Editor’s Note: This is the second installment of a two-part series. For part 1, visit here.
The ferry from Wellington at the southernmost point of New Zealand's North Island is preparing for its evening sailing across the Cook Strait. Grey clouds melt the buildings' shadows into the steely surface of the harbor and the summer wind has sharpened edges even in mid-January. Barefoot backpackers make last minute sandwiches in their beat-up vans and station wagons and families gather toys, snacks and books—all preparing for the three and a half hour journey to Picton on the South Island.
I've been on the North Island for 35 days, and my departure for points south is anticipatory yet bittersweet. My research on sustainable tourism in this country of unavoidable superlatives has brought me to some of the grandest, wildest, most unspoilt swathes of nature I've encountered anywhere in the world. New Zealanders I've had the pleasure of interviewing thus far have struck me with their kindness, their willingness to learn, share and engage even with a stranger, and their fierce love and protective nature surrounding this wondrous land they call home. They recycle, they buy local and organic, they pack out their rubbish, they collect and conserve water, they prefer to go by bicycle or by foot, and they do it all without a sense of smugness or any sense of superiority. They do it because they respect the environment. They do it because it's the way they were raised.
In my last story I outlined six trip ideas for traveling the North Island while remaining vigilant of the intricate and delicate ecosystems at risk of overexposure. Here's an expansion on that same theme as I make the crossing to the South Island after 35 days of walking, hiking, cycling, sailing and kayaking the North Island. I take an unabashed joy in this lovely wild place, so I have self-serving as well as socially conscious motivations in encouraging fellow travelers to treat this and all our precious wilderness gently. Take a page from the Kiwis' book when it comes to preservation of resources—and in taking joy in them as well.
Te Urewera, about halfway between Lake Taupo in the Central Plateau and Hawke's Bay on the East Coast, is the largest national park on the North Island. Its main focal point is the beautiful sapphire waters of Lake Waikaremoana and the 3-to-4 day Great Walk that traverses about half the circumference of its shores. The lake's name means "sea of rippling waters," and on a clear day from the podocarp-forested edge of Panekire Ridge it seems to ripple right off into the sky like molten glass.
The Great Walk here can be undertaken independently or on a guided tour, and if the multi-day challenge doesn't fit into your itinerary there are several exceptional shorter hikes in the park. The clear-as-air waters of Lake Waikareiti are just 4km northeast of Lake Waikaremoana and hiking there and back only takes a couple of hours. The dramatic cascades of Aniwaniwa Falls are just a 10-minute, (sometimes muddy) walk off the main road.
8. Dive Northland
Watch the sunlight filtered through the surface of the sea, reflecting off the hull of the sunken Rainbow Warrior and highlighting the tail of a passing marlin. This shipwreck-turned-artificial-reef close to Whangaroa Harbour in the Cavalli Island Group north of the Bay of Islands has cultural as well as ecological significance.
The Rainbow Warrior was a Greenpeace flagship en route to call attention to and protest against nuclear testing by the French on the Mururoa Atoll. The ship was sunk by French saboteurs and later gifted by Greenpeace to the community to create an underwater ecosystem for research and enjoyment of divers. The wildlife thriving here today makes it one of the most fascinating dive sites in New Zealand.
Just south is Tutukaka, the access point for the Poor Knights Islands. This is another exceptional dive site; its high visibility and protected status as a marine reserve draw divers from all over the world.
Yes, they're man-made (or at least man-cultivated). No, they don't boast the kind of austere, jaw-dropping natural beauty that some of the other attractions listed here do. But centrally located Hamilton is a stopover or transit point for many travelers and it just happens to be home to some gorgeous, international-award-winning botanical gardens on Hungerford Crescent overlooking Turtle Lake.
The gardens have an Enviro Gold (highest rating) from Qualmark for their dedication to sustainability and will fill a lovely afternoon for a traveler. Visitors can wander amongst the peaceful Japanese Garden of Contemplation, the Maori-style Te Parapara, and the exploding-with-color Italian Renaissance Garden. Of particular interest is the "Sustainable Backyard." It was created in 1999 as a community garden, but it eventually became a permanent demonstration garden designed to educate on how even a small typical backyard or balcony garden can be a productive edible landscape.
The garden is built from local biodegradable materials like bamboo, composed of a variety of annuals and perennials to provide a year-round food supply, and utilizes waste as a resource, recycling and replacing nutrients in the soil.
In the Hauraki Gulf 30km northeast of Auckland lies a lush, green, thriving example of an ongoing conservation project. The island is called Tiritiri Matangi, meaning "place tossed by the wind," and it is an open sanctuary, which means conservationists are at work, but the island is open to a limited number of visitors.
Over 100 years of farming stripped Tiritiri Matangi of more than 94% of its native vegetation including the Pohutukawa tree, which had the devastating effect of the forced eviction of the vast majority of the island's birdlife. Starting in 1984 and over the 10 year period to follow, the Department of Conservation and Supporters of Tiritiri Matangi Incorporated (a conservation nonprofit) planted 250,000 to 300,000 trees.
Today the island is a true conservation success story as many of the native birds have returned and are successfully breeding, including the kiwi and the flightless takahe (one of the world's rarest species). The island can easily be visited on a day trip from Auckland. For overnight visitors, the DOC has a bunkhouse with four bunk rooms, a refrigerator, cooking equipment, a BBQ, hot and cold water, toilets, and showers—pretty decked out as far as DOC huts are concerned.
Another example of conservation efforts coming to fruition is Tawharanui, New Zealand's second pest-free open sanctuary located on a peninsula at the end of a gravel road just over an hour from Auckland. The positive results are audible in the symphony of birdsong heard throughout the sanctuary and are due to the combined efforts of the Tawharanui Open Sanctuary Society and the Auckland Council. The two groups worked together to plant thousands of native trees and a fence to keep predators at bay and reintroduced over a dozen different species of indigenous birds to the area. The park has numerous day walks, striking landscapes, and examples of sustainable farming over its 588 forested hectares. The gorgeous white sands of Anchor Bay are yet another reason to explore the area. Bring a snorkel and mask as well for the marine reserve located on the park's northern coast.
On your way back to Auckland or points north, stop by Ransom Wines in Warkworth for a tasting. They have some great wines and local cheeses, plus your $5 suggested donation goes to support Tawharanui's conservation efforts.
12. Cycling Hawke's Bay
The sunny climate, numerous vineyards, and beautiful coastline of Hawke's Bay offer plenty to entertain visitors, but the terrain has one more feature that is relatively unusual in the hilly North Island—its nearly 200 kilometers of maintained cycling trails are mostly smooth, flat and novice-friendly.
Heretaunga Plains is known in Maori folklore as the "land of 100 pathways" and Hawke's Bay Trails (part of New Zealand Cycle Trails Project) maintains three amazing Great Rides here—Water Ride, Wineries Ride, and Landscapes Ride. On Yer Bike Winery Tours offers day-tours of the vineyards or "freedom hires" if you prefer to create your own itinerary. Cyclists can also go eco-lux with a 3-to-8 day ride with Takaro Trails that includes indulgent gourmet meals, organic vineyard tastings, and luxurious accommodation at eco-lodges along the way.
Julia Reynolds is a travel writer, adventure enthusiast, and serial nomad living (mostly) in the Hawaiian islands. She is currently on a one-year trip around the world, avoiding air travel when possible and traveling slowly over land and sea. Some of her best travel experiences to date have been kayaking the Napali Coast of Kaua'i, diving the isolated atolls of Belize, and rock climbing in the Krabi region of Thailand. Her worst travel experiences have been getting robbed in Guatemala, breaking her back in Thailand, and breaking multiple bones in a mountain bike accident in Alaska. She still loves the places where the worst experiences occurred.