Waikato’s wonder and woe

JON CARDINELLI writes that his experience of Waikato’s breathtaking natural phenomena and charming culture has been slightly marred by the anal-retentiveness of the New Zealand authorities.

‘Just bad coffee,’ I reply to the policewoman at the roadblock. She examines my licence, gives the campervan a sour glance, and finally fixes me with a mistrustful glare. I haven’t been drinking, so feel within my rights to stare back. A few seconds pass before she takes another disgusted look at the campervan and waves me through.

The police presence, and disconcerting sense that Big Brother is always watching, is claustrophobic. Keep to the puttering 100km speed limit on the national highway. ‘Merge… like a zip!’ the roadsigns advise you at the offramp.

If you’re a pedestrian, don’t you dare cross the road until the traffic lights say so. Forget about ordering a double shot of Jamieson in an Irish pub. New Zealand’s shot measurements are 15ml instead of 25ml, because apparently the general public can’t be trusted to drink responsibly.

A black man in New Zealand is a drug dealer by default. Last Saturday, the Taupo police pulled SABC journalist Vata Ngobeni out of nightclub because they felt he fit the profile. It’s now Thursday and the local authorities still believe that they were right to detain Ngobeni. They said that they were just following protocol.

It was an unforgivable stand alone incident, but one that was consistent with the rigid sense of order in this nanny state. There’s protocol and then there’s common sense. Perhaps there should be more room to exercise the latter.

I’ve found the general population more than amiable and accommodating. Apart from ‘The Shed’ incident and a few other comparatively minor annoyances, my stay in Taupo and my sojourns into the greater Waikato have been outstanding.

For starters, there’s been a greater energy around the Springboks with the open training sessions held at Owen Delany Park well attended by locals and travelling fans alike.

Monday’s session was held in soul-warming sunshine, a welcomed change for the journalists spending icy nights in campervans and tents. The hundreds of fans also seemed to take heart from the weather, as they proceeded to belt out Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika while the Boks plodded through their drills.

The Boks have kept themselves busy from an extra-mural perspective, as have the South African journalists. Some have gone out onto Lake Taupo and tried their hand at trout fishing, while others have sought to sample the culture and adventure in the adjacent areas.

After watching the All Blacks beat France at Eden Park, I waved goodbye to self-confessed cityboys Mark Keohane and Ryan Vrede and headed back to Waikato. In the next few days I managed to get to Rotorua for a taste of Maori culture, and the Waitomo Caves for a blackwater rafting adventure some 65m underground.

If you’re going to Te Puia in Rotorua, you may want to skip the daytime tour that gives you a very limited introduction to Maori carving and weaving, as well as a walk around the grounds. The Prince of Wales’ Feathers geyser and mudpools were more remarkable than the centre’s resident kiwi birds. ‘Is it a bird? Is a mammal? No it’s a kiwi bird!’ scream the signs, although I’m not so sure that they weren’t animatronic robots. It was so dark inside their housing structure that it was impossible to be certain.

The evening’s activities at Te Puia are far more illuminating. Our guide introduced us to his family before taking us into his pa and treating us to some more Maori storytelling through the traditional media of dance and song. The performance climaxed in a powerful and elaborate rendition of the Ka Mate haka, and thereafter members of the audience were invited to climb on stage and be part of New Zealand’s famous war dance.

And yes, like many of the European kooks, I made the local tribesmen and women laugh out loud with my arrhythmic ground stomping and chest slapping. The key is to loll and roll; sticking your tongue out at every opportunity and turning your eyes to the back of your head. That earns you maximum respect.

The trip to the Waitomo Caves was a completely different experience. It may be spring in New Zealand, and it can be beautiful when the sun is shining and the sky is clear, but it’s still very cool in terms of temperature.

Launching yourself backwards over waterfalls and floating down an icy cold river deep beneath the earth’s surface may not seem like a good idea, but having come out the other side, I’ll have to admit that the hypothermia is a small price to pay.

‘Trust me,’ the guide says, as I stand with my back to the drop and my arse in a rubber tube. The drop is only about six feet, but hurling yourself backwards into the icy unknown takes some getting used to.

Once the entire group had taken the ‘leap’, the torches were turned off and the guides proceeded to thump at the water. We were instructed to look up at the roof of the cave, where thousands of glowworms, disturbed by the noise, began to move in illuminating arcs. Later the guides would tell us that while we were looking up, scores of cave eels were swimming just inches below.

I’ve been clocking up the kilometres in our campervan Heinrich (fetches, carries and gives away relatively few penalties) in the last week. As I mentioned earlier, travelling along the New Zealand roads can be a hairy ordeal. The further you venture from the national highway, the more the narrow road snakes and winds through the hilly terrain.

If you’re going to do New Zealand by car, be prepared to go slow. The margin for error is mercilessly small, which is probably why Kiwi drivers are so conservative.

The big advantage of traversing the north island by road is that you get to see the picturesque countryside and many of the quaint farm towns. It’s not hard to see why Peter Jackson chose Waikato as the setting for the tranquil Shire in his Lord of the Rings epic.

It’s clear that many of the small towns have beefed up their roadside advertising for the World Cup. En route to the Waitomo Caves, I drove through a run down part of the world called Benneydale, which has changed its name to Rugbydale for the months of September and October.

Te Kuiti has also changed to Meadsville, and the roadside barkers urge you to stop on the main street and chat to legendary All Black and local hero Colin Meads over a cup of coffee. If that isn’t enough to force your foot onto the brake, the barkers will confirm that this is ‘The Sheepshearing Capital of the World!’

Could you resist?

Follow JC on Twitter

Follow SA Rugby on Twitter