By the end of September, I got to travel through the North Island with Stray. This week was the most amazing week I had so far in New Zealand. Stray is known to get off the beaten track and have unique sleep locations. This shouldn’t be underestimated at all. I loved that I got to see the beautiful highlights of New Zealand. But what I loved even more is that I got to see places which you will never find as a regular tourist. Because I was away for 9 days, I have a lot to tell, but if I do that you will not be finished reading after a couple of hours and I do not want to do that to you. Therefore, I will only tell you about the stuff which are important to know and the most remarkable experiences I had during that week.
When I hopped on the bus on the 29th of September I was greeted by a spontaneous driver from Stray. Stray works with New Zealand bus drivers because they have a lot of knowledge about New Zealand and all the tours in general, they know the country by heart and they will speak about it with passion. All the passengers who were travelling with Stray were around my age (24), which I really liked because everybody has the same state of mind around that age. The youngest was 22 years old and the oldest 31.
The bus was really small, it could only fit around 16 people, but this bus is only used in the low season when there aren’t so many customers to fill the big busses, which can have 60 people. But I did not mind that, since the group size wasn’t that big I got to know everybody really good and it made it easier to talk to people. But not only the group size made it easy to talk to people. Almost everybody in the bus was travelling, just like me, alone. Because of that, everybody is in the same situation as you are. We are all away from home, alone and we want to explore New Zealand and meet new people. For those reasons you have so much in common and it makes it easy to start a conversation with people.
I have been sleeping in 6 different towns, all around the North Island. But the bus will not go straight towards the next destination. Along the way the bus will stop a couple of times for different reasons: to get some coffee or breakfast, for a short hike, to jump in a hidden hot spring or to get some groceries. The bus driver will tell you if it is the last supermarket you will see before we hit the town or even before we continue the next day. Because Stray has accommodations in unique places, it can happen that you will sleep in the middle of nowhere, with no reception and no supermarkets.The driver will always inform you about this in the bus. Every day you also have the opportunity to cook the food for the evening for yourself, or to go to a local bar and eat together with the group.
Like I already mentioned before, Stray will go off the beaten track, which means that you will stay at unique locations and see things you wouldn’t see as a regular tourist. The locations where you will stay the night are all breath taking. In the 9 days I was away, I only slept two times in a hostel. This was in Rotorua and nearby the Tangoriro National Park. Every other night my sleeping area was unique in its own way.:
In Hahei we stayed two nights on a camping which was a 5-minute walk away from the beach! Stray has its own area at the camping which is only allowed to enter by Stray customers. The wooden houses that we we’re sleeping in were very big, tidy and the bunkbeds were extremely comfortable. We also had our own kitchen, bathroom area and a chill out place were later that night we would have our barbeque and bonfire.
The accommodation in Raglan was extremely beautiful. We were sleeping in small, wooden lodges which was located in the middle of the nature. It made me feel that I was sleeping in the jungle. The lodges were layered in different levels on the mountain, Stray had the lodges on top of the mountain, so my room had an incredible view above the tree’s and the ocean in the background.
After Rotorua, we stayed the night in Lake Aniwhenua, which was one of my favourite places. The houses where we would stay the night had a beautiful view of the big lake in front of us. In the back, the giant green mountains were rising in the sky. It was something I never saw before.
In Whakahoro, situated in the Whanganui National Park or known as the Blue Duck Station, we stayed again two nights. The drive in this National Park towards our accommodation, was breath taking. It looked a bit like the Shire from the Lord of the Rings movies. We were surrounded by big green mountains and there were sheep and lambs running everywhere. In Whakahoro Stray has a couple of houses where 16 people can sleep in one house. Each house has its own kitchen, bathroom, dining area and living room with a fireplace. Whakahoro has only a population of 8 people, and they provide everything for themselves. When you are there you can really experience the feeling of a community. The food that you can eat there is hunted by their own people. The water you use is coming from the mountains and even the food you want to throw away is going to be eaten by their animals. Even though the town has a small population, there are many activities you could do there. And Stray will arrange a party in the evening which everyone can join.
I did a 3-hour horse track in Whakahoro and it was such an amazing experience. I never ride a horse before, so even if you are not experienced at all, it is still possible to do a horse track over here. But you can do a lot of other things over there like: hunting, kayaking or clay bird shooting.
Everywhere you go there will be all kinds of activities you can participate on. Make sure that you know what you want to do, where you want to do it and if the weather is good enough to do it. It would be unfortunate if you did participate for a kayak tour when it’s raining, especially because there are a lot of places in New Zealand where you can go for a kayak tour.
Some things, like visiting Hot Water Beach or some hiking tracks, are free to do. For other activities you have to pay for. When you are in the bus, the driver will pass down a sheet of activities which you can apply for. This way you will not have to think about what you can do in the area yourself.
In Hahei you can hike to a lot off beautiful places. Ask at the reception where you sleep if they can give you some recommendations. But you surely have to go the Cathedral Cove. This hidden spot each is only accessible by foot or by boat and it is one of the locations were the movie ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ is been filmed. I did the one-hour hike to the Cathedral Cove and it was extremely beautiful. But you can also do it with a kayak tour. In the evening, you will also go to Hot Water Beach with Stray. Over there you can, due the hot water streams below, dig your own Jacuzzi.
Raglan is the place to be if you are interested in surfing or if you want to learn surfing. Raglan is situated at the west coast and it is really popular among surfer because of the strong sea and the high waves.
If you want a unique experience, please do visit the Waitomo Caves. The Waitomo Caves are famous of their glowworms. Because they give light it looks like you are surrounded by the stars. You can enter the caves in a couple ways: you can either choose the dry or the wet option. If you choose the dry option, you will sit in a boat with a guide and you will sail through the caves and see a lot of the glowworms. If you are claustrophobic, I would recommend doing the dry option, because the wet options are also the more adventurous option where you will go down in the caves, which sometimes can be very narrow. If you already done the Waitomo Caves, or you are not interested in doing it, you can also do some of the free hikes in that area.
At Lake Aniwhenua you will get a full Maori Experience, but not in a tourist way at all. You can learn the haka over there, make traditional bracelets and end the evening with a traditional Hangi. It was a day I would never forget. While you are on the bus you can choose to go to Lake Aniwhenua or skip it and go straight to Taupo where the bus will pick you up the next day. I am glad that I went to the lake. When we were driving towards the lake we stopped to pick up a Maori woman, who would be our guide for the rest of the day. She told us about the Maori culture and especially of her tribe. Somewhere along the way we stopped and she took us with her through a hidden path in the forest. If you don’t know it’s there, you will never find it. Eventually we stopped in an open place surrounded by the walls from the mountain. In these walls, you could see so many rock cravings, it was absolutely amazing. She told us that these cravings were one of the oldest cravings of New Zealand, all the way back around the year 1.000, when the first Maori arrived in New Zealand. Travel agencies are not allowed to promote this hidden spot, because it is situated on secret ground and you can only access it when you are invited by the Maori tribe. And because Stray and its customers are their guest, we were allowed to be there.
The last thing I would recommend to do is the Tangoriro Crossing. It will take you a while to finish it, but it will be an experience you will never forget. However, do it when the weather is good! Especially in the lower season, when it can be foggy, cold and it will be snowing in the mountains of the crossing. Because of the weather conditions in the winter season, you will have to pay more to enter the crossing compared to the summer season. Instead of $40 you have to pay around $200 for winter equipment and a guide, because you will be lost without it. If the weather is bad, even for winter conditions, and you want to enter the crossing, you will not receive your money back. When I could do the crossing, I decided not to enter it, because it was extremely foggy and cold. And I wanted to do it in the summer when the prize would be cheaper. Therefore, I decided to do the 2-hour free hike in that area. The hike was so beautiful, I had a really good day. But when I returned to my hostel I heard from the others, who did the crossing, that they couldn’t see a thing due the fog. Their experience was really bad and that was unfortunate.
The next day I unfortunately had to head back to Auckland.
I can’t tell you what I liked the most of my whole trip, but everything what I did, what I saw and what I experienced was absolutely amazing!