New Zealand’s North Island

Wellington & Napier

The following day is mostly taken up by the ferry crossing. We need to be at the port at 1 pm to depart at 2 pm for the 3,5 h journey. We pack lunch and entertainment in form of books (kindle), TV-shows (iPad) and chess (Alex’s phone) and off we go. At this point we’ve spent around 2 months in New Zealand entirely in the South Island and have now 1 month left for the northern part. We are departing with ambivalent feelings: sad to leave the beautiful, vast and diverse South Island but also ready to explore the northern and hopefully warmer part of New Zealand.

By the time we arrive in Wellington it is only just 6pm but already completely dark. We drive on to a campsite just out of town from which we plan to explore New Zealand’s capital city the next day.

Wellington is the first city we’ve seen with sky scrapers and high ranging office blocks since Bangkok. Walking amidst them reminds me of London, although, Wellington is of course nothing like London. It’s situated right on the sea with hills behind it. The city boasts many restaurants, shops, cafes and offices, and has a cosmopolitan feeling to it as you would expect from New Zealand’s capital. But with a population of only 412,500 residents in comparison to London’s over 9 million or even Nottingham’s 915,977 (Wikipedia, 2015) it’s of course far more compact. We quite like it.

We spend our day in Wellington exploring city centre and take the old fashioned cable car up to the Botanical Garden to enjoy the slow meander through the gardens back down into the city. After chilling for a couple of hours at a cafe by the sea front patrolled by a horde of ambitious sea gulls we explore the Museum of New Zealand – Te Papa Tongarewa and learn about New Zealand’s contribution to World War 1 in Gallipoli. It’s much more interesting than it sounds with double life size waxworks depicting some of the scenes!

After a delicious Vietnamese dinner we head back to our camper-van and start the drive to a campsite further out of town. To our demise as we arrive  in complete darkness, albeit not at a late hour, we are confronted with locked doors so have to find another campsite.

The following day we have yet another relaxed morning before we get going to visit the Nga Manu Nature Reserve – a bird sanctuary holding amongst others the famous kiwi as well as morepork (a native NZ owl) and even some tarantura – ancient NZ lizard like reptiles. We finally catch our first glimpse of a kiwi snuffling around in a darkened enclosure. It’s a strange looking beast and easy to see why it’s endangered. After the kiwi enclosure and nature walk we find ourselves alone in the park catching the last hour of sunlight when to our surprise the place literally comes alive with birds, a bit like the Toy Story toys after the humans go to sleep. It’s surreal, as if the birds are conversing now the people have left. Slightly spooked, we leave. 

The next morning we’re heading to Napier, famous for its wine and architecture. Most of the city was rebuilt after a devastating earthquake in 1933 in the, at the time, fashionable and conveniently cheap art-deco style. We stroll aimlessly through town, enjoying sushi for lunch and finish off with a coffee on the beach front. In the evening I prepare our dinner for the following days. We’ve come into the habit of cooking batch-meals, usually at kitchens in paid campsites, that last for 3 days and so can easily be re-heated. On the menu for the next few days is Indian curry.

The next 2 nights we spend at a freedom camping spot right on the beach spoiling us with beautiful views and the sound of ocean waves. We also go on perhaps my most favourite bike tour yet which involves a few flat km’s only to reach vineyards for some wine tastings. Having sampled at least 6 wines at the first vineyard before having had lunch I almost fear I can’t manage any more. However, after a little lunch break I’m relieved to find I have gained enough ‘strength’ to carry on. 

At the second wine stop Alex teaches me ‘boules’ and we have a go at it. We also meet some lovely Australian ladies who recommend us going to the MacDonnell ranges when we are visiting Uluru in a couple of months. 

At this point we’ve planned and booked almost all our accommodation for our next destination, Fiji, and are starting to plan ahead for the following one, Australia. We’re unsure how much time to spend where and how to travel in general. We both want to explore cosmopolitan Sydney, gaze at sunset at Uluru and dive in the famous Great Barrier Reef but not quite sure yet how to go about it.

Australia’s vast landscape and comparatively small population hasn’t created the required nourishing soil for cheap airlines to pop up like mushrooms such as in Europe. Driving across the country is a daunting prospect as I’m no advocate of ‘the road is the journey’ concept. Over the next couple of weeks we consult book stores, read online blogs and request a few different quotes to helps us build a picture. In the end we settle on 3 days in Sydney, a flight to Alice Springs followed by spending 10 days in Uluru, Kings Canyon and the MacDonnell ranges with a camper-van, a flight to Cairns and spending there 10 days, partly with a camper-van too.

Geothermal New Zealand

After visiting mountain ranges and glaciers, sub-tropical rainforests, the Fjordlands, rugged coastline and desert like sand-dunes we should now explore New Zealand’s geothermal area. We drive to Lake Taupo where we experience it first-hand at the campsite’s naturally heated pool. We enjoy it greatly and sink into relaxation as we follow the ‘Finding Dori’ movie presented on a huge cinema-like screen along with many kids and their parents. Everyone around us is gazing at the big animated fish almost as if hypnotised by them.

The following day we explore Taupo town itself which is one of New Zealand’s biggest holiday resorts. It’s a nice town with many shops, restaurant and cafes on offer. We later drive to a public hot spring and enjoy the hot water pools and streams alongside a few others and 2 curious dogs.

The last few days we have been blessed with nothing but warm sunshine and blue sky that made us almost forget that we are still indeed in the middle of autumn and have not escaped the change of the seasons by means of a simple ferry crossing. Or if we have we should certainly be reminded of it.

The weather forecast for the next week looks rather bleak with rain and some more rain on the menu. Our plan of doing the Tongariro Crossing, a famous day walk across the volcanic alpine centre of the North Island, would have to be postponed so we’re heading further onto Rotorua and hoping for better weather. That wish, however, should not be granted as we’re greeted with solid 48 hours of heavy rainfall that causes widespread local flooding and even evacuations. Our campsite is swamped with ankle deep puddles that stretch into each other hungrily until finally forming one big pool. As a consequence, we’re stuck in our van for 2 days our only trip out being one to the cinema. 

Eventually the weather starts to clear and we’re finally able to explore the local area. On our list are a geothermal park and a Maori village. We visit Orakei Korako, a geothermal area and according to the Lonely Planet arguably NZ’s best. A 1,5 hour boardwalk leads its visitors through colourful silica terraces, geysers (although sadly they weren’t ‘in action’ when we visited) and mud pools. It’s a pretty impressive sight and also left a memorable mark on our nostrils…

In Te Puia we wanted to experience the Maori culture and booked a traditional cultural performance. It started with our tourist group being accepted as visitors by the Maori chief under the representation of Chief Alex. Chief Alex then had to greet every of the Maori performers with the traditional head-to-head welcome of a double nose-press followed by “Kia ora” after which the main dance & song performance started. Perhaps the best known Maori dance is the Haka which is a war-dance and suitably aggressive. The other dances are much more jovial and have more of a Caribbean meets May-day feel to them than the Haka.

Afterwards we joined a guided tour of the remaining park which featured another geothermal valley, the National School of traditional Maori Carving and Weaving, a model of a pre-European Maori village and a Kiwi House. 

Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Since the weather seemed to have taken a turn for the better after all we confirm with the DoC office whether the conditions for the Tongariro Alpine Crossing were still good. After getting their green light we make our way towards the National Village, from where the walk can be embarked on. We stop overnight in a beautiful freedom campsite spot in a forest and enjoy a beautiful sunset amongst the tall trees.

The next day we arrive in the Village to make all the arrangements for the walk. We make our lunches, pack snacks, book the shuttle and campsite and even enjoy a free pre-walk session in the campsite’s hot tub. 

The following morning is crisp and a layer of frost is covering the campground. I glance with pity at the solitary tent on the frosty grass and am quietly relieved it’s not mine. The poor owners are cycle touring so don’t even have a vehicle to get warm in. 

We get ready for our 8 am pick-up and the 30 min drive to the start of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Despite the colder weather we are not the only ones undertaking this day walk mid-week. The Tongariro Alpine crossing is probably New Zealand’s most famous day walk and there must’ve been a few hundred people, from tourists to school classes to hardy local Kiwis themselves attempting the crossing on our cold autumn day. In the same fashion as the popular ‘Great Walks’ the Crossing is a bit of a ‘highway’ with board walks, well trampled passages, built-in stairs and a line of people in either direction. A compass or even map is absolutely not necessary. 

As we climb the longer up-hill passage both of us feel out of shape. The past few weeks of mostly driving and sitting in the van with the occasional stroll have taken their toll (or rather not). Even though the walking itself isn’t the most interesting the scenery certainly makes up for it. The impressive ‘Mt. Doom’ from LOTR looms in the distance above us as the bright colours of the Emerald and Blue Lakes contrast with the crimson Red Crater. The walk finishes with wide views over the landscape before engulfing its visitors into a patch of sub-tropical rainforest. Towards the end we almost sprint downhill in an effort to catch the 2.30 pm shuttle bus but narrowly miss it by 6 minutes and end up lying in the sun for an hour. As we arrive back in the campsite we enjoy a nice hot shower followed by another free 30 minute session in the hot tub.  

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