Harald the German and I were all set for our road trip across the North Island. We had 15 days before I needed to be in Auckland. We kicked off the journey around the Lower and Upper Hutt areas of Wellington staying at a few campsites. taking a few short hikes, then heading to the east coast.
Not long after our departure from the city, we glimpsed green pastures calling to be rolled down, winding mountain side roads frighteningly steep, and deep river valleys cutting through the hills. Everywhere we turned there was something beautiful to see. In just the first few days of our journey, we saw tons of gorgeous scenery, resisted rolling down a very poo-y hillside, and then found a new way to deviate the norm: showering at a library.
Day 1-2 – Battle of Poo Hill
After heading out of the city of Wellington, we found ourselves stopping on the side of the road several times over to snap photographs of the scenery. We were so excited to finally be out of Wellington, seeing the countryside we had come to New Zealand to feast our eyes upon. Following the Hutt River, we stopped in Totara to play in Harcourt Park. I felt like a child again, riding the short zip line amidst the huge trees in this quaint small town.
The sun was already lowering in the sky since we spent the beginning part of the day packing the car with supplies and gear back in the city. Parked in the small town of Porirua, a friendly gas station clerk pulled out a map to show us a nearby campsite where we could put up our tent for the night. This was before we found out about the helpful phone applications for finding free campsites all over New Zealand.
Pulling through an opening in a wooden fence, we drove the gravel road into Battle Hill Farm. The farm has a low-cost campsite where we found local young people camping in celebration of the end of school and beginning of summer. Ducks haunted our picnic table as we cooked a pasta dinner.
Still being late November (end of spring), the air was chilly. We tucked into our tent early but nature called in the late hours. I emerged from the tent, teeth chattering and looked up to see a cloud-filled sky. Perhaps I’ll see the southern cross another night. The Southern Cross is a constellation only seen in the southern hemisphere. I had been waiting to get out of the city lights to see it. Soon, I thought.
A short hike the next morning took us to Battle Hill summit. The top of Battle Hill marks the location of a battle between settlers and natives in the 1800s. The track loops around through native bush and up through farmland then back down to the campground.
Along the way I had the chance to see my first unfurling frond of a silver fern. Its swirly shape is called Koru meaning "loop" by the native Maori people. Koru is an icon of New Zealand and the inspiration behind much native artwork and local advertising—its even on the Air New Zealand logo!
Emerging from the forest, the walk became steeper and sheep appeared along the track ahead. They stared and then ran at the sight of us as we neared. Before long, Harald and I realized the track was opening up to take us straight across the hills of a farm. We were walking right in the paths and along the hills where the sheep play, graze, and…poop.
Picture it – gorgeous rolling hills with the brightest green grass you can imagine. From far away these pastures seem to be sending out signals inviting you to roll down them as freely as a child. In reality, they are riddled with poo!
Poo, poo, everywhere poo! We tried hop-scotching around each heaping pile to no avail. There was just too much. I haven’t looked out my window at a sheep pasture in the same way again. Besides the poo, you don’t want to go rolling down any hills in New Zealand because of all the spiny native plants! There are thorny bushes and thistle plants ready to prick you just about everywhere. Beautiful, yet evil.
Day 2-3 – Rainbows and Germans
Driving along Rimutaka hill road, both of us were astounded by the crazy windy turns and steep cliffs to our left. Here was the view at a lookout point near the Stuart Macaskill Lakes.
Heading further north to Upper Hutt, we found a picturesque field of cows with a gorgeous mountain backdrop. What a place to live.
On the way to our campsite, we saw the first of many rainbows I would see during my road trips around New Zealand.
We found Kumeti campsite using our handy Campermate app. Set back against the hills amidst farmland stretching for miles, we arrived just in time for a rainstorm to hit. We managed to put the tent up during a break in the storm and used one of the Department of Conservation (DOC) information stands for shelter to cook under. This is camping—rain or shine!
Soon after we finished cooking, in pulled a camper van with a couple inside. Harald identified they were speaking German. After several nights camping across the North Island, Harald and I quickly discovered most travelers came from one of two countries: Germany or France. 75% of the time they were German. This became a bit of a running joke between me, Harald, and many other travelers I met: “Guess where the campers over there are from?” “Germany.” “You must be psychic!”
Based on my experience spending 6 weeks in Germany, my guess behind why Germans are the most common traveler—across all of my travelers but especially in New Zealand—is (1) Germans are socially encouraged (practically even required) to travel between schooling and career, (2) Germans actually receive enough time off from their jobs to travel longer term and farther distances than citizens from other countries, (3) Germans really like the outdoors, and (4) it’s winter in Germany during New Zealand’s summer. Harald confirmed a few of these when he said, “Germans just really like nature.” Perhaps the dense population of their country prevents them from seeing enough untouched countryside back home. Meanwhile, New Zealand has loads of it.
Day 3-4 – Showering in a library and the longest place name
We took a short hike in the morning down by the river near the camp. Harald and I crossed it about 20 times to walk just a few kilometers up and back. We didn’t know it yet, but these short hikes were barely the right preparation for a much bigger hike we were gearing up for: The Tongariro Northern Circuit. We had our eye on the weather for the national park, trying to gauge when the weather would be best. The mountain was too cloudy, rainy, and windy over the coming few days, so we decided to head to the East coast in the meantime.
Before heading East, we both desperately needed showers. Luckily, our handy app identified low-cost public showers in Palmerston North. Palmerston North is a university town. The day we arrived was graduation day. We headed to the information center next door and discovered the $2 showers were available at the public library! It felt a little strange walking into the library with a towel, underwear, and shampoo bundled under my arm. But deviating the norm means when you need to shower you take one anywhere possible. Besides, the clerk who showed us to the showers seemed unjudging as if she’d been unlocking the shower room for smelly campers all week.
We took a road straight from Palmerston North to Porangahau on the east coast. On the way there, some of the most expansive rolling green hills stretched out from the road all around us. It felt like we were in the Arabian desert but the dunes were green dotted with white sheep.
Just before reaching the township, we turned a corner and saw a sign for the “Longest place name.” Immediately, we turned off the road to check it out. Sure enough the native Maori-named hill holds the Guinness World Record spot for the longest place name in the entire world at 85 letters:
I remembered reading something about this place in my research about New Zealand but I had forgotten all about it! And we just happened upon it. So fun!
We finally made it to Porangahau—a tiny coastal town with a free camping site on Taperahi Road.
The camp was perfectly situated just steps from the beach. Although very windy the night we stayed, we had the most gorgeous sunrise in the morning and stayed at the beach all day the next day.
This was one of my favorite campsites in all of the North Island—a place I returned to later to experience more of its spectacular beach views.
I was already loving our routine of camping, seeing the countryside, and cooking on our portable stove for each meal. But the next day, we would head into Napier to visit a friend of a friend—a New Zealand native who is a fisher and free diver in Hawke’s Bay. We were open to mixing things up a bit after our driving/camping routine. And I was ready to connect with a local Kiwi and maybe do some fishing and diving!