Northward Expedition June 2006.

School holidays are a time to plan adventures but sometimes the adventure achieved is not quite what was expected. The family had planned to head up the island to visit Zion Wildlife Gardens home of "the Lion Man" just outside Whangarei. This is the home of a number of lions, bengal tigers and 6 white tigers including a cub, which for a hideous amount of money, you can play with. My son has always had a thing about white tigers and so we decided to spend the two weeks going up to have a look and give the bus a bit of a run.

Two weeks before the start of the July school holidays (1st to 16th July) We took the bus from where it normally lives in Foxton up to New Plymouth with the intention of leaving it for a fortnight at the Waitara Motor camp (being the closest place to the airport we could leave it), after arranging this with the management over the phone. Upon arrival we were a little "disappointed" to discover that rather than paying the small amount for storage we had been led to believe we would be charged, we would have to pay as if we were staying in the bus, to "avoid upsetting the permanents". It is left as an exercise for the reader to figure out how exactly these people would find out how much we were being charged. Anyway that seemed a bit rough to us so we headed further North to the NZMCA camp at Onaero Bay. Talk about chalk and cheese!

Onaero_bay Motor Camp Onaero_bay Motor Camp

Onaero Bay is a truly beautiful place and the bloke who runs it could not have been more helpful and the storage fee (on power to keep the batteries happy) was more than reasonable. He also parked us right beside the office so he could keep an eye on her for us. We had expected to catch a cab back to the airport to get back to Wellington but he would have none of it and ran us back in his van. I cannot speak too highly about his courtesy, professionalism and the quality of the camp, please visit it if you get the chance the place would be magic in summer and we intend to go back.

Anyway we then flew back to Wellington (sadly we still have to work). The plan was to fly back up with the boys (to save 2 days travel) as otherwise the total trip was going to be in the order of around 2000km in less than 2 weeks which is a bit of a hike for an old bus. We had also intended to take a fairly leisurely approach, flying with the boys to New Plymouth on Monday morning (a bit of an adventure for them in itself) and then meandering up to Whangarei for a tour of Zion booked (and deposit paid) on Thursday afternoon. So much for best laid plans as we discovered, through sheer luck, that the "Lion Man" and animals and the in particular the tiger cub were coming down to do a show in Wellington on that Friday. This suggested travelling on Thursday and so our tour wasn't going to work. Some hurried communication with Zion Wildlife Gardens resulted in the suggestion that "perhaps we might be able to come up a day earlier", sigh. OK there dies the idea of a leisurely saunter up country so up we fly on Monday as planned (and of course booked), hop in the bus and motor north towards Waitomo. Although the road is very pleasant and would have warranted spending a lot more time, there are very few LPG stations (one) and things were a bit tense. Fortunately we made it to Waitomo that evening, had a look through the caves and dossed down for the night on the side of the road. Up early and up to Auckland all in a bit too much of a hurry and the motor decided to toast itself coming down the Bombay hills. Nasty noise and bad rattle, generally not a good look. After a bit of fiddling with bolts on the front we thought (hoped) it was just a loose bit of metal as the noise seemed to have died down so we cautiously limped across to Kelly Talton's to have a look at penguins and man eating stingrays (they had recently been flooded so the main aquarium was closed but the stingray tank is worth a look). After a bit of a rest we headed across Auckland to Orewa where we spent the night in a very large and quite comfortable motorcamp along the foreshore.

Interesting thing about driving through Auckland, apart from the arcane and baroque nature of the motorway design is that most of the drivers seem to consider a bus simply a car with thyroid problems and expect us to both accellerate and brake like they do. What they don't seem to grasp is that we are several tonnes of good British steel battering ram with arthritic brakes and steering which is more suggestive than directive. Anyway we made it in one piece with only minimal carnage in our wake, via a little excursion to the west to avoid the bridge.

At this stage we knew we were low on gas (there being no LPG stations in Orewa) and as we headed out across the road (4 lanes of State Highway 1) early in the morning she coughed, spluttered and refused to proceed and it was time to call for the Tow Truck Man much to the annoyance of the local commuters. A fair proportion seemed to think that we had stopped specifically to annoy them and were not backward in registering their dissatisfaction with us blocking the lane. Eventually I made a sign with a simple message "DEAD" and taped it to the rear of the bus and at that point the complaints stopped.

Dead in Orewa Dead

Fairly soon thereafter a nice bloke with a Ute appeared and towed us into a pullover spot out of traffic which was a relief. A bit later with the help of the Tow Truck Man's mate the mechanic (who knew where to hit things) we restarted on Petrol but she was not a happy budgie and we felt it prudent to have a mechanic with the necessary knowledge have a look at it so headed of back towards Auckland after tracking down a suitable garage in a place called Silverdale about 10km away.

Much shaking of heads and "oh dear the only bloke who knows about these things won't be in until Monday" (this still being Wednesday), "can you bring it back then?". Umm... no we can't because it is broken, but can we leave it here until then? "Oh all right if you must, but you will have to pay for any work in cash because the last motohome we allowed to stay ripped us off for $1800 and the boss said not to allow anyone else to stay". Anyway we managed to pursuade them to let us stay (along with a power connection to keep the batteries fully charged which was very nice of them considering). Not being the sort of people who give up we threw a representative sample of our gear into a rental car and headed north once more.

We made it to Zion Wildlife Gardens in time to make the final tour of the day, watching them moving travel cages about ready to load the animals that evening. In the end it worked out really well with us being the only people on the tour (being the middle of winter may have had something to do with that) and we were able to get up close and personal with both a white tiger and a lion cub. I can honestly say that I have been mauled by a white tiger (well nibbled by a white tiger cub but the thought was there) and the boys have both fed and played with them (or been played with, it was quite hard to tell) as well as being stalked by the tiger cub. Anyone who believes lions and tigers are similar has never seen them as they are completely different in attitude to life.

Cubs Some of the little cats

Lion cubs are big kittens, tiger cubs are carnivores and they know it and if given half a chance you are lunch. Overall well worth the effort and drama to get there and a once in a lifetime experience seeing what turned out to be almost 10% of the entire world population of white tigers along with royal bengal tigers, barbary lions and even rarer white lions.

White Tigers Some of the big cats

If you get the chance make the effort, pay the fee which is not trivial and have a look. Craig is doing an excellent job, the animals are very well looked after, seem quite happy and the visit will be a treasured memory.

The next day we headed up to the Bay of Islands and did a cruise through "the hole in the rock" (twice) and an exploration of Russell (once) including visiting the oldest church in New Zealand (with bullet holes in the walls which fascinated the boys) and a trip to Waitangi so the boys could see where our Nation started. Waitangi, as always, was a bit of a disappointment as there was no real sense of significance there and it was a little too commercialised for comfort. The visitor's centre implies you have to pay to see the treaty grounds but if you look carefully the payment is only to get into the meeting-house. In my opinion very little is lost by not doing so as you can still see through the colonial house and around the grounds for free. The land was purchased by a settler and given to the nation so it remains public.

Russell View over the Bay of Islands

Nice place the Bay of Islands, even in winter and worth a visit if you get the chance. Anyway so then back down to Silverdale to spend a couple of nights in the bus, parked outside the garage and looking around and discovering the delights of the Whangaparoa peninsula (large unpopulated beaches with great trees for the boys to play in) and enjoying the thermal pools etc.

Finally on Monday the "man who knows about buses" arrived and did a few tests, shaking of the head followed by the expected "well that looks expensive". We had lost a cylinder (bit careless really) and he suggested it could cost $1000-$2000 just to pull off the head and check it out given what was also likely to die in the process, what with the engine being 40 years old and having done several zillion miles all. He then suggested the best bet would be to simply (ha!) replace it. So many telephone calls and discussions later we had located a suitable engine with included gear box and clutch, in the bowels on Auckland and someone willing to install it and had it all sorted. The installer (Silverdale Diesel and Automotive ltd) was 5 minutes walk from where were parked and the bus made it around and into his "spare" shed with no trouble. We spent a couple of days camping there and confirmed all we needed to with "Johnny Diesel" and left him to get on with it.

Inside the workshop Parked up but not forgotten

"It" consist of removing our old 300ci (90hp in it's prime on petrol, somewhat less after 40 years on LPG) engine with a replacement Mitsubishi Diesel (157 hp, 5 speed box, all synchro etc) simple to say but expensive to do as the new engine is 1.6 m long and weights well over a tonne, it fits though.

New Engine Tight but it fits

The new beheamouth appears to be lighter than the 300ci it is replacing. We knew we would have to replace it sooner or later but had rather hoped it would be later and I do feel a bit guilty about pulling out the original engine but that's life. Anyway, into another rental car, through Auckland and down to Rotorua for a couple of days. Lots of fun when we finally found a place to stay with several thermal pools and also managed to fit in the Gondola, a few runs down the Luge and the circus that just happened to be in town that evening. Next day back to Wellington through one of the most enthusiastic rainstorms I have ever experienced.

The new engine is now (10 weeks later) in place and we flew up to pick it up and drive back to Foxton. She works really well now, flying up hills in 4th we used to have to limp up in 2nd. She is also dramatically cheaper to run ($430 in LPG to get up and $145 in Diesel to get back) so in the end the right thing to do.

Overall something of a sequence of disasters and proof of the NZMCA principal of never hurrying in a movan but a lot of fun enjoyed by all. We met a lot of new people, almost all of whom (excluding Auckland motorists) went out of their way to be helpful and friendly which generally seems to be the case when people are given the chance. Next time we will leave a bit more float in the schedule I think, roll on retirement.

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Last Reviewed: 20-September-2005 By Preston@actrix.gen.nz