Exploring New Zealand Part 1: The Island With an Active Volcano, a 2000-Year-Old Tree and the Easternmost Point

Part I

After arriving in New Zealand, I spent a few wonderful days with my friends in Rotorua — one of the most popular tourist destinations on the North Island of New Zealand. Since the 19th century, it has especially been famous for its hot geothermal springs. If you are ever there, don’t miss the colorful volcanic area of Wai-O-Tapu with its numerous geysers, boiling mud, steam vents, and hot springs. Rotorua offers a lot of experiences starting with exciting nature walks (because of its fantastic landscapes), lots of Maori places, trips to smelly geysers or luxury spas. To cut it short, it is a great place to explore.

Signs here are always lovely

Anyway, my trip had to continue and this time I had to go on all by myself. So we split up with my mates and I headed for Opotiki, which is the town located in the east of the Bay of Plenty. It is the last big place before the deserted East Cape which was also on my must-see list.

As I was the lonely traveler now, I had rented the car to explore the island. The radio in my car was stolen, so the only thing that made me feel a bit out of my league was the lack of music and the fact that I had to drive in silence. Luckily, I was soon saved from my lonelyness by chance.

A hitchhiker was standing with his thumb up on the roadside waiting for someone to pick him up. Frankly speaking, he didn’t look very trustworthy and I was doubtful whether I should stop at all. But I did it. The person I stopped for was a wild-looking Maori named John, who needed to go to Gisborne. My destination point, Opotiki, was about halfway there.

An original mailbox

So I picked him up and this act of mine was compensated with an entertaining journey. Although, my concerns were partially confirmed. He was an alcoholic living somewhere in the forest beside the coast and offered me New Zealand weed after only 5 minutes of conversation (which I said no to). Actually, he turned out to be a nice person whom I did nothing for, but he didn’t hesitate to invite me to his place in the forest in case I didn’t have a place to stay in Gisborne. He offered to catch and cook a fresh “yummy” (meaning “delicious” in New Zealand) crayfish (sort of a lobster) for me. I was sure I was not going to see him again. Well, but that’s what makes travelling alone so much fun. If anyone thinks (I know who) that I’m careless and it was too risky, I’d like to ask him or her what could have happened? I am curious about your answers.

I left John in Opotiki and looked for a place to stay. I found one in the hostel. This hostel was run by a German who emigrated here with her family a few years ago. Opotiki is by no means a wonderful place for emigration. It is the service center for the whole surrounding region.

The main street of Opotiki is decorated with the works of master carvers which reflects the importance of its place for the Maori people. Opotiki was one of the first places settled by Maori. It was also a center for the Hauhau religion. Spiritual beliefs have long been central to Māori culture. Yet in the 19th century, some of the locals adopted Christian forms of worship while others merged traditional and Christian practices into the entirely new systems of belief. It influenced the development of other Maori religious movements, and that’s how the Hauhau religion appeared. The Hauhau disciples travelled around the North Island in the mid-1860s. Against a backdrop of war and land confiscations, the founding principle of this movement was often subverted by violent elements. So it very quickly became synonymous with violence for most of the Europeans. And eventually, it was seen as a fundamentally anti-European movement.

The beach near Opotiki

Apart from that, Opotiki is a rather big rural place, but it has everything you could possibly want: tropical rainforest, green pastures, cloudy hills and miles of lonely sandy beaches with high waves. My late afternoon arrival took me to such a beach. I took a walk barefoot on the sand of the abandoned beach overviewing the “White Island” or “Whakaari” (its full name is Te Puia o Whakaari), which stands for “an amazing volcano” in Maori and it is the only active volcanic island in New Zealand. The island is located 48 kilometers from the east coast of the North Island in the Bay of Plenty and represents the top of the active stratovolcano, or rather two parallel stratovolcanoes. The highest point of the island reaches 321 meters, and its diameter is only 2 kilometers. The White Island was discovered by James Cook. Having noticed some thick white smoke over the island, the explorer decided that there could have been some aboriginal savages known for their cannibalistic inclinations. That is why Cook didn’t dare to visit the island, which, however, according to popular myths, did not save him from getting on the natives’ table as a protein dish. However, the name “the White Island” was given to it by James Cook because of the above-mentioned white smoke.

The White Island in the distance

Nowadays, everybody knows that the white smoke over the island is not the smoke of bonfires above which the evil natives roast the unfortunate foreigners, but it is the steam rising above the volcano and thermal springs. People used to mine sulfur on the White Island. However, after all the workers who were at that time on the island died during the volcanic eruption in 1914, the production was stopped. The ruins of a small factory where sulfur was produced can still be seen on the island. Now one can come here only for tourism, and since 1995 such trips even require special permission.

The island is almost uninhabited except for a small colony of gannets (sea birds of the Sulidae family). It is interesting that when tourists talk about the White Island, most often they compare its landscapes with the Martian or lunar ones. The rocks on the island are multi-colored, everything boils and gurgles and the hot water (sometimes it’s boiling hot water) flows there. But the white steam emissions are especially impressive. Tourists have to wear respiratory masks because of them, by the way. It’s a truly amazing place!

Then I visited a maze with a more than the 2000-year-old Puriri tree which really looks old and, above all, impressive (had enough time to grow :)) In the past it had been used by the Maori as a grave. All the human bones are no longer there, but 2 statues are guarding the tree, which is “holy” for the Maori. The tree was located in the middle of an artificially planted, fenced-in jungle surrounded by pasture primeval forest, with many panels and boards giving information about the tree everywhere around. This place is a true maze. At least for me. And guess what, I got lost again. It was actually almost impossible but I did manage to do it. It seemed strange to me when I passed the same place twice. After I’d done it for the third time I realized something was going wrong the whole time. I had passed the same places three more times when the day slowly turned into evening and the sun was setting. Somehow I ended up finding the way out and arrived safely back at the hostel where I spent a nice evening playing some card game with two Canadian and one Italian girl. Of course, I won most of the time. The game had some strange rules, but it was fun.

I once again created a small work of art with the Paint app — this time for the North Island.

I hope you can more or less understand my driving routes with its help

Heading northeast from Opotiki, I was driving along the lonely road through small Maori villages, some of them were located directly along the Pacific Ocean. The East Cape region is Maori country — the “white” people outnumber here. I stopped a few times on the way to see and photograph the rugged landscape and the pecky sea.

Almost at the eastenmost point of New Zealand

The East Cape is, as the name suggests, the easternmost point of New Zealand. It is the perfect place to get off the beaten track. Breathtaking headlands with empty bays and bushy peaks together with remote villages and farms make this part of New Zealand the best place to get away from it all and refresh. There is obviously a lighthouse, which draws the attention of the ships to the [New Sea] land, so that they don’t run aground there. In order to reach it, one has to walk up about 600 steps to a hill on which the lighthouse stands. It was exhausting, but the view was absolutely fantastic. If I had come early in the morning, I would have been the first person in New Zealand to see the rising sun (because the sun rises in the east…).

Driving through the East Cape

I booked accommodation in Tokomaru Bay, where I actually planned to spend two nights but stayed only one in the end. The hostel was very nice and I had a great sea view from my room there. In the evening, I had a nice conversation with an older German couple, a New Zealand family with a young son and a daughter and a Frenchman who rode a motorcycle and whom I had already known from Opotiki.

The sunset to remember

As there were no other guests, I fell into bed in an empty room for the first time in several weeks and had a good deep sleep, which, as it turned out, was quite useful. The next day I refused to stay there any longer, as there is not much to see except for the beach in this area. The next stop was planned in Gisborne, but that wasn’t going to happen either.

I arrived in Gisborne early, but after exploring the information center I didn’t notice much I could have done there.

Gisborne (also known as “Gizzy”) is the first real city after Rotorua (has around 30,000 inhabitants) and is above all the surfing city. But there is another interesting attraction there, the local Gisborne Airport. It is designed so that its railways cross the runway. What’s more, the railway in Gisborne is still active. Airplanes and trains at this airport are forced to give way to each other, and dispatchers must be extremely careful in order to properly schedule the departures. I explored the town a little bit and after having declared it was “seen”, I moved on to Hastings, where I planned to arrive 2 days later.

Signpost in Gisborne

First I had to make a stopover on the Mahia Peninsula. This peninsula is located between two major cities (Gisborne and Napier) on the eastern coast of the North Island. The name Mahia literally translates as “muttering” or “indistinct sound.” The name “Te Māhia” comes from “Te Māhia-mai-tawhiti” (meaning “the sound heard from a distance”). This rather romantic name appeared because of the invariable echo of the ocean, the sound that seems to be running through a small settlement located on the peninsula. The beaches there are safe and relatively shallow. Over 20 ships sank near the peninsula, which attracts a lot of divers there.

View of the Mahia Peninsula

Without knowing where the road was taking me, I drove along the gravel road that brought me higher and higher up the very hilly peninsula, past cows and sheep. Eventually, I realized the road led nowhere (I noticed it after 30km), but it was worth it because it let me enjoy a thrilling view over the whole peninsula.

Breathtaking views

The next place on my travelling plan was Napier. The hostel I’d booked turned out to be not the best place to sleep in. At least as far as the roommates were concerned. I might have been blessed with a little bit of “luck” having the Samoan guy in my room snoring and sighing so loud that I thought he was about to die. When that didn’t happen, I couldn’t help but be brazen enough to take out my camera and record the concert. I had no other choice but to turn on the music loudly enough not to hear my neighbour. Tinnitus is better than a nervous breakdown anyway. My semi-successful sleep finished early in the morning (8 o’clock) because I had set myself a serious goal. I’d got to head for Wellington which I’m going to tell you about in my next post.

The compensation I got for climing up the hill