Sunday, 27 January 2008

Ramnish's birthday party @ Shooters Bar (26th January 2008)

Ramnish celebrated his birthday tonight at Shooters Bar by having a salsa party! It was also Lily's birthday this week so they had a joint birthday and Salsa Therapy (their dance school) party - it was lots of fun! Happy Birthday, you two!!

Shooters Bar has a nice dancefloor and it was a good change of location than the usual salsa dancing at Latinos. Photos from the party:

Saturday, 26 January 2008

New additions to Friday BBQ (25th January 2008)

Helbert had invited a few more friends to join in this week's Friday BBQ - we had Brazilians Lesith and Ricardo, Anouk and her lovely daughter, Amaya, and Sharon. It was nice to have them join us - come again next week! Photos of us and friends:

Friday, 25 January 2008

Induction Day at Telecom (25th January 2008)

This was a great way to end my work week with an induction workshop. As a new member of the wider umbrella of Shared Capability in Telecom, I had to attend this full day induction course. A small number of us from the different units under this umbrella attended the course this time round. Lots of talks by key people in Shared Capability giving us a big picture of what the organisation is about.

I have a feeling that a team building activity is always included in any Telecom workshop/conference. This time, we were split into 2 groups for a Scavenger Hunt around the city to collect items and take photos based on a list given. My group lost by 1 item! But it was good fun and we had to enjoy some sun while walking around the city. Photos taken with my group:

Samba de Gafieira practice at home (24th January 2008)

Helbert has been teaching me how to dance samba de gafieira (partner dance samba that looks likes a mix of salsa and tango) and we have been practicing about twice a week since November. Ooo, not easy to learn because it differs from salsa (not so much butt action but more pencil-like legs movements) - it was all new to me but I love the challenge, especially when I'm able to perform the acrobatic moves correctly. :) Works up a sweat too! I enjoy dancing this samba because it dances to my favourite type of music, bossa novas. I've only ever been able to enjoy listening to the bossa novas but now I can put my other passion into it - dance! And with some Portuguese language lessons, I will be able to understand the words sung. Ah bliss!

Helbert (with a bit of my help dancing with him) has started to teach Ramnish and Stacey a few moves on Thursdays at my place - it's with hope that by passing on the dance moves to a few more couples that Latinos will slot samba de gafieira songs in between the salsa songs. Latinos is after all supposed to be a South American bar and should include Brazilian music too (which is not commonly played on Fridays and Saturdays - still very salsa-driven). Also, people here only associate samba with carnival-like dance moves. Dancing samba de gafieira will open their eyes to a whole new samba. :)

Ramnish and Stacey learn quick! And it was only their first class dancing together!! Photos taken of our prodigy students in the first class:

Helbert giving Ramnish some tips on how to lead Stacey

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

Wellington Anniversary weekend (19th - 21st January 2008)

New Zealand law provides an anniversary day for each province. Wellington Anniversary Day is the Monday that falls closest to 22nd of January and is observed as a public holiday within the old provincial boundaries. In my context, that just means a long weekend for me - yippee! Oh, I so need another holiday. I haven't got back to the routine of going to work Monday-Friday yet! Hehe...
Didn't do much during the long weekend but just chilled out at home. On Sunday, Lia came over to my place to give Helbert a haircut. Lia's a new friend of mine who's also from Brazil. She works as a beautician for my Colombian friend, Anayibi, at her shop in James Smith Arcade but I wasn't introduced to Lia by Anayibi, but by Rose. See? Now you know how 'small' Wellington is...everybody knows everybody...
Hey Lia, perhaps we could do a deal - you do the haircut and I provide my bathroom for space hire. How does that sound? She did a good job on Helbert's hair for a relatively affordable cost (I think she said her charges were $20 for mens haircut and $40-60 for women). Might have a cut myself at some stage though I'm a litte afraid that we'll have some miscommunication about the style to cut (Lia's learning English and at the moment, we talk with each other a bit like cavemen talk - lots of hand gestures and expressions with some English or Portuguese thrown in). It's fantastic that at her age, she's dares to take on the challenge of coming to work in an English-speaking country and learn the language. Good on you, Lia!
We (me, Helbert and Lia) spent a few hours at Oriental Bay beach in the afternoon. Hmm, this Wellington summer is nice. I don't recall having spent so much time out in the sun my last few summers and I'm making the most of it! A few beers and tidbits (and an ice-cream for me) at the beach and lots of laughter (Lia's really funny!).
Oh-o...I think we stayed past 2 hours...I had my car parked at the carpark near the beach and totally forgotten that I had to have the car moved within 2 hours (was having too nice a time on the beach and even Helbert lost track of time). By the time Helbert when to check if I was ticketed, it was too late - got my first ticket (yes, my first EVER) for my car! Didn't bother me much though as it was my fault really and not too huge a bill ($12). The funny part was when Helbert asked the ticketing man if we had to move the car now, the man said we could park the car for another 2 hours. What the???!
Helbert and I decided to cook today so went to the shops to get some food. I'm sure you realise by now that he enjoys messing up my kitchen (hehe...just kidding) and cooking up food concoctions of his own (lucky I'm game enough to try). Today's meal was pan-fried warehou fish marinated in his 'secret recipe' - yeah right...I have to say though, his concoctions always turns out good and this meal was yet another huge and satisfying one :) Perhaps reconsider your profession, Helbert? Photos taken on Helbert's camera:

Saturday, 12 January 2008

Friday BBQ at Mike's back on again (11th January 2008)

This is the first BBQ with the boys for the year - yep, Friday BBQ at Mike's back on again! It was good to catch up with everyone after the holiday period and share travel stories. Photos of the boys:

Helbert hard at work cutting up meat while Sam and Jason drank away

The Friday BBQ boys: Ian, Sam, Jason, Helbert, Sandung and Mike

Wednesday, 9 January 2008

Jambalaya and trip in Rotorua (3rd - 7th January 2008)

Thursday, 3rd January 2008: Helbert and I had previously booked ourselves accommodation at a backpackers in Rotorua where we'll be staying during the Jambalaya event taking place from the 4th-6th of January. Jambalaya is a music and dance festival jam-packed with three days of international and national acts, top international dancers, workshops, theatre shows, music & circus performers, market stalls, kids programme, street performance and the most beautiful energetic carnival parade this side of Brazil. I've been meaning to attend this event which is held in Rotorua annually but hadn't end up going so far so I decided to do so this year - sounded like a lot of fun! It was purely coincidental that Helbert too wanted to join me and my salsa friends at the event (he has done the Jambalaya with some Brazilians friends some 2 years ago). Great! :) Costed me $175 for a full pass at the 3-day festival.

It was time for us to bid our kind hosts at the holiday park goodbye and take an easy drive to Rotorua this morning. Thanks so much for the hospitality! We've enjoyed our week in Tutukaka so much!! Photos taken as we left the holiday park:
Our lovely hosts at Tutukaka Holiday Park

The huge marlin at the entrance into the holiday park (and Helbert pretending to reel in the fish!)

I'm not too sure where we were (somewhere on the way to Rotorua) but here are some photos taken at a lookout:

The drive to Rotorua was pretty cruisy - not a lot of traffic surprisingly (perhaps most people have started work today). Rotorua is a town on the southern shore of Lake Rotorua in the Bay of Plenty region of the North Island. You've probably heard of Rotorua before, famous for being stinky town - yep, the whole town smells like rotten eggs, all day long. You DEFINITELY know you are in Rotorua - just take a whiff! Despite the smell, Rotorua is a unique place to visit in NZ. There are lots to see and do in this active geothermal site e.g. taking a walk around the botanical gardens, soaking in hot pools, visiting the historical architecture and Maori marae, geysers, bubbling mud pools etc. Oh, and not forgetting adrenaline activities like the luge, Sky Swing and the Zorb (where you are inside a huge ball and roll down the hill)!

We took a drive around town and stopped by the lakefront for awhile - time to pop open a bottle of cold beer! Checked in to Treks Backpackers around 4pm and caught up with friends, Ramnish and Clare, who had also just arrived not long ago from Wellington. I wonder who Helbert and I would be sharing the room with tonight (we were booked into mixed dorm room for 4 people). Sure hope they don't snore (I'm a light sleeper)...Ramnish and Clare were sharing their room with Ken their first 2 nights and Annie moves in after. Oh, and speak of the devil - here comes Ken!

The 4 of us (me, Helbert, Clare and Ramnish) wanted to go to the luge this evening but they were closed by the time I rang up to make enquires. Oh well, we'll have to do it another day then. We decided to take a walk around town and headed to a Japanese restaurant for dinner. After several trips to Rotorua, I've concluded that this is one of the best cities in NZ offering authentic Japanese and Korean food. There are actually lots of Japanese and Korean tourists here. Hmm, wonder why it's so popular to tourists from these countries when the smell is so not appealling...

After dinner, we headed to the other side of town near the lake to check out the carnival that Ken told us about. Carnival? I had my suspicions that he meant carnival as in a funfair, not carnival as in dance parade (I saw a funfair during the drive around town earlier). Photos of us taken tonight:
Photo taken at the i-kiosk outside the Rotorua information centre

One of the thrill rides at the carnival (funfair)

Ramnish won Clare a stuffed toy at one of the sidestall dart games

We ended the night with a coffee after the carnival and back to the backpackers to shower, unpack and relax before the long day ahead. Oh, and we have roommates now - 2 guys who were working at the event. 2 big guys, I mean. Please, please, don't snore...

#^&*^$*@....!!!!! I woke up at around 2am and just couldn't sleep! One of the 2 guys was snoring SO LOUDLY to the point that his other friend had to hit him with a pillow several times to shut him up - only worked for 2 minutes and the snoring started again! I was so frustrated and at the verge of taking my keys and just sleep in the car for the night. But instead I tried to sleep with my ipod headphones on. Seriously, you don't want to be around me when I'm sleep deprived. And I've to put up with them for another 3 more days??! Oh no...

Friday, 4th January 2008: Was up around 8am but lazed in bed till 9 before getting up for breakfast and headed to Jambalaya. Didn't sleep very well last night and hope I'll be able to survive today.
The first workshop I did was one taught by Auckland Cuban teachers, Vivio and Greydis. It was a Cuban salsa experienced class and boy was it difficult for me to get the routine into my head. Helbert got somewhat frustrated trying to follow the Cuban moves and walked out of the workshop halfway through! Ramnish and the rest of the gang stayed put until the end of the class - I have doubts I would remember the moves the next time a leader tries it on me.

Skipped the introductory Bachata class and went to check out what else was going on at the festival. There were lots of stalls selling an array of items from music CDs to jewelry to food of all sorts. Came back to the Sportsdome and joined my friends and other rueda dancers for a midday rueda - it was heaps of fun dancing to a small radio with dancers from other parts of NZ. Some of us were in sports shoes and flip-flops but that didn't stop us having fun!

Hmm, the burger stall sells very yummy burgers and you can top up as much salad in your burger as you wish! A hit with most of us :)

Helbert and I attended the Samba Dance workshop conducted by Perola - it was a lot of fun but very exhausting dancing samba pagode as the music got faster and faster! I still find samba on foot difficult to learn. I can't seem to co-ordinate my feet with my bum to the beat!! Sheesh!

There was a dance shoe stall just outside - hmm, should I buy a pair of dance shoes for myself? I've been dancing on normal ladies open-toe shoes (those you wear to social parties or work) and my favourite pair was really worn out and about to snap. Me, Nicola and Antje ended up at the shoe stall trying out the salsa shoes while the boys, Ramnish, Ken and Helbert, watched and teased our girlie shopping habits. :P I finally got myself a black pair - yay, I've got dancing shoes for tonight's salsa party!

Oh, Helbert and I bumped into our 'lovely' roommates from last night while walking around the festival site. Mr Loud Snorer was so apologetic to me and felt very embarrassed for his behaviour last night - everytime he sees me, he would apologise to me! Hmm, wonder if he'll be back tonight...

Everyone went our own ways and later met up at the Circus Tent at 5.30pm for the Forro (Afro-Brazilian partner dance) dance workshop. This was the workshop I enjoyed the most today - forro is easy to dance to, much like salsa but in a more relaxed way. It was fun to dance with my friends from Wellington, and a few new ones I met at the festival. The funniest part was dancing forro without hold your partner's hand but dance forehead against forehead and use your eyes to lead! What a laugh!! :)

We all went back to Ramnish's room again this evening to chat over a few beers and headed out to Nando's Chicken for dinner. It has been a long time since I went to Nando's and surprisingly the food tasted pretty good!

There was a salsa party tonight at the Arena Energy Events Centre from 9pm till late with a band playing at the start. What happened to the band? I think I got there about 11pm but the band still haven't turned up so just danced to a few songs played by the DJ. Helbert and I decided to check out the Circus Tent in hope that they will play some more samba de gafieira songs that we could dance to (heard samba music played on our way to the events centre). Not sure if I mentioned this in my previous postings - Helbert is my samba de gafieira dance teacher and partner, and we've been practising the dance twice a week at my place since November. This would be a good opportunity to practice what I've learnt though the heel of my dance shoes seems to sink into the soil (the Circus Tent was set-up on a park). We waited and waited and waited. 2 beers later and still not our song. Unfortunately we didn't end up dancing because the DJ continued to play funk, soul and African beat music. Oh well, I'm getting tired so I'm just going to go to bed. Photos taken today:

Saturday, 5th January 2008: Our beloved roommates didn't return last night! And I actually didn't get much sleep because I was expecting them to turn up and that kept me awake the whole night!!

Stayed in bed till late morning. There weren't any workshops I was interested in (well, there was the LA salsa workshop that I was keen to attend but the original instructors for the workshop pulled out of the festival last minute - what a bummer!). At 12pm, the gang met up at the events centre to watch the Jambalaya Theatre Show titled The Journey - it was a show performed by most of the intructors and performers. Very nicely choreogaphed story of dance and music from the different continents/countries - I really enjoyed the show! The forro performance was spectacular where the female dancer was dressed like a rag doll and pulled out from a suitcase! Yes, she was small and flexible enough to fit into a travel suitcase. Oh my god! And she was thrown and bounced around just like a rag doll!!

Hung around at the festival site for lunch (ooo, the chicken kebabs were nice too!) and everyone went our own ways again doing different workshops. Helbert and I went back for another Forro workshop and learnt a few new moves. It was very amusing when a lady (who was, I think, admiring the way we danced) asked Helbert how close does one need to know the other to dance this close together. We couldn't help but laugh as we continued to dance :) Well, lady, it's one of those things when you get comfortable with your own self and not be afraid to dance close with whomever you partner with (especially Latinos who dance very close). Besides, you'll find that it's easier to dance in close proximity that an arm's length apart - trust me, I know what I'm talking about ;)

Met up with Ken on the way out who joined us in town to watch the Jambalaya Parade. The 3 of us got ourselves a nice outdoor table in a bar and had some beers while we await the procession to arrive on our street. Some of our friends were in the 1-hour parade - Ramnish, Stacey and several others. Reminded me a lot of the Cuba Street Carnival parade I was part of last February. Photos taken today:

Dinner tonight was with Helbert, Ken, Antje and Nicola at a nice Thai restaurant in town before heading back to the events centre for another night of salsa partying.

Sunday, 6th January 2008: Those guys never returned to the room but sometime in the middle of last night (or early hours of the morning), another chap whom Helbert and I had met at the festival site came in to our room and slept there for the night (thankfully he didn't snore).

Ok, I think I said that too soon...True, there was no snoring to wake me up but the fire alarm was going off so often from 6am onwards that everyone in the backpackers were jolted up from sleep so many times! Bloody hell - can't I just get 1 night of good sleep??

Didn’t do much today as none of the workshops were of interest. At 1pm, Helbert and I met up with the rest of the bunch at the Circus Tent to watch the Suspend Circus Cabaret Show. It was hilarious and an amazing circus act. Wow, that woman in the Tissu act sure has strong muscles to perform the aerial contortions! Ooo, and did you see the hot blond in the German Wheel act - got us girls drooling :P I'm sure some of us wouldn't mind if he completed his strip...hehe...

Well, that was the end of the Jambalaya for me. Frankly, I was somewhat disappointed perhaps because I had expected it to have a lot more interesting workshop and participants (it was quite empty). Hmm, I think the decrease in participants has a lot to do with the NZ Salsa Congress and Jambalaya now split into separate events (there used to be just Jambalaya). I think this is likely to be my first and last Jambalaya.
Finally, I can cut this green band off my wrist (we had to wear it throughout the event the past 3 days) - was getting annoying!

Ramnish, Annie, Clare, Stacey, Helbert and I later headed to the nearby Polynesian Spa Hot Mineral Bathing & Spa Therapies for a dip in the hot pools. I've never been to the hot pools before but Ramnish was raving about it endlessly - I had to check it out for myself! We went for the $20 per person deal to the Adult Pools & Priest Spa (the cheapest of the lot) where it was only for adults, offering a choice of seven hot mineral pools to dip in, six with views of Lake Rotorua.

In our swimming attire, we started off at the large deeper alkaline pool (38 degrees Celsius) - ooo, hot, but nice...Couple of minutes later, we moved on to the three Priest Spa pools (39 to 42 degrees Celcius) which offers special thermal bathing in acidic water from the Radium hot spring, long renowned for its therapeutic properties. Hmm, I'm not sure if dipping in the pools really has therapeutic properties - the pools didn't look very clean to me (lots of strange-looking green stuff) plus the place still stinks like the rest of Rotorua. Though I have to say, the hot pools seemed very popular with the Asian tourists (I'm not talking about me) - loads of Japanese and Koreans around when we were there. Guess beauty is key! We continue dipping from pool to pool for an hour, changing to less warmer waters towards the end.

Helbert and I then drove to Skyline Skyrides Rotorua to do the luge but the others didn't join us (think they went for dinner instead). We've been there before but wanted to return to record a doubling ride down the scenic track (during a trip to Queenstown previously, we were able to ride downhill on the same luge with Helbert steering and me recording the ride - it was crazy!). I've done all 3 luge sites in NZ and Rotorua has the best (and longest) track! Three separate concrete sealed tracks wind down through the redwood trees. The scenic track (and also your compulsary first track) has viewing bays at great locations for taking photographs and allows for a leisurely trip down whilst enjoying the panorama.

Helbert and I went for the Sky Swing and 5 x Luge package inclusive a gondola return trip. "What is a Sky Swing?" I asked Helbert after we've paid and was inside the gondola on the way up. "THAT!!" he replied, pointing to a gigantic ball hanging on ropes between two huge aerial columns. WHAT???!!!!! Helbert laughed so much at my facial expression as I sat quietly all the way uphill in fear...I should have known better when travelling with him - we always end up doing at least 1 adrenaline rush activity (super scary stuff like bungy or something) and the Sky Swing was the one for this trip. Breathe in...and breathe out...

The Sky Swing is a thrilling and exhilarating ride, 50 metres above ground level and reaching speeds of up to 120kph. We were strapped on a harness on the roundish swing that had a video camera attached to Helbert's side. Once securely strapped, the swing was lifted up...and up...and up! (I can still feel the adrenaline rush even at this moment that I'm writing about the experience) As Helbert wanted to record the whole event on his videocamera, I was made responsible to yank the release cord. Oh my felt as if I was to yank us to our doom...

I closed my eyes as I yanked the cord but nothing happened. We were still hanging! "Pull harder!" shouted Helbert and I did...and ZOOM! we went swinging at speeds of I don't know how fast. Obviously fast enough to suck out all the air in Helbert's lungs at the sudden drop - he went totally silent. Oh, but it was good fun, feeling such a rush of adrenaline (and fear)! It was only the initial drop that was scary and the remaining time was just us swinging until we slowed down. The bungy was way more frightening than this, that's for sure! Hehe…we really do all sorts of fun and crazy things together!

After the Sky Swing, we continued on to complete our 5 luge rides. There weren't many people around this evening and we were probably the last 2 customers - we pretty much 'owned' the track :)

Unfortunately doubling was not allowed so we couldn't record our ride on the scenic track and neither was the Advanced nor Twilight Luge tracks available this time round (we had done both before - the twilight track allows you to ride at night). Still, we have heaps of fun racing each other downhill and Helbert making skid marks on the concrete tracks (his wheels smelt of burnt rubber) or bumping my luge to annoy me. :P A rabbit hopped on one of the tracks as I was riding and Helbert and I nearly crashed against each other because I had to brake! Get out of the way!!

I was feeling a little down because we were heading back to Wellington the next day but all the fun activity this evening got me grinning from ear-to-ear! :)

Dinner tonight was at a nice little Japanese restaurant which interestingly played bossa novas as we ate. Ooo, my feet were itching to dance samba de gafieira!

My wish to dance tonight was granted when Ramnish texted me to say that some of the salsa dancers were heading to The Grumpy Mole for a small salsa party till midnight. Sweet! Helbert and I headed over around 11pm and I had fun dancing with friends. It was a wonderful way to wrap up the 3-day event in Rotorua before our journey home tomorrow. Photos taken today:

Monday, 7th January 2008: Sigh...all good things have to come to an was time for everyone to head back to Wellington today. Back to the normal routine of Monday-Friday work. I wasn't looking forward to going back but hey, I've got to face reality sooner or later!

Helbert and I were up early and was ready to go by 9am. Said our goodbyes to Ramnish, Clare and Annie and started our slow drive back to Wellington. Most of us were heading back today in different cars and times; Annie was staying on for another few more days for a salsa course. See you all in Wellington! Drive safe!!

I had previously picked up a brochure of a trout and wildlife park in Rotorua so Helbert and I decided to stopped by to check it out. It was called Paradise Valley Springs, Rotorua’s favourite trout springs and wildlife park. Quite a drive through the hills and farm to get there. Hadn't occured to us that there would be farmland in Rotorua city - interesting. Costed us $25 per person to visit the park.

Paradise Valley Springs consists of several enclosures to explore. We started off at the African Lion pride where several of these lions were basking in the sun. Every day at 2.30pm, the exciting Lion Feeding Show enthralls visitors as they get to see the immense power and strength of the lions. It was only 10.30am so we won't be around for the show but I assumed it was a show where the lions fight for their food.

Did you know that you could pat lion cubs here? Yep, that's right! The park has two 10-month-old lion cubs, Hana and Ben, and boy were they HUGE for their age!! Their keeper had just fed them before visitors were allowed to pat them. I don't think the cubs enjoyed being patted - they seemed sleepy after their feed and couldn't be bothered to move even when shoved by the keeper. Oh my, the paw of the cub would do some serious damage - it was bigger than mine. They even weigh much more than me!

I only touched Ben's paw and quickly retracted my hand from the side of the cage. I don't know - the idea of touching a wild animal makes me a tad frightened that it might attack. Helbert, on the other hand, has no fear and was happily patting a very annoyed Hana, who all of a sudden decided to move, and scared the hell out of Helbert! Hahahaha - it was so funny and I think I caught it all on tape :P In the midst of all this, he accidentally bumped a little girl who was next to him and made her upset (Helbert somehow has a track record for making little girls cry on trips).

Paradise Valley Springs has its own natural freshwater spring, Te Waireka (meaning 'sweet water' in Maori). Flowing from deep underground at a rate of 60 litres every second, this pure water provides a never ending supply to the trout pools, coffee shop and water bottling plant on site, Paradise Pure. It was very fascinating to see how the bottling machine worked from the viewing window, filling up the bottles with water, sealing and capping them.

We then continued exploring the rest of the park, walking through the native bush setting, passing by varieties of animals found wild or farmed in NZ, native birds and trout pools along the way. Flowing through Paradise Valley Springs is the Ngongotaha Stream, the major trout spawning stream for Lake Rotorua and Lake Rotoiti and approximately 20,000 trout spawn in this stream annually. The trout are totally wild and are free to come and go as they wish. Hmm, the trout in the stream swims against the current whereas those in the pools swim in schools going slowly in a gigantic circle (makes me dizzy watching them go round and round). I wonder why they do so...There is also an underground cave where swallows nest, and you can observe Rainbow, Brown and Tiger trout at eye level. It feels like you can reach out and touch them! Some of the fish must have fought with each other - some were partially blind, others had frayed fins and tails, and a few looked as if swimming with a slouch.

It was a good thing we bought packets of animal food at the information desk because we got to feed the animals (well, except for a few that had clear signs outside its enclosure NOT to feed the animal). Eiks, I tried feeding a few animals - the birds pecked on my palm while the cute billy goat I fed salivated all over! Oh, but its tongue was so soft and ticklish! Photos taken at Paradise Valley Springs:

Helbert and I have been very fortunate that the weather has been kind to us most of our trip. It was pouring heavily driving back to Wellington - I want to go back to sunny Tutukaka!! I had a fantastic trip travelling with Helbert. We'll have to do this again soon! Tomorrow will be a day to relax, unpack and for me, back to work on Wednesday (Helbert has another week off - lucky!). Welcome back to Wellington! Can't wait to climb back to my queen-sized bed and get a good night's rest :)

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Trip up north - Day 3 - 9 in Northland (28th December 2007 - 2nd January 2008)

Friday, 28th December 2007: As per Rob's advise, Helbert and I went to Discover Tutukaka in search for Dylan this morning. Dylan turned out to be a friendly American who was very helpful and gave use a few suggested itineraries for the days ahead. Helbert and I decided to take it easy today and just drive around the area to see what's available. Discover Tutukaka is an information centre for activities and the friendly staff there can help you book trips. It is also a shop and internet service centre.
I bought myself a set of fins for snorkelling. Helbert suggested I get the bright yellow ones so he could see and track me better should I accidentally swim slightly further away from him (we have a 1-metre agreement i.e. that's the maximum distance between us in the open water because I sometimes panic and he's aware of my deep water fear). OK, yellow ones then!
After booking a fishing, snorkelling and diving trip for the weekend, we took Dylan's advise and drove to a few beaches along the coast. Our first stop was at Matapouri Bay, a beautiful horseshoe-shaped bay. Nice sandy beach with several walkways leading to other bays. If you are interested to learn surfing, drive further along Matapouri Road to Sandy Bay, the famous surfing bay in the area (though looking from the car, I couldn't see much waves i.e. low surf). Me, surfing? Hmm, probably I can pick it up after I get over my fear of the water...
We decided to head over to Russell for lunch. The drive there was up and down hills through winding and at times, narrow roads - made me felt somewhat squeezy. You probably didn't know this but Russell was declared NZ’s capital in 1840 before it was moved to Auckland a year later. A quaint and charming town with several cafes, bars and restaurants. There were lots of people in the small town when we got there. Had our car parked and strolled down the main street to have lunch at Tuk-Tuk Bangkok Thai Restaurant - hmm, the combination fried rice I had was very good and tasted authentic too (I was initially skeptical to eat Asian here since it was such a small town). Ooo, and so prettily decorated too :)
From Russell, you can take a ferry across to Paihia either on the passenger ferry or better still, the car ferry instead of driving there! Helbert and I have travelled to the South Island with a car on the Interislander ferry before but this was different - we just drove onto the Fullers Bay of Islands car ferry ramp, parked our car on the ferry and sat inside the car while we get ferried across to Paihia. Costed us $11 in total for the ride and the journey only took us 6 minutes. Oh, that was so cool!
Paihia is the main tourist town in the Bay of Islands in the far north of the North Island. It was bustling with people and reminded me a lot of Queenstown (think jetboat, para-gliding, helicopter ride etc.). We took a walk around the main street and pier, watching boats of all shape and sizes pull up to the pier. Stopped by one of the many cafes for a coffee (yep, my usual flat white and his usual long black) and did some grocery shopping for our fish BBQ tomorrow. Helbert was already salivating thinking about it - what if we didn't catch anything? "We'll not leave Tutukaka until we catch fish!" was his response. OK - I like that plan! I've never fished before so was feeling excited about tomorrow's fishing trip :) Photos taken today:
Started heading back to Tutukaka around 5pm taking another route passing through Whangarei instead of the winding road back. I remembered passing by a waterfall when we drove through Whangarei yesterday. Can we stop there if we drive past it again?
Ah, so the waterfalls was actually Whangarei Falls, one of the most picturesque waterfalls in NZ, and is a very popular absailing and swimming spot in summer. There are walking tracks through native bush and sheltered picnic areas which adds to this park's appeal. The Whangarei Falls is 26.3 metres high and falls over steep basalt cliffs. Photos taken at the falls:
The sun was still shining brightly by the time we arrived back at the holiday park so took a drive towards Whangaumu Bay (locally known as Wellington Bay) located at the end of Tutukaka Block road. The intention was to have a look but not go down to the beach. Besides, it was almost 8pm even though the sun was still shining as if only 4pm. There were lots of holiday homes and resorts along this road. The rest of our evening was spent relaxing at the holiday park, chatting with Rob and few other campers.
I learnt that to maximise the use of the shower and your 50 cents worth, you first need to undress, then go to the coin machine to put in your coin, and then quickly run back to your cubicle to shower. Many of the female campers didn't know how the light button works (the button pops up after about 15 minutes or so and you need to press it again) and showered in the dark! Poor things, I had a show a few where the button was...

Saturday, 29th December 2007: We spent the day with Sea Safaris Tutukaka on a snorkelling and fishing tour around the Poor Knights Islands. Costed us $100 per person for this trip. We were up early to prepare our packed lunches and headed for the marina by 9am where we met up with skipper Mike and 2 other couples who were also booked on the trip.
The Poor Knights Islands are a group of uninhabited islands off the east coast of the Northland Region. The islands are protected as a nature reserve and a permit is required to land or tie boats up. The waters for 800 metres around the islands are a marine reserve in which it is prohibited to disturb marine life or remove rocks or shells. No commercial fishing is permitted within one nautical mile (1,852 metres). The islands are a popular diving location due to the variety of marine fauna found there, and are popular also for their intriguing landforms, which include natural arches and caves. So many boats head out to the islands daily!
Our tour begun with a 45-minute boat ride from the marina to the islands, followed by a tiki tour ("tiki tour" means a scenic tour in NZ context) around the islands with Mike telling us interesting stories and information about the islands and marine reserve. Frankly speaking, the boat was smaller than I expected it to be and I was a little worried I may get seasick - I'm not prone to seasickness but if the sea was rough, I'm sure anyone would feel pretty shaken and have a tendency of wanting to throw up.
It is said that Captain James Cook sailed past the islands and named them after a popular European and English breakfast dish, known at the time as the 'Poor Knights Pudding'. Today, the pudding is known as French toast. But don't you think the islands look like a human form lying down and looking towards the sky?
Along the tour, we saw many dive boats and several private charters dropping people off to dive sites for snorkelling and diving. There are about 60 dive sites in this area - divers are totally spoilt for choice :) We even saw our Swiss friend, Chris, whom we got to know at the holiday park on one of the dive boats - hey, Chris!
The islands tour went on for probably an hour, with me doing most of the videocamera recording. I don't think I'll be able to remember all the names of the arches and caves we've visited when I get home - we saw so many during the short time! The good thing about being on a small boat meant that we could go through arches and into caves, something that Helbert fears a lot (he's afraid an earthquake might suddenly occur and the arch would fall on him). Come on, don't be silly! Photos taken on our tiki tour:
It was time for us to do some snorkelling and Mike took us to a little secluded site called Nursery Cove. The cove is a fascinating playground for semi-tame juvenile fish (thus the label "nursery"). It is said to be a particularly good site for snorkelling with an interesting feature called the Labyrinth off the southern point which Helbert and I didn't explore as we were too busy snorkelling and taking photos with his digital underwater camera. Helbert had bought himself an Olympus digital camera for Christmas that had waterproof features (yes, you don't need a waterproof casing) and allows him to snap photos to the depth of 10 metres below the surface. How cool is that?
Brrr!! The water temperature was cold! Despite wearing wetsuits provided by Mike, it was still quite chilly in the water (I was shivering!). Helbert and I snorkelled just a short distance away from the boat and took lots of photos of the colourful fishes. Oh, this place was a bit of a landmine because there were jellyfish in the water i.e. we had to be careful and avoid them. But the fish must be quite used to human presence - they were fearless, swimming very close to Helbert as he skin dived and I took photos! was so nice to come back to the boat and enjoy a hot beverage or soup to warm up. Mike also provided us with some muffins with our hot drinks (it was part of the package). For those of you who prefer to stay dry, Mike also provides a glass bin that you can use to see the underwater life from the boat.
Next up was some fishing for the group. As part of the packaged tour, bait and fishing rods were provided. Ladies, you would have to get your hands dirty for this activity because you have to cut up the bait (we were given frozen bait of squid and pilchards) and place them on your hook - eww, slimy and smelly! I do hope we'll get a good sized fish for dinner tonight :)
Helbert said that I would feel the fish biting my bait when I held the rod. This was my first fishing experience but I couldn't feel the fish biting the bait much. How is it supposed to feel like? My fishing rod moving?? Tension on the fishing line???
I learnt that to prevent the dreaded backlash or birds' nest when casting (that is your fishing line getting all bundled up on the reel), you have to lightly put a thumb on the reel and 'guide' your line. And once you feel your sinker touch the bottom of the sea, reel it about 3-4 winds up. The rest is just patiently waiting for your fish.
Hmm, no luck so far...we've moved several locations to fish but have only caught small fishes (there are regulations to the size of fish you can take from NZ waters - if smaller than the regulated size, you have to put it back or be penalized if caught). Caught several kelp fish and I got a small snapper (yay!) but none good enough to take back with us (boo!). Even though my snapper was small, it sure was hard work reeling it in - the fish felt so heavy and reeling seemed to take like forever! Oh, and Mike suspected that I may have caught a moray eel but the fish was smart to swim into the rocks and my line got caught, resulting in a painful tug-of-war that I had to ask Helbert for help. You should have seen my fishing rod - it looked as if it would snap anytime! We had to cut off my line, let go of the sinker and start over. Ops, I hope Mike's not mad at far, I've been nothing but trouble, birds' nest and all...
Another try at a new location nearer to the coast but still no fish. Oh well, no fish for dinner tonight. Looks to me Helbert and I will be going on another fishing trip this week (he's not giving up just yet!). It was still a nice trip out at sea and I had fun :) Photos taken snorkelling and fishing today:

Sunday, 30th December 2007: Helbert and I had booked a diving trip with Dive!Tutukaka previously for a 2-tank dive at the Poor Knights Islands today. Costed us $225 per person and is by far, the most expensive dive I've paid to date (even diving in Fiji was cheaper!). I guess the reason for the high cost was because the Poor Knights Islands was ranked by Jacques Cousteau (world-reknown marine conservationist and explorer) as one of the top 10 dive sites in the world offering the best sub-tropical dive. It was a full gear hire, air in tank for 2 dives and return boat trip for that cost. For an extra $10, you also get a packed lunch on board.
The Poor Knights Islands are washed by a warm current that sweeps down from the Coral Sea. Water temperatures are warmer and visibility is clearer than on the New Zealand coast. The Islands have volcanis origins that provide a myriad of spectacular drop-offs, walls, caves, arches and tunnels. This complex underwater landscape results in a unique environment in which subtropical and temperate marine life co-exist with extraordinary diversity, beauty and density.
We were told that a dive at the Poor Knights is once-in-a-lifetime experience - very different to coral reef diving or diving on the New Zealand coast. The islands are a total marine reserve, allowing the fullest proliferation of nature’s underwater wonderland. Every thing is alive, thriving and colourful.
Helbert and I had an early start today and was at the dive centre by 8am to get ourselves kitted with the appropriate equipment. By 8.30am, we started boarding. We were put on one of the 3 dive boats heading out this morning called the El Tigre, accompanied by their qualified skipper, dive master and instructors on board together with some 20 other divers. It was about a 45-60 minute boat ride out to the islands, taking a bit longer than our previous trip out with Sea Safaris because this was a MUCH bigger vessel.
Our skipper was hilarious and made me laugh so much! He had us all lined up to use the toilet on board before getting into our wetsuits - warned us that he would not let us off if caught peeing inside the wetsuit. :P Gave us a briefing of our first dive site, Landing Bay Pinnacles, where we were all told to swim to the front of the vessel and use the anchor line as reference when descending. The pinnacle comes up from 45 metres to within 5 metres of the surface. Deep...
I still struggled getting my dive gear on and manoeuvring my way to the back of the vessel to enter the water on a giant stride. As normally expected, I had buoyancy issues and was unable to sink despite emptying all the air from my BCD (BCD stands for Buoyancy Control Device, which is the jacket you inflate/deflate) the first time. This dive was somewhat a disaster: I couldn't sink so had to swim back to the vessel to add more weight and tried descending again. After I COULD sink, I was sinking like an anchor (way too fast) and had bouyancy issues underwater i.e. a small press of the inflator and ZOOP! I shot up to the surface. URGHHHHHH! I HATE THIS!!! Helbert was definitely not impressed - he was my dive buddy and with me having problems meant he couldn't enjoy his dive either. He couldn't take any photos during this dive so we ended up doing a 20m depth dive. I pretty much deathgripped his hand throughout the dive - sigh, perhaps you should just do the next dive alone and I'll stay on the boat. I love life underwater but my fear for deep water makes me a nuisance to partner with at times (which is why I usually buddy with the dive master or instructor knowing that I may have a mini panic or some sort of drama diving). I'm still learning (this was only my 12th dive) and trying to overcome my fear so would appreciate patience, guidance and attention from my dive buddy.
Upon return from the first dive, we were provided with our choice of hot coffee, tea, soup or Milo (hot chocolate) on board as we dried off. Lunch was provided (a brown bag consisting of a sandwich, cookie and fruit) while the skipper took us for a tour around some of the special spots of the Poor Knights, including Rikoriko Cave. The huge dome of Rikoriko is entered by boats, swimming inside a huge cathedral, 139m long, 80m wide and 35m high. It is famous for its accoustics and regularly used by musicians for a capella concerts. Try whistling or shouting inside!
A tiki tour around the island and rest some 1.5 hours later, we were taken to the 2nd dive site, Trevor's Rocks/El Torito Cave, a shallow bay with crystal clear water. I was not planning to go on this dive after such a stressful first dive but Helbert convinced me to go. He took the opportunity to teach me to control my buoyancy and left me to swim without holding his hand but still within sight. I was trying very hard to follow his instructions and managed to dive alongside him with minimal issues. Still need practice though!
Lots of photo opportunity for Helbert this time because we were no more than 9 metres below the surface. Some of the other divers who ventured to deeper waters saw stingrays and swam through an arch. The skipper did mention something about having to pay respects to a 'frog' that sits at the entrance of the arch (not sure what that's supposed to mean). Will have to check it out next time I return here to dive.
Around 3.30pm, the vessel began its journey back to shore and we chilled out at the top deck to enjoy the breeze and sun. I was glad that I took Helbert's advice and went for the 2nd dive. It was much more enjoyable this time and I felt I had learnt something (sense of accomplishment). Need to have more swimming lessons too which would help with my fear of water.
Hmm, all the swimming is making me hungry! Dinner tonight was BBQ meat, garlic bread and salad (yum!) with some new friends we made at the BBQ station. Photos taken today:

Monday, 31st December 2007: Helbert and I were waiting for Discover Tutukaka to call us this morning about a possible fishing trip today. It was almost 10.30am and still no call so we headed out to look for Tutukaka's giant kauri tree. Mike and Rowan (friends we got to know last night) told us there was a giant kauri tree (NZ's largest and most famous native tree) just behind the hills of the camp site, 30 minutes by foot on a pathed bush track. Let's go check it out!
OK...looking for Goliath, Tutukaka's giant kauri tree, wasn't as easy as we thought it would be. We were told that we had to pass a few gates and that there was a clear yellow path but we somehow got to a dead end. Hmm...maybe up this way??
Half an hour into our hunt for the tree, my phone rang. Emma from Discover Tutukaka rang to say that she has organised for us to go on a fishing trip with a guy named Evan this afternoon. Yay, we're going fishing! Kauri tree hunt will have to be postponed for now. Photos taken this morning:
Turned out we were the only 2 people going out fishing with Evan today. The fishing trip costed us $125 each which included bait and fishing rods. Helbert was teasing me that we would be going out on the smallest boat in the marina. And you know what? The smallest boat I could see was the boat we were going fishing on! We met up with Evan Daysh (fisherman and NZ police officer) by his small boat Harpoon Charters. Oh dear god! How am I going to survive half a day out at sea on the tiny boat? I guess even Helbert was a bit nervous...
The ride out to sea was one adrenaline rush. Evan told Helbert and I to stand up the front and held on to the boat as we 'bounced' all the way to the Poor Knights. Oh my god - I was so afraid that the boat would just do a 360 degree turn and we would all fall off the boat! My heart was pounding madly and I was gripping to the boat for dear life!!
You know, the fishing trip wasn't so bad - ok, the bouncing part was not so cool but the water was pretty calm out at sea plus Evan knew all the good places to catch fish :) He anchored at a few spots just outside the marine reserve and we were catching fish after fish, to the point we had to stop because we couldn't take them all with us! There was no point fishing and throwing the fish back just for the sake of fishing (not all fish can survive after getting hooked - some had guts coming out of its mouth and will get eaten by other fish if thrown back into the water).
Helbert caught mostly pink maomao (be careful not to rub your hand on the fish - it has scales like a zillion thorns) while I caught the 2 huge snappers (yay, we've got dinner now!). But it was hard work! Now I really appreciate fishermen who go out to sea to catch the fish - it was so tiring to reel the fish in. I had to reel it with my right hand, then left, then right again...AND I was still not finished! The boys showed me no pity and would not help. "Well, you are on your own, lady!" said both of them. Fine!
HELP!!!! I got into a tug-of-war with some monster at the end of my fishing line! Evan had to come to my rescue because my fishing rod was literally about to be pulled into the water (probably me included). He told me that I had a fish at the end of my line but lost it to a shark. Shark???!! Apparently there had been sightings of a shark in the area recently. Bad shark - how dare you eat my dinner! And my sinker too!! Poor Evan had to help fix another sinker for me. It would have been pretty amazing if I caught the shark though I'm not sure how it would fit in the boat...
Helbert also caught a huge mackerel which according to Evan was a difficult fish to catch and is great for marlin bait. He also said that it was not a nice fish to eat because it tasted bloody. Really??
Both Helbert and I would definitely recommend you to take a fishing trip out with Evan if you come to Tutukaka. We had heaps of fun! Evan took us on a short trip around the Pinnacles and to Rikoriko cave (yes, every boat takes you there) before we headed back to the marina ashore.
Helbert helped Evan dock the boat and we caught a ride back to the holiday park with him. Unfortunately Evan doesn't help to clean and fillet the fish so we had to do it on our own. We gave the mackerel to him since we won't be using it for bait - thanks Evan for a great fishing trip! Photos taken of our rewarding fishing trip today:
Helbert and I went to share with our friends, Mike and gang, our catch of the day and had fish dinner together - we had about 8 fishes, more than enough for ourselves. The hosts at the holiday park told us we could clean the fish in the dive gear cleaning room but some of the campers who wanted to wash their dive gear were not happy about it. Hey, we had permission, ok? Mike and Helbert went in full force trying to clean and fillet the fish - I have to salute the boys for it was their first attempt. Good job! One of Mike's female friends came to help and showed Helbert how to fillet the fish. I could see that he was enjoying getting his hands dirty and took the opportunity to photograph the boys at work :P
There wasn't much I could do to help but supply Helbert with beer and took one of the pink maomao to the kitchen to season for the BBQ. I had so many campers stare at me or stop to chat and ask me questions about me and my fish! want to know what I put inside? It was no secret (and I learnt it from Helbert anyway). Helbert had cut open the fish and made small stabs on both sides of the fish. I had slices of onion and tomatoes slotted inside and the fish was seasoned generously with chopped garlic, salt, lemon pepper, olive oil and soy sauce, inside and out. I then wrapped the fish up in aluminium foil and left it to slowly grill on the BBQ, turning it around periodically. When the juices start to leak, it was time to cut open the foil and let the fish sit on the grill for a bit, and then ready to eat :) Simple!
After spending a good hour plus cleaning, filleting and cooking the fish, some of the fillets were seasoned with lemon pepper on the grill and the rest eaten as sashimi with soy sauce. Delicious! Everyone enjoyed a good BBQ meal under the set-up marquee in the sun, chit-chatting and drinking. Helbert and I were still waiting for our BBQ fish for dinner (the fillets were just an entree) so stayed back while the others headed to Schnappa Rock Restaurant & Bar to join in the New Year's eve celebrations. We'll catch up with you guys later! Photos of our fish dinner:
Hmm, the BBQ pink maomao was wonderful! You guys have missed a fabulous meal :P
After cleaning up and taking a shower (phew, we smelt like fish!), it was almost 11pm. Helbert and I headed to meet up with the rest at the bar but it was too packed to get in so ended up a bar by the marina. There was a huge crowd and a live band playing. We ordered ourselves a glass of white wine each and joined the crowd counting down to the new year. 3, 2, 1...HAPPY NEW YEAR! Wishing everyone a happy, healthy and fantastic year ahead!!
We didn't stay long at the marina after the countdown as we were too tired from a long day out. Yawn...let's go back to the 'presidential suite'...zzzzsss...

Tuesday, 1st January 2008
: First day of the new year and here I am still lazing around in the 'presidential suite' in sunny Tutukaka. What a way to start the new year - ah, bliss!
You know, usually during this period of moving from one year to another, I would ponder on the things that has happened in the previous year, access how well I've done (i.e. my achievements, failures etc.) and set some new goals for the year ahead. 2007 had been a year full of ups and downs with some dramatic changes in my life. Given all that had happened in the past year, I'm not sure if I should set goals for myself this year. I have to admit that I am a goal-setter (it gives me focus) and get frustrated (and disappointed too) when I don't achieve them within my set datelines. Perhaps it's better to adopt the "wait-and-see" or "go with the flow" strategy - less opportunity for disappointment. So, there you go, no set plans for the year. Just live the day and see what happens!
Helbert and I decided to head back to look for Goliath after our unsuccessful attempt yesterday. We got some directions from Grant, one of the host at the holiday park, and set off on our search for the kauri tree. It was a nice, tranquil scenic walk through the farm and bush, and took us about 45 minutes to get to the tree. You could see the tree from afar! It was the only tree above the canopy of trees behind the hills and you would be amazed at its actual size when you see it close up - the circumference of the tree would probably need 4-5 people holding hands around it.
The kauri is a living link with the age of the dinosaurs. As you stand before these ancient trees, you are in the presence of living entities that were mature trees before any human came to these shores. The one we saw was 800 years old!! Photos taken on our trail to see Goliath:
I'm very pleased that our trip to find the tree today was a success!
What else could we do today? Grant suggested that we check out the Mermaid Pools at Matapouri Bay which was supposed to be a beautiful hidden site. Sounds like a plan! So off we went, taking a 10 minute drive to the bay. Unfortunately we couldn’t get through to the pools due to the high tide. Well, we did try to get across, climbing on the rocks to get to the tunnel leading to the pools. We probably got half way through but couldn't get past the track that was covered in water knee-deep high so headed back to the beach. Oh, I was struggling to keep myself dry, climbing up and down the rocky track on the way back. And Helbert took pleasure laughing as he watched me hop my way to safety. You are SO cruel! Hah, but at least my shoes are dry, not like your soaking wet ones! Eww...Photos at Matapouri Bay:
One of the campers at the holiday park told us that there was a viewing point at Whangaumu Bay (Wellington Bay) so we decided to head over to have a look. At the far end of the bay lies a walking track and you can climb the hill for a good view of the Ngunguru entrance and the sand spit. Apparently you can walk to Ngunguru from here on low waters. The waters here were quite clear even though the day was rather overcast - we should come back tomorrow to snorkel if it's a nice day! Photos taken at Whangaumu Bay:
Headed back to the holiday park to BBQ the remaining 2 snappers in the fridge. Again, we caught the attention of many campers who were very impressed with my catch...hehe...One lucky camper who came to talk to Helbert at the BBQ station took away with him a whole cooked fish! We couldn't finish both fish so why not give one away? Sure hope that man and his party enjoyed it :)

Wednesday, 2nd January 2008
: This morning, Helbert and I went with new friends Libby and Steve to Whale Bay for the day. We drove our cars to Matapouri Bay and had the car parked here. We could have drove to Whale Bay and left our car there for the day but there had been several cases of car windows getting smashed and items stolen from parked vehicles so better safe than sorry. At the top of the hill north of Matapouri is a walking track to Whale Bay, a bay where you can laze under the pohutukawa trees (a coastal evergreen tree also known as the NZ Christmas Tree) and contemplate the vast Pacific Ocean.
Helbert and I were prepared for our picnic by the bay - packed up our bags and chilly bin with our snorkelling gear, lunch, snacks and beer. As the tide was low, all 4 of us decided to check out the Mermaid Pools (again). Even though I didn't have to hop around to keep dry today, it was still quite a challenging track to the pools with me carrying a backpack and the fins. After we passed the rocky tracks, we had to hike a short hill and through a tunnel that had a narrow45 degree angle passage. Not sure if the pools were what we saw next (I've not seen a brochure or picture of the pools) but the place was rather rocky so we didn't venture further out to see what was behind the cliffs. Hmm, not very ideal for snorkelling though.
Oh well, let's go back and walk over to Whale Bay. According to the sign at Matapouri, the walk to Whale Bay takes 30 minutes. Yeah right, felt more like 1 hour since we had to hike up and down hill (and walking in flip-flops plus carrying our gear didn't help make our walk any faster). We shouldn't have taken so many items with us if we knew the track to be so arduous! Had a brief stop at Pebble Bay on the way. It was one very pebbly beach!
Wow, Whale Bay was more beautiful that I expected it to be. Gorgeous aqua-blue calm waters and it wasn't too congested either. Oh, thanks Steve and Libby for telling us about this place! We took turns to go snorkelling and Helbert taught me how to skin dive. He's one hell of a tough teacher, making me repeat the move again and again until I got it (or so I think I've got it). It wasn't easy for me (yes, the fear thing) plus it was something totally new. The trick to skin dive is to take a deep breathe, and from your laterel position floating face down on the surface, bend yourself at a 90 degree angle, lift your legs straight up and swim downwards. You may need to equalize your ears depending on how deep you swim. And when you feel the need for air, swim up while breathing out and blow hard into your snorkel once your break out of the water. Lucky for me I had my super snorkel - couldn't feel a single drop of water inside! Still, Helbert made me blow hard into my snorkel so I got used to doing so (and not assume that no water will ever get in). Hehe, I was so happy when I could get the move right. Felt a sense of accomplishment :) Oh, but I was embarrassed when Helbert made me show what I've learnt to Steve - you are terrible, putting me in the spot!
The rest of the afternoon was spent lazing at the beach under some shade. I hung out with Libby while the boys took a walk around the area. Us girls couldn't be bothered walking some more after the long way over - you boys have fun! Not sure what they got up to but apparently they were 'attacked' by birds??!! Hmm, you boys must have provoked the birds...
The boys were nice enough to walk back to the car and drove to the Whale Bay carpark while Libby and I took a shorter route from the beach to meet up with them. Phew, lucky we didn't park out car there - lots of shattered glass everywhere! All four of us took a slow drive back to the holiday park where we had another BBQ (back to red meat this time) for dinner. Photos taken today:
It was our last night at Tutukaka and I do feel somewhat sad that we are leaving tomorrow even though the holiday hasn't officially come to an end (we are going to Rotorua for a few days). I thoroughly enjoyed my week here and would definitely recommended anyone travelling this way to take some time out and enjoy what this unique town has to offer. If you have a love for water activities, you really don't want to miss this stop!

Trip up north - Day 2 drive to Tutukaka (27th December 2007)

Helbert and I got up early this morning to have breakfast and said our goodbyes to our friends. Hey, thanks again guys for having us over! And enjoy your day white-water rafting - how exciting!!

Left Pukehina Beach around 9am and began our drive towards Northland. It was my turn to drive today (Helbert drove most of the journey yesterday). A photo taken about 10 minutes into my drive from Pukehina:

I've never seen a whole herd of cows crossing the street! And they were very organised too, walking in 2 rows with the farmer on his quad bike behind them :) This is the kind of situation you can get in or experience when travelling in the NZ countryside (I had a previous experience travelling in a car with lots of sheep crossing the street). So cool!

Made a stop in Taupo (a town on the shore of Lake Taupo in the centre of the North Island) to grab lunch but all the eateries were packed. Guess it's still the holiday season, Helbert, that's why everyone is out! We decided to continue the drive to Rotorua for lunch instead. Helbert was craving a kebab so we drove around town in search for one. And I needed my caffeine fuel to keep alert for the rest of the drive! After a yummy falafel kebab and flat white, we continued on our drive towards Auckland.

"Fuuuuuuutttt..." - what the??! I could see Helbert grinning and pretending to be innocent (don't act all sheepish - I KNOW what you DID!!). Fortunately for him, the whole of Rotorua already smells like rotten egg due to its geothermal activity; an extra fart or two wouldn't make a difference! But still, that's just disgusting!! :P

See what I told you about having no plans when travelling with Helbert? Instead of driving straight up to Auckland on the State Highway (State Highway, or SH, is the nationwide network of roads that generally has driving speeds at 100 kmph), we took the coastal route and headed to Tauranga and Thames before cutting back to SH2 to Auckland. I don't mind, really - it wasn't as if I was in a hurry. Made a brief stop at a camping site, Ray's Rest, in Miranda Beach (I think you can camp here for free). Photos taken there:

And we also stopped at Orere, and took a drive towards Orere Point to check out the beach:

Wouldn't advise you to park your car below THAT tree...

Hmm, not a very pretty-looking beach...

Drove to Auckland (the largest urban area in NZ) and through the Auckland Harbour Bridge. Nice - I've never been to the bridge before! The bridge stretches a total length of 1,020 metres and is 43.27 metres above high water. Other than being a city icon of Auckland, the bridge also allows visitors to do 2 super-high adrenaline activities: you could do a bridge climb and/or do the AJ Hackett Bungy off the bridge, the world's first harbour bridge Bungy Jump. I love doing stuff like that but these will have to wait till my next trip to Auckland ;)

Did I mention that Auckland is also NZ's most populous city with approximately 1.3 million residents, which is over a quarter of the country's population? Oh yeah, and when it's the year end holiday period, expect huge delays in traffic when travelling. We were driving at speeds of 20 kmph or less, literally crawling bumper-to-bumper for 2 hours just north of the city centre heading towards Whangarei. INSANE!

The weather was rather hot and humid, and Helbert had the air-conditioning turned on at full blast to keep us cool as we patiently followed the slow traffic. He even managed to squeeze in a nap! Don't worry, I was still the driver.

With the traffic moving oh-so-slowly, we had time to enjoy the beautiful view of the NZ countryside...until we noticed a bull trying to 'hump' a cow as the herd was being ushered somewhere by the farmer! It was a really funny sight that came out of the blue. Sadly, the bull wasn't successful in his hump as it lost its balance standing on 2 legs and the cow was still walking not knowing what was happening or happened. We were kind of disappointed that the bull didn't try again though...hehe....would have been a good laugh!

We continued our drive to Whangarei, the northernmost city in NZ and the regional capital of Northland Region. Had a brief stop at the information centre for more coffee and picked up some brochures of places to visit in the area. We decided to head to Tutukaka Coast located about half an hour's drive north-east from Whangarei to see if we were able to find accommodation there. Just a little offshore of the coast lies the Poor Knights Islands marine reserve and Riko Riko cave – the world’s largest sea cave. This is a dive mecca and world-class fishing region, and if we could stay there, that would save us some travelling time. Well, worse case scenario, we would just drive back to Whangarei and put up here for the night.
Tutukaka, a little town that has 1 dairy (in NZ context, a dairy means small grocery or corner shop) and 1 petrol station, was packed! Lots of cars, pedestrians in beachwear, boats being towed in and out of the marina etc. I could feel the buzz and excitement!!

Stopped by at the local dive shop to get some brochures and information about diving at the Poor Knights Islands and also find out if there was a holiday park nearby. By the way, I was prepared to sleep in Helbert's car pretty much throughout the whole of this trip - that was one of the reasons he bought the stationwagon, as a makeshift bedroom/camp (or 'presidential suite' as he calls it) during his travels. And in the last couple of trips together around NZ, we had been sleeping in the 'presidential suite' so it was normal to me. Holiday parks allow us to park (and sleep in) our car in a secure site for a small fee and to make use of the facilities there e.g. kitchen, shower etc.

The lovely lady behind the counter recommended us to try Tutukaka Holiday Park, just 2 blocks away from the dive shop. Apparently it is the peak holiday season in Tutukaka thus the sudden influx of visitors here (and also the best time for local businesses to make lots of money). In other words, we might not get a place to stay??

Tutukaka Holiday Park is a new facility situated in a scenic valley 25km from Whangarei on the east coast. It is only meters away from all facilities Tutukaka has to offer (just walking distance). There are cabins, self-contained cabins, powered sites, backpacker dorms and tent sites in this park, and it was already quite full and busy by the time we got there. Hmm...I guess we were kind of lucky in the sense we already had a mobile bedroom so it was easy for the host, Grant, to place us in the park. We were placed on a non-powered site next near the dive gear cleaning and storage space. Yay, we're sorted!
Time to wind down after a long days' drive, we parked the car, took out Helbert's camping chairs (his gift from Andrew for Christmas), and had a few bottles of cold beer (hey, I have to say we were pretty smart to bring a chilly bin with ice - the beers were kept chilled) and chips.

Helbert was snacking on our bag of chips and idly feeding a few seagulls who were lurking nearby, entertaining himself watching the seagulls fight over chips (by the way, seagulls are scavenge opportunists so even chips were not spared). He probably missed feeding one of the seagulls (I wasn't keeping tabs - they looked all the same to me) and that one fellow decided to take decided to crap on Helbert! Hahahahaha!!! Told you not to feed the seagulls but you wouldn't listen so I'm not going to feel sorry for you now! I saw that bird flying our way, as if heading straight for us but it flew past just low enough to poop onto Helbert's shoe. Man, you should have been there - it was hilarious!

The holiday park has an interesting way of saving power by using a timer on its hot water supply and lights in the communal showers and toilets. I guess it's practical especially in a place that houses so many campers and nobody wants to take a cold shower or have someone hog the shower for hours. Costs 50 cents for 7 minutes of hot water which was sufficient for me.

The rest of the evening was spent in the communal TV room where we met a local fisherman, Rob. Rob is a true Kiwi, obnoxiously funny and a fisherman at birth. Helbert and I were planning to go fishing during our stay in Tutukaka and Rob suggested we talk to his friend Dylan at the Tutukaka information centre tomorrow - thanks for the tip! It was very interesting to listen to his fishing stories especially those of game fishing for marlin in the area. Did you know that it could take up to 8 hours to reel the huge fish in AND only 1 person is responsible for the reeling during the whole time? Hmm, I don't think game fishing is for me...The marlin would probably drag me into the water rather than me dragging it out!
Time to catch some sleep in the 'presidential suite' - the other campers probably think we were nuts but who cares? We have everything we needed to set up the 'room' including foams as a mattress, sheets, duvets and pillows. Cosy! Oh, and I could see heaps of stars in the clear sky - I really like it here. It's nice :) Looking forward to tomorrow, our first official day in Tutukaka!

Trip up north - Day 1 at Pukehina Beach (26th December 2007)

Today is Boxing Day, an old holiday based on the tradition of giving gifts to the less fortunate members of society and is celebrated the day after Christmas by many Commonwealth Nations. I don't know of any celebrations as such here in New Zealand - it's just another public holiday for me!

Helbert and I had decided to go on a trip together to the Northland region (also known as 'the Tail of the Fish' in Maori) located in the North Island. We've done many trips in NZ but have not yet been to this region. Northland is a sub-tropical climate zone, with warm humid summers and mild winters. Golden beaches, tranquil harbours, warm waters and spectacular forest, Northland is filled with stunning beauty - an aquatic playground and a land of unspoilt natural beauty. One of the main reasons why we are heading there is also because it has a marine reserve, The Poor Knights Islands, which is one of the world's top dive locations (yes, I'm going diving again!).

Having travelled with Helbert on many occasions, I've got used to his travelling style i.e. no plans. Yep, you heard me right - there's no itinerary whatsoever when travelling with him except the day of departure and return (you can plan all you want and get frustrated in the end because it's unlikely you'll check all the tick boxes on your list). It's a pretty exciting way to travel because you never know what you'll get up to the next day :) And I think it's also more of a holiday, as in, more relaxed not having a schedule to follow.

We left Wellington around 8am today and started making our way up north. It was a nice drive today and gorgeous weather - hmm, life is wonderful! Our friends and Helbert's former flatmates, Sonja and Erik, were spending the year-end holidays in a rented bach at Pukehina Beach and had invited us over for a BBQ this evening. Sounds like a plan! So off we headed to meet them. Made a brief stop in Rotorua to grab lunch and did some shopping for the BBQ.

Pukehina Beach is in the Bay of Plenty located approximately 3 hours drive from Auckland. A beautiful 6km long white sandy beach wonderful for swimming, boogie boarding and surfing. We arrived around 3pm and it was a coincidence to bump into Erik and Sonja on the street as we drove towards their bach. I was with the video camera recording the drive down Pukehina Parade (a long main street with lots of beach houses along the strip on both sides) and could see Erik and Sonja heading our way!

A short rest and tour of the bach later, Sonja and I changed into our bikinis and headed to the water for a splash. Urgh, it was cold!! Looked warm because the weather was sunny but at 18-19 degrees Celsius and in my bikini, I couldn't stand being in the water for too long. Getting goose bumps! I still have some fear of being in the open water even though I've started swimming lessons...

There was this inlet nearby that is filled with shellfish and Erik got everyone excited to check it out! Me, Helbert, Sonja, Erik, Rick (Sonja's and Erik's flatmate), Erik's brother and his gf all went to see what the fuss was about. Ah, turns out the inlet is shallow and has a sandy bottom with lots of shellfish like pipi and mussels inside. All you have to do was get yourself into the water till about knee-high depth and start shovelling. The catch though is there's a limit to the size and amount of shellfish you can collect in a day (yes, this is a law in NZ and you'll be penalised if found breaching the rule). But it didn't concerned us much as the size of the pipi were small so we only collected about 30-40 right-sized ones. Hmm, time to wash them and put it on the BBQ...

Have you tried BBQ eggplant? Erik's brother put some on the BBQ. Hmm, it was nice - you have to season it with some olive oil, salt and herbs and grilled them till soft. Learnt something new today!

It was nice of them to have us put up the night in their spare bedroom - thanks guys for having us over! Photos taken at Pukehina Beach: