Michelle Langstone travels through Waikato from a land before time to New Zealand's city of the future
The mist has settled in the trees atop Maungatautari as we arrive late morning. The forecast promises rain, and the grey sky makes the green of the trees almost electric, they're so vivid. Maungatautari's Sanctuary Mountain is a mainland "island" nature reserve, and the largest fenced project for conservation in New Zealand, nestled in the Waikato. The fence runs like a ribbon for 47km around the sanctuary, and from a distance, it looks a bit like the aerial shots of the dinosaur territory in Jurassic Park. The sanctuary is home to many native birds, including kiwi, takahē and kōkako, and it runs breeding programmes in efforts to increase population numbers and improve biodiversity. You can also find giant weta, tuatara, and North Island long-tailed bats at Sanctuary Mountain. About two hours' drive from Auckland, it's a jewel in our conservation crown, and in a few years, if the predator-proof fence can be safeguarded against climbing parrots, it could become home to a population of kākāpō, the first time the critically endangered birds will have been on the North Island since the 1930s.
You can take guided tours both day and night, and there are options to get up close with kiwi, as well as glow worms. Our guide Sue has been volunteering and guiding at Maungatautari since 2003, and she's a wealth of knowledge and has love for our native bush and its occupants. On the way into the sanctuary, she stops every now and then to show us plants, breaking off leaves for us to sniff as she explains their uses. Holding tarata, inhaling the lemony scent, we walk the trails and learn the history of the sanctuary. It's beautiful and cool in the native bush, and the rātā vines hang low, lending a primordial air. Sue is in charge of monitoring the kākā, and they know her voice, swooping in when she calls, following us to their feeding station. Three magnificent parrots land about two feet away from us, the red beneath their wings bright like a wound. We're not feeding them today, and they eye us with suspicion. Sue can tell who they are from their bands, and she speaks to them by name with affection, telling us about their behavioural habits while they watch on. After an hour Sue leaves us to walk the trails alone, and we wind through the tracks spotting tīeke on the way back to the centre. They chatter like little yapping dogs, telling us off for interrupting them. When we emerge the rain has arrived, and we dash to the car, and make our way to Kirikiriroa (Hamilton), where we are staying for our weekend Waikato getaway.
The Novotel Tainui sits right at the edge of the Waikato River in the heart of the city. Our executive room in the new wing has a floor to ceiling window that looks out on to the trees that grace the riverbank. A motif across the wall above the bed is cleverly done to look like a giant watercolour painting and reflects the colours of the river back to us. It's a spacious, serene room and we are reluctant to leave it and go out in the rain, but brave it to take a stroll beside that gorgeous river, and then up to grab lunch at Banh Mi Caphe, a Vietnamese restaurant in the waterfront precinct. We're filling up ahead of a kayak trip on Lake Karāpiro, and we eat noodle bowls full of tofu and mushroom, fragrant with fresh herbs, and Banh Mi with ginger chicken and sriracha. It's delicious, and even better washed down with a cold Tiger beer.
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Driving through the Waikato countryside is a pleasure. There is so much space and gorgeous green I feel like I'm back in my childhood, where every road trip was like this - an expanse of meadows and farmland, punctuated by little towns to stop in for icecream. At Lake Karāpiro, the skies have cleared and the water is a mirror. I've only ever seen the lake on TV during rowing competitions, and I'm startled by its largess and the deep blue-green of the water. Lake District Adventures is a family-owned business run by Steve, one of the most genuine, salt of the earth people I've ever met. He's taking a group of us out onto the southern edge of the lake at dusk so we can kayak and see glow worms. Kayaking is not my gift, but Steve makes everyone, including the much older people in our tour, feel confident. We are bundled up in wet weather gear and life jackets, taught how to navigate our kayaks, and then we're away.
Out on the lake, Steve talks us through the history of the region, and the way he shares information feels off the cuff and unforced — it's like being out kayaking with a mate who knows the area. We paddle above the submerged Horahora Dam and learn the history of the tiny Horahora village, and then head up the Pokaiwhenua Stream, and through a canyon that's emerged over hundreds of years. The walls are lush with native ferns, and slipping through the water it feels like we've gone back in time. We draw up on the riverbank to wait until night falls. Steve and his assistant Will hand round hot cups of Raro infused with cinnamon, which sounds terrible but is delicious, and little reusable containers filled with pineapple lumps, and barbecue-flavoured crackers. It's another thoughtful touch to a tour that is attentive but unpretentious, and the entire group descends on the food, munching happily in the encroaching darkness.
When night falls we are led back on to the river with instructions on how to navigate our way around the rock walls, following the flashing red light of Steve's headlamp. It's thrilling out there, and we come around a corner, carried gently by the flow of the river, to rock walls that have come alive with glow worms. Seeing them from the water at night is so fantastic I almost forget to breathe. The 20 or so minutes it takes us to paddle past is a revelation — I can't imagine where else in the world you could do this and not be in some kind of danger, at the very least from animals or insects. It's serene and wonderful, uniquely New Zealand, and the most fun I've had on the water in ages.
All this adventuring and fresh air means by the time we arrive back at the Novotel Tainui we're starving. The Silver Ferns and English Roses have a netball game in town this weekend, and the Novotel's restaurant Alma is fully booked, but the chef sends us dinner in our room and it doesn't disappoint. I love the rēwena bread and horopito hummus, and the vegetarian risotto that follows is light and fresh. My husband tucks into a ribeye steak with onion rings, and we share a creme brulee for dessert, feeling spoilt, and watching the lights of the city glitter beyond the riverbank.
We sleep deeply on the cloud-like bed in our room, and have to drag ourselves away in the morning, the hotel is so relaxing. We've got a date with a tea ceremony, something I've always wanted to try. Zealong is the only commercial tea estate in New Zealand, and its grounds are expansive and leafy. We go on a tour and learn the history of the company, and of tea itself. The tea ceremony doesn't disappoint; we try five teas, from the sweet, nutty freshness of Zealong's green tea, all the way through to their dark roasted tea. The experience is both formal and tranquil, the water poured with flourishes, the clink of bone china demure. Afterwards, we take high tea on the balcony that overlooks the grounds. With our newly acquired wisdom, we select tea to drink with the tiny delights laid in front of us — lavender-infused macarons, halloumi bites, and fish cakes. It is two hours well spent.
Kirikiriroa is a far better name than Hamilton, and it suits the city's newly minted title of New Zealand's prettiest city, an accolade it shares with Whanganui. It's not hard to see why it won — there are so many green spaces and glorious trees, and the river running through the heart of the city is truly lovely. Another joy is the Hamilton Gardens. I have a soft spot for the Paradise collection and make a beeline for the Indian Char Bagh Garden, where the beautiful tiling and the flowers always make me smile. Spring has well and truly sprung, and the scent of the flowers in the traditional English Flower garden is dizzying. We spend an afternoon wandering, and losing track of time, rounding it off with takeaway coffees and scones from the cafe, which we carry down to the riverbank, so we can take one last look at the wonderful Waikato before it's time to go home.
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