Visiting the Coramandel Peninsula

With only a few days left to our NZ travels (it’s amazing how quickly six weeks can go!), we headed north from Rotorua to visit the Coramandel peninsula, a beautiful area of rolling hills and sandy South Pacific beaches at the northwest corner of the North Island.  We headed out early to try our luck at the locally-famous “Hot Water Beach”, a lovely stretch of golden sandy beach known for its hot water springs that bubble into the sand at low tide, allowing you to build your own hot-water spa pool if you time it just right.  Luckily we got there within the recommended two-hour window of low tide, and with the assistance of our handy beach engineer -and a milk-jug shovel- enjoyed a great soak  – until the incoming tide reminded us of the inevitable!

From there it was a short drive to Hahei Beach and a beautiful walk to Gemstone Bay and Cathedral Cove, another gorgeous beach framed by a dramatic stone arch, accessible only by foot or boat.

After a night at a remote B&B at the tip of the peninsula (another great Air BnB spot – we’ve had great luck with that!), we finished our tour of the peninsula with a walk to New Chums Beach, another secluded spot with beautiful stretches of white sandy beach – enough to make us appreciate every minute of late March in the southern hemisphere!

From there, it was time to head over to Auckland (with the unfortunate timing of intercepting the crowds headed to the Adele concert there!) – just one last day before it’s time to catch our flight home.  All good things…!

Rotorua & Maori Culture

After getting our fill of the dark expanses of the Waitomo Caves, we headed further west to explore Rotorua.  The area in the central part of the North Island is known for its geothermal features, particularly for an abundance of natural hot springs, and for its strong Maori presence and culture.  We started at Orakei Korako, a beautiful natural area just outside of Rotorua that includes a range of active geothermal attractions including geysers, silica terraces, boiling hot springs, and eerily bubbling mud pools.

A day of touring the town and the nearby area by bike gave us a great opportunity to view of Lake Rotorua (NZ’s second lake and another lake formed by a collapsed volcano), including its iconic black swans, “Sulphur Point”, and steaming springs…

…which, of course (?!), justified a few hours of soaking at one of the local spas (when in Rome!).

We ended the day with a visit one of the Maori villages for a cultural exhibit and concert, along with a “hangi” dinner prepared using their traditional method of cooking the food for several hours in an underground pit.  We were fascinated to learn more about the traditions and culture of the native NZ people, and were impressed by their obvious pride in maintaining many parts of their culture into the present day (the first photo is from our visit; the second I borrowed from the web as it was similar to the dancing we saw, but weren’t able to capture that night; the third is a photo of Te Winika, a 200 year-old hand-carved Maori canoe we saw at the Waikato Museum in nearby Hamilton, a beautiful example of their incredible craftsmanship.

Waitomo Caves, Glow Worms, & Black Water Rafting

From Tongariro, it was a short drive over to the Waitomo Caves area, a small village famous for its series of dramatic underwater caves carved through limestone by the Waitomo Stream.

The caves are popular with explorers of all types, and for the “glow worms” that light up the walls of caves and nearby stone walls bordering the stream at night by emitting a bright green bioluminescent  light.  We had heard that the best way to experience the caves  was to don a wet suit and inflatable tube and cruise down into the caves to get an up-front view (thanks Sharon & Eddie!), so headed to a local guiding company, suited up, and jumped in.

(OK, so it’s possible Lee may not have fully realized what he was getting into, but he looks happy, doesn’t he?).

After getting over the initial shock of the very cold water, and the entry into the caves through a very small hole (yes, that’s it below)…

… we were treated to an incredible floating tour through an amazing world of spectacular underground caves, including an phenomenal light show with the glow worms lighting the way.

The “worm” (according to our trusty tour guide) is actually the larval stage of a fungus gnat fly, technically making it a maggot (but apparently “Glow Maggot Cave” tours didn’t go over so well).   Thanks to our trusty guide, we managed to make our way back to daylight, and happily, to hot showers.  We were so intrigued that we went back out after dark to a nearby park and enjoyed another incredible show of glow worms and stars filling the night sky.  No photos of that one, unfortunately – but incredible memories!

Exploring the Volcanic Loop: Lake Taupo & the Tongariro Crossing

We headed north from Wellington earlier this week, setting out to explore the “Volcanic Loop” of the central North Island.  We spent a day visiting Lake Taupo, NZ’s biggest lake (known locally as the “Great Lake”) that was formed from the world’s largest recorded volcanic eruption over 70,000 years ago.  The lake and the surrounding town are now a favorite spot for both NZ locals and tourists, bustling with activity.  We enjoyed another beautiful day and headed out to explore the town.

But lest we get too relaxed (something Lee hasn’t really been complaining about), we also managed to get in another trail ride – this one to Huka Falls, a beautiful turquoise-blue  set of rapids and falls on the Waikato River as it narrows that from a width of ~100m to a 15m canyon.

From there we headed just south to Tongariro National Park, NZ’s first national park, that covers an area of dramatic landscapes and encompasses three volcanic peaks – Mt Tongariro, Mt Ngauruhoe (otherwise known to Lord of the Rings fans as Mordor’s “Mt Doom” in the movie), and Mt Ruapehu, an active volcano that had a series of dramatic eruptions as recently as 1995 and 1996.  The area holds the relatively uncommon status of having dual recognition as a World Heritage Site, cited for both its physical and cultural significance and revered as sacred land by the Maori.

The park is best known for the “Tongariro Crossing”, a 19K track that is one of NZs most popular day hikes and another of the nine “Great Walks”.  Being a little nervous about the time required by our middle-aged knees, we stayed overnight just outside the park and got up early for the first shuttle of the day (5:30AM) to catch a brisk 6AM start – in the dark! (thank goodness Lee remembered the flashlight).  Between the dark, the volcanic landscape, and a bit of a foggy mist, the effect for the first hour or two of walking was distinctly other-worldly.

Once we had the benefit of the sun’s return, the daylight revealed a dramatic volcanic landscape, including the Red Crater, probably the most striking scene with its dramatic deep red color (not fully caught in my photos).

While the 40-50 MPH winds at the summit kept us on our toes and hanging onto our hats (quite literally)…

…the view from height of the climb included the striking Emerald Pools and Blue Lake, both acidic lakes with high sulfur and chemical content that are definitely better for viewing than swimming, as well as the peak of Mt Ngauruhoe.

The active fumaroles (steam vents) and frequent smell of sulfur were good reminders of the volcanic activity that continues to rumble just beneath the surface of the dramatic landscape.

Luckily our knees held out and the second half of the walk was an easy downhill walk past a few more spots for more dramatic scenery, allowing us to finish by early afternoon.

The next day we took advantage of the return of more clear skies to get another view of the dramatic scenery by taking a drive up past the national park and into the Ruapehu ski area, NZs largest ski area, and took a ride up the ski lift.  While the rocks are typically covered in meters of snow by mid-June, the lunar landscape here was quite a contrast to the ski areas of the east – I’m sure the winter skiing is dramatic, but can’t quite picture spring skiing here!

Visiting Wellington

After crossing the Cook Strait from Picton, we spent a few days visiting Wellington, NZ’s capitol city at the tip of the North Island, and understandably billed as “the coolest little capital in the world”.  In addition to being the home of the country’s national government, the city is a bustling hub of trade, culture, and social life, and was one of the most lively spots we’ve visited yet in NZ.

The city is centered on its working harbor, and like many NZ towns, circled by hills.  We were able to get great views by taking a short hike up Mt. Victoria, which sits on the southern side of the city, as well as a short (but steep!) ride up the Wellington Cable Car situated at the opposite end.

Lee and I had a great day of walking around the city, virtually from one end to the other, and enjoying the sites, including plenty of action along the waterfront (yes, those are young boys jumping from platforms into a small square of harbor water!)…

…to others enjoying the open-air cafes – on beanbags (we see where the “coolest” part comes in!)…

…to exploring Te Papa, the NZ National Museum with incredible exhibits and background on history of the Maori, the native peoples of NZ.  We’ve been impressed with what appears to be a strong commitment by the NZ government and people to honor their Maoiri heritage (as one small indication, Maori titles are listed with English on all government signs, buildings, parks, etc).  We appreciated an opportunity to learn about the Treaty of Waitangi, their ground-breaking treaty between the Maoiri tribes and the (then) British government established in 1840, an agreement that (while not without issues, to be sure), has served as the foundation for this relationship for nearly two centuries.

In addition to the requisite ice cream (possibly our best to date in NZ!)…IMG_2712      …we  finished the day with ride up the Wellington Cable Car to take a walk through their beautiful Botanical Gardens, ending at the Beehive and Parliament Buildings (the “Beehive” being the local name for the loved-by-some, hated-by-some modern construct of the Executive Wing of the Parliament Buildings).  A great day before we head out on the road to explore more of the North Island!