I’m laying on my back in the pitch dark, floating through a cave looking up at what resembles a galaxy of stars, tinted slightly blue. It’s pretty damn magical, even though the stars in this galaxy are actually made up of poop. The poop is from glow-worms – and it’s the bit of them that actually glows. All I can see is what appears to be a constellation of blue stars strewn across my field of vision. Everyone knows New Zealand has moments of wonder and surprise, but this is only the first day of my North Island road trip, and I’m excited for what’s to come.
I’m setting off on a five-day trip through the North Island, flying into Auckland and looping my way down across the island through Waitomo – where the glow-worm caves are – to Rotorua and on to Taupo, ending up in Napier near the Hawkes Bay wine region. I’m following the Thermal Explorer Highway, stopping off at several highlights of the North Island’s geological activity, taking in all the adventure activities I can.
But don’t worry, it’s not all sports. I plan to finish up with some food, wine and culture at the end of the trip.
Floating through Waitomo Caves
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Turns out, driving through New Zealand is supremely pleasant. Highways in Australia are, with a few exceptions, long, arrow-straight, and pretty dull. Despite our closeness to our friends over the Tasman, their roads bend and curve gently through rolling hills variously lush green, soft yellows, or dappled with little flowers. Even the main highway feels like a smaller two-lane road, winding past hillocks and through forests. And the whole landscape is given a wash by the rain that falls on my first day.
On the drive, I have no worries. I’m safe and warm in my Toyota RAV4 – until I turn up to Waitomo Glow-worm Caves and figure out what the first thing on my itinerary actually is.
I’m booked onto the Black Labyrinth Tour with the Legendary Black Water Rafting Co. I dash into the HQ and brush off the few drops of rain that gathered on my clothing – but I needn’t have bothered. Turns out I’ll be donning a not-quite-skintight wetsuit, some gumboots and a helmet with a headlamp, tramping out into the rain and climbing down into a rain-filled cave to float in an inner tube through a series of flooded caves. And on a day like this.
I shiver into my Black Water Rafting outfit (damp from earlier use that day) and, doing a little dance to keep warm, board a bus to our destination – a tear in the ground which is actually the entrance to a labyrinthine set of tunnels, filled with flowing water, and home to the legendary glow-worms of Waitomo.
Which brings me to the beautiful galaxy of poo arrayed over the ceiling of Ruakuri Cave. I quickly forget what these glowing blue specks really are, though. The view is so beautiful, the natural phenomenon so unlikely, that it’s easy to forget that the water is extremely chilly. And that I’m essentially underground with 15 strangers. We’ve all turned off our headlamps, switched off our voices, and formed a daisy chain of wet-suited bodies and inner tubes to take in the view.
This is the calmest moment on the tour, which also has us leaping backwards off ledges into the water, floating like bobbing apples with the current through the caves, and climbing safely out the other end and – after the return minibus – warming up with bread and soup back at HQ.
Drive time Auckland to Waitomo: 2 hours 30 minutes
Drive time Waitomo to Rotorua: 2 hours (a lot of driving today!)
Exploring the thermal wonderland of Rotorua
I smell my next stop before I’m even in the town centre – people warn you about this when you’re on your way to Rotorua – because the geothermal wonderland which is this part of New Zealand lets out a subterranean whiff of sulphur. I’ve heard people say it smells like rotten eggs, but I’m surprised to find that the scent isn’t that bad. It’s an earthy smell, sure. But it’s not even that strong, and I soon forget about it, except for the plumes of steam that rise from vents in the ground around town, such as near the Whakarewarewa Maori village.
I put my feet up for the night at the Novotel Rotorua Lakeside, needing all the rest I can get for the following day.
Not far from the centre of Rotorua is Whakarewarewa Forest, or Redwoods Forest. Though it feels ancient – these trees are simply enormous – the forest is actually man-made and part of a sustainable forestry operation. This is where Mountain Bike Rotorua operates 140 kilometres of purpose-constructed mountain biking trails specifically designed to match every level of MTB experience and enthusiasm.
Running MTB trails in the forestry operation allows the company to remake and resculpt its trails every decade or so – when the trees are cut down, in come the landscaping machines to design new trails for the future.
We start easy (on trails marked for children – my guide is not quite sure of my skill and, honestly, neither am I) but quickly progress to more challenging trails, ducking and weaving down hairpin bends and over jumps and moguls. We find an area that resembles the BMX track of my childhood – though these days I’m a little less kamikaze in my approach.
I easily lose several hours in Whakarewarewa Forest, encountering the largest trees I’ve seen in my life, mountain biking my way through a beautiful and serene part of New Zealand.
That’s definitely not all Rotorua has to offer adventure-seeking travellers either. I later join a guided hiking tour with Kaitiaki Tours up and around the crater of Mt Tarawera, the volcano which once erupted violently (killing around 120 people in 1886) but is now quiet and beautiful. A climb offers expansive views of the lush countryside.
Drive time from Rotorua to Taupo: 1 hour
Get in on the action in Taupo
My first real view of Taupo is from above, in Taupo’s Floatplane. It’s an incredible way to see the rolling blues and greens of the North Island countryside, and get an orientation of the surrounding area. We fly over Lake Taupo, able to spot a cluster of kayakers tracing the route I’ll be doing myself later, and same with the famous Huka Falls.
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I join a small group of travellers – some who’ve come from as far as the USA, some from up the road – on the Maori Rock Carvings tour. A local guide gives a bit of instruction on kayaking for any beginners and we’re off. We’re lucky with the weather – it’s cool but sunny, and the perfect temperature for kayaking.
This tour takes travellers out into the water to see stunning and intricate rock carvings of Ngātoroirangi. While they have the air of being an ancient creation, they’re in fact quite modern artworks, completed by traditional marae-taught carver Matahi Brightwell and a team of artists after four years in 1980. That makes the carvings no less impressive, and at 14 metres tall, it’s easy to be awed when you finally reach them on the kayaking tour (halfway back I asked the distance of this tour – 10km). You can also visit the carvings on a scenic cruise or sailing boat.
The other must-do activity on the water in Taupo is a ride on the Hukafalls Jet. Strap into the custom-built jet boat and shoot all the way up the Waikato River at 80km/h. All the while, the boat driver will spin the boat, cut corners and slalom up the river in what feels like a rollercoaster for thrill factor but more like a hovercraft in handling. The boat will then approach the famous Huka Falls, where a huge volume of water streams through a narrow rocky gap, creating a roiling, seething area of water, over which the jet boat flies.
Only having a day in Taupo isn’t enough to see everything it has to offer – it really is an adventure playground, and I’d definitely stay longer for the hiking, walks and nature (not to mention the fishing and winter sports) but I’m off to something a little more chill in my itinerary next up.
Drive time from Taupo to Napier: 1 hour 50 minutes
Chilling out in Napier and Hawkes Bay
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They call Napier the Art Deco Capital of New Zealand, and you can see why. An earthquake in 1931 flattened most of the city, and more than 100 buildings were rebuilt in the cutting-edge style of the day – Art Deco. All through the city centre are ornate buildings – including the Art Deco Masonic Hotel where I’m staying.
Taking a cycling tour around Napier is an excellent initiation, allowing travellers to explore the city and the coastline. Takaro Trails can take travellers on a guided tour of the region, even visiting the wineries of the surrounding Hawkes Bay region, but I opt for a self-guided ride from Napier’s historic port at Ahuriri all the way to Elephant Hill winery. It’s a cycle of almost 20km through town, wetlands, suburbs and along the beach, giving a comprehensive overview of the town of Napier.
Lunch and a wine tasting at Elephant Hill, frankly, is thoroughly appreciated after all the adventure travel I’ve done over the previous three days and the Hawkes Bay lamb loin with carrot, yoghurt, raisin, sumac and mint goes down smoothly accompanied by the winery’s reserve merlot cabernet.
But that’s not all the food and drink in my immediate future. That evening I’m picked up by Gareth Kelly from Odyssey Tours, ready to take me on a journey around the food and drink delights of Hawkes Bay, plus an incredible view of sunset from the top of nearby Te Mata Peak (accompanied by local sparkling wine, of course).
The private Twilight Odyssey tour Gareth takes me on truly shows the best of this foodie region, with a progressive dinner at three different venues, starting with Malo restaurant for our entree, heading to Craggy Range winery for a main meal, and finishing off with dessert and dessert wines at Mission Estate. It’s truly a wide ranging and thorough view of the food and wine of the region, and I return to my hotel entirely satisfied.
The other is that New Zealand is eminently drivable. It’s easy to get around, the roads are good, the scenery is stunning. Full points for road quality! So it’s time to book your own driving trip and discover the North Island’s food, culture or, you know, a beautiful galaxy of poop.
The writer was a guest of Tourism New Zealand.
Pack more into your tour of New Zealand’s North Island with checked baggage included on every Qantas flight.