I’m wrapping up week seven of my Aussie/Kiwi adventure and I’ve been keeping a mental list of “firsts” that I’ve experienced so far. Everything from leaving the US to blasting around a dirt racetrack in a right-hand-drive Toyota Celica to hopping on a bus full of complete strangers who would become the best travel mates. It has been an incredible ride with twists and turns that I could have never anticipated.
On Sunday I joined about 25 other backpackers for a tour across the north island of New Zealand. I would begin in Auckland and end in Wellington- a distance of about 400 miles (630 km). The bus was filled with people from Germany, Holland, France, the UK, Canada, the Netherlands, Sweden, Scotland, and America (I’ve been the only yank on both busses I’ve joined). It felt a bit like getting on the bus for the first day of school; a mixture of excitement, nervousness, and anticipation. Striking up a conversation is easy as most everyone is social and used to the routine of meeting strangers.
I chose to go with a company called Stray Travel because it’s supposed to be less of a party bus than some of the others but be aware that most everyone is still in their early 20s. The basic premise is pretty simple: you purchase a Stray package that matches the number of days you want to travel and includes activities and places that you’d like to experience. The price includes only transport but you get the benefit of having your accommodation scheduled (usually hostels), supermarket/food stops, and a driver knowledgeable about local activities. The biggest benefit, for me, was getting to meet a bunch of fun people who have a similar mindset to myself.
The hop-on/hop-off concept really appeals to me. I booked a seven-day tour that would get me from Auckland to Wellington in, you guessed it, seven days (if I chose to follow the given itinerary). The beauty is that you can hop off the bus and spend extra time in any spot that appeals to you. Just let your bus driver know, go to the website, update your itinerary and get picked up the next time a bus comes through that particular town. Several of us spent an extra day here in Rotorua and are getting picked up in about an hour to continue on. My new friend from the UK, Nic, plans to spend a week mountain biking the incredible trails of the nearby Whakarewarewa Forest.
Some highlights of the tour so far:
Hot Water Beach
I’ve never experienced anything like this. You wiggle your toes about three inches into the sand and the water is so hot you can barely stand it. People were using shovels to dig out their own personal spas.
A beautiful hike lead to a beach-level archway with waves crashing on the other side. During brief times when waves would recede you could scurry over to another beach and play in some of the roughest surf I’ve experienced. It was like going a round with Mike Tyson with a smile on your face.
A sleepy little town where some of the group took a surfing lesson while I relaxed on the beach. I’d probably love surfing, which is exactly why I didn’t take a lesson. I don’t need yet another activity to wish I could do more often (à la snowboarding).
Caving at Waitomo
Even though Mammoth Cave (the world’s longest known cave system) is practically in my back yard at home, I’ve never done any extreme caving. Some of the Stray travelers and I paid a small fortune to go on a three-hour guided tour that would involve rappelling down underground waterfalls, crawling through claustrophobic spaces, wading through frigid thigh-deep water, and rock climbing up slippery walls. Sound awesome? It was!
My new French friend Berty and I rented mountain bikes on our first day in Rotorua and headed to an area called The Redwoods. The trail network was huge, with tracks for horses, hikers, and bikes. I really enjoyed the bike-only trails that were run one way because you could bomb down them without worry of killing anyone but yourself. I only came off the bike once. 🙂 I’d describe the trails as somewhat like Brown County back home but designed with maximum fun in mind with big berms, fast rollers, and chunky technical sections. They were well marked with color-coded skill levels similar to a ski mountain.
On our second day in Rotorua (which was kind of like Gatlinburg) Berty and I were joined by Royd from Holland for a little street luging at Skyline. How do I describe this? Imagine gravity-powered go-karts that you race down a mountain, banging into each other and safety walls, barely able to catch your breath from laughter and thrill. The kart’s handlebars act as both steering and a brake when pulled back toward you. We started with the beginner track then did two runs each on intermediate and advanced. Thankfully a ski lift at the bottom returns drivers and carts back to the top for another run.
Lucky for us Berty brought along his GoPro and put together an awesome video!