Thursday, 27 November 2014

New Zealand, week one

After an incredible five-weeks in Asia, Emily and I were excited to being the next leg of our adventure, flying from Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia to Auckland in New Zealand. Our flight times were pretty brutal, with a six-hour layover in Melbourne in the middle of the night, with little to no sleep due to the time difference and unaccommodating airport seats! Despite being shattered, we were pretty excited to board a 'double decker' plane for the first time, which flew us from Melbourne to Auckland. It was crazy how so many people could board one plane! The sunset somewhere over the Indian Ocean between Indonesia and Australia was incredible and a hundred times more beautiful than I could capture in the photo below.

We arrived in Auckland and boarded a one-hour Airbus Express to the city centre, where we were greeted by a huge Santa and Rudolph! The city centre is fairly average and not all that dissimilar to any other city centre, meaning we could have been anywhere really. We checked into our hostel at Base and had a walk round the harbour, before getting an early night ready for an early start and busy day the next day. 

We booked Kiwi Experience through STA Travel when we booked our round-the-world air tickets earlier in the year. Kiwi Experience is a hop-on-hop-off 'flexible travel network', which allows you to choose a route and then take up to a year to complete that route, stopping where you want on the way for as long as you'd like. Due to our flights and wanting to be home in time for Christmas, our schedule is pretty busy, with 14 places to visit in three weeks. Most places we stay for just one night, but a couple of places we stop at for two nights and we have four nights in Queenstown. We were ready for pick up outside our hostel at 8.15am and got chatting to some of the other passengers while we waited. A guy called Joe was from our home town of Cheltenham, which was cool and we quickly got chatting to lots of other nice people. 

After our driver guide Mac introduced himself and we went through all the formalities, we got going and headed towards Hot Water Beach, which was our first overnight stop. We stopped at a supermarket along the way to give everyone the chance to stock up, due to there being few options at our destination. As happens each day on the bus, a clipboard is passed round and you can book your room for the night, which Kiwi Experience guarantee availability for each day. You can also book various activities, however we decided not to sign up for the kayak tour that day as we'd done kayaking a couple of times fairly recently, including only a couple of weeks ago in Halong Bay [read here]. I'll do a full review of the Kiwi Experience bus service at the end of our stay in New Zealand.

Most people choose dorm beds for the night, but as we've found generally with travelling, two dorm beds don't cost much less than a double room and we prefer the privacy and comfort. We loved staying in this little shed for the night in Hot Water Beach - it was so small but so cosy! 

After quickly checking into our shed and dropping off our stuff, we were driven a short distance and then walked down to Cathedral Cove with everyone else on our bus who wasn't kayaking. The views on the walk down were stunning and the beach was lovely. I went into the sea for the sea but it was FREEZING! Some people managed to stay in for a while, to swim out to a rock and dive off it, which looked like loads of fun. I'd have loved to, but it was simply far too cold for me. 

Hot Water Beach is famous for having geothermal hot springs under the sand. At low tide you can dig yourself a hole and bathe in hot water that comes up naturally. If you get lucky you can dig yourself a very hot pool. We missed the morning low tide, so headed out at 11pm, despite being very tired and still recovering from our flight. Thankfully we were lucky enough to enjoy the hot pools that other people had dug and abandoned, although we did dig a little deeper to refresh the hot water supply. 

Early the following morning we got back on the bus a little bleary-eyed and stopped after a little while to go on a walk around some old gold-mining caves, which you can access over rope bridges like the one below. The Kiwi Experience bus makes many scheduled stops on the way to the evening destinations, which is a great way to see lots of interesting and beautiful parts of New Zealand. 

Our destination that day was Waitomo, which means 'water hole'. This town is famous for it's extensive network of underground caves, around which you can book a tour with a handful of local companies. We booked with The Black Water Rafting Company via our driver guide, who seem to be the biggest operator in the area. I did quite a bit of caving in Somerset, UK when I was younger, however this caving experience was completely different. We were in a group of 10 with two guides and we were each given a large tractor tyre inner tube to carry into the caves. The cave tour included jumping off waterfalls backwards so that we landed in our tubes, floating down the flowing cave water on our own and in a chain and floating through some sections with our headlamps off, to enjoy the spectacular glow-worms. It was a really fun experience that I would massively recommend if you're visiting the north island of New Zealand.

The following day we again boarded our bus and travelled further to Rotorua. This town is famous for being built on top of geothermal springs and the whole area smelling like rotten eggs! This is due to hot water under the ground boiling and reacting to sulphur in the soil. We stayed at Base hostel, which has an amazingly warm outdoor pool, which is naturally heated. We had a wander around the town during the day, where we took a closer look at some geothermal springs and stumbled upon this very cool yarn bombed tree outside an arts centre. 

Early in the evening we were collected by bus to head to the Tamaki Maori Culture Evening which we booked early in the day through our driver guide. Many of the other passengers on our bus were also going, including some awesome people that we had got to know particularly well over the last couple of days. The evening started with Maori people doing the haka and inviting us into their village, where they demonstrated traditional skills in their incredible restored traditional Maori village. They were all traditionally dressed and were great fun. We were then seated in an auditorium, where Maori dances and songs were performed, which was really impressive. The evening culminated in a huge feast, which was traditionally cooked by being steamed in big underground pits. There was a huge amount of food to enjoy and my vegetarian option of Pumpkin Lasagne was incredibly delicious. This whole evening was massively enjoyable and I can't recommend it enough. 

Taupo was our destination the following day, which is a quiet town built around the enormous Lake Taupo, which appeared as the result of a huge volcanic eruption millions of years ago. Our bus stopped a few miles down the road at Huka Falls on the way, which is an impressive channel of very clear water, with gushing rapids, which was a very impressive sight. 

We booked a sailing trip around part of Lake Taupo, with a company called Barbary Sails. Around 15 of the people on our bus came on the boat with us, where we could bring our own booze. It was really lovely chatting on the boat and enjoying a few drinks with a very impressive backdrop. We headed out to a local bar after the cruise, where we had great fun dancing to super cheesy songs! We had our first 'day off' on Sunday, where we stayed an extra night in Taupo. It's been great moving around a lot and squeezing a lot in, but it was also good to catch up on sleep and our laundry and enjoy a much more relaxed day exploring the town. 

 Barbary Sails trip with the very awesome Alyssia and Jon from Toronto, Canada

After Taupo we're heading to River Falls, where we'll stay in a small lodge in what we're told will pretty much be the middle of nowhere. We're going White Water Rafting in River Falls, which we're really excited about. I'll write about that and our second week of our New Zealand adventure in my next blog post soon. Thanks for reading!

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