Vienna, finally.

The past two weeks in Paris were pleasant because it gave me plenty of time to recover from my travels, adapt to a normal(ish) lifestyle again, and mostly I got to spend some time with friends and get all my belongings sorted (you know the “do I really need this shirt, na, haven’t worn it in a few years, but I might again some time, but NO, I’m giving it away” kind of dilemma). But I was growing impatient and a bit anxious about the flat searching which would be much easier once I would have arrived.

The trip was quite uneventful and easy, although they managed to have more than two hours delay on a flight which takes about an hour and a half. I managed to carry only two pieces of luggage with me: a huge suitcase (weighing about 31 kg containing my amplifier head and effect pedals), and a flycase containing my beloved bass guitar. The rest -mostly clothes- should arrive later. I still took a taxi because all this with my hand luggage added up to about 50 kg. What dedication it takes to play music…

I’m very lucky to know quite a few people in Vienna, mostly French colleagues who work at the institution where I’ll start on the 3rd of July, so I have a few couches I can crash on while I look for a flat. There was actually a big barbecue going on there the evening I arrived so I got to meet the members of my research group and other acquaintances I’d met at past conferences and summer schools.

Now’s the time (yes, you can click on this) to find a place to live and get all the paperwork done …




From Paihia to Auckland, I was lucky to get a lift from a German girl staying in the same hostel. In fact, I’d already met her in Rotorua. She also gave a lift to Joey, and the three of us went on a short road trip, stopping in a few places on our way to New Zealand’s largest city.

First stop: Abbey caves. I only visited the first of three, about ten minutes walk from the road. The girls didn’t feel like clambering down in the dark, and walking knee-deep in a stream (I suppose that’s fair enough) but I had my sturdy hiking boots and a head torch so I made my way in until the tunnel was too low for me to stand. It was fairly long and there were a lot of glowworms in there!

Our second stop was an express lunch break on a beach. It would have been nice to stay there longer but sandflies made us change our minds. My feet still itch while I’m writing this, damn those sandflies for not letting us enjoy all those beautiful places!

Another few hours later, we arrived, just before rush hour. I was apprehending my stay in Auckland: people hadn’t sold it to me as a particularly nice city and I was dreading the loudness of partygoers in the streets and hostels after staying in all those quiet towns. Sure, Auckland isn’t the most beautiful city I’ve seen, but it’s quite laid-back, kiwi style, and seems to have a lot to offer. I basically had three nights and two days to spend before catching my flight home on Sunday. This was my smooth transition back to civilisation: I wanted to get a haircut and buy some proper (i.e not backpacking) clothes. Other than that, I just walked around; the best way to get to know a place. Victoria Park’s large trees were shedding their leaves and the CBD’s modest skyline lights up at night, offering an ideal photography playground.

I was staying in the same hostel as a French girl, Louisa, I’d bumped into something like four times on both south and north islands! She suggested going to a salsa night in a mexican bar Friday night. Not exactly my type of party usually, but I agreed it could be fun. A few margaritas were enough to get me on the dancefloor but past midnight I grew tired of the reggaeton (I can’t stress how much I dislike this music) and headed home.

Sunday morning I headed to the airport, feeling a bit down that my trip was already over, but a part of me was happy to go home. Bye bye New Zealand!

I had a first ten hour flight from Auckland to Singapore, we were flying over Australia for what felt like ages, but the landscape never changed. Changi airport is not the worse place for a connection: I had five hours there, they have a cinema, foot massage machine and… a butterfly garden! 

My second flight was thirteen hours on an Airbus A380 to Paris. Luckily the seat next to me was empty and I could lie down and get some proper sleep.

Good morning Paris! Next challenge: stay awake all day (I landed at 7 am) to adjust and shake off the ten hour jetlag.

Bay of Islands and Cape Reinga

The long bus journey from Thames went quite smoothly and I arrived in a small seaside town by the name of Paihia well past nine in the evening. This would be my base to visit all the sights of the region for a bit. I realised I was tired of moving around so much and I felt like taking it easy and relaxing in a cosy place for more than just a couple of nights.
The hostel was one of my favourites: plenty of comfy couches, two fireplaces and a terrace with a view on the bay. The weather was still summery around here with temperatures in the low twenties during the day and the clear blue Pacific at a welcoming temperature of 18. I looked up the latitude of Paihia: 35 degrees south. The northern hemisphere counterpart lies under Europe along the coast of the Maghreb countries. Welcome to the “winterless north”!

It’s actually a great time of year to visit this area: the weather is still good enough for all the cruises, kayaking, cycling and other various activities, but since they have few customers the prices drop drastically. The place is also of historical significance: in neighbouring Waitangi the fouding treaty of independent New Zealand was written by the English and signed by Maori chiefs in 1841, and Russell, a short boat trip accross the bay, was the first capital of the country. It’s also the largest group of Islands of the country, but most of the islands are tiny specks of rock and barren flora.

So history and Maori culture was what I was after on my first day. With a kiwi guest staying at the same hostel we went to the Waitangi treaty grounds, where they recently opened a museum with extensive explanations on the early history of New Zealand. The entrance also includes a guided tour and a short Maori cultural show. Time to be a tourist again! But I wasn’t disappointed this time. The museum was so big I didn’t manage to go through it all, and our guide was a charismatic Maori fellow who spoke for fifty minutes non stop about all sorts of cool facts like how they built massive canoes with intricate carvings and on how a slight mistranslation of the treaty had dramatic consequences (sovereignty was translated to governance, fascinating story you can read about in the link at the bottom of this post [1]). The Maori cultural show was also worth the trip, it was a mix of songs and dances with some weapons they would use in battle or to hunt.

After I got back to the backpackers I just chilled and chatted with the other guests there. The next day, I didn’t get up to much either. I took a ferry accross to Russell and walked around for about two hours, a short hike goes down to a quiet little beach through a dense manuka forest. The town itself has large colonial houses, witnesses of its past role during the British empire. In fact, they look exactly like the colonial houses I saw in Myanmar, built around the same time, in the first half of the nineteenth century.

Bay of Islands is quite far up north but is still a few hundred kilometers away from the tip of the North Island: Cape Reinga. I decided to go on a full day guided tour up there: there are really good deals at the moment since still try to bring reasonably large groups out. This was probably my only chance of reaching the top: at this time of year there’s practically no traffic so hitching is not an option. I’m glad I went but it was a looong drive (the little flag is where we left from). 

As well as being very beautiful, it was a bit of a spiritual experience. The Maori believe that when a person dies his soul travels up to Cape Reinga and from there to the islands they came from (eastern Polynesia). In a way, Cape Reinga symbolises the end of my own journey (I fly out on Sunday!) and the completion of my discovery of New Zealand, from the southern tip to the northernmost point. Not that I saw all of it, it’s so vast… 

Spiritual babbling aside, it’s also a beautiful spot, with the churning meeting point of the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Sea, a cute little lighthouse, wind swept vegetation and remote beaches. 

The driver had given us an hour to wander about and after that we headed to a nice picnic area for our barbecue lunch. Next came the fun part of the tour: sandboarding down giant sand dunes. I’ve got a video to prove I did it! 

A lot of fun, and quite fast as you can see. We were now at the start of a long beach, Ninety Mile Beach (actually 105 km long), classified as a State Highway, with the odd four by four driving along. This is the route we took to head south: our bus was actually a big powerful truck capable of making its way through soft sand. The tide was only just low enough so there were some exciting moments when the driver had to rush as soon as a small gap would open when the sea retreated before the waves would close the gap down again. We were driving at 90 kph! 

And then it was back to Paihia. We went for (veggie-)burgers and beers with a French guy staying at the same hostel, and then stargazing on the beach; we even saw a large bright asteroid being consumed as it entered the atmosphere. A rare sight I had never witnessed before.

I decided to extend my stay in Paihia, I felt relaxed there and I started preparing my return to Europe, enquiring about flat prices in Vienna and so on. This kept me busy most of the next morning but in the afternoon I rented myself a kayak and paddled around the bay. It’s great because there are a number of small islands you can easily reach, and heaps of pretty sea shells to pick. 

At first the weather was perfect but after a while the wind picked up so I headed back and took a nice hot shower. Later my Malay roommate suggested going out for a drink (again!) and once again I had a great evening. 

My last day (the fifth!) in the area nothing special happened. I was focussed on writing e-mails to my contacts in Vienna and finding a place to crash while I look for a flat. With Joey my Malay roommate we went for coffe and ice-cream in between rain showers and that was about it.

Now, I’m off to Auckland for my last stop before I fly back to Paris!


Bay of Plenty and Coromandel Peninsula

From National Park village, there’s a pretty long stretch to reach Coromandel Peninsula: it seemed impossible to make the journey in a single day without having my own car. Luckily, a friendly guy from Finistère was driving north and got me as far as Rotorua (yes, that’s where I came from, kind of frustrating). Knowing it would be difficult to hitch out and get to Tauranga before dark, I decided to just get a bus, unfortunately only leaving a few hours later. I eventually arrived in New Zealand’s fifth largest city around seven. Tauranga is Bay of Plenty’s main harbour, and the area gets a lot of sunshine and is famous for its orchards, with kiwifruit, avocado, and other fruit grown in masses but mainly meant for exportation. The kiwifruit here are delicious though, the flavour is a lot richer than after being shipped halfway round the planet.

As a result the hostel I stayed at was a worker’s hostel and it was a bit hard to blend in, since everyone basically knew each other already. I only planned to stay there the one night and carry on to Coromandel Peninsula the next day. I found this in the hostel and thought it was hilarious:

I knew a German guy who was renting a car and driving from Auckland to Whitianga, a small town on the Peninsula and close to the main sights of Coromandel, that day. The plan was to meet him at the backpacker’s and join him the next day for some tourism on remote coast roads where hitchhiking would take forever. To get there, the best solution I found was to first take a bus out of Tauranga for about 60 km towards Auckland, and then hitch for the remaining 100 km. That bus only left around 12:30 so I had time for a short walk up Mount Maunganui, one of the Bay’s icons. It was nice to stretch my legs and get some fresh air before getting on a bus, again, and the views from the top (230 something meters above sea level) were worth the trip.

Then it was back on a bus and soon after back to sticking my thumb out on the side of the road. It ended up being quite easy to reach Whitianga: three lifts, three nationalities (Swiss, South African and local), and around four I got to the hostel, nice and early to settle down and get to know the other guests. Whitianga is a quiet little town on Mercury Bay, probably much more lively in the summer, and the weather there was mild (a pleasant 16-18 degrees, not bad!) and sunny. The hostel wasn’t very busy but had a nice vibe and we all watched the first Lord of the Rings film, on tape please! Took forever to rewind… My German pal and his friend only arrived much later.

With two other Germans (I think Germany has a secret plan to take over New Zealand and sends all its high school graduates there as spies) we decided to get up to see the sunrise on the beach, which happened to be facing north-east, how practical (we’re in the southern hemisphere so the sun is north at noon, I know, it’s confusing). Still half asleep I took a couple of nice pictures and went back to bed, the film was loooong and we didn’t go to sleep that early.

After getting up for the second time that day, we headed off with my travel partners and our tiny rental car. We had two places in mind: Cathedral Cove and Hot Water Beach.

The first place is named after a wonderful natural arch in a cliff on a beach. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and the coastline looked like a postcard picture. We spent a couple of hours walking around altogether, dipping our feet into the ocean and taking photos. The water is about 18 degrees at the moment, so as warm as the warmest it gets in the north of France. Not bad for the end of autumn.

The second place is named after, well, hot water. At this particular beach if you dig into the sand, you’ll stumble upon geothermally heated sources. The trick is to grab a spade and dig yourself a hole, letting some sea water in to achieve an ideal temperature. Amazing. In some places the sand is so hot it burns your feet!

The guys wanted to drive back to Auckland before dark and I had absolutely no intention of spending the night in that city I’d heard so many bad things about. I decided to spend the night in Thames, described in the Lonely Planet guide as a pleasant seaside town with nice backpackers. Well that’s a lie! The place was boring, even depressing. The first backpacker mentioned in the guide had closed, the second wasn’t at all a backpacker but still the cheapest place in town with a room for 95 NZD. Ouch. I should’ve gone to Auckland with the others. The guesthouse didn’t even have wifi included for that price so I spent a while standing outside Mc Donald’s planning my escape the next day: a gruelling nine hour bus journey to the Bay of Islands in the very north of the country.

In the evening, as I was watching another film on tape (I feel like I’ve made a twenty year leap back in time), I met the only other guest of the place, a german lady travelling on her own. The next morning, we drove together to a nice forest for a short walk, and she got me back to Thames on time for my bus, around 1 pm. There was a lot of silver fern on the way: on top it looks like a normal leaf, but if you turn it over you’ll notice its nice shiny colour.

And I left Coromandel Peninsula, without having seen it all.

Tongariro National Park

In the second bus on my journey from Rotorua to National Park village, there were only four of us. And a couple of km out of the village, snow started falling. Those were signs that winter had come for good and that I would probably not be doing any overnight hiking. Ah well, I would just have to do the most if my time here anyways. There is a famous day trek, the Tongariro crossing, I might still manage to do, without having to spend a night in a freezing cold hut. My disappointment grew larger though when I got to my accomodation: they normally run shuttles for this walk, but they had to cancel the one on the next day because they considered the hike unsafe (strong winds, very low temperatures, snowfall, ice…). 

So I decided to go straight to the visitor centre in the morning to get more precise information. That day, Sunday, was particularly cold, especially because of the wind chill (up to 100 km per hour). People were going up, but with proper mountaineering equipment (cramp-ons, ice axe), and preferably with a guide. They had a special early bird offer for the winter guided tour and the weather was going to be amazing, so I just signed up for that on the next day. It wasn’t much more expensive than just renting the gear and transportation, and at least we’d get some bonus background stories.

Meanwhile, with two lovely Dutch students who had given me a lift from the hostel (about 18 km away, always the same story getting to these hikes…) we went on a few scenic short walks to get views of the Park’s volcanic trio: Ruapehu (the tallest), Ngauruhoe (Mt Doom in the Lord of the Rings trilogy) and Tongariro. Alright, you all want a picture of Mt Doom, so here you go.

Not as doomy as in the film, right? The snow completely changes the landscape. Our first walk brought us into the rainforest, actually really pretty (and a bit unusual) in the snow. 

It was so cold that I wasn’t really willing to walk much more (for once) and my new friends drove me back to the hostel quite early in the afternoon. I was just happy I had my Tongariro crossing sorted out, I’d miss the whole multiday hike but at least I’ll get a winter alpine experience which is also great.

My expectations were high for that hike: it’s meant to be one of the most beautiful one-day hikes in the world. In fact I was so excited that when my alarm went off at six I was already wide awake. The shuttle picked us up at seven and it took forever to get the group together, equip us all with the gear (cramp-ons, but also ice axes and helmets, which appeared to me as totally unnecessary, and I was right). We finally got walking around nine and I placed myself in the head group of eleven people with a talkative French-Canadian. We started off with a view of distant Taranaki (the volcano I climbed barely a week ago!) and symmetric Ngauruhoe just in front of us. At this low altitude the volcanic terrain was not entirely covered in snow and the white and brownish colour blend was quite beautiful.

Then came the Devil’s Staircase, steps going uphill to the South Crater. The Department of Conservation (DOC) had told me this was one of the hazardous sections of the trail, really icy and slippery. As usual, they totally exaggerated and people were walking up in trainers. Sure enough, there was ice on the steps but being cautious was enough to make it up in one piece and we didn’t even wear the cramp-ons on our guide’s advice. After that we crossed a beautiful picture-perfect white flat section, supposedly where some scenes of the Lord Of The Rings was shot. It didn’t look like Mordor at all in the snow. Mount Doom was on our right (on the left in the photo). Notice the walking trail in the middle!

OK this is where we had to put the cramp-ons on. More than the snow, it was thick layer of ice that made them necessary. It made the final ascent to Red Crater on a steep slippery slope nice and comfortable, but we still passed some brave (or stupid?) people struggling in trainers. They made it all the way to the top, fair play! From here we got a view on picturesque Blue Lake, not quite a mirror because it had started to freeze. Behind it, lakes Rotoaira (in the front) and Taupo. Just below us we could also see the not-quite-so-Emerald-at-the-moment lakes, because they were also starting to freeze. 

From then on it was all downhill, we passed the Emerald Lakes and the Blue Lake to have a good look at them up close. On the ridge going down we had closer views of lakes Rotoaiara and Taupo as well as on a fuming crater whose name I forgot. 

This one blew up in 2012, the zone is still volcanically active. Finally, we descended under the bushline and the guide showed us some plants the Maori used for hunting or medicine, like the really solid lancewood or the shiny silver fern. And the shuttle was there as we arrived at the carpark, ready to drive us back to our accomodation.

In the evening I spent a while relaxing in the jacuzzi, while my dorm mate still hadn’t returned from the Crossing. She went without a guide and apparently decided to climb up Ngauruhoe, against everyone’s advice. It’s doable but extanuating because of the thick layer of snow making the ascent very slow. And sure enough she got caught in the dark and only returned shortly before nine, exhausted, dehydrated and hungry, and got a good scoulding from the owner who had already called the police. It was a good lesson: walking in winter conditions is much slower.

That evening a French guy offered me a lift to Taupo in the morning, I was heading North to Coromandel and Taupo is a large town on the way. Perfect!


Travelling during the low season has many advantages, but only if you’re willing to adapt your plans according to weather forecasts. My original plan was to head straight to Tongariro National Park from Wanganui. This turned out being a terrible idea, the weather in the mountains was dreadful, with snowfall, strong wind and ridiculously cold temperatures. It did seem like it would clear up over the weekend though. So I had five days until then. I decided to travel up to Rotorua, which is in fact two hours north of the National Park. The town is famous for its geothermal activity and Maori culture (35% of the town’s population is Maori, compared to 15% nationwide). At least I would probably find stuff to do there, even in bad weather.

But Rotorua is quite far away from Wanganui, it took three buses and more than five hours to get there. There was no way I could’ve hitchhike that far in one day. Just like on most roads in this country, the drive was very scenic, passing through the “Desert Road” as people call it: empty, arid land on each side of the highway, and a pile of clouds in the distance hiding Tongariro’s volcanoes on the left hand side. Seeing those comforted me in my decision to head north first.

A strong smell of sulphur greeted us about twenty minutes before entering Rotorua, reminding me of Iceland. The hostel I chose has a climbing gym in the basement, hell yeah! But other than that, the place was quite empty and not particularly nice. In my dorm I had the surprise to bump into a German guy I’d met in Taranaki. 

It had rained all day and the next day, Thursday, was no better. I was feeling tired and lazy and I only managed to get a move on mid afternoon when the weather cleared up: I took a local bus to the impressive Redwoods (easier to remember than “Whakarewarewa”, the Maori name),  a popular for biking and horse riding. The forest was first planted as an experiment on the suitability of local and exotic trees for commercial planting, which made sense since there were more and more tree species being brought into the country at the time for wood trade. I found the Californian Redwoods especially photogenic.

I soon got back to the town centre and treated myself to a spa session in Rotorua’s famous mineral hot pools. I thought it could only be good for my knees, ankles and back after so much walking with a big pack. There’s also a public park nearby where steam randomly pops out of the pavement in some areas! 

Later in the evening the weekly night market was on, but I missed a flashmob haka, I would have loved to see one in real life, but who knows I might still get a chance. I refuse to go on one of these expensive Maori culture package tours, it just feels fake, I much prefer to chat with perfectly normal, modern-day kiwis of Maori descent. After the market I settled down with a few other people at the hostel to watch the four-hour long extended version of Lord of the Ring’s third film, the Return of the King. I hadn’t watched it in years, it’s still as good.

These few lazy days were perfect, for some reason I was feeling a bit worn out, and my last day in Rotorua was not much busier. I first had a bit of an adventure with Singapore Airlines trying to find the references of my return flight: they hadn’t sent me any confirmation e-mail because of some technical problem and they couldn’t find any reservation under my name. But the transaction had been done and the 600€ had disappeared from my account… In the end I managed to recover a deleted screenshot of my flight details and it was all good. By the time I got that sorted out, the morning had gone on me so I changed my plans… I walked to Te Puia, a sort of visitor centre which concentrates Maori stuff, geothermal stuff and a kiwi house. I have to say I wasn’t a big fan: it was stupid expensive to get in. The part on Maori history and culture was far less extensive than Te Papa museum, but there were some nice wood sculptures and carvings. 

The mud pools and geyser were cool but you can see the same (if not better) things in Iceland for free. The whole atmosphere of the place was totally worth coming for though, with the smell, bubbling sounds, fumes and nice views. 

After that slight disappointment (but at least I know better not to go to these places now) I went back to my hostel to finally check the climbing gym out.

I had been watching the weather forecast for Tongariro National Park very closely and it finally seemed to be easing up from Sunday on. I took a bus on Saturday to National Park village, still with the hope of going out walking there despite the winter conditions.

Taranaki and the Pouakai circuit

I arrived in New Plymouth on Saturday, late in the afternoon, after a comfortable four hour bus journey. It was a relaxing break from hitchhiking, and much faster. I had a bed in a dorm booked for that night, in a small hostel in a central location, but I wouldn’t spend much time there: I was off to the national park close by, North Egmont National Park, early in the morning. I did take advantage of my stopover there to resupply. That hostel was located just above a bar and there was loud music playing until about three o’clock that night. Not nice when you need to get up at six for a long hiking day…

North Egmont National Park spreads around Mount Taranaki, a 2500 m high dormant volcano, popular to climb up. The area also offers numerous walks, from short panoramic strolls to challenging multiday tramps around the volcano. The weather conditions were particularly good that day so I decided to climb up the mountain, despite the presence of ice on the route up. Then I would carry on with a 25 km hike in the Pouakai range just at the foot of Taranaki, spending a night in a hut on the way, and finally finish off with a short walk to Matekawa hut for an extra night in the wild. 

Mt Taranaki is sacred for the Maori and all locals respect and fear the mountain. The summit climb is challenging: the route climbs up a steep unformed track of slippery scories, and the weather conditions are known to change drastically, causing the occasional emergency rescues or even deaths… So I was especially cautious on this trail. Even before starting the climb I was rewarded by stunning views of the perfectly cone-shaped mountain: I was in luck, as it is well-known to usually hide behind thick clouds. 

As I slowly made my way up the steep slope, I noticed I had a view of volcanically active Tongariro National Park, hundreds of km from there: Mt Ruapehu was easily recognisable as the highest peak and just next to it lies Ngauruhoe, also known as “Mount Doom” since the Lord of the Rings was partly filmed there. I’ll be going there next week.

I made it quite a bit up and probably could have carried on, but clouds were rapidly building up below me. It was time to turn back, in poor visibility it can be easy to get lost, and I wouldn’t get any good views so there was no point in risking it. Going down was a bit tricky on the slippery loose gravel, it didn’t help that the ice had started to melt. Here’s a picture of the route (with the actual angle, it’s pretty steep) just at the beginning of the ascent, so you see it was quite icy most of the way.

But the trip was well worth it. I had left my big pack at the visitor centre to avoid carrying it up Taranaki, and recovered it before heading off on the Pouakai circuit. It’s a short 25 km loop with views on Taranaki and the range around it, and I was heading to the first hut for the night. Despite the mist I especially enjoyed that part of the trail: the temperatures were cool but pleasant and there was no wind nor rain. My only disappointment was that Taranaki was invisible, its presence unnoticeable if it weren’t for some lava pillars, witnesses of the volcano’s past eruptions. The views on the Pouakai range in the mist were, on the other hand, great, there was an eerie look to them in the evening light.

As I got to the hut I had a great surprise when I saw it had solar panels (so light! No need to go to bed at 7), and there were quite a few people staying there. We played cards and sat around the fire, just simply enjoying the peaceful surroundings.

The next morning as I started walking most of the Pouakai range was burried in the clouds. No views 😦 The trail first crossed a swamp, and then ascended to a peak overlooking the swampy on one side and the forest on the other. Just as I reached the summit the clouds briefly parted to reveal Mount Taranaki. Then, it was just downhill into green humid rainforest, all the way to the visitor centre, crossing a dozen streams and rivers on the way. 

Once at the visitor centre, I could even have a warm cup of coffee before heading back out into the forest for a second night in a hut. It was just a short three km and the forest was beautifully overgrown, sometimes making the track difficult to follow.  Two girls I had met the night before joined me in Maketawa, they were also after an extra night out of civilisation.

This was a lucky coincidence for me. The next morning the weather was especially bad in the national park but they gave me a lift down to a small town where I could hitchhike from. Three lifts later, including a huge truck and a biker who hadn’t shaved for seventeen years, I was in Wanganui. There’s nothing special to do in that town but I found a cheap single room, it was a convenient stop on the way and I bought tons of food, not really knowing what would happen next because of the bad weather forecast.