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Kauri are native New Zealand trees that are the giants of our forests. They can grow to 50 metres tall, with a girth of 16 metres. In Northland there is a kauri known as Tane Mahuta, or God of the Forest, which we visited the visited the region. Its age is unknown, but it is estimated to be 1250-2500 years old. Due to a disease known as Kauri Dieback, Tane Mahuta and others in the forests are threatened with extinction, and many areas are closed to visitors, as the spores spread on shoes.

They were already too rare. Prized for their timber, by 1900 less than 10% of original kauri remained.

Knowing this, I didn’t expect to see kauri on our trip north this month. But at the sculpture trail, as I mentioned on Monday, there was a young kauri forest. I delighted in being able to walk among these trees (albeit on a raised footpath, with quarantine measures – shoe scrubs etc at the entrance and exit), and hope that they survive so that other New Zealanders can view the exact same trees I saw, hundreds – maybe thousands – of years into the future.

Another in the Thursday Tree Love series – find all the other bloggers doing it here.

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A road trip is, for a photographer, a series of missed opportunities. More so, when it is raining, which was the case as we headed north a few weeks ago. The rain and the mist created an ethereal atmosphere, the trees and the hills fading into layers of grey. I love that look – I always have. I was dying to catch it with my camera, but it was teeming, and so I wasn’t getting out of the car as my camera isn’t weather-proofed. Nor, to that matter, was I. So we drove up the coast and then headed into the hills in the centre of the island, just enjoying the scenery, taking artistic shots in my head. At least that way I couldn’t blame my camera or my poor photography skills for not being able to capture the beauty of what we were passing.

We stopped overnight in Taupo, which is only ever an overnight stop for us, and for so many domestic and international tourists. We secured our lake-front motel unit just as it started to rain again, meaning that the walk I wanted to take after five hours in the car didn’t eventuate. We sat inside and watched the black swans and ducks glide around on the calm water aas the rain fell steadily. One day, we’ll stay for longer, go for some walks in the nearby bush, check out the geothermal sights of mudpools and geysers (as it has been 30+ years since we have done that), and maybe finally get that walk around the lake.

After a few more hours drive the next morning, we arrived in Auckland. It’s been a long time since I have driven into the city there – usually we arrive by plane for business or a quick weekend away – and so the experience of the dense but fast traffic on the motorway unnerved me! I felt like the country bumpkin come to town, despite the fact that we’ve driven in and around much larger cities overseas. But since my rainy-day-but-very-gentle accident last year on our local motorway, I’ve been a much more nervous passenger – to my husband’s frustration. We both arrived at our central city hotel with some relief!

We were in Auckland both because it was a) on the way, and b) to indulge two passions, namely the Husband’s love of casinos (I am so grateful we don’t have one in Wellington!), and good food. So my husband headed off to the casino for an hour or so in the afternoons and later at night, when I had the chance to curl up for a nap, or read my book. During the day we walked through gardens, went to the museum, indulged in some food nostalgia with Thai food at lunch (lunchtime Thai food is very different – or should be – from dinner-style Thai food), and decided not to do any shopping!

After a very good meal and pampering experience at Sidart, NZ’s Restaurant of the Year last year, we drove further north. Apart from my sister’s wedding 11 years ago, I’ve only been north of Auckland once before. (I’ve been to Paris more often, which is shocking to me as I write this!) When we there for the wedding, I saw an area with vineyards and native bush and boats and coves and artists and potters, and vowed to return to spend more time there sometime in the future. We had planned to make the trip this time last year, but father-in-law care issues put paid to that, as did COVID in March. So it was good to finally get there, and prepare to relax and explore.

And that’s exactly what we did, as I anticipated here. We relaxed, and pottered around the region. It’s only an hour or so from Auckland, linked by one of NZ’s few toll roads (the fee is a whopping $2.40!), and I’ve heard of so many of the beach communities, which are the weekend playground of Aucklanders. But during the week in the middle of the school term and university exams it was perfectly empty, with just a few travellers doing what we have been told to do – go out and see New Zealand, and try something new. It is spring, and so the weather was warm, and typically we could have fine weather then torrential rain followed by sunshine again within a few hours. That at least meant that we could take things easy with a long lunch or coffee or nap on the couch as the rain came down, before heading out again.

One of the favourite things we did was visit a winery with a celebrated sculpture trail. “It’ll take you about an hour,” they said at the ticket desk, but that didn’t make allowances for a camera happy couple who enjoyed the art and the natural surroundings and wandered slowly. The art was interesting; amusing sometimes, weird others, breathtaking, and puzzling, and exactly what art should be. The natural backdrops were perfect, and the pathway led us through the native bush. This sculpture in the midst of the bush refers to the ghosts of kauri trees, so many of which were felled for their timber before restrictions were put in place. The sadness at the thought of the lost kauri (and those which are currently under threat by a spreading fungus) led to joy as the path wound up into a young(ish) kauri* forest. As we walked to the top of the path, we walked through gates with bells, reminiscent of the torii gates in Japanese temples, yet in a uniquely NZ environment.

The trail begins and ends at the Brick Bay winery restaurant, the Glasshouse. so of course we stayed for lunch, blissfully happy at the warm day, the sights we had seen, the water lilies and the pond and sculpture in front of us, and the particularly nice pinot gris I enjoyed. In fact, the food was just as good as everything else, and we booked to return a day later, when we knew the weather was not likely to be conducive to anything except a long lunch and wine-tasting!

We visited many of the seaside settlements, some more appealing than others. One was clearly the base for the rich and famous from Auckland, although I don’t really understand why you would want to recreate an upper class suburbia at the beach. But elsewhere there were endless inlets and coves, and uncluttered hills with winding roads and fabulous views, which is where I would built my holiday home if I had the money.

The famed local market was a little (or a lot) disappointing, perhaps partly because a) I found some gorgeous hand-made jewellery and didn’t buy any, and b) it was so much smaller than I had expected. I’d anticipated hours of happy wandering and tasting amongst artisans and fresh produce and food, and it didn’t deliver. Still, it was fun it itself, and the crepes we had for breakfast there were delicious! And a visit later to a local handmade pottery place saw the acquisition of a lovely large platter that – surprise of surprises – we both really liked.

The only other disappointment was discovering “Charlie’s Gelato” (albeit without the required apostrophe in their roadsign, which almost stopped me trying it but not quite!) on our last day there. It was only a few minutes from where we were staying, and was so good!  The summery temperatures were perfect for gelato, and it would have been hard to resist if we’d gone earlier in our stay. (As you might know if you followed my Lemons to Limoncello three months in Italy, I adore gelato, and ice-cream generally). Maybe that’s a good thing!

An outing at a regional park brought us unexpected delights too. We’d hoped to walk some of the seafront trails, but again the rain arrived, so we only had fleeting stops at coves in between the rain showers. But the sheer number of pukeko, a native swamp hen, roaming free was surprising, and so many of them had young chicks, all fluffy and black and awkward and cute. We couldn’t stop smiling at them.

We called in at my sister’s place in Tauranga over the weekend to see them, catch up with almost-teenage Charlie (!) and watch her volleyball game, see their new kitchen (which still needed a few finishing touches, including plumbing!), have a good catch-up, enjoy the beauty of their region, and of course to pick up some avocados from their orchard.

There was one more stop before we arrived home, but it was very special, and so I’ll write about that another time. The important thing is that we got home in time for my husband to go to golf, and for me to open a bottle of chardonnay in blissful solitude.

* I’ll write more about kauri on a Thursday Tree blogging day – they deserve more than a passing reference.

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Sightseeing. Checking in and out of hotels, passing strangers from who-knows-where in hotel lobbies. Eating out almost all meals. Museums. Browsing in shops and markets and art galleries. Ice-creams in the afternoon. Wineries. They all help create a good holiday. And in New Zealand, even in 2020, they still can. For now, at least.

Sure, there were a few differences. We did know that those in our hotel lobbies were from New Zealand – they were New Zealand residents or citizens, or those who had been working here since pre-COVID. Apart from a few with exemptions (for family or work reasons), we knew without doubt that everyone we saw was and is living in New Zealand. There were no international tourists. That was weird! But in the time of COVID, it also meant that we didn’t have to worry that the person next to me had brought in COVID from Europe or India or the US. We also didn’t have to worry that drivers were going to cross into our lanes because they forgot to drive on the correct, left-hand side of the road! The roads in fact were empty of rental cars and camper vans, though there were a few, with availability (and no doubt, lower prices) encouraging some Kiwis to try out the camper van experience which is so common for international travellers.

New Zealanders’ personal space is already quite vast, so the fact that we were all maintaining at least a metre or two social distance whilst queuing at hotel reception or for coffee at the market might have been due to COVID, or might just have been part of our culture. I’m not quite sure!

Every business we entered – and even a few public toilets – had posted government app QR codes, so we could scan in to register that we had been there and at what time. I scanned into every business religiously. My husband less so, because he lazily decided that my scan-ins count for him too. Every café/restaurant and bathroom and hotel had hand sanitiser in public areas. We became accustomed to using it whenever arriving or leaving.

Unfortunately, I didn’t see many others using the app to scan, and only a few using the sanitiser. It was not uncommon for me to stand outside a shop or café getting my phone out of my bag ready to scan, and be passed by three or four people entering the premise without scanning. The government has been trying to get people to do this as a matter of course. There has been a real complacency, but I hope that a couple of community cases (which are being actively traced and, we hope, contained) which have emerged in the last week (originating from the border, it is currently thought) might alert people* to do this with more regularity.

But above all, we were conscious that this is unusual in these times. In two weeks, we didn’t wear a mask, and maybe saw a total of three people in masks in Auckland** (where there had been a second lockdown in August), on public transport. And yet the news from overseas (apart from our neighbours in Australia, who have been through the mill themselves in recent months) is progressively worse, with no signs of improvement. I know how lucky we were. So when I write happily about my trip, please know that I am not taking it for granted.

* I spent the morning out and about in Wellington, and noticed a few more people scanning, which was encouraging.

** The government has just announced (as I was editing this post) that mask wearing on public transport in Auckland is now mandatory.

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