Ten Days in NZ: Coromandel Peninsula

NZ drive map (1)Back to New Zealand. It’s like time travel, or at very least like one of those novels that writes chapters from all different perspectives or storylines. You can see my trail through the north island here, starting in Auckland and then looping around Northland before swinging wide to the East and Coromandel Peninsula. Also, I’m afraid that the night-time stories don’t have accompanying pictures as I have not yet acquired a camera that actually shoots well in the dark. Think of it as imagination exercise.


Hot Water Beach by Night

I got to my campsite on Hot Water Beach about 10:30 at night. Low tide was set for 12:01 and the ideal bathing time for the hot pools is 2 hours either side of low tide. I was a little late, but it’s a 4 hour window and I felt fairly sanguine about my outlook. As checked into my cabin, I saw a group of tourists marching out of the campsite toward the beach with shovels in hand.

I didn’t want to waste any time, so I dropped my stuff off in the room and changed into my suit to zip down to the beach. I didn’t have a shovel, but I figured I could improvise, and I stuffed a recently acquired bottle of Riesling into my bag along with my towel. The trail from the campsite to the beach is a bit long, but very nice. The moon was nearly full and almost straight overhead. There were no clouds in the sky; everything was bright and slightly blue. I walked down a forest path where the campsite security had said I might find glow worms, but I didn’t see anything aside from the glimmer of moonlight on the leaves. Finally, I reached the beach and saw that several people had already dug holes filled with hot water steaming into the cold night air.

In case I didn’t say before, Hot Water Beach is this rather amazing geothermal wonder wherein hot springs lie under the sand of the beach and are accessible at low tide. This means you can just scoop away some sand and have your own private hot tub right on the beach. How cool is nature?

I was watching the tourists who went before me froliking around in their pool which is quite large. I think the guys who dug it intened the girls to join them, but the girls were simply unwilling to be cold for the few moments between warm clothes and warm water and wouldn’t go in. Sometimes tourists weird me out, I mean, why come all the way out here, there’s nothing much else around, and you’re awake at 11pm to what… walk to the beach and refuse to participate in the majesty of nature because it’s a little cold? sigh

I took a picture for them anyway. I do that a lot, take pictures for other travellers when the selfie stick just won’t cut it. It was a decent way of breaking the ice so I could see if they’d share their pool, since they’d dug out space for more people than were going in. They were more than happy to let me, but it turned out that after the photo op, most of the group was ready to leave the beach. One guy from Swizerland complained bitterly that his companions were leaving him, that he wanted to stay and enjoy the water, so we chatted for a bit in the pool they left behind.

If you’ve ever built a sandcastle or a moat on the beach, you know the dangers of uneven waves and how it can ruin a whole edifice. The pool was no different. The guys who had dug it had shoved most of the sand in the direction of the treeline, not the ocean, so the barrier protecting the pool from incoming waves was weak. Initially, they had done it on purpose, so as to attract some cooler sea water because the hot water under that beach is HOT, but it became evident soon that it was a hindrance. My short-term Swiss companion was already having trouble balancing his temperature due to the sudden bursts of hot and cold water from beneath, but when the retaining wall broke and half the pool drained into the sea, he gave up and left as well. 

I was able to rebuild, and once the wall was restored the pool refilled from the springs below. With all the tourists gone, the beach was nearly bare. There was a quiet couple in their own pool next to the one I’d taken over, and one man wandering up and down farther along looking for his ideal spot. With the full moon overhead, the beach was a mixture of blue shadows and white highlights and the sea was black glass and silver foam. I lay back in my newly personal pool and discovered that the beach contained both hot and cold springs just below the surface and that they would emerge at random so it was somewhat necessary to keep the water moving so as to not become too hot or too cold. While this did mean I couldn’t simply lay back and stop moving, it didn’t mean I couldn’t relax and enjoy myself.

So there I was, midnight on the beach, with no human sounds for we were all being quiet and enjoying the sea once the tour group had gone. I soon fell into a rhythm of gentle movement of arms and legs to keep my pool pleasantly warm and I watched with all my memory to capture the silver night and the sound of the waves crashing on the rock that marked the center of the hot spring area. The hot water soothing my skin, the steam rising off the beach where the heat bubbled up, the glint of moonlight on ocean, the silvery whiteness of seafoam and the sound of waves, the moon overhead so bright it hurt to look directly at it after watching the earth below, and another clue that my travels in NZ were preternaturally blessed that I should wind up just here and just now to experience these things as they came together, full moon, clear sky and midnight low tide.

As the tide began to turn, I had to rebuild my walls more frequently, but I was unwilling to abandon the pool. The couple had decided to pack it in for the night, so now it was just me and the older gentlman down the beach. He wandered over with his shovel looking for another likely spot and seemed kind so I invited him to join me in my overlarge pool. He was a local man who lived just about 45 minutes up the road and often came down to the beach to enjoy the springs. We chatted a little about where I’d been and where I was going and he reassured me that the hot springs I was planning to seek in Rotorua did indeed exist and gave me some extra pointers on how to find them. The wall broke again, but as we worked to repair it, one giant wave came in with the tide and filled the whole pool with chilly sea water, letting us know the ocean thought it was time to get out.

Mostly dry and dressed, I headed back up the path. Some of the tour group girls had assured me they had seen honest to goodness glowworms on the path on their way in, not just gleams of moonlight, so I decided to look extra close on my way back to the cabin just in case. The first little fairy lights I saw were above me, but at this time I didn’t even know glow worms lived outside of caves at all, and only knew that in caves they were often on the ceilings, so why not? But when I moved the leaves around, it became obvious the lights were only reflections. Beautiful reflections that created a fantastical illusion of fairylights, but not glowworms.

This happened a few more times and just as I was ready to give up and put her sightings down to mistaken moonlight, I glimpsed a pale blue glow much lower to the ground, in a shadow where no moonlight should be falling. I moved in closer and shifted the leaves above it around to change the pattern of light and shadow but the glow remained in place. More than that, I saw a few more glows around it, winking out from the underbrush like stars.

The glowworms were hiding alond the wet rock banks beside the path, sheltered by the ferns and other low growing plants giving them an environment not unlike a cave. Now that I knew what I was looking for, it became easier and easier to spot them along my walk. Pictures of these creatures are only possible with long exposure, so I have none, but more than that, pictures I look at online are not accurate to my memory. Often the pictures that make the headlines are very beautiful and very artistic, making the worms seem like tiny lanterns, as bright as fireflies, as though you could put a few in a jar and see your way. It’s just not so. The glow worms are bright but so tiny that each one gives off only a speck that doesn’t even light up the rock it’s resting on. Most of the online photos are in caves, which is probably why I didn’t realize they even existed outside the cave environment, but even the few I found in the bush are set so that you can see the glow and the plants clearly. Watching with your own eyes, you peer into the darkest shadows and specks of phosphorescence peer back from the blackness. That may not make a stunning photograph, but it’s one heck of a personal experience.

Hot Water Beach by Day

The details of my campsite and breakfast will be in the forthcoming “Sleeps & Eats” post, but for now, suffice it to say that sleep and food were achieved before the onset of the next day’s low tide.


20160818_112555My breakfast spot was nearby a public restroom and shower as well as a totally different path down to the water. When the hours lengthened enough to head to the beach, I wandered over to the changing rooms and got kitted out with my suit, sunscreen and shade hat. The clear sky of the night before had carried over into the morning and I didn’t want to get sunburnt while soaking up my hot spring. The beach was also quite full of people. I was even more glad in that moment that I’d had the chance to spend a few hours the night before in silence and solitude. I love people and I had a great time chatting with the other bathers that morning, but I am grateful it was not my only experience of the beach.

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I still didn’t have a shovel, but the other beach-goers were happy to share theirs so it was no problem. It’s not a solution I’d recommend, but if you’re absentminded, it’s not the end of the world. I picked a likely looking spot and dug out a spadeful of sand. The hole quickly filled with water, which I was glad to see because it meant I did not need to dig much to get a bath going. The water was incredibly hot. I stopped digging when I had enough for a footbath, thinking I could warm my toes and move more sand by hand slowly as I soaked my feet. Alas, the water was too hot! I borrowed a bucket from another nearby family to add seawater to cool it down, but this only lasted a few minutes before the heat returned. Soon enough, I had to abandon my small pool because I couldn’t dip my toes to soak nor my hands to dig more.

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I wandered around, trying to triangulate the area we’d been in the night before, thinking if I could be nearer the sea, I could get a channel of cool water with each incoming wave as I had done on the beaches as a child. I dug my hand into the sand in another spot only to find it icy cold beneath the surface. As I tested more and more, I remembered the alternating cold and hot waves in the pool from the night before and surmised they must have accidentally included at least one of each, a hot and a cold source, so I set about trying to find a spot that had two such close together. Before I could, however, a young couple nearby decided to leave the beach and I simply poached their pool which was large and well balanced in temperature.

This set me up sharing pool walls with several other groups, as diggers tended to simply expand until they ran into another pool. No one minded and everyone shared, which was refreshing. No one invaded an occupied pool without invitation, but neither did anyone get grumpy or territorial and everyone was generally having a great time. Gradually, the pools around me emptied of their original inhabitants and were claimed by new arrivals. Two ladies were having trouble finding a good spot so I invited them to join me as I had more than enough space, and then we got a young couple as well, so my own stolen pool held 5 of us by the end. We just dug out deeper spaces or farther walls as we needed to.20160818_131034_3-animationThere was one pool between mine and the sea, which provided a worthy barrier when the tide began to turn. At one point I had an unobstructed view of the ocean, so I could watch the same large rock breaking waves as I had seen in the moonlight. The young couple left early, and the two ladies tried to hold out against the oncoming tide, but had seen nearer pools get washed away in the surf and were loathe to be doused in cold seawater. I had learned from my previous experience and had built the seaward wall up as much as I could to forestall the inevitable, but eventually the waves took it down for the last time. It was nearing 2pm and I still wanted to visit the famous Cathedral Cove before bidding farewell to the Coromandel Peninsula.

Cathedral Cove

20160818_145050Although Cathedral Cove car park is a mere 10 minutes up the road from Hot Water Beach, there is a further 45 minute hike (according to the sign) to the cove itself. The cove is not accessible except by taking this walk or by kayaking in from another point. It is famous more for it’s breathtaking beauty than for any particular historical importance, although it was used in the filming of Prince Caspian.

20160818_152828The timed signposts for trails in NZ were a bit frustrating to me because there was absolutely no way to know how fast one should walk to achieve this time. I’m perfectly capable of walking quickly, but I like taking my time on a forest walk and I can better judge my time if I know the length of the walk instead of the average hiker’s time. Average flat ground speed might be 5kmph, but of course rough terrain can change that too. Waipoua said about 40 minutes for the walk out to Te Mata Ngahere and back (very smooth trail), but I took about 2 hours because of all my stopping and looking. Waipu said 1.5 hrs for a 2km trail (very steep), and I took a little over 3 hours exploring things and watching the wildlife. So when Cathedral Cove said 45 minutes one way, I was skeptical. However, even with my frequent stops I still did manage to20160818_154224 make it in about 50 minutes, so well done on those sign makers.

The trail is a good mix of up and downs, most of which are very gentle and easy to traverse. Like many of the trails in NZ, I got to see a wide variety of landscapes in a very short time but especially the rain-forest and pastoral farmlands. I even got treated to a splash of pink by a surprise stand of (probably) cherry trees. The very end of the trail that leads down to the cove is quite steep and equipped with stairs, but I promise, it’s worth it.

Once you step out of the recessed wooden stairway onto the pale,
almost white sand of Mare’s Cove, you are treated to a sight so often reserved for magazine advertisements of expensive brands of jewelry or perfume: a pristine coastline. As if this were not enough, when you set foot on the beach and look left, you are greeted by the cathedral that gives this cove it’s name: a natural tunnel in a large cliff-like rock that protrudes out into the sea. Unlike the hole in the rock in Bay of Islands, this is a fairly long tunnel that visitors to the cove can freely walk into and explore. Out the other side20160818_155708 of the hole is the actual cove named Cathedral, but since I had left Hot Water Beach as the tide was coming in, I was loath to wade through the waves to reach the other cove, not knowing how fiercely the water level would be rising or how wet I would get trying to come back. Remember, it’s winter in August and I already knew just how cold that ocean was.

20160818_162042The sun was also low in the afternoon sky when I arrived, casting the coves into shadow. There is no doubt that this beautiful area is well worth a visit, but next time I’ll be sure to come down in the early morning when sunlight fills the beaches. As a result of my slightly off timing, I’m afraid my photographs are mostly in silhouette, but they do capture a bit of the majestic quality of this coastline. In addition to the star of the show, the cove also has some beautiful rock formations and a small waterfall.

I think when I go back, I’ll definitely spend more time in Coromandel, not just to go back to the Hot Water Beach (which I will never get tired of) but to spend more time at Cathedral Cove to enjoy the effects of changing sunlight and get in some snorkeling in the Marine Reserve.20160818_165705These long shadows and deep silhouettes told me it was time to hit the trail back unless I wanted to be hiking in the dark. In summer, I might have lingered anyway to play in the warmer water and to dry off in the summer night air on the walk back, but the temperatures dropped rapidly after dark on my visit and I’d already had one moonlight walk through the bush the night before.20160818_173257_richtonehdrI met up with another traveler on the path back and we pointed out great spots to pause and take pictures of the sunset to each other, arriving back at the car park just in time to see the last rays dip below the mountain ranges to the West. As we were about to part ways and get back into our cars to warm up, she pointed to a tiny white sliver on the ocean in the Eastern sky. “What is that? Is that the moon?”, she asked. I was entirely incredulous. There was no way. It reminded me a bit of a snow-capped mountain far in the distance and the blue and pink ribboned sky was hazy, distorting the details. As we watched, however, the shape grew and it became obvious that she had been right.

We quickly grabbed jackets from our cars and returned to the lookout spot to stare in awe at this atmospheric lunar phenomenon. The sunset and moonrise only happen at the same time on the evening of a full moon, so this was literally the only day in the entire month that I could have even potentially seen this happen. As happy as I was to be on Hot Water Beach with a (nearly) full moon, I didn’t plan my holiday around the moon phases, so it was sheer luck (or more of that cosmic intervention?) that I happened to be on the East coast to watch the sun set in the mountains behind me and then turn to watch the moon rise over the sea in front of me.

Cameras are nearly incapable of capturing the glory of a rising full moon. Low in the sky, the atmospheric distortion makes the moon appear enormous, a golden coin you could reach out and pluck from the sky. On top of that, watching the full moon rise in the lingering twilight of sunset meant that we watched it rise like a champagne bubble through the layers of color still staining the sky. The familiar seas of the moon were oriented differently, upside down from what I was used to seeing in the Northern Hemisphere and it made the appearance of the rabbit in the moon quite clear and dramatic. I watched in pure awe and gratitude for the fact that such a sight could exist and that I could exist to see it. I watched long after the moon rose high and the sky turned to dark blue and I felt again that my journey was especially blessed and that perhaps the gods of New Zealand were gifting me with these truly wondrous and awe inspiring experiences.


From Coromandel, I traveled to Rotorua to explore more geothermal wonders. Stay tuned for hot spring waterfalls on the next installment of Tales from the Land of the Long White Cloud. Plus, Rotorua is where I met the Maori family and learned about the culture and traditions of the not-quite-first people of Aotearoa. In the mean time, please enjoy the photo albums on my Facebook page and follow along for snippets and snapshots of my ongoing adventures in Korea. Thanks for reading!

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Ten Days in New Zealand: An Overview

Having spent the last few days recovering from the cold I managed to give myself at the end of my trip, I’m now feeling much better and ready to tackle the slightly overwhelming task of writing about these 10 awe inspiring, action packed days and the truly daunting goal of winnowing down the over 2000 photos I took into something that is beautiful and interesting rather than something that resembles the family holiday slide show from hell. As you can imagine, this might take me a bit of time. Furthermore, I’m starting school again this week, and I have an upcoming long weekend trip to Jeju Island. I also don’t want to dump a novel on you all at once. So, be patient. The stories will come, and they will be no less wonderful just because you read them a few weeks or even a few months after they happened.


My Route:

I made a little road map to show you the relatively small section of NZ I managed to explore, and here’s the basic itinerary. (As they get written, I’ll be linking the full story to each counterpart in the short list below).

NZ drive map (1)

Day 0: Auckland (arrival, rental car, sleep)
Day 1: Auckland (Onehunga), Piha (black sand beach), drove to Dargaville (sleep)
Day 2: Waipoua Forest (giant Kauri trees), drove to Piahia (sleep)
Day 3: Piahia (Bay of Islands, dolphins!, Haruru Falls), drove to Whangarei (sleep)
Day 4: Whangarei Falls, Waipu Caves, drove to Hot Water Beach (midnight low tide)
Day 5: Hot Water Beach, Cathedral Cove, drove to Rotorua (sleep)
Day 6: Wai-O-Tapu – hot springs (Kerosene Creek, Hot & Cold, Waterfall Spout Bath)
Day 7: Rotorua (Saturday market, Kuirau Park), Wai-O-Tapu (geothermal park), Maori
Day 8: Wai-O-Tapu (hot springs), Matamata (Hobbiton), drove to Waitomo (stars!)
Day 9: Waitomo (glowworm caves, black water rafting), drove to Auckland
Day 10: Auckland (shopping, Planetarium, Cornwall Park, One Tree Hill), Airport

It was a jam-packed holiday to be sure. I intend to breakdown the stories based on geographical region and/or type of activity, therefore while it will mostly be in order, it’s not a strict blow by blow of the 10 days. In the remainder of this post, I want to share a few interesting things I learned about New Zealand that are useful if you want to travel there and are just generally neat.

Tipping:

This bizarrely internationally inconsistent cultural habit changes drastically from country to country and making a mistake while you’re visiting can be awkward or even offensive. Quick guide to NZ tipping is that you don’t. It’s not a tipping culture except…

1) let taxi driver’s keep the small change. It’s not precisely a “tip” it’s just inconvenient to make them dig out exact change.

2) similarly, tip jars if present in cafes are not looking for anything more than the small change (under 1$).

3) exceptional service – if you feel like a waitperson has just gone above and beyond, leaving a tip is a way of thanking them for that, but it is not expected at most restaurants or meals.

4) fancy restaurants – I didn’t go to one, but I hear a 10% is standard at these. Every place I ate at did not have a tip line on the credit card slip, thus it was actually impossible for me to leave a tip if I wasn’t paying in cash. Maybe big fancy places are different, I can’t say.

While I do cough up the cash where tipping is standard (don’t even get me started on tips as wages), I prefer non-tipping cultures because there is no awkward math or trying to judge my server’s performance. I typically find that I get better service when tips aren’t on the line because my servers aren’t busy calculating which of their tables is going to make them the most money. Plus, having done food service before, I’m convinced tip wages are some kind of anxiety induced torture because staff never know how much money they’ll actually make. So just be polite and courteous to your servers, say please and thank you and don’t worry about dangling a financial reward in front of them for doing their job well.

Driving:

For some reason, despite all the research that I did before going to New Zealand, I did not realize that they drove on the left until the day before I got on the plane. I even read about NZ traffic laws because I planned to rent a car and drive around, but somehow the government sponsored website failed to put that in an obvious place. As a result, when I landed in Auckland and got the shuttle to my rental car company, I was frantically trying to watch the traffic and the driver as closely as possible. On top of that, it was dark by the time I got my car, so I had to navigate my way to my airbnb in this backwards car on the wrong side of the road and in the dark. I do not think I have gripped a steering wheel that hard in years.

It turns out the hardest part of driving on the left isn’t the left lane, it’s the car itself because the driver’s seat is now in the right and everything is backwards. The turn signal and windshield wipers are reversed. I cannot tell you how many times I accidentally turned on my wipers while trying to signal. The gearshift is on the left. Thankfully, I had an automatic and the only times I was shifting were in parking lots, but I often found myself reaching for a steering column mounted shift that simply wasn’t there because my muscle memory found that to be the default when there was no gearshift to my right. Good news, gas and brake were still the same, otherwise I might have had some nasty accidents.

Driving on the left is mostly just a matter of staying in your lane. If you’ve ever driven in a multi lane highway, you’ll have experience with driving on the left as the passing lane (although here the left is the slow lane and the right is passing only). Oncoming traffic was terrifying for the first two days, and I spent about 4-5 days chanting “left, left, left” to myself every time I made a turn to help me land in the correct lane on the other side of the intersection. NZ doesn’t have many of “highways” as we think of them in America or even Europe. Much of the country is made of tiny winding wooded mountainous treks. It was a relief to get out of Auckland and have less traffic, but it was a whole new challenge to drive down roads that twisted with scant visibility and narrow lanes that ended in cliff-sides or sheer drops. I pulled over frequently. Partly because a line of impatient Kiwi drivers behind me wanted to go faster than I felt safe driving, but largely because the scenery in NZ is incredibly breathtaking, and I needed to stop driving so I could look at it properly.

There are a preponderance of roundabouts. All the roundabouts. I usually only saw “intersections” in the more pastoral areas. In anywhere with civilization, the preferred interchange was the roundabout. These were quite intimidating at first because there are no stop indicators, only “give way” or yields. You have to check to your right to see if anyone is already there, then go. Then count exits to find yours and trust that everyone else is going to yield to you once you’re in the roundabout. I made several mistakes, but no crashes.

Lastly: one lane bridges… I don’t know why. Maybe it’s too much infrastructure? Maybe the bridges were built at a time when all the roads were one lane? Maybe kiwis just like driving dangerously? I lost count of how many one lane bridges I crossed. There are helpful signs that tell you which lane has right of way. It’s based on who has better visibility of the bridge. If you can see the bridge, you have to give way.  Only once did I have someone fail to yield to me when they should have, I assume another visitor confused by the rules, but I managed to stop in time.

As crazy as all of these things seemed when I started my journey, by the time I got to the end, I was entirely adjusted. I found myself driving at (or just above) the speed limit on those curvy roads. I barely slowed entering roundabouts with no oncoming cars. I learned how to pass the other slow drivers on the road, and was able to confidently navigate Auckland by the time I returned there on day 10. I met other travelers who were busing it, and a few who had rented campers. It became apparent that the busing travelers were highly limited in schedule and in events. They had to rely on tour groups to go anywhere outside the cities. I think the camper might be the best way to go, being able to park in free parking lots (of which there are many) and cheap campsites wherever you like is liberating, but I got turned off RVs when my dad explained the septic tank process. I think for my short trip the car was ideal. There are hostels near every point of interest that are cheap enough and I still had the freedom to track down some out of the way places at some less popular times. Conclusion? Driving on the left is challenging but worth it for New Zealand.

Insurance:

Ok, insurance isn’t exciting or glamorous, but most of us know it’s an important part of travelling because you never want to find yourself far from home with no way to pay for any liability you may incur due to accident or injury. Turns out NZ is one of the most traveler friendly nations in terms of coverage, so if you’re tired of expensive traveler’s insurance, this might be a good alternative.

Fortunately, I did not have any need to visit the healthcare system in New Zealand, but I did learn while I was preparing my travel plans (including insurance) that all accidental injury (regardless of the Darwinian nature of the cause or who is at fault) is 100% covered for anyone in NZ. ‘Anyone in NZ’ doesn’t just mean residents, but literally if you are injured in NZ, the government will pay for the healthcare you need. Obviously there are some limits, like long term care which you would get in your home country if you’re just visiting, but it was still good to know that if I got into a car accident or slipped and fell in a stream and broke my arm or something similar, that at very least the financial side of my imaginary tragedy would not be a burden.

Canadians reading this are probably going ‘well, duh’, because you guys never worry about healthcare costs it seems, but the Americans will get it. Accidental injury is one of the great banes of our existence where a trip to the ER can wind up costing thousands or tens of thousands of dollars. I often get some kind of traveler’s insurance that will keep me from bankruptcy and get me back to my country of residence for real care, but those policies don’t cover too much and can still leave you with poor care choices and large bills.

It’s never fun to have to limit your adventurous activities for fear of medical bills and thanks to the NZ government, I didn’t have to! Of course, I still didn’t want any broken bones. I was careful, but it was a serious relief to know that I was covered.

Additionally, all rental car companies must provide basic car insurance with every rental. You can’t decline the basic insurance (although you can choose the included basic over the extra cost comprehensive). This matters for a few reasons. One, lots of credit cards offer insurance if you pay for the rental on the card and decline the optional insurance. I spent some time trying to get a manager at Visa to confirm with me that the insurance in NZ isn’t optional and wouldn’t count against my Visa based car insurance (which would then basically cover damage to the car or other property, but not medical bills). Two, because of the accidental medical coverage, car insurance doesn’t need to include medical. Any injury sustained in a car accident will already be covered. Three, if you’re leaving the cities, you will scratch that car. The damage from small scratches from branches on the side of the road or stones thrown up from the car ahead of you are small and easily covered by the basic insurance and because everyone has it, the rental companies don’t stress trying to get a couple hundred extra dollars out of you for a scratch on the paint.

I’m afraid if your stuff gets stolen or broken, NZ doesn’t cover you for that, but I’ve found often renter’s or homeowner’s insurance has an option to cover your belongings while you’re on the road and sometimes the flight insurance will cover belongings for the duration of the holiday.

Water:

Not the drinking water (though that’s fine too), but the ocean, lakes and rivers. The vast majority of water in NZ is considered public. Water doesn’t belong to anyone. This has actually caused some controversy with the Maori population who lay claim to some bodies of water and the rest of the NZ government who say that water cannot be owned. Take a moment to savor the idea that water cannot be owned and then go write a letter to your congressman about Nestle buying up all the clean water in North America so they can sell it back to us in plastic bottles. The issues with Maori are complex and involve things like land use rights, fishing rights, and mineral rights that give them more exclusive access to waterways in some places, but not actual ownership of the water.

In addition, there is a piece of land called the “Queen’s Chain” which exists around most waterways (sometimes it does not due to environmental or safety reasons to restrict public access, and there’s still about 30% of the coastline the government is working to get back in the public domain, again, it’s complicated). The Queen’s Chain is 20m of land on one or both sides of a waterway that are public land, free to access assuming you don’t have to tromp through private property to get there. I’m told sometimes the farmers get stroppy (with shotguns) about backpackers and kayakers who are following a stream or river from a public access point into their land, so it does pay to be aware of where your river goes if that’s your plan.  If you want to read more about the laws, you can do so here.

The upshot of all these laws is that there are almost no privately owned resorts, country clubs or homes that get restricted access to a beach, river, lake or hot spring. How cool is that? I’ve been to many coastal areas with beautiful beaches that have just been developed to death because hotels can charge big bucks for access to their private beach. When I lived in Florida, the small stretch of beach that didn’t cost an arm and a leg to get into was limited and often overcrowded. In tropical paradises in the Caribbean, beaches have become little more than oceanfront bars. In Dubai they are oceanfront dance clubs. In Washington state, when we want to go to a hot spring or waterfall that’s undeveloped, we have to go into a state or national park and hike for several km. In NZ, however, these things are all near roadways with easy public access and safe off road parking. Many of them are even handicapped accessible.

Many of the astonishing places I visited on this holiday were only possible for me to see because of these laws concerning waterways and the land near them. If there were a hot spring on a beach in the US it would be a private resort charging guests hundreds of dollars for the experience, but in NZ it was totally free and natural with no looming 30 story hotels and no one selling margaritas above the high tide line, just a well-heeled campsite on the other side of the highway, a few private homes scattered through the hills, a quaint local cafe, and an art gallery. Similarly, Rotorua has fancy spas that filter the natural mineral water for clean and landscaped soaking experiences, which is fine, but less than 30 minutes out of town I was able to visit 3 natural hot pools in one day and spend a couple hours in each with no rigorous hiking or exorbitant fees.

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I support paying reasonable fees to maintain public land (taxes, anyone?). I happily paid my annual public park fee in Washington when I lived there (about 30$ for all access). What I can’t get behind is the total commercialization of natural beauty.  I’m not saying visiting cities or man-made wonders isn’t worthwhile too (goodness knows, I go to ancient ruins and modern amenities all the time) but it doesn’t replace a natural experience. The earth is our home and it is full of wonders that we cannot create nor replicate. Of course sometimes that means you’ll get dirty, or get a few bug bites, but it’s worth it and you get to come home to a hot shower after all because that’s the balance. Flushing toilets and hot water can coexist in a world with fresh rain-forests and pristine beaches.  New Zealand’s water laws don’t just protect the water, but much of the land around it, preserving the environment and giving us access to nature’s best features. I think a few other countries could take notes.

Lord of the Rings & Hobbits:

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All 6 films were made in New Zealand (in case you were living under a rock). Many natural features of the land are now famous Middle Earth landmarks. Most of those beautiful panoramic views were real, and not computer generated. It’s quite popular for Tolkien fans to make a pilgrimage from movie site to movie site. Most of the landscape has been carefully returned  to its wild state so you won’t see the Hall of Rohan at Edoras or the Last Homely House at Rivendell. However, walking around the bush in NZ made me feel like an adventurer in Middle Earth more often than not (the rest of the time, I felt like I was in Jurassic Park, more on that later). I also got more excited than I truly care to admit when I realized I could see “Mt. Doom” from the park in Wai-O-Tapu. I didn’t do much LOTR location viewing because most of the sets are actually further south than I ventured on my short trip, but it was fun to go to Hobbiton and see the Shire and I hope that I get to do more of the mountains and forests when I make it back to see the South Island.

Fern Gully:

Yes, that tree-hugging animated feature from the early 1990’s was based on the forests of New Zealand. Both the Maori and the British settlers contributed to a massive deforestation of New Zealand. Estimated to have dropped from 80% to 50% under Maori stewardship and then to as low as 20% under British/Kiwi stewardship, the forests of New Zealand have been under attack for nearly 1000 years. Up until 1985 deforestation was actually encouraged and subsidized by the government. However, the Department of Conservation was finally established and now native forests are protected, making up to about 15% of the land, and a further 15% are replanted forests (some of which are still logged for timber, but at a sustainable growth rate that will continue to increase forestation over time).

As a side note, Batty Coda (the insane bat voiced by Robin Williams) represents the only native land mammal in New Zealand. All other land mammals presently there were imported for fur, meat or milk. The Maori people thought of bats as a type of bird that represented knowledge and wisdom and incorporated it into their tattoos. You can see lots of NZ plant life as well as other unique New Zealand creatures in the movie including the large gecko that tries to eat Zack and the cave full of glow worms that Crystal and Jack go to be romantic in.

Whether Kiwi attitudes toward logging and preservation were impacted by Fern Gully or not, conservation has now become a significant part of life and government in NZ. With care and attention, the beautiful forests and natural landscapes that I was privileged to travel through will exist and grow richer in the decades to come.

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I hope this whets your appetite for more tales from New Zealand. I’ll be working diligently to get the rest of the posts up in the coming weeks. Thanks for reading 🙂