New Zealand Travel: A Road Trip

  • Roadside scenery in the eastern Bay of Plenty.

    Roadside scenery in the eastern Bay of Plenty.

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Above: The highway leading to Napier.

Hangi feasts, glowing worms, and wide-open roads await on a drive across New Zealand’s North Island

Story and photographs by Christopher Hill

Though I didn’t come all the way to New Zealand to marvel at the luminescent bottoms of larval fungal gnats, here I am, my own bottom wedged into a kayak, on a moonless autumn night somewhere in the hills above Tauranga. Save for the swish of our paddles and the soporific throb of a distant power station, the lake is silent, slumbering. In the cockpit behind me, Drew Copestake, my Kiwi guide, steers us into a grottolike ravine barely wider than our kayak is long. One by one, the stars blink out overhead.

“You see them, mate?” Drew whispers.And there, on the moist, mossy, fern-draped walls of the ravine, appears a constellation of tiny lights. Glowworms—thousands of them, their abdomens shining bright to lure even smaller insects into their silken webs. The water’s surface is radiant with their reflection. Even Drew seems entranced,  though he must have seen this display dozens of times before. “The Maoris call them titiwai,” he tells me back on shore, packing up our gear and a much-depleted picnic hamper of wine and cheese. “It means something like ‘hanging over the water,’ since they thrive in dark, wet environments. They aren’t worms at all, of course. But ‘glowworms’ sounds better in the brochures than ‘gnat larvae.’ ” Call them what you will, I hadn’t expected much from my nocturnal encounter with the titiwai.

I was staying the night in nearby Mount Maunganui, a quiet resort town on the Bay of Plenty, and the folks at my bed-and-breakfast had suggested that I might while away some time with Drew’s kayaking outfit, Waimarino. I’m glad they did, because it turned out to be a highlight of my trip. I suppose we were lucky to have the lake to ourselves; Drew had a couple of other bookings that night, but they were no-shows. Then again, New Zealand, home to some four million people, nearly a third of whom are concentrated in Auckland, is never what you would call crowded. That’s true even on the more populous North Island, where I’ve come for a week to drive its wide-open spaces, explore some Maori culture, sample some wine, and generally see what all the fuss is about.

After a couple of days in Auckland touring the vineyards of Waiheke Island and the wild west-coast beaches of Karekare and Piha, I steered my rental car out of the city’s suburbs and onto State Highway 1, which runs all the way south to Wellington, the capital, before starting up again across the Cook Strait to traverse the length of the South Island. That’s about 2,000 kilometers, not so much more than the 1,200-kilometer round-trip I had devised for myself.

Within half an hour, I’d veered west onto a two-lane highway that winds through the green and pleasant pastureland of the Hauraki Plains. The sky was high and blue and the road virtually empty. In no particular hurry, I pulled over now and again to snap photos of ruminating cows or woolly clusters of unshorn sheep. There was a sudden burst of topography at Karangahake Gorge, where a shallow river valley announced the hills of the Kaimai Ranges. Farther on at Paeroa, birthplace of a fizzy lemon drink called L&P, I stopped to stretch my legs at a strip of folksy antiques stores, and munch on a meat pie from a local café.

It was 2 p.m. by the time I pulled into Mount Maunganui. It’s a picturesque place, set on a peninsula that terminates at a volcanic knob called Mauao, a.k.a. The Mount. There’s a sheltered harbor on one side and a long surf beach on the other, overlooked by a stretch of low-rise condominiums and holiday apartments. At the base of the hill, I parked in front of Mount Bistro for a late lunch of Chardonnay-poached scallops and crayfish, which I worked off with a stroll down the beach. Afterward, at my seaside bed-and-breakfast, hosts Jim and Lorraine Robertson asked me what my plans were. I said I had none. And that’s how I end up in a kayak with Drew Copestake.

Later that night, on the drive back down to Mount Maunganui, Drew tells me that he spent 15 years overseas leading white-water rafting expeditions in places like Kenya and Israel. Didn’t he find being back here a little, well, sedate? I ask. “Nah, I had an itch to travel when I was younger, but I’ve seen the world now. I can’t think of a better place to be than right here. Really.”

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