Weeks 14 and 15 (12th–24th May) – New Zealand

We didn’t get off to a great start when we woke up at 5am and lugged our rucksacks across Hyde Park to wait for a bus that didn’t turn up. After almost an hour, Peb (the Genius) realised he’d looked at the bus timetable for weekdays and it was Sunday, so no buses were due for hours. Cue expensive taxi. Not to mention that after 3 months, Australia felt like home, and Sydney is a tough city to leave.

The flight with Air New Zealand was only 2 and a half hours but we got breakfast and movies and shared the plane with the entire NZ Warriors rugby team, not that we knew who they were at the time. Some friends of friends of the family kindly met us at Auckland airport, despite having only known of our existence for a week, and took us back to their lovely home for a delicious Sunday dinner and a bed for the night! They even took us to fetch our “mighty” campervan the next morning. It still amazes us how kind people are to people they’ve never met before.

We pillaged the free food and book shelves at Mighty, then headed to the supermarket where we were disappointed to find that our beloved Aussie Woolies is called Countdown here, and despite being the same store technically, the prices are much higher. We spent the rest of the day driving towards the north of the island upon a guide book recommendation. Our first campsite was Trounson, where we went for a late night walk into the pitch-black forest to spot kiwi birds, to no avail, though we were mildly surprised when a possum crept up on us.

The following day was cold and rainy, so aside from stopping to see Tane Mahuta (the biggest Kauri tree in NZ), we did nothing but drive for hours and hours up incredibly windy roads through very English-looking scenery. We finally arrived at Cape Reinga, the northernmost point of the North island as the sun was setting, and braved the biting wind and lashing rain to walk to the lighthouse—the point where the Pacific Ocean meets the Tasman Sea and they fight it out. It’s a pretty impressive sight, but really not worth the lengthy drive there.

We still needed to get our alternative flights sorted so we backtracked for hours trying to find a campsite with phone signal. On one hand, the barren wilderness of NZ is invigorating compared to our city lives where everything is within easy each. On the other hand, trying to camp and work is pretty difficult when you can’t find phone reception, WiFi, plug sockets, water, or campsites.

The drive meant we missed out on sandboarding at the top of 90 mile beach, so we had breakfast at Lake Ngatu where a man washed his dog, shampoo and all. We spent another day driving and arrived at Paihia in the Bay of Islands just in time to have a bundy by the sea. It still looked kind of…English, and felt it too as we were suddenly wearing woolly hats and fleeces. Despite the cold, Peb bbq’d for dinner at our nicest campsite yet.

The following day, we stopped at the pretty Haruru falls where there were wild chickens, a rest stop where Peb got the world’s tiniest coffee, then I unhappily discovered that the Coffee Club NZ don’t do crispizzas or salted caramel lattes. We stayed at Peb’s uncle and cousins for the night, which was nice as I finally got to meet the rest of the Smiths! In the morning, Peb’s uncle showed us the harbour, where we saw giant King fish and Snapper. Then we drove back through Auckland five days after we’d left on what should have been a 2-3 day journey! In a nutshell, having driven huge distances in Aus, we underestimated how long it’d take to drive the relatively short distances in NZ up windy roads and had misjudged how easy it was to camp.

After the failings of the first week, things were looking up, and we finally got our alternative flights booked. Having heard about the recent Cyclone Pam and with both of us wanting to visit Vanuatu since we read about it in an Open Uni Psychology text book, we decided to re-route from Fiji to Vanuatu to volunteer, then on to Japan as we could fly from there to Canada without transferring through America.

After driving south of Auckland, we also started seeing things that made NZ less English. Our first exciting stop was Otorohanga Bird House, a kiwi conservation centre, where we saw a Great Spotted Kiwi and Brown Kiwi. Next was the Waitomo Glowworm Caves, incredible meringue-looking caves where you take a serene boat ride under ten thousand glowworms that look like tiny stars. I even discovered that NZ has 21 Big Things, stumbling upon a giant lizard on top of a garage and a Big Apple.

The drive towards Taupo was much prettier, with mountains covered in alpine trees. We stayed in a cute nearby town called Mangakino, where our arrival was heralded by a terrifying air raid siren that had us diving into a local café, the Hui Hut. It turned out to be the local on-call fire service alarm, but the chocolate brownies in there were well worth our panic. They even had WiFi and plug sockets, so we stayed until closing time so I could do some work.

We’d driven less than a minute down the road when an oncoming campervan almost ran over a dog, then promptly drove off. We coaxed the terrified pup over and looked around the deserted street for her owner, who couldn’t be found, then looked after her in our van until the on-call animal rescue man turned up, displeased as he was supposed to be collecting his daughter from her prom. With “Kevin” the dog safe, we camped at the pretty Lake Maraetai, and awoke to find that the lake had disappeared into the 3 degree C mist.

Thankfully, it had warmed up by the time we got to Orakei Korako, a geothermal area accessible only via ferry. With its geysers, silica flows, and steaming rocks, it is one of the most remarkable places I’ve ever seen—it looks like the surface of another planet. Nearby, we saw the ice blue, formidable Huka falls (not even joking about the name) and in the evening, we enjoyed the free natural rock pool springs a little way up the river—a pleasant contrast to the cold air temperature.

We debated doing the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in Taupo, but even the tour buses weren’t going as the weather was that bad up there (and in hindsight, we were glad we didn’t as a German guy had to be rescued having slid down 50 meters of ice in his shorts and Nike trainers). Instead of the epic hike, we fussed puppies in a café and went to see the Ariatiatia Rapids dam doors open to let the water through, a location used to film The Hobbit. We drove towards Rotorua and took a walk up to the crater lake on Rainbow Mountain, a crazy turquoise colour.

Despite the sulphuric eggy smell, Rotorua is a nice town, and the geothermal centre of NZ. Steam seeps out of drains and ditches around the place, which looks pretty surreal. Our second geothermal landscape was Wai-o-Tapu, where we saw the Lady Knox geyser erupt thanks to a few soap suds, and walked around lakes of green, yellow, grey and orange. Acid, arsenic, Sulphur, and carbon.

The Champagne Pool (named due to its bubbling, not its flavour) is the impressive centerpiece, but my favourite was the lime green Devil’s Bath because I was literally amazed that a lake could be that colour naturally. We also saw the largest mud pool in the southern hemisphere, which smelt worse than you can imagine, and relaxed in the free natural hot river at Kerosene Creek, which is far more picturesque than the name suggests.

Another of Rotorua’s attractions is the Skyline Luge, which you access via cable car up the mountain side. The luge is a sort of sled/go-kart that runs down three levels of track (beginners, intermediate, and scary), and takes you back up via ski lift. I crashed my luge, of course, but it was great fun, and a cat and her kittens were living at the top.

We tried to see the blue and green lakes, but it was too cloudy to see the colour difference. We tried to hire a kayak at Lake Rotoiti but it was out of season (and freezing) so we checked out Okere Falls, Hinemoa’s Steps, and Tutea’s Cave (named after a local legend about forbidden lovers). Then we spent the best evening so far at Tamaki Maori Village, where we experienced a traditional welcoming ceremony, learnt about their culture, and took part in games. Peb attempted a Haka (attempted being the operative word), we watched them perform beautiful traditional songs and a real Haka, then we had the most delicious dinner cooked in holes in the ground.

With our second week almost over, we drove back towards Auckland. I had a photo with the Big Kiwi, and we debated driving the Coromandel, but the roads were reminiscent of Reinga so we cut our losses after the third time the food box had crashed to the floor on bend. Instead, we fed some wild chickens and silky bantams at a rest stop, then spent the day at Waihai beach, where Peb went for a swim in the sea despite it being about 10 degrees out. He got some funny looks off the locals.

I had a photo with the big L&P bottle in Paeroa, then we spent our last night in a campervan for some time in a place called Te Puke. Seriously, they even had an off license called Te Puke Liquor. We arrived in Auckland in the rain and thick fog, dropped off the campervan, then got absolutely drenched trying to find the bus back into the city. We must have looked a sorry sight as a kind couple drove by and offered us a lift 40 minutes back into town, even though it was out of their way!

The weather had ruined our plans to go up the Sky tower, as it wasn’t even visible, so we walked around the city instead, which was comedically painful as Peb kept slipping over on the wet pavements. In one moment, he slipped over, grabbed my arm and almost pulled it out the socket, and was hit in the face by a stuffed lamb that a drunk homeless man threw at him. Hilarious. The number of homeless people there was no laughing matter though, a sad sight to see.

Regardless of the weather, there wasn’t much to see or do in Auckland, so we went to watch Spy at the local cinema instead. After a poor night’s sleep at our incredibly noisy Nomads hostel, we awoke to find our flight had been delayed. Then after waiting around for hours, we got half way through the airport queue to find that it had been cancelled. Or more specifically, a baggage handler from Fiji Airways had crashed the luggage truck into one of their three Airbuses and broke it, so a lot of flights had been downgraded to smaller planes, and only people with ongoing connections or children got on the smaller plane. Bizarrely, it actually worked out pretty well for us as we got to stay in a swanky hotel for free for the night, with free transfers to and from the airport, a free buffet meal in the hotel (that alone kept Peb happy), another flight with Air New Zealand first thing the following morning, and compensation! Kudos to Fiji Airways.