As soon as we started to remember enough Spanish to easily get around South America, we found ourselves heading away from the continent and toward English-speaking New Zealand. After 3 months of making our way up and down South America (well, up, down, up, down then back up) we had honed our vagabonding skills and were excited to tackle a new, and entirely different, continent.
For the first 2 weeks of our month in Oceania, we decided to take the Kiwi Experience through New Zealand’s North Island followed by it’s South Island until Queenstown, where we plan to rent a campervan for a two-week solo trip around the bottom of the South Island. The Kiwi Experience is a hop-on-hop-off bus that takes you to all of the key destinations in the country, allowing you to hop off for as many days as you want and then hop back on a bus when you’re ready to head to the next spot.
Boarding the Experience felt somewhat like heading out to summer camp: we were with 52 other 18-26 year olds (though admittedly most fell in the 18-22 range) and were “supervised” by our driver / tour guide Simon (aka “Si”). Embracing (/forced to embrace) the youthful atmosphere, we hopped aboard and, during the following 7 days as our bright green bus zig-zagged down the North Island, explored:
- Hot Water Beach, where we made personal jacuzzis by digging pools into the beach that were then filled with steaming hot water heated from underground vents (and then struggled to get comfortable between the freezing and boiling water). The jacuzzis made for the perfect setting to break the ice with our new bus mates.
- Waitomo, where we spent 2 hours underground, tubing our way down pitch-black caves with glow-worms overhead lighting the way. These “worms” (really maggots, but worms is a more tourist-inviting term) generate light through a bioluminescent digestive process lighting the cave with limo-like mood-lighting.
- Rotorua, where we explored the geothermal activity around the town and relaxed in the Polynesian Spa, which uses the town’s geothermal activity to heat up the spa pools.
- Taupo, where we spent one day sailing on a lake the size of Singapore and watching the sun set, and the following day hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. The 19.4 kilometer hike offers up an incredible landscape sculpted by the area’s volcanic and geothermal activity. We also opted to detour up 2,300 meter-high Mount Ngauruhoe, (better known as Mount Doom for Lord of the Rings fans), which is an active volcano that last erupted in the 1970s; the STEEP hike afforded us an unobstructed view of Taupo’s stunning scenery.
Along the way, we also had time to admire the rolling green hills & mountains from the bus windows, explore the lush River Valley while staying in a 32-person cabin with our bus mates (and thus getting to know them much, much better) and stroll through Wellington, New Zealand’s capital, before hopping aboard the ferry to the South Island. We hear the South Island is even more beautiful than the North, so we can’t wait to see what’s in store for us further South.
Things To Do:
- Auckland has enough to keep you busy for a few days, if the weather is nice. The city, a mix between British and Asian cultures, offered the Auckland Art Gallery (a free museum), Albert Park (a calm central park) and a nice pier (where we happened to stumble upon Japan Day). There are also two great ferry rides: one to Devonport, where you can walk around historical buildings and up dormant volcanoes, and another to Waiheike Island, where you can visit wineries. We heard Waiheike is an awesome day trip, but unfortunately the weather didn’t cooperate for us.
- Hot Water Beach and Waitomo both offer unique stopping points on your way down the North Island. We definitely recommend a stop at the Waitomo glow-worm caves, and recommend a multi-hour tubing tour versus the walkways through the caves, which we heard aren’t too exciting (although they do keep you warm and dry…).
- While the geothermal pools in Rotorua are not a must see, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in Taupo definitely is. The trek is consistently ranked as one of the world’s best day hikes and did not disappoint. We were lucky to have a clear day, so hiking Mount Doom was a no-brainer. Be warned: the 3-hour round trip hike up the mountain is difficult. The volcano is so steep that we were essentially on hands and knees crawling up rocks, and on the way down used our shoes like skis as we skid down the steep dusty & rocky slope.
- Wellington seemed like a cool city, though we only had a few hours to explore. With more time, we would have explored the museums and strolled up Mount Victoria at sunset. The ocean-side city is definitely a site to see.
Accommodations: There are ample hotel & hostel options along the way.
Days Stayed / Recommended: Many vagabonders that we ran into in South America told us to spend more time on New Zealand’s South Island than the North Island, which is why we opted for 1 week up North and 3 down South. Our 1 week in the North Island offered ample time to explore the island’s stunning scenery, but less time to enjoy it’s cities. We think it’s possible to enjoy Auckland in 1-3 days in order to take advantage of the nearby islands and Wellington in 1-3 in order to enjoy the city’s many offerings. Additional time is required if you want to head north from Auckland to explore the scenic Bay of Islands.
Getting There/Away: There are a number of options to drive through the North Island: local buses, hop-on-hop-off buses, campervans (i.e. a small RV) and cars. The Kiwi Experience so far has proven to be a great way to see the key sites while keeping our travels a bit more social (though as we are close to the oldest on the bus, we sometimes feel more like counsellors than campers). Cars & campervans afford more freedom as you can choose your route at will. There are both paid and free car parks / campsites around the island for those in a campervan or car who don’t prefer a night in a hotel.
Local Food: We haven’t found too many unique offerings in New Zealand so far, but have enjoyed meat pies (bringing us back to our life in London) and Lemon & Paeroa, a NZ favorite soda (we think it tastes like a more lemony Mountain Dew, but locals love it).