Blue Duck Station – or the middle of Nowhere ;)

Ourย whฤnau then boarded the bus to go to Blue Duck Station for 2 nights. No internet, no mobile reception, no shops, just nature – can’t get more remote than that. And sure enough, it was an hour’s drive from Tongariro National Park, of which 40 minutes were on a gravel road ๐Ÿ˜‰

We did stop in Taupo on the way and saw the Huka Falls as well as Lake Taupo, even got to go to some hot springs there. Also we did a small photo stop in the National Park as it was a beautiful clear day and all three peaks were in clear sight.

The supermarket stop meant of course getting everything for the two or even three days, main emphasis on drinks because Blue Duck has a reputation with Stray for the most epic partying. ๐Ÿ˜‰ Once we got there, we got a big welcome in the cafe there and then got assigned to our rooms as well as the activities for the next day. They also offered some spaces in a tent and in a very spontaneous decision, I opted for that ๐Ÿ™‚ It turned out to be a very big tent, comfortably sleeping six people on mattresses on camping beds ๐Ÿ™‚

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We had a group meal that night, chicken fajitas and thanks to Hilary teaching me the secret to packing and rolling a wrap, I managed to eat it without any accidents ๐Ÿ˜‰ Was quite funny to watch some of the others struggle though I have to admit! After that, straight on to party and drinking. Add good music (thanks Lego!) and a fireplace to the mix and you get what guarantees the reputation ๐Ÿ˜‰

My activity was once again horse-trekking, starting at about 9 the next morning. The horse I got was called Crocket and he was very nice, just had the habit of throwing his head up and down a lot. The girl leading us had warned me about that, but it did take some getting used to. We took a nice track across some of the land that form the station and made our way gradually up the hill until we got to the highest point, aptly named “The end of the world” ๐Ÿ™‚

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The horses got a bit of a rest and we some photos before it was back down, this time on a much steeper track and my dear Crocket liked to walk right on the edge of the cliffs… it was a little more excitement than I would have liked to be honest, but we made it down in one piece ๐Ÿ˜‰ We stopped and got off and then waited for the “surprise” – which turned out to be meeting the other group of riders who took over the horses from us for their track.

Our group got to see the Blue Duck Falls, first from above and then from the pool below, which meant a very steep and muddy climb down. Guess who lost her balance and went down on her butt for a bit? YES… Down a the pool, a few kayaks were waiting for us and we were to go for a small trip to the next gorge. I had made it through almost all of NZ without a kayak, so this was my first time and I just didn’t get the hang of it… going around in circles and shoving water into the kayak was not really my idea of fun, so I got back out and had someone else take my place. Seems I can do big boats, but no small ones ๐Ÿ˜‰

The next bit was much more fun though, we got to go on a 4WD and speeded around the farmland, stopping a few times for explanations about Oreo cows, Manuka honey and wild pigs before we got back to the Station ๐Ÿ™‚ The day was beautiful, sunny and just made for a relaxed afternoon – so that was what I did ๐Ÿ˜‰

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Whฤnau :)

We got picked up from Rotorua on the legendary Lego Bus and what I didn’t know at the time, I should stay on that same bus for the rest of my trip ๐Ÿ™‚ Lego was my first female driver and just like her favourite song, she was awesome!

It was well after 1 pm by the time we left Rotorua and were on our way towards Lake Aniwhenua, our second cultural stay on this journey. We picked up our local guide somewhere along the way and first he took us into a part of the big forest there to show us some ancient carvings in the rocks there. They are said to have been done by the first Maori settlers there to represent their journey back home – which was impossible for them in real life. He also told us that this land belonged to his tribe and only by their permission were we allowed there. Without permission, it is an offence to be there.

With him on the bus, we explored the area a bit more and learned about the history of the farms and villages, the biggest settlement being Murupara. It is one of the poorest areas in all of New Zealand and had a bad reputation for gang crimes etc. We would learn later what our stay had to do with fighting this.

Our stay for the night was Kohutapu Lodge, a former hunting lodge, now owned by a Maori lady named Nadine or Nades and her husband. Their goal is it to keep the Maori traditions alive and at the same time helping the locals to get back on their feet by supporting tourism and so on. The rooms were really nice, overlooking the Lake Aniwhenua and a large garden. There was also a big kitchen and a bar, besides that a hole in the ground where soon a gas burner was blasting heat at some stones. Why? Because we were to get our “hangi” that night. Remember “hongi”? That was the nose-rubbing… “Hangi” however has to do with food ๐Ÿ˜‰

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What happens at a hangi is that the stones are heated up as much as possible, then baskets with food are put in over them and the whole thing is covered and left for a few hours. For us, that meant that a basket with pork, a basket with whole chickens and a basket with potatoes, kumara (sweet potato) and pumpkin were stacked on top of each other – vegetables last – and put on those stones. Then the lads from the lodge put a tarp over it and covered that with sand so that no air from the pit could get out. In this cave under the tarp, the food gets cooked slowly by the heat from the stones and as the steam can only circulate, the flavours from the meat go into the veggies and the whole thing just is delicious!!

To make the most of the waiting for the hangi, there were several activities and I opted for the flax weaving. For that we received long stripes from flax leaves and made a bracelet for ourselves. It was good fun even though my bracelet wasn’t exactly pretty after ๐Ÿ˜‰ We also started going to the bar for drinks and were pretty merry by the time the food was ready ๐Ÿ™‚

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It was served buffet style and we had baskets made of flax instead of plates. There was also fried bread and cranberry sauce to go with the meat and the result was very much the same as a Thanksgiving meal – even though that was two days later ๐Ÿ˜‰ There was also a quiz after dinner and dessert, we had two birthdays that day and got to sing them a song ๐Ÿ™‚

After we were finished, Nadine explained a bit more about what they were doing to help the community there. Maori custom means that the guests should never be left hungry, so there’s always a lot of food left. We were to pack that up in portions in some styrofoam boxes they provided and it would be taken to the local school the next day. For some of the kids, that would be the only proper meal they get and the first time they’d ever meet people from abroad… Unfortunately, the next day was a special day at the school and we didn’t get to bring the food there in person like most of the other buses ๐Ÿ˜ฆ But Nades handed out some letters from the kids who had been receiving such meals and met others before and those were heart-warming as well as heart-breaking. These kids suddenly realised that there is a whole wide world out there and that they have chances in life ๐Ÿ™‚

The evening concluded out by the bar with some storytelling and general Maori questions and we all went to bed happy I would say. We were a family that night, all of us – and that’s what whฤnau means ๐Ÿ™‚ As in every good family, it was a rather emotional goodbye the next morning. But in Maori you don’t really say goodbye, you say something like “until the next time” ๐Ÿ™‚ (Unfortunately I have forgotten the phrase…)

Touring the East Coast with the East Bros

From Rotorua, we got picked up in a smaller bus by Kelly or Kels who took us towards the East Coast of the North Island, first stop Gisborne. As I hopped off there, I didn’t partake in any of the activities like wine-tasting in a really cool-looking bar or stingray feeding the next morning, but that was ok.

I hopped back on a few days later, this time with Jason and a bunch of really cool people! This had been a bit of a worry because we would spend 3 days together in this small bus and small hostels in small places ๐Ÿ˜‰ But I couldn’t have wished for better travel companions ๐Ÿ™‚

From Gisborne we set out to Tolaga Bay first, with the longest pier in New Zealand. A few of us were crazy enough to jump into the sea from the end – I was told it was bloody freezing, especially walking back the whole length of it with just a towel ๐Ÿ˜‰ Then we went on to Tokomaru Bay and our hostel for the night. This one was up on a hill, overlooking said Bay and aptly named Stranded in Paradise!

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It was one big house, with two dorms on the ground floor and a big living room and kitchen – the rest of the beds were mattresses up in three different attic bits. Very cosy and extremely comfy! ๐Ÿ™‚ย There were several activities on offer, but I opted for being lazy and staying in with some others and we had a quite cosy afternoon ๐Ÿ™‚ Then we cooked together for all of us and enjoyed our dinner and the evening with card games, jigsaws and the like.

In the morning we set off for Te Araroa and the Manuka oil production there, where we learned about the plant and the product and got a taste of Manuka tae and ice tea ๐Ÿ™‚ Refreshed like that we went to the East Cape and walked the 768 steps (something like that) up to the East Cape lighthouse. It was quite a walk, but the weather was perfect and the views from up there couldn’t have been better ๐Ÿ™‚

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We also stopped at a church right by the sea with wild horses around it and then came to our next hostel at Maraehako Bay. It was directly by the sea and as it was a pretty windy day, the waves were quite spectacular ๐Ÿ™‚ Again I opted for the lazy afternoon and spent some hours reading in the sunshine, getting splashed occasionally ๐Ÿ™‚

In the evening, our host served a seafood meal for the ones that had signed up for it. Of course I had, mainly because it was my last chance to get fresh crayfish ๐Ÿ˜‰ We got half a crayfish each (they’re like lobsters) and there was also potatoes, pumpkin and kumara (sweet potato), salad and two sorts of fish. No one went hungry there ๐Ÿ˜‰ The outside fireplace was a perfect place to end the evening ๐Ÿ™‚

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The next morning, the sea was all calm again and we had a beautiful light ๐Ÿ™‚ But we had to set off early as we were coming back into Rotorua for some to catch the Stray Bus from there. After a coffee break in the Two Fish Cafe in Opotiki with the best muffins ever we got to Rotorua on time and I could go back to my nice hostel ๐Ÿ™‚

Rotorua – a.k.a. the Smelly Place ;)

Rotorua has a lot of geothermal activity and therefore usually has a strong smell of sulphur all around the city. It’s not that pleasant and takes some getting used to, but I smelled worse. Also, I was going to stay 3 nights, so better not make a fuss about it ๐Ÿ˜‰

We were supposed to come into Rotorua before 9 a.m., but because the sheet had taken forever to go around the bus and the office hours for Hobbiton were a bit silly, it meant that the people who wanted to do it and stay on the bus didn’t get to do it. That was of course pretty upsetting for them, but not really Luca’s fault if some people hog it for over an hour… Anyway, the alternative was Wai-O-Tapu with the geyser and we went there. I wasn’t really keen on the park and just hung out in the bus and the cafe because it was too early to go to the hostel.

Even when we came back into Rotorua, it was still too early, but at least I could leave my luggage there and got a map from the receptionist, pointing out a nice 2 hour walk around the town and the lakefront. So I grabbed my camera, money and my hat and walked. The day was beautiful and sunny, the walk very pleasant and because I was in no hurry, I stopped here and there and took about 3 hours to come back.

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However, on my way I had read the news about the terror attack in Paris that night and so went straight to the tv lounge with my computer after leaving my luggage in the room. Some more people were gathered there and together we watched the horrible news. This also was a main feature of the next days as the WiFi was free and the weather bad…

The next morning I had booked on the Hobbiton tour. They have a huge operation there now and two buses doing the tour daily, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. It took about an hour to get there and the first stop was the shop. I didn’t find anything there though, most of the stuff was either tacky or too expensive ๐Ÿ˜‰

The actual tour of the hobbit holes and the area was really nice and interesting! Even though we were under time pressure to get through it before the next group, there was enough time for photos and I think everyone was happy ๐Ÿ™‚ The tour ended in the Green Dragon, where we got a free drink and could warm up in front of the fire. It was a grey day, but apparently we had missed the worst of the rain in the pub ๐Ÿ™‚

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The rain continued for the rest of the day and all of the next, so I didn’t even leave the hostel ๐Ÿ˜›

Glow worms and Maori

On our way to the cultural stay in Mourea, we stopped at Waitomo for the famous glow worm caves. Most of the others went for the adrenaline version with abseiling and rafting and such – but if you’ve been following me for a while, you know how I feel about pitch-dark and tight places ๐Ÿ˜‰ That’s why I went for the “senior” option with Spellbound, where we went into a glow worm cave on a private farm, first walking and then on a small rubber raft. After that we also got to see a limestone cave with stalactites and stalagmites, which was very interesting.

If you ever get to see glow worms, I learned this trick: If you make a loud noise (i.e. hitting the rubber raft with your flat hand), they will light up more – I forgot why though ๐Ÿ˜‰ It’s an amazing experience seeing a cave full of those tiny beetles ๐Ÿ™‚ I would like to show you some pictures… and I did bring my camera. But it had been switched on for a while in my bag and the battery was completely flat. Note to self: Always check battery the night before you go somewhere that you might want to take pictures ๐Ÿ˜‰ It was pretty amusing though watching the others fiddle around with their camera settings… especially after the guide had told them to set the ISO very low ๐Ÿ˜›

After Waitomo, we headed towards Rotorua and met our guide and host for the night, Piwi. He showed us some nice waterfalls and then took us to the marae of is tribe, where we were to get dinner, learn some Maori dance and sleep in the actual marae – all 43 of us ๐Ÿ™‚

We were welcomed by his sister and then exchanged “hongi” with everyone, the traditional greeting where you press your nose against that of your counterpart and say “Kia Ora”. That certainly led to a more relaxed atmosphere in the group and a lot of laughter ๐Ÿ˜‰ After that, we girls were asked to go to the kitchen while the boys should prepare the mattresses and pillows for the night.

Dinner was a lot, very good and really tasty, I think everyone enjoyed it even more because it was cooked for us ๐Ÿ˜‰ Then we got a cultural performance with songs and dancing by Piwi’s family and after that it was against the boys who had to leave. They were learning the Haka and we were learning the Poi – which meant twirling a ball on a string while performing certain movements and steps. I never thought that it could be so difficult to catch a ball on a string in one hand ๐Ÿ˜‰
It was a lot of fun though and we got to perform it for the boys, then they did the Haka for us. They looked pretty fierce! (Again, there are no pics due to flat battery. I got a few from someone on the bus, but as they are not mine, I will not post them).

When we were done dancing, it was closing in on bedtime and we all got to snuggle up on our mattresses in our sleeping bags while Piwi took over the storytelling. Some gruesome stories he had there, but it was again a lot of fun ๐Ÿ™‚
And if nobody out of 43 snores, that’s a guarantee for a good night’s sleep ๐Ÿ˜€

In the morning, we did get cereal and French toast for breakfast, again cooked by Piwi and his family, before we had to leave for Rotorua.

Retreat in Raglan :)

From Auckland we went to the surf town of Raglan, where I again had opted for a different hostel and a 3 night stay. Who was our driver? Right, Lantern for the third (and last) time! We got there pretty cruisy and I was at the hostel around 1 pm already – what I had not seen while booking was that it was on a pretty steep hill ๐Ÿ˜›

So with all my stuff I made my way up and fell into the reception, gasping for breath ๐Ÿ˜‰ I got a bed in a 6-bed dorm in an old train carriage, pretty special and very cosy! As my main goal was to relax and chill again, I didn’t really do much there. Free WiFi was only on the terrace in front of the reception, so limited by battery life and the temperatures ๐Ÿ˜‰ The view was absolutely spectacular though, so just sitting there was relaxing ๐Ÿ™‚

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The others were in a hostel up the road and having a group BBQ that night, so I had signed up for that thinking I could just walk there and back. Unfortunately, it was a pretty small road with not much space for walking, also with lots of bends and fast cars… and nobody had a torch, so I went there, got some food and then had to hurry back while there was still some light left in the sky. Adventure, yes!

The retreat did not only offer surf lessons (no, thanks), but also yoga in the morning (yes, please!). So i signed up for both mornings and got rewarded with a beautiful studio – above said terrace, so even better views out towards the sea. The first time it was a relaxation class and I was the only one there, so it was very rewarding for my poor body after all those buses and weird beds ๐Ÿ™‚ The second day was a flow class with 2 others, more intense in many ways but still very good ๐Ÿ™‚

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The next morning, Luca picked me up with the new group and we went towards Mourea, our first cultural stay ๐Ÿ™‚

The Far North

So here I was, in Paihia, where my dorm was actually empty for the first night – oh the luxury! ๐Ÿ™‚ Getting up early for the day trip to Cape Reinga the first challenge was to get out of the glass doors of the hostel building. I met a German woman already standing there and together we got the courage to push the emergency exit button – which, as it turned out, was the exact way to go ๐Ÿ˜‰

The bus picked me up where it should and immediately we were told that there’d be no sandboarding today – with no reason other than “it might not be for a few months” and “you can get off now, but probably won’t get a refund”. Surprisingly, nobody got out… We had a walk in a Kauri forest in Manginangina, a stop for coffee and then went on to 90 mile beach. It’s not actually 90 miles long, but still a pretty longย stretch of beach that is classified as a road with a speed limit of 100 km/h! Speeding along that in a bus was really cool ๐Ÿ˜€ We also could stretch our legs for a bit there, the water was pretty cold though!

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From there, our next stop was the beach inย Tapotupotu Bay for our lunchbreak ๐Ÿ™‚ More scenic lunch views should be pretty hard to find ๐Ÿ˜‰

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Then it was back up the hill and on to the actual Cape Reinga and the lighthouse there. All day we had seen a lot of motorbikes on the roads and it seemed they all went to Cape Reinga. Maybe it is a ritual to open the season? Some even went all the way down on the bikes, not too sure if that was actually legal ๐Ÿ˜‰ The walk down to the lighthouse was very nice and the weather absolutely perfect! If you look closely, you can see the collision of the Tasman Sea with the Pacific ๐Ÿ˜‰

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After that it was more or less straight back to Paihia with a stop for Fish & Chips. I didn’t eat there, my mind had been on a nice curry for a while. And sure enough the recommendation from the hostel receptionist was so good that I had curry two days in a row ๐Ÿ˜‰

On the next day, I went for a walk around the town and then to Waitangi for the Treaty Grounds. That morning, two cruise ships had arrived into Paihia and the population kind of multiplied, they even had traffic wardens ๐Ÿ˜‰ Waitangi was very interesting, the place where the British made a treaty with the Maori in 1840, signifying the birth of New Zealand. Due to mistranslations (told you, we have an important job!) and misinterpretation, the Maoriย have been disowned their lands and to this day are still fighting for justice. It was in this context that the Queen signed a law in public for the first time and the Crown officially apologised to the Maori in 1998!

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After that, I met up with Tabea again and we took the ferry over to the little town of Russell, formerly also known as the Hellhole of the Pacific ๐Ÿ˜‰ Not really hell anymore nowadays, very small and with good views over towards Paihia ๐Ÿ™‚ A good place to end the day! And we met a cute little dachshund named (of course!) Sausage ๐Ÿ˜‰

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The next day I was supposed to catch the Stray bus at 2 from the Maritime Building – only that it never showed up… in the end they booked me on the next Intercity bus and I got to Auckland in style, but about 2.5 hours later than expected. Just as well I only wanted to sleep and had to get up early for the bus the next day – my single room in the YMCA unfortunately reminded me of a prison cell ๐Ÿ˜‰

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