Epic NZ Road Trip – Part 2

I have previously lamented that New Zealand has rather draconian laws regarding freedom camping. One can receive hefty instant fines of $200 for camping in an undesignated area. And I have yet to see an area that is designated.

Having said that, though not strictly freedom camping, there are a some spots that are not only free but also provide toilets and waste disposal facilities for campers. There are some 250 such sites around New Zealand, and cahoots to whoever was responsible for the creation of them, I say.

Reid’s Farm

Reid’s Farm on Huka Falls Road, just outside Taupo, is one such place. I won’t dispute Reid’s ownership, but a farm it is not. It’s a picturesque reserve near the pretty Waikito River where you can park your van and pitch your tent without charge. There’s an arbitrary rule that you can’t stay more than seven days inside any consecutive fourteen day period, and the obligatory one prohibiting alcohol, but we stayed five days in total and saw no sign of anyone attempting to enforce either of these.

Reid's FarmThe picturesque Waikito River as seen from Reid’s Farm

There are toilets at Reid’s Farm, but no fresh supply of water. It is not recommended to drink the river water without boiling it first, though I had several drinks without suffering any adverse effects.

Waikito River actually flows out of Lake Taupo rather than in, so heading upstream is to move closer to Lake Taupo and the town. The river is pretty deep with a strong current. As a result, it takes considerable effort to paddle upstream to the Thermal Spa Park on one of the lilos that maintain a perpetual presence on the river bank. I have no idea who these inflatables belong to but they appear to be there for common usage. Alternatively, you can walk the rudimentary path on the far side of the river. Or just be lazy and drive.

Taupo

I visited Taupo about four years ago – I liked it then and I like it now. With a population of around 23,000, it’s large enough to have plenty going on. There’s a few backpackers’ hostels and plenty of bars. Kiwi Experience goes through there regularly so there’s always new arrivals. And sometimes just as importantly, new departures – you can’t get along with everyone.

Taupo Thermal Spa ParkTaupo Thermal Spa Park

Due to Taupo’s geographical proximity to Lake Taupo, Waikito River and the hot springs, there is plenty to do. Best of all, given my and most other backpackers’ penurious state, most of it is free. (‘Penurious’ is a big word, I know, like ‘marmalade’. I learned it in Bergen, Norway. A bus passed by and on the side it read: I used to be poor but then I bought a Thesaurus, now I’m penurious. I never found out the purpose of the joke, but it stuck with me and my vocabulary is richer as a result -ironically).

One thing that does cost a bit but by all accounts is worth every cent is skydiving over Lake Taupo. Jono and I didn’t have the funds but Nick was keen to do it so we tagged along to watch. According to Jono, who knows a bit about these things having been recently accepted into skydiving school, it is best to wait for a cloudless day without too much wind for the best experience. One of the great things about jumping over Lake Taupo is the fantastic view, so it makes sense to go on a clear day. Taupo Skydive Centre take bookings on the morning of the skydive, so Jono advises to wait until a nice day and book that morning. Makes perfect sense to me.

Skydiving in TaupoTandem masters swoop in to land which gives your mate an opportunity to take a picture of your landing. Make sure to tell him the colour of your canopy though… It transpired that this is not Nick.

Taupo also plays host to various sporting events throughout the year, the annual Iron Man being one of which we were lucky enough to witness. Jono, Nick and I got ourselves what we considered a good position at a bar on the lake front. In retrospect, we were only able to see the cycling section of the race from our location so perhaps we could have done better. Nevertheless, we spent a very enjoyable afternoon sipping beer and watching these insanely fit human machines whiz past on their highly sophisticated apparatus. We applauded every one at first, but it soon became exhausting so we stopped.

The Iron Man is a misnomer, by the way, there were women competitors too.

Rotorua

Rotorua is only an hour or so from Taupo and the guys wanted to get tattoos there so we made a couple of trips. Elton Buchanan of Globus Tattoos has a parlour in Rotorua and according to Jono is one of the best in New Zealand. If you want a permanent souvenir of your trip, you can check his work out here. Nick chose a Maori rib piece, various parts of the design containing distinct meanings, a common theme in Maori art. Jono got a crocus on his chest and the word ‘exhale’ on his wrist. We joked that Nick should have ‘inhale’ inscribed on him due to his enthusiasm for a certain herb…

kuirau parkKuirau Park in central Rotorua

Like Taupo, I had been to Rotorua before. For some reason I remember it smelling much worse than it did this time around. Rotorua is built on geothermally active land, where geysers,  hot springs and bubbling mud pools constantly emit sulphur. It smells like rotten eggs, though you get used to it after a few hours. The locals don’t notice the smell at all, apparently.

Anyway, the smell wasn’t so bad and the geothermal areas are pretty fascinating. In bygone days the townsfolk used to bathe, often naked, in the springs. At Kuirau Park, there are black and white images depicting flamboyantly moustachioed men and demure looking women up to their chests in steaming water. Whether they suffered any ill effects from this past-time is not stated, but nowadays there are wooden fences in place and signs warning not to get too close.

Rotorua Sky CentreGondolas at the Skyline Centre, Rotorua

If you are in Rotorua, be sure to check out the Skyline Centre. There you can do all sorts of activities regarding most of which you might be wise to consult your travel insurance policy. There’s a challenging mountain bike path as well as a dirt track with scary looking ramps and jumps. There’s also a zip line, a ‘sky swing’ and luges (no, never heard of them either). Gondolas take you up Mount Ngongotaha and the view over the geothermal lake is pretty amazing.

Rotorua Skyline CentreThere are three tracks at Rotorua’s Skyline Centre, varying in speed and difficulty

The luges are small, plastic go-carts that rely solely on gravity for speed, so it’s important to use the brake sparingly to go as fast as possible. Jono was quickest, though I’m pretty sure his extra weight was an advantage. We had five turns each, all of us actually making air on the fastest track. I reckon we weren’t going much faster than 30 mph, but being so close to the ground with minimal protection made it feel much quicker. There’s three tracks with varying degrees of speed and difficulty, so it’s suitable for young and old alike. We had loads of fun and came away unscathed.

Waiteti Trout Stream Holiday Park

While camping at Reid’s Farm we met Scoot, a short, middle-aged Aussie with a red face and deep crow’s feet at the corner of his merry little eyes. He was over for the Cricket World Cup with his sons. Scoot was a hoot. He loved to drink and he loved to talk. We spent a couple of pleasant evenings being regaled by his tall stories. It was Scoot that recommended us to Waiteti Trout Stream Holiday Park on Lake Rotorua. He said he never caught any trout there but that it was a nice spot and pretty cheap. We decided to check it out.

Scoot was right. To pitch a tent and park the van was a modest $20 a night. The kitchen and games room were pretty good too. Fly fishing lessons from a local expert were available, though we gave this a miss, opting instead to rent a couple of small rods with lures attached.

Since we didn’t have a fishing license, we had no choice but to fish the river inside the camp grounds rather than the lake itself. But no matter, they weren’t biting anyway. We could clearly see a group of trout in the river, but they treated our lures with cold indifference and even turned their noses up at Nick’s experimental lump of peanut butter.

Lake RotoruaLake Rotorua at the mouth of Waiteti Trout Stream

I ventured down to the mouth of the river a couple of times to watch the professionals. They all made it look so easy, knee-deep swishing their flies back and forth across the water. They had a lot more luck than we did but I suppose that was to be expected. Later I overheard a discussion in our communal kitchen in which one of the fishermen claimed 90% of the trout are caught by just 10% of anglers.

We’ll never belong to that exclusive club, I fear.

Mount Maunganui

We chose Mt Maunganui as our final destination before heading back to Auckland and normality. I’m pretty sure the original plan was to stay for only a couple of nights in the backpackers there, but Nick met a pretty German girl whom he was loathe to leave, so we ended up staying for a full week.

Mt Maunganui is the name of both the town itself and a large hill which punctuates the sandy peninsula at its far end. This is a bit confusing, but one wouldn’t be much without the other so I think it’s quite apt. The term ‘mount’ in New Zealand should not be taken too literally, denoting hills and mountains alike. Mt Maunganui is a mere 232 metres (760ft) tall.

Mount MaunganuiThe view of Mt Maunganui (town) from Mt Maunganui (hill)

Perhaps New Zealand’s most famous surf city, the Mount’s beach serves up some impressive swells.The excellent surf actually owes more to the 100 metre man-made surf reef built off-shore than to nature’s providence. Everyone surfs: apparently they even teach surfing in High School.

The tail-end of Cyclone Pam was expected to hit us some time during the week. The weather turned inclement and shop owners positioned sand bags against their doorways to keep rainwater out. We were all a little excited to see the storm. I was in college in Florida when Hurricane Katrina came through in 2005. As is customary in US colleges, we had a hurricane party, which in retrospect seems a little crass given the devastation, loss of life and suffering that storm caused.

I stayed up all night waiting for Pam to hit, but aside from heavy rain and moderate wind, nothing happened. But the next day the beach was closed due to heavy swells. A crowd gathered on the rocky outcrop to watch the huge waves crashing in, and every so often spray would make it over the cliff and soak those huddled at the edge. When this happened there was a chorus of ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ mingled with squeals, and peals of laughter. OK, so it wasn’t quite as spectacular as a cyclone might have been,  but still, it was a nice consolation.

Hobbiton

On the way home we passed by Hobbiton where scenes of The Shire were filmed for the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies. Nick wanted to get souvenirs for his sisters, who are fans.

I walked around the souvenir shop in awe at the prices they were asking for what some might see as replicated tat (me). I guess if you’re a fan, you’re a fan, but $35NZ for a poster featuring a Middle Earth map? I’m not sure I would pay that for the one they used in the movie (did they use one in the movie?) Actually I would, but only for resale value.

Hobbiton - The shireThis is as close as you can get to the famous Shire of Lord of the Rings, without taking the tour

Personally, I thought the original Lord of the Rings trilogy was great. The Hobbit series, not so much. Nevertheless, I had considered taking the tour before seeing the prices in the gift shop, quickly deciding the tour was likely as big a rip-off as the merchandise.

Of course if you are a huge fan and you’re in the vicinity you don’t really have much choice, do you? You can book the tour here.

Auckland

The drive back to Auckland was largely uneventful apart from Nick’s usual monologue of surreal commentary on everything and anything he saw out the window. Jono interjected occasionally, but for the most part throughout the trip it was a one man show. Nick’s comedy is a bit like Family Guy’s Peter Griffin. On acid. It’s bizarre and a little messed up, but very funny. I lay horizontal in the back as usual, chuckling occasionally but mostly shaking my head in confusion.

We arrived back on the afternoon of 17 March, the day before Nick was due to fly home, but more significantly, St Patrick’s Day. Although Aucklanders don’t really celebrate Paddy’s Day (the eeeejits!), like everywhere else in the world there are plenty of Irish bars in Auckland that do.

We reunited with Stevie and his girlfriend and chose Danny Doogan’s Irish Bar on the waterfront for one final hurrah.