Monday, November 30th, 2015

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Traveling in New Zealand: Flying with the Kiwis

On the road to the Milford Sound in New Zealand’s Fiordland National Park, there is a popular tourist stop called The Chasm. Most people meander like so many grazing New Zealand sheep up the lazy gravel path to a viewing platform where they snap photos of the small waterfall as it crashes into the rocky landing below.  But after just a few minutes of meandering with my fellow touristic sheep , Andrew Schnauer, an experienced (and barefoot) Kiwi hiker, holds up his hand, signaling for us to stop.  We let the tourists in front of us wander out of sight, and then he ducks into the jungle bush and leads me and a few other travelers down a barely recognizable trail. I could smell the wet, woody smell of New Zealand’s untamed wilderness as we ducked under branches and pushed past the large fronds of local ferns before the trail opened up into a network of stunning blue pools and rock formations at the base of the waterfall.  Andrew’s secret spot.

Just a few feet from the falls, the water becomes placid and settles into hazy blue pools.  Moss grows on the rocky outcrops nearest the falls, and one of them looks too much like a man’s face to have been naturally carved by the falling water. It is eerie, and beautiful, and not over-run with tourists—my kind of place.  I take some pictures, shoot some footage for my video blog, and thank Andrew for leading me on this little off-the-beaten-path adventure. 

For me and the other backpackers, this little detour was an awesome and unique addition to our trip. For Andrew, it’s all in a day’s work.  Andrew is a driver and guide for Flying Kiwi Adventure Tours a backpacker-friendly, adventure bus tour company that offers more than just a ride from A to NZ.  Flying Kiwi employs local guides who know the twists of every trail, and are happy to slip on their tramping boots or hop on a bike to show you things that most tourists miss. 

I had decided to jump on the Flying Kiwi bus to see what this tour could offer a jaded globetrotter like myself.  I opted for the Grand Traverse trip, a 2-week-long journey that would take me from the bustle of Auckland to the whitewater of the Rangitata river, and then from the spectacular fiords of the Milford Sound to the touristic booze-fest of Queenstown. 

What I discovered on my trip wasn’t found in the glassy reflection of the Franz Josef Glacier in St. Peter’s Pools, and it wasn’t in the surrounding temperate rainforest.  It wasn’t in the bubbling thermal pools of Wai O Tapu or the on the golden sandy shores of Kaikoura. What I discovered on my journey with the Flying Kiwi Adventure Tour was a new found appreciation for group travel.  I was reminded of one of the cardinal rules of travel: oftentimes, it’s more about the people, than the place.


Know Your Options
When choosing a bus tour, you’re going to want to do your homework and make sure you choose a trip that is well suited to your travel style.  Hop-on-hop-off bus tours like Magic Bus and Kiwi Experience are gaining in popularity every year.  They offer an affordable and convenient way to see the country, and are usually full of young, adventurous and shall we say, socially-oriented travelers.  Whoever you end up booking with, make sure you don’t miss out on one of the best parts of group travel – the group.  When people are hopping on and off at every stop, you never really get the chance to form the bonds that can make group travel so memorable. 

With the Flying Kiwi bus, you always have the option of hopping off the bus, and staying longer at any stop (although, you’ll have to wait 9 days for the next bus to come through town), but most people opt to stay onboard for the duration of their trip.  You ride the bus together, you camp together, you cook and eat together, you hike and bike together, and in the end, you become one big bizarre, dysfunctional (but somehow oddly functional) family. 

Go Green by Going Group
In the days of organic produce and inconvenient truths, even in the travel industry, green is gold. One overlooked bonus of bus tours is that traveling with a group helps to seriously reduce your carbon footprint.  Instead of 30 people in 15 rented campervans chugging down the highway, Flying Kiwi gets everyone where they need to be with one fuel-efficient bus. Guides are trained to understand the natural environment and how to protect it. Campsites and accommodation are usually locally owned, recycling is always available, and all trash is carried out of national parks.  Personally, I’d like to see a tour group with biodiesel buses and solar-powered charging stations, but considering that Flying Kiwi won the 2007 Nelson Environment Award, I’d say they’re on the right track.

Back on the Bus
Backpackers often dismiss organized bus tours, deeming them outdated or even ingenuous travel. 

Geriatric travelers can enjoy the go-with-the-flow simplicity of a planned out package tour, but younger travelers often feel like they are missing out on the chaotic adventure that can make solo travel so appealing. 

Still, there is a time and a place when a bus tour is the best option for any traveler.  If you have long distances to travel or multiple destinations that aren’t easily accessible with public transport, and if you don’t want to buy or rent a car, you should look into hitting the road with a backpacker bus tour. 

Companies like Flying Kiwi, Kiwi Experience, and Magic Bus are great options for backpackers who are tired of planning their own transportation.  These tours are built for young, independent travelers, so forget about everything you thought you knew about bus travel and get on the backpacker bus!

Justin Jones is an American travel writer, currently based in New Zealand.  Follow him on his very slow trip around the world at www.JustinWasHere.com.

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