Travelling New Zealand’s North Island

We’ve been living, working and walking in Wellington – the teeny city with a big pulse, but have taken weekends out to explore more of New Zealand’s North Island. From the volcanic region of Rotorua to the rugged landscapes of Ohakune, we’ve been making journeys from the city to explore the rest of the island’s highlights, and all of it backpacker style.

When we booked the weekend to Ohakune we were ready to hike. The town is known for its easy access to Mount Tongariro and its famous Alpine crossing. We invested in fleeces from New Zealand’s answer to Primark, the Warehouse, zipped up our Kathmandu puffer jackets and took the seven-hour-long Naked bus (a company that run long-haul buses in NZ) to the quaint little town.

The journey was beautiful and we had a markedly chatty driver who reported on the landscape and how it was formed, in short, it was a huge volcanic eruption, which has left its mark on much of the North Island’s scenery.

We’d booked to stay in a sort-of Lodge with a distinctive look, called Kings Ohakune. On closer inspection it was a little more basic, and the room a little small, than advertised, but the free spa and proximity to the local pub suited us nicely.

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We paid the hotelier the fee for the bus to the ominous crossing, and proceeded to visit the various attractions in the town (shops and the iSite) to be given the same advice in every place – you’ll need a better jacket than that (referring to the Kathmandus). So we paid a visit to the ski hire shop and rented a couple of ski-worthy waterproofs so we were ready for anything.

The morning had arrived, and after a delightful jam, toast and cereal brek at Kings we were ready to board the bus to the crossing, only as we greeted driver he informed us that the crossing was cancelled because the winds were at 98km/h at the top and it was unsafe. Overwhelmed and very disappointed we agreed to let him take us to the Old Coach Road walk as recompense, and chatted to the other backpackers, one of whom was an experienced hiker and had completed the crossing before. He said he’d heard stories of people suffering from hypothermia at the top and not being able to stand for severe winds, I guess you really can never be too prepared.

The heavens opened and our four-hour walk along the Old Coach Road (which originally connected Auckland and Wellington) was very wet. Still, it offered some pretty green vistas and some quirky old ruins. It also offered us the hike we’d hoped for, to an extent. After a spa and a couple of episodes of the Wire at the hotel, the hike probably didn’t justify such laziness, we spent the rest of the evening in the local pub indulging in pizza.

 

Just a few weeks ago we also journeyed up to Rotorua. A little further from Wellington we (for some reason) opted for the all-night sleeper bus to the town…. again with Naked bus.

We were pretty excited for the bus journey, as you get with all things novel and new, and hoped it would be more luxurious than the all-night buses we’d taken in India and South America. Sadly, it was not. In fact, it was possibly less so… There were no blankets and it was freezing, but what really kept me up all night was the fact that there were not enough beds for everyone. A young girl of around 14 had to perch on the edge of a bed just to sit down, while a grown couple occupied a single and a double bed. Not cool.

When we arrived in the eggy stench of the volcanic town we were exhausted. It was 5am, freezing cold and we just wanted to sleep. Luckily, the owner of the Rotorua Motel (our accommodation of choice) collected us from the bus stop and allowed us to check in early. A bit like Ohakune, despite the extortionate price for the room (over $140 a night), it was a little dismal. The décor is like something from the 70s and very little works as a concept. When we started to walk the streets of Rotorua we realised that all of the so-called “motels” proffered the same shabby facade.

Known as Rota-Vegas, the town has been reeling in tourism for decades thanks to its proximity to the geo-thermal region, which offers magnificent geysers, boiling pools and spas. Of course, with this key attraction there has been no need to improve or renovate the establishments, despite the cost of the accommodation.

A little sleepy but ready to go we embraced the beautifully sunny but brisk weather and set about to visit as many geo-thermal sites as possible. We started in Te Puia, where we saw the Southern Hemisphere’s largest Geyser, shooting up to 30 metres. It was a little disappointing as a place with a half-hearted recreation of a mini Maori village and very little else.

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When we arrived the Living Maori Village just round the corner we realised our mistake. We should never have visited Te Puia. The Maori Village, or Whakarewarewa, is actually a real Maori village and a geo-thermal site. After a long conversation with an incredible Maori woman, an ancestor of the chief of the village’s tribe, we learned some more about the truth behind Te Puia.

The land that is now the “theme park” that is Te Puia, was actually Maori land, and on the day we were there they had just won the right to have it back from the Crown (of England, in case you were unsure).

Essentially, the geysers and geo-thermal pools have been used a money-making scheme for generations, and have prohibited the true owners and inhabitants of the land from accessing it. The Maori from this region have lived on geo-thermal land for centuries, and bathe, eat and cook in the incredible outpouring of steaming hot water.

Sadly, as the climate changes and people overuse the resources, hotels primarily like the motels I mention, the geysers become inactive and pools disappear. This blatant stripping of resources for tourism sake felt a extremely wrong, and extremely familiar. Like with Australia and the UK, we sometimes forget that our countries are as corrupt as developing ones, we just pretend they are not.

We also braced the outdoors with some mountain biking. It was the first time I’d officially mountain biked, and despite the pain I suffered from clinging on too tightly to the handlebars, I really enjoyed it. The tracks took us deep into the forest and it was incredible to be so mobile.

With sore bums and burnt hands we finished our weekends how we always do, with the pub, a pizza and a great deal of reflection.

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