Exploring New Zealand’s North Island

City view from the ferry

AUCKLAND

Auckland was my introduction to New Zealand, and a well-received one at that. This city gets a lot of flack from travelers and Kiwis alike, but I felt it had much to offer, particularly with all of the islands to explore dotting its harbor. I arrived late into the city and settled in, ready for the next day’s trip to Waiheke Island.

Waiheke Island is located 40-minutes west of Auckland via ferry and features great skyline views of the city on the ride. I purchased a round-trip (called ‘return’ over here) ferry ticket and all-day bus pass for $45. Not a bad deal, except I had to wait for the bus several times to get around the island. It’s much larger than you’d think and requires some mode of transportation. I’d recommend renting a bike or scooter instead.

Known for its beautiful beaches and unique wine region, Waiheke Island was an easy choice on my itinerary. The island is filled with small, quiet beaches and numerous vineyards throughout. On one beach in particular, I had an unexpected surprise. While aiming for the perfect shot to capture the gentle crashing waves along the shoreline, I noticed an older gentleman on crutches hobbling toward me. As I tried to focus my shot while cropping him out, I realized he was fully nude! Apparently this portion of the beach was clothing optional. Not the image I was looking for.

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Comfortable seating at Wild on Waiheke

After my morning of sun and sand (and naked old men), I waited for the bus to head over to a few of the island’s vineyards, choosing to jump off at Wild on Waiheke. This vineyard was adorable with beanbag chairs, barrel tables, giant chessboards, and archery. I sampled a selection of wines and found myself most enjoying the Pinot Gris. I’m typically a red wine drinker but this glass was filled with fruity and light flavors, perfect for the warm summer day. I relaxed here for a bit before making my way back to the city in the late afternoon. A day well spent.

ROTORUA

I’d finally found sheep! I’m four days in to my trip and the only livestock I’d seen were cows. This country is filled with 40 million sheep, none of which seem to live anywhere I’d been so far. Rotorua is a town located in an active volcanic area and is filled with bubbling mud and hot water pools. It smells of sulfur (read: rotten eggs!) and steam can be seen billowing up out of the ground in several areas around town. Rotorua is also home to the largest Maori population, New Zealand’s indigenous people, and is the best place to learn about their history and culture.

One of the optional activities in Rotorua was an overnight stay at the fortified Tamaki Maori Village, with dinner and a show included. I chose to participate in this overnight stay and it was one of the best things I did in New Zealand. The stay began at about 4pm with the nomination of a chief and a welcome into the village. A group of about 45 of us had opted to participate and were expected to select a chief among us to introduce our group to the Maori leaders. Our chief represented us for the remainder of our stay, being responsible for several other roles throughout the evening as well.

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The entrance into the Tamaki Maori Village

After our introductions, our Maori “guides” told us about their tribe’s history, offered us tea, coffee, and cake, and helped us settle in to our accommodations. I was thrilled to find that our stay consisted of large log houses with single beds, air con and real towels! Pure luxury for a backpacker! Next, we split into two groups to learn a song (to be performed in front of 150 strangers at dinner) and play a few traditional stick games.

As we moved into the evening’s events, we had the opportunity to meet each joining group’s chief. Just as we had done earlier, each visiting group (or busload of patrons, really) had to nominate a “chief” to represent them as well. Before meeting the leaders, we were warned that this was a traditional and serious introduction; the tribal warriors would take any sort of movement or smile as a challenge. This was meant to be a simulation of what it was like for tribes to approach each others’ villages many years ago.

The tribal leaders and warriors arrived via canoe and challenged our newly appointed chiefs to determine if we had come for war or peace. After a few moments of intimidation, a peace gift was placed on the ground by one of the warriors. We knew that if our chief picked up this gift, we would be welcomed inside. If not, things would become much more interesting…thankfully our chief picked up their offering and we were all welcomed into the village.

We spent about 45 minutes inside the village, moving from one hut to the next, learning about the Maori peoples’ history and customs, including the Haka.  As described on NewZealand.com, “the haka is a type of ancient Maori war dance traditionally used on the battlefield, as well as when groups came together in peace. Haka are a fierce display of a tribe’s pride, strength and unity.  Actions include violent foot-stamping, tongue protrusions and rhythmic body slapping to accompany a loud chant”.  Today it is used in ceremonies and celebrations, just as I would see during my visit.  The national rugby team has even adopted it as part of their tradition before a match.

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Practicing my haka (or really just my teacher stare?)

After our time in the village, we sat down to a brief show filled with song and dance before heading to dinner. The evening’s meal consisted of chicken and roast as well as salad and veggies, all of which were delicious and filling. The dinner ended with a few more songs, including our own performance of the song my group learned earlier in the day.

My favorite part of the evening happened next when it was announced that one of the team members was leaving the “village”. As a way of saying farewell, several men performed the Haka, with the departing team member joining in as well. At this point, I had seen the Haka performed several times, but none was as emotional or moving as this. It was heartfelt and gave me chills. The men were no longer performing; they were putting their true emotions into it as they said farewell to their friend and colleague. It was an honor to watch.

This marked the end of the night for most of the guests but us over-nighters jumped in the hot tubs and grabbed a few drinks to end our evening. The next morning we were treated to breakfast and a ride back into town to end our visit. It was truly an experience that I will cherish always.

TAUPO

Taupo is a small town located on the lake of its namesake.  Lake Taupo is massive – larger than all of Singapore – and offers the typical lakeside activities including catamaran cruises and parasailing.  The most popular activities in Taupo though are skydiving and tackling New Zealand’s best day hike, the Tongariro Crossing.  Can you guess which one I did?

My 4:30AM alarm seemed to come too soon and shortly after I herded onto a shuttle heading to Tongariro National Park for my 19.5km hike. The Crossing took 6.5 hours to complete, not including the two optional mountain summits. The hike consisted of several challenging stretches as well as easier walks. The scenery throughout was beautiful, much more than I’d imagined. I was familiar with Mt Ngauruhoe, affectionately known now as Mt Doom, as well as the Emerald Lakes, but apart from that, I didn’t know what to expect.

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Heading into the park for our 19.5km hike

Our shuttle driver handed out a one-pager explaining the various parts of the walk including each segment’s difficulty level and estimated travel time. After reading about Mt Ngauruhoe’s “dangerous ascent” I knew that optional summit was off the table. I had every intention of taking on the second summit though – Mt Tongariro – said to be a “moderate ascent”. However, by the time I walked up to the turn off, there was no way I was adding on any extra time.

The most challenging part of the hike was up the Red Crater Ridge. Not only was it a steep incline, the ground was made of small rocks rather than a man-made track and I either slid or tripped every few steps. After reaching the top, the descent was not much easier because it was mostly volcanic sand all the way down. A sand board would have been incredibly useful here!

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The Red Crater…or Mars??

While this portion was the most difficult of the day, it was also the most rewarding. Walking across the red crater felt as if walking on another planet and the actual mountain itself was stunning in its deep red color. Upon reaching the summit, the Blue Lake came into view followed by the Emerald Lakes, each sparkling in the sunlight. The air smelled of rotten eggs due to the sulfur and my shoes filled with volcanic rock as I cautiously trekked downhill, but the view was well worth it. Simply amazing!

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Loving this view!

The final hour led us downhill, through the valley’s forest. By this point, every part of my body from the hips down was aching. I was ready to cross the finish line. After nearly an hour of switchbacks through the valley and numerous steps down through the forest, the trees cleared and I saw the car park ahead, my muscles rejoicing. The end was a welcomed sight. Our hour-long shuttle ride back was packed with 50 accomplished hikers, all fast asleep.

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Success!

TAIHAPE

One of the greatest aspects of Kiwi Experience is all the small town stops and unique destinations you are privileged to encounter.  The tiny rural town of Taihape is one of those excellent small towns.  Located in the Ruapehu region, Taihape is home to River Valley Lodge, nestled along the Rangitikei River.  Our bus traveled down a long, narrow, winding road leading deep into the valley and to the isolated lodge.  What were we doing there, you ask?  White water rafting, of course!

I joined my tour group at 8:15AM the next morning to suit up, feeling a bit nervous, as this was my first time rafting. Thankfully my river guide, Janie, was calm, experienced, explained each section of the river and rapids, and made me feel confident. The rapids ranged from grades three through five, making it a lot of fun to travel down stream. Our 2.5 hours on the river seemed to fly by and without any feeling of danger. This was another of my favorite activities of the trip and it provided excellent photo mementos, too!

WELLINGTON

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View of Wellington from the Cable Car Museum

Wellington, located at the bottom of the North Island, is New Zealand’s capital city. As we arrived into the city, our bus driver explained that Wellington is the second windiest city in world as well as the shakiest city with multiple fault lines running through it. Wellington was the first place I noticed having instructional signs for what to do in the event of an earthquake. The signs made me both nervous and intrigued, interestingly enough. Lonely Planet dubbed Wellington the “coolest little city in the world” and with its immense coffee culture, hipsters, urban street art, lane ways, and arcades, it pretty much is.

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Fancy a song?

The minimum days on a Kiwi Experience ticket only offers you one night in Wellington. Being the city girl that I am, I knew I’d want more time and opted to stay an extra night. I had a full day to explore the city (as well as do laundry!) and I spent it walking down lane ways and popular streets like Hannah’s Lane Way and Cuba Street. I loved the harbor and mountain views with the cool breeze running through, a breeze up from Antarctica and through the Cook Strait no less.

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Wellington Harbor

I decided to take the famous cable car up to the mountain to the cable car museum, planetarium, and botanical gardens. For a cheap $7, you get awesome views of the city and a fun ride on the car. Originally created to transport locals up the steep hills, the car is a popular tourist attraction now as well. That night, I treated myself to an Italian feast. Two ladies dining next to me struck up a conversation, asking why I was eating alone if I was traveling with a bus full of other people. I explained to them that that was exactly why I was dining alone. I’d been saving money by cooking in the hostels thus far and deserved a night out on me. Sometimes you just need to treat yourself, you know?

Kia Ora (Maori for ‘be well’), North Island! I love your cities, beaches, rolling hills, and sense of adventure. Off to the South Island next – read about my (mis)adventures here.

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One thought on “Exploring New Zealand’s North Island

  1. Pingback: My Kiwi Experience | Ali in Oz

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