One if by Land
Two by the Window for Dinner Overlooking the Sea
Greetings from Waikato
Several kilometers south of Auckland lays the great Lake Taupo, the largest inland body of water on the North Island. Running from thesouthern tip of Lake Taupo is the largest river in New Zealand, the Waikato River. The entire region around this river is the Waikato District which Yassi and I drove to last weekend.
The Waikato district is important in the history of New Zealand for it was there that the Maori (the indigenous peoples) went to war with thePakeha (the white guys from Europe). New Zealand being a very young country, this British incursion into someone else’s backyard did not occur until the mid 1800s, and resulted in most of the Maori being driven from the region. Today, Waikato is largely home to cattle and sheep. There are also some people clustered in one city and several towns.
Back in the days when the American colonists were still clearing forests to build their settlements, a great many British Noblemen distinguished themselves in service to the Crown. As a reward they were given large tracts of land over which they would exercise dominion. Our own Lord Jeffrey Amherst was one such gentleman; he got
a college and a hotel named after him. Lord Cornwallis was another; given a vast parcel in Virginia to call his own . . . but only till he got his ass whooped by G.W. the 1st.
Some years later during the Crimean War, the Commander of the British forces was a bloke named Baron Raglan who must have done something pretty keen because he got the coolest town in Waikato named after him.
The town of Raglan, or Raglan by the Sea,as some call it due to its location on the Tasman Sea, is where Yassi and I had dinner our first night in the Waikato District during the most ferocious seaside thunderstorm I’ve ever experienced. We watched it from our table by the window at the Mermaid Lodge, a charming little cabin we had rented for the night. The storm was truly awesome . . . not in the ‘Hey your jeans are awesome’ sense, but in the, ‘Holy shit, did you see that?’sense, as items large and small went flying past our window. We had travelled to Raglan to see the world-class surfers who gather there. Instead, we got airborne driftwood.
The sea, which is about 100 meters from the cabin, is one of the world’s most famous surfing spots . . . famous for its rare left-hand break which most surfers never get to experience except in videos. It is the home of the New Zealand National Surfing Championship which takes place every summer, and the occasional home of the World Surfing Championship.
The Mermaid is about a three and a half hour drive from our cottage in Coromandel, and a world apart from that locale. Coromandel, incidentally, is really starting to feel like home. It is, after all, the place where we keep our bank, our butcher, the hardware store, the grocery store, the bakery, our doctor, the pharmacy, our favorite
cafes, and a little gourmet food shop that sells chocolate covered apricots that are to die for.
Raglan, which is on the western side of the North Island, is a whole other place. It sits above the Tasman Sea which separates New Zealand from Australia. (The locals call it, The Ditch.) Coromandel is on the Coromandel Peninsula on the eastern side of the island where the Pacific Ocean laps up on New Zealand and separates it from California. (The locals call it The Pacific Ocean.)
Anyway, getting back to Raglan . . . the ride there was a stunning mélange of ever- winding country roads climbing to mountain passes and valleys full of sheep and cattle grazing upon the greenest grass I’ve ever seen. It is early spring here, (though the calendar says it’s still winter) and the pastures are filled with newly born lambs, one of which made for a most delicious candle-lit dinner at the Mermaid Lodge.
Getting to the Mermaid was truly surreal experience. The New Zealand landscape is so stunning that no matter where we go we tend to stop every few kilometers just to admire the view. But I think the best thing about the ride over from the east coast to Raglan was Yassi. She’s been reading a book on the flora and fauna of New Zealand and it is not unusual to hear her suddenly scream something like, “Oh look Sweetie, a Ring-neck Pheasant!” She’s also been talking my ear off about spiders, moths with no mouths, and the mating habits of Magpies.
Did you know that until the Maori people arrived here (before I was born) there were only two species of mammals in New Zealand and both of them were bats. It kind of makes sense if you think about it. After all, if you didn’t have wings or a canoe, how else would you get here? Of course the Maori didn’t come alone. They brought along some rats which they would fatten up and eat, and there may have been a few stowaway species which, along with the rats, escaped and started their own amusement parks. The rats, it is said, almost decimated the indigenous bird population of the North Island which apparently didn’t know what a predator was. The Maori, on the other hand, only made war on fish (until the Pakeha came), and we haven’t run out of fish yet.
The morning after our storm tossed night at Mermaid Lodge, Yassi and I braved the cold and damp to take in the local ocean-dwellers who could care less if it’s storming as long as their boards are waxed. The first beach we went to on Manu bay is famous because people have been known to ride ten minutes on a single set of waves. (That’s a lot.) There were no surfers out when we got there, but a couple of guys on sailboards (that’s a surfboard with a sail) were zipping through the waves at what must have been speeds in excess of 20 kilometers per
hour. One guy rode so far out to sea I began to worry for his safety. Then he came about and lickety-split he was back on shore. Incredible!
The next beach we stopped at was right in town, and it was there that we got the real treat of the day. Three guys were just setting up for some kite surfing as we arrived on the beach and we watched with curiosity while they rigged their equipment. At first we didn’t know what to make of their strange looking harnesses, the pieces of
colorful fabric set out on the beach, and what looked like skateboards with a rear fin instead of wheels. And then they took off.
I’ve never seen anything like it. It was like slalom water skiing without a boat, each of them being propelled by his own sail at amazing speeds. They were moving as fast as ski boats and then one of them really put on a show for us. Crazy Dave, as we later learned, is considered to be one of the top five kite surfers in the world and I can understand why. Coming straight for the shore where we were standing, he suddenly lifted off the water soaring perhaps a hundred feet in the air doing a series of turns and flips before landing on the water and speeding away without so much as a hiccup. Now that is the essence of COOL!
After Raglan, we pushed on to Hamilton with a brief stop at Bridal Vail Falls. There are so many incredible sights just within a few hours drive of our cottage I don’t imagine we will ever do better than scratch the surface of this stunning country.
By the time we reached Hamilton we had put nearly a thousand kilometers on our rented Holden Astra. That includes a number of day trips we have taken over the past two weeks.
Without question, the highlight of our stopover in Hamilton was the Waikato Museum. We saw a number of interesting exhibits there, including, The History of Crop Dusting, The History of the Electric Fence, and The History of Milking Machines. However, there can be no doubt that the exhibit that will forever stay with me from that
excursion was the sight of Te Winika, a 19th Century war canoe with a great story.
As mentioned earlier . . . in the mid 1800s the Maori waged war against the British invaders. During that conflict, Te Winika, a seventy-five foot war canoe played a significant role. Dominating the British in the Waikato river battles that took place during that nearly year-long campaign, the glory and legend of Te Winika grew to
almost mythical proportions. Though the British eventually prevailed in the land war, driving the Maori southward over land to the Bay of Plenty, Te Winika was left behind, laying in wait to fight another day.
As the story goes . . . before they fled the Waikato, the Maori buried the great canoe in a secret location along the river. Covered by mud for nearly seventy years, there it remained awaiting the day it would again proclaim the glory of its people.
For many years, archaeologists and historians searched for the great canoe unsuccessfully. Some thought it was, indeed, a myth; thus the legend of Te Winika flourished over time.
Then, one day, a persistent archaeologist who had spent much of his life searching for the illusive Te Wanaka, was engaged in conversation with a Hamilton resident of Maori descent when he broached the subject of the great boat’ssecret burial ground.
“Why, that’s no secret, mate,”the Maori man was reported to have said. “Everybody knows where Te Winika is buried.”
As it turns out, everybody did know where Te Winika was buried . . . that is, everybody except the Pakeha.
In short order, Te Winika was resurrected from its muddy hiding place, cleaned and refurbished, and for many years was the star attraction at the annual Waikato River Races where it again proclaimed its majesty
when manned by decedents of its original Maori crew.
And so it remained for Te Winika until just a few years ago when the Queen of the North Island Maori tribes, recognizing that the great boat was nearing the end of its practical life, presented it as a gift to the people of Hamilton in a gesture of peace and reconciliation.
Today, Te Winika stands proudly, fully restored by the great grandsons of the men who built it, on permanent exhibit at the Waikato Museum.
Following our visit to the museum, Yassi and I jumped into the Holden and set out on the long drive to Auckland. We had some business there the following morning and the storms off the Tasman Sea were again bearing down on us. The weatherman on Solid Gold FM was telling us that this storm would probably make the history books. That’s when the car broke down.
It was cold and wet as the pugilistic New Zealand winter showed that it still had enough fight for one more round.
“Can you tell me where you are?” asked the nice lady from Budget Rent-a-Car.
“Somewhere north of Hamilton,” I told her as the static on our cell phone mixed with the din of a squall.
“Can you be any more precise?” she said patiently.
“Yeah, we’re on Highway 1.”
“Do you remember the names of any of the towns you passed through?” she reasonable inquired.
“Do you remember any of the towns we passed through?” I asked Yassi who seemed to be taking our predicament quite well.
“Not really,” I told the Budget lady in response to Yassi’s shrug.
“Well, can you describe your surroundings?” she asked, beginning to
sound a little desperate.
“Sure, I said confidently. “The river is about twenty meters to the left, and there are railroad tracks about fifty meters to the right. Beyond that, there’s just some trees, quite a few cars, and a lot of water,” I added.
“Any signs,” she pressed onward, undaunted by my lack of help.
“Two,” I told her. “One says Slippery when wet. The other says
Native sheepskin and fur next left.”
Anyhow, to make a long story just a little bit longer, the nice Budget lady showed up a couple of hours later, after locating every shop in the area that sold sheepskin clothing and accessories, and after exchanging cars for
another Holden we were back on the road.
Despite the weather, we made it to Auckland without further incident,
soaked in a spa tub for about an hour, and went to sleep in our motel
room overlooking the pool.
Learn more in Part III