Tales from the caves (Weta and Waitomo), and of snow and surf.

4th August

We decided to try and find a few things indoors to do while in Wellington, as (being winter… and Wellington) it was really windy.

So one of the first – and best – stops in Wellington was the Weta Cave Workshop tour.
Weta Cave is a mini-museum with props and collectibles created for the films Weta has been involved in – a movie-lovers dream. They also happen to be the studio heavily involved in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit franchises (along with many others) – so unsurprisingly a key destination.

The Weta Workshop tour takes you through the (compressed) creative process used to create the props – models, costumes and weapons included – for various productions, and is lead by one of the crew members, so it’s great hearing their insights to the experiences, the problems and solutions they’ve encountered etc. There’s also sections where you can see some of the work being done through windows into the workshops.

It’s really interesting to see the materials that are used, and how realistic they can be rendered with a great paint-job and such intricate detailing – definitely worth checking out, if you’re in the area. And some great tips and ideas for anyone interested in modelling – including starting your model using tin foil (because it’s pretty cheap, but also flexible while providing a solid base).

Sadly (but understandably) no photos are allowed to keep the productions under wraps until release – but there are plenty of things in (and around) the Cave to look at, which have also been created by the ridiculously talented team.

The afternoon weather decided to worsen, so we took the opportunity to chill out, charge our phones, use the WIFI – not to mention read – in the library before heading back to our campsite… otherwise known as the Evans Bay Marina, and tried to find some shelter from the wind by parking with a bigger camper as our wind-block.

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Probably look a little too happy for being stepped on by a troll…
Uruk-hai warrior
A couple more shots of the trolls – the detail on them is ridiculous!
Minas Tirith collector’s model
Smaug the dragon model

5th August

The morning weather, although still chilly, had cleared up. So we headed up to the summit of Mount Victoria, to the east side of Wellington, which overlooks the whole of Wellington City and the harbour. While looking out over the city, there are also plaques telling the Maori stories of the harbour:

Story says that Wellington harbour was once an independent lake (rather than opening out to the sea) and in the lake were two ‘taniwha’, or sea monsters, who had made it their home. The taniwha were restless, and one, Ngake, decided to create a passage across to the Cook Straight thereby making the harbour entrance. The second taniwha, Whātaitai, tried to pass by a different route, but was grounded and passed away. The story goes that his spirit flew in the shape of a bird, called Te Keo, to the peak of Mount Victoria to mourn (‘tangi’ in Maori)  – and so Mount Victoria was named in tribute to Whātaitai’s soul as ‘Tang-te keo’.

After spending some time looking out over Wellington and across the Cook Straight in the sun, we headed out to Zealandia, New Zealand’s bird sanctuary. Sadly, we weren’t able to see the nocturnal Kiwi birds but there were plenty of other things to see and, if nothing else, it was a really nice walk around up to the dam and back around.

After lunch, and a quick food shop, we drove up the west coast in the direction of Whanganui, but by the time we were getting close all of us were getting tired and restless, so we stopped just south at a powered camp site in the Ratana region, called Turakina Beach/Koitiata camp ground.

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Panoramic view over Wellington City, from Mount Victoria
Richard Byrd Memorial and Compass Rose looking south from Mount Victoria
Little green lizard hidden in the sticks
The endangered flightless Takahē bird
Lookout over the dam at Zealandia

6th August

The managers at the camp site were really nice, and had told us that there was no check out time, we could just enjoy the day – so after having a nice lie in, and breakfast we took advantage of their laundry facilities, before they kindly helped us push the (one side) camper van which had stuck in the mud overnight then we headed up to Whanganui, to a laundrette for the dryers.

We were told Whanganui was a bit of a cultural and arts hub… however as it had recently flooded and a lot of places were still recovering, we didn’t stay very long, just overnight. There was also fairly limited spots to park up overnight, we even considered heading back to the nice site at Koitiata, but settled at the freedom camp spots in the RSA car park.

7th August

As I said, a lot of Whanganui was recovering from flooding, so we mainly concentrated on getting ready for another day on the road, doing the camper maintenance and some food shopping.

From Whanganui, we continued up the coast to New Plymouth, which I found felt quite similar to Wellington.

8th August

We had spent a fair amount of time of the road with only a few places we’d stopped in for longer, so we decided to make New Plymouth another of these places to take a chance to chill out.

New Plymouth is in Taranaki region, and while it’s a coastal city, it’s one of those places where you can do polar opposite (seasonal) activities within the same day – as you are within 30 minutes of the mountains. So you can snowboard or ski, and then water-ski or surf all within 24 hours… Something that I still intend to do at some point – although I had always thought to do that in Morocco, with the Atlas Mountains! Being winter though… none of us were inclined to do water sports!

Instead, we found the local leisure centre, and while Desi and Rachel headed to the pool, I went to the gym. I hadn’t realised how stiff some of my muscles were getting after driving for such long periods so I loved having the opportunity to do proper stretches, and the added bonus of hot showers included in the casual-day-pass price!

After our morning in the leisure centre, we took a wander into the city for lunch and a general look around the town.

Picture – Sign posts on our wander around the coast at New Plymouth… I’m not sure I’d be able to find my way with all of those arrows!

9th August

We decided to head (back) south about 25km, so that we could go to Egmont National Park. Although we could only go to certain areas of the park as plenty of the roads were shut due to the weather conditions.

So Egmont National Park has Mt Egmont/Taranaki in it, which had about 30 centimetres worth of snow from about half way up (which is as far as we got, to the visitor centre). It’s quite weird going from sunny in one area and within 30 km having completely different weather – it even did us the favour of snowing a little while we were up there…

While I was driving up and back from the Mt Egmont i-SITE, the camper van felt as though it was struggling with the hills…

We’d all felt over the previous two days that the driving was becoming unsteady, with changing gears getting a bit more difficult, and the entire camper shaking/’thrumming’ a bit. As it had been my day to drive, I could feel that the power wasn’t as strong or keeping the gears as well as it had been… Perfectly normal you’d think as we were heading up some pretty steep (not to mention winding) roads, apart from the point were on the highway there was gradual rise and I was back in second gear…

We decided to take it easier (on the camper) for the afternoon, so did the usual camper maintenance and a food shop before settling in for the evening with dinner – discussing what we should do about the camper…

Picture – Me in the snow on Mount Taranaki/Egmont, under 30 minutes from New Plymouth coast

10 August

We had planned to head out of New Plymouth mid morning so that Rachel could have a swim, and Desi and I walked around town and looked in some of the shops… But all three of us were concerned about how the camper had been coming back from Mt Egmont… so first thing in the morning while Rachel went for her swim, Desi and I phoned the rental company, to find out what they wanted us to do… which involved going to a local garage they found for us.

It meant we were ‘grounded’ a little, until they figured out what was wrong, so Desi and I walked back into town, after dropping the camper off, and met up with Rachel after her swim.

As it turned out… the problem with the camper van wasn’t something they could fix immediately, they needed to order a part.

11 August

Thankfully, both the garage and the rental company were really good about getting the camper fixed. They were able to get the part overnighted so first thing in the morning (before 8) we headed along for them to fix a loose connection that  meant the engine kept misfiring, and replace some of the pistons (as it was only firing on 3 of the 5), which explained our power problems getting up inclines.

Because we hadn’t know how long it would take, we hadn’t planned anything for the rest of the day. As it turned out, we were back on the road again, with a smooth drive ahead, by 10.30. So just before we left the garage (and their free wifi) we looked online to see if we could make it to the Waitomo Caves afternoon tour – which we could. So spots booked we went on our way!

Waitomo is a town in the Waikato region, and at first glance looks similar to a lot of the north island – with it’s rolling hills and forest parks. The name comes from Maori, ‘Wai’ meaning water and ‘tomo’ meaning hole, and so not surprisingly, beneath the grassy knolls there are underground rivers, sink holes and loads of caves.

The entire area is limestone, so the caves are filled with stalactites and stalagmites. The limestone conditions also provide a great home for the ‘arachnocampa luminosa’ – glow worms – which are native to New Zealand.

And so that was our tour – to see the Waitomo Glow Worm Caves…

Needless to say, we didn’t pick a tour that you could simply just walk around, but we did what they called a ‘Tumu Tumu TOObing’ tour. This meant that, with swim gear on and added heat from the neoprene wetsuits and gum boots, we headed into the caves, lit by our helmet torches…

The first step was to climb down the ladder into the steady stream below, before making our way through the caves, mostly by wading. There were points of interest that the guides stopped at and explained more about the glow worms, and the spectacular effect they have on the caves. The tour really allowed you to do a lot, you could crawl through a tunnel, and swim through the caverns (careful not to kick your feet so you didn’t lose the steel-toed gum boots) and tube ride along the glow worm stream, looking up and seeing all of the bright specks to then climb over the sharp rocks before getting back out into the sunlight (to try and warm up again).

The glow worm caves are truly spectacular, and tubing along the stream meant we could relax and just gaze up – which felt really odd, as though you were just staring up into the night sky, but with all of the sensations of being underground.

Thankfully, after crawling through the mud in the caves, and swimming through the cold water in the caverns, we were really glad of the hot showers that awaited us at the end – still though after the tour, we stayed in Waitomo, just by the forest park and tried to warm up by making dinner, hot drinks and hot water bottles!

Because of the physicality of the tour, you can’t take cameras, but the guides take their digital cameras and include the photography in the tour prices – so I have a few photos to add here… So that you can see a bit more of the experience, I’ve added a picture (from the postcard) too.

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Me in the Waitomo Caves – photos thanks to the guides from Waitomo Adventures
Waitomo glow worms (postcard)

12 August

We spent most of the morning in Waitomo, enjoying the sun and buying a few souvenirs from the i-SITE before we headed inland and north to Hamilton. We arrived there before midday, and while Desi did some laundry, Rachel and I went to do the camper maintenance. After a late lunch, we went to the Hamilton Gardens.

The Gardens are all themed, and each section explores a different culture through the planting, as well as the sculpture and architecture that have been created there. It was great to walk around in the evening sun, and just enjoy the great work that has been put into making the gardens special.

As it got darker, we headed back in to walk around the town a little, and took advantage of the free WIFI at Starbucks, so that we could book some of our next plans.

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At the Hamilton Gardens, the Maori garden house
Maori wooden face carving
The Italian garden fountain

13 August

We set off from Hamilton in the morning, and headed out to Raglan.

Known as the ‘Jewel of the Waikato’, Raglan is also New Zealand’s surfing mecca, so as you can imagine it’s a pretty chill place, with some great beaches. And I didn’t realise until I was there, Raglan was also a filming location – not for Lord of the Rings this time – for ’60’s surf classic ‘The Endless Summer’.

Raglan is pretty small but really nice, and we thankfully got some summery weather to go with the surf-oriented town. We made the most of it being the winter season – and therefore not packed out – and wandered around the beaches and relaxing in the park. I can fully understand why Raglan is a popular summer spot for kiwis (and us international visitors alike), and I can only imagine how busy it is when it’s a bit warmer.

After an open air lunch (with cameos from the local police, who seemed to have the same idea), we headed just out of Raglan to the Bridal Veil Waterfall, which had some great views down to the basin and gave us a good opportunity to stretch our muscles before heading in the direction of Auckland for our final night.

Typically, as our final night things didn’t go fully to plan, mostly with the gas canister running out and nowhere being open to get a refill… so instead of having a nice final dinner of salmon, potatoes and salad, we just had salad… and saved the salmon for the final lunch instead.

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Me chilling out in Raglan – there are other uses for surf boards outside of the water!
View from the top of the Bridal Veil Falls
Mid-point(ish) at the Bridal Veil Falls
How many steps to go… depending on if you turn back or not!
Looking like I’m getting a shower from the Falls

14 August

Our final day with the camper was pretty uneventful, as we had made sure we would have plenty of time to do all of the necessary maintenance in the morning to drop it off in the afternoon. So we drove the final 50 (or so) kilometres to Auckland in the steady rain, refilled the gas canister and made lunch then topped off the petrol and water tanks and dumped the waste before dropping off camper.

So that was it, our road-trip had come to an end!

After dropping everything off, Desi headed straight to the airport for a flight down to the south island, while Rachel and I both headed back into Auckland centre.