New Zealand: Three Favorite Things

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When we come home after travelling, a lot of people ask us “How was your trip?” However, most people don’t want to hear any answer longer than “Great!” It’s disappointing to not be able to share details of a trip, but at the same time I don’t want to bore anyone. So in order to sum up our time in New Zealand, we bring you a handy list of the best things we saw/did/ate! They are in order, sort of.

Three Favourite Scenic Spots:

  1. Lake Pukaki- nothing more needs to be said
  2. Tongariro National Park- especially the Red Crater, Emerald Lakes, and Blue Lake, which can only be accessed on foot (or seen from the air by taking a scenic flight)
  3. Kaikoura- the view of the Seaward Kaikoura Mountains rising above the blue sea

Three Favourite Attractions:

  1. Fox Glacier- this could also go under scenic spots, but just looking at it isn’t that interesting. Taking a guided hike and walking on it is much more interesting
  2. Marlborough wineries
  3. Auckland Museum- we thought it was better organized than Te Papa

Meat pies- yum, yum

Three Favourite Foods

  1. Hokey Pokey ice cream
  2. Meat pies
  3. NZ cheeses

Three Favourite Animals:

  1. Kiwis- no, we did not see one in the wild, as we had hoped; but we did hear them screeching in the middle of the night in Hokitika
  2. Seals- easy to spot, and they like to pose for photographers
  3. Glowworms- actually the larvae of a certain kind of fly. In Hokitika, you can see them for free, just 1km north of town. They look like constellations when they’re all lit up

The Best Views in Sydney

A new country, a new passport stamp- yesterday we arrived in Sydney, around 7:45 am local time. We’d been up since 4:30 am NZ time, and we were tired, but it’s Sydney! Time to get out and explore! Of course, we saw the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge, and inadvertently found Chinatown (it’s pretty big, though; it’d be hard to miss it.) By mid-afternoon Bob was about ready to collapse. We both had a bit of culture shock, I think. Coming from quiet, relaxed, rural New Zealand to a big and loud city like Sydney- whose population, by the way, is about the same as the entirety of NZ, about 4 million- was an assault on our senses, so we escaped to a mall food court to relax and have something to drink.

So to recharge, we went to the beach today. Sydney in many ways is like any other big city, but one unique thing it can claim is an assortment of beautiful beaches, great for surfing, swimming, or sunbathing, just outside the downtown area. We decided to take a ferry across the harbour to Manly Beach, which got its name when an early English explorer described the Aboriginal inhabitants of the area as being particularly “manly.” It seems to me that it was sort of an offhand comment, but the name stuck.

Coming back, we were treated to an amazing sunset, which naturally lent itself to great photos (if I do say so myself) of the skyline, Opera House, and Harbour Bridge. Of the three, my favourite was the Opera House. At one point Bob asked me if I had enough pictures, and I blurted out “I can’t stop. I love it.” The Manly ferry turns right past it, so taking a ferry is the perfect way to capture the Opera House from several different angles. It was hard to choose just one photo, but here you go.

Six Great Things to Do in Rotorua for Free

On the way to Rotorua from Auckland, I had some brochures and my guidebook out and I was reading up on the city we were soon to arrive in. Every single attraction- geothermal reserves, wildlife parks, even the sheep show at the Agrodome- charges an exorbitant entrance fee, between NZ$25-30 per adult. The newish Te Puia, which is home to the Maori Arts and Crafts Instituate and Whakarewarewa geothermal valley, charges $43! Nothing seemed to be free except for gazing out at Lake Rotorua. I resigned myself to paying the high prices and told Bob, “We’d better just pick one thing, so we don’t end up spending too much money.” We had to. There was nothing else to do in Rotorua, right?

Wrong. There is plenty of free stuff to do, and the only money we ended up spending in Rotorua was on meals. Our couchsurfer host, Bheema, gave us most of this advice, but some things we found on our own. He had lived in Rotorua for a year, if I remember correctly, but is allergic to paying for fun. We were so lucky to be staying with him, but we know not every visitor to the Rotorua area can visit his house. Here are his (and our) top things to see and do:

  1. Tamatekapua Marae/ St. Faith’s Anglican Church (Ohinemutu) -this is a working marae, so I don’t think visitors are allowed inside, but it’s still wonderful to look at from the outside. Visitors are welcome inside St. Faith’s, which is an Anglican church built in the early settlement years. The strong Maori decorative influence inside is a must-see. Don’t forget to check out the stained-glass window of Jesus walking on Lake Rotorua! The fascinating graveyard out back is the final resting place of many of the first Maori converts in the area, as well as missionaries who came out to NZ and never went home. Bonus: while walking around the area, you’ll see lots of tiny, bubbling springs. Many are simply in resident’s front yards or along the side of the road. Check if they’re hot!

    Tamatekapua Marae

  2. Pohutu Geyser -I know, you want to see a geyser. And Pohutu, which is inside the Te Puia complex, is one of the most reliable, going off 10-15 times per day. If you don’t want to pay for Te Puia but do want to see a geyser, you can. It’s easiest if you have a car. Drive south on Fenton Street, past several motels, until the road curves right and there is a parking lot right in front of you. That’s Pohutu. If the geyser’s going off, you’ll be able to see the steam from a kilometer or two away. Park in that parking lot and look through the fence. You’ll be able to see the entire geyser.
  3. Government Gardens Park, War Memorial Park -Parks are always good for a stroll, and both of these parks have lakefront views. Government Gardens has, as you might have guessed, lovely gardens. The playgrounds are nice too, especially in War Memorial Park.

    Sulphur Flats

  4. Sulphur Flats -not far from Government Gardens lie the Sulphur Flats, an area that’s particularly geothermically active. There are walking tracks running through, and (though the signs say not to) it’s possible to walk a few meters off the track and check out those bubbling hot mudholes. I know I probably shouldn’t recommend that kind of thing (just asking for a lawsuit) but they’re not that big and you’d have to be really determined to fall in. The tracks are not that long, you could just as easily spend 5 minutes or one hour here. It all depends on how long you can stand that eggy smell!

5.   Kerosene Creek -speaking of smells, this creek is not so eggy but truly smells of kerosene. It’s heated geothermically, and has a temperature similar to bathwater. It’s great for a swim. To get there, drive out of Rotorua on SH5 to Taupo. Just before Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland, there is a road called Old Wai-O-Tapu Road. Turn left, and a short way down that road you’ll see signs and a parking lot for Kerosene Creek. Nearby, you’ll also see signs for Rainbow Mountain; it’s definitely worth walking 10 minutes to the lookout.

6.   Lake Okataina -this lovely lake has the remains of a Maori pa, or fortified hill site, as well as several walking tracks around the lake and the pa. There are several different tracks, ranging in length from a few kilometers to 22. To get there from Rotorua, head towards the airport on SH30. Pass the airport and a Shell station, then take a right (staying on 30) heading towards Whakatane. Pass Hauparu Bay and go to Ruato Bay, on the shores of Lake Rotoiti. When the lake comes into view, you will see a sign for Lake Okataina- 7km. Turn right and follow this road to the end. It takes about 20 minutes to walk up to the pa and you could easily spend half an hour to an hour investigating the area. There are a lot of dug-out areas that were obviously used for storage; signs on the pa suggest that it was for earthenware, but we didn’t see any.

Lake Okataina pa

Above all, enjoy yourself! Rotorua is an interesting place to while away a few days, and it needn’t break the bank.

The Most Beautiful Place I’ve Ever Seen

Today we had planned to drive to Mt. Cook, which is not very far from the west coast but can only be accessed from the south. From the main highway we turned off at Twizel, prepared to drive 50km each way just to see this majestic mountain. Luckily it was a fairly clear day, so as soon as we turned onto the access road, there it loomed ahead of us. We pulled off the road to another scenic lookout at a body of water that turned out to be Lake Pukaki. Most people (there were a few other people there) were  simply taking photos from the carpark, but we walked down to the lake and sat by the shore. I told Bob, “If I died now, I would die happy.” It was that gorgeous- and no one was there because they’d all stayed in the carpark. Seriously- it was only a 5-minute walk down the hill to the lake’s edge, and the view was so much better. We decided that we didn’t really want to drive to Mt. Cook after all, because we could already see it, and we couldn’t possibly imagine a better site to view it from than Lake Pukaki. This turned out to be the highlight of the west coast tour- the glacier was great, of course, but it’s so much more interesting to find something unexpected.

Lake Pukaki and the Southern Alps

Glacier Hiking

Today was the day of our “splurge” activity: we paid $149 each for an all-day glacier hike on Fox Glacier. Activities in NZ tend to be pretty expensive ($200 for a tandem skydive, for example; and it’s all over in about a minute) so we decided we could do just one expensive activity. When we were planning to go to Milford Sound, we thought we’d take a scenic cruise, but that has since been nixed from the itinerary so we decided instead to do a glacier hike. It’s pricey, yes; but we felt it offered the most bang for our buck, since it was an all-day experience. There are only two companies running glacier hikes: one for Franz Josef and one for Fox Glacier. Our friend’s dad recommended Franz Josef Glacier Guides, based on a great half-day hike he had done. However, the tours were slightly cheaper on Fox, so we settled on Fox Glacier Guiding. It took about seven hours from departure to return, and four and a half hours were spent on the ice. Everything was included: waterproof jackets, hats, mittens, thick socks, hiking boots, crampons for walking on ice, backpacks (but not lunch!) Our guide was excellent, which always helps. It is possible to drive to a nearby carpark and simply walk to a viewing platform, but I would recommend taking the tour. It’s so different from anything I have ever done and it’s impossible to appreciate the scale until you’re actually walking on the glacier.

A South Island Road Trip

Our last leg of our New Zealand journey is a loop that takes us from Christchurch to the west coast via Arthur’s Pass, south along the coast to Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers, south to Wanaka, and back up north via Lindis Pass and Lake Tekapo. We have four days to complete this loop, which means we’ll drive a few hours every morning and take the rest of the time to enjoy the NZ countryside.

Investigating wildflowers, Arthur's Pass

The most wonderful thing about driving in New Zealand is that someone has thoughtfully placed gravelly areas every few kilometres or so, where you can park your car and get out for a few minutes to enjoy the great views (which are everywhere.)

Usually, when we get out of the car, we’re all alone, and we think to ourselves, “If this were in the US, it would be so crowded.” Here in the South Island, though, it’s just us and the occasional campervan.