I'd heard it long before I'd even left home: the two main islands of New Zealand are a complete contrast. With the charm of the South Island inexorably linked to a seemingly never-ending series of narrow scenic byways winding their way over mountains and round fjords; the scene from the open deck of the Bluebridge ferry would be very different as Wellington loomed into view. Out was the green landscape and laid-back attitude to be found on ‘The Mainland' and in was the hustle and bustle of a thriving port city.
I drove off the ferry and joined the mass of road-trains speeding their goods towards their final destination on the busy motorway encircling the city. Despite the protestations of my Lonely Planet I had no plans to hang around in the city any longer than it took to mail the Christmas cards that I'd written as we crossed the Cook Strait and was heading, as fast as the rush-hour traffic would allow me, towards a campground in the beautiful Hutt Valley. After three nights in various hotels it was back to basics and it should probably not have come as a surprise that the weather gods decided chose that evening to send a storm the way of what locals affectionately refer to as Windy Wellington.
As I packed away my wet tent the following morning I was regretting the promise that I'd previously made to spend my remaining days in New Zealand camping as I struggled not to let my budget run away with itself. I gave the idea of a quick look around Wellington brief consideration but quickly dismissed it and, instead, drove north towards my intended destination for the next couple of days: Tongariro National Park. A stop in the town of Taumarunui to stock up with groceries for my stay in New Zealand's largest national park provided news of a diversion that would provide welcome relief from the tedium of State Highway 4. The ‘impossibly scenic' Whanganui River Road, they promised me, would lead me through the wilds of Whanganui National Park before returning me to my route upstream of the once-bustling town of Pipiriki.
The people in the i-Site office were right about it being impossibly scenic - the never-ending wet mountain slopes plunging into the brilliant jade waters of the Whanganui River were particularly photogenic - but they were very wrong about the road being a good diversion. After an hour of spectacular scenery the tarmac suddenly ran out. If it hadn't been for the prolonged overnight downpour the unsealed road may just have been passable but, in this state, there was no way that I was getting through in anything less than a Land Rover. Frustrated, I was forced to turn back.
I reached Tongariro National Park just as the visitor centre was closing for the evening and was directed to a nearby campground where, I was told, the owner would answer any questions that I had. The campground was very primitive and a little run-down but the new owners were, quite rightly, very enthusiastic about the new surroundings in which they found themselves. They had big plans to turn the place around and their first improvements were to open a restaurant and bar (where I spent the evening sheltering from the heavy spring rain outside) and to invite an outdoor pursuits company to set up shop on site. I explained that I wanted to hike the famed Tongariro Alpine Crossing - "why else would you be here", they asked - and was told that the Tongariro Expeditions Company ran a shuttle bus between their office on site and the trailheads. I was told that I should return at 6am the following morning and they would drive me to the start of the trail and then collect me again at the end of the day once I'd completed the hike (or tramp as they call it down here.)
Unfortunately, as I learnt soon after my early alarm call, they do not guarantee to run everyday and, thanks to the continuing bad weather, Wednesday 10th December would be one of the days that they would not offer the service. With dire warnings not to leave your car at either of the trailheads (it was made to sound like some sort of bandit country but, on reflection, was probably a ploy to boost use of the shuttle service) I had no choice but to abandon my plans for the day. The apologetic owner suggested a series of shorter hikes which started and ended at the main visitor centre and, with nothing better to do, I decided to tackle them all! I was glad that I did as I was afforded the most spectacular view of Mt Ngauruhoe - Mt Doom in Lord of the Rings - as the rain finally cleared and the clouds lifted.
I did a rough tally in my head and calculated that I'd walked in the region of 30km by mid-afternoon and, having driven to the top of Mt Ruapehu - one of the world's most active volcanoes, I decided that I'd seen enough of Tongariro. The time had come to tackle the short drive to Lake Taupo. On arrival the town was reminiscent of Queenstown but, despite this, I arranged to stay for two nights after chatting with the manager of the campground who reeled off a list of local attractions.
It transpired that the nearby Huka Falls were spectacular and the geysers, boiling lakes and bubbling mud pools throughout the Taupo Volcanic Zone were impressive but the thing that will likely stick in my mind will be suddenly discovering that I had two particularly dodgy looking tires on the car. More surprising than the discovery was the knowledge that it had absolutely nothing to do with my visit to the nearby Taupo Motorsport Park! A quick pit stop at a local tyre centre made me legal again and my journey towards the Bay of Plenty was able to continue without incurring the wrath of the local police who were conducting spot-checks less than 20km out of Taupo.
The town of Rotorua is located along the shore of the lake of the same name and in the heart of the Maori cultural heartland. The tourist industry there is huge so I was surprised to discover that I was made to feel as unwelcome as the eggy stench of sulphur which hung over the town. I found a campground for the night and, having finally caught up on my laundry, I went off to visit the towering Californian Redwoods in the nearby Whakarewarewa Forest. The forest was planted around a century ago and, although it remains a working forest, offers some fantastic hiking and mountain biking trails and I spent the remainder of the day there; finally returning to the campground long after the sun had set.
I woke the following morning with just one thought in my mind: ten days until home. I was done and ready to go home for Christmas. I'd felt this way towards the end of my stay on the South Island and the feeling had proved difficult to shake; I'd no desire to let the feeling overwhelm me again and quickly realised that I should head for Auckland Airport where I'd arranged to collect my updated flight tickets. Soon after leaving Rotorua I would realise that it was a Sunday and the ticket desk would be closed until the following morning but, nonetheless, the negative thoughts of that morning had passed (and wouldn't return for the remainder of my stay in New Zealand) as a result of doing something positive. It was an important lesson that I plan on taking home with me.
I spent the day exploring the towns of Whakatane, Athenree, Katikati and Waihi Beach which are all located along the shores of the Bay of Plenty. The highlight of the morning would be the strenuous hike up Mt Maunganui which afforded spectacular views over the towns of Omanu Beach and Tauranga. As the day went on I would visit the huge open-cast Martha Gold Mine before finding a campground as the sun sank lower in the sky and the hot afternoon edged towards evening. Spending the evening exploring the nearby Karangahake Gorge in a bid to avoid the swarms of mosquitoes on the campground proved to be less than a hardship - Owharoa Falls were a highlight - and I only returned once the last twinkle of daylight had been snuffed out by the moon-free darkness of night-time.
Lured by the sight of the Sky Tower in the distance I made my way downtown the moment that I'd finished at the ticket desk at the airport. Auckland seemed to be an interesting city but, like most others, felt impersonal and unwelcoming to an outsider and I didn't linger long. I found a place to park down on the waterfront and set off on foot for a whistle-stop tour around the area. Two-hours later I was driving north once more: I'd heard great things about a road named the Twin Coast Discovery Highway which, as the name infers, takes you up one coast before returning you to the city along the other. The scenery as I made my way up the Tasman coast was pretty but I just wasn't into it: maybe I'd seen too many wonderful vistas over the previous months or perhaps my mind was simply elsewhere.
I spent a night in Matakohe before continuing my journey north towards Coromandel but it wasn't until I arrived at the tiny town of Kuaotunu that my spirit started to lift. As I rounded the corner and the road turned southward, it dawned on me that I had now passed the furthest point from the UK on this planet. All roads were now leading me home for Christmas.
There was still a small balance showing on my treat account (kindly financed by ‘Dirk the camper van man' back in Sydney) and it didn't feel right to take it home with me. I really didn't fancy the idea of bungee jumping off the Sky Tower (I'd seen Auckland, after all) so instead drove out to Paihia - gateway to the Bay of Islands - where I planned to ride a 1600bhp jet-boat out to Cape Brett. The weather had closed in again overnight so there was some doubt whether the trip would go ahead but I was relieved to arrive at the dock and discover supplies being loaded onboard the Excitor and the engines being steadily warmed up. Instead of the fall-back tour of nearby Waitangi we watched a compulsory safety video, were issued with waterproofs and lifejackets and then climbed aboard for our trip.
The ride was exciting not only for the two huge CAT diesels roaring away behind us but for the huge waves which we were powering through. There were other options for getting out into the bay - all of which, it would transpire, were cancelled due to the heavy seas - but not one of them would have been such a memorable way to end my visit to such a spectacular country. The two islands of New Zealand really are like chalk and cheese but they have one thing in common: they prove there is so much more to the country than the haka, sheep and the Lord of the Rings. I might be glad to be on my way home but I am sad to be leaving this amazing land of rain forests, fjords, mountains, glaciers and volcanoes. The oft-spoken claim that it is ‘just the seventh state of Australia' couldn't be any further from the truth.
Originally published on - and Copyright retained by - Boogity, Boogity, Boogity
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