“They can keep their heaven. When I die, I’d sooner go to Middle Earth. ”
– George R.R. Martin
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.
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.
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.
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 of…flop 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.
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.
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…