New Zealand, On the Road From Rotorua to Auckland (Part 4/4)

Hobbiton windmill New Zealand

This is the final part of our road trip in New Zealand! Don’t forget to read the first 3 parts before, so you can get the full story:



Whakarewarewa

On the outskirts of Rotorua, we went to a living Maori village called…
Te Whakarewarewatangaoteopatauawahiao (no, I swear I haven’t just made that up). It means “The uprising of the war parties of Wahiao“. It’s been shortened to Whakarewarewa to make it easier to pronounce.

Maori village in Rotorua NZ

During our tour, one of us in the group asked the guide (one of the locals) what it was like to live in a village constantly full of tourists. He replied they got used to it during business hours. But they become a lot more territorial after 5pm when outsiders are not welcome anymore. They see the positive side of tourism though, as it helps them preserve their culture. It smells very strongly of sulphur in the air, like rotten eggs. They use the heat of the earth to cook their meals, which they also sell to tourists.

It was a real immersive experience! We also saw a Haka, traditional Maori dance performed by a local group living in the village. Close by, there is the largest geyser in New Zealand which naturally erupts at least once every hour: the Pohutu Geyser.

Hell’s Gate

Our last geothermal activity in Rotorua was the Hell’s Gate Geothermal Park where we saw mud pools at a temperature over 100°C, hot pools even hotter than that, a sulphur lake and Kakahi falls among other things. The hottest pool in Hell’s Gate is at 122°C at the surface and 144°C at 1 metre deep:

Hells gate geothermal park

We even tried Maori carving and pushed the experience even further by getting a private mud bath, followed by a sulphur spa. Yes, we basically bathed in a stinky substance but it’s known to be good for you (or at least that’s what they say). We only found out later we should have kept our sunglasses on when bathing though. Our eyes were crying a lot and at some point we had to get out, it was hurting too much. We obviously couldn’t touch our eyes with our hands full of sulphur… Our swimsuits still smell like rotten eggs but I don’t want to throw them away because it reminds me of Rotorua. I’m not sure we’ll ever use them again though.

Hobbiton Movie Set

Rotorua is also the closest big city to Hobbiton Movie Set. It was just amazing to see a place where great actors filmed world famous movies! Hobbiton was set up in 1999 to film The Lord of the Rings trilogy but was then taken down. It’s only in 2009 that they rebuilt it for The Hobbit trilogy, this time with permanent material. There are 39 hobbit holes with different dimensions based on the needs for the camera angle. This is one of the top things to do in New Zealand’s North Island so it gets very busy. The experience gets fully immersive when they offer you handcrafted drinks at the Green Dragon Inn!

hobbiton new zealand

Waitomo Glowworm Caves

We also visited the Waitomo Glowworm Caves but it’s worth knowing you will not be allowed to take any pictures there. I was a bit disappointed at first but then realised I wouldn’t have been able to get any decent pictures anyway as you need professional equipment to capture the beauty of it in the dark. I remember feeling a bit claustrophobic down in the cave as it gets quite deep – 45 metres underground! – and there is no way to escape easily. But I would say it was worth the ride, even if you don’t get to see the worms glowing for very long (only at the end of the tour).

Bay of Islands

For the last part of our trip in North Island, we decided to go to Paihia so we could take a cruise from there and visit the Bay of Islands (which is a collection of more than 140 subtropical islands in total!). We navigated to Motukokako (also known as “The Hole in the Rock“) but we couldn’t pass through due to rough seas. The Captain said it was only possible for 30-40% of cruises.

the hole in the rock bay of islands paihia nz

It was not a big deal for us as what happened soon after was amazing: we first spotted a dolphin and already felt lucky… Until we saw more and more tagging along and playing with the waves created by our boat, hundreds of them! There were wild dolphins (not fed by humans) so they were here because they chose to say “Hi”. Magical… No picture would capture the moment better than our memories.

Auckland

Finally, we spent our last day of our road trip in Auckland so we went on top of the Sky Tower to look at the city from above. It’s the tallest free standing structure in the Southern Hemisphere but it’s actually not that tall… just a little bit taller than the Eiffel Tower. Up there at 220 metres high above street level, the floor is transparent so you better not have vertigo. There are various options to eat and drink too, we chilled for a bit at the Sky Café with a Lemon & Paeroa drink (aka L&P).

view from top of sky tower in auckland

That ends our road trip in New Zealand! We stayed in no less than 17 places across both islands and drove more than 5,000 kilometres via the most scenic routes we’ve ever seen. Now it’s fair to say it was exhausting to be on the road and sometimes we would have needed some days just to rest. There is so much to see in a limited period of time that it’s easy to forget about the importance of “doing nothing”, we felt like we had to make the most of it no matter what.

When we arrived in New Zealand in February 2020, there were no cases of coronavirus. But then a lot can happen in a few weeks… When we left 6 weeks later, people were asked to self-isolate and some couldn’t even enter the country. I think it shows how important it is to always prioritise projects that make you happy, don’t postpone for too long as you never know!

So… What country will you go to first when all travel restrictions are lifted? New Zealand?

Big Girl x

New Zealand, On the Road From Wellington to Rotorua (Part 3/4)

champagne pool at wai-o-tapu nz

The first thing you need to know about New Zealand is that North and South Islands feel like two completely different countries! When you’ll enjoy the most beautiful scenery you’ve ever seen in your life in South Island, the upper part of New Zealand is a lot busier in terms of population and richer in natural geothermal activities. This is part 3 of our road trip, make sure you don’t miss the other parts:



Wellington

Once we arrived in Wellington, it felt like we were back in civilisation after spending 3 weeks in vast landscapes. Despite Auckland being the most populated city in New Zealand, Wellington is the capital of the country.

Widely recognised as a symbol of Wellington, the cable car (which is actually a funicular) gives a good overview of the city. It takes 5 minutes to reach the top and it’s only 120 metres high. It’s also an easy way to visit the Botanic Garden, otherwise the footpath could be a bit hilly. I didn’t suspect Wellington to be such an arty city, taking street art to another level. We decided to follow a self-guided sculpture tour created by Lonely Planet. We got to see the weirdest installations, a bit like we were on a treasure hunt!

Whether or not you’re into museums, Te Papa Tongarewa (meaning “container of treasures” in Maori) is mind-blowing. New Zealand’s history is illustrated via Maori and Pacific cultures over 6 floors of interactive displays. I particularly loved the exhibition about Wold War I called “Gallipoli: The Scale of War“. It was powerful and realistic, with these big character models made by Weta Workshop. Also, it’s free to visit.

Te Papa Tongarewa, the scale of war

Thanks to New Zealand’s booming film industry, Wellington has earned the nickname of “Wellywood“. Weta Workshop is an award-winning special effects and props company. They’re responsible for great movies such as The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, King Kong, District 9, Avatar…etc.

We did a Weta Cave Workshop Tour but only managed to take pictures in the shop (for copyright reasons). It was very informative and super interesting, especially for film lovers. We also did the miniature effects tour, where they showed us how they fit the entire island of Thunderbirds Are Go under one roof. Again, no pictures allowed, but if you’ve watched this show when you were a kid, this is a must do.

weta caves workshop wellington

Tongariro National Park

Our next stop was Tongariro National Park where there are a lot of walking and cycling tracks. In summer the scenery is very volcanic, this is where several parts of The Lord of the Rings were filmed. We took the Sky Waka Gondola and reached an altitude of 2,013 metres. It seemed quite high, considering it was up an active volcano! But by the time we arrived at the top, big and thick clouds started to appear, visibility became close to none. We were asked not to wander too far away just in case they had to evacuate people quickly. Not an ideal day for a long hike, which was fine for us as we needed some rest anyway.

sky waka gondola nz national park

There are several reasons why people come specifically to Tongariro National Park. One of the main ones is to see the youngest of the 3 active volcanoes there, called Mount Ngauruhoe. Peter Jackson chose it to star in The Lord of the Rings, as Mount Doom, because of its perfectly symmetrical slopes.

Another one would be the famous 1-day hiking track Tongariro Alpine Crossing, which also features many filming locations in the popular trilogy. It’s also among the top 10 single-day treks in the world. If I have a regret, it’s that we didn’t do it… We felt knackered at that point of the trip, changing places every 2 to 3 days. It was more exhausting than we thought over the weeks and unfortunately we didn’t think we were able to walk that much in a day. This track is about 20 km long and can be quite steep at times. It’s still in my bucket list though!

Taupo

We then drove to Taupo, which lake has been created by a super volcanic eruption from approximately 26,500 years ago. It’s the biggest lake in New Zealand with 616 square kilometres of water – roughly the size of Singapore!

We sailed on it on a sunny afternoon as it’s also the only way to access the Mine Bay Maori Rock Carvings. In the late 1970s, Master carver Matahi Whakataka-Brightwell wanted to mark the end of his 10-year training by carving the tattooed face of Ngatoroirangi, a visionary Maori navigator. The 10 metres high rock carving took him nearly 4 years to complete. He meant it as a gift to Taupo but simply didn’t ask permission to do it, which caused some disputes. That’s the reason why the eyes are not finished, so his ancestors don’t see the issues he has caused.

This was never meant to become a tourist attraction but now it’s a top rated experience. It was very peaceful and the perfect way to spend our first day in Taupo.

Mine Bay Maori Rock Carvings Lake Taupo

Otherwise there is a small but fascinating museum in Taupo which features a carved Maori meeting house, historical displays of volcanic activity, a 15 metres long waka (boat crafted from a single totara log) and a quirky Maori gallery. There is also the Ora Garden of Wellbeing in the courtyard, a recreation of New Zealand’s gold-metal-winning entry into the 2004 Chelsea Flower Show. It’s a good backup plan in case it’s raining outside.

Don’t miss the waterfalls on the Waikato River that drains Lake Taupo, the Huka Falls are a natural hydro power: 220,000 litres of water per second barrelling over an 11 metres high waterfall. It’s quite impressive!

Rotorua

Our next stop was the stinkiest city I’ve ever smelt… I didn’t think you could smell a city but believe me, it’s possible. Rotorua – also called “Sulphur City” or affectionately “Rotten-Rua” – is a stop you can’t avoid in North Island. Not only because you need to experience the smell of rotten eggs constantly in the air, but also because there are a lot of places to visit, in and around it.

Orakei Korako

Orakei Korako Geothermal Park is a spectacular and very active geothermal area where you can see geysers, volcanic hot springs, mud pools… Probably the most impressive place I’ve ever seen. It takes roughly 1.5 hours to complete the loop but it was so stunning to watch we didn’t even feel all the steps we had to climb along the pathway. Due to the nature of this place, everything is unpredictable and we had to stay on the safety of the path at all times.

Orakei Korako geothermal park

Wairakei Terraces

After these spectacular views, we went to the Wairakei Terraces to relax: 3 hot thermal pools (at 31, 35 and 39°C) coming directly from the hot springs nearby (if you get too close, the temperature can go up to 50°C though). The water is full of silica, sodium, potassium, magnesium and plenty other natural minerals who contribute to healing and soothing your mind, body and soul. It’s recommended not to shower 4 to 8 hours afterwards so your skin gets the full benefit from it.

Wai-O-Tapu

The most famous geothermal park is probably Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland. Personally, I found that Orakei Korako was better and I would recommend that one if you have to prioritise. Wai-O-Tapu is so popular that it was full of tourist groups and apart from 3 major sites to see, the rest is pretty dull.

The reason you would go to Wai-O-Tapu is to see Champagne Pool which is the largest hot spring in New Zealand, measuring 65 metres diameter and 62 metres deep. Water enters the pool from a deep spring at an initial temperature of 230°C before cooling to its upper layer temperature of 74°C… Hot! It has been formed by a hydrothermal eruption an estimated 700 years ago. The bubbles caused by carbon dioxide provide the Champagne like effect in the water. The orange rim around the edge contains arsenic and sulphur, as well as gold and silver.

champagne pool at wai-o-tapu nz

You’ll also see a crater filled with excess water from the Champagne Pool, a deposit of minerals being suspended in the water refracting the sunlight to create a very bright fluorescent colour. And if you take the longest walk, the furthest viewpoint from the visitor centre is Lake Ngakoro, it takes roughly 45 minutes to get there. This lake has a beautiful olive green colour that turns into an acid green when the sunlight breaks through the clouds.

There are so many cool things to see around Rotorua that I will finish talking about it in the next (and final) part of our road trip tomorrow. Hope you’re enjoying reading this as much as I enjoy writing about it!

Big Girl x

New Zealand, On the Road From Te Anau to Picton (Part 2/4)

that wanaka tree new zealand

Before you read this post, make sure you’ve read part 1 first (on the road from Christchurch to Te Anau). Our road trip in New Zealand is split between 4 posts and this is the second part:



Cardrona

We left our new sheep friends with regret to drive to our next stop. It was the opportunity to take the pretty scenic highway along the Lake Wakatipu. We did a small detour to have lunch at the famous Cardrona Hotel, the most photographed pub in New Zealand. People stop there just to take a picture of the façade… It’s one of the oldest and most iconic hotels in the country. Built in 1863 during the gold rush era, Cardrona Hotel represents an important part of New Zealand’s history.

cardrona hotel

Not far away, the Bra Fence in Cardrona is a quirky tourist attraction. The story begins at the end of 1998. Some anonymous women hung 4 bras on a fence for an unknown reason. It intrigued locals, then more women decided to add their bras on it. Every time though, they mysteriously disappeared (stolen by a bra thief maybe?). And every time they were removed, even more bras were added. The media spread the news worldwide and from 4 initially, you can now see thousands of them on the fence. This is how they now effectively raise money for Breast Cancer Foundation. Pretty cool and funny story, used efficiently for a good cause!

Wanaka

Once arrived at Wanaka, we went straight to see the Rockstar: a tree made famous via social media with the hashtag #ThatWanakaTree. It really is a photogenic tree, but it’s just a lonely tree in a lake. In all honesty, we were a bit underwhelmed by it. It was all about taking our own picture of it and then leave, as there was nothing else to do around. You probably saw this landscape before as a screensaver, if you use Windows (see header picture).

Wanaka also offers attractions like Puzzling World where we spent some time in all 5 illusion rooms. The tilted house was probably our favourite, although it seriously affected our balance! There was also a 3D maze attraction outside. We gave up on that one when we found out we would get stuck for about an hour…

puzzling world wanaka

Franz Josef Glacier

Our next stop was Franz Josef Glacier. It’s a small village far away from everything but close to the glacier of the same name. We decided to add a bit of action and discover the area on a quad bike. In hindsight, it was a bit risky as hospitals are minimum 2 hours away in case of an incident! We had pretty bad weather that day, but we would have ended up with dirty clothes anyway. Clouds were too low and we couldn’t see the glacier properly but we had a lot of fun.

franz josef glacier

As our next day in the village was still rainy and grey, we went to the Hot Pools to relax. They’re so much better when it’s cold outside. Hot Pools are very affordable in New Zealand so it would be rude not to. First, we had our own private pool for 45 minutes. Then, we got access to the 3 public pools. They were warmed at 36, 38 and 40°C, all in the middle of a rainforest. I would strongly recommended the experience. It was good enough to make us forget the village is on a fault line, which makes the risk of earthquakes a lot higher…

franz josef hot pool

Driving along the West coast from Franz Josef to Westport on the SH6 Highway is like a Kiwi version of the Great Ocean Road in Oz. We got the ocean on the left, cliffs and mountains on the right, and a long zigzag road with various speed limits. Just make sure you have a full tank of fuel, as you can be alone on this road for hours without petrol stations!

Hokitika

We stopped by a sweet seaside town called Hokitika on the way. Something is quite unusual there, from the art created with sticks on the beach to leftover pieces from centuries ago. There is The National Kiwi Centre where we saw some kiwis (the animal), but we were not allowed to take any pictures of them. This is a very protected species which live in the dark as it’s an nocturnal animal. They can be quite difficult to spot in the wild so it was an easy way for us to see some.

hokitika

Pancakes Rocks

Along the Great Coast Road (one of the top 10 coastal drives in the world), we also stopped at the Pancakes Rocks. They are still a mystery for geologists as to how they got their unique limestone layers. Seeing how strong the waves sculpt there rocks, they will probably change their shape over the years. It was simply stunning and is definitely worth a visit. And if their name make you fancy pancakes to eat, you’ll find a pancake house just over the road.

pancakes rocks new zealand

Westport

Westport was just a stop for the night as there is no other reason to stop there but to break up the journey. The next day, we crossed the island from West to East via the Lewis Pass, a very scenic high road through the mountains. We stayed in Hapuku where we found plenty of paua shells (also called abalone shells) on the beach when the waters were shallow. These shells have a range of colours from striking blues through to aquamarines to greens, with tints of purple and gold. They’re often used in maori jewellery.

Kaikoura

Our next stop was Kaikoura, famous for its seal colonies and whale watching. We didn’t see any whales but we did see seals in the wild, which was fascinating. They can live their lives close to humans in their natural habitat, we were lucky enough to approach two of them but they were sleeping deeply and we didn’t want to disturb them. They trusted us to leave them in peace, which reassured us people do respect their privacy.

kaikoura sunset

Picton

That marked the end of our road trip in South Island where we spent 3 amazing weeks visiting stunning places. This island is very vast and felt very empty at times. I’ve never seen such beautiful landscapes and it made me feel free, like humans haven’t tarnished that part of the planet yet (and hopefully will not anytime soon). It’s the perfect location to switch off and forget about any issues you may have. Unfortunately for us we had a time schedule to stick to and it was time to take the ferry and cross the Ocean to the North Island. The interisland ferry from Picton (our last stop in South Island) to Wellington (our first stop in North Island) took approximately 3.5 hours.

on the inter islands ferry at picton new zealand

If you want to read about New Zealand’s North Island, stay tuned for the next post – part 3 of our road trip!

Big Girl x

New Zealand, On the Road From Christchurch to Te Anau (Part 1/4)

New Zealand Lake Tekapo

New Zealand has been in my travel wish list for so long… But it’s so far away from Europe! When we put together our entire 6-month trip, it was the country we had the most fun planning. There are so many possibilities on where to go! We started by establishing a priority list of things not to miss, helped by some Kiwi colleagues. Then we created an itinerary, before booking accommodation in every place we wanted to visit. We contemplated the idea of renting a van for such an adventure… But finally decided to sleep in a proper bed along the way. We completed our road trip in New Zealand within 6 weeks. There is so much to say that I’m splitting our experience in 4 posts:



Christchurch

We started off with Christchurch, biggest city in the South Island (despite being very small). It’s a peaceful place where we relaxed for a few days, after spending 4 weeks on the road in Australia. The climate in New Zealand was perfect for us, sometimes a bit chilly but pretty much always sunny. We needed a jumper as well as a good pair of sunglasses!

The earthquake that devastated Christchurch in February 2011 destroyed their cathedral. While the entire city is still going through a 20-year rebuild process, the Transitional Cathedral serves as a temporary cathedral. It’s also known as the “Cardboard Cathedral” because cardboard tubes have been used in its construction. The street art is also very present, locals have been adding many colours on empty walls with creativity! We had an awesome view of the city from the top of Mount Cavendish by taking the Christchurch Gondola. This cable car is a must do, Lyttelton Harbour is stunning with all its various colours.

christchurch gondola new zealand

Lake Tekapo

What followed next was probably the most beautiful place that exists on Earth: Lake Tekapo. This is why it’s so important to book your accommodation early enough, the campsite we stayed at was in an amazing location so it was fully booked very quickly. We rented a mini chalet there, but the site offered various sorts of options: from delimited space for tents, parking area for campervans, to chalets like ours, from the smallest to the poshest version (usually for bigger groups or older people).

Lake Tekapo has that beautiful turquoise colour thanks to the surrounding glaciers. I wish this place was just around the corner so I could go there when I need to meditate. The Church of the Good Shepherd is the most photographed church in New Zealand. There is also a dog statue to pay tribute to the value of the Collie dog, without the help of which the grazing of the mountainous area would have been impossible.

church good shepherd lake tekapo new zealand

We drove up to Mount John (1,031 metres above sea level) and walked the final part to get another amazing view of Lake Tekapo, next to Lake Alexandrina (left on the picture below). It showed us even more how this turquoise colour is unusual compared to a non-glacial lake!

lake alexandrina and lake tekapo from mount john summit

Mount Cook Village

On our way to Mount Cook Village where we were going to stay, we decided to do a quick detour and drove along Lake Pukaki for about 40 km. It’s as stunning as Lake Tekapo with the same turquoise colour but twice bigger! Then we did the Hooker Valley Glacier Walk (3-hour hiking track) which was a bit more challenging than anticipated. Mount Cook is the highest mountain in New Zealand and the Southern Alps offered amazing scenery, enough to keep us going while we were suffering (it was quite hot that day). There were 3 wooden suspension bridges in the track which were very wobbly… I can imagine how icy and slippery it could be during winter so I’m glad we did it in summer.

mount cook trail new zealand

Queenstown

On our way to Queenstown, the access road to The Remarkables was very scenic! It’s one of the highest public road in New Zealand with about 1,500 metres above sea level. Our little car was struggling and we were worried the small engine would overheat. A 4X4 with a powerful engine would have been more appropriate. The Remarkables is the name given to the magnificent range of mountains we can see from the city, very popular during ski season but also very “remarkable” in summer!

the remarkables mountains queenstown new zealand

Queenstown is definitely the place to go if you like extreme sports. There is a great cable car, the Skyline Gondola, which is the steepest I’ve ever been on. It looks like they cut an alley of pine trees on the mountain to build many crazy activities like bungee jumping, luge, paragliding, mountain bike trails… And the views on top are simply unreal: we can see Queenstown, Lake Wakatipu and the Remarkables, all at the same time:

queenstown lake wakatipu

If you’re more into chilling out, there is a really cool place to go to: the Onsen Hot Pools. This spa is a kiwi twist to the Japanese bath tradition called “onsen”, it offers relaxation with stunning alpine scenery. The pure water straight from the surrounding mountains is naturally rich in magnesium, detoxifies the body and mind. Add it in your bucket list if you’ve never been there!

Queenstown could be a very romantic place too! We were there during Valentine’s Day… So we indulged ourselves with a modern Japanese restaurant called Tatsumi Dining who designed a special menu for the occasion. Apparently Kiwis love celebrating this day as it was fully booked!

Arrowtown

Then we drove 20 minutes to visit Arrowtown, which is a historic gold mining village where the architecture keeps the heritage of the area intact. This is also where you can find a very unique cinema: the Dorothy Browns. There are only 2 rooms which can only fit a small group of people each, plus a bar and a bookshop so you can read books while you’re waiting for your movie session. There was an intermission in the middle of the movie, which we didn’t expect at all! Enough time for a nice break to go outside or order more drinks for example. We loved the concept. Finally, the sky was so clear that we could see the Milky Way when it got dark… I’ve never seen so many stars, words can’t describe how beautiful it was.

Te Anau

Our next stop was properly in the middle of nowhere, roughly 15 km away from Te Anau in a very isolated independent small house. We had 250 hectares of land to play with (the equivalent of 500 football pitches if it helps), only sharing it with 2,000 sheep and 100 cows. It was probably one of our best memories! We initially chose to stay there to visit Milford Sound but unfortunately the (only) road to access it was completely flooded and closed for the entire month. We also had the remains of a tropical cyclone coming our way, these sort of things you can’t control. So we just decided to use this time away from civilisation to unplug properly, taking advantage of our isolation for a few days!

sunset at te anau with sheep

That’s it for today! Stay tuned for the second part of our road trip in New Zealand featuring many other cool places!

Big Girl x