New Zealand – North Island
A journey in the Middle Earth
After five months working in Auckland, I finally started the New Zealand’s North Island road trip in mid-April. For this tour I decided to hire a vehicle rather than buy it (as I did, however, in Australia), because I knew I would not be around more than 20-25 days.
Wicked Campers has been my choice for its value for money. With about $ 25 a day I was able to rent a spacious van equipped with mattresses, camping equipment, a gas stove, crockery, a small sink with two water tanks and, above all, coincidently airbrushed with a tribute to Jeff Buckley.
The first stop was the west coast, just outside Auckland. In that small peninsula there are several beaches, famous for their black sand. The sand of Kare Kare, Piha, Bethells and Muriwai is black due to the high iron content present in it, a consequence of the numerous volcanic eruptions of the Pleistocene.
In mid-April the New Zealand climate does not allow you to live the classic summer beach days, but on the other side the places are not too crowded, and the temperatures have however been around 20°C (or more) during all the three weeks.
On the second day of travel I headed north, starting the real journey.
With a friend I decided to reach Pouto, located on a peninsula north of Auckland. We went there because we knew of “endless sand dunes facing the ocean”. In fact the dunes were there, and also the ocean, but to reach them we had to drive for an hour from the nearest town (Dargaville) and, most of all, the last third of the road is not paved. Obviously, being a narrow peninsula, then you had to redo the same road in the opposite direction.
In short, unless you’re a big fan of sand dunes – which by the way are not so high – you can absolutely avoid driving until there.
The third day went a bit better when we went up to Waipoua Forest, a couple of hours north of Dargaville. The more we moved away from the “ugly” Auckland, the more the landscapes became wild and pristine.
The Waipoua forest – located in the west of the Northland – is a forest of kauri (Agathis australis), evergreen trees with a light trunk, present exclusively on this island. They can become really huge, and in Waipoua Forest it is possible to see the largest one still standing, the kauri Tāne Mahuta (Lord of the Forests, in Maori), about 52 meters high and, above all, with a 14 meters girth.
Except a few walks along the pre-established paths of the forest there was not much to do, so we moved further north, passing through the beautiful coastal town of Omapere, through green valleys full of sheep and grazing cows, to head towards the next stop, Cape Reinga.
Cape Reinga is the northern point of New Zealand, which goes up with a narrow strip of land to end with a beautiful promontory overlooking the sea, with a classic red and white lighthouse.
Just in front of the promontory it’s possible to see with the naked eye the meeting between the Tasman Sea to the west and the Pacific Ocean to the east. At the point where the two seas collide, huge waves roll unabated on themselves, surrounded by calmer water. In this stretch of coast have been dozens of shipwrecks in past centuries, because of these treacherous marine currents.
Immediately after Cape Reinga we moved south, this time coming back from the east side of the Northland and following that coast, passing the very avoidable Paihia and Keri Keri. Here I realized how in New Zealand the distances were extremely different from Australia (my first Working Holiday experience). In fact, the North Island is about 1,000 km long, and it’s easy to visit it in a few days from one end to the other, while in the nearby Red Island I often had to drive for 2,000 km just to go from one place to another.
Descended in the Whangarei District we decided to climb Mount Manaia, which is not a mountain, being 420 m high, but it is quite steep. From the top the view is breathtaking and it is worth taking the fast climb if you’re passing by.
Then we went to Waipu, where there is one of the most beautiful beaches in New Zealand, even if it is not famous for tourism, but that certainly deserves at least one stop.
About half an hour driving inland from the town are the gloomy Waipu Caves, caverns lost in the hills, and you can get there by a dirt road at the bottom of which an open space with a dozen backpacker’s van makes you realize you are in the right place.
The caverns are open to the public 24/7 but there is absolutely no security or staff to control access. Everything is absolutely natural and left as it has always been. A descent into the Waipu Caves is certainly not the best activity for claustrophobics or occasional tourists, but it is not fatally dangerous. After a first walk we understood the reason why people used to go down there barefoot: the caves are flooded at ankle-knee height. Obviously it is necessary to visit them with a torch, possibly a head torch, so you can keep your hands free.
The caves are famous for being the home of the Glowworms, bioluminescent larvae that live stuck to the walls of the caves emitting a blue light. In a complete darkness are truly spectacular all around and above you.
Once we left the caves we continued south, and after a couple of hours we were back in Auckland for a well-deserved Neapolitan pizza, after which we continued our journey to the Coromandel peninsula.
In this spit I went to Hot Water Beach first, a tourist trap. It is nothing more than a very common beach where you can dig holes with a shovel (5 $ to rent it, parking also is not free) and wait for the holes to fill with water from the sand thanks to the tide. Then you can just lay down in these holes doing nothing, like in a fake spa. Ten minutes after parking the van and seeing how was the place I immediately moved 5 km north, in what I consider the best beach on the north island, Hahei Beach.
Hahei is also the starting point to reach Coromandel’s highlight, the famous Cathedral Cove. When we were there, at the end of April, the parking lot above the path leading to the cave was closed, so we had to walk the road – uphill – from Hahei. This walk it takes you almost one hour.
The beach is enclosed in a small bay and divided into two by a promontory naturally-carved in the shape of a “cathedral”, which you can pass through to get to the other side of the beach.
Unfortunately, this place is the most famous of the whole Coromandel peninsula – and one of the most famous in New Zealand – so the crowd was notable despite the season, with a shuttle that brought customers from Hahei to the beginning of the trail and even with a naval taxi service from Hahei beach. I’m sure it’s too overcrowded during summer.
The following day we continued south, arriving in the morning at the Karangahake Gorge, a canyon in which dozens of miners have searched for gold in the last two centuries. From the car park there’s a walking trail that leads you through a 1,100 meters long dark rail tunnel, not used anymore.
On the same day we also went to the famous geothermal site of Rotorua, probably the most famous point of the whole North Island together with the Tongariro volcano.
In Rotorua very interesting is the Maori village built around the geothermal activities of the subsoil, which erupt through geysers and enormous pools of bubbling mud. The sulphurous steam that vent from the ground is used by the locals for heating and other domestic activities. Entrance to the village costs 38 $.
After leaving Rotorua the trip to the south took me by chance on the road of Huka Falls (the beautiful blue waterfalls, but quite crowded) and the Craters of the Moon, right next to the falls. Here with only 8 $ you can walk in the middle of another huge geothermal area, rich in volcanic craters and columns of hot steam that create an apocalyptic but fascinating landscape.
Finally the journey took us to Taupo, right on the shore of the homonymous lake. The goal was to hike (in New Zealand these hiking activities are called tramping) the entire Tongariro Alpine Crossing, which is located on the south coast of the lake, the following day.
“The Tongariro” is one of the most famous hikes in the world, and doing it I understood why. The path of almost 20 km took me to the top of the volcano (1,978 m), from which I admired literally breathtaking views of the entire national park and all twelve volcanic cones – each has its own name – that form the mountain Tongariro.
The entire climb, with descent, lasts about 6.5-7 hours and it’s been harder than expected. The fact that families and people of all ages do the tramp is only because is very famous and easily accessible, and not because it’s an easy walk.
The weather conditions were absolutely perfect and sunny for all day long (you must check the forecast before trying to do this hike), completely hiding the low temperatures at the top (around 7°C).
As we descended from Tongariro we headed to the east coast, in the nice Napier. The town, rebuilt after an earthquake of 1931 in the art-deco style, was a nice surprise. The first (and only) New Zealand city that had something different or “original”, compared to the hundreds of “stencil made” towns encountered throughout the road trip.
I had already become used to this absolute poor architecture in Australia, but a year in Europe had made me forget about it. Every New Zealand city I’ve seen, from the smallest to the largest, was composed of a main street full of shops, banks, activities, fast-food and restaurants, 90% of which are part of national or international chain stores. As soon as you cross this stretch you’ll find a residential area, an industrial area (or warehouses) and then the countryside – all made with the same mould – until you get to the following town, which will soon forget the name, not having details that help the memory.
From Napier, after we took a 200 $ fine for having stayed next to many other backpackers in a regular rest area, but being two meters out of the white lines that bordered the parking, we just drove to the south coast, stopping one night in a beautiful forest near the town of Pemberton North (which it sucks).
On the south coast we then went to Cape Palliser to see the Pinnacles and the lighthouse, and then we arrived in the evening in the capital of New Zealand, Wellington.
Unfortunately, in the three days spent in the city the weather was not good at all with rain, wind and fog. Anyway the city is very beautiful, simple but beautiful. More liveable than Auckland, with its 412,000 inhabitants Wellington reminded me of some European cities. Full of very interesting museums (The New Zealand Portrait Gallery, Wellington Museum, City Gallery), a beautiful bay, and Cuba Street, a street full of locals and strange people. The city is dominated by some hills, where there is a botanic garden and a nice lookout.
After leaving the capital we started to go back to Auckland, staying on the west coast. Here we came across, by chance again, in Whanganaui. In this town we discovered that it’s famous for its flourishing artisan blown glass production. In a workshop in the center (free) we saw the glassmaker masters at work creating beautiful jars and colored bowls, blowing the molten glass taken from an oven at 1,600°C.
After Whanganaui we went to another famous volcano, Mount Taranaki. There the climb was not possible because of the ice and the snow on the top. The 10 hours tramp was reserved to experienced climbers, equipped with crampons and ice axes, so we just did a couple of treks around the mountain and a nearby pond.
In the evening we spent the night on the surf coast, in New Plymouth, where we also spent the following day in total relax.
The road to Auckland reserved few other nice spots (the west coast from Wellington to Auckland is not very interesting), and we only stopped at the Waitomo caves, a family owned cavern famous for their big amount of Glowworms. The guided tour in the caves, to discover the bright Glowworms and some history of the area, costs 51 $ and it would be worth it if only the very short final cruise lasted a few minutes more.
After the last night of camping close to Kawhia we drove north, ending the road trip from where it started.
Click here to view the Complete Gallery of my road trip in the North Island.