New Zealand: Aukland | Hot Water Beach | Waitomo

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Cairns airport was pretty impressive and exceeded my expectations. We swiftly made our way through check in and security within 15 minutes and boarded our flight soon after. Considering the flight was less than 2 hours we got a snack of cheese and crackers and complimentary drinks. I settled down with a cuppa, read my book and before I knew it we had arrived in Brisbane. Collecting our luggage was quick and easy and we made our way from the domestic to the international terminal via a free bus. It was then time to head up to the departure lounge to set up camp for the night. We didn't bother getting a hostel because our flight got into Brisbane at 10pm and we had to check in for our flight to Aukland at 6.30am. After doing some research on the airport we were happy to sleep there for the night and upon arriving found a large sofa area tucked away in a quiet zone and made ourselves comfortable. We all had a sofa each and I even got to speak to my boyfriend as the free wifi worked wonders maintaining the Whatsapp call connection. After exhausting all social media I got into my sleeping bag liner (best thing to pack in hand luggage when travelling overnight), blew up my neck pillow and tried to get to sleep. 

The fact the lights obviously weren't turned off was a slight problem so I put the hood of my liner over my face. Bad idea a) because I looked like a proper weirdo and b) because it got so stuffy that I struggled to actually breathe. I woke up every hour or so to switch positions but apart from that I managed to get a good few hours sleep. We were all awake by 5.30am and once we'd sorted ourselves out we checked in, grabbed some food and boarded the plane to Aukland, New Zealand. The plane was very impressive with a great selection of in-flight entertainment and ample leg room. We each had a cushion as well as neon stickers to indicate to the cabin crew if we wanted to be woken for food or duty free which is a fab idea and something I hadn't seen before. Although a bit pointless for me because you don't ever need to ask me if I want to be woken up for food. Absoslute no brainer. We all decided to watch Amy - the documentary about Amy Winehouse - which was very depressing, yet interesting. We do this all the time - think we're really cute by watching the same film yet spend a good half an hour stopping and starting it because one of us is 10 seconds behind. Bless us for trying, though - we're adorable.

Shortly after take off we were given breakfast which I'm sorry to say wasn't impressive in the slightest. It was hot and well presented so it may have just been my tastebuds. I had a vegetable frittata with grilled chicken sausage (who invented chicken sausages!?) with baked beans and mushrooms. The sausage tasted weird, the frittata was bland, the beans were fine and I don't like mushrooms. The orange juice was good but some of the fruit tasted a little frozen and the bread roll slightly stale. I thought I might be more satisfied with a cup of tea but unfortunately it looked like dishwasher and tasted like warm sugary full fat milk. My nan likes her tea looking like dishwater so she'd have probably liked it. The flight went pretty quickly and soon after Amy finished we started to descend. All of our flights have been really smooth but we experienced quite a lot of turbulence - so much so that one of the cabin crew shouted 'SIT DOWN' to one of the passengers which isn't the most reassuring of situations. I've never really experienced turbulence before so it was a bit unnerving but we landed safely, thank god. One of the most entertaining parts of the flight was when a woman behind me pushed in front when leaving the plane to get a picture with one of the cabin crew. The family in question had clearly never heard of a queueing system before, or common courtesy because they were unnecessarily rude. I think she must have fancied him, quite embarrassing really isn't it? 

And to top it all we arrived in the adventure capital of the world to rain. Cloudy, foggy rain and 15 degrees which was half the temperature in Australia the previous day. My initial thoughts? Fly me back to Oz. I knew New Zealand would be breathtakingly beautiful but I also wanted to maintain and build on my tan. Priorities. It looked as though we were landing at London Heathrow and my heart sank a little bit. I love the sun so the climate we arrived in didn't put me in the best of moods. Give me sweltering heat and a pool any day of the week. The passport control queue was long and once we had collected our luggage we weren't aware we also had to go through a biochemical screening queue which took so long it was beyond a joke. If we'd have known we'd have got a trolley like everyone else because it was one of those trick queues where you think you're near the end when in reality you turn a corner and have to go back on yourself. The airport was pretty minging anyway and we came across a fair few rude, pushy and ignorant people which was a huge change from Australia where everybody is so friendly and laid back. It got to the point where I resorted to kicking my rucksack along the floor because I just didn't have the minerals to carry it on my front with a 13kg backpack on my back. Needless to say it was covered in dust and dirt but I didn't care. After a long and agonising wait we finally made it through the screening and jumped in a taxi to Nomads where we were staying.

Rookie error because it ended up costing us 100 dollars which was a dent in our budget straight away. We were all pretty deflated by this point as we were knackered and unimpressed by the weather. Luckily the room was very light and airy and we all managed to grab bottom bunks which is a rarity these days. To cheer our hungry selves up we grabbed a 5 dollar dominos and huddled on Kate's bunk to watch Keeping Up With The Kardashians. Everyone outside was in trainers and raincoats and we rocked up from Oz in flip flops. Although it was dull it looked like a very pretty city and boasted a mix of designer shops, boutiques and souvenir shops. Aukland is the biggest city in New Zealand and host to 1.3 million people which is a third of the country's population. We decided to get an early night as we were about to embark on our 3 week trip. Let me explain. Before leaving the UK we didn't really know what to do or where to go in New Zealand. It was the county we knew least about and a lot of people recommended the Kiwi Experience which offers a range of different guided tours. One day we popped into STA, who we booked our flights through, about travel insurance and just so happened to ask about the pass which was on a 65% sale and down to £265 from its original price of over £600. 

Long story short we booked the Sheepdog pass which is a minimum of 16 days travel. The trip takes us to places in the North and South islands and the bus driver acts as our tour guide offering free activities, paid activities and guaranteed accommodation. While the price of the ticket only includes all of the buses and a limited amount of activities, it's such a good price considering we wouldn't have been able to fit half as much in if we'd organised it by ourselves. The team at Kiwi personalised our itinerary to fit in with our travel and have generally been amazing prior to us even starting the trip. The pass starts in Aukland and ends in Christchurch so we've booked an internal flight back up to Aukland on the 5th December ready to fly to Fiji on the 7th. You don't necessarily stay with the same people for the whole trip as some people may decide to stay longer in certain places and book buses on different days at different times. Other people will be on different passes which means they will complete some of the same route, but not all of it. The amazing thing about this pass is that we get to see 15 different places in 21 days which means we'll have covered a large majority of the country by the time we leave. It's going to be a full on and crazy few weeks but I can already tell the breathtaking views and incredible activities will outweigh any level of tiredness or hangover.

So, details aside, we kickstarted on the Tuesday morning with an 8.50am bus from Aukland to Hot Water Beach. We had to be at the stop at 8.35am but the bus was late so we didn't end up setting off until 45 mins after we were supposed to depart. We'd heard that New Zealand lacked health and safety restrictions but we didn't quite realise that stretched as far as no seat belts on the coach. There were no plugs or usb charger points like on the Greyhound but the chairs did recline and there was a coat hook which is pretty ideal when you're taking a raincoat around with you everywhere. It's the small things, eh? We finally set off and our coach driver - nicknamed fish - talked through some of the history of Aukland. He'd just completed 6 months of training and we were his first official tour which was pretty cool. But my god, he likes to talk. Every single time I started either nodding off or enjoying a song, I'd hear the echo of his microphone and roll my eyes. I loved his talks but I would have preferred them in a more logical, harmonious order. The city of Aukland is built up of 53 active volcanos. The theme of the north is volcanos and Aukland is on a slither of land between the 2 harbours. As well as Aukland holding a third of the country's population, it also has the biggest Pacific island population (Fijians, Tongans etc) than the actual Pacific islands. 

I was a massive geograpghy geek at school and took it as an A level achieving an A. I studied volcanos heavily and find them really fascinating so I loved hearing about the history surrounding the country and its heritage. Abs will laugh if she's reading this as she was laughing at me being such a geek. Normally it's her and Kate babbling on about history (they found a book the size of a doorstop about the Tudors and were so excited they lugged it round for a week so they could both read it). Meanwhile I was reading a book about a woman who had 2 husbands which is a different calibre of education altogether, obviously. I neglected history at school through my pure love of geography, which I now regret, BUT I do know about volcanos so New Zealand is obviously for me. After we'd absorbed all the info, Fish passed round a clipboard to sign up for accommodation and activities. Each night you're on the bus you're guaranteed a bed and can sign up for free or paid activities. You're meant to call up the office and book all buses 48 hours in advance, but we already had our itinerary sorted. Organisation at its finest. After over an hour of driving and we stopped to get groceries where we picked up some food for lunches and dinners. We also bought some wine for that night and our drivers licenses were declined. Apparently they only accept New Zealand drivers licenses, so we had to run back to the bus with 5 minutes to spare to grab our passports. Considering both forms of identification have my birthday on, it seems like a stupid rule. If I didn't have a passport it would be highly unlikely I would be in the country in the first place.

After a quick pit stop we drove to the hostel in Hot Water Beach to kickstart our afternoon. The route was pretty impressive and blessed us with a clear blue sunny sky as we drove through miles of greenery. It was pretty unusual as one minute you'd be looking at a hilly landscape littered with cattle and the next minute you'd be looking at something which looked a whole lot more subtropical with exotic palm trees. It felt as though we were driving between Wales and Hawaii at times. We also drove through a beautiful little town called Tairua which has a very small population and virtually no crime. We passed the most gorgeous harbour which, at low tide, completely drains and sits in front of an extinct volcano. The harbour is central to the beach town which offers fantastic scenery. I have a slight obsession with palm trees - when I see them in a place I instantly love it a little bit more because it can turn somewhere average into somewhere tropical. There were lots of palm trees driving through Tairua so obviously, I loved it. We then went up Pumpkin Hill which boasts great ocean views and property. Fun fact - the lead singer of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers owns a property up there and Fish bumped into him in the grocery store one day. After only having been driving for a matter of hours, I noticed how a lot of the roads were beautifully smooth and windy, aligned with copious amounts of forestry and incredible landscape views. We were staying in a holiday park and the Kiwi Experience gets its own section with its own Kiwi kitchen and private toilets and showers. 

A kayaking trip was on offer but with a budget and remembering how pathetic mine and Abs attempted in Thailand was, we opted for the hike. However we were told that by the time we returned the tide would be too high for the hot pools so we decided to ditch the hike (secretly pleased) because we wanted to go to Hot Water Beach which is on the Coromandel peninsula and is a big volcanic range straight down the middle of the coastline. There are white sand beaches either side which are situated 100km east of Auckland. It boasts beautiful crystal clear water from the Pacific ocean on the east coast. There's a big scenic mountainous range which is a sub tropical rainforest as well - how cool is that? It gets its name from lava tubes which run underneath the beach, heating up the water allowing you to make your own Jacuzzi. So that's what we did. But not before spending our 2 hours free time on the giant bouncing pillow. A huge red, yellow and blue bouncy mound in the ground which we bounced on, exhausting all energy, before using it as a sunbathing spot. If we would have gone on the hike we would have gone to Cathedral Cove which is a big cave in the centre of the beach offering 2 beautiful white sand beaches. Both beaches are separated by a sea arch which is where a headland has been worn down by the ocean, allowing you to walk through. It also displays a couple of sea stacks - which are giant white rocks - in the cliffs making it a really beautiful part of New Zealand. It's also a very famous and iconic spot and has had a lot of media coverage. Macklemore filmed a video clip there are parts of Narnia were filmed there too. 

At 4.30pm we rented spades from reception and made our way down to the beach which was packed. It was probably one of the most beautiful beaches I've seen and was surrounded by cute little houses tucked away in the greenery which aligned the beach. There were heaps of people laying in their manmade hot pools with wine (we got alcohol envy on the spot) so we found a spot and started digging. We started a few times over as some spots were freezing and finally found one to make progress on. The 3 of us and 3 other girls dug away and it didn't take long before our pool started filling up with warm water. Certain parts we dug were boiling hot and we made a wall to protect it from the cold sea water. It was a pretty fascinating concept and a totally new and exciting experience. I may have burnt my left bum cheek slightly, but it was incredible laying in a hot pool we'd created ourselves. This is one of the many reasons why geography fascinates me - there are so many natural wonders of the world and this was one of them. After around an hour being toasty we got a little chilly and decided to head back. Worst idea as we were freezing the minute we stepped out and rushed back to the holiday park to shower and eat. The evening was very chilled in the sense that everyone sat around in jeans and hoodies chatting and drinking. We managed to shotgun a table inside the kitchen, which was immaculate, as it was absolutely freezing outside mainly because of the wind. 

Everybody mingled and we soon got to the good part - drinks and card games. We met Mel and Rosie, sisters from Surrey, Jake and Katie, siblings from Essex and a few others. We played the funniest game called spoons which is our new go-to game. Let me explain. Everyone has 4 cards and the rest of the deck is placed in front of someone. The aim of the game is to get 4 cards of the same number, so the first person picks off the deck and if they want the card they keep it and pass their unwanted card on to the next person. If they don't want it they pass it on straight away. Quick fire. You literally get a second to look at the card and either keep or pass while the person with the deck continuously picks up cards which means every second you're looking at a new card. Meanwhile there are spoons in the middle of the table. If there are 10 players there are 9 spoons, 6 players 5 spoons - you get my drift. When you get 4 of a kind you grab a spoon and as soon as you do that, everyone else can attempt to grab the remaining spoons. Obviously, someone will be without a spoon which means they're out. Sounds simple, which it is, but people get so competitive and rowdy which makes it hilarious. Another funny thing, which I did, was instead of excitedly grabbing a spoon which sends everyone into a frenzy, is trick them. I slyly slid a spoon towards me and kept passing on cards so nobody noticed, someone else did the same and so on and by the end we were all passing cards round with 2 spoons left on the table. Kate didn't understand why nobody had won until she amused that pretty much everyone had already sneaked a spoon. Sneaky, sneaky.

Such a simple game but amazing entertainment. As if that wasn't enough I then suggested hiding the spoons around the kitchen which literally caused pandamonium. The loser hid the spoons and left one spoon in the middle. The winner took the middle spoon which resulted in everyone else jumping up and frantically running around rummaging through bins, drawers and anything a spoon could be hidden in - freezer, toaster, handbag, back pocket to name a few. It was hands down the funnest game I've probably ever played and although it did cause a few accidents and result in a few bruises, it's a keeper. Me and Kate were in the final and I won which I was chuffed about but I tell you what, it's a bloody workout. I wonder if mum will let me introduce it this Christmas - the image of my nan rugby tackling my grandad to find the spoon before him makes me giggle a little too much. At around 10.30pm (quiet time as advised by the hostel) we all climbed into bed after one of the best nights in a while. Our alarm was set for 6.30 and we got up, packed up, ate and boarded the bus. The holiday park was stunning and definitely more luxury than slum. The little cabins were lovely and the kitchen clean and tidy. The wifi was shocking and ran out after about 45 minutes of usage but seeing as we were there for less than 24 hours it wasn't THAT bad. I'll miss the lodge when we're in a grubby little hostel but it was definitely a perfect way to spend our first night on the Kiwi Experience. At 30 dollars a night it wasn't a bank breaker but it also wasn't cheap. If the first day is anything to go by I know I'm going to have the most amazing 3 weeks. I'm in a beautiful country which boasts so much authenticity and unique nature and I'm excited to learn more.

That morning we drove through kiwi fruit farms and long windy roads to hike through some mining ruins. We travelled over the Kopu Ranges and stopped at the Karangahake Scenic Reserve to explore a stunning bush-clad gorge. We arrived at 10am and completed the Windows Walk which took about 45 minutes. We crossed two metal swing bridges which made me feel like an I'm a Celeb contestant and followed the river round to see the gorge. The was an old train track engraved on the ground which ran through the caves, and a metal cart on the side which is what would have run on the track. It was surreal to think that we were witnessing the remains while hundreds or thousands of years ago that exact site would have been active with workers. There were a few different picture points which boasted beautiful views of the gorge - a slow flowing river laden with rocks surrounded by beautiful greenery and towering rock walls. The cave parts were very dark, even with our phone lights, and we could barely see what was behind of us. My parents will be SO shocked that I'm enjoying walking and scenery so much because it's normally something I avoid as much as possible when I'm at home. As a geography geek I absolutely love seeing all the things I've learnt about over the years and New Zealand definitely offers the most beautifully natural attractions. 

One of the sad things about being away is doing something or seeing something you know a loved one back home would absolutely love. When I was doing Fraser and Whitsundays in Oz I knew my boyfriend would have loved it and I wish he could have been there to experience it with me. With New Zealand, I know my parents would absolutely love it here. They love being outside, they love nature and natural beauty and although they'd probably hate leaving my dog, I really want them to visit when they retire because I know they'd have the most incredible time. Pictures don't do it justice and although my tales will tell the story, I'd really love them to see it for themselves. There's a few oldies on our Kiwi Experience so I'm sure they'd be fine. My dad ages really well and has looked the same since he was about 30 and mum's anti aging cream is working wonders. Gushing aside, we departed at 10.45am. We then drove for another 2 hours and stopped for lunch - I managed to sleep the entire way because I'm now a pro at sleeping anywhere and everywhere. We popped into the Black Water Rafting Company to reconfirm our activity choices and pay. We opted for the Black Labyrinth which included the gloworm caves, tubing and waterfalls. After checking into the hostel - Kiwi Paka - we had a couple of hours to chill before heading off on the tour. 

We were of course given some information about caves from Fish which was pretty interesting as 60% of caves in New Zealand are unexplored, which is the same figure as caves all over the world. They are one of the only ways on earth you can go somewhere nobody else has been which is pretty cool. Skip this next bit if you don't give a shit about caves. I'm a geography geek and proud and I wish to share my knowledge. 90% of the world's caves are located inside limestone which means that the stone was under water at some stage. It's formed by organic matter in the water (anything from a whale to microscopic plankton) which dies, sinks to the bottom and compacts over time to form calcified hard stone. All cave limestone was under the ocean at some stage and would have undergone a similar process relating to tectonic activity where the plates pushed some of the ocean floor up to the surface. Caves are created through hydraulic action where rain trickles down and carves out the rock over a long period of time, forming underground rivers which continue to carve out the rock. You can tell if a cave is natural or manmade by the roof - if it is jagged it has probably been blasted but if it's smooth it means water has been flowing through it, making it natural.  

At 4.15pm we were picked up and driven to the main reception. After a brief talk we were given wetsuits which was the hardest wetsuit I've ever had to get into. It was so wet and cold and there was a flap you had to put over your head to secure it on your chest with Velcro. We then had to put on wetsuit jackets, rubber socks and white rubber boots. Next we were whisked away to the test location in a minibus where we each picked up a tube. The test size was simple - if your bum fit through it, it was big enough. Our guides - Wayne and Ola - then explained how we would be jumping off a wooden pier-like board into the river. Backwards. Yep, that's right. We had to stand with our back facing the river on the very edge holding our tubes behind us. We had to jump backwards, throw our feet in our air and hope for the best. Me and the girls just looked at each other in shock and laughed in disbelief. We genuinely thought we'd be floating down a lazy river, splashing around in some trickling waterfalls and gazing up at the gloworms. Nuh uh. And that was just the beginning. I reluctantly jumped and my breath was taken away by how cold the water was. I've never felt water as freezing as that but apart from that slight inteference and it ALL splashing in my face, I paddled to the steps and got myself out. After everyone in the group had a go we jumped back in the minibus and went to the Ruakuri Cave. Over 3 hours we jumped backwards into cascading waterfalls, climbed over a multitude of rocks, floated down the underground river watching the gloworms on the roof of the caves (although they're actually glow maggots, their name was changed as part of an advertising con) and crawled through narrow rocks. It was ten times scarier than a skydive and it was so surreal being 65m below the ground. 

A skydive is an instant and short burst of adrenaline whereas this was a prolonged sense of adrenaline. Every minute offered a new challenge and whether it was jumping into the water, scrambling over rocks, manoeuvring through tight spaces or paddling through deep freezing cold water, I loved every minute of it. The majority of it was in the dark apart from a head light on our helmets but time flew past. At the end we had to turn our head torches off because the native people buried 12 bodies which have been there for 200 years. You can still see the tattoos on their faces and it's considered a sacred place which is why we had to turn our torches off out of respect. This meant we played a game called find your own way in the pitch black. Girls being girls, me, Kate, Abby and Katie all held each other's feet in a line and paddled together to find our way towards the light which marked the end of our journey as we stepped out into the Waitomo forest. Although I was absolutely freezing I was on a high at what we'd actually done and felt a real sense of achievement. It was way more adventurous and challenging than I anticipated but it was an incredible feeling to push my boundaries and try something new. We were heated up by warm water being poured down our wetsuits and were whisked back to base for hot showers, soup and bagels. I had such an amazing afternoon and although I was completely wiped out afterwards, it's an experience I'll never forget. It's such value for money and like nothing else I've done before, although jumping backwards into rivers and waterfalls has only reconfirmed the fact I'll never do a bungy. Ever. The photos are being emailed to us in the next week which will be both ugly and hiliarious, and after getting back to the hostel we showered and got an early night after another adrenaline fuelled day which I loved.

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