An Unexpected Journey – New Zealand, North Island

If you’ve been keeping up, you’ll know that our route around NZ was a little haphazard, to say the least. In actuality we made two trips to the North Island; our initial stay in Auckland, followed by a second stint when we were displaced after the Kaikoura Earthquake (hence, ‘An Unexpected Journey’). I’m going to largely do away with the chronology for an easy life, but it’s worth noting that we had hoped to spend a lot longer on North Island, also taking in Wellington in the South and the Northlands, amongst others. Instead, on November 18th we found ourselves back at Auckland Airport for the third time, collecting our second rental car and preparing to drive a 6-day loop as far South as Turangi before returning to our starting point.

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She may have smelt like murders, but in the right light our new wheels scrubbed up ok!

So, without further ado, to Auckland, where our journey begins afresh…

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Auckland

Our time in Auckland was brief but busy, with just two days to get a feel for the country’s most populous city. We arrived off a long (but unexpectedly jovial) Air Asia X flight, and it was late afternoon on day one before we were settled at Nomads Fat Camel. First impressions were good – whilst the cost vs Asia hit us initially, the city is clean, cosmopolitan and Kiwi hospitality was living up to its reputation. After a tasty helping of Bangers and Mash at the hostel, we headed out to explore Auckland after dark and find ourselves a watering hole.

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City lights from Wynyard Crossing.

Now I’m a sucker for waterfront cities (why else would I have studied at Portsmouth?!), so Auckland is already off on the right foot, but all lit up in the evening the harbour really is pretty. Clearly a lot of investment has recently taken place around the Wynyard Quarter where we headed, but with this came a more up-market price tag which sent us packing to Bungalow8, where we could get our booze with some free BBQ for our budget-conscious bellies.

Day two, activate that tried and tested tactic, the free walking tour. We’ve done so many of these now that they have a tendency to blur into one, but our stroll with Auckland Free Walking Tours is a definite exception. Over the course of a few hours we took in the country’s oldest (but not that old) buildings, hidden laneways, fashion districts, pubs for law-makers and law-breakers, ‘Kiwi Christmas Trees’, and sat outside Old Government House, now part of The University of Auckland’s campus, for a frank and enlightening discussion about colonialism and Maori heritage, finished with a Pukana to lighten the mood! Ducking out early, we proceeded on a little walking tour of our own to Parnell to meet Renee, a friend of mine from Microsoft UK, for drinks, a catch up and some local knowledge.

On these city meanderings, Mel tends to have more of an eye for the people and stories that make up a culture, but I tend towards gawping at the buildings and environments that form around it. Walking around Auckland, as highlighted by our guide, the architecture is largely a subtle blend of modern skyscrapers and historical buildings co-existing harmoniously, whilst remaining respectful of the natural world around them. This is a theme that we’d find to be recurrent across many areas of life in New Zealand, from buildings to tourist attractions and natural phenomena.

A good example of this respect is Kitekite Falls. At just 35km from the centre of Auckland, this three-tiered waterfall was our first stop as we hit the road once more, and it is beautiful. Completely free to visit, and not marred by a garish visitor centre or hoards of souvenier shops, we arrived later in the day and in doing so avoided the tourist rush. With the place to ourselves, the serenity was wonderful. You’d never believe that civilisation was just a stones throw away.

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Peace and quiet at Kitekite Falls.

Hobbiton

It goes without saying that any North Island itinerary should include a visit to Hobbiton, and we were very grateful to get tickets by virtue of a long-distance birthday gift from my Dad! Whether or not you’re a Tolkien fan, it’s worth stopping by what is arguably New Zealand’s biggest ‘export’ for the countryside views, fascinating anecdotes and free pint in The Green Dragon.

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“In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit…”

Hobbit holes abound, including those belonging to Bilbo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee, along with areas you’ll recognise from the films that were used when Gandalf first enters The Shire and the whole town celebrate Bilbo’s Birthday. The size of the various holes differs wildly, so as to create an illusion that certain actors were taller or shorter than they actually are. Bag End is the most lavish in town, sitting atop The Hill as a sign of wealth, crowned by a hand-painted, artificially leafed oak tree.

The set itself is a permanent fixture on the Alexander Family Farm in the Matamata hillside, having been rebuilt for the Hobbit Trilogy (the Lord of the Rings set was also located here, but removed after filming). Once parked up you are transferred by coach to The Shire, accompanied by an introductory video and Howard Shore’s rousing score. The expansive site not only features Hobbit Holes, each with their own unique decorations alluding to the owner’s profession, but also party games, vegetable patches, Bywater Pool and plenty of sheep, although the specific breed brought in for filming (despite the farm being rammed with their own) have since departed!

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If we can ever afford a place this nice we’ll be laughing!

Waitomo Caves

Squeezing as much into the days as physically possible, after our morning indulging in Hollywood geekery we put our best hairy Hobbit foot forwards and made for Waitomo, home to a network of caves renowned for their spectacular Glowworms.

Instead of simply meandering along the network of underground rivers, we booked with Kiwi Cafe Rafting for a more adventurous form of sightseeing. Starting with an ~90ft abseil into the caves, we then waded upstream to check out the Glowworms, or as we now know them, ‘Glow-maggots’. Donning our rubber rings to drift back downstream, over rapids and under more luminous larvae, we eventually reached a calmer stretch of water. Casting aside our vessels, we were given a crash-course in caving; worming our way through all manner of tight gaps (‘squeezes’), before a gentle rock-climb out of the abyss.

Lake Taupo

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing would be as far South as we’d venture on our whistle-stop tour of the North Island. Of the thousands of walks throughout the country, this is one of the most popular, with the trail passing the active volcanic cone of Mount Ngauruhoe (as depicts Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy), as well as the sacred Blue Lake and a variety of other movie locations along its route. We tramped (‘tramping’ – Kiwi for hiking!) as far as Mel’s patience and our itinerary would allow, before about-turning and making our way up the shores of Lake Taupo.

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Mountains, lakes and volcanos from Ketetahi (or thereabouts) on Tongariro Crossing.

This beautiful lake is New Zealand’s largest, and at its North-Easterly tip is Taupo town, where we’d be staying the night in a gorgeous cottage Mel got me as a birthday treat. You can see from the pictures why this place was like a little home away from home – manicured rose gardens, whitewashed wooden buildings and wrought iron garden furniture conjured images of a cliff-top stately home on the Dorset coast. The only difference was the private pool out back, fed with hot water from a volcanic spring!

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Looking over Lake Taupo to ‘Mount Doom’.
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The wonderfully quaint Phoenix Resort in Taupo.

We were staying just a stones throw from the water’s edge, with the town an easy lakeside stroll away. By day, the view over Taupo to the snow-capped mountains is spectacular, but as the evening calm draws in and the sun sets it is truly magical.

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The sun goes down over Lake Taupo.

Rotorua

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Huka Falls

Now on the return portion of our trip from/to Auckland, next stop was Rotorua, a bustling little town with a lake of its own and a fair amount of charm to boot. This was as close to Queenstown’s backpacker vibe as we saw on North Island, we stayed at Crash Palace which was comfortable, welcoming and had a cool little bar. En route, just beyond Taupo, we made a quick stop at Huka Falls, NZ’s most photographed waterfall, which featured some pretty violent rapids not far upstream from the Aratiatia Spillway, where portions of the barrel scene in The Hobbit were filmed.

On the outskirts of Rotorua were a couple of its main attractions – a Whakarewarewa Forest, full of huge California Redwoods and Rainbow Springs, home to a variety of native species. The former we visited over lunch, and the size of some of the trees was phenomenal! Unbelievably, as the trees don’t grow to full size in the milder New Zealand climate, the specimens we saw were a fraction of the size of the biggest known examples. We had hoped to travel to Waipoua Forest in the Northlands, home to the largest native Kauri trees, but this was definitely the next best option. The park was well-kept, had a range of walking routes (one of which was even just about Mel-friendly) and a paid-for canopy walk if that’s your bag.

Come the evening we headed to Rainbow Springs, via KFC (of course), to take advantage of their discounted evening tickets and the chance to see the nocturnal Kiwis whilst they’re active. As well as the national bird, we also encountered Weka, and a characterful Kea called Jenny who enjoyed mocking us from inside her favourite hidey-hole, followed by crying if we dared grow weary of her antics and walk away. I also took the opportunity to get another ‘Mel for scale’ picture versus a sculpture of a Moa, New Zealand’s least intelligent extinct bird, that had a penchant for getting stuck in quagmires and eaten. Most notable of all was without doubt Mel’s new best feathered friend Kevin the Kaka, with whom we held an extensive avian conversation, followed by some inter-species dancing and a reluctant farewell.

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Mels meets Moa.

Coromandel

Our penultimate day, but still so much to see! Quick as a flash, we were off to the Coromandel to check out what would be our last of the country’s natural wonders… for now. En route we stopped at Tauranga, a port and seaside town with a little surf and some cracking golden sand; definitely worth the short detour. This was not our main stop though, oh no. We were headed for Whitianga, which would be our base for one-night only to visit Hot Water Beach.

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Tauranga, and Mount Maunganui in the distance.

As the beach was actually on the way to the town, we stopped in mid-afternoon for a snack and a chill after the driving. We dipped our toes in the sea (at least that was my intention – someone else seemed more interested in wrestling in it), only to find that it was quite the opposite of hot, or even warm! You can imagine our confusion. Perplexed, we headed to the hostel, only to discover that the best time to visit is at low tide. This is when a small area in the centre of the beach transforms into a kind of boozy backpacker spa.

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Hot Water Beach by day…

So, hired spade in hand (pro tip – do try to remember to bring this back), we retraced our steps. Lo and behold, upon arrival at the beach you could make out a couple of dozen figures milling around in the twilight! Swimsuits on, we got to work digging our very own little pool on Hot Water Beach, where we spent our final evening in this mesmerising country cider in hand, under a blanket of stars.

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… and by night!
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