NZ March, 2014

New Zealand March, 2014

(Mark and Vicki were in their third month of car camping/cabin/hostel staying trip to New Zealand. They spent 8 weeks there in NZ summer 2009. These articles concentrate on the practical rather than the details of the tourist sites. The Frenzy book that I refer to is called NZFrenzy by Scott Cook and only available on Amazon in US. All costs below are in NZ dollars, which are pretty steady at .83 to the US dollar right now. DOC refers to Department of Conservation which is NZ's National Park and Forest Service and Smithsonian all rolled into one.)

We spent two nights in Picton at Alexander's Holiday Park. Fairly nice cabin with sink for 65nz. (All dollar amount are in New Zealand dollars so you can know prices regardless of exchange rate--currently .85U$D). Kitchen, bath, etc. were old but clean. Weather was too rainy and windy to tent. We moved our ferry date up by four days when we decided not to hike the Queen Charlotte Track. This was not too difficult given about 4 days notice. The crossing was very calm. It can be horrendous as 1000 miles of the Pacific tries to wedge itself through a 20 mile gap.

We spent five nights in Wellington at the Harbour City Motel. It was a good location near the end of Cuba Street and about a kilometer or so walk to Te Papa, cable car, etc. At $118 it was not cheap, but it had kitchenette and ensuite and free parking. Parking is particularly hard to find in the central city. Walls were thin, everything old, but clean

Must sees in Wellington are the bay drive in the NZ Frenzy book, the private cable car film at the free Cable Car Museum and WETA workshop of course. We took the all day tour of the Lord of the Rings sites when we were here before. It was terrific and well worth the $100 plus dollars. You could find the sites yourself using the LOTR location book but it would be a hassle and require 2-3 days. We also went to the Botanic Gardens and there took in the planetarium show. Early in your trip to New Zealand you should go to a night skies show as the night sky here is amazing and the more you know the more amazing you will find it. Don't buy the round trip cable car ticket as the walk down from the Botanic Garden is actually where the Botanic Garden is. It is a wide and gentle trip downhill. We didn't do it as it was raining. Our last night in Welly we had a wonderful Thai dinner at the not too expensive Phui Thai Esarn restaurant. Better than most meals we had in Thailand. By the way, though Te Papa museum is free, it is really not as good as the Auckland Museum so if you have to skip one, skip Te Papa.

North from Wellington we made the 4-5 hour drive to Napier. We missed Napier last time as it sort of off by itself. Napier was completely destroyed in a massive earthquake in 1931. Completely rebuilt in three years with government loans, it utilized the popular Art Deco style. All I can say is wow, WOW. You feel swept back in time and your neck aches from looking up (though none of the buildings are more than 3 stories.) There are also lots of antique, crafts, and second hand dealers and even a Charleston chic store. We missed the Art Deco weekend that is held in February where the whole town puts on the Ritz. Next trip to NZ will be planned around being in Napier for it. There is also a big marina area, pounding surf on the boardwalk and further round the bay, nice swimming beaches. We stayed at the Affordable Holiday Park on the west side. Very close to the swimmable beach but not walkable to town--also noisy in the tent from the train and road.

The drive from Napier to Taupo is through a very unpopulated area with lots of clear cuts and regenerating tree farms. Not much to see but only a couple of hours of winding but good road. Taupo is a great small, resort town right on the shores of the big lake. Had a couple of terrific outlet stores---one for souvenirs and one for merino wool products. By far the best prices we have seen in two months. Time to buy the t-shirts for our granddaughter and merino sweaters for Mark and me. We spent the night at the free campground --Reid's Farm--just north of the city. Old fashioned Forest Service style pit toilets and lots of young people of course. But it is right by the river. You can stay for up to 7 nights, so with a van and earplugs it would be a great deal. Checking the weather, we decided to hurry on to Tongariro National Park--home of the three great volcanoes.

These are all active volcanoes with one of the side vents still fuming away. Mark reminded me that we have visited lots of active volcanoes, Aetna, Vesuvius, Hawaii, and aren't dead yet, but still the wild landscape constantly reminds that mother nature is truly in charge here. Our first night we stayed in a miniscule cabin at Discovery Holiday Park. $60 a night with lousy kitchen and bath facilities but since it poured for 4 hours we were happy to be there. The next morning dawned clear and bright so we hurried to the DOC (Department of Conservation) $6pp campground near the turn off to Whakapapa, set up our tent and drove back to the start of the tramp Mark wanted to do, climbing Mt. Doom (LOTR) real name, Mt. Ngauruhoe. Since I didn't want drive back to the campground (having never driven on the wrong side of the road) I just stayed all day in the parking lot. We had fairly good wifi on our Vodafone wireless and I was working my way through a gigantic fantasy novel I picked up at a campground book exchange. Unfortunately, the sand flies (which aren't such a big problem on the North Island) were prevalent here so I was hot in the sunny car. But not for me hiking on gravel covered volcanic trails. This is also the place that the Tongariro Alpine Crossing either starts or finishes--NZ's most popular tramp. It was a 10 1/2 hr tramp to climb the volcano for Mark and one he says he won't do again. If you go, be sure to take gloves for the 40 degree scree scramble and leave early to get back before dark.

It was after dark when we got back to the campground and we were glad we already had pitched the tent as the campground was quite full. Untreated water, pit toilet but nice kitchen shelter. We didn't go back up to Whakapapa where we spent Christmas 5 years ago and hiked to the LOTR Emyn Muil sites. Instead we headed for the Forgotten World Highway to Mt. Taranaki. 150k with no gasoline or public bathrooms. We made a pit stop at the Whangamomona Hotel for a light lunch. Whangamomona declared itself an independent republic in 2005. Long story but light-hearted. See Wikipedia for details. The government has left about 20k of the road as gravel to discourage travel through the narrow gorge. But really the road wasn't that bad.

We rushed to Stratford-on-Patea to see the glockenspiel with its Romeo and Juliet figures--totally cornball but a must-see for this ex English teacher. We stayed at the Holiday Park there--old facilities, $17 pp and lots of construction workers staying in the cabins who got up at 5:30am and weren't the least bit quiet about it. We headed off to the Dawson Falls entrance to Mt Taranaki Park, though the sky was completely overcast even though the weather forecast was for sunny and bright. Luckily it turned out to be a low level fog and the volcano appeared at about 11am in all its glory. It stayed out for two hours and in the next three days, though the rest of the sky was clear, there were always clouds covering the mountain. Apparently in summer it is visible less than half the time. We took the short and easy walk to Wells Pools plus the steep, but all built in steps, walk to the lovely Dawson Falls. Rounding the mountain we joined up with the Surf Highway at Oaonui. This maybe a popular surfing town but to us it looked near death. We stopped at the Edgemont Lighthouse and the famous Stent Beach but the surf was really calm that day.

At Oahua we stayed at the Oahua Beach Holiday Park with a wonderful tent site flat out on the beach just above the surf--$18pp and a wonderful place to stay. Million dollar view, super wide black sand beach and swimmable--unusual in much of NZ. The next day we wandered north following the Frenzy book's advice to first White Cliffs beach and then Three Sisters--both fabulous if you like sea stacks, caves, arches, beach waterfalls, white cliffs. Our only disappointment was that the main waterfall at White Cliffs was dry--the central and north part of the North island is in the middle of a drought. Hopefully we will still have the opportunity to swim in the sea and rinse off under a waterfall. The frenzy book is full of such places but usually it has been too cold for us to try it. Both of these beaches must be visited near low tide so grab a newspaper to get the tidal times. In fact to do the northern side of the Three Sisters you really need to start about half an hour or so before low tide. By the way, Mark and I both slipped on the mud walking out on the southern side; take hiking poles if you have them. At Three Sisters there was a free, unmarked camp with flush toilet. We were the only tenters but several other campers spent the night. A nice end to a really great beach exploration day.

After Three Sisters a cyclone threat drove us inland to Te Kuiti, after whose glow worm caves we visited Rotorua and its great thermal features—staying at a “heated” campground (everything in Rotorua is “heated”)--and then drove on to Matamata, now the home of Hobbiton, reconstructed after LOTR for The Hobbit movies. For LOTR fans it was great.

We missed the Coromandel Pennisular last time, and I really wanted to visit Hot Water Beach. Certainly it lived up to its reputation as a very crowded but fun destination though we didn't dig a tub since there were no showers at the beach for clean up. There is a Top Ten Holiday Park right across the street and it was the only one close by. If you are not tenting, you will definitely need to make a reservation to be sure of getting a cabin bed or camper parking spot. Elsewhere on Coromandel we visited Cathedral Cove.

The North Island is fairly narrow at this point, and switching from the Pacific coast to the Tasman coast takes little time. Our next sites were Waikato Beach amd Murawai Beach, both on the Tasman, before getting to the longest of New Zealand's undeveloped beaches, Bayly's Beach.

One thing high on my bucket list was to ride horseback on a wild beach. We had thought that would be at 90 Mile Beach but we ended up finding a much better opportunity at Baylys Beach. Rain was predicted so we rented a standard cabin for two nights for $65 per night. No rain the first night but lots the next afternoon. Baylys Beach is part of Ripario Beach which is actually several miles longer than 90 mile but less famous. And we loved it. The Holiday Park owner's high school daughter took over running the horse treks a couple of years ago. For a super reasonable $70 each you can ride for 2 hours and if you are experienced you can do the cliffs as well as the beach. Mark and I are very inexperienced but spent an hour or so walking, trotting, and I even got up to a canter. Well, after about two minutes of flailing around, I called the canter to a stop. I did get to splash through the waves though. We both loved it, and Amelia was terrific and very safety-oriented. If you want to do this at Baylys, call ahead as the campground was for sale.

In addition, after seeing so many cars driving on the beach and reading the Frenzy description, we threw caution (and our insurance) to the winds and actually drove down the beach and back for about a kilometer. Great fun. Next time I think we will rent a quad (ATV) as my horseback riding days are definitely over unless some necessity strikes.

Further north from Bayly's we followed the Frenzy advice and visited the Kai Iwi Lakes. Not that scenic in themselves, though the largest does have a $10 per person nice campground with hot showers. After checking out the campground we parked at the gate for the 2k walk through pastures to Ripiro Beach. A clear path with 7 or so stiles to cross fences and a downhill section at the end where I needed my hiking poles. The beach was amazing--golden sand, a lovely waterfall, multi colored cliffs, and the wide blue sea. In two hours there we never saw another soul on that Monday in late March. Another bucket list check for splashing through the surf and then rinsing off in a waterfall and drying on a picnic blanket in the sun. A very memorable day.

Nightfall found us setting up our tent in the Thomsun Kauri Park DOC campground for $10 pp. It was small but had a kitchen with cookers, refrigerator, sinks, hot showers and free electric plug-ins for campers. I don't think there is another DOC campground with those amenities in NZ. Before dinner we spent about 50 minutes walking the very nice Kauri trail through some beautiful virgin bush with lots of Kauri--second only to the Sequouia in size. After dark we covered our headlamps with red cellophane and walked part of the path again searching for wild Kiwi. The small park has about 200 resident kiwis--we didn't see any but we did hear them call and it was really a thrill. I think hearing them was almost better than seeing them.

Still heading north we stopped to see once again Tane Mahuta---the world's largest Kauri and about 2000 years old. At HokiangaBay the view from the lookout was stunning though we decided to save the coastal walk for another trip. Just north of Opanui we drove back to the bay on the Frenzy advice to see more of the rounded boulders at Kouto, like they have at Moeuka on the south island. Mark loves these things. Since we did the far north last trip at the Bay we headed east, stopping in Kawakawa to visit the public toilets designed by the Viennese architect and artist Friedenreich Hundertwasser. Amazing and fantastic, as was the gift shop across the street. We loved his stuff in Vienna. If you are a Gaudi fan, you will love Hundertwasser too. I would love to have a bathroom like this! Plus it is something you could actually do yourself. Of course, you would actually have to have a house, which we don't!

We decided not to hunt for Kiwis at Awora Island but took the car ferry from Opau ($12) to Russell. We stayed in Russell last trip and took a day cruise on the sailing ship out through Bay of Islands. It was lovely but at $145 pp not something we wanted to repeat. Instead we drove through the lovely town to Long Beach and then back to Tapaka Beach and up the tiny Firestone Rd to the the lookout. All three spectacular, reasonably uncrowded, and not to be missed. Since the weather was fine we wanted to go to another DOC campground and hike the loop trail that Frenzy recommended on the Whangaruru Peninsular. The drive from Russell starts out nice but then becomes unbelievably beautiful. The coves, islands, sea stacks, on and on--loved especially Tapeka Cove and Bland Bay. We stayed in the DOC campground --water, toilets, cold showers and a gorgeous spot right on the bay. Reservations can be booked on line and are needed in high season but there were only about 15 campers there at the end of March, even though daytime highs have been consistently in the uppers 60s to mid 70s. The campground manager told us that on the central and northern North Island weather was usually pretty good until mid May.

Next stop, or drive really, the Tutukaka loop--fabulous, then into Whangarei to see the quite nice water fall and the so-so canopy trail to see four modest Kauri. You are really only up in the canopy about 20 ft high on one of the trees as it grows on the side of the ravine. It was a quick but pretty walk though. Spent the night at Whangarei Central Holiday Park cabin with fridge and sink for $65 minus 10% AA discount. The Frenzy book then sent us to Smugglers Cove for the 2 hour head walk there. Not difficult, and wonderful views over oddly weathered volcanic heads and islands near Ocean Beach. On all these drives you can stop at numerous coves to admire the surfers or the views.

Near Waipui we took a good gravel road back to the largest uncommercialized cave in New Zealand. Mark didn't even get wet crossing the small stream right inside the mouth on strategically placed rocks--I waded. Inside the main room you are rewarded with constellations and galaxies of glow worms--the reason we came. Other people there went on for an hour or two exploring the rest of cave, but we are a little past the stooping and muddy squirming required. You can stay for free in the gated cow pasture parking area and there are cold showers for rinsing off the mud and nice toilets. We opted to drive the 15k or so to the DOC campground on the beach. Be warned the campground is nice enough but the road noise is not drowned out by the surf.

Our last day of touring took us south to Mangawhai Heads and a lovely walk on Surf Beach--forgoing the longer and more strenuous cliff trail. Frankly, we were just tuckered out and decided to get to Auckland a day early. We called ahead hoping to get a cabin somewhere along the way but everything was sold out. It was Friday night of a lovely warm weekend and all the Holiday Parks north of Auckland were at or near the beach so nice weekends find them full. So one more night of tenting--$40 in the tent. Our final two nights were in a small cabin, $55 at Manakawa Top Ten Park near the airport. We had planned to take a few hours off from packing to revisit the Auckland Museum and their impressive Maori collection, but just couldn't get up the interest. By the way, many many folks were using Manakawa as a last stop before leaving the country. So if you come to Auckland anytime from January on, reserve here, and you will find people giving away all kinds of staples and camping gear. We left our camping chairs, plastic storage bins, extra towels, etc.

New Zealand is a wonderful place and we can hardly believe that after 11 weeks this time and 8 last trip that there is so much left to see. A few winters from now we will definitely be back but with a van, not a tent. Next month I will write a short article on the things we learned that we need to remember and that you might want to keep in mind if you come--and the final figures on what we spent. E noho ra, New Zealand!