New Zealand: Can I Come Back Now?

New Zealand

They can keep their heaven. When I die, I’d sooner go to Middle Earth. ”

– George R.R. Martin

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Christmas Eve Sunset – Queenstown, New Zealand

After 13 time zones, a string of bad on-flight movies and a short stop in Singapore, we finally arrived in Auckland, New Zealand. There are various ways of exploring these two islands, but for this trip we chose to go with Kiwi Experience – a decision that was largely made on my lack of driving ability. The big green bus is notorious for its parties and is favored by the young backpackers on the travelling circuits. I was a little concerned that i was going to be spending the next four weeks, hungover and surrounded by immature teenagers. In reality, i was hungover (naturally) but surrounded by friends of all ages. Travelling with Kiwi was definitely the best option for us as we were only staying for a month but ended up seeing a lot in this short time. We purchased the “Rangi” pass and traveled along the following route during December 2012:-  Auckland – Paihia (Bay of Islands) – Cathedral Cove – Waitomo – Rotorua – Taupo – River Valley – Wellington – Kaiteriteri – Westport – Lake Mahinapua – Franz Josef – Wanaka – Queenstown.

The most famous attribute of New Zealand is its landscape. At the risk of sounding like every other travel writer, you really do feel like you have fallen into Middle Earth, Narnia or some other fantastical land. Many tourists that visit this spectacular country will join the specialised set tours, visit The Weta Cave in Wellington or trek out to more remote places such as Mt Potts Station, known to Ring fans as Edoras

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Left: Cathedral Cove, Coromandel Peninsula, North Island. Right: Taranaki Falls, Tongariro National Park, North Island.

But for some reason, this Lord of the Rings buff never quite made it onto any of the movie sets or location tours. Its just another excuse to return to this wonderful country. I did get to talk to a rather unique gentlemen about his Tolkien experiences over a game of beer pong in Auckland. He informed me that he was able to sneak into Hobbiton via a 2 hour hike in the middle of the night, where he proceeded to break into Bilbo’s house to take ridiculous photos. Although i never did get to see the evidence, i do hope this tale was true. Even so, the scenery is so breathtaking here that there is really no need for a movie tour, Middle Earth is everywhere you look.

On the North Island we drove past fields in the Waikato region that resembled the rolling hills of the Shire and hiked Tongariro National Park, the backdrop for Mordor. Just as i thought New Zealand couldn’t get anymore stunning, we set foot on the South Island. It is here that the geography really stands out from anywhere else i have ever visited. I explored the beautiful pristine coastline of the Abel Tasman park in the north, saw glaciers in the middle of rainforests and kayaked across a lake at the foot of the Misty Mountains (aka Mount Cook).

If you aren’t pretending you’re a Hobbit, then you will probably find yourself tied to a cord and about to jump off a high ledge. New Zealand really is the land of the adrenaline junkie and it did not disappoint. There are plenty of activities to keep the thrills going and even the smaller towns seem to have their own bungy or skydiving center.

Rafting at River Valley - not in the river.
Rafting at River Valley – not in the river.
And here we are in the river.
Rafting at River Valley – In the river.

One of our first big stop offs was in Waitomo to visit the famous Black Water Rafting Company. These guys have been going since 1987, so you know you’re in knowledgeable hands. The activities here consist of a variety of packages which take you into the surrounding caves, through rivers, tight spaces and you can even try your hand at abseiling and technical rope work. I went for the Labyrinth option, a tubing adventure through Ruakuri cave where we got to float past glowworms and jump off waterfalls. It was very cold, very wet and it was definitely worth the exhaustion! We were even rewarded with a chocolate fish halfway through – an unexpected but much needed sugary boost in a subterranean river.

The “lets be cold and wet” theme continued down through the North Island. The Kiwi Experience buses stop at a place called River Valley, an adventure lodge located in Taihape of the Rangitikei district. Nestled between the hills, the lodge is in the middle of nowhere and after your overnight stay you can choose from the morning activities; riding or rafting. As i ride at home, i opted to hit the river with the majority of my fellow Kiwi-ers and even our bus driver came with us on his kayak. I had been rafting once before in Tennessee on my Trek America trip but this rafting trip was a completely different experience. We hit grade 5 rapids, people fell out, we flipped the boat, we jumped off cliffs, i nearly drowned (twice) and it was incredible! I’m now planning to go rafting in Wales this summer and even have my eyes set on the Zambezi river challenge.

Lisa's rather impressive dive. Much better than my flop off the edge.
Lisa’s rather impressive dive. Much better than my flop off the edge.

It is said that a trip to the land of the long white cloud, is not complete without throwing yourself off a ledge. There are bungys everywhere across the country but the majority of our bus left this activity till one of our last stops – Queenstown. Queenstown is known as the hub of the adrenaline seekers and everywhere you go in the town you are continually reminded of bungys, canyon swings, snowboarding, mountain biking, jet boating – its unmissable. There are three to choose from in the Queenstown area; Kawarua Bridge (world’s first bungy), The Nevis (New Zealand’s highest – which has “nope nope nope” written all over it) and The Ledge Bungy. The Ledge seemed the least terrifying but we found out that it is actually the one that people back out of most. This is a little different to the standard bungy jump too. Instead of having your feet attached to the bungy cord, you are attached by a chest and waist harness. So instead of jumping from a standing position, you have the freedom of a runway. This allows you to dive, somersault or even handstand off the edge. Or in my case, just sort offlop off very ungracefully. Whilst it was the scariest moment of my entire 23.5 years, i am so happy that i managed it. I also had a raging hangover at the time and it appears that stomach churning fear is the perfect cure.

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Sunset in Queenstown, New Zealand.

Out of all the places that i visited, it was Queenstown that really stood out to me and i could have spent a lot more time there. It is quite a small town compared to Christchurch and Auckland but it offers a lot to locals and tourists alike. I was fortunate enough to spend my Christmas day in 30ºC temperatures on the shores of Lake Wakatipu. We jumped off the pier, drank champagne on the pebble beach and watched the sun set over the mountains. We even made it into a stuff.nz article and it’s definitely one Christmas i will never forget. I believe everyone should spend the holidays away from home at least once in their lifetime – its a memorable experience but it really makes you value friends, family and the comforts of home. Although having a hot Christmas was something that had to be done, i’m not sure i could ever trade it for my northern hemisphere festivities. There’s something not right about wearing a Santa hat and a bikini at the same time.

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Frolicking in the lake on Christmas Day. Little bit chilly.

Overall, New Zealand completely won me over and ended up being my favourite country of the trip.

I have vowed to return one day and next time, i’ll be doing The Nevis. Maybe

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The Round The World Trip

The Round The World Trip

“If travel has momentum and wants to stay in motion, then adventure has the gravitational pull of a black hole. The more you do it, the more you find a way to keep doing it.” –  Josh Gates

As you can probably guess from previous posts, my trip with Trek America gave me the travelling bug. For the first time i was feeling an overwhelming need to travel and i was plotting my next trip from the departures lounge of LAX. I suddenly realised that i was capable of travelling solo and i decided that a big trip was in order to try and satiate my wander-lusting.

Over the years i had specific places in mind that i wanted to visit, but i never thought that i could manage to backpack my way around them. As embarrassing as this is to admit, i could barely catch the train to London by myself when i was 18. As a shy, timid teenager, the thought of negotiating the UK rail system was terrifying. Now i have turned into a wander-lusting monstrosity who barely bats an eyelid at the thought of a 16 hour journey through Asian border crossings. So, if you are in that mindset where that travel itch has begun but you are unsure of how you will cope, as cliche as this soundsif i can do it – you definitely can.

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Chilling out in the Chiang Mai countryside.

The journey itself began from a conversation that was sparked over a Starbucks coffee with my Trek Buddy, Lisa. This meeting was only about a month after we had returned from our America trip but the planning didn’t start until early 2012. The trip was hashed out over frequent Facebook messages, a plan that was altered many times over the following months. These alterations were mostly due to financial costings whilst we attempted to calculate the price of flights, travel insurance, gear etc. But there were also other factors to take into account such as weather and the cost of daily living.

I am aware that some travelers choose not to prepare trips, but we didn’t fancy getting caught short in a monsoon or risk missing out on something spectacular along the way. There seem to be two main types of backpackers on the road; there is the traveler that plans and scrutinizes their itinerary and the other that buys a plane ticket and makes it up as she/he goes along. I began as the first type but once i got going, i naturally fell into the latter. The itinerary we had carefully planned was promptly screwed up and left in a Base hostel somewhere on New Zealand’s North Island.

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Clockwise from Top Left: Paihia, New Zealand,;Chiang Mai, Thailand; Maheno Shipwreck, Fraser Island, Australia; Ta Phrom, Angkor, Cambodia.

However, we did have a basic plan. Our trip was to run from the end of November to May, or whenever our finances dried up (which ended up being a lot sooner than expected) We were to spend a definite month in New Zealand, a month in Australia and the rest of the time exploring the cheaper countries of South East Asia. The flights were booked in June with STA Travel and for the last few months before our departure, we scrounged as many pennies out of our paychecks as possible. In no time at all, it was November 29th and it was time to leave the comforts of home. I do not have the literary capacity to express what i felt on the lead up to that day. The anxiety and the sheer excitement was a lot more concentrated than my Trek America trip, despite going alone. This time i was travelling with a friend, but we no longer had that comfort of a group tour or guide. It was up to us and it was an entirely different experience.

Overall it was the greatest three months of my life. I learnt a lot, met some amazing people and saw some unforgettable places. There is a sense of freedom being able to carry your possessions on your back and head off to another new destination at a moments notice. Initially this can be rather challenging and physically demanding but it soon becomes a way of life. And its a pretty good life!  I mean, just look at this beach!

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Whitehaven Beach, Australia

But as any world traveler will tell you, things do not necessarily go to plan, but that’s all part of the fun. You will encounter difficulties, your plans will change and you may even find yourself in potentially dangerous situations. The biggest change in the trip was that my travel bud decided to go home half way through our month in Australia. The prospect of being on my own was initially terrifying and all these backpacking fears resurfaced. Yet it turns out that you are never really on your own, especially when you stay in hostels. There is always someone to talk to and i actually met a lot more people this way. Well, either that or i was just forcing my friendship upon unsuspecting victims. So now i have seen both sides of travelling; with and without a travel partner. Both have their positives and their negatives and i’m still not sure which one i prefer as they are two completely different journeys.

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Successfully smiling through the fear.

The other problem that i ran into was my finances. It turns out that i had too much of a good time and six months turned into three months. I was home by March instead of May. Believe me, i did hours of research on costs and spending, but you can never really have an accurate idea until you reach your destination. Budgets will vary from person to person; what i spend in a day, may be double what another individual would spend. I could have ate ramen noodles for the entire duration of the trip, but i probably would not have enjoyed the trip as much. I just like food too much! I also ended up doing activities that i had not planned for but ended up doing anyway, such as my bungy jump. Although i am VERY glad i got persuaded into doing that one!

Despite all these challenges i faced, i would not have changed anything about the trip. It was a roller coaster at times, but it was an incredible journey that has given more than just memories. If you are currently thinking about going travelling, i cannot stress enough just how much you should just take the plunge and go for it. The saving and sacrifices are hard work but they will be worth it. The new games console or expensive dress you couldn’t afford will not matter once you are on that beach sipping cocktails under a palm tree. A Facebook status from my friend summed up travelling for me, it simply said;

“Experiences > Things”

 And i completely agree.