I’m walking underneath Auckland Harbor Bridge, tethered to a steel cable so I don’t fall in the water 142 feet below. It’s a blue-sky day in New Zealand, perfect for a bungy jump. I’m with a group of about 10 jumpers and observers. My son, Scott, walking a few feet ahead of me, is all geared up to take the plunge. Me? I just plan to watch.
A few minutes later our group gathers in a small room underneath the bridge as the jumpers receive instructions. They can choose to barely touch the water at the bottom of the jump or get dunked.
Scott opts for the latter, and after leaping off the platform, he drops into the water headfirst and gets wet to his waist before bouncing up and down a few times and then getting hauled back up, his eyes shining, his face glowing, and his hair and shirt dripping wet.
One by one the other jumpers make their leaps, bounce a bit, and get reeled back in. Every single person is ecstatic and says this bungy jump is the best thing ever. What? Really?
Our guide says it’s not too late. I can still jump if I want to. I peer over the platform, ponder a bit, and shake my head. I’m just too scared, afraid of jolting my middle-aged back, not to mention dangling upside down in mid-air. So I turn down my first and probably last chance to bungy jump.
Luckily, there are plenty of other adventures ahead. I’m in New Zealand on a once-in-a-lifetime trip with my husband, Peter, and our son. After a three-day writers’ conference in Auckland, we will travel around the North Island in a Maui motorhome on a two-week camping trip. Our itinerary is packed full of adventure.
As Scott and I attach ourselves to the bridge cables and head to solid ground, I promise myself: No more chickening out!
See Glowworms As You Float in a Black Cave
Blackwater Caving is Scary-Fun For The Whole Family
A few days later I’m wishing I could. Scott, Peter, and I are wearing wet suits and carrying inner tubes through a pitch-black cave with only a small light attached to our helmeted heads. We’re on a blackwater rafting expedition, and Peter and I are decades older than the other participants. It’s too late to turn back now.
The three-hour journey starts with a backwards practice jump into an inner tube. Mine is not pretty—and even with a wetsuit, the water’s freezing. We begin floating toward the mouth of the “black labyrinth.” Inside the cave, we walk through the stream at times, stepping on uneven rocky terrain—underwater—in the dark. Falling is a given, but fortunately we don’t break any bones. At an underground waterfall, the guide tells us to jump backwards into pitch darkness 3-4 feet down. What? It’s a leap of faith when you can’t see the water below, but I somehow manage to land in my tube.
Later floating through the caves, we form a snake, by tucking our feet underneath the arms of the person in front of us. The guide tells us to turn off our helmet lights and we glide along in pure blackness. I look up and see thousands of tiny glowworms, subterranean creatures that cling to cave ceilings and eat insects attracted to their eerie luminescent glow. The tiny points of light look like a star-studded sky.
We see glowworms again on a tour of nearby Waitomo Glowworm Cave, owned by a local Maori family. On a short boat ride through the eerily quiet caves, the only sound we hear is water lapping on the side of the boat as we glide in the dark. Above thousands of glowworms remind us we’re not alone. There’s a sense of timelessness in this cave. Millions, maybe trillions of glowworms have been living, eating, breeding, and dying here for eons, probably longer than human existence. The spirit of nature dwells in this place.
Looking for Hobbits at Hobbiton Movie Set
Try Tasty Cider At The Green Dragon Inn
Another kind of spirit awaits in the Shire, home of the Hobbiton Movie Set. We head there after spending the night in a cozy campground in Leamington. Hobbiton Movie Set is a tourist attraction for J.R.R. Tolkien fans, who come on pilgrimages to explore the same ground that The Hobbit and parts of The Lord of the Rings series were filmed. Peter opts to spend quiet time in the camper while Scott and I take a bus along with throngs of tourists through the countryside to the film set.
Turns out LOTR fans are everywhere we turn in New Zealand. If you’re a fan, you know that the movies were directed by Peter Jackson and filmed in his homeland. New Zealanders are very proud of their country’s contribution to this history-making franchise, and LOTR tours are available from one end of the country to another.
Hobbiton is cute as it can be, but it seems empty somehow. I keep expecting to see Bilbo Baggins or Gandalf with his staff. Instead it looks like all the hobbits have disappeared in the middle of their chores. Clothes dangle on clotheslines, and baskets of produce sit half-filled beside real gardens.
After taking lots of photos of the hobbit homes nestled in the hillsides, Scott and I wander past the watermill toward the Green Dragon Inn, recreated using the actual movie set. The Tudor-style inn has a thatched roof built with rushes from the local farm. Scott and I sit by a cozy fire and sample a hard cider and wait for Bilbo to come through the door. He never does.
That afternoon we head to Rotorua, a picturesque city in the center of the North Island. Known as New Zealand’s coolest hot spot, the city sits amid active geothermal vents, volcanos, craters, and geysers. As we arrive to tour the Rotorua Museum, we smell a distinct sulfur smell in the air. It comes from Lake Rotorua, a volcanic lake whose temperatures range from scalding hot to comfortably warm. The shallow lake features vibrant colors due to its high sulfur content—think bright yellow, phosphorescent green, and brick red.
The Rotorua Museum, housed in a gorgeous Tudor-style building, was once a bathhouse, attracting people from all over the world for curative baths. It offers a glimpse into turn-of-the-century architecture and bathing facilities. An excellent exhibit on Maori culture features interactive displays as well as a 20-minute film describing the science and myth found in Rotorua’s storied past.
After the movie and a too-quick visit, we climb up to the museum’s roof for a 360° view of the city and the caldera that surrounds the lake. The tourist brochure says it’s the only complete caldera in the world. Sunset’s looming, so we decide to head to the grocery store and then to our campground a few miles out of town.
New Zealand is surprisingly expensive. Even staples like milk, bread, and eggs cost twice as much as in the States. The prices take some getting used to, but we’re saving money by preparing most of our meals in the camper. Still I get sticker shock when the cash register rings up our bill.
Soak in Thermal Pools At Rotorua’s Polynesian Spa
Try The Back Therapy Treatment With Rotorua Mud
We’re staying in a campground called Blue Lake just outside Rotorua surrounded by lush forests. I awaken to the sounds of exotic birdsong and slip out of bed, leaving Peter and Scott fast asleep in the camper. In the early morning light, I walk through the mostly empty campground, listening to the birds caw, whoop, honk, and chirp. Giant ferns, feathery trees, and thick foliage make it hard to spot birds. Instead I content myself with listening to their toots and tweets—it’s better than music.
After breakfast, we head to Polynesian Spa in Rotorua to experience the therapeutic waters. Peter and Scott join me for a soak in the facility’s thermal springs overlooking the colorful lake. Signs at the various pools indicate the different temperatures and whether the water is acidic or alkaline. One pool called Priest Spa is named after a Catholic priest who bathed here in the late 1880s and claimed his arthritis was relieved.
I don’t have arthritis, but soaking in the pools feels heavenly to me. Afterwards, I enjoy a back therapy treatment with Ripena, a Maori woman with a big smile and gentle loving hands. First she applies Rotorua thermal mud to my back and then gives a lovely leg and foot massage while the therapeutic mud does its magic.
After rinsing off the mud, she finishes with a deft back massage, zeroing in on trouble spots, before I return to the pools for more soaking time. The acidic pools, which feel fizzy, are good for aches and pains, and the alkaline pools are soft and silky—good for my skin.
Meet Maori Culture at Tamaki Maori Village
Watch a Haka and Dine on a Hanga Feast
That night we visit Tamaki Maori Village, a recreated living village designed to show tourists Maori culture and one of New Zealand’s top tourist attractions. Located on tribal lands, the village is well organized to handle crowds, who move to different stations in groups and observe craft demos like weaving and carving.
At one station volunteers are invited to play a Maori game, which involves tossing and catching sticks with the other players. Scott volunteers and is the last one standing, after inadvertently knocking over another player in his enthusiasm. Luckily, she isn’t hurt and dusts herself off good-naturedly.
Everyone ends up in the Meeting House for a cultural performance, which features the world-famous “haka” or Maori War Dance, a boisterous demonstration of strength and domination with lots of shouting and brandishing of spears.
The dance also highlights the Maori’s tradition of making ugly faces with their tongues out, a technique used to scare off enemies. Add in their tattooed faces and muscular bodies plus loud shouts and grunts, and the haka is not something you’ll soon forget. As counterpoint, the show also includes beautiful singing and dancing.
The evening ends with a traditional “hangi” feast of food cooked in underground pits on hot stones. Tables laden with food await—all-you-can-eat lamb, chicken, fish, mussels, salad, potatoes, and more. After a busy day, Peter, Scott, and I dig in. I especially love the mussels—we’re in New Zealand, remember? On our way back to Blue Lake, we agree that Tamaki Maori Village is the perfect way to learn about New Zealand’s indigenous people, who remain a thriving, vibrant part of the country’s population today.
Our last day in Rotorua we visit the Waimangu Volcanic Valley, where the region’s last volcanic eruption occurred in 1886. When Mt. Tarawera exploded, a series of craters were formed, which allowed geothermal fluid from the earth’s crust to reach the surface. The result is a rare landscape with ongoing hydrothermal activity: bubbling pools, craters filled with turquoise water, brilliantly colored silica terraces, a crystal wall, stalactites, and fumaroles (steam vents).
We hike down a three-mile trail where other-worldly geographic features await around every turn. Strong sulfuric smells emanate from the earth, and steam rises from the oddest places. Surprisingly the area supports an active bird population, including the shining cuckoo, mynahs, and magpies. At trail’s end we watch beautiful swans glide on Lake Rotomahana until the bus arrives to take us back to the entrance.
I feel a deep connection to the earth in New Zealand. It’s a country that feels primeval in many ways—perhaps because it’s was the last habitable landmass to be settled by humankind. Whether you’re deep in a cave or standing beside a bubbling lake, New Zealand promises a fresh new look at the world around us.
What You Need To Know To Go
Plan Your Adventure in New Zealand Today!
General Tourist Information
Find everything from lodging to adventure outfitters at www.newzealand.com
Maui Motor Home Rentals
Ready to reserve a cool camper. Get rates and reserve your camper here www.maui.co.nz
Jump off the Auckland Bridge and dip your toes (or your head) in the water! Sign up here www.bungy.co.nz
It’s scary-fun, especially when you turn the lights out, and float in blackness. Get details here www.waitomo.com
Hobbiton Movie Set
You probably won’t meet Bilbo Baggins, but you’ll have blast walking in his footsteps. Find out about rates and more here www.hobbitontours.com
Explore this unique town and learn about the ancient baths. Get info on lodgings, dining, and more here www.rotoruanz.com
Soak in thermal pools and your skin will thank you for it. Get rates and reserve a massage here www.polynesianspa.co.nz
Tamaki Maori Village
Learn about the Maori culture at this award-winning attraction. Find out where to be picked up and how to make reservations here www.tamakimaorivillage.co.nz
Waimangu Volcanic Valley
See steam vents and hear the planet bubble and growl at this other-worldly nature preserve. Get opening hours here www.waimangu.co.nz
Next month: Part 2 of our New Zealand adventure.