Where’s Bluff?

We took a bus to Invercargill where our host had picked us up to get to Bluff. There are no shuttle services directly to Bluff unless if you intend to go to Stewart Island. We contemplated going to Stewart Island which is known for smoked salmon! We decided not to because of the hefty cost of the ferry to Stewart Island; the bus ticket to Bluff was expensive enough already.

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A view off one of the Bluff Hill tracks

Bluff is a hole. It’s known for oysters, but it was not oyster season so no oysters for us. Actually, we learned that all the fresh seafood from Bluff gets shipped to other parts of the country in the wee hour once they are captured. It is hard to buy good seafood in Bluff unless if you have connections with the fisherman. We decided to come to Bluff because our host had mentioned about looking for creative helpers to help setup an information center. We spent most of the time cleaning up the information center to prepare for its reopening in mid-January.

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There was not much to explore in Bluff other than Bluff Hill and Stirling Point. Stirling Point has a similar location signpost as in Cape Reinga. I remember asking the question ‘Where’s Bluff?’ when I saw the sign at Cape Reinga. Who would have thought that we would have made it to the opposite end of the country during our 3-month adventure? If we would have known, we should have staged for some interesting photos. I spent my days reading a book about women in China that my host had lent me. It’s been awhile since I have been this engaged with a book. I aggressively read through the stories so I can finish the book before leaving Bluff.

I learned from the carpenter working at the information center that gold mining is still an active industry today. He actually dives for gold mining during the summer. Carpentry is only his part time winter job. I did not realize people still mined for gold nowadays. I suppose he does find something from time to time to make a living.

Not much goes on in Bluff. We kept ourselves entertained with our host’s dog Biddy. She is a needy one. She always want you to rub her bum. If you are petting her body, she would adjust herself so you end up rubbing her butt. As our host said, “Not all women knows what they want, but Biddy does.” Leave it to the dog to set an example, haha.

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This is Biddy’s signal for a butt rub

This is our last HelpX engagement in New Zealand. It is interesting to see the differences in the three experiences. Our first HelpX experience was in Nelson where we helped a middle class family on their private farm. We were provided with comfortable accommodations and delicious fresh farm-to-table meals. However, our host was very keen on ensuring that we work as fast as we could (which we did). The second experience was in Greymouth at the bed and breakfast. Financially speaking, this host was the most unstable with a budget hostel where he has to strive to make ends meet. He was the most welcoming and the most concerned with our overall well being. Lastly, our host in Bluff is an artist with a decent loft and the ambitions to promote tourism in Bluff. She is happy to let us do our own things as long as the day’s work is complete. Our HelpX experiences had been interesting to see how people from different walks of life turn out. It was interesting to see the difference in lifestyle of the businessmen, hippie, and artist. Which shall I pursue?

When the sun finally shines

As our HelpX gig wraps up, we searched for new travel buddies to join for another road trip. It is almost New Years and we are not sure where to go for New Year’s Eve. Like I mentioned earlier, Mount Cook would be a cool destination for New Years to be celebrated in the middle of the mountains. We found another Belgium travelmate off the New Zealand Facebook group and planned to head back down south again towards Queenstown.

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Hokkitika Gorge

The weather was nicer to us our second time going southward from the west coast. We stopped by the Hokkitika Gorge which we drove passed earlier due to bad weather. The bright blue waters is worth a stopover. Since our new travelmate was not too interested in seeing the glaciers, we were happy to breeze by those locations. We stopped over at Lake Matheson, the reflection lake, again. While the weather was not the best, we were at least able to see some reflection this time! The drive down to Lake Wanaka was stunning. We did not notice any of its beauty during our first drive in the rain. I am glad to be able to see it when the sun shines! We spent a night camping at Lake Wanaka since our travelmate’s car was overheating. It was 10 PM and still bright out! Lake Wanaka is really beautiful. I would love to stay here longer if we have more jacked up camping equipment, haha. Everyone at the campsite have legitimate tents and camping gear.

 

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Lake Wanaka

We made sure to remember to stop by the Wanaka Tree this time! As expected, it is just a tree growing out of the water. It looks a lot less significant than the photos on Instagram. I have been wanting to do the famous Roy’s Peak or Isthmus Peak track in Wanaka. Unfortunately, we spent a lot of time trying to find a mechanic to look over my travelmate’s car,  so we did not have time for the long hike. Most of the auto shops were closing or closed for the New Years. Instead, we went on the shorter Mount Iron trail near Wanaka. The views were still nice despite the short stroll up to the peak.

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View from Mount Iron

We made a last minute decision to celebrate New Year’s Eve at Queenstown. Queenstown is supposed to be the most exciting place in New Zealand to celebrate New Year’s Eve. I never thought I would make it there for the end of the year celebration since all the hostels were fully booked well in advanced. We planned to just wing it and maybe sleep in the park for the night. We prayed that no one breaks into our car during the night – apparently, car robberies are common especially during big events such as New Year’s Eve. When we got to town, we realized that some hostels still had some available rooms even though they were not listed as so online. We decided not to book the hostel since it was too expensive to only spend a few hours on the bed. We spent countdown by the lake in Queenstown. The fireworks only lasted a couple minutes so that was anticlimactic. Being used to large crowds as a native New Yorker, the “crowd” during New Year’s Eve was not so chaotic. I was so mentally drained for New Year’s Eve. I spent the past few days trying to entertain our travelmate since I felt bad that he was so concerned with his car issues; it was not until the bars did I realize he was just an antisocial bloke who was hoping to miraculously find a gal for countdown.

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The much anticipated Wanaka Tree

After New Years, we got in contact with another HelpX experience at Bluff. Getting to Bluff was expensive, but the work seemed interesting so we might as well give it a try. Although after the Bluff work, we would have to make our way back to Queenstown again for a car transfer reservation. An alternative to directly renting cars is to participate in helping with car relocations. You have a limited amount of days to transfer a car from location A to B, but you can pay to extend the number of days for you to relocate the car. While it was not a lot cheaper after tacking on full car insurance, it was still cheaper than renting a car. Car rental prices had gone up since our first car rental in North Island. Sometimes I wish to have bought a car since the beginning, but my lack of knowledge on cars and limited comfort with driving long distances had held me back.  Sometimes I wonder how my experience in New Zealand would differ if I had bought a car.

Run it like you own it

To get from Christchurch to Greymouth, a scenic option would be to go through Arthur’s Pass. Starting off early, we made our first stop at Castle Hill. The drive to Castle Hill was gorgeous; it made me really excited for Arthur’s Pass. Castle Hill has these beautiful rock formations which are perfect for those who likes bouldering. There were so many interesting rocks, we spent quite a bit of time getting lost in the maze of limestone boulders. By the time we reached Arthur’s Pass, it was heavily raining. The trails through Arthur’s Pass are rated to be challenging and deemed even more dangerous with such rainy weather.

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Limestone boulders at Castle Hill

Bored with nothing else to do, we arrived in Greymouth early to hang out at their lovely McDonalds. McDonalds has slowly became our best friend in New Zealand. They usually have nice bathrooms and reliable internet. We decided to camp one more night before bidding farewell to our travelmate. Due to the last minute accommodation search, we ended up spending the night at Black Ball Communication Center despite the reviews saying it is creepy and haunted. We were all a bit creeped out by the building and the bathroom! We looked up articles about reported ghost sightings in the building before going to sleep. WHY?! Since you are reading this, you know we all made it in one piece and survived the haunted house. No wonder it only cost $5AUD per night!

We spent the next week at the bed and breakfast in Tayorville, which is a 10 minute drive to Greymouth. It’s a hole; there’s nothing to do or see within comfortable walking distance. After just briefly greeted by our host, he entrusted us with the task to run the bed and breakfast on his behalf for a few days while his family goes on a vacation. While the work did not seem complicated, it was so trusting of him to have us manage the place shortly after meeting us.

There were only four rooms to maintain and we stayed in the bar-converted living space area. Our daily tasks included checking customers in and out, changing sheets, laundry, general cleaning, and feeding the chickens. I took the most enjoy in collecting eggs from the chicken; they did not always lay eggs though. There really was not too much to do around the house so it was a great time to figure out travel plans after New Zealand and catch up on things we did not have time for otherwise. I recall snacking on rice crackers for the most part and marathoning through Star Wars episodes 4 to 6. Working at the hostel reminded me of the times when I dreamed about having my own cozy accommodations by the seaside and creating a relaxing experience for visitors to enjoy.

One of the reasons why we wanted to partake in another HelpX around this time was so that we can join a Kiwi family for Christmas. The family had some interesting dynamics where my host and his wife’s ex-spouses also joined for the Christmas feast. Since it is warm during Christmas time in New Zealand, Kiwis often have barbeques at the beach. We did not go to a beach, but we had a barbeque and heaps of wine and desserts. It was not a fancy celebration, but everyone still had fun and felt the Christmas spirit. Our host really tried to ensure that we have a good time during our stay and offered us to use any of the things we see around the house. He even lent me his car at some point for a quick grocery run.

The 10 days at Taylorville was not very exciting in particular, but it was relaxing. We spent most of the time within the bed and breakfast vicinity. Sometimes after all the constant travel, you just want to slow down and do nothing for some time.

No trip to Milford Sound is complete without rain

Milford Sound is known to rain over 300 days a year. The rain makes up the Milford Sound experience. You may have guessed it, we were not the lucky ones to be there when it was sunny – just one day too early!

To get to Milford Sound, we had to first get to Te Anau and make our way up the Fiordland National Park before we can reach Milford Sound. Expecting rain and very limited resources available, we bought a tarp to cover our flimsy tent! We were concerned that the tent would not sustain the heavy rains and winds in the Fiordland. I finally get to put my extra shoelace that I brought from home to good use to tie the tarp to the tent!

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Tent 2.0

The best weather we experienced in the Fiordland was right when we arrived at Te Anau. The walk around the lake was nice and sunny, so sunny that I got sunburned again! New Zealand attracts many travelers and hike enthusiasts to the country to partake in one of their 9 Great Walks. In the Fiordland itself contains 3 of the Great Walks. There are multi-day walks through various trails with specified huts as stopping points. I was really excited to do one of the Great Walks prior to coming to New Zealand. I have later learned how popular they are and how you have to reserve a spot in the huts or campsites way in advanced to ensure that you have accommodations during your trek; freedom camping are not allowed on these trails. Since the walk through Abel Tasman, I also realized they are called ‘Great Walks’ because they are mostly consisted of walking rather than trekking through some off beaten path. I was keen on the idea of participating on the Milford Sound Great Walks, but decided not to since I did not plan in advanced and most of the walk would be drenched in rain! While we were at the Fiordland, we went on a short trail to Key Summit, which is part of the Routeburn Great Walk. The trek was nice until the clouds started creeping in. By the time we reached the top, it was completely covered in clouds!

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The view on our way to the top of Key Summit before the clouds took over

We drove up to Milford Sound the day before our cruise to check out short trails in the surrounding. It started to rain then hail at some point so we became discouraged and just stayed in the only café in Milford Sound. As anticipated, the cruise the next day was consisted of rain and fog. The mist in the sounds makes up the Milford Sound experience. You see many little waterfalls because of the rain. People who were very keen on the best views of the cruise stayed outside in the back of the book and were soaked in rain!

After all that rain, I was more than excited to take a warm shower back in Cromwell! Milford Sound was our last big stop before heading to Greymouth where we will be helping out a bed and breakfast during the Christmas week. We breezed through Christchurch since our travelmate was not very interested in the city. I was so surprised to see so many of ruins since the earthquake in 2011 still remained untouched. We did spend a night at a free campsite close by Christchurch city center. To our surprise, this free campsite was well maintained and probably one of the better campsites we been to.

Searching for Paradise

When camping at Lake Lanthe, we met two French girls who highly recommended this place called Paradise around the Glenorchy area. There was close to no information online or on any of the maps to pin point the exact location of Paradise. So guess what? We never found it. We did encounter some interesting snow formations that resembled a face and a circle of rocks.

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Searching for Paradise. Can you spot the face snow formation?

We never found the place named Paradise, but what we did find is paradise within the southern parts of New Zealand. Generally speaking, most travelers would mention Wanaka and Queenstown to be the amazing parts of their tour of the country. I finally reached Lake Wanaka! The drive from Haast to Wanaka was supposed to be gorgeous, but the rain has concealed its beauty for us once again, thanks. The town of Wanaka itself is beautiful, but not very big in size. We walked along the waters until sunset. We intended to visit one of the most photographed spots in the area, the Wanaka Tree, but we kept forgetting!

We left for Mount Cook National Park the next day. If I could, I would love to spend more time here. I really looked forward to exploring Mount Cook; initially, I did not think there was time to check it out in this leg of the travel since the national park is a bit out of the way. We decided to go on the Hooker Valley track. It was an easy walking trail for a rewarding view. The scenery was amazing! I enjoyed the whole walk and it really was an effortless attempt since the trail was well paved for people of all levels of fitness to partake in. I really want to come back for New Years. It would be so cool to camp here welcoming the new year. The whole thing is very picturesque. I think in terms of natural scenery, I prefer mountains and lakes as opposed to beautiful beaches. From the bridge to the passage way of seeing the snowcapped mountains more close up, I was snapping photos nonstop.

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Hooker Valley Track

The search for better views of the glaciers do not end there. The following day, we drove through Mount Aspiring National Park for the Rob Roy’s Peak trail. The drive was no easy task. We were off to a no network zone and unpaved roads. If an accident were to happen, we would be out of luck. The car that sped passed us, experienced that fate for not carefully driving on rocky roads. Due to rain from the prior days, many parts of the streams overflowed onto the driving path. There were several encounters where we questioned if it was possible for our non 4WD to get through. Also many animals surrounded our car from time to time. Still probably a few kilometers away from the start of the trail, we made a judgement call to park our car before this seemingly deeper body of water. It would be horrendous for our car to get stuck there. If we were not in a group of three, I suppose it would be easier to hitch a quick ride from cars who braved through the water, but the walk to the start was not so bad.

It was an easy trail, but in the blazing hot sun, I was dying from the heat. I kept my pace much slower than usual. It was not until we reached a resting point where I cooled myself off with the glacier water and ate an apple did I suddenly feel the surge of energy to breeze to the top. By the time we reached the end, I just climbed up a rock to enjoy another apple and look at the mountains and glaciers. This spot was my paradise of undisturbed exposure with nature.

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Mount Aspiring National Park

Our next major stop was to Queenstown.  Atlas, we reached the well talked about Queenstown. The town itself was nothing special, just filled with souvenir shops and restaurants and heaps of tourists. Not wasting anytime, we decided to get a second dinner at the famous Fergeburger. Luckily we went at an odd hour so the wait was less than 15 minutes before we got to devour the extra-large Big Al burger. It was good, but not a must-try. We were skeptical about burgers here since we had our share of good burgers in New York. Regardless, the burger is still very iconic for Queenstown and is still worthy for a sample when you are here.

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Fergeburger’s Big Al

Nature overshadowed by rain

One of the highlights of South Island that I really looked forward to was the glaciers! Initially, I was very keen on booking a helicopter tour to the Franz Joseph or Fox Glaciers for some trekking. However, due to unpredictable weather conditions and the cost, we decided to just walk around the trails instead. I do want to mention how beautiful the Franz Joseph iSite is. A bit random, but after a sandflies infested night camping out, the beautiful information center and restroom was particularly comforting to be in.

We quickly proceeded to the Franz Joseph trail when we got there to enjoy as much of the sun as possible as the weather forecast indicated rain in the late afternoon. The trail was roughly 1.5hours roundtrip. My travelmates and I agreed that the best photo spot was 15 minutes into the trail and the rest was limited change in scenery. It was scary to see how much the glacier had retreated, but I am grateful to see it before it melts away even more! Afterwards, we made a short stop to the Fox Glacier since it was on the way to take a glimpse of this glacier. It is one of those things where once you see one, the other one would not be as fascinating.

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Franz Joseph Glacier

One of the most photographs places in South Island is Lake Matheson. On a nice day with calm winds, you can see the reflection of the alps on the lake.  You might have already guessed it, when we went the sky was gloomy with a slight breeze disrupting the water in the lake so no mirage was formed. The beauty in Lake Matheson is entirely dependent on that perfect timing with it is sunny or else it would look like any other lake. Boo.

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Gloomy weather at Lake Matheson

Here goes another destination that seems to be falsely advertised: Blue Pools at Mount Aspiring National Pool. By its name, you would assume the water is blue. False! The water is green! Disappointed, we decided to continue on the trail to see if we can find something more intriguing. Unaware of how long and where the young river mouth trail would take, we just went with the flow. Since it was raining earlier, the field was really wet. Our sneakers were completely soaked; I mean, after stepping into the first puddle, the rest would not matter anymore. At some point, the water was to my knees! The trail led us to this beautiful open field filled with yellow flowers. The scenery reminded me of The Sound of Music, which I actually never watched. It was so peaceful here, I would love to camp here if there was no rain for the night. There are mini scare during our hike along the young river mouth trail. We got separated from our travelmate and were unable to find him until 2 hours later! None of us are swimmers and we were afraid that he somehow slipped and fell in the water or along the tracks. There was no clear end to the trail and when the new track starts, so it turns out, he thought the end was near so he continued pacing forward instead of finally deciding to turn back an hour later. Just our luck, we were in a no signal zone so the only way to pass on a message is to leave some indicator on the car and we backtracked. Luckily, we were finally able to bump into each other!

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Young River Mouth Trail

Thankfully the weather has cleared up after Blue Pools and were were able to enjoy a bit of the beautiful scenery towards Lake Wanaka!

West coast, wet coast

The farming experience concluded after a little over a week. I can see myself doing this for at most one month more if the tasks continue to be this repetitive. Onto our next journey, we will be joining a new travelmate from Belgium to explore the west side of South Island in a two-week timeframe. It may be a bit rushed since our travelmate only has two weeks from his holiday break for South Island, but we figured we can always revisit certain spots after this road trip wraps up.

First step, go to K-Mart for camping gears. This brings back memories of the two-week camping trip I did in the West Coast of Australia in a flimsy $15 AUD tent, thin sleeping bag, and floatie as a sleeping mat. Unaware of how much camping we would do, we bought the cheapest tent for $17 NZD and budget sleeping bags. I bought a floatie as a mat as well, but I never ended up using it after realizing how small the tent actually is. I think this 2-person tent is supposed to fit two children and not two adults. Little did we know, we ended up camping 80% of the time in those two weeks under heavy rain and wind. While the rain did not start dripping through the tent, the water did seep through and you can feel it when you touch the sides. This restricts the tiny sleeping space even more.

I confused myself of what the Fiordlands encompasses with the West Coast a little; I thought Milford Sound was considered to be on the West Coast initially. Looking a my Lonely Planet guide book, there were not too many recommendations of towns to stop by other than the glaciers. Well our first stop is Abel Tasman National Park.

 

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Overcast at Abel Tasman

 

Abel Tasman National Park contains one of New Zealand’s Great Walks. Prior to coming to New Zealand, I was very keen on at least doing one of the Great Walks. I later learned that they are overly popular and the huts and campsites for overnight stays get booked up very quickly at the start of the summer season. Also since they are so popular, there would be a lot of people on the routes. I was less excited about doing the Great Walks since they are costly and crowded, but I did want to experience an overnight hike. We spent two days and one night at the Abel Tasman. We only reached Anchorage before setting the tent for the night and walking back the following day. Since we tried reserving our camp spot so late, we had to separate from our travelmate and walk back to another small camspite by the beach at Akersten.

At our campsite, there were not many options of where to setup our tent so we picked a spot on the beach that is the furthermost from shore. The two other campers there had hammocks so they were not bothered by where the water would reach during high tide, which was around 3AM for that night. I could barely sleep that night because of two reasons: 1) the tent was set up on a slant so I kept sliding downward, and 2) I was worried that the water would rise to our tent. That was quite the reintroduction to the camping life again. It was so much more of a challenge to be carrying our gear while hiking and in the light rain too. I am not sure how I feel about doing a multi-day hike with all the baggage.

Going southward on the West Coast, the only notable stop we had was to the Pancake Rocks at Paparoa National Park. To my delightful surprise, Pancake Rocks was really scenic and beautiful. It was unexpected since most of the popular tourist spots have been a miss for us. However, I would advise to skip the nearby Punakaiki – Porari Loop trail since it was anticlimactic. The walk was not challenging and there was barely any changing landscapes unlike what the staff at the iSite promised.

 

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Pancake Rocks

 

Our hosts at Nelson warned us about South Island’s infamous nuisance, sandflies. We encountered quite a flew during our farming days when we visited the Nelson Lakes. The number of sandflies and bites got worse as we travelled down south. Sandfly bites are so itchy! They are terrible creatures that comes in little swarms attacking any bit of skin they can latch onto. They mostly attacked my ankles where there is a gap between my leggings/pants and my shoes. The first DOC camp we stayed at is Lake Lanthe where it is filled with sandflies. That was when we got our first full dose of sandflies. We tried to be careful with opening and closing our tents at night. This DOC campsite did not have a warden so the camp fee was paid via an honor system into this little deposit box. No one came to check that night nor the next morning. Despite the sandflies, we got to enjoy a nice sunset over the lake even though the sun eventually was blocked by the hills and trees.

 

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Lake Lanthe over sunset

 

 

 

I am a farmer

We are finally in the South Island that everyone give nothing, but positive comments on. We spent a day too many in Picton, a tiny town that can easily be thoroughly explored in a few hours. Initially, we wanted to stay in Picton longer to do the Queen Charlotte Sound track which we later learned would cost almost $100 NZD per person for a water taxi to take us to the start of the track. Instead, we walked around the nearby trails and had good views of Queen Charlotte Sound. The hostel that we stayed at in Picton was the first to give me that social backpacker vibe I experienced in Australia. We interacted with the staff and backpackers staying there, exchanging stories and casual conversations.

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View from the Tirohanga Track

We have found another travelmate to explore South Island with, but he was not going to reach South Island until the beginning of December. To take a break from constantly being on the road, we found a host through HelpX to have us work at her farm for a week or so. Her farm is located in Bridgewater, which is a town west of Nelson. Our host picked us up at the Nelson iSite and brought us to her beautiful ranch. We stayed in a separate part of the house where she runs her bed and breakfast- we actually stayed in one of the guest rooms! The place was clean and modern; I was afraid of having to get used to spiders and other critters living in a farm. There were a lot of snails and millipedes in the dirt that took me some time to get used to while weeding.

So typically farm work would consist of 4-5 hours of work in the morning with a tea break around 10AM. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner was provided by the host. For most of our meals, we were served with fresh vegetables grown from her garden, animals they have raised, and freshly laid eggs. Longing to try lamb in New Zealand, we finally had the chance at the farm. It is as fresh as it can get – home grown and slaughtered. The host also likes to experiment with new recipes, especially from the Jamie Oliver cook books. We were well feed throughout the experience – finally after weeks of backpacker food! I would have taken photos of our lovely meals if it was not too weird to. Sometimes we would enjoy episodes of Master Chef with the host’s family as well. Other times, we did our own thing to just relax.

Work wise, we were mainly tasked to do weeding and mulching. At first, it was sort of interesting since we have never weeded before and even identifying which plants to weed was a challenge. Some weeds were easy to pluck and others required a lot more strength and digging to uproot. The tea break in between the work hours was well appreciated. It made the work feel so much more relaxing. We get to enjoy the lovely view with some tea and biscuits. We get to learn more about New Zealand and the agriculture industry through our host during the break. Weeding became dull after the first few days since the task was just repeated. At first, we had a bit more variety in tasks since some of the stuff involved gardening, but then it was just all weeding.

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The backyard where we would enjoy our breakfast and tea breaks

A couple days in, our host had two additional helpers here. They were two lovely girls from Malaysia who quit their jobs to go on a working holiday in New Zealand. We had a great time chatting and laughing together. However, with the size of the farm, they really did not need that many people at once. This is a private farm where our host maintained as a hobby really, and her husband had a business where he worked online. It was interesting to learn how they used to live in Auckland and decided to move to Nelson after hearing that their friends had bought a farm; they thought that they can go for a change.

It was very peaceful there and the weather was beautiful. Apparently, Nelson is known to have excellent weather. I left my job to experience the farming lifestyle and this is just a glimpse of how its like. I am sure the experience would have been very different on a large commercial farm. On our last day, our host brought us to the alpacas and sheep for a feeding and for pictures. Our host told us that alpacas must be raised in pairs because when one sleeps, the other would stay up to ensure there are no predators. If an alpaca was by itself, it would not survive. It was not hard to take a picture with them, but the sheep on the other hand were so aggressive on the food. It was a great goodbye to get to feed and pet the animals before bidding farewell to the farm.

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A beautiful end to our North Island road trip

After thousands of kilometers on the road, our North Island road trip quickly reached the three-week mark to return the rental car in Auckland. North Island was filled with beaches, waterfalls, iconic attractions, public gardens, and fish and chips. Sad to acknowledge that this wonderful road trip has to end, but I am excited for the well hyped scenery of the South Island. Three weeks is a good time frame to explore North Island at ease.

We stayed in Pollock, southeast of Auckland, at an AirBnB for our last night before returning the car. At first, I was a bit skeptical about the choice of this AirBnB host since she did not have any reviews and the pictures of her house was not very flattering. Thankfully, our stay was unexpectedly gratifying. Pollock is a rather remote town with beautiful rolling hills to give us a nice last look at the North Island scenery. Our host has this tree swing that gives you a gorgeous view of the landscape. She said it is amazing during the summer when the sun sets right between the mountains.

Our host is a sweet lady with adorable dogs. She welcomed us with warm smiles and even gave us a private tour on her buggy, Boris, in the private land that visitors would not have been able to access otherwise. We were brought to this secluded beach without anyone else in sight and acres of land all to ourselves to enjoy.

After we returned the car the next morning, we later boarded the overnight Intercity bus from Auckland to Wellington. It made multiple stops along North Island where the bus lights would turn on for every stop, making it impossible to have a nice rest.

We spent another week in Wellington before heading to Picton via ferry, the gateway to South Island. Wellington is like the coffee mecca and Washington D.C. of New Zealand. The different points of interest are more closer together than in Auckland. We did not do too much explorations in Wellington, but instead we took it easy and tried to figure out the next steps. Here we are again, searching for new travelmates and figuring how to go about exploring South Island. Everyone that we met along the way had boasted the fascinating landscapes and hikes in South Island. We are excited to see what everyone had crazed about. While the north is often overshadowed by the south, it has its charms nonetheless. The people, the memories, and the hiccups along the way made North Island very enjoyable for me.

Fulfilling the touristy desires

For those who do not know much about New Zealand are still probably aware that the Lord of the Rings trilogy was filmed in New Zealand. Many scenes from the movies were captured in different parts of New Zealand. Notably, the Hobbiton set was built in Matamata in North Island. It was genius of the owner of the land to request to preserve the movie set and now it has transformed into a major tourist attraction in the country. With a steep entrance fee of over $100 NZD, we decided to go anyway. While none of us were overly LOTR-obsessed, we have enough appreciation and curiosity in the franchise to give it a go.

The surrounding area from the Hobbiton set is beautiful as well. Initially Sir Peter Jackson and crew had already signed a contract to create the Middle Earth set elsewhere, but that changed when they discovered the gorgeous rolling hills in Matamata. We picked the only sunny day within the week to visit so that guaranteed crowds of tourists all around. We thought we would bet the crowds by booking an earlier tour, but it was just as busy. The tour itself was around 1.5 to 2 hours visiting the different Hobbit holes and the community. Because there were so many tourists, it was hard to capture pictures of the set without other people photo bombing. Even though the tour felt rushed, it was nonetheless a nice visit.

Another popular tour people go on in North Island is to the Waitomo Caves to see the glowworms and go on black water rafting adventures. We later learn black water rafting means going in the cave and floating down a stream on a floatie. We found a discounted tour off Bookme.co.nz and decided to give it a go. Since we already saw glowworms at the Waipu Caves, we were mostly looking forward to the adventure aspects of abseiling and navigating the caves.

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The tour started with the initial drop abseiling down to the cave and then regroup to tread through the water. The current can be strong at times so it can be tiring and you have to be careful not to trip over the rocks in the water or slip. The tour guides would instruct for us to sit on our floaties and float downstream in the dark. There were many narrow parts of the cave where our tour guides had us go through for picture purposes. At some point it became obsessive to pose at all these tight spaces just so we can share (or “brag”) to our friends about this tour. Towards the end of the tour, we turned off our headlights to enjoy a hot drink and observe the the glowworms. We learned about the behavior of glowworms, but the wow factor in seeing glowworms was gone since we saw them at Waipu. The tour ended with the last challenge to climb the rocky wall to reach the top. Tightly secured with the gear, everyone breezed through the climb.

In total the tour lasted roughly 5 hours. It was unfortunate for anyone who needed to pee in the interim because it would be awful to try to urinate in your wet suit or try to take it off to pee in the water. Overall, I had fun with the tour, but it was awfully pricey for what it is.