Thursday 28 February 2019

Canal Hunter series two is back

Canal Hunter Series Two
February 2019

Well, we are back from our month of travels on the far side of the world and in some ways it's a return to business as usual.

Titford Reservoir taken from the Causeway Green Branch

I hope you enjoyed the photos from our month long camper van trip which circled South Island and traversed North Island of New Zealand. In some ways camper vanning was similar to boating but with less comfortable beds! It was am amazing experience but fear not, we are not about to ditch our boats of favour if a van.

Way back in late December 2018 I started work on a second series of Canal Hunter videos for my You Tube channel and picked up the hunt by following the line of the Birmingham Canal as it was extended from Smethwick to the wider world at Wolverhampton.

The fist episode looks at looks lost bits of canal in the Titford area, but one word of warning. The wrap up section was shot in a particularly bleak and windswept spot under Portway Hill resulting in a lot of wind noise. It does emphasise the exposed nature of the place but please stick with that bit!

I have had lots of positive comment from the first series, along with some production tips which I have tried to factor in. Lots of people want longer to look at the maps, so I have tended to stretch them to 10 seconds but, if thats just not long enough, pause the video as you watch and get yourself orientated. Better still, find the side by side map service at the National Library of Scotland and go to the Titford area and follow my explorations in a separate window, zooming and pausing to your hearts content!

It has also been lovely seeing so many posts on social media sites of viewers who have indeed "got out there" and had a look for themselves - even exploring the tunnel under Chance's glass works.

This series will use the old line of the Birmingham Canal as a hanger to explore the lost sections attached to it in six episodes, which I will get completed before we start our 2019 cruising season. Oh, and then there is the small task of making the ever popular Wild Garlic Chutney - I had better get cracking......

Feel free to share this series around to any canal enthusiasts you know - there is such a wealth of history attached to the Birmingham Canal Navigationsand it deserves more a bit more recognition.

Happy Hunting (and watching).

Sunday 24 February 2019

Sand and sleepers

Feb 2019

We are fast approaching the end of our stay in New Zealand, and are spending the last few days closing in on Auckland via the Coromandel Peninsular.

Rings Beach
The last hop was less than 80km, moving from Hot Water Beach to Coromandel Town via the scenic coastal route. Its a lazy Sunday and whilst the area is usually busy with Aucklanders escaping for the weekend, the poor weather seems to have put them off.

With time on our side we decided to stop at any beaches which took our fancy, starting with Simpons Beach. As it was nearly high tide the sandy strip was quite narrow but with few parking spaces and few holiday makers in the beachfront houses we pretty much had the place to ourselves. 

Then it was on to the north facing Rings Beach with its rocky headland almost cut off by the surging waves. This beach offered great views over Mercury Bay and the northern end of the Coromandel Peninsular.

Our day ended in Coromandel Town, once a frontier gold town when the metal was discovered here in 1850. The gold rush was short lived the miners soon moved on to richer pickings elsewhere. Whilst the town retains a bit of a frontier feel, it is all rather well heeled  now and is a New Zealand equivalent of Blakeney or Holt in North Norfolk.

Tunnel No3 on the DCR - all teracotta made on site

But Coromandel holds a secret which we added to our schedule almost as an afterthought. Tucked away just to the north of the town is the Driving Creek Railway and I can think of several readers who would love it (David, John and Michael I am thinking of you!). It was the brainchild and passion of the late Barry Brickell, a potter and train enthusiast. A lot of people dream of a train set in their garden but how many buy 85 acres of steeply sloping hillside and then spend 33 years laying 3km of 15" track up 100m using trestle bridges, spirals, tunnels and five reversing points, some built out on trestles.

 Insane reversing points and a double decker trestle bridge

And not only did he lay the track, he also built all five engines which use hydraulic drive to all wheels to propel them to the "Eyefull Tower" at the top, without resorting to rack and pinion.

And a map for the real enthusiasts!

At first sight the $35 ticket price seems high for 3 km of track,  but what a ride up the old gold prospectors stream, and what a view over the bay towards Auckland. If you ever make it to Coromandel do seek out the Driving Creek Railway, its a gem. 

Saturday 23 February 2019

In hot water

In hot water
Feb 2019

You can't really come to New Zealand without encountering thermal activity, and in the north it's almost impossible to miss it.

Crowds gather on Hot Water Beach

We spent yesterday dodging showers in Rotorua and today as we passed through the town on our way north we were able to visit Kuirau Park, a large public park dotted with bubbling pools and steaming vents. As we wandered around we came across a pop up street food market, and then a public foot spa which we just had to sample.

Kuirau Park

The water is drawn from a nearby hot pool and is regulated to hot bath temperature. We were told it offers miracle cures, which put me in mind of the Pool of Bethesda in the Bible, but sadly our various ailments remain. Maybe we needed full immersion rather than a paddle, but that panders to my Baptist roots.

Kuirau Park in Rotorua

Our day's travels took us through Tauranga where, by some strange coincidence, we found ourselves stopping for coffee at exactly the same garden centre we stopped at two days previously! From Tauranga we rejoined State Highway 2 which has rapidly become my least favourite road on the island. Traffic is incessant and to be honest the camper van can't quite keep up with the flow, so we had to pull in frequently which was all a bit nerve wracking.

At Waihi we finally turned off onto SH25, a very winding but much less travelled road which runs up the east coast of the Coromandel Peninsular, zipping back and forth through modest hills and sleepy inlets. Don't expect to get anywhere fast  in this area but it's a dream to drive and probably even better on a motorcycle.

Dig your own thermal spa on Hot Water Beach

Our destination was Hot Water Beach and its Top 10 campsite. The beach gets its name from hot water springs which emerge from fissures in the rock and exit through the sands of the beach.  These are accessible for two hours either side of low water. With the help of a spade rented from the campsite we quickly dug a hole just above the waves and it immediately filled with hot water. The sand is uncomfortably hot if you let your feet sink in too far, but providing you keep on the surface, you can dig a shallow puddle of steaming water in which you can wallow.

A 'don't drop it' selfie

We were next to the waves so from one angle you would think we sat luxuriating in our pool in glorious isolation. Sadly, such is its fame, the beach was closer to the Somme with hundreds of visitors battling it out to build and occupy their own personal pool!

To be fair, the crowds did little to undermine what was a very pleasant, if somewhat surreal, experience, and one not to be missed.

Friday 22 February 2019

All steamed up

Feb 2019

After weeks of high temperatures and low rainfall things had to change - and change they have. Gone are the endless blue skies and in their place it's like the Lake District in the rain (but warmer), caused by a cyclone passing to the north of the island.

We therefore encountered a wet Rotorua, but were still rather amazed to drive into town and see great steaming holes in the public park and whiffs of volcanic gas everywhere. We took a chance on the weather and decided to visit Whakarewarewa, or Whaka for short. More specifically we visited Whakarewarewa Thermal Village which provides a bit of an insight into a Maori Village lived among an area of intense geothermal activity.

The village is self managed and has recently acquired the land rights to the Te Puia site next door, which represents the alternative place to see the thermal springs.

The area is criss crossed with fault lines and these result in steaming lakes and vent pipes emerging from the ground. It all feels very fragile.

We started with a 30 minute cultural display of Maori song and dance followed by an hour long guided tour of the village, which is worth the ticket price of £20. 

The thermal cooking pool was really interesting as was the communal bathing area where cooled water is fed onto big tanks. The much improved site has presumably been funded by the tourist ticket sales. That said, the tourists all leave by 4.00pm and the site returns to local use only.

These pools are everywhere

Perhaps the most spectacular feature of the site are the geysers. There used to be a whole lot of them, but abstraction of heated water in the area has reduced the pressure and today three operate with one vey intermittent. The main one, Pohutu, erupts 20 to 30 times a day so with a bit of patience you can get to see it in full flow.

White water in grey steam against grey clouds - not the best way to see it!

Fortunately for us the rain held off for the two hours we were there, but closed in again as we left for our camp site near Blue Lake.

A good day in spite of the rain.

Thursday 21 February 2019

Oh to be a Hobbit

Feb 2019

I guess that we are a bit vertically challenged to be considered Hobbits, but for one evening we could pretend we were far less than our 6ft height and enter the world of Bilbo and Frodo during our visit to the Hobbiton movie set.

The Hobbiton site was ideally suited to the task, with its rolling hillocks and sheltered lake representing 1% of a working sheep and cattle farm.

What I hadn't realised was the fact that there have been two Hobbitons on the site. The first was a temporary affair used for the filming of the original Lord of the Rings trilogy. This was all polystyrene and paint with the Green Dragon being burned down as part of the film, returning the site to farm pasture with just a handful of plywood facades remaining. But a steady stream of enthusiasts kept visiting the farm and it became apparent that there was an ongoing demand. So, when the Hobbit trilogy was planned Hobbiton was rebuilt as an enduring site, in spite of only being used for filming for 12 days.

 Bag End and the Green Dragon

The place must take a lot of upkeep but it is very cute, with over 40 Hobbit burrows dug into the rolling grasslands. some are just under full adult size (90%) and others just 60% size to facilitate forced perspective shots, plus the water mill, bridge and of course the Green Dragon Pub on the lakeside.

The obligatory selfie by the mill

We opted for the evening feast tour which meant that just one bus load of guests (about 50) had  exclusive access to the set and could dawdle our way around and take as many photos as we wanted. The guided tour ended at the Green Dragon which was been carefully extended to accommodate parties for evening feasts. The meal was a whole lot of fun and as you would expect of Hobbits, the food was plentiful and of high quality. I particularly liked the leg of lamb, but serving exclusively with wooden Hobbit spoons was a bit of a challenge.

Commitment or madness?

Of course, there were varying degrees of commitment to the cause among the clientele. Most people just turned up, but there were some who came fully decked out in costume which they wore the whole time, as if trying to suck every last morsel out of the experience. A German Gandalf was particularly impressive wearing his thick cape, hat and beard in spite of the high temperatures. Each to his own!

All in all it was a fun way to get a taste of how the set was made and used. These days its ownership is a bit complex. The land remains in the ownership of the farm, but the set belongs to the film company. Rights are shared as are profits so I guess everyone wins and, judging by the number of shuttle busses in the car park and the development work at the reception, its popularity continues to grow making this a major attraction in the area. I doubt that the farming family ever saw this in their life plan......

Dorothy, thanks for the Christmas present.

Wednesday 20 February 2019

White Island volcano

White Island Volcano
Feb 2019

Following Monday's earth tremor we pushed the boat out today and took a 30 mile sea crossing to White Island, New Zealand's most active marine volcano.

 Ohope Beach at sunset

I have a passion for geology and plate tectonics so visiting an active offshore active volcano is something of a treat. The island is the caldera of an old volcano which blew up thousands of years ago but has been spluttering away ever since, and having its last real eruption in 1976.

Sulphuric White Island

These days it is pretty calm but still suer heater sulphur spews out of steaming fumeroles and fills a central lake which gently simmers away at 50c. But don't bathe in it because it is 60 times as acidic as a car battery!

We went in armed with hard hats and gas masks should the wind shift and blow the sulphuric gas over us.

The island was home to a sulphur factory for 10 years between the wars, but it ended tragically when there was a minor eruption which killed all the workers. Today just he ad and corroded remains stand as an object for the handful of visitors who make the passage to see the place.

On the way back we met a huge school of dolphins which played on our wake and offered a challenging photography.


February 2019

I feel I have known Gisborne for years. It is, of course, the home of Barry and Sandra (Homebrew Boat) before they came to England and we have heard soooooo much about the place. To be honest I was more that a little apprehensive lest it not live up to expectations.


We drove up from Napier and arrived at lunch time and what better time to visit Verve, the coffee shop run by Barry's brother Ray.  It wasn't hard to find and with Gisborne being home to about 30,000 people its a very accessible sort of place. Ray greeted us so warmly and we spent the lunch period together, drinking eating and having a detailed discussion about Brompton Folding Bikes and the local satellite launching facility - as you do!  

Verve cafe, Gisborne

Then it was on to Wainui Beach which provided the backdrop for Sandra and Barry's non boat wedding where we wandered on the golden sands and generally chilled out with a sea breeze taking the edge off the heatwave.

Wainiui Beach

Barry and Sandra had warned their friends that we would be coming and Anna and Andy very kindly offered the use of their drive and washing machine. We had already met them at the Black Country Boating Festival four years ago so it was great to catch up.  The space on the drive soon expanded to a meal in the evening, shower and even a lovely real bed for the night. The Camper bed is ok, but after three weeks it is revealing its shortcomings.

We had a great night and inevitably talk turned to earthquakes. Then, would you believe it, I woke soon after 1.00am to a real shudder and the house gave a good creak. reference ti the internet revealed a 4.5 quake from the fault line which runs beneath Wainui's breakers.

 The following morning included a whistle stop tour of Tuaheni Point and the town museum. Its easy to see why the place gas such a big place in Sandra ad Barry's hearts. It was lovely to be invited into a friends home and to be made to feel so welcome. Gisborne is a lovely place where European and Mauri cultures mingle. 

Tuesday 19 February 2019

Napier Art Deco Festival

Napier Art Deco Festival
Feb 2019

Napier is famed for its Art Deco style of buildings, which came about due to a massive reconstruction effort following a massive earthquake back in the 1930's. As a result the while town looks like something out of a period drama. I was quite surprised no to meet David Suchet in a cafe!

The town has taken its Art Deco persona to its heart and every year in mid February the town transforms itself into a living breathing Art Deco experience. We knew about the festival and a change on our plan meant that we could visit on the Sunday of the 2019 event.

The town was heaving but we managed to find a pitch in a somewhat sub standard camp site, but at least it put us close to the action. 

The site was full of vintage Indian Motorcycles who had been parading on the Saturday and many campers were decked out in period attire.

We made an effort with shirt and dress and got a taxi into town - not sure what to expect.

In the event the place was quite magical. There were period gazebo's everywhere on the sea front Marine Parade to which groups would retire for elegant picnics at lunchtime, but not before the legendary go cart derby.  This is an annual fixture with the most amazing engineering creations being raced down Emerson Street, with crowds lining the pavements and cheering the young participants on.

Then there were the street performers, classic cars and live period music but most of all the event is all about people watching, there to see and be seen. It is one of the very few events where taking photos of strangers is positively encouraged.

Napier is lively in its own Art Deco way, but add thousands of enthusiastic participants during the Art Deco Weekend and you have a complete theatrical experience.

All this kind of made up for a camp site with few facilities, no wi fi and with one of the islands main roads being just over the fence!

Friday 15 February 2019

Crossing to Wellington

Over to North Island
15 Feb 2019

One of my nerdy ambitions on South Island was to look at the stars without all the light pollution we have to contend with, even in the darkest bits of the UK.

So, before we went to bed at Pohara Beach I set the camera up on a small tripod, attached the zoom lens and aimed upwards. The shot of the moon was satisfying, especially the clarity of the craters at the edge of the light / dark interface:

The Moon

But my real satisfaction came from a shot of a random bit of sky. Ok, its a bit blurred, but the thing which shocked me was the variety of colours on the stars - its the first time I have seen red shift for myself (Google Red Shift).  Also, when I lightened the background the density of pinpricks of light visible through a standard lens was amazing. Its no Hubble image but it pleased me in its own small way.

and the stars

Anyway, we have now spent a damp night in Picton, with Helen indulging in her passion for Mussels at Havelock along the way. The Marlborough vineyards are impressive in their sheer scale and its hard to imagine that much wine.

We have now moved over to North Island by the InterIslander Ferry which entailed a very smooth and sunny 3.5 hour crossing and are ready to move up to Napier and its Art Deco weekend tomorrow.

Last views of South Island

So it's goodbye to South Island and goodbye to Fi and Andy, our travelling companions for the last 10 days.

The gang's last supper

Wednesday 13 February 2019

Paddling in Pohara

Pohara Beach
February 2019

We have covered a lot of ground sing our last post, over 700km and have moved from the Southern Alps to the sandy north coast on the Golden Bay.

The West Coast is famed for its insane levels of rainfall and finally, after two weeks of wall to wall sunshine, the clouds rolled in and gave us a massive drenching. In fact it rained so hard we had to stop the van and wait for the squalls to pass. it seemed slightly surreal that we were heading for Nelson which was reporting wildfires and the closure of Route 6, on which we were travelling. In the event we saw nothing of the fires - not even a smudge on the horizon. But the ground in the north is tinder dry and the pastures are very brown.

For the last week we have been listening to Rose Tremain's "The Colour" which is set in New Zealand and follows the fortunes of a settler couple who suffer the privations on their small farm outside Christchurch and then get caught up in the gold rush of the 1860's. By a strange coincidence the main character came into Hokitika from the sea just as we arrived by road, but separated by 160 years.

Hokitika retains the feel of a frontier town with its single story buildings, wooden store fronts and victorian covered walkways. 

We spent our first night on the north coast in Nelson, one of the largest towns on South Island using it as a stop over site after 260km of travel through the mountains. Then it was north west to Golden Bay and a night on the fabulous Pohara Beach.

The sad thing is that we are closing in on Picton, the point we will leave Andy and Fi, our travelling companions for the last 10 days, and catch the ferry to North Island and the rest of our journey to Aukland.