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

Camping at Raetea Reserve

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Trees in the Raetea Reserve

We’ve struggled to find places to sleep since the start of our trip. There aren’t many free campsites in New Zealand for cars, which shouldn’t be an issue because of the country’s freedom camping rules: as long as it’s not specifically forbidden, you’re supposedly welcome to camp anywhere provided you clean up after yourself and act responsibly. Freedom camping is part of the New Zealand psyche: when we were planning our trip and asked our Airbnb host in Auckland about free campsites, he looked at us like we were crazy. “Just pitch a tent anywhere out of the way and freedom camp,” he laughed. The problem is that most local councils of New Zealand have now heavily restricted or outlawed freedom camping, so in most places we’d technically be breaking the law.

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A trail closed to prevent the spread of Kauri dieback disease

But let’s set that aside for now because we’ve found a free campsite to stay at for this night! It’s at Raetea, and the reason it’s free is that the rest of the reserve is technically closed to prevent the spread of Kauri dieback disease. So it means there’s absolutely nothing for us to do at this reserve, but it does mean a night of sleep free from fees and worries that someone will find and fine us for sleeping in the car.

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The campgrounds, sheltered from wind and fairly quiet.

There isn’t much at this campsite except a huge grassy field and some drop toilets across the stream. When we cross to use it, we notice people washing their dishes in the stream water. I almost want to shout at them: GUYYYYS, this is why they’re outlawing freedom camping. This is why we can’t have nice things, and it’s only a matter of time before freedom camping dies out entirely.

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There’s also this sign, so stay classy folks.

Otherwise, the campsite is absolutely lovely. Though its hiking trails are all closed, the reserve still has beautiful scenery and is blissfully quiet. And except for the moon, it’s entirely dark at night. Time to get our first good sleep in days.

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The stream near the campgrounds
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The moonlight night in the campgrounds

Impromptu Northland Hike

01-IMG_7900 We’ve been driving for a few hours and I’m crazy to get out of the car. I am not a sit-in-the-seat, stare out, do nothing for hours kind of person, and thus am ill-suited for road trips, though I’ve somehow been coaxed into a car for days at a time to drive across the U.S. Twice. Stoytcho finally agrees to a rest break, and we pull into a turnout somewhere in the Northland next to a grassy slope.

We poke around for a few minutes and discover a narrow trail leading down past the grass into the trees. We don’t see any fences or signs, so we follow it into the shade of the underbrush. Though the heat of the day is sweltering, here it’s blessedly cooler. And downhill the going is easy, though the trail narrows to hardly a footpath.

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At the bottom of the hill we break out into the sun again and find ourselves on a grassy strip between the trees. This is probably a transient stream, filling with water when it rains. But for now, it’s ours to explore.

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We wander through the grass exploring, stretching our legs and poking our noses around just for the heck of it. There are little surprises, like the husk of a cicada left after molting…

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And then there are the larger surprises, like these bizarrely-shaped boulders that dot the landscape. Sculpted by water and adorned with plants, they greet us every few meters, each with a unique shape and personality.

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There are some live surprises, like this cicada who buzzes by to say hello…

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…or this mysterious bird that tempts us deeper into the woods. He lands on a branch near us, singing loudly and waggling his tail. As I approach to photograph him, he flits off to another branch deeper in the underbrush. When I don’t follow, he returns to the first branch, calling to us again. We follow him this time and he leads us a few meters before we find the brush too thick to pass. Yet even as we turn back, he chirps to us, calling us forth to an unknown destination. Maybe next time, little friend.

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After nearly an hour of exploring, we decide it’s time to head back. As we return to the trail we came in on, the wind begins to blow we notice the forest around our little clearing for the first time. The trees around us sway, and a chorus of whispers and creaks issues from the branches above. They appear to be leaning toward us, examining the intruders into their land, and though it’s daylight I feel the hairs on my neck rise. I silently ask them to pardon our intrusion, thank them for their hospitality, and bid them farewell. Then it’s up the narrow dirt path, back to the road, the car, and our world.

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Stranded Gasless in the Northland

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The automated G.A.S. kiosk, a harbinger of our crisis.

It’s anyone’s worst nightmare on a road trip: getting stranded with an empty gas tank far from help because oops, it turns out that there wasn’t another gas station for a hundred miles. This is the sort of thing we futureproofed back home with a gas canister in the car trunk and a wary eye on the gas gauge during our two road trips across the States. So how did it happen to us in New Zealand?

We were prepared, but not in the right ways

Running out of gas was one of our worries when we first set out into New Zealand’s Northland, which is more sparsely populated than the rest of the North Island. To figure out how likely that was, we used both Google Maps and CamperMate (which was indispensible during our trip) to plot the number of gas stations on our route. To our relief, there were several, so running out of gas because of a lack of stations wasn’t an issue. Because we weren’t sure how extensive ATMs and credit card coverage was in the Northland, we also pulled out $200 NZD and stashed it for emergency. We double checked that our credit card worked here through some grocery purchases, and it looked like we were all ready to go.

The sparsely-populated Northland West Coast was where we hit trouble

The first half of our drive, which took us up the Northland East Coast through large settlements like Whangarei, Kawakawa, and Kerikeri were no problem. All of them had gas stations where we got gas without a hitch and continued on our way–some even had friendly attendants to pump the gas for us and pass the time with small talk. We grew used to this system, and so the first sign of trouble after our visit to Te Paki Sand Dunes didn’t raise alarm bells. We noticed the gas gauge was at a quarter-tank, so we found a G.A.S. station (it’s a brand in NZ) and pulled off. There was no sign of attendant, but we were happy to pump our own gas at the self-service kiosks, which seemed to only take credit cards. I popped my card in and the machine prompted me for a PIN.

For those in the audience wondering whether there’s a typo above, there isn’t. In Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, credit cards work on a chip-and-PIN system, meaning that you insert your card into the machine and then enter a series of numbers like you would at an ATM. In contrast, the U.S. credit card work on chip-and-signature, meaning we stick the card in the machine and it spits out a receipt for us to sign. Unsurprisingly, the two systems don’t always play nicely together. Since we in the States don’t have PINs for our credit cards, they don’t always work for purchases abroad.

I’d read beforehand about possible workarounds for the PIN problem, including hitting “Enter” without entering a number or simply typing “0000” and hitting “Enter”. I tried both of these combinations on the machine and both times it rejected my transaction and returned the card. “Huh, how annoying,” I thought to myself. We climbed back into the car and drove to the next station, only a few kilometers away. To our delight, this one had a convenience store attached to it, so when our credit card failed to work again we went in to ask what to do. The convenience store employee stared at us. “I have no idea what to do. I just work for the convenience store, and it’s not related to the gas station…” she told us. Oh dear.

Solving the problem and getting gas

We kept on driving for a couple hours, nervously watching the gas gauge edge down and stopping at every gas station to check if it was manned–none were, and every automated system rejected our credit card. Over debate, we settled on two possibilities: there was a small town coming up that might have a manned station. And if it didn’t, we were going to stop there and wait for someone else to come by and use the station, when we could ask to use their card in return for a cash payment.

The next town, unsurprisingly, also had an automated gas station. Station is a stretch of the word; it was really a single pump next to the town’s tiny harbour. I tried the usual actions with the credit card, it still rejected the payments. No cash accepted, either, so this was it. We settled in for a wait, gazing across the harbor at a few bobbing boats in the black-blue bay. We cleaned up our stuff scattered around the car a bit and made ourselves look as un-disheveled as possible (which is hard when you’ve been camping for four days). And we waited.

Twenty minutes passed before another car rolled up to refuel. As the woman wrapped up her transaction, we approached her and asked if we could pay her cash in return for buying gas on her card. She seemed baffled, but said sure and set the pump up for another transaction. We filled the gas tank to full, then handed her the receipt and cash. SAVED!

Preventing the problem in the first place

We didn’t encounter this problem for the rest of our New Zealand road trip because we rerouted ourselves to pass through a major city every other day and filled up whenever we encountered an attended gas station. But the feeling that we might run out of gas in a rental car hours from any help, coupled with the fear that help would break our travel budget, was pretty stressful. Here are three things you can do to prevent this problem in the first place and take a lot of stress off your shoulders:

  1. Call your credit card company and get a PIN – This one wouldn’t have worked for us, but some U.S. credit card companies will give you a PIN if you explain where you’re travelling and ask for it. It doesn’t hurt to try.
  2. Carry a full gas canister with you – This is what we normally do on road trips, but we didn’t see this as an option with our rental car. Ask about a spare gas canister and rent one if you can, since it’s worth the peace of mind during your road trip.
  3. Plan your route to hit a major city every X kilometers – Since you can estimate mpg and can look up the size of the gas tank, you can easily figure out how far the car will go before it needs a refill. Plan your route so that you’re near a city when you’re running low, since cities will have a plethora of gas options and at least some are manned.

In an ideal world, your credit card works around the world without a hitch because the financial systems all play nicely together. And barring that, in a secondary ideal world, whether a location requires credit cards with PINs or whether it’s manned with an attendant who can help would be neatly spelled out under each establishment’s description. But neither of these things has come to pass (yet), so save yourself the worry and make sure you’re road tripping prepared.

The Giant Sand Dunes

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On the far right of this picture are two people walking across the dunes. They are the tiny black speck lost in the seas of beige-ish yellow sand. In the center is a tiny oasis – no visibly water, but plenty of plant life. These sand dunes are appropriately giant.

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What greets you once you cross the tiny stream from the parking lot to the sand – the first set of dunes, commonly used for dune-boarding. I have my board ready, but first we went to explore.

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At the crest of the first dune, you see the giant desert-like expanse. It stretches seemingly for forever. For scale, two people walking in the distance.

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Continue climbing and you’ll see some of the extremely delicate plant life growing on the upper dunes. Much rarer than the wide swath of plant life at the base of the first dune, these plants exist as isolated guardians against the winds.

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All of the plants here are important, but up on the shifting dunes this holds especially true. It is absolutely vital that they not be damaged in any way – their existence is difficult enough, and stepping on them only destroys the fragile ecosystem of the sand dunes.

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Reach the top of the dune desert and you’re greeted with a barren view. Nothing lives up here – the sand is ever moving and the wind is strong.

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From here you can see the southern edge of the dunes, where the river runs strong and plants grow thick and wild.

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On the dune-side of the river, a tangle of plants secure the sands.

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If you crouch down to sand-level, make sure to cover your face. The wind blows sand along, up, and over the edge of the dunes with strength enough to hurt. That fuzzy layer of sand is flying up the dune.

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Keep going to the west, a long way to the west, and the ocean becomes visible in the low distance. You won’t be anywhere near it – it’s several hours to hike – but seeing the bright blue waves from the top of the dunes is spectacular.

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Some notes on boarding down the dunes. The board you bring should have a smooth bottom. Ours was a woven plastic material and the friction was amazing. We’d get on the board, kick off, and wind up stopped inches down the hill.

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Fortunately, the dunes offer plenty of distraction. Sitting there, stuck in the sand, I contemplated the scale of the place. This picture is the oval-ish structure at the bottom of the valley I was trying to board down. In one picture it looks tiny, in the next, massive. It was a very large ridge of sand.

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For want of a horse, the rider was not lost. My two favorite things to do in the sand are one, roll down the hill, and two, take huge jumps and be caught by the soft sand beneath. Rolling is fun, but gets sand everywhere. Jumping makes you feel like a superhero.

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At the bottom of the valley I took some time to practice my sand bending.

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And then climbed right back up to go again. Climbing up the dune to get another go is the most exhausting part of the experience, and it leaves with a great workout. We climbed back up many, many times.

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At the top of the dunes, there’s a real danger of your hat blowing away, so keep a tight grip. Behind me is a very interesting sand structure, and people for scale.

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It looks like it was once a solid dome of compacted sand, which has now worn out and collapsed in a ring around the center.

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It offers an ever-changing sight as you walk around, above, and below it.

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Some angles are almost unrecognizable as being the same thing.

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Briefly the clouds circled overhead in two layers making for a wonderful view.

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Sand textures very differently depending on where on the dunes it lies. Mostly it’s a fine particulate, but in some areas it’s compacted, and in others deposits of tiny stones make for an interesting texture.

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It’s well worth the detour to see the dunes. They’re spectacular in scale, dwarfing perceptions of distance and size. Exploring them is difficult but rewarding – every new peak is its own, different vista. Take care of the plants, be prepared to clean everything of sand, and have a fantastic trip!

The Curious Case of the Six-legged Spider

I found the most curious spider at Waipu Caves. It had the definite shape and movements of a jumping spider, from two large luminous eyes to bounding around while I tried to photograph it. But it also definitely had six legs.

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A photo where I first found the spider: hiding in the bathroom.

I managed to lure the spider out into the sun, hoping to figure out where the two extra legs were. But even in the light, there were still only six legs – the two fuzzy things at the front are the pedipalps, part of the spider’s mouthparts.

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Luring the spider out into the sun for photography. Yep, it still has six legs.
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Still six legged: those small fuzzy “limbs” next to the fangs are the pedipalps, not legs.

Baffled by this mystery and enchanted by the brilliant peridot-green of the spider’s abdomen, I took a few more shots. We don’t have much in the way of internet access out here, so figuring out whether there is indeed a six-legged spider species in New Zealand will have to wait.

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The mystery spider patiently sits for a photoshoot.
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A head-on view of the spider. It’s curious about the camera, or it sees its own reflection and considers it another spider.

Update: I did some research and this isn’t a spiffy spider species that sports only six legs. It’s an unfortunate individual of the Trite genus (insert joke about the name lacking originality here), probably Trite planiceps (although it looks closer to this unidentified Trite species). These spiders normally come with eight legs, but this individual had his/her front two leg torn off, likely from an encounter with a predator or in a territorial battle with another spider. You can even see the stump of one leg to the left of the chelicerae and pedipalps in photos 2 and 4 above. Ouch. 

Thankfully, these spiders frequently lose their front limbs and carry on with their normal lives in terms of hunting and survival. But they do have some worse luck in fighting battles against other spiders and in mating – there’s a whole thesis on it here.

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The spider on the door lock, for size scale.