Out and about in Auckland

The combination of ridiculously cheap airfares to New Zealand and a gig by bucket list rockers Sisters of Mercy, then not having announced sideshows to their Soundwave appearance, resulted in a three-night stay in Auckland last month.

Waitomo caves

The weather was forecast to be rainy for the duration, so our first outing was to Waitomo to take in some of the caves there — at least we’d have a roof over our heads.

The caves were a picturesque 90 minutes’ drive or so to the south, the road narrowing from two lanes to one and twisting in part alongside a river. Cicadas interrupted the drive with bursts of chittering as we passed clumps of vegetation. There were, surprisingly, more dairy cattle than sheep. A brunch stop was more than pleasant and the coffee of uniformly good quality across our stay. Big tick, NZ!

waitomo glow worm cave stalactites

Waitomo stalactites

Waitomo Glowworm Cave was the first stop. The building is an impressive piece of timber architecture set in hilly farmland with walking tracks all around. One led through a swatch of rainforest, a very pleasant stretch of the legs before going underground.

The caves have been well set up with smooth floors and atmospheric lighting. The highlight is at the river level, where we bundled onto a tinnie and floated out, our guide using overhead ropes to control our direction, into darkness. As our eyes adjusted, more and more glow worms appeared overhead, their starry glimmer reflecting in the still water.

The next cave, a short drive away, was Aranui. The entrance was in a forested hillside, and it was a lot drier than the glowworm cave, but possibly featured more spectacular formations, with many melted-wax style formations and plentiful variations of stalactites and stalagmites, and a monstrous cathedral.

More cave pictures

Then it was back into Waitomo to catch a bus to Ruakuri cave. The entrance was an SF spectacle, a spiralling ramp some 40m deep with a stone formation under dripping water at its base. The ritual for entering and leaving was to at least wet one’s hands, purifying on entering, washing away any spirits on exiting. Part of the cave is sacred to the local Maori and off-limits — hence this spectacular piece of engineering.

Down in the dripping cave, the sound of rushing water never far away due to the underground river that carved out this complex, the lighting is set on timers to follow the visitors so as to minimise impact in this dark environment. Duckboards keep our feet out of the puddles and there are some spectacular formations and rock falls. At one point, it’s lights out, hands on shoulders single-file into the dark, to take in the beauty of glow worms close up. Seeing the incredible sticky tendrils the worms use to trap their prey was most impressive.

auckland from rangitoto island

Rainy Auckland skyline dominated by SkyCity needle behind island, seen from Rangitoto Island

Rangitoto Island

On our second full day in Auckland, under threat of clouds, we embarked on a catamaran for a 45-minute voyage to Rangitoto Island. The island is a dormant volcanic cone, an intriguing environment of tossed black stone and rainforest vegatation. At the dock, the narrow, rather rough beach is dotted with holiday cabins called bachs — some have been removed, their location marked with plaques.

We tromped up the uneven black soil and stone path that winds up the slope to the crater rim, completely forested over. There’s a duckboarded platform at the crest where a former military observation post and wireless room still stand watch over the waterways, Auckland’s skyline hazy on the horizon. Also of interest are some lava tubes, small and cramped, and a duckboard area in the mangroves.

More Rangitoto Island pictures

The strata of vegetation, from the sparse seaside flats to the forested slopes, make a fascinating ecology seemingly ruled by birdlife.

The island has been linked to another by a bridge, but we didn’t have time to check that out. One day is simply not enough to appreciate the Rangitoto landscape.

rangitoto island walking path

Rangitoto Island

Kelly Tarlton’s Antarctic Adventure

This Auckland landmark was a good place to kill a few hours between hotel checkout and airline check-in, but it’s showing its age. I got totally saturated in the rainy sprint from the car to the entrance, but the line-up — there’s a single ticket booth handling both prepaid and on-the-day tickets — took so long to run in that I had stopped dripping once we got inside.

There, observation windows in the entrance hall reveal two species of penguins; there’s a mock-up of Scott’s Antarctic hut with heaps of period artefacts and documentation about the explorer; and there’s an extensive children’s educational play area.

Penguins are otherwise viewed from a ‘snow mobile’ people mover that jolts around the enclosure at a fast walking pace while recorded information plays through the speakers. We’d aimed to be there for penguin feeding but been foiled by the long line-up, but we went on the snow mobile several times to get our fill, and were rewarded with three penguin chicks looking cute and fluffy at their parents’ feet.

Elsewhere, a limited cafeteria with even more limited space serves the worst coffee we had, but hey, when you’re drenched, you’ll take it.

There’s a pool in which some massive rays are fed — very cool — and a walk-through glass exhibit showing off numerous fish types. Another walk-through reveals several species of shark — you can scuba with them, or simply stand in a cage with a snorkel. Another series of aquariums houses numerous types of sea life, including star fish, an octopus and moray eels, and many more fish. A special section houses a series of seahorse tanks.

There’s a bit of a mixed message in the shark area — info boards exhort an end to fin farming (and rightly so) and educate about how sharks aren’t the fearsome critters we’ve been led to believe, and yet, it’s the danger of diving with the sharks that’s emphasised in the brochures, and the Jaws soundtrack plays in the area.

Still, getting up close with marine life is a delight and the complex is a remarkable example of retooling — the original structure was a sewage works — made somewhat poignant by the life story of Tarlton himself, who comes across as a bit of a Harry Butler or Steve Irwin of the seafaring world. Sadly, he died only months after the complex opened.

Dining

It’s worth noting that Auckland has superb food. We splurged on the revolving restaurant, Orbit at SkyCity, and found that it wasn’t that big a splurge at all. It was very neat knocking back the three-course special while watching the city lights slide past. The value was enhanced by having the observation deck included in the price, normally $28 a head.

We also ate at Princes Wharf, a yuppie area being gentrified by the look, with an array of cafes and restaurants offering a range of menu prices roughly indicated by not only the dress code of the patrons but the quality of the table cloths. The highlight was a superb seafood basket at Y-Not, and a full-bodied pinot noir to wash it down.


All in all, a most enjoyable sojourn, so close to home but yet so delightfully different.

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things to do in Melbourne #4 — dinner and a show, with added penguins!

No smoking sign

Melbourne’s a great town for dining out — it prides itself on its culinary culture, in fact. Which makes the reason for it to cling to the foul tradition of smoking in al fresco dining areas rather puzzling. Just recently the Monash City Council caved to business pressure and gave up a proposed ban; the businesses were more concerned about losing their smoker market — who would continue to eat out anyway — than attracting the much bigger non-smoker market. A curious piece of business intelligence, but there you go. Old habits — and old smokers, for that matter — die hard. And it looks as if the council will continue to chip away, so good on ’em. But that’s not the point of this here rumination

Rather, it’s to direct your attention to the rather groovy Butterfly Club in South Melbourne. We went there a couple of Sundays ago, not so much for the show, but the decor. How very hipster of us! But seriously, it’s such a lovely venue, long and narrow in an old shop/residence, with a bar downstairs and another up, both with lounging rooms attached, and the most wonderfully squeaky wooden stairs to the loo with a view of who’s waiting in line, and in the front room, the performance space with its fold-down theatre chairs and the most rudimentary of lighting. It’s like having a cabaret in your own lounge room. And everywhere, there is kitsch: old books and here a Robocop action figure and there some island masks, vintage lamps and bits of boats … wonderful stuff.

We chanced upon Christine Moffat, performing Really Nice Day, with able support from a male pianist who had his role to play, and even the audience was dragged into the conceit. It was a lovely kidnap tale with a healthy dose of psycho, interspersed with musical numbers that helped move the narrative along. I’ll never listen to ‘Dream a Little Dream of Me’ in quite the same way again!

Anyhoo, after the show we had dinner around the corner at the Groove Train (with Butterfly Club discount, no less), which probably isn’t up there on the city’s fine dining guide but ain’t to be sneezed at (billowing clouds of nicotine notwithstanding) for a filling well-priced meal, and then — penguins!

One benefit of daylight saving is you can have your 6pm show and a meal and still get to St Kilda by twilight. Twas a chill little breeze plucking at our coats and the sea was a metallic cobalt colour when we got there, kind of grateful we hadn’t tried to squeeze into the crowded beachside eateries — especially the one with Eddie Maguire bellowing at people to come eat their entrees over the PA. Yikes!

No, much better the slow walk along the jetty and out to the rock wall, where some intrepid little penguins (formerly known as fairy penguins) had braved the city side of the protective mesh fence. There’s a rookery out there, amazing given the proximity to smelly old humanity with its dogs and lower order specimens who have, in the past, delighted in destroying little penguins (hence the fence).

How amazing is it to be able to wander a manmade structure in a busy bay, and be able to spy wobbling penguins climbing the rocky ramparts, extending their fragile little community into foreign territory? And even more amazing is it to be able to snaffle a soft-serve ice cream — with nuts — on the walk back?

Phillip Island, penguins and cool beach retreats

phillip island beach

A weekend sojourn to Phillip Island shows why the outcrop off the coast of Victoria is such as a popular destination for Melbournites looking to escape the big smoke.

We hadn’t even reached the island, a mere 90-minute drive down the M1, before we were lured off a side-road at The Gurdies to sample local wine and cheese at Ramsay’s Vin Rose cellar door — quite presentable cab sav and pinot noir accompanied by mild brie and blue, amongst others.

As if that wasn’t enough temptation, the Phillip Island Chocolate Factory lurks on the main road, just after you’ve crossed the bridge from the mainland, and it’s wares are very tasty indeed.

We spent the night at the Banfields motel, a very tidy, very friendly and very quiet conference centre boasting the only cinema on the island, though alas we’d missed the Sunday matinee. Not that we had time. We were on a penguin mission! A stop to see Captain Grossard’s lonely cliffside grave — and feel the icy wind blowing in from the sea — was enlivened by the presence of two quite unconcerned cape barren geese as we made our way to the parks complex at the Nobbies.

We arrived in plenty of time for our dusk penguin parade viewing. No pictures are allowed at the wildlife centre, a welcoming commerical building with oodles of duckboards to ferry the crowds to their stations. We forked out for Penguin Plus tickets, giving us a secluded, small stadium by the beach where the penguins have worn a wide track as they make their way from the sea to their burrows littering the foreshore and surrounding cliffs. There are some 60,000 of the little birds in the rookery — the last on the island. (The little penguins were once known as fairy penguins, but political correctness has apparently kicked in.)

The penguins were awesome, coming up in waves. It was like something from the D-Day landings, with little penguins advancing in platoons, flankers and point men out, a little hesitant about entering our softly lit viewing area, then charging: some hobbling, some weaving, some tripping, others darting forward at a furious clip. Some went under our platform, others paused at the very edge, only metres away, to give us the beady eye. We had about an hour of viewing before having to make our leisurely stroll back along the boardwalk to the complex.

Pino’s Trattoria, still open post-penguins on a Sunday night, provided the perfect remedy for the night chill, though the beachside viewing platform hadn’t been as windy nor as cold as we’d expected.

On Monday, the breeze was still up, but we found it fell away to nothing on the lee side, offering very pleasant conditions for beachcombing — not a bad way to spend the day after our seal tour was cancelled only two hours from departure. We had time to only see a few of the parks and beaches, but it was enough to know we want to return and spend more time taking in the natural sights. Red rocks, black basalt formations, wild flowers, and some truly amazing waves got the cameras clicking.

We topped up with a massive coffee at the Lil’ Honey Cafe at San Remo before cruising back to Melbourne.

This was my first real sample of regional Victoria since moving to Melbourne, so it bodes well for further exploration. I can certainly see myself hitting the island again — but not at Grand Prix time!

More Phillip Island pictures are on Flickr.