Back in 1989, three Kiwi guys got back from travelling, feeling the emotions many do after being away for a while: exhilarated by the experience and full of appreciation for their home country.
So they decided to combine the two and create a product that would allow people to discover New Zealand with the guide of locals, but with the freedom that being a ‘traveller’allows. Kiwi Experience was born. Some 25 years on, those green buses have shown more than 400,000 passengers around this glorious country. Glittering lakes, broad blue skies, spiky mountain ranges, vast green fields, modern and creative cities, and friendly, welcoming people, it’s no wonder that so many visitors to New Zealand leave completely enamoured by the country. So, I thought, why not see what Kiwi Experience can do for my kiwi experience?
First, though, I had to pick what suited me best out of the 25 different pass options available. The passes cover different routes around some or all of the 19 main stops across the North and South Islands, with no real time constraints. Many travellers choose to cover the whole country in the minimum 29 days suggested. It’s a fast-paced and intense tour, and so Kiwi drivers (also your guides) know their stuff, sorting accommodation, tours and deals all over, in order to lessen the time planning and increase the time experiencing.
If you have more time, the flexibility of the pass means that when you see somewhere you like, you can simply hop off the bus, get out and enjoy it, and hop back on later.This appealed to me and I did it a lot, in Kaikoura, Taupo, Queenstown, Wellington and others, as well as spending time in non-official spots such as Picton, so that I could spend four days tramping the Queen Charlotte Track. I have no doubt that the travel consultants on the end of the phone and email were screaming and baffled as I changed my plans so many times, but they always greeted me with a friendly ‘kia ora’ and said that it was all ‘sweet as!’. It’s the Kiwi way.
So anyway, let’s start in Queenstown. Lots of people do. As we drive in, the bus is filled with a cacophony of ‘coos’ and‘wows’ – it’s bloody beautiful. Lake Wakatipu is deliriously blue, and the glistening Remarkables range behind it is, well,remarkable. It is the ultimate backpacker bus destination, attracting more than 1.9 million visitors a year, and catering for them with bars, ice cream shops and pizza joints, and the biggest bunch of adventure activities imaginable.
For those so inclined, the Kiwi bus stops off at Kawarau Gorge to enable people to hurl themselves off it: this is with AJ Hackett, the king of the bungee. At 134m, the Nevis High Wire is the highest in the country, and not for the faint hearted. An advantage of travelling on a coach is that there are 50-odd ‘friends’ there to support/bully, and so we all crowded around to watch the madder souls ping off the 1880-built suspension bridge. I passed, but agreed it was a gorgeous place to throw yourself off something while attached to a piece of elastic, and the squeals were apparently indicative of enjoyment. They came back alive.And were rewarded with drinks that night.
The other spot famed for thrills is Taupo, and by the time you leave this vast volcanic crater lake (bigger than Singapore) 60% of the bus will be rocking a Skydive Taupo T-shirt. The pink plane is notorious in town, the pumped up music on board a lot of fun, and the way down almost indescribable (not good for a journalist!) – everyone comes off saying ‘wow’, the fusion of utter terror meets utter thrill; a heady mix.
I opt to stay a few days in Taupo, and so have time to enjoy what the lake has to offer at a slightly more sedate pace with Big Sky Parasail, a gentle glide in the air offering panoramic views, and aboard Fearless, a beautiful sailing boat which offers super-value 2.5 hour cruises, including a trip to the contemporary Maori carvings, a glass of wine and a Tim Tam.
The other must do from Taupo is the Tongariro Crossing.Voted one of the world’s best one-day walks, this is a deceptively tough 19.6km hike across a billowing volcano,red craggy rocks and vast craters. It was unlike any trek I have ever undertaken before. The Emerald Lake, around 10km in, looks as though it has been infused with Kryptonite, but it’s the slippy sliding descent down post Red Rocks that will stay in my mind. Do I stomp, pigeon step, slide on my bottom?I did all three. As my feet fell beneath me for a good 400 minutes, I did consider feigning an emergency. But I made it.The legs are still sore. And again, plenty of beer went down among those who made it.
Though, to be honest, even without all these achievements,drinks would still go down. There’s no denying that the reputation Kiwi Experience has of being a party bus is generally pretty well-deserved. With most (but not all) of the crowd leaning towards the 18-21-year-old gap-year trip, the party mentality is present, and Kiwi knows the best places toget your drinks on and your rocks off.
Some of the best nights were in the middle of nowhere, staying in holiday parks, bringing some drinks, and cooking together. Take driver Wazza’s brilliant idea to have a barbecue at the Coromondel’s Hot Water Beach Holiday Park. Cooking for 50 is no easy task, but when everyone gets involved, the banter is flowing, and the meat cooking, there’s no better way to get to know the rest of your bus. Next we borrowed a spade and headed down to the beach to dig holes in the sand and bathe in the hot (up to 65°C) water, seethe steam rise from the shoreline, and gaze up at the swathes of glittering stars.
Maori culture is important, and the guides embrace it, teaching us words and facts. There’s a day trip to tapu (sacred) Cape Reinga, the most northerly point of New Zealand, where the Tasman meets the Pacific, and the spirits of the Maori dead leave this world from the next. Part of the journey from the chilled-out seaside town of Paihia, we also cruise up 90 Mile Beach (90km, but who’s counting) to see the waves hit the shore. Kiwis love their thrills, and so hello sandboarding. Speeds of up to 70km per hour can be achieved on the 150m-high Te Paki dunes – and when we see a bus-load of retirees whizzing down the dunes on their tummies, we have all got to give it a go. Less Maori, still Kiwi, on the way back it’s the best ‘fush and chups’ in NZ –although they all say that.
The other spot famed for Maori culture is Rotorua, where we all go to the Tamaki evening, a tourist-focused Maori experience of dance and entertainment. A walk around the village where we play games, some of the guys in our group undertake a Haka, and we eat a traditionally prepared hangi – a meal steamed underground in hot rocks. Reminiscent of a roast dinner, it’s a welcome variation from backpacker pasta for most of us. Despite Rotorua being the second most common spot for tourists to get tattoos, as far as I know, noone came away with a ‘ta moko’. Perhaps the explanation of how the Maori people literally gouged their skin and filled it with pigment from burnt caterpillar put them off.
When travelling New Zealand you are blasted with opportunities to do and see things that you would never normally consider. Like hike a glacier. The Franz Josef Glacier is formidable. Some 35-45m of snow falls upon the glacier every year, causing depths of up to 350m of ice. The area of snow accumulation, called the Neve, is now 30km sq, bigger than the South Island’s second largest city, Christchurch. At 128m-long and 2,800m-high, it dwarfs man-made structures such as the 324m Eiffel Tower. But little old you and me can walk to it from the nearby town, through lush rainforests anda vast rugged galley, or on it, by getting a helicopter to the top. A mix of approaches was taken by the crowd I was with,but everyone had the same response – “Nature bloody rocks”.
The natural world is also a huge draw in Kaikoura – which literally means eat (kai) crayfish (koura). I’m getting good at this Maori now. The marine capital of New Zealand, 13 of the world’s whale species are resident or regular visitors in the Pacific waters near here, and dolphins surround the bay.Mainly for the girls, I must be honest, the chance to swim with dolphins proved too much, and amid the squeals and splashes it was hard to tell which were the more intelligent species. Round the bay seals laze languidly on rocks, and as the waves hit the shore and the salty scent overwhelms, it’s easy to believe that you are in Cornwall. Especially when you see a sign for Torquay…
Thankfully for a fidget like me, there’s tons of stops and walks en route, which also let you see places that you wouldn’t necessarily want to spend a whole night in, like a wander in the Ruakari Reserve before heading to Waikato and its glow worm-filled caves, the Punakaiki Pancake Rocks near Westport to see pink sheep at the revealingly named Sheep World in Warkworth north of Auckland, or swing by Bushmans Cafe in South Westland, where possom pie is on the menu.
Even the travel bit of the trip isn’t bad. The drive down the West Coast is spectacular, from fjords to clear blue sea and white silica sand, to tussock-clad hills. The crystalline lakes through Otago are imposing, grand and marvellous, and the world-famous Tranz Alpine train zooms through 16 tunnels and 223km of the Southern Alps and New Zealand’s highest peak, Mount Cook.
Take your trip on the bus with Kiwi Experience and you get the guidance of local people and advice on where to go; the chance to see a whole country in less than a month,or take a year at a more leisurely pace; a ready-made group of mates – and the chance to jump off the bus when those mates prove to be less matey; the option to whizz on round or spend longer in a spot that takes your fancy; and, of course, the knowledge that your big green bus is legendary.To summarise? It’s sweet as.
NEED TO KNOW
WHERE TO STAY: Kiwi guarantee your first night’s accommodation and have good links with the Base chain, so whether it’s sky-high views in Auckland or chilling out in Paihia’s Pipi Patch Base, deals are available. They also know some top spots that are a little bit different, like the Hot Water Beach Top 10 Holiday Park, or River Valley, a family owned farmstead-cum-holiday park where horse riding and rafting are on offer, and many consider to be their NZ highlight. If you are sticking to a spot for a few nights and want something different, I recommend Funky Green in Rotorua for fresh eggs and feel-good vibes, Sequoia Lodge in Picton for nightly gooey hot chocolate cake, and Foley’sin Christchurch for English country garden style.
WHAT TO EAT AND DRINK: Grab yourself a glug of L&P – a sort of herbal sherbet-tasting soft drink – and a pie, and blend in with the locals.In Wellington head to Cuba Street for a taste of the coollittle capital with more bars per capita than New York;in Auckland tap up Base’s The Globe for cheap rounds,or head to Ponsonby for some quirky spots, and inQueenstown it’s all about the Kiwi Crawl. Five drinks anda free pizza? I’m in. Best bites include Oriental street food Chow in Wellington, Little Bird breakfasts in Auckland, and ‘fush and chups’ just about anywhere.
WHAT TO DO: Jump out of a plane, tramp the world’s best routes, ping off a bit of elastic, raft down a canyon, drink famous wines,bathe in boiling water, paddle on black beaches, cross volcanoes. What can’t you do in New Zealand? It’s all part of the Kiwi Experience.
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