NZ: The Road To Waitangi

Waking up in the campervan is not the closest you can be to nature, but when you draw back the curtains and gaze up at trees older than the history of the local people… Well, it is still impressive. Comfortable and impressive. And a brilliant start for our travels to Waitangi—the birthplace of New Zealand, the nation.

This is not to be mistaken with the birthplace of Aotearoa (and the Maori People), being Hokianga Harbour. But let’s start our day of history from the beginning…

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After our audience with the forest gods yesterday, it was wonderful to wake up with a fresh sense of adventure and peace. As if we had been given their blessings to continue the journey and learn more about this amazing place.

We started with a change to the seating arrangements. For most of the long stretches, our eldest child was able to sit in the front seat and help navigate or take notes, while I sat in the back and helped with the younger two. You can find more about NZ child restraint laws here.

Being up the front with Dad gave him a sense of responsibility. They could talk about the landscape, photos, history,  destinations… even just chat about music selections. It gave me the opportunity to engage the younger two with stories of where we are heading and what we are doing. And it was easy enough to swap around, allowing our eldest time in the back to recharge and me up front with specific directions and planning.

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It felt good to drive through the Waipoua National Park again. The winding road with all of the majestic trees around us really created a ‘land before time’ feel. These trees have seen so much. They were here first and fortunately, with the protection of caretakers, they will be here for some time yet.

As we came out from the Waipoua Forest, the trees spread out across the hills and the bright blue sky opened above us. I remember hearing a young gasp from the front seat, noting the first significant change in scenery. The forest greens and browns were soon replaced with contrasting yellow and orange as we came upon the beautiful Hokianga Harbour. Of all the areas of Northland, this harbour felt as removed from time as the forest. Most of the Maori tribes believe this is the original landing point for the first explorer, Polynesian navigator Kupe around 924CE. Kupe’s descendants later returned to settle in Aotearoa, and the Harbour was originally named “Hokianga-nui-a-Kupe“—the place of Kupe’s great return.

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The only thing that stopped us from exploring further was the tight time-frame for travel. However, it was the Harbour dominating our discussion for the rest of the journey to Waitangi. The kids loved talking about why Hokianga would appeal to the Polynesian travellers of long ago; the beauty, the location, the ease of access after long travels, the Western position (which the kids found curious because wouldn’t the travellers have hit the East Coast first?). The one thing we all agreed on was how much this area would mean to the Maori people, and how that would be enough motivation to fight any invaders to retain their land.

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Which brings us to the Waitangi Treaty House. This place holds a special importance in the history of New Zealand, and thus why we felt it necessary to bring the kids here. It was here the much contested Treaty of Waitangi was first signed by Maori chiefs and the British Crown, establishing British sovereignty with considerable compromises. Talking to the Maori people working at the historic centre, many of the compromises were ignored or neglected for too many years. It is only recently the Maori people have successfully called the NZ Government on these breaches and received compensation for them. For example, the ownership/caretaking of the Waipoua Forest is now solely in the hands of the Te Roroa, the local iwi (tribe).

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The Treaty House shares many displays of the Maori heritage in New Zealand, establishing a long history, contributing to the growth of the nation. The kids were most impressed by the balance between Maori and European settlers in maintaining a healthy respect for nature. In Australia, we seem to be caught in a never-ending battle on this front—partly due to the lack of respect ‘white people’ have for the traditional care Australian Aborigines have for the natural environment.

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Seeing how New Zealand people were able to find a tentative peace and mutual path to the future, we continued our drive down south from Waitangi. After seeing the Forest gods, the Maori Heart, and the Treaty Home, it was time to show the kids its urban heart: Auckland.

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By the time we reached Auckland (with a few stops for food and leg stretches), it was night. This suited us just fine. In absolute honesty, we had not planned on stopping in Auckland for too long. We live in a large city and did not really want to spend our holiday in another, especially one so similar to our own. The only thing we had promised the kids was a visit to Auckland’s Sky Tower. We had to tick it off the list: Sydney’s Tower Eye; Kuala Lumpur’s Menara Tower; Pisa’s Leaning Tower; Bologna’s Asinelli; and now Auckland.

It’s a thing.

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Dusk to evening is the best time to visit the Sky Tower. There are plenty of parking opportunities within four or so blocks, with a few pizza stops in between for dinner. Following the State Highway 1 into Auckland, we took the first exit after the main harbour bridge (Queen’s Wharf). This set us down in the main CBD area surrounding the tower.

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We found a park near Victoria and Nelson Streets; on the road for a reasonable price (less than $25 for a few hours). It was well lit and large enough for the campervan. There are secured car parks closer to the Tower, but none of them has the height clearance for the campervan.

Speaking of heights: If you are scared of heights, you may want to jump ahead of the next few photos. From the top, there is a 360-degree view of Auckland. Dusk provides you with a good view of the Harbour, but we really enjoyed seeing the city lights come alive.

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The greatest highlight for our youngest was to look down through the glass panels to the road below. The glass is as thick as the concrete and as safe as the rest of the floor you are walking on, but the floor isn’t anywhere near as fascinating!!

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After watching the hustle and bustle of the city, our kids were ready for bed. They had absorbed so much that day; from the beautiful scenery through to the complex history of two nations desperately merging together.

As the kids settled into their seats, we opted to drive south from Auckland and aim for Thames in the Coromandel Peninsula. The drive is mostly highway and as boring as it is efficient. It was the perfect stretch for driving while the kids sleep since they won’t miss anything.  Once again, we pulled out the trusty Campermate and planned our next ‘freedom camp’ for the night.

Stay on the SH1 until just after Bombay where you will take the exit for SH2. Follow this highway until you see the sign for Mangatarata—don’t go that way! Instead, take the exit to the left for SH25 and head for Thames.

We ended up driving through Thames and going for Tararu. The next day we were planning on visiting the Butterfly & Orchid Garden, which is closer to Tararu than Thames. Just down the road from the Garden is a great place for campervans: Tararu Beachfront North Reserve. It’s after the Aerodrome and on your left as you head north. In total, it’s just over two hours drive from Auckland and gave us a much better head start for the next day.

When visiting the north island of New Zealand, you don’t have to turn it into a history/sociology lesson like we did. There are so many beautiful places to stop and explore. It really is a country that keeps on giving, no matter which direction you travel.

For us, we really enjoyed driving from Waipoua Forest around Hokianga Harbour, over to Waitangi and finally through Auckland. It added a contextual nature to the birth and growth of New Zealand and all of its people. The kids seem to have a greater cultural interest in our holiday and believe me when I say, this led to a greater discussion on the road ahead.

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NZ: Landing On A Long White Cloud

It’s long overdue but there is also a lot to cover. And to be totally honest – our first day was not our best, so it’s taken quite a bit to … Well, to sort of figure out the best approach.

And all because of a travel agent.

Let me just say, I know not all travel agents are THIS incompetent. However, everything THIS agent touched turned to travel manure.

Summation: we had planned a three (3) week holiday for a family of five (5) to travel around two (2) islands. I took care of a lot of the planning myself; pretty much everything except:

  • campervan hire
  • ski pass
  • ski equipment hire
  • accommodation in Queenstown
  • ferry between Wellington and Picton

Each of these was paid upfront, in return for the standard use of travel vouchers. They tried to sell us travel insurance as well, but not only did we pick it up much cheaper with Defence Health, I was able to include the Snow Pack and Adventure Pack with a far greater coverage. If you’re skiing or luge-ing or bungee-ing in NZ, ensure you have these extra features or your extra activities aren’t covered.

blog-01Awaking on D-Day, we were all excited for our trip. Being the first time I entrusted any travel details to a third party, I was fairly nervous. But I convinced myself to enjoy the trip and trust the agent.

The flight itself was pretty much a non-event and I’m very happy about that. We left early in the morning with QANTAS, giving us a 2pm arrival in Auckland with plenty of time to pick up our campervan and find our first campsite.

As we stepped into the arrival terminal, my phone buzzed. An email. Really? Already? I remember being very tempted to ignore it … But I checked it just in case

And I’m very glad I did. The pick-up location for the shuttle to the campervan had changed. And the directions from the travel agent were awful – we could not find the door they referred to.

auckland-airport-hobbit-dwarfLuckily, there were some awesome Hobbit displays in the terminal from Weta Workshop. The NZers are very proud of their greatest export (though, I think Taika  Waititi is going to challenge that…), and it provided a great opportunity to entertain the tired kids while I figured out where to go.

Tip: Take Door 8 and head out to the bus stop. The ‘shuttle’ for Britz Campervan is actually a public bus, and where a travel agent calls it a Yellow Bus – it’s actually any colour at the time but called a ‘yellow bus’ for the route it takes. You might be lucky to see a sign in the window saying ‘Yellow’.

The good news is the bus drivers are accustomed to this and happy to help out. Tell them you are heading to Britz and they will tell you when to hop off.

Britz are also very helpful – especially when your Travel Agent forgets to include a $210 payment in your voucher.

That’s right folks. We turned up to pick up our campervan and were slogged another $210 for a fee the travel agent completely forgot about. Since the travel agent was unavailable to take my call, I made the payment with the intent of chasing the agent when back home. Britz were very good and ensured I had all the paperwork to argue the point. You can guess how much extra time this took to fix up. By the time we sorted it all, it was already approaching night and we still needed to pick up groceries. This was not a great start to our holiday.

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Things did improve: before you leave Britz, make sure you raid The Pantry. It is a big cupboard right at the door, where any travellers can leave leftover groceries for those just starting their journeys. It is perfect for things like oil, salt, flour, tomato sauce, even toilet paper. All the things that are sooooo much cheaper in bulk but rarely used up in a 2 or 3-week trip.

Any groceries still needed can be picked up 5min down the road towards the highway. Countdown is one of the 3 big grocery shops which sell almost anything. They also have a Travellers Card which gives you a 5% discount and a discount for patrol. Every bit helps.

Our initial plan was to drive to the North of Auckland, as close as possible to the Waipoua Forest. The extra time with pick-up really hit us, and I wasn’t sure if we would still make it. We definitely wouldn’t be there for dinner, but we learnt of a good enough site to make the effort to sleep there for the night.

This is where I am going to rave about Campermate. And seriously, I cannot rave about it enough. You are going to read a lot about this app throughout our NZ trip because we used it everywhere, every day. Campermate is an app you can download to phone, iPad or tablet for free. It will show on a map all the campsites, dumpsites, grocery, playgrounds, fresh water, wifi, public toilets, anything you need while campervanning around New Zealand. It will show you places of interest and parking around them. It will show you EVERYTHING, and in most cases, with reviews from other Campermate users. It is brilliant when you are looking to free-camp but you want to make sure if your huge campervan will fit. Just as an example. Seriously, I considered Campermate the absolute travel enhancer for our trip.

With a stop for dinner (quesadillas), we eventually arrived at Port Albert Domain (Wharf Road, Port Albert) around 10pm. Take SH1 North through Auckland. From Wellsford turn onto Port Albert Road SH16. At the end of the road, turn right onto Wharf Road. You need to drive down a gravelly road to the open campsite – a big open area to park your campervan for the night without cost. It’s about 11km from Wellsford.

Arriving at night meant we couldn’t really appreciate the water views with the location, but it was a real bonus to have a clear starry night before crashing in bed. The Legend of the Long White Cloud ended up being figurative only – but we were determined to shake off the ‘travel agent Blues’ and start afresh tomorrow.

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