The holiday started badly. Qantas had forgotten our vegetarian meals, the onboard toilet was defective, the film was some dreadful thing starring Julia Roberts who is exceptionally beautiful (I think) but an indifferent actress. Something about food and sex, so far as I could see. Eat, love, vomit? Does that ring a bell?
Anyway, the delicious champagne helped us survive these vicissitudes (Piper Hiedsieck. Yum) and we arrived in Auckland safe and sound despite it being a Qantas plane. In Auckland it was as usual raining. It's always raining in Auckland, being situated on a narrow peninsula with sea all around. The rental car was ready -- if only I could remember which car hire company I'd hired it from. After an embarrassing troop around each car hire company's booth in the arrivals hall in turn (my lady pretending not to know me) we found it and set off. We spent the first night in a dreary but cheap motel not far from the airport. At least I remembered which motel we'd booked into.
The next morning -- early by our time, since New Zealand is two hours ahead of east coast Oz, but nine-ish by Noz time -- we started south towards Tauranga. Auckland's suburbs, rather dull and damp (still raining) then rolling green hills with neat fields and hedgerows (like England!) small patches of pines (pinus radiata, from a small area in California -- far more successful outside California than in it).
An hour out from Auckland, we drove into a vast flat country, the silt delta of rivers rising in the heart of the North Island. A flat landscape reminiscent of Norfolk in England, with straight lines of trees and hedges; the only straight roads we saw in Noz; drainage canals; wide estuaries filled with muddy water. In the distance, before and behind us, smoking in the rain, were noble mountain ranges. A mysterious and fascinating landscape.
I had decided before we left that I simply had to see the Coromandel Peninsula, a mountain range reaching out into the Pacific, of legendary beauty. I expect it is much more beautiful in the sunshine. It was sumptuous enough in the pouring, tropical rain. The road winds along the coast, wide enough in places just for one car, with notices warning of wide articulated trucks, and no guard rail on the sea edge of road, numerous ominous little crosses indicating where someone had died in an accident. My eyesight is... not so good, and we had foolishly not signed up my lady as a driver. So there I was, not sure how close I was to the edge (with just one working eye, I can't judge distances at all) and certain that if I went too close that would be it. Both of us lost in the waves off the Coromandel Peninsula. It's a romantic name for the place where you died, but all the same!
North we toiled, the road as winding as a pollie's promises, meeting several of the said wide articulated trucks going the other way. The deluge continued. At Coromandel town we had the most delicious salad, with New Zealand brie. I won't eat meat or fish and I don't eat wheat (makes my intestines bleed). There wasn't much on the menu left except said salads, though I was intrigued by mussel fritters (there were vast mussel/oyster beds in the estuary just before we reached Coromandel town). An arty place, full of galleries, trendy clothes shops and high-falutin' restaurants --- the explanation obvious when we saw the notices: Auckland Ferry. A haven for trendies from the big city. Wikipedia coyly mentions 'alternative lifestylers'. I call them C.C.s (counter-culturals) Why the ferry? No person in their right minds would drive that road. Especially not in the rain. Only romantic idiots like me.
Having come so far we had the choice of going back (and possibly being driven off the road by a W.A.T.) or of continuing round the peninsula and going south along its eastern side. The tropical downpour continued. Optimistically, we decided to continue. Only we took a wrong turning. Noz place names are maybe 75% Maori. And not only is the signage inadequate, but I mean how do we poor thickie Ozzies distinguish between one Maori town and the next? So we took the wrong road. As we drove north towards the remote tip of the Coromandel Peninsula through the thick curtains of rain, the road narrowed even more. Charming tiny hamlets clung desperately to the narrow littoral between the sea and the mountain, divided by a single lane of deteriorating tarmac. Eventually we concluded that we had to be on the wrong road. So I asked. The houses all were unlocked, most with open doors. A handsome young man in rugby gear directed me back towards Coromandel Town, his face ill-concealing his amusement. Where do they go to play rugby? Is there any flat place anywhere? Maybe they play it on a slope. How else? But beautiful islands rose out of the silver sea, so gloriously magnificent I contemplated not continuing the journey to Tauranga and the rellies. Maybe we could stay with the rugby player. . . .
So beautiful. Steep mountains shrouded in mist, covered with tree-fern forests, and the coast lined with Pohutakawa trees, their branches thick with blossom, the roads underneath them scarlet with the fallen threads from their flowers. Across the peninsula towards Te Rerenga and Kuaotunu. The road twisting round steep mountains, up and down, in and out, impatient cars and lorries behind me as I cautiously manoeuvre over unfamiliar roads in the sort of heavy rain I last saw in Singapore. Grief! Every so often there was a little bay on the side of the road, obviously expressly designed for the purpose we used it, to pull off so the impatient could pass. And all the time this extraordinary and incomparable natural beauty. On through Tittywhanger (oh, all right, Whitianga) Where I phoned the rellies to explain that we would be late. Very late.
Arrive in Tauranga and remember how to get to the Palais des Rellies. Fraught welcomes all round. Lamentation about the rain. In bed at night I listen to the deluge, enjoying every minute, the city of Tauranga's night lights made romantic by the softening effect of the rain. Warm rain. Tropical rain.
The next day we go to the rellies' holiday cottage. Thoroughly charming showing my sister-in-law's touch, who manages always to make a homely, welcoming space wherever she goes. Blue and white decor, small carvings of fish and sea birds stuck to the walls, pencil drawings (my s.i.l. is an artist). The rain continues. Later we go for a walk along the beach soaked through in the rain. I strip to my superman undies and walk along a deserted beach, the surf huge, the rain extraordinary. Afterwards drive home to the holiday cottage where I try to towel dry.
The next day the rain stops. We go for a walk along Mt Maunganui A lovely beach, a beaut mount with Pohutukawa trees right down to the beach. Some beaut bodies on the beach -- the women in delicious bikinis, the men in loathsome baggy shorts concealing everything. Good grief, the fashion for board shorts is utterly revolting.
More walks. More beaches. More sun. Perfect. From the veranda of my mother-in-law's house you can look north with mountain range after mountain range disappearing into the distance. I counted five ranges, each one a little paler than the last, until the last one was almost indistinguishable from the pale dove grey of the Pacific, a smudge against the horizon. From the front veranda, Mt Maunganui and the daily flight of a slim silverfish jet-prop plane from Auckland. Sublime. And this millionaire's view can be had for a couple of hundred thousand Noz dollars.
A creek flowing through the suburb is enfolded into a reserve, with native forest (tree-ferns and other native species I couldn't identify) plus species from Europe (lindens, oaks, alders, beech, birch) and elsewhere (Pinus radiata, Palm trees, even Eucalyptus) Leaf mulch a foot thick, the call of mysterious birds, a wooden walkway covered with wire-netting to stop you slipping in the moss and lichen. Extraordinarily peaceful and beautiful. Right outside their back door. Walks along the bay; mangroves shading into forest; convolvulus and its near relative morning glory; scarlet gladiolus; blue-mauve wisteria; sickly-sweet-scented jasmine . . . . perfect.
Then alas, all too soon the road home.
A winding road through rolling hills, every cutting thick with tree-ferns, little farmhouses with driveways lined with hydrangeas in every shade between white, pink, purple and blue, tall hedges made from closely pruned trees 4 or 5 metres high, avocado groves, road verges thick with flowers (white -- Shasta daisies; yellow somethings; blue something elses; lupins in various colours) wild agapanthus in white and blue. And all the time, gray mountains to the left and sparkling blue sea to the right. Then through the Karangahake Gorge, where the road tries to fit between a river flowing over rocks and a steep mountain-side of ochre and reddish rocks. The river could have been Scottish, so clear, and so beautiful was it. The cliff-face next to us must have been hundreds of metres high. Unbelievably beautiful.
Back across the plains, back drearily to the airport.
And then home, to the heat of an Ozzie summer, and the fading memories of paradise.