THE PLACES BEYOND THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES
The Lake Taupo lay-by....see below
This doesn’t last long though. Soon, the road enters a territory of narrow, shallow valleys and begins to wind and strain along the banks of small rivers that flow down from the hills of the eastern Kaweka Range. And then the hills themselves begin to close in. The occasional bare rockface gives way to larger escarpments and the domesticated valleys are gradually transformed into steep-sided, low gorges - rivers tumbling through tight eyelets of stone, the road balanced on its low shelf - twisting with each hairpin turn of the river.
Speed-limit signs aren’t really necessary here; the road itself compels you to navigate nimbly and cautiously; the occasional heavy truck ( - this is a main road, remember - ) slows you down almost to walking pace, which is the pace a driver needs in order to be able to look around a little.
I was driving by an exquisite, small blue lake. The steep cliff on its far side was draped in conifers - pine and fir and cedar - through which a pencil-thin waterfall shot like a brilliant white streak into the lake below, its foot clothed in a carpet of luxuriant silver fern.
Over the past week or so, I thought I had inured myself against the urge to stop and look, stop and look, stop and look. That way lies the cul-de-sac of perdition - constant late arrivals at campsites, my only excuse being that I was ‘delayed by breathtaking scenery’ (which is better than ‘leaves on the line’).
A small parking place suddenly appeared under a canopy of silver fern. “What’ I thought ‘is the point of being in New Zealand for the first and, for all I know, the only time and not stopping when you encounter mind-mangling beauty like this?"
So I pulled over and silently marvelled at it all, as I had done in dozens of other places.
And that’s when things started to go wrong - because I started to think about this blog.
Ever since I'd arrived in Hong Kong, I had taken copious notes in my notebook. I had made audio-messages for myself on my phone. I had scribbled thoughts and ideas on the backs of envelopes, pie-wrappers and cake boxes. I’d tried to write the blog as often as I could but it wasn’t working.
Sensory overload. I was doing far more than I had the time to describe - seeing more sights, meeting more people, finding more things out. I looked out at the vision of deep, sylvan perfection all around me and realised that it would take me all evening to write a blog that would do it justice. And writing the blog would - if done the way I wanted - cut me off from the journey. Lovingly describing ‘what I did today’ stops you from continuing to do it.
I stared out over the lake for a long time and made an executive decision, as it were. As on all my other days, I had to choose between hurrying on to my destination to give myself time to draft a blogposting or staying put and lapping up the splendour - and some more L&P.
I chose the splendour - and the L&P.
After today, blogpostings would become weaker and ‘scrappier’; less substantial. They would become rapid-draft notes and photos and eventually fade away altogether, as I suspected they would. Sensory overload. There was simply too much going on, inside and outside my head. I couldn’t do it AND describe it. So I decided to do it - and the devil take the hindmost.
This feeling of being utterly unable to write a blog that would say what I wanted it to say has persisted long after my return to England. I have sat me down, coffee in hand and cat on lap, to draft this blogposting - yes, this blogposting - 18 times and each time have ended up in despair, watering the aspidistras or watching repeats of QI.
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My campervan was equipped with GPS/satnav but I’ve never understood how they work so I’d bought a good map instead. I looked at it and discovered that the road I was on - this winding country lane - was not merely State Highway 5; it was the Thermal Explorer Highway.
Dismissing cynical visions of travellers in search of woolly-lined long-johns and leggings, I started the engine and - very reluctantly - pulled away from the little blue lake, contemplating the habit that New Zealand’s transport department has of naming roads as well as numbering them. State Highway 2 yesterday had been the Classic New Zealand Wine Trail and, on South Island, I could have travelled along the Alpine Pacific Triangle, the Goldfields Heritage Trail or the Great Alpine Highway.
Perhaps it would enhance our local tourism to call the A1058 the Eastern Sunrise Road or the A66 the Grand Pennine Highway. You never know.
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I was headed for Taupo and, after it had passed over the mountains, the Thermal Explorer Highway deposited me along one of the dullest stretches of road imaginable. For well over an hour, the road is perfectly straight, the land is perfectly flat and there’s nothing to see except trees. Countless millions of them. The Tauhara Forest Plantations - highly profitable as they are - have the unfortunate side-effect of smothering out the scenery.
Which means that, when you finally reach the end of forest, you have another of those heart-stopping Bloody Nora moments that New Zealand keeps springing on the unwary and wary alike. Suddenly, you see what the trees have been hiding from you. Ahead lies a vast inland sea - Lake Taupo - shimmering bluely, as only kiwi lakes seem to be able to do.
And the secret, lonely road through the trees has also transported you through aeons of time because, all around you, the Earth itself has changed. Geography and geology have altered states and pressed the teleport button; you’re in the land of volcanoes.
I pulled up sharp to gawp. (This was kiwi gawp number 108.) I realised that, at the age of 64, I’d never knowingly seen a volcano in my life. And here I was, surrounded, near and far, by about a dozen of them.
Not one of the photographs I took gives any meaningful indication of the sheer other-worldliness of volcanic scenery. Geometrically cone-shaped, barren-sided, flat-topped snowy peaks ranging to the distance, laid out like dozing giants. And that’s all they’re doing: dozing. The Thermal Explorer Highway had finally given me something Thermal to Explore.
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Through necessity, Taupo is a tourist town. It lies at the centre of a maze of National Parks, Conservation Areas and Scenic Routes and stands at the head of Lake Taupo, one of New Zealand’s largest and most beautiful lakes. But, as tourist towns go, it manages to keep its aesthetic head above water, in much the same way as Keswick or Ambleside do.
I slurped an ice cream and yet another glass of L&P on the lakeside beach. The lake seemed endless, like the lovely midday sunshine. A family of black swans swam and then walked and then swam along the foreshore. Three or four volcanoes with staccato Maori names like Kakaramea and Karatau enclosed the distant horizon. It was sublime - it really was.
Maybe, I thought, I should just stay here overnight. Or for the next few days. Or until Christmas. Or...
No, of course not. The Waitomo Caves - still half a day’s drive away - were calling me and I was grittily determined not to include them in all the ‘essential places to visit‘ that I hadn’t visited.
I decided that my loins could only be efficiently girded if I had another hazelnut and kiwi fruit ice-cream and then set off to the west.
My gritty determination lasted less than ten minutes. I found a remote and empty viewpoint lay-by and pulled over for one last look at Lake Taupo the Beautiful.
The Huka Falls.
Lake Taupo is the source of the Waikato River - New Zealand's longest.
This is where it tumbles out of the lake and begins its journey to the sea at Port Waikato.
I would meet it there a few days later...* * *
Many hours after I have left Lake Taupo - perhaps even a day or two later - two backpackers discover the same lay-by I had used. They are called Grant and Amy and they’re from England. They pull their campervan into the lay-by. It’s getting late in the day so they decide to stay here by the lakeside for the night.
They make themselves a coffee or, perhaps (knowing Grant and Amy), something a little stronger.
Relaxed and happy on their far-flung holiday, Grant and Amy sit outside on the foreshore amongst the trees and the rocks and watch the sun go down over the lake and the mountains.
I know that this happened, even though I had left the lay-by long before Grant and Amy arrived and have never met them. I know it happened because, as they watched their glorious Lake Taupo sunset, they noticed something...
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