Hamilton, New Zealand
Today has been a day of both climatic extremes and literal highs and lows. Firstly the climate: I am going to complain to the New Zealand Tourist Board because we have been here for 3 weeks and it hasn’t hailed. Not once. We’ve had everything else, so what have they got against hail? As for the highs and lows; it’s not often you can claim to have scaled Mount Doom and been underground on the same day.
Anyway to start at the beginning, there was a terrific rainstorm in the night whilst we were at Wanganui. It was calmer but still raining the next morning and still quite cool with it. We set out fairly early because there were a lot of miles to cover to our intended overnight stop of Hamilton, plus the decision to go via Wanganui rather than Palmerston North meant that we’d be taking the high road rather than safe, boring Highway 1. The signpost out of town simply said “Highway 4. National Park 105km”. I thought that sounded a bit generic, after all one thing NZ isn’t short of is National Parks. However, a quick look at the map showed there was actually a place with the name National Park, right on the edge of Tongariro National Park. Could be confusing? Nevertheless we set off into the rain in that direction.
The first thing that became obvious as we climbed away from the coast is that the overnight rain had been pretty widespread. Most of the rivers were in full flood and there were rockfalls and waterfalls down all the sides of the hillsides. It could have been quite scary if I had slowed down enough to look! We did stop at one point where the Wanganui River was thundering over a vast waterfall below. This is the same sedate river in the sun I’d photographed the day before. Hwy 4 steadily climbed and the car thermometer steadily dropped as we did so. Soon the rain looked suspiciously like sleet. Hmmmm. Then the ice warning symbol on the dash lit up and the sleet looked suspiciously like snow! Yes, it was snowing, and fairly heavily too. It wasn’t settling though and cars coming the other way were snow-free so I know we weren’t heading into trouble.
Before long the eponymous town of National Park showed up. I had had it in mind to stop there for a cuppa, but frankly it looked dead and deserted (and closed) plus the sleet/snow was falling heavily, so we pressed on. Somewhere over to our right, lost in the cloud, was Mount Ngauruhoe, which apparently served as Mount Doom in the film ‘Lord of the Rings’. Sadly there was nothing for us to see but the swirling white.
However we hadn’t gone much more than 10 mins from this antarctic wilderness when suddenly we drove through a gap, popped out the other side of the hills and the weather changed almost as if a switch had been flicked. The sun shone brightly and there were white fluffy clouds in the sky. The temperature rocketed almost a degree every kilometre. We’d been thinking it would be rain all day but the NZ weather hadn’t failed to produce another sunny sky. We stopped at Piriaka Lookout to see the (what I think is) the same Wanganui River being all peaceful and lovely again. Incredible. Just down the road was the town of Piriaka, where the ‘Stagga Inn’ served a lovely cup of tea and a scone.
Just beyond Piriaka we swapped to Hwy 3, and only a little further again and just a few kilometres off this highway was Waitomo. Now I wouldn’t go out of my way to get here, but being just down the road it seemed rude not to stop and visit. Waitomo is primarily famous for caves – some of them deep, some of them scary but the one I wanted to see was called the glowworm cave. Unfortunately only one of us decided to brave the underground, ahem. After being relieved of quite a lot of money, a guide took a group of about 8 of us into the cave. The first 30 mins of the tour comprised easy walking on flagged cave floors into various caverns and chambers filled with the usual limestone flows, stalactites and stalagmites – so far all very Derbyshire Peak District. Eventually though, we were led deeper into the gloom (and it was very gloomy indeed) and boarded a flat-bottomed boat. In absolute silence we drifted along an underground stream through caverns who’s ceiling was covered in millions and millions of glowworms. It was like drifting under constellations of stars – it was pretty marvellous and worth the entry fee for that. Eventually the boat drifted out through a tunnel entrance to the cave several hundred feet below where we had originally entered on the road above.
After some lunch in Curly’s Tavern it was back on the Hwy 3 for a final push to Hamilton for the night. We’d come through Hamilton on our epic drive from Pahia to Rotorua and hadn’t really liked the look of it much, being heavily built-up and industrialised. This time we tried to get closer to the city centre on the river. The first hotel to catch our attention was the Ventura Inn and Motor Lodge. I have to say this was the best value of the hotels (leaving aside all the special deals I got for the Copthorne’s) we’ve been too. $109 for a massive room plus bed and breakfast. It’s very, very like a Travelodge in the UK – in fact I reckon the owner has definitely visited Travelodge as some point! It was just a block away from the main ‘happening’ street, Victoria Street. When we drove down later for some tea we were gobsmacked to find the whole semi-pedestrianised street was jumping with people. So much so we had trouble parking. Restaurant after restaurant open and busy after 7pm! I have never seen New Zealand so lively outside of Auckland. Typically of course it was our last night, so we had to leave the fun and games and go repack everything for the next day. Oh and I only got an hour on the parking meter!