Route: June 20 - July 8 (2014)
Day 1: DC - Auckland
We arrived in Auckland at 8am Sunday morning from DC via LAX (interesting). Even the airport in LA feels like urban sprawl… we ended up leaving what felt like the airport to run across some busy 4-lane roads to catch our international connection. We were greeted with our names paging throughout the terminal and the kiwi equivalent of the secret service. Apparently the Prime Minister of New Zealand was on our flight.
…Generally, the Prime Minister and government officials use commercial or chartered flights (with Air New Zealand where available) to travel both domestically and internationally.
Beyond circumnavigating the city by foot, gawking at the Sky Tower, checking out Devonport on the ferry, we had a pretty low key-day and crashed promptly at dark… which is 5pm in New Zealand winter.
Day 2: Auckland - Waitomo
Black water rafting at Waitomo Caves - definitely worth it! The coolest thing we did on the north island.
Black water rafting = cave + underground river + tubing
Basically you show up to this small one road town of Waitomo. The cave folk get you done up in a wetsuit with a head lamp and inner tube, drive you to a random spot on the side of the road and guide you down a short trail to a river flowing into a hole in the ground (hello cave). Parts of the cave river are slow enough for lazy river tubing and glo worm gazing. Some sections are fast enough to get the heart pumping. Some sections are small waterfalls with one way down (jumping).
Beyond the awesomeness of tubing through a cave river, the style of the whole outfit struck me. For a tourist attraction, it felt pretty real. No signs, no manufactured walkways or handrails, no lights inside, nothing unnatural. Just a cave and a river. A different style from the caves I’ve seen in the States such as Ruby Falls in Tennessee and the caverns in Virginia.
No photos, because, well, we were in a cave with a lots of water and lots of darkness. However Black Water Rafting Co has a cool video.
Day 3: Waitomo - Rotorua
Rotorua: the land of hot springs, mud pools, geysers and that sulphur smell (it stinks).
The town itself was pretty normal. The geothermal park was the big thing around, so we checked it out. Cool for a day - pleasant walk, lots of photos.
Afterward we talked to some locals and found Kerosene Creek - a waterfall flowing through a hot spring off a dirt road. Off the beaten path, but definitely worth it - much warmer than cave water!
Day 4: Rotorua - Wellington
Lots of driving. Lots of clouds. We planned on checking out Tongariro National Park, also known as
Mordor to those Lord of the Rings fans. However, the Tongariro Crossing track
(acclaimed to be New Zealand’s best one-day hike) was winter conditions only - crampons, ice axe, etc required.
Without the gear and very short of the 8+ hours to do the whole track, we passed right through on the East side (no park access).
It was so cloudy, we couldn’t even see Mount Tongariro from the road. However we did see the New Zealand military training grounds and driving vehicles around in Waiouru on the desert roads which was interesting. We saw some road signs like this one.
Wellington: reminded me a bit of Hong Kong. Super compact city, hilly, green, water, windy, trendy. We dwelled at the Dwellington. Trendy and coincidentally located across the street from the U.S. embassy. Lots of good food (can’t be said for everywhere in New Zealand). We ate Malaysian at Istana Malaysia. This solidified our “eat asian” strategy.
Day 5: Wellington - Abel Tasman
We drove ourselves onto the 9am Wellington-Picton Ferry, sat back and relaxed for 3 hours and then drove to Marahua by way of Nelson.
After stocking up on some Freeze Dri Back Country meals (a New Zealand original), super cheap merino wool clothes at MacPac and devouring a couple bowls of seafood chowder (another dish that we discovered was universally on point), we headed out to our hut at the Barn in Marahau.
We naively trusted our GPS (named Confucia for her combination of genius and tendency to confuse) to take us to our spot for the night. In the small town of Marahau with population 500 and enough roads you can count them all with one hand, we ended up driving down some unnecessary hairy dirt roads/paths that cars drive on which turned out to be private property and required some maneuvering to engineer a U-turn.
By the time we arrived at the late hour of 6:30pm, we were in after-hours check-in period. Luckily our hut was unlocked with the key waiting for us. We noticed that the equivalent of midnight in the States was around 7pm in New Zealand (at least in winter) regarding closing times.