North Island Before the True North

Well, here we are in the our last 10 hours of New Zealand life. So much to digest and think through, with countless days of processing ahead as we reflect on our time.

I will need to work backwards a little bit with some of my posts, but thought on such a significant day… I should share our adventures from our final few days on the North Island – our kiwi home.

Tongariro

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing for years has been considered one of the top day hikes in New Zealand. Joel and I had heard about it even on our first trips here all those years ago, but neither of us had had a chance to walk it. Due to altitude and the danger factor, the trail in winter can be treacherous and is recommended only with a guide, so we wanted to book our crossing with optimal weather conditions.

Weeks ago now, we had booked our accommodations when I found a place that bundled our hiking needs – it included a couple nights stay, breakfasts, wifi and a packed lunch – and since we would be coming from the airport essentially, I felt this was a good option for us. We booked and hoped for the best.

Unfortunately, as we checked the weather forecast in the days leading up to the hike, it became clear our planned hike day would be less-than ideal. In the end, the trail that day was closed and no shuttles were operating due to the risks involved with weather – which was great in the end, because the forecast included rain, snow and gale-force winds.

So rather than hiking in the rain, we wandered. We went to a great cafe in Turangi, meandered around Taupo, did a couple mini walks around Whakapapa and just sort of rested up and got ourselves ready for the next day.

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The Crossing

The day after our hoped hike was the day we were actually able to walk, and we could not have asked for a better day. The sky was clear and blue for the better part of our trek, the temperatures were ideal and despite having 2 days worth of foot traffic (that was painfully obvious at moments) on the trail we had the best day!

The track is just over 19 kms long, and our bus driver said he figured it’s actually closer to 21 with your hike out. It typically takes about 7-8 hours to walk and you do as the name implies… cross alpine terrain. There are options to drive yourself and simply arrange a ride back, but you basically get dropped off at one side of the trail and get picked up on the other – whether by bus of car or whatever.

Joel and I packed our bags with a load of stuff (maybe a little too much, but I was able to use all but the gloves and spare socks that I packed) and were on the bus at 6:30 to get going.

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The trail starts with a zoo of people and a boardwalk that follows a valley up towards a little waterfall and some springs. The landscape is impressive even at the beginning. Huge, unusual rock formations and evidence of volcanic activity surround you.

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From the base of the springs you start your ascent and for someone recovering from a cold like myself at the time… it had it’s challenging moments.

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Thankfully, within 2 hours you’re at the top and along the way there are so many spectacular views (and vegetation that look like alpine hedgehogs) to reward you.

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We stopped at Blue Lake to have our lunch and re-sunscreen before starting our descent. We could have stayed at the top and taken pictures for the full day – there were not shortage of views or stunning surroundings. The colours were simply something else.

The last 8 or so kilometres were pretty easy with the biggest challenge, mentally, coming in the last kilometre or so when you really couldn’t believe the trail through bush hadn’t ended – it messed with our minds a bit as we expected to see the carpark around each bend… with continued disappointment.

Fortunately, the majority of the descent had more of the same incredible views. There were geothermal hotspots we could see steaming, lakes and unbelievable colours reaching in every direction.

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Tired, but feeling happy and accomplished we boarded our bus, then loaded our car and headed toward Papamoa for our last couple precious days with friends.

Our Home

Joel and I kept commenting how comfortable it felt to be back on the North Island, we’ve spent so much time and so many miles exploring that it’s really started to feel like home. Specifically the Tauranga area.

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These are some hills on our way East that have always reminded Joel of Mario, it’s fun to have revisited so many cool spots in our months here.

We were thrilled to be travelling back to our little piece of New Zealand before venturing towards Auckland for our flight to Canada. We had less than 48 hours in the Bay of Plenty, but we loved every minute.

We had a chance to go back to Henry and Ted before meeting the owner of our beach house. She was sweet enough to invite us over for tea and snacks, we chatted for two hours and loved hearing more about the lady who provided our piece of paradise while absorbing that time in what became our home, too!

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Here’s Joel on our beach for the last time… well, until we’re reunited one day!

Even though we were pleased to soak up all we remember about the town and natural beauty of the place… our favourite part of our stay was seeing our friends.

FrieNZ

Since arriving, I’d prayed for good community and meaningful connections.  Our friends were the truest answer to those prayers. We didn’t make a load of friends, but we certainly made the best ones.

We met Jason while touring some churches in our area, and became fast-friends. We loved how inclusive he was and how good he was (and is) and coming up with fun ways to spend time together. We spent late nights watching obscure Japanese game shoes on youtube, going for desserts and ‘tight ass Tuesdays’ for burger… really whatever we did together was fun and full (thanks also to him for this great photo)!

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Jason introduced us to our pals, Aaron and Britt who were part of the church we attended for most of our stay in the area as well. We were continually inspired and in awe of their generosity and thoughtfulness – always including us in plans, up to hang out and making some unforgettable New Zealand memories with us (from Thanksgiving here, to barbecues delivered to our door, longline fishing and walks around the Mount area). Legends!

We took in meals together and hung out while we were in Papamoa and we got to take Aaron’s parents’ boat out one evening which will forever be a special memory. The day we met Aaron and Britt, they mentioned how much they would love to take us to Lake Rotoiti to boat, go to the hot springs and wake board. On a whim, as we reminisced about our time together, we realized we hadn’t made it out on the lake, and rather than forgetting the idea as an “oh well” these guys made it happen.

We couldn’t be more grateful! In a rush and a great team-effort, we were able to eat quick before heading out to Te Puke to grab the boat and onward to catch the last hours of daylight.

A few of us were able to wakeboard – which was so dreamy for me as it’s been too long and exceptionally cool for Joel as it was the first time he was able to get up on a wakeboard- and he totally rocked it – before heading to the hot pools on the lake to unwind. So, so, so amazing. The only thing that would have made it more perfect would have been the addition of Brandon and Stacey!

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Forever in my memory is me and all our NZ friends cheering Joel on. He was tired from the crossing and the water wasn’t the most warm…but after only a couple attempts he was up and rockin’ the wakeboard!!

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Here we are at the Hot Springs, just on the dock as you can only boat or kayak to visit (I have crazy wakeboard hair, lol).

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Such wonderful friends we have! They were so kind to take us out, and dedicated to making the most of our evening as we used the last bits of daylight soaking in springs before having to go back and load the boat up in the dark.

Words cannot describe the blessings here!

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The next morning, we organized the last of our stuff and we headed out for our final moments in the area. Despite busy schedules, Britt and Aaron made the time to meet up for lunch. How sweet it was!

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Despite being happy and full our hearts were sad to break from our crew. It’s amazing the bonds that can be built in a short time. We are so grateful for you guys!! Thanks for being all we could have dreamed of and more.

After lunch, Jason was able to hang out for a little while longer. We had some quiet time in a park by an inlet before hopping on the bus Auckland-bound.

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Now, here we wait… just a few hours before we go to the airport and countless hours ahead trying to unpack the impact of these 8 months. Simply unforgettable.

New Zealand made an impression on us all those years ago when Joel and I separately visited and fell under its spell. We thought nearly a year here would somehow cure us of it’s wonder, but it’s done the opposite.

Time will tell the things that we remember and hold most dear, but it’s an understatement to say it’s been the trip of a lifetime.

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