Maoris, Kiwis & Long White Clouds

New Zealand Travel Blog

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Three weeks in the summer of 2014 I took my family on a road trip around both islands of New Zealand. We drove around in a quite comfortable campervan from Walkabout Hire & Sales. We flew into Auckland and started heading north in a counter clockwise loop. As I'm writing this two and a half years later, I'm not able to be too specific in this blog, but I'll do my best to recall what we did and saw. We headed up to Whangarei (pronounced Fongaray). We saw some great beaches along the way. There was no problem navigating around in the campervan, plus we made use of the GPS on the phone. I had to laugh sometimes when the cute girlie Japanese voice was pronouncing some of the Maori street names lol.

We never booked our accommodation too far in advance, pretty much booking a place the morning when we needed it that night. Anyway, from Whangarei we happened to come across the Abbey Caves. They are a self guided set of caves in a very picturesque area. I would recommend a good head torch because you won't get far into the cave without light, and footwear (and clothes) that you don't mind getting wet because some of the caves have water in them, in various depths. One of the caves we couldn't go through as the water was too high for our youngest daughter. The caves were fascinating. There was nothing really dangerous about the caves, but you just had to be careful with your step. There isn't too much of any dangerous wildlife in New Zealand, so don't panic. The only thing I saw in the caves was a big cave cricket. From memory, there was a person at a main gate that made note of the number of people entering (which was not too many) and they may have collected an entry fee, but I can't recall.

The landscape was beautiful everywhere we travelled. We head up to Paihia by the Bay of Islands and sided with protestors of fracking in region. We enjoyed some great French Fries here and a pleasant walk around this historic town. We continued further around until we were able to catch a ferry from Kohukohu to Rawene, then stayed over at Opononi, the Beach Holiday Park, where several goats were tethered around the place and made good company. Across the water from Opononi are some big sand dunes. You catch a ride across from the jetty for a fee and they supply you with toboggans that you use to ride down the dunes. That was a lot of fun, but tiring of course. The water was very welcoming for a refreshing cooling off. We passed along windy rolling roads through the verdant Waipoua Forest and stopped to see the beautiful Tane Mahuta, a giant kauri tree that is estimated to be between 1,250 and 2,500 years old.

It's the largest kauri known to stand today. The sheer awesomeness of these trees is utterly breath-taking. There's a few tourists stopping here and they can suddenly stop the vehicles on the main road to find a parking spot, so be a bit wary. Auckland once more on our way down to stay at Waingaro, where there was supposed to be a water park for the kids and hot springs for us adults to enjoy. It looked pretty cool in the brochures, but when we finally got there late in the day, we discovered the place had been shut down by the local council in recent months due to some non-commitment to required upgrades. Oh well, we set the van up for the night and made the best of it. The next day before moving on we had a go at emptying our latrine and what fun that was lol. Down towards Waitomo and the glow worm caves tour, which was a bit pricey, but a great experience really.
This was a busy tourist site, but there wasn't too much of a wait to view the glow worms.

Rotorua had a lot to keep visitors occupied. Skyline Rotorau was a lot of fun with its scenic luge runs (which are better than its sister centre in Queenstown), The Waiotapu Mud Pools can be smelled for miles around and are quite interesting how they bubble away, zorbing (Ogo) was expensive, but we just had to let the kids have a go. One thing the kids really enjoyed was digging holes by the lake and burying themselves up to their necks in the hot soothing mud heated by the thermal activity underground. From Rotorau we snaked our way through Taupo, Tongariro NP then stayed at Kai-iwi Beach with its black beach sand and gorgeous sunsets before visiting Whanganui and reaching Wellington.

Sometimes I thought that three weeks was nowhere near long enough to navigate New Zealand. We still had the South Island to explore and we could've easily spent three weeks just on the North Island. Anyway, we had a couple of days in Wellington before catching the ferry across to Picton. The ferry was something I had to book in advance, so I had to work my travels in the north to catch the ferry on the correct date. Wellington has great museums, the most impressive being Te Papa Tongarewa. We were very lucky to get a parking spot for our campervan as it isn't always easy find one for such a vehicle. There's a great old world charm in Wellington and the harbour is beautiful, but has its tragic history too as told by stories in Te Papa Tongarewa. The Adrenalin Forest not too far away was a nice challenge to occupy my kids. It was quite safe as long as you followed the lesson taught to you by the instructors.

The day came to take the ferry to through the Cook Strait and the passages to Picton. We decided to take a counter clockwise route around the South Island. I like counter clockwise lol. I found the South Island to be a bit quieter, but more picturesque. If you're looking for more action and activities, stay in the north, but having said that, people enjoy the south for the snow. So we made our way along the gorgeous west coast. South along the coast until we experience Fox Glacier. Sadly this glacier doesn't compare at all to the ones I saw in Alaska and Canada. I really enjoyed driving throughout New Zealand. I actually found that most drivers kept well under he speed limit, so I found myself overtaking people often, which is funny when I'm travelling in a big campervan. The only time I saw police was in the large cities, otherwise I never saw them patrolling the highways anywhere.

Having said that, I wouldn't say that the roads are desgined for fast speeds. I never went over the limit by more than a few kilometres. Along the way we kept an eye out for the "shoe fences", but found a "bra fence" instead. The wife added one of hers to the collection. So we made our way through wonderful countryside until we got to Cromwell, where we stayed at the Top 10 Holiday Park for a few nights. Cromwell was a good spot to stay because it wasn't far to Queenstown and all the adrenalin-junkie activities that we decided to spend some money on.

We said  'to hell with the cost, we're having some family fun goddammit" so we did the Shotover Jet Boat ride, which was really awesome. It was expensive, but well worth the money and went for about 45 minutes, which really surprised me.

The kids loved it and so did the wife and I. We also did the Skyline Gondola & Luge rides in Queenstown, but as I said before, the Skyline luge in Wellington was better. Still, my eldest did the big drop swing and we also did some big dropping cage thing which made us all scream lol. The view from up the mountain was great, overlooking Lake Wakatipu and Queenstown. The wife and I did the AJ Hackett Bungy jump at Kawarau Bridge, some 43 metres above the river. I did it twice and screamed both times - it doesn't get easier the second time lol. Everyone talks about Milford Sound, so that's where we headed. We passed through lovely Te Anau with its beautiful lake and magical mountainous surroundings.

If I had known that they don't really patrol the parking lot up at Milford Sound I would have gone all the way, but from advice I read we decided not to risk it and stayed over night at Knob's Flat. It was fine, with amenties available and a lovely walk to a freezing waterfall where we skinny dipped. Not the easiest path to traverse, but we made it okay with our three kids. It was probably around this part of the trip around NZ that I was really feeling the itching effects of the black fly bites. Man, they drove me nuts for about a week until I got used to them. There's a plaque at Milford Sound saying something like, "So you've met the Black Fly". There's no doubt that Milford Sound is dramatically beautiful, but I have heard that if you can manage it, a tour of Doubtful Sound further south is even better.

Milford Sound is obviously explored by water on a variety of vessels. We boarded the Pride of Milford and weren't disappointed with the experience. The water is pure magic as is much of the water throughout New Zealand. We saw seals lazing about on rocks that I wondered how they managed to climb, sheer perpendicular rock walls with serene waterfalls cascading like whispy snakes and even a crested penguin who watched us as carefully as we watched him.  The Sound wasn't as full of boats as I would've expected, which is good. Nothing worse than seeing floods of tourists, especially in beautiful natural settings.

Our next stop was after about a five hour drive through the southern end of the South Island stopping pretty much only for refreshment and fuel. There was a lot of farming land in this area with undulating hills of sheep, cows and round bushes that looked like red rolling stones, but still all very scenic to me.

The kids weren't that much interested in that sort of thing and got used to sleeping while we drove on until we reached the Catlins Kiwi Holiday Park at McLean Falls. This was a pretty good stop. Make the time to walk to the falls as the air and surrounds are so gorgeous. The Holiday Park has a cool cafe called The Whistling Frog and you can see what it's named after. Like most places, the park offers free wi-fi, but to be honest, I've really never had much success with a complimentary wi-fi anywhere I go. Maybe it's just me though. Not far from the park are the Cathedral Caves, which are only accessible two hours either side of low tide, but are wonderful to view. Definitely a "must see" with the fascinating plant life and barnacle-type shellfish hanging fiercely to the exposed rocks. We even saw a young penguin, probably not ready for the sea yet, hiding down the back of a dark cave, obviously waiting for the rest fo the clan to return later with all the fish for dinner.

It's a beautiful coastline, like much of New Zealand and we liked to venture a little off the main road to see things, like the Nugget Point Lighthouse and the weird spherical boulders lying along Koekohe Beach between Moeraki and Hampden. There are Maori legends regarding the manifestation of the boulders, but geologically the Moeraki Boulders are hard, compact masses created by the cementation of paleocene mudstone from which they have been exhumed by coastal erosion. Then to Oamaru, perhaps my favorite place to stop in New Zealand because I just liked its coastal setting and old world charm. I discovered the genre of Steampunk in Oamaru. There is a lot to see in this town.

A great fun place called the Time Traveller's Experience (which I've just found out is closed and possibly going to be revamped) can keep you and the kids busy for ages with the toys and gadgets of days gone by that you are allowed to play with. Catch an old Laurel & Hardy flim in their little theatre and even some tasty treats if I remember rightly. There's a Blue Penguin Colony exhibition down the waterfront that we didn't want to go into, but I managed to upset the staff there when I took a few pictures, from a public area, of the penguins coming ashore. I was told to not take photos and move off. Well, too bad buddy, I'm not doing anything wrong by taking photos from a public place. The amount of birds flocking around the pier area was astounding. I like boats, so I was happy to see some beauties to take photos of also. The playground on the esplanade that is really cool.
We had a lot of laughs with the kids trying to balance on some of the euqipment. There was a guy carving some dead trees into beautiful "totem pole" type structures full of animals. Some really nice art in the galleries along Harbour Street, a lot of interesting stuff for the kids to see.

From Oamaru we decided to go back inland a bit as we had time before needing to be in Christchurch for our flight home. We travelled higher and higher up to Twizel, founded in 1968 to accommodate workers on the Upper Waitaki Hydroelectric Scheme. A bit further on we were able to get a clear view of Mt Cook, New Zealand's highest peak, from the southern side of Lake Pukaki where we also read about the history of the Tahr, related to wild goats.

These lakes and surrounding scenery are just amazingly breath-taking. Onwards to Lake Tekapo where we stayed right on the lake front to spectacular views, not just of the mountains and lake, but also some shapely female swimmers :)

And finally we arrived at Christchurch when we spent a couple of days noting the devastation from the 2011 earthquake, in fact we were there for the third anniversary. Where buildings once stood, car parking lots took over temporarily. Makeshift shops erected using shipping containers were trying to make the central business district function as before. Scaffolding still encased some half demolished businesses and churches. There was a lot of construction already happending. Streets being repaired and areas of homes marked for demolition.

We visited the earthquake museum that only seemed to interest the wife and me. A corner block of 185 empty chairs of various designs stool to remember to lives lost. It was quite poignant.  And so our time in New Zealand came to an end. We found the local people very friendly, particularly if you took an interest in their lives and culture. We weren't interested in the whole Lord of the Rings scene, but the landscape was incredible. I would love to circumnavigate New Zealand on a motorcycle one day. It's a safe country and easy to get around, but of course like anywhere you have to be mindful of dangerous places and don't be foolish.

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