The Fish of Māui

According to Māori mythology, the North and South Islands of New Zealand arose through the actions of Māui, the gifted, clever demigod of Polynesian mythology. Māui dreamed of the day that he could go fishing with his older brothers. But Māui’s brothers would always make an excuse and so Māui hatched a plan to prove he was a great fisherman. He secretly made a fishhook from a magical ancestral jawbone. Then one night he crept into his brothers’ canoe (the South Island) and hid under the floorboards.  It wasn’t until the brothers were far out of sight of land that Maui revealed himself. Then he took out his magic fishhook and threw it over the side of the canoe, chanting powerful incantations as he did so. The hook went deeper and deeper into the sea until the line suddenly went taut. Māui held tight to his line, and slowly a giant fish was pulled to the surface. Māui cautioned his brothers to wait until he had appeased Tangaroa, the god of the sea, before they cut into the fish. They grew tired of waiting and began chopping greedily at the giant fish, claiming huge pieces of it as their own. These are now the many valleys, mountains, lakes and rocky coastlines of the North Island. To this day the North Island is known to Maori as Te Ika-a-Māui or Māui’s fish.

Ancient Tiki

Like Māui and his brothers who were fighting about the giant fish, New Zealand’s North Island has a long history of rivalling indigenous tribes battling about resources since the first Polynesian forebears of today’s Māori were journeying in canoes from Hawaiki about 1000 years ago. The arrival of European settlers and whalers about 250 years ago, furthermore constrained their habitat and the import of doubtful human achievements like weapons and alcohol, also had their part to play in the decimation of the native population. Nevertheless, the Māori people somehow managed to keep their culture alive and we experienced that nowadays the influence of New Zealand’s indigenous culture is more keenly felt in the North Island, where Māori make up a much higher percentage of the population and main street marae (meeting houses), historic sites and taonga (treasures) are a much more common sight.

Welcome in Wellington

Especially Te Papa Tongarewa National Museum in Wellington provided a great introduction for our North Island exploration by giving us a deeper understanding of the nation’s history and today’s relationship between Māori and Pakeha. Additionally, the nation’s capital comes with a beautiful Victorian timber architecture that laces the bushy hillsides above the harbor and bursts with theatres, galleries boutiques a fancy craft-beer scene. Everyone here looked trendy and a bit arty-farty and it seemed like the mandatory Wellington accessories are skateboards, beards and big glasses…preferably all three.

But apart from the highly visible Māori culture and vibrant urban life, we should discover that also in terms of scenery the often overlooked North Island features a sublime combination of hilly bush country, barren moonscape plateaus with still active volcanoes, jagged lava rock formations, steaming vents and bubbling hot springs.

Forgotten World Highway

We started our bicycle journey in the North Island close to the improbably perfectly shaped Mount Taranaki, a dormant volcano that rises high above the fertile plains below. Maori legend has it that Mount Taranaki was initially located in the center of the North Island, but lost a mighty battle with another mountain for the heart of pretty Mount Pihanga. Banished west to his current position, it is still said that when the 2518 m peak is hidden by clouds (which is the case most of the time), the Mountain is hiding the tears he sheds for his lost love.

Endless Hill Ranges

At its feet lies the sleepy town of Stratford where the aptly named Forgotten World Highway starts its 155km long winding way along pioneering farm tracks, through surreal lush grassy hills, passing ambitious historic settlements, Māori pa (fortified villages), abandoned coal mines and memorials to those long gone. The secluded road passes over four natural saddles with beastly steep climbs that showed unpleasantly resemblance to some of the sheer ascents on the Pamir Highway and generated nearly the same intensity of swearing. Once at the top, panting for breath, we got rewarded with spectacular views of Mt Taranaki to the west and ranges of green hills that stretch sheer endless in every direction.

Viva la República!

Midway lies another curiosity, the tiny, 30 souls settlement of Whangamomona. Once a bustling frontier town providing strong service links to the hardy farmers trying to wrestle a living from the nearby bush, it was declared a ‘republic’ by its enraged residents back in 1988, complete with its own presidential election where normally four-legged candidates win the voters’ trust. Nowadays thousands of people flock to this back-country hamlet for its independence day celebration to partake in a bit of sheep racing, gumboot throwing, whip cracking, possum skinning and the occasional shoot-out. No trip to the Forgotten World Highway would be complete without a passport stamp from the local pub.

Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Volcanic Plateau

After reaching the end of the Forgotten World Highway at Taumaranui, we were riding further east towards the Tongariro National Park, the geothermal heart of the North Island. This volcanic plateau was shaped by one of the biggest volcanic eruptions in the last 5000 years that ejected pumice to heights of 50 km and volcanic material travelling outward at a speed of 600 km/h levelled forests, incinerating and burying everything within an 80 km radius. Today, the Tongariro National Park has dual Unesco World Heritage status, recognising this spectacular volcanic landscape, and also the area’s important Māori cultural and spiritual heritage.

Welcome to the Tongariro National Park

One would think that after more than ten thousand kilometres, we would be used to steep ascents. But the Kiwis seem to know no limit when it comes to street gradient. With a climb far over 17%, by the sweat of our brow, meter for meter we were fighting our way uphill to the volcanic plateau. Fortunately, it wasn’t until we reached the National Park Village at the top, that the brewing thunderstorm caught us and firmly kept us in its cold grasp for the next two days. While waiting for better weather to tackle the justifiably remarkable Alpine Crossing, the free hot tub at the camping kept our motivation high despite the steady rain and the frozen-stiff tent.

Towering Mt Ngauruhoe

The third morning greeted us with a golden sunrise and not a single cloud on the azure blue sky, perfect conditions for the a 19 km trail that traverses the volcanic plateau passing three active volcanoes, one of them world-renowned as Mount Doom of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. No question that we were among the brave that didn’t fear the falling rocks dislodged by shockingly ill-equipped trampers and crawled on loose scree until the summit to find a sign of Gollum still floating on the lava.

Nature's Palette

Without any doubt, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing was one of the most spectacular hikes we’ve ever seen. Amid the thrilling scenery are steaming vents, peculiar rock formations, evil-smelling fumaroles, imposing craters, emerald coloured lakes and vast views. An extraordinary and kind of extraterrestrial scenery where nature is showing off with all its range of colours. Sitting in a cloud of warm steam between sulphur-yellow rocks, enjoying views on deep, blood-red craters and a barren moonscape dotted with glistening lakes, is definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland

Witches' Brew

In compliance with the credo “Just follow your nose”, our geothermal discovery tour led us further north to the ‘Sacred Waters’ of the Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland, where a veritable surreal assortment of geothermal attractions was awaiting us. Precisely to the minute – triggered right in time for the selfie sticks of Chinese tourist buses – the Lady Knox Geyser erupts up to 20 meters high and bubbling mud-pools are spewing sludge on careless visitors. But the one thing that really stands out about this landscape sculptured by geothermal activity in thousands of years, are the hell-like colours: pools the colour of textmarker-yellow, muddy slate or dark sepia and banks dripping with sulphurous, russet and orange hues.

Steaming Hot Kerosene Creek

But our personal favourite in this thermal area, was the locals’ well-kept secret of Kerosene Creek. Imagine a stream in the middle of the forest, overshadowed by aged pine trees and sweeping ferns, where hot water from a natural underground spring bubbles into the cool water of the creek, creating pleasantly warm waters that form a little pool beside a small waterfall. As it happened to be the day of our one-year trip anniversary we pitched our tent hidden in the native bush beside, and when darkness was setting in, we indulged ourselves and our tired muscles in the hot water, surrounded by candles and the gentle moonlight.

Māori Meeting House

For our final kilometres in New Zealand, the weather gods were once again against us and so we reached Rotorua, our last destination on the North Island, under heavy rain. Surprisingly also in town we found steaming vents and stinky mud-pools fuelled by the geothermal activity at every corner. Apart from the geothermal attractions, Rotorua is considered a cultural centre for the indigenous Māori people and showcases detailed wooden meeting houses, ancient tikis and elaborate greenstone carvings revealing their rich mythological and spiritual beliefs.

Auckland

Goodbye DinnerWith only a couple of days left in New Zealand, we took a last time motorized help to speed up the transfer to Auckland. We had planned to meet up there with Polly, a kitesurf professional and the two-time winner of the Roof of the World Regatta” at the Kara-Kul Lake in Tajikistan, where we had spent an amazing time together with the whole adventurous family. An unpredictable change in plans – and probably perfect wind conditions – led to a delayed reunion, but nevertheless we were warmly welcomed by her ten (!) flatmates. Thanks to improvising tour guide Ben, we had the pleasure to see one of Auckland’s famous black beaches and enjoy a surprisingly long day in the native bush labyrinth of the city’s hinterland before celebrating our final goodbye from New Zealand, a country with imposing diverse landscapes, spectacular trails and a lovely native “kiwi” population.

Along the West Coast

Our new CarQueenstown was not only one of our most comfortable accommodations, it was also our gate to the West Coast. Deterred by the imminent wet weather conditions on the coast and the heavy traffic load on the Highway 6, the only link between the southern tip of the West Coast and the Northern region of the South Island, we decided to speed up our journey for a while and take a rental car. It turned out that that’s easier said than done. It took us a whole weekend and a public holiday (who really cares about weekdays when travelling?) plus far too much money to get a certified translation for Gui’s driving licenses (who could guess that “nom” really means “name”?!) before we could finally set out for our West Coast tour – with a thoroughly unfamiliar way of transport!

From Glaciers to Greenstone

Alpine Crossing to WanakaFrom Queenstown we took the insanely steep – with our motorized transport no problem 🙂 – alpine road over Crown Range, with 1076m New Zealand’s highest sealed road, to Wanaka that offered amazing views on tussock-covered ridgelines that shimmer in warm gold tones as the sun sinks behind the horizon that appears like an endless ocean of swaying grassy waves. Past Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea the road clambers around sheer-sided valley walls, following an early Maori transport route called Tioripatea, meaning “Clear Path”, that was travelled on their quest for precious pounamu (greenstone), until it climbs up to Haast pass, one of the view east-west gateways in the Southern Alps, before dropping into the vast, flax and rata forest covered wetland along the coast.

First West Coast Beach

Instead of heading north, drunken with the mere endless possibilities that such a fast means of transport offers, we took the junction southwards to Jackson Bay, literally the end of the line – just because we can! – and got rewarded with a sheer endless stretch of isolated beach whose ends disappear in the mist of the ocean spray.

A Piece of Home

Back on SH6 our next destinations were the imposing Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers. The glaciers’ staggering development is mainly due to the West Coast’s ample rain and nowhere else at this latitude do glaciers come so close to the ocean. Though the Franz Josef glacier was originally known to Maori as Ka Roimata o Hine Hukatere (Tears of the Avalanche Girl), nowadays the glacier is named after Austrian’s longest-reigning emperor, providing a little feeling of home at the other end of the world.

Hokitika Gorge
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Midway up the West Coast we passed through the “cool little town of Hokitika”. Like so many other towns in New Zealand originally founded on gold, today the town is the stronghold of indigenous pounamu and home to some of the NZ’s best carving artists. Apart from overpriced greenstone necklaces, the town also offers a nice walk along a gorge that admittedly has an outstanding milky blue color.

Pancake Rocks and Knife Forging

Westcoast at its Best

Halfway up the West Coast we started to wonder where the dramatic cliffs and wind-tossed crags are hiding, that made this route such a famous tourist destination. So far we had mainly travelled through vast, flat kahikatea and rata forests, flax overgrown sand dunes, and swampy wetlands. Fortunately, we were able to cross this region in a couple of hours instead of spending dreary days in the boring up and down of this monotonous, scenery. Exposed to the ElementsBut just before our sullenness about the dullness of the landscape and the omnipresent moisture that left our tent and everything inside damp every morning, would turn into real frustration we finally reached the “real” West Coast! A winding street clambering along steep mountain ranges on one side and flanked by white-capped waves and rocky bays on the other that culminated in the stunning Pancake Rock formations where the wild sea surges into caverns and booms menacingly through blowholes.

Melting the Raw SteelNot far from Punakaiki lies another highlight of our West Coast experience, the Barrytown Knifemaking. In a day long course we made our own knife from the very beginning of hand-forging the steel, grinding the blade to crafting a handle from native rimu timber. All this accompanied by an endless stream of entertainingly bad jokes from Steve, our not always political correct master smith 🙂

Gui & Emmanuel

This perfect day was rounded off by an enjoyable dinner with Emmanuel, a friend of Gui from Tahiti who happened to be in New Zealand at this time and with a barbecue at sunset and numerous glasses of wine, they were indulging in good memories of joyful times in Coincy at the other end of the world.

Tasman goes Top North

Oparara Arch

Following the advice of the world’s most sold travel guidebook, we continued the way north after Westport for 150km to see a “natural spectacle of the highest order”. We were never happier about our rental car than at the moment when the “hidden valley concealed its wonder such as limestone arches” *cough, cough*. I guess we would have cried if we would have come all this way by bicycle…

Pristine Bays
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But the West Coast was keeping one last highlight for us ready that was worth all the extra kilometers and this was the coastal Abel Tasman National Park that blankets the northern end of the South Island. The idyllic track there is arguably one of the most beautiful Great Walks, providing crescent-shaped coves of glittering golden sand, washed by the crystal-clear waters of Tasman Bay.

Waiting for the Ferry

This last outstanding trail was a perfect completion for our South Island experience and with a last delicious seafood lunch we bid adieu and as the ferry was slowly chugging north through the winding Queen Charlotte Sound, we waved a farewell to this marvelous island that is holding so many treasures in the middle of the sea.