When it comes to a New Zealand road trip, the journey is just as memorable as the destination, writes Brett Atkinson
A few decades ago, well before the days of Google Maps, I reckon my family could have done with a copy of my new book, Ultimate Road Trips Aotearoa New Zealand.
Heading north from Rotorua, after stopping our Austin Cambridge and little blue and white caravan somewhere on SH1, my dad asked for directions.
"How much further to Waitangi?"
"You're halfway there" came the answer from a helpful local, despite her having absolutely no idea where we'd come from.
Apparently, we were somewhere near Waipu, so around 350km into a day-long journey of 450km. By that stage, my older brother Marc and I would have been getting a bit scratchy in the back seat, so it's probably just as well we rumbled into the Bay of Islands around 90 minutes later.
If the pandemic didn't happen, this book probably wouldn't exist. After a year working on international projects for Lonely Planet in 2019, 2020 was shaping up as the year of Fiji, Australia and South America. Instead, I spent 2020 and 2021 writing about New Zealand, being lucky enough to revisit some of my favourite parts of the country, and recalling memories of exploring Aotearoa with family, friends and my wife Carol. And following the passing of my father Les in April 2020, family travels were always poignantly front of mind when I was writing this book in 2021.
More recent adventures negotiating the pōhutukawa-trimmed coast of the Coromandel Peninsula recalled family holidays to Thames and the nearby settlement of Te Puru, alternating gold-panning and swimming with games of Monopoly that sometimes lasted for several days. Writing about modern cafes and restaurants in Tauranga and Mount Maunganui revealed a food scene more diverse than just a few decades ago, and craft beer definitely wasn't a thing in Waipū when we asked for directions back in the mid-1970s. Waipū's McLeod's Brewery now turns out world-class beers, and current residents at nearby Lang's Beach probably wouldn't appreciate Auckland university students free-camping on the sand for New Year's Eve. The early 1980s were different times.
According to my mother, Eve, a journey to the Bay of Islands a few years later was the last holiday we enjoyed as a family, but as Marc was heading off with mates and girlfriends, I took another trip with Mum and Dad. By this stage, I'd discovered punk and New Wave music, and we'd moved from Rotorua to Auckland. Plugged into my Sony Walkman in the back of the seat of our new Holden Belmont, the trip south to Whanganui was probably enlivened by the Ramones and the Clash. I recall Dad and I riding the elevator up the Durie Hill Tower for views of the Whanganui river, and scampering into incoming surf at Castlecliff Beach. In following years, music always soundtracked Kiwi road trips with friends, with the dodgy cassette deck of my trusty 1973 Datsun 1600 regularly chewing up favourite mixtapes while travelling north to Waitangi or Waipū for New Year's Eve, or south to see Talking Heads and Simple Minds at the Sweetwaters music festival.
Fast forward to the last decade, and the flexibility of freelance life means I've sometimes been able to embark on mid-week Kiwi road trips. That's included spotting Otago Peninsula wildlife and negotiating the Catlins coast with Carol, and also some special later-in-life experiences with Mum and Dad. Who knew a tiny VW Polo with a full boot and three adults on board could make it all around the steep hills and remote coves of Banks Peninsula? We got to revisit Northland's Tāne Mahuta – resurrecting memories of visiting Hokianga's sacred kauri 50 years ago as a four-piece family – and dropped into Te Kuiti to pay tribute to All Black great, the late Sir Colin Meads. My father played against him, so it was special for Dad to see Sir Colin's statue and visit the town's Meads Brothers exhibition. Our last trip together was back to Rotorua in December 2018, a final opportunity for us to drive by our first family home on the slopes on Mt Ngongotahā, take in lake views from the spur straddling the Blue and Green Lakes, and enjoy a stroll through Whakarewarewa's Redwood Forest. My dad was in the timber industry all his working life, so was the perfect guide to Rotorua's shaded glade of towering trees.
In early April, Marc and his partner Debi are kicking off a month-long journey around the South Island. Their flash Bürstner campervan is several cuts above the little blue and white caravan we all crammed into half a century ago, but armed with a copy of Ultimate Road Trips Aotearoa New Zealand, I'm hoping they won't need to stop and ask if they're half-way to Methven, Motueka or Aoraki/Mt Cook.
My Top Five New Zealand Road Trips
Growing up in Auckland, road-tripping Northland has always been on my radar, and I love to include a few diversions off SH1. Cove Road from Mangawhai Heads via Langs Beach to Waipū Cove is a favourite coastal detour, while Old Russel Rd, diverting east north of Hikurangi, meanders high above the Pacific at Helena Bay to reach New Zealand's historic first capital. A loop to Whangaroa Harbour via Matauri Bay and Tauranga Bay usually includes a stop at Whangaroa's Marlin Hotel, co-managed by my great uncle and aunt back in the day apparently. After reaching Te Ika-a-Māui's northern tip at Cape Reinga, the west coast journey back to Auckland is quite different from the more sheltered east coast. Giant sand dunes frame Ahipara's surf, rugged Ninety Mile Beach, and the entrance to the Hokianga Harbour at Ōmāpere, while the colonial echoes of Rāwene reinforce it was once one of New Zealand's biggest towns.
A bucket list journey for many Kiwis, I've tackled this journey a couple of times for Lonely Planet, but I'd love to go back and share it with Carol. Standout stops include Waihau Bay - the laidback coastal hamlet where Taika Waititi filmed Boy - New Zealand's biggest (and reputedly oldest) pōhutukawa tree, the sprawling Te Waha o Rerekohu at Te Araroa, and the 800-step challenge of walking up to the East Cape lighthouse. Essential coastal detours include the 14km loop to the sandy sweep of Waipiro Bay, and the unsealed road down to Anarua Bay. Captain James Cook parked the HMS Endeavour in this sheltered anchorage in 1769, and also stopped further north at Tolaga Bay. My favourite Tolaga Bay trifecta incorporates walking for 700m out on the town's historic wooden wharf, a fish pie at Cottle's Bakery, and the 6km stroll through forest and farmland on the Cooks Cove Walkway.
Christchurch to Greymouth via Arthur's Pass
I've made this journey several times, once aboard the TranzAlpine train with my mum and dad, and once on an early morning 'Sorry can't stop' dash from Greymouth back to Christchurch for a flight up to Auckland. Driving straight through takes around three hours, but various diversions easily stretch it out for a day or for an overnight stop in Arthur's Pass. World Famous Sheffield Pies is an essential first stop after leaving Christchurch – my favourite flavour is roast pork and apple sauce - followed by exploring the limestone outcrops at the Kura Tawhiti/Castle Hill Conservation Area, or negotiating the underground river nearby at Cave Stream Reserve. Framed by the rugged spine of the Southern Alps, the braided expanse of the Waimakariri River highlights the entrance to Arthur's Pass National Park. From Arthur's Pass village, SH73 then courses across the spectacular Ōtira Viaduct to reach the farm-fringed valley of the Taramakau River, leading to the Tasman Sea, and completing a journey right across Te Waipounamu from the Pacific Ocean.
With forested mountains bordered by the ocean, parts of this trip remind me of Big Sur in California, or driving the far eastern edges of Turkey's Black Sea coast. Of course, neither country can offer the glacial double whammy of Fox and Franz Josef, bird spotting around Okarito (kiwi) and Whataroa (kōtuku or white heron), or the spectacular Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki. Opportunities to stretch your legs include the easy stroll around Lake Matheson, or Punakaiki's Pororari River Track, a spectacular way to get a taste of the Paparoa Track, New Zealand's newest Great Walk. North of the glaciers, historic Hokitika blends a great local arts scene with the West Coast's best eating – especially Gatherer's natural wines and plant-based menu – while to the south, SH6 borders the waterfalls of Haast Pass and Makarora's Blue Pools to emerge amid Southern Lakes' big sky country at the northern end of Lake Wānaka.
Detouring from SH1 linking Dunedin to Invercargill and travelling through the Catlins adds an hour to the journey, longer if more coastal diversions are factored in. I've got great memories of this road trip, stopping with Carol to chat to artist Blair Sommerville at his quirky Lost Gypsy Gallery, seeing dolphins, fur seals and penguins around Curio Bay, and walking out to the lighthouse at Nugget Point/Tokatā. Equally spectacular is the walk to the Cathedral Caves, only accessible for a few hours around low tide. Usually even more windswept is the walk through farmland to mainland New Zealand's southernmost extremity at Slope Point. I ran into a former rugby coach out there, but both of us were wrapped up in scarves to combat a southern gale and didn't recognise each other for a few minutes. On some days, Slope Point's yellow signpost indicating it's 4803km to the South Pole feels woefully inaccurate.
Ultimate Road Trips Aotearoa New Zealand by Brett Atkinson is released tomorrow [March 16], Hardie Grant, RRP $50
For more travel inspiration, go to newzealand.com/nz.
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