Whatever you want to call New Zealand, it comes down to a single superlative: spectacular.
After arriving in the middle of the night from Rarotonga we were ready to hit the road. Avery provided a bit of an overview of life in a motorhome but we weren’t able to pick that up until our second week. So we spent the first five days exploring the Northlands with a rental.
We picked up our car early on the Thursday and drove immediately to Piaha. By Canadian standards the distance isn’t far but winding roads, construction, some miserable weather and passing through a number of small towns, the drive was much longer than we anticipated. Mental note - add 45 minutes to an hour to whatever google maps says…
Pahia is a very pretty little place situated on the Bay of Islands (appropriately named). We walked around to explore the waterfront, play on the playground and I got bit on the foot by some kind of invisible necrotizing vampire bug. Off we limped to the grocery store for supplies for our next few days. Rugby on TV, cold beer and happy kids. Life on the road is good.
The following day we headed out to explore the Waitangi Treaty Grounds to learn about the birth of a nation and the negotiation process with Maori leadership in the area. It is a beautiful spot overlooking the Bay of Islands with an amazing museum and the world’s largest war canoe (a Maori waka). Based on the museum and guided tour of the grounds, we were struck by the similarities between the experiences of the indigenous peoples of New Zealand and Canada. I was left with the impression that the negotiations with the Maori were less than genuine as the British already had an outcome in mind when the document was drafted. A few quick changes in phrasing and translation the night before the presentation of the treaty made the document slightly more palatable for some of the Maori leadership but were ultimately nonsensical words that were, and continue to be, a source of consternation following the signing.
Using Pahia as a base, we explored Keri Keri - a very English feeling town with some very cool historic sights. A rebuilt Maori village and remnants of a fortification (Pa) overlook the river close to a stone trading post and the first pear tree and orchard planted in New Zealand. We heard the post traded those multicoloured Hudson’s Bay blankets which were highly sought after by both European Kiwis and Maori’s in the 1800s. They didn’t have any in stock on the day we went…
We had such a fabulous afternoon wandering around that when it started to rain we decided to set up shop in the converted farmhouse-restaurant to drink some tea and do a few puzzles. Although not particularly eventful, it was a great day to explore at a leisurely pace and just chill.
I will share a particular quirk of accommodation booking in New Zealand. I think it has something to do with haberdashery (bedding and towels). When searching online for places to stay I found that when I indicated we were a family of four looking for a double-occupancy room we would get one price but an entirely different price if it was just two adults - for exactly the same room! I know kids can be messy and do take up extra space, but for the life of us, we couldn’t figure out why we’d were being charge and extra $60 per night for having kids. So we decided not to include them in our booking.
We love our kids but we did have to tell them on a few occasions when we pulled into a new place that they didn’t exist. At first they were aghast but it soon became joke after walked through the logic with them. First, we’re on a budget and any money we save on accommodation can be put toward more fun activities. Second, double occupancy operates on the assumption that we’d be using two beds anyway. The only difference we could see was an additional two towels required if they ‘existed’. Yes, those would have to be cleaned but at a rate of $30 each per night? I don’t think so…
That said, the girls joined in on our Kiwi hotel subterfuge by asking with great glee whether or not they ‘existed’ as we pulled into a new town on our New Zealand adventure. They even went so far as to try to ‘hide’ by ducking down in their seats or by making existential commentary from the back-seat. It really would have made Pascal very proud!
Moving on we headed south of Auckland to the spectacular little town of Cambridge. It is east of Hamilton and west of Mata Mata. This was our base for two nights in order to visit the Hobbiton movie set. Feel free to insert all of your comments here…
Yes - they like my hairy feet
Yes - I fit in well
Yes - I look tall
Yes - I’m the king of the Hobbits
I don’t care. I’m immune to your mockery. The Lord of the Rings is a brilliant book and Peter Jackson did a good job on the movies. All four of us had a great time on our tour!
Without going into the details, you can see some of our photos in the gallery. While it was an overcast day that added to our experience - it is a very pretty little place even without the movie set. It was cool to celebrate suspended disbelief.
As an interesting anectdote, this was one of 15 locations that could potentially act as the site of Hobbiton. When Peter Jackson saw the big tree in the middle of the field he immediately knew this was the centre of The Shire. About a year before they were approached by the film-makers the owners of the farm had contemplated cutting the tree down. They now have a share in the gate fees charged to visit the movie set.
We then headed back up to Auckland to drop off our rental car and pick up the motorhome. Then, we turned around and head back down south, through Mata Mata (a mere 30 minutes from where we were the day before) and made our way to Rotorua.
Rotorua was fantastic - you could smell it before you saw it! Spending two nights there, we spent the majority of our time checking out the hot springs and geysers of the Whakerwawa village. Much like Heritage Park back home, but people still live there and go about their everyday business once the tourists go home. We enjoyed a fabulous culture performance and I was able to participate in the traditional Maori welcome - this is where two people touch foreheads and noses and the air between them commingles. Afterward our tour started near the cemetery where the guide showed us where here great-grandmothers are buried. As we learned in the Cooks, for Polynesian people, who you are related to is more important than where you come from. Clearly, there was a lot of pride in the village and Maori culture overall. It was an excellent day and the girls soaked it up. No complaints. Lots of questions.
Before heading to the South Island, we needed to navigate the roads down to Wellington in order to catch the ferry across. This was the drive where we really learned the feel and pace of New Zealand roads. Stopping a few times and getting a sense of how truly gutless this new rig was, it took us two hours longer than anticipated to get to the caravan park. Thankfully, there was an extravagant playground and massive jumping pillow to help the girls blow off pent up energy (Top Ten Campgrounds are AWESOME!).
Wellington is a very cool city. As the capital of New Zealand, Jody and I really got the feel of a government town. It was neat to see another country’s government institutions and all that goes with that (insert public servant joke here). It is also a very walkable city and we took full advantage after visiting the spectacular Te Papa Museum. At the museum we learned about the New Zealand experience in Gallipoli (which we kept tripping up with ‘Galapagos’). The exhibition brought to life the experiences of six ordinary Kiwis with text, displays, artefacts and models at 2.5 normal size. It was truly moving and reminded Jody and I of Canada’s experience at Vimy Ridge (again, the similarities in terms of culture, outlook, experience and humour are very striking).
‘Gallipoli: The scale of our war’ was put on in conjunction with the people from Weta Workshop. They are the same group that did the promos and movie-making for Lord of The Rings, The Hobbit and other films. Meghan has a post on our experience there. Needless to say, we thoroughly enjoyed that Wellington experience too.
Overall, we had a great time on the North Island. While not as exotic as other places that we’ve visited, it was very cool to get a taste of home, be able to participate in small-talk with random strangers and experience some stereotypical Kiwi experiences!
We're the Danchuks - follow our explorations and family adventures in a wide world (2018).