By Kieran Ford
Setting the scene
With so much to mention about my year long adventure backpacking New Zealand, I’ve decided to break it down into three parts, or steps as I like to refer to them. This is the first step and it covers why I went, arrival and first impressions.
Sick to the back teeth of my office-based sales job, the piles of traffic to and fro, still living with my parents and not even close to being able to buy a property, it was finally time to break free from the shackles of ‘responsibility’ and get out there again.
I’d tried to head back to ‘the States’ on my return from NYC but Visa rules meant that unless I married an American my chances were pretty slim. So I drew for my trusty British Passport and got to finding out which countries would welcome me in on a Working Holiday Visa.
Canada was first up, I thought ‘Hey, it’s the USA but more scenic and with friendlier people, right?’ *Hands up!* …Just the stereotypes I’d heard. Suddenly my attention switched to Australia, a common choice for many Brits, who often never return (nothing eerie here, just because they really want to stay).
After weeks of research I finally decided that backpacking New Zealand sounded the perfect fit – Breathtaking scenery and wildlife, plenty to explore, renowned for adventure, friendly people and it’s on the other side of the world. Sorted.
First, I applied for the NZ Working Holiday Visa. It was simple, I filled out a few forms, paid a small fee and received my Visa via email within a week. You can check your country’s requirements here.
Next, I bought my backpack (around £100 for an Osprey) and flights (around £800 with Singapore Airlines). You can find cheaper options on both of these fronts, but I thought it’d be money well spent securing a long-lasting and comfortable backpack, and I really wanted to make that lengthy journey with Singapore Airlines having heard so many good things.
“I was on cloud nine until I arrived home and was greeted by a couple of my new flatmates laughing hysterically…”
Touch Down / First Impressions
A day or so after departing from London Heathrow, with a short connecting stop in Singapore, I landed in New Zealand’s largest city, Auckland. I headed straight into the centre and to the hostel, Nomads, the first to be recommended on Google. The bunk-beds were rubbish, moving about all night with squeaky frames but it was cheap and full of other travellers.
I was told to power through in order to avoid the much feared jet lag. So that’s what I did. Out on the town we went, into the backpacker bars and beyond, and it worked! I felt fine, I was a day behind for a week or so, like, I was sure Thursday was Wednesday and so on, but I felt fine. And proud, clearly… Here I am bragging about it on my blog.
Auckland was nice, but it didn’t quite match the spectacular image of New Zealand I’d painted in my head. Call me naive, but I wasn’t expecting it to be so built-up, modern and ‘big city-like’.
A Leafy Suburb Not Far From Central
After a few weeks of staying in shaky bunk-bed dorms, I welcomed the opportunity presented to me by some fellow Brits living in Mount Eden. They had a spare room for a month. Perfect. You’ll never appreciate having your own bed in your own room so much after becoming so accustomed to hostels.
So, I had a month, before the girl whose room I was renting returned from India. I’ll always remember it was a female’s room after I went out on a huge exploration run around Mount Eden and One Tree Hill one afternoon. I arrived in October, so NZ summertime was approaching. The sun was shining and I’d been warned about the necessity to wear sunscreen in NZ due to an apparent hole in the ozone layer making the sun’s rays even more lethal. I was all ready to set off when I remembered this, so I, quite rudely, took a look in the room occupier’s draw – *Hands up!* It was just a see-through one that I could see had creams and things inside. I found a tube with ‘SPF’ something on it and thought I’d use it and replace it in the coming days. I began lathering it on, finding it strange that it was brownish rather than white. I supposed this was due to their sunscreen often being labelled ‘NZ strength’ this must be it.
Feeling protected, I headed out. I ended up running 18km that day, the picturesque sights and feelings of freedom driving me on and on. I was on cloud nine until I arrived home and was greeted by a couple of my new housemates laughing hysterically. Turns out I’d slathered on palm-fulls of SPF 30 foundation. So basically I’d run around my new neighbourhood all day looking like someone trying a Michael Jackson style skin transformation!
(♫) Should I stay or should I go? (♫)
After a month in Auckland I was beginning to settle in, but the original tenant was approaching return. I had to decide whether to stay and work there for a while, say, 6 months, and then travel for 6 months with more money. Or, go off travelling now and return if I couldn’t find another city that beats it.
Seeing as the house kindly offered me a blow-up bed in the living room until I got my plans in order, I gave the first option a go. Within days I’d landed a job in a local artisan bakery café. They LOVE really fancy coffees in NZ and I enjoyed learning the intricacies of latte art. Also the free shift-meals were spot on!
We went out over the weekend as a house and in a celebratory mood, we all got nicely plastered (drunk). This led to conversations with them like, “yeah, but what’s Wellington like though? And, I keep hearing about the mountains and lakes on the South Island” and so on and so forth… Before they eventually asked me why I wasn’t just getting on the road and going to see it for myself? That’s the whole reason I was there after all, right? Yes. Ok, scrap this, let’s get out there!
So, Decided I’m Getting on the Road …But How?
I got to researching the top two ‘hop-on-hop-off’ bus tours, Stray or Kiwi Experience. In both cases you’ll be chucked on a bus of thirty or so fellow travellers and your itinerary is all mapped out for you. Just choose your pass depending on the route you wish to explore and go.
In short I’d been told that Stray was more ‘off the beaten track’, less built-up touristy places and more of a mature crowd, say 25-35. Kiwi Experience sounded like the ‘lads holiday’ you take to Magaluf or Malia after finishing school.
There’s also the car/campervan option that many recommend. It’s surprisingly easy to find someone to split the cost with, as every second person in New Zealand seems to be there for the same reason – to explore. This offers an unrivalled sense of freedom and flexibility. Also, a lot of the scenic and mostly empty roads are a dream to drive.
With my decision making meter running on empty, I couldn’t bear the thought of trying to sort out a van and a new soul mate within the coming days. I wanted to meet people and discover every nook and cranny of this amazing country. Stray seemed the best bet. BOOM! Sorted. Let’s go.
To be continued in Step 2.
Thanks for reading / Kia ora!