All Roads Lead to New Zealand
February 12 – 14
I read somewhere that New Zealand is a collection of nature’s greatest hits. You’ve got your snowcapped mountains, pristine beaches, greener-than-green rolling hills, bluer-than-blue skies, massive glaciers, fjords, lakes… everything. It’s like Mama Naytch was just practicing with the scenery of other countries, then decided to save her best work to display in one, compact, hidden corner of the world (and that, kids, is where New Zealand comes from).
After two long days spent in four airports across Australasia, we were finally about to embark on our month-long journey through this natural mecca, trying to see as much as we could in that time. To say we were excited to get started would be like… I don’t know, but it would be an understatement.
With an open itinerary led fearlessly by a campervan (a white ’98 Toyota Estima that came complete with dents, chipped paint and 230k+ miles on her before we left the lot… she’s a beaut!), and paired with a plan-on-the-fly approach, the country was our oyster. Or mussel. Probably a green lipped mussel. Since those are on almost every menu and force you to inadvertently drool even when you didn’t realize you were hungry (or is that just me?).
Culinary temptations aside, New Zealand does plenty for the senses. We’ve been over the views and the tastes are great, but the smell of fresh air was a big deal for us after our 5-month stint in Asia. Quite the dichotomy when comparing the environmentally friendly ways of New Zealand with the litter-at-will approach many Asian countries seemed to take.
So how about a little background on this southern hemisphere treasure before we get started? I’ll take your inability to audibly answer as a yes…
- New Zealanders, or “Kiwis,” number 4.3million countrywide. If that seems small, it’s because it is. The country is bigger than the UK in land mass, but has just one-fourteenth of its population. There are actually more sheep and more cattle here than there are people (Don’t check this fact – I didn’t. Just take my word for it, I’m at least 74%… no, wait… 72% sure its true). And for good reason – the farmland and untouched pastures go on for days (Seriously, this place is like the Atlantis – or Cattle Club Med? – that North American, European, African and Asian farm animals have dreamed of but didn’t know existed. If I’m a sheep or cow anywhere else in the world right now, I’m finding a way to New Zealand, come hell or high water).
- You may also have heard that Peter Jackson hails from here and used the country to film the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies. (EDITOR’S NOTE: And, if you haven’t, then you haven’t been to New Zealand. Because that sh*t is EVERYWHERE. Small town brochures, pamphlets on excursions and street signs point you in the direction of the nearest LOTR film location, or if you’re lucky, where Liv Tyler was once thrown out of a bar.) Contrary to what some may believe, New Zealand isn’t Middle Earth and there are not actually hobbits living here. (EDITOR’S NOTE: Says Dave. I STILL BELIEVE! BOOK NERDS UNITE!) We actually met a Kiwi couple while traveling in Cambodia who joked that they’ve been told “Your feet aren’t as hairy as I expected” or “You’re awfully tall for someone from New Zealand.” We haven’t said either of those things to any locals, but we’ll let you know how that goes if we ever do.
We arrived in Auckland, having read plenty of good things about the city in our research, but for better or worse it was just a blip on the radar with only 24-hours to spare in the urban hub. Even though 26 days in this small country seemed like a lot when we booked it, it would become clearer and clearer as we traveled that its impossible to try to see everything in even that decent length of time. (EDITOR’S NOTE: If we heard, “ooooh you only have 3 ½ weeks here?” from another Kiwi, I vowed to shout back, “WHO CAN REGULARLY TAKE OFF ALMOST A MONTH OF WORK??” But I knew the answer already. Kiwis. Well, and Australians, if you want to get technical. Note to self: Look for Aussie/NZ employer upon return to the States.) So after an early night of minimal exploring around our hostel’s Mt. Eden neighborhood, our jet lag had us oversleeping our alarm and rushing to pick up our van. The next 36 hours would take us on a tour of the Coromandel Peninsula, with eight of them spent in our new wheels so we had to get moving.
And quickly decided that driving was going to be an incredible way to see the country. With white-capped waves of the Hauraki Gulf, rolling hills of farmland and varying treelines out the windows in all directions, we anxiously took in the views, and knew it was only going to get better.
Our first stop along the scenic route was The Mussel Kitchen. Set all by its lonesome a few kilometers before reaching Coromandel Town, the quaint restaurant is known for cranking out some of the best mussels in the area.
Our first foray into this local specialty was phenomenal. Going with a fitting palate pleaser to help us properly transition from Thailand to New Zealand, we ordered up a pot of massive green lipped mussels cooked in Thai green curry sauce. Add a lemon and a toasted baguette and you’ve got perfection in a pot, folks.
This is my second time in New Zealand, having done the campervan tour about seven years ago for just under a week with some friends. That was before the NZ Department of Conservation (DOC) began cracking down on campervan regulations, so we were able to pull over on the side of the road to sleep anywhere. Nowadays, the only way you’re allowed to do that is if you have a “self-contained” van, meaning there’s a toilet inside. Our wheels don’t have the proper facilities (how does the saying go? “Don’t ___ where you sleep” or something like that?) (EDITOR’S NOTE: And, ew. No.), so we would have to locate designated campgrounds or holiday parks along the route.
Before setting out on the open road, we challenged ourselves to stay in as basic campsites as possible – breaking only when needed for hot showers and power accessibility for charging. So naturally, the first place we stayed had a fully equipped kitchen and provided utensils, a full building of hot showers, and enough outlets to power the Hubble Telescope. On the upside of our complete weakness, the next morning was Valentine’s Day, and my wife got a home cooked breakfast courtesy of moi.
Continuing with the Valentine’s Day celebrations, we set out for a short morning hike to New Chum’s beach near Whangapoua, which rivaled any stretch of sand we’d seen all year. The hike provided overhead views of the wineglass shaped bay before we descended to get a closer look.
And with the sand still between our toes, we were off again. We stayed coastal the rest of the day, cruising down the eastern side of the Coromandel with views of the Pacific constantly by our side. With our trunk full of sandwich staples and snacks, we scouted the countryside for an idyllic place to nom. Enter Hahei Beach. The perfect morning weather extended into the afternoon so we set up a simple spread and listened to the waves while warding off some aggressive seagulls.
Continuing our momentum, we squeezed in a quick walk to Cathedral Cove, located on yet another picturesque beach (it’s as if New Zealand wanted to give us a guilt trip for thinking we’d seen enough beaches in Asia).
All the driving with our jaws in a constant drop zone from the surrounding scenery led us to a DOC campsite – sans showers, kitchen, and power outlets… the real deal this time – where we finally got to use our fold-up chairs and table to set out a spread of peanut butter, jelly and banana sandwiches; some local beers; a meat, cheese and cracker plate; chips and salsa; and some Tim-Tams. Seemingly random, these elements would become staples of our upcoming travel. I was not disappointed about that.
After a typically beautiful sunset we were treated to a thick blanket of stars overhead. And just like that, we had found our groove. The whole campervanning thing around this gorgeous country was gonna work out after all.