After we had such an amazing time on the South Island the North Island was definitely going to have a hard act to follow, and it did struggle.
We were, in truth, a little taken aback by how different the two islands were. Even though we had a flying visit to New Zealand 22 years ago we didn’t really register the differences between the Islands. Back then it was rush, rush, rush, while we hunted out the adrenaline activities. This time the pace was much slower and it was all about seeing the country.
We should mention that a big factor affecting our experience on the North Island has been the weather. The North Island has had the wettest summer on record. Any news we had encountered while on the South Island seemed to be about all the bad weather up North. It had already rained an awful lot since November and then Cyclone Gabrielle hit in mid February causing devastation on a huge scale (more on that later). Meanwhile the South Island basked under beautiful, blue skies in what was to be the second driest summer on record. That’s a bit like Northern Scotland and Southern France swapping weather for the summer! Strange times.
We started our Northern excursion in Wellington with a five day visit to Sarah’s sister, Louise, her husband Greg and their three fabulous boys. Plus, an added bonus was Sarah’s Mum was also visiting at the time so it was a nice reunion. In fact, we couldn’t really remember the last time all three had been together.
They live just outside of the city, close to the water, in a beautiful big house with a swimming pool. They made us extremely welcome with Barney, the eldest nephew giving up his bedroom for us and allowing us a lovely respite from the campervan. He also gave us a tour of the City and the impressive Te Papa museum. He starts University in Wellington soon and is well acquainted with the city.
Sarah spent some time catching up with her Mum and walking the family dogs during the week, while Steve explored the area on his bike. Although it was lovely in the immediate area he was surprised at the number of burnt out cars and fly tipping a little farther afield. Something we hadn’t seen in the South.
At the weekend, with work and school out of the way, we spent some time watching the boys at their various sports, Jack at the local tennis club in the morning and Rory in a sailing regatta in the afternoon. Then, in the evenings, Steve and Rory made the most of the pool and hot tub.
On the Sunday morning Greg took us all out across the harbour to Wellington for a look around the market in his super fast boat and in the afternoon Louise cooked a wonderful meal for everyone.
After a really successful five day visit it was time for us to move on further North. So we packed up the van, said goodbye to everyone, and headed off on the road again. Once out of the Wellington area it became much more rural, pretty but not spectacular. We started to pass through more and more run down villages which reminded us a little of some parts of Washington State and North Oregon, when we cycled from Canada to Mexico. These sort of places don’t make you want to hang around, unless you really need to.
All the talk in the media was about the imminent arrival of Cyclone Gabrielle. Where was it going to hit hardest? We were tracking its progress very closely and making route adjustments accordingly. On our first day out of Wellington we changed our destination three times! Eventually we ended up in a car park in National Park (that is the name of the village, a little strange and confusing at first). It rained quite heavy overnight and it was a little windy but we woke up thinking the whole thing might have been over-hyped.
Then we checked the news on our phones. Wow. It was certainly not over-hyped. Gabrielle had torn though the North and the East leaving behind a trail of total devastation including floods, the likes of which had never been seen before in New Zealand, leaving miles and miles of agricultural land and crops ruined in a matter of hours. Major arterial roads had been ripped appart by landslides, and thousands of mature trees had been washed away or snapped like twigs. Whole communities had been left without power and some left completely isolated.
The North Island was in a state of shock and the country was placed in a State of Emergency for only the third time in its history.
We knew at that moment that our New Zealand trip was going to change shape. A good proportion of the North Island was now inaccessible, and even if it was they certainly didn’t want tourists getting in the way of what was going to be an emmense lifesaving and clear up operation.
We headed to the West Coast surf town of Raglan. It had escaped the cyclone almost totally and we needed somewhere to take stock and see how the next few days unfolded.
Raglan turned out to be a good call. Not only was it a chilled out little town but, as is often the case with cyclones, the weather that follows can be calm and sunny. We had a similar experience in Western Australia a few years ago.
We spent four days relaxing in the town and on the cliff tops watching the surfers. Sarah decided it was time to pay a visit to the hairdresser, so with a little research she found one that fitted the bill and off she went. Well, what a disaster! Honestly, it looked the hairdresser was either drunk or blind. Even Steve, who isn’t the greatest hair connoisseur, could see how wonky and uneven the cut was. A few years ago this would truly have upset Sarah and even though she was far from impressed, travel sort of puts things into perspective. At least her house hadn’t been washed away! Still, she did go back the next day to point out to the hairdresser how she hadn’t cut it quite as requested. To be fair she was horrified and accepted all the blame, sat Sarah down and with nervous, quivering hands set about trying to rectify the problem. Obviously this attempt didn’t last long as Sarah had visions of ending up with a Steve hair style. The hairdresser, almost in tears, wanted to give Sarah her money back, but she felt so sorry for her she declined and put it down to experience.
The following day Sarah decided to put the hair experience behind her and booked a massage. Now, Raglan is a surf town in New Zealand and as such is a little …. how shall we put it?…. rustic! So when she turned up for the massage and it was being run out of someone’s shack of a house she was cautious but not surprised. But when the occupant arrived and was more than a little on the large and sweaty side, she became a little more cautious. Then, when he led her around the back to a dilapidated shed, her thought switched to, “Do I run now?”. But she didn’t run!! Out of curiosity she stayed. “What’s the worst that can happen? Getting locked under the shed with the other idiots that didn’t run!”
Well it turned out there was no under ground cell and the massage was one of the best she has had, just like all the online reviews had said. Appearances can be deceiving.
Just as a reminder as to where we were in the World, the evening before we left Raglan we felt our first earthquake! New Zealand gets several each day but most of them are low down on the Richter Scale and are not felt by the general population.
We were sitting in the van and it started to sway from side to side and the water in a glass could be seen swilling around. Initially we couldn’t work it out. It was a lovely evening and very calm with no wind. Then we both said, “Earthquake”. We checked the National Earthquake site online which updates immediately and saw it had been a 6.0 strong quake about 400km away. Because it had been several kilometres deep it hadn’t caused any damage. It was much nearer Wellington and had shook Sarah’s sister’s house for about 30 seconds. “All we need is a volcanic eruption now and we’ll have had the grand slam!”, said Steve.
After four days in Raglan, a cyclone and an earthquake, we were starting to get a bit of a clearer picture as to where we could think about going next. We had planned to head North of Auckland to visit friends we met in South America but that was absolutely off the cards, so the safest bet, for now, was to head to Lake Taupo in the centre of The North Island.
Taupo could be described as The North’s equivalent to Queenstown in The South. Located in a gorgeous setting by a huge lake it has a never ending list of things to do. However, school summer holidays were over so Taupo was far less busy than Queenstown and the moment we drove into town the place had a great feeling about it. Plus, it was the location for Steve’s race in a couple of weeks so he was able to check out the course.
We found ourselves a wonderful, spacious, free camp on the lakeside, about 15 minutes out of town and settled down for what turned out to be four days.
We enjoyed the town, the lake views, the surrounding area and we did some of the tourist sites.
We are not volcano experts but we have learnt a few things about them since being here and the presence of Super Volcanoes is one of those things. It turns out there are about 16 of them on the earth and when they erupt it is a ‘planet changing’ event; end of the dinosaurs, start of an ice age, that sort of thing. Lake Taupo is the top of a Super Volcano and, in fact, the most recent erupting, about 65,000 years ago. It’s easy to look out at the lake and forget what is under there!
One of the more popular attractions around Taupo are the Huka Falls. A narrowing of the river forces the water over a small drop, with impressive volume, and in true Kiwi style you can see it from numerous vantage points, either on foot, in a leisure boat, speeding on a jet boat or overhead in a helicopter depending upon the depth of your pockets!
Next on the list was ‘Craters of The Moon’ which was an hours walk around a geothermal area where steam is spouting out of many points along the way. It is quite good to see and at some points boiling water is gurgling and spitting out of the ground. Once again it re-emphasies just how unstable and fragile the whole area is.
We also visited the Aratiatia Dam, which is opened three times a day flooding the gorge below in rapid fashion. Like so many places in New Zealand, scenes from the movies ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘The Lord of the Rings’ were filmed here. In fact, for fans, ‘Mount Doom’ is just the other side of the lake from where we camped.
Our final stop in Taupo, for this visit, was to call in on a friend we met in Australia. During the pandemic we rented an apartment for three months in Far North Queensland. One of our neighbours there was Sandra, a Kiwi. She has since moved back to New Zealand and lives 20 minutes outside Taupo.
I’m sure she won’t mind us saying but she is in her late 70’s and is still unbelievably active. She plays golf twice a week, attends exercise classes and is an avid walker in Summer or Winter.
We popped in for coffee and stayed for lunch, then some wine and eventually dinner, catching up on what we have all been doing.
It turns out Sandra was off back to Queensland for a month to help out her daughter whose husband has had a very nasty running accident. Typical of Sandra’s generosity she has offered her house for us to stay in for a few days when we return to Taupo for Steve’s race. Now there is an offer we can’t refuse.