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New Zealand's North Island:
29-Day Motorhome Tour Photojournal

Photographs and narration by Murray Lundberg

North Island Photojournal - Page 2 (Days 11-20)
North Island Photojournal - Page 3 (Days 21-29)

Looking for the roads less travelled....

    This photojournal from our 29-day February-March journey around the North Island has been posted in the hope that it will help others planning trips to New Zealand (there is also a simple itinerary posted). Although New Zealand is small compared to the region we're used to exploring (the Yukon, Alaska, British Columbia and Alberta), there is so much to see and do that fitting in even a fraction of what we would have liked to experience was not just a challenge but an impossibility. Once we accepted that fact, planning became much easier.

    Our focus when travelling, and particularly on this journey, is to see what's different about the country and to meet locals - to see what we can't see at home, and do what we can't do at home. Among many other things, that meant that the coast was high priority. We have little interest in cities, and passed through them quite quickly.

    For our primary printed planning resources, we used Lonely Planet New Zealand and the Globetrotter New Zealand Travel Map, both of which we recommend highly for their ease of use, both before and during the trip.

Prices quoted are in New Zealand dollars, which were trading for 76-78 cents Canadian during our trip. When looking at prices, we often mentally deducted 25% to get a better idea of the true cost, and another 15% on tours and restaurants, as the ridiculous system of tipping hasnít caught on in New Zealand (as of April 2012, the minimum wage is $13.50 per hour). Another couple of things about pricing that are different than in North America - the 12.5% GST is always included in the price you see, and the total bill is rounded off to the nearest 5 cents, to avoid the use of pennies.

Click on each image in the journal to greatly enlarge it.

Day 1 - Friday, Feb. 15: fly out of Whitehorse, Yukon.

We booked Air Canada Jazz to Vancouver and then Air New Zealand to Auckland direct - the fare with taxes was $1802.37 Cdn. Our flight to Vancouver was over an hour late, leaving at 14:50 instead of 13:40, but we had lots of free time in Vancouver and got a free beer on the flight so it wasnít a big deal (some folks on the flight missed their connections, though).

It was +5įC, raining and dark in Vancouver - yes, I remember the Vancouver winters that I hated. At 8:35 pm, we boarded this new Boeing 777-200ER (Extended Range) for the 14.5-hour flight to Auckland. It was quite a shock to walk into this huge plane - the flight was nearly full, so there were almost 320 people, seated 3/3/3 across. The seating is quite tight - maybe thatís the case on every plane now.

We got lucky and hit a good jetstream that cut an hour and a half off the flight, so we arrived just after 5:00 am. The entertainment system on the plane was excellent - it totally blows away any other that Iíve experienced on a plane. The cabin staff was great, the full meals very good (lamb curry for dinner, a mushroom omelette for breakfast). We both slept better than we had expected.

Day 2 - Saturday, Feb. 16: due to the oddities of crossing many times zones at high speed, this day just disappears out over the Pacific Ocean somewhere (on the way home, however, we get home 2 hours before leaving Auckland).

Day 3 - Sunday, Feb. 17: in Auckland

We caught a shuttle to the Hyatt Regency (now the Pullman Auckland) downtown for $16NZ each, substantially cheaper than a taxi, which can run $50-90 depending on traffic - research pays off. My feeling as we drove along was that we were in San Diego - the trees and architecture are quite similar.

Not surprisingly, we werenít able to check in, so we put our bags in storage and went wandering. Cathy had read great reviews of the spa and fitness centre at the Hyatt (Pullman), so we started off the day with a hot tub, swim and sauna. It truly is a gorgeous facility.

We loved the hotel, but our room (1556) was a harbor view in the Residence (newer) wing - we have seen negative reviews on the Regency (older) wing. The property that we saw is beautiful, the staff and meals top notch. To the left is a wide-angle shot of the view from our little balcony.

We then walked downtown and found this great little bar (the Belgian Beer Cafe) that was serving breakfast. There was a guy in rough shape having a beer already (maybe every town has its version of Whitehorse's "98"), but we had a good conversation with the other people there, Kiwis in town for a family reunion. Prices on everything in Auckland are high, similar to Alaska - my omelette was $14.00, and coffee at the Hyatt was $5.00.

The architecture of the city is wonderful - I could spend a week there just looking at buildings!

There's a lot to do in Auckland, but we knew that weíd be jet-lagged, so our major outing of the day was a trip up the 328 metre high Sky Tower, the tallest tower in the Southern Hemisphere. Itís $25 for a trip up, but if you ask the right people, thereís a deal that they donít promote - $39.50 for a seafood buffet in The Observatory restaurant up top, and that includes a half-hour to look around at the main observation level. In spite of some fairly poor reviews weíve seen about the restaurant, we had an excellent meal, and if you consider it as costing $14.50 over the cost of the Skytower ride, itís one of the better meal deals in New Zealand.

The Kiwis are the world leaders in adrenalin sports, and our first experience with it was watching people dive off the top of the Skytower! I had thought about doing the Auckland Bridge Climb, but the bridge didn't look too impressive from the Sky Tower so I cancelled that possibility.

After an afternoon nap, we finished off the evening with beer and nachos down on the waterfront.

Day 4 - Monday, Feb. 18: the city was very quiet on our first day because it was Sunday. Today was very different, but we werenít downtown much anyway. At 9:00 we met the shuttle bus for Kelly Tarlton's Antarctic Encounter & Underwater World. This was one of Cathyís must-sees, and Iím now glad it was. From a recreated polar camp to an incredible underwater viewing tunnel and penguin tour by snowcat, it was excellent, well worth the admission (discounted to $26.50 at the Skytower iSite, the New Zealand Tourism office).

For information about the first explorers of the Ross Sea region of Antarctica, see the Antarctic Heritage Trust (New Zealand) site.

Picking which photos to show you in this journal is tough. I upgraded to a new Canon DSLR for this trip, and shot 214 photos today. Although there were quite a few duds from Tarltonís due to the tough shooting conditions (even at ISO 1600, hand-held down to 1/4 second in places), there were still 153 keepers at the end of the day.

After getting back to town from Tarlton's, we walked to the harbour and boarded a Fullerís ferry ($9 return per person) for the 12-minute ride to Devonport, a charming seaside community with a few homes dating back to the 1880s. As you see here, the Auckland harbour is a very busy place.

A ďtoastieĒ and beer at a sidewalk table (at the Devonport Stone Oven Bakery & Cafe) got us ready for lots of walking, and we climbed up to the old military gun installation at North Head, then back down to Cheltenham Beach, where I used the camera's timer to take this self-portrait, with North Head in the background.

Our internal clocks were still weirded out at this point. We laid down for a pre-dinner nap at about 6:00 pm, and woke up at 2:00 am - whoops. We finally figured out how to get the New Zealand mapset functioning on our new Garmin GPS, though. We were very much looking foward to picking up our campervan and getting into the country - as cities go, we love Auckland, but itís still a city.

Day 5 - Tuesday, Feb. 19: Auckland to Hahei - ca. 180 km

We got a leisurely start to the morning, enjoying this view from our room as we got ready. We had an excellent breakfast at the hotel, then Mike Holt from Tasman Motorhomes (no longer in business) picked us up and took us to his lot to get our 2-berth campervan.

We'd had an exciting few days to this point, and loved being able to ďgo with the flowĒ rather than trying to conform to a set-in-stone itinerary - it was already clear that this decision was going to be the right one for us.

After our orientation to the campervan we headed for Hahei, about 180 km to the east. This photo shows the motorway heading out of Auckland.

While much in New Zealand is familiar to us, much is new. First and foremost, driving on the left side of the road is a challenge for a while - while my stress level about driving was pretty low within a couple of days, it always required my full concentration, especially in the roundabouts that are everywhere both in towns and on the highways. Kiwis love adrenalin sports, and their favourite seems to be driving - while almost always courteous, the normal speed is very fast.

Unfortunately, the information on the government Road Code site is quite sparse, and you'll no doubt run into signs and highway markings whose meaning isn't clear - some we never did figure out even after a month.

One-lane bridges like this one are very common even on the main highways. The approaches are well signed that one is coming up and indicating which direction has the right of way, but these bridges are one of the reasons that concentration is required.

At Hahei, we had reserved a "super sea view campervan site" at the Hahei Holiday Resort, located right on the beach, for 3 nights. This was our first look at what would become the norm throughout the North Island - beautiful holidays parks with excellent, spotlessly-clean facilities.

The fine sand of Hahei Beach was a 50-60 meter walk from our campervan. There were never many people on it - this too was to be the norm throughout our journey, as the peak season was over. The ocean temperature at most beaches was 20-22°C (68-72°F), which we found comfortable for anything but extended snorkeling outings.

Day 6 - Wednesday, Feb. 20: Hahei to Coromandel Town and back

We discovered today why the Coromandel region is known for its tough roads - they are narrow, steep, and winding beyond anything Iíve ever seen as "an average road" before. People from North America really need to take everything they know about driving and toss it out the window, particularly when it comes to travel distances and times! This photo shows 309 Road, a 26 km long, mostly-gravel road which we took largely because of some groves of huge kauri trees that we wanted to see.

A well-developed track with footbridges, boardwalks and information signs leads from 309 Road to the Waiau Kauri Grove - though this is a distant view of the most impressive section of the grove, the track leads right to it (it's about 30 minutes from the carpark to the trees and back). There is also a short side track to the "Siamese Kauri", two trees with a shared trunk. The largest kauri tree here is about 600 years old and 1.9 meters in diameter, fairly young and small by historic kauri standards.

According to the DoC signs along the track, the kauri on the Coromandel were heavily harvested between 1880 and 1930, and it's not known why this grove survived. When the government wanted to harvest these trees during World War II, however, the first conservation action group in the region was formed and successfully halted the logging.

Although we had initially hoped to do several things on the Coromandel peninsula, the Driving Creek Railway and Potteries was the only major thing we got done. Next time, we'll allocate a week or so just for the Coromandel.

The whole Driving Creek facility kept us shaking our heads in amazement that one man could accomplish this. While we usually think of railways as industrial projects, this one is more of a whimsical work of art that you truly have to see to believe. To climb the mountain (that is being replanted with native trees) with a train requires 2 spirals, 3 short tunnels, 5 reversing points and several large viaducts. There are smaller artworks are everywhere you look - incorporated into walls, hanging from trestle beams and set in the forest.

The Double-deck viaduct seen in this photo is one of the notable engineering accomplishments on the line.

The view over the Hauraki Gulf from the No. 5 reversing point on the railway (seen here), and at the Eyefull Tower at the end of the line, is wonderful. From the point on that trestle where the train stops, though, it's a long way down!

Day 7 - Thursday, Feb. 21: in Hahei

Cathy and I got married at Cathedral Cove, one of the most spectacular remote beaches in New Zealand (it's also known by its Mauri name, Te Whanganui-A-Hei). While we were sorry that we couldnít have had some of our family and friends with us, it was a perfect day - Cathedral Cove is both a spectacular and a spiritually powerful place, and the JP, his wife and our witnesses (a couple from Denmark) were wonderful to share our day with. We've posted an album of 20 photos of the wedding here.

Using this 4x4 bus cut the usual 45-minute hike to Catheral Cove in half. It's operated by the farm that used to own Catheral Cove.

We celebrated that evening with a superb meal at a historic church that now houses a restaurant, The Church. My beef filet and Cathyís rack of lamb were both incredibly tender (my filet was served with a butter knife to cut it, and it worked just fine).

Day 8 - Friday, Feb. 22: Hahei to Mount Maunganui

As we were leaving Hahei, we took a slight detour to the carpark where the track (hiking trail) to Cathedral Cove begins - this photo will no doubt explain why another week or so here would be most welcome.

We had planned on stopping at Hot Water Beach, which is best seen 2 hours either side of low tide, but cut it so we could spend more time hiking at Karangahake Gorge. As you can see in this photo, we arrived there to find torrental rain, however, so continued on to Waihi.

At Waihi we took an hour-long ride on the very scenic Goldfields Railway ($18 pp).

At the recommendation of the guide on the train, we stopped at the Martha Gold mine (a.k.a. Newmont Waihi Gold), which is in the middle of the town of Waihi. The visitor centre (the Golden Legacy Centre) was closed so it was a short stop, but still worthwhile.

Continuing on to Mount Maunganui, we booked in at the Beachfront Holiday Park. This is an excellent park which cost $34 per night for 2 people on a beachfront site with power. Wireless Internet access with good speed throughout the park is $8.90 per hour. Thatís our rig on the right of the photo.

We were greeted by a "tropical depression" that intensified to a "tropical storm" and brought high winds and rain, but we still went for a walk on the beach to watch surfers trying to ride the wild waves. That evening we discovered an excellent classic rock station, Radio Hauraki, that we would enjoy for most of the rest of our trip (and I'm listening to it online as I write this journal).

Sitting in our cozy little motorhome that night, on the edge of one of New Zealandís best surfing beaches, listening to the surf, the wind and good music, life didn't seem too bad at all despite the weather.

Day 9 - Saturday, Feb. 23: in Mount Maunganui

We awoke to screaming winds and occasional rain showers, but I got my blood pumping by climbing ďthe Mount.Ē It's only 232 meters high, but on a very impressive track. The views are worth every step, and it's very popular with locals.

When I got back down to the camper, Cathy and I watched a big surfing competition for a while.

Though the wind was screaming, we walked the beautiful and varied 45-minute trail around the base of the Mount. The surf was very impressive on the windward side of the Mount, and even on the lee side the water was being churned up pretty good (although it didn't bother this famly in the least). Shortly after we got back to the camper, a heavy rain was added to the wind, so with the rain coming down sideways, it was a good time to do some laundry.

After dinner, we went to the hot saltwater pools next door, but it was far too crowded so we didn't stay long.

Day 10 - Sunday, Feb. 24: Mount Maunganui to Rotorua (78 km, 1 hr)

The storm intensified overnight, and waking up in Mt. Maunganui was not a particularly pleasant experience. There were still lots of joggers on the boardwalk in front of us, though - the locals seemed to be little bothered by a tropical storm. Although it didnít cause us to miss any activities, by 09:00 we were on our way a half-hour west to the pick-up point for rafting the world-famous, Class 5, Wairoa River.

Rafting the Wairoa with Wet 'n' Wild was an incredible experience, as much for the spectacular beauty as for the world-class whitewater. Not having a camera at the put-in location at the foot of McLaren Falls (a Class 6) made me a little nuts - it was a slot canyon drenched in rain and full of very colourful rafts, kayaks and people. The river can only be run for a few hours on 26 days each year when water is released from a power dam. The river is very different from others Iíve run, in that you have relatively calm pools below each set of rapids or waterfall. This photo was shot by James of Adrenalin Shotz - a CD of 40 high-quality photos was $60NZ, pricey but a must-have (Iím in the front of the raft on the left, our guide Dan on the right).

A short drive through beautiful country brought us to Rotorua, a city of about 70,000 people, about 35% of them of Maori ancestry. World famous for its geothermal features (large-scale tourism development began here in the 1880s), in more recent years a host of other activities have been added, and we knew that our time would be both packed and expensive.

We had reservations at the Top 10 Holiday Park, but before checking in we stopped at the iSite and made reservations for a few activities over the next 24 hours. Outside the particularly impressive iSite is the geothermal footbath seen in this photo.

We just had time to get the campervan set up at the park before a shuttle bus arrived to take us to the Mitai Maori Village. Mitai is highly recommended by other travellers at TripAdvisor, and despite the rather high cost ($92 pp), we now agree. An extremely good and varied series of presentations and dinner went on for almost 4 hours. It ended with a long walk through the forest to see glowworms, which I thought might be silly but was actually very cool. We had some rain, but nothing too heavy. Although there were short periods when being herded around with hundreds of other people didn't feel good, those periods didn't last long.

North Island Photojournal - Page 2 (Days 11-20)