The land of Hobbits
NEW ZEALAND: NORTH ISLAND
I must have been way too excited about hitting up South Pacific islands (or busy writing my Master's thesis, which is more likely) when booking my graduation trip, I somewhat overlooked the itinerary for NZ. I was going to spend 23 days and had no idea I could see as much of the country as possible, provided I have no driver's license. I was almost in a rush to book something when my travel agent Tom - who must be a saint, no less - introduced me to Kiwi Experience, a hop on-hop off bus that covers both islands and offers a bunch of different passes. I had heard of another bus company, Stray, before, but Tom suggested looking into KEx first, yet not spilling all the beans. As it turned out later on, this concept of travel is the epitome of all things backpacking: socializing, being quite flexible with your itinerary and plan as a whole, and just having as much as possible (until you drop dead that is). Booking this bus means you only fixate the destinations but not the dates or accommodation: it is totally up to you where to get off, how long to stay in each place, what to do, and when to get back on. How amazing is such freedom of choice! It wasn't my case though because of the RTW ticket I was on, so my schedule ended up super tight with not a single extra day in any place other than the ones already included in the standard itinerary.
I flew into Auckland late Monday night and hopped on the bus the very next morning. Still confused as for where in the world I was, what this whole bus thing was about, and why there were so many sheep everywhere, I set off to the Bay of Islands, the northernmost area of NZ. A few people mentioned it in passing as one of the top “holiday destinations” for those Kiwis* who don’t feel like going abroad, as this region offers some world-class diving, lovely beaches, dolphin- and even penguin-watching (who knew they could go so far up north!) and all other fun things in between. 144 islands, sub-tropical climate - sounds good, doesn’t it? Now, imagine going there having just visited one of the world’s most picture-perfect places in that respect. With vivid images of French Polynesia still fresh in mind, I took this advertisement with a decent grain of salt.
Don’t get me wrong though, I had a pleasant time in Paihia, the small village where we stayed, and its surroundings. For there were no buses back to Auckland on Wednesdays, I was to spend a whole free day in the Bay, whereas normally we would head out the following morning. My activity of choice was a sailing trip to a lagoon, which turned out really nice: the sun was shining, the wind was blowing, and we even got to see some dolphins on the way back when least expected! The skipper also taught us some basic sailing lessons, provided some info on the region, and made sure we were having a great time, which we sure did. Yet this stop on the trip just seemed to have happened at the wrong time: I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed by the freezing cold water (or Tahiti’s waters are just boiling?), lack of palm trees, and how the place was a bit short of my definition of tropical paradise. At this point, I would say I could have easily skipped this part of the tour, though I am sure I will appreciate this experience much more later on.
TYPE OF TRIP
- Solo travel
- Package tour
Pape'ete, French Polynesia - Auckland - Whangarei - Paihia - Auckland - Hot Water Beach - Waitomo - Rotorua - Taupo - RIver Valley - Bulls - Wellington
We came back to Auckland for an overnight stay, so I took the chance to have a better glance of the city. Somehow everything there reminded me of Vancouver, where I used to live some time ago. Not only did the downtown had a similar layout with a harbour by its side and mountains as a natural backdrop, there were even a couple of streets that could be identical to the ones in Canada! Just like Vancouver, Auckland, too, is wide-spread: when looking over from the SkyTower, it appears like the city ends with the outer circle of skyscrapers, while all other buildings only comprise some kind of nearby villages. Being the largest city in the country, hosting over 1,3 million people but lacking a megapolis vibe, Auckland might come across as a not very exciting place to some visitors. This would have probably been my impression of it as well had I not known that in places like that (once again, think Vancouver). There is much more to it than it seems, just not architecture-wise. If you have spare time, make sure to check out some hiking trails over volcanos, water activities, and all other things Auckland has to offer.
Our first proper stop on the tour was Hot Water Beach - a pretty interesting place by all means. It is a beach on Mercury Bay in the East Coast of the Coromandel Peninsula and what so special about it is the underground reservoirs of heated water developed by volcanos that breaks through the surface during low tide. If you dig into the sand, you can make a small hot pool and chill in this ‘spa’ until the (pretty cold) ocean water fills it up. Fun times! The picture above might give you a good idea of how enthusiastic people get while trying to find the best spot. Also there is Cathedral Cove, which makes a picturesque 30 minute walk down to the beach. Random fun fact: the cave and the beach are featured in The Chronicles of Narnia and in the music video Can’t Hold Us by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. No biggie.
After Hot Water Beach we took off to Waitiomo, one of the best places in all of New Zealand to do black water rafting and caving. It is also home to these so-called glowworm caves where you can look at, well, glowworms. This was a bit of an awkward stop for those on the bus who were not taking part in any of these activities as Waitomo is barely even a village and there is not much to do. I decided to check out the glowworm caves, but since photography (even without flash) was prohibited, so trust my word or check this website out - those worms really glow in the dark! This happens because of bioluminescience, a chemical reaction between the chemicals given off by the glowworm and the oxygen, and by glowing, the worm’s tail attracts and catches food such as insects or if the worm is female, its glowing attracts males. Pretty cool to look at!
Following the night in Waitiomo, we headed to Rotorua. On the way we stopped by Hobbition, the movie set. Certainly a must when in New Zealand even if you have no idea what the movie is about (join the club!), as it is just a really fun tour and all those teeny-tiny houses are too adorable to miss out on. The guides have some good stories about to die-hard fanatics to share too!
Our stop in Rotorua fell on a Sunday, when the entire place seemed like a ghost town. But no worries, there are still heaps of things to keep yourself busy with, for example, mud pots, hot springs and geysers! Good stuff eh? For this reason Rotorua smells like Iceland, I mean, sulphur. If you are interested in Maori culture, there is also a great cultural tour to a Maori village, where they put on a performance and a food feast for their dear guests. I had to skip this activity because of its rather high price - as I mentioned earlier, New Zealand is not exactly a cheap country, and on numerous occasions I had to keep my priorities straight (the priority being South Island). Bummer!
Next we visited Lake Taupo, another popular holiday destination among Kiwis. This lake, roughly the size of Singapore, is quite impressive to say at least, framed by mountains in the distance. The famous Huka Falls are also located nearby, and this website claims it is the most visited natural attraction in the country. The falls are cool, but most visited attraction?.. One of the most popular activities to engage in while here is skydiving over the lake - it is one of the cheapest places in NZ to jump out of a plane. In the meantime, a few folks and I went on a sunset boat trip around the lake and that was loads of fun. Those who were lucky to stay there for an extra day (which I could not afford time-wise) got up at 5 in the morning to do the Tongariro Alpine crossing, an awesome one-day walk across active volcanos.
From Taupo we took off to River Valley, making a stop in Tongariro National Park (a UNESCO World Heritage Centre). Since I did not get to do the crossing, I was really glad we had an opportunity to briefly explore this park - so glad that I fell into the bush at some point. The sceneries of Tongariro must look familiar to fans of the Lord of the Rings series as a lot of the filming took place here (first picture above). Once back on the bus, we got to enjoy the amazing views of River Valley, which I can safely say is in my top-5 favourite moments of the Kiwi Experience. It is an “off-the-beaten-track” kind of place in a remote part of the North Island, packed with gorgeous views of the green hills (and sheep) of Taihape. We stayed at a super-cozy lodge in the middle of nowhere, and if you are really into rafting this is where you wanna be.
Last destination on North Island is Wellington, New Zealand’s capital city. Our itinerary included only 1 evening there on the way down to South Island, so when I looked out of the window as we got into the city centre, I knew I would have to come back. Not only is it situated in the beautiful southwestern tip of the island, Wellington is also often referred to as “the cultural and food centre” of the Kiwiland. It hosts more cafés, bars, and restaurants per capita than New York, so there is always something to try. I didn’t get to see much during the first stay, but I did come back 3 weeks later and really liked it.
*the word kiwi in New Zealand refers only to people; when talking about the food, one says kiwifruit