North Island New Zealand, 2018, 2

North Island Part 2 and Wrap Up, New Zealand, March, 2018

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

We left you ready to go on the Mangarhai Cliff walk. I will say if you are going to do only one cliff walk in New Zealand this should be the one. We did the entire 8 km loop as it was 2 hrs and 20 minutes until low tide. You start on the beach heading north and though it is only supposed to take 90 minutes, we found the terrain challenging as the “beach” is about 30% sand and the rest rock of various sizes. My hiking poles were of immense help but I should have worn walking shoes or boots rather than water shoes—never got my feet wet, but sure felt the volcanic rocks. At the end of the beach part you pass through an arch and then head up the 200 odd stairs to the top of the cliffs. The path is well maintained and passes through some nice bush before opening out to reveal miles of shoreline. (see amazing pics at Mark's blog) Of course there are then 217 steps down at the south end to regain the beach for about a 20 minute walk to the car park. For most folks, 3 hrs, for us, 4 hrs and 20 minutes. Actually the beach part was not that awesome but the cliff walk going south was worth every step. Since you can't overnight there we headed north for the hour's drive to Waipu Cave.

DOC (Department of Conservation) allows tents and campers to spend night in this freedom camp with flush toilets and cold outside showers. We had gone into the cave in 2014 but only through the first room—this time we got much further. You do have to get wet, but the water never went above my knees and it was not very cold. The hardest part is getting down into the cave mouth where the mud can be slippery. Beyond the entrance in the first room, let your eyes fully adjust, and then the glow worms spring out. Wade left along the stream into the next big room and they are even more wondrous and numerous. This is way, way better than the Glow Worm Cave trip at Waimoto, and it's free and you can spend as much time as you like. Lots of younger folk went in even further, including a couple who said they had got completely turned around. However, the guidebook says you can't get lost—but you will have an utterly unique experience. (Thanks to Scott Cook's NZ Frenzy North Island book, only available on Amazon). We actually didn't get that dirty so after some vigorous feet washing headed into Whangeri for some urban fix.

Whangeri has a lovely downtown by the river wharf freedom camp parking. Since it was early afternoon we had no problem finding a spot. We enjoyed walking through the marina area with its lovely old buildings which have been converted to art galleries, restaurants, and gift shops—but not really blazingly touristry. We went further to see the old library which Lonely Planet had said was a terrific art deco building—as Tui beer would say—yeah, right. About the plainest Jane art deco we have ever seen. Leaving town the next morning we stopped briefly at Whangeri Falls—nice, quick stop with a low canopy nature walk, if you are so inclined.

Our main goal was to drive the Tutuakaka circuit. Lots of beaches and walks outlined in Frenzy, the main one at lovely Matapouri Beach. Yeah, freedom camping for 3 vans allowed and flush toilets, so we settled in. As the tide went out we decided to try the climb over the headland to Whale Cove. It didn't sound too terrible—it looked awfully steep, mud steps cut into the slope, a rope some locals had tied to a tree for the worst parts. We managed to get about half way up, past the rope when we pulled aside to let a group past us coming down. The middle age dad warned us that it only got worse from there. We turned around and painstakingly inched our way back down, cursing myself—what in the world was I thinking. I couldn't have done it at 30 let alone a week shy of 70! Had a nice quiet night though. Glad not to have a broken leg.

Not to be deterred completely the next morning we backtracked a little to try the walk to Tana Moana—a kauri tree (second largest tree species in the world) of huge girth found on only an hour's walk. The trail was fine, though uphill, and we were happy when we hit the gentler logging road—but right ahead an enterprising bee keeper had set up his 60 odd hives on both sides of the road and no way round them through the dense bush. Mark had gotten a nasty sting 3 weeks earlier on a hike, so this too became a no go. Somewhat daunted we demurred at going back to the shore roads and opted for the main state highway to Kawakawa and then on to Russell. Approaching Kawakawa we hit the detour—not just any detour—the cyclone three weeks ago had caused a slip (landslide) on the road to Opau where the ferry is to Russell. At the town library (next to the rightly famous and not to be missed Hundertwasser Public Bathrooms) we learned of the three choices. We could take the mostly one lane, most direct gravel route, or backtrack a good ways and go back to the shore road we had eschewed earlier, or continue west then east in a big loop to Opau. What the hay—back to the shore road. We had hoped for scenic coastline driving—but mostly it was in the bush and a couple of hours of twisty, turny. Ta da—I thought we would be in Russell by 1 instead we pulled into the Top 10 Holiday Park somewhat after 4. At least it was most reasonable one we stayed in at $37 NZ, unpowered with generous free internet.

With lots of intermittent rain predicted we opted for a second night in Russell but did get to walk the couple of blocks into town. The Bay of Islands is one of the North's most touristy areas but most of the action is across from Russell in Paihia. Russell is New Zealand's oldest European settlement and still its most genteel place, a pretty, quiet small town with a short beachfront lined with restaurants and lovely old trees. Some of the buildings date to the mid-19th century. A great place to just relax and catch our breaths after a couple of frustrating days. Though really pretty mild frustrations.

Next stop was the oldest stone building in NZ, near Kerikeri—the Stone Store. Actually it is part of a DOC historical park complex on a pretty inlet where one of the first Methodist missions was set up. Close by is Aroha Island which is a private Kiwi preserve (across a small causeway) where you have to spend the night to try to spot the kiwis. Camping was $40NZ without power plus $1 showers. Turns out there are only 2 kiwis there and we didn't see them. Don't really know what your chances are. There is a round the island nature walk to see various trees that takes less than an hour and you can also rent kayaks.

Our next big day hike was Mahinepua Peninsula Walk. This turned out to be Mark's favorite as the 2 hour round-trip (us 4 hrs) is all about rugged coves, sandy beaches, sea stacks, islands, and views. Absolutely lovely, with a toilet at the parking lot, well kept trail, but 297 steps (times 2). No spending the night though, so after the hike we continued farther north to Tokerau Beach. Campermate reviews said lots of room so we weren't worried about arriving at dinner time. The part gravel road back is fine but at the beach it deteriorates. Bigger rigs parked close in with the more venturesome spread out along the long, wild bayfront beach. Potties are a long way off though so self contained is very important. This whole part of the northland has very few services so you want to keep a good eye on your fuel gauge and have plenty of drinking water with you.

Along the way we had noted signs that the road to Cape Reinga was closed due to a 60 foot wash out from the last cyclone. We had already been in 2009 and had not planned to go again, but it was another reminder that weather can play havoc with your plans and that you need to keep abreast of local road conditions. Two last beach walks awaited at the Matai Bay and Merita Beach. Lovely DOC campground there but again bring your own water. Matai Bay is an absolute jewel—do look at a picture of it—a perfect, white sand crescent with blue green crystal clear water. Next door Merita Beach is much longer and immensely wide at low tide. It is divided into two bays by a small peninsula. There is also a giganormous pohutukawa tree. Supposedly we had seen the largest one in NZ at East Cape—but this one seemed at least as big and you could walk all around underneath it. The headland trail over the peninsula was too steep for us so we ducked around the backside on an old gated road. Another fantastic beach explore.

The North Island is very narrow here so a short drive brought us Omahuta Forest and the Big Stump. Unfortunately the last 6 k of the drive was marked with big signs warning campers, caravans, and motorhomes not to go down the one lane road. At only 5m, which is really car length, we decided to risk it. We made it but there were lots of low hanging branches that were difficult to duck. Overall, I can't advise doing it. It was fun to see the kauri stump as very, very few exist as they were cut up for firewood. This one is 6 feet wider than the largest one currently alive in NZ, but since it is being colonized by ferns, weeds, lichen, and even small trees, it was hard to get a good impression of it and it is only about a foot tall.

We had hoped to find a spot in the forest to spend the night but the likeliest spot was too unlevel, so we pressed on for an hour or so to Kohuhohu on the west coast where we could find the next campground at a hostel. Lonely Planet had said that the little town was a delight of Victorian buildings—we really didn't see anything worth the drive. However, it turned out the hostel was several kilometers beyond the ferry dock and the ferry dock had a nice level spot and toilets, no signage against staying the night, so we did. Next morning while having breakfast all the students who lived on this side of the bay arrived to catch the 8 am ferry. We were the last aboard for the 8:30--$22 NZ for a small campervan.

We arrived at Opononi at high tide so no chance to walk out seeking the huge round boulders like we did in 2014. Instead we took the short scenic drive and hike at the end of Hokianga Harbor to the old signal station site on the clifftops. The beach walk looked like it would be great at low or mid tide—next time. About two hours later on the main highway found us in the Waipoua Kauri Forest. Third time is a charm, and this time we decided to take the time to do the whole nine yards—Tane Mahuta (the largest), the Four Sisters, Te Matua Ngahere (second largest, but oldest, fattest and I think, the most impressive), and the hour walk out to see the seventh largest Yakas. The Yakas walk was fantastic as there are dozens of really big kauri along the way so you truly feel what it must have been like when these giants populated most of the area north of Auckland. Plus the boardwalk goes all the way around and up to Yakas so you can give him a hug. All the other kauris are strictly off limits as kauri die back fungus is carried on shoe soles. To help keep the kauris alive shoe disinfecting stations are on every path and walkers are asked to keep strictly to boardwalks and paths.

Beyond the Kauri Forest is another so called ecological island—Tronson Kiwi and Kauri Reserve. It is encircled by farmland and planted pine forests but somehow it survived to be preserved. DOC has a campground there where we stayed in 2014 to do the night walk, but we didn't spot a kiwi. The campground has a kitchen but no showers and is now $15 pp for an unpowered site. We decided to go 5k further to the Kauri Coast Top 10 campground where we could stay with showers for $20 NZ. What a nice place! Surrounded on 3 sides by streams and rivers the owners have put in a nature trail and an old fashioned swimming hole with rope swing. The playground even had a child sized zip line. We then drove back to Trounson for another go and spotting a kiwi. We heard a couple of calls but no luck. Oh well.

With two more days left for adventures we stopped, as we did in 2014, and took the Riparo Beach DOC trail across from the Kai Iwi Lakes near Dargaville. It was my 70th birthday and we hiked the 2.1 k trail through the cow pastures and up and down the 187 steps to the most deserted but accessible beach in New Zealand with its own waterfall. Last time I hadn't liked the slippery part down to the beach—but DOC had put in some lovely stair cases in the last four years. Go on a weekday and you won't see a soul. We had dinner in Dargaville at the Northern Wairoa Hotel. Thursday night dinner special—pork ribs, chips (french fries), salad for $10—folks that's $7.23 including tax and tip. Believe me it was good and there is no where else probably on earth that you can eat in a restaurant for that price. Specials are Monday-Thursday. The hotel dining room was obviously redecorated last in about 1958—you will love it.

From Dargaville to Bayly's Beach is but 7 quick miles. The holiday park there is no bargain--$40 NZ non powered with rather old but clean facilities. However, it is all about the beach here. Bayly's Beach is an official NZ highway and way safer to drive on than 90 Mile Beach. Last time we took our station wagon out only for about half a kilometer being well aware that we didn't know what we were doing and that no NZ rental insurance allows beach driving. We also did another bucket list tick and went horse riding on the beach—since I almost fell off, I had no desire to try that again. This time for my second birthday—you get two in New Zealand, the first one on your birth date and then again on the next day when you actually have been on earth your ______(fill in the number) years. Any way we rented an ATV for the first time ($95 NZ) for an hour and cruised quite a ways in both directions. It was Good Friday which is a legal holiday in NZ so the beach was full of folks fishing, clamming, riding ATVs, driving cars and pickups, playing in the little waterfalls. But this is a gigantic beach so it wasn't really crowded at all. Super birthdays! Late that afternoon we drove on to the Kauri Museum arriving about 5:30. Kathy and Rick had written that they freedom camped there—we called ahead and they said no problem. We didn't go to the museum itself though.

At this point we were only a couple of hours from Orewa Beach, which is just north of Auckland. Well, it would have been a couple of hours. At Warkworth the road was closed—how about a 30 mile detour with all the holiday weekend traffic on a two lane, twisty road through nowhere. Turns out there had been a shooting and the perpetrator had taken off going north on the main highway—so they closed it down until he was caught. We arrived finally at Orewa Beach Top 10 Holiday Park right on the beach and only a short walk to town. Pretty full on this four day weekend ( Easter Monday is a legal holiday too) but not completely. Here we are going to pack and clean up and wind down before turning in the camper Monday afternoon before our evening flight to San Francisco. Lots of families here, some obviously having big get-togethers. Again this is a huge beach and even with loads of people doing their thing it didn't feel crowded. What I enjoyed the most on my stroll today was seeing four cricket family games going—very impressed that a 7 year old can wind up, take those mincing cricket steps, and his 8 year old cousin can crack that ball over his father's head and down the beach.

You might be wondering why we are staying so far (about an hour if traffic not bad) from Auckland. Well the nice campground near the airport where we stayed last time has closed and is probably a condo now. All the others I looked up had reviews ranging from bad to worse. This one isn't quite as nice as most Top 10s—much older and unrenovated buildings, but I'm sure they get lots of points for location and view.

In trying to sum up I won't try to organize this much, but hopefully the information will still prove useful. NZ is a wonderful place to visit but it is not the bargain it once was. The NZ dollar was at about .73 this trip compared to .60 in 2009 and .84 in 2014. So certainly the exchange rate can have a huge affect on your costs. NZ is also pretty large when you start driving it and what you want to see is often spread out and may even take considerable backtracking. It is also mountainous with lots of shoreline so the roads are good, but twist and turn continuously and so are slow going. The national speed limit is 100km or 60 mph. We rarely went over 90 and on most roads you are constantly slowing down for 35, 25 even 15 km turns and one lane bridges are the norm not the exception,

Many, many folks rent campers because things are so spread apart and because the country and what you want to see in the country is so overwhelmingly rural and outdoorsy. Camper rental though is expensive—every bit as expensive as in the US if you want a late model unit with a bathroom. There are lots of cheaper units available but they carry lots of caveats. We rented from a small company—Cruzy Campers—because of their top reviews on Rankers. Ours was a 5m 2002 Toyota van with a raised roof for standing room. It had a sink, 7 gallon water tank, hot water heater, electric only heat, 2 burner cooktop, storage closets, a dinette that made into a bed, a coach battery and a porta potti. It had 404,000km on it when we picked it up. The cabinets inside were beat up, but it had new cushions and was spotlessly clean. It was certified self contained which is a must if you want to do freedom camping. For 80 days it cost us $84 a day US for pick up in Christchurch and drop off in Auckland for high season between January 13 and April 2. We did not pay for the extra insurance and just went with the $1,100 US deductible. Our rental also did not include roadside assistance. This was our third long trip to New Zealand in 9 years and at our age (70) we really didn't like making up the bed each day and not having a bathroom since we did about 2/3 of our nights freedom (free) camping. On the positive side we had absolutely no problems with the van, it was easy to find parking, and we were allowed down any reasonable gravel road. Many, many of the interesting sights and hikes in New Zealand are down gravel roads so if you can't drive them you will be limited to the more developed tourist spots.

Freedom camping is alive and well but often limited to 2 or 3 spots in a parking lot. This necessitates stopping early so if you are limited in your time you will probably have to go to more campgrounds. Camping ranges from about $27 to $47 for two persons with electric hook up usually $3.50 to $4 US more per day. We had a three way refrigerator so seldom got an electric hook up. Our camper did not have a 12volt plug in for the coach battery so we brought one from the US that easily attached to the battery along with a small inverter so we could charge computers and phones when we weren't driving. If you want a really small unit with a bathroom check out Lucky campers. We also found out that some of the largest rental companies actually have units tiered by age. For instance the same company owns Maui (0-3 yrs old), Britz (4-6) and Mighty (7-9 years old). These large companies have a range of Sprinter vans and class C models. I don't know if the older ones can be driven on gravel or not.

Besides freedom camping there are two major private campground chains—Top Ten and Kiwi. Top Ten is most expensive but if you join for $35 US you get a 10% discount on camping or motel rooms and 15% off on Interisland ferries and lots of other discounts like 10% on Hobbiton. Top Ten's are very clean with newer facilities and all the communal kitchens have a full assortment of pots, skillets, plates and cutlery. Nearly all NZ campgrounds have communal kitchens but lots of the independent ones don't have anything beyond stoves, sinks and refrigerators. There are also Department of Conservation campgrounds. These used to be a bargain, now most are $10 to $14 US per person with no hookups or showers, Since the price was minimally different from private campgrounds, we didn't use the DOC very much.

If you plan on car camping or staying in motel type units expect to pay about $60 to $85US for a 2 person unit without bath at a campground where you would use the communal kitchen and bathrooms. In high season if you want your own ensuite bathroom and kitchen, rates are in the $130 US and up. Regular motels and hotels in cities are more. A third person, even a child, is usually about $15 US extra per night and free breakfast is unknown. Check out time is universally 10 AM whether campground or motel. When renting a car or a camper pay close attention to whether a gasoline or diesel and who pays the diesel mileage tax. Gasoline is about $2.10 a liter and diesel about $1.35. Our rental company paid the diesel tax but most don't, so figure that in. In 2014 we drove 5,200 miles and 5,000 miles this time. If you are going to tour both islands you will drive 4,000 miles—it is bigger than it looks!

Books, insect repellent, any over the counter drugs are very expensive. The best place to purchase any camping chairs, household items, etc. is at the Warehouse chain which would be similar to a Walmart. Prices there are as much as 50% lower than other places. Overall groceries are somewhat more expensive than in the US, as is eating out.

At the Top Ten campgrounds as members we got about 500 meg of Wifi free per day and its usability varied by distance and how many others were online. We also purchased a Spark visitor's cell phone SIM which lasted two months with unlimited NZ phone, text, 200 texts to US, 200 minutes to US and 4 G of data for $75 US. This particular plan was only available from Spark airport kiosks and in Christchurch store. We then bought extra 4.5 G of data for $30 as we needed it. Your phone will have to be unlocked and of the ATT type (not Verizon.)

We spent $6,700 on the camper rental, $970 for diesel, $1,216 groceries ($15 per day), $485 eating out, $939. campground fees and 2 nights DOC hut fees, $80 laundry, $42 propane, $200 cell and internet, $575 entertainment. Entertainment was way down from our last trips as we didn't repeat a lot of the expensive tours we had done before. That's $140 a day. For a couple on their first trip using a similar vehicle, I would add another $800 to 1,000 for entertainment.

As I finish this, we are in the camperstop/storage area in Rome where we stored our camper last winter. Very happy that everything works except a dead starter battery that the attendee jumped for us. We have been here four days and today went into Rome for the first time. Jet lag is a bummer when you are coming from California to Europe—9 long hours. Arrivaderci! Vicki and Mark