Driving New Zealand is like a dream. I recommend doing it in autumn, if you like the technicolor variety.
The roads in these parts weave through hills and forests, then open up through fields and farms with cattle dotting the land like ants. In the start, we drove along the water, and stopped to stretch our legs in little coves. But soon we turned inland, and here, it was the foliage that had us entranced, ushering us along from either side of the road.
Many trees climb up towards the sky with skinny branches. With their leaves lying in soft, rusty heaps on the ground, their many-fingered limbs are stenciled against a marshmallow blue. More often than not, the loftiest of these branches retain a broad, sentinel leaf. I wonder if these funny flags, in shades of white, cream and light brown, hang on well into winter, and why it is that they are the last ones to fall. Some trees are more reluctant to shed their green leaves, and simply transform them into a resin red, daring the cold winds to blow them away. These leaves are like stars with many points, and they make me shiver with a certain sense of wonder. Further up in the mountains, the pines are not given to fretting about colds and leaves. Their needles keep large company on their solid branches, a shiny veteran green.
Over 2 weekends and a remembrance day, we drove out of Napier to find these scenes. The map below shows a composite route of the places we visited. To each of them I’ve attached some words to accompany the snapshots, and in the spirit of trying something different, I’ve turned them into postcards. Firstly because in their worldly perfection, the scenes simply lent themselves to such rendering. And secondly, because the express purpose of postcards is simply to share news and prettiness across a distance to a friend.
So, there were countless autumn leaves, 3 waterfalls, one still lake, dozens of mischievous geysers and a Maori love story.
Te Ana Falls, Tangoio Scenic Reserve
The Tangoio Scenic Reserve was a fairyland we stumbled upon on an ANZAC day drive. A midweek holiday! We woke up slowly and spoiled ourselves with a lazy breakfast, eventually starting off towards our original destination with the sun high in the sky, not liking our chances of reaching it before dusk. Given our lack of organization, we were lucky to have come across this little gem off the main highway. From the carpark, we crossed a bridge and followed a trail which disappeared quickly into the forest.
The trail was simple, pleasant. Nothing technical to distract you from the tranquility. A breathtaking creek ran through the reserve, keeping the forest floor lush and green. Fantails dipped up and over you, and then rested by your feet to say hello, tailfeathers ever at the ready.
The first trail led to the gorgeous Te Ana Falls. The gushing waters dropped a full 20 metres in an ice-cold pool, but it was hidden behind a big rock wall, so that you would hear the cataract for a good few paces before the mesmerizing scene came into view. It takes a little while to pick your jaw up off the floor, but once you do, there are several more trails you could try. One is a gradual incline to a viewpoint of the top of the actual Tangoio Falls. This is where the birds really come to play, as the canopy is but their floor. Here we meditate for a moment, for the stillness that the forest inspires. We even attempted a longer hike to the White Pine Bush Reserve, but only got as far as the dense conifers before the threat of rain clouds drove us back.
Lake Taupo & Otumuheke Thermal Springs
On the map, Lake Taupo looked like a relatively large mass of water nestled in the middle of the North Island. It somehow made sense to aim towards it on our next weekend out. Especially since the route we were to take was adventurously dubbed the Thermal Explorer Highway, and there was a promise of hot springs at the end.
There was, unsurprisingly, an abundance of hot springs, from full on mud pools to less thrilling soaks in heated swimming pools. The ones we found at the Otumuheke Springs were the prettiest, most natural ones by far. To get to the swimming hole, you sauntered across wide plains scattered with old trees, the kind that have been there to see it all, and even have the eyes to prove it. From several different thermal sources, scalding hot water rushes towards the river which flows icy cold towards the big lake. Take your pick of small cascades and soaking tubs of different temperatures, and once you’re a wobbly, steamy mess, wade out to the clear, cool river to freshen up again.
There’s a place in this world where a river flows so forcefully through a narrow gorge, that it bursts into a body of foam like the splayed out tail of a whale. The waters in which this tail comes to rest is the aquamarine from the inside of a paua shell, and under the midday sun, it dazzles. You’re visited by the feeling that you will never again find anything so blue.
Te Puia, Rotorua
What a headache, deciding what to do! The last stretch of the Thermal Explorer Highway before reaching Rotorua is flanked with brown sign posts denoting attractions. Maori villages, hot springs, Craters of the Moon, prawn fishing! And jeepers, half of ’em cost a golden nugget. The advertisement did not end when we crossed into the egg-waft town. The main street was a stretch of hotels, motels and resorts.
Te Puia seemed the perfect choice, and it ended up being an afternoon well-spent. We started with a cultural event in the meeting house, that sacred or tapu place belonging to each Maori community, whose walls and roof are lovingly assembled to tell a story within each carved wooden panels. The very colors that are chosen have their own significance. Many houses are stained red, to symbolize the blood or life force within us. A carving of a living being is completed by abalone eyes, a tribute to Tangaroa of the sea, whom they believe have granted them the gift of art. At the top of the meeting house, like a masthead, is a tekoteko.
I absolutely love the haka. There’s nothing more satisfying that giving someone a look that says Imma eat chu!!! and slapping your breasts for good measure. The men also used the taiaha, a wooden staff, and the women deftly wielded the poi, timing their palms perfectly to produce the hollow pop pop sounds as the balls come to meet on the downswing. And after the warring was over, a Romeo and Juliet fashioned love ballad, with voices so sweet the entire audience gasped. Merdu, as we say in Malay …
We were let out of the meeting house in a happy daze, and commenced on a tour of the grounds. There were plenty of geysers in the vicinity, transforming the landscape into a melting, sizzling, slate grey terrain, rivaling the nearby Craters of the Moon and Thermal Wonderland. Our tour guide, whose information I am regurgitating in this post, was a stunning Maori girl named Naina. Seemingly immune to the pervading smell of eggy farts, she chatters excitedly about the special characteristics of the whenua that has endowed it with countless thermal springs, geysers and mud pools. Whilst in most parts of the world, the Earth’s crust measures 40 km deep, here the distance to the mantel is a mere 5 km.
While we’re on the subject of fun and interesting facts, I should tell you that the name of this awesome place is:
The gathering place for the war parties of Wahiao
Glorious as it is, it’s only the second longest place name in New Zealand. You may have been told that longest place name in the world is that Welsh train station:
St. Mary’s Church in the hollow of the white hazel near the rapid whirlpool and the church of St. Tysilio with a red cave.
However, in southern Hawke’s Bay is a hill which has a name that spans 85 letters, and a meaning that makes for an eyebrow-raising personal ad.
The summit where Tamatea, the man with the big knees, the climber of mountains, the land-swallower who travelled about, played his nose flute to his loved one.
Waipunga Falls, Thermal Explorer Highway
When you’re on a dreamy drive and a sign pops out to inform you of a SCENIC LOOKOUT, it’s wise to follow that arrow. From the road, we would never have seen this. This postcard, though, is my artistic interpretation of what is already a monumental sight. The colors of the trees, even in the deepest autumns, run green, not red. But it’s been a really long drive, and I guess I just felt like being cheeky.
Photos by author. Colors of Te Ana Falls and Waipunga Falls artistically adjusted.