20.05.2013 - 20.06.2013 10 °C
We landed in Auckland on a cold and rainy autumn night, and our tan fell off somewhere between the airport and the hostel! We spent our first day hiring a camper-van and buying some much needed warm clothes, before meeting up with our friend Kirsty who had emigrated here a few months before. We went for dinner and drinks in a cozy pub on the harbor where we spent the night catching up and listening to live music.
We got a good deal on a little basic camper-van, so when we turned up and found we'd had a free upgrade to an enormous motor home that can only be described as a house on wheels, we had a shock. But we didn't ask questions, we jumped straight in and headed off into the New Zealand countryside to begin our month long road trip.
It didn't take us long to realise that New Zealand is beautiful beyond belief.One minute you're winding through rolling hills carpeted in lush green, the next you're cutting through ancient forests or majestic snow-capped mountain ranges before cruising along a dramatic coast line. Every turn brings a new view that wouldn't look out of place as a double page spread in National Geographic. In fact, the journeys were often more impressive than the destinations.
However, as our first stop took us straight into middle earth, this particular destination was completely surreal! We went for a tour of the movie set where 'The Shire' was filmed in The Lord of the Rings. Set in the rugged hills of a sprawling sheep farm, we explored the hobbit holes before finishing with specially brewed beer and cider in the Green Dragon Inn at sunset.
The amazing thing about travelling New Zealand in a camper van is freedom camping. Being able to pull up anywhere you like and make that your home for the night gives you such a sense of freedom. So that night we pulled into a picnic spot in the dark and woke up the next morning under the trees to the sun streaming in from a cloudless, crisp, autumn sky and a beautiful view over a valley.
We headed down to the Waitamo glow worm caves, which was another other-worldly experience. We descended into the gloom of the Ruakuri cave, where the guide explained to us how the beautifully intricate cave formations were created, showed us fossils embedded in the limestone walls and allowed us to get up close the fascinating glow worms; their mucus feeding lines hanging down like delicate fairy lights. We then took a boat ride through the Waitimo cave, where there were so many glow worms hanging overhead it was like looking up into a clear night sky, with millions of bioluminescent stars twinkling above us.
That night we camped in a particularly creepy field, and continued on in the morning to our next destination.
As we were driving down the highway a pungent smell of rotten eggs began to fill our nostrils. No, it wasn't Shaun, it was the smoldering geothermal hot spot of Rotorua! Pulling into the town clouds of smoke billow from the sides of the road and although the stench of hydrogen sulphide is impossible not to notice, the whole place has a powerful, raw beauty that leaves you speechless.
We started the day in the Polynesian spa, relaxing in the outdoor hot-pools whilst overlooking the simmering waters of sulfur bay.
We then went for a tour around the Whakerewarewa thermal village to see the awe-inspiring geyser fields, bubbling mud pools and hot-springs. Rotorua is more than a geothermal wonderland, it's also a great place to learn about the Maori culture, and so that night we went to a Maori cultural performance and hangi feast (which is cooked undergroud on a hot rock). Shaun got dragged up to learn the famous haka, but he didn't quite pull it off as well as the All Blacks.
The next day we decided to go white water rafting at Kaituna falls, that included the 7 meter high Okere falls - the highest commercially rafted waterfall in New Zealand! After a very brief lesson on how to raft, we kitted up and jumped straight in. At one point Shaun fell out of the raft in what appeared to be slow motion, and then proceeded to tackle the falls without a boat until we picked him up further down the rapids. The whole trip was hilarious as well as adrenaline fueled.
A few locals told us about some natural hot springs not far from where we were, so we headed there that night. There was a little pool under a bridge where a bubbling hot spring met a cool stream creating a perfect temperature natural bath - who needs a Polynesian spa!
The next morning we headed down to beautiful lake Taupo, the largest lake in the world that encompasses an area the size of Singapore (a country with a higher population that the whole of New Zealand). We wondered into the information center to casually inquire about the price of a skydive, and somehow ended up signing up for the next pick-up in ten minutes. We figured the build up would be worse than the main event! We were picked up in a delightfully tacky white limousine, and before we could even think about what was happening we were geared up and crammed into a tiny pink plane thinking 'how the hell did I get here?'. I was the first to jump so was crammed in right next to the door. At 12,000ft the door rolled open and a freezing gust of air filled the plane completely taking my breath away. The instructor swung us out so our feet were tucked under the plane, and then we'd rolled out before I had time to protest. The split second when you roll out of the plane and start tumbling through the air feels like it's all happening in slow motion, and then you stabilize and began plummeting towards the earth. But instead of a falling sensation you feel as if you're flying, being held up by the up-rush of air. It was the most exhilarating thing either of us had ever done. Then the parachute opened, and once I'd finished screaming there was a strangely calm feeling as we soared slowly back to earth over the beautiful lake Taupo. It was incredible.
As I had forced Shaun to jump out of a plane, the next day it was his turn to choose what we did, and so he took us somewhere equally as exciting - the prawn farm! We had a tour, and then sat for three hours in the cold trying to catch prawns. It actually turned out to be quite fun , and plus, we did manage to catch 7 prawns which Shaun made into a very tasty - albeit very small - starter.
After a drive round the lake we headed down to Tongoriro national park - aka Mordor. But as we cut through the dramatic snow covered mountains, it looked more like a christmas card than Mount Doom. The place, like so much of New Zealand, was awe-inspiringly beautiful. We took a walk to the Teranaki falls through a winter wonderland, and finishing the day with mulled wine made us feel like Christmas had come 6 months early.
We had a day to spare before our ferry crossing in Wellington, so we took a detour to Cape Palliser. This took us along the most scenic costal route we've ever seen, and we arrived at a small, windswept town that had an almost post-apocalyptic feel; especially when we came across a beach pilled with rusty bulldozers. The powerful waves pounded the rugged, black-sand beaches, and the only other life we saw was the pungent seal colony (that we could smell before we could see!) lounging amid the rocky shoreline. We climbed to the lighthouse for an incredible view over this eerie landscape before heading back towards Wellington.
In Wellington we just had time for a trip to the Te Papa national museum before catching our ferry to the South Island.
We started our journey into the south island with a full day wine tour of the Marlborough region. We were taken from one boutique, family-run winery to the next, cruising through the picturesque vineyards, being plied with copious amounts of Sauvingnon Blanc and pretending to be able to smell aromas of freshly cut grass and capsicums. The last four wineries are a little hazy, but as we bought bottles of wine, luxury chocolates, and then persuaded the tour guide to take us to a supermarket so we could buy cheese and crackers on the way home, it appeared that we had a good time.
The next day we started to head down south, stopping at the Punakiki pancake rocks on the way. These are a set of unique limestone formations that appear to be made up of stacks of rock, with powerful blow holes and surge pools where the roaring swell of the sea bursts through the formations.
We arrived in Franz Josef in time for a walk round Lake Mattheson, where we could see a perfect reflection of Mount Cook in the calm waters of the picturesque lake, and then watched the snow-capped mountains turn pink in the sunset.
The next day we took a helicopter up to the Franz Josef Glacier for a 3 hour hike through the ice. It was our first time in a helicopter, and it was such a strange sensation being in this noisy, round , metal capsule that didn't look like it should be airborne. But we couldn't have asked for a better view, and landing on the glacier felt as if we were about to embark on some extreme expedition. The hike through the pristine blue ice pinnacles and ice caves was incredible, and we finished the day in the rainforest hot pools followed by drinks in a cozy pub with some painfully posh but hilarious southerners.
We then headed further south to Wanaka, on our most scenic journey yet; past vast lakes reflecting the rugged mountains. We only had a short stop in Wanaka, just enough time to take in the beautiful surroundings and... Puzzling world. This bizarre place had a 3D maze and illusion rooms that use some of the techniques used in the Lord of the Rings films.
We then headed to Queenstown. Not only is this place the adventure capital of New Zealand, it's a beautiful lakeside town filled with gourmet restaurants and quirky bars, and perched on the foot of Coronet Peak ski field. It's the most livable place we've come across in our whole time travelling. We spent our first day on the slopes, but as neither of us had skied in a few years, there were some spectacular falls, and I did manage to take out a couple of snowboarders - which is surprising considering how slow I was moving. The snow wasn't amazing as it was so early in the season but it was great to get back on skis and fly (or fall) down the side of a mountain.
We spent the rest of our time in Queenstown ice-skating, playing frisbee-golf in Queenstown gardens, drinking mulled wine and eating Fergbergers - which are a tourist attrataction in themselves!
After Queenstown we headed to Dunedin and spent the day exploring the Otago Peninsular. The eerie moon-scape sand dunes and lush wetlands are home to a surprising array of wildlife - whilst walking down an empty beach we almost fell over a huge sea lion sleeping on the sand like a piece of drift wood, before seeing soaring albatrosses fly overhead with their enormous three-meter wing span. Unfortunately we didn't have chance to see the peninsular's most famous resident - the rare yellow eyed penguin - as they can only be seen at dusk, and we needed to head back to Dunedin for our tour of the Speight's brewery. The tour was really good, especially as it ended with an open bar where you could pour your own selection of Speights ales and cider.
The next day we stopped at the Moreaki Boulders. They're apparently formed by calcite concreations forming around ocean debris millions of years ago - in a similar way to how pearls are formed within an oyster - with the result being these enormous, completely spherical rocks that litter he beach like some giant discarded game of marbles. It's an unbelievable sight.
We then had a stopover at Omuru, and were lucky enough to spot a few yellow eyed penguins coming back to their nests after a days fishing before heading to the blue penguin colony. These tiny blue birds are the smallest species of penguin in the world, and with little viewing panels above their nests we could get a really close look at these incredible creatures. After dark we sat and watched hundreds of them waddle and squwark their way from the sea back to the colony. We weren't allowed to take pictures, but it probably isn't a sight I'll forget any time soon.
We finally reached Christchurch, where we had tickets to watch the All Blacks Vs France that night! The damage left by 2011 earthquake was more visible than we had anticipated, but the city still seemed vibrant and friendly. We went to he Re:Start shipping container mall and - as Christchurch is the 'aerial gateway to the Antarctic' - we also went to the international Antarctic center, where we could experience a simulated Antarctic storm.
The atmosphere at the rugby game that night was incredible, especially as we had front row seats amid the patriotic Kiwis, to watch the bone-chilling haka followed by a 30-0 victory for the All Blacks. Not that this deterred the French fans from singing continuosly at the top of their lungs in the pub after the game!
With just a few days left in New Zealand, we took a return trip souh to Kaikora in the hope of swimming with wild dolphins. Kaikora is yet another place that demonstrates the raw, rugged beauty of New Zealand. With misty mountains stretching to the rocky shorelines, the place is teaming with spectacular wildlife - from albatrosses to seals, sperm whales to duskey dolphins - the place is magical.
However, as our dolphin tour was unsuccesful at actually finding any dolphins, it was a slightly anticlimactic end to the trip! We did however see a sperm whale, and took a walk to a beautiful waterfall where hundreds of playful wild seal pups were frolicking in the frothy waters.
It was then time to head back to Christchurch for our flight to Fiji. And although we were happy to be leaving the caravan and the cold, we could have stayed there for much longer - it is country that is very easy to fall in love with! New Zealand is so much more than throwing yourself out of a plane or off a bridge, down waterfalls or snowy slopes; it is a country of astounding natural beauty, warm friendly locals and a unique and cherished culture. This photogenic country is so filled with diversity that it never stops surprising. You really do need to see it to believe it... but be warned, you may find it hard to leave!