New Zealand: Festive Fun in Central North Island

24/12/18 - 02/01/19

This blog post dedicated to Irish Mike who highlighted to us, at the beginning of a new year, the kindness and generosity of others.

The Champagne Pool at Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland

When we arrived at Katikati for our Warm Showers stay with Diane and Ian we had Christmas leftovers for tea and they were delicious. The day before our arrival, the family had had Christmas Round 1 with Diane’s side of the family and so there were plenty of tasty bits and bobs to eat up, with a couple of avocado and boiled eggs added too for good measure. I love the leftovers after Christmas, or any big event for that matter as eyes are often bigger than bellies. They taste so, so good – often better cold and a day old! Diane and Ian told us that they would celebrate Christmas with Ian’s side of the family on Boxing Day and that the “Family Olympics” were hotly anticipated. We probed for more information and are excited to bring home this Stevens Family tradition, though perhaps without the monster water fight that Ian said almost inevitably concludes the fun. Each year, each micro-family brings along a game or activity, teams are decided and frivolity ensues.

On Christmas Eve, Diane and Ian drove us through Bethlehem! It was perfectly Christmassy! We donned our sunglasses despite the overcast skies and pouring rain! After a soggy ride and a wonderful lunch, Diane and Ian dropped us in Papamoa and Steve the cat welcomed us to his beach pad where we were to spend a few days relaxing, eating and being merry. Maddie and Allan were away and so we had their place to ourselves which was great. The downtime was much needed. We had originally intended to stay three nights, but on Boxing Day sent Maddie and Allan a message asking to stay one more (a major reason being that we had too much food still to eat!). They said we could stay until New Year, and we were tempted! 

 Christmas Eve was a washout and the forecast predicted a lot of rain for Christmas Day too. Our dreams of sending home ‘that beach shot’ were dashed… Or so we thought. After waving goodbye to Diane and Ian we didn’t settle in immediately, though we did feed Steve the cat. Already wet, we decided now was the best time to head out to the supermarket to do the Christmas shopping. If only we’d known that they big yellow store next to Countdown was in fact a Pak’n’Save! We might have bought even more food… (Countdown is, I think, New Zealand’s most expensive supermarket and Pak’n’Save is definitely its cheapest.) We had allocated 20 dollars each to spend on Christmas presents for each other, and seeing as we were doing all of our Christmas shopping in Countdown, the gifts were mostly edible. 20 dollars is about the equivalent of £10, and this provided the first of many realisations during our first Christmas away from home. £10 worth of little bits and bobs of confectionery is TOO MUCH to be consumed in three days, even by my quite impressive chocolate-eating standards. The short and long of it is, we bought far too much food. I’m sure many people do at Christmas time. It’s completely unnecessary and you don’t need to feel bloated to have a good time over the festive period. You really don’t. We resolved to remember this in the future.

Roast potatoes for two...  (Cold roasties are SO good, to be fair.)

The second realisation came soon after. It’s one we all know, but the reality of it really struck home because of just how far away from home we were. It’s not about the presents. Our little piles under the surfboard, our substitute Christmas tree, were a nice nod to tradition, but the amount of chocolate we’d bought for each other genuinely became an inconvenience, and I’d like to again point out just how much I love eating chocolate! (It did, however, also pioneer one of our greatest strokes of ingenuity on the trip so far: chocolate raisins and Malteser Reindeers were stuffed into our Thermos flasks to avoid their melting!) To give and receive a thoughtful and considerate gift is wonderful. I love the feeling of having sourced or re-sourced a gift that I think the receiver will like. I like how presents look, all wrapped up, too, though my recent reading on plastic waste means I might have to rethink this little love of mine… But, I resolutely did not miss the Christmas-shopping-stress this year. It’s when that stress envelops you that you need to step back from maniacally scouring the shops and pacing the high street. A little thought and consideration goes a long way, but the frantic and fraught fear of not having finished your Christmas shopping “in time” is bonkers. That combined with questioning whether your gift “is enough”. No, no, no. Ian also told us about how one of his daughter’s had introduced “the ethical hierarchy of gift-giving” to their family this Christmas too, something else we will be bringing home.

We (Olly will tell you that it was I who loved tending to Steve the cat, but it was not me calling his name as we were about to leave) loved having Steve the cat to care for over Christmas as it felt like our needs extended just a little beyond our own and that was nice. Steve’s resemblance to my family cat, Bill, is striking and obviously we tried to get Bill and Steve to chat via WhatsApp call (limited success there, quelle surprise!)! Time zones and differences got very confused during our stay as we called home at various points: our Christmas Eve evening, home’s Christmas Day day, who knows what was happening by Boxing Day. We really missed home over Christmas. We missed our family traditions. We did still watch Home Alone and Olly watched the Queen’s Speech for the very first time, ironically. But there were no parsnips and no people. And there was that lesson we all know so well: Christmas, it’s about the people. (And, indeed Olly, the parsnips.)

Pancakes for Christmas brunch

We weren’t sat around wallowing by any means, but we both did admit to feeling a bit sad and it was interesting to feel these feels. On Christmas Day, against the odds, the sun came out and we made it to the beach. The sea was still fired up from the previous day’s stormy weather, though, and so the body board that Olly had carefully strapped to the back of his bike stayed there until Boxing Day when we had heaps of fun in much calmer waves. We ate as much as we could and watched TV; we did yoga and stretching and laundry. We cycled to Mount Manganui. We did some sitting around and staring idly into space too. Steve the cat was never too far away.

After all his mocking about my hi-vis, he now won't take it off!

The beach at Mt Manganui

Even with our bonus day, our time to leave Papamoa seemed to come around far too quickly. Panniers re-packed and with leftovers for lunch and Thermos flasks filled with chocolate, we hit the road in the direction of Rotorua, one of North Island’s tourist hot spots famed for its geothermal activity and Maori culture. The cycle that day was what I would define as a ‘commuter day’: a means to get from A to B and not so much going on in between. I enjoyed passing a ‘pick-your-own’ boysenberry farm and would gladly have stopped in if we weren’t already so heavily laden. We had lunch by the side of avocado and kiwi orchards and cycling through them on long, unwinding roads was quite nice (Olly said ‘boring’). We arrived in Rotorua town in the early evening having cycled along the lake that gives the town its name for a short stretch too. Rotorua felt busy and we did take our lives in our hands at an intersection and I definitely got honked at for not making it across the road before another set of traffic lights turned green. Fortunately, we had a Warm Showers stay lined up and we spent a nice evening sharing stories with John and his friend Maren, from Germany, who was visiting. The Lord of the Rings soundtrack played in the background.

Steve the cat helping with the packing

Lake Rotorua

The following morning we woke up to rain. Pouring, pouring rain. We had had quite a lavish Christmas by our budget’s standards and so our plans between Christmas and New Year were really just to continue pedalling on. Just as we were about to leave John’s, though, a message came through from Grace O’D. Grace had left for a sixth-month placement on a stud farm near Christchurch on the South Island in September and we’d been so excited to tell her we were bringing the New Zealand leg of our tour forwards so that our time in Aotearoa would overlap. Grace had had to work over Christmas, but had New Year free. However, the cost of getting from Christchurch to near Rotorua was not nothing, and so we had vowed to definitely meet up when we made it further south. However, on 29th December, perhaps having experienced a Christmas not overly dissimilar to ours, Grace was keen to meet up regardless of the logistics. And so Olly and I sat sheltered on John’s veranda making plans. We agreed to meet Grace the next day at the Beez Kneez Lodge just off State Highway 1 near Atiamuri. I had rung them and they’d said that although they were theoretically closed we should just turn up. I called them again the next morning just to be sure.

Rain in Rotorua

With renewed vigour we set off for our destination that night: the DOC site at Lake Okaro. It rained and rained until it didn’t anymore. It rained as we visited the Redwoods, but stopped not long after and so we laid out the tent to dry before joining the Te Ara Ahi cycle trail. Our first day on the trail provided fun, easy, and mostly off-road cycling. We saw plenty of geothermal jets of steam and were reminded of our time in Tuscany. The trail also took us past two Maori villages, Whakarewarewa and Tamaki, and we marvelled from afar at some of the carvings on display.

Little me and a big, red tree

At Lake Okaro we pitched our tent for the night and enjoyed the scenic spot. The facilities weren’t brilliant and in the morning the campsite manager (I’m not entirely sure who he was…) shouted very loudly at a group from Germany camped behind us who had “clearly publicly urinated”. A round of “you wouldn’t do that in your own country” ensued and so Olly and I decided to pack up a little quicker and get on the road.

Knowing that we would be seeing Grace later that day kept us motivated as we navigated the ‘Thermal by Bike’ trail as it started to twist and turn over tricky terrain. It was undeniable scenic and also undeniably hilly. We had heard this about New Zealand, and the North Island specifically: it’s up and down and up and down. Undulating and then some. We made it to the turning for the Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland at lunchtime and sat looking down on the Waiotapu Tavern from the hillside just a little further up the road as we ate our chocolate raisins (still very much intact thanks to the Thermos). Back on a sealed road, we tazzed along for about 20km until the tarmac suddenly stopped and gravel appeared. I’d got complacent, it seems, for before long I was on my bum and Jenny was on her side. I’d skidded on the gravel and had been unable to unclip from my pedals fast enough to avoid the fall. A little shocked and bruised, and with a slight jelly leg, I got back on the bike. Since this fall, I have always kept one foot unclipped when cycling over uneven terrain.

More geothermal delights along to Te Ara Ahi

Once on the State Highway we knew we didn’t have too far to go and we made it to the Beez Kneez Lodge a little ahead of time. Grace was en route. We had sent her a shopping list as we had suddenly found ourselves quite off-grid and we had the issue of not being able to fit so much into our panniers. Grace had laughed at the list I sent her and said I would have to clarify “what sort of rice” to avoid her being paralysed by choice in the aisles, ‘like a dad who rarely does the shopping’, she said! A couple of hiccups later (ask Grace how she paid for the shopping) and Grace was on her way proper. She had caught up with a friend of hers from university in Matamata and there had acquired a kilogram of Punga honey – we all enjoyed it over the next few days and were gobsmacked to later learn that the eponymous ‘Punga’ is only 16 and has been keeping bees for a good while now. This inspired me to definitely look into beekeeping (again) when I get home.

The guys at The Beez Kneez had been kind enough to lend us a tent for Grace to use during our stay at their campground and we set up camp and showered just as Grace pulled onto the site. It was so good to see her.

With a boot filled with food (mostly from the carefully constructed shopping list with a few added treats thrown in by Grace for good measure), we were glad that the festivities were continuing for a little longer and that we hadn’t just ‘soldiered on’. We rummaged around for beer, crisps and dip and chatted contentedly as the sun started to set. The next day we promised Olly we’d get up early: we needed to be at the Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland for 10am to see the Lady Knox geyser erupt. Although Grace had done a pretty conclusive tour of the North Island before she started her job on a Kiwi Experience bus, which she wholeheartedly recommends, she, fortunately, hadn’t been to Wai-O-Tapu and so we went to bed looking forward to the next day: New Year’s Eve.

Lavishing in Punga honey, tea, coffee, chitchat and sandwich making, we only just made it to Wai-O-Tapu in time and frantically parked (abandoned?) the car in amongst all of the motor homes near the geyser. It was interesting to practically retrace our steps from the day before with Grace and her hire car. I think the car journey made our efforts by bike seem very commendable! And I remember thinking how much I’d experienced the day before that in comparison to the easy and comfortable 45-minute car journey. It was one of those moments where I felt reassured that cycle-touring was the way to do it for me. Back at the geyser we were, obviously, at the back of a sizeable crowd, all of whom had had the same tip off that 10 o’clock was l’heure d’√©ruption ! Grace, having seen the geyser at Te Puia that did not go off at a fixed time what with it being a natural phenomenon and all, was suspicious and at the first opportunity asked someone how it happened. It transpires that at Wai-o-Tapu they use a special (biodegradable) soap to activate the eruption so as to please the crowds. The Lady Knox Geyser was discovered by prisoners in the early twentieth century when they unknowingly dropped some soap into the geyser whilst washing their clothes!

‘Wai’ is the Maori word for ‘water’ and ‘tapu’ means ‘sacred’. After we’d gawped at the geyser (named after one of the daughters of a governor of New Zealand), we wandered into the Thermal Wonderland and, under the baking, December sun, ogled at the natural delights on display. The smell of sulphur filled the air and its green colour filled many of the pools. We marvelled at the multi-coloured water on display at the ‘Artist’s Palette’ and were completely mesmerised by the Champagne Pool, which fizzes at a toasty 74 degrees Celsius and constantly effervesces with carbon dioxide bubbles that rise from the bottom of the pool. We couldn’t stand around for too long because the heat coming from the pool combined with that from the sun meant that Olly was at risk of melting into a multi-coloured puddle himself.

The 'Artist's Palette'

Champagne Pool

Oyster pool

We walked around and wondered until our tummies talked and we left the park in search of the sandwiches Grace and I had carefully prepared – production line style – earlier in the day. They went down a treat. (We had wisely gobbled up the chocolate bars before we entered the park for fear of their melting. Pudding before dinner would become a habit of ours over the few, festive days we spent together.) From there we checked out the spluttering mud pools and delighted every time a big belch of boiling hot mud escaped from the pool. The sound of lots of mud burps sounded like an unusual, but not unpleasant, orchestra.

Pre-park chocolate

Then, it was to the Hot’n’Cold river, where a cold flow meets a hot flow and the result is a beautiful bathing experience. Throw into the mix some natural, exfoliating mud and you’ve got an hour of free fun on hands. We giggled like schoolchildren as we moved around the river, in and out of hot and cold spots. Although the current was quite strong, we made our way across it to smear mud on our skin, careful not to dip below the surface for fear of contracting some hideous sounding disease highlighted on a sign just before the steps that led down to the river. It was wonderful when you found a spot at the perfect temperature: a delicious, warm mix of hot and cold.

We then headed into Rotorua as Grace hadn’t seen the Redwoods on her initial tour either, and was keen for a glimpse of the mighty, tall trees. After a brief stroll through the forest, during which we tried to find the biggest tree (before realising it was signposted at the entrance), we headed in the direction of Pak’n’Save to pick up a few more treats. Grace, having lived in New Zealand for four months, had been asking us if we’d tried X, if we’d tried Y. On the way back to the campsite we devoured Tip Top ice-creams and Whittaker’s Hokey Pokey chocolate. Before dinner.

Pre-dinner ice-cream.  We're adults after all.

We had dinner and played cards, getting swept up a little in the excitement of the group of friends also staying at the lodge to see in 2019 but also feeling quite sleepy after our day of exploration and adventure. As midnight approached, we wondered how we’d start a countdown without Big Ben to guide us. We all felt very British in that moment. We scratched our British itch at 1 o’clock the following afternoon, sat in a carpark in Taupo. Grace had managed to stream BBC1 live to her phone and so we saw in the British new year complete with Big Ben gongs, London Eye fireworks and a bit of walking backwards from Jules Holland. Now it felt like 2019!


New Year’s Day started slowly. We had finished our breakfast and were starting to think about moving when I asked, ‘Anyone for another drink?’. That sealed it and we settled back down for more tea, coffee and toast and honey. It was lovely.

Me and Olly weren’t going to go to Taupo on our bikes and so Grace said she would take us for the day. Taupo is a town set around Lake Taupo, the largest lake in New Zealand, and is considered a must-see/must-do. Although I’m glad we had a swim in the lake and a picnic by it, I don’t think we’d have missed too much in not going. That said, I did enjoy the five minutes we spent watching men trying to hit golf balls out to a pontoon bobbing in the lake, and the divers reclaiming all of the balls that spectacularly missed it!  On our way to Taupo we stopped to take in the incredible Huka Falls.  Huka is the Maori word for 'foam' and the falls were certainly mighty and frothy.

Suddenly it was our final night with Grace and we mulled over our time together and discussed future plans as we indulged in crisps, dip and beer, a tradition, along with pre-dinner pudding, that I’m sure will follow us wherever we go. (At Taupo we’d had another ice-cream in the car session before lunch. Grace also bought some lolly cake, a sweet as, Kiwi special.) Grace was looking forward to finishing her time on the farm and the arrival of her parents, together they would be touring the South Island in a big-ass campervan and as I write, they should be on their way. We, at the time, were looking forward to a couple of cycling trails and making it to the South Island. Now, with just two weeks left in New Zealand, that evening with Grace feels like a long time ago.

Lolly cake

We had to stop for a photo with the big bike in Taupo!

And so the next morning, we packed up our panniers and ate the customary porridge. As we were washing up, we met the campsite owner for the first time! Terry. I had been to reception when we arrived and had been lent a tent for Grace to use, which was so kind and brilliant and serendipitous! There I had met Nigel, Terry’s son. Terry was definitely not Kiwi and definitely was from Yorkshire. He told us that although Barnsley was home in the UK, he had grown up in Shropshire. NO WAY, we all said. And told him that we had all met and lived in Shrewsbury. He told us he was from Telford and mentioned walking up and down The Wrekin. NO WAY, we said again. I asked whereabouts in Telford as I used to work, as a teacher, there. He said Stirchley, but that we wouldn’t know the school as it’s changed names now. I paused. “The Beacon school”, Terry said, “now it’s called Abraham Darby”. NO WAY! NO WAY! And so it goes.