28 November 2014

The Final Chapter of NZ: Mount Cook, Peel Forest and Kaikoura

The Travelling Series

Unfortunately when we arrived in Mount Cook it was raining and miserable. This meant we had to spend the afternoon abusing the wifi instead of going on the many bush walks we were told we could do in the area.

We were saved from boredom at night though, when the hostel put on their weekly 'Mount Cook Backpackers Quiz'. Our team came second which meant free drinks all around! It was great fun.

The next day the sun came out, so we did the Tasman Glacier walk. Huffing and puffing at 8am is not usually my idea of a good time, but it was so worth it when we reached the lookout point at the top of the hill as the views were stunning. 

We then headed to Rangitata where we had the opportunity to do a horse ride at Peel Forest. I used to horse ride religiously when I was younger - it was my favourite thing to do in the whole wide world. I'd been dying to get back on a horse for years and when I realised that we'd get to horse trek through the Rangitata landscapes which featured as Rohan in Lord of the Rings - how on earth could I resist?

My horse was called Debbie and she was a jumpy little thing who always had a spring in her step - if I hadn't ever ridden before I would have been nervous. The whole thing surprised me actually as it was pretty much like riding a bike. We trekked through the rainforest, around the river, up and down rocky terrain, through the river and back again - all with the beautiful snowy mountains as our backdrop. It was an incredible experience!

We stayed in Rangitata for the night before we travelled on to Kaikoura, which is famous for it's whale watching activities. It's a shame that the whales were too far out the day we were there but, to be honest, it was just nice to have a little mooch around the town. It reminded us of a typical small Cornish beach town in England - but with much nicer fish and chips! (It was actually quite possibly the best fish I've ever had.)

I've just realised that I keep talking about food in these blog posts - you can tell how much I love to eat! 

After Kaikoura we made the trip on the ferry back to Wellington in the North Island. Our Stray bus tour was basically a big circle as we needed to get back to Auckland for our flight out of New Zealand. 

On the way back up, we stopped over in Wellington for a few days as we really liked the feel of it when we were there for one night previously. This also allowed us to meet back up with Jasmine, one of our friends from our original Stray bus, as she lives there. It was so nice to see her again and it just reminded me of how lucky we are with some of the people we've had the chance to meet on this trip. You guys are amazing! 

When we got to Auckland, we also got to meet back up with Aurelia (our German friend from a previous bus) and had Christmas coffees in Starbucks - which was just lovely!

I'm usually so excited about Christmas but it's difficult to get in the festive spirit over here. In both New Zealand and Australia, Christmas falls in the peak of their summer time which means it's warm (totally not the same, in my opinion)! I'm so glad I'll be home for Christmas so I can celebrate it in the cold English weather - the way it's meant to be done! (Sorry NZ and Oz.)

Anyway, I digress. Back to New Zealand - the experience with Stray has been nothing short of amazing! I'm so pleased that we've done it as it's been nothing like anything we've ever done before. Parts of it did feel a little rushed but that was just because we had so much to do and see in the limited time that we had! I would recommend Stray to anyone as it's a great way to meet like-minded travellers, as well as get off the beaten track! 

Thanks to our drivers - Leftie, Panda and Keys - and thanks to everyone we met aboard Stray. It was so nice to meet you and spend time with you all - you certainly made the experience very enjoyable for both myself and Kane! We will miss you! 

Coming up after the break: Australia!



19 November 2014

Exploring the South Island: Abel Tasman, Franz Josef and Queenstown

The Travelling Series

We only spent one night in Wellington on the North Island initially before we caught the ferry to the South. This is because we had to do all of New Zealand pretty quickly as we were on a strict time limit of one month and there's a lot of ground to cover! 

Following on from the night out in Wellington for Jasmine's birthday, we headed to Picton on the ferry and then travelled across to Abel Tasman National Park where we spent a couple of days. 

The beach there was absolutely lovely and we stayed at a hostel - called The Barn - with the comfiest beds ever! There were no bunks in sight and everybody had a feather pillow and duvet which was absolutely lush when you're on the move every day and in a different bed every night. 

Another highlight of the South Island was Franz Josef where I got to do something I never thought I would do - climb a glacier! 

First you take a short helicopter ride up to it - I'd never ridden in a helicopter and I absolutely loved it! Luckily it was clear and sunny that morning so the views on the way up were insane. Then you spend roughly three hours on trekking on the ice; it was rather challenging for me because I'm not a big hiker and you had to go up and down hills and slippery steps - as well as in and out of tunnels! We had crampons on our boots, of course, but it was exhausting nonetheless! I'm so glad I did it though because it's not very often that you can say you've been on a glacier. Plus our tour guide told us that the glacier will have completely melted in thirty years time, so I thought I'd seize the opportunity while I could! 

The helicopter ride back down was even better than the ride up as I got to ride up front with the pilot - I absolutely loved it! 

A few days later we ended up in Queenstown which surrounds Lake Wakatipu. It is incredibly picturesque with the Remarkable mountains in the background. I've never seen such blue lakes in my life as I saw in the South Island of NZ - apparently it's the glacial powder in the water that makes them so blue when the sunlight reflects off it. They were simply beautiful! 

Kane celebrated his 24th birthday while we were there. We had a bit of a knees up with our Stray bus the night before, and then spent the actual day ignoring the fact that we were budget backpackers and embracing the treats in the form of a cinema trip and nice meals out. (The film of choice was Gone Girl which was really good - I highly recommend it if you haven't had the chance to go see it yet!)

Whilst we were in Queenstown we were able to try out the famous Ferg Burger, which is honestly the best burger I've ever had in my life (so far). They're huge so you can just have one on its own as your main meal - I wish I could describe just how good they are but I'm struggling to put it into words. Let's just say that it's a party in your mouth!

The only negative I have about Queenstown is that you go past a certain point to get to it, where you're officially closer to the South Pole than to the equator, so it's a lot colder!

But the temperature wasn't about to change any time soon as it we were then due to travel to Mount Cook. 

Until next time! 



18 November 2014

LOTR Fangirling: Hobbiton, Wellywood and the Weta Cave

The Travelling Series

One of the main reasons that I chose to travel around New Zealand was the fact that I'm a massive Lord of the Rings fan. Everyone who's anyone knows that the films were shot there by Peter Jackson (the Kiwi director from Wellington) and, as a result, the scenery that features in the films is just stunning. 

I was lucky enough to get the chance to visit Hobbiton in Matamata during my Stray journey around the North Island and it's something that I'll never ever forget. What the film crew have done there is absolutely amazing. Like Elijah Wood has previously said: you don't have to imagine that you're in Hobbiton because you are actually in it. It's inspired by the British countryside and it feels like such a magical place - I was like a big kid running around it! 

I'd heard beforehand that the actual tour is not very good as they rush you around in preparation for the next tour, but I didn't find that at all. Our tour guide let us mooch around in our own time; there were a few occasions where we were lagging behind at the back of the group but we could just make our way back to the group when we were ready - no pressure and no questions asked! I think they understand that every nerd needs to get their fix before they have to leave. 

At the end of the tour we actually got to have a pint in The Green Dragon, the pub based in Hobbiton, and it was such an awesome moment! 

Kane and I took a couple of hundred photos that day but it was so worth it when I look back at them all (even if we did get a photo with every hobbit hole possible and some of them are practically identical)!

A few days later I got to fangirl some more when we visited Wellington for the first time (or Wellywood, as it's now commonly known, due to the fact that Peter Jackson built his post-production studios there). 

We went on a tour that features locations from the LOTR films, including the forest in the shire from the beginning of Fellowship of the Ring where the Hobbits set off on their journey, and then we got to go to the Weta Cave and Workshop. This was the place where the props for LOTR and The Hobbit were designed and created so we got to see a lot of super cool stuff!

Weta also did a lot of digital special effects on the films and we were told that they are currently working on the final Hobbit film which is due out in cinemas in December! Exciting!

I loved being in New Zealand as every landscape that you drive past, every mountain and every river, might just have featured in Lord of the Rings. The whole country just resonates Middle Earth in all it's glory. It's absolutely beautiful and, at times, completely breathtaking. 

Next up: the South Island.



12 November 2014

Blue Duck Station and Tongariro National Park

The Travelling Series

Blue Duck Station is a sheep farm in an amazingly remote location in the North Island of New Zealand. Trust me, when Stray advertises 'off the beaten track' they certainly aren't exaggerating! We had to twist and turn around hills and go up and down mountains for ages before we even reached our destination. 

Blue Duck is a great spot for horse riding, hunting and trekking. In fact, we walked for three hours to a waterfall while we were there (a personal best for me as I'm totally not the hiking type). It's so in the middle of nowhere that it has a relaxing, peaceful vibe to it. I like going places while travelling that encourage you to switch off and forget about the world. We can become so consumed in our every day lives that we often don't take the time to just... be. Travelling reminds you of the simpler things in life and the unnecessary need for materialistic things. 

After Blue Duck we headed to Tongariro National Park at the slightly ungodly hour of 6am. There was a fairly surreal moment, when we were driving down the road out of there, where rocks were falling down from the mountains as Metallica's 'Enter Sandman' played on the sound system. It was one of those moments in life where you think 'I can't believe I'm here and I can't believe this is happening'. 

At Tongariro there was the opportunity to do a full day hike up the mountains which I politely declined due to my undeniable lack of physical fitness. Instead, a few of us had a little hot tub party for American Jasmine's birthday and then abused the wifi at the hostel. If you've ever travelled before you'll know that wifi equals gold when you're a backpacker. 

I also spent a fair few minutes staring at the beauty of the mountains in all their snowy glory - particularly the one that was shot as Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings. Now, that was cool! 

The next day we headed to the capital city of Wellington and had a few drinks in celebration of Jasmine's birthday. It's true what they say - it's called Windy Welly for a reason. I couldn't believe how strong the wind was which also meant it felt extremely chilly. But it was hard to care about the weather when we were about to embark upon a tour around Weta Workshop - the special effects house for LOTR, The Hobbit and many other Peter Jackson movies. 

Let the fangirling commence!



4 November 2014

Learning About the Maori Culture: Mourea and Lake Aniwhenua

The Travelling Series

One of my favourite nights on the North Island came very early on in the trip - it was the Maori Culture Night overnight stay in Mourea. This is where our Stray bus got to learn all about New Zealand's indigenous Maori heritage, the people and their history through staying at a Marae (a traditional Maori meeting house).

As we entered the lands of the people of the local tribe, we had to be blessed and welcomed in the traditional Maori way. This is where you hold right hands with the locals, touch noses twice and say 'Kia Ora' (which literally means 'be well' in Maori, or informally means 'hello'/'goodbye'). 

We were then cooked for before the owners put on a show. This consisted of musical performances of the Haka - the men's war dance made world famous by the fact that the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team perform it before every game - and the Poi - the women's storytelling dance using balls on a string. Then came the time of the night where audience participation was required! The boys learned the Haka, the girls learned the Poi dance and then we performed for each other. It was actually the most fun I'd had in ages and we got some really amusing videos out of it!

One of our fellow Strays, Olly, had brought a guitar with him and so a little jamming session followed between him and the other performers. We were all singing along by the end and swaying - it was great!

After you are welcomed to the Marae, blessed and cooked for, you are then classed as 'whanau' (which means 'family' in Maori). I personally think the whole night aided our bus in becoming more of a whanau. The whole night was definitely a bonding experience and one that I will never forget. 

The next night we stayed in a lodge overlooking the beautiful Lake Aniwhenua. We were cooked a 'hangi' which is a traditional Maori meal where the food is slow roasted in the ground. The meat literally melted in your mouth - it was so delicious!

We were then treated to a few more performances from Olly where we sang along, held hands and did the Kum Ba Yah. No, not quite, but it did feel a bit like that! One of the German girls, who sings in a band back home, joined Olly at one point and they sang a Kings of Leon song together. KOL are one of my favourite bands and we had no idea this girl could sing so, when they sang together, it was so good - a really special moment with some very special people. 

The next day we went to Taupo and had a mooch around before heading to the famous Blue Duck Lodge, where we were to spend two days.

To be continued...


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