Driving from Waitomo to Matamata, visiting Hobbiton, driving to Rotorua, and rafting the Kaituna, took up most of our third day. We took it easy in the evening and walked around exploring the city of Rotorua.
From our campsite (we stayed at Rotorua Top 10), we wandered over to the Government Gardens. It’s a public park located next to Lake Rotorua, the Rotorua Museum of Art and History, the Blue Baths swimming pools, the Polynesian Spa, and a variety of other facilities we didn’t get a chance to check out.
Along with the Polynesian Spa, there’s a number of other spas with mineral hot pools, mud baths, and sulphur spas. They’re supposed to have healing and therapeutic properties. I was hoping we’d get to relax at one of these spas but ran out of time. So we just leisurely strolled through the gardens after our long day.
There are bits of geothermal activity scattered throughout Rotorua and a few at the Government Gardens that you can view for free. All this geothermal activity is what makes Rotorua smell like rotten eggs. But after a while you get used to it. And the further away we were from Lake Rotorua, the less smelly it was.
Right behind the Government Gardens and museum (pictured in the cover photo), we walked along the Sulphur Walkway for views of Sulphur Bar. When you’re facing the museum, walk to the right until you hit Hatupatu Drive. Turn left and walk along the drive. It eventually connects to the Sulphur Walkway to your right.
It doesn’t have the prettiest views but it was interesting to see the geothermally active waters. The sulphur makes the water dim, warm, and turbid. And of course, smelly. We spent under half an hour walking along the bay. We didn’t go all the up way to Sulphur Point but I don’t think it was much further.
It was getting late by now and we needed to restock on groceries and make dinner. But first, some new McDonald’s desserts. Passionfruit sundae and Hokey Pokey shake (a New Zealand ice cream flavor consisting of vanilla ice cream and lumps of honeycomb toffee).
“The highest commercially rafted waterfall in the world.” When I read this, I knew we HAD to do this rafting trip. The Kaituna River is a Class 5 rapid with a 7 meter drop off Tutea Falls.
We booked with River Rats. They provide free transportation to and from most accommodations in central Rotorua. We were dropped off at their office where we changed into our bathing suits and received our helmets, life vests, and water shoes. Another quick ride brought us to the Kaituna River.
We rafted through some relatively gentle rapids and a few drops. At the time those drops were frightening but they were nothing compared to the massive drop off Tutea Falls.
Our guide, a total surfer-dude type from Canada, rowed us off to the side before the waterfall drop to talk us through the fall. One of two things will happen: you’ll go down the waterfall and float off OR you’ll go down the waterfall and flip over the raft.
Of course, we flipped the darn raft.
After our pep talk, we slowly rowed to the top of the waterfall. We grabbed onto the ropes and oars as the raft inched over the edge. I got a glimpse of how high we were before I chickened out, crouched down into the raft, and shut my eyes. It felt like we were dropping for the longest time. It IS 7 meters after all. I finally felt the raft hit the water as we landed.
And then….. I felt the raft start to come up from under me and I thought “fuck.”
Our tour guide’s instructions quickly came to me as I gripped the ropes and handles on either side of me. And I went under. I can’t swim.
An air pocket forms underneath the raft and I pulled myself up into it gasping for air. Then I think to myself, “Now what?” The guide.. or someone, I don’t even know.. tells us to go under again and come out the other side of the raft.
It’s pretty funny to replaying the whole thing scrolling through these pictures:
Well, that’s 2 for 2. I rafted the Class 4 Pacuare River in Costa Rica (AMAZING. MUST DO.) and fell in the water that time too. I’d really glad we did though. It was so exhilarating! Did I mention I can’t swim?
The other raft came and pulled us up as our tour guide flipped our raft back over. The rest of the trip was smooth sailing.
Comparing this with the Pacuare River in Costa Rica, I’d say the Kaituna was actually tamer. The Kaituna is only classified as a Class 5 because of the waterfall. I found the rest of the rapids to be pretty calm. The Pacuare starts as a Class 1 and progresses to a Class 4 but felt more challenging. But I might just feel that way because it was my first rafting trip. Also, the scenery on the Pacuare is BEAUTIFUL. Lush rain forest all around you with waterfalls flowing down the sides of the cliffs next to you. It’s also a much longer trip. It was a half day trip with a lunch buffet in the middle. The Kaituna is still amazing though. Now you can say you rafted the highest commercially rafted waterfall in THE WORLD.
The whole trip was about 3 hours, including transportation. You’re on the water for a little under an hour. A shower is not provided but don’t forget to bring a change of clothes and a towel.
FYI: You’re allowed to bring a GoPro only if you use a chest strap. No helmet mounts.
River Rats hires a photographer to take pictures of you throughout the trip that can be purchased. It even comes in a cute raft shaped USB.
Address: Hangar 14s, Rotorua Airport 837, Te Ngae Road, Rotorua 3074 New Zealand
The day we visited Hobbiton was one of my favorite days of this trip. I LOVE the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve watched them. And here I was, in Middle Earth about to go to Hobbiton.
You can only visit Hobbiton by booking a tour through HobbitonTours. Sadly, you can’t go in and roam about on your own. Otherwise I’d still be there. You have 3 starting point options: Shire’s Rest Cafe, the Matamata i-SITE, and Rotorua. A tour bus will pick you up from any of these 3 sites and drive you to Hobbiton.
Tours depart about every 15 minutes. After a quick meet and greet with your tour guide and fellow tourists, you walk right into Hobbiton. It’s EXACTLY as you see it in the movies. Hobbit holes surround you. Everything is green and lush. The details are endless. The gardens are real. A whimsical feeling washes over you and you start to wish you could pack up your bags and move right under one of these hills. There are even butterflies flying around everywhere!
The tour guide makes frequent stops to provide trivia about the movie and its cast. We fell behind quite a few times trying to take as many pictures as we could. You make your way up to Bag End, back down to the Party Tree, Sam’s house, and end up at the Green Dragon. The tour includes one complimentary drink from the Green Dragon. I took my ginger beer and drank it outside while looking out over The Water.
After the tour, you’re given some time to scope out the gift shop. I purchased a nifty map of Middle Earth for myself.
The tour is about 2 hours total. Far too short in my opinion. But I would have stayed the entire day if I could.
Matamata i-SITE: 45 Broadway, Matamata 3400, New Zealand
A 3.5 hour drive from Mangere is Waitomo and everyone goes there for the glowworm caves. There’s a whole system of underground caves filled with limestone formations and twinkling glowworms. You can check out some trails at night to get a peek of the glowworms for free or you can book one of the many tours available. For the thrill seekers there are tours including flying fox (aka zip lining), abseiling, and waterfall jumps. If you’re looking for something calmer, shorter, or cheaper, there’s also the glowworm boat tours. We looked for something in the middle.
We booked the Tumu Tumu Toobing tour with Waitomo Adventures. The tour was about 4 hours long and you’re in the caves for approximately 2 hours.
Arriving just in time from Mangere, we checked in and hopped in the van with our tour guide to drive to the cave entrance. After about 15 minutes we arrived at the base where we changed into wetsuits, boots, and helmets. All this gear is going to come in really handy against cuts, bumps, and bruises. It also keeps you super buoyant in the water. I don’t know how to swim and with the suit on, I was able to just lie back and float through the caves.
A 10-15 minute walk through the countryside brought us to the entrance of the caves. The tour guide showed us a giant hole in the ground and told us to climb down it.
Unfortunately, you can’t take any cameras or gopros with you on this tour. They DO take pictures throughout but definitely not as many as I would have liked.
The tour starts out pretty tame. You learn about how the caves formed and the early explorers who found it as you walk through the caves. A few times the tour guide will lead you to what looks like the darkest narrowest opening and tell you to get down and crawl through. You wonder if you’ll make it and then laugh at yourself for worrying when you get out the other side.
Eventually you reach water and collect your tubes. You’re given two options: get in the water and hop into your tube or climb up the rocks and jump backwards into the water onto your tube. Obviously we had to do the jump. After we all congratulated each other on our jumps, we floated down Glowworm Grotto. It got darker and everyone fell silent as we leaned back on our tubes looking up and admiring the star-like glowworms as we peacefully float. Our tour guide sang a beautiful Maori song and taught us about the glowworms – their life cycle and how they glow. I’ve already forgotten all the info :\
By now we’re halfway through the tour. We stopped for some chocolate and a hot drink while our tour guide takes the tubes back.
The second half of the tour consists of swimming and rock scrambling. It gets pretty slippery so this is when all that padding and gear comes in handy. I got a few small bruises on my legs and can only imagine how much worse it would have been without the wetsuit. At one point the tour guide gave us the option of crawling through a narrow tunnel. KT wanted to do it so of course I had to too to show I aint afraid. I crawled in and immediately pictured myself getting stuck inside and they would have to come cut me out of this damned tunnel. KT was behind me so there was no turning back. I crawled and crawled for what felt like eternity. It was probably actually only 3 minutes. And it didn’t help that the girl in front of me kept yelling about a giant spider in the tunnel.
After more rock scrambling, you see sunlight and you think you’re at the end. But it’s not. It’s not much further though. you climb out and back into the humid forest.
A short hike takes you back to the base so you can change and shower.
REMINDER: Don’t forget to bring a change of clothes, underwear, and socks! Also don’t forget the shampoo, soap, and towel for the shower.
The Tumu Tumu Toobing tour was great. A good balance of fun, education, and sights. The tour guide was friendly and booking was easy.
Address: Waitomo Caves Road, Waitomo Caves, New Zealand
Originally I had planned for us to pick up our RV rental right after getting off the plane but I screwed up the booking and it couldn’t be picked up until the next morning.
TIP: remember to check the rental’s earliest and latest pickup and drop off times to coordinate it with your flight
But this mishap turned out for the better because after traveling for 30 hours the last thing we wanted to do was hop in a huge motorhome, drive on the other side of the road, steering from the other side of the car, and drive for 3 hours. I read this recommendation on other blogs and I’ll reinforce it:
TIP: DON’T get in the RV straight from the airport. REST. For your safety and the safety of others, spend at least one day to recuperate. REST!
LOCAL FLAVOR x 3
We dropped off our bags and walked to the nearby Pak n’ Save (one of New Zealand’s big supermarket chains) for groceries and supplies for the RV. This is one of my favorite things to do when I’m abroad – checking out the local produce, seeing what unique chip flavors they have, and just seeing what different products are available. The best chips I had in NZ was the balsamic vinaigrette and caramelized onion. So. Good.
Speaking of trying new foods, we went to McDonald’s to see what unique menu items they have. We tried the guacamole fries (disappointing), butter chicken pie (pretty good. Love savory pies), and lime shake (not bad).
Why not follow up food with more food? We dropped off our groceries and Uber’ed it to Szimpla Gastro Bar for dinner. There weren’t many dinner options in Mangere which led me to have low expectations for the restaurant. The food was good though! We had the garlic bread (meh), burger (yum), and thai beef salad (tasty!).
After all that food and all that traveling, we went home, enjoyed the sunset (cover photo), and passed out.
Pak ‘n Save – Mangere
Address: Corner of Bader Drive and Orly Avenue, Mangere, Auckland, 2022
Everyone asked me why I decided to rent a motorhome and how I decided which one to rent. So here’s how it happened:
CHOOSING A MOTORHOME
Figuring out what type of vehicle and the accommodations was the most stressful part of planning this trip for me. I researched cars, campervans, motorhomes, buses, ferries, campsites, hostels, b&bs, and hotels. All different combinations. On top of that I looked up diesel prices, insurance, road user charges, fuel capacity, fuel use, dump sites, powered sites, etc. etc.
In the end, I chose a motorhome for the convenience. We were planning to be in a different city everyday so we didn’t want to unpack and repack everyday to stay at a campsite/hostel/hotel. I didn’t want to be limited to where I can camp out with a campervan. I wanted flexibility. I wanted to be able to make meals. I wanted to freedom camp.
So I decided on a fully self contained motorhome. This meant we had all the conveniences of home and we could camp out almost ANYWHERE.
In terms of cost, I thought renting an RV would be cheaper since we save on accommodations and meals. But between the rental cost, insurance, diesel, occasional paid campsites, and groceries, it really added up. It was definitely worth it though. No ragrets.
I proceeded to search for rentals with great reviews, were 2 berth, self contained, and had a compact design. I ended up with the Breeze 2 from Wilderness Rentals. The car was amazing. It had everything you could need while on the road. Very comfortable and clean. Plenty of storage.
It was just the right size for a couple. MAYBE a couple and one small child? There’s enough space if you want a little separation and alone time too. It was just really well designed and thought out. We received several compliments throughout our trip.
“That’s a great vehicle! Ours is shit!”
The Wilderness customer service was great too. Our RV wasn’t quite ready for pick up because the previous renter had damaged the windshield and Wilderness wanted to make sure it was safe for use before releasing it. When they heard that we needed to be in Waitomo by a certain time for a tour, they offered us their company car. When it was ready, they would drive the RV down to us and pick up the company car. Waitomo is THREE hours away so whoever got stuck with this task would have had to drive SIX HOURS. Luckily that wasn’t necessary. We got our RV and made it to our tour in time. We also had some minor issues on the road and customer service was very helpful. For example, we couldn’t hook up our ipod to listen to music because there was no auxiliary cable but Wilderness told us to purchase one at a gas station and they would reimburse us for it. And they would make follow up calls to make sure their recommendations worked.
I would DEFINITELY recommend renting with Wilderness.
Driving the RV and on the other side of the road was actually really easy to adjust to. I only drove one day during our whole trip but within 15 minutes of driving, I was already comfortable. I’d also like it to be known that that one day I drove was on the curviest road we traveled on during our whole trip. On the side of a mountain too. Yup.
KT said it was not much different from driving his Corolla. At 6 meters long, we booked the most compact RV I could find so that we would have less issues adjusting to the size. Fortunately most of the RV rentals in New Zealand are European designs. These are sleeker and easier to maneuver than our boxy, bulky American RVs.
TIP: You can’t go quite as fast in the RV because of the size and weight. So keep that in mind when calculating travel times. I estimated 60 km/hour when calculating travel times and that worked out pretty well.
I read that Google Maps usually gives a shorter travel time so I rounded up to account for RV limitations, pictures, and ice cream stops. The speed limit is 100 km/hour but with all the curves and road work you probably won’t be going that fast most of the time.
RECOMMENDATION: If you DO decide to rent with Wilderness, rent their GPS. They provided a TomTom GPS that was really intuitive and had pretty accurate travel times.
So just remember to go slower on curvy mountain roads, make wider turns, and let other cars pass you. It’s also helpful if you have someone get out and direct you into parking spots. Hope that you have an exceptionally skilled navigator such as yours truly to make your driving experience easier 😀
New York City to Los Angeles to Sydney to Auckland
TOTAL TRAVEL TIME: 29 hrs 50 mins…..
WHEN: February 20th 2016 – March 11th 2016
This is just past their peak summer season. The weather was just beautiful. Highs in the 70-80s during the day and 50s in the evenings. Not so hot that you’re sweating profusely and just a little chilly in the evening for a nice snuggle in the motorhome.
January and February is considered the peak season in New Zealand. Remember, the seasons are flipped so it’s summer vacation on that side of the world. The end of February is JUST past the peak season. We found it to be great. Less crowds but not completely isolated. Not to mention that prices were significantly lower.