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 🙂 ). 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.