One For The Thumb

“The next bus isn’t until tomorrow morning, but you can always hitch!”

Just minutes before the above advice came across the counter at the Picton tourist information site, we had actually felt relieved and really lucky. Our three hour ferry to the South Island across the Cook Strait was as serene and sunny as it was scenic. Considering a “weather bomb” (their term, not mine) had slammed into New Zealand just forty-eight hours prior causing turbulent seas and delaying all inter-island ferries for a day or so, travel life was pretty darn good. You learn on the road though that plans can go awry at any time, and it was that time in Picton.

At first, I actually thought the woman behind the counter was making some sort of reference to that cheesy Will Smith movie out a few years back. I never saw it, but now I was stood wondering if the plot of Hitch possibly involved teleportation, time travel, or maybe even superhuman speed walking? After her next bit of advice though, it became plainly obvious that she was not making a film reference, she was talking about actual hitchhiking.

“Right past the park, on the way out of town, that’s where everyone grabs a ride, you’ll get one in no time“ she explained as she subtly looked past us to the next person in line. She said it so casually and in such a rehearsed tone, that it was obvious that this wasn’t the first time she doled out the thumb travel tip. Now up until this precise moment in my life, hitchhiking was something that only existed in movies, television, or tall tales leftover from the 1960‘s. Everyone knows anyone who would pick up a hitchhiker in real life is obviously an escaped convict just looking to pounce on the first poor fool they saw on the side of the road, or is it the hitchhikers themselves who are the psychos doing the preying? There was only one way to find out. So we did what any self-respecting travelers worth their guidebooks would do, we marched right out of that office and down to that street corner, sketched a sign, gulped, stuck our thumbs out (in my case with a grimace on my face), and hoped for the best.

About thirty minutes later, a non-threatening young girl pulled over, and after inspecting the car for hatchets, hooks, or anything else out of a urban legend, we got in. She told us how her cousin hitchhikes all over New Zealand and how she feels she should pay it forward by helping others out. She could only take us halfway, so after about twenty minutes of small talk, we were back out on the street with our sign and now oddly entertained with our new travel game. Next up to play were two young German girls working on a winery, and they offered to take us all the way to Seddon, which was where we were meeting up with our winery job for the week. Their van was something out of the summer of love as they were living out of it and I had to squeeze in the back in between their backpacks, our backpacks and last night’s leftovers.

I was pretty crammed back there, but I had just enough room to admire the late afternoon summer sun as it shined down upon grey mountains and ripening vineyard after vineyard. I don’t think anyone could see me in the rear view mirror, but I don’t think I stopped smiling the entire way as it was truly one of those special travel moments that we never saw coming and sometimes those are the best kind.

From Zea to Shining Zea

It is easy to forget sometimes that New Zealand is an island nation. When the word island floats into my head anyway, places like Tahiti, Jamaica, & Fiji always seem to bubble to the surface first. Maybe it’s because the main two New Zealand islands are so darn big? I’m not totally sure, but what I do know is that when visiting the Islands of New Zealand (you can thank me later Tourism New Zealand), you are never far from the sea. This was very evident during our recent four day road trip across the top of the North Island.

After snoozy new friend Taihape, it was back to our action-packed pal Auckland to pick up our campervan. I will be the first to admit that up to this point in my life I haven’t really been a camping kind of guy. It may be sacrilege to those back home reading this, but I’ve only actually done the signature St. Louis summer rite of “floating and camping” once in my life, and that was just for one night. Julia is cut from the same city slicker cloth as me on this subject, so when we took to the highway out of Auckland, we were flying a bit blind on the camping front.

holiday road, oh oh oh
Luckily I wasn’t trying my hand at driving on the left side for the first time, so Julia safely navigated us into our first holiday park at Hahei Beach on the Coromandel Peninsula in no time at all. We snagged one of the last open spots on the beach and it didn’t take long for the romance of the road life to become obvious to us as we napped away the afternoon to the sounds of waves crashing and a view of the Pacific Ocean out our windshield. I finally got to test driving on the left on the way to the grocery store, which I am happy to report that I passed with flying colors. There were no accidents, as the trip was a success and we arrived safe and sound.We spent the rest of the evening at Hot Water Beach in our own personal hot tub dug out of sand. Here is how it works if you're wondering; you bring a shovel to the beach two hours before and after low tide, start digging, and voila, your pool fills up with hot water. Now, if you are really lucky a nice Israeli girl will offer you a spot in her sand tub in exchange for some small shovel help like us.

We headed out the next morning after our first night sleeping in the van refreshed for Rotorua and ready to start ticking off some touristy boxes. Zorbing, aka rolling down a hill in a big plastic orb? Check. Attending the world famous sheep show at the Agrodome? Check. Seeing and smelling some of Rotorua’s geothermal activity. Check. Our holiday park in Rotorua was as cozy as the night before, and was situated right on the edge of Lake Rotorua. We were so close to the edge that I actually backed the campervan up a few feet our second night there during a rain storm because I was a bit concerned about rolling into the lake in our sleep.

Zorb Shot
gazing at glowworms

Our last stop on the road trip was the sleepy beach town of Raglan by way of the Waitomo Caves and their famous glowworms. We spent the day down in a dark cave observing eerie, glowing worms and then spent the night watching the glow of the campervan’s built in DVD player. We were within earshot of the beach again, but this time on the opposite side of this island nation.

The Train Stops In Taihape, So Why Don’t You?

The above question sirens out to drivers from a sign on the side of the road in tiny Taihape, New Zealand. It is visible to motorists about to pass through town, ever-so kindly calling out for their decision to skip over Taihape to be reconsidered.

Make no mistake, Taihape doesn’t own a huge black dot on the map of New Zealand nor a blip on the typical tourist radar of the North Island. When you tell someone you are coming to New Zealand, no one usually leans over and whispers “whatever you do, you have to go to Taihape.” What Taihape does have though is loads of quirky Kiwi charm, a beautiful setting right smack in the middle of North Island high country, and gumboots. Lots and lots of gumboots.

small town Kiwi charm at its finest
What the heck are gumboots? Well, they’re Wellies. Ahem, what are Wellies you may ask? That’s short for Wellingtons of course. What are Wellingtons? Well, Wellingtons are what most Americans would call galoshes or rain shoes and they have become the rubbery and rain repellent calling card of Taihepe, New Zealand.

Taihape bills itself as the “Gumboot Capital of New Zealand”. Now while the amount of competition Taihape has for that crown may be debatable, the title is indeed an undisputed one. A colossal corrugated iron gumboot greets you as you enter town and every year in late summer Taihepe holds a Gumboot Day.

The Gumboot Capitol building

Gumboot Day was the result of a brainstorming session by city elders in 1985 aimed at offsetting some of the economic downturns in the agriculture and rail industries that were adversely affecting the area. Every year, the town gathers for a day of fun, games, and celebrating of its hard-working heritage. The day is capped off by a gumboot throwing contest which attracts participants from all over the world. Visitors on any day of the year though are more than welcome to try their hand at the town throwing lane and will even be issued a set of gumboots and throwing rules.  

tourist attempts to set new gumboot throwing record

tourist fails to set gumboot throwing record

If you are looking for a little less sole in your fun, take a quick stroll from Taihape’s quaint main street to Mount Stewart Reserve and her scenic lookout. Mount Stewart makes for a lovely lunch break or a stunning sunset toasting spot. The hike is a short fifteen minutes each way, but the view from the wooden lookout perch will keep you at the summit for much longer as mountains ring around you all the while being treated to a view of the North Island’s tallest mountain, Mount Ruapehu, and her snowy volcanic cone in the distance. Taihape is also a jumping off point for the Mokai Gravity Canyon, which provides a much faster paced thrill if you have a taste for some of New Zealand’s signature extreme activities.

one of the views from Mt. Stewart 

Mount Ruapehu after sunset

So, should you make like the locomotive on the sign and pull over for a night? You bet your galoshes, I mean gumboots.