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New Zealand's North Island

Author: LSKahn (More Trip Reviews by LSKahn)
Date of Trip: October 2008



The first part of this lengthy trip was reported as Fiji and Australia 2008 and can be accessed under that title on independenttraveler.com.

When I arrived from Brisbane in Auckland on August 29th, I met my home exchangers at the airport. Three related people living in two different homes were exchanging with me. Ultimately, it was decided I would get the home in Whangerai rather than that in Dargaville as originally planned because Whangerai was more convenient--and it was. Both these homes were located in what New Zealanders call "Northland". If you look at the North Island of New Zealand, it's the piece to the extreme northwest. Given the fact that the home was where it was, I had made the decision only to visit places on the North Island. Yes, I know the South Island is where the gorgeous scenery is but that will have to wait for another time. I never regretted my decision and I found plenty to do for 21/2 weeks on the North Island. Heck, I didn't even get to Wellington.

From the airport, I made a beeline for Rotorua where I wanted to see the Maori culture and the volcanoes. I did not make it all the way the first night and basically just said "enough" and stayed in a motel by the side of the road about 40 miles short of my ultimate destination. When driving traded cars (not to mention not being familiar with the route), I am extra cautious about overdoing it. The following day I continued on to Rotorua, found a hotel and began to see the sites there. I ended up seeing two Maori shows--one with dinner and one in connection with a visit to the volcano. One would have been enough but who know they would be almost the same?

I have to say I was disappointed in Rotorua. Compared to Yellowstone it isn't much. People live in Rotorua and you don't have the feeling of wilderness that you get from visiting Yellowstone. I don't know what I was expecting but I guess I wanted more spectacular scenery. Driving down to Lake Taupo and past three dramatic volcanoes, I did get it finally. I wish I had had more time there, but my goal for the third night was Waitomo Caves where I had booked a visit to a glowworm cave with a company named Spellbound. I found a motel in Waitomo and got up the next day for my visit. The check in point was adjacent to the motel. Spellbound took us to an out of the way glowworm cave in addition to another ordinary cave. We went on farm tracks and could see baby lambs playing by the side of the road. Cute! This excursion was really worth the money.

When the glowworm caves were done with, it was off to Whangerai and the house. Actually, I was just north of Whangerai in a town called Kamo. It was much easier driving in New Zealand than in Australia because, well, New Zealand has fewer people (4 million as opposed to 20 million) and consequently fewer roads. It was a piece of cake until I got to the point where there were no signs saying "You live there" and it was dark. Well, I found it eventually, but it was nerve wracking and a very long drive. New Zealand is a lot bigger than it looks.

The rest of the trip was more or less centered in the home at Whangerai. I did a lot of excursions to sites in Northland and returned home at night. First off the bat was the Bay of the Islands. Unfortunately, on my first try the boats were not running to the famous hole in the rock. I eventually got to go, but I never went through the hole because it was too rough. Fortunately, I did not have a problem with seasickness as I had had whale watching in Australia. I put the car on the ferry and visited Russell--New Zealand's original capital and, at one time, a rather nasty town full of Maori women selling themselves for weapons and other "needed" "modern" goods. Now it is a sleepy little village with craft shops and an occasional restaurant. However, I was there in the off season and the restaurant that was open wasn't. I decided to take the road back to Whangerai. It didn't look too long on the map but, as I discovered with many of New Zealand's roads, it was long and took forever. I should have taken the ferry back and gone the route I had come, but live and learn.

I took a major trip to Cape Reinga and took a guided tour to the lighthouse at the tip. This is the very northwest tip of New Zealand where the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean. I lucked out in having a clear day! You don't want to take your car to do this. The tours take the route to the lighthouse or return (depending on the tides) across the beach. There are car carcasses along the beach from people who decided to do it themselves. I was glad I went with the tour and it was an excellent tour despite a bus breakdown. When that happened, another tour company took us in their bus and our bus eventually met us. We stopped at a delicious ice cream place on the way out where we got enormous cones for $2 New Zealand. Due to the time the tour left and the time it got back, I spent two nights in Kataia in a motel to do this.

While I knew something about Australian history, I discovered I knew nothing about New Zealand's. I used the trip--as I do all of my trips--to educate myself. My home exchangers had left a history book and novel about NZ and I read them both. Around Whangerai, I visited a kauri tree forest guided by a friend of my home exchangers who knew the names of all the plants. What a treat! I also went to the kauri forest along the west coast of Northland and learned all about the history of those fabulous trees--both there and at the Kauri Museum. Kauris are similar to California redwoods. However, in New Zealand there was a tsunami about 40-50,000 years ago and many of the trees were buried in the ground. They dig them up and carve them (living kauris are now protected after much logging). I bought a kauri clock shaped like the North Island of New Zealand!

One of the most fascinating stories I learned was that of a Scottish Calvinist religious sect that followed its leader first to Canada and then to Waipu on the East Coast of Northland. There is a wonderful museum in Waipu that tells the history of this really unusual group of people. Many of the people who live in the town are descended from this group. I highly recommend this museum!

I did go to Sheepworld and feed a baby lamb! I found the whole business of raising sheep (New Zealand has 4 million people and 40 million sheep!) much better explained that it had been at the Jondaryn Woolshed in Australia--although Sheepworld is a modern farm and does not have old buildings, etc.

Towards the end of my time in Whangerai, I stumbled upon the Whangerai Museum. I is really a jumble of junk and not worth much time, but I found out about a day tour planned for people working for different small museums in Northland who were meeting to exchange ideas. The tour was to Ruapekapeka. I had read about this place but would never have found it if I had not gone with this group. Our tour guide was a Maori man who was descended from both the Maori leader and British general who lead their respective forces in the battle. The Maori entrenchments were ingenious and it is regarded as the first instance of trench warfare (in the 1840's). While the British said they won, the Maoris did. The Maoris had such good entrenching that the British bombs did no good. Yes, the British took the hill but the Maoris had melted away. The site itself was militarily worthless. This was a wonderful excursion!

The last two nights of my stay were spent in Auckland to decrease the stress on myself. I stayed at the Crowne Plaza. Hotels in Auckland are much less expensive than in Australia, so I treated myself. I arrived late on one day and only had Sunday in Auckland. I spent the entire day at the Auckland Museum. I did not go to the Maori show there--enough is enough.

Insofar as likes and dislikes: Food outside of Auckland and major tourist centers was mostly fish and chips and heavy. Modern cuisine has not penetrated into the hinterland, shall we say. I did not find the impatient drivers as I had in Australia. If I made a wrong turn, there was not likely to be anyone on the road to notice. People were invariably friendly. The scenery is absolutely spectacular and the one lane bridges (even in the middle of fairly major roads) were charming and an indication of the slower pace of life.

New Zealand has the reputation of having the best race relations in the world with the Maoris. It is true that there is a lot of intermarriage, but there are all the same problems North Americans have with their native cultures--alcoholism, less education, etc. Much I observed seemed so familiar to me and a bit of a surprise. Having said that, New Zealand seems to deal with it about as well as can be expected.

The New Zealand government fell when I was there. It was a scandal about a politician receiving money from a lobbyist in return for favors that brought the government down. How many of you know who the prime minister of New Zealand is? I found out and she's a woman. There's an election there on November 8, 2008. I bet you did not know that.

Yes, I saw a kiwi bird--in a zoo. They are very hard to see in the wild.

All and all a fine trip.

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