All good things must come to an end, and all endings are also new beginnings. As I write this, currently located on the South Island, I'm reminiscing about our time on the North Island, which already feels like years ago. I recall hopping on the ferry in Wellington and feeling that bittersweet feeling, like you were saying goodbye to a good friend to move out of town. The North Island was such a spectacular time, full of scenic hikes, picturesque landscapes, and fun adventures. It didn't take long into our trip to realize that New Zealand IS paradise and our time spent traveling south from Auckland really solidified this.
Our first stop after leaving Auckland brought us to Hunua Falls, a picturesque waterfall 30 kilometers from the city. We stopped for a quick walk and pictures before driving to the Coromandel region on the eastern shores of the North Island. We arrived in Hahei with three hours left until sunset - which was just enough time for a sunset hike. We hiked 45 minutes down to Cathedral Cove, a beautiful beach only accessible by boat or foot. Cathedral Cove is a photographers dream with stunning views at all angles. During sunset all the colors really came out. Not only was Cathedral Cove beautiful but the hike down and back up was also comparable. Combined we took about 100 pictures from this hike so it was tough to decide which ones to share with you. We made it back to our car just as sun was setting and grabbed a pizza up the street at The Pourhouse before calling it a night.
The next morning we woke up at 6:00 am and headed straight for Hot Water Beach. Hot Water Beach is a thermal activity zone located on the beach and it's name comes from underground hot springs which filter up through the sand between the high and low tide. Within five minutes we found the hot sand along the water line. It was pretty obvious because we could see the steam rising from the sand and if you looked closely the sand was steaming and bubbling. Some areas were so hot to touch you might burn your feet if you stand on it for too long. It's said temperatures can reach as hot as 147 degrees Fahrenheit. We dug ourselves a hot tub and laid in it for a good 30 minutes before donating it to an arriving family with young children. Growing up in Cocoa Beach and Erie, we've both spent our fair share of time on beaches, but this was a truly unique beach experience we both enjoyed.
After spending two hours at Hot Water Beach, we showered off and hit the road for the Karangahake Gorge. We planned to do a four hour hike but when we arrived a ranger told us it wasn't very scenic and recommended a shorter, more scenic hour long hike that went through old gold mining tunnels and along the river. We're glad we took his advice - the tunnels gave you a feeling like you were there way back in time when this was a fully operational mine and walking along the river was serene and peaceful.
Hobbiton & Rotorua
Any Hobbit or Lord of the Rings fans reading along? We started our morning on day eight visiting Hobbiton, the movie set from the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit. Casey is a big fan of the LOTR and Hobbit franchise. His dad read the Hobbit to him as a child, and he's read all the books/seen the movies so this was quite the treat for him - as he would say, he really "nerded" out here. The Shire itself was special - beautiful rolling hills with magnificent gardens and Hobbit holes EVERYWHERE. We both were shocked with the amount of Hobbit holes. 90% of them are all for show and are only doors in hills, but still really cool to look at. We visited Bagends where Frodo and Bilbo lived. We got a stout and an amber ale at the Green Dragon, which is the bar in Hobbiton. They brew their own beer on the property. When leaving the site, Casey said he could actually picture Gandolf arriving at the Shire, riding across the bridge with his wagon full of fireworks. Despite never seeing any of the movies or reading the books, I really enjoyed it.
We left Hobbiton in route to Rotorua. We were feeling adventurous and booked a white water rafting trip for that afternoon on the outskirts of town. The trip took us down the Kaituna River, a class five river with three big waterfalls including a seven meter falls. I'm not going to lie, I was a bit nervous when I found out about the waterfall. Casey on the other hand was stoked - his adrenaline was definitely pumping. We had a really nice guide, Jasper, who was from Denmark and he made us feel comfortable and taught us everything we needed to know to prep for the trip. The big waterfall is an ancient Maori burial site where they'd put their dead to rest under the falls. We said a Maori prayer to the Maori chief so we'd have safe passage. Before going down the big falls, Jasper told us about one in ten rafts flip - not what I wanted to hear minutes before hand. The raft that went before us down the big falls flipped and alleviated a little pressure, if you believe in statistics. We went down, completely submerged the raft in the water and came out just fine! What an adrenaline rush! The rafting trip was amazing, so scenic and a lot of fun. It was definitely a highlight of the trip for us both and we can't wait for our next rafting trip, wherever that may be. Head over to the video section on our blog to see GoPro footage of the rafting trip.
We headed back to town after rafting and found a street market in the evening. The streets were blocked off in the downtown area and flooded with people. There was a live music, food vendors and people selling art. It reminded us both of Off the Grid, the company Casey was working for in the Bay area.
The next morning we woke in Rotorua and spent most of the morning working at a local cafe with wifi. In the evening we found a campground with thermal hot springs. The campground was Waikite Valley Thermal Pools Holiday Park and were were blown away at the luxary of camping and having access to seven different thermal pools all ranging in different temps. It was just what we needed to relax after constantly moving through the North Island. The campground also had a kitchen and allowed us to cook a hot meal. We met two young German girls just out of high school in the kitchen. The four of us sat together and chatted for quite a while. They were on a working visa and just got done working on a apple tree farm. We chatted about New Zealand, America, Germany, college, and life in general. It was a good interaction. We had to cut it short so we could catch a booking we made at the Redwood Treewalk canopy tour. The walk opened at 9:00 pm, after sunset and was completely dark except for all the lights hanging between the trees. These were California Coastal Redwoods that a businessman had brought over to NZ in hopes of prospering in the lumber business. He quickly learned that because of the wet conditions in NZ that these trees grew a lot fast than in California, therefore their bark and wood was much softer and unfit for lumber. None of the trees were even close to the size of trees we've seen in California, but it was still cool to see them. The lights themselves were artsy and being 21km above the ground among the tree was an experience in itself. It was like walking through Space Mountain, minus the roller coaster.
We woke up early the next morning to access the hot pools. We saw the German girls again, hung out for a bit before saying goodbye to our new friends and heading south for Taupo. On the way to Taupo we stopped at Wai-O-Tapu, New Zealand's most colorful active geothermal area in the southern end of the Okataina Volcanic Center. We read the Lady Knox Geyser at the park goes off every morning at 10:15 am and almost missed it because we were turned away at the lot for not having pre purchased tickets. Luckily, the main tour guide stopped us and said he'd trust us to go pay afterward since time was running out. We found front row seats minutes before the geyser erupted. The eruption was about 30 foot spurts of water and continued for well over 15 minutes. The park also had a 4.5km hike that took us along thermal mud pits, pools, rivers, and even a waterfall. The best part of the park was the Champagne Pool, which has a yellow/orange lining and was extra steamy. The deep geothermal water below the pool is approx. 500 degrees Fahrenheit but water temperatures within the pool is maintained at 167 degrees Fahrenheit by losing heat to the atmosphere. You could really feel the heat coming off this pool.
Overall, the town of Rotorua and the surrounding area was a thermal wonderland and a natural odyssey.
Taupo & Tongariro
Taupo, pronounced (Toe-Paw), was a short hour drive south of Rotorua. We arrived in the afternoon and spent several hours getting work done. We knew we'd be leaving Taupo early the next morning and wanted to be sure we got to explore the town a bit so after working we headed to Huka falls (there is no shortage of waterfalls in NZ). The river was extremely blue and the falls were very powerful. Afterwards we found a local favorite hot spot in town, Spa Park. It was a nice park with walking trails along the river, crystal clear water and an area that had thermal hot water pouring into it. Casey took a dip and I sat along the river bank and read my book (shout out to my Mom's friend for recommending The Yellow Envelope! Highly recommended for anyone looking for a new book to read! As quoted on the back of the book, "The Yellow Envelope is a vividly insightful look at how travel stretches and pushes the traveler, and it tells the tale of the transformative power of giving, not just of money, but also ourselves"). We ended our night watching the sunset along the lake and got a good nights sleep before our big hike the next day.
Overall, Taupo appeared to be an adventurous town. The town had a snowboard/outdoors/extreme sports vibe and Casey really identified with it. The ski resorts were only an hour and a half away and there were BMX and skate parks scattered throughout the city.
We woke up bright and early the next morning to head for the Tongaririo Alpine Crossing in Tongariro National Park. The park doesn't allow you to park and hike, so we parked in town and hired a shuttle to drop us off at the start of the hike and pick us up at the end. Our driver, Tracy, was a local who has lived in the area her entire life. She dropped us off, said a Maori prayer for us, gave us big hugs, wished us luck on our hike and said she see us in the evening. We departed for the 19.4km hike around 10:00 am. The first 6km was a relatively mellow ascent. Then it kicked into hyperdrive as we began to scale the mountain to the top. We eventually climbed above the cloud line and when we reached a flat part on the top, you couldn't see anything but clouds for 360 degrees. If Casey walked 25 yards ahead of me he was lost in the clouds. After another kilometer of hiking through the clouds we ascended once more. The ground was soft and sand like which made it difficult to climb. We got to the top, took a break for lunch, and realized we had reached the Red Crater. It was literally red and a big crater. Very, very big. There was another short ascent up to the highest point we'd hike during the day. At the top we could see the Emerald Lakes over the horizon. These lakes lived up to their name and were beautiful. It felt like you were on Mars, if Mars had water. We started to descend toward the lake and the ground was so soft and was very easy to slip on. A storm started to come through and at one point thunder crashed and it sounded like the volcano was starting to erupt! We realized it was thunder and started to pick up speed to attempt to flee from the rain. We got to the last lake and it started to sprinkle as you could see the clouds melting to the ground behind us. From here it was all downhill and we were feeling the pain in our legs and back. In the last 5km, we found a couple from Canada, Ge and Todd. We ended up hiking and chatting with them through the end. Socializing really took our minds off of how sore our legs were. She was an ex-acrobat from the circus now in medical school and he was a snowboard instructor and industrial arts teacher. We both identified with them and took down their numbers to catch up later. We caught the shuttle back to our van and grabbed a bite to eat at a local cafe. To say we were both exhausted after the hike would be an understatement. We were so beat we both fell asleep in the van in the parking lot of the cafe and slept for a straight 12 hours.
The hike itself was much more challenging than we had expected but with challenge comes reward. At the top, we both were feeling pretty good about what we had just accomplished. All in all, the hike took seven hours and is one of the nine "great walks" of NZ. If you ever find yourself in NZ and are feeling up for a challenge, you must do this hike.
After our long hike, we slept in as we both were still feeling quite exhausted. We had been waking around 6:00 am almost every morning so it felt nice to sleep in until 9:00ish. The drive to Wellington took about three hours and we pulled into town in the afternoon. We both had quite a bit of work so we posted up at a local bar with free wifi and worked the remainder of the day.
The next morning, we took advantage of free wifi at a local cafe to get some more work done before checking out Mt. Victoria. Mt. Victoria is a park in Wellington where at it's peak has 360 degree views of the city. This was the extent of our exploring the city as we had a ferry to catch in the afternoon for the South Island. We drove the van onto the ferry, scurried through large trucks full of farm animals and headed to the top indoor seating floor to claim good seats next to the window. It was a four and a half hour cruise from the North Island down to the South Island. There were no signs of dolphins or whales however, arriving on the South Island and entering Queen Charlotte and Marlborough Sound was very scenic. There were lush green peninsulas and cliffs on both sides. Eventually we docked and drove off the ferry to begin our adventures on the South Island.
Final Reflections on the North Island
The four and a half hour ferry ride gave us plenty of time to reflect on our travels thus far. We both loved everything about the North Island and while it's difficult for us to choose favorites, here are some of the highlights from each of our perspectives.
For me, I'm not sure I can narrow down one favorite town. I loved Paihia for its laid back beach feel. It had a small town feel, there were open air restaurants throughout the town and the beaches were nice. In a way it reminded me of Cocoa Beach, although CB doesn't have mountain views from the coast. I enjoyed the Coromandel for it's scenic views all along the coastlines. If I lived here I would never get sick of the views. I could hike down to Cathedral Cove daily just for the serenity and peacefulness of it. l I liked the town of Rotorua for it's sense of community. I wasn't a huge fan of all the thermal activity through town because it smelled pretty bad, but community has always been an important part about where I live - a feeling of home, whether that was Cocoa Beach, Morgantown or San Francisco. Even in the cafe where we worked, I saw patrons come and go and greet people they obviously knew. Three older gentleman sat next to us drinking coffee for a good two hours, two policeman stopped in for lunch and knew the waitress, and the vibe in the streets at the night market was lively and welcoming. I miss my community in San Francisco, but know it'll be waiting for us when we return next fall. For now, I'm feeling energized learning about other communities through NZ.
While I did love rafting and the adrenaline of going down the falls, I'd have to say the Tongaririo Alpine Crossing was the highlight in terms of adventure. It's the most challenging hike I've ever done, there were parts I really wished the incline would start to descend but I felt pretty damn good after having finished. Now I'm ready for my next great hike!
If I had to choose a place to live on the North Island of NZ it would be the town of Taupo. The town itself was very lively and was large enough to make you feel like there was plenty to do without ever getting bored of the town itself. There were fun bars, lots of restaurants to choose from and the locals were all very active people. The town had a river that went through it, was nestled on a lake and was near to the mountains giving me a plethora of activities to choose from if I were to live there.
As far as adventures we went on, the obvious choice for me would be the Kaituna rafting trip. This was my first class five river I rafted and the first time free falling from a seven meter waterfall. It was also my first real adrenaline rush of our trip.
Our adventures in the South Island are off to a good start. Today is Christmas in New Zealand. While we miss being home with our families today, we're both grateful for this opportunity to travel through NZ and we're grateful to be able to spend this day together. We're wishing all our family, friends and those reading along a Merry Christmas. And for those who don't celebrate Christmas, we hope you're able to be with family and friends today. As the Maori would say here, "Meri Kirihimete!"
Relive our day by day stories: