Hoki mai, welcome back!
The second half of our journey down New Zealand’s North Island involved huge volcanoes, beautiful scenic roads, some colourful locals, Windy Welly and then a country-wide lockdown. Certainly not how we intended the latter half of our trip to unfold but sometimes life works in mysterious ways, right?
Tongariro National Park
I’m not sure I have ever seen nature so beautiful or powerful as we did in Tongariro. We had had glimpses of the three volcanoes while jumping out of a plane at Lake Taupo but I can confirm they are just as magnificent up close and personal. New Zealand has twelve active volcanoes but the most famous three are found clustered in close proximity to one another; the mighty Ruapehu, the long Mount Tongariro and the familiar Ngauruhoe, a conical beauty which featured as Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings film trilogy.
They dominate the landscape and are fantastic to see; no better place than Whakapapa Village Holiday Park which sits in the shadow of the huge Ruapehu, where warning information signs on potential eruptions are all part of the fun! We stayed here for four nights and highly recommend a wander over to the Whakapapa Vistor Centre- a museum meets shop which gives the important information on what to expect when tramping in the wonderous, volcanic landscape all around you. It also has essential, really handy guidance if you fancy taking on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing- the most famous hike in the area.
I would 100% recommend doing the walk to see Ngauruhoe and channel your best Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee but this is by no means a stroll in the park.
The 19.4km trek is really bloody hard; relentless uphill, scree slopes, and a very long descent after you’ve seen the main views which for me was definitely the most challenging.
It is so worth it though as you walk up the side of the amazing Red crater, see the sunrise over the perfect volcano, take in the most emerald and blue lakes at the top of a mountain and just be in awe at the wonder of this national park.
You need to be at a good level of fitness to manage the seven- nine hour walk, you should get there early (we got a pre-dawn bus from the campsite where you register your details so they know who is on the trail and can pick you up at the other end afterwards) and prepare with ample layers, sunscreen, food and water because this is one serious tramp.
It was the hardest walk I’ve ever done and have the blisters (and the t-shirt!) to prove it. One hell of an experience and if you are able, you must do it.
If climbing along the slopes of Mordor isn’t enough Lord of the Rings action for you, Tongariro has even more up its sleeve. We, of course, pulled out all the Gollum impressions in the shadow of Mount Doom but there are plenty of other filming spots around the place.
We walked around the quiet Whakapapa ski field (a busy resort when the snow falls) which doubled as the site of Sauron having his finger chopped off and losing the One Ring (careless) and the spot of Gollum’s famous entrance climbing down a wall over some sleeping hobbits. It took us a lot longer than I care to admit until we were satisfied we had the exact spot but I think the photos prove it was 100% worth it.
There’s also Huawei Falls (a five minute drive down the road from Whakapapa) which is a beautiful waterfall and pool that features in The Two Towers. I can see why Gollum wanted to have a swim in there and naturally, we had a full photoshoot to recreate the scene.
We used a really helpful Department of Conservation guide to find our favourite filming spots so if you’re a Rings fan, you can’t go far wrong with this guide that gives GPS and Google map locations.
Whanganui and Castlecliff
We were sad to leave Tongariro but as we left the sights of Mordor behind us, we began our winding drive down towards Wellington, taking in a few extra stops along the way.
We spent one night on the banks of the Whanganui river. The river itself is officially acknowledged as a living person because of its Maori cultural significance which is pretty awesome. The town itself was fine but we preferred the little coastal spot of Castlecliff which was a 15 minute drive out towards the sea. We had an amazing lunch at The Citadel (as well as a delish iced coffee), I found a whale-themed mural wall and there was a really nice driftwood beach where NK found a Gandalf-esque staff. We liked the artist, community focused vibe of the place and it is well worth a wander around at lunchtime.
After Whanganui, we drove through a lot of farmer’s fields filled with ‘Anguses’ (cows) and sheep (home away from home) until suddenly the animals became grapes and we knew we had made it to wine country.
Needless to say, we sampled a good deal of New Zealand wine in Martinborough. We stayed at the local Top 10 campsite , a 10 minute walk from the centre of the town, which happened to be styled in the shape of a Union Jack. We had an excellent BLT at Medici Café and there looked to be some other equally nice cafes and bars around the place but we arrived just at the end of the summer season so I suspect the town would have a bigger buzz in November and January.
The only way to do wine country properly is on two wheels and attempt to take in as many vineyards cellar doors as you can; that’s right folks, cycling on a bike through country lanes and sampling as many tasters of delicious wine you can manage until you can’t cycle straight. We done good and can confirm we were definitely more wobbly on the bike by the end of the day. Again, I think in the height of summer it would have been a different vibe but we didn’t mind the quieter, more peaceful meander around the vineyards of Martinborough.
About an hour and a half out of Martinborough along the most beautiful coastal road, you will arrive at the Putangirua Pinnacles; a beautiful but eerie set of rock formations that doubled as the Paths of the Dead in The Lord of the Rings.
You can see why Peter Jackson and the gang decided on this spot for an encounter with a long-dead ghoulish army of lads.
Again, we went early in the morning and were the only ones there. Its about an hour walk up the dry river bed and before you know it, the birds stop singing and you’re in the middle of jagged, white stoned pinnacles which are as fragile as they appear. An amazing, unique landscape which is so worth the wander off the beaten track.
Further around the same amazing coastal road, you reach Cape Palliser. You come to see the pretty lighthouse but you stay for the amazing fur seal colony.
They were as cute and amusing as you imagine; we were around in late summer so just in time to see some pups playing in the shore and generally messing about. Seals are like puppies with flippers and we could have stayed for hours to watch them.
They are also now my spirit animal; lots of sleeping and lazing in the sunshine with bellies proudly in the air- yassss!
Our final stop on the north island was a few nights in the capital city, Wellington. We wound our way down from Martinborough in the Wairarapa region and called in Rivendell for a walk on the way. You really have to use your imagination to see how they adapted this spot in Kaitoke Regional Park into the ethereal land of Tolkien’s elves but there was a cool loop around the forest track which had huge, ancient trees and a fabulous swing bridge.
We topped off our Rings themed morning with a visit to Weta Cave, the studios responsible for the animation and creation of weapons, props, creatures and costume in Middle Earth, as well as numerous other films like District 9 and King Kong. While we didn’t do the tour of the studio (a behind the scenes look at the world of Weta Workshop) we did spend a long time in the shop, crammed full with a lot of cool LOTR props and weapons on display. You can also have a face off with three huge mountain trolls. We were in our absolute element. If you are a LOTR fan, it is definitely a must-see.
Heck you could even buy one of the authentically recreated pieces from the film itself. The Witch King of Angmar’s sword for a mere $29,000 anyone?
Another must do in Wellington is a visit to Te Papa, the city’s wonderfully interactive museum with a vast array of displays on New Zealand’s natural and human history. You can learn all about kiwis, moas (now extinct three metre tall flightless birds that once roamed the forests) and the huge Haast eagles (who used to hunt the moa) and the museum has the best preserved giant squid in the world- a huge juvenile female who you definitely wouldn’t want to meet in the sea.
The museum had really interesting displays on Maori history too and a rather spectacular waka (watercraft/canoe) which would have held 150 warriors. It was a fab museum and I’m so pleased we managed to get in just in time; Te Papa closed later that same day due to Covid-19 so feel fortunate we got to enjoy a morning there.
Wellington was rather picturesque with a huge harbour (sadly no wildlife spotted although somewhat typically orcas were in the area last week) and lots of cool bars and eateries, particularly down by the water’s edge.
Highly recommend a walk up Mount Victoria too for a wonderful panoramic view of the city and another chance to channel your inner hobbit and pretend you’re running from Ringwraiths (naturally, we jumped at the chance!)
A visit to Wellington wouldn’t be complete without a trip to Zealandia– the city’s own eco-reserve, a la Jurassic Park, but with a vast menagerie of the country’s wonderful, rare animal life rather than dinos. We were really lucky on our visit seeing tui, kaka, fantails, tuatara, weta and many more who call the reserve their home. The nearly 9km long fenced reserve protects the native birds and critters from imported predators like stoats, possums and feral cats who cause such damage to the NZ ecosystem.
We bid farewell to our buddies and left windy Wellington behind us as we travelled to the South Island to try and do as much as we could before being prematurely stopped by a country wide lockdown.
The ferry ride was breath-taking and the glimpses we have had of the much less populated, mountainous South Island has definitely got us itching to get back here and do it properly once it is safe to do so.
We made it as far as Kaikoura before the lockdown was announced which for me was bittersweet. Kaikoura is the best place in New Zealand to see whales and the day before our scheduled trip out on the water, everything was cancelled in preparation for the Stage 4 lockdown. It certainly wasn’t the ideal scenario and yep, I properly ugly cried about it but it has made me more determined to come back and try again. Kaikoura itself was really beautiful in its own right; clear seas, huge mountains, beautiful sunsets and a lot more seals so we will be back. We did see some Hector’s dolphins from the shore on our drive down Haast highway however, so at least I can say I was one cetacean on this trip!
We had an spectacular first three and a bit weeks and while this certainly wasn’t how we envisioned our New Zealand trip unfolding, I’m feeling very grateful for the amazing experiences we have had and that we are able to self-isolate somewhere as beautiful as Queenstown- another stop on our list when we come back and do South Island properly.
We are still not sure in this world of cancelled flights and global pandemics what the coming days will have in store or how long it will be until we get home but for right now, looking back at these snaps has brought a little bit of joy. I hope wherever you’re reading this, you and yours are safe and well.
Kia ora, New Zealand and this definitely isn’t goodbye, it’s a see you again soon. xx