The Rotorua Circuit
Woke up extra early to discover an Auckland Starbucks a block away (woo hoo!)… that doesn’t open nearly as early as American Starbucks do (wah). All the hotel rooms carry is tea, so this was a nice surprise. Business hours? Not a nice surprise. Stalked the front door as necessary and tried the Chicken Cream Cheese Apricot Tostati. Delicious. And not found in the U.S. Fair start to our New Zealand road trip tour.
Drove around three hours to Rotorua, New Zealand’s geothermal hub. Lots of green. But a different kind of green than Ireland or Iceland or the Pacific Northwest. There was a very strange mix of evergreen trees and more exotic flora, like palms and grasses. Lots of hills. In any given snapshot, you can’t count the number of hills present. And sheep. Lots of sheep. And I guess New Zealanders farm deer? Little weird seeing a bunch of deer penned up together, but they’re everywhere. And to think, in DC, they open Rock Creek Park for annual hunting to control the population…
Waimangu Volcanic Valley
Endless geothermal activity. You could literally see plume after plume of steam across the landscape. The not-so-cool part was that everything required a hefty entrance fee (40+ NZD per person). Jeff and I finally gave in to the Waimangu Volcanic Valley, which seemed more natural and less exploited than some of the other stops. Had a 4k hike through a variety of features. Beautiful hike. Parts of it were pure jungle and other parts were drowned forest. Had to book it the last portion of the trail, like run, because Jeff and I spent too much time dawdling and almost missed the shuttle back.
Really interesting birdlife. Heard the most gorgeous bird call I’ve ever heard in my life. (Got a recording especially for my dad and stepmom!) Saw some black swans; those were cool. Most notable was the Fantail. Jeff and I referred to them as “AfroBirds” after AfroMan… because they looked high. They flew circles around us, tons of them, very closely, completely unafraid of humans, and then flew in loop-de-loops. Trying to catch this on video was not easy. We later realized they’re chasing gnats. And gnats were all over us. So… that was awesome.
Closing Out the Day
Wanted to make it over to Waitomo Caves to see the gloworms, but again, too much dawdling made us miss our window of opportunity for the last tour. Never fear: other gloworm opps available.
Finished off with a decent dinner at one of the hotel and casino’s restaurants. Flying out to Christchurch first thing in the morning. There’s so much more to see on the North Island, but we’ll be doing a deep-dive on the South Island this time around. Sort of the official start to our New Zealand road trip.
South Island New Zealand Road Trip
Flew Auckland to Christchurch in the a.m. Hour and a half flight. Total flight time one way: 20.5 hours.
Paid an obscene amount for a rental car that we shan’t speak of again (insurance, snow chains, GPS). Queue meltdown. If I knew then what I know now, I would’ve done the camper van thing and saved cash on lodging. Lots of camper vans here, small ones. We’d considered it, but were worried about being warm during the nights. Some Aussie girls were saying that you can rent heaters and turn on the stoves at night. Downside: Showering every day at holiday parks and staying on the outskirts of downtown areas. Not to mention falling asleep with a stove on in a contained space. That would be a real downer on a New Zealand road trip—going up in flames.
Drove straight out of Christchurch and headed south for Dunedin. Mostly in and out of small towns in farm country for the first half of the drive, but moved into coastal and forest areas the second half.
Stopped to see the Moeraki Boulders, huge spherical boulders that sit on the beach, get covered with water at high tide. Pretty cool, strange phenomena. Got into Dunedin, which we discovered was positioned on some really steep coastal hills, sort of like San Francisco. Cute downtown, bigger city than I’d imagined it to be. Continued on to the Otago Peninsula to visit the Royal Albatross Centre and Penguin Place, which features the rare yellow-eyed penguin. Quickly learned that this little peninsula on our map would take much, much longer to navigate than we’d initially anticipated. Hairpin turns, way up high with sheer cliffs on one side, barely enough room for one lane, let alone two. 100% gorgeous, though, I must say.
Little Blue Penguins
It was almost sunset when we got to the Albatross Centre and we knew we weren’t going to make it to Penguin Place. We did not see one. single. albatross, unfortunately, but the Centre did feature Little Blue Penguins coming on shore every night. We conceded. As it would turn out, the little guys were way late coming home, but we got to watch sea lions playing in the sunset in the meantime.
When the penguins finally came in, they were absolutely adorable. The “Little Blues,” as they’re called, only grow to be 1 kilo (2.2 pounds) full-sized. They swam in groups and rested on the beach for a bit before scurrying up the shore to their nests. By this time, it was completely dark out with zero light pollution to speak of, and we got to see the starriest sky I think I’ve ever witnessed in my lifetime. You could actually make out the depths of blues in the nighttime with the naked eye. Just amazing. Definitely a highlight of our New Zealand road trip.
A treacherous ride back to Dunedin, but we made it. Encountered a mama possum carrying a baby on the road; learned possums aren’t native to New Zealand and destroy valuable vegetation that flightless local birdlife (like Kiwi) needs to survive.
Had dinner in the “Octagon,” the city’s town center, and checked into a hostel called “Hogwarts,” of all things. Not the greatest of hostels I’ve ever stayed at, but the common areas were pretty nice and it had stellar ratings on TripAdvisor. Killer hill to hike all your stuff up. I recommend using the parking brake on your car.
Early Morning Surprises
Went to brush my teeth first thing in the morning when a non-English-speaking man in his skivvies and a wife beater came out of the shadows of the bathroom and scared the living daylights out of me. Perks to hostel stays, I suppose.
Walked into downtown for coffee, which turned out to be a mistake because it meant we had to hike back up the massive hill the hostel sat on. Good exercise, though I thought I might die halfway through. We saw a few churches on the way, Jeff’s favorite, and stopped by a hip travel agency with super cool marketing. I would’ve taken one of every catalog if I could have, for design purposes and for travel ideas to salivate over.
Cruisin’ the Catlins
Hit the pavement for the Catlins and Te Anau, the next stops on our big New Zealand road trip. A nice elderly gas station attendant (owner?) stopped Jeff while topping up and told him how he’d heard the American government wasn’t taking very good care of its vets. This is a common occurrence for Jeff in foreign countries—they think he’s in the military. I think it’s the haircut (which has since been updated). True reasons remain unknown. Received a detailed map of the Catlins and carried on.
Visited Jack’s Blowhole, which was falsely advertised as a twenty-minute hike. Twenty minutes for an Ethiopian distance runner, maybe. More like a thirty-five minute hike… uphill… steep. It was cool enough, but the tide was down and it wasn’t really blowing much of anything. Very cool photo opps. Coastal cliffs, lots of sheep. If I were a sheep, I’d want one of these pens with a waterfront view and the ocean breeze flowing through my wool. Passed a sprightly seventy-year-old German woman hiking the trail on the way back who made me feel shameful about how much physical pain I was experiencing at that exact moment.
More Stops On The New Zealand Road Trip
Stopped at Purakaunui Falls. Fifteen minutes… again, steep. A pretty cool final destination, though. Multi-level falls in the rainforest. Passed the Cathedral Caves, but the tide was up and they’d been closed. Boo for us. Big time.
Proceeded to Curio Bay, the fossilized remains of a 160-180 million-year-old forest from the Jurassic period (depending on your source). A storm was rolling in at this point and the waves were huge. Quite possibly some of the biggest I’ve actually seen in person before, honestly. Pictures don’t do it justice. Video doesn’t either. We walked around on the petrified tables dodging washed up Bull Kelp until we suddenly realized the tide had crept up alarmingly fast on us. Practically ran back to the platform deck, lest we get swept out to sea.
Fellow Traveler & Te Anau
Encountered a young woman from Nebraska who was taking a year off in New Zealand. She said she got a working visa and skirted all living expenses by house sitting for people across the country. She said folks usually have no problem lending you their car for the stay, too. I always wonder how people manage and am repeatedly surprised at their resourcefulness and creativity. Just goes to show you, when there’s a will, there’s a way.
The incoming storm chased us for an hour or so as we drove towards Te Anau. Saw a really impressive sunset as we started into alpine country. Stayed in a friendly little studio apartment on the Te Anau Lake front, the kind that leaves a furry blanket on your bed in the shape of a bow and chocolates and potpourri satchels on your pillows. Stark contrast to foreigners in their underoos. We’ve got a wide variety of lodging styles booked on our New Zealand road trip.