After our days of rest in Auckland, we picked up our little sleepervan from Euro Campers. The back of the van is a cozy bed, and the trunk opens to reveal a mini kitchen, complete with gas cooker, small fridge, and sink with running water. These features, along with the porta-poty stored under the bed, allow our van to be classified as "Self Contained" by New Zealand standards, and permits us to park and camp in many places not accessible to other vehicles.
Neither of us had ever driven on the left side of the road, but J has many more years of driving experience under her belt, so she's taken the wheel first. After an orientation to our campervan's features while a kitten ran around our legs and relaxed on the wheel of the van, we were off. J got her preliminary bearings fairly quickly, but amid amusing commentary, such as "The turn signal is on the wrong side, I feel like I'm in the twilight zone!" (as she kept turning on the windshield wipers by mistake) and "80 km hour suggested speed limit?! Do they mean suggested speed limit for death?!" (as we came to yet another 90-degree windy turn around a mountain).
Amusing commentary aside, J did a remarkable job of staying focused and keeping us safe as we drove north from Auckland to the Bay of Islands. We even managed a spontaneous stop to see the gorgeous Whangarei Falls, after following a sign. The beauty in this country is stunning. Just the drive up had us gaping in wonder. And the hills were full of sheep, just like all the postcards promise!
We stopped in Paihia for the night at the Waitangi campervan site. We parked by a beautiful bay and watched the sun set, and then got cozy in our first night in the sleepervan.
The next morning, we woke up to a beautiful rainbow right in front of us on the bay, prepared our breakfast in the communal kitchen facilities on site, had a hot shower on site as well, and then discovered our fridge was no longer cold. Thankfully a mechanic was just down the road, and we discovered that it was just our luck and that one of the components of the battery charger needed to be replaced. They got us back up and running within an hour, and Euro Campers took care of the payment over the phone. Not exactly how we planned to spend our first morning, but life turns the tables on you sometimes and you just have to roll with it!
Fridge up and running, off we went to the ferry dock in Paihia to catch our afternoon ferry ride around the Bay of Islands. This was definitely a worthwhile experience, and possibly one of the best way to experience the essence of this community if you're short on time. The three hour boat ride took us around many of the 144 islands, and the witty captain regaled us with all sorts of historical and geographical information about the islands as we cruised past.
And then came the dolphins. I have always wanted to see dolphins, ever since I was a little girl. I saw one for the first time a few years ago - brief and beautiful, just one jump out of the ocean near the Jersey Shore, then it was gone. Today, we were fortunate enough to have a small pod of Common Dolphins swim by our boat, and the captain followed them around with the boat for a while, allowing for ample viewing opportunities. The incredible sight of these sleek, grey, wild creatures slipping out of the water and gliding just under the surface was a very moving moment for me.
But the day wasn't over yet. After enjoying some more picturesque island views, we found ourselves at The Hole in the Rock. This unusual feature is just big enough for a small ferry to pass through if the weather conditions are safe enough, and today they were. The captain told us to hold on tight, and we surged forward, passing under that incredible cavern-like hole - a wonderful few moments of exhilaration. Another experience I can't possibly put into words.
After another brief dolphin sighting of a few Bottlenose Dolphins, we eventually made our way back to Paihia, but we chose to stay on and go across to Russell, a historic town just a short ferry ride away. We were given a complimentary return ticket back to Paihia later that evening, and spent a few hours wandering around this small temporarily quiet town (it gets very busy during their summer months).
We saw their town hall, the first church in New Zealand and the first hotel in the country as well, and enjoyed beautiful views of the boats in the harbour. We then ducked into Newport chocolate shop and had an incredibly delicious hot chocolate with cinnamon (and ginger, respectively). The decadence and flavour was divinely delicious, and the very friendly owner chatted with us about her chocolate shop and her favourite spots in New Zealand. She gave us a recommendation to try the fish & chips at a pub down the road, so after watching a pretty sunset on the ocean, we set off in search of this place.
We found a sign for "The Pub" behind a Thai restaurant. It appears to actually be called The Duke of Marlborough Tavern, and If you are ever in Russell, go here. Don't let the nondescript pub location and atmosphere fool you. The fish and chips were made with the freshest, most delicate, delicious fish I've ever had, and served with perfectly done fries, lime wedges, and fresh creamy coleslaw. According to the friendly girl over at the chocolate shop, they catch the fish fresh every day, and won't make any more once their daily fish is done.
After our dinner we caught the ferry back to Paihia and tried out a different campsite for the night (Bay of Islands Holiday), which provides free unlimited wifi (and also hot showers, but they're $2 for 4 minutes). We took a few minutes to stare up at the incredible expanse of stars above us, and settled in for the night.
Tomorrow it's off to Cape Reinga - New Zealand's northern tip.