We then took ourselves off to a more remote and basic Department of Conservation (DOC) campsite
. These are all over NZ and normally just have a toilet block (flush toilets if you're lucky) and perhaps a tap or a picnic bench but they are in some absolutely breathtaking areas in the middle of nowhere. This one was downa long gravel track in woodland where you took your water from the nearby stream but the sun was shining and there wasn't another soul around. We took a walk around and made some food before settling in for the night. The stars were incredible and we spent some time outside in the dark trying to take photographs - we saw a possum which was pretty amazing for us even though they are seen as vermin over here. We were just getting ready for bed when two huge pick up trucks came into the campsite and set up a generator. Slightly concerned we got out to see what was going on and it was the army cadets who had apparantly booked the campsite out for a training weekend! Sure enough a coach then pulled up with around 30 teenagers on it - so much for our peace and quiet!
We spent our final day in Coromandel on a fantastic bush walk which took us to see Kauri trees which are absolutely huge and now under protection as they were logged extensively over 50 years. From Coromandel we headed down to Rotarua where we found a gorgeous DOC site overlooking Blue Lake where Jim tried out the fishing equipment he'd picked up in Thailand. We didn't have much look but it was lovely to cast out into the lake looking out over the mountains
. Rotarua is a strange little town, but the area surrounding it is pretty awesome. It was Jim's birthday whilst we were there which we spent exploring the fantastic sulpher caves, boiling mud pools and colourful pools of Wai-O-Tapu Geothermal Wonderland before heading up on the skyline cable car to have a go at the luge (lots of fun!) We cooked up a birthday BBQ in the evening and Jim got attacked by a Morpork Owl in the men's toilets!!
After a lovely drive through rolling hills we reached our next stop - Hobbiton for Jim's birthday celebrations part 2. It was a highlight of our trip so far, the set is in gorgeous surroundings and, as they have just finished filming The Hobbit trilogy, the attention to detail is incredible. Gorgeous colourful hobbit holes set in beautiful English country gardens complete with vegetable patches and washing lines - we absolutely loved it. We also got a free drink in The Green Dragon, which is now a working venue set up in true Hobbiton style with open fires and pottery tankards - perfect. We left just as the rains were setting in and took another drive to a beautiful DOC site in Arohena. We spent the evening fishing and cooking up a vegie chilli for tea to keep us warm as the nights were turning out to be more than a little nippy.
We stopped off at Taupo for a night but didn't really get to do much as it rained solid for 2 days so carried on to the Tongariro National Park
. Here we did a six hour hike out to see the Tama Lakes which are set out between Mt Ruapehu and Mt Ngauruhoe giving absolutely spectacular panoramic views. We lucked out with the weather, we set off at 7:30am and it was blue skies and awesome visibility plus we had the whole track to ourselves. Breathtaking. We walked back via Taranaki waterfalls and in the afternoon cracked on with a five hour drive down to Tarua Forest Park just north of Masterton - an exhausting but amazing day.
We awoke the next day to the sound of children playing cricket - yep another cadet group had set up on our little campsite!! We headed off down to Wellington for our final stop on the North Island. We really enjoyed our time in Wellington and went out for a meal and a few drinks on our first night, caught up with friends and family using wifi (which is quite hard to come by in NZ), explored the Sunday morning food markets and spent a whole day in the fantastic national museum - Te Papa.
It had been quite a whirlwind tour of the North Island and after ten days we caught the ferry over to Cook Straight to Picton to start our (slightly) more leisurely South Island explorations.
Once we had acclimatised to the chilly weather we spent a day exploring Auckland in the sunshine before heading out of town to pick up our campervan. It is fantastic - a spritely little VW transporter, great to drive and it has been really cleverly kitted out - the seats that turn into a bed with a touch of a button is a personal highlight! We got on the road and headed up the Coromandel Perninsular stopping on the way to stock up with food and amazing cheap wine. Spent our first evening unpacking and making ourselves at home, it was great to be able to cook our own food (Jamie Oliver's tuna pasta for night one) and have a little space that was just ours for the next 5 weeks. We spent a few nights on the Coromandel Perninsular, first exploring Whitianga and nearby hot water beach and Cathedral Cove. It was pretty cold but Jim still got into his swimmers to dig a little spa pool in the sand - Laura just paddled but great fun!