whirlwind tour

Eilidh, Dorothy and I just got back from five days touring the north island (New Zealand). We knew the general direction we were heading, where we would probably spend our first night, and a couple of areas that we wanted to see, but most of the trip was open. This seems to be becoming our typical way to travel…in 2007 we did a long road trip around the States and did the same sort of thing, which was a new experience for me since I was used to planning my travels out. Anyway, that’s another story (see http://dotty-travel.livejournal.com/).












Our route:




We drove through some familiar country, the Wairarapa region – then up to Napier. Honestly the drive that day was rather disappointing. It’s roughly mid-summer here; the hills were covered with brown dry grass and the smaller streams were dry. Even the rugged Tararua and Ruahine ranges to the west weren’t terribly impressive. We didn’t see anything along the drive that attracted us to come back and visit.

Like most of the North Island, that area is hilly (“lumpy” is the term used by one of my co-workers), and covered with a mix of grass pasture, pine tree plantations, native bush, and a few farmed areas of corn, wheat, potatoes, and other crops. The Napier area itself (southern Hawkes Bay) is very agricultural, covered with orchards and vineyards.

We followed Highway 2 almost all day. There are almost no alternate routes to get us off the beaten track, which was also a bit disappointing to me since I hoped to see the back country areas.

Napier was bustling with summer visitors and agricultural workers. We were happy to retreat to a campground along the beach a few minutes to the north, set up our tent, and relax. NZ has these things called “holiday parks” which are independent campgrounds run by locals that provide your usual campground amenities plus individual touches. There is a real culture of camping here that I think is really nice. Families come to their favorite place year after year during summer school holidays, set up their big family tents, tables, easy chairs, portable shower, TV, and stay for a week or two. A lot of families also have a “caravan” (motor home or camper van) that is often older, smaller, and more personalized than the ones you see in the States. These campers develop a relationship with the property manager and there is a sort of community feeling because the “regulars” get to know each other as they share the communal kitchen and their children play together. I must say I felt like a “tourist” because we never stayed more than one night at a single campground! I could see us going back to one of these places and making it our home base for day trips, and getting to know the locals.

We almost did end up staying at Napier longer than one night, since I was feeling pretty sick…but thankfully a long night’s sleep cured my ills for the rest of the trip.



The scenery got nicer the second day; a bit more forest, greenery, and interesting views. We were driving towards the East Cape, away from the populated areas. Now you North Americans must understand that roads in New Zealand are not what we would expect. Though on the map a road is a main route, or even the only route into a large region, this doesn’t mean it is comfortably wide, rated at 70 mph, and maybe has sections of three or four lanes. Many of the main roads in NZ are winding narrow two lanes with no shoulder and occasional single lane bridges, and are not much different from, say, most of Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park, and have views to rival. Yet these roads are intended for regular transportation rather than scenic touring! In any case, it does pay to be patient and allow a lot of time for traveling.

We stopped for a bit of a rest by the lake at Tutira Domain Reserve. I was eager to jump in the water with Dorothy but a sign said the water had recently been treated to kill Hydrilla, an invasive weed, and I didn’t care to be soaking in herbicides, so we rested on the shore, had some lunch, and watched the black swans instead. New Zealand’s reputation as “clean and green” is not entirely true…chemicals and poisons are used surprisingly heavily…but more on that in a later post.

Much of this day’s drive was through sparsely populated farm and bush land scattered with farm houses and sheep shearing sheds. We crossed many streams and rivers…one of the blessings of New Zealand. We stopped for a much needed break at Wairoa, which is located where a large river of the same name empties in the ocean. Dorothy and I splashed around in the semi-salty river (the tide was coming in) and played in the squishy clay mud, upstream from a group of Maori children who were doing the same. We have noticed that Maori are very good at getting together and enjoying each other’s company outdoors. They love their barbecues on the beach or in the park. Whanau (family) has always been very important to them. Many Maori can trace their family line all the way back to the original canoes of south sea islanders that landed in New Zealand, and their history is recorded in the intricate carvings in the “marae” in each community.

Mahia Peninsula was once an island but is now joined to the mainland by a length of sand that was formed similarly to how sand spits or sandbars are formed. It forms a barrier on the east end of Hawkes Bay. We took a little side trip onto the peninsula, which has a few “baches” (holiday homes) and a few farms. At Mahia Beach the preferred method of retrieving boats was by tractor!



















The rest of the drive into Gisborne was uneventful. Gisborne seemed to be a small scale version of Napier – also being very agricultural, with a few touristy attractions. We camped at a holiday park in the vast Gisborne A&P Showgrounds. New Zealand’s A&P events are like county fairs in the States, they happen during various weekends across the country during the summer. The name stands for Agricultural and Pastoral.

We watched the sun go down on the quiet Gisborne beach. NZ has so many beautiful beaches and so (relatively) few people, chances are good for having a beach to oneself.










 (photos thanks to Eilidh)


New Zealand’s East Cape is one of the most remote and undeveloped areas in the north island, which is why this is one area I wanted to visit. It has an interesting history of European/Maori conflict in which Te Kooti plays a large part. He was a Maori raised by Europeans and as he grew older he came to be considered a threat to them, so they exiled him along with other “threats” to the Chatham Islands, which are far off the east coast of NZ. Te Kooti, a charismatic leader, gathered 200 Maori, commandeered a European ship, and sailed back to the mainland, where he avenged the injustices of the Europeans by raiding their settlements near Gisborne. He acquired a following and lived an outlaw lifestyle for many years, mostly in the East Cape area. Finally Te Kooti settled down and chose to be at peace. The East Cape area has a very strong Maori presence and pride today.

A single highway travels around the cape, which is touted to be the first place in the world to see the new day’s light (with the exception of the Chatham Islands which are closer to the International Date Line). It has the most easterly lighthouse in the world. The road passes by little villages and remote beaches and cliffs. Some of the villages are only three or four farm houses, but still show up on my map. In fact, even stations (a Kiwi term for ranches that typically run sheep) show up as towns on my map. The little town of Tolaga Bay boasts a pier that is not quite half a mile long. I rested on the end of it for a while, gazing out at the endless sea and hearing no sound except the dull crashing of the waves. Locals pulled in a few fish and harvested mussels from the piles of the pier. I could picture myself living here and spending much of my day on the pier, fishing in the clear blue sea, thinking, and soaking in the sun. The fishermen had skin a milk chocolate shade from the strong sun. They went about their work quietly and without speaking, as if any noise would disrupt the tranquility.

The center of Te Araroa comprises a dairy (like a convenience store), restaurant, post office, and visitor center. Tourists came through town to see the East Cape Lighthouse and have an ice cream from the dairy. The wind and ocean swells were strong that day, and the water was an incredible range of colors, from milky blue to dark green to foamy white. Driftwood formed massive piles along the entire length of the deserted beach. We basked in the hot wind and sun, and Dorothy ran after sticks in the heavy surf. The place has a kind of sleepy wild richness and it was not so easy to tear ourselves away.

The road rounded the corner of the cape, and as we began to follow its north side the dryness changed to thick green bush and grass. I especially loved the Whangaparaoa area, where the wind was steady, the sun sparkled on the water, and the greenery was intense. This is prime Maori country. They control much of the land and access to the beaches, and each community’s marae was in a prime location and kept sparkling white. I want to go back to this area…











(Those colors are real.)

After driving in circles looking for a campground that would take us, we ended up after dark at Rotoma Lake Holiday Park near Rotorua. The kindly owner (whose looks reminded me of Johnny Depp in the Pirates of the Caribbean!) made an exception to his “no dogs” rule, so we had a place to pitch our tent. I highly recommend this holiday park – very friendly and laid back.


Rotorua…now I know this is the equivalent of Queenstown in the south island…the place where there are gads of sights to see and just about any crazy adrenalin activity you can think of (bungee jumps, the Zorb, human powered monorail)…if you can pay the price, that is. Tourism is big business here. Makes me think of Yellowstone; Rotorua also has thermal mud pots, geysers, etc. It all seemed overdone to me; even the guy in the I-Site (information center) seemed tired of the tourism. Regardless, we did enjoyed the sights we saw.

New Zealand’s native trees grow very slowly, typically taking 200-300 years to mature, and most of the majestic old trees such as the kauri were removed in the early days of European settlement. There was a need to find other sources of wood for construction and firewood as New Zealand was “developed”. Rotorua became the site of a forest research station where a number of imported tree seeds were planted around 1900 in a trial to determine the best tree species for commercial harvesting. Among those planted were Monterey (Radiata) Pine and California Coastal Redwood. The Radiata pine proved to grow very well in our climate and is now planted on 90% of forestry land. The redwood also did well, but grew so fast that its wood was too soft for practical use other than as shingles, and the redwood trial area has become a recreation area since the biggest trees are now around 6 feet across and quite impressive. redwoods_250These trees grow at as much as twice the rate of redwoods in their native habitat in California. It will be interesting to see whether they will become as large as those in California, or even larger…but we will have to wait a few centuries… The area is known as the Whakarewarewa Forest, or just “the Redwoods”; we enjoyed a walk in it.

We also popped into the Agrodome to view the world famous Sheep Show. It was very much worth the $25 ticket price, and words can’t describe how funny and entertaining it was. You will just have to see it yourself. 🙂 Since Eilidh has been getting into spinning lately, it was interesting to see the types of wool produced by different sheep, and what each type is used for.

Back on the road, we made our way down the west side of Lake Taupo, driving through thick planted radiata forests, and farm and pasture land. Traffic was surprisingly light; most people drive along the east side of the lake, where the road is closer to the water and there are more towns.

We found a perfect spot in a basic DOC camp site next to a clear cold creek at Pureora Forest Park in the Hauhungaroa Ranges.  (DOC is the equivalent of the US Forest Service.) Dorothy and I swam in the creek then soaked in the sun and visited with another camper. Meanwhile, Eilidh did some spinning on her drop spindle. She can’t keep her hands off wool nowadays! I got her a fleece shortly before the trip, and she spun a bit of it into a nice ball of yarn, doing much of it while we drove in the car. Talented…


Our train trip in November brought us past Tongariro National Park, and on this trip we drove up to the park village (Whakapapa) to take a closer look. The park is comprised of three volcanoes and the surrounding area. Mount Ruapehu is one of the world’s most active volcanoes, is about 10,000 ft high, and is visible from much of New Zealand. It was snow-capped when we were there. It is pretty barren, at least the part that I saw, though it would be interesting to come back for a climb up to the crater rim, and do the highly recommended Tongariro Crossing day hike.

 We headed down to Wanganui on the west coast, along another wiggly road. At a waterfall view spot we pulled over and saw a plum tree growing wild just down the slope, with nice ripe (but inaccessible) fruit, and then – an apple tree – and cherries – and more! I would love to know the history. Did someone homestead near this beautiful waterfall and plant an orchard on the hillside beside the road? We saw a couple more fruit trees growing wild as we drove on.

At Wanganui we stopped and Dorothy had a much needed splash in the river. She likes to run and swim after sticks and stones. I leaned over, picked up a white stone, and had a shock – it was as light as styrofoam! Sure enough, it was true pumice. The shoreline was littered with rounded pumice stones that had floated to the shoreline. Dorothy couldn’t figure out why these stones didn’t sink like normal ones, but did figure out they didn’t taste good.

After an afternoon and morning driving through some beautiful quiet back roads, we were now back in civilization and the traffic picked up as we approached windy and flat Palmerston North. There we met and visited with Ian and Mavis, who are friends of a friend. They are very sweet and interesting older people. Fifty years ago they lived in a caravan for years and traveled the back roads of NZ to wherever God led, doing missions work as he led them. I have noticed that many native Kiwis – especially the older ones – are unpretentious and approachable, innovative and adaptable. I appreciate these traits.

We were making good time and made the drive home well before dark, with enough light left to unpack the car, return it to the rental office, and bike home. We did about 1200 miles in five days and while this didn’t allow for spending much time in any place, it did give a good overview of the North Island. My travel appetite has been satisfied, at least for now. 🙂


3 thoughts on “whirlwind tour

  1. Thank you so much for the pictures and detailed account of your trip. I found it quite fascinating!

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