More Than Middle Earth: New Zealand For Kids
by Lauryn Axelrod,
GoNOMAD Senior Editor
by Lauryn Axelrod,
Josh and I were no different, and when it came time to leave Asia, the only place we wanted to go was Middle Earth. But what we discovered over the course of three months in New Zealand was a land that was more than mythical: a place where adults and kids can have the adventure of a lifetime, for real!
We arrived in Auckland to culture shock. After six months in bustling Asia, sleepy, modern Auckland was both refreshing and strange. People spoke to us in flawless, Kiwi-accented English, the streets were clean and empty, the gardens in front of the tidy houses were perfectly manicured, and everyone seemed relaxed. Granted, it was Sunday, which in New Zealand, is still treated as a day of rest. But still, this return to the Western world was strange to us.
To stave off jet lag, we walked a bit through trendy, Victorian Parnell, grabbed a full Western lunch (salad! Wow!), and then wandered down to the America’s Cup Village to check out the yachts. It was only weeks until the America’s Cup races began, and the waterfront was bustling with kids on rollerblades, couples out for a Sunday stroll, and friends gathering at the chic cafes to sip New Zealand wines over fresh seafood.
There was a fantastic photographic exhibition on the pier, so we spent our time gazing at pictures of the country we would soon come to know until jet lag overtook us and we walked back to our hotel and slept. We could already tell that we would like it here.
The next day, we rented a car and began our journey north. It had been an unspoken goal to travel from Cape Reinga, the supposed northernmost tip of New Zealand, to Bluff, the southernmost point, stopping anywhere and everywhere in between.
Our first stop was Pakiri Beach, a blip on the northland map miles down a dirt road where we could go horseback riding on wild, empty stretches of beach and dunes.
We checked into our little cabin on the dunes and arranged our horseback rides for the next day. Still a little weary from travel, it was a perfect place to relax. We walked along the beach, laying down in the sand under the warm sun, feeling the strong Southern Ocean winds on our faces, and imagining gallopping across the dunes, splashing in the waves.
The next morning, however, we woke to our first of the famous New Zealand rain storms. The wind and rain lashed our little cottage, driving the ocean waves sideways, stirring up the sand and sea until it was all foam and spray and wildness.
There would be no horseback riding today, but we loved it anyway! As we would soon come to learn, every activitiy in New Zealand is weather dependent, but even when the weather isn’t cooperating with your plans, it can be an experience of it’s own!
The storm was over by the next morning and we mounted our horses and began a 4-hour ride into the dunes surrounding the long, empty beach. For several hours, we walked through the quiet bush, listening to sounds of birds we had never heard before, learning a bit about the flora and fauna of New Zealand.
Then, we hit the beach, and for miles it seemed, we cantered and gallopped through the sand and waves, feeling the freedom that comes with riding in a wild, open country.
We returned to the stables, exhilarated and sad to leave our wild, secret Pakiri Beach. But we also knew there were other, equally as remote and beautiful places to see on our journey to the tip of New Zealand.
Bays of Islands
We spent the next three days based in Paihia, in the famous Bay of Islands. A touristy, resort town, Paihia is, nonetheless, a good base for exploring the northern part of the Northland. We spent one day in nearby Waitangi, visiting the site of the first European settlements and signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, which created New Zealand as it is today.
On the site, there is a fantastic museum which explains the history of the country, as well as the relationship between the European settlers and the native Maori tribes. There is also an excellent example of a Maori waka, or carved canoe, in which the original Maori tribes arrived in Aotearoa, or the Land of the Long White Cloud.
It was a great introduction to New Zealand history and culture and would give us a good basis for understanding the Maori culture that we would encounter as we traveled through the country.
The weather wasn’t conducive to sailing through the blue, island-dotted bay, so the next day we headed across the point to the Kauri Caost and the Waipoa Kauri Forest to see the giant Kauri trees, one of the few places in the country where these mighty trees that once covered the island still exist. Standing hundreds of feet high, with girths that would take 20 men to circle, these monolithic, prehistoric trees were used for everything from wakas to homes. Most were cut down, and only a few still survive. The trees in the forest are over 1000 years old, and walking along the paths deep into the bush to see them was like walking through land where dinosaurs once roamed.
On the way back, we stopped in several small villages and towns, each of which seemed more Shire-like. We had almost forgotten that this was Lord of The Rings land, but in the rolling green hills of the central northland, we remembered that Bilbo Baggins and company could have lived here, too.
The following day, we left Paihia and headed still north to Kaitaia, and the beginning of the Ninety Mile Beach to Cape Reinga. En route, we stopped in Doubtless Bay, a scenic fishing village named by Captain Cook for it’s doubtlessly fine harbour. We agreed that there was no doubt this was a lovely place, but more for the excellent fish and chips at the local fish shop than for the safe harbor.
When we reached Kaitaia, we headed directly to the nearby Ahipara beach where Josh took a few tries on a sail-powered go cart that rolled and sped across the flat sands and into the waves. This would be his first taste of the high adrenaline activities for which NZ is reknowned. I could tell he would be hooked.
While there are many tours from both Pahia and Kaitaia that go to Cape Reinga and dune riding along the Ninety Mile Beach (which is actually 60 miles or 90 kilometers!), we opted to go it alone and set out early the next morning for the full day adventure to the far, far north. The drive to the cape was beautiful and tough. The single road that leads down the peninsula gives out about an hour south of the cape and the rest of the drive is over a narrow unsealed road, rutted and muddy from recent rains and tour buses.
We arrived at the Cape before the crowds and for a few minutes stood at the lighthouse beneath the signs pointing to Sydney, Tokyo, New York, London, and watched the waves break over the Columbia Banks, where the Pacific and Tasman Oceans meet in a watery, wild convergence. The Cape is also a sacred place for the Maori, who believe that from an 800-year old Pohutukawa tree on the cliff, the souls of the dead descend to the ocean underworld for their trip back to Hawaiki, the ancestral homeland.
When the crowds arrived, we headed back down the road to our next stop, the mammoth Te Paki sand dunes at the top of the Ninety Mile Beach. Grabbing a boogie board we had borrowed from our hostel, we climbed the tall dunes and began sliding down head first, whizzing through the air and the sand as if we were sledding in the snow back home. It was so much fun that for the next two hours, we relinquished all thoughts of lunch or onward travel and just relished in the childlike joy of dune sliding.
Exhausted, we began our journey back to Kaitaia, but not without stopping again further along the wide, endless Ninety Mile Beach, to lie in the sun, jump over waves and look for shells alond the windswept beach.
That night, we spent the evening talking with Peter, a local Maori artist and storyteller who runs Tall Tales Tours and Travel, specializing in Maori culture tours. While we didn’t have time to take a tour, Pete was kind enough to spend an hour or so with Josh and I explaining Maori cosmology and symbols. This would prove to be useful again and again as we continued our journey through NZ and learned more about Maori culture.
From the Northland, we headed to the smaller peninsula to the east, the Coromandel. Known in NZ as an alternative holiday destination, the Coromandel is home to several small beach towns and a mountainous interior of lush bush. We based ourselves in Tairua and spent the next 3 days kayaking in the tidal lagoon just outside our hostel, hunting for shellfish for our nightly feasts, digging natural hot tubs in the sand at Hot Water Beach, and boogie boarding the biggest waves Josh had ever seen at Tairua Surf Beach. It was a perfect beach holiday and sated us for our move inland.
Volcanoes and More
From the Coromandel, we headed south into the central part of New Zealand’s North Island, the volcanic heart of the country. We spent our first two days in Rotorua, known for both it’s live volcanic sites as well as its rich Maori culture. On the first day, we visited the Te Whakarewarewa, a Maori village built on top of a thermal wonderland of geysers, boiling pools, mud pools and sulphur springs. On the tour, we learned how the Maori of the area have used thermal heat and water to cook, clean and heat their homes for hundreds of years.
That night, we wandered over to the famous Polynesian Spa, a natural hot springs complex known worldwide for the curative and relaxing powers of its mineral pools. A few hours of soaking and swimming was enough to send us soundly to sleep and prepare us for the next day’s hike through the Waiotapu Thermal Area, whose colorful and varied volcanic pools, terraces, caves and waterfalls taught us more about volcanic activity than we had ever known.
One of the other must do activities in Rotorua is to attend a Maori concert and Hangi, or traditional earthen cooked feast.
We arranged to attend the nightly concert and dinner at Tamaki Village, where, after being welcomed with a traditional Maori chanted greeting, we were treated to a performance of traditional music and dance, including the Haka, or Maori war dance, in which men and women chant loudly, pound their chests and thighs, swing clubs, stick out their tongues and bulge their eyes to scare off the enemy.
Afterwards, we were led to the wharekai, or dining house, where we feasted on lamb, chicken, beef, and vegetables all cooked in giant earthen ovens. It was an evening we would remember for a long time to come.
Read more GoNOMAD stories about New Zealand
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