|Little K & D surfing Franz Josef Glacier|
From Wellington, we continued driving north and stopped in a tiny Maori town to find some dinner. It was only 5 pm and we went to all three restaurants in the town but all the shops were already closed. Our only options were McDonald's or another family-run fast food establishment. We chose the family-owned place and got some burgers and fries but then drove to McDonald's to use their WiFi so I could book a tour for the Waitomo caves.
We continued driving to a cute little ski town called Ohakune. One of the great things about visiting New Zealand in the summertime is that the sun stays out until almost 11 pm so we didn't have to worry too much about trying to find campsites in the dark. We found a cheap Department of Conservation (DOC) campsite just outside of town located in Tongariro National Park another World Heritage Site. We had met a couple at another campsite who had hiked the Tongariro Alpine Crossing and said they loved it so we planned to do the hike the next day except it was raining so hard the next morning that we got a very late start. We got free trail maps from the information center in town and found out that the whole crossing was 19.7 km and would take approximately seven hours. Due to the rain, we didn't start hiking until 2 pm so we weren't able to go the whole way. We hiked about 2 hours to Soda Springs and then turned around and came back. The trail wasn't as scenic as I'd expected but definitely very different from any hikes we'd ever done before. The hike led us around Mt. Tongariro, an active volcano and through fields of volcanic rock. At some point, we were climbing up and down the rocks and over streams and there were even some waterfalls.
When we finished hiking we started driving again. I wanted Darren to see Lake Taupo, the biggest lake in New Zealand, so we drove north up through the town of Turangi. It was impossible to drive straight through without stopping several times to admire the scenery. We found a campsite not far from the Waitomo caves where we had our tour scheduled for the next day. There wasn't another town for miles and there was only one other car at the campsite. All we could hear were the sounds of crickets, cows, and native birds.
This was the first sunny day we'd had in a long time and we had spent most of it in the library and now we were going to spend the rest of it in a cave but it was worth missing a long-awaited day of sunshine. I'd recommend that the Waitomo caves be added to the list of things you shouldn't miss when visiting New Zealand. We went on two tours. The first was the Ruakuri caves and they were truly like nothing I have ever seen before. We had visited the limestone caves in Vietnam (http://kimwagnerdesigns.blogspot.com/2012/01/vietnam.html) but these caves were unique in that they were covered with thousands of little green glow worms (Arachnocampa Luminosa). The caves got so dark that it looked like millions of little green stars in the sky. There were stalactites and stalagmites everywhere. They only grow about one centimeter a year and judging by their length this tells us that they are millions of years old. Some of the stalactites and stalagmites grew so long that they connected in the middle forming columns. Nature is an amazing architect. There was also an underground river below us and when we looked down we could see a group of people black water rafting. The caves were amazing but I seriously wished we had booked the black water rafting tour. People were drifting down the river in the dark looking up at the glow worms all over the cave walls. Next time we go back to New Zealand I am definitely trying this! They also have tours that take groups abseiling (rappelling in American English) down into the caves as well. In New Zealand, they like to do everything to the extreme so even going on a cave tour becomes an extreme sporting adventure. Another nice thing about this cave is that if you're not capable of participating in extreme sports, it is also wheelchair accessible. After the Ruakuri tour, we went on the Waitomo tour. It was very similar except that we got to go on a rowboat down the river. It was like a trip to outer space. We drifted down the river in almost complete darkness. All that we could see was the green glow of the glow worms all around us.
When we finished at the caves we had to drive back to Te Kuiti to get petrol because the next petrol station would be too far to make it without filling up. So we stopped there for petrol and got dinner before getting back on the road. Then we headed northeast across the island towards Mount Maunganui. I've written a lot about Mount Maunganui in the past as it is my favorite place in the whole world (http://kimwagnerdesigns.blogspot.com/2011/03/mount-maunganui-tauranga-new-zealand.html). When we had our late night chat with another camper named Steve, who I mentioned in my last post about the South Island, he had said that he had also been traveling around the world and he too had gone to Mount Maunganui. He was trying to find the words to explain his experience and he said, "there's just something about that place. It's just....it's just so..." and I said, "Special." and he answered, "yeah, that's it. It really is a special place."
When we arrived at Mount Maunganui it was very late and already completely dark. I was anxious for Darren to see it in the daylight. It was so dark that he couldn't even see the volcano or the "The Mount" as they call it, which comes from the Maori word "Mauao". The campsite located at the base of the Mount was $55 so that was out of the question. A guy we met told us it would be safe to park on the beach without getting a fine. It was very late and we were too tired to keep driving so we took our chances and parked the car in a spot facing the beach. We went to a public restroom so we could wash up and brush our teeth but it was already locked. Luckily, New Zealand being so thoughtful, there was a map to another open restroom posted on the door. So we drove a few blocks to the open public restroom and then parked our car for the night. It was too dark to see the ocean but we fell asleep to the sound of the crashing waves.
We were woken up bright and early the next morning when someone came along and put something under our windshield wiper. I got very nervous that it was going to be a ticket for freedom camping but it was just a warning with a list of local campsites that we should go to.
We were up just in time to watch the sunrise on the beach. We ate our breakfast while watching the surfers catch some waves before going to work. We also got to witness a truly amazing event. Back in October my beloved Mount Maunganui was polluted by an oil spill from a cargo ship that ran aground. The ship named Rena was carrying containers of hazardous cargo which also washed ashore. It was the country's worst maritime environmental disaster in history. The beach on this particular morning was filled with volunteers who had been coming since October to help with the cleanup. They were also releasing some baby penguins that they had rescued from the oil and cleaned. On this morning January 18th we got to witness them being set free into the ocean again. It was an amazing event and one that I will never forget.
I took Darren for a walk on Moturiki Island and then we hiked up to the top of the Mount. It wasn't long before Darren declared that Mount Maunganui was also his favorite place in New Zealand.
We looked for a campsite to stay for another night because Darren wanted to spend another day and I was also in no rush to leave my favorite place. After receiving the warning on our windshield we didn't want to risk freedom camping another night. It was very difficult to be inconspicuous when driving a lime green and purple van but it was fun traveling in the Jucy. Darren got a great kick out of the waves, honks, and flashing headlights we received every time we passed another Jucy vehicle on the road. One site was charging $44 which was better than the one by the Mount which charged $55 but it still seemed out of the question to pay that much just to park the van for the night. We eventually settled on a site in Papamoa which was the next town over and paid an absurd amount of $40. There were no DOC sites nearby and we didn't want to risk a fine so we had no choice but to stay at the $40 campsite.
The next day was a beautiful sunny day so we wanted to hike up the Mount again. I actually had to attempt it in flip flops this time because after putting so much mileage and wear and tear on my feet they had started to crack and bleed. I had written about wearing through a two-month-old pair of flip flops in Australia (http://kimwagnerdesigns.blogspot.com/2012/03/australia.html) and now I was wearing through my feet themselves. Darren's feet weren't in any better condition but mine were to the point that it hurt too bad to even wear shoes. So like a true Kiwi, I did the hike in flip flops.
|View from the peak of Mt. Maunganui|
Before leaving Mount Maunganui we took a relaxing dip at the saltwater hot pools (For more information about the saltwater hot pools, read my post: Mount Maunganui, Tauranga, New Zealand). We shared the pools with an entire rugby team who had the same idea. I'm not sure what team they played for but they caused quite a stir and the locals all seemed to know who they were. We couldn't leave the pools without taking advantage of their showers so once we were clean again we got back in the Jucy and said goodbye to Mount Maunganui. I was sad to leave again but I have a feeling it will be a place that I keep coming back to.
I had wanted to take Darren up the Coromandel Peninsula (read post: New Zealand-Tauranga & the Coromandel Peninsula) as I had done last year but because we stayed in Mount Maunganui an extra day there wouldn't be enough time. There are a lot of other fun things I did on the north island that I've written about before like Kiwi 360, Te Puna Quarry Park, Auckland Zoo, Sky Tower and Tongariro River Rafting. Rather than writing about the same destinations again, please read my previous posts: Adventures in Kiwi Land, Mount Maunganui, Tauranga, New Zealand, New Zealand-Tauranga & the Coromandel Peninsula, New Zealand Continued, and New Zealand-Goodbye for now...
We wouldn't be able to do all of the same things again but we did get to visit some new places like the Tongariro crossing, Wellington, and the Waitomo Caves. We had to be back in Auckland in a couple of days to return the Jucy van so we drove west and looked for the DOC campsite near Karangahake Gorge. The campsite was so hidden away that we drove back and forth for a while before finally having to stop for directions. When we finally located it, the sun was setting and the entire sky looked like one giant rainbow.
The next morning we hiked the Karangahake Gorge. I wrote about this in my post last year but I did some new trails this time worth noting. One of the trails led us through some old gold mining tunnels. They were pitch black so we weren't able to get very far without a flashlight. The trail was called "Windows Walk." There were holes cut out in the side of the mountain so when we were walking through the dark tunnels we'd eventually see a light ahead and we'd find a break in the rock wall that was like a window looking down onto the river below. We also took a trail that led us through an abandoned train tunnel. It was dark and damp and seemed endless. The train tunnel was so long that we couldn't see the end of it from where we started. I think we must have been walking for almost an hour before we made it to the other side. The trails were an adventure with lots of unexpected tunnels, windows, rope bridges and mine shafts to explore. I liked that they had an element of surprise and danger without actually being dangerous.
The Karangahake Gorge was very close to Paeroa, home of the "World Famous in New Zealand" Lemon and Paeroa soda so I had to take Darren to the L & P cafe to try one. L & P is a delicious and refreshing fizzy lemon drink that is sold only in New Zealand so you can't travel all the way to New Zealand and not try one. Once we quenched our thirst we were on our way to Auckland again. We stopped for fuel just outside the city. There was an information center right next to the petrol station. We had no idea where we could camp for the night as there were no DOC campsites in the area so we picked up a pamphlet that had a list of all of the cheap campsites around Auckland. It was just too easy.
|One Tree Hill|
Our campsite was located in Ambury Regional Park. It was a working farm that also had many walking tracks. Campers were allowed to explore the tracks and pet the animals but we were "Not allowed to chase the chickens!" Darren and I took advantage of the walking tracks and found some really cool fields of volcanic rock.
The next day we woke up early so we could pack up and clean the Jucy before turning her in. We found our hotel and dropped off our backpacks. It was 8:30 am and we wouldn't be able to check-in until 1 or 2pm. Then we dropped off the Jucy van and I took Darren on a walking tour of Auckland. The big excitement of the day was the notion of actually being able to sleep in a bed in a room with running water. We had been sleeping in a van for two weeks and we couldn't wait to have a roof over our heads and a hot shower. It felt strange and luxurious to have an entire room to spread out in.
My favorite part of the museum was the Volcanoes exhibit. I loved the immersive environment they created in the space with the small scale volcano complete with lava and ash cloud. At the end of the exhibit, we entered a small house. While sitting in the family room we watched a mock news report on the television broadcasting a volcanic eruption nearby. The house began to shake, the TV went blank and the lights went out simulating what a volcanic eruption would feel like, similar to the Pompeii exhibit I visited at the Discovery Museum in Times Square (see post: Pompeii comes to Times Square). New Zealand sits on two of the Earth's huge tectonic plates and the Auckland museum itself sits on the edge of Pukekawa, one of Auckland's oldest volcanic cones. The exhibit taught visitors how volcanoes are formed and how volcanic eruptions occur and it did a great job of educating people about the seriousness of a volcanic eruption. It informed visitors, without creating panic and terror, about what to do in the event of future eruptions. I appreciate when museums choose a subject matter that is relevant to their geographical region. They play an important role in teaching people about their culture and history and in this case, if an eruption were to occur in the near future, the information shared in this exhibit could potentially save lives. When we left the museum Darren had a smile on his face and said he didn't want to go at first but he wound up really enjoying it.
|Volcanoes Exhibit at Auckland Museum|
The sun was shining again the next day so we rented mountain bikes and took a ferry to Waiheke Island. We got a tip from the ferry ticket agent that if we were to rent the bikes in the city it would be a lot cheaper than renting them once we got to Waiheke Island and it was free to bring bikes on the ferry. Everyone in New Zealand is so helpful! She also gave us a map, of course, that had all of the bike trails on Waiheke Island. If wine tasting is your thing, you can also go on a guided wine tasting tour of Waiheke Island. You can also bring a tent and go camping as well. We rode our bikes around the island all day and stopped to check out all of the beautiful beaches and enjoy the quaint and serene surroundings on our last full day in New Zealand.
Travel tip: Be aware when traveling that the rules can always change without notice!
I ran back to the Internet kiosk and went online to book our tickets while Darren ran around the airport looking for a printer because we had to have a PRINTED ticket. I kept dropping change into the machine until I finally found fares for $600 each and booked our flights. Then we had to run to the other end of the airport to use the printer where we had to pay $2 per page! Then we had to get back on the check-in line to get our boarding passes. Once we were finally checked-in we breathed a sigh of relief and as we were walking to our gate a news reporter with a camera crew approached us, shoved a microphone in our faces, and asked if we were concerned about the floods in Fiji. She wanted to know if we were going to cancel our trip, to which we replied, "uh what floods in Fiji!?" This information would have been helpful before we ran all over the airport trying to buy tickets. We might have booked an earlier flight out. I shied away from the camera while the reporter interviewed Darren. He told her we had already survived several earthquakes and a cyclone in the past three months so we weren't about to be deterred by a flood.
Come back soon to find out what happened when we finally landed in Fiji...