Go for a tramp in any forest on the North Island and you’ll likely see a number of plants which inspired the Koru, a Maori word meaning “loop.” The Koru’s form is based on the shape of a new frond of the Silver Fern which slowly uncoils itself as it matures, just one of the spectacular beauties of Mother Nature in this country.
Simply put, the Koru is a spiral, an integral symbol in Maori art and design. It represents new beginnings, harmony, and growth. Its shape conveys the idea that life is in perpetual movement while always staying close to the point of origin, an idea that hits pretty close to home for this wanderer.
Geographically speaking, New Zealand is by no means a large country; it’s roughly the same size as Italy. But in a land where the sheep and cows grossly outnumber the humans, you can expect a fair amount of distance between towns. Luckily, there are numerous options to get a traveler from A to B.
Bus. The list of companies is long, and many cater to tourists by making stops along the way so you can take photos.
Air. JetStar and Air New Zealand have relatively affordable flights between the major cities and tourist destinations.
Thumbing it. Hitchhiking is technically illegal, but New Zealand must be one of the safest and most friendly places to hop in a stranger’s car. My guess is that with the long distances people are used to driving, the company is appreciated.
However, our issue with all options was that they depart from and arrive in a town. While these Kiwi towns are always ridiculously convenient and clean, they were not the reason we came to New Zealand. The magical fjords, stunning mountain peaks, mesmerizing alpine lakes, eerie caves and remote beaches simply cannot be found in town.
Organized tours will take you via bus to the highlights, but I’m not exactly the tour group type and we didn’t come to just see the highlights. We wanted to wander around this country without any itinerary or specific route in mind. We wanted the flexibility to stay in one place longer than expected or change our destination last-minute due to bad weather and we wanted the ability to travel faaaaaaarrrr off the beaten path.
From the start it was clear that the only way to truly see New Zealand is by car, and with nearly a year to travel, renting didn’t make any sense. On Day #3, still jet-lagged and going through severe caffeine withdrawal, we started to shop for used vehicles.
Lucky for us, we were not the only young travelling couple to arrive at this conclusion. There are so many backpackers who come to New Zealand on the Working Holiday Visa that there’s actually a backpacker car market. Stop in any hostel in Auckland or Christchurch and you’ll see a massive number of ads posted by backpackers who’ve finished their journey and need to sell their campervan before returning home.
What on earth is a campervan? Is that a Kiwi word for caravan, camper or motorhome?
No. A campervan has its own category. Where campers and motorhomes have toilets, showers and/or kitchens, a campervan has none of the above. Where a Caravan must be towed behind a vehicle, a campervan runs on its own.
In this country, and in Australia I’m told, old minivans which once transported kids to rugby practice are given a second life – the back seats are taken out and an elevated bed frame & mattress are fitted in their place. Add a few curtains, some storage boxes under the bed, and voila! You have a Campervan.
So wait, you sleep in a minivan? Why on earth would you want live like that?
The average cost of a hostel DORMITORY bed is between $25-$35 per person, per night (~$20-$28 USD). I haven’t quite figured out why the price is so high, but prices in NZ are generally ridiculously high compared to the States and the majority of Europe. So a little bit of math: 2 people x 10 months x $30/night lodging = WAY more money than the cost of a campervan.
Where do you park the van overnight (a.k.a. sleep)?
The general consensus is that “Freedom Camping” is permitted except in areas where there are signs explicitly prohibiting it (ex. “NO Camping” or “NO Overnight Parking”). As long as you’re near a 24-hour toilet, which conveniently enough are EVERYWHERE in this country, you’re free to park as long as you like.
After shopping around for about a week, Eugenio and I decided on a 1995 Nissan Serena for $2,700. It was by far the best decision we made – thanks to our campervan, we slept in some of the country’s best places, woke up to spectacular views, and successfully avoided the Tourist Route. Here are some of the van’s model shots:
Kiwi Word of the Day #11 – Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateaturipukakapikimaungahoronukupokaiwhenuakitanatahu
In Maori culture, places are named based on events of historical or mythological significance which creates some incredibly long names. In fact, it is on the east coast of New Zealand’s north island where you can find the world’s longest place name:
Tamatea was a strong warrior and famous chief in his time. After losing his brother in a battle, he climbed to the top of a hill and played a lament on a Koauau, a Maori flute. The name of the hill was given based on this event.
Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateaturipukakapikimaungahoronukupokaiwhenuakitanatahu can be loosely translated as “The hilltop where Tamatea with big knees, conqueror of mountains, eater of land, traveller over land and sea, played his koauau to his beloved.”
Side note: the locals simply call it “Taumata”
We’ve been getting pretty crap weather over the past month, which I’ve come to understand is anything but normal during an Otago summer. On a rare, blissfully sunny morning a few weeks ago, I had the following conversation:
Katie: it’s nice to finally have a break from the rain. What are your plans for the day?
Tim: I was thinking about going for a tramp. You interested?
Rest assured Mom & Dad, you don’t need to worry about the recreational activities of my new Kiwi friends. To be honest, I’ve been tramping around both the North and the South Island for over 6 months.
Tramp – Kiwi for “hike” or “trek”; can be used as a noun or verb, and neither implies promiscuity
Since we arrived in New Zealand during the winter months, we were eager to find a place to plant ourselves and wait for the good weather. We chose the Coromandel Peninsula, just east of Auckland, and landed on a Macadamia Orchard just in time to help with the harvest.
Didn’t you know that macadamia nuts are harvested in winter? Yah, me neither.
Along with that little tidbit, we learned an incredible amount about the Macadamia in the 2 months we were on the Orchard. I thought I’d post some of my favorite macadamia trivia, just in case anyone was curious:
- Harvesting macadamias is every 7-year-old boy’s dream job. Grab a rake, climb a tree, and hit/scrape the nuts off their stem so that they fall onto the nets below.
- Raw macadamia tastes a lot like coconut.
- Macadamia Oil is a perfect substitute for butter in baking cookies and bread but is also called “liquid gold” due to its high cost.
- The tree takes over one full year to produce the nuts. So while you harvest, you have to be careful not to damage the flowers for next year’s crop.
- There is an outer shell, called the husk, which must be removed within 24 hours or the nut starts to germinate (go to seed).
- Once the nuts are husked, they must be dried until they lose ~25% of their weight, a process which takes at least a week.
- The shell of the nut is impossibly difficult to remove. We’ve heard of people putting the nut in a vise and then hitting it with a hammer. The couple on the orchard had fashioned a special sort of crank to do the job. Moana, the farm’s Jack-Russell Terrier, held the nut in her mouth until the shell softened enough to crack…dogs are fascinatingly intelligent.
- Macadamia crusted fish and scallops are to die for. As are Fred’s Chocolate Macadamia Brownies.
After about 3 days in Auckland, Eugenio and I realized that our initial plan was utter crap. The idea seemed like a good one: find work and temporary housing in New Zealand’s biggest city, ride out the cold winter by earning/saving money so that we didn’t have to stress about finding work when the summer came. That was all and good, until we got here and realized that the cost of living in Auckland is so high that any earnings from a temporary/seasonal job would be quickly spent. Not particularly keen on the idea of dipping into our savings, we decided to figure something else out. Plan B? Head East to the Coromandel Peninsula, which has relatively mild winters, and WWOOF it.
Willing Workers On Organic Farms (WWOOF) is a world-wide organization which puts travelers in touch with local farmers. The idea is that in exchange for 20-25hrs/week, you’ll receive full room and board along with an incredible opportunity to live with the locals and learn a bit about agriculture, gardening, bee-keeping, building, you name it. It was a similar organization led me to meet my beloved family in Tuscany back in the summer of 2011 (I can’t believe that was over 2 years ago).
Anyway, a quick search led us to a family-run Macadamia orchard near Hahei, a town with a population of 270 in the winter and 7,000 in the summer. It’s a holiday retreat for many Kiwis, but we took full advantage of being here in the off-season; we had it all to ourselves. Stunning coastline, gorgeous mountains, clean air, and peace & quiet. Lots and lots of quiet. Bedtime was frequently 9pm because there was really nothing else to do once the sun went down.
But there was much to do during the day! The beach down the road was home to a cockle and pipi bed (read: types of clams I’ve never heard of). The beach 10 minutes away was home to natural hot springs. The Pacific Coast was full of gorgeous Snapper, Gurnard, and Kahawai just waiting to be hooked. An organic garden with beautiful lettuces, beets, herbs, beans, lemons, tamarillos, avocadoes. When asked if we could stay until mid-September, we couldn’t think of any reason not to!
So it was in this little slice of paradise that we planted for the past 2 months, enjoying a much slower, healthy, wholesome pace. The following are a few photos from around the Orchard and in the Hahei area (click on a photo and scroll through):
Being in the Southern Hemisphere means that early August is the dead of winter. The wind howls, the ocean is numbing, and it gets dark at 5pm. You can move your swim suit to the back of your drawer; it’s not going to get any use for the next few months.
Unless you’re on the east coast of the Coromandel Peninsula.
Hot Water Beach (yes, that is the official name) is home to two underground hot springs. I know, I know. Hot Springs aren’t exactly the most earth shattering topic to write about. So what makes these ones blog-worthy?
First, the fact that you’ve gotta check your tide tables. Second, they come with a stunning ocean view.
The springs are covered by the surf for the majority of the day. However, at low tide the ocean recedes far enough to make them accessible. Grab a shovel and BAM! Instant spa!!
The water at its exit point is 64C (147F) – too hot for most. But simply dig a few feet from the center and the cold water from the ocean mixes with the hot water to create the temperature of your choosing.
Don’t get too comfortable – when the tide comes back in, that water’s freeeeeeezing!