New Zealand’s North Island: Top Three Escapades

Mt. Taranaki on New Zealand's North Island
Mt. Taranaki on New Zealand’s North Island. Photo by David Rich.

New Zealand’s North Island: Top Three Escapades

By David Rich

Picture the world’s longest and lumpiest golf course, 1200 miles long, green humps stretching to the horizon. Presto, you’ve conjured New Zealand, the same size as Colorado but stretched like taffy until sundered in the middle, floating on an azure sea.

The genius of Kiwi engineers has created highways that faithfully mimic the intricate nip, tuck and jot of each and every drunken stream and spastic hill, making any road trip a notable escapade, if you have a Porsche.

All roads are crookeder than Bernie Madoff, signs sprinkled here and there that signal, “Crookedy Road Next 10 KM.” They should just be done with it and string a banner across the arrivals lounge of every Kiwi airport: Crookedy Roads Next 10,000 Kilometers!

The best thing about a humongous golf course without ball-whacking golfers is that it’s a very safe place, making New Zealand perhaps the very safest place on earth (excluding a jaunt along any Kiwi road, unsafe at any speed).

This is amply illustrated by newspaper headlines. On a random day the biggest story was ‘Tot Locks Mom in Closet for 7 Hours,’ followed by number two, ‘Australia Leads NZ in 10 of 11 Categories.’

New Zealand’s only lead was boasting more McDonald’s Restaurants per capita than Australia, an interesting achievement.

Still, the happily bored Kiwis consider themselves the better Britons of the South, which from the standpoint of top attractions they definitely are, leaving Australia in kanga-dust. The top three sights on North Island are world-class spectacular.

Mt. Ngauruhoe, aka Mt. Doom from Lord of the Rings, on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Photo by David Rich.
Mt. Ngauruhoe, aka Mt. Doom from Lord of the Rings, on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Photo by David Rich.

Number One:

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is not just New Zealand’s best one-day hike but based on my own extensive travels may be the world’s most scenic single day walk-about.

The hike begins, on a clear day, with a far view of Fuji-like Mt. Taranaki a hundred miles west, single-handedly forming the ‘Naki Peninsula.

During the next jam-packed hours, the senses are whammed with a trio of aquamarine lakes misnamed Emerald and ringed with vivid sulphur, posing next to a vast cobalt-colored lake along a route passing directly under perfectly conic volcano Mt. Ngauruhoe, better known as Mt. Doom from Lord of Rings.

The Emerald Lakes are actually aquamarine in color.
The Emerald Lakes are actually aquamarine in color.

Couples on my jaunt couldn’t resist a cheesy pose in front of Mt. Doom, golden wedding ring nestled in the palm of a prominently displayed hand.

The trail is flanked by snow-capped Mt. Ruapehu, last eruption 2007, then two tuckered-out volcanoes, a brilliant Red Crater and panoramas every which direction.

The meander culminates in a view over waters stretching to the horizon, filling a 606-square-kilometer caldera formed by probably the vastest volcanic eruption ever.

The Oruanui eruption blew out 750 cubic kilometers of ash compared to Krakatoa’s puny eight cubic kilometers, creating a nuclear winter for eons.

The final result was Lake Taupo, the world’s reigning trout-fishing and sky-diving capital, stretching into the blue tinged distance at the sensory-overloaded conclusion of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.

Lake Taupo on North Island is known as the trout-fishing capital of the world. Photo by David Rich.
Lake Taupo on North Island is known as the trout-fishing capital of the world. Photo by David Rich.

Perhaps Mt. Ruapehu’s next eruption will not be quite as severe as Oruanui, proving even the safest haven may be transitory.

Top Attraction No. 2:

White Island is a demonstrably active island volcano spewing 30 miles north of Whakatane (pronounced Fok-a-tawny) on the Bay of Plenty. The island can be visited by helicopter (for a mere US $750) or with a full pamper of plush boats provided by catchily named, White Island Tours.

The jaunt to the island can be choppy but is often relieved by the sight of a super-pod of over 500 dolphin cavorting in the sea, chasing around the boat and generally delighting an entire boatload of 50 tourists on my recent trip.

Dinghys of tourists disembark on the sulphur-belching island, but only after donning fluorescent hard-hats and fitting on gas masks, the latter gaggingly essential.

Visitors to White Island must don gas masks.
Visitors to White Island must don gas masks.

The hour-and-a-half tramp passes through plumes of sulphur-strangling smoke while tourists clasp masks extra-snuggly over quivering nostrils.

A triple vent shoots steam sky-high, roaring like a hyper-charged jet engine, emissions measured at 800 degrees centigrade.

Each group is formed single file to bunny-hop across venomous streams and skirt a green phosphorescent lake of lurid bubbly brine that’s the purest of toxic alkaline. We’re severely warned of the danger of the lake’s edge collapsing, with a noxious undercut rendering any close perch precarious.

Sulphur erupts in ragged gold under sheer cliffs towering up to 900 feet over our hard-hat encased heads. The guide is honest. In case of an eruption the boat leaves, but it’ll return when the eruption is over. We always look for survivors.

The acid lake on White Island
The acid lake on White Island

We ignore the guide, oohing and ah-ing over formations of steaming sulphur, all fancifully named, from golden vents to dragons’ heads, accented in liberal streaks of copper, canary yellow and ghastly green.

The tour winds by tiny helicopters landing rich folks, finally traipsing through an abandoned sulphur-mining venture that’s fallen into rusty decay. After 90 minutes of hot feet the group is ferried back to the boat for a welcome plunge into the sediment filled waters that render the bay a glistening turquoise.

The Last Must-Do Escapade:

The lost worlds of the Waitomo Caves number 800 — of which only 350 have been explored — covering an area of 50 square kilometers (35 square miles) in countryside that looks like a gigantic egg carton, carpeted perfectly green and hyper-high against the skyline.

The bottoms are sinkholes lined with logs to prevent mass sheep divestiture from local farms, and unexpected 300-foot plunges in hundreds of slippery stratifications.

Rapelling at the Waitomo Caves
Rapelling at the Waitomo Caves

The options for cave exploration range from nail-biting, gut-punching expeditions accompanied by blackouts topped with an adrenaline explosion accentuated by sheer-drop excitement, to the perfectly low-key and innocuous glow-worm caves that look like psychedelic neon lights on black velvet.

After a marathon staring at glow-worms they begin to look remarkably similar to a velvet painting of Elvis.

I opted for the grandly named Lost World, which begins with a 330 foot vertical rappel. The group ahead included Hannah from Schenectady, a scared-stiff blonde who required 47 minutes for the guide to talk her into a harness, at which she remarked to a collective grinding of teeth, “Well, this isn’t so bad.”

The Waitomo Caves
The Waitomo Caves

After a fifteen-minute dangly descent we interminably clicked and unclicked double safety hangers along lines strung for seeming miles above a raging river and along slippery rocks, a tedious exercise.

But a the year before a lady had failed to clip, falling 60 feet, breaking her pelvis and seven teeth. After a lovely shot of morphine to manage her pain the guides took six hours to tote her out of the labyrinth on a stretcher.

At the end of the Lost World, Hannah balked at the exit ladder, a mere 105 foot (30 meter) climb, which reminded my guide of his worst abseil client ever. She’d remarked after the 330 foot rappel landing, “Didn’t think I was gonna make it; thank god it wasn’t a ladder.”

He didn’t have the heart to tell her about the exit; meanwhile Hannah had to be carried up every rung of the ladder by her poor long-suffering guide.

I loved the whole experience, from shots of diffused light haloing the cave entrance and silhouetting the guide, the spectacular rappel and the raging river, but then I also thrive on the far more dangerous Kiwi roads.

So take your choice of three fabulous escapades, all relatively safe, or for the truly daring, rent a Porsche and savor a road escapade.

Mt. Manganui Beach
Mt. Manganui Beach

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is serviced to trailhead and from trails end by numerous shuttle companies charging $22-25US for the welcome lift. The trail is easily hiked in six to seven hours, including copious time out for photos, panorama gazing, lunch and rest stops.

White Island Tours charges $130US a person for its six hour boat ride, dolphin cavort and island traipse complemented with gas masks and hard hats, seasickness optional. See photos and rates at www.whiteisland.co.nz, email info@whiteisland.co.nz or phone 0800-733529.

Wiatomo Adventures runs a half dozen tours as does a rival company, ranging in price from $100 for a combination of three tours, and up. See www.waitomo.co.nz, email Nick, the owner, nick@waitomo.co.nz or phone (64) 7 8739292.

Rent a Porsche in Auckland from $755/day (US $550), perhaps the very best escapade.

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David Rich
David Rich is GoNOMAD's most intrepid writer, braving blizzards, monsoons, desert heat and State Department travel advisories to visit the world's most out-of-the-way places from the Karakoram Mountains in Pakistan to the wilds of Borneo to the Harley-Davidson Rally Week in Sturgis, South Dakota. He lives in Glendale AZ where his latest passion is flying his own plane.
David Rich

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