New Zealand – The Land of the Long White Cloud – Middle-Earth
So there I was, ready to see what New Zealand had to offer. I heard many great things and having seen the Lord of the Rings movies and loving them I had a feeling I was going to like the place.
I went with the Kiwi Experience tour group to check out the place. It’s aimed at young people aged 18-30something’s that want to explore, meet new people and have a bit of a laugh along the way. I was travelling on my own and new to the whole travel thing so going with a tour like this was perfect.
I hopped on the bus outside of the YHA hostel in Wellington on a brisk Saturday morning in December of 2012. I was greeted by the bus driver, Dylan. He ended up being the driver for the majority of my trip which was great. He was good man for a joke, bit of commentary about NZ and quizzes which is exactly what you want for the long bus journeys.
So off we went to take the ferry to the south island. The ferry ride itself takes about 3 hours from Wellington to the small town of Picton and costs between $60-70 NZD. This cost isn’t included in the trip so be wary if you do it yourself. The first half of the crossing is grand but fairly ordinary while being at sea but as you get back to land you pass through the Marlborough Sounds and you get to see the beautiful landscape that Nz is all about.
Our first stop was the seaside town of Kaiteriteri. It provides access to the Abel Tasman National Park. An absolute gem of a place. One of the good things about the Kiwi bus is that it brings you to the majority of places you want to see, guarantees accomodation for the first night of your stay (further nights need to be booked yourself) and offers things to do when you are there. They do all the planning for you so all you just have to do is kick back and relax.
There is hiking or kayaking on offer in Kaiteriteri. I didn’t do either which I regret now but I was happy to chill out on the beach for the day. I hadn’t seen the sun for a while so felt I needed it.
I stayed one night at the Kaiteri Lodge. Dorm rooms cost $30 a night which was the going rate for the majority of hostels through the trip. It was a cool place allowing for people to be social and get to know each other a bit more.
We started to make our way down the rugged west coast stopping at Lake Rotoiti, Greymouth and Westport.
The region is known for its difficult weather conditions and measures its yearly rainfall in metres rather than centimetres. However the sun gods were kind. Travelling for hours on a bus each day can get quite tiring for even the most excited of travellers but getting to stop off at places like this really made it worthwhile.
Christmas was approaching. It would be the first one away from home. I would spend Christmas day at Rainforest Backpackers in the foothills of the Franz Josef Glacier. The hostel was packed with people from all over the world.
Christmas Ham was served, drinks were had and everyone was getting on great. Suddenly later in the evening everyone started to disappear back to their rooms or to some place quiet. For a second I wasn’t sure what was going on but then it hit me. It was Christmas morning back in Europe and everyone went to Skype their families and see them opening their presents. I went off and did the same.
The following day I booked a trip called Ice explorer with Franz Josef Glacier Guides to help brush off the cobwebs of the night before. This tour cost approximately $300 NZD.
A helicopter brought us on a 5 minute trip to a safe point on the glacier. We put on all the safety gear, big jackets and cramp-ons and were shown around the glacier for about 3 hours. It was quite a cool experience to be wandering around on a glacier, made even more so as only a few days earlier I was lying out on a golden sandy beach enjoying the sunshine. New Zealand provides massive variety in it’s landscape where you could be on a beach in the sun one day or on top of a glacier another.
A great day on the ice was made even better by this sunset. My love for New Zealand was starting to grow more and more each day
The next stop on the trip was the lake side town of Wanaka. It’s one of the most picturesque places in all of New Zealand and that is saying a lot. It is an outdoor adventure paradise. There is easy access to Mount Aspiring National Park to go hiking, lots of mountain biking tracks, canyoning and in the winter time skiing and snowboarding. So I weighed up all the different activities to do and decided, “sure feck it, I to go for a skydive”.
The kiwi experience allows you to do a skydive in a number of different locations around the country. It depends a lot on the weather so if you really want to do it in a certain place, keep your fingers crossed for a sunny day. I would say that if you are offered the chance to do it and the weather is good, just go for it wherever you might be.
I did the skydive with 4 other people and we were all really excited/nervous about it. We were brought to a tiny airfield just outside of the town. We went through the little safety briefing all the while thinking “feck, I am about to jump out of a plane” but you just go with it. You put on all the gear and they strap you to some fella that will hopefully guide you safely down to the ground. We were bundled onto the plane and took off. The nerves were starting the jangle as we approached our jumping height of 10,000 ft. One by one I could see each person disappear out of the plane and with each person gone I was ushered closer and closer to the door. Then it finally came to me. The guy tapped me on the chest and off we went.
All you can really do for the first few seconds is scream and shout as hard as you can. The free fall from 10,000 ft lasts about 30 seconds but felt more like 30 minutes. Then the parachute opens and instead of being whooshed back up higher which is what you think happens from watching it on tv, you slow down and just float around and ease towards the ground. Such a good feeling with amazing views all around.
The plane taking off before my jump
Then there was Queenstown!!
This is the place I had been looking forward to most prior the trip and the place I had planned to stay longest. Queenstown is similar to Wanaka but is a little bit louder and offers a few more things to do. The Remarkables mountain range adds the backdrop to the town next to Lake Wakatipu.
You could literally spend a few weeks here and not have enough time to do all the activities available. Some of the highlights for me being the walks around the town notably Queenstown hill which gives you a nice workout and some beautiful views, the gondola and luge for another bit of adrenaline, Fergburger (one of the best burgers ever in the world), trip to Milford Sounds and frisbee golf as everyone likes to do free/cheap stuff.
View atop Queenstown Hill.
It was approaching new year’s eve so a lot of the backpackers in the region based themselves there for that time. I decided it would be a great way to end the year by doing a bungee jump. There are 3 bungee jump places around Queenstown; The Kawarau Bridge which allows you to dip your head into the waters below, the Ledge bungy that overlooks the town accessible by the Gondola ride, and the Nevis which is the biggest of the lot and the one I went for.
The site is about 45 minutes from the town and you are driven out there in 4×4 buses. The journey seemed a lot longer. I had some nerves before the skydive but the thoughts of the bungee was really making me sweat. I made the mistake of watching videos of bungee jumps gone bad on the bus ride over, it only made me feel worse. There was a group of about 20 of us that were doing it together. One Irish guy that couldn’t do it as he hurt his neck came along for moral support. His aim was to try and get someone to back out. (He was very close to succeeding)
We arrived at the destination and saw a small prefab type building suspended up high in the middle of the gorge. “We had to jump off of that!!” I remember thinking to myself. It sat suspended 134 metres above the river below. Not for the faint of heart.
We all made our way to the jump point. No one wanted to go first but eventually one guy from England finally found some courage and went for it. The rest of us thought “Good luck to you mate”. We all looked on as he was made ready, bungee attached and brought right to the edge. They made the countdown and he went for it. Lots of screaming and cheering from him and the onlookers. When he was brought back up he had a big smile from ear to ear. It was the exact same for everyone that followed.
Half the group that had completed their jump were laughing and joking while the rest of us still waiting to do it had anxious looks on our faces fearing the dangers of what might happen.
It finally came to my turn. They put you in a seat while they strap you in. My heart was racing, sweaty palms and all that. They stood me up and walked me to the edge. They threw the rope over the edge and I was so close to going with it. I had to take a second to get my balance, a quick pose for the camera and then the countdown again, “3, 2, 1 and jump”.
The feeling is sheer elation with a surge of pure adrenaline rushing through the body. 8.5 seconds of free fall followed by a little bit of bouncing up and down. What a rush. People often compare skydive and bungee and ask which one was better. For me it was the bungee. Having to jump off the ledge on your own with just a rope tied around your legs is a crazy experience.
After a few adrenaline packed days, it was time to relax a little bit more. Milford Sounds Explorer was the perfect way to do just that. It’s an additional trip with Kiwi Experience to do while in Queenstown to travel to a pretty special place. It is a day trip from Queenstown but its a very long day. If you aren’t prepared to be sitting on a bus for 4-5 hours one way then this isn’t the trip for you. Like the ferry ride between the islands, the first half of the journey is pretty non-eventful but then you pass into a part of New Zealand called Fiordland and I will just say make sure you are awake for this bit.
On arrival in Milford Sounds there was a trip around on a boat for about 45 minutes to an hour. The weather can be hit and miss even during the summer so its always good to pack the rain jacket and hat just in case. Unfortunately the rain didn’t stop the whole day I was but it didn’t dampen our spirits.
My time in Queenstown was coming to an end but I knew I would have to come back. It still is to this day one of my favourite places in the World.
The trip was nearing the end with my last stop being the city of Christchurch. Not many people on the trip were going there due to the Earthquake that hit the city at the start of 2011. It put a lot of people off as they didn’t know what there was to do there.
My time with the Kiwi Experience was over. I had met a lot of cool people along the way and was sad to say goodbye but was always excited for the next part of the adventure.
For me, I was going to catch up with one of my good mates from home. It’s a funny thing being away from friends. We often lose touch and find it hard to stay in contact when we move away or are travelling but its a sign of real friendship to be able to fall back into the normal habits after being away from each other for so long. The lads, eh?
With the city rebuilding and getting back on its feet we looked at things to do just outside the city. We made our way to the small town Akaroa which is about an hour and half drive from Christchurch. We went for a cycle around the town which was once a French settlement. The sun was shining, ice-cream was eaten, it was a great day altogether.
Following a few relaxing days, I felt the need for my adrenaline kick again. And being in Nz it was never too far away. My friend and I decided to go to Adrenaline Forest just outside of Christchurch. It is a purpose built wooded area with ladders, swings, zip lines and all that sort of stuff. There are 3 locations in Nz, one being in Christchurch and the two others in the North Island close to Wellington and the Bay of Plenty further north.
So we took on the challenge. You start off at the easier level and work your way higher and higher into the trees. You always feel secure with the harness on but it doesn’t stop you from holding on for dear life being up so high. It makes for a very good upper body workout.
The South Island in just under 2 weeks was a rushed trip but often when you are tight on time you have to make sacrifices. I would have spent more time in Abel Tasman and Wanaka given the chance again. It gives me a reason to go back there.
The Kiwi Experience allowed me to cram as much in as I could in a short space of time. In hindsight if I had the chance to do it all again I would grab a few mates and rent a camper van to explore the country. It is a little bit more effort but gives you much more freedom and independence to see and do exactly what you want.
So get up and go and start Backpackieing for yourself 🙂