A walk in the woods

Any time we stop at a campground or visitor information booth in New Zealand, we face brochure racks stocked with dozens of flashy, full-color advertising cards for every adventure imaginable. Sky diving! Bungee jumping! River rafting! This country’s tourism industry caters heavily to the adrenaline junkie, and many of the young backpackers we’ve encountered seem more than happy to shell out hundreds of dollars pursuing their long-held dreams of jumping into, and out of, various modes of vaguely dangerous transport.

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Gnarled old trees on the walk to “The Snout” in Picton.

N and I, however, are sage and sensible in our advanced years, and we choose quieter, calmer, less aggressive activities. Like walking, for example. For all its jumping and rafting and diving, New Zealand really is perfect for people who just want to put on a pair of sturdy shoes (and perhaps lug thirty pounds of camera gear) and walk.

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Boardwalk into the bush near Tongariro National Park.

The country is absolutely overrun with well-maintained tracks, perfect for a few hours or for multi-day treks. While we’ve only ever gone out for day trips, all of our walks have been more than worth the time and effort, and a great way to see the country slowly. The photos collected here truly emphasize New Zealand’s incredible natural diversity.

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The Champagne Pool at Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Park.

All of New Zealand is volcanic, but thermal activity is highly concentrated around Rotorua, roughly in the center of the North Island. The Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Park allows visitors to see volcanic activity in a close and colorful manner.

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Wai-O-Tapu’s famous Boiling Mud Pool in action.

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This is not Colorado’s EPA-poisoned Animas River; rather, it’s a sulfur pool at Wai-O-Tapu. 

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Abel Tasman National Park, on the northern edge of the South Island, is rightfully famous for both its kayaking and its extensive coast track. We only spent a couple of days here but loved its beachy-desert feel.

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View from the Abel Tasman coast track.

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Tropical waterfall in Abel Tasman National Park.

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Lumberyard and harbor near Picton. Timber is New Zealand’s most important agricultural export.

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Pro tip: while foraging may be all the rage, don’t ever, ever eat mushrooms you find while hiking unless a mycologist can confidently identify them.

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On the way to Picton’s “Snout.” Most of the walking tracks we encountered varied between open country and tropical forest.

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Huka Falls, near Great Lake Taupo.

Huka Falls is apparently New Zealand’s most-visited natural attraction. We’re convinced this is because it’s located about ten feet from the parking lot.

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New Zealand has a wealth of diverse plant life, but ferns are ubiquitous.

Kiwis are rightfully very proud of their country, and the fern emblem is seen everywhere, most notably on the All-Blacks’ uniform. Recently, the country even tried to change its flag to incorporate the iconic fern image, though the referendum failed.

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Whakarewarewa Forest, Rotorua.

Like many island nations, New Zealand has fought for hundreds of years against invasive non-native species. The most destructive example is the possum, introduced in 1837 in an attempt to start a fur trade. Now there are thought to be more than 30 million – and they eat more than 20,000 tons of vegetation every night. The Redwood Forest pictured above, however, is an example of a non-native species that hasn’t spread ferociously. These trees, native to California, were planted in Rotorua in 1901 in the hopes of expanding the country’s timber industry. Unfortunately (for the timber industry) but fortunately (for the island’s native trees), only six hectares of the original twelve hectares survived, and the wood produced is far too soft for use in construction. They love the rich volcanic soils in this sheltered grove, but they can’t grow beyond this particular area.

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The hardest hike we did by far was the legendary Tongariro Alpine Crossing, considered New Zealand’s best one-day hike and also one of the best in the world. It’s only about twelve miles from start to finish, but it ascends more than 2,000 feet and descends more than 3,000, and it’s tough, even for these Colorado hikers. We started before dawn – both to beat the crowds and the midday sun – and completed it in about six hours.

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The beginnings of sunrise on the Tongariro Crossing.

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Looking west at the ominous shadow of Mount Ngaurahoe, more famously known as Mount Doom.

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This photo of Mount Ngaurahoe emphasizes the area’s stark volcanic landscape.

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The weather shifted frequently while we hiked the Crossing, from bright sun to low enveloping clouds. It’s easy to see why Tolkien’s books were filmed here!

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The Emerald Lakes of the Tongariro Crossing.

Thank you, New Zealand, for your beauty and your hospitality. We’ve loved our time here and look forward to returning. Onwards to Cambodia!

 

 

Happy hour

Between filming Hobbit movies and grilling lamb chops, New Zealand also manages to make some pretty decent beverages. Wine represents a hugely important component of New Zealand’s agricultural exports; craft beer has always been second fiddle to wine here, but the microbrew industry is definitely on the rise. We obviously wanted to be as fair and open-minded as possible, so we made sure to taste just as much beer as we did wine during our time here.

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Hops are the flowers of the female hop plant (Humulus lupulus), and they’re used primarily as flavoring and stability agents in beer.

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All of New Zealand’s hops are grown in the Nelson region on the South Island. As the craft beer industry has exploded around the world, hops have become a much more lucrative crop.

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The tap line-up at Hop Federation, Riwaka.

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Rule No. 1: when photographing for your blog, find a friendly, amenable bartender.

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A beer tasting board at McCashin’s.

In the U.S., at least, New Zealand is most known for its sauvignon blanc, specifically from the Marlborough region at the top of the South Island. Walk into any American wine shop and you’re almost guaranteed to find a bottle of Cloudy Bay, the wine that basically introduced the rest of the world to New Zealand wine. Central Otago pinot noir, however, is also starting to make a name for itself, as are a number of other unique varietals.  Like other New World wine regions, New Zealand has more freedom to experiment with its grapes and winemaking styles than the Old World with its deeply entrenched rules.

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Brancott Estate, Marlborough.

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Harvest is about three weeks away for these merlot grapes.

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These fruit crates are seen everywhere in New Zealand; they’re used for apples, plums, pears and of course wine grapes too.

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The vines and the mountains in Marlborough.

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Cellar door at Forrest Wines, Marlborough.

Wine tasting in New Zealand is easy and accessible; cellar doors are signposted and tastings usually cost between $5-$15 per person. Many regions, such as Hawke’s Bay, have numerous cellar doors close enough to tour by bike, and of course there are dozens of tour companies happy to drive while you drink, too.

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Neudorf Winery, Nelson. The vines are covered in netting to protect the ripe fruit from hungry birds. Many of the wineries have lovely gardens where you can enjoy a glass of wine and a picnic.

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Wine moving from tank to barrel at Moana Park, Hawke’s Bay.

Surprisingly, most of the lower-end bottles ($8-15) you find in the grocery store here are actually from Australia or South Africa, because New Zealand makes more money exporting its wines – especially to China – than it does selling them at home.

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Old barrels put to good use as decor at Church Road Winery, Hawke’s Bay.

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Finishing our picnic at Moana Park with their 2004 Colheita Port.

Mad about ewe

It is impossible to overstate the importance of the humble sheep in New Zealand. The famous Captain Cook first introduced sheep here in 1773; meat and wool, as well as numerous other byproducts, quickly formed the economic background of this young nation. Even today, New Zealand is well-known for its lamb and wool, and the oft-cited statistic that New Zealand has a lot more sheep than people (about 27 million to 4 million) still holds true, although the animal numbers have fallen dramatically in recent years. The worldwide introduction of synthetic fibers understandably had a massive impact on the wool industry.

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One of the great joys of travel – especially on road trips – is stumbling upon something amazing that wasn’t in the day’s plans. We were on our way to camp on the beach at Clifton, in Hawke’s Bay on the east coast of the North Island, when we drove by Wool World. My head immediately filled with visions of a slick, American-style theme park devoted entirely to sheep, hopefully with a petting zoo, roller coaster and extensive gift shop. The reality was far different, and much better.

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Clifton Station, Hawke’s Bay.

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The dogs are coming…

Clifton Station (ranches in the U.S. are stations here) was founded in 1859 and has been run by the same family since. It encompasses about 2,000 acres on the east coast of the North Island. Despite the signage outside advertising shearing and herding demonstrations, Wool World is now only open for large groups of pre-booked cruise ship passengers. We got lucky, however, and walked up while a station hand was treating lambs in a gated paddock near the road. These lambs had just been taken off their mothers and were headed out to munch on fresh new pasture; the abrupt change in diet causes their delicate little lamb tummies to go a bit haywire, so they’re essentially given a pre-emptive antacid.

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The station hand gave us free rein to walk into the old shearing barn, built in 1886 and still in use today. This barn is true living history and it was incredible to see the pride that this family takes in their property, their animals and their way of life. Places like these are becoming more and more rare, and recognizing the past is especially relevant because modern agriculture is changing so quickly. The opportunity to see this space will be one of the highlights of our trip to New Zealand.

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Blade shearers in 1893 with shedhands and shepherds. The records indicate that 25,000 sheep were shorn in the shed that year.

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Horse-drawn wool bales headed to the railyard for transport to Wellington or Napier.

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Bales of wool bound for a local wool sale.

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Not much has changed in this woolshed since the late 1800s.

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Shearing stalls.

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Belt-driven machinery allowed multiple sheep to be shorn at one time.

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Wool bales are stenciled with their station origin, destination, pack year and grade. Low-grade wool (and the sacks) were often used on walls for home insulation.

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A helpful identification key for bale stencils.

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Ye Olde Spinning Wheel. Avoid at all costs, princesses.

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If you should ever have the opportunity to see a herding demonstration, do not miss it! Watching the shepherd and the dogs run the sheep is truly remarkable.

How to campervan in New Zealand

When organizing this impulsive trip, we gave a lot of thought not only to where we would go, but also how we’d get around once we got there. We planned on mostly using public transportation – trains, buses, ferries and so on – instead of renting cars, but in New Zealand, we wanted to rent a campervan. And we are so pleased that we did.

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If you’re British, you probably get the inside joke of the license plate.

New Zealand is roughly the same size as Great Britain or Japan, but holds just over four million residents in comparison with Britain’s 64 million and Japan’s stunning 127 million. This means, of course, that there is a great deal of open country – and because food and accommodation might be few and far between, a campervan is the perfect way to explore. (It’s also called caravanning, but that’s usually only when you’re using a regular vehicle to tow a caravan that has no engine of its own. That’s commonly known as fifth-wheeling in the U.S.)

New Zealand is so friendly and welcoming to campervans; we’ve seen hundreds and hundreds of vans of all shapes and sizes during our time here, proving that it is one of the most popular ways to see the country. There are campgrounds everywhere, from basic and rustic to luxurious; most of these have small motel rooms as well as powered and non-powered sites plus places for tent campers. Amenities vary, but almost always include common showers, toilets and kitchens, and there is often a pool or hot spring too.

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Fernland Spa, near Tauranga, offers private open-air hot spring pools. The pools are filled from the spring, then drained into the nearby estuary, cleaned and refilled after every use, eliminating the need for chemical treatments.

The greatest advantage of campervanning is definitely the flexibility. We drafted a rough itinerary before we arrived, mostly based on N’s year living here back in the early 2000s, of places he wanted to revisit or had never been. But once we got on the road, we loved being able to stay in a place longer or leave early if it suited our plans. Had we booked all of our accommodation at B&Bs and hotels in advance, there would be none of this.

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One of our very favorite campsites right on the ocean in Clifton, Hawke’s Bay.

The other biggest draw, especially on a trip of this length, is the ability to save a lot of money by cooking most of our own food. While I’m not making anything fancy, I am cooking simple, delicious meals appropriate to the summery weather and what we discover on our travels. We’ve been in a lot of agricultural regions, and many farms and orchards have unmanned honesty stands on the side of the road. Signs advertise what’s available, you select what you want and put your money in the box. We’ve bought just-harvested tomatoes, dried figs, zucchini, new potatoes, tons of fruit and anything else that catches our fancy. We’ve eaten a lot of local lamb, plus fresh sausages from the butcher, and it’s refreshing not to agonize over my meat purchase for endless minutes: all of the meat is pasture-raised in New Zealand, and none of it comes from a CAFO. Even tiny grocery stores in dusty little towns have a great selection of local meat. Just being able to make our own coffee and tea saves so much money rather than buying to-go drinks every day.

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On the menu: local venison and merlot sausages, grilled potatoes and onions, fresh tomatoes with olive oil and salt, and a simple cabbage coleslaw.

As in the U.S., there are various membership programs you can join that offer discounted rates at particular campgrounds; we’ve used an invaluable (and free!) app called CamperMate to navigate our way to parks in a particular region. Freedom camping is also popular and it’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like: sleeping in a designated area for free, but without any services like showers and sometimes not even toilets. This is often not popular with local residents, however, because there have been many cases of freedom campers basically turning a lovely local spot into their own unserviced campground, and therefore freedom camping is heavily regulated and often banned outright. We’ve freedom-camped a couple of times, but it’s not always ideal for a variety of reasons.

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Camping by a gorgeous river near Tongariro National Park.

If you want to travel New Zealand by campervan, do your research; it’s essential to understand exactly what size and style of vehicle you’ll be renting. If you plan on doing any freedom camping, you’ll need to be certified self-contained, or CSC. The CSC sticker allows you to stay in more remote sites where other vehicles wouldn’t be permitted, and there are definitely rangers patrolling who will issue stiff $200 fines if yours isn’t displayed. You should also know that renting a campervan isn’t cheap; when we were first researching, we were stunned by quotes of nearly $8K for our month here, and after that you still need to pay for campgrounds unless you freedom-camp exclusively. There are also diesel taxes, tolls, and hefty charges for the ferry if you want to travel between the North and South Islands.

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Semis at sunrise on the Interisland Ferry en route from Wellington to Picton.

For our American readers, remember that New Zealand drives on the left; unless you’re very comfortable with handling larger vehicles, you’ll absolutely want to book in some practice time in a safe area before you hit the open road. And finally, New Zealand has basically one major north-south motorway; all of its other roads are relatively small two-lane roads, especially compared to our massive flat, straight American highways. Journeys here are measured by time, not by distance; you can’t read “Auckland to Wellington, 658 kilometers” on the map and assume that will only be an six-hour journey – it’s closer to ten. It takes a lot longer to get to places here than you might expect, and the driving can be challenging and tiring with a lot of hills and narrow, windy roads. Driving a campervan in New Zealand isn’t for the faint-of-heart – but we’d argue that it’s by far the best way to see these gorgeous islands.

P.S. A million thanks to my amazing, incredible partner, who grew up driving on the left and took on the challenge of this journey with literally no help from me whatsoever. I will never be able to make him enough coffees to thank him!

Going nuts, vol. 1

When roadtripping in New Zealand in a converted 1999 Ford Transit van with less-than-ideal brakes, there are few things that your partner – who is gamely doing all of the driving – enjoys more than you screeching “Hey! Fresh avocados!” or “Stop! They’ve got pick-your-own strawberries!”, thus forcing him to make dramatic unplanned stops and U-turns, typically on dusty gravel roads with no turning room whatsoever. No, seriously, he loves this! Sometimes, however, you get your act together enough in advance that you can actually plan a visit to a farm, and so it was with our stop at Cathedral Cove Macadamias.

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Cathedral Cove is located on the Coromandel Peninsula, east of Auckland on New Zealand’s North Island. Macadamias, named in 1857 in honor of Scottish-Australian chemist John Macadam, are native to Australia and grown commercially in many of the world’s tropical regions, including Hawaii, South America, Australia and New Zealand.

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Cathedral Cove’s storefront and open-air tasting parlor.

South Africa now produces most of the world’s macadamias, although Hawaii is credited with “introducing” the nut to consumers, specifically with their ubiquitous and smartly-marketed Royal Hawaiian chocolate macadamia boxes which have been given as gifts by travelers returning from Hawaii for decades.

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A few of Cathedral Cove’s mature macadamia trees.

Macadamia trees are propagated by grafting, and they start producing in abundance at about seven to ten years of age. Once established, the trees can produce for over 100 years. They are higher in overall nutrition than any other nut, and they are also typically the most expensive, with the exception of the treasured pine nut.

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These macadamias will be ready to harvest in April or May. After they’re hulled, they’ll be dried for about six weeks before they’re ready to consume.

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Hulls from the previous year’s crop are used as mulch in the orchard, ensuring that nothing goes to waste.

At Cathedral Cove, the macadamias are processed entirely by hand from start to finish, and they’re also completely organic. The macadamias are sold fresh and roasted, and pressed into oil and made into butter, brittle and other value-added products. In addition to macadamias, Cathedral Cove also grows avocados, figs, apples and a variety of citrus fruits.

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At the little storefront you get to eat as many macadamias as you crack!

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Macadamia oil, best used as a simple, flavorful drizzle over salad or grilled bread. It also works wonders as a hair or skin moisturizer!

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Fresh figs that were sadly not yet ready to eat when we visited.

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Cathedral Cove is organic, so no chemical pesticides or herbicides are used in the orchard.

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Bees are absolutely integral to a successful orchard. As at most of the farms we’ve seen, maintaining a healthy pollinator population is essential to a healthy ecosystem.

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We bought avocados to eat with heirloom tomatoes from the farmers’ market…it is summer here, after all.

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Look closely…New Zealand’s most vocal yet least seen creature, the cicada, is hiding here.

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One of the many citrus trees on the property.

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Definitive proof that “drinking wine” actually qualifies as “eating fruit.”

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Meet Willow, one of Cathedral Cove’s organic lawnmowers.

Because macadamias are so delicious (and so precious), they’re best used as a showcase ingredient. As with all nuts, lightly toasting them in a dry pan will bring out their flavorful oils, but tread carefully – nuts burn very quickly. For storage, place in an airtight bag or container in the refrigerator or freezer as the good fats in nuts cause them to turn rancid quickly. Always buy nuts from stores with high turnover (of product, not staff) and whenever possible, smell them before purchasing – rancidity is definitely noticeable. Should you find yourself with a wealth of macadamias, try this. Or maybe this. Or just eat them lightly toasted and salted, perhaps with a gentle dusting of curry powder.

Many thanks to Cathedral Cove Macadamias for welcoming us onto their beautiful property!

Chapter Two: New Zealand

Haere mai and welcome to Aotearoa, Land of the Long White Cloud. We’ve gone from Japanese winter straight into Kiwi summer! We started our journey in Auckland as most international travelers do, where we picked up a campervan and drove north first, to visit an area where N taught diving long, long ago. We’re about halfway through the North Island right now, with the intention of making it just to the northern tip of the South Island before we have to turn around and come back. To say that we’re in a different world than Japan would be an understatement.

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Our sunrise view at Whangamata, where we freedom-camped on the beach.

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Tauranga seen from the top of Mount Maunganui.

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Oystercatchers on the dunes.

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Surf school at Omanu Beach.

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Waipu Caves.

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It’s easy to see why many fantasy movies have been filmed in these prehistoric forests.

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New Zealand is home to an unusual number of “wild” chickens, seen here hiding from the rain at a picnic spot near Haruru Falls. Are they dumped in the woods by people who don’t want them? We have no idea, but we’ve seen (and heard) a lot of them!

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Stormy day at the beach in Tauranga.

Next up for us: Lake Taupo and (hopefully) the legendary Tongariro Crossing!