An unforgettable journey through the Volcanic Loop
Time to collect my rental car from the helpful and friendly team at Spaceships Rentals; I am so impressed with the compact Rocket that is not only comfortable and roomy but is kitted out with everything I need if I decide to camp on my road trip. It is time to depart Auckland and commence my journey along the Thermal Explorer Highway. The scenery of rolling green hills and pasture synonymous with the Hamilton and Waikato region is picture-perfect. On arrival at Waitomo Caves, I find a wide range of underground activities to choose from. Deciding to bypass the more adrenalin-fuelled adventures I take the option to explore the towering stalactites and stalagmites and spend time gazing at the fascinating canopy of twinkling glow worms. A truly memorable experience.
Heading back to Hamilton for the night I am keen to spend some time in Hamilton City. Dinner out this evening proves the central city has a vibrant dining and bar district. A great way to wrap up the first day of my adventures.
Up early today to visit the Hamilton Gardens (voted by the International Garden Tourism Network as International Garden of the Year for 2014 – a coveted accolade). Passing through the main gates and admiring the stunning stone cloak from acclaimed artist Chris Booth, I sense that this place is something quite special. The garden collections are truly outstanding, and as I pass through each gateway a new visual experience awaits. The recently completed Tudor garden (as part of the fantasy collection) is a visual and cerebral feast of geometric patterns and double meaning symbolism. Certainly the couple of hours allocated was not nearly enough to truly appreciate the variety of plantings or vastness of the complex.
It’s time to hit the road and travel further along the Thermal Explorer Highway towards Rotorua. The prospect of visiting the Hobbiton Movie Set, where they filmed the Shire from The Lord of the Rings Trilogy and The Hobbit, is exciting. It feels like I am taking a walk through Middle-earth itself with all the greenery and gorgeous dwellings woven organically into the rolling landscape. You need to allow a couple of hours to really take it all in. Too soon, it’s time to head off again. I still have another 45 minutes to go to reach the next destination – Rotorua – New Zealand’s longest established tourism hub and home to some very impressive geothermal activity. It’s a pleasantly scenic cruise to the All Seasons Holiday Park, where I park up the “Rocket” for the night.
“THE SCENERY OF ROLLING GREEN HILLS AND PASTURE SYNONYMOUS WITH THE HAMILTON AND WAIKATO REGION IS PICTURE-PERFECT
After a restful sleep, I wake feeling excited in anticipation of exploring Rotorua. This town has long been on the international visitor radar due to the unique geothermal activity and Maori cultural offerings. Visitors here are truly spoilt for choice, with mountain biking, contemporary cultural experiences, adventure activities, ziplining, cruising, and fantastic walking also on offer.
I decide to go ziplining, as it has been highly recommended to me, and is something I have never done before! The guides bring the forest to life on a three-hour adventure including flying foxes, walking tracks and suspended bridges. It was a privilege to see some of New Zealand’s last remnants of untouched native forest and hear prolific bird song.
On a high after my zipline adventure, I take time to relax and relive the moment over a long lunch. It is late afternoon by the time I make my way to my next destination along the Thermal Highway; the Lakeside town of Taupo. Lake Taupo is New Zealand’s largest lake and dominates the views from this picturesque region. Simply stunning!
The next morning a long list of ideas swirls in my head. I strike out for the famous Huka Falls, a place I have often heard of but never seen. The beauty of the water, as it cascades over the famous falls in a thundery wet cacophony of almost frightening proportions, is mesmerizing. The power comes from the Waikato River (normally 100m wide) being squeezed through a 20-metre wide gorge and over a 20-metre drop.
Next on my agenda is a chance to get up close and personal with the falls in a Huka Jetboat. The ride is incredible, and the excitement filled half-hour flies by. The backdrop to the to the trip is beautiful native forest, cliff faces and natural hot springs and thanks to the tiered seats everyone has a great view. Our expert driver skims past the cliffs and plays in the tail of the powerful falls finishing up with an exhilarating 360-degree spin that has me grinning for the rest of the day!
Up early today to make my way to the Ruapehu Region via the Volcanic Loop Highway - an absolute haven for hiking, biking and snow sports! It’s home to the Tongariro National Park, a dual World Heritage Park and home to the wonderful Turoa and Whakapapa ski-fields in the winter months.
I am not planning to mountain bike or ski or have myself sorted to tackle the outstanding Tongariro Alpine Crossing (a 19km full day walk); I do however find myself drawn to the National Army Museum. 2015 is the 100-year commemora-
tion of World War I, and I feel like it is time for a change of pace. The permanent exhibits and current exhibitions are completely enthralling. Certainly a very memorable and engaging experience and an opportunity for some quiet contemplation. After an hour and a half at the Museum, it’s time to continue on my journey. I encounter the charming town of Ohakune which is a mecca for skiers over winter, and after a spectacular alpine walk in the afternoon shadow of Mt Ruapehu, I settle in for a very pleasant evening in the National Park Village.
To complete the Thermal Explorer Highway today, I am travelling to Hawke’s Bay. The route turns out to be a picturesque and pleasant drive with its changing vistas of mountains, lakes, farms and forest. I head towards the coast and Napier, the stunning Art Deco capital of New Zealand. Napier was rebuilt following the devastating earthquakes of 1931, and consequently hosts a stunning array of Art Deco architecture. Taking in the architectural highlights of this town on foot is a fascinating insight into the Art Deco era. The highlight is the fabulous Municipal Theatre with its lush interior.
It is time for lunch, and I join a winery tour with Grape Escape to partake in some of the fresh food and wine that this region is so well known for. What a fabulous way to spend the afternoon with like-minded people enjoying good company and the very best food and wine. The drive through the stunning scenery is relaxing as we are introduced to four wineries. Life can’t get any better than enjoying a cheese platter beside the lily pond at the beautiful Ngatarawa Vineyard. It is with a warm heart that I relax and contemplate all I have seen and done as I travelled the Thermal Explorer Highway, and my only regret is that I did not have more time!
Huka Falls, Lake Taupo
The Tudor Garden, at Hamilton Gardens