The North Island Finale
It was a quick return stay in Rotorua to make a connection, then head inland to the beautiful rivers, lakes and mountains. The first stop off the beaten track, Lake Aniwhenua, is where Maori tribes have lived for centuries and the culture still thrives. Stray supports a local program here that offers a cross-cultural experience for both travelers and nearby schoolchildren. Enroute was a stop to see the oldest Maori rock carvings in New Zealand, before activities, and while waiting for the hangi feast. The next morning, a visit to the local elementary school was truly a special time as we learned Maori songs and games from very sweet and personable kids. I'll let the photos tell more of this story.
The next day was a long haul to Blue Duck Station, an isolated, unique place in Whakahoro created to conserve endangered wildlife. I've linked to the web site for two reasons -- it's nearly impossible for me to describe what it feels like here, and I accidentally deleted all my photos before back-up (no service)! While I chose to trail walk as much as possible at this 7200-acre country farm, there were also options like horseback riding, 4WD excursions to the bush, and feral goat hunting. Yes, goats are considered "pests" in New Zealand as they destroy vegetation, damage forests, and threaten native plants and animals. Indeed, there was goat curry the next day, but I did not partake! Blue Duck Station -- a top spot for me.
I'm still shaking my head at my decision on the next stop to NOT walk the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, a 19 km trek that takes 6-8 hours to complete. It's one of New Zealand's most popular day walks (think Mt Doom in the Lord of the Rings), but I shook my head at the $70 shuttle cost, so that was that! While I was aghast when I heard that more than 1,000 people did the crossing that day, I'm still wondering if I should've gone for it! Don't get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed a morning latte & biscuits at the Chateau Tongariro Hotel cafe and my 2-hour walk to Taranaki Falls with magnificent views of volcanic peaks.
My last stop on the North Island was the capital -- Wellington, a compact little city of about 400,000 people with a lovely waterfront promenade. While I did run about town to see the Parliament buildings, the bustle of Cuba Street, and the harbor views, I spent the majority of my time at "Te Papa," New Zealand's National Museum and Art Gallery. My brain was saturated after four+ hours of learning about New Zealand's natural environment, Pacific and Māori culture, and everything from fashion to rugby.
It was then time to put on my sea bands, and "early to bed, early to rise" to catch the Bluebridge Ferry across Cook Strait. Just an FYI -- I arrived in Auckland just two weeks ago!
The New Zealand Journey Begins
While time and technology kept me from blogging from New Zealand, the holidays and "regrouping" have kept me away for the past week. So, bear with me as I peruse my nearly 500 photos, recall the highlights, and do my best to re-play the journey. With more than 20 stops along the way, I expect this may be four episodes!
My first stop --three nights in Auckland-- were planned to catch up on sleep, adjust to the 18-hour time difference, and take care of business like getting cash. Much to my surprise, after 10 hours of rest, I felt pretty good so I ventured out to see highlights of this major city that accounts for nearly half of the country's population. While avoiding the commercial district, I did enjoy walking for hours along the harbors, and visiting Auckland Domain, the city’s oldest park based around an extinct volcano. Thankfully, I was also here long enough to get into the practice of "walk on the left, look to the right FIRST before crossing".
After much research, I had chosen to travel via the hop-on, hop-off Stray bus. It was definitely a good economic and social decision though there were days when I really wanted to be flying solo! The majority of riders were under 30, European, British and Asian, and many were on far longer travel itineraries than mine (like one year work/travel visas). While the hop-on, hop-off idea wasn't as flexible as expected (a busy spring!), I will say that I saw a great deal of this beautiful country, and enjoyed a number of experiences I would not have discovered on my own.
The first stop was fabulous Hahei (population near 300), which has views of Mahurangi Island, and a scenic walk north to a marine reserve, including Cathedral Cove. We also day-tripped to Hot Water Beach, known for natural hot springs beneath the sand. Hot, hot, hot! Sharing cabins, a group BBQ, and a very relaxed atmosphere made for a great start to the trip.
After two nights, it was on to Rotorua, a small city (72,000 people) on a lake that's known for its geothermal activity and Maori culture. I was told that nearly 85% of the Maori people live in this region. It was a comfortable little spot with much to do outdoors beside the lake, in the city park, and along trails in a redwood forest. Unfortunately, the gorgeous Rotorua Museum has been closed since 2016 following a building seismic risk assessment. Yes, New Zealand is on two faults.
From here, I jumped on the Stray "beach hopper" with a stop in Waitomo (famous for the glowworm caves), then on to Raglan and Tauranga. I loved Raglan along the Tasman Sea, and wish I had spent more than a night in this little Bohemian town of sweet families, surfers, and cheap food at the beach takeaway. Tauranga, in the Bay of Plenty region, is home to Mount Maunganui, an extinct volcano that rises above the town and offers two walking tracks with incredible views. Yes, I walked the base and to the summit, and one morning, I actually did absolutely nothing but lounge at the beach.
In case you can't tell, it was a busy itinerary with many one-to-two night stops, but there is so much to see and do! Next up, the remainder of the North Island tour. Do stay tuned!
Cyclist, writer, teacher, avid reader, bike/ped advocate, nomad, pie lover