Our plane touched down in Auckland just after midnight. Both Barbara and I actually wished the flight was a bit longer so that we could catch some more movies. On the way over the Tasman Sea, we decided that when we got to Auckland our plan was to rent a car, and set out on a 2 week road trip around New Zealand.
We had heard stories of very thorough customs agents in New Zealand, so we made sure to declare everything. Luckily we made it through without too much trouble. We walked up to the Hertz counter to inquire about getting a car. The agent said with a straight face that they were out of cars. That seemed odd. So we walked to the next counter, and were quickly told the same thing. Scratching our heads, we began to wonder if this was some sort of late night trick the kiosk guys like to play on tired passengers. The last guy we talked to told us that he would not have any cars until January 14th- a full 2 weeks from now. We asked why nobody had any cars, and he simply said, “Welcome to summer in Auckland.” I have never been to an airport that didnt have any rental cars. This guy said that we wouldnt find any cars in all of Auckland.
Well out came the computer. I spent an hour and a half trying to find a confirmed rental for the morning, but the kiosk agent seemed to be right. So Plan B started to form- take buses for the north island and find a rental car for the south island. We needed to get up at 5 to catch our bus. I looked up at the clock on the wall- 2am. Yuck.
Barbara was phasing in and out of consciousness at this point, so we wandered around to find a place to sleep. A nice security guard told us to check up at the observation deck for some floor space that ended up working quite well for us.
We caught the early (only) bus south to Waitomo. Waitomo is basically in the middle of nowhere. But we came based on the recommendation of some friends of ours, Jordan and Keegan, who came here on their honeymoon last year. They said we could not miss the black water rafting and the glow worms.
The tour was nothing short of amazing. To begin, we donned wetsuits and posed for funny pictures. Then we headed out into the hills and practiced some rope skills. No more than 15 minutes of practice later, I found myself hanging from a rope that dangled below me into a hole, just larger than my body. Releasing pressure on the rappelling device, I found myself dropping through the hole, and into a large, pitch black chamber. The little bit of light coming from the headlamp mounted on my helmet did not come close to reaching the bottom, some 135 feet below me. Eventually I found the bottom. Our guide finally flipped on her light as my feet were about to touch down. IT WAS AWESOME!
After the rest of the crew joined me below the surface, we wandered through the cold, wet twists and turns to the zip line platform. We were all instructed to turn off our lights. Our guide clipped us into the line and sent us literally screaming into the dark abyss of the cave. Quite an exhilarating ride! At the bottom, the assistant guide pulled us off the line (only after scaring the bejeeezus out of Barbara by slamming two inner tubes together to create a cacophony of echos that rattled up the cave like a shot gun blast).
After an amazingly delicious round of hot chocolate and cookies, we were instructed to hold an inner tube behind our bums, and leap out into the deep, dark water some 12 feet below us. If we werent awake before this, we were now- that water was COLD. After the initial shock cleared, we found ourselves paddling up the calm stream. Our guide asked us to turn off our lights and pull ourselves through the cave along the rope that was attached to the cave walls. Above us was a unique sight. Thousands of glow worms covered the ceilings of the cave. Their small, blue-white lights glowing in a black abyss like stars in a galaxy so far away. The small cave insects dangle lines of a spider web-like sticky substance below them to capture small flying bugs that they lure in with their glow. The glow reminded me of the fireflies we used to chase and catch when I was a kid. So cool! Check out this link for some photos: http://tinyurl.com/bfm2mhq
From there we wandered down the cave, through tunnels and chambers, twisting and turning. Soon they got smaller and smaller, and we were climbing up and out of the cave along a tributary to the main cave stream. We squeezed under rocks, and climbed up two gushing waterfalls. Soon we could see the sunlight beaming in through our exit point. If you have the time while visiting the North Island, the Legendary Blackwater tour is definitely worth it!
After a night at a hostel (often called a backpackers in NZ), we caught the bus over to Taupo to meet an old friend of mine. Shelley and I worked together nearly 8 years ago at YMCA Camp Shady Brook in Colorado. We hadnt seen each other since 2005, so what a great way to ring in the New Year- a good ole camp reunion. Her boyfriend, Ben, and his family have a bach (cottage to all you non-Kiwis), and they very graciously offered to put us up for a few nights.
The people in New Zealand are some of the kindest, most welcoming folks we have met. And considering our track record on this trip- that is a big statement!
Shelley, Ben, and Ben’s parents, Jon, and Krissie, Barbara and I rung in the New Year with a BBQ, good beers (yes NZ wins the best beer so far on this trip award), good company. The highlight of the night, was us missing the actual countdown by about 10 seconds. As Shelley flipped through the channels she stumbled onto the fireworks being lit in Auckland and rather lackadaisically said, ‘happy new year’.
The next morning we got up and at it, boarding the boat, and pulling on wetsuits. First up was Jon, Ben’s 60 year old father. He absolutely tore up the lake on one ski- telling Ben to up the speed higher and higher as he whipped back and forth across the wake. Next Ben and Shelley ripped it up on the wakeboard. Barbara didnt miss a beat with her usual graceful performance. I was able to get up on two skis, and get a couple of runs in, but not with any of the grace of the previous 4. It was pretty great to ski on New Years- normally we are on the snow, this was certainly a first for both of us. After getting worn out skiing, Ben took us around the lake showing us some of the beautiful valleys that have impressive sheer rock faces. It was a great day on the water.
Next up was Tongoriro Crossing, which is billed as one of the most amazing day hikes in all of New Zealand. Shelley kindly lent us her car so that we could make an early morning departure. At 6 we backed the car out of the driveway and drove an hour toward the trailhead before stopping at a supermarket to grab some food. Both of us were pretty wiped. So naturally we kicked the seat back and took a 15 minute cat nap in the parking lot. This trip has taught us to be able to sleep anywhere!
From there we headed up to the trailhead, er, at least we tried. Turns out half of the crossing is closed (we knew this ahead of time), due to recent volcanic activity. What we didnt know is that all the extra traffic that now goes to just one trail head (instead of two), created such a problem that the Department of Conservation will no longer allow private vehicles to drive up to the actual trailhead. Too many people were illegally parking and causing massive erosion issues. So now they require you to take a $35 private bus up to the trailhead. The bus only takes you 4 miles! We, being budget conscious, and against paying people silly amounts of money for things like this thought, ah, we’ll just walk it. The ranger at the gate informed us that maybe this wasnt such a good idea. The previous nights forecast had underestimated the winds… now they were calling for 70mph winds at the top of the hike. Adding to the poor conditions was a massive cloud engulfing the mountain. We headed to the parks visitor center to look at our options. In the end, after much deliberation, we decided to just call it a day. We got skunked. Dang weather.
That night we camped at a campground just across the lake from Ben’s bach. This campground is actually quite famous, and so we decided that we must stay here. We found a nice spot in the trees and camped amongst the trees that the movie Yogi the Bear was filmed. It was strange to us, that the producers couldnt find a campground in the US that was suitable for such an American film. But we could understand why they chose this place- it was quite beautifully situated on the side of a perfect lake with perfect pine trees.
From the bach, we waved goodbye to Jon and Krissie and headed to Wellington with Ben. We stayed at his awesome new house for a couple of nights. Barbara and I made the trip into central Wellington to have a look around.
Our first stop was Te Papa- the New Zealand National Museum. This huge, well done, 6 story museum sits right on the harbor. We explored the whole thing, taking 5 hours before we started to get a bit of museum fatigue. From Te Papa, we wandered through the central business district of Wellington and found our way to Cuba Street- the quirky,hipster,Pearl Street-esque part of downtown. I wasted away a couple hours trying to find something interesting to read at many of the used book shops (I was sadly unsuccessful). Barbara sat on the park benches, half people watching and half reading her Kindle.
From Cuba Street we wandered back to the waterfront and walked all the way down to the Interislander Ferry station. We scouted out where we would catch the 3 hour ferry to the South Island the next day.
That’s the North Island folks! Pretty incredible how fast it went, but the whirlwind must continue! On to the South Island!
Check out the full photo gallery here: