Road Trip: Winter Through The Desert Road

 
A view of Tongariro from the Desert Road.

A view of Tongariro from the Desert Road.

 

I’ve seen hundreds of photos of the Desert Road and the snow-capped mountains in Winter before Instagram existed - in previous bus trips as a student and while visiting friends, yet I’ve never driven through it myself. JC’s (my dog) new home was in this part of the country, so it was nice to have one last road trip with her. She’s been to the East Coast before, but this is further, so I was mindful that like this human, she needed time out of the car somewhere along the way.

Fog and sunshine

There’s something fascinating about our reaction to fog - it’s beautiful as long as it isn’t too thick that it becomes a real driving hazard.

We left Whakatane around 8am - in the midst of a quiet morning fog and crisp Winter air, I grabbed a quick coffee at Z Petrol Station where I ran into an old friend. He was moving down south, where he had been studying for almost two years. The woman who made my coffee recognised me from the other day, and was nice enough to give me an extra stamp for a new coffee card. Small towns are great like that!

There’s something fascinating about our reaction to fog - it’s beautiful as long as it isn’t too thick that it becomes a real driving hazard. This was the case as I drove past Hell’s Gate in Tikitere, just outside of Rotorua. Geothermal tourism is big money in this area, and I would have loved to go in and take photos, so I settled for a roadside snap instead.

I had driven the Thermal Explorer Highway a few times before, and with the fog staying with us until well past Taupo, I decided it was best to stick to a route I knew well enough.

 
The perks of solo road trips - you can stop and admire the view if you want. This is somewhere along the Desert Road on SH 1 in the North Island of New Zealand.

The perks of solo road trips - you can stop and admire the view if you want. This is somewhere along the Desert Road on SH 1 in the North Island of New Zealand.

 

The Desert Road

The Desert Road is a section of SH 1 which runs from Rangipo (south of Turangi) and ends in Waiouru, a New Zealand Military training town. For most of the drive, I had stunning views of Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe and Tongariro with a sunny, blue sky as the backdrop. In fact, the weather (apart from the chilly wind) was more like Spring until I arrived in Sanson.

Not having been through this road for a few years, I asked my Dad and a few friends what sort of conditions to expect. The biggest hazard at this time of year is black ice, especially in the sections of shade that didn’t often get a lot of sun. Snow littered the roadside, and even though it was toasty inside the car, it was a visual reminder to drive to the conditions.

 
I could have stopped here and just admired this view for hours. I'm not even a fan of the cold, but I can't help and be in awe of nature.

I could have stopped here and just admired this view for hours. I'm not even a fan of the cold, but I can't help and be in awe of nature.

An unforgettable view of the mountains.

An unforgettable view of the mountains.

 

As a local tourist (and especially because I’ve lived here most of my life), it still never ceases to amaze me at the natural beauty of New Zealand. I could bet that it was probably a 50/50 split of locals and tourists stopping to take photos of the mountains. Admiring Tongariro from behind my zoom lens brought back memories of walking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing this year. It was this hobby hiker’s goliath to say the least.

Cultural night in Palmerston North

I’ve been to Palmerston North maybe once of twice in my life in New Zealand. Once for my sister’s graduation, and another time when I took the train to visit her when I was studying in Wellington. Not going to lie, most people tell me that as a town, well...it’s a ‘hole’. In slang, it means nothing happens there. Now, I was only there for a few hours, which was to watch a cultural concert. You know what, it was pretty lit to be honest. A couple of hours showcasing traditional and fusion dancing - as a former dancer, totally my thing of course. The best part was when the local Brazilian Percussion group and dancers heading out to the streets to keep the party going. Carnivale anyone?

Feilding, a town with a pretty
big town clock

The following day, after my Navman took me on a scenic route to Feilding, I arrived before sunrise. My friend Jem, whom I stayed with overnight, works here, so I said I would come to her work for breakfast before heading home.

I wish I could write more about you Feilding, but I literally just came to eat...oh and it seems, to take a thousand photos of your big town clock -  which is really pretty at sunrise. By the way, thanks for the 1GB of free wi-fi, if the timezones permitted, I could have had a video chat with my family in the Philippines and still have leftover data for Instagram.

 
Thank you for sleeping in Feilding, as I had to stand in the middle of the road to take this photo.

Thank you for sleeping in Feilding, as I had to stand in the middle of the road to take this photo.

 

NZ Army Museum and
pizza in Waiouru

My friend Nyre has been telling me about this place in Waiouru that had the best pizza and pasta she had eaten...ever! Nyre is a legit foodie, who is a former cafe owner herself...she knows food. It took me about three years to finally get here, and it almost didn’t happen. Google told me that Cafe Express was actually in Taihape, a town I passed twenty minutes earlier. As I was still full from breakfast in Feilding, I decided to check out the NZ Army Museum before trying to find the mystery cafe. Don’t worry, Waiouru eateries is on the main road that passes through town...you can’t miss it.

 
The NZ National Army Museum in Waiouru.

The NZ National Army Museum in Waiouru.

 

There was an exhibition on the battle of Passchendaele, a town in Belgium, which was occupied by the Germans in World War 1. I didn’t realise that I had been near the area back in 2000, as we had visited Ypres during a school trip. Maybe it wasn’t the best idea going here, as I was still emotional after rehoming my dog the day before. War just makes me sad, and it’s a part of human history that I will probably never understand.

After an hour of walking through war history, I headed to Cafe Express (no thanks to you Google!), which is easy enough to find as there’s only one street of shops in Waiouru. I found the Italian chef cartoon my friend told me to find.

 
I didn't finish the Margherita pizza I ordered at Cafe Express, so I asked for a takeaway box.

I didn't finish the Margherita pizza I ordered at Cafe Express, so I asked for a takeaway box.

 

It was quiet inside, maybe less than ten people in the restaurant. I did like the decor, with the booths, this is a nice place to hang out with a group of friends and family. There weren’t many tables for solo travellers. Here’s what I have to say about the experience - believe the reviews, I ordered the margherita pizza and it was delicious. The pizza base was perfect and I had more Mozzarella than my mild-lactose intolerant tummy could handle. The service at the counter was lukewarm at best. If you can get past that, your tummy will leave happy, because the pizza was one of the best I’ve had in New Zealand. The other was the previous night at Pompeii Pizza in Palmerston North. Palmerston North - 2, Haters - 0.

It had started raining by the time I reached the Desert Road on the way home. Rain followed me pretty much all the way home. If I come back down this way, I would love to check out some of the hikes and more than likely bring other drivers so we can take turns. I think I will have to wait until 2019 to do a road trip of the South Island - who wants to come with me?

Photos taken on my Sony A600. I'm very much an amateur photographer, and if you have some tips for my upcoming trip to Peru, send me an email, I'd love to hear from you.

 

 

Ronna Grace Funtelar is a thirtyish storyteller, creative, writer and slam poet currently based in New Zealand. She is a hobby hiker, photography and sunrise enthusiast with a passion for mindfully helping others live beyond their comfort zone.

Basically, a shorty who knows her life purpose.