Most people when they think of travelling head off to Europe or perhaps parts of Asia as they wish to experience a different culture or seek out their family’s roots. However, if you love to travel, a hidden treasure to explore is New Zealand. I’ve had the pleasure of visiting and driving around both the north and south islands of this country. Although you can take commercial bus tours, I highly recommend you rent a car instead and mosey around at your own speed. Your BC driver’s license is completely legal there. Driving is safe – yes, you will be driving on the left side of the road with a vehicle whose steering wheel is on the right side; but the only problem I found doing so was consistently turning on the wipers instead of the turn signal as these are reversed on the steering column.
The north island is a geological paradise, especially if you want to see a wide variety of geothermal features. I recommend starting in Wellington and spending a few days there – however, driving around that city is definitely not something I recommend! Such sights as the National Museum (Te Papa), the 360 degree views from the top of Mount Victoria, the cable car, botanic gardens, and Zealandia Wildlife Sanctuary can easily fill several days and all are easily accessible by foot, transit, free buses, or the cable car. A stroll along Oriental Bay or on Cuba Street offers an amazing gastronomical opportunity. If you’d rather take a hike and get away from tourists, the Polhill Reserve up to the wind turbine area offers an even more spectacular view than that from Mount Victoria.
Leaving Wellington and travelling northwards, a pleasant stop for the night is in Levin where there are a myriad of B & Bs. Waking in the morning to the sounds of birds and Kiwi hospitality at a B & B or small boutique hotel/motel is something you definitely want to experience. Lovely little villages with wonderful coffee shops allow you to get out and stretch your legs as you drive up Hwy 1. The landscape is varied and suddenly one is surrounded by sheep farms. I’m certain there must be over 10,000 sheep for every person living in NZ. After a couple of hours drive, the travel is reminiscent of going to the interior of BC from the coast on steep winding roads. Cresting the last hill the landscape suddenly changes to scrub brush and semi-desert.
Lake Taupo has several geothermal areas to explore: each of them unique. The Craters of the Moon site has many smaller craters and vents emitting steam. Staying on the raised boardwalk is mandatory as the ground is fragile and quite unstable. The Wairakei Natural Thermal Valley is a short quiet 30-minute hike in a natural setting along a ravine. The Wairakei Terraces with its geyser is enjoyable to visit and taking a dip in the three different thermal pools provides a luxurious experience.
Although not a tourist destination, driving up to the viewpoint overlooking the gigantic Geothermal Borefield is fascinating as the steam in that area is collected and turned into electricity. Visiting the Aratiatia Rapids when the spillway from Lake Aratiatia is opened and hiking up to the farthest viewpoint is a must as seeing each of the cavernous pools fill up in sequence and then form mini waterfalls as they overflow is spectacular. Huka Falls, one of the most visited natural attractions in NZ with 220,000 litres/sec flowing through the very narrow channel, is a photographer’s paradise.
As a change of pace around the Lake Taupo area, going off on a small sailing ship to see the Maori rock carvings is both relaxing and refreshing. If you even wish to swim in the lake, you can do so off the boat – but be forewarned, the water is frigid!
Driving up to Rotorua, going off the beaten path into Orakei Korako on Lake Ohakuri and the Waikato River, is a must. This geothermal site with stark white silica terraces is awe inspiring to walk over on the slightly raised boardwalk as the earth below is bubbling away. Small geysers, boiling hot pools, mud pools and fantastically coloured algai add to the magical landscape. The thermal Tuatapu Cave at this site is only one of two known caves in the world located in a geothermal field.
The Buried Village, an archaelogical site, is just an easy 20 minute drive south of Rotorua. The village of Te Wairoa was buried in the middle of the night in 2 metres of boiling hot mud, rocks, and ash on June 10, 1886 when Mount Tarawra erupted and 150 people were killed.
Wai-OpTapu, on SH5, south of Rotorua is considered to be the island’s most colourful and diverse geothermal attraction as it is one of the most extensive geothermal systems in New Zealand. When visiting, be prepared to walk for 1 ½ hours on the different trails as each area you’ll visit is unique. At 10:15 a.m. each day the Lady Knox Geyser erupts and although it is located in a separate area of the reserve from the visitor centre, being there at least 45 minutes before the eruption will allow for good viewing. The mud pools are a bubbling delight with continuous shoots of mud erupting – sometimes a half-metre or more in height.
Near Rotorua, there are numerous cultural experiences but the largest and best known is Te Puia with the Pohutu Geyser, NZ Maori Arts and Crafts Institute, kiwi house, and cultural show. You can even enjoy a banquet of authentic Maori cuisine prepared in the traditional Hangi style if you’ve booked ahead. Just a few minutes’ walk from the city centre in Rotorua are such areas as Kuirau Park and Kerosene Creek, popular foot baths and bathing areas for the locals.
Although not a direct route from Rotorua to Auckland, no visit to the North Island would be complete without going to the Waitomo Glowworm caves located near the west coast just off SH3. As well as taking the three-tour package (a must as each cave is unique), there are also numerous half-hour walks in the area.
The north island of New Zealand between Wellington and Auckland is well worth exploring. The above suggestions are just a few of the relaxing yet unique experiences I had as I drove through the area. With the Canadian dollar basically at par with that of the New Zealand dollar, and excellent flights from Vancouver direct to Auckland for around $1200 on Air New Zealand, it is can be a fairly inexpensive but memorable holiday. I’m looking forward to returning to New Zealand again next spring and exploring more of this interesting paradise.