New Zealand North Island

by Pete and Kate Barba

After a spine crushing, knee bruising, soul sucking and mind numbing 12 hour red eye flight from Santiago to Auckland, we touched down in New Zealand, our 25th country at 4:00am local time.  Dreary eyed and sore from our flight across the southern Pacific Ocean, we uneventfully cleared immigration and customs, gathered our bags, hopped an Uber, and made it to our AirBnb where we promptly fell to sleep.  After a 3 hr nap, dazed and confused from a long journey and jumping back 8 time zones and yet moving forward 1 day (how does that even work?!?!) we wandered out to explore Auckland.  


Auckland is beautiful.  Clean, modern, nautical, organized and with lots of parks, it is my ideal city.  We strolled along the expansive waterfront, admiring the sailing culture.  On display is an America’s cup boat from the 1990’s, set high on a stand, like a monument to this country’s sailing successes and legacy.  

New Zealand was the last unpopulated and unspoiled piece of land on the planet.  The Polynesian people, an amazing seafaring culture that used canoe-like sailing vessels and celestial navigation to cover vast distances in the open ocean, went initially from Southeast Asia, to the South Pacific, then to Hawaii and lastly to New Zealand.  It wasn’t until the 1300s that New Zealand was populated by the Māori people.  It was even later, in 1642 that Europeans “discovered” New Zealand.  

Maybe even more surprising is that land mammals (with the exception of bats), didn’t arrive until the Polynesians.  These unspoiled islands never saw a rat, deer, cat or dog until relatively recently.  As such, many of the birds unique to this paradise were flightless like the kiwi or moa (now extinct).  Layer on top of that, that these are “new” islands, created by tectonic activity less than 25 million years ago. On a geologic timeline, these islands are just infants, born after the dinosaurs went extinct.   Because of this, the terrain is magical, with rugged and soaring peaks, black sandy beaches, fertile grasslands and mystical wooded forests.  To say that New Zealand is a land like no other is a massive understatement.

On our second day in Auckland, we visited the Auckland Maritime Museum, a homage to this country’s nautical prowess.  The boats and exhibits on display range from the Māori discovery of the islands, to the European immigration, and finally to their current world class sailing dominance. For the sailor in me, this museum is heaven on earth, with the pearly gates replaced by masts and sails.  The kids’ schooling for the day was learning celestial navigation and the plight of English immigrants who set their hopes on a better way of life halfway around the globe from their homeland.


After too brief a stay in Auckland, we traveled south to Rotorua. En route, we stopped at Hobbiton, the filming site for Peter Jackson’s Tolkein movies.  As told by Kate:  

In the heart of New Zealand’s North Island lies The Shire, JRR Tolkein’s fictional home of the Hobbits, brought to life by Sir Peter Jackson in 1999.  After filming for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the film set was mostly demolished and allowed to return to its original use as a sheep farm.  However, once the plans for The Hobbit trilogy began, the idea of a permanent set with tours was put into action.  The result is a small piece of a fictional world ready to explore!  We had so much fun strolling through Hobbiton, photographing Hobbit Holes and climbing the hill to Bag End.  We finished in the Green Dragon Inn where we toasted our friends and family with “the only brew for the brave and true”.  I won’t bore you with the movie trivia and detailed descriptions if you’re not a Tolkein fan, but if you are I promise to write a full account in a future story.  I will include other filming sites we visited and far more pictures, so stay tuned!          -Kate


Rotorua’s lake is the collapsed caldera of a massive volcano that erupted in the distant past, but the geologic activity still lives on today just below the surface of the ground.  Throughout the town are geysers, hot springs and mud pots, all bubbling, hissing, boiling and steaming.  The sulfurous smell of rotten eggs permeates local parks, letting you know that you are walking on ground that is only a few meters thick, separating you from molten lava.  The contrast of big grassy parks, a modern hospital and thriving downtown stand in stark contrast to the danger that lies just beneath the surface.  Tread lightly brings on a whole new meaning…..

Our AirBnb  was perfect for a lake house.  It obviously has been built and rebuilt over the decades by family members who have shared this space with generations of kids.  Nothing is level, the house is filled with tokens representing deep seated memories and the view is to die for.  The sun rises over the lake, the black swans and ducks paddle by, while we watch sipping our coffee.  From the back door of the cottage, 20 feet of soft green grass separated us from the lake, which lapped at its banks from the recent rains.  

Much of our time in Rotorua was spent enjoying the lake house and town park.  Each morning we went for a run, which I loved and the kids barely tolerated.  The house came with a small sailing dinghy, so the kids got to experience their first time small boat sailing, which is completely different and more exciting than our usual big boat cruising.  We found the local playground and the three kids (the twins plus their dad), had races around the ropes course, with only a few minor injuries but lots of aches from muscles not usually used.  Plus, we had the never ending schooling, which is going surprisingly well.  We’re on track to finish most of our curriculum by early June.  By the end of this year, the kids will be more than a year ahead in math, have a basic grasp of Spanish from both formal schooling and practical experience in South America, have tremendous depth of knowledge about history, geology and geography, and hopefully have a sense of groundedness that comes from independent learning, self reliance and practical experience that comes from world traveling. 

Te Puia

We spent our first day in Rotorua at Te Puia Cultural Center, learning about local Māori traditions, such as carving, weaving and dancing.  We also learned about the very endangered kiwi bird, which is on the cusp of extinction from predation from humans and our mammalian companions.  Remember those cats, dogs and rats we humans brought with us?  They love to eat the eggs of the flightless kiwi birds.  Finally, we watched the Pohutu geyser blow its top, with a jet of superheated water bursting 100 feet into the sky.

Waitomo Caves

Our second day was one full of even more wonder and awe.  Maybe one of the top 3 days of my life, and I’m blessed to have had such a wonderful life.  As people, we spend our lives trying to figure out what is important, what is our purpose, what is the meaning of it all.  This was one of those days when everything becomes crystal clear.  

We went and saw glowworms.  Yes, you read that right, glowworms (actually glow maggots) gave me clarity for my life.  I assure you, I’m not high or drunk as I write this, nor have I completely lost my mind.  Let me explain.

Imagine, you enter a pitch black cave.  The cool, moist air fills your being, not the smell of decay or rot, but also not the smell of the forest that you just left.  A unique smell that is impossible to explain.  As you wander further in, the complete absence of light, makes your eyes and other senses crave for information.  Your ears no longer hear the sounds of the forest, instead the sound of the water rushing through the cavern fills your head.  You know you are someplace special, but don’t know why.  Just when the darkness gets blindingly overwhelming, your eyes see a small spot of turquoise light above you on the ceiling of the cave.  Then another and another appear.  As your eyes continue to adjust and you walk further along into the abyss, more fairy dots of turquoise appear overhead, first 10, then 20, 50, 100, 1000, and finally like the millions of stars seen when hiking in the desert, the space over your head is filled with an arch of beautiful light, radiating down on you.  We carefully climbed into a raft in the cave, to see the lights up close, since the glowworms like moist environments, and the ceiling above the subterranean river is their perfect home.  Our guide slowly and gently moved us through the cave, where the only sound was that of rushing water.  The only light was that of the glowworms, filling the ceiling above our head like a living representation of the Milky Way, but somehow more beautiful than any night sky I’ve seen.  We slowly drifted for what seemed like a pleasant eternity, somehow both a long time and yet not long enough.  Our hearts were filled with awe at the simple, yet stunning beauty.

Here’s where it gets deep.  I pondered the awesomeness of what we were experiencing.  The darkest night, deep inside a cave, the roar of water, the stillness of a raft gliding across an underground river, and the most stunningly beautiful sight I have ever seen.  All because of a worm.  Or more specifically, millions of maggots.  If insect larvae can make tens of thousands of people a year have what can best be described as a life changing moment, then how much more can we each do with our lives?  What can we do to make others smile?  To feel loved?  To see beauty?  Then, even more so, if we work together, how much more can we accomplish?  Just as one glowworm is beautiful, but millions are awe inspiring, what can we do together to make the world a better place?  For we are not alone in this world, there are billions of us, all with big brilliant minds and even larger hearts filled with love, joy and hope.  If we all work together, for a common good, rather than always competing, always fighting and self serving, then the possibilities are endless.  Ponder that tonight when you lay your head down tonight to sleep.  If insect larvae can make people feel awe, how much more can I do?

Tongariro National Park

We continued our road trip down the North Island from Rotorua to Wellington. On the way we stretched our legs with a beautiful hike in Tongariro National Park. We hiked a lovely 4 mile trail to Taranaki Falls. Sadly, Mount Doom of Lord of the Rings fame (really Mt Ngauruhoe) was hidden by cloud cover, but we did go up the volcano to see some lava fields and more filming sites. We highly recommend this hike and hope to return some day for the longer hikes and excellent geology. -Kate


Our last stop on our exploration of the North Island of New Zealand was Wellington, the capital of this small but spectacular country.  We visited Te Papa, the national museum, for a brief look at more indigenous sailing vessels and culture.  They had a spectacular exhibit that showcased Māori weaving (Mataaho Collective: Te Puni Aroaro) but using modern textiles like nylon rope and reflective tape.  We also enjoyed Mount Victoria where we hunted more film locations and played around with recreations and a playground or two (more on this in the future Tolkien article).

We then went on a tour of Wētā Workshop, where they did the special effects design, costumes, and weapons for movies like Lord of the Rings, Avatar and Thor.  It was exciting to see the process of how they make props out of everyday items like citrus juicers (for parts of a model spaceship) or building foam for helmets in Lord of the Rings.  Our hope is that the kids will learn that no matter where their talents take them, with a cup of imagination, a pound of hard work, 12 ounces of dedication and a teaspoon of luck, they will find a career that will make them both personally and professionally satisfied. 

So ended our tour of the North Island of New Zealand.  While we have been enthralled with our adventures to date, it was also very comforting to be in a country that felt so familiar.  For the first time in a long while, we were in a place where English was the common language, western conveniences were the norm, the tap water was safe to drink, and food was similar to home.  This isn’t to say anything negative about our travels to date, but after 7 months of the road, it is a nice break to be someplace where everything felt so “normal” to us, despite being half a world away.  To quote Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, “There’s no place like home.”

Up next, the South Island of New Zealand, where we meet up with Nana and Pa, go zip lining through the treetops of a ropes course, horseback ride on a braided river valley, explore fjords with waterfalls, and play to our heart’s delight with watery obstacle courses.

Thanks for reading to the end.  Next up: New Zealand South Island!  Don’t forget to check out our past stories and subscribe for future articles as well.  Find us on Facebook and Instagram for bonus content!  Please note that any links or business names provided are for information only, we did not receive any compensation for our opinions or recommendations. As always, if you are planning a trip to any location we visit we are happy to provide more details and opinions, so feel free to contact us!

4 responses to “New Zealand North Island”

  1. Can’t wait for the Tolkien article! And sheesh, did you have to make me tear up over maggots?!?! A solid Sunday morning meditation. Thank you again for sharing your adventures with us all

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is my favorite article so far. So many good memories of another life and a favorite book and the best movie adaptation ever in a favorite country.

    …..I cannot get my comments to work on the site. Sorry.

    🌿🌸🦋🌲🌝 Mom 📚👩💕🎶

    Liked by 1 person

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