Following the Hobbit Trail through New Zealand
Plucked straight from a film set or a coffee-table book of picture-perfect scenery, New Zealand was jaw-droppingly gorgeous.
There are just 4.36 million New Zealanders, scattered across 268,680 km²: 6.5 times bigger than Switzerland with half the population. Filling in the gaps are the sublime forests, mountains, lakes, beaches and fiords that have made NZ one of the best hiking destinations on the planet.
Our goal in NZ was easy: we wanted to experience as much as possible in the just five days we had time to explore. As for our limited time we decided to just road trip around the northern island. So we rented a Jucy Camper a few hours after our arrival (which was our home, our means of transport and our restaurant for the next few days) and immediately started our road trip.
First destination was Hot Water Beach. We spent the night at a caravan park just next to the beach. We were still pretty far north on the island but we already were cold in our camper van over the first night. We wondered where this is going to end as we would still go further south. The next morning however we went to the Hot Water Beach. A beach where, during low tide, hot water oozes up from beneath the surface. We brought a spade, dug a hole and voila, we got ourselves a personal spa pool. Fun fact: the sea water was max. 10 degrees and the outside temperature also not much warmer. We had to dig fast in order not to freeze to death at the beach! ;-)
Later that day we drove down to Rotorua to experience the Maori culture. NZ’s indigenous Maori culture is accessible and engaging. We joined a tour in which we were taken into the legends and habits of the Maori culture. We joined in a haka (war dance), chowed down at a traditional hangi (Maori feast cooked in the ground), learned some Maori words, and attended an authentic cultural performance with song, dance, legends, arts and crafts. It was good fun but unfortunately very, VERY touristic. The next day we made our way into Rotorua downtown.
The first thing we noticed about Rotorua was the sulphur smell – this geothermal hot spot whiffs like old socks. But just like us, volcanic by-products are what everyone is here to see: gushing geysers, bubbling mud, steaming cracks in the ground, boiling pools of mineral-rich water and so on…
After Rotorua we were ready for the highlight of the trip: The Tongariro Alpine Crossing. At the centre of the North Island, Tongariro National Park presents an alien landscape of alpine desert punctuated by three smoking and smouldering volcanoes. This track provides the perfect taste of what the park has to offer, skirting the base of two of the mountains and providing views of craters, brightly coloured lakes and the vast Central Plateau stretching out beyond. It’s for these reasons that it’s often rated as one of the world’s best single-day wilderness walks.
As the hike started early morning, we had to spend the night somewhere nearby. We found a free camping spot and made ourselfes comfortable. After the sun set we quickly realised that this will be no ordinary night. For the first time on our Round The World Trip, we encountered temperatures below zero degrees. To make matter worse, we had to spend the night in a camper van. Both wearing ALL warm clothes we brought (which wasn’t a lot at all) we tried to sleep. After just a few hours we woke up in the middle of the night freezing our butts off. All the layers we were wearing and the sheets didn’t help much. We decided to get up and make our way to the meeting point… With the heating on full power…
After a quick breakfast we were told that our hiking gear and clothes were “insufficient”. Of course it was, we didn’t bring any – duh! Later we found out that we are going to climb snowy and icy volcanos. We had NO idea what we signed up for. We even got an ice axe and crampons… Oh boy, where is this going to end up we asked ourselves.
So we left the base with our sweat pants, rain jacket and wearing as many layers as possible. :-D As soon as we started the hike we were mindblown by the scenery in front of us. Several snow-covered volcanos reaching high into the blue sky made the view perfect.
Soon the rocky path changed into an icy and sleepery track leading up to the summit of the volcanos. We got a short briefing on how to use the ice axe and the crampons and short after we climed our way further up.
On the hike we passed many astonishing volcanos, craters and blue sparkling lakes. Also we passed Mt. Ngauruhoe which is a conical, single-vent volcano with perfectly symmetrical slopes – which is the reason that it was chosen to star as Mt. Doom in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. It was impressive to stand in front of the Volcano where the story of Lord of the Rings ended.
Funny side story: As little we were prepared for the hike and the cold temperatures, as little we read the brochure on what to bring for the hike. We forgot to bring the most fundamental thing to a 22km / 8 hrs hike: LUNCH! Please don’t ask us what we were thinking but all we brought was some nuts, dry fruits and two bananas. By the end of the day, after not eating anything but the little we had, our legs were shivering, we were well exhausted, starving and dead tired. But we still had to make our way up to the next adventure we planned for the next day. It was a long day.
Waitomo is a must-see we were told: an astonishing maze of subterranean caves, canyons and rivers perforating the northern King Country limestone. Black-water rafting is the big lure here (like white-water rafting but through a dark cave), plus glow-worm grottoes and more stalactites and stalagmites than we’ll ever see in one place again were waiting for us.
So we spent another freezing night in our lovely van and the first thing we needed to do the next day was put on a WET wetsuit while the outside temperature was around 10 degrees. As if this wasn’t hard enough after already being cold for four days, we had to jump into freezing water (four degrees) before entering the underground cave systems. It. Was. A. Torture. But we did it and it was a unique experience.
Floating 15m below surface, on four degrees cold river streams, in the complete darkness was already impressive. But as we turned off the lights, glow worms covered the ceiling of the cave. We were shivering but what we saw let us forget the cold for a few seconds.
In the afternoon we made our way up to Auckland giving back our camper van and met up with two lovely Kiwis we met a few times in Vietnam. What a small world we live in. Thanks again Megan and Nick for the lovely evening!
The next morning we already left this beautiful country towards the much warmer north. To be precise: Oahu, Hawaii. We thought the hike in New Zealand was as good as it gets but we have never been more wrong…
But until then, so long…