Road trip New Zealand

This story happened on: 17/01/2023

Eager as two excited children on Christmas Eve, we flew to Auckland in mid-January for our top-of-the-bucket-list adventure in the southern hemisphere’s summer sunshine. The six-week trip was in three parts: the first a road trip around the North Island of New Zealand, the second a cruise starting in Auckland, around NZ and ending in Sydney and the final part, a round-trip cruise to the South Pacific Islands. We decided to follow our previous ethos when using our RV in the USA: travel at a gentle pace and enjoy ourselves while absorbing our new surroundings.

There are just so many “must see” places in the land of the Kiwis, it was a virtually impossible task to plan our route. Naturally we looked into motorhome/campervan hire but instead opted for a road trip using a rental car and hotels. With so much to see and only 11 nights, we decided to stay on the North Island for the road trip - the cruise around New Zealand would give us opportunities to see some of the South Island. When choosing where to go, the criteria was to pick things we’d ever seen before: thermal wonders, glow worm caves … and Hobbiton!   videos and photos

Having booked our hire car well in advance for an incredibly good price for the fixed dates, we then found we got cheaper flights arriving on the day before the rental started ... No problem - we just stayed the night in a local airport hotel and collected the car the next day at midday. We knew from frequent flights to the West Coast of the USA (to get our RV from storage) the importance of a good night’s rest after long flights before driving. Unfortunately collecting the car turned into a saga as they had sent us a text message whilst we were flying to check in for the car. As we had not replied – obviously - they assumed we were not turning up! In the end we ended up with a better car after a … um … discussion. So, whilst this was good, we did miss one night at a perfect location we had spotted - Absolute Serenity Waterfront near Graham’s Beach. Accommodation here was simply superb. Only one night instead of the expected two, we made the most of it and enjoyed looking out over the peaceful water from bed as well as from the lounge. Absolute bliss after the car hire saga.

The next day we moved on to Matamata.  Enroute, we stopped at Huntley for lunch and went on the scenic Lake Hakanoa walkway when the sun did its best to shrivel us up. Well, we had come for some sun! Just before our night stop, we went to a view point high above the valley (Lower Kaimai, Takaurunga) which was spectacular. We were particularly taken with the fascinating tree ferns. Our night stop was at Kaimai Sunset. We had a nice, spacious room overlooking the garden - and to top it off, they had a hot tub we could use. Just to remind us why we were in this area they also had a Hobbit House in a garden bank!

The next day we had tickets for the Hobbiton Movie Set. Alan was a little apprehensive, thinking he would be bored the entire time – but it was amazing from start to finish! Very slick, professional and highly entertaining – even if you’re not a hobbit fan, this will grab you. Apart from all the amazing Hobbit homes, one thing is for sure: when at Hobbiton: visit the Green Dragon for a jug of hazy beer. We found out later in NZ that ‘hazy’ is a type of beer (read: cloudy) and available in many brands! The guides were excellent pointing out the incredible details and stories behind the films. Altogether a fabulous day out.

That night we went to The Abseil Inn at Waitimo Caves Village – a quirky hotel run by a husband and wife team. They warn you the entrance drive is very steep … we didn’t think this would be a problem for our Ford Ecosport automatic but we nearly did not make it! Our first lesson was to put it in sports mode (manual gear selection) and hit the drive at speed in a low gear. No problem then! Just cross your fingers tightly as you can’t see if anyone is coming down round the blind bend …

We stayed 2 nights at the Abseil Inn. We had the Swamp Room which had an unusual bathroom: a huge bath for two – complete with candles and foam bath. Absolutely perfect for after a hard day enjoying ourselves.

We seemed to be arriving absolutely shattered at each stop-over. Although we got our body clocks immediately into the right time to wake up, our limbs were still set in another time – we found it quite a struggle to get going each day. We had planned to go black water rafting in the glow worm caves but unfortunately Alan had a chest infection so we had to cancel - sitting and swimming in very cold water for a few hours would not have done him much good! This is, however, an excellent excursion so if you are ever there - go for it. The caves are very impressive and took 2 hours of walking. The trip finished with a short ride on the lake, looking at the iridescent blue lights of the glow worms hanging above us. The dark silence with just the lap of water on the boat made the whole thing seem very spiritual.

After two nights we moved on to Taupo (toe – paw). On the way we went via a thermal attraction called Orakei Korako. A magnificent silica terrace and many other geothermal features. Absolutely fascinating – but hard work as the walkways were a series of steps both up and down … for safety you must never stand anywhere but on the walkway!

We then travelled down to Lake Taupo and stayed at Ika Nui on the waterfront – a horseshoe shape of apartments opposite the water. When we awoke, we went on an electric sailing yacht cruise … they had removed the engine and fitted an electric motor using lead acid batteries. NOT lithium - an unusual feature. Incredibly, they had just changed the batteries after 8 years – just to be on the safe side. We were taken to see old Māori carvings on a rock face – but some were recent, created by artists under Māori supervision. There was even time for a swim in the crystal-clear waters.

Lake Taupo – the biggest body of water in Australasia. Its creation was one of the most spectacularly violent natural events in history. The gigantic Oruanui Eruption, 27,000 years ago shot volcanic debris into the air covering the North Island in a thick layer of volcanic ash. The created caldera is now Lake Taupo.

Next, on our way to Rotorua, we stopped at the Huka Falls.  This is where Peter Jackson filmed the dwarves going down the white-water river when escaping the Elves in The Hobbit. We went to the dam further down river and watched the water being released at noon. Watching it turn from a small stream into a thundering torrent was very impressive.

We spent the next two nights at Wai Ora Lakeside Spa Resort in Rotorua. Just outside the gate there was a sandy beach and a lovely view. Even though Rotorua is desperately touristy and smelly (the volcanic sulphur smell was everywhere), we went for two main reasons –

Kiwi Hatchery:   No photos are allowed in the Kiwi Hatchery to protect the chicks’ eyes. Only 5% of these flightless birds survive in the wild when hatched due to imported predators eg stoats from the UK, possum, rats – even hedgehogs. (They may be UK’s favourite mammal, but they are despised by the New Zealanders.) They wait till the kiwis are a certain weight before releasing them into the wild: over 65% survive. Our favourite bit of the tour was the last section:  there was a dark enclosure where the Kiwis could move about in their ‘natural habitat’. Once the main bulk of the tour had moved on with the noisy kids, we waited quietly until the kiwis came out for our own private viewing session. Very emotional watching these endangered birds foraging amongst the “forest floor”.

Hells Gate Geothermal Park: This was interesting to see – very different from Orakei Korako as it had different features – including lots of bubbling mud. It was a shame however that Bernard Shaw, who had visited here, named a lot of the thermal activities. Why not the Māori? The highest mud eruption in the world is here and is supposed to be a whole 3m high but looked less when we were there!

In the evening we partook in the Mitai Mauri show - a brilliant 3 hour’s entertainment by very enthusiastic Māori. It started off in a room laid out ready for our dinner later and an introduction. After everyone had arrived, we were taken down to the ‘garden’ where their sacred spring bubbled away beautifully. Then we heard rhythmic drumming and a Māori war canoe appeared with war songs being sung and co-ordinated oar showmanship. Banging the oars created scintillating rhythms. Afterwards we went to the show with fabulous singing and dancing. Of course the terrifying haka was performed …

The hangi (dinner cooked in thermal holes in the ground) was amazing. What an evening – this is again a must visit in the North Island.

The following morning, we left Rotorua to head for Waihi Beach. First, however, we visited the Redwoods Forest as we were booked on the Redwoods Altitude Tree Walk.

We walked through the forest to the swinging staircase - 25m high. Luckily, we had a great set of guides to, quite literally, show us the ropes! One in front and 2 behind – and there were only 5 of us to guide.

If you want to finish yourself off on a trip when getting older and with arthritic knees, this is the experience for you: 20 different rope bridges, 3 zip lines and oh, don’t forget, jumping off at the end! Not a bungee but a sort of short free fall and then on a friction crane … before falling flat on your backside in the pile of bark! So dignified … but we thoroughly enjoyed it. Did I mention Colleen is scared of heights …?

Our last but one night of the road trip was a lovely B & B at Waihi Beach. It was meant to have gorgeous views of the ocean, but we have never seen so much rain in our lives – visibility was non-existent! So much for summer in the Southern Hemisphere. All we could make out was the garden. We risked getting drenched to nip out in the car for some fish and chips (we were hungry and had nothing to eat!). Pity, it seemed a good spot to stay.

The following morning, we headed back to Auckland to drop the car off at the airport … this was when we discovered that it was a cyclone causing the rain. The airport was closed due to flooding! We managed to drop the hire car off at a hotel, but our SuperShuttle to the Ponsonby Manor Guest house never arrived, so we took a taxi. Luckily the hotel was in a row of shops and restaurants so we were able to have a tasty dinner at the Mekong Baby just opposite. We heard later that a State of Emergency had been declared … so we were very lucky to keep up with our proposed schedule.

Many of the places we visited are on the list of the Caravan Club itinerary, should you go on one of their trips. While we were there, we naturally had to check out camping! New Zealand has what they call Freedom Camps which are free and the one we visited was in a great spot and clean. You need to do your research on online before you leave home.

Please do look at our videos and pictures which can be seen online

More of our story with photographs can be seen on those web pages

Next: the story will continue with our cruises around New Zealand and the South Sea Islands.

We wish safe travels to all who go. Enjoy that adventure of a lifetime – you are never too old … just exhausted afterwards!

vbfg commented on 29/10/2023 10:05

Commented on 29/10/2023 10:05

It sounds absolutely wonderful and your "story" may be very helpful to some of the members who are thinking of visiting New Zealand.  It is always somewhere where I have wanted to visit, but I am a single traveller and as usually happens, single travellers end up having to pay quite a lot more for the "privilege" of being on their own.  I never say never though!

Grandad Golfer commented on 24/11/2023 09:43

Commented on 24/11/2023 09:43

You obviously enjoyed your trip as much as we did! We went in 2018 on the 5 week tour with the Caravan and Motorhome Club. Our guides, David and Jenny were amazing. We were very much able to "do our own thing" with their advice and support, but always knew they were there for us if needed. The sites are booked for us in advance, but were able to deviate  from the itinerary when we wanted to. If anyone is worried that these organised trips are just a procession of campervans, you shouldn't be. We weren't brave enough to organise the trip ourselves, so this gave us the best of both worlds - our best holiday ever.

Woman sitting in camping chair by Wastwater in the Lake District with her two dogs and picnic blanket

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Photo of Wast Water, Lake District by Sue Peace
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