This first leg of my Down Under adventure I am traveling the North island of NZ with a Contiki tour group. They were started in Australia and run tours all over the world for groups of people between the ages of 18-35. @nitabasu joined me for this portion, and I couldn't be more glad to have a companion and ally. What we didn't know coming into the tour is that NZ is run in a modular fashion, running all the way through the North and South islands (up to 20 days, or as little as 5 days), and people hop on and off for different segments of the trip. Ours runs for 11days from Aukland to Wellington. When we first joined the group, many of them had been traveling together for a week or more already, had their own cliques, it was like transferring midway through high school, trying to catch up, make friends, fit in. To be fair, we didn't try that hard the first few days, we were happy to explore Aukland on our own (Central Business District, near the wharf), find some pubs (not that easy when we arrived in the city at 9am, feeling like it was 3pm), and fight off jet lag. On the last count, I feel like we have done very well. 4 days in we have acclimated (though we aren't out partying all hours of the night, but that seems ok). Sleeping on the plane during our 15hour journey and then not napping until we allowed ourselves to go to bed around 7:30pm the day we got in helped. This was our greeting when we arrived at the airport in Aukland:
The title card read "On loan from Middle Earth." After a full day in Aukland, we met up with our tour group, boarded a bus, and headed up to the Bay of Islands and Paihia (which I still can't pronounce properly). The fist afternoon we went out parasailing, which was a great way to see the whole area from far above (they have a tow rope 1,200 feet long). We did his tandem, as the wind was strong that day, so @nitabasu and I flew together.
On our tour, we signed up for "multi-share" rooms, the cheapest option, which means rooming with up to a total of 4 people. In Paihia, we were joined by a nice and very energetic girl names Charlotte from Belgium. As we picked different activities, it worked out well with no fights for the bathroom or whatnot. The second day in The Bay of Islands, @nitabasu and I chose the Hole in the Rock boat trip, only knowing that we would sail through a giant hole in a rock meant to bring good luck. It turns out this trip (which out of 50 people in the group, only she and I chose) was massively undersold by the tour leader. Yes, our boat took us out through the Bay, pointing out various islands and then sailing through a naturally created hole in a small rock island, but then we were dropped off on another beautiful island where we could hike up to be top of the hill and look out over the entire bay. Some other people skipped the hike and had a picnic. It was beautiful. And then we reboarded the boat and stopped at another town across the bay called Russel (one of the few thoroughly anglicized names), where we wandered through town and found a delicious home made pizza place (with wifi, big plus) off the tourist path. And then hopped back onto another ferry (with a complimentary ticket) to head back to Paihia.
We spent the rest of the afternoon drinking delicious milkshakes (mine was peanut butter and cookies and cream, called a Harlem Shake) and sitting by a beach watching a sailing class in the bay try to learn to tack and jibe in heavy wind. Totally enjoyable. For the evening, we found a nice little Thai restaurant and then bar hopped a bit, still heading back to the hotel fairly early, ahead of our roommate.
The next day, we all got back in the bus and returned to Aukland, where most of those who had been on the trip for so long already (and formed tight cliques) would be leaving. Sadly, because of the routing of the rooming sign up sheet, @nitabasu and I were separated, each in our own 4-person room with mainly strangers (Belgin Charlotte was still with me). We tried to make conversation and ingratiate ourselves, but didn't get much beyond politeness. Oh well. The day passed much as our first in Aukland, wandering around, passing through Albert Park, and finally going up the famous Sky Tower to see the sights from above.
We stayed through sunset, which disappeared behind the mountains without much fanfare. And then joined our whole group out at a local bar, and lasted for 2 drinks, making as much small talk as we could with loud music pounding, before deciding to call it a night.
That brings us to Saturday, today, when we left Aukland to drive south down to Waitomo. This is where the first of the activities I had been eagerly anticipating took place, Black Water Rafting. It's a bit of a misnomer as it's not rafting, but tubing through caverns in the dark. The Waitomo caves are home to glow worms, which attach to the ceiling and emit an effervescent light to attract prey. When you float through the rivers running underneath them, it's like starlight above you. But it wasn't all calm floating, we traversed rocky climbs, jumped off (small) waterfalls with our tubes, and paddled our way through the caverns. All lots of fun. The whole thing was about 3 hours, after which we emerged into sunlight in our wetsuits, soaked and smelling and smiling. I have no picture, as they don't allow you to bring cameras inside (only to purchase the photos they take, such a racket), so you'll have to take my word for how amazing it all was. I can show you a glimpse of the countryside out by Waitomo:
If you think it looks like Hobbiton, you're not far off. After a short drive tomorrow to Rotorua, that's exactly where we will be.
Oh, and on a happy note, from our adventure today, we have begun to make some friends (strangely all with couples so far, which there are a surprisingly large number of on this trip), so we aren't total pariahs in the land of the very young 😜
So more updates and pictures to come, as the wifi gods allow. Next stop, Hobbiton and Zorbing!