Snow-capped mountains, tumbling rivers, empty beaches – you'd be forgiven for thinking New Zealand is 100% pure majestic beauty. And for the most part, it is. Dig a little deeper, though, and you'll discover some dark and freaky stuff lying just under the surface. A Mighty Camper road trip from Auckland to Rotorua is a great way to discover it.
Auckland city itself hides some secrets. It sits on around 50 volcanoes, a few of which are cone-shaped like all good volcanos should be. The most famous of these is Rangitoto – a young island volcano – easily reached (and walked up) via a boat trip from downtown Auckland. You can also drive your Mighty Camper up the volcanic slopes of Mt Eden or One Tree Hill.
If this whets your appetite for geological wonders, head to Rotorua via Waitomo, less than three hours drive from Auckland. As you drive across the rolling hills of the Waikato, break your journey in Te Awamutu to smell the rose garden, or in Otorohanga – the 'Kiwiana capital of NZ' – to stroll through the slightly silly Ed Hillary Walkway. At Otorohanga's Kiwi House you can meet New Zealand's national icon in the feather.
Waitomo Caves is one the country's most famous tourist attractions – an underground wonderland carved from ancient limestone into caverns and passageways filled with stalactites, stalagmites and other peculiar formations. You can float, climb, wriggle and wander through them on a Legendary Black Water Rafting trip, or take a short walking tour to see galaxies of glowworms and other subterranean highlights.
The drive from Waitomo to Rotorua is pretty and green all over. If you have a few hours to spare, stop at Rhubarb Cafe in Arapuni where you can hire bikes to cycle the Waikato River Trail. The ride to Pokaiwhenua Bridge and back packs in plenty of surprises and takes around three hours.
You'll know you're approaching Rotorua when there's an eggy smell in the air, just one clue that there's something brewing under the earth's thin crust here. Head to Kuirau Park for a free squiz at pools of bubbling mud, wafting steam, and a crater lake. Nearby is Rotorua Museum where you can find out how and why this happens, and swot up on Maori history, which brings the landscape to life in a different way.
To experience the classic Rotorua combo of crazy geothermal activity and Maori culture, head to either Te Puia or Whakarewarewa Thermal Village, two neighbouring attractions offering tours, concerts, and short walks around geysers, silica terraces, and steamy pools – all of it eye-popping stuff.
If this makes you feel like a hot bath, you're in the right place, because Rotorua's thermal waters have drawn in travellers for generations. The historic Blue Baths are inexpensive but architecturally fabulous, with geothermally heated freshwater pools. For a therapeutic mineral bath, head to the Polynesian Spa in the Government Gardens where there are private pools and all sorts of pampering, luxurious body treatments.
Rotorua has plenty of places to park up overnight, including numerous holiday parks around the city fringe. We love the Rotorua Thermal Holiday Park for its huge grounds and on-site hot pools. There are two great camping spots within 20 minutes drive southeast of town – the bushy Blue Lake Top 10 (great swimming) and Lake Okareka campsites which are just $10 per night.
Return to Auckland via Matamata to visit Hobbiton for a Lord Of The Rings tour. Here's your one and only chance to visit Bilbo Baggins' hobbit hole – we did say that there were weird things happening underground in New Zealand!