This year I have had rather a slow year travel wise, due to buying a house with my boyfriend George (read my posts on that process here – We are Home Owners – House Update). During this time my friend Charlotte took the pilgrimage over to New Zealand to see one of our friends who moved there five years ago.
Below she has shared her experience of road tripping in New Zealand…
After one of my closest friends, Sarah, emigrated from the UK to New Zealand five years ago, I decided I was long over-due a trip to go and discover what her new home is like. I finally managed to book a trip out there and travelled in the latter half of March 2017 with my boyfriend, Jack. We just about managed to endure the 25 hour, two-leg journey from Manchester to Doha, then Doha to Auckland – which actually seemed to fly-by fairly quickly!
Sarah lives with her boyfriend, Andy, in Welcome Bay, near Tauranga, which is situated in the Bay of Plenty on the North Island of New Zealand. Sarah was kind enough to let Jack and I stay with her for two weeks, so our base was at her home, but we also did some road trips and overnight stops in other places. We managed to pack plenty of activities and trips into our couple of weeks on the other side of the world – here are a few of my favourite highlights.
Welcome Bay is conveniently situated between Tauranga and Mount Maunganui. On our first day, Sarah suggested that Jack and I shake off our jet-leg by walking up the Mount.
There’s the option to walk around the base of the Mount or, alternatively, walk up it. Jack and I were aiming to climb to the summit and we set off along the path which we assumed would spiral up the Mount. After a while we realised we weren’t climbing any higher at all and were instead circling the base of the Mount! However we discovered that there were lots of miniature coves around the base which looked like great spots for a secluded picnic.
Don’t fall into the trap that we did by taking the wrong path!
We had to go a bit off-course to find our way to the correct path that leads up to the top of the Mount, but eventually located it. The climb is actually steeper and more challenging than it looks, especially in the New Zealand sunshine, but you are rewarded with stunning views of the peninsula at the top.
Back down in the town, Mount (as the locals call it) has some lovely cafes along the front, overlooking a beautiful surfers’ beach. After our climb, we ate brunch at a cafe called “Dixie’s” and spent a chilled- out afternoon sunbathing on the beach and watching the surfers ride the waves.
Karangahake Gorge and Waihi Beach
Karangahake Gorge is just over an hour’s drive from Tauranga and is situated between the Coromandel and Kaimai mountain ranges. The road through the gorge is full of hairpin bends, which tested Jack’s driving skills to the max (we had borrowed Sarah’s car for the day, so I didn’t particularly want us to crash it into the river running through the gorge!).
We just about squeezed into Karangahake Reserve car park (which is not very big, so try and get there early) – there are a number of walks that you can do of varying distances which start from here. The sign-posts are extremely helpful – directing you along your chosen walk and indicating the distance and estimated time remaining on the walk. We later discovered that such signs are handily used throughout New Zealand. We chose a walk that took us through an old railway tunnel and alongside the Ohinemuri River, where there are various boulders in the river which you can climb over for a photo opportunity.
A half hour drive to the coast (back along the precarious road) took us to Waihi Beach where we spent the afternoon. The sandy beach extends 10 km, ending at Bowentown. Despite it being a Sunday and the weather being beautiful (a perfect 26 degrees and sunny), the beach was extremely quiet and peaceful. There were a couple of families playing in the sea and, from time to time, couples strolled along the sea-edge, but we were largely alone and found a secluded spot to sunbathe, sheltered from the wind by sand-dunes.
White Water Rafting in Rotorua
I’m not the most daring of people and prefer to partake in low-risk activities, but Jack was really keen to try white-water rafting while we were in New Zealand. Rotorua is the perfect place for this. It’s also full of other out-door activities that you can do, especially at Skyline Rotorua. Spending the morning at Skyline and went on the “luge”, where you can race on a track down Mount Ngongotaha in a “part go-cart, part toboggan”.
We booked a white water rafting trip for the afternoon using the website “bookme” – it’s really helpful for getting good deals on activities in New Zealand. We managed to get a deal for $49 per person (about £26), where as the usual price is about $95 (about £50), with a company called Wet ‘n’ Wild.
Our rafting trip was described as “grade 5” rafting and took place along the Kaituna River; the highlight being the world’s highest commercially rafted waterfall with a drop of 7 metres. The instructors made the experience very enjoyable and, although they were extremely funny and cracked plenty of jokes, they explained the instructions clearly and were serious when it came to health and safety. In particular, they explained what do to if the boat capsized when going down the big waterfall – this was something that I was sure was not going to happen… but I was wrong – our boat did capsize! The instructors explained later that there had been a large amount of rainfall in the area in recent weeks which meant that it was difficult to control the raft given the strength of the waterfall. I have to admit that I panicked when we capsized, but overall I really enjoyed the rafting trip and would recommend the experience to anyone.
The weather forecast had given glorious sunshine for another day, so we decided to get up early and drive along the Coromandel Peninsula to Cathedral Cove which boasts beautiful sandy beaches. It’s a fairly long journey – about 2 and a half hours from Tauranga – but one of the best things about driving around New Zealand is that there are so many view points where you can pull over and admire the amazing views.
Andy had helpfully pin-dropped the car park for me on Google Maps (we literally lived by Google Maps for the two weeks thanks to Andy’s helpful tip to download an offline area and save pins at the locations we wanted to visit), as you can’t get to Cathedral Cove itself by car. There’s a view-point at the car park which gives you a beautiful panoramic view over the bay.
The track to the Cove begins right underneath the car park and is about a 45 minute walk (which has those helpful signs again). At the end of the track, there are a series of narrow steps which lead down to the beach. We reached the secluded bay which had brilliant bright sand and turquoise sea. On the left, there is a huge arch. You can walk under the arch and get to a second cove on the left hand-side, but you have to wade a little way through the sea. We set up on the beach and spent the day in this beautiful tropical paradise.
Taupo is definitely a hot-spot for backpackers – there are plenty of hostels and there were loads of young travellers in the bars and restaurants in the evening time. After making the two hour journey from Tauranga one evening, we stayed in Taupo overnight at a motel overlooking the lake. In the morning we visited Huka Falls, which is a ten minute drive out of Taupo, before relaxing in thermal hot pools (beware of the head-rush when attempting to get in the hottest pool!). Huka Falls is pretty amazing – the water is extremely powerful (not the sort of river that you could go rafting on) and cascades down the valley in torrents. The water is a brilliant bright blue colour due to the amount of air bubbles created from the power of the falling water – it’s definitely worth a stop-off if you are in the area.
In the afternoon we wanted to take a boat trip on Lake Taupo and expected that we would go on an organised trip with a party of people. However, we discovered that we could rent our own small boat and take it out on the Lake ourselves! It cost $180 between the four of us (around £95) to take it out for an hour and a half – which was well worth it. Luckily Jack was quite handy at driving the boat (the guy at the place we rented it from gave us a run-down of the controls before we left) and sped us off along the lake which was so calm and still that it appeared glass-like.
We headed to a spot at the other side of the lake called Mine Bay, the location of Maori rock carvings (the Maori are the indigenous people of New Zealand). A huge face has been carved into the rock and various other smaller carvings are also visible. Andy has a drone which he uses to take video footage and pictures from an aerial view. Bravely, he set the drone to flight over the Maori carvings and then expertly flew it above us – following our boat all the way back across the lake! Overall, our day in Taupo was probably my favourite day during our time in New Zealand and the boat trip made it extra-special.
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a must-do for outdoor activity enthusiasts and it’s a real achievement to complete. It’s a 19.4 km hike which passes over the volcanic terrain of an active volcano – Mount Tongariro. You also pass Mount Ngauruhoe on the Crossing, which appeared as “Mount Doom” in the Lord of the Rings. It’s a very challenging hike with a long, steep climb up the volcano. The downward slope down the other side of the volcano is arguably worse – you have to literally slip and slide down it on loose volcanic rock (expect plenty of rocks in your shoes at the bottom)!
If you are planning to do the Crossing, make sure you have all the equipment that’s listed on the website. Jack and I had not planned to do it until Sarah mentioned it to us, so we weren’t very well equipped. Luckily, we stayed at Sarah’s friend Rita’s house in Ohakune the night before completing the trek and she had lots of spare hiking gear, thermals and a first aid kit, which she kindly lent us. When we started the hike it was warm and fine, however, don’t be deceived! As you start to climb, it gets much, much colder (we were told that it is often snowing at the top) – hence the word “Alpine” in the name of the Crossing. It wasn’t easy at all – there was a lot of steep climbing and I often found myself completely out of breath and gasping! However, the views along the way and at the top are incredible – and pictures just don’t do it justice!
We managed to complete the hike in five hours and 22 minutes – over an hour less than the average time of six and a half hours. No wonder I was out of breath most of the way!
What a surprise – more up-hill trekking! Wairere Falls is the highest waterfall on the North Island of New Zealand, located in the Kaimai Mamaku Forest Park, just outside of the town of Matamata. After the Tongariro Crossing, we were convinced that we were invincible when it came to hiking up-hill, but this didn’t prevent us from finding this walk extremely tough!
It’s about an hour and half up to the top of the waterfall (and the same back down). There are also various other walking routes for seasoned hikers which are much further in length. Be careful to follow the right track when you get to the top of the climb (you have to almost double-back on yourself and scramble over boulders alongside a river to get to the viewpoint) – another route mistake from us left us walking twenty minutes in the wrong direction on what can only be described as a jungle trek! We eventually did make it to the view-point at the top of the waterfall and the view is brilliant – but don’t look down too much; you get the feeling that the viewing station could be swept away down the waterfall at any minute!
You can also combine your trip to Wairere Falls with a trip to Hobbiton to see the Shire itself – the bus to Hobbiton departs from Matamata on a regular basis and you can get tickets from the visitor centre in the town.
Overall, the North Island of New Zealand is packed with activities and amazing views – you certainly won’t get tired of the amazing scenery while road tripping around the island – it’s not hard to see why Sarah and her family love their home so much!
Have you been to New Zealand and visited some of these incredible places yourselves? What are your thoughts/experiences? Any questions for Charlotte about her trip… ask away and I will try and find out what I can for you and get back to you…
Thanks for reading