About an hour South of Rotorua lies a waterfront town called Taupo. Geothermal activity is widespread in this area as well. Three active volcanoes, Mount Tongariro, Mount Ngauruhoe, and Mount Ruapehu are easily viewable from across the cobalt blue lake, which is the size of Singapore.
Our Airbnb host, Mike, who has been a resident of Taupo for 40 years, provided us with interesting facts about the area and told us stories about his life. In 1995, he was sitting on his balcony overlooking the lake as Mount Ruapehu erupted. At the time, his 16 year old son was working on the ski resort on the snow-capped volcano. Can you imagine watching mounds of smoke and ash bursting into the sky when you knew your child was up there?! Luckily no one got hurt as the ski lifts closed 15 minutes prior to the explosion. I guess this is one of the risks you take living in an unstable, albeit gorgeous environment like Taupo.
Matt and I planned to have an close-up encounter with Mt. Ngauruhoe, also known as Mt. Doom from The Lord of the Rings, but the weather was not in our favor. We hoped to complete the 12 mile Tongariro Alpine Crossing, which is denoted as one of the top day hikes in the world. The setting resembles an extraterrestrial environment with steaming fumaroles, deep craters, and seafoam green lakes. Fully exposed to the erratic weather, a hiker could start out with shorts and a t-shirt and wind up needing a thick jacket, a hat, and gloves half way through. Unfortunately, the forecast predicted heavy rains and gales, which are winds above 35 miles per hour, making the track too dangerous to hike on the days that we were in the vicinity.
I guess there’s a silver lining to everything. It was a beautiful summer day on Lake Taupo. Mike informed us about the fauna and flora of the area and brought us to some secret viewpoints before dropping us off at Huka Falls. Every minute, enough water to fill 5 Olympic sized swimming pools surges over the rock face. A few miles upstream, the Waikato River is turquoise. The powerful cascading water causes mass amounts of air bubbles to mix in with the vibrant color, giving this unusual-looking falls it’s name, based on the Maori word for “foam”.
After observing the falls, Matt and I hiked along the river towards town. We frequently stopped to take photos and swam in the transparent aqua water. During one of our breaks, two surreal black swans came up to me, most likely desiring food.
Further down the path, a hot spring met the Waikato river and created a revitalizing swimming atmosphere. We chatted with the friendly locals and they provided us with useful suggestions for tramping trails in New Zealand. Matt and I continued walking on the path along the river, admiring the magnificent natural beauty that’s present in this part of the world.
The entire hike to town took about 3 hours, so by the end we were ravenous. We shared some delectable small plates at Vine Eatery & Bar, a restaurant serving Mediterranean and New Zealand cuisine. I will undoubtedly re-create the bruschetta nostrana in my kitchen at home. The prosciutto, brie cheese, sun-dried tomatoes and arugula combo was a delicious spin to the traditional bruschetta. We also tasted juicy scallops, seared with smoked pancetta, and garnished with a lemon vinaigrette. It was the first time I’ve had scallops with the coral-colored roe still attached; it adds a succulent richness and depth to the dish. Lastly, the mussels, each individually the size of my hand, were steamed in a white wine beurre blanc. I could have consumed 50 of them, but we were saving up for dinner.
We joined Mike and 4 of his Kiwi friends for a New Zealand BBQ that evening. Our casual conversation, nourished with a constant flow of Chardonnay, spanned from history and politics, to astronomy and technology, to family and relationships. Matt and I throughly enjoyed hearing stories about their travels, and they unquestionably imparted a great deal of wisdom and advice. Thanks again, Mike, for the memorable stay!
On Monday morning we made our way to Wellington in a downpour. At the start of our drive down the 1, we passed through a barren landscape known as Desert Road. Even though the area receives 60-100 inches of rain per year, it’s a desert due to the intensely drying winds and poor soil quality.
The majority of the trip looked similar to our other drives in the North Island as we rode through countless farms, sporadic petrol stations, and local meat pie and dairy shops. As we approached Wellington, the 1 resembled Route 1 in California, with the mountains on one side of the road and the ocean on the other. We reached our accommodation in the afternoon and settled in at our homey hostel, The Dwellington.
The CBD was about a 10 minute walk from our hostel. We explored the lively waterfront and wandered down the brick-paved Cuba Street. If Auckland is the ‘Sydney’ of New Zealand, Wellington is the ‘Melbourne’. The capital fosters a funky, creative atmosphere. Purple-haired women strolled home from work as buskers performed in the streets.
We noticed the plethora of thrift stores, skate shops, and jewelry boutiques. Lucky for me, Matt has a hidden hobby of jewelry making. He helped me construct my own necklace at Tiger Eye Beads. I had the vision for a long-chained necklace, but I definitely did not have the patience to ply open the minuscule loops and attached the charm and stones. I hand-picked a few of my favorite gems: rose quartz, aventurine, and lapis lazuli, and created a unique necklace for $10.
In addition to the unconventional shopping opportunities, Wellington has a world-renowned coffee culture and foodie scene. You can find a delicious flat white on every corner, either in a trendy pop-up cafe or a brick and mortar shop.
Our first night, we downed a pitcher of fresh orange juice and kiwifruit margaritas and demolished smoked chipotle chicken burritos at The Flying Burrito Brothers. The burritos were not the best I’ve ever had, but they hit the spot, and the ambiance of the restaurant was fun and playful.
Another interesting food option in Wellington is the self-serve sushi establishments. After entering the joint, you grab a set of tongs and select individual sushi chunks for a dollar or two a piece. It’s an inexpensive, fresh, and convenient way to sample your favorite rolls. If we had more time in Wellington, I would have loved to check out one of it’s internationally recognized restaurants. I guess it means that I’ll have to go back!
Matt and I boarded the 5 pm Interislander ferry for Picton. Parking our car on the massive ship was an amusing, yet surprisingly easy process. We ate mediocre fish and chips at the oceanfront restaurant and used the spotty wifi to work out some details for the rest of our trip. The 3 and 1/2 hour sailing flew by, thankfully, as I was seasick for a large portion of it. The last 90 minutes of the journey was stunning; we cruised past empty bays and forested mountains as the sun was setting.
We were pumped to make it to the South Island, which is apparently more breathtaking than it’s northern counterpart, but bummed that our adventures on the North Island had ceased.
And so our South Island escapades begin...