“So whereabouts are you and the vehicle located, sir?”
“Yes Rivendell, you know, the Elven outpost of Middle Earth, home to Elrond – Lord of all Rivendell and leader of the Elves”
“Ah yes, of course, your roadside assistance will be with you within the hour”
Only in New Zealand.
OK – the conversation didn’t go exactly like that – but it was close enough. A few days and not so many miles into our voyage around the north island and the old girl had oh so kindly chosen a Lord of the Rings set location car park to show no signs of life. Practically every map in existence in New Zealand will be littered with gold rings signifying former haunts of Peter Jackson & Co, and as such, there’s a strange and other worldly feeling of traveling around Tolkien’s imagination for much of the time.
A sense of fiction and the surreal had swamped us from the minute we disembarked the ferry onto the north island in fact, but this was less Lord of the Rings and more ‘good bloody lord – ring the police!’. The streets of Wellington were in disarray – Superman was climbing a lamppost, groups of cheerleaders and ninjas stumbled through stopped traffic, a vicar doused the pavement with his own holy water – in fact as far as the eye could see raucous crowds in fancy dress flooded around us. We’d arrived in the midst of Rugby Sevens – a weekend where the actual rugby seemed to be just an afterthought and a mere excuse for dressing up and getting absolutely hammered. Which I guess is the trend for any rugby, anywhere. We met our friends and hosts for the weekend, two giant kiwi fruits named Jimmy & Cal, and feeling like idiots for not being in costume, joined in with the revelry. Quite a first night up north.
It’s amazing how much the weather can affect your view of a place. Last time we were here there was only wind and rain, and as such, it was currently sitting at around the same level as Wolverhampton in my list of cities to go back to. Well the wind hadn’t changed much, obviously, it’s nickname of ‘Windy Welly’ is not without reason. Even as cats, dogs and small children whistled past us we were told that it was actually quite calm – but the sun was shining and being lucky enough to have locals to guide us, we soon saw a side to Wellington that we’d missed before. A Sunday morning stroll took us down past the coffee shops of Cuba St and onto a waterfront food market where crowds ambled in between Brazilian Churrasco, spit-roasted poussin and stalls of far eastern spice. We plunged from the top deck of a 20 foot high public diving board where the obese bombers of the world reigned supreme, and then dried off with a brisk walk up Mount Victoria and then back into town via Oriental Bay. Pausing at the top of Mount Victoria to enjoy the company of three full bus loads of cruise liner passengers, we were afforded far reaching views over a surprisingly green city, the harbour and beyond. It was clear from our weekend here, albeit a brief one, and the gushing praise which our temporary kiwi friends had for it, that we’d quickly and harshly misjudged Wellington last time. It’s a fine city; wonderfully relaxed yet with plenty going on, and it’s definitely, without doubt, better than Wolverhampton.
We set our imaginary compass south-east from Wellington, heading out to the Wairarapa region – reputably a hotbed of sheep, wineries and end of the world type places along its wind battered shores. Now we only have real interest in one of these, and not being Welsh or in the habit of paying a small fortune for drinks which I don’t get to drink, it was the latter we went for. After our unexpected but thankfully brief stop at Kaitoke natural reserve, better known as Rivendell, we drove under low, lead coloured skies through endless farmland – a drive so bleak that even the unsurprisingly remote taxidermy museum we went past looked tempting. Eventually spilling out onto the Cape Palliser coastline, we quickly found our first port of call and our home for the night, the Putungirua Pinnacles. Standing like an almighty collection of stone skittles, the Pinnacles were quite astonishing – and yet we almost missed them. Having been corrected by some helpful Germans that the underwhelming rocks we were first looking at were indeed just some rocks – “Nein! Zey are around ze corner, zeez are just rocks!” – we could then barely make out the formidable spires through the sheeting rain. Our walk up to the Pinnacles had been along the floor of a river carved gully now dusty and bone dry, however on our return we quite alarmingly found that the river bed had opted to relive its former glories and there were now torrents of murky water swallowing our path by the second. Riding both our luck and the marauding mud back to the campsite we sought the refuge of our van, battened the hatches and crossed our fingers. We’d come for end of the world type places, and that night we almost got it – blimey, I’ve never seen a storm like it. Rocked side to side by screaming winds, and with the windows threatening to buckle we moved the van to shelter at around 3am, on the way passing the remnants of two tents that had earlier been standing, now tangled in bushes with the owners long gone. What I’d have given for a seductive sheep and a carafe of Sauvignon Blanc right then.
With dawn broken but the van fully intact we set off, passing a beach of bulldozers at the ridiculously remote Ngawi and the north islands largest seal colony, before we ran out of road and found ourselves beneath Cape Palliser lighthouse. Despite knowing the low clouds would render any promised views of the south island as pointless and that it’d be ten times as windy as the hurricane like conditions on the ground – we wheezed our way up the 250 steps anyway. It’s an attitude that almost any traveler or tourist can identify with – ‘well we’re here now, may as well do it‘ – usually followed by a shrug of the shoulders and donning as many waterproofs as possible. Clinging on for dear life, we could barely see the north island below us let alone any land across the Cook Strait such was the low cloud, so we made haste for our next stop at Castlepoint – another lighthouse on a wild, windswept spit of land. Joy. It was everything we expected it to be – except here we were soaked by sea spray before being coated by a mini sandstorm on top. Nonetheless, Castlepoint had nicely rounded off our end of the world tour of the Wairarapa and now windswept beyond belief, it was time to move on.
From here we were due north, up to the Tongariro National Park and a three day circumnavigation of Mount Doom – otherwise known as Mount Ngauruhoe – located in the heart of the black land of Mordor and home of Sauron, the Dark Lord.
Like I said, only in New Zealand.