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Follow Wales in RWC 2011 and explore New Zealand

When I realised that my impending retirement from my job teaching Maths coincided closely with the start of the Rugby World Cup competition in New Zealand, I thought it was too good an opportunity to miss. Though I no longer live in Wales, like many Welshmen, I follow closely the progress of rugby in Wales and the fortunes of the Wales rugby team, with all its ups and downs. I enjoy travelling and particularly enjoy walking and trekking (tramping to use the Kiwi term). Friends of mine have visited and walked around NZ and have spoken very enthusiastically about it. So this was an one-off opportunity to combine two of my passions, when at last I had the free time to make a worthwhile trip possible - consider it a retirement present to myself!
As I write this introduction, I am making final preparations for my trip, flying out from Heathrow this Saturday, 3 Sept, and hoping that I can pack everything that I need for a trip of just over 6 weeks. This time will encompass all the Wales pool games and also the quarter-finals and the first of the semi-finals. If Wales get to this stage of the competition, I'm sure that would be considered a success, and I'm sure I will see some exciting rugby. The opening Wales game is against South Africa on 11 Sept (a bit more than a warm-up!) and also in Wales pool are Samoa and Fiji, banana skins for Wales in the past.
I arrive in Auckland next Tuesday, 6 Sept, where I will be hosted by Peter and Sonya (former Rhondda resident and school-friend of my wife, Gaynor). After that I will be setting off for a varied trip around (mostly) the North Island, to coincide with each of the venues for the Wales games, staying in a variety of accommodation, from hosting by friendly Kiwi families to Youth Hostels and Backpackers. Along the way I should be seeing some of the wonderful NZ sights and scenery that many people have told me about.
Whenever I get the opportunity, I will find an internet cafe and update this travel log, hopefully to include some photos if the technology is forgiving.
So, family and friends, wish me luck - it's an adventure!

Diary Entries

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Location: Sonning Common, UK

Farewell New Zealand
After a very long but uneventful journey home, I am slowly unwinding the 12 hours of jet-lag and catching up with things, so it is time to record my final diary entry and sum up the lasting impressions from my trip.
New Zealand is a great country for the outdoor life, with a combination of mountains, lakes and coastline allowing for lots of sporting and outdoor activities. I spent most of my time in the North Island, because of the locations for the rugby matches I was attending, and the scenery was very impressive, especially the snow-covered volcanoes. But many people told me that the South Island has the most spectacular scenery, with lots more mountains, glaciers and fiords, so I will have to come back again. New Zealanders value their countryside and put effort and resources into maintaining it. The various tracks that I walked on were well marked and well maintained. Steep uphill sections frequently had steps installed and swampy ground had sections of wooden rafting in place. A lot of this work is done by volunteer teams. And, of course, one of the benefits of being in the southern hemisphere is the traditional barbecue on the beach at Christmas!
New Zealand essentially is sustained by its agriculture. Everywhere you drive, the fields are full of cows and the dairy industry is a huge exporter, especially to Asian countries. Milk is referred to as 'white gold'.
It is a young country, initially populated by the Maoris who arrived by canoe from islands in the Pacific, probably a thousand or so years ago. After the arrival of Captain Cook, European settlers began to arrive around 1800, which marks the beginning of any form of written history. This marked the beginning of a century of troubled relations between the resident Maoris and the settlers, with battles over land rights and sovereignty. The Maoris had their own well-established administrative and justice systems, based around the tribal groups, and they resented being treated as subjects of the British Empire, with all its implied superiority. The consequences of the large scale confiscation of tribal lands are still being worked through in the courts today, but there is certainly a resurgence of Maori culture and traditions. One only has to look at the enthusiasm and commitment with which the All Blacks perform the haka today, compared with the half-hearted attempts demonstrated by All Black teams in the 50's and 60's.
Turning to rugby, while I met many Kiwis who are not ardent followers of the sport, the RWC has caught the imagination of the country as a whole, with everyone following its progress. If the All Blacks do not win on Sunday, then the whole country will fall into mourning and a collective depression. C'mon the AB's!
Finally, I have been impressed by the unfailing generosity, hospitality and friendliness offered by New Zealanders to their visitors. It is certainly true that there is an affinity between Wales and New Zealand, so perhaps I have been especially fortunate, but the general reaction of visitors is how warm the welcome has been here. The Kiwis are very direct and open, will look you straight in the eye and tell it like it is, with no side or hidden agendas - a very laudable national trait.
Well, that's all folks. If you have been following this all the way through, thankyou for your patience and I hope you have found it interesting and at times entertaining.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Location: Bangkok, Thailand

The semi-final.
What an amazing game! I have mixed emotions; how did Wales not win this game? Just one successful kick would have given them an historic win. The early sending off of Warburton spoiled the game as a spectacle, but it was a heroic performance by Wales, to come so close with 14 men. I am certainly proud of their achievement.
I have heard that the All Blacks routed the Wallabies, so it is all set up for a big showdown next Sunday. I'll certainly be shouting for the AB's.
I am now at Bangkok Airport on my marathon journey back to the UK, some 30 hours in total.
When I get back home I will write a final blog page trying to summarise my memories and impressions of my trip, but it has been a great adventure. Many thanks for all your feedback and encouraging comments.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Location: Auckland, New Zealand

Back to Auckland for the big game
On Thursday, I drove from National Park back to Auckland, to stay again with Sonya and Peter for my final weekend in New Zealand. I took the scenic route back, driving past the great volcanoes that had been lost in cloud for the previous two days. Just my luck - the cloud had now lifted and the Tongariro Crossing would probably have been feasible, but there was still rain. Anyway, the cloud clearing allowed me to get some good photos of the volcanoes, a memorable sight.
Near Lake Taupo on the drive back, I stopped to visit an active thermal area called 'Craters of the Moon', full of steaming and bubbling vents and mud pools - it is certainly a strange sight. Nearby there is a geothermal power plant, which captures and uses the hot steam to generate electricity, so you can get some idea of just how much energy there is just below the surface.
On Friday, Peter and I took a ferry out to Rangitoto Island just east of Auckland. This is a relatively young volcano, formed only 600 years ago. From the top, you get excellent views of the city, and it was a good clear day. The SkyTower dominates the skyline for miles around and can be clearly seen from Sonya and Peter's house 20 miles west at Cornwallis.
Essentially Auckland, and the rest of New Zealand for that matter, is a giant collection of volcanoes. Auckland alone has more than 60 volcanic cones dotted around.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Location: National Park Village, New Zealand

In Tongariro National Park
For the past two days I have been in National Park Village for Tongariro National Park. This Park includes three volcanoes, Mt Tongariro, Mt Ngauruhoe and Mt Ruapehu, the latter two of which are still active, with Ruapehu having an extended series of eruptions through 1995/96. The three peaks were in land belonging to the local Maori tribe and they have the status of sacred mountains to the Maori. They feature in many Maori legends concerning the origins of their country. In 1887, the Maori chief, in a far-sighted decision, gifted the land to the New Zealand Government to ensure its protection and continuing accessibility. The mountains were the basis of the first ever New Zealand National Park (and only the fourth in the world) and today have World Heritage Site status.
There are many great tramps in the Park and my aim was to tackle the Tongariro Crossing, described as 'the best one-day walk in New Zealand'. It is a high level track crossing a saddle between Mt Tongariro and Mt Ngauruhoe. However, this walk, which ascends to 1900m and is still covered in snow, is only feasible in good weather, and this week has seen heavy rain and low cloud. So it was no-go for the Crossing this week. Instead I was able to complete a lower level walk during a dryer spell to Tama Lakes, which are in the area between Mt Ngauruhoe and Mt Ruapehu. It was a very enjoyable walk, affording views of the lower slopes of both mountains, the peaks being immersed in cloud, These are the two mountains which I saw originally from the east on my drive down to Wellington (see 'Beautiful Mountains' photos).
Tongariro is also a very popular ski area, with ski slopes, chair lifts, etc, on the slopes of Mt Ruapehu. Completely out of character with the area, the magnificent Chateau Tongariro was built in the 1920's after the sport was introduced to New Zealand in the early part of the 20th century.
So, with no prospect of good weather here for the rest of the week, tomorrow I will head back to Auckland for some final sight-seeing and in time for the RWC semi-final Wales v France. It's an exciting prospect - I can't wait!

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Location: Tongariro National Park, New Zealand

'The Adventures of Kimble Bent', life with the Maori tribes.
I have been waiting to find an opportunity to tell the story of Kimble Bent. When I visited the Tawhiti Museum in Taranaki (see diary entry for 26 Sept), a series of displays told the story of Kimble Bent. He was a soldier in the British Army serving in New Zealand around 1860 who had deserted and joined a local Maori tribe. His account of his life with the Maoris was given many years later in a series of interviews with the author James Cowan, who published his story in 1911 in the book 'The Adventures of Kimble Bent'. I was sufficiently intrigued by the account in the museum to want to find a copy of the book and was able to track down a reprint of the book in a second-hand bookshop in New Plymouth.
This time was a defining period in the history of the country, known as the 'Land Wars'. These were a series of battles between the Maoris who were the original inhabitants, and considered the land as belonging to their communities (tribes), and the incoming European settlers who wanted to establish farms on the land. There was an important treaty signed between the British Government and many Maori tribes in 1840 (Treaty of Waitangi). The treaty related to, amongst other things, ownership of many thousands of acres of land. The treaty was written and signed in English and an imperfect translation was produced in the Maori language, based on which the Maori tribes believed they still had traditional rights to the land. This led to continual conflicts between the tribes and incoming settlers. Britain was supporting the settlers and stationed large numbers of troops in the country to protect them. Kimble Bent was one of these soldiers.
Although originally born in the USA, of a white father and American Indian mother, in search of adventure he had found his way to Britain and, running out of money, had been obliged to enlist in the army and was eventually posted to New Zealand. He was always a bit of a rebel and a free spirit and was constantly falling foul of the strict army discipline. He finally decided that he wanted out of the army and absconded from his camp in the Taranaki bush in 1863, with the intention of joining a local Maori tribe. After some time wandering in the bush and evading capture by the search parties from the camp, he was captured by a Maori scout and taken into the Maori camp as a prisoner. The tribe were suspicious of him and they were ready to kill him as a spy, but he persuaded them that he wanted nothing more to do with the army and instead wanted to live with the Maoris. From then on, he lived rough with the Maori tribe, essentially being treated as a slave, having to do many arduous jobs and always in fear of his life. The Maoris of that time were very warlike, constantly getting into battles with the army, both attacking the army camps and having to defend their own, heavily fortified camps (called 'pa') against army attacks. Effectively, Kimble Bent 'went native' and for many years had no contact again with anyone from his previous life. He lived like a Maori and learned the Maori language. He married twice, firstly to a Maori woman, under duress and threat of death from a tribal elder as she was 'ugly' and had only one eye! Later he was given a young Maori girl as a wife, as a token of gratitude for having saved the life of the son of a tribal chief. They had one child, but both child and mother died shortly afterwards.
The Maori never let Kimble participate in their many battles, in case he was tempted to re-join his former comrades. But he performed an important job of making cartridges for the Maori guns. He witnessed many battles at first hand, frequently having to escape from a forest camp/pa that was in danger of being overrun by the army. He also witnessed some of the Maori warriors taking up again one of their traditional practices - cannibalism. Roasting and eating an enemy killed in battle was considered to be a way of gaining status and some sort of spiritual control over the enemy. Many of the Maoris in the tribe however refused to join in with this practice; it was confined to a small number of the more hot-headed and bloodthirsty warriors.
Kimble Bent continued to live with the Maoris for more than 40 years, long after the wars had ended. He was able to give his unique account of this period of NZ history from the Maori side, when all other accounts of the Land Wars were being written from a British and colonial perspective, as related by participants from this side. All-in-all, I found it a fascinating story.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Location: Wellington/Waikanae, New Zealand

With Jennie and Peter Young at Waikanae
I have spent the last 3 nights at the home of Jennie and Peter Young at Waikanae, which is about 60km up the coast from Wellington, on a direct train route of 1 hour. The hosting was arranged through the Trudi Gatland 'host the Welsh supporters' initiative. Arrangements were made for several supporters to stay in Waikanae and Jennie and Peter had 5 men staying with them, a houseful! Jennie and Peter had organised a welcome barbecue for everyone on Friday evening, so that was a great gathering, giving the opportunity to meet the other supporters and hosting families.
We were all very well looked after, fed at every opportunity and ferried to the train station and back on Saturday and Sunday for the rugby matches. This was a great commitment from them, which they fitted in with a busy work schedule running their 'Waikanae Kitchen and Joinery' business. (Peter is a great rugby fan and they have had their van specially decorated for the RWC - see photo.)
With many thanks to Jennie and Peter for their excellent hospitality,

Sunday, 09 October 2011

Location: Wellington, New Zealand

Wales 22 - Ireland 10 (excuse my repeating the score!)
This was a commanding performance from Wales. Ireland were never really allowed to get into the game; the Welsh defence was again near impenetrable with determined tackles stifling the attacks that Ireland mounted. And while Gatland essentially stuck with the starting 15, apart from Charteris' injury, it was noticeable that Declan Kidney started making panicky tactical substitutions not long into the second half, taking off both the half-backs. He could see the writing on the wall!
It was another great performance from Wales' youngsters, but this time with key contributions from the veterans Shane Williams and Mike Phillips, who scored a brilliant individual, opportunist try with a blind-side break from a ruck. Wales are going from strength to strength, and have no major injuries so far.
Turning to the other game of the evening, how satisfying was it to see France finally coming out of their shell to show England the way home? Very!!
I'm looking forward to an exciting semi-final against France, where I think both teams will be trying to play rugby, with none of this 'win ugly' strategy, thankyou, Martin Johnson.

Thursday, 06 October 2011

Location: Kaikoura, New Zealand

Swimming with dolphins and whale-spotting in Kaikoura.
I have spent two days in Kaikoura, on the east coast of the South Island. The main attraction here is the sea-life. Yesterday the weather was still poor, raining and very windy, so all the usual boat trips, etc, were cancelled. I took myself off on a walk around the Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway, about 5 miles around the coastline, the first time I have had to wear my wet weather gear. The walk passed through some interesting sites, including the place where, in 1840, they had started hunting whales in small boats launched from the shore.
Today, the weather finally cleared and the wind abated, so boat trips were back on. In the morning, I went on a 'Swimming with dolphins' trip, getting kitted out in a head-to-toe wet suit with face-mask and snorkel (not something I have done before!). The fast twin-hull boat headed out into the Pacific and soon found a pod of dusky dolphins, the most common type found here. We all fitted our flippers and slipped quietly into the water. The dolphins are very curious and come close to see what is happening, so you soon find yourself literally 'swimming with dolphins'. This session lasted around 30 mins, but unfortunately I could not stay in the water this long as a result of swallowing too much sea water, probably because I was not accustomed to the snorkel and face-mask. Anyway, I watched the dolphins generally having fun and leaping around close to the boat. No photos of this, just too much water flying around.
In the afternoon, I tried to get on a whale-watching boat trip, but all trips were fully booked because of the backlog from the last two days. I took an alternative option, which was to take a short flight in a small 4-seater Cessna from nearby Kaikoura Airport. It turned out that this was a better option as you get to see the whole whale in the water, a view you don't get from the boat.
Finally, I went in search of seals. Near here is the Uhau Stream, which has a waterfall about 200m in from the sea. A group of seal pups, not yet weaned, somehow find their way up to this waterfall while their mothers are out finding food. They have a fun time swimming and playing around in the rock pool at the foot of the waterfall. There must have been 20-30 pups splashing around, a very amusing sight.
All in all, a very memorable and unique day, definitely worth making the trip down here.
Tomorrow, it is back on the ferry to Wellington to get ready for the big one - Wales vs Ireland in the first quarter-final! I have met several Irish supporters down here, very friendly rivalry. The game is evenly balanced, results have gone either way in the past. I think it is a case of Irish experience vs Welsh youth. It should be an exciting game; you'll need to be up for 6am to watch it live!

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Recent Messages

From Mounir & Isabel
We are watching at the moment the match on TV. Try to wave to you too.....
Have a safe journey back Robin.
Isabel and Mounir
Response: Some Welsh to add to your multiple languages! It was a heroic display from Wales, very close.
I'm now at Bangkok Airport awaiting the next flight on to London, a total journey of around 30 hrs!
From Allan Crisp
Hi Robin,
Really enjoying your blogs! Especially your descriptions of the mountains and the history surrounding the Maori's. Am watching the Welsh / France match at the moment and Wales are 3-6 down, but are right in the game. Hope they pull ahead in the second half. Hook must kick better then.
We've got the Gala Concert tonight and a sell out audience to sing to. Will miss your presence tonight, but hey, You're having the time of your life, so enjoy it. See you soon. Allan
Response: Yes, what a game it was! How did Wales not win? They outplayed France completely.
From Isabel and Mounir
Great Robin to have very nice hosts in Waikanae to support the Welsh team.
Super experience in Kaikoura swimming with the dolphins. Well done to take part of it.
Come on Wales and Vive la France.
Looking forward to hear from you at your return in the UK.
Isabel and Mounir
Response: Hello!
The hospitality from all the New Zealanders I have met has been amazing. There seems to be a good mutual feeling between the Kiwis and the Welsh, probably something to do with both being small countries, and both rugby mad!
From Robin John
Robin ,We are delighted to read of your adventures, sorry about the rain, but you are making the best of a one off experince.
Best regards
Ted & Pat Wiggins
Hello Ted and Pat, Thanks for your feedback. I'm having an exciting time, lots of new experiences. Currently in Wellington keenly awaiting the start of the Wales v Ireland game.
From Gareth Williams
Was that you disguised as a daffodil at the Fiji game? Great Wales performance, great atmosphere - great NZ rain!! Very much enjoying your write-ups.
Response: 'Twas not me! I generally try to be inconspicuous, but it is good to see all the fancy dress outfits. There has been a great atmosphere at all the games, it's all very friendly.Thanks for the feedback.
From Isabel and Mounir
Excellent pictures from New Plymouth and of the Sugar Loaf Islands.
Your crayfish were much bigger that the one we sampled at a Crayfish Festival at Ikea two months ago. We didn't even have the tools to crack them.
We are enjoying reading your diary and wish you a lovely time with the rest of you expedition.
Take care Robin
Response: Yes, these crayfish looked more like lobsters to me, I'm not sure what the difference is. The octopus looked really ugly, very slippery to handle; I kept well clear!
From Annalise Chantler
Hi Robin,
Just wanted to say a big THANK YOU for the Wales Rugby badge you left behind for my daughter Holly at Stratford Library. Holly is over the moon with the badge and is going to wear it to school on Friday when they are having a Rugby day. Hope you enjoyed your time in Stratford/Taranaki and wish you all the best and fun on the rest of your trip in NZ. Go Wales!
Take care and once again thank you.
Annalise (from Stratford Library)
Response: Very good! I had a very friendly reception in Stratford, so it was nice to be able to leave a memento of your Welsh visitor.
From Stratford Library
Thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog Robin. It is interesting for us to hear what visitors think of our place, and what they find good, bad and interesting. Hope you have a wonderful stay.
Response: Many thanks for your feedback. I have nothing but good impressions so far - not only about the countryside and the fact that it is being well cared for but also the welcome and friendly reception that I am getting everywhere.
Go Wales!
From Isabel and Mounir
Lovely photos and great expedition in the Pouakai circuit.
Sorry about the residents sharing your hut!!!!
Received your beautiful card 2 days ago. Many thanks Robin.
Take care.
xxxxIsabel and Mounir
Response: Yes, an interesting trip! Thanks for your greetings.
From Andrew Evans
Hi Robin,
Great game. If some Welsh bloke had sneezed in the stands James Hook's kick would have gone over.
Let's hope they play the same way against Samoa.
There are no people in your photos. We know what NZ looks like. We want to see you having a great time!
Cheers. Andrew
Response: OK Andrew, and Jim. Yes, a great game. As Jim said 'We were robbed!'
The problem with travelling alone is it is difficult to get yourself in the picture! But I have been able to get a few and am looking for an opportunity to upload them.
From Jim Grufferty
Glad you are enjoying NZ, good time to be there early spring in the North Island. Good luck to Wales in the windy city, got to be better than England Argentina last night. The whole atmosphere seems to be very special. Look out for a new strip for RMVC. Jim
Response: Thanks, Jim, Windy city - too right! I'm keeping well wrapped up, but there are definite signs of spring about. Yes, England were fortunate to win last night, a very edgy game, but Argentina were dominant until the final 10 minutes.
From Isabel
Spectacular photos of the mountains covered in Snow and the giant volcanic craters too. Very interesting expedition Robin.
Enjoy the rest of your journey and good luck to the Welsh team.
Isabel and Mounir
Thanks, Isabel and Mounir, for your support.
From Helena and Brian
All the best Robin. We are looking forward to reading the details of each stage of your expedition experiences. Take care.
Many thanks, Helena and Brian. Trip is going well so far.
From Allan Crisp
Good luck Robin!
Enjoy the scenary, but watch out for the 'sweet chariot' that may come down your way sometime.
The welsh group does seem to be a very hard nut to crack to me! Wish you well my friend. Allan
Response: Thanks Allan,
Yes, not an easy group at all. This weekend will be the big test, a good performance there will build confidence for the remaining games.
From Jeremy Jones
Good luck Robin. I look forward to hearing your reports of Welsh success.
Response: Thanks, Jeremy, I am forever hopeful!
From David Ewens
Best wishes for a fantastic time Robin your trip sounds amazing and I am highly envious.

Response: Thanks, David. Just keep those vocal chords in good shape!