I recently backpacked New Zealand for one month. I managed to get myself around both the North Island, including Bay of Islands, and the South Island. It was the first stop in my around the world trip (a kind of unusual place for a Brit to start, I know), so it was a pretty big learning curve for me. Here are some of; or rather the most stand out things that I learnt during my time in New Zealand...
1. Kiwis are Awesome!
Although the fruit is delicious, and the bird is pretty cool too, I am actually referring to the people. Quite literally, the friendliest nation of people I have ever experienced. Kiwis are polite, friendly, welcoming, and hospitable. They open their arms to travellers and expats, and un-begrudgingly go the extra mile to inflict positivity onto others. Kiwis appear to smile more, they’re more relaxed, they seem to enjoy the simple things in life, you know, not put too much pressure on themselves and each other. Their values are different... better, I feel. I think they’re... happy; and that happiness is contagious and infectious and at first; hard to even believe. But once you do believe, you’re hooked! You find yourself smiling more, saying ‘hello’ to strangers, enjoying life... being happy!
2. Everything Looks Like a Postcard
Landscapes like I’ve never seen them, not in real life anyway. When it’s not a beautiful blue glacier lake, it’s a phenomenal snow-capped mountain. When it’s not captivating waterfalls, it is miles of untouched greenery. This is a country of preservation. They appreciate their land and take pride in savouring it. I have to say, my favourite image is in Franz Josef, and despite its beauty, it’s not actually Fox Glacier, it’s Mount Cook, reflecting off of Lake Matheson. I actually took a photo with my smart phone, printed it out and sent it as a postcard. I could probably start a business with the images I got from New Zealand when I think about it; constant beauty, North and South. But I must say, particularly south. Although, if green is your colour, you may prefer North. But I’m a water woman all the way.
3. They Love a bit of Adventure
I have a pedometer on my phone and it was rare that I did not hit my target of ten thousand steps! It feels like they disguise some of the same activities and adventures with a different name though; trekking, hiking, view-point climbs, essentially, it’s all just walking... They have walking access to pretty much everywhere spectacular. I came 200M away from Fox Glacier, stood on the rocks of the river where Gollum goes fishing (LOTR), and climbed one third of Mount Doom (an additional thing that I learned – Mount Doom is actually three different mountains!). The choice of activity is each well-known backpacker destination is amazing, and from what I heard, continues all year round – the ski season in New Zealand is apparently a highlight! You can pretty much sky dive wherever you go, but maybe don’t get your heart set on one particular place as the weather isn’t always the most reliable – something we will touch on next. From hand gliding and bungee jumping, to piloting and horse trekking; there is something for everyone. My advice: save your activity budget for Queenstown. Queenstown offers over 200 activities! Thrills may not be cheap, but they’re certainly accessible.
Unpredictability Rivals that of England! I swear to you, I got frost bite and sun stroke in the same day! Okay, so I'm being a little dramatic. But it is really unpredictable. Similarly to England, summer doesn't always involve a lot of heat.... Or sun. There are days when the sun is blazing, granted. However, hours later, that evening, the following day there could be a massive downpour. I found that when the sun was out, and I was standing in it, it was lovely, warm, I was catching a tan, feeling like summer should. But as soon as I stepped in shade, or felt even the slightest breeze, it was Baltic. Within a matter of minutes I could literally go from wishing I was wearing a bikini, to wondering how soon my parents could send over my fur-hooded, inside padded winter coat, preferably with my scarf, gloves, and hat attached. A personal lesson I learned from this was that, if I knew before I left what I do now; I definitely would have packed very differently.
5. Maori Culture is Super Cool
I had two cultural experiences while I was in New Zealand, both in the North Island. I even spent the night at a Marae, a Maori meeting house. I was part of a group and we were very much welcomed and made to feel comfortable. They opened themselves up to answer any questions, cooked us dinner, put on a fantastic show and told us about all of their traditions, and respectfully, we took part in some of them. Not only did we learn how to do these traditional performances, we learned why. Intrigued? Well, originally, both women and men did the Poi to increase flexibility in the wrists. The women did it for weaving and the men, with heavy rocks attached for strength and co-ordination in practice for battle. The Poi evolved into a beautiful dance performed at cultural events and celebrations. The Haka is an ancient dance performed by Maori men as a tool of intimidation on the battlefield. Equally, almost ironically, it was also used as a form of celebration of peace when two groups come together. Now the Haka is used as a celebratory dance to honour people and special occasions. The women in my group were supposed to learn the Poi. As beautiful as it is, I was more interested in the Haka. The Maori family not only let me learn the Haka with the men, they let me lead it!
6. $5 Dominos
That's right my friends, $5 for a Domino's pizza! New Zealand's fast food industry is booming! Booming, bouncing, waddling... Oh no, wait, that was me by the end of the month! Temptation is simply too hard to resist! Everywhere you turn, quirky cake shops, cool independently owned restaurants, succulent burger bars. In England ordering a Dominos is a binge day luxury, because it costs anywhere from £13.99 - £19.99 (around $28 - $40) for a pizza that costs $5 (around £2.50) in New Zealand.=Additionally, the other backwards food prices contribute greatly to the desire to screw a healthy diet and eat pizza; it costs $8 for a pepper in the supermarket! I mean, are they joking?! $8 (£4)! I can get four bags of them at home for that price! So guys, you can definitely expect to leave this beautiful country heavier than you were when you arrived. But I can assure you, it's totally worth it!
7. Hostel Life
Ahh, the hash tag we Instagram with pride but don't always enjoy. Hostels have pros and cons. For example, hostels give you the opportunity to meet lots of cool people. However, some of these cool people snore, smell (yes, some of them smell), or treat the hostel room floor as their own personal wardrobe. I found that you have to take the rough with the smooth. Accept and embrace the hostel life. Let the small things go. Even sometimes, let the big things go.I met so many amazing people bouncing from hostel to hostel. I become friends with people I ordinarily wouldn't even communicate with at home, people's whose paths would never have crossed mine otherwise. On that note, it is definitely the people that make the hostels.
So, there's a stain on the carpet and the mattress isn't springy (not always might I add, some hostels are spotless, comfortable, and offer awesome facilities - they might just cost a little extra sometimes), but you've just met a hot Brazilian guy who happens to be hungry at the same time as you, or a beautiful German girl who is dying for a beer, or even just a bunch of lovely travellers on exactly the same page as you are. Equally as influential I found were the staff members. You put a friendly and helpful employee behind that dusty old reception, and you have yourself a winner! I loved New Zealand. I loved the place, the people and everything it taught me. For a place so Western (bar the weather, it feels nothing like home). They offer up to 23 month Visas for UK Citizens before they turn 31; with that in mind, I would definitely consider going back for a while!
Follow Clare on her travels
Images are authors own apart from Milford Sound (hero shot) - Fiordland - take in the outdoors, standup paddleboarding the deep waters of New Zealand's Milford Sound to experience how 'Nature’s imagination is unlimited'. (James Cameron). CREDIT: Nathan Secker, Tourism New Zealand