Texas girl in the middle of Kiwiana

Amy Boatman

Rotoroa Island

Sometime back in September 2011 (I think it was), Shannon bought a GrabOne voucher for discounted ferry tickets to an island not far from Auckland called Rotoroa. We had three months to use the voucher. Being the procrastinators we are, we kept putting off the trip until December rolled around and we had one week left before the voucher expired and we lost our money. We arranged for a day off mid-week and scheduled the trip. That Thursday fell in the middle of a typhoon-type storm that lashed at Auckland for three days. The wind was whipping, the rain was coming down in buckets, and it was quite chilly despite being the beginning of summer. We couldn't get out of the trip, though, because if we cancelled then we'd not get a refund or the opportunity to reschedule. What we were hoping for was the ferry cancelling and then that allowing us the option to reschedule. Luckily enough, after making our way down to the terminal that is exactly what happened so we signed up to try again the following Sunday. By Sunday the worst of the storm had moved on leaving us with slightly better weather. It was still quite chilly so we packed warm clothes along with our rain gear and picnic lunch.  

In 1907, the Salvation Army purchased Rotoroa Island from a private family with the intentions of setting up a drug and alcohol treatment facility. The first patients began arriving shortly thereafter. For 100 years, the island was a haven for addicts where they created their own mostly self-sufficient society. They provided their own food, built their own facilities, and generally took care of the island. At first it was only men but eventually women were allowed there as well although the sexes were separated on different sides of the island. In 2005, the Sallies sold a 99-year lease to the Rotoroa Island Trust which has turned the island into a haven for native plants and birds. Over 400,000 native plants have been planted including thousands of pohutukawa trees. Starting in 2010, day visitors were allowed on the island as well as overnight lodgers at three holiday homes. The Trust hopes the island will become a sanctuary preserving the beauty of the region for generations to come. 

We caught the ferry early Sunday morning along with about 30 other people. It was a cloudy morning but at least it wasn't raining...yet. 

Ferry to Rotoroa
Ferry to Rotoroa

About an hour and a half later, we were pulling up to the dock on the island. We were met by the caretaker of the island who gave us a rundown of the rules, told us where everything was located, and what time to be back at the dock so as not to miss the ferry back. The island is pretty small so Shannon and I decided to hike the southern bit first. As we approached the visitor's center we were greeted with an unusual sight: a dozen weka foraging in the grass! Weka are flightless birds native to New Zealand that are classified as vulnerable. I'd never seen one weka much less a dozen. They look like a cross between an American roadrunner, a chicken, and a duck. 

Rotoroa Island

We continued up the track taking pictures and enjoying the view of the new growth pohutukawa and other plants.

Rotoroa Island
Rows of baby Pohutakawas
Rotoroa Island
Rotoroa Island

The spaghetti noodle-esque art installation at the top of the southern hill:

Rotoroa Island art

And the view:

Rotoroa Island
Rotoroa Island
Rotoroa Island
Rotoroa Island
Rotoroa Island

At this point, the rain began again in earnest and we were quite happy to have our rain gear. 

Rotoroa Island

This little weka fellow was kind enough to pose for a few close ups:


One of the hundreds of baby pohutukawa on the island (they turn into big trees):

Pohutakawa close up
Shan with Pohutakawa

For those who may not know, the pohutukawa is also known as the Kiwi Christmas tree as it blooms just in time for Christmas. It is found only on the north island of New Zealand. The trees are beautiful and a particular favorite of ours. In fact, we've decided that we'd like to find a fake pohutukawa to have as our Christmas tree every year. 

Our next stop was Mens Bay. This was the men's swim area when the island was still a rehab facility. Now it's a great stretch of beach with a very nice toilet and picnic tables. 

Rotoroa Island
Rotoroa Island
Rotoroa Island
Rotoroa Island

It's also the home of a family of oystercatchers, as are a couple of the other beaches. We saw two families with chicks and another couple with some eggs. The little suckers were hard to get close enough to for a photo without one of the parents swooping us but we did manage to get one or two.

Oystercatcher and baby
Oystercatcher with baby

Farther along the trail we came to the island cemetery. There are 26 graves here, including patients and staff from over the years. You seriously couldn't ask for a better view from your final resting place.

Rotoroa Island cemetery
Rotoroa Island
Rotoroa Island
Rotoroa Island

After completing the southern loop we headed back to the visitor's center for lunch. The center consists of several buildings. There's the main building which houses the museum. It's quite small but packed with history about the island. There's also the old two cell jail and the chapel. A nice big covered area with picnic tables is perfect for pulling out a spread. There's also several big sprawling trees for shade. Unfortunately, it was pouring down rain so I didn't get any pictures of this area. 

When we arrived at the visitor's center we found the main building packed with practically everyone who'd been on the ferry with us. Since they were all inappropriately dressed for the weather, they were huddled inside trying to stay warm. Maybe next time they'll check the forecast before an outing. I can't really say much though since I am perpetually inappropriately dressed. I would have been in the same boat as everyone else if not for Shannon packing me warm clothes and rain gear. 

After lunch, and after it stopped raining so hard, we headed out to walk the northern loop.

Rotoroa Island
Rotoroa Island
Rotoroa Island
Shan & Amy

By the time we finished the loop we were cold, damp, and tired. Back at the visitor's center the caretaker gave us complimentary coffee, and hot chocolate for the kids. Even though the coffee was instant, and I'm a giant coffee snob, that coffee was divine! It was a nice touch to offer on a nasty, cold day. After the pick-me-up it was time to catch the ferry back. 

Rotoroa is not only a terrific day destination, it also offers overnight accommodation. There are three baches (holiday homes) which will accommodate 6, 7, and 13 people respectively. Prices range from $250/night to $500/night depending on the number of people and the time of year. The website says each house comes with:

BBQ; Essentials: tea, coffee, sugar, cooking oil, flour, soy sauce, balsamic vinegar; Modern kitchen and laundry; Wifi access; CD/Stereo/Blu-ray player; Beach umbrellas and picnic set.

What I love about this is that soy sauce and balsamic vinegar are considered essentials!

Despite the weather, we had a wonderful time on the island and can't wait to go back. It will only get prettier over time as the new trees and plants grow. I highly recommend this fantastic destination.

"Tube It" Adventure - Cave World (Waitomo)

GrabOne is, for us, the best thing on the internet for getting deals. Honestly, Shannon and I would have far fewer adventures if not for GrabOne. Much like GroupOn in the US, they offer all kinds of things from food to entertainment to excursions at a deeply discounted price. A while back, one came through our email offering a tubing trip through the Waitomo Caves. We decided this would be a perfect way to spend our anniversary so we happily booked the trip.

According to Wikipedia:

The name "Waitomo" comes from the Māori word wai, water and tomo, hole or shaft. The local Māori people had known about the caves for quite some time before the local Māori Chief Tane Tinorau and an English surveyor, Fred Mace, did an extensive exploration in 1887. Their exploration was conducted with candlelight on a raft going into the cave where the stream goes underground. As they began their journey, they came across the Glowworm Grotto and were amazed by the twinkling glow coming from the ceiling. As they traveled further into the cave by poling themselves towards an embankment, they were also astounded by the limestone formations. These formations surrounded them in all shapes and sizes.

They returned many times after and Chief Tane independently discovered the upper level entrance to the cave... Tane Tinorau and his wife Huti, by 1889, had opened the cave to visitors and were leading groups for a small fee. The administration of the cave was taken over by the government in 1906 after there was an escalation in vandalism. In 1910, the Waitomo Caves Hotel was built to house the many visitors.

 In 1989, the land and cave were returned to the descendants of Chief Tane Tinorau and Huti. They now receive a percentage of the cave’s revenue and are involved in the management and development of the cave. These descendants encompass many of the employees of the caves today.

There are several caves and numerous companies that offer tours. The company offering the deal we booked was Cave World. According to their website, the Tube It adventure includes drifting through a beautiful cave, crawling to a hidden waterfall, sliding down the hydro slide, and seeing heaps of glow worms. The normal fee is $124 per adult and takes about two hours. 

We arrived at the Cave World check in desk and were warmly greeted by a very cheerful and friendly woman. My co-workers continue to tell me I'm the one with the accent but really it's the Kiwis with the accents and this woman had a great one! I just love listening to the rhythmic way they speak. 

Our transport arrived and all 13 of us piled in....for the 30 second drive down the hill to their base where we all piled out. They handed us our wet suits and pointed in the direction of the changing rooms. 

Now, this was one of the reasons I was hesitant to go on this adventure. My only previous experience with a wet suit had left me humiliated and embarrassed. Years ago, I was a paramedic. During our academy they put us through a day of swift water training. At first, I thought it would be great fun. Until I tried to put on the wetsuit. I'm a fairly big girl so trying to stuff myself into yards of neoprene was much like trying to shove a king sized sleeping bag into a twin sized stuff sack. Finally, I ended up with one person on each side trying to force me into it like a pillowcase. And to add insult to injury there was a newspaper photographer taking pictures for an article in the paper about the cadets. It is high on my list of experiences I never want to have again. So, when Shannon mentioned this excursion would require a wetsuit, I was a bit trepidatious. 

Turns out I was right to worry. This wasn't a lightweight sort-of-cold-water wetsuit. This was a heavy-duty-OMG-I-fell-into-the-Atlantic-off-my-crab-boat wetsuit. I managed to get my legs squeezed in but the knee pads were protecting my shins and the crotch was halfway down my thighs. I got it zipped over my belly only by displacing my spleen and liver into my chest cavity. I got the coat over my arms but couldn't zip it over my boobs and still expect to breathe. Luckily I was able to trade that one in for a bigger one that at least allowed shallow breathing. The booties and shoes went on easily...with Shannon's help. I waddled penguin-like out to the truck and then had to have help getting in because I couldn't bend my legs enough to reach the step. Oh yeah, this was going to be fun. 

Crammed into the truck
Amy & Shan

We all piled into a jeep that had seen its last shock blow out in 1952 and off we went. The caves are, interestingly enough, in the middle of a bunch of farmland. I imagine some random Maori dude, wondering why his kids kept disappearing, went to investigate and found this GIANT hole in the ground. We bounced past herds of sheep and cows and eventually stopped at an anonymous pasture. I then had to hike penguin-like up a hill and down another, all while marinating in sweat and trying valiantly to breathe. 

Above the caveYou never know what lies beneath
Cave entrance
Shan & Amy

After choosing our inner tube and descending several dozen stairs into the depths, we were finally in the Footwhistle (Te Anaroa) cave. It was quite cool which was blessed relief as I was seriously overheating in the wet suit. The first hiccup came shortly thereafter. We entered a big opening and could hear a waterfall in the distance. Our guide said we were going to that waterfall. He said there would be a bit of crouching, a bit of crawling, and a bit of wiggling. I was concerned about the wiggling bit but he assured me I would fit. 

Cave World map

We dropped down to all fours and crawled along an icy stream. Then we crouched through a slit in the rocks. Then came the wiggling part. I got down on my belly and slithered into the opening...only to get stuck at the exit. I could kick my feet and wave my arms but my hips wouldn't budge. Panic began to slide over me. The kid in front of me kept asking me if I needed help all while keeping his hand out of reach of mine. Shannon, behind me, was pushing on my butt and assuring me I was going to live. I'll admit I lost my cool and freaked out a bit. Finally, though, like a cork out of a champagne bottle I popped out the other side breathing a gasp of relief. The waterfall was cool, sure, but I was still reeling from my near death experience. The only thing I could think about was that I had to go back through that tiny hole to get out of there. The guide and I were in the back of the pack and he asked if I wanted him to go first so he could pull me through. I said hell no since I wanted him to be stuck behind me if I couldn't get out. I was pretty sure they would want him back and would rescue me in the process. He convinced me to go through the opening sideways this time instead of head on and what do you know, I wiggled through with ease. Phew. 


The rest of the trip wasn't nearly so dramatic but it was quite fun. We floated along on our tubes staring up at a ceiling covered in tiny pinpricks of light. The glow worms are remarkable creatures that aren't actually worms. Their scientific name is arachnocampa luminosa. They look like stick bugs. They cling to the ceiling of the cave and drop down a sticky glowing filament from their butt. The light attracts bugs which get stuck in the filament (like a spider web) and become lunch. Hundreds of them overhead look like stars in a cloudless night sky. My favorite part of the trip was floating along in total darkness with the cave ceiling aglow and Shannon's feet tucked under my arms. It was wonderful. At one point, we jumped off a waterfall and then got to go down a water slide. The entire trip was about two hours long and well worth it. I would have gladly paid full price. Having it at a discount was a fantastic bonus. 

Glowing glow worms
Amy with the worms
Shan with the worms
Glow worms
Floating Amy

Once done in the caves we had to hike up 104 steps to the farmland above and our waiting kidney buster. Back at the base, getting off that wetsuit was much easier than getting it on had been. Having to shower in front of a bunch of strangers was weird but after camping for two days, a hot shower was fabulous. 

I highly recommend the tours at Cave World. They provided an enjoyable experience I would gladly do again. But maybe with a bigger wetsuit next time.

All the photos in this post were taken by our guides and provided to us on a CD after our tour.

Ngaherenga Campground (DOC)

After packing up our gear at Blackberry Flats, I made a quick stop at the loo. I noticed there was a wild turkey who was particularly fond of a spot near the fence by the toilets. Upon further investigation, I discovered it was protecting a newborn baby chick and an egg. I tried to get a picture but they were too fast for me. Well, except the egg. It just sort of wobbled feebly but didn't get far. You've all seen eggs before so I figured a picture would not be too necessary.

I am much like an infant when I go on road trips. Put me in my seat and I am instantly asleep. It's a good thing Shannon likes to drive since it could spell disaster for us if I were stuck driving most of the time. Shannon assures me the scenery was "awesome" during our two plus hour drive south. I'll take her word for it. I think I've become jaded after two years living here. The first day of our first road trip in New Zealand had me oohing and aahing for the entire period of daylight. The dramatic beauty of the landscape was breathtaking. After a few days, however, I found myself saying, "Oh yeah that's nice" in an almost bored tone. By the end of our ten day trip, I was more like, "Yeah, pretty, whatever." Luckily my sense of wonder returned after having to stare at the four walls of work for several months again.

We stopped for lunch in The Shire at Hobbiton aka Matamata. This little town served as home base for Peter Jackson's crews when they filmed all the Shire scenes for the Lord of the Rings movies as well as the upcoming prequel The Hobbit. After the first three movies were completed, the elaborate set they created for Bilbo and Frodo's village was destroyed. There has since been regret for this due to the huge tourist draw the movies have generated for New Zealand. Consequently, after The Hobbit is completed the set will be left intact and included in the many guided tours offered.

The campground was a relatively short drive from Hobbi...Matamata and before long we were scouting out campsites. After Shannon read that previous sentence, she laughed. She said it was actually a couple of hours to the campground and I had slept through the whole ride. See, just like a baby. Ngaherenga Campground is located just off the road on a hill overlooking the valley below. It's actually split into two sections. The top part is pretty small with only six segregated spots. Five of these have big picnic tables and cement block BBQ pits. Two of those spots have fantastic views of the valley below while the others are secluded amongst the trees and foliage. There is only one toilet in this section and it's of the plop variety. However, it appears to have been freshly built since it still has that new timber bathroom smell. It was quite a nice toilet. Although, if this campground becomes crowded during the summer months, I imagine it won't be terribly sufficient. Since there were only a few other campers this time, though, it was fine.

The other section of the campground is a hundred meters or so down the road. It's a big wide open area with one BBQ pit. The bathroom appears to be bigger but it was under construction so I don't know any more details. This spot seems more suited for campervans and RVs unless you like to camp with no cover or privacy.

As we like some cover and privacy, we decided on one of the secluded spots. It looked like rain so we unpacked our rain gear. We had recently invested in a few of those blue tarps because it invariably rains when we camp. We purchased all our camping gear with backpacking in mind so it's all small and lightweight. Our tent is just big enough for the two of us to duck in to so there's no rain cover at all. We are tired of getting drenched when we have to get out of the tent in the rain so we got some tarps to build ourselves a shelter. We had just managed to tie everything up when, sure enough, it began to rain.

On our first camping trip back in 2008, we had mostly good weather until about day seven or so when it came a nasty rain. We were on South Island and wanted to go see one of the two glaciers, Fox Glacier. Shannon had full rain gear but all I had was my fleece pullover, a cheap as too tight pocket poncho, and my jeans. I decided to brave the rain since I really wanted to see the glacier but I paid for it afterwards by having to stay in soaking wet jeans for hours. After that experience, I decided investing in rain gear was a good idea. So, now I have a nice raincoat and rain pants that fit over my hiking pants as well as waterproof boots. I am set in the rain now.

One thing I've learned from living in another country is you need to improvise sometimes. New Zealand doesn't have the same products as are sold in the States and they have different traditions. Growing up in the US, two things were part of every camping trip: campfires and s'mores.

In NZ, campfires are not allowed at the great majority of campgrounds. Of all the places we've been, and we've been to quite a lot, only twice have we been allowed to have campfires. This really does make for a different camping experience. I'm used to staying up half the night poking the fire and telling stories. Here, once it gets dark there's not much to do but go to sleep.

At Ngaherenga we were allowed a campfire and we took full advantage of it. We brought a box of kindling plus about six logs of macrocarpa from our firewood stack at home. There were also a few logs left behind by other campers but they were pretty wet from the recent rains.

Let me back up here to the day before when we were shopping for the weekend. Knowing we were going to have a campfire, we needed to stock up on the requisite s'more supplies. At first we were unable to find the marshmallows. We scoured the aisles but the only ones we found were of the mini variety. The thought of trying to roast those tiny suckers over a fire on kebab skewers was funny but not exactly practical. Finally, with the help of a stock clerk, we found the big roast-worthy ones. Next we went in search of graham crackers. Turns out there aren't any graham crackers in NZ. The clerk didn't even know what we were talking about. So, what to use as an alternative? We searched the cracker aisle and finally decided to go with McVitie's milk chocolate coated digestive biscuits. A biscuit is what they call a cookie here and the digestive part means they are high in fiber...I think. Shannon says the Brits dunk digestive biscuits in their tea. Blech that is so gross!! Thankfully, the Americans only dunk Oreos.

Burn, baby, burn!

So, now we had our roaring fire, and believe me when I say Shannon is a primo fire maker and that fire was roaring. She even managed to burn all the wet wood! We forgot to bring the skewers so we used a branch to toast our marshmallows to yummy perfection, which we then placed on our digestive biscuits and prepared to eat. One bite and it was apparent that these weren't quite the real thing. The digestive biscuits weren't bad, just odd, but the real difference was the marshmallows. Half of them were pink colored and berry flavored. What we ended up with was an odd tasting digestive biscuit with a layer of milk chocolate and a blend of normal and berry marshmallows squished in the middle. Hey, beggars can't be choosers and they weren't really too bad. When in Rome right? Our S'mores became S'McVitie's digestive campfire cookies and that's what we'll take with us from now on. Heck, with all that fiber they might even help us stay regular. 


Waharau Regional Park (ARC)

Shannon and I began camping in New Zealand on our honeymoon in November 2008. We rented a Spaceship and drove all over South Island. Ever since then, we like to go camping for special events like birthdays and anniversaries. This camping trip was for our third anniversary.

We originally intended to camp further south near Waitomo, but instead of leaving town around 3:30pm it was actually closer to 6:30pm and we've set up enough in the dark to know we don't want to anymore, so we chose a campground closer to home. We have annual Auckland Regional Council camping passes so we picked Waharau Regional Park. The passes are a really great deal with one catch: we can only book a site for the same day so we can't schedule ahead. The card has a phone number to call to book the site so I dialed up the number. After being on hold for way too long, I finally reached someone. Turned out he was just an answering service guy. I explained what I wanted and he put me on hold again. Seriously, there is only so much 70s disco I can take while being on hold. He came back to mercifully save me from yet another chorus of le freak so chic to tell me that the folks I need to speak with had gone home for the day. Could I please call back on Monday? I asked how I was supposed to same day book a campsite on the weekends if there was no one there and he agreed that was indeed a dilemma. Then he hung up on me.

We decided to risk it and head to the campground anyway. It's a beautiful drive that coincidentally takes you right past Miranda Hot Springs. This awesome hot pool is a favorite stop for us any time of year. The entry is cheap, the food is cheap, they make great thick shakes, the pools are hot, and best of all there are far fewer children than other local hot springs. Plus they play great classic music. What's not to love?

Waharau is a fairly large park with lots of day use/picnic areas. Most of them have big brick BBQs and large picnic tables. Turns out there are two camping areas: Tainui Campground and Blackberry Flats Campground. We only noticed Blackberry Flats, though. However, there was a hitch. The road leading to the actual campground is blocked by a locked gate. The combination for the lock can be obtained by calling the Council. Which we had already ascertained was staffed by the answering service guy who had suggested we call back on Monday. I thought perhaps there were people camping past the gate so I walked over to see if they would give me the code. A very helpful couple in a cool older model camper were more than willing to help out and soon we were setting up camp.

The campground is a large open space without BBQs or picnic tables which is a shame. It does, however, have nice his and hers long drop toilets stocked with toilet paper. Which, in my opinion, is THE most important part of a campground. There is a lovely stream running along the edge of Flats providing enjoyable background noise to lull you to sleep.

All in all this campground was okay. We wouldn't want to stay there for an extended time but for a night it was perfectly acceptable. I didn't take any pictures but the ARC website has some so I'll cross post those here.

Blackberry Flats campground
Blackberry Flats campground

Photos borrowed courtesy of Auckland Regional Council.

The Obligatory Intro Post

My name is Amy and I'm a Texan living in New Zealand. Texas is a great country state to be from but New Zealand is a much better place in which to live. It's small and therefore easily traversed. It's full of every type of landscape you could possibly want. The people are laid back and friendly. All in all, it's my favorite place to be. If I could just get my friends and family down here, it'd be perfect!

My MichiKiwi partner, Shannon, and I love to travel. We love to meet new people and see new places. We love to camp and hike and just generally traipse around the countryside experiencing everything this country has to offer. As we researched various areas to visit, we found very little realistic information online about the various campgrounds. Do the toilets flush or plop? Is there a view or will you wake up floating in your tent? Can you drive in or do you have to haul your crap a half a kilometer to your spot? Camping is so much more fun when you expect the unexpected. So, the TexaKiwi Travels blog was born.

I'll be posting about the campgrounds we stay at, the parks we visit, the hikes we go on, and anything else related to the Great Outdoors™ that catches my fancy.

I hope you enjoy the trip! Maybe we'll see you there!