My base for work was in Jeffreys Bay, about 200 km south of Sydney. As I had a 3-week window between two work sessions, my plan was to explore Australia. Then, a few days before embarking on my discovery of the land of Oz, my old dream of visiting New Zealand popped up in my head... At the same time I recalled that one of my best friends whom I had not seen for 13 years might still be living in Auckland. So I tried to locate him and in less than 2 days my plans had changed completely and my ticket was booked to visit Leon and discover Kiwi land!
I met Leon Baard when I arrived in South Africa in 1998. We were very close but in 2002 he and his family moved to the UK. After a few years, we lost contact... But on the evening of August 15, my old friend Leon picked me up at Auckland airport and together we drove to his big family house located 60 km north in the small village of Kaukapakapa.
Because we arrived after dark, I only discovered the scenery on the next morning from the window of my bedroom - typical kiwi farmland. This first encounter with New Zealand's landscape confirmed the picture that I had always had in my mind. My second encounter was with the country's number one sport - watching Leon coach kids' rugby.
New Zealand has 15000 km of coastline, about a third of what Australia has - a country that is more than 11 times bigger in size! My first beach was the volcanic black sand of Muriwai where thousands of australasian gannets feed and breed on the cliffs. At just four months of age, the young birds fly to Australia, nearly 3000 km away. This is remarkable because they have never flown or even found food before!
The absolute best way to travel in New Zealand is by motorhome. And I certainly do not regret the fact that I opted for a big diesel camper van (Ford Transit). In it I could easily stand up at the back and it was "self-contained" (i.e. had a toilet and grey water tank), which allows you to use all of New Zealand's "freedom camps" (many being free of charge). I got my camper from Affordable Motorhome which is a family business. The cost per day was only about AU$33/day plus the diesel tax of about AU$70/1000km.
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You must also know that New Zealand is a rainy country...
Fortunately, when the sun shows up and pushes through the clouds, the scenery becomes pure magic!
The rolling green hills of the Coromandel Peninsula from Kereta to the little town of Coromandel were surely the highlight of my first day on my own...
... as was the scene of the few fishing boats in the little harbour of Coromandel, illuminated by the last rays of the sun setting over the hill.
The roads in New Zealand are often narrow and many bridges are only one lane, so you need to always be prepared to stop quickly! The speed limit is maximum 100 km/h - but with a slight tolerance of 10 km, for which I was grateful :). Anyway the countryside was so pretty and so green that it was never a problem to take it easy, even for a "fast" driver like me. ;)
The highest peaks of North Island are Mt Ruapehu at 2997 m and its neighbour Mt Ngauruhoe at 2291 m. Although both volcanic mountains were under snow during my trip, Leon and I had talked about summiting Ruapehu (in spite of the fact that it is one of the world's most active volcanoes). We kept our eyes on the forecast and when we saw an opening for clear sky and no wind for 2 days, the plan was set in motion!
The ascent with crampons and 15 kg backpack was a bit strenuous but would have been worse had I not come to my senses at the last minute and left my heavier camera equipment behind... The strain, however minimised, was certainly worth the effort. And I will never forget our memorable night at -15 degrees Celcius in an extra small one-man tent (if only Leon had been a woman...). Then there was the 2 hours we needed to get our fingers and toes defrosted!
Can you imagine the silence on the the top of Mt Ruapehu with no wind and a clear blue sky...?
The ice formations around the crater were absolutely amazing... Some people call them cauliflowers!
There is a warm lake in the southern part of the crater, which would have helped to thaw our fingers and toes... Too bad it was too acidic for a swim!
In general, there are a lot of lakes and water in (and around) New Zealand - it is everywhere! Yes, even often falling out of the sky...
The region of Waiotapu is well known as a thermal wonderland, especially around Rotorua where there are some incredible geysers, boiling mud and other geothermal features. Many of these are considered sacred sites by the Maori people. My time was unfortunately a bit short and I could only visit a few places.
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Nine days to visit North Island is definitely too short but at least I got a first glimpse of that beautiful country!