The tortoise or the hare? The North Island, New Zealand
Note: Sorry, whopper post to follow but it covers an entire week and a half spent in a camper van, 2100km and about 150 photos!
In a way our tour of New Zealand’s North Island was defined by sunsets. Over a week and a half we saw out the end of the day in some of the most scenic and definitely the most tranquil settings we have encountered in our seven months on the road. On Hot Water Beach we watched the sunset through a haze of rising steam. The beach had emptied half an hour beforehand and now it was only us and a few stragglers wallowing in hot water as the sun tinged the water orangey-blue and the waves threatened to break down our carefully constructed castle walls.
Keeping in a theme of semi-nudity, Rotorua saw us end the day in the Polynesian Spa reclining in a hot mineral bath seperated from the cold lake by only a few smooth granite bricks. Black swans floated gracefully past and all was a picture of tranquility until an Asian attendant decided to enthusiastically sing us the entire back catalogue of The Corrs, shattering our romantic sejourn.
Back in our graffiti covered builder’s-van-turned-camper we spent the next evening navigating New Zealand’s patchwork landscape of rolling hills. Passing through a planted forest meant that we watched the sunset that day as if through a flickbook, carefully measured rows of trees stretching for miles and isolating each colourful frame from the next until either the night or the thickening foliage swallowed the sun completely.
On to Napier next and to the wine country where the last rays of light warmed the frozen earth. In the dying light sheep ambled from row to row, munching happily on bare vines, sagely avoiding vivid red roses as we worked through our tasting flight in the spectacular Craggy Range vineyard, sampling one sensational $100 bottle of reserve wine after another.
Our last evening on the road was also to be our most tranquil and idyllic. On a hunch we had turned off Highway 12 on our way back to Auckland and had sought out the Kai Iwi Lakes. Always full of waterskiiers and holidaymakers during the summer months and on weekends, it was a rare treat to find the lake deserted – just me, Gary, two cups of hot chocolate, a duck and a memorable sunset.
It was a great ending to a trip which had got off to a bit of a false start when we arrived in lovely little Coromandel Town and pulled into a carpark for our first night of sleeping in the van. After cooking over our gas burner and rolling out the bed we drifted into a rather self-satisfied sleep only to be woken two hours later by what could only be a tornado. We clung helplessly to each other as the van rocked dangerously, tilting on two wheels and the roof threatened to cave in under the weight of the torrential rain that was battering it from every side.
For 36 hours the storm raged on, driving us from Coromandel Town to Whitianga in search of brighter weather and eventually when the slowly caving walls of the van became too much, into a firmly rooted hostel. Fortunately our second day brought much milder conditions allowing us to brave the beautiful (but by now waterlogged) walking route around Flaxmill Bay, Shakespeare’s Lookout, Captain Cook’s Memorial and down towards aptly named Lonely Bay. Covered in mud and exhausted after our muddy uphill hike we piled back into the van in search of the perfect picnic spot, pulling up eventually in Buffalo Beach. Sipping cup’a soup and munching on sandwiches while basking in the first rays of sun we had felt in days, it started to dawn on us why we love travelling so much.
After lunch we made our way to Cathedral Cove in Hahei, happily avoiding all of the day’s tour buses. With fantastic diving and snorkelling, stunning rock formations and a scattering of beautiful, rugged little offshore islands just begging to be explored Cathedral Cove was one of the best surprise stops of our trip. We had afterall just dropped by because we were early for the daily hoedown on Hot Water Beach.
As mentioned before, people flock to Hot Water Beach for two hours (only one around this time of year) either side of low tide when hot water oozes up out of the sand. To avail of a free bath you bring a shovel or some cupped hands and dig yourself a hole just above the watermark and settle in for a long hot soak. It’s a pretty relaxing experience until the tide comes in and braver waves start to wash over your handmade bath, replacing burning hot water with freezing cold. Shocked into action you grab your shovel and dig furiously, trying desperately to build a wall around your sanctuary and protect the troops before the next wave comes and washes away your hard work. Between the romance of watching the steam rise off of the sand and the childish fun of manically trying to construct a moat, the Hot Water Beach was a high point of our North Island trip.
Strangely enchanted by natural hot springs and their eggy smell we made our way to Rotorua. Again we were pleasantly surprised by what the North Island had to offer when we arrived in the beautiful town centre, well-endowed with mock Tudor buildings, enticing spas, lively Maori culture and a scenic in-town park and lake. Be warned though, while there is an almost overwhelming amount to do in Rotorua a lot of it (especially the disappointing Buried Village) is overpriced. One attraction worth every penny though was Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland, a famous thermal reserve that takes in pools, waterfalls and lakes in colours you never though could occur naturally. The highlights of the park were the multi-hued Champagne Pool, the snot green Devil’s Bath and Lady Knox Geyser which, with the help of a handful of soap, goes off every day at 10.15am promptly.
Next up was Napier. Destroyed in 1931 by an earthquake, Napier was reconstructed completely in the style of Art Deco, a quirky characteristic it carries to this day. So convincing is the blocky design, pastel colours and neon lights of the city that when you are wandering through Clive Square on a particularly quiet Saturday evening it’s hard not to feel like you are on a filmset. In fact on the third weekend in February every year, the city looks more dated than ever when Art Deco Week rolls in encouraging locals and visitors alike to dust off their vintage cars and clothes. For two glorious days it could well be the 30s all over again.
An added bonus in Napier is its location in the heart of one of New Zealand’s most renowned wine regions. Famed for its Bordeaux varieties and Syrahs, there is no better way to spend a sunny Sunday evening than wandering from winery to winery sampling grapes and testing the legal drink driving limits. Regardless of your actual knowledge before long you are sure to be joining in conversations about “undertones of hollyhocks” (although for those of us on a budget, the wine bottle is a lot more likely to say “notes of sweat and asparagus” – Monkey Puzzle Sauvignon Blanc 2009 vintage.)
The last destination on our whistle-stop tour of the north called for a long car journey north, to the heart of Mauri culture and one of the country’s most remote areas. In Northland we had the great fortune to meet the world’s biggest and widest Kauri trees in the sacred Waipoua Kauri Forest. Stretching to 51m tall and 16.4m girth respectively, standing in the presence of Tane Mahuta and Te Matua Ngahere was a serene experience. Continuing on our tour of the giants we headed up to North Head to see the biggest hulking sand dune I could ever even imagine. Unfortunately dune boarding is only available on weekends in the winter time though so we were forced to start the long slow drive back to Auckland.
Stopping off at the Kai Iwi Lakes to watch the sun set on our first campervan experience, I was happy to conclude that my friends and family had been wrong all along – there is absolutely nothing second rate about New Zealand’s North Island.
There are more pictures from all our North Island stops available in the gallery