This was such a beautiful spot, that we gave up hitchhiking for the day, and camped in a small patch of trees near the beach.

UNDER THAT LONG WHITE CLOUD

This is an extract from one of my stories. It begins in March 1994, as sara and I head south through New Zealand, after several months working in Hawkes Bay.

The further south we drove, the more threatening the clouds appeared, and when we stepped out of the truck on the northern outskirts of Wellington, down it came in sheets. We dashed for the shelter of a subway, and donned oilskins and backpack covers. We tried to contact some friends of Sara's who lived in Wellington, but to no avail. Eventually, we accepted that we'd stay at a hostel, so walked some kilometres in the still driving rain, to the nearest; only to find that it is no longer a hostel but a private residence. It was after 9:00pm by the time we found our way into the city centre, and checked into a room.

Keen to put Wellington behind us, we caught the first ferry the next morning to the south island. I found a sunny spot on the deck and stretched out for a nap. When I woke up, we were entering the picture-postcard tranquillity of Marlborough Sound. The port town of the south island is Picton. From Picton down along the east coast is a very popular stretch for hitchhiking. So much so that when we left the ferry, there were a dozen or more hitchhikers hurrying to get to the other side of town and secure the best position. We let them hurry, and when the last one of them had turned the corner, we stuck our thumbs out right there in town and got picked up straight away. That lift was only to Blenheim, the next town. There we took up position behind five other hitchers, but even so we only waited forty-five minutes before we were being whisked down the winding coastal road at a hundred and fifty kilometres an hour. Our driver had been working in the Chatham Islands for three months and was in a hurry to see his wife and kids. No kidding he was in a hurry!

Just one of the beautiful places we found to camp

He left us at Kaikoura, and when we spotted a nice spot to camp in a grove of pine trees near the beach, neither of us was interested in going any further that day.






A quick ride in the morning took us to Christchurch, and it was drizzling again. We pitched our tent into the first caravan park we came to, then wandered the couple of kilometres into the city. Christchurch has a distinct English feel about it; tourists can even try punting on its own River Avon. In town, we discovered that due to stiff competition amongst Christchurch hostels, we could have had a bunk in the centre of the city for the same price as our tent site.

The next day was fine and warm. We headed inland towards Mt. Cook. The thought of climbing it didn't appeal- not after our mountain climbing efforts on the north island- but we did get some beautiful views of it as we moved west. Finally, we found a spot on the bank of Lake Pukaki and camped the night there. We wanted to get closer to the mountain the next day, but traffic was very light and we eventually crossed the road and got a lift back to the highway. From there it took several lifts to bring us back to the east coast at Oamaru. Just south of Oamaru was the most fascinating geological formation I had ever seen; the Moraki boulders.

They look like giant dinosaur eggs; I'd never seen anything like them

Along the beach, dozens of perfectly spherical boulders huddle in the lapping waves. Each about two metres in diameter, they lie there like some sort of gigantic dinosaur eggs, salt water crashing about them and swirling through the gaps between them. We read that they were probably formed in a similar way to a pearl; starting off as a small rock and gradually growing as particles of sand become attracted.

Three local students in a van picked us up from there and gave us a beer on the way into Dunedin. Dunedin screamed 'student city!'; not just it's many funky coffee shops or the second hand clothes and retro fashion stores, perhaps it was the overwhelming presence of bicycles resting against said shopfronts. One of the workers from Adelong, Nathan, was studying in Dunedin. He was expecting us...kind of. When we stepped out of the van in the main street, I swung my backpack around onto my shoulder, and felt it bump someone. I was already apologising as I turned around, but was dumbfounded when I was confronted by a familiar face. It was Gretchen; she and three friends had been staying at the caravan park in Taradale when we first arrived. We knew that they were from Dunedin, but didn't get their addresses and didn't expect to see them again. She was in a hurry today, but gave us her phone number, and said we could catch up with her and the other girls in the morning. We phoned Nathan and he came around to pick us up. He and his friends took us to a bar that night, and the next morning Gretchen, Kate and Emily met us in town and later took us to tunnel beach, just south of Dunedin.

Interesting story to tunnel beach; legend has it that many years ago, a very rich man built a castle on the clifftop overlooking the secluded little cove. He wanted his young twin daughters to be able to play safely on the beach below, so the doting father had a tunnel built through solid rock down to the sand. One day- no-one knows why- the girls held hands and jumped from the cliff to their deaths on the rocks below. When the father saw their bodies, he was so overcome with grief that he dived over the edge himself.

Folklore aside, Sara and I hitched south to Queenstown. Queenstown is the heart of New Zealand's tourism industry, and the adventure sports capital of the nation. Here, one can white water raft down wild rapids, jet boat at breakneck speed through narrow gorges, bungy jump from a selection of terrifying scenic locations, parachute, paraglide...you name it, in Queenstown you can do it. It was the sort of town that we couldn't afford to stay in for too long; everything in town was designed to tempt that tourist dollar out of your pocket. We unleashed the visa cards and took a jet boat ride through the spectacular Shotover Canyon. It was exhilarating, at times the edge of the boat almost grazing the sheer rock walls. The next morning we summoned up the courage to jump forty-three metres from a bridge with only a rubber band tied to our ankles. Don't ask me how it was; how do you think it was?

I'm glad I did it, but I'd never do it again!

Now, the west coast of the south island is renowned as being one of the worst stretches in the world for hitchhiking. We couldn't see why it should be so, since hitching had been so good throughout the rest of the country. Two and a half hours of rain fell on us before we found a lift that would take us through Haast Pass- the wettest place in the southern hemisphere- to Fox Glacier. The remaining twenty-four kilometres to Franz Josef Glacier took us until lunchtime the next day; we would have been much quicker walking! If you've grown up in a country that has glaciers, then Fox and Franz Josef may be just more of the same, but to an Aussie and a Pom, these massive frozen rivers were incredible. Franz Josef particularly, which was enormous and glowed an eerie shade of pale blue.

The next natural phenomenon as we travelled north was the 'pancake rocks' on the coast at Punakaiki. They were formed from thousands of thin layers of silt. As years of erosion have taken their toll, the remaining rocky outcrops resemble towering stacks of pancakes. These bizarre formations cover quite a large area along the coast and are riddled with caves. At high tide, some of the caves become quite spectacular blowholes.

All these pancake rocks are making me hungry

Standing there dreaming of tall stacks of pancakes smothered in maple syrup, we bumped into an American hitchhiker who we'd been passing all the way up the coast. That's the way hitchhiking seems to work in New Zealand; we pass you, you pass us, we pass you.

The 'Flying Kiwi' adventure bus picked us up the next day, then later a van full of white water rafters saved us from being eaten alive by 'midges', and delivered us safely into Motueka. Motueka is a quiet little town surrounded by fruit orchards and hops plantations. The most interesting thing we could find that 'Mot' had to offer was 'tame eels'. Intrigued, we walked the twelve kilometres to Moutere, where a kindly old man introduced us to the eels that live in the stream behind his house.

Bizarre

There were dozens of them, some as thick as your wrist, and at the sound of their master's voice they squirmed to the surface up a small wooden ramp. We fed them meat off a stick and took photos, he fed them from his hand and stroked them lovingly. We paid him two dollars, which goes towards buying more meat, then watched "Schindler's List" in Nelson. The movie, and the eels, were memorable.

'Boots' hostel in Nelson was memorable only in that it boasted probably the filthiest, grimiest kitchen and toilets in any hostel in the developed world; a reminder once again, to inspect the accommodation before paying. Being a tad more particular on arrival in Picton, we found a friendly home-style hostel, the name of which unfortunately escapes me. It was a charming old house with a wide verandah, and the young couple who owned the hostel dined with the backpackers every night, which I thought was a nice touch.

Back in Wellington, we caught up on some business; checked out the exchange rates for US dollars, collected our mail from Poste Restante, and I put in my tax return. I couldn't believe I'd only receive thirty-three dollars back; apparently New Zealand has no tax free threshold. We hitched to Palmerston North, where Kirsten- another worker from Adelong- was expecting us. She put us up for the night, and the next day a run of good rides put us at Bob and Alice's door in the countryside near Hawera. That's Uncle Bob and Aunty Alice- Dad's brother and his wife. Cosmo and I had spent a couple of nights there two years earlier when we climbed Mount Egmont. This time we found Bob on crutches following his second knee operation, but the two of them were as funny as ever.

Bob and Alice in the milking shed

'Hard case', the kiwis would call them. Sara and I bought a six-pack of Lion Brown to bring home, but when Aunty Alice saw it, I thought for a moment we'd done the wrong thing.





"Oh, for goodness sakes! As if Bob doesn't go on stupid enough without drinking beer; the man doesn't know what he's doing when he's had a drink!" she wailed. She, on the other hand, might join us for one, she said. Well, Bob had one beer and started to laugh at his own jokes before he'd even reach the punchline. He carried on and had us in stitches, until finally Aunty Alice said she'd had "enough of his rot", and sent him to bed.

It was Friday, and our flight to Hawaii was leaving the coming Thursday, so we couldn't tarry. Waitomo Caves was our next stop, just south of Hamilton. One thing we didn't do while in Queenstown was white water rafting, and there was a reason. I figured you can white water raft almost anywhere in the world, but there's only one place that offers 'black water rafting'; that's the Waitomo Caves. Never heard of black water rafting? Neither have most people. Let me draw a picture: an underground river miles long; cold and pitch black, a handful of tourists in wetsuits with miners' light on our heads, floating on inner tubes. Got it? It was great, like a whole other world under there. At one point, the guide called for us to link up to form a chain and turn off our lights. The darkness was complete; I couldn't see my hand in front of my face. Nobody spoke. The silence was broken only by the soft sloshing of the water. Then we drifted gently into a huge cavern, and ten metres above us, the ceiling was flickering with thousands of glow worms. A two metre jump down an underground waterfall topped of the most fantastic experience I've ever had with a wetsuit on.

We stayed with my cousin Jamie and his girlfriend in Hamilton that night and hitched straight through Auckland the next day, all the way to Whangarei. As usual, the sun was shining on the picturesque Bay of Islands. We crossed the island to Opononi, and ended up pitching camp in a picnic area in Waipoua Forest, just metres from the world's largest living thing; Tane Mahuta. He's one of the giant kauri trees, the 'Lord of the Forest', endlessly vying for the title against the sequoia trees of California. Apparently, although the kauri loses out in both girth and height, it's trunk doesn't taper like a sequoia, thus making it the larger of the two. Nearby, but out of sight, stands Te Matua Ngahere,the 'Father of the Forest'. Although not quite as tall as Tane Mahuta, this tree, with a girth of over sixteen metres, is even more impressive. Regardless of the specifics though, these trees are a thing of beauty and it's not difficult to understand why the early Maoris treated them with such reverance.

Te Matua Ngahere...
...the Father of the Forest

This was the third time I had seen these awesome giants, but I had heard that there was another, even larger tree somewhere in the forest. Somewhere, I had come across an old map; was it in an old school social studies book? I couldn't think. But I remembered it showed three great trees; Tane Mahuta, Te Matua Ngahere and another, Toronui. Toronui was shown to be the largest. I was curios. What had happened to this herculean tree, to have disappeared off the map in such a way? I began to wonder if I had imagined the whole thing. Funny thing, fate. The first lift we got the next morning was with a Maori guy who worked for the Department of Conservation. I couldn't resist mentioning my 'theory' about a bigger tree. His reply stunned me.

"Oh, Toronui. Yeah, it's the biggest, but it died and fell years ago." He said that since a bushfire tore through the area, all that remained of Toronui was a hollow log.

"Do you know where it is?" I asked.

"Yeah, but it's a long way off the road, and the track hasn't been maintained. The Parks people won't tell anyone where it is because they don't want tourists traipsing all over the forest."

I sat in silence. A couple of minute later, he pointed out the left window and said, "That's the start of the trail to Toronui, just there." I stared at where he was pointing, searching for any sign of a trailhead, a landmark, even a distinguishing tree or branch that could lead me back to that spot. But there was nothing. Just a corner like any other corner in this narrow forest road. Then I noticed a piece of white in the gutter; a scrap of paper or perhaps a half buried supermarket shopping bag. Sara was staring at me, curious. She could tell I was determined now. We got out at the tourist information office a few kilometres down the road. Leaving our backpacks behind there, we set about backtracking, eyes peeled for a white piece of rubbish in the drain. After a few false alarms, we found the corner and set about searching the scrub to the north. There was what appeared to be the remnants of a path. The path was fairly easy to follow at the beginning, until we reached a huge tree signed as 'McGregor, the third largest kauri tree'. From there, any hint of a trail disappeared. We followed our instincts, and crashed through the bush in a direction roughly perpendicular to the road. Every now and then, we'd find a white square of aluminium nailed to the trunk of a tree, reassuring us that we were indeed headed the right way. But after two and a half hours of searching, we had to admit defeat. If we didn't turn around soon, it would be dark before we found our way back out of the forest. I suggested we continue for another ten minutes, then hurry back to the road. Sara agreed. We took a few steps forward, and pushed through into a clearing. Before us was the remains of God's grandest living creation. A small plaque on the ground simply said 'TORONUI". I scrambled up onto the huge log like an excited child. Sara explored from the inside.

Sara standing inside part of the burnt out log which was Toronui

Even the tunnel that had been burned out of it was a good three metres in diametre. I could stand in the middle with my hands up and not touch the top. You could build a house inside that sucker. Still, when the initial euphoria of discovery wore off, there was something very sad about Toronui. Once the champion of all living things, now lying forgotten and crumbling deep in the forest. We ran most of the way back to the road.

It was Tuesday when we got back to Auckland. We checked into a hostel, and I decided to try to ring Dean, the kiwi I had camped out with in Yosemite National Park. To my surprise, he answered and remembered me straight away. Imagine my shock then, when I asked if he ever hears from Yette, the Danish girl who came to Yosemite with us.

"Yeah, she's here. She lives with me now."

They invited us over for dinner, and you can bet that between us all we had plenty to catch up on.

Our last full day in the southern hemisphere was largely spent clothes shopping. The past months of working and hiking in all sorts of conditions had ruined the few clothes we'd brought with us. Brenda, a friend of my sister-in-law, put us up that night, and dropped us to the airport the following day.

Visit my favourite books page for some recommended reading relating to this trip around New Zealand. Roll your mouse over the cover photo for a brief description. Click for more details, to purchase online at a discounted price from Amazon, or to view other titles. (if you buy a book, or any other product from Amazon, through this link on my site, I get a small commission- even more if you buy the book you clicked on. Go on, buy a book today!)

tips

As I've said before, hitching is the way to get around this small, friendly country, but for God's sake don't hitch up the west coast of the South Island. If you ignore this advice and decide to hitch, do not accept a lift from the Wanaka junction unless it will take you through Haast Pass. If you ignore this advice, you're on your own.

Try to build a little flexibility into your hiking plans, so that you can wait for bad weather to pass. We couldn't wait, and we paid the price, first on the Tongariro crossing, then again by having to miss Abel Tasman National Park.

Carry wet weather gear, and good wet weather gear at that.

Familiarise yourself with the 'etiquette' of hitchhiking. For example, don't stand ahead of a hitcher who was there before you (unless you're around the corner, and he can't see you.)

Venture further south than we did, to Fiordland. It's apparently the one place not to miss, and we did.

'must see' places :

Urewera National Park and Lake Waikeramoana Taupo, and Tongariro National Park Moraki boulders Queenstown, and the view from Kawarau Bridge with a rubber band tied to your ankles the west coast Glaciers Punakaiki's 'pancake rocks' Waitomo Caves those incredible kauri trees actually, the whole damn country! (except Wellington and Hamilton, which are unfortunately both situated so as to be impossible to avoid)

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