A small town road trip around New Zealand’s North Island

I love small towns. And I can always find beauty in them. My cup isn’t just half full. It flows over. I can even find charm in dead freezing works towns.

When friends asked where I was heading off to on a road trip, I planted my tongue in my cheek and replied: “The shit towns of the North Island”, a reference to the infamous Facebook page: “Shit Towns of New Zealand.”

The plan was to tiki tour around small towns I’d only driven through in the past; spend the night and look for local charm.

Leaving Auckland I headed down the mighty Waikato to Huntly where the through road is less than picturesque. I turned off State High 1 and began driving randomly around town. Whoever would have known that Huntly is so large? I had often noted that signs pointed to a campsite, which turned out to be on the shores of Lake Hakanoa (no swimming) at the start of a walking trail.

My dream to tour the small towns of New Zealand was born a decade back when I stopped for a less than successful coffee break in Morrinsville. Sadly, on this trip, Morrinsville’s accommodation was full, so I made a beeline for accommodation in Te Awamutu, where I have more than a few tipuna buried. Technically our accommodation was in Kihikihi at the southern end of town, which felt very much like the 1970s New Zealand I grew up in.

The plan was to look for local attractions and I hauled my bicycle off the back of the car and started investigating. Kihikihi’s domain is huge, but has the dinkiest grandstand I have ever seen. I spent a couple of hours pottering around the historic Kihikihi Jail, Te Awamutu Space Centre (Kihikihi), which was a tad different to the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida that I visited a few years ago. My visit was topped off with a coffee and cake from Viands to-die-for bakery.

Poor Putaruru. Once a thriving rural town, it’s bypassed by tourists who prefer the draw of its formerly ugly-duckling sister Tirau. Like every town, I knew Putaruru would have more than a few attractions. After a visit to the iSite, I toured Putaruru’s pavement art, and then spied the highly desirable Over the Moon Dairy, a cafe/cheese shop. The nearby Te Waihou Walkway to the blue springs is a must. Like all small towns, there’s always a scenic reserve nearby.

Next stop, Tokoroa, was a thriving hub. Unlike Putaruru it has all the main get-fat-quick fast-food chains and barely an empty shop in sight. As in many of these drive-by towns, I went for a leisurely meander around some of the back streets, where I found an abundance of mature trees and well-kept sections. Google Maps was my friend on this trip and in Tokoroa, like elsewhere, I perused it looking to see if anything caught my eye. The answer was the Lake Moananui Reserve, which turns out to be part of the South Waikato Walking Trails. It proved an excellent spot for a picnic and leisurely book reading until it was time to find somewhere to stay for the night.

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