Catch up

Otauto Bay
Otauto Bay

Long time no write – we have been just a tad busy over the last few weeks, but now most of the boxes are unpacked, and the house is in some semblance of order, I thought I’d take some time out to write an update.

Where did I leave you – I think we had just decided to buy 7 Naylor Street and were in the throes of packing and getting to grips with the property buying system here in NZ.  Everything went according to plan and on 12th December at around about lunchtime I had a call from the solicitor to say that the keys were ready to be picked up.  We had arranged for our new bed to be delivered that afternoon and Nigel was going to pick up the new sofa (Yes, we splashed out!) so I headed to the house with a pile of boxes and some cleaning stuff.  What a wonderful surprise – the house was spotless – the previous owners had engaged a cleaning company to scrub the place – it was immaculate!  So I wandered around, opened all the doors and windows and had a thoroughly good explore of our new home.  The best thing about it so far is the open plan living room with access to the garden on two sides.  It’s almost like having another living room – we’ve put the old settee out there as

well as the garden table and chairs and it is very pleasant sitting out there even quite late into the evening.  The garden is very pretty and well laid out and the sitting areas are sheltered and quiet. When Blair was out here over Christmas he tidied up the straggly bushes and deadheaded the roses for us, but really there is little to do to the garden except keep it tidy.  We have plans of course – there are several Camellias and lots of roses as well as some beautiful ornamental grasses and other shrubs and trees we don’t know the names of – but we would like to create a vegetable plot and swap some of the ornamental trees for fruit trees.  However, we will see how things grow over the next 12 months before we start decimating the place!

Matiu Island
Matiu Island

Inside I am revelling in having an en suite bathroom – no more queues for the shower in the morning and a toilet seat that is down not up!! (you need to have a family of boys to appreciate that one!) But generally just having space to move around and finally unpack all those boxes is great.

As I said, Nigel’s brother Blair came to stay over Christmas. He helpfully arrived the day after we moved in though gave us a bit of a scare when he didn’t arrive on the day he said he would, which was our moving day.  We had arranged for a shuttle bus to pick him up and got a call from them mid-afternoon to ask us if he had actually got

Fantail Bay walk

on the plane as there was no sign of him.  After a couple of anxious hours and some unproductive phone calls to the airport and the airline we realised that due to the time difference he must have got the day wrong. Fortunately the Shuttle service was up at the airport the next day and picked him up for us!  He spent last Christmas helping us pack up the house in Ingleton and this year helping us unpack in Hamilton, hopefully next time he visits we won’t be moving again!

We headed down to Greytown on the Friday Aonghas finished school – Lachlan had already had a week off by this stage, mooching around with his friends.  A quick stop in Taupo for a late lunch/early tea and then straight on down. Next day we went over to Wellington for a family get together.  Mike and Kathryn – Nigel’s cousin and his wife were over from Malaysia where Mike is working at the moment but were due to return the next day.  It was good to meet up with them again and Aonghas enjoyed playing with Alexia whilst Lachlan looked on with a sort of teenage superiority!

Matiu Island view
Matiu Island view

We spent the next few days between Greytown and Wellington – Aonghas was desperate to go to Te Papa again and we all had last minute Christmas shopping to do.  On Tuesday we went out to Matiu/Soames Island which is a former quarantine island used by the European settlers when they arrived in NZ in the 19th century.  Sadly, some of them never made it off the island to discover the delights of the new life they had left Europe for. It is a beautiful place and DOC (The Department of Conservation) have adopted it as an Island Sanctuary where they are trying to eliminate all mammalian predators in order to regenerate the native bush and wildlife.  It is one of the few places where you can see skinks and lizards – we had fleeting glimpses as they dashed across our path.  We also had to duck and weave as the odd protective nesting seagull dive bombed us!  There are more and more “Island” sanctuaries being created by DOC, I think I have already talked about Maungatautari which is not far from us and we visited another called Mount Bruce whilst we were away.  After the beautiful weather on Matiu island the rain came and so looking for wet weather options Terry suggested Mount Bruce.  This is a newly developed area with a visitor centre and a Kiwi house.  It was fascinating seeing the kiwis interacting and using their long beaks grubbing for food.  The Kiwi house is specially adapted to simulate night time so that visitors can see the kiwis as they are nocturnal birds. They have a few that have been reared in captivity and will not be released into the wild, but as they produce young they are carefully nurtured so that they can be released into the wild in the areas that have been made predator free. We also watched the Kaka being fed – these are NZ parrots that have been released into the area, but as they are quite social birds they still come back to the feeding area.  They are only given a snack as they get the bulk of their diet for themselves in the wild, but again, it is fascinating watching them scrapping with each other and squawking. Later on when we went for a walk at Waikaremoana we could hear the Kaka above the other birds they have such a distinctive call.  The birdsong in the bush was amazing – I think it was the noisiest walk I have done – even Aonghas couldn’t compete!’ We could clearly hear the Tuis and the Bellbirds as well as NZ robins, fantails and a whole host of others that I don’t yet recognise.

Pohutakawa
Pohutakawa

The sun came out for Christmas day and the planned barbecue went ahead – I still can’t quite get my head around a hot Christmas but we had the full works for Christmas Day – cooked English breakfast, roast lamb, potatoes etc for dinner, the only real difference being the kumara which seems to be served in almost every dish in every restaurant here.  Nigel and Blair really struggled whenever we ate out as they use kumara or pumpkin as the basis for nearly all vegetarian dishes – not one of Nigel’s favourites!

We headed up the coast to Napier on Boxing Day and had a day on the beach which was lovely – rather overdid the sun exposure despite liberal lathering with sun screen – swimming and playing in the sea was a welcome activity after being inland for so long! Napier is an interesting place with it’s 1930’s architecture, though we didn’t really have time to explore it much. The beaches are graded pebbles – Aonghas wasn’t impressed as he couldn’t dig but it was quite nice for wriggling down in the warm pebbles and making a comfortable “nest” to lie on! (and no sand in the sandwiches either!)

silver fern sphere, Wellington
silver fern sphere, Wellington

From there we went inland to another “island” reserve around a lake called Waikaremoana (sea of rippling waters) – this is a huge lake in the Te Urewa National Park.  It really is beautiful and well worth the uncomfortable drive to get there and back out again.  The main Wairoa to Rotorua State Highway goes through the Park but 90km of it is un sealed and very rutted!  The car had a thick coating of red dust all over it by the time we got out!  We found a basic DOC campsite (standpipe and Longdrop toilet) but got a tent pitch right next to the lake.  Aonghas was keen to get straight in the water but took a while to persuade Lachlan to come in with him – in the end Blair offered them 2 dollars for the first to get in – Aonghas was straight in there but it still took Lachlan an age to submerse himself!  It was quite cold – the lake is at 600m – I went in for a morning swim the next day and came out numb!  Very refreshing though! We were short of gas so Lachlan and Blair went into the bush to get some firewood just in case. (we’d already checked with the warden that it was okay to have a fire and there were already fireplaces constructed along the lakeside) Lachlan was disappointed that we didn’t need to light the fire that evening – it was also a bit windy so we were reluctant to inconvenience our neighbours. We went to bed after a beautiful clear evening and a dark night sky full of stars, with the Morepork calling to each other to wake the next day to mist and rain!

Waikaremoana sunset
Waikaremoana sunset

Undeterred we set off on a walk through the bush to a smaller lake called Waikereiti.  It was only a short walk but a wet one but the bush sheltered us from the worst of the rain and there was plenty to look at and hear on the way.  Definitely a place to go back to in the future as there is plenty of scope for longer walks and overnight tramps.

Back to Hamilton for New Year.  It was good to touch base and do a bit more unpacking.  Fortunately the weather was good again so we managed to dry out the wet tent we had packed away in Waikaremoana.  We had a quiet Hogmanay with just the five of us but it was lovely to be at home (and sleeping in our new, very comfortable bed!) I have been struggling with a damaged rotator cuff muscle and sleeping on the hard ground in a tent didn’t do it much good!  But a couple of days later we packed up again and drove up to Otauto Bay on the Coromandel coast to stay with Lorraine and Rob on their campsite.  A chance for the boys to go fishing – Blair usually fishes for Pike in Scotland so was looking forward to some sea fishing, and he had bought a fishing rod for Aonghas for Christmas so he was keen to try it out!  We had four days of beautiful weather after the first night of thunderstorms cleared the air.

Aonghas fishing
Aonghas fishing

Unfortunately the fishing wasn’t as productive as we were told it had been the previous week, but we all caught something so were happy.  Just being out on the boat early in the morning, the sun shining and the breeze blowing the cobwebs away is wonderful.  I could quite happily sit out there all day, rocking on the waves (as long as they aren’t too big!).  The boys had great fun playing in the sea – they managed to borrow some kayaks which kept them occupied for hours.  Aonghas, of course, was perfectly happy to dig and create fortifications to keep out the sea and then watch them being engulfed before starting all over again!  I enjoyed my early morning swims when nobody else was around – it was like having the whole ocean to myself!

Before we left to go up the Coromandel we decided we needed a map so that we could get back to one of our favourite past times of poring over the map of the area we were visiting and planning walking routes (and then looking at them afterwards to see where we had been).  We had very reluctantly parted with our collection of OS maps when we left the UK, but decided that maps were to be used not stored so gave them to friends we knew would appreciate them.  We are quite excited at the prospect of starting a new collection of NZ maps as we visit new places but were disappointed to find that here in NZ that 1:25 000 maps do not exist!!  They only have 1:50 000 and there are very few footpaths marked on them.  However a lot of the land is open access or is owned/managed by DOC and there are walking route cards available from  them (usually at a small cost of $1) which give information about the area and which parts are open access.

Fire building
Fire building

At the moment most of the walks we have done have been on marked trails but as we get more familiar with the terrain and the environment we will go a bit further afield.  Anyway, to get back to the map for the Coromandel – it turned out that we needed TWO maps for the small area we were going to and one of the maps is 90% water!! We decided to do one of the walks marked on the DOC leaflet though not marked on the map – it went up from Fantail Bay and was described as going up to the bushline where their were fantastic views of the Coromandel.  After a couple of hours fishing and playing in the sea we headed off through a DOC campsite and into the bush.  Following a stream for a while we started to climb up the sides of a gully, the path was marked with coloured tags in the trees but was a narrow track and was quite overgrown with Supplejack and fallen Ponga trees.  Blair was up at the front and soon shouted back that he thought we had gone the wrong way.  It was clear that we hadn’t but the path was getting very steep and he had reached a point where the path seemed to go downwards before turning back up again.  We were in a very steep gully and decided that caution was the better part of valour and turned back.  Once back down at stream level we followed the stream along to a very inviting pool – so inviting that the boys and I stripped off and dived in!  Cold but very refreshing, we made our way to the waterfall where we let the water pound our backs and floated in the bubbles.

We had a lovely time with Lorraine, Rob, Ernie and Marlene who just treated us as part of the family – they have a great setup there as they all prepare a bit of the meals each and bring it all together, eating fresh fish as they catch it.  We felt a bit awkward that we didn’t have the wherewithall to contribute as much as we felt we should have but we can hopefully make up for that in the future somehow.  I’m sure we will go back there agin and can go better prepared next time.

Brotherly Love
Brotherly Love

Back to Hamilton again – Blair and I had a bit of a job persuading Nigel to come back before the 8th (his Birthday) as Chris and Brian were coming up from Wellington for a surprise Birthday visit.  I also had the job of organising the sleeping arrangements without him suspecting anything! Blair was already in Lachlan’s room and so he was sharing with Aonghas, so we were hoping for good weather so that the boys could sleep in the tent in the garden and I brought the futon in to Aonghas’ room for Chris and Brian.  Blair was to take Nigel out of the way for the day so I could do all this!  It all worked out well because Chris and Brian arrived while they were out and so he got back to find them there and was genuinely surprised (although we had a scary moment the previous evening when Aonghas nearly gave the game away).  It was good to spend more time with Chris and Brian and get to know them better especially since Blair was here as well.  But all too soon it was time for them and Blair to go home and the house feels quite empty now we are just four again!

On top of the tower at Maungatautari
On top of the tower at Maungatautari

A few days to chill before I start my new job – the boys are booked into a tennis and golf camp next week in Cambridge – a bid to keep Lachlan off the computer and out into the open!  He has struggled with the familiar summer holiday problem of friends being around when we were away and then them being away when we are here so hasn’t been out and about as much as he had hoped.  Hoewever he has met up with some friends today and I am sure the last week of the holidays he will be able to catch up with them all again too.  Both of them are taking part ion the Weetbix tryathlon at the beginning of February and Lachlan is also competing in a Mountain bike race in mid-Feb.  We have just spent $250 on repairs to his bike after the last event which he disappointingly got more than half way through before his wheel hit a root and got bent!  We were amazed that yesterday he got up,(after spending most of the holidays doing the teenage thing of sleeping until midday!) made himself a packed lunch and was ready to set off to cycle to the Mountain bike track on his own to practise and then cycle back.  We were so impressed we said we would give him a lift since we were planning on going up that way anyay! (It is quite a long way on busy roads to get there – or are we just being too protective!)

Wow, that is a bit of a mammoth blog.  Well done if you have got all the way through it! Better stick some photos in now!

Advertisements

The first term over!

Well the boys have made it through to the end of their first term at school. Lachlan seems to be coasting quite a bit and finding the standard of the work easier than in the UK. Of course he doesn’t mind not having much homework because he finishes everything in class but has intimated that he finds some of his lessons boring because he isn’t really challenged. He is also still quite disorganised – lost his school planner already so doesn’t write anything down (not that he used it anyway!) Whilst he doesn’t have much to remember it’s not a problem but he isn’t getting into the habit of using a planner for when he will have more to remember. (Sorry QES but the good habits he was encouraged to have there have just gone out of the window now there is no pressure from school here!) There is a Parents’ evening after the holidays so we will address those issues then! It may just be the case that the first term is slow because all the students are new and have just come from the different Middle Schools. However having started to study the French scheme of work in readiness for my new job I think it’s more the case that the standard here is just lower than in the UK! There has also been quite a lot of discussion in the staffroom about the low standard of the NCEAs, (external National Exams) which were introduced/revamped relatively recently, being too easy. The idea being that everyone succeeds and so has higher self esteem – where have I heard that before?! The reality, of course being that most kids find them too easy, aren’t challenged and so just doss around in class because they know they can gain credits without putting themselves out too much! Balance is a wonderful thing! That, of course is a crassly simplistic explanation of a complicated educational ethos but one that, I think, has some merit.

Aonghas is enjoying school (though claims he doesn’t as always!) and he is positively challenged. A balance does seem to be achieved in the Primary School although if we had any complaints it would be that he has too much homework! He certainly has a more structured program than Lachlan and spends more time “studying” at home. They have a program called “Have a BALL” (Be a Life Learner). They have a grid of activities that they should do over a two week period which include maths, spellings and reading, as you would expect, but also has activities that involve the whole family in an attempt to encourage parents to take some responsibility for their children’s progress and also to create a healthy work-life balance. Activities include doing a 10 minute task to help out in the house each day (fine by me!), playing a game with a family member, trying out a new activity, relaxing (he’s good at that one!), doing some exercise, using a computer to do research work and so on. All activities which you would expect to do in your everyday life. In theory the children do the activities at their own level but Aonghas does get quite anxious and thinks he has to complete everything so we have had some tears!

The two week blocks tend to be topic related and obviously linked to the topics they are doing in school so last time all the work was to do with birds as they have just had a trip to Maungatautari. For example, there was some research to do about how fantails build their nests, they had to draw a bird and write some notes about their chosen bird, they had a poem as a stimulus and had to write a similar poem about a bird of their choice – all that on top of 10 minutes reading everyday, learning spellings and maths activities! Quite a lot of work and in fact there was some discussion in the playground from other parents about how much there was and how much time parents as well as children were having to spend doing it. Aonghas is quite bright and relatively well motivated – surprisingly! He comes home most evenings and gets his maths book out to complete his maths, though he is less keen on writing activities. We also have time to sit with him but families where the children are less bright or who have little brothers and sisters and parents don’t have the time to sit with them are finding the whole program quite onerous and stressful. Anyway, they have a break over the holidays – all the activities on the homework sheet are just having fun, eating healthily, helping round the house, and doing physical activities to challenge themselves. We can cope with all of those! One of them is to climb your nearest mountain so hopefully we will get out this weekend and do that! We have a few to choose from!

I mentioned Aonghas’ school trip to Maungatautari – Maunga is the Maori word for mountain. Aonghas was delighted that I could accompany him and his class – he has always wanted me to come on school trips and I never could before because I was working full time. Maungatautari is a forested volcanic cone which unfortunately over the last 200 hundred years or so since the European settlers arrived has been decimated of it’s native species – both plants and birds. This is a huge problem all over NZ. The threatened native populations of NZ are mainly ground dwelling birds such as the Kiwi which had no predators until the early settlers introduced rabbits, and then stoats, weasels (to control the rabbits), mice, rats, possums, goats etc. The trees were felled, especially the Kauri, for building which inevitably affected other species in the bush. Anyway the upshot of it is that the Department of Conservation has created an Ecological Island at Maungatautari. It is an amazingly ambitious project to clear the area of all mammalian pests and predators (non-native species) and to encourage native species such as the kiwi and other birds as well as regenerating a healthy diversity of fauna and flora in the forest. To that end they have erected a predator proof fence around the whole area and spent years tracking and trapping all the predators from within the area so that they now are pretty certain there are no predators left. In the last couple of years they have introduced several pairs of kiwi as well as other birds and just this year a kiwi chick hatched. The fence really is impressive – there is a space like a sort of no mans land either side of the fence so that creatures can’t use the tree branches as bridges and there is an alarm system in place in case the fence is breached by, for instance, a tree falling.

We had a lovely time – there were 5 parents as well as two teachers so we had responsibility for a group of 4 children each and of course Aonghas was in my group which he was thrilled about. We met a volunteer from the Maungatautari Trust who told us all about the aims of the project and then took us up to the fence and explained how it worked. The children had already done some work on the project in class so knew some of the information which meant that they didn’t have to take in too much at once and were able to ask really good questions and answer her questions too. We then walked through the forest and tried to keep the children quiet enough to hear the birds! We spotted lots of the predator tracking boxes – these are placed every 20 metres or so throughout the forest so that they can make an accurate survey of what is around. Even though they are pretty certain hey have eradicated the pests they continue the survey to make sure none get in. Just yesterday there was news that on a similar ecological island in the Hauraki Gulf a predator has killed some birds so vigilance is vital. There are Weta houses dotted around the forest too which gave us an opportunity to see these normally nocturnal spiders.

The best part of the walk was when we were entertained by a very cheeky little Fantail. These are delightful wee birds which flit around from branch to branch, chirping as they go and this one led us a real dance! I’ve included a short video I shot on our camera – not very high spec and definitely not professional quality but hopefully you can get an idea of what we saw.

Fantails are quite tame and have been known to come in to people’s houses. This is the poem that Aonghas wrote for his homework (with some parental help – but not much!) about the Fantail.

I’m a little nosey native with a big showy tail

See if you can follow my trail

Spot me in your garden, the park or the bush

I’m never still, always in a rush.

Hopping from twig to twig, flitting all around

My black and white stripy tail bobs up and down.

I love to follow visitors, tell them all I know

Scratching under my wing and squeaking as I go.

WHAT AM I?

Wooden Tower MaungatautariIn the middle of the bush there is a wooden tower which the kids had been talking about the whole trip and it didn’t disappoint. It is a huge structure which is pretty impressive, it sways in the wind and as it is wood it also creaks but the view from the top is stunning. You can look down on the birds’ nests and the crowns of the trees and we had a great view of a couple of very fat looking Wood Pigeons. Unfortunately the sway of the tower added to the number of children running round the top platform and the distance means that the photos are not the sharpest but you get an idea.

If you ask Aonghas and half the kids what the highlight of the trip was though they would say it was that one of the buses broke down on the way back and they got to play on the playground whilst they waited for it to be fixed!