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The Heydon Family Trip

My sister Margaret, brother-in-law Michael, their daughters Erin (10) and Jessica (8) teamed up with Anne, myself, James (5) and Laura (18 months) - to take a 'soft adventure' holiday through New Zealand's North Island…

Return to topDay 1: We arrived in Auckland on dusk and picked up the ten-seater van. The hire woman told us to return it to the chicken when we returned it. After a short pause we realised the Kiwi accent was alive and well and that the 'chicken' was, in fact, the 'check-in'.

We piled into the van and headed to the Coromandel Peninsula to be greeted by Ian, our host at Pauanui Pines Motor Lodge, who already had the heaters on in our units. Kids to bed and sit back to sample some duty free Marlborough district Sauvignon Blanc.

Return to topDay 2: It poured rain all night - so much so that bridges were cut off through freak flooding and a house was washed away. A man at the local shops told us that he wouldn't be surprised if the rain got heavy later. This was our first brush with New Zealand Tourist Humour.

At 10:00am we met up with Doug and Jan for a tour of a nearby rainforest. Doug is also known as "Kiwi Dundee" - a title bestowed on him when he was voted NZ's answer to Crocodile Dundee. Doug had become famous for saving people who were lost, swimming rivers with six people on his back, diving 700 metres for abalone without a snorkel and gutting crocodiles with his thumbs.
Or something like that.
He was pretty rugged though, with calves like footballs, and a really nice bloke. And he and Jan knew their stuff.

Doug showed us faded pictures of a gold town of 100 years ago which was now covered by rainforest. His grandmother had been born there and had turned 103 last month. She died when she was 70 but still turned 103 last month. More New Zealand Tourist Humour.

Jan and Doug led us into the forest, showing us glow-worm threads, baby Kauri trees the size of weeds and Kauris hundreds of years old towering into the canopy. Also, Silver Ferns (Rugby jumper emblem and name of national netball side) with the Koru (monkey tail) at its centre. This is the curly thing that sits on the tails of Air NZ planes.

We explored an old gold mine, full of glow-worms close up and home to rare pre-historic frogs. We also found out that NZ's 80 million possums are destroying a lot of fauna and flora. Most Kiwis enjoy the sight of possum roadkill, affectionately known as "squashums".

Return to topDay 3: Into the van and off to Waitomo, stopping at the long Waihi Beach to collect shells and the Tauranga Burger King for lunch. (For those travelling with children - yes, McDonalds, KFC, Pizza Hut and Burger King are there!) We arrived at the majestic Waitomo Hotel in time to unpack and make the last tour for the day into the Glow-worm Caves.

Spectacular stalagmites and stalactites everywhere, especially in The Cathedral where the tourists were invited to follow in Dame Kiri Te Kanawa's voicesteps and sing. James offered a rendition of "It's Funny How Beetles and Creatures Like That" but poetry doesn't have the same high notes. We then drifted underground in a boat in eerie silence, marvelling at the starry carpet of glow-worms overhead.

Return to topDay 4: Met by Ed and Sean, our guides for a bit of abseiling into The Lost World (Margaret stayed with the kids). After a 20 minute drive across pretty farmland, we were kitted out with gumboots, overalls and harness gear and given a lesson on how to use the ropes and tackle. Then, before you could say "we're outta here", we were sitting on a bar, attached to a rope, perched more than a 100 metres above a tiny stream below.
Awesome. Frightening. Surreal. Disbelief. Fear. A fear of heights… and depths… and widths… and ropes and… too late - we were off on a fifteen minute dangle, plummet, slide and inch by inch abseil into The Lost World.

The floor of the valley echoed with the roar of the rushing stream as we headed towards a Phantom-like cave, surrounded by Paritaniwa plants, the oldest living flora on the planet and oyster fossils the size of dinner plates.

Negotiating rocks, climbing, squeezing through holes, clipping along ropes, shafts of light beaming through the windows high above. Magnificent. Juice and chocolate halfway, then further into the darkness where glow-worms twinkled and the underground torrent gushed below. And then - the ladder out!

38 metres straight up into darkness using arm and chest muscles that had never before seen the light of exercise (okay - I'm exaggerating - people in their eighties have done it!). And at the top…. More top to come. Along the ropes clinging to steep walls through Spiderhole (home of the stars of the movie Arachnophobia ) until a window of light appeared above. The eerie silence was broken by high-pitched chirping sounds. The previously mentioned rain had washed eight small ducklings into the cavern. They joined us in a kit-bag for the final climb out and now live on the local Animal Farm for kids.

Dropping us back to the hotel Ed and Sean left us with the thought - "while you're in New Zealand, don't try anything too dangerous". More NZ Tourist Humour.

We linked up with the kiddies and went to the Angora rabbit farm in time to see to see a big white ball of fur with a pink nose be shorn until it looked like - well, a freshly shorn rabbit.

In the afternoon - some Blackwater Rafting.
Now, the water isn't black - it just looks like that underground - and there are no rafts as such - the mode of transport is a personal inner tube. After squeezing into damp wetsuits and donning helmets with lamps we were given our training, then it was up the mountain to a small opening and into the underground cave system.
The trip was about an hour and a half - riding rapids, jumping small falls, under crevasses and gently floating under the twinkle of glow-worms. At times relaxing, at times quite scary - all in all a great experience.
Wet and dirty, the group returned for a hot shower and hot soup by an open fire.

Return to topDay 5: More very pretty countryside and we arrived at the ornate Victorian Princes Gate Hotel in Rotorua, in time for lunch in the beer garden while the kids hopped into the thermally heated swimming pool. The smell of sulphur prompted predictable flatulence jokes and a trip to the main source - Whakarewarewa Thermal Reserve. Boiling mud, fumeroles and geysers - touristy but terrific. Surrounded by a "living" Maori community who uses the thermal springs for cooking and washing as well as the "steaming" Maori cemetery.

Return to topDay 6: A day for the kids and the big kids. Off to the Agrodome. A great show - sheep shearing, cow milking, lamb feeding and sheepdogs strutting their stuff.
Then - off to Rainbow Springs Trout Springs where trout in the wild can be seen swimming up stream to a large pond (various rainbow and brown trout from baby to full-grown). There was also a kiwi house and a shop that sells dried deer pizzles to Japanese tourists. We declined, preferring to continue having a ball.

The boys took each other on at clay pigeon shooting, then it was up the Skyline gondolas for lunch and a panoramic view of Rotorua. At the top of the hill it was on to the various luge runs for a speed down the mountain and back up on the ski lift to do it again. 'Cool running' until James and Ian threw caution to the wind and tried the 'sidewinder' round-the-hill track without brakes - and pranged into two Japanese tourists who took caution to the extreme of braking to a standstill in a tunnel. Oh well…

Next, the Polynesian Spa where everyone hopped into the 'family' thermal pool for a hot relax. Evening - and time for a traditional Maori Hangi and a glimpse of Maori village life - hakas (war dances), poi and stick dances and songs before the 'hangi' - a meal cooked in the traditional way - in the earth with hot coals - chicken, beef, lamb, vegetables - all steamed and tasty.

Return to topDay 7: To Mt Ruapehu via the Huka Falls and Lake Taupo. Arrived in time to go to the top of Whakapapa* ski resort for a snow fight before returning for a sauna and swim in the Grand Chateau's indoor pool. Cooked our own dinner of sausages, potatoes and salad (nothing wrong with some home-style comfort food, kiddies!) and hit the billiard table in front of a roaring open fire.
(*Wh' in Maori is pronounced 'f'… I'll leave that with you…)

Return to topDay 8: Awoke to light snow falling and the news that four inches of fresh snow was awaiting us up the hill. After hiring all necessary gear it was off for an hour and a half lesson, lunch and the afternoon skiing on sunlit slopes. Brilliant.

Return to topDay 9: A day of seeing NZ from the van, singing songs and playing games - to Auckland via Te Kuiti for lunch. Te Kuiti is known as The Shearing Capital Of The world and, in its official brochure, boasts two photos of the town's public toilets. After a drive around Parnell, Ponsonby and the Quay in Auckland, it was the dilemma of choosing from the many charming restaurants before turning in.

Return to topDay 10: North to Albany for breakfast then to 4 Track Adventures and into wet weather pants, jackets, goggles and helmets for the ride of a lifetime on four-wheeled motorbikes through rainforest to the beach. Everyone tired and dirty with the girls sporting a fine moustache thanks to the gritty beach sand. Then, northward, via the scenic route, to the Bay of Islands and our resort at Waitangi.

Return to topDay 11: Took the Dolphin Discovery trip out to the bay. Shortly discovered a huge pod of bottle-nosed dolphins - they were swimming too fast and had young with them so it wasn't possible to swim with them. They played with the boat, jumping in and out of the wake, diving underneath and playing off the bow. One dolphin carried a dead baby dolphin on its nose. When a baby dies, the mother carries it until it basically disintegrates - it's their way of grieving. Another few dolphin facts - they close down one side of their body and brain to sleep while they move and they can dive to 500 metres, staying underwater for 15 minutes at a time. We also found a pod of 'common' dolphins further out to sea and got to jump in and get up close and personal.
Dinner was interesting. At an Italian restaurant called La Scala the menu offered dishes like Greek Salad, Indian Curry, Sushi and Sashimi, Sausage or Fish and Chips, Lamb with Apricot Sauce and Mussels Creole. This however was the exception rather than the rule… most dining establishments target a specific taste and hit the target pretty well.

Return to topDay 12: A quiet day to end the holiday. A visit to the local Paihia aquarium - a small but superb display with a guided "hands-on" tour. Brittle starfish, hermit crabs, huge crayfish, sharks and shark eggs, stingrays, pregnant sea-horses and turtles. A short drive to the craft town of Kerikeri and a visit to the Rainbow Falls - a nice walk through the rainforest and back to the resort for a spa, swim and a walk on the rocks hunting for crabs. Jessie called the periwinkes "fairy twinkles" which seemed a much nicer name.
Mental note: Next time I will dive the 'Rainbow Warrior'.
Time to head to the airport and return the van to the 'chicken'.

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