“Here comes the big green f*ck truck,” the hostel worker casually remarked, as the coach rolled into view. I responded with a nervous laugh, before bidding him farewell. Fresh-faced and dishevelled (mostly) young persons stared down from the windows of the coach as I queued to offload my backpack into the hold underneath, wondering what I’d got myself into.
I was setting off on a solo 16-day adventure through New Zealand and the Kiwi Experience backpacker bus would be my primary mode of transport. A chubby man with a clipboard – the driver, it turned out – waited by the coach door and ticked off my name as I boarded. A nostalgic feeling crept up on me – I hadn’t seen a clipboard since my school days, and I remembered field trips, the days of needing to register with the teacher. Turned out that this was the first of many, many times I would be seeing a clipboard on the trip, and this won’t be the last time I’d be made to feel like a bit of a big kid on their first day at school.
It’d been more than 10 years since I finished school – I was 27 and found myself on the Kiwi Experience because while I’d have loved to explore New Zealand in a car or campervan, I was going solo, so rather than it being just me and the open road, I opted for a backpacker bus that I hoped would take the hard work out of getting about, and help me make some friends in the process.
There was a stench of booze mixed with foot odour as I boarded the bus and found myself the nearest empty seat. I introduced myself to my neighbour, his name was Till, he was 21 and from Germany. In the next couple of days, I discovered that much of the bus was packed with “gap yah” students from Europe, the States and England. Many were also fresh out of university. There was one couple who was a tiny bit older than I was – newlyweds from Australia.
Chart music was booming from the speakers as we departed from Christchurch – I’d spent a day in the city beforehand, exploring the Quake City Museum (must-visit – it’s brilliantly interactive) and Christchurch Botanic Gardens. The driver spoke over the microphone, giving a commentary on where we were headed, how long it would be till the next toilet and supermarket stop (two hours) and then explained that clipboards (they’re back) were being passed around listing hostel accommodation options and activities for the next stop on the route – you had to simply put your name down and you’d be booked in.
“Make some noise if you’re from England” the driver roared over the microphone, and the seemingly sleepy passengers sprung to life, “now make some noise if you’re drinking tonight”, there were whoops of delight heard. This set the tone for the next few days, and it reeked of a freshers’ week vibe. Been there, done that, got the T-shirt, I thought to myself.
As the clipboard with the accommodation sheet reached me, there were different rooms available; private rooms for a higher price, which were taken up by the couples on the coach, and then there were mixed and single sex dorms. My neighbour Till scribbled his name in a slot in the mixed dorm, and I asked him if I could tag along. He said “sure, as long as I get the top bunk,” to which I nodded and signed my name on the paper.
When we eventually arrived at our accommodation in Nelson, more than five hours later, we were exhausted – it had been a long ride and this was because of the earthquake that happened a few months previously – the stop we initially were meant to make was no longer accessible by road. There was a long queue to check-in: getting more than 40 people signed in at once is a bit like being in a car at Piccadilly Circus at rush hour – you’re not getting far, fast. The remainder of the evening passed nicely though, we dropped off our bags and Till and I and a couple of our dorm friends headed out for a walk to see what the sleepy city of Nelson’s had to offer. Very little, it seemed, although the Queen’s Gardens and waterside area were nice. Later on, we came back to rustle up some dinner with our supermarket shop – I got pasta, and Till got tinned tuna and rice. I headed off to bed by 10 as I was due to be up and on the coach by 7am the next morning to make the coach to the next stop. WiFi was incredibly expensive and was often payable by the hour in hostels, so I was glad I bought a WiFi dongle at the airport that allowed access to the internet in most places.
As I was doing the Kea route – which covers both North and South Island in just over two weeks – I was on the move a lot and almost every other day I was at a new destination (it helps to pack sensibly and have a good backpack that opens up like a suitcase). Because I was sticking to the fixed route – other travellers had the option to stay longer in each destination if they wished, but they would have to change their bus bookings accordingly – to get everything done in the two weeks, there was a lot of time spent on the coach, and most days I was up by 6.45am to catch the coach for 7am. For those with more time, it’s probably wise not to do the routes like this – on “minimum time” – as it can feel rushed and you don’t have much flexibility, for example, if you arrive at a place and really like it, you might want to stay for longer, but you can’t because ultimately you may not make your return flight home. The minimum time travel route also meant I missed out on certain things: for example, in Abel Tasman I couldn’t do the four-hour trek through the national park as we arrived there at 6pm and were set to depart at 10am the following day (and the trek started at 2pm), and star gazing was called off at Lake Taupo as the weather wasn’t good, and I was set to leave early the next morning so I couldn’t delay it and experience it another day.
On our way out of Nelson the there was an incredible photo stop at the Nelson Lakes – and there were a few more memorable photo stops over the next couple of weeks, which was one of the highlights of the Kiwi Experience – the drivers took us to good spots and some days we even did little hikes together to break up the long bus journeys. What else is great is that the Kiwi bus tours the main hotspots, and this one took me to all the key places I wanted to visit – Franz Josef, Abel Tasman, Lake Wanaka, Queenstown, Lake Tekapo and then on to the North Island.
The initial impression I got of the driver being very “teacher-like” was solidified as he was the person who dictated toilet stops along the driving route, took the group to the supermarket to stock up on essentials, pointed out interesting landmarks as we drove and he was the one who attempted to solve any problems we had, for example, if someone wanted to change their travel route. This felt like an escorted tour and while you have time to do your own thing, it was also a bit strict: if you missed the bus without letting the driver know you wouldn’t be boarding, you’d have to pay a fee to get on the next one, and if you didn’t make it back to the coach in time from the toilet stop, the driver would leave without you. I heard a horrible story of a girl who was on a coach before ours, who had left all her belongings on the coach and taken too long in the supermarket. The coach driver didn’t wait as he had to stick to a schedule, so some of her friends jumped off the coach to find her and they all caught a taxi to the next stop together – otherwise she would have been alone and penniless in an unfamiliar town.
On the way to Kaiteriteri it turned out that there would be a party that evening – an “S party”, which meant you’d have to come dressed as something beginning with the letter S. I didn’t really have a means of opting out as we were going to be staying in a secluded lodge with lots of cabins that is miles away from civilisation. As we rolled up to the supermarket, we were instructed to get creative with what we bought, to craft an inventive outfit for the theme – and there would be prizes for the best ones.I’ll admit it was an exciting challenge that forced me to think on my feet. One person went off to buy a pair of fluffy rugs (to dress up as sheep), a couple of girls dashed to buy some bright blue face paint and white hats, so they could dress up as the Smurfs, while another group of girls went off and buy accessories to dress up as the Spice Girls. Even I, the frugal traveller, got involved and purchased a red-coloured fleece blanket which could double up as a cape and be paired with my Superman pyjamas – simple.
Arriving in the cabin in the woods, there was excitement as everybody was keen to put their outfits together, and considering that mostly everyone was travelling with only essentials, there was a lot of improvisation involved. There were a few hours till the party yet and the accommodation providers had an opt-in paid for cultural activity: greenstone (known locally as pounamu or jade) carving. I got involved, and it was an intricate process. Some people made beautiful pendants for necklaces while I carved a neat prism as a keyring for a friend back home. Travelling through New Zealand you see a lot of pounamu souvenirs and it was nice to have been given the chance to get involved in the process of making my own.
The S party turned out to be rather enjoyable, I even threw some shapes at the disco and tried to shrug off my self consciousness, thinking, ‘I probably won’t be seeing these people again, better make the most of it’. The evening was rosy until bed time – I made a brisk exit from the party at 10pm, and at about 11pm a couple of others from my cabin came crawling in. Unfortunately the all-female dorm wasn’t all-female any more. In the bunk below me, things were getting heated and moans and groans were erupting. At the time I felt the best way to proceed was to stay silent and log-like. Being in a remote location meant I had no cellphone reception, so I couldn’t even text a friend to stay busy. It then became clear to me why the hostel worker had called it a “f*ck truck”! Everything calms down after about half an hour, thank God. Thankfully this was a the only time I had to encounter this on my two week trip.
In the coming days I met two lovely American girls sitting beside me on the coach to Franz Josef. I told them about my experiences so far, and that night in the woods, and they insisted that I share a room with them, *breathes sigh of relief*. The clipboard listing possible activities to do in Franz Josef came around and there was a cool helicopter ride and hike on the glacier, or a sky dive. I was feeling brave and put my name down for the sky dive. When we arrived in Franz Josef though, the wear was grey and rainy and the driver informed us that there was a high chance our activity would be called off. I checked the weather forecast for the following day and it looked the same. The driver was right, it’s called off. According to my itinerary, I was scheduled to stay two days in Franz Josef so it would have been worth me trying to get an earlier coach out of there, especially as I didn’t have very much to do there. I called the Kiwi Experience head office to arrange a transfer, but the coach for tomorrow was full so I’d have to stay an extra night.
It was a tad annoying, but the Americans and I made grand plans to follow the guided path up to see the glacier and perhaps have a dip in the on-site jacuzzi at our hostel. On that hike I also accidentally discovered Peter’s Pool right beside Franz Josef – it’s slightly hidden away from the normal path, but do visit.
That night a random guy ended up in our room too, and we made friends, although his sleep snoring in the top bunk was displeasing. The following day felt like a waste; I went back to check that there had been no change in circumstances and there hadn’t – the sky dives weren’t happening – but the good thing was that the American girls and I were set to be travelling together for the next six days straight, and it felt so good to have made a couple of good friends to stick with. We cooked together in the hostel kitchen in the evening as it was the cheapest way to fuel – sachet porridge, tinned goods, sandwiches and soup are about as ambitious as I got for the trip as it was a bit of a chore to carry ingredients around everywhere and unpack at every destination.
The Kiwi Experience was a good way to meet a lot of people – some people I lost and found again as my travel continued down the route, perhaps because they spent an extra night in a location that I was about to leave, but then they caught up when I was spending a couple of nights somewhere else. Everyone was on their own journey and the dorms and optional extra activities offered a good way to make friends. The Kiwi Experience organised dinners and drinks that you can opt in to, too. One day the hostel we were staying in in Wellington offered a free home-cooked dinner and it was the most comforting cottage pie I’d tasted in all my time abroad. Another optional communal breakfast (AUD $15) in Queenstown was ridiculously good, perhaps simply because you’re not making it yourself and it’s been made for you. The drivers gave good food/restaurant recommendations and tips on things to do, and ways to save money too.
The Kiwi Experience also forced me out of my comfort zone a little. I found myself riding a rodeo in a fancy cowboy-themed bar in Wellington, cheered on by some guys I met at the hostel bar; risk-averse me did a bungee jump in Queenstown, after getting caught up in the thrill of being in one of the most adventurous places in the world. Even though it took me a good four minutes of teetering on the edge of a wooden plank, questioning what the hell I’d got myself into, I finally made that jump and it made me realise the importance of facing my fears head on. No, I’m not cueing up that cliche about travel changing a person, although sending the bungee jump video to my parents was an interesting experience. My mother said she didn’t sleep for a couple of nights after watching it. I told her it was too late, I’d already done it, and I was fine. Talk about testing boundaries.
Other highlights of the trip included discovering the most scenic vineyard in Wanaka. After being tipped off by a hostel worker, and a good forty minute hike in the boiling midday sun, we arrived at Rippon vineyard and I tasted incredible wine, got a little tipsy with the American girls and some others we’d befriended and decided I’d like to get married there one day. The hikes were really memorable.
If you’re headed to the North Island, keep an empty stomach for the epic feast at the Maori cultural village. It is an experience you won’t forget in a hurry, having been living like a pauper for ages, you immediately feel like a princess/prince being fed the finest food cooked in a hangi. In the geothermal wonderland of Rotorua, the bubbling mud pools and geothermal activity park were amazing to see, too. Lake Taupo (do the hike to Huka Falls, it’s worth it) and the Waitomo Caves (where you can see glow worms) are great, too.
South Island was my favourite of the two islands because of the beautiful scenery, but the cultural highlights were greater in the north island, so it’s wise to do a bit of both if you get the time. Would I do it again, the backpacker bus? Perhaps, if it was for a shorter time. I’d do it for longer if I had a pal/s with me. The Kiwi Pass is valid for up to a year after you’ve travelled, so you can go and use the buses again in that time if you like.
Top tips for travelling on the Kiwi Experience Bus:
-Don’t do the route on ‘minimum time’ as you miss out on a lot of activities
-Get your smartphone unlocked and buy a sim card at the airport loaded with lots of data, as Wi-Fi is expensive in the hostels
-Take a good side-open backpack for travelling, as it makes getting things in and out easier and a good padlock.
-You won’t need a sleeping bag
-Don’t lose that little Kiwi Pass (slip of paper they give you at the start of the tour) as you’ll have to pay a fee to replace it
-Be open to making new friends if you’re travelling alone
-When that clipboard comes around, get involved if you can afford it
-Befriend the drivers, and go and sit up front and chat to them while driving to get a better insight into the place you’re visiting and also to get more tips on places to go/things to eat (ie they tipped us off about going to the famed Fergburger in Queenstown; gigantic burgers)
-Take anything that’ll make a coach journey more comfortable, such as a pillow, a good pair of headphones, etc. Perhaps load up your phone with podcasts and TV programmes to watch before you leave home, too
-Take a good microfibre towel for showers – it’s light and it’ll dry quick, essential when you’re moving around a lot
-Pack layered clothing: the weather changes quickly, and differs in both north and south island
-If you can’t afford to do all the activities, which can be expensive, do a lot of hikes and get out and explore the area you’re in – that’s how I discovered some of the most stunning spots, by accident
-Buy supermarket stuff in bulk for breakfast and dinner as it’s cheaper than eating out every day – perhaps get a cool bag if you can
Full disclosure: I was not paid by Kiwi Experience to write this. I wrote this piece back in 2017 but forgot to publish. Since then, my laptop has been stolen, which contained all the rest of my beautiful photos from the trip. Boo!