Rotorua

Rotorua, quite in the middle of the North Island, is one of the world’s most active geothermal and volcanic region, making it an interesting mix of bubbling natural hot springs, mud, lakes and giant redwood forests. It also happens to be the centre of New Zealand’s remaining maori culture, and a hub for activities ranging from mountain biking to rafting.

Steam from underground.
Steam from underground.

Rotorua is situated between several mountains: Ruapehu, Tongariro and Ngauruhoe. A maori gentleman I met at the spa told me that kiwis use the mountains as reference points, to distinguish which tribe you come from. Unfortunately as my trip was at first mainly for relaxing, and I didn’t have a car to get me out from the city, I missed out on the mountains and forests.

Rotorua information center.
Rotorua information center.

In the celebrations of Valentine’s day, I was lucky to have a chance to visit Hell’s Gate, quite similar geothermal activities and bubbling steamy and stinky hot pools as in the beloved town I once used to live in, Beppu, Japan. Right away when arriving to Rotorua the familiar odour of sulphur reminded me of the good ol’ times in Beppu, and as they also have different Hells, I felt right at home.

Mini volcano.
Mini volcano.

Hells gate is a thermal reserve, and a spa specialising in mud treatments and traditional massages. I was pampered and treated to an experience consisting of the mineral rich spa pools, a mud bath, and an hour long massage. Apparently after the treatments I looked relaxed, my skin was soft and I was pretty much spaghetti. The rest of the evening was pretty much soaking in my own spa (also a present), and sinking to sleep like a rock.

Spa pools all to myself.
Spa pools all to myself.

Had I had more time, still up and running maori village of Whakarewarewa would have been on my to-do list next. I wasn’t not that interested in the traditional maori dance (performed just for tourists), but more of their hangi food, steam boxes in the natural fumes, again very much like in Beppu. For some reason there were no restaurants in sight in Rotorua making this traditional (and cheap to make!) fare. It is rather sad to see McDonald’s and Subway everywhere, and not a problem to find pizza either, but when you try to find some original food, things get a tad tricky (unless sandwiches and fries are the traditional foods). So far I have not encountered any authentic kiwi food on my trip! I have noticed that they call sweet potato “kumara” and like to deep fry ‘em, and that kiwi burger might have lamb meat (why not, there’s 40 million sheep in the country!), but that’s about it. I wonder if I even get the chance! Anyway, Rotorua is a great destination for anyone looking for a bit of relaxation, some mineral rich water treatments, and spa life. Besides that, it’s a good base for adventuring to Hobbiton, Waitomo caves, and Taupo sky diving.

Wellington

The trip from Nelson to Wellington was rather nice, with a few hours in the cute harbour town Picton, where the ferry across the Cook strait left from. The ferry trip, lasting almost 4 hours, was very much like the ones we have from Helsinki to Tallinn, the only differences being that on this route the water was distractingly clear blue, there was no drunk people and no tax free. Winner winner! We arrived in the capital city of NZ, population 204,000 just in time for the night market. Shuttle bus from the ferry to the train station, another bus to the hostel, and I was hungry for some street food.

Cruisin' to the North.
Cruisin’ to the North.

I read somewhere that Wellington is like the Melbourne of New Zealand, and I did see some similarities: loads of culture, events, street art, hip cool cafes, trendy restaurants. I enjoyed the night market vibes and a waterfront walk before heading to bed in another noisy snoring dorm.

Laneway with hip Soda shop and artisanal chocolate factory. Melbourne vibes!
Laneway with hip Soda shop and artisanal chocolate factory. Melbourne vibes!
Kids skipping.
Kids skipping.

Good thing about cool cities on the weekends is the markets. In the morning I ventured to 2, walking pretty much across town on this quest. Not really knowing what to do, I decided to invest in Weta Workshop tour, giving me more insight in the movie industry and the opportunity to see how the hell they made Lord of the Rings. The tour was very inspiring and interesting, and the temptation to take pictures was almost unbearable! I learned a lot about behind the scenes in such a short time, and seeing Sauron’s costume and weapon, as well as the other weaponry right there in front of me was pretty incredible. The old fangirl in me woke up instantly.

Trolls greeting at the door of Weta Cave.
Trolls greeting at the door of Weta Cave.
King Theodore's armour.
King Theodore’s armour.

After the tour and driving around Miramar and the lovely bay (and stalking Peter Jackson’s house by the sea), I decided to go to the Museum of New Zealand. 4 floors of exhibitions, I was exhausted and overfilled with information afterwards. There was another night market on, and the Chinese New Year fireworks and celebrations. I desperately
needed to charge all my electronics. Next morning, off to Rotorua.

Wellingwood, the heart of New Zealand's movie productions.
Wellingwood, the heart of New Zealand’s movie productions.

Nelson

The biggest bus travel day was from Franz Josef Glacier to Nelson, a lovely town up on the north coast of the South Island. The 10.5 hour journey included several 30 minute stops, but for the most of the trip I was half unconscious in my snotty state, and on each stop came back to lie down on the bus pretty much straight after getting out. Great thing about the Intercity buses: they have never been so full that I would not have had the chance to take the last row to myself and actually lie down.

Pancake rocks at Punakaiki
Pancake rocks, Punakaiki

On the way to Nelson, the main stops were at Hokitika, Greymouth (the start or end point for the Trans Alpine train) and the famous Pancake Rocks in Punakaiki. I would have probably enjoyed all of the stops more had I been able to keep my eyes open without them getting watery within seconds. When we finally made our way to Nelson at 7.30, I was more than delighted to get a shuttle to the hostel.

Paradiso Backpackers is definitely an interesting accommodation option, that I can recommend to those traveling to Nelson. Besides free Wifi, you have a proper pool, sauna and what the Finns would call “palju”, also known as a spa tub, free breakfast and soup. The house looks like something from the tv show Charmed, and if you are lucky like I was you might find yourself sleeping almost on the roof. After the initial shock of climbing a fair long ladder to reach my mattress, I was rather content: way more privacy than on the bottom bunk!

Center of NZ.
Center of NZ.

Nelson is known as the gateway to the phenomenal Abel Tasman National Park, a wildlife wonderland offering secluded beaches, kayaking and hikes to the adventurous. Unfortunately, due to my condition (and lack of planning), I had to skip the national park, and opt for city sightseeing in stead. Nelson is a lovely small city, which is easily walked through in a short amount of time. I managed to find a Chinese garden, snapped some photos, and continued towards the centre point of New Zealand. When I saw the sign for “Centre of NZ, 50m” I got pretty excited – at that point I didn’t know the 50m either meant upwards or then to the start point of the track that went up the mountain where said point actually is. After a sweaty and sniffy hike, I finally made my way to the top, and truly felt like a champion. Beautiful views and gorgeous scenery tricked me to walking across the mountain to another, and make my way back down an hour later. After visiting a Japanese garden, I went back to relax by the pool for just long enough not to burn myself.

Endless green and blue, the standard New Zealand view.
Endless green and blue, the standard New Zealand colors.

I went to a second city stroll and in the evening did not go to the sauna or the pool, but tried to have a skype, poor attempt since seemed like at least 10 other people were trying to do the same. Early next morning to the next destination: over the Cook strait to Wellington!

Something random to finish off: tribute to David Bowie
Something random to finish off: tribute to David Bowie

I am writing this on a bus – going to Rotorua to spend some quality Valentine’s Day time with myself. There might be something special coming up. 🙂

Aoraki/Mount Cook

Aoraki, or Mount Cook, is the highest mountain of New Zealand, 3,724 meters above sea level. It is located in the middle of South Island, about 5hrs drive from Christchurch. The region is known for its’ clear blue lakes Tekapo and Pukaki, clear starry nights, helicopter glacier rides and…I suppose the general breathtaking views.

Pristine blue waters at Lake Tekapo.
Pristine blue waters at Lake Tekapo.

I left Christchurch early in the morning with no sleep, and found myself sitting in a tour bus with old couples and your quota of Asians. The bus was not full, allowing me to nap on both seats. Luxury! We had an elderly English gentleman as our tour guide, giving more or less important information about the areas we passed, New Zealand in general, and we even got 2 songs! I thought the whole trip was more hilarious than anything else, and I was pretty much dead tired and just dozed off every time the guide was quiet. We stopped a few times, to have a cup of tea, take pictures, all that. Soon enough we arrived in our mid-destination (the bus continued to Queenstown), and my need for a nap started to get unbearable.

Gloriuous snowy mountains.
Gloriuous snowy mountains.

Fun fact I learned on the bus: New Zealand sent 10th of its’ population to the 1st world war. Only a fraction of that returned home. A bit more uplifting fact: There are no predators in NZ. No snakes, bears, foxes, wolves, nada. This is truly a safe place!

Aoraki, as the locals call it, the tallest mountain in New Zealand.
Aoraki, as the locals call it, the tallest mountain in New Zealand.

After I woke up from my nap in the most quiet room I have been so far (2 bunks, ensuite bathroom, even a balcony!), I went to take a walk to the Hermitage hotel and around the tiny village. No food options seemed affordable enough (though the dinner buffet, $69, looked like guaranteed food coma), so I opted for cooking my pre-purchased quinoa with tomato sauce. What luxury! The day was a bit rainy, and even at night it was cloudy. Breathtaking stargazing awaits still, luckily I’ve got 2 weeks and another glacier waiting down the road. After I woke up in the morning at the same time with my new Argentinian friend (whose name I never found out), I went for a wee bit of a walk towards the mountains, but didn’t venture on the whole 4hr trek. Next up: Queenstown, the activity capital!

My Kiwi Experience

I landed in Christchurch in the beginning of February, also known as Peak Season when everything is booked out (which I of course was completely unaware of, and just going with the flow with no premade plans). After booking a required flight out of the country back to Australia in Melbourne airport, I had 20 days to get me from the South Island to the North, with a plan to see as much as possible and to spend as little money as I could (yet still going black water rafting in a glow worm cave etc).

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Best seat of the flight.

 

Even though New Zealand is known for its’ hospitality, I decided not to opt for hitchhiking, but to travel around the South Island and across the strait to the North by bus. The famous backpacker hop on hop off travel company Kiwi Experience caught my eye with their Trans-Alpine Dog Leg, combining the bus experience with the scenic train ride across the Southern Alps. Cheap ass like I am, I decided not to book the buss pass (valid for 12 months on your chosen route) in advance from their website, as I was hoping for some sweet deals in NZ. Well…lucky me, since there was no special deals and after waiting 45 minutes on the queue on the phone, I also found out that there would be no way I could complete the journey to Auckland in time, since all the buses were already fully booked. Trashing my dreams of the train, I also rang up a more “off the beaten path” bus company, Stray, to hear the same news: no can do.

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For a while I thought I’d get stuck in Christchurch.

At this point I had been in New Zealand for 15 hours, eaten two protein bars I smuggled to the country, and spent the night trying not to breathe too heavily in the direction of my very sick German roommates who coughed the whole night. A little desperation was crawling in my gut, but with the strong will and dedication from the travel lady in the hostel (All Stars in Christchurch, unlimited wifi!), we decided to build a trip on my own, no backpacker groups no nothing (which is probably a good thing, I didn’t want to share rides with 20 year old Germans anyway, and I am not that into tours in general, with my Mekong Delta experience in mind).

After 2 hours of looking pictures of places online and trying to suss out what I actually wanted to see, this is what my itinerary looks like, with bus durations in brackets:

4.2. Christchurch – Mount Cook (5:30)
5.2. Mt Cook – Queenstown (4:05)
8.2. Queenstown – Wanaka (1:40)
9.2. Wanaka – Franz Joseph (6:25)
10.2. Franz Joseph – Nelson (10:15)
12.2. Nelson – Picton Picton – Wellington (5:50, Ferry)
14.2. Wellington – Rototua (7:05)
16.2. Rotorua – Waitomo (4:01)
17.2. Waitomo – Auckland (3:23)

I bought a 50hr Intercity Flexi bus pass for $379 NZD, leaving me 1 extra hour to use and the possibility to buy additional hours to use to go North of Auckland for a night. I also conveniently booked 10 nights at Base hostels for $269 with a Base Jumping card, and the rest were done via hostelworld. All in all, I paid $648 NZ dollars for 10 nights accommodation and all the buses. In comparison, the cheapest Kiwi Experience pass costs $772 NZD, not including accommodation. On average, the passes are well over $1000, so I am pretty happy with how things turned out.

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After sorting out my February, exploring time!

After actually starting my trip I can give more insight on how the travels actually went. Intercity buses don’t do pick-ups from hostels unlike the Kiwi Experience, but most of the places I am visiting are apparently so small that you can walk anywhere and everywhere.

Things to keep in mind when traveling to NZ: Have a ticket out. Don’t bring along any fruit or anything that has had fruit in it. Exchange money in advance. Prepare for hospitality and loads of Germans. Note that supermarket food is so expensive it might be on par with eating out (at least if you make 2 meals out of one portion). Everything a tad interesting will cost money. Heaps of money. But she’ll be alright.