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No Giggling in Whakatane

I spent several days in the Auckland suburb of Devonport getting ready for my two-month trip around New Zealand.  Then I said goodbye to my kind hosts, Michael and Mary, at the Amberley B&B on Friday morning, hopped into my white Corolla and headed south.


A few days earlier, after a bit of effort, I had made a reservation on the Inter-Island ferry to the South Island.  I made the reservation for Christmas Day because it was the only time that was available during the next two weeks.  Like I say, my plan was to visit the South Island first, since it was smack dab in the middle of the crazy Christmas season when everyone seemed to be out and about, so I figured that visiting the lesser-populated South Island now would make good travel sense, and then visit the North Island afterwards.  Therefore I had only a few days to get down to Wellington, on the southern tip of North Island and the ferry's embarkation port.


My goal for that first evening was a town called Whakatane, which sits on the Bay of Plenty, a large, crescent-shaped inlet on the North Island and named by Captain Cook back in the 1700s.  At first I was pronouncing Whakatane as "Walk-a-tawny," just as it's spelled.  But I learned from Michael that the letters "wh" in the Maori language are pronounced like "f," so Whakatane is actually pronounced "Fock-a-tawny."


Michael kept talking about this "Fock-a-tawny" place during my first few days at the Amberley.  I thought he was saying a bad word until I realized that he and I were talking about the same city.  So "Fock-a-tawny" it is.  No giggling, please.



Above left:  After spending a week in Devonport and Auckland, I hit the road.  I like taking pictures of odd tourist attractions, such as this bottle of "L&P" (Lemon and Paeroa), a popular soft drink in New Zealand.  This is in the town of Paeroa, the home of L&P.  It tastes like carbonated lemonade and is delicious.  I wish there was something like this in the U.S.

Above center:  Another big bottle, also in Paeroa.  This is about the size of the "Big Gulps" I buy at 7-11 during my travels around the U.S.  According to the tongue-in-cheek label, L&P is "Internationally famous in New Zealand."

Above right:  I love small towns in New Zealand.  With a series of small shops packed next to one another on a few long blocks, small towns in New Zealand are much more interesting (and vibrant) than in America where Walmarts and other big-box stores have stripped the life out of many downtown areas. 



Above left:  I passed numerous hotels on my drive to Whakatane.  A "hotel" in New Zealand consists of a pub on the ground floor with inexpensive lodging upstairs, not at all like a hotel in the U.S.

Above right:  A swinging pedestrian bridge over the Karangahake Bridge, a gold-mining area in the late 1800s.

It's... KiwiFruit Country!

Above:  Quite possibly the world's largest kiwifruit.

My first stop that afternoon was at a place called "KiwiFruit Country" near the town of Te Puke (pronounced "ta pookey," not "tea puke," which is usually what I do when I drink tea).  KiwiFruit Country is a combination fruit orchard, museum, and amusement park where, for $5, you can feel foolish by riding around in a Kiwi-cart while learning all about the kiwifruit.  This was definitely my kind of place!


As I discovered during our ride, kiwifruit originated in China and were first called gooseberries.  They flourished in New Zealand because of the climate and came to be associated with this country, hence the name.  Although several other countries, including Chile and the U.S., now grow kiwifruit, New Zealand still exports more kiwifruit than any other nation.


I also learned the best way to eat the darn things.  I had always tried peeling them, which never worked well.  As I learned, however, it's easier just to slice them in half and eat them like a little cantaloupe, scooping it out with a spoon.  That piece of advice alone was worth the $5 admission fee.


I love visiting food museums almost as much as I love food itself.  As we finished the interesting tour of KiwiFruit Country, I realized that I am most likely the only person in the world who has visited:

  •   The world's only Corn Palace (in Mitchell, South Dakota)

  •   The world's only Potato Exposition (in Blackfoot, Idaho)

  •   The world's only Vinegar Museum (in Roslyn, South Dakota), and now

  •   The world's only Kiwifruit Museum

Yeah, I know it's impressive but I'm not getting a swelled head over it. 



Above left:  Kiwifruit Country is a combination guided-tour-and-amusement-park that celebrates what else? kiwifruit.  I love visiting hokey-but-informative places like this.  Maybe that's because I'm a hokey-yet-informative kind of guy.

Above right:  For $5, you can take a tour in a cart that looks like a, well, huge kiwifruit. 



Left:  The excitement builds as we leave on our tour. 

OK, I'm kidding.  Yes, the tour was a bit hokey but I  learned the best way to eat a kiwifruit!





Above left:  Our kiwifruit guide knew more about kiwifruit than anyone I've ever met.  Poor guy.

Above right:  And here's "The Kiwi That Ate Auckland."



Above left:  The girl on the left is just hanging around (har, har).  Actually, it's a mannequin dressed up as a fruit picker.  Lots of college-age kids come to New Zealand in the fall (May - June) to pick kiwifruit and earn their way around the country. 

Above center:  Here's "Mr. Kiwifruit" again, this time demonstrating how the fruit is sorted.  I think he got a little irritated at me always taking pictures of him.  Little did he realize that he's now permanently recorded in my website for thousands of people to gawk at.  Buwahahahaha...

Above right:  The picking season doesn't start for another few months, so the packing plant was deserted.  In a few months, though, this place will really be hopping.

Incredible White Island

I finally reached Whakatane (remember, no giggling) late that afternoon and checked into the pleasant Nau Mai motel.  "Nau Mai" is Maori for "welcome" and true to its name, the proprietor, a genial fellow named Rod, made me feel quite at home.  After I asked him about the next day's boat ride out to White Island, Rod even booked me a reservation for it.  As I'm learning, this is how most New Zealanders are, although I think a lot of people are especially friendly towards me because I'm traveling alone.


Above:  Saturday morning in Whakatane, waiting for the boat to White Island.

This was my first night in a New Zealand motel, most of which are "self-contained" with a full kitchen, refrigerator, dinnerware, and small appliances like a toaster, blender, and coffee-maker.  In the U.S., you're lucky if your motel room has just a microwave, let alone plates and utensils.  After Rod gave me the key to my room, he also handed me a small bottle of milk.  I was a bit puzzled by this odd housewarming gift, but I learned this was customary when you get a room in a New Zealand motel.  The milk, as I discovered, is for your tea, which, of course, lost its popularity among Americans a few centuries ago after the Boston Tea Party.


I got up early the next morning, drank my bottle of milk (sans tea) and got ready for a tour of White Island, a volcanic island which lies about 30 miles offshore.  White Island is the most volcanic place in New Zealand and the only way to get there is by permitted boat tour or, for an extra $100, by helicopter.  Needless to say, and considering my spartan budget, I opted for the boat ride.



Here's Jimmy Buffett singing Volcano.


I walked over to the marina and paid Jenny, a pleasant young woman in the White Island Tours office, my $40 fee.  She then handed me a long release form stating that the company wouldn't be liable if I were injured or killed, and with a friendly smile, she asked me to read it and sign at the bottom.  As I was scanning down the lengthy form, I asked Jenny about potential hazards.  "Oh, don't worry," she cheerfully replied.  "There haven't been any eruptions on White Island for three months."  Gee, that was reassuring.


About an hour later, around noon, about 30 of us boarded the 60-foot boat, PeeJay, then we rode for two hours across the warm and sunny Bay of Plenty until we reached the island.  During the pleasant, bouncy ride, I became a bit more apprehensive when our guides handed out hard hats and gas masks.  I was really starting to wonder about this trip.  Finally we approached the island and the PeeJay slowed down, then dropped its anchor in a protected cove a few hundred yards offshore.  Soon afterwards our group took a Zodiac raft ashore, where we spent a few hours hiking around.


Above:  Getting ready to board the PeeJay for our trip.

White Island is about two miles across and is totally uninhabited; indeed, it's a hostile place for any living creature.  A small volcano in the middle of the island constantly belches out clouds of sulfur making it pretty difficult to breathe.  Oh yeah, it smells bad, too.


Although the fumes were intense at times, I fortunately didn't need to use my gas mask.  However, after walking around the island for an hour and strolling up to the edge of the crater, I started tasting a sulfuric crust that was building up on my lips, which reminded me of my homemade pizza.  (Here's a tip: don't ever eat my homemade pizza).  On the way back to the beach, we passed several steaming vents and walked through a warm, acidic stream a few inches deep which, as the friendly tour guide cheerfully pointed out after we crossed it, will eat the rubber off your boots.  As utterly fascinating as the island was, it was good to get back on the PeeJay again.


As I rode on the boat back to Whakatane, I started thinking about the health of the young tour guides, because they come out here twice a day.  When I asked one of the young women guides about it, she said that she wasn't bothered at all by the sulfurous fumes.  But after I thought about her comment, I figured maybe that's not a good sign.  I just hope they're making good money because, as interesting as it was, I wouldn't want to visit White Island every day.


In any event, I thought White Island was one of the most fascinating places I've ever visited like, in my entire life.  I'd definitely recommend it to anyone who's interested in volcanoes.  Or losing their lungs.



Above left:   Once on board, they handed out gas masks and hard hats.  Yikes!  What have I gotten myself into?

Above right:  After a two-hour trip across the Bay of Plenty we reached White Island and anchored.  Then we hopped in a Zodiac and rode ashore.  That's not fog, by the way.  It's sulfuric steam rising from a volcano.



Left:  The view from the beach. 

White Island, laying about 30 miles offshore, is the most active volcano in New Zealand.




Above left:  Our first stop was at a former sulfur factory that operated until the early 1900s, when several men here were killed by an eruption (obviously, pre-OSHA).  We got a lesson here from our guide on how to use our gas masks. 

Above right:  It got harder to breathe as we approached the volcano.  The whole island smells like rotten eggs from all the hydrogen sulfide



Above left:  I licked my lips here and tasted sulfur.  This is a nasty place and I don't think I'd want to be a tour guide coming out here twice a day.  The island was absolutely fascinating, though.

Above right:  The fishing here, as you can imagine, is pretty marginal.  No license required, though.



Above left:  Hiking down one of the stream beds . . .

Above right:  . . . and crossing a stream.  Don't worry about your shoes, though it's just sulfuric acid.



Left:  As we returned to the boat, I realized that this island is probably what the Earth looked (and smelled) like a billion years ago.





Above left:  Rafting back to the PeeJay.

Above right:  A warm, windy ride back to Whakatane.  So long to the amazing White Island, a truly unforgettable experience!

Spending Christmas (?) in Wellington

I left Whakatane the next morning, after my lungs had recovered from White Island, and drove on to the city of Gisborne.  "Gis-bun," as Kiwis call it, sits on the far eastern coast of New Zealand.  Given its proximity to the International Date Line, it's the easternmost city in New Zealand and thus is the first city in the world to see the sunrise and each year, on January 1, is the first city in the world to greet the New Year.  There are towns closer to the International Date Line, like in Tonga, but Gisborne is the easternmost "city," apparently.


Above:  Highway 2, south of Whakatane.

Gisborne was also where Captain James Cook first landed in New Zealand in 1769 and, through a misunderstanding, clashed with local Maoris and killed six of them.  Deciding there weren't enough provisions in this area to replenish his supplies, Cook left and called this area "Poverty Bay" and with that unappealing name forever incurred the wrath of future real estate agents.  I was looking forward to seeing the statue of James Cook here but was saddened to find it defaced.  Apparently even after 200 years, Cook still isn't popular here among the local Maoris.


After eating a brief lunch of cheese, salami and crackers in a park along Poverty Bay, I hit the road again and pulled into the quaint town of Hastings that afternoon.  I was thinking about camping in the large campground that, according to my Lonely Planet guidebook, was near the center of town.  But after checking it out, it looked pretty crowded so I decided instead on a budget motel room and began flipping through my Automobile Association motel guidebook.  I picked up the guidebook in Auckland and it's quickly becoming my most valuable resource, along with my Lonely Planet Guide to New Zealand.  These two books are "Must Haves" for anyone traveling through New Zealand.


I scanned the entries for a few minutes and found what appeared to be a pleasant motel called the Aladdin on the outskirts of town with rooms for only US$21.  It was "self-contained," as are most motel rooms in New Zealand, with a  refrigerator, stove, plates and everything else a person might need.  Such a bargain, huh?  After getting checked in and chatting with the friendly owner, I headed down to the local New World, which is one of the major grocery chains in New Zealand.  The other big grocery store chain here is called Woolworth's, which is interesting since Woolworth's, of course, is a chain of drug stores in the U.S. 


Above:  The grocery stores in New Zealand are much like in the U.S., but some of the food here is pretty strange.  I can't find any of my staples, such as Doritos, chili, bratwurst, relish, or Raisin Bran. 

I wandered through the aisles of the large New World store for a half-hour looking for some of my staple foods back in the U.S., but I struck out on numerous occasions.  Instead of German-type bratwurst sausages, all I could find were mutton sausages.  Mutton?  Really?   Instead of Nacho Doritos tortilla chips, all I could find were thick-and-bland "Bulk Chips."  That's not the most appealing name, I thought to myself, figuring that their marketing department needed to get a bit more creative.  And instead of Kellogg's Raisin Bran, I could only find something called "Sultana Bran" (in the same purple box, though). 


"What the heck is a sultana?", I asked the grocery clerk.  He didn't really know but I bought a box of it anyway.  This new British-infused New Zealand diet would take some getting used to, I figured.  But that's one reason I like to travel:  to see what life is like elsewhere.


Oh, and speaking of the British:  I'm discovering that New Zealand towns either have very English-sounding names, like Hastings or Gisborne, or very Maori-sounding names, like Whakatane.  There's not much in between.  I've cracked up several times during these last few days because I can never remember the names of the Maori-sounding towns that I've just passed through.  "Let's see, that town I drove through yesterday was that Ranga-rapa-nui-roa?  No, it was Roa-papa-rapa-nui.  No wait, it was Rapa-papa-ranga-nui."  Not to sound like a dumb American, but they sort of all sound the same to me. 


Speaking of place names, I never worked up the courage to try this real Maori tongue-twister:  Taumata whakatangi hangakoauau o tamatea turi pukakapiki maunga horo nuku pokai whenua kitanatahu.  It's a hilltop north of Wellington which, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, is the longest placename in the world.  Having only six letters in my entire name, I found this lengthy appellation intriguing.  The translation is something like:


The hilltop, where Tamatea with big knees, conqueror of mountains, eater of land, traveler over land and sea, played his koauau to his beloved


I read this translation in my Lonely Planet guidebook but didn't get past the part about Tamatea having big knees before I started cracking up, so don't even ask me what a "koauau" is.


Above:  Roadside flowers.

{Note:  After posting this update, I received an e-mail from an astute reader named Eric West.  Eric politely informed me that, and I quote, "A koauau is a nose flute, or a Maori instrument made of bone, which is played by exhaling through the nose across holes in the bone, somewhat like a 'nasal Pan Pipe.' " Thanks for letting me know, Eric I think.  Unfortunately, Eric was not able to explain why Tamatea had such big knees.}


After chatting for a bit with the friendly owner of the Aladdin Motel the next morning, followed by a quick stop at the Hastings K-Mart for more supplies, I continued south towards Wellington, navigating the narrow, twisting mountainous roadways at 80 k.p.h. and feeling fortunate that I wasn't driving anything longer than a Corolla.  I pulled into Wellington, the capital of New Zealand, late that balmy Christmas Eve afternoon and checked into the empty Portland Hotel where I got a room on the top floor overlooking the city.  I figured the Portland Hotel would be a good place to spend Christmas Eve, since I've spent many Christmases in my hometown of Portland, Oregon.  However, after walking into my very-modern-but-rather-sterile room, I decided that I preferred New Zealand's small, family-run motels.


I celebrated Christmas Eve that night in my hotel room by catching up on e-mail and updating my website, just me and my complimentary bottle of milk.  This was the first Christmas I had ever spent alone.  It really wasn't bad, though, because with the balmy weather and tropical environment, it didn't feel like I was missing anything.  Still, I didn't want to turn on the radio that night and listen to Christmas music because it might've reminded me of things back home.



Above left:  After driving for a few hours, I reached Gisborne, the easternmost city in the world and the first city to see the sunrise each day.  It was also Captain James Cook's first landfall in New Zealand during his exploration in the 1760s.

Above center:  I was saddened to see the new James Cook statue defaced.  For the same reason Christopher Columbus is disparaged by some native Americans for being the first European to set foot on North America, Cook isn't popular among certain Maoris in New Zealand.  For more info about this statue, read the book, "Blue Latitudes" by Pulitzer Award-winning author, Tony Horwitz.

Above right:  Holiday Greetings in Hastings.  But with the 80-degree temperatures and everyone wearing shorts, it felt more like the Fourth of July than Christmas.



Above left:  The roads in New Zealand are quite narrow and winding.  This is definitely not a good place to drive an RV.

Above right:  Spending Christmas Eve in "Portland."  The Portland Hotel in Wellington, that is.  Merry Christmas!



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