Seven years ago I made my first visit to New Zealand, and I fell in love. I’ve returned to the country’s north island more than 30 times since, and with each visit my desire to venture beyond Auckland’s city limits intensified to the point that I couldn’t contain my wanderlust any longer. It was time to get out the map and hit the highway to do New Zealand my way.
I teamed up with New Zealand motorhome rental company Mighway and set out on an epic road trip with my two best friends. In a two-part series, I’m opening up my travel journal to share an adventure I consider to be one of my greatest to date.
If ‘Distance Traveled’ was the measure of a successful adventure, I’m off to a good start! I arrived in Dubai in the early hours of the morning after a 14-hour flight from Brazil and had about 4 hours to catch a nap. With the first slither of morning light I was up to repack my bags and mentally prepare myself to sit in economy for 8,824 miles as my aircraft completed the world’s longest air journey from Dubai to Auckland.
Technically it’s another day on the calendar here in Auckland, but it’s still yesterday from where I started in Dubai, so we will still call it Day 1. Moving on, let’s talk about the flight. The first thing to come to mind is: WOW, 16 hours was a long time to sit, but it’s great to have nonstop access straight to New Zealand. The new Dubai to Auckland flight was jammed packed, so there was no chance to throw my body over several seats and uncoil my long limbs to relax. Instead, I painfully watched from a seated position as the aircraft icon slowly crept across the flight map – the equivalent to passing time by watching the clock hands tick.
The world’s longest flight arrived on time into New Zealand’s largest city and I was greeted with sunshine, warm temperatures and a welcome party that reminded me of all the reasons I love Kiwis (the people, not the bird). My great friend Gary from the Auckland bar Flight 605 (also my favorite bar in the whole world) was there to surprise me, as well as my best friend Katie Jo, who flew in the day before from Texas. The wonderful folks from Mighway joined Katie Jo.
Mighway (MY-way) is a start-up company from New Zealand that can be best summed up as the Air B&B of the motorhome world. Campervan owners list their vehicles with Mighway so that you as the customer can rent directly from them. By doing this you as the renter have more options at a lower price and with more convenient terms compared to using a normal rental company. When Mighway found out my dream road trip was set in New Zealand, they persuaded me to do New Zealand mighway and presented me the keys to one of their lovely homes on wheels and set us on our way to “let the journey unfold.”
The first part of that journey was… back to the airport to pick up my other best friend for our adventure, Nadine. With the posse complete we headed to Auckland’s North Shore to the Takapuna Beach Holiday Park to nest for the night and settled into our new vagabond lifestyle.
On my flight to New Zealand I guzzled several bottles of my favorite travel hack – 1 Above: The Flight Drink. The proud NZ-made beverage promises to have you arriving ready, and as always, it delivered. I was so relieved to get a full night’s rest, avoiding that awkward jet lag sleep. I was even up long before the birds to snap the obligatory first sunrise shots of the trip. With that out of the way it was time to get down to business… and eat.
Our campsite neighbored a surf side eatery voted by the locals as one of the best cafes in Auckland. From the sounds that emanated from our mouths in between bites, it was safe to say we agreed with that reputation. This breakfast set the standard for dining in New Zealand. By far the best smashed avocado and toast I’ve had to date.
Nadine and Katie had one request on this trip: to see Hobbiton, the imaginary village from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. These books come to life in the countryside of Matamata. Generally, I’m opposed to patronizing magical kingdoms, I prefer reality, but this tour is a must if you want to let your imagination run wild in green sheep pastures. En route to our first adventure we got caught in a New Zealand traffic jam, which I happened to capture on camera.
The only things that could rival the homes of hobbits are glowworms! If New Zealand wasn’t cool enough, their worms also actually glow. Glowworms (or Arachnocampa Luminosa if you want to get technical) are enchanting little creatures that at night turn boring rock façades into wondrous fairyland galaxies of tiny luminous sparkles.
For 120 years the most popular place to experience this unique New Zealand natural wonder is Waitomo Glowworm Caves, which is about an hour drive from Hobbiton.
Inside the Waitomo caves you are guided past stalactites and stalagmites and eventually end up in the dark, on a boat. Then the silent journey into glowworm land begins. As the tour floats further into darkness, the thousands of glowworms suspended above begin to emerge and light up the short trip.
Back above ground we were facing another journey in the dark so made headway further south to rest along the river at Taumarunui Holiday Park. At check-in, we were told they had glowworms near the camp. I knew I was exhausted from our first day of road tripping because I reportedly said, “That’s nice, I need to sleep.”
Today was a drive-a-long-way day as we had to make it to the Interislander ferry terminal in Wellington by 1:45 pm and we had just enough time to grab a flat white to go. It was a rather uneventful, yet enjoyable, ride to the south of the North Island. There was plenty of green to keep my eyes busy as we drove the remaining 5 hours to New Zealand’s capital city, Wellington.
The ferry crossing from Wellington to the South Island town of Picton takes just over 2 hours. The highlight of the voyage was a free dolphin viewing along the way and when the ship reached the Marlborough Sounds the views started to get a bit more Ooh and Aah.
We arrived on the South Island in the late afternoon. Our first task back on land was to stock up our fridge (followed by our bellies) before taking a daring drive along the curvy Queen Charlotte Drive to our next campground. In hindsight, the last hour of daylight should have been used to take on the QCD because it was a nail biter of a trip to do at night. Slowly and steadily we reached Smiths Farm Holiday Park.
Before we could even park, the farm’s lovely hostess Barbara had our hands full of tasty treats: fresh baked muffins for the humans and pellets for the furry-legged friends on the farm. With snacks sorted I thought it was time to call it a night but Barbara mentioned more glowworms a short distance away. My wanderlust was ready for a quick night trek through the bush to a waterfall where not only did we get to see more of the glowing critters but play with cows and chase possums up trees along the way. Gotta love farm living!
Farm life dictates rising with the sun to get an early start tending to the animals… and so we did. By tending, I mean playing. On this farm there were some cows, sheep and pigs to give you a great farm fix.
Not far down the road from the Smiths Farm is the coastal village of Havelock, the greenshell mussel capital of the world. On this day, the 490 or so folks that call this bend in the road home were hosting the Havelock Mussel and Seafood Festival. I don’t eat seafood, but the girls do, so we went. The festival wasn’t a total letdown for me. The Marlborough region is also famous for their wine and that I definitely do consume. The festival was proudly pouring plenty of hometown vino, and as the girls stuffed their faces with what they claimed to be “the best seafood” they had ever eaten, I ate grapes – in a liquid state.
An adventure on the rapids called in the afternoon and Shane from Pelorus Eco Adventures was the fearless guide to lead us down the famous Pelorus River. The crystal clear water and rocky riverbanks of the Pelorus were made famous after being featured as the river the dwarves were filmed floating in barrels down in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. For our adventure, we opted for kayaks. The Pelorus River also has a riverside campsite – a choice location to position ourselves for an early start to the next day of exploration.
With seafood out of the way, today we were free to focus on Marlborough’s other famous export, WINE! I delayed venturing into the valley of liquid happiness for a few hours so that we could explore the nature hikes along the Pelorus. I also wanted to earn the right to say, “I swam there” the next time I watched The Hobbit and so I took an icy plunge into the river. Then we were ready to head into wine country.
New Zealand’s white wines are my favorite which is why I was beyond excited to venture out on the Wine Tour By Bike. The self-guided tour was a fantastic way to visit some of Marlborough’s 37 cellar doors, as well get some much-needed exercise in between all the free samples from the wine tastings. If you’re going to drink and ride my advice is to stop at Wairau River Wines Cellar Door & Restaurant for some delectable dishes to prepare you for all the pours you will enjoy on the wine day out.
With about $500 bucks worth of wine strapped to our bikes, we were eager to get back to the RV and relish our bounty. We LOVED the Smith Farm so much we drove an hour in the wrong direction to stay another night with them. However, before calling it a night, we opted to give Shane from Pelorus Eco Adventures another call to take him up on an offer to go off the beaten path and step back in time to when gold was all the rush in these parts.
Shane met us outside the old rundown hotel in Canvestown and led us along the Wakamarina River towards Deadhorse Creek to pick up an overgrown path towards the abandoned gold mines. This adventure was well worth the detour, as many locals don’t even know the location of these 150-year-old tunnels. After about 45 minutes trekking through the dense bush a crisp rush of air from the mountainside hit us. This was the signal we found the hole we were seeking. We managed to visit two of the old mines before the setting sun cut our light and forced us to turn back.
It was another glorious morning waking up to farm life and with our first lazy morning we enjoyed more of the cozy cafes and shops in Havelock. Around noon, I was invited to the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre to have a look at their collection of historical WWI aircraft and aviation memorabilia. I admit I’m not a big fan of military aviation, and it was the girls that pushed me to go ahead with the visit, but I’m glad they did.
The Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre houses Sir Peter Jackson’s Knights of the Sky Exhibition. Judging by the amount of items on display, it’s safe to say Sir Peter has an obsession with WWI memorabilia and the imagination to present his collection in a way that makes the aircraft come back to flight. I have seen my share of aviation museums, but none of them compare to this. My favorite part of the exhibit was the display of personal items owned by the legendary Red Baron. I’m glad we opted for the guided tour, as it shed an excellent light on stories and history that enhanced the exhibits.
The center is right in the middle of more vineyards, so we had no choice but to have a few more tastings. Then we headed back towards a definite trip highlight: the cabin. I thought we had finished with the gold miners experience but to my surprise the cabin I booked for the night was situated back on the banks of the Wakamarina River, a stone’s throw from where we had explored the night before.
We parked the camper and took out on foot along a path that led to the Fossicker’s Hut. The short hike took us to a field and through a pasture down to the riverside where our eyes made contact with the modest yet captivating cabin. It was perched on the hillside overlooking a crystal clear swimming hole that thousands of miners once used to pan for gold. The joy of detaching from modern distractions like cell service and WiFi was enhanced by the beauty of craftsmanship and the obvious attention that Jodie and Craig put into designing Fossicker’s Hut.
New Zealand has a surplus of flora, but when it comes to fauna, not so much. The only native land mammal to the islands is… a bat. I was a bit puzzled when I heard a critter rustling about in the forest around the cabin knowing there wasn’t much wildlife in these parts. Upon further investigation, I encountered my first native wildlife, the Weka. Also known as the Maori hen, the Weka looks similar to a chicken and is rather inquisitive and not intimidated by the presence of humans.
We were unprepared for a primitive night out in the woods so we headed back to town for the girls to have another fix of mouthwatering seafood, and a filling vegan meal for me. The Mussel Pot in Havelock had all these options covered and then some. The excitement of getting back to the cabin sped up our dinner. We didn’t want to waste another moment of our early settlers experience in civilized Havelock.
Our eyes didn’t have to adjust much to enjoy nature by night with a full moon on the rise. Fires were quickly lit and chairs crowded in close to settle into an evening of friendship, wine and laughter. One set of flames was used for heating the water tank for the bath. There’s something mannishly satisfying about building fire that warms your bathwater. I stripped to my undies and continued enjoying time on the porch passing in slow motion from the comfort of the outdoor tub. As the moon climbed higher, beds were prepared, doors were left wide open, and the fires slowly met their death as we drifted to sleep in our small slice of forest heaven.