I wish I could tell you that Puke Road is a great place to visit, but to be honest I wouldn’t even know. I never actually made it to real, literal Puke Road. I visited metaphorical Puke Road, New Zealand, and after that, I thought it was very, very funny when I saw the sign later that day for the real place. That’s a very Kiwi thing to happen, really. Make sense yet? Don’t worry, it will.
When dear family friend Chris said I should visit her relative Cliff in Waihi, and he would show me around the Coromandel Peninsula via his plane, I didn’t fret. Though I really don’t like to fly, my job and hobbies require it, so I’ve been in planes of all shapes and sizes. Until this particular trip, the most unusual aircraft I’d flown in was a Japanese fighter jet from World War II. And then I met Cliff.
I took an early morning bus ride from Auckland to Thames, where Cliff picked me up and drove me to the nearest airfield to board his plane. His teensy tiny ultralight plane. That he built himself. I imagine he and Chris must have had a prior conversation where he confirmed I was neither taller nor wider than I am, because I most certainly wouldn’t have been able to wedge in that wee little aircraft if I was an inch bigger on any side.
I better smile extra big so no one can tell I am digging my nails into my thighs.
We sped down the airfield, which let’s be real, was just a regular grass field. As we ascended and Cliff explained the different buttons and knobs just in front of my knees, I did my best to play it cool. Ellie the Flying Border Collie wasn’t freaking out, so why should I? Dogs always know when disaster is imminent and Ellie was chilling comfortably behind us. Every so often she’d rest her head on Cliff’s shoulder and a paw on mine. Precious… and reassuring.
We flew up the coast for about 15 minutes to another small airport, and were promptly collected by Cliff’s friend Pam for a trip to the local attractions. First, we checked out the Driving Creek Railway, which is just one fine example of Kiwi ingenuity. Kiwi ingenuity is not just a term I made up. In fact as defined by Wikipedia, it’s “the idea that New Zealanders display a MacGyver-like ability to solve any problem, often using unconventional means or whatever happens to be lying around.”
Driving Creek Railway was initially constructed by sculptor Barry Brickell to transport terra cotta raw materials down to the pottery studio at the bottom of the mountain. The 1 hour return trip on our innovatively designed trains includes 2 spirals, 3 short tunnels, 5 reversing points and several large viaducts as it climbs the mountain.
After a visit to the Eyeful Tower (nudge, nudge, get it?) at the top, we left Driving Creek to check out New Zealand’s Most Popular Theme Park and further example of Kiwi ingenuity, The Waterworks.
The Waterworks is located on the famous, windy 309 Road, and is made up of dozens of quirky water-based attractions. A highlight of my experience was when some random kid pulled a lever about 15 feet away from me and an unseen hose stuck in a tree squirted me right in the face. Cliff and I made it through in about an hour, but after getting hosed a bit early on I decided to avoid further soakings by refraining from lever-pulling ingenuity.
Life jackets are compulsory in ultralight aircraft only when flying over water that’s too far to glide to land.
Back in the air, we zoomed up to Great Barrier Island for lunch, about 15 minutes by air north of the Coromandel Peninsula. Great Barrier Island has a population of about 852 people and most Kiwis never actually make it up there, as it’s a 4-hour ferry from Auckland. After lunch, we flew south over the east coast of the Coromandel, where the white sand beaches stretch on for miles and miles, and the dramatic cliffs and deep turquoise water make you want to be on the ground, not in the air!
Listening to the air traffic chatter going on in my headset, I heard at one point, “Three minutes to drop.”
“Skydivers,” said Cliff. “Right over there.”
Just like that, a couple of people plopped right through the clouds just behind us. Yikes! Next, we flew over Cliff’s town of Waihi and got a great view of its famous gold mine.
And then it was already time to land back at Thames and drive to Cliff’s house to meet his sweet wife Deb. As we looped back around to where we’d started, Cliff nonchalantly said, “Do you like roller coasters?” Of course I do! I’m Floridian.
Then he said, “Oh great. Now we’re going to do a barrel roll.”
And I said, “Oh, no we aren’t. That is not good. No no no no no. I definitely don’t want to do that.”
And Cliff said, “Sure you do! It’s easy! If Ellie can handle it, you can handle it. Just watch the horizon.”
The next thing I knew, I was upside down, topsy turvy and just a bit nauseous. We survived the roll – really it was nothing other than the weird dizzy, gravity-less feeling – and when I had recovered, Cliff said, “Do you want to do it again and take a video? For your Mom?” What do you think I said to that?
Post barrel-rolling across the countryside, we landed at the little green airfield at Thames and started the journey through windy roads up to Waihi. It wasn’t 15 minutes before the barrel rolls caught up to me, and dear Cliff had to pull over at metaphorical Puke Road. Check that off my list of embarrassing travel experiences…
That night I stayed with Cliff and Deb at their home in Waihi (THANK YOU!!) and headed back to Auckland on the Naked Bus the next day.
Up next… Church Around The World: Auckland