For many backpackers the favourite way to get around New Zealand is through the Kiwi Experience. I signed up for the Sheepdog Pass to take me from Auckland to Christchurch using the hop-on hop-off travel approach, and here you can find just how it went on the North Island leg of our trip. From the cosmopolitan Auckland down to the cultural Wellington plus some incredible spots in between, you can be sure that the North Island of New Zealand has incredible scenery and exhilarating activities to suit every backpacker!
After getting up way earlier than necessary I waited at the bus stop for the iconic big green bus to come and collect me outside the Kiwi Experience office in Auckland. After a briefing on how the tour works we were off. The Kiwi Experience offers a hop-on hop-off method to travelling the length and breadth of the country. With a helpful and excitable driver/guide you’re in safe hands and secure in the knowledge that you’re led through this beautiful landscape with a true pro leading the way.
We stopped off in the very small town of Thames for some food, and then made our way to our accommodation in Hot Water Beach. The hostel was a lot nicer than any other I’d stayed in as it doubled as a camp ground so the dorm rooms felt like little cabins, all very modern and comfortable so a great first place to get to know everyone. Being far from any larger town or amenities in Hot Water Beach, I’d absolutely recommend Top 10 Holiday Parks for their family friendly, outdoorsy attitude.
From there we took a drive down to Cathedral Cove and then made the walk to the beach and cove itself. It was such a beautiful place, absolutely postcard perfect and we could have stayed there for hours (despite the chilly sea waters!). It was here that I got chatting to a girl also from the UK called Alex, and we discovered we had a surprising amount in common. It was so nice to talk to someone new and compare travel plans and ideas, and hear a familiar accent!
Back at the hostel we had some dinner, and started planning the rest of our tour itineraries. The great but also stressful thing about hop-on-hop-off tours is that you can do pretty much whatever you want and stay as long as you like at any stop. This meant we got to extend our trip in places we particularly liked, or move on quicker if you have less time than others. However as we were starting the trip in the peak of summer, the buses were getting full and busy pretty quickly so it was recommended that we plan ahead and get our itineraries sent off ASAP. This caused a lot of panic bonding as people hurriedly tried to figure out what to do and compare with others, get advice and feel comforted that everyone else was just as stressed out. This is where we met a couple more great people who we ended up spending a lot more time with along the tour.
After we made some planning decisions we went down to Hot Water Beach and attempted to dig a hole in the sand in the hopes of feeling that scalding hot water emerging from under the ground that gives the area its name. After a while of
watching others digging we managed to get at least a sense of the water temperature phenomenon, even if it was more like Tepid Water Beach, and then gave up to make our way back to bed.
Day two of the tour was making our way to Waitomo. On the way we stopped for a walk along Karanahake Gorge through the old gold mining tunnels. To get there we had to cross a pretty wobbly bridge which some people seemed unsure of, but it just added to the fun in my opinion and made for an authentic experience.
We eventually reached Waitomo, a place famed for its impressive caves where glow worms live attached to the roof of the great halls of the caves. It was here I decided to take the opportunity to splurge on an activity and do a black water rafting activity called Black Labyrinth (with the Black Water Rafting Co). The activity means you get to spend 3 hours in the freezing, pitch black caves tubing through the Ruakuri Cave – sounds appealing right? In hindsight I must be mad, but it was so so much fun. A group of 10 of us had the chance to do some great things in there, including the tubing, jumping off two waterfalls, climbing up some very steep and very narrow caves, crawling through mud tunnels, jumping off more waterfalls and of course basking in the beauty of those bright little worms. It felt very appropriate that we starting humming the Harry Potter theme at the end because it was a truly magical moment.
Once I got back and devoured a hostel-appropriate dinner, we headed to the pub to chat with more people which eventually saw us all suitably shattered and ready for a peaceful night of sleep.
Off again and this time making our way to Rotorua, via which we went for another walk at Ruakuri Reserve through some smaller caves hidden amongst a forest. Our theory about the somewhat compulsory morning walks was that the Kiwi Experience drivers tried to get us up and about but also then tire us out for the long coach journeys. But then again, maybe they just like taking us on walks around this beautiful country!
On the way to Rotorua some travellers made the decision to visit Hobbiton, however those of us that didn’t (I was saving my visit for a later date) went to a natural spring of water hidden amongst some hills and farm fields. The water was so pure it was absolutely crystal clear, however as nice as it was it was also some of the coldest water I’ve ever been in, we were really struggling to acclimatise! It was worth it though to see people jump off rocks into the deepest, bluest water. I’d never imagined you could actually get water that looked that good without using Instagram filters…
The town of Rotorua is an interesting place. It’s home to many geysers, so the natural hot springs release a certain sulphuric smell which isn’t particularly pleasant. However, the great weather there was very welcome as we spent the afternoon relaxing by the pool.
In the evening we went to Tamaki Village, where we experienced a traditional Maori evening of games, singing, dancing and food. Visiting the village was probably one of the biggest highlights of the trip. It made me realise what an incredible, rich culture they have in New Zealand and how they really are so proud of their history which is evident in the continued use of the Maori language, their symbols and protection of the beautiful lands. For me the best bit was the pre-dinner entertainment of songs, dancing, and the famous Haka, that we all know from rugby, that really made an impact.
The welcoming ceremony was also amazing, a ‘chief’ was chosen from our group as we arrived, who then had to greet the Maori chief in the customary way of touching noses twice as you say ‘Kia Ora’. We said that a LOT, yet more proof of the kindness of Kiwis as in Maori it means good health, so is used as a friendly greeting to say hello. The food they provided was an impressive amount, cooked in the traditional hangi way from basically being roasted underground which provided a unique taste. It’s fair to say we were grateful for the food and absolutely stuffed ourselves. For dessert we were treated to the native dish of Pavlova, a personal favourite of mine so I was in heaven!
Monday morning was spent in the Redwood forest going for a walk amongst the ginormous trees. Although native to California, the trees are able to mature in half the time in New Zealand thanks to the rich and optimum conditions. It’s strange to think of how many things in this country are not native, but are able to thrive here so easily. Even the grass was not originally from here, but managed to grow instead of the native bush (that’s according to our driver!).
From there we made our way to Lake Taupo, where had we chosen, there’s a choice of many sports and extreme activities like bungee jumping and sky diving. Instead, we made our way to Otumuheke Stream where the river joins small waterfalls that provide natural hot springs. This river was extremely calm from where we were, but just a short walk away the water plummets down Huka Falls into bright blue, ice cold water. I’ll stick to the hot springs thanks!
We were treated to two nights in Taupo, so the second day there we enjoyed a lie in before heading down to the lake for a swim and sunbathe. Here we spent the day chatting, planning travels and swapping notes on the best places to go. Although it’s easy to spend all your time relaxing or sightseeing, travel admin is just as important to spend time on!
That evening we grabbed a $5 pizza and headed to the lake again to see the sunset, and from there we had a very chilled out evening playing cards and drinking cider. That’s pretty much my ideal evening, so I definitely have a fondness for Taupo now!
Taupo sunset and street art
We made our way to River Valley along some very windy and rainy roads deep into the wilderness, all the while hoping that just round the next corner the sun would be hiding…. No such luck. Activities had to be cancelled at the Valley due to a flood risk, but we went for a ‘walk’ up a very steep bank overlooking the river after literally pulling ourselves across the river on a rickety little pull trolley. The walk was lots of zig zags, and with the rain from the morning it got a bit slippery at times which was definitely interesting as you try to walk along a very narrow piece of wood across a waterfall! It was great though and I’m so glad I did, there’s no internet or signal at the valley so activities were reduced to walking, monopoly, or drinking at the bar. After the walk and dinner we played a hefty 3 hour long game of New Zealand monopoly. It really feels high stakes when you buy a hotel for $4,000,000!
Walk at River Valley
The following day saw us make a long drive down to Wellington, the capital, where we arrived late afternoon and then grab a free dinner before going on a bar crawl. Already it felt a world away from the quiet, rural River Valley, but as a city girl myself I loved the liveliness and culture going on.
We woke up the next day (feeling surprisingly fresh!) and decided to take a walk along the harbour front and into Te Papa museum, about which we had heard great things. The museum itself is huge, it’s five stories of various galleries and exhibitions ranging from natural history and earthquake simulations, all the way to a visiting Dreamwork’s exhibition about how they make their animated movies (definitely my favourite bit). It also had loads of facts and info about Maori life and culture, and a touching war exhibition. There was so much in fact it was almost hard to take it all in!
We then took a wander to the quirky nighttime market where loads of Asian food stalls dish up great smelling dishes, but for our dinner we settled on a little place called Abrakebabra (hilarious I know) for a Turkish salad platter. From there we went for a relaxing night watching a movie. Sometimes staying in and enjoying something normal is just what you need.
Our final day in Wellington we went up Mount Victoria to see the view of Wellington (and to try and find a Lord of The Rings filming location – we think we found it!) and then to the underground market, while others went to the rugby 7s dressed in their finest fancy dress. Then in the evening we went for a gentle bar trip along the popular strip of bars on Courtenay Place to find it was, of course, absolutely packed. So we opted for an early night instead to make sure we got up in time for the early coach departure taking us to the Interislander ferry.
Have you been on the Kiwi Experience, or visited these spots on the North Island of New Zealand? Let me know your stories!