Our last 2 weeks in NZed were spent tiki-touring the North Island in a campervan. We stayed at various ‘freedom camps’ and holiday parks and had some epic adventures and one expensive mistake.
Upon leaving Ashburton our first stop was Christchurch to pick up the mercedes-benz ‘sprinter’ – our home away from home. Gas stove, toilet, shower, large bed, the works. It’s rather long though – 7 meters.
Our first stop was Kaikoura for some of the worlds best fish ’n chips. I must say that in New Zealand, Fish n Chips (fush n chups) is far superior to the States in every measure. We then stayed the night in Picton. The following morning we (barely) caught the ferry across Cook Straight to the North Island. Jonny hit the ‘off’ button instead of snooze on the alarm and we only made it to the ferry just as they were loading the campervans. Close call! Picton is on Queen Charlotte Sound – reminded me very much of the San Juan Islands in Washington. Someday we will come back for the famous hike of the area too.
The ferry made it’s way to Wellington after about 3.5 hours and the swells were quite tolerable. Wellington looked beautiful without rain!
Our first stop on the North Island was in Martinborough. I wanted to see the Wairarapa wines but unfortunately it’s the wrong time of year. The town was incredibly sleepy, but I imagine in the summer it’s a lot like Napa / Sonoma. Instead of staying the night as originally planned, we pushed forward to find Stonehenge Aoteroa, a re-creation of stonehenge out of concrete. Sadly, it too was closed, so we had to take a picture of it from the highway. After thinking the day was a bust we actually found an amazing designer chocolate nearby at Schok chocolates. Then we stayed the night in a holiday park in Masterton.
The next morning we traversed the Wairarapa area and saw many, many, many, many sheep. There were even sheep on the golf courses. Good luck with that guys. Wonder if anybody has ever lost a golf ball in sheep’s wool?
As we were driving up highway 2 we came across the Tui brewery! We didn’t buy any beer but we went to their museum. It was pretty cool.
Next stop was Havelock North to meet Andrea’s friends (at their amazing cafe) and then off to Cape Kidnappers. Apparently this was an area where Captain Cook’s Tahitian translator/guide was kidnapped by Maoris. The afternoon was spent hiking Te Mata peak overlooking all of Hawkes Bay. That evening we drove thru Napier and made our way to Taupo.
The weather was not cooperating with us at Lake Taupo, so the pictures are a bust. However, Jonny taught me all about pumice, the volcanic rock that floats. We spent a long period of time the next morning throwing rocks into the lake from our campsite and watching them float away.
That morning we went to Huka falls – a place where a shit ton of water is forced thru a very narrow area of rock, creating super rapids. This is on the Waikato river, very close to the area where the “barrel” scenes from The Hobbit were filmed.
The North Island is super geothermically active. There are geysers, mud pools, craters, hot springs, and volcanos all over the damn place. The first of these wonders we visited was at a place called “Craters of the Moon.”
Then it was on to Rotorua! I’ve been looking forward to seeing Rotorua since we came to NZ because I actually was took a job here before accepting the position in Ashburton. Fortunately that job fell thru, and I got to be in the South Island, but nonetheless I was excited to see it. Rotorua is a major tourist destination in NZ for its hot springs and Maori cultural experiences. We went directly to the famous Polynesian Spa. Got to get our fill of ‘medicinal’ hot springs whilst overlooking Lake Rotorua.
The famous bath house now museum was, of course, a must see. After that we went to Whakarewarewa (Fah-kah-ray-wah-ray-wah) – a ‘living Maori village.’ It was actually pretty cool. This one particular tribe still has land that sits over a very geothermically active site, and they use it to their advantage, cooking and bathing in hot springs. Unfortunately occasionally steam vents open up under their houses and they have to move. We were treated to the Haka and a speech from the chief as well. I know there’s a lot of different opinions about the Maori here in NZ, but I’m actually quite enamored by their culture. I particularly like the language, and we got to learn a little at the village as well.
To finish out the day we went to Wai-O-tapu “Geothermal Wonderland.” Now not many of you may realize this, but Jonny is actually a geologist, getting his university degree in the topic. He is a rock hound and LOVES volcanos and such. He was like a kid in a candy shop. I must admit that even I was impressed by the minerals that come out of the earth here.
The next day was our biggest yet. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing. We booked a tour to hike this volcano in the winter, requiring crampons, ice-axes, and helmets. It was quite the expedition. The trail runs between two volcanoes – Tongariro and Ngauruhoe. Mt Ngauruhoe is also known as Mt. Doom from Lord of the Rings. These are ACTIVE volcanoes covered with snow (ie high avalanche risk). There were steam vents everywhere. I totally felt like I should be carrying the One ring into the magma chamber. In fact, the most recent eruption in 2012 took out the trampers hut (see holes in hut below).
After the epic hiking day we decided to stay in a creepy-ass holiday park on the way to Wanganui. Let’s just say the showers looked like they should be from a prison and the lights turned off right in the middle of my shower, I had to feel my way around, naked in the dark and freezing cold 25 ft to turn them on again. Not cool Zeus.
Then it was off to Taranaki! I’ve wanted to see this volcano ever since I saw a picture of it in my colleagues office a year ago. At first I mistook the picture for Mt. Hood. This one is particularly impressive because it seems to come up out of nowhere. Surrounded by flat farmland and then “BAM” volcano. When we arrived at the national park the mountain was surrounded in clouds and other was predicted to worsen so I was convinced we wouldn’t get to see it… but then after a short hike the clouds seemed to part, just for us, and there she was in all her splendor (although I think the Maori think it’s actually a dude, but I feel like it’s a chick). Then we spent the night in New Plymouth, and got to see their beautiful coastal walkway and famous pedestrian bridge.
The next day, however, our plans came to a grinding halt. We had booked in to go spelunking in a cave in Waitomo… but on our way there the unthinkable happened. Jonny pulled in to a gas station to fill up the ole camper van and wound up filling the diesel tank with $120 worth of regular gasoline (petrol). He was just on autopilot, and to his defense the petrol here comes in a green nozzle (similar to the diesel in the US). I was in the station buying potato chips and tea and he comes running in with a look on his face like he accidentally ran over a puppy… “Baby I fucked up bad.” I knew what had happened before he even told me. We had to call a tow truck and beg the diesel mechanic in town to drain the gas out on a Sunday. And let me tell you guys… nothing in New Zealand is open on a Sunday. It was a Christmas miracle this guy agreed to help us. Unfortunately it cost us more to drain the fuel tank than it did to rent the campervan in the first place. I snapped these photos for posterity (Jonny is gonna be pissed!).
It took the better portion of the day sorting out the diesel vs petrol fiasco, but we got on our way again and stayed the night in a campground outside of Waitomo. Now the reason this area is so special is because of a very long underground cave with a stream flowing thru it. A lot of people, “blackwater” raft the cave – but I was not very interested in getting wet and frozen in the middle of the winter – so we went rappelling / spelunking instead. It was amazing! We basically rappelled 100m into the caves. And best of all, there were GLOW WORMS! These things are creepy little maggots that emit light from their butts to attract other bugs to get stuck on these strings that hang down from them and then they eat them. Then they sit around for 9 months until they become large mosquito-like things that only live for 3 days before they mate and die (often eaten by their offspring). They’re freaking bizarre but I really like the way they look like stars in the night sky of the caves.
As it was on our way to Coromandel, after our caving adventure we went to…. wait for it… HOBBITON! Yes, the shire lives on outside a town called Matamata on a sheep farm. It’s now a major tourist trap partly owned by the farmers, Peter Jackson, and Warner Brothers. Apparently after The Lord of the Rings the site became rather run down, but they permanently rebuilt it for The Hobbit and now there’s even a mock up Green Dragon pub there that caters to weddings and such. It’s a lovely over-priced tourist trap, complete with baby lambs! But, let’s be honest, most of New Zealand looks like The Shire so don’t worry if you aren’t able to visit Hobbiton itself.
We pressed on into the Coromandel peninsula and stayed 2 days at a Top 10 Holiday Park at Hot Water Beach. Coromandel is a wonderfully scenic area complete with famous Kauri trees and crazy blue water. It’s not really the right time of year to visit, as it rained and was quite cold/windy, but I can imagine in the summer this is THE place to be in NZed. Hot Water Beach is this interesting spot where a hot spring comes up thru the sand right at the beach. During low tide you can dig a spot out in the sand and soak in warm water. This is an amazing experience except for 2 things: 1 – there’s not actually a lot of spots to dig and 2 – ‘low’ tide is different at different times of year and times of the day. Our low tides occurred at 8am and 8pm. We decided to hit the 8am low tide, seeing as how the 8pm would be dark. Unfortunately the ocean didn’t want to fully cooperate and kept sweeping away the pools everyone had dug. But for a while it was pretty sweet. Then this guy tried to take a picture of the both of us and wound up dropping our camera in the water. So after that point we only had phone pictures (of one of the most scenic areas of NZed. Oh well). Cathedral Cove was quite a tasty meatball too.
It was near here that the seagulls thought they could get the better of us and our tasty pastries.
The next day we drove around the rest of the Coromandel peninsula and thru Auckland – where we stopped to look for a new camera. Sadly there were too many options and I could not make up my mind so I stuck with the ole phone camera for the rest of the trip. We stayed the night in a campground near Tutukaka on the northernmost part of New Zealand. Why, praytell? Because the next morning we went
The Poor Knights are a set of islands outside of Tutukaka bay – nobody knows why they were named that by Captain Cook. They are home to some stunning undersea life and ecosystems. They were also once home to a tribe of Maoris that were massacred for not sharing their pigs with other tribes. It was my first ever cold-water dive. The first dive was miserable – my mask wouldn’t seal and then I had holes in my booties so my feet were frozen. I didn’t want to go back in for a second dive but somebody gave me their dive socks and a new mask and low-and-behold it was amazing down there! There was even a sub-surface cave that we could breath in (weird breathing without a mask at 10m below sea level). We saw an eagle ray, a sting ray, and lots and lots and lots of nudibranchs. I don’t know why people love nudibranchs (think little colorful sea slugs) but it was heaven for enthusiasts. It was 14*C the whole time (57* F). I had a 7mm wetsuit and a vest on and still required 5 hot chocolates to revive me.
After diving we drove to Paihia, a sassy and amazing beach town at the Bay of Islands. This was so that we could visit one of New Zealand’s most hallowed places, the Waitangi Treaty Grounds. It’s where the Mauri and the English signed a treaty basically granting the Mauris England’s protection in exchange for allowing the Brits to be there. Unfortunately it was somewhat misinterpreted by both sides and ultimately caused heartache (and is still in contention today). It is considered New Zealand’s founding document. There’s a beautiful park there, historical buildings, and of course a Marae. We were again treated to a cultural show and the Haka! We also got to play cricket!
We were also treated to tons of Tuis. A Tui is an awesome bird with an amazing vocal range and a cute tuft of white on its chest. I couldn’t get a picture of one but I got a video of one making noises. This is somebody else’s picture.
After this we headed to see the ancient Kauri trees. These have origins in the Jurassic Period and although most of them were cut down for timber, there is now a robust conservation effort underway. They are magnificent trees. This one has a Mauri name – as most of them do because they’ve been around for so long. Tāne Mahuta – the lord of the forest. It’s trunk is 42.5ft around and it’s height is 168 feet.
We then drove back to Auckland and stayed for a few nights. We wanted a lasting souvenir of our time spent in this amazing country – so we got tattoos. I got a fern leaf with Mauri design and color like a paua shell. Jonny got an awesome kiwi bird/fern leaf/yin yang mix. My foot tattoo hurt like a son-of-a-bitch. All my other tattoos were nothing compared to this. Here is an ‘after’ picture – I was a bit fried after an hour of shooting nerve pain.
We also went to an awesome little food festival along the waterfront, and went up the Sky Tower. I kept calling it the Auckland Space Needle.
Our last day in NZ we went to a lovely brunch and a museum. Then we paid $900 to send our 6 bags home with us. Aye carumba! I love Air New Zealand but that’s more than a ticket for a person! I have no idea how we accumulated so much stuff. I hope it all goes to good use.
And, well, that’s it. Our trip home was uneventful and we were greeted by our families at the airport. We then had a big steak dinner and it felt oddly like we had never left – which is, I suppose, what home should be. It’s good to be back – but it’s hectic. I feel as if I have 10 million things that need to get done, whereas in New Zealand I never had the feeling like I had to be doing something. I could relax at home and not feel guilty that I wasn’t out getting more done. We’ve now moved back to the greater Portland area (Vancouver, Washington, to be exact) and tomorrow I get my first glimpse of the clinic I’ll be working at for the foreseeable future. I don’t know if we’ll be spending any more prolonged periods overseas – but I do know that we’ll always have New Zealand as one of our fondest memories. Thank you to everyone who made this past year (plus) possible. It literally took a village to get us here and a village to get us back and we’ll never forget what sacrifices had to be made by all involved.