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23 May, 2022 … Waikato road trip (part 1)

Travelling to foreign lands is but a distant memory. Even our closest neighbour presents some interesting bureaucratic hurdles these days, and I am hearing people say that going is relatively easy, but coming back can be tricky. Travel insurance is ridiculously expensive now too. The risk being trapped by the bureaucracy of a sudden lock-down due to the pandemic are, for now at least, deterring us from leaving New Zealand.

So, we decided to do a road trip. As long as there are places to walk, Mary tends to defer to my photographic obsession so asked me to choose a location. My somewhat random choice was dictated by the memory of a photograph that I should have taken in 2016 but didn’t.

Any photographer who sees something worth photographing should do it now! Those of us who say “I’ll catch it on the way back”, or “I’ll come back another time” will rarely see the same scene. Do it NOW! At this time of year, it is quite common that mornings on the Waikato river are characterised by no wind and drifting mist. In the hope of finding such conditions, we booked a week in the nearest Airbnb house to that area. And so we begin with the first part of the journey:

Hunterville in Autumn

Monday was wet in Wellington. It was wet all the way up SH1 through Levin, Bulls and Hunterville. Happily, Autumn colours were all the more vivid for being freshly washed. This image is on SH1 as it leaves Hunterville to the North. Mary was driving at this stage, and I was not at all sure that I would get a clear shot through the windscreen between the strokes of the wipers. I think I got lucky.

Following the Army through Taihape

Soon enough, we were at Taihape which claims the title of Gumboot capital of the world. It was once a significant railway town, though trains seem to pass straight through these days. It is a significant business centre for the local farming community, and has a couple of popular cafes used by both locals and long distance travellers. It is not at all uncommon to find yourself behind a convoy of trucks heading through the town towards the Army training base at Waiouru.

Ruapehu dons its cloak

Waiouru is a place of both misery and beauty. Those who have trained in the army base, especially in the winter will understand the misery aspect. The landscape provides all the beauty you could ask for, whatever the weather. Mighty Ruapehu is an active volcano that stands 2,797 metres (9,177 feet) above sea level on the volcanic plateau in the centre of the North Island. As we approached Waiouru, I could see that the mountain was wrapping itself in cloud and would soon disappear from view. A shot from the roadside in a biting breeze caught that cloud rolling over the summit.

Along the Desert Road

The “Desert Road” is the stuff of legends in New Zealand. It runs 63 km from Waiouru in the South, to Turangi in the North. It passes to the East of the mountain, through the Rangipo desert, and to the West of the Kaimanawa Forest through a wild and barren landscape. There are neither sand nor camels in this desert but its very barrenness justifies the description. Regardless of the weather, there is always something to see and appreciate. Even after the clouds blocked off the view of the mountain, I found drama in the march of the power pylons beside the road. Signs warn of army exercises with live ammunition on either side, so stay in your car or risk staring down the barrel of a 25mm cannon on an armoured fighting vehicle. The other feature of the Rangipo desert is its herd of wild horses. Those I have yet to see.

Tragedy on the Desert Road

Though it has some long straight stretches, the Desert Road has some tight and nasty bends that can bring drivers to grief in the wet and icy conditions that are common at this elevation. If you look a little to the right of the second black and yellow sign, you will see the wreck of a car that has departed from the road at speed and embedded itself in the bank. I have no information as to the fate of its occupants.

Maraetail Mist

Mangakino as it is today has its origins in the mid-late 40s as a dormitory town for the workers who were engaged in the construction of the hydro dams on the Waikato. The houses are modest but sufficient, and the one we rented for the week was very well equipped. Mary loved lighting the fire each day and using the copious supply of firewood included in the rental.

Mangakino is on the shore of the Waikato River where it becomes Lake Maraetai which provides the energy for the two power stations at the nearby Maraetai dam. When I booked the accommodation, I jokingly asked our host to arrange a week of no wind and some river mist. Well goodness gracious, she pulled it off!

Regrettably I suffered a calamity here when I dropped my Olympus camera and wrecked the mounting plate of my favourite lens. As if my insurers did not already hate me.

Dunham Reserve on Lake Whakamaru

Almost as if I anticipated the disaster, I had packed my two venerable Canon cameras (the 5DII and the 7D) so all images for the remainder of the trip were made on these huge, heavy, but still optically excellent cameras.

Anyway, back to the trip. If you are unfamiliar with the geography of the Waikato River, there are a series of hydro dams each of which creates a lake on the river. Coming downstream from Lake Taupo, they are in turn, Aratiatia, Ohakuri, Atiamuri, Whakamaru, Maraetai I and II (both on the same dam), Waipapa, Arapuni and Karapiro.

About halfway between Atiamuri and Whakamaru, there is a beautiful spot on the river called Dunham’s Reserve. This was the place that I failed to shoot back in 2016. Regrettably, on this trip, I didn’t find anything like the beautiful conditions of that earlier opportunity. Nevertheless, the river produced a scene worthy of photographing in its own right. I believe the lily pads are regarded as a pest to the hydro dams and were due to be sprayed with weed killer from the air.

Autumn tones at Dunham Reserve

As already observed, the colours of Autumn were still lingering and this clearing on the Dunham Reserve was a delight to me.

Stillness and River mist at Mangakino

The next day offered those lovely misty conditions on the river, so I went down to the Mangakino Lakefront Reserve where I took pleasure in the stillness of the water on the lake, and mystery provided by the mist. Bear in mind that this apparently still body of water is part of a river system with a mean flow rate of 340 Cumecs (12,000 cubic ft/sec)

River scene

The same morning, from a little further round the reserve edge, I found another view looking downstream towards the Maraetai dams. These are the conditions I came for.

Pastoral scene in the South Waikato

Later the same day, we drove North along the river to the stunning Maungatautiri Mountain Reserve. The South Waikato region offers some delightful scenery that ranges from heavy pine forests to soft rolling pastoral land. The reserve itself is a 3,400 hectare wildlife sanctuary on the Maungatautiri Mountain with a 47 km pest-proof perimeter fence. Within are a wonderland of native bush laced with many delightful walking tracks from which to observe the magnificent bush and the variety of birdlife.

Friendly visitor

I am less agile than I used to be and set out on the so-called Rata-trail with a view to going part of the way and then returning to the entry. The canopy is quite dark, and I struggled to catch the fast moving bird-life flitting about. Fortunately, the little North Island Robin (Toutouwai, or Petroica longipes) is not shy, and will fly around your feet chasing the insects you disturb as you walk. Many a photographer has been trapped with the bird sitting on his or her boots while having a telephoto lens that just won’t focus that close. Foolishly, I went further round the trail than I intended, and soon it seemed better to complete the loop walk than to turn back.

So that’s the end of the first part of this three-part road-trip narrative. If you like what I do, please come back soon for a trip to the amazing, the stunning, the magnificent Wingspan Bird of Prey Centre.

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December 21, 2016 … an island, a wedding, some volcanoes and home

Man o'war Bay
Man o’war Bay, Waiheke Island

The day before the wedding, Mary and I explored the Eastern end of Waiheke. I suppose the woeful state of the roads in what is legally part of the city of Auckland is some sort of social engineering mechanism to keep the peasants at bay. Well it got us to at least one bay – after 20 km of narrow, uneven edge-crumbling single-lane road we arrived at Man o’War Bay. There is a restaurant vineyard  and upscale accommodation, but we were just touring. The view to the East is delightful on such a day as this. Tarakihi Island and Pakatoa are in the foreground with the Coromandel Peninsula a hazy blue in the distance. We completed the loop back to the suburbanized part of the Island and had a picnic lunch on a quiet part of Onetangi Beach.

Auckland
The distant city … Auckland across the blustery Hauraki Gulf and Brown’s Island

Mary did a long walk in the afternoon while I explored some of the bays and side roads near our accommodation. Somewhere above Kauaroa Bay, there was a long view back towards Auckland City. Just above Brown’s Island the Sky Tower and Auckland’s high-rise buildings were visible through the wind-driven salt haze.

Ring
With this ring, I thee wed. Neil places the ring on Jo’s finger with the blue waters of the Hauraki Gulf as a backdrop

The day of the wedding was fine and calm. It was an absolute picture post card day, and all that any bride could wish for. Our niece, Jo married Neil in a nice lodge above Palm Beach  in a joyful ceremony combining his Indian and her Kiwi heritage. Their ceremony was a happy mix of tradition and modern elements, and the hundred or so guests from near and very far were treated to some wonderful hospitality as they celebrated with Jo and Neil.  We were privileged to be there.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
“When you come to the end of a perfect day” … looking down on Rocky Bay, Waiheke

Mary and I left younger guests to carry on and went back to our accommodation about 8 km to the East. As we get near to our Summer solstice, the sunsets happen late in the evening and this view from our balcony looking back towards Auckland brought the day to a perfect close.

Bees
Honey bees and pohutukawa – Waiheke

The next day we began the journey South and after a coffee with the happy couple, and Jo’s dad, Mary’s brother and his wife, we went to wait for the ferry at Kennedy Point. Summer comes to Auckland early and perhaps even earlier to Waiheke. Pohutukawa were in prolific flower, and I was happy to see what I believe to be many feral honey bees. Then we drove across the South Eastern suburbs of Auckland and onto SH1, all the way back as far as Tokaanu.

Tokaanu
Early morning drizzle at Tokaanu, Lake Taupo

Next morning, the last day of our round trip dawned soft and grey over the lake. There was no wind and the lightest of drizzles. The old Tokaanu wharf seemed like a place to start. The Southern end of the lake was covered with black swans grazing on the weed below. There were scaup and dabchicks, shags and swallows and in the reeds behind me I could hear bitterns booming. Spoonbills flew overhead and it was just a wonderful place to be.

scaup
Black scaup pops to the surface

Despite its somewhat rickety state, I braved the wharf and walked as quietly as I could along its ancient creaking structure. Occasionally a scaup would emerge alongside me from a long dive, take a moment to realise that there was a human very close before squawking and flapping off.

swallow
Welcome swallow on ancient wood

Another frequent flyer in the neighborhood was the Welcome Swallow. They flit about with regular changes of direction harvesting airborne insect, and then resting on the wharf. This one was as close as it could be while still in focus, but for some reason when it flew it came towards me. It would have been a great shot if it had not come inside my focus ability.

And then we drove home.

 

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Adventure Auckland Birds flowers Landscapes Light mountains night Sunset Volcanic Plateau Waiheke Weather

December 15, 2016 … home and gone again

From the heat of Queensland and Victoria, I came home to rain and wind and the flax in full bloom.

Tui
Singing in the rain … tui on the flax

Flax flowers bring about peak tui season and the rain deters them not one bit. In fact I suspect that the rainwater assists in the extraction of the nectar from the flowers.

Queensgate
The multi-theatre cinema complex and underlying car park are unsafe after the earthquake so they must come down. Note the “pop up” arrow in the bottom corner

The earth was still moving regularly, though from my perspective, the tremors were small and of of more interest to the seismographs than to real life.  The consequences of the big shake on November 14 are still being felt in Wellington and elsewhere. Many thousands of city workers are unable to return to their normal places of work because they are deemed unsafe, or are yet to be proven safe. Some are already being demolished including the movie theatre complex and the Eastern half of the car park at the Queensgate shopping mall in Lower Hutt. This is unfortunate for the owners of the New World supermarket across the road. Though their store was undamaged, they were not allowed in because of risk posed by the weakened building and the mandated demolition process. A large marquee has been erected in their car park behind the shop and they have created a “pop-up” supermarket to tide them over for the next week or so.

Weather
Weather is happening before my very eyes, near Turangi

Mary and I are in Waiheke at present, to attend the wedding of a niece.  We decided to drive to Auckland and then catch a ferry across to the island. but to have a day’s stopover in Tokaanu, just to the North of the mountains. The wet weather persisted and we caught no glimpse of the mountains from the Desert Road. However, as we neared Turangi the weather started to improve and I saw the spectacular cloud above through the windscreen.

Saddle
Clear morning from the Ponanga Saddle lookout

Mary is a great walker, so she wanted to do the walk around Lake Rotopounamu on the South side of the Ponanga Saddle. Early on our layover day, we drove up the saddle from where I paused to construct a panorama if the view to the North over Lake Taupo.

Bush
Bush track leading to Rotopounamu

Then we reached the walkway to Lake Rotopounamu. Put this on your bucket list as one of those small jewels to see before you pass on. It sits inside the Tongariro National Park which is itself a World Heritage site. The track to the lake climbs steadily for twenty minutes through some of the most breathtakingly beautiful bush I have ever seen. Mighty trees and beautiful ferns are made more special by the unceasing birdsong all around.

Rotopounamu
Lovely Lake Rotopounamu … the only sounds are the birds and the wind in the treetops

Down at the lake all was still and peaceful. I set about making images while Mary set off around the 5 km lakeside track. As you can see, the weather had significantly improved.

Mountains
Tongariro, Ngauruhoe and far in the background, Ruapehu

Since we were on the South side of the saddle, we decided to visit the mountains. There is a Maori proverb or whakatauki which goes “Whāia te iti kahurangi ki te tūohu koe me he maunga teitei!”  …. seek what is really important and let nothing but a mighty mountain get in your way. There in front of us, were three mighty mountains, Tongariro, Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu. But out here the wind was bitter and there was moisture in the air. We went up the mountain past Chateau Tongariro to the “Top of the Bruce”. Since the ski lifts were running for tourists, the restaurant was open, and we were told the ride on the lift was $35 per adult but quietly advised “don’t go, it’s too darned cold”. We agreed and settled for our tea, coffee and hot scone and then headed back towards Tokaanu.

Rapids
Mapuhia Rapids

Just past the junction with the mountain road and highway 47, we came to an unspectacular bridge across the Whakapapanui River and the quite spectacular Mahuia rapids which is apparently popular with people in kayaks with a death wish. It was lovely to look at but nothing on Earth would persuade me to get in.

Sunset
Sunset from the deck of our Waiheke accommodation

Yesterday we set out early from Tokaanu bound for Auckland and Waiheke. From Karapiro onwards, the roads are so changes since I was last in the North that I felt like a foreigner in my own land. We followed SH1B (whatever that is) and emerged at Taupiri Mountain beside the Waikato river without ever sighting Cambridge or Hamilton. The GPS in my smartphone guided us through an Auckland that I never knew, to Half Moon Bay and an unmemorable trip on the vehicle ferry to the island. The greyness and the wind did not offer the welcome I hoped for but the sunset was a delight.

City Lights
Auckland’s night sky from the deck. These are the Eastern suburbs, Howick, Beachlands and Maraetai.

I had gone to bed but chose to look out the window back towards the city and decided I needed one more shot.