From the Coromandel Peninsula, we drove a few more hours south to the western coast of New Zealand’s North Island. What brought us there is actually a very tiny reason, about the size of a mosquito: glowworms! Though you can view glowworms in several places in New Zealand, one particular cave in Waitomo has thousands of them.
We stayed a few miles away from Waitomo in Otorohanga – our first “holiday park” experience. Holiday parks are everywhere in New Zealand. There is a definite culture of camping and campervan-ing here in the summer. About half the vehicles we see on the road are campers. In the holiday parks, there are lawn spaces for campervans, plots for tent camping, and often small cabins or cottages. It’s a bring your own sheets and towels kind of thing. There is also a complex of buildings as shared space: kitchen, BBQ area, laundry, and bathrooms. The experience felt a lot like camping, even though we slept indoors. We stayed in a tiny cabin, no room for much else besides the bunk beds and small table that were there. I used our “front lawn” for some yoga and we spent each evening reading on our “front porch”.
As with most things in New Zealand, the Waitomo cave has an interesting history including Maori and white explorers. In 1887, an English surveyor and Maori chief Tane Tinorau explored the cave together, discovered the glowing spectacle above them, and began leading small tours for a fee. In 1906 the New Zealand government took over administrative control, but in 1989 the land and cave were returned to the descendants of Chief Tane Tinorau and his wife Huti. Their family now receives a percentage of the cave’s revenue and many are employed at the cave as guides.
We had booked the first tour of the morning to see the Waitomo Glowworm Cave and it did not disappoint. After being led around the caves by our guide for about 15 minutes we finally spotted our first glowworms. A colony dangled just a few feet in front of our noses. These fly larvae use their lights to attract tiny insects for food, dangling sticky lines to ensnare them. We continued on and boarded a boat through the underground river. Our tour guide asked for silence as we looked up and saw thousands of glowworms, dotted like stars in the sky, and gasped at their reflection in the black water surrounding us. No photos are allowed in the cave; the owners try to limit negative effects from humans so much that they even monitor the level of CO2 in the air and will suspend tours if it gets above a certain point. So since we couldn’t take photos, here’s a professional one that’s reflective of what we saw.
The area surrounding the cave was full of interesting discoveries, too. We met some friendly Germans at our holiday park who suggested we drive down to the coast. We had assumed there wasn’t really anything in that two hour stretch of curvy mountain road. But of course, New Zealand is packed with wonder at every turn.
Impossible to capture on camera because of its size, the Mangapohue Natural Bridge was our favorite; we visited it twice. Millions of years ago this was an underground cave, carved by the river below it. Over time, the surrounding earth eroded away until just two land bridges were left.
From Otorohanga, we drove west to Rotorua for a few days. Known for its thermal activity, Rotorua smells like a rotten egg, but provided an interesting stop on our roadtrip.
Though there’s much to do and see in Rotorua, we decided to make the Whakarewarewa Forest a priority. We walked for the morning among a bit of the 13,800 acres of California Redwood Forest and enjoyed the silence, bird songs, and remoteness.
Rotorua sits on the southern shore of Lake Rotorua. We drove about 30 minutes to the north shore to explore Hamurana Springs, one of many areas of thermal activity nearby. After walking through a relatively young but enchanting forest of tall redwoods, we saw a few cold water springs. One was a few feet wide, fed forcefully into the river, and seemed to propel its water from out of nowhere, deep below the clear water. Another delight was called “dancing sands” spring and when we came to it, it was clear why. Tiny pockets of springs pushed towards the surface, making the sand around them dance as if in a shaken snowglobe. It was mesmerizing.
On our drive down to Taupo we stopped for a quick hike to Crater Lake and stood amazed at its easter-egg-blue water. We continued on to Kerosene Creek, a small waterfall with a natural hot tub at its base. Nate and I both jumped in and the sensation was…. bizarre. The water was so warm that in parts of the creek there are signs warning you not to get burned. The thermal activity is so robust that sitting at the foot of the waterfall, you feel full-on jet action. The constantly bubbling gravel on the floor of the creek was a little unnerving but it was a very unique way to relax!
We shared a lake-view house with some professional triathletes in Taupo. One of them has won five Ironmans and competed in over 40 (An Ironman consists of a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, and a 26.2 mile marathon run to top it all off at the end). These guys were true inspirations for us to get back into shape! We got plenty of beach time on nearby Lake Taupo, which was formed 27,000 years ago by a volcanic eruption. Lake Taupo is huge: 237.8 mi² and we enjoyed the cool breezes off it and the warm(ish) water within. This was probably our favorite town on the North Island so far. It reminded me a lot of home in Narragansett, RI – everyone just happy to have some sun and some rest and the locals that know how good they have it to live in such a place.
We were drawn to Taupo for the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, rated one of the best day hikes in the world. It was an amazing hike around and across some active volcanoes, including Mount Ngauruhoe (Mount Doom from Lord of the Rings). We were treated to 360 degree views around this rocky, volcanic landscape, punctuated by shimmering lakes of truly unique colors due to the different mineral deposits in each. We could even see the top of Mount Taranaki in the far distance, which we would climb in a few weeks’ time!
One day in Taupo, we hiked to a rocky outcrop to see a Maori rock carving. We also checked out Huka Falls, so powerful that it produces about 15% of the North Island’s electricity, and passed by several hot water pools that visitors were enjoying along the hike.
An hour into our drive from Taupo to our next stop in Napier, we realized we had left our precious water bottles outside the house we had just departed. In all our 11 months of travel, it’s been the only time we’ve forgotten something so far, so we tried to be thankful for that instead of grumpy for making a five hour drive into a seven hour one. We couldn’t stay frustrated for long, since we got to see this roadside wonder twice.
After Taupo we continued east to Napier. Located on Hawke’s Bay on the eastern coast of the North Island, it is known as one of the art deco capitals of the world. It’s also famous for its wineries – over 100 of them! In 1931, a massive earthquake rattled the region. The town quickly rebuilt itself in the modern style of the era: art deco. Walking through one evening, we felt as though we had stepped back in time. Most of the buildings show the date they were constructed, and we had a lovely stroll around town pointing out all the oddities and uniqueness of 1930s architecture.
Our one full day of exploring the Napier area began with a stop at Arataki Honey, a brand we’d been buying at the grocery store. We tasted several different flavors, sampled some local skincare products, and used microscopes to check out different types of bees and insects up close and personal. We left with a jar of Tawari honey, a flower native only to New Zealand’s North Island. It’s been a breakfast staple on our yogurt and we’re almost done with the jar after just three weeks. Yum.
From our honey tasting, we continued on to hike Te Mata peak. According to Maori legend, Te Mata was a giant of the Waimarama tribe. Constantly at war with the Pakipaki tribe, the Waimaramas encouraged Te Mata to pursue the Pakipaki chief’s daughter as a way to create lasting peace between the tribes. Te Mata was made to do impossible tasks to prove his love, however, and while “biting his way through the hills” to create an easy route from the plains to the sea, he died at the site of Te Mata peak and the surrounding hills. From the right angle, you can see the outline of his giant body lying prostrate on the ground.
The route to Te Mata peak was hot and harsh. It was a quick hike, but steep and intense. At least we felt some satisfaction when we arrived at the top and the carpark was filled with people who drove up. We love earning our good views!
After our hike in the hot sun, we needed some refreshment, so we headed over to Craggy Range Vineyards, which our Airbnb host had suggested. We did a very informative tasting with one of their staff members. As I often do, especially when it comes to agriculture, I asked a lot of questions. Eventually, the staff member decided it would be easier to go out into the vineyards and show us exactly what he was talking about (which led to more questions, of course!). We were amazed at the science that New Zealand wineries are learning to perfect and were happy to leave with a bottle of local Sauvignon Blanc in hand, which we would enjoy as a celebration after we completed hiking Mount Taranaki.
After bouncing around the beautiful towns of central North Island, we headed southwest to the coast: New Plymouth. Our adventure on Mount Taranaki there deserves a whole post of its own…