WAITANGI, NEW ZEALAND — We decided to leave Auckland a day early. We told our hostess that we didn’t need the the extra day in Auckland we thought we’d need to recover from jet lag, which was true, and that we were eager to start exploring the Bay of Islands, which also was true.

But the real reason we left early was because our hostess treated Beth, the American, as if she were an idiot. Over breakfast, our hostess mentioned that she’d heard a radio report about an Italian ski hotel that had been covered by an avalanche. When Beth asked if the avalanche had been caused by an earthquake (it had, and there had been an earthquake in the area the previous week), our hostess replied, “No, avalanches are caused by snow.” It felt like a sucker punch to the gut.

We hopped on northbound Hwy 1 to make our way across the harbor bridge and to Waitangi, on the Bay of Islands. The last stretch of the freeway is an electronic toll road, and based on our experience in Colorado, where we were charged $35 by our car rental company for a $8 toll, we stopped and evaluated our options.

As it turns out, New Zealand is very progressive when it comes to toll roads: They identify your vehicle, and you go to a website, punch in your license plate number and pay your toll. That was simple enough that we went ahead.

Almost immediately after the toll road, though, we were stuck in traffic on a winding two-line highway (speed limit 60 km/h) until we hit Warkworth. There, a lot of the traffic went east, maybe to some event or just for the beaches — we never bothered checking.

It was less traffic after that, but the driving didn’t get any easier. The road was very windy and a constant up and down. Our very underpowered 2004 Nissan barely made it up some of the hills, unless I floored the gas pedal. Hopefully we’ll get a more capable car on the south island!

Having to drive and constantly remind myself to stay left without going in the ditch took some of the fun away as I wasn’t able to look around and enjoy the scenery. The one time we did stop, there was nothing to see.

Around Whangarei (pronounced “Fangarei”) we started to look for grocery stores for our dinner in the campground tonight. We found both a Kmart and a Countdown (grocery store), so we bought a cooler, sunscreen, cheap camping chairs in powder blue and pink as well as dinner and breakfast fixings.

To find the stores, we stopped at an information center, sorry centre, and they gave us a map. The town looked like a neat place, so we were going to investigate and drove ourselves to the marina.

The marina is nestled between town and a pretty hillside, there is a cute resort-like shopping/restaurant area (and a clock museum), a unique covered bridge (covered with sail-like structures) and lots and lots of yachts. We saw a number of boats with American flags — naturally, they were among the biggest.

The harbor/marina in Whangarei.

We had planned to go to the botanic garden, but we ran out of time, as noticed when all the shops started closing promptly at 5pm. We still had a ways to go, so we drove on, much to my dismay. Whangarei looks like a nice town with stuff to do, not least of which are some tracks outside of town that follow some of the dramatic cliffs along the ocean.

Around 6:30pm, we finally arrived at our campground (holiday park) in Paihia and set up camp. We had a water front campsite and the park itself was top notch: Clean, with showers, kitchens with refrigerators, laundry areas with washing machines, a lounge, free Wifi.

But what really made our experience were our neighbors (Lionel and Lois with their kids on one side, and Dick and Marian on the other), which helped us get settled and with whom we soon found ourselves chatting about all sorts of topics. I think we lucked out to have gotten the spot between these two couples.

The view from our campsite in Waitangi holiday park.

For dinner, we lived like wilderness campers: A one-pot meal of pasta with pesto and a chopped-up red pepper, with a Cadbury chocolate bar for dessert. Cooking was made more difficult by the very strong winds which blew from the ocean and threatened to extinguish the flame on my camp stove. We could have used the kitchen, but we wanted to do a trial run for the South Island’s tracks — at least that’s what I was (and still am) telling myself.

The storm continued throughout the night and the spectacle of a constantly deforming tent was enhanced with the sound of pouring rain in the middle of the night. Hopefully, tomorrow will be calmer.