Ten days in New Zealand

My parents and I recently spent ten days in the North Island of New Zealand, a holiday we’ve been planning since Christmas. Mum and Dad have both been to New Zealand before, but it was my first time. We departed on the 10th of September and returned on the 20th.

I was given the task of researching places to visit, and did my best to put together a realistic itinerary. We chose September to avoid the peak tourist season and because the rainfall is lower than in either August or October. Bookings were made through a travel agent, with whose services we were less than fully satisfied; but I guess that’s what you get for using an agency that proclaims itself the cheapest rather than the best.

For the first few days the weather was beautiful, but later it turned bad, and so unfortunately we didn’t get to do everything on our list. The weather’s persistence surprised me, as I expected a New Zealand September would contain multiple seasons in each day; but no, it was either one thing or the other. One needn’t wonder why there’s a peak tourist season in New Zealand.

We arrived in Auckland around 5:30pm, and after collecting our luggage were greeted with the longest exit queue I’ve seen in any airport anywhere. (I don’t know why that should be.) The GPS navigation unit supplied with the hire car gave us all sorts of problems at first, though it got better as we learned to use it. I also had access to Google Maps through my phone, and will say more about navigation at the end of this post.

Our first full day in New Zealand was Sunday September 11, allocated on our itinerary as a free day in Auckland. We began with a visit to the Maritime Museum, which had a few quirky exhibits I quite liked, but overall was nothing special. (None of the museums we visited in New Zealand were prizeworthy, in my opinion, and I won’t dwell on them.)

Our next adventure — the Auckland Whale and Dolphin Safari — was much more impressive, though I was unprepared when water from a bigger-than-average wave splashed over the hull and made us all soaking wet! The moment is captured at the end of this video. (Hold tight to your camera if you ever go.)

I expected we’d see a handful of dolphins at best, but once we found them, there were lots. The next video contains a few clips.

Despite the experience exceeding our own expectations, it apparently wasn’t up to the standards of the crew, who gave us all an open invitation to come back another day for free. Watch the video above and think about that.

A photo of the wake:

Our second day began with a visit to the Auckland Botanic Gardens, which I enjoyed. Very spatious (arguably too much so; there are voids) and full of magnolias, but then so is the whole island. After a good ramble we had lunch at the cafe, which I would also recommend (I had the chef’s pork belly). Here are my photos; note the “bird lady”, one of a series of sculptures.

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Our next stop was Hobbiton, which had been highly recommended by everyone we knew. Despite all the endorsements, my parents were still surprised at how good it was, especially for people with limited interest in Tolkien. Through our travel agent we had prebooked a 3:30 tour, the final for the day at this time of year.

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We then drove on to Rotorua, where we spent the whole of our third day. This began with a visit to Hells Gate where we’d prebooked a 10:00 “Hells Gate Combo”, consisting of a mud bath, sulphur spa, and tour of the geysers. I didn’t expect much from the tour, but the place turned out to be well signposted with much to learn about its history and chemistry, so I’m glad we included it. The mud bath is a fun and worthwhile experience, but pay no attention to claims that it will leave your skin glowing for days (it won’t). Some of the staff spoke with a strong Maori accent that my ear is not accustomed to, but travelling with a group has the advantage that what one person doesn’t catch another probably will.

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Our next stop was the “Buried Village“. This includes a trail through a preserved archeological site with remains from a village destroyed by the 1886 eruption of Mount Tarawera, which also destroyed the nearby Pink and White Terraces — a geothermal formation formerly hailed as a natural wonder of the world. It wasn’t bad, but compared to other places we visited I found it relatively dispensible (the waterfalls were considerably more impressive than the archaeology). We had lunch there on our arrival, but I don’t recommend that unless you really like sandwiches.

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To finish our time in Rotorua we had a prebooked Day and Evening pass at Te Puia, a Maori cultural centre. However, all of our earlier activities had taken longer than expected, and following some rushed but necessary grocery shopping we were about fifteen minutes late and had to catch up with the 4:30 tour. I think the only thing we missed out on was the weaving school. Here are some pictures from the carving school, where we met the group.

Sacred Maori buildings cannot normally be photographed, but the buildings at Te Puia were constructed specifically for the purpose of being shared. Below is one picture each of two smaller buildings followed by three of the main meeting house.

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The tour also took us to a geothermal area on the site, boasting a geyser that shoots hot water high into the air somewhat less than once an hour. I photographed it under the fortuitously-positioned gibbous moon.

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We were later treated to a Maori ceremony and performance in the meeting house photographed earlier. I recorded some clips on video but have decided not to upload them as the recording does not really do it justice. We also shared a fantastic meal, in which I ate in quantities ordinarily associated with Christmas.

On our fourth day the weather began to change. The blue sky turned cloudy, and there were periods of rain, but for the most part it was still nice to be outside. We left Rotorua for the Orakei Korako geothermal park, a bigger and more photogenic geothermal area than the others we’d visited, but less endowed with signposts. A ferry takes visitors across the river on demand, and returns promptly when summoned. Two hours was ample time for a visit, including a meal.

As well as photos, I recorded some short video clips, shown in the following compilation. I think the bubbling mud geysers with birdsong in the background would make a great relaxation video, and if I’d had the luxury I’d have recorded something longer. The Youtube page contains links to downloadable .avi versions of each clip, so you can listen to your favourite on repeat if you wish (best with headphones of course). To really get into the right spirit, please imagine you can smell the sulphur.

Miscellaneous Orakei Korako photos:

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Photos of an area called the Artist’s Palette:

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A cave, including one 3D photo to look at with your red-blue glasses:

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Other individual geysers as featured in my video clips:

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The next item on our itinerary was a tour of the glow worm caves at Waitomo, prebooked for 3:00. I had high expectations of this, which led me to being a little disappointed, but I would definitely recommend it as long as you keep your expectations in check.

There are several tour operators at Waitomo, which cater to visitors with different wishes. For example, some cater to lovers of adventure sports, some to busloads of tourists on budget, etc. We chose Spellbound, which provides relatively long tours for small groups in which the eye has plenty of time to adjust to the dark and nobody gets wet. The door to the ticket office (which shares a building with the Waitomo General Store) could definitely be more welcoming. There are two caves on the tour, separated by a minibus ride (which is rather cramped, to be honest, so wear comfortable clothes). Only one cave contains a large number of glow worms. The other is promoted online as a fossil cave, but in fact there is only one fossil moa and all the other bones are modern animals such as livestock. (Still, it’s a nice cave.)

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Between the two cave visits there is a refreshment stop, with hot drinks and biscuits. One thing I wasn’t expecting was eels, but if you visit New Zealand and make bets on which wildlife you’ll encounter, you should probably bet on eels. A larger eel tried to eat a smaller one, but I didn’t catch this on camera. Instead, I have the following.

As for the glow worms, they are spectacular. Sadly, however, they are far too dim to capture on camera, and expecting to do so will lead to disappointment. I had envisaged recording them on video as we drifted by on the boat, but they don’t even show up on the screen. That’s just the way nature is. The Spellbound people will email you some photos as a souvineer, but it’s not the same.

After leaving Waitomo we made our way to New Plymouth, eating at a petrol station in Te Kuiti on the way. My descriptions of the remaining days will be brief, as the weather turned ugly at that point and prevented us from doing several of the things on our itinerary. Photographic opportunities were also compromised.

Our fifth day began with a visit to the Puke Ariki museum in New Plymouth. This museum is very eclectic with many treasures, but unfortunately the presentation lets it down. The space just wasn’t designed with enough attention to the impact of light and shadow.

Next we set out toward Mount Egmont/Taranaki, in the hope that the weather would clear enough for us to do some walking in the Dawson Falls area of the Egmont National Park. Mount Taranaki looked spectacular when it chose to reveal itself, with its peak covered in snow, but when enveloped in cloud you wouldn’t know it was there. (No photos, as we saw it only from the car.) The weather was barely adequate when we arrived, and Dad and I decided to rug up and do the Wilkies Pools loop track while Mum stayed near the visitors’ centre. I was attracted to this area by the promise of “goblin forest”, so called for its gnarled, moss-covered trees. But I think you need better lighting for the full otherworldly effect, which other bloggers have captured better than we could.

Here are two pictures of Dad posing as a goblin, followed by one picture of me.

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Wilkies Pools themselves are seen from only one vantage point and do not (as I imagined) follow the track. As for the view downriver, I imagine it’s much better on a good day. There were patches of snow on the ground and many miniature waterfalls amidst the trees, which was a pleasing contrast from the kind of environments I’m used to in Australia. Overall the walk was enjoyable and the scenery attractive, but it lacked a climax.

The rest of the day was mostly spent driving, following the coast all the way to Palmerston North. Our plans for Day Six were to drive north and do the Waitonga Falls track in the Tongariro National Park, but a phone call to the visitor centre confirmed that it would not be worth the trip, given the weather. So instead, following a visit to the Te Manawa art/science/history museum (which isn’t much), we just did some local walks in the Palmerston North area.

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On the seventh day we had a late start (after retrieving a jumper I’d misplaced the day before), but once on the road we headed south toward Wellington, stopping at a couple of places on the way. Our first stop was Owlcatraz, which was a pretty good place for a break; we took one of the shorter tours available. A combination of traffic conditions and bad weather made the next stretch of our journey take twice as long as it should have, but eventually we made it to the Pataka art gallery in Porirua.  Leaving Mum and Dad to find a carpark, I went straight to the cafe only to find out there was a 30 minute wait on lunch! (The food, however, was pretty good. I intentionally over-ordered, to avoid queuing twice and to allow for sharing.) Happily for us, the gallery itself is very small and we actually managed to make up more time than we’d lost.

We spent the last three days of our holiday in Wellington (where our hotel was not the best, but never mind that). After settling, we got back in the car and drove to Zealandia, where an evening tour awaited us as our final pre-booked activity. I expected more of a discussion time at the end of the tour and felt it ended far too abruptly, but otherwise I can’t complain. A highlight was recording this video of a live kiwi, illuminated by red torches.

On our eighth day I spent most of my time in the Museum of New Zealand, leaving Mum and Dad on a laundromat quest that had begun to resemble the pursuit of wild geese. (They did eventually find one.) The museum — which also contains an art gallery — is large and cannot be faulted on content, but again, its weaknesses are all about presentation. Ineffective use of lighting is one such weakness, but its biggest failing is the nonlinear, almost mazelike layout that makes it practically impossible to keep track of where you’ve been. Its very frustrating to walk past an exhibition space for the third time and worry that you might have missed something. Museums should have a straightforward grid layout so that visitors can check off exhibits one by one.

On the ninth day we visited the Weta Cave (the workshop where the Lord of the Rings props and costumes were made) for a tour we’d booked at a visitor centre the day before. I was surprised at some of the other shows and movies they’d had a hand in. We hadn’t planned on this, but the weather had forced us to look for indoor activities — otherwise we would have visited the Putangirua Pinnacles instead (which you may recognise as a LotR location). In the afternoon we visited the Botanic Gardens — outdoor, yes, but close to civilisation and free of muddy tracks — where I took the following photos (the third being a view over Wellington).

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Tuesday 20 September was our tenth and final day in New Zealand, with the hire car due to be returned to the airport at 3:00 and our flights home a couple of hours later. The weather was better than it had been, so we took the ferry to Matiu Somes Island for one final adventure. In the daytime we didn’t expect a wildlife experience and we didn’t get one, but it was a nice place to go for a walk and admire the rugged coastline.

Souvineers I bought on our holiday include an ornamental glass tuatara, a set of coasters featuring representations of New Zealand birds blended with images of their habitats, and a mermaid doll. I also bought a few other things as gifts, and in the same spirit received a toy tuatara from Mum.

As for my impression of New Zealand culture, it is mostly familiar to Australians, our way of life and theirs having much in common. But various differences are worth noting. For example, floors in New Zealand buildings are numbered in the American fashion (with the first floor being at ground level), the phones use completely different tones to communicate their status, and things on menus are sometimes unfamiliar or strange (for example, every restaurant in Auckland seemed to offer a monstrosity called “slaw”).

I want to finish by discussing the topic of navigation. We had two main methods of navigation at our disposal: the GPS unit that came with the hire car, and my phone. We also had low-resolution printed maps, but these were limited.

On my phone I had a copy of the itinerary I’d prepared (in PDF format), with links to various routes in Google Maps. (Incidentally, the mobile version of Google Maps doesn’t support routes with intermediate destinations, which speaks to the importance of testing everything before you go.) The main disadvantage of navigating with a phone is reliance on reception, and there were large regions where I was unable to access Google Maps at all, even when I could send messages just fine and there was not a mountain to be found between me and the capital. I am unable to account for all these facts. Regarding expenses, I won’t bore you with details; suffice to say that costs were manageable and that I’m glad I have a prepaid account. Another minor disadvantage is that the GPS functionality does not update very dynamically.

As for the hire car’s navigation unit, it too had problems. It didn’t come with instructions and was not very intuitive, so at the beginning it didn’t even seem fit for purpose. Later we became more familiar with its quirks. Its route calculation algorithm was markedly inferior to Google’s, and despite being set to look for the fastest route it frequently advised us to detour onto minor roads. And of course, there was no way to query its database and preview routes before going on holiday, as I had done on Google. (It’s easy to propose ways to make this possible, and I hope to see the travel industry move in that direction.) On the plus side it was clearly the economical choice, was not dependent on the quirks of telecommunication services, and communicated its instructions automatically through the voice synthesiser.

When both were working, we got best results by using the in-car unit as the primary means of navigation while also occasionally checking the route on my phone, providing a second opinion that allowed us to confidently bypass wasteful detours.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my report, especially the photos and videos. We had a good time on the whole — despite the best efforts of the weather gods (may they be accursed) — and perhaps someday I’ll go back and see some of the things we missed.

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