New Zealand view Sarah Emery

How to have an Adventurous Road Trip in New Zealand

New Zealand is one of the top destinations for outdoor enthusiasts, hands down. With its’ diverse islands providing epic scenery for Lord of the Rings and endless outdoor activities. It’s no wonder the landscapes are legendary to explore. This is why I will keep returning and will continue to return to this great country.

My love affair for New Zealand started nine years ago when I turned 30 years old. For my 30th, I flew over to LA to meet an amazing friend who had just been hired as a photographer for a wedding in Australia.

I was her assistant (2nd photographer), which was a great way to piggy back on a travel trip. Since we were already going to be on that side of the planet. We devised a plan to road trip in New Zealand as well.

At that time, I had no idea I would fall in love with New Zealand (and Australia, but more so NZ). I never anticipated that I would be sharing a similar road warrior experience with my husband years later.


Hence, my long distance love for New Zealand was reignited when I replanted my feet on this glorious country’s land.

Previous to this road trip. Tim (hubby) and I have done some epic road trips filled with adventure across North America.

We have driven from Washington DC to San Francisco & from Denver, Colorado to San Francisco and of course up and down the Pacific Highway in California.

While those trips took much more than a weekend. I believe we have the ways of a road warrior on lock.

Auckland, New Zealand

New Zealand Auckland Sarah Emery

Tim arrived a few days earlier in Auckland for work. I later joined him on the back end of his work trip. Despite my checked luggage not arriving in Auckland with me. It didn’t damper my experience nor enthusiasm for being back.

What it did create, was an interesting opening conversation when the bus driver extended out his hand asking where my luggage was (expecting to load it in the back). I honestly answered, “I have no idea where it is.”

Before our weekend road trip, I spent a few days touring around Auckland.

While Tim worked during the day, I toured myself around the city enjoying Albert Park, Yayoi Kusama’s exhibit at the Auckland Art Gallery, eating brekkie at cafes (Albert Park Cafe is a good one), meandering around the harbour, and watching ridiculous soccer zorbing in Victoria Park.

Soccer New Zealand

The Road Trip Plan

The plan was to venture in Waimangu Volcanic Valley, explore black water caving in Waitomo Caves and enjoy the excitement of a little road trip. We only had 2 planned activities on our Adventures to Do List, but the hours in the car spent admiring the breathtaking scenery was an adventure in itself.

New Zealand Rainbow Sarah Emery

We headed down to Whakatane from Auckland. With traffic, it was about a 4-hour drive. Once we got out of Auckland the traffic subsided the landscape changed as well. Endless amounts of pastures were the views. And a lot of sheep. So many sheep, cows, goats, and horses. It was fantastic!

Mangatarata, New Zealand

Sarah Emery Woodturner Cafe New Zealand

Our first stop was in Mangatarata.

It was a great stop for lunch, where we ended up at Woodturner Cafe.

It seemed to be the hot spot for road warriors.

Battling for a parking spot was a struggle but it was worth taking a break from the car and walking around a bit.

It was also nice to feed some pigs that were close to the cafe.

After lunch and making good time we could see the coastline approaching. We had to stop and see the ocean. It was so beautiful. Not a soul in sight and the weather was perfect. If I prepared better we could have had a little after – lunch picnic on the beach. Next time.

Tim Unsell New Zealand

Whakatane, New Zealand

For our first night, we stayed in Whakatane. Known for it’s boating marine lifestyle on the Bay of Plenty and being a gateway to White Island. White Island is where New Zealand’s solely marine active volcano lays.

It is a quaint, little town perfect for a road trip stopover. We had dinner on the main strip and watched the magnificent sunset illuminate the sky.

Chasing waterfalls, Te Wairere Falls

Before we left our accommodations the following day. I spotted a waterfall and well, just like the ocean we had to stop. I couldn’t believe there was a waterfall right off the road.

Waimangu Volcanic Valley

Q) Where is the rotten egg smell coming from?

Waimangu Volcanic Valley Sarah Emery

A) Sulphur City aka Rotorua.

Don’t let the sulfur smell steer you away. It is here where you will find plenty of areas to explore geysers, craters, steamy lakes, hot springs, mud pools, and my favorite Waimangu Volcanic Valley. It’s only an 1hr and 1/2 from Whakatane and instead of chasing waterfalls now we were onto chasing sulfur smells.

Waimangu Volcanic Valley Entrance Sarah Emery

South of Rotorua is Waimangu Volcanic Valley. There are three ways to meander around Waimangu Volcanic Valley. Self-guided tour, a boat tour or both.

We chose the self-guided tour to all the trails – it took about 4 hours. Mostly because we wanted to hike every available trail and we opted not to take any buses. We were oddly determined to walk the whole valley (guess that’s what driving on a road trip will do to you).

In 1886 Mount Tarawera erupted, creating a rare ecosystem known as Waimangu Volcanic Valley (Waimangu meaning black water in Maori).

This is a great area to see & learn about geothermal and hydro thermal activity, hot springs, geysers, craters, hot water-loving plants, colorful mineral deposits, photosynthetic bacterium, vegetation, and wildlife.

Waimangu Volcanic Sarah Emery

I recall the brochure stating that in a specific area that one can feel a sense of loneliness. When I was here 9 years ago with my friend we both thought this was not possible. We both arrived to said lonely area and oddly said to each simultaneously, “I’m feeling lonely.”

It was definitely an odd shared emotion. Especially sitting right next to each- other sharing space and the experience.

This time being with my husband, I felt tranquil and isolation. I didn’t feel loneliness but more so serenity and peace. Which is how I feel often when hiking.

Now, not to get all super emo or anything, but when I was here previously I was definitely at a different stage in my life. Even though I was traveling with an amazing friend, the feelings were 180 degrees different.

It goes to show, when you are traveling you can have such a different experience at different stages of life.

Waitomo, New Zealand

Black Water Rafting Sarah Emery

Black water caving & glow worms!

The Black Abyss, the Black Labyrinth Tour, The Underworld. Call it what you want, but one can’t deny it’s a unique, underground exploration done in a wet suit, in the dark, with glowworms, a tubing raft, and eels ….. yup, eels. I don’t know if being in complete darkness is a good thing with eels, but they are pretty tame and harmless.

Tim Unsell and Sarah Emery Black Water Rafting
Tim and I doing a quick practice run above the caves.

So what is black water caving? It’s the ultimate way to cave explore while rafting and wearing a wet suit. Rafting down a river and oohhh’ing and ahhh’ing at the glowworms along side the stalactites and stalagmites. All makes it a great cave exploration.

Waitomo has around 300 caves that are carved out with the subterranean rivers that run through them.

Glowworms hang from cave ceilings and provide a beautiful display of unique bio luminescence. It kinda distracts from drifting down a river along side 6-foot eels.

Waitomo Sarah Emery and Tim Unsell

I’ve been twice black water caving and thankfully I have yet to see an eel. I know they are down there, but rather not knowing what I’m close by (as long as I don’t get bit or have a chance to, I really don’t care).

If this sounds like your adventure outing, check out Waitomo New Zealand Caves .

If putting on a wet suit, spelunking a cave and dodging eels isn’t your thing. No worries. There is an option to walk the caves, stay dry and observe glowworms – no eels.

Tips – How to be a Road Warrior for epic road trip.

  • Map out your adventure. Find attractions, figure out off the beaten path destinations and while on the road ask locals where the best places are to eat and things to do in the area (it’s always the best insider tips).
  • Be realistic with your time. Traveling doesn’t always work out as planned, but it definitely opens up opportunity to be flexible and resourceful. Always have a plan B.
  • If you are traveling with a group of friends. Assign tasks to people’s strengths e.g. navigating, keeping on schedule, driver, food prep/seeker, etc. And/Or diviy-up the downloads of Traveling Apps – scroll below.
  • Pre-check on your chariot. Before heading out have your car serviced.
  • Make sure your license, registration and insurance are all in check. Nothing like putting a damper on travel when pre prior planning isn’t checked off.
  • Check the weather – seems to be easy enough. We were hit by a harsh winter storm in Arizona a few years back. It was the 1st storm in 20 years of record breaking snow. Resulting in a 2 day delay and a lot of road closures.
  • Look out for signs for hotels and Starbucks. Hotels for cleaner bathrooms (than gas stations & rest stops) and free wifi in Starbucks.
  • Make sure you have Roadside Assistance, like AAA. Also pack the basic survival kits of jumper cables, flashlight, small shovel, flares, car oil, etc.
  • Have a spare set of keys.
  • Road Trip Games. The alphabet game helps to pass time. It’s looking for letters in order of the alphabet in words on signs, bumper stickers, billboards, etc (pssst… Pizza restaurants is the hero for the letter Z). Or you can always play the Quiet Game.
  • USB charger for your phones.
  • Have a small cooler bag or cooler. Tired of fast food and snacks from gas stations? Grocery stores is where it’s at. Bring basic cutlery (or chopsticks) and a cutting knife.
  • Cash for the tolls.

Best Road Trip Apps

  • If you’re in the U.S. and check out Roadtrippers. It provides exactly it’s title. A planned trip.
  • Google maps and Waze are great with traffic notifications and providing alternative arteries. Both can be used pretty much anywhere around the world and globally – (except China – Baidu or set up a VPN).
  • GasBuddy. Google is good with gas stations. But this app will take you the going prices for gas at the available gas stations. It will tell you how far the next gas station is. Can be used in Australia, Canada and USA.
  • AirBnB and are great tools for accommodations. We frequently use because of their rewards system. We have acquired over a month worth of free hotel stay. Both can be used globally. Camping sites are shown on AirBnB. AirBnB you can search by “experiences” and “food and drink” .
  • Spotify. For music and podcasts. Want to silence the car and the Quiet Game isn’t working? Listen to a book on AudioBooks to mix it up.
  • Open Table – for the States. They also have a rewards system that will provide you dollars off your next meal.
  • Traveling with Friends? Split the expenses with Splitwise – OR everyone contributes to a lump sum of cash and the group pulls from it when needed for group things like – gas, hotel, meals.

Happy road warrior trails!

Outdoor enthusiast thriving in the expatriate traveling lifestyle. Looking to connect with your sense of adventure.

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