New Zealand Week 1: Auckland -> Wellington

Trip Start Jan 22, 2006
Trip End Aug 17, 2006

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Friday, March 31, 2006

Kia Ora from New Zealand!

Unfortunately for you guys, internet access has currently been rather abundant so you'll be hearing from us slightly more regularly than before. Think of it as a good thing - my updates will be shorter and it won't take you 8 hours to read them...

Last time I left you we'd just left Fiji for New Zealand and I had to eat my words regarding how well Air Pacific look after their passengers. Well we landed safely in Auckland only 1 3/4 hours late which considering they were running on Fiji Time means we were ridiculously early. The plane flight was uneventful and I managed to watch some of Walk The Line. Wasn't really worth the bother as the captain talked all the way through the beginning (one minute Johnny Cash was fishing, the next his brother was dead) and they stopped it about 10 minutes from the end. Still, the middle was good!

Smuggled some Fijian wood through immigration (NB: "Fijian wood" isn't slang for anything, I literally mean some wood from Fiji..!) because we couldn't be bothered to wait in the long "Something To Declare" line. If New Zealand suddenly has some kind of biological disaster then it may well have had something to do with me.

Got a cheap transfer to our hostel and was impressed by their efficiency as the shuttle driver arrived before we'd finished paying for it at the information desk. We zoomed across Auckland (suddenly 80 miles an hour in a 50 zone seems quite sedate compared to the driving in Fiji) and got to Auckland Central Backpackers (ACB) about half an hour later. Fantastic hostel with over 500 beds, very clean and great facilities. Our room was on the 10th floor in the corner of the building so we had 2 windows with good views across the city. Unfortunately we didn't want to spend too much time in there because our neighbours were undeterred by the paper thin walls and continued to do some, um, vigorous and noisy exercise for most of the time we were there. Nice.

After convincing myself it wasn't a good idea to stick a note under the door saying "she's faking it", we took a stroll around the city and soon found a nice bar where we stationed ourselves for the next few hours. Watched loads of rubgy (can't really escape from it here) and ate them out of house and home. In fact we spent quite a bit of time here over the next few days. We'd have seen more of the city only it rained for most of the time we were there so we had a good excuse!

One of the days was really sunny so we took a walk along Victoria Street to the Sky Tower, a 328m high tower looming over the city. You can pay to do a Sky Jump where you leap off and fall 192m/630ft to the ground attached to a wire. We were lucky because someone did it just as we arrived so I could get a picture to show people at home and pretend it was me.

We spent most of the rest of day walking around trying to find the supermarket that ACB had put on their map. I eventually figured this was a cunning way to make people see the city by mistake as we never found the supermarket and walked about 10 miles before giving up. We did find a really nice Turkish restaurant though and had a fabulous lunch. Didn't you know it's tradition to go to New Zealand and eat at a Turkish cafe?

On Wednesday we checked out and said a temporary goodbye to Auckland as we joined the Magic Bus for the start of our journey around the two islands. For those who've never heard of it, The Magic Bus is a coach service that's a cross between a proper tour and a bus service like the Greyhound. It takes you around the country stopping at all the main sights and cities and gives you a guided tour of most of the places with a few tales and games chucked in along the way. You can get on and off more or less wherever you want and hop back on the bus however many days later you desire. It's nice because you get to know the people you're travelling with including your driver (our first driver's called Lefty and is good fun) but it's left up to you how long you spend in each place.

The first day we left bright and early and drove up to Mount Eden, a volcanic crater overlooking Auckland city. Other than the experience of being at the top of a volcano (and feeling rather bemused at the random cows walking around - there's something quite amusing about stepping in a cowpat on top of a volcano) you also get a spectacular panoramic view of the city. Unfortunately it was raining and stormy when we were up there so most of the view was obscured by clouds, but it was still worth going. In the background you can see Rangitoto Island, the Waitakere Ranges and to another nearby crater, One Tree Hill. One Tree hill was named after the single sacred Maori Totara tree that grew alone on the top of the volcano. The Totara was cut down by a white settler in 1852 who decided to use it for firewood! An obelisk was constructed there to mark John Logan Campbell's grave and commemorate his admiration for the Maori people. He predicted they'd be wiped out as a race by the 20th century and he was half right as there are apparently no true 100% Maori people left. Lefty went on to compare them to jaffa cakes which spurred some rather nervous but polite laughter as we tried to figure out whether he intended on being racist. Apparently New Zealanders aren't exactly known for their tact.

We left Mount Eden and drove to Waitomo, translated into English as "Water Hole". We stopped here for a few hours and did a guided walk of the underground caves which we really enjoyed. The caves themselves were stunning with hundreds of stalactites (coming down from the ceiling) and stalagmites (rising up from the floor), both of them often meeting in the middle to create long thin columns. We climbed down some steps to the waitomo and toward a grotto of glowworms. The guide shone his torch across the ceiling of the cave below and lit up the thousands of sticky threads hanging down from the glowworms, making it look vaguely similar to a huge chandelier. The glowworms were great although their life story slightly sad. The maggots light the tip of their bottom to attract flies and mosquitoes toward the sticky threads where they get trapped and eaten. This happens for about 9 months until the glowworm transforms itself in a cocoon into a fly similar looking to a mosquito. The tragic ending here is that the adult fly doesn't have a mouth and ends up starving to death a few days later. Anyway, we climbed into a boat and drifted silently through the pitch black grotto and stared at the thousands of tiny lights above us. As a rather excited Dan pointed out, it felt a bit like drifting through space. I smiled and nodded politely before quickly tiptoeing away.

We wandered around Waitomo for an hour or so and gladly rushed back onto the coach when one of the passengers got stung by the kamakaze wasps that were following us around. We drove for an hour or so to Rotorua and was greeted by the sulphur/rotton eggs smell that the city is famous for. It wasn't as bad as I'd feared but still wasn't that pleasant..! We drove through a park where steam literally poured from the ground showing how thin the earth's crust is in this city. Apparently it's only 1km thick and the rain water falls through the earth and comes shooting back out again as steam. It's quite strange walking around with clouds of steam shooting up all around you and in places the grass is really warm. We then drove around the government gardens and past the naturally heated hotpools and then ended the journey at our hostel. Thankfully our room didn't stink quite as much as it did outside and we dumped our stuff, quickly got changed and then headed back out again.

That night we went to Tamaki Maori Village where we spent the evening learning about Maori history and culture. We started in the Tamaki offices and were shuffled through what I can only describe as a Disney-esque version of what Maori times must have been like. We walked through a very fake jungle, had our photo taken in front of a very fake waterfall and sat down in an incredibly cringeworthy theatre. The sentiment behind it was good but I found the whole thing patronising to both the visitors and the Maori people. For a start you had to watch an empty rocking chair jerk back and forth in an attempt to convince you some Maori ancestor was sitting in it telling you a story, and then you went into another room to watch a 2 minute film about the Tamaki brothers who set up the company. This film was essentially them telling you that they used to be hopeless bums (more or less their own words) until they came up with the business idea and were now incredibly rich and drove around on Harley Davidsons! I'm sure this whole section of the night was meant to be serious but I just thought it was hilarious.

Once we were transferred to the actual village, the night was absolutely fantastic. Each coach had to elect a chief to represent them and ours chose a very camp young American called Sharif (as in Omar) who had acquired the nickname Sheriff. He had the best facial hair I have ever seen in my life with one of those moustaches that curl up toward the nose in perfect mini circles. We walked to the entrance to the village and waited until the warrior arrived to greet us. The village tribe came running out and went through a series of dances and movements with their weapons until the warrior chief, who looked a bit like a sumo wrestler, placed a Teka (peace offering) in front of the visiting chiefs. This is part of a challenge where the visiting tribe can either accept the offering by picking it up and walking backwards or refuse it by stepping on it or accidently breaking or dropping it. This determines whether you enter as a friend or foe. The Maoris were also cannibals and as part of their movements they open their eyes really wide and poke their tongue in and out, which outside their villages means "I'm going to eat you!" but inside is a kind of welcome. I know it probably sounds silly but when you're there and even when you know it's just a "performance" for the tourists it still feels really intimidating. You could see how if you were a stranger appearing in their village you really wouldn't want to mess with them!

We entered the village and walked through a load of displays showing you traditional foods, games, fighting and exercise. We were then led to the Wharenui (the big house) where we watched half an hour or so of Maori dance and singing. It was stunning. Their voices were fantastic and the dances, including the famous Haka, were performed wonderfully. Plus there was plenty of scantily clad eye candy for both me and Dan! Next was then the hangi, a meal cooked in a pit in the ground. We had a huge buffet meal all cooked under some stones that had been heating in a fire for hours before. There was chicken, lamb, fish, carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, really smoky tasting stuffing, salads and all sorts of other foods. Totally delicious and so soft and tender from being cooked really slowly over 3 or 4 hours. We were sat next to a fairly old couple who didn't say a word to us for most of the night until dessert when the man insisted on telling me all about his gluten allergies and then spent half an hour demonstrating his digital camera and all its functions to the poor boy sitting opposite. Was quite fun to watch!

After looking at how the hangi was prepared and listening to the closing ceremony, we went back on our coach to go back to our hostel. We had about 12 different countries represented on our coach and the driver insisted the people from each one sing a local song to the rest of the bus. Generally people were too shy, although the English (in the majority) did give a rather poor rendition of Swing Low Sweet Chariot. The driver got us all to join in with "She'll Be Coming Round The Mountain" and then proceeded to drive round and around a roundabout until we finished 5 minutes later.

The next day we drove through Rotorua to Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland. We stopped off at a boiling mud pool and then at Lady Knox Geyser. The ranger arrived and put some soap into the geyser while giving his spiel about how this technique had been discovered by some prisoners who had taken their washing down there and were rather surprised by the consequence! After about 10 minutes the geyser did it's thing and shot a load of soapy water about 10m into the air. Apparently it can reach up to about 20m but I don't think it was quite that tall today. Still, the wind did give a few people an unwanted shower which was entertaining in itself! We then drove round to the visitor centre and walked the 30 minute trail around their craters and brightly coloured pools. Once you got over the smell, it was brilliant to look at the generally desolate volcanic landscape abd see all the fantastic colours with bright red rocks and flourescent green waters.

Next stop was a place called Rock 'n Ropes, an adventure place where you could climb a 40ft pole and jump off the end while trying to catch a trapeze. We watched a few people on our bus give it a go, all of them failing miserably to get anywhere near although 2 of the blokes at least got a finger on it. They also climbed up an even bigger pole to do a giant swing. That was even more fun to watch as none of them were prepared for the 40ft freefall before the harness caught them to start the swinging. There were quite a few hair-raising screams from people who thought they'd be the first one to die! One guy was being quite macho about it and so the instructor shouted "Watch out!" to scare him just as he was jumping. Not sure whether it worked or not but gave me a laugh anyway, particularly as it also made Lefty duck down as well as he was standing just below.

Had a few chuckles on the bus when one of the Dutch guys, Koen, shouted down to Lefty, "I've lost my agenda on the bus - have you seen it?" and Lefty replying, rather confused, "You've lost your gender? It's between your legs bro'!". Probably one of those you-had-to-be-there moments but made us laugh for ages.

We drove onto the Huka Falls and said goodbye to the brave souls who were doing the skydive. It's ridiculously cheap here and only costs $145 (about 60 pounds) but there was still no way I was doing it. I might do it on the way back up but it depends whether I'm too heavy! I wasn't when we left the UK but after all that American food I'm probably about 20kg heavier. Instead of jumping out of a plane we looked at the natural falls which shoots 200,000L of water every second through a small gap and creates some very fast flowing rapids at the bottom. Dan reckons the Marines may have trained here doing some white water rafting but I'm not convinced as I'm sure you'd just be ripped to shreds.

On the way into Taupo where we were spending the night we stopped at the lake (which is bigger than Singapore) where one of the guys who had wanted to skydive (but was too heavy) did a bungee jump. Was brilliant to watch and confirmed there's even less chance of me jumping off a cliff then there is of me jumping out of a plane. Afterward we watched his video which was quite fun as he was a very macho butch guy and hadn't realised that the cameras were capturing him crapping himself just before he jumped!

We were dropped off at our YHA Hostel and walked around the town for a while. That night we got picked up by Lefty and the whole bus (including a lovely 60 something couple from Germany) hit the town. We started off in a bar called Mulligans and had quite a bit to drink, mainly so that we could play paper-scissors-stone with the bar staff to try and get a discount on our drinks. It's amazing what you'll go through just to play some games ;) After a few hours people drifted away (some of them were being picked up at 6am the next day to do an 8 hour/17km hike up a volcano) and we moved on to a club called the Holy Cow which was empty for most of the night apart from the people on our bus. Was good fun and we had a dance, managing to avoid Lefty trying to get us to join him up on the tables. I hope he was a bit more sober when he drove us the next morning!

A painfully early morning the next day saw us back on the bus and not feeling too great. Must have been the fish soup from Fiji again. Also realised I'd left my white gold necklace at the hostel which I was so annoyed and sad about. We spent most of the day sleeping as we had a lot of driving to do to get down to capital city Wellington at the bottom of the North Island. We stopped on the Desert Road (thank God - I was feeling rather ill and have pictures of me white as a sheet to prove it) and had a look at the view across to the volcanoes at Tongariro National Park including Mt Ngauruhoe, better known as Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Should probably get round to watching them at some point.

We drove through an army base with signs all around the roads telling you to stay in your car and on the road as there are explosions and gunfire which have many a time accidently spilled onto the road and blown it up! In fact there were roadworks along it from the last time they managed to do that a few months ago. We stopped for lunch at a place called Flat Hills and looked at their small farm with massive pigs and emus. I had a weird pizza type thing that I'd bought thinking it was cheese on toast but actually turned out to have spaghetti, baked beans and pineapple in it too. Tasted nicer than it sounds and cured most of my hangover.

Didn't do much for the rest of the journey apart from a bus quiz where I came joint 2nd. We stopped off in a small town for a fresh fruit ice cream (ice cream blended together with whatever fruits you wanted) and then carried on to Wellington. We passed a huge nail randomly in the middle of the countryside and found out it was a Tectonic Nail which had been driven into the ground into the position of the fault line (where the 2 tectonic plates meet below the surface) to keep them apart to reduce the amount of earthquakes in that area. Apparently without it there'd be one almost every day. We then drove up to the summit of Mount Victoria and looked at the panoramic view of colourful Wellington. We did a short tour around the city centre and saw the government buildings including the Beehive they've recently built. We decided there was quite a lot to see here and that we'd stay a few days. Our hostel Wildlife House is really nice and is a tall building painted black and white like a zebra. Makes it easy to spot when you're lost! We're also right next to a bar where we get 15% discount from staying in the hostel and we took advantage of that by eating there. Would have had a drink too but that damn fish soup was still affecting me. Good thing though really as we've already spent about twice as much as planned on this trip so far!

This morning we got up at about 9am (ahh a lie in!) and went out to explore the city. We went to the nearby Te Papa Museum and had a look round. Quite a good place, particularly because it's free, and you get to look at Maori artefacts, massive animal skeletons and feel what it's like to be in an earthquake, all that kind of stuff. We also found out that there's been 3 earthquakes in New Zealand just in the past 6 days we've been here. Haven't felt any of them though!

That brings us up to today. Sorry it's a bit long and boring but the days have been busy and full of stuff to write about. Tomorrow we leave Wellington and get the ferry across the Cook Strait (said to be the most dangerous waters to cross in the world) over to the South Island. It's hard to believe we've only been here a week as it feels like we've done so much. The South Island should be amazing and in a few days we get to go to Abel Tasman National Park which is beautiful.

Not many pictures to add to this entry yet as we can't connect our camera to the computer but hopefully we'll be able to upload some more over the next few days. Keep a look out!

Hope you're all well, make sure to email and keep me up to date with what's going on!

Edited to add: I've now updated the photo album! Enjoy.
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