A Travellerspoint blog

December on the North Island

Sounds cold but absolutely NOT

all seasons in one day 24 °C

My departure from Australia was marred by the security guard at the airport who asked if I had knee replacements as I had set off the metal detector - cheeky bastard. It was my boots that set the alarm and not my dodgy knees!

I arrived in Auckland at 3:00pm and daughter Hannah flew in at 5:00pm - brilliant timing. After our usual hugging and crying we got into the city, unpacked and walked down Queen Street for supper on the wharf to celebrate my 60th birthday - what a shocker!! Hannah had bought me topaz earrings and a necklace in Bangkok as a lovely present.

Next day was dedicated to buying transport for our road trip. There is a large Backpackers Campervan warehouse in southern Auckland but all the vans cost more than I was prepared to pay. We were then directed to a car sales yard down at the docks by a guy we met in a coffee bar. Hannah had a good time bargaining with the salesman and for a cool $3000 of my money, we bought a Toyota Estima people carrier. The salesman agreed to take the back seats out so we could put in a bed. We picked the van up next day and set off south via a Red Cross shop where we bought a foam mattress, curtains and pots and pans - all set for three weeks of road journey round the North Island.

The drive to Rotorua was pretty easy, getting used to the van and driving again after quite a time. We drove through Cambridge which was a beautfiul town and arrived at a park on the outskirts of Rotorua and got the van set up for our fist night of 'freedom camping' as it's called - basically dossing down with the van wherever you can find a likely spot. We met one of Hannah's friends for a couple of drinks which gave me Dutch courage for the night ahead!

We made a mad dash for Wellington the next morning after a fabulous breakfast alongside Lake Tikitapu which was just outside Rotorua and away from the awful sulphur smell. Wasn't too impressed with the commercialism in the town but it's a huge tourist centre for visitors from all over the world - they can keep it! We headed south through huge, snow capped mountains, desert wilderness and vast Lake Taupo to arrive on the outskirts of Wellington with an ominous orange light on the dashboard. Great - we have only had the car for a day and already it's falling apart! (With two months of driving now under my belt, I have learnt that lots of oil and a gentle right foot seem to work wonders).

The weekend in Wellington was very enjoyable. The city is so compact (but hilly) that you can walk just about everywhere and the weather was glorious. We walked around the quay to Oriental Bay, stopping at Te Papa Museum for a quick look. In the afternoon we took the Cable Car up to the Botanic Gardens and the stupendous Rose Garden and, in the evening, visited the Town Hall where my friend was singing in the Messiah. For Sunday brunch, we drove to Lyall Bay to watch the planes flying over the bay and straight onto the runway - pretty impressive.

We headed out east, towards the wine country of Martinborough and along gravel farm roads in the middle of nowhere (I was lost) until we arrived at Masterton and then headed out to Castle Point to camp on the sea shore with the waves pounding just outside the van. We climbed to the lighthouse in the morning and Hannah chatted up a surf guy who was teaching loads of kids on the beach. We then went to an interesting art exhibition in Masterton and camped for the night in a quiet lane, just outside town. This was our first wet day - until now the weather has been glorious. We visited New Zealand's answer to Stonehenge at Carterton in the driving rain and then to Pukaha Wildlife Centre where they announced that there were no kiwis to see - gave that one a miss and carried on to Woodville to see the largest wind farm in the southern hemisphere. The 55 turbines were eerily beautiful in the setting sun from our vantage point on a deserted track above Woodville.

A sunny morning encouraged us to walk along Manawatu Gorge which cuts through the mountain ranges that run straight down the centre of the southern North Island. We then visited Feilding which is supposed to be New Zealand's most beautiful town - voted for by the residents of Feilding I think! On our drive towards Napier, we stopped at the place with the world's longest name. This is just a sign with the Maori name on it - about 60 letters which talks about a bloke coming down from the mountains - interesting but not. Lunch on the beach then off to Napier, the Art Deco centre on Hawkes Bay. After four nights sleeping in the van, we treated ourselves to the luxury of the YHA where we washed all our clothes, had showers and slept in beds! Once refreshed, we took an evening guided walk around the downtown area that was totally destroyed by New Zealand's deadliest earthquake in 1931. After the area was flattened and more than 250 people killed, the Town Council decided to rebuild in the Art Deco style which has left unique facades on the main streets and is a great tourist attraction. An Art Deco Festival is held every year with people dressing in the 'flapper' styles and driving through town in vintage cars.

We drove slowly around Hawkes Bay, along the Pacific Coast Highway to Wairoa, one of the Maori 'Mongrel Mob' headquarters. We had planned to sleep on the beach but met a lady, Linda, who suggested we would be safer parking in her paddock as there was a meeting of the gang planned for that night on the beach! We heard loads of motobikes cruising round town that night but who knows whether there was a full meeting that we may have been in the middle of! There was certainly the most amazing stormy sunset covering the whole sky as we sat on Linda's porch, drinking chilled white wine.

Spent the most relaxing day at Lake Waikaremoana on our own beach in glorious sunshine. The water was crystal clear and freezing cold with spectacular views of the surrounding mountains. On our way down to the campsite (the first proper campsite we had stayed at) we gave a lift to three Slovakian hikers who had spent three days walking around the lake - one of New Zealand's Great Walks, of which there are many! We were woken next morning by a sobbing German girl who had managed to drive her car into a deep gully by the side of the road. Absolutely none of us (about ten people) had a tow rope but the local highway earth mover guy came by and just popped her back onto the road. We then drove the 70Km back along dirt track to Wairoa to say goodbye to Linda and then headed east again to Mahia and the thermal springs at Morere where we jumped from hot to tepid to cold baths for a couple of hours - very invigorating.

Onwards to Captain Cook's Poverty Bay, now called Gisborne. The main attraction here was the beautiful Wainui Beach so we carried on to Tolaga Bay which has the longest jetty in New Zealand. We had planned to spend the night at Te Puia hot pools but the smell was very reminiscent of Rotorua so we moved on up the coast, ready for the assault on East Cape lighthouse in the morning. All these superlatives - the longest, the oldest, the biggest - New Zealand seems to go in for this kind of thing a lot! East Cape is indeed the most eastern point of all New Zealand and is one of the first inhabited places in the world to greet each new day. It nearly killed me to climb the 700 steps to the cliff top but it was worth it. The drive along the coast was also pretty impressive with the oldest (600 years) and biggest Pohutukawa tree to see at Te Araroa. This tree has the most beautiful red flowers and is known as the New Zealand Christmas Tree.

We drove round the Bay of Plenty, through Opotiki to spend the night in a 'hotel' in Whakatane. You may be interested to know that, in the Maori language, 'wh' is pronounced 'f' and this place has been censored in cyberspace for being a 'rude word'. The inhabitants are not much to write home about either. The employees of the 'hotel' decided to start their Christmas karaoke party at 11:30pm, right under our bedroom! When I complained, they suggested we could leave (without a refund!) So much for Anglo/Maori relations.

Drove like crazy the next day, right across from east to west, via the lakes around Rotorua, through the Pureora Forest Park to Waitomo. Next morning, Norm took three hours to guide us through the famous gloworm caves and next, we tried blackwater rafting which entails jumping into the dark waterfalls underground with an inner tube around your wet suit - great fun but scary at first. The next adventure was my first surfing lesson at the famous Raglan surf beach where, coincidentally, we met up with the surf guy from Castle Point - quelle surprise!

Having spent more than two weeks sleeping in relative discomfort in the back of the Toyota, I decided that we would build a platform to utilise all the available space above the wheel arches and have storage available under the mattress base. We visited Bunnings (like B&Q) in Hamilton and started putting together the board and wood required. Then Michael, the wood cutter, offered to make the whole thing for us there and then without any charge except the materials. What service - would you get that in England or France? Michael had the whole thing made within the hour and we re-loaded the van and set off, very happy with the world. We were off east to discover the Coromandel Peninsula. The road were very steep and winding and the rain was relentless so we decided to treat ourselves to a YHA night in Whitianga, right on the stormy beach.

Having heard that snow was blocking Heathrow, we felt that a little warm rain was not too much to bear as we set off to walk down to Cathedral Cove which was beautiful and worth the effort. We also visited Hot Water Beach where you dig a hole in the sand and near boiling water rises to the surface - fascinating. We then took a forest track across the top of the Peninsula and arrived in the lovely fishing village of Coromandel where we bought some fabulous prawns for supper. The drive south along the coast road was absolutely spectacular with views across the waters of the Firth of Thames so peaceful. Next morning, we set off for the hubub of Auckland.

We drove straight through Auckland on Highway 1, crossing the Harbour Bridge and stopping at North Shore to pick up my post from friend Anna's mother. We then headed north to the Waipu Gorge and Piroa Falls where we swam under the falls and then camped beside the river. Next morning, we bathed and washed our hair in the river (basic stuff) then headed to Kawakawa and the famous Hundertwasser toilets - an architectural oddity but a famous stopping point for tourists - it had to be done. After lunch with friends of mine at the marina in Opua, we drove through touristy Paihia and on to the Waitangi Treaty Grounds which is the famous Maori site where they effectively gave their lands to the British! You can certainly understand why the British wanted to be here in the Bay of Islands where Kerikeri has the oldest buildings in New Zealand - the whole area was fabulous. We stopped the night at Mangonui, high on a hill overlooking Doubtless Bay.

The drive up to the most northern point of New Zealand, Cape Reinga, was a very eventful day. You can't get lost as there is only one road to take and it seems to go on for quite a time. We walked out to the lighthouse and saw where the South Pacific Ocean and the Tasman Sea collide. Returning down the same road, I turned off to take a 10Km gravel track onto Ninety Mile Beach which is actually only 55 miles long! It was misnamed as the first travellers overestimated what distance their horses were managing to travel each day on the sand. This is where I wanted to drive the Harley Davidson but I had to be satisfied with driving the Toyota - and then only for about a mile as the tide was pretty high!

Back on the road towards Kaitaia and I got a puncture. Jim, a local avocado farmer, came and helped us put on the spare which turned out to be the wrong size. He then drove us 20Km to Kaitaia where we got the punctured tyre replaced and found a breaker's yard to buy a new spare wheel - all this while he was buying his wife's Christmas present. All fixed up, we headed on south through ancient forests of giant Kauri trees and across beautiful rivers to get down to Ruawai for a sunset drink in a pub. After a rest, we decided to return to Piroa Falls for the night and have a good sleep before heading back to Auckland for Christmas!

Christmas Day was spent on the beach! My friend Anna's mother has a house right on the beach in a lovely suburb of Auckland's North Shore. Hannah and I had a very restful few days with lovely sunny days and warm evenings on the veranda and great friends. We had spent nearly a month travelling around the whole of New Zealand's North Island and had done some pretty amazing things together. She left for Hong Kong and London on Boxing Day and I headed out west of Auckland to the black sand beaches of Piha where they filmed 'The Piano'. It seemed strange to be alone again but I enjoyed the extra space in the van although I was a bit scared the first night I slept alone on the beach at Piha.

I spent the last days of 2010 walking around the Waitakere Ranges, so close to Auckland and yet it seemed a completely different world. The history of logging in the old forests was really interesting and the beautiful hills, waterfalls and beaches were food for the soul. It seemed strange that I could sit on a deserted beach in a nature reserve but still watch the airplanes flying down the coast and then heading east across Manukau Harbour into Auckland. What a month!!

Posted by amazingali 14:28 Archived in New Zealand

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Well, yeh, Golly, what a month! So lovely for Hannah to share it with you. Sleeping in the van, etc sounded so much fun! David has his birthday card - thankyou! Miss you, Alison... Muchlove to youxxx

by DnL.Trent

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