Ngockin aroung Ngunguru

We are up north this weekend visiting ex-boss Tom at his family farm in Tutukaka. But the hotel there wanted way too much for a room, so we found an Airbnb in Ngunguru, the ngext towng over. Pronungciation has beeng a topic. There’s no hard G, so no gurus in Ngunguru.


Ngunguru sits on an estuary. There’s a few hundred houses, a mix of second homes, retirees, and some people who make the commute into Whangarei. Pretty sleepy.

The next morning we went for a walk around. Despite there being nothing to see, we saw a lot…

The jandal fence.

The time capsule.

A whole series of funny little ant-themed pictures on the sidewalk.

The blue car that drove off the road.

A funny sign at the golf course and sports complex clubhouse.

And more. Would you want to spend your remaining time here? I don’t think I would, but it’s always a nice surprise to find some of the “more than meets the eye” stuff that surely exists everywhere.

Hot roddin’

Last weekend we loaded the tandem into the van (I can hear some people yawning already) and headed up to Orewa to check out the Te Ara Tahuna Estuary Cycleway and Walking Track.

The ride was lovely, although we got lost in subdivisions a couple of times (welcome to Orewa, where you can check out any time you want…)

But wait, there’s more! We were apparently the only people in New Zealand who didn’t know that Orewa over Anniversary weekend means hot rods. Lotsa lotsa hot rods.

I’m not really a hot rod guy, mostly for political/ snobbery reasons… those are, for the most part, not my people. But OMG the cars are magnificent. The giant engines, clean enough to eat off. You can reach into the metal-flake paint jobs up to your elbow. It’s all good: the ball fringe, the greasy food truck smells, the Betty Boop costumes.

And of course it’s almost all Americana. There were maybe 5 or 10% right hand drive cars… the rest was pure Detroit. There were more Mustangs and Camaros than anything else. We pulled in to the sounds of Johnny Cash, and later saw a very convincing Polynesian Elvis grinding away on the little bandshell stage, mopping his face in the heat.

Part of me does wonder, back to the political/ snobbery discussion, whether there’s a need for some additional work so that the next generation of li’l rodders is more fully empowered and socially tolerant than those that came before. But in the meantime, listen to that engine roar!!

New Year’s Road Trip Stop 5: New Plymouth

Our second and final night on the road was at New Plymouth, on the West coast.

We got in about dusk and went for a walk to shake off the road. One of the first sights we saw was this eerie light hanging out over the water.

It turns out to be Len Lye’s famous Wind Wand, one of several cool pieces of public art around the downtown area. Art takes money. New Plymouth has enjoyed some influx of wealth due to offshore oil and gas exploration. The current government, with its Green Party coalition partners, has stopped that program, so things are a bit tight at the moment.

We saw more Len Lye art at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery… like a lot of more recent art that appeals to me, these pieces are conceptually so simple that I say to myself “I coulda done that,” but then I find myself saying “But I didn’t and I’m glad somebody else did, because it’s magical!”

We walked around town for a while, had lunch, chatted with a blind clarinet player who was busking on the town square, and thus inspired picked up a couple of Django Reinhardt CDs for the drive home.

On the way our of town we stopped to see the Te Rewa Rewa Bridge and walk along the seaside track.

Mt. Taranaki looms in the background. It’s a ways from NP, but the road passes relatively close by, and it’s the most amazing mountain I’ve ever seen, as big as most Rocky Mountain peaks, and just sitting there all by itself.

Of all the places we saw on this quick trip, I’m most excited to go back and explore the New Plymouth and the Taranaki region in more depth.

New Year’s Road Trip (Non-)Stop 1: Road Shots

Once we left Auckland, it was 2-lane roads all the way. The van has all the usual amenities except cruise control. There were some stretches where it would have been nice to set it and forget it, but mostly I had to pay close attention.

On the way into Palmy North, the out of date maps on our GPS had us going over the Manawatu Gorge road, but it was closed a couple of years ago due to repeated land slips. There’s a detour up a twisty mountain road that takes you right up into the Te Apiti wind farm. It had been windy all day, and the spinning turbines were quite beautiful in their way. People hate them, and talk about spoiled views and subsonic disruption and so on. But to me, they are gorgeous feats of engineering and seem so much more benign than the amount of destruction associated with coal mines and oil refineries (although a refinery on a foggy night can also be quite pretty).

Our next non-stop was to see the glockenspiel clock in Stratford. We weren’t at the right time for its twice-daily performance, sadly. Lonely Planet seemed a bit snarky about this particular Roadside Attraction.

And finally, the giant sheep shearing sculpture at Te Kuiti. Other than “awesome,” there’s really not much to be said about that.

New Year’s Road Trip Stop 4: Palmy North

Exhibit A: We first heard of Palmerston North when Sparky, a small time crook character on Outrageous Fortune, had to lay low for a while in the worst place he could think of.

Exhibit B: Then we heard Laura Daniels’s great anthem about Palmy on Jono and Ben (may they rest in peace).

Exhibit C: We just watched Bandersnatch, which was awesome.

So… pick one option about our recent trip to Palmerston North.

Option 1: we stopped in town, had a nice meal, toured the city garden, the galleries, and a quirky corn-themed museum. We even visited the landfill named for John Cleese (who said Palmerston North was a perfect place for people who wanted to commit suicide but didn’t have the courage).

Option 2: we drove right through because we were tired and only halfway to the hotel in New Plymouth.

New Year’s Road Trip Stop 3 Part 2: Lick This, Dubious Boobs, NANZ, Op Shops, and Trainworld

An overnight stop doesn’t really allow much exploring… but we were ready to see as much of Napier as we could with our Lonely Planet guide and some pre-show googling (do you capitalize the verb form???).

First stop, the Pania of the Reef statue. Lonely Planet told us the Maōri story (like a lot of the Maōri stories we’ve heard, this one involved star-crossed lovers, angry parents, and being turned into islands forever separate) and described the statue as having “dubious boobs.” After close examination I can see the argument… they did look sort of pasted on, perhaps an ice cream scoop had been used in the sculpting process.

The ice cream shop at the skatepark is called Lick This, which we thought was all kinds of awesome. Did the local Council actually approve that name?

Maybe the biggest attraction in Napier is NANZ, the National Aquarium of New Zealand. It was pretty cool… better pictures than I ever get while diving! We got there soon after they opened, and it was a good thing… by the time we left it was packed!

The Little Penguins were super cute, but the attendant had seen it all before and was glued to her phone.

For the big ocean tank you can ride on a moving sidewalk in an acrylic tunnel under the water.

We still had a couple hours, so we went into town to stroll and eat lunch. I executed the best parallel parking job EVER!

And then we stumbled across Trainworld. Lee has a longtime fondness for scale models, and train layouts are one of the best ways to indulge that interest. It’s not really about the trains… it’s the landscaping and buildings and painting she enjoys.

Like many private museums/ attractions, this one seems to run on a shoestring budget, and has seen better days. Still… some really great train layouts and worth the $10 for us.

After that, we stopped into a couple of vintage (aka thrift) shops, and scored a couple of nice prints:

Pukekos by Rob McGregor, and

Spirit of the Plains by Sydney Long.

By the time it was all said and done we left a little later than we intended, but it was a fun half day in Napier.

New Year’s Road Trip Stop 3 Part 1: Napier itself

Napier is the hub of the Hawkes Bay region. It sits on a tranquil bit of ocean…

and is famous for its Art Deco buildings. The buildings are all in the same style because all the old ones were flattened in an earthquake in 1936.

Over the years, they’ve really embraced the Art Deco brand. There’s a big festival in February, you can take guided tours in vintage cars, and no civic detail is overlooked…

We stayed in a nice enough motel right on the beachside boulevard…

Overall, a nice place to go back and spend a week, maybe? But it was kinda hot and flat and after you see the attractions (next post), maybe there isn’t really much to do there.

New Year’s Road Trip Stop 2: Esk Valley Winery

After leaving Taupo, we continued toward our first night stop in Napier. There are many wineries along the route, and we stopped in one at random. It turned out to be fairly well known, and winner of multiple awards. We got the standard tasting patter (from a guy with a very strong Chinese accent… hard to understand for us, but catering to Chinese tourists is an absolute necessity here) and bought a few bottles.

Most of the driving was on two-lane roads that make Vermont’s byways feel downright spacious by comparison. So a swig of wine was certainly welcome by this point, only a few coastal km from the destination.

New Year’s Road Trip Stop 1: Taupo

We loaded the minivan and took off this week for a 3-day tiki tour* of some North Island sites we hadn’t seen.

First stop, Lake Taupo. Famous for various athletic pursuits, gorgeous scenery, etc. We tried to have lunch in a café but the high prices and lack of service convinced us to eat the ham sandwiches we’d packed in the chilly bin.

We walked around the village for a while. It boasts the “World’s Coolest McDonalds.” You can go inside the plane.

New Zealand is a land of roadside attractions… not much here is at Disney scale. We found ourselves mesmerized watching people smack golf balls into the water. If you get a hole in one you win a prize, which apparently happens every couple of weeks. This guy didn’t win, but he had a nice stroke and hit the platform about three times out of four.

* Don’t know exactly what a tiki tour is, but Kiwis say it a lot. I think it just means a trip that rambles around and makes a lot of stops… possibly too many.

Whangarei Detour

We stopped off for lunch in Whangarei on the way back to Auckland Monday. You could feel the hustle and bustle of last minute shopping and final preparations.

Other than lunch, our main goal was to visit the Clapham’s Clock Museum, a roadside attraction if ever there was one. It was fun! All the running clocks are purposely set to different times so you get a constant dose of chimes and cuckoos. In the picture above, I’m posing near an Ingraham banjo clock very similar to one that sits in a box in Brattleboro waiting for me to finish the steampunk restoration project I imagined a couple years ago.

We also stopped in at the very impressive hospice thrift shop and admired some art. We came away with a set of ramekins that are the perfect size for baked eggs. Which we had for breakfast a couple days later. Score!

Poor Knights Dive

Merry post-Christmas! My present this year was a weekend of diving…

The first day’s dive was scuttled due to weather, more on the rescheduled trip in another post. So we drove at a leisurely pace up to Tutukaka for Sunday diving. We had a nice dinner and went to bed early. It’s just as well that’s what we wanted to do… there ain’t a lot of choices in Tutukaka once the sun goes down.

Tutukaka and the Poor Knights rose to prominence after Jacques Cousteau called it one of the best dive sites in the world. That must be 50 years ago, and as far as I can tell it was the last big thing to happen there. Other travel writers have generally agreed, but they all quote M. Cousteau.

The dive shop (Dive Tutukaka, highly recommend) was already in full swing when we got there: paperwork done, get your suit and fins, grab a muffin, see you on the boat in 10.

It’s about 45 minutes (22 km) out to the islands. We took a small detour to check out a large school of fish that had come up the surface. More fun to watch than the photo suggests… That rock in the distance is one of the Poor Squires, which sit close to the Knights. And where we did our first dive.

The weather was rainy on shore, but it lightened up as we got away from the coast. We did not need our emergency beacon, I’m glad to say, but our skipper told us about it in the safety briefing he delivered with the str-r-r-r-ongest Welsh accent I’ve ever heard.

The whole area is preserved, above and below the water. That whitish stripe between the cliffs and the green part is a colony of Australasian gannets, who enjoy the solitude and freedom from mammalian predators.

7mm suit plus a 3mm hooded vest… more Neoprene than I’ve ever needed before. Water temp about 16C, about 61F, and I was still chilly down there. All that wetsuit meant a lot of weight was necessary to sink below the surface, but then once you get down there the air bubbles compress and you can drop quite quickly. So overall I felt quite awkward in my gear.

Due to technical difficulties, I didn’t have the GoPro, so no underwater shots. Lots of fish, some bright things on rocks, a couple of rays and morays. Kelp.

We dove two different sites, both featuring an underwater arch to swim through. I struggled a bit… my first dive in two years, cold, quite a bit of swell, not used to the gear, fairly challenging terrain (diving on a wall with no visible bottom so constantly monitoring depth), cloudy day so dim underwater, etc. On each dive I was the first in the group to run out of air. There was lots of marine life, no complaints in that department, but overall I was glad enough to head back in afterwards. It felt a lot more like a technical exercise than a fun outing.

Now that I’ve got my first taste of cold (er than the Caribbean) water diving, I look forward to going back. Preferably on a sunnier day, maybe to an easier site, with my camera working, so I can commune with Cousteau about what a fabulous spot this is.

Of all the brewpubs in all the towns in all the world, I walked into hers

That’s me and Mavis at the Fork and Brewer in Wellington, where she works behind the bar.

I was in town for a conference, and went out with the gang for an(other) drink after the big dinner, as you do.

Regular readers will recognize Mavis as the former keyboards player for the Snaz, who played a memorable concert on my deck back in Brattleboro after we helped them raise money to get to SXSW a few years ago.


She didn’t really remember me for myself (a friend once told me, when we were both a lot younger than I am now, that the most obvious consequence of hitting whatever age milestone was that he had become utterly invisible to teenage girls), but we had a nice chat anyway.

Small world… or is it? In this case, we wouldn’t have even seen each other except that my waitress was also American and so the “where you from” conversation uncovered the Vermont connection. But if this amazing coincidence happened, then how many times have I actually been just as close to someone I know without ever finding out?

There’s a fine line

between being a famous architect and being an eccentric crank. But apparently Friedensreich Hundertwasser stayed on the right side. His gift to Kawakawa, where he spent a lot of his adult life, was this fancy public restroom.

If a bunch of other architects looked at the plans before it was built, would that be a pee review?

I’m relieved to have this moving attraction wiped off my bucket list. The tiles sometimes reminded me of a fast-flowing stream. Some people might poo-poo the significance of this installation, but i wash my hands of such critics. If you plumb its full depth you’ll find Hundertwasser to be #1 or #2 in his field.

Hmmm, I suppose that last might be a little close to the line that separates respectful tourism from snark. You be the judge…

Flagstaff Hill

On our way out of Russell, we stopped off at Flagstaff Hill.

In 1840, the first Union Jack in New Zealand was flown from this very spot. But a Maori chief cut it down in protest. The Brits put up another, the Maori guy chopped it down. Three times, and then they started really fighting. The town was sacked.

Supposedly some of the original timber is still inside the heavy iron standard that now only flies the flag on ceremonial days.

We also got to see a whole family of weka, who were pretty cool. Although in point of fact the feral chickens we have complained about on Caribbean islands are more colorful and make more interesting noises. Go figure.

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