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:
- 1/4 – South Island: From Christchurch to Te Anau
- 2/4 – South Island: From Te Anau to Picton
- 3/4 – North Island: From Wellington to Rotorua
- 4/4 – North Island: From Rotorua to Auckland
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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 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.
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.
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.
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