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New Zealand Part 2: Rotorua to Christchurch

This is the continuation of the journey of 2 mum friends and their 4 children in Charlie the Campervan across the beguiling islands of New Zealand – check out Part 1 for our first ten day stretch. This post tracks our adventures from Rotorua down to Wellington and across the Cook Strait to the picturesque South Island, and finally along its east coast to Christchurch. Along the way, we bathed in thermal hot springs; learned about the Maori lifestyle; watched as mud bubbled up out of the ground; completed the hardest trek of our lifetime; experienced New Zealand’s pre-human state at the Zealandia ecosanctuary; and came up close and personal with majestic albatrosses in the Pacific Ocean. So many amazing memories. If anyone is planning a trip to this wonderful country, hopefully you’ll find our itinerary below of some help (and as such, I’ve also included information on the campsites at which we stayed).

Day 12: Rotorua – Geysers, bubbling mud & Maori tradition

Our twelfth day in NZ was somewhat fully loaded with a morning visiting the Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland and an evening Maori experience at Tamaki Maori Village. There are so many experiences/activities on offer in this tourist focussed town, that it’s quite hard to narrow down exactly what you’d like to spend your money/time seeing. But, the children had never seen a geyser or bubbling mud, and I was keen to see the stunning colours of the thermal lakes, so we plumped for Wai-O-Tapu and were not disappointed. First up was the Lady Knox Geyser which spouts off (with a little help from an organic soap) at 10:15am each morning, spraying its boiling water up to 20m in the air. After jostling to get a good spot and getting a little impatient at waiting, all Beans were then completely awe-struck when she finally exploded, sending her spoils flying into the air!

We then spent a lovely, albeit smelly, couple of hours wandering around the 3km loop track marvelling at the boiling mud pools and steaming, colourful hot springs, such as the Champagne Pool, the Artist’s Palette and the lime green Devil’s Bath.

After a little break back at the campsite, it was then time for our pick up for the evening experience at Tamaki Maori Village. This was expensive, but it was definitely worth it, especially as it culminated in a traditional Maori hangi meal (cooked in a pit oven) and, given the enormous amount that all four children ate, we definitely got good value for money!

The evening started on the bus to the village during which a chief for our “tribe” was elected (Steve from London in our case, who did an excellent job!). On arrival at the Maori meeting grounds, all the elected chiefs from the various buses took part in an ancient welcome ceremony, or Powhiri, during which a warrior from the host tribe challenged them, checking to see if they were friend or foe. Dancing with his taiaha (spear-like weapon), the warrior finally laid down a token of a small branch for Steve to pick up, thereby demonstrating to the tribe that he came in peace. To finish the formal proceedings, Steve and the warrior greeted each other with a hongi – the ceremonial touching of noses. Finally, we were all allowed to walk inside the walls of the marae, or meeting grounds.

Once inside, we were introduced to the traditional Maori way of life, learning some of the games they play, such as the short and long sticks; how and why they tattoo their faces; the poi dance (dance with balls on strings) and of course the haka war dance. Bean9 was a little indignant that, as a girl, she wasn’t allowed to participate in the haka – she’s been reading a lot of Rebel Girl books recently – but luckily she was chosen to try out the poi dance under the instruction of the Maori elders, which somewhat appeased her! The two boys learned the haka dance alongside the other men, and made sure to locate themselves in prime position, right next to our chief, Steve!

Bean8 attempting the famous haka dance
Bean8 attempting the Maori poi dance

After being immersed in the Maori lifestyle, it was time for a cultural exhibition of song and dance in the meeting hall. I felt very privileged to experience such a powerful and moving performance – they sing with such passion. Finally, it was time for our hangi meal, which was delicious and plentiful, rounding off an excellent evening, which Kelly’s eldest, Bean7, proclaimed to be the best day of his life 🙂

Accommodation: Cozy Cottage Thermal Park, Rotorua – please see this post for my review.

Day 13: Whakawarewarewa Redwood Forest, Rotorua

After the previous day’s hectic agenda, we needed a slightly more chilled out day and so opted for visiting the stately redwood forest at Whakawarewarewa. There’s over 5,600 hectares of peaceful forest to explore here and a vast plethora of biking and walking tracks. We tackled the Redwoods Treewalk initially and almost immediately Bean9’s tooth fell out, so I suspect it’s a place that will be indelibly marked on her memory forever! The treewalk is 700m long, traversing between 27 majestic 117-year-old redwood trees. The Beans enjoyed reading the informative storyboards positioned along the walkway, answering the questions from the activity pack as they went. It would be great to meander along this walkway after dark to see the 30 bespoke laterns, designed by world-acclaimed design and sustainability champion David Trubridge, lighting the way along the aerial walkway and I’m sure making it a truly magical experience.

Once down on the ground, we decided to hike a beautiful and relaxing hour’s long loop walk through the redwoods. So good for the soul. I’d be here all the time if I lived nearby. One of the signposts gave information about the benefits of being in nature. We all know how good it feels to get outside in the beauty of nature, but it’s good to read about scientific studies supporting it. It mentioned a study conducted by Dr. Berman and his colleagues at the University of Michigan, which showed that people performing memory and attention tests upped their scores by 20% after walking through an arboretum (walking along a busy street offered no such benefit).

Long, immersive stretches in nature also offer benefits for our problem-solving skills. After spending four days in the wild, disconnected from any sort of digital tech, students performed 50% better on a problem-solving test. “Our results demonstrate that there is a cognitive advantage to be realised if we spend time immersed in a natural setting,” said researchers from the University of Kansas and Utah.

After our morning’s immersion in nature improving our memory, attention and problem-solving abilities (or so we hoped!), we headed back to the campsite. We had planned to go to Rainbow Springs Nature Park in the afternoon to see the kiwis, but the Beans were exhausted and given that we’d scheduled a stop at the West Coast Wildlife Centre on the South Island (including a backstage kiwi pass) later on in our trip, we opted instead for a relaxing afternoon by the pool. Rainbow Springs comes highly recommended by lots of people though and would definitely be worth a visit if you’re in the Rotorua area.

Accommodation: Cozy Cottage Thermal Park, Rotorua – please see this post for my review.

Day 14: DeBrett’s Hot Springs, Taupo

From Rotorua we headed across to the exquisite Lake Taupo, the largest of New Zealand’s lakes, but en route stopped at Debrett’s Hot Springs. This was a HUGE hit with the children – basically a small water park with some good slides (and no queues) combined with two large natural mineral pools, heated from the Onekeneke geothermal hot spring, which made for four happy children and two happy mamas! Despite it being a Sunday, it was pretty quiet, so we spent the whole day here with the children playing contentedly (for the most part!) and Kelly and I alternating between swimming and just bathing in the pools with our books. Pure bliss!

When we finally managed to drag ourselves away, we headed into the pretty town of Taupo for another trip to the local supermarket, Countdown. The kids loved our visits to Countdown as they have an excellent initiative of offering free fruit to kids, so obviously all four of them fully loaded on their fruit intake for the week on entering any of their shops! My favourite moment in a Countdown however was when Bean9 suddenly shouted out: “Mummy, I’ve just seen my first Weta (a giant flightless cricket endemic to New Zealand), scuttling under the flour shelf!” Ahem, me thinks she might actually have seen a large cockroach – we’d found another inside the bread rolls earlier in the week. Needless to say, we didn’t buy any flour that day!

After loading up on food for the next few days, we treated ourselves to dinner out at a local pub/microbrewery. Another hit with both us and the kids as there were a load of fun board games for them to play while we waited. There was a hairy moment though when the owner informed us that the jenga they were currently playing was somewhat R-rated. We quickly packed it up and diverted their attention before they read some of the really rather fruity and entirely inappropriate sayings written on the sides of the pieces!

Having filled our bellies and purchased a few of their homemade brews for later, we set back out in Charlie to find our first freedom camping spot for the night. There seemed to be quite a few options, but we were looking for something as quiet as possible, so we perservered down a tiny and extremely bumpy track as Charlie wobbled precariously from side to side -one wrong move and we’d be stuck on our side in amongst the trees for the night! Finally though, we made it to a tiny little spot a long way off the main road and positioned next to the most beautiful little stream with crystal clear waters. On opening the doors, there was rather a distinctive smell of urine, but the stream swung it for us. We’d stop here for the night. Kelly paddled out into the ice cold water followed by a little posse of Bean ducklings! They even saw trout jumping up out of the water and one bashed into Kelly’s leg! The kids were in heaven. Unfortunately another van arrived a few minutes later with two rather uncommunicative owners – given their close proximity to us, it did seem rather odd that they avoided all conversation at all. But then another van arrived with a lovely chatty French couple and although it was somewhat squashed, it felt reassuring to have them nearby. Much later on, after the kids had finally given in to sleep and Kelly and I were well into our recently purchased beverages, a third van arrived. There was clearly no space but they looked as if they planned to bed in for the night so we had a chat to them about alternative options further down the track, which fortunately they decided to explore. And then finally, there was peace in our little haven of beauty 🙂

Day 15: Taupo

Another gorgeous day of sunshine (we’ve been so lucky with the weather in NZ) and an exploration in and around Lake Taupo. First up were the impressive Huka Falls, where every second up to 220,000 litres of water gushes through the gorge and travels over 8m to the gorgeous aquamarine pool beyond. Then, it was on to Taupo village itself and a wander around the cute little musuem there. This was a surprisingly big hit with the kids, who enjoyed playing the short stick games (which they’d learned about at the Tamaki evening experience) in the museum’s Maori meeting house. They were also completely captivated by an old kiwiana caravan, stuffed with memorabilia from the late 1950s and early 1960s! They played in here for quite a while before exploring the rest of the museum. And then it was back into the sunshine for a play on the awesome park in the centre of town and a quick wander around the shops, where we bought two sets of poi for the girls to practise their Maori dance moves. After a quick lunch in the van, it was back on the road and off to Whakapapa Village nestled in the heart of the Tongariro National Park.

Accommodation: Whakapapa Holiday Park

The children voted this their favourite campsite of the whole trip. Apparently this was because rather than a manmade park, the campsite was set in the most beautiful natural setting with a little pathway leading down from the back of our site to a pretty little river. They loved the freedom of exploring together in this scenic location making up a plethora of games involving sticks and any other materials they could scavenge from this little bit of paradise. One evening, they made up a Maori show for us, with the girls doing a poi dance, the boys a terrifying haka (!) and a short and long stick game performed by them all. It was great fun! Another major advantage of this campsite was the free, unlimited and good quality WiFi, a rarity in New Zealand’s campsites!

Day 16: The Tongariro Alpine Crossing

We’d planned and prepared for this day for months in advance: tackling the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, the most popular one day hike in New Zealand and a gruelling 6-8-hour trek over 19.4km, with 765m of elevation gain and 1125m of elevation loss, across moon-like landscapes, over an active volcano and through alpine meadows. No mean feat! We’d trained back in the UK by doing long walks, but nothing prepared us for what was probably, short of childbirth, the hardest physical challenge I’ve completed. Please see this post for more information about this physical and mental challenge. Despite the difficulty, it remains one of my favourite memories from New Zealand and I’m so very proud of the Beans for completing it.

Accommodation: Whakapapa Holiday Park

Day 17: Whakapapa to Paekakariki

After the physicality of the day before, we needed a relaxing day 16, so we had a slow start to the morning. After checking out, we drove down to the south of the North Island, stopping at a campsite in Paekakariki on the east coast, 30 minutes from Wellington. The children played all afternoon on the bouncing pillow and by the stream, fascinated by the enormous eels – somehow Bean8 managed to get bitten by one of them (he’s ever so lucky like that)! We sorted out the camper and attempted to cook dinner. We’d bought frozen fishfingers and chips, as the last campsite had lulled us into a false sense of security by providing an oven. Our new one unfortunately did not and the grill in the camper didn’t seem to be working either. But somehow, between a bit of microwaving and frying in various pans across at least four different hobs, we managed to cobble a meal together for the children. Not the healthiest but it was sustenance of sorts!

Then it was time for the daily torture of the shower and hair wash, whilst we jumped from shower to shower, as each only provided 4mins of hot water, which is really not sufficient time to wash hair! And finally it was time for a relatively early night as we were all utterly shattered.

Accommodation: Paekakariki Holiday Park

As you can probably guess from the tone of the passage above, this was our worst campsite and I wouldn’t recommend it. The receptionist was very rude and unwelcoming and the facilities basic at best. It is however set in a great location nearby the Paekakariki sand dunes in the Queen Elizabeth Park and yet only 30mins to Wellington, but unfortunatey we didn’t have time to explore the surrounding area during this trip.

Day 18: Zealandia, Wellington

Sadly, we only had one full day to spend in Wellington and were torn between Te Papa, which is supposed to be an outstanding museum, or Zealandia, the world’s first fully-fenced urban ecosanctuary. Kelly and I were equally happy with either option, so we put it to the kids and three out of four of them opted for Zealandia, so we went with the majority and had a wonderful day at this beautiful ecosanctuary.

We booked in on a Zealandia By Day tour which was given by an excellent and super friendly guide, whose enthusiasm for wildlife was infectious. After an informative video about why New Zealand’s native species are at risk from the predators introduced when the Europeans starting settling in the country, we headed out into the park. It was gorgeous sunny day again and we saw a multitude of birds, such as the takahe, tui, saddleback, kaka, North Island robin to name but a few, as well as a number of tuatara (a type of reptile endemic to NZ) bathing in the sunshine, which Bean9 was particularly excited to see. The children loved it and really got to know the bird species, spotting and correctly identifying them for our guide. The scenery was again breathtaking (bit of a theme here) and it felt very restorative to spend a few hours wandering around this special sancutary.

Accommodation: Paekakariki Holiday Park

Day 19: Ferry to the South Island

This was a travel day for us. We said a sad goodbye to the North Island and caught the 9am ferry to Picton on the South Island. Mary Poppins Returns was playing on a small cinema at the base of the boat, which proved a very enjoyable way to pass a few hours of our journey. When we came up for air, and headed for the deck, another magnificent view awaited us as we chugged our way into the port of Picton. Then, it was straight on with a long drive down to Kaikoura on the east coast. We didn’t have a campsite booked, so we checked out a couple of options and decided on Donegal House. It was basic, but I’m not sure you can go wrong for only $20 a night. The powered sites were next to an Irish pub with a lovely garden overlooking the mountains. The kids immediately settled in to playing in the garden and made some new friends along the way, whilst Kelly and I watched on contentedly with our beers!

Accommodation: Donegal House Powered Site

As I mentioned above, this was a basic powered site with toilets, a $4 shower and no kitchen facilities, but for $20 a night and located next to an Irish pub with beautiful gardens, I’m not sure you can go wrong. We’d recommend.

Day 20: Albatross Encounter, Kaikoura

The Albatross Encounter we did in Kaikoura remains Bean9’s favourite activity in New Zealand. We headed out on a small 10-person boat and another lovely guide to search for the majestic albatross. The journey itself was worth the money – it was a little like being on a fast rollercoaster (not one for the seasickness prone) and Bean9 struggled to keep the smile off her face! Then, when we spotted dolphins swimming alongside us, jumping up and out of the water almost within touching distance, it literally made her year!

And then, a lot further our at sea, came the birds, the most impressive of which were the four species of albatross (the Royal, Wandering, Salvin’s and NZ White-Capped) – gliding beautifully alongside us. Such a special experience. In addition, we saw many giant inquisitive petrels, gulls and a shearwater. So inspired was Bean9 that she went straight home to continue writing her story – in which I’m sure an albatross will make an appearance!

To top off a wonderful day, we headed down to the seal colony and found these gorgeous baby seal pups.

Accommodation: Donegal House Powered Site

Day 21: Hanmer Springs

On our last full day together, we set off early for a long drive across the country to Hanmer Springs, where we spent the afternoon at the Thermal Pools and Spa. This turned out to be a bigger (although busier) version of the DeBrett’s Hot Springs, but this time with much better and faster slides for them to play in along with a lazy river and plentiful hot thermal pools for the adults to soak in. A lovely end to an amazing trip together!

Accommodation: Alpine Adventure Park, Hanmer Springs

This was a good campsite with large sites, a clean kitchen, great park and small swimming pool, although the showers weren’t the cleanest, but overall I’d recommend.

Day 22: To Christchurch airport

This was our last morning together before we drove across to Christchurch airport to drop off Kelly and her two Beans for their plane back to Melbourne and pick up MrJ from his flight in from London. It was a happy but tearful reunion with their Daddy after nearly a month apart. There were so many mixed emotions running around as we were so excited to see MrJ, but super sad to say goodbye to Kelly and her Beans. We had the most wonderful time as a little group of six on our mini adventure, but luckily it wasn’t to be goodbye for long as we’re meeting back up with them again soon at their house in Melbourne. Can’t wait!

Next up: Christchurch to Wanaka, coming soon!

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