Kia Ora! (Pronounced “Kee-orah”, a Maori greeting)
Note: This post was first published on my original travel blog, back in 2014.
What a whirlwind… 3 weeks in New Zealand! My friend Ally and I had been planning the trip for a year, as a post-graduation adventure. It was quite a tour, and we covered a lot of ground.
We flew from Des Moines to Denver, to LAX, and then to Auckland, the largest city in New Zealand and the start of our whirlwind tour. It was fun going through Denver and seeing all the Broncos fans before the Superbowl. Best part of the trip? The Air New Zealand safety video. Check it out, it’s hilarious! We also enjoyed New Zealand wine during the flight, as well as a wide variety of TV show and movie choices, including all of the LotR movies.
NZ Adventure #1: Hiking on a Volcano
In Auckland, Ally’s friend (who she met on exchange in Germany) picked us up from the airport. He drove 2 hours to Auckland just to show us around for the day, so we certainly owe him one! He drove us around the city (quite disconcerting at first, since they drive on the left), and then took us on a ferry to a volcanic island.
While hiking around Rangitoto Island, we learned about the geologic (volcanic) history of the area, and got some great views of Auckland from afar.
Our skin wan’t really used to summer (it was February back in Iowa), and even though it was overcast, we got a bit sunburnt. Apparently New Zealand has a hole over its ozone layer, so you can burn in as little as 7 minutes. Bring sunscreen!
After returning to Auckland, Kahn showed us a bit more of the city and then had to head home. He dropped us off at our hostel, and we explored the city a bit before falling into deep, jet-lagged sleep.
NZ Adventure #2: Parasailing
The next day, Ally and I boarded the Kiwi Experience bus. We met so many great people on the bus, some of whom we traveled with for almost the entire 3 weeks. Some were on a gap year between high school and college, and others were taking a vacation between jobs. We met a Canadian guy who was traveling literally around the world!
New Zealand is the self-proclaimed adventure capital of the world. So, of course we had to do something adventurous on our first day! We went parasailing in the Bay of Islands, which is north of Auckland. Unfortunately the weather wasn’t very good, but we still had great views.
While we were in the Bay of Islands, there was a celebration called Waitangi Day. On this day in 1840, a treaty was signed by Maori chiefs from the North Island and representatives of the British Crown. It’s considered the founding document of New Zealand, but there is a lot of controversy surrounding the agreement. Skeptics believe the document was purposefully mistranslated, and a lot of financial settlements have been made to attempt to remedy the situation. There were no 4th of July-esque fireworks, but they did have some festivities such as traditional Maori costumes, song, and dance, and a lot of food stands.
NZ Adventure #3: Hot Tub on a Beach
On our way South, we stopped at Cathedral Cove. Unfortunately it was (still) raining, but the cove was absolutely gorgeous. Ally also got really excited because they filmed parts of a Narnia movie here.
The bus continued on. We spent the night at Hot Water Beach, where you dig your own hot tub in the sand! The water is so hot that you have to dig a channel of cold water in from the ocean to cool it off. The holes are constantly collapsing, so you have to take turns making it deeper. Needless to say, it was great fun!
NZ Adventure #4: Float through a Glowworm Cave
I wish I had photos of the Waitomo Glowworm Caves, but there are none allowed. A guide walked us through some caverns to see the glowworms in the light, then we boarded a small boat. The guide controlled the boat by grabbing wires attached to the ceiling, while we looked up to admire the glowworms in all their glory. It looked just like a starry night sky. Magical!
NZ Adventure #5: Hobbiton and Maori Culture Night
Hobbiton is an absolute must-see in New Zealand! Even if you aren’t a fan of the Lord of the Rings movies, Hobbiton is set in an idyllic location, deep in the countryside. The office where you buy tickets is situated near the highway, and you hop aboard a bus for a short ride across the green, rolling hills.
Along the way your guide will describe how location scouts sent by Peter Jackson discovered the property during their search for a land similar to The Shire.
Bilbo’s house! We might have geeked out a little bit…
I had to duck to get into the hobbit house above. Many of the houses are just fronts, but there are a few you can actually walk into.
The tour includes a drink at the Green Dragon, the local pub from the movies. All in all, quite a fun tour, although it was quite pricey (about $75 in 2014).
That evening we went to a recreated Maori village, to see demonstrations about their culture and eat a traditional Maori meal.
Their greeting ceremony is unlike anything I’ve seen before. The Maori men challenge the visitors, and look intimidating by widening their eyes and sticking out their tongues. You can view the ceremony here. We see it as being quite comical, but we were told not to laugh and smile, as that is seen as a grave insult. I suppose if we had met them alone in a dense forest, it wouldn’t have been quite as funny.
Once a few representatives of our tribe passed the test, we got to see weaving, carving, and warrior-training demonstrations. The Maori have their children play games to teach them agility as soon as they can walk, so I’m sure it was funny for them to see us attempting the same tasks as adults and failing miserably.
The Maori cook their meals in a large pit, dug into the ground and steamed for hours. We ate in a large, communal dining hall, feasting on lamb, mussels, and kumara, a type of sweet potato. It was delicious. I would definitely recommend this simply to get a glimpse into Maori native culture, which we wouldn’t have learned much about otherwise.
NZ Adventure #6: Bubbling Pools of Mud and Brilliant Blue Waterfalls
The North Island is full of volcanic activity, some of which you can see from the surface. It’s quite odd to see a lake of bubbling mud (it’s aliiiiiiive!), and it smells VERY sulphurous. We visited Rotorua, a city known for its for hot mud pools, and I couldn’t quite get used to the smell of rotten eggs.
After Rotorua, we stopped at Huka Falls. This is supposedly the most-visited natural attraction in New Zealand. Not sure I believe that, but it was beautiful and very powerful. Wouldn’t want to go jumping off that one!
NZ Adventure #7: Hiking & Waterfalls in Tongariro National Park
What a fantastic place…
We were able to stay at a hostel in the park instead of the scheduled stop on our bus tour, simply because we had too many people and the group had to split up. So glad we did! I really wanted to do the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, one of the Great Walks of New Zealand, but the weather was pretty bad and the hike can be dangerous if there are high winds. I’ll be back to conquer it someday soon.
The rain broke just long enough for us to go on a short day hike to Taranaki Falls.
Tongariro is also the location of Mordor and Mt. Doom! We couldn’t really see the volcanic peaks because of the clouds, but I can see why they chose this wild landscape for the movies.
Kiwi Crossing! And… no Scottie dogs?
I figured I’d compete with the boys and jump from a 40 foot waterfall… It was FREEZING!
Adventure #8: Exploring NZ’s Capitol City
Wellington, New Zealand’s capitol city, was our last stop on the North Island. It was a fun city, full of art and great vistas.
What an interesting quote…
Wellington is also the home of the Te Papa Museum, which is free! It was a great way to spend a few hours, immersing ourselves in the history of New Zealand. I found it interesting to note similarities between the Maori and Native Americans, and to learn more about the legendary kiwi birds.
After exploring Wellington for a day, we hopped on a ferry.
Coming soon – Adventures on the South Island!
Note: A word of advice – If you’re visiting New Zealand, be sure you pack good rain gear. We encountered chilly temps and quite a bit of rain during our time on the North Island!