5 years ago

From Welly to Waitomo | North Island, New Zealand


After tramping my way through four Great Walks, it was time to give the knee a rest and get into cars, bars, and holes in the North Island. Sadly, my day hike at Abel Tasman National Park would be the last time I’d properly enjoy the great outdoors on A Great Journey.

Abel Tasman National Park New Zealand
My last hike. A good one!

While on the tip of South Island, Nelson was home for a few days. Surrounded by hop farms, craft beer was easy to find here, as were good hostels (YHA Nelson & the InnBetween), good people, and a good ringmaker.

Moutere Inn, New Zealand
New Zealand’s oldest pub still, the Moutere Inn is near Nelson and still operating in its original building.

I couldn’t resist the latter (Jens Hansen made the rings for the Lord of the Rings/Hobbit movies) and walked out with a simple memento to commemorate my visit to New Zealand and A Great Journey. In a small way, it parallels the ones Bilbo and Frodo went on. We even have the same birthdays. Yes, this is really nerdy.

A choppy but enjoyable ferry across the Cook Strait got me to New Zealand’s capital. I think Wellington is underrated, to be honest. The Weta Cave and the impressive Te Papa National Museum were great stops on this brief visit. As were Little Beer Quarter, Hashigo Sake, and the Golding’s Free Dive, despite four beers setting you back 50 bucks, which hurt.

The little cable car was just ok, but being a kid in the rain while exploring the Wellington Botanic Gardens was great.

The weather gods didn’t smile upon me, so I nixed my plans to hike the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Instead, I rerouted my North Island roadie through Napier. A gem of a town with a bevy of beautifully preserved Art Deco buildings, it’s a great base for exploring the wineries in the area. But it’s not a great place for finding a bed after 9 pm, so I spent the night in my car.

Luckily, my Transfercar happened to be a station wagon this time, so it wasn’t too bad.

With Taking Back Sunday playing in Auckland on Wednesday night, I hustled through Welly & Napier in four days. Had they not been playing, I would’ve taken my sweet time moving through the North Island until it came time to leave New Zealand.

But it was worth it! I got to see one of my favorite bands in a bar the size of a large garage. And lost my voice.

I played tourist in Auckland for a couple more days, wishing I could run (instead of walk) through Cornwall Park, going up Mt. Eden, and planning my return to Wellington, on yet another, perfectly-timed, free Transfercar! I love them.

But first, a terrific trifecta of stops along the way: Waitomo, Kawhia, and Hobbiton.

Waitomo is well-known for its underground caves, where cold water runs below you and glowworms shine like greenish stars above and around you.

This was a tourist stop I wasn’t really keen on experiencing given the cost. Until I found a great option that was more adventurous than an $80, 20-minute boat ride. Over group dinner at the wonderful Albatross hostel in Kaikoura (very cool little beach town), I found out about BookMe.co.nz. I booked a 5-hour outing with Kiwi Cave Rafting on there that turned out to be one of my favorite organized tours on AGreatJourney.

Not only did I get plenty of glowworm action, but also abseiling, caving, blackwater tubing, and rock climbing. Totally fun and well worth the $150 NZD.

I joined a small group, and after changing into wet suits, being outfitted in boots, helmets, headlamps, and hot pants, we got a safety briefing from our guide, Beth.

Kiwi Cave Rafting, Waitomo, North Island

There was no hesitation on my end when she asked for a volunteer to rappel first into the cave. A beautiful, adrenaline-inducing 27-meter descent and some nice, cool water awaited.

Into the Waitomo Caves with Kiwi Cave Rafting
Descending into the glow worm caves in Waitomo. Such an amazing underground tubing experience.

Waiting at the bottom and seeing the rest of the group descend only made me wish I had my trusty Ricoh GR (cameras & phones aren’t allowed).  Humans floating through the sunlight into the green and gray cave while hovering above rushing water was quite a sight. I did the next best thing and asked the guide on an earlier tour to shoot one for me.

After that, we caved through the depths, sometimes squeezing through tight spaces, but mostly just fighting the current and trying not to lose our tubes, because…

Tubing in the dark through an underground river surrounded by walls full of worms was a damn good time!

After exiting the cave via some rope-assisted rock climbing, we finished the day with a hot shower. Then we went back to the office, where we got a a cuppa tomato soup, and some bread to shake off any shivers from the cold river.  off to Kawhia to get wet again, this time at a hot water beach.

Kawhia, New Zealand
En route to Kawhia. Stunning pit stop!

New Zealand has a lot of geothermal activity, so there are a few of these sandy stretches. With a little planning, a spade, and a some luck, you can enjoy your very own natural hot tub, right on the beach. It’s pretty cool.

Kawhia, New Zealand

There’s a really popular option on the Coromandel peninsula, Hot Water Beach. Yet, given the crowds there, I opted for Kawhia, on the western side of the North Island. It was closer to my route from Auckland to the Waitomo worm cave, and far less touristy. This black sand beach is one of New Zealand’s best-kept little secrets.

Furthermore, there’s free camping nearby, thanks to the owners of the Oparau Roadhouse. They have a gas/petrol station, a well-stocked store, a little bar, basic bathrooms, and Wi-Fi. They even let you borrow spades/shovels to help on the beach. While there were no showers, it worked out just fine. And, despite being a global warming denier, Bill, the owner was nice. He comes around to say hello at night.

Oparau Roadhouse
My spot at the Oparau Roadhouse.

So, here’s how hot water beaches work:

  • Look up the timing of the tides. This will only work about 2.5 hours on either side of low tide. I lucked out and took in sunset in my jacuzzi.
  • Kick off your shoes and feel around for hot spots. You’ll definitely know when you hit one. Or, as in my case, a good samaritan will point you in the right direction after digging unsuccessfully multiple times.
  • Once you find a hot spot, start digging and see if Mother Nature sends some hot water oozing up. But be careful as the water can be downright steaming.
  • If you hit a good hotspot, dig until your hot tub grows to a size of your liking. Then jump in and enjoy!
Kawhia, New Zealand
Digging this.

I did all that and went home with a smile (and a lot of sand, everywhere).

Finally, it was time to go to a part of the North Island I’d been looking forward to seeing since I was in Seattle. Reading a book by the fireplace, I was repeatedly inspired to follow my heart and go on an adventure.

“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us,” it said.

In the morning, I would drive to Matamata, meander through the Shire, and feed my inner nerd at The Green Dragon. Yet that’s a story for a different day.

Hobbiton New Zealand

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