After our visit to Ninety Mile Beach we decided to stay for one night at the very top of New Zealand. Not far from Cape Reinga there is a campsite right by a small, isolated and very beautiful, white beach. There is no power and only cold water in the outdoor showers. You pay the overnight fees (6 NZ Dollars per adult per night) by putting money in small envelopes and dumping them into a small postbox. All per trust... It is run by the Department of Conservation, and all money goes to maintenance and wildlife preservation.
I have to admit that I do prefer campsites that are manned with staff and also have just a little bit of security. So I was a bit concerned as to how this would go, as we were camping in the middle of “nowhere”, absolutely outside of any GSM coverage! What if we were all by ourselves, and someone came in the middle of the night with evil intentions? What if someone would break into our van, while we were sleeping and totally unable to defend ourselves? It was, of course, all just thoughts that were rumbling inside my own head during the afternoon, and I exhaled with relief when I saw that we were in fact not at all the only ones there. In spite of winter and the rough seasonal weather, there were several other people present. And nothing at all happened. Of course not!
The site is located approximately 2 hours of hiking from Cape Reinga. That is hiking through some tough land! You can also get there by car, along a gravel road with quite a few hairpin curves. This takes about 10 minutes. Alexandra and Anton wanted to hike, and we agreed that I should drive down to the site, find a good spot, and then go and meet them on their way down. Alexandra said that she had water enough for them both to drink, so they would be fine. When I got back to the van I immediately saw that the water bottle was still there, and NOT in Alexandras bag. It is my general experience that the official guidelines, in terms of timing, for these walking/hiking trails are grossly exaggerated. They are “worst case”. The official time may say 2 hours, but I expected it to me more like 1 hour. Even with Anton along. So if I just hurried down to the campsite, parked the van and went ahead to meet them, we would all be sitting in the beach chairs within the hour, enjoying the sunset.
So I started my hike uphill to meet them. It was a hard route! NOT for beginners! However, I constantly expected to meet them just around the next corner. This went on for almost an hour. On quite a few stretches the trail was literally ON the edge of the cliffs, and I imagined them both lying somewhere deep below on the rocks. After all, Anton CAN be a bit excited and will sometimes not really listen to his parents cry for caution. And just as I was starting to get really anxious I met them. Alexandra had long ago realized that she had forgotten the water bottle, and as I had expected this to be just a short walk in the park, I had NOT brought any water with me. But Alexandra had some Maoam in her bag. This is a type of fruit caramels (possibly made out of toxic waste) that Anton really enjoy. And thus we were able to keep up his spirits. I also carried him on parts of the way down. It took us about an hour to get back to the campsite, and I honestly do not think that tap-water has ever tasted as good as it did in that particular moment. After just a few minutes we were once again all in good spirits, and were able to make a few mental notes. ALWAYS double check the water bottles, and NEVER underestimate the terrain and the difficulty of the trails! Thinking back, I must admit that I am quite impressed with Antons hiking skills. This was surely not his first time hiking on a rough trail, and he is usually doing pretty well and in good spirit. His complains were only reasonable on this trip, and we have since then already been hiking quite a bit. As long as we have a bit of “bait” he will do just fine!
After Cape Reinga we drove a good way down south to the Waipoua Rainforest on the western side of the north island. This is the home of the oldest and biggest Kauri trees in the world. Actually they are only found in New Zealand these days. Previously they were found in most of south east Asia as well. The Kauri tree provides some of the finest timber you can get for building houses, furniture etc. It is rather hard with long, straight trunks that also make them very suitable for ship-masts. Kauri timber is even more usable than Oak for many things. And more beautiful as well (a matter of taste of course). The trees can grow to well over 50 meters in height and the trunk girth on the largest living tree is currently around 13,50 meter. Between 1850-1950 many, many thousands of trees were felled and the Kauri ended up being seriously endangered. The New Zealand authorities finally realized that the Kauri had to be protected to stop this. Otherwise they would simply soon be completely extinct. However, in the 1970’s the so-called “Kauri Dieback” disease, a fungus, also started to threaten even the largest and oldest Kauri trees. This is still a very serious threat and the Department of Conservation now kindly ask all visitors to the Kauri forests to rinse and disinfect their shoes when entering and leaving. This is in order to prevent spreading of the fungus, and they are quite serious about it!
We felt sort of humble as we stood there in front of the giant “Tane Mahuta” (Lord of the Forest). It is host to almost 300 different plants and an unknown number of animals, insects etc. in its trunk and treetop. It is absolutely stunning! Experts have establish that the tree is roughly 2000 years old. Immediately we decided to donate money to an organization that is currently planting thousands of Kauri trees in New Zealand in order to re-establish a good number of strong and healthy trees for future generations to enjoy. A tree will be planted in our name. However, Kauri trees grow rather slow, so our beauty will not reach any record in terms of size within our lifetime!
After this we drove to Matakohe to visit one of the best museums in New Zealand. The Kauri Museum has not only a large exhibition about the Kauri tree, but also about the people and the land that depended so heavily on the export of timber throughout almost a century. In other words, this is a good way of experiencing the “forming” of modern New Zealand. Even Anton was engaged and very interested. More likely because of the extensive display of chainsaws and sawmill machines used through time...
After having immersed ourselves in Kauri trees for a couple of days, it was time to leave the very north of New Zealand. We drove all the way down to the Coromandel peninsula where we wanted to experience the Hot Water Beach. This time of year a rather deserted beach. This is where two underground springs of hot water (65 degrees celsius) are pouring hot water up to the surface. They are apparently easy to find (that’s what the guidebooks said!) by digging just a few inches down beneath the sandy surface. We did, however, spend quite some time digging and digging. After about an hour the beach started to look like a swiss cheese. We were not the only ones searching. I think there were 15-20 other people with spades and sticks. (We had rented our spade from the caravan park that we stayed in that night.) The authorities have not made any maps and there are no signs anywhere on the beach. They do make it hard! And just as we were about to give up, a young couple started to scream and shout. They had located one of the underground springs! So we all gathered to help make a nice and big pool, where the hot water could mix with the seawater, so that it would not be too hot for us to dip our feet in. We did not really succeed with this. There were another team of more experienced people (locals most likely) that were doing a much better job at this.
We did not have much time to enjoy the fun, as Anton was getting tired and was really running on overdrive. He was all over the place! So just as the last rays of sun disappeared and the stars started to show on the indigo blue sky, we drove back to our caravan park. This had been a great and very funny experience for us all!
The next morning we went on a hike to “Cathedral Cove”, which is an isolated, small bay, where you can see a beautiful arch in the cliffs. The tide will flood it, so you have to be there at the right time in order to walk all the way through it. This was yet another one of those many places here in New Zealand where you can experience an almost untouched and unspoiled nature, if you are willing to walk that extra mile to get there.
While on the Coromandel peninsula we also went to see the Driving Creek Railway and Pottery. This was in Coromandel Town. A somewhat odd, but visionary schoolteacher named Barry Brickell bought some old buildings on some deserted land in the early 1970’s, where he wanted to make a ceramic/pottery workshop and sanctuary for artists, to come and spend time and work. In order to get enough clay to the pottery workshop, he built a small railway that would go uphill to where they dug out clay on his own land, and transport it all back down. Well, both the railway and the pottery workshop turned out to become rather pervasive projects, and in 1990 Barry Brickells bank said stop! He had been focusing too much on his railway and his workshop, and too little on his mortgages.
So, Barry came up with the idea, that he could offer train rides to tourists into his land and woods on the hillsides. This became an instant attraction, and since then he has custom-built new trains, expanded the railway even further, and refined and developed the surrounding landscape. We had a few hours in a true fantasy world! Sort of a mix between Harry Potter and Salvador Dalí... If that even makes any sense! But it is the closest I can get to an explanation of what we experienced. Beautiful sculptures, fantastic tunnels, bridges and railway stretches. It all twists and twirls in and out of the hillside and through the woods. Throughout the area there are many small stations with view points over the valley and bay. It has also been quite a project to re-establish the original vegetation after generations of logging, neglect and gold mining in the area. This was an absolute highlight! One of those places you accidentally pass by and for some reason decide to take a closer look at. Needless to say Anton was thrilled to ride on such a funny train!
After the Coromandel peninsula, its lush nature and a record number of hairpin curves (I cannot think of ANY place in the world where I have seen so many hairpin curves... in my entire life!) I had had enough of rain forests and, yes, curvy roads (it is hard to climb mountains in a campervan!), so I convinced Alexandra that it was time to see something completely different!
Ever since I was a teenager, like so many other young boys, I have read and adored Tolkiens epic books about The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. I have also seen Peter Jacksons movies that I regard as the most beautiful ones on recent times. Peter Jackson is from New Zealand and all the movies are filmed and produced here.
A few kilometers outside the town of Matamata, right around the middle of the northern island of New Zealand, lies a sheep-farm belonging to the Alexander family. Sometime around the late 1990’s when Peter Jackson was searching for suitable locations to film The Lord of the Rings, he came across the land belonging to the Alexanders. This was the closest resemblance to the landscape of ancient England he could find. And ancient England is what people believe was the inspiration for Tolkien when he described the landscape of Middle Earth, the place where the story of The Lord of the Rings takes place. So here, on fields where sheep would normally live, they built “Hobbiton” for the filming of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. After the filming was finished, the whole set was removed again, and the sheep returned. But when Peter Jackson came back some years later, and wanted to film his new trilogy The Hobbit there, the Alexander family insisted that the set would be built in real, lasting materials, and not just plastic and plasterboards, so that the many, many, many die-hard fans that had come to see the location through the years, would actually have something to see, instead of just sheep on a field, albeit in beautiful surroundings. An agreement was made and as soon as the filming had come to an end, the Alexander family could start to make a real attraction out of Hobbiton. The houses of the hobbits are really just facades. But they are now made beautifully out of stone and timber, and it is an absolute joy to wander through “The Shire”, as it is called in the books of Tolkien. It looks exactly like you see it in the movies, and when you are a big fan of Tolkiens fantasy universe (and I am a big fan!) you can really walk around here for hours. Unfortunately you can only enter on guided tours, and our guide, polite and sweet, was also quite insisting that we could not walk around alone. Every day thousands of guests come here, and in order to preserve the area just a little bit, a certain discipline must be kept. Full time gardeners and other workers are making sure that the attraction stays beautiful though constant maintenance. But the main attraction, the hobbit hole of Bilbo Baggins, was closed and could only be seen from the outside. The 200.000 people that came last year had made it necessary to close the front yard of his place, so that nature could slowly, and by itself once again establish a beautiful hobbit garden.
There, in Hobbiton, we experienced the main difference between New Zealand and more “commercialized” countries like United States or Japan: This may be an attraction, but it is not an amusement park! You are invited to see and enjoy, but you cannot touch and there are no carrousels or roller coasters to ride. The only place open was the Green Dragon Inn, which has a prominent place in the story. We got ginger beer and cider here, before it was time to get back on the busses and return to the parking areas.
Hobbiton was an absolute highlight for all three of us. Even if you are not really a fan of Tolkien and his universe, I can only recommend a visit here! It is really beautiful and kept entirely in harmony with nature! A true pleasure!
After Hobbiton we have now relocated to Rotorua and Taupo, both in volcanic areas. Here we will experience the raw and harsh nature, with snowy peaks and steep canyons, but also the many hot springs and wonderful spa-experiences.
Click here for highlight pictures from our time so far in New Zealand.