Well, the North Island has been and gone, and tomorrow I shall be jetting off to Fiji for a few days. Before you get all jealous and bitter though, please be assured that the forecast for Nadi (apparently pronounced Nan-di), is actually a bit pants for my first few days. Nonetheless I'm optimistic that I will indeed get some sunshine in before I arrive in LA and will redress the ridiculous paleness that my skin has developed since leaving Australia.
So. The North Island. After my last blog I went on to have a fantastic evening in Kaikoura with a great group of guys I met on the bus, and came as close as I probably ever will to winning a pub quiz. Alas, we came second and only received a $30 bar tab between us. However, after the barman took pity on one particularly poor member of our group halfway-through, we received a fair number of free shots to compensate. Big shout out to Luke who both took my free shot for me before anyone could shout at me for being pathetic, and also gave me his Lonely Planet San Francisco guide the next day. My hero!
The next day out bus split, with half of us disembarking at Picton for the ferry to Wellington, and the other half going on around the South Island. The ferry journey wasn't as bad as I'd been told it could be and the crossing was more like a scenic cruise. I managed to bag a reclining seat on the front row of the lounge area at the front of the boat, and so the views were actually pretty spectacular. However, I did manage to doze for most of it as my ferry buddy (who incidentally comes from Hatch End and who I bumped into randomly in Christchurch) will verify.
I then spent 3 nights in Wellington, as due to the bus timetable, it was either 1 or 3, and since Wellington has a late drop off and early pick up, if I'd spent 1 night I wouldn't have actually seen anything of the place. This wasn't a problem though. Having now been through all the major cities in New Zealand, I can quite confidently say that Wellington is by far the nicest of the lot! There's loads to do there and the fantastic national museum 'Te Papa' was quite frankly awesome. It's a mix of history and geology type displays all about NZ, with a heavy emphasis on the Maori culture, hence the name (Te Papa = 'our place' in the Maori language).
I also did a tour of the Parliament, mostly because it was a good free way to kill an hour but it actually turned out to be quite interesting. There's loads of similarities with the British system and the actual Parliament building is quite attractive inside. I also took the cable car and walked back down through the Botanical Gardens which was quite nice, but not as impressive as I'd hoped. The highlight however was catching back up with my friends from the Kiwi bus who got in on my last night, and we went to the rugby for the evening. We saw the Hurricanes (Wellington's team) play Perth's Western Force. The game was probably quite good, but between changing seats every 5 minutes to try and get under the covered section (we'd paid for the cheap uncovered seats) and taking an extended half time break indoors, I'm pretty sure I missed most of the exciting bits. The weather was AWFUL! I thought I'd seen enough NZ rain in my few weeks in the country, but what I'd seen so far was nothing compared to this. It absolutely thundered it down and on legging it from the stadium a few minutes before the game ended to try and get on the first bus, Claire and I got absolutely soaked. My umbrella ripped under the force of it all, and by the time we got in to the hostel, it was all about a hot shower and putting clothes in the dryer. But still - an experience and definitely a mandatory one when spending a few weeks in New Zealand I reckon!
The next day it was on to Taupo, the sky-diving capital of New Zealand and pretty much, the world! I'd hoped to only have to spend 2 nights there, but after hearing horror stories of people hanging around a week waiting for good sky-diving weather (they don't take you up in certain conditions), I'd allowed for 4 nights if need be. Luckily, I didn't need it, as even though I didn't get up on the day we arrived as it had already clouded over, the next morning was without a doubt, fantastic weather for jumping out of a plane.
All along, I'd said to myself that I was only going to do a 12,000ft jump, rather than the 15,000ft one, just because I didn't really believe the stories that it wasn't as good, and I thought it was just a way to get more money from you. However when it came to it, I was sucked in like the rest of them and signed up to do the maximum (15,000), together with the photos, DVD and t-shirt. Well you only do it once, right?!
Anwyay, I was signed up to do the early jump (by request - I didn't want to have too much time in the morning to think about all the things that could go wrong), and so was picked up bright and early at 7am from the hostel. Sure enough, on the bus there was a couple who were trying for the 3rd day to do their jump and had even got as far as being up in the plane, having the door opened, and then the red light going on and them having to come back down again - both gutting and frustrating I bet! Anyway, the sky looked clear-ish and so I had my fingers crossed. We got to the centre and luckily they said it was fantastic weather to sky-dive. In fact they said on a day like today you could see both sides of the Island and we should really try to make the most of the views up there - something a lot of people forget to do what with the initial shock of it all, can't think why though...
Anyways, we got suited up and luckily I was paired with an uber experienced 'tandem master' who didn't make the oh-so-funny 'no, your harness is on completely the wrong way' jokes that some do when you're up in the plane. We literally crawled into the tiniest plane EVER and made our way upwards. It wasn't the most comfortable journey up. There were 10 of us in there (3 divers + tandem buddies, 3 camera-men divers, and 1 plane-based camera-man), and since I was going to be last to jump, we were crammed in the far end of the space with the other jumpers nearer the door. I'm not sure this is a good thing, as I'd heard lots of people being fine until they see their friends fall away out of the window, but luckily I was ok!
I had to half sit on my instructor as he harnessed me in which was quite frankly a bit intimate but to be honest worth it, not wanting to risk not being strapped to him tight enough, him having the all-important parachute and all. Anyways, when it comes to actually jumping, you don't really have much choice on the matter. The plane was so diddy anyway, I would have much rather jumped out of it than land in it. You slide yourself down to the window opening (you're kind of glued to the front of your instructor, much like a baby-carrier), and dangle your legs outside the plane. I'd had instructions to bend my legs at the knee backwards and tip my head back against his shoulder as we leaned out (this I would later learn was so I didn't knock him unconscious with my head snapping back as we jumped out!). Anyways, in a matter of seconds, he'd said ready, I'd said nothing, and then we were gone, my camera-man following us not long after!
If I haven't said it enough, it was AWESOME! The feeling was amazing. I'd honestly thought I would panic or not enjoy it for being so scared on the way down, but I must have psyched myself up something proper because I loved every second. I honestly can't remember not feeling safe at any point, which is ridiculous really. It didn't even feel like I was falling for the freefall, more like floating in a whizzing kind of way (sorry, description isn't really my forte). Then before I knew it, and after a lot of "WOO-ing!" and "YEAH-ing!", several attempts at the Superman pose/swimming action, and a few spins, the parachute was up and we were yanked up quite sharply. After that, it was smooth floating and everything was so quiet, I actually had a conversation with my instructor. Nothing intellectual though, obviously. Mostly "my ears hurt" and "I can't believe you do this for a living" (in a 'you're so cool!' kind of way)! It was so beautiful on the way down. The people in the office were right, the views were amazing. How we ended up landing in the right spot though, I'll never know, but it was a (semi) graceful landing and I didn't fall flat on my face which was cool. So yes, that's it. Apologies for the mammoth description but it's not every day you jump out of a plane and so I thought it deserved a bit of a spotlight.
Anyway, I stayed another night in Taupo, though this time in the Base hostel. It was without a doubt, the NICEST Base hostel I've stayed in EVER (and I'm pretty sure I've stayed at all of them now!) which was good as sometimes they can be a bit of a dump. I'm talking individual bed-lights and power sockets, en suite bathrooms with super nice showers, and even a balcony so Claire had somewhere to smoke - ideal. Anyway, I mostly chilled for the rest of the day. Even though I was on a high still from the jump, all the adrenalin kind of exhausted me and I had fun things like laundry to do.
The next day it was on to Rotorua, aka Rotten-rua/Roto-Vegas. This is a huge tourist destination famous for it's sulphur smell, spas with stinky mud pools that cleanse etc., and a lot of Maori cultural experiences. The Kiwi bus gets a really good discount on one of these experiences and so we stopped at the office on the way in to have a brief introduction talk and sign up for the event that evening. Anyway, the most important bit of this brief diversion from the mainstream of my visit there, is that there were bone carving necklaces up for grabs as prizes for answering questions, and I did win one. I know, I know - too exciting.
The actual event that evening was pretty cool. Suzanne, Claire and I went along and after I got over the initial disappointment of not being able to be the 'Chief' on behalf of our bus-load for the evening on account of my sex (take note New Zealand Maoris - sexism isn't cool), it was a pretty good experience. You arrive and the chiefs of all the buses have to face off with the chiefs of the Maori village as they do a haka, which involves loads of funny faces and a lot of intimidating yelling and noise-making. Note here, that as a by-stander you are forbidden to laugh or smile as apparently this upsets the Maori tribe, which is fair enough but quite an effort with some of the faces they pull and the sounds they make. Still I managed to not offend and keep a straight face.
We then got to walk around their 'village' which is more like a load of huts and people at each one talking about different aspects of their traditional crafts and lifestyles. We then had a Maori concert which was awesome! They danced, sang and entertained really well for a good half hour before we went into the dining room for our uber buffet meal. I'd been tipped off that they seat all the backpackers together as they eat more (you have your own allocated table of food) but honestly, I have never seen so much food, it really wasn't an issue! So the stories we'd heard were true and we had an awesome traditionally-cooked Maori dinner.
The next day, after having a leisurely lie-in, we hit the luge tracks of Rotorua! We got the cable car up the hill and bought 3 tickets for the 'Scenic', 'Intermediate', and 'Advanced' tracks. Now, the first route (scenic) would have been great if my cart hadn't stopped dead half-way down the track, and resulted in a mother and toddler duo, bumper-bumping be down the rest of the way, much to the amusement of Claire and Suzanne who had finished a good ten minutes before and were wetting themselves at my arrival. Still, I had better luck with the next track and was having a great time until I went straight into one of the walls, screaming my head off - ouch. Big shout out to Claire who once again, nearly wet herself laughing from behind me. The Advanced track was probably my best run down, what with no accidents or kart-incidents, and this I feel points to my skill on the luge tracks. Ish. Anyway, it was a fun 2 hours or so. We then went further up the road and I watched as Claire and Suzanne each did Zorbing. Not really my thing but looked pretty cool.
The next day we headed on up to Auckland, which gets (unfairly I think) a lot of stick for being a dull city with nothing much to do. It's New Zealand's biggest city but doens't have the cultural appeal of Wellington (or it's Capital status for that matter), nor the picturesque quality of Christchurch. All the same it's a city and I for one was quite happy to have my choice of two Starbucks anyway.
The next day however, I headed on up to the Bay of Islands (Paihia) which is North of Auckland and a real tourist spot in the summer months where it's all about sailing and crystal blue waters. I didn't do any activites as the weather wasn't fantastic but nonetheless I met a great group of people and had a pretty awesome night at the hostel bar, which resulted in some going for a midnight swim on the beach (not me though - sensible). Much fun was had anyway!
Back in Auckland (Paihia was only a 1 night trip) I was reunited with Becs and Claire, and since the latter was leaving NZ the next day, we planned to have a last decent night out. Together with my new chums from the Paihia trip and some randomers (one of whom apparently got arrested at the end of the night), we had a pretty good time, and clad with her newly acquired 'free when you purchase 4 bottles of some disgustingly pink vodka drink' bikini, I think Claire had a pretty good last night.
The next day, after seeing her off at the bus stop, Becs and I ventured up the SkyTower, which is Auckland's, as well as the Southern Hemisphere's, tallest building. The views were actually pretty fantastic and after getting over the initial fear of walking over the clear glass floor panels, we took some pretty cool pictures and amused ourselves quite nicely. We randomly bumped into our friend Adam there as well and the three of us went for a walk along the harbourfront as the sun set which was also quite nice.
Then Becs left to do her Paihia trip and for the last few days I haven't actually done much to speak of. Most of my time has been spent on the internet trying (and failing) to re-jig my travel plans. So, for anyone that's interested, my plans are unchanged. I'm still doing the West coast of the US and Canada, and I'm still hitting Denver, DC and NYC before heading home on the 5th/6th July (woo)! It was all very complicated coming round to this conclusion though I assure you, a lot of effort (and internet dollars!) went into attempting to change it.
Anyways, I fly into Nadi in Fiji tomorrow and will have 4 relaxing nights at the Nadi Bay Hotel, which sounds posh but is still dorm accommodation. Though reportedly nicer than your average Oz/NZ hostel though (also woo)! Then it's on to the US where I have two Saturdays, flying into Los Angeles before I left Nadi - weird. But yes, so obviously majorly looking forward to seeing Barney and doing our American roadtrip around California. Will hopefully get a blog in at the end of my stay in Fiji as I'm pretty sure I'm going to be majorly distracted in the US for the first 2 weeks and there'll be a distinct lack of blogging. Anyway, will see! Hope everyone's ok and counting down to my coming home (just under 7 weeks, in case you've lost track on your own countdowns) :p