Land of the long white cloud

Being pressed for time (26 days to explore as much of New Zealand) as we possibly could, my friend and I elected to travel with the Kiwi Experience tour bus.  This was like no form of travel I'd ever done before, as I generally prefer to stay with friends or couch-surf if that's not an option.  In short, I'd say it was the most efficient way for us to travel, and we met many people, as well as getting some decent discounts on various activities.  However, I'm not a big fan of spending my time abroad with fellow foreigners, and I particularly didn't appreciate being surrounded by Brits - though all decent people, it's disheartening to come to the other side of the world and be in the same kind of group you'd be at home.  However, the bus tour did enable us to cover a whole lot of ground in our limited time, as well as giving me the opportunity to do things I'd never done before.  The North Island was probably my favourite due to all the activities I got into there, and my preference for volcanic landscapes.  Picking up from my last post, written as we left Auckland, I'll describe where we went and what we did for the first two weeks before we crossed the Cook Strait.

Cathedral Cove is a beautiful sandy beach on the western prong of NZ's North Island (if you look at a map you'll know what I mean).  The water was a stunning tropical blue and the rocky outcrops equally photogenic, making this an excellent spot for my first kayaking trip.  Can't believe I've never gone in for this gentle activity before, but then again I usually have an aversion to anything that has the merest whiff of exertion to it.  I enjoyed this so much though that I managed to strain my wrist in my sudden burst of competitiveness (we were killing it though.  Miles ahead of everyone else).

Hot Water Beach was our destination that night, a short trip down the coast from Cathedral Cove.  The name pretty much says it all: dig a hole in the sand and naturally heated water fills it, another quirk of the North Island's intense geothermal activity.  Some of the pools are so hot they can scald your skin, so the best bet is to get some sea water flowing in to balance the temperature a bit, and then you've got your own natural hot tub.  I could have lain there for hours become increasingly wrinkly.

Waitomo is pretty blah as a town, and the landscape surrounding is much of a muchness (the same interchangeable farmland you'll see all over the country), but it's real appeal is hidden underground.  The glowworm caves are a must-see if you're in the region, and the excursion I took was a real adventure too: you abseil down into the caves, zipline across in the darkness, float down the underground river with the glowworms like stars above you, and then variously swim or hike through the flooded caves until you reach two waterfalls that you climb to get out.  Intense, especially for a lazybones like myself, but spectacular.  A note: it's pretty costly and if all you want is to see the glowworms without all the extras, there is a simple walking trip you can do.  Or just look in the forests nearby at night because it turns out the little buggers are everywhere.

Rotorua is the Maori cultural capital of New Zealand, a great place to learn more about the people and their heritage.  It is also a geothermal hotbed (see what I did there), and places like Te Puia allow you access to geysers and hot pools while also offering an insight into Maori culture and traditions.  Here we ate eggs that had been put in a bag woven from reeds (a Maori craft that has been given new life in recent years) and submerged into the naturally boiling water of one pool.  These are not the kind you go for a dip in.

One thing a lot of people are excited to do in the area is visit the set of Hobbiton, which has been open to the public for a few years now and has increased in size with 4 new hobbit houses added for the recent trilogy.  It's cute, and you get a free drink at the little pub at the end, although the price is a bit steep if you're ambivalent about the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The Huka Falls are a point on the Waikoto River we passed while heading south out of Rotorua, where 200,000 litres of water go crashing over the rocks every second - equivalent to the volume of 5 Olympic swimming pools every minute.  This was also the first time I got a good look at the crazy shade of blue many waterways are in New Zealand, an intense aquamarine that was of course intensified by the rapids.

Our next big town was Taupo, which is a lovely resort town by a large lake, frequented by New Zealanders and foreigners alike.  This is supposedly the cheapest spot in the country to go skydiving if you've got your heart set on that.  The real stunner though is the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, a 20km hike from the foothills around Mount Doom (or at least the mountain that played it in the movies), through Martian-looking craters, up and down more hills, past some incredible turquoise lakes and an active volcano, until you finally pass through some bush to the carpark where hopefully a bus is waiting to carry your knackered self back to the hostel.  This was an intensive hike, especially since I was wearing completely inappropriate footwear, but goddamn was it worth it.  One of the highlights of my entire trip.

River Valley is a white water rafting company with a lodge for you to stay in, which was one of the stranger places I slept on this trip: in a 32-person bunk bed.  Yup, 16 on top, 16 below.  We all slept too soundly to care though since the rafting trip was incredibly fun, incorporating several Grade 5 rapids and some gorgeous scenery, followed up by a decent happy hour in the bar downstairs.  I'd heard before visiting that New Zealand has some of the best rafting in the world, and here on the Rangitikei River it was pretty damn good.

Finally we came to Wellington, New Zealand's capital and gateway to the South Island.  We went out on the booze with some locals and got a taste of the city's culture and atmosphere.  This picture was taken on Cuba Street where there's lots of delicious street food and apparently 10+ piece live bands playing.  Another great thing in Wellington was Te Papa Museum, which is hugely interactive and also free, in my opinion the two best things a museum can be.  It's a great city and one I could certainly have spent more than one night, but alas the South was calling and we had no time to hang about.

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