The route between Wellington and Taupo is much like a who’s who of mesmerising landscapes… AND PERIL, in the form of endless “Danger” signs that herald imminent death by fire:

Not that these bother New Zealanders. You can’t bother a nation that endures 11,000 earthquakes a year and runs the risk of falling into the sea, they’re too busy perfecting their scrums and inventing new ciders. Kiwi friend even lovingly pointed out the MASSIVE fault-line in the earth that runs alongside her house:

“BUT WHAT HAPPENS IF IT SUDDENLY OPENS AND WE ALL JUST TIP INSIDE!?” had been my sensitive British reaction. And she’d given me the casual Kiwi meh-I-guess-Peter-Jackson-will-make-a-film-about-us shrug.

DON’T ask for earthquake advice from a Kiwi. It’s so ingrained in their psyche that they’ve all forgotten it. “STOP-DROP-AND-ROLL! … Wait, no, that’s fire. STOP-DROP-AND-GRAB? That sounds right. Yeah, stop, drop and grab!”

“Grab what? MYSELF?”

“A fine New Zealand man! They’ll take care of you!”

An excellent reason to ensure you are constantly surrounded by the All Blacks.

We stopped 150kms up from Wellington for petrol, at Bulls: a town which has invested all of its money into the finding of questionable PUNS and not the sustenance of weary travellers as it proved impossible to buy a coffee anywhere past 5pm. “Be response-a-bull” admonish the bins, “Read-a-bull” chants the sign to the library, “Memor-a-bull” suggests the museum. Reprehend-a-bull to the extreme.

It’s not far past Bulls that you’re thrown into the sulky pits of Mordor. I’ve never watched a Lord Of The Rings movie all the way through (all those short people reminds me too much of being at work), but it was easy to see why this place was chosen as the epicentre of all evil. The Rangipo Desert wears its ugliness with style, and has even hired some formidable clouds to gather above it perpetually for effect. THIS is where the child-catcher and Scar-from-the-lion-king would live: all doom and morbid fascination.

But Grand Lake Taupo on the other side, is worth the perilous venture.

The second-largest lake in Oceania, Taupo is the sort of huge usually reserved for celestial bodies and American meals, all navy-green with a tendency to lap and whine reminiscent of small dogs. But the best thing about it? FLOATING ROCKS! … Which occupied a full 3 days of our time.

The town of Taupo itself was just as trashy and hopeful as I’d wanted it to be, boasting thermal activity, natural wonders… and a Mcdonald’s, KFC and Burger King all within 30 feet of each other! If that isn’t the forefront of civilisation? I’m not sure what is. Besides, their Mcdonald’s was recently voted the COOLEST Maccy-Ds in the world. Why? Because it’s got a PLANE. An aeroplane for you to eat your chicken nuggets in! Bathos at its best.

This place is internationally cosmopolitan, in the sense that you can’t go out without an Argentinian hand finding your arse, or a strange Kenyan man rubbing up against you. It’s a Southern Hemisphere Blackpool, dropped into an area of outstanding natural beauty. IMAGINE. No, you really can’t.

A run of back-packer-grabbing bars introduced me to more drunken English people than I’ve ever encountered at home, and some of the filthiest dance moves any side of the equator. Sadly, the Taupo supermarkets sound like Sainsbury’s in Camden on a Saturday night, as the least exotic noises ever made (the accents of Surrey and Kent) shout about Blossom Hill and cereal.

No wonder the Kiwi gaze clouds over when they ask if you’re another English. But luckily New Zealand (unlike 90% of the countries I’ve visited) is one of those wonderful places that knows the difference between England and Wales and distinguishes and treats accordingly. Interest resumes when they find you’re something far rarer, more exotic and much-better than English: You’re Welsh!

A light in their eyes materialises and announces, “You’re ALSO from a small, drunk, colonised nation with two languages and a hankering for sheep?! COME LIVE IN MY BED FOREVER!” Besides, there is one huge unifying factor far more virulent than anything else between Wales and New Zealand: RUGBY. Being two of the four grand rugbying nations serves as a passport for camaraderie and people wanting to shake your hand at ice-cream parlours.

“I saw you guys play at…. It was awesome!” They gush, as if it was my fine Welsh legs on the field themselves. “That game against England… MY GOD! I WEPT FOR YOU!”, “My granddad played for Wales! You might know him!?” And yes, I probably do. Immediate trust and life-long friendship! And invitations to eat the national delicacies of fairy bread, sweet dip and sausage rolls:

Taupo sits on the Thermal Explorer Highway, which is just as adventurous as it sounds! The best way to describe it? An endless road lined with geography-lesson-themed tourism. It’s all rapids and waterfalls, mini volcanoes in the floor, bits of steam coming out of nowhere, luminous green water and pink rocks: a geologist’s Disneyland!

It couldn’t operate in the UK. Not without some peroxide mother getting her pram trapped in a crater and accidentally tipping little Alfie into a boiling pit, some underpaid name-badge throwing over-priced crisps in your face, or some hapless teenager sticking their head in a vaporiser because there was no sign explicitly telling them not to.

But the Antipodes trusts its people to wander about safely. New Zealand ‘danger’ signs are tentative and warn casually “You MAY get burned…” – “… MIGHT end in injury.” They wouldn’t dare suggest for a moment that your hardy Kiwi skin can’t withstand a bit of boiling mineral, or will be subject to any such nuisances, and if you did happen to fall in a seismic hole? Your can-do-Kiwi nature would enjoy the challenge of getting back out again! All part of the fun, chaps. Safety signs are for the sake of sensitive foreigners. Like myself.

I still have SO much to say about Aotearoa. But for now I’ll leave it at this: I didn’t get to eat endangered Kiwi bird, OR get tackled to the floor by Cory Jane. So New Zealand? I’m definitely coming back.

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