Sydney

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G’day from the Land Down Under! Actually, by the time I post this I’ll be literally on the complete opposite side of the world in some city called Paris. This post is just to catch up on what I’ve been up to for the past week since leaving New Zealand.

After a hop across the Tasman Sea, I finally arrived in Australia. I couldn’t tell you how long I’ve been waiting for this day. As a kid I had this weird passion for everything Aussie. That carried on with me into adulthood and I always told myself if there was only one country in the world I had to visit it would be Australia. I honestly don’t know why I’ve found it so appealing, its mostly a big desert with some nice beaches all around. But even in the initial one week I had in Sydney, I can say that I can see myself staying a while. Fortunately, an old friend of mine from home who now lives in Sydney offered me a place to stay during my visit. Once I got my stuff dropped off at her place, I went out for a walk to the Royal Botanic Gardens and the Opera House. Typical tourist thing to do, I know, but I couldn’t convince myself I was actually in Australia until I saw it for myself.

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The Opera House is such a neat building, it’s beautiful. The sail-like roof has always fascinated me. In fact in high school I did a report on it and the architect who designed it, so it was surreal to finally see it in person! Seeing it up close is impressive, but I’ve found that the best place to gaze on this iconic landmark is across the bay at a place called Mrs. Macquarie’s chair. Here you get an amazing view of the city and the Opera House with the also iconic Harbour Bridge as a backdrop.

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I was really impressed with Sydney. I’m not really a big city person, but I could see myself living here. For one it’s super easy to get around. The train and ferry system is very efficient and can get you pretty much anywhere. There are also so many neighborhoods around filled with nice cafés and restaurants (Australia is pretty big on the café scene). It seemed like everywhere I went there was some amazing aroma in the air that made my mouth water, especially in places like Chinatown and Bondi. For such a huge city, I thought it was fairly clean. Not a lot of pollution or litter lying around. The atmosphere is very lively, both day and night. Lots of people out running or doing some sort of sport, lots of people socializing with friends and colleagues in the parks. At night the restaurants and bars are alive with activity. Even in the winter (off-season), everything seemed busy.

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Of course there are the beaches. I made a few trips out to some of the city’s famous beaches like Manly and Bondi. From Bondi there’s a pretty neat walk that follows the coast for a few miles to Coogee Beach, another popular beach. And always surfers everywhere! In fact, one of my French friends I had met and travelled with in New Zealand also happened to be in Sydney the same time I was so he and another friend did some surfing at Manly Beach. It was my first time and I managed to stand on board (briefly) on my first try. Best of all, no shark attacks or jellyfish stings!

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On another day, we took a trip outside of the city to the Blue Mountains in the west. It’s very easy and relatively cheap to get to by train (two hour ride) from the city center. After New Zealand (and coming from the Pacific Northwest USA), I could hardly call them mountains. They’re more like hills, but the views were very nice. We were all surprised at how cold it was though! Bad idea to wear only a light jacket and shorts. It was also very crowded with other tourists, but we did a bit of walking around in the bush and managed to find a great viewpoint that was absent of other people.

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It was a great week in Sydney and even though I went out and did something or went somewhere new every day, I’ve barely scratched the surface of this great city.

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E Noho Rā Aotearoa (Farewell New Zealand)

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Tomorrow is the day I leave New Zealand, marking the end of my working holiday here. I find it hard to believe it’s already been nearly 10 months since I first left home. In some ways it feels like it was yesterday, in others it seems like it was a lifetime ago. It’s funny how time works like that. As C.S. Lewis once said, “Day by day nothing changes, but when you look back everything is different.

Looking back now, I remember the last farewells to my friends and family before stepping on the plane toward what would become one of the most incredible experiences in my life. I remember the nervousness, the anxiety, the thrill, and the excitement of jetting off to foreign land. A land where I knew no one and somehow had to figure out how to get along on my own. It wasn’t until after my first few weeks in this country that I realized how easy it actually all was. To be honest, the hardest part about this journey really was leaving my front door. After that, everything kind of fell into place.

I found work. I found places to live. I found ways to move around and discover this beautiful country. Most of all perhaps, I found good friends from all over the world. This experience has helped me become more confident, more sociable, more willing to step out of my comfort zone, more focused on the things in life that really matter. I saw amazing places and did things that for the longest time could only dream of doing. I climbed volcanoes, walked on glaciers, rafted in glowworm caves and over waterfalls, boogie-boarded down mountains of sand, walked on beautiful beaches. It’s been an incredible journey and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

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Thank you New Zealand for the adventure. Thank you for your beautiful mountains, your sparkling lakes and rivers, your lush foresth. The fresh air, the calm seas, the magnificent beaches. And of course all the people from here and far that made all the difference. I’ll miss you Aotearoa.

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How to Speak Like A Kiwi

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The Kiwi accent is unique. While many people from overseas might say it’s the same as the Australian accent, you’ll find that they’re actually quite different if you listen closely enough (and don’t ask a Kiwi if they’re Australian–they don’t like that :)). One of the most common and classic ways you can tell is by having them say “fish and chips”. An Aussie would tell you “feesh and cheeps” whereas a Kiwi would say “fush and chups”. This flattening of the vowel is very distinguished in New Zealand and is what makes it different from pretty much every other English-speaking country.

Generally their A’s (as in catch) sound more like eh, the E’s more like ee, and the I’s (as in fish) sound more like u. Also, the “ay” sound (as in bay) are more like ai (bai) and certain I sounds (as in “mice”) are more like oi (moice). Here are some more examples:

The short a as in “back” sounds like “behck”.
The a in words like “day” sound more like “die”.
The e in words like “went” sound more like “weent”.
The short i as in “kids” sounds like “kuds”.
The i in words like “ice” sounds like “oice”.

So the sentence “Today, Ben went to the backyard to see if the kids wanted some ice” actually sounds more like “To die, Been weent to the behck yahd to see uff the kuds wantud some oice.”

Another key feature of the Kiwi accent, like the Australians, the British, the South Africans, and people from Boston, is that they pronounce their R’s differently than in Canada and most of America. It’s much softer and sounds more like “ah” than the typical American pirate “arrrr”. So yard actually sounds more like “yahd”.

Also, similar to Canadian English, New Zealanders tend to end their sentences with a rising intonation–almost as if asking a question–so their speech sound cheerful and friendly. And like Canadians they say “eh” at the end of a question, only it sounds more like “aye”.

As an American I didn’t really find the Kiwi accent too difficult to understand, but sometimes found it amusing to listen to. Like that awkward moment when a Kiwi asks you to paint their deck (deeck). Or another time while hanging up some clothes on the laundry line at a hostel I used to work at, someone asked me to get some more pegs (clothes-pins in the US). What I heard was “cen you please go geet me some pigs?”!

Last but not least, you’ll need to know some of the vocabulary that is especially unique to New Zealand. Here are some common words and phrases I’ve heard:

Sweet As – Common expression meaning “great!” or “awesome!” You can also replace “sweet” with other adjectives like “cheap as” to mean “it’s very cheap!” or “cold as” to mean “it’s very cold!”
Bach – Pronounced “batch”. Means a vacation home or cabin
Boot – The trunk of a car
Brekkie – Breakfast
Capsicum – Bell pepper
Chiller – Refrigerator
Chilly bin – Cooler; ice chest
Choice – Nice
Cuppa – Refers to a cup of coffee or tea
The Dairy – Convenience store
Fizzy drink – Soda or pop
Good on ya! – Congrats or well done!
Heaps – A lot
Hoover – Vacuum cleaner
Hokey Pokey – A quintessential NZ treat that consists of bits of honeycomb toffee and vanilla ice cream.
Jandal – Abbreviation for “Japanese sandal”, or what Americans and British people call flip flops
Kai – Maori for “food”
Kia Ora – Common Maori expression for “hello”
Lemonade – Very different from American lemonade as it refers to drinks like 7UP and Sprite.
Mate – Friend
Rubbish – Trash; garbage
Stag Party – Bachelor party
Sunnies – Sunglasses
Tramping – Hiking
The Wop Wops – Out in the middle of nowhere
Ta – Maori for “Thank you”
Ute – Truck
Zed – The letter “Zee” in America is pronounced “Zed” in NZ (or as the Kiwis say, N Zed).
Yeah nah – I’m not sure exactly what this one means, but I think it’s basically a nice way of saying no.

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7 Things I Don’t Like About New Zealand

New Zealand is a great country. Everyone seems to rave about it. It’s beautiful, the people are friendly, it’s easy to get around, it’s a great destination for backpackers. Hardly do I ever hear anything negative about it. But of course, every country has its flaws in some shape or form. So here’s a list of my pet peeves and annoying things I’ve encountered during my travels in Aotearoa:

1. The Lack of Good Internet
Internet connectivity just isn’t as efficient as it is in most other countries I’ve been. Free, fast, and unlimited WiFi is almost unheard of. You can usually find free WiFi at places like coffee shops and cafes, but usually the connection is pretty slow. Some hostels also offer free Internet access, but usually there’s a data and time limit (on average around 100mb/day). On a more positive note, the mobile network is pretty good and I usually have no problem getting 3G on my iPhone in most cities and towns.

2. The Sandflies
If you think mosquitoes are annoying, just wait until you experience the nightmare of getting eaten alive by New Zealand’s sand flies. They’re much smaller, but they can really leave bites that will have you itching for weeks. They’re especially bad in Abel Tasman, the West Coast, and Milford Sound where they gather in hordes, but they can be found anywhere on beaches and in the bush near water sources. They’re slow fliers so I suppose you could avoid them by jumping around and walking in circles like a fool. It’s hard to simply sit and enjoy the amazing scenery without getting flocked by them.

3. The Bad Drivers
Don’t get me wrong, driving in New Zealand is awesome. With all its beautiful and unique landscapes, I’d say it’s one of the best countries to drive in. But when it comes to the drivers–that’s a different story. Contrary to the easygoing and laid back culture New Zealand is known for, everyone seems to be in a mad rush to get somewhere once they’re on the road. For one, pedestrian right-of-way is almost non-existent. Unless you’re crossing the road at an official crosswalk, nobody slows down or stops for pedestrians crossing the street. I’ve also seen a fare share of drivers crossing the center line to cut corners on curvy roads, drunk drivers, and slow drivers suddenly speeding up well above the speed limit while driving through passing zones. Not that these kinds of things don’t happen in the US, but I’ve noticed it more here than at home. For a country with a small population, New Zealand has some of the highest crash rates in the world. Kiwi drivers aren’t the only ones to blame however. Traffic collisions involving tourists are not uncommon, oftentimes distracted by the scenery or are just simply driving on the wrong side of the road.

4. The Expensive Food
For a country whose main industry is agriculture, you’d be surprised that things like vegetables and fruits are much more expensive here than you would think. $33/kg for limes? Really?

5. The Intense Sun
The UV levels in New Zealand are higher than anywhere else, thanks to a hole in the ozone layer above this part of the world. I’ve been to places that are much hotter (Florida, Arizona, Panama to name a few), but the sunshine there never felt like it does in New Zealand. On sunny days, you can literally feel the sun burning your skin on first contact and sometimes it can feel pretty uncomfortable. If you’re outside a lot, sunscreen is a must.

6. The Lack of Insulation in Homes
While New Zealand summers are often warm and pleasant, it does get pretty cold throughout most parts of the country during the winter–especially on the South Island. Which is why I don’t understand why many Kiwi homes and buildings aren’t insulated. Or have double-glazed windows. And with only a single fireplace or stove to rely on for heat, some houses can get quite cold and damp during the winter. One place I stayed at got so cold inside that I could see my own breath. The solution to stay warm? Just throw on another jacket.

7. These Sinks
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One side projects freezing cold water, the other boiling hot, and the sink itself is so small one can barely wash their hands in it. A major fail in engineering.

Posted in New Zealand, North Island, South Island, Travel | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

A Change in Plans

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Before I arrived in New Zealand, I had planned on staying here for as long as my Working Holiday Visa would allow–one full year. After that, I would return home. Now, after living, working, and travelling around here for the past 8 months, I’ve decided that it’s time to move on to new adventures.

It’s been an incredible journey for sure. I remember in the weeks prior to leaving home having doubts about this trip. I asked myself questions: will I like it there? Will I make friends? Will I still be able to support myself financially? Can I manage being away for so long? I’m happy to say that I’ll be leaving New Zealand satisfied, knowing that during my time here I saw incredible places, shared some amazing experiences and memories with friends from all over the world, and discovered that I can get around on my own in a foreign country rather well. Besides all that, I never really looked forward to spending a winter down here anyway! Too cold. So as of the beginning of July I’ll be chasing the summer (again) and heading off to warmer places.

On another note, I’m still not sure exactly when I’ll be returning home to the States. This whole working and volunteering while travelling thing has worked pretty well for me. I’ve come to really enjoy this type of travel and have decided to continue on with it while I’m still able to do so. Come September, I’ll be going to Australia for another working holiday. How long will I be there? Who knows, but I’m excited to see what opportunities and new experiences might arise in the Land Down Under.

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Hello Queenstown!

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I’m back in Queenstown again! It’s been six months since I was last here. It’s also been two months since I left Paihia and I’m more than ready to settle down again and take a rest from travelling. Seriously, living out of a backpack and being on the go all the time can be pretty tiring. Traveling from city to city, moving from one hostel to the next, constantly packing and unpacking, having to familiarize yourself to new places, getting around in unfamiliar territory, and having to constantly introduce yourself as you meet new people all the time gets exhausting after a while. I’m looking forward to having a break and getting back into a normal routine again.

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A lot has happened since I returned to the South Island. For nearly the whole month of April I worked a few hours a day for accommodation (through HelpX) at two different places around Abel Tasman National Park and Golden Bay. The work was mostly random chores: painting, chopping wood, cleaning, clearing bush for building projects, cleaning up storm damage, and eradicating invasive plant species from the forest. For the latter part of the month, I met up with my friend Ben (a French guy I worked with in the Bay of Islands) and we were able to work together and explore the area for a few weeks. Golden Bay was very nice and once the weather cleared up after a rather harsh Easter weekend storm, we managed to get out and see some really nice places. One of the highlights of our time there included a visit to Wharariki Beach–a big long sandy bay with lots of interesting rock formations, sea cliffs, caves, and even a little natural pool where baby seals play in. And despite being a rather popular beach for tourists, it’s big enough (and isolated enough) to where you can walk out away from the crowds and feel like you have the whole place to yourselves.

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Once our work was done there we hitched on down the West Coast to pick up Ben’s van, which had broken down a few weeks earlier in a town so small you would have missed it if you blinked. Fortunately there was a mechanic there and he was able to get the parts needed to get it going again. We then spent a couple days driving through Arthur’s Pass to Christchurch, where we ended up staying with a host family for a night. I forget exactly how Ben knew them (something like his father’s friend of a friend), but they were so nice and warmly welcomed us into their home. They even made a nice dinner for us! I couldn’t have been more thankful for their generous Kiwi hospitality.

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Afterwards, Ben and I parted ways as he went back to tour the North Island and I headed further south. Since being back on the South Island, I’ve managed to get around nearly the entire time by hitchhiking. Normally I would just take the bus, but I ran out of rides on my pass and wanted to try something a little more adventurous anyway. Hitching around New Zealand is still a popular way for travelers (and even locals) to see the country. Getting around in this manner requires a lot of patience and flexibility–I stood outside once in the rain for almost two hours. You may not get to where you’re going right away, but sometimes little detours can take you to some amazing places. It’s also good to have some degree of cautiousness as there are always weirdos around, no matter what country you’re in. But all the while I’ve been hitchhiking in New Zealand, I never had any incidents or uncomfortable moments. Instead I met lots of very nice and interesting people; both fellow travelers and locals, young and old.

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So that’s what I’ve been up to for the past month and half! It’s absolutely beautiful right now in Queenstown. I thought it was a beautiful place last time I was here in the spring, but the city really is at its best in autumn. The surrounding mountains are topped with fresh snow, the trees are showing off their vibrant fall colors, Lake Wakatipu looks so much clearer than from what I remember, the days are still somewhat warm, and at night the air is crisp and pure. I’ll be here for two months–until then I’ll be working and planning the next adventure.

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The Tongariro Crossing: A Day in the Land of Mordor

The day had finally come.

We woke up early on the morning of March 14th and prepared ourselves for the long day ahead: a 19.4 km journey through some of New Zealand’s most dramatic and unique landscapes. Considered to be the best one day hike in the country, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing traverses active volcanoes and brings visitors up close and personal with both ancient and recent lava flows, rugged alpine wilderness, shimmering lakes, geothermal steam vents, and lush native forest. The most recent eruption in the area occurred as recently as November 2012 and parts of the park still show lots of signs of activity.

Our journey began in the wee hours of the morning in Taupo. Usually I’m not the kind of person who enjoys getting up at 5 AM (I’m sure no one does), but when there’s a fun adventure planned for the day I might as well be a kid waking up on Christmas morning. For the both of us, doing the Tongariro Crossing was high on our lists of things to do in New Zealand, so we wasted no time getting up and ready. After devouring a quick breakfast, we marched out and hopped on the shuttle bus packed with thirty or so other hikers fighting early morning grogginess. As we drove along the Desert Road toward the park, the first rays of light began to appear on the horizon, revealing a blue sky day. Perfect.

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Upon arrival at the trail head, what was a bus full of sleepy hikers suddenly became alive with activity as people hopped off, hastily gathered their gear, and started off down the path. The first section of the trail is rather easy as it leaves the car park, gradually rising through fields of alpine shrubs and grasses to a place called Soda Springs. As we got going, we noticed a lot of people seemed to be in a hurry. We’re pretty fast walkers to begin with, so we were a bit surprised to see people literally jogging past us then suddenly slow down as they got ahead. Eager to get to the top first maybe? Or maybe we just smelled. I don’t know. It was also pretty amusing seeing the “hiking attire” some people chose to wear that day–everything from skinny jeans, to vans, and yoga pants. Not really the proper outfits for hiking, especially in an environment where the weather can turn in a very short amount of time. We eventually caught up with all the speed demons once we got to the bottom of what’s called “The Devil’s Staircase”. From this point it’s a short, but steep, ascent up volcanic terrain that slows everyone’s pace down.

By the time we reached the South Crater, the sun had fully risen–casting its light upon the vast Central Plateau beneath us. We could see as far as Mt. Taranaki, a nearly perfect cone-shaped volcano some 140 kilometers away. From the entry to the South Crater, we took a detour off the beaten track and started the grueling climb toward the summit of Mt. Ngauruhoe. Also known as Mount Doom, it was the stand-in for the fictional volcano in the Lord of the Rings. The slope up the side of Ngauruhoe is nothing but loose ash and sharp volcanic rock. So like two little hobbitses, we climbed up Mount Doom–at times using both our hands and feet. The initial part of the climb was a difficult trudge; we would take two steps up only to slide down a step every time. In some places we found ourselves ankle deep in the ash, filling our shoes. Fortunately, we managed to reach a rock formation about 1/3 of the way up the mountain that provided solid ground to climb on most of the rest of the way to the summit.

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Upon arrival at the summit (2291 meters | 7516 feet), we sat down at the edge of the crater rim and had lunch while enjoying the incredible view. We could see much of the rest of the track and Lake Taupo to the north, along with views of the larger Mount Ruapehu to the south. As a Lord of the Rings fan, I even ceremoniously tossed a small plastic ring that I had been carrying around for a while into the crater. Normally it can get very cold and windy up at the summit, but that day it was so calm and peaceful. Not too hot, not too cold, and very little wind. It was the calm before the storm as a cyclone was due to hit the country several hours later. We were very lucky to have been blessed with such a fine day.

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Going down Mt. Ngauruhoe was much easier than going up. The loose ash enabled us to “moon walk” down the slope, putting pressure on our heels and sink into the scree with each step. Similar to running down a big sand dune. There was a close call at one point, when a bowling ball sized rock came loose from somewhere above and came hurling down within a few feet of us. Fortunately, the hikers who dislodged it called out “rock!” in time for us to get out of the way.

After a successful descent, we wandered back to the main path and continued on with the crossing. The South Crater basin is perfectly flat and was probably the easiest portion of the track. It was a short traverse and we soon arrived at the base of the Red Crater. This is considered the steepest part of the track, but having just climbed Mt. Ngauruhoe it was a walk in the park. Okay, so it was still quite of a workout…a bit exposed as well with two big drop-offs on either side of the path. At the top we were greeted by a large, gaping hole in the ground–the Red Crater. The highest point on the main track at 1886 meters (6187 feet), we let out a sigh of relief knowing that it was basically all downhill from here until the end. From here we began the descent down to the enchanting Emerald Lakes below us–a trio of vividly blue-green lakes whose colorful hue sharply contrasted with the surrounding stark volcanic landscape.

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We took a long break at the lakes and wolfed down the rest of the food we had brought. The water looked so inviting. We thought about going for a swim, but considering all the sulfur and who-knows-what-else was going on in there, we opted to remain dry on shore. Continuing on, we walked across another flat basin known as the Central Crater, past a rather large lake, and began our descent towards the car park. This section of the trail was previously closed to the public in the aftermath of the 2012 eruption, but has since been reopened. There is still some activity going on here, however. As we walked through the alpine valleys, we could still see  clouds of steam and gas rising out of the hillside just a kilometer or two away.

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We eventually reached a resting point at a hut with some restrooms just above the treeline. Here, we saw a sign saying the car park was only 45 minutes ahead. Should be a piece of cake right? We should get there in plenty of time before the last bus. That’s what we thought, but we were terribly wrong. The next 45 minutes might as well have been all of eternity. Physically, this portion of the track wasn’t a difficult at all, but mentally it just seemed like it went on, and on, and on. Shortly after leaving the shelter, the trail descends into the woods and there’s no clear view of exactly how far the car park is. We would go around one corner, thinking we would see the bus there, only to find more trees and dirt path to tread on. We had been walking with a German guy and a Dutch girl most of the day and all four of us started getting worried that we would miss the last bus. We weren’t really keen on walking another 100 km back to Taupo after finishing the track, so we ran. We ran for what seemed like forever until the end of the trail suddenly appeared, just in time to hop on the last bus!

The ride back to Taupo was all a haze. We were dead tired by the time Servan and I finally made it back to our hostel. I vaguely remember even eating dinner. Upon reaching our room, we both crashed and ended up sleeping for 12 hours–a good, long rest after a day in the “land of Mordor”.

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Doing the Tongariro Crossing was probably the absolute best thing I’ve done in New Zealand and I couldn’t have asked for a better day or better company to do it with. It’s a definite must do on anyone’s Kiwi experience! Here are a few tips for any future hikers:

  • Bring plenty of food and water. The only water that’s safe to drink on the track is whatever you bring in with you.
  • Expect the worse. Be prepared with proper clothing for any kind of weather conditions. In the mountains, it can be hot and sunny one moment but then turn freezing cold with blowing snow in a short amount of time. Even if it’s supposed to be a nice day, it’s better to have your raincoat in a sudden rainstorm than not.
  • Shoes: Boots are definitely a good option if you have them. We made it through just fine in running shoes.
  • Be sure to wear sunscreen! With a lack of ozone in the atmosphere above New Zealand, the UV rays here are stronger than most other parts of the world. Most of the track is out in the open with no shade to protect you.
  • If you go in the winter or early spring (June-October), be aware that there can be snow on the mountain requiring the use of crampons and an ice axe.
  • It might also be a good idea to have a first aid kit with you. It would be really hard not to slip and fall at least once on the trail, especially with all the loose dirt and sharp rocks on the trail.
  • Be mindful of the weather and check the forecast before you go. MetService is a good source.
  • If you need to book a bus pick-up to the park, make sure you do so at least the day before. You can do this at any hostel or iSite. Bus fares generally range from $20-$65 depending on where you get picked up from. Staying in towns close to the mountain, like National Park, will be a cheaper ride.
Posted in Hiking & Backpacking, New Zealand, North Island | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment