“You’ll never see the end of the road when you’re travelling with me ” – Neil Finn (Crowded House).
Looking at the 2,000 plus posts still to be converted from my written notebook to this website, I noticed that New Zealand occupies a bigger chunk of them than I expected so condensing is required. My two visits (2007, 2010) to this disconnected country were enchanting, exhilarating, non-stop and yet over in a flash. I’ve written a bit about my time there before especially in the early days, but here’s an easy access top 20 while I’m still young enough to remember this sort of mental-ness.
New Zealand was the first country in Oceania that I visited, some 2 years before I even landed in Australia. On my only two visits to the more recent Zealand they have been quite lonely, thought-provoking and inspiring journeys. Both times I backpacked alone, often without purpose. It might be one of the furthest countries away from your hometown (as it was for me) but this list will hopefully convince you that it’s worth investing in some flights to New Zealand. It’s a country just aching to be visited by everyone. Here’s my personal top 20, though a top 100 could easily have been concocted.
“Sometimes you need to turn the wrong way round” – Neil Finn
1. Bungy Jumping in Auckland, North Island
I had just checked into my Auckland hostel, jet lagged to the hilt and was asked if I fancied going on a free bus tour of Auckland the next day, including the option to do a bungy jump. Having just flown in from Los Angeles, I was so tired, I didn’t know what I was doing so I said “yes”. This was back in 2007 around the time I had just started my travel blog.
The next morning I was straight off from a bowl of weetabix onto a bus. The driver asks if anyone wants to do a bungy jump (must have been 20 of us in the bus) and nobody except me put my hand up. There I was off to Auckland Harbour bridge for a bungy jump. Epic. Three Irish girls joined me after and did the bungy (Ornella, Laura and Shauna). It’s still the one and only bungy jump I have ever done. Of course I’d do a bungy jump again someday, but the way this one happened was mad so I don’t think I could match that adrenalin again. I had a beer in Devonport afterwards and was totally still jetlagged.
So this, and a few beers in the bars of Auckland was my crazy welcome to New Zealand.
2. Glow Worms Trek, Franz Josef Township, South Island
On my second visit to New Zealand, I headed to the west side of the South Island and ended up in Franz Josef for a few nights. In here I met some cool people over dinner including Natali and Alex (from Israel) and we decided to do our own night time glow worm trek. I organised it and we headed with torches on a dodgy walk through the rain on what was a great night where we saw glow worms and got free shots in the bar (thanks to me finding some coupons in the hostel!).
“Walking round the room singing stormy weather” – Neil Finn
3. Climbing Mount Maunganui, North Island
When working in London in 2006-2007 I worked with Steve Jones from New Zealand. It was time for a reunion in 2010 when I met up with Steve on the north east coast of the north island.
We toured quite a few places together including Papamoa and the Lemon and Paeroa Centre, but Mount Maunganui was a highlight.
“Dust from a distant sun will shower over everyone” – Neil Finn
4. Palmerston North “Suicide Capital Tour”, North Island
Most people go backpacking in New Zealand to stay happy and tick off the smiling shit on their Phuket List. But this isn’t what life is about – it’s not a bowl of cherries and anyone that dresses it up as such needs to get a grip. Palmerston North was once described by Basil Fawlty as “the suicide capital of New Zealand” so I made a beeline for it.
My journeys have been emotionally up and down, and I’ve mentioned the dark days before so I was glad to level things off with a visit to the “suicide capital”. As I dandered through the town centre of Palmerston North, I realised I loved it. It’s a great city full of colour and vibrance and totally off the backpacker’s route so get this place on your list, and SURVIVE to tell the tale. Basil Fawlty was cool and all that, but he was wrong.
“Either side of the world, chase the sun. Pay the maximum rate to feel so lonesome.” – Neil Finn
5. Waihi Gold Mines, North Island
Steve, Flavia and I drove to explore the Waihi Gold Mines and it was a real treat. On a road in the middle of nowhere are these massive mines and loads of information and machinery to go with it.
“Feeling your desire burn and drawn to the flame” – Neil Finn
6. The Only Tourist in Belfast, South Island
To see that Belfast was in the South Island rather than in Northern Ireland was already a change for me.
This was an odd one – I boarded a local bus in Christchurch bound for Belfast and on the bus a guy from Belfast (the New Zealand one) notices my Northern Ireland football shirt. It turns out he has family from Londonderry and spent some time in Northern Ireland, England and Scotland!
Even cooler, after explaining to me some sights to see in Belfast and telling me where to get off the bus (I actually got off by the signpost as I wanted a photo by it), Sam invites me into his pub for a beer – Robbie’s Bar – and he shouted me a few beers and posed with my flag!
Top lad and what a visit to Belfast I had. Just think if I wasn’t hungover that day and got the earlier or later bus, I’d never have met Sam. Thanks for the memories Sam and see you round the world somewhere.
“Your instinct can’t be wrong” – Neil Finn
7. Running with the Unicorns, Wellington, North Island
Have you ever been to Wellington? Yes. Have you ever been to Mighty Mighty nightclub? Yes. Have you ever gone running with unicorns? Yes.
Truly bizarre but in a nightclub that has a table tennis table on the dancefloor (with no winner – just hit the ball as you circle) you can go running with a bunch of people dressed as unicorns.
The night running with unicorns was covered before and was ridiculous. As I headed north the next day I woke up on my bus and I was convinced I made the whole thing up, until I checked the videos and photos on my camera. I really went running with unicorns. I told you, Kiwis are a cracking bunch of people.
“I want to run with the unicorns” – Mighty Mighty Band
8. Interislander Ferry, South to North Island
The best way to travel within the two islands of New Zealand for me is on the Interislander ferry between Picton and Wellington. Having spent a brave length of time working on the ferries in England, France and the Channel Islands this was another dreamlike journey.
9. Happy J Pub Crawl, Christchurch, South Island
One of my best pub crawls from my travels was the Happy J pub crawl on a Friday night in Christchurch in 2010. Covered in Thirsty Thursdays before of course but still has to make the list – met some cool people on a massive crawl trying all sorts of Kiwi beers and drinks.
10. South Westland Salmon Farm, South Island
Fishing is massive in New Zealand and in the remote south west corner of the South Island, I visited a salmon farm. Yes, a custom built indoor pool where they make sure there are constant salmons in reproduction to be caught and sold.
It was actually a stop over on one of those bus runs, but we got to see the whole farm and there is a lot of detail and information on boards about the salmon farm as well as salmon sandwiches to take away.
Some might argue this idea of a “salmon farm” is unethical or sad – I personally am fine with it. Survival of the fittest. We all like a good salmon, well apart from vegetarians and those who don’t eat fish!
11. Seeing the Kiwi Bird, Rotorua, North Island
On my first jaunt to New Zealand, I met up with Andy, Garth and Ali in a hostel in Rotorua (the Crash Palace Backpackers) and we did loads of stuff together including a visit to see the Kiwi bird in a special enclosure on the edge of Rotorua. No photos inside of course and they are nocturnal.
12. Paragliding over Queenstown, South Island
Queenstown is the world home of the bungy jump and you have to do something crazy when you’re here. I like an eclectic mix and having already bungeed and sky dived in the North Island, I felt like a bit of Paragliding was needed when I backpacked through Queenstown!
13. Pohutu Geysir, North Island
I don’t remember too much of this admitedly but I remember getting a morning bus out to this place and touring the geysirs of Rotorua, the most prominent was the Pohutu Geysir in the volcanic area.
14. Hamilton Gardens, North Island
Sometimes you just want to sit in nature, write some travel notes and have a cup of tea and a piece of cake. After the madness of Sky Diving and Bungy Jumping in 2007 I spent a couple of days in Hamilton. It was here where I relaxed by Hamilton Gardens.
I also had a good night out here with Chris from the hostel in a really local pub away from the backpacker scene.
15. Eating a Fergburger, South Island
I’m probably surprising most of my regular readers with this list as there are so many mainstream popular memories on here. But remember – these times were back in 2007 and 2010 when I was a younger backpacker. In those days, I was trying to save cash left, right and centre and this meant following the cheap backpacker routes most of the time. Besides, there is no food on the list yet and the Fergburger is great so why not?!
17. Sky Diving in Lake Taupo, North Island
This still ranks as one of the craziest things I have done to date, the day I sky dived over Lake Taupo. I remember all the details of a mad day in Taupo. We got up early, limosine from the hostel and it was Les, David and I in the same mini pink plane and with the luscious backpacker Stacie Jayne in the plane before us. We all had a great time and then toured a place called Craters of the Moon and Huka Falls afterwards.
We had a mad night out on the pi$$ that night too, winning a pub quiz, getting naked for free drinks all night. It was a night I won’t forget and I left my dreams hanging around in Lake Taupo.
Taupo, Rotorua, Hamilton and Auckland are the only 4 cities that I was in during my 2007 and my 2010 visits to the country. I got pretty tearful on my return to Rotorua – my mind was just swimming through my pool of memories. As for Taupo. As my bus stopped near Mulligans Pub, I shed a tear. This long backpacking journey had to go on.
18. Tamaki Maori Village, Tamaki, North Island
If you thought I was going to be the pro British male, think again, this country is Aotearoa in Maori, not New Zealand. The natives were here long before the British came in and it’s highly important to know and respect.
I headed to the Tamaki Maori Village in the North Island for a Maori performance and some Hangi food. It was another fantastic memory where they make me perform a dance and ritual in an old school custom built Maori Village by a fire. I was leader of my pack and got a souvenir to keep.
19. Franz Josef Glacier Hike, South Island
The Franz Josef Glacier Day Hike was brilliant and really strange. I was on the same hike as Alex and Natali from my hostel, who also did the Glow Worm trek with me. But the most strange thing ever came after the hike – four of the other people on the hike I met again BY CHANCE on my travels.
Ridiculously Andrew and Erika from Manchester who hiked with me, were on the same bus as me some three months later between Bolivia and Peru! Yes we got the slow bus to Cuzco together. It was crazy. Then, the Hong Kong couple Hei and Angie were in a bar in Queenstown with me a few days later (and the same bus) – no big deal eh? BUT in 2011 I was walking around Tai O near the fish market in Hong Kong and Angie spotted me!! It was just crazy! And to top things off, in 2013 I stayed in Haifa in Israel with Alex and Natali (though that was pre-arranged).
20. Zorbing, Rotorua, North Island
Zorbing (rolling down the hill in a huge ball) was once the backpackery thing to do.
I was so mainstream back in 2007. It just shows the maturing age of a long term backpacker. It was a great time zorbing back then, but I’ve changed now. Dare I say it I’ve lost a wee bit of that zest. It was pure madness back in 2007, no idea how I did it all.
“Got a lust for life” – Iggy Pop
21. UNFINISHED BUSINESS
So do you think I’m done with New Zealand? Not a chance. It might be a while before I’m back there ever again but I have some serious unfinished business with it. These three things I still am gutted I missed out on:
– Te Awamutu (a MUST VISIT fort next time). It was the music of Crowded House (one of my favourite bands) that first inspired me to visit New Zealand and Te Awamutu is the home of Neil and Tim Finn, two of the greatest lyricists of all time.
– Stewart Island – this is the real South Island and undoubtedly a slight regret of mine. I was pretty close to Stewart when I backpacked through Dunedin, a city which missed the cut on my top 20.
– 4 Micronations – I’m very keen to check out the 4 Micronations that border or have bordered New Zealand:
1. Soviet Socialist Union of the Wakatipu (no longer active but the location is still there)
2. The Republic of Frigus
3. The Republic of Meropis
4. Theocratic Unitary States of Holy Gearlist (no longer active but the location is still there)
People always ask if they prefer the South Island or the North Island when they backpack through New Zealand, but I think that’s unfair on Stewart Island – which is the real south island. Having so far only been to the North and South Island, I think both offer equal amounts of enjoyment, but because I like being around people, I side with the North Island. The truth is there are just more people about, and travel for me is more about meeting people than it is about hiking mountains. Yes, the South Island has better scenery but my best moments from this country remain in the north, as you can tell.
You can find my New Zealand videos on YouTube.
6 thoughts on “Backpacking in New Zealand: My Top 20 Memories”
Great post Jonny from my former home country (for a while at least). You crammed in a fair bit in your visits there, and been to some places I didn’t get to.
The view from Mt Maunganui looks amazing – at the time of my visit, the track was closed, due to an earlier rain storm that week.
We’ve had some similar experiences though. Did you ever hike the Tongaririo Crossing, or in and around Mount Cook? Stunning places – if you get a chance to go back, do those.
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Hi Abbi thanks for the comment. With regards the Tongariro Crossing, perhaps it’s not meant to be. My first day in Taupo in 2007, I was meant to do it but the track was closed and it was due to threat of potential rainstorms and earthquakes/volcanic activity. I remember the weather was particularly bad around the lake on my walk in Taupo that day. The day after the Crossing was open and the weather was sunny, but I had booked the Sky dive for that morning, and didn’t want to miss it! The afternoon after the Sky dive I had free but we explored Moon Craters and Huka Falls instead. The next morning I got a bus to Hamilton. Then in 2010, I had a chance to do the Tongariro Crossing again but decided to stay an extra night in Wellington before that, I had a bus to Taupo booked, but when I was on the journey I extended it to go straight to Hamilton again, having been satisfied by my visits that day to Palmerston North and the Gumboot Manor in Taihape. I passed by dreamy Taupo again and had odd memories if it. It was eerie, but I didn’t linger. I headed back north to Hamilton. Perhaps I’ll do it third time. With Mount Cook, I was aware of it but it just didn’t interest me at the time. Safe travels. Jonny