The Mists of Tongariro National Park

Taranaki Falls

What rotten luck: we arrive at one of the most beautiful places in New Zealand and it’s shrouded in mist! The dramatic vista of snow-capped volcanoes is simply non-existent, the landscape smothered by a heavy, white silence.

Tongariro National ParkWe should have expected it, I know, embarking upon a campervan trip in winter. On with the anoraks it is. Now we’re here, we can still walk to Taranaki Falls – the backdrop just won’t be quite as impressive. Fortunately, the backdrop turns out to be impressive in its own way. The mist makes me think of Celtic fairy tales. It’s moody in a good way. As we stroll through it, the clouds let through a single beam of late afternoon sunlight, which gilds it briefly. But still no volcanoes.

Tongariro National ParkThe Taranaki Falls Walk is a two-hour loop track starting and ending in Whakapapa Village. Follow the road that branches off from the main road, behind the Chateau Tongariro. It’s one of the best – and easiest – walks in Tongariro National Park, perfect if you’d rather not commit a full day to the Tongariro Crossing. There are steep bits, but the views are worth it. Or, at least, they usually are.

The first half (or second, depending on which way you walk the loop) follows a stream through a forest. After that there’s a bit of a climb up to the falls. Presumably, when it’s not raining, it would be a lovely place to stop for sandwiches. The path continues to climb to the top of the falls. The view’s as blank and white as the pages of a new notebook. At least my partner looks rather cool standing at the edge of the cliff, silhouetted against the mist.

As we walk back towards Whakapapa Village, I feel like I’m in a nineties computer game in which the landscape hasn’t loaded properly. There’s nothing beyond the path, which could go on forever for all I know. It’s only an hour back to the village, but it feels much longer. We just have to keep walking and hope for the best.

Tongariro National ParkHalfway back, the rain starts to bucket down. I have an umbrella in my pack, but my partner doesn’t (and the fact that he’s nearly a foot and a half taller than me prevents us effectively sharing.) The rain’s so dense it renders his glasses useless. Imagine that, being unable to see anything beyond path and even that’s a blur! I’ve never been so relieved to see a DOC sign as it materialises out of the mist. We’ve made it! The world is real!

The next morning, as we’re about to drive away from Tongariro National Park, the cloud lifts and the snow-capped volcanoes shine in all their glory. Bloody typical.

Campervan in Tongariro National Park

Join us next week as we move on to the Art Deco decadence of Napier!

The Goblin Forest

Goblin Forest, Taranaki, New Zealand by Abigail Simpson

Before I went to Hogwarts, I spent my childhood exploring Enid Blyton’s Enchanted Wood. A few weeks ago, on the slopes of Taranaki, I felt like I’d returned.

Taranaki is a dormant volcano on the west coast of New Zealand’s North Island. When the clouds clear, it’s truly spectacular to behold. I went there with my family this summer – my mum, my dad and my grandpa, who’s visiting us from England. We didn’t want to actually climb the volcano, also known as Mount Egmont, but we drove up to the visitor centre to look around.

Though we were standing right below the peak, it was completely invisible, shrouded by stubborn clouds. Disappointed, we entered the building to see if there were any short, easy walks we could do. There were plenty to choose from, of course, and there were many mentions of a ‘goblin forest’ – apparently the bush surrounding Taranaki was not your typical New Zealand bush.

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I don’t know what I was expecting, but as soon as the forest swallowed us I knew it was different. Amazingly so. I’d never seen a forest like it – not in real life. You really could imagine goblins scampering beneath the gnarled roots, swinging on the frayed vines and bouncing upon the verdant moss.

The trees looked like towering hags, decaying robes hanging in tatters from their twisted, emaciated frames. Yet they weren’t ugly. The golden sunlight filtering through their branches cast a glamour upon them.

The narrow, winding path was bordered by plush carpets of moss so luminously green they seemed almost artificial. I was careful to stay on it. I had the funny feeling that if I left it the forest would play all sorts of tricks on me. That I’d wander for days through a fairy world, led astray by false visions, taunted by sights of sumptuous feasts laid out in clearings ahead, only to have each one vanish just as I reached it.

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The path was not always properly formed. It was often left to the tree roots to act as staircases. Some of them were courteous about it.

The walk we were on was called the Ngatoro Loop Track, which takes an hour to complete, starting and ending at the visitor centre. It got quite steep in places – I had to use to my hands and occasionally my bum. Luckily my grandpa’s very fit for his age! All the up and down might have been unpleasant were it not for the cool mountain air and our magical surroundings.

There are shorter, easier tracks on the slopes of Taranaki than the one we did. We also went up to the Ambury Monument, which has a beautiful view of the summit. At least it does on clear days. We got there and the peak was still shrouded, but we decided to wait, just in case. We sat there for about twenty minutes and were on the verge of giving up when the veil began to part. This is what we saw…

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I’ll be writing more about my adventures in the Taranaki Region soon. The main reason we went was to attend the Festival of Lights in New Plymouth’s Pukekura Park, (which I’ve written about here,) but we found so many other wonderful places as well. I’d definitely recommend Taranaki to anyone planning a New Zealand road trip.

Taranaki New Zealand

Lake Wainamu

Lake Wainamu is a place not many people know about. Out at Bethells Beach, on Auckland’s west coast, it’s a peaceful spot of understated beauty, surrounded by low hills. You get to it either by trudging across sand dunes for about ten minutes, or by walking along a shallow river. The river way takes longer, but is less strenuous. Besides, it’s usually too hot to walk across the sand dunes barefoot; walking through the river is nice and soothing.

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Lake Wainamu is great for swimming in, being so calm. It gets very deep very quickly, however, so I wouldn’t recommend going in unless you actually know how to swim. Swimming isn’t the only activity on offer at the lake, though. The sand dunes slope down to the river pretty sharply, making them the perfect place to try sand surfing. Definitely take a boogie board with you and slide on down!

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You can also walk around the lake; there’s a proper track that does a full circuit. It takes an hour or two, but it’s worth it because hidden away behind the lake is a rather pretty swimming hole with a waterfall. Be warned, though – it’s bloody freezing! At some point around the lake track, close to the main beach, there’s a tree that leans out over the water. Local kids like to use it as a diving board.

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I’d recommend wearing old clothes and shoes when you visit the lake, because everything gets full of black sand. Black sand is notoriously clingy! I’m still scraping it off my scalp from two days ago and, yes, I have washed my hair! It is luxuriously soft, though. And the silvery dunes are starkly beautiful.

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Countless films, music videos, TV series and adverts have been filmed on the dunes. You can well imagine Xena having an epic duel across them, and we passed yet another film crew when we were there two days ago. They wouldn’t tell us what they were filming, but there were two guys in suits with guns. I didn’t envy the suited-up actors – the sun was blazing! I’d resorted to using my umbrella as a parasol:

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My boyfriend, being a tough Kiwi, was less prepared. Even though our group was planning on walking to the lake over the dunes, and not through the river, he didn’t bring shoes. He thought about bringing shoes, but then did the usual Kiwi thing of thinking ‘she’ll be ’right’ and left them behind. Sure enough, the sand was far too hot to walk on, but – lo! – Kiwi ingenuity to the rescue! He fashioned shoes out of towels and walked to the lake thusly:

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So… Lake Wainamu. It’s ‘becoming far too popular with non-locals’ and it’s easy to see why. If you’re visiting Bethells Beach, give yourself some time to walk to the lake as well. It’s completely free and there are lots of things to explore. Here’s how to find it.

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Why You Should Visit the Arataki Visitor Centre

First time in New Zealand? Time to spare around Auckland? Head west to the Arataki Visitor Centre in the Waitakere Ranges Regional Park. It provides a fantastic introduction to life in New Zealand. You can learn about Auckland’s history, environment and wildlife in a wonderful setting with magnificent views, before embarking upon one of the many laid-back bushwalks in the area.

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The Arataki Visitor Centre is one of the first places I remember visiting in New Zealand. I was ten years old; the centre was great for kids and still is. In fact it’s got even better in the last decade. You could spend hours in the kids’ corner. I discovered so much and it was fun. I learned, for example, what all the different native birds were and what a weta looked like. (Answer: scary as fuck.)

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Recently, I went back for the first time in years. It still had the giant picture frame at the edge of the car park, overlooking the ‘natural masterpiece’-of-a-view. It still had the towering Maori totem pole that my little sister had climbed on, unaware that she was using the bottom figure’s penis as a handhold. But there was one important addition to the car park: a charming Danish ice-cream hut.

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The ice-cream was very nice, as were the freshly made waffle cones.

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I also found this rather pretty place for chaining up your bike.

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As you ascend the wooden ramp into the centre there are a series of balconies taking advantage of the views. In summer they’d make good picnic spots, but the wind was too cold to stay out long this time. Thankfully there’s a place to eat inside the centre too, not a proper café, but nice tables with snacks and hot drinks available. There’s also this rather lovely window seat.

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The inside of the centre has changed a lot. It looks all fancy now. The gift shop’s still the same, but there are lots of new displays. As well as informational displays about the natural and human history of the area, and about local conservation efforts, there are beautiful examples of Kiwi artwork and even live lizards! This is definitely somewhere international visitors should come.

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If you plan on doing any bushwalking during your New Zealand trip – and New Zealand is pretty much impossible to escape without doing at least one little bushwalk – then the Arataki Visitor Centre is a great place prepare yourself. There are people there who can advise you on where to go and how to stay safe in the bush, and there are heaps of free leaflets available.

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In fact the whole centre is free – did I mention that?

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The Arataki Visitor Centre is known as the gateway to the Waitakere Ranges. I think it’s also a great gateway to New Zealand in general. Make it the beginning of your New Zealand holiday. I know a few people who say it’s the first place the place they take friends and relatives when they arrive.  Other places nearby include: Rose Hellaby House, the Waitakere Dam, Fairy Falls and Bethells Beach.

A Walk in the Waitaks

Yesterday, I indulged in that most Kiwi of pastimes: a bushwalk. The weather was beautiful and we didn’t even get started until 4pm. We just drove up into the Waitaks and wandered down to the dam.

The Waitakere Dam was built in 1910 and still supplies the city of Auckland with water. It’s an impressive structure with some pretty sweet views. The photographs don’t do them justice.

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The dam is surrounded by forested hills. These are the Waitakere Ranges, known locally as ‘the Waitaks’. They are laced with pathways, so there are plenty of walking options.

The Waitakere Ranges Regional Park is located on Auckland’s western edge, an easy drive from the city. After our walk, we drove up to a lookout point from which we could see the whole of Auckland.

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It was a very peaceful walk – hardly anyone about. The noisiest thing we encountered was a New Zealand wood pigeon. They’re so clumsy the way they crash through the branches!

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It was good to be able to relax in the bush, as the next few days are going to be full-on: my boyfriend and I are moving to Hamilton. Goodbye, Tauranga, the home of my parents. Goodbye, Auckland, the home of my university. Hamilton may have some rather awesome gardens, but it doesn’t have a skyline like this…

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Actually, that’s not a very clear photograph, so I’ll leave you with this…

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Great Walks for Wusses: My Top 10 North Island Day Walks

When it comes to outdoor activities, I’m a bit of a wuss. I like tramping – nature, fresh air, fitness – but I don’t like getting muddy. Or sleeping in huts or tents. Or going through streams. Basically, I like to be comfortable. (And what’s wrong with that?)

New Zealand is a very outdoorsy nation. Bush walks are a big thing. The Department of Conservation maintains nine ‘Great Walks’ around the country, but they all take a few days to do. I like walks I can do in less than a day. Happily, New Zealand has more of those than you can count.

As I live in the North Island of New Zealand, I’m more familiar with the North Island’s range of day walks. I haven’t mentioned any South Island tracks for that reason, but from what I have seen of the South Island, the walks down there are even more beautiful than the walks up here.

This is a list of my top ten North Island day walks.

1) Karangahake Gorge

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I’ve posted about Karangahake Gorge on this blog before. It really is my favourite place to go walking. An hour and a half southeast of Auckland, its spectacular walls tower over you as the Ohinemuri River alternately rushes and meanders below. There’s a variety of intersecting walks, both short and long, leading you not only through bush, but abandoned mines and railway tunnels. It’s historically interesting as well as breathtakingly beautiful, and there’s a gorgeous swimming hole to picnic at.

2) The Waitakere Ranges

There’s a whole heap of walks to do in ‘the Waitaks’ – a bushy, hilly wilderness right next to Auckland City. If you want classic New Zealand rainforest, this is it, plus it’s really easy to get to. A great place to start is the Arataki Visitor Centre, especially if you’re new to New Zealand. I learned a lot there as a recently emigrated kid. There are also some good walks from the Cascade Kauri park. The Waitakere Dam is a must-see if you’re in the area, but the Waitakere Dam Walk is too short and easy, even for a wuss like me. I’d go to the dam and start another walk from there.

3) The Tongariro Crossing

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is the most demanding day walk on this list, but still doable for wusses for like me. It’s something you should seriously consider doing if you visit New Zealand. It takes about seven hours, but it’s seven hours across a truly remarkable landscape. You might recognise parts of it as Mordor from The Lord of the Rings films – it’s so cool walking through an active volcanic zone! Mount Ngauruhoe looks amazing from the track. Then there’s the stunning Emerald Lakes… It might be a little strenuous at times, but you don’t need top-grade hiking boots – sturdy trainers will do. I know a guy who did it in jandals, but he’s a Kiwi. They’re like that.

Ngauruhoe

Ngauruhoe

4) Puketi Forest

I visited the Puketi Forest when I was in Kerikeri and, honestly, it was the most beautiful patch of bush I’ve ever encountered. Northland is famous for its magnificent kauri specimens, and the ones in the Puketi Forest are certainly magnificent. Kauri trees can grow to over fifty metres tall and five metres wide! There are walks of varying length in the area, including a twenty-minute boardwalk that is not only fantastic for people in wheelchairs – it’s elevated above the undergrowth and, as such, gives you a whole different perspective of the forest. It’s magical.

The raised boardwalk

The raised boardwalk

5) The Putangirua Pinnacles

You know the bit in The Return of the King when Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli go to find the Army of the Dead? Well the Dimholt Road was filmed at the Putangirua Pinnacles in Wairarapa. (‘The Putangirua Pinnacles’ is often shortened to ‘the Pinnacles’ – don’t confuse it with ‘the Pinnacles’ in the Coromandel like I did.) The track’s a little rough, so definitely don’t try this one in jandals, but it only takes about two hours and it’s worth it for the scenery. It’s quite alien; a most impressive example of badlands erosion.

6) The Waitomo Walkway

Waitomo is known for its spellbinding collection of caves rather than its walks, but, as my family found when we visited Waitomo on a New Zealand campervan holiday, the walks are pretty good too. I’ve raved about the Waitomo Caves on this blog in the past, but I didn’t talk about the awesome rock formations on the surface, the ones we found at the end of the Waitomo Walkway. It goes from Waitomo Village to the Ruakuri Scenic Reserve, following a stream. I really enjoyed it. There were archways of stone to walk under, boulders to scramble on, an enchanting bridge surrounded by trees and great picnic spots. It was decent length walk too.

Waitomo again – it’s like you’re Alice walking through a keyhole into Wonderland!

The Waitomo Walkway – it’s like you’re Alice walking through a keyhole into Wonderland!

7) Tiritiri Matangi

Tiritiri Matangi is an island off the coast of Auckland that’s a sanctuary for native birds. The ferry to get there is quite expensive, but it’s well worth going. Not only do you get to see lots of endangered birds, the island itself is really nice to walk around. The views are fantastic. You don’t need to take the guided tour – you can spend the day exploring the various paths on your own. There’s an old lighthouse to discover, and when you’re done walking you can swim in the sea.

A view from Tiritiri

A view from Tiritiri

8) Cathedral Cove Walk

I’ve written about the beauty of Cathedral Cove elsewhere on this blog – I think it’s New Zealand’s best beach. To get there, though, you either have to take a boat or do a steep three-quarters-of-an-hour walk (from the Cathedral Cove car park. It’s about half an hour more from Hahei, which you might end up doing, as the Cathedral Cove car park is often full.) I definitely recommend a water bottle on this walk – I hadn’t realised it would be such a strenuous walk to get to the beach and I was gasping! The sheer majesty of Cathedral Cove, though, is more than worth the walk.

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From the ‘cathedral’

9) Mount Victoria

If you ever go to Wellington, you have to climb Mount Victoria. It’s not difficult, but it is nicely bracing. The view from the top is a treat. It’s easy to get to, as it’s right in the city, and there’s a good two-and-a-half-hour loop walk. It’s refreshing to walk through a pine forest in New Zealand, as opposed to the usual native bush. As an added bonus, the Mount Victoria forest is where Peter Jackson filmed the hobbits hiding from the Black Rider in The Fellowship of the Ring.

10) Rangitoto

Rangitoto is Auckland’s most iconic volcano. It forms an island in the Hauraki Gulf, so, naturally, you have to catch a ferry there. The walk to the summit passes through bush and over open lava fields. The crater is quite something to see, as are the views back to Auckland City, and there are lava caves to explore, which is quite fun. There are lots of different routes to choose from. You can easily spend a day meandering over the island, but don’t miss the ferry back! Also, don’t forget to take a hat, as the lava fields are exposed and hot.

What’s great about all these walks is you don’t have to be super-fit or have ‘proper’ hiking equipment. You would, however, be stupid to do any of them without prudent preparation. Bring a hat, a rain jacket, sunscreen, food, water, reliable shoes, plasters, a torch, a mobile phone and clothes you don’t mind getting slightly muddy, and even wusses like me can enjoy walking. (A map would also be good, but the tracks are usually so well signposted you don’t need one.)

Rangitoto

Rangitoto

Karangahake Gorge

An hour and a half south-east of Auckland, on State Highway 2 between Paeroa and Waihi, lies one of my favourite places in New Zealand to go walking: Karangahake Gorge. And last week I was lucky enough to go there again.

The reason I like Karangahake Gorge so much is its variety. The gorge itself is spectacular, the frothing Ohinemuri River snaking between towering walls of jagged rock crowned by trees and sunlight, but there’s a lot more to it. There are long walks and easy walks, walks through bush and walks through abandoned mines and railway tunnels, walks along the river and walks along old train tracks; it’s a tramp through history and a tramp through nature of the awe-inspiring kind. And it’s beautiful.

I once went on a class trip that involved the school minivan driving through Karangahake Gorge early on a biting winter’s morning, when it was swathed in frost and pure white mist, and the trees at the river’s swollen edge were like sharp, black hands reaching for the cold sun. I’d never seen anything so lovely.

I never tire of driving through the gorge, (which is fortunate because it’s on the main route between my parents’ house and university,) because the river is always at a different level, gambolling between the boulders, hiding and revealing secrets. It can be scary driving along the tightly winding road, towering rocks on one side, a nasty drop into the water on the other, but it’s always breathtaking.

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Last week the sunlight was incredibly bright – so bright I didn’t manage to get any particularly good photos, but oh well. It was still cold. Five of us went: me, my mum, my dad, my sister and my boyfriend, and we left the house only half an hour after we’d said we would, so it was a good start. The drive was pleasant, apart from my sister getting sick on the windy road, and when we arrived we found that, despite it being the middle of winter, there were lots of people there.

As usual, the car park was full of campervans. Karangahake Gorge is obviously a very popular New Zealand campervan destination. I saw at least three holiday parks leading up to it and at least two Freedom Camping spots, and the campervan park close to where the walking tracks begin didn’t have a single vacancy – I wouldn’t have thought that would be the case in the middle of winter, but there you go.

We couldn’t decide which track to take at first. Should we visit the historic ruins of the Victoria Battery, climb the mountain, do the long walk to the waterfalls, hug the river, or explore the old tunnels by torchlight? I was keen to walk to the waterfalls, but this is best done in summer, as it’s hard to resist jumping into the picturesque pool. It’s the perfect spot for a picnic. You can swim under the little waterfalls and climb into the little tunnel… just make sure you have insect repellent. We didn’t go there this time.

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We started by crossing the big swing bridge – always fun crossing a big swing bridge, but last week we were greeted by the spectacle of hundreds of fantails swooping and spiralling over the water, no doubt hunting insects. I’ve never seen so many fantails at once – not even close – it was an absolute frenzy! What a wonderful start to the tramp.

I stopped to take my first photograph of the day. As it turned out, this was a mistake. While I was taking the photograph, my dad and sister went ahead without me, leaving me with no idea which path they’d taken! Neither of them had a mobile, so me, my mum and my boyfriend were left wondering what to do. In the end, we decided to just choose a path and go, hoping to meet up with them later, which we did, thankfully. But before we did we encountered the tunnel, the kilometre-long former train tunnel – echoing, dripping and very eerily lit.

Right before you enter the tunnel at the end we were at, a side path disappears into the bush, accompanied by a sign saying that there’s a winery just two hundred metres away. I wonder how many people have given in. We didn’t, but we were tempted. Instead, we stepped into the dragon’s mouth.

The tunnel wasn’t as dark as I remembered it being, but it was still mildly frightening. The ground was uneven and streams ran down either side, and even gushed from cracks in the brickwork at a couple of places. There were a few creepy nooks in the wall, sanctuaries where workers could run and take cover if a train came. It took just that little bit too long to reach the other end.

Karangahake Gorge 011After that, we found the others again. We decided to do the Windows Walk, which is a track that leads through the remains of an old mining operation. You start off going through the bush, and you begin to notice rusted hunks of metal at the side of the path, maybe a cogwheel or bit of piping. My dad mentioned it felt rather post-apocalyptic. Then you come to a railway track, which would have supported the mine carts, and you start to walk along it like the kids in Stand By Me – it’s irresistible. Then you come to the tunnel. I was taken over by childhood memories of those ‘old, abandoned mine’ rides you get at theme parks. It was time to turn on the torches.

If you ever go to Karangahake Gorge, make sure you have a torch.

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The reason it’s called Windows Walk is there are ‘windows’ in the tunnel, windows you can look out of directly down at the river. By one of these is a side tunnel, so long and dark I’ve never been bothered enough (or brave enough) to go down it. There’s also an underground pumphouse you can explore, with old machinery in it.

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By the time we got back to the car park we were well in need of a hot chocolate, so we decided to check out the café across the road and – guess what? – it’s just about the nicest café I’ve ever come across! It’s not the food that makes it special, (and it did take an unreasonably long time to come,) it’s the way they’ve decorated the place. The garden is like Alice’s Wonderland, and inside there’s a fire, art and crafts, a fish tank, a bird cage and a play area for little kids. The Talisman Café, it’s called.

Unfortunately, it was the end of the day and the café only had one hot chocolate left, so we had to fight amongst ourselves as to who got it, and the rest of us had tea. Then we went home. It’s so nice to be able to have days out like this in winter.

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More awesome North Island day walks…