does Hamilton have to offer then? I reach under the seat for THE ROUGH GUIDE, which further dampens our spirits. 'Hamilton has been dubbed The Fountain City owing to its predilection for water-gushing ornamentation, though a more accurate moniker might be Transit Centre'. A hub of North Island air, rail and road routes, the town resembles nothing so much as a glorified interchange... the city contains little of lasting interest to visitors. I sigh, sit back, and gaze at the brown undulating hills and oppressive grey skies, trees bending in the relentless wind, horizontal rain lashing across the windscreen, telling myself that we can't have it all good all the time... A couple of hours later and we're cosily settled in the Best Western Motor Lodge, Hamilton. Our dark moods have been slightly reconciled by warmth, TV, the prospect of a night in a proper bed and the distractions of a city (even if it is only a 'glorified interchange') - cafes, cinema, hotmail to and from home, and maybe even a night on the town. If we have to spend two daysin Hamilton we may as well try to enjoy ourselves.

4:30am: stomping 'home' through the icy air after a good night's sampling the whole spectrum of Hamilton's after-dark entertainments; Biddy Mulligan's Irish Pub, trendy thirtysomething candlelit brasserie-bars, 'The Outback' heaving student pub, and 'Motion' - a mean throbbing dark sweaty underground jungle club. The night's over and we're relishing the thought of warm, dry beds... when we overtake a couple of guys stumbling home who start chatting to us. Normal reaction is to speed up and ignore them, but a few sharp, witty comments make us linger a little longer. And, turns out their friend's a mechanic...

Four days later, we finally leave Hamilton's city limits. One of the guys, Craig, kindly took in the vagrants and put us up on the sofa-bed in his living-room, and we talked laughed ate with his household, took a little part in the lives of a few real nice Kiwis; a refreshing change from the information-exchanging, place and price-comparing conversations with other travellers. And our beautiful sea-green motor is back in shape, fully convalesced; new battery, oil seals changed, and a good going over and thumbs-up from Jimmy the nice mechanic. So, dad... your wisdom has shone through - our problem has evaporated and we've made some good friends. We chuckle as we pass the city sign which reads Hamilton: 'more than you expect'.


Time to get back on course checking out New Zealand's natural wonders (sorry, Hamilton, but you're not quite awe-inspiring!). So we head for Rotorua - the centre of New Zealand's most energetic area of geothermal activity - eagerly anticipating powerful spurting geysers, bubbling pools of boiling mud, brightly coloured mineral lakes and a soaking in the hot natural spas. Rotorua also has a large Maori population, and Maori-run tours and events make their culture, crafts and traditions more accessible to visitors than anywhere else in the country. The combination of thermal wonderland with a vibrant Maori culture has made this place the most popular destination on the North Island, hence the local nicknames Roto-Vegas and Sulphur City... but as you drive into the city, the signs ask you to 'feel the spirit'. First impressions: low-rise urban sprawl, garages and repair centres, supermarkets and motels hotels hostels all boasting spa-pools lining every street into town and the whole place stinks of rotten eggs, reminding you that somewhere amongst all the concrete and billboards lie spectacular geological wonders. The Te Whatarewarewa Thermal Reserve, however, gave us what we were looking for. We watched in close proximity as the mighty Pohutu Geyser violently spewed boiling water thirty metres in the air, marvelled at Ngamokaiaoka (Leaping frog Mud Pool) bubbling and steaming, took photos of hot rocks coated in sulphur crystals and mineral deposits resembling heavy frost and dripping icicles enveloped in steam and spray from the
neighbouring geysers.

Midday: time for the daily concert of traditional Maori music and dance at the Rotowhio Marae, the social and spiritual centre of the Maori village. Visitors, whether Maori or Pakeha (European) may not enter the Marae without invitation, so, unless you have Maori friends, a commercially-run tour is the only opportunity for an insight into their culture. Having had four days off the tourist trail staying in a laid-back Kiwi household, it felt strange to be back in the midst of the lime-green-shorted, matching raincoat-wearing, Mickey Mouse T-shirted, camera-wealding throng assembled at the gates of the Marae. Not that we were any different or better than anyone else - I too was clutching my camera, ready for the rare photo opportunity - but it felt overwhelmingly uncomfortable as we advanced, following our nominal leader (Steve from Milton Keynes), over the sacred ground towards the Meeting House... umming ahhing and snapping away as athletic young Maori warriors performed their ritualistic and fearsome challenge with twirling clubs, flickering tongues and bulging eyes, before the women emerged singing a welcoming call. I wondered what they must think of us - sneakered, rucksacked, logoed - clicking whispering creeping towards them as they put on the show they do everyday. I know the Whakarewarewa Reserve is Maori-owned and they put on these displays to educate people and perpetuate their traditions and culture, but the feeling of us gaping at and photographing them like living museum exhibits made me feel awkward and sad. '


A long, flat road skirting around green, sheep-strewn hills and paddocks, pine forests part-shaved by loggers, and views of dark inky-blue mountains constantly fringing the horizon leads us, through drizzling rain, to Lake Taupo - the North Island's centre for adrenaline-pumping activities and a 'must' stop-off for tour buses packed out with wacky thrill-seekers. The damp and biting air makes us abandon all thoughts of sleeping under canvas, and, as we check in to a large, central backpackers (the only beds left in town!), the woman at reception asks us 'what, you actually STAYED in Hamilton? What's there for backpackers to do there?' and 'have you booked your adrenaline timetable yet?' Taupo beckons with a thousand and one ways to seperate you from your money (and your stomach), giving you zany tales to impress your friends back home with at the same time: sky-diving, bungy jumping, jet-boat riding, white-water rafting, paragliding, parascending, rock-climbing, abseiling, zorbing (rolling down a hill inside a large rubber ball)... the list is endless. If money were no object, it would be fantastic to experience some of these things... but, at the same time, the whole place has an outsized school summer adventure camp meets Club 18-30 feel to it, and, anyways, we have thousands of kilometres' worth of petrol to pay for yet (and not a lot of dollars). Call us tight-fisted old grannies, but we opt to take in some of the fantastic scenery and go for a good old-fashioned (and free!) walk along the Waikato River up to the thundering Huka Falls. And the new day is absolute perfection; piercing, clear blue sky, the river shimmering turquoise, bright yellow gorse and luminous new green leaves contrasting against the blue cloudless backdrop, the air sweet and pure... and we stumble across a steaming waterfall and thermal springs, leading, in a whole series of rocky pools, down to the sparkling clear river. Seems like everyone else in Taupo is up in planes or dangling on the end of long pieces of elastic - we have the place to ourselves, so strip off and soak luxuriously in the hot pools... take an icy invigorating plunge in the river, then warm up again under the warm waterfall.

After hours spent wallowing in our own private natural (and, of course, free!) spa complex, we get back in the car and wind around the shores of the huge blue Lake Taupo, looking up at snow-covered mountains and singing clapping loudly, shamelessly, in the privacy of our car, to the non-stop singalong classics of the 1960's and 70's being belted out by SOLID GOLD FM. The road emerges onto an immense plain, a sign indicates The Desert Road and the empty road stretches out before us - as far as the eye can see bordered by miles and miles of tufty brown scrubland rising up to mighty steaming volcanoes, sheer scraggy rockfaces and snowy mountains on the horizon... all under a vast, boundless blue sky. This is a fantasy landscape; no wonder they're filming LORD OF THE RINGS here. I watch the road disappearing under the dusty sea-green bonnet, see the same unchanging panorama of road plain mountains sky reflected in the rear-view mirror, think this is it...


Some of them involve a (strictly rationed!) credit card transaction. And a good measure of bravery. Kaikoura: where the mountains plummet thousands of metres down into the sea, and a whole array of marine animals feed and frolic in the deep waters of the ocean canyon just off Kaikoura's coastline. And, believe-it-or-not, the penny-picking old grannies have forked out $95 to swim with some of them; the Dusky Dolphins. But, as we sit in the cosy hostel, looking out at black skies, our tent pitched in the garden, the fresh snow on the mountains and the wild, foaming seas churning, we're not overly excited at the prospect of getting up at 5 o'clock, heading a kilometre out to sea and jumping into it - however fascinating and 'spiritual' this encounter is supposed to be. All today's trips have been cancelled due to the dangerous sea conditions... and we are feebly, guiltily hoping that it might be the same tomorrow.

At three minutes to five Sarah sleepily unzips and looks out at the clear starlit sky; 'oh no, it's going to be a beautiful day!' No escape then. An hour later and we're on the boat, winter steamer inch-thick wetsuits, hoods, booties, flippers, masks, snorkels... chugging out over glassy sea in the chill purple dawn, silent, bleary-eyed, the thousand-metre deep canyon beneath us dominating my thoughts. I watch an albatross circle the boat, listen to the guide on the VHF radio trying to track the dolphins. The boat slows and, a couple of seconds later; 'right, there's a large pod about twenty metres from the left-hand side of the boat, so over you go!' The horn sounds to let us know that the propellor has stopped turning and it's safe to enter the water, and, looking over, we see six sleek and gracefully arching backs and dorsal fins gliding through the water towards the boat.

Dolphins running free. Photo: Helen Gilchrist

That's it - no time to deliberate, just a deep breath and in... Floating around, a tiny fleck on the surface of the unfathomable depths below, looking down into bluey nothingness and singing squeaking clicking, as we had been instructed, trying to arouse the dolphins' interest. Scientific evidence suggests that dolphins' ancestors were four-legged terrestrial mammals who began adapting to life in the sea 50 million years ago; ancient Greek myths tell how dolphins were 'aforetime men living in cities along with mortals' who 'by the devising of Dionysos... put on the form of fishes' -well, if any of this is true, the human side of the dolphins is exercising taste and discretion, staying well away from my terrible singing. I look up above the surface to see that I've drifted a fair distance away from the boat and the others in the group, who are all surrounded by dorsal fins and jumping, splashing dolphins. Isolated and alone, I recall the SHARK DIVE shop next door to the DOLPHIN ENCOUNTER office on Kaikoura's main drag... imagine my tiny silhouette viewed from the depths below, flickering on the glassy surface. Startling me suddenly, darting past my right shoulder is a dolphin and its calf, streaks of grey and silver flashing by in the aquamarine, circling around me inquisitively... then another couple of mothers and babies... then three, four, six more, spiralling down; me in the middle frantically twisting spinning, flayling limbs, trying to keep up, in the midst of fifteen or twenty dolphins. Dizzy, exhilerated and gasping I surface quickly for air... look down again to see the last silver tail vanish into to thickening blue.

Christmas is approaching - there's no escape. The shops are filled with cards decorations gift-packs, the radio stations playing Christmas hits, cheesy commercial jingles and even live telephone interview-style adverts discussing the merits price special-offers on particular products... but there are new-born lambs in the buttercup-covered fields, the trees are blossoming, and the evenings smell of bar-b-ques. Confusing and disorientating - but the unfamiliar setting for the coming festivies is also strangely comforting, as Sarah leaves in ten days and I'll be alone. Better to be alone on the beach than in the cold though...

© Helen Gilchrist 2000
Update: Christmas is coming and I'm nursing a sunburnt nose! Very strange.
Enjoy the festive season and I'll speak to you all soon!

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