Wow. New Zealand has been a highly anticipated country on our itinerary for months. We debated long and hard whether we should spend another year working and traveling here and, if not for Grizz in Park City, I think we might have. After spending some time in the North Island, I’m still second guessing that decision. Not only is New Zealand picture perfect (seriously, I’m resisting the urge to flood your newsfeed hourly), but it’s filled with the friendliest and most down to earth people, as a whole, that I’ve ever met. With so many wild and beautiful places just outside your doorstep, it’s easy to see how they’re able to stay über fit as well. Yeah, it’s a rough life being an attractive and cheerful Kiwi.
Before arriving, we thought we’d spend a majority of our time on the South Island trekking glaciers and doing all the ‘New Zealand things’ and had anticipated making the North Island a short drive-through. Then slowly we kept adding days. Top on the list for the North Island was glowworm caves, geysers, and hiking the infamous ‘Mt. Doom’ from Lord of the Rings. Check, check and check. We could have easily stayed for weeks longer…
Waitomo Glowworm Cave
There are over 300 mapped caves in the area of Waitomo, but three main caves that are the most famous. I read about them first in a ’25 surreal places to see before you die article’ and seeing it in person while floating down an icy cold river in the depths of a pitch black cave is really and truly – surreal. ‘Black water rafting’, as the call it, was the exhilarating option for a hands-on glowworm experience. After jumping backwards off a couple small waterfalls beneath the limestone caves, we were asked to turn our headlamps off and simply enjoy the ride. In the darkness you are able to see constellations of glowworms covering the ceiling of what felt endless. The eerie shadows of stalagmites and stalactites surround you and again, all we could say was ‘wow’. So cool.
Our volcanic tour of NZ started in Rotorua and continued all the way to the peak of Mt. Doom. There is volcanic proof everywhere it seems, from geysers to bubbling mud to mineral hotsprings to steaming cracks in the ground. Much like Yellowstone, the smell of rotten eggs fills the air and the areas are all easily accessible by car. Unlike Yellowstone, the volcanic areas are all separately owned and operated. Various operators all seem to own a piece of the pie…I wonder what the bidding process was like. The area that seemed the most bang for our buck was Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland with a lot of geothermal features packed into a fairly small (relatively speaking) area. We walked along boardwalks through streaming volcanic grounds and were overwhelmed by the contrast of seemingly unnatural colors. The smell of sulfur had us itching to get ourselves into the hotsprings and feel that mineral water on our skin (imagine that). We found a thermal health ‘spa’ close to Taupo called Wantirakei Terraces, which was the perfect place to revitalize the mind, body and soul. Below a continuously erupting geyser, along side a wide showcase of aqua-marine silica terraces, the hotspring waters flow directly into man-made pools for bathing. After floating about and enjoying a relaxing time from the tourist hustle, we hit the road to our next stop, Tongariro National Park.
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Tongariro Alpine Crossing
The 11 mile Tongariro Alpine crossing was listed everywhere as New Zealand’s greatest day hike. We had great expectations as we set out at 7:30 along the base of the valley between The Lord of the Rings “Mount Doom” and the namesake Tongariro mountain. An hour and a half of uphill hiking put us at the base of “Mount Doom”, a picturesque conical volcano with plumes of steam flowing from the summit. Though we had a strong temptation to attempt the three hour summit and save middle earth by destroying the ring of power (jokes), we continued across a perfectly flat volcanic basin and up the other side to the summit of the hike. At the top was an amazing lookout over a fiery red volcanic crater with contrast to three strikingly blue/green mineral pools below. It truly felt like we were in another world. Everywhere steam was rising through invisible vents in the mountains. These new, ever changing, volcanic mountains and features are so different from anywhere else we have been. Within just a few miles of this central basin there are several active volcanoes. Every 50 years or so, a new eruption changes the landscape, creating new lava flows, geysers, and even mountain peaks. In several places there were signs linked to sensors in the area to hopefully warn hikers if an eruption is near. The hike ended down the backside underneath the most active volcano in the area, which last erupted in 2012. A truly remarkable, unique, and amazing hike. Though a challenge, and fairly crowded, I could not recommend more.
[Click on any photo to enlarge and view frame by frame]
Our final stop in the North Island was Wellington, the country’s beautiful capital. If the inter-island ferry from North to South hadn’t departed from here, we may have missed it. So glad we didn’t. Wellington is their smallish capital city nestled along a beautiful harbor beneath lush green hillsides. We were immediately enthralled by this gem of a city and were lucky enough to arrive just at the start of the Wellington International Art Festival. From our hotel we meandered along the harbor, passing old ship-writes converted to cool outdoor beer gardens, kayak and SUP outfitters, and numerous sculptures, giving Wellington the nickname “the sculpture city”. We chose a magic show as our introduction to the art scene and it was pretty good for an amateur act. Matt and I like to think we know a thing or 2 about magic now that we lived with a magician for 5 months… Maybe we do, maybe we don’t. We finished the night off at a cool bar that featured 30 local craft beers on tap. A nice chill way to end our North Island experience and rest our bones for the physical exertion we have planned in the South.
Here we go!