Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Rotorua: 4 Unmissable Activities Off the Beaten Track

Rotorua, known for its pungent rotten egg smell, is probably New Zealand's most touristy city. So, for those who like to get off the beaten track, it can be difficult to know what's worth doing.

This list isn't exhaustive: there are plenty of other cool things to do in Rotorua (hot tip: if you visit the Buried Village, make you you do the side-route to the waterfall - it's worth it). But, this is a list of my favourite four things in Rotorua that you're unlikely to hear much about elsewhere.

And the best part is, you can do all of them in 4-5 hours.

#1.  Wai-O-Tapu
Visiting a Geothermal area in Rotorua is absolutely essential, whatever kind of traveller you are. Having done several, I think the best one for people who like getting off the beaten track is definitely Wai-O-Tapu. It's about 25 minutes out of town, so it gets less visitors, and it offers the most colourful range of different kinds of volcanic sights I've ever come across. The only slightly less-cool thing is that their geyser is stimulated with a chemical to make it go off at a regular time each day.

The Wai-O-Tapu geyser

The vibrant palette at Wai-O-Tapu

Wai-O-Tapu's most famous sight: the Champagne Pools

Oh, ya know, just an acidic, highlighter green-coloured pool

#2.  Kerosene Creek
This place is the best kept secret in Rotorua. A naturally occurring spa pool, complete with a hot waterfall. Let me just say that again: a hot waterfall! It's located a 5 minute drive from Wai-O-Tapu and completely free. Do not miss it.

#3. Māori Jesus

St Faith's Church, a beautiful Tudor-style building right next to a traditional Māori marae (meeting house), has a special secret. Instead of a traditional stained-glass window, they have an ordinary window looking through to the lake, with a white Jesus figure painted on it, appearing to walk across the lake towards you. And what makes it even more special is the fact that Jesus is wearing a Māori cloak and has Māori features. I love this sign of harmony between religion and indigenous culture.

#4.  The best pies in New Zealand
We Kiwis are damned serious about pies. Not the family-sized fruit pies you see overseas, but a single-serving meat pie with flaky pastry. When I was in London there wasn't a kiwi treat I missed more than an old fathful mince and cheese pie.

So, telling you I know where to find the best pies in New Zealand is quite a big deal. But I'm going to: Better Pies 2000 has an awful name, but the most amazing pies you will ever taste. Usually I'm a total carnivore, but even the vegetarian one is incredible: with pumpkin, broccoli, carrot, mushroom all in a delicious cheesy sauce. Honestly, try anything, they're all good.

Once you've got your pie, drive back to the lake and eat it on the edge of the pier. It's bliss.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Magical Coromandel (in Photos)

"This place should have more visitors. It deserves them. You mark my words, the tourists will come flocking here in a few years when word gets out"
- my friend Ally, upon discovering the Coromandel for the first time

Most overseas visitors come to New Zealand expecting the epic snowy mountains from the Lord of the Rings. And they'll find them too - when they visit the South Island. Sadly, this means many visitors find the North Island to be underwhelming. But, once you get out of the cities, the North Island is every bit as beautiful (albeit in a warmer kind of way). If you're visiting Auckland in the summertime, do yourself a favour: hop on a bus or hire a car and get yourself to the Coromandel.

Whangamata beach (pronounced Fung-ah-mah-tah)
The Coromandel Peninsula is just a few hours drive from Auckland, but these sleepy seaside towns are a few degrees warmer than Auckland all year round. That's probably why the whole area is overflowing with local holidaymakers around New Years. But, arrive just a few weeks earlier or later, and you'll practically have the place to yourself.

It feels wrong to bore you with too many words about such a photogenic place, so I'm going to let the pictures do most of the talking...

Epic photobomb from my uncle, who now lives in Whangamata

My favourite beach on the peninsula: Hahei (pronounced Hah-hay)

Cathedral Cove - one of New Zealand's stunning natural wonders

Cathedral Cove alone is worth visiting the Coromandel to see

Even on a cloudy day, Cathedral Cove is still a stunner

Hot Water Beach - bring a spade and make a natural spa pool

The Driving Creek Railway in Coromandel Township - built by one crazy potter over decades

The view from the top of the Driving Creek Railway

I honestly can't recommend the Coromandel enough to people visiting New Zealand and wanting to see a less-touristy side of the North Island. It's truly magical.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

24 Hours in Grampians National Park

Barely three hours from Melbourne, there's a National Park I'd never heard of until I looked at a map to work out what there was to do on the drive from Adelaide. And it turns out, Grampians National Park has startling beauty that deserves to be better known.

These are the highlights of my 24 hours in the Grampians...

MacKenzie Falls

Boroka Lookout

This poor young kangaroo tripped over his long feet and tumbled right in front of us!

But he was fine - here's the same kangaroo an hour later peering in at people dining at our motel restaurant

The amazing view from Mt William - my favourite lookout in Grampians

Bunjil's Shelter - one of the most important Aboriginal rock paintings

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Great Ocean Roadtrip

British people all seem to dream of going to Australia. And there's one item sure to feature on their itinerary. A highlight of Aussie travel marketing in Europe that somehow few Kiwis have ever heard of: Victoria's Great Ocean Road. After hearing about it non-stop when I lived in the UK, I decided to pop over the ditch to discover it for myself.

Driving the Great Ocean Road, I couldn't shake the feeling that it was a tad overrated - dreamed up by some marketers at Tourism Australia as another lure for tourists from the landlocked capitals of Europe.

Growing up in New Zealand, I have seen more than my fair share of beautiful coastal drives, and this 250km stretch of the journey between Melbourne and Adelaide didn't feel much more notable than the decidedly less-hyped routes along the Far North, Coromandel, or Nelson. But it does have a very marketable name, and I can't deny that there were a few truly beautiful spots.

Split Point lighthouse

The view from Split Point

Erskine Falls, a short detour from the Great Ocean Road

The view from one of many well-placed lookout spots

And the highlight of every Great Ocean Roadtrip: the majestic Twelve Apostles
(time it for sunset if you want to recreate this gorgeous photo)
We made other (less photogenic) stops in Port Fairy and Mount Gambier. Most roadtrippers head back to Melbourne after completing the Great Ocean Road, but we chose to continue along the Coorong to Adelaide.

And, interestingly enough, we stumbled across one of the most magnificent sights of our trip by accident, several hours after concluding the Great Ocean Road: pelicans chilling out by the gum trees in Meningie at sunset.

But we had a very special reason for being in Meningie en route to Adelaide, and it had nothing to do with pelicans. Kat and Mikey, our best friends from London, who we also had epic trips to Copenhagen and Ireland with, had moved back home a few months earlier.

And a little while after they arrived back in South Australia, Mia turned up.

So, for me, the Great Ocean Road itself was a little underwhelming (except for the Twelve Apostles). And I haven't even mentioned the $900 worth of speeding fine we managed to accumulate unawares in a single 24 hour period! But, our journey across the Tasman was completely worth it when we were reunited with the Pullman clan.

We're at an interesting point in our lives where people are coming home from their OEs and settling into families, careers and mortgages. And Kat and Mikey are the first of my friends to have a baby - a fact that made me a pathetic combination of proud and excited. We instantly assumed the titles of surrogate uncles. And the time we spent hanging out together, just the five of us in Mount Barker, was as memorable as any day we ever spent in London.

Life is good.

Friday, July 12, 2013

5 Indie Things to Do in Melbourne

Melbourne is the cultural heart of Australia. And for a country with not much history to speak of (compared with Europe), that makes it without a doubt the most interesting city in Australia to visit. It also means it's crawling with hipsters.

You have to love them or hate them, hipsters.
And I have to admit, I kind of love them.
Ironic hats and all.

One of the most hipster moments of my life - with Ally and Adam in New Zealand

We had the pleasure of being hosted in Melbourne by Ally, the green-voting Damien Rice-loving vegetarian who I instantly fell in friendlove with on the Busabout Ottoman Trek. She hates the term hipster, but she fits it so effortlessly it's like it was created for her (minus the snobby side). She has flawless taste in music and second-hand clothing, and her Grandma is one of her best friends. Plus, she moonlights as one of those unpaid tour leaders showing travelling bohemians all the coolest places in her hometown.

So, who better to show us the indie side of Melbourne? This is the top five - so you can retrace our doc marten footsteps:

1.  Drink mulled wine at Section 8
A shipping container on Tattersalls Lane where you can drink mulled wine surrounded by lanterns. What could be more Melbourne?

2.  Find a killer piece of street art down a nondescript alleyway
Melbourne wants to be a street art capital. And it's starting to pull it off. Don't be content just walking down the tourist-friendly graffiti alleyways near Flinders Street station (cool though they are), walk a bit further afield and you'll be amazed at the scale and beauty of some of the imaginative designs. If you're the planning type, there are websites where you can work out where the best pieces are. But I'm not going to link to them because a true hipster would befriend a local to find the best street art. Or better still - follow a stray cat and get lost.

3.  Go meatless at Lord of the Fries
Ok so, full disclosure, Lord of the Fries is a deep-fried Melbourne institution, with its main location at the bottom of Elizabeth Street. It isn't nearly underground or hidden enough to be considered indie. But what puts Lord of the Fries on this list is that everything is vegetarian. From the gravy on the (delicious) Canadian fries, to the hamburger patties to the hot dogs. On Friday nights, the drunk hipsters flock.

4.  Visit the Heide
Melbourne is spoiled for choice when it comes to art galleries. Ally's pick of the bunch is the Heide Museum of Modern Art. 20 minutes from the CBD, with gorgeous grounds and well curated exhibitions featuring a wide range of Australian artists, this was a great place to spend an afternoon.

5.  Pay what you want at Lentil as Anything
Abbotsford Convent is an unusually menacing building for a young city like Melbourne. It's instantly fascinating. Enter the grounds and it just gets better. Lentil as Anything, one of a few resident restaurants, is one of those bohemian restaurants everyone's heard of but few have tried. There's an absolutely delicious vegetarian buffet, and payment is by donation. It's a woefully unprofitable business model, but one which makes Lentil as Anything a delightful place to visit. Almost a sanctuary from the consumerism-fueled rat race outside. Of all Ally's amazing indie recommendations in Melbourne, this was comfortably my favourite.

When your pose is way too dramatic to look hipster suave, fake it with a black and white filter
(Ally and I mucking around on the grounds of the Abbotsford convent)

Monday, April 1, 2013

The Best Beach in New Zealand

The New Zealand summer is long and scorching. Every kiwi kid has memories of spending the whole summer at the beach, trying to ride the scooter they got for Christmas with one hand so they can eat an ice cream with the other.

As a result, beaches are a hot topic in New Zealand. Everyone has their own favourite. The one they've been to every year since forever. I guess I don't have the authority to proclaim one beach the best. It's all subjective, really. But, I'm going to do that anyway...

Glinks Gully, despite its horrible name, is actually paradise.

The entire township of Glinks Gully. There's not even a store - so the beach is usually deserted.
The campground is well-equipped and has friendly staff. And if you walk up the small hill behind it, you end up on a large rocky outcrop that looks like a piece of New Mexico. The view is out of this world.

Cat, my American friend, took a lot of coaxing to leave this perfect spot

But there's a darker side to Glinks too. Just three hours north of Auckland, it's on the wild West Coast, where the sand is scorched, and the water is too rough for the faint of heart.

When there's a storm, it's a ruggedly magnificent sight to behold.

Come in late summer for the best sunsets of your life. I took these photos at Easter time.

Just promise me one thing. Don't tell too many people about my paradise. I don't want the word getting out.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

What a Difference Two Years Makes

A lot can happen in two years.

Two years ago, I left New Zealand with a camera and a sense of adventure. One year ago, I wrote this list of the most interesting moments of my journey up until that point.

Now that I'm back on the bottom of the world, my travels seem a world away. And I guess they are. But that hasn't stopped me from compiling a new list of the best moments of my second 12 months away.

100 days on the road. 29 countriesOlympics. 5 new bucket list ticks. First professional blogging gigs. 1 court appearance.

And there were so many highlights it took ages to link to them all:

I considered putting "vomiting in a tube station in rush hour" on here, but decided that wasn't really a highlight...

Now that I'm home, next year looks exciting in a completely different kind of way. I'm working full-time in a job that pushes all the right buttons, and studying part-time towards that degree that's always eluded me. I'm going to be in print for the first time - writing an article for a travel magazine. Plus I'm going to be both an uncle and a best man again. So, true to form, there'll be no sitting still. I've no time for that.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Mending Breakdowns

The bus broke down about two hours into our first trip. It was like the plot of a B-grade roadtrip movie...

'Two free spirits buy an enormous aqua coloured house bus on a whim, and a few short weeks later eight people, most of whom barely know each other, are on a mission to reach the northernmost tip of New Zealand'

Cape Reinga, our destination, is the point where the Pacific Ocean violently meets the Tasman Sea and, according to Maori legend, also the sacred place that every soul travels to before ascending to heaven. Driving there to end the year is a very romantic idea. But after just an hour on the road, we heard a loud clang and pulled into a ditch.

Nine hours on the side of the road, and two false starts later, we had no choice but to admit defeat for the day. A friendly local cop ferried us two at a time to the best pick-up point, and we all had no choice but to try our hand at hitchhiking. It took a fair while, but eventually a dotty elderly couple picked Frankie and I up. They'd driven all the way from the Hawkes Bay without stopping, and were in need of new conversation.

In Whangarei, we purchased spaghetti and sausages from a petrol station, then waited a few hours outside the bus mechanics for the towtruck to deliver our aqua-coloured accommodation. Rose worked a miracle with the petrol station spaghetti and we all gorged ourselves.

The next morning, in the bus mechanics.

Over the next seven days we broke down five more times as we gradually worked our way north. And every time, we got the chance to experience a tiny part of the world we’d otherwise have skipped past without blinking.

In hindsight, our planned stops in Matapouri Bay, the Bay of Islands and Coopers Beach are no more memorable than the small stretches of grass we ended up stranded on for hours at a time. We quickly learned to keep water and essentials well stocked on board, and breaking down never felt like too much of an inconvenience. We'd pass the time playing card games and telling stories.

We made it to Cape Reinga out of sheer determination. When we finally arrived, we walked as far out towards the cliff as we could, then sat in silence observing the last sunset of the year, over one of the most ruggedly beautiful places in the world.

That night our bus wasn't the only vehicle in the parking lot. We soon met a young mother from twelve hours south who’d had an emotional breakdown that morning, hopped in the car and kept driving until she couldn't drive any further. We welcomed Toni onto our bus and shared our food and wine with her.

Once she had told us her dramatic story, her mood lifted. Soon after midnight she was teaching us all Cook Island dancing inside the bus. The wooden floorboards made satisfying makeshift tribal drums as we stamped our feet in unison.

There was a strange feeling I couldn’t quite put my finger on at the time; calm, yet urgent. It was a reminder of how travel differs from tourism. My approach to travel, now more than ever, is carpé diem.

A breakdown can be a wonderful experience, if you’re open to it.