Rotorua Waihi Beach to Wangamata

We used the morning to explore Rotorua which is known for its natural geothermal spas, the Pohutu Geyser, its Maori cultural and a raft of outdoor activities, so a real tourist hot spot. The efforts to attract visitors goes back as far as 1883 when a special district was created to promote Rotorua as a spa destination. And they did a great job in building hotels, hotels and more hotels… and intense sulfur odor was a constant reminder that we are in the still active Whakarewarewa geothermal valley.

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Well we thought there must be more, so we stopped at Te Puia visitor’s center to get a glimpse of the world famous Pohutu geyser and experience Māori culture at the National Schools of Wood Carving and Weaving Center which is part of the Te Puia complex.

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It was a pleasant encounter with Māori people who shared stories and gave some insights into their history. The carving artwork was impressive, the boiling mud pools and geyser were not so much, over the years they have lost steam as more and more of the ground water is used to provide free heating to all hotels and local spas in the town. There was one other highlight, this was the only time when we saw the elusive Kiwi in captivity.

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After lunch we continued our ride north on Highway 33 toward the Bay of Plenty, passing Lake Rotorua and Lake Rotoiti and turning onto Highway 2 at Te Puke. After a brief coffee and tea stop in Te Puna we continued north to Waihi Beach which has beautiful 9 kilometer long white-sand beaches, rivers lined by native bush and is popular with surfers as it has the safest surf breaks in the country and curious seagulls.
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The next stop was Whangamata, a popular beach resorts and the gateway to the Coromandel Peninsula. Again a 6 kilometer long beautiful beach suitable for swimming and surfing which, given the incoming rain, we missed out on.

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White Cliffs, Awakino Gorge, Waitanguru Falls

With Mount Taranaki out of sight for now we decided to head northeast to Roturoa.

The weather forecast had not changed and our chance to enjoy the views of Mount Taranaki were remote so we decided to drive back north and leave this spectacular sight for later. We headed back to New Plymouth and followed Highway 3. At Pukearuhe we took a little detour to explore the White Cliff Bay and the Parininihi Marine Reserve.

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Low hanging clouds were hiding some of the beauty of the cliffs that form small bays with black sand beaches dotted with boulders at their base. At high tide, which was nearing, the sea reaches the base of the cliffs. Not familiar with the tide times we did not take the risk of exploring the beaches.

We returned to Highway 3 which turns inland around Urenui to avoid the cliffs. We then followed the beautiful Mimi River valley and crossed Mount Messenger enjoying the view of pristine forests and the winding roads. At the Tongaporutu River the road returnsto the coast, which offers nice views of wide beaches and dunes, only spoiled by the train tracks with no crrossings running between road and coast. At Awakino we followed the road away from the sea, which took us through the Awakino Gorge, and across several ridges and sparsely settled farmland.

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At Piopio we decided to take another detour on follow the Mangaotaki Road to explore the Mangaotaki Scenic Reserve and the beautiful Mangaotaki Bluffs. This is the area used in The Hobbit trilogy to create Trollshaw Forest where Bilbo and his companions meet the trolls. We took a short hike to the nearby Waitanguru Falls which are embedded in dense forest of with native trees and foliage.

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By now rain had caught up with us, which created a darker atmosphere… The only reminder that this was a tourist hot spot were the numerous signs advising us to drive on the left side of the road.

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After the short break we continued our ride on Highway 3 to Eight Mile Junction, turning onto Highway 4 southeast and then turning left onto Pukerimu Road a shortcut through some very remote countryside to Kopaki and Highway 30, which would take us to Rotorua. We had a brief stop for a late lunch at a café in Whakamaru before we continued our ride on mostly straight roads and through many kilometers of managed forest which did not compare as favorably to the scenery we had enjoyed earlier in the day.

From Tongarino National Park along “The Forgotten Highway” to Mount Taranaki

A superb day riding along The Forgotten Highway – a pity that Mount Taranaki and the Tongarino Range were hidden behind low clouds.

We bet that the rain front hanging around Lake Taupo will soon be behind us and started our day early riding from Tuarangi along Highway 41 northwest to Kuratau Junction and Taumaruni.

Taumaruni, a sleepy town known for its railway history and tasty food, is the starting point of Highway 43, also known as The Forgotten World Highway. We stopped here for fuel and a big pancake breakfast before turning left onto The Forgotten World Highway, one of New Zealand’s most secluded or ‘forgotten’ roads.

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There are no petrol pumps for 150 km, parts of the road are unsealed gravel, and the only significant settlement is Whangamomona, a small village, declared a ‘republic’ by its residents.

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The start of the “The Forgotten Highway”

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A first stop at Nevins Lookout – the promised stunning views of Mount Taranaki to the west; and Mount Ruapehu, Mount Ngauruhoe and Mount Tongariro to the east, which we had enjoyed the other day, were hiddden behind low hanging clouds.

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But still a beautiful views of the rugged landscape typical for the region

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The Forgotten World Highway goes through beautiful countryside and follows the rugged contours of the landscape and provided a natural roller coaster experience. In good weather this is ultimate motorcycling. The scenic route winds over four mountain saddles, alongside the Tangarakau Gorge and passes through the 180 meter long single lane Moki Tunnel, also known as Hobbit’s Hole.

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Most of the day remained dry and we enjoyed the roller coaster road and the beautiful Tangarakau Gorge with its impressive native beech and podocarp forest with its dense undergrowth of shrubs, ferns and tree-ferns.

We continued our ride past the Whangamomona Hotel which is a meeting point for bikers and famous for its hospitality. After leaving the republic’s territory we heard loud thunder in the distance.

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As we continued our ride towards Stratford it began to rain, something we had encountered before and was not to concerning. Eventually, the drizzle became a wall of water and we did not find a shelter for about 30 km until we finally reached Toko. We stopped there at the local café to warm up, change some of our gear and gloves and enjoy a warm cup of tea and a conversation with local farmers who offered to arrange for hotel rooms in Stratford as we still had no cell phone coverage.

Dryer and warmer, we continued our ride past Stratford to New Plymouth, a city on the Tasman Sea which attracts tourist visiting Mount Taranaki in the Egmont National Park or surfers to “Surf Highway 45”. Its high street is attractive and dotted with little shops, the harbour less so, the city is also home to oil and gas industry operating offshore. So we decided continue our ride and to look for something more attractive to stay for the night. We stopped at Oakura, checked into a nice and warm hotel, watched surfers at the beach and enjoyed good Indian food at one of the two restaurants in the village.

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Rain had caught up with us again and Mount Taranaki remained elusive at least for tonight

The GPS Tracks for the ride from The Tongarino National Park along “The Forgotten Highway” to Mount Taranaki

Tongariro National Park

Happy to leave busy traffic and the urban areas of Wellington and Paraparaumu behind us

The destination for the day was the Tongariro Mountain Range located in New Zealand’s oldest National Park. We headed north on Highway 1 towards Taupo, passing Levin and Foxton. The road was straight for many, many kilometers. The main focus was to stay below the 100 km/h speed limit, which is, as the many billboards highlighted, strictly enforced. We left the main road at Sanson taking Highway 54, a more interesting parallel road. At the Stormy Point lookout we got our first glimpse of two of the three mountains of the Tongariro Range.

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In the back Mount Ruapehu and in the distance to the right Mount Ngauruhoe

At 2291 meters, Mount Ngauruhoe is the tallest of the three peaks and has achieved prominence as the fictional Mount Doom in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. The focal point of Stormy Point lookout is however on the best preserved river terraces in the world. Over a period of 400,000 years, tectonic movements and the Rangitikei River have created deep gorges typical for the area. Crossing the gorges means taking long, steep, winding roads, which are perfect for motorcycle riding. We re-joined Highway 1 at Vinegar Hill and continued to follow it to Waiouru where we turned left onto Highway 49 and 47.

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A closer view of Mount Ruapehu and Mount Ngauruhoe in the distance to the right

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In the front the elusive (S)KIWI, behind Mount Tongariro, to the right Mount Ngauruhoe and for the careful observer, down the road, a police car handing out speeding tickets

We took a quick detour to Wahakapapa Village and Iwikau Village all the way to the top of Mount Ruapehu. Well not quite, we made it up to the ski lifts which were closed.  We enjoyed the twisting road and great views of the volcanic plateau and the three mountains of the Tongariro Range.

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Mount Tongariro and Mount Ruapehu are active volcanos and as we headed back we could see steam emerging from one of the peaks.

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Well, we did not stop at the exclusive Chateau Tongariro for the night, but returned back to Highway 47 and turned right on Highway 46 to Torangi also known as the capital of Trouts where we stayed for the night.

Heading to the North Island

After visiting many of the touristy locations and experiencing the magnificent landscape, the wildlife, the four seasons in a day and meeting interesting and insightful local people, it was time to move on and explore the Northern Island of New Zealand.

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We left Kiakoura, heading north on Highway 1.  A quick stop to say goodbye to seabirds and seals at Oahu Point and then we continued north west crossing the Kaikoura Range and down the Marlborough Wine trail we had passed a few days earlier.

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A few more stops to enjoy the views as we headed towards Picton, the main port for the ferries between the South and North Island.
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Marlborough Sound – some of  the secluded bays, the forests and logging roads we had travelled earlier on our trip.

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The lighthouse at the entrance of the Wellington harbour

After many days in the sparsely populated South, Wellington appeared very busy and crowded. In dense traffic we headed north continuing on Highway 1 to Paraparaumu Beach where we stayed for the night enjoying the wide beaches and sunset.1-DSC03593
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A beautiful sunset over the Kaikoura Range and Kaikoura Peninsula in the far distance

Dolphin Watch in Kaiakoru

After a long day riding from the West to the East Coast we decided to extend our stay in Kaikoura to relax and get organized for the next weeks.

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After crossing Arthur’s Pass the previous day in rain and at 3º Celsius we decided that we earned a day off to enjoy the sunny morning in Kaikoura. The Kaikoura Peninsula has been settled by Maori for approximately 1000 years, and by Europeans since the 1800s when whaling operations began off the coast. The town itself a buzzing tourist spot is located on the northern shore of the peninsula which protrudes five kilometres into the Pacific Ocean.

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To the south-east of the peninsula, about 500 meters of the coast, the submarine Kaikoura Canyon begins. The canyon is 60 km long, up to 1200 m deep and merges into a deep-ocean channel system that reaches for hundreds of kilometres across the ocean floor. The combination of currents and steeply sloping seafloor bring an abundance of marine life from the depths of the nearby Hikurangi Trench. Whales, orcas and dolphins are regular visitors to these coastal waters to feed on squid and other deep-sea creatures brought to the surface.

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Since the end of whaling in 1922 whales have been allowed to thrive and the region is now a popular whale watching destination. Other attractions are swimming with dolphins, watching open ocean seabirds such as albatrosses or visiting the large and easily accessible southern fur seal breeding colonies at Oahu Point.

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Whale watching was the initial reason we picked the town for a rest day. During a dinner conversation with the waitress of the Hislop’s Café we asked for recommendations. Her comment was, that whale watching was not very exciting. One rarely sees whales being excited and jumping out of the water providing the photo shoots in the travel magazines. Whales come briefly to the surface to breathe and then dive for the next half hour. Her best personal experience was swimming with whales, this is something you can do if you are local and can take advantage of an opportunity at short notice. Well we don’t have the option to extend our stay indefinitely, so we booked the second best recommendation, dolphin watching. Our appetite to swim in cold water was limited, we got enough of such wet and cold experiences recently.

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After heading out to the deep sea we met a large group of dolphins, if we believe the captain there were about 400 of them, riding in the waves of the boat and seemingly greeting the brave once who went for a swim. As extra bonuses we saw albatrosses and many seagulls.

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Ready to return, with cookies and hot drinks being served we felt that is was a worthwhile investment of time and money. But this was not all, the real extra bonus was yet to come. On the way back we met Orcas, my first experience of the beautiful predator in the wild. Well we could not expect more, swimming with whales will have to wait till next time.

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Orcas – visiting the coast of Kaikoura about every six weeks

Arthur’s Pass – from Greymoth to Kaikoura

Two ‘must see’ highlights of the South Island of New Zealand to go and time seems to fly. So we decided to leave Franz Josef Glacier for another time and head to Arthur’s Pass.

We had stayed the night in Greymouth at a small motel, the owner had swapped the big corporate world for a simpler and more enjoyable life on the West Coast and explored many of the West Coast areas. He suggested to skip Franz Joseph Glacier as the additional experience, after seeing Fox Glacier would not merit the five hour drive.

We concluded that he was probably right, and decided to take advantage of the sunny weather and head back to the East Coast. We took a little detour to Lake Brunner which lies to the southeast of Greymouth and is off the beaten tourist tracks. The area is popular with the locals due to its fishing and boating possibilities. The landscape and roads are interesting but nothing exceptional.

In Jacksons we joined Highway 73, which passes over Arthur’s Pass and through the Arthur’s National Park. The Highway 73 is the highest of only three roads crossing the Southern Alps. The other two crossings are the Haast Pass and the Lewis Pass. We were looking forward to see how Arthur’s Pass compared to the other two other passes we had crossed earlier on our tour.

The Arthur’s Pass is saddled between the valleys of the Otira River, in the west and the Bealey River in the east, with an elevation of 920 meters. We followed the road alongside the deeply gorged river through rainforest and enjoyed the views and for the West Cost uncommonly dry and sunny weather. As we approached the pass the temperature fell and clouds appeared, the weather on the east coast was supposed to be even better, not on this day.

The temperature had dropped to 3° Celsius as we moved eastwards and it started to rain. We hoped that once we reached lower elevations things would improve so we gave Arthurs Pass alpine village, who’s main attractions is the Kea watching, a miss and kept moving.

The road got narrower and windy, rain, heavy traffic with trucks, trailers and campervans made the ride less fun. The landscape was still impressive, particularly the vast beech forests along the road and the wide shingle-filled riverbed of Waimakariri River. Our first stop was at Lake Pearson, we needed to put on additional layers of cloths to brave the elements, and take our first pictures for the day.

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The first stretch of road viable for a stop, with Arthur’s Pass hidden somewhere in the background

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Lake Pearson with Broken Hill covered by low hanging clouds

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Mount Sainte Bernhard also covered by low hanging clouds

We continued the ride slightly more comfortable, our next stop was at the Cave Stream Scenic Reserve. The reserve’s main feature is as expected the cave itself, but the area is also the site of some spectacular limestone cliffs, gorges and outcrops of limestone boulders. The site is considered as outstanding natural feature in the Canterbury region.

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We did a short walk down to the river exploring some of the features created by tectonic shifts and then continues our journey east. Both weather and roads got better. At Sheffield we left Highway 73 and took the direct and less scenic road to Rangiora, where we crossed Ashley River and continued on the Coastal Highway 1 to Kaikoura, our destination for the day.

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Ashley River with its many shades of blue

The last stretch of the 412 kilometre tour was fun with some nice views of the Kaikoura Ranges.

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As for the conclusion on the Southern Alps passes, my favourite by far was Lewis Pass, then Haast Pass followed by a wide margin Arthur’s Pass. The conclusion might have been different if we had travelled on a warmer and clearer day.