I Brought us to a Ghost Town

After 22 hours of travelling from Malaysia we finally touched down in New Zealand. We were tired, dirty and sore (particularly me from cradling Nu in my arms all night). After a few meltdowns, collecting our baggage, getting our rental car and downing nearly a liter of coffee each, we hit the road to begin our North Island road trip. Sami was feeling thankful for the left sided driving experience he had gained in Malaysia…where you can knock over a few motor bikes and people will just laugh about it.

Our first stop was Raglan – a really cute little beach town on the West coast about two hours south of Auckland. We stayed in a little ‘bach’ near town, which was very basic and rustic but comfortable. In case you are wondering, a ‘bach’ is what the Kiwi’s call a cottage. You can check it out here. Unfortunately it was pouring rain while we were there so we didn’t get to experience the amazing beaches but we loved the sort of rich hippy vibe of the place, with the cute shops and organic cafes.

We slept like rocks that night and woke up at 10:45 in a panic because there would be new guest arriving in 15 minutes. We loaded up the car and made a pit stop for snacks at a grocery store nearby. We picked up a few Afghans (not hitchhikers – the famous NZ cookie) and made our may to the Waitomo caves. For more info on these politically incorrect cookies, see here.

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These caves were known to the Maori for centuries but it wasn’t until a British surveyor persuaded a Maori chief to guide him into the tunnels that it was opened to the public. The management of the cave was eventually taken over by the government but in 1989 the land and cave were returned to descendants of Chief Tane, who now play an important role in the operation of this amazing tourist attraction. The glowworm cave, in which we descended, has to be one of the most magical places on earth. We weren’t able to take photos because the light disrupts the glowworms but here is a picture from the Waitomo cave website to give you an idea of it’s beauty.

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I have to be honest that when picking places for us to stay along the way I really did very little research about each town. I knew what I had in mind – a two week drive around the North island with equal driving distances of a max of 4 hours. When you combine this criteria with dates and budget on Airbnb you aren’t left with that many options. So I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised when we arrived in our second destination and found the town was nearly abandoned.

I’ll admit I was a little frightened at first but after spending a few days here I am so happy that we happened to land in this place. Raetihi has a bit of a sad story of boom and bust. It was once a lively and prosperous town that thrived off the timber industry and had nearly 150 saw mills. Unfortunately, in the early 1900’s there wasn’t much foresight for the industry’s future and the forests were massively over harvested. By 1947, the old hardwood forests had nearly disappeared and all but two sawmills closed shop. Businesses shut down and people left the town in search of economic opportunities elsewhere. Today, Raetihi’s main street has more empty store fronts than businesses and has a small population of 1,002 – the majority of whom are Maori.

It actually seems quite serendipitous that we ended up in Raetihi because the story of this town is basically the plot of the movie ‘Cars’, which I have now watched at least 100 times with Nu and could recite word for word. And as with Radiator Springs, there is always hope at the end of the tunnel. There is a sense that the community is making an effort to save the town they love so much and ironically, it may be the uncut forests protected within the nearby Wanganui and Tongariro National Parks that ultimately save this town.

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For those of you who have had the joy of watching ‘Cars’ as many times as I have, you will know the character Sally. Well, she was basically our host (expect human). Leonie is an artist and runs an adorable little shop called the Barbed Wire Gallery with two guesthouses in the back (not unlike the Cozy Cone Motel…last ‘Cars’ reference I promise). We loved this perfect little spot and its sparse but beautiful surroundings.