Day 29: Hastings
Today was our most unproductive day of the trip as Bernard was suffering a serious case of man-flu. We were very kindly put up for another night by Niamh to recuperate before heading on the road again. We spend the day chilling out, watching movies, and having the craic with Niamh before an early night to get ready to set on the road tomorrow.
Day 30: Hastings-Taupo-Taumarunui
Bernard was feeling better today so we hit off early towards Taupo, with our end point for the day being Taumarunui. We headed 2 hours back across the Thermal explorer highway, stopping for lunch in Taupo for one last view over the beautiful lake. We continued another 116 km to the town of Taumarunui, the start point for the ‘Forgotten World Highway’.
The Forgotten World highway is one of the most scenic, yet dangerous drives in the world. The journey is so called due to the fact it’s New Zealand’s oldest heritage trail. It winds over four mountain saddles, alongside the spectacular Tangarakau Gorge and passes through the 220-metre long, single lane Moki Tunnel. There are even more highlights along the trail which we will visit over the next few days and share our experiences. As excited as we were to start the 155 km highway, our van started to have a bit of trouble so we had to get this checked before attempting the route. Like everywhere else in New Zealand, shops and garages are closed by 6 pm at the latest, so we would have to wait until the morning to get the van checked. We headed 5 km out of Taumarunui to our very remote campsite for the night.
We stayed at Te Marie Overnight Campsite which was a small clearing in a forest with space for two campers. The toilet was a 30 meter walk into dark forest, which was great craic at night time.
Day 31: Taumarunui
We dropped our van off this morning to the garage and unfortunately, we would have to wait for a part to arrive tomorrow before continuing on our journey. We were advised not to drive the van too far but could have it back for the evening as we needed to sleep somewhere. The town of Taumarunui is best known for being the launching point for Whanganui river canoeing trips and trout fishing. Other options such as mountain biking through Pureora forest on the Timber Trail is big in the area along with Raurimu Spiral, which is cited as an engineering masterpiece, being a popular site for railway enthusiasts. The town has an I-Site centre, library and many cafes but otherwise is quite sleepy. We spend the day researching ahead for our remaining time in the north island, as well as looking at building our South Island itinerary. As we couldn’t go too far, we stayed at a paid campsite in the town and made the most of the free showers, BBQ, and powered site.
We stayed at Taumarunui Holiday Park which was $36 for the night. It was a lovely clean site with complimentary access to loads of amenities. Although we were reluctant to spend money on a paid site, we made the most of it and it was a nice change for one night to have access to showers, flush toilets, and a kitchen.
Day 32: Taumarunui-Mount Taranaki Via the Forgotten World Highway (Highway 43)
After getting our van fixed in the morning, we had enough time to drive down the highway for the day. There are a number of attractions, so much so that a top-15 list of attractions exists. The route is generally done over 1-3 days with the option to stop off at bnb’s or paid campsites. There are no petrol stations along the 155 km route, so make sure you have a full tank before leaving Taumaruni.
We set off at 11:00 am, ready for a jam-packed day. We detoured via Ohura onto Highway 43 due to part of the road being unpassable because of a landslide.
Our first stop was Joshua Morgan’s grave, a site dedicated to the pioneer surveyor who blasted the trail for the Forgotten highway through the Tangarakau Gorge. The grave is 100m off the roadside and takes 10 minutes to visit. The road through the Tangarakau gorge is what creates the ‘dangerous’ aspect of the highway. The road is unsealed and in wet conditions it is very slippery, which is not welcoming with steep drops on either side at many stages.
Our next stop brought us to Mount Damper Falls, one of New Zealand’s highest waterfalls at 74 m high. It is a 9 km detour off the highway, but the road is in much better condition. The falls is a gentle 30-minute return walk from the car park which brings you through farmland and forestry. The falls were not overly impressive, likely because of the dryer weather. The extensive forestry which scaled for miles was more eye catching, and made the detour worth it.
After returning to the Highway 43, our next ‘attraction’ was the Moki Tunnel aka ‘Hobbit’s hole’. It is the only tunnel to have been constructed by Joshua Morgan and originally stood at 5 meters tall. Because of trucks getting stuck, the roof was raised by two meters in 1985. It is a single lane, 180 meters long tunnel and contains fossilised giant crabs along the walls and roof which can be seen glowing at night.
There are many viewpoints through the Tahora saddle which offers spectacular views of three prominent Mauri sites, railway tunnels, and the central North island mountains. To be honest, the highway is so quiet, that you can stop in the middle of the ‘highway’ without the fear of anyone coming behind!
We arrived at our first ‘town’ on the route; Whangamomona. The town of Whangamomona claims itself to be a Republic, and not part of New Zealand. So much so that you can get a passport stamp for entering this great nation for $2. The quirky nation became a Republic in 1988 after the local council planned to split Whangamomona into two regions. Locals were dismayed by the proposal as they were not consulted and decided to declare Whangamomona as a Republic complete with a president. The republic gets even more bazar when you consider that three of the five previous presidents were animals in the form of a goat, turtle, and poodle. The most famous part of Whangamomona is the hotel which offers locally brewed beer and where your passport can be stamped. We of course stopped in for a refreshing pint on our journey, and took five minutes to explore the village/ nation.
We continued down the Forgotten Highway to our favourite highlight of the whole route; Strathmore Saddle. Of the four saddles along the route, this was by far the most scenic with views of the snow-capped Mount Taranaki on one side, and the Tongariro mountains on the other. It was heading towards dust so the array of colours in the backdrop of Mount Taranaki were outstanding. This was the last stop on our drive down Highway 43 before reaching Stratford, the final official stop on the Forgotten World Highway. In retrospect, we could have spent another day exploring more attractions along the route, but were overall delighted with our experience of the Forgotten World Highway. The remaining attractions can be found on the link here.
Stratford is a base for climbers and hikers eying up Mount Taranaki. It is also hugely associated with William Shakespeare, and the town was named in honour of his birthplace; Stratford-upon-Avon in England. Nearly all of the streets in Stratford are named after Shakespearean characters, and a visit to NZ’s only glockenspiel clock tower lets you experience the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet four times a day, every day!
After a hectic day on the road, we headed 30 minutes past Stratford to the foot of Mount Taranaki. This would be our stopover for the night, and we had an undisturbed, amazing view of Taranaki. A great way to end one of the most scenic days on our trip so far.
We stayed at North Egmont National Park which was at the base of Taranaki. We had access to the Information centre toilets and were at the start of many tracks around Mount Taranaki.
Day 33: Mount Taranaki- Whanganui
The plan today was to complete a few short hikes around Mount Taranaki before continuing south towards Wellington. In typical fashion, we woke to rain, wind, and fog which made even the information centre impossible to see from our van. With such poor visibility and no expected change in the weather over the next three days, we took the decision to continue on our way down south. We drove through Stratford, stopping at Patea for lunch, before reaching Whanganui which was our stop for the night. The weather in Whanganui was a huge contrast from Mount Taranaki. We went from thick coats to shorts and t-shirt. We hadn’t planned on staying in Whanganui, and had read nothing spectacular about the town but were so pleasantly surprised when we stopped at our campsite overlooking the river. Whanganui is home to hundreds of working artists and has picture-perfect heritage buildings, world-class museums, and a beautiful landscape taking in black sand beaches, rolling green hills, and mountains Taranaki and Ruapehu.
We stopped off for a summer’s day drink in the Vic Bar on the main street which had happy hour from 5 until 8. We stayed here for a few hours, enjoying the local brew before strolling to the Indian restaurant across the road in Spice Guru before walking 15 minutes back to our camper for the night.
We stayed at Anzac Parade Freedom Camping Area for one night. It had toilets and a water supply, along with beautiful views over the river.
Day 34: Whanganui-Wellington
We felt a little worse for wear today so after a much-needed coffee we drove down the west coast to our final destination in the North Island; Wellington. It was a 200 km drive and took the best part of three hours. Freedom camping is tight in Wellington, with only one site within the vicinity and spots are normally taken by 1pm, so we were eager to get there early. We have met many Kiwis on our travels and been warned that Wellington is the wet and windy city of New Zealand; they weren’t lying. It didn’t stop lashing rain for the rest of the day. Feeling sorry for ourselves, and knowing we had three more days in Wellington after today, we had a rest day and chilled in the van watching movies and playing cards.
We stayed at Evans Bay Marina Carpark for four nights. It had space for 30 campervans but was packed by 1pm every day. It had great views over the Marina and was close to the airport, ideal for plane watching. There was a coastal walkway route which spanned along Evans bay towards mount Victoria and into the Central Business District.
Day 35: Wellington
The rain didn’t ease off today but with the hangovers worn off us we were keen to explore Wellington as best we could. We got the bus to the central business district which took 20 minutes and walked to our first attraction in Wellington; Te Papa museum. Te Papa’s literal meaning is the ‘Container of Treasures’, and with six floors of interactive and engaging displays it was easy for us to see why. The exhibitions change regularly so what you experience will depend on what time of year you go. Admission is free which is a steal for the standard of exhibitions we saw. We spent four hours navigating through half of Te Papa which included Gallipolli which tells the story of WW1 through New Zealander’s eyes, a nature exhibition which allowed us to experience what an earthquake feels like, and the only Colossal Squid on display in the world. The variety in displays is widespread so there is something to meet everyone’s needs. Thankfully the rain settled in the afternoon so we looked around the Central Business District and Cuba street before walking back to our camper later in the day. We took a stroll along the quays before settling in for a quiet evening.
Day 36: Wellington
We returned to Te Papa today to complete the rest of the exhibition. We took another two hours to scan through Toi art exhibition, Passports; a story of people who have migrated to New Zealand over the past 200 years, and Mana Whenua which explores the Maori history in New Zealand.
When we were happy that we had learned enough about New Zealand’s history we explored around Wellington harbour and the town, grabbing a coffee on the way before walking back to the campsite in the late afternoon. We took another walk along Evans bay which gives scenic views of the surrounding bays on a clear day. There are many attractions to do in Wellington, including Zealandia Ecosanctuary, the Weta Cave, and Wellington Botanic Gardens to name a few. Wellington also has brilliant markets, which unfortunately we missed, on Cuba street every Friday and Saturday which offers an array of food stalls featuring cuisines from around the world. Wellington’s reputation as New Zealand’s culinary capital is well known, with more eateries and bars per capita than New York. So, there are many experiences to be had in Wellington that can suit everyone’s needs.
Day 37: Wellington
Today was our last full day in Wellington and the North Island. We were sad to be leaving but excited to see the South Island, which even north island locals were telling us is more scenic. We walked into town to meet up with an old friend from England for lunch. There are so many food options to choose from; cheap to expensive, local to international. Afterwards we went up Wellington’s famous hill, Mount Victoria. At a height of 196 meters, it offers amazing, panoramic views of Wellington city, harbour, and hills. The walk up is steep but short, taking 20 minutes from the foot of the mountain. We had a beautiful day for taking pictures and spent a good hour taking in the views. After an hour walk back to our campsite, we had dinner and cleaned the van for the evening. Tomorrow we would set off early to the South Island via ferry and it would signal the end of our North Island adventure. The five-week stint went outrageously fast but was five of the best weeks we’ve had on our travels to date.
Thanks for reading,
Róisín & Bernard