The last post that I gave to you was probably a bit premature and poorly planned. I was a bit more emotional than I care to admit and I was definitely feeling a loss over leaving the tour. But it has been almost 48 since then and I am doing a hell of a lot better. Don’t get me wrong, I still miss the tour and everyone on it incredibly but I think that I have been able to come to pretty good terms as to what exactly my experience was, how it changed me, and the relationships I gained because of it.
So lets rewind.
The day is January 16, 2012. I set out to catch my flight much earlier than I thought I had to but it ended up being a good thing. Between not having ate anything out of too much excitement, not having a printed out ticket in advance of check-in, and that awkward moment when you’re told that the bag you were hoping to carry-on has to be checked I was incredibly glad that I had the extra time at the airport. I was already worked up enough about the trip the last thing that I needed was to feel rushed as I was walking through the airport and various security checkpoints. The plane ride was uneventful and very enjoyable. For my 11 hour flight across the Pacific Ocean my United Airlines plane didn’t have individual screens for personal viewing but for my 3 hour flight to Auckland my Air New Zealand plane not only had those personal screens but also served me a full meal, a snack, and two drinks (one was a free beer!). United you really need to step up your game. I was unaware that there was a two hour time difference between Melbourne and Auckland so I was a bit surprised when I arrived in New Zealand at midnight as opposed to 10:00pm (or 22:00 as they would say over here). This kind of ended the plan to find a hostel and have a few beers before going to bed but I wasn’t too attached to that idea in the first place so it was okay. I found my way to downtown Auckland via an airport shuttle and stayed at Nomad’s hostel that was just a few blocks away from where I would meet my bus in the morning.
The day is January 17, 2012. I got a few hours of sleep before waking up at 8 to give me two hours before meeting the bus. Whether the lack of sleep was because I was so excited or because I was sleeping next to a girl who snored quite loudly I never really decided. After I shower I walk down to the main street where I will meet the Flying Kiwi bus and stop into an Equinox coffee to wake up and gain some semblance of direction from the friendly staff and customers. With their help I manage to find a pharmacy where I buy all the liquids that I hadn’t brought (sunscreen, insect repellant, etc.) Once this is done I wander down to the docks where my itinerary says I am supposed to meet the bus. After about 10 minutes of waiting and not seeing a single person when a backpack I walk inside and ask if this is the address I think it is. Fortunately, it was the address that I thought it was but unfortunately it wasn’t where I was supposed to meet the bus. For the next 20 minutes I am hit back and forth along Quay Street (pronounced Kay Street) like a ping pong ball by various tourist establishments until finally I get to the correct meeting point. When I get there I stand next to a bench where a blonde woman is sitting. She politely smiles and offers me the seat next to her but seeing more people approaching I decline. I would later learn that this woman’s name is Alex and over the next two weeks her and I would become bus, walking, and drinking buddies. Alex initially tells me that she isn’t on the same tour as I am but then gets to awkwardly walk past me when she finds out that indeed she had the name wrong (it was a lot funnier when you were there). The bus pulls up and out hops our tour guide Holly. Now to put words to this character would not be doing it justice but I will try anyways. Holly is a barefoot ball of energy and optimism. Nothing is too challenging, complicated, or difficult and everything is only slightly uphill, easier than anything else you will do, and the time of your life. She was great. Behind her comes Sugar Daddy, the bus driver. That really isn’t his name but he would later pick up that nickname from a slightly drunken bus during a wilderness camp. The name everyone uses for Sugar Daddy is Steely but that was not nearly as much fun to say. As Steely throws our backpacks under the bus we timidly file our way up the stairs as Holly checks us in. I end up sitting next to another guy from the States whose name is Phil. Phil is an English teacher in Vietnam and a great guy who hides a very good musical talent, LOTR passion, and interesting sense of humor behind shyness. Behind me sits Rachel, who would quickly become a close friend of mine through her hysterical antics and carefree ways. We leave Adelaide and are not gone for more 40 minutes when we have to turn back to pick up a girl who made the same mistake that Alex did at first. Now that was an awkward walk up the bus aisle. We drive up to the Coromandel peninsula past some beautiful scenery for a few hours before the bus dumps me and everyone else off so we can see Cathedral Cove. I opt to do the sea kayak to the cove so myself and 6 others walk up the beach while the others begin their trek on foot. The sea kayak was a lot of fun. The weather wasn’t the greatest and Phil got a bit queezy in some parts, but all in all it was a great experience. The rough ocean was very impressive and we got to paddle around some very unique islands. When we got to the cove the rest of the group had already moved on but while our kayak guides made us coffee we were able to walk around, take pictures, and if we were brave enough walk into the frigid water. Once our coffees had been finished, cheesy photos had been taken, and everything packed up we paddled back to our starting place and were shuttled off to the campsite. I remember being very intimidated and cold when I walked up to the campsite that first night. Everyone was a stranger and while they were extremely friendly there was definitely a sense of preexisting relationships there. I made the most of it though and would like to think that I was outgoing enough to be considered a presence but not so much that I was overeager. It was a very eventful evening as I did my best to take in all the processes of making dinner, cleaning up, setting up camp, and everything else. Around sunset I followed the crowd to the next destination known as Hot Water Beach. As we walked up to the hot spring (which would come to the surface if you dug out the sand above it, creating pools to sit in that varied from cold to scalding), Holly pointed out how to find a ‘rip’ in the ocean tide. There were two examples of rips on this particular beach and Holly made it quite clear that they really were as dangerous as they are made out to be and that to test your luck would be the stupidest thing you could possibly do. I listened. For the next few hours I bounced around from pool to pool trying to avoid the ones that had gone cold or would singe your skin. It was a delicate science but we got the hang of it pretty quick. That was a really great ice breaker for the group and I soon found myself interacting a lot with Andy, who would later become my go-to guy for beer drinking, adrenaline rushes, and everything else no one else would do with me. We walked back from the beach in the pitch dark and I realized how quickly my first day had gone by. I ended up tenting with Phil so we got our stuff into the tent and did our best to get comfortable. Since the line for the regular bathrooms was out the door I decided to be a rebel and take a family bathroom all to myself for a few minutes to try and wash as much sand off as possible (I still woke up with it all over my tent). I stayed up for a little while talking to Alex, Claire (who is Andy’s girlfriend and another part of my closer groups of friends), and a few other people while they finished their wine.
The day is January 18, 2012. When you sleep in a tent, there is very little you can do to avoid hearing the sounds of camp around you or the glaring sunlight that comes through at 7am. When you are on a Flying Kiwi trip this turns into a good thing because usually the bus is packed and rolling out of camp at around 830-9am. At this point I was still on my early morning sleeping schedule though so I didn’t have too much trouble with it. I broke down our tent, grabbed some yogurt and cereal for breakfast, and jumped onto the bus as it headed out to Whiritoa beach (Holly’s favorite beach on the whole tour). When we got there we were given the option of having a coffee or sprinting to Whiritoa because we were a bit close on time and the walk was longer than Holly remembered. I opted for the sprint which ended up being a hilly, barefoot run through a trail along a seaside forest and cow field. It was worth it though when I came around that hilltop to see the secluded beach open up in front of me. I ran around the beach for a few minutes (I got their early because I ran there with Holly) and took a lot of pictures of the same thing (will be posted soon) before dashing back to the bus. After a few hours of driving we arrived in Rotorua where a big group of us decided to do the downhill luge (any of you been to Gatlinburg? just like that). I ended up running most of them with Matteus, who was a quiet, thrill-seeking Swede and turned out to be great comical relief at multiple times during the trip. We had been told by Holly that the place we were to meet the bus was a short 10 minutes walk so we took out time and got ice cream (well, I got a huge steak sandwich) before starting the journey to the iSite where the bus was. This was our first true experience with Holly’s over-optimism. The 10 minute walk turned into a 45 minute journey across the entire town. But we survived it and actually weren’t even that late! A short drive later we had arrived at the first wilderness camp of my trip at Lake Rerewhakaaitu. It turned out to be a really great campsite. The lake was beautiful and the weather was great so despite the fact I knew I couldn’t shower I went for a run until I was forced to turn back by overgrown trail. This next tip is for anyone who finds themselves in the middle of a foreign country with complete strangers without any beer. If you return sweaty, scratched, out of breath, and play your puppy-dog eyes just right your wish will be granted. At least mine was (this is a joke by the way, most people will want to get as far away from you as possible if you use this technique) Looking back, I would say this is the moment when the group of people I would hang out with for the rest of the trip began to form. Andy offered me a beer over dinner and they just kind of kept coming. So we sat around and talked for hours (since there was nothing else to do) about anything and everything; Steely and Holly’s sexual tension, what people’s travel plans were after this, and everything in between. We had a few encounters with some of the most massive beetles I have ever seen and by a few I mean that they were everywhere. I ended up swatting one of them straight onto Alex on accident but it still was pretty hilarious. Given that our camp was in the middle of nowhere and the weather had been great all day this was the first time that I got to see the New Zealand stars. That night wasn’t the best that I would see while I was there but it was still breathtakingly beautiful and humbling. A few people got their iPhones out and used a star application that could tell us what all the constellations were in the sky above us. It was really cool and I did what I could to remember them but I didn’t catch a lot. We all headed to bed when we realized how early of a morning we had the next day.
The day is January 19, 2012. Another early morning for the bus tour. At this point it is no longer a surprise to break camp and be on our way by 9am but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the waking up gets any easier. We back track to the thermal pools of Rotorua when we visit Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland. This was originally going to be an activity that I skip but the pressure from both Holly and the rest of the tour has me walking through the gates anyways. The walking paces and interest level of those who went into the park designate the group and this is where my group of friends, who would later be dubbed “The Group,” takes shape not only as drinking friends but also as walking friends. The park was really interesting. Once you got out of the “Oh, another boiling hot pool of water” state of mind it actually quite impressive. We did the entire park and I am still convinced that the last pool we went to is where Nickelodeon got their slime from. When everyone had finished the tour we made a quick stop at Huka Falls which, when pronounced by Holly, sounded like Hooker Falls and made even the oldest member of the tour snicker a little bit. The Falls were impressive but they aren’t your stereotypical falls. Essentially, they are the result of a massive amount of water flowing through a very tight space. There is very little drop to them but you definitely wouldn’t want to try and swim it. Although I enjoyed these first two stops of our day I found myself constantly looking towards the afternoon because in just a few short hours I was going to jump out of a plane. On Holly’s advice, I had gone ahead and booked the skydive early because you were never sure what kind of weather you were going to get in New Zealand and if you really wanted to do it then you couldn’t be picky about what location it was at. So while the rest of the bus went on to the campsite I stayed behind with Andy, Alex, Mattheus, Benny, Jannis, Alex, Phil, and Christy. After losing Phil we climbed onto the skydive shuttle and we were off. When we got to Taupo Skydive it wasn’t very long before we were up into the plane. The most unsettling part of the experience was that they didn’t make you pay until you had landed. That wasn’t exactly a confidence booster. We all decided to go with the 15,000ft jump which would give us about a minute of freefall followed by a few minutes of parachuting down. The day was overcast and there was a solid cloud cover as far as the eye could see. I was a bit bummed out about it at first but it actually gave a really cool feeling to the jump. It took about 20 minutes to get to 15,000ft but only a few minutes for all of us to jump/fall out of the plane after that. I was the last one to go. Before Alan, who was my tandem partner, threw us towards the ground he made me look over my shoulder at a camera. Before I could look back from the picture he had pushed us out of the plane and we were on our way. That’s twice that I have fallen for the tricks of the tandem jump. Sneaky bastards. The freefall was intense. They say you get up to speeds of 200 km/hr during the freefall and all we could see was this blanket of clouds. Before we jumped, we had been informed that they would pull parachutes at about 4,000ft and that is right where the cloud layer was. So there we are falling into these clouds where we can see nothing of the ground below us and right when we come out all of Taupo opens up before us as we pull our parachutes and slow down. We had come down over the lake, which dominated the view at first. Once I had gotten over what I had just done I was able to see the entire city stretching along the coast and up into the mountains behind it. It was gorgeous, even in the gray glow of the day. When we landed we were made to do one final cheesy video and then we paid for whatever photos or movies we wanted to take back with us. A couple minutes wait and we were taken back to the campsite, where I experienced my first upgrade (jazz hands!). I had three motivations to upgrade, which essentially means that instead of sleeping in a tent I would share a hostel-esque room with bunked beds. My first motivation was that the tents were uncomfortable and I had discovered a slight hole in the bottom of mine, the second motivation was that it was very cheap to upgrade for the one night, and the third was that we were going to be doing a serious day hike the next day starting at 5am and I didn’t want to deal with taking down a tent that early in the morning. I hopped online for a few minutes as well to make sure everyone knew I was alive then enjoyed a BBQ and a few beers before calling it a night.
The day is January 20, 2012. My alarm goes off at 4:30am and I as I walk outside I am so relieved that I didn’t pitch a tent that night. The group is completely dead as we shuffle around the breakfast table, fill up our water bottles, and retrieve the sandwiches we had made the night before for our lunch. When the shuttle comes to pick us up we hand over the $20 fee and sleepily take our seats. A few swigs on a Coke has me feeling much more awake and by the time we get to the start of the trek everyone has livened up a bit. We queue up for the bathroom, take our touristy photos by a few signs, and silently pick out who we want to spend the next 7 hours walking with. When that is all done we set out on what is supposed to be one of the world’s Top 10 day hikes; the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. I think that when we started we were attributing the chilly, foggy weather to the New Zealand morning but we would later find out that this was not the case. All of my photos turned out bleak and kinda creepy because of the constant fog we were in during our ascent. We made the best of it though and about twenty minutes into the hike the walking groups had been established through natural tendancies. I ended up with Alex, Andy, Claire, and Rachel (The Group). The walk started off easy enough with only slight uphills and good terrain. We made great time to the first checkpoint but not before Alex and Rachel made a bathroom stop less than 200m away from the toilet that we didn’t know was there. To get me back for laughing at her, Rachel then decided to get a few candid photos of me (but not Andy!) doing what boys do best off to the side of the long drop. Classic. From that point on, the walk just got rougher and rougher. We were told to keep our eyes out for Mt. Doom (called Mount Ngauruhoe in real life) but we walked right past it and never saw it because it was so foggy. I think I have a pretty good idea of where we passed it thought because the gravel and rocks were so similar to what Frodo and Sam went through in the movie. Oh well, conquering Mordor will have to wait for my next trip to New Zealand. The climb got really rough at this point. We were either climbing hundreds of stairs at a time or jumping from slate rock to slate rock. The mist made it slippery and as we neared the summit the winds were strong enough that you needed to brace yourself against them. It was awesome. We stopped a few times for snacks (Oreos and gummy worms!), bathroom breaks (some of which were more public than others cough cough Rachel cough cough), and to put some warmer clothes on but for the most part we were of the mindset that we all just wanted to get to the other side of the mountain. So we did. When we reached the top it was a really great feeling and I was really bummed that the only view we got was whatever was 5 feet in front of us. The descent was a bit more entertaining. At the very top it was about 7 inches of ash/silt/sand that you sunk into whenever you took a step. You could approach it carefully and try to avoid sliding or you could embrace it and run down it with a slide that you told yourself you were controlling but in reality weren’t. Guess which one I did? As we went further and further down the weather started to clear up and by the time we had reached the last check point it was actually sunny and pleasant out. We took a long break to eat, rest, and empty our boots of whatever had crept into them during the walk so far before leaving for the car park. This final stage seemed like it lasted forever. We started off walking through a field but then descended into what could basically be considered rainforest. When we finally emerged we were greeted by applause from those who had finished before us and then sat around waiting for the bus to show up. The sense of achievement from that hike was a really great one with the only downside being the weather. My day only got better though when Holly informed us that we were getting a free upgrade that night courtesy of Flying Kiwi and that rather than cook dinner they were going to buy us all fish and chips, too! We got to choose one other thing besides the piece of fish and I got a ‘hotdog’ which sparked quite a big discussion between Alex and I about what exactly a hotdog is. Now, we don’t need to hash that out all over again but lets just say that in the States a hotdog means something very different than what it does in the UK. But I would have taken a UK hotdog over this New Zealand hotdog any day. It was one of the grosser things that I had ever tasted and every time I think of a corn dog now I cringe. The free upgrade was actually very nice because I got my own room which let me repack everything that had kind of just been thrown around in tents up to that point. The lady who gave us our rooms was a lovely old woman named Deb who was funny, laid back, and probably the most forgetful person I have ever come across. After dinner the site built a fire which we all sat around for awhile talking and drinking. My first Maori experience came this night when a very drunken one came to sit with our group. He explained that he had been drinking since 2pm and that was about all we got from his drunken ramblings. That and Andy’s attempts at opening two beer bottles at once made the night very entertaining but we soon realized that we had been up for 18 hours and decided to call it a night.
The day is January 21, 2012. We wake up at a reasonable time and then get a group photo in front of the North Island bus taken by our lovely host Deb. Then we ride to Wellington where we get a half day to explore, shop, eat, etc. Since the weather was looking a bit foreboding “The Group” opts out of a hike and decides to grab some food, go to the famous Te Papa Museum, and walk up and down Cuba Street for awhile. Before we set out, we unload the bus of all our gear and pile it high in a hostel room that Holly booked for just the occasion. We had to do this because that evening we would be crossing from the North to the South island and we would be getting a new bus on the South island. We take a leisurely stroll down the harbor where we laugh at some people trying to awkwardly paddle surf (we weren’t sure what to call it). After walking away from a few breakfast places we decide to settle on a coffee and make our way to the famous Te Papa Museum, which is the capital’s free entry museum. I was pleasantly surprised by the museum and what it had to offer. None of us had had much of a Maori experience yet so we went to that exhibit first. We spent a few hours up there but kind of drained our enthusiasm more quickly than we expected. After hurrying through a few more exhibits (one which had you jump onto a platform to see how high of an earthquake you could cause) we found a deli near Cuba Street for lunch. While we were there we saw almost everyone else from the tour which was funny because out of the entire city of Wellington most of us ended up at the exact same place by complete chance. Establishing our game plan over lunch we set off with deadly purpose towards Cuba Street, the main shopping sector of Wellington. It was a really cool place that had been completely blocked off from car traffic and the stores were interesting to look in. But even the most intriguing stores get bland after awhile and I found myself quite bored with a few hours left before we had to meet up with Holly. I was also on my own, as the rest of the group was interested in a different type of store and much more enthusiastic about shopping. So I wandered around this Cuba Street district for awhile before going back to what I thought we had established as our meeting point. Emphasis on the thought. With about 40 minutes before we had to meet back at the hostel, I departed assuming that they others had gone ahead back or I had just missed them. But thankfully Alex sees me a few blocks past where I had been waiting and we all reconnect in time for a last second shopping spree, sprint session through the streets, and two minute McDonald’s run all before getting our bags from the room on time (one of the few times no one was late). After a short shuttle to the Inter-islander ferry, we get on board and dig in for the three hour trip. The ferry was actually quite enjoyable. We got pretty nice seats and had a great time taking photos out on the deck so the time passed pretty quickly. When we disembarked, Holly had arranged for a shuttle to take us to a local hostel where we threw down our bags and then headed right back out to a local bar. This was truly great fun. A bunch of people ended up coming out and the locals were great fun to interact with. At one point, I was challenged to arm wrestle a 50+ year old mechanic. Needless to say he destroyed me but it was still a pretty funny moment for everyone. Soon after the music started going and a makeshift karaoke session began. Maren, a German girl who got on the trip when I did, challenged me to a drinking contest at some point in the night that I’m not sure she would do again if she had the option. All in all, the night was incredibly fun and one of my favorites of the trip. On our way back to the hostel we found a steamroller that we climbed on for awhile before laying in a field staring at the stars. Everyone slept well that night.
Well, that is it for the North Island section of my trip. It was only the beginning third of my trip but looking back holds a lot of great memories.
If you want to see more pictures, then go to my photo website. There is a link on my home page or you can follow this one below…
Writing this has made me somewhat nostalgic for that excitement of meeting everyone for the first time and developing those relationships. I know that I am a better person because of this experience. I will be updating you on the rest of my trip around the South Island subsequently, so stay tuned!