Country 2: New Zealand, January 2003

New Zealand seemed in one way like such a short distance away (3 or 4 hours in a plane? I’d been on buses and trains longer than that), yet felt completely like another world away. The thought of leaving my own country and hopping over to another one felt so bizarre and exciting to me. I didn’t really care so much about other countries in the news let alone want to visit them. Even when the 9/11 attacks happened it didn’t really faze me that much, past any thoughts of confusion and wonderment as to why anyone would want to do such a thing. I suppose I did have a desire to visit the USA one day as so much of my TV and movie and music interests came from me, but NZ never really came into the equation back then.

So when my mum offered me the funds to head over there, I figured I’d go along with it as it sounded fun. When she suggested it, my next free block of time was my semester break just before my final year of university in Canberra. I was heading back to Sydney for about 3 months anyway, why not spend some of it travelling somewhere? January 2003 felt like a good time to do it.

After a bit of thought, I chose to do an organised tour. I don’t know why I picked a Contiki tour really, I guess it just seemed convenient that lots of things could be all planned out for me and all I had to do was fly there, and I went to a travel agent to get help with that also, so I was taking a pretty lazy approach to it all.

Booking everything, finding out what my tour was offering me, it all gave me this wave of excitement I’d never anticipated before. I’d be doing so many things I’d never done in my life and I couldn’t wait to get there. I started counting down days, weeks, and then the day came.

Qantas took me from Sydney airport, a mere 20 or 30 minutes from my home, to Auckland. I’d been on flights before, but I didn’t know what to expect when I arrived. I was surprised when after getting off the plane I had my bag with me at the airport bus stop about 15 minutes later without really getting delayed at all.

I had previously booked myself into Contiki’s pre-tour hotel on suggestion from Flight Centre, but FC notified me a few weeks later that it was overbooked, so as an apology they offered to a book me into Auckland’s Rydges, a 4-star hotel just off the main street of Auckland, as long as I paid for the room on arrival then FC would cover the cost when I returned home. I’d never been in such an upper class hotel before, another first! I had a lovely view of Auckland harbour, and I enjoyed the moment so much that I took a photo of the room. Looking back I realise how ridiculous that sounds, but back then it felt pretty special.

Leaving the hotel, I wandered out onto Queen Street. My first impression was that not much was all that different to Sydney. I spotted a KFC, a McDonalds, a 7 Eleven, even an Oporto. Bondi Burgers so far away from Bondi? I don’t know what I really expected from Auckland, but for some reason the similarities completely astonished me. I wandered down to the harbour, walked back up and down Queen Street, checked out the Sky Tower, and that was all I really wanted to do on my first day. I think I was just overwhelmed with the experience, and in my room I had several TV channels and my first ever mini bar fridge.

On my 2nd day I’d agreed to meet a guy in a northern suburb called Grey Lynn to buy a band t-shirt I couldn’t buy in Australia, or at least the idea of ordering it off the internet at inflated shipping costs seemed bizarre when I could buy it in person and save money. What can I say, I like a good bargain. I still have that Datsuns t-shirt today 8 years later, not too faded and no holes in it, but it doesn’t really fit me anymore, and I’m not much of a fan of the band anymore either. They’re ok but I grew out of them.
What I thought was a shop turned out to be a guy’s flat. A 20-something man with long hair wearing a denim jacket opened the door and offered me a cup of tea and a chat in a room surrounded by newspaper clippings and vinyl records, then took me to his garage and handed me a shirt after I handed over some cash, and that was that, the first real Kiwi person I’d ever met. Nice guy really.

The next day I had to meet my tour group at Contiki’s selected hotel. All these people I’d never met before, who do I begin talking to, how do I react, ? After a very quick brief by our tour manager (not a tour leader, he was adamant about this) that we were off on a short tour of Auckland, of which all I can remember is visiting One Tree Hill which was a hill with no tree on it because “some activists cut it down”.
After that it was straight off to Rotorua, our first stop being a place called Whakawhakarewarewa, but our tour manager told us the ‘Wh’ was pronounced as an F, so our tour had a little giggle hearing the tour manager say “Fuk-a-fuk-a”.
I have to admit I was pretty impressed by steam rising out of the ground, even though it smelt like a bunch of farts, and bubbling pools of mud seemed pretty exciting too. We didn’t have any of this in Australia, not that I knew of!
We spent the night having a traditional hangi, but to me it just looked like a big tub of meat and vegies that had just come off a barbeque. Whatever, it looked yummy. Then we were invited to a Maori performance of dancers and singers, after which we were asked to join in and follow some dance instructions in a big group. It felt a bit tacky, but it wasn’t so bad and I don’t regret doing it.

Next day the bus took us to Taupo, dropping me off first at a little hut where I was given a lifejacket and a short safety demonstration, then shown onto a boat with about 20 other people. Before I knew it, the boat was off and hooning up a river faster than any other watercraft I’d been on of this size. Then the driver puts his finger in the air, twirls it around a few times, and 5 seconds later we’re being ripped around in a whiplash-inducing 360-degree turn, after which all us passengers were staring at each other in bewilderment which quickly turned into hysterical laughter out of pure shock and adrenalin. Then we were off again at breakneck speed!

After about 3 or 4 more hair-raising spins, we came around a corner and right in front of us was a massive stream of blue and white gushing water. I had arrived at the famous Huka Falls, and what an amazing sight it was! We sat there for a while as the driver gave some info on the falls (all of which I’ve since forgotten but it impressed me at the time), then he set off even closer. Were we going to head right up into the falls? I mean, can this boat actually do that? Is this safe? Then as the waves of the falls got too intense for the boat to move forward much further, the driver stopped and let the boat hover in one spot for a while so we could enjoy the experience. There were tourists standing on a bridge above the falls waving at us, so we waved back in a friendly yet mind-numbing return of gesture. Eventually we were back at our starting point, quite content with the pretty unique event we’d just experienced, with the Contiki bus waiting to take us to our hotel for the night.
After a meal, our tour manager took us to a local Irish pub where I got to know a fair few people on the tour a bit better, spoke football to a guy from Manchester, downed a number of Guinness pints, then I may or may not have danced on a table with the whole tour group, but I have no photographic evidence so I can’t comment any further.

After Taupo, the bus took us down to Wellington. The first Lord Of The Rings movie had just been released, so some people on tour were excited to hear about it, and the fact that there was a huge LOTR exhibition at a large museum in town, and they were all keen to go check it out. I couldn’t give a shit to be honest, I hadn’t seen the movie and I didn’t understand all the hype. I still don’t, I’ve since watched the trilogy and I found those movies pretty overrated. Anyway, enough about that.
The bus at first took us up a reasonably steep and winding road to a lookout called Mount Victoria, where we got to see all of Wellington with 360-degree views. The bits that I liked the most were that I could see ferries departing to the South Island, and that I could watch planes taking off and arriving at the airport not too far away. I almost remember it being bloody windy up there!
The bus took us down to our hotel, we relaxed and regrouped later for a meal then a mini pub crawl of sorts. I only had a couple of beers and a bit of a chat here and there, but the company was good. We had the next day to wander around the city and see what was on offer, but I can’t really remember what I did on that day. It mustn’t have been too exciting if it wasn’t that memorable. There was nothing I disliked about the city, it’s just that there was so much more on the South Island I was looking forward to.

Our next morning’s first turn of events was to head down to the local ferry terminal to get on a ferry to take us down to the top of the South Island. I’ve always been a fan of ferries, I still am, and it was nice to get off that crowded bus and relax and watch the scenery and smell the fresh sea air. 3 hours later we crammed back into that bus as we were headed just down the road to the tiny town of Kaikoura. About a third of our group had opted into taking a boat off the coast for a couple of hours where some whale watching was promised, but after I was told it would cost about $100 and there was no guarantee of seeing any whales I thought it sounded a bit pointless and I skipped it. Funnily enough after they arrived back they told the rest of us that no whales were to be seen that day. I think my alternative of grabbing some local fish and chips and some sort of shellfish sushi in town was a much better option.

Back on the bus and straight to our hotel in Christchurch. After settling into the place and freshening up, we were asked to sit down in the bar area in front of a stage. We were later met by a trio of muscle-bound men dancing to what I can only describe a country-techno music dressed in tight jeans and necks bandanas and sleeveless tops. Right, cheers for this Contiki. They then called up a few of our group to do some dance moves and basically make a fool of ourselves. At least the bar socialising afterwards was alright. At one point a bar girl offered a guy on our tour a layback. I had no idea what that was, but before I knew it he bent his neck back and had his head resting on the bar upon which the bar girl pulled out a bottle of lime juice in one hand and a bottle of tequila in the other, then she started pouring motioning him to tap her on the shoulder when he couldn’t swallow any more. He lasted about 20 seconds and got up with a bright red neck and a rather sedate look on his face. I didn’t see much more of him for the rest of the night, which means he either got lucky or got rid of his stomach contents, or both. I got introduced to Canterbury Draught, which I mentioned tasted like a more mellow version of Tooheys New. In fact up until this point I was taking rather a liking to Kiwi beer, except Export Gold which was quite shite and forgettable. Lion Red was passable, Waikato Draught & DB weren’t too bad, but 2 beers I was yet to taste were soon to become my favourites, Monteith’s and Speight. I still don’t mind a drop of either if I get the chance.

Next: Arrowtown, Hokitika, Queenstown, Milford Sound, Lake Ohau, and back to Christchurch

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