Sunday, June 8, 2014

Aotearoa...North Island Tour: Part II

Connolly and our campervan;
home for the next ten days.
In early December, my friend Connolly (from s/v Sea Monkey) called me up and asked if I would be interested in doing a campervan tour of the North Island of New Zealand. Always ready for the next adventure, I immediately said, "Hell ya!" and the next thing I knew I was packing my backpack and getting ready to hit the road.  Connolly had met up with Hannah (from s/v Cashtoki) and her boyfriend, Daniel, up in Whangarei and then drove down to Auckland in their Wicked campervan on their way to the airport to pick up Hannah's sister, Esther. Hannah and Daniel dropped Connolly and me off at the Wicked campervan office and we picked up our campervan with plans to meet somewhere on the Coromandel Penninsula later on in the day.  Our campervan was named "Radio Birdman"; each campervan is different, usually with a musically-themed graffiti paint job and somewhat snarky saying spray painted on the back.  Once we got possession of our van we headed out armed with our GPS and hit the road.

Your driver for the next ten days.
Our first stop was in Thames, a small town at the southern end of the Firth of Thames. We ended up having lunch there and waited for Hannah, Daniel and Esther to arrive, having called them to let them know where we were.  Once the two camper vans were together, we headed north up the Coromandel Penninsula to the town of Coromandel where we spent our first night. Route 25 took us north and the views looking across the Firth of Thames towards the main part of the North Island were stunning.  But there was little time to enjoy the views as the road was quite narrow and extremely curvy.  And don't forget, for us Norte Americanos, I was sitting in the passenger seat (behind the steering wheel) and driving on the "wrong" side of the road!  While this wasn't my first time on the wrong side of the road, it was my first time driving from the passenger side.  We parked our vans and made a pot luck that night and just hung out watching the sun set over the North Island. Relaxed bliss!

Our Scottish friends and us enjoying a soak
at Hot Water Beach.
The next morning we woke up to a $200 fine for parking our campervans in what was apparently an unauthorized area.  The weird thing about it was that right behind our campervan was a "No Freedom Camping" sign.  Not being from New Zealand, I really didn't pay much attention to the sign as I didn't know exactly what it meant.  Oh well, live and learn.  
After breakfast we headed out to Whitianga and what is known as the "Hot Water Beach". Here's the deal...You head out to the beach on an outgoing tide and rent a shovel, dig a hole and watch hot water bubble up into your "pool".  It's like having your very own hot tub on the beach. The day we went it was a little overcast but that was fine for us as the hot water pools were the perfect temperature for just hanging out with a few beers on the beach.  You have to get there early as all the good spots get taken quickly.  If you are too close to the thermal springs, the water will be so hot that you cannot get in; too far from the source and your pool gets flooded by the ocean waves and its too cold.  A young Scottish couple on holiday invited us to join them in their pool (which they had recently acquired as it was abandoned) and the seven of us enjoyed a relaxing time soaking in our hot tub.

The campervan gang at Wai-O-Tapu.
Early the next morning after breakfast we headed to our next destination, Rotorua, home of the famous hot springs and Hobbitville (which is actually in Matamata). While we didn't visit the set for the famous movies, we did make our way to Wai-O-Tapu ("Sacred Waters") and to what the locals call "Hot and Cold Springs".  This is a roadside stream, actually two streams; one is cool water and the other comes from a geothermal spring and is hot.  The streams are pretty shallow and, conveniently, there are flat rocks set in the hot spring stream to sit on while lounging in the hot springs. When you get too warm you just venture into the cooler waters of the cold spring.  We met some young German backpackers and hung out with them, partying late into the night drinking beers in the thermal waters.  Many locals come to this free thermal area and so we also got to hang out with them. Something about a hot spring, beer and light rain seems to loosen everyone up and a good time was had by all.

A campfire, extended happy hour and
 friends...does it get any better than this?
We continued south into another national park and found a sweet campsite.  Even though it was raining a little, we were still able to find some dry firewood.  We tossed the frisbee around for a bit in the afternoon and when the rain started, well, we started our happy hour. As on other nights, we put together a pot luck between the two vans and feasted.  We usually back our campervans up back to back and pop the hatches.  This creates a large awning under which we set out our camping stoves and tables and prep and eat dinner. This system seemed to work out pretty well for us during the rainy days of our trip.  After dinner we sat around the campfire.  Esther proved to be an expert fire tender and with Daniel on the guitar, Connolly trying his hand on the harmonica, and happy hour still going, we sat back and chillaxed (chilled + relaxed = chillaxed) into the night. The days were warm at this point but when the sun went down, so did the temperature.  Besides, who doesn't like a campfire to pass the night away?

Daniel, Esther, me and Connolly;
Tongariro National Park.
Our next stop was Mount Ngauruhoe a little bit south of the southern shores of Lake Taupo.  We first stopped in Taupo to reprovision and check emails. Unfortunately, it was cloudy and rainy as this road is part of the Volcanic Scenic Highway.  Needless to say, we did not see the volcanoes, but the views of this immense lake were spectacular!  Further south, we entered the Tongariro National Park, with Mount Ngauruhoe in the distance. Mount Ngauruhoe was used as Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings movies.  When we were there, during the southern hemisphere summer, the mountain had a hefty amount of snow covering its peak.  We found a national park camp site and then went on a short trek to a waterfall (which incidentally was also used in the LOTR movies).  The drizzle continued, so we headed back to the campervans, made dinner and then played silly drinking games.  I lost...enough said about that!  HA!

This is where the two campervans separated as Hannah, Daniel and Esther needed to get back to Auckland to catch a flight back to Perth, Australia.  We had breakfast, said goodbye, and Connolly and I headed south to Wellington.

Helluva weekend in Wellington!  No pics so here's a
random shot of Connolly prepping a meal in the van.
As we approached Wellington, Connolly checked our guidebooks looking for campervan sites. The prospects were slim, so we pulled into the Te Papa Tongarewa Museun parking lot (called "car parks" in New Zealand) and decided to check out the museum.  The museum is free and is part of the New Zealand National Museums system. Inside, we viewed amazing artifacts from the Maori culture dating back centuries, as well as exhibits depicting the flora and fauna of the area, and a small exhibit dedicated to the devastating earthquakes that rocked Christchurch on the South Island (more about that in another blog post).  On our way out of the museum, Connolly checked with the car park attendant and we found out that we could camp overnight in the car park for a lot less money than any of the other campervan sites we had located so decided to pay the fee and hang out there.  This worked out well for several reasons: (1) The car park was centrally located to downtown (called "Central Business District" or "CBD" in New Zealand); (2) there was a grocery store and liquor store a mere 3 blocks away; (3) there was also a farmers market nearby; (4) a Starbucks four blocks away (with free wifi); and, (5) it was the weekend. As it was the weekend, Connolly and I decided to check out the Welly nightlife and made our way to a number of bars and clubs; knowing that our "home" was only a few blocks away. Nice.

Our campervan, Connolly and Mount Taranaki.
There is so much more to the mountain that
was obscured by cloud cover.
From Wellington, Connolly and I headed north to New Plymouth which sits on the north side of a small piece of land that juts out into the Tasman Sea.  The bulk of the peninsula is taken up by the Egmont National Park and the centerpiece of this park is Mount Taranaki.  Again, cloudy weather prevented us from seeing the peak of this mountain but we were able to drive our campervan pretty high up the mountain where we trekked a short hike.  The views from the mountain opened up to vast flat plains that skirted from the sea to the base of Mount Taranaki. Once we were done up on the mountain, we drove to the town of New Plymouth, found a seaside campervan park and took out our camping chairs, faced the sea and just chilled with some beers, watching the waves crash on the rocky coastline and the gulls pierce the sky in search of fish.

River along the Forgotten World Highway.
Okay, so the next day we decided to take the "Forgotten World Highway" north on our way to Raglan, a surfing community on the west side of the North Island.  THIS WAS A HUGE MISTAKE!  So the brochures depict a winding road through lush semi-tropical forests, with exotic trees, a gorge, and a meandering river. Sounds great, right? What the brochures don't mention is that it takes about 4 hours to complete the 43 kilometer route, that a vast majority of this route is unpaved, and that after the first 45 minutes or so, the scenery just repeats itself to the point, as the driver, I just wanted out! Driving 10 kilometers an hour (about 6 miles per hour!) at times, trying to avoid potholes that could swallow the campervan, and all the while being vigilant to the thought that sheep could leap out of the sides of the road at any minute (this happened several times on this trip), is not my idea of a fun, relaxing drive through the country. We finally left the FWH behind us, made our way through Hamilton, stopped for gas and headed west to Raglan.  And not a minute too soon.

Surf Beach at Whale Bay.  Watch out for the rocks!
The campervan park in Raglan is situated across the bay on a sandy stretch of land just west of the town center.  It is connected by a footbridge that makes the trek into town a simple 10 minute stroll.  The campervan park was quiet and clean and had full amenities (showers, cooking and laundry areas, etc.) and its location just outside of the center of town made it one of our favorite spots.  We explored the three surf beaches at Whale Bay and looked west out across the vast expanse of the Tasman Sea, imagining that Australia was just beyond the horizon (okay, not so much just beyond the horizon, more like a thousand miles or so). We found a quaint hotel that had a great porch bar and sat down for some sundowners and dinner, people watching while the sun went down over Raglan.

10 days, 2 dudes, you gotta expect a bit of a mess!
The next morning we got up early, cleaned the campervan and headed north towards Auckland.  We arrived at the Westhaven Marina, unloaded the campervan, then drove it back to the Wicked lot.  The deal with Wicked Campervans is that when you return the vehicle if you pose naked in front of your van for them to snap a photo, then they discount your rental by a day or two.  I was fully prepared to take advantage of this discount; Connolly wasn't as on board as I was.  In the end, I got the discount, but didn't have to strip down.  I refuse to ponder why I wasn't asked to get naked.

Here's a map of the route we took (approximate) and some additional pics taken along the way.  Stay tuned for Part III: South Island Tour.

Approximate map of North Island Tour route.  Started in Auckland
and ended in Auckland.  I know the little tag says 1815 kilometers,
but in reality we clocked about 2000 kilometers.
View from our first campsite on Coromandel Peninsula.
Sun setting on the Coromandel Penisula.
We wondered about how offensive this might be to blind people.
Then we thought about it.  Still felt a bit weird.
North Island countryside.  Yes, that's our road down there.
Connolly testing the law.
Me and Connolly at Hot Water Beach.
Daniel and Hannah, roadside brekkie at Wai-O-Tapu.
Esther, Daniel, and Hannah inside their campervan.
This was silly drinking game night.  It involved dice
and lots of booze.  That's all I remember.
The waterfall in Tongariro National Park that was used in
one of the Lord of the Rings movies.
Connolly on the harmonica.  Dylan he is not.
But kudos for a valiant effort!

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