Sometime in January we pack a tent and sleeping bags and contact a few people on CouchSurfing and some of our Bulgarian friends we met at the Christmas Camping celebration in Mangawhai, who live in various New Zealand cities. Svet and Dara kindly lend us their car called Rocky and we leave on a tour of North Island on a minimal budget, spending money mainly for fuel and food. In two weeks we drive around some of New Zealand’s most spectacular places in search for the free tourist attractions and things to do in the area, avoiding the expensive ones, spending a total of zero dollars for accommodation, cooking for our hosts, and enjoying life on the road.
On other previous occasions, we have visited the Waipu Caves, Tane Mahuta and Goat Island together with friends.
The Waipu Caves, only a few minutes north of Mangawhai, are undeveloped limestone caves, unguided, with no tracks or paths, muddy and narrow at places, and free access. We walk barefoot through slippery mud and water up to our knees inside the mysterious chambers and passages. The Waipu Caves represent the largest cave passage in Northland with underground river and lakes, stalactites and stalagmites. Here, with our flashlights off, in the total darkness and silence of the cave, we gaze at a galaxy of glow worms, like constellations of blue-green stars in a clear night.
The glow-worms are carnivorous bioluminescent fly larvas inhabiting dark places. The larvas take a few months to become flies and during this period they cast luminous silk threads with which they lure and catch their prey. The silk webs are made up of mucus tubes, in which the glow-worms reside, and ‘fishing lines’ hanging vertically beneath the mucus tubes, reaching up to 40cm in length. The fishing lines are dotted with globular secretions of mucus which immobilize small insects like midges and tiny flies, and sometimes larger ones like cockroaches and beetles.
Goat Island on the east coast, one hour drive north of Auckland, is the site of New Zealand’s first marine reserve, established in 1975. It is a rich ecological area teeming with fish and sea life. Snorkeling and diving is the best way to explore the underwater world here, but the place is also perfect for a lazy day on the beach in the company of friends. There are many quiet picnic spots on the shore overlooking the dramatic landscape of the bay with its rock formations, and cormorants nesting in the coastal trees.
Tane Mahuta in the Waipoua Forest of the Northland Region is the largest kauri tree in the world, over 50 meters high, with an estimated age of up to 2,500 years. It is the most famous tree in New Zealand. Its name means “Lord of the Forest” in the Māori language.
According to the Maori creation myth, Tāne is the son of Ranginui the sky father and Papatūanuku the earth mother. Tāne tore his parents apart, breaking their primal embrace, to bring light, space and air and allow life to flourish. Tane is the life giver. All living creatures are his children.
The tree attracts many visitors and is carefully protected and taken care of. Before visiting Tane Mahuta, we pass through a cleaning station to wash the soles of our shoes of any potentially harmful bacteria. During the New Zealand drought of 2013, 10,000 liters of water from a nearby stream was diverted to Tāne Mahuta, which was showing signs of dehydration.
We start from Mangawhai, driving through Auckland towards New Plymouth, where we meet our CouchSurfing host Daryl. We enjoy being in a car and driving on land for a change, especially in New Zealand, where the sentry is green and beautiful. On the way we pass Three Sisters on the North Taranaki coast and marvel from a distance at the rock formations near the river delta, beautiful at low tide.
Daryl’s house in the heart of New Plymouth is clean, spacious and full with travel books. Daryl is in a wheelchair since more than twenty years, when he had an accident and broke his back, but this hasn’t stopped him from enjoying an independent life and traveling. He has been in many places all over the world and is passionate about other cultures.
Daryl takes us to Pukekura Park for the award-winning Festival of Lights with more than 1000 LED lights programmed to dance in different patterns and colours, illuminating the trees and the lake, creating a magical world. Just after sunset, the park is full of people and looks like a fairytale place, breathtaking, with palms and giant ferns glowing orange, yellow and blue, with shining jellyfishes suspended over the lake, a multicolored waterfall, and the Tunnel of Light – our favorite.
The next day, we drive to Whangamomona – a funny sleepy village in the middle of nowhere calling itself “a republic”, with very strange history and customs. The Republic of Whangamomona is today the main tourist attraction along the Forgotten World Highway with its century old hotel the major point of interest. The town has a total of 14 permanent residents. In 1988 the New Zealand government decided that Whangamomona would become part of the Whanganui/Manawatu region. In response and as a protest, the town declared itself a “republic”, holding presidential elections every two years, confirming its status as separate from the rest of New Zealand. On Republic Day thousands of visitors arrive from all over New Zealand and the world to celebrate. Festivities include swimming with the eels, a gut buster and betting on sheep racing, with the day culminating in the presidential elections. Everyone who got his passport stamped at the hotel can vote. Some of the Republic’s former most memorable presidents include a goat and a poodle.
We get our passports stamped, next to the Macchu Picchu and Nazca Lines stamps in the back pages, as if the regular stamps from the countries we visit are not enough. And we drive off, as there is not much to do in the tiny town. I want to take a picture of the Welcome to The Republic of Whangamomona road sign, so Ivo pulls over in the ditch and Rocky gets stuck in the mud on the side of the road. Not many cars pass through here. We wait and worry for a few minutes, until the local mailman saves us and pulls Rocky out of the mud. We wonder if the local mailman is one of the Republic’s 14 permanent residents, and if he has ever been the president… but we forgot to ask him.
The journey to Whangamomona and back along the narrow winding Forgotten World Highway is more about the drive than about the destination, crossing green pastures and forests, small villages and farms. We enjoy it all the way to Egmont National Park, where we spend the rest of the day hiking in the Goblin Forest and visiting Dawson Falls.
Tired, we head back to Daryl’s place and spend another night at his house. I prepare a Bulgarian dish for supper called Musaka, based on potatoes and minced meat, replacing the meat with eggplant, as Daryl is vegetarian.
The next morning, we hike Mount Taranaki – one of New Zealand’s iconic mountains and an active volcano with one of the most symmetrical volcano cones in the world that might erupt any minute. It is also one of the most popular hiking destinations in the country with maximum altitude of 2518 meters.
“According to Maori legend, Taranaki once lived with the other volcanoes of the North Island’s Central Plateau – Tongariro, Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe. When he made romantic advances towards a beautiful mountain named Pihanga, Tongariro erupted in jealousy. Banished to the west, Taranaki was maddened with grief. When his peak is shrouded in mist and rain, he is said to be weeping for his lost love.”
We walk up to the base of the crater. The climb beyond first base is not an easy one and is recommended only in good weather conditions and preferably with special alpine equipment. As many as 80 people have died climbing the peak, falling down or freezing to death, which makes Mt Taranaki one of New Zealand’s deadliest hikes.
And there is another danger. Mt Taranaki is an active volcano overdue to erupt by more than 100 years. When this happens there will be total destruction to the edge of Egmont National Park.
Historically, Taranaki has had minor eruptions every 90 years or so with a major one every 500 years. The last major eruption was sometime around 1650, while a smaller ash eruption occurred 100 years later. It’s a ticking bomb.
The next day, before heading to Palmerston North, we stop for a visit at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery and Museum of Contemporary Art in New Plymouth to watch Len Lye’s kinetic sculptures, which sound like thunderstorm. There we say good-by to Daryl.
We drive south, along the scenic coastal Surf Highway 45 passing through Pungarehu for a quick stop. Here Cape Egmont’s historic Lighthouse and museum is marking the westernmost point of the Taranaki coastline. It is the sight of an epic shipwreck, after power failure of the lighthouse on July 13, 1956.
Next short stop-over on our way is the small Tawhiti museum with interesting exhibits of old agricultural machinery. To see a real-life steam engine tractor was on Ivo’s bucket list and he saw it in Tawhiti museum.
We drive on. It’s a nice sunshiny day, windy and crisp. As we approach Whanganui, we spot a big lake surrounded by lush flowering gardens on our left, teaming with bird life. We pull over. We wish we had a full day to spend in Whanganui’s Virginia park instead just a couple of hours. We feed ducks, white and black swans, and our favorite- the pukeos, using their feet and long toes like hands to grab the bread crumbs we are tossing them, and we meet the Australian coots for the first time, with their strange feet.
We pass through Palmerston North to visit our friends there Koko, Svetla and their son Evgeni, spending a couple of rainy days with them. Svetla is a professor in the department of Agriculture at the university in Palmerston North. She gives us a tour of the campus and we learn some interesting facts about the local soils, plants, and animals.
The next day Evgeni takes us to the Victoria Esplanade Rose Gardens with a variety of 100 different rose species. Here, hidden behind rosebushes, we discover little painted rocks. Evgeni explains, that when you find a painted rock, you can keep it, but you will have to paint another small smooth river rock and hide it in the park for someone else to find.
Next stop- Wellington, New Zealand’s windy capital. Here we stay with two families: John and Cveta and their daughter Imogen, and Krasi and Biliana and their two daughters Magi and Aglika. They tell us which are the most interesting places to visit in the city and how to get there, help us with parking spots and other tips. In the evening, we drink beer together and enjoy the hospitality of good friends.
We spend the first day in Te Papa– the impressive 36,000 square meter, earthquake proof national museum and art gallery of New Zealand, sitting on the waterfront in Wellington’s harbor.
“Te Papa Tongarewa” translates from the Maori language as “the place of treasures of this land”. The museum is spread on six floors with many collections, long term, short term and interactive exhibitions, incorporating concepts of diversity, culture, place, and the environment, focusing on the relationship and partnership between indigenous people (Tangata Whenua) and non-indigenous people (Tangata Tiriti).
We marvel at the collections of fossils and archaeozoology; at the herbarium of about 250,000 dried specimen; the collection of about 70,000 specimen of New Zealand birds, amphibians, reptiles and mammals, as well as Maya’s favorite- the world’s largest specimen of the rare colossal squid – 495 kilograms (1,091 lb) and 4.2 metres (14 ft) long.
The History Collection includes historic and contemporary items from the Pacific Islands; and the cultural collections include photography, Māori taonga (cultural treasures), and Pacific cultures.
The long term and permanent exhibitions of cultural objects focus on New Zealand history, Māori culture and New Zealand’s natural world. These are free.
For some of the short term visiting exhibits, like the interactive Bug Lab science exhibition by Weta Workshop, we have to pay. Gallipoli- the large-scale statues of soldiers during the war is one of our favorite exhibits, also created by Weta Workshop- the same studios producing the sets, costumes, armor, weapons, creatures and miniature models for the film trilogy The Lord of the Rings.
The next day we visit Zealandia– the world’s first fully-fenced 200-hectare urban ecosanctuary and a conservation project. Zealandia has an ambitious 500-year plan to restore the Wellington valley’s forest and freshwater ecosystems as closely as possible to their pre-human state. Some species of native wildlife previously absent from mainland New Zealand for over 100 years have already been reintroduced back into the area.
Here many of New Zealand’s endemic birds, some of which endangered and extremely rare in the region like the tūī, kākā, kererū, tīeke, hihi, little spotted kiwi, and tuatara, thrive in their wild natural environment. We meet some of them, while others remain hidden, like the shy kiwis which only come out at night.
In Taupo we stay with Mike at his house just a short walk from the lake, and he shows us the best free things to do in the area. CouchSurfing is great in many ways. You get to travel cheaply, but also you meet some cool local people who know all the places in the area, not just the popular touristy ones.
Mike takes us down to the Waikato river with a pink inflatable and explains the plan.
- Just drift downriver until you reach the hot springs. Should take 15-20 minutes. There you have to be sure to come out of the water. If you keep going you will reach the rapids and the waterfall and you’ll die. So just make sure you come out at the hot pools.
Ivo and Maya are up for the thrill. The water is freezing cold, but the hot thermal pools are awaiting.
The area around Taupo and Rotorua is full with volcanic activity- thermal springs, craters, geysers and fumaroles, and spectacular volcanic terrain. Here is New Zealand’s oldest national park and a World Heritage Site- Tongariro.
Located 20 kilometers southwest of Lake Taupo, Tongariro is the northernmost of the three active volcanoes that dominate the landscape of the central North Island, reaching a height of 1,978 meters, with 12 cones and active vents.
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is considered the best one-day trek in New Zealand, even one of the top ten single-day treks in the world. We are going to check it out.
The weather is exceptionally good: sunny, no wind, and no clouds. The terrain and views are stunning the higher we go. But it’s the weekend and at least a million other enthusiasts are here to hike. Around noon gets so crowded, that we cannot walk beyond the first base because of all the incoming traffic of people arriving from the opposite end of the trek, that we have to turn back and go with the flow.
Mount Tongariro and its surroundings are among the several locations chosen by Peter Jackson to shoot The Lord of the Rings film trilogy.
The Aratiatia Rapids and Dam near Taupo are the site of the barrel ride for the movie The Hobbit. Here the spill gates of the dam on the Waikato River open a few times every day to createite of the barrel ride used inod for ith 100 variety of roses. the perfect flash flood.
After a couple of days in Taupo, we keep driving to Rotorua, planning to camp at one of the few campgrounds in the area, because we couldn’t find no one on CouchSurfing. But the campgrounds are all full! We drive around for a while, looking for a hidden spot near the road where we could pitch our tent for the night without being noticed. In New Zealand you can’t just camp anywhere.
Luckily, a local lady agrees to let us sleep over at her farm. We put up our tent in the corner of one of the cow paddocks. The genuine hospitality and friendly kindness of this woman and the kiwis in general (‘kiwis’ is what the people of New Zealand call themselves) is the most beautiful part of this country.
After showing us around the farm and how the dogs convince the cows to move from one paddock to another, the woman’s grandkids bring us sausages, steak and corn for dinner. We give them a big block of our favorite Whitaker chocolate- New Zealand’s best!
The next morning, we wake up early, say goodbye to our awesome hosts who give us some more sausages for the road, and head for the Whakarewarewa Forest.
Right at the outskirts of Rotorua is a green park with over 5600 hectares of exotic tree species and native undergrowth, dominated by the magnificent Californian Coast Redwoods, with a network of superb mountain biking and walking trails along the river.
We skip the geothermal pools and geysers passing by the Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland only to see the free mud pools there. A ticket for the geyser and the rest of the park is 35 NZ$ per adult, while a ticket for the Te Puia geyser costs 55 NZ$. Instead, we head for the free Kuirau Geothermal Park, located right next to Rotorua’s city center, with its steaming, hissing, boiling and bubbling lakes and vents. Here, we even meet a family of Californian quail running around the hot pools.
The Legend of Kuirau
In early Maori times the small lake in the park was much cooler and was known as Taokahu. A beautiful young woman named Kuiarau was bathing in the waters when a Taniwha (legendary creature) dragged her to his lair below the lake. The gods above were angered and made the lake boil so the Taniwha would be destroyed forever. From that time on, the bubbling lake and the steaming land around it have been known by the name of the lost woman- Kuirau.
Our last and long-awaited stop is the original Hobbiton Movie Set from The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy and The Hobbit films, situated on a family run farm with lush pastures and flowering gardens near Matamata. It is also the most expensive destination of our tour with an 80-dollar admission fee. If you are a fan I guess it’s worth it, but I (Mira) waited for Ivo and Maya in the car…llar admission fee fowaited in the car… For Ivo and Maya visiting Middle-earth, the Shire and the Green Dragon Inn was a dream-come-true and their favorite experience of the whole road trip around North Island.
For me, the highlight of our car expedition these two weeks a and Ivo, s. the green views passing by my window. he chance to visit; and the people we metnt time with- s, volcanowas the driving itself, the winding road along pastures and farms, forests and volcanoes. The green land passing by my window.
Watch the short fun YouTube video Road Trip in North Island
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