Greetings from my 9th hotel room in 3 weeks!!!
Feels like a lifetime ago since we left Dublin but already the anxiety that the pile of match tickets and drinks vouchers is rapidly dwindling has set in. It's only human...who would want their dream to end, and I'm certainly living mine.
I left you on the road to Picton on Thursday. That was one long ass drive from Christchurch but a stunning one. Yes there are faster ways to get from game to game but I love that our tour lets us see and experience New Zealand and not just the rugby (and pubs!).
As usual we had a few stops en route, culminating with a visit to Wither Hills Winery. Here we had a fabulous lunch and got to taste and learn more about some of their wines. Almost everyone left with a bottle, choosing which to buy was the hard part! Before we departed we got to see the most spectacular sunset I've ever seen in my life, anywhere in the world. Words don't do it justice so this seems like the place to plug my social media accounts...you'll find the photos on Twitter and Instagram where I'm @corkseashell on both platforms.
Leaving Wither Hills we were just a short drive to Picton where we were overnighting. Hotel room was huge with a massive jacuzzi bath in the en suite but I didn't have time to test it out as once again, a social occasion was called for. For a change (not!) we ended up in an Irish bar, which the Clare man I spoke of in my last post says, had the best pint of Guinness on the trip so far.
Friday morning we had an early start to get the ferry from Picton to Wellington. After terrible storms earlier in the week which had seen the ferry cancelled twice, we were blessed with calm seas. The crossing had some stunning scenery and even for those of us who are not water fans; it wasn't too long or unpleasant. I was bemused by a Kiwi who was walking around sleeping Lions fans hoping they would wake up so he could tell them how great the All Blacks are. He didn't get very far with me, memories of Chicago in November soon shut him up!
From the ferry we again hit the road, this time to Okahune in the ski region. Time was of the essence as the Welsh contingent were anxious to make the hotel in time for the 5.30pm kick off of Wales v Tonga. We arrived at our stunning hotel just after 5 so they need not have worried. Watched that game and the subsequent NZ v Samoa. That brought home the huge task facing the Lions, but we know it can be done.
Saturday morning we were back on the coach, to our current location just outside Taupo. Arriving at the hotel around noon it was a great surprise to find we could check into our rooms. Getting off the coach we experienced the fragrant sulphuric air for the first time. If it was this bad an hour from Rotorua, how bad was it going to be in town?
Having dropped bags and had some light refreshments, it was time to head to our pre-game venue in Rotorua. We're based about an hour from there but the journey flew. We were a little anxious heading into the venue as today we would meet the next batch of RTI tourists, the Maori tour. Outnumbering our Kiwi tour by more than ten, our pack would more than double in size. They'd had a couple of days in Auckland and traveled to Rotorua that morning. Soon the private bar was jam packed with red jerseys. Obviously people are reading this blog because I got a few "oh you're Michelle from the blog" greetings.
Was slightly taken aback with Rotorua International Stadium, it was reminiscent of Whangarei with grass banks and temporary seating. Alas we weren't in the covered stand and the heavens opened. But we won, so who cares! The stadium is notorious for traffic issues getting in and out but the good folk of RTI had planned for that so the bus was well stocked and we had a social beverage mingling with the Maori tour between the coaches before the game, and there was even some left for afterwards.
Sunday was a day at leisure, though some people had opted for a shotover jet boat. I'm a total scaredy cat when it comes to water so along with the Scarlets fan I headed into Taupo for a ramble. It's a beautiful town on the biggest lake in New Zealand, which is easily mistaken for the sea. When they had dried off, a lot of the others joined us in the evening for the usual craic.
Monday was an optional Rotorua experience day, I'd opted to join it so we had an early start before we headed to Wai-o-tapu Thermal Park. Visually it was stunning but oh God the smell! One of the ex army contingent said it was worse than anything they'd encountered on their worst overseas tours. Our guide pointed out landscapes within the park that had featured in Walking With Dinosaurs on BBC and it was easy to see why. It felt like we were on another planet. Tour of the park over and we went to see the Lady Knox geyser, which "erupts" daily at 10.15am. I was bemused that nature might work to such a schedule but it turns out that she gets a helping hand from a bag of soap!
Next stop in Rotorua was the Skyline gondola and luge site. I'd opted for the gondola but not the luge as while the luge itself looked like a lot of fun, the chairlift to get you back up the mountain didn't. So I had a little downtime laughing at my fellow tourists as they made their way down, some swearing, some racing, some going at a rather leisurely pace. We had one casualty with some rather nasty cuts and grazes but they didn't seem to bother him!
The other option in Rotorua was white water rafting...see above...not for me. When the people who did it got back and recounted how one of the loveliest ladies in our group had got trapped under the raft and had a very frightening experience, I was glad I'd opted for dry land. Kevin, our original coach driver, now driving the Maori tourists was our driver for the day and he'd taken some of the rest of us on a private tour of Rotorua and the lakes. Most unexpected but totally appreciated. Grabbed some lunch and completed an important mission in Rotorua, getting my nails done!
We all met back at our drop off point at 5.30pm as we were heading to Tamaki Maori Village just outside Rotorua to finish our day. I was expecting something a little twee but I was very wrong. It was a fascinating insight into Maori culture and heritage, culminating in a Hangi, dinner cooked in the traditional way, buried underground on a bed of heated volcanic rocks. The food was really good, some remarked that the lamb was the best they'd eaten since we got to New Zealand. High praise indeed!
Three weeks into our tour and our Kiwi gang have gelled really well (in truth we did from the start), we're a diverse bunch but a great bunch, united by our shared passion for rugby. At the moment our biggest challenge is remembering the names of the new arrivals, already the characters are emerging among the Maori tourists and it's only a few days before over 100 people arrive on the Haka tour.
Each tour group has its own coach, the huge Haka tour will have several. Our coach (which we spent a LOT of time in over the last week) is entertained daily by the characters, or their music playlists. We've had classical, Max Boyce, Queen, ballads and even a few rugby songs. On one of the long drives we had a general knowledge quiz and a rugby quiz, sad to say, my team got nowhere near the prizes. There have also been top tips given by people on the bus, my most recent favourite is "don't whistle with a mouth full of blancmange!"
One of the guys does a match day predict the score competition for $5 a person with the closest to the score taking the pot. They also get to buy sweets for the bus! We're starting to get a little excited about the predict the XV for the first test competition we did last week, with the team to be announced in the coming days. Not sure Gatty will go with my Sexton at 10 and Farrell at 12, but I'm not alone in selecting that combo.
Characters, we have many.
We have an Elton John lookalike who is attracting attention wherever we go, in his ever so slightly short kilt. Not sure there's a newspaper or news channel he hasn't been on in the past three weeks.
Among the rest, nicknames include Keg, F*ckwit, Knickers and Waffles. Some given by fellow travellers, some by people we've met along the way. We've only got three weeks left, no doubt there will be more. But I'm still having the time of my life. Rugby, good company, stunning scenery, amazing hospitality, phenomenal organisation and the occasional social beverage. To quote a former political saying, a lot done, more to do!