New Zealand Part 1: Auckland to Rotorua

For the last three weeks, we’ve been living the life of a “campervanner” in our trusty Britz campervan we affectionately named Charlie. Four children (5, 7, 8 & 9), two mums and a 7.2m long, 3.2m high vehicle to navigate the roads of this beautiful country and sleep in at night: what could possibly go wrong!

I won’t deny that it’s been a physically demanding three weeks, but we’ve had the most amazing time making memories that will last a lifetime. We’ve seen geysers explode; jumped the waves at the stunning Cathedral Cove; hiked across a volcanic alpine landscape; kayaked alongside the Haruru Falls, watched and attempted the famous haka performance; explored glowworm caves; swam in thermal springs; slept under the stars; and just so much more… And in the process, I’ve fallen head over heels in love with this breathtaking country. To any New Zealanders out there, you’re so very lucky 🙂

Alongside this, we two mums have figured out how this beast of a campervan works, with all its little quirks (of which there are many!); emptied the poo from the toilet whilst trying to avoid splash back (one of the more pleasant jobs!); mediated many a child-dispute; attempted to provide a healthy diet for the children either by cooking in the tiny space of the camper or trekking everything across to the campsite kitchen; searched for missing shoes; sorted out many an injury (the arnica and plaster supplies have taken a serious bashing!); doled out hokey pokey ice cream treats; and cajoled overtired children to bed in a variety of sleeping configurations! But it was all so worth it. It was messy and imperfect, but I loved every second. My only regret: that we didn’t have more time in each place, but I’ve resolutely determined that we’ll be back one day. It’s too special not to.

I also feel closer to my friend Kelly than ever: we shared our life stories out there on the road or over a cold beer sat under the stars (or huddled in the cab on those colder evenings!) – although we missed our respective husbands, it felt really good to have some mummy bonding time and share many a giggle. Our four little adventurers have definitely had a ball – on top of all our little excursions, they’ve played and played together exploring the extremities of each of the 10 different camping spots until we dragged them into bed each night. Friends for life, they were sad to say goodbye at Christchurch airport, but fortunately we’ll see them again in just over two weeks when we visit their house in Melbourne.

So, here’s what we covered in the first 10 days (of 22), from landing in Auckland to arriving in Rotorua. I’ve included information about the various campsites (and our honest opinions about them) in case anyone else is planning a similar trip (which I would highly recommend).

Day 1: Auckland

Bean8 & 9 and I landed in Auckland at lunchtime and given that we weren’t meeting Kelly/picking up the campervan for two days, we stayed in a guest house for a couple of nights to help us recover from the jetlag. By the time we’d arrived at the guesthouse, we quickly settled into our room and headed straight out again, down to the ferry terminal to catch a boat across to Devonport – a gorgeous little coastal village with a lovely relaxed vibe and cute little shops and restaurants. To stretch our legs, we walked to the top of Mt. Victoria (a short 20 min walk) and took in the beautiful views across the city on one side and the islands to the other, including the iconic volcanic island of Rangitoto. After exploring the large hidden gun for a while (to protect against an anticipated Russian invasion which never took place), we strolled back down, ate dinner at one of the restaurants en route to the boat and headed back to the guesthouse.

On top of Mt. Victoria
Accommodation: Braemar on Parliament Street

I would without doubt stay at this guesthouse again – set in a beautiful old house (with a roll top bath in our room), it was centrally located, with a delicious breakfast and, best of all, a fascinating owner who would happily sit with you for hours and talk about his beloved country. This is such an undervalued way of learning – taking the time to sit and chat to knowledgeable experts – and one which is possible to take advantage of when you’re travelling. Bean8 learned about the hunting and subsequent extinction of the giant moa bird which ultimately led to the extinction of its predator, the haast eagle. Bean9 was fascinated by the extensive predator eradication program (of imported mammals such as rats and possums) instigated by the New Zealanders in an effort to protect their native wildlife from the brink of extinction.

Day 2: Auckland

Those are Bean9’s scary eyes!!

There were many things I wanted to do in Auckland, but we only had one full day here, so we opted for visiting the Auckland War Memorial Museum. Here, we decided to go for the Moa package, which included a Maori cultural experience and a highlights tour on top of the normal admission. This was our first experience of Maori culture and we really enjoyed their performance, but to be honest, we had a couple of further Maori experiences later on in our trip (at Waitangi and Rotorua) which were much better and certainly more comprehensive. I would however, certainly recommend the tour – the lady was extremely knowledgeable and introduced the Beans to the spread and colonisation of Aotearoa (the Maori name for NZ – the land of the long white cloud) first by the Maori and then the European settlers; their subsequent interactions, wars and “peace treaty”: the Treaty of Waitangi; along with the geology and significant natural history (both past and present) of the country. It was fascinating and they listening to her, truly engrossed. Bean8 was excited to relay all he’d learned from our B&B host about the haast eagle, and Bean9, having completed a lapbook about NZ before our trip, happily told the group about how the kiwi technically has the shortest beak as its nostrils are on the very end of its beak and beak length in birds is measured from the nostrils to the tip of the beak.

After the tour, we wandered around the museum ourselves, particularly enjoying the Maori, volcanoes and weird and wonderful galleries (a hands-on natural history section for children). In total, I think we spent about four hours in the museum, which given they were still a little tired from the jetlag, was the perfect amount for the day.

Accommodation: Braemar on Parliament Street

Day 3: Auckland to Goat Island Marine Reserve

In the main, this was a travelling day, with just enough time to pop back over to Devonport (I’d loved to have had time to climb Mt. Rangitoto, but unfortunately it was not to be this time – I’ve added it to the ever-increasing list of things to do on our next trip here!). Then it was on to pick up Charlie the Campervan. This took a lot longer than I expected – unfortunately the staff at Britz were not the most efficient, helpful or, it appeared, at all knowledgeable about the vehicles they were renting – and it took two hours in total. I had to rush the last part before they closed, so if you’re planning on campervanning, my advice would be to factor in plenty of time on pick up, so that you can go through every aspect slowly allowing you to feel comfortable heading on out.

As it was, I felt ever so slightly terrified as I sat behind the wheel of this behemoth of a vehicle trying to leave quickly before they shut the gate for the night and, in the process, managed to pull the gearstick off in my hand! Not the most auspicious of starts… After quickly running in to get some help, we set off again to pick up Kelly and her two Beans fresh from the plane at the nearest hotel. Unfortunately, as I managed to block the entire entrance to the hotel, they all had to jump in, dump their bags on the back seats and we set off on our journey in a bit of a crazy whirlwind! Having not seen each other for a year, there were about a million conversations to be had at the same time as we desperately tried to catch up with each other’s lives. This somewhat distracted me from the fact that I was, in essence, driving the equivalent of a small bus in an unfamiliar country at rush hour in its busiest city.

Somehow (I really don’t remember much of the actual driving), we made it to our first campsite close by to Goat Island Marine Reserve (just before they shut the reception for the night), about 1 hr 15 out of the city (or 3 if you’re travelling in rush hour and take a few wrong turns…). Fortunately, the children were thoroughly entertained by the flying around of items in the back of the camper as we wobbled along so there were no complaints from them. Then, whilst the children played happily by the sea, we got a bit more familiar with Charlie (!), worked out how to set up the electric and beds etc, cooked our first meal and enjoyed our first beer together.

Accommodation: Whangateau Holiday Park

We really didn’t spend long enough here to give a comprehensive review, but it was perfectly adequate. A beautiful setting next to the sea, so perfect for the kids to play, but the spaces were small, and we felt a little packed in like sardines in a can. So OK, but nothing to write home about.

Day 4: Goat Island Reserve & Haruru Falls, Bay of Islands

We had a slow start to day 4 (given the hectic arrival the previous day), in which we had to put out various children’s “fires” – such as trying unsuccessfully to dislodge a very special teddy from the top of Charlie (apparently it was part of an excellently well thought through game of theirs!) and then walking behind the camper for a while to see if it would drop off – it didn’t. Fortunately, we saw it fly off as we drove down the road and I nipped out for a quick morning sprint to collect it before it was squashed by another car!

We first headed for Goat Island Marine Reserve for a spot of playing on the beach and snorkelling. Then it was on for our first big drive up to Haruru Falls, near Paihia, in the stunningly beautiful Bay of Islands. The rest of the day involved the children running wild in the campsite with its excellent location directly opposite the Haruru Falls.

Accommodation: Falls Motel & Waterfront Campsite

As mentioned above, this campsite was in the most idyllic of settings, and if we’d had a waterfront spot, I think it would have been perfect. The owners and Mike the campsite manager could not have been friendlier. Mike showed us newbies how to empty the waste water and toilet and advised on the best places to visit in the area. We were there for the Auckland Anniversary Weekend so the campsite was full to bursting and our slot in the middle felt a little hemmed in, but other than that, we loved this campsite.

Day 5: Kayaking & The Treaty of Waitangi

The morning saw us hire kayaks from the campsite and spend a very happy hour paddling around the falls and along the picturesque river, spotting the wildlife and listening to the tuneful cicadas. This was one of the highlights of the trip for the children as they weaved in and out of the mangrove trees on either side. It was such a relaxing, destressing experience for me too – I’d have happily stayed out there all day.

After an ice cream treat, the kids played in the pool, and in the afternoon, I made a somewhat bold decision to take the three eldest children on a 3 1/2 hour round trip to see where the Treaty of Waitangi was signed (an agreement made in 1840 between representatives of the British Crown and over 500 Maori chiefs, with the intention of establishing a British Governor of NZ, whilst also recognising Maori ownership of their lands and forests. Sadly, the English and Maori versions held different meanings and thus expectations, which resulted in many challenges for the country and its people). Bean9 had done lots of research into the Treaty and was very keen to visit the place which held such historical significance for the country.

It was a glorious walk, but it felt somewhat rushed to try and get there before it closed for the evening. But made it we did. We had time for an excellent Maori performance, a look around the world’s largest ceremonial war canoe, a wander around the Treaty grounds to see where it had been signed (another breathtakingly beautiful spot) and a quick look at the Governor’s house where the Treaty had been drawn up. It was well worth the trip, but I wished we’d had more time to explore the attached museum. The walk back required quite a bit of “sweets bribery” (fortunately I still had some left in my bag from the plane) but we made it in time for tea!

Accommodation: Falls Motel & Waterfront Campsite

Day 6: Dolphin Cruise & Russell, Bay of Islands

A four hour dolphin cruise was on the agenda for day 6, combined with a journey through the spectacular Bay of Islands, including a trip to and through the hole in the rock on Motu Kokako Island. We were lucky enough to see pods of bottlenose and common dolphins, which was amazing, and the scenery was exquisite, but the boat was rather large and thoroughly packed with people, so I’m not sure I’d recommend this tour. It’d be more preferable to find a smaller, less touristy boat trip if you can. For instance, we had a much better sighting of dolphins during our Kaikoura Albatross excursion on a more intimate 10-person boat.

The highlight of the trip though was being dropped off at Russell, a short boat ride from Paihia. The first permanent European settlement in New Zealand, and, thanks to the debauched behaviour of its original inhabitants, nicknamed “The Hellhole of the Pacific”, it’s now a pretty, quaint old town with well restored historic buildings and galleries, set against the backdrop of the tempting azure sea. As we arrived, we were met by people dressed up in early settlers’ costumes encouraging us to come and watch a street theatre performance. I thought this would be an excellent idea and accordingly set us all up to watch from a good viewing position. As I looked around though, I realised that a large part of the cast was clearly dressed as prostitutes and when the children looked blankly at me as the priest started talking about fornication, I realised my error and moved us swiftly along… But other than the highly inappropriate street theatre, I’d happily recommend this appealing and quirky little town. The kids snorkelled off the beach; we meandered around the shops; and the children watched enthralled at an artist painting outside his gallery (art lesson, tick!), before heading back home on the ferry.

Accommodation: Falls Motel & Waterfront Campsite

Day 7: Hot Water Beach, Coromandel Peninsula

This was our biggest driving day by a long way – six hours in total – although the children were so tired, all four of them fell asleep for a large proportion of the journey (almost unheard of for my two), so we did it in one big stint. It’s so much easier to manage long drives in a camper as they have much more space and although it’s not strictly permitted, we did allow them to get up to go to the loo as we were driving and I even managed to make them all lunch one day whilst on the go (although it did take a lot longer as everything slid around as we negotiated the various roundabouts!).

Once there, we set up at the campsite and headed down to the Hot Water Beach, famous for its patch of thermal water bubbling just below the sand at low tide. This was a real hit with the children and they quickly set to digging their own “hot tub” on the beach. Luckily though a lovely couple let us use their self-dug enormous hot tub as they were heading out. The children jumped in digging their feet down into the hot water underneath. They were however, just as enamoured by the gigantic waves crashing over the beach, and spent a happy hour running in and out of the sea and jumping over and through the waves.

Accommodation: Hot Water Beach Top 10

We were lucky enough to have a good, secluded spot at this campsite surrounded by trees and this, combined with the easy access to the Hot Water Beach (only a 10 min walk), made it one of the better campsite options. I think the kids were pleased with the large playground, bouncing pillow and go carts for hire too!

Day 8: Cathedral Cove, Coromandel Peninsula

Cathedral Cove is literally one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing. It’s stunning. Even the walk down (about 30 mins) is breathtaking. The only downside: the hundreds of other people who thought the same and joined us down there! I normally avoid really touristy places like the plague and cannot abide packed beaches, but this one was worth it. It was that good. We were advised to arrive as early as possible to avoid the crowds which was great advice. By the time we came to leave, it was getting so busy my claustrophobia was starting to set in, but after we’d hiked back up the hill along the gorgeous trail, I felt completely refreshed and renewed.

Accommodation: Hot Water Beach Top 10

Day 9: Waitomo

By this stage, we needed a bit of down time, so after driving the four hours to Waitomo, we spent the rest of the day relaxing by the pool and hot tub at the campsite, chatting to fellow campers and making new friends. New Zealand was having a mini heatwave at this stage, and the kids struggled to sleep up over the cab (the hottest place in the camper), so to allow more space in van, I decided to sleep outside under the stars. It was the best night’s sleep I had!

Accommodation: Waitomo Top 10 Holiday Park

Day 10: Waitomo Caves and Ruakuri Bush Walk

I’d booked our Waitomo Caves tickets ahead of time – we’d opted for the combo ticket, allowing us to explore the Ruakuri Caves as well as the more popular Glowworm Caves. Our first tour was booked for 9:30am, or so I thought, and as we believed the caves were 5 mins walk up the road from the campsite, we had a relaxed and slow get up that morning. I pulled out our tickets at about 8:53, realised I’d made a mistake and that it was actually a 9am start, panicked and ran around the campsite like a banshee collecting children and Kelly (who was part way through her shower!), and then started throwing things into cupboards in the camper to make a quick getaway…

As I started driving out, I realised the awning was still out, so out I jumped, quickly shoving it away and setting off again. On arrival at the caves, we discovered that the Ruakuri Caves were in fact 2km further down the road, so back in we hopped and wobbled as quickly down the road as Charlie would allow, with various paraphernalia that I hadn’t quite manage to put away properly, flying around the children’s heads! We screeched to a halt in the car park and with arms waving and all shouting at each other, we tumbled out of the door and towards the awaiting rest of our tour group! We’d made it just in time, well maybe a few minutes late, but fortunately we had a very understanding and chilled out tour guide.

I’m so glad we did make it as, despite the crazy start, it was my favourite of the two tours. We headed down a spiral stairway deep into the ground with a small tour group and explored the beautiful Ruakuri Caves with all its stalactites, stalagmites, fossils and of course, glowworms, or the larval/maggot stage of a fungus gnat fly! It was made really by the tour guide who was hugely informative teaching the children all about the geology of the caves and how they were formed, as well as lots of information about the lifecycle of the glowworm. They were fascinated, asked lots of questions and thoroughly enjoyed the tour!

After the tour, Bean8&9 and I hiked the short Ruakuri Bush Walk, which was one of the most spectacular walks I’ve ever done. We found more glowworms and paddled along the river to find a little cave all to ourselves. Just stunning.

The second tour, the glowworm caves, was also very special, but felt a lot more touristy and a little like you were part of a factory line. The end of the tour made it all worthwhile though as we travelled in absolute silence in a boat through the darkness to witness the sheer beauty of millions of glowworms twinkling above our heads. The littlest Bean, Bean5, was sat ahead of me and she kept exclaiming these quiet little, “Wows!” every so often 🙂

Accommodation: Waitomo Top 10 Holiday Park

Day 11: Hobbiton

The next day heralded another planned and booked activity – a tour of the Hobbiton Movie Set. This was a huge hit with both my Beans who are massive Hobbit and Lord of the Rings fans. The day was glorious, our tour guide a quirky Scandanavian LOTR fanatic, which made for a fabulous couple of hours. Bean9 would love to be an actress, and she was absolutely fascinated by how they filmed the scenes at Hobbiton and the little tricks of the trade, like having different sized Hobbit holes: some small to make the larger characters, like Gandalf, look bigger, and some bigger to make the smaller characters, such as the Hobbit, look smaller. The tour ended with a drink and snack at The Green Dragon Inn and a chance for the kids to dress up in Hobbit clothes! They loved it. If you’re over this way, it’s definitely worth the trip.

Accommodation: Cozy Cottage Thermal Park, Rotorua

OK, so sleeping in a campervan with four kids and two adults is somewhat of a squash and given that campsites are often noisy until late, the children were seriously lacking in sleep by this stage and the meltdowns were getting more frequent. Luckily, Mr J had booked three nights in a two-bedroom apartment on a campsite for me, Bean8 & 9, to give us all a little extra space. As it was though, the apartment I’d booked was large with two separate bedrooms, along with bunkbeds and an additional bed in the living room. And the campervan space was directly outside our room. So, rather than spreading out across the apartment and camper, we all slept in the apartment together in much comfier beds for three nights and, in the process, caught up on some well needed sleep! In addition to the excellent sleeping conditions, there was a swimming pool, park and three thermal hot tubs at the park, which were hugely popular with the children. They also had a hangi (a traditional New Zealand Māori method of cooking food using heated rocks buried in a pit oven) – we had a go at cooking in this one night and the food was delicious! I’d highly recommend this campsite.

Next up: Rotorua to Christchurch – check out this post!


2 thoughts on “New Zealand Part 1: Auckland to Rotorua

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