The fur seals of Kaikoura by Marek Charytonowicz

We were quite lucky with crossing the Cook Strait to the South Island today. The strong winds from the last few days subsided and the sea calmed down a bit literally hours before our departure. But even with the relatively quiet seas the huge ferry swayed on the swell as we slowly made our way out of the Wellington Harbour, then the Fitzroy Bay, crossed the Cook Strait and meandered into the maze of inlets of the South Island's northern coast. It took three and a half hours but finally we reached Picton, a small picturesque town which is the gateway to this island for all the ferries from Wellington. The sun was up, the sky was blue and we were happy to leave the rather gloomy Wellington behind.

Today the plan was to reach Kaikoura, a seaside town roughly half way towards Christchurch on the East Coast, famous for dolphins, seals and whale watching. 

The two an a half hour journey took us across the Marlborough wine region with its huge wine yards and then along the East Coast. The wind picked up and the coastal route felt a bit like the Australian Great Ocean Road, only with a spectacular wall of mountains on the right and choppy ocean on the left. The turquoise waves mercilessly slashed dark grey rocks of the coastline, raising fountains of white spray that seemed to be hanging in the air as a white thin layer of fog. It was a rough and beautiful landscape, the home of few people and countless black fur seals resting on the rocks as we were driving by. It was New Zealand as we imagined it.

We reached Kaikoura in the afternoon and left our van at the Top 10 camping ground. Across our journey in New Zealand it became our favourite chain as it offered the nicest spots and all amenities that were making camping even more relaxing and comfortable. We were also pretty lucky to always meet nice people there - both from the staff and guests alike.

This one wasn't different. We quickly made friends with the reception guy who knew all about everything worth doing in Kaikoura and seemed to spend his morning hours speeding around the camping grounds in a little golf cart. He gave us a lot of tips on what's worth doing - most notably the whale watching. It turned out that Kaikoura is one of the lucky places where you can see whales for the entire year, different species depending on the season. We booked it instantly as that was one of the things we really wanted to do and in Australia it proved impossible when we were there.

The next day was looking very exciting already but for now we wanted to finally say "hello" to the ocean and see the town before a dinner in our camper. The beach turned out to be pretty spectacular - large turquoise waves crashing on a wide stretch of dark grey pebbles with green misty mountains on the horizon surrounding the bay. The ocean was cold and the weather got colder too - our long sleeves and jumpers were out of the bags and quite likely were out to stay.

It was a beautiful and raw place and we couldn't imagine a better start of the South Island experience. With the whale watching the next day, the adventure was beginning once again!

Windy Welly by Marek Charytonowicz

We were almost done with the North Island - the next day a ferry was taking us across the Cook Strait to the South Island, the land of mountains and very few people. The land known from The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit.

For now though, we still had a few things to do in our itinerary. We started from visiting a couple of wineries for a little tasting session. The wines were amazing and we ended up with three bottles of fantastic pinot noir packed in our bags. 

We headed towards Wellington, famous of its constantly blowing winds that brought the city its nickname - Windy Welly. The road was nice and green but pretty quickly it turned into a mountain serpentine road, narrow, winding and with heavy traffic heading in the same direction as us. It was uncomfortable and despite our efforts, we couldn't go allowed 100 km/h - our camper just couldn't pull it off and to be honest a speed limit like this on a road like that was simply insane. 

We were doing our best but despite that from time to time we had a few cars on our back that had to wait for the take over lanes to move ahead. It was a bit stressful but we were doing pretty good and Wellington was getting closer.

And then we heard a police signal. It was several cars behind us and we were wondering what has happened and where they were going. After a moment, the police car took over all the cars but ours. We thought, ok, next take over lane and it will pass us by by nothing like that happened and we realised they were after us. We started looking for a safe spot to pull over but on this narrow winding road with heavy traffic going fast it was an impossible task. It took us a couple of minutes before the road got wider and we could safely stop our camper.

We were given an infringement notice for driving too slow. $150 for being too careful. According to the pretty irritated and rather rude police officer, he was following us for five minutes, we were slowing down the traffic and should have stopped and let it pass where we could. One more minute and we would have been banned from driving in New Zealand altogether. After that tirade he went back to his car and the good cop arrived with the infringement notice and apologetic smile on his face. He understood all our arguments but still gave us the ticket. And then they left.

The truth is we weren't too slow. We were keeping a safe speed in a vehicle that accelerates and breaks with delay, on a narrow winding mountain road with very limited visibility and no pull over bays that were not gravel holes and were big enough to fit our camper. The police did not indicate for us to stop instead chasing us on a full signal and then playing the classic good cop bad cop game.  We suspected they were performing training as there was a third officer in the car and we were simply used as a learning example.

Enough said, this ruined the rest of our day. We arrived at Wellington and visited the famous Weta Workshop where we went on a guided tour around their offices. This company was co-founded by Peter Jackson and is one of the best special effects and movie prop studios in the world. They created the entire world for The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit and since then for many other Hollywood blockbusters. It was a great experience to see and touch the props used in that movies and learn about various tricks used to create what we saw on the screen. After Hobbiton this was the second most important place I really wanted to see and it's a shame that this visit was overshadowed by the infringement notice experience.

We left Weta just when they were about to close and headed to a camping ground outside of town for our last night on the North Island. We didn't really see Wellington, the right mood wasn't there to combat the strong wind and never ending busy motorways crossing the city. All we wanted was a dinner and some peace and quiet. The next day we were finally crossing to the South Island.

The pinot noir wonderland - Martinborough by Marek Charytonowicz

Today was all about crossing the North Island to find the wine region. We are both big fans of pinot noir wine and New Zealand happens to produce some finest ones in the world. And although the large vineyards are on the South Island, the North one has Martinborough - a small wine region in the south, not far from Wellington and equally famous.

The drive was long and a bit strenuous due to the wind that was shaking our little but tall house on wheels at every corner. We crossed great planes and went past the famous Tongariro National Park with three active volcanic mountains Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe, and Tongariro.

We stopped for a coffee and a camper made sandwich once or twice and even visited the Gumboot Capital of the World - Taihape. 

We reached Martinborough in the late afternoon. This small town was founded originally in 19th century by John Martin, a merchant, politician and a speculator from New Zealand, and the first streets were set out in the pattern of the Union Flag. Many of the town's streets were named after foreign places visited by Martin and one can visit Venice, Texas, Strasbourg and New York in one short walk. It is a rural town and due to the warm micro-climate, it is surrounded by vineyards famous for the production of finest pinot noir wines. 

It was too late for any winery tour so instead we went for dinner to one of the few places still opened called Pinocchio. The food was excellent and the wine list had a fair choice of local pinot noir, which was a good taster before next day's wine yards visit.  The way back proved challenging as the wind was getting stronger and stronger reaching as we checked almost 7 on Beaufort scale (50-60 km/h). 

It was going to be a shaky night in our little camper but at least we didn't have a tent roof over our heads. Looking around we felt sorry for little tents around the camping grounds being battered by the gusts of wind. Our camper might have been swaying in the wind but at least it had proper solid walls. Call it a silver lining...

Rolling down the hill in a massive plastic ball. Because you can! by Marek Charytonowicz

Zorbing is defined by the Concise Oxford English Dictionary as "a sport in which a participant is secured inside an inner capsule in a large, transparent ball which is then rolled along the ground or down hills". The large and small balls are separated by a layer of air that acts as a shock absorber and the participant enters the inner ball with around 40 litres of water that allows for sliding inside as the ball rolls.

Zorbing was invented in 1994 by Andrew Akers in Rotorua, New Zealand. And it happened to be what we decided to do on this lovely morning before heading to Huka Falls.

We didn't know what to expect when we looked at giant three meter plastic ball and the green slope running steeply down which was the track. We were taken to the top of the hill in a car, wearing swimming suits and now we were watching a guy pouring water into the ball via small opening which was also the way in and out. The slope looked steep. The ball looked insanely crazy. We were excited.

A minute later we slided into the zorb - surrounded by warm water and plastic, transparent ball we could see the slope in front of us. Then the guy released a security barrier and the ball started rolling down.

What happened after can only be described as euphoria - two people enclosed in a plastic ball rolling down the hill and laughing out loud as they slide around inside in splashes of water. It's such a fun experience - you're just like a child laughing uncontrollably for a minute or so as the ball speeds down and stops at the bottom of the hill. Then the plastic door is opened and you slide out with the stream of water... a little bit like a newborn? Hmmmm....

We did two runs - one fast straight down the hill and the second much longer slalom. Both were exhilarating and we loved it! 

The next stop today was Wai-O-Tapu (Māori for "sacred waters"), an active geothermal area at the southern end of the Okataina Volcanic Centre, just north of the Reporoa caldera, in New Zealand's Taupo Volcanic Zone. Due to dramatic geothermal conditions beneath the earth, the area has many hot springs noted for their colourful appearance and strong smell. The area covers 18 square kilometres and has several walking tracks meandering between the pools of bubbling hot mud and water.

We walked almost the entire route and it was hard. The smell of sulphur is overwhelming and every time the wind changed its direction, we were enclosed in a cloud of hot steam from a nearby sulphur sinkhole or lake. Unless you had a strong stomach, this was tricky to handle. 

The area is nonetheless beautiful in a strange and a bit eerie way. The landscape is dotted with collapsed sinkholes with bubbling hot ponds at the bottom. The colour and temperature vary - depending on chemical structure of the pond, yellow and green are sulphur, red have mostly iron and black are predominantly crude oil and graphite. The park is large and it takes around an hour to walk the entire long route. The heat pours from the sky and from the ground at the same time, and the thought of this soup of minerals literally boiling just meters underneath your feet makes you feel uneasy and overwhelmed at the same time.

After an hour or so we left towards Taupo, our stop for the night. It's a nice fishing town on the edge of Lake Taupo, the largest lake on the North Island. Before reaching the town, we wanted to check out the famous Huka Falls, a set of waterfalls on the Waikato River that drains Lake Taupo.

The waterfalls are impressive despite their unusual shape - they're not a typical cascade of water falling from a rocky outcrop into the distant bottom. Instead, they are a fierce current of turquoise rapids mixed with white foam forced into a narrow canyon. It's this squeezing of the huge amount of water between two walls of rock that turns it into a furious 50 meters of roaring chaos with a small concrete bridge crossing it in the middle and creating a great viewpoint. They make a tremendous display of raw power.

We didn't spend much time walking around as above and below the falls the river becomes nice and calm and the walking track doesn't offer much excitement. Instead we headed to another camping ground for the night. This time - we abandoned the favourite Top 10 for a local smaller ground. 

It was a good choice and we cooked our dinner accompanied by some wild rabbits hopping happily around. Taupo wildlife at its best?

The land of the Maori & volcanic hot springs - Rotorua by Marek Charytonowicz

Rotorua disappointed us a bit. In our heads we painted a picture of a nice lakeside town with Maori culture visible on every step. What welcomed us was wide streets with supermarkets, car rentals, garages, motels and all other services on either side.  

It felt like we're entering a large city and just crossing it's busy, ugly suburb with all the big warehouse businesses. Even our camping ground (luckily - nice and cosy) was squeezed between a busy road and a tools warehouse. The nearby park had natural hot springs bubbling hot sulphur water but the wind was keeping the eggy smell away from this area.

We booked a Maori experience at Te Puia Maori Centre for the evening and we decided to lazy around for half a day for a change and do some camping chores. 

Te Puia Maori Centre was a nicely designed complex of small buildings next to large area of hot spring with an impressive geyser that was shooting water up to 30 meters every hour or so. The centre also housed traditional carving school and a small kiwi sanctuary where during the day one could see this unofficial symbol of New Zealand. Because our tour was in the late afternoon, we didn't get to see the kiwis nor the carving school unfortunately. Instead with other 30 people or so we were greeted by our guide and taken to a large wooden house where a group of Maori artists presented a show consisting of some traditional dancing, chanting, singing and a facts about their culture. They even invited the public to join them in dances (women) and attempt to do a haka (men). I definitely need to work on sticking out my tongue while rolling my eyes a bit more.

After the show we were taken to another house nearby for a welcome feast - hangi. Traditionally it is cooked on rocks heated by volcanic hot springs - in this case only some dishes were. I'm sorry to say it wasn't impressive. The food was good and very tasty but instead of expected fully traditional cuisine it was a combination of that and regular tourist oriented food - including seafood and pavlova. We did enjoy the meal and sneaked out to see the geyser and hot springs. These were quite spectacular and we even managed to see the geyser shooting water in the setting sun. 

Overall we left the experience with mixed feelings. Maori culture seems to be everywhere in names of places, language, symbols of New Zealand. It seems extremely interesting and colourful and we really wanted to learn more about it. We chose this experience because it was recommended but I'm not sure if it delivered what we expected. We had a little chat with our guide during the evening and he explained the reality. It's the tourism industry that works both ways: on one side keeps the traditions alive and needed, on the other side tailors them to what customer wants to pay for. It's sad to watch when one sees pavlova competing with traditional hangi - all cooked by a Chinese chef - and winning. 

Our group was the last one and we got to the camping ground in the evening. It was a good day and the next one was about to bring even more excitement.

We were going to try a zorb!

We're going on an adventure - finding Bilbo Baggins by Marek Charytonowicz

Today I woke up excited like a little kid. One of my childhood dreams was about to come true in just a few hours - we were visiting Hobbiton!

Hobbiton is basically a movie set created originally for Peter Jackson's The Lord Of The Rings trilogy and then used also in The Hobbit trilogy. This location was found by a stroke of luck by Jackson's wife and happened to be a farmland of the Alexander Family. The movies proved a massive hit and became New Zealand's national treasure and a source of pride - and Hobbiton became a permanent location where one can see, touch and experience the Shire where Bilbo and Frodo Baggins started and ended their adventures.

The area is absolutely stunning - green rolling hills with massive solitary pine trees from time to time and not a soul on the horizon. There are 44 hobbit holes created here although none of them have interiors. The actually interior of Bag End, the house of Bilbo and Frodo, was created on stage in Wellington's Weta Workshop. Hobbiton has also a river, a mill and a pub which you can access crossing a small stone bridge and enjoy a pint of cold cider. 

The amount of work put into every single detail is astonishing - after building the main structures, Jackson brought in gardeners that planted all of the little bushes, trees and flowers and the set was left to overgrow naturally. It took many months to bring it to full glory and since then there are three permanent gardeners employed here to keep it lush and green. The huge amount of flowers and vegetables attract butterflies and the area looks exactly like in the movie without the need of any special effects. There's even an artificial tree with over 300000 hand painted leaves above Bag End hole. 

The tour lasted two hours of walking around and visiting every doorway of every Hobbit hole . At the end we crossed the bridge by the mill and enjoyed a mug of Hobbit cider. And then obviously the shop where I found The One Ring - out of all the places this seemed the most appropriate as that's where the story began.

We left Hobbiton feeling that we could live in a place like that - beautiful, green and among peacefully rolling hills where all the fuss of the London life seemed so far away behind the Misty Mountains.

We headed towards Rotorua - an area famous for volcanic hot springs, eggy smell and Maori culture. We were looking forward to learn some more about the indigenous people of this land and that was the best place to do it. Or so we thought.

Black water rafting in Waitomo Glowworm Caves by Marek Charytonowicz

Today we properly set off on our road trip around New Zealand South Island. The target was Waitomo famous for its Glowworm Caves and it was to be quite a drive of around 3 hours.

Glowworms actually don't exist in biological sense. The name is a common term for various groups of insect larvae that glow through bioluminescence. In case of Waitomo (meaning in Maori 'water sinkhole'), the worms are actually maggots but that name wouldn't be particularly appealing to visitors - hence nicely sounding glow worms.

We decided to not simply walk around and watch but actually do what is called a black water rafting - which means exploring a cave in a wetsuit and with a help of an inflatable tube that helps in swimming through some flooded areas. The concept sounded interesting and our time slot was booked for 1 pm. We missed it by 15 minutes but luckily there was another one later on the same day. Since the adventure takes around three hours, it would be difficult to fit it in with a visit to Hobbiton the next day so we were happy the new time slot worked out.

We checked in to a camping ground and an hour later we were driven to Ruakuri Cave. We put on thick wetsuits, rubber boots and helmets with head torches and boarded a small van covered in wet mud inside out. The driver took us to a nearby entrance to the cave - a little hole between the rocks with a narrow path leading to it through the rainforest. It looked rather creepy but with the floating tubes on our arms we went in.

The next two or so hours were an unforgettable experience. We went 65 meters underground through a maze of rock tunnels and cracks, with water flowing constantly alongside us. At some points we had to turn around and jump backward from waterfalls to invisible deeper pools in the darkness minding the sharp rocks all around us. The water was freezing cold despite the wetsuits and our hands soon lost feeling.

The spots where we felt most uneasy were the underground waterfalls with gushing water and hardly any visibility. But always going through them was rewarded with stretches of calm water and floating in our inflatable tubes with glow worms covering the ceiling of the cave above our heads. At some point we spent over 10 minutes just slowly floating through a large cave with the ceiling shinning with blue glow worms and a quiet song coming out of hidden speaker somewhere around us. It was an unbelievable feeling, as if we entered a different world straight from James Cameron's Avatar. That included wetas, spooky spider-like large insects sitting on the walls and at one point landing on the shoulder of one of the guys in front of us.

The experience finished after around 3 hours when cold, wet and excited we saw a large opening at the end of the tunnel that turned into a view of a rainforest with a muddy path leading upwards. The dirty van drove us back and we were treated with hot tomato soup and bagels. We got back to the camper van tired but very happy - it was an experience like we've never had before and was worth all the cold and scratches!

Welcome to Narnia - Cathedral Cove by Marek Charytonowicz

When we arrived in New Zealand we didn't really have a detailed plan of what we're going to do and when. We had a few places marked on the map around north part of North Island and that was all. After the first day we realised that we actually have very little time for what we want to see and we need to organise our route or miss some things and waste time.

That's why we decided the second day to take it easy and only go to nearby Hahei Beach with the famous Cathedral Cove, stay there and plan the New Zealand journey properly.

Hahei Beach was only half an hour away and we decided to find a cafe and regroup. The weather was nice and sunny and within an hour we had a pretty much full route across both islands. We didn't have much time as it turned out - only 19 days for both islands. It was going to be busy.

But for now it was an acclimatisation day - we checked into a beautiful camping ground and parked 15 meters form the beach under a massive pine tree. The ocean turned out to be refreshingly chilly - no more Australian soup! We sat on the beach for a couple of hours and decided to go and see the Cathedral Cove - a nearby wonder of nature. 

We used a water taxi to get there - 5 minute ride to avoid 2 hour walk up the hill. We were the only passengers on the little motorboat with tide coming in fast and waves getting higher. Five minutes later we reached a secluded little beach with a crowd of people waiting to be picked up to get back to town.

The Cathedral Cove is a limestone cave that links it with the Mare's Leg Cove. One can cross from one to the other under a majestic ceiling - which was used in the movie The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian as the entrance to the world of Narnia. It's beautiful and unfortunately very crowded. We stayed there for a short swim, a bathe in a small waterfall and then took a winding path along the cliffs back to town. 

The picturesque walk took us alongside the Gemstone Bay and Stingray Bay all the way to Hahei Beach. We discovered a little rope swing on the beach and became little kids again.

Later we had a nice dinner in a local cafe and enjoyed an evening by the camper van. The tranquility of camping life, we could get used to that...

Digging a pool on a beach - the Hot Water Beach of the Coromandel Peninsula by Marek Charytonowicz

At 10 o'clock we met Britz, our camper van. Small enough to fit within a 'car' category, big enough to be our mobile home for the next 19 days on the winding roads of New Zealand. It was a white Toyota Hiace, with mini kitchen, gas hob, microwave and a fridge. Several hidden bench compartments and a back door board that opened as a bed completed the picture. It also had another sleeping area positioned just under the roof that we could unfold - but we decided it's perfect for all our bags and spare bedsheets. 

We named it Bruno Britz although originally I wanted to call it Sabs Moving Castle. We liked it - it looked friendly and cosy next to the serious camper vans parked beside it. We dropped our bags on the floor and set off to the nearest supermarket to fill it up with provisions. 

Our plan for today was modest - a two hour drive to the Hot Water Beach on the Coromandel Peninsula on East Coast of the North Island. The sand of this famous beach was hiding several hot volcanic springs and one could use a shovel to dig himself a little spa pool on the beach.

The roads turned out to be great - well maintained, up to 100km an hour and crossing the most beautiful landscapes we could imagine. New Zealand was definitely rising to the challenge and amazing us with dense forests, green fields to the horizon and rolling hills that any Hobbit would appreciate. After a while we entered Coromandel Peninsula and the road became winding and enclosed in beautiful forest. It felt like being in Europe again if it wasn't for the giant ferns that gave New Zealand the shape of its national symbol. It was warm and sunny with small white clouds like from the Simpsons painted on the blue sky.

We reached Hot Water Beach and our first campsite in the evening - the Top 10 Holiday Park. It was a nice quiet place with all the amenities and only 2 minute walk from the beach. We parked, connected the electricity and organised our little home on wheels. It was the first camping night - for both of us the first camper van camping in our lives.

Later on armed with a shovel we walked to the small beach. There were a few surfers there and the South Pacific was basking in the sunset. 

The idea with the Hot Water Beach is that during the low tide you dig a little pool in the sand and the hot springs running under the beach will fill it up with hot water - and you've got a handmade spa.  When we arrived, there were already a few people there sitting in their holes. I must say - it looked a crowd of rather large children playing in mud and building sand castles. Every now and then a wave would come and flood the sand holes and everyone would frantically start digging and repairing the wall around their little pools.

Laughing we joined the group and realised that once you find a hot spring and dig a pool - sitting in hot water and watching the sunset is a rather nice experience. Especially that since we came early - we could observe other people going through the same efforts of finding the spot, digging, securing from the waves. a jolly crowd of grown up kids on the beach. Priceless!

After that we cooked our first camper meal, quickly turned the kitchen into a bedroom and drifted away under chilly starry sky. The first day was done and we were officially camper van folk now.

Kia ora - welcome to the Middle Earth! by Marek Charytonowicz

At 5:45 am we jumped in a cab and got to the airport to fly to Auckland. The New Zealand adventure was beginning and we were excited and very sleepy. Three hours of beautiful ocean views later we landed in the land of mountains, Maori, Kiwis and Hobbits. It was already afternoon - three hours ahead of Brisbane time and we immediately jumped from 9 to 12-hour time difference from home. 

New Zealand welcomed us with long customs control. Bringing any food or plants to the islands is not allowed to avoid contaminating the local flora and for us that means giving up all the matchbox seeds found on the beach in Port Douglas. Apparently they bring luck when found so it seemed like we gave away around 8 pieces of it. When we finally managed to convince the officers that we don't have any more biological weapons that may threaten New Zealand in our bags, we were greeted by a three meter stone statue of a Dwarf Warrior - a movie prop from The Lord Of The Rings - temporarily residing at the airport and welcoming travellers to Middle Earth. I couldn't wait to see the locations used in the trilogy by Peter Jackson - it was like a child's dream coming true at least!

An hour later we were making ourselves comfortable in Quality Hotel Purnell. A place that needs 'quality' in its name immediately sounds suspicious - especially when a day earlier we watched John Oliver ridiculing Donald Trump (read Drumpf) and using our hotels' golden logo as a ironic example of bad branding. The hotel wasn't too bad though and at least the area was nice and a walk away from the city centre. 

We didn't plan to stay long in Auckland. We only had one evening to have a sneak peek at the city and grab a bite - in a strange place called Woodpecker which was an unexpected fusion between Canadian axe man grill bar and Thai restaurant - but served good food nonetheless. We did a short walk to see the harbour and have a drink. It was much colder than in Brisbane and now we appreciated the long sleeved shirts and jumpers that used to be a dead weight in Australia.

The next day we were about to pick up our camper van. With no prior experience in driving one that itself was looking like an adventure...