Exploring New Zealand From the Left.


Engineer In Residence
Back in 2017 and 2018 we shipped our Van to Australia and then New Zealand. The first part is written up in the thread below.

The second part, our New Zealand travels has not been posted here. Over the next few months I will retell our trip for your enjoyment. While it is written in the present tense, it is long completed, and we are back at work, saving for our next adventure.

Auckland on Foot

While we waited for the van to be released, we took some time to enjoy Auckland. We opted for public transit, as Auckland's PT system is good, and prices are reasonable. This still meant a good bit of walking, but that is a good thing.

The first major outing we made was to the Auckland Sky Tower. At around 300 meters tall (the lookout is much lower), this tower is easily visible from most of Auckland. It has an observation deck about 50 floors up, and a rotating restaurant above that. Tickets to the tower are about $30 per person, but a reservation and $30 per person meal at the restaurant give you the same access. So we opted for food and a view. The main reason for visiting the tower, was that it overlooked the wharf where the van was supposed to be unloaded.

Here is our ship (viewed from the bridge), just about finished unloading its cargo.

Here is the Auckland Central Business District (CBD) from the harbor bridge. The Sky Tower is at the center.

It is really a neck-cramping look from below.

We thought the van was in the crowd of cars below, but we couldn’t seem to find it.


There were quite a few interesting sights below, as our table completed its 360 degree loop.



We finished with desert, and headed for the ferry terminal.

Unable to find the van, we hopped on the Devonport Ferry to cross the harbor instead of the bus. As we rounded the corner, something big and blue caught our eye. Can you spot it?

It was hiding behind a large container crane. There it is, parked, waiting for the various government-mandated inspections to be completed.



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On our way back to the room, we took a detour to North Head. Lying at the entrance to the harbor, this hill was fortified to protect from attacks during WWI and WWII. Now all the remains is some tunnels, a few barracks, and concrete bunkers. Well, and excellent views, of course. Like most of the hills in this area, it is a long-extinct volcano
. DSCN1952





A little ways off shore is Rangitoto, Auckland’a newest island, about 800 years old.







While were were visiting North Head, we got to see Trans Future 7 depart Auckland for its next port.


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MOTAT and Rangitoto

As the van’s clearance dragged on, we continued to enjoy Auckland and the surrounding areas. Our next major stop was MOTAT, the Museum of Transportation and Technology. Pictures don’t really do some of the displays justice. Everything from huge steam engines to a hangar packed with aircraft.

Massive sea plane anyone? I wouldn’t mind retiring to one of these.
The two campuses are linked by a very classic tram (trolley) which was rescued from Melbourne's previous tram system and restored.


The next day we took the ferry to Rangitoto. We had originally wanted to go the day before, but our bus never showed up! Apparently the rail worker union was on strike, so buses were diverted to cover the shortfall.

Rangitoto is the newest island in NZ, and still shows plenty of signs of its violent volcanic birth. Starting as a hot spot in the upper mantle, a blob of magma rose to the surface in a few hours, setting off an eruption that raised the seafloor, and formed a the nearly perfect cone of Rangitoto.

Remains of a previous military outpost dot the island. This is the toilet entry arch. The toilets were just seats over the ocean.


Plants have made huge steps towards transforming this once-barren island. On high ground, the nearly bare lava flows remain, though not for long. A triple threat combo of lichens, moss, and alpine plants break down the rock, and start forming topsoil. In less than 800 years, the island has become a forest haven. Invasive pests such as rats and hedgehogs have been eliminated here, and it is a wildlife refuge.







The view from the top was excellent. Here is the crater, just starting to fill in. Less than 50 years ago this was not much more than bare rock.



We also spotted a family of quail wandering about on the trail.


Recommended books for Overlanding


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On the “back” side of the island, a partially-collapsed lava tube or cave is open to exploration.






On the way back we spotted the van again, still waiting, with less company than before.

Lots of boat and air traffic to be seen. Several of the islands are inhabited.


It was just a little windy!


Engineer In Residence

By Jen.

I don’t know about you, but I really enjoy sleeping in my own bed and being at my own home. The van has truly become our home. And, the process of shipping feels like forever, especially when you aren’t sure when it will be released back to you. As Jonathan mentioned in a previous post, we got to see the van pretty quickly, but it sat around waiting for inspections. First, our shipping agent wasn’t aware she needed to schedule the inspections (normally they happen automatically), but since we had shipped personal effects in the van and submitted the MPI request ourselves, we weren’t sure if it would happen automatically or not. So while we were walking around MOTAT, I was emailing back and forth with our agent to make sure it got scheduled. Then, Friday afternoon, we received an MPI BACC saying the van itself had passed inspection, but they couldn’t get under the bed and to schedule that with Intergroup. My shipping agent got right on that this time, so we hoped the van would be ready for pickup Monday (they don’t work over the weekends).

While we were waiting, we visited One Tree Hill, an extinct volcanic crater that had remnants of the Māori fortifications on it. Apparently it is also a working sheep farm.

The thing I was most excited about was being able to play Ultimate Frisbee for the first time in about 4-5 years, I think. Probably 2nd time in at least 10 years. I was definitely not in shape for that much running, but at least I wasn’t as terrible playing as I thought would be.
Monday came and went and not a single word. So, Tuesday, becoming impatient, I started emailing everyone I could find to figure out what the status was. One of the contacts was an MPI agent, and she said that when she had inspected it, she didn’t have the code for getting under the bed (etc., reiterating what had been said in the BACC). I ended up telling her the code, and she ended up calling the crew who was supposed to inspect it to make sure they knew. Sure enough, one hour later, we were informed that we had cleared the inspections! Finally! If we hadn’t shipped anything in the van, or if the codes for the locks had been properly communicated, then we would have been able to pick up the van on Friday (assuming our payments had cleared by then, which they hadn’t).

As it was, the van was ready to pick up from the wharf on Tuesday, but the issue was the transporters (to get the van from the wharf to the entry certifier) need at least a half-day warning to do the tow. We didn’t get clearance until after 1 pm, but I had been working with the transport agency, keeping them informed. So, they kindly picked up the vehicle by the of Tuesday from the wharf so that it wouldn’t be charged storage fees. Then, delivered it to the certifier on Wednesday (13-Dec). So Jonathan and I rode public transportation for 1.5 hours to go meet the van and get it certified.

The van at the certifiers. It had lots of stickers and flags on it from the shipping process (flags removed).
The certification went decently well. We found out that we didn’t have to pay Road User Charges (RUC), which was a decent chunk of the budget (you pay $68 per 1000 km, and we were estimating 15000 km here). Since the van had been dropped off before we arrived, we had a hard time finding the key. No one knew where it was. Plus, all of our stuff had been removed from storage for inspection and strewn throughout the vehicle. So, while Jonathan put things out of view and preventing projectile danger for driving, I went asking around again for keys. Shortly, they brought it out and we were free to go! Yay!

After collecting our stuff and storing it in its proper places, we fueled up and then went to find a reasonably-priced campground near Auckland, as we still had to figure out the self-containment certification (SCC) for the van. You can’t really camp very many places in NZ without having an a SCC. On our way to do some errands, including finding a portable toilet for this certification, we got a call from some folks from the US that have been coming here for the past 12+ years. They were offering a place to store our extra junk that we didn’t need in NZ (like our shipping wheels) and they were only available at certain times, so we decided to head down there right away and meet them. It was good thing we did, as they helped us get everything we lacked for SCC and answered many questions we had (and those we didn’t even know we had) about traveling NZ.

Sunset at the self-proclaimed kiwifruit capital of the world.

The kiwifruit are protected (from winds, I presume) by these massive hedges. They surround each plot.

The kiwis are grown in lines like grapes, but instead of going in 1 direction, they have the branches stretch to the line next to it and create a “ceiling” of plant.

Monday, we passed our SCC inspection and said goodbye to our friends. Sadly, we weren’t given the certificate or stickers yet. We asked them to be held at the office, so we could pick them up when we had to go to Auckland again to pick up Jonathan’s shoes. Armed with advice from our new friends and SCC-clearance, now all we needed to do was pick up a few more things and we would be free to travel as our whims dictated.



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North Island Wanderings

After some debate we decided to spend the bulk of the summer and fall on the South Island. This meant we needed to take the Cook Straight ferry. The ferry is often booked months or weeks out during the peak season (right now really). Our NZMCA membership lets us book ferry crossings at a discounted rate, but we still need to find an open spot!. After a few hours of fiddling around with poorly-designed websites, we were able to book the second to last open slot with BlueBridge on December 26th. This was the only opening for several weeks. This gave us some time to go pick up our self-containment certification (from Auckland) and to attempt (unsuccessfully) to pick up my hiking boots. I have been trying for over 6 weeks now to get a new pair of boots shipped to us. AUS had a terrible selection, and egregious prices, so I opted to have them shipped from Europe. Well, the shipper never actually sent them (some mix-up, I guess). And the NZ customs service is atrociously slow, taking 7-14 days to process international mail!

So, with a week to burn on the North Island, we took a meandering path towards Auckland. Our first stop was the Taupō (pronounced Toe-paw). This lake sits amongst a number of dormant and extinct volcanic cones, with the nearby valley being very geothermally active.

Of course, Jen can’t help but take photos of every wildflower she sees.




We hiked up Mt Tauhara for some views of lake Taupo and the volcanic mountains of the interior. The track was a bit eroded in places.




Several mountains here are snow-capped for most of the year. This one has a crater lake at its summit.

The vast majority of NZ's native old-growth forests have been logged for timber farms or agriculture. So it is always interesting when we hike in the remoter, untouched patches, as there are very old gnarly beech and other native trees.

This whole area has a number of rivers and dams which are used to produce hydroelectric power, most feeding from lake Taupo. Huka Falls was nearby, so we gave it a visit.

About 5 Olympic swimming pools plunge over these falls per minute.



Engineer In Residence
The Craters of the Moon park (not nearly as moon-like as the Idaho park of the same name) is a large geothermal field covered with craters, steam vents, mud pits etc. Beneath this valley is a large water reservoir, heated by the volcanic magma chamber deeper in the crust. The resulting steam often finds its way out to the surface. It is so active that a nearby geothermal power plant is powered by the steam. When the resulting high pressure steam finds its way to the surface, very strange things can result.

Notice the lack of trees? Well just a few inches below the surface, the soil is boiling hot. Only small plants and shrubs can grow in the cooler shallow layer.

Every few years a vent gets blocked. The steam builds up and the resulting explosion creates a new crater.

Hmm, I wonder what's cooking? (Some smell like rotten eggs.)






Most of the wildlife you will see wandering about was imported by Europeans, or the Māori natives. Here are a couple examples of the European imports.

A very fat hedgehog.





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The Pinnacles

By Jen.

After Taupō, we went up to Auckland to pick up our Certified-Self-Contained documentation and get some mail. However, we found out that our mail still wasn’t even in the country. After some calls, we found out that we could have our poste restante mail redirected, which gave us the freedom to head to the South Island. We had a few days to spend still until the ferry departure. Not having read much about the area yet, we weren’t sure where to go, but remembering some postcards of lovely hot-spring beaches, I thought perhaps the Coromandel Peninsula would be a good choice, so we went that direction. Upon arriving and researching some more, we found out that this is where Auckland goes for the holidays and was, thus, the busy season. So, the plan was to do one long hike there and then head somewhere else, which we (I) decided would be Hobbiton!

The walk we decided on was to the Pinnacles. While it seemed like it would be a fine day on the coast, driving just a kilometer or five inland to the mountains increased the cloud cover significantly. It was still dry, though, so we started off. Near the beginning was a max-1-person suspension bridge.

I love these things! They are so bouncy! Jonathan always warns me not to break them.

There was evidence of previous floods and landslides. Apparently these mountains can be quite treacherous in heavy rain.






They apparently have carnivorous flowers here too!

However, the farther along the track and the more into the mountains we got, the more rainy it started to get. By the time we got to the top, you could barely see anything!

The last bit was a bit of a scramble and quite fun, even in the rain.

While still quite impressive, I think we will have to come back when it is sunny.




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Hobbiton and Hamilton Gardens

By Jen.

Next day we arrived for the first tour of the morning at Hobbiton. The advantage of that was at least there weren’t crowds in front of us spoiling the pictures (only the gardeners). The downside was that it was still really busy and they kept you moving. From what I understand, the original decorations were all removed, but the holes themselves were allowed to be kept. Then they got permission to recreate the scenery. So, while not original, everything is still exactly like it was in the movies with amazing detail. Quite fun!


Besides all the cute hobbit decorations, my favorite part was the flowers and gardens!







They even had the Green Dragon Inn, where you could get a hobbit-like drink. They were alcoholic or carbonated, neither of which I like, and Jonathan wasn’t thirsty, so I can’t really comment on taste.


The nearby town, Matamata, has embraced the Hobbiton heritage, even remaking their visitor centre to look hobbit-like.
From there, we decided to head to Hamilton, where there were some gardens I wanted to see. Plus, they had a cakery open on Christmas Eve, where we could buy a cake. Since we were away from friends and family, we thought we might try something a bit different and decided to try out the recent Japanese tradition of having a fancy cake for Christmas with your lover. We ended up finding one at The Cake Box, which had a lovely selection. We finally decided on a Lemon-Raspberry Gateaux, which had a very light texture and a nice blend of flavors.


Then, we wandered about the Hamilton Gardens, which has different sections which they use to showcase different types of gardens.

Traditional Japanese.

Traditional English, Part 1.

Traditional English, Part 2.

I think this one was Indian?

Italian Renaissance.

Fortified productive Māori garden, featuring kumara, a sweet potato introduced from trading with South America before the Europeans arrived.


It was fun to take a stroll through so many different varieties of gardens. I think my next home ought to be situated near such a garden place so that I don’t have to do the work and can have all the options!


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Taranaki Falls
Before our ferry departure, we had enough time to do one more hike. On Christmas Day, we opted to go Taranaki Falls. This park is more commonly visited in the winter for snow-related activities. There is also a excellent alpine crossing here, which can be done as a multi-day backcountry tramp (hike/walk).

Here is the river much farther downstream of the falls. At this point it has picked up quite a bit of water compared to its upstream alpine origins.


Like most of the geography on the North Island, Taranaki was formed by volcanic action. The river here runs along a very large, and very ancient lava flow.





The ridges in the distance are heavily-eroded lava flows which spread out like arms in every direction. The bulk of the lava formed the 1500-meter-high saddle between two volcanoes.

Hmm, that water seems to disappear.

Yep, its a waterfall.

Don’t slip… I can see the headlines: Dumb American Tourist Learns to Fly and Swim at the Same Time.

This falcon was very annoyed with us, apparently it had a nest on the cliff face.



We then headed south to Wellington to board the ferry.


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South Island, Here We Come!
By Jen.

The day after Christmas, we spent some time video-calling family who were doing their own Christmas celebrations at the time. Then, it was time to board the ferry! We went with BlueBridge ferry, as they had something open and Interislander ferry doesn’t honor the NZMCA discount during the peak season (school holidays). It was a bit of a rainy day, and there was plenty of wind, resulting in water that was a bit choppy. Both Jonathan and I suffered from motion-sickness the entire time we were in the Cook Strait. But, upon entering Queen Charlotte Sound (Totaranui), we were in calm, protected waters and could enjoy ourselves. We shared a table with a family who had just shipped their vehicle over from Australia; it was fun to talk with them.


Upon arrival in Picton, we quickly found a campsite and tried to figure out where we should go next. It is surprisingly hard to go out and enjoy yourself and then find the time to plan your next activity. After some research, we decided to head to Nelson Lakes National Park and climb Mt Robert for views of Lake Rotoiti. On our way there, we were greeted with lots of logging forests, pastures, and vineyards. We had heard that South Island was known for its rugged beauty, but apparently not all of it is untouched wilderness. Like the North Island, much of it has been developed or changed for human use. So instead of being greeted by the beautiful native forests, we were surrounded by imported plants. It had its own charm, but not what we (or at least I) had been expecting/hoping to see. I won’t deny that I am a bit disappointed.

Fortunately at Mt Robert, they had some beautiful, native-beech forests to walk through.


Like in Australia, the alpine (no trees) zone is surprisingly low in altitude. Apparently that is because less than a 100 km away, you are at the sea. So, at the top of Mt Robert at 1421m, we were already well into the alpine region.

The soil is poor here and erosion is rampant.


The next day, we ventured further into the area and walked a path in Murray Creek Goldfields. While few in views, it had some interesting mining equipment and a few birds.


They had massive mile-deep mines! Just look at the pile of tailings, and this is only a small portion of it!


Remnants of the cage.


The entrances were filled in, but the air shafts were still there.

An old boiler.


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Arthur’s Pass
There are only two major passes crossing the Southern Alps, Lewis Pass and Arthur’s Pass. Both qualify as highly scenic, if not very fast routes. In our continuing goal of avoiding the holiday hordes, we continued onward into Arthur’s Pass National Park. Located right in the heart of the Southern Alps, this park has mountains and valleys to spare.

The road in traverses some fairly intense topography, built around glacially-sculpted valleys. The remains of the glacial erosion can still be plainly seen in the form of braided rivers flowing across the valley floors.


The western side of the pass gets over 5 meters (16ft) of rain each year! The drainage infrastructure is serious business.

If you look closely below, you may see the original road snaking along the valley floor. Needless to say it was frequently blocked by flooding and landslides.



We camped for the night at the foot of the mountain in the foreground.

The next day we decided to hike up Avalanche Peak. This hike has over 1100 meters (3,500 ft) of elevation gain over about 3km. That is some seriously steep hiking. DSCN2623

So we dragged ourselves up the slopes, zigzagging through the switchbacks, often hiking up still wet streams.


We took a break and noticed a double, full-360-degree rainbow above the valley.

We were distracted by a number of waterfalls coming off the slopes.


The view kept getting better as we wheezed our way ever upwards.


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As we neared the half way point the trees became stunted, and the vegetation began the shift to alpine types.



Abruptly we shifted into the alpine herbfields.



A bit steep here, it would take a very long time to stop should one fall.



Hmm, just a bit of snow capping the higher neighbors to the west.

The herbfields gradually gave way to scree fields.




A reminder of the amount of crustal uplift that has brought what was once ocean floor sediments up to 1800m of elevation.

Finally, even the alpine grasses and herbs give way to bare rock.

But it is definitely not barren. Even up here in the dry harsh winds, alpine plants are living in the bare crevices. Often taking decades to grow, many of these plants are older than I am.


Recommended books for Overlanding


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The remote wilderness of the central ranges is bared to the eye from here. Year-round snow caps these rugged peaks.

What may look like a light coating of snow from this distance is actually tens of meters thick glaciers. Check out those crevasses!



It is hard to imagine, but during the last ice age (about 20,000 years ago) this valley was filled nearly to the top with solid glacial ice. In places well over 600 meters thick. That is just below where we are standing in this photo! These enormous ice flows reached all the way to the sea.

Here is a view looking back about 1/3 of the way down. The central peak was the summit of this hike.
he small line on the far right of this photo is Arthur’s Pass road on the valley floor.

We managed to spot a Kea flying past us on the Peak (over 1800m high!). The Kea is NZ’s only native parrot, and the only alpine parrot, living exclusively in the harsh mountain environment. No photos sadly!


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Mt Sunday and Surroundings

By Jen.

After spending a couple of days in Arthur’s Pass, we felt it was time to move on. At this point, I still hadn’t read most of the reference book for interesting things to do, so I let Jonathan fast read and dictate the direction for the day. He mentioned a fun-sounding place called Cave Stream where you can walk through a cave with a stream running through it. I had visions of our last walk through a stream-filled cave in Australia, which was super fun, so we thought we would give a try. The location is a small scenic reserve near Castle Hill.


The entrance to the cave is there at the base of the cliff on the right.



Here is the exit.

The day after our jaunt to the peak of Mt Avalanche, I was definitely fighting off some sickness. My best guess was a sinus infection. Once my nose starts running (a common side effect of cooler weather), then I get a post-nasal drip, which goes around my tonsils and gets everything infected. With a slight fever and a running nose, I didn’t want to traverse through water, so we decided to skip the walk through Cave Stream and just explore the small reserve. After consulting the guidebook again, we decided to explore Mt Sunday, which is more widely known in the LOTR trilogy as the location of Edoras. After long drive out and back into the mountains, we arrived.

Although surrounded by pastures, it is still set in lovely settings. The short rocky mound in the middle-ground is Mt Sunday or Edoras. It isn’t as big as I thought it would be.

We had to cross over a braided river to get there. Some areas had a thick moss growing.



One of the views from the top.


Now, you might be thinking that I am chasing after LOTR filming sites because I am obsessed with the Tolkien universe. However, you would be wrong. I have no need to pretend I am Eowyn stabbing the Ringwraith. No, rather, I am looking for those sites because the scenery in LOTR is gorgeous! So, you will find me chasing after the sites to present beautiful scenes to you.

Since we were taking it easy, we decided to check out a river we saw on our way to Mt Sunday, Rakaia River. When we passed by, it had a lot of tourists, so figured it might be nice.

It is a beautiful, glacial-fed river. See how the blue is making the bridge appear blue?


We discovered there was a track along the gorge, so we decided to try it out.


There is a small waterfall!