Brisbane is our first stop in Australia and little has changed in the years since I last visited. The city is still in eternal summer, just as I left it in August of 2010. It’s still a maze of suburbs, interspersed with parks and wide streets not built for pedestrian navigation. Cars speed through the metropolis while an underdeveloped bus network serves the rest of the population (and us). There are somethings I don’t remember from my last stay: new skyscrapers have appeared in the downtown area, and there’s a pedestrian/bike only path along the river. But if there were ever a sister city to my Los Angeles, it would be Brisbane.
Then there are the things that are wildly different here in Brisbane: the flora and fauna. While there are plenty of European imports, like bobbling pigeons and frilly French marigolds, native Australian wildlife has taken to the city. Black-headed ibises strut through grassy parks where you’d normally see crows, and at night giant fruit bats and bush possums forage in park trees. It’s wild and jarring, a reminder that we’re on a continent on the other side of the world.
With its swooping green hills, sandy beaches, and snow-capped peaks, New Zealand is effortlessly beautiful. And while anyone with a camera or phone can capture the country’s wild perfection, though photos don’t do the land justice. For you, who hopes to visit, who has visited, or who lives there now, we present our fifteen most breathtaking landscape photos from our two weeks on the North Island. And it’s just a small slice of New Zealand’s beauty:
One of our first and strongest impressions of New Zealand was the trees. Everywhere we went there were magnificent windswept trees dotting the side of the road. We zipped past many of them, pointing out the tree and nodding to each other that yes, that was a good tree. We hiked in the shade of others, staring up at the canopy, wondering at their massive natures. Whether a simple pine, a spreading spiderweb canopy of branches, alone or huddled in clumps, we loved them all.
This is our last night/day in New Zealand! After two weeks of driving around the country and sleeping in our tiny tent or in the not-so-ergonomic car, I’ve booked us a room at Opal Hot Springs Holiday Park to celebrate. We weren’t sure what to expect of a holiday park. We nearly missed the check-in cutoff of 9 pm, so the hours leading up to that were spent frantically driving just at the NZ speed limit and trying to call the place. Upon arrival, the guy working the front desk laughed and told us there was a bell to ring at night for check-in. He handed over the keys and asked if we wanted linens (they cost extra). We used our sleeping bags instead.
The room came with a parking spot out front, so a short drive later we were at our room. And by room, I mean paradise. THERE WERE BEDS. Real, mattress-containing, soft fluffy beds. There was a roof, and a table with chairs to sit in. There was even a sink and food prep area, complete with dishes and pans. We dropped our stuff, flopped onto the beds, and just didn’t move for several minutes.
Natalie: “Can we just not move until tomorrow?”
Stoytcho: “Can we just not move until forever?”
But we needed dinner. So we mashed together the rest of our tomato/beans/eggs/soup seasoning, ate like hungry hikers, and then collapsed and slept like kings.
The next morning, we got a chance to enjoy the reason I had booked this specific holiday park: a hot springs pool. We pulled on our swimsuits and lazed about in the water’s warmth, interrupting our soak occasionally to swim some laps in the adjacent cold pool. In eight hours, we’d be on a plane bound for Australia. But for now, we were here, not thinking of our farewell to New Zealand’s shimmering sands, rolling green hills, and relaxing thermal springs.
Despite our first run-in with Trump’s visage in Auckland, Trump does have fans here in New Zealand. Yes, New Zealand—that nature-loving, outdoorsy, free-healthcare fairly-socialist country in Oceania. I was confused at first, too.
Who are these people, and why do they support Trump? Like in the U.S., the people that support Trump seemed to be predominantly rural or small-town. They might have had ties to the U.S. And again like in the U.S., they were very, very showy of their support.
Encounter 1: The “Make America Great Again” hat
Somewhere along the Coromandel coast, neither here nor there, we stopped through a small town for lunch and groceries. On grocery duty, I collected our groceries and stood in line at the checkout. A guy no older than 25 got in line behind me. He was wearing the iconic red hat with white lettering : “Make America Great Again”. I didn’t think it was possible for Trump to have supporters here in New Zealand, so I asked him, “You’re wearing hat ironically, right?” “Not at all,” he replied with a straight face. I was floored.
“Why?” was my first question. He responded with the usual, that the system and Hillary Clinton are corrupt and screwing over America and Trump would fix things, especially immigration. Then he mentioned something about Obamacare, and I had to stop him. “You realize that New Zealand has universal healthcare, right?” He looked uneasy and shrugged, “Yeah, it…works for New Zealand, I guess.”
At this point, I noticed he didn’t have a New Zealand accent and asked where he came from. He told me he had moved to New Zealand with his parents from the U.S., but he had travelled around to a few other countries. We swapped travel stories. I wanted to keep talking with him, mostly because I was confused. This was my first face-to-face conversation with an ardent Trump supporter and I wanted to know: who are you? How do you think?
Somehow, we got back to the topic of immigration and the guy got particularly excited. He told me Trump would finally clean up America and throw out all of the illegal immigrants. America would be safer. My first instinct was to ask him what planet he lived on, because crime was already on the decline in most cities (linkout) and I grew up in a community of many illegal immigrants. I walked the streets alone as a kid. I was safe. But statistics don’t change minds, and anecdotes are met with “that’s just your experience. You were lucky.”
So instead I drew on my negotiation and consulting experiences. I wondered if I could get him to see through the eyes of an illegal immigrant. “Why do you think these people come to America?” I asked. The guy shrugged, “For a better life, for work.” I figured that was a good start and pressed on, “Okay, and so you really think a wall is going to stop them? You might deport some, but more will come. And there’s already a wall, and it hasn’t stopped them.” He had a response, and I responded back with something. We came to the conclusion that they came because Mexico couldn’t offer the same standard of living, and improving the Mexican economy was the best way to reduce the flow of illegal immigrants.
From here the conversation took a wildly speculative turn. The guy ended up being a fan of marijuana legalization, so we imagined a world in which the Mexican economy was powered by a marijuana equivalent of the vineyards and wineries, with people traveling from around the world for tours. I have no idea if that’s even possible, but it seemed like a better endpoint than “kick all of the illegal immigrants out and it’s not my problem.” I finished by asking him, “And if these people came legally from Mexico, it would be fine?” “Yeah, totally,” he replied.
Encounter 2: A sign in the hills
It was easy to write off the first experience as an outlier, the result of a guy who moved to New Zealand but who in his heart was still American. But driving through the center of the North Island on the last day, among the rolling green hills at sunset, we came across the sign (above). We screeched to a halt and got out, staring. Posted beneath the American flag, the sign declared, “PRES. TRUMP. GO THE DONALD; MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!”
There was nothing else for miles, save a few fences and a fluttering New Zealand flag. Stoytcho and I looked around for clues to who the owners of the Trump sign were, but to no avail. The only information we could find was a sign at the next turnoff that read “BURR FAMILY DAIRY FARM. AUTHORIZED ENTRY ONLY.” Stoytcho pointed out that we couldn’t be sure it was their sign. But from the location, flag, and all-caps signs, it was clear that someone wanted their support of Trump to ring loud and proud in the New Zealand countryside.
UPDATE: These signs DO belong to the Burr Family Dairy Farm. Looks like I wasn’t the only one who noticed them, and it gets worse; the adjacent sign with their name on it reads in tiny font “If you […] are a left wing tosser, DO NOT ENTER.” So that settles any ambiguity on their political point-of-view.
We headed out of the Goblin Forest and drove down the the nearby Dawson Falls. This was our last waterfall for this section of the trip. A nice up and down stair-hike leads to the falls and the pools beneath them. Notice the orange mud layer to the right of the falls? People have left tons of orange handprints around the area, and we joined in the fun.
The pools are big enough to skip stones in, coincidentally one of my favorite travel-hobbies. Finding the right stone is an art unto itself, and in this otherwise beautiful picture, there I am hunting.
The throw takes place.
We wrapped up and went on our last great drive, north and east. On the way we stopped at a seemingly regular beach.
Except that something was very strange about the sand.
Here in Mokao the sand is a wonderful coal black. I did a quick search for black sand beaches in New Zealand and this one isn’t listed. This was my first black sand beach, and I was amazed. If you’ve never seen one in person it’s the strangest thing. Alongside the color, the texture of the sand was of fine, wet silt, making it behave like very thick pudding. A strange and wonderful combination.
Great natural beauty and, unfortunately, pollution. It looks like trash from the nearby town washes down and out towards the ocean. Luckily it’s limited in its spread.
Walking away from the beach entrance leads to cliffs with small caves in them.
In a break in the cliffs is a river feeding the ocean and cutting a tar-black line in the sand.
We collected shells and continued our occasional tradition of post-beach combing art.
At the west end of the Forgotten World Highway is a rainforest like no other. Around the volcano of Taranaki nestles Egmont National Park, the nicknamed “Goblin Forest” famous for its waterfalls and gnarled, moss coated trees.
First, this trail, or set of trails, is fun. Just plain fun to hike up and down with plenty of variety in surface types, elevation changes, and scenery. The trail takes you from dense low forests to open rocky pools, across bridges and muddy stairs and stepping-stone paths.
The famous trees of the Goblin Forest are these thick-branched moss covered creatures which probably would look very spooky at night. During the day they’re vivid sun-dappled green, often covered in dew or rainfall.
The Kamahi tree is the dominant tree in this forest, unique in New Zealand. They sometimes start out growing on top of other trees, twisting their branches and creating the gnarled shape of the forest.
The high year-round humidity is a great environment for moss and lichen and they spread prodigiously here. Nearly every available surface is covered. In some areas the combination of twined branches and leafy outgrowths blocks a great deal of light, creating darkness in the daytime.
Along the way we saw rock-slides.
Then crossed a bridge, safe but bouncy.
To get to the Wilke pools.
There’s a tiny cove/cavern at the bottom. The water is instantly numbing. Great for a hot day or for icing a bruise. We did go “swimming” but only for a moment.
We climbed the rocks around the pools only to find more pools up higher – also extremely cold. Past this is technical rock climbing territory so we turned back.
And climbed some very muddy stairs.
To get great views of the forested mountainside.
And of the volcano itself.
Along the way we took some closeups of the flora..
The moss and ferns covering the trees, dense and superbly healthy.
And some very pretty white and pink flowers.
Capturing this was tough – the wind kept swaying the ring of flowers, but it was worth it. Natalie also took a couple of really nice insect shots, following below. They’re not everyone’s cup of tea so feel free to end the post here. For anyone who’s curious, scroll on.
A vivid orange mosquito-hawk (I think). You can see the little ball-ended stubs it uses to balance while it flies.
I don’t like flies, but this one has an amazing abdomen. That blue is unreal. It may be a bluebottle fly but I’m not sure.
The famous weta of New Zealand. We never saw one alive, nor did we see the amazingly huge ones they show in National Geographic, but it was cool to see these up close.
Natalie’s favorite creature, the jumping spider, poses for the camera. They have good enough eyesight to tell you apart from the background and often interact with the camera while you’re shooting.