Travelling around NZ, The Weekender (Albany) Sept 20, 2007

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When I told a city friend I was moving to Albany and he asked why, I replied: “Because it’s too late to live in New Zealand.”

Last year when I got off the plane in Christchurch the sniffer dog almost bit my leg off to get at the WA grown garlic and ginger in my bag, but this year I was well prepared: I packed nothing edible.

On decent towards Wellington, the small jet looked like it was headed for a large hill, or wide stretch of water, but instead it settled on a thin stretch of land between Cook Straight and the inner harbour. And therein lay the answer for the small jet, the big fellas can’t land there, not enough room.

An old friend from Curtin University met me and drove up a hill for a view of greater Wellington. Three things were immediately obvious: the wind was cold as ice; flax grew wild; the broad view of water with single-hill islands reminded me of Albany.

We didn’t stay long in Wellington, too many old times to go over, newer times to discuss and mountains to climb, so we headed north towards Mt Taranaki, or Gliding Peak.

My friend assured me we were travelling a unique route: “No-one drives up this West coast,” he said. “It’s dismal.”

We bypassed Palmerston North, made famous by John Cleese, who once said “If you ever want to kill yourself but lack the courage, I think a visit to Palmerston North will do the trick”. We missed it not because my friend agreed with Cleese, because he didn’t, but because it wasn’t “anywhere near dismal enough, in fact, it’s quite a nice town”.

We spent our first sleepless night in New Plymouth, not because we sat up all night talking, but because at 1.30am five blokes on a building site next door decided to get out the jackhammer and give the town a damned good shake up.

Next day we drove into the Egmont National Park and this was my first good view of Aotearoa, the Maori name for New Zealand, in its natural state. On my 2006 trip along the South Island’s east coast I had seen a land taken over by European and Australian flora and fauna.

And when you learn that native vegetation once covered around 80percent of both the North and South Islands, you can imagine the original beauty of Aotearoa, which means, you probably guessed, The Land of the Long White Cloud.

At the base of Mt Taranaki tourists were decked out in essential gear, eager to climb a slope, fall down a slope and, eventually, conquer a slope, but being the proud owner of more broken bones than is advisable for an aging man, I had one major aim while in the middle of the north: a hot spring bath at Lake Taupo followed by a massage.

On our way we had to stop for the house with the bike fence. If there’s one thing you notice about New Zealanders outside the cities, they know how to liven up a long drive.

In Taupo my lack of bathers was no obstacle. The staff simply offered me a hot-spring room of my own, where I could bath with my privates in private.

Our drive around the North Island was over in quick-time because my friend had a business to run in Wellington, but on my own I caught the ferry across Cook Straight, where I hired a car for another whirlwind tour of the top-half of the South Island. I nearly didn’t make it back to the ferry.

South of Blenheim I spotted some fascinating rock formations on the beach, stopped the car and ran down a heavily pebbled bank, lost my footing and launched myself into the midst of 200 angry seals.

They barked and flopped in all directions, while I picked myself up, shook the fear out of my system and cursed the lack of camera, which sat useless in the car.

Of I went for another hot-spring bath at Hanmer Springs, a delightful drive through the heavily wooded Victoria Forest Park and down to Greymouth, which seemed aptly named.

Then it was a long drive up the west coast, a long stop at Punakaiki to marvel at the blow-holes and the pancake rocks and the beaches tormented by the Tasman Sea, rocks and great southern squalls.

Three days later, back in Wellington, or Te Whanganui-a-Tara, Great Harbour of Tara, I spent two days in Toi Te Papa, Art of the Nation, a museum that reveals the art of Aotearoa in its full extent, covering a wide range of cultures, but particularly that of the Tangata Maori and the early Pakeha, Europeans.

Then it was back on board the little jet and up up and away, eventually, to Albany, Wellington of the West, Noongar Boodja, Noongar Country and home to Sprung, the best little writing festival in Gondwanaland.

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