While visiting family in Nelson, we had also planned to spend a good deal of time mountain biking and kayaking in nearby Abel Tasman National Park. This was supposed to be one of the highlights of our time in New Zealand. Unfortunately, the weather didn’t cooperate, so we spent almost all of our time indoors. By this time, Adam was in the middle of a pretty miserable cold anyway (which Shawn mostly avoided), so this was probably for the best anyway- although a bit disappointing.
The night before our trip to the north island, we camped out on a bluff overlooking the harbor, watching the ferries come and go as we had dinner. We had to get up at 4:25 the next morning to check in on time for out boat. The critical, and early, check in made for a restless night’s sleep. Once we got on the ferry, we immediately had the sensation of being in a barn. The main deck looked, and more importantly, smelled, like it had been used for hauling cattle the night before. The ferry departed and threaded it’s way through very narrow straits and sounds…amazingly narrow for a boat this size. Sunrise was beautiful, but we were a bit too exhausted to really enjoy it. After taking some nice photos, we laid down on the floor in one of the lounges and, after one of the Maori locals turned off their loud, offensive, and downright crappy music at 6:00 in the morning, we got an extra hour’s sleep on the floor.
After arriving in Wellington, we took a short drive around the city. It was a really nice place, but we didn’t budget much time for the north island, so we hit the road without ever leaving the short bus. We drove the entire day, in the rain, up to Tongariro National Park. By the time we arrived it was already getting dark. We filled up our water tanks (illegally) at an RV park and then headed down the road to find a primitive campground. That night, we dined on New Zealand green muscles- something we really enjoyed during our time on the islands.
The next day, our plan was to get up early and do the famous “Tongarriro crossing”. This hike takes you between towering, active, cone-shaped volcanoes- particularly Mt. Tongarriro, which cameoed as “Mt. Doom” in “Lord of The Rings”. We set our alarms early, but when they went off it was pouring, cold and foggy. We really didn’t feel like an all-day alpine hike in those conditions (particularly with Adam’s cold), so we decided to get a little extra sleep and do an out-and-back day hike instead.
Once we got to the end of the trail head (a 45 minute drive away) that we thought would have the best views, we talked to some local hikers and found out that the views don’t really start until about 45 minutes into the hike. We drove 45 minutes back, and then a bit farther up the mountain to the visitor’s center. They recommended some short dayhikes, which we decided to do. Since we were rained on for about ½ our dayhike, I suppose it was all for the best.
After the hike we headed up the road to Lake Taupo. This lake is situated in a very geologically active area with all sorts of hot springs, geysers, steam vents, etc and has the world’s largest geothermal power plant, generating much of the island’s power. After getting groceries and walking along the beautiful waterfront we headed out to “spa park” and went for a little hike. This hike features no mere hot spring, but a gushing hot stream, full of idyllic pools and waterfalls, some of which were too warm to spend much time in. Best of all, it was a public park, which means the stream was “unimproved” an free! The springs were a little too easily accessible, and consequently packed with people. We went back and ate, returning to the pools just after dark to find it totally deserted and illuminated by a beautiful full moon. We spent a couple hours there, and didn’t see any other visitors. It was so nice that we spent two night camping in the park’s parking lot. The next night, despite being a weekday, had quite a few visitors in the hot stream. This was actually nice because one of the downsides of camping in an RV and moving around every day is that you don’t get to meet as many people.
The spa park itself was really cool, too. It had a beautiful river running through it, and about the coolest playground we’ve ever seen, which included a really cool obstacle course and even a zip line- something I’m sure insurance wouldn’t allow in the US.
After lake Taupo, we went up the road to Rotorua. The drive between Taupo and Rotorua is like a mini-Yellowstone, with tons of interesting geological features. The downside is that each and every site is separately owned, and each charge you, generally, between $20 and $100 to visit, which is about what a week in Yellowstone would cost unlimited. This was very frustrating. You just can’t road trip in New Zealand like you can in the US. If we stopped by every little interesting feature like we might have back home, we’d be spending $300-400 per day on touristy sites alone! If we drop $100 to view an interpretative site, we have high expcetations. You just can’t stop by places like that and check ‘em out for a few minutes like you can in the US, so we just skipped most of the sites. This was very frustrating.
Rotorua city was more of the same. It was absurdly priced tourist crap like Queensland, but the city wasn’t as nice. We thought we’d try a mountain bike ride until we found out they’d be $90 each for four hours. How frustrating! We did see one cool thing there though; about 100 years, a large clearcut was replanted with California Redwoods. Now these trees are pretty big, and the understory is full of the biggest treeferns we’d seen yet. It was a refreshing combination of the beauty of New Zealand and the beauty and familiarity of some of the most interesting flora of back home.
We decided to get out of the dirty, overpriced tourist trap of Rotorua ASAP. We had another rainy drive up to the northwest coast to “Hot Water Beach”. At low tide, you can rent a shovel and dig a little pool the fills up with hot water. When we were there, a lot of people were shivering while digging in their bathing suits, but nobody struck hot water.
Just up the road is “Cathedral Cove”, which is one of the most beautiful beaches we’ve seen. It got its name from a sea cave, accessible at low tide, that joins the two halves of the beach. The roof of the sea cave is shaped like a gothic arch. It looked like an amazing place to go kayaking, but by this time of the day the wind and whitecaps were picking up, and it was getting late, so we hit the road for Auckland.
We arrived around rush hour, so we just decided to find the office of the rental van company so we would know where to go the next day. It was near the airport, and not the nicest neighborhood. We found a grocery store, bought some muscles, and decided to have one last muscle dinner while we waited for the traffic to die down. Unfortunately, these muscles didn’t seem so fresh…kind of slimy and fishy smelling, so we had to toss them and just have broccoli for dinner…in the ghetto grocery store parking lot with the bums and kiwi white trash. The last few days of our trip just seemed to be disappointment after disappointment.
After the traffic cleared, we headed into town to explore. Auckland looks like a nice city, but it didn’t seem particularly special, and we were getting tired, so we went to one of the few campervan campgrounds in town (kind of hard to free camp in town). This was only the 2nd time we paid to camp during the whole trip.
While taking our clothes to the laundry of the campground, a guy approached us and began talking. It was Maciek- one of the Polish guys we traveled with for a while when we were in Indonesia! He bought an old Volvo and was traveling around New Zealand with his girlfriend. Small world.
The next morning, we sold a couple of our guide books and had a nice lunch before heading off to return the short bus. They said to take it back empty of fuel, and I was just barely into the red zone. I’ve been keeping track of fuel consumption carefully (this monster averaged 25 miles per gallon!), and we had more than enough fuel to get back to the office. However, when we were about 5 miles out, we were climbing a hill and the van began to sputter. The check engine light came on, and we were stalled. I was now on a hill (I managed to barely nurse it through a busy intersection) blocking a lane of traffic. Idiot drivers began honking at me, as though I benefitted by sitting in the middle of the road with my flashers on, and was only blocking traffic to ruin their day. I checked the fuel gague again, and when I’d turn the key the needle would move from below the red zone to about half way through the red zone. With measurable fuel in the tank and the check engine light on I didn’t know if there was a mechanical problem, or if Fiat had designed the fuel tank so poorly that the car would get fuel starvation on hills. Shawn ran into the nearest house and called the rental company, reminding them that we had a flight in two and a half hours. The homeowner, a huge Maori woman named “Buffy”, came out and helped us push the van onto the sidewalk. We waited what seemed like forever, but really wasn’t so long, for assistance. He poured in five gallons of diesel and, after about 45 seconds of cranking the short bus came back to life.
We raced back to the rental office, handed him the keys and a 14 item list of some of the buses “quirks”, and caught a taxi to the airport for our 12 hour flight to Santiago, Chile.
Looking back, New Zealand was one of the most beautiful and pristine places we’d ever seen. There was almost zero litter, and there was no smog to speak of which made for amazingly clear, blue skies- even in town. However, there really wasn’t a lot there that you couldn’t see in the US. We’d joke that it is like the US, but without the ugly parts. That said, I think our trip was a good example of how NOT to see a country. While we covered most of the nation, we spent so much of our time driving that we really didn’t do that much. This was the opposite of how we’ve been doing most of our trip. With the exception of rental cars, New Zealand is also obscenely expensive. Diesel was about US$4.80/gallon, a six pack of beer is about US$10…even a couple of chicken breasts at the grocery store were NZ$14! Our ferry ride between islands was nearly $300! I’ve already mentioned the price of activities! These expenses led to high expectations but, as I said, a lot of things were really comparable to the US. I think if we were to ever go back, we’d focus on just two or three main areas, and we would bring our own gear (i.e. mountain bikes, or maybe backpacking or skiing gear).
As I post this, we’re in our own apartment in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Stay tuned- a Chile and Buenos Aires post should be up soon.