Chistchurch and Akaroa

Our journey around the South Island of New Zealand began in Christchurch. A morning flight from Auckland went smoothly and our luggage arrived without mishap, so that was a good start. Interestingly enough, no one checked our identification even once during the trip! As the car rental company I had chosen didn’t have a desk at the airport, we telephoned them and their van came to pick us up without delay. About New Zealand is the slightly lower budget version of Apex Car Rental– same ownership and facility, just slightly older cars. Our Toyota Rav 4 was a little scuffed around the edges but seemed in decent working order. I had requested a vehicle with side rails on the roof to make carrying a surfboard easier, but that wasn’t to be. Michael assured me it would be fine and he could cope, so off we went.

The last time I had been in Christchurch was in February of 2009, almost two years before the devastating earthquakes in September, 2010 and February, 2011, which shook the region and caused extensive damage in the city. Though the city has progressed mightily in its long, slow recovery, some things will never be the same. In particular, ChristChurch Cathedral, a major landmark, was severely damaged and its tower later demolished. However, the Botanic Gardens are alive and well, and as I had so enjoyed them the first time, we set off to pay them a visit.

With cloudy weather and occasional threats of rain, we found the temperature much colder than on the North Island. None of the trees, flowers, or birds seemed to mind however, and the gardens were looking lovely. The Christchurch Botanic Gardens form a spacious city park with walking paths cradled in a great u-shaped bend of the Avon River, which borders it on three sides. One thing I like about the Gardens is the trees. The park is as much arboretum as garden, with huge, mature specimens of trees from all over, including California Redwood and Giant Sequoia. We wandered the paths for a bit until we came to the rose garden, which was in full bloom. It might have felt more like spring than our hoped-for summer, but we had arrived at the perfect time to enjoy the multi-colored splendor of this large and well-tended display. The sights and smells were delightful!















After enjoying the roses, we stopped in to the gift shop and café to poke around. The café was too busy, so, feeling peckish, we wandered out the other side of the Gardens into the city center to find sustenance. We found a cheese monger who provided delicious, bespoke cheese sandwiches on fresh rolls, and also went next door to a Spanish delicatessen where we found some outstanding Salchichon salami. Armed with our picnicn and some steps to sit on, out of the wind, we munched happily. Lunch was followed by a bit of wandering, a look in a few craft shops, and a peek at the Canterbury Museum. We enjoyed more trees and birds on our stroll back through the Botanic Gardens to the car again.



Song thrush

Having navigated our way out of Christchurch’s city center, we drove out to the Banks Peninsula and the town of Akaroa, our destination for two nights. The drive is beautiful as the peninsula is made up of undulating hills which provide lovely views down to the many coves and inlets that form the coastline. Akaroa is situated on a natural harbor, well protected from the open ocean. It was settled by French colonists who claimed the area for France around the same time it was being claimed for England as well. Consequently, the area retains some French influences with place names and cultural identity. Unfortunately, since the weather was not cooperating, it was cold and damp while we were there. Instead of going out on the water on a sailing tour as I had hoped, we chose to stay closer to shore. We did venture out to Okains Bay on the other side of the peninsula and enjoyed spectacular views on the drive over.


Akaroa Harbor stretches a long way into the body of the peninsula.





Okains Bay is a small settlement with a sandy beach on a bay. We checked out the beach and thought it would have been quite inviting in warm weather. On that day it was mostly deserted, except for some Variable oystercatchers.




Mussel beds


A shopkeeper in Akaroa had recommended the small Okains Bay Museum, so we stopped to have a look. This turned out to be a real find! The museum contains artifacts and displays of both the Maori and colonial history of the area. There was quite a variety of things to see and we had the place all to ourselves. One building contained a collection of Maori waka, the traditional ocean going canoes used by the original settlers of New Zealand. There were other beautiful exhibits on Maori life as well.






Of particular interest to me was a display pertaining to some of the early colonial era settlers in the region. As in Russell, the area was frequented by whalers. I noticed mention of one Seth Howland and felt reasonably sure he was probably some distant ancestral relation of mine!


Then, when we were talking to the curator of the museum about my family’s connection to whaling history, she asked if we had seen the scrimshaw of the Charles W. Morgan, a whaling vessel built in New Bedford, Massachusetts, in 1841 by my ancestor, for whom it was named. This surprised me as we had missed it! She had been doing some research while working on renovating the exhibit and had learned quite a lot. Michael and I had been on board the Charles W. Morgan when it was visiting New Bedford in 2014 on its historic 38th voyage. The Morgan, which today is the only wooden whaleship left in the world, frequented New Zealand waters from 1846, calling into the Bay of Islands and Mangonui on the North Island for supplies and Maori crew. Talk about a small world moment! We went back in to see the scrimshaw and managed to capture a few photos to share with you.




After our museum adventure, we drove back over to Akaroa enjoying the views again. It might have been chilly while we were on the Banks Peninsula, but it was still beautiful, and Akaroa is a pretty little town.




More roses!



Next up will be Dunedin, so stay tuned!

See you down the road.


Northland Part II

As predicted, the weather had deteriorated by morning, and we were met with fog, grey skies, and rain. As it was Thanksgiving day back home on the other side of the dateline, we made phone calls to family before hitting the road.


Quite a different view from our campsite!

Upon leaving Russell, we took a short car ferry across to Opua and drove through Paihia to the Waitangi Treaty Grounds. This is the most important historic site in New Zealand as it is where the Treaty of Waitangi, New Zealand’s founding document, was signed by the Maori and the British back in 1840. There is a newly refurbished museum, guided tours of the site, and beautiful grounds. I hadn’t actually done much research on it beforehand, which was a mistake on my part, as to visit the Treaty Grounds was a bigger time and money commitment than I had anticipated. Because of this, and the bad weather, we decided not to do the full visit and instead, talked our way into the gift shop for a peek. I would like to visit this site one day, but really, I would want to have a day at leisure to do it justice. I guess I will just have to go back! We needed to get further north that day if we were to make it to Cape Reinga. Consequently, we pushed on and drove through intermittent rain all the way up to Pukenui, which sits about a third of the way up the long peninsula which forms the top of the North Island. As the weather was not cooperating, there didn’t seem to be much point in making a lot of detours to the many beauty spots that I’m sure we passed. Pukenui Holiday Park was small but serviceable and we spent a quiet few hours napping, reading, etc. after we arrived.

Cape Reinga was our destination the next day. The weather had improved somewhat, leaving it windy with some clouds, but no rain. Cape Reinga is the northernmost point in New Zealand and holds a significant place in Maori tradition as the jumping off point of souls heading back to their homeland after death. There is a lighthouse, as you might expect, and it is also a point at which the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean meet. The views are really pretty good of the ocean and coastline. There are walking tracks around the cape, and not far from the tip, there is a Department of Conservation campground on a beach. Can you guess where we stayed that night? It was quite windy, but we walked out to the lighthouse and enjoyed the view.


On the way to the top of the North Island



At the cape


Cape Reinga


Two oceans meet!







Afterwards, we made our way down the gravel road to the Tapotupotu Campground. It is a primitive campground on a lovely cove with a sand beach, and since we got there pretty early, we got our choice of sites. We spent the afternoon relaxing, exploring the beach, and observing our surroundings as others arrived at the campground. One bit of excitement involved spotting two pairs of New Zealand dotterel. They are shore birds that are endangered and not very common. After I saw them, I found some signage with information about them and warnings about not disturbing their nests. It seems we have become birders without trying to! In Russell we had purchased a book on New Zealand birds because we wanted to identify what we were seeing and hearing. And now we are constantly keeping an eye out for unusual birds. It’s been fun going through the book and checking off the birds we’ve seen. New Zealand has terrific birdlife, which often feels very exotic compared to our songbirds from the back yard at home.


Tapotupotu beach



A look back at the campground while exploring the rocks at the edge of the cove


Our frend the New Zealand dotterel


After battling quite a few pesky mosquitos in the night and having visited the northernmost point, heading south was our next agenda. We legged it the 100 Km back down the peninsula and kept going. I wanted to see the kauri forests along the west coast. So after a brief lunch stop in Ahipara, and a quick peek at 90 Mile Beach, a sixty mile stretch of sand on the western side of the peninsula where it was very windy, we kept going.


Ninety Mile Beach

The weather was mixed, but turned more to rain as we wound our way down to Kohukohu and the car ferry over to Rawene. The landscape, however, was stunning. Everything was so green, and the undulating mountains and valleys we crossed were very lush. We arrived in time for the 2 o’clock ferry, which made a brief crossing of the Hokianga harbor.



On the car ferry




Coming into Rawene


Then we drove on to the mouth of the harbor to a blustery viewpoint. Hokianga forms a huge and winding natural harbor that stretches inland for quite a way. The entrance to the harbor is blocked by a large and treacherous sand bar which, in the old days, having wrecked a few ships,  necessitated the services of pilots to guide them in. I’m not sure what they do these days, but you could see troubled waters from unknown hazards beneath and huge sand dunes across the way.



Further down the road we entered the Waipoua Forest, a large tract of forest preserved to protect the kauri trees that grow within. Kauris are native to New Zealand and forests of them once covered vast parts of the islands. Most of these forests are gone, having been logged for their superior timber, some which went to ships’ masts. Now, what is left is protected. The trees are huge and live thousands of years. They are glorious giants, akin to the giant sequoias in America. We stopped to see the largest living one left, Tane Mahuta. It is estimated at something like 2,000 years old. I would have loved to see a whole forest of these trees!


The giant!



Some perspective

Even though it was rainy, which didn’t invite a lot of stops, traveling through the forest was magical. It was a different world of dense and completely foreign vegetation.


Those are tree ferns, not palm trees!

Late in the afternoon, we found our way to the Kauri Coast Top 10 Holiday Park. It was a really lovely spot situated in the bend of a river. The campground was well equipped with kitchen and bathing facilities and had a park like feel with lots of birds. We took advantage of the laundry machines and did some much needed washing.



The next day we decided to drive to Piha, a beach community with the potential of surfing for Michael. Before leaving the Kauri coast, we stopped at Nelson’s Kaihu Kauri, a gallery and shop for wooden items made from ancient Kauri trees. Some 50,000 years ago, an enormous swath of Kauri trees on the west coast of the North Island were felled at the same time and in the same direction by natural disaster. Neither cyclone, nor tsunami is thought to be the cause of their demise, which remains somewhat of a mystery. Their carcasses are mined for their ancient wood and fossilized resin or gum. The wood is gorgeous, and when shaped and polished, can exude a glow from within. The gum is a bit like amber, a warm golden brown color. This showroom had a large collection of items made from this ancient wood and we succumbed to the temptation of a salad bowl. It has been shipped home for us, so we have that to look forward to later on.


Remnants of ancient kauri trees

The drive to Piha was a bit long and monotonous, if that’s possible to say of the unilaterally beautiful scenery in New Zealand. Just before arriving, we stopped to hike to some waterfalls. The trail to Fairy Falls went steeply down and continued to do so with sections of stairs cut into the hillside. As we continued downward, it was hard not to dwell on the fact that, for us, what goes down must come up! When we reached them, the falls were delightful – a real oasis in the forest. We enjoyed the falls and the Welcome swallows we saw there as well. On the way back up, I counted the number of manmade steps in the trail. My count was 527!






We spent two nights in Piha at the Piha Domain Camp. Piha is a popular surf spot on the Tasman Sea that is about an hour from Auckland and somewhat hard to get to, down a twisty, mountain road.  It was wild and windy while we were there. The first day, the surf was quite large, but also quite unruly. Unfortunately for Michael, the conditions were not favorable for him to surf. Piha can be a dangerous place too, with rip tides and currents. There is even a “reality” television show in New Zealand called Piha Surf Rescue about the Piha Surf Life Saving Club!







Visitors to our campsite!

We thought it was beautiful, even if our time there was pretty quiet, with cloudy, windy weather, and some rain. We walked the beach, read books, and I blogged.  Unfortunately, I also had a crown come loose from a tooth. So the day we left to return our campervan, I looked up some dentists and made an appointment to see one in Christchurch, our next destination.






Piha from above

The drive back to Auckland did not take us very long so, with time to kill, we went back to the shopping center where we had first provisioned and did a little shopping. After checking into our motel, we returned the camper to the Britz depot and walked back to the motel. On the way, we stopped to check out a couple of restaurant options for dinner and noticed a dentist in the same strip mall. Thinking I had little chance of success, I popped in to see if they could fix my tooth. It was about 4:30 p.m. by this time. Lo and behold, they could see me in twenty minutes! I couldn’t believe my luck! Michael went back to our room and I waited for the dentist, who was a woman and very capable. In no time, she had my crown re-cemented and I was on my way. It wasn’t cheap, but I got what I needed. I was happy to have that accomplished and to call and cancel the appointment scheduled for after our flight to Christchurch the next day.


At the Kiwi Airport Motel

We enjoyed our camper adventure, though I don’t think I’d want to spend three months in one. It was fun to stay in some really beautiful spots we probably wouldn’t have seen otherwise. For anyone considering a tour by campervan in New Zealand, here is my advice.

  • Go with the smallest vehicle you think you can be comfortable in. The roads are small and larger vehicles are just more cumbersome.
  • You will find New Zealand is VERY well equipped to cater to your needs. All the services you need for camping and campervans are readily available, almost everywhere, from campgrounds and dump stations to grocery stores and petrol or diesel to hot showers and cooking facilities.
  • Don’t bring a lot of stuff. There isn’t much storage in a campervan and the smaller the vehicle, the less there is.
  • Don’t plan on going very far in any one day. It takes longer than you think and driving around in the camper is not the best part of the journey, the stops are.
  • Driving on the left is not that hard. You get used to it. Just be sure to look right first when pulling out!

Our adventures in New Zealand continued on the South Island, but that will be the subject of a different post.

Until then, see you down the road!

Northland Part I

Happy holidays dear readers! However you celebrate, may you find peace and joy in the new year. This post grew so long that I have divided it in two.

New Zealand does not disappoint. In 2009, I took a solo trip to the South Island for a month and loved it, so I was quite excited to be returning to the land of the long white cloud for more exploration. Aside from being a bit delayed, the flight from Rarotonga to Auckland was uneventful. We had reserved a hotel room near the airport for that evening, so, unlike others on our flight, we were not anxious about making any connections. After getting our luggage and clearing customs, we went to one of the telecom outlets so that I could purchase a sim card for my mobile WiFi hotspot. Then we called the motel for our pick up. The motel turned out to be a pleasant surprise. Best Western BKs Pioneer Motor Lodge was clean and well equipped. Our bathroom even had a large jacuzzi tub! It was too late to get any dinner, so I took a bath instead, and we filled in a card to have our breakfast order delivered to our room in the morning. This was another unexpected bonus, and the breakfast was actually pretty good.

Our first adventure in New Zealand involved driving a rented campervan around the northern part of the North Island, known as Northland, for ten days of camping. We had not outlined an itinerary for this, but rather, were planning to wing it, one day at a time. For those of you who might be considering a trip such as this or those who want to get out a map and follow along, I will outline our overnight stops. In the end, we drove up the east coast and down the west, starting in Auckland.

Day 1 Auckland to Orewa Top 10 Holiday Park

Day 2 Orewa to Oakaru via Mangawhai Heads– Whangaruru Beach Camp

Day 3 Oakaru to Russell – Russell Top 10 Holiday Park

Day 4 same

Day 5 Russell to Pukenui Holiday Park

Day 6 Pukenui to Cape Reinga and Tapotupotu DOC campground

Day 7 Tapotupotu via Hokianga and Waipoua Forest to Kaihu – Kauri Coast Top 10 Holiday Park

Day 8 Kauri Coast to Piha Domain campground

Day 9 same

Day 10 Piha to Auckland airport depot to return campervan

We had some good weather, some rainy weather, some long days of driving, some spectacular campsites, and a lot of amazing scenery. So all in all, I think we did pretty well. We found it quite easy to find grocery stores to meet our needs, and were mindful of getting fuel before it was an issue. Though the campervan we were given was not what I had booked, and was bigger than we wanted, it performed well enough and was reasonably comfortable. We had no road incidents, thank goodness, and pretty quickly got used to driving on the left, despite the sometimes narrow, and winding roads.

Our first day was mostly taken up with picking up the campervan, provisioning ourselves at the supermarket, and driving through Auckland heading north. Michael did the driving that first day, which was the most congested and urban driving we saw. Talk about trial by fire! When we reached Orewa late in the afternoon, we thought it best to stop for the night, unpack our things, and get to know the camper.

The Orewa Top 10 Holiday Park fronts right on the beach at one end of a long stretch of sand where an inlet joins a bay. It has good kitchen and bathroom facilities, and nice flat sites under the trees, a few steps from the beach. After some unpacking, a walk on the beach, and getting ourselves and the camper sorted, we had a nice supper of grilled salmon and zucchini with rice. It was so nice to cook for ourselves and eat the foods we like! The Cook Islands were lovely, but food was quite expensive there and the cheap stuff was mostly fried.


Orewa beach – great for walking!


The beast

To our delight, the morning dawned sunny again. After a leisurely morning that included breakfast, another walk on the beach, and hot showers in the campground bathrooms, we set out to make our way further north. After a stint on the highway, we turned off toward Mangawhai Heads. There we found another beautiful beach and bay. It was a bit windy, so we picnicked in the camper, but then enjoyed another beach walk.


Mangawhai Heads beach entrance





Back on the road, we travelled up the coast through rolling green hills and farmland, across flats, and over little mountains, on small and winding roads. The scenery was mesmerizing and the plants and trees new to us. Finally, we made our way to a tiny village on a sheltered harbor and a mostly empty campground overlooking the water. It was a perfect evening at the Whangaruru Beach Camp in Oakaru and we enjoyed our sundowners while watching the shorebirds and listening to the sounds of unfamiliar birdcalls from the surrounding bush.


The view from our campsite


This is a Pohutukawa tree about to bloom. It was just around the corner down the beach.



In the morning, we backtracked just a bit to check out an establishment we had passed on the way in. Helena Bay Hill Gallery and Café had a lovely and varied collection of artwork from New Zealand artists. One of the things I remember enjoying from my previous trip to New Zealand was the local artwork, so I hated to pass up a good gallery! There was a mixture of painting, sculpture, jewelry, glass, cards etc., in many different materials and styles. After a look around, we continued on along the coast. When our stomachs were rumbling, we just happened to be passing a diminutive little cove that screamed picnic spot. So we pulled off into the one conveniently located parking spot and took our picnic down to the beach. Tapiri Cove was a little gem and we were tempted to while away the entire afternoon sampling its delights. However we had ground to cover, so on we pressed.


The coastline near our picnic spot




As we drove we passed cows, sheep, turkeys, pigs, pheasant, quail, and alpaca, winding our way through the landscape to the historic town of Russell, in the Bay of Islands. Russell is a lovely small town on the water, which played a significant, historic role as one of the first permanent settlements of Europeans in New Zealand. American and British sperm whalers, who arrived in the early 19th century, gave the port its English name and a reputation for debauchery from their activities during shore leave, much to the dismay of the missionaries, who comprised some of the other early settlers. After looking into activities in the area, checking the weather, and having driven for two days, we decided to stay put for two nights. Our camp spot that night, at the Russell Top 10 Holiday Park, had a smashing view across the bay toward Paihia, which didn’t hurt either. The campground was well located in easy walking distance to the village and had excellent facilities. We wanted to get out on the water the next day, so we booked a tour with Explore Cruises which promised dolphin spotting, among other things. A stroll through town, which netted a very handy bird book, was followed by camembert and Sauvignon Blanc before sunset to round out another beautiful day.


The Russell foreshore





The view from our campsite




Waiting for the boat

Our boat tour of the Bay of Islands the next day turned out to be a big success. It was a gorgeous, sunny day again, with calm seas and not too much wind. We were happy the boat was not full to capacity, so it was easy to get a good viewing spot. As we set out through the bay toward more open water, we got a view of the hilly terrain, small coves and beaches, and rock formations that make up the convoluted Bay of Islands coastline.


The Tucker S. Thompson – another option for cruising the Bay of Islands


Leaving Russell




b-of-i-2As the name would suggest, there are also a number of islands in the bay, and our itinerary included a lunch stop on one of them. But first, we were treated to a sighting of a pod of common dolphins. They are smaller than the well-known bottlenose dolphins and have white and black or dark grey markings. The water was beautifully clear, so it was easy to see them swimming underwater as well as when they surfaced.






The next stop was a trip through the Hole in the Rock, a local landmark, which also afforded us a view of the Cape Brett Lighthouse.


Cape Brett



The aptly named Hole in the Rock


The boat actually travelled through the hole



Cape Brett Lighthouse


Then it was back into the bay to Urupukapuka, the largest of its islands. The color of the water was fantastic in multiple shades of blue and turquoise and we passed many idyllic anchorages and camp spots on various islands. This is definitely a sailor’s paradise!



At Urupukapuka, we disembarked to have our lunch sitting at a picnic table on the lawn overlooking the cove. We chatted with some young German backpackers, whose main focus seemed to be the acquisition of free food wherever they could find it. Fortunately for us, they were distracted by the included lunch on the tour, tickets for which they had been gifted, so our lunches were safe from their scrutiny! Really, they were very nice and we enjoyed hearing about their travels.  After lunch we made a quick ascent of the nearby hilltop to get the spectacular 360° view before re-boarding the boat.



Looking back down on the cove. The hill is much steeper and higher than it looks!


The view from the top was spectacular in every direction!








Our boat

On the way back to Russell we passed a pod of bottlenose dolphins and enjoyed another encounter with these lovely creatures.






Back in Russell we had another look around town before succumbing to a nap. For dinner, we went to the Duke of Marlborough Hotel on the waterfront. The food was excellent and we enjoyed dining on the porch. It had been a lovely day and a novel way to spend Thanksgiving!


Some of the local birdlife – a Tui


Another view of the Tui


a Weka visiting our campsite

We really enjoyed Russell and the Bay of Islands and were glad we had decided to stay a second night and get out on the water. The weather had been so perfect, but that was about to change. We feel lucky we had those glorious days to get acclimated to New Zealand.

Our campervan tour continues in my next post.