I looked at my mobile in surprise, I’d been assured there was no signal all the way out here in the middle of nowhere, or ‘River Valley’ as the sign over the entrance read. But still, the small glowing screen had lit up, proclaiming that I had a new text message. Maybe this new phone was better than everyone else’s, regardless of the fact that it was the cheapest one the shop had?
When I was on the Milford Sounds; camping on Aussie Bay, I had the opportunity to go out onto the flat sea in a kayak. I was given a life jacket, paddle and a beer, then asked if I needed a push into the water. When I’d gone out a few yards I noticed that my way of paddling meant I’d be going around in circles if I didn’t hit shore first, so I decided that I would try to turn. I put the oar into the sea, gave it a pull and ended up capsizing, losing the beer. I dragged the kayak back to dry land after only five minutes of being on the water, gave back the things and told the owner that I thought it may be best if I wait until daylight before giving it another go. He said fine, jumped into the boat himself and paddled off into the dark. His kids the next day looked like they were born on boats, with twists and turns and not once capsizing like the stupid Pom. They were amazed I’d never been in a kayak before, it was one of the things they were taught at school.
Back home, I live near a country park that was originally built to provide the surrounding villages with a flood defence from the river. Over the years it has developed into a nature reserve, fishing area and the large manmade lake is a good venue for water sports. You can camp by it, have barbecues and generally enjoy the open space. But the one thing you’re not allowed to do is swim in the lake. There are signs all around declaring this activity to be prohibited and the rangers patrol the lake on speedboats, ready to pounce on those who are even paddling in the edge. On a hot summers’ day, when your ice lolly turns to steam the moment it’s out of the wrapper and your flip flops stick to the tarmac, to have all that water and not be able to cool off in it is tantamount to torture. The school I attended was heavy on the dangers of the countryside but said almost nothing on how to enjoy it, certainly not teaching us how to kayak despite the lake being in easy walking distance.
In New Zealand I’ve noticed they have a different approach. They teach their children from an early age that if they want to go swimming or boating etc, in the lakes or rivers then there are certain things to look out for and equipment to use. The adverts over here tell you to go out and enjoy countryside, swim in the lakes, surf in the sea. If an accident does occur, it’s usually because of stupidity but rarely because of ignorance, as was in my case.
This reliance on common sense is strangely refreshing. My next stop after Rotorua was Taupo, which is the North Island’s equivalent of Queenstown, all the activities such as sky diving and white water rafting can be accessed here too. Like Queenstown, Taupo is situated on the shore of a lake, from which the town takes it’s name. The lake itself is the largest in New Zealand and was formed by a gigantic volcanic eruption, one that scientists think was the largest the world had ever seen. Whilst Queenstown is surrounded by mountains created by tectonic drift, Taupo is surrounded (albeit at a further distance) by mountains created by volcanos, the last one of which (Mount Ruapehu) erupted only in 2007. On really clear days, you can see all the way into Middle Earth and the sinister cone of Orodruin, better known as Mount Doom! (Also known as Mount Ngauruhoe.)
Due to all this still bubbling volcanic activity, some of the streams that spring from the ground are hot. The nearest one by my campsite is only a twenty minute walk through an area called the ‘Thermal Park.’ You follow a path through playing fields that brings you to the edge of Haast River, that flows from Lake Taupo. Into the river a stream falls over rocks to form a waterfall and it is here that people enjoy the hot water of the stream. Seriously hot water, hotter than your average shower at home. The only clue as to the temperature, as you walk toward it, is there is steam raising from the long grass around the water (and the fact the area has ‘thermal’ in the name). There are no signs warning you of hot water, no cordoned off area and no ranger shouting at you for enjoying the free natural wonder. When you get to the waters’ edge, the only way you can tell where the really hot stuff is, is the fact that people avoid a seemingly prime sitting area. Back home we’d be lucky if it hadn’t been built on by the leisure industry, trying to profit from something they got for free or the power industry doing likewise. It certainly wouldn’t be left untouched for the free enjoyment of the masses. Lake Taupo itself has artificial beaches, something I’d kill for after a long hot bike ride around Ladybower reservoir.
The stream with the hot water was populated by twenty or so people, mostly tourists judging by the number of cameras I saw. I placed my own things (towel, phone, teeshirt, shoes) in a neat pile on a rock away from the water and went for a dip. The further away from the stream you swam, the colder it got, but you could find a spot somewhere between having your bits frozen off or being boiled like a lobster. I chose a temperature about that at which a hot shower was taken, and sat back to watch the folk around. A small waterfall also provided a perfect hot water massage, but this part was the hottest of all and I only managed a few seconds before needing to cool down. After a while, I took a quick swim in the cold bit, and went back to my things. It wasn’t there, my mobile phone. I hadn’t noticed anyone dodgy hanging around – but you can never tell these days – and besides there were far better pickings all around, a nearby iPhone, my camera was still there. A small voice came up from the water “Is this your phone? I found it in the stream, it must have slipped in.” A group of boys; about ten years old, all looked up at me shouting ‘I didn’t do it!’ with their eyes. I thanked the lad who handed me back my now waterlogged phone and smiled “Did someone knock it in?” I asked. All eyes flashed to the lad who ‘found’ it, I shook my head, “It’s okay, don’t worry, accidents happen.” and walked away. A quick walk into town with the rescued sim card and I found a dirt cheap replacement.
Leaving behind Taupo, the bus wound along roads between the sleeping volcanoes toward River Valley. Cries of dismay could be heard on the bus as one by one the last flickering bar that showed signal strength on our mobile phones died. I had to suppress a chuckle when I realised that to many on board, they had just lost hundreds of Facebook friends. The situation was grim, if you don’t update every two minutes you were classed as officially dead. When asked if the hostel had a signal, the driver who came up to collect our bags before we walked down to the place just laughed. I liked him instantly.
River Valley lodge reminded me of an old hunting lodge, with a great big fireplace in the middle of the dining room. On the walls were hung pictures of the white water rafting and horse trekking that were the available activities. I was reminded of the Neptune hostel I’d stayed at in Greymouth, the feeling that it wasn’t quite ‘done’ yet. This place was; I sat back in one of the sofas, and imagined…. It’s winter, a storm blowing outside. The fireplace roared with huge logs burning as fuel. A real Christmas tree sparkled all the way up to the mezzanine and standing by the polished bar, guests dressed in their finery await to be seated for dinner. A piano is being played somewhere. On a wall opposite is an oil portrait of a familiar person, I can’t quite place who. I ask one of the uniformed waiters, “Why, that’s the original owner sir. The man who founded River Lodge. If I may say so, sir, the family resemblance is striking.” Resemblance? “Yes sir, he is your great grandfather, after all. Such a tragedy… River Lodge has been in your family ever since, you are the current owner, are you not sir?” I smile, taking a sip of champagne.
“Why, he became tired of certain guests complaining when they discovered the lodge wasn’t connected to telephone system yet. It was on a night like this… all they found the next morning were drag marks in the snow leading to the swollen river and seven empty beds. The woodsman commented that his axe had never been as sharp before, it was as if a mad man had worked relentlessly on the blade. May I offer you another drink sir?”
I’m the only one with a tent on the bus, so I have the camping ground to myself. It’s half price and I still get to use all the facilities, spa pool, sauna that sort of thing. It’s even better when I hear that the beds in the dorms are so close to each other that you can roll from one to the other, they’re really packed in. At night time the Waikato River provides me with a not – too – loud backing noise, accompanied by the occasional rain fall. I’m just falling asleep when my text alert goes off, what could it be? Am I the only one with a signal? I open the message “You have one new voicemail message.” I try to call, but there is no signal. D’oh!
Mini Count :- 36. They are very few and far between around here.