Things to do in New Zealand’s north island

New Zealand, one of the most isolated countries in the world, is every landscape photographer’s dream — amateurs and pros likewise. Where else can you find sprawling green meadows, harsh volcanic wilderness and tussock grasslands, thermal hotspots, picturesque beaches, snow-capped mountains, starry night skies and a well-documented native culture?

Highlights of things I did:

  • Tongariro Alpine Crossing: a 19.4 km hike through a volcanic terrain
  • Strolling around the Hobbiton movie set / sheep farm
  • Te Puia night experience
  • Wine tasting and soaking my feet on a beach in Waiheke island
  • Walks along Auckland’s famous viaduct harbor and Queen street
  • Our accommodation in Auckland, National Park and Rotorua

(More soon!)

The most important lesson I learned during our short, 10-day vacation in the North Island was the need to know how to drive. Navigating New Zealand using only public transportation is do-able, but it greatly limits your freedom to plan the itinerary on-the-go. The three main bus companies that operate in the North are InterCity, Mana Bus and Naked Bus; each service, if you are to read customer reviews on the Internet as I did, has its ups and downs — including horror stories about the buses leaving well before the departure time or buses not showing up at all! But in our experience, if you show up about 15-20 minutes before the departure time stated on your bus ticket, you should be fine.

Our trip started with a late arrival in Auckland, around 10:30 p.m., and spending the night at the Ibis Airport budget hotel. It was a 15-minute walk from the international airport. We opted to fly Air New Zealand over Singapore Airlines because it was about a $1,000 cheaper and they’re both members of Star Alliance, so yay for airline miles. We did consider the budget option, Air Asia, but that entailed a more than 24-hour journey with multiple stopovers in Malaysia and Australia.

The autumn weather was pleasant at night — about 15 degrees Celsius (no complaints here from a tropic resident) — but don’t be fooled by it; the climate in New Zealand turns at a whim and can hit near-freezing levels before you blink. More on that later.

After a few, fleeting hours of rest, we picked up supplies the next morning from a supermarket opposite our hotel and headed back to the airport for a short, 40-minute bus ride to Manukau city. From there, we took an InterCity-operated bus that brought us to the Tongariro National Park in about 4-5 hours. Here’s the thing with staying at the national park: it’s a small village, where the nearest restaurant is about a 20-minute walk away and the small mart at the petrol station is another 20-minutes away by foot. It felt homely and the long stretches of mostly traffic-free roads, lush green and the peaks of Mount Tongariro and Ngauruhoe hidden behind clouds were pleasant to look at. It was definitely a lot colder than we had anticipated when we checked into a quaint, little place called the National Park Tavern. More on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, the experience, what to pack and likes, in a later post. But in brief, it was the best and the worst thing I’ve done in my life; it was also physically brutal.

The stay at the National Park was short — on hindsight, spending a couple more days in the serenity and splendor of being literally in the middle of nowhere would’ve been good. The alpine crossing took a lot out of me, physically and mentally, and the day we left feels very disconnected in my memory. I remember hopping onto a mini bus from the petrol station, after our lovely host Teesh from the tavern drove us there so that we wouldn’t need to lug our heavy bags around while we were sore and exhausted. On a side note, the constant kindness and selflessness of the people I met on this trip was an extremely humbling experience.

The mini bus dropped us at Turangi, where after a short break we boarded another bus toward Rotorua, which people say is the heart of geothermal activities and Maori culture in the north island. We stayed at a good hostel in the middle of the city center and everything — restaurants, pharmacies, shops and tourist information centers — were all within a walking distance. The atmosphere was different; as a relatively bigger town, Rotorua was busier and bustling with locals and tourists at every street corner. We walked through a night market that night in the middle of one of the roads, where small pop up stores sold different cuisines.

After a day recuperating from the Tongariro trek, I went off for the mandatory pilgrimage to Hobbiton, while my friend went to explore the geothermal wonders of the town. A bus picked up all Tolkien enthusiasts and movie lovers outside the Hobbiton Movie Set shop on Fenton street in Rotorua and we made the hour-long journey through the sprawling countryside toward Matamata. I expected a tourist trap at the movie set, and many people warned me ahead about it, but as a lover of Tolkien lore and a big fan of Peter Jackson’s re-imagining of the Lord of the Rings (The Hobbit need not apply), I enjoyed every bit of my time in Hobbiton.

In the evening, after returning to Rotorua, I went to Te Puia, which is home to New Zealand’s Maori Arts and Crafts Institute, and also the famed Pohutu geyser that can reportedly spurt boiling water up to a height of 30 meters. The full name of Te Puia is Te Whakarewarewatangaoteopetauaawahtao. How’s that for a spelling bee contest? Our tour guide — whose name also comprised about 37 letters, but he preferred being called Rob instead of whatever mangled pronunciation of his full name us tourists could come up with — took us inside where we were made to partake in the traditional Maori greeting ceremony. That entailed our group, full of tourists and strangers, nominating a chief to represent our “tribe” in front of the Maori chief. The greeting between the two chiefs involved bumping noses three times and then we were invited to view a beautiful performance, full of songs and dances. We learned about the history of the people who settled in Rotorua as early as the 1700s; the women were taught the Poi dance and the men learned the ceremonial war dance, Haka.

We also witnessed the traditional Maori method of cooking — Hāngi, where meat and vegetables are placed in a pit a cooked on naturally heated stones. The food we saw turned out to be our dinner — a sumptuous buffet of cold salads, seafood, meat, potatoes, and deserts. After dinner, some of the group went down to the thermal valley, in the hopes of seeing the geyser burst, but that was a bit of a disappointment. On a cynical level, I know the experience is a bit of a tourist trap, but the evening was certainly worth it.

The next morning, we attempted to head to the Redwoods forest about 5km away in the south east direction from the city center and adjoins the larger Whakarewarewa Forest. It was a long-ish but pleasant walk, since the weather was on our side. But when we arrived, we discovered that specific entrance to the Redwoods was closed and visitors were asked to take an alternative route which was another 7km away. This is where I felt having a car would’ve been useful because walking 12km to get there didn’t seem worth it — not to mention, the return journey was yet another 12km back to the city center. It was a bummer, since we had to previously cross off the Waitomo caves from the itinerary thanks to an exorbitant transportation cost — again, having a car would’ve been wonderful! — but we headed back to the hostel and Netflixed our way through the evening. (That’s where I developed my knack for Riverdale, but that’s a story for another day)

Heading to Auckland the next day felt bittersweet for several reasons: first, it meant we were on the final leg of our journey and what awaited us at the end of it was the gloominess of corporate life. Second, as New Zealand’s largest city, I expected the same cold, slightly uncaring vibe of city life from Auckland that I have seen in New York and Paris — where people hurried about their daily lives either engrossed on the pavement in front of them or on their smartphones and the concept of stopping by to enjoy the sun, which there was plenty of, was non-existent. Lastly, I wasn’t quite ready to say goodbye to the wonderful, kind and caring locals I made friends with in Rotorua, particularly the hostel staff.

Auckland was exactly as I had expected it to be: busy, noisy, and beautiful. The viaduct and the harbor was obviously a main draw for me, given my small, almost fleeting interest in boats. There were plenty of boats and luxury yachts parked in the harbor and they were pleasant to look at. A colleague connected me to a friend of his who lives in Auckland and she showed me around the city center on on of the afternoons and pointed me to an excellent bar — Dr. Rudy’s — with a million dollar view of the harbor (see above).

The highlight in Auckland was the day-trip we took to Waiheke island, in the Hauraki gulf, which is about a 40-minute ferry ride away. The island’s main village is Oneroa where there are art galleries, shops, restaurants and cafes, and a short, downhill walk leads to a beautiful, quiet beach. The area was a suburb with plenty of beach houses, a sandy shoreline, littered with shells, where the waves crashed gently, the sun sparkled on the blue waters and black-billed gulls milled around. But the island’s  real claim to fame are the large, sprawling vineyards up the hills — we trekked up about an hour to get to Mudbrick Vineyard where we did the mandatory touristy thing: wine tasting! Too cheap to splurge on premium wines for tasting, we settled for the standard variety and added a cheese platter to it. Because, well, CHEESE. Since we were already indulging, we had dessert for lunch. It was worth it; particularly the view from the highest point on the island.

One thing that surprised me about Auckland was just how hilly the city is. The pressure on my knees, already sore and tender from Tongariro crossing, became borderline uncomfortable in the final days of the trip, which meant my much-anticipated photography excursion to Mount Eden, to do some long exposure shots of the sunset against the backdrop of the skyline, had to take a backseat.

New Zealand is one of those countries where you will never run out of things to do. We only covered a very small portion of the much bigger north island, and did not even touch the south, and not once did I feel bored or uninterested in exploring the country, its culture and its people. If I could, I’d just buy a one-way ticket right now and never look back!

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