Farewell to Middle Earth (New Zealand, Part 4: North Island)

Kiwis are an endearing lot.

The people, not the birds. Although I am sure the birds are nice too.

New Zealanders always seem to be happy and positive. I love how they tell you to have a great day and actually mean it. I love that they seem genuinely excited when you give them your breakfast order – leaving you with a heartfelt “sweet” or “brilliant” as they head to the kitchen. I love that shoes are optional and that no one bats an eyelash when people wander barefoot in restaurants, grocery stores and even the airport.

I love that their response to our telling them that Glenn quit his job and we are on a 6-month trip is an enthusiastic “good on ya” rather than the slightly judgmental “must be nice” we often get from others.

And the slang, oh the slang.

I am guessing I could live here for years and still never understand half of what they are saying as they talk to each other over a beer. We did pick up a few words though, like: brekky (breakfast), jandals (flip-flops), slips (landslides), lollies (any sweet candy, particularly colored marshmallows), dairy (corner convenience store), take away (to go coffee, food, etc.), biscuit (cookie) and bickies (biscuits), chook (chicken), chips (french fries) and chippies (potato chips), trundler (shopping cart), long black with trim (americano with non-fat milk), swimming costume (bathing suit), track (trail) and tramping (hiking), and – our favorite – zed (how they pronounce the letter Z).

We spent a little over a week touring the North Island, which wasn’t near enough time. The weather continued to plague us as it did in the South Island, but we managed to sneak in some amazing adventures.

Mt. Taranaki

After leaving Wellington we headed northwest to the area around Mt. Taranaki, a large volcano that was very reminiscent of our beloved Mt. Hood back home in Oregon. The weather report predicted clouds and rain but we decided to take a chance in hopes of getting a bit of sun to do a hike on the mountain – and our gamble paid off.

Mt. Taranaki – the weather reports were spot on as usual…rain and clouds for sure.

Glenn taking in the views from the foothills of Mt. Taranaki.

The hike took us through an area with the most fascinating trees. It almost looked as if someone ran through splotching gray-green paint everywhere.

Forgotten World Highway

We spent a day exploring around the area of New Zealand State Highway 43, also called the Forgotten World Highway. This was a fantastically rugged and twisting road that goes through some beautiful countryside and several ghost towns dating back to the railway days of the early 1900s.

The road runs through the Republic of Whangamomona (say that fast three times!), a town that declared itself a republic in 1989. They have had a parade of interesting presidents, including Billy Gumboot the Goat that won after eating the other challengers’ ballots (he died in office) and Tai the Poodle who retired from office after an assassination attempt left him a nervous wreck (according to the locals and Wikipedia).

Whangamomona was a wonderfully quirky town filled with interesting characters and a resident pub cat that Glenn fell in love with. It was also the launching point for our journey on the Forgotten World Adventures rail bikes – which was some of the most fun I have ever had.

Rail bikes – a fascinating way to see the sights, including many bridges and tunnels you can’t see by car.

This section of railroad began construction in 1901 but wasn’t completed until 30 years later due to World War I and the difficult terrain, among other reasons. Some of the most impressive features of the rail line are the numerous tunnels which were dug by hand with pick axe and shovel. We pedaled through one such tunnel that was nearly a mile long. The rail line was closed in 1983 due to declining passenger numbers and is now used exclusively as a tourist attraction for these rail bikes as well as motorized carts.

We passed through several ghost towns and sheep farms. In the ghost town of Tangarakau (was once a town of 1,200 people…now has a population of 9) one of the locals came out to the track selling delicious homemade preserves, pickled vegetables and hand-knitted caps.

25 miles of rail, bridges and tunnels all to ourselves. Super fun.

Here is a video of our bike rail adventure…

Tongariro Alpine Crossing

It seems that no trip to Middle Earth (a.k.a. New Zealand) would be complete without a visit to Mount Doom and Mordor. So, we headed to the Tongariro National Park to visit the iconic vistas and volcanoes that were used as filming locations for those elements of The Lord of the Rings films.

Our first visit to the park was disappointing because of…you guessed it…rain and low clouds that obscured the views. We did enjoy a beautiful hike to Taranaki Falls (not to be confused with Mt. Taranaki above).

Mount Doom is up there in the clouds, somewhere. This hike through these grasses was lovely though.

Glenn approaching Taranaki Falls.

We also dashed between rainstorms to visit Tawhai Falls, which tumbles over the edge of an old lava flow.

We returned a few days later determined to take advantage of the improved weather (it’s all relative…as it was still cold and drizzling) and hike the infamous Tongariro Alpine Crossing. We parked our car at the end of the trail (Ketetahi car park) and hired a shuttle bus – there are several shuttle companies to pick from – to drop us at the trailhead.

This hike is purported to be the best hike in New Zealand and is a challenging ~12 mile hike up and over two of the park’s volcanoes and includes such trail sections as the aptly named “Devil’s Staircase.”

Glenn making his way into the clouds on the boardwalks that lead hikers to an area known as Soda Springs.

Glenn approaching one of countless stairs on the Devil’s Staircase. The lava formations on the horizon looked like sentinels overseeing our progress.

The eerie lunar landscape inside the South Crater. That’s Glenn up ahead…trying to catch a glimpse of Mt. Ngauruhoe, otherwise known as Mount Doom.

Mt. Ngauruhoe finally showed itself, for just a few seconds, before being enveloped in the clouds once again. Unfortunately we had no sightings of Frodo and Sam climbing up the side.

This was our view for much of the hike – made even better by the drizzling rain and freezing gale force winds. These ladies were having a grand time. It’s hard to tell from this picture, but the trail here was a very steep uphill – I’m looking down at them from the summit.

Once we reached the summit of the Red Crater (highest point of the hike) and started working our way down the other side the weather cleared a bit, although it remained windy and cold. However, if you stood near the edge of the crater (partially shown here) you could feel the heat radiating from the ground below. Toasty!

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is definitely a very popular hike, as evidenced by this scene of people scrambling down the loose scree on the far side of the Red Crater. Nothing like hiking an arduous trail with 500 of your closest friends.

The beautiful Emerald Lakes. The sulfur smell they emanated only slightly detracted from their beauty.

I’ve never seen anything like the Emerald Lakes. So beautiful.

I sat in the freezing wind for 15 minutes waiting for the clouds to clear so I could get this shot of all three of the volcanoes (Red Crater of Mt. Tongariro, the tall cone of Mt. Ngauruhoe and the snow covered peaks of Ruapehu). It was visible for about 8 seconds and then the clouds quickly gobbled them up again.

Glenn taking a rest out of the wind near Blue Lake. He was a bit bummed because he climbed all the way up to Mt. Doom but forgot to bring The Ring.

Working our way down to the valley floor on the backside of Mt. Tongariro. If you look closely on the left side of the photo you’ll see Glenn in the rust colored jacket. We had many, many, miles ahead of us still.

Down, down, down. My knees were killing me by the time we reached the end of the trail. Here you can see Lake Rotoira in the background and the trail winding its way down through the scrub in the foreground.

When we got to the end we learned that the hiking trail would be closed the next day due to strong winds – so I am glad we hiked it when we did or we would have missed our chance. It definitely warranted the moniker as New Zealand’s best hike…even when battling the clouds and drizzle.


Our last adventure in New Zealand included a tour through Hobbiton – the film set for The Lord of the Rings movies as well as The Hobbit.

There are over 40 hobbit holes in Hobbiton, complete with real gardens. Everywhere you looked you could see evidence of the little creatures that call this place home. It was quite cool.

I found a bearded hobbit! Very rare.

Sam’s house from the end of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The details were amazing, including the wear and tear on the fence and the little clothesline in the background.

The lake and the mill in the background. 

Hobbiton was a fitting send-off from our time in Middle Earth and the Hobbits were much easier to understand than the Kiwis because they don’t use as much slang. Well, except for “elevensies” – but we had already figured that one out in Chile – although there it is called “onces” (elevensies in Spanish). We will forever remember fondly our time in New Zealand, a country full of lovely scenery and equally lovely people! 

Bilbo and Frodo’s house.

Interested in reading more about our travels in New Zealand? 

Too much of a good thing? (New Zealand, Part 1: Christchurch to Southland)

Things are looking up! (New Zealand, Part 2: Milford Sound and Queenstown)

Rain, rain…go away! (New Zealand, Part 3: West Coast, Kaikoura and Wellington)


6 comments on “Farewell to Middle Earth (New Zealand, Part 4: North Island)

  1. Pingback: Travel reboot in Thailand | A Life More Extraordinary

  2. Michele,
    You are truly an inspiration! Thank you for sharing your travels.
    Having spent several months in NZed, I have always been a big believer in “elevensies” (how do you think I stay so happy at work?!?!!)
    Look forward to seeing you when you return, but know that it will be hard to keep you from climbing the walls 🙂

  3. Pingback: Rain, rain…go away! (New Zealand Part 3: West Coast, Kaikoura and Wellington) | A Life More Extraordinary

  4. Did your mountain trip (I won’t try to spell it here) remind you of our trek around Mt. Hood? You have finally inspired me to want to visit New Zealand!!

    • Hi Judy! The hike on Mt. Taranaki was definitely reminiscent of our hike around Mt. hood, and the wind and rain on the Tongariro was very much like what we faced on Mt. Hood that one day….but I’d say Mt. Hood was worse! Weather always makes a hike more memorable, ehh?

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