In this post we talk about what has been attracting travelers to New Zealand for centuries: the vast landscapes, the nooks and creeks of the coastline, the friendliness of its people. In the next post Jules follows up with a special post dedicated to something that arrived to New Zealand much more recently but feels right at home: the Lord of the Rings!
New Zealand marks the halfway of our trip, as it stands on the antipodes of Portugal. We were sad to be already that far into our journey, but thrilled to be landing on a place we wanted to visit for many years now. After ten days there, we weren’t disappointed. In fact, New Zealand reminds me of Stepford Wives: the postcard-perfect countryside, the uncrowded cities, the super-friendly people… the whole place is just too perfect, there must be some dark secret lurking in the shadows!
Well, if we’re splitting hairs, the are two things wrong with New Zealand: first, it’s cold and wet (the fact that we visited it in the thick of winter might have something to do with that, though); and second, internet sucks. Seriously, download caps? That’s so 2005.
Auckland, our first stop, is New Zealand’s largest city, yet it only has a population of 1,4 million. Wellington, on the other side of the North Island and the country’s capital, is even smaller. These spread-out and uncrowded boroughs reminded us of Switzerland, where we spent our last winter (little did we know we were about to get a remake of the snow and runny noses we endured there).
Auckland is a harbor city, so it seemed suiting to start our visit by strolling down to the shoreline and catching a ferry. After a scenic yet windy ride, we shored in Devonport. Besides some beautiful beachside houses, Devonport is home to North Head, a place of great views and an amazing collection of military tunnels and weaponry. Initially built in 1875, to defend the city from the threat of a Russian invasion, it is an intricate place of tunnels, barracks, storerooms and even a minefield (deactivated a long time ago). One of the singular pieces of weaponry here is the disappearing gun, that is still in place and allows for visits. However, as the invasion never happened, the only shots fired in North Head were either for practice or to salute the Queen during her visit. We left Devonport too late to visit the Auckland Museum, one of the city’s must-dos, so we strolled instead through the Auckland Domain, a beautiful park.
The following day we woke up bright and early to pick-up a rental car, in order to tour the island. Driving on the wrong side of the road required a team-effort: Jules – the co-pilot – focused on making sure we didn’t do the roundabouts the other way around; while Verne – the pilot – focused on shifting with the left hand and turning on the blinkers instead of the window wipers!
Our initial plan was to tour the whole North Island, but that quickly proved to be ambitious. After a couple of days of too much driving and not enough sleep (the cold took its toll and both of us quickly went down with a cold that kept us up at night), we devised a shorter route that would give us more time to enjoy the views. The first leg of the trip took us through the Northeastern coastline and beautiful beaches like Whitianga and Hot Water Beach. Alas, going to the beach in winter is a bit like visiting a candy shop at night – you have the whole place to yourself but the ice-cream machine is turned off – so we made our way inwards to Rotorua.
Rotorua is a great place to learn more about the country’s Maori heritage. You’ll notice that ‘Rotorua’ – as most other town names in New Zealand – doesn’t sound British at all. That’s because most places in New Zealand have both a British and Maori name, with the use of the latter encouraged after a Government amendment in 1894. Rotorua is also home to some spectacular geothermal activity. Strolling trough the town’s Kuirau park and Sulphur Bay will give you a taste of it, but to get the full experience you need to visit one of the surrounding geothermal parks. We opted for Wai-o-Tapu, a place experts say is only second to California’s Yellowstone. The park’s most striking features are probably The Champagne pool (the name is due to the abundant carbon dioxide that creates a bubbling effect) and Lady Knox, a geyser that erupts every day at 10:15 (with a little help from a bag of soap, in order to break the water’s surface tension and make it erupt at predictable times).
From Rotorua we went straight to Taupo (with a heavy heart for not having enough time to visit Napier, New Zealand’s wine region). Taupo stands on the shoreline of Lake Taupo, a mass of water spanning some 3.500 km2. It was a bit too cold for kayaking, so we instead went hiking alongside the Waikato river, New Zealand’s longest river. The trail starts at Huka Falls, a set of mesmerizing rapids that seem like a hoot for rafting. From that point onwards and up to the Aratiatia dam, the river widens and the current slows down, creating one of the clearest streams we’ve ever seen (we risked life and limb to dip our GoPro in the water and bring you this picture of it).
As we made our way to Mount Ngauruhoe and Matamata (better known as Mount Doom and The Shire, but I’ll let Jules talk about that on our ‘Lord of the Rings’ bonus post), there was time for a stop at Waitomo. The first thing you need to do there is visit the Waitomo Caves and check out the glowworms. These insects (they’re not worms at all, but the name is arguably catchier than Arachnocampa luminosa) cling to the cave’s ceiling and emit light from their behinds. This makes for an incredible show (no pictures allowed, so check out this one instead). The other thing you need to do is see a kiwi. These birds are nocturnal and notoriously difficult to see in the wild, so we visited the Otorohanga Kiwi House instead. The fact that New Zealanders call themselves Kiwis tells you a lot about their peculiar sense of humor: this goofy looking bird, resembling a large wingless chicken with a crooked long beak, is a far cry from bears, dragons and other grandiose animals that are typically elected as national symbols.
That’s it for now, see you very soon at Bag End!