Taking a scenic drive across the Coromandel Peninsula on board another Stray Bus, our tour group spent the night at Hahei on the east coast of the Peninsula. Our cabin was a short walk from a beautiful beach, and from there, a group of us went kayaking to Cathedral Cove, a stunning natural phenomenon up the coast, and famous as a scene from the Narnia movies. The kayaking was immense fun, and I saw my first blue penguin whilst out in the bay. We enjoyed a hot chocolate by the cove, and a swim in the bay before heading back to Hahei in the afternoon sun, kayaking through a sea cave on the way. That evening, we drove to Hot Water Beach for the low tide. There is a natural thermal vent below this beach meaning at low tide, the sand acts like a spa pool, and it was teaming with people trying to find a spot to sit in the baking sand. In some places, where the hot gasses bubbled up through the sand, it was too hot to touch. In the lowering sun, my upper body was beginning to feel the cold whilst my feet were so hot that I had to dance from one foot to the next.
Heading south-west, we spent the night at Raglan. The weather had turned to greyness and rain, but our hostel was nestled neatly in the bush outside of town, and it made me feel a world away. Raglan is a surfer’s paradise, but aside from surfing, there isn’t a lot to do there. Around the hostel, there was a couple of bush walks which were a challenge in the mud, and at night-time the driveway lit up with glowworms. A few of us had signed up to a sunset cruise round the harbour at Raglan. I spent the whole cruise chatting with the other travellers from my bus so much, that I missed the entire commentary and indeed a lot of the scenery. To this day, I have no idea what we were supposed to have seen on that cruise, but the stay at Hahei and the hike and cruise at Raglan had allowed me to get to know the other backpackers very well, and I was quite sad to bid them farewell the next day.
Waitomo day was one of my most favourite days from my time travelling the North Island. Famous for its glowworm caves, I had made the decision to separate from my tour group to allow me to do a longer, more intense cave experience than what was allowed with the tour. I signed up for the 7hr Lost World experience which started with a 100m abseil into a giant hole in the ground which marked the entrance to the cave system we were to explore. The abseil mechanism was designed to be dependent on weight – the heavier you are, the faster and easier you descend. As a small-framed person of just 60kg, I wasn’t heavy enough for gravity to aid my descent. Instead, I had to use my arm strength to winch my way down the entire 100m. I was physically exhausted by the time my feet touched the ground, when everyone else had glided down with the minimum of effort. We enjoyed lunch here, before bidding the daylight goodbye for the next few hours. The journey through the caves involved a lot of rock scrambling and wading through the water. At times, the water was deep enough to swim in which was actually quite hard due to the weight of water-filled gumboots on my feet. At times we had to climb up over rocks, and jump from rocks into water pools below, and a couple of times, we had to negotiate waterfall climbs, 1 of which I struggled to swim against the flow of water, and had to be pushed up from below. At one point, we turned off our lights and negotiated the cave in darkness, trusting our hands to feel our way through the chamber. Finally, after squeezing through a letter-box shaped gap in some rocks, we came out into a large cavern with a handily placed rock in the middle. Sitting ourselves down to catch our breath, we were instructed to turn off our lights, and every one of us let out a noise in awe as we were instantly lit up by a cave full of glowworms. In every direction, there were thousands of little blue lights illuminating us like stars in our silence as we sat in our own thoughts marvelling at these little creatures. We must have sat there for a long time, but none of us wanted to move. Eventually though, we had to continue with our journey, and after a couple of turns, daylight could finally be seen again. It was a moment of sadness to leave the cave behind, and embrace the daylight again, but we still had quite a walk, first up the stream, then up over the hills to get back to our starting point where a tasty barbeque awaited our triumphant return.
The region of Waitomo is littered with caves. The following day I met up with a new tour group and we wandered through some bushland to visit some smaller caves before leaving the area behind. We spent the night at a Marae, a tribal house where we were treated to a traditional night of Maori dance and culture. Several of us went white water rafting as we headed south to Rotorua, joining our crew by the Kaituna river. Our guide Gofor, took us on a short and sharp ride down a 2.5m waterfall, followed by a 1m waterfall. A short paddle down the river we reached the top of a 7m waterfall, the highest commercially rafted river in the world. Going down, meant being submerged under the wash of water at the bottom, and there was a brief moment where I was unsure if I was still in the boat or not, and which way was up. Thankfully, we returned to the surface all intact, and all present in the boat. Already soaked, we all jumped out the boat to swim down the next rapid before climbing back in ready to splash through more waterfalls.
Rotorua was a delight, albeit a smelly one. The Earth’s crust is so thin here that there is geothermal gas pockets littered around the region. Even the homes are warmed geothermally through the ground, and it was amusing to wander the streets and parks of this town to find steam escaping through cracks in the pavement, and colourful sulphuric lakes bubbling away. The strength of the sulphur smell in the air varied day to day: some days it was barely noticeable, others it caught the back of my throat. Even if you couldn’t feel the earthquakes taking place beneath the ground, the sudden blast of rotten egg in the air alerted the nose to the knowledge that there had been one. Nowhere I’ve been since comes close to the uniqueness of Rotorua.
Again using Stray, I joined another tour heading east from Rotorua round the east cape to Gisborne. It was a nice intimate group of just 6 of us, with our local guide, and we took the scenic coastal route to Marehako bay where we stayed in the middle of nowhere at a lovely little hostel. Our host took some of us out on his crayfishing boat to collect his pots, and we got to help out, hauling up the pots, and sorting out the catch. The physical work was a nice distraction from the Captain’s aggressive rantings about the hardship of Maori people in New Zealand. He got my hackles up and lost any sympathy I may have had for his plea when he said that the IRA in Ireland had the right idea. After a brief kayaking trip round the bay, I enjoyed swinging in the hammock in the back garden whilst the crayfish cooked.
Our guide seemed to be the best of friends with the accelerator pedal, to the extent that he loved taking corners on the wrong side of the road to save him having to use the brake. It made the drive seem slightly rushed, and left a few of the passengers feeling a little bit queasy. The road followed the coastline, and out at sea I could see White Island, one of New Zealand’s active volcanoes, smoking off shore. We visited the country’s longest pier, as well as some movie locations from Boy, a famous New Zealand movie. Our beach shack in Gisborne was utter bliss. Just back from the beach, it was isolated and idyllic, and came with its own jacuzzi which we all squeezed into in the evening. It was a great place to be lazy in, and it was our last night as a group.
I left this group in Whakatane, stopping here for one purpose: to visit White Island. Since finding out about this place after arriving in the country, I had been determined to get out to it. At the time of visiting, the volcano was on alert level 1 and it was smoking away on the horizon, visible for miles around. It took 90 minutes to sail out to the island, and it was an awesome sight to behold: an active volcano pumping out steam and gas. We transferred to a small boat to ride ashore and then we followed a route round the island to get as close as was safe to steaming sulphuric vents, and the bubbling magma within the volcanic crater. This was another of my favourite days in New Zealand, and was like walking round another planet. Leaving the volcano behind, the boat took us round the island, where we disturbed a shoal of flying fish, which can fly a surprisingly long distance out of the water.
There is a beautiful bush walk from Whakatane round the coast to Ohope. It follows the coast, giving fantastic views of Whakatane itself as well as looking out towards White Island in the distance. From Ohope beach, the route cut inland through more bush, and I stumbled across a group of wild boars which came crashing out of the bush ahead of me giving me an immense fright.
Back in Rotorua, I spent a few days enjoying the thermal parks. First up was Waimangu Thermal Village which was my favourite. A 3 hour stroll alongside steaming ponds and bubbling streams brought me to a large lake where a boat took me around the crater lake to see more steaming vents. Further south were some large steaming mud pools which made a cool noise when it bubbled up from below. Round the corner was the Lady Knox geyser, a natural geyser that was supposed to be one of the most predictable to erupt. The brochures had its eruption as daily, but I was rather disappointed to get there to discover the whole thing is staged. Apparently, it naturally erupts on a 24 – 72hr basis, but in order to attract a regular crowd, they stage an eruption every day by throwing a sulphur block inside the vent. Admittedly, it was impressive when it went off, but for me, the event was marred by the unnaturalness of the spectacle. I have a bit of a dislike for manipulating nature in order to entertain tourists. I would much rather accept the unpredictability of nature when I turn up somewhere – this is the norm when going wildlife spotting, and so it should be with geothermal behaviour. Further down the road was Wai-O-Tapu, one of the region’s most famous parks, and it was mobbed, much more crowded and compact than Waimangu. I hate feeling rushed, and we were given a very strict time limit to get round the whole park and back to the bus. That being said, it was still an amazing place to visit, like being on an alien planet. There were blue pools, and green pools, and orange pools and red pools, some steaming, some bubbling, and all amazing to wander around.
Aside from the geothermal activity, Rotorua is famous for another thing: the birthplace of ZORB. Imagine your pet hamster running around your living room inside a plastic ball. Now enlarge the scale multiple times, add a hill into the scenario and replace the hamster with yourself, and you get the idea. For added pleasure, throw a bucket of water into the ball with you, and you get aquaZORBing. I did the dry ZORB straight run first, strapped into the inside of the ball and released in a straight line down a hill. It was not as enjoyable as I had been led to believe, the changing pressures on my head leaving me feeling rather uncomfortable. After posing for a photo at the bottom, I headed back to the top of the hill and this time went aquaZORBing. I had picked the zig-zag track which added to the general sloshing effect of spinning around the ball. I absolutely loved it, and climbed out the ball drenched but with a big grin on my face. After drying off I headed to the nearby gondola for a spectacular view over Lake Rotorua and the city on its shore. But the real reason for going up was the luge. From the summit of the gondola are 3 luge tracks: beginner, intermediate and advanced. I took a run on each, building my confidence and letting my speed pick up. Like the ZORB, I could have easily done many more runs, but if there is one thing that New Zealand excels at, it is eating up travelling funds by offering so many activities!
On the road south are a few streams that locals know are thermally heated, and after a brief swim in one, my journey continued south to Taupo. Outside of Taupo is the impressive Huka Falls which can be reached by road or by a lovely walk along the riverside from Taupo itself. Above the waterfall is a gorge that compresses the flow of water into a raging bubbling torrent that thunders over the falls with great speed and power. A lovely 2hr walk further down river was the Aratiatia Rapids. A mere trickle of water flows through the gorge until a few times a day, the sluice gates on the dam open up and a building torrent of water slams through creating an entirely different vista. Lake Taupo itself is also beautiful. The main settlement is on the north shore, but heading round the north-eastern shoreline is a walkway that allowed a day of meandering round the lakeside for an alternate view of the surrounding mountains. The lake is huge, and the far shore seemed so far away from every conceivable angle.
For the most part, I had been lucky with the weather on my North Island travels, but now my luck started to peter out. From Taupo, I was booked to go to the Tongariro National Park to do the popular day hike of the Tongariro Crossing, but the next few days became a blur of grey skies and frequent downpours. After several hours on the road, with poor visibility, and barely able to see the surrounding mountains on arrival into the park itself, I came to terms with the fact that the hike was not going to happen on this visit. Over a year later, and it is still high up on my New Zealand to-do list.
West of Tongariro down a long and windy single track road high up on the edge of a ravine, is the Blue Duck Lodge in Whakahoro. The people that own it are keen conservationists, trying to help the local population of Blue ducks that are on the endangered species list. The lodge offered multiple activities whilst we were there from horse riding to hunting, and as it had ceased raining by this point, I opted to go horse back through the valley. Unfortunately, by the time we were kitted up and on the trail, the rain started again with gusto, and our path became quite muddy at times. Like the road that had brought the bus there, the trail was also high up the ravine, and at times I worried about Mick the horse losing his footing and sending us over the edge. It was a sedate walk otherwise, but eventually, thanks to the worsening muddy conditions, we had to curtail our ride and head back. One of the other backpackers from the bus had opted to go hunting for goats which are deemed as an introduced pest, and as a result, dinner was a delicious goat curry.
My timing was the cause of the next lot of problems. I had unknowingly worked my way to Wellington to coincide with the Homegrown Festival, a music festival celebrating New Zealand-grown bands and music. Discovering this only a few days before my arrival, I struggled to find an affordable place to stay for more than a couple of nights. In the end, I had to curtail my stay in the capital city as well. Whilst there though, the good weather returned, with barely a sniff of the wind that the city is famous for. My favourite thing about Wellington is the waterfront, and the promenade that sweeps round the bay. At some point of every day I was in the city, I made a point of walking at least as far as Oriental Bay where there was a shop selling delicious gelato, if not further round the headland towards the marina and airport beyond. A good slog up Mt Victoria provided a 360 degree panorama of the city and the suburbs around, and I managed to revel in the sight in near-peace for all of 10 minutes before 7 coachloads of tourists arrived in quick succession and took over the place. I discovered later that parts of the woods that coated the hillside were used in scenes for the Lord of the Rings movies, and on a later trip to the city, I took a movie tour, getting to be silly and re-enact some of the scenes. I immensely enjoyed a visit to the Weta Cave too where a behind the scenes tour gave an insight into the making of props and weaponry for various movies. Aside from the movie industry, Wellington has a massive social vibe catered for with more coffee shops and bars than could ever seem possible, and my favourite haunt on each visit to the city is Parade cafe, or Boat cafe as it is now known, which is inside an old tug boat tied up by the promenade on the way to Oriental Bay.
The weekend of Homegrown approached, and the lack of accommodation meant that after 6 weeks, it was time to bid the North Island farewell. I was booked on the Interislander ferry to Picton, and the day couldn’t have been more glorious, with the sun high in the sky, barely a cloud visible and the calmest, smoothest sea. I was brimming with excitement on this day, because after 6 weeks of travelling solo, I was finally on my way to the South Island to meet a man with whom I was very close, and as it turned out, that meeting was to change the course of my life.