In England, it’s a well known fact that the North is better than the South. So after an amazing 4 weeks exploring New Zealand’s South Island we couldn’t wait to make the trip up onto the North Island for another 3 weeks of adventure.
We flew into Auckland and immediately picked up our rental car from Go Rentals which was all hassle free. We kind of hand our hand forced with our transport in the North Island, with the camper vans coming in at an eye watering $175 a day our car at $37 a day was an absolute steal. The car, an almost brand new Toyota Corolla estate (or station wagon as they’re called here) was intentionally chosen to act as something roomy enough for us to sleep in if we got stuck for a proper place to sleep.
After heading straight out of Auckland and making a quick pit stop for groceries and a warm blanket for emergency sleeping we quickly realised that this leg was going to be a lot different to the last. We were already missing the fridge and cooking facilities from our camper, not to mention the storage space. The first area we had in mind for our trip was the ‘Northland’ area, including the Bay of Islands, 90 mile beach and Cape Reina on the Northern tip. The whole area was a spectacular rugged environment with small towns, mainly Maori, dotted along the coast. Unfortunately this area didn’t provide too many hostels or other cheap accommodation so bar a cute beach hut and one hostel we spent most of our nights in the car at either free or paid campsites.
After 8 days exploring the Northland area we headed south, bypassing Auckland and Hamilton to the Waitomo area, famed for its glow worm caves. After assessing the many tour options we eventually decided to go on a ‘black water’ rafting trip with The Legendary black water rafting company, opting for a 3 hour tour through the caves on small rubber rings. The whole experience was pretty cool, quite literally as the water was bloody freezing even dressed head to toe in thick wetsuits. The tour started off with mainly scrambling through tight narrow caves and openings before opening up into a huge cave structure. After getting the nod to turn our head torches off the guides led us through the caves with only the thousands of glow worms lighting the way. It was a great experience. After the tour we headed further south to the town of Taranaki, quickly taking in a lighthouse before finding a free camp (in the car) next to the sea for the night.
The Taranaki area isn’t all that visited by the usual backpacker crowd however we had found a cool looking over night hike to do in the National Park, taking in some spectacular views of Mount Taranaki along the way so we made it part of our itinerary.
After booking our spaces in the hut for the night at the visitor centre we set off on our hike which started off with endless steps up the mountain (volcano) before traversing along the side and down into the valley. It was at this point where the hike turned into a bit of a nightmare as the marshes didn’t really have a dry option across them which lead to some pretty soggy feet. To make matters worse once we had crossed the marshes we were faced with a couple of km of very very muddy (sometimes shin deep) trail which didn’t ease off until we climbed way up high towards our camp. The mood had soured by this point so it was a nice surprise after 8 hours hiking to find an Australian couple had already made it to the hut and started the log burning fire that we all huddled around with our feet as close to it as possible. After warming up we headed out to the nearby tarn to get some nice photos next to the volcano before heading back to make dinner. That evening the sky was pretty clear so I headed back out to try and get some more photos, this time with the Milky Way but the clouds never really cleared from the top of the volcano so it didn’t go exactly as planned.
The next morning we donned our soggy boots and set off again, this time with clear blue skies and after 6 hours or so we arrived back at the car, very happy to have finished. Walking in wet boots for 2 days is a very unpleasant experience. Not wanting to venture far and needing to dry our footwear we headed to the nearest town of ‘Stratford’ (a weird mock Stratford upon Avon) and spent a couple of nights in a small hut at a holiday park.
After a couple of days of recovering we were ready to hit our next adventure and after driving across the ‘forgotten world highway’ we arrived at Tongariro National Park and arranged to do what is said to be the best one day hike in New Zealand, the Tongariro Crossing the following day.
In order to walk the crossing you need to arrange transport that will collect you from the end to bring you back to the start as it’s a crossing, not a loop hike (clues in the name). The hike is just over 19km and takes about 6 hours but it’s not too taxing apart from a fairly steep start. The route passes two impressive peaks (not allowed to climb them anymore as they’re sacred to the locals), one of which is the mountain used for mount doom in the lord of the rings movies before heading down past some thermal lakes and springs. The hike finishes by meandering down a steep hill side (paved) and into a small forest all the way to the finish point. We thoroughly enjoyed the day but I’d say it’s definitely worth getting there as early as possible as it was incredibly busy.
Our next stop would be Lake Taupo, a short drive away where I was hoping to do a skydive. After the first one was cancelled due to the weather I thought it was going to be a repeat of the Franz Josef hike that never happened but after waiting out another day there was a break in the weather and I was able to go up. Georgina was terrified about me doing it but I was pretty relaxed and although the view out over the lake surrounded by the mountains was spectacular on the way down, I didn’t get the buzz from it that I expected. I was still very happy that I did it though.
After a quick visit to Huka falls and stopping at some natural hot pools (a river under a bridge, not quite as ghetto as Costa Rica) we headed up to Rotorua, a town famous for its smelly sulphur hot springs - and mountain biking!
I decided to rent a bike and head up to Whakarewarewa mountain bike park for the day, taking the uplift option to sample as many trails as I could. The place was amazing and offered a much bigger trail network than anywhere I’d ridden in the UK so I had a great day. Georgina sat in the car, so she didn’t have so much fun!
Heading into the last week of our rental we headed to the coast, taking in the town of Taraunga along with a protected bird sanctuary not too far away. We decided to stay a night at the sanctuary, which is enclosed with some Jurassic Park style fencing and electric gates to keep the pests out to have one last shot at spotting some Kiwis in the wild. We spent the afternoon exploring the rock pools along the coast before heading out at night to find the kiwis. Despite hearing some extremely close by we never managed to spot any. The following day we did a hike through the park managing to spot some really cool birds and some really evil looking cows.
Further up the coast lays the Coromandel Peninsula, home to ‘hot water beach’ and cathedral cove. Hot water beach gets its name from a thermal hot spring that runs just beneath the sand in one particular spot on the beach. Armed with a spade you can simply dig down a couple of inches and be rewarded with your very own thermal baths. Now this sounds very nice in theory, but imagine Blackpool beach (but nicer) on a busy day with every single person on it cramped into an area about half the size of a football pitch.... digging little baths! Too close to the main source and you risked scolding your feet (yes it was that hot), but too far and you’re simply sat in a cold puddle 2 foot away from a Chinese family. Fortunately with a bit of engineering I managed to dig a small holding pool for the boiling water and then a secondary ‘sitting’ pool next to it so we could simply top up our ‘bath’ as it suited. With beach real estate in high demand, many people tried to claim the boiling holding pool as their bathing pool but the water was simply too hot so we managed to avoid neighbours on that side which was nice on such a crowded beach.
Cathedral cove, reached by a short hike down to the beach a short drive away is a huge eroded stack in the land creating a spectacular tunnel next to the sea. Fortunately the tide was in when we arrived so I managed to get a few pictures before the masses flooded through on to the beach on the other side.