Going alone in New Zealand - Solo travel through NZ and beyond

What the hell am I doing? was the question that played through my mind over and over again as I bit into my bland sandwich provided to me by Air Argintineas. Sure, I had been thousands of miles away from my home of England for nine months when I took off from Sydney airport an hour earlier. Sure, I had travelled all over Australia already, and survived. Sure, I had even settled in Sydney, finding a job, a house, a life successfully. But now there was one main difference, this time, I was alone. I had left my Australian boyfriend at the airport in a bid to go and “do it by myself”. It had all sounded very romantic and exciting, a chance to prove how independent and grown up I had become. Now, as I stared out over the Tasman Sea, it was all starting to feel a bit daunting.

Landing in Auckland, I jumped on the shuttle bus and made my way to the hostel I had pre-booked, Auckland Central Backpackers. As promised on the website, when mentioning the ACB to the bus driver, he discreetly gave me a discount on my fare. Good start!

I got off the bus with another backpacker who was also staying the ACB. We chatted as we walked to the hostel, squeezed ourselves into the tiny lift (the only one working out of the three available, and working badly I hasten to add!) and checked-in. Great! I thought, Already made a friend. But, alas, I did not see him again. In fact, I spent my first night in New Zealand feeling rather out of place and lost.

As I was on a tight timetable (just two-weeks to tour the North and South Islands) I only had one night in Auckland, which somewhat limited my experience here, and I wasn’t overly impressed with the city and its grey buildings. Not to mention the fact that it was Friday night, but the whole place seemed deserted. Even the hostel’s bar – normally a guaranteed place of action – was quiet.

Now, I am assured by the Tourism Auckland that the city is “the main gateway to New Zealand and offers something for everyone”, a view that is backed up by people I have met who had more time to spend in Auckland. They enjoyed good nightlife, shopping and especially throwing themselves off the bridge over the Waitemata Harbour. For less adventurous visitors, Auckland’s 328 meter high Sky Tower has glass floor panels, and of course, if you are tempted, you can throw yourself off that too, but be sure you do this with the experienced Sky Jump team. For those who like an ice-cold beverage, Auckland is home to one of the world’s few ice bars, Minus 5, where you can drink a vodka-based cocktail in a glass made from ice, sitting on a chair made from ice in a bar entirely made of ice. Yes, there’s a lot of ice, and the experience doesn’t come cheap at $30 per adult for thirty-minutes inside, which includes a free cocktail and the appropriate warm attire to keep you toasty during your visit.

So, on my only night in Auckland, I missed out on all this fun. However, I did tick one thing I’ve always wanted to do off my list – have a meal in a nice restaurant all by myself. I found a nice little Italian tucked away on Queen Street, where I ate a lovely pasta dish and attempted to fix my digital camera, which had, somewhere between Sydney and Auckland, committed suicide.

The next day I awoke in my hostel bed in total darkness (the room had no windows) at some ungodly hour in order to catch my bus. Going on the advice from friends, I had booked a tour with Stray Travel, who operate only in New Zealand and are a fairly small company. I had heard nothing but good things about them, and my research was to be rewarded. After my rather socially dismal start to my adventure, I arrived at the bus stop and pounced on the first person I found with a backpack. Luckily, he too was going on the Stray bus, and happened to also be English. Enter, Fernando, who was to become my “bus-buddy” for the whole trip. I liked this new approach of talking to people and making friends, and so when our minibus pulled into MacDonalds for a breakkie stop an hour later, I made a concerted effort to talk to, well, everyone. And it paid off.

Tip # 1: If I can recommend one thing to anyone travelling on their own it’s this – introduce yourself to people and ask them lots questions about themselves (people love talking about themselves), you’d be surprised how easy it is to suss out who you’re going to get along with, especially when travelling so closely with complete strangers on a cramped minibus. That is, of course, unless you actually like being on your own, and don’t want to talk to anyone. For me, although I wanted to experience travel by myself, I didn’t want to be completely alone. Making friends on the Stray bus gave me the opportunity to do activities within a group, because lets face it, no one likes to drink alone. However, because I had only just met these people, I never felt under any obligation to be joined at the hip to them, giving me the freedom to do want I wanted, when I wanted. I was lucky enough to meet six guys and girls who I ended up staying with for the entirety of my trip, and stayed in touch with after leaving New Zealand!

So, with my support network of new drinking buddies in place, I was ready to face New Zealand head on. The route I had chosen with Stray (The Short Moe) took me over the North and South Islands over a minimum of twelve days. I had only a couple of nights to spare before my flight home from Christchurch. The great thing about travelling with a company like Stray is that your ticket is on a “hop on hop off” basis – if you like a place, you can stop there for longer. It was fairly easy to plan my route day by day.

The first stop was Hahei Beach, where we were free to go sea kayaking, or take a two-hour walk down to the beautiful Cathedral Cove. Stupidly, I did my walk in flip flops (or thongs or jandals depending on where you’re from), and although it wasn’t a trek up a mountain, it was a fairly long way, so I’d recommend trainers! Exhausted from our activities, we all arrived back at our alternative accommodation (which was a building especially reserved for Stray visitors in the middle of a campsite right on a beach. What more could you ask for?), where our fantastic driver “Stretch” whipped up a fantastic Kiwi BBQ for us all. (The Stray bus stopped at least once a day at a supermarket so it was easy to pick up supplies, and beer.) We chatted into the night, and then one by one headed for bed, utterly exhausted from all the fresh air!

An early(ish) start on day two took us to Raglan, a surf beach famous for its left hand break. The surf lodge that was to be our accommodation for the night was like something straight out of Blue Crush. A long drive up what could have easily been a Hawaiian driveway ended at a tropical-looking paradise of wooden buildings surrounded by trees and with views of the ocean.

Now, I have surfed for years. The thing is, I have never managed to actually be any good at it, so I jumped at the chance of a lesson with the qualified instructors at Raglan Surf School that afternoon – boards, wetsuits and life-saving included. The instructors were great and everyone managed to stand up, even though the conditions were against us and the surf was big and choppy. That night we took full advantage of the hostel’s offer of a home cooked meal and an incredibly reasonable price, before sitting down for a few bevies. The night was capped off by a late night walk to the incredibly entertaining Zip Line, glow worms and the moon providing our only light – truly a magical experience, if not slightly terrifying!

Day three, and it was onto Waitomo, a town famous for its caves and glow worms. Spurred on by the excitement of the zip line the night before, I enrolled myself in a day of caving with the amusingly named “Haggis Honking Holes” package – one of many packages offered at the Waitamo Caves centre. The centre provided wetsuits, full safety equipment, and two experienced guides who taught us how to abseil on a practice rope before going down into the caves. I had more fun than I could ever imagine climbing up slimey walls, abseiling down huge holes into complete darkness while contending with waterfalls, and crawling through underground rivers lit up by glow worms. However, this one is not for the claustrophobic, and you have to be happy to get wet, cold and muddy.

After resurfacing and claiming the photos taken by our guides while in the caves, our bus continued on to Rotorua. Rotorua is a rather smelly place, and I mean that in the nicest possible way. It is a centre of geothermal activity, producing a fascinating, almost prehistoric landscape in some areas, but also producing sulphur, which means no matter where you go, the smell of egg goes with you! It’s easy enough to find these natural attractions by following direction signs on foot, or you can opt for a guided tour. For dinner, you can feast at a Maori village and be entertained with traditional Maori cultural performances. And of course, there is always a chance for some more extreme activity – this time by rolling down a very steep, very long hill in a giant, padded hamster ball filled with washing up liquid. Otherwise known as Zorbing.

Tip # 2: It was in Rotorua that I replaced my digital camera. I would recommend taking some time to shop in New Zealand if the currency exchange rate is in your favour, you may pick up a real bargain!

The next day, after a lazy morning, the bus took us to Taupo, dropping the more adventurous off at Skydive Taupo. Yes, that included me. Feeling braver by the day, I decided it was now time to throw myself out of a plane at 15,000 feet. Luckily, I didn’t have to do this alone. Strapped to my lovely instructor Alex (guess where he was from. That’s right, England.), who was also equipped with a camera, I soared through the air for sixty-seconds over the stunning scenery and deep blue lakes of Taupo before Alex pulled the cord and the parachute opened. Another five minutes of gentle floating, and we landed ever-so-gently on our bottoms, absolutely elated, on a terrific adrenaline-high, and wanting to go straight back up and do it all again! If you want to do a skydive anywhere (and you have to do one before you die, trust me), it’s a good bet to do it in Taupo. It’s commonly believed to be one of the cheapest places to jump, you can go higher that most places in NZ and Australia (15,000 feet max), has a fantastic safety record, and they do great deals if you want a video, t-shirt and photos – of course, I got everything.

Taupo itself offered a surprisingly great night out for a small town, with the local club the “Holy Cow” staying open til late playing music that makes you want to dance on the tables, which is actively encouraged by the staff!

The next day, complete with very sore heads, we headed off to the Tongariro National Park. The weather had taken a turn for the worst, so it was lucky Stray had checked us into the most luxurious hostel I have every stayed in. Doubling as a ski lodge in the winter months, this hostel boasts beautiful wooden rooms, four-bed dorms, each en-suite, a roaring open fire, a huge TV, enormous modern kitchen and spa.

That night, we enjoyed some kiwi entertainment at the local bar, where we were treated to jaigerbombs from the hostel’s owners, as well as fantastic hospitality from the bar staff and regular patrons of the pub.

Our final full day in the north island consisted of travelling all the way to Wellington, where, after a quiet night at the cinema, we headed on the three hour ferry to the south island. Tip # 3: You will need to arrange your own ferry ticket, but your Stray bus driver will advise you of how to do this.

After getting on a new bus in the ferry port at Picton, we travelled through the Malborough vineyard area, and arrived at Abel Tasman (Marahau) and our home for the night, the aptly named Old MacDonalds Farm. There’s a wide variety of activities on offer at Marahau, including sailing trips, horse riding, sky diving and kayaking.

Now, the most unique thing about the Stray experience has to be Barrytown, aka “Bazvegas”. After a day of travelling through beautiful scenery, exploring pancake rocks and blowholes, and spotting seals on the beach, Bazvegas offers a warm welcome and a hearty Kiwi roast dinner. This tiny town has a population of just sixty, yet is more than happy to accommodate many weary travellers in it’s pub, which doubles as a comfortable hostel. You won’t find Barrytown in the guidebooks, but it’s certainly an experience not to be missed!

If you can actually lift your head off the pillow at all on the morning after the night before in Bazvegas, you will have the opportunity to partake in some traditional bone carving. A great idea for a present for the folks back home. Then, onto Franz Josef, a town snuggled in between the Tasman Sea and the awesome Franz Josef Glacier.

I chose to spend an extra day in Franz Josef, opting for the half day glacier walk, although you can do a quarter day, full day, or even a helicopter hike (weather permitting) if you’re feeling too lazy to actually walk up the glacier. The guided glacier walks are very good value, providing you with books, waterproofs, woolly hats and everything you need to conquer a glacier. The rainforest hostel, which was our home for two nights, offered a good variety of value meals to gorge on after a strenuous days activity, as well as a good night on the beer!

An early start the next day took us to Makarora, a beautiful place to stay with Scandinavian style wooden buildings surrounded by mountains and lakes. The only noise coming from the birds and the occasional small plane taking off in the field over the road. This truly was rural New Zealand. The sun was shining when we arrived, so to cool off, we headed down to the lake for a dip. But be warned, this water comes from the direction of the glacier, hence, it is bleedin’ freezing!

Our final stop before Christchurch was arguably the adventure capitol of New Zealand – Queenstown. On the way, I decided to experience a bungy jump at the AJ Hackett site at Kawarau bridge, which was possibly the scariest thing I have ever done in my entire life! Queenstown itself offers many extreme activities, and I would highly recommend spending a good few days here, if only for the nightlife. Tip – get in with the locals, they know the best places to drink!

Just some of the activities on offer in Queenstown include the Nevis Highwire bungy jump – the highest commercial bungy in the world at 134 meters above the Nevis river – skydiving, mountain climbs, horse riding (including Lord of the Rings themed rides), skiing and snowboarding in winter, rafting, kayaking, fishing, sailing, river surfing, hang-gliding, canyoning and many, many more. Not much to do then?!

The final stop on my amazing adventure was Christchurch. Exhausted after two weeks of pure fun, my new BFF’s (best friends forever) and I checked into our hostel and opted for a quiet night in with home cooked spag bol. Tip # 4: the hostel we stayed in offered penthouse accommodation – this meant sharing a kitchen, lounge, balcony and bathroom with only two other dorms. Flash packing at it’s best. Between the six of us, it only cost us a dollar more each than a normal dorm would, and was well worth it for our final night together.

The next day, as I waited at Christchurch airport, alone again, I pondered over my experiences in New Zealand. I had gone there by myself, and was leaving by myself, but with the knowledge I had made friends who I would stay in touch with for life, something I doubt would have happened had I already been travelling with company. Being all by myself was encouragement enough to get out and talk to people, find out more about them and form a long-lasting friendship. Being with a tour company was definitely a benefit, making me feel safe whilst not being in any way restrictive.

All in all, a fantastic, empowering experience.

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