Thursday 14th November
I won’t go in to details about the flight except to say whilst I’d tried to be polite and to charm the staff at the check in desk my attempts not only proved unsuccessful but downright backfired. I’d politely asked for a window seat but when I boarded I realised I’d been given a seat right in the middle of the plane towards the back. With 2 people either side I think most would agree these seats are not ideal.
It was also a strange sensation trying to work out what the plane was doing during take off – at one point it felt like we were going backwards. Arriving in New Zealand I realised that the immigration customs declaration form was as scary looking as the one I completed 3 years on my arrival to Australia. I wondered whether the Mongolian biscuits I’d brought for my New Zealand hosts would be ok. The queue through passport control was over 1 hour 30 and seemed never ending at times.
Eventually however I was out and searching for Peggy and Claire who I realised I’d never met and had no idea what they looked like. Likewise they probably had no idea what I looked like. Anyway thankfully they had a sign and soon we were in the car on a mini tour of Auckland.
First we went to ‘one tree hill’ a piece of land left in the early 1900s to be left as a park. The name however is slightly misleading and the one tree is now just a stump as it was cut down during a protest. Next we drove over the bridge and to Mission Bay. It was lovely to be shown around by some locals that were relatives of one of my aunts.
Eventually we got to Claire and David’s house which was probably about an hour out of Auckland. It was in a very rural area and the sun was shining so we sat outside enjoying a lovely home cooked meal (fresh vegetables!) some beer and a glass of wine. Peggy’s husband Peter joined us and time went by quicker than I think all realised. Soon it was dark and I realised I had to be up in 8 hours for my first tour so we left for Peggy’s as her house was closer to the Ferry that I could get to ‘downtown’ Auckland.
Friday 15th November
I was up very early to make sure we beat the rush hour I ended up getting the Ferry an hour earlier than expected and it wasn’t difficult to find the pick up point so I just sat outside and waited. Gradually other people turned up but they were doing a longer tour. In total there were 50 people which meant at the start no one really said anything because it was all a bit overwhelming. After our first stop for the coach driver to do the paperwork I finally spoke to the person next to me.
The sun was shining brightly and we were told that the sun was unforgiving like in Australia. This is due to the pollution caused by Europe and America which has destroyed the ozone layer…so Jeremy Clarkson and Top Gear you are wrong.
Our first stop was Cathedral Cove which was about a 45 minute walk from the car park. I took a minor detour to Stingray Bay in the misguided belief I would see Stingrays. I didn’t. But the bay was more secluded and clearly only known to the locals. It was therefore less busy but very picturesque. It was quite steep climbing down and I started to wonder whether it had been the right decision considering the heat and that I still had another 35 minutes to walk before getting to Cathedral Cove
Eventually I got to Cathedral Cove and I could see why it was such a popular beach. There was a rock not far from the shore that a group had swum to and from here they were able to jump off. There was also a small cave which separated the two beaches making up the Cove. It was to walk through though the tide was in so the final bit involved a bit of wading.
Returning to our coach we were informed that we would not be able to go to Hot Water Beach until 22:00 when it was low tide. We therefore settled down for a couple of beers and fish and chips. Unfortunately it was fairly early and once the sunset it dawned on us we still had a couple more hours to wait and the temperature would only go down further.
Once it was 22:00 we headed down to the beach and it was cold. The sand was even colder and then we had to cross a small stream. I started to doubt whether the promise of hot springs under the sand would be fulfilled. I was fairly near the front and with the others announced the sand was was getting warmer then let out a yelp when we burnt our feet on one small area of sand.
We started digging and soon had our own self made hot tub. The problem was we’d dug a bit close to wear I’d burnt myself so this meant the water at one end was scolding. Despite the warnings members of the group at the far end of our pool, where the water was cooler, didn’t listen and occasionally ventured up and let out a yelp/scream.
Whilst the pool was warm the air was cold and it therefore wasn’t quite the experience we’d seen on the leaflets. Some therefore headed home early including it turned out everyone I was sharing with however I didn’t realise this until I returned back to find the door locked and everyone already asleep.
Saturday 16th November
Next morning we woke early and started the day with a walk along a disused mine tramway at Karangahake Gorge. During the walk we entered a number of tunnels and had to use torches to show us the way. There was also a number of long rope bridges that tilted erratically when ever someone stepped out of sync. The scenery was stunning but
We’d noticed during our first supermarket stop that New Zealand shops don’t do ready meals. Maybe it’s just the UK where this is popular or maybe New Zealand hasn’t caught up but the shops didn’t seem suited to solo travellers on a tight budget who don’t have space to carry large quantities of food, the means to keep the food fresh (if travelling on a bus all day), and ultimately don’t have time/are to lazy to prepare it. A small bottle of LP/Coke etc cost 3 dollars 89 where as a big bottle cost 3 dollars 29. I also asked if they sold cheap small individual cartoons of juice and was asked why the multi pack containing 8 was no good. Travellers to the UK from New Zealand have it easy in my opinion, though perhaps we’ve just become lazy and to dependent on the £3 meal deals.
My main reason for doing the Kiwi Experience bus in addition to my main Topdeck tour was to visit the Waitomo Caves. I had already arranged this before I was told by a colleague from New Zealand that I had to do Black Water rafting. I opted for the Labyrinth tour which was 3 hours and included jumping backwards off waterfalls, tubing and seeing a glow worm cavern. I also thought it included abseiling down in to the cavern however it turned out this was the slightly longer and much more expensive Abyss tour.
We put on our wet suits which seemed a physical enough challenge and made our way to a practice jump board where we got used to jumping backwards in to the water. Once that was done we entered the cave itself. We scrambled through the cave until we reached the a couple of waterfalls. Jumping off these when the water was rushing past was totally different to the practice session. After this we floated through the cave in the dark looking at the glow worms above and learnt they are actually maggots. Then there was a bit more scrambling before we reached a much larger waterfall before mor tubing.
After a while the guide told 4 of us it was shallow enough to stand up in. Jumping out I and the 3 girls quickly realised this was a practical joke and we had to swim to a ledge to get back in. One of the girls had already floated by and when she reached the next ledge I tried to keep her tube steady. In the process I was tipped out and had to scramble back in again. We were then told to turn our torches off again and to follow the glow worms above to find the exit.
Climbing up the steps my legs felt very heavy and my arms barely had any strength left to haul myself on to and over the final ledge. Eventually we were all out and after a hot shower and a hot soup I was able to assess the various additional bruises I’d picked up. It was great fun and challenging enough for me to feel I’d been tested especially as I’d not even been caving before.
That evening a couple of us shared large pizzas some of which we saved for next days lunch and had a couple of beers. A few beers and pizza was the perfect way to relax after a challenging afternoon in the wet cold caves.
Sunday 17th November
The first stop was to Ruakuri scenic reserve where we got to see the cave entrance where my tour the day before had ended. There was also a cavern to look in and a small group I was part of spent a bit to long taking photos which meant we had to miss out on a small waterfall to catch up. We didn’t want to be late on the bus because the punishment was to read a pre highlighted section of 50 Shades of Gray as one of the guys had been forced to do the day before to much amusement.
We started to smell Rotorua before we arrived in the geothermal town and it wasn’t soon before we could see the steam rising from the drains and the hot springs.
The activity I’d opted to do in the area was a tour of the Hobbiton movie set. Whilst I’m not the biggest movie fan, the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit books were two of my favourite books when I was younger and the idea of having a drink in the Green Dragon was too tempting.
The whole experience was a lot better than I had expected. I had anticipated maybe 6 or 7 houses made out of short life material and with no real depth to them (as the internal shots were obviously shot in a studio). Instead there were 44 hobbit houses, 37 houses for ‘Lord of the Rings’ making up Hobbiton and 7 that were built for the more recent (but prequel) ‘The Hobbit’. The houses were laid out as Tolkien had described them in his map, all the buildings looked totally authentic and had been built out of permanent materials. Even the small details were included – wheel barrows, spades, tables…the only thing missing were the hobbits.
We were told that Peter Jackson had chosen the area because of the mountains that made up the area and because it already included a small lake/pond. We were also told every effort was made to ensure there were no errors that die hard fans would notice. This included building a tree above bag end and replacing the apples on an oak tree with plums. Also one scene involved Frodo looking at a sunset however the sun sets in the opposite direction in New Zealand and filming therefore took place during sunrise.
Finally we arrived at the bridge passed the mill where there was a noticeboard with various notices you would find outside a newsagents but obviously for Hobbits. Crossing over the bridge we arrived at the fully functioning Green Dragon pub which was built after filming as the original temporary building was burnt down in filming when Frodo has his premonition of Hobbiton being destroyed. Here I tried the specially local brewed pale ale, stout and apple cider.
Returning back to the hostel we had a few minutes to get ready before leaving for the Tamaki Maori cultural experience. The bus driver made us perform various fun actions such as pretending our bus was a waka and taught our chosen chief how he should act in the arrival ceremony.
Arriving at the camp we saw the traditional routine carried out to determine if the visitors were friend or foe and once accepted we entered the village. This was very hands on and we were shown various traditional games and activities. I was part of a group picked to be taught and to perform the Haka. Having seen this so many times being performed in the Rugby it was a special experience and even though it was difficult to remember the exact routine it still felt very powerful.
Next we watched our freshly cooked food be raised from the ground and then saw a stage show where all the activities we’d tried were performed correctly. Finally we had our big feast. The food, especially the vegetables, having been cooked underground left a natural smokey/earthy taste and stocking up on free food when I had the chance I had two helpings. The desert was pavlova and the chief joked that this had been invented in New Zealand to be enjoyed by Australians and the world. I also decided to drink the local tribes alcoholic cocktail drink which tasted of kiwi fruit.
on our return back to the hostel the driver encouraged us to have a sing song and we performed an absolutely legendary version of Bohemian Rhapsody from start to finish. Returning back to the hostel we had a few drinks at the bar before I said my goodbyes. I was heading back to Auckland whilst the others would carry on to the south Island.
There had been 50 people on the bus, far too many to know in a few days and it wasn’t really until my final day that the group stopped being cliquey but it had been fun a few days. But I’ve learnt to put myself out there, not necessarily to force a conversation, but to at least say hello. After all we’re all here to explore the same country whilst having a good time…