I’ll get straight to the point for once. I said once upon a time that only two towns in New Zealand were worth making a special trip for. Russell and Queenstown. I’d like to revise that outdated advice. Some New Zealand towns have been giving themselves a bit of a makeover since we realised people from other counties might like to buy things other than a pie, an ice-cream and some rural supplies when they visit a township. I’m going to revisit some of the New Zealand towns I have had the good, or less good fortune to pass through since I returned home from England. This isn’t a detailed look at every town in New Zealand. I’m not writing a travel book, just a blog post, so I’m going to limit my visit and brief descriptions to the towns along New Zealand’s main road. State Highway One in the North Island.
Firstly though, there is something that has been troubling me since I got home and that is the pretty startling experience that first time or even regular visitors to New Zealand have to endure when they arrive here. Leaving Auckland and getting your holiday underway. People who come here by and large spend a decent chunk of that visit on the road. New Zealand is a road trip. Getting out of Auckland is confusing and unpleasant at best and a nightmare at worst.
When you leave the airport, if you wish to head north first, you turn left. The first signs you encounter saying ‘North’ and therefore indicating your best northward route are pointing you at the wrong road to take if you wish to head North. They would be more accurate if they said ‘Western Suburbs’. There is no obvious access to any practical route North in that direction despite what the ‘North’ sign says. I gather there is a road currently (slowly) being built which will enable people to actually head North from the airport. But it’s not there yet even though the signs have been for years. They are misleading at best.
If you ignore the incorrect signage and follow the main suburban route eventually arriving at the Epsom on-ramp to the Southern Motorway, heading north. You will find yourself at the most poorly designed motorway on and off-ramp combination in all the world. There is heavy traffic wishing to leave the Motorway for the central city just 100 metres north of where you are trying to join it.
When you successfully find yourself on the Southern Motorway, heading North, the next set of traffic lights are about 65 kilometres distant, at Warkworth. Here you will find the most poorly designed traffic intersection in all the world. If you are lucky, you didn’t sit in a queue of traffic up to 25 kilometres long to arrive at it. That actually happens in the Summer holidays. You might like to visit Warkworth while you are here. Stock up on supplies for your northern road trip. Warkworth is a pretty town with a nice river and worth a short wander to stretch your legs after your long flight and longer that you expected journey out of Auckland. I’m not going to talk about the places to the North. I’m going to focus on the New Zealand towns south of Auckland. The North should have a post of its own. I’ll get around to it. The North of New Zealand is home to our most beautiful coastline. A place of extraordinary natural beauty of the seaside variety. Like I said, I’ll get around to writing about it you but can see some images of it here though. I took these pictures. New Zealand coastal awesomeness
If you are heading South, you turn right when you leave the airport. Where you will drive along a carriageway through industrial South Auckland all the way to the Southern Motorway. The first town you come to when you leave Auckland and head down State Highway One instead of making for the Coromandel Peninsula, is Huntly. Don’t judge New Zealand by your first impression of the first town you encounter. Huntly is on the banks of the Waikato River and has a large power station on the opposite side of the river from the main road. Huntly also has a large ugly railway siding beside the road. Some unattractive run-down buildings in the centre and a small industrial estate on the south side of the town. Huntly must be New Zealand’s most unsightly settlement. New Zealand gets better after this, but not for a while. You have to get south of Hamilton to get to the good stuff.
Hamilton is one of New Zealand’s largest cities but there is no good reason to stop here. Thankfully there are a number of by-passes to choose. Choose one of them and use it.
I don’t need to talk about the Coromandel Peninsula as all the guide books discuss it at length. The Coromandel is a very beautiful place to visit.
When you’ve succeeded in avoiding Hamilton, you will most likely arrive at Cambridge unless you gave Hamilton the widest possible berth. Cambridge is very nice, leafy and expensive looking, You wonder what all the obviously rich people who live around here in huge houses do for a living. I believe they do things with horses and expensive cows.
Beyond Cambridge is a town apparently made out of Corrugated Iron. It’s called Tirau and I don’t think they make corrugated iron here but they very clearly love the stuff. They also have shops along the small main street that look to be worth having a poke about in. Expect things to be priced for the tourism market. New Zealand retailers like everyone else in the world believe tourists are easily pleased and happy to pay over the odds for poor quality useless things, mostly made in China, to remind them of their holiday. We also have the most excellent ‘antique’ shops. Really cool stuff from not all that long ago. I think ‘Retro’ shops would be a better description. They are all full of iconic items from our own childhood rather than expensive pretty things from Europe or other countries colonial furniture.
There are of course small settlements off to the left and right of the main highway, or road, to give it a more accurate description through the North Island, but they are mostly functional places full of farm machinery and rural supplies.
South of Tirau is Putaruru, which is unremarkable, then Tokoroa which exists for lumberjacks to buy whatever lumberjacks buy. You can tell it’s a timber town as there is a very large wooden sculpture of a man wielding a chainsaw beside the main street. Tokoroa is a biggish town on the edge of the Kaingaroa Forest, the largest planted forest in the Southern Hemisphere. Almost entirely pine trees. A little known fact about New Zealand is that trees grow faster here than anywhere else in the world.
After Tokoroa you drive through a small section of the giant pine forest until you get to Taupo. There is a bypass where you can avoid Taupo and head south or towards Hawkes Bay where they grow fruit and wine. It’s good to go into and through Taupo though as you’ll be ready for a stop again. Taupo is sometimes called ‘The Queenstown of the North Island’. I’m not sure who by, but I’m guessing it’s by the Taupo tourism board because Taupo is not the Queenstown of the North Island. Not even close. Taupo is a town made up almost entirely of motels along the side of the lake. Lake Taupo is actually a giant volcanic crater. One of the very few super volcanoes in the world. 2 of the 3 most cataclysmic volcanic eruptions in the last 600,000 years were right here in this crater. You’ll see the evidence in all the geothermal steam about the place. This is where the world as we know it could end at any time. Mind how you go.
Upon leaving Taupo, you drive the very scenic route alongside the Lake for half an hour or so and head up onto the Volcanic Plateau. Before you do that you pass by Turangi, which you visit if you like trout fishing as that’s what Turangi is for.
The Volcanic Plateau, where you drive the incorrectly named ‘desert road’. This is a tremendously atmospheric piece of alpine wilderness in the Central North Island rather than a desert. If you are lucky and the skies are clear you will get a great view of the three volcanoes which live here. Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe and Tongariro. They are all active.
At the end of the desert road is Waioru which is predominantly a bleak place beside an army camp, The amazing New Zealand Army museum is here and is one of the best museums in the country and one of the best army museums in the world. Definitely worth a look so you can be amazed at how such a small country with a tiny population can have such a completely epic military history.
Next stop is Taihape which for generations has been the butt of many kiwi jokes about gumboots and rural middle New Zealand. They have fully embraced their gumboot in Taihape and have installed a large one made out of corrugated iron beside the road. Taihape is full of character but small and behind you quickly as you continue south.
From here you pass through the extraordinary Rangitikei region with one of the most beautiful river valleys you’ll find anywhere. High white cliffs and big views across the jagged landscape from the beside the road. You’ll come down a big hill and see an aeroplane made into a café. An old DC3 in Mangaweka. Mangaweka is a village which serves the adventurous tourists who want to spend some time upside down in the Rangitikei River Rapids.
Hunterville is the next town/village and has the distinction of being the Huntaway Capital of the world. The Huntaway being the most iconic New Zealand sheep dog. No, not the ‘heading’ or eye dog. The big noisy one is the Huntaway.
Hunterville is also home to New Zealand’s largest General Store. This will surprise you when you go inside, it seems quite small. But you can buy everything here, from ice-creams to livestock, not pets, livestock. Sheep and cows I don’t think they carry them in stock though, you have to order them in specially. Hunterville also has a number of interesting shops and café’s. It’s a good place for a pit-stop on your road trip.
Refueled and fed you’ll get to Bulls next. Bulls is where the road turns left to continue south or right to head for Wanganui and Taranaki. For the record I think Wanganui is New Zealand’s prettiest city.
Bulls have put some clever marketing puns on all the significant buildings. Based around the word bull. I’ll let you see that for yourself. It’s unbelieve-a-bull
Once you’ve departed Bulls, crossed the river, turned right at Sanson which also has some roadside shops worth pottering about in, you start down the most boring stretch of road in New Zealand. The run from Sanson to Foxton and beyond. This is where the drive becomes a chore rather than an adventure. All the way from Foxton to the far end of the Kapiti Coast is where I lose the will to live I’m afraid. Boring towns, often heavy traffic, nothing to see here, just keep moving along please.
For me the road journey has now lost it’s joy, albeit briefly, and I don’t recapture it until I pass the old Paekakariki rail station. From here, there is much good scenery in places and the arrival view into Wellington when you round the corner at the bottom of the Ngauranga Gorge is truly magical on a clear day.
Wellington is a very scenic little city. Spend a couple of days here before catching your ferry to the South Island. The South Island is a very different world to the North Island. Did you know the two islands of New Zealand were formed by completely different geological forces? Mountain Formation in the South Island and Volcanism in the North Island. All New Zealand’s geothermal landscapes and Volcanoes are in the North Island. There are no volcanoes in the South Island.
This has been a summary of just a part of a single road. but the one most people moving down New Zealand use. There are many other roads to explore. Like I said before, New Zealand is a road trip. Enjoy your trip. Sorry about the unusually long post, I was on a roll.