Our last stop on New Zealand’s South Island was Marlborough wine region. Blessed with a sunny day, we visited five beautifully manicured wineries. The specialty of the region is Sauvignon Blanc and although Chris and I are manly red wine drinkers, we found the whites to be delicious! We’ve seen some beautiful sites in New Zealand but one of my favorites was seeing the cheese platter we ordered at Georges Michel being brought to our table. The deliciousness didn’t stop there. After a couple more wineries, we stopped to have lunch at Wither Hills. The presentation of our salmon and calamari dishes was almost as good as the food. We ended our day at Cloudy Bay with a flight of wines paired with roasted hazelnuts, coppa and blue cheese. A huge thank you to the Armstrong’s for the Marlborough wine tasting honeyfund. We couldn’t think of a better place to indulge – it was amazing and so appreciated!
The next day, the overpriced ferry took us from the South Island back to the North Island to camp for the night. We continued on our way to Taupo which is smack dab in the middle of New Zealand’s North Island on the northeastern shore of Lake Taupo. We decided to kick things off with a bang by booking a jet boat ride down the Waikato River with Hukafalls Jet. We geared up in rain coats and life jackets before boarding our jet boat. After a quick safety briefing, we were shooting down the river holding on to the boat’s heated handlebars. The jet boats were equipped with two V6 engines which burn two liters of fuel every minute they propel the boat down the river. They are specifically designed to operate in extremely low water levels…as little as four inches of water to be exact.
Our driver, Jeremy, navigated us through narrow river passages at speeds up to 75-80 km/h while dodging the banks, cliffs, overhanging trees and driftwood in the river. The best parts were the multiple 360’s that sprayed everyone with water and had grown adults screaming with glee.The jet boat stopped at Huka Falls where the Waikato River, the longest river in New Zealand, dumps 200,000 liters of water over the falls every second. We were taken to the base of the falls where we could get an up close view of the cascading water. Our trip with Hukafalls Jet was definitely an exciting start to our day! They were incredibly professional and we loved Jeremy’s enthusiasm for New Zealand, his job and Maori culture.
The next morning, we drove back to Huka Falls to get a different perspective of the waterfalls from the scenic overlooks. I’m glad we did because the sun was out and we were just in time to see a Hukafalls Jet boat visiting the falls. Taupo and the surrounding area is known for its geothermal activity. There are tons of day spas and hot baths around town but we had read about a short walk that would take you to natural hot springs right on the Waikato River for free. We followed the pathway until we reached a hot spring haven! Pretty waterfalls and pools with different temperatures of water warmed us right up as the light rain came down. From Taupo, we had to backtrack to Tongariro National Park because the first time we drove through, the area was in a complete whiteout from rain and high winds. The second time around, we hit picture perfect weather.
Tongariro National Park is New Zealand’s first and the world’s fourth national park. Its home to three impressive mountains (Tongariro, Nguauruhoe and Ruapehu) all of which are still active volcanoes. It’s one of New Zealand’s most spectacular parks and it gained worldwide attention from its cameo in Lord of the Rings as the land of Mordor.
The main reason we wanted to come to the park was to hike the Tongariro Alpine Crossing which is reputedly the best one-day walk in New Zealand. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is approximately 20 kilometers long and usually takes between 7-9 hours to complete.
We were up before dawn to catch the mandatory bus to the trail head. The bus stopped along the way so we could catch views of Mt. Tongariro smoking in the distance.Once we reached the trail head, we were off! The first hour and a half was a gradual climb to the saddle between Mt. Tongariro and Mt. Ngauruhoe. I had my heart set on hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing because part of the trail allows you to climb to the summit of Mt. Ngauruhoe (aka Mt. Doom from Lord of the Rings)! We broke off the main trail for a two hour side trip up the single-vent volcano. The side trip is labeled as “challenging” because there isn’t an actual trail to follow, switchbacks or guard rails. I wouldn’t even classify it as a hike, it was more of a vertical climb straight up the mountain on unstable volcanic lava rocks. In some sections it was so steep, we were literally crawling on our hands and knees. After an exhausting hour and a half, we finally reached the summit at 2,290 meters. In the distance we could see the valley below, views of Mt. Tongariro and the multiple peaks of Mt. Ruapehu. It was definitely the most dangerous and difficult hike we’ve done but certainly the most rewarding. Now the problem was trying to find a safe way down. The slopes were so steep and unstable that climbing down the same way we went up would have taken hours. We decided to walk over to a section of the mountain that was steeper but had much smaller rocks. When we took a step, our feet would sink a few inches into the rocks and sand. Very carefully, we simply walked down the mountain with all of our weight on our heels. Every step we took caused tiny rock slides in front of us. It took 30 minutes to make our way down. It.was.awesome. It was incredibly exhilarating but it also scared the crap out of us at the same time. By the time we reached the bottom, our calves and thighs were on fire! We were already sore from our climb up Mt. Ngauruhoe/Mt. Doom but still had at least five hours of hiking ahead of us. We continued on with jelly-legs through a long, flat valley steaming from the volcanic activity.We climbed up a ridge-line to Mt. Tongariro and kept looking back at Mt. Doom and the valley below. It was crazy to think that we had climbed all the way up just moments before. Look how steep it is! The trail led us to Mt. Tongariro’s Red Crater which is still alive with volcanic activity. The last section of trail took us to see the postcard-perfect Blue Lake and Emerald Lakes. They were stunning but stunk like rotten eggs from the sulfur. We slowly made our way back to the trail head. The walk back was bright and beautiful because the sun was now high in the sky. I swear, New Zealand never gets old. We completed the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in eight hours. It was absolutely incredible and by far the best (and hardest) one-day hike we’ve ever done! Feeling very accomplished, we had a good nights rest before our drive the next morning.
The next day, we headed north towards Rotorura. We indulged in one last adventure activity in New Zealand (more on this from Chris in a subsequent post) before we continued to Auckland, our final destination. We spent our last night sleeping in Old Girl at a campsite on the outskirts of town. Sorry, we forgot to previously mention that it’s backpacker tradition to nickname your campervan. The nickname is a nod to one of our formal travel buddies… K Roa!
We woke up early to pack and to tidy up Old Girl for her last day on the town. We drove to Mission Bay to have brunch with two friends we traveled with in Bolivia on our salt flats tour. Paul and Kate are from England but have lived in New Zealand for the past four years. It was so nice to catch up, eat at a proper restaurant and have pitchers of beer at a bar like normal people do! It was a perfect ending to our wonderful time in New Zealand, I just only wish we had more time to visit with them.The last thing on the agenda was to return Old Girl to her home by the airport. Old Girl was a champ! She took so many road beatings from unpaved roads, kept us warm when it got cold at night and most importantly, delivered us back to Auckland in one piece. It was sad saying goodbye to our home on wheels. She will be missed.Here is a quick summary of our trip through New Zealand:
- Days spent: 34 (North Island: 12 days; South Island: 22 days)
- Distance traveled: 3,403 miles
- Average drive time/day: approximately two hours
- Number of free campsites: 16 (47% of the time)
- Number of holiday parks (sites with full amenities including kitchens, showers, laundry, etc.): 3
- Time difference: +18 EST
The Best: New Zealand is paradise for outdoor enthusiasts. Everywhere you look is a beautiful mountain, beach, glacier, valley, hot spring, lake, etc. to be explored. There are hiking trails galore and all of them have something to offer. Our advice to other travelers? Do as many Great Walks as you can. Milford Track and Tongariro Alpine Crossing were our favorite activities and they truly show off some of New Zealand’s best scenery.
The Worst: The worst? The sandflies! These blood-sucking bugs sure know how to ruin a good time. They love to feast on humans and their bites itch like crazy. Legend has it that Maori Gods were worried they made New Zealand too beautiful that they created the sandfly to keep people from staying and admiring the scenery for too long. Well, it certainly works…they definitely keep you moving.
New Zealand was one of our favorite countries we’ve visited. It’s so beautiful and there is so much to see and do. I think we were both surprised at how much we fell in love with this country. We are sad to leave but are excited for the next chapter. We have one night in a hotel by the Auckland airport before we fly to Bangkok which will kick-off our five month stint in SE Asia!
Stay tuned for one more post about our adventures in NZ from Chris…
Disclosure: We received a complimentary jet board ride in exchange for sharing our experience with Hukafalls Jet. These opinions and thoughts are completely our own.