NZed: Stupid Pretty

Oh New Zealand… What are we going to do about you. When I made up my mind to be home in Maine for the holidays and realized that the best flight options had a layover in Aukland, I figured I may as well extend my trip for a week (I’d have done more but Christmas isn’t exactly a flexible date). So yes, I was only in New Zealand for a week, and therefore limited the trip to the North Island, but it was long enough to get the jist. New Zealand is beyond beautiful. It’s less like that really smart kid in class that you admire, and more like the one that is naturally good at everything and stop-traffic beautiful, while still being super down to earth and friends with everyone. Like that time in 6th grade where I got pretty much all of the awards at our class graduation, so I made sure to act super ditzy for the two years of junior high. But apparently New Zealand didn’t get the memo, because the more time I spent there, the more they showed off that yes, they really do have it all. Volcanoes, hot springs, dramatic rocky coastlines, deserted sandy beaches, islands galore, coral reefs teeming with fish, turtles and dolphins, lush jungles, rolling green hillsides complete with vineyards, and caves with glowworms (GLOWWORMS!). But that’s just the natural features. Socially, they’re crazy progressive but aren’t full of themselves about it. Females have the right to vote since 1893, and they had their first female prime minister in 1997. Their current prime minister is 37, the youngest female head of government in the world, and even she’s beautiful. Their standard grocery stores are filled to the brim with local, organic, sustainably harvested (and crazy delicious) products. People of indiginous polynesian descent, the Maori, make up a sixth of the total population and are very prevalently represented in politics, sports, and throughout the country’s culture rather than being hidden from view. Locals all know the names of their indigenous birds and trees. Even morning pop-radio hosts are smart, witty and funny. They embrace the campervan culture and even have a yelp-esque app where you can see your closest parking options with prices, reviews and contact info. The only thing I could really find that sucked was the gas prices, and even that made sense in the effort to reduce consumption of fossil fuels and encourage the use of hybrid and electric vehicles, which looked to me to be working. So yah New Zealand, way to show off. Ugh.
My first day on New Zealand was actually a bit of a cluster. I stayed at my friend Olivia’s house after arriving at the airport late the night before, which was a wonderful respite, and we had a leisurely delish breakfast out. I then headed over to pick up the campervan I rented for the week. After loading it up with my stuff and making sure my music was sufficiently connected to the stereo system, I promptly came within a couple meters of getting T-boned due to looking the wrong way when exiting from the rental agency. Apparently training yourself out of a lifetime of instinct isn’t instantaneous. In addition, apparently all of Aukland took off ontheir christmas and summer holiday that very afternoon, so I was in constant traffic(and navigating the endless chain of roundabouts) while going through my crash course (not literally thank goodness) in left side of the road driving. I got to appreciate the scenery more as I put miles between me and the city rush and took in a stunning sunset en-route. I arrived at my chosen campsite after dark, made a quick dinner/next day’s breakfast & trail lunch from my farm-stand-stop supplies, made my bed and called it a night. I dozed off while taking in the night sky through the campervan moonroof, complete with a falling star and a few satellites.
I was up before the sun the next day and the surrounding volcanic peaks were illuminated by the dawn glow, with not a single cloud trying to get in the way – a very good sign for my planned hike across the Tongariro Crossing. By 6:30 AM I was off to join the masses on the trail. Tongariro is a very popular “tramp” for both Kiwis & tourists alike, but for good reason. The hike tok me through hillsides with volcanic rubble, cinder cone skylines, and gradually up to brilliant blue, turquoise and green sulfur pools and vents. I wasn’t alone up there, but the scenery was so fascinating that my company didn’t detract from the experience.

I caught my shuttle back to town, grabbed a snack and a coffee, and headed down the road to continue my kiwi explorations (which, sidenote, I did eat the best kiwis of my life while down there. Who’da thunk?). I rolled my campervan past Lake Taupo, so massive that upon first glance I thought it was the ocean.
I made a pit stop at Kerosene Creek for a dip, which was an entire river that I’d guess was around 105 deg F. It felt glorious to lie in for about a minute or two, than was comfortable to sit in about halfway for a little while longer. My body and especially my feet thanked me for the soak after my 6 hour hike. Then in a spur of the moment change for plans, I decided to continue onto Mount Manganui to spend the night and start my tour of the Comorandel the next morning. I found a campsite and wandered out to the bustling town for a burger and a beer, and I stumbled upon this brewery that I wanted to take home with me. Before I even saw the inside of the place, I tried a few of their brews and was impressed (that’s saying a lot for this Colorado Beer Snob). The menu looked creative and delish too. I wandered around after ordering and discovered that the “inside” of the restaurant was actually set up to resemble the picnic area at a campground, complete with a DJ stand set up on a makeshift gazebo platform (playing sweet tracks too). This led to a back bar and seating area that was a legit replica of your best friend’s house. I struck up a conversation with a couple at the “dining room table”, and originally planned to take off after dinner to hike Mount Manganui for sunrise…. buuuut the music didn’t stop, the picnic tables were pushed aside and a dance party materialized, and I can. not. walk away from a dance party. There will be other sunrises Plus, I’ve looked at this from day one as not just a trip to explore mountains, coastlines and ocean reefs, but also to really immerse myself in the societies I visit and really get to know people along the way. What better way to experience local culture than a Saturday night on the dance floor? 🙂
The next morning I took the opportunity to sleep in, make breakfast, eat it on the beach (well half of it, damn seagull!) and meander through the local farmers market before continuing my Cormorandel crawl. Not far out of town I saw two young guys with oversized packs looking for a ride, so I shared my excess of space with them up the coastline. The boys, fresh out of HS in germany, accompanied me north while we would our way through the hilltops over the ocean shores below. I dropped them off just before stopping at Hot Water Beach which I mis-timed not once but twice during my trip. Apparently a couple hours before or after low tide conditions are such that you can dig a hole down to a hot spring that will fill up your private beach hot tub. But I was too early, the beach was too busy, and a little impatient to get on to the other places I wanted to see that afternoon – so next time!
From there I continued on to Cathedral Cove, just a few minutes up the road. Here, my timing was perfect. Trailhead parking is continually full in daylight hours, but it was close enough to sunset that I snagged a spot. Then I saw an overlook trail that advertised an additional 45 minute hike on top of the already 45 minute round trip walk to cathedral cove, and although the main hike route was very heavily visited, I had the overlook to myself. And this is where I stop trying to find more descriptive adjectives for the beauty of the NZed coastline. Sure, I’ve got pictures, they’re really pretty, but you should probably just go to experience the offensive amount of beauty yourself. Not only did I have the overlook hike to myself, but a bit of googling revealed that it was ok to stay parked in this lot overnight, so I stayed put, walked down to the brewery down the street for dinner and woke from my van bed to sunrise over the pacific and the rugged island-speckled coast. Have I mentioned that I kinda like vanlife?

The Cormorandel tour continued in the morning, curving around bays, over improptu isthmuses, bordering sparkling beaches, with occasional intermissions of fresh smoked mussels (yum) and roadside avocado toast with a view.

That afternoon I exited the Cormarandel and fond myself in Kiwi wine country, so as they say, when in Rome… I continued on in time for my sunset date with the Mangawhai Heads Hike. Insert more expletives for ridiculous scenery here. And once again i was by myself the whole time. Oh, and the sunset. #nofilter. I had the quaintest little campsite just over the dunes from the beach, made a killer dinner of couscous, veggies, and leftover mussels, and fell asleep once again in my happy haven.

Because – I had big plans for the next day. First, after breakfast, I made my way to the Waipu Caves, because apparently in a bunch of caves scattered across New Zealand, there’s glowworms. I didn’t know what to expect, but it sounded cool and there was a cave nearby, so why not swing by and see what all the fuss was about? I followed my gps, pulled into the campsite parking, and followed the signs to the cave. Sure enough, here’s a cave. I walked in, turned my headlamp on green-light mode so as not to hinder my night-vision, and started wandering around a bit. It was a cool cave all right, but nothing out of the ordinary caught my attention. It was right about then that something sparked my attention in the distance, so I carefully made my way deeper inside the cavern. Someone practically turned on the lightswitch – I suddenly became aware of the numerous pinpoints of light shining all around me, like constellations of stars but within arm’s reach. They were like lightning bugs, except they didn’t flicker or fly. Each one was tiny, and I went close to the cave walls where the glow was coming from to try to see the creatures emitting this light, but I could barely see the tiny bug that put on such an impressive show with her friends. It was stunning. Oh, and once again, I was in here alone. There are a couple of these caves that may have vastly more glowworms, but they’re also expensive and very heavily visited. I’ll take my experience, thanks! It would take a long exposure camera to capture the sight, or just a google search and cut and paste skills. Like this:
The glow worms and I said our goodbyes, and I was on the road again, headed up to the Bay of Islands.
I heard it was beautiful, but best seen from a boat or above. So I chose above, annnnd then figured if I was going to be up in the air in a plane anyways, why not take advantage of the situation and jump out 🙂
It had been about 7 years since I’d last skydived, and before that was college, and even this time was every bit as thrilling as the first. But sorry, no photos, I’m too cheap to upgrade to the video package and am more interested in capturing the experience firsthand. I basked in my adrenaline high that afternoon by renting a kayak and exploring the bay, stopping at beaches and caves on islands I passed. I met up with some of the staff from the skydive shop for a happy hour, then retired to my van. Ahhhhhh….
If it wasn’t clear yet, I’d been on a daily mission to stop and watch each of the sunrises and sunsets throughout my travels, which mind you were at around 5:30 AM and 8:30 PM. So the next morning I left my campsite and relocated to the beach to make my breakfast, watching the sun creep over the islands in the bay before setting South.
I was open to going where today took me, with the ultimate destination of Piha on the Western shore not far from Aukland. If the route said scenic, I took it. If there was an overlook or a detour with a view, I stopped.

Further south I passed a cidery that was just opening for lunch, perfect timing, I was hungry (and thirsty!). I got to Piha by mid afternoon after what felt like forever but was probably only an hour on some insanely windy narrow roads. I had thoughts of “this will probably be nice, but I’m not sure it’ll be any more impressive than the views I found on the Eastern coast”. But I got to the beach, and yup, stunned again.

And then… the sunset. I was all set up to watch this sunset throughout it’s departure behind the Tasman sea. As it lowered, it looked pretty convincing that a bank of clouds would obscure the view of the sun melding into the ocean. Which I would accept in the name of the”not always getting what you want” theme from a few posts ago. But then at the very last second, the clouds parted enough to see the last few glimpses of the sun over what appeared to be a far off island that I can’t seem to pinpoint on maps. It was spectacular.
I had a nightcap at the Piha RSA, the local veterans club but also the only bar open in Piha past 8, and soon thereafter called it a night.
After breakfast and a beach walk, I rolled back to Aukland to drop off my home for the week and head off to the airport. Although it was sad to be leaving NZed, like my friends on the boat I knew I wasn’t saying goodbye, just “see ya later”. I’ll be back in early spring of 2019 for sure with my parents, and I foresee New Zealand being a home for a little while in the future too. Its too offensively good not to consider…

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One thought on “NZed: Stupid Pretty”

  1. Valeda—I am greatly enjoying your blogs. I have always loved reading travel logs, and, honestly, yours are some of the best I have ever come across at ANY level. They are lively, evocative, entertaining, intuitive in the sense of place and time (as in you seem able to grasp the “feeling” for both the location and those who inhabit it), often beautifully reflective without being “sappy,” and the photos are nice, too. Maybe you should consider a career in the travel journalism field…

    I have finished the 2017 entries, which are really interesting to me. We have a 22 foot O’Day Mariner sailboat, which sleeps two if you are really friendly, and we have considered taking some longer cruises in it, maybe even living aboard it for a season, and these blogs make me dream a LITTLE of actually doing it. But, of course, we are old folks, with all the aches and pains that old folks have, so it will most likely remain a dream, but it is fun to read about someone LIVING the dream.

    Keep on wandering (and, it IS true, I think, “All those who wander are NOT lost…”), and keep writing of your adventures. I am sure there are many who enjoy reading about them, and now, I am one of them, too.

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