This. Place. Is. Magic. This past week has been astounding – an absolute whirlwind of gorgeous postcard views, fantastic new friends from around the world, and a wealth of new experiences. Auckland was a fine town and all, but I’m glad I got out of there, because WOW – the rest of the North Island has already blown me away (and I’ve been more excited about the upcoming South Island from day one)!
As I mentioned in a prior post, I’ve been riding a ‘hop on, hop off’ bus with a company called Stray Travel. The idea is simple, but genius: you choose from their many available travel routes, which determines the places you’ll visit along the way. Each location offers a number of experiences and activities, which you can choose to book while on the bus (with group discount rates). Along the way, you can choose to hop off at any given destination for as long as you like – stay for an extra day or an extra 6 months – and then hop right back on the next available bus and continue along your route; they run a regular continuous schedule.
The primary advantage of this system – aside from the incredible convenience and ease of travel – is the awesome group of people that you meet. The model attracts a lot of solo travelers like myself, and is predominately composed of 20-somethings; the bus I’ve been on has ranged from 18 to mid-40s. Interestingly enough, the ratio skews something like 70-30 female-to-male, which is perfectly fine by me.
I’ve met some really awesome people so far. For some reason unbeknownst to me, about 70% of the crowd seems to be either Dutch or German, so I’ve got lots of new European friends to visit in the summertime. Other awesome people I’ve met on the bus have hailed from Switzerland, the UK, the States, Canada, Japan, and Australia. The drivers are all super cool, fun folks – and they all have goofy nicknames. The driver I’ve stuck with exclusively so far, Rolex, is absolutely hilarious – he and I have become friends over many rounds of beer pong, volleyball, pickup basketball, and just shooting the breeze. I plan to hop off in Wellington in a few days, and am pretty bummed to have to say goodbye to Rolex and so many of my other new friends – but each bus is packed with great people from all around the world, so it’s a win-win!
The Journey So Far
After the initial pickup in Auckland, the bus headed to Hahei, a beautiful beach town where we had a nice little holiday resort just by the water all to ourselves. We spent about a day and a half there, filling our time with beautiful coastal walks to places like Cathedral Cove and Hot Water Beach. The latter spot has a shore that sits atop piping hot volcanic rock, so it’s famous for the natural jacuzzis that beachgoers like ourselves dig out with shovels. We had a few big BBQ dinners and more than a few beers while we all got to know each other.
From Hahei, we headed to Raglan, an awesome little hippie surf town renown for it’s black sand beaches and world famous left-hand surf break. I signed up for a day of surf lessons, fully expecting to spend the day eating saltwater and failing to stand up on my board – but was pleasantly surprised to pick it up relatively quickly with some great instruction. I was able to catch quite a few waves and get up to my feet for much of the afternoon – and found that I enjoyed the sport more than I’d anticipated. It’s something I’ll be exploring in the coming months when I find myself in parts of the world known for their surf culture. I ended the day with this view – and let’s face it, you could do worse.
The next stop was Waitomo – and this was a spot I’d really looked forward to. Waitomo is famous for glow worm caves: deep subterranean caverns with flowing water and one particularly unusual highlight: a natural ceiling covered not just with stalactites, but also with a canopy of thousands of glowworms – which are technically actually a kind of maggot. These creatures produce a biochemical reaction called bioluminescence in an effort to capture unwitting prey who are attracted to their glow. The result is a remarkable sight: once you’ve turned your headlamp off and allowed for your eyes to adjust to the pitch black, it looks like a canopy of blue-white stars overhead.
I chose to explore these caves by way of an adventure that saw me spelunking, swimming, climbing, scrambling, crawling, and finally, floating through underwater rivers on a tube, looking up at the beautiful canopy of ‘stars’ above. It was a pretty unforgettable experience. The guide even snapped a few photos for us with his underwater camera.
This was a pretty busy day – after a hot shower and a change of clothes, we left Waitomo and headed straight to Hobbiton, the very real movie set in New Zealand’s countryside that acted as much of the backdrop to Peter Jackson’s Hobbit and Lord of the Rings films. The place is meticulously kept up as a tourist destination these days, and is absolutely stunning. Best of all, the tour concludes with a pint at The Green Dragon, the pub from the films. Eventually, we arrived in Rotorua, a place famous for its geothermal hot springs and accompanying sulfuric smell. While there’s lots to do here, our visit coincided with quite a bit of rain – so many of us chose to relax instead.
The next stop was a real dark horse for me, as I hadn’t expected much but was very pleasantly surprised. Lake Aniwhenua offered peaceful views, and a huge dose of Maori culture. The Maori people were the first settlers to New Zealand, and their distinctive facial tattoos, warrior heritage, and renown hospitality gave us plenty to learn about and sink our teeth into. I spent the afternoon amongst dozens of new friends learning how to perform a version of the haka, the fierce traditional Maori dance that was once performed on the frontlines in war, but is now reserved for weddings, special events, and pregame intimidation by New Zealand’s dominant All Blacks rugby team. I’ll let you decide which rendition is most intimidating (check this spot a bit later; I’m uploading a video of our group’s own attempt, but hostel wifi is SLOW).
Aside from the haka, the day and night were filled with several great rounds of volleyball, cultural storytelling, and a massive hangi: a traditional Maori feast prepared by cooking food underground over heated stones buried in a ‘pit oven’. Believe me when I say this was a true FEAST – it’s a known facet of Maori culture that it’s considered disrespectful to run out of food, and even with 45 hungry backpackers, they didn’t come anywhere close.
Having departed Lake Aniwhenua, we made a quick stop in Taupo at Huka Falls, and then moved on to Blue Duck Station, a gorgeous farm far away from cell reception and devoid of wifi. This beautiful, massive working farm boasts a population of 8, and is situated on the Whanganui River, offering spectacular views and lots to do. While some of my friends chose to go hunting, skeet shooting, 4x4ing, or trekking, I chose to try my hand at another new activity: horseback riding. With scenery like this, it was every bit as relaxing as you might imagine.
Despite the sights above, the highlight of this stop was definitely the awesome dinner I had with a huge group of my new Dutch friends, who taught me to cook hutspot, a traditional dish in the Netherlands comprised of carrots, sweet potatoes, carrots, pine nuts, meatballs, arugula, and a handful of other ingredients. We had the best time cooking a big feast together, and I really appreciated them taking this American under their wing as we danced to Dutch music and cooked a dish that reminded them all so much of their childhoods. It was one of those nights that makes traveling the world feel really special, despite its simplicity.
Today, our intention was to tackle the Tongariro crossing, one of the best and most scenic walks in the world. It was something I was really looking forward to in New Zealand, but sadly the weather was not cooperative, and we weren’t able to take on the trek – so we made our way to the sleepy town of Raetihi, where I’m currently writing this post as we all lounge around watching The Hobbit. We’ll be firing up the jacuzzi tonight at our nurses-home-turned-hostel and feasting on fish and chips – so despite the big-time bummer of missing today’s hike, it’s not all bad.
Tomorrow, we’ll be heading to Wellington, the nation’s capital, where I’ll be hopping off for several days to explore the town. Not long afterward, it’ll be time to head to the South Island – where the scenery gets turned up to ’11’. For now, I’m tired of typing 🙂 It’s been one hell of a week, and there’s still so much more to come from New Zealand over the next few. Goodbye for now!