North Island, 2018, 1

North Island, New Zealand, February and March, 2018, 1

(Vicki and Mark are in the midst of their third multi month trip to New Zealand since they retired in 2008. Earlier write ups are at their blog and lots of pictures at Mark's blog

We had a smooth sailing across Cook Straight and then an hour wait in the camper when the hydraulic door on the ferry wouldn't work. No biggie and off into Wellington, one of our favorite world cities. To us it seems a miniature San Francisco with far less traffic. We had used the Campermate app to book a place in someone's driveway on the peninsula of Miramar for $23 NZ. Certainly a first for us in over 9 years of camper travel. We were concerned that the free camping at Evan's Bay might be full and since the driveway was within walking distance of Weta Cave it would enable us to see it either in the afternoon or next morning. Weta did all the props and computer animation for Lord of the Rings as well as other movies such as Avatar and King Kong. We again eschewed the $45NZ pp guided tour but enjoyed the free movie about their work and all the hand crafted models of scenes from the various movies that they have for sale.

The driveway experience was fine and we chatted quite a bit with Brendan who shares the house with his sister. Very nice folks who even allow those not self contained to use their bathroom and offered to let us take showers. We got directions to the bus and for $5NZ pp rode into Wellington to the harbor to see the arrival of four waka (double hulled Maori canoes) who had spent four months sailing to NZ from Samoa. Well, we got to see them on the big screen television monitors along with the thousands of others. It was somewhat less than spectacular but before the landing we did get to eat dinner at Phu Thai Esarn Thai restaurant that we had discovered on our last trip—excellent and reasonable. $59NZ for chicken satay appetizer to split, red curry with prawns, green curry with chicken, rice, beer and coke.

Moving on the next day we drove around the outskirts of the peninsula, which is really quite scenic and not to be missed. A very rugged seascape with lots of rocks and dashing surf. Lots of places where you could freedom camp but really exposed to the winds off the straight. We kept it in mind for backup. We arrived at Evan's Bay Marina in the very early afternoon—freedom camping for about fifty vehicles but lots of folks took the risk of the $200 fine and parked outside of the designated area. You can park there up to 4 nights a month. But be there by mid afternoon to get a legal spot. Toilets are available a reasonable walk to the other side of the marina; pay showers at the sports complex nearby. Weekdays a bus stops right there; weekends a couple of blocks walk up Wellington Road to Hamilton brings you to the #2 stop. $3.50NZ pp to town or $9.50 for all day pass. There is also a very clean, attended free shower during the day in the public toilet block across the street from the entrance to the cable car in downtown Wellie—bring your own towel, etc. How cool is that?

We spent the afternoon enjoying again the free cable car museum and its fun film about the 400 private cable cars in Wellie and then walked down the hill through the free and excellent city botanical gardens. It had rained our last trip so we had missed this. We also walked through the old city Bolton Cemetery—old cemeteries we find endlessly fascinating—such commentary on what folks thought important at the time. We then walked over to Old St. Paul's Cathedral—a wooden, Gothic Anglican cathedral that was the city's main one until a replacement was built in 1963. It is not huge but the wooden Gothic arches are well worth seeing and it has a tasteful gift shop—especially if you are looking for a Kiwi Christmas ornament. On the way we passed the NZ government building known as the Beehive. Truly one of the world's ugliest capitals. Further along we visited the birthplace of Katherine Mansfield—short story writer par excellance ie. The Garden Party, The Doll's House. A really great day and 15,000 steps.

Wellington is home to the national museum—Te Papa. Excellent exhibits, gift shop, and all free. Having been twice before we only took time to see the special Gallapoli exhibit that Kathy and Rick had liked so much. We, too, had visited the battlefield in Turkey where 3,000 New Zealander's lost their lives, so this exhibit really clarified a lot of what happened there. But I will confess that about half way through I just couldn't take it anymore. We had seen the movie “The Post” just a few days before in Blenheim. Having just been reminded how both Republican and Democratic administrations had sacrificed so many for so little in Vietnam—and seeing the same again in the doomed from the start attack on Gallipoli---

On a brighter note, we also visited the Sunday morning produce and food truck market—sort of disappointed there were no crafts, then took the bus to Pirie parking lot at the foot of Mt. Victoria. From there it is not a far walk up to where several Hobbit scenes were filmed in The Fellowship of the Ring (LOTR), and then we climbed on to the 360 degree lookout at the top. On the way down I was wishing I had my hiking poles. The paths are used by bikers and walkers and aren't in the best shape in some spots. By the way last night and today Wellington has reinforced us with its Windy Wellie nickname—27-29 mph with lots of gusts even higher. Our little high top van has been a rockin and a rollin.

Next day we drove round Oriental Bay and through Wellie to Plimerton on the west coast to have a check up by a mechanic and to have the water pump replaced, which, though it still worked, was taking longer and longer to pressurize the system. Cruzy (our rental company) didn't want it to fail on us so they shipped a replacement to Paremata Auto Services—a lovely guy. We spent about two hours at a coffee shop in town and then headed east bound for Kaitoke Regional Park which was Rivendell in the LOTR movie. We had visited it on our all day movie tour by Rover tours in Wellie in 2008. Since then it has become so popular that the park has even put up several sign posts and a half size elven arch at the spot where the Fellowship departs for Mordor. Great fun for LOTR fans. But our real destination for the day was the Putangiru Pinnacles on Cape Palliser. This was the site of the Dimholt Road in LOTR. Now I know a lot of people can't believe folks actually go out of their way to visit movie settings, but what we have found is that we discover some of the really unusual and scenic places in New Zealand that way. The Pinnacles were no exception as you hike a semi dry river bed for about 45 minutes upstream to the best formations. We didn't take the much harder tramp up to the top. The way is pretty easy—just be sure to keep left where the stream bed divides. There is a DOC (Department of Conservation) $6pp campground there but we drove the extra 17 miles to freedom camp at the Lighthouse at the end of the Cape—beautiful spot. You do have to negotiate about 3 miles of gravel at the end, but it was in pretty good shape and not hazardous and there is a seal colony along the way. Just keep in mind that there are really no services at all south of Featherston on the cape so have your tank full and dinner bought.

The next day was another long drive north to the Napier area. We could only find two spots of interest along the way—Stonehenge Aotearoa and the Tui Brewery. Arriving at the parking lot of Stonehenge we were impressed with the foliage designed to shield it from the road but glancing at it---not stone, not even plaster, just giant rectangular concrete blocks erected in a circle—no way worth $8 pp admission charge. At the Brewery we had a late and fairly expensive lunch where Mark limited himself to 3 four ounce tastings before we rushed to the Tui magnetic bill board. Tui is justly famous in NZ for their hilarious advertising slogans that always end with Yeah, Right. So Mark dived in and put up our slogan for the day on the giant billboard—Mark and Vicki to settle down soon—Yeah, Right. Picture of us and it at the blog, of course.

We are great fans of Art Nouveau and Art Deco architecture, so enjoyed Napier immensely when we visited in 2014. This time we ventured first to Hastings which is about 12 miles south of Napier. Again loved combing the streets for the varied art deco buildings. We spent the night just east at the Ellison car park freedom camp, the closest we have ever parked to the high tide line. Great spot with flush toilets and we left our “gold” coin donation. Only a short walk to a small grocery and bar. This time round we found that Napier has become almost overly “spruced up.” Apparently it is now firmly on the cruise ship circuit. A Hastings local told us that it is so touristy that all the regular folks are leaving it and moving to Hastings and renting out their Napier digs. I will say this though—the Napier folks have made their beachfront (which is not swimmable due to monstrous waves) a terrific place for families—great playgrounds for different age groups, a big kids skate park and a little kids one completely separate. They even had a practice bicycling area for learners, complete with turn lanes and smaller traffic lights. Never, ever seen that before. We were parked just south of the New Zealand Aquarium in the car park for the “Pump Track.” (the little folks skate park) Free, flush toilets, water, dump and room for about 50 self contained campers. It was about a 30 minute walk into town.

Leaving Napier it's a long, lonely drive through a very unpopulated area to the next point of interest at the Morera Hot Springs. This DOC run attraction is one of the very few salt water thermal hot springs in the world. Even on a Saturday it had very few folks for its many pools. We rented a private pool for 30 min for $18 NZ pp, but after had access to all the other different size and temperature pools. Lovely. There are also three bush walks and hot showers with a small cafe. We could have spent the night in the parking lot for $5 each, or across the street at the campground but opted to drive back a ways to freedom camp at Otara Beachfront on the Mahia Peninsula. We didn't arrive until almost 6 but still lots of room for self contained campers and they also allowed tents which is rare nowadays. Flush bathrooms and right on a lagoon that joined the sea. We spent about an hour watching the kite surfers in the lagoon—the wind was really up and strong enough that it took one guy about 10 ft off the water. Our Ranker's app did say to be sure to park in the designated area or you would be given one of the infamous $200 tickets. We explored the north side of the cape and its sweeping vistas but decided not to pursue the gravel part of the road—just not in the mood.

Time for some city life, so we spent two nights at the freedom camping site right on the river in downtown Gisbourne. Rankers said hours were 6 pm to 8 am but no signage to that affect at the site. However, if you get there on a weekday you will find all the camping sites full of commuter cars, so you will just need to move into the blue lined area when they depart. Really nice bathrooms, adjacent rose garden, and then over the bridge and you're in town. Architecturally not much, but absolutely right out of the fifties in terms of shops and demeanor. Reminded me so much of shopping with my grandmother in downtown Logansport, Indiana when I was in elementary school. And they really do roll up the sidewalks at 6 pm and on Sundays.

After a relaxing day off with lots of rain we refilled diesel and groceries and pressed on to the East Cape where all our guidebooks reminded us that no tourists go. Pretty much correct, very rural, towns on the map weren't really towns at all and be sure you have your tanks full. We did make several stops—to see the longest wharf, etc. Didn't do the Captain Cook's walk but probably should have. What we liked best was St. Mary's Church in Tikitiki—really worth a whole day's drive in itself. The interdenominational church was built between 1922-24 as a war memorial for all the Maori soldiers in the area who died in the war. Outside it is just a small, clapboard building—inside it explodes with Maori carving of museum quality. The ceiling and walls are covered in exquisite woven flax matting, the stained glass windows were made in Christchurch with native symbolism. Wait till you see the carved baptismal font. Really for this church you must go to Mark's blog and see the pictures. All this for a donation through the door slot.

We had no idea the church would be so amazing so it was an added bonus to the real reason we drove all this way—the East Cape lighthouse and the first place in the world where you can greet the new day. The 20k road, part paved and part gravel, out to the lighthouse wasn't too bad but it is narrow and had the usual slips where parts have fallen into the sea. It is frightening but it seems almost normal now. Unfortunately the road is also shared with an occasional logging truck and even a school bus—but we were lucky and “missed” them. There is a car park at the end where you can park and climb the 800 steps to the lighthouse—are you kidding me? You can't park there overnight and in fact almost every pull off on the road says no overnight parking. There is a farmer's paddock campground about half way there—toilets and trash collection for $6 pp and lots of horse and cow dung. Instead we drove almost back to town and stayed right on the beach at S37 37.724 E178 23.418. One other camper joined us for the night. About 6:30 we woke up to see the dawn—heavy overcast so no seeing the sunrise—while we were waiting about half a dozen cars sped by headed to the lighthouse—not a road to drive in the semi dark in my opinion. So we were at least two of about the first twenty folks in the world to greet the day on March 6.

In the tiny town of Te Araroa is the oldest and largest of New Zealand's Pohutukawa (Christmas) Trees. Also the drive west along the north side of the cape is filled with these trees crazily wind blown and hanging over the surf—yes, this was where the drive was really scenic and most worthwhile. We spent the rest of the day driving off and on in rain headed for the thermal area around Rotorua

Rotorua is a strange place—our first trip to NZ we bypassed it completely having lived near Yellowstone we felt like we had already seen plenty of thermal areas. In 2014 we tented at a campground in town enjoying the “heated” tent site and cooking dinner in the hanga—steam vent heated outside ovens. This time our first night we stayed near the airport at the Holden Bay Holiday Park for $17 NZ each—pretty reasonable. Then the next morning moved to the freedom camp parking right in Government Park downtown. There are 18 spaces for self contained and the nearby toilets are locked from about 9 to 9 so you will need that potty. We spent the day walking part of the lakeside path and then over to Kaura Park. Lots of thermal features in the park, all for free, including a couple of my favorite mud pots and two foot baths.

Unbelievably, a third cyclone was bearing down on New Caledonia and had a high probability of hitting the North Island in three days. In the meantime we decided to head over to the west coast north of New Plymouth while the weather was good. One of our favorite hikes in 2014 had been the shore around the Three Sisters. This time we looked up the low tide in advance and were prepared. The drive west was very rural and little to see except grass covered hills with sheep and cows. We again stayed at the freedom camp right at Three Sisters next to the parking lot though you can't camp in the lot itself—weird. This domain (Tongaporutu) camp was listed in Campermate but not Rankers, so it's a good idea to check both apps when looking for a spot. We stayed two nights along with 10 to 12 others each night. We headed out to the Three Sisters—3 sea stacks, along with arches and caves—about two hours before low tide and had no problem getting through the river and didn't even get our feet wet. We arrived at the sisters and elephant rock right at low tide but could get no further as the waves were definitely still hitting the cliffs beyond. The Frenzy (NZ Frenzy North Island by Scott Cook, only available on Amazon) book seems to imply you can get further and braver souls may be able to splash around that point.

The next day we drove 34k south to the White Cliffs road arriving again about two hours before low tide. We decided to forgo the 4 mile loop which includes the cliffs and just did the beach to beyond the third waterfall. Very nice, but also lots of folks on the beach. Parking is very limited so arrive a good bit before low tide on weekends. As an added bonus Mt. Taranaki was gloriously out both days. We hurried back north to the picnic parking area at Rapanui and arrived right at low tide. We tried going south to see the beach spheres but again the waves at the cliffs stopped us. Going north is a nice, more private beach but you can't go far without climbing about a 25ft wall (with carved steps and a line): Mark went part way, but really not our thing.

With lots of daylight left we continued north to Waitomo, home of the famous glow worm caves. Continuing west past the caves we repeated the lovely bush walk at Ruakuri Tunnels and then went on west on the Te Anga Road. If you are in this area absolutely spend half a day doing these sites. All are short walks with gorgeous sights to see—Mangapohue Natural Bridge (where you can spend the night), Piripiri Caves (but take a flashlight), and Marokopa Falls—an astounding high and wide waterfall. We spent the night in a layby under an unreal landscape of karsts and then drove on to Marokopa and Kiritehere beaches—neither which impressed us. Turns out that in reading Lonely Planet later we could have gone north from the Three Sisters area on the coast road and come out near Marokopa and not done all the boring middle stuff. The atlas showed the road as gravel but Lonely Planet said it was all paved now except 12k—but twisty and narrow. Returning to Waimoto Caves I decided I wanted to do the touristy Glow Worm Cave tour—just 45 minutes, $51 NZ. Mark stayed in the visitor center and used the great wifi (only great upstairs). Even though it was only noon when we arrived the first open spot wasn't until 4:30 so again things are more crowded in NZ every year, so better to call ahead. The tour was just okay but if this is your only chance to see glow worms you should definitely take it.

That night we spent at the Roseland Restaurant car park where they allow self contained campers even if you don't eat there. The cyclone's rain had now arrived and there were about 15 campers with us—not very flat so try to get there early for the best spots. A short drive the next day brought us to Hobbiton-$79 and worth every penny for the 2 hour guided tour—even for the third time. Amazingly about 40% of the people who go have neither read the books nor seen the movies. How they can enjoy it at all I can't fathom. But then even some of my closest friends and relatives would be among them. My biggest disappointment was finding out they now have an evening tour with a Hobbit feast and it was sold out even though it costs $195 NZ pp. In fact it sells out months in advance. Just wait till I win the lottery. Even to go on a regular tour you need to call ahead a few days. We decided to drive through the closest town, Matamata, and stumbled upon a freedom camping spot for 8 vehicles right next to the Tourist Office. It was in neither Rankers nor Campermate but we spent a quiet night. Matamata is a very prosperous town in the middle of some of the best sheep and cattle country in NZ—and then there is the tourist traffic from Hobbitton. But they absolutely roll up the sidewalks at 5 pm. Mark took a picture of main street at 9pm with onlyone parked car and not a person in sight. Felt like the Twilight Zone.

The next day found us back in Rotorua where we stayed at the other freedom camping spot (just 3 places) S 38.12988 E 176.25028 because we were meeting up with the couple who escorted our Worldwide Motorhome Holidays tour last September to Southern Africa. This time they were taking the company's 35 day tour of New Zealand. We walked over to the Top Ten Campground and then out for a drink and a couple of hours of catching up. They lead tours to western Canada, western Australia, and Southern Africa so we hope to catch up with them again sometime—or even in the midlands of England when they are back home.

We briefly visited the Cormandel Peninsula in 2014. It is Auckland's playground and has tons of stunning shoreline. Hot water beach is its most famous and is packed from two hours before low tide to two hours after. This time we made reservations at the Top Ten Campground directly across the street for $40nz without power. As members we also got a free spade rental. Just to park at the beach is $2 an hour and no over-nighting allowed. We arrived just before the tide turned and started digging not too far above water line—a few shovels worth and some nice millenials offered us their pool as they were leaving. There are advantages to being old. Fortunately, theirs wasn't too hot. Often folks bring a bucket to throw in some sea water as I would estimate temps range from about 102 to 108. Certainly you have to be careful not to scald yourself. Air temperatures were only about 70 and partly cloudy so a good day for a soak and then back to the campground for a shower.

Next day we got a leisurely start just after 10 and drove the short distance north to Cathedral Cove. In 2014 we could park right at the start of the 40 minute paved walk—not anymore. A huge parking lot awaits just before the little town and a $5NZ pp round trip bus shuttles you to the start between 10 and 6. You can also walk an extra mile or so from the parking lot—don't do it—it is all uphill! The best time to be at the cove is around low tide so you can get through the arch to see the other sea stacks and islands. Though intensely popular—this beach is truly awesome and I don't think you will regret detouring to get here. Toilets are tucked up in the pohutukawa trees behind the cliff side waterfall. Driving on we made for the freedom camp at the boat launch and pier in Matarangi. S 36.73658 E 175.64728. Flush toilets, lovely spot with lots of room to spend a couple of days if desired. However, our foodstuffs were getting low so after one night we journeyed on to Thames along a lovely coastal stretch of highway. We were glad it was Sunday morning as there weren't too many big trucks and the road narrowed in quite a few spots. In fact, we carried on another 40k to Karangahake Gorge. Lots of folks there on a Sunday afternoon. Several nice hikes including the Window Walk of about an hour that takes you into the gorge through the old mining tram tunnels. Stunning scenery but be sure to have a flashlight. What I liked best of all was stopping just beyond the Gorge parking area at Owharoa Falls. There is very little parking there so you may have to go on another kilometer and park at Victory Battery and walk back. But if you have ever wanted to swim in a lovely stream and under a 30 ft tall waterfall this is your opportunity. On a nice day you won't be alone but do avoid the weekends.

Thames has three freedom spots, so we stayed in the middle one near McDonald's and with a 24 hr. toilet next to the kiddie playground. Very quiet even though right on main highway. Thames doesn't have much in the way of retro architecture but certainly looked more prosperous then it did four years ago. Monday dawned wet and so a good day for the long drive north through Auckland (which is sprawling everywhere now.) We stayed off the toll road but did get to see the barrier machine that Kathy described from their trip last year. Cool. But apparently it is doing little to relieve the growing traffic snarl caused by 1.4 million people trying to cram into a narrow isthmus. Our destination was the Riverside Holiday Park near the Mangawhai Cliffs walk. $40 NZ to spend the night in an older, but very clean campground that caters to permanent bachs and trailers set up for holiday weekends. We saw one other couple taking a stroll but basically it was deserted. No waiting to get the laundry done!

I will leave you poised for the island north of Auckland for next month when I will also include a summary of what we have learned from 8 months of touring New Zealand over the last nine years.