Even with the feeling of ecstasy watching the amazing sunset on the beach outside of Kawhia the night before, I knew the next day would pose it’s own difficulties, as I had to get back on my scheduled itinerary if I wanted to make sure I would get to do the things I had left on my list.
The town of Kawhia was still asleep as I took one last drive around before heading toward Waitomo. I’d checked Google Maps the previous evening, and it had said the drive to Waitomo was 88kms, and an hour and seven minutes. Knowing what I’d learned about the roads in New Zealand, and looking at the twisting nature of the road I was taking, I figured the drive would take close to three hours.
The first part of the drive wound around the arms and various inlets of Kawhia Harbor, which is actually quite a large body of water when you take into account all of these pretty little coves.
It turned out I was spot on about the nature of the road. It was winding and incredibly scenic. I had to keep reminding myself that every stop I made to snap pictures was going to push the second, longer drive of the day back. Once I passed the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it hamlet of Kinohaku, the land began to become more hills and pasture land rather than the peaceful inlets and sheltered bays I had been traveling for the first hour. There was also a layer of fog that covered the hills, which added nice ambiance to the photos.
There were a couple of specific sites I had wanted to see along the way as well, the first being Marokopa Falls. I’d read in a number of different places that Marokopa Falls is considered by many to be New Zealand’s most beautiful waterfall. I’d seen a number of gorgeous waterfalls on my day in the Catlins, but none that were as high (35m) or as powerful as Marokopa. The hike to the waterfall overlook was a little less than a half and hour downhill and it provided an amazing view of the falls.
A few kilometers down the road was the walk to the Mangapohue Natural Bridge. The 17 meter high bridge that stands here today is all that remains of a vast cave system that used to exist. Through weathering and the natural elements, the rest of the cave collapsed and left this impressive span of rock. The stream of the same name runs through it’s floor, and the underside of the arch still contains some stalactites and other cave-like features. There are an impressively constructed series of boardwalk that make the hike out the the bridge from the parking area quite easy to do.
My main stop of the day was at the world famous Waitomo Glowworm caves. My friend Chris Christensen of The Amateur Traveler Podcast had spoken highly of his experience doing Blackwater Rafting here. Blackwater rafting is floating/climbing through the caves in a wetsuit, and there were a couple of different options based on the adventure level of the participant. Since I had planned to be at the caves first thing in the morning, this experience was scheduled to be on my itinerary. The previous day, when I’d altered my plans and made the drive to Kawhia instead of overnighting in Waitomo, I knew I probably wasn’t going to have time to do the blackwater rafting. Knowing this is one of the country’s most popular sights, I knew I couldn’t skip it all together, so I signed up for one of the shorter tours where they take you through the caves on a boat to see the famous glowworms.
I’d known there was no photography allowed on the tour, so I wasn’t disappointed by this. I was a bit off-put by the size of the group that was on my tour, especially since most of the activities and tours I’d been doing on this trip were not that crowded due to my traveling in the country’s off-season. It didn’t end up being about the size of the crowd that was the most annoying part of the tour, it was the two children that were not being properly supervised by their parents. Our guide had to keep asking the kids not to do things they had been told at the beginning of the tour not to do, especially taking pictures, climbing on things that they were told not to, and being unreasonably loud. One of the other tour participants became annoyed with the kid who kept taking pictures after repeatedly told not to, and he ‘accidentally knocked’ the camera out of the kid’s hands, breaking it. Many of us breathed a sigh of relief when this happened, but it lead to the child first throwing a temper tantrum, then crying over his broken camera for the rest of the journey.
Between all the annoyances, I did enjoy the glowworm caves themselves. Our guide was incredibly knowledgeable and informative, but was fighting a bit of losing battle. He did a good job of explaining that the ‘glowworms’ were not really worms, but instead a type of larvae. (For a more detailed explanation of this- read this from Waitomo Caves website). I’d certainly recommend a visit to Waitomo, despite my experience, but to say I was in a bit of a foul mood when I walked out of there is an understatement.
The problem with that was I still had a long drive ahead of me. Most of the time while in New Zealand, I looked forward to the drives, this one was along main highways and not through the country’s prettiest area and for part of it, on a multi-lane highway, something I’d seen precious little of.
I’d had the brilliant idea to stop breifly at One Tree Hill, one of Auckland’s many volcanic cones that surround the city, to get some pictures overlooking Auckland. I’d planned on being back in Auckland a few days later (after my trip to Northland) so I figured this stop would serve purposes. The first was to break up the long drive, the second was to give me a look at the city before I got back there.
Unfortunately, I had lost track of the days while traveling. I knew I’d had bad crowds in Rototua because it was the Queen’s Birthday weekend, but I didn’t realize that the actual birthday was a public holiday, meaning most people had this Monday off work and school. When I tried driving up One Tree Hill and parking in the tine parking lot near the top, I was shocked to find throngs of people out enjoying the splendid early winter weather. I circled around in the parking lot, and headed back down the hill disappointed. I briefly debated just saying ‘forget it’ and hopping back on the highway and booking north.
In the end I decided to park quite a way from the summit, in the first available spot I could find, and walk up the hill.
I did enjoy the views, and was able to get some pretty good images of the city in the distance and the area surrounding it, but this hadn’t been the short little stop I’d imagined when I put it on the day’s itinerary. The sun was beginning to set in the distance, and I knew I was going to be doing most of the rest of the drive in the dark.
The trip out of the Cornwall Park, the large urban park that surrounds One Tree Hill, was even more annoying. The crowds had obviously decided to leave right around the same time as I had, and there was a long traffic jam just to get back to the freeway. Thankfully, once on the freeway, I was able to zip through the rest of Auckland, over the city’s harbor bridge and toward Northland.
I didn’t have any real plan on where to stay in the evening. The weather on the North Island had been warm enough to allow me to spend most of the time sleeping in the back of the campervan. The sun set shortly after leaving Auckland, and that left me to travel on two lane State Higway 1, the main North-South highway, in the dark with the other people returning home after the long vacation weekend. I’d gotten up early (around 630AM) and had hoped to make it all the Whangarei, but by 8PM I decided to get off the highway and set up camp just outside the tiny hamlet of Waipa Cove.
I have no trouble admitting that this was my least favorite day of the entire trip. That should speak to how great the trip was. While there were many frustrations during the day, there had also been many redeeming parts of it.
The final one of these was the brilliantly bright moon. My campsite in Waipa Cove was just a few hundred meters away from the beach, so I was able to take my tripod out to the bluff overlooking the beach and get some unique shots of both the moon and the brilliant light it cast that evening.