Monday, 30 April 2012

From the top of St Paul's Rock

With all the stormy weather we've had in the last week it's been a bit difficult to get a decent impression of the Bay of Islands despite having been to Paihia, Matauri Bay (the final resting place of the Greenpeace flagship, "Rainbow Warrior") and Opito Bay - all these places are very picturesque in their own right but not so nice in the torrential rain!

Taking advantage of the beautiful Easter weather, we drove 30km north of Kerikeri to Whangaroa Harbour to get away from the tourist traps so we could hike up St Paul's Rock, as recommended by one of the visitor's guides I read.

Whangaroa is like many of the other townships in the Bay of Islands, in that there isn't much to these places but the surrounding scenery is pretty stunning. At the bottom of the harbour the dome (or volcanic plug) of St Paul's Rock dominates Whangaroa, but it did make me wonder "how on earth do you get to the top?"...

The marina at Whangaroa is New Zealand's most northerly marina 

The volcanic plug of St Paul's Rock rises 213m above Whangaroa

The walk to the top starts off at Old Hospital Road, however, you have to drive up quite a steep single track road, which has limited turning opportunities and only a couple of places to park vehicles at the reserve, otherwise it's another 1km walk from the bottom.

From the bottom of the stile, the walk to the top is roughly 20 - 25 minutes, one-way, over some fairly steep terrain, however, there were some chains running through the middle of the rock which we had to use to pull ourselves to the top - explaining how it was possible to get onto the dome!

The chains make the final stretch of the walk look more dramatic than it is! 

Despite the brief momentary feeling of vertigo, the views from the top were absolutely knockout. Across the harbour you could see where the coastal waters changed from a sparkling blue to a brilliant turquoise. The harbour is characterised by rocky bluffs and the formations that dominate the scenery are remnants of ancient volcanoes that erupted about 20 million years ago.

It's a fine line between success and failure!

View across to Totara North on the west side of the harbour

Peach (Ohauroro) Island

Waitapu Bay

A couple of tourists spoiling the view!

I managed to create a couple of panoramic shots of the beautiful vistas across the harbour, hi-res versions of these images can be viewed by clicking on the caption links below.

A panoramic view looking southwest from the top of St Paul's Rock - click here to view in hi-res
View facing north east in the opposite direction towards the harbour entrance - click here to view in hi-res

Saturday, 21 April 2012

A close encounter with Haruru Falls

I've never really been the kind of person who would take to the water like a duck. I've tried sailing and dabbled a bit with snorkelling but nothing has really eased my fears about going in the water, so what better than to trying a spot of coastal kayaking as well!

Booking ourselves onto a half-day guided tour in Paihia, we wanted to try something new (and treat Lizzie's mum for her birthday), as well as get a flavour of what the Bay of Islands are about. However, half the battle was trying to find a reasonable day to fit this in as the weather has been absolutely atrocious with the reminents of a tropical cyclone hitting most of the North Island.

When we arrived at the waterfront at Ti Point in Paihia I was completely blown away the scenery as it looked like something straight off a postcard. It's hard to describe why it was impressive, but maybe it was the shimmering water, lush vegetation, small fragmented islands or a combination of all three.

After getting all kitted out with our life jackets and "spray skirts" (they're supposed to stop water splashing in the kayak but mine didn't cover the cockpit properly) we set off on the choppy waters around Te Ti Bay. We were put into double kayaks as the guide felt the wind and current would make it difficult for those on their own to make their way back down the estuary. This meant that I was sitting in the front of one kayak with Lizzie's dad in the back, whilst Lizzie was in the back of the other kayak with her mum up front. The job of the person in the front of the double kayak (me and Lizzie's mum) was to set the pace of paddling, and the job of the person in the rear (Lizzie and her dad) was to control the rudder via foot peddles, to help steer the kayak.

Lizzie and her mum in the tandem kayak

Me in the other kayak with Lizzie's dad

Not long after clipping the Waitangi Bridge with the front of the kayak and trying to get ourselves used to steering in the currents, we managed to paddle upstream along the Waitangi River at a steady pace. Along the way we saw some Pied Shags (Phalacrocorax varius) or Karuhiruhi as they're known in Māori, roosting in the Pohutukawa (New Zealand Christmas) trees - apparently, Pied Shags are the only webbed footed bird that makes nests in trees.

A Pied Shag about to feed it's chick

Getting my feet onto dry for a well-earned break 

Haruru Falls (which means big noise in Māori) are 4km west of Paihia, where the Waitangi River drops over a basalt lava flow, which has formed in a rare horseshoe shape. Having managed to have a relaxing paddle up the Waitangi River, our guide suggested that we could paddle into the waterfall! At this point I'm crapping myself at the thought of this, as my main fear with any water-related transport is the thought of capsizing.

After having a practice paddle across the face of the waterfall, the guide reassured us that we would be pushed back by the force of the water at the base of the falls. We were hoping to take it gently on our first attempt at tackling the waterfall, but before I knew it we were heading directly for the middle of falls and there was no prospect of an easy time! It was quite an intense experience but once we came through the other side I could take a sigh of relief only to do it a couple more times having felt a little reassured that they kayak wouldn't capsize.

They don't call Haruru Falls "big noise" for nothing!

If you squint hard enough you can just see me entering the falls!

Lizzie and her mum being pushed away from the base of the falls

Our tour guide Sky, showing us how it's really done!

The rocks in the water are ballast from ships that once sailed the river

After playing around by the waterfall we then paddled against the current, back towards the mangrove forest to weave our way through trees. The mangrove trees of New Zealand are an important ecosystem and only grow in the top half of the North Island. The water around the mangrove was so shallow it wouldn't have come up to your knees and it was almost easier to move the kayak around by pushing the riverbed with the paddles!

At the other end of the mangrove was the final stretch of the river before we got back to Ti Beach. It was hard work paddling against the tide with the wind blowing against us but it was good to get my feet back onto dry land and to wash the sea salt out of my eyes!

The final push back to Te Ti Bay from the mangrove forest

All I can say is that I'm glad I survived my first coastal kayaking experience, but I'm definitely going to hurt all over for the next couple of days.

Sunset over Te Ti Bay

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Up to the Bay of Islands

It's with a heavy heart that we have to leave Hawke's Bay to find some work up in the Bay of Islands, in time for the start of the kiwifruit picking season, which runs from April to June. Napier has been our home for the last 5 weeks, and there have a lot of highs and thankfully only a few lows.

We've met some brilliant people at our hostel, Archie's Bunker (the same hostel we stayed at on our original trip!) and we even managed to find some temporary work, although the whole apple picking fiasco was the only sour point of our stay. It eventually turned out that despite what you're told, employees are entitled to the minimum wage in New Zealand even on piece rates and if you don't get this then your employer is breaking the law.

For the last three weeks I've been working for Judd Dougan Team Architects (originally Natusch and Sons), one of the original members of the Associated Architects in Napier who were the principals of the four major architecture practices. It provided an interesting insight into the architecture industry in New Zealand, which isn't dissimilar to the UK in that there has been quite a slow down in the last couple of years, but it's showing signs of recovery from the global recession.

One of the last things we did on our final weekend in Hawke's Bay was to scale Te Mata peak, located a short distance from Napier (25 km away) on the outskirts of Havelock North. Legend tells us that the ridge is meant to be the body of the Māori chief, Rongokako, lying down after having choked on a rock as he tried to eat his way through the hill. At the very top of the peak you can get beautiful panoramic views across the Heretaunga Plains - on a clear day it's supposedly possible to see Mt Ruapehu in the heart of Tongariro National Park.

Lizzie in front of the 399m high limestone bluffs

View looking back to Napier

Hopefully we'll be back in Napier before too long, but for now Kerikeri is our ultimate destination as we head up to the most northern region of the North Island to check out the much touted Bay of Islands. Famous for its sub-tropical weather and beautiful blue waters with around 150 islands punctuated throughout, the area also holds enormous historical significance for the Māori as well as the first Europeans who settled here, when the British started colonising Aotearoa or New Zealand as it's now known.

Driving north of Napier along the Thermal Explorer Highway (State Highway 5) where we stopped off in Rotorua via Taupo to see some familiar sites at Kuirau Park (a public park with lots of geothermal activity) and down by Lake Rotorua - the second largest lake on the North Island.

Continuing along State Highway 5, we eventually stopped off at Hamilton to break up the journey and spend the night there, although I can't say I was impressed by the small part of Hamilton we saw and I don't think we'll bother making a return trip!

Kuirau Park is a good place to see free geothermal activity in Rotorua

The next day we left early to drive up the motorway through Auckland, as it was still another 5 hours to Kerikeri. Taking a brief detour to avoid the Northern Gateway Toll Road, we briefly joined the Hibiscus Coast Highway where we stopped off in Orewa for lunch. From there we drove State Highway 1 all the way up to Kerikeri for roughly 210 kms.

The place we're staying at is on the outskirts of the town, called Kerikeri Farm Hostel. It's an animal lovers paradise so Lizzie feels very much at home! There are two dogs at the hostel, a one year old Labrador called Nika - she's a lovely dog who's very excitable but also likes to jump up at you and chew your hand if she gets too carried away! There's also another dog called Weewee who is a little older and very affectionate, although she's a little overweight and is currently on a diet. Apparently, there's an elusive cat around called Mr Stink, however he's quite shy and we haven't seen him yet.

Throw Nika a stick and she'll be your new best friend

Weewee loves her back being scratched!

The farm hostel also has two female kunekune pigs (which means 'fat and round' in Māori), a sheep called "Fluffy" and a whole host of free range chickens, which are quite tame and friendly.

These were once cute little piglets. Oink oink!

The cockerel is a reliable morning alarm clock

This chicken wouldn't look out of place in the film Tron!

Exploring the local area we ventured 2 km from town down to the Kerikeri Basin, which was the site chosen by Samual Marsden for the Church Missionary Society's second mission in New Zealand. The site is home to New Zealand's oldest standing European buildings - the Stone Store and  Kerikeri Mission House (Kemp House). The Stone Store is the oldest surviving stone building in New Zealand and was constructed in 1836 - it kind of reminds me of the old wool mill buildings back at home in Witney, Oxfordshire. The store served as a central provision store for the Church Missionary Society. Nearby is Kemp House, which is New Zealand's oldest European building constructed between 1820-21. Although, it's less than 200 years old, Kemp House still pre-dates the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi (New Zealand's founding document) by almost 20 years.

The old Stone Store across the Kerikeri River

More info about what the store was used for can be found inside

Opposite the Kerikeri Basin Reserve is the start of a walk along the Kerikeri River to Wharepuke Falls, where we got an awesome view of a Sacred Kingfisher (Todiramphus sanctus).

A Pukeko (New Zealand Swamp Hen) on the opposite side of the river

The Kingfisher is also known by its Māori name, Kōtare 

Wharepuke Falls are a 20 minute walk from the Stone Store 

The track follows the north bank of the river, passing through some kiwi habitat and regenerating native trees such as kauri and tōtara. Further up the river are Rainbow Falls (or Waianiwaniwa, which in Māori means "Waters of the Rainbow"), which are 27m high. There's a decent lookout from the top and the falls certainly lived up to their name as there were lots of rainbows created by all the mist in the air. It's possible to walk to the base of the falls but you are guaranteed to get a little damp from all the water vapour drifting in the air!

A rainbow formed from the spray of Rainbow Falls

There's no safety barriers to stop you falling in if you get too close!

Monday, 9 April 2012

A short guide to buying a budget car in New Zealand

Buying a second-hand is never easy and this is can be especially challenging when you're doing it in another country! Apart from having to get used to the terminology and requirements for ensuring your vehicle is legal to drive (road tax, owner registration and vehicle road worthiness), there's your list of ideal requirements, knowing when to spot a lemon or bargain which looks too good to be true, and the slight awkwardness in trying to agree an asking price with the person your buying from.

To begin with, I think the most important thing to point out is that the car market is completely different to other Western countries. Unlike it's bigger brother Australia, New Zealand doesn't manufacture it's own cars so be prepared to shop around for a lot of Japanese imports including Subarus, Toyotas, Nissans, Mitsubishis, etc, although you can get Holdens or Fords as well as a limited range of European makes.

The majority of cars for sale are automatics with large engines - I haven't found a particularly good reason why the cars don't have gear sticks but my preference would be for a manual car. New Zealand doesn't really do small city cars either and most of the budget cars that are advertised for sale will be either station wagons (estates), sedans (saloons) or vans.

The vehicles at the lower end of the price range are in need of some TLC and will have some sort of minor damage to the body work, whether it's a dent or two in the body, some scratches, some faded paintwork or maybe even a new bonnet or door. So, it is worth lowering your expectations as you'll be paying more for cars which are essentially older and have done a lot more miles - I'll go into more depth further on.

For example, back at home £900 GBP (or $1,680 at the time of writing) would have bought us a 1.2 litre Renault Clio (2000) with 98,000 miles/157,715 km on the clock. This included a 12 month MOT, one month's worth of road tax and it had been owned by three previous owners.

Our beloved Renault Clio which we had to sell before the trip

Having been to New Zealand before and used the InterCity coaches flexi-pass to get us around the North and South Islands, we decided that we wanted to buy a car second time round as it would open up more possibilities to see parts of the country that we wouldn't have been able to get to by coach.

Having resisted the urge to buy a car as soon as we arrived in Auckland, we held off for a couple of weeks to get a feel for what kind of motors would be within our budget and then we looked at the following cars:

Option 1: Holden Ballina (1995)

The equivalent of the Vauxhall Corsa in the UK, this car had 193,000 kms on the mileometer (or the odometer as it's known here), a 1.4 litre engine, licence ("rego") valid for a month and a half, and WOF due in 3 months. The asking price was $1600 ONO.

The main issue was the loose exhaust pipe, which rattled against the underside and made a lot noise with four passengers in the car on the test drive but it didn't have a hole anywhere else in the pipe.

A small car of this age is almost a rarity but you can see the superficial damage in the bonnet

 Option 2: Toyota Cynos (1992)

A sporty little 2 door coupé with a 1.5 litre engine, 240,000 kms on the odometer, licence valid for a month and a half, and WOF due in 6 months. The asking price was $1800 ONO.

There was nothing obviously wrong with the car based on a visual inspection apart from a bit of wear and tear on the driver seat and a bald tyre on the front passenger side, otherwise it was a smooth ride.

This is the best photo I could find of a Toyota Cynos not too dissimilar to the one we looked at
Photo courtesy of hytam2 from flickr licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License.

Option 3: Mitsubishi Lancer (1996)

A popular seventh generation Lancer with 1.5 litre engine, four doors plus a boot, 202,000 kms on the clock, licence valid for a month and a half and WOF due in 6 months. This asking price was the most expensive of the three cars we'd seen at $2200 but there were no major problems that we could find having taken the car for a test drive.

This car was owned by a local who had it for just under 4 years
Presented with all three choices which one would you choose? This isn't a trick question as there's no right or wrong answer but based on our experience we went with option 3, having put both the Mitisubishi Lancer and Toyota Cynos through a pre-purchase inspection. This is a vehicle inspection which is a useful way of finding out the condition of the car you're potentially buying as it gives you all the facts when you're making your decision. A pre-purchase inspection can cost anything between $25-$100, depending on where you get it done and how thorough an inspection you want the garage to carry out. We paid $35 each for our checks at a local independent garage and neither of the owners of the two cars had any objections to having the check done, plus were both happy to take their cars to the garage of our choice. However, it is was the findings of the pre-purchase inspection which largely informed our final decision.

On paper and on the test drive, the Toyota Cynos seemed to be a perfectly decent car, but when we took it to the garage the inspection found a whole host of problems, which would have potentially cost us in the long run such as; a large crack in the top of the radiator water tank, oil leaks around the cambelt, problems with shock absorbers and the tyre on the front passenger side was definitely not road worthy - this would have failed the car on it's next Warrant of Fitness test.

On the other hand, the inspection on Mitisubishi Lancer wasn't perfect as there was a small leak in the bottom of the radiator water tank and there were no signs that the cambelt had been changed in the last four years since the previous owner had the car (or roughly every 100,000 kms depending on manufacturer) but at least we knew what we were letting ourselves in for when buying the car and roughly how important these problems would be to fix. It also gave us some leverage to make an offer lower than the asking price (we agreed on $2,000 with the owner).

The Automobile Association (or AA as they're also known as in the UK) is a popular motoring organisation in New Zealand and is a useful starting point for buying a second-hand vehicle. Two of the most common phrases that you'll see when buying second-hand car include:
  1. Warrant of Fitness (WOF) is a test to make sure that your vehicle meets required safety standards and is the equivalent of a MOT in the UK, however it has to be carried out every 6 months once a vehicle is more than 6 years old.
  2. Licensing is often referred to as the "rego" and this the equivalent of road tax. This should not to be confused with Registration, which is when a car is very first registered in New Zealand and issued with number plates. The "rego" can be purchased in blocks of 3, 6 or 12 months. You can find the current fees on the New Zealand Transport Agency's website, which is also a useful source of information for all car-related terminology. 
When viewing a car you should go prepared with some questions and a basic list of things to check. If possible try to bring a friend along as they might spot things you didn't see or offer a second opinion. The following checklist is also a useful guide for things to look out for when doing a vehicle inspection. Some good questions to ask include:
  • Why are they selling the car? Most people will be looking to offload their car as they're leaving the country but if their story sounds a bit fishy then ask a few more questions to see if they're being consistent or have something to hide. Also, check if they're the vehicle owner and not doing the sale on behalf of anyone else. 
  • How many previous owners? Although a perfectly good question ask, don't be surprised if the current owner doesn't know, especially if you're buying from a fellow backpacker as some cars have done the rounds. From our experience not everyone will be able to provide documentation to confirm the vehicle's history but if you can at least get hold of the previous WOF certificate it will provide a brief report with any recommendations for the next test.
  • Has any work been done to car recently?  This gives an indication of what sort of condition the car is in. Has it been in a crash, had some major repairs or had a serious mechanical fault? If it has been repaired, where was it done and are the repairs guaranteed? 
  • When was the cambelt last changed? This is quite a common thing that needs replacing in older cars and can cause some serious damage to the engine if it breaks. If it hasn't been replaced recently then find out when it is due, as they need changing approx. every 100,000 km's. Personally, I think this is an important question to ask as the majority of budget cars will have done a lot of kilometers, more than your average car back at home.
  • Has the car been serviced recently? If the car has been serviced within the last year then you can feel a little more confident that it has been well looked after. This also provides an opportunity for the owner to mention if the oil has been changed and how often it needs topping up. 
  • How many kilometres does the car do to the litre?  It might be a useful thing to know if the car is fuel efficient as petrol costs over seem to be rising and it might be savvy to work out how often you'll be need to fill up the car in order for it to get you from A to B.
  • What are price you willing to sell the car for? This will give you an idea if there is any other interest in the car or whether the seller is prepared to offer a discount. Sometimes it is possible to negotiate a lower price based on the when the WOF and vehicle license are due, or if there is any work that will need doing in the future. You can also offer a cash payment to sweeten the deal.
  • Are you willing to put the car through a pre-purchase inspection? As mentioned before the short-term benefits can outweigh long-term costs if you buy a car which is actually in poor condition under the bonnet. If there is any hesitation on the part of the seller at the thought of an inspection, then you should probably steer clear and looking for some alternative cars to view.
Most importantly, use your common sense. If something doesn't feel right, then something is most likely wrong. The vast majority of owners will be happy to let you test drive the car, especially as insurance in New Zealand isn't a legal requirement, but it is still worth paying for than taking a risk in case you damage someone else's BMW! A good starting point for insurance is the BBH (Budget Backpacker Hostels) policy as they offer very reasonably price third party insurance which can also be extended to cover fire and theft of your vehicle.

Once you've agreed a selling price and exchanged keys, both the buyer and the seller will need to complete some paperwork in order to officially confirm the transfer of ownership. This needs to be done immediately using forms available from a local New Zealand Post shop or online at the New Zealand Transport Agency website. The buyer pays a small fee and is ultimately responsible for the changeover. Also, the car needs to be registered to a physical address not a PO Box. If you don't have a permanent address most hostels won't mind you using their address to get the new ownership documents sent to, as long as you ask nicely.

Hopefully, you will find this post useful as buying a car in New Zealand will open up a whole host of possibilities, but be aware that it's not the same market as at home and sometimes you will need to adjust your expectations.

Last but not least, it is important to remember that the Kiwi's drive on the left-hand side of the road as do the Aussie's. This may sound obvious but it seems quite a few people have been caught out by this. Happy driving!