We left the City of Sails and began our journey deeper into Middle Earth. This marked the beginning of our 10-day adventure. I prepared a simple map (see below) to help us navigate our journey. I am not a hardcore fan of the Lord of the Rings series but since we were in Middle Earth, we made special stops at two of the most significant LOTR shooting locations (Hobbiton and Mount Doom!).
In total, we travelled 1200km over 10 days, making 5 pitstops at Auckland City Center, Hamilton, Taupo Lake, Rotorua and Magere. Since Gandalf didn’t prepare any magical “Eagles of Manwë” for us, we relied on Felicia and our most trustworthy GPS device. I played “vehicle commander” to help Felicia to read maps and watch out for nasty obstacles on the road. On the contrary, I was the disruptive one. Many times, I interrupted the journey whenever there was a spectacular view or an interesting road sign. Thankfully, the roads were mostly empty and Felicia was a very calm and steady driver. In the end, we went to places that we didn’t even planned. That’s the spirit of an adventure. Keep exploring and you never know what gems you will find at the end of the road.
On 15th June, I had an eventful and unforgettable “Big 40” celebration at Hamilton. That was the day when I lost my “precious” (drone) to Middle Earth. On our way to Mount Doom (yes, the infamous mountain where Frodo discarded the ring – aka Mount Ngauruhoe at Tongariro National Park), dark forces stole my beloved drone. I was making my first Middle Earth flight over a beautiful valley (see picture below) when my drone suddenly took off in another direction. For some strange and unknown reasons, I was unable to gain any control of my drone. It flew beyond the valleys and forests and within seconds, the drone vanished! I tried frantically to recall it back but nothing happened. I even climbed over the fences and trespassed the privately owned valleys and forests to search for it. The drone simply vanished without a trace. (At this moment, I have submitted the flight log files and awaiting DJI to investigate into this matter.)
Many good friends sent me sympathy messages about the unfortunate loss of my precious drone. Amazingly, there wasn’t a single tint of sadness in me. In fact, I was more worried about my runaway drone hurting someone. I was relatively in good spirits and enjoyed the rest of the trip happily with my family. After all, a drone is replaceable anytime but precious moments with Felicia and Elkan are rare and priceless.
Our journey was glittered with countless rainbows, starry nights and sunny blue skies. I love the colours of nature and the pace of life here. It was a good soul-searching trip for me. I realised one simple truth – Extravagance can never refill the emptiness of city dwellers. It is not what we carry that define us, it is what’s inside that matters. Simple truth but how many people really adopt such state of mind. Here, people live and enjoy life simply in their own meaningful way. There aren’t many big branded boutiques, gadgets or posh vehicles to pollute the minds of the people. Here boasts an abundance of big natural, quiet spaces and ample time for one to pause, reflect and rethink about their own lives. Environment does play such a huge influence of our body, mind and soul.
Enough of my rattling, here are the top highlights of our 2nd to 5th Pitstops! Enjoy the photos!
PITSTOP 2 – HAMILTON (HOBBITON, BRIDAL VEIL FALLS)
We stayed at Hamilton Ibis Hotel. It is located just beside the scenic Waikato River and a short 5-min stroll to the town’s main shopping center and food street. Hotel offers valet parking for NZD20/night.
2.1) HOBBITON (2 HOURS TOUR) – This should be one of the most visited man-made attractions around Hamilton since the mega success and popularity of the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies. Hidden in the heart of a privately owned farm estate, the Hobbiton was completely recreated during the filming of the Hobbit Trilogies as a long term tourist attraction. We had a fascinating two-hour guided tour into The Shire. The guide gave us such an insightful story about how Peter Jackson found this place and the great details he took to create The Shire. If you have watched the LOTR movies, you will be able to identify some of the sites. Photo-taking can be a challenge as there will be many tourists around. Still, I managed to capture a couple of isolated shots of this magical village. (Official Website: http://www.hobbitontours.com/). For visitors, you can park your car at the ticket office and take the tour bus into the estate. No private vehicle can enter The Shire.
2.2) BRIDAL VEIL FALLS, WAIKATO (30MIN HIKE) – Located a short hour drive away from Hamilton city is this spectacular 55m-tall waterfall. Unlike other waterfalls that require a long hiking distance, the Bridal Veil Falls is only a 10-min walk away from the carpark. There are 3 spots you can see the waterfall (up-close, far-side and bottom opposite). Address: Bridal Veil Falls, Kawhia Road, Makomako 3895, New Zealand
PITSTOP 3 – TAUPO (LAKE TAUPO, RUAKURI CAVE, WAITOMO GLOWWORMS CAVES, TONGARIRO APLINE CROSSING, HUKA FALLS)
We stayed at a double-storey 2-bedroom motel, Le Chalet Suisse, owned by a Malaysian couple, Karen and Kenny who just moved here less than 2 years ago. It is located opposite Lake Taupo and right beside the key shopping streets and food outlets. The motel was newly refurbished. It is very spacious, clean and comfortable. It comes with a kitchen with full set of cooking utensils. There are 2 supermarkets 5-min drive away. We bought fresh food and cooked our meals inside the motel. For booking, email Karen or Kenny at: firstname.lastname@example.org or visit their website at http://www.lechaletsuisse.co.nz
3.1) RUAKURI CAVE (90MIN TOUR) – First discovered 500 years ago, the Ruakuri Cave is a very well preserved cave that spiral down 60m deep underground with narrowing tunnels, underground rivers and glowworms! At 90 minutes, it is New Zealand’s longest guided underground cave tour and certainly much bigger than those of Western Australia. The operator limits no more than 18 people per tour so there are lots of space for you to enjoy the cave quietly at your own pace! The cave is located 75-min drive from Taupo Lake. Address: 585 Waitomo Caves Rd. Website: http://www.waitomo.com/ruakuri-cave/Pages/default.aspx
3.2) WAITOMO GLOWWORMS CAVES (45MIN TOUR) – Located just 2km beside the Ruakuri Cave, this is possible the world’s best place to see the glowworms! It boasts an underground river system where we saw millions of glittering glowworms in pure darkness. It is a must visit if you are around town. To protect the glowworms and also the tour experience, no photography is allowed at all. Address: 39 Waitomo Caves Rd. Website: http://www.waitomo.com/Waitomo-Glowworm-Caves/Pages/default.aspx
3.3) TONGARIRO ALPINE CROSSING, “MOUNT DOOM” (7-HOUR HIKE) – This is New Zealand’s oldest national site with dual World Heritage Site titles. Located 60min-drive away from Taupo City Center, we arrived at an infamous volcano of this century – Mount Doom. The Tongariro National Park houses 2 active volcanoes where Mount Doom of LOTR was shot. The sign at the entrance said the full 19km-hike takes over 6-7 hours. Based on my experience, it can easily take an novice hiker over 10 hours to compete the trail. The hike takes place over many active volcanic areas. There are many warning signs about falling rocks and slippery unstable tracks. From the base (1,120m) to mid levels (at 1,350m) to the crater (at 1,886m), temperature changes drastically so it is important to come well-prepared and fully equipped. It is strongly advised to come in 2 cars where you start from one carpark at Mangatepopo Carpark and ends at the other at Ketetahi Carpark (so there is no need for you to track back to the starting point). We could not finish the hike as the tracks were very slippery due to the icy condition.
3.4) HUKA FALLS (20MIN HIKE) – Located only 10-min drive away from Taupo town center, this is New Zealand’s most convenient and visited natural attraction. It takes less than 5 minutes to walk from the carpark to the falls. Every second, up to 220,000 litres of water gushes through the 20m-gorge and as it crosses a narrow 15m volcanic channel, it forms a spectacular visual feast of powerful falls and rapids.
PITSTOP 4 – ROTORUA (CRATERS OF THE MOON, ORAKEI KORAKO GEOTHERMAL ATTRACTION, WAI-O-TAPU THERMAL WONDERLAND, TEPUIA POHUTU GEYSER, A-MAZE-ME)
After hiking and traveling for so many days, I decided to pick a motel with private spa pool. After all, we are in Sulphur City where it is surrounded by numerous active geothermal spots. I managed to find a highly-rated motel by the name of Sport of the Kings. Its owners were extremely friendly and helpful. The rooms are clean and spacious. Most importantly, we have our own private hot spa pool to relax our tired bodies after a long day of walking.
4.1) CRATERS OF THE MOON (45MIN HIKE) – Located 10km away from Taupo Lake and 50-min drive away from Rotorua, this is one of the smallest (and more affordable) geothermal attractions around this region. It houses lots of small steaming active craters, blowholes (fumaroles) and a small boiling mud-pool. If you have visited other major geothermal parks like the Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland, you can simply skip this. Website: http://www.cratersofthemoon.co.nz/
4.2) ORAKEI KORAKO GEOTHERMAL ATTRACTION (60MIN HIKE) – The Lonely Planet cited this as “arguably the best thermal area left in New Zealand”, the Orakei Korako Geothermal Attraction houses one of the two geothermal caves in the world and the largest geyser-fields in New Zealand. Do take precaution whenever you are visiting one of these thermal areas as the zones can be highly unpredictable and dangerous. Always stay on the boardwalks and away from the boiling steam. The Orakei Korako Geothermal Attraction is located just 40-min drive away from Rotorua. It is certainly worth a visit if you are driving through the area. Website: http://www.orakeikorako.co.nz/
4.3) WAI-O-TAPU THERMAL WONDERLAND (75MIN HIKE) – Having visited 4 geothermal attractions, in my opinion, the Wai-O-Tapu is the most colourful and spectacular geothermal site. Located 20-min drive away from Rotorua, it houses big deep craters, mudpools and luminous thermal lakes. The entrance tickets cost a little more than the rest but it is a must-visit destination for those who come to New Zealand! Website: http://www.waiotapu.co.nz/
4.4) TEPUIA POHUTU GEYSER (75MIN HIKE) – The Lonely Planet rated this as one of the world’s top 5 geysers and it is the world’s most reliable and predictable geyser. Shooting up to 30m high, the Pohutu Geyser is nature’s most spectacular fountain! Best of all, it is located within 5min-drive from Rotorua city center! A 100% must visit destination! Be prepared for lots of steam! When we were here, the geyser was shooting non-stop for over 30 minutes! It was amazing! There is a guided tour every hour or you can simply take a self-guided walk. Website: http://www.tepuia.com/new-zealand/
4.5) A-MAZE-ME (15MIN – 60MIN) – There are a lot of activities for kids and family along Paradise Valley Road, Rotorua (which is only 15min drive away from the town center). This is Elkan’s first giant maze experience! Three of us ran into the maze and guess who won! Elkan arrived at the center of the maze first! He took only 15 minutes to crack the maze. Poor Felicia and me took much much longer! Website: http://www.amazeme.co.nz/
PITSTOP 5 – BACK TO AUCKLAND AIRPORT (KIWI 360)
Our 10-day Middle Earth adventure ended here. We parked ourselves at Holiday Inn Auckland Airport Hotel a day before our flight so we avoided taking a 3-hour long morning drive from Rotorua back to Auckland. We needed a good rest before the long 11-hour flight back to Hong Kong. Our hotel was only 5-min drive away from the airport.
5.1) KIWI 360 (45MIN VISIT) – On our way from Rotorua to Auckland, we made a short detour at a Kiwi Fruit Plantation (located 51km from Rotorua). It was an enjoyable visit where we learnt so many new things about this amazing fruit! For the first time in our life, we learnt that Kiwi Fruit isn’t a native fruit of New Zealand. It is in fact a native fruit from China! Yes, China! It was only introduced to New Zealand in the early 1900s and it was originally named “Chinese Gooseberry”. However, that didn’t sound very convincing and the New Zealanders had a difficult time to export “grow-in-New-Zealand-Chinese-Gooseberry” overseas. A remarkable marketing rebranding by a California-based importer changed its fate. As the brown furry fruit resembled the native bird Kiwi, the California important renamed the fruit from “Chinese Gooseberry” to “Kiwi Fruit”. Soon, its fame grew and by 1980s, New Zealand was known as the Kiwi Fruit Capital. We learnt so much more about the fruit at the farm. The tour guide was extremely insightful and friendly. We got to see 16 other fruit trees including the Mānuka flowers and the Macadamia Nut trees (that looks like a lime trees). Elkan even got a rare opportunity to pluck a couple of kiwi fruits to bring home! Do also grab other exclusive Kiwi products at the gift shop! The Kiwi Whisky is just so smooth and sweet! Website: http://www.kiwi360.com/
It has been a wonderful, fulfilling holiday with Felicia and Elkan. For some strange reasons, it felt like a month vacation when we only spent 10 nights in New Zealand. My only regret is I should have planned a 18-day vacation instead of 10. An additional 8 days would be enough for us to fly south to visit more scenic sites. The Kiwis have been extraordinary kind to us. New Zealand left us with so many priceless moments and memories. What I left behind was my missing drone. Hopefully, it finds itself a good master so it can soar once again, over this incredible beautiful land.
We will certainly be back for the southern Middle Earth tour – with more drivers and buddies! And yes, I will bring in my new drone to defeat the dark lords! Haere rā, Middle Earth! Hope you enjoy this blog.
And it so good to be back home with a birthday surprise for me – Thanks Tracy for the cake and gift!