Wellington, New Zealand

Completing my tour of New Zealand’s North Island

It was the final few days of my week-long tour of New Zealand’s North Island with small group adventure tour company Haka Tours.  I’d joined the tour after spending some time travelling solo to the Bay of Islands and Auckland and so far, we’d spent time on the Coromandel, in Waitomo and Rotorua.  Now, we were about to leave a 2-night stay in Taupo behind us.

Looking back at Tongariro National Park from the road

Still exhausted and aching all over from completing an almost 20km hike across Tongariro National Park the day before, we checked out of our hostel, loaded up the bus with our luggage and hit the road.  Today, we’d be heading to our final North Island destination, New Zealand’s capital city, Wellington.

At the National Army Museum

Along the way, we made a couple of stops.  First up was a roadside stop to enjoy the stunning views of Tongariro National Park and then a stop at the a National Army Museum.  While none of the group decided to pay to go into the museum, we used the opportunity to stretch our legs, use the conveniences and pose for photos with the tanks outside!

Gumboot sculpture in Taihape

Our second stop was on the outskirts of the town of Taihape where the town’s boundary was marked with a sculpture of a giant ‘gumboot’ or Wellington boot as we’d call it in the UK.  Taihape is the gumboot throwing capital of New Zealand. 

Competitions in this unusual sport are held regularly here on a purpose built court and after we posed for photos with the giant boot, that’s exactly where we headed next for our own bit of friendly competition throwing gumboots!

Armed with a boot each, we stepped up in pairs to throw it as far as we could, winner staying on to compete again.  I somehow won my first couple of rounds, luck more than anything, but it certainly wasn’t third time lucky for me as I crashed out in the next round!!

Game over, we walked to a nearby café for a well-deserved cup of tea and some lunch before our next stop at Gravity Canyon.

Trying out the Flying Fox at Gravity Canyon

Here, we had the option of trying out a Flying Fox – a kind of zip line over a canyon where you fly down head first like Superman! I’d ziplined many time before and didn’t see how this could be any scarier than that so seeing as I’d not signed up for any of the other more adventurous activities like bungee jumping or skydiving, I decided to give this one a go!

Three of us were strapped into the holster next to each other before a cord was pulled sending us hurtling down over the canyon below. It was great fun and I was glad I decided to do it.

From here, we continued on towards Wellington. Just outside of the city, we stopped once more to stretch our legs at a park, letting out our inner kids to play on the swings etc.  Traffic was already heavy into the city and our rush hour arrival made it worse so by the time we arrived at our YHA hostel accommodation, there wasn’t a lot of the day left.

We made plans to all meet for dinner after a bit of downtime.

With most of the group deciding on an Asian Fusion restaurant recommended by our tour guide for dinner, a couple of us who were not keen on this cuisine made plans to either eat elsewhere or cook our own food at the hostel before meeting back with the others at the Asian Fusion bar after for drinks.

Still tired from the previous day’s hike, most of us went straight back to our hostel dorms afterwards for an earlyish night.

Wellington waterfront

The next day was the final day of our week-long North Island tour. Tomorrow, some of the group would be continuing on to complete the South Island leg of the tour while I would be staying a few more days in Wellington alone before flying home.

Walking along the waterfront

Today, we had the full day in Wellington to spend as we wished.  Our guide was offering to take us on a tour of the city in the morning or we could make our own plans.  A few of the Lord of the Rings fans in the group wanted to visit the Weta Workshop, where many of the props for the films were made, for a tour.

As a big film fan, I decided to go along too so rather than join our guide’s city tour, we instead walked to the tourist information office to book a place on a tour later that morning.

Arriving at Weta Cave for our Weta Workshop tour

We had an hour to kill before our tour was due to leave so we had a walk along the water front and got drinks and a snack from a nearby café before returning to catch our mini bus.

The bus took us out to Weta Workshops where we were taken on a guided tour of the premises. We were shown props and costumes from the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films as well as other films made in New Zealand – unfortunately we were not allowed to take any photos during the tour – and I was surprised to learn what a big part Wellington played in the film industry.

Part of our food order

After our tour, we had some time to spend in the gift store/museum before our minibus arrived to take us back to the city centre where we met up with a few more of our group who were now back from their city tour. We spent some time exploring the city – grabbing tea and cake from yet another cafe! – before heading back to the waterfront where we sat out at a riverside bar ordering pretty much everything off its menu between us for dinner!

Above, and below, walking along Oriental Parade

That evening, the entire group went out for final night drinks at a bar we found with a 60s cover band playing.  We had fun dancing the night away before returning to the hostel and, as those continuing the tour had a very early start the next day, said our goodbyes.

Looking back at the view as I made my way up to Mount Victoria

The next morning, I moved out of my now empty dorm room and into a private room at the YHA then set out alone to explore more of the city.

First up, was a hike up to Mount Victoria.  It was a beautiful, sunny day and I’d found instructions for a self-guided route which took me along Oriental Parade past the city’s pretty sea front and then up a steep path until I reached the viewpoint at the top.

Relaxing on the beach after my hike, and below, catching the Wellington Cable Car

After spending some time enjoying the views from the top, I walked back down to sea level stopping to relax on the beach, enjoying the sunshine and even taking a dip in the sea.

Above, and below, at the Cable Car Museum

Following a quick change back at the hostel, I walked to the terminus of the Wellington Cable Car catching it uphill to the viewpoint at the top. Once at the top, I had a quick look around the small cable car museum then walked back down to the city through the Botanic Gardens.

As one of the girls from my tour group was also still in Wellington, we met for dinner then went for drinks. It was Chinese New Year and there were celebrations going on at the waterfront ending in a firework display so we watched them from outside the bar – a great way to spend my last night in the city – and New Zealand!

My flight home via Sydney wasn’t leaving until late afternoon the next day so after checking out of the hostel, I went for a hearty breakfast at a café then spent the morning visiting some of Wellington’s museums.  I started off at the Te Papa, the city’s Museum of New Zealand .

After spending a few hours looking around the various exhibitions, I still had some time to spare so walked along the waterfront to the Wellington Museum, a much smaller, but equally interesting museum tracking the history of the city.

At the Wellington Museum

Eventually, it was time to say goodbye to the beautiful city of Wellington and to New Zealand and begin my long journey back to the UK.  I’d loved my time in the city and exploring New Zealand’s North Island, in fact, despite everyone telling me I’d be disappointed after first visiting South Island and that South Island was the best of the two islands to visit, I think if I had to pick, I actually preferred visiting North Island.

I loved the island’s areas of geothermal activity and volcanic landscapes, found learning about Maori culture fascinating, loved the vibrant cities of Auckland and Wellington and visiting the coastal areas of the Northlands and the Coromandel and while the scenery may not have been as constantly dramatic as South Island’s, it’s just as beautiful in its own way.

I was definitely sad to be leaving New Zealand and hoped to return some day.

Taupo, New Zealand

I was nearing the end of a second solo trip to New Zealand. Having visited South Island previously, this time, I was exploring North Island. After spending time alone in the Bay of Islands and Auckland, I had joined a one-week small group tour with Haka Tours which had so far taken in the Coromandel, Waitomo and Rotorua and we were now en route to our first 2-night stop of the trip, Taupo.

Leaving Rotorua mid-afternoon after a morning visit to Hobbiton and a stop off at Wai O Tapu Thermal Wonderland, it was only an hour’s drive so we still arrived at our Haka Lodge accommodation with some of the afternoon to spare. After checking into our dorms, we were taken to the nearby Spa Park. Here, there was a natural thermal hot spring which we spent the next hour or so relaxing in.

Once back at the hostel, it was time for some shopping. Most of the group would be taking on the famous Tongariro Alpine Crossing the next day, a 19km hike, so supplies were needed to sustain us along the way. Hiking supplies bought, we then grabbed some food from the rather interesting Taupo McDonalds – a converted airplane! – before getting an early night.

We were up at 4am the next day to be picked up and taken to the start point of the crossing. Before starting the hike, I had little idea of what exactly it entailed other than the length of it but I had been told by members of my South Island tour group who had completed it, that although tiring, it was must do on the North Island tour and that had been my main reason for signing up.

After being dropped off, we made our way along the first part of the track. It was pretty flat and easy going and markers along the way tracked how far we had walked and how far we still had to go. We soon realised we’d been lulled into a false sense of security as we reached the infamous Devil’s Staircase part of the trek an hour or so later.

A long, uphill section with a mixture of steep pathways and stairs to climb causing us to take plenty of stops to ‘take some photos’ of the views!

The path then evened out again as we passed through the barren volcanic landscape of a crater before climbing steeply again, culminating in a tricky section where we had to use a rope attached to the rocks to scramble up a sharp ridge!

At the highest point of the trek now, Red Crater Summit, and also around the halfway point, we stopped to eat lunch. The weather so far had been very changeable and out of nowhere as we reached the summit, a huge cloud had descended around us masking the view.

Undeterred, we were soon ready to begin our descent down the other side of Red Crater. Glad there was some respite from walking uphill for the foreseeable future, we were surprised to find that this would actually turn out to be the most difficult part of the entire hike!

The path down was not only extremely steep but the surface was made up of loose lava fragments, like gravel, making it difficult to get a firm grip. We all lost our footing at some point, some sliding down the track before managing to steady ourselves again and the sheer incline at either side of us made the path even more precarious.

As we carefully made our way down, the cloud around us started to clear revealing the Emerald Lakes in the distance below.

Eventually we reached the lakes and looking back at where we just were and the hikers behind us looking tiny as they came down the steep path, we couldn’t believe we’d ever even managed to get to that point!

We continued on to Blue Lake where we stopped for snacks and to take in the beautiful scenery around us.

Next, there was another uphill section but the climb was much gentler than the previous climbs and the views along the way were stunning. From this point, the scenery started to change, becoming greener and less barren. Soon, we could see Ketetahi shelter in the distance – the first public conveniences since the first part of the track – but the winding track to get there seemed never ending!

Finally reaching Ketetahi shelter, some of the group were starting to flag but after a quick pit stop, I just wanted to get the last section of the trek done so edging ahead of the rest of the group, I started to pick up the pace as the path started to wind downhill. Again, the scenery began to noticeably change until I was walking through a forest of lush green plants and past a stream small waterfall before finally opening out into a car park.

Exhausted but also feeling a sense of achievement, I found somewhere to slump down as I waited for the rest of the group. Once on the coach we all fell asleep pretty much immediately on the journey back to our hostel.

We arrived back to find the few members of the group who hadn’t joined us on our hike looking a lot livelier than us after they’d spent the day exploring Taupo. They excitedly told us our tour guide had organised for us to go on a sunset cruise on the lake that evening. Struggling to muster up the energy to be excited for the prospect of doing anything other than sleep that evening, I retreated to my bed for a nap to recover from the day’s exertions.

After my nap and a shower, I still felt exhausted and ached all over but despite some of my fellow hikers deciding to give the cruise a miss, I decided I didn’t want to miss out so managed to drag myself out of my room and down to the meeting point just in time to be dropped down at the marina.

Here, we found a sail boat waiting for us along with crates of drinks in a cooler and a delivery of pizza’s for everyone. The cruise turned out to be just what I needed as I sat relaxing, wrapped up in the blankets that had been provided enjoying the good food, good company and pretty views.

The boat took us out to the Mine Bay Maori Rock Carving and then back to Taupo as the darkness began to descend. It had been a really fun evening and I was really glad I made the effort to go along but I was also very happy to get back to my bed and slept very well that night!

It had been a fun but exhausting couple of days in Taupo and I wished we had another day there to spend some more time exploring the town and relaxing down by the lake but for now, it was on to the last stop of the North Island tour, the capital city of New Zealand, Wellington.

Rotorua and Hobbiton, New Zealand

Having spent an exciting morning black water rafting through the glow worm caves of Waitomo, it was on to our next destination in New Zealand’s North Island. I was visiting New Zealand as a solo traveller and so far, I had visited the Bay of Islands and explored Auckland alone before visiting the Coromandel and Waitomo as part of an escorted tour with adventure travel company, Haka Tours and today we were off to Rotorua.

The journey from Waitomo to Rotorua took under 2 hours and once there, we made our first stop at Agrodome, a farm and adventure park just outside of Rotorua.

Riding the Agrojet boat

After cooing over the cute goats and emus, we were given the opportunity to have a go on some of the park’s activities including the high-speed Agrojet boat. After watching some other group members taking a spin on it, I decided it looked like fun and before I knew it I was strapped in and being whizzed around the water track at full speed! The boat was great fun!!

At OGO Rotorua

After grabbing some lunch from the cafe, it was on to our next stop just down the road, OGO Rotorua, where some group members tried their hands at Zorbing – rolling down a grassy slope in a large, inflatable ball. While I decided not to have a go myself, we all had lots of fun giggling at the others as we watched them attempt to stay upright inside!

It was off to check in at our accommodation for the night next – the Rotorua YHA where we’d be in dorms for the night.

Our meal being cooked, and below, traditional entertainment before dinner

This evening, we’d be going out for dinner at a traditional Maori Hangi. After getting ready, we were dropped at the Mitai Maori Village. Here, we were shown our dinner being cooked traditionally in a pit before seeing a ‘Waka’, or ceremonial war canoe being sailed down the river then watching a traditional Maori cultural performance and Haka.

Dinner was then served to us followed by a guided bush walk to finish the evening with.

Arriving at the Hobbiton Movie Set

The next morning, we had the choice of white water rafting, visiting Hobbiton or exploring Rotorua. Although ideally, I’d have liked to have had time for all 3 options, as a huge movie fan who loves to visit movie sets and studios (read about some of the other movie sites I’ve visited on my travels here!), I had signed up to visit Hobbiton along with the majority of the group.

Hobbiton

We were picked up from a Lord of the Rings-themed store near to our hostel and taken to Hobbiton. The purpose set used in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films had been left up after filming was completed and turned into a tourist attraction.

A hobbit house at Hobbiton

We were taken around the hobbit village by a tour guide, told a bit about the filming process, how the set was built, how it was used and stories from when they filmed and were given the opportunity to take photos of and with the hobbit houses.

While I’m glad I got to visit, I did find the tour very rushed with the tour group behind us hot on our heels the whole time making it difficult to get the photos we wanted.

Posing outside a hobbit house

I also found the guided groups to be too large and it was sometimes difficult to hear what the guide was saying. It is possible to take tours to Hobbiton from Auckland and I wished I had done this so I had the chance to white water raft or explore Rotorua that morning instead.

At the end of our tour, we got to visit the Green Dragon Inn for a glass of ale, cider or ginger ale included in our ticket price then it was time to get the coach back to Rotorua to meet back up with the rest of the group and begin our drive to Taupo.

Bubbling mud pools, and below, geothermal activity at Wai O Tapu Thermal Wonderland

But first we had one more stop just outside of town – Wai O Tapu Thermal Wonderland where we followed the boardwalk to see some of New Zealand’s geothermal and volcanic activity. Similar to Yellowstone National Park, we saw geysers, bubbling mud pools and pools of colourful boiling hot water all accompanied by the lovely smell of sulphur! It was really interesting to see.

It was a shame I’d not got to see more of Rotorua itself but I’d enjoyed my stay in the town and the varied activities along the way!

Waitomo, New Zealand

After spending time alone exploring the Bay of Islands and Auckland on New Zealand’s North Island, I was now 2 days into a tour of the island with Haka Tours. This afternoon we had left the Coromandel behind and now we were journeying towards our next stop, Waitomo.

3 hours later, we arrived at our accommodation for the night, a small motel on the outskirts of Waitomo. I was allocated a comfortable 3-bedroom ensuite room to share with 2 other group members and after settling in, we met up with the rest of the group at the adjoining pub spending the rest of the evening eating, drinking and chatting.

Before we realised what we’d let ourselves in for!

I had taken a tour of New Zealand’s South Island with Haka Tours just a few months earlier and kept in touch with most of my group in a Whatsapp chat. As most of them had toured North Island with the company immediately before our South Island trip, I had made sure to ask them to recommend which optional extras I should book. There were 2 unanimous ‘must dos’ according to my friends – the Tongariro Crossing in Taupo and Black Water Rafting at the glow worm caves in Waitomo.

There were actually 3 options available to use for viewing the Glow Worm Caves – a boat tour, black water rafting or, the most expensive, time-consuming and high-energy option, an abseiling and caving tour.

I wasn’t completely sure what Black Water Rafting was but had done White Water Rafting a few times and loved it so taking my friends’ advice, I had upgraded my travel insurance cover (as apparently it was a higher risk activity than anything I’d previously done!) and signed myself up for it!

Finding out what was involved in black water rafting!

So the next morning, we were up early and those of us going black water rafting were picked up and taken to the headquarters of the Black Water Rafting Company. Once there, we were handed skin tight wetsuits, special boots and a helmet with a flashlight on the front to change into and led to a pile of black inner tubes to choose from.

Now, I’m not sure what I did expect from the tour but what I certainly didn’t expect was to have to leap from the top of a waterfall into the river below. Backwards. Landing in my inner tube! Upon finding out exactly what was involved in the black water rafting experience, a few of us (ok, all of us!) in the group started exchanging worried looks – You want us to do what?!

We got to practise outside first, all nervously lining up then standing as near to the edge of the small waterfall as possible, back to the river behind us, jumping backwards aiming to land lying down in our inner tube. I watched the first few group members go first, all successfully landing in their tubes and floating off down the river before scrambling back out. Soon, it was my turn and somehow, I managed it straight away too!

Carrying our inner tubes through the caves

Practise over, we were told to hook our tubes over our shoulders and lead off to the cave entrance. Now I knew there’d be caves involved – they’re glow worm CAVES, where else would we be going?! But I’m not sure I’d realised that caving would be involved. Squeezing ourselves along with our tubes through narrow, dark passages underground with nothing but the light on our helmets to guide the way.

But it was too late to back out now so I dutifully followed the rest of the group and our guide into the darkness.

Once in the cave, we scrambled down the dark damp recesses until we heard water in the distance. It go louder until we realised we were at the top of a waterfall with an underground river running below. It was a much higher waterfall than the one we had practised on above ground. Wanting to get it out of the way, I volunteered to be the first to leap off backwards into my tube. Somehow, I again managed it without injury. Landing in the cold water flowing below and drifting off down the river, I grabbed onto the wall to steady myself and wait for the rest of the group to also be sat in their tubes in the river.

In the caves of Waitomo

From this point, it was less strenuous and more like a lazy river in the dark! Led by our guide, we drifted through the cave system along the underground river until we came to the glow worm caves. Here, we formed a train, all grabbing the ankles of the person behind us. We were then asked to all turn the flashlight on our helmet off so we were in complete darkness.

Being at the front, I was then led through through the caves by the guide and pulling the rest of my group behind me. The darkness surrounding us was suddenly lit up by what looked like a million stars shining brightly above us – glow worms! And suddenly all the stress of clambering through the caves and leaping backwards off waterfalls before seemed worth it!

As we left the caves and then Waitomo behind to head for our next stop of Rotorua, we were exhausted but extremely glad we’d all gone through with it.

Black water rafting through the caves of Waitomo was certainly an experience and one I’d absolutely recommend to anyone. As our one week tour of North Island came to an end a few days later, we all agreed that seeing the glow worms in that way was definitely a highlight of the entire week!

The Coromandel, New Zealand

Having toured South Island with them just months earlier, I was about to embark on a 7-day tour of New Zealand’s North Island with small adventure tour group Haka Tours. After a few days travelling solo in the Bay of Islands, I was back in Auckland at the company’s own Haka Lodge hostel to meet the rest of the group and begin our adventure.

Once the formalities were out of the way, the tour bus was loaded up with our luggage and we were ready to depart for our first night’s stop in Whitianga.

The Coromandel

We drove out along the Coromandel Coast stopping at a few beaches along the way including Waiomu as well as stopping at some viewpoints overlooking the coast.

Once in Whitianga, we split into 2 groups to take it in turns to visit Bay Carving where we would get the chance to make our own traditional bone-carved pendant.

My group went to look around the town, passing most of the time in a small cafe getting drinks and ice creams until it was our turn to have a go at making our pendants.

My completed pendant

We were given a selection of shapes to choose from including a fish hook and koro (spiral) and the significance of each shape was explained to us to help us decide. Then we were given a rough version of that shape and guided through the process of sanding in down to it’s finished shape and glazing it to perfect it before it was put onto a black string for us to take with us and wear as a souvenir.

Walking to Cathedral Cove

After completing our pendants, it was already early evening so we went straight to our nearby hostel where we were staying in small dorms that slept just 4 of us.

That evening, we did a group cook in the hostel kitchen rather than going out for food, a few of us heading back to the local supermarket after to grab some sweet treats for dessert!

The famous archway at Cathedral Cove

The next morning, we were going to visit Cathedral Cove where most of us had signed up to go sea kayaking. Unfortunately, the weather had other plans and after an overnight storm, the sea was still to rough and our kayaking session had to be called off. Instead, we parked near to Cathedral Cove and took a short walk along the coast path to get there.

On the beach at Cathedral Cove, and below, at Hot Water Beach

The walk along the clifftop offered plenty of pretty views along the way and when we reached Cathedral Cove it was instantly recognisable from the Chronicles of Narnia film, Prince Caspian.

The quieter end of Hot Water Beach

After spending some time on the beach, it was on to our next stop along the Coromandel Coast – Hot Water Beach.

This beach is famous for providing natural hot springs – if you can put in the effort to dig through the sand to get to the hot water!

Experiencing the hot water of Hot Water Beach!

Visitors flock to the beach either side of low tide armed with their spades (you can hire one from some of the local shops and cafes if you don’t have one with you!) and dig out their own burrows to sit in filled with the hot water that bubbles up from under the sand. The of the beach where the hot water is found was already packed when we arrived and we struggled to find a space so instead, decided to visit one of the local cafes for lunch.

After lunch, we returned to the beach and had a go at digging for some natural hot spring water, finding enough to at least all put our feet into but deciding against digging our own bath sized hole to sit in like many people had!

After our visit to Hot Water Beach, we stopped at a few more viewpoints but then it was time to say goodbye to the Coromandel and begin the long drive to our next destination, Waitomo.

Goodbye Trek America

My top 5 memories of travelling with Trek

Regular readers will know I’ve been a bit of a cheerleader for Trek America, a small group US tour company aimed at 18-38 year old solo travellers which I credit with changing my life by quashing my fears and doubts of travelling alone, instilling my love of small group tours and adventure travel in general and leading to me forming many lifelong friendships. So it was with great sadness that I met the news that the company had been disbanded, another casualty of the effects of Covid on the Worldwide travel industry. Trek America wasn’t a baby in the World of escorted touring having started offering its unique adventures across the Americas all the way back in 1972, but global travel restrictions along with the logistics of how to operate group tours which essentially consist of up to 15 individuals crammed together on a minibus for much of the time in a World of social distancing, eventually made the business unviable.

Message breaking the news on the company’s social media pages

At the grand old age of 34, I took the plunge and booked myself onto the 3-week Trek America Southern BLT tour, my first foray into solo travel and group tours and I loved it so much that I returned to the States just a few months later to join the company’s 3-week Northern BLT Trek. Since then, I have travelled with them through Alaska and introduced my sister-in-law the joys of small group travel when I won 2 places on their Deep South Tour. While I’m now more likely to plan my own self-driven road trips with some of the many friends I made on Trek and the news of the company’s demise came *just* as I was too old to join onto any more of their tours anyway, I still felt a huge loss at hearing its fate and especially thinking of all those who now won’t get to go through the experience of touring with them.

So to celebrate its existence rather than mourn its loss, here are my top 5 memories from the 4 tours I took with Trek America!

5. Partying in Vegas

Just three days into a 3 week trip, our stop in Vegas is mainly memorable because, unusually, it wasn’t how I’d ever spent my time in Vegas before.

The Bellagio dancing fountains

Playing drinking games in the hotel followed by piling onto a ‘party bus’ on which we spent our time on board hooking up our own ipod and singing and dancing along to the cheesiest of cheesy pop tunes. Then catching the last 2 shows at the Bellagio dancing fountains before karaoke at an off-Strip dive bar until the early hours.

And yet we were still up reasonably early the next day to make the most of everything else Vegas has to offer. Only on Trek.

4. Learning about Civil Rights in Memphis

At completely the other end of the spectrum to the time I spent in Vegas on the Southern BLT but equally unforgettable was the afternoon I spent in Memphis on the Deep South BLT at the National Civil Rights Museum.

At the National Civil Rights Museum housed in the Lorraine Hotel, Memphis

Compelling, humbling and thought-provoking, the museum took us on a journey through the history of the Civil Rights Movement in the US and Worldwide including a deeply moving look at the events leading up to the assassination of Martin Luther King before seeing the room where he died. A sobering experience.

Who knew Trek could be educational.

3. Monument Valley in the snow

A magical visit to Monument Valley a week into the Southern BLT. After an unexpected snow storm suddenly hit as we visited the Grand Canyon, it was on to Utah where we found the snow getting deeper and deeper.

Staring out at the vast beauty of a snow-covered Monument Valley

Despite the weather making it impossible to do the complete tour of the Navajo Tribal Park site, the snow made the visit even more special bringing a serene calm over the area. And underneath a clear blue sky with the sun shining on it, the famous red rocks poking up from the valley floor looked even more beautiful covered in the heavy, white snow.

Still the moment from the tour we talk about the most.

2. Seeing Mount Denali in Alaska

A glimpse of Mount Denali on a scenic flight over Denali National Park

Not strictly a Trek America memory as although I booked the tour of Alaska with them, I was transferred onto a tour with their sister company Grand American Adventures, but it still felt very much like Trek so I’m going to count it!

The highlight of a trip full of highlights, this expensive tour extra was worth every penny as we flew in a light aircraft over Denali National Park and finally caught sight of the until then elusive Mount Denali.

Only 30% of visitors to Denali National Park get to see Mount Denali and the weather had not been on our side while touring the park so having it suddenly come into view as we flew over the park was an amazing surprise and a strangely emotional experience.

Even without the appearance of Mount Denali, the scenic flight over glaciers and the Alaskan Range, followed by a glacial landing, was a wonderful, once in a lifetime, experience.

1. Wyoming & Yellowstone National Park

Rafting down Snake River, Wyoming and above, hiking in Grand Teton National Park and horse riding in Wyoming. Below, spending time in the epic Yellowstone National Park.

Despite it being a very National Park heavy tour, nothing could have prepared me for sheer beauty and spectacle of Yellowstone National Park. From bison and bear sightings to colourful canyons and of course, the famous geysers and geothermal activity, never has my jaw dropped so may time in such a short amount of times.

If it looks amazing in the photos, they don’t do it even the slightest justice. The park has to be seen to be believed. And as if that wasn’t enough, we continued from the park through its home state of Wyoming visiting the neighbouring Grand Teton National Park where we were met by more breath-taking scenery before spending the rest of our time in old west-style town of Jackson horse riding in the mountains and rafting through the rapids of Snake River. The one state on the tour I couldn’t wait to return to!

There are hundreds of other memories I could have mentioned from my Trek America trips – line dancing the night away in Nashville, listening to a jazz band play as we floated down the Mississippi on a New Orleans paddle boat, spending the day exploring the valley at Yosemite National Park, watching the sunset over Lake Tahoe, hiking in the amazing US National Parks, visiting the studios Elvis recorded at in Memphis… not to mention all the amazing food we ate, fun nights out we had and all the interesting places we stayed in.

Thanks for all the memories Trek America, you will be missed.

Find links to read about my adventures travelling across America with Trek here.

Franz Josef, New Zealand

I was nearing the end of a one-week tour of New Zealand’s South Island with small group adventure tour company, Haka Tours. The tour had began in Christchurch with stops at Lake Tekapo, Queenstown and Wanaka and now we had 2 nights left and were driving north to Glacier Country.

Beautiful coastal view on the way to Franz Josef

As the Haka Tours bus took us from Wanaka towards our destination of Franz Josef, there was a visible change in the scenery as we entered Mount Aspiring National Park and the New Zealand rainforest and the vivid autumn colours that had dominated our views so far were replaced by deep hues of green.

Coastal drive

Before leaving, we were all advised to invest in some bug spray to use as we reached the tropics and as we got out the bus at our first stop, Fantail Falls, we were all glad to have taken this advice as mosquitos swarmed near the river.

Ocean view

Fantail Falls was a pretty and easy to access waterfall in Mount Aspiring National Parks. After spending some time taking photos, we took a short drive to another waterfall, the taller Thunder Creek Falls.

It was another couple of hours or so drive from here to our motel in Franz Josef, the only other stop we made along the way was a a viewpoint over the coast.

Our limo awaits

That evening, our guide told us there was a surprise night out arranged for us all and after checking into our rooms, we met up to find a limousine waiting outside our motel for us!

The limo took us up and down the high street a few time before dropping us at the Blue Ice Cafe, a bar that was actually just a short walk from our accommodation.

Church in Franz Josef Village

Here, we found a tray of shots lined up for us and after some good ‘pub grub’ food, we spent the evening entertaining ourselves playing pool along with games on the Nintendo Wii set up by the bar staff!

Walking through Franz Josef village, the glacier in the distance

The next morning, we were off to visit Franz Josef glacier. Some of the group had booked helicopter tours and ice-walking trips to get a bit closer to the glacier while the rest of us would be following the walking trail out of Franz Josef village to the base of the glacier.

Hiking to the glacier

After grabbing some snacks and sandwiches to take with us, we set off. It was a mainly easy walk to the glacier over rivers, through the rainforest and past waterfalls with the glacier in view most of the way.

Waterfalls on the way to the glacier and below, nearing the glacier

After taking plenty of photos, we ate lunch near the glacier before retracing our steps back to the path.

With plenty of time to spare before meeting the rest of our group back at the hotel, we decided to follow the Douglas Walk path, hoping it would lead us to a suspension bridge we had glimpsed sight of from the glacier.

In the rainforest

The path took us through more rainforest and to Peters Pool, a small but pretty lake which reflected the surrounding scenery and then on to Douglas Bridge, a suspension bridge across the Waiho River. While not the bridge we had seen from the glacier earlier, it was still fun to cross and we made sure to follow the ‘5 persons only’ instruction written on the bridge’s entrance!

From here, some of the group decided to continue on in their search for the other suspension bridge while the rest of us decided to turn around and walk back to Franz Josef village. Once there we sat out in the sunshine having tea and cake at a small cafe waiting for the rest of the group to get back.

We met with the rest of the group late afternoon and all swapped our stories from the day. All tired after the day’s excursions, we were delighted to find out that we would be visiting the Franz Josef Glacier Hot Pools to relax for a while.

The suspension bridge across the River Waiho

Then, as it was officially the last night of our tour, we all went out to a local restaurant for one last group meal together.

Arriving in Hokitika

The next morning, we checked out of our Franz Josef motel and boarded our Haka Tours bus for the last time. Our tour of New Zealand’s South Island would be finishing this evening back at where we started, the city of Christchurch.

But instead of taking the tour bus the whole way there, we would be taking the TranzAlpine train for the last leg of the journey!

Above, and below, Hokitka Beach

Before arriving at the train station, we made a lunch stop in the coastal town of Hokitika. After grabbing some food and browsing in some of the town’s jade stores, we made our way down to the beach. Hokitika is home to a large beach full of driftwood and local artists had fashioned this driftwood into various sculptures covering the sand.

The sculptures made great backgrounds for our photos and with it being the last day of our tour, we made sure to get a few photos of the group together.

Above, and below, driftwood sculptures on Hokitika Beach

From here, we continued on until we reached the train station. We waved goodbye to our tour guide for a while – he’d be driving the bus back to Christchurch and would meet us at the other end with our luggage for a proper goodbye – and waited for the train to arrive.

Above, on board the TranzAlpine Train to Christchurch, and below, views along the way

The TranzAlpine is supposed to be one of the World’s greatest train journeys and it certainly didn’t disappoint. The journey took us past amazing scenery passing river gorges and through the Southern Alps then across the Canterbury Plains before arriving in Christchurch. Here we were met as planned by the Haka Tours bus and it was time to say goodbye to some members of the group who were leaving that night to catch flights.

The rest of us would be staying over at the Haka Lodge hostel on the outskirts of the city before departing the next day.

It had been an unforgettable week and I’d enjoyed my time in New Zealand so much, I knew it wouldn’t be long before I returned, next time to explore its North Island!

Wanaka, New Zealand

Lake Wanaka

I was about half way through a small group tour of New Zealand’s South Island with Haka Tours and so far, had spent a few days exploring Christchurch before journeying to Lake Tekapo and then on to Queenstown.

Stopping off in Arrowtown

After a busy few days in Queenstown, we were making a late morning departure for Wanaka where we’d be staying in a hostel situated right on the lake.

Leaving later than planned after some of the group’s morning excursions finished late, it was already pretty much lunch time so we made a stop at the nearby Arrowtown.

For me and a few other members of the group, this was our second visit to Arrowtown that day after we had stopped as part of our Lord of the Rings locations tour that morning.

Old West style building in Arrowtown

Then, we had mainly spent time down by the river, driving through the actual town without stopping, so it was nice to have some time to explore the pretty American gold rush-style town this time.

Whilst there, we grabbed a sandwich for lunch from a local cafe, which I followed with a boysenberry ice cream, before jumping back on board our bus to continue to Wanaka.

Down by the marina in Wanaka

We didn’t make any more stops along the way until we reached Wanaka’s skydiving centre. Braver members of the group had signed up to skydive over Lake Wanaka that afternoon.

The rest of us waved goodbye to our nervous but excited friends as we continued our drive to our accommodation and as we wished them luck we were both relieved it wasn’t us but also wishing we had the nerve to join them!

Above, and below, an autumn stroll alongside Lake Wanaka

After checking into my private en suite room at our hostel, I sat out in the common area admiring the stunning view of the lake from the floor to ceiling window. Joined by some other members of the group, we took a late afternoon stroll down to the lake and along the lakeside path before looping back to the hostel and sitting out in the autumn sunshine awaiting the return of our skydiving buddies.

That evening, we walked into town to Mexican restaurant for dinner, staying for drinks after.

Stopping to take in the view while cycling alongside Lake Wanaka

We had just one night in Wanaka but wouldn’t be departing until early afternoon the next day.

A few of us made plans to meet early to make the most of the morning and hire bikes to ride a circular route along the lake and back.

Above and below, views as I cycle at Lake Wanaka

The path along the lake was pretty flat and easy to ride along and made plenty of stops along the way to enjoy the beautiful views and take way too many photos. The lake looked beautiful in the autumn sunshine surrounded by the the golden-leafed trees.

Cycling past Wanaka’s Puzzling World attraction

Eventually, the path turned away from the lake and along the road up a huge hill and back to Wanaka town where we passed the Puzzling World attraction. It looked like it would have been a fun place to explore if we’d had more time!

Above and below, spending an autumn morning cycling at Lake Wanaka

From here it was downhill back to the lake and we returned our bikes and met the rest of the group to check out of our hostel. We just had time to grab some lunch before it was time to load up the bus and depart.

We made a stop for one last look at Lake Wanaka before continuing on to our next destination, Franz Josef.

Queenstown, New Zealand

Day 2 of my 7-day tour of New Zealand’s South Island from Christchurch with Haka Tours and we were waving goodbye to beautiful Lake Tekapo to drive to Queenstown.

Stopping at a Lake Pukaki viewpoint en route from Lake Tekapo to Queenstown

Our first stop along the way was at a viewpoint over the nearby Lake Pukaki, the largest of the region’s Alpine lakes glimmering under the sunshine and backed by snow-capped mountains in the distance.

Random stop along the road

From here, we continued on stopping at High Country Salmon, a salmon farm and one of the more random stops on our tour! We got to feed the salmon, find out a bit about the salmon farming business and make use of the cafe before continuing on our way!

At High Country Salmon

Our journey through the mountains was slowed down briefly as we suddenly found a herd of sheep running down the road towards our bus.

It was great fun watching them surround the bus as they squeezed their way past us and on down the road to their new field!

Scenery on the way to Queenstown

We made another stop at a view point along the mountain pass before arriving at our Haka Lodge accommodation for the next two nights in Queenstown. The cosy Haka Lodge was a hostel owned by the Haka Tour company. I once again had a private room although this time it wasn’t en suite.

Enjoying the scenery along the way

After checking in, some members of the group had activities booked for the afternoon including the Shotover Jet boat ride and, for the more adventurous group members, the Canyon Swing – a bit like a bungee jump except you sit in a chair to swing from the cliff! Having not signed up for any of the activities on offer, the rest of us walked to Skyline Queenstown to make use of our free ticket to ride the gondola to the top that was included in our Haka Tours package.

Above, and below, the views from the top at Skyline Queenstown

The cable car ride to the top of Bob’s Peak is the steepest in the Southern Hemisphere. Once at the top, we spent a while enjoying the amazing views over Queenstown and the surrounding area before taking the chairlift further up the mountain to ride the Queenstown Luge back down to the viewing platforms and cafe.

Riding the luge at the top of Skyline Queenstown

After catching the gondola back down, we walked into Queenstown to meet up with the rest of the group at a local bar to share our stories over drinks and pizza.

The following day, the group once again all had different activities booked. Five of us had booked a full day’s coach trip out to Milford Sound.

Stopping to enjoy the view on the way to Milford Sound

Our coach drove us through Fiordland National Park making stops along the way at various lakes and mountainous viewpoints before we arrived at Milford Sound harbour early afternoon to enjoy a 2-hour cruise past waterfalls and stunning tropical scenery. This was a really amazing experience!

On the water at Milford Sound

After our cruise, we were met by our coach for the long journey back to Queenstown. It had been a long day but was definitely worth it.

Despite the late finish the night before, it was up early again the next day for one last tour before leaving Queenstown. Along with a few other group members, I had booked onto a Lord of the Rings tour of the area to see some of the locations used in the films.

Kawarau Gorge, one of the filming locations used in the Lord of the Rings films

Our tour was in a four-wheel drive vehicle and took is out of Queenstown to Kawarau Gorge, the location of the Pillars of the Kings in the film then out to the nearby Arrowtown where the autumn colours of the trees were just breathtaking.

Here, we went off-roading into the woods and down to the Arrow River.

Down by the river in Arrowtown

We made a stop by the river to give panning for gold a go. It was a lot harder than it looks and we came away with just one miniscule piece of gold between us!

Getting ready to go panning for gold

The final part of our tour took us high up into the mountains for more dramatic scenery and stunning views over Queenstown. Even without an interest in the filming locations for the Lord of the Rings films, this tour would have been worth taking just for the amazing views along the way!

Heading up into the mountains, and below, stunning views from the last stop on our Lord of the Rings locations tour

At the end of our tour we were dropped back at Haka Lodge to meet up with the rest of our group and climb back aboard our Haka bus to begin our journey to Wanaka.

It had been a fun few days in Queenstown although looking back on it, I feel I hardly seen any of the town itself being so busy with tours and activities. Definitely somewhere I need to return to one day!!

Christchurch, New Zealand

Having decided upon taking a 7-day tour of New Zealand’s South Island with small group tour company Haka Tour, I set off on my journey from London Heathrow to Christchurch via short stops in Dubai, Bangkok and Sydney before finally landing 35 hours later. While I was not looking forward to such a long flight, I found it went a lot quicker than the longest flights I had previously taken to Australia, maybe helped by all the stops breaking the journey up; but I was still exhausted when we landed and the last thing I needed was to find my suitcase damaged and split open as it came round the conveyor belt at Christchurch airport!

The earthquake damaged Christchurch Cathedral

Customer services were very apologetic and offered to loan me a temporary case while mine was sent to be repaired but said that as it was a holiday weekend for ANZAC day, I would have to return to the airport in 2-3 days to collect it once it was fixed. I explained I was departing on a tour of the island and wouldn’t be in Christchurch then to be able to return to the airport and after a few calls, they agreed to give me a similar suitcase there and then.

A Christchurch tram passes by

It took me a while to repack and transfer everything from one case to the other and by the time I was ready to leave the airport, I’d abandoned all my plans to use public transport into the city and instead hopped straight into a taxi to take me directly to my Ibis hotel.

The temporary Re:Start Mall

It was afternoon when I arrived and with my room ready to check in straight away, I set my alarm for a quick nap before dragging myself out into the city. Finding my way to the Cathedral Square, I had my first glimpse of what was left of the cathedral, severely damaged in the 2011 earthquake.

An autumn stroll along the river

Hoping to find somewhere to eat in the city, I continued to wander through Christchurch but the city was like a ghost town with little about and failing to find anything I wanted to eat, I returned towards my hotel via a walk through Re:Start Mall, a temporary shopping area replacing stores damaged in the earthquake with stores in shipping containers, then along the river and once back, ordered room service before having an very early night to catch up on my missed sleep.

The Chalice sculpture in Cathedral Square

Having seen a leaflet advertising it in the reception of my hotel, I decided to take a walking tour of the city the next morning. There tour was free and there was no need to book, I just needed to be in Cathedral Square, by the Chalice sculpture, at 10am to meet the guide. 7 of us turned up for the tour, a mixture of solo travellers and couples and we were taken around the city hearing about it’s history and the ongoing repercussions of the 2011 quake.

The eerie, ghost town feel to the city made much more sense having heard the stories of the city’s struggles to rebuild and how many people and businesses had moved out to the suburbs to restart.

Above and below, art work covering up earthquake damage in Christchurch

There was still uncertainty about what would become of the damaged Cathedral and we were taken past the temporary ‘Cardboard Cathedral’ being used int he meantime as well as shown the 185 Chairs earthquake memorial with one chair standing for every life lost in the earthquake. The city was also covered in street art and murals trying to cover up the damage and we had plenty of examples pointed out to us.

Rebuilding, art work, car parks and empty space – Christchurch still recovering from a devastating earthquake

Mentioning to the guide that I had struggled to find anywhere to eat in the city with even cafes serving snacks and breakfast being thin on the ground, he took the group to the C1 Espresso, a cafe with a quick bites menu of sandwiches, fries etc., for lunch.

The cafe had an interesting way of serving fries to the tables sending them through pneumatic tubes rather than the serving staff bringing them over!

Above and below, autumn in the botanic gardens

After lunch, I said goodbye to the group and took a walk to the city’s Botanic Gardens then visited the Canterbury Museum before collecting my luggage from my hotel and moving to the nearby YHA to meet my Haka Tours group. Having arrived from completing their tour of the North Island, the group were just checking in to the YHA and the few of us joining just for the South Island leg of the tour were introduced before we all went out for food at a nearby Mexican restaurant.

Above and below, visiting the Canterbury Museum

The group was made up of mainly Brits, a few Canadians, an American and one Australian varying in age from early 20s to mid-30s and despite most of the group having already spent a week together travelling the North Islands, I felt immediately included and knew we were going to have a good week together exploring the South Island.

Glad to have upgraded to a private room for the trip, after dinner, I headed back to the YHA and my room to again catch up on my sleep before our early start the next morning to begin our South Island adventure starting with a visit to Lake Tekapo.