Aotearoa; The Long White Cloud

Its the furthest place away from home you can go before you start coming back again. In the blues of the pacific lie two small islands with a massive personality and a rich elaborate history. The two small land masses make up Aotearoa, which comes from the Mäori meaning, The Long White Cloud, or as we know it; New Zealand.

I’ll start out perfectly blunt; New Zealand is obscene. An absolutely ridiculous place. I have been here for almost two months now and I am yet to find somewhere which doesn’t look like something from a dream or a child’s fairy tale. In fact I’m almost at the point of believing that New Zealand is the very reason those fairy tales were written, they very definition of beautiful. It’s as if, had it been a human who created the world, had millions in the bank left over to play with and spent it all on making one small place look incredible, to the extent that it makes the rest of us look distinctly average. If you haven’t guessed, I’m fast running out of adjectives to sum up the beauty of this place, let alone photographs.

We arrived into Auckland from Denpasar via Singapore and Sydney and were immediately hit by the severe change in climate. Coming from Indonesia where it was 35 degrees everyday to a wintry New Zealand which had just experienced a huge snow storm was quite a shock! I’m good in the heat, in the cold, quite the opposite!

We were picked up by a couple friends we met while on the overland truck in Africa, Lee and Josie, fantastic to see them again. Lee took us on a quick evening tour of the city up to Mt Eden to get our first glimpse of the city. After that we planned on staying a few nights in the city at a hostel to get some sight seeing done. Auckland is situated on a narrow bit of land in the north island between the Manukau Harbour in the west and the Waitemata Harbour in the east, which opens up to the island studded Hauraki Gulf.

We spent our first couple of days just exploring the city, one of the best ways to see it was from the famous Sky Tower. The tallest building in the southern hemisphere dominates the Auckland skyline and offers 360 views all around the city, on a clear day you can see for miles. From the view at the top you can really see how much Auckland is surrounded by the water, no matter what angle you take of the city from the top of the tower, the ocean will fall into view which is where the city gets its nick name, The City of Sails from. During our first little glimpse of the city with Lee, he also pointed out the dozens of volcano’s which which litter the city. Now from the top of the Sky Tower during day time, not only could we see ocean everywhere we looked, but also volcano’s. It’s an amazing sight, there are so many dotted around the city, makes you wonder why it was an area settled in in the first place! Most if not all are now inactive and they now provide some great walks with more great views.

Just off the east coast of Auckland is the Hauraki Gulf where dozens of small islands are situated. One of the largest and most popular is the island of Waiheke. Just a short 30 minute boat trip from Downtown and we arrived upon the white sands of this paradise island. It’s always been a dream of mine to live on a small beautiful little island somewhere, however its always near impossible as there’s never any work on small paradise islands. Waiheke however may just be the answer to all my problems. The island is stunning, covered in rolling green hills and beautiful little coves, bays and beaches. Over every hill we walked and headland we came around, we were met with an even more spectacular view than the last. None more so than the beautiful Onetangi Beach. What’s even better, is a career in the city is easily achieved via the boats which regularly take the journey to the city everyday, my paradise island dream could almost be complete! It does feel like its missing one thing though; booze. Well its all well and good that the small island is covered in superb wineries! The fertile rich soil ensures some of the best wine in the country comes from the island. So that’s it, the island dream is possible, I’m sure I could find some surf in one of the bays too just to top it off!

Meeting up with Lee again later in the week, he took us on a little trip, out west to Waitakere, a huge bush covered area falling into a rugged coastline of black volcanic sand. From a view point high up in the bush we could see all across the coast and even the city skyline in the distance. The bush here was so dense, full of lush green trees, spreading to the blues of the ocean water. The soil here is so fertile that it takes a pine tree just 25 years to grow to the size of which a North American Pine takes 75 years!

Before we headed south, we decided to go north and explore the historic Northlands. The large bit of land north of Auckland, is ancient and very significant to the Mäori, we wanted to explore as much of it as we could in a week so the best way to do this was in a car. We rented a Spaceship. Our Spaceship, called Zodiac was a fantastic small orange camper van, known as the ‘Swiss army knife’ of campers it did not disappoint. It was complete with GPS, large fold-up double bed, a fridge/freezer, a small camping stove and even a small TV and DVD player, it was perfect, everything we needed for a week away exploring. As soon as we picked it up from the ‘Space Station’ in Auckland we began our journey across the Auckland Harbour Bridge to the Northlands. Our first day we passed through the small country towns of Warkworth and Wellsford, on the way stopping at a beautiful waterfall which seemed to appear out of no where. Our destination that night was to get to Waipu.We arrived just before Sunset into a small little camp site right on a beautiful beach. It being the winter and the off-season in those parts, the camp site was almost empty, a theme that soon became the norm the further we went. It got straight into the camping routine and were soon putting the bed together in the van with our eyes closed!

The next week we zoomed around the Northlands, taking in as much as we could. Constantly being stunned at the beautiful scenery which flowed around every bend we drove around. From Waipu, we drove to, Whangarei and up to the exquisite beach town of Paihia, which housed a beautiful long beach alongside the town. It was also great access to the historic town of Russel, via boat.

From Paihia we travelled north to the small township of Kerkieri the home of the Bay Islands. We spent a couple nights around the area and also took a boat trip out into the bay. The sub tropical bay is full of life and lush green islands. We were lucky enough to see dolphins feeding and even a penguin swimming along just near by. The boat stopped at one island giving us the chance to get over and go for a little walk. The views from the highest point on the island were fantastic, the mix of blue ocean and lush green grass was fantastic.

Leaving the Bay of Islands behind, we continued in the spaceship further north passing through various small townships and yet more amazing scenery. We eventually reached the very top of New Zealand, Cape Reinga. The headland, marked by a lighthouse is where two oceans collide together. The Tasman and the Pacifc meet here, in a wash of white water, quite an impressive site. Cape Reinga serves a far more significant meaning to the Mäori people. It’s said that the area is the place where spirits travel to after death. Spirits make their journey to the afterlife by leaping off the headland and climbing down the roots of 400 year old trees which trail straight into the ocean and into the underworld to return to the traditional homeland of Hawaiki. The name Reinga is the Mäori word for Underworld, another Mäori name for the place is ‘Te Rerenga Wairua’, meaning the leaping-off place of spirits.

We only had a few days left of our Spaceship, so started heading south, stopping on briefly at Ahipara to see the 90 mile beach and then down further stopping over night in the Waipoua Forest which was incredible. The huge dense forest has some of the largest Kauri Trees. Some of them are estimated to be around 2-3,000 years old. You could easily fit 10 people around the trunk of some of them, they were inspiring.

Before too long our journey with Zodiac was over and we were back at the Space Station in Auckland. It was a fantastic way to see the northlands, I would love to do the whole of New Zealand in a camper van, it was great fun and the ease at options it gave you were endless, something I would love to do again.

Spending that weekend with Lee and Josie again, we did a bit more sight seeing, including climbing Mt Rangitoto, a huge volcano which rests on one of the various islands surrounding the city. The next part of our trip in New Zealand would take us south for the first time. We boarded the famous Green Kiwi Experience bus which would be our transport all over the country and headed for our first destination of Hot Water Beach on the east coast. One of the great things about the Kiwi experience was apart from the final destination each day, there were many stops throughout the day for walks, and great places to see. On the way to Hot Water Beach we stopped at a great beach, famous for the Cathedral Cove, a huge cave like rock formation on the beach which was a great site. Hot Water Beach was a fantastic geo-thermal area, New Zealand is full of them! The small town is famous for the warm water which bubbles to the surface of certain spots of the beach. We all went down in the evening, dug a small hole in the sand and were then able to lie down in the warm water. It was just like a hot tub. Some spots were actually too hot, too hot to even dip your toe in! A perfect place to have a beer and watch the sunset.

Following Hot Water Beach we headed to Waitomo and spent a night in the small township. Waitomo is known for the Waitomo caves, a huge series of natural underground caves and tunnels, millions of years old. We took the change to go Black Water Rafting in the caves which was fantastic. The caves are full of long narrow underground rivers and waterfalls. We got dressed up in wetsuits and gum boots along with a helmet at lamp and followed our guide deep into the caves. Inside it was full of low hanging limestone and unbelievably cold water, I couldn’t feel my hands after! It was brilliant, flowing down underground through rushing water, jumping off high waterfalls into pitch black, falling awaiting the moment when you hit the ice cold water. At one point our guide, told us to all turn off our head lamps and told us to look up as we flowed down the caves. Above us were thousands of small glow worms attached to the caves. It was like flowing through space, filled with stars a magical experience.

From Waitomo we headed for Rotorua. This town stunk…literally. It’s one of the most geo-thermally active areas in New Zealand. Walking around town all you can smell is the strong smell of Sulphur, if a strong wind blows its even worse! Walking through the citys streets, many of the drains are constantly steaming and the bubbling steaming mud pools and geysers in parks are quite a sight. We spent a couple nights there, taking in the sights and smells, including a fantastic evening at aMäori cultural village with a great show and some of the best food I’ve had since I’ve been away!

After Rotoura, we moved on to Taupo, the famous township on the massive Lake Taupo and then town to River Valley eventually ending up in the capital city of Wellington. We spent a few days in the city, visiting various lookout points which gave a great perspective of the city, one of them even have a old fashioned cable car train to the top. Wellington is also home to the national Te Papa Museum, a fantastic museum on the history of New Zealand. After a few days relaxing in the city, we jumped back on the big green bus and headed to the ferry port to get the boat over to the south island. The 3 hour crossing over the Cook Strait was as expected brilliant and offered some incredible views across clear blue water.

Once arriving on the other side in Picton we drove to Kaiterieri, a picturesque small town on a beautiful beach full of golden sand right on the door step of the hostel. It being the middle winter the town was really quiet, with all the holiday homes boarded up for the cold season. Still the beach was stunning and the beautiful sunsets over the sea where amazing, it must be an amazing place to be over the summer months.

Leaving Kairerieri, we headed south, stopping through Westport and the following day arriving in Lake Mahinapua just in time for my Birthday which was a great day. Leaving Westport we headed along Highway 6 which stretches along Tasman shoreline stopping for a great walk at Cape Foulwind (I hope someone else also finds that funny!). The shoreline here was so dramatic and was further emphasised by the huge sets of crashing waves breaking on the feet of the cliffs. Once we got back to the bus, a brilliant Birthday cake was awaiting me which everyone shared, couldn’t have asked for a better place for a bit of birthday cake! We drove on further and stopped at the famous Punakaiki Pancake Rocks. These small rocks which had been shaped my millions of years of weathering looked like hundreds of piles of pancakes. Right next to them were some fantastic blow holes, where the waves again would hit the base of the cliffs and blow up through holes hundreds of feet into the air, a very spectacular sight.

In the evening we arrived at the ‘Poo Pub’, world famous of the Kiwi experience’s legendary parties which are held there. The pub is the only building on a sparse long stretch of road along the coast. It owned by Les, a heroic figure of man, standing at over 80 years old he has owned the pub for decades and has been the host to hundreds, if not thousands of Kiwi Experience fancy dress parties. It just so happened that my birthday fell on the same day, it was a fantastic night and a great way to celebrate another year passing.

From Mahinapua, it was onto a town I was very much looking forward to, Franz Josef. This tiny town is world famous for the natural phenomenon it rests beside. The Franz Josef Glacier is a massive fall of ice, unique in how it descends from the Southern Alps to less than 300 metres above sea level, between the lush green rain forest. The huge glacier is around 12km long, its so active that the glacier moves around 5 metres a day! Until recently you were able to do full and half day hikes on the glacier, starting at its base. However in recent months the glacier has become to unstable for these hikes to take place, something I was most disappointed about. However after our guide telling us the bad news, he told us some epic news! Instead of the standard hike from the bottom, we would now be picked up by helicopter and flown up, landing half way up the glacier and would then do a 3 hour hike before being flown back down again. This was a fantastic experience, I had been on helicopter’s a few times previously but never with such incredible views, you could see for miles, all the way to the Tasman sea. The hike itself was fantastic, with crampons attached our boots we climbed all over the ice and even going through various ice tunnels and small valleys cut into the ice. It was a great experience, the amazing white ice looked amazing in contrast to the beautiful blue sky. Something I will never forget.

We spent a few days in Franz Josef and also did a great kayak trip on a lake nearby to the glacier. The lake was absolutely dead still, there was no wind so the water was like a mirror (something which turned out to be quite normal in New Zealand!). It was an amazing experience, sometimes if was as if you were paddling through the sky. The stunning trees and snow caped mountains were reflected perfectly in the stillness of the water, the eerie silence of the place only added to the lakes magical beauty.

After a few days spent in the glacier town we were back on the bus and headed for Wanaka, a stunning little ski town on the banks of a beautiful lake. The drive there was as usual amazing, passing through Mt Aspiring national park we had great views of New Zealand’s highest peak, Mt Cook. We spent a few days in Wanaka doing various hikes around the town and lake before heading down to Queenstown.

One of New Zealand’s most famous towns, Queenstown is known as the adrenaline capital of the world. It’s a beautiful small alpine town on the banks of Lake Wakatipu, surrounded by the beautiful snowy mountains of the Remarkables. We spent over a week in Queenstown, taking in all the sights and doing heaps of great hikes up and down the hundreds of great mountains, surrounding the town. One mountain I climbed named Ben Lomand, had some amazing views from the top, over the whole town and lake. It was just me climbing it that time and I didn’t see another person for hours, only the snow stopped me from going up further and spending long on the mountain!

A day trip to the incredible Milford Sound, north west of Queenstown on the coast was incredible. As the crow flies the sound is only about an hour away, however with no pass through the mountains the journey there takes 4 hours each way, however its well worth the wait! The beautiful sound, created by a glacier is a world heritage site and is more like a Norwegian fjords as the steep slopes of the mountains come directly out of the water. We took a boat trip all along the 15km of the sound and out to sea. It really was an incredible sight, the mountains are reflected all over the sound, only broken by the wake of the boat and various waterfalls falling straight into the sea. I could have spent hours cruising around the sound!

Following Queenstown we moved on to our last stop in New Zealand, Christchurch. A once thriving beautiful city, Christchurch now lays ruin to one of New Zealand’s worst natural disasters. In 2010 a 7.1 earthquake causing wide spread damage to the city, luckily no fatalities. 6 months later however a second earthquake struck the city measuring 6.1, although it was lower on the scale than the previous quake, the intensity and violence of the ground shaking made the quake measure among the strongest ever recorded globally in an urban area. 185 lost their lives during the second quake which caused even more damage to the city, including destroying most of the famous Christchurch Cathedral.

Two years on, the city is still much in ruins. The CBD of the city is still completely cordoned off as a no-go red zone. Buildings all around the city still lay in ruins. There is a real eerie silence of absence which covers the city, it is really sad to see a once thriving metropolis, pulled to its knees through natural disaster. Its a serious eye opener to the damage an earthquake can cause and its sheer size. Driving around I saw damage from the quake 2 hours our of town. Entire sections of cliff had fallen, taking with them million dollar houses.

Since the quakes in 2012 there have been over 11,000 registered earthquakes, during our time there, there was over 15! Its an area on constant tectonic activity! The councils and governments are working hard however to rebuild the city, I will be back one day to see what it will be like in the future.

So our time in New Zealand was up! Probably the fastest 2 months of my life. I can’t believe how fast it has gone. We have done so much, no doubt there are things I have forgotten to write about! New Zealand has seriously knocked me for 6, one of the most beautiful and friendly places I have ever been, its feels very homely! I would love to come back one day, no doubt I will, maybe this time in summer!

A huge thank you to Kiwi Experience, especially the drivers, Ringo, Ponsy (hope the face is better!), Ben, Toddsy, Josh, Steve and Flea, you were all great. Thank you also to Lee and Josie, great to see you both out there and thanks for putting us up!

Next stop, on to Australia, our final stop on our itinerary, 6 months has gone so fast! Time to start the job hunt!

Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life.” – Jack Kerouac

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