In December we made the most of the Christmas break and headed off on a 10 day adventure around the North Island in our campervan Benny!
Before this we hadn’t done much travelling in the 4 months we’d been in the country other than a weekend trip to Taupo. We also saw this as a good trial run for our campervan before hitting the road to travel around the South Island for 2 months.
First stop – Whanganui! We mainly just stopped here to break up the drive and frankly there wasn’t much going on. This may be partly down to the fact that it was over Christmas and most places were still closed. Overall I really really liked this town. The magnificent Whanganui river flows through the center of the town and there are some lovely river walks you can complete. We ended up staying in a fantastic freedom camp site in Kowhai Park North, which the I-Site recommended. It was right by the river, shaded, had drinking water, a dump station and new clean flushable toilets. Unsurprisingly it filled up pretty fast that evening but I would highly recommend it for the night.
While we were there we went up the Durie Hill War Memorial Elevator and Tower. Its $2pp to go up the elevator. There are some nice views across the town and river and it’s a short descent back down if you don’t fancy taking the scary old elevator again!
The Forgotten World Highway
Next up we headed off along the Forgotten World Highway. This is a 150km drive running from Stratford to Taumarunui. It certainly lives up to its namesake. You won’t meet too many other cars and almost no houses or towns on your journey. Our first stop was to drive through the eerie Makahu Tunnel.
From here we then made our way to the Republic of Whangamomona. This is a unique little haven in the middle of nowhere. The town became a republic in 1988 when the local council intended to divide Whangamomona into two regions. This action led locals to declare themselves an independent republic complete with their own president (only one of which has been human!). This is a cute place for a pit stop. We walked through the town reading about the history and looking through all the photos decorating shop fronts. We then called into Whangamomona Hotel which is the focal point in the town. Here we treated ourselves to a refreshing beer and made sure to get our passports stamped for $2 each so we could officially be welcomed into the republic!
Next on our journey we headed towards Moki Tunnel which is known to locals as ‘Hobbits Hole’, before heading to Mt Damper Falls. This was a short 20 min walk to the North Island’s second highest waterfall. After being sat in the car driving for most of the day, this walk was badly needed.
There are no shortage of incredible viewing areas along the highway, including; Strathmore Saddle, Pohokura Saddle, Whangamomona Saddle and Tahora. These incredible views will make you feel like you’re in Lord of the Rings!
We finished up our journey in Taumarunui at the Taumarunui Holiday Park where powered sites start at $18pp a night and non-powered start from $16pp. This was a lovely site with a nice big kitchen and good Wi-Fi. I would say the one downside was that there was only 2 showers so I imagine if the park was full you could have a long wait.
After a night of rain we were ready to get to Tauranga. On route we stopped at Putaruru Blue Spring. The water at the Blue Spring takes 100 years to filter from the Mamaku Plateau and supplies over half of New Zealand’s bottled water. There is a beautiful walk along board walks that brings you by the crystal clear water, wetlands, forests and small waterfalls.
There are 2 places to start the walk from – Whites Road car park or Leslie Road. We began at Leslie Road which is only a 15 minute walk to the Blue Spring and then continued along the boardwalk. It’s a 4.7km walk which isn’t a loop and takes about 3 hours return. It was absolutely beautiful. Most of the scenery and views are at the Leslie Road end so we didn’t walk all the way to the other car park. After getting some fresh air it was onwards to Tauranga!
We only stayed in Tauranga for one night but it’s definitely somewhere I want to go back and visit again. It’s a bustling beach town with an endless amount of shops, bars and restaurants to choose from. As we went over Christmas, the town was buzzing with families taking full advantage of the warm weather on the beaches. This meant accommodation was in short supply however there are over 15 freedom camp sites to choose from (note, some sites only have space for 1-2 campervans so get there early to bag a spot). We ended up getting free camping in a marina which was a 15 minute walk to the beach and bars. That day we wandered along the beach before grabbing food and drinks in a lovely English pub called the ‘Crown and Badger’.
The next day we decided to tackle Mt Maunganui. This is a short hike you can do right on the beach front which will offer you panoramic views of the coast. There are several different routes with the most direct one taking 45 mins to ascend the 232m summit. It’s a continuous set of staircases that, in the midday heat, can seem unforgiving. You are most certainly rewarded at the top with breathtaking views of the beachfront, town and ocean.
I had heard so much about Raglan from so many different people. We decided to stay 2 nights here over New Year’s Eve. The first night we stayed in a very random campsite in the car park of a bar. It was $15 dollars for a self-contained camper for the night and there were public toilets just 2 mins down the road. As peculiar as it was you couldn’t beat the location right in the heart of the town center. We spent one day lying on the black sand beach, reading and taking in the scenery. The next day we geared up to climb Mt Karioi.
There are 2 different tracks to the summit. The Wairake Track takes approx. 3 hours to the summit and is considered to be a shorter, less steep climb. The Mt Karioi Track takes approx. 3.5 hours to the summit and is much steeper. Naturally, because Richie chose this, we went for the more difficult one. Along the walk you will go up ladders, through fields, forests, ridgeways and even use chains to help pull yourself up. The weather had been wet in the days leading up to the hike and when we got to the most difficult part with the chains, we didn’t feel like it was safe for us to get up and down them (my short legs were having none of it), so we turned around and headed back. Despite not reaching the summit and the lack of views, it was a beautiful hike that I have recommended to several people since.
We also headed out to Bridal Veil Falls which are a 15 min drive outside the town. Its an easy 10 minute walk through woodland to the top viewing point. You can then head down the steps (approx. 200) to the bottom of the waterfall. It was beautiful to see, however, after climbing Mt Karioi the climb back up those 200 steps was no easy feat!
That night we checked into the Raglan Holiday Park. This is a great site right on the beach with easy access to the town center across the bridge. It’s an enormous site with fantastic facilities (including kids club and a stage). Powered sites start at $55 a night and unpowered for $48 (for 2 people sharing). As it was New Years Eve we had a front row seat to the incredible fireworks display at midnight along the beachfront. What a start to 2019!
Aside from that lovely rotten eggy-sulphur smell I loved Rotorua! We stayed 2 nights in the Rotorua Family Holiday Park which offers un/powered sites from $34 a night. There is so much to do and see here, from Canyon Swings, Zorbing and hikes, to thermal parks and Maori village experiences. There are only 2 downsides: everything costs a lot of money, and you need a car to get around easily. During our couple of days here we hit up the free thermal pool in Kuirau Park in the town center. Here we also got to check out the mud pools and the steamy walkway (I ended up looking like Monica from Friends after all that humidity).
We then headed out to Whakarewarewa Redwood Forest. Here there are loads of different forest walks that vary from 30 mins to 3 hours. You can also do a Treetop Walk, however, it costs $29pp and we’d heard mixed things. We decided to give it a miss and do the 30min loop instead which was so peaceful and beautiful. I’ve also been told by friends that if you go into the forest at night you can catch a glimpse of New Zealand’s famous glow worms for free!
Next up we headed to Tamaki Maori Village. Richie had already done this and really recommended it- he wasn’t wrong (although lets not tell him that). Its definitely not a cheap excursion ($130pp) but its such a fascinating insight into the Maori culture.
All in all the tour lasts about 4 hours. You get picked up and dropped off at your accommodation and brought to a traditional Maori village where you take part in a traditional welcoming ceremony. You’ll then get an interactive tour, showcasing aspects of Maori – everything from dance and food, to weapons and the Haka. Finally you’ll be given a Maori performance before getting an all you can eat hangi dinner. I can’t express how amazing this food was. I went back for seconds of everything!
We also went to the Skyline Gondola and Luge. We went for the combined nighttime ticket (gondola and 5 luge rides). The luge ride is suitable for all ages and consists of 3 tracks (scenic, intermediate and advanced) on a kind of go kart. Its great fun and a nice way to pass a couple hours. It’s also something that everyone can enjoy because you can go as fast or as slow as you like.
Lastly we went to Te Puia, a large geothermal park 10 min drive outside Rotorua where you can see geysers erupt, mud pools, hot pools and a kiwi sanctuary. It’s $50 for one adult ticket although you do get a discount if you have a New Zealand driver’s licence.
Tongariro National Park
Our last big adventure of the road trip was the day long Tongariro Alpine Crossing. This is an incredible 19.4km hike that brings you into Mordor from the Lord of the Rings franchise. If you want to see a detail breakdown of my experience doing the crossing just check out my post here!
With that our mini adventure around the North Island was over and it was time to head home and face reality!