Journalling Down Under – Part 3: New Zealand

Click here to catch up with Part 1 and Part 2


Cairns to New Zealand

Pete’s cousins met us at the airport in Auckland, in the northern part of New Zealand’s north island, and we ate at a restaurant together. So nice to meet them after only knowing them from Facetime calls! After a night in a city hotel, Pete and I picked up the 6-berth camper van. This was an experience!


First stop was to visit an ex-workmate of Pete’s, who was on the TV show Wanted Down Under about 10 years ago, and his whole family made the decision to emigrate to the North Island of New Zealand. Great to see how things have evolved for them – no regrets!

En route we picked up a Dutch girl hitchhiking. She journeyed for a good two hours with us, sharing experiences. I told her how I was talked out of travelling when I was 18 – in those days it wasn’t the done thing to be a girl travelling solo – WISH I HAD!!!

We dropped our hitchhiker near Lake Taupo, a beautiful lake (bigger than Singapore apparently!) with volcanic mountains silhouetted in the distance against the sky as it changed through reds and oranges as the sun went down. This was our first night in the camper van on a site near the lake, and we had a very pleasant first evening with more than a few drinks. (This might have had something to do with another fall down the ladder as I made my way to the loo during the night – nothing to do with flip-flops this time!)

Our first day’s travel had taken hours longer than we’d expected – New Zealand “highways” are nothing like our UK motorways, more like B roads outside of the cities – but the route took us through stunning countryside.

Back up to Auckland

So the following day, we decided we would spread our journey back up to Auckland over two days, and camped up about half way between Palmerston North and Auckland. We didn’t stay long the next morning but set off again towards Maori country in the north of the island.

It’s true what they say – that New Zealand is a lot like the best of our British countryside, and after stopping for breakfast in a Greek café, (which, bizarrely had a huge great helicopter parked by it!) we spent much of the next day exploring on foot.

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Did I say New Zealand’s landscape is like the UK? Maybe not! We’d been recommended to see Huka Falls, which is fed from the waters of Lake Taupo, and we weren’t disappointed. We took photos of course, but to be honest, this video by drone gives you a much better view! The water really is this stunning turquoise, apparently due to the mineral content of the rich volcanic soil which is washed into Lake Taupo, causing the light to reflect a slightly different wavelength of the blue from the sky.

Not far from there was a geothermal park, a kind of lunar landscape with steam coming straight out of the ground!  Again, my photos don’t really do justice to The Craters of the Moon, but I found a cute video log created by some kids that you might like.

Māori Country

Our next destination was to visit Pete’s cousins Pania and Ryan in the north of the North Island. They have Māori origins on their mother’s side and were very keen to show us where they grew up and to share the cultural aspects of Whangarai. If we’d followed Pania’s advice and taken the toll road for a few dollars, we’d have reached her sooner, but we finally pitched up at a site called Ruakaka Beach not far from where the cousins’ mum lives.

For once, we’d checked in some hours before sunset, so we had a chance to get the camping chairs out and sit in the sunshine for a while, until we were collected for the trip to our Māori Hangi dinner. We drove to the Waitangi Treaty Grounds in Whangarai. It began to rain on the way, and we realised that New Zealand can be a fair bit cooler than Australia, but it was dry by the time we reached our destination near the Bay of Islands, and we experienced a bit of culture.

I confess I know very little about the history of the Commonwealth countries, but during a wander around a museum exhibiting original documents and the Treaty between the British Crown and about 540 Māori chiefs 200 years ago, I learned how the British basically stole New Zealand from the Māoris who had lived peacefully there for hundreds of years. Next to the Treaty House was an elaborately carved Māori meeting house, something like a church, where later we watched an enactment by a group of Māoris, men and women, performing the Haka dance and telling their story.  Later, Pete was roped in to enact a warrior challenge on a bush walk, having to stare stoically into the face of one of the Māoris while he levelled his spear and made scary faces at Pete! (Can you see a family resemblance in one of these photos? Don’t tell Pete I said so!)

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All of this was set in beautiful grounds sloping down to the Bay of Islands, and earlier in the year it would have been wonderful to have spent the whole day there. Not far from the water’s edge we entered a boat shed where the world’s largest single-hulled canoe is housed, and saw the remaining base of the enormous stump of the tree from which it was carved. If you can imagine a round table for about twenty-four people, I’d say that was roughly how huge this tree stump was!

As it got dark, we were led to the place where we would enjoy our traditional New Zealand Hangi dinner, great hunks of meats and veg all cooked together in the ground. We were shown how traditionally, a wood fire is built in a large hole dug out of the ground, flat round stones are placed on top of the fire, and when they are good and hot, the food is placed on top and covered for several hours until it’s cooked in its own juices and ready to share. It was a nice opportunity to meet other travellers who we sat next to around the table, about 16 of us all told, from various countries, all with their own very interesting stories.

Family Time

The next day we met our cousins’ mum at her house when her son and his Japanese wife and family arrived. They showed us the beach where they’d played as children – it was stunning! Just a short walk over some low dunes was the most spectacular beach, soft white sand stretching for two miles in both directions, gently sloping to the warm sea. Somehow this area hasn’t been commercially discovered so we had a few miles of beach to ourselves on this particular evening – just a shame we’d come a bit late in the year for swimming.

Cousin Ryan and his young family had a long journey home from his mum’s and were going to have to sleep in their car (a Nissan Cube), but we persuaded them to come back to our camper van as we had an empty double bed. The drink flowed of course, and they stayed till well after the kids had fallen asleep on one of the beds, so mum and dad slept in their car in the car park, and Pete and I fell into the other bed. One and all slept very soundly!

Although there had been plans to visit other points of interest in the Northlands, quite honestly, we were exhausted with travelling, but we came back Auntie Vera’s house the next day and spent some more time together and enjoyed a really delicious roast New Zealand lamb dinner! We both really enjoyed getting to know Pete’s cousins who he’d not seen since a family wedding thirty years ago in London, when they were all teenagers. Pete forged a lovely relationship with the children aged eight and two and a half – he’s always the one the kids gravitate to at wedding receptions when they want to run about and tumble around the floor. He never intends to leave the bar but somehow, it always happens!

In the garden were trees I’ve never seen in the UK, like bougainvillea – such beautiful flowers – and a feijoa fruit tree. The fruit are so abundant, I just had to try one. It’s about the size of a kiwi fruit and you can scoop out the flesh with a spoon as you would a kiwi fruit, but I just cannot describe the flavor! Like nothing else I’ve ever tasted, but very sweet and very tasty, and very, very popular in New Zealand. Quick video to give you an idea.

With our return flight only one day away, we decided to start heading towards Auckland to pitch the camper at one last site with some daylight hours to look around, so our last stopover was at a site right on the beach of the Hibiscus Coast near Auckland and so the cousins joined us for a second evening – not such a late one this time!

We had a delicious takeaway of fish and chips and got to know those sweet children a bit better. The little girl is still learning the two languages of her parents so understands more than she can express, so her main means of communication was to scream very loudly – she certainly had our attention! Her brother is an appealing and bright little boy and he was never without the London baseball cap Pete had given him.

In hindsight, we would have had a different trip schedule – we were a bit naive about the distances. So although we didn’t get to see as much as we could have, it was more than compensated for by the special time we spent with Pete’s Down Under family,

Homeward Bound

The final morning was spent cleaning the van for return to its depot, although we had several hours before our midnight flight to Heathrow. There was one more family member to meet, an auntie (Māoris seem to have many, many cousins and aunties and uncles!) so we spent a couple of hours with her in Auckland.

Finally, we headed to Mission Bay, (not a lot different to Southend seafront in some ways!) where we had a farewell meal with the cousins and the children in a lively jazz bar, before heading off for our midnight departure. They were determined to wave us off at the airport, and it was truly with some sadness that we said goodbye to this family that we had really clicked with! Hopefully, they will be able to visit us in the UK in a couple of years and we’ll be able to show them the best bits of our home town and London – although I’m pressed to think of anything to match the waterfalls and coastline that New Zealand has to offer!

Overall, Pete and I would like to have spent longer in Singapore, but for our return trip, we had just a 90-minute stopover there, which meant we were either in the air or in an airport for a full 23 hours! We’d love to do it all over again, but in three months rather than three weeks – we really underestimated everything, coming as we do from the tiny islands of Britain!

Holidays are what I really look forward to these days. It doesn’t seem right that we spend most of our energies on working 5 days in 7 (or more) just to have two or three weeks’ relaxation a year – if we’re lucky! But for most of us, that’s the way it is, so my advice is:


Do let me know what you think!

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