We left Wellington at 10:00 a.m. the day before yesterday, which turned out to be good timing – there were almost no cars on the expressways, and before we knew it we were once again out in the beautiful open countryside of New Zealand.
We have come to believe there are no straight roads in New Zealand, at least not outside any city’s limits. Once again the highways we traveled twisted and turned through fields, hills and mountains. It was all wonderfully gorgeous, but challenging at times for both driver and passenger. Brett often had to grip the wheel and pay close attention, and I had to work to keep myself from being flung from side to side of the seat with each turn. The speed limit on New Zealand state highways is around 60 mph, although it goes down for some curves (down to 20 mph for sharp or hairpin ones), and passing lanes are frequently provided when going uphill so that no one gets stuck and frustrated behind slower cars and trucks.
We passed through a few small towns on our way to Mangorei, and at one gas station’s minimart we discovered real Diet Coke in the cooler! Oh, how it had been missed! I also found Golden Fruit cookies there, a childhood favorite no longer made in the U.S., and we also picked up a package of Gingernuts, extra crispy gingersnaps made for dunking. We snacked on those a bit but at around 2:00 in the afternoon we were growing hungry and decided to stop for lunch. As we drove through the first town we came to the only place we could find was a McDonald’s, and as it was quite a ways to the next town we decided to stop there for lunch. I cannot even count the years since I last ate in a McDonald’s (over 20 at least except for a teriyaki burger when I’ve been in Tokyo), so I was a bit wary, but I was able to order a freshly made “gourmet” burger with locally-raised New Zealand beef on a special bun. It was very good! The only thing that could have made it better was if they had used real cheddar instead of the American cheese-like stuff, but still I enjoyed my meal. Brett had a fish sandwich and a coffee and called his meal good too.
It was shortly before lunch that we first spotted the large volcanic cone of Mt. Taranaki (8,261 feet) off in the distance. Our Airbnb was located up on the side of the mountain so we knew we hadn’t too much longer to go to reach our destination.
The Airbnb we stayed in couldn’t have been in a more beautiful location. The home itself was gorgeous and sits inside the mountainside forest, with views up to the rainforest above, and out to the ocean the other direction. The house and bed were very comfortable, the owner an interesting man we enjoyed chatting with, and we had a good rest there for the night.
We were up and on the road again by 10:00 a.m., and were expecting an approximately five-hour drive to Auckland. We headed out to the coast and drove along by the ocean for a while, enjoying all sorts of beautiful views before turning into the center. We soon found ourselves heading up into the mountains, traveling through a rainforest before moving into pine forests, deep valleys and fields of grazing cattle.
While down in one valley we we were notified there was roadwork ahead and to “watch for queues.” Soon enough we found ourselves at the back of a l-o-n-g line of cars and trucks on the valley floor that had obviously been sitting for quite a while as engines were shut off and people were out visiting with others while they waited. We shut off our car as well and sat there, but after about 25 minutes we noticed cars coming down the mountain from the other side, and 10 minutes later it was our turn to start over the mountain with a slow, very winding climb up to the top. We discovered the workers as we got near to the summit, apparently repaving the passing lane. At that point pretty much everyone was stuck behind several slow-moving trucks but could not pass any of them – frustrating!
Of course what goes up must come down, and we had a wild, winding ride back down the other side of the mountain on our two-lane road, behind the trucks that now kept having to put on their brakes so as not to fly off the road – it was a nerve-wracking piece of travel for both Brett and I. We eventually made it to the bottom and noticed that the line of cars and trucks on the other side now waiting their turn to go up and over was even longer than ours had been! Most of the vehicles that came down in our group stopped at the small town at the bottom of the mountain, but Brett and I drove on to the next town, Piopio, and stopped at a little cafe and bakery there. The food was freshly made and absolutely delicious. Brett had a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich, and I finally got to try a New Zealand mince and cheese pie. Besides the good food we also got a much-needed break before heading back out on the road.
The journey from Piopio started out well, but a few miles away, near the junction between the highway we were on and the one we would take up into Auckland, we came to a complete standstill in a huge line of cars that went on for miles. Had there been an accident? For over an hour we moved along very slowly and eventually discovered that workers were repairing two lanes at once on a stretch of the road just past a roundabout that had cars entering it from three directions. The work had turned the roundabout into a complete bottleneck and caused massive traffic jams on all three roads! We finally got through that mess, and once again drove happily on our way to Auckland, feeling very smug at one point at the bumper-to-bumper traffic leaving the city while there appeared to be very little traffic going our way into the city.
That smug feeling was wiped away though the closer we got to downtown. Soon enough, we were the ones stuck in traffic barely inching our way along. We crawled for another hour or so until we finally reached the exit that would lead to our our Airbnb. It was at this point that Google Maps decided once again to go nuts, and it pointed us in a direction completely opposite of where we needed to go. We finally got turned around and on our own figured out the route to the house. When we arrived it was after 6:00 p.m., and we’d been on the road for over eight hours. It was no wonder we felt so exhausted!
Our Auckland lodgings are beautiful and peaceful, and we decided that instead of pushing ourselves trying to get out and see things in town today we’d just hang out in the neighborhood and relax, and get ourselves packed and rested for tomorrow’s long flight to Tokyo (over 10 hours). We enjoyed a special Valentine’s Day dinner at a nearby restaurant earlier this evening, and stopped at a neighborhood bakery to pick up pastries for tomorrow’s breakfast. Thankfully the airport is only a 20-minute drive away, and at the early hour we have to be there to turn in the car there shouldn’t be any traffic.
Our time visiting the North Island of New Zealand has been everything we hoped for and more. The scenery has been magnificent, and the people we’ve met along the way friendly and gracious. We’ve enjoyed absolutely perfect summer weather every day with no humidity. Over and over we were asked if we were going to visit the South Island, and received words of gratitude when we said we were sticking to the North. So many visitors just pass through, we were told, in a rush to get to the south, when the North Island has so much to offer and see as well. We have promised ourselves a visit to the South Island some day, and more time in Auckland as well, but for now we’ve had a fabulous time driving around in the North.