The Golden Sands of Abel Tasman

It may be New Zealand’s smallest national park, but what Abel Tasman lacks in size, it most certainly makes up for in stunning landscapes. Abel Tasman National Park is probably my all time favourite area in New Zealand. I spent a couple of weeks there with some friends, house sitting. House Sitting in New Zealand is actually very easy as the people are very open and trusting. One refreshing thing about Kiwi’s is that they are some of the most honest people I have ever met. I housesat a couple of times while in New Zealand, as it is a great way to explore a new area. I used the website

House Sitting in New Zealand is actually very easy as the people are very open and trusting. House sitting generally consists of you looking after someone’s house for them while they are away. You get free accommodation and they have someone taking care of any plants or pets they may have (most house sits will have pets). One refreshing thing about Kiwi’s is that they are some of the most honest people I have ever met. I housesat a couple of times while in New Zealand, as it is a great way to explore a new area. I used the website Kiwi House Sitters. It is free to sign up, and then you simply pay a yearly fee of around $19.00, in order to become a house sitter. It is a great site for beginners as many other sites will expect you to have references and a lengthy history of house sitting, but this one doesn’t. To find out more about it, simply click the link above.

While in the Abel Tasman area, I was staying just outside the town of Pohara. Pohara is a little town with a very hippie vibe about it. It has some really wonderful organic food stores and boutique clothing stores. The town cinema is definitely worth a visit, with its comfy sofa seats, friendly staff and intermission where they serve tea, coffee and other treats. One of the highlights of Pohara is that you can watch the native penguins walk across the road near the beach at night. They cross the road every night to their traditional nesting grounds and then return to the sea before dawn.

Abel Tasman is famous for its golden sand beaches and gorgeous rainforest landscapes. There are a wide variety of walking tracks available, meaning there is something to suit everyone, from half day walks to 3 or 4 day hikes. While in the area, I did a 2-day hike of the Coastal Track. I did this trek with some friends, starting at the Totaranui Beach, we got the Aquataxi to Bark Bay. The Aquataxi is a great way to shorten your trip a little, while not missing out on the beauty that is Abel Tasman. On the boat, the guides will often share details about the local wildlife, by showing you around some of the little rock outcrops. It is an adequately priced service, with prices dropping during off-peak seasons. The Aquataxi can take you to all the major points along the coastline, and while on the boat you can enjoy seeing the coast pass by, as well as the local wildlife, such as seals and sometimes dolphins.

Totaranui Beach

We started the hike at Bark Bay, heading back north towards Totaranui again. The path is in most part, a gravel or sandy path close to the coast, which gives you a magnificent view of the beaches. The path will veer onto the beaches at times, at which point you will follow orange markers back onto the path. We passed many of the other campsites and huts along the way, which provides good spots for a shortstop if required. I can not talk enough about the beauty of the area. It’s everything you could want for that picture perfect postcard setting. The rainforest is full of greenery, from the impressive trees and colourful wildlife to the native shrubbery. The beaches, of course, are one of the stand-out features which are one of the main reasons so many people visit during the peak season. I was there just before the peak season, so the track was still relatively quiet, making for a lovely serene walk.

While walking we sang the theme tune to Jurassic Park, as the rainforest around us reminded us so much of the film. We had planned to stay one night at the Awaroa Hut. The hut cost us $35.00 each for the night, which was the off-peak season price. The hut has a fire available for the winter months as well as long bunk style beds, with individual mattresses. Each room fits around 12-14 people, so it can be quite a noisy night. You are required to bring your own sleeping bag and stoves for cooking. As the hut is just off the beach and along the river, it is advisable to check tide times for the following morning in order to cross the inlet and continue your journey.

Awaroa Inlet

We crossed the inlet, quite early in the morning and just before the tide times had advised, so we had to take off our socks and shoes and wade across the river slightly. While this may not be for everyone, we throughly enjoyed ourselves, as it was a nice warm day and the water was only slightly chilly. I would advise being careful if you do decide to do this as there are some patches were the sand will sink beneath you and you could end up being deeper in the water than you thought you would be. As this was our last day of the trek, we didn’t care too much about getting wet. As it turned out, it started raining slightly once we reached the other side, so we were going to get wet anyway.

From Awaroa, we hiked the rest of the way up to the Totaranui Beach. Along this stretch of the walk, there are some cool beach caves to explore as well as long stretches of walking along the beaches. We did some mussel searching, as this area has an abundance of mussels, which are quite tasty. We reached the far end of the carpark at Totaranui just after midday. We took our time with this stretch of the walk as we were under no time pressures and we just enjoying the nature around us.

This was not the only trek we did while in the Abel Tasman area. We also did a one day track across Gibb’s Hill. We started and ended at the Wainui carpark. The walk is a loop, which climbs Gibb’s Hill, one of the steepest hills in Abel Tasman. For this walk, we walked along part of the coastal track first, ending the trek with the Gibb’s Hill climb. This allowed for some spectacular views as the sun was just setting as we came down the hill again.

Sunset on Gibb’s Hill

On this track, we encountered the Kaka bird, a native to New Zealand, which one of my friends liked to a chicken. These birds, like many in New Zealand, do not fly and is actually a type of parrot. These are colourful and endangered birds and they were seemingly everywhere around Gibb’s Hill. The wildlife, for someone not native to the country, was definitely a highlight of the walk.

As I have stated, there are many walks available for people of all fitness levels and it truly is an exceptionally beautiful part of the country. If you visit New Zealand, you must make a visit to Abel Tasman. It is one of the most famous national parks for many reasons. During the summer seasons it can get very busy, so if you want a slightly quieter walk, I would suggest going in the off-season, which also means it will be cheaper to stay in the huts available. The tracks are well maintained and even in the off-season the scenery is stunning.

Next up: Exploring more of Golden Bay

Wellington Part 2- The Foodie Tour

In my previous post, I mentioned that there was a lot more to come about Wellington and here we are. So last time I talked about some of my favourite Things To Do and Walking Tours. This post is about some of my favourite Foodie Places.

1. The Enigma Cafe

Enigma is a late night cafe on Courtenay Place. It is one of my favourite places in Wellington and I have spent many a good evening there catching up with friends. The main attraction of the cafe is, of course, it’s late opening hours, providing an alternative place to go. The other attraction is their cakes. If you ever should visit make sure you try their cakes. They have a great selection of home-made cakes, such as their Bailey’s Cheesecake or any cake involving boysenberry. Boysenberry is a New Zealand hybrid fruit made of the European Raspberry, Blackberry, the American dewberry and the Loganberry. The cafe also serves alcohol, which is included in some of their cakes. When ordering a cake or really any dessert in New Zealand you get the option of yoghurt or cream.

The cafe is decorated with graffiti art, as well as local music and arts events posters. You can also find leaflets on the local events in Wellington or simply ask the staff. The staff are very helpful and knowledgeable about the Wellington Arts scene. The cafe is generally bustling with people no matter what time of day you visit. There is also a smoking area outside.

Enigma Cafe

2. Electric Avenue (now called Danger Danger)

Right next door to Enigma Cafe is the famous, or infamous, Electric Avenue. If you have ever had a night out in Wellington, then you have probably ended up here before the night was over. It is a backpacker friendly bar, with cheap prices and the latest chart hits. Generally speaking after midnight you will find that most of the native Kiwi’s will have left and so you will be surrounded by your fellow backpackers. The drinks on offer are classic Kiwi favourites, including the Sauvignon Blanc that New Zealand is famous for as well as your more standard beers and ciders. Electric Ave has, however, been closed down and is now under the name of Danger Danger. The setup is still the same, except now they have extended their food menu to include Wood Fire Pizzas. I haven’t tried these myself, but they definitely look interesting.

I have had many a good night here when it was Electric Avenue, and if you are a cider drinker, like myself, do try the Wild Side, which is a Kiwi produced brand. Or for the beer drinkers out there, try the Tui or Mac’s beers, both of which can often be found on tap. The music in Electric Ave will change from the Chart Hits to some 80’s or 90’s music. One thing I found about New Zealand is the radio stations do play a lot of 80’s music, so be prepared to sing the night away to the likes of Rick Springfield’s Jessie’s Girl and Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Want To Have Fun. From the reviews I have seen, Danger Danger still seems to have the same vibe as Electric Avenue did, it is just under a different name, so definitely check it out.

3. Tank

Moving from one drinking establishment to another.. Tank. Tank is a chain of juice and smoothly bars, which sells some really delicious and healthy fruit shakes, wraps and salads. All of the shops have a large menu of juices and smoothies, which detail the ingredients and whether they are vegan and/or vegetarian friendly. The drinks cost around $9-$11 each and come in a choice of Half Tank or Full Tank. The brand is a stand-out orange colour, so it is easy to spot. You can find a Tank in most towns and cities, such as Auckland, Wellington, Nelson and Christchurch, to name a few. There are 50 stores in total across New Zealand.

My favourite drinks are on the Tank menu are either the Berry Hipster or the All Berry Tank. Both are filled with beautiful berries, as the names suggest, including strawberries, blueberries and raspberries. There is also a great range of illness-fighting shakes, including the Tank Healer and the Xtreme C. Of course, you don’t just have to stick to the menu, as you can customise your shake by adding extra shots, such as the immunity shot (found in the Tank Healer). There is a great selection of drinks and snacks on offer and they are made fresh right in front of you. It is definitely worth a visit after a long night out at Electric Avenue.

Tank Juice Bar

4. Burger Fuel

New Zealand has a lot of great food options, one of which is Burger Fuel. If you talk to anyone in New Zealand about food, you will probably be advised to go visit a Burger Fuel. Mainly on the North Island, the stores are in most towns. The burgers are decently priced and you can choose from a good range of options, including beef, chicken and vegetarian burgers. My favourite burgers are the Bacon Backfire (which is chicken based) and the C N Cheese (beef based).

Burger Fuel is an iconic brand in New Zealand and Australia, which is beginning to branch out into other countries. I’m hoping it will come to the UK some day soon. The burgers are extremely tasty and are more than enough to fill you. Other things to try at Burger Fuel are the Kumara Fries (New Zealand’s native sweet potato made into chips) and Aioli (another New Zealand favourite, of garlic and mayonnaise). The burgers are styled as gourmet, so don’t be expecting the typical fast food style, because these are so much better.

5. Noodle Canteen

If you maybe aren’t a fan of the amazing Burgers served at Burger Fuel, another great place to try is Noodle Canteen. Based at the top of Courtenay Place in Wellington, this noodle bar offers huge bowls of freshly made noodles for around $11.00 each. It is a budget-minded traveller friendly place, as the large bowls can be used for two meals, or more, depending on how much you eat. For me, Noodle Canteen was one of the few places open after a long day at work and it was on my way home. I could pick up a bowl of their Sweet and Sour box (amazing and full of meat and vegetables), which would then do me for dinner that night and lunch the next day. New Zealand food is often influenced by Asian culture, as there are a lot of connections between Asia and New Zealand.

For me, Noodle Canteen was one of the few places open after a long day at work where I would quite often be leaving after midnight. I could pick up a bowl of their Sweet and Sour box (amazing and full of meat and vegetables), which would then do me for dinner that night and lunch the next day. It’s not out-of-this-world food and it may be something you can find in your own country, but it is definitely good food for a cheap price.

6. Wellington Night Market

One of the highlights of Wellington and their food culture is the Night Market and I couldn’t discuss food in Wellington without mentioning it. It takes place just off Cuba Street on Friday and Saturday evenings. The Friday Night Market is located off Cuba Street by the old bank-turned Burger King. The Saturday Night Market is further up Cuba Street and some of the surrounding shops and restaurants also stay open later. The Night Market showcases local Wellington businesses with a good variety of food and crafts on offer. The market consists of food trucks from a number of restaurants in Wellington. The food is decently priced and the market attracts a big crowd, both of visitors and locals. I would suggest you try the deep fried ice cream, if you are a dessert person. It’s something that you probably won’t try anywhere else.

The Night Market showcases local Wellington businesses with a good variety of food and crafts on offer. The market consists of food trucks from a number of restaurants in Wellington, with mini menus for you to try from. The food is decently priced and the market attracts a big crowd, both of visitors and locals. I would suggest you try the deep fried ice cream if you are a dessert person. It’s something that you probably won’t try anywhere else. If you are looking for something more savoury, there is the House of Dumplings cart, which serve a selection of their homemade dumplings for you to choose from. They are great, bite-sized, and you can mix and match which ones you want to try.

Wellington Night Markets

 

In addition to this list, there are many other great places in Wellington to try out. For instance, there is Hell’s Pizza, which makes brilliant pizzas but for a slightly over-budget price for me. Definitely worth a try though if you fancy a treat. Also worth a visit is the Wellington Chocolate Factory- you can buy chocolate there or take a tour to see how it is all made. You will find the Wellington Factory chocolate in the local stores and the museum shop if you fancy trying it first. There are also a  number of more niche or alternative bars in Wellington, such as The Library, which is a more upmarket bar in a library setting, which makes it a chilled place to relax and catch up with friends. There is also Laundry at the top end of Cuba Street, which does a pretty decent reggae night.

So no matter what you are looking for, there is something for everyone’s taste buds in Wellington.

Next: A couple of weeks by the beach.

Wellington Part 1- The Real Windy City

Wellington is a beautiful city on the waterfront, hence the title of a windy city. It is the country’s capital, housing it’s parliament buildings and is also the gateway to the South Island. It’s not as big as Auckland, which is the business capital of the country, but this to me was only a good thing. Auckland can feel a little stuffy and claustrophobic to someone like me who isn’t big on cities. Wellington, on the other hand, has the feel of a small, university town with the sea breeze flowing through it. Victoria University of Wellington is one of the biggest in the country and attracts not only students from New Zealand, but also a great number of international students, which helps give the Capital it’s multi-cultural feel. Massey University and The University of Otago also have campuses in the city, adding to the number of students. The city also has a great cafe culture, which I will talk about more in a future post.

Wellington is a very accessible city, with good transport links, such as the Wellington International Airport; Metlink buses; Wellington Railway Station and The Interislander and Bluebridge Ferries to the South Island. The main shopping streets of the city- Cuba Street; Courtenay Place; Lambton Quay; Manners Street and Willis Street- are all in very close proximity, making it easy to walk from street to street.

When I was planning my post about Wellington, I came up with such a large list of things to do and places to include, that I decided to split it into two separate posts. This one will cover Things To Do and Walking trails and around the city. So here goes nothing…

1. Te Papa Museum

Te Papa is a huge museum on the Wellington waterfront which is free to enter and a place to spend a nice hour or two learning more about New Zealand and its culture. The museum includes a canteen-style lunch area downstairs; a cafe on the upper levels and an art gallery as well as the various displays on offer. Te Papa means ‘Our Place’ in Maori, and that really is how the staff treat it. They are friendly and welcoming, always there to help or to point you in the right direction. It is clear they love their work and are all too keen to discuss the displays if you have any questions. The museum shops are also worth a visit, with many kiwi crafted items on sale. Again the staff here will help you with any questions you have about the objects on sale and, as I experienced myself, are also very good at helping you with postage ideas if you want to send gifts back home.

Te Papa Museum

While in Wellington, I spent many a rainy day here, looking around the exhibits, including the Gallopli exhibit which was created by WETA- the folks behind The Lord of The Rings; The Hobbit; Avatar and many more amazing film and game props. The exhibit takes you through a darkened series of rooms, which have plenty of interactive displays and lots to read. The most significant part of the display is the models- larger than life-sized human models, based on people who were actually involved in the events that took place. These models are incredible- the attention to detail when creating these can clearly be seen. The models have been made to look exactly like they are on the battlefields, from the clothing and cuts down to the very hairs on their arms.

One other huge display in the museum is the exhibition on the Waitangi Treaty. Now, this is a treaty between the British Crown and the Maori people with regards to laws and land rights. It is a topic which is still hotly contested today. The Treaty is celebrated each year in New Zealand, on Waitangi Day on 6th February. The museum has an enlarged version of the original Treaty, along with its translation. While in New Zealand you can visit the Treaty Grounds, where the signing supposedly took place, in the Bay of Islands. To find out more about the Waitangi Treaty before you visit the museum, you can visit the Te Ara website here.

The museum is an un-missable experience and opportunity to learn more about New Zealand; its settlers; military history; nature, earthquakes and people. There is an exhibit on the sea life and rainforest animals; there is another on earthquakes, with a simulation of what an earthquake would feel like as well as displays regarding the Maori culture and the countries history.

2. City Gallery and Wellington Library

If this still isn’t enough culture for you, there is also the City Gallery and the Wellington Library, which both can be found a short 5 minute walk from Te Papa. Both of these have a free entry policy, which is great for the budget minded backpacker. The City Gallery is a good place to go if you want a little peace and quiet and to get away from the bustling streets for a while. The gallery displays are always changing to present new artists to the world. The gallery has a no bags rule, but don’t fear, as this only means that you get to leave your bag with the staff at the reception desk while you wander around the gallery enjoying the freedom of no backpack for a while as well as the glorious art on display. The staff in the gallery are exceptionally helpful and friendly, as with the majority of places in New Zealand (they know how to do customer service). They can provide you with a map, which has details about the artists behind the artwork you will be viewing and if you have any questions, they are the ones to ask. The gallery also has a little store, with books on certain artists along with the usual touristy tidbits.

The library is one of the most useful places for a backpacker in any new city. For a start, most, if not all, libraries across New Zealand have some form of free wi-fi. This can be totally free, or free but with a time limit, it just depends on the library. In Wellington, there is such as thing as city free wifi, which you will find on CBD Free. This means you can stay connect to maps and social media while out and about in the city. The wifi extends to the library, so you can bring along your devices and sit in the quiet surroundings of the library or the cafe for a couple of hours to update family and friends, or blogs. The library also allows the use of computers, printers and scanners, which are very handy if you are looking for work in the city as many employers will ask for a printed CV. So whether you need to look for work or simply want to update social media, so everyone knows where you are, the library is the perfect place to be.

3. The Cable Car & The Botanic Gardens

No doubt if you have done any kind of research or reading about New Zealand, you will have come across a picture of the famous red cable car carriages in Wellington. The Cable Car is an iconic attraction which takes you from the city centre on Lambton Quay to the hill tops and the Botanic Gardens in Kelburn. The Cable Car is a relatively cheap way to see a bit more of the city, as adult return tickets cost under $10.00. It is a gentle journey up to Kelburn, where you can get a lovely view of the city from above. From here you can walk around the Cable Car Museum and learn a little more about the history of the cable car and its use in the city for residents before it became a tourist attraction.

Photo: Jeff McEwan
Wellington Cable Car

The Botanic Gardens is a simple 2 minute stroll from the Cable Car and the Museum. Within the Gardens you can find the Wellington Observatory, where you can pay to take a tour. For those who want to remain outside though, the gardens are absolutely free and stretch back down towards the city centre. The flower beds and trees are well kept by the grounds staff and the gardens are a delight at any time of year. There is the Begonia House, Botanic Garden Shop and the Picnic Cafe all open for visitors. All of these are worth a visit and the shop has some brilliant gifts for any green fingers in the family.

4. Zealandia

Another attraction that can be accessed from the top of the Cable Car is Zealandia. Zealandia is a wildlife reservation which aims to preserve a patch of the native New Zealand rainforest and bush life. There are free buses that collect tourists from the Cable Car and take you to the entrance to Zealandia. The reservation looks after native birds and animals, along with the bush life, including the famous kiwi bird. There are special night time tours available in order to see these wonderful and secretive birds. The staff are very informative and are keen to share their knowledge and passion for the conservation projects that take place there. When you pay your entry to the park, you will receive a map that shows you the various walking tracks, some of which will take 2-3 hours, others taking only 30 minutes. The map also gives you information on the wildlife in the park. Once you have picked your route, you will notice signs and interactive elements to the park that will educate you on your surroundings, such as the sounds of different birds and the rather ugly, but harmless Weta bug.

Photo: Matt Duncan.
Reservoir in Zealandia, Karori Sanctuary.

Stepping into Zealandia is like going back in time, where you can see what the country used to be like. It allows you to imagine what the original settlers of New Zealand would have seen when they arrived to the country. Included in the reservation is also a cafe and shop, with all proceeds going back into the reservation projects. While I was there, there was also a wedding taking place, which apparently happens quite often according to some of the staff I happened to ask about it. It is definitely a very special place and makes an amazing backdrop for your travel photos as well as being educational and a truly fun experience.

5. Mount Victoria

For more walking adventures there is, of course, Mount Victoria. It will take you around 30 minutes to get to the top, at a reasonable pace up a sometimes steep climb. The views make it 100% worth it. I would advise taking the time to walk up the hill, rather than driving up, as there are some lovely little parks along the tracks up the hill. The path up consists of a dirt track and some steps, depending which side of the hill you climb. From the top you get a full view of Wellington, and I have spent many an hour sitting watching the planes going to and from the Airport, which is by the sea. On a clear day, the views are stunning.

For all those Lord of The Rings fans out there, there are some key spots which you won’t want to miss. The film locations come from the first film- The Fellowship of The Ring, when the Hobbits leave the Shire for the first time. The scenes are: A Shortcut to Mushrooms and Hobbit’s Leave the Shire (when the black riders are chasing the Hobbits to the Buckleberry Ferry). You will have to do a little walking around in the forest area to find these, and to anybody else they will look like just a bunch of trees, but to a real fan they are so much more. One way to explore the area and make sure you are getting the right spots, is to take one of the city LOTR tours. For more information on these, you can visit the i-site. The tours will generally provide video footage to remind you of the exact scene as well as some local knowledge about the filming process. Many tours will include a visit to the famed WETA Cave as well.

A Shortcut to Mushrooms

6. The Embassy Theatre

If finding the film locations make you feel like watching one, the best place to go, in my opinion is by far The Embassy Theatre. The Embassy can be found at the top end of Courtenay Place, tucked at the bottom of Mount Victoria. The theatre is the place where the premiere for The Lord of The Rings: The Return of The King took place and it is one of the oldest theatres in New Zealand, being built in 1924. When you walk into the main foyer area, you may notice the distinctive floor tiling, which is actually the original flooring from when the theatre was first opened. The theatre contains 3 screens; a bar, cafe and candy bar. By walking down the lavishly decorated corridor, you will find yourself at the Lounge Bar, where the smaller two screens are located. The main screen is up the marble staircase, behind the Candy Bar, where you will also find Blondini’s, the cafe and bar.

Seating in the Main Screen

It is an amazing theatre, with links to WETA. On the walls you will see the film posters from some of the biggest premiere’s that have taken place in the theatre. There are often events taking place in the theatre, and the main screen is definitely an experience not to be missed. If you can afford the slightly more expensive price, it is worth a visit. The main auditorium itself is a sight to see, with the original pit for the orchestra still visible. Having worked there during my visit to Wellington, I can safely say the staff are always keen to help and work hard to keep the theatre in good condition.

Finally…

So that’s the end of my list, or listicle, for Things To Do and Walking in New Zealand’s capital city. I greatly enjoyed my time there and found there were so many things to do and see. Sadly I couldn’t fit them all into my list, but I have instead picked out my favourites. It is a fun, vibrant city with a youthful feel and plenty to keep you busy during your stay.

Next: More on my favourite city.

A Snowy Crossing at Tongariro

By far one of the best hikes I did while in New Zealand was the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. I did the crossing in late May 2016. There was a group of 25 of us who travelled from our hostel in Napier to stay for a weekend in the lakeside town of Taupo in order to complete the crossing. We had all spent a few months at the same working hostel in Napier, where we had become a rather large, but good group of friends. We somehow managed to get a sunny weekend when the crossing was actually open, in between two rather cold and wet weeks. During the winter months the crossing is often closed due to bad weather conditions, for the safety of those wanting to do the hike. The DOC (Department of Conservation) also recommend hiring one of their guides during this time to ensure your safety. Luckily for us we were able to cross without the need of a guide, however we could not climb Mt Ngauruhoe (or Mt Doom for any Lord of the Rings fans) as it required proper winter hiking gear. It is always best to check the DOC website and the closest I-site before doing any hikes in New Zealand, as the weather in much of the country is very changeable. The staff at the I-site’s are kept as up-to-date as possible and will be your best source of advice in this area.

The Tongariro Crossing is estimated to take around 5 hours to 7 hours, depending on your fitness level and is categorised as an Advanced Tramping track. This means you must be prepared with sturdy walking boots as well as plenty of water and snacks. During the winter it is advised to walk with grampons, ice hacks and thermal wear. We had the thermal gear, but not the grampons. It was a risky move, as there were certain parts of the track which were covered in ice and so very difficult to cross, though we all managed it.

We arose early on a clear Saturday morning. It was still dark as we prepared water and snacks and put on extra layers, before leaving our hostel. We had decided to start the track at around 7 am that morning and we had just over an hour’s drive to the Tongariro Crossing. It was a quiet and sleepy drive, with most trying to fit in an extra few minutes of sleep. We got to the crossing as the sun was just coming up and it promised to be a bright, sunny day. Some of our group had decided to dress up for the occasion, namely one person in particular who wore a bright blue Unicorn onesie for the climb.

First sight of Mount Ngauruhoe

The first part of the trek is a gentle walk across the wooden pathway. It gives you a good view of the valley you are walking into as well as of Mount Ngauruhoe on a clear day. The mountain remains looming on your right-hand side for all of the Tongariro Crossing, though of course there is the option of an additional 3 hour hike to cross it as well. As the incline starts to increase there is a detour to the Soda Springs, which takes around 10 minutes. This is a little waterfall, which when I was there was partially frozen and had some tremendous icicle formations. This stretch of the walk gives you a little break to take in the stunning views all around you as you walk alongside a gently flowing stream. It was here that we met another group of backpackers, who were also doing the trek. We would see them on and off during the hike, as we all walked at different paces.

Icicle Formations at Soda Springs

The next part of the walk is the climb. The path does get very steep and sometimes quite thin in width, meaning you have to walk along as one long line of people, one by one. This part of the walk sometimes includes steps, while at other times you have to find your own footholds in the snow. After an hour or two of climbing, you will come to a plateau of sorts. For us, this was a beautiful, untouched, snow covered landscape stretching to the base of the surrounding mountains. Here we took a short break for some water and snacks, before beginning the next part of the climb. In this section you are closed in by all the mountains around you, but it gives some amazing views.

Now for the real climb, which will take us to the summit of Mount Tongariro, where we would stop for some lunch and to enjoy the peace of the snowy mountains. At the top you get a terrific view of the sulphur lakes and the burning red rock that was uncovered by the snow. During our lunch break here, we met with the group of backpackers we had met before at the Soda Springs. We also met another group, one of which had also dressed up in a Unicorn onesie and another who was in a dinosaur onesie. Just goes to prove there are plenty of mad people out there, probably especially among backpackers. There is a lot of tectonic activity in this area, due to Mount Ngauruhoe being a dormant volcano. There are a number of sulphur lakes and you can quite often see clouds of steam rising from the ground in different areas of the mountain range. The sulphur lakes were frozen when we visited, but you could still clearly see their distinct colour. From the summit, was watched the long lines of our fellow walkers, who looked alot like an army of ants against the snow. The climb up is hard work at times, especially in the snow, but it is, as they always say, well worth it. The climb back down again can be just as difficult however, as we were about to find out.

Sulphur Lake

From the summit, there is a steep drop down the other side towards some of the sulphur lakes. At this time of year it was not only covered in snow, but also in layers of ice, making it particularly difficult to climb back down. Most of us managed it by climbing slowly and at times having to slide down on our butts. It may not be the most graceful way to do it, but it was definitely the easiest and possibly the safest. With so many people climbing the Crossing that day, we did have to be careful not to slide into anyone else, or even one of our own group. There were a few tumbles, but everyone managed to get down in on piece eventually, after a lot of laughs as we slid into each other or someone went racing past, faster than they meant to.

From here you can enjoy the sites of the Sulphur Lakes, as there are a couple which can be easily accessed from the main path. When we were there, the lakes were mostly frozen, as I have mentioned before. Some walkers decided to make the most of the frozen lakes by throwing stones at the ice, as it made an interesting sound, unlike that of a normal iced-over lake. The sound echoed and bounced off the surrounding mountains making it sound even more unnatural. We stood and enjoyed the sound, with some of the group joining in and throwing stones. From here, there is another short incline and then you are out from the middle of the mountain range.

The girls and I on the Tongariro Summit

Once over this last hill, the walk became much less snowy, as we were dropping down into the forest part of the national park. The pathway spirals down the side of the mountain and eventually reaches the forest, giving you some brilliant views of the jungle-like forest which is native to New Zealand. This last section of the hike can seem like it goes on forever, as you are now over the majority of the climb. For us, the walk had been difficult and most people were starting to feel tired, as the sun was beginning to go down on a rather long day. The forest walk takes around an hour and ends in one of the carparks. There are warning signs in this part of the walk, as there is constant conservation work going on to protect wild animals from predators and to protect the native bush from the ice melt coming down from the mountains.

Once down from the mountains, it was a mission to get back to our cars. We had one car in the end carpark, to take the drivers back to the start to collect the rest of the cars. This would have worked well, if all of our cars had decided to work properly. After a couple of jumpstarts and one burst tire, we managed to get back on the road. It took a couple more hours than we expected, but we were extremely glad to get back to the hostel when we did that evening.

This was, as I have said, my favourite hike in New Zealand. The company was great and we had a lot of laughs while struggling up hill, or sliding back down the ice. We were a big group, which meant, no matter what paced you walked at, there was someone around to chat to. The walk was difficult, but afforded some amazing views, especially because of the snow. I have seen pictures of the hike during the summer months, when you can see the brown, reds and greens of the dirt, rock and native bush; but I think I prefer the snowy walk we did. It felt much more magical and like we were in a different world completely. I would definitely recommend the hike to anyone visiting New Zealand, as it is like nothing else you will do.

Next Stop- My favourite city in New Zealand.

Remembering Home

While travelling, I find it is always good to remember where you came from. You meet so many people from so many different places that it is inevitable that you change as a person with the influence of the varied languages and cultures you encounter. But at your core, is always going to be the place you come from. For me, that is Northern Ireland. A small country, which is part of the United Kingdom and on the same island as Ireland. It is a country of culture clash, with both British and Irish parts. A lot of the people I have met on my travels have asked about it, as many people either don’t know about my country or only know what they have heard in the news, which to be fair, is never good. So I decided to write an article highlighting some of my favourite places in Belfast, Northern Ireland’s capital city.

I have lived in Belfast for 5/6 years before travelling. It is a city I love and will passionately defend, even with it’s flawed politics. There are many great things about the city and the country in general, but I decided to pick just 5. If you would like to know more about Belfast, please read more below:

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A Blurry Week in Auckland

It’s Monday 21st September 2015, and a group of 10 backpackers from the UK have landed in Auckland. We said goodbye to the other half of our group in Hong Kong after 2 and a half days together. It might not seem like very long, but we bonded over the fact that for most of us, this was the furthest we had been from home. With half going to Australia and half to New Zealand, we were now a smaller group.

Once in Auckland, we got picked up at the airport and taken to our hostel. It was evening already and we had our orientation with BUNAC in the morning. Once the orientation was over, it was time to explore for ourselves. Auckland is a busy city with plenty of shops to browse around and places to eat, including Pita Pit, which was highly recommended by a couple of Canadian girls we met; T2, an amazing shop for all tea lovers and Kathmandu, which is a haven for travellers, though dangerous if you want to save money. We walked around most of that day getting used to the city centre and finding our way around.

The next day we went on a little day trip to Piha beach and the Lion Rock. The day trip was organised for us by Stray, a tour bus company operating in New Zealand. The tour company is relatively new, having started roughly 15 years ago. They took us to Piha beach, with the Lion Rock, as seen in the photo below.

Piha Beach

The beach was really nice and sandy. It was our first time seeing the countryside of New Zealand, so the Stray people took us for a walk around the forest area of the beach and talked to us about the local greenery, including the Sliver Fern, which is famously used as the symbol for The All Blacks and many of New Zealand’s sports teams. Piha beach is a short drive from Auckland city centre and definitely worth it if you want a short day trip out of the city. There are some lovely walks around the beach area as well, if you want something a little more active.

Waterfall at Piha Beach

Another good place to explore around Auckland, are the islands, such as Waiheke Island. We ventured there one sunny afternoon during our week in Auckland, as we wanted to go ziplining, with Ecozip Adventures. We took the ferry from Auckland port to the island. The ferry was a short trip, but beautiful. Auckland stretches out behind the ferry and with the sun high in the sky it gave us a perfect view of the city.

Waiheke Island is New Zealand’s most populated island, with around 8,000 permanent residents and roughly 3,000-4,000 with second homes there. It is also home to a number of wineries offering wine tours and restaurants. There are limited buses around the island, so always check the time of the last bus back to the ferry, unless you plan to stay the night.

We got the bus from the ferry to the Ecozip site. There are 3 ziplines, a walking trail and a vineyard all on the one site, so plenty to do with your day. The guides here are extremely friendly and enthusiastic about what they do. They will gladly explain more about the island as you fly above the rainforest. The zipline gives you a great view of the vegetation and the wildlife of the island, as well as the vineyard beneath you.

Waiheke Island

After the zipline, we took  walk around the island. The people here are very friendly and helped us on our way when we got a little lost. There are a few little towns on the island, with convenience shops and restaurants. We stopped at The Boathouse, a seafood restaurant on the waterfront. While it is a little expensive, the food is delicious and the atmosphere is chilled. You can sit out on the deck, facing the sea and taking in the beautiful sunset before taking the last ferry back to Auckland.

The next day we decided to take in Auckland Zoo. This is typically, a great day out for all the family. As visitors to New Zealand we were keen to see some of the native animals, such as the famous Kiwi bird. The Zoo is pretty big and packed with animals, so allow 2-3 hours to get around it all without having to rush. The Zoo houses hundreds of animals, including Elephants, Kiwis, Meerkats, Monkeys and Pandas. There is a section of the Zoo just for Australian animals, which is also great to see, if like me, you haven’t been to Australia either. We had a fun packed afternoon walking around the Zoo. The Zoo shop is also good for little trinkets and things to add to the experience.

Einstein the Maramoset

There are so many things to do in and around Auckland city, unfortunately it wasn’t possible to fit them all into one week. As traveller’s we were keen to move out of the city and start seeing what many people called ‘the real New Zealand’. Auckland, as a city, is fairly international and so in my opinion could have been anywhere in the world. As a person who prefers country to city life, I was quite happy to leave after just a week. It was a rush of excitement to be in a new country, especially after having spent the last year planning and saving for New Zealand. The week flew by, as we each planned what we wanted to do for the year ahead and learnt more about the places we would soon explore.

 

Next- leaving Auckland city. Where will I explore next?

The Fragrant Harbour of Hong Kong

On September 17th 2015, twenty people from the United Kingdom set off from London Heathrow airport on a flight to Hong Kong. I was one of them.

We were all part of a BUNAC group flight to New Zealand or Australia, with a 2 day stopover in Hong Kong. I had flown into London the evening before, so the first leg of my travels was already over. This, however, was to be my first long haul flight and a big step to a whole new adventure.

So it was a really excited, if slightly nervous me, that turned up that morning to Heathrow, to stand and wait by the check-in desk. The plan was that we would all meet, get given our BUNAC packs (free t-shirt, yes please) and our tickets, then we would be sent on our way.

When I got to the gate, there was one other person already there. After a while of awkwardly standing there not wanting to be the first to speak, other people began to show up. Eventually we had a sizable group and even us British and Irish people had to break the ice as we all knew we were there for the same reason. So the BUNAC people turned up and after having handed out the goodies and located a stray passenger, sent us on our way.

The flight to Hong Kong was pretty stress-free and really didn’t feel as long as it was. This was our first step to our working holidays so we were all pretty excited and curious to get to know each other. When we weren’t chatting to our fellow travellers, we could watch a film (or 3) or play games, or even just watch the world go by on the in-flight map.

When we finally landed in Hong Kong, it was 6am their time. We were rather tired and as we had been dressed for a British Autumn and not a Hong Kong Spring, rather warm and sticky.

We left our bags at the hotel and were told by our trusty guide, Leoni, to go visit the ‘Big Buddha’. So we hoped on a train, then a rickety old bus to get up the hill to the Big Buddha. The bus was warm and smelly and didn’t feel like it would actually make it up the hill, When it finally did, we were all very glad to get off, though being outside was no cooler.

Below is a picture of the Big Buddha. Unfortunately it is a little bit blurry, as even my camera was affected by the heat and jet-lag.

The Big Buddha
The Big Buddha

The ‘Big Buddha’ is, as the name suggests a big statue of Buddha sitting on a hill. It is located on the Lantau Island beside the Po Lin Monastery.  In order to get to him, you have to climb an awful lot of steps, which on a normal day would have been challenging, but to a group of jet-lagged, warm British tourists, were more than a little taxing. But, as they always say, the climb was definitely worth it. We wandered around the monastery and surrounding buildings while Hong Kong was waking to a misty day.

This took up quite a few hours of our day, until it was time to head back to our hotel to finally get checked in, have lunch and basically relax and explore the city ourselves. So, like any group of 20-somethings traveling, we went in search of  pub.

Day 2 of Hong Kong and we woke earlier than we might have liked, due to jet lag and having found a pub to watch the rugby the evening before. Our tour guide, Leoni, had a full day set out for us, as this would be our only full day in Hong Kong. First we went to Victoria Peak, to see how the rich of the city lived and the wonderful views from the hilltop.

Next on our list was Stanley Market, which was jam-packed with people and stalls selling just about every kind of jewel and tourist object imaginable. But, as we had so many places to fit into our day, we didn’t have long to stop and shop; so we were piled back onto the bus again to be driven to the next location, which was Repulse Bay, for some photo opportunities before the Aberdeen Fishing Village. All long our bus trip around the city we would be told about the places we were passing and it was very clear Leoni loved her city.

The fishing village was a highlight of the tour for me, along with the Big Buddha, of course. We were put into two boats and rode around the harbour. It was here that we learnt that Hong Kong means Fragrant Harbour, when translated. Someone clearly had a sense of humour, or maybe was highly sarcastic when they thought of this. Either way ‘fragrant’ does not fully cover the smell of the harbour. As you could imagine with any fishing village the smell of fish was strong, so much so that I can almost recall it now, over a year later. The harbour was, as harbours go, an interesting site, with many house-boats and working boats. As someone who grew up by the sea, I loved seeing it all. We were taken pass the restaurant on the harbour, which is basically a huge, very ornate-looking barge.

View on the harbour
View on the harbour

Day 3 – Another early start this morning, after a late night at the ‘Lights Show’ on the river front, which while probably quite technical, was a little boring, seeing the same buildings being lit up in the same way on repeat for about an hour. So, in keeping with British travelling stereotypes, we decided to go looking for another pub, and this time stumbled across an Irish pub (anyone who has ever been in an Irish pub, while travelling, or at home, knows there is no explanation needed for how the rest of the night went).

Today, was a new day and with that went a new list of places for Leoni to take us to. First stop was the Wong Tao Sin Temple, or the Temple of the Medicine god and the zodiacs. The temple was very ornate and highly decorated. There was a lot of incense being burnt as well, giving the place  pleasing smell. There was a huge crowd there, but we all still managed to get a good look around and some photos.

The gateway to the Wong Tai Sin Temple
The gateway to the Wong Tai Sin Temple

The next stop on the tour was The Jade Market, which had lovely, expensive jade jewellery in a variety of jade colours. The market was busy and full of people. It was nice to walk around and see all the varieties of jade. This was a quick stop before lunch and then onwards to the Nan Lian Garden and the Palm Tree Garden. These gardens were the perfect spot to relax and wander around for such a warm, humid day. The gardens were extremely peaceful, especially after the bustle of the Jade Market. The gardens were full of plant life and fountains, which really showed the inner beauty of Hong Kong.

We were allocated a couple of hours to spend in the gardens, as our last stop on our break-neck tour of Hong Kong, before climbing on board the bus one last time to go to the airport.

Hong Kong at first sight was a warm, humid city but after only a couple of days there I could see that it is rich in beauty. There is the contrast between the buildings some are decrepit and in need of repair and others are beautifully decorated and show Hong Kong’s rich history and architecture.

The Nan Lian Garden
The Nan Lian Garden

So overall, Hong Kong was a very fast-paced 2/3 days. I will always remember the overall feeling of being warm, but I will also remember Leoni and her amazing knowledge and love for her city. It was the first time most of us had been to the city and we certainly saw some of its main attractions. I would definitely visit here again and maybe take a more leisurely look around, to see some more of it’s buildings, gardens and people.

Next Stop: Auckland and on to our new adventure in New Zealand.