Auckland and I have never really seen eye to eye. That’s mainly because, while I am no oil painting, Auckland’s eye is pretty darned ugly. Even the most proud Aucklander would struggle to deny that the city centre is a hideous scar on what should be one of the most beautiful spots in the world. The city lies on an isthmus between the Pacific Ocean and Tasman Sea; it has two sprawling natural harbours, islands off the coastline and 40-odd volcanic cones dotted within its boundaries. Yet, in what seems like a calculated bid to stick two fingers up at Mother Nature, Downtown Auckland is a high-rise monstrosity from which any architect with the faintest hint of flair or soul has clearly been banished. A troll stands in the shoes of a princess.




In my former incarnation as a backpacker magazine editor in Sydney, I had to come to Auckland once a year for conferences and expos. I never really saw beyond the city centre. Since then, I have stopped for the odd night in between the Pacific Islands and Australia (the city is the major connecting hub). Again, I was more interested in getting the hell out the next day, so I always stayed in the city centre for the sake of convenience. Time for a fair crack of the whip I suppose; I’ll give it two days to win me round.


The key, somewhat unsurprisingly, is to get out of Downtown Auckland, to break beyond the utilitarian waterfront and out to the islands. Rangitoto is the newest, formed in a volcanic eruption around 600 years ago. The lava fields and Pohutukawa trees provide an intriguing contrast. Waiheke is the most fun – head there for beer and wine tasting in the sunshine. But Auckland’s biggest surprise and greatest treasure lies out to the west, beyond the identikit sprawl of low budget suburbia.


The Waitakere Ranges don’t feel like they’re part of Auckland at all. The villages there feel far too laid back, and are full of shambling beardy types. From the hilltops, it’s possible to see both harbours in the same field of vision, and the in-your-face, saturation-turned-to-eleven standard of the greenery is staggering.


Within the Ranges are some of the few remaining ancient kauri trees. Some of these giants have been standing for over 1,000 years; they were there before the first humans ever landed in New Zealand. Something of that stature deserves a degree of respect. But my epiphany – that Auckland really isn’t all that vile after all – arrives at Karekare Beach. It is reached via a steep, winding road that corkscrews down the mountainside with thick forest to either side. It manages to be simultaneously moody and dazzling at the same time; the black sand and headlands fight against the sun bouncing off the stream which flows into the sea.


It’s a little slice of magic, and proof that even your least favourite places deserve that chance of redemption.


More photos here






Bored of 360 degree spins, David Whitley leaps overboard for a mini-canyoning adventure between Taupo and Rotorua.




You don’t have to go far in New Zealand to find someone willing to take you for a spin in a jetboat. The bloody things are everywhere, but that’s hardly a surprise given that they’re a proud Kiwi invention.




They’re the baby of Bill Hamilton, who came up with the idea of powering a boat by sucking water from underneath and using jet propulsion to send it out of the back. It’s ideal for New Zealand’s fast-flowing, low depth rivers – traditional problems of striking rocks in shallow water become less of an issue.




The first time you go on one, it’s tremendous fun. It powers down the river at high speeds, the driver taking you as close to canyon walls and potentially perilous rock islands as he or she dares. The thrill is in not quite knowing how much you can trust the person behind the wheel. Just how many times have they done this? And, jeez, that was a bit close for comfort…




You’ll also get a few tricks thrown in, such as 360 degree spins. And more 360 degree spins. And more 360 degree spins.




It’s on your second jetboat trip that you realise that there’s pretty much only one trick that can be done with jetboats. And, once you’ve experienced it a couple of times, that quickly gets boring.




Thus it is that I find myself trying to stifle yawns on the Waikato River as the 6th sharp full turn is signalled. I feel like saying: “It’s OK. You’ve shown us this one already.” The wind in the hair rush is perfectly fine on its own; everyone seems to be enjoying that more than the supposed special treat.




But it’s not the high speed ride back through the Waikato’s forested gorges that New Zealand Riverjet’s jetboat trip is all about. The highlight actually comes when you leap over the side of the boat and leave it behind for an hour.




As New Zealand’s longest river flows out from Lake Taupo towards the sea, it is joined by hundreds of tributaries. Some of these pump cold water in – you’ll always find trout hanging around where these hit the big river – but others come from hot springs.



It’s by the confluence of one of these warm streams that we stop. The warm and cold currents are immediately obvious as we wade through, but the stream soon disappears into a rock wall. “That’s where we’re going,” says the driver, pointing at the rock.




On closer inspection, there is a narrow gap. A very narrow gap. There is, apparently, a reason they call it “The Squeeze”. Even breathing in, my chest is pressed against one side, and my back against the other. To push through would draw plenty of blood.



The call goes up to duck down lower – where there’s more room – and attack it head first. It’s a claustrophobic dive into something that looks rather painful, but it works. The even bigger bloke behind manages it as well.




We timidly step along the stream bed, feeling the way ahead in case any submerged rocks attempt to snag us, and stop just before another dark passage through the rock. “You’re going to love this,” says the driver. “This place is special”.




We walk through and encounter a waterfall. It has carved out two seats beneath where the water – at perfect morning shower temperature – is thundering down. And sitting down beneath it, inside a long narrow crag cut into the earth, is far more impressive than any number of jetboat spins.




Disclosure: David Whitley was a guest of Destination Great Lake Taupo. He stayed in Taupo as a guest of YHA Taupo.


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