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.
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.
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.
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.