Sunday, April 10, 2016

Try Time

Every couple of trips the Super 16 Rugby fixture coincides with our camp, giving Geoff a chance to watch his beloved Chiefs in action and giving the kids an opportunity to see a different code of footy.

So, on Friday we made it an all day excursion to Hamilton, stopping first at the Hamilton Gardens to check out their beautiful, enclosed theme gardens.  Herb, kitchen, camellia, Renaissance, Japanese, rose, Maori, tropical – a beautiful expanse of green and floral splendor in the middle of a big city.

From the gardens we drove to Claudelands to the Waikato Show, which sounded exciting on the website but was actually a watered down version of any country show at home. There were lots of promotional stalls, that apart from the ones offering free samples, failed to inspire any joy in the kids. Eventually they found a stall making identity bracelets that suddenly became ‘a thing’ and a few sad looking and expensive rides. We cut our visit short and went to Chartwell Square for an afternoon shopping browse.

Then it was on to the rugby. The boys (and a few girls) had a warm up practice in the park near the stadium while they devoured 20 pizzas before we found our seats in the Fanzone. Kids are well catered for at the rugby, with free supporters flags and packs for everyone, face painting and photo opportunities. This put everyone in the right frame of mind to support the Chiefs or the Auckland Blues or, like Lachie, display your national pride by wearing your Wallabies gear (brave man!)

Interest waned a bit during the stoppages in the first half but then at the start of the second half the Blues ran in a couple of tries and suddenly everyone was on their feet cheering and becoming part of the crowd swell for their respective team.

It was a long drive home in the dark and there was no trouble getting the kids to bed!

Yesterday we had a well deserved sleep in and a leisurely breakfast before driving into town to the Kuirau markets. The market isn’t big but it had an interesting array of local and international food to choose from. Hayley even got to do some work experience when the man running the popcorn stall asked her to mind the shop for him while he went to the toilet. The Kuirau location also gave us a chance to check out the thermal activity in the park. This is a great, free of charge experience, with steam vents and boiling mud pools scattered around the walking tracks.

After lunch we went to the Paradise Valley Wildlife Park. They keep a big cage of lions there. Go figure! The park wends its way around the Ngongotaha Stream which is full of trout at different stages of development. There’s also a NZ bird aviary and some very fat kune pigs, along with assorted geese, ducks, sheep etc. At 2.30 they throw chunks of horse meat to the poor caged lions. They fight over it and roar a lot. I think the kids enjoyed it. Personally I was glad to get away to do the shopping for dinner.

After dinner we went to the Rotorua Mini Golf. This was an fun, if a little bizarre, experience. It was raining pretty steadily and apart from the 80’s disco lights and laser displays (WT?) there wasn’t a great deal of lighting so it was a bit hard to see the course. Despite our booking being confirmed weeks ago, there were lots of other people playing and another large school group behind us. Consequently there weren’t enough clubs so we had to share, the other kids kept trying to play through even though the course was backed up to the gate, throw in several large, pet rabbits hopping aimlessly amongst the golfers, fake fog and two continually running bubble machines and you have a recipe for chaos! It was also a recipe for hilarity and since the score cards were too soggy to read, no on cared who won.

Today we took a road trip to Mount Maunganui. This is always a nostalgic journey for Geoff & me because it’s his ‘home’ beach and the place we were married many moons ago. Last night’s rain was still persisting when we got to our first stop, the obligatory 'Giant Kiwifruit' photo and then it was on to Kaiate Falls. The rain had the benefit of increasing the volume of the falls but it also increased the slipperiness of the track so it was a fairly cautious walk down. The cold water and rain didn’t deter everyone and quite a few of them stripped off for a wade at the base.

 From there we drove to Main Beach where most of us (including me) made an assault on the summit of the Mount. It’s not a terribly difficult walk but I was glad I’ve been step counting for the last few months. The view from the top, across Pilot Bay to Tauranga and down the coast as far as White Island is most certainly worth it.

We were planning fish and chips at the beach for dinner but it was a bit chilly so we stopped at Papamoa Beach for a quick swim and a beach comb and then came back to Ngongotaha for our fish & chips in the kitchen instead. This was also an inspired decision because it meant we drove home in the daylight and witnessed a magnificent sunset on the lake.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Action Time

I knew I was ambitious thinking I’d blog this trip every day but I had forgotten just how full on it is to travel with 34 other people! From the time our day starts (this morning it was with someone singing in the shower next door at 6.30am), until the last child is asleep at about 10.30pm, it’s a solid routine of preparing food, driving, having fun, more driving, shopping, preparing food and cleaning up. There’s not a lot of downtime for writing!

Tuesday was our second day of adventure tourism with a trip across the gorge and Pyes Pa Rd to Tauranga and the Waimarino Activity Centre. This is a great complex set on the Wairoa River and is the training home of lots of NZ’s finest kayakers.

With our delightful guide Amy, we spent the morning out on the river in kayaks, learning the finer points of paddling. The water at Waimarino is not ‘cold’ or ‘freezing’ – use of these words is forbidden! Rather, it is ‘refreshingly chilly’, as many of the kids found when they fell out. It was a fun filled and hilarious morning with hoots of laughter after every splash and lots of fantastic team work displayed getting each other back into the kayaks.

After lunch it was time to push a few personal fears while jumping, sliding , diving and catapulting into the river from various high structures. The water slide was popular, as was the high diving board. I never get tired of seeing the look of terror at the top being replaced by the grin of achievement at the bottom.

New safety rules on the Blob- a giant pillow that acts as a catapult when someone else jumps on the other end- meant that no one quite reached the stratospheric heights of previous trips, but it was fun nevertheless.

On Wednesday we headed out to Agroventures, home of the Swoop, Agrojet and Freefall. Again, this was about controlled risk and personal challenge. The Swoop is a bungy like structure about 40 metres high. 3 people are strapped together in sleeping bags and dropped from the top. The weight of the riders causes the cord to ‘swoop’ down to the ground and then out across the paddock. For some this is just great fun, for others it is gut wrenchingly terrifying. No one begged for their life at the top this year but there were enough blood curdling screams to keep the observers entertained all morning.

The Agrojet was also popular- 100 km and hr around a very narrow waterway with spectacular 360 turns and lots of water spray. Phil and Lochie even got extra bang for their bucks when their boat hit a bank and when a few of the boys got a bit too close to the ‘splash zone’ we got some more entertainment for free!

The Freefall is a simulated parachute experience where you lie face down over a giant wind turbine thingy and your face looks like a dog’s does when it puts its head out the window of the ute. It was ok.

At lunchtime we managed some souvenir shopping in Rotorua Central and then headed back to the Agrodome for the sheep show. Here we were introduced to 19 different breeds of sheep, a cow and some gorgeous NZ huntaway sheep dogs. For farm kids like ours the show is mildly amusing and confusing at the same time (like, who has trained sheep?) but it does provide an insight into the contrast between NZ and Australian farms and the clever way NZ has harnessed agriculture as a tourist attraction.

Back at Waiteti the kids had time for a swim and a fish. They spent a lot of time getting wet while they tried to push Geoff in the water. Unfortunately none of our fishermen have been successful yet but persistence pays and I’m hopeful of some fresh trout before the trip is over.

We have mainly younger kids in this group so evening entertainment has become important. Very few of them have their electronic devices with them which is fantastic but it does mean that once the sun goes down we need things to do. Cards and chess have made an appearance and we have a quiz each night on the day’s happenings, followed by a couple of concert items. On Tuesday the kids doing Les Mis this year sang a few of their songs and last night Sophie & Zoee kept us mesmerized with their songs from an upcoming choir performance.

Today we’re off to Hamilton to the gardens, the Waikato Show and then to Waikato Stadium to see the rugby.

Go Chiefs!

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Jumping the Ditch

Like most voyages, the hardest days of this trip are the first and the last. It may only be a 3hr plane trip across the Tasman but the travel times to, from and at the airports are arduous.

A 4.30am check in meant a very early start for everyone and so by the time we landed in Auckland at midday NZ time, the kids were already weary. Getting through customs can also be a nightmare with such a large group and there’s usually at least one small hold up. This time it was a couple of apples (that thankfully made the bin before the sniffer dog found them) and some farm shoes that needed fumigating. Nevertheless we survived the journey without any tears, not single vomit and only 3 retreats for a) Sarah’s left behind jumper, b) my left behind handbag, c) Jacinta’s left behind duty free. By the time we’d picked up our rentals, it was almost 3pm before we hit the road to Rotorua. After a quick pitsop for KFC refueling at Matamata, we pulled into Waiteti just on 6.30.  Luckily our evening activity was a swim at the Polynesian Pools – just what was needed to iron out the travel kinks.

(Almost) everyone was up bright and early this morning to go to the Skyline Gondola & Luge. This is always one of the most popular activities on camp. The ride up on the gondola takes you to the start of 3 different luge tracks that then take you, at varying speeds, down the mountain where you pick up a chairlift to get to the top and start all over again.

Some of the kids enjoy the scenic track, most like racing down the fast track - especially the teachers and the dads! By lunchtime there are wondrous tales of spills, over takings and near misses. Luckily there were no lasting injuries, just a few trophy sized bruises and dented prides! A few kids also tried out the Skyswing, a terrifying apparatus that swings , from great height, accompanied by screams of horror, out beyond the edge of Mt Ngongotaha and back again.

After lunch taking in the beautiful view of Lake Rotorua, it was off to the NZ centre for rescue and release of native raptors. We’ve been members of Wingspan for a long time now and always bring the kids to see the birds in training while we’re here. Debbie and her team do an amazing job with injured and orphaned raptors, training them with a lure to build their skills to a stage where they can be released back into the wild. We were lucky that we were amongst the only people at today’s flight display so most of the kids got to handle the raptors themselves.

Back at camp it was time to test the stamina of the creek swimmers. The creek is crystal clear and brimming with koura and trout – it’s also freezing cold!. This lot didn’t last long before they were out and into the showers.

Tonight the exhaustion of yesterday’s travel was beginning to take its toll, so dinner of BBQ, potato bake & chocolate, self saucing pudding (for 35, ably created on one half working stove and a BBQ in the dark) and into bed.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Here we go again

On Monday, we’re heading off on our 6th New Zealand camp with the kids from school and I’ve been struggling with motivation. Its not that I don’t love NZ and its not that I don’t love the opportunity to share that with the kids, its just that after 11 years the novelty has worn off a bit. The planning of such a big adventure is hard work and sometimes the thought of the responsibility of looking after other people’s kids in another country for 12 days weighs fairly heavily. Yesterday, someone (with the very best of intentions) told me they hoped we had a great holiday. A holiday?? I felt like saying, “Yep, next time you have some time off let me know and I’ll organize for you to take 25 teen/tweenagers with you”. This trip is many wonderful things but it’s not a holiday!

At the other end of the motivation spectrum, Taine is very excited because this is the first time he’ll travel on the camp in his own right. Despite having been on the previous 5 trips, now he’s a legitimate student aged traveler and gets to enjoy the experience with his own friends. Bonus for us, he’s saved up his own spending money

Just in time, Facebook (maybe Zuckerberg really can read moods) has started bringing up my daily photo memories from 7 years, 5 years and 2 years ago and everyone of them is of a smiling face on NZ camp.
So, to get me in the upbeat frame of mind needed to enjoy the next 12 days (and stop thinking about how I’ll manage the exhaustion of the rest of the term when we get back!), I’ve been having a nostalgic look back at the photos of the previous trips, to remind myself of the amazing adventures taken with amazing people.

Our first trip was way back in 2005. The aim (as it still is) was to provide an economical and affordable overseas opportunity that was accessible for all our students. On that first trip we landed in Wellington and then had to drive all the way up the Nth Island. We flew with Virgin and Pacific Blue and had to change planes in Sydney. We had one kid whose passport hadn’t arrived before school finished and we had to get my cousin in Melbourne to collect it so we could get it on the way to the airport. Another one of the kids was so air sick that the cabin crew threatened to ground us and then a passport crisis almost resulted in us missing our connection in Sydney. Our rental vans were crap and struggled up the hills. Pat left his lights on the first night and had a flat battery. The place we stayed in Otaki thought we were bringing our own bedding (on a plane???) and had to scrounge to find covers for us. It poured rain in Turangi (the gumboot capital of NZ ) and the then 18 mth old Taine got an ear infection and screamed his way across the Desert Rd.

Despite all this we had a wonderful time and realized that 10 days away in another country is one of the biggest learning curves a child can experience. Each one of them overcame personal fears and a little bit of homesickness and learnt to get along with kids and adults of different ages. As is always the case with extra curricula activities, as teachers we discovered strengths in kids that could never be seen in a regular classroom. We covered a lot of ground, traveling as far as Waitomo and Raglan before we headed back down to Otaki (where thankfully they had bedding waiting for us) and back to Wellington to fly home. The kapahaka kids in the group performed at Whakarewarewa and Hell’s Gate and they even did a haka on the plane on the way home.
Remarkably, when we got home, TVNZ sent a production crew all the way to Mortlake to make a documentary about our ‘Maori Aussies’.

Rotorua is a perfect base for us; it’s central to a variety of attractions, the sulphur’s great for my arthritis and the spiritual beauty of the place always affects our travelers in a positive way. Despite its ‘Roto Vegas’ nickname there’s an amazing calmness about the place that has everyone smiling, most of the time.

Learning from our first experience, in 2007 we extended the trip to 12 days and decided to fly in and out of Auckland to save on traveling time. In 2009 we moved around the lake to Ngongotaha and the Waiteti Caravan Park. This was a (very) slight upscaling in accommodation, with only 3 or 4 kids to a room and a couple of stoves that actually worked. In 2011 we started recording the trips with our ‘happy dance’ and in 2014 we switched to people movers instead of vans, making it much easier to pick up groceries.

Over the years we’ve added and subtracted different activities, settling on some permanent favourites like Kerosine Creek, the luge and Waimarino kayak centre, throwing in different boiling mud experiences, taking in a rugby game when the fixture coincides and adding something new whenever we can to keep our own experience fresh.

Depending on the exchange rate we eat like kings or dine on spaghetti and baked beans. We swim in hot pools every day and try to blend some adventure activities with Maori culture and an appreciation of the magnificent natural beauty of the Waikato and Bay of Plenty.

We’ve managed gastro outbreaks, travel sickness, tonsillitis and hospitalized appendicitis. Twice we’ve taken kids with broken bones – the vision of us getting Tiare in and out of the hot water beach with his leg cast wrapped in garbage bags is a lasting one!

We’ve been blessed on every trip with a wonderful group of parents and accompanying teachers. They all bring their own special talents to the group and over the years we’ve had great drivers, first aiders, fishermen, photographers, bargain spotters, launderers and best of all great cooks. On the first trip, Glenise whipped up a roast for 40 in a couple of fry pans, Jackie was like our own personal chef for 3 trips, Sue and Chesne could have the lunch rolls made before I got the glad wrap untangled and Ross’s porridge was so good it had its own daily Facebook updates. In my wild fantasies I imagine a reunion trip where we just relive the camp with all of them together (and maybe leave the kids at home) Or we could just wait until the kids all grow up. After coming twice as a school student, this year Lucy is joining us as a student teacher- how quickly the circle turns!

And so tomorrow we’ll get up at stupid o’clock and Geoff and I will look at each other and silently ask the same questions we’ve asked on the eve of the other 5 trips – “What are we doing? Are we mad? What if…”– and then we’ll get to the airport and see all those expectant, slightly apprehensive faces and get really excited for the adventure that lies ahead.

This year (in case it’s the last camp – because I always say this will be my last camp!), I’m going to blog the trip on my travel blog for Fodors so that other prospective travelers can benefit from our experience. Feel free to follow along and enjoy the adventure with us.