All Aboard the Magic Bus

Hello New Zealand!

Touchdown in Auckland

I’ve found a new friend to travel with for the next few weeks. It’s white, got a load of wheels, some snazzy photos along the side and has a friendly driver called Russ.

That’s Russ – R, U, S, S – not Ross apparently, who is another driver on the country’s north island, and who, according to our driver as he meanders his way out of Auckland’s busy city centre, has a much bigger beard than him.

Our driver Russ. With a ‘U’.

I’m on the Magic Bus, which has nothing to do with Paul Daniels or fluffy white rabbits, but will have a lot to do with me making my way from Auckland, at the top of New Zealand’s north island, all the way down to the white wonderlands of Queenstown and across to earthquake-hit Christchurch in a three week tour of the world’s youngest country.

Now that’s Magic!

I’ve been looking forward to New Zealand. As a fan of the great outdoors, stunning scenery and all things mountainous, all the reports I’ve heard about the place would suggest it might go on to become one of my favourite places on the planet. Time will tell, but with so many people gushing to me while I’ve been travelling about how ‘I’ll love it’ and how ‘it is so much better than Australia’ then the bar has been set pretty high. Either way, it should be a great few weeks.

After a couple of days in Auckland, which followed on from a few days in Sydney, I was ready to leave the big city behind again and head back out into the countryside. I’ve already started to like New Zealand just from the chilled out vibe to its largest city. Incredibly, a third of the country’s population lives here, with its main shopping area, Queen Street, running right through the centre of the place.

Great rooftop kitchen and terrace at my Auckland hostel

I had earmarked my time in Auckland as an opportunity to plan out exactly what to do for the best part of a month. It was ‘admin’ time, as far as my trip goes, and although there are a few things to see in and around the city, sightseeing, for a few days, went out of the window. Yet again, I had deliberately turned up in a country without a plan, to see what happens. I’m winging it again, but it’s a great feeling as an independent traveller.

This was time to sort myself out with a new phone number, do a ‘big shop’ at the supermarket, get some well-overdue laundry in a washing machine, write and upload a blog or two, reorganise my backpack (for a few weeks of winter, the shorts go back towards the bottom!) and even find time for a beer, a free one at that, thanks to an invite to a bar from a few guys I got talking to in the Nomads hostel kitchen.

In the midst of all that, I had a meeting with Mike and Bobby at the Magic Bus headquarters in the city, following on from an email I’d sent them a few days previous. Faced with quite an array of choices when it comes to getting around NZ, I had already spent a bit of time sifting through all the tour bus websites. Did I want to go for KiwiExperience, with their bright green buses and young 18-25 party lifestyle, with the smaller, more cosy orange bus of Stray, or with the slightly broader mix of people onboard Magic, that will still know how to enjoy a beer, but probably not force me into drunken games of ‘I have never’ the moment we leave the hostel.

Having heard good reports from my friends Dan and Laura, who I travelled with through the centre of Australia, and who had toured New Zealand with Magic, I was already edging towards the company. It also happened to be offering the best price, with a deal of $400 for both islands, saving almost $500 on the full price ticket. And then I saw an advert on the side of the website.

“Photographers and bloggers go free,” it screamed at me.

So from the comfort of my Sydney hostel, I sent off an email including links to afishoutofgrimsby, a bit of background about me, what I am hoping to see in the country, and attached a scanned copy of my column in the Grimsby Telegraph back home, based on my blog, that dad helpfully keeps sending me. It was short notice, especially over the Queen’s bank holiday weekend, but I figured it would be worth a try.

A few days later, I found myself in a meeting with the company in Auckland. Mike, the company web marketing manager, had been impressed by my blog and is a huge believer in people writing about their travels and experiences. I chatted through with them about how the blog began, my background in journalism, my experiences in some of the countries I have visited, even discussing the type of camera I am using. There was huge emphasis on social media, something I’m also a big believer in, and we looked at the map of New Zealand together.

I was offered a north and south island pass in exchange for writing about and documenting my journey with Magic, something I would be doing anyway. It’s a perfect example of ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’ and as I’m nearing the end of my trip, any help I can get to continue the journey is gratefully received!

Devonport…looking a bit like Bournemouth in the British summer!

I left the offices with a spring in my step – I suddenly had direction and a plan of how I was going to see this faraway land. Better still, the rain that had been lashing down all day had stopped for a while, so I jumped on a ferry and made my way to Devonport, mainly so I could get a shot of Auckland’s waterfront, but also because I fancied relaxing for a while. It’s a good little traveller tip for coastal or port towns and cities. Instead of the pricey sightseeing harbour cruises that are on offer (the one in Auckland is around $45) just find the cheapest public ferry and take a seat on the deck. It was just $9 (£4.50) for the 20 minute ride across to the village, but it gave me plenty of time to get a few shots of the city skyline.

New Zealand’s outback!

So that’s how I find myself writing this in my seat on the Magic Bus, cruising through lush green countryside somewhere between Auckland and Rotorua. It’s a very similar landscape to back home, infact, sometimes I find myself comparing this part of New Zealand to Lincolnshire. It’s a grey, blustery day, with orange and yellow leaves still blowing off the trees as this part of the world heads into the depths of winter, and there are gently sloping hills to my left. It’s a very similar road to that between Caistor and Horncastle, maybe without the Belmont transmitter halfway along, but aside from that, the trees, fields, and even the cows and sheep remind me of leisurely drives through the Wolds.

Our first sightseeing short stop was in Paeroa on the way, home of a world famous New Zealand drink called L&P…

Precisely, I’d never heard of it either until I arrived on these shores, and that’s exactly why their tongue-in-cheek advertising slogan is particularly funny.

Great bit of advertising, and sums up the humour here!

The story goes that the town of Paeroa was founded during the gold rush, but then the gold ran out. It left so many people in the town, and so many houses to fill, that the townspeople needed to find some way of making people return. Someone found a natural spring of pure water, and would give it away to people in the hope they would return.

Stocking up on L&P

It worked, and not only did they return for more, people were happy to buy it too. Then another bright spark, as it says on their cans, decided to add a twist of lemon to it, making it even better. It went on to become a famous drink, and, according to Russ the driver, a self-confessed addict to the stuff.

Bizarrely, I don’t think it tastes that lemony, its more of a sugary, flavoured drink that you can’t really put your finger on the exact flavour. A bit like Coke, which is funny seeing as its actually made by Coca Cola these days, it is really nice and I can see how refreshing it can be.

Driver Russ’s attempt at being creative!

After a photo with the world’s largest L&P bottle, well, in New Zealand anyway, we were back on our way. By now, a few of us are beginning to chat and have a laugh on the bus. Its only a small group, mainly due to the season that we are visiting. It promises to get cold and wintry the further south we go, and with the summer starting in Europe and North America, this is the low season for tourism in these parts. But there was a good group – fellow Brit Mem, from London, who has recently completed his university, American Taylor, from Austin, Texas, Thibault from Belgium, a couple from Brazil, Gustavo and Michelle, and couple of girls from Germany, Elizabeth and Mel.

Group games at Hobbiton

We were brought closer by stopping off at Hobbiton, one of many filming locations for the Lord of the Rings movies in the country. Divided into groups of three for a team challenge, we were given some pieces of rope and a rubber tyre inner tube and the task of lifting three beers out from the centre of some metal rings without touching them. I was with Mem and Thibault, and as a group we worked out straight away how to complete the puzzle, but we couldn’t manage to get a good enough grip with the rubber tyre around the beers to lift it. It was neighbouring group that took the glory, and the three beers.

SobeRing Thoughts

They weren’t just any old beers however – they were bottles of SobeRing Thought, a brew of just 1% alcohol that was made especially for the actors in the films, to be consumed on set, to prevent them from becoming drunk. Having to drink it all day while filming scenes could cause a few problems at full strength, and with the winning team passing their prizes around the group, we all got to have a taste. It was a deep, dark colour, with only a strangely mild taste of beer.

With Mem, and a beer good for lightweights

A couple of hours down the road, we arrived in Rotorua, our stop for the night. It’s a smelly place shrouded in steam, but for all the right reasons – it’s full of geothermal activity.

Eggy steamers

The town is built on the banks of Lake Rotorua, where bubbling pools of mud, boiling hot water and crystallised sulphur surround the edge, and eggy-smelling steam belches out from the earth’s bowels below.

Hubble bubble, boil and trouble

I’m not going to deny it, the place does absolutely stink, but it was fun hopping around and over all the little pools that are bubbling away, all thanks to the thin crust of the Earth and the close proximity of molten magma just below the surface.

Sulphur

The lake is a strange blend of two colours, where the cooler, deep blue waters meet the shallower murky grey of the sulphur-rich edges. Even where the water laps onto the shore, the sand bubbles as water boils around it.

That evening we went as a group to learn a bit about the New Zealand, and in particular, Maori culture, at the Tamaki village, a half hour drive from Rotorua. Billed as the country’s most awarded cultural experience, it promised fun, humour, a slap-up feed and an insight into how the original Maoris travelled from the Pacific islands of Tahiti to discover the land.

Maori night

Even the journey to the village was an experience, with Mark, our guide for the night, saying hello and welcoming everyone in an incredible number of languages that he knew. From Thai to Taiwanese, German to Greek and even a bit of Aussie thrown in for good measure, it was a hilarious start to the evening as he made his way through the languages, complete with the different accents, and throwing open the doors of the bus to anyone that dared disagree with him.

On arrival there was a full Maori welcome, complete with big tongues, wide eyes and nimble feet, as the family danced around and greeted us as if we were the European invaders who landed on the shores here a couple of centuries ago. Making our way through a Maori village, we were told of the origins of the Haka, made famous by the All Blacks rugby team, of how tribespeople would become nimble on their feet by running and jumping over logs, and how they would pass the time with games.

Getting far to competitive (Photo stolen from Taylor’s Facebook!)

Somehow I ended up being volunteered to take part in one of them, a group game where everyone holds a large stick on the ground. At the correct call in Maori, I was to move left or right, and catch the next stick along before it fell to the ground after being let go by the next person along. The group of us was soon whittled down, and my competitive spirit started to shine through. Down to the last two, it was a showdown between me, England, and a tall Italian man. The advantage I had was that the Italian bloke not only had to work out what the Maori was for ‘left’ and ‘right’, but then had to work out in English which way both words meant.

It was a decisive hesitation. The call was made to go left. I probably sprinted a little to quickly for what was, in the end, a bit of fun, but I made it to his stick opposite me almost before he’d let go.

Winner!

I was crowned the evening’s champion, much to the delight of my fellow Magic Bus companions, and was awarded a photo with the game referee as a prize!

Dinner comes out of the ground

There was an hour long show full of Maori history, dance, singing and the occasional bit of humour too, before the hangi – the Maori meal – was served. Cooked by hot rocks underground, the chicken, beef and potatoes had a delicious soft, smoked flavour. Having been living on noodles and pasta for the past few weeks, and the fact that at about £44 for the night’s entertainment, most of the backpacker contingent set about demolishing the all-you-can-eat buffet to get our moneys-worth.

A Maori cooker…hangi meal and hot rocks

Two servings of main course later, followed by two very healthy doses of pavlova and ginger cake, I was tempted by another helping of the delicious meringue.

Chicken and spuds, cooked the hangi way

“I know we’ve only just met, but don’t judge me if I go back for more,” I joked with Taylor, the blonde American girl who is laughing and encouraging me to go back for more.

Then a whole new pavlova appeared. I would no longer be the one who took the last slice that was remaining of the old cake. My decision was made.

After a third slice of meringue, I pretty much had to be rolled out of the place and back to the bus. The journey home was equally as hilarious, and somehow the whole bus got singing Round and Round the Mulberry Bush as Mark the driver notched up around 10 circuits of a Rotorua roundabout. Apparently, although unknown to me at the time, it’s a bit of a regular joke that the drivers do, and with a few motorists beeping their horn, we made our way back to the Base hostel I was staying at.

Part of the Magic Bus gang. I’ve cleverly hidden my meringue bowl behind a plant…

It was a brilliantly funny, yet completely informative evening that for anyone newly arrived into New Zealand, helps paint a picture of its heritage.

There was more comedy the next day, although not from a comedian or performer as such. Somehow, driver Russ, Thibault and I managed to fall about laughing at boiling mud. Strange, I know, but it was something to do with the way it was bubbling, and quite possibly the noises it was making too.

Bubbling mud pool

We were at a hot mud pool near Wai-O-Tapu, the geothermal hot springs on the way to Taupo, and it really was something that I have never seen before.

Its one thing seeing pools of water bubbling away – as clever as it is that its all done by the power of deep Earth, you can still get the same effect by boiling a pan of water on a cooker – to see a lake of mud, so hot that it’s a liquid, bubbling away like a giant cauldron of molten chocolate, is quite something.

Blub!

With the ‘blub….blub….blub’ being interspersed with the occasional ‘sploosh’ as the mud suddenly gets angry somewhere, it was a great stop off. It was Thibault who first got the giggles, before Russ caught them, and everyone else followed suit. We walked back to the bus as if we’d been on the laughing gas that can be produced from some of these sulphury pools.

Funny mud

Have a watch of the short video I made – you never know, it might make you smile like we did!

With a stop at the powerful Huka falls, where there’s enough water flowing through a 10 metre gulley to fill five Olympic swimming pools every minute, we made our way through the lush greenery and headed south.

Huka Falls

It’s a peculiar view from the window at times – I’ve dubbed it the ‘lumpy landscape’ to the amusement of a few of the others on the bus. It seems to be the only word to use at times. While there are definite similarities between the countryside here to that back in the Lake District or Scotland back home, some of it is, well, a bit odd.

In places, everywhere you look are small rounded mounds. There are hardly any rocks on show, just smooth, rounded tops covered with bright green grass. It can look like Teletubbieland in places, definitely scenery that I have not seen before, and somehow the word ‘lumpy’ seems to fit.

New Zealand: Lumpy

Perhaps the highlight of my first few days in New Zealand came that afternoon, when Russ told us about Hot Water Stream in Taupo.

“Who wants to go? It’s free, and its pretty cool,” he asked us over the coach microphone.

Bath time for the Magic Bus travellers

We’d already been sold on the fact it was free, so with a quick drop-off of our bags at the hostel, we were on our way. Admittedly, few of us had got changed into swimming attire, mainly because its freezing cold and we wanted to judge it first before committing to swimshorts and bikinis. Afterall, if its more of a luke warm stream, its going to be an uncomfortable afternoon with temperatures already dropping fast.

With Mem in Hot Water Stream (again, stolen from Taylor’s Facebook!)

Russ was good to his word, and we found a steaming stream full of pools and waterfalls. The water was almost too hot to bear – getting in was like trying to lower yourself into a bath that you’ve run too hot. Almost painful, but done slowly, you knew you could get in. It was a great setting, almost like finding yourself in the River Freshney in Grimsby, surrounded by woodland and nature, but instead of an icy river, it was a steaming hot flow that was hard to climb out of.

Enjoying some waterfall warmth

It was beautiful, and with a few beers supplied by Thibault, we had our own natural and private outdoor hot tub. We took it in turns to drench ourselves under the hot waterfall, occasionally having to take some respite from the constant steam and heat by having a seat on the outer edge of the pool. Suddenly the freezing cold air temperature was a relief, rather than an annoyance.

Heading downstream! (Erm, also stolen from Taylor’s Facebook…well, she did have the only waterproof camera!)

We moved into a pool lower down, where the water flows out into the icy cold and fast-flowing Waikato River. Where the hot water and cold water meet, a strange sensation of having hot and cold currents running over our bodies at the same time kept many of us near the final hot waterfall. Further out, it was almost too cold to stand for any length of time, unless, like me, you’re trying out a bit of a practical joke.

Magic Bus group hangout

I think the afternoon was proof that we had truly bonded together as a group, and with it came some banter and jokes. I swam out to a particularly icy part of the river, and told everyone I’d found a really hot current. Elizabeth, from Germany, took the bait, and swam into the water that became colder and colder the more you moved away from the shore.

“Are you sure its warm over there,” she panted, fighting for breath against the cold.

“Positive, its lovely, so, so warm,” I shouted back, before secretly braving the cold and laying back in it.

“See, lovely,” I chipped in.

By now, Elizabeth was getting close.

“Its just getting colder,” she squealed. “Are you sure it’s hot?”

I couldn’t keep a straight face – nor stand the cold – any longer.

“Nope, only joking,” I laughed!

I got called something in both English and German that I wont repeat here, before she turned back sharpish and headed back to the warmth flowing from the stream, both of us laughing as we warmed up again.

Dusk in Taupo

We spent a good few hours at the stream, leaving only when the sun was setting and temperatures fell even further. We’re back on the bus tomorrow, heading out for more fun and adventures with our driver Russ, who rather than just being our guide and driver, has become a mate too. It’s like being on a road trip, but instead of a car, we’ve got a great big coach to chill out in as we watch New Zealand glide by outside. I think I’m going to enjoy these few weeks of winter.

Sounds good? Check out the Magic Bus website at www.magicbus.co.nz

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