Special Six: A walk around Invercargill

I unexpectedly had to spend around 6 hours in Invercargill during my April trip to New Zealand because the morning ferry service to Stewart island had got cancelled the day I visited the city. I had to wait for the evening ferry at 5pm and my connecting coach from Invercargill to Bluff would only pick me at 4pm, though I had requested them I would prefer to be dropped in Bluff that morning as I thought I would enjoy exploring the tiny seaport, while waiting for the ferry.

Given the unexpected time I was given in Invercargill, decided to take a walk around the city and I enjoyed the below six highlights of my walk. Starting from the I-site bus stop, where I had been dropped off by the coach from Te Anau, I made my way around the city.

(1) Water tower

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The water tower had been built in the early 20th century by the council, even though the local community had not wanted the tower on the green belt of the city. To appease the community, the 300,000 litre steel tank was disguised with an outer brick tower.

(2) Civic Theater

One of the landmarks of the city, the early 19th century building was originally the town hall. It was renovated and converted to a theatre complex in 2005.
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(3) Brunch at Zookeeper’s café

Having read positive reviews about this café, I decided to have some brunch here. The pancakes with grilled bananas was served with some vanilla ice cream and maple syrup. I also tried my first boysenberry juice at this café. From that point, I always ordered boysenberry juice the entire time I was in the south island.
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The staff at the café were friendly and one of them suggested I visit the Demolition village, an hour’s walk away from the café. Given that I do have problems walking long distances, I had to pass the option of visiting the interesting theme village, cited as one of the key places to visit in the city on the map of the city.

(4) St Mary’s Basilica

The beautiful church was designed by architect, Francis Petre, and opened in 1905.

IMG_4061Places of worship evoke different responses from me – the ones I have enjoyed simply exude an air of peace, that I simply feel content to be in the place. Others bedazzle me with their grandeur, but do not evoke spiritual feelings. Yet others put me off with their coldness. There are a few though that evoke unexpected strong emotional responses from me. Sitting inside this church, I was moved and while I don’t wish to dwell on that experience in this post, I wanted to mention that because of it, this church is one of my special six highlights of Invercargill.

(5) Victorian Railway hotel

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The hotel is one of the oldest buildings in Invercargill, that is continuing to be used for its original purpose.

(6) Queen’s Park

Back on Gala street after my circular walk around the city, I decided to rest my tired feet at Queen’s Park and enjoying the beautiful trees around me and a book.

IMG_4066 There was quite a number of families around the park as there was some kind of race taking  place with children and adults finishing their race at a café inside the park. For me, the park is the best part of Invercargill city and while I did not explore all aspects of the huge park, it was enough that I enjoyed the parts I visited very much.

Which of the above six have you visited or would want to visit, on your trip to Invercargill?

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“Untold

Special Six: Bay of Islands trip

RES_ea137e0a-6237-4f3b-9198-41566bd0534eSELRES_ea137e0a-6237-4f3b-9198-41566bd0534eDuring my April trip to New Zealand, I took a 3 day tour from Auckland to the Bay of Islands, with Stray tour. I am not much of a group tour person but since I needed to travel to the Hokianga, and there was only one public transport service which only ran twice a week from Keri Keri and this was the only tour that I came across that went to the area, I decided to take it.

In addition to the optional skydiving experience with Skydive Bay of Islands on the first afternoon, the special six highlights of my Stray tour with Muesli, our tour guide and driver, and 6 other travelers, were the following:

(1) Visiting McKinney Kauri

Our first stop on the tour was to see the McKinney – a beautiful kauri tree. The guide mentioned that the kauri tree and the spiritual significance it holds for Maoris had inspired James Cameron in Avatar. I also learnt of kauri dieback, the disease that was killing a lot of the kauri trees and other native species.

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(2) A glass of wine at the oldest running bar in New Zealand

If in Paihia, one has to take the ferry across to Russell Island for a visit to the Duke of Marlborough for a glass of wine. The pub, established in 1840, is the oldest running licensed hotel and bar in the country. The website of the hotel has an outline of its interesting history from its infamous start to its current owners and their vision.

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Stray tour includes a ticket to Russell island in their package, though the return ticket needs to be purchased separately directly on the ferry.

(3) Cruise around the bay of islands

The Stray tour package had partnered with another tour operator, to include a 3 hour cruise around the bay, with the captain pointing out islands with an interesting story or marine life. I was out in the bow area, for most of it, scanning the sea for signs of dolphins. Two dolphins did finally take pity on us and showed up to greet us and play alongside the boat a little.

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Can you spot the two seals lounging on the rocky outcrop?

After we passed the bird rock, where the seals were lounging, another lovely landscape greeted us. A pretty lighthouse, though I don’t think I would want to live in that little cottage down that slope from the lighthouse, very much isolated from the rest of the islands. I did see someone fishing by the rocks below, probably someone living in that cottage.
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There was a sense of excitement and anticipation building within the boat once we passed this and it was all for the final highlight of the cruise – the hole in the rock.

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The highlight about the rock was not the rock in itself, but that the captain maneuvered the boat through the rock.

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Emerging from the rock

(4) Picnic lunch at Waitangi

Following the cruise, our little group was quite tired. Our guide asked us to pick up a picnic lunch from town, which we could have at Waitangi. I had wanted to visit the Waitangi treaty ground the previous afternoon but I had missed it as I had chosen to go skydiving. Therefore, I welcomed the opportunity of at least having a quiet lunch overlooking the bay, with the treaty ground behind us.
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It was interesting to hear our guide’s story about the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi and how two language versions of a treaty led to land being taken away from the native population and the start of colonization.

(5) Walking around Opononi

On the way back to Auckland from Hokianga, we first stopped at Opononi for a sandboarding activity included in our package. I was not interested in trying it out and instead was more interested in this tiny village called Opononi, which had been named after a dolphin.

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So, after the rest of the group took off on the little boat with their instructor to the sandboarding area, I went for a little walk around the tiny village.

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Opo had been a little friendly dolphin, who had been coming into the bay area and playing with children. The dolphin became very popular across the country that families brought children from around the country to meet the dolphin. When the friendly dolphin passed away, it was laid to rest here and the village named after Opo, the dolphin.

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(6) Visiting Tane Mahuta

After the rest of the group finished their sandboarding adventure and returned to Opononi, we continued our journey. Our guide then made a brief stop for us to visit Tane Mahuta, the Lord of the Forest. While the exact age of this majestic kauri tree is not known, it is thought to be over 2000 years old.
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The rest of my group had actually gone on an optional cultural activity the night before, where they were treated to a Maori cultural experience in the forest visiting Tane Mahuta and listening to local folklore and rituals. While I had skipped the night visit to the forest in favour of catching up with my friend, I was glad that I had the opportunity for this brief visit into the forest to meet this majestic tree considered the giver of life in the Maori culture.

There were a few more places we stopped at during the three days, but the above six are my special six of the experiences I had with the Stray tour. It was also lovely that this Stray tour group was small and Muesli knew the right balance between giving us the space and narrating anecdotes during the drive. So, it is sometimes nice to mix up independent traveling with mini tours with tour groups, provided the tour operator and group you are with are pleasant.

Have you been to the Bay of Islands area? What was your highlight? If not, are you thinking of traveling there?

“Untold

 

 

A meetup in Hokianga

I guess I wouldn’t have visited Hokianga on my first and long planned visit to New Zealand, had my friend, Rangi, not moved there and insisted that I visit her, at her farm. Simply because I had never heard of it before. However, after my friend’s insistence on the beauty of the place and its historical significance and not to mention, I was keen on seeing my friend after 6 years, I looked it up and indeed was hooked.

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The catch was that there was only one public transport to the area – the Hokianga link from Keri Keri to Hokianga, on tuesdays and sundays. Which meant that should I travel there on a tuesday, I would have to be there till sunday. It would have been fine had I longer time in NZ but with only two weeks of leave and my travel mostly focused on south island, I did not have the luxury of spending half that time in the Hokianga.

I finally found a 3 day Stray tour package from Auckland, that went to Paihia (where I had my skydiving experience) and then onto the Hokianga, for a night. However, the tour group was leaving the Hokianga early in the morning and my friend’s farm was a couple of hours further north involving travel by ferry that was not regular. Since we didn’t want to risk missing my return transport to Auckland, Rangi decided to come over and meet me at the hotel I was staying in with the group.

We decided to have a mini outing and she wanted me to see one of her favourite spots in the Hokianga, an overlook which was a beautiful scenic point.

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While we caught up on what had been happening in our lives since we were in Hawai’i, we enjoyed the beautiful scenery before us and especially the setting sun. There were only a few other people, who were there with their cameras and tripods, filming the view.

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Rangi mentioned that the significance of the place was that the first Maori, Kupe, is said to have sailed through this entrance and settled in the area. After settling his family in this region, he is said to have sailed back to their land of origin to bring more of their relatives but never returned. As he sailed away, the folklore continues that he set up guardians at the entrance of the bar mouth to protect his family.

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After watching the sunset, we walked back to the parking lot passing the manuka trees, from which the famous (and expensive) manuka honey is produced.

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Over a lovely dinner of fresh salmon, caught that day, Rangi told me about the tiny house she and her partner were building from scratch and which was aimed at leaving a minimal footprint on the environment. I had seen her posts on facebook, as their house project took shape during the past several months and it was lovely to hear her talk about why they were doing what they were doing and how their respective families pitched in the labour to help them build their house.

All too soon, our brief meetup had to wrap up as Rangi had to rush back to catch the last ferry of the evening.

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I would certainly recommend travelers to the north of Auckland, especially Paihia or Keri Keri, to take some time to travel into the deep west and explore the Hokianga and other less explored places as the tiny glimpse I had of the Hokianga was lovely.

“Untold

Skydiving over Bay of Islands

I have long wanted to visit New Zealand and last month, I was finally able to fulfill my travel wish. However, with being able to take only two weeks off from work, I had to prioritize experiences I wanted to have during this time and I planned my travel accordingly.

Most of my travel was focused in the South island but I did take a 3 day tour to the Bay of Islands with Stray tours towards the end of my two weeks. As we reached Paihia, Muesli, our guide and driver, spoke about the skydiving experience offered there and how beautiful the view of the bay of islands is from the air. Since we had the afternoon free, and since New Zealand does have one of the best safety records for adventure activities, I signed on for the skydiving.

I am scared of heights. I start feeling dizzy the second I look down from a height, such as a cliff or even from a balcony. As such, I really had no business going skydiving but then again, I generally try to face my fears and even enjoy facing them, through extreme adventure activities such as this.

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When we arrived at the skydiving venue, I decided to go for the highest level on offer – jumping from 16,000 feet with 70 seconds of free fall. It was only when I signed off on indemnity waiver forms and went through the safety briefing, that my panic button got triggered. I made myself go out into the open and took deep breaths to calm myself, before rejoining the group that was flying up with me. Maurice, my instructor went through the safety checks and then soon it was our time to board the plane.

As the plane took off and I sat on the sliding bench in the plane, my panic level started increasing. At one point, Maurice asked me to put on the oxygen mask. I am not sure whether he said that because he sensed my panic or because we were the only ones jumping from 16,000 feet. Soon, the door opened and the others jumped off at 9,000 and 12,000 feet. And, it was my time to slide towards the door linked to my instructor.

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I think the worst moment of stepping into the unknown is that first step which you take without knowing how it will be and what the outcome will be. The door of the plane opened and if I had that option and a few minutes more to decide, I might have pulled back. Fortunately for me, Maurice just jumped within seconds of the door opening and we hurtled through space towards the ground.

DCIM100GOPROG0062708.JPGI couldn’t see the ground at first because of the heavy cloud cover and most of the free fall was trying to calm myself as the speed of our fall was very high and parts of me hurt with the force of our fall. I also know that I had this one thought running throughout – what if the instructor has a heart attack and isn’t able to pull on the parachute cords.

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I must admit that it was only once Maurice pulled out that I calmed down – both mentally and physically, as the descent became slower and controlled. I was able to start appreciating the view of the bay of islands from above and I even asked the instructor in which direction Paihia was. To which, he responded by turning us around 180 degrees to point out the town.

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The landing was very smooth and we literally just walked down a few steps before coming to a stop.

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I am glad that I skydived as it is indeed a special experience, perhaps once in a lifetime experience.