Auckland is the largest city in New Zealand, and a third of the country's population calls it home, and yet, coming from Los Angeles, it seems positively provincial. Fine old buildings mix with new modern skyscrapers to create a compact, relaxing and pleasing city centre reminiscent of Adelaide. Plush Viaduct Harbour (below) is where the city slickers and smart folks hang out, and is also home to the excellent Maritime Museum, where we gained a fascinating insight into New Zealand's sea-faring history, from the arrivals of the first Polynesian canoes around 1350 to ports and lighthouses today.
We also caught the ferry across the harbour to picturesque Devonport (pictured below across from Taranaki Drive) where we climbed two extinct volcanoes and enjoyed some wonderful views. Shame we'd left the camera in our apartment…
After two days in Auckland we pick up our campervan (christened Samwise, of course…) and head south, Plastic Elvis wobbling on the dashboard.
Our first stop is the peaceful surfer town of Raglan, on the west coast of North Island. Next we visit the charming small town of Otorohanga, a cheerful cluster of small, flower-decked shops strung out along a high street. Otorohanga is home to the Kiwi House, where we get to see the shy New Zealand icons in a special 'nighthouse' – the poor things must be jetlagged too. They're very cute and fluffy, with big round furry butts, busily rooting around in the undergrowth and running backwards and forwards as if they've left the gas on.
A quacky friend at the Otorohanga Kiwi House (left).
A quick lunch in the Thirsty Weta café in town (above), then it's on to the famous Waitomo Caves. The glowworm cave is just amazing – fantastic stalagmites and stalactites spirally up and down from the moist walls of the vast limestone caves, the glowworms fluorescent green pinpricks of light clustered in beautiful constellations on the walls and ceiling of the cave as you scull silently along the dark waters of the subterranean river like the Phantom of the Opera.
Then we visited the lovely Aranui Cave, a little further down the road, which also boasts breath-taking limestone formations (below).
Then it's back to the campsite to cook our tea and watch the sun set over the trees. Bliss.
Whakapapa, a village high in the Tongariro National Park, exists purely to serve walkers and golfers in the summer and skiers in the winter. The ski lodge may resemble the Overlook Hotel, but the holiday park here is really nice, and Samwise has his own secluded bay surrounded by trees, within earshot of the river. We go for a two-hour walk through the gnarly, mossy forest above said river and take lots of pictures (below). We like the big frondy grasses (called 'toe-toes') which sprout everywhere here – they're the sort people planted in their front gardens in the 1970s, whilst listening to Demis Roussos.
Next day is the big one: not the Tongariro Crossing, which we decide sounded a bit too hard without our full walking kit, but the 17.5km hike to the Tama Lakes, past the lovely Taranaki Falls, through scrubby rocks covered in lichen and delicate alpine flowers then up the final Sam and Frodo scree-scrabble to the breathtaking viewpoint high above the Upper Lake, all in the shadow of Mount Ngauruhoe – aka the conical Mount Doom from the Lord of the Rings films. Behind us is Mount Ruapehu, a still active volcano with streaked with snow, where they filmed much of the final stages of the LOTR trilogy.
It's blissful sitting in the Wanganui Holiday Park, right on the banks of the fat, lazy, broad Whanganui River (why are they spelt differently? No idea…). Occasionally, sculls heave up and down, accompanied by motorboats, a coach barking instructions through a megaphone. Sometimes tourists roar past on jet-skis. Twice a day, an old paddlestreamer trundles by. We're surrounded by sleek, fat ducks, and just to our right a goat is tethered, while lop-eared rabbits hop around, nibbling the grass. Wanganui on a bank holiday (today is Waitangi Day, celebrating the 'pact' between the British newcomers and the indigenous Maori people) is pretty dead, but I suspect that the pace of life here, like the river, is never swift.
Unbeknownst to us, the weekend we chose to reach Wellington was also Rugby Sevens weekend, when fans from all over NZ (and the world) descend on this attractive harbour city to cheer along their national teams. In fancy dress. Lobsters, Elvi, butterflies, superheroes, crocodiles, iPods (!) punks and goths – you name it, a group of people were dressed up as it.
That afternoon we (and some cavemen and dinosaurs) went to Te Papa, NZ's national museum, which was excellent, and in the evening we hit the town to join in the festivities. New Zealand lost the tournament (to England!) and for a moment it was as if someone had pressed the mute button in the pub. But the celebrations continued long and loudly into the night, well past our jetlagged bedtime.
Kaiteriteri is a lovely tourist village on the Tasman coast, just short of the Abel Tasman National Park. It was a long, hot, windy hoof to get there once our ferry landed at Picton, but well worth it. On our first day, we catch an aquataxi to Tonga Bay, via an adorable colony of New Zealand fur seals on Tonga Island. We walked along the coast track up a windy, uppy-downy forest track of alternate cool shade and ferocious heat, beside a sea of exquisite azure and emerald, lapping golden sandy bays. Oh, and over a very scary bridge (below).
The aquataxi picks us up from beatiful Torrents Bay (below) to return us safely to Kaiteriteri.
Next day we went kayaking along the Abel Tasman coast. Parts of the trip were awesome: coasting quietly up the river mouth between trees laden with cicadas and overhanging moss, paddling round pinnacle rocks to see the seals and their pups basking in the sun, regarding us with big, round, curious, unafraid eyes. However, parts of it were a long hard slog, and I sprained my wrist. Oops.
Fortunately the wrist injury didn't stop me driving, even on the steep windy roads between Abel Tasman and the pretty town of Nelson (above), and after a well-earned night in a Nelson motel, we headed south east to Kaikoura, the marine life capital of New Zealand. Sadly, the weather deteriorated to Scottish relentless drizzle, but that didn't stop us going albatross watching on a small boat, which battled the ever-increasing swell to attract scores of birds by trailing fish liver out the back. We saw twelve species of albatross, bobbing around us like ducks in the water, squabbling over the food, including wandering albatrosses (your classic Rime of the Ancient Mariner birds: huge, mighty-winged, hook-beaked kings and queens of the sky), one royal and many salvin's, whose stern look and aloof nature made us nickname them 'the professors'.
We also saw a feisty little blue penguin slogging his way through the waves, a few dusky dolphins and many seals, including seventeen gorgeous seal pups (below).
After an early morning ferry start and a long rainy drive up to Hastings, Valentine's Day dawns bright and clear, and we spend in lovely Napier (below), back on North Island. The whole town was destroyed in an earthquake, and was entirely rebuilt during the 1930s in glorious art deco style, which still survives today. From its demure Eastbourne marine promenade to its elegant streets of beautiful, pastel-coloured facades, it's a real treat of a place.
Below is our favourite shop in Napier. Ho ho.
Taupo is a seasidey tourist town on the shores of a vast volcanic lake of the same name (below).
The sun is back out again for good, and we walk to Huka Falls (below), amazing aquamarine rapids tumbling down from the fast-flowing, eddying, dark green Waikato River, then up to the Aratiatia dam, where we enjoy a picnic overlooking a lake, watching black swans sail serenely by.
Orakei Korako thermal park is slightly off the beaten track, between the main roads between Taupo and Rotorua, but is so worth the detour. Chugging across the Waikato in a small barge is like crossing a time barrier to a primeval island locked in the past, King Kong style. Steam rises from the lush, green vegetation and a large, slimy rock terrace streaked with red, green, ochre and silver algae greets us on the other side. The best bit was definitely the mud pools, burbling spluttering pits of boiling grey oog, creating farty concentric patterns as they bubble and pop. (You can see my boiling mud video here.)
The Ruapu Cave is also cool – you descend down the steep steps to a fern-fringed grotto, where you plunge your left hand into warm, deep blue water to make a wish. And no, I'm not telling you what I wished for.
The Cosy Cottage International campsite, just outside bustling, sulphur-stinking Rotorua is the nicest we visit on our trip. Our pitch is right by the river, and is surrounded by vivid blue pukeko stalking around on angular, stilt-like legs, scaring off the ducks.
Rotorua is a strange place. Everywhere you look are eruptions of boiling water, calcified vegetation and bubbling mud. There's literally a mud pit in every back garden, along with the obligatory mineral spa. The smell, however, is sulphurous-rank, the stink of hell's bowels pitched up on our planet. To escape the honk, we head out to the buried village of Te Wairoa, which was destroyed in the erruption of Mount Tarawere in 1886. An evocative museum sets the scene before you visit the remains of the village itself, and take a mini bush walk to a lovely gushing waterfall.
After lunch by a volcanic lake, we head back to Rotorua for a stroll round the Government Gardens, which are primly perfect as a Brighton rose garden, a bright mass of blousy, butterfly-fluttering blooms, deep purple salvia and hot red amaryllis.
We also pass the famous Blue Bathhouse (below), the oldest in town.
Before leaving Rotorua, we stopped at the charming Rainbow Springs, a bird reserve just up the road from the campsite, where we see keas (first pic below), kakas (second pic below), kakapos, keas, kiwis and lots of other native birds we've been learning about from our 'Natural New Zealand' playing cards (there's no TV in the van…). New Zealand is fiercely proud and protective about its bird population – there's only one land mammal that's native to the country, a type of bat.
On our last full day in NZ, we caught the shuttle bus along Taranaki Drive to Kelly Tarleton's Underwater World and Antarctic Encounter (the bus is hard to miss – it has a huge plastic shark and penguin surfing on its roof). Kelly Tarleton's is great: the Antarctic exhibition recreates Scott and Shackelton's expedition base (no hi-tech equipment back in the day, just woolly socks and axes) and provides lots of interesting information about the various attempts to conquer the South Pole. Then it's all aboard a 'snow cat' to trundle into KT's own freezing Antarctic zone, populated by Emperor, King and Gentoo penguins (the latter fresh from Edinburgh Zoo!). The aquarium exhibits are also good, featuring seahorses, sharks and an octopus that apparently used to slip out of his tank at night and crack open a crayfish!
The following day, our last, it pours down with a vengeance, so we catch a cab to the excellent Auckland Museum, home to an entire beautifully carved marae and a huge war canoe (or whaka) that could carry a hundred men. The museum is also NZ's national war memorial, and the second floor hosts a sensitively presented war exhibition which skillfully blends the political with the personal to create a fascinating and poignant experience.
And, well, that was it really. Lunch at the hotel then on to the airport for our mammoth 36 hour plus trip home. But how well worth it to discover this amazing, surprising, peaceful, vibrant, old fashioned, lovable country that we'll definitely revisit! In our three weeks in NZ we felt as if we were really living life to the full, a million miles (literally) away from the same-old same-old – surely that's what holidays are all about?