Nicki had always dreamed to visiting New Zealand, so our substantial Christmas holiday seemed the perfect time to fulfill her ambition. No-one has ever been disappointed by New Zealand, and nor were we:
This was quite a long trip so I have broken it up into days in an attempt to keep myself concise.
The ability to correlate our visit with our great friends from our time in China, Mark and Olivia, made visiting New Zealand a no-brainer. Not only was it great to see them, but they reinforced the hospitable Kiwi stereotype throughout our trip. Seeing and being with them was one of the top highlights of our holiday.
Their hospitality started as soon as we landed, but only after customs had checked our hiking boots for a spec of foreign mud. We donned our All Blacks jerseys as we were greeted by Mark and Olivia at the arrivals’ exit. A short catch up in the car led us to the outskirts of Auckland, where we would stay for the night.
Olivia’s parents were equally kind to us: offering food, shelter and company. We sat on the deck (a word Kiwis love to use but always mispronounce) and had our first taste of BBQ-ed NZ lamb, Speight’s beer and enjoyed the last of the day’s sun. It was great to sit around a table catching up with friends we had not seen for 18 months.
On our second day we picked up our campervan (Spaceships). It came equipped with everything we needed for cooking, sleeping, driving and storing in a really compact way. Although it wasn’t as clean and sparkly as we had expected, it was a great machine to drive and served us well throughout our first week. The man who delivered us the keys reassured us that everything was ‘cool’.
Our first stop was at the supermarket, where we stocked up on food for the next few days and added it to our cool-box. It is fair to say that we ate pork on mass throughout our stay in the country, having been unaware of how much we missed bacon and ham when living in a Muslim country.
We headed north today. To the east coast town of Paihia in the exotically named ‘Bay of Islands’. The drive itself was fun (as all of our drives were in NZ), but the diverse scenery of New Zealand made it even more special. This, the sparseness of other vehicles and the competent drivers in the ones we did see, made driving in NZ a pleasure.
We were very surprised by the luxuriousness of our campsite. On the face of it, it would appear that we were ‘slumming it’ in the back of a van. However, we were sleeping on a site with BBQ facilities, hot showers, Wifi everywhere and a beautiful waterside view. We had a short trail and beach walk from our waterside campsite to the town itself. We stopped for a beer and soaked up the sea air. Mark had informed me of how Kiwi’s ask for a handle of beer, rather than a pint. I asked the barman for a handle of beer…he asked me if I wanted a pint.
Eager to get into our cool-box and start our evening BBQ, we walked back to camp and got our burgers out. In our meat binge we managed to get through 6 burgers between the 2 of us.
Our third day was probably the most momentous that I have ever written about: this (20.12.2018) will always be the day that Nicki agreed to marry me.
Since coming the New Zealand was one of Nicki’s aspirations, I really wanted to make it even more special for her. In truth, that is as far as I got in regards to planning. This meant that I had been walking around with a ring in my pocket, waiting for what I was told would be ‘the right moment’.
We boarded an early morning boat to the island of Urupukapuka. Before disembarking we were asked to check ourselves for any bugs or dirt as the island is a ‘predator and pest free zone’. Fortunately we were not carrying either.
As soon as we started walking on the trails of the island I was sure that this would be the place that I would find the right moment. In fact, there are several photos of me with my hand either over or inside the pocket containing the ring. Photographic evidence (below) that I cannot be inconspicuous. Nicki had always said that she did not want to be proposed to in front of other people, and since we hardly saw another soul (save for a few sheep) I was confident that this was the right place.
We walked for 45 minutes, admiring the views of the surrounding islands and the beautiful blue sea. We walked a path which led to a small beach. For no real reason we ended up braving the tide by getting to the end of the beach and clambering over rocks to walk around the coastline. On the other side of the rocks we came across a small cove…perfectly private.
We decided to rest on the solitary rock within the cove and I asked Nicki to stand facing the ocean so that I could take a ponderous photo of her from behind. I had no intention of taking the photo, but instead made sure I had the ring box open the right way before informing her that the photo had been taken. She turned in bemusement as I sat on one knee hoping that she would speak so that I didn’t need to. She accepted my proposal.
Despite it still being 10am, we decided, with adrenaline still pumping, that we needed a drink. There is one bar/cafe on the island so we made a beeline for that. We sat in the sun and discussed our new engagement over a beer. I suspected that Nicki already knew, but she assured me that her nails are usually painted and she did not suspect a thing.
The great thing about being on Urupukapuka Island at this point was that there was no 3G or Wifi. This meant that the next few hours, whilst family slept at home, was ours. We didn’t need to tell anyone (because we couldn’t) and we could just celebrate together.
It really was the perfect day, in the perfect surroundings. It also meant that I could be less uptight and worried about hiding a ring in my pocket.
After a pub stop off on the way back we spent the evening updating friends and family of our news from the back of our van.
We were back on the road the next day.
Heading further into the Northlands we stopped off at 90 mile beach. It is billed as a road but only recommended for 4x4s (which our campervan was not). Had it not been for our ‘near death experience’ in Oman, we may have risked it. This time we decided to stick to the tarmac but we stopped off to cook some soup on the aptly named ‘Waterfront road’.
After lunch we continued to the northern most tip of New Zealand at Cape Reinga. This is an important Maori site but also the place where the pacific ocean meets the Tasman sea, making for a great spectacle.
On our way back we found ourselves sand-boarding down the sand dunes (not too dissimilar from Mui Ne, Vietnam in 2011).
I found driving tough today, and we ended up having a snooze at the side of the road before heading for our last night in Paihia.
Over the past 9 months or so I have become a bit of a Park Run fanatic. This meant that I did not want to miss the opportunity to participate in one whilst in New Zealand.
Armed with out barcodes, we headed to the town of Whangarei about an hour south of Paihia. Here we ran our 5km alongside members of the local community. It was Nicki’s first Park Run, and she really enjoyed it.
Coincidentally, 2 of the other runners had lived and worked in Crawley despite now living in the Northlands of New Zealand. One of which had run the Tilgate Parkrun.
With our early morning run out of the way, we continued our journey south to Auckland, where we checked into a motor site in Avondale. Upon arrival at reception we were asked ‘do you want to wait in the car park for 30 minutes, as I am going on my lunchbreak?’. This didn’t endear us to the place.
In an act of defiance we decide to shower and freshen up whilst she finished her sandwich.
We left our campervan parked up and headed into the city via a quiet and clean local train. Not even the busiest places are busy in New Zealand…3 days before Christmas.
On the train we decided to do a little pub crawl in the city. We started at the historic Vulcan Street where we enjoyed a beer outside and people watched. We then headed The Shakespeare pub where we were able to enjoy some home brewed beer before indulging ourselves in from alcohol fueled gambling in The Albion. It was a small pub crawl, but we aren’t ones to handle much more.
After a few beers, Nicki confidently requested that we get on an electronic scooter (Auckland’s answer to the Boris Bike). Half cut, we zoomed around the streets of Auckland looking for the harbour-side. I think Nicki enjoyed the buzz more than me (I spent most of the journey thinking I was going to crash).
We had one final drink at the harbour-side before heading back for our final eat and sleep in the van.
Note: Park Runs are free 5km timed runs which take place all over the world on Saturday mornings.
On the next morning we returned our camper-van and made our way to Auckland’s domestic terminal for our flight to Christchurch in the South Island.
On the face of it, it would seem that Christchurch restarted after the horrific earthquake. There are still chilling reminders in some of the buildings, such as the cathedral, but the city is modern and quaint. We were both surprised at how empty Christchurch was. It appears to be a city equipped to inhabit a lot more people than it currently does. This makes for a peaceful environment for the people who do live there.
We spent the afternoon finishing off some Christmas shopping before heading home to some laundry and an early night at our hostel…in a bed!
Day 7 (Christmas Eve)
Nicki and I didn’t need an excuse to go for a run in this beautiful city. Having had an early night we both set off on a run along the river and parks before getting ready for the Christmas festivities to come. We managed to find time to get Nicki a coffee on New Regent Street (but declined the $20 tram fair)
Mark and Olivia came to pick us up to take us to Mark’s family home in Timaru. This meant that, by our 6th day, we had been hosted by both Mark’s and Olivia’s family.
We had a beautifully obligatory BBQ dinner with Mark’s dad and his partner, Jill, before preparing ourselves for a hot and sunny Christmas day.
Day 8 (Christmas Day)
Christmas day in New Zealand was just as we imagined it would be: hot, sunny, friendly, and accompanied with beer. Mark’s aunt was kind enough to let us join their annual family get together featuring children of Santa fearing age (which makes the whole day better). Everyone was very friendly and the family vibe was cherish-able. It did make me want to experience the same with our family next year…so the challenge is on.
Aside from the Christmas lunch, we played some lawn games with the children and relaxed in the holiday heat.
As the children began to tire and desired an afternoon with their new toys we made our way to Mark’s sister’s house for a few night-caps before heading back to base.
It was a really special Christmas day, not least because we got to spend it with Mark and Olivia in their own setting.
Boxing Day in NZ is not too dissimilar to the UK. The girls got up early to hit the sales, whilst the boys stayed at home playing cards and eating left overs. It was a nice relaxing and stress-free follow-up to Christmas day.
In the afternoon we headed to what is apparently a world famous carnival in Timaru. We were assured that people came from all over New Zealand just to come to the Boxing Day carnival here. In truth, some of the people who were there were hardly human at all.
The carnival itself is a fascinating time-warp. Mark’s sisters informed us that the games and rides have been the same for so long that their children could be sitting in the same seats that they were 30 years prior. It was great to be at the carnival as a tourist, giving a unique view of New Zealand tradition.
It was now time to say farewell to our wonderful hosts and head back for part 3/3 of our New Zealand adventure.
This day was largely in transit. Firstly, we drove from Timaru to Christchurch airport, then we caught our plane to Auckland before driving our hire car to the Coromandel Coast.
We were handed a touch of luck at the car hire venue as we were offered an upgrade from our compact car to a much more elegant Nissan X-trail. We enjoyed it so much that Nicki looked into how much it would cost at home. Ironically, New Zealand might have priced us out of any such luxury.
In terms of beauty, the Coromandel peninsula was my favourite part of New Zealand. The prevalence of other tourists probably meant that this was not a unique conclusion to make.
After a day of travel we had a nice beer at a local brewery pub and caught up on some Netflix back in the common area of our hostel. We were to be bunk-bedding for the next 2 nights.
I was keen to get a trail run done in the morning, and thought there would be no better lure than to see Cathedral Cove (a postcard favourite) before the droves of other tourists get to it. This meant leaving our dorm about 6:30am and running up a few unexpected hills before descending to the cove. I am glad I did as I was able to enjoy the view and run through the archway without the danger of getting wet (the tide was out).
Once the hour was more sociable, Nicki and I retraced my steps back to the cove to see it together and enjoy some of the beauty of the beach. This time it was a little more crowded but justifiably so.
We lay on the beach for a while and dipped in the sea. Although, the sea was not the luke-warm water I was expecting.
Whilst in Hahei, there was one other ‘must do/see’: Hot Water Beach. In fact, this marked a geothermal turning point in our trip, as from this moment on we would be seeing lots of volcanic wonders.
The best time to visit Hot Water Beach (they love a good literal name in New Zealand), is 2 hours before the high tide. In a desire to outsmart the other tourists we decided to go 3 hours before to get there before the crowds. We were not alone in this idea.
When we got to the beach we armed ourselves with a spade and headed towards the crowds of diggers. This was the error of novices. We were sheep. We were digging wholes in search of hot water in a zone where lots of Chinese tourists were doing the same. In actual fact, everyone was just copying each other. We have lived in China too long to still fall for this.
After a few minutes of hopeless digging we decided to leave the crowd and dig elsewhere. We came across a couple of middle aged Kiwi women who told us to feel for heat in the sand with or feet. Once we felt a hot spot we started digging, and immediately came across 60 degree water…piping hot. Nicki and I teamed up with the ladies to make a big pool, large enough to bathe in. The crowds started to follow us in the end…the trend setters that we are.
We took the advice of one of the hostel guys and headed to Whitianga for our final day in the Coromandel Peninsula. In all honesty, it did not match the beauty of Hahei beach or Coromandel Cove (albeit in less than perfect weather conditions).
In fact, this was probably to only day that we did not bask in sunshine. This was incredibly fortunate given that the Coromandel Peninsula had been flooded over the Christmas period.
We took advantage of the coast by sitting on a bench overlooking the water with some fish and chips. We were joined by our own security guard in the form of a seagull. He took no interest in stealing our food, but instead squawked at any other birds who came near us. Kiwi hospitality at its best (or he could’ve been in love with the bench…). This was a great highlight of the day.
Today we took our X-trail south to the Geothermic and adrenaline capital of Rotorua. We were only to spend a couple of hours here so needed to choose our activity wisely. We decided upon the Skyline Luge/Toboggan. So did everyone else.
We parked up and then grabbed a cable car, taking us up to the top before putting on a helmet and preparing ourselves to queue in the heat for a toboggan ride down. As I approach 30 I have realised that I would appreciate value for money over adrenaline rushes. When given the choice between the slower scenic route and the high speed route I thought ‘I’ve paid twenty quid for this, I will take the longer route please’, I also thought the younger lads who didn’t were just foolish.
It turns out there is an ample adrenaline rush on the scenic route.
Before getting back on the road we made sure we had a hokey pokey TipTop ice-cream. Olivia had recommended this to us and we were meeting her later in the day. We did not want to disappoint her with information that her recommendation had not been acknowledged. It was delicious.
We then stopped off at a supermarket to pick up some more ham. To make some sandwiches. We found a nice spot by the Rotorua lake to eat our sandwiches in peace. Luckily there was a nice pier out onto the lake which made for quite a romantic setting. In fact, if I hadn’t proposed already, I may well have done over this ham sandwich.
Our driving ended at the village of Ohakune, where we would base ourselves in a pine lodge Airbnb for New Years. Here we were joined by Mark, Olivia, Paul (Olivia’s dad), Geoff and his son, Elliot (Olivia’s family neighbours). It was a great crowd to spend the next couple of days.
We had fish and chips for the second day running.
Aside from getting engaged, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing was my favourite experience in New Zealand. We stocked up on energy heavy supplies, copious amounts of water and clothing to suit all conditions for our 20km hike.
Once again, we were so lucky with the weather. We needed to frequently apply suncream rather than fear the need for our raincoats.
This was the day that reminded us most of Iceland. But, we could’ve been on Mars.
I will let some of the photos speak for themselves in what was an ideal day!
The walk took it out of us and only 3 of us survived to see the new year in. Even then, we went straight to bed at midnight. Therefore, nothing raucous to report about our new years eve exploits.
We had failed in our preparation (aside from making ham sandwiches for lunch) for our final full day in New Zealand. We had intended to visit the Waitomo Caves, but we found out that we needed to book online and that New Years Day were fully booked.
Instead we decided to take advantage of our spare day by visiting Taupo (somewhere we had earmarked anyway). We reached the famous lake around lunch time and decided to have a stab at winning $10,000 by teeing a golf ball into hole floating in the lake. We both forgot that we aren’t golfers before giving this a go. It didn’t help that the busy golf area became desolate when we started, meaning any passers by could judge us on our poor swing.
As had become customary, we ate our ham sandwiches by the water.
We then visited the luscious blue Huka Falls before exploring the Iceland-esque ‘Craters of the Moon’ geothermal zone.
Finally, we made our long drive back to Auckland ready for our final night with Mark, Olivia and her parents. Once again, Olivia’s mum provided us with a wonderful spread.
Our final day in New Zealand was spent with Olivia and Mark. It was great to have one final day with them before heading back. Olivia took us to a gannet colony by the coast before having a healthy pre-plane lunch. We don’t know when we will see them again, but we will have a tough job replicating their hospitality if we do.
That was the end of our amazing trip in New Zealand. A trip that nearly bankrupt us, but it was worth every penny. We decided that we would live in New Zealand…if it swapped places with Wales. Ultimately, the friendliness and hospitality of the people reminded us of what we desire from home. Thank you to everyone who helped make this a truly memorable trip.
Reminder: please let us know if you want to see some of our updates on Facebook. We have set up a private group as we are trying to update loved ones regularly without bombarding everyone with pictures of our everyday lives on social media.