We were lucky that our North Island base in Cambridge was super central, providing plenty of options for day tripping Being Mr Organised, I wrote up a series of itineraries, with each offering an eclectic mix of experiences and adventures that any tour operator would be proud of 🙂
Experiencing the violence of New Zealand’s geology in Rotorua
Top of most people’s New Zealand bucket list is usually exploring Maori culture or discovering more about it’s violent geology, famously incorporating earthquakes and volcanoes. Conveniently, the clever Kiwi’s have latched on to this, and developed geothermal parks covering both in one go – Choice! (NZ slang for cool; ironically, having to explain that makes me the opposite).
After what seemed like days of deliberation, we opted for Te Puia in Rotorua – home to the majority of NZ’s geothermal activity – just a couple of hours drive from Cambridge, South of Lake Taupo. Our arrival was marked with a thunderous Hakka by the locals, which frequently went from comical, to scary, then back to comical again, as they angrily ran at us with spears, slapped their thighs then stuck their tongues out. Joella and I were both surprised that none of their eyes popped out, given the intensity of their stares! As we began to walk round the thermal valley, our surroundings became ever more strange; featuring weird wooden Maori carvings, eerie bubbling mud pools and sinister clouds of steam, smelling strongly of sulphur. If you’d told me we’d been transported to another planet I’d honestly have believed you! It wasn’t long before we arrived at the main attraction: Pohutu – the largest geyser in the Southern Hemisphere.
Hoping this natural wonder would stick to its strict eruption timetable, we waited patiently to the soundtrack of annoying camera happy tourists babbling on, how this geyser was the only reason for their visit. We couldn’t help but chuckle, as the size and speed of the eruption caught them off-guard, preventing the scale of what was before us from being captured for their Instagram. Despite the aggressive nature, something about it seemed almost majestic, but there’s one thing for sure; its name Pohutu – Maori for big splash – is definitely justified!
Summiting Mount Tauhara for incredible views of Lake Taupo
In search of views, our we made our way South to the steep slopes of Moutn Tauhara, on the northern edge of New Zealand’s most enormous lake: Lake Taupo. Taupo is the second largest lake in all of Oceana, and confusingly was once a volcano. This was before it erupted, emptying its underlying magma chamber; causing the ground to collapse thus forming a Caldera (a type of sinkhole) and eventually filling with water.
The beginning of the path took us across gently undulating farm land, before dipping then aggressively shooting upwards through forests covering Tauhara’s steep slopes. I can only assume this is his hair…
As with most places in New Zealand, we were fascinated to discover that Mount Tauhara has a Maori legend that brings it to life: There was once a battle between warrior mountains to win the heart of Pihanga, another mountain south of Lake Taupo. As rival Tongariro won, the defeated mountains were forced to leave. With a heavy heart, Tauhara fled slowly and was soon overtaken by the rising sun. As he’d only made it as far as the north-eastern shore of Lake Taupo, there he stands for eternity, staring mournfully across the waters at his lost love. Although it sounds sad – I’m sure there are far worse views to have!
Once we’d reached the summit following a testing 1.5 hour climb, we were rewarded to stunning views of the lake, continuing far into the distance as if it were the sea. Despite a fearsome wind constantly threatening our balance, we couldn’t resist spending time gazing out at the patchwork world below us, enjoying our hard earned ham and cheese sandwiches.
On the way home we replenished our sugar levels at Huka Honey Hive, which is probably best described as a honey Mecca. There we tried a spot of bee watching and gorged ourselves on a variety of free Manuka honey samples, while dodging the constant swarms of tourists. I even discovered heaven in a jar – Bacon Jam! Once it felt as though our teeth were going to fall out, we then reluctantly buzzed off.
Underground tunnelling on the Karangahake Gorge Windows Walk
Following in the footsteps of early gold miners, we carefully made our way along the path that clung onto the steep cliffside of Karangahake Gorge. We were glad we’d made it this far, having had to navigate our way through dark wet tunnels, lit only by daylight streaming in from the ‘windows’, framing the view of Waitawheta river below. It’s these openings from which this trail has got its name: Karangahake Gorge Windows Walk.
Along with the network of old mining passageways, the old Waitawheta Gorge bridge that creaked under foot made for an exciting days walk. As did the impressive 1km long underground tunnel, illuminated by dull orange fluorescent bulbs – just enough to make out the surrounding brickwork without affecting the eerie atmosphere they provided. Embarrassingly we partook in some caffeinated refreshments at the nearby Kawangahoke winery afterwards, I guess it’s the price I must pay for being the sole designated driver!
Tsunami warnings while exploring Tauranga
Having come from the North, headed West and been South a couple of times already, now was the time we ventured East. Our new found direction on the compass took us to the coastal port town of Tauranga, awash with gigantic cranes and containers as far as the eye could see. Having got a taste for getting high earlier in the week… after summiting Tauhara, we couldn’t resist taking the scenic, spiralling path up Mount Manganui for impressive views across the sea and further inland. On the way back down to earth, we were reminded once again just how geologically violent New Zealand is, in the form a massive ‘Tsunami evacuation information’ billboard :-/
Deciding there was little evidence of an impending tsunami, we rewarded our hard earned appetite with a visit to the harbour side ‘fush ’n’ chup shop. Bobby’s Fresh Fish Market offered exactly as its name indicates, plenty of choice in the way of freshly caught seafood, authentically perched on the quayside with fishing boats bobbing gently in the background. While keeping an eye on the encircling seagulls – you’d have thought they’d leave me alone considering I’m named after one – we enjoyed our golden parcels of joy, dipped in tomato sauce curiously contained in a tin.
Rubbing our eyes again, we continued to be confused – had we miraculously been transported back to hipster East London, or was our journey up til now simply a dream? Before us was a pile of shipping containers grouped together; each one housing tasty street food, intoxicating liquids, boutique gifts or vintage wares. We couldn’t resist having a look around ‘Our space’, and soon discovered box parks aren’t uniquely found in the Big Smoke. We left inspired, having spoken to an English chap who’d recently setup his Paddington Store, selling lots of beautifully made hand crafted goodies. I wonder if we could do something similar?
In awe of the antique waters at ‘Blue Spring’
With our sandwiches packed – made from Joella’s tasty herb bread – we set off along the Te Waihou walk way, in search of the enchanting ‘Blue spring’. As we set our eyes on the gracefully flowing waters of the Waihou river, it was easy to understand why this was such a popular spot for the Instagram obsessed.
Due to 100 years of filtration, particles that normally absorb red light have been removed, making the water especially blue. This pureness is beautifully highlighted further by the green plants that sway hypnotically in the current. Not too surprisingly, it’s said that up to 70% of New Zealand’s mineral water is sourced from the Blue Spring!
Horticultural journeys through time and space in Hamilton Gardens
“Look Joella” I called out, “I’m in Italy”…”and now I’m in Japan!”. She couldn’t help but reward my childishness with a smirk, as she walked towards the entrance of a Taj Mahal looking building nearby. We’d made a trip to the impressive ‘Hamilton Gardens’ – home to a myriad of over 20 exquisitely designed gardens, based on philosophical ideas through history, and different cultures. It felt like a horticultural version of Disney’s famous Epcot centre in Florida, and gave the impression you were time traveling around the world.
While attempting to get a nice shot of a scarecrow in the ‘Kitchen Garden’, we briefly chatted to the gardener, carefully shaking off the soil from some carrots he’d just unearthed. We asked who got to eat all the impressive vegetables that surrounded us. “A lot of it goes to local charities and other not for profits” he inspirationally explained, “although some produce is sold in the shop to fund the gardens, and of the course the birds take their share” he quipped.
After picking up an extra duvet ready for life back in the van in a few days time, we stopped by the Waikato Museum. There we were treated to an enormously large ‘Waka’ – an intricately carved wooden boat, as well as a spellbinding presentation of light detailing Maori legends, of how the Earth, Sun and stars came to be.