Just as we did in July 2009 for our Great Ocean Road trip, Paddy and I hired a Wicked campervan to get around New Zealand's North Island. The following week was a series of tests as we navigated the van past sleepy beach towns, gorgeous overlooks, through Amazon-like rainforests, and over the sheep-dotted rolling hills, because nothing really went as planned...
Equipped with a Lonely Planet guide and some light research done back in October, we figured the North Island would be a breeze: it was much more narrow than Australia, so the plan was to hop between beach towns along the Coromandel Peninsula, follow the Pacific Coast Highway around to wine-rich Gisbourne, maybe dip down to vineyard-happy Napier, hike through the Tongariro National Forest, and then whip back up to Auckland for one more night in the city. We didn't account for a few problems:
1. Petrol cost NZ$2 per liter (so about US$8 per gallon. Yikes!), and Wicked vans drink it like water. Due to the hills and rough terrain, we probably pumped NZ$40 into the van every single day.
2. It rained for the second half of the trip. Boo.
3. In winter, when you're heading south (away from the warm equator) and waking up to a 3-degree (Celcius) morning, most folks don't rent campervans. Thus, the cops aren't out looking for you, so you have the luxury of parking anywhere you please (which is how we enjoyed spectacular sunrises from the semi-warmness of our van in July.) In summer, it's a different story: you'll be fined if you're parked at a beach overlook or on the side of the road, so we had to seek out holiday motor parks and conservation sites each night. (We even paid to sleep in a YHA parking lot one night - heck, it was cheaper than a bed!)
The conservation sites ended up being one of the better aspects of the trip: for about $10 per night, we parked on a family farm located a minute from a near-empty beach, and a campground near a sweet waterfall and freshwater stream with secret "pools" at the top (thanks to a tip from the campground manager).
Best of all, these campsites were not included in our guidebook, allowing us to explore off the beaten tourist track.
We had only two cds with us to provide our road trip soundtrack: The Best of Buddy Holly and some random Bob Marley disc. Here were some of the highlights of the week:
Tapu Beach & the Cross-Coromandel Drive
This was the first beach we visited after picking up the van, and while Paddy went swimming, I laid on the cushions in the back of the van, salty sea air blowing through the open windows, enjoying a Tamara McKinley novel as the sun dipped towards the horizon.
Parked next to us was an older Kiwi couple and their Canadian friends, who they were showing around the Coromandel Peninsula. We asked him for a recommendation on where to go, and he suggested we cut through the bush and head to Whitianga (in Maori, "wh" makes an "f" sound, so the name reads "Fitianga"). Great!
With about a quarter of a tank in our van, we were greeted with this signage:
The drive was nail-biting as we curved around the mountainous road, keeping one eye on the majestic scenery and the other on the petrol guage, but it was spectacular.
Cathedral Cove Walk, Hahei
This was a 45-minute walk along a picturesque trail - think ocean views the whole way (the photo of the Wicked van above was taken near this trail). We stopped to check out the "snorkel trail" at Gemstone Bay, but because the weather had been less than stellar, the water was full of sea crap and therefore pretty difficult to see through.
Next stop was Stingray Bay, where we did actually see one stingray - or at least saw a young Aussie girl scream and run out of the water after sighting one. Haha.
Cathedral Cove was a lengthy walk through shady palms and ferns, but the beach was nice. The "cathedral" cutout actually looked like the shape of a stained glass window, so the name is certainly appropriate.
Driving through Waihi, we were looking for a cheap place to rest for the night. Consulting our handy conservation campsite guide, we followed a gravel path for about three miles before arriving at the Wentworth Falls campsite run by an Australian surfer. The guy - I think his name was Dean - immediately took a liking to Paddy's surfie ways and proceeded to fill us in on his insider info: where to find the glowworms in the nearby mining caves, the best vantage point to view the waterfall, and where to find a private freshwater swimming hole above the waterfall that no one ever visited.
Skinny dipping, anyone?
We awoke to the sound of rain tapping the metal roof of the van in the holiday park we stayed at in Opotiki and had a decision to make: stick out the rain and hope for the best? Or take our chances and drive the long, winding, rocky highway to sunny Gisbourne? Of all the stops we'd planned for this trip, Gisbourne was my #1: it's a small (population: 16,000) beach town on the east coast of the North Island dotted with wineries (18 in total) who - get this - is the first city in the world to see the sun rise. We had to see this place. (That, and it has a funny history: this was the first place Captain James Cook landed in NZ, but because he didn't find anything he needed to replenish the supplies on his ship here, he named the nearby waterway "Poverty Bay" and left.)
The drive took a while, but after driving through pelting waves of rain for a couple solid hours, the clouds broke open and sunshine poured over the road, illuminating the sheep-dotted hills as we winded our way towards the wine country. (Pretty much all the grassy hills on the North Island are full of either cows, sheep or horses.)
Settling ourselves in a beachfront holiday park for two nights, we set off to do some research about things to do in this town: catch a movie at the beanbag cinema? Taste the yummy chardonnays and gewurtztraminers the hot region is known for by bike? Watch a Maori cultural performance? After flipping through countless brochures, we settled on the Gisbourne Wine Centre's wine tasting tour (by van, as it was forecast to potentially rain.)
But first, we had to catch the sunrise. (A bit of an epic fail, as we realized too late that the beach we'd so cleverly settled on was actually too far south to see the sun rise. We caught some lovely pink clouds coming over a statue of Captain James Cook though.)
We were picked up in the Wine Centre van by Ray, a kind driver who'd originally made his living shaping surfboards in the Gold Coast (in Queensland, Australia. Naturally, he and Paddy had plenty to talk about too) and John, an 80-something year old man who had flown into Gisbourne from Auckland that morning, joined us for two winery visits, and left to catch a plane back to Auckland armed with three bottles of wine. Interesting little man.
We visited four wineries:
- Millton, well known for their crisp chardonnay (which was fabulous.)
- Matawhero/Brunton Road, where we enjoyed a lovely lunch, but their chardonnays were pretty sour.
- Hihi, pronounced "hee-hee" and was easily the favorite winery of the day. The winemaker, Andy, started making his own wines after taking a viniculture class in 2005 and has since won 34 competition medals. They were certainly well deserved, and we ended up buying his Gizzy Savvy sauvignon blanc and five-grape blend, the Gizzy Summer Red.
- Wright Winery, where we snacked on dukkah (a mix of crushed nuts and seeds eaten by dipping a piece of bread into olive oil and then coating the oiled bit with the seed mix. Yum!) and played with their two little boys. I wasn't too taken by these wines either, but we must have stayed for over an hour just chatting with the winemaker couple and helping finish off a few bottles of wine.
As if the day could get better, to make up for the missed sunrise, we caught a ridiculous sunset:
Fun fact: The Taupo region is where the scenes involving Mordor, Emyn Muil and Mt. Doom were filmed for Lord of the Rings.
We didn't intend to stay in Taupo; rather, we stopped here to stretch our legs after several hours driving from Gisbourne and grab some food before heading to Raglan for the night. Being that it was 5 p.m. and most holiday parks were going to close their reception soon, we weighed our options: speed to the little beach town and possibly get stuck hiding the van on the side of a quiet street, or spend the night in the parking lot of the nearby Taupo youth hostel. We picked the second option and spent the evening enjoying burgers and beer as the sun sank over Lake Taupo. Glorious.
Heading back to our van, we passed an info center advertising all the crazy activities NZ is known for: bungy jumping, sky swings, abseiling, skydiving - basically everything that involves scaring the living daylights out of you. Figuring we'd be silly to leave without signing up for at least one daring activity, Paddy and I picked the "cliff hanger": a giant rope swing contraption we would sit in together as we're taken to the edge of a 44-meter (144-foot) platform anchored over the Waikato River. We're both terrified of heights (and believe me, I was white-faced when we arrived on the platform), but it was AMAZING.
Raglan & Manu Bay
Fun fact about Raglan: this is where the hobbits lived in the Lord of the Rings. Neat, huh?
This was our last night on the road, so we took it easy. Ray had advised that we check out Raglan for a little west coast flavor, so we took a short drive around the tiny beach town, passed the holiday park we were staying at, and stumbled upon... Manu Bay. Remember "the longest left hand ride" enjoyed by the two guys in the first Endless Summer movie? We found that beach. (Too bad there was hardly any surf when we got there.)
We spent the evening playing cards in the van as the rain started up again... and continued through the rest of the trip.
Still, it was a really great week, and we finished it perfectly: once we got back to Auckland, we headed back to Ponsonby for a fab 3-course dinner (paired with the Gizzy Summer Red wine), and spent the next morning walking through artsy Parnell and the Auckland Museum before dashing off to the airport. Despite the expense, I loved the North Island, and hope to check out the South Island next time! (Maybe then we'll also find some Kiwi birds...)