Exploring NZ’s North Island

Everyone that has been to or lives in NZ probably has an opinion about which of the two islands they like most or is the prettiest. I’ve mostly heard that the South Island, with far less people than North, should be the most beautiful one. We were about to find out now that our North Island part of the trip begins. 
Our first full day on the North Island was spent in Wellington and after that day we had to choose the next destination. However all planned activities were outdoor and the weather forecast wasn’t too good. We pick Mount Taranaki on the East Coast. On the way there we run across an active Dutch grainmill and Dutch store. I resist the temptation to buy drop for four times the normal price but we do pay the mill a visit. 

It’s both sunny and rainy today and we get some information about the weather for tomorrow. The hike/tramp to Mt Taranaki (2518 m, 1600 m altitude rise over 6,3 km track) is the hardest one-day hike there is in NZ and needs some serious preparation. It can take up to 10 hours in total and weather conditions have to be good to be able to see the unmarked track toward the summit. Only the morning was expected to have some dry hours. Unfortunately we could not risk going to the summit with this forecast and had to shift our plan to the adjoining Fanthams peak. This one “only” has 1100 meter altitude rise. We started our tramp in a rainforest. Trees overgrown with moss all around us. Once we pass the tree line we come into another lush green jungle, here we are lucky enough to get a clear view of both peaks. This moment lasts for just about 2 minutes and the clouds are back (and never went away). And slowly the green trees and bushes begin to fade away. It gets colder higher up the mountain and the hill gets steeper. The final part is the heaviest. Walking on the 45 degrees slope of a volcano with scree turns out to be extremely tiring. You lift your leg up and place it 40 cm higher, but when you put your weight on your leg it drops 20 cm because of the loose stones. It’s demanding and not at all rewarding. The view slowly deteriorates and by the time we only saw one track indicator ahead of us through the clouds, we decided to turn around. There was no chance of seeing Mt. Taranaki clearly and going down promised to be another challenge.

Once we were back at the car we could see how close we had actually been to the summit. This workout was enough to make my calves hurt for days. See the video for an impression. By the way it is funny to look up mount Taranaki on Google Maps and see the circle of nature around the crater. On a clear day you’re able to see the mountain from afar (we obviously couldn’t).

That night we went to have dinner in New Plymouth with Rachel and Jonathan. Rachel is the colleague of Siebren that gave us a fantastic extensive list of ideas and activities in NZ. 
The Taranaki region has been called the world’s second best region to visit by Lonely Planet. Turns out the surroundings were indeed beautiful. We enjoyed the ride from here to Waitomo a lot. 

In Waitomo there are caves that have glowworms inside, making it a popular tourist destination. Technically, they’re glowmaggots, but that sounds even less appealing, so glowworms is the name they are going with. There isn’t much else around and we only came for our three hour tour in the caves. My expectations weren’t too high but it turns out that having a boat ride through a dark cave only being lit by thousands and thousands of glowworms is actually very beautiful. Magical even. It takes 20 minutes for your eyes to fully adjust to the darkness, but once they have you begin to see more and more faint glowworms. The perfect activity for the most rainy day of our trip.

We passed by Hamilton for a quick visit to a chiropractor (neck/back problems), a lunch and an escape room (escaped and addicted), before changing directions land inward to Matamata. 

In Matamata you can find the original movie set for Hobbiton. Well known from the books of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Created by Peter Jackson and team and luckily enough not broken down after the filming of the movies was completed as was originally planned. None of these films are ever going to be the same again after having walked here. It was beautiful to walk around through Hobbiton, seeing all the exact same spots as in the movies and getting some additional side stories. None of the Hobbit holes have actual houses behind their doors, but The Green Dragon pub is fully active. The tour ends with a drink there and there is one big smile on my face for being there. Awesome!

From Matamata we drive to Taupo, the sky is clear enough to have a good view of the Milky Way (Southern Hemisphere luck) and take some camera pictures of it. The next day was the most sunniest day in the weather forecast and we chose that one to plan our skydive. Skydiving has been a lifelong dream of mine and I would hate for it to be cancelled.

I wake up extremely early because I could no longer sleep of the excitement. When the sun came up there were some clouds, but it looked promising. When I first called to see if the jump would continue they told me to call back in half an hour and the second time they told me to come because we were doing the jump! Aaaaaaah it’s really going to happen!!

We did our skydive at Taupo Tandem Skydiving, it is obviously at the Taupo airport. First we had to sign a disclaimer, get weighed and pick our package. We could jump from 9.000, 12.000 or 15.000 ft, and we both picked the last and highest one (about 4,5 km). I added the free fall camera package. Then we went in the next room to put on our outfit and additional gear and to meet our jump master. We started with four people and at least three of them had a pretty nervous expression (Siebren was most relaxed). We had to wait for the skies to clear and watched the instruction video. And then it was time to go into the small plane that would take us up to the jump spot. 

In the plane my instructor, master, jump buddy gave some final explanations and told me to enjoy the view. I was sitting at the front of one of the two benches. At 12.000 ft they leveled the plane as there was one guy jumping out on his own. This was the scariest part, watching him jump out of the now open door of the plane. He disappears in an instant and the airspeed during the free fall becomes very clear. At 15.000 ft another girl goes first, she screams but it fades away quickly and then it is my turn. Just go with the flow, follow the instructions and here we gooooooo. It was scary for about a second and then it becomes surreal. During the free fall your falling through the sky with a speed of at least 200 km/h. The feeling is amazing and I couldn’t compare it to anything else I have done. After about one minute the parachute is opened and we have another 4-5 minutes of amazing views. One more explanation of the landing and we are there, softly landing on our buts. This was the most epic, adventurous, magnificent thing we did and I absolutely loved it. Here are some pics and the video.

The rest of the day was very relaxed and we stayed at our campsite at Lake Taupo. The weather was perfect and we didn’t use any of the facilities provided to cook inside but set up our own outdoor kitchen. 

In my first post about NZ I was a bit skeptical about the campsites and provided facilities. But now we have learned how to search and not only use the governmental sites as they are much more expensive and usually less equipped. 

The first of April was again a beautiful day, perfect for the hike we had planned. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is described as one of the best one day hikes in the world. The hike is 20 kilometers and takes you across an active volcano. We parked our car at the finish and were brought to the start by a bus that was barely functioning and we weren’t sure if the bus or the driver was older, the driver mentioned he was 60 years old.

Other than all previous hikes we weren’t the only ones doing the crossing. Hundreds of people with different levels of fitness were gathering at the start. Because of its popularity the track was very well paved. Although we had a 550 meter climb to the first crater, there were many steps to make it easier. Here we had to choose, finish the crossing or add a sidetrack to the summit of Mt Ngauruhoe (that would be Mt Doom for Lord of the Rings fans, you know where Frodo dropped the ring). There is no marked track to the peak at an altitude of 2287 meter (630m rise from our position) and the best option was to follow the old lava flows and the rocky ridges. To make up for not going to Taranaki summit we went for it. It was quite the challenge as there was no track, and again scree (mainly loose rocks and stones). But once we did reach the summit the views were even more rewarding. It was a clear day and we could see the surroundings of the park we were in, but also Mt Taranaki 150 km away. Going down was even more challenging and then we had to finish the rest of the original crossing, another 13 km. Mostly extremely beautiful views of the several craters and lakes, lava fields and even Lake Taupo in the distance. But also very tiring with really sore muscles. The entire day was eventful and active. Again lucky with the weather as it was. We’ve made another video capturing some of the moments during the day.

This was an eventful stretch of days and we have been fortunate with the weather. In the next and last week we’ll travel up north from Lake Taupo towards Auckland.

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