Aotearoa Road Trip
It is a long drive north from Christchurch to Auckland, and we had a few days to get up there for Christmas. Setting off early from the South Island’s largest city we made it to Picton, the departure point for the Interislander ferry, with the afternoon to spare. I’d previously just passed through Picton swiftly on my first arrival in the South Island nearly two years previously, and finally I had a bit of time to enjoy it. Picton is a beautifully set harbour town nestled within the Queen Charlotte Sound at the top of the island, and it is the gateway to the north. Due to its location, it is also the gateway to exploring the sound itself, with multiple boating options, and departures for the Queen Charlotte hiking track as well. But with my love of cetaceans, I was drawn to the wildlife adventure, and headed out for a few hours on a wildlife spotting cruise. There is plenty of bird life here, and we saw the very rare King Shag, a species that only exists in this one location in the entire world, and has a population of only about 500 birds. We found 2 sunning themselves on a rock amongst some more plentiful cormorants. We stopped off at an island far up one of the channels which, following a brief hike to the summit, gave a fantastic view of the peninsulas around us. Heading back to port we finally came across some of the shy and rare Hector’s dolphins that were busy hunting for food in a sheltered bay. We were even lucky enough to see another rare animal, the little blue penguin out for a swim. Away from the ferry terminal, Picton has a small beach and a large marina, and there are a few local walks that can be taken from there which offer alternate views of the sound. In short, I love Picton, and the Queen Charlotte Sounds is a definite gem in the South Island’s crown.
The original plan had us catching the early morning ferry to Wellington, allowing us to drive quite a way up the North Island before pausing another night. Unfortunately, right before the peak season started, one of the ferries lost its propeller and went out of service, completely disrupting the schedule of sailings. As a result, our crossing was delayed by 7hrs, and we set off north in the early afternoon. The cloud hung over the South Island as we sailed through the sounds, but as we entered the Cook Strait, the sky above us was clear, and we had sunshine for the rest of the crossing. It is a beautiful 3hr sailing: firstly there is the stunning sight on either side of the boat of the peninsulas and islands of the sound, then as you cross the Cook Strait, you can see along the coast of the South Island spreading out behind you whilst the North Island comes clearer into view ahead of you. Tracing the coast of the rugged North Island coastline for a while, the ferry eventually enters the narrow entrance into the wide expanse of Wellington harbour, and the view to the east is of barrenness, whilst the view west is of development with planes coming into land at Wellington International airport and pleasure boats sailing around Miramar peninsula. As the city centre looms closer, the lovely Oriental Bay with Mt Victoria behind watches as the ferry makes its final approach into dock.
We headed straight out of Wellington on state highway 1 (SH1) as soon as we got off the ferry. Snaking out the back of the city, the highway initially follows the coastline travelling up the Kapiti coast with Kapiti Island visible just off the shore. The region makes an exceedingly tasty ice cream, but today we were just passing through, eager to get some kilometers behind us on the next leg of the journey. We spent the night in Foxton, a rather unassuming little place that neighboured Foxton Beach, which had, as the name suggests a beach. There was a glorious sunset that night which we watched from the warmth of the truck, facing the lapping sea as it hit the shore.
SH1 continues snaking north, and as it does so, the scenery changes dramatically. From the Kapiti coast it turns inwards and cuts through a rolling green landscape rife with gorges and forests and rolling green hills. Then it turns into Desert Road as it gains altitude, and from here, on the edge of Tongariro National Park, on a clear day, you can see ‘Mt Doom’, or Mt Ngauruhoe and its neighbouring volcanoes. Within the national park there are 3 distinct volcanoes which were the filming location for Mordor and Mt Doom in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The vegetation in this region around SH1 is barren and dry, resembling a desert, and with its altitude and exposure to the elements, it is the most commonly closed road in the winter months. At the time of writing, I have driven this road 3 times, each time in the summer months and each time, the volcanoes have been partly or completely hidden from view. Despite this, the stark scenery is still mesmerising. Eventually though, the great expanse of Lake Taupo, the largest lake in New Zealand, comes into view, and SH1 follows the eastern edge of it up past the town of Taupo itself where we took a brief stop to stretch our legs. Rounding the top of the lake, the highway then heads north-west towards Hamilton and Auckland beyond. My memory of Hamilton was very vague, and last time we had driven through from a different direction so I saw much more of the city this time than I had last time. What impressed me about the place was the large gardens and river walks which I hadn’t seen before, and in the glorious hot sunshine, the place looked lovely.
I will always love Auckland. It doesn’t matter how many times I go there, I always find my way down to the Viaduct and the road round to Mission Bay and beyond. The sight of Rangitoto Island across the harbour, Auckland’s most recently active volcano, and the Sky Tower amidst the city skyline, always bring a smile to my face and make me feel at home. I always make a point of getting round to Mission Bay and going to Movenpick for the most delicious ice cream which is best enjoyed sitting by the beach. After taking a walk along the Viaduct, we took a drive round to Saint Heliers and up the hill to a lookout on the tip of the coastline which gave a perspective on the city that I had never seen before. On Christmas Eve, once the sun had gone down, we headed into the city centre to walk up Franklin Street. Every year in the run up to Christmas, the houses on this street are decorated with bright and flashing light displays. What started as one household has now become an annual tradition with houses trying to out-do each other with their displays. It has become an attraction, and the walkways were packed with people taking photos and videos and carrying their young children on their shoulders so that they could see. On top of this, the cars were queuing to drive up and down the street leading to traffic jams at the top and bottom. People were carol singing in the street, a balloon artist was making shaped balloons for the kids, and a coffee shop at the top end was doing good business selling hot drinks whilst people wandered around. It was amazing to witness.
After disappearing to Queensland for a week, we returned to Auckland in the new year and had a week before we needed to be back in Christchurch. Joining up with some friends, there were 4 of us setting off on the next leg of our road trip round Aotearoa. The Coromandel coast road was something I had wanted to do since skipping across the peninsula on my last visit. The weather stayed with us and with blue skies, blue seas and green hills surrounding us, it was a beautiful drive. Hugging the coast for most of the drive up the western side, it cut inland for a while and climbed up to give us some amazing views, before heading back downhill and eventually coming out at Coromandel Town where we based ourselves for the night. From here, we headed further north on the unsealed road to Fantail Bay near the tip of the peninsula. The road comes to an end a little further along the coast from here, so we headed back to town to relax. Near the marina, there is a path winding up to a lookout which affords a wonderful view of the town itself, the hills behind, and the coastline around. It was an uncomfortable hike up in my jandals but the view was worth it.
The following day we were intent on staying one step ahead of the weather. We could see some unsavoury weather heading our way, but it was coming from behind us, so we got round to Hahei as fast as we could. On the east coast of the peninsula, Hahei is the nearest place to Cathedral Cove. Last time I was here, it was a beautiful sunny day, and we had kayaked here prior to taking a swim in the surf as it lapped gently on the beach. This time round, we walked from the car park along the coast and down the steps to the beach. Straight away I noticed the stark contrast: the tide was high, covering half the beach and also making passage through the cave a bit wet and hairy; and the sky was grey and the sea a little squally making a swim out of the question. I was a little disappointed. But we managed to have some fun trying to get through the cave from one beach to the other without being drenched by an impending wave. Some of us were more successful than others. It may have turned into a dull day by the time we left, but the crowds were still coming in waves. On the trail from the car park I was excited to come across a stick insect, a creature which went through a fad as a popular pet for a while in the UK when I was in primary school, and had never actually seen anywhere else. In fact, I didn’t realise they existed in New Zealand, but as it was wandering across the path, I lifted it up and let it wander across my arms for a while before setting it loose on a tree. Sometimes the simplest things give enormous pleasure.
Finally, the bad weather caught up with us and the heavens opened. We were shrouded in rain for the drive to our next stop, Mt Maunganui where we waited out the rain watching a terribly long movie at the cinema. The clouds only lifted as the sun lowered to the horizon and we had to wait till the following day to see this place in its full glory. In stark contrast to the neighbouring Tauranga, a very industrial harbour settlement, Mt Maunganui is a beautiful town nestled on a peninsula on the great expanse of the Bay of Plenty, with an apparently endless stretch of beach spanning its length and capped at its tip by the mount that gives the place its name. I walked along the beach from our motel towards the mount, breathing in the sea air and smiling at the other people who were out enjoying the sunshine. At the base of the mount I joined my friends whereby we first circled the base of the mount due to a slight navigational error, and then as the day heated up, we started the slog to the top. From a distance it looks like an easy walk, but close up it is evident how steep the sides are and as a result, parts of the path involve either a lot of steps or a steep gravel path. But the view is very much worth it. Looking out into the expanse of the Bay of Plenty in one direction, the peninsula of Mt Maunganui stretches inland in the other direction, and the port of Tauranga and Matakana Island can also be seen. By the afternoon, the sand was almost too hot to walk on, and we lazed on the beach soaking up the rays and paddling in the sea. I had heard a lot about Mt Maunganui and it certainly didn’t disappoint.
Heading south, we skirted Lake Rotorua and headed straight for the ZORB centre. I couldn’t believe the change in the place in 2 years. Last time I was there, I got a printed certificate when I signed up, there were lockers to store my belongings, I got a free digital photo to upload direct to the internet, there was a dedicated desk for ordering photos, and the high quality photos came on an official looking CD in a ZORB-shaped container. Stepping into the office this time round it was sparse. The lockers had gone, the photo desk had gone and it looked run down. The certificate on sign-up was only available via email (and to this day the email has never come), the photos were of a noticeably poorer quality (and it took an hour to get them), and they were presented on a plain CD-R in a plain CD case. Despite plenty of people being there, the whole experience just screamed out that the company is struggling financially which is a shame. With a competitor on the main road whilst they are hidden away down a back road, perhaps their business had taken a bit of a hit. I was nervous about injuring my back, as I had spent the previous 4 months recuperating from a back injury, but after a solo run down the zig-zag hydro-slide and a dual run down the straight hydro slide, I came out soaking wet and happy. It was a beautifully sunny day, and with a regular run of people coming down the hill, we stayed and watched for a while.
Back towards town, we pulled in at the Skyline Gondola and headed up Mount Ngongotaha for a view over Rotorua and the lake of the same name. The real reason for coming up was to do the luge, a milk-cart style rally down a variety of tracks winding down the side of the hill. I’d loved this last time I was here and with a competitive boyfriend it was inevitable that we would stop here on this trip. With 3 routes to choose from: scenic, intermediate and advanced, I did each run once, and again noticed that things had changed in the 2 years. This time it was merely the route which had had a few new chicanes put in, and I was sadly beaten on every single run. Still, it was a good feeling for me to be able to do something fun after all the months I’d previously spent unable to do much exercise.
Following the Thermal Explorer Highway south, we passed a multitude of geothermal parks before arriving in Taupo on the shores of New Zealand’s largest lake. Taking a break from motels, we pitched our tents for a couple of nights at the back of town and settled into holiday park life. The rain rolled in the next morning and everything took on a grey hue but by lunchtime the weather had eased slightly. We took a boat trip out onto the lake for a water’s view of the town, but more specifically to go and see some impressive Maori carvings. Viewable only by boat round at Mine Bay, they may only be about 40 years old, but they are impressive none-the-less, in particular the giant face carved into a large rock face. To the side of this are lizards, dragons and more faces, and we hovered there for a while taking it all in.
On getting back to shore, we headed out to the Craters of the Moon geothermal park, one of the cheapest of the paid parks in the area. It was a relatively new geothermal area, having been created when a nearby power station was being built. The earth’s crust is exceedingly thin in this part of the world and there are bubbling pools and steam vents in abundance in the region around Rotorua and Taupo. I am fascinated by volcanic and geothermal activity so wandering around these parks has me in my element. The park itself is mainly a large open space filled with steaming vents of varying sizes and intensities. The ‘rotten egg’ sulphuric smell was thankfully barely noticeable. There was little to compare it to the two parks I had been to on my previous visit but it was still worth the wander around, and there are still other parks I would like to explore on future visits. Back at the campsite, wandering around in the dark by torchlight, I got a thrill when I came across a live possum halfway up a small tree not far from our tent. Its eyes glowed in the torchlight and it contemplated me as I contemplated it. This was the first real sighting I’ve had of a possum in New Zealand despite estimated numbers being in the millions. I’ve seen plenty of dead ones driving around the Port Hills in Christchurch, and on 1 other occasion seen the rear end of one running away in the distance, but this very cute little creature was close up and in no hurry to go anywhere. I savoured one of those glorious private moments that are yours and yours alone before it eventually scarpered off into the gloom.
The temperature had started to drop, and on arriving in Tongariro National Park at our next lodgings in Ohakune, as the clouds lifted and fell over the mountains, we could see that fresh snow had fallen. Suddenly, we were in a 3-layer of clothing situation, a stark contrast to just a few days before. Whilst the boys hit the pub, my friend and I took to the hills and went for a walk through the forest and across an alpine region to the park’s highest waterfall, an impressive 39m. On arriving there, a lot of the waterfall was hidden behind trees, so we didn’t linger long, but on the way, during a brief break in the clouds to let the sunshine through, we got the best view yet of Mt Ruapehu. I had been keeping an eye on the weather whilst we were so close in Taupo in the hope of finally being able to do the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, an impressive day walk across a couple of volcanoes, an experience which had eluded me last time. Alas, for the second time, the weather got the better of me, and I had to accept that once again, it wasn’t going to happen.
Paraparaumu is a lovely seaside town on the Kapiti coast. Kapiti Island sits directly out to sea, but otherwise the coast is exposed to the full brunt of the Tasman Sea, and the stretch of sandy beach is littered with an incredible amount of flotsam. For me, a lover of sea air, I was thrilled to be back by the coast again. A relaxing walk along the sand was followed up by fish and chips which seemed so fitting. Growing up in Scotland, battered fish and chips was always such a ‘Scottish’ thing, a weekend treat until the day I moved out of my parent’s home, but even on the other side of the world it is loved just as much. I don’t eat it very often, but when I do, it conjours up so many memories of Scotland and just feels so normal.
Even a brief trip to Wellington has to involve a trip to my favourite cafe, the Boat Cafe on board a converted tug boat. It was a beautiful day and the small beach at Oriental Bay was dotted with sun worshipers and a volleyball tournament. We only had a few hours before our ferry south so it was a brief respite by the sea before a brief catch up with family who lived in the city. Before we knew it, it was time to get round to book in for the ferry. With the ferry port being across the bay from Oriental Bay, it was an excellent spot to watch the ferry come in and dock. This was the smallest ferry of the fleet which didn’t take long to explore before I found my prime viewing spot on deck to spend the crossing. The sea looked and felt calm but there was a wicked wind whipping around the ship as we left the safety of Wellington harbour and headed out into the Cook Strait. I could never get tired of doing this crossing, the view is just spectacular, and although it feels so familiar, every time I ride that ferry, it still feels like a new adventure. On this crossing I was overjoyed to see a whale in the distance behind us. It was the blow that alerted me to its presence, a tall blast of steam shot high above the waterline, followed by a dark shape breaking the surface briefly. This occurred several times before it got too far away to keep a track of with my eyes. It was hard to determine the species, but given the location and the elongated back with lack of obvious dorsal fin from a distance, I’m assuming it was a humpback whale.
The sun beamed down on us for our passage through the Queen Charlotte Sounds, and disembarking at Picton, we continued south to spend the night in Blenheim. Notorious for it’s closeness to a multitude of wineries, we were here primarily to break up the journey home. Having said that, I’m glad we did, for the simple reason that we ate at a fantastic restaurant with probably the best chef-come-waiter that I have ever met. Next door to our motel was Gramado’s, a Brazilian bar/restaurant. Our waiter, who was also one of the chefs, was from south Brazil, and he sat with us and spent time talking us through the menu, and giving us suggestions on what to try and what drinks to have. He was enthusiastic with a permanent smile on his face, and his attitude was infectious. The cider he recommended was delicious and sweet, the white wine he offered was local and scrumptious, the Brazilian bean stew he recommended to me was amazing, but at the end of the night, he brought us out a Brazilian delicacy to try: barbecued chicken heart. Of the 3 of us, I was the only one who tried it, and I ended up having 2. As a vet, I sometimes find it difficult to eat some cuts of meat without analysing the anatomy first (a trait which can be quite displeasing to other diners who join me on a trip to Nandos!). This was no exception. I’d never looked at a chicken’s heart before and I couldn’t eat it without first looking at the various blood vessels poking out of it, and examining the cut surface with each bite I took. I’m not normally an offal eater, but despite the slight mental battle I had to overcome with the thought of what I was eating, it was delicious.
The drive from Blenheim to Kaikoura and south to Christchurch is stunning. Past wineries, rolling brown hills, and pink salt pans, it hits the coast and hugs it all the way to Kaikoura. The sea is turquoise blue and crashes on the rocks right by the roadside. At Oahu, the New Zealand fur seals come ashore to sleep and there was a nursery of babies playing around a rock pool when we stopped to watch. As Kaikoura approaches, the Kaikoura Range shoots up on the inland side of the road, and from Kaikoura south the road winds through tree-strewn valleys and hillsides, cicadas thrumming loudly as we drove. It was magical, and sums up everything I love about New Zealand: the Great Outdoors.