BREAKING NEWS: NEW ZEALAND IS AMAZING!
Ok it’s not exactly breaking news. In fact it’s a pretty well established fact with tourism being the biggest contributor to New Zealand’s economy. Every year thousands and thousands of people make the long (oh so long) and wearisome (oh so wearisome – especially when stuck between sleeping people denying you access to movement of any kind) journey to Aotearoa, or the Island of the Long White Cloud as it was first known by the indigenous Maori people. This year I was lucky enough to be among them. To save you having to read all of what I fear is about to become a very long post (caffeine supplements may be required by those among you brave enough to persevere to the end i.e. go and make yourself a cup of tea) I ‘ve broken it up into categories. So find whatever interests you and scan, skim, and read away to your heart’s content. I hope you will be convinced to add New Zealand to your bucket list.
Travelling with: My friend Jasmine from High School who has been living in Sydney on a worker traveller visa
Transport: Kiwi Experience. We used the Whole Kit & Caboodle package (http://www.kiwiexperience.com/nz-bus-passes/Pages/whole-kit-and-caboodle.aspx) which took us from Auckland in the North Island, up to Cape Reinga and then down through and over the North Island into and all over the South Island to Christchurch.
Accommodation: Mostly hostels (Kiwi Experience guarantee at least one night’s accommodation in each place) though we also couch-surfed (www.couchsurfing.com) and stayed with friends or friends of friends wherever possible.
– Auckland: biggest city built amongst 53 volcanoes. It’s very conveniently located with lots of great beaches and countryside within an hour’s drive, including Piha Beach famous for having black sand.
– Wellington: New Zealand’s capital city located at the base of the North Island. There are lots of cool bars around the harbour, a night market on Fridays with great global cuisine and a really good museum called Te Papa which is not only full of cool stuff but has interactive displays and really interesting exhibits.
– Queenstown: stunningly beautiful and the heart of adrenaline country, Queenstown is the number 1 spot for adventure activities offering pretty much everything. Skydives, white water rafting, jet boat rides, parasailing, kayaking, mountain biking, canyon swinging and, lest we forget, the world-famous AJ Hackett bungee jump. It is also home to Fergburgers, a must-do meal choice that involves waiting for 1-2 hours for a burger the size of your face (do not get chips – you will not need them), and a party culture that makes Queenstown the favourite location of many a backpacker. If that’s not quite your scene I’d highly recommend staying in nearby Wanaka which is also stunningly beautiful but is much quieter.
– Dunedin: this is the Edinburgh of the South. The street names are the same, the architecture is the same, even the weather was pretty similar. The sea was a beautiful green colour though, as opposed to steely grey, and seals, albatrosses and yellow-eyed penguins all frequent the area (though we were only fortunate enough to see the former). The Settlers Museum was very good – we got to dress up in Victorian clothing – as were the Chinese Gardens, the Cathedral and the old train station.
– Christchurch: although devastated by earthquakes in recent years, Christchurch was one of my favourite cities in New Zealand. Sure there was a lot of building work going on (pretty much the entire city centre had to be knocked down and rebuilt) and people joke that the traffic cone is now Christchurch’s mascot, but there is also a real sense of community and determination to make the best of what was truly an awful situation. Where buildings once stood are now green spaces with flowers and park benches. Hagley Park in the city centre is a truly lovely place to walk around and there is now an incredible shopping area made of re-purposed shipping containers, painted in bright colour
s and stacked in a higgledy-piggledy manner that makes for a fun and vibrant atmosphere (aided by the buskers and street performers entertaining you on every corner). I would really recommend paying Christchurch a visit, though be warned that accommodation is hard to come by as pretty much every hostel fell.
Beauty Spots and Places of Interest: Pretty much all of New Zealand is stunningly beautiful, but there were some places that stood out for just being incredible
– Cape Reinga at the top of the North Island is very green and very tropical. It is also home to the Kauri trees, some of the world’s oldest and largest
– Hot water beach is so named because under the surface of the sand is water naturally heated by geothermal activity. This water was so hot that once a pool had been dug. It was necessary to allow seawater to flow in before it became possible to sit in it. It’s hot enough to cook people (as discovered and utilised by the Maori tribe many years ago). However, once a pool has been dug and the temperature suitable modified it was like lying in a bath by the sea – particularly lovely at sunset.
– The Waitomo Caves are remarkable because they are home to the stunningly beautiful glow-worms. The light cast by these worms is an ethereal blue and, despite being 35 metres under the ground, staring at them on the cave ceiling was like staring at the Milky Way. That being said, apparently the glow-worms can be seen all over the Waitomo area (especially in the forests) so if you’re on a tight budget I think they can be seen without paying the small fortune that the caving expedition cost. On the other hand, the caving expedition was great fun and we were supplied with Hot Chocolate, hot squash and the best flapjack I’ve had in a long time.
– Rotorua wasn’t particularly beautiful per se but it did have some seriously cool geothermal activity going on, with steam issuing from drains in the street, pools of bubbling mud fenced off in the parks and the all-pervading smell of sulphur in the air (it’s amazing how quickly you get used to the smell of rotten eggs). The bubbling mud and pools of boiling water were hypnotic to watch, like the tar pits seen in old prehistoric movies, but they were useful too. The local Maori people used them to cook with, placing food in carefully woven bags that let in the boiling water but nothing else. I had a hard-boiled egg cooked in a geothermal hot spring and it was brilliant.
– The Tongariro Crossing is voted one of the world’s best one-day hikes and for good reason. It’s a 20km hike along Mount Tongariro and next to Mount Ngauruhoe, better known as Mount Doom from the Lord of the Rings Movies. On this day I simply walked into Mordor (in your face Boromir!). The scenery is spectacular, with the Red Crater at the summit the most Martian looking landscape I have every encountered, and the Emerald Lakes a striking turquoise against the red rock surroundings. It’s not an easy climb – the ascent is known as the Devil’s Staircase for good reason and the descent involved much skidding, sliding and a twisted ankle. To be fair, it involved beautiful alpine meadows too so all in all a brilliant day spent. – Kaiteriteri was the first place we stayed in the South Island. By this time we had become, shall we say, more aware of our funding limits and so decided not to pay to do any activities. Kaiteriteri is the gateway to the Abel Tasman National Park which is meant to be stunningly beautiful and well worth a visit if you have time and a mode of transport (alas we didn’t). We did, however, get to hang out on a beautiful beach and swim in the most deliciously cool ocean that I have ever experienced.
– The Pancake Rocks are an interesting rock formation at Punakaiki on the West Coast of New Zealand. They are so named because the exposed rock strata resemble stacks of pancakes, and are renowned partly because science has yet to explain such a phenomenon. I wouldn’t necessarily go out of my way to see these rocks (the West Coast is more affectionately known as the Wet Coast – the weather was pretty grey when we were there) but they were pretty cool to see along the way.
– The Franz Josef Glacier is a beautiful 12 km glacier that descends from the Southern Alps up to 300m above sea level, making it
surprisingly accessible. The glacier is currently retreating due to global warming and is far less stable than it used to be at the base. This meant that the only way onto the glacier was by helicopter, a fact that is problematic given the unpredictable nature of the West Coast weather. On our first day in the township of Franz Josef you couldn’t even see the surrounding mountains it was so cloudy. We were more fortunate on our second day. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and we got three hours on the ice. Not only is the helicopter ride incredible (very different from being in a plane) but the blue ice up on the glacier is a sight not to be missed.
– Wanaka is a town near Queenstown which is just the perfect place to come on holiday. It’s right next to gorgeous Lake Wanaka and the Mount Aspiring National Park, which is perfect for all sorts of outdoorsy activities like swimming, sailing, kayaking, paragliding, mountain biking, trekking etc. It is also surrounded by mountains and is supposed to have one hell of a ski season. It’s got nice bars, nice people and, the cherry on top, is home to Puzzling world with optical illusions and a maze that provided much entertainment to some very hung-over backpackers. It’s also within driving distance of Queenstown and all the adrenaline that that has to offer.
– The Catlins is a rugged area on the southern coast of the South Island and is worth visiting for the variety of wildlife that it is possible to see here. In particular there are the elusive yellow-eyed penguins (best seen at night – we waited an hour in the middle afternoon and didn’t see any – but we were in a 180 million year old fossilised forest at the time, silver linings and all that), New Zealand fur seals and Hooker’s Sea Lions. The sea lions were absolutely huge and, as we later learned, are more than capable of warding off any perceived enemies.
Let me tell you the story of Schmitty. Schmitty was a Yorkshire terrier that got it into his little head one day to take on a sea lion. He ran up to this big old sea lion, yapping and snapping like nobody’s business. Everybody else started backing away as this sea lion gave little Schmitty the dirtiest look he could muster, barely deigning to acknowledge his presence. By this time Schmitty’s owner, who is at the other end of the beach, has started to call Schmitty and is hurrying over. But Schmitty thought he knew better, thought that he could win this. So he kept barking. He barked until the the sea lion got up. He barked as the sea lion turned and waddled back into the ocean. He barked as the sea lion disappeared beneath the wave, running backwards and forwards on the edge of the water, glorifying in his victory. Alas he was to bark no more. Before he had time to say another ‘yap’ the sea lion had launched himself out of the water, grabbed Schmitty in his jaws and dragged him down into the briny depths. As the foam on the waves turned red, Schmitty’s owner fell on his knees, the now-useless lead hanging by his side, the anguished yell escaping “NOOOOOOOOO SCHMITTYYYYYYYYY!!!!!!!!” And that boys and girls is why you don’t take on a great big sea lion if you are a Yorkshire terrier.
– Milford Sound is just beautiful. It truly is a must-do if you’re visiting the South Island because I’m not sure you will ever see anything better. Equal maybe, but not better. And yes, I am aware that it might appear that I am writing cheques that Milford Sound can’t cash, but Milford Sound is the billionaire of fjords. I don’t think I need to worry. The best way to see it is by cruise (though if you have time and are organised book – a year in advance – onto the 4-day trek there because it’s meant to be absolutely incredible). We were on a catamaran which had complimentary tea and coffee that was impossible to drink in the strong winds that accompanied all visits onto the top-deck, from which the scenery could be seen. The water is bluer than water should be, and the rainforest that clings to the surrounding cliffs greener. There is plenty of wildlife to see too, with penguins, seals, dolphins and even whales frequenting the area. Any description I attempt to give it will not be worthy – you’ll just have to go and see it yourself!
Adrenaline activities completed:
– Sand boarding in Cape Reinga: great fun if exhausting work climbing up the dunes
– Kayaking in Cathedral Cove
– Abseiling, zip-lining and black water rafting in Waitomo to see glow-worms before climbing up two waterfalls to escape the cave complex
– Visiting Hobbiton in Rotorua. This is where they filmed the scenes set in the Shire in the Lo
rd of the Rings and Hobbit film trilogies. It was like walking into my childhood imagination. If you are even a little bit of a fan you will love this – not least because you get a free drink in the Green Dragon Inn at the end of it.
– White water rafting in River Valley
– Helicopter ride and glacier hike in Franz Josef
– Nevis 134m bungee jump and canyon-swing in Queenstown. This, it has to be said, was my favourite activity. Bungee jumping was the single scariest thing I have ever had to do. You jump from a glass-bottomed platform suspended by cords from two sheer cliff faces above a canyon.The cable-car there is scary enough, swaying slightly as it slowly moves you across the terrifying drop beneath.
One jump happens at a time, and each jump watched makes you more and more nervous because you know that it will be your turn soon. When they called me it was like being called to my own execution. The guy joked that I looked terrified; he never said a truer word. I sat in the chair and watched as they strapped and they clipped and they fastened. Then they stood me up and I waddled towards the edge (not particularly dignified). At this point I said “Oh **** – sorry” as I buried my face in my hands and let the panic flood my brain. I was staring at the man as he said comforting words that I don’t remember. Whatever he said, it worked and the next thing I know I was standing at the edge of a 200m drop being told to smile into a camera and then “3…2…1…BUNGY!” and I jumped. It was incredible, stupendous, amazing, truly awesome! The ground rushed towards me and then the rope went taught and I was bouncing upside down and it was just incredible! I pulled the lever that let me sit upright before starting to laugh like a drain, my brain barely able to comprehend what I had just done. Then I started crying, then laughing, then crying and laughing as they winched me up (this part was horrible – the ominous clanking sounds and the swaying of the rope are not what is needed when your nerves are already shot). When I got to the top, clinging on for dear life, one of the guys waiting his turn laughed “Are you crying?!” A couple of minutes later, when he was winched up wiping a tear from his eye, he looked at me and said “I kind of get it”.
Overall Impressions and Advice:
– If you like doing outdoorsy activities, spend more time in the South Island. There are loads of amazingly beautiful hikes and trails and paths. I would love to come back to the South Island a) in the winter for the skiing and b) when I’m older and do more of a hiking holiday, when I can afford to hire a car and bring camping equipment. The North Island was beautiful and fun too, but it’s more tropical and the South is more rugged.
– The Kiwi Experience was the best way for me and my friend to travel, but next time I would prefer to hire our own vehicle. As we are both under 25 it is very expensive to rent a car. We also figured that two people together 24/7 for a month might grow to passionately hate each other, something that would have been very inconvenient when we got back to Sydney and had to look for a room together. If I were to do it again, I think I would prefer to hire a car or a campervan amongst four or five people and travel that way. The Kiwi Experience occasionally felt too much like a coach tour, shepherding us on and off for photos and activities, and I missed the autonomy and freedom of being able to go where I wanted when I wanted.
– Overall, New Zealand was stupendously beautiful and ridiculously good fun. The people were lovely, the food was good, the towns were wacky (each one is a “World Capital” of something like gum boots, trout-fishing etc. or has a gimmick like the town of Bulls where every shop is a pun), the wine was great, there’s lots of culture and history courtesy of the Maori people and, all in all, I don’t think you could ask for a better holiday destination.