STW Roundup: Month 12

January has probably been our most hectic month since we’ve been in New Zealand – but what a great start to the year! This month we finished our travels on the South Island and caught the ferry over to Wellington. We travelled the whole of the North Island – seems quick in comparison to our 3 months on the South, but we’ve been a lot more organised with our route and there’s a lot less on the North Island that we wanted to see. We sold our car in Auckland last week and are currently staying in an Airbnb in Wellington whilst we job hunt – we’ve already found the perfect house and are moving in this weekend!

The winding road through the Wairarapa Valley

Our plans changed a little…

Originally, we had planned to settle in Wellington and find a job as soon as we arrived here after taking the ferry from Picton on 8th January. The plan was to work in Wellington for a few months before travelling the North Island and then sell our car in Auckland before we left the country. We scrapped that plan. Instead, we decided to travel the North Island immediately, we sold our car in Auckland and took the overnight Manabus down to Wellington – we’re now available to work right up until our visas expire. I think we’ve made the right choice; we won’t need our own vehicle while we’re living in a big city, and we were able to sell our car quickly & for a good price in early February; I’m sure it would have been more difficult to sell in May. Changing your plans is so easy when you’re on the road with no commitments!

The view from the top of Mount Paaku, Tairua, Coromandel

Where we’ve been:

South Island:

  • Canterbury: Springfield, Rakaia Gorge, Lake Tekapo, Mount Cook, Kaikoura
Seals on the rocky shore in Kaikoura

North Island:

  • Wellington: Wellington City, Kaitoke Regional Park
  • Hawkes Bay: Havelock North, Hastings, Napier, Te Urewera National Park,
  • East Coast: Gisborne
  • Bay of Plenty: Whakatane, Mount Maunganui, Tauranga, Rotorua
  • Central North Island: Taupo, Tongariro National Park
  • Wanganui-Manuwatu: Wanganui
  • Taranaki: New Plymouth
  • Waikoto: Hobbiton, Coromandel
  • Northland: Waipua Forest, Cape Reinga, Bay of Islands
The Four Sisters in Waipoua Forest – four towering kauri trees which appear to be joined at the base and date back to the 1500s.

January’s best bits:

Mount Cook

In early January, James and I drove south from Springfield, where we stayed with our friends Robyn and Brendan for New Year, to Lake Tekapo and Mount Cook. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ll know we went to Tekapo and Mount Cook back in November, but the weather was just so horrible we couldn’t even see the mountain. We stopped at Lake Tekapo in the evening for some quick photos before camping at Pukaki Reserve where we caught a beautiful glimpse of Aoraki in the last rays of sun. The following day, we were blessed with clear blue skies.

By the Hooker Valley Lake and Mount Cook/ Aoraki

We spent a full day on various walks in Mount Cook/Aoraki National Park, including the amazing Hooker Valley Track (3 hours return), which leads through the valley to a glacier lake at the foot of the mountain, and the Blue Lakes and Tasman Glacier View Walk (40 mins return), which ascends a hill to an incredible view of the huge Tasman Glacier (New Zealand’s largest!) and glacial lake, which had icebergs floating in it! We then watched the sunset from the viewpoint on the Glencoe Walk (30 mins return).

The enormous Tasman Glacier is slowly melting, creating a huge, murky glacial lake.

I am so, so glad we decided to return to Aoraki/ Mount Cook National Park – spending more on petrol was 110% worth it to see NZ’s highest peak! Mount Cook is an absolute must-do for anyone in or planning on coming to New Zealand. Do not leave the country without seeing it!

Mount Cook/ Aoraki and Lake Pukaki at dusk
Mountain tops in Mount Cook Village
Te Urewera

Located in the Hawkes Bay region on the North Island, Te Urewera is a place I hadn’t even heard of until I began planning our North Island travels. I ended up falling a little bit in love with it and wrote a full post about it here.

It is in fact New Zealand’s largest National Park, made up of 2127 sq km of native rainforest, mystical lakes and winding rivers. We’ve been to some pretty ‘off-the-beaten-track’ places in New Zealand, but I can tell you I have never felt so isolated and cut off from the world than I did here.


We camped at Rosie’s Bay, a free DOC campsite in the park, and woke up to an eerie view of misty clouds hanging over Lake Waikaremoana. We spent the day on some of the hiking tracks and viewing the stunning waterfalls.



Rotorua

Rotorua is NZ’s most geothermal area, with steaming hot springs, bubbling mud pools and spurting geysers dotted around the region. Accordingly, the pungent rotten egg smell (sulphur) occasionally hits your nostrils as you wander the city and surrounding areas. I wrote a post about how we spent our time in Rototua here.

Yes, the water natually IS that colour!

For a real spectacle on just how incredibly geothermal the area is, I thoroughly recommended Wai-o-tapu Thermal Wonderland, a park that showcases so many natural wonders that are guaranteed to make you say ‘wow’!

The Champagne Pool in Wai-o-tapu Thermal Wonderland, Rotorua

Rotorua is a city rich with Māori history and an amazing place to learn about Māori culture. There are heaps of activities and tours to choose from, some offering a peek at a traditional Māori village, others showcasing an evening performance and a serving of hangi (a traditional Maori dish). The night market that hits Tutanekai Street every Thursday evening is also well worth a visit!

Food, live music, activies… Thursday evening sorted!
Flowers in Kuirau Park
Tongariro Alpine Crossing

This is the most popular day hike in New Zealand and one of the best hikes in the entire world. It’s easy to see why: you hike up to the volcano that is Mount Ngarauhoe (A.K.A. Mount Doom), crossing volcanic craters and passing the stunning Emerald Lakes, before descending through native bush. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a MUST.

Side trips include the summits of Mount Tongariro and Mount Ngarauhoe (neither of which we attempted this time as we weren’t fully prepared for the conditions – James forgot his waterproof…) I can’t put into words how incredible the views are on this hike – you have to go see it for yourself!


Coromandel

I wish we’d given ourselves longer to explore the Coromandel; we only allowed a few days and you really need a week at least! Unfortunately camping is pretty costly in the area – even the DOC campsites cost $10pp instead of the usual $6pp. There is only one free campsite for non self-contained vehicles which looked so grim when we drove past.

Beautiful views atop the Pinnacles

Highlights in the Coromandel for us included the Windows Walk at Karangahake Gorge, Cathedral Cove (even though it was flooded with tourists!) and the strenuous trek up to the Pinnacles (allow 8 hours return, we did it in 5hr 30mins).

Selfie at crowded Cathedral Cove
Gemstone Bay
Hobbiton

Visiting the Shire has been on our bucket-list ever since we came to NZ. We knew it would be an overpriced tourist trap (and it was) but we still loved it – it really is a must do.

The 2 hour guided tour ($79pp) gave us a great insight into Sir Peter Jackson’s vision when he chose the Alexander family’s farm as the location for the Shire in the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings back in 1998.

Bilbo’s house!

We walked around the set, which is remarkably well-kept, peering into the Hobbit holes and finished with a complimentary drink at the Green Dragon Inn.

Notices inside the Green Dragon Inn
Cape Reinga

It was pretty cool to be right at the top of New Zealand! Contrary to popular belief though, Cape Reinga isn’t the northernmost point: that title goes to North Cape’s Surville Cliffs, 30 km east of Cape Reinga.

What Cape Reinga offers, however, is a pleasant stroll to a lighthouse, where you can see the mesmerising image of the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean meeting – the waves crash into each other making almost a whirlpool effect in the water.

Cape Reinga: Where the Pacific Ocean and Tasman Sea meet

Cape Reinga is an extremely important place in Māori mythology. It’s where the spirits of deceased Maori leave the mainland on their journey to the afterlife; they leap from the 800-year-old pohutukawa tree into the ocean, where they return to their ancestral homeland of Hawaiki.

The lighthouse and the endless sea

And some disappointments…

These aren’t so much places I disliked, but places I left feeling disappointed – for various reasons!

Taranaki

When we visited Taranaki, it was raining, and the forecast was stormy for days on end. It was kinda like the first time we went to Mount Cook, i.e. the weather was so bad that we couldn’t see Mount Taranaki. When you’re on a budget, you simply don’t have the time or money to sit around and hope that the weather improves; we continued on our journey and have put Taranaki on the list for next time (the hikes there look incredible!)

Mount Maunganui

This is a lovely town – much bigger than I anticipated – filled with cafés and boutique shops, with beautiful beaches either side of the peninsula it’s understandably popular with tourists and locals alike. The day we arrived, we weren’t able to climb Maoau, as it was on fire! Luckily no one was injured, but three people were evacuated from the Mount by helicopter. We arrived around 10am and watched the helicopters dropping huge buckets of water onto the flames. The cause of the fire was thought to be from a flare, set off on 13th January.

Fire engines at the scene. Note the blackened area of bush on the Mount.

Articles: NZ Herald, Bay of Plenty Times

Gisborne

After we left Napier, we decided to continue north to Wairoa and Gisborne before cutting inland to Te Urewera. We took the scenic Tiniroto Road from Wairoa to Gisborne, stopping at a few sights along the way. Unfortunately the sights weren’t really worth the two hour, winding route. Gisborne was, for us, not much more than a dull port town, with little to do but see the statues of Captain Cook and Young Nick. We felt we’d wasted a day – and a lot of petrol – making a trip there.

Captain James Cook
Recommended campsites

We’ve found it a lot more difficult to camp for cheap or free on the North Island in comparison to the South Island. There are loads of campsites designated for self-contained vehicles, but not so many for non self-contained. Prices listed are what we paid per person per night in a non self-contained vehicle.

  • Kaitoke Regional Park, Greater Wellington ($6pp): Clean bathrooms, cooking shelter, drinking water, sinks and BBQs. A five minute drive will bring you to the Elven outpost of Rivendell, the film location in The Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit trilogies.
  • Waikare River Mouth, Hawke’s Bay (free): Small with very smelly vault toilets and a tap with non-potable water. But the location makes up for it; you’re right by the river and a 30 minute walk across farmland leads you to the beach. There’s plum trees, nectarines and blackberries.
  • Waikoko, Tongariro (free): There’s a few free DOC campsites dotted around Tongariro National Park, this one’s the biggest and has a cooking shelter with a fireplace. We stayed here either side of hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. It’s located by the Waikoko Stream, useful for drinking (boil first) and bathing.
  • Colville Motor Camp, Coromandel ($10pp): For the same price as a DOC campsite in the area, you can have a hot shower and access to a fridge. A charming place with picnic tables and laundry facilities.
  • Te Ngutu O Te Manu Historic Reserve, Taranaki (free): A huge field, clean toilets with soap & lights.
  • Kaiaua Boat Club, Kaiaua (free): Between Auckland and the Coromandel, this is a large campsite conveniently located across the road from a fish and chip shop.
  • Rarawa Beach DOC Campsite, Ngataki ($6pp): A large site with vault toilets and a cold shower, close to Cape Reinga.

Top Tip: Have you read my post about camping in New Zealand yet?

Selfie at Puketapu Pa, Whakatane – that’s Motuhora (Whale Island) in the distance.

Well, that’s all I have to update you on for January! I’ll still be posting about our travels around New Zealand as well as our experiences in Wellington. I’m hopefully going to be posting more often now that I should have reliable wifi again.

How was your start to 2016? Do you have any exciting plans for the year?

Thanks for reading and happy travels!

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