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Sunday, April 3, 2016

Take a Road Trip around New Zealand's North Island

Alisha McDarris
Every bit of New Zealand's landscape is breathtaking.
New Zealand’s not that big. Just a couple little blips floating out there off the coast of great big Australia. Just a little country, really. Or is it? True, you can drive from Auckland to the southern coast of the North Island in about 6 hours, but when you look at all of the shining destinations between point A and point B, you’d be hard pressed to make that journey in under 6 days. We took 5 weeks. Ok, 4, really, when you consider we spent the whole first week in Hamilton preparing for a wedding. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s start at the beginning.

Spend some time stargazing in New Zealand.

As is sometimes the case with Terradrift’s adventures, ours started a bit rocky. Not too rocky, mind you, just enough to remind us to screw our heads on straight. We showed up at the Brisbane, Australia airport all ready to catch our flight to Auckland, New Zealand. We knew we didn’t need any special visas to get in as we weren’t planning on working while there, so we didn’t have one. What we didn’t know (but should have if we weren’t suffering from an acute case of travel brain) is that without a visa, you do have to have a return flight scheduled. We did not. Common sense, right?

So quick draw, pull out the laptop, find the cheapest flight back in, what do you think, Josh? Five weeks? We decided on five weeks, right? Book it, pay it, show the nice lady at the check in counter with a bad case of pinkeye our booking confirmation so she’ll let us on the plane. But because we booked so quickly, selecting our return flight to Brisbane from Auckland because it was quite a bit cheaper, we didn’t know we’d actually be costing ourselves more in the long run. But more on that later.

But we got there. Arrived in Auckland in the evening, grabbed a bite to eat in the airport, and caught a coach into Hamilton that took 2 hours and cost $20 NZD per person. We booked it the night before. It was pleasant. There was Wi-Fi. I like free Wi-Fi.

We had also booked a hostel room for a couple nights, at Eagle's Nest Backpackers (loved this place), with hopes that we’d be out of there before long as we had plans to buy a car as soon as we arrived. Our last hosts in Brisbane had recommended it as backpackers are buying and selling vans all the time and we were likely to get a cheap one, maybe even as cheap as a rental, the problem with a rental being that you can’t sell it when you leave and recoup some of your cost. *Read about buying a campervan in New Zealand HERE.

There is freedom camping all over New Zealand whether you have a car, campervan or tent.

So we bought one for $1,750 NZD and lived in our van for the last few days until our friends’ wedding, which we happened to be filming and photographing (we are travel photographers, remember). It was a great wedding, camp friends were everywhere, we had a great time. But afterward we were ready to move on. So we took our van and headed out.

Hobbiton is a magical place for Lord of the Rings fans.

We started with Raglan Beach in the morning where we spent an hour or so walking along on the black sand beach and snapping photos from spectacular lookouts. From there we headed to Hobbiton in Matamata where we spent the afternoon admiring Hobbit holes and learning interesting facts about the movies. (Did you know that in The Fellowship of the Ring Gandalf hitting his head on a beam upon entering Bilbo’s study was a mistake, but Peter Jackson liked it so they went with it?) The tour was expensive. It was cool but it was expensive. Almost too expensive. But Josh is a big fan (I like the movies, too), and there was no way he was missing it. Plus, having a drink at the Green Dragon is pretty exciting. So we paid the $80 NZD and tried not to think about it. I’d only recommend it if you’re a big fan.

Trollshaw Forest is just one of the many Hobbit filming sights you'll see on a tour with Hairy Feet Tours Waitomo.

Day two we had scheduled a tour with Hairy Feet Tours in Piopio so we headed south. Now that was a tour. Small and personal, Suzie, the guide and owner of the farm where it took place called everyone by their first names all afternoon as she took us around their farm where much of the first Hobbit movie was filmed (18 minutes of screentime!). Trollshaws Forest was there and we got to take photos with replicas, stand where actors stood, and hear many, many more stories of her and her family interacting with the actors and Peter Jackson, how their farm was transformed into a movie set, and a plenty more facts about the movies. (Did you know nearly every stone and building was made out of nothing more than polystyrene?) This tour was way more enjoyable and relaxed than Hobbiton and only cost $50 NZD. Totally worth it.

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing has been called the best day hike in New Zealand. They weren't joking. Just look at those lakes!

Farther south-east we went the next day, to Tongariro National Park, where, you guessed it, more LOTR nonsense. But in nature this time! We were going to walk the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, a 6-8 hour hike around Mordor and Mount Doom. But movie stuff aside, this is just an amazing (and amazingly tough) walk. You’re surrounded by volcanoes, there are emerald lakes, craters, flowers, it’s beautiful! Spectacular! But don’t go into it thinking you’ll just breeze through. True, we haven’t been working out a lot lately, but we’re still pretty fit people and it was quite taxing. Our legs were sore the next day.

From there we headed south, toward Wellington with a pit stop in Wanganui. It’s a nice mid-sized town with local shops and markets and everything you might need, including a library with Wi-Fi and a café. We stayed there for an hour or two, got some work done, and continued on our way to Wellington.

And here’s a little note about Wellington: it’s absolute hell to drive around. No joke. I’d rather drive around during rush hour in New York City than Wellington. Here’s why: None of the streets are straight. None of them. Every time they curve the street name changes, street signs are rarely present and when they are they are pointing the wrong direction, not a single intersection is a straightforward cross section so you often have no idea which street you’re actually supposed to “turn” on, and some streets are so narrow and winding you can never tell whether you’re about to experience a head-on collision. It’s just the worst.

But driving aside, there’s plenty of free stuff to do in the city, which is why it’s packed with tourists. Well, that and there’s a cruise port. But we don’t tend to like places with too many tourists (we’re travelers, not tourists), so we spent two days there, the highlight of which was the WETA Workshop (the tour is $20 and great for silver screen fans) where we saw costumes and movie props from movies like LOTR, District 9, and Chappie up close and learned about the magic of movie making, then booked it out of the city.

Outside WETA you'll find the trolls from The Hobbit. Not for much longer, though. When we were there we met one of the folks responsible for designing their replacement when they wear out.

We then proceeded to spend 2 weeks on the South Island, which you can read about HERE.
When we returned to the North Island, we headed up the East Coast this time. From Wellington, where we spent the night after disembarking the ferry at 1:00 am, we headed to Kaitoke Regional Park where part of Rivendell and the Fords of Isen were filmed in The Fellowship of the Ring. The local council even erected signs and rebuilt the archway to help visitors feel the magic.

The Putangirua Pinnacles are crazy cool rock formations.

A few more hours saw us at the Putangirua Pinnacles, massively impressive rock formations that would have been spectacular to see even if they hadn’t been the location of the Paths of the Dead in Return of the King. They were absolutely worth the 45 minute detour.

We parked our van in a very full lot on the edge of Napier that night and explored the small town the next day. There’s not really that much to do or see unless you’re really into 1930’s architecture (the whole town was rebuilt in art deco style after a devastating earthquake), but it provides some pleasing diversion (and several options for vegan treats) among the streets named for famous writers.

The beautiful turquoise waters of Huka Falls in Taupo.

Just under the bridge are the beautiful and free thermal spas where locals and backpackers flock for a soak in Taupo.

Lake Taupo was up next so we drove there that same afternoon. We went straight to a free thermal pool in Thermal Spa Park where we found dozens of other locals and backpackers relaxing in the nook where hot water bubbing from waterfalls met the cool river, providing soakers with the opportunity to move around until they found their perfect temperature. Just like Goldilocks: not too hot, not too cold. And while this was lovely, we enjoyed it even more when we returned the following morning around 8:30 and had the whole place to ourselves. Priceless. And fabulous on a cool morning! We also checked out Huka Falls before we left town headed toward Rotorua. The falls were lovely and the water so turquoise!

We were less than impressed with Rotorua and its expensive tourist attractions, but we thought we’d stop by the Redwood forest and another free hot pool a local had told us about. Unfortunately, the forest was not only tricky to locate, but far from awe-inspiring, and the pool we were told about didn’t exist, apparently, so we moved on and that evening walked to the summit of Mount Maunganui farther north.

The view from the top of Mount Maunganui.

It’s in a cute little town, nice and more sophisticated than the tourist traps of Taupo and Rotorua. The kind of town that makes you want to catch a flick, picnic on the beach, and grab dinner on a patio somewhere, lazily watching the world go by. In any case, the hike to the top provides spectacular views and walkers get to wave at sheep as they ascend. The wooly fellas are just running all over the place up there.

You just can't stop Josh from climbing on rocks. These are at the base of Mount Maunganui, on the beach.

Next on the map the following day was Cathedral Cove and Hot Water Beach, just a few minutes’ drive from one another. At the Cove, be prepared to walk! The designated parking lot is far too small for all the people trying to spend the afternoon there, especially on the weekends, and cars were parked every which way where they weren’t supposed to be. I do not recommend this as very large coaches take turns around that parking lot and are very likely to take off mirrors and scratch doors in an attempt to escape. So we parked outside of town in a big free lot with a shuttle to the Cove, which we did not take because they were charging $10 per person each way. So we walked. It was only a 5 minute walk to the beach, then a very pleasant and picturesque 45 minute trail to Cathedral Cove. And come to find out, those parked in the lot still had to walk 30 minutes, so we weren’t so bad off.

Cathedral Cove is a beautiful spot for a refreshing dip.

Relaxing at Hot Water Beach at low tide. Don't forget a shovel (or at least a bowl)!

The walk to Cathedral Cove on a beautiful sunny day.

The cove was lovely and we spent some time sunning on the beach and not swimming in the icy water before we went to Hot Water Beach, which was packed! We did go on a Saturday, after all. It was very difficult to find a spot in the sand where we could dig a hole and enjoy ourselves; the water was either scalding hot or ice cold. People who had been there longer had already staked a claim on the Goldilocks spots, so we had to carefully situate ourselves so as not to burn our skin. It was still pretty cool. I mean, where else in the world can you dig a hole on the beach during low tide and have your own personal, if not private in the least, waterfront hot tub?

The next day saw us at Goat Island Marine Reserve north of Auckland. We had been told by a local friend that it was a good place to spend an afternoon and do a little snorkeling. So we rented snorkel gear for $20 per person for 2 hours. Turns out I should have shelled out the extra cash for a wetsuit, because I only made it about 45 minutes and was so thoroughly frozen I couldn’t stop shaking. But Josh went back out and we did see some cool fish during our swim.

We drove a couple hours north to Whangarei the next day. And until we were on our way we had no idea we’d be spending most of the day there. We were going for Kiwi North, where we would see kiwi birds and other native critters, but ended up doing much more. Kiwi North was great. It was the cheapest place we found to see the native bird ($15 compared to $30-$45 at some places), and very charming. They had a pair of birds that were a thrill to watch scurry around their nocturnal enclosure and we learned quite a bit about the curious little guys (did you know they lay eggs that are 20% of their body mass?!). There was also a small museum attached where you could learn about the extinct Moa, Maori customs, the Great War, and more. There were gardens and historical buildings to investigate, too, but we had glow worms on the brain.

The national bird can be spotted at Kiwi North in special nocturnal enclosures a couple times a day. Too cute. 

You can see glowworms at Abbey Caves on the edge of town, so we donned our head lamps and headed into the dark where we trudged through calf-deep water and did indeed see glowworms. We were very excited. We also made a quick stop at Whangarei Falls before heading north toward the Kauri forests, outside of which we camped for the night.

Tane Mahuta. Awe inspiring.

Yakas. Impressive. Reminds us how small we are.

The following morning we got up early to pay our respects to Tane Mahuta, Lord of the Forest, the largest living Kauri tree in New Zealand. The name is no joke; it’s hard not to be in awe in the presence of this tree that may be as old as 2000 years. Just down the road is Yakas, the 7th largest Kauri, and Cathedral Grove where you can sit and pay homage to these regal kings of the wood. It was an amazing sight to behold before we turned back south headed for Auckland where we would spend the last few days of our trip and, hopefully, sell our car (spoiler: we did).

Our favorite towel makes an appearance in front of the Sky Tower in Auckland.

We managed to score a couchsurfing host for the length of our stay and from his place we set out for the next three days to explore the city, including Mount Eden, The Domain, the art gallery, and much of the CBD. Too many vegan desserts were eaten (try TartBakery in Grey Lynn), much walking was done as we succeeded in paying for parking only twice, and we generally took it easy, ate good food, and unloaded our van on the next backpacker to call it home. Wrap it all up with an Uber to the airport and we had ourselves a trip! A really good trip with some amazing memories.

We can’t recommend more highly that you get yourself on a plane, take a few weeks off, and get thyself to New Zealand!

*We booked our Cook Straight ferry crossing with Bluebridge. And this is where that plane ticket we had to book at the airport came back to bite us. A ferry crossing for two people walking aboard is $100 NZD. A ferry crossing for two people and their car is $226 NZD.  And we had to pay that twice now, since we bought plane tickets out of Auckland instead of Christchurch. If we would have flown out from the South Island, we could have toured the North Island, crossed the strait once, toured the South Island, and flown back to Australia, saving ourselves a few bucks. But we weren’t aware the ferry was so pricey. So it goes. We learn the hard way so you don’t have to.

Regarding Bluebridge, I was pretty stoked to have 3 solid hours of free Wi-Fi so we could get some work done, publish some posts, but once aboard, the Wi-Fi was so slow, and there were so many people using it as to make it totally unusable. Boo. Also the boat was packed. You had to practically fight for a seat. On the way back we took the InterIslander ferry, the late crossing at 10:00 pm, and it was much emptier, so we had our pick of seats and all the wireless bandwidth we could hope for. You don't get the views at night, but it's much more comfortable.

Alisha McDarris / Author & Editor

Alisha is a freelance writer and photographer based in Austin, TX. She loves her tiny house, vegan food and experiencing the community of travel in far away places. She’s also pretty sure she’s addicted to coffee. [Portfolio]


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