I wond’r if we’ve time travelled around the world? A jam packed itinerary of New Zealand’s North Island

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.

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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.

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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.

I wond’r why there’s an air raid siren going off? Acclimatising to NZ life, while tramping around the North Island

While housesitting in NZ’s Northern Island town of Cambridge, we begun to feel truly at home. Not because Joella has found us a relaxing three week house sit, nor because Lollie the miniature toy poodle was very welcoming; but because of the weather. It felt generally quite a bit cooler than Australia, was often overcast, and seemed susceptible to sporadic periods of heavy rain in between sunny spells. In other words, New Zealand’s weather seemed as changeable as the UK’s 🙂

However, as we gazed out of the living room window one afternoon, waiting for the latest downpour to stop, our reminiscing of home was abruptly halted by something not at all familiar: an air-raid siren! We both looked at each other horrified not knowing what to do – I was certain that New Zealand is often referred to as the safest place on earth if there were to be a nuclear war. After frantically Googling our situation: ‘Air raid siren New Zealand’ we breathed a sigh of relief: These sirens are used to call the local volunteer fire brigade together – phew (although I hope the blaze in question wasn’t too serious)!

Potholing down Kani whani wha caves

Something else that made New Zealand feel more exotic despite the weather, was its place names; many of which have been either influenced or directly named by its indigenous, Maori people. This made it wonderfully entertaining (and often difficult) when attempting to plan out and remember ideas for day trips. Our first excursion, to the wonderfully sounding ‘Kaniwhaniwha caves’ is a great example.

The initial 45 minute Nikau walk was a nice introduction to New Zealand’s tramping scene, despite the odd bit of rain. It even included stereotypical views that briefly transported us to Middle Earth; featuring lush, rolling hillsides just waiting for hobbits to come bounding down. Other parts took us back to prehistoric times, due to the never ending ferns that surrounded us.

As we neared the two cavernous limestone caves before us, my anticipation jumped up a notch while reading the various safety notices advising of dark, wet, dangerous spaces that lay ahead. Having come prepared with head torches, we wasted no time in venturing forth into the darkness, like excited bats returning home after feeding. It wasn’t long until the last of the daylight had disappeared, and I made mostly feeble attempts to capture the eerie atmosphere using my camera, trying not to drop it in the murky stream that now covered all of the ground. 

As the ominous space tightened further, thoughts of meeting Gollum came to mind; so we decided to call it a day and crept backward out into the light.

Risky river crossings while tackling the Kaimai Heritage Trail

Despite the weather deteriorating in recent days, this didn’t stop us from hurriedly dolling on our outdoor gear, and enthusiastically jumping aboard Archie. This time we headed for the Kaimai Heritage Trail, to follow in the footsteps of early New Zealand mining and logging pioneers from over a century ago. 

After thoroughly cleaning our footwear, to help prevent Kauri Dieback – a disease that’s tragically killing swathes of New Zealand’s native Kauri trees, we set off into the the ominous looking forest. If our previous hike could be described as relatively easy, it’s fair to say this was at the advanced level! Not only was the ground well and truly sodden making it extremely slippery under foot; the terrain was also far more hilly and hard work.

But this didn’t stop us from having fun! At one point I had to re-lay a series of stepping stones that we assume had been washed away in a wild torrent; before carefully hopping across what was still a menacing looking stream. While scrambling up and sliding down steep hillsides, we got well and truly into the adventurous spirit of things; not caring about becoming ever more drenched and caked in mud. At least we had some tasty New Zealand apples to keep us going!

On the latter stages, while carefully traipsing down Butlers Incline, the path became startlingly steep, and we needed to watch our step so as not to trip on the many rungs of the tramway sleepers that still paved the way down. These tracks, and the various pieces of old, rusting machinery helped take us back to the 1800s – a time when horses were used to pull bogeys (carts) laden with earth (and some gold ore too hopefully). Thinking of how the workers had to spend almost their entire time outdoors no matter what the weather, made us feel especially lucky to make it back to our car, just before the heavens opened!

The best fish and chips in the Southern Hemisphere?

It had now been well over a year since we’d had decent fish and chips – Australia’s fish just doesn’t taste the same, and soggy chip-shop chips don’t seem to exist. So with that in mind, our tastebuds took us in the direction of Raglan – a small coastal town – in search of some battered delights.

Unlike the previous few days of treacherous tramping, today was a more relaxed affair that allowed us to take Lollie along 🙂 With no real agenda, we first took a wander past the hippie boutique shops, followed by a photo shoot with Lollie on a surf board protruding from a wall painted up as a barrel wave – gnarly! Raglan is in fact famous for it’s surf, and has even hosted the World Championships.

We were now ready for the main event: Raglan Fish! Brilliantly, it was perched upon the quay side offering fantastic sea views, along with fishing boats parked up right outside – I doubt we’ll ever get fresher fish and chips than this. While Joella nabbed us a picnic table outside and began defensive duties against the circling seagulls, I was left with the responsibility of ordering our lunch. Initially daunted by the extensive menu of mostly alien fish names, I was saved by the friendly server who recommended Blue Cod and Gurnard, based on my daft sounding brief of ‘not too fishy fish’.

As hoped, these morsels of gold along with their baton side kicks brought a smile to our faces, and gave us a tasty glimmer of home. Keeping cultural, we washed it down with a bottle of L&P – New Zealand’s famous sparkling soft drink, offering a refreshingly lemon hit.

Next on the days itinerary was a visit to Ngarunui beach, featuring black volcanic sand that twinkled in the sunlight, as we walked off our lunch, or run in the case of Lollie! After a good stretch of our legs, taking in the glistening seascape, accompanied by the soothing soundtrack of the relentless waves in the distance, we were ready to hit the road.

On our way home was one of New Zealands largest water features: Bridal Veil Falls, so we couldn’t resist stopping off for a quick peek. The initial walk following the Pakoka river, through native forest helped build our anticipation, all while the thunderous roar of the falls grew louder. After finally arriving at the top viewing platform we nervously peered over the edge at the plunging torrent crashing below us – what a site, what a sound! The midway and bottom viewpoints allowed to appreciate the scale of the falls further from different angles.  

Australia had been amazing, but New Zealand was definitely winning us over!

I wond’r if we’ll ever get there? Struggling to stop stopping, while beginning our tour of New Zealand

With over a week back in Sydney housesitting for my Uncle and Auntie, you’d forgive us for thinking we had ample time to spend relaxed mornings with Lillie the American Staffie, afternoons taking beautiful coastal walks and evenings sipping slowly on our sweet tawny (Port) from the Barrosa, before our New Zealand adventures. But no, with a flash the week was over before it had begun, and we found ourselves racing around like headless wallabies getting things ready for our hand over with Christa’s friend, who’d be taking on the remainder of housesitting duties before Martin and Christa arrived back from Germany.

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After successfully managing to squeeze in a photoshoot of our car and gear, ready to sell before our final departure back to the UK in October, we found ourselves checking in at Sydney’s International terminal the next morning. There, we treated ourselves to a Macca’s brekkie that was cleverly craned in from far above our heads, before then boarding our Latan flight to Auckland.

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Our scenic 5 hr flight featuring quality films and all inclusive seat-service, felt rather sophisticated when compared to our previous 2 months of travelling through the Outback eating Vegemite sandwiches! We were tempted to remain on board in Auckland, as the planes final destination was Chile’s beautiful capital: Santiago, although New Zealand should suit us just fine for now…

Once we’d landed and managed to navigate our way from the airport to the CBD via a Skybus, we checked into the ‘Kiwi International Hotel’; a small, but brilliantly located accommodation a short walk from downtown Auckland. We quickly dumped our bags and successfully sourced a fine curry followed by proper PINTS of Kiwi Monteith beer in a wonderfully old world establishment named ‘The Bluestone Room’; once a 19th century warehouse still decked out with its original Kauri timber ceiling atop volcanic stone walls.

Exploring Auckland

We woke the next day feeling rather jet lagged – not something we expected with only 2 hrs difference between Sydney and Auckland. There was only one thing for it; coffee of course! So with Joella’s artistic compass guiding us, we set off towards the hipster area of Ponsonby, providing awesome views of Auckland’s skyline while we perused the many boutique shops, charity emporiums, impressive street art, inventive sculptures and fortunately plenty of independent cafes… perhaps too many.

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As per the norm, we initially struggled to decide where we’d get our caffeine fix, but eventually settled for the ‘Bread and Butter Bakery and Cafe’, within a happening food market full of delis and stalls selling a variety of edible delights. I was satisfied with my cup of silky smooth Joe and savoury bread and butter pudding featuring rich cheese, flavoursome herbs, charcoal roasted veg and a pickled salad; although Joella wasn’t too impressed with her bland smashed avocado and soft boiled egg :-/

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After further boutique shop hopping, and perked up by a couple of coke spiders aka coke floats (McDonalds in NZ and Australia has a significantly different menu than to the UK), we jumped aboard a ferry over to Devonport – on the opposite side of the harbour from Auckland’s main CBD. Once docked, we zig zagged our way along the wharf and through the town, to begin our ascent of Mount Victoria; a prominent 100 metre high, dormant (still, we hope) volcano. Once at the summit we were treated with spectacular views across Auckland and far beyond, that I unfortunately struggled to capture in all its glory due to discovering some dust in my camera…

After taking in the eclectic mix of scenery sprawled out around us us, as well as the funny air vents camouflaged as giant mushrooms, we headed in the direction of North Head. There we were able to explore some old military bunkers and climb atop huge artillery emplacements from the 1800s, known as ‘disappearing guns’ due to their clever design, enabling them to be hidden from direct fire and observation. With our step count closing in on 30,000, we headed back to our hotel.

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That evening we met up with an old NZ mate of mine and his girlfriend, who I’d worked with in London a few years back. Pete suggested ‘White and Wong’s’, a fancy asian fusion restaurant down in Auckland’s Harbourside Wynyard Quarter. Over some tasty dim sum they serenaded us with a never ending list of spellbinding sites and experiences that lay ahead of us in New Zealand; it was near impossible to take it all in. But then we shouldn’t be too surprised given that Pete works on the Visit New Zealand website! It was a lovely evening, surreally catching up with a friend on the other side of the world. After an evacuation caused by a fire alarm tested our honesty (yes we did go back and pay, unlike many other diners), we called it a night and headed back to our hotel, itching to get going on our tour of New Zealand the next day.

Cruising through the Coromandel

Following an early start to grab a coffee in an old shopping arcade and a failed attempt to hunt down a secondhand NZ travel book (all we could find was a very out of date 14 year old Rough Guide), we arranged our free taxi ‘shuttle’ (please excuse the pun) to pick up our ‘Spaceship’… rental camper van. Despite opting for the second cheapest option, we were rather impressed with our NZ$19 (£9.80) a day Toyota Estima named ‘Archie’; featuring a separate sleeping area in the back, bedding, fridge, cooker and utensils! After a quick pit stop to buy a pricy camera sensor cleaning kit, then picking up supplies from Countdown – NZ’s Woolworths, we were on our way 🙂

Based upon Pete’s recommendations and a guide from the brilliant new ‘Roadtrippers’ app I’d just discovered, we headed in the direction of the famous Coromandel, to the East of Auckland, on the other side of the Firth of Thames. Once we’d arrived on the peninsula and began driving along the road that hugged the western coastline through various small towns with brilliantly exotic Maori names like Whakateke Bay and Raumahunga, we struggled to make much progress. This was purely down to how unbelievably gorgeous our surroundings had become, meaning we couldn’t stop ourselves from pulling over every 5 minutes to take even more photos. This was even before day became evening; resulting in the horizon turning a yellow gold, thus causing the general atmosphere to become even more breathtaking!

Eventually we made it to Long Bay campsite we’d shortlisted via the NZ WikiCamps app, just in time to watch a dazzling golden sunset. Drifting off to sleep wasn’t an issue, thanks to the soothing sound of waves in the background.

More scenic stops en route to Cambridge

We woke the next morning feeling full of energy; and not wanting to waste the day, skipped showers and got going after a quick breakfast with a view (and a quick go on the tyre swing). First we stopped in past ‘Driving Creek Railway and Pottery’ to take a look at their vintage train engines and colourful wares, before making our way down to Cathedral Cove.

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After eventually deciding where to park (opting for the closest, but priciest car park), we set off on the coastal walk, past the beautiful looking (and named) ‘Stingray Beach’ and ‘Gemstone Bay’, playfully jumping between boulders. Then it was on to the main event: Cathedral Cove – an enormous cathedral like tunnel, carved into the cliffside, separating two secluded white sand beaches. Our timing was impeccable, as we arrived just in time to seek shelter, as the heavens opened.

Before we knew it, it was time to make our way down to New Zealand’s Cambridge, where Joella had arranged a three week house sitting assignment. We were given a warm welcome from Paul, Mai and Lollie – their lovely miniature poodle we’d be looking after – before spending the evening chatting away over pizza and a bottle of tasty NZ Montana Pinot Noir. We’d only been in New Zealand for three full days and had already been blown away by its beauty; to say we couldn’t wait to continue exploring this magical land would be a massive understatement!