One Week in New Zealand’s North Island

Like many, travelling to New Zealand has been on my bucket list since discovering the country’s natural beauty as a teenager watching the Lord of the Ring trilogy. Having a few weeks between our cycling trip from Adelaide to Melbourne, and the Christmas holidays, and a bit of time left on my travel insurance for some crazy adventures, Rich and I decided it was time for us to make the trip over to the land of kiwis and hobbits.

Rich has for several months been trying to sell me on the idea of doing a cycling trip though parts of New Zealand. From all that we’ve read, New Zealand’s South Island is meant to have really wonderful cycling trails, and Rich had even plotted out an itinerary before we began our ride from Adelaide.

However, given that flights to the North Island were significantly cheaper than those to the South, and the fact that I was in no mood to be cycling around again for a time, we opted to take the easy way out this time around – we’d leave the South Island for another adventure, and see what the North Island had to offer. Buying some last minute tickets out of town, we booked ourselves a car, and piled all our camping gear back into our bags.

The Itinerary

As soon as we started telling people that we’d be travelling around the North Island for a week, the recommendations came piling in. Based on what we heard, Rich and I complied the following itinerary:

Day 1:

Arrive in Auckland

Drive up to Paihia in the Bay of Islands

 

Day 2:

Take a sailing trip around the Bay of Islands

Drive to Whangarei

 

Day 3:

Drive to Waitomo

Go Black Water Rafting

 

Day 4:

Drive to Taupo

Look at the Craters of the Moon & Huka Falls

Cliff jump into Lake Taupo

 

Day 5:

Drive to Rotorua

Go Zorbing

Visit the Geothermal Spas

 

Day 6:

Go Sledging

Drive to Tauranga

 

Day 7:

Drive to Matamata (Hobbiton)

Drive back to Auckland

Fly out

New Zealand Map
Our route

 

All together, we were facing about 1,161 kilometers of driving over the course of seven days. Looking at the itinerary, I was so happy that we weren’t attempting to cycle this. Had we tried, we wouldn’t have time for anything else.

Day 1

We landed in New Zealand at around 3:30 in the afternoon, flying through customs despite our having a tent, which could have presented a bio hazard, as tent pegs have to be secured in soil.

At the terminal we were met by our car rental service, Jucy Rentals, and driven to their office. We thought we were getting quite a good deal out of them, as we had unlimited mileage and were paying only NZ$35 a day for the rental. Jucy has a range of cars available, from tiny Daihatsu Sirions to Honda CRVs to 10 seater vans to fully loaded camper vans. We decided to take one of the cheaper cars available, but we steered clear of the cheapest option. The cheapest option would have cost us NZ$3 less per day, but we were wary of taking on a car with over 200,000 kilometers on it when we knew we’d be putting in some heavy mileage ourselves.

We were given a manual transmission, bright red Hyundai Getz. Unfortunately, I can’t drive a manual, and I was not interested in attempting to first learn while driving on the left side of the road, so Rich was left with the duty of shuttling us around. The car itself was probably larger than we needed it to be for the trip, but we found it really quite comfy, and it easily fit all of our gear. We would later make good use of the back seats by dumping our sleeping bags and tent in unfolded, under the premise that they needed to air out (which they did, we hadn’t washed our bags since prior to Madagascar, and they absolutely reeked of, well, everything).

We were quite lucky too, as we had been looking for NZ sim cards since we landed, and the rental office had several 2 Degrees sim cards that they were giving out for free. With a fee of NZ$10 for 300mb of data and calling capabilities, we found the cost reasonable, and hoped that the network would be able to provide us with decent reception throughout the trip.

Activating my sim card, and orienting ourselves, we headed North on State Highway 1, up towards the Bay of Islands.

The drive was meant to take about three and a half hours and for the first two hours, Rich seemed to really be enjoying it as the highway was long and windy, and up through the mountains.

Though we had arrived at 3:30 in the afternoon, we hadn’t set off from the rental office until closer to 6:00, so by the time we closed in on the town of Whangarei, where a friend of ours who we met during our tour through Africa lived, Rich was dead tired and we were worried that by the time we reached Paihia, the caravan parks would all be shut for the night and no longer taking guests.

Pulling off the highway and into Whangarei, we found ourselves in the nearest caravan park we could find and set up tent for the night. Unfortunately, at this time we did not have our friend’s phone number and were unable to get in touch with her, but were content to live out of the tent.

Day 2

Prior to leaving for New Zealand we had booked a day trip on the Gungha II, a sail boat that would take us around the Bay of Islands. Having booked this and knowing that we had to get to Paihia, an hour long drive from Whangarei, by 10:00, we got up with the sun (and then proceeded to pretend to not be awake until around 8), and stuffed all our gear into the car. We were too early to get breakfast in Whangarei, but leaving as early as we did, we would have time for breakfast in Paihia, pending we didn’t get lost.

With town names like Kawakawa though, there was no way we were getting lost. Many of the street and town names in New Zealand made me feel like I was living in the second Ace Ventura movie, where hard-soft consonants pairings made for words that just rolled off the tongue in the best of ways; think “Shikaka”.

We arrived in Paihia with just enough time to park and grab ourselves a bagel and coffee along the harbor, before rocking up to the boat. The Gungha II is a 65ft yacht, run by a Canadian and his American deckhand. It seemed that their tours were quite popular, because as we went to the meeting spot we realized that we were going to be joined on tour by several Canadians, a pair of Americans, two Israelis, a Scottish man, some Germans, and a trio of Brits. There was not going to be much of any privacy today.

Onboard the Gungha II
Onboard the Gungha II

It was quite beautiful out though – perfect blue skies, solid winds, and crystal clear water.

We would be heading out to a small island, about an hour and a half’s sail from Paihia. There we’d stop for lunch, and be able to swim, kayak, and snorkel around the island, or just hang out on the beach.

About half an hour into our trip, something unexpected happened – a dolphin joined us and began following alongside the sailboat. It stayed up at the nose and would consistently dive under the boat and switch the side it was on. As if testing us, at times it would fall back behind us, and after realizing that we weren’t chasing it, would come back up next to us and play in our wake.

The dolphin stayed with us until our final approach into the island where we’d be anchoring. I think it knew we were coming to a halt and that its fun was over.

Upon anchoring, Rich, the two other Americans and I jumped off the side of the boat and sprinted to shore. The Pacific currents were icy cold, and it was a mad dash to warm up before the cold set in. While we swam to shore, others took out the three kayaks provided by the Gungha II, and the rest of the group rode in on a dinghy.

Choosing not to sit idly on shore, Rich and I bounced our way up the side of a grassy hill along the beach. Climbing to the top, we were knee high in prickly grass and searched for the best views we could find of the boat and the water world surrounding us. Unfortunately for Rich though, he stepped on a very unhappy bee, which promptly stung him on the toe.

The Gungha II
The Gungha II

The stung toe was swelling up and making it very difficult for him to walk, so after hobbling back down the hill, I loaded Rich into a kayak and gave him a shove. Following behind him, Rich and I made our way back to the boat, where the captain was able to give Rich an antihistamine. As the swelling and the pain went down, we proceeded to glide around in our kayaks exploring the crevices of the island, until we were called back to the boat for lunch.

After lunch we set back off to Paihia, and most of us, roasting in the sun, slept the majority of the way back.

Upon landing, we got back into our little car and headed south, back to Whangarei. We were to stay the night with one of the Kiwis we met during our Africa tour and were really excited to have the chance to see her again.

Day 3

After a wonderful evening of great conversation, awesome food, and hot showers we were sent on our way. Rich and I had an afternoon booking to go Black Water Rafting in Waitomo, a four hour drive from Whangarei, and we needed to make sure we made it down in time.

Staying off State Highway 1, which though plenty pretty and winding, had been very stop and go the previous few days due to the supposed road works (many road work zones in the area were devoid of workers and had perfectly decent roads, but drivers were still forced to slow down from a 100km/hour speed limit to 50km/hr), we opted for the scenic/tourist routes that took us along the coastline.

After about two hours of spectacular views, often getting lost and finding our path, we made it down to Auckland, and from there we predominantly followed the major state highways to our destination. Upon our arrival in Waitomo, we checked into a little caravan park about a kilometer up the road from where we’d be setting off for the Black Water Rafting, and set up camp.

Straight from the get-go, the Black Water Rafting looked like it was going to be a rather interesting experience. While our group was getting changed into our 5mm wetsuits, our guides, a rather boisterous pair of Kiwis, entertained themselves by filling their own wetsuits with water, thus helping them resemble something similar to the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, and prancing around the facilities as such.

The tour itself had nothing to do with rafting; instead we were going to be tubing through a series of glow worm caves under Waitomo. The caves had no lighting system and were pitch black, except for when the lights of our torches hit its walls.

Entering the cave, I knew immediately that we were going to need to stay as far away as possible from an American family visiting from Tennessee. They were loud, obnoxious with their questions and constant comments on how unpleasant and terrifying it all was, and bespectacled (there was a chance their glasses would float away from them and I didn’t want to be there when it happened). Trying to stay ahead of the noise Rich and I did what we could to stay at the front of the group as the water started to pick up and the flow was heavy enough to get onto our tubes.

It was all great fun at first as we floated under low ceilings, shoving ourselves along by pushing against the ceiling, and jumping backwards off low waterfalls into the dark abyss below. Sadly though, Rich and I found it all much too slow compared to our usual activities. There were some reasonably quick currents but we were made to get up out of our tubes each time we encountered one of these, and had to walk along the side of the cave (not that the Americans behind us really understood this as they slipped and slided around us losing glasses, footings, and tubes).

What really made the trip though, sloth of our progress aside, was the glow worms overhead. Glow worms aren’t really worms but rather the larvae of small flies. The larvae has to eat enough food for its entire life cycle, because once it evolves into a fly it is no longer able to feed. These larvae therefore spend nine months to a year emitting their yellowish-green glow so as to attract smaller insects to feast on. As we progressed through the cave system, we’d be able to look up at the ceilings and watch these tiny glowing larvae, with me often looking out for patterns.

Near the end of the cave system, we were told to turn off our torches and see if we could progress through to the end without light. Competitive as I am, I rushed to the front of the queue trying to beat the group out of the cave (though a guide flipped me out of my tube and into the water as I passed him), and out into the sunlight.

The entire way out of the cave and back to the tour’s facilities where we could get changed out of our wetsuits and get hot showers and soup, I could hear my favorite family talking about how horribly scary and tough the experience was. I did learn a very important lesson from them though: if you’re claustrophobic, don’t expect to go through caves and come out unscathed.

Day 4

We were in no rush to get to Taupo on the fourth day. Taupo is a two hour drive from Waitomo and we awoke to find plenty of grey skies, and with it, a chance of rain.  This ruined my interest in going cliff diving into Lake Taupo, or really anything else exciting.

Lake Taupo is absolutely massive. It is the largest lake in New Zealand and has a surface area of 616 square kilometers (238 sq miles), making it nearly as large as the entire nation of Singapore.

Regardless, when we got into Taupo the fog was devastating and we couldn’t see much. We attempted to drive around part of the Lake, getting down nearly the full length of the lake, looking for a good place to stop and take pictures, but with the lighting as poor as it was due to the fog cover, we ultimately opted to turn around. With time to kill, Richard decided it was a good idea to try and teach me to drive manual in an empty parking lot we found on the side of the road. Though I only stalled the car once, I wasn’t convinced that I could really drive it if something happened to Rich.

Swans swim along in Lake Taupo
Swans swimming in Lake Taupo

As conditions grew less and less appealing for a night in a tent, we found ourselves a nice hotel that was only about twice the price of a powered campsite, and organized our things.

When we saw the opportunity, though, we headed out in search of the Craters of the Moon. The Craters of the Moon, as you would expect, are not actually moon craters, but rather a cratered valley just outside of Taupo filled with geothermal activity. Steam vents in the craters and a sulfur stench give the park a rather unearthly atmosphere. The ground can get so hot at times that boardwalks have had to be installed to keep people from wandering off, getting injured, and even melting their shoes. Despite the feeling of desolation in the park, the area was surprisingly colorful, with the few plants able to survive around the craters showing off a great variety of red and green colors.

Craters of the Moon
Craters of the Moon

After following the path around the Craters of the Moon, and despite the coming rain, we decided not to go back to the hotel, but rather make our way to Huka Falls. Huka Falls, one of New Zealand’s most popular natural attractions, is best known for the shockingly ice blue color of the water that runs through it, as well as its enormous power – over 220,000 liters of water gets churned through these falls per second – a lot for a waterfall that is a mere eleven meters high.

Missing the entrance for the waterfall (Rich was more interested in avoiding a cyclist than the road signs, which I can’t blame him for considering recent events) and we ended up parking at the side of the road where a hiking trail was visible. Following the poorly marked trail (we had no idea in which direction to go to begin with – should we follow the path left towards the Huka Café or do we go right into the unknown. If you’re wondering, the answer was to go right) we found our way down to the waterfall, on an empty stretch of grass with not a single other tourist.  Those who had turned down the correct road for the waterfall were sent down a path that took them to the other side of the falls.

Though I had previously heard that the water was very blue, I didn’t realize how blue it was until we were staring the waterfall in the face. The blue was almost unreal. I had never seen a blue quite like that in my entire life. I was absolutely entranced by the color. For about half an hour we continuously walked around the falls, at times joining the tourists on the other side of the falls and on the bridge overlooking them – anything to get a better view of the falls and their color.

Huka Falls
Huka Falls

Day 5

When we woke up on the fifth day of our trip, the weather was not much changed from the previous day. It was still grey and the skies were rather threatening-looking. Regardless, there was lots we wanted to do, and we had to get out and going sooner rather than later (though I took my time enjoying the coffee the hotel provided us with).

Happily, the drive up to Rotorua only took about an hour, so we had lots of time to enjoy the sites. Upon our arrival, we chose to stay at a caravan park a few kilometers outside of town. There is much geothermal activity in and surrounding the town, so we weren’t all that interested in having the smell of sulfur permeate through our tent overnight. Though I was happy to be removed from any sulfur remnants, I have to admit that the caravan park we chose was a bit bizarre. There were giant dinosaur statues erected everywhere. It was a bit disconcerting, and I had a bad feeling that I was going to freak out in the middle of the night, when I would blearily get up to use the toilet and be confronted by a fifteen foot tall re-creation of a tyrannosaurus.

A minor freak out was definitely a bargain though, just to avoid the stench coming from town. Rich and I have wanted to go zorbing (rolling down a hill in a ball) for ages and the zorbing facilities were on the other side of town from where we had set up camp. Even with the windows up, that smell of rotting eggs seeped into the car as we drove through. It was never so bad that I wanted to gag, but it was still really unpleasant. I don’t think I would have slept well if we had chosen a caravan park in town.

As we were driving out to go zorbing, we discovered that there was a large outdoor maze not far down the road. I love mazes, so I shoved Rich into doing this with me. The maze was a large circular series of hedges. Though I think that Rich had wanted to work out the maze together, I insisted that we turn it into a competition. We spent the next half an hour literally running around in circles, sometimes bumping into one another as we crossed through a gap in the hedges. Ultimately Rich defeated me, and my ego died a little.

After recovering from this blow to my ego by playing with some of the maze’s resident rabbits, we turned the car around and headed back towards the zorbing fields. There are two companies in Rotorua that offer zorbing, one of which is run by the people that actually invented zorbing. That company, OGO, offers sidewinder, straight, and harness tracks, and the longest zorbing track in the world at 350 meters. The Sidewinder and Straight tracks require that about forty liters of water are added to the inside of the ball to make for easier and more comfortable sliding, while in the harness OGO you get strapped into the ball and are sent tumbling head over heels down the hill without the need for water.

You’re able to have multiple people in an OGO during the ride, so Rich and I opted to stay together for the sake of added weight to help us keep the ball in motion. By sharing, we also got a bit of a discount as well. We’d be able to have three rides for NZ$99 each.

It was an absolute blast. We rode down the straight track once and the sidewinder track twice. Each time we were sent hurtling down the hill, sliding around in the water. I couldn’t help but giggle non-stop. The sidewinder was absolutely brilliant. We’d come to a corner, not expecting it and suddenly the momentum of the ball would shift, sending us tumbling backwards over and over again.

Lis & Rich inside the Ogo
Lis & Rich inside the Ogo

Of course, the weather still wasn’t wonderful while we were doing this, and each time we popped out of the ball we’d be freezing from the wind chill, but the OGO team had that covered. The company had two hot tubs waiting for its customers near the end of the track, so once we were out of the ball we were able to bolt to the hot tub and soak until it was our turn to go down again.

Once we had finished up and we had had our fill of hot tubs and rolling down hills in massive balls, we set course for the Polynesian Spa. The Polynesian Spa offers hot mineral baths, and we were both looking forward to a little change of pace – to sit down for once and not be constantly on the move.

Surprisingly enough, it was cheaper for us to get a private pool for half an hour rather than stay in the common pool area. Thanks to the odd logic of the spa, we opted for a private pool rather than deal with all the loud Chinese tourists we encountered as we entered the facilities.

However, I couldn’t quite relax here. I think we have both gotten so used to moving that sitting still for half an hour was rather cumbersome. Within five minutes I was asking Rich what we’re supposed to do. When he told me just to relax and enjoy it, I just became even more fidgety and decided that it was a good idea for us to play catch with our water bottle. I guess I just don’t sit still well.

Day 6

Despite my worries, I did not wake up in the middle of the night to be scared out of my mind by a dinosaur replica. Rain kept me inside the tent.

I had been looking forward to today for quite some time. Today, we were going to go sledging. Not to be confused with the Aussie slang for heckling, sledging is more commonly known as riverboarding in which people, using fins, lie prone on a board and glide down river, often through white water.

We were meant to meet our group at the Kaitiaki Adventures offices at 8:30, but what would be the first in a series of complications/annoyances for the day, there were no signs for the group’s office on the side of the road. We had an address, but there weren’t any numbers marked on the road either. Instead we blindly drove up and down the road, hoping for any sign of the adventure tour group. We called the office three times as well before we got any help. When we did get in touch with them, we were told that we had to look out for a sign for a maze, and turn there. Even after we had turned into the maze’s driveway, we completely passed by the Kaitiaki office. Turning around, we only realized we were in the right place when we saw a series of wetsuit booties hanging out in front of a house.

Having not arrived until 8:45, we were expecting that we had shown up late and that our guides were at the very least waiting for us. Instead we waited another 45 minutes for anything to happen. At that time we were introduced to our two guides, one who could barely speak as he had performed the Haka three times the previous night.

Zipping into our wetsuits, we got onto a bus and were transported to the start of the river, where our group (Rich, myself, and a Canadian woman) was briefed on how to handle our boards. Once ready, we walked ten minutes down to where we would begin. After one of our guides said a traditional Maori blessing meant to offer us safe passage through the river, we hopped in one-by-one.

Practicing the maneuvers we learned on land, we were off. Following so closely to each other that we were practically on top of the legs of the person in front of us, we went single file down the river so as to avoid rocks or any dangerous bends in the river. One guide stayed in front of us leading the way, while the other stayed behind, pulling us forward if he noticed we were dropping behind at any point. It was surprisingly hard work to stay with the currents, and it was even harder to get back in, as we frequently stopped at the river edge to regroup and recuperate.

Going down short drops and through rapids was exhilarating, but after what seemed like only 45 minutes, we were told that we had come to the end of the run, and that we’d be getting out at the next bend. Considering we had paid NZ$109 each for this experience, both Rich and I were really disappointed by how little time we actually spent in the water.

At least there was one more trick to try. The idea was to try and get into the current of one of the small waterfalls we had just come down. By kicking into the waterfall and getting into the current, we’d theoretically get to surf along the side of the fall. After a demonstration, Rich went first and though he didn’t get into the current enough to glide along, he came out unscathed. When I tried, I kicked as hard as I could into the waterfall, only to have my board, and myself with it, shoved underwater. Getting tossed down, I hit my head hard on a rock under the water, just below where my helmet stopped.

Luckily, I never lost consciousness, and a quick test of my eyes’ responsiveness to light showed that it was unlikely that I had a concussion. Regardless, considering I have a history of injury, we got back onto the bus, and collecting our car, Rich and I drove to the local hospital to get me checked out.

After a few hours, I was released from the hospital with no damage to speak of, though they had insisted on putting me in an ill-fitting neck brace for some time. I was quite pleased to find that our trip there, which included a series of X-rays, was free of charge. Yes free health care! To say the least, I was still a bit shaken up by the whole experience, but happy to be injury free.

Lis, bored at the Rotorua Hospital
Lis, bored at the Rotorua Hospital

Piling back into the car, we headed north once more, this time headed towards Tauranga on the Bay of Plenty, an hour away from Rotorua. Driving up, however, we realized that Tauranga was no quaint, small town, so we headed east for a bit, before stopping in the coastal town of Papamoa (try saying that in a bad Italian accent and not smile).

We had arrived in town reasonably late, and given the name of the place we were staying we were quite in the mood for Italian. After driving around a bit, it quickly became apparent that the closest we were getting to Italian food was Pizza Hut. With what looked like rain coming in, we grabbed a large pizza and settled down in our tent for the night.

Day 7

Our last day in New Zealand.

Having heard really nice things about the hiking at Mount Maunganui, Rich and I headed northwest out of Papamoa early in the day, knowing full well that we were on a tight schedule as we had a flight to catch that evening.

The hike up to the summit of Mount Maunganui was by no means difficult, but the views were quite beautiful. The mountain is on a peninsula in the Bay of Plenty and from the various angles you can see either the ocean, a harbor full of boats, or the town below. The paths on the mountain were at times overgrown with local fauna, and runners often raced past, but it was extremely peaceful, and Rich and I had ample time to plot out another joint adventure.

A view from the summit of Mount Maunganui
A view from the summit of Mount Maunganui

From the summit, we raced back down and hopped into our car. We were hoping to have time to explore the town of Matamata before heading back up to Auckland. Matamata is the home of the Hobbiton Movie Set, where visitors can explore “the shire” and 44 hobbit holes, including Bilbo Baggin’s house. Neither Rich nor I had any intention of actually going inside Hobbiton as tickets cost NZ$75 a person, which I think is quite over the top, but we were hoping to drive around the outside of the film set and get a glimpse into what it was all about.

Driving into Matamata, we knew immediately that we were in the right place. The information center had been transformed to look like a hobbit’s house. I guess that’s how you know that a town’s economy is based almost solely around a series of movies…

The information center in Matamata
The information center in Matamata

Figuring out approximately where the set was we drove on to look for it. We were both expecting that it would be difficult to see anything – perhaps there would be a fence around the set – but neither of us expected that there would be absolutely nothing for us to see. Where we had anticipated to find the set there was nothing but a café, Hobbit themed shop, a set of toilets, and a series of buses meant to take visitors to the set. In other words, the only people who were going to see anything were those who paid the high fees and were sitting on those buses.

With our time constraints, we chose not to wait around and see if we could follow a bus to the set only to get turned around, and instead decided to start heading back to Auckland. This should have only been a two hour drive, but took around three as we wanted to take lots of back roads and get one more glimpse of the country’s amazing scenery before departing.

Arriving back in Auckland, we dropped off our rental, and after confirming that we did no damage to it, headed off to the airport. Minus the rain, and my hospital visit, we had a really great visit. I’m ready to take a look at the South Island the next time we find ourselves with the time and money to do it.

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