We asked for a cab for 17:10 on Friday 6th August. It actually arrived about ten minutes earlier, but he was happy to wait. We loaded two giant suitcases and two hand-baggage things into the cab and thence, via a train and a bus, made our way to LHR terminal three, arriving not long before 19:00 in good time for a complete failure of the self-check-in system and a little bit of manual processing and a 22:15 flight.
We got to the gate and onto the plane in good time. But it seems that there was a plane broken down immediately to our rear and we couldn't leave the gate for a further twenty minutes, and as a result we missed our take-off slot and finally took to the air about an hour late. I'm really not a fan of take-offs at the best of times, and the delay did me no favours at all. However, we were on our way, so hurrah.
It's about eleven hours to Bangkok, where we had a couple of hours tramping through transfer lounges to rejoin the same plane and a further eight hours or so to Sydney. Three hours to refuel with coffee and muffins followed, before joining another smaller plane for the four-hour flight to Auckland and a cab ride to our hotel, the Mercure Auckland, which we reached in mid-late afternoon on Sunday around 36 hours after leaving home.
Our hotel was only a very short distance from the docks, from local shops, and from the excellent tourist information centre "i-Site". We found evening dinner in an Italian restaurant in the Queen Street mall, Monday morning breakfast in MacDonalds (because nothing else acceptable was open), followed by second breakfast in Esquires coffee shop because they had Internet and it was raining, and then an extended visit to the i-Site to organise our travel and accommodation for the ensuing few days. After lunch in a sushi bar, we took a big long walk through The Domain, a local hilltop parkland. We skipped dinner on Monday night because we were cold and tired. In the morning we had to get across to the local bus station for an 08:30 bus to head into the Northland.
Our bus delivered us to Paihia, on the Bay of Islands, at 12:40 on Tuesday. After a visit to the quayside restaurant (out of lasagna!) we went to find the YHA where we were staying (see, I knew the life membership I hold would come in handy some day). The acting warden explained very carefully to us where to find the local supermarket, but we totally failed to follow her directions and did our shopping in the greatly inferior local convenience store which stocked a tiny number of expensive and inedible vegetables. We did, however, get the chance for a good look around the local streets. Pre-packed corn on the cob and frozen stir-fry was purchased, cooked and eaten. Bed early, in anticipation of an early start the following day.
Wednesday morning we strode purposefully down to the quayside for a 7am start, on a bus trip up to Cape Reinga at the very northern end of the country. This was an excellent day out in the care of our driver, Huey from Fullers GreatSights, a man full of local information, fishing stories, and "my wife..." jokes. We managed to take in a trek through Puketi Kauri Forest to see the ancient Kauri trees, a visit to Cape Reinga where the spirits of departed Maori set out for their journey home (and where the guys from @Northland2011 included us in some of their publicity shots), and a chance to surf down some giant sand dunes on a body board (after an exhausting climb up the shifting sands). Huey drove the coach down the bed of the Te Paki quick sand stream and onto Ninety Mile Beach, which we followed south for more than three quarters of its length, stopping on the way to fish for clams and mussels, and to hear tales of how many coaches the company had lost to rising tides and shifting sands. Finally we dropped in at the showroom of Ancient Kauri Kingdom, who work the 40,000-year-old Kauri wood found preserved beneath the local swampy farmland.
Our trip on Thursday morning started at the relatively late hour of 8am, when our driver (Huey again) picked us up to transport us to Hokianga Harbour on the opposite coast, where Maori ancestors first set foot on New Zealand a thousand or so years ago. We started our trip with a visit to one of the earliest inland Christian missions in the country, and went on to see the Wairere Boulders, giant blocks of basalt sprinkled down a narrow valley leading to the harbour. But our most remarkable stop on this trip was to see Tane Mahuta, the largest Kauri tree in the world, and earthly representative of the great spirit who separated Mother Earth and Father Sky to allow light and life to flow into the gap thus formed. Our local guide Tawhete was happy to explain the cultural and spiritual significance of the site and punctuated our visit with songs and prayers of approach and welcome, of respect and regard, and of goodwill and thanks.
On Friday we weren't due to catch our bus back to Auckland until lunchtime, so we spent our morning visiting the nearby Waitangi Treaty Ground, where the agreement between the European settlers and the collected Maori chiefs was signed in 1840. Allegedly, the Maori chiefs invited the European authorities to help establish order between the more unruly elements of both communities, and the process which led ultimately to the establishment of New Zealand as a nation was begun.
As I type, we're on the 13:20 bus from Paihia heading south to Auckland, where we're due to arrive at 17:30 and I can once again return to the land of coffee-shop-WiFi and start uploading photos. By the time you read this they might well be available online.