As Hamish and I drove along the Great Ocean Road last weekend, I had the idea to connect my phone to Bluetooth and call my mom. As I regaled her with stories of our road trip, she asked me if I had uploaded any stories to my blog. I realized I hadn’t, not since before the New Zealand trip. Though it only began six weeks ago, it feels like a lifetime has happened since then. Time is such an interesting thing – I hear myself saying that time seems to pass quickly, yet moments feel like they happened much longer ago than they have.
I thought it was about time I tell a story, or at least part of one. My trip to New Zealand was as wonderful as I’d hoped, and I’m glad that I went by myself, even if I had planned on going with a friend. I never made it there the first time I lived in Australia, and I knew I would regret not going if I didn’t this time around. Let’s back up six weeks.
The time between Tasmania and New Zealand was a quiet one. My friend Rimma let me stay in her apartment for the week because she was out of town. It was so nice to finally have my own space after sharing a room with my friend Melissa, and a tiny apartment with two other guys. I didn’t do much that week, which was just how I liked it. I was still doing last minute packing the night of my flight when, around 10pm, BOOM. A loud crack came from outside and the apartment was covered in darkness. I took my phone outside as I hear neighbours milling around. An investigatory look down on the street revealed that a power box had exploded and the entire street was without power. Great. With my phone at 37% and my flight at 6 am, any hopes of a nap that night were extinguished as I didn’t want to risk my phone dying and not wake up. Bleary-eyed and with frazzled nerves, I called an uber and headed for the airport.
The wonderful thing about the beginning of travel is that once you clear the airport, you are always filled with renewed energy and excitement – hope, wonder, fear, nervousness – or at least me, anyway. I picked up a NZ sim (rookie mistake, DO NOT go for Spark. Get vodaphone) and took the shuttle bus to the city. It was a gorgeous, sunny day, but I can’t say that I got up to much. I met a girl in my room from the Netherlands and we wandered the city. Auckland isn’t ugly by any means, but it’s not my city. We wandered the harbourside then got a nice Italian lunch. We sat beside two cute Irishmen and started chatting them up. There it was, that bubbling excitement at being able to meet people from all over the world, make friendly conversation at the drop of a hat. That night was a quiet one, as the girls in my room were all tired. I headed up to the hostel patio, played Cards Against Humanity with fellow travelers, then went to bed.
I arrived on a Thursday but I was leaving the next morning to meet David. My close friends know that two years ago, I joined a penpal website so I could keep up my love of letters and connect with people. One of my first contacts was a guy named David from New Zealand. We skyped last Christmas and joked about the day I would come visit him in New Zealand. Turns out, it happened! I was a bit nervous as I took the bus up to Wellsford where he lived, but once he picked me up and took me to his work, everything fell into place. His boss’ wife was taking her dog for a walk at the te Arai reserve and let me come with. Upon our return, the guy were done working, and I was treated to sangria, snacks and an awesome BBQ with David and his employers. They seemed to get on so well, and it was an awesome first ‘true’ night with kiwi locals.
That first weekend is definitely a high point on my trip. Though I would soon be doing the typical tourist route, I loved having a weekend where I could hang out with David’s friends, see the places he went on time off, and share in the area he lived. We got along really well and I’m really glad to have met one of my penpals.
From Wellsford, I took a bus up to Paihia, also known as the bay of Islands. This was easily one of my favourite places in New Zealand. When they tell you the sun is strong and to wear sunscreen, they aren’t kidding! I forgot to get my neck one day at the beach and sported a bad burn for a few days. Worse still, I went tanning the day I left Paihia back to Wellsford and when I changed my clothes, I was tomato-red and snow-white. Not flattering…
For anyone going to NZ, definitely visit Paihia. It was a small paradise. Ultra-touristy and rife with backpackers, you understand why when you go to the beach. I took a boat cruise out to the bay and the water is such a resplendent shade of blue. I also took a solo kayak for a bit and simply loved it. I stayed at Haka Lodge and it had the best view- massive windows opening right onto the islands from the main street location. I also met a cheeky German named Maxi who is now working for Swiss Airlines. I only hope his new job will mean running into him one day again!
After Paihia, it was back to Auckland. I’d forgotten a jacket at David’s so it was an overnight pit stop at his place before he and his brother kindly drove me to Auckland before heading to a family holiday in Taupo. For my only day in Auckland, I had booked a half day wine tour on Waiheke island. If you are in Auckland, YOU MUST GO. I didn’t realize until we got there that the island actually has hostels there, and I saw lots of walkers and bikers out enjoying the gorgeous area. I met some lovely locals while we sampled our way around the island, even trying a slippery rose – a rose shot with a mussel inside. Surprisingly good!
The week solo quickly came to an end and it was time for me to board the Kiwi Bus on the 14th. I had trepidations as I surveyed the crowd, having heard stories from people that it was a party bus full of 18 year olds from the UK. I had opted out of Contiki the year Madyson and I visited Europe for that very reason. I grabbed a seat and a girl sat down beside me named Issy. She would turn out to be a very friendly, very nice girl from the UK studying in Perth.
Our first stop was Hot Water beach. We had an accommodation a short walk from the beach and I set out with her and another girl from our room to check out what all the fuss was about. Set in the Coromandel Peninsula, the beach gets its name from hot springs that bubble up between the high and low tides. There were hundreds of people milling about, making me think of crabs criss-crossing sands. We struggled to find our own little haven, climbing over and around people, stepping into freezing spots or ones that nearly burnt out feet off. After a little relaxation, we deemed it not worth the effort and went back to the holiday park. I sat on the grass with some other Exers and listened to the live music the park was putting on. The guy sounded like Neil Young. It was a nice, quiet evening.
The next morning I woke up with a swollen eye and a million bumps over my hands and legs. Our bus driver said I had so many bumps, a blind person could read me. I assume they were sand flies but will never know why I got ravaged and nobody else. They are supposed to be killer in Nelson (SI) but I didn’t get bitten once.
I could go on for hours about all the little anecdotes and adventures had on the North Island, but I’ll try and sum up the places and highlights for the sake of time:
Waitomo – this is where I went cave tubing with Alinka (gorgeous girl from the UK) and Issy. Alinka was afraid of jumping into water due to a really bad experience cliff jumping in Australia. The guide made her believe we were jumping 5 meters down into a tight space and we all cringed, most of all Alinka. Thankfully this wasn’t true and we had an AWESOME experience tubing down an underground stream, looking up at the glowing blue glow worms. Would definitely suggest this to people – they call it the Labyrinth.
Rotorua – I didn’t do any of the geyser activities (sulphur smell, no thanks) but it was the spot for one of my favourite days on the trip. I got to unleash the inner LOTR fan and visit the Shire – Hobbiton in Mata Mata! I probably took photos in front of every darn door on the set, and we finished off our visit with a pint in the Green Dragon. Love, love, love! We also went to Tamaki Maori Village for a cultural Maori expensive. Though I did find it expensive, it was interesting to learn about the culture, games, hangi, and watching the guys in our group do a haka was priceless. The meal? Amazing, but IMO, they take it away way too fast, so scarf that bad boy down!
Taupo…. Oh Taupo. I have a love/hate relationship with this place. This is where I got to see David one last time, and felt sad saying goodbye. Obviously we will keep in touch, but something about it felt so permanent. He helped me get stuff for my Tongariro hike, which inevitably, got cancelled. I was pretty bummed out the next day, but I ended up meeting a guy named Hamish who was in town for work. I had read that there was a cairn nearby marking the centre of the north island. He accepted the challenge of finding it together and we had one heck of a misadventure, consisting of mostly getting lost, good banter, and stumbling upon a country tavern in Pihoi with chill locals and good chips. The next night, we went to the mineral springs at Huka Falls near midnight in the dark. I was completely freaked out in the dark, but he was a good sport, and it’s now a memory we’ll cherish. I did end up seeing him again, but more on that later.
River Valley was an okay spot but as I didn’t do the rafting, I can’t say there was much there. By that point on the trip I’d met Bridie, from, crazily enough, Perth (20 minutes from my small town in Canada!) and her boyfriend Ani. They are two of the kindest, coolest people I’ve met in quite awhile. Cooler still, I found out they were moving to Melbourne too! (As I write this, I’m about to go out and meet them for pizza). We stuck together in River Valley but I believe all parties enjoyed Wellington more.
Wellington – I got to meet another penpal, yay! Richard is a lawyer who met me for a quick drink near my hostel. The weather that weekend was pretty horrible, yet, somehow, Ani, Bridie and I all enjoyed it more than Auckland. I’d say it has a very “Ottawa” feel to it. At 300,000 people, I believe it’s mostly known for good coffee, food, and it’s museum, the Te Papa. The 3 of us went on a rainy morning and easily killed about 3 hours there. They have an exhibit created by Peter Jackson called the Gallipoli – massive sculptures of real, life-like people involved in the Gallipoli wars. The entire section was so engaging and moving, but difficult, too – close to the end Bridie had had enough and had to leave. In Wellington, we also ate like kings. We went for pho the first night, perfect for the cold weather. The next day we had sushi, but with the rotating platform that serves up different dishes. I had never done it before and it was so fun! Bridie also insisted I try Ethiopian. The couple are vegetarian so we shared a platter with enjera and different lentil-based dishes which you scoop up with the bread and your hand. Soooooo good!
I believe my South Island post is going to be quite extensive, so my apologies in advance. While the South may have had bigger, more picturesque and grandiose views and activities, the North still held a lot of good for me. I relished being alone that first week in New Zealand, doing solo travel for the first time. I loved meeting people so freely and easily. The time with David was fun and comfortable, and I loved knowing other backpackers hadn’t potentially been where I had. It was great that a disappointing cancelled hike became an opportunity to meet someone special. I was so happy to be back on the road and doing what I do best.
There is still so much to say, so much more to go, my friends.
Love from Melbourne (pizza time!)