I have put off writing this blog for a long time. Somehow, putting it all into words seemed as though it might somehow lesson the magic of our time in New Zealand. New Zealand was like a dream, a country we felt connected to long before we ever arrived on her shores. It offered everything we love; stunning coastlines, jagged mountains, few people, many sheep, and exceptional food and wine.
The month we spent there was easily one of the best times of our life. Country number two on our RTW journey, New Zealand was where we truly started to feel the freedom of the open road. Filled with the excitement of finally embarking upon our long dreamed of trip and giddy with the anticipation of all that might bring, we threw ourselves wholeheartedly into this amazing country.
Time was spent covering both North and South Island and loved every minute of it. Flying into Auckland, fresh off 10 days of “vacation” in Fiji, we encountered a gorgeous city, built on hills surrounding the famous harbor and reminiscent of Seattle. Freezing cold after the warmth of Fiji, we didn’t stay long but in our brief time it became apparent it was a city we could one day call home.
Ever ready for a road trip adventure, we were over eager to pick up our camper van and hit the road! Our Apollo camper van was perfectly equipped for our road trip and the campgrounds of New Zealand were perfectly equipped to receive us. These people know how to camp! Most campgrounds, and there are thousands of them, are wonderfully located with fantastic facilities.
The days following our departure from Auckland took on an air of pleasant simplicity. Breakfast at camp, sightseeing or moving on during the day, dinner in the comfortable camp kitchens chatting with other travelers before an evening of reading and an early bed as we worked our way across the North Island.
Rotorua, stinky with sulfur in the air, threw us right into the fascinating Maori culture. The Maoris have inhabited New Zealand for hundreds of years, thought to have arrived from Polynesia around 1280. These fierce tribes, sadly, have experienced much of the same discrimination as the Aborigines of Australia, considered third class citizens. This still continues to some degree today, although the country has embraced the culture, offering travelers many opportunities to learn about these first settlers. The fierce Haka dance was originally a war dance but has since become more famously associated with the All Blacks, the National rugby team. We became so intrigued by the culture that we got matching tattoos of the Maori fishhook, symbolizing strength, long life, and safe travels.
Rugby was not familiar but we certainly got schooled in New Zealand! More religion than sport, Love of the All Blacks, the most dominate team in Rugby history, permeates nearly every aspect of Kiwi life. We immediately got sucked into the national craze and spent many an hour enjoying play-off matches. Walk into any bar in the country on match day and ask the bartender what they think of their chances are for the evening and they’ll pull themselves a pint along with yours, sit down, and tell you what they think of it all. A fantastic way to meet the locals, this became one of our favorite pastimes.
Lake Taupo proved to be an outdoor paradise. Hike, bike, shop, drink or fly-fish in the crystal clears water. It’s 23,000 residents are some of the friendliest we’ve ever encountered, something we would find time and again throughout the country. In spite of Jim’s best efforts, we never did catch one of their elusive trout, but had a fantastic time nonetheless.
After getting our fill of Lake Taupo we headed West to Waitomo for two very unique experiences. Waitomo is known for their extensive caving system and….. GLOW WORMS! For several days we camped at the Top 10 Park and enjoyed the area. Unique to New Zealand, glow worms are tiny, luminescent worms and a variety of tours are offered. We chose the caving tour followed by boat tour on the underground river. The caves themselves are quite extraordinary and extensive but the highlight of the trip was absolutely boarding our boat to check out the glow worms. Lanterns extinguished, we floated in silence, the cave ceiling above lit up like the sky with the brightest sky show imaginable. Marred only slightly by the smell, it was a magical experience. No pictures were allowed in the glow worm portion of the cave so, sadly, no shots here.
As interesting as the glow worm caves were, my favorite day in Waitomo was visiting the Ruakuri cave. Discovered 400-500 years ago and reopened in 2005, you enter the cave at an unobtrusive opening at ground level. As the door closes behind you, the guide turned on the lights and we stood, mouths gaping, as we looked down at the lights and circular walkway going nearly 5 stories below us. Once you arrive at the bottom it begins to feel other worldly. To keep the interior climate controlled you go through a series of doors that slide open and shut behind us like something out of Star Trek. We spent hours examining the stalagmites and stalactites, surrounding us with dazzling natural artwork, amazed that all this glory had been right underneath our feet as we stood on the surface.
We made one final stop before leaving the North Island, well aware that there was so much we had missed but wanting to continue South. Wellington, the capital of New Zealand, sits picturesqly on hills leading down to the harbor and the Cook Strait. It was September, spring in New Zealand, and the city’s numerous parks and squares were bursting with blooms. In spite of the cold, rainy day we still enjoyed a great walking tour and lunch on the pier, never getting sick of the smell of a working harbor.
As our ferry headed towards South Island we cast a friendly last glance towards Wellington, certain that we weren’t done with the North Island and already planning what we’d see upon our return. South Island New Zealand here we come…………….