This is a really tough blog to write, especially as I feel like we’ve seen and done so much in the past couple of weeks exploring the North island. New Zealand is a country I’ve always been fascinated by. I’m not really sure why to be honest, apart from I’ve always really liked the idea of going somewhere where you can ski in the morning and surf in the evening. Whilst New Zealand does offer this (you’re never further than 100km from the ocean here) it offers so much more; way more than I can cover in a single post. I’ll start by saying this: THIS COUNTRY IS AMAZING.
We’ve been exploring in our trusty camper, who we’ve nicknamed Leroy (for no reason really, just because). Our trusty steed has been our accommodation, kitchen and home the past couple of weeks and he’s done us proud every step of the way. Whilst I’m somewhat biased clearly, I can’t really imagine exploring this awesome country any other way! It’s so nice having the freedom to literally park up or go anywhere as we please. What I can say straight away is I wish we had more time (and money) here; 40 days to do both islands clearly won’t be enough!
New Zealand is so well known for its array of adrenaline fuelled activities, but I honestly think the thing I’ve enjoyed more is the landscape. This place is mesmerising at every turn! The mountain ranges that cover the majority of the country are absolutely breathtaking. At so many points I felt like I was in a country totally untouched by mankind, there really are so many points where all you can see is countryside, mountain range, beach or river. Both Kelly and I have had to rack our brains constantly to find a word to replace “wow” as we are both saying it way too much. Seriously, you cannot fathom the beauty of this place unless you see it with your own eyes.
We had just over 2 weeks to see as much of the North Island as possible. Although NZ is minuscule in comparison to its big brother next door, driving around isn’t a quick exercise. The roads meander up, down and around and through the mountain ranges making 10km take 30 mins in some cases at a push. The roads are all maintained exceptionally well, but being in a converted VW van with an extra 200kg of worktop, kitchen and beds dumped in slowed us down somewhat. Regardless, driving around NZ is an experience in itself. These are by far the most enjoyable and visually pleasing roads I’ve ever driven hands down. If you ever asked me to drive a minimum of 4 hours a day anywhere else I’d tell you to do one! Here I’d go as far as saying it’s utterly enjoyable (apart from in Auckland, that just reminded me of my dreary daily commute up the a12 to work!). On one of our first days, we drove up and down a bunch of monsterous mountains, through a rainforest (where we stopped to see one of the oldest and biggest trees in NZ), across an old glacial flat, alongside rivers containing some of the bluest water I’ve ever seen, along the spine of a peninsula parallel to a beach spanning 90miles, and finishing up the day sleeping out overlooking a vineyards sloping farms. You just don’t get that anywhere else! We both said separely we feel like we’ve driven through about 5 different countries and two film sets in one day on more than one occasion! There are far too many photos to put up of the landscapes, but I’ll do my best.
Anyway enough of the driving. This is what we’ve been up to the last 15 days.
We had a couple of mates to meet up with who are also traveling. They were staying with a mate who had co ownership of a bar in an Auckland suburb. Meeting up for a quick pint resulted in a night on the sauce indulging in some pretty fantastic food and spending more in one night than we did at any point in all of Asia; a good way to start NZ clearly! The following day we tested our freedom camping (free camping basically) and parked here, attempting to remove any hint of jet lag and just soaked in this for a view!
The day after we explored the coastline with a rather hungover Oli, had a dip in the sea (slightly colder than Thailand) before starting our trip further up north towards 90 mile beach and the most northern point of the country. To break up the journey, we stayed at a brewery called Hallertau, a fantastic brewers with an equally good restaurant and bar. The next day, we endured the 6 or so hour to hit the cape, and stopped to see the biggest tree in NZ; this thing was HUGE at nearly 3m radius and 50m tall.
We were fortunate enough to stay at a boutique vineyard overlooking the cape. We obviously had to enjoy a bottle of their vino and ended up chatting to the owner of the vineyard all night. Pretty awesome 😀.
Cape Reinga/90 mile beach.
90 mile beach isn’t actually 90 miles sadly; l have no idea why it’s called that. Regardless it’s pretty bloody long! In fact it’s the longest peninsula in NZ, and ends at cape Reinga, a sacred Maori area where it’s believed spirits of the dead sail off to the motherland (called Hawaiki). Cape Reinga is also the most northern point of New Zealand, there’s literally nothing out from the cape for thousand of miles, and we couldn’t have been much further away from the UK at this point.
When we got to the cape, there was actually a traditional Maori funeral ceremony being held there. Obviously we didn’t get involved or watch/ film, but it was quite a sight to witness. One thing I love about the Maori culture is its connection to wildlife and nature, and this was even more apparent during the ceremony.
After an hour or so enjoying the sites of the cape we drove back down the beach to another astonishing site; sand dunes! Now I didn’t expect anything to match the dunes I’ve experienced in the UAE but these were damn impressive, especially when sandwiched between beautiful green mountain ranges and a stunning coastline stretching as far as you can see! This was definitely something that couldn’t be missed. Kelly and I obviously boarded down the dunes (I may have climbed the biggie too and jumped down that at full pelt). What a cracking thing to do, and the sites over the highest dune were something else! To finish up this end of the trip, we drove to another peninsula (Karikari) to ensure we were close to Waitangi for the national celebrations the following day.
Waitangi (Waitangi day)
We were really fortunate to be in Waitangi for Waitangi Day, a kiwi national holiday celebrating the birth of New Zealand following the signing of the treaty between the Brits and Maori. We were somewhat warned off experiencing this celebration at Waitangi as (according to locals) it’s rife with protest normally. To be honest if this was classified as protest I’d challenge the locals to go to any major city around the world and see what’s going on right now! Yes there was some obvious resentment to this new era of New Zealand but I’d hardly call anything protest! Overall, the day was filled with brilliant cultural experiences, including traditional song and dance, obviously the haka, and Maori tribes bringing the traditional boats (waka) into the shore. This was a great thing to witness and really gave us an insight into traditional Maori culture. Below are a few videos I captured of the activities.
To finish off a cracking day out with even better weather, we drove further down the coast to a neighbouring town to experience some more history. We stumbled across the oldest British built stone building and an area that was once a Maori settlement, before settling in for the night ahead of another day of driving.
This peninsula is famous for the ocean drive and its stunning beaches. It certainly didn’t disappoint! We drove pretty much the east and west coast of the peninsula, only just missing the tip due to time constraints. Again the sights experienced on this drive were unforgettable. It was another classic of every turn we took we were blown away once again.
Along the peninsula is a famous beach called hot water beach. This part of the north island is the start of the geothermal highway, where hot pools and geysers are pretty commonplace. On this beach, if you dig a hole, you’ll quickly burn your feet with super heated water! The common activity here is to dig a jacuzzi sized hole and mix sea water with the hot stuff to make a comfortable pool. Sadly this is only really possible at certain points during the day when the tide is right, and due to turning weather we got it wrong: instead we had to accept a casual burning of our feet in the rain. Regardless it was quite a thing to experience! To finish up a long day of driving we headed to cathedral cove, another must see piece of landscape, hoping to start the following day with a hike along the shore. Sadly, the weather turned on us again, so we got stuck in the camper enduring a thoroughly soggy evening. The weather stayed like this the majority of the following morning so we abandoned plans and got on the road again.
Kelly had set a must see attraction at our next stop, the glow worm caves in Waitomo.
En route, we stopped In a tiny city called Hamilton, mainly to get a feel for a generic kiwi city. As I said, this place is Tiny! By English standards it would be a small town, and definitely smaller than my home town of Colchester! Regardless, we had a nice wander around getting a feel for the place, which is soon to host a two week arts festival, something we’d both have loved to have experienced. After killing a couple of hours we drove straight to the caves.
These historic caves are honestly like looking up at the stars, and are definitely a unique experience! The glow worms illuminate the caves with a wonderful blue/green Hue that covers the whole ceiling and obviously shine beautifully bright when in total darkness. We actually rode through the caves on a small man powered boat in complete silence which really added to the experience. Sadly no photos allowed in the caves but this is what it looked like.
Considering we both met, studied, worked and lived in Cambridge, we had to really! Cambridge (NZ) is actually the equine and cycling capital of NZ, and even has its own velodrome! We were here to meet Kelly’s old school friend Becks though, who emigrated a few years back and is now married with two kids. After a night camped by a picturesque lake we ventured back to Cambridge to meet her.
It was great to find out more about life in NZ and in Cambridge, and to spend time with the wee family. We actually ended up having a night out on the town, enjoying far too many drinks at a cracking craft beer bar. Needless to say my head hurt somewhat the following day. Oh well, more fun to be had!
I’M GOING ON AN ADVENTURE!!
Now I’ve got that out my system
Time I got my geek on! Obviously if you’re in the north island you have to stop here. When the Hobbit trilogy was made, the entire set of hobbiton was permanently rebuilt to size. They’ve done such a great job making this set so lifelike, they even employ three full time gardeners to keep the place looking tidy, and growing the monster pumpkins like you see in the initial scenes of the first hobbit movie.
It’s quite ridiculous that all of this was done just to film for about ten seconds, but I’m glad they did. Visiting hobbiton was definitely a must do on the list, even if it was experienced slightly hungover 😵
The land of the geothermal wonders! Rotorua is famous for geothermal activity like acidic pools and geysers, traditional Maori activities, and fun stuff like Zorbing! It should also be famous for being the smelliest place on earth! Sadly we couldn’t afford to do all the fun (story of our life out here) but did we manage to experience the cultural wonders in the town. Bizarrely, an old friend from high school who now lives in Queenstown just happened to be sat at a bar on eat street with her family, so we agreed to do some stuff together the next day. We agreed to head to Te Puia, a sacred Maori site that is made up of geysers and a traditional Maori arts workshops. The stuff that is carved out of wood is pretty spectacular, and it’s great to see the art form kept alive by sites like this. The array of geysers are obviously very impressive too!
As we’ve obviously had far too many days doing far too many strenuous activities 😜 we booked into a geothermal spa just outside the town called Waikite valley (in our defence we only spent a night here as it was only $10 more than a normal paid camp site). What a cool thing to do though! There were 6 different pools all using the naturally heated (and cooled) mineral water. Out of the ground, the water is at boiling point so has to be naturally cooled via waterways etc. We spent a good few hours getting wrinkley the night we arrived and the next morning; bliss!
The following day we had booked onto a Maori cultural evening with a company called Tamaki. From the moment we got on the bus to the site we were having a great time. Our bus driver was the most entertaining I’ve ever endured and had the whole bus in stitches! The rest of the evening consisted of experiencing a traditional welcome ceremony, learning to do the haka (badly ill admit), learning about traditional Maori dance, and enjoying a feast cooked in a traditional hangi (I am so building one of these when I grow up. Overall it was a brilliant evening that I’d highly recommend to anyone visiting rotorua
Sadly our time in Taupo was cut somewhat short thanks to another bout of bad weather. We were hoping to spend a couple of days here but we arrived to wet weather and only had one day of predicted clear skies the following day, so had to change our plans. regardless, taupo is a cool place. Lake Taupo was formed after a volcanic eruption thousands of years ago; its the size of Singapore! Seriously, you can’t fathom the size of this place. Whilst we didn’t really get to enjoy the area properly, it was great to experience the black sand beaches and strangely enough, the black swans and ducks! Bit weird…. en route to taupo we stopped off at a local recommendation, Hukka falls. This rapid area is flodded with hundreds of thousands of litres of water a minute thanks to a dam system further up stream. The water was a beautiful blue Hue and it’s really quite a sight! See for yourself below.
Tongariro Alpine Crossing
This is without a doubt the highlight of my time in New Zealand so far, and the reason why we had to abandon taupo. We’ve done some tough hikes to date on this trip, but this won the award for the steepest and generally most impressive!
This hike was made globally famous (to those not into hiking) from the lord of the rings movies, as mount Doom and mordor scenes were filmed here. After getting agreement from Kelly to spend Valentine’s Day here (seems the perfect way to me) we spent the day hiking across some of the most unique and breathtaking landscapes in New Zealand. This was totally out of this world! At points we felt like we were on the surface of mars, at others we were in Australian bush, then quite simply stomping up an active volcano (or 3)! 14 miles, 1km of elevation, and 6.5 hours later we’d completed this epic hike and felt very proud of ourselves! Again, if you ever visit NZ, you HAVE TO DO THIS!
After a full day of driving, we hit our final spot on the north island. This is by far the quietest capital city I’ve ever been to! Seriously, we drove in and didn’t even realise it! Regardless, Wellington is a really cool city. We spent an afternoon on the waterfront enjoying the local activities like open air salsa classes and very cool bars and restaurants. To be honest the waterfront itself, let alone the inner city is beautiful in itself and well worth an explore. It all hinted of a quiet waterfront area of London, but maybe 20 years ago. Either way, a very nice place to base ourselves for a couple days. I was lucky enough to meet up with two mates from the UK at different points. It’s such a nice experience; meeting up with people you haven’t seen for years on the other side of the globe.
The museum in Wellington is another must visit site. I’d go as far as saying it’s probably the best free museum I’ve ever been to! On our first day in the city, we stopped into the ground floor to get a feel for the place, and saw some fantastic exhibitions all about the local and unique wildlife, flora and fauna, geology and landscapes. To top this off they’ve also got a real collossal squid on show, and a full exhibition on how they came to capture it (it was dead before capture, don’t worry). The following day we explored the incredibly harrowing and unique exhibition on the kiwi involvement in world war 1. This included some incredibly detailed models of those who fo ught that stood well over 10ft tall, alongside all the emotive displays about the atrocities that occurred. The whole museum was absolutely stunning; yet another must see.
So as you can see, we’ve had a terrible time here so far! In all seriousness, I’m utterly blown away. I have full on caught the kiwi bug and can see why so many others do too! Even when hacking it down this place still seems to be somewhat stunning (I’m sure sun worshiper sweeney would disagree). I can’t wait to see what the South Island brings, as friends who have done it say it raises the bar yet again with natural beauty