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Discovering New Zealand: On the Road with Kiwi Experience

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Place a group of strangers on a bus and mix well.

This is the recipe that New Zealand’s premier tour operator, Kiwi Experience, follow.

The flexible hop-on, hop-off guided bus service is a social petri dish, drawing travellers from every corner of the world for the ultimate road trip down under. 

I hopped on-board the Kiwi bus for a tour around the North Island to see what all the fuss was about.

I arrive in Auckland at midday, or at least my body does. My head presumably is 11,000 miles away, still lounging in a stuffy concourse in Manchester Airport.

Dazed and disoriented from the twenty-eight hour journey, I stumble out of the plane and fall onto the neon green tour bus. It’s a melting pot of languages and dialects: British, American, Canadian, German, Scandinavian, Brazilian. Some are fresh out of high school, others recent graduates and working professionals. Our driver is a laidback Kiwi, who punctuates his sentences with sweet as.

Hot Water Beach

We embark on our journey east to Hot Water Beach, and while I’d love to describe the breath-taking scenery flickering by like a film reel, my eyes remain closed for the majority of the drive, stubbornly stuck in British GMT. Kiwi Experience guarantee one night’s accommodation in each location at a discount price, so luckily there’s not too much for my addled head to think about.

Our first stop en route: Cathedral Cove, on the Coromandel peninsula. Accessible only by foot, boat or kayak, the stone archway is iconic, engrained in popular culture - from The Chronicles of Narnia to Macklemore’s ‘Can’t Hold Us’ video.

And it doesn’t disappoint: the soft rush of azure waters, the ebb and flow of waves, shrinking and rising along golden sands. I find myself sunbathing on the first day of New Zealand’s winter, which at a comfortable fifteen degrees, translates to peak summer back home.

 Cathedral Cove

Hot Water Beach, located on Mercury Bay on the east coast of the peninsula, is, as the name hints, situated on underground hot springs that filter up through the sand. Two hours either side of low tide, grab a spade and dig your own hot water spa pool, or so the tourist guidebooks profess. After an evening spent sampling New Zealand’s classiest boxed wine back at the hostel, we traipse to the beach in high spirits, despite the accompanying torrential downpour. You can take the girl out of the North but seemingly, the weather will still follow her.

The product of our labour? Our very own spa puddles.

Waitomo

Heading south, we arrive at Waitomo. Kiwi Experience offers exclusive activities discounts for its travellers, including tours of the world-famous glowworm caves.

Inside the Ruakuri and Aranui caves we trace our way through the catacombs, guided through the tunnels by a descendent of the Maori chiefs who originally explored the underground system. Stalactites and stalagmites drip like melting wax from the ceiling, throwing eerie shadows against the limestone walls.

We arrive at a tall cavern in the rock - the Cathedral. In the dark, our guide sings the national anthem in Maori. His voice, resounding against the rock formations is haunting, otherworldly. Renowned for its acoustics, this hollow beneath the ground has seen performances from the likes of New Zealand operatic star Kiri Te Kanawa.

On the lowest level of the cave system we chart a boat through the glowworm tunnels. The water level is high, until recently the route was closed due to flooding. The cave walls hold a myriad of constellations, pinpoints of light, multiplying in their thousands as my eyes grow accustomed to the dark.

Glow-worms. I catch my breath; it’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. A moment diminished slightly when our guide informs us that the iridescence is essentially glowworm poo.

 Waitomo Glowworm Caves

 

Rotorua

For some, visiting New Zealand boils down to one crucial locale: Hobbiton, located just outside Rotorua. While I like the Lord of the Rings, I’m no die-hard fan - I won’t be sprouting elf ears anytime soon. Yet, as we trace the winding path and turn into The Shire, I’m taken aback. There are no cardboard cut outs, or one-dimensional buildings propped up with plywood. We’ve taken a wrong turn, accidently stumbled through a screen, and into a film.

Tucked into the hillside are those iconic circular hobbit holes in a multitude of colours, gardeners tend to the set’s functional kitchen gardens, and over the bridge the Green Dragon Inn is a fully functioning pub- the attention to detail is faultless. An imperious oak tree stands guard at the peak of the hill, a synthetic structure, our guide informs us.

Peter Jackson decided the colour of its leaves was just a little too green, so the long-suffering props departments had to re-paint over a thousand of its silk leaves by hand. All for a few seconds of screen time. Ouch.

Bilbo's Hobbit Hole at Hobbiton

In the evening we arrive at Tamaki, a pre-European Maori village. As we enter the tribal land the forest is dark, dancing with shadows cast from fire torches and the lilt of traditional Maori song. We’re warmly welcomed and guided to huts beneath the canopy. At each, a tribe member shares an element of their culture- their face markings or tā moko, their traditional dress, war training, the haka.

Each is a window, both to the past and New Zealand’s multicultural present. The evening draws to a close in the wharenui, or meetinghouse, with a tradional Maori feast- the hangi. We indulge in succulent meats, fish and kumara chips, all cooked beneath the earth. And the odd bottle of wine too.

 

Taupo

A little jaded from the previous night’s revelry, we make a stop on our way to Taupo at the Te Puia geyser. Our Maori guide leads a tour around the geothermal valley, an expansive cratered landscape bubbling with mud and sulphur. While the scenery is spectacular, the odour does little to settle our stomachs.

Brows furrowed somewhat from the night before, there’s relief when our guide sets about the business of breakfast, gingerly lowering a basket of eggs into a hot pool to cook. It’s the same ritual her ancestors enacted hundreds of years ago.

Our second day in Taupo begins at six o’clock, heads lolling on a bus speeding toward the Tongariro National Park.

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is one of New Zealand’s most popular day walks; it stretches 12 miles and reaches 6,188 ft high. As the sun rises over the snowy moonscape, we are scaling the aptly named Devil’s Staircase, knock-kneed from the ice underfoot, and breathless from the grandeur of our surroundings, the world below shrinking far from view. Arduous and rewarding in equal measure, it’s by the far the most difficult climb I’ve faced.

But where in the UK could you slide down an icy sheer slope on your arse without being met by tight-lipped officials and a flurry of health and safety forms?

 The Crater of Mt Tongariro

 

River Valley

We journey south to the secluded oasis of River Valley for the night. An isolate lodge nestled in a deep gorge, there’s no urban city lights on the horizon, no groan of highways or phone reception either; we’re alone in the wilderness. The communal room is double height and wood panelled, a large wood fire flickers at its centre. Dinner is a sumptuous roast, with gravy and Yorkshire puddings, and the taste brings with it the nostalgia of home. As the night draws on we swap drinking games between cultures, and I think of the absurdity of drinking hot mulled wine in June.

Wellington

Our trip continues south to New Zealand’s chilled-out capital. I’m greeted by glassy skylines, an expansive harbour and rolling beaches along the Cook Strait.

A friend and I grab fish finger sandwiches and kumara chips from the Mt Vic Chippery and climb Brooklyn Hill as the sun sets. Huddled under a blanket at the peak, Wellington shines below. Across the water, flickering on the horizon like fireflies, are the lights of the South Island.

Sunset over Wellington

Base Hostel Wellington is our kip for the night. It’s modern, welcoming, a sanctuary for students and scrimpers. Our eyes light up as fistfuls of vouchers are thrust at us upon check-in: free drink at the bar, free breakfast, free burger- and a discounted bar crawl from the hostel.

The next day, bleary-eyed, we wander down to Capital Markets in Wellington’s bustling epicentre. We gauge ourselves on French toast, samosas, kebabs, any carbs within eyeline, until we’re ready to face the warm afternoon sun.

The national museum, Te Papa, is a stark departure from those tedious school trips and dusty galleries. There’s no glaring guards or officious capitalised signs- the museum is proudly interactive and inclusive. We cling to the walls of a simulation house as the floor shakes beneath our feet- an earthquake similar to the one that decimated areas of Christchurch in 2011. We take a walk through the narrative of Gallipoli, in the footsteps of those caught up in the tragic World War One battle.

At Wellington, we disperse. Some travellers head north to the Bay of Islands, most to the South, towards Queenstown. I begin my journey back up to Auckland with a heavy heart.

Kiwi Experience is for the wanderers, the restless, the 9-to-5 escapists. I feel the weight of the return ticket in my pocket and shift uneasily in my seat. I turn and look back at the undulating mountains unravelling behind me, struck by an insatiable erg to turn back. Something like wanderlust perhaps.


Shona is the winner of The National Student's Student Travel Writer 2015 competition and travelled round New Zealand with STA Travel and Kiwi Experience.

The winner's prize in the Student Travel Writer 2016 competition is a 12-day trip to Cambodia with Tripwire and Tru Travels . For more information and to enter click here.




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