The South Island came and went in the blink of an eye. Sand flies aside, it was as perfect a place as any we have visited so far. Every day bought with it plenty of "wow!" moments and rarely was any of the scenery less than wonderful. The weather was hugely better than we'd expected and we caught the ferry from Picton with a certain degree of melanchololy. The North Island had much to live up to!
It got off to a great start, as we stayed two nights with Patrick and Dolores (Warmshowers hosts) in Wellington. The one full day that we had in the capital, was spent with a group of cycle enthusiasts enjoying a day of cycling around some of the wonderful bays, having a lazy picnic in the sunshine beside the sea and then (after a delicious hokey pokey ice cream!) continuing our leisurely cycle on to a small festival where we lay on the parched grass savouring the salsa-inspired sounds of a local band. A perfect day and a wonderful welcome to the North!
From Wellington, we spent four days cycling to Tongariro National Park. I was finding the cycling really tough and my energy levels were puzzlingly low. The cycling difficulty was merely moderate (although the final day from Rānana to National Park, involved climbing over 1,400m) and it was a bit weird that I should be feeling so constantly knackered! We mulled it over and realised that we hadn't actually allowed ourselves a complete rest day since we'd left Christchurch at the beginning of January! New Zealand is a very hard country to relax in, there's so much to do and see! Our 'rest' days have seen us undertaking kayaking trips, cycle sightseeing tours, all-day hiking treks and climbing up the odd volcano or two!
Whilst at National Park, we completed the Tongariro crossing walk: 7 hours of the most incredible volcanic scenery which, for me, was an absolute trip highlight. One of my lifetime ambitions is to climb an active volcano on 6 of the 7 continents (Antarctica doesn't have any...fortunately!) so one sixth of that ambition was fulfilled the moment we stood atop Mt. Tongariro staring over at Mt. Ngaurahoe (aka Mt. Doom from The Lord of the Rings Movies). I could have quite happily stayed there for weeks...months...enjoying the ever changing and other-worldly scenery of the volcanic landscapes. Some might consider it a stark and ugly place but, to me, it was one of the most beautiful places that I've set foot.
We were having such a great time at National Park, that we decided to extend our stay there for two additional nights, forcing us into spending some time relaxing: reading, watching movies and strictly no exercise! We did quite well, only sneaking out once for a quick five hour (round-trip) walk through some native bush to a waterfall where Ashley showered beneath the freezing water and had his feet nipped by a hungry resident eel!
We can rest once we return to the UK!
From National Park, we headed north to Taramanui, where we picked up the 'Forgotten World Highway' towards Stratford, a particularly scenic road through plenty of native bush. One of our campsite stops was in the quirky town of Whangamomona, which declared itself an independent republic in 1988 after district boundary disputes! We got our passports stamped on leaving which should make passport control officers smile at Auckland airport! Turning off the highway shortly after crossing back into New Zealand (!) we headed up to Waitara (close to New Plymouth). It was a really quiet route, but some of the gravel road sections were challenging for our rapidly balding tyres and, at times, it was akin to cycling on ice!
We continued up the west coast, stopping in the town of Mokau before continuing to Waitomo. It was a mammoth day of cycling from Mokau: We had originally planned to stay in Marakopa but when we arrived at the campsite to discover that they were asking $32 for one night (very basic facilities), we stubbornly refused to pay the exorbitant fee and decided to cycle a further 50km to Waitomo...despite being pretty knackered...where we ended up spending $44 per night at a Top 10 campsite...logical? Not really. Stubborn satisfaction? Most definitely!
We celebrated one year on the road in style, by doing an abseil, tubing and climbing trip through the magnificent gloworm caves. It was magical to float in the chilly waters while staring up at the starry sky created by thousands of worms! We were wearing protective wetsuits which we had been warned not to pee in. Hmmm, if you put me in a wetsuit in cold water then I can guarantee you that I will pee, almost instantly. I did 'hold on' as long as I could, but the inevitable, blissful release enabled me to continue to enjoy the experience in a my own little warm micro-environment! I did thoroughly rinse out the wetsuit at the end of the day for all you (prudes) shaking your heads at my cold-water-induced incontinence! In the evening, after a nice long hot shower, we enjoyed a mammoth plate of ribs and a couple of pints of good stuff from the local brewery. The perfect way to celebrate!
From Waitomo we headed across country to Taupo, where we camped at Reid's Farm (free campsite) for two nights. Our time there was spent relaxing, doing some admin and visiting Huka Falls. From Taupo we cycled to Rotorua. We stayed beside one of the many lakes to the south of the city and used it as a base from which to explore the area. We thoroughly enjoyed visiting Wai-O-Tapu geothermal reserve, where we saw bubbling mud pools, multi-hued waters and the Lady Knox geyser. We also stopped at Kerosene Creek where we lazed in the relaxing waters of the geothermally heated stream...a very unique experience!
The scenery in the North Island has been pleasant but certainly not as stunning as the South. With the undulating hills, endless dairy farms and familiar vegetation it has a very homely feel to it. If I were to summarise the difference, I would say that the South Island is nearly always stunning and only occasionally pleasant, whilst the North Island is nearly always pleasant and only occasionally stunning.
Love and hugs. X