Our visit to New Zealand’s North Island was a special one. This was our first trip outside of Australia since we arrived 5 months ago! Our first stop: Auckland – the largest city in New Zealand, and more than 5 times the size of the capital, Wellington.
The city is currently undergoing a transformation and plenty of major infrastructure projects are on their way. There’s also plenty of great restaurants, cafes, bars and new trendy shops opening at every corner of the CBD!
I guess tourism in New Zealand has boomed in the last decade due to the popularity of Lord of the Rings. Even the airport welcomes you in a true LOTR fashion…
After spending a day in Auckland, we drove 230 km south to Rotorua, a town famous for its geothermal activity, geysers, mud pools and… it’s rotten egg smell! It is, after all, affectionately nicknamed Sulphur City because of its unrelenting hydrogen sulphide emissions. After a short walk in the Whakarnewarewa Forest (or Redwoods Forest for Māori illiterates), we visited a spectacular geyser and bubbling mud pools at Te Puia. We then relaxed in the hot springs of the Polynesian Spa, a famous hot mineral water bathing spa on the edge of Lake Rotorua. And, in case you’re wondering, our bathing suits still smell like rotten eggs…
The landscape in the North Island is beautiful: rolling green hills dotted with sheep, dense forests, and crystal-blue water. It’s hard not to stop and take pictures!
We kept driving down south and stopped at Huka Falls, a set of clear blue waterfalls on the Waikato River that drains into Lake Taupo. We even saw someone crazy enough to kayak down the falls and do an Inuk roll!
The next day we began our journey through Mordor, following the Tongariro Alpine Crossing (voted “the best day hike in the world”). Fully equipped with our winter gear (helmet, crampons, ice picks, and gaiters), we set off to follow Frodo’s footsteps. We first made our way up the Devil’s Staircase, a gruelling, never-ending uphill climb. Seriously, we climbed the equivalent of 249 storeys that day (thanks iPhone Health App)! Some of our fellow hikers gave up halfway up the climb and had to turn around. Unfortunately for them, the best view of Mount Ngauruhoe (Mount Doom) was at the top of the staircase!
LOTR fun fact 1: The movie crew was not allowed to film the summit of Mount Ngauruhoe because the Māori hold it to be sacred, so LOTR shots of Mount Doom are of Mount Ngauruhoe base, with a CGI’d summit!
We eventually made it to Red Crater, the summit of our hike. It was snowing and icy at the top, but luckily there was hot air vent on the mountain crest to warm ourselves up and have lunch (this is, after all, a volcanically-active area!). Unfortunately, after lunch, our group was forced to turn around due to the harsh and icy winter conditions. So much for bringing all that winter gear! We were pretty disappointed since we were really looking forward to seeing the Blue and Emerald Lakes (pictured below).
We left Mordor feeling a little unsettled (I’m sure Frodo would have kept going!) so we decided to do an another hike in a magical Elvish-like forest nearby, along the Whakapapa village walking track.
Keeping the fantasy alive, we decided to visit Hobbiton. What a cute little place, literally! Peter Jackson spotted the Alexander Farm during an aerial search before shooting The Fellowship of the Ring and thought it was the perfect site for Hobbiton. It definitely was!
LOTR fun fact 2: The oak tree above Bilbo’s house is a fake! It is made up of over 200,000 hand-painted leaves from Taiwan. A few days before shooting began, the colour of the leaves had faded, so Peter Jackson hired someone to repaint every. single. leaf. Oh, did I mention that it only had about 2 seconds of screen time in The Hobbit? Well…it did.
We then headed to the Waitomo Caves, famous for their illuminating glowworms. The experience is surreal: you walk down a dark cave, and hop on a small boat in total darkness. The guide manually steers the boat to an area deep within the cave, and then you look up…and there are millions of little blue-ish fairy lights over your head! It was magical – like staring up at a sky full of stars!
Non-LOTR Fun Fact 1: The glowworms dangle threads of mucus and shine brightly in the darkness of the caves to lure and trap insects. When insects get stuck, the glowworms reel up the line so they can eat them. Delicious!
Our last stop on the North Island was at Mount Maunganui where we, in true kiwi fashion, walked up to the summit alongside some wild sheep. We’ve seen plenty of sheep during our trip but this was the first time we got to see them up close.
You gotta love them moutons!