After leaving New Plymouth and Mt Taranaki I headed up the coast, my destination being the Waitomo Glow Worm Caves. I made a few notable stops along the way with the highlight being the Three Sisters & Elephant Rock. These are sections of coastal cliffs that due to erosion now stand isolated in the ocean itself. At low tide, you can actually walk around the rocks and get a better view, but sadly for me, I was there at the wrong time so had to be content with snapping a photo from the nearby lookout just up the road. I arrived at my YHA hostel early afternoon, which was located a few minutes drive from the caves. I then spent the rest of the day relaxing, as my cave tours were scheduled for the following morning. There are numerous caves and experiences on offer in the region, with over 300 known caves and something like 12 commercial operators. Ranging from standard cave walking tours (some are even wheelchair accessible) to more extreme stuff like canyoning, ziplining and rafting through the caves. For once in my life, I selected the tame option, consisting of a combo tour with the biggest tour operator in the region. This combined a tour of Ruakuri Caves along with the famous Waitomo Cave itself. Ruakuri Cave is one of the longest caves in the area, first discovered by local Māori 400-500 years ago. The name Te Ruakuri, or “The Den of Dogs” was given to the surrounding area when wild dogs were discovered living in the entrance of the cave. In fact, the old entrance to the cave was subsequently used as a burial ground for Māori, meaning the tour now avoids this area and you enter through a really cool man mad entrance which spirals down into the cave. There was only myself and then 3 other people who actually worked for the company, on the tour. Our guide, Logan, was great and had so much knowledge surrounding the cave and its history. In this cave, you were permitted to take photos and there were various stunning features we explored. The second cave was Waitomo, famous for its array of glow worms which number in the thousands. This time it was just me and the tour guide off exploring, which also included a boat trip through the river in the cave where all the glow worms live. It was such a privilege to experience the cave solo. Pre-covid there would be 2000-3000 visitors per day, so to have the place to myself is something that will probably never be repeated. It certainly added to the magic of the experience. Floating in silence under a sky of glow worms, it could have easily been the night sky above, littered with glowing blue stars. It was amazing and has to be experienced for yourself. There are no photos allowed in the cave, however, it was nice to just enjoy the experience, without having to worry about snapping a picture. Additionally, unless you have a very good and expensive camera it would be hard to capture great photos of the glow worms.
After the glow worm caves, I drove a couple of hours to Tongariro National Park. I would be staying at the YHA here for a few nights and using it as a base to explore the park. The main highlight is the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, a 20km point to point day hike across the volcanic landscape of the region. I was up early the following morning in readiness for the hike and would be joined by Kaytie and Dan (the couple from Palmerston North) who had kindly offered to keep me company. I was very much looking forward to hiking with them, it would make a pleasant change to the solo hikes I had been completing. I met the two of them in the minivan shuttle that would transport us to the start of the hike and then back from the end to our accommodation. It was a short 20-minute drive to the start of the hike, where we set off around 9 am, plenty of time to complete the 20km before our shuttle, either at 3 pm or 4.30 pm. The first few km of the hike were fairly flat as you walk through the open and sparse valley towards the intimidating Mt Ngauruhoe, otherwise known as Mt Doom from Lord of the Rings! After about 45 minutes there is a little sidetrack that leads you to a pretty little waterfall, Soda Springs. Once past Soda Springs, this is where you now start to ascend into the alpine region of the crossing. It’s pretty steep going but the track is well-formed and the landscape you are traversing through is extraordinary. You cross numerous old lava flows from past eruptions that have now solidified into amazing rock formations. Looking closely at the rock you can see how previously the rock had been melted and has subsequently cooled into the state it’s now in.
After the first climb, you reach a plateau region in front of Mt Ngauruhoe. You could easily be forgiven for thinking that here you have stepped foot on another planet. In fact for vast sections of the walk, it feels that way, sometimes you feel as though you’re on Mars, others on the Moon or even on an altogether alien planet you’ve never heard of. From this plateau, the track then climbed again toward the Red Crater and the apex of the hike at 1886m. However, you are already at an altitude of 1120m when the track begins. The hike up from the Ngauruhoe Saddle to the Red Crater is pretty intense. The path is less well-formed here and you’re scrambling up loose scree and rocks. The view from the top though is amazing. You can look back towards the saddle and Mt Ngauruhoe, down into the red crater itself (easy to see where it gets its name from) and then on toward the Emerald and Blue Lake in the distance. The red nature of the crater comes from the iron in the soil and you can see an existing exit point for an old lava flow/eruption.
From here you then descend to Emerald Lakes themselves. Again the track down is very loose gravel so it’s easy to slide a little here. The Emerald Lakes are 3 beautifully blue/torques pools, however, don’t be deceived by their beauty. They get their colour from dissolved minerals plus are also highly acidic. As well as the pools there is also lots of geothermal activity, with steam and sulphur gases escaping from vents that surround the lakes. We stopped here for a spot of lunch but made sure to sit upwind from the vents otherwise the smell of sulphur (rotting eggs) can be a bit much. After lunch, we continued toward Blue Lake, which again is beautiful, but also forbidden to swim in, this time due to it being sacred in Maori Culture. By this point, some cloud had started to roll in too so we were thankful to be leaving the high alpine region behind. The track is notorious for its rapidly changing conditions.
Once past Blue Lake you are then rewarded with views down towards Lake Rotoaira and then behind that Lake Taupo, New Zealand largest freshwater lake. From here you then descend toward the endpoint of the track. The track again becomes well-formed although a little tedious as you zig-zag your way down towards Ketetahi Hut, which was actually damaged in 2012 when Mt Tongariro erupted. From the hut we about 6km to go before the end of the track. However, we would be cutting it fine with an hour until 3 pm and the first transportation pick-up. We elected to go for it and bombed it down the remaining section, arriving into the car pack at 3:10 pm. Having phoned ahead to say we would be a few minutes late the minivan was still waiting which we were very grateful for. While the track is certainly amazing, smashing out these final few km was pretty good as the final section does become a little boring. Overall though it was an extraordinary day hike! The diversity in scenery was amazing and it’s unlike any of the other walks I’ve done in New Zealand. All the different geographical features were equally as stunning and having Kaytie and Dan for company only added to the awesomeness of the experience. Once back in town we grabbed a beer and a bite to eat before we said our goodbyes. I look forward to seeing them both next year back in England for Karl & Hannahs Wedding!
The day after the Tongariro I headed to Taupo with a Canadian guy called Noah. He was in my dorm room for the night and was also hitchhiking to Taupo, so I offered him a lift. Before we left the National Park though there were a few more things I wanted to explore. Firstly we walked the hour long loop track to Taranaki Falls, which was a beautiful waterfall and even offered the chance to get around the back of the falls behind the water. Next on the list was Tawhai Fall, otherwise known as Gollum Pools, famous for its use in Lord of the Rings. This was only a short 5 minute walk from the car park and I took the opportunity to get the drone in the air and take some cool pictures. From the air, Mt Raupahu was also visible along with the forest and river leading to the pools. The final stop was Mahuia Rapids, just off the main highway and further downstream from Gollum Pools. After the morning exploring Tongariro National Park, we jumped in the car and made the short hour drive to Taupo. Here I dropped Noah off and said our goodbyes, a friendship of 16 hours if that. I’ll probably never see the guy again in my life. But that’s one of the things I most enjoy about travelling, the small chance encounters you have with people. The brief experiences and happiness you get to share before going on your own paths again, grateful for the memories made.
Taupo was really nice though and reminded me a lot of Queenstown, just bigger plus less mountainous. Taupo itself sits on the shore of the lake from which it takes its name. Lake Taupo actually sits in a caldera created by a supervolcanic eruption that occurred approximately 26,500 years ago which lead to the formation of said lake. The region is still very geothermally active and there are lots of different natural hot pools and steam vents that can be visited. After checking into my dorm room I then went to explore some of these, first stopping at Spa Thermal Park, which are free natural hot pools open to the public to relax and enjoy. The temperate waters heated from the ground below. I then walked to Otumuheke Stream, which flows into the Waikato River (NZ longest stretching 425 km) and is a lovely little spot for a swim. Just watch the current in the river as only a few km further downstream is the infamous Huka Falls. You certainly wouldn’t want to get washed down there! I walked the 3km or so from Otumuheke Stream to Huka Falls, which is an extraordinary sight. The sheer power and velocity of the water cutting its way down the narrow gorge and then over the falls itself was incredible. In fact more than 220,000 litres of water per second barrel over the 11 m high waterfall.
The following day I woke and took a stroll down to the lakefront, before trying my hand at a spot of golf. On the lake was a golf hole where the top prize for a hole in one was 10k. Drastically overestimating my ability I thought I was in with an outside chance. 25 golf balls later and the closest I’d come was hitting the 8x8m platform once which entitled me to a free ball haha. A little while yet before I’m on the PGA Tour. Later that day I had booked myself in for the AJ Hacket Swing in Taupo. The price was heavily discounted, a similar story for almost everything I’ve done in NZ. One of the major benefits of travelling during the pandemic. By no means as terrifying as the bungy, the 44m high swing still provided a bit of a rush and excitement for the day. Although I will admit, had I paid full price I would have felt a little ripped off. Following the swing, I then made my way to The Craters of the Moon geothermal park, which allows you to walk around a boardwalk past various craters and vents spewing hot steam into the air. It’s pretty crazy to witness and reminds you that not too far under your feet is liquid magma responsible for all the areas thermal activity. It was a really hot day though and combining this with all the steam, probably wasn’t the best time to visit. So having strolled around for 40 minutes it was back to the hostel, and then down to the lake for a swim with a few friends I’d made while there. That evening we all made tacos and chilled out watching the sunset. Another example of friends made for a day, likely to never be seen again!
Taupo was great though, I instantly liked the vibe of the place and would have been happy to stay for some time. However, my time in NZ was quickly drawing to a close and I still had plenty more things on my itinerary. I therefore left Taupo and made my way to Rotorua. I checked into a massive YHA hostel that was practically empty. It likely had a capacity for close to 400 beds but I estimate there being no more than 10 guests there. I took a stroll around the main town centre and lakefront before driving to the Whakarewarewa Redwood Forest for a walk at dusk. Pretty cool place to stretch your legs for a little while with numerous tracks to follow.
The following day I had booked myself on a Kaituna whitewater rafting trip, down grade 5 rapids and the world’s highest commercially rafted waterfall, Okere Falls at 7 m high. The trip was really fun and lasted about an hour, rafting down 3 significant falls and many smaller rapids. We even got the chance to jump out of the boat for a swim and float down one of the smaller rapids ourselves. The main event though was Okere Falls, about halfway on the trip! You’re obviously a little nervous before you drop over the waterfall but everything’s kind of out of your hands by this point. We paddled up to the waterfall then on instruction all bunkered down into the raft. Two ladies in the front, followed by myself and then the guide at the back. You plunge down the falls and for a few seconds everything is underwater and you don’t really know where you are. We then surfaced and at this point, the two in the front were gone, nowhere to be seen. For a second I also think I’m the only one in the raft, as the guide is still in the raft but submerged behind the waterfall at this point. I’m sitting there thinking what the hell happens now, not knowing if this is normal and what’s going to happen next. The guide then appears and starts climbing forward and instructs me to do the same. This is because our weight towards the back is now holding the raft in place under the waterfall. As I clamber forward the raft leaves the grip of the waterfall and floats out into the calm waters of the pool we now find ourselves in. This all happened in the space of about 30 seconds and was all good fun for me. It also gave the 3 other rafts who had gone down before us a bit of excitement for the day. I’m told because all our weight was at the front we just went straight down and got stuck right at the bottom of the falls. I don’t think we were ever really in any danger though and all in all a great little bit of adventure for the morning.
After the adrenaline-filled morning, it was time for a slower pace and to relax in Hells Gate Thermal Pools. They actually offer mud pools too, but I was happy enough to unwind in the mineral-rich hot water. Hopping between the hot sulphur pools and cold plunge pool. Great way to soothe the muscles after all the hiking I’d completed as well as the mornings rafting. The final activity during an action packed few days in Rotorua was a few laps down the Luge. Basically, a big gravity powered real-life Mario Kart. You fly down the track which starts at the top of the hill and ends at the bottom. Your 4 wheeled little cart is therefore powered by the force of gravity and you pull back on your steering wheel to slow down. I had 5 laps of the track racing various other people on the way down! Make sure you do use the break though, as there were a few times I tried taking the corners a bit too quickly and for a second or two though I was going to come out or roll the kart.
That concludes part II of the North Island, in the next blog, I’ll conclude my road trip and time in New Zealand!