We resume with the vacation details…
Saturday/Sunday, January 3rd/4th 2015
This morning we left our resort at 6:30 am to head to the airport. Fortunately this time the taxi cab was only $20 instead of $35. Checking in for our flight and the flight itself was again very easy. And, we lucked out again with our extra luggage only costing $45 this time. We were served brunch on our flight which was again tasty; a green bean and carrot omelet, hashbrown, ham, bacon, fruit cocktail, croissant and super creamy yogurt. Our flight arrived at the scheduled time of 1:00 pm. After spending one hour getting cleared through customs and getting the keys to our red Ford Focus, our ride for the next few days we were on the road…in the left lane to be exact.
Bryan started out driving and it was a little shaky at first but then we got used to it pretty quick. We headed south from the airport, completely bypassing downtown Auckland, going 100km/hr on Highway 1. We drove about one hour before hitting Hamilton, New Zealand’s 4th largest city. Our first stop was the supermarket where we wanted to go ahead and stock up with food for backpacking and snacks for hikes and driving. We stocked up on all the necessities: pasta, rice, lentils, pizza makings, sauce packets, oatmeal, cereal, dry milk, trail mix, summer sausage and bananas. Once fully loaded we hit highway 3 headed towards Waitamo to find our bed and breakfast for the night.
Off Highway 31, 10km off the main drag we found the Rangimarie Bush Retreat where we had booked the one and only accommodation for the entirety of our stay in New Zealand. We were greeted by our host Rowena and her dog Maggie! The room we had booked was accidentally doublebooked so we were upgraded to her even nicer room attached to the house. She only has two rooms for rent on the property and the one we ended up staying in was so beautiful. We had our own private bath with a shower and a large tub, a queen bed, armoire, buffet with tea cookies, delicious coffee, tea and sugar and our own private deck to overlook her beautiful property.
Rowena has some beautiful gardens. There is a creek running through the land, very forested surroundings and an outdoor bath. We were invited to dinner on her patio with her two friends, dairy farmers, and her cousin. We showered and made ourself tea on the deck, took a walk around the grounds, and waited until dinner was ready.
Around 7:30pm we were called to dinner. She offered us some NZ wine and beer in which I tried the Hawkes Bay Pinot Gris and Bryan tried some Waikato beer. Dinner was super impressive and were both mighty hungry. She had a spread of grilled pork chops, stuffed chicken breasts, salad with avocado, beetroot, carrot, walnut and raisin salad, boiled potatoes, and orzo salad. I couldn’t resist serving myself 2nds on pretty much everything and we were also having great conversation with the locals. We were feeling very good already and then she brought dessert of cut strawberries the size of my head and super sweet with fresh whipped cream. Also, all the vegetables at dinner came from her garden.
After dinner we sat off for our outdoor bath soak. In the middle of the woods we soaked in our bathing suits, taking in all of the nature sounds and stars. Our sleep that night was one of the best I’ve had with the sliding door open to listen to the rush of the creek.
Monday, January 5th 2015
After such an excellent dinner and sleep at the Rangimarie Bush Retreat we woke up feeling refreshed and happy. We made coffee with the French press in our room and Rowena brought our breakfast out to have on our private deck. We leisurely ate our muesli with milk, more of those fresh strawberries and blueberries, and homemade huge croissants with delicious homemade jam. It was so simple but satisfying, especially those croissants. At 10am we had to say our goodbyes to head to Waitamo for the glow work caves.
We had signed up for the 11:15am Blackwater Labyrinth tour. Right at the scheduled time our group of 12 was gathered, provided a full wetsuit, boots and helmets to change into and then piled into a van to be taken to the cave entrances. For about two hours we made our way down and into the caves, jumping, wading, and floating. At one point we jumped backwards off of a waterfall and onto our tubes and then formed a train of tubes, floating with our headlamps turned off, looking up at the magnificent display of glowworms. It looked like a starry night. At one point on the tour we were told that we were over 200’ below the surface, the same as a 20 story building. Our tour came to an end seeing the bright light and we hopped on the bus back to base to take hot showers, and they provided us with hot tomato soup and bagels to toast.
Once warm and dry it was my turn to drive and we set off for Lake Taupo and Tongariro National Park in the middle of the North Island. We stopped for our first Tip Top ice cream and had to try their favorite Hokey Pokey (toffee) flavor, and liked it. It took us about 2.5 hours along the windy roads in the beautiful hill country to first reach Lake Taupo and then find a “Holiday Park”, the first of many, to camp for the night. We had a spacious site where we got to use our new tent for the first time, my sleeping bag and pad, and also had access to the park’s kitchen, bathrooms and showers. Fortunately, we had picked up items with intentions of doing foil dinners but with the available grill we made grilled steak and onions, asparagus and kumara (their sweet potato). The dinner was so delicious and enjoyed on the picnic tables under the remaining sunlight. After making hot cocoa we were set for bed around 10:30pm.
Tuesday, January 6th 2015
Tuesday started early in the morning, awaking to the interesting sounds coming from the NZ birds. We had breakfast in the camp kitchen; cold cereal and fresh cut up strawberries that we had picked up from a market stand and Bryan of oatmeal and ramen noodles. We then packed up camp and our hiking bags for our reserved 7:45am bus to the starting point of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.
Just after 8am our bus arrived at the trailhead and Bryan and I set off to a quick start. The first hour of walking was nice and gentle through the plateau in front of the mountains (or really active volcanoes). The 2nd hour was a steady and steep incline, first to the summit of the South Crater, where we stopped for a quick snack and picture. We then had another 10 minutes of flat walking through the saddle and then up again through loose rock to the appropriately named summit of Red Crater. The view at the top was great but we continued over the summit to Emerald Lakes before stopping again for a snack break. These lakes were beautiful but did have a sulfuric smell to them. After some time we continued on until we reached another summit, overlooking the large Blue Lake, and then we were exposed to the other side of the mountains revealing the whole of Lake Taupo and the NZ North Island terrain. It was beautiful! The volcano was even fuming which added a very cool but eerie feeling to the hike.
The way down was through a long and windy track. We had over 5 miles and 3000’ to descend and it didn’t go very quickly. It wasn’t until the last 45 minutes that we had tree cover and were walking through very thick and lush forest. Finally, we found the parking lot and our bus back to the base camp. It took us 6.5 hours, including all breaks to complete the 12+ mile hike and we were dirty!
At 3:30pm we were back in the Ford Focus to drive south to Wellington for the night. The drive was nearly 4 hours long but just before 8pm we pulled into downtown Wellington, into our hotel for the night. The Trinity Hotel, located on Will St. was our stop. Much to our dismay the elevator was not operating and we had to carry ourselves and what we needed for the night up the five flights of stairs to our room. We finally got to take our much needed showers that felt so good. We quickly changed and headed out to get some food. Fortunately, we had seen an awesome looking restaurant just down our street that we set out for.
The General Practitioner was the name, fashioned in an old charming home that used to be a doctor’s practice, with an outdoor porch and an enclosed back porch with heat lamps. That is where we chose to sit and Bryan ordered a pitcher of a local Methitis golden lager and I a glass of local Syrah. For dinner Bryan tried the lamb blade chops and shoulder with truffle mash and ratatouille vegetables and really liked it. I went with the intriguing sounding venison, wrapped in cabbage leave and served with truffle mash and pickled cauliflower and rhubarb. The meal was so good and hearty after our exhausting day. The venison was tender and cooked almost Moroccan style with chickpeas, pine nuts, and raisins in a spiced tomato sauce, stuffed in the cabbage leaves. I would order this again in a heartbeat. Bryan and I were feeling loose and full but hardly having any luck keeping our eyes open. We made the short walk back to the hotel, walked the five flights of stairs again and then crashed.
Wednesday, January 7th 2015
Today I woke up naturally rather early. We slowly got ourselves up and checked out of the hotel. We left our car and went out on a walk to the harbor side. Our destination for brunch was at the Kuraka Café, located right on the harbor, next to the Boat Shed, or the Wellington Rowing Center, where we could watch the rowers from our outdoor table. Bryan and I each got an Americano which was our first real NZ espresso and it was very good. We also shared the spinach eggs benedict, served on a sweet potato hash rather than English muffin and the Big Brekkie (chicken sausage, roasted tomatoes, mushrooms, streaky bacon, spinach and poached eggs on sourdough toast with more of those delicious sweet potato hashbrowns).
We finished both plates and continued our stroll along the harbor and then back through town, bought Bryan a hat for kayaking at Bivouac (!) and then grabbed the car to head to the ferry terminal. We returned the car and checked in our bags. The Interislander ferry was set to leave at 2:45 pm for the 3.5 hour journey to Picton in the South Island. The ride was super smooth and beautiful, spending half of the time inside and half on the top deck.
The ferry pulled into the South Island ferry terminal in Picton at 6pm. We got our bags and our ride for the South Island, silver Kia Cerato. Bryan likes it better, I, no surprise, miss the red Ford. Our very first drive is the uber curvy Queen Charlotte Road that hugs the steep cliffs along the ocean. This was by choice, and a fantastic one. We then drove through the winery towns of Nelson and Richmond, where we stopped for chicken at the grocery store for camping and a very good Thai restaurant, which was pretty much the only restaurant still open past 9pm, aside from McD’s and Burger King. Per usual, we ordered Pad Kee Mao and Panang Curry without even looking at the menu. It did not disappoint.
We did not pull into the Fernwood Holiday Park until nearly 10:00pm and set up camp in the dark. We had an early wakeup call the next morning so we were not messing around and fell right asleep. This is where the South Island adventures really start.