I made my first ever Pacific crossing, arriving in Auckland and watching the first Lions test before heading to wet windy Wellington for the second via Rotorua, Taupo and Napier.
Auckland – 21 Jun
Unsurpsingly it’s a bit of a slog from Bogota to Auckland and, as it’s not really a common business / tourist route, there aren’t loads of options. A six hour flight to Santiago, a seven hour layover and a 13 hour flight to finally touch me down 26 hours and 2 calendar days later – crossing the international date line at least added novelty to the trip. Landing early and feeling very tired on my bus into the city, I appreciated how familiar everything felt: the streets, the pavements, the left hand driving, the rain and, of course, the language.
Sadly the hefty journey and sudden change of climate, on top of several weeks fun in Colombia, proved too much and I quickly gave in to a miserable cold. Why did I come to New Zealand in the middle of winter I hear you ask? – easy… the Lions v the All Blacks. I love the British and Irish Lions and have wanted to do a tour for as long as I can remember so I was never going to pass that chance up, winter or summer. The first test was on Saturday evening, giving me three nights to shake off the cold, I was willing to sacrifice fun for a couple of days for the cause.
I still got out and about plenty in the day, topping up on my lions stash, adding some warmer clothes to my wardrobe, visiting the impressive War Memorial Museum set in the pretty Domain park and going up the Skycity Tower. I didn’t really feel I needed to ‘do’ that much anyway because the atmosphere in the city was electric, red shirts everywhere, supporter unity shown through the suitably British head nod as you walk past a stranger in matching kit.
In those days I met two of the lads who’d form our touring party: we had ‘friend of a friend’ Euan from Scotland and Manx but England rugby supporter Steve meaning, with my Welsh allegiance, we just needed an Irishman to complete the home nations supporters set. Sadly we couldn’t find one so had to settle for Thuto – a South African friend from Rio carnival with whom I’d agreed to tour with in February!
I was feeling better by Friday night, especially after a few fan zone beers with Euan – but I then made the grave mistake of believing myself cured and decided to go out for a BYOB Thai and a ‘few drinks’. I had a great night out with some guys Euan knew – but by god did I regret it the next day.
Despite decent sleep and the normally reliable recovery routine, I was still a state by 3/4 pm; once the “a couple of pints will settle you” approach had also failed – I had no choice but to skip an hour of build up and had a power nap before heading to the stadium for the 7 35 kick off. It was a great decision- I wasn’t a new man, but at least I was able to fully enjoy a bloody incredible match of rugby featuring one of the greatest tries ever scored. Despite our eventual loss, I loved the experience and was now desperate to attend the next week’s match in Wellington too.
Rotorua – 25 Jun
I decided to road trip down the North Island with Euan between the two tests, given it’s only an eight out drive total to Wellington, the four nights would give us plenty of time for activities. First stop was Rotorua, a small and extremely quiet town famed for its geothermal hot springs and accompanying eggy aroma. Our motel was right next to the main park which has bubbling springs all across it – don’t climb over random fences on your way home drunk here! On our first night we hit up the Polynesian spas, a really relaxing set of outdoor hot tubs overlooking the lake – I always love being in spas at night, looking up at the night sky with your head chilly whilst your body is boiling alive.
We spent two nights in Rotorua, giving us a full day there, we used this as any sensible grown men would – visiting Hobbiton movie set which was only an hour away. For a LOTR nerd like me it was immensely fun. You can walk around and see hobbit holes, the big tree, bag end and the lovely Green Dragon inn on the pond where you can slurp a shire ale. The really impressive thing is how the set fits with the rolling green hills; it really belongs there, enhancing the authenticity of a place which is entirely fictional.
That night we watched a bizarrely flat draw from the Lions midweek team against Wellington after seeing one of the best sunsets of the trip – and that’s saying something. Given the weekend’s hangover of death had brought back my cold with a vengeance, this was a whole week of quiet nights in, once more in build up to a big Saturday.
Taupo – 27 Jun
Taupo is another summery lakeside tourist town a couple of hours further south. For me Taupo was all about one thing – my first sky dive. It, along with Queenstown, has a rep as the best place to do them in New Zealand and it’s not hard to understand why with it sitting on a huge, gorgeous lake and a snow capped mountain to the south. Luckily the heavy morning fog burned off by lunch into the perfect day, a little chilly but clear and not a breath of wind.
I wasn’t really nervous, the logical side of me overpowering any doubts; my stoicism holding whilst gearing up, taking off in the tiny plane, getting up to 15,000ft and watching the first two jumpers rapidly disappear below the plane. When it was my turn to go I was clumsily shifted off the bench and scooted to the edge by my tandem instructor – this bit made me squirm. It’s literally someone slowly pushing you toward a huge drop and your legs are already out over the edge.
Once in position on the edge however I regained my composure and was pumped to get going. Out we went, my stomach tensed for the gut wrench which I expected but never came, a few topples later we were flying evenly down to earth, screaming and hooting out in pure joy. After 60 seconds of free fall and 10,000 ft of descent the chute was pulled and we settled into the calm, peaceful part of the jump. As you’re still a long way up in the air, this is where you can really enjoy the amazing views all around you. I loved skydiving and will 100% do it again.
Napier – 28 Jun
Napier is a more genuine locals town on the south east coast, in the heart of wine country. We didn’t spend ages here and didn’t explore much- but did manage to squeeze in a nice lunch and wine tasting at Craggy Range- even if Euan’s lack of taste and smell limited his enjoyment of it, “I can tell it’s white…it’s cold”.
Wellington – 29 Jun
A five hour relaxed drive got us into Wellington mid afternoon on the Friday, the day before the second test. I’d learnt from my mistakes the week before and made sure I wasn’t too drunk that night- although I did bump in to old uni rugby teammate Snuds and shared a Wagamama and few shandies downtown.
Our big stroke of luck came the next day. Thuto and I didn’t have tickets for the second test, and hadn’t planned on getting them either, but now we were there we were desperate. We turned up to the stadium office seven hours before kick off and miraculously managed to get two Cat A tickets at face value; despite the steep cost there was 0% chance we were turning them down. And that proved to be an amazing decision.
Awesome build up, incredible atmosphere, highest quality game I’ve ever seen, historic red card and a landmark win for the boys in red. After the game we celebrated with a McDonald’s on the way to the team hotel which we managed to blag our way into, giving the boys a tunnel of noise to welcome them home. I also had a little chat with JJ’s dad, reminiscing about how his son kept me out of the South West England team 10 years ago and clashes of RGS & Millfield at the St Jo’s 10s. Remarkably even 10 years on it seems I still get wound up about some suspect selection policies in my last year of school. …,,”It’s over Lloyd- move on”.
Rugby aside – Wellington is a very cool city with lots of bars, cafes and restaurants spanning a lovely harbour area; that’s all I’ve got on it sadly though as that weekend was unashamedly all about the rugby.
The next day, with the buzz from a big win keeping me going in spite of a heavy hang over, I boarded a flight to the South Island and the city of Dunedin.