Let me start by saying that I’m not a huge fan of tour buses, and the Kiwi Experience bus was my first endeavor into that area. As I’m sure many of you can appreciate, having a busload of spotty, drunk 20-somethings arriving every day into your otherwise peaceful and unspoiled hometown is not an ideal situation. Nevertheless, I hopped onto the Kiwi bus in Christchurch with a friend after reading many raving reviews about backpackers who found themselves in this magical land, expecting a similarly enlightening experience myself.
The Garden City
Not being the type to sugar-coat things, I will admit that my first impression of Christchurch was not a great one. It was only the end of February but when we stepped off the plane, I could’ve been forgiven for thinking I’d mistakenly boarded a flight back to the UK. Safe to say it was freezing for what was supposed to be New Zealand summer, and all the trees had be stripped of their leaves. On the bus to our hostel, I think I even heard someone complaining about the weather! It could well have been me, though. However, we were here for nearly 3 more days so we decided to embrace the situation and throw ourselves into whatever Christchurch could offer.
After waking up with a mildly uncomfortable hangover, we set off to meet some friends from home and explore the Botanical Gardens. Apparently a world-class attraction, and with NO terrible reviews on tripadvisor (an achievement not to be underestimated), we had high hopes, and boy was I pleasantly surprised! I won’t call myself an aficionado of botanical gardens, but I’ve been to quite a few in my time, and although this was not on the same level in terms of size or exoticness as, say, Berlin or Rio, it was a thoroughly relaxing place which was clearly a treasured piece of Christchurch culture. We followed it up with a visit to the Canterbury Museum, where I sat on a penny-farthing and learned about the history of this troubled but admirable city. Not wanting to have too much fun in one day, we went to sit in the vast but pretty Hagley Park, and managed to while away the rest of the afternoon there.
I can’t comment on the Christchurch clubbing scene, but what I gathered was that for those who do not know where the hotspots are, it all seems very dead. Luckily for us, we had a Pak N Save round the corner for all our drinking needs and in true backpacker fashion, we met a few people in the hostel and ended up sat around the table, having a rather tame but drunken night.
The next day, after desperately asking around for what other visitors to Christchurch had done here, we set off for the Westfield Mall in Riccarton. Normally, as with all curious and aspiring travelers, I enjoy tasting local cuisine or exploring the impressive things nature has to offer in the area, but by this point I was quite frankly clutching at straws, regarding cultural opportunities in the city. The good news, though, is that the mall proved to be an excellent lunch spot and we all had a whale of a time there.
A Dolphin-Lover’s Paradise
After what I admit could have been a more well-planned and dedicated trip to the Garden City, we stepped onto the Kiwi bus, heading north to Kaikoura. It was a beautiful drive north, somewhat reminiscent of what we would later experience down the west coast, south of Westport. Plenty of places worth stopping and taking pictures!
We arrived at our quaint and homely hostel mid-afternoon. Since it was a house that had been refurbished to serve as backpacker accommodation, it was far nicer than the generic purpose-built hostels like Base and Nomads (although don’t get me wrong, I love a free Nomads breakfast). We sat on the deck for a while, picking tiny grapes off the vines that grew overhead.
My travel buddy, a girl from my primary school (literally what are the odds of meeting someone from my childhood on the other side of the world), and I set off on a 10km walk on the Peninsula Walkway, which proved to be a gorgeous stroll along the coast, from one cute, fluffy seal colony to the next! As an animal lover, I approve and endorse this trail.
We returned to the hostel for the evening and prepared for the next section of travel – northwards to Picton, then a change of bus and onward travel to Kaiteriteri. As a side note, anyone who entirely understandably can’t afford to pay for a dolphin-watching trip should go stand on the beach around dusk when the tide is in; I’ve been told this is the best time to see dolphins in the shallower waters and I was lucky enough to spot a few splashing about in the water a few hundred metres off shore! Admittedly, it could have been anything splashing around out there – I don’t own a pair of binoculars, but if anyone asks, I’ll just tell them I saw some happy, frolicking dolphins.
Tramping, Take 1
The next day we powered on to Kaiteriteri – one of two ‘gateways’ to the Abel Tasman National Park. This I cannot recommend enough. Abel Tasman has year-round gorgeous weather, and easy tramping tracks for all ages and fitness abilities. I’m not an incredibly fit and active person but I’ve climbed a few mountains here and there, and so hiking and camping (affectionately named ‘tramping’ in this corner of the world) is a combination I enjoy every once in a while. My friend and I set off on a 12.5km hike to the first main campsite in the park, entertained by breathtaking views of turquoise waters and velvety green islands off the coast. Even if the weather hadn’t been so kind to us it would’ve still been an incredibly rewarding hike, with cool plant life everywhere and what my mum calls quails ‘with topknots’ running around all over the trail. We set up camp at Anchorage campsite – a fully serviced camp with running water, a sheltered cooking area and real flushing toilets (!) – and had a dip in the water. If you’re especially lucky you might spot a stingray floating around on the ocean floor. Try not to get attacked by one. With a (sadly) unsatisfying meal of pre-cooked pasta in our bellies, we went to sleep in our tent while it was still light. Beauty sleep is what keeps me sane. Besides, with an alarm set for 5am and sandflies all over my ankles every time I stepped out of the tent, what else was there to do?
After what can only be described as a sleepless night on a bed of rocks, surrounded by crazed night-birds that felt the urge to scream into the darkness just as I was drifting off, I was rewarded for my patience with one of the most beautiful night skies I have ever seen. Before this trip, I hadn’t spent a lot of time in the countryside outside of England, and even in the UK there isn’t much to look up to thanks to all the light pollution of any nearby cities. The whole sky was filled with thousands of stars, most but not all confined to one wide, infinite belt in the middle – the Milky Way. Neither of us could help but stare upwards for minutes at a time! Not even in Lake Tekapo, one of the best places on earth for stargazing, did I feel so lucky to see such a beautiful night sky.
We packed up our tent in the dark and set off on our way back to Kaiteriteri in order to catch our 11am bus. As we hiked, the sun started to rise into one of the many amazing New Zealand dawns I’ve been blessed enough to witness. It is quite a special feeling being in one of the first countries to see the sun rise every day.
By the time we made it back to the starting point of the Abel Tasman Coastal Track, energized by what we had seen as we woke up, and by the heat of the already beautiful day, we were prepared to hike the rest of the way back to Kaiteriteri if we were called upon to do it. Thank goodness, though, that we managed to find a nice man to hitchhike with back to our hostel, in plenty of time to use the showers and free wifi before our bus departed! Gotta keep the fans updated on my adventures.