North Island Road Trip

North Island, New Zealand
Saturday, August 24, 2013

We waved goodbye to Auckland and set off to pick up our funky car that would also be our accommodation for the next month. That's right we have chosen to sleep in a car :-) but don't worry we haven't gone mad (just yet anyway) because the car we have chosen is actually known as a spaceship and it comes in the form of a Toyota Estima. It's a people carrier with a unique twist where the back of the car has been converted into a bed. There are two seats behind the driver that can face the front or alternatively you can turn them to the side if you want to sit and admire the view with a cuppa, however the best thing about these seats is when you turn them all the way around to face the back of the vehicle a space is created so the attachment for the double bed can be added on. It's a really simple layout that's easy to change and the car has lots of storage space with a box under the bed and a large area in the boot. There is also a small fridge under the bed that we thought would be really handy for storing our food, but then we caught a whiff of the inside and it was quickly designated as beer only!

When we took out the rental we also opted for the winter pack which included two hot water bottles and an oil radiator and with the extra thick duvet that is provided in the winter we should be positively toasty. The great thing about the spaceship is it is essentially two for the price of one because if you add up the price of normal car hire with the accommodation on top it would have made a serious dent in our wallet. With the spaceship we have the opportunity to rock up to any holiday park and just pay for a powered or non-powered site and away we go. The spaceship is also classified as a car so ferry crossings and toll roads are charged at the cheapest rates, a real bargain compared to some of the bigger campers.

Top 10 Holiday Park

Before arriving in New Zealand we did some research and managed to find a chain of holiday parks that are perfect for what we need. All of the parks in the chain are rated 4 or 5* and have similar facilities that include a communal kitchen with a TV, an internet room and great bathroom facilities. We joined the Top 10 club for $49 which gives us 10% off all park stays for 2 years. The card also gives many discounts at local shops and activities plus 10% off the interislander ferry. We can think of a few people who would definitely hate this type of holiday but we like many others, think it's a perfect way to travel through New Zealand and we can't wait to get on the road.

Day 1 - Auckland to the Bay of Islands

We left Auckland with Ross behind the wheel of the spaceship and set off on the long drive to Russell which is north of Auckland right in the heart of the Bay of Islands. So many people have told us how similar New Zealand is to the UK (without the volcanic activity!) and from what we have seen in the surrounding areas of Auckland we would have to agree that it's very similar. However we wanted to see the countryside for ourselves before we decided and the further we drove out of the city the more similarities we could see to that of rural Scotland, the Yorkshire Dales or Dartmoor. It seemed that everywhere we looked we were surrounded by huge rolling hills dotted with colourful trees and bush land and with the huge green forests we were literally blown away by the beautiful landscape. It seemed every corner we went round there were more gorgeous sights waiting for us and just when we thought we had seen the best view ever we would go round another corner which would top everything we had already seen. It didn't seem to matter where we pointed the camera it was so beautiful that nearly all the photos we took were keepers.

We arrived at the holiday park in Russell which turned out to be a quaint little village with cracking views of the surrounding islands. The view from our site was absolutely gorgeous and we felt like we had just embarked on a truly different adventure to what we have done so far on our journey and we are really looking forward to the next few days exploring this lovely place.

First night in the car

We were hoping that our first night's sleep in the camper would go without a hitch but unfortunately it turned out to be a complete disaster which had us muttering 'what the hell have we done' on several occasions :-( Living in a small space is fine if you are organised but on the first night we had clearly forgotten what the word meant because everything was spread out absolutely everywhere which made even the most basic of tasks seem like a real chore. So early on day 2 we stripped the whole car out and painstakingly put everything back in piece by annoying piece until we had found a suitable cubby hole for every last thing. It might have taken a few hours but boy has it made life easier and thankfully it has changed our view point on whether we will be able to stick it out in the car and we have decided that unless it's really cold in the South Island we plan to stay in the spaceship every night.

Day 2 - Russell to Cape Reinga

After sorting out the car we took the ferry across to a neighbouring island to set off on our drive up to Cape Reinga the northern most point of New Zealand. After some fairly flat easy going terrain we soon hit the hills of the northland and if we thought that the winding roads between Auckland and Russell were bad we soon found out that there were many more to come on our adventure. As we slowly drove up and down the steep roads we were amazed by how fast the locals speed round some of the corners, it was plain crazy! We were a little bit more cautious and went at a leisurely pace and at one point we nearly hyperventilated when we saw the sheer drop off the side of the road but we persevered as we had a list of places to see. We think it's safe to say that we managed to annoy a few of the locals along the way who managed to get stuck behind us as we slowly made our way around the tight corners but hey we wanted to make it there in one piece.

We stopped off along the way at a small portion of Ninety Mile Beach, as the name suggests a humongous beach on the western side of the Aupouri peninsula. We had read about the beach in lonely planet and we thought that it sounded like a cool place to stretch our legs. We followed the road which took us slightly off the beaten track and as we were under strict instructions not to drive on the beach itself we were good boys and girls and parked nearby instead. After strolling along and enjoying the beautiful scenery we had a spot of lunch before getting back on the road towards Cape Reinga.

We finally arrived at Cape Reinga and took a walk along the scenic walkway taking a slight detour to climb to the top of a hill that had great views looking over the coastline. We then made our way to the capes lighthouse where the Tasman Sea from the west and the Pacific Ocean from the east meet. Although the weather wasn't the clearest it was good enough to enjoy the fantastic coastline and it was well worth the 400km round trip.

On the way back south we stopped off at the giant sand dunes. That's their official name we didn't just make it up, and there is no mistaking that these mega dunes are truly gigantic. Although we can only estimate, the biggest dunes were at least 100m tall; the nearest ones to the car park were significantly smaller but to put these into some sort of perspective check out the photo of Ross standing in front of one of them. It is possible to hire a sand board and 'surf the dunes' we didn't do this although we can imagine it would have been a really fun thing to do. However the sand dunes are much softer than they look as when Ross tried to climb one he sank up to his calf muscles, so unless you like sand getting everywhere and we mean everywhere think twice before hiring a board!

Day 3 - Bay of Islands

After spending the morning catching up on the boring things in life we set off to go on a horse ride that we booked back in Australia. We caught the ferry across to the mainland and headed in the general direction of the stables provided by the holiday park. Twenty minutes later we admitted defeat and called the horse riding place to get directions only to be told we weren't in the books! The lady told us how to get there and would check our booking, when we arrived a few minutes later we saw a group of people just heading out on their horse ride. She then continued to explain that although she had booked us in for the 14th she had put us down for September not August, D'oh! So much for the automated online booking which fell down when writing everything out manually! She did offer to put us on a later ride but as we would have come back in the dark we opted for a full refund instead. We are both hoping that we will be able to ride in New Zealand but with limited time in the next few places and lots of activities filling our time we are going to have to keep our fingers crossed that we come across somewhere along the way.

Day 4 - The drive to Hot Water Beach

We had a pretty long drive today so we packed up and got on the road as early as we could. Although our journey was a long one we managed to break it up by stopping off for a bit of lunch and to do a bit of shopping as we had no idea if there would be any shops near the new holiday park.

Hot Water Beach

Appropriately named, Hot Water Beach was formed by volcanic activity that occurred in the Coromandel region between 5 and 9 million years ago. Even this long after the volcanic activity there is still a mass of hot rocks just 2km under the beach that superheats underground water. Over time, this water escapes to the surface via 2 fissures cooling on the way. Even though it cools down on its way to the surface it still bubbles through the surface at up to 64°c with a flow rate of up to 15 litres a minute. There are other hot water springs in the Coromandel region and New Zealand but the location on the beach makes them unique.

Day 5 - Attempting Hot Water Beach

The next day we got up early to head to the beach and we were feeling really excited about the prospect of seeing hot water bubbling through the sand. As we were getting ready to set off we noticed two dogs that were sat beside our camper quietly watching us. When we walked away the old black lab simply wagged his tail and waved us farewell, but the little Scottie took a liking to Sonya and it wasn't until we had started walking to the beach that we realised we were being followed. We tried to get the dog to go back to the holiday park but it was having none of it and it continued to follow us all the way to the beach.

We got to the beach about 8:30am and there were several other families either reaping the rewards of their digging efforts or in the process of digging their own pool. We chose a spot next to a family of four as we assumed that the volcanic activity would be close together but annoyingly we chose the wrong side of the family! Just as we were thinking about moving to the other side a large group swooped in before us and to our utter disgust they found another hot spot. As we persevered and tried our best to find our own hot spot we also tried in vain to encourage the dog to help us to dig but alas it was more interested in watching us huff and puff instead. After trying about 20 test holes we decided it wasn't our day and we would give it another try tomorrow.

Day 6 - Hot Water Beach round 2

We were determined to get to the beach earlier than yesterday to grab ourselves a hot spot and experience the wonders of Hot Water Beach so we set the alarm for silly o'clock and got to the beach for 7:30am. Our plan worked and we were the first people to arrive at the beach so we took advantage and started looking for the best place to start digging. We didn't have to look for too long before we saw the steam rising from the sand with pockets of bubbling water. It was an amazing sight to see and we soon got stuck in digging our very own hot pool. As low tide wasn't until 8:30 when we started digging we had to contend with the waves trying their best to curtail our efforts, at which point we were cursing the blessed sea. After about 20 minutes our pool was looking great and we decided to reap our rewards by jumping in. As we enjoyed the water others started to turn up and dig away. After yesterday's failed attempt and having now built a magnificent pool it seemed like we had become some sort of 'water beach guru' and just about everybody who turned up asked us for the best place to dig. Unfortunately maybe we should have taken our own advice as by this time it was approaching low tide and the waves only occasionally reached our pool which was being constantly fed by hot water. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to work out if you keep adding hot water the pool will get hot, very hot (up to 65°c!) and after about 20 minutes we couldn't even dip our toes into the pool let alone sit in it! If only we had built it a little bit further away from the hot spring and just built a trench to feed the pool with water, which we could stop the flow at any time we could have enjoyed our pool for a lot longer. But alas we left and headed back to the holiday park for breakfast content we had built the best looking if not most practical pool of the day.

Next stop Rotorua the most geothermal active area in the world!

After our mornings shenanigans at Hot Water Beach we drove to Rotorua and after checking in at the holiday park we drove into the main town to check out the Rotorua Museum. We didn't know what to expect from the museum but it sounded like a great way to spend a couple of hours and would hopefully tell us a bit more about the history of Rotorua. The Tudor style mansion used to be an extremely popular bath house years ago, in fact it was so popular that people travelled from far and wide to come here and appreciate the rich minerals of the thermal pools or soak in one of the many mud baths that were available. We did notice one extra treatment that was on offer way back then that neither one of us would have liked to experience, which was the electric baths....errr no thanks. We got to see a whole section on the history of the baths where we could look at some of the old rooms that were used for the treatments and apart from being a bit dusty with a distinct ghost town feel to them, we could easily see how swish it would have been all of those years ago.

Back in the present day the rooms of the museum were filled with interesting stories about the traditions of the Maori people who still reside inside their own thermal village. The Maori section ran through several rooms of the museum and we found the ancient stories regarding the land and how it was formed extremely entertaining. Let's just say we had to use our imagination if we were to believe some of the stories. There were endless information boards to read but luckily they were broken up with cool interactive displays.

After taking a look at a couple of art galleries we made our way over to the section on the earthquakes that greatly affected the people of Christchurch back in 2010 and 2011. It was quite scary to see the footage filmed during the earthquake and hard to comprehend what the residents would have experienced. This was a truly harrowing time for New Zealand and we can only hope that they never have to deal with the complete and utter devastation an earthquake can cause again. But unfortunately as New Zealand sits on top of many fault lines it is highly likely that Christchurch and other cities will be subjected to another earthquake at some point in the future :-(

We also read some lovely stories about the heroic efforts from some of the people in the community. One person who really made a difference was a student named Sam Johnson who set-up a Facebook campaign immediately after the 2010 earthquake calling for a student volunteer programme to help with the clean-up operation. He named it the "student base for earthquake clean up" and asked all of his friends on Facebook to join him by helping out with the clear up operation. His aim was to help residents get back on their feet, helping out with anything that was not safety critical. His message spread quickly and over 3,000 people pledged their time to help pick up the broken pieces of their city.

The team became known as the Student Volunteer Army and their main role was to help to clear up the soil liquefaction that was literally everywhere. Soil liquefaction happens when ground water is quickly forced to the surface of the earth as it shakes violently in an earthquake. This turns solid ground into a runny liquid that has the consistency of quicksand. Clearing up this stuff can be an incredibly messy process because it sticks to absolutely everything. In the end the students racked up a total of 80,000 man hours, clearing up a massive 360,000 tonnes of soil liquefaction which was a truly heroic effort.

After the second earthquake in 2011 Sam's army regrouped but as word had spread about the amazing work his team did in 2010 this time a whopping 26,000 people pledged their time! Sam Johnson has become a bit of a local hero and his efforts didn't go unnoticed by the city of Christchurch. Since then he has helped with the clear up operation after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan and it just goes to show that one person can really make a difference.

Day 7 - Whakarewarewa Thermal Village

Today we decided to head over to the Whakarewarewa Thermal Village so that we could experience one of the many cultural tours that are available. The full name of the village is:


That is not a typo and no a cat hasn't walked over the keyboard, but as you can see it has 37 characters and unless you can speak the traditional Maori language it is pretty much impossible to pronounce. At the start of the tour our guide read out the full name of the village to us before asking us to repeat it back to her. Luckily she took pity on us and only asked us to repeat it back to her in stages :-) Phew! She also explained that it was her Maori ancestors that originally settled in the village and she told us that everyone who lives and works in the village are descendants but as it's a small village some of the Maori descendants have moved out of the village and into the wider community. We also learnt that the houses within the village are passed down through the family to the next generation in order to keep this a traditional Maori village for many years to come.

We were led around the thermal village where we got the chance to see Pohotu and the Prince of Wales geysers that are constantly chucking out boiling hot water and apparently when Pohotu really blows the water can reach heights of at least 30 metres, but unfortunately Mother Nature didn't want to play and so we didn't get to witness this for ourselves. We also got to see several natural thermal pools that were bubbling away at ridiculous temperatures. These sulphur pools wafted out the strongest eggy smell that we've ever smelt and it made Sonya's nose wrinkle in distaste but apparently it's meant to be great for people who suffer from asthma or have sinus problems. The great thing about this village is the fact that the homeowners don't have to pay for hot water or heating because water is streamed down into large bathing areas for the residents to use and the ground is so hot under the houses that heating is not necessary. How cool (or hot) is that?

There is a large mineral pool in the middle of the village that has been used for cooking for centuries by the Maori people and is still used to this day. At 120 degrees it is hot enough to cook raw prawns in just 20 seconds! We paid a little bit extra so that we could sample some of the tasty sweet corn that is also cooked in the mineral pool and our guide explained that although the steam smells like rotten eggs our sweet corn wouldn't taste of it which came as a bit of a relief. Alongside this mineral pool there is a wooden box with a sliding lid that sits close to the ground and this has been the traditional way for Maori people to cook their meat and vegetables for centuries. This is such an ingenious idea and it must taste even better knowing that you haven't paid anything to cook it. All you have to do is place the meat and vegetables onto trays, place them into the wooden box and then you can walk away and come back two hours later to food that is perfectly cooked and if you do forget to come back after 2 hours at least it won't burn :-)

The mineral pool has been tested by groups of scientists who wanted to measure the depth of the pool and amazingly they couldn't find the bottom. After scratching their heads for a bit they had to come to the conclusion that it was in fact a bottomless pool!

Our guide also took us to the carved meeting house that sits in the heart of the community and is used for a variety of occasions from general meetings to weddings and funerals. Our guide told us that although there are some small imperfections to the carvings on the meeting house the Maori people firmly believe that no man or woman is perfect and the imperfections are what make it unique and different. One of the carved symbols in particular has only three fingers which represent birth, life and death and some carvings have a fourth finger which represents the afterlife. All of the meeting houses are painted in three distinct colours to represent the three different things. The main body of the building is red which represents the blood running through our veins in life, the second colour is black which represents death and then finally there is white which represents the afterlife.

Just before the end of the tour we were given a short introduction to flax weaving which is a technique where they use leaves to create the traditional skirts, bags and other accessories that are worn for the traditional cultural dances. We found this really interesting and we couldn't believe that a green leaf could have fibres as strong as rope inside of them. This is a slow process and to make a 30 inch skirt it would take at least three weeks.

We also saw a cultural performance that was performed by local Maori people wearing the traditional outfits. It was a great performance that was extremely loud and involved lots of singing and dancing. The last performance of the day was the famous Huka dance and it was an incredibly powerful performance if a little intimidating. After this the Maori performers invited the crowd to the stage to teach them the Huka and then perform it in front of everyone.... errr no thanks! When one of the performers walked around the room trying to entice us up to the stage we quickly sank into our seats because we were too chicken and we thought that it would be more fun to watch all of the other poor sods bang their legs and chests whilst sticking out their tongues in the traditional huka style, it was hilarious to watch and we had a great time in this amazing village.

Day 8 - Taupo

We took the short trip down the thermal highway to Taupo and got straight on with seeing the many sights the city has to offer. The first stop of the day was the Volcanic Activity Centre. A great little museum with masses of information on the region and how it's volcanic activity has shaped its past. Although we have seen a lot of similar information in other museums and exhibitions since being in New Zealand the centre had everything in one place and was definitely worth a visit.

Next stop was the honey hive. To be honest we only visited to sample the free honey and enjoy the free ice cream but we were surprised by the size of the centre and we learnt a lot about New Zealand's honey industry.

Next up was the Craters of the Moon an amazing field of geothermal activity. Complete with hot springs, boiling mud pools and thermal vents everywhere the slightly strange name is appropriate as it really did feel like something from outer space.

After lunch we visited the Aratiatia Rapids which were formed by the damming of the Waikato River to create a hydroelectric power station. Several times a day the flood gates are opened to allow water into the lower reservoirs which feed the power station. Although both flood gates were initially opened just when things were getting interesting one was closed which turned what could have been a spectacular wall of water crashing down the valley into something more akin to filling a bath.

Last stop of the day was the Huka Falls where New Zealand's longest river the Waikato is channelled into a narrow chasm before crashing down a 10m fall into a surging pool. Not the Niagara Falls but still a spectacular sight from all vantages points.

Day 9 - Volcanic Highway

Taupo is situated on the northern shore of the Lake Taupo the largest lake in New Zealand. The lake lies in a caldera created by a super volcanic eruption approximately 26,500 years ago. After the eruption the magma chamber beneath the volcano couldn't withstand the weight of the volcanic edifice above it and thus collapsed and overtime created a lake. The lake is absolutely humongous as these statistics show: surface area of 616sq kilometres, a perimeter of approximately 193km and 186m at its deepest point. We drove along the western shore of the lake which gave spectacular views especially with the Mt Pihanga on the horizon.

After the lake we embarked on the Volcanic Loop, a drive around the Tongariro National Park which is home to several active volcanoes. We drove approximately 2/3's of the loop from Turangi to Waiouru. The route passed Mt Pihanga which was actively venting steam and onwards to Mt Tongario, Mt Ngauruhoe and finally Mt Ruapehu. As with many of our scenic drives in New Zealand the views seemed to get better and better with each corner. However Mt Tongario was by far our most favourite volcano, a true cone shaped volcano with perfect symmetry. Although we have seen many volcanoes in New Zealand already Mt Tongario was the first to resemble the mental image we both had of a volcano. It was simply beautiful and it didn't matter how many photos we took it still couldn't quite capture what our naked eyes could see.

When we arrived at Waiouru we found ourselves inconveniently on the wrong side of the Ruahine and Kaweka Forests to get to Hastings. Facing a long trek back north or south to go round the forests and hills we found a small road on the map, which didn't even exist on the Sat Nav and decided it was worth the gamble. Although slow going we were not disappointed as the views over the surrounding farmland, valleys and forests were just amazing. Sometimes it pays to take the less travelled roads. :-)

Day 10 - Antipodal Down Under!

Another day on the road and another big road trip from Hastings to Wellington, made considerably longer by a detour off SH2 to get to the 'bottom of our world'

Although we will be going further south over the next couple of weeks on the South Island, today was the day we passed through the exact polar opposite of the Fuente del Angel Caido (Fountain of the Fallen Angel) monument in Madrid. We aim to visit the monument during the last few days of our big adventure in October on the final leg back to good old Blighty, thus achieving our goal of passing through exact polar opposites of the world.

We knew finding the exact point could be difficult as it could have easily been in a field or somewhere inaccessible so we researched the route and exact location many times on Google Street view before making the trip. As we came round the corner just before the distinctive triangular junction of Weber Road with Route 52, it was a really surreal moment for both of us as it really felt like we have both visited many times before. After a few photos on the road junction which is the opposite of the Parque del Retiro which encompasses the monument we set off to find the exact polar opposite of the monument and hey bingo after a few minutes we found -40.4110°S, 176.3175°E! Parked on route 52 in the middle of nowhere surrounded by inquisitive cows, it wasn't the most glamorous of locations but was another pinnacle moment on our trip. We are already looking forward to finding 40.4110°W , -3.6824°N!

Day 11 - Wellington

Our holiday park was just outside of Wellington in Lower Hutt so on our first day we drove into the city to go and take a look around Te Papa the National Museum of New Zealand. Back when we were doing the planning for Wellington we read some great adverts for this museum and when fellow travellers told us great things about it we knew that we had to visit to see for ourselves and best of all it's free. This museum had 5 floors to explore so we set off to make the most of the two hours car parking that we were restricted to. The first floor was jam packed with fun interactive displays that really got the imagination working overtime and we had a great time looking at all of the displays.

As we mentioned back in the Auckland blog we seem to have picked up the strange ability to choose places to visit on days when swarms of school kids will be everywhere, so it came as no surprise to see a whole bunch of them already in the museum. The poor teachers were frantically trying to keep the kids in groups and it was easy to see why this was proving to be a difficult task as the kids were running around in all directions. Although the noise level was quite deafening at times we could see that it was because the kids were excited to be there and it was really nice to see how eager they were to learn new stuff.

As we are in the land of volcanoes and earthquakes it was inevitable that there would be a huge section on both of these subjects and although we have read enough about them to write a small book, we still find both of these subjects utterly fascinating. One of the great things about these museums is that we always manage to walk away having learnt something new and not only does this keep our interests alive but it also makes us even more inquisitive about the wonders of Mother Nature.

Since arriving in New Zealand we have noticed how proud everyone is about their cultural past which is why the whole of the second floor was dedicated to the Maori people. There was a full size meeting house and there was loads of story boards explaining about their culture and although we find it extremely fascinating, after our visit to the thermal village back in Rotorua we now feel like experts so we only spent a few minutes looking around before we ventured up to the next floor.

The third floor was simply a chill out zone with a large café area. When we reached the fourth floor and saw the modern art section, we didn't even stop to look as we found out just how much we hate modern art back in Sydney, so that left the fifth floor which was a viewing platform so we were finished just in time to head back to the car.

After the museum we headed up Mt Victoria for some impressive views of the city. Our time at the top was hampered by the weather and we had to keep taking cover in the spaceship as another cloud burst overhead. They say Wellington can have all 4 seasons of weather in one day and if today was anything to go by we can see how it has got that reputation.

Day 12 - Wellington

Set aside as a South Island planning day we didn't have much organised for today but as we awoke to wonderful weather the opportunity to go and see some more beautiful countryside around Wellington was too good to miss. Just a short road journey over the hills we soon found ourselves on the 'Coast Road' without another car in sight and when we reached the coast we were the only car in the car park. Unlike the black beaches of Bali which just screamed 'I should be white' the black volcanic beach was strangely beautiful and with the fresh waters of the Cook Strait lapping against its shoreline, with the snow-capped mountains on the South Island on the horizon it was another picture perfect moment. New Zealand just keeps impressing us day after day.

So that concludes our epic road trip of the North Island, next stop the South Island!

Ta Ta for now

Team Chip

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