Buckle up, its a looooong catch-up entry.
We're on the ferry now (or...we were at the time this was written, it takes me a while to find wifi good enough to load photos...) - hence, time to write this beast -making the Cook Strait crossing from the north to south island of New Zealand. The North Island has been a pretty great start to this trip, but we're really excited for the South. Supposed to be a bit more off the beaten track (while still traveling with hoards of others like us, on said beaten track, ha). Ride has been smooth so far, which is awesome considering there are quite a few horror stories and the lonely planet book calls it a "white knuckle" ride. Sheeeeeeeeet, we got this.
Annnnnyway....Haven't been stellar at regularly updating here (been a bit better with instagram and facebook photos), but here are some of our North Island highlights!
- picking up the campervan after ACL, we met another American, Bella, in the Spaceship rentals parking lot, who has been traveling since January and had an amazing amount of tips and pointers ( for campervanning in general, locations, etc). Really put our minds at ease and basically confirmed that the campervan life was going to be awesome. And just right for our lazy travel style. For example, she mentioned that since there are so many DOC (dept of conservation, cheap basic camping sites) sites and holiday parks (private, usually more ammenities), as long as you show up relatively early, you never really need to book ahead. Good. Because otherwise we'd be in trouble. Went to hot water beach in Cormomandel, where theres a hot spring under the sands, and if you dig in a certain spot you can make your own hot tub. We got a little lazy, and just watched others do that. But dig your feet in, and you can only stand it a few moments before the water/sand is too hot to handle (and in no way too cold to hold.)
- Hobbiton was awesome, as Adam posted. Really just adorable. And made me want a hobbit garden. And hobbit house. And cheese-filled hobbit pantry. And hobbit green dragon tavern. Basically, a hobbit life, without ring-holding responsibilities.
- Glow Worms! I thought this was going to be pretty cheesy but the tour did it pretty right. No photos allowed, so google it to see what I'm talking about (Waitomo Glow Worms). Basically, a family discovered this fairly large cave with glow worms over 100 years ago and have been giving tours ever since (glow worms are elsewhere in the country, too, but its a really cool concentration of them in this cave). There's also a huge "cathedral" room in the cave with amazing acoustics, so they sometimes have concerts, sometimes with famous people. The name that hilariously stuck with me was Kenny Rogers. Yesssss. Anyway, glow worms have a bizarre life that mostly exists in this bioluminescent larvae form. They hang out in caves, like this one, on the cave ceiling, feeding off of little bugs that get caught in little sticky lines they drop. The ceiling of this cave is just full of them, like a really cool, serene, blue starry sky. And the tour ends with a dark boat ride to see the glow worms, and they do the best thing ever -they tell everyone to SHUT UP during this part (except the guides are way more charming and polite than that). Best direction ever for a tour like this. Very cool experience to float in total silence, in this large, dark cave, with this bizarre and amazing site above you (while also hoping no larvae fall on you...they didnt). But its the end of the life of the worm cracked me up... They're a glowing larvae for about 10 months, then they finally become an adult just long enough to procreate, and then DIE immediately of starvation (about 2 days later) because the adult form has no mouth or stomach. But they sure look pretty as larvae!
Side note, huge announcement on the ferry that the "scone trolly" is about to come around, with fresh-from-the-oven scones and jams. This country is amazing.
- Rotorua was next, is a hot town, literally...smack on top of a ton of thermal activity, and also a prime spot for Maori cultural shows (that we didn't go to). It rained for two days straight when we were here, though, so we mostly saw the inside of their museum and restaurants, and were really busy making bad decisions about walking vs driving and getting completely soaked. It's also here that the state of (the smell of) our campervan went downhill rather quickly, given the overall sulphur smell of town, and wet everything. Mmmm. Did see some cool exhibits on Maori life and some cool bubbling springs (they were everywhere around town, fenced off, though, i suppose so all the tourist don't accidentally stumble into one).
- Also walked through one of their California Redwood Forests. Yes, California. Apparently all their trees in this area were crap to build with, too soft and such, so they planted a bunch of foreign species to see what would take. The redwoods definitely took. Apparently the volcanic soil is awesome for the trees, and even though the forest we were in is only 100 or so years old, they have some huge trees. Guide said some of their 100 year old trees rival the size of some of the old growth trees of California. Kind of fascinating.
- Waikite thermal springs, posted about that...was awesome.
- Headed to Lake Taupo, beautiful area. Just wandered around the lake and the town there. However. It was Good Friday. I did not get the feeling that New Zealand was a particularly religious country, but they take their Easter holidays pretty seriously. Not only is almost everything outright closed on Good Friday and Easter Sunday (fine, fine), but they have weird alcohol laws on these days for the few open spots. NO booze sold at a lot of places, and the ones that do, you HAVE to order a "substantial" meal. Then they get really specific on how to categorize "substantial." This is THE LAW. The country took time to specify meal requirements for drinking beer on this holiday. This resulted in a pretty strategic conversation with the (British, and also bewildered at this law) waitress because we weren't hungry, but we were thirsty (ordered pasta and took most of it with us for dinner. HaHAAA! Loophole!)
- Next morning, crack 'o dawn, Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Very cool day hike that takes you past Mt Ngauruhoe (aka Mt Doom), through volcanic rock formations, steaming vents, emerald lakes. Legendary hike, that a lot of people do. And we were there on Easter Saturday, one of the busiest days of the year. It is 19km long, and the entire way we were completely surrounded by people. Hiking in a line, pretty much. Either stopping to let others pass, or trying to pass others, ourselves. But the landscape was crazy and beautiful and the masses of people almost felt like part of the experience, so I'm still glad we did it (Adam may feel differently!).
- Whanganui - cool little town where the Whanganui River meets the Tasman Sea. Not much open, (EASTER!!) but we did check out a hilltop lookout. Took an ancient 1910 elevator to the top of the hill and met the woman who's been operating it for FORTY YEARS! 40 years in an elevator. She joked she's only still there because "they" wouldn't let her out, ha!! Cool view... Mountains, river, sea.
- I had made Adam take a scenic route to get to Whanganui. It followed the river, was totally curvy and pretty, and sometimes you weren't convinced the van wouldn't topple over the cliff into the river. So Adam loved it. But road karma caught up with me immediately, for my next turn driving, as we left Whanganui for a highly recommended regional park outside of Wellington - Kaitoke (they filmed Rivendell here, too). And it was only $NZ12 to camp. Sold. But oh my god, the road through the mountains to get there. Not only was it windy, and almost entirely on a cliff, but it's a two-way road on a one-way road width. You have NO idea when a car will come barreling around the corner and you'll almost die (the answer is "often"). Speed limit was like, 40 or 50 mph; I think I went 20 the whole time and often felt too fast at that. New Zealander drivers on the road with me did not. They are crazy.
But! We didn't die, the campsite was cool, everyone in all of Wellington was also camping there on the holiday weekend but it was still fun, we made it to Wellington the next day, the end.