Part One: The Road To Wellington
17/01/2020 – 19/01/2020
After some last minute touches to the packing and some final adjustments to my car, I headed off on 17th January. I wanted to see more of my own country before I headed off overseas and while I have been to all the main tourist spots in the South Island on many occasions, much of the North Island remained unexplored. This was to be a two week “best of” with the main attractions being the Tongariro Crossing, the Bay of Islands and The Coromandel. Up from Christchurch to Kaitaia and then back down again.
I’ve been to Wellington on several occasions, and can’t even count the number of times I’ve been to Auckland over the years, but that’s seeing a city not a country. Other than a childhood trip through the interior years before, and a rushed trip with my sister bringing her car back from Auckland, the rest of the North Island remained to be seen. In Northland, everything past Whangarei was new for me, and I had never been to Taranaki or either the eastern or western coasts.
I was being joined on my first proper road trip by my friend Brendan Kaldor, for whom every location in the trip was new. Brendan is Australian, but he has spent most of his life in New Zealand, and in 20+ years of living here, he had never even been to the North Island. Another bit of exciting trivia about Brendan: He maintains a strict “No Salad” policy at all times, even at the Salad Bar.
I remember it being a nervous start – quite overwhelmed by the idea of my first proper road trip. I often get struck by that initial travel anxiety, wondering where everything is. In some instances it’s for my own protection, but mostly it’s a whole lot of worrying over nothing. I had probably packed too much: My overstuffed 80 litre convertible backpack (which only ever functioned as a suitcase, as wearing it when fully laden would put your back out), was accompanied by a Laptop Bag and various other miscellaneous items, but Brendan had managed with just his one rolling duffle bag.
We made a quick stop at a bookshop to pick up a travel guide and a backup paper map, before heading off on the road. Paper maps, of course, had been eclipsed by their digital equivalents for many years – In my case, an offline GPS on my iphone called Sygic, but in the event that my phone was stolen or fell to the bottom of the cook strait, it was some reassurance. I had booked and paid for nearly all accommodation, while Brendan was to pay for all food and drink. We agreed to take turns with paying for petrol and each pay for our activities. All in all, the arrangement worked out fairly well, even if I got the more expensive end of the bargain.
As we approached Kaikoura, I made sure to stop to check out the scenery. The road had changed drastically since the earthquake of 2016 and you could see the effort that had gone into its reconstruction. I knew that there would be multiple delays on the road, so we had made an early start to catch our 5 o’clock Ferry. We had a not particularly memorable lunch at a local tavern, and continued up to Picton. I didn’t need to worry for time as we got into Picton, we had nearly an hour to spare. After checking out the waterfront, we checked in and joined the queue of cars to wait for the Interislander.
During the 3 ½ hours on-board, I remember feeling awfully tired. I was still adjusting to a long day of driving, but managed to get some of my novel written. One unfortunate loss on the ferry was the windshield on my camera mic, which blew off as I was trying to film the ferry approaching Wellington. After all that, the terminal didn’t even have a good view of the CBD. Drat. One positive however, was that the ferry arrived earlier than expected at 9:30. GPS set; I drove left towards the CBD – my first taste of driving in Wellington, and checked into our hotel.
The Travelodge was in a great location, but unfortunately was hampered by its lack of air conditioning and exorbitant parking ($28 per night!). This would be less of an issue in winter, but in mid-summer 10 floors up, the heat was particularly noticeable. It didn’t help that our standing fan was broken when we first arrived. I picked up the phone, which then seemed to also break as I picked it up, leading Brendan into a fit of laughter. The phone cable had just come unstuck, and I managed to ring reception and get our fan replaced. Despite this, it wasn’t a good night’s sleep. The beds weren’t all that comfortable, and after tossing and turning for a few hours, I decided to sleep on the floor.
On our first morning in Wellington, we headed to Te Papa, with a quick stop for breakfast on the way. Brendan seemed to have very positive first impressions of Wellington. They say “You can’t beat Wellington on a good day” and it’s hard to argue otherwise in the sunshine. It’s a super walkable city – nothing like Christchurch. They traded driveability for walkability, which honestly in a city is probably a better deal. We had a quick stop for breakfast at a place called “Gotham Café,” but their muesli was really sized for two people. The coffee was excellent though; Wellington living up to its reputation as the caffeine capital of NZ.
It had been quite a few years since I was in Wellington – probably about 6 years actually, ever since we stopped briefly when I drove down from Auckland with my sister. Te Papa was impressive as always, though I did get the feeling of having been there, done that, on what was likely my fourth visit. The Gallipoli exhibit was brilliant, though almost overwhelming at times, and I say that as someone who doesn’t really get emotional in public. Peter Jackson’s brilliant artists at Weta Workshop had cast incredibly realistic sculptures of New Zealand’s WW1 soldiers, and it was quite special seeing Cecil Malthus, one of my Christchurch friends’ great grandfathers, cast in a lifelike figure. Wonderland – the limited time paid exhibit was not really worth it – it was more or less just a collection of Alice in Wonderland memorabilia. After Te Papa, we made a stop at the always enjoyable Oriental Bay. It’s one of the nicest promenades in the world, and was filled with runners and those damn fangled e-scooters. Get off my promenade kiddos!
We discovered one of the cooler restaurants in Wellington moored in Oriental Bay. The Boat Café does a great fish burger (though I can’t remember what Brendan ordered) and is worth checking out for the food and novelty value of the ship turned café. We walked back the long way to our hotel through the CBD. I saw Grant Robertson (New Zealand’s finance minister) walking along Courtenay Place. He was suitably unsuited and looked like he’d just been to the gym. Looking at the map to find our way back, the direct route we took was unfortunately probably the steepest route back to the hotel, and after climbing some of Wellington’s infamous hill streets, I arrived back tired and sweaty. We had originally planned to have a night out, but I genuinely couldn’t be bothered. Brendan headed down to Cuba Street to check out the night markets. I sampled the room service (which did an impressive pizza) and enjoyed a night in.
We headed out of Wellington on our second day – sleeping in fairly late. After reviewing the guide book, we drove up the Hutt Valley Road towards the Wairarapa. I didn’t know quite how bad the road was, but after passing the turn offs to Lower and Upper Hutt, the road became this nightmarish maze of 15km & 25km turns. The mist on the road didn’t help matters much – diminishing the visibility of what seemed to be quite lovely verdant views. Our destination was a historic town called Greytown – once awarded New Zealand’s most beautiful town, although I’m not sure if that’s a recurring award or not. The main street was filled with lovely Victorian architecture and heritage buildings and it reminded be a lot of Arrowtown in Otago, but with slightly less picturesque surroundings. It had all the fixtures of a quaint little tourist town: a sweet shop, multiple art galleries, various craft stores and a positively skewed food quality to population ratio. We dined al fresco at the Main Street café, where their lamb salad was just what I felt like. We drove back up the road to check out Lake Wairarapa, which really wasn’t all that picturesque. It’s a sizeable lake but we only saw a small corner of it, which was brown water surrounded mostly by paddocks. We weren’t big enough Winos to check out Martinborough, but really the wineries are all there is in the area besides farming. We stopped for petrol at a town called Featherston on the way back. For the rest of our trip, Brendan would continue to use Featherston as the barometer for how boring a place could be. Suffice to say we didn’t stay in Featherston for very long.
We planned on visiting a wildlife sanctuary called Zealandia at the end of the day, but sadly it was nearly closed by the time we arrived there. We drove out to Miramar instead and saw the road that my Nan grew up on. My maternal Grandmother was the first child in her family not to be born in England. They moved out to New Zealand sometime not long after WW1. Back in the 1920s these suburbs of Wellington were then farmland, and my grandma grew up on a farm on Darlington Road. Unfortunately the family lost the farm during the great depression, and my Nan’s family moved out onto Lyall Bay (or was it Breaker Bay), before her father got a job in Christchurch. Apparently they ran a boarding house in Christchurch and that was how my maternal side ended up on the South Island. To think, I might just have been a Wellingtonian in another lifetime; truly a loss for the ages.
We then paid a visit to what is now a Wellington institution. For 36 years the Genghis Khan restaurant in Majoribanks Street has been serving Mongolian BBQ straight off their giant hot plate. I normally always go whenever I’m in Wellington. Truthfully the food wasn’t exemplary, but it’s of a consistently decent quality, excellent value at $23.50 for unlimited portions and it has enormous nostalgia value for me. I had about three servings of their chicken and sweet corn soup though –that was delicious. After driving past parliament for Brendan to take a look around, we called it in early for our last night in Wellington.
Part Two: The Tongariro Crossing, Rotorua & Auckland
20/01/2020 – 23/01/2020
20th December began our longest day of driving. It was also Wellington Anniversary day, so a good day to get out of Wellington with most things closed. We were driving up the Kapiti Coast all the way up to the Tongariro Crossing. Nearly an hour out of Wellington, we began to see the coastline and the view of Kapiti island in the distance, stopping at a lookout for photos. We took a quick detour to a lovely beach town on the coast called Paekakariki beach, before passing through Paraparaumu. Outside of the Kapiti Coast the scenery reverted to farmland as we entered the Manawatu. We stopped briefly at Palmerston North to fill up the car, and to use the amenities. I felt sorry for the attendant at the petrol station – the place was packed on a public holiday and they were seriously understaffed. Someone even stole petrol while I was waiting in line to pay. I called our accommodation in Tongariro advising them that we would be in late, and acquainted myself with the back of the Petrol Station. They’ve become some of my favourite places to hang out during these trips. You often never know what you’ll find at the back of a petrol station – normally a rubbish skip, but there’s the odd gem of graffiti every so often. Anyways…
The day was stinking hot, over 30° and we made sure to have plenty of sun protection as we drove north. We had a short detour through Massey University as I had hoped to find a large historic orange brick university building, which I now understand is not even at Massey University. I remember seeing it on advertisements when I was younger, and I think I was either confused with Lincoln, Waikato or possibly even Otago Universities. Honestly, I don’t even know. We had planned on stopping in Wanganui (sorry, Whanganui) for lunch but instead dined at one of those nameless towns used only to avert starvation and to pass on through. I enjoyed my BLT but Brendan didn’t enjoy his whatever-it-was (WIW). Whanganui was another very brief stop – 20 mins or so, and after looking at the river and rehydrating ourselves at the supermarket we were off again. As we headed towards Taranaki, the main aim was to get a good picture of the eponymous Mountain. Mt Taranaki is the most aesthetic mountain in New Zealand – it was a stand in for Mt Fuji during the filming of The Last Samurai, and even from miles away still looks stunning. We pulled over on a country road somewhere near Stratford and I took out my Tripod for a fairly lengthy photo session.
Brendan had taken a turn driving between Whanganui and New Plymouth on the flat roads; however I discovered with horror that our fuel was nearly empty by the time we switched driving. I turned off the aircon and fuel draining features and set my GPS to the nearest petrol station, praying it would actually make it. Thankfully we arrived just in time, but I resolved never to let that happen again. Brendan, coincidentally, wouldn’t be driving for the rest of the trip. It was around 7:00pm when we arrived in New Plymouth, and to our horror we discovered that the road to Tongariro National Park village was closer to four hours than the 2-3 we had expected it to be. The detour to Taranaki had added quite the distance to our drive. We didn’t have any time to spare in New Plymouth. After wolfing down a quick bite of McDonalds in the car, we were on the road again.
Almost immediately after leaving New Plymouth, the car ran into issues. We slowed down for a section of the road where there were road works, and it sounded like my engine was making noises. There was a thudding sound hitting the vehicle’s underside. After stopping the car, I realised what had happened. The tar seal on the road had completely melted due to the heat, and my tyres were now completely covered in a layer of stones, which had been flicking from the tyres onto the car body. With tar clinging to my hand I brushed them off, and once we passed the worst set of road works, they all managed to come off the tyres. A more permanent fixture appeared as we passed a truck on the newly sealed road. The truck flicked up a stone causing a large crack on my windscreen. It would be our ever growing companion for the rest of the journey.
Sunset arrived by the time we passed a charming little coastal town called Mokau, and we began climbing up hillier stretches of road. My back was now aching in pain, almost catatonically stiff. The next three hours were somehow endured in a semi-dehydrated state. I kept my sunglasses on as long as I could to keep my eyes moist, but after nightfall it almost became a joke wearing them. I kept the window open until we let a large moth into the car and had to pull over to get it out. Somehow, around 11:00pm we arrived at our accommodation at Plateau Lodge. The owners had left our key out by reception, and thankfully we were able to check ourselves in. I resolved never to do a stretch of driving like that again.
Plateau Lodge was all we needed for the stay. Situated in National Park Village, the small town that exists basically to service tourists doing the crossing, it’s a well run establishment. The room was fairly basic, but the bed was comfortable and there was enough room to store our belongings in the wardrobe. The bathroom facilities were shared, but they were well maintained and the shower cubicles were private enough. I had booked a package which included our breakfast, a packed lunch and our shuttle to the crossing. It was pointless parking at Tongariro crossing, as the crossing isn’t a circuit track, and DOC maintains a time limit on the car parks. I was glad that we were on the 9:00am shuttle to the crossing ( 9:15am as it was running late), as I was still pretty tired by the time we got there.
We began our trek at 9:40am. It was quite the imposing feeling looking up at the mountains and realising that you were going to pass through them, right to the top. There were roughly four stages to the crossing: The flatlands, the climb up to the craters, the crater walk and the descent/native forest portion. While there were a few hills in the first part (and a turn off to the Soda Springs falls, a nice little waterfall) it wasn’t particularly challenging. We even walked along a board walk for a short section. However once the climbing started, it didn’t seem to end. We had a few respites as we crossed a couple of valleys, but it was only around lunchtime by the time we were high into the mountains. I was glad to have a packed lunch organized by our shuttle, but the lamington provided became a bit of a running joke between Brendan and I. Word of advice when hiking – don’t pack something so easily squashable into a backpack.
It was nice to chat to some of our fellow hikers on the crossing. We met an American man who made his fortune selling computer software in the 90s, and had been travelling the world for decades. It was his 10th time in New Zealand, and apparently he wasn’t tired of it yet. When I suggested that he write his memoirs or blog about his experiences, he dismissed the idea, as he had resolved to never do a day’s work since he was retired. Whatever works I guess..We also met a flight attendant who worked for Air New Zealand called Steve, who was doing the crossing on his short break down from Auckland. We spoke to quite a few different travellers, including some Germans and Israeli girls. There were far more international visitors than Kiwis doing the walk, but I guess that’s the way it often goes with travel. You don’t appreciate what you have, and the rest of the world marvels at what you simply take for granted. After all, it was decades before I was finally visiting this part of the country.
The walk up to the Red Crater was the most precarious part of the crossing. I didn’t think there was any particularly dangerous section except for this one hair raising climb. It was steep climbing up the rock face with minimal grip and traction. At some of the steepest points, I was crawling up, since there was nothing to grip onto but loose rocks. I had to steady myself then quickly increase my momentum to climb up in a burst, as if you paused in the steeper sections there was a danger you could fall backwards and break your neck. I was genuinely quitefrightened that I was going to fall at times. I breathed a huge sigh of relief as I made it up to the crater. The Red Crater itself was gorgeous, but the highlight of the crossing is the Emerald Lakes. You look down from the red crater and see them housed within in a separate crater (possibly within Mt Tongariro.) These shimmering sulphuric lakes are a stark contrast to all the barren volcanic surroundings giving a rewarding view. There is a steep climb down to get to the lakes, and I had to walk down sideways (a la crab) gripping my shoes into the dirt as best as I could. Some other people slid down. It was probably around mid-afternoon when we began the climb down. Once we were over the craters it was still another 3 hours or so till the walk was over. By the time we reached the native forest (roughly the last hour of the walk) the crossing had taken its toll on Brendan and he really wanted to rush the last section to get back. We ended up missing the shuttle that was organized, even though we walked as quickly as we could, and had to pay an extra $50 to take a separate shuttle back.
All in all, it was a really tough walk but definitely worth doing – though I think doing that doing the crossing once was enough. Our shuttle driver gave us a guided commentary of the area on our drive back to the lodge. He was a keen skier and used the Mt Ruapaehu ski field every winter, but there were a lot of other walks and attractions we didn’t have time for, such as the Tawhai falls (a popular Lord of the Rings location.) We went to a nice casual place for dinner that night called Schnapps Bar and enjoyed a burger and a well-deserved pint. After showering, I headed straight to bed for the drive the next day.
We woke up around 7:00am for the drive up to Auckland; it was to be another long day of driving. We didn’t have our breakfast provided, but the Up & Go’s (liquid breakfast) that we bought came in handy. Plateau lodge had easy cooking facilities and I made myself a much needed coffee before hitting the road. As we stopped for a bathroom break at a petrol station in a little town called Turangi, I completely forgot that we actually needed petrol. I used their toilet and bought myself a coffee and sausage roll for morning tea, but then drove off on a near empty tank! Thankfully they had another petrol station there to save me the embarrassment. Our only lengthy stop on the road up to Auckland was to be Rotorua, but we did stop by the lake in Taupo briefly. They had installed a “# love Taupo” sign for the instagram tourists on the lakefront. When I last passed through Taupo, it was golden hour, and the lake was glistening. It was decidedly less picturesque on this visit. It was overcast and the lake waters seemed choppier, but the sight of someone Parasurfing on Lake Taupo was entertaining.
On the Outskirts of Rotorua, we stopped at the Wai O Tapu geothermal pools. There were several different geothermal sights around Rotorua, but this was supposedly the best. There was a strong sulphuric smell to the place, the pungent stench which characterises Rotorua. We only spent about 30 minutes on the trail, but the pools were all quite impressive, especially the champagne pool, which let off huge steam clouds much as if it were Mother Nature’s very own cauldron. The Lady Knox geyser is supposed to also be a spectacular sight, but we were too late to see it – it only goes off once every morning.
We arrived in Rotorua and had an incredibly mediocre lunch at Valentines. It was the old buffet restaurant from my childhood, and for nostalgia’s sake I was keen to visit. The food just all tasted off somehow, it was hard to explain other than it tasted awful. Nostalgia dissatisfied, we parted ways. Brendan was beginning to feel unwell and went to the Polynesian Spa. I decided to try Zorbing, which I had long wanted to do. On their website they had mentioned they had both wet zorbing and dry zorbing. The latter was what I had planned to do, but apparently during summer they don’t offer the dry zorbing. Not to worry as they had swimwear to rent on site. After changing, I was driven up to the top of the slope in their van. For $80 NZD I got to do two different tracks, the straight slope and the “Sidewinder” one. Each track was only about a minute long, but the fun of being sloshed about and bouncing around like a human hamster was worth it. My exact words to the staff were that it was “The best bath I’d ever had.”
After my Zorbing, I picked up Brendan at the Polynesian Spa and we drove straight to Auckland. Brendan had had a relaxing time at the spa, and I hoped that it had done some good for his health, as he had taken a turn for the worse since Tongariro. I had never experienced driving in Auckland before, but coming in on the motorway wasn’t all that challenging with the assistance of a GPS. We arrived at my Aunt & Uncle’s house around 7:00pm and were greeted with hugs and the usual familial hospitality by Pam, Warren and my cousin Vanessa. I always enjoy staying at my Aunt & Uncle’s, they really do make you feel like you’re having a special stay. Warren had cooked a delicious chicken dish, marinated in some sort of citrus sauce. After moving our bags up to our room, we dined al fresco and exchanged stories of our travels. It was a long weekend, so Pam & Warren had taken some extra time off work. We excused ourselves to bed. It was a hot night and it took me some time to get off to bed. I was given a reminder of how stuffy an Auckland summer evening can be.
Brendan had taken quite ill in Auckland, and during the day we had planned on doing some sightseeing, he was unfortunately in no state to explore anywhere other than his bedroom. It was a shame because Brendan had never been to Auckland before and done the usual tourist attractions. I decided to go into the CBD to do some shopping and have a little walk around. I thought I would try driving into the city, contrary to the advice of my Aunt & Uncle. I set my GPS to the address of one of the cheaper Auckland Council parking buildings and headed in. Unfortunately I hadn’t accounted for the inner city roadworks along the Viaduct, which blocked all access to the parking building. I spent about half an hour trying to find a park and quickly my optimism formed on a sunny Auckland day turned into demoralisation. I eventually settled on an overpriced Wilsons Park close to the SkyTower, as I was just about give up on the whole idea. My inner city shopping didn’t really work out, but I did try out my cousin’s juice & salad bar in Fort St. If you want a Healthy Lunch in downtown Auckland, head to the Goodlife Superfood Co. I ended my outing with a trip to Mission Bay, which is a seaside suburb of Auckland not far from Remuera. It was a beautiful day for a swim, and although I might have visited the place many years ago, I had certainly never been swimming there. It’s so handy having such a nice beach close to the city. headed back to the house and checked on Brendan – he unfortunately wasn’t faring much better. We went out that night, sans Brendan, to a nice Japanese restaurant in Remuera called Sakebar Nippon. I was glad to treat my rallies to a meal, and there was a delicious assortment of Japanese Izakaya food. I especially liked the Yakisoba Noodles.
Part Three: The Bay Of Islands
24/01/2020 – 26/01/2020
We took off later than we had intended to on Friday 24th January. One reason was that our GPS had said that it would be only 3 ½ hours’ drive to Russell from Auckland; however we shouldn’t have underestimated the time. That coming Monday was the end of a long weekend, and much like my Aunt & Uncle, many other Aucklanders had taken an extra day off work and like ourselves, had also picked the Friday to travel up to Northland. We were soon to discover this fact as we joined the traffic past the North Shore. Oh well….
Part of the late start was spent with a hospital visit for Brendan at a private hospital near Remuera. The diagnosis of Brendan’s illness was that he had caught a bacterial infection and the treatment was bed-rest. That put paid to an action packed time in The Bay of Islands, but really we had always intended it to be a restful part of the trip. After a trip to New World to stock up on groceries, we were on our way. We crossed the Harbour Bridge to the North Shore, probably the part of Auckland I’ve visited the least. I wanted to stop in Devonport, but we missed the turnoff (spoiler: there’s no turnoff labelled “Devonport” on the motorway) and then continued up to Whangarei. Not long after we left Auckland onto the SH1 toll road, the traffic began to crawl. I originally thought there might have been an accident but no, it was just half of Auckland driving up to their holiday homes. The stretch of road between Warkworth and Wellsford was particularly egregious. We didn’t even make it to Whangarei by lunchtime as was originally planned, and had a pie and milkshake at a no name town somewhere on the highway.
Whangarei wasn’t much of a stop either. Brendan wasn’t in the mood to look around, and so we bypassed the centre of the city. There were also roadworks towards the city centre which deterred us from taking our time, so we pressed on. Kawakawa was the main approach towards the Bay of Islands and ‘The Bay of Islands’ be seen on the approaching road signs. The vegetation began to look almost semi-tropical as we came in. Kawakawa also marked our planned turn-off to Russell. Our GPS had suggested we continue on the same road and take the car ferry, which sounded like a hassle to me. I didn’t want to deal with a ferry; besides, it wasn’t like Russell was on an island. It was at the end of a peninsula, and there was a road connecting it from Kawakawa. As we took the turn off, I remember telling Brendan that “This isn’t so bad” right up until we reached an unsealed stretch of road. The car barely lasted a minute as the road crept upwards, and then *THUD* I could hear the underside of my car begin to scrape on the road. I was lucky I didn’t get stuck, but managed to reverse and get out of there. It turned out there was a reason why every map warned against this road to Russell – but it was a shame it wasn’t explicit that this was 4 wheel drive only.
The car ferry turned out to be one of the most hassle free things I’ve ever done. It was actually ingenious, as the surface of the ferry itself was marked like just another stretch of the road. It was like driving onto a moving bridge. No need to book tickets or reserve – you paid via EFTPOS as you crossed. It took about 8 minutes to cross over to the Russell end of the peninsula, and was the princely sum of $13. All in all, our journey to Russell was closer to 5 hours driving with the Auckland traffic. Oh well.
I hadn’t set my GPS for Russell as I knew the town was tiny and the Duke of Marlborough was the most prominent building in town…Well, so I thought. We managed to somehow miss the hotel, but also miss their parking area by a long shot. We even drove along the waterfront area, as I thought the car park might have been at the front of the hotel. To my embarrassment it was pedestrian only, and I drove carefully to avoid running over the twenty odd pedestrians in my way. I parked at a spot on the street, walked into the hotel and checked us in, and was informed that the guest parking area was actually in a lot across the road. There’s limited space in Russell so I suppose it made sense. As we drove in, we also missed seeing ‘Christ Church’ which turned out to be New Zealand’s oldest church. Even in a town with a population of less than 1000, it turns out that you can get lost.
There was one other issue before we could check into our room though. A staff member at reception showed me to the room, which had only a double bed. After checking the booking she apologized and advised it would be another ten minutes before they could split it into singles. We left our bags at the room and I enjoyed a gin and tonic at the hotel bar while we waited.
The Duke of Marlborough turned out to be the nicest place we stayed at on our trip. It was expensive, but the quality of the service, the location, and quality of the furnishings absolutely made it worth it. The dining area and bar was dated but in a charming sort of way, but the rooms appeared to have been recently redecorated. There wasn’t a great deal of other accommodation options in Russell either – space in the township is limited, and most other properties were holiday homes. Room service was not a usual policy of the hotel, but they were accommodating for Brendan as he was sick. The meal that evening was brilliant – I had Swordfish in a Mediterranean sauce, and we shared a starter of tempura oysters. I would like to say we both slept soundly in a quiet tranquil room with a comfortable bed, but truthfully for some reason I had a lot of trouble getting off to sleep that night. I shall be back again for a better night’s rest and another G & T at some point.
The next morning we checked out of the Duke of Marlborough and had a little look around Russell. The town itself really is tiny – it’s like a nicer but even more compact version of Akaroa. We took a stroll along the promenade that I had earlier erroneously turned into a motorway, and looked out at the fifty odd ships moored in the bay. The pebbly beach was less suited for swimming than many of the other sandy beaches in the Bay of Islands, but the water was calm and we watched some children paddleboarding as we had our petit déjeuner at a waterfront cafe. A full english breakfast was just what I felt like, and the waters of Russell made for the best breakfast view I’d enjoyed since my trip to Samoa. We took a quick detour to Flagstaff Hill, the spot where Hone Heke chopped down the flagstaff (symbolizing British authority) three times and one of the important sites of the New Zealand Wars.
We took the car ferry again and drove another forty minutes round the bay to Paihia to our next accommodation. We were staying at the Copthorne Resort Waitangi. I have somewhat mixed feelings about the place as:
- The first day we stayed there was probably the busiest they would have all year. A public holiday, plus a music festival across the road with Shaggy and Wolfmother as the headliners, plus a wedding. Yeesh.
- We didn’t really use the resort facilities.
- We didn’t sample the food for either breakfast or dinner (although the reviews all said to avoid it, so perhaps it was a wise choice.)
- The beach at the resort was pretty average. It looked a lot nicer in the pictures, and despite the extra money I spent for beachfront accommodation, we didn’t even end up using the beach!
Still the location was excellent for its proximity to Paihia and the Waitangi Grounds and at least the parking didn’t cost any extra, but at full price, it was overpriced for what we got.
When we checked in, I wondered why there were a group of older Maori guys sitting in a circle staring at our window. It kind of put me off, since this was supposed to be a private resort. I adjusted the wooden shutters and tried to keep some privacy, but they only blocked out half the view. Soon the circle of Maori guys was joined by a whole Kapa Haka troupe that shuffled in, and then came the bridesmaids and the groom’s family. We were right in front of a proper Maori Wedding Ceremony. What I originally thought was an intrusion actually turned out to be the best view in the hotel to watch the wedding ceremony.
It was a union between two iwi – so a challenge was put before the groom’s family. As someone who grew up with limited exposure to Maori culture, it was quite a unique thing to watch. We let the wedding fade into the background; for the rest of the morning and early afternoon, we relaxed for a few hours. Brendan was still recovering from his illness, so I went out to visit Waitangi. It was about 32 degrees and although the treaty grounds were in walking distance, I decided it was easier to drive. I had a quick bite of lunch at the treaty grounds café, and then booked for the tour. It turned out to be half price for Kiwis, which was at least one perk of seeing the place. I took a quick look inside the museum, thinking that we would be viewing it on the tour. I also spent a minute or two waiting around to get a good photo in the explorers section. We didn’t return to the museum, but our guide gave us a good history lesson – showing all the different Maori cultural artefacts throughout the grounds. There was a cultural performance at the end of the tour, but after checking out the Treaty House where the treaty was signed, I opted to head off early for a swim.
I stopped at Kerikeri on the way for a drink, and picked up one of the local newspapers (It’s sort of a travel ritual I tend to do.) Kerikeri is the main settlement in the Bay of Islands, and while it is inland and doesn’t come with a view, the town has more shops and amenities than Paihia. Towards the end of the afternoon I had a swim at a little pebbly beach called Opito Bay, which reminded me a little of the beach at Russell. It was a very popular boating spot and the beach was secluded, situated at the end of a long winding road and fringed with native bush. I had parked near a group of French tourists who were enjoying a BBQ on the beach. Thankfully they had changing facilities there as I don’t think the beachgoers would have appreciated nudity. That evening, Brendan and I went into Paihia and enjoyed a meal at a combined Thai & Indian restaurant called Greens. I’m normally not the biggest Indian connoisseur, but their Goan Fish Curry just melted in your mouth. It was exceptionally good.
On our last day in the Bay of Islands, we slept in and spent a chunk of the morning planning the last leg of the trip. We discovered that most of the best ferry times had been booked for the day of our crossing, which led to Brendan and I having an argument over who was supposed to book it. Now I won’t point any fingers at who was to blame, but purely hypothetically, if I were to point at anyone then I wouldn’t be pointing at myself. The best booking we got was the 1:30pm sailing on Bluebridge, which was to be a new experience for me as every time I had been to Wellington, it was on board the Interislander.
Brendan did wisely convince me to abandon my plan to drive down via Gisborne. Stopping in Gisborne instead of Napier would add nearly 6 hours of driving to the trip, and when compared to our Taranaki detour, it didn’t even have the scenery to make it worthwhile. I had wanted to see every city in the North Island on the trip, but I’ll visit The East Cape some other time.
I drove up to Kaitaia, about 1 hr 1/2’s drive from Paihia and stopped for lunch. Despite the title of this blog, Kaitaia was never the intended destination of my trip, however it marked the northernmost part of New Zealand I would get to. Kaitaia is a bit of an unremarkable town, other than being the last major settlement at the top of the North Island, and there wasn’t much open when I got there. I settled for an open Kebab and bought some of the local speciality – the hot sauce called Kaitaia Fire. I then ventured not far down the road to a town called Ahipara, which was the main entrance to Ninety Mile Beach. I was keen to see New Zealand’s longest beach, and though of course I could have simply gone for a walk along the beach, Quad Biking was a more fun option. There were several different places in Ahipara that rented them out, but I just went with the first place I found. They operated out of a shipping container in town, though there was nobody at the container. I had to call to do business with them – it turned out the owners were busy enjoying the beach and after a five minute wait, they showed up to take my booking. Operations run from shipping containers don’t provide any insurance, and they also insisted on holding onto my credit card as a bond. It all seemed a bit excessive really.
After a quick lesson, I was on the road. I literally mean the road – the beach was five minutes drive up the road. I had forgotten how difficult Quad Bikes can be to control, and I nearly came off the road at one point. I also somehow missed the turn off to the beach, winding up at the Ahipara golf club. Thankfully, Quad Biking was a lot easier when I did get to the beach. There was a little channel of water to ford near the beach entrance, but it was a straight line of sand for the next 55 miles. Yes, as is commonly cited in nearly every mention of the place, Ninety Mile Beach is not in fact Ninety Miles in length but 88 kilometres (or 55 miles) long. Somehow 88 kilometre beach doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. The maximum speed on the bike was nowhere near ninety miles either, only about 50kph, but honestly that was fast enough on a vehicle was such poor handling. I made sure to check behind me periodically for passing 4x4s, as there were no mirrors on the quad bike.
After Ninety Mile beach, I drove down via the east coast. Cape Reinga would have been 3 hours return from Kaitaia, and honestly I didn’t think it was worth it. I had intended to visit the Karikari peninsula, but as I approached it I struck the annoyance of encountering unpaved roads again (It seems like in order to see New Zealand in detail; you need a 4×4.) I continued back down the east coast and stopped in a charming little town called Taipa. I had known about the place as when I was researching accommodation options, one of the other more affordable resorts was based in Taipa rather than The Bay of Islands. The beach was just gorgeous – golden sand, tranquil waters and excellent changing facilities for the tourists just passing through. I had the pleasure of my most enjoyable swim on the trip. Taipa was one of the loveliest spots I’ve been to, and as I drove down past other coastal spots like Mangonui and Whangaroa, I realized that it wasn’t simply just the Bay of Islands that was remarkably picturesque – all of coastal Northland is full of gorgeous beaches and sub-tropical temperatures. Brendan had booked dinner at Charlotte’s Kitchen in Paihia, although I was about half an hour late getting back from my excursion, and we had another lovely meal. We had a bit of trouble finding the place, which was right on the Wharf next to where you booked boat trips (another experience I will have to come back for.) The meal capped off a lovely stay in The Bay of Islands. I think Northland and The Bay of Islands especially is probably my favourite part of the country now.
Part Four: The Coromandel and The Drive Down
27/01/2020 – 31/01/2020
The first day of the last week marking the final stretch of our trip…. began. We were now heading to the Coromandel, which by conservative estimates was a six hour drive. Conscious of the traffic delays on the road up, we avoided SH1 via Whangarei and opted to go down the western highways via Dargaville and bypass the second busy stretch into Auckland on SH16 via Helensville. Besides, there were some other sights to see on these roads. The first was a Mangrove forest Brendan was interested in near the Hokianga Harbour. The Mangrove board walk was only 10 minutes long, but it was fascinating. I always pictured Mangroves as being these tropical plants with Asiatic foliage, but the New Zealand variety just looks like any other native tree – except for the fact its roots are buried in a swamp. Our next stop was another botanical attraction, but a far more impressive one. Tane Mahuta – the largest Kauri tree in New Zealand, located in Waipoua forest.
In the 19th century after the Kauri gumfields were dug bare by diggers, Kauri trees were bled and felled to take their gum. Today, it’s not even the diggers who are destroying the trees. Kauri dieback disease is now endemic in Northland and the Department of Conservation have a sophisticated setup which requires you to disinfect then wipe your shoes before you can enter the gates into the forest. The trails were sadly closed in the rest of Waipoua forest due to the disease, but we were able to follow the five minute trail to Tane Mahuta. You can’t help but gape at the scale of the tree when you see it rising through the forest. It reminded me of the Great Deku Tree from The Legend of Zelda, or one of those other “mother trees” in literature used by an untouched tribe. I could understand why Maori believed it had some spiritual significance as the scale is awe inspiring.
We stopped for lunch at the most depressing town on our travels. Dargaville might just be the most run down town in New Zealand. It was a stinking hot day and the paint was chipping off the decades old facades on the buildings on the main street. As it was a public holiday, it seemed that we were only in the company of other unfortunate tourists who had found themselves in this little town. ‘Dead Horse Dargaville’ as we christened it, was even less than a one horse town. The muddy river that characterized the failed metropolis was where we assumed the dead livestock was thrown into, unable to survive in such bleak conditions. Its recent claim to fame was that the last Blockbuster video store in New Zealand was still operating here. Perhaps the only reason it survived for so long was that the locals didn’t have any other means of escapism, and in a town like Dargaville, one needs to escape at any cost. I remember thinking when I walked through Kaitaia with my obvious tourist trappings of my backpack, sunglasses and compulsive photography, that I would rather be a tourist than a local in Kaitaia. Who would want to settle down in a passing-through kind of town, where civic shame is more apparent than civic pride? The same rings doubly true for Dargaville.
Perhaps I’m being unfair to Dargaville. We left as quickly as we could, and with near empty streets, the local hustle and bustle (if such a thing existed) was absent. As we passed through the suburbs, the houses didn’t look quite so bad. But for other potential travellers to the region, I would strongly recommend skipping this town, even as a place for a lunch stop. There only appeared to be the one café open with its formica tables and 80s tearoom interior, and we sat down near a Maori family who had the habit of talking with their mouths stuffed full. The pie I picked from the near empty cabinets was inedible, but thankfully they could manage to cook wedges without them poisoning us. Perhaps there were some other excellent food options in Dargaville, but everything else was closed.
With Dargaville behind us, we headed straight for Auckland. I stopped to get a gift for my Aunt at St Lukes shopping centre, and then we parked in Newmarket for a meal. We dined al fresco at the Safran Café, which was one of the few restaurants open. The Moroccan Lamb Salad with couscous was great value considering Auckland prices, and the waiter was great. They also had some reasonably priced Tapas specials, which would be worth trying another time. I remembered there being a really nice Japanese place next door, which I had been to years earlier. I was glad to see it was still open….well, not open tonight, but you know what I mean. The standard of food in Auckland in general is ridiculously good, but I’ve noticed the standards have increased throughout the whole country. Even a decade ago in smaller towns, the food quality could be hit or miss. Now, the standard is high in even the most remote locations. New Zealand really does have some of the best produce in the world, and in the three major urban centres, you can get nearly every type of cuisine on the planet.
After a quick stop at my Aunt & Uncle’s in Remmers it was time to hit the road. Sunset hit us as we headed towards the Coromandel, though a darker sight soon lay before us. For mile after mile the cars crawled in the most ungodly queues of traffic I had ever seen. There was no end in sight of the row upon row of cars. Auckland had emptied its bowels and the steel beasts of Pakuranga, Ellerslie & Henderson all returned to the city that had created them. I had never experienced a great deal of Auckland traffic in the previous days, but perhaps it was because seemingly all of Auckland had left the city during my stay. We had left Auckland to the Bay of Islands at the beginning of the holiday weekend, and now were leaving Auckland at the end of it. The scale of it all was overwhelming, and the thousands of approaching headlights left me squinting to see the road ahead.
As we continued up State Highway 25 to our accommodation by Cooks Beach, the traffic continued – its presence a constant trail of headlights and frustrated drivers. We took the turn off to Thames as we needed to top up petrol, having to wait five minutes for an available pump, and then pressed on up the ever windier road. It was especially challenging up a section near Pumpkin Hill, and I had to pull over to let cars pass on several occasions. Even by 11:00pm as we neared our accommodation, the Aucklanders were still heading backwards. Those poor drivers wouldn’t have gotten back until 3 in the morning.
We were staying at a little Airbnb near Cook’s beach. It was a sort of shed turned sleepout, and the ventilation wasn’t particularly good. The beds weren’t great either, and Brendan was on an even less comfortable sofa bed than mine. It was really a bit of a dive. Still the facilities were adequate enough; it was peaceful and quiet, came with a fridge and cooking facilities and at least bet staying in a Backpackers. The biggest issue was the lack of insect screens. Opening the window was a necessity to air the place out, but being a rural section, even with the curtains closed it meant that all sorts of bugs came in. None of these issues were of course mentioned on the Airbnb listing, which seemed to have near universally positive reviews. The next morning, we discovered that a cockroach had also gotten into the property. That was the final straw for Brendan, and so he booked to have his own room at a motel in Whitianga.
On our only day in the Coromandel, we drove down the road to Hahei, the base for exploring Cathedral Cove. The Cathedral Cove car park was closed over summer, so several locals who lived near the entrance to the track had set up private parking businesses in their backyards. We paid $10 at the first parking sign we saw and squeezed into a narrow park at the owner’s rear section. It was a 40 minute track to get to Cathedral Cove, and was a more challenging walk than either of us had expected. From Hahei Beach you could take a water taxi or kayak to cathedral cove, and if you just want to snap some photos and go for a swim, then they would probably be better options..
When we arrived, I immediately got snap happy, and asked Brendan to try to get a good photo of me The cove is divided in two, and you enter through what is officially termed an arch, but is more like a small cave to get to the other side of the beach. It was difficult taking a good photo of the iconic Te Hoho rock outcrop inside the cave as the lighting was always off, so I took my shoes off and had to wait for the tide to recede before running through. I didn’t avoid getting my shorts splashed in any case, but I didn’t really mind. I just enjoyed the sunshine; dipping my feet in the water and went paddling by the shore. It’s certainly one of the most stunning beaches in New Zealand and was worth the effort getting there.
There were many people swimming at the cove, and we probably should have just gone for a swim there. They even had a lifeguard on duty. Instead, after walking and sweating our way back uphill (the return walk is far more challenging), we drove down to Hahei Beach. Brendan hadn’t brought a strap or goggles to secure his glasses so he wasn’t able to go for a swim, and the weather had cooled down, but we both enjoyed a dip in the beach. After returning back to our Airbnb at Cook’s Beach and each having a quick shower, Brendan packed his bag and we drove down the road to the Whitianga ferry landing. The Whitianga ferry is a bit of an anachronism. The distance across the water is so short that they could easily bridge the gap, but the passenger ferry has been running for decades and is a bit of a local institution. Taking the passenger ferry shaves off about 40 minutes by car from taking the road over the hills, and for $4 who can complain about the price?
After our two minute sailing across the water, we stopped at a place called the Espy Café for lunch. There were a multitude of food options on the Whitianga waterfront, but it was practically the first place we saw after disembarking. Whitianga is a nice enough town. The beach isn’t as golden as the other options in the Coromandel, but it reminded me a little of Motueka in the south island, with similar proximity to excellent beaches and for being the main supply hub in the area. We walked a block down the road to The Albert No 6 motel – Brendan’s accommodation, of which every surface was painted strikingly blue. After checking Brendan in, I took the ferry back and spent the afternoon relaxing and trapping cockroaches at the Airbnb.
I drove around to Whitianga and met up with Brendan that evening. We bought fish and chips in Whitianga, and then drove down the road to Simpsons Beach. There were several fish and chip shops in Whitianga, and they all seemed to have good reviews. Ours were excellent, though I couldn’t say what the name of place was – it was the first one on Albert Street. It was our only picnic during the trip, and it was nice to have a more laid back meal. Brendan apparently had never had Fish & Chips on the beach before – another Kiwi tradition to tick off his bucket list, and could serve as supplementary evidence for his deportation case. Simpson Beach was also nice enough, with the Wharekaho Township built up along it with beachside holiday homes. That evening, the waves were crashing so loudly against the shore that I wondered if the locals could even get to sleep. I guess the sound of the waves rolling in isn’t always so blissful!
After dropping Brendan back, I pondered whether I should head back or do anything else that evening. Since Hot Water Beach was so near where I was staying, I thought it would be a shame to miss out on seeing it. Unfortunately it was nearing nightfall as I drove there, and truthfully I saw very little of the beach. I came prepared with a shovel in the car and dutifully dug my hole. After digging about 30 cm down, the water was only tepid, and really the whole thing was a waste of time. It’s an activity best left to the daytime. I thought I would be the only one there, but some crazy German tourists were still bathing there at 10:00pm. Not surprised that the beach was full of Germans though – they seem to be obsessed with digging holes on whatever beach they go to.
The next morning I met Brendan at the ferry entrance. Our time in the Coromandel had come to an end, and although we didn’t see all that much of the peninsula, I’m glad we at least saw Cathedral Cove. We were heading to Napier today, and took the windy road back down to leave the Coromandel behind. We made a quick stop in Waihi for a coffee, and saw the gold mine. I had a short holiday some years back in Waihi Beach, but unfortunately we didn’t have time to take the detour to the beach.
We arrived in Tauranga for lunch, and met up with my cousin Tammy and her kids for a meal. We had a casual lunch at the food court, but the mall itself greatly impressed me. I’m not normally much of a mall person, but the Tauranga Crossing is probably the best shopping mall in New Zealand. It was only a few years old and everything was modern and neatly maintained. I bought a coffee at what was setup as an english style teahouse (albeit equipped with an espresso machine) and I had a lot of fun playing at their Virtual Reality Arcade. I picked a game called BladeShield where you had to deflect bullets coming towards you by dual wielding a shield, and use your lightsaber-esque weapon to defeat the robot enemies. Everytime I try a Virtual Reality game it always reminds me how futuristic it seems. It’s a blast.
We then drove down the road for a quick stop at Tauranga’s most iconic beach – Mt Maunganui (referred to by locals as “The Mount”). I didn’t realize quite how far the beach stretched, as my last time at the mount was at the western end right by the mountain. We were somewhere midway along the beach and running short of time, but if we had longer I would have liked to have climbed Mt Maunganui. The views are supposed to be spectacular.
Avoiding the rush hour traffic, we left Tauranga around 4:00pm. It was another 3 ½ hours drive to Napier so with the exception of stopping to fill up the car, we wouldn’t stop anywhere else. We passed through Rotorua and stopped for Petrol just out of Taupo. Lunch hadn’t been all that filling, and I was glad to have a Panini and coffee at the BP petrol station. This trip has reminded me that BP has the best food of all petrol stations by quite a long shot.
The drive into the Hawkes Bay was one of the most scenic drives on our trip. As we crossed over the hills to begin the descent towards Napier, we stopped to watch the mist recede into the sunset. There was nobody else around, and only the sheep wandering the hills. It was a great photo opportunity. We picked up McDonalds as we arrived into Napier, and then checked into our Motel. I had forgotten that unlike Hotels, motels have closing hours for their reception, but the owners thankfully let us check in. Our motel in Napier was overpriced as we were fairly late in booking it, but I was just glad to get there.
It’s good to give cities a second chance because Napier deserved it. The late time I was here was in autumn several years back, when I passed through on a drive down with my sister. We stayed at an awful motel on the city outskirts with barely any ventilation on an overcast autumn weekend. I had booked a Vintage Car Tour in Napier, which was the only activity we would do on that trip. What a massive let down it was. While the main city centre has some nice architecture, the tour went on for about an hour and took us through suburban Napier pointing out “speed lines” and the most tangentially art deco features on the houses. It was over $100 for the stupid tour and I felt like Napier had also let me down.
What a difference a sunny day had made this time around! We parked along Marine Parade and took a stroll past the historic townhouses lining the waterfront. Most of the townhouses had been converted into boutique accommodation, shops and restaurants, and they reminded me of the old townhouses in Oriental Bay in Wellington. We then took a right into the city centre, stopping to check out some of the iconic art deco buildings. Buskers were playing on the high street and the streets were thronged with shoppers and other tourists. Downtown Napier was actually quite a pleasant place. I came expecting to be disappointed and was pleasantly surprised.
We then drove just out of the city to the Mission Estate Winery, the oldest winery in New Zealand. Founded in 1851 by French priests, it’s now operated by less spiritually minded businessmen, but the Winery is still proud of its heritage. They were setting up for the Michael Buble concert in the evening as we arrived (where else for a middle aged women’s favourite heartthrob but a winery…).
We began with the wine tasting at the cellar door, which was great value. For only $10 you were given a stemless wine glass, as well as five or six different samplings of the Mission’s finest. The Brit who served as our taster was very knowledgeable about the wine, not venturing into too many of the Wino clichés. I’ve never been much of a wine snob myself– my Mother has always been the biggest wine enthusiast in our family, though I do know my Pinot Gris from my Pinot Noir and have sampled a good few offerings from most wine producing nations. I have never been a huge connoisseur of New Zealand wine, but know that our whites are generally better than our reds. That generally proved to be the case during the wine sampling – the Semillon had the most interesting flavour combination of the varieties we sampled.
We had booked for lunch (a necessity due to the popularity of Mission Estate) and our waitress led us out into the estates’ garden. Our meal at Mission Estate was undoubtedly the best of our trip. I had the Beef tenderloin in Mushrooms Diane Sauce & Chermoula crust with a side salad, accompanied by the Mission Estate Pinot Gris. The meat was perfectly cooked with a flavour balance pulled off with finesse. We couldn’t manage to fit in dessert but the dinner was absolutely worth the treat (Thanks again Brendan for the lovely meal.) You could also stay at the winery, and at $400 a night it’s far more reasonable than the thousands of dollars that some of the other Hawkes Bay vineyards I looked at were charging.
After Mission Estate, we picked up some Hawkes Bay produce to take back home on the outskirts of Hastings. The area is renowned for its citrus fruit in New Zealand, but unfortunately the oranges were out of season. Somewhat disappointed, I settled for Berries, Peaches and Nectarines, and we headed down State Highway 2 on our way to Wellington. After wasting some time in a town called Norsewood looking for a non-existent Viking settlement, we headed back down the Kapiti Coast. It was approaching 5:00pm by the time we got into Wellington and checked into the Brentwood Hotel. Located in Kilbirnie on the flatter eastern part of the city, the hotel was close to the airport, and mainly served as an airport hotel. While somewhat drab and dated, at $150 a night it was much better value than our accommodation in Napier. Brentwood Hotel had all the facilities you would want including Air Conditioning and free parking (take that Travelodge), and the rooms were surprisingly spacious. It’s probably not the ideal base for exploring Wellington, but as a transit hotel before flying or taking the ferry it serves you well.
You can certainly do worse in Wellington given the expense of accommodation options in the city. I still remember staying at the God awful 747 Motel in Suburban Wellington. Parking was first come first serve basis and with one small window and bunk beds, it was more like staying in a run-down campsite. Anyways…
When we awoke for the last morning of our trip, Windy Wellington truly lived up to its name. We could hear the wind raging against our room at 7:30am. I was out of mobile data, but the forecast in the paper noted that gale force winds were scheduled to hit Wellington. Considering our options, we looked at doing an indoor attraction like the Weta Workship tour. I didn’t think you would have to book in advance, but today was a popular day and the tour was unavailable. The weather was supposed to clear in any case, and while Brendan was reluctant to go, I had my heart set on Zealandia.
Thankfully The Brentwood Hotel wasn’t far from Zealandia, and after checking out, we drove back to the attraction – and this time, actually got in. General admission to the park is only $21, and while they sell pricier daytime tours, having the freedom to explore at your own pace is the best option. The night-time tours by contrast did look worthwhile and are the best chance of seeing the nocturnal Kiwis and Tuatara.
Both of us were glad that we came. Zealandia is now one of the must do’s in Wellington, alongside Te Pepa, for both budding ornithologists and the general public. The sanctuary itself is excellently maintained. Set over 225 hectares, it’s amazing to think that there is so much native forest within the urban limits of Wellington. All of the walking tracks we took were paved, but for those who want to stay and explore longer, there are hiking tracks up into the less accessible areas of the bush. About 30 minutes into our walk through the grounds, we saw an incredible sight. There, out in the forest, were two Takehe. The Takahe is a blue flightless parrot native to New Zealand, about the size of a chicken. It bears some resemblance to a more common native bird found in Wetland areas called the Pukeko, but is much thicker and slower in its movements and much rarer. With only 347 left in the wild, it was incredible to see these birds, the only two in Zealandia. They came out into the paving and just wandered around, casually preening themselves. Clearly comfortable with human interaction, they stood there and gazed at us, as if we were the attraction.
I believe the park’s feeding station was nearby and they were waiting for their lunch, but it was such a special moment seeing these Takehe. Brendan, who is more knowledgeable than I am of New Zealand’s wildlife, was completely ecstatic.
While the Takehe were the highlight of our visit to Zealandia, we saw all manner of native birds. A Kaka- the Kea’s more aggressive cousin, swooped right towards me in full flight. I was glad I was wearing sunglasses as he could have taken an eye out! The saddleback, with its distinctive black and orange feathering was a success story of the park; and despite their rarity in the wild, was abundant here in Zealandia. It’s one of the nicest places for a walk in New Zealand. With only birdsong to be heard, it feels like you’re hiking somewhere in the remote bush. I would still love to see the New Zealand parakeet (Aka the Kakariki) one day – one of the most beautiful birds in the world.
After our time at Zealandia, we stopped at Moore Wilsons in central Wellington. Moore Wilsons is probably the best grocery store in New Zealand. It reminded me of the Whole Foods chain overseas, but smaller (at least smaller than the London branches) and a bit grittier. There’s less attention to presentation than the variety of stock available- it’s a great warehouse full of food, a single shop farmers market. The butchery alone seemed like they had a better range than best butchers shop in Christchurch. Pressed for time, I mostly just bought bread and pastries, and a sandwich to have for lunch. Being wholesalers, it’s a great place to stock up the pantry, whether buying coffee beans or pasta. There’s a great article here on the foodie institution that is Moore Wilsons
We needn’t have worried about missing the ferry. As at the beginning of the trip, there was another hour of waiting around to board the ferry. The Bluebridge terminal was more centrally located than the Interislander, but the ferry itself was a noticeable dip in quality from the journey up. After parking the car and being particularly sure that the handbrake was on, we found one of the few seats available on deck.
It’s possible that we only got the worst Bluebridge ferry, but for the $50 saved compared to taking the Interislander, I wouldn’t chance it again. It turned out that the ferry had multiple decks, but due to the confusing layout, the majority of passengers (including ourselves) seemed to have herded into the one deck. What made this arrangement even worse was that on our deck the majority of the space was taken up by a movie room. This didn’t deserve to be called a movie theatre, as there were only 40 inch fold down TVs showing the feature film, and due to the lack of space on board, we had to duck our heads and sit directly under one of the Televisions. It’s possible that this arrangement was to incentivize selling their private cabins (the company’s selling point over the Interislander), which presumably took up another entire deck of the ship.
The film today was a laughably bad TV movie about a talking dog. It was god awful, and yet it seemed as if everyone else seated was engrossed by it. We just wanted to chat, but seemed to be disturbing the movie goers however, who cleared their throats and muttered at us. The whole thing was quite uncomfortable. Who wants to be silent for a three and a half hour ferry journey? I mean, really? Say what you want about the Interislander charging for movies, but at least a small movie theatre is better than the whole bloody ship being one. I got up for a bathroom break and a coffee, and scouted out one area with some vacant seats. Thank God….we could escape! The café stocked a decent range of food (in this regard it seemed better than the Interislander), and I was thankful to grab the coffee I had needed all morning, but we had come prepared with our packed lunch. Take that overpriced ferry food! We ended up sitting next to a middle aged British tourist and her Kiwi relatives. The lady had quite a heart-warming story. She was on the first trip overseas since her husband had died, and she hadn’t seen her Kiwi cousins in decades. This was her first trip away and she had said it was a brave thing of her to do. They were picking up their Motorhome near Nelson, and then spending a whole month touring the South Island.
When it came to disembarking, the whole experience was chaotic. Brendan and I were separated for some reason I can’t recall and I struggled to find our car. The ship layout was far simpler on the Interislander, with one main access to the car deck. On the Bluebridge ferry there were about three different access points to the car deck. I managed to exit onto the front area, which was designated for the large cargo trucks. There was no way of squeezing past them. I panicked and tried calling Brendan, but it was so noisy on the ship he didn’t hear his phone. No staff members were around to assist either. Somehow I managed to find the right door and was able to get to my car. I highly recommended staying with your co-travellers if you’re taking this ferry!
We didn’t have much daylight left as we drove out into Picton. For the first time in the trip, I didn’t set the GPS. I knew the way home and coming back was always easier than going into the unknown. Without my digital English navigator, driving felt much more natural. For most of the journey we were just following directions. It was nice to have the freedom to drive without being told what to do. Our only stop down was in Kaikoura and as we left the town behind at dusk, we saw the most magnificent golden sunset lit against the purple sky. The hills became silhouettes disappearing into the ocean and it made me reflect on the cyclical nature of things. I was seeing a very different looking coastline to where I’d been two weeks before when I had started my journey, but the land remained the same. The same rocks that dotted the shoreline were shaped by the same passing waves as before, and the same sun was now leaving them behind. It was a different moment, in a different time, but only time had changed. Through every passing sunset – only time and nature endures.
I hope you enjoyed reading about my little road trip. I have a video I’ll be putting up as soon as I can figure out how to edit video again! With my time left in New Zealand, I hope I can see a little bit more of this lovely land I call home.