Kia Ora to the North Island!

New Zealand is amazing. For the first time, us Aussies travelled the 5,343 kms from Perth to Auckland to begin a new kind of adventure. We have often asked each other, “When are we going to go to New Zealand?” knowing we should probably make it a priority, since we live so close. The direct flight was just over 6 hours, which was easy peasy.

Many people skip the North Island because they are short on time and there is arguably more to see on the South Island. I am so glad we took the time to see the North Island, since there were two major things that I really wanted to do while there: see Hobbiton and try Zorbing.

We spent a day in Auckland acclimating to the weather and new time zone, and then headed to the Coromandel Peninsula. We stayed in a charming beachside town of Hahei. I was mesmerised by all the giant monarch butterflies fluttering about and hearing new bird calls.

While in Hahei we did the popular 3km coastal walk to Cathedral Cove. This was a hot and sweaty endeavour that we didn’t realise would be so difficult. It had many steep sections that really got our hearts pumping. We went at midday as that was when the tides were low, which meant enjoying the cove without having to wade through water to get to certain sections. Being from Perth, I should have known better to prepare for the hot sun, but I forgot to put on sunscreen and 3kms seemed short enough to get away with wearing sandals.  I would suggest wearing proper walking shoes, having sun protection, and plenty of water and snacks. The views were worth it, and we spent a couple of hours just admiring where we were and people watching.

After enjoying the beach for a bit, we made the trek back to town where we rewarded ourselves with some gelato.  I had banoffee and plum flavours, which doesn’t sound like a good combination, but was. This gelato experience would be the best one of our whole trip.

Next, we drove to a little place called Matamata. It was Christmas Eve, and we were about to visit something pretty special: Hobbiton. I call it “Hobbit Town” to annoy my sister, who is a much bigger Lord of the Rings fan than I am. As children, our father read the books aloud to us, and we watched all the movies, as well as the old cartoon Hobbit movie. Callum is also a LOTR fan.

We headed to ‘The Shire’s Rest’ (headquarters where the movie set tours depart from). The actual set is on private property with no parking, so the headquarters is a whole area where guests can park, enjoy a snack at the café, shop in the gift store, and check in for their tours. We were told to arrive half an hour before our actual tour. The bus ride was about 10 minutes and included some video footage of what we were about to see and a few key scenes from the movie. Our guide told us that there are some people who come in full cosplay outfits, and some who don’t even know what they’re doing there. Apparently, there are even guides who work in Hobbiton who haven’t seen a single LOTR movie. I think that’s crazy! You should have to watch the films at least as an induction or something.

The tour was brief (1 hr 15 minutes plus 20 minutes at ‘the Green Dragon’ for a complimentary drink) and I never felt like I had enough time to truly appreciate what I was seeing and take a quality photo. I loved every minute of it, though. Our guide was knowledgeable, friendly, and good at nipping inappropriate behaviour in the bud. (ahem…tourists walking/touching things they weren’t supposed to). Early on, I decided to be okay with being the last person to every new site. I wanted the best of both worlds: taking everything in whilst doing my favourite activity: capturing everything on camera. It was neat to hear all the tid-bits about the set, and to learn which tree is completely fake, and about all the insider knowledge. I won’t ruin your future experience about all that here, though. You just have to go!

Side note: when we planned to go to NZ in 2021, we had managed to book a banquet tour which included having drinks and a 2-course dinner at the Green Dragon as well as a dusk and twilight tour through the shire. This time around, that wonderful-sounding experience was booked out, so we had to content ourselves with an afternoon tour sans dinner. I was just glad to get a booking at all, to be honest. To avoid your own disappointment, you must book this experience many months before your visit.

The next day we drove to Rotorua. We couldn’t do much, though, it being Christmas Day. We don’t love having to travel on these holiday days…it doesn’t feel like Christmas to either of us, and the inconvenience of many things being closed is a burden. We packed a lunch with supplies we had bought the day before and went to the Redwoods Forest to eat our picnic and do a forest walk.

Eventually we made our way to Skyline Rotorua, one of the few things that was open on Christmas Day. It ended up being so much fun. Skyline is where you can do all kinds of activities, including the luge. We paid for five luge rides and rode the gondola up the mountain. At the top we our things in a locker (you don’t want anything with you except your sunglasses), got into the queue and figured out how to operate the sled. It was an instant mood-lifter, and I laughed wide-mouthed the whole way down. The operation is very slick and well organised. At the bottom, you push your sled onto a track which gets picked up by the chairlifts, which you jump onto yourself, and you head back up for your next ride. There is a restaurant and shops at the top, as well as other activities such as a big scary swing thing, mountain biking, and a zipline. We stuck with the luge and had a blast.

The next day we went to Wai-O-Tapu (Thermal Wonderland) to look at the Lady Knox geyser (erupting at a prompt and respectable hour of 10:15am) and other geothermal wonders. It was a very easy walk visiting all the sites and a nice way to spend the day. We saw interesting bubbling lakes and encountered many unexpected vivid colours. We were also confronted by many other people. I would recommend going early in the morning, seeing the whole park and getting to the geyser for its eruption time. Then getting the heck out of there. Most people did what we did: geyser first, then the park. As we were finishing our walk past the lime green, yes, I said a lime green lake, it started bucketing down. Good timing to be leaving!

In the evening we had the pleasure of enjoying a neat cultural experience. We had a buffet dinner and show where we learned about Māori culture, with the Mitai Māori Village. We were shown where our meat was being cooked in the hāngī style (underground on hot rocks), taken to a stream where our entertainers demonstrated their canoeing tradition, then taken to a small auditorium where the actors performed various dances, songs, and warrior poses. Our favourite was the haka, which is a ceremonial Māori dance with lots of loud chanting, bulging eyes, sticking out of tongues, and arm and chest slaps. It’s frightening and wonderful to behold and is hard not to tear up because it can also evoke a strong emotional response. Back in the day it was done before warriors went into battle to hype themselves up and to intimidate their enemies. Nowadays, they are performed at sporting events…for much the same reasons.

After the performances, we were ushered back to the dining hall where we were guided to the buffet, one table at a time. The food was quite bland but that was in keeping with Māori tradition—back in the day, they didn’t have access to a lot of other foods besides starchy vegetables and limited meat options. You might not know this, but there are no native mammals in New Zealand besides a rather unappetizing bat. Every other native animal is a bird or an insect. So, the Māori didn’t have a lot of options for meat besides fish and eel. Thankfully, there was chicken for me to eat. I am rather sea-creature averse.  The whole evening was really illuminating. I am glad we went.

The next day we drove to Tongariro, but before leaving Rotorua we headed to enjoy a hilarious experience I have been looking forward to since 2008. Back then, I discovered a show called Departures where two friends (and a cameraman) took three years off to travel the world. It was one of the first modern reality travel shows and it still holds up today! Find it! The entire first season is on YouTube. Anyway, an episode that stood out to me for all these years was when the guys went to New Zealand and tried a thing called zorbing.

Basically, zorbing is sitting in some water inside of a giant see-through ball. Then, you are pushed down a hill whilst in this ball. That’s it. And it was so much fun! The giant balls look like they’re travelling in slow-motion when you watch from the bottom, but when you’re inside, you are tossed around so fast like lettuce in a salad spinner. It’s very safe and comfy, and Callum and I couldn’t stop laughing the entire time. I regretted not going for more than one roll down the hill, but we were a bit time-sensitive and had to head back on the road.

Our accommodation was about half an hour outside of Tongariro National Park, as staying in the park was either too expensive or tricky to secure. We stayed at an Airbnb that was pretty unique—it had a shower in the kitchen! The space was thoughtfully appointed, and the décor was chic and comfortable and ended up being one of my favourite places we stayed, despite the bizarre showering situation.

While in Tongariro, Callum wanted to do the best day hike in New Zealand, the Alpine Crossing. I had done a bit of my own research on this challenging hike and decided it was not something I wanted to try as (to me) the views didn’t seem worth all the effort. Callum agreed that my decision to NOT do it was astute. He admitted I would have hated every moment. He really liked the walk though, and it ranks in his top five favourite things he accomplished while in NZ.

In the morning, I dropped him off at the trail head around 8:30am along with all the other bright-eyed hikers, then drove myself to the car park near the chateau below Mt Ruapehu, about 25 minutes away. I planned on doing my own little hike to Taranaki Falls, which was an easy 7km loop from where I parked. My feet hurt a lot and so I took my time. At the falls, I stopped for a snack and to do a little painting. It was lovely! I made my way back to the village and then drove up the mountain to catch a gondola to the top where I had some lunch with a stranger and fellow traveller, did a bit of work on my computer, and then headed back down to meet Callum at the trails end. Once reunited, we did a short little walk to see Tawhai Falls which is known as ‘Gollum’s Pool’ from Lord of the Rings.

The next day we drove to Wellington which was a bit of a journey (four hours). We stayed in a hotel in Wellington and went to the botanical gardens (as per usual…we tend to go to any and every botanical garden in any city, lol). Later in the evening we visited a popular little brewery Callum had heard about called the Garage Project. We tried several beers and had a snack before finding some dinner. I wish we had spent more time in Wellington because it seemed like a cool place. However, this one-night stop was the last night we spent on the North Island.

We loved our nine days on the North Island and think we allocated a good amount of time to see it. There’s always more to do and see, and I would have liked to stay longer in the Coromandel Peninsula but overall we got to experience a lot in our first week and a half.

Highlights for RachelHighlights for Callum
Hahei and Cathedral CoveHahei and Cathedral Cove
HobbitonRotorua in general
Luge/Gondola/Zorb in RotoruaTongariro Alpine Crossing

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