Bula! It’s Fiji Time!

Sunsets in the South Pacific ahead

Somehow almost a month has passed me by in New Zealand.

I arrived in Auckland as the Queen was sailing down the Thames on that soggy boat back home, watching online while trying to work out exactly how and what I was going to do in order to see the best of one of her Commonwealth countries.

Yet again, without firm plans, I was ‘winging it’, but like most times I have approached a new land with that sometimes scary theory, things worked out pretty well.

It was largely down to the great bunch at the Magic Bus headquarters in the city, namely Mike, Bobby and Daryl, who, after a tentative email from a prospective blogger with a strange website involving a fish, asked me to pop in for a meeting.

It was their offer of a north and south island pass, in return for documenting the journey, taking photographs and telling the world about the brilliant time I was having onboard their coaches, that opened up a whole world of adventure, adrenalin, new friends, nights out and memories that will live long.

My first Magic group, and driver Russ, in Wellington

I was lucky in that I had some excellent drivers and some great groups of people on my sections of the journey around New Zealand, and while it can be difficult to keep up to date with the website, particularly with the internet here often being slower than a snail working its way through treacle, it was good fun turning events by day into an online story by night.

Hard at work on the Magic Bus (and yes, that is the BBC Sport homepage…the free wifi helped me stay in touch with England in the Euros!)

While the offer helped me massively with my travel budget, little did I know that even more opportunities were just around the corner. I was put in touch with Julia, head of UK marketing for Tourism New Zealand, the people responsible for telling the world about what there is to do in this great country. After a couple of emails detailing my journey, my website and my day job back home, I was informed about a programme for members of the media and travel agents, and offered a pass. In a nutshell, it gives special discounts to enable those who spread the word about New Zealand to experience as much as possible during their time here.

If it wasn’t for Julia’s help, and the rest of the Tourism New Zealand team – including the Wellington office who at short notice helped issue my pass – I wouldn’t have been able to do half of what I have in the past few weeks. The blogs wouldn’t have been half as exciting, my bank balance would make even scarier reading than it does now, and I’d still be telling those close to me back home that I will never, ever do a bungy jump.

Still can’t believe I did that!

And so, for these reasons and to say thankyou, the least I could do was make some time to call back in to see everyone in Auckland, before catching a 1pm flight out of the city and to the Fiji Islands. I have a plan to spend a week on a beach in an attempt to bring my heart rate down and catch up on sleep after an exhausting but exhilarating few weeks.

But first I had to say goodbye to a bunch of people who had become good friends – my south island Magic Bus family. We’d spent the last couple of weeks falling about laughing, falling out of planes and falling over drunk together, but with the bus schedule to keep, they were heading up to Kaikora. It meant they had to leave me in Christchurch, so I woke up with everyone else in the dorm and made my way outside with them to say goodbye.

Goodbye to the Magic Bus, and some good friends

I was sad to see the bus disappear down the road. While most of my trip has been made independently, it was great to have a large chunk of stress, worry and organisation of the New Zealand leg taken care of. While the Magic Bus does function as a ‘hop on, hop off’ bus service around both islands, I, and many others, use it as a basic tour. It gives you the camaraderie and banter that you get on a full tour with the people you are with, the social time and the sightseeing, and of course you all end up staying in the same kind of hostels together. But you are not tied to that chain that sometimes comes with a tour – if you like it somewhere more than you were expecting, simply stay a bit longer and catch the next bus that comes along. Or the one after that, if you really like the place. And if you fall in love with the place, well there’s nothing to stop you continuing your journey in a month, in six months or even up to a year, thanks to the way the ticket works.

But I think the beauty of the Magic Bus way of travelling around the islands was that it never felt like a tour. It was more like one of the best road trips you’ve ever been on with mates, except your mates are new friends you’ve just met, and the driver happens to be in control of a huge bus. As they say in these parts, it’s ‘sweet as’!

Bye Magic Bus 😦

With just a day before I fly out of Auckland, some 1,000km to the north,  it meant I was on a tight schedule – I had deliberately left my Air New Zealand flight from Christchurch until late in the day, giving me enough time to gather material for a feature on an earthquake-hit city that captured my admiration and imagination.

The bus drivers helped further grow my love of the Christchurch too. With my supply of New Zealand dollars dwindling in my pocket, trying to hold off withdrawing any more with my departure so close, I happened to find two incredibly helpful drivers who saved me a few quid on getting to the airport. The first, picking me up from outside the hostel I had been staying, simply saw the bags I was carrying, gave me a wink and said ‘sit down mate’ after I asked if I could get a through ticket to the airport.

“Its just easier to sort it out at the bus station,” he said with a smile.

At said bus station, I was pointed in the direction of the Number 3, which takes me up to the airport. Seeing that I only had a large note, the driver asked if I had any change on me. I did, all $3.50 of it, quite a way off the $7 needed for the fare.

“You’ve just asked me for a ticket to this little neighbourhood. Lovely place, here’s your ticket,” he said with a wink. I handed over my $3.50. It’s little things like this that just don’t happen back home, where rules are rules and the customer very rarely comes first. Two gestures that I think typify the Kiwi spirit that I have already grown to love, the laid back, friendly and helpful way of life that I could quite happily get used to.

Those drivers probably don’t remember me, and I hope I don’t get them into trouble by revealing the little favour they did for me, even if it was in the long run saving them a bit of hassle, but it meant a lot and it didn’t go unnoticed. Worthy of a nice note on here anyway.

My ride back to Auckland

A couple of hours later, I was back in the noticeably warmer, but far wetter, north island again and arriving back into Auckland. Having stayed at the Nomads hostel on my arrival, I opted for the Base hostel for my final night, having been looked after at the sister establishment in Queenstown so well. I’d been offered a discount on my room and checked in.

“Oh, Phil, there’s something here for you too, it was left a little earlier,” said the fellow Brit working on reception.

It was an envelope with my name on it. I was intrigued, and waited until I could drop my bags off my back in my room before I opened it.

“Please have 5x free drinks in Globe bar on your last night in NZ, courtesy of Base.”

Nice touch!

It was from Amy, another fellow Brit who has also made the move to the country and with few plans to return anytime soon. Part of the Base marketing team, I’d spoken to her on the phone earlier in the day while I was walking around the ruins of Christchurch. It was another gesture that put a smile on my face, and I made my way down to the bar to take up the kind offer while trying to plan the next phase of my journey.

Four pints later, little had been done in the way of planning but I had managed to read a Fiji leaflet in between watching a game of killer pool taking place on the tables in front of me. That counts towards research I guess, and besides, winging it is the way forward.

I was quite well behaved and managed to get to bed relatively early ahead of a hectic morning of meetings and dashing across Auckland to the airport. The first appointment was with Julia at Tourism New Zealand, whose office was a short walk away from the city’s iconic Skytower. Having only been in touch with Julia by phone or email, it was great to put a face to her name. We went for coffee nearby and could have talked for hours about the adventures I’d had in New Zealand, her advice on what else there is to do in the country, stories of other journalists who have spent time here from London and about how well the media scheme had worked for me.

With Julia at Tourism New Zealand HQ

Apparently, there had been some really good feedback, and I returned to Julia’s office to be introduced to a few people who had helped out with my last minute application, and who, according to Julia, had become fans of my blog and wanted to meet me! It was a real surprise – rather like when I’m writing for a newspaper or filming for television, where it becomes ‘just’ a job and you often forget that an audience will read or watch your work, it’s easy for me to forget that what I am writing for fun is actually being read by people. It was funny to hear them talking about some of the topics I had been blogging about, and I was glad to hear they had enjoyed them.

I was then told, as a thankyou for my work, that there was a small gift for me – and after being led through the open plan office, was presented with a fantastic Pure New Zealand outdoor jacket, and a warm Merino Wool thermal top. It was a lovely gesture, one I had not expected, and I will wear them with pride back in the northern hemisphere, remembering the brilliant three weeks I had spent in a stunningly spectacular country.

With time running out, and goodbyes all round, it was a quick dash down the road to the Magic Bus offices where I met Daryl, the manager of the company and a fellow travel enthusiast. It was more of a debrief and a mutual thankyou – I was glad to hear they had loved reading about my tour with them, and the company is sharing the blog through its social media outlets, meaning my hits are rising and they can spread the word about the product they offer. Win, win!

For me, the past few weeks and months have taught me something else about the creative art of blogging. Before this trip, I admit I’d never contemplated a blog before, thinking it was something that people do for a bit of fun, or, like me, to help keep a personal record of day to day life or a journey abroad. For the first time, however, I realised how much of a powerful tool a good blog can be, and that is being recognised by businesses as a useful marketing device. From a company perspective, giving up a spare seat or making time for an extra bungy jumper costs next to nothing. Yet the reach and publicity that a well written blog can offer, right down to a specific audience, can be invaluable. And, above all, I have realised it is a great way of keeping a note of everything i’ve done. Eight months in, and i’m already looking back at my first entries, surprising myself at what I have already forgotten.

Now time was really getting tight, and my plans to catch the regular airport bus had to be ditched. With less than two hours before my flight, I had to splash out on a taxi, a whopping £30, which for any backpacker, is a large chunk of cash. But it was either that, or miss the flight by catching a bus and paying out an even larger chunk of cash to Air Pacific for the next available seat to Fiji.

Auckland, and New Zealand, disappears from view

Thankfully, I made the flight. I was lighter in the pocket, but I even had time to spare. With no accommodation booked, it surprised the older couple I was sat next to on the three hour flight.

“Aren’t you worried about what to do when you get there?” they asked me.

Landing in Fiji – greener than I was expecting

I told them that whenever I ‘wing it’ something usually works itself out. And the theory was proved right in front of them when I turned my phone back on upon landing in Nadi. It immediately sprung into action – a text from Graham and Kelly, my friends from Australia who I’d met up with in Queenstown. They had also flown to Fiji on the same day as me, and had set themselves up in a backpackers hotel on the nearby beach.

“I’m going to meet my friends – looks like my accommodation situation has been decided,” I joked with the couple, who seemed glad that I at least had someone to go and meet.

There was one major problem I had to overcome before then, however, thanks to my lovely bank HSBC. I’ve not really touched on this in the past, but since Darwin I have been unable to use my Visa card as a debit card in shops, hostels or anywhere else with the swipe card system we are so used to paying for goods with. It is all because my details were apparently recovered by the police in some sort of raid, somewhere, and there is a risk my card may have been cloned. So, for the past two months, I have been forced to take out large sums of cash from ATMs everywhere I go, at considerable expense thanks to the overseas bank withdrawal charges (imagine how much the banks are making thanks to this convenient ‘security measure’) and pay for absolutely everything with cash.

Bula Fiji! Touch down in country number 12.

Arriving in Nadi, with no Fiji money – or any other currency, for that matter – I headed to the cash machine at the airport.

“Transaction declined by issuer” are not words you need to see on the screen in that situation.

So, I needed to ring my bank. Except the time difference means it’s the middle of the night back home. And besides, my New Zealand sim card, nor my calling card, work in Fiji. And I have no cash to buy another phone card, or to make a call. And that was the vicious circle I found myself in. No cash, no way of calling my bank to get more cash, which means, I have no cash.

After about half an hour of scratching my head, searching for any leftover money in my bag that I could perhaps change, and trying not to scream at the woman who kept coming over and asking me ‘Do you have a problem sir. We have lovely hotel,” I came up with a plan – Skype.

I haven’t used it to make proper phone calls to anyone before, mainly because I just use the free webcam chat to speak to family and friends, but now it was about to help me out in a massive way. The only problem was I needed the internet.

I made my way to departures to use the airport wifi – which I had to pay for. Thankfully, my card still works online (strange, because if I was to clone a card, I would probably use it online?!) so I bought wifi access, to then buy Skype credit, to then have an infuriatingly difficult conversation with an overseas call centre who couldn’t quite get her head around the fact the call quality wasn’t great because I was using a poor internet connection for a call due to the situation the bank had left me in.

Anyway, it was yet another frustration with my bank (I won’t get started on that stupid calculator thing…I’ll be ranting for some time) but I was glad to finally get hold of some cash, jump in another taxi (only £5 here, for about the same distance as in Auckland!) and I was glad to see Graham and Kelly smiling as I reached the reception. I was definitely in need of a beer – and to ditch some of my layers from the cold of New Zealand. It was nice to be digging around in my bag for the shorts rather than a scarf again!

With Kelly and Graham again, after arriving in Fiji

We walked along the beach and had dinner at a nearby restaurant, being entertained by Fijian dance and watching one of the best fire shows I have seen on my travels. They were a great bunch of performers, and we all ended up taking part in the show towards the end, complete with some wacky dancing from Graham.

Kava time…

Graham and I went for a couple of beers at a nearby backpackers, where we were handed a special drink. Its called Kava, a Fijian speciality, drunk from a hollowed out coconut shell in a social setting with everyone sitting around a big bowl of the stuff.

About as appealing as a glass of water from the Humber

Its is actually made from the ground up roots of a plant on the islands. It looks like pond water, smells like pond water, and strangely enough, actually tastes like pond water. So why does everyone drink it here?

Down in one

A few seconds after being cajoled into downing an entire shell full in one, I began to find out why. My tongue and lips began to feel tingly, before getting that weird numbed feeling, rather like when the anaesthetic is wearing off after having a filling at the dentist. Consumed in large amounts – as the Fijians do – it has the same effect on much of the body.

Struggling to control the gag reflex!

I stuck with just two shellfulls, the second time coming close to vomiting the entire lot over the people kneeling and sitting in front of me, which probably wouldn’t have been the best way to make new friends. Graham, too, had a try of the brown Fiji wonder water. He wasn’t a fan either. And come 5pm the following day, when I still had a peculiar headache, I was becoming even less of a fan.

Graham tries the local loopy juice

There was one benefit of being at the Bamboo Backpackers drinking muddy water though – I got talking to one of the staff, who told me about some of my options for the islands. Graham was tempting me to join him at 7am for a trip with Kelly to Beachcomber Island, a place that is apparently like paradise, although from what I have heard, is also home to all-night partying. For now, i’m done with partying, and there’s a big part of me, now I am here, looking for a bit of an adventure. With the beaches around Nadi being just ok, the one bit of advice everyone gives you and agrees on is to get away from the airport area as soon as you can. So I have to go somewhere.

The beach at Nadi

While beaches are blissful and relaxing, they don’t give you much to write home about. But then to go island hopping, and see the country, costs a fortune, and funds are low. There is one place I know of though that might just solve all of my problems. The only problem is, its off the beaten track and will take a mammoth journey to get to – but then, I will probably only ever have one chance in my life to reach it.

I’ve got a night to sleep on the decision, but its a decision that really could  take me to the far side of the world.

Like what you’ve seen and read about New Zealand? Visit the official website at www.newzealand.com

And if you’ve loved the Magic Bus journey, find out more at www.magicbus.co.nz


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