North Island, New Zealand

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Auckland to Rotorua

When I made my initial decision to move to New Zealand for a year, I found two things extremely daunting; the first thing was emigrating to a new, unfamiliar country and thus leaving behind a comfortable salary and all my friends and family; the second, trying to cram my entire life’s Topshop collection into a 30kg suitcase. This particular battle finally won, I arrived into Auckland in January 2016, ready for as many clichéd adventures as I could physically Instagram.

My travels in Aotearoa, ‘the land of the long white cloud‘, have been incredible so far. I’d like to share my highlights with you in this series of articles — they’re a healthy mix of must-dos, sightseeing spots and photo ops, methods of teetering on the edge of heart failure and, lastly, ways to inflate your stomach and damage your liver that are totally worth it.

THE CRAB SHACK, AUCKLAND

After countless trays of unsatisfying and/or questionable plane food, my first expedition into downtown Auckland was in search of nourishment. Nobly swerving the temptation for the ‘Beercycle’ — an eight person pub crawl on a fully-functioning, two-wheeled contraption, complete with tour guide and table — we settled on a seafood supper.

The Crab Shack sits overlooking the harbour and the menu offers plenty of options for those not fussed by crab, or even shellfish — gorgeous tuna and beef steaks, wholesome fresh veggie salads etc. I would fully recommend going all-out on food and making this a start-of-trip celebration — get a crab ‘from the pots’. I made a beeline for the Jonah Crab: a whole, succulent crab still in its shell steeped in lemongrass and chilli with tomato, coriander and crispy shallots. When in Rome and all that… Note that cracking the shell and digging for your meat is a messy activity. Definitely not first date food. From experience, I would also like to remind you that you are neither too big nor too clever for the bib.

KAYAK TOUR, CATHEDRAL COVE

Cathedral Cove on the Coromandel Peninsula is one of the most photographed spots in New Zealand. Some of you might recognise the iconic cave and beach as the tunnel where the children re-enter Narnia in The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian. GoPro strapped to my chest, I set out on a Cathedral Cove Kayak Tour from Hahei beach to get some footage of my own. The cove is also accessible on foot, by boat or with a snorkel and is home to dolphins, seals and a whole host of other plants and animals. The levels of marine life have increased dramatically since Te Whanganui-A-Hei (Cathedral Cove) was declared a marine reserve.

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Kayaking around the Coromandel Peninsula © Emma Coleman

BLACK WATER RAFTING, WAITOMO

One of my most memorable stops on the North Island was in Waitomo. Waitomo can be literally translated from the Maori words ‘wai’ meaning ‘water’, and ‘tomo’ meaning ‘hole’ or ‘sinkhole’. The area surrounding the small village community of Waitomo is home to a caving system, famous for its population of glow worms. This particular species, Arachnocampa luminosa, live only in New Zealand. Many Maori people will not venture near the caves, as they regard them as a gateway to the underworld. My reservations were centred more on the prospect of black water rafting inside them for 5 hours, clad in wetsuit and gumboots however, this turned out to be one of my favourite activities. The Black Water Rafting Co. offer a range of cave related activities so those wanting to remain dry still have plenty of other exploration options.

Eight daring people signed up for ‘The Abyss’ and were rewarded with a full afternoon of adrenaline-pumping caving; we abseiled 40m down into the caves, zip-lined past hundreds of stalactites and stalagmites in the pitch dark, jumped into the flowing water 65m underground in a rubber tube, and then scaled two gushing waterfalls to resurface back out in the open air. Physically exhausting but wholly worth the money for two main reasons: firstly, the surprise flapjack and hot chocolate that emerged from the guide’s dry-bag as we dangled our gumboots over the edge of a cliff in the caves. Secondly, turning our head-torches off as we lay back in our rubber rings and looking up to see thousands of glow worms twinkling above us.

HOBBITON, MATAMATA

Another famously native species of New Zealand are Tolkien’s hobbits. Anyone remotely interested in the books or films must take a tour from The Shire’s Rest and enjoy the nerdgasm that is Hobbiton. Few could keep their composure as they hopped from hobbit hole to hobbit hole, snapping selfies at three-second intervals. Die-hard fans need to visit the Weta workshops in Wellington too; Hobbiton is mostly exterior facades, although you can actually have a pint of cider inside the fully furnished Green Dragon pub.

I think what struck me most about the set was the level of detail; not only did Peter Jackson erect an artificial oak tree atop Bag End, he then had all the leaves individually repainted when he decided it was the wrong shade of green. I was astonished to learn that the set was going to be dismantled after The Lord of the Rings was filmed, and it was only with The Hobbit that it was reconstructed in permanent materials.

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Do you want to visit Hobbiton? © Emma Coleman

TAMAKI MAORI VILLAGE, ROTORUA

Finding out about the Maori culture has probably been the most interesting aspect of my travels. Having visited Australia in 2014, I got a sense of the lingering guilt and resentment which surrounds the country’s treatment of the Aboriginal people. I was particularly keen to learn more about the indigenous people of New Zealand. The extent of my Maori knowledge prior to my trip was the All Blacks’ frequent performances of The Haka. In other words: minimal.

For this reason, I decided to stay a night in the Tamaki Maori village near Rotorua. Our hosts gave an informative talk about the significance of the Maori gods that were represented inside the ‘Wharenui’ — a Maori meeting house that doubled as our cosy accommodation for the night. Song and dance is deeply interwoven into Maori culture and we were treated to a performance, as well as the chance to learn a song and some of their games and dances ourselves. Another highlight for the foodies amongst us was the traditional Hangi feast. The hangi is a covered pit underneath an open fire in which food is cooked. We were invited to watch our delicious dinner be pulled from the earth: lamb, chicken, fish, enormous green-lipped mussels, sweet potatoes, carrots and piping hot gravy. Teamed with a bottle of Matua, a delicious Pinot Noir from a Maori winery, the night was an out-and-out winner. Further wine sampling in the hot tubs was a perk of opting for the overnight stay; if you’ve got the time to spare, this option is 100% worth the extra $30 or so.

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New Zealand: East Coast Capers

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Auckland to Rotorua

Perhaps the most famous of Maori legends is the tale of New Zealand’s formation. The story goes that a young boy, Maui, and his brothers were due to venture out on a fishing expedition, although Maui was not welcome. For this reason, he hid in the canoe and once out at sea, he jumped out. Then too late for the brothers to turn back, Maui cast a fishing hook supposedly made from the jawbone of his beloved grandmother. As it fell deeper into the ocean, it made contact with an underwater home. This house once belonged to Tangaroa, the God of the Sea, and was then home to Tonganui, his grandson. With great effort, Maui managed to pull his catch to the surface. And so was born the North Island or TeIka-a-Maui — the fish of Maui. The South Island is said to represent Maui’s canoe, and southerly Stewart Island, the anchor. If the North Island is Maui’s fish, the Coromandel peninsula is the base of the tail and the East Cape is widely believed to be the fin.

I had heard much of this story during my stay in the Tamaki Maori village. There’s something really special about hearing the tales of the land from people who can really identify with them. It also gave a new dimension to the route of our travels; the next leg of the trip was essentially a quick tour around the fin of Maui’s fish. State Highway 35 traces this outline from Opotiki to Gisborne; we spread this trip over 3 days. The road itself has to be one of the most beautiful drives I completed during our New Zealand road trip, second only perhaps to the routes between Franz Josef, Wanaka and Queenstown.

Our first stop for the night was a homestay in Te Kaha, a small village not too far from Opotiki. This section of the trip itself was named ‘East As’, a cheeky amendment to the infamous kiwi utterance: ‘sweet as’. The trip itself is run by an ex Kiwi Experience bus driver, but it is actually his own business. The transition between travelling on an ‘overload’ bus, carrying 90+ Kiwi Ex passengers from Auckland to Rotorua, to sitting in the back of our guide’s car with two other girls was quite a leap, although not an unwelcome one after the mania of the previous weeks.

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The East Coast of New Zealand hosts the first sunrise of the day due to its proximity to the International Date Line and so, however illogically, the sunrises and sunsets hold just a little more significance. The idea that you might be the very first person on the planet to see the first rays spill over the horizon is something special. On arrival, we set out on a brisk 10km walk around the Copenhagen track walk, scrambling behind our 6ft ex-rugby-player Maori guide like lost excitable puppies. Tired from the day’s exertions, we enjoyed a three-hour soak in the hot tub at the lodge with a crate of cider overlooking an empty beach. We got some beautiful photos, ate a delicious home cooked BBQ dinner and went to bed with pruney fingers and happy heads.

The next morning, we sat in the garden overlooking the bay, the billowing steam from the volcanic White Island visible on the horizon. The next leg of the route on State Highway 35 took us towards Rangitukia. We stopped on the way to climb the track up to the most easterly point in New Zealand, marked by an enormous lighthouse. Incredibly, the lighthouse had once stood out on a small rock formation off the coast but, due to erosion, had been moved by horse up the steep hill we had just taken forty sweaty minutes to ascend.

We arrived in Rangitukia at the Eastender backpacker resort, home to the Kiwi answer to The Horse Whisperer — a young WWOOFer and around forty horses. For any of those not in the know, WWOOFing is essentially working in exchange for food and board — an alternative way to keep your funds afloat on a working holiday. Riding horses along a misty beach and up into the hills at sunset was pretty special, even if I did manage to take some of the poorest GoPro footage in the short history of the device. The three of us enjoyed the trek so much that we opted to saddle up once more before breakfast the next day for an extra two-hour trek before we piled back into the car.

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The last stop on our easterly adventure was Tatapouri beach, a tranquil beachside resort a few miles from Gisborne. After dumping our stuff in an 8-bed hostel room that we had to ourselves, we were plunged straight in to some waders that stretched up to our armpits. Then it was out onto the beach and into the ocean to feed wild stingrays. This was an unexpected highlight of the trip for me. Wading out into the ocean with a wooden pole to keep us upright, we walked around 30m out into the shallows in search of stingrays; we were not disappointed. Shuffling along in a close-knit line so as not to step on any stingrays or allow them to come between us, we had soon encountered nearly twenty of various types, including a couple of very large Short Tail rays. These beauties can weigh over 350kg and span two meters. I cannot deny the fact that I was a little apprehensive as I leant down to offer a wedge of raw barracuda to a mysterious mouth on the underside of a hefty Short Tail. Fingers thankfully all present and correct, we returned to the beach, stripped out of our waders and settled on the beach with a few ciders by the campfire. Taking the extra few days to explore New Zealand’s East Cape at a slower pace comes highly recommended by myself; a welcome window into the chilled approach to life that Kiwis are famous for.

All images courtesy of Emma Coleman

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