After the tropical paradise of Aitutaki the ‘Long Way Home’ was set for a total change of pace. Greeted at the airport by the smiling faces of my great friends Phil and Kerry-anne, the feel of the trip changed in an instant. The Cook Islands quickly felt like ‘back then’ and America felt like a distant memory, now I was on the other side of the world and in New Zealand.

Wellington cable car, New Zealand

Phil and Kerry-anne moved from the UK to New Zealand in May, a bold life-changing decision less than a year after they were married. Phil was born in New Zealand but hadn’t returned to his mother country since he was a young child, and Kerry-anne had never even seen this side of the world until the day they arrived in Wellington on the North Island to begin their new life here! However, they quickly settled here and it didn’t take long to see why the pair of them spoke so highly of their new home.

Wellington, New Zealand

WELLINGTON

I spent the first couple of days hanging out with Phil and visiting various sites around Wellington. Dressed for the summer weather and drinking a fruit smoothie I kept forgetting that it was Christmas as we wandered into the city past sun-bathers on the sandy beaches that reach out into the crystal clear harbour. It felt bizarre to me to see carol singers in shorts and t-shirts, shops with Christmas themed windows, and decorated Christmas trees baking under the summer blue sky.

Expensive looking homes seemed to sit precariously close to one another on the impossibly steep hills that overlook the city, looking dangerously like they would all fall into the harbor if their was even the slightest earth tremor. However, New Zealand is no stranger to earthquakes and tremors here aren’t at all uncommon.

Not far from Phil and Kerry-anne’s apartment there are the beaches of Lyall Bay where we went looking for colorful Paua shells and where surfers were riding the waves. Just walking here made me realise that Phil and Kerry-anne were never likely to return to the UK for more than a visit, after all, why would they?

Flying over Wellington in a helicopter

Day two of the New Zealand trip featured a definite highlight in the form of a helicopter tour over Wellington. Neither Phil or I had been in a helicopter before and as the weather was clear we decided it was the ideal opportunity to give it a go.

It was a perfect ‘boys toys’ moment for the pair of us! I got such a rush of excitement as we left the ground and took to the skies over the city. The sound of the Robinson R44‘s engine was wonderfully loud and as we swept over the hills surrounding Wellington with the pilot pointing out the various sites, I felt like I was the host on one of those TV travel shows you watch with envious eyes. Long after we had landed I was still buzzing from the thrill of the ride.

Christmas day in New Zealand

On Christmas day, after unwrapping gifts at the apartment and making various phone calls to family back in the UK, we headed off to friends of Phil and Kerry-anne’s for a beautiful Christmas brunch complete with Christmas crackers and paper crowns! I could have stayed there all day but Phil had meticulously planned an incredible whirlwind tour of the North Island which we needed to get underway.

On open roads we made our way through the beautiful rolling countryside to Lake Taupo, the largest fresh water lake in Australasia. Our accommodation for most of the trip was going to be Phil’s new tent, but for this night he had booked a suite at a hotel next to the lake.

COMPLIMENTARY BAD WINE

Kerry-anne, being a true Merseyside girl, was elated to find a complimentary bottle of local wine in the room. Unfortunately I will remember that wine as being without a doubt the foulest tasting nastiness that ever bore the name wine, but as we said at the time, it was a nice gesture on the part of the hotel.

Christmas day at Lake Tapau

On the evening of Christmas day the three of us went for a walk along the lakeside. The lady who ran the hotel had told us to wade a little way into the water on the shore of the lake then dig our feet down a little to feel warmth of underwater hydrothermal activity. The water was ice cold, but sure enough, as we dug our feet a little way into the pebbles we found hot water.

We stood there for ages, yelping like small children as we felt the hot water hit the soles of our feet. Then as the sun began to set and the three of us sat on the banks of the lake and watched as the sky as it turned the most amazing shades or red and orange.

A black swan on Lake Tapau at sunset

The next day we jumped back into the car and began another long day of driving, heading to Waitomo and so see the glowworm caves and our first night in the tent.

THE PASSENGER AIR BAG

As a passenger in the car I was privy to witness how Kerry-anne assists Phil with his driving. She helps Phil find the optimum driving method by repeadetdly advising him to “slow down, slow down, slow down, slow down!!” She also dutifully assists Phil by pointing out each and every single speed limit sign and saying that limit out loud in a clear manner so as there can be no misunderstanding. This is then often followed quickly with another helpful “slow down, slow down” instruction. Sadly Kerry-anne’s assistance doesn’t include map reading or any useful navigational aid, but without her loving assistance Phil would surely be nothing short of a menace on the roads of New Zealand.

However, on this road-trip Kerry-anne was unable to fully assist Phil due to the fact that she was in the back seat of the vehicle. Because of this Phil was completely unable to read any and all road signs and therefore unfortunately drove a little to fast at one point which caught the attention of a nearby police officer who then pulled us over and issued Phil with his first New Zealand speeding ticket. Needless to say Kerry-anne was extremely sorry that she failed to prevent this from happening, but from that moment on she increased her helpful driving assistance from the back seat which I could tell Phil really appreciated.

Kerry-anne was pissed at Phil getting a speeding ticket

CAMPING

Upon arriving in Waitomo I’d like to say that I helped Phil put the tent up. However, that simply wouldn’t be true. I did offer to help, but as I stood there holding tent poles and pegs I felt a little bit like I do whenever I watch someone work on my car which works entirely by magic as far as I’m concerned.

It’s fair to say that I am not really a camping kind of guy, but that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the experience. I’m just waiting for the invention of the self erecting tent that comes complete with heating, a hot tub, wifi internet, maid service, a restaurant and a comfortable bed. But until that time the tent we had was great.

The glowworm caves were amazing, but there was no photography allowed and no point even trying as there was insufficient light. In near total darkness we we’re taken through the caves on a small boat. Looking up at the hundreds of thousands of glowworms was amazing because they looked exactly like a starry night sky.

Carved maori faces at Te Puia

The next stop was Rotarua, famous for it’s geothermal activity, erupting geysers, bubbling hot mud pools and thermal springs. The place is something of a tourist hotspot and has earned the rather cynical nickname of ‘RotaVegas’ as a result. Here the air is thick with the pungent smell of sulphur due to vast amount of thermal activity in the area.

The Whakarewarewa Geothermal Valley is the thinnest point of the earths crust, and there we visited Te Puia, The New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute. A guide told us about Maori history and culture as we walked through the cultural centre where people were weaving and carving traditional Maori art. We also saw bubbling mud pools and watched Pohutu, their most famous geyser, spectacularly erupt sending steaming hot water high into the air.

CHIEF SIMON

That evening we went to the Mitai Maori Village where we ate a great feast and enjoyed a display of Maori culture. While there I was made a Chief of the ‘visiting tribe’ of tourists. I didn’t think this would involve anything much until our guide informed me that I must take this seriously because I was going to have to meet their tribal Chief and make a speech in front of everyone! Phil said that at this point I looked more nervous then than I did when I had to give my best man speech as his wedding!

In the end it was a fun experience and I thoroughly enjoyed being a visiting Chief. Once again I felt like the host on some TV travel show as I had to take part in the Powhiri (Maori welcome) ceremony. A Maori warrior did a Haka intimidation dance in front of me whereupon I had to accept a peace offering before meeting the Chief, giving my speech and doing the Hongi, a traditional greeting where you touch noses.

After that I just enjoyed the rest of the evenings events and lapped up all the attention of being ‘Chief Simon,’ a title which I think I shall keep, though I won’t require any further Hongi greetings!

Rotorua

Phil’s meticulously planned non-stop whirlwind tour allowed us the luxury of a hotel in Rotorua and after breakfast the next morning all three of us were booked in at the famous Polynesian Spa where we chilled out in their hot mineral spas and had treatments. I had a Rotorua Mud Detoxifying Body Wrap which involved being wrapped up like a Fajita in warm mud for a while – a pretty weird experience, but you know how it is… “When in Rome…”

The rain, which Kerry-anne doesn’t want to believe falls in New Zealand, caught up with us at Mt Maunganui in the Bay of Plenty. From there our next stop was a town called Whakatane which is rather comically pronounced “fuk-a-taane.’ Being a comical kind of fellow I made a few wise cracks about it sounding like a fun place, that was until I found out that Tanne is the Maori word for men! After that I made a few jokes about needing to find a place called Whakawahine, Wahini being the Maori word for women. However I’ve since discovered that whakawahine is a Maori male to female transgender, so I am no longer going to even try and make any Maori language jokes.

MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE

At Ohope Bay I cast a message in a bottle into the Bay of Plenty with the romantic notion that it might make a fantastic journey to somewhere exotic. However, against the rain and incoming tide the bottle had little chance of going anywhere, and sure enough 2 days later, almost exactly where I threw it into the bay, Andrea Deane found the bottle and reported its rather pitiful journey to me via email.

Leaving the rain behind us we took to the notoriously winding roads once more and threaded our way through misty forest roads and on to Napier, New Zealand’s wine country.

Road Trip

We spent New Years Eve in Napier and even visited the beach for the last evening of the year, a novel experience given that back in the UK this would almost certainly be a biting cold day.

After a particularly late night I wasn’t overly excited to hear the alarm go off at the crack of dawn, but Phil and I had agreed to get up at that time to watch the worlds first sunrise of 2009. It was worth it though, and something of a buzz to know we were greeting the first dawn of 2009 before anyone else in the world.

Later that day, as we drove back to Wellington I have to admit I felt a little blue. My time in New Zealand was drawing to a close as was my time with my friends whom I probably won’t see again for quite some time.

AN AMAZING TIME

Our road-trip was amazing. Phil had single handedly organized the packed itinerary with his only demand on me being nothing more than my presence. He drove every mile of the journey and made sure that we were happy and entertained the entire time. Every day was exhaustively packed with things to do and places to see, much of which I haven’t touched on here.

The next day at the airport I was sad to be leaving. But as one chapter of the Long Way Home was ending so another was about to begin. Having travelled to the other side of the globe my next location on the trip would be a country I have dreamed of visiting for many many years. The next stop would be Australia.

[Video] The message in a bottle
[Video] Putting up the tent
Long Way Home : The Cook Islands
Long Way Home : California USA
Long Way Home : The route