There are a few cool things to see in the Westport, NZ area. One of those attractions is a fur seal colony just down the road at Cape Foulwind. From the parking lot, it’s a short walk to a small viewing platform above the rocky area where the seals were lounging. The rocks weren’t exactly crowded with seals, at least, not like we’ve seen them in other places on our trip. But the fur seals that were around were interesting to watch. There were several pups nursing from their mothers and a couple pups that were alone. We were hoping their moms were just out in the ocean hunting and would return soon. We took a lot of photos and a few videos, the best of which we’ll include below.
Yesterday morning we slept in and caught up on some laundry after breakfast. It was cloudy with a potential for rain, so we decided to do some sightseeing in Abel Tasman National Park in the car. Based on the recommendation of a local bus driver, we first took a hike to see where the Riwaka River comes out of a cave under the Takaka Hill. At nearly 800m the Takaka Hill is a limestone mountain north of Motueka, swiss-cheesed with limestone caves, that are the source of the Riwaka River. A very short hike took us up to where the river emerges from a dark cave opening, over grown with ferns and moss and pours into a beautiful crystal clear pool called the Riwaka Resurgence.
When it came to planning our trip around the South Island of New Zealand, our meager pre-planning pretty much consisted of answering one question: clockwise or counter-clockwise? Seeing as how we’re flying out of Christchurch in a few weeks, we decided to drive counter-clockwise around the island, finishing in Christchurch. On Christmas night I booked the next few nights in a campground up the road in Motueka. We didn’t know much about the area other than it’s close to Abel Tasman National Park. We assumed it will be a crowded tourist area, but seeing as how it’s the holiday season, there’s not much we can do about that.
Christmas Eve was sunny and warm, so after breakfast in our hotel, we set out to explore Wellington. We spent most of the day at the Museum of New Zealand or Te Papa Tongarewa, or as locals call it, just Te Papa. It’s located on the waterfront and was an easy walk from our hotel. Te Papa is a terrific museum highlighting the natural and cultural history of New Zealand, as well as displaying works from the National Art Collection. There a lot to see and digest, but it’s one of the few free things we’ve found to do in New Zealand so we had to take a look. I feel like it would take a few trips to this museum to really appreciate all it has to offer. One of the exhibits we enjoyed was about Shrek, a sheep that evaded muster (yearly round-up) for six years. When he was finally caught for shearing, he looked like a huge cauliflower on legs. After a day at the museum, we walked back home and Alan napped a bit while I finished reading American Gods, by Neil Gaiman. I’m on a bit of a reading binge and was glad to sit down and finish this book!
After a great day in Waitomo we hit the road to continue south. We have tickets to ride the ferry out of Wellington on Christmas day, and we also have a hotel reservation in Wellington lined up for the two nights before Christmas. So as much as we’d like to see more of the North Island, we had to get moving. Our last sightseeing stop before Wellington was the volcano Mount Taranaki (also called Mount Egmont) in Egmont National Park. This national park caught our eye while looking at maps because the park boundary is an almost perfect circle surrounding the volcano. Driving south along the coast we were surprised when we could make out the lower slopes of the mountain from almost 100 kilometers away.
We had hoped that we might wake to clearing skies over Tongariro today, but no such luck. We briefly considered waiting out the weather one more day, in the hopes of seeing the summits of the volcanoes. However, the hostel didn’t have another night in a double room for us, so we decided to cut our losses and move on to other sights. As we drove west, the skies cleared and we were treated to blue skies, puffy clouds, green hills, and of course, lots of sheep. We decided to spend one day in Waitomo to see the glowworm caves before pressing on to Mount Taranaki, another one of New Zealand’s volcanoes. The land around Waitomo is an ancient seabed that was lifted up in a period of land formation. The limestone layers of that ancient seabed have now been dissolving for millennia, so the area is a Swiss Cheese of caves and unusual rock formations. In fact, the Maori name Waitomo reflects this as wai (water) and tomo (cave).
After a couple enjoyable days in Rotorua it was time to move on. There’s a lot to see here on the North Island of New Zealand and as it is we’ll probably have to skip the entire southeast coast. Today we’re heading to Tongariro National Park. It is home to not one, but three volcanoes! One of them even appeared as Mt. Doom in the Lord of the Ring movies. But before Tongariro I wanted one last hot spring soak near Rotorua. There’s a spot where a creek of hot water meets a creek of cold water and you can pick how hot you want the water to be by moving around in the pool where the creeks come together. While there we chatted with an older Canadian couple who come to New Zealand every year when it’s winter in Canada. They had some helpful tips for the rest of our trip.
Yesterday we left the Hot Water Beach Holiday Park early to set out for the Rotorua area. The town of Rotorua and its environs sit on top of a volcanic zone that angles roughly along a northeast to southwest axis across the North Island. All across this zone there are hot springs, geysers, and bubbling mud pots. Rotorua developed as a spa town in the late 1800s and has remained a tourist attraction to this day. It’s no Niagara Falls, but it definitely attracts a lot of visitors like us, who enjoy a long, hot soak.
Yesterday started out very windy and cloudy. The Coromandel Peninsula is supposedly a popular summer getaway for Auckland residents, but the weather doesn’t feel like summer yet. We wish we could be here when it was warm and sunny out. Our guidebook says this location has some really great snorkeling and we had hoped to dig a hot pool at Hot Water Beach. However, there’s nothing we can do about the weather, so we made the best of it and went for a short hike to nearby Cathedral Cove. The trail goes up and down hills along the coast and includes some great viewpoints along the way. Reaching Cathedral Cove, we were surprised at how many people were there on such a cloudy, grey day. I can’t imagine the madhouse it must be on a nice day.
Our first order of business today was a drive through the suburbs west of Auckland to see the black sand beaches of the west coast. We followed narrow and winding roads through small communities all the way to Karekare, a tiny coastal village perched on a steep hillside above the Tasman Sea. Many of the west coast beaches are black, volcanic sand, and Karekare might be the best, and most beautiful example of this type of beach. The clouds and rain of the last few days cleared out and we were treated to bluebird skies when we arrived at the beach parking lot. It took us about 15 minutes to walk through groves of red-blooming Pohutukawa trees (kind of like a mimosa tree) and tree ferns before arriving at the dunes and the beach. The beach is very flat, but we arrived close to low tide and were treated to big expanses of black sand and blue water. Apparently this is the beach where Jane Campion filmed some of The Piano, if you saw that movie. We poked around the beach and dunes before walking back to the parking lot to get some water and snacks for the hike to a water fall across the street. A short up and down hike took us to a beautiful water fall that we spotted from the beach. We relaxed for a little while by the pool and then hiked back to the car.
We woke to continuing rain this morning, but decided to bundle up in rain gear and get out to see some of the giant kauri trees in Waipoua Forest. The kauri tree is a coniferous tree that is unique to New Zealand’s North Island. It is unusual in that it can grow for hundreds, even thousands, of years, and to enormous sizes. Kauri trees do not grow quite as tall as California Redwoods or the Giant Sequoias, but have huge girth, and individual trees can produce more usable board-feet of wood than either Redwoods or Sequoias. At one time, kauri forest dominated the northern part of the North Island, but over-foresting at the turn of the twentieth century largely decimated these forests. What remains are preserved pockets of kauri trees in a handful of forest parks like Waipoua Forest, where we spent the night last night.
As we drove out of the cabin area, we noticed the river next to the road had become swollen and muddy with all of the rain overnight. It was quite a change from the drive in to the cabin yesterday, but given the heavy rain overnight, not that surprising. Our first stop was a short hike to see Tane Mahuta, ‘The Lord of the Forest’. This is New Zealand’s largest kauri tree at a height of 51 meters (167 feet) and a girth of 13.8 meters (45 feet around). Tane Mahuta is estimated to be between 1250 and 2500 years old! A longer hike took us to see the Four Sisters, a grove of smaller kauri trees, and Te Matua Ngahere, known as ‘Father of the Forest’, and New Zealand’s second largest kauri tree. These huge trees were awe-inspiring not only for their size, but for the entire forest community that calls them home. A single kauri tree can support over thirty different forest species in the nooks and crannies of its branches!
After a few nights in the same place we hit the road today. Caroline took her first turn behind the wheel on the left side of the road. I gotta say the first couple days were a bit disorienting, but now it doesn’t feel as weird to be on the wrong side of the road.