We arrived at the bus stop early in the morning on the 14th of July all ready for a trip north to the Bay of Islands. After boarding the bus it soon became clear that the Kiwi Experience office had booked us onto the wrong bus and we were, in fact, heading south to Whitianga in Mercury Bay. After quickly consulting lonely planet we worked out what we would be doing that day and were able to relax after all. A quick stop at Mt Eden gave us some more cool views of Auckland after One Tree Hill and the Sky Tower the day before. The heavens opened shortly afterwards meaning the opportunity for sea kayaking was lost and bad timing with the tides meant we also lost the chance to visit hot water beach. Despite this we got to see some amazing scenery in Cathedral cove and our bus driver Dylan made sure the journey was plenty of fun and went off without any more hitches. We stayed the night at the Turtle Cove hostel in Whitianga and paid a visit to a local spa complete with outdoor thermal pools which were an interesting experience in the rain!
The next morning we got up far too early to set off towards Rotorua, or 'Rotovegas', the 'cultural capital of New Zealand'. (It seems that even the smallest township here is the something capital of New Zealand) On yet another beautifully rainy day our main stop was the Karangahake Gorge where we went for a walk through some of the mining tunnels remaining from the New Zealand gold rush. We also stopped for lunch in Matamata which bills itself as 'Hobbiton' even though the actual area used in the films is quite a way away. We arrived in Rotorua in the early afternoon where we went straight to the local geothermal park, Te Puia, where we saw many geysers and hot pools as well as some Maori crafts and more kiwis. After this we had a couple of hours to explore town before heading to the Tamaki village outside town where we were treated to an evening of Maori song, dance and traditional Hangi cooking.
The next morning, before leaving Rotorua there was time to visit Agrodome. This meant an hour long farm show in which we were introduced to all 14 of New Zealand's sheep varieties as well as some sheep dogs, a cow and some ducks. This isn't quite as lame as it sounds, the host of the show was a typical, sarcastic Kiwi and made sure everyone laughed their way through the proceedings. After the show it was time to head to Waitomo towards the West coast of the North Island. At three o'clock that afternoon we were collected from our hostel and taken to the Black Water Rafting Co. Here we got kitted up in wet suits, helmets and boots before heading off for three hours of fun in the Waitomo Glowworm Caves. After a quick abseiling lesson, we each abseiled the 37m down into the cave. Next it was time for a zip-wire with nothing but the light of the glowworms to show where we were going. After a quick hot chocolate break we grabbed some tubes and jumped into the refreshing waters of the cave. After floating through the caves on our tubes for a while it was time to get back to human propulsion and get out of the icy water asap! Unfortunately this meant quite a long time floating with no tube on the currents before climbing up three underground waterfalls and emerging out of the caves around 7pm. After a well deserved hot shower we returned to Waitomo's only pub (Waitomo has a population of around 40 people and doesn't even have a local shop) for a barbeque and 'a few cold tubes' as they're referred to here!
Day four of our Kiwi Experience was a trip to the 'adventure capital of the north' Taupo. Before we could set off though we had to wait for the cavers who hadn't been able to get a place the evening before with us. That gave us a chance to walk through the surrounding forest and see the caves from an outside point of view. We also got to see the strangest attraction in New Zealand (described as "a disgrace to Waitomo" by our guide in the caves). As I'm sure you've all guessed the attraction is Angora rabbit shearing which involves stretching out the rabbit on what looks like a medieval torture device and going to work! After this we got on the road and after a quick stop off at Huka falls arrived into Taupo in yet another torrential downpour. The rain meant that the people on our bus wanting to skydive were disappointed and those of us wanting to hikle the Tongariro crossing the following day were also left with a gap in our schedules. Of course the only thing left to do was party so there were lots of sore heads the following morning as we got onto JB's bus.
We spent that day travelling to River Valley, the number one location in New Zealand for white water rafting. Some more beautiful Kiwi weather meant the only stop was for a walk to Taranaki falls in the Tongariro national park. River Valley consists of a single lodge in the middle of nowhere. This limited the evenings entertainment slightly but the huge roast dinner at the lodge was certainly appreciated after the previous night's fun. After the food we got chance to see the All Blacks beat a bunch of convicts before getting an early night.
The final leg of our North Island travels took us to Wellington the 'actual capital of New Zealand'. We arrived quite late and with it being a Sunday we were left with little to do in the capital but win the hostel's pub quiz. Safe in the knowledge we would be returning to the North Island again we set off early the next morning to catch the ferry to Picton on the South Island, which is another story altogether....