Flying into Auckland was a welcome change from Melbourne – which I liked a lot – but regretted the fact that I did not get to meet too many fellow backpackers in my hostel since it was full of school groups and large families. I’m not sure what it is, but there is a different feeling once you fly over the stunning coastline of New Zealand. Maybe because it is so far removed from everything else that once you get there it’s as if you are one of the select few who also made the trek to the land of the long white cloud.
Auckland is an interesting city, but not in the way you might think. Often, people recommend not wasting too much time in New Zealand’s biggest city, because there is not much there other than the looming Sky Tower. While the city itself isn’t too overwhelming, there are some pretty awesome day trips that made my 3 days there well worth it. First up, the youngest volcano in the region, at 600 years young, offers day trips and camping trips just a 20 minute ferry ride away. Along the way, we saw two America’s Cup sail boats practicing, which is pretty cool if you follow it at all. The hike up to the rim takes you through a few different kinds of terrain, from lava rocks to dense foliage. There are even a few caves you can squeeze though on the way up or down. The 360 degree views from the summit were beautiful when we were there, mixing the surrounding islands with Auckland’s skyline.
Mission Bay also offers a great way to escape downtown Auckland in the summer and you can get there fairly quickly via bus (or take the free “Shark Bus” that goes to the nearby aquarium). Right up there with some of Sydney and Melbourne’s beaches, Mission Bay is a nice beach town with plenty to do in and out of the water.
I didn’t do much more than wander around Auckland’s CBD before I found myself on a bus south to Rotorua, one of the worst-smelling towns in the world thanks to the natural hot pools that give off putrid, sulfurous odors. The geothermal pools and redwood forest did merit a stop here, but probably not an overnight one. I did meet two Canadian brothers, who were traveling together; one was heading home soon while the other was just a few weeks into his journey. We grabbed a few drinks at the only local bar, Lava Bar, where we mixed it up with some travelers and local girls as well (Note: apparently it takes roughly 3 months to get used to the smell). I would see those Canucks again in Taupo, my next stop.
Taupo is a great town situated on a picturesque lake, with distant views of the volcano, Mt. Doom, and other alpine peaks. You can hike to a naturally occurring hot spring (odorless) that empties into a cold river, which produces a nice hot tub feel depending how close to the source you sit. I trekked on to one of many waterfalls I will be seeing on this trip, but it was a cool, blue color that was somewhat unique. If that’s all too dull, it’s very easy to go bungee jump, skydive or parasail while in town.
The next stop moving south is Tongariro National Park, home to an active volcano and the ominous Mt. Doom. It is an interesting landscape and fairly isolated from other parts of the North Island. In the winter, you can ski on a nearby mountain which explains why my hostel was called Ski Haus. It definitely had a ski lodge feel to it, even in summer. It was very quiet around there and I really only met an older Brit on holiday and a younger Dutch girl who was in the middle of a long trip to get her divemaster certification and learn Muy Thai boxing; I certainly wasn’t going to mess with her. Once I called it a night, I had my own eight person room to myself – a much welcomed first on this trip.
I was on yet another bus the next day to the capital city, Wellington, the middle of Middle Earth as the airport states it. A big hub for Hobbit fans, it was hard to escape the movie’s presence. Other than a few big sports stadiums and a large port to cross over to the South Island, there didn’t seem to be too much there. I walked around the city for a while and settled on a classic Irish pub with live music for dinner. I met yet another Dutch girl, and had a lengthy conversation about the pros and cons of traveling solo as we both are somewhat new to the practice. I started to realize that there were many Dutch, Canadians and Germans over there in NZ.
My last stop before turning back to the North was Queenstown. It is one of the coolest towns I have ever been to, and it was my second visit. Situated on a pristine lake surrounded by the snow-capped Remarkables Mountain Range, it is impossible to not be swept away by the natural beauty. It doesn’t take a DSLR camera to capture a great picture here. Home to the world’s first commercial bungy jump, the town has increasingly become known as the adventure capital of the world. Unfortunately, along with the plethora of adrenaline-related activities there has also been more commercialization with the influx of tourists. Prices have also increased, forcing many budget travelers to choose carefully since most activities are quite costly. Despite that, Queenstown is still filled with families like the one I went paragliding with, young people like the two gap-year kids in my hostel room and everyone in between. Luckily, I met some people more my age and ended up hanging out with an American and a Canadian as we tested our nerves on various adventures around town by day then attacked the nightlife and the notorious, late night Queenstown institution, Fergburger. I hope everyone can visit a place like Queenstown; it made me simultaneously want to be on a beach and ski slope.
A short flight and a few hours on a bus get you from near the bottom of the country to the top. The contrast between Queenstown and Bay of Islands speaks volumes to how much New Zealand packs into a tiny area. The Bay of Islands may be one of the only areas that you can comfortably go for a swim, and I took full advantage of that despite the sand-churned water from nearby cyclone, Evan. This resort/beach town caters to locals and tourists alike and has a very cool vibe. Beach bars, golf clubs, diving, swimming with dolphins, you can do quite a bit. The area is historically significant as it is where the first land deal was struck with the native Maori, much in the same exploitative light as the Manhattan deal in America.
In the group of four people I was hanging with in Bay of Islands, three of us had some sort of “small world” moment in a single day. After talking about those moments when you see someone unexpectedly while traveling, wouldn’t you know we experience three. My Dutch friend meets some girls he met a few weeks ago on a tour bus. My English friend sees one of her good friends who she lived with in Sydney six months ago. Then, as I’m about to call it a night I see a girl wearing a navy blue sorority hat with white letters. As she got closer to where we were sitting, I realized it was a Tri-Delt from my very own alma mater, Penn. Although our graduations were a bit different, we immediately hit it off and it felt like I was back in West Philly. She’s doing what so many Americans don’t, and traveling for a year before entering the dreaded real world. So there’s your small world moment: two Penn grads in the same hostel in the northern tip of New Zealand both on extended travel on Christmas Eve.