New Zealand on the cheap
There is much you can do in New Zealand even on a tight budget. Zalina Mohd Som tells you how
There is much you can do in New Zealand even on a tight budget. Zalina Mohd Som tells you how
TWENTY days, 14 towns and cities of New Zealand’s North and South Islands, return flight tickets, return ferry transfer across Cook Straits, lodging, travel pass, two typical Kiwi adventures and shopping for famous Kiwi outdoor goods brands — all these cost me less than RM7,000!
My friends and I have been planning this on-the-cheap, backpacking trip that will see us traversing New Zealand on a hop-on, hop-off bus. This allows us to hop off the bus at any point along our route and hop on the next bus whenever we’re ready to continue our journey. This suits us really well, especially our, errr, small budget.
And when the day finally comes, we leave Kuala Lumpur with a sense of adventure.
CHRISTCHURCH — KAIKOURA
Christchurch is a short stopover. We reach the city in the late afternoon and only manage to have a look-see at the city for a couple of hours before shops closed for the day. We do not manage to go into the city centre for the area is cordoned off for safety reasons. The city centre is most affected by last year’s earthquake.
Our tour starts the next day. The four of us join a busload of backpackers who have just finished the south leg of the loop, coming from Lake Tekapo.
Our driver announces that the bus will be going through a rugged coastline up to Kaikoura. And before he drops us at our chosen hostels, he will take us to Ohau Point, home to a large seal colony.
Kaikoura, which means meal of crayfish, is a little coastal town famous for its sea activities, like whale watching and fishing.
Must-try food here are, of course, grilled crayfish and fish and chips.
Our hostel, YHA Kaikoura, faces a bay with snow-capped mountains taking the other arm of the bay.
Having a quad-sharing room and staying two nights in this beautiful location is a treat.
KAIKOURA — PICTON — WELLINGTON
The drive takes us inland through hilly pastures that are either covered with grass land for sheep and cows or wild flowers.
We reach Picton with ample time to buy ferry tickets to Wellington and have a cuppa. Picton is a small town where inter-island ferries ply to and from Wellington.
Some of us are lucky to spot dolphins as the ferry cuts its way up north. Windy Wellington welcomes with busy traffic.
Our YHA hostel is in the heart of the city, which makes it easy for us to find halal food. There’s a halal Malaysian restaurant just a stone’s throw away from the hostel. As it may be awhile before another hearty meal, each of us forks out hefty dollars for a plate of Malaysian-style food.
WELLINGTON — TAUPO
We’re quite excited about Taupo, which our driver says, is the Queenstown for the North Island. Like Queenstown, the town is home to all kinds of Kiwi adventure from bungy jumping and sky-diving to jet boat rides. So raring to take on Kiwi adventure, we sign up for tandem sky-diving at Taupo.
But before we reach Taupo, the drive takes us through Tongariro National Park which is unique for its scenery — desert landscape (formed by a kind of grass) backed by snow-capped mountains. This unique barren landscape forms part of New Zealand’s only official “desert”, the Rangipo Desert. For film buffs, this scenery is a welcome to Lord Of The Rings country.
TAUPO — ROTORUA — TAUPO
The bus continues north to Auckland but since our schedule is tight, we can’t stay in Auckland. Instead we decide to stay two nights in Taupo to catch the south-leg bus the day after.
Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, is the gateway to the country and is home to Auckland International Airport.
Though the hop-on, hop-off bus service can start at any point along the route, it is best to start the journey from Auckland, where Magic Bus’ head office is located.
Not wanting to miss Rotorua, the centre of Maori culture and geo-thermal area, we hop on the bus heading there.
It takes about two hours to reach Rotorua and once we’re there, the city welcomes us with pungent scent of sulphur. The well-planned city seems to have a lot to offer visitors, which is why it is highly recommended to stay more than a night. However, since we are a bit tight on budget and time, we take on what Rotorua offers us at no charge. Its public garden is landscaped in such a way that it complements the city’s mud pools.
The entrance to its beautiful Government Gardens has Maori influences and that’s enough for us to get a feel of the culture.
We return to Taupo with enough time to grab kebab for dinner and do some laundry.
TAUPO — NATIONAL PARK
The journey takes us northwest to National Park, where we stop overnight.
Since it’s a small T-junction town with a few hostels and cafe, we’re advised to get our groceries from Taupo.
National Park is the entry point of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, a track commonly known as New Zealand’s best one-day trek, which leads to the middle of an active volcano and to the slopes of the famed Lord Of The Rings film location of Mt. Doom. But one has to spend at least two nights to take on this trek.
En route to the park, the bus stops at Waitomo, home to the famous Waitomo Glowworm Caves, known for their amazing caverns and glowworms. However, our budget only allows us to take the 90-minute free walk. The loop takes us through farms, hills and beautiful pastures.
NATIONAL PARK — WELLINGTON
The cold morning drive takes us south around the Tongariro National Park, before heading for the alpine town of Ohakune and travelling down the Kapiti Coast. At the coast, our driver asks us to look out for Kapiti Island — a bird and marine reserve, and home to some of New Zealand’s rarest wildlife.
We reach Wellington in the early afternoon, which gives us some time to check out the city’s attractions.
Our driver is kind enough to give us a short city tour. Our first stop is the Parliament Buildings, including the iconic Beehive before we head for the summit of Mt. Victoria. Enjoy 360-degree panoramic views of Wellington, Cook Strait and the surrounding area from the lookout.
After we check into YHA Hostel Wellington, we walk down to Te Papa, the national museum.
WELLINGTON — PICTON — NELSON
We leave North Island to continue our journey to the South. We have to take the first ferry of the day to catch the Magic Bus in Picton to head down to Nelson, our overnight stop. The bus is already packed with backpackers from Kaikoura.
The driver welcomes us with the usual room booking in Nelson. It’s going to be a long drive down south.
We stay two nights to explore “the sunshine capital of NZ”.
Nelson is an arty city with relaxed atmosphere that’s best to explore on foot. Since the city is the second oldest settled city in New Zealand and the oldest on South Island, most of the shops are those built in the late 1800s. In fact, the first recognised game of rugby was played in Nelson in 1870.
The city is also home to the country’s smallest national park, Abel Tasman National Park, which offers a host of adrenaline-pumping activities. However, we choose the suggestion made by our YHA host — hike up a hill near the city centre, starting from Nelson Botanical Gardens. The peak of the hill, which is the geographical centre of New Zealand, overlooks the city and the Tasman Sea. Knowing that it is the country’s “centre point” makes it more thrilling to be at the top of the hill in Nelson.
NELSON — GREYMOUTH
After leaving Nelson, the bus driver takes us to the Hope Saddle and through the picturesque Buller Gorge to New Zealand’s Wild West Coast. This is one of the more remote, rugged and most sparsely populated areas of the country.
Our first stop is Cape Foulwind, named by Captain Cook after his ship was blown off course here as he explored New Zealand’s waters.
Our driver drops us at the starting point of the one-hour walking trail and waits for us at the end of the trail. The drizzle adds a sense of romance to the cape’s beautiful coast.
Still on the Coast Road, the bus then drops us at Paparoa National Park to take a half-hour walk to view the amazing Punakaiki Pancake Rocks. The pancake-layered rock formations add dramatic effect in the form of blowholes when the sea is in full force.
We continue the journey and reach Greymouth in the late afternoon.
GREYMOUTH — FRANZ JOSEF
Our driver has earlier suggested that we buy extra grocery in Greymouth as Franz Josef is a small town with a small mini market. “Prices may be higher there,” he tells us. This morning, we hop on the bus with big bags of grocery for dinner and breakfast.
After the thrilling tandem sky-diving in Taupo, we look forward to Franz Josef’s glacier hike. The hike will be our second paid excursion and though it’s quite pricey for our shoestring budget, we know we must not miss this activity. We reach the alpine village of Franz Josef just in time to get ready for the hike of our lives!
FRANZ JOSEF — WANAKA
We’re all so tired from the three-hour glacier hike that it is quite difficult for us to get up the next morning. Running short of time, we have our breakfast of banana and bread on the bus as we pass through Fox Glacier, another small village located next to a huge glacier.
Fox Glacier is home to one of the country’s most picturesque spots — Lake Matheson.
The morning break is slightly longer, which allows us to walk to the lake’s scenic spot. We are told to get our camera ready as the drive to Wanaka is a scenic one. As we drive away from the coast, the scene changes from dense forest to boulder-filled, turquoise-coloured river. Then, the view takes another turn and there are vast plateaus and lakes of the Central Otago region.
Wanaka, our stop for the night, lies at the head of Lake Wanaka. But just before we head for YHA Wanaka Hostel, the bus takes us to Puzzling World, a unique theme park.
WANAKA — QUEENSTOWN
Finally, the day comes. We’ve been hearing so much about this city and we are excited to experience it for ourselves. And best of all, we will be staying here for two nights.
The drive kicks off with a stop at the birthplace of bungy jumping, Kawarau Bridge. The bridge, about 40 metres above the Kawarau River, is the site of the world’s first commercial bungy jump.
I really want to sign up for the jump but my thin stack of cash is only enough for meals for the next four days before we fly home. But watching my fellow backpackers getting ready to jump is enough to get my adrenaline pumping. And I pledge, if I ever come back to New Zealand, I will take on this challenge.
We make a stopover in Arrowtown, a quaint little town that is said to have the least of sunshine in the world!
Queenstown is how we imagine it to be. It’s chic, bustling, happening and exciting. But we choose to take it leisurely. First, we hop on the Skyline Gondola Queenstown, the steepest cable car lift in the Southern Hemisphere and spend half a day gawking at the city’s landscape from Bob’s Peak. Then, we stroll along Lake Wakatipu to the rose garden and come back to the city centre to shop for groceries.
QUEENSTOWN — DUNEDIN
Actually, we don’t mind staying another night in Queenstown but our schedule is tight. So we bid farewell to Queenstown and head for Dunedin, the second largest city in South Island.
Unlike other cities, which we pass through, Dunedin looks very English to our eyes. Its buildings have that distinctive colonial touch, especially Dunedin Railway Station.
The city is also home to University of Otago, New Zealand’s first university, built in 1869.
DUNEDIN — LAKE TEKAPO
As the last day is getting closer, the journey seems to slow down as we make our way to Lake Tekapo.
Tranquil Lake Tekapo, our overnight destination, is a small town at the end of the turquoise-coloured lake of the same name.
The pace gets even slower as we reach the town and since it’s still early, we decide to walk along the lake’s edge. We sit on the lake’s pebbled shore and stare at the scene before us — the turquoise lake rimmed with wild bluebells and backed by snow-capped mountains.
As night falls, we set out for the hostel’s garden and look at the sky.
It is said that Lake Tekapo is the best place to view the Southern Hemisphere stars up close.
LAKE TEKAPO — CHRISTCHURCH
Ahh... today is the day. We will reach Christchurch by noon and board our flight home at midnight. There’s a mixed feeling — sad that this is ending but happy to go back home as my cash can only buy me lunch! After leaving the shores of Lake Tekapo, we travel around the edges of Mackenzie Country crossing over Burkes Pass and the foothills of the Southern Alps. We make a short stop in Geraldine before the journey continues to Christchurch.
HOW HOP-ON. HOP-OFF WORKS
NEW Zealand’s backpacking tourism offers a great range of hop-on, hop-off bus networks with famous companies like Magic Bus, Kiwi Adventure and Stray Travel.
Hop-on, hop-off buses make backpacking in New Zealand easy and fuss-free.
The bus companies run an extensive network of coaches that go around the country’s highways and byways, covering most of its popular tourist sites.
Choose your travel pass based on your budget, time and what you want to see and experience.
Some travel pass can start at any point, whereas others start at chosen points which are normally Auckland in the North Island and Christchurch in the South.
You can hop off at any point along the route of your travel pass and hop on back when the next bus comes through, or whenever you’re ready to continue your journey.
Making it a complete one-stop service centre, the bus companies also offer packages of night stays at backpackers lodges or youth hostels.
For a hassle-free journey, it is best to combine the travel pass with hostel stays.
During the journey, the driver who also acts as a guide, shares stories and anecdotes about everything Kiwi, and he will announce excursions and choice of lodging available at the next destination.
At the first pit stop of the day, the driver makes bookings for both the excursions and lodgings for the passengers.
Those on tight budgets, don’t fret, you can still get to see the country without opting for the paid excursions. There’s always something available free of charge.
Where to stay
When you go backpacking, stay where the backpackers stay. And since backpacking is really big in the country, choices of lodging are big too, and they are well-equipped with kitchen, dining area, laundry facility and common bathrooms. Since most kitchens are well-furnished, cooking your own meal with fellow backpackers can be one of the best moments of your trip. And it saves costs.
MALAYSIA Airlines flies direct to Auckland. On flight MH133, the service is on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, departing from Kuala Lumpur International Airport at 8.45am and arriving in Auckland at 10.45pm (NZ time). On flight MH131, the service is on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday departing KLIA at 9.45pm, and arriving in Auckland at 11.45am (the next day at NZ time). For details and bookings, visit www.malaysiaairlines.com or contact its ticket offices and appointed ticket agents. Alternatively, call Malaysia Airlines’ 24-hour Call Centre at 1-300-88-3000. For travel packages to New Zealand, contact Sri Sutra Travel Sdn Bhd at 03-4026 6600/77, fax 03-4026 6622 or go to www.sutra.my
Return direct flight from Kuala Lumpur: RM1,761
Flexi Magic Adventure: RM2,000 (NZ$843.90)
Taupo Tandem Sky-diving with CD: RM450
Franz Josef Glacier Hike: RM278
Total: RM6,489 per person