In March of this year I headed off on my first solo trip abroad. I decided to go as far away as I possibly could (go hard or go home right?) and go to Australia and New Zealand. You can read about my time in Sydney over on Travelicious. Forgive me this long post but trying to summarise my first week in New Zealand proved almost impossible. I was on the North Island doing the Sun and Steam tour with Contiki. Contiki are a tour group for 18-35 year olds where they organise everything for you, pile you onto a bus and ferry you around from one awesome experience to another. My Contiki tour began with us meeting in Auckland before heading north to Paihia in the Bay of Islands. I’m gonna point out here that as a girl whose family lives in Lancashire, England, the idea of it getting warmer as you went further north was beyond confusing.
New Zealand’s Māori History
The way Contiki works is that you have some activities included and then optional extras that you buy into. I’m a big history nerd so on my first afternoon I opted to visit the Waitangi Treaty Grounds. This was where, on 6th February 1840, a treaty was signed by various Māori chiefs from the North Island and representatives of the British Crown that declared British sovereignty over New Zealand. It created a British Governor of New Zealand whilst recognising the Māori ownership of their lands, forests and other properties. It also gave the Māori the rights of British subjects. In return the Māori simply had to cede New Zealand to Queen Victoria and give her government the sole right to purchase land. I know what you’re thinking. The British were involved. It can’t have been that simple. And it wasn’t. The Treaty differed significantly between the English and the Māori versions, meaning that there are still arguments going on today about what exactly was agreed upon. Our tour guide was great, funny, informative and managed to cram an astonishing amount about New Zealand’s history into our time with him. We also got to see this amazing waka (ceremonial war canoe) which is still used on Waitangi Day! It takes 80 men to paddle it, and must be an incredible sight out on the water.
Paihia, The Bay of Islands
After a very confusing night out for those of us from the UK where we were taken for a ‘traditional Kiwi fush n chups’ and where our jet lag was even more muddled by the clocks changing while we were at the bar, I woke up bright and early to head off dolphin spotting. The weather was gorgeous and we spotted a pod of around 15 dolphins. We’d have been allowed in to swim with them but there were some babies in the group (including one called French Toast!) so we had to content ourselves with just watching them. I did, however, get the chance later that morning for my first swim in the Pacific!
That afternoon I went kayaking with a small group of other Contiki trippers. I was in a tandem kayak with the fashion and travel blogger La Carmina. Big thanks to her for this photo, where she looks unfailingly glamorous and I’m being my normal elegant self! We kayaked from Paihia, through some mangroves and up to Haruru Falls. You can kayak almost up to the Falls themselves which was awesome. The mangroves were kind of the show-stealers though. They’re fascinating trees that have their roots underwater, sometimes living in water up to 100 times saltier than other trees can handle.
We had a quieter night, with me insisting that a group of us head down to the beach to check out the stars. If anyone from Australia or New Zealand is reading this, I’m going to sound bonkers. But I’ve lived in cities with high levels of light pollution (and I’m sadly including Oxford in that list) for most of my life. The stars that I saw in New Zealand were incredible. I spent at least half an hour every night of my entire trip just sitting outside staring up. And this particular night in Paihia was phenomenal. We ended up going swimming (because of course we did), and while the water was cold it wasn’t summer holidays in Lancashire cold. The really cool thing though was what was in the water. There was bioluminescent algae floating around with us, which glowed whenever it came into contact with our skins. Swimming in the ocean with stars above us and our bodies being made into light in the water was unbelievable. It’s one of those memories I’ll be dredging up in 40 years time.
We had to leave magical Paihia and the Bay of Islands eventually and we were headed back to Auckland. Here we went up the Sky Tower which (as the name kind of implies) gives really awesome high up views over the city. There’s glass plates in the floor of the observation deck that let you look down to the ground 186m (610 ft) below you. Of course I lay down on these to take some epic selfies. Had to be done.
Once we’d climbed down from the heady heights of the Sky Deck (which is 220m or 720ft up) we met up with other members of our group who’d gone to do a bungee jump off Auckland Bridge. That was one of the things I loved about Contiki – there was such a wide range of activities that you could choose from that there was something for everyone. I thought my travel insurance wouldn’t let me do a bungee jump (honest, truly that was my real reason I promise) so unfortunately I missed out on that thrill ride. Dinner in Auckland that night more than made up for it though. We all headed out as a group to Elliot Stables. It’s an unusual place in that you all go and find a table in the central area and then you can go off and choose what kind of food you want from the 12 or so different restaurants around the edge. I went for Japanese food from Samurai Sushi and it was so delicious. This was followed by quite possibly the biggest serving of chocolate mousse I’ve ever had in my entire life. Delectable Dessert’s portion sizes are ginormous and anywhere that serves chocolate soup is a must visit eatery in my book.
The next day, in various states of recovery after a night out at Habana Joe’s, we got back on the bus to travel on to Waitomo. We stayed in a really cool hostel here: Kiwipacker was awesome and put on a barbecue for us on the night we were there! The whole reason we visited Waitomo, however, was for the glow worm caves. Sadly I don’t have any photos but take my word for it (or google for official photos) – if you take nothing else away from this post, visit the Caves at Waitomo. You float through an underground river on a rubber inner tube, in the dark, in silence, underneath thousands and thousands of glow worms. It is astoundingly beautiful. And because I’m a massive fantasy nerd, it made me think of that scene in Terry Pratchett’s Thud where Sam Vimes takes a rather less sedate trip through an underground river lit by vurms. Most of my favourite memories from New Zealand involve teeny phosphorescent creatures. I just like shiny things, okay?
After our trips through the caves, we all headed down to Curly’s Bar. Waitomo is a very small town: it pretty much consists of a few hostels, the cave centre and Curly’s. If you’re ever there (and seriously, add Waitomo to your bucket list: it’s on the Lonely Planet Ultimate Travel List if you want more official reassurance than mine) you should try the homebrew Curly’s. It’ll take you by surprise how strong it is but it’s seriously good stuff.
The final stop on my section of the tour was Rotorua. Everyone had warned me about the smell. Literally the first thing people said when they heard I was going to Rotorua was “Oh god, you know it stinks of rotten eggs right?” There’s a whole heap of geothermal activity going on here, from the lake, the geysers, the Polynesian spa with its hot pools (which we got a nice discount on courtesy of Contiki). All of that adds up to a lot of hydrogen sulphide emissions which is what gives the city its unique smell.
Our first activity here was hands-down my favourite of the entire trip. Even more than all the glowy critters we’d seen. We went to OGO, which is zorbing by another name (I think there was some big bust up between these guys who were the inventors of zorbing and rival zorbers) and it was insane. Rather than being on water, which is how I think a lot of zorbing works, this was downhill. You’re inside a giant inflated ball and they put water in the middle section that you’re sat in. There were two courses to choose from, one that went straight down and one that pitched you up and around corners. Obviously I picked to do the one where you’re thrown all over the place (2 of those and 1 straight down one). You can go in with two other people and let me tell you, if you’re not friends with them beforehand, you’ll be intimately close by the time you reach the bottom. Because of the water, you’re sliding all over the place, into, around and over the other people in the OGO with you. The guy I was in one with decided to try and run in it. DO NOT TRY AND RUN IN AN OGO. You’ll end up kicking your friend in the head and being on the receiving end of the best swearwords Great Britain has to offer. If you can, take a GoPro with you because you’ll want to capture the hilarity to be re-lived when you get home. Just remember to turn the sound on when you’re recording…
That afternoon we visited Te Puia and took part in a scavenger hunt that took us around the geothermal park and New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute. We learnt a traditional Māori game called Ti Rakau (check it out here) – we were nowhere near this impressive) and also got to eat sweetcorn cooked in a geyser! The day was rounded off with an evening of Māori cultural experiences: we had food cooked in a hangi (a pit with heated stones) and watched some traditional dances and songs. Of course the haka made an appearance and we also saw a poi dance performed by women. People from our group got to try taking part in both of these (with the boys doing the haka and the girls trying not to hit themselves on the head with the poi!). La Carmina’s written a post about this with some awesome photos.
My final day on the tour was pretty jam packed. I spent the morning in Hobbiton. Yes you read that correctly. You can visit the set of Hobbiton and it’s pretty similar to how it is in the films – after they shot the Hobbit Trilogy, the guy who owns the land asked Peter Jackson to keep the set up so people can come and tour around it. I was in nerd heaven. We luckily had gorgeous weather and got to wander around looking at all the different sized hobbit holes, see the tiny loaves of bread, the bottles of scrumpy and the teeny clothes hanging up on washing lines. You’re not allowed up to Bag End itself but there are some hobbit holes that you’re allowed inside. Sadly they only go back about 4 feet, but as a member of the Big Folk, it was pretty exciting even getting to go through the door! Our driver on the way to Matamata, which is where Hobbiton is, was an odd guy. He spent most of the hour long journey ranting to us about the possum problem that New Zealand had. So if you want to know anything about New Zealand’s possum population, just send me a message!
After the excitement of being in Hobbiton, the afternoon brought a different kind of adrenaline rush: white water rafting. For those of you who read my post about Sydney, you’re probably wondering whether doing all these watersports was a great idea with a freshly pierced septum. Probably not one of my best, but it all worked out fine in the end!
White water rafting was insane.
After being kitted up in the incredible attractive wetsuit, helmet and life jacket combinations, we got a crash course in safety and then were in the river! We went over rapids (at one point all getting out to hang off the side of our raft as we went over them) and down 3 waterfalls, one of which was the highest commercially navigable waterfall in the world. I was in a boat with 5 guys off the Contiki trip and our guide made me go at the front to be our ‘Rose’. There’s some awesome photos of me with my arms out, re-enacting the Titanic (without a Jack behind me cause I didn’t trust any of them not to push me in). Then there’s some even better photos of me in the rapids after I fell out because I was stupid enough not to hold on. I made sure to drag one of the guys in with me though so it worked out pretty well!
My final evening was spent in the Polynesian Spa before getting up very early the next morning to head back to Auckland. The family friends I was staying in the city with took me out to see Taika Waititi’s newest film Hunt for the Wilderpeople that had been taking New Zealand by storm. I think they were a little worried I wouldn’t understand the humour in it, but it turns out Kiwi and British senses of humour are pretty similar! If you get the chance, check it out (or Waititi’s Boy which is also great).
Here’s a link if you’re interested in the Sun and Steam tour after reading this – I’m not getting paid to promote this, I am recommending it whole heartedly to anyone who wants to get a taste of New Zealand. I only wish I could have stayed longer and kept travelling with the group I was with. I met some awesome people, some of whom I’m sure will be friends for a long time to come (I’m staying with one of them in South Korea!) and have absolutely unforgettable memories. I can’t thank our tour guide Mon and driver Dyson enough for making this an amazing trip (also for picking our day song Good Times by Ella Eyre which is where this blog title’s from). Stick around to hear about the final leg of my adventures on the other side of the world when I trekked down to Dunedin in the south of the South Island.