Expat adventures: The natural wonders of New Zealand’s North Island

Snow peaked mountains and volcanoes, glistering blue lakes, hot springs, geysers and a funky little capital; New Zealand’s North Island is full of diversity and natural wonders. If you want to see the best of New Zealand, leave the cities behind and tie up your hiking boots for an outdoor adventure that will – sometimes literally – take your breath away. 

Auckland is New Zealand’s biggest city and my first stop on the North Island. As a spoiled European, with cities rich in culture and history on my doorstep, I am not too impressed by Auckland or any of the other rather sleepy towns in New Zealand. Luckily, they all serve as a gateway to absolutely stunning national parks and natural wonders straight out of a “Lord of the Rings” movie.

Auckland (All photos by Willeke Van Doorn)

The views are so spectacular even 7-hour drives are fun in New Zealand. Our bus zigzags through rolling green hills, past crystal clear rivers and right next to volcanoes. With mountains to my left and the ocean to my right, I don’t know where to look first and keep switching my neck left to right like I am watching a tennis match. 

A league of its own

The landscape is constantly changing. One moment you feel like you’re driving through Scotland and a few minutes later you imagine yourself in Hawaii or Austria.

After my 3-week tour of the North Island, I feel like New Zealand is in a league of its own. No day is the same and each new adventure or hike is even better than the one before. 

A 4-hour bus ride through rolling green hills brings me to my first highlight. The Intercity bus network is a great option for (solo) budget travelers who don’t want to rent a car or camper van. You will miss some of the smaller, hidden hotspots, but the bus schedule ticks off all the big highlights, starting with the special, but smelly town of Rotorua.

Te Puia Geothermal Park

Rotorua and Te Puia

As soon as you get off the bus in Rotorua, you are hit by the smell of rotten eggs. It’s not a great welcome to this small town, but it’s still a must-visit on the North Island. The nasty smell is caused by the geothermal activity in the area which creates some really cool sightseeing. You can already see some hot springs in the town itself, but the scenery gets really impressive at the Te Puia geothermal park. A tour takes us past mud pools and geysers, but also teaches us some more background on Māori culture.

Taupo and Tongariro National Park

After a few days in Rotorua, I am looking forward to some clean, fresh air which I find in Taupo. This  small town borders a lake of the same name, which is the size of Singapore. While there are some great walks nearby – Haku Falls are a real must-see – Taupo mostly serves as a base to explore the Tongariro National Park. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is one of the greatest one day hikes in the country, but the park offers plenty more walks which are slightly less challenging. I spend my day hiking the Tama Lakes Track with views of both Mount Ngauruhoe and Mount Ruapehu.

“Lord of the Rings” fans might recognize these mountains!

The North Island is a fantastic destination for all lovers of hiking and outdoor adventures. From rafting to sky diving, there are plenty of activities that will get your heart pumping and the adrenaline flowing.

If you do want to spend a couple of days in a bigger city, make sure to drive down to Wellington in the very south of the North Island. New Zealand’s capital is fun and quirky with colorful street art, trendy coffee shops and fun craft beer bars. On a sunny day you can also go for a swim at Oriental Bay or hike up to the Mount Victoria lookout.

And if you’re not yet bored of all the hiking and the amazing views, jump on the ferry to the South Island for another road trip!


Read more from Willeke Van Doorn here in Dispatches’ archives.

Read more about travel in Asia here.

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Sarah Nagaty has a PhD in cultural studies, She’s lived in Portugal for six years.

As a student of cultural studies, Sarah is drawn to what connects people from different backgrounds to new cultures and places, how they relate to their new surroundings and what kind of activities they could engage with in their new hometowns.

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