When I first arrived in New Zealand, the weather was consistently warm, with temperatures rarely getting below 75 degrees. Now, winter has come and the weather has definitely been cooler. The leaves are changing and the sky is cloudy more often. Even so, the weather has still been quite enjoyable. The last couple of weekends have been quite rainy, however. The rain kept us in our apartments for a lot of nights and we were becoming restless. As usual, we just wanted to get out of the city and explore the country! So, on a random Sunday morning, my friend Marc and I impulsively decided to make a trip out to The Pinnacles, a stunning mountain range in the Coromandel Forest Park.
We arrived at the base of the trail and the weather was beautiful, with only a few clouds in the sky. We started the hike into the forest and I knew right away we were in for a treat. The people who created the Pinnacles track carved into the mountainside what they call ‘the rock stair’, which is exactly as it sounds — a staircase made out of rock. Once we finished the rock stair, we reached the summit of The Pinnacles. We had to climb metal poles that were fastened into the rocks to reach the very top of the summit. Once we reached the top, we could see the many tree-covered peaks that lead to the Pacific Ocean on the horizon. It was one of the most jaw-dropping views I have seen in the North Island.
Over the last couple of weeks, I have been busy with essays and other tedious assignments for my courses. It hasn’t been easy balancing all of my school work with travel and adventures. I decided to buckle down and limit my travels to short day trips outside of the city for the last two weekends.
I was under the impression that most of the natural beauty in New Zealand was quite some distance from the city. Little did I know, West Auckland is home to some of the most beautiful beaches that I have ever seen. One day we drove out to Muriwai Beach, where the cliffs overlook the Tasman Sea. The beach was only 30 minutes from the city, yet it felt like I was hundreds of miles away from urban civilization.
Another short trip outside the city that I have had the pleasure of doing a couple of times now is Piha Beach. Piha is on Auckland’s west coast as well, roughly 20 minutes south of Muriwai. The beach just so happens to be the birthplace of surfing in New Zealand. I have been lucky enough to be able to surf there and although the tide is wildly strong, it is an absolute blast. I am finding myself to be continually amazed by the beauty of this country. Even right outside the city, there are some great finds.
Two of the best weeks of my life just flew by. For mid-semester break, I had to the privilege of spending a week in the paradise that is the Cook Islands. It was an incredible time to be fully immersed into a beautiful, unique culture that welcomed us with open arms. This trip was organized with IES, the organization that I am studying abroad through. For a fair price, we had our airfare, lodging, meals, and numerous activities covered. I don’t even know where to begin with the adventures that we embarked on during this trip. I will touch on a few. One day, we went on a cross-island mountain bike tour where we picked fresh starfruit, bananas, coconuts, and more from trees. We biked along the shore and through the thick forest of the island.
It was magnificent. Another day, we went snorkeling in the crystal clear, coral filled waters. I got lucky enough to see hundreds of magnificent, bright fish, several Moray eels, and even an octopus. The Cooks are the definition of paradise.
After leaving the Cook Islands, I was beat. However, I had a another week of traveling planned down the South Island of New Zealand. I had no idea what I was in for. Flying into Queenstown was intense to say the least. The first snowfall of the year came early and it hit hard right as I landed. Three of my friends were supposed to meet me in Queenstown but their flights got pushed to different cities because of the dangerous conditions. It was a rough start. However, we all managed to meet up later in the night and get back on track. The first two days of the trip were remarkable.
We went on an overnight kayak tour through Doubtful Sound in Fiordland National Park. Kayaking through perfectly still waters surrounded by jagged, snow-capped mountaintops has been the most beautiful scenery I have experienced since being in New Zealand. Words and pictures can’t give it justice! After our kayaking trip, we went back to Queenstown where we explored the night life and ate at some of the iconic restaurants of the South Island. We capped off our trip by bungee jumping at the top of the Skyline Gondola in Queenstown. One week in the Cook Islands and one week on the South Island. I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect mid-semester break.
It has been quite some time since I have last posted. In the last few weeks, I have gone on many adventures including: skydiving, navigating through caves, climbing mountains, and more. I am adjusting more and more to this new life that I am living. It has just recently gotten to the point where I have been enjoying myself more in a relaxed manner. The first month was rather chaotic. I felt the need to squeeze in as much as I could in a short period of time every time I would travel. Now, I feel at ease when I have a day where I simply lay around.
With that being said, I have still been on some remarkable trips in the last few weeks that I have been wanting to write about. Traveling down to Matamata and getting a professional tour through Hobbiton was simply astonishing. Growing up, I watched The Lord of The Rings movies religiously and the films have always been engrained in my head. So, when I was wandering through the same hills and hobbit-holes that Frodo, Sam, and Bilbo all wandered through it felt like a dream from my childhood. It was truly magical.
After the peaceful tour of The Shire, our friends felt the urge to experience the polar opposite end of Middle-earth — Mt. Doom. We traveled down to the middle of the North Island and trekked the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, considered by many to be the best one-day hike in New Zealand. The rugged terrain of the crossing was 20 kilometers long, but we added the painfully steep Mt.Ngauruhoe (a.k.a. Mt.Doom) summit climb to the midpoint of our hike. It was an excruciating trek to the top, but once we were above the clouds, roughly 2,300 meters above sea level, there was no need to complain about sore legs. The sheer beauty of it all was all my mind wanted to focus on. These were the things that I dreamt about when planning my trip to this stunning country.
This past week has opened my eyes to more of the natural beauty New Zealand has to offer. It’s no wonder why Kiwis have been calling it God’s Own Country, or Godzone, for over 100 years.
A few days ago, a large group of us planned a day trip out to Rangitoto Island to climb the youngest volcano in New Zeland, which emerged from the water roughly 600 years ago. We took the twenty-minute ferry ride over to the base of the volcano. It was only a few kilometers to the summit, but it sure was tiring. The elevation increased hundreds of meters by the time we reached the top. The views at the summit were remarkable, but as many people say, pictures do not give this beautiful country justice. If you are spending time on the North Island, be sure to add Rangitoto Island to your itinerary.
After experiencing Rangitoto’s sheer beauty, I had a strong desire to quickly experience more of what the North Island had to offer. With this in mind, we decided to venture around the Firth of Thames and on up to the Coromandel Peninsula. Supposedly, the best way to experience the Coromandel is via kayaking. Considering this, a group of us scheduled a three-hour kayak tour in Cathedral Cove and it was the most enjoyable three hours I have experienced in New Zealand. This area is home to many scenes from “The Chronicles of Narnia” movies! The water was as clear and smooth as glass. There was one point where we were kayaking in 50-feet-deep waters and the ocean floor could be seen clearly. The tour was located on the Hahei Nature Reserve where fishing isn’t allowed and nothing can be taken from its beaches or waters. This resulted in some remarkable marine life. Following these two trips, I was extremely drained but so deeply satisfied with what I had seen and learned.
I have been in Middle-earth for a few days now and I have already fallen madly in love. I am convinced there is no city comparable to Auckland. One minute you’re walking down Queen Street (similar to Michigan Avenue in Chicago I’d say) and then the next you’re at the ferry port overlooking dozens of islands scattered across the horizon. New Zealand is truly remarkable.
Adjusting to the cultural differences hasn’t been too challenging. Adjusting to 75 and sunny everyday hasn’t been too challenging either! Every day I wander the city and find new things to do. The Auckland Domain is located directly behind my apartment and it is the oldest park in the city. There is delicious, fresh sushi all over the city. The ferry rates are fairly priced (unlike everything else in Auckland) and it will take you to islands all over the region. For orientation with IES, our study abroad provider, we had a two day trip to Waiheke Island. We were welcomed by Maori men and women, the indigenous people of New Zealand. Throughout the trip we explored the island, kayaked around the bay, ate delicious food, drank ridiculously priced beer at a local pub, and more! It was a perfect way to kick off my time in New Zealand!