Our final day in New Zealand (Auckland, New Zealand)

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It’s our final day in New Zealand and I wake with mixed emotions. While I’m ready to go home and prepare for the next adventure, I would dearly love to stay in New Zealand and keep exploring. After packing our gear into the car we set off for one final drive. We randomly select Bethell’s Beach as our destination. Bethell’s Beach is one of Auckland’s Western Beaches and we think we found a bit of a marvel.

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We spot the massive cave from the far end of the beach. It draws us like a magnet; as it does the other people visiting the beach. We walk across the black sands to the huge opening. The tide is slowly coming in and we can see exactly how this cave has been created. The incoming water pushes strongly up the beach through the barricade of rocks towards the cave entrance. It might still take an hour or two to reach into the cave and that’s why we can enter.

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Now that we’ve explored the cave, we find ourselves noticing the small things that make this beach so amazing. There’s long ribbons of bright yellow sea weed. Green moss tumbles from rock pools like soft waterfalls. And muscles cling to rocks in their hundreds.

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The beach looks like it has been influenced by New Zealand’s volcanic past with large boulders balancing on big rocks. Black sand is becoming familiar to us now. I still don’t feel drawn to the water on this black sand beach but am not sure whether that’s the season or the sand. But I do love to walk on this black sand beach and like the way it frames the other colours.

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We had intended to see a few more beaches but spend so much time enjoying Bethell’s Beach that we already have to head to the airport. We watch our final Kiwi sunset as our plane is prepared for the flight. As usual, Air Asia fly us home in comfort.

We’ve loved our time in New Zealand. It’s been the perfect blend of nature and culture. We found Kiwis to be a friendly folk. It’s an expensive country to travel but we managed to keep costs manageable by renting places where we could cook instead of having to dine out. We also avoided all the tourist traps (the New Zealand tourist industry is expert at extracting money from foreigners) but still had an amazing experience in the Land of the Long White Cloud.

Auckland (Auckland, New Zealand)

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We are both feeling a bit blah when we get up this morning. We actually don’t know what to do. I know I feel a bit discombobulated being in the city after such a long time in the countryside. There’s also the disappointment of the relatively rubbish Air BnB after the absolutely gorgeous places we’ve stayed throughout our trip so far. And, perhaps, we’re tired from fitting so much into each day for the past two weeks. Had we been staying somewhere nice we would have just had a day in but today we don’t want to stay at our overpriced dive so we head into Auckland city.

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We wander around the CBD for an hour or two. It’s not an ugly city but it’s also not that interesting. There’s the same strings of shops and advertising that exist in almost every city we’ve been to, the same chain restaurants and coffee shops, and tourists carrying Lonely Planet guide books. Perhaps the city is just too small for us. It’s not hectic and crazy like South East Asia nor historic like Europe. That’s not to say Auckland isn’t a nice city but it is a bit boring for us. We find some nice moments and have a nice day. But it’s not awe inspiring like our other days in New Zealand were.

Waingaro to Auckland (Auckland, New Zealand)

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I wake to a heavy dew on a morning just warm enough to avoid a light frost from forming. I walk outside to talk to the alpacas and goats that live in our hosts’ paddocks. While curious, the alpacas only come so close to me. But the goats are fairly well climbing the fence for a pat. Our hosts got them from a children’s petting zoo so that probably explains the friendliness. We talk with our host again this morning and take ages to leave on our drive.

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But before we drive to Auckland we take a scenic detour towards Raglan, just south of Waingaro.

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A detour from our detour takes us to Bridal Veil Falls. My cousin told us about these falls two weeks ago but we didn’t have a chance to get here. Now that the sun is shining and we have plenty of daylight to make it to Auckland we can come here. The short walk to the top of the falls is easy. The 261 steps down the the base of the falls is a little more challenging and I’m glad my hip has settled a lot. And then there’s the 261 steps back up to the top of the falls. Thankfully the waterfall is so stunning that it’s no real hardship.

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We drive on to Raglan. This popular surfing town on the west coast is buzzing with backpackers. They are everywhere doing what backpackers do. This is the first time we’ve been in a Kiwi place that’s so popular with backpackers but that’s probably because we’ve stayed in random out of the way places without hostels. There’s an informative museum near the iSite. It’s not hugely impressive but worth a visit and tells a good story of the town. The surfing exhibition is my highlight. In a way the town is similar to many backpacker towns around the world. Everything has a price, the same tours are advertised on every corner (surfing classes, diving, caving and boat trips), and backpackers can be heard phoning ahead to hostels further along their journeys looking for dorm beds. It makes me think about that move The Beach with Leonardo di Caprio. That’s not a bad thing – it just is a reality. And it makes me glad we had a car and found ourselves in random out of the way places far from the tourist rat race. That said, we have a good laugh and enjoy an absolutely delicious burrito at a tiny hole in the wall place – one of the benefits of backpacker towns is generally the availability of fresh hipster inspired food that generally tastes great.

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We spend the rest of the day following Highway 22 to Auckland. I want to stop after every bend to take photos but have to resist or we won’t get anywhere.

Auckland comes as a shock to the system. After two weeks in rural New Zealand the traffic and close proximity of houses is crass and harsh. We have rented an Air BnB in Titirangi. Unfortunately, we arrive to discover it is nothing like what was advertised and the reviews are clearly fraudulent. It’s frustrating and annoying. We consider leaving but Auckland is so expensive and we don’t want to pay another $200 a night after we’ve already paid this place. Our mood does improve though after we find an amazing Nepalese restaurant in nearby Blockhouse Bay. It’s packed and takes over 50 minutes for us to be served our food but the time passes quickly watching the restaurant buzzing and discussing the highlights of our holiday. The food is so worth the wait. From memory the restaurant had the word Everest in the name.

Whitianga to Waingaro (Wiakato, New Zealand)

We pick up two hitch hikers as we leave Whitianga. They are an American and Canadian traveling New Zealand between outdoor guiding seasons in their home countries. They are good company and it’s interesting to learn about the best places to visit in Canada, a country we definitely want to make our way to at some point. We back track down roads we’ve traveled a few times the past few days until we cross the range into Thames where we part ways with our hitch hikers.

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Thames is a groovy town. At first it looks like a rural service town, providing support to local farmers requiring goods and services. But a shift of eyesight to look at the upper facades of the buildings quickly shows that this is a town with plenty of colour. The facades are bright and show the town’s century or more of history.

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At ground level the town is creative and fun. Op shops and eateries make up most of the storefronts. But the footpaths is where the action is at. There’s a massive teddy bear cafe complete with elderly bears sitting in wheelchairs. And someone has built a motorbike completely out of random spare parts, mostly from military weapons. We spend about two hours wandering town eating and browsing the shops.

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Leaving Thames we re-enter the Waikato basin with its rolling hills, green pastures and dairy cattle. This is the area we have liked best so far in New Zealand. While the mountains and coast are stunning, the rolling pastures feel homely. But then, despite being travelers, we do have an attachment to a homely sense of calm.

We visit my aunt in Te Aroha. I haven’t seen her in many years so it’s lovely to catch up. We missed her two weeks ago because she has a life (which is awesome ūüôā ). She has baked us a delicious apple tart and we sit chatting over the tart for about two hours. I learn more about her life than I ever knew before. It’s a blessing to spend this time with her.

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The sun is sinking low into the western sky as we leave Te Aroha for Waingaro. There’s quite a bit of traffic on the road for a rural area. Clearly lots of people work in towns and live on farms because the cars disappear down isolated driveways as we get farther from each town.

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Our Couch Surfing hosts aren’t yet home when we arrive. It’s cold and dark but we find their home easily. It’s in the middle of nowhere but there is a small town with just a camping ground, hot springs and pub about 10 minutes away. The pub is quiet but serves quite good steaks at a reasonable price and the kitchen is still open. Steak and chips are served with fried eggs and salad here in New Zealand. That’s what we buy. At home, steaks are often over cooked in pubs but here in New Zealand the chefs seem to err on the side of under cooking. I know which I prefer and it’s not the Australian way. Getting a medium-rare steak that is still on the rare side of pink inside is a real treat because at home medium-rare steaks are almost always on the well done side of medium.

We meet our hosts at their home and are still awake at almost 2am talking. We cover everything from criminal justice and social work (we all have experience in these fields) to international politics (a subject usually off limits to Australians) and our mutual favourite of travel. There’s something special about strangers opening their homes, lives and stories with us; especially when the sparks of friendship develop. Paul and I both hope we meet our hosts again somewhere in the future to continue the conversations.

Whitianga and beaches (Coromandels, New Zealand)

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Whitianga is a seaside town tucked into a deep bay protected by small rocky islands. It’s the perfect place to wander along the waterfront enjoying the serenity. It’s only about 21’C but feels almost summery as we explore the beach.
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A little over an hour later we drive south to check out the strip of beaches from Ferry Landing to Hot Water Beach. It will take the whole afternoon because the scenery is so captivating. ¬†And not just the beaches themselves, the farmland is a green as anywhere we’ve been.
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Flaxmill Bay is our first stop.
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We drive to the top of Shakespeare Cliff from which the views are second to none. A tour boat races by. Even from here we can hear the squeals of joy from the passengers as it does donuts acrossnthe water.
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We stop for lunch at a pretty riverside park at Cooks Beach. The township is so named because Captain James Cook took his readings of Mercury here to determine the location of New Zealand relative to the rest of the world, as it was known in the 1770s. He also had the Endeavour cleaned by beaching it here. There’s not much to buy for lunch so we eat crackers and dip from the local dairy (convenience store). But it sure is pretty.
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Hahei Beach is by far the most popular with surfers and swimmers. It is less protected today than others so has a better swell. Rocky islands and outcrops still dot the entrance to this wide bay but not as much as at the other beaches. The famous Cathedral Cave is nearby but the walking path is closed due to storm damage. The only way to see the cave right now is by boat or kayak so we’ll come back another time.
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Finally we get to Hot Water Beach. The tide wasn’t correct for us to dig a hot water spa in the sand but the beach and drive were pretty.

We enjoy another dinner at the Whitianga Hotel and chat with a local couple who share our table. A trip to the movies follows and we enjoy the British flick Their Finest . It’s a brilliant little film that keeps us entertained.

Tauranga to Whitianga (Coromandels, New Zealand)

Sunrise out the window is amazing. It’s perfectly coloured and reflects off the ocean. I stay in bed longer than usual just to watch this marvelous sight. Not that we lie in terribly late. We are on time to join Rachel (our Couch Surfing host) for breakfast and some more conversation. In fact, by the time we hit the road it’s almost 11am and we have at least three hours to drive.

The drive up the State Highway 2 to Waihi is uneventful.  The scenery is as pretty as ever with green pastures and rolling hills lining the road. To our left is the mountain range that separates the coast from the Waikato basin where we began our journey ten days ago. It looks almost familiar with its steep sides and jagged ridgeline.
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We stop in Waihi to see the open cut gold mine. It’s ugly but worth a look. Unfortunately, we have an unpleasant incident with a museum. There is a small museum in town and another large one near the iSite. We chose the small museum and, after paying our $5 (each) entry fee are told it is being renovated and that many exhibits are missing. We should have asked for our money back at that point because only one exhibit is worthwhile ¬†(a faux mining tunnel). We didn’t go to the big museum near the iSite because we didn’t see it until we were leaving town but it looked more modern from the outside.
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The mine itself is impressive. The north wall has collapsed under a land slip, which emphasised the scale of the project. I wouldn’t say it is picturesque because mining is part of the earth destroying greed that is causing so many of our social and environmental problems. But it’s impressive all the same.

The rest of our drive to Whitianga is stereotypically Kiwi. Winding roads take us past dairy cows and herds of sheep. Occasionally the sea comes into view with blue waters stretching to the Americas. Campervans crawl along slowly. We haven’t seen many to date but now are bombarded with this quintessential style of tourism. We had even considered camper vanning here ourselves until we did the maths and worked out that a car was more economical for us. I also get the impression that freedom camping isn’t as easy here as it once was. It’s just a shame we didn’t manage to get a photo of the many times we saw winding roads, campervans and dairy cows all in the one place. It would have been good to look back on.

We check into our BnB at Whitianga. Our host has everything down to a fine art and we are warmly welcomed. We are both fatigued so relax a while in our room watching Netflix and snoozing a little. It’s dusk by the time we get up to look for some dinner. We meander on foot through town and along the dark waterfront. We’re spoiled for choice of places that smell amazing but settle for steak night at the Whitianga Pub. $18 gets is each a perfectly cooked steak with a real mushroom sauce (not jist gravy with mushrooms added but an actual sauce made with mushrooms as the key ingredient) and delicious mini roast potatoes. What a way to reenergize.

Taupo to Tauranga (Bay of Plenty, New Zealand)

After a late night completing the puzzle we are both slow to get going in the morning. Besides, the bach is so peaceful. We drive into Taupo to use some wifi and confirm the address of our Couch Surfing host tonight. Later we will discover I wrote the address down incorrectly but, for now, we feel secure in knowing where we will sleep tonight and set off north out of Taupo.

Not far out of town we pick up a British man who is hitch hiking his way to the Bay of Plenty. We offer to take him as far as the coast and then he will need to find another lift for the final short drive south to the town he is headed to. He accepts and our drive becomes quite a social affair. I never used to pick up hitch hikers because, in Australia, we are taught hitch hikers are dangerous and likely to murder or rob you. In fact, in any states, hitch hiking may even be illegal. But I changed my mind in Hungary some years ago when I met a man who had hitch hiked the world and told me of how fun it was. Since then I have met other lovely hitch hikers and now have no qualms if the person looks okay. It helps out the hitch hiker and it creates new human contacts for us in a disconnected world.

Rotorua comes and goes. We had thought about stopping but it looks like the sort of town that has worked out how to take our money quite quickly for relatively little reward. That’s the thing about New Zealand, it’s an expensive country¬†to travel. Food is expensive; even vegetables are more expensive than in over priced Australia. Accommodation is not too bad if you stick with Air BnB, which is a thriving industry here. But everything that can be seen and done is captured by tourism operators and, because people pay, the cost of paying is quite high. That said, if you stay away from the Rotoruas of New Zealand you can still enjoy a good budget holiday like we are.

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We see a sign to Okere Falls. With all the rain we’ve experienced that sounds like a promising prospect. ¬†And it is. The walk to the falls is relatively short. This used to be a place Europeans came to in the early days of tourism. And we still come. It is possible to book a rafting trip here or to watch the rafts descend the falls. But none appears to be departing for our viewing pleasure today. Possibly due to the high water levels after Cyclones Debbie and Cook. We explore the paths and walk down to a cave right near the base of one of the falls. Maori people used to hide in this cave to escape battles, particularly women, children and elderly who were not fighting. It’s loud in the cave as water rushes under the rock. Further down the path we come to a pool where water is churning a rope swing hangs from a tree. I wonder whether this is for rescue purposes or whether locals swim here. Surely the former I still more likely.

We drop our Englishman at the motorway and turn north while he travels south.
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Before long we are in Tauranga parking near a beach on a beautiful sunny day. It’s only about 21’C (70F) but feels like summer. It’s amazing how quickly the body adjusts to new surrounds. While we don’t swim we do take a short walk along a rocky outcrop to take in the views and watch the surfers riding waves. It feels good to be at a white sand beach again after the black sand ones we’ve been to. Somehow it feels more “normal” and safe. That’s silly because volcanic sand itself doesn’t make a beach more or less dangerous than any other. But still, black sand beaches feel somehow more dangerous. Probably due to the colour¬†of the water and a perception of what could be lurking below the surface.
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We eventually find our Couch Surfing hosts’ house after writing down to the incorrect address. Rachel is an awesome host. We spend the night sharing stories and eating food. Paul and I commandeer the kitchen, for which we are grateful because we have lots of left over groceries we won’t be able to use for the next two days and it feels good to share with our hosts who are so generous to let us stay in their homes and share their lives for a night or two. And, in this case, to share the most amazing ocean views.

While we didn’t do much sightseeing today, we did share the day with two awesome new people and that makes it a pretty special and awesome day.