Monday 28 March to Wednesday 30 March 2016

A short coach journey this morning to the airport and then we fly to North Island – Auckland.  However we are not going into Auckland just yet.  Onto another coach and we are off to Rotorua.

The countryside here is very different to South Island.  This could easily be rolling Derbyshire or Nottinghamshire rather than the majestic beauty of a magnified Scotland.  Rolling green countryside; an awful lot of cows being farmed in the “New Zealand” style with large numbers in small paddocks.  I can easily imagine why the early English settlers felt so at home.

Rotorua again attracts huge numbers of tourists and has many activities available.  We believe it is called the “Outdoor capital of New Zealand”.

We wander into the relatively newly built town centre and choose a restaurant, although the quality here is not as good as we enjoyed on South Island.

Our main activity on Tuesday is to go rail cruising.  We are taken to a former railway station, Mamaku on the now closed line to Rotarua.  I can find no proof of this but the line was I believe 3′ 6″ and I am pretty sure the gauge remains unaltered.

Here we split into groups of four and join our rail cruiser – a four wheel, four seater buggy and the individual cars are set off every few minutes – we were the last and did not see the others until we reached the end of the line at Tarukenga.  The powered buggies are petrol-electric hybrids

The outbound journey is at no more than 20 kmph and is largely downhill and so gravity assists the battery power as we descend.  There is an audio description of the history of our surroundings – initially farmland but over a longish section some ancient forest which predates the settlers which came here.  We are advised that there should be no need to use the brake unless we see another vehicle stopped in front of us or another obstruction and one of our number is officially the “Brake man”.  Inevitably the outward trip is trouble free as we are the last buggy to depart.  The downhill journey is actually peaceful as there are no motors and it is a warm and pleasant morning.

At Tarukenga there is a small turntable and the cars are turned and the petrol engine started.  Then in the same cars and same order we return to Mamaku.  The return distance is 19km.  There are no level crossings (and little sign of habitation) along much of the route and the cars carry on board sensing equipment to detect other cars nearby presumably via GPS and mobile signals.  There is also a radio connection to base in the event of a problem and we do hear a couple of messages.  This is a little noisier and there is a need to apply the brake to park the vehicle on return.  The uphill journey uses the engine to recharge the battery ahead of the next downhill trip.

A somewhat different approach to using an old railways and with powered vehicles like this  it may be unique.  In France I have read about using specially adapted cycles which have two wheels on one rail and a third on the other rail – but nothing like this.  I understand there were some technical challenges as the petrol – battery hybrid is unique and I note that some vehicles are badged as 3000 and some as 3100 – implying development have been made.

There are plans to offer some form of operation in Rotorua itself in the future but at the time of our visit these did not appear to have come to fruition and there was no obvious sign when we passed what I think was the end of the line.

Certainly the outward downhill journey is very quiet.  The steep gradient suffered a couple of serious runaways during its active life.  Today certainly felt very safe.

The photo collection is linked here.

Back to Rotorua and for me one of the highlights.  From a long time ago I have a memory of a television programme featuring the hot springs at Rotorua – Blue Peter maybe?  Anyway these hot spring baths are very close to our hotel and we walk across to them.

Pools are 38 deg C to 41 deg C and we spend a little time in each.  We have been getting in and out of aeroplanes, coaches, strange beds and so on for nearly a month and it is noticeable how for some days after this (relatively brief) exposure to the waters the aches (especially in my fingers for example) appear to have been washed away.  It does indeed feel magical.

This evening it is time for a trip out to a traditional Maori evening, in a village.  They demonstrate their traditional ways – but certainly these Maoris do not live like that I would say.  Sadly the photos here suffer from a lack of light!

We are all taught the haka and allegedly our dinner has been cooked in the traditional manner – Hangi.  A huge pit is dug and the stones at the bottom are raised to a good temperature and then baskets of food are places above the stones and then covered over trapping the heat, cooking the food slowly.

This is followed by a short show telling one of the traditional Maori stories.

And time for bed!

Wednesday shows us retracing our steps – this time into Auckland itself by coach.

On the way we pass a hobbit house – one reason to return to NZ would be to visit some of the Lord of the Rings / The Hobbit locations – there seem to be trips to various filming locations used in the films in many of the places we have stopped.

For lunch we stop on a true dairy farm and we are told about the “New Zealand” farming method of cows – before promptly setting down to eat (in some glorious weather, so we are outdoors for once) local produce.  All very tasty.  Due to age the farmer has now sold most of his land and retains the farmhouse and the facilities developed for visitors like us and for use for weddings and other events.

Our onward trip includes a service station shop and Jackie uses it as a shopping opportunity for a wool wrap.

Auckland, the capital has about 1m people (out of a total in NZ of 7m) and we are told the traffic jams can be pretty awful although as we arrive in mid-late afternoon it seems a quite normal city, with our progress being reasonable.  Our hotel is in reconstructed docklands in a very modern setting.

In the evening we wander out – being close to regenerated dockland there is actually quite a bit of choice – although the “trams” are not running due to the building work.  Eventually we choose a restaurant on the far side where we enjoy a good meal again outdoors.