An open letter to New Zealand about freedom camping

Dear New Zealand,

You’re amazing. Our two weeks spent road-tripping through the North Island were priceless and filled with wonderful hiking trails, delicious meat pies, and breathtaking views. Your parks, from the local to the national, all had a unique beauty we’ve never seen elsewhere. And your people are so friendly and helpful. In short, we loved you.

So it’s totally crazy to ask this of you, but could you please, please change your rules on freedom camping? They’re vague, vary by council region, and are incredibly hard to navigate as a visitor. Twenty hours of our trip were spent on trying to figure out where we could and couldn’t camp with our tent, and in most cases we still weren’t sure. There was also a huge disconnect in understanding the rules between Kiwis and visitors. When we noticed a district prohibited freedom camping, we often asked locals in an area where we could camp. “Uh, right here?” they’d reply with confusion, followed by something like, “Pretty much anywhere, as long as it’s not private property.” Asking about the ban on freedom camping usually led them to even more confusion. So it seemed like there were different rules for Kiwis and visitors. And that felt bad.

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Our tent at a free campsite we found via app and hours of driving.

At the same time, I totally understand why you’ve cracked down on freedom camping. I read online about the environmental and health problems that freedom camping caused.  It’s great that you saw a problem and wanted to protect your beautiful countryside. But letting councils regulate freedom camping hasn’t achieved that goal. Instead, it appears to have pushed budget-constrained campers who can’t afford paid campsites into a few areas where they do more damage. While camping at one of the few free sites in the Northland Peninsula, we watched campers doing their dishes in the river with soap and water. At another site, I listened to a Kiwi tell me that “camping was THE best life” as chocolate wrappers fluttered out of his campervan door and into the grass. When I pointed them out, he laughed and said “Oh no!” but made no effort to retrieve them. And then there are the hundreds of people choosing to sleep in their cars or drive on tired to the next campsite because freedom camping is banned in a district. We did this several times; it’s exhausting, it’s stressful, and you wake up miserable.

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On the upshot, sleeping terribly in the car means you’re up early for sunrises like this.

So given the problems above, I’d like to make a humble suggestion: move to an online course-and-permitting system. One of my many specialties is negotiation, much of which comes down to understanding what motivates someone. You’re motivated to keep your country beautiful and safe, to ensure that freedom camping doesn’t do damage the environment or human health. The motivation of the would-be freedom campers is to see your country’s beauty and have fun while on a budget. Both of these could be satisfied with a course-and-permitting system where would-be campers went through an online course highlighting New Zealand’s freedom camping rules, took a short quiz, and paid a small fee for a freedom camping permit. It could help New Zealand’s citizens as well, who don’t always realize what they’re doing is damaging the environment.

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Freedom camping isn’t just for those on a budget; it lets you capture picture perfect moments in New Zealand’s landscape.

And as a bonus, let’s look at whether the program would pay for itself. Let’s say that you give New Zealand citizens permits for free (they pay taxes already), but you require a $10 NZD permit for every visitor who wants to freedom camp. You had 3.2 million visitors in 2014, and let’s say on the conservative side that 20% are would-be freedom campers. That means you’ve got 640,000 visitors getting a permit at $10 per person, meaning $6.4 million NZD. Could you run a program like this for $6.4 million? As a government, you would know better than I would, and you could adjust the permit cost as needed. But beyond budgeting, the course-and-permit system would help you keep New Zealand beautiful by ensuring people know the rules of freedom camping while keeping it fun and accessible to everyone, even those of us traveling on a shoestring. I hope you’ll consider it. May your grassy hills always stay green.

Love,

Natalie

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There’s a lot of beauty to protect in New Zealand, and a course-and-permit system would go a long way in everyone knowing how to protect it.

Our 20 best New Zealand landscapes

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:

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People fishing at sunrise near Mangawhai Heads, Northland Peninsula
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Foragers collect cockles on a beach, south of Auckland
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Early morning at a campsite in the center of the North Island
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Sheep run across a grassy hill near Cape Reinga, Northland Peninsula
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The view from the lighthouse at Cape Reinga, Northland Peninsula
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Clouds (shadows) and people (black dots on right) pass over dunes at the Te Paki Sand Dunes, Northland Peninsula
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The endless hills of New Zealand as seen from the Forgotten World Highway
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Volcanic cones rise from the landscape at Tongariro National Park
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Taranaki Falls and Wairere Sream cut through the landscape of Tongariro National Park
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Wairere Sream just before plunging over Taranaki Falls, Tongariro National Park
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Patchwork vegetation grows in the shadow of a volcanic cone, Tongariro National Park
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The Tongariro National Park landscape on a rainy day
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Tawhai Falls (Gollum’s Pool) on a rainy day, Tongariro National Park
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The cooling tower of Ohaaki Geothermal Station disappears into the clouds, central North Island
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Steam rises from hot springs and rivers hidden in the forest, central North Island
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Late afternoon on the tramping track in Puhoi, Northland Peninsula
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Sunset and cloud formations as seen from the Mounds Walk, Tongariro National Park
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Sunset on a rainy day, including a distant rainbow, at Nevin’s Lookout
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Sunset and dusk in one photo as seen from Nevin’s Lookout
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The last rays of sunset over New Zealand’s hills at Nevin’s Lookout

Trees of New Zealand

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.


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If you would know strength and patience, welcome the company of trees.
– Hal Borland
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I like trees because they seem more resigned to the way they have to live than other things do.
– Willa Cather
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Trees are poems that the earth writes upon the sky.
– Kahil Gibran
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In a forest of a hundred thousand trees, no two leaves are alike. And no two journeys along the same path are alike.
– Paulo Coelho
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“A tree is our most intimate contact with nature.”
– George Nakashima
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“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.”
– John Muir
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Some see Nature all ridicule and deformity, and some scarce see Nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, Nature is Imagination itself.
– William Blake
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Solitary trees, if they grow at all, grow strong.
– Winston Churchill
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I never saw a discontented tree. They grip the ground as though they liked it, and though fast rooted they travel about as far as we do.
– John Muir
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Evolution did not intend trees to grow singly. Far more than ourselves they are social creatures, and no more natural as isolated specimens than man is as a marooned sailor or hermit.
– John Fowles
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Someone is sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.
– Warren Buffett
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I grew up in a forest. It’s like a room. It’s protected. Like a cathedral… it is a place between heaven and earth.
– Anselm Kiefer
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A forest of these trees is a spectacle too much for one man to see.
– David Douglas
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Because they are primeval, because they outlive us, because they are fixed, trees seem to emanate a sense of permanence.
– Kim Taplin
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“The wonder is that we can see these trees and not wonder more.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Credit for the tree related quotes goes to the collections at gardendigest.com and treesgroup.org.

A (good) bed-end to our New Zealand travels

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The cold and hot pools of the holiday park

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.

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Our room. Of note: BEDS

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.

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We also enjoyed our last Bundaberg soda to celebrate. It’s in a flavor that we’ve never even heard of in the U.S.

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.

Travel in the Time of Trump: Trump’s New Zealand fans

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.

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A pro-Trump sign under the U.S. flag in rural New Zealand

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.

 

The Last Waterfall, and a Black Sand Beach

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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.

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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.

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The throw takes place.

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We wrapped up and went on our last great drive, north and east. On the way we stopped at a seemingly regular beach.

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Except that something was very strange about the sand.

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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.

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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.

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Walking away from the beach entrance leads to cliffs with small caves in them.

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In a break in the cliffs is a river feeding the ocean and cutting a tar-black line in the sand.

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We collected shells and continued our occasional tradition of post-beach combing art.

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Next up : return to civilization.

The Goblin Forest of Taranaki

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Along the way we saw rock-slides.

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Then crossed a bridge, safe but bouncy.

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To get to the Wilke pools.

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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.

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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.

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And climbed some very muddy stairs.

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To get great views of the forested mountainside.

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And of the volcano itself.

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Along the way we took some closeups of the flora..

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The moss and ferns covering the trees, dense and superbly healthy.

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And some very pretty white and pink flowers.

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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.


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A vivid orange mosquito-hawk (I think). You can see the little ball-ended stubs it uses to balance while it flies.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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This beautifully colored orbweaver is the Colaranea Viriditas.

The Forgotten World Highway, day 2

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Wild sunset storms over, we continued on the road. Our first stop led us pulling over on the side of the road sometime before it turned to gravel to read about Joshua Morgan.

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Clearly marked and about two minutes off from the road lies Joshua Morgan, the Head Surveyor for in this region in 1893. The sign tells the story – Morgan fell ill while leading the expedition, help was sent for, but to no avail. He died and was buried in the same spot, near the junction of two rivers.

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At 35 he was an accomplished surveyor and fluent in Maori, the first white explorer to cross the Urewera mountain range. His plans for the road we drove on were eventually executed, and it has served the area for many years.

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His wife’s dying wish was to be buried near his grave, which the local authorities honored.

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The next stop on the way was a vista of Mt. Damper Falls, one of the tallest waterfalls on the North Island. It’s a fairly short walk, about twenty minutes one way, and except for the mud is quite easy. There is some farmland on the way, so closing gates is important. The reward is this view of the falls, seventy four meters tall.

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Not mentioned on the parks website is this second waterfall, very near the first. It forks off after the start even after it’s been raining. We found it to be the more interesting of the two falls, despite the prominence of the first. There are back-country hiking trails that come and go through the area, including one marked as closed for safety reasons that had clearly been travelled recently.

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Further down the road, past the hand-carved tunnel of which we got no good pictures but can tell you it’s rough, narrow, and damp, is the republic of Whanga and its capital, Whangamomona. In a border-redrawing in 1989, Whangamomona was placed in a neighboring county, and not the one its residents consider home. In protest, after attempting to correct the error, they declared independence and now have a Republic Day holiday and give out passports to tourists.

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The history is somewhat tongue in cheek, as their first president was placed on the ballot without his knowledge and the following three presidents were animals. The town boomed and declined with local farming and the coming of the rail line, and is now in a fairly sad state. The population is around a hundred people and dropping, and since the post office closed recently, the inevitable decline became even more inevitable.

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Actively used buildings are kept in good repair and the New Zealand Parks services maintains a clean bathroom in one corner of town, but most of the buildings are shuttered and there are no real businesses save the town hotel. The people live in good spirits though. The hotel’s pub was busy and cheerful, and the town’s welcome sign says “Come and increase our population”.

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We enjoyed a snack at the hotel’s restaurant – scones and cake – but the french fries smelled delicious and it was hard to resist sitting down for a full meal.

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Next up : the Goblin forest and saying goodbye to New Zealand.

A Firey Sunset on the Forgotten World Highway

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New Zealand’s North Island has a stretch of road it claims takes you back times before now, when forests were real forest, waterfalls were real waterfalls, and tunnels were dug by hand. By and large, it delivers. The drive has a scenic tunnel dug with handpicks, lots of waterfalls, and readily accessible hikes to see them. That’s day two. Day one was car-commercial worthy roads and a massive, gorgeous, sunset on fire.

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Look at that beautiful mist rising off the super-hot asphalt. A lot of our drive was like this, switching between rain and mist. Not great conditions but great eye candy.

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A rare moment when the clouds cleared – knobby distorted hills is much of the landscape in this part of the island. They look like a music visualizer gone haywire and they go on for ages. Our trusty Ger, as I came to think of the car, waits patiently.

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The day grew longer and we kept on driving. There’s supposed to be lots of stuff you can do and see on this stretch of highway, mostly hiking and old-timey craft shops. We weren’t in the mood for crafts, and hiking was planned for the day after, and we really needed to catch up on miles.. so we drove through most of the first half, stopping only to take some pictures here and there along the road.

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And then we got to Nevin’s lookout. This was a promised amazing viewpoint on the road, and I didn’t want to miss it. We got there just in time for sunset after some waffling about where we would stop and sleep. Don’t let the fence to the right of the sign fool you, the entrance is across the road.

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New Zealand back/farm country etiquette asks that you walk freely and close the gates behind you. To get to the lookout (there are several) walk up the hill keeping a bit to the right. There’s a worn trail for most of the way, and you’ll go through one more cattle gate before getting to what we thought was the first lookout, about fifteen minutes worth of hiking. We reached the top just in time for sunset, and then the sky was awesome.

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The epic clash of ice and fire.
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A rainbow appeared off to one side.
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Towards the sunset the sky burned orange.

 

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Behind us the brewing of a far off storm
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Between east and west.

 

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The sun slowly starts to set.
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The last rays before the sun sinks below the horizon.

Shortly after this spectacular skyward display, it started raining. Again. This part of New Zealand, and in fact the entire North Island, was covered under a massive moving storm for the whole week. That we got to see any sky at all was fantastic luck. To see such a beautiful sunset was something else altogether.

Next time : a Republic in New Zealand.

Brief respite from New Zealand’s rains

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After three nights of rain and only one chance to dry our equipment, we’re uncomfortably, intimately aware of the constant damp feeling. The tent and sleeping mattresses started to get that standing-water mildew smell. Our packs, which worryingly hold everything, got a bit of rain exposure. The clothes we’re wearing never feel quite dry. And don’t even get me started on our socks.

But today we ran into a dry patch! Out past Taumarunui, the sun broke through the clouds and shone with a reassuring intensity. It held until noon, so we pulled off at Ohinepane campsite to have lunch and give everything a chance to dry. Sunlit grassy fields greeted us and we spread the equipment out around us.

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We took the chance for a leisurely lunch. We watched butterflies flutter by and some chickens hunt for worms. We greeted another group the came up to the campsite by canoe. We shared the covered kitchen area with them and exchanged travel stores.

The first sign of trouble was a dimming of the sun’s rays. Stoytcho and I peered out from the kitchen’s overhang and saw the massing clouds. “I’m gonna run to the restroom, then we’ll pack up.” Stoytcho called out as he headed to the camp’s toilets. “Sure,” I replied, only half-attentive. Stoytcho was gone only two minutes when there was an ominous darkening and the sun was gone. It was time to start packing stuff away.

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I had just finished rolling up the sleeping bags and mats when the rain started. Thick, scattered drops plinked down on the car and what remained of our gear. I grabbed everything I could and started throwing it into the open car doors. I finished just as the rain intensified, pouring torrents down onto the campsite. I threw myself into the car, and Stoytcho jumped in a few minutes later.

We sorted out the back seat and started the car, heading back toward the Forgotten World Highway. We drove for most of the day as the sky vacillated between gleaming sun, gloomy clouds, and giant raindrops. New Zealand’s weather is a fickle mistress indeed.

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But at least the imposing clouds made for gorgeous, atmospheric shots of New Zealand’s countryside!