Interested in part 1 of our North Island road trip? Follow our travels as we secure a free campervan rental, explore Wellington, trek the Tongariro Crossing in horrid weather, and soak in the hot springs of Taupo.
After an awesome night of freedom camping right on the lake at the Ferry Bay parking lot in Taupo, we woke up to rain and a jam-packed itinerary for our final two days on the North Island.
Our first stop was the Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Track right outside of the paid Wai-O-Tapu Thermal attractions. Here, you can see a crazy bubbling mud pool for free, which sure beats paying $70/pp! (You don’t get to see the Champagne Pool or any of the other attractions inside the actual park, but if you’re just looking for a slice of the action, this stop is well worth it.)
After ogling the boiling and hissing mud, we drove 20 more minutes to Rotorua, where we explored the thermal action in the city’s free Kaurai Park. Though none of the pools were as big as the one at Wai-O-Tapu, there were lots of them. From boiling mud to hissing steam and gasses, you really gained the sense that the Earth is hot and alive when walking through this volcanic region in the middle of the city.
If you’re feeling a bit tired after all that exploring, you can even soak your feet in the naturally heated springs in the middle of the park. We wish we could have played around with the mud as well, but it was too hot to touch.
We completed our Rotorua stop with some craft beers from Concher Brewing Company before heading over to the Waitomo Caves, famous for their glowworms and adventure activities. We had booked some serious caving adventures with the Waitomo Adventures and I was feeling the need for some liquid courage prior to heading underground!
I’ll tell you about our adventures in a second, but first, here are a few things you should know about glowworms. For starters, they aren’t actually worms at all, but are in fact a maggot-like creature in the larvae stage of development. The glow we see is actually them processing their poop, but it also works to attract insects and food that fly up toward the light only to be captured in the glowworm’s strings (like a spider). After about 9 months of glowing glory, the glowworms pull up their strings and wrap themselves in a cocoon. Then they hatch as adults.
But there’s one huge problem—as adults they have no mouths and only three days to live. So what do you think they do? What would you do? Yes… let your mind go there!
After three delirious days of love making (I am writing this on Valentine’s Day), the male glowworm typically flies up to the light of the larvae glowworm and gets eaten. The female glowworm lays eggs and then pretty much does the same thing. And that’s how we get cave ceilings that look like this:
In addition to gawking at glowworms, the most popular activity in Waitomo is “blackwater rafting,” which is not at all as scary as it sounds. It consists of a bit of rock climbing and then tubing down a meandering stream that works its way through a cave—“blackwater” as in dark—while checking out the glowworms that light up the cave ceiling above you.
We considered tubing since we were pretty sore from the Crossing the day before, but in the end we decided we were in the mood for something a bit more active. Boy, did we get more than we bargained for!
Our first caving adventure with Waitomo Adventures was the Haggas Honking Holes tour, which included several rappels (some down waterfalls), a ton of crawling, and some pretty crazy rock climbing. It was a really physical tour, but the guides were awesome and made sure everyone knew what they were doing and were as safe as possible.
The tour starts with a lesson on rappelling and hooking up your own rope, which I really appreciated because it forced me to be a bit more responsible for my safety.
That said, I think the guides were a bit concerned when I couldn’t get down the first ladder without help. Seeing as the ladder required no rappelling or special skills whatsoever, it was a bit embarrassing. Being vertically challenged sucks!
After the mishap of the ladder, the rest of the tour went off without a hitch. We spent over two hours underground exploring the cave and getting some pretty stellar dark photography shots!
What I loved most about this tour is it really makes you feel like you’re exploring the cave on your own. You have guidance, of course, but the phrase “follow the water” is used frequently, and let’s just say the water takes you to and through some pretty incredible formations.
Being gluttons for punishment—and adventure—the next morning we were back at it again, this time joining the Waitomo Adventures crew to do a 100-meter (330 feet!!!) rappel down into the “Lost World”. Both the rappel and the scenery were incredible, and not at all scary (unless you’re scared of heights), so if you’re interested in something a bit different than the typical tubing, we highly recommend this tour!
It’s much more relaxed than Haggas Honking Holes and descending into the cave mouth is an experience like no other.
After the insanely long rappel down, we explored the cave on foot, stopping for more glowworms and a snack.
Unfortunately, that’s when we realized that what comes down must come up. (Newton obviously never hung out at the Waitomo Caves!)
Let’s just say that there’s a looooong climb ahead of you and it consists of a very very tall ladder—100 feet tall to be exact. Good news is that you’re strapped in. Bad news is that there’s no escalator.
Despite the ladder (and perhaps partially because of it), this tour was definitely worth the effort and offered a really unique perspective on just one of the 350+ explored caves in this region.
The Waitomo Caves region ended up being our favorite part of the North Island and we wished we had more time to explore it. But with only a few hours left before our campervan return, we said goodbye to our friends at Waitomo Adventures and headed to Auckland.
We spent our time in Auckland walking along the waterfront and exploring the bars and restaurants of the hip Ponsonborry district where we were staying. Auckland was fine, but definitely not one of my favorite cities. If you’re short on time, I wouldn’t feel bad about skipping it altogether.
And that brings us to the end of our short but exhilarating North Island road trip. The next morning we jumped on a plane back to Queenstown, where we would spend our final three months in New Zealand before heading back to New York in May.
Disclosure: Waitomo Adventures offered us both tours free of charge and we had the good luck to be hosted by amazing guides Scott, Telly, and T. The opinions expressed here are, as always, completely our own and we wouldn’t hesitate to recommend either of these tours to friends and family. If you book ahead online, you also save 20%!
Have you visited New Zealand’s North Island?
Where were your favorite places? What activities and stops would you recommend for those short on time? Let us know in the comments.