Three weeks is nowhere near long enough to spend touring New Zealand. This was a concept that was abundantly clear to us, long before we picked up our van in Auckland for the 20-day tour of the North and South Islands. Our plans were certainly ambitious, as can be seen in the itinerary for the trip (here). After international transfers from Perth, we ended up with six days on the North Island, and nine days in the south, including four days of snowboarding in Queenstown.
Naturally, we will need to return at another time to catch the rest of the country – particularly the North Island, where we neglected anything above Auckland, the West coast and much more besides. Ultimately, in our six days from Auckland to Wellington, we briefly saw Auckland, Hobbiton, Tauranga and White Island, Waitomo Caves, Taupo, Mt Ruapehu and Wellington with a detour through Whanganui.
After our tepid dip into the subterranean, we decided to push right on down to Lake Taupo, where we stayed in a comfortable motel on the town’s outskirts. Waking reasonably early the next morning, we had decided to explore the district a little before pushing on. Initially we did not recognise much in the way of attractions aside from the lake itself. Initially the main attraction we found advertised was a particularly unique McDonalds restaurant. On this, I’ll let you in on a little secret – it is not unique, it just happens to have a plane attached to it. While using the wifi at this establishment however, we were able to confirm a few other inexpensive sights to see – inexpensive being key here after the high costs of most of our activities up to this stage.
First, we stopped at Huka Falls, which is a horizontal waterfall just a few kilometres from our accommodation. The 50-metre-long canyon is a tumult of roaring white water and the sound and movement is well worth a look. Many people elect to take a jet boat up to the mouth of the falls, but it was quite enough for us to cross the bridge and take a few photos from the banks and a nearby lookout. While you are there, be sure to say hi to the volunteers in the gift shop/information booth, who in true New Zealand style, were lovely.
While we were exploring we came across a few other worthy sights that cost nothing more than the time it took to drive down the road. We stopped at Wairakei Thermal Power Plant, where we took a driving tour through the site and onto a lookout that overlooked the impressive operation. The cost here, again, was free. Another few kilometres down the road, we found Aratiatia rapids which, at the time of our arrival were fairly inaccurately named. The calm trickle of the stream belied the torrent that would soon be let loose. Every couple of hours, the floodgates from the reservoir just downstream from Huka falls is opened and huge quantities of water crash down into the rugged river below. There are a few vantage points to watch the spectacle and it is well worth an hour or so of your time. All three of these impressive stops are closely linked to Taupo’s, and New Zealand’s dedication to renewable energy, and it’s a damn sight more interesting to visit that a coal plant!
AFTER THE DELUGE: The rapids become more appropriately names as the flood gates open.
After a stop at the lake to view the mountains to the south, we began our drive south. Initially, we were going to stop at Whakapapa ski area on Mt. Ruapehu for a half day on the slopes. Unfortunately, the weather – which is usually perfect for snowboarding by mid-July – was far too pleasant and mild to allow the snow to fall. This meant we stopped only briefly in Tongariro National Park, setting our heading south towards Whanganui. The national park would be a fantastic extended stop for anyone who enjoys hiking and exploring, as there are a number of epic-looking mountain trails to be enjoyed.
Instead of taking to our feet, we drove on and took a detour towards Whanganui the brought us through scenic mountainous river gorges. State Highway 4, while not as direct a route to Wellington, is one of the more enjoyably scenic drives we experienced in New Zealand, which is saying something because the country is as universally breathtaking as you may be lead to believe.
After a brief stop in Whanganui, we pushed on and arrived in Wellington early in the evening. The nation’s capital is an engaging city with a bustling night life and weather that would rapidly lead you to move somewhere warmer – but more on Wellywood, next time.