Critical Mass Protest

This evening I witnessed my first Kiwi protest event! And all by accident, too. We were taking a stroll around the city to check out where I have to be for a job interview next week and to have a peek at the Cave Troll, when we spotted a poster exhorting the reader to attend the monthly Critical Mass protest, meeting in Civic Square at 5.30pm. As Civic Square is where you can find the aforementioned Troll, we ended up there at about the right time.

For those unfamiliar with modern protest movements, Critical Mass is the name associated with anti-car/pro-bicycle groups in various cities around the world. There are protests using the same name in London, some of which I’ve witnessed in the past. I don’t think that there is any overarching Critical Mass organisation – the name is adopted by different groups in different cities who have similar agendas but who may not communicate in any strategic manner, except for the odd occasion when an attempt to synchronise protests across the globe is made.

Unfortunately for the Wellington Critical Mass crowd, something kept the numbers down – there were only about 30 people on the demo. Perhaps this is a factor of population, or perhaps the fact that many students will have left the city for the summer holidays had an effect. Maybe no one in Wellington gives a shit – Heaven forbid! Still, top marks for pluck, as those that were present carried on regardless and braved the rush hour traffic. There were no police in sight, and the only camera I spotted was my own – so I felt homour bound to record the event.

[On the March.  The Banner reads 'Mobil Murders']

There were two main strands to today’s protest according to the leaflet I was handed. First off were the general principles of oppostion to a car-dominated society, with the specific Wellingtonian issue being the proposed construction of an inner city bypass. The flyer recommends a visit to the Campaign for a Better City for more info on this. The second strand was a protest against the Mobil Corporation, which the protesters accuse of having a part in crimes against humanity committed in Aceh, Indonesia. They allege that the corporation hired units of the Indonesian military to provide security for their assets in the region that were at some unspecified stage involved in “systematic torture, murder, rape and other acts of terror”. The leaflet recommends a visit to the International Labour Rights Fund for more information on this issue. I suppose I should take a look through ExxonMobil’s website to see if they have bothered to refute any of these allegations, but I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader.

Lord of the Rings Mania

Wellington is currently in a fit of Lord of the Rings insanity. The World Premiere of The Return of the King is being held here on Monday, and the city is gearing up for the big event. The local papers are already full of gushing reports about stars being spotted in the city and many of the shops are sporting special window displays (regardless of what it is they actually sell in the normal course of things) as there’s a display competition being run by Positively Wellington Tourism. I reckon this well dressed Orc has got to be my favourite so far:

[Orc in a Shirt and Tie]

A set of commemorative stamps have been released to mark the occasion and these are the source of much of the more obvious decoration – from banners adorning the street lights to billboards to vast sheets tied across the fronts of office blocks. The largest depicts Sir Ian McKellen as Gandalf, hangs down about eight floors from the front of the NZ Postal Service building and has become an icon of LotR-obsessed Wellington, but I prefer the (slightly) more subtle approach embodied by this three-dimensional billboard:

[Billboard in shape of an envelope addressed to Mount Doom containing what looks like the Ring]

There are two cinemas associated with the Premiere, the Embassy and the Reading Cinemas complex, and atop each building perches a Black Rider astride his dragon-like winged steed gazing down balefully on the passing throngs.

[Nazgul atop the Reading Cinema]

There is to be a great big parade on the day of the Premiere winding it’s way through the city to the final stretch of Red Carpet leading up the steps to the doors of the Embassy Theatre. Most of the inner city hotels and hostels are completely booked up and have been for weeks and weeks; had we not sorted a flat this week we might have faced a night in the park on monday!

[Nazgul atop the Embassy Cinema]

It’s quite fun being in a city the size of Wellington when something like this is happening – it’s small enough for the excitment to get everywhere, and you can’t help get a bit caught up in it all even as a visitor. We even had a moments excitement ourselves the other day when we realised that we’d just strolled past one of the hobbits!

Napier, The Art Deco City

Napier is situated on Hawke’s Bay, on the eastern shores of the North Island. Looking out into the Pacific, you can get a little dizzy – it’s a long, long way to the Americas from here. The beach is made up of coarse pebbles and the currents make it too dangerous to venture into the water despite the almost Mediterranean climate and the picturesque nature of some of the sea front.

[View from the old skating rink at dusk]

But Napier is most famous for it’s nearly unparalleled collection of Art Deco buildings, so it’s inhabitants probably don’t lose a lot of sleep over the state of the beach. The Art Deco buildings were all constructed following a devastating earthquake – 7.8 on the Richter Scale – which took place at 10.47am on February 3rd, 1931. The centre of the city was almost completely flattened, and 162 people died either in the ‘quake itself or in the fires which followed.

[The Daily Telegraph Building]

It took only two years to rebuild the majority of the town, all in the modern styles prevalent in the 1930s. The main influence is clearly Art Deco, but there are elements of other styles of the time too; particularly noticeable are the examples of Spanish Mission and Stripped Classical, but even these buildings usually have a strong Art Deco influence apparent.

[Corner of the Hotel Central]

In recent times the value of this architectural heritage has become more evident to the local people, and there have been concerted efforts to maintain the buildings in good order and to prevent any demolitions – there were some unfortunate incidents in years past when some of the buildings were destroyed, often for reasons more to do with fashion and whimsy rather than necessity.

Although Napier is not a large city and the central district is easy to walk around, there is such a profusion of great architecture that it’s impossible to do justice to it on a website like this one. I’ve tried to select a few images that provide a sense of town, although I found it difficult to get good shots of many of the buildings. I did manage to get what I reckon are a few good detail shots of smaller features worthy of note, though:

[Fountain shape decorative detail from the Telegraph Building]

[Zig zag design along the top of a building]

[Detail from the Hotel Central]

One feature particularly worth mentioning is the use occasional use of Maori imagery in the decorative aspects of some of the buildings. Deco architecture often used designs drawn from the Mayan and Aztec cultures, due to the desire of American Deco architects to use local art as a source of inspiration rather than the more traditional European styles. Much of Napier’s architecture follows the American style wholesale, but some buildings show some Maori influence. A particularly good example is the ASB Bank building which uses such designs on it’s interior ceiling…

[Maori colours and motifs on the ceiling of the ASB Bank]

…and for decoration outside too, like these reliefs above the windows which mix a Deco-style zigzag with Maori pattern:

[Closeup of the Maori style bas-reliefs]

It’s not just the buildings which contribute to Napier’s 1930s feel. There are echos of Art Deco everywhere, from the manhole covers and drain grills to the old fashioned cars than seem to appear on the streets more often than elsewhere.

[Deco draincover - grill in form of a stylised sunburst]

[An old fashioned Green Car, possibly not 1930s, but I'm no expert]

[Deco manhole cover, decorated with sunbursts]

We only spent two days in Napier, and we had a great time. It would certainly reward a longer stay – just sitting and eating or drinking in some of the cafes and bars was an atmospheric experience in itself.

[An Art Deco Cafe Interior]

It was a great place, well worth a day or three looking around. I can recommend the Walking Tour run from the visitor centre on Marine Parade every morning at 10. It costs $8, and you follow a knowledgeable local around and get a pretty comprehensive rundown on the city and it’s buildings. If you prefer to be independent, you can pick up a leaflet with a map and enough information to wander around yourself for $2 from the visitors centre or the Art Deco Shop on Tennyson Street. Most of these activities are organised under the auspices of the Art Deco Trust. There is also an Art Deco Weekend at the end of February involving activities like dressing up in ’30s outfits and similar fun for the real hardcore Art Deco fan.

Bad Luck in Taupo

Taupo sits on the northern shores of the eponymous Lake Taupo, right at the centre of the North Island. The lake and surroundings are beautiful, clear blue water with the snow-capped volcanoes of the Tongariro National Park visible on the far shore on a good day.

[The shores of Lake Taupo]

As the bus drivers never tired of reminding us, the Lake has it’s origins in comparatively recent times – less than a blink of an eye in geological terms. It was formed in the aftermath of a massive volcanic eruption, the largest in recorded history, when some 24 cubic km of rock and debris were ejected into the atmosphere causing effects recorded by both the Romans and the Chinese. This has allowed the eruption to be dated accurately to 186AD.

Taupo is a popular holiday destination among New Zealanders. There is the usual array of adventure sports (most notably several Sky Diving operators and the Taupo Bungee over the Waikato River), excellent Trout fishing, more geothermal stuff, water sports and boat trips, the Huka Falls (see below) and the Tongariro National Park, just round the Lake.

Tongariro was our main reason for stopping in Taupo. The Tongariro Crossing is supposed to be one of the best single day walks you can do in the whole of New Zealand. It takes you right through the volcanic heart of the North Island past the three great volcanoes – Ruapehu, Tongariro, and Ngauruhoe. I say supposed because the good weather evident in the photo above did not last, and we were unable to do the walk as the companies who run day-trippers up into the area to do the Crossing weren’t operating due to dangerous conditions. We hung on for a few days, but in the end it seemed we’d be waiting forever so we reluctantly left for Napier.

This did put a bit of a dampener on our spirits, but we didn’t sit around moping all the time. We managed to get our and walk up to the Huka Falls one morning which you can reach on foot from Taupo by following the Taupo Walkway along the Waikato River.

[The Huka Falls]

Although the falls only drop about 10 metres, the Waikato is the only river flowing from Lake Taupo so the volume of water passing over the falls is massive, and it makes a fair amount of noise. You get the occasional nutter kayaking over the falls, but it’s not recommended unless you know what you’re doing.

The walk also gave me the chance to experiment with the macro close-up function on my digital camera. This spider was about the size of a fingernail:

[A Spider closeup]

Not bad for a fairly basic point-and-shoot type camera. I don’t think the spider’s poisonous – unlike neighbouring Aussie, New Zealand has only one poisonous beastie, the Kaitapo Spider. That’s described as about 6mm long, black with a red patch. Hmmm.


Zorbing is one of those activities that makes you shake your head and wonder what the guys who invented it were taking at the time. For the uninitiated, Zorbing involves climbing inside a large inflatable double layered sphere and rolling down a steep hill.

[Loadig Zorbs on a conveyor]

You can choose to be strapped in (the ‘Harnessed Zorb’), thus avoiding most of the risk of injury, or you can elect to have a bucket of water added for lubrication and go unfastened (the ‘Hydro Zorb’). If you choose that latter method you then get a choice between attempting to stay standing like some demented, amphetamine-crazed giant hamster in it’s exerciser, or merely trying to reach the bottom of the hill with all major bones intact. Not only this, but up to three people can pile into the same zorb for a rather wet, bouncy and potentially painful bonding experience.

[Zorbs in acton]

Believe me, the hill was a lot steeper than it looks in that photo. The whole experience was actually great fun, although it was over far too fast. We spent the entire time slipping around the bottom of the Zorb in the water wondering when we were going to hit something. The guys running the place took some photos of us in the Zorb with Pol’s camera, so you’ll have to wait until we get the film processed and the images scanned to see us lying in a soaking heap at the bottom of the hill with big smiles. Next time, I’m going to try and stay on my feet!


The Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland, about half an hour south from Rotorua, is one of the two main out-of-town thermal areas featuring all the trimmings – Geysers, multi-coloured pools, bubbling mud and steaming hillsides. It’s all pretty impressive and the walkways and paths set into the landscape make it very easy, if somewhat touristy, to explore.

The main geyser action is provided by the decidedly contrived Lady Knox Geyser. I say contrived because at 10.15 every day the geyser is induced to erupt when a chap lobs a block of soap down the spout. I’m told that this reduces the water’s surface tension and allows the build-up of boiling water and attendant steam to escape at high velocity in an upwards direction. The effect is fairly spectacular, though.

[The Lady Know Geyser Erupting]

Having sampled the joys of Lady Knox, most people head up the road to the main attraction at the Thermal Wonderland. It isn’t inappropriately named, especially if you come from a part of the world with little or no geothermal activity – the various chemicals turn the rocks and waters into a variety of otherworldly colours.

[The Artists Palette]

The area to explore is fairly large, and takes at least an hour to walk around at a fair pace. There are slopes and steep climbs, but it’s worth going all the way round to the end to see the bright green colour of Lake Ngakoro.

[Lake Ngakoro]

Other highlights include the Champagne Pool, a steaming body of water lined with cracked red earth which constantly bubbles

[The Champagne Pool]

And the Devil’s Bath, another unworldly green pool at the bottom of a crater near the end of the walk.

[The Devils Bath]

That last one makes me think of rancid milk, but a pretty girl can liven up even the most bizarre place 😉

There are loads of other colourful and bizarre spots at Wai-O-Tapu, but I can’t put up photos of them all. It’s definitely a site that’s well worth a visit, although it is very popular – we were told that huge numbers pass through each day during the peak season, which might reduce the impact a bit. Especially since it seemed fairly busy to me already, and it obviously gets quite a bit more crowded.


The first thing you notice about Rotorua (which means “Second Lake” in Maori) is the stench. Climbing out of our air-conditioned coach and taking a deep breath of shockingly eggy air was a bit like stepping off a plane in a tropical country and being hit by that wall of heat and humidity.

They say you get used to it within a day or two. I’m not so sure, we were still getting wafts as we left four days later, but it does recede from the forefront of your consciousness after a while. And perhaps I’m exaggerating a little, but I think I’m allowed bit of poetic license.

For those reading who are unfamiliar with the sights, sounds and smells of New Zealand, Rotorua smells because it is in the midst of a highly active geothermal area. This means there are lots of hot pools, bubbling boiling mud pits and explosive geysers to look at, as well as some spectacular multi-coloured landscapes caused by the various chemicals in the soil. We explored a few of these, but the first thing we did was chill out at one of Rotorua’s famous spas as it was Pol’s birthday.

(Misplaced Apostrophe Syndrome being particularly bad in Rotorua, for authenticities sake I should have written spas as spa’s, but I just couldn’t bring myself to.)

When it comes to spas there’s a lot of choice in Rotorua, and we headed to the fairly well known Polynesian Spa for a soak in the exclusive Lake Spa pools and a massage. Although a lot of tourists pass through this complex, most end up in the cheaper pools, and the Lake Spa section has great views over Sulphur Bay and a private bar and relaxation area for those willing to shell out a bit extra. Nice. Unfortunately I have no piccies of us in our swimming gear relaxing in the hot pools, so you’ll just have to use your imaginations. But here’s one of the coffees we had later on that morning:

[Two Flat Whites]

New Zealand’s coffee culture deserves a post all of it’s own – maybe another day. We liked these particular coffees because of the patterns in the milk froth. I understand that creating these patterns can be considered an art, and that there are even competitions. I have no idea whether these particular patterns are the result of chance or artifice, but they look quite nice regardless. We were served these at the excellent Zippy Central cafe on Pukuatua Street.

Te Whakarewarewa Thermal Reserve

Fortunately the name of the closest thermal area to the city is commonly shortened to Whaka. It’s about twenty minutes walk out of town along the motel lined Fenton Street, which we later learnt is apparently responsible for Rotorua’s nickname of Roto-Vegas (“They have Casinos, we have Motels” – Go Figure, as the Yanks might say). But it’s worth the walk. The reserve has been divided in two due, according to our guidebook, to some kind of land rights dispute. We visited the largest section, run by the New Zealand Maori Arts & Crafts Institute.

There’s lots of pretty cool stuff to see in the complex. First and foremost are the geothermal features – the Prince of Wales Feathers and Pohutu geysers and the various pools of boiling mud, like this one, the Ngamokaiakoko pool:

[The Ngamokaiakoko pool]

There are even pools of hot water that the Maori used (and still use in some cases) to cook their food in. This one is named Ngararatuatara which, like Te Whakarewarewa, just rolls off the tongue.

[The Cooking Pool]

Despite being surrounded by sights like this, I found one of the weirdest things to be just walking through forest and bush with steam rising from the ground on all sides – it was this that really brought home to me the foreign-ness of the place.

[The Steaming Forest]

There’s more to the Arts & Crafts Institute than steaming forests and boiling mud. They also run a Kiwi breeding programme and have a nocturnal house where we caught our first glimpses of real live Kiwi birds, well worth the price of entry alone. Alongside all this are the arts and crafts themselves. The the complex is home to a school teaching young Maori the traditional carving and weaving techniques and there are loads of fantastic examples on display. And if all that wasn’t enough, there is also a Cultural show twice a day with dancing and games and face-pulling and spear waving, and it’s all included in the standard entrance fee of $18. A great day out.

There’s loads more to do around Rotorua – far too much for one post here, so look out for upcoming posts on the colourful Thermal Wonderland of Wai-O-Tapu and our experiences of rolling down a hill inside an inflatable ball half full of water, then it’s off for a slightly disappointing time on the shores of Lake Taupo followed by a great time in the Art Deco City, Napier.

Bus Journeys

A few brief (ha!) notes on bus journeys here in NZ, since at the moment that’s how we’re getting around. There’s a network of buses operated by what seem to be two separate companies who appear to co-operate rather than compete – InterCity and Newmans. We bought a “Flexi-Pass” ticket, which works by time – you buy a certain number of hours and time is deducted from your pass according to some arcane system that we don’t quite understand, but so far everything is going well.

(The next paragraph is a more detailed rundown on the Flexi-Pass (the Discordian in me keeps wanting to type Flaxi-Pass) intended for anyone surfing by looking for a punters-eye perspective on the ticket. Those visiting for a bit more colour could do worse than skip down to the following paragraph.)

The system works like this: you buy a Flaxi-Pass with a given number of hours (supposedly cheaper the more you buy but the saving seems fairly miniscule and you never know when your plans might change, so I’d recommend not buying too many), then phone the day before you travel to book a seat on a bus. You have to phone, you can’t just turn up or book in an office, but it’s a free call. So far, the buses have been fairly quiet, never more than half full, so we’ve always been able to get on to the buses we’ve wanted. (This may change as the summer arrives – no doubt we’ll find out.) When you book, you provide the serial number from your pass, then the operator is supposed to ask you for the password you choose the first time you called to make a booking. This is obviously designed to discourage pass theft but, since you don’t always get asked for it, seems like a bit of a waste of time. When you roll up (15 minutes early!) at the bus stop, the driver should have your name on his list. Sweet as, as they like to say around here. So far, it’s all been working as advertised, but it’s a fairly new ticket and we get the impression that the whole thing is still in beta, as it were.

Our journeys have all been painless – no hassles, on time, with friendly and helpful drivers. The roads are mostly winding single lane affairs, even on the major routes, but there’s no congestion. Consequently the locals (including heavily loaded logging trucks) like to drive fast, hang off the bumpers of tourist hire-cars and indulge in some shocking overtaking maneouvres. White crosses by the sides of the larger roads mark the locations of some of the nastier head-ons.

The most remarkable thing about the experience has been the staff. The drivers of both companies act more like tour guides than bus drivers. Bear in mind that these coaches are used by locals as well as budget tourists – they are not exclusively aimed at visitors – but nevertheless the drivers provide a running commentary on local attractions to the extent that on one journey (Waitomo to Rotorua) we wondered if we had mistakenly boarded a tour bus rather than our scheduled National Express equivalent. The commentary often includes vast quantities of proudly related details on the local feats of engineering and manufacturing – so far we’ve had glowing accounts of hydroelectric and geothermal power stations of various kinds and of New Zealand’s extensive and huge dairy product processing plants. You just can’t quite imagine getting this sort of commentary back in the UK.

The aforementioned Waitomo to Rotorua journey even included a brief layover at the sight of a large Hydroelectric plant on the Waikato River called, IIRC, Arapuni. The driver enthused over the historic swing-bridge dating back ot the construction of the dam which was used at the time to get the workmen over the gorge separating their quarters from the worksite. To be fair, the bridge and the view it commanded were quite spectacular.

[View of the swing bridge]

[View downriver from the bridge]

The next post on this site should be more visually pleasing – it’ll be all about Rotorua, and there’ll be lots of photos of mental volcanic mudpools and geysers and multicoloured lakes and stuff like that. Not to mention the Zorbing.

The, err, Joy of Sheep

[Sheep and Lamb]Forgive me for the title of this post – all will become clear soon enough. (And no, it doesn’t involve velcro gloves or any such thing, but did you really expect a visit to New Zealand to involve absolutely no mention of these beasts? After all there are something like 40 million sheep (compare to 4 million humans) in the country.)

Now I know that, for most of us, sheep are nothing particularly special. They are just sheep – rather stupid animals good for two things: wool and the pot (nice with a bit of the old mint sauce). That is, unless you happen to be female and from Los Angeles. Two of our companions on the caving expedition were such characters, and upon sighting their first wool-laden quadrupeds promptly burst into a chorus of shrieks which resolved after a moment for near-unconscious translation into “Oh my Gawd! They’re so cute! Stopthevan!Stopthevan! I just gotta take a photo” You’d think that they’d never seen a sheep before, which I suppose they may well not have – I’ve no idea whether sheep farming is Big Business in California or not. So we sat there in the minibus for ten minutes while they chased sheep around the karsts. I kept hoping they’d scare one so badly that it would fall down a pot-hole, but it didn’t happen. Now that would’ve been real entertainment. Sigh.


[The cave mouth]Waitomo is one of New Zealand’s premier tourist attractions, most famous for the limestone caves which riddle the hills and the glow-worms inhabiting them. Most people who visit the area do so very briefly, only allowing enough time to do a cave trip of some description – some involve a fairly sedate walk or boat journey through a cave lit by the green lures of the glow-worms, others are more adventurous and involved clambering up underground waterfalls and abseiling down pot-holes.

[Intrepid Cavers!]We didn’t stay much longer ourselves, only long enough to do a couple of the walks the area has to offer in addition to the obligatory cave trip. I’m afraid to say that we bottled out of the more radical trips due to the strong possibility of having to squeeze through tiny claustrophobia-inducing nooks and crannies, but our more relaxing clamber and boat trip through a large-ish cave was worth it for the spectacular glow worms. No photos of those, unfortunately, as you’d need a tripod and at least 5 or 6 minutes of open shutter time to get anything at all on film, you’ll just have to take my word for it that they were pretty amazing.

[The Moon over Opakapa Pa]The walks were worth it too, particularly the Ruakuri walk through the bush to a natural tunnel, the result of cave collapses in the past. The walk takes you up and down fairly steep bush-clad slopes and in and out of old caves around a river valley. Apparently the walk is worth doing at night, as the area in infested with glow-worms which make for a magical atmosphere. Unfortunately this only highlighted the desirability of a car, as the walk is several Kilometres outside of the village and too far for us to come on foot at night.

Other good walks are the Opakapa Pa walk, which ends on a hilltop with great views which was the site of a Maori Pa (fortified settlement) a few hundred years back. Lastly, the 10km Waitomo Walkway is a good way to get out overland to Ruakuri if you don’t have a car or just fancy a pleasant tramp though the karst hills.

Also worth a mention is the Waitomo Museum which, although perhaps orientated more towards the school parties which come through every day, is worth visit for the thorough rundown on the local flora, fauna and geology.