By Kieran Ford
Keywanders New Zealand
Welcome to Step 2 of 3 of my New Zealand adventure. If you haven’t seen Step 1 yet, click here. This second step is onto the Stray bus and off around the country!
Fuelled with excitement, huge backpack meticulously packed, I marched off one early morn to the first of many bus stops.
To kick off, we headed from Auckland up to Cape Reinga. This took a few days over a few stops and in next to no time a bus-full of strangers were getting on like a house on fire. It was great. Apart from the fact that I wasn’t mentally prepared for getting drunk late into the night at each hostel, then woken up and chucked back onto the bus around 8am the following morning. As a result, I lost my towel, hoody, all my toiletries and two of my favourite t-shirts in the first week. Just left them behind… Brilliant.
(♫) Going Down the Country (♫) (No, it’s ‘Up’ …I know)
On returning to Auckland we picked up the big orange Stray bus we’d all envisaged and shot off down the North Island. The whole trip across both islands consists of around 30 stops and you spend a night or two at each one.
North Island Highlights
🚍 Cape Reinga – Looking out from a lighthouse at the most Northern part of the country to see the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean colliding into a mass of swirling currents.
Sandboarding. You climb up huge sand dunes equipped with your sandboard (like a mini surfboard) then from the top you run and dive over the edge, chest first onto the board and zoom to the bottom. You actually zoom, it’s crazy fast and ‘heaps’ of fun (as the Kiwis would say).
🚍 Hahei – Famous for its idyllic white sandy beaches. We cooked up a classic Kiwi BBQ for the whole bus, which I actually ended up taking over the cooking of thanks to our lazy-ass driver!
Hot Water Beach. It’s advertised as ‘dig your own hot tub’, though that’s more difficult than it sounds, and the image that’s stuck in my memory is groups of half-naked tourists squirming around against each other to fit inside tiny little trenches they’d dug out. I just twisted my way down and got my feet nice and warm.
🚍 Raglan – A hot spot for surfers. Unfortunately it pissed it down the entire 24 hours we were there, so we scrapped the surfing lesson and got pissed instead, playing pool and card games in the huge tree-house-like accommodation. In the morning I went to a yoga lesson… Just because they offered it. I was the only guy and it wasn’t my finest hour. At one point I got all caught up in it, eyes closed, rhythmic breathing, just listening to the instructor on what position to flow into next. When I opened my eyes I was stretched out to one side on the floor and everyone else was in a similar position but standing up…
“You feel fresh and grateful to be alive, stepping out into the warming sun and gazing around one of the most beautiful landscapes on earth.”
🚍 Waitomo Caves – Here there’s various ways of navigating through dark and watery caves that are lit up by millions of tiny glow worms.
🚍 Rotorua – A hub for tourism with hot springs and mud pools thanks to its high levels of geothermal activity. On the other hand, this also emits a high concentration of sulphur into the atmosphere which has earned it a reputation for smelling like rotten eggs. It actually does as well.
🚍 Te Kaha – A tiny community within the Bay of Plenty and extremely proud of their Māori heritage. We sang songs and ate a traditional Kiwi buffet.
🚍 Gisbourne – The activity here was feeding Stingrays, though the real highlight came after dark – Looking down to see little blue penguins that come out onto the beach, then looking up to see an incredibly clear night sky. We relaxed back on deckchairs and saw multiple spectacular shooting stars.
🚍 Lake Aniwhenua – Māori tribes have lived here for centuries and we learnt all about their rich culture – weaving traditional flax bracelets, learning the famous haka dance and eating a uniquely prepared hāngi (a feast cooked in a pit of heated rocks in the ground).
🚍 Taupo – Trailing around the amazing Huka Falls. It’s a set of waterfalls along the Waikato River that relentlessly gushes downstream with frightening force. It really makes you realise the astonishing natural power of water.
🚍 Whakahoro – Here’s where you explore the ‘New Zealand outback’. Spent two nights at Blue Duck Station getting a taste of the country’s rural life. Activities included horse trekking, bush walks, hunting local pests and a massive bonfire party!
Next stop was the capital, 🚍 Wellington, on the brink of the North and South Island divide. I decided to ‘hop off’ for a while here, but I found it difficult to settle. I’d become used to having thirty companions around me 24/7 and being on my own again was strange. In Wellington more people have moved there to live permanently. Also, it’s SUPER trendy, so groups of friends can be a bit clicky. Anyway, more about ‘Welly’ in Part 3.
A week or so later, those lost emotions led me back to where the Stray bus had ‘abandoned’ me – Blend, a hostel bar. A whole new bus-load of Stray-ers had just arrived. We had a top night on the Wellington town and I made such a good friend that I went back to my hostel, got my backpack and attempted to get on the bus with them the following morning! …Not a wink of sleep.
I must have still been drunk because it was risky – we had to take a ferry across the Cook Strait to the South Island before I found out if there was room for me on the bus. On arrival, it seemed my luck was out and I thought it was time to walk away from my new found friends, head down and tortoise shell-like life on my back. Thankfully, the legendary driver came up trumps and squeezed me on into a seat reserved for people learning to become a Stray driver. Bring on the South Island!
North Island Complete, Proceed to the Next Island
The South Island’s like the North Island’s less popular but even more beautiful sibling. It’s the place for magnificent mountains, lakes, hikes, skydives, bungee jumps, caving and pretty much any adventure-based activity you can think of. Even the long parts spent driving from place to place were incredible. Along routes such as Lindis and Arthur’s Pass. It’s stunning, and I’m even willing to admit that at one point driving through Wanaka it brought a tear to my eye. Which I was quickly laughed at for, no doubt! But it was the combination of being everything I’d hoped for with this trip – great new friends from foreign lands, unrivalled scenery around every corner and listening to one of many songs that had become part of the trip’s soundtrack.
South Island Highlights
🚍 Abel Tasman – Skydive from 16,500 feet. It was beyond words. Well, I’ll try – I just remember the rickety little plane taking us up there, the six of us tightly crammed in, the inexplicable feeling of force on your body when you fall out (I made a noise I’d never heard before), the views while passing through the clouds, and the landing from all that distance by simply sliding along on your ass! Unsurprisingly unforgettable.
🚍 Franz Josef – Hiking on the top of the Franz Josef Glacier. We were taken up by helicopter which was a first for me and very cool. When you step out onto the glacier it’s even better – trudging around following your leader up and over slippery mounds, sideward waddling between narrow crystal-like walls, using special techniques to go down stairs carved out there and then, and down and under through recently dug ice tunnels. Another experience I’ll never forget.
🚍 Mount Cook – Hiking the iconic Hooker Valley Track = Three hours of breathtaking scenery.
🚍 Milford Sound – Sailing through this sensational winding stretch of sea between high cliffs that have been carved out by glaciers (a fiord). Staring around the surrounding mountainous landscape and listening to the sound of various rain-formed waterfalls crashing down the rock faces.
🚍 Stewart Island – A small island off the bottom of the South Island. The ferry ride was unexpectedly good. It soared over there more like a speedboat – leaping up over wave after wave as if they were BMX ramps. I loved it. Some hated it. A lot of sick bags on the go.
A very peaceful island. The highlight being when we headed out after dark to a local rugby field. Locals had told us there’s a chance you can catch a sighting of an incredibly rare kiwi bird. We couldn’t believe our luck when we had two of them bounding around our feet before scampering back off into the darkness. They’re very shy and dangerously close to extinction. And yes, this is why New Zealanders are known as Kiwis, because of this special flightless native bird, nothing to do with the kiwi fruit… I know, mind blown!
🚍 Queenstown – The Grand Finale
It’s small in comparison to the crazy amount of people that pile in year round – a hiker’s paradise in the summer and transforms into a skier’s dream in the winter. It’s jaw-droppingly amazing scenery-wise and packed full of adventurous activities to tick off your bucket list. Oh, and it parties hard, every night of the week. It seemed fitting that I was there for two weeks over Christmas, my Birthday (26th) and New Year’s Eve then!
The festive period occurs during New Zealand’s summer. So Christmas day and New Year’s Eve were spent on the beach of the incredible Lake Wakatipu. It’s the longest lake in NZ and it’s 380 metres deep! Plus, it’s surrounded by a magnificent mountain range, The Remarkables. It’s a setting that forces you to just freeze and take it all in for a moment. Speaking of freezing, we celebrated by taking a dip in the lake. It’s been formed by the melting of glaciers so it is ICE cold! You feel fresh and grateful to be alive, stepping out into the warming sun and gazing around one of the most beautiful landscapes on earth.
On my birthday, the hostel I stayed in throughout my two weeks there all came together to go Frolfing. This is ‘Frisbee-golf’ and many people prefer it to normal golf. It’s a lot of fun.
Other highlights included the Skyline Luge – A gondola takes you high up into the sky amongst the mountains, looking over the deep blue lake. Then, what better way to get down than in a luge! Simple gravity-fuelled karts controlled by lifting the break up and down. It was real life Mario Kart. Racing down through multiple different tracks, I was beaming the whole way.
The last thing that has to get a mention is Fergburger. Many claim that they serve the best burgers in the world, and I would say they’re the best I’ve ever had. The queue is out the door and way off down the street almost 24/7 but it’s well worth it! I must have had about 8 of them in my two week stay.
My Top 5 Backpacking Essentials (Click the name to view on Amazon)
- Osprey Farpoint 80 – I took this absolute beast as I went with the intention of staying for longer than a year. There’s a range of smaller sizes to choose from, definitely a great brand and design.
- Osprey Daylite Day Pack – I had to buy a handy ‘day pack’ as there’s no way you’re going to drag that beast above around on the hikes.
- Compression Storage Bags – Shoving your clothes into to save precious space. They’re a godsend.
- Multi-Sport Shoes – You’ll be doing a lot of walking across many different terrains. I’d recommend something like these, good for all surfaces and not too clumpy so retain an element of style.
- Microfibre Travel Towel – Having lost my towel, I had to buy a new one. I noticed a few people had these and raved about them, so I tried one. I’ve raved about it ever since. It takes up next to no space and dries you and itself super quickly!
(♫) Started From the Top Now We’re Here (♫) (No, it’s ‘Bottom’ …I know)
So, there you have it, after a couple of months my long anticipated head to toe country-wide adventure was over. I still had 7 months of my Visa to use though… So now what?
Believe it or not, this article could easily have been twice as long. I cut it down to avoid people dying of boredom! So if you have any questions at all regarding Stray, New Zealand or backpacking in general, then let me know in the comments below. I’d be happy to hear from you.
To be continued in Step 3.
Thanks for reading / Kia ora!