In this journal:
- stone arch over the beach of your dreams;
- a village with steam coming from the ground;
- time travel back to 1933.
Here We Go!
North Island of New Zeland is the population, economic and cultural center of the nation, as the vast majority of people reside in the urban centers of Christchurch and Wellington. The Maori tribes are far more populous here than their southern bretherens, probably because of the more arable land, calmer weather and smoother terrain. Here, you will not find gigantic snowy mountains blocking your paths, or marshy swamplands that forbids anything but amphibious vehicles. However, expect large volcanoes, smoking forests, black sand beaches, and authentic tribal experiences. If you wish to read more about New Zealand 2019 in general, or wish to go to other sections of the trip, please go to the introduction section.
Are you ready for an epic road trip? Buckle up, here we go!
After smoothing out the extreme discomfort in driving on the wrong side of the world, we began our drive down New Zealand’s highway. After a turnoff, we officially entered the scenic areas of the country, starting with Coromandel Peninsula. It is a piece of land that juts out from the other side of the sea, across from Auckland, and is frequented by the city-dwellers as a favorite getaway location during weekends. Some more affluent folks have purchased vacation houses along the coast of the peninsula, driving up the housing prices significantly. This is for a good reason, however, as the little place is home to some truly kiwi fun: large forests, a scenic highway, great vistas, and delicious seafood all are on the specialty list. On this warm Wednesday in early winter, the area was practically deserted, perfect for me to practice my left-hand drive skills.
Two hours of scenic drive later, I turned off the main road into a small gravel one called 309 Road. No, it is not a route designation, but its name. Legends say it is called 309 because it has 309 turns on it, or because a horse-drawn carriage would take 309 minutes to traverse the 24 kilometers. I carefully sped down my campervan down the mountain hills, carefully dodging the animals scattering away from the crooked surface. After a while, the car pulled up to the little hike area of Waiau Falls. This is a little rock-back waterfull shrouded in vegetation. A few meters from there sat a giant kauri forest. Kauri is the largest tree by volume in New Zealand, even though their numbers are dwindling. The groves with these trees are almost always named as Kauri forest as they are very conspicuous, and can be made into all kinds of high quality products. The tree only grows in the very northern tip of North Island, making their habitat very vulnerable to Auckland-based urban development. However, we were glad to find a full grove of them after a short hike. However, before commencing the hike, one has to meticulously scrub down any remaining soil and plant seeds on their hiking shoes and clothes, because there is a kind of fungal infection called kauri dieback that can kill these gentle giants.
We overnighted in a holiday park at the tiny settlement of Hahei. Holiday parks are the advanced version of RV Parks elsewhere in the world, as it features a large communal area, where one can cook, barbeque, let kids hang out in the play zone, and do laundry. It is not necessarily cheap as each person costs around 25NZD per night on average, but these parks usually have certain gimmicks. This park here in Hahei is located right next to a beach, facing lush green islands and a sweeping view of the Coromandel coastline.
When we discovered the swing featured above, both of us were ecstatic. It was the most scenic dangle I have ever done, even on par with the one above a deep misty valley in Ecuador. Look at that blue, that green, those islands, and that beach… I would gladly go every weekend given the opportunity.
The crown jewel of this land is the world-famous Cathedral Cove, a large rock bridge spanning from a cliff into the sea, above a white sandy beach. When we got down to the beach, our sight were fixated on this formation. Wow, just, wow, Mother Nature has the most powerful carving tools and the most elegant artistic style, and human ingenuity is merely a pale imitation. The large rocky islands towering over the beach were as intimidating as they were awe-inspiring. The waves had carved their way around the lower portions of the rocks, making them look like disporportionately misconfigured mushrooms.
We passed by Hot Water Beach, where one could dig a hole on the beach, and hot springwater would surge from underground. However, it was a cold winter day, so swimsuits were definitely not on our packing list. An hour of drive later, we arrived at the secluded Owharoa Falls feeling peckish, so Chacha, being an amazing chef, whipped up a quick meal right at the front of the water. Chicken wings, pita bread, avocadoes, and a nice cold glass of juice (only downside of roadtripping: I cannot drink), oh and don’t forget a wonderful waterfall, life is good!
Bay of Plenty
After dillydallying around the forest and falls, we continued the drive towards Tauranga. We passed large fields of kiwi farms, and huge pastures full of sheep, and eventually reached the little town of Mt. Maunganui by sunset. One of the downsides of travelling in winter here is the lack of daylight, as sun sets early at 4pm. However, in exchange, we got to rent our van for the ridiculous price of 22 dollars a day! Mt. Maunganui is actually a small village sleeping underneath the shadow of a gigantic volcano lava cone at the edge of the sea, forming a formidable headland 232 meters tall. I gladly showed off my climbing skills, and quickly reach the top after a steep climb. The official name of the mountain is Maori, called Mauao, and is of extreme importance in the local mythology, so it is tapu/sacred. The view at the top, of course, was absolutely fantastic.
We overnighted in a holiday park at Rotorua, a town 2 hours away by highway, and then we woke up to a heavy layer of mist covering an inversion layer just above the head. It was one of the strangest meteorological phenomenon I have seen, and I studied climate in university! That is because the town sits right above abundant vent holes of hot steam. This resulted in incessant spewing of hot air coming from the ground, making the town significantly warmer than its surrounding areas during winter. It is not rare to drive by a street and see smoke coming straight from the grass on the sides. We approached the heart of all this volcanic acitivity, and arrived at the living Maori Village, Whakarewarewa.
If you think this name is already too long, wait for its full name: Te Whakarewarewatanga O Te Ope Taua A Wahiao. Yes, you are supposed to learn that before being allowed to step inside the village, even though most of the locals just call it Whaka. In Maori, this convoluted tongue-twister means the gathering place for the war parties of Wahiao, which makes more sense, as this has been a strategic stronghold among local tribes ever since 1325. In fact, this place is so great with its geological features that no battles were lost for the defending party here.
Here, holes open up on the ground on a weekly basis, and the residents simply pull up their bamboo shafts and stick a chimney wherever it pops up, easy and elegant. And the local folks here have not worried about starting fire for centuries, as the water and steam here are superheated by the lava underneath, causing the water to be near boiling and the steam to be well over 300-degrees hot. More miraculously, here, neither the water nor the steam carry any smelly sulphur or other minerals typically associated with volcanic activities. This means the villagers can simply put their food into one of the calmer pools, or throw the dish into a communal steaming vent, and voila, cooked in mere minutes!
We were invited to watch a Maori dance performance at one of their auditory halls. The five locals are all from the village, which still exclusively requires permission of the chief to reside in. The dances were mostly energetic chants with minimal musical instruments, while employing a range of combat weapons and decorative pieces. The guys and gals put so much effort into demonstrating their intimidating war faces that we were almost scared that they were about to charge at us.
The Maori is a group of Polynesians that arrived on New Zealand about 700 years ago, making this the last piece of major land colonized by human beings. They used special wakas, double-bodied canoes, and arrived in 5 distinguishable waves. The only other habitable place that humans arrived after New Zealand is Easter Island, and the only other major landmass humans discovered after New Zealand is Antarctica. They are one of the few indigenous groups that managed to mostly coexist with white colonizers amicably during the times, and this led to the population taking way less of a hit than Australian aboriginals or Native Ameicans. About 25% of New Zealand population nowadays is Maori, significantly higher than any other colonized landmass.
The last of the 5 dances performed was a haka, the most ceremonial dance that Maori have. It has no instrument, and has to be performed in a group, which involves rhythmic stomping and shouting, complemented by threatening faces and protrusion of the tongue. This is a technique usually employed before battles, and sometimes this dance is done during funerals or welcome of important guests. And of course, I had to finish the visit of this incredible village shrouded in white with a photo with the locals.
The last stop in Rotorua is right next to the village, where a large geyser field is present. Just around the settlement, there are over 65 geysers, 7 of them currently active. However, these vents are interconnected somewhere underground, as they are highly irregular, unlike their Icelandic counterparts. It has been recorded that one’s activity and frequency would impact all others’. Intriguing, isn’t it? We eventually passed by many volcanic lakes as we rolled down the hills towards the north coast, and stopped next to one of them for lunch. Again, Chacha demonstrated her culinary genius, making a full meal complete with salad and noodles, while standing in sand with a table crooked at 10 degrees.
Eventually, a long drive took us along the coast of Bay of Plenty, and we got to see the large White Island volcano spewing smoke in the horizons. (It later blew up, but hey, that is just part of life lived on the edge, of tectonic plates.) After a short break in the town of Opotiki, we turned off the main highway and started the long, lonely journey along Route 35, where our van slowly winded up and down the valleys, crossed small bridges, dodged hairpin incomings, and drove into the sunset.
From here on out, we entered the heart of Maori territory. Almost all towns here are completely Maori, as the lack of transportation options and opportunities means the only people sane enough to remain here are guarding ancestral lands. Kudos to those who know what is worth more. Here we come, East Coast.
3 hours of twisting mountain roads later, our little home pulled into the small village of Te Araroa, where a supermarket and a police station served as the center, and the only light source. Another tough 20 minutes on the gravel road later, we arrived at the easternmost camp site in the world, and the wind compelled us to hide behind the only structure eyes could see: the bathroom. We were the only campers in the area, making it significantly less smelly. Next morning, we woke up at 7am for the first ray of sunrise just a few kilometers down the road: East Cape is the first place in the world to welcome a new day.
It was just us, the wildflowers, horses on the pasture, and the first ray of sunshine in the world. It was not magical; it was transcendental. So many people waste their lives trying to blindly follow money, fame, supermodels, and the newest generation iPhone™ in rose gold, but for me, this is all I have ever wanted. A little bit of wind at the edge of the world, where sun had just risen up over the beyond, and a little bread sandwich in my hand. Many resent life not because life is hard, but because they fail to find joy in this wonderful world.
After a hearty breakfast at the easternmost part of the world, we went down the hills and continued down south. Here, towns and villages are far and few in between, as the jagged coastlines do not allow deep water docks, making large settlements hard to blossom. An hour south of our morning adventure, we found the small settlement of Waipiro Bay. This used to be the largest settlement in the entire East Cape region, with more than 10000 people at its acme. However, with the arrival of the new highway in 1920s bypassing the coast, it quickly dwindled to a mere 96 people during the last sensus. It is probably even less in real life now. During our brief visit, we could not find one single person out and about, just wooden houses, a church, a crumbling trading store, and a killer beach.
During its heyday, Waipiro was the “place to be”, and it sucked out all citizens from nearby settlements, leading to the demise of nearly all coastal communities nearby. In fact, the founder of Regents Cinema, Sir Robert Kerridge, established his very first cinema here. Towns like this come and go, and I am sure within a few generations, Waipiro Bay will be just another page in history, long forgotten by the folks of the world.
We continued south along the lonely highway. The road goes through the ridges and troughs of the coastal mountains, avoiding the steep cliffs near the sea. There were virtually no cars traversing on this route, as the settlements have no active residents, and they do not need to get across the vast expanse during their daily lives. In a nation with more sheep than human, I finally had to slam the breaks when a group was herded across the road. Now this is a traffic jam that I am willing to be stuck in, and finally, this is a proper New Zealand experience!
We took a little detour down the steep road towards Anaura Bay, where a quiet village of 2 houses snoozed next to a majestic beach, and continued down the loneliest route in New Zealand. Not long, we arrived at Tolaga Bay. This is the last settlement on the coast, mostly Maori, and it has an impressive 600m wharf, the second longest in New Zealand. It was built because of the shallow waters of the bay, and had not been in use since 1960s. Nearby the wharf, there was the little bay where Captain Cook stopped by during his first circumnavigation of New Zealand, aptly named Cook’s Bay.
Another few hours south, we reached the city that represents the entire region: Gisborne. This city is the heart of east coast, connecting every person traveling north and south, as major highways intersect in the little cape, while a small airport connects to the rest of the country. This city is also known as the first place of Captain Jame’s Cook’s landfall in New Zealand, in 1769.
After a quick overnight in Mahia Beach, we continued south, along Hawke’s Bay. This area is one of the first to have contact between the English and Maori, and is the oldest area for white settlements. The arable and flat lands here mean great crop yield, while the access to deep water bays enabled easy transportation. Our first stop was a marae, gathering place, of the local Maori people living in Nuhaka. This wooden building is fully carved by hand, in the east-coast only special style. Though situated in a tiny village nobody bothered to stop by, it was an artistic masterpiece. Sadly, you have to be invited by one of the group in order to enter, so we simply looked inside the hallowed halls.
Half an hour down the road, it was time for a quick breakfast at the riverside village of Wairoa. Oslers Bakery on the main street is very famous for its pies and cheap coffee, so how dare we pass it up? After devouring an ungodly amount of calories, we followed the road into Mohaka region, as it winds up and up the mountains into deep river gorges and around fabulous bridges. The biggest attraction here is the Mohaka Viaduct, the highest railway viaduct in the southern hemisphere.
Another hour or so down the twists and turns, we ended up at the little area known as Tangoio Falls Scenic Reserve. It is a series of walks that surrounds a particularly interesting area, where deer and birds frolic under large rocky outcrops that support big waterfalls. It was easy to spend a few hours in the valley, but sun was slowly setting, so we had to hurry.
On the approach to Napier, there was a serene sandy black beach that is unparalleled in its pure colors. White foam coated the edges of the beach, while the azure waves crashed in the horizons. Wow, what a place! Just a dozen minutes from the beach of dreams, we arrived at the town that was still stuck in the baby booming age, completely oblivious to the outside progression: Napier.
The style of the town is completely in Art-Deco, which is extremely jarring. This is because a large earthquake leveled Napier in 1931, and the town was rebuilt at the current fashion trend, resulting in a coherent symphony of straight, symmytrical buildings with large fonts at the front. Every year, Napier also hosts the annual Art-Deco festival, when everyone rolls out in their Rolls-Royce and Bently from the pre-war era, while dressed up as Olivia de Havilland and Fred Astaire. It is hard to not imagine the glitz and glamour of the recovery after Great Depression while wandering in the streets of this town stuck in time.
We headed up the headland of the bay, called Bluff Hill, after purchasing a large portion of fish and chips. The vantage point overlooks the entirety of Hawke’s Bay, as Napier has long been considered as the heart of the region. From here, you can also see the sister town of Hastings just a few kilometers to the south, where a large bird colony sits. The hill is also right above the largest seaport of the region, so we watched the ships come and go in the setting sun, loading up all the wood cut from the eastern coast forest that we just passed by a few days ago.
After sunset, 2 hours of night road brought us to the city of Taupo, home of volcanoes. In fact, the giant lake that sits right at the center of the town, Lake Taupo, is the caldera of a supervolcano that erupts once every 1000 yeas. There was one eruption 26500 years ago that is so violent that it completely changed the topography of the entire North Island.
The McDonald’s in the center of the town, however, is the most attractive to me, a plane nerd. This is the only McDonald’s in the world to feature a playplace and a decommissioned McDouglus DC-3, or should I say, McDonalus DC-3. The entire cabin has been changed into seats and tables, so one can order a serving of cancer topped with ketchup, and enjoy it a few meters from the vintage cockpit. I’m Lovin’ It!
Just a few minutes outside the center, Waikato River narrows from a 100-meter gentle giant into a 15-meter narrow jetstream. It has carved itself a narrow gorge deep into the volcanic rocks, so it is extremely loud and fierce. On the footbridge above the cascades, verbal communication is futile, as the roaring water can easily block out the sounds of death metal concerts. After a series of small falls, the entire stream dumps its final energy into a large 6-meter drop at the end of the canyon, before opening up again to the calm waters.
Just a few kilometers out is the small village of Wairakei, full of geothermal vents on the ground. One particular farm has the land that covered the most active areas, so we paid a visit to take a walk in the valley of smoke. The farm is full of all kinds of cute animals and pets, including some of the happiest chicken I have ever seen, a dozen sheep, a pair of peacocks, three llamas, an annoyed cat, and a good boi. Chacha and I petted them all, not sparing one with our paws. Mwahahahaha!
However, before you are allowed to head deep into the valley, the friendly owner of the farm would provide a handy infrared thermometer. It is not only useful, but also necessary. Even some of the bare rocks and surfaces far from thermal vents in the valley can get as hot as 60 degrees, so it may melt one’s shoes. The thermometer is here not only to record the temperature of objects of interest, but also for safety precautions.
The little stream running through the valley is a lukewarm 30 degrees, while most of the vegetation around here can tolerate somewhere around 50 degrees of temperature, which means that this valley harbors some rather unique flora and fauna not found anywhere else in the region. A lot of small holes are visible along the paths, which can easily burn you if not careful.
The next stop is an hour’s drive up north, in another thermally active area called Wai-O-Tapu. This is the Maori word for “sacred waters”, and has been a site of religious importance for centuries. This area is a lot less “clean” in terms of geological activities, as the large amount of sulphur and other chemicals in the area has changed the geological features into quite a hostile locale. Not only can you see large mud pools filled with extremophile bacterias, but also there are numerous ponds of steaming water colored green by sulphuric chemicals, with a pH lower than battery acid.
As a result, I was happy to see the local Maori’s managed to buy back the rights of this tourist hotspot recently in 2012. Now, the entire operation benefits the original owners of this piece of land. Besides large gaping holes spewing out toxic smoke, I also found quite a few geysers around the area. Just outside the ticket gates, a lot of people stop by the wild streams where they can take a dip in the hot water. Unlike the thermal valley before, the waters here are piping hot, some hot enough to be shower temperature.
The most famous feature of Wai-o-Tapu is undoubtedly the Champagne Pool. This is a result of a large hydrothermal reaction that erupted a mere 9000 years ago, which is extremely young in geological terms. The large pool is very deep, with a measurable depths of 62 meters, and a system of underground waters as deep as a few thousand meters. It bubbles tiny carbon dioxide fritz incessantly, giving it the champagne name. Additionally, the orange layer of rocks near the edge are deposits of antimony and arsenic sulphide called ortiben and stibite, a result of precipitation from the supersaturated chemical soup. Do not attempt to swim inside, however, because if the 75 degree water does not boil you alive, you will definitely die from chemical poisoning.
We finished the day’s visit by driving to Rotorua, finishing up a large 1000-km circle from the second day. This time, we picked a spectacular holiday park which not only is located on top of a thermal vent next to the Rotorua lake, but also fully utilized its advantageous position. Not only does the kitchen has a stove completely powered by the steam, but also does the park feature a completely self-sustaining hot spring. The water is rich in minerals, and just a dip of a toe in the water is enough to coat it with a smooth layer of invisible protection, soapy yet not itchy at all. The owner told us that just an hour of this spring every day can alleviate all kinds of arthritis, joint problems and cold. Magical! And if you are still not satisfied, you can go to the lakeside and dig a pool for yourself! Also did I mention everything is free?
Next morning, after a hearty breakfast, we continued west, where we encountered the Instagram-famous Blue Spring. This place is particularly favored among Chinese tourists, and because of the large influx of humans, the authorities have barred all potential places where one can take a swim in the clearest water I have ever seen. The water is so clean here that it glows an almost-unnatural blue, as if someone was secretly dying it with a sense of unrealistic imagination. The water comes from a glacial system that includes literally thousands of years of filtration, which eventually comes out of a small spring in the middle of this river, making this water clean enough to drink! (But for the protection of the environment, it is not advised, also there are a lot of birds thriving in the area.)
Another hour west along the green pastures full of cows, we reached the little unknown area called Sanctuary Mountain. This is the biggest mainland habitat-island project in New Zealand. It is established following the model of Zealandia in Wellington, and cornered off an entire mountain away from rodents, stouts and other mammels. Here in this little piece of heaven, the birds can thrive without any disturbance, predation, or competition, completely restoring the harmony before humans’ arrival. We purchased a ticket, and took a walk inside the mist-shrouded mountain, hoping to see some unique birdlife here.
Sadly, because of the inclement weather and the fact that most native birds are nocturnal, we did not see much other than beautiful mushroom clusters spawning on fallen trees. The area is completely natural, barring some trails and a watchtower used to observe the feathered friends. However, it was still a very beautiful walk, full of mystic feel, as everything was covered in a layer of dew and fog, while some mysterious sounds echoed in the distance, directionless yet omnipresent.
The last stop of the day is the Waitomo Glowworm Caves. It is a series of caves deep underground that has a special kind of inhabitant: a kind of worm nymph that glows a bright blue in pitch darkness, a predatory mechanism used to catch unfortunate insects that wander too deep into the twisting cave systems. The tour is pricy but well worth it, as the thousands of worms light up like stars in the night sky, complete with their reflection in the water, creating the most out-of-world experience that cameras cannot capture. Do not bother using flash here, as it is strictly forbidden and disrupts the lives of the worms. These worms will continue living like this for 9 months, until they burst out into proper flies that live, copulate, and die all in 96 hours: they have no mouth in adult form anyway!
We had our last night on North Island in Hamilton, a small city just an hour south of Auckland. Here, the city’s biggest attraction is a series of gardens organized together under the name of Hamilton Gardens. Originally the city’s waste disposal site next to Waikato River, it was first redeveloped into a rose garden during 1960s, and from then on, it just kept on growing.
Each of the 21 gardens feature a different theme, some from popular garden cultures in specific periods, while a lot of the other ones are practical, such as vegetable garden, herb garden, fruit tree garden, etc. There are also a lot of fantasy gardens, such as in the style of Chinoiserie, which I explained in a Madrid journal during L.A.S.T. There is also a special garden dedicated to Maori culture.
For a city this small to develop this many gorgeous place of relaxation, all open to visitors for free, that is beyond impressive. I gladly toured every single one of them, crafted with care and dedication. Some of the more cultural gardens are collaborated with their nations of origin, as local artists were invited to design and formulate the basis of the gardens, such as the one for China, India and Japan. The garden for Maoris is one designed to showcase Maori agriculture production before the arrival of Europeans. There is also a garden that recreates the party scene from New Zealand short novelist Catherine Mansfield’s The Garden Party, so it is called the Mansfield Garden.
This marks the end of North Island roadtrip, as we drove from the gardens directly to Auckland airport and returned our beloved van. North Island is simply stunning, and I said the word “wow” with a higher frequency than any other place on the planet. The volcanic remnants in Taupo, Rotorua, and Wai-o-Tapu, the otherworldly coastline in Gisborne, Waipiro Bay, and Coromandel, the friendly locals at thermal valley, Hamilton, and everywhere else, the 1930s time machine Napier, gateway to another realm in Cathedral Cove, and do not forget about the first sunrise in the world at East Cape. These are all indelible memories that will wow me every time I bring those up.
Wow, just, wow, North Island is nothing but amazing, as New Zealand is a country of surprises. I am so honored to be a part of this great nation, even for such a short while. A special thanks to Chacha, who helped me out of dangerous situations more than I can count, and who else can make those quick and devilishly delicious meals on a van? And another thanks to you, my reader, and I hope you enjoyed this journal. Find out more about my travels in New Zealand in the below links, and I hope I can see you on other pages of this great blog!
-=ForeverYoung|New Zealand 2019=-