Through the windows of the lime-green bus parked atop the collapsed volcanic cone of Mt. Eden, we could see Auckland, New Zealand's largest city, its spires, high-rises and bays spreading before us. But as mesmerizing as it was, it wasn't the North Island view we passengers were focused on. All eyes were forward, intent on our driver and guide.
Jarrod Urwin was explaining the rules of the road with Kiwi Experience, a hop-on, hop-off bus service that takes backpackers around New Zealand's North and South islands. Urwin would hold our tickets until we wanted to hop off to sightsee. To hop back on, we needed to reserve a seat on the next Kiwi bus. We were to keep the bus clean, and we absolutely, positively were not to put used tissues in the seatback pockets.
FOR THE RECORD
New Zealand — A story in Sunday's Travel section incorrectly reported that Capt. James Cook was the first European to discover New Zealand. Dutch explorer Abel Tasman discovered the country in the 1600s.
That last may have seemed an odd instruction, but the dewy-faced passengers looked as though they needed reminders like the one I saw in the kitchen of a hostel where I bunked: "Your mum's not here. Please wash, dry and put away all dishes."
So what was I, a middle-aged mum with a daughter the same age as these kids, doing on a backpacker bus tour of Middle-earth?
Blame it on the movies. My curiosity was piqued by reel-life New Zealand — Middle-earth as it is known to many filmgoers — pictured in the Oscar-nominated "Lord of the Rings" trilogy and by the sculpted coastline of "Whale Rider." A $559 online fare to Auckland cinched the deal for me.
Once there, though, I wanted to live large on a small budget, about $1,000 for the four days, including airfare. Even with a favorable exchange rate of 70 cents on the dollar, that would be a challenge. I wanted to hit New Zealand's tourist highlights without the hassles of driving. And I didn't want to give up my independence by joining a group tour; I wanted some control over where I went and what I did.
The hop-on, hop-off bus services I had read about for years looked as though they could take some of the stress out of traveling on a budget and doing it, more or less, on my own. They offered something of a challenge: Could I keep up with the youngsters and, perhaps, learn something from them in the process?
Kiwi Experience, among myriad companies that cater to the thousands of backpackers who visit New Zealand annually, allows its passengers to get off and linger in a place, then lets them pick up the tour again using travel passes that are valid up to a year.
It is one of the oldest such bus services for backpackers, started in 1988 in Auckland. It is owned by Tourism Holdings Limited, one of New Zealand's largest tourism companies, and has inspired Oz Experience in Australia and Fiji Experience in the South Pacific. Other companies have copied its concept in other countries.
I called Kiwi in New Zealand, and reservations agent Chaya Kalidas reassured me I wouldn't, compared with other passengers, feel as old as, say, Gandalf of "Lord of the Rings," who's at least 1,500 years old. After discussing my schedule, Kalidas e-mailed me a four-day itinerary.
This trip, called the Geyserland pass, would take me on a 477-mile loop from Auckland east to the Coromandel Peninsula and Rotorua, the touristy geothermal hotspot of New Zealand, with a side trip to Waitomo, to see the glowworm caves. If I wanted, its driver-guides would help me find a hostel each night and take me there. They would also make it easy to sign up for extra tours and adventures by booking and arranging transport to the sites.
Because of that kind of service and the company's irreverent, fun-loving attitude, I signed on and in November ended up in a plush, dark-blue seat on Jarrod Urwin's motorcoach.
Fitting in Urwin finished his instructions with a flourish and shouted a sibilant "sweet as," a typical Kiwi sign-off, I later learned. Off we rolled in the bright spring sunshine on our way to our first stop, the hamlet of Thames (pronounced "Teems"). Thames was the place to buy mussels, Urwin told us, and fireworks for Guy Fawkes Day celebrations.
I went in search of mussel fritters but stumbled instead on another kind of sustenance: the surprisingly well-stocked Carson's Books and Stationery. My browsing and buying left me barely enough time to wolf down the first of many ham and cheese sandwiches I would have on this trip.
Our route to Cathedral Cove, reachable only at low tide by a hike through a natural arch, cut inland over the Coromandel Range to the peninsula's eastern shore, which had exquisite Big Sur-like views of beach and sea. One couple was so taken with the area that they collected their tickets and hopped off.
Hopping off and on may seem easy and whimsical, but it requires planning. The soonest that couple could rejoin the tour was three days, when the next Kiwi bus passed through. Not all Kiwi routes run daily, and travelers are advised to book several days ahead to get a place on the 49-seat buses, which can be difficult from November to April, the company's busiest months.
As Urwin drove, he provided a running patter of jokes, history and commentary, punctuated with occasionally puzzling slang phrases. But I did learn a few things: He pointed out kauri trees, coveted centuries ago by Maoris and European shipbuilders for their thick, rod-like trunks. The demand made the tree almost extinct. Capt. James Cook named the Mercury Islands, which were just visible out the bus' panoramic windows. And before the "Lord of the Rings" films, the farmland around the town of Matamata was famed for its racehorses, not Hobbiton.
"Any Australians on the bus?" Urwin asked. Silence.
It was a joke I heard from many drivers in many forms and in many places, and the first of several attempts by Urwin to elicit a response from his passengers. Many behaved as my daughter does on road trips: sleeping or plugging into portable electronic music devices.
But the silent middle-aged couple from the Czech Republic and I gazed at the cinematically striking North Island bush — volcanic hills veiled in mist, limestone cliffs etched by the sea, rounding pastures manicured by cattle and sheep. We weren't typical backpackers. Three-fourths of those backpackers who come to New Zealand are 18 to 30, according to an informal sampling taken in August by TNT magazine and the Tourism Marketing Network, an organization of 50 companies that serves backpackers. About half of those travelers come from Britain. About a third spend three months or more in the country.
I was a quarter-century older than most of the other passengers on my bus, I was American, I didn't have time on my hands and I was picky about where I would eat and sleep. Even though I had heard that hostels didn't resemble the smelly, noisy college dorm rooms of my youth, I was wary. I hadn't shared a room with strangers since my salad days, and so I asked Urwin if he could book a single room for me.
He said he would try but told me to be prepared for disappointment.
Later that afternoon, he told me I could get a private room at a hostel near the one where everyone else was staying. I'd have the place to myself, he said.
I didn't want to rattle around a strange house in a strange town by myself, so I bunked with four sweet-faced young women at the Buffalo Peaks Lodge, a comfortable home-like hostel in the seaside resort town of Whitianga (a Maori name that's pronounced Fi-tee-ahn-ga). For $15 a night, I got a comfortable bed in a clean room and shared a women's bathroom down the hall.
Sanna Zawadzky from Germany and Maren Solberg from Norway (she had backpacked in Australia with Oz Experience) took the bunk bed. Christina Allen, from the U.S., and I got the twin beds. All were veteran hostellers.
Solberg and I chatted as we stashed our stuff in the tiny room. She was weary of the nomadic life, she said, and had decided, after eight weeks on the road, to abandon her plan to travel for 10 months. "I miss my privacy," she said. "I miss my room."
Her plaintive comment hit home early the next morning when I awoke to the gentle, unfamiliar snores from a neighboring bed.
The lack of privacy was offset by a travelers' camaraderie. In previous solo sojourns, I've felt like the odd woman out, but not this time. Urwin invited me to join the group at a pub to watch a World Cup rugby match, and although I declined so I could read and soak in the hostel's whirlpool, I felt welcomed.
In search of glowworms The next day, we had an 8 a.m. departure for Rotorua. Urwin was a martinet about time, and he waited for no one. (I learned this my first morning in Auckland, when I overslept and had to take a cab from my hostel in the Mt. Eden suburb of Auckland, where I was supposed to be picked up, to the Kiwi Experience office in the Parnell section of the city.)
"We have to keep moving or it cocks up the whole roster," he said later to another errant passenger.
But when things didn't go as planned, Urwin shrugged. "Such is life," he said.
On my short trip, high tides scotched excursions to go sea kayaking near Hahei on the Coromandel Peninsula and swimming at Hot Water Beach, a missed chance to soak in natural thermal springs and pools.
A driving rain forced the cancellation of a cable car ride and an opportunity for a thrilling luge plunge outside Rotorua. To compensate, Urwin moved up our tour of New Zealand Maori Arts & Crafts and Te Whakarewarewa Thermal Reserve, a combination of Yellowstone and the San Diego Zoo. We had a guided tour of Maori carvings, art and village life, and took a tram ride to see geysers, boiling mud ponds and steaming pools.
I felt rushed, herded and crowded at the thermal park, but it was the only disappointment of my varied Kiwi Experience-arranged activities.
In Whitianga, I made a pendant for my daughter in a bone-carving class. A guided two-person climbing and caving adventure in Waitomo carried a thrill factor of 8, with a bill for the 2 1/2-hours that, at $151, was almost as breathtaking. "There are few places in the world where you can go rock climbing in a cave and see glowworms," I thought as I tried to justify the expense.
After my afternoon of caving, I returned to sulfuric-smelling Rotorua but found its small downtown shuttered, even before sunset. So I window-shopped, finding a milliner advertising hats for Derby Day next door to a tattoo shop.
I had been warned by those who know that Rotorua is too touristy, but I was taken by parts of the spa resort town of 64,000 people. The Rotorua Museum of Art and History was housed in an imposing Victorian building that once was a bathhouse for Kiwis who came to the area for their health in the early part of the last century. The town is also steeped in Maori legend and culture, and I got an entertaining if staged taste of native village life and Maori songs and dances at a nighttime hangi, a Maori feast made by steaming meat and vegetables in the ground.
I hopped off Urwin's bus in Rotorua for my journey back to Auckland. After leaving most of his passengers to check in at the Hot Rock backpackers' hostel, which did resemble the dorms of my college days, he drove me to the Kiwi Paka YHA, a quiet hostel on the edge of Rotorua's Kuirau Park, where I could walk free among bubbling mud puddles and steaming ponds.
I got a room to myself, and I saw backpackers my age, even some with silver hair. I felt validated.
The stereotypical image of backpackers is changing: We're growing older. We may carry a gold credit card, but we are looking for good value, and the youngsters are showing us how. As Urwin probably would say, "Sweet as."
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Hop on, hop off in Middle-earth
From LAX, Qantas and Air New Zealand fly nonstop to Auckland, and Air Pacific has connecting service (change of planes). I paid $559 during a fare sale last fall, which was low season, but restricted round-trip fares now begin at $1,708.
To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 64 (country code for New Zealand) and the local number.
Among the companies offering transport services for backpackers and independent travelers:
Kiwi Experience, 195-197 Parnell Road, Parnell, Auckland; 9-366-9830, http://www.kiwiexperience.com . Offers 23 passes, with such names as the Full Monty, that range from two to 38 days and cover the North and South islands. Passes, which allow travelers to get off anywhere along the route and rejoin later as long as they do not backtrack, are good for a year. My "short-break" Geyserland pass cost me $105 for four days of travel, excluding lodgings and meals. Some activities are extra.
Magic Travellers Network, 132-138 Quay St., P.O. Box 949, Auckland; 9-358-5600, http://www.magicbus.co.nz . Has 24 passes throughout the North and South islands, ranging from two to 24 days, from $28-$785. Much like Kiwi Experience, Magic's passes allow travelers to get on and off along the route.
New Zealand Travel Pass, 538 Wairakei Road, Christchurch; 3-961-5245, http://www.travelpass.co.nz . Passes — valid on Newmans Coach Lines and InterCity Coachlines, and rail and ferry lines — offer more flexibility and more routes, more often. Travelers are not limited to traveling in one direction; $241 for a five-day pass and $867 for a 22-day pass with flight.
WHERE TO STAY:
Bamber House, 22 View Road, Mt. Eden; telephone/fax 9-623-4267, http://www.oaklands.co.nz/bamberhm.html . I stayed in this large colonial hostel converted from a house in a city suburb. It has atmospheric woodwork inside and a large yard, and was clean, but my outside cabin room had only a latch, and no lock, inside. Doubles $38, singles $29 and quad $16.
Auckland City YHA, Corner City Road and Liverpool Street; 9-309-2802, http://www.yha.co.nz . This hostel, at the top of Queen Street, one of Auckland's main thoroughfares, was worn, and the shared bathroom needed cleaning. Double rooms $41, singles $29 and dorms with three to six beds $16.
Buffalo Peaks Lodge, 12 Albert St.; 7-866-2933, http://www.buffalopeaks.co.nz . This is one of Kiwi Experience's preferred hostels. It's clean and has a spacious kitchen. A patio has a large grill and an enclosed large whirlpool bath. Doubles $34, shares $15.
Kiwi Paka YHA, 60 Tarewa Road; 7-347-0931, http://www.kiwipaka-yha.co.nz . I had a room to myself in this hostel complex on the edge of Kuirau Park and downtown. It has a thermally heated pool, a large kitchen and a bar with tastings of New Zealand beers and wines. Doubles $40, singles $24 and dorm rooms $14.
WHERE TO EAT:
Many backpackers carry their own food supplies, and most hostels allow travelers to use the kitchen, dishes and cutlery, and offer places to stash their groceries. I had mostly ham sandwiches and the ubiquitous meat pies for breakfasts, which were eaten on the run, but I indulged and dined out at dinner.
In Whitianga, The Fire Place, 9 The Esplanade; 7-866-4828, http://www.thefireplace-restaurant.com . In a homey dining room with high, beamed ceilings, I had succulent oysters that tasted as though they had just left the sea, smoked mussel and clam chowder and "rocket," a salad of field greens. Menu includes steaks and lamb. Entrees $11-$19.
In Rotorua, Hennessy's Irish Bar, 1206-1210 Tutanakai St.; 7-343-7902. Good pub food. I had dined on a salad and a tasty pizza topped with smoked salmon, but the best was the well-poured pint of Guinness. Entrees $6 for bangers and mash (potatoes and sausage) to $12 for a steak.
Tamaki Maori Village, 1220 Hinemaru St., Rotorua; 7-346-2823, http://www.maoriculture.co.nz . I was bused to a hangi, a feast cooked for hours underground by steam, then watched a show of dances and folk songs and took a walk around a re-created Maori village. It was touristy, even campy at times, but an entertaining way to glimpse Maori culture. Hangi and show, $51.
TO LEARN MORE:
Tourism New Zealand, (866) 639-9325 or (310) 857-2203, http://www.purenz.com .
Tourism Rotorua, 7-348-5179, http://www.rotoruaNZ.com .
The Coromandel Travel Information Line, 7-868 5985, http://www.thecoromandel.com .
Budget for one
Cost for four days:
Kiwi Experience $105.00
Caving, carving $181.89
Final tab $1,030.98