Australia travel tips and photos:

Carol and I left Seattle’s winter for 7.5 weeks exploring some great forest parks in southern Australia in the southern summer January 26-March 18, 2004. We most enjoyed Australia’s exotic animals and plants. Best weather for a separate trip to northern and interior Australia (the “Red Centre”) would be September or October.

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In hindsight, we could have shortened the trip by flying straight to certain highlights instead driving extra distance. The size of Australia challenges the traveller to prioritize visiting far-flung areas of interest. To make best use of your time, fly to each major city (such as with Virgin Australia Airlines), rent a camper ( or car (, and stay at convenient Caravan/Holiday Parks. Camping vehicles can show up in most parks without a reservation, provide a kitchen, and carry all you need without reshuffling luggage. We enjoyed Melbourne and Perth via separate round trips in campers. A more relaxing way to explore Tasmania would have been renting a camper instead of a car. Without a camper, we had to worry about making lodging reservations several days in advance despite traveling in non-peak (“shoulder”) tourist season.

Within two days we adjusted to the minus 5 hours jet lag (plus one day) to Sydney from Seattle. We adjusted to driving on the left side of the road within a day or two. Traffic flows smoothly around the many roundabouts instead of being impeded by stop signs. Be prepared for narrow bumpy roads with fast traffic.

January-March: Suggested southern forest itinerary for Australia

  • For a great short trip, go to the beautiful Sydney area for a few days, then fly to Tasmania, which offers wonderful variety and lovely wilderness on a compact island.
  • To extend the trip, consider flying to Adelaide and visiting Kangaroo Island for wildlife, coastal scenery, and geology.
  • Fly to Melbourne and visit Wilson’s Promontory National Park for great wildlife, estuary, and coastal scenery. If you like beaches and waves, drive west of Melbourne on the Great Ocean Road.
  • The flight to Perth, Western Australia, is pricey and the driving lengthy before you reach interesting places, but once we arrived in the Walpole area, I really enjoyed the old growth forests of amazingly tall tingle and karri trees, which are found nowhere else on earth.
  • You will be thoroughly fascinated by native Australian birds, marsupials, reptiles, and eucalyptus. Visit Australian parks and wildlands for enrichment beyond zoos and gardens.

Sydney and nearby parks, New South Wales

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  • Visit the Sydney Opera House, Sydney Harbor Bridge, and Taronga Zoo.
  • One of the many pleasures of Sydney is an abundance of weird flying creatures: Sacred Ibis, parrots, Sulphur Crested Cockatoos, and big fruit bats (flying foxes) roosting in the downtown Royal Botanic Garden. The call of the Australian magpie is full of fascinating bells and whistles, and is found throughout most of Australia.
  • Sydney Aquarium is worth visiting for an overview of sea and freshwater life found around Australia.
  • Before heading for parks outside of Sydney, check the latest fire reports. Fire is a necessary and natural part of the lifecycle of eucalyptus forest, but can impact your trip.
  • Royal National Park: Located between the towns of Loftus and Stanwell Park, this reserve was established in 1879, making it Australia’s oldest national park — the world’s second-oldest. Hike a wonderful loop 11 kilometers (7 miles) through native Palm Forest, bluffs, and beach as a convenient day trip by rental car or train, south of Sydney. A 3-foot long goanna (monitor lizard) surprised me with its boldness and size. Forest parrots impressed us with their huge size. Best of all, a rare Lyrebird ran silently across the path before me. Notice the eucalyptus tree bark pealing into colorful patterns.
  • Blue Mountains National Park is a good a day trip west of Sydney, with many nice hiking opportunities. Walk the “Grand Canyon” 3-mile loop through a slot canyon which shelters a spattering stream, tree ferns, tree grass (with blooms), and unique plants. In 2000, UNESCO listed the Greater Blue Mountains (of which one quarter is Blue Mountains National Park) as a World Heritage Site.
  • Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park is worth visiting, 14 miles north of Sydney. Fire had burnt the eucalyptus forest in several areas in 2004, but will regrow as part of the natural forest lifecycle.


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In comparison to the rest of Australia, Tasmania offers a greater variety of sights closer together for easy travel, our favorite place in Australia. A short ferry ride from Tasmania takes you to little Maria Island which offers surprising variety — spectacular sandstone patterns, interesting history, important fossils, hiking, and biking. Tasmanian parks are beautiful, wild, and exotic. Fortunately, 37% of Tasmania lies in reserves and national parks. In 1982, UNESCO listed the parks of Tasmania as a World Heritage Area, including: Southwest National Park, Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park, and Cradle Mountain-Lake St. Clair National Park.

Tasmania tips

Explore Tasmania for at least a week, or two weeks as we did. Booking a bed for the night can be problematic even in “shoulder season” in Tasmania, partly due to an overnight ferry bringing cars from Sydney. We rented a car and stayed in cabins and lodging booked a few days in advance, which took some extra worry and phone calls. Renting a camper would have let us show up in most parks without a reservation, provides a kitchen, and carries luggage without reshuffling (as we did in Victoria, South Australia, and Western Australia). Note that roads are extra narrow in Tasmania, which might seem harrowing in a camper. We enjoyed the following hikes and sights:

  • We hiked most of the world-class Overland Track from Lake St Clair to Cradle Mountain, which provides backcountry huts and tent pads. Day hike around Dove Lake and up Cradle Mountain.
  • Mole Creek Karst National Park: On a rainy day, see massive columns and straw stalactites in King Solomon Cave.
  • Mount Field National Park: Don’t miss Russell Falls, an icon of Tasmania.
  • Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park: Walk to Nelson River and Falls. Tannins from trees color the Surprise River brown, as in many other Australian forests.
  • Freycinet National Park: Climb a rough trail to Mount Amos for a views of Coles Bay and Wineglass Bay wilderness.
  • Tasman National Park: See the Dog Line Memorial, on Eaglehawk Neck. Tessellated Pavement is a unique natural geologic wonder. An easy hike takes you to a striking view high above Cape Raoul. Tasman’s Arch was carved by the Tasman Sea.
  • Port Arthur Historic Site was an English prison from 1830-1877 on the Tasman Peninsula.
  • South Bruny Island: The Fluted Cape is a pleasant hike. Nearby in the evening, we watched cute Fairy Penguins come ashore to feed their young in sandy burrows, while predatory Shearwater birds swooped overhead.
  • Maria Island National Park:
    • Catch the ferry from Triabunna to Maria Island, Tasmania. Note the piles of chipped old growth Tasmanian forest being shipped to Japan to make high grade paper — surely they could find a farmed tree substitute instead of destroying ancient forests.
    • The Commissariate, built in 1825, is now a museum in Maria Island National Park.
    • Don’t miss the colorful sandstone Painted Cliffs walk along the shore.
    • Cape Barren Geese were introduced to Maria Island National Park in 1968 from Bass Strait Islands to help ensure their survival as a species. Now they thrive and are no longer endangered. They naturally range across the coasts and islands of southern Australia. The Cape Barren Goose, Australia’s only native goose, was first sighted on Cape Barren Island (second largest of the Furneaux Group of 52 islands, located northeast of Tasmania). Cape Barren Island has the distinction of being “the largest island of the largest island (Flinders Island) of the largest island (Tasmania) of the largest island (Australia).”

Tasmania resembles lower elevations of New Zealand and Washington. The sightseeing equivalent to Tasmania in the USA might be the state of Oregon, except for the added pleasure of unique Tasmanian and Australian wildlife and plants, isolated on a remote yet civilized island.


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Drive two hours from Melbourne to reach Wilson’s Promontory National Park in the Gippsland region. Wilson’s Promontory, or “the Prom,” offers a beautiful variety of coastal scenery, magnificent and secluded beaches, spectacular rock formations, tidal estuaries, cool fern gullies, and an abundance of easily seen wildlife. Photographers love where tannin-stained Tidal River reflects attractive orange lichen-covered boulders and lush green forest. One night in Tidal River Campground, our camper van rocked us awake in what we though was an earthquake. The rocking soon stopped and the dark shape of a wombat (a marsupial “bear”) wandered off into the night from underneath the van, where he had been licking our tasty sink drain! We were delighted to see wallabies and the Common Brushtail Possum. Visitors also commonly see echidnas, koalas, bats and sugar-gliders.

Conservation Hill Koala Centre on Philip Island gives close views of cute, sleepy koalas. Koalas move and metabolize very slowly, resting or sleeping motionless for about 16 to 18 hours a day, and feeding on eucalyptus leaves usually at night.

Grampians (Gariwerd) National Park has nice hiking trails and an impressively rich variety of native birds and animals. Stay at Halls Gap Lakeside Caravan Park. Look for the colorful Eastern Rosella (Platycercus eximius), a parrot native to southeast Australia and Tasmania (and introduced to New Zealand where feral populations are found in the North Island). The bird can grow 30 cm long, with a red head and upper breast and white cheeks. The rest of the breast is yellow becoming more greenish toward the abdomen. The feathers of the back and shoulders are black with yellowish margins, giving rise to a scalloped appearance. The wings and lateral tail feathers are bluish while the rest of the tail is dark green.

For close contact with captive wildlife, camp at Emu Park Holiday Park, in the Wartook Valley, in the Northern Grampians.

The large Eastern Grey Kangaroo, also known as the Great Grey Kangaroo or Forester, has a soft grey coat, and is usually found in moister, more fertile areas than the Red Kangaroo. Indigenous Australian names include iyirrbir and kucha. The Eastern Grey Kangaroos live in open grassland and bushland near the major cities of the south and east coast of Australia, and are much more commonly seen than the Reds, which live in the outback. Like all kangaroos, it is mainly nocturnal and crepuscular, mostly seen at dawn or dusk.

Melba Gully park is a remnant of the rainforest which formerly covered large portions of Victoria.

Cape Otway National Park: Stay at Bimbi Caravan Park, and hike 5 miles round trip to Rainbow Falls, a stunning orange travertine waterfall on a remote coast with wild white beaches. We observed wild koalas sleeping in trees during daytime.

12 Apostles Marine National Park: Walk the beautiful wild beach at Gibson Steps. The 12 Apostles are a spectacular formation of seastack rocks (or haystacks) on the Victoria coast. The number of Apostles changes with time as old castles of sand collapse and new monuments are cut.

South Australia

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Use one company to book your camper ( or car ( at different flight destinations to get a discount for the total length of time rented within Australia. Make sure that your Adelaide car rental agency allows you to take the car ferry to Kangaroo Island, forbidden by some.

Kangaroo Island

Kangaroo Island is one of the best places in Australia to view wildlife and remarkable geology. Our two nights were insufficient — a week would have been better.

  • When to go: March to May and August to October are probably the best times to visit Kangaroo Island.
  • Getting there: To save time, fly to Adelaide and rent a vehicle to visit Kangaroo Island — or fly to Kingscote Airport on Kangaroo Island if affordable.
    • Compare the cost of bringing a car on the ferry versus flying directly to Kangaroo Island and renting a car there. For one person, flying might be a better value, but for two people, driving may be better, depending on your budget.
    • Book your car ferry to Kangaroo Island several days in advance to assure a spot.
    • Avoid the fatiguing drive from Melbourne to Kangaroo Island and back, unless you driv more than our 11 days. The best scenery on the “Great Ocean Road” in Victoria is between Melbourne and Port Campbell, with the 12 Apostles as the highlight, best seen as a round trip from Melbourne.
Flinders Chase National Park
  • The campgrounds at Flinders Chase National Park are some of the best places to view wildlife in Australia.
  • Flinders Chase Visitor Centre: The adjacent campground includes hot showers. All around the Visitor Centre and adjacent campground, we admired wild Kangaroo Island Kangaroos, cute Tammar Wallabies, brushtail possums, birds, echidnas, goannas, and more. A curious Common Brushtail Possum climbed atop our camper one night as koalas screeched in trees above.
    • Reserve the campground a day or two ahead if you can, or be sure and arrive early to get a spot. Phone (08) 8559 7235 or e-mail:
  • We saw eight live echidnas (a spiny mammal resembling a porcupine but hatching from eggs) along the roadside as we drove just before sunset to see the Remarkable Rocks!
  • Don’t miss capturing dramatic photographs of the Remarkable Rocks, especially at sunset. Walk the short nature trail and admire every angle of what looks like modern art in ancient stone. Remarkable Rocks originally formed as a single granite monolith and became cracked and eroded by seashore weathering.
  • Walk near sunrise and sunset to best see wildlife: Ravine des Casoars, Platypus Waterholes & Rocky River, and Snake Lagoon.
Kangaroo Island Kangaroos

Upon landing in 1802, famous explorer Captain Matthew Flinders shot the first Kangaroo Island Kangaroo (Macropus fuliginosus fuliginosus). Not until the 1990s did taxonomists clarify that it was a subspecies of the large brown Western Grey Kangaroo (Macropus fuliginosus, a marsupial mammal species in the Macropod family, Macropodidae), which lives across the southern part of Australia, from just south of Shark Bay to coastal South Australia, western Victoria, and the entire Murray-Darling Basin in New South Wales and Queensland. It breeds year round with a peak during summer months. Be cautious of kangaroos when driving roads at night.

Side trips recommended north of Adelaide
  • If you like wine, be sure to visit the Barossa Valley and other vineyard areas near Adelaide.
  • Mount Remarkable Gorges: Walk 2 days in a loop and stay in a tent. Or drive to the middle of the trail and day hike a shorter loop. I haven’t been there, but the gorges and scenery should be fascinating — best August-October.
  • Coober Pedy: opal mines, photography, history, film settings

Western Australia

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We flew to Perth from Melbourne and immediately drove our rental camper southwards towards some unique ecological areas found nowhere else on earth. Swim in the Indian Ocean from smooth sand beaches. Watch for trucks pulling double trailers called “road trains” roaring along highways.

South of Perth, the enthralling Fremantle Museum succinctly portrays a vivid vision of Western Australia history: Early pioneers made their own lives much harder by ignoring the valuable live-off-the-land knowledge of local aborigines. Australians seriously worried about possible Japanese invasion in World War II, then Europeans dispossessed by war were imported en masse to populate the large empty continent.

Further south, swim with wild bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) at the Dolphin Discovery Center in Koombana Bay, off Koombana Beach at the town of Bunbury, Western Australia. On a cloudy day, we waded into chilly water and joined a line of a dozen tourists, as a single dolphin cruised around us. Volunteers in red shirts enforce the rule of not touching or feeding the dolphins, in order to keep them wild. We would have been more impressed with this dolphin experience if the day had been warm enough to snorkel more comfortably. (Much further north of Perth you can wade in warmer waters at Monkey Mia where dolphins approach more closely in greater numbers, but feeding makes the dolphins less wild.)

On Nancy’s Peak Loop in Porongurup National Park, we explored an impressive karri tree forest. On the high point of this short loop over some 1.1-billion-year-old granite domes, we spotted a huge kite, which turned out to be a big Wedgetail Eagle gliding in a strong updraft.

The Diamond Tree is a 51 meter (167 foot) high public Fire Lookout built into a living karri tree, located 10 kilometers south of Manjimup on the South Western Highway, in Western Australia. The impressive karri trees are only found in a few small parks in south-Western Australia, and nowhere else on earth. Ascend a breathtaking a ladder of thick rebar posted into the Diamond Tree. Anyone is free to climb and access is not controlled.

Walpole-Nornalup National Park

The “Valley of the Giants Tree Top Walk” is a wide ramp (suitable for baby strollers) which reaches 125 feet (38 meters) above the ground in the course of its half-mile length, passing through a forest of exceptionally tall eucalyptus trees, worth experiencing near Nornalup.

Hike to the impressive Giant Tingle Tree. The tingle is a type of eucalyptus found only in south-Western Australia and nowhere else on earth. Look for Australian pelicans on Coalmine Beach.

Australia climate and when to visit

Best weather and timing for a tour of southern Australia forests is late January through March, as we did. A separate trip to northern (monsoonal “Top End”) and interior Australia (the “Red Centre”) is best in September or October. See Lonely Planet Walking in Australia (2006) and Australian Bureau of Meteorology.

Australia destinations:

Optimal time to visit:

Climate Comments:


Southern WA: September-February (spring-summer)

Northern WA: September-November

Southern WA: good in spring to summer. Albany=70 high/50F low, Perth=85/63F.

Northern WA: June-August is the Dry season. (December-February is the Wet, with monsoon thunderstorms, high humidity, tropical cyclones, many roads impassable.)

VICTORIA, Melbourne


Visit Victoria’s Australian Alps in January-March (summer). Melbourne summer=77 high/55F low. Melbourne best Oct/Nov (spring). Inland best in winter.



Kangaroo Island best March-May and August-October. Hiking best in spring. Inland best in winter.


all year

Good hiking in Kuscuiscko National Park and Australian Alps in Jan-March (summer), but hot at lower elevations. Sydney=77 high/66F low in February, 75/65F March. Inland best in winter.


spring-summer (September-February)

Visit Canberra’s Australian Alps in January-March (summer).



Best weather is in March/April, with beech fall color. Jan/Feb/March has lowest rain in Cradle Valley.
December-March is peak tourist season.  Few tourists come in November, sometimes warm, but storms arrive weekly.



March-November is best walking season in the Top End and Great Barrier Reef.  (Jan-March is the Wet in northern coastal areas, 91F and very humid.)  In Brisbane and southern Queensland, walking in summer (Dec-Feb) is okay but not ideal.



April-October is the Dry season. The Red Centre and Uluru have best weather April-June (fall). September-October can have wildflowers in Centre.
(November-March is the Wet).

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NEW ZEALAND trip guide and itinerary

New Zealand overview

New Zealand tops our list of favorite countries to visit. Below, we share detailed travel tips on how to plan your itinerary, based upon four trips in 2007, 1998, 1992, and 1981.

Favorite New Zealand photos:

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Visiting New Zealand can be as comforting as “going home to Grandma” or as exciting as bungy jumping. Kiwi culture is very friendly, neighborly, and down-to-earth. Language is no barrier, as New Zealanders (self-described as Kiwis) speak English. Their soft accent is endearing, such as when they say “yis” for yes and politely raise the end of most “sintinces” (sentences) like a question.

Scenery in this South Pacific country varies dramatically in short distances, perfect for touring via car, bicycle or feet. New Zealand is bigger than the UK, smaller than Japan, and about the size of Colorado. Fully 30% of New Zealand is preserved in parkland, an Eden for wilderness lovers − 75% of the country’s plant species are endemic (found nowhere else). Rent a car (or campervan), stay in comfortable motor camp cabins, and hike (or “tramp”) to mountain huts. Planes, buses, jet boats, and water taxis efficiently assist one-way hikes or tours. Most cities have an excellent “i-Site” or tourist office with free highway maps, pamphlets, lodging and campground directories, and free bookings.

With reversed seasons Down Under, visitors from the Northern Hemisphere can escape winter blahs to enjoy summer fun. Jet lag is only 3 hours from western America (Pacific Standard Time, PST) to New Zealand Daylight Time (NZDT).

Bonus tour itinerary honed from four trips:

Carol and I loved our 25-day honeymoon in January 1998 on the South Island. After 100 miles of hiking in varied wilderness scenery (with a hilly 16,000 feet of total elevation gain), we felt strong and invigorated. From February 12 to March 27, 2007, we returned for an equally enjoyable 6 weeks on both islands, tramping 175 miles. On an earlier trip in 1992, a friend and I drove two weeks exploring pleasant Walkways of North Island, staying in comfortable motor camp cabins. In 1981, my first trip overseas included tramping and bicycling for two wonderful months on the South Island, based at my parents sabbatical-year home in Christchurch.

  • 6-week self-drive New Zealand Trip Guide and Itinerary 2007 (PDF file 18 pages) — a valuable reference for day hikers and overnight backpackers (trampers) who enjoy natural wonders. We drove and tramped February 12 to March 27, 2007.

History and economy of New Zealand

According to Māori mythology, Polynesian navigator Kupe discovered New Zealand around AD 925. Most Polynesians arrived in their waka (sea canoes) about 1350 AD. They mainly settled North Island, because South Island was too cold. Over about 100 years, they hunted one of earth’s largest known birds, the moa, to extinction, which also extinguished the world’s largest eagle. The Polynesians in New Zealand were not known as Maoris until after the arrival of the Pakeha, people of European descent. British and Maori leaders signed the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, founding New Zealand along with Maori rights. In 1893, New Zealand became the world’s first country to grant women the right to vote. New Zealand became independent from Britain in 1947.

Currently 15% of the population call themselves Maori, who are receiving new respect and improved land rights. Half of New Zealand has been domesticated with pasture and farmland. Sheep outnumber people by about fifteen to one, yet agriculture contributes only 17% of the economy. The nation is more urban than ever now, but Kiwis still love their parks and feel a strong connection with nature. New Zealand’s 4 million people mostly work in service, tourism, and manufacturing industries and depend heavily upon exports (29% of Gross Domestic Product, GDP).

New Zealand geology and landscape

Geologists believe that New Zealand detached from the ancient southern continent of Gondwanaland 80 million years ago, isolating the evolution of many ancient plants and animals, most of which are found nowhere else. Thrust faulting, crustal shortening and vertical slips rapidly lift the Southern Alps up to 10 mm per year, about the same rate as heavy rainfall and erosion wears them down. Volcanoes have formed most of North Island’s mountains.

In 1990, UNESCO honored Te Wahipounamu – South West New Zealand as a World Heritage Area, including: Fiordland National Park, Mount Aspiring National Park, Mount Cook/Aoraki National Park, Westland Tai Poutini National Park, plus nearby land:

“This park offers a landscape shaped by successive glaciations into fjords, rocky coasts, towering cliffs, lakes and waterfalls. Two-thirds of the park is covered with southern beech and podocarps, some of which are over 800 years old. The kea, the only alpine parrot in the world, lives in the park, as does the rare and endangered takahe, a large flightless bird.”

In 1990 and 1993, UNESCO honored Tongariro National Park as a World Heritage Area and Cultural Landscape.

New Zealand Trip Planning Guide

  • If you have only 1 to 2 weeks: Fly to Christchurch and drive a loop on South Island, which offers more wilderness than denser-populated North Island. See North Island later on a separate or longer trip.
  • For trips of 3 weeks or more: Save half price on transportation: fly from Auckland to Christchurch, then rent a car or campervan one-way from Christchurch to Auckland (Scotties Rental Car). This one-way vehicle relocation deal is discounted 50% when traveling south to north, and also cuts flying cost in half by eliminating a return flight. We recommend 6 weeks, as described in our self-drive New Zealand Trip Guide and Itinerary 2007 (PDF file 18 pages).
  • After arrival in New Zealand, get excellent free road maps, area guides, and lodging pamphlets at i-Sites and tourist offices in major towns.

Recommended Guidebooks from

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We optimize our valuable travel time with good guides:

2014: 2014: 2014: 2014:
2014: 2011:

Beautiful, glossy books for planning trips (but may be too heavy to bring along):


  1. A campervan (also known as a caravan, camper, motor home, mobile home or RV) lets you stay in more places, spontaneously, close to nature, but will cost more than a car per day for rental and gasoline.
  2. Sleeping in a tent is closer to nature and cheapest, but much less comfortable due to wind and rain.
  3. Economy car plus lodging: When you add up the cost of vehicle rental, gas, lodging and campgrounds, driving an economy car is cheaper than a campervan. Holiday Park tourist flats or cabins cost from NZ$40 to $150 for a double room in 2007. Car rental is especially cheaper than a campervan per day when you will be staying in mountain huts away from the vehicle for a week or more. Cheapest car rentals may be in town away from the airport, such as used-car rentals (Scotties Rental Car).
  4. Buses and trains cover the country fairly well, but you’ll spend valuable trip time waiting for arrivals, multiple stops, and departures.

Driving tips: Drive on the left side of the road in New Zealand. In roundabouts, yield to the car approaching on your right. Allow plenty of time for driving on the curvy roads, which average about 75 kilometers per hour across the country. Road surfaces were maintained in excellent condition everywhere in 2007. Most roads are two-lane, with frequent single-lane bridges, some shared with railways — watch for yield signs. Drive slowly and defensively, and watch out for aggressive drivers and animals in the road.


  • Holiday Parks or motor camps (campgrounds) offer great value in lodging everywhere in New Zealand, usually cheaper than traditional motels or “Bed & Breakfasts”. Choose from the following options, all with access to public self-service kitchens and bathrooms:
    • tent sites
    • campervan sites with optional hook-ups
    • dormitory — cheap bed in shared room
    • cabins — usually very clean, many with ensuite bathroom and/or kitchen
    • Tourist Flats — “self-contained” high-end
  • Advance Bookings: You should reserve rooms 3 or 4 days ahead in high season (December-February) in popular areas such as Queenstown and Wanaka. Reserving a site for your campervan is not as critical as for booking a bed, since rooms sell out much quicker than campsites. In 1997 we brought but never used our backup tent — we always stayed in motor camp cabins and motels, spontaneously booked sometimes one or two days ahead. Compared to our earlier trips, lodging in 2007 was noticeable tighter in most major tourist areas, requiring booking two days ahead, or further in advance during festival events. If you don’t book far enough ahead, the last rooms in town tend to be the most expensive.
  • i-Sites: Reserve your lodging in advance with no fees at the very helpful tourist “i-Sites” or other tourist offices found everywhere in New Zealand. Pick from an astounding array of excellent free highway maps and detailed guides. i-Sites charge you no fees because they get 10% from lodging providers.


  • Mobile phone: unblock your cell phone before leaving home. In New Zealand, buy a cheap SIM card with minutes, giving you a kiwi phone number.
  • Phone cards: For easy calling within New Zealand (and to phone numbers abroad) at the cheapest rate per minute, buy a prepaid rechargeable phone card such as CheapChat, at any motor camp or tourist office. (Dial an 0800 number and enter a pin code then dial the number.) Don’t buy Telecom’s expensive card. Phoning ahead to reserve your lodging directly as needed can be more convenient than trying to find the next i-Site during open hours.


  • Buy food in big-city groceries and cook in public or private kitchens in Holiday Parks and campgrounds.
  • Bring or buy a collapsible cooler (or portable “chilly bin“) to store perishable items on ice in the car, then transfer to the refrigerator found in most rented rooms. Buy ice at petrol stations or some grocery stores. Renting a campervan has the advantage of a built-in refrigerator.

Weather forecasts

Because mountain weather often differs from that of nearby cities, get a forecast for specific peaks and ranges:

Overnight Tramping/Hiking Trips

Hike well-maintained trails through lush native beech rain forest to an abrupt, surprisingly-low-elevation timberline around 1250 meters in the Southern Alps, with permanent snowline above 2000 meters, capped with scenic glaciers. The delightful alpine zone is patrolled by the clownish kea, the world’s only alpine parrot. But on the West Coast of South Island below 1000 meters elevation, beware the dreaded sandflies, discussed further below.

On the many tramping tracks (hiking trails), we enjoy self-service huts where you carry your own sleeping bag and food, cook using the hut’s stoves, and sleep in a shared dormitory on mattressed beds. Self-service huts are much more comfortable than the tenting option (where you must carry your own stove, fuel, tent, and sleeping pad), and much cheaper than the full-service hut option (which provide meals, hot showers, and guides). Some hikes such as Hump Ridge, Nydia Track and Queen Charlotte Track offer reasonably priced private rooms and hot showers. Here are some tips for overnight backpacking:

  • Bring rain gear that can withstand long downpours.
  • Gas cookers (stoves) are provided in peak season on the Tuatapere Hump Ridge, Tongariro Northern Circuit, Routeburn, Kepler, and Milford Tracks, and at Aspiring Hut (NZAC).
  • For free recreation brochures, check i-Sites first, since DOC (Department of Conservation) offices charge for info sheets. (For example, at Stratford’s i-Site, we picked up the free Pouakai Track pamphlet published by Venture Taranaki, which is much better than DOC’s sheet.)
  • DOC (Department of Conservation) offices run most parks and are the best places to prepare for overnight tramping trips, reserve huts, and to buy excellent topographic maps. Most tracks are very well marked.

As of 2007, you don’t need reservations for huts on the Tongariro Northern Circuit or Rakiura Track (Stewart Island) — both of these “Great Walks” have dormitory huts which are first come, first served.

The following “Great Walks” require advance reservations for overnight huts:

  1. Milford Track
  2. Routeburn Track
  3. Abel Tasman Coast Track
  4. Kepler Track
  5. Heaphy Track
  6. Lake Waikaremoana Track

Restrictive reservations make these Great Walks pleasantly uncrowded. Popular huts fill fast and often require reservations weeks or months in advance, thus randomizing your chances for bad weather. To smartly take advantage of 1- to 3-day weather forecasts, the best parts of the Routeburn, Abel Tasman Coast Track, and Lake Waikaremoana Track can be hiked in a day with no reservations, or as single-night adventures bookable on shorter notice.

While the “Great Walks” are very popular and well maintained, New Zealand offers many other excellent hikes on well-maintained trails such as: Hump Ridge, Nydia Track, and Queen Charlotte Track. Some excellent but tougher overnight tracks that require some scrambling include:

  1. Crucible Lake Hike from Siberia Hut, or the longer 3+day Wilkin-Young Circuit.
  2. Pouakai Track on Mount Egmont/Taranaki.
  3. Dusky Sound Track if you like long walks in remote wilderness with few people.

Sandfly scourge on the wet coast

Visitors to Fiordland beware! Worse than Alaska’s mosquitoes, pesky little sandflies are the only negative about tramping in New Zealand. Sandfly bites hurt intensely, and the red swelling and itching can last for days (except for some locals who develop immunity). Sandfly infestations are mainly along the West Coast of South Island below 1000 meters elevation, more prevalent in the bush (woods) and coast near fresh running water, and less so in cities. New Zealand’s so-called “sandflies” are actually two species of black fly (genus Austrosimulium), where just the females bite. Sandflies swarm slowly outdoors during daylight hours and are usually avoided when you walk steadily. But when you inevitably stop for a rest, ouch! Hope for wind, rain, or hot sun, which suppresses sandfly activity. These insects primarily feast at dawn and dusk or throughout overcast days, in shaded forest. A landed sandfly can easily be slapped before it bites, but several of her swarming friends have meanwhile chomped your skin exposed elsewhere. Thankfully, sandflies don’t bite at night.

Treatment: Never scratch the bite, which spreads the itch and extends healing time. Instead apply hydrocortisone cream to reduce itching and promote healing (cheaper bought over-the-counter in the USA), plus bring an antihistamine (Diphenhydramine as in Benadryl). Try Vitamin B as prophylactic. Luckily, New Zealand sandflies and mosquitoes don’t spread disease.

Insect repellents: Most effective when tramping are gloves, long pants, long socks, long sleeves, and even a head net. For bare skin, DEET is the only proven insect repellent, which must be applied BEFORE leaving your car parked along the wet coast. Be prepared and don’t let this irritating black fly discourage you from visiting the beautiful Fiordland and West Coast.

Tom’s Guide to South Island

Favorite parks, tracks (trails), and sights are labelled on this small relief map of South Island, New Zealand. In 1990, UNESCO honored Te Wahipounamu � South West New Zealand as a World Heritage Area. (Tom Dempsey)

Favorite parks, tracks (trails), and sights are labelled on this small relief map of South Island, New Zealand. In 1990, UNESCO honored Te Wahipounamu – South West New Zealand as a World Heritage Area.

Rated activities are listed in order of a loop starting at Christchurch, going west, south, then ending in the north end of South Island at Picton, the car ferry to North Island.

Key to ratings:    *** Must do.      ** Do.      * Maybe if time allows.

  • ** Fascinating International Antarctic Center exhibits next to the airport, with multi-media show and sea spider aquarium.
  • * Arthur’s Pass National Park: day hike Avalanche Peak
West Coast
  • *** Paparoa National Park, Punakaiki Pancake Rocks. Easy walks. Or hike Inland Pack Track starting at Fox River mouth, visiting Upper Fox Cave, overnight at The Ballroom, and explore Dilemma Creek as a day hike.
  • Westland / Tai Poutini National Park: Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier
    • *** Lake Matheson boardwalk trail (2.5 miles round the lake; just west of the town of Fox Glacier) has spectacular reflections of Mounts Cook and Tasman on a calm day.
    • ** Walking to the tongue of Fox Glacier is an easy and rewarding 4 miles round trip. Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers uniquely extend tongues of ice into lush temperate rainforest, less than 300 meters (980 feet) above sea level.
    • * Roberts Point Track: This slippery and rocky track traverses some fun suspended boardwalks through lush forests of tree ferns, taking you to nice views of Franz Josef Glacier. If you like vigorous exercise in beautiful native forest away from the crowds, you may like this track.

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Mount Aspiring National Park (Wanaka and Queenstown)
  • *** Siberia Hut and Crucible Lake: Fly to Siberia Valley from Makarora (NZ$160 per person in 2007) and jet boat out (NZ$60 per person). Day hike the spectacular but extremely steep and rooty track to Crucible Lake, and overnight at Siberia Hut. The easiest one-day option is “The Siberia Experience“: fly in, hike 2.5 hours, then jet boat back. Or tramp in the same area 3 to 4 days on the scenic Wilkin-Young Circuit, with two cautious river crossings.
  • *** Rob Roy Valley Track (easy 8 miles, 900 feet gain) is one of our favorite day hikes in the world. From Wanaka, drive up Matukituki Valley to trailhead. Great hanging glaciers, crashing streams & waterfalls, swing suspension bridge, and kea alpine parrots. Optionally hike easily onwards to scenic Aspiring Hut, overnight. Scrambling up very steeply on a rooty track reaches spectacular French Ridge Hut for an optional second night.
  • *** Routeburn Track traverses the scenic alpine pass of Harris Saddle, with views especially impressive from Conical Hill side trip. Buses from Queenstown help stage a one-way hike. The Routeburn Track crosses from Fiordland National Park over the alpine pass of Harris Saddle into Mount Aspiring National Park. In 1998 we booked the Routeburn several months in advance, with a bus to The Divide and 3-day hike to Routeburn Shelter. The track was enjoyable despite rain and mist obscuring views. We returned in 2007 for sunshine and best views on short notice: Routeburn Flats Hut was booked on two days notice to catch good a weather forecast, and a day hike to impressive Harris Saddle and the highpoint on Conical Hill. Try to book Routeburn Falls Hut, which is a more-spectacular treehouse but fills months in advance.
  • ** Spectacular Cascade Saddle is easiest approached via Rees-Dart Track, a 5 day backpack with huts, and optional jet boat to help shorten the trip. Start with a base in Queenstown or Glenorchy. Or hike Cascade Saddle via a dangerously steep track from Aspiring Hut — be very cautious hiking steeply downhill on slippery vegetation.
Fiordland National Park

The Kiwi spelling of “Fiordland” and “fiord” is more commonly spelled fjord elsewhere, as in Norway. Milford Sound is actually a fjord (glacier carved) not a sound (water carved).

  • *** Our favorite track: privately-run Tuatapere Hump Ridge Track (new in 2000) in Fiordland NP, which has excellent new dormitory huts, breakfast included, with optional hot showers and private rooms***. You can also helicopter your pack for a fee. This track has it all: lush wilderness, excellent footing, extensive boardwalks, alpine views, ocean beaches, history, and a walk across the world’s largest existing wooden viaduct. Take the 4WD Track Transport to shorten the track to a more comfortable 27 miles over 3 days.
  • *** Kepler Track, 3 days tramping. In 1998, reserving with just two days notice matched a perfect weather forecast. This high alpine ridge hike has expansive views, insect-eating sundew plants, pretty rainforest with tree ferns, and great huts (new at the time), with playful kea mountain parrots that like to slide down the roof.
  • ** The Milford Track is a fun 4-day hike, starting from a boat launch on Lake Te Anau, wandering through glaciated valleys and over an alpine pass to Milford Sound, an impressive glacier-carved fiord. You can optionally stay an extra night and tour Milford Sound via a one-day kayak trip **. Return to Te Anau via bus. The track cost NZ$120 per person in 2007, including transportation to and from the Milford Track, with dormitory hut accommodation, gas cookers provided (bring your own food and sleeping bag). Add NZ$50 for optional Milford Sound boat tour 1 hour 40 minutes.
  • ** Hollyford Track (brochure and map) can be enjoyed with a 3-day independent walker itinerary via scenic coach round trip from Te Anau to Milford, spectacular 15-minute flight to Martins Bay, fun jet boat ride across Lake McKerrow to Pyke River confluence, with 2 nights sleeping in DOC dormitory huts and 2 days of walking. Or pay more for luxurious 3-day guided trip with private lodging and hot showers.
  • * Dusky Sound Track: my brother Jim and I hiked this long adventure of 8+ days by boat across Lake Manapouri, tramping through remote rain forest over Centre Pass towards Dusky Sound and back, across numerous exciting three-wire bridges over crashing streams. You can also access the route via a boat ride across Lake Hauroko. Twisting my ankle delayed our return by two days spent resting in Loch Maree Hut plus flooded trails slowed our exit.
  • ** Te Anau Glow Worm Caves Tour (but if you have a choice, instead see ***Waitomo Glowworm Caves on North Island).
Southeast coast
  • ** The Catlins are fun to explore, including Nugget Point, Cathedral Caves, and waterfalls.
  • *** Moeraki Boulders: Fascinating rock spheres up to 2 meters in diameter scattered along the seashore. These calcite concretions formed slowly 65 million years ago and were tectonically uplifted.
  • * If you like birds, the colonies of blue penguins and rare yellow-eyed penguins are worth visiting, such as at Oamaru, Dunedin and Otago Peninsula (Sandfly Bay). (We didn’t see these little New Zealand penguins because we had already seen other penguins in Australia and Antarctica.)
  • * Royal Albatross Colony on Otago Peninsula is best December through February. See the world’s largest flying seabird and world’s smallest penguin (blue penguin) in one place.
  • ** Stewart Island, Ulva Island: best chance to see or hear kiwis and other native birds in the wild
*** Mount Cook National Park, Mt. Cook Village

Glacier-covered Mount Cook rises abruptly like a knife to 3724 meters or 12,218 feet (elevation updated in 2013). Although it poses a daunting challenge for climbers, you can easily see Mount Cook from roads and good hiking trails. Mount Cook is the world’s 39th most prominent peak (relative to its surrounding topography).

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  • The prevailing Westerly winds dump most of their moisture on the West Coast, leaving Mount Cook Village with a sunny climate east of the Southern Alps. Find a good-value private double room at YHA Youth Hostel at Mount Cook Village. Easier to reserve, if you have a vehicle, are cabins or caravan sites at nearby **Glentanner Park campground.
  • *** Hike easy & very scenic Hooker Valley Track (6 miles, 850 feet).
  • *** Hike Sealy Tarns (5 miles, 1700 feet, steep). Or hike further to spectacular Mueller Hut (with optional overnight booked at DOC, requiring a sleeping bag).
  • Copeland Track: In 1981, my brothers and I hiked this fantastic 3 day traverse over the shoulder of Mt. Cook one way to the rainforest side and relaxing Welcome Flat Hot Springs, requiring bus/car shuttle. But a 1995 landslide wiped out the track on the eastern side (Mount Cook area), creating a dangerous scree traverse on unstable moraine, now walked by few. ** Copeland Pass is still accessible as a long round trip via the West Coast trailhead to Welcome Flat Hot Springs & Hut, and up to the pass. Check with the DOC (Department of Conservation). Venturing onto snowfields of Copeland Pass requires mountaineering experience plus ice axe and crampons (rental).
Northern end of South Island

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  • ** Nelson Lakes National Park: the Honeydew Nature Trail is informative about the non-native wasp problem. A day hike of **Robert Ridge is scenic.
  • ** 2-3+ day backpack from St. Arnaud: water taxi to the south end of Lake Rotoiti (or hike there in a day to Coldwater Hut or Lakehead Hut), hike Cascade Track to Angelus Hut for 1 or more nights; hike back to St. Arnaud over Robert Ridge (or take Speargrass Creek Track if weather turns bad). Good wilderness hiking through native forest and alpine views down to wild Lake Rotoiti.
  • ** Nelson: WOW, the World of Wearable Art & Classic Cars Museum is a visual feast. The WOW live show is a world-class nouveau art event, held yearly in Wellington, North Island (such as September 20-30, 2007). See the video at the museum if you attend the live performance.
  • ** Nydia Track, Marlborough Sounds: The best part can be done as a day hike from the Duncan Bay side over to Nydia Bay and back. We hiked the full two days with help of water taxi and bus, a good hike if you have time.
  • ** Queen Charlotte Track, Marlborough Sounds: The best part of the Queen Charlotte Track can be walked as a day hike round trip from Picton via water taxi: drop off at beautiful and historic Ship Cove, and walk to Furneaux Lodge for pick up. In the remainder of the track, clear cuts alternate with forest, mostly not wilderness, but you get sweeping views of Marlborough Sounds from the ridge walk. Most people have their pack transported via water taxi from hotel to hotel on this comfortable track.
  • * Abel Tasman National Park: If you like beaches and don’t mind sharing with lots of hikers and boats, the Abel Tasman Coastal Track is an easy jaunt along former logging roads through green forest. However, the native forest throughout the park needs another 100 years to recover from logging that ended in the 1970s. Most of the ecosystem is in stage 2 of the 4 regrowth stages, so you won’t see much old growth forest — we were not impressed. Our day hikes to Separation Point and Anapai Beach were pleasant, but we prefer the purer wilderness of Fiordland and Mount Aspiring National Park.
** Sea Kayaking
  • Spontaneously booking sea kayak day trips with one-day notice gives you a more accurate wind/weather forecast. Beware of wind and waves.
  • Our Milford Sound kayaking day trip was difficult pulling into a strong wind, but the next day was perfect weather!
  • In warm Abel Tasman National Park, you might enjoy Kaiteriteri Kayaks “Soul Food” day trip, or multi-night options (or other companies).
  • For water sports, use a water resistant camera recommended in the BUY > CAMERAS menu. A waterproof housing ($160 and up) is available for many popular cameras, but a dedicated camera is more compact, convenient, and reliable.
*** Bicycling
  • Pad and box your bicycle very carefully to avoid damage on jet flights. Be prepared for delayed luggage.
  • Motor camps offer convenient accomodation for bicycling at good intervals almost everywhere. Train for very hilly terrain.
  •  Within New Zealand, optionally ship your bicycle ahead via bus.
  • With my brother Jim in 1981, I rode 500 miles in 10 days from Lake Te Anau to Christchurch past beautiful lakes, rolling hills and pastoral farms, in the rain shadow of the glacier-clad Southern Alps.
  • My brother Dave and I bicycled an exciting, steep mountain route from Christchurch over Arthurs Pass to Paparoa National Park.

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Key to ratings:    *** Must do.     ** Do.     * Maybe if time allows.

A map of North Island, New Zealand, suggests favorite parks and sights. (Tom Dempsey)

A map of North Island, New Zealand, suggests favorite parks and sights.

Tom’s Guide to North Island

First, read New Zealand Overview, Trip Planning, and Tom’s Guide to South Island above. Relocation cars and campervans can be half price going one way from Christchurch to Auckland. Rated activities are listed on a tour route from Wellington to the far north:

Key to ratings:    *** Must do.     ** Do.     * Maybe if time allows.

** Wellington area
  • ** Te Papa Museum
  • * See city and harbor views from Mount Victoria.
  • * Walk downtown Wellington to see the iconic Beehive and neogothic Parliament House.
  • * Karori Wildlife Sanctuary
  • ** The WOW live show is a world-class nouveau art event, held in Wellington, North Island (September 20-30, 2007). Don’t miss the event video at the museum in Nelson (South Island): ** WOW, the World of Wearable Art & Classic Cars Museum is a visual feast, a breathtaking array of wearable art.
  • ** Putangiura Pinnacles: Drive 3 hours each way to reach Putangiura Pinnacles on a day trip from Wellington. Hike 2-3 hours round trip on an uneven rocky stream bed beneath weird gray hoodoos. The spires starred as the “Dimholt Road” in the “Lord of the Rings” film trilogy (directed by Wellington’s Peter Jackson 2001, 2002, 2003), where Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli ride into a tunnel to meet the Army of the Dead.
  • * Tararua Wind Farm: largest wind power installation in the Southern Hemisphere. Located 10 kilometres northeast of Palmerston North, sprawling across a 5 kilometer long ridge in the Tararua Ranges. Palmerston North is home of Massey University, New Zealand’s largest educational institution.
*** Taranaki / Mount Egmont National Park
  • ** Admire this perfect volcanic cone from any angle. Taranaki and surroundings were filmed as a stand-in for Japan’s Mount Fuji in the Tom Cruise movie, “The Last Samurai” (2003).
  • *** Hike the scenic but rough Pouakai Track 2-3 days (20+ miles), staying overnight in dormitory style Pouakai Hut and others. Bring your own stove, as the wood fired stove is slow for cooking. Pouakai Track requires scrambling over rocks, roots, ladders with missing rungs, and washed-out trail sections. Purchase the required hut pass at the DOC office at North Egmont. At Stratford‘s i-Site, we picked up an excellent free Pouakai Track pamphlet published by Venture Taranaki, a better value than info at DOC office.
  • * Stratford to Taumarunui “Forgotten World Highway” is a quiet back road with rolling hills and ranches mixed with native forest. See *Mount Damper Falls, highest on North Island.
*** Tongariro National Park
  • *** Tongariro Crossing day hike is a 10 mile traverse (2900 feet up, 4000 feet down). A bus from Whakapapa Village drives to and from this spectacular hike, one of the most crowded tracks in New Zealand. Base yourself in attractive Whakapapa Village at the Skotel (highest hotel in New Zealand), which has range of comfortable rooms and a public kitchen.
  • * Tongariro Northern Circuit is a long backpack with huts, 3 days through a desolate moonscape. If you love backpacking, the rating is *** must do.
  • *** Take the ski lift up Mount Ruapehu, and climb to the top of North Island’s highest peak to see the famous Crater Lake responsible for destructive lahars (mud flows). The tephra ash dam broke in March 2007 relieving pressure from Crater Lake — check latest safety warnings.
*** Rotorua & Taupo area
  • *** Tamaki Maori Village: NZ$93 includes hotel pickup, Maori Concert & Hakari (feast), with great food cooked in a hangi, steamed for hours on hot stones underground. You will see a performance of the challenging haka (or more precisely, the haka taparahi) and other dances. A hongi is the Maori nose press greeting (double or single). As you load your dinner plate, remember that tuna is the Maori word for the New Zealand Longfin Eel.
  • *** Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland
  • ** Orakei Korako Cave & Thermal Park
  • *** Fishermen can reliably pull giant fish out of Lake Taupo and many New Zealand rivers.
  • * Thundering Huka Falls is the headwaters of New Zealand’s longest river, Waikato River, flowing out of Lake Taupo.
  • * Agrodome: Sheep shearing and sheep dog demonstrations show a dozen or more sheep breeds.
  • *** White Island: Tour 6 hours by boat from Whakatane to an active offshore volcano and former sulfur farm for intriguing photography. Gas masks provided.
  • *** Waitomo Glowworm Caves boat tour reveals a fascinating insect which shines like a star (better than **Te Anau Glow Worm Caves Tour on South Island).
  • ** Otorohanga Kiwi House & Native Bird Park is one of the few places in New Zealand where you can see active kiwis, because the exhibit building reverses day and night. See many other rare native birds and the small tuatara, a rare dinosaur/lizard relative.
*** Lake Waikaremoana, Te Urewera National Park
  • *** Day hike Panekiri Bluff, 5 miles round trip, 1900 feet gain. Or hike the *Lake Waikaremoana Great Walk 4-day circuit, hut to hut, through lush wilderness.
  • ** East Cape Road: 1-2 day drive encompassing modern Maori culture, empty beaches, ranch life, & history.
  • ** Shine’s Falls on Boundary Stream: 2 hour hike to a beautiful high waterfall. Near Napier, the art deco city.
* Coromandel Peninsula

Wander pleasant public Walkways in mixed ranchland, crossing over fences on stiles (stepped ladders) into native forest and back to fields:

  • * Moehau Track is a pleasant 2 hours round trip walk.
  • ** Coromandel Track: 7 miles round trip along the South Pacific Ocean. Bell birds call and cicadas buzz.
  • ** Hot Water Beach & Cathedral Cove
** Auckland
North of Auckland
  • * Mangawhai Walkway: native palms & tree ferns intersperse with ranch land
  • *** Northland Forest Park, at Waipoua offers a pleasant walk to see tree ferns and the world’s largest Kauri trees, which grow up to 153 feet high, 46 feet circumference & 1200 years old. Kauris are the second largest tree species in the world, next to California’s Sequoia Redwood. This forest gives a sense of the wilderness before humans arrived. An interesting logging museum is nearby, detailing the near destruction of kauri forests.
  • Kauris only grow half as fast as California’s Monterey Pine, called locally by its Latin name Pinus radiata, which now dominate the huge tree farms marching across New Zealand.
  • * Waiotemarama Bush Walk, near Opononi
  • * Many remote beaches, with warm temperatures.

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