New Zealand's North Island - what a place!

Trip Start Sep 12, 2008
Trip End Sep 12, 2009

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Where I stayed
The Barn

Flag of New Zealand  , Nelson,
Tuesday, July 7, 2009

North Island

I think I have a new hobby, it’s called New Zealand.  Ever since our arrival, we have sensed that there is something very special about this place.  It could be the super friendly, genuine people, it could be the astounding scenery, it most likely is a combination of both plus a whole lot more…It’s almost asif someone has taken all my favourite countries and mixed them all together to make New Zealand - in short, I am lovng it!

After a tiring 24 hour journey down from Darwin via Brisbane and Sydney, we landed at Auckland at around midnight, two very tired travellers.  We spent our first night in an airport lodge and the following morning got up bright and early to get the airport shuttle into Auckland city centre.  Our bus driver was super friendly, asking everyone where they were going and advising them where to get off.  We got off the bus and walked, with all our stuff, up the steepest street in Auckland to our hostel - with big red faces from the climb we were greeted by another friendly woman, who chuckled and exclaimed that we must have loved the high street!  We were upgraded from a dorm room to a double room which suited us very well as we were to do a lot of sleeping over the next few days (plus it was nice to sleep in a real bed for a while as the majority of the last 3 months has been spent sleeping on airbeds and sofas!).  That day we took a stroll up to the Auckland museum, which houses a stunning collection if Polynesian and Maori artifacts, as well as some interesting exhibitions about nature and volcanoes etc - again we were greeted by some wonderfully friendly people - this place is like a breath of fresh air, I feel like there is so much more interaction with other people - everybody wants to be of help and is genuinely interested in stopping for a chat.  Unfortunately we were both exhausted from the journey and so weren’t able to take in as much as we had liked, although we did manage to stay till closing time - the place was addictive!

That night, we met up with one of Stevie’s university friends, Marty, and went for a few drinks in the local Irish Pub.  Ofcourse half the people there knew people we knew, in fact, we had even met one of them before! Small world, or should I say - a typically Irish situation.  We also made friends with the huge Maori doorman - who was the biggest, friendliest giant I had ever met - I should say here that this was such a nice contrast from the doormen in Australia - who were just downright ignorant and rude.  In fact, without slating Australia too much, I feel that the reason New Zealand has been such a refreshing experience is that there is such a stark contrast in the people, now I’m not saying all Australians weren’t friendly - we met a great deal of lovely ones - but New Zealanders win hands down in their genuineness and loveliness.  We even met some friendly police officers on the way home - Stevie was about to pee against the wall and they politely asked him to wait until he got to a toilet, before driving off - for the same crime in Australia one of our friends got put in a police cell for the night!

Anyways, our next day or two in Auckland was spent looking for the cheapest, warmest coats - and scouring the ’op shops’ (secondhand shops) for warm clothing - we haven’t actually stopped shopping in the op shops, they are wonderful and everywhere we go, our car is slowly becoming an op shop itself!  We also took those few days to research which camper/car we were going to hire and which route we were going to take.  Eventually we settled for a ‘Spaceship’ as it was the cheapest ($25 per day!), this kind of ’camper car’ is a large Toyota people carrier converted to have a double bed in the back, a gas stove, a dvd player and little chiller for our milk and ham - the name: ’Darth’.  We were to collect it on Monday morning.

On Sunday we took the train out to a place called ’Mt Eden’ where we had read about a sacred volcano cone which you could walk around.  Dying to see a real volcano (Auckland is built on about 50 of them) I jumped at the chance and soon we were climbing a very steep hill to get to the top.  The views from the top were mind-blowing - we could see the whole of Auckland, as well as each of the volcano cones which protruded out across the city.  The cone we stood on was pretty cool too - to think that this had actually been a volcano at one stage was intriguing, learning about these as a child in school I had always dreamed of seeing a ‘real volcano’, and this was only the start of what New Zealand had to offer in terms of volcanic areas - I was delighted. 

On Monday morning we got up early, packed up our stuff and went to collect our Spaceship.  Taking the car out at first was quite terrifying - it felt like I was driving a big bus out onto a motorway, and it seemed like the motorway had about 10 lanes with 5 cars per square meter - (New Zealand has 4 million inhabitants, and 2.5 million cars so my feeling cant have been far off!) I decided my best bet was to just steer the bus into the lane I wanted to go and hope for the best, it seemed to work - no beeping or swerving cars around me - but then again people were probably just being friendly in that nice New Zealand style ;)  (the dvlni are definitely going to regret ever issuing me with a license!)

We collected our stuff from the hostel and headed off up north, where the motorway slowly turned into a nice little road with impressive views.  Just to remind us that we were really in New Zealand - we passed a place called ‘sheep world‘ where luminous pink sheep grazed on the front lawn - yes we were well and truly in New Zealand!  On our first night we went to a place called ‘Waipu’ (pronounced whypooh - hilarious), where we parked up at a ‘Department of Conservation’ campsite - situated at a beautiful location by the beach.  We went for a walk along the beach just as the sun was setting, creating a beautiful pink and purple sky, we then returned to camp on our little stove that came with the van before going to bed in the back and watching a dvd - the simplicity of the situation was just bliss.

We woke up the next morning and carefully poked out a toe to gage the temperature - this was the big test! Luckily, the cold wasn’t too bad - a sleeping bag and two duvets helped with that, we got up and had a quick breakfast before hitting the road to a place called Mangawhai Heads where we went for a lovely 3 hour cliff walk.  We drove up to Whangarei (pronounced fangarei) and spent the remainder of the day and much of the evening looking for a ’DOC’ (cheap/sometimes free) campsite and getting incredibly hopelessly lost up a steep and winding gravel path - with the orange glow of the petrol light serving as a reminder that yes, we were also running out of petrol.  We never did find that campsite, and ended up driving all the way back to Whangarei to stay at a campsite which we had to pay for…you’d think that was our lesson learned in searching for remote campsites for the sake of a few dollars…watch this space.

Anyways, it was nice to stay in a proper campsite in the end as we could have proper showers and cook in a real kitchen, plus there wasn’t that fear lurking in the back of our minds of the scary monsters that might come out when staying in a remote place!  The next day we had some more fun driving around endlessly, this time we were looking for the ‘Abbey Caves’, the backpackers alternative to the popular Glow-worm Waitomo Caves.  It took a lot of driving back and forth, asking people and searching, but eventually we found the caves.  Unfortunately we couldn’t really get into the caves as they looked like they needed professional caving gear -and they had waterfalls pouring into them, but it was a scenic walk through the fields to go find them - and there was a ‘rock forest’ which was really cool - huge boulders and rocks popping out of the ground.  We also went to see the ‘Whangerei falls’, which were named the ‘Paris Hilton’ of waterfalls by the Lonely Planet - for us this was probably number 2088 of waterfalls we had seen on our travels, but they were nice and very blue.

That day, we had a bit of time to spare so we decided that we would have enough time to get a bit further up north and also find  a DOC campsite we had read about.  Again, winding roads, gravel and the dreaded orange petrol light ensued, but no campsite.  We ended up driving all the way back down to another place to get some petrol and driving onwards to the gorgeous ’Russel’, one of the first European settlements on the island.   That night was our first experience of ‘freedom camping’, we just parked up in a carpark in the town and slept there! It was a little bit scary but the night went without any problems - the beauty of our campervan is that it is small enough to look like a car, and the blacked out windows mean you can’t really tell if someone is inside - although the next morning I felt quite sheepish crawling out of the side door whilst parents ushered their kids to school along the street.  Russell turned out to be a delightful little place, full of old cute little buildings with little plaques with stories on them.  It also housed New Zealand’s oldest church - which still had bullet holes on, and some incredibly interesting tombstones.   We also went up to see the ‘flag mast’ which had been erected by the Maori people as a sign of acceptance of the English, lovely views of the ‘bay of islands’ from here, the place we were bound for next. 

Our next stop was Paihia, a nice little town where we would go on a tour of the Bay of Islands - New Zealand’s answer to Australia’s WhitSundays.  We decided to take advantage of the lovely weather and go on the 1 o’clock tour that day, before the rain set in.  The tour was a really nice introduction to the beautiful scenery that New Zealand has to offer, as well as a little background information about the area.  We went dolphin spotting (unfortunately we couldn’t swim with them as two of the dolphins had babies and they have to feed every 3 minutes - when people jump in they get distracted and don’t feed and die of hypothermia)  However, secretly I was kind of dreading jumping into the icy cod water so in that sense it was a relief, but I really would have loved to be able to say that I had swam with dolphins!  That night we parked up in another carpark and slept there - we were starting to get the hang of this!

We were now nearing the far northlands, the main reason why we were travelling up all this way - we wanted to see ‘Cape Reinga’, the most northerly point of New Zealand - ‘where the Tasman and the Pacific oceans meet, and in Maori beliefs, where the spirits of the dead spend three days before departing’.  That evening, we cautiously drove up to look for another DOC campsite, and actually found it - Result!  The campsite was well worth finding too, it was situated in the most stunning location - in a bay with the bluest water and whitest sand, and not a person in sight (apart from an old man who was staying there in his campervan, we were quite glad that we weren’t the only people staying out in the middle of nowhere!)  Our mission now was to find ourselves a tour company to take us up to Cape Reinga, and  ‘ninety mile beach’ (which our car rental company wouldn’t allow us to drive on incase we got stuck).  We phoned a few but after the second phonecall, it became apparent that tour companies weren’t going out because of a severe weather warning, we were gutted!  We did however give our number to a company called ‘Harrisons’ who promised to call us if anyone else wanted to go the following day - sure enough they called us back just before dark as 4 other people had booked the trip - yay! The trip a really really good day out - $45 for a full day including lunch - and well worth it.  We drove up and the people were really friendly, they let us park and have breakfast in their car park, let me charge my camera battery in the office and gave us loads of friendly advice about the next part of our trip.  At 9am Allen - our tour guide- arrived, a friendly, smiling, half Maori, half Scottish young man who  turned out to be a really good guide.  It turned out that every person on the tour that day was Irish - which was quite a coincidence - or as Stevie said, they are the only ones who would brave the weather!  The weather turned out to be fine too, not a rain drop in sight until the day was over which was really lucky.  The day started with Allen saying a prayer in Maori to keep us safe, before taking us around the local area, telling us the history and  showing us the sights.  The best parts of the tour came in the afternoon when we went to the lighthouse at Cape Reinga (which was covered in mist!) but we still got to see the point where the two oceans meet which was interesting.  After the lighthouse we had a lovely lunch and then went ‘sand tobogganing’ from massive sand dunes which was sooo much fun!  We drove over a river to get to the ‘ninety mile beach’ (which is actually 65 miles) and drove all the way down it, we had to keep moving so we wouldn’t get stuck - and we actually seen the top of a car which had gotten stuck there a few months earlier! Our day ended at about 4:30, just as the rain started - we were thoroughly pleased with ourselves for doing this trip!

After that day, the severe weather really started…and it didn’t stop for quite a while!  We drove all the way to Roturua and sat looking dejectedly out of our car as the sky continued to crash down on us, sitting there we got a text from Stevie’s friend inviting us down to Hastings for chilli - at that point in time a warm bed and a bowl of chilli sounded like an invite from God so we braved the weather and the treacherous mountain road and went down to sit in Dermot and Vanessa’s house for a few days to brave out the weather.  Our days down there were really lovely - we sat in front of the fire, drank wine and chatted for two nights - very glad that we weren’t out in the spaceship ‘lost in space’ - or rainy space anyways!  The second  morning we took a chance and relied on the weather reports from the internet, and to our delight it worked out - we could actually see the end of the cloud as we drove back to Roturua, and also our first glimpses of snowcapped mountains. 

We spent two days in Roturua and Taupo, situated in the most volcanic area in the world.  We went to two ‘geothermal parks’ where we seen geysers, steaming bubbling lakes, bubbling mud, boiling waterfalls and just lots of steam in general! It was all pretty spectacular, and didn’t really look ‘real’, very hard to imagine that this was all being caused by lava deep underground, I kindof felt like I was walking through Jurassic Park!

On our second day back up in that area - we encountered the most beautiful clear day and decided that this was it, this was the day we would do a skydive!!! (By the way, the night before we had spent another fun night looking for a DOC campsite - again we didn’t find it and again the orange petrol light was burning furiously - will we ever learn?!) 

Full of nerves we drove down to the airport where ‘Skydive Taupo’ are situated.  The whole thing was over before you could say ‘skydive’ - and memories are pretty vague due to all the adrenalin etc - sensory overload apparently according to the girl who briefed us.  Anyways, we were  booked in for 2pm and as soon as we went in we were assigned an instructor each and started to put our gear on.  Soon we were getting on a very flimsy looking little white plane and taking off way above all the trees, volcanic parks and mountains - at one point we thought we were about there but were reassured that we were only about half way! We flew round for a while above the beautiful views, and then suddenly the door opened! Fear and panic flooded through me but as we were doing a tandem skydive - there wasn’t much of a chance to escape - before I knew it  I was sitting with my legs dangling out of a plane at 12000 feet and then I was freefalling at 12000 feet - literally breath taking!  I remember bits and pieces of the fall, I remember us being upside down and the instructor showing me the plane that we had just jumped out of, and I remember us spinning round and then - suddenly, the shoot went up and the madness freefall stopped and there was just silence and stunning views - this part was just like sailing - we sailed along until we hit the ground - and even that was a smooth landing.  I think I am still on a high from the skydive, 5 days later - the rush is absolutely amazing, I want to go again!

After our skydive, we parked up at a scenic lookout point for a while and watched Lord of the Rings - with the actual mountain of Mordor visible from our windscreen, definitely the way to watch that film!  We didn’t do much else that day, the skydive took it out of us both mentally and physically!  The next morning we took off down to Tongariro National Park, to see Mordor upclose.  We took a walk and a drive around the park, although we couldn’t do the famed ’Tongariro Crossing’ as the weather was too bad - but the park was really amazing - so much snow!  New Zealand is just ‘wow’ for scenery! 

After seeing the Tongariro area, we had pretty much seen everything that we wanted (and had time to) see in the North Island, so now our mission was to make it down to Wellington to get a ferry across to the South Island.  That day we drove as far as ‘Wangenui’ and decided to treat ourselves to a real campsite for the night - to access a real kitchen and make ourselves a real dinner.  We phoned the cheapest in the book, ‘Bignell St Motel & Campsite’ and the man said that he had a caravan free if we wanted to just stay there…well, we were delighted at this prospect, and full of visions of a swish motor home with all the mod cons - we rushed down to Bignell St. only to be greeted by a caravan park for the elderly - a kind of nursing home in the form of caravans, with a nice little old caravan for us to match! We made the best of it though and cooked ourselves a lovely little meal, set up our camping table and chairs inside the caravan, and watched a movie - any time we came out of the caravan though, elderly eyes watched us from behind faded flowery curtains - this was probably the most excitement they’d had in a long time, I bet we were the talk of the bingo hall that weekend!

The final part of our trip was the last 200km down to Wellington, ‘Windy Wellington’ as they call it, due to the windy conditions…of course.  We spent a day in Wellington which was nice, and called into the local museum - ‘Te Papa’ which was really really impressive - we didn’t even get to see half of it as we only went in for 2 hours, but I have been thoroughly impressed by the quality of museums in New Zealand so far, they are amazingly interesting and informative - and free!  That evening we drove out to a suburb and treated ourselves to another campsite (peace of mind whilst sleeping is worth a lot!) and the next morning we boarded the ferry - Destination South!

At the moment I am sitting in a big comfy chair in the living room of a hostel right beside the Abel Tasman National Park, the fire is lit - I have a cup of tea beside me, the sun is shining in the window, and chimes gently sing out their tune out on the Verandah.  We have been in the South Island now for two nights, we have found a hostel called ‘The Barn’ where we are allowed to park up for free and use all their facilities (our campervan company own the place), yesterday we went for a walk through the park which was really beautiful - having now also sorted out my bank issues -  I feel thoroughly content - at how much I like this country, its people and the experiences we are having.  I feel like we haven’t finished with New Zealand yet - I would dearly love to see some more and perhaps explore it in summer…but first, we still have 3 weeks of the South Island to take in - snow, ice and penguins - bring it on!
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