Mount Rinjani- With my head in the clouds

During this trip overseas, we’ve managed to get a few really decent hikes in; way more than expected. After spending a day exploring a national park unassisted in Cambodia, and traversing down dry waterfalls with nothing more than a poxy rope to hang onto, I didn’t think it would get much tougher than that. Then we spent 3 days in the forests of Northern Thailand, staying with a local Karen tribe and living off the land which again, was a physical and mental challenge. Then we took on Tongariro Alpine crossing in New Zealand; our first experience of an active volcano. Tongarero was certainly a battle at points, but the absolutely breathtaking views throughout made it totally worth it. Then finally, we climbed Mount Batur in Bali at 4am for an in incredible view of the sunrise. That’s pretty much the totality of our hiking experience really: we’ve both really loved the trips we’ve done and both agree they’ve probably been the most rewarding and gratifying excursions we’ve done during this year away: I’d probably go as far as saying they’ve all been some of the best experiences on this trip!

So after seeing a few mates post about Rinjani, I couldn’t really pass on his this opportunity, but as most people seem to, I massively underestimated the task at hand!

I’d like to think of myself as a pretty active person. Over the past 5 years I’ve got really into running. Since my first 5k back in 2012 I’ve now completed over 15 half marathons, a marathon (which ended up being an ultra marathon: long story), then progressed my love for running to obstacle races! Again I’ve probably completed over a dozen of these in the past couple of years now, taking on some of toughest courses in the UK in some pretty challenging conditions (like the depth of a northern winter for example on a course filled with freezing water). The point I’m trying to make is I’m pretty active, I like a challenge, I don’t give up easily, and I hate failure.

Rinjani without a doubt pushed me harder and closer to my breaking point than any race, challenge, or actually, anything else I’ve ever done! Let me tell you the story. To add to this, our tour company was pretty shit, and actually really screwed us over makings things infinitely more difficult. Read on for the full story.

Rinjani is the second highest volcano on the Indonesian ring of fire, with a summit at 3726m. The volcano has formed a massive Caldera, and quite uniquely still has the original volcano visible from the centre. Rinjani last erupted just over a year ago, but wasn’t anything major fortunately. Still, it’s a bloody active volcano! From most reviews I’ve read, people seem to consistently say it’s VERY tough, or use language similar to brutal/it will break you/extreme test of your mental and physical strength/just don’t do it. After some of the treks we’ve done so far in some pretty extreme conditions, I thought I’d be okay, and kind of brushed off most of the comments.

Sounds perfect right! I thought so…

So I signed up, got the first boat across to Lombok from Gili T, got picked up in a horse and cart and taken to the HQ, met some of my other climbing buddies, got in a cab, got taken to another HQ closer to the start point, jumped onto the black of a flatbed truck, driven to the start, and off we went for a couple of days of hiking. During this three part journey, it became very clear that our group consisted of different skill sets, abilities, knowledge of the task at hand, and confidence. This was all fine, it’s so rare to have a group all at the same level of ability, so we persevered in a group, with our guide and porters. These guys need a special mention. I’m actually questioning if they are human! The porters are employed to carry the gear, food, water, sleeping arrangements (tents, sleeping bags, etc) up Rinjani for the groups. On average each guy was probably carrying around 20-30kg of stuff in two baskets at the end of a bamboo rod. To make matters worse the were doing this either in sandals or barefoot, up a fecking volcano! Sadly these guys didn’t really speak a word of English, as I would have loved some tips from them as they casually trotted up the mountain without missing a step, but it wasn’t meant to be. Unfortunately for us too, our one guide only spoke very basic broken English, so our general level of conversation with the guys in charge was, to be frank, shit. Oh well, we followed them up the mountain at different speeds, all meeting up again at the various stopping points on route. 

As you’d expect from a hike that increases in elevation over 3km, the landscapes we crossed varied greatly. We started trekking though a small forest Area, opening up into glorious agricultural land backed with undulating mountains, followed by huge rolling hills like something you’d expect from a Tolkein novel, huge steep inclines wrapped around volcanic streams, steep inclines with only tree roots anchoring the ground together, then finishing off with just gravel. 

Oh the bloody gravel.

 The two steps forward/one step back gravel. The gravel that filled your shoes within seconds, buried your feet to ankle depth within seconds, send you flying at shallow points, and absolutely zapped all energy you have in your tank for the rest of the hike. And that was all before the end of day one!

So, after six hours of hiking, part of our group made it to base camp on the crater rim, overlooking the caldera. Sadly our group had split up due to differing speeds up the mountain. My small group made it to basecamp first, followed by other members of the group about two hours later. We actually found out our groups had merged with another, doubling the size to 10 climbers. Once we all arrived and got chatting, it sounded like we’d all had very different experiences so far on the climb. One fellow climber turned up around 8pm, accepting she wouldn’t making it to the summit, but feeling hugely satisfied with her achievement for getting to the basecamp, two others made their way up basically on their own after their guides left then, two others struggled the whole way, and the final climber again, pretty much did the lot on their own. Sadly it was very apparent the company we all booked with hadn’t really planned for climbers needing additional support, encouragement, or hadn’t even considered people going at different speeds. 

I can honestly say that this part of the trek alone was more difficult than any of the others I’d done previously, and we weren’t even a third of the way in. By basecamp, we’d spent 6 hours hiking upwards non stop, in the scorching heat of midday sun (’twas a hot ass day, with very few clouds in the sky), across some incredibly tough terrains (at points effectively climbing up the terrain, not hiking), and reaching an elevation of 2500m; so a mile of elevation gained in that six hour stint. The pure elation we all felt when arriving at basecamp made us all forget about the challenges we’d just faced though. Our porters made up our camp right on the edge of the rim, with some truly breathtaking views across the caldera lake, with the sun setting behind another summit of the caldera. I’ve said this a lot on this trip, but this sunset was pretty magical, offering us a wonderful array of pinky red hues as the sun dipped below the mountains, and finally beyond the horizon. My group (Felipe and Pablo from Chile, and Hanz from Germany) all enjoyed a cheeky bintang to reward our speedy efforts alongside this beautiful sunset, it was definitely a well earned beer! To finish off evening, our porters made us an awesome vegetable curry, which we obviously all wolfed down within minutes of being handed to us, before getting an early night. 

The next day, we were due up at 2am, to make the summit for sunset. We’d been warned by fellow climbers that the next day was even tougher, with sections over 60degrees in angle, horrific terrain, and oh yeah, it was PITCH BLACK! Needless to say we were all somewhat apprehensive about this. By bed time, two of our ten strong group accepted they wouldn’t make it so decided to stay in bed (probably very wise). At 230 the following day we set off on the next leg to the summit, and almost immediately hit a whole new level of tough. 

From probably 20 minutes in, we were greeted by the thick gravel again, but this time mixed with an incredibly steep climb through volcanic valleys crumbling at the lightest touch (no holding onto anything for us then). Previously these terrains greeted us independently, but combining them was just bloody horrible! Any morale or energy we had was almost immediately sucked from our bodies as we battled up the terrain for over an hour. To add to this, the ground in places had fully caved in from previous wet periods, resulting in ankle destroying breaks in the ground. I lost my feet down some of these on a number of occasions, and felt pretty lucky to not seriously injure myself (good thing too, we’d have been royally screwed if we had broken anything). To top this off, the only light source we had was the moon, which fortunately was pretty much full, and bloody bright. Sadly our guide only had one head torch for the whole group (useful eh). Surprisingly, I don’t have many photos of this section, but imagine trying to ski uphill in the pitch black, and not fall over boulders, huge roots extending out the ground, whilst being super short of breath. Yeah. That.

Parts of the climb in these sections at points was again actual climbing, requiring full extensions of legs to actually get up; obviously quite tough on the ol’legs after the other parts of the climb. This terrain continued for well over a couple of hours until we hit the edge of the vegetation growth. Now, the real fun started. 

At this point I think I started to get some of the symptoms of altitude sickness. We’d ascended about 500m In the past two hours, with another 700m to go before sunset to the summit. My energy levels just went through the floor, I had a stonking headache, my limbs ached (including my arms which I’d barely used), and I’m pretty sure I got to a point of chatting total bollocks to my fellow climbers (now joined by Julia, an awesome Ukrainian lass with a scary amount of energy, totally full of positivity who really kept me going from this point on). From now on, the hike looked like this.
So, let me try and explain this succinctly. For the next 700m, the climb was only gravel and rock, at least 50degree incline, with high (and freezing) winds battering us on the volcano edge, with literally a 2 foot margIn of error either side of us at points. Seriously, there were areas where a slip to the left would have sent us down the mountain, and to the right into the caldera; nice eh? The terrain was so tough going up I had to stop every 10-20 steps to catch my breath, slipping down at least a step every time, making this even harder. On so many occasions, I honestly thought I couldn’t do it, I’d never make it to the top. I persevered with huge thanks to Pablo and Julia (the group had yet again divided with Felipe and Yahn storming ahead). Looking up was a terrible idea; every time I thought I was closer the summit appeared to be even further away! On so many occasions I thought we’d made it, only to discover there was another point beyond what we could see. As you can imagine this was ugly demoralising and utterly crippling. After probably another two hours of climbing barely 400 metres, we hit a new point, with huge lumps of stone surrounding us, we were nearly there. One final push, and I hit the summit!
You’d think hitting the summit would result in an immediate sense of euphoria and elation. I think at the time I just felt freezing cold, exhausted, and generally a bit confused. We arrived just before sunrise, maybe by ten minutes. It didn’t really dawn on me that I’d done it until the sun actually started to rise in the distance. At that point, I felt totally overwhelmed. Looking down across the huge landscape I’d just climbed filled me with emotion I don’t think I’d ever felt before. I wish I’d filmed it or taken more photos, but I was so cold I couldn’t really use my hands. No joke guys, take gloves with you! The temperature at the summit was barely above zero, and after the best part of 9 months not enduring anything below about 15 Celsius, it felt fucking cold!
So after probably 30 minutes at the summit, we all agreed it was too bloody cold, and decided to descend. Now for anyone who’s done anything like this, you’ll know going down is a full blown quad burner. This was something else though. We spent probably an hour quasi-boot skiing down the main point of the summit, trying our best to not stack it and roll the best part of 500m down a volcano. It wasn’t easy, we all stacked it at least a dozen times, but managed to stop and take photos at some pretty mind blowing views as we descended towards the cloud line. I honestly think some of the views as we climbed down were more impressive, purely down to the change in hue we experienced over the horizon. We spent a good two hours descending the coarse terrain, passing monkeys, sharp cliff edges, vertigo fuelling drops, and some crazy volcanic terrain before getting back to the basecamp. We were obviously overjoyed,and then found out we were the first back, a mere (apparently) 7’hours after setting off, arriving back to a cloud filled camp where we could barely see three for in front of us, and slowly saturating any hair on our bodies with cloud based rain. 

After a little power nap I awoke to find out the rest of the group still weren’t back though, nearly 2 hours later. An hour later they emerged. These guys had been hiking for nearly 9 hours in total, and we’re obviously exhausted. 

Then everything went to shit.

In an indistinguishable level of broken English, our one guide decided to let us know because our group arrived back so late, we couldn’t do the next leg of our trip, apparently due to the time we were going to eventually set off. We were given two options; stay at basecamp, stuck on the cloud, waiting for the impending storm to unleash its fury all over us, or hike from basecamp to the hot pools (our next stop) and back: a total of 8 hours additional hiking minimum. As you can imagine, the mood in the camp at this point was one of pure deflation. Apparently the guys who came back later had also been told to turn around before the summit, then arrived to discover their tent dismantled, stuff just on the edge of the crater gathering a Lovely layer of dirt and dew. After an internal discussion with our group, we all agreed this was quickly turning into a shambolic situation, so we should just cut our losses and head back to the start. 

The porters were clearly not happy about this, so quickly packed everything up at camp, and set off down the mountain. We did our best to follow, but through cloud and rain, and down some pretty treacherous terrain we didn’t stand a chance. Within five minutes are group had divided again, the porters were long gone, and we worked our way down the mountain on our own.

Fortunately, and by pure chance, I’d tracked the whole hike on my garmin watch, which left a breadcrumb trail the whole way back! Once I discovered this the worries of our group were somewhat alleviated, but we were still concerned about the rest of our group following behind us (but no idea how far). The next hour consisted of a very wet hike though forest areas, along slippery and tree root laden land, down again some very steep slopes that were now akin to a mud run. Needless to say, it was again energy sapping! After a fairly hefty soaking we had another 5 hours at least of hiking, and around 1000m to descend. I think my speedy group must have just been on a pure adrenaline rush as we totally steamed through it, stopping a couple of times to eat a super healthy and balanced meal of Oreos and peanuts. I ended up taping everyone’s knees, as well as a group of Malaysian tourists on their way up; the descend had been tough on the old joints! After 5 arduous hours though, we made it to the flatlands: the end was in sight, but still no sign of our porters, or the rest of our group! Sadly, we managed to get lost right at the last point, had to hitch a lift on the back of a tomato truck into the local village, to try and find our company. I managed to get in touch with my home stay owner Rudi, who superb! They unleashed the fury on our tour operator and got them to sort their lives out and help us. After another 2 hours of total faff, we managed to get our hiking company to accept some level of responsibility for the pretty shambolic second day. They sent a flatbed to pick us up, another one followed for the rest of our group, and we headed back to HQ. After a further bit of discussion with the boss, I managed to get transport for all the climbers to their respective hotels and destinations, which included a private boat for me to get back to Gili T. By this point, all we really cared about was getting back safe, so that was good enough. 

So in total, we spent just short of 15 hours hiking, covering over 20 miles, ascending and descending over 2500m through. 

Looking back though. It was bloody awesome and so worth the pain. 
I feel such a huge sense of accomplishment from completing it, and in a great time, especially considering all the crap we endured. The classic phrase what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger has never felt so true to me. Our culture today is obsessively focussed on unrealistically positive expectations: not everything will be smooth sailing in everything you do, and not everything that’s good will be fun. But picking personal challenges, taking them on head first, and kicking those challenges square in the nuts is without question the best way to grow as a person. I feel that more than ever now. 

How to travel New Zealand on a budget

So we’ve been in New Zealand for nearly 40 days now, and thanks to insider information, personal (slightly educated) experiences and months of research before setting off, we’ve quickly picked up how to save a few bucks whilst traveling here. We had a budget for 2 people of £5000 for 40 days. We’ve still got £1000 left and we leave in 3 days, we’ve still seen the sights, had all the fun, eaten and drunk out on quite a few occasions, bought stuff, got a tattoo, seen unique wildlife and generally felt like we’ve not missed out at all!
Whilst this list isn’t exhaustive, hopefully you’ll get some help from it. 

Drive it yourself 

This may seem counter intuitive, but seriously, it’s without a doubt the best way to see New Zealand in all its glory whilst giving you the freedom to roam as you please. We tallied up some costs of doing a coach tour with separate accommodation and this worked out very well for the pair of us (even cheap accommodation is close to $100 a night). We hired a self contained camper (meaning we can camp anywhere, have a toilet and cooking facilities built in, see below) for about 5300NZD At peak rate. We found a company called detour NZ who have been great and I’d highly recommend. Personally I’d say Avoid the companies like juicy as they get a bad reputation amongst locals and the campers scream ‘tourist with lots of stuff in to steal’, and to be honest they look pretty cramped. 

I’ve also seen loads of groups of people traveling in minivans or larger estates too, but it looks horribly cramped for me. You can pick up 2nd hand vehicles for as little as $1000 at the main international areas (Queenstown/Christchurch/Auckland) as people sell them off when departing after doing similar trips. Friends who live here say vehicles don’t depreciate very quickly here so you might be lucky and get all your money back on resale! So if you’re on a real budget and don’t mind slumming it a bit, this may be a good option for you!

Be aware though, if you are going to hire a campervan do it WAY in advance! We booked ours 12 months in advance of arriving, but spoke to people who tried 3 months before they arrived and could only get the D list vehicles. 

Freedom camp wherever possible

In New Zealand you can do a thing called freedom camp if you have a ‘self contained’ vehicle. Self contained basically means you can stay off grid without leaving a trace (no waste or rubbish basically). To be self contained you must have a toilet on board, and a way to dispose of waste water without simply spilling onto the road. 

The benefit of freedom camping is you can effectively park anywhere (unless there’s signs saying you can’t camp there, which there often are): you can also make use of a number of camp sites that are ONLY available to self contained campers. We’ve stayed in freedom camp sites (or Okay2stay sites, see below) every night so far, so haven’t paid a penny for accommodation! It’s seriously worth getting a self contained vehicle just so you can do this. Often, the sites are areas of natural beauty so you’ll stay in some breathtaking locations (example below). Other sites offer more facilities such as power, showers and launderettes but can charge $20 per person per night- note not per vehicle!

One thing to be aware of though is the negativity applied to freedom camping in some regions. Sadly many people have abused the ability to freedom camp so places are simply banning it now. For example in Milford sound, you can’t camp anywhere except a site that’s $50 minimum. This was more commonplace on the South Island than north though. Just be aware, freedom camping doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll never pay to camp. 

It’s worth mentioning some of the most beautiful places we’ve camped have been freedom camp sites; another reason to really consider it! 

Okay2stay 

This is a scheme we signed up for back in the UK and only discovered by chance. Okay2stay is a paid membership scheme that gives you access to stay at different sites across NZ. These can be anything from a vineyard to a coffee shop, brewers to a olive or lavender growers. Again, you need to be self contained to make use of this, but it’s well worth it! The general rule of thumb is you purchase something from the place you stay at, but this is still cheaper than paying for a campsite (which are often about $18 per person for a non powered site)! They also offer discounts on some paid camp sites with all the niceties. 

The first time we stayed with Okay2stay, we were at a craft-brewery with on site restaurant that was absolutely superb! We only had a parking space in the car park but it was worth it. The second day we stayed at a boutique vineyard, and spent the night drinking Pinot Gris with the owner of the vineyard in his house! We also had our own private toilet and hot shower, and had truly breathtaking views over the vineyards overlooking the 90mile beach peninsula! The next few occasions have been vineyards again, cheese makers, you get the idea. This is particularly worth doing if you like wine, as down the east coast of the north island there are tons of vineyards to stay at! You’ll buy a bottle anyway so might as well get free accommodation AND a locally made bottle of something wonderful. I found the nicest Pinot noir I’ve ever had thanks to this scheme. Often the sites are rather secluded too so you’ll get great views of the stars too. 

Seriously this is one of the best things we found and signed up for! At $45NZD for a years membership you’ll make your money back if you stay at two places. 

Campermate 

You’ll probably get told about this by others too, but camper mate is an app that shows you everything you’ll need to know about whilst driving across NZ, including all the different camping sites (freedom, paid, powered etc) but also everything from spots with free wifi, public toilets (very useful to know even if you’re self contained), dump stations, petrol stations, shops, the list goes on! It’s free, can offer offline downloads of maps, and if you enable location services the app will chuck the odd deal at you for activities, accommodation, etc. 

Be aware though the camping sites listed are not exhaustive; there are loads more about, but it’s a good start. I also recommend reading the users comments for each place, especially if you’re a bit picky about facilities like toilets etc (this has been very useful for us when finding a place to stay, do they have toilets, and how far away are they). By reading comments from others we were able to filter out spots very quickly. 

DOC guides

The department of conservation have free guides for both islands which detail all their certified camp sites. These tend to range from ‘scenic’ sites at $5 per person to fully powered sites that could be up to $20-30 per person (note again, PER PERSON, not per vehicle). We’ve not stayed at many sites we had to pay for (see above) but if you want a bit more luxury (like in some cases a swimming pool, games room, proper kitchen and wifi) it might be worth a look. 

Camp near beaches or at marinas 

The more we’ve driven around, the more and more we’ve seen this. Marinas have a bunch of facilities for boat owners like toilets, dump stations and showers that you can make use of. I guess because loads of boat owners also camp in vehicles on long weekends away, often the marinas have no restrictions on freedom camping. 

Similarly, we’ve found toilet and shower facilities at loads of beach front areas! Just be aware of camping restrictions in these car parks (some said it was okay, but more often than not they don’t allow camping overnight). 

Swimming pools for cheap showers 

A great recommendation from some of our buddies camping a couple of weeks ahead of us! 

One of the difficult points of freedom camping is having a PROPER SHOWER! Our camper technically has a shower, but in reality this is the tap from our kitchen sink. Also with freedom camping you need to be VERY careful with what products you use for your hair and body so not to do any damage to local flora and fauna (NZ is VERY hot on this, so be aware and be careful)! 

Our mates suggested making use of public pools of which there are hundreds around the country! You pay around $8 for access but can have a great swim at a great pool, then a proper heated shower! 

The other alternative is just to find a lake and not use any products for free; my preferred method I must admit..

Food, glorious food (and drink)

New Zealand ain’t cheap for food, period! Comparatively, prices are very similar to London to be honest, with a meal for two at a mid range bar/restaurant being at least £15-20 each ($20-35 at time of writing) , and a pint of craft beer being about £6: we spent £60 our first night on two meals and 2 drinks each! The trick to keeping your costs low here is to cook for yourself in your camper (priced example below) 

Pack & Save

There’s loads (or heaps as the kiwis say) of stores around that you can shop at, but packNsave is by far the cheapest we’ve found. This is a real no thrills shop that’s a hybrid of an Asda/Walmart and cash and carry like Makro, but it does the job for sure! We’ve found that some items (standard things like spices, tinned produce or cleaning items) are literally HALF THE PRICE of other stores! 

New Zealand isn’t like the UK or USA where convenience stores are literally everywhere, you could drive 100k+ without seeing another store (or many other forms of civilisation to be honest) so I’d recommend stopping off each time you see a store and stocking up on the small bits. 

Another alternative I found was new world, which is more Waitrose. We ended up shopping in these a couple of times; they are definitely more expensive than PackNSave but if you’re careful on what you buy (see below) you’ll be okay. 

Veggie stalls and local markets 

Regardless of what shop you go to, fruit and veg is expensive. Surprisingly I found that a huge amount of produce is imported too, especially at the supermarkets! For example, a bag of grapes from Chile cost me $10, and imported avocados can often be $2 each. Fortunately people grow loads of stuff here, and often sell their produce on the roadside. 

You’ll see loads of people selling produce like this. Seriously, stop at every place you see. Even if they only promote one fruit they probably sell more. The other day we bought a massive bag of peppers, courgettes and sweetcorn for $5, that would have cost way over $10 from any store! We’ve seen loads of people selling avocados (especially in the northland) for <$1 each too. 

We also discovered today that you can normally buy local meat for good prices. For example if you’re in an area that’s well known for beef rearing, hunt out the local butchers and stock up on mince (not fillet steak, that ain’t cheap anywhere). Just to give an example, I picked up some venison mince at a market in Dunedin for $5. That’s comparable with beef mince prices in supermarkets and half what you’d pay in a supermarket directly! 

Seriously though, whoever thinks you can’t cook awesome food for cheap whilst in a camper is clearly doing it wrong. Tonight’s dinner came in at $5 each, and was bloody delicious! New Zealand lamb chop steak (reduced at new world to $4 a pack) with locally ‘sourced’ rosemary (free), sun-dried tomato (pack n save), avocado (from a stall) and rocket salad, potato salad (pack n save), and homemade honey sesame and lime dressing. This probably would have cost $30 each minimum eating out!

Finally, a local veteran camper who just travels around New Zealand 9 months of the year with her husband (and cat) told us to make use of locally growing fruit. If it’s on public land, it’s free reign! She was very proud of the fact she had apple compote from freely taken fruits in her freezer.   

Shop seasonal 

You literally won’t believe the price of some produce when shopping around! I was genuinely shocked to find that limes were $30 a kilo! Have a wander around the local markets, generally there’s a farmer’s market every Saturday in most towns, and you’ll quickly see what the seasonal or local good are. 

Buying booze 


Beer is damn good here, but ain’t cheap! As mentioned previously a pint of something hoppy and wonderful will be about $12 in a bar, and a carafe of NZ white will be close to  $30, and bottles up to $50 easy. 

I bought a 6 pack of very nice India pale ale (BRB brewery)for $10; very drinkable and way more cost effective than going out to a bar to buy the same. Most NZ wines (it’s tough to find a bad one here) start at $10 a bottle at local stores, and probably $20 if you go to a boutique vineyard like you’d find on Okay2stay. 

Obviously to really save cash, just avoid the booze…. 🙄

General day to say stuff 

Buy a local sim

Wifi is EXPENSIVE HERE!! Even at campsites many places charge around $5 for 200mb, plus they throttle their connections so are in the realms of dialup speeds (remember dialup kids? No? Damn I’m old). The worst I’ve seen was in Milford Sound that was $100 too 200mb!!! When you arrive at the airport you can buy an 8gb tourism sim with 200 mins and 200 texts (both international) for about $80 or 3gb data for $50. As long as you aren’t desperate to stream Netflix every night this will be everything you need. Data connections seem to stay fairly consistent at good 3/4G, or nothing at all. Just be careful and turn off background app refresh, push notifications and mobile data use for non essential apps. We were using this sim as a hotspot for other devices and quickly mullered that $80 of data. To get more it’s $10 per 1GB, so watch out!

However if you DO want to watch Netflix….

McDONALDS for wifi!!!

Most restaurants We’ve found didn’t seem to offer wifi (and have tacky signs saying there’s no wifi, so talk to each other, etc). However Mcdonald’s does consistently across NZ and they are EVERYWHERE! They also don’t appear to throttle connections (we downloaded 9 episodes of stuff to watch in one stop with no issues), and don’t require any annoying authentication or sign up processes. Also, most Macca’s have a separate McCafe, so you can just order a coffee rather than feeling obliged to gorge on Big Macs every time you want to download the latest episode of House of Cards. We’ve absolutely RINSED this, and drunk some surprisingly good coffee in the process. 

Don’t try and do everything 
New Zealand is definitely the land of fun. There’s so much to do, but once you start signing up to do all off the fun, the prices really ramp up. We did a quick tally of the stuff we wanted to do on the north island alone and it was in excess of £1000 for the pair of us! Not backpacker budget friendly by any means…

I also quickly realised whilst there loads to do here, but do I actually have to do a specific activity here? For example, dolphin watching tours often cost in excess of $100, but I am going to Fiji next month where I can probably do for substantially less! We also found at the Catlins (south of the South Island) there were hector dolphins (super rare to see in their natural habitat) were visible from the beach! 

Have a think about what you can only really do in NZ and what are your priorities and work from there. Obviously, skydiving over a glacier isn’t something you can really do in Thailand, so I’d probably prioritise that one for here. I did this, and they had to cancel because of bloody clouds!! 😫😫

New Zealand is definitely a place where you can do some seriously unique things for little money. Don’t think for a second the only thing you can do here is bungee jump or skydive!


Consider sacking the tours off

One thing we quickly picked up on though is the tours are disgustingly expensive! For example a kayak trip to cathedral cove is $100 but you can hike for 90 mins for free, or even snorkel around! We also rented a body board for the sand dunes in the north for $15 instead of doing a tour for $55 . Similarly the hot springs by Rotorua can quickly cost you $50 but there’s loads that locals make use of that are free. Basically, do your homework, ask the locals for advice (people are very friendly and accommodating here) and save yourself a fortune. 

Some things are simply unavoidable though. Abel Tasman for example is inaccessible by road, you have to get a boat there, and there’s only one company doing boat tours to the park. We decided to do a hike on the park with the boat drop off and pick up (also including a quick seal spotting tour) that still cost $60 per person, but that’s less than $150 for a day on kayaks.

Basically, we found if we hiked/ walked rather than a comparable activity like kayaking or cycling we could do the same stuff but for free (in most cases). Also, google stuff in advance!

Bookme.co.nz

If you are set on a tour but tight on funds, I’ve found deals for trips and tours up to 70% off. They are mostly last minute but that’s no drama. It seems to work like groupon so you’re effectively buying a discount code to use at checkout when buying the actual tours, so be aware. 

iSite freebies and AA guides

NZ is literally covered in tourist information sites or iSites as they are known here. Raid all the guides and books, they all have discounts inside for attractions (some up to 25%)! 

When you arrive in New Zealand pick up the arrivals AA guide. It’s absolutely packed with discounts only available in that guide that cover both islands. We ended up using loads of them. Likewise check out the regional guides available at iSites across the country. They have other discounts in but are full of info on must see beauties. 

And there you have it! Hopefully these tips prove to be of some use to you. We reckon we’ve saved over $2000NZD at least by sticking to some of these steps over the past five weeks, hopefully you will too! 

New Zealand, North island: The land of the long white cloud ☁️ 🇳🇿 

This is a really tough blog to write, especially as I feel like we’ve seen and done so much in the past couple of weeks exploring the North island. New Zealand is a country I’ve always been fascinated by. I’m not really sure why to be honest, apart from I’ve always really liked the idea of going somewhere where you can ski in the morning and surf in the evening. Whilst New Zealand does offer this (you’re never further than 100km from the ocean here) it offers so much more; way more than I can cover in a single post. I’ll start by saying this: THIS COUNTRY IS AMAZING. 

We’ve been exploring in our trusty camper, who we’ve nicknamed Leroy (for no reason really, just because). Our trusty steed has been our accommodation, kitchen and home the past couple of weeks and he’s done us proud every step of the way. Whilst I’m somewhat biased clearly, I can’t really imagine exploring this awesome country any other way! It’s so nice having the freedom to literally park up or go anywhere as we please. What I can say straight away is I wish we had more time (and money) here; 40 days to do both islands clearly won’t be enough! 

New Zealand is so well known for its array of adrenaline fuelled activities, but I honestly think the thing I’ve enjoyed more is the landscape. This place is mesmerising at every turn! The mountain ranges that cover the majority of the country are absolutely breathtaking. At so many points I felt like I was in a country totally untouched by mankind, there really are so many points where all you can see is countryside, mountain range, beach or river. Both Kelly and I have had to rack our brains constantly to find a word to replace “wow” as we are both saying it way too much. Seriously, you cannot fathom the beauty of this place unless you see it with your own eyes. 

We had just over 2 weeks to see as much of the North Island as possible. Although NZ is minuscule in comparison to its big brother next door, driving around isn’t a quick exercise. The roads meander up, down and around and through the mountain ranges making 10km take 30 mins in some cases at a push. The roads are all maintained exceptionally well, but being in a converted VW van with an extra 200kg of worktop, kitchen and beds dumped in slowed us down somewhat. Regardless, driving around NZ is an experience in itself. These are by far the most enjoyable and visually pleasing roads I’ve ever driven hands down. If you ever asked me to drive a minimum of 4 hours a day anywhere else I’d tell you to do one! Here I’d go as far as saying it’s utterly enjoyable (apart from in Auckland, that just reminded me of my dreary daily commute up the a12 to work!). On one of our first days, we drove up and down a bunch of monsterous mountains, through a rainforest (where we stopped to see one of the oldest and biggest trees in NZ), across an old glacial flat, alongside rivers containing some of the bluest water I’ve ever seen, along the spine of a peninsula parallel to a beach spanning 90miles, and finishing up the day sleeping out overlooking a vineyards sloping farms. You just don’t get that anywhere else! We both said separely we feel like we’ve driven through about 5 different countries and two film sets in one day on more than one occasion! There are far too many photos to put up of the landscapes, but I’ll do my best. 

Anyway enough of the driving. This is what we’ve been up to the last 15 days. 

Auckland/Browns bay

We had a couple of mates to meet up with who are also traveling. They were staying with a mate who had co ownership of a bar in an Auckland suburb. Meeting up for a quick pint resulted in a night on the sauce indulging in some pretty fantastic food and spending more in one night than we did at any point in all of Asia; a good way to start NZ clearly! The following day we tested our freedom camping (free camping basically) and parked here, attempting to remove any hint of jet lag and just soaked in this for a view! 


The day after we explored the coastline with a rather hungover Oli, had a dip in the sea (slightly colder than Thailand) before starting our trip further up north towards 90 mile beach and the most northern point of the country. To break up the journey, we stayed at a brewery called Hallertau, a fantastic brewers with an equally good restaurant and bar. The next day, we endured the 6 or so hour to hit the cape, and stopped to see the biggest tree in NZ; this thing was HUGE at nearly 3m radius and 50m tall.


 We were fortunate enough to stay at a boutique vineyard overlooking the cape. We obviously had to enjoy a bottle of their vino and ended up chatting to the owner of the vineyard all night. Pretty awesome 😀. 

Cape Reinga/90 mile beach. 

90 mile beach isn’t actually 90 miles sadly; l have no idea why it’s called that. Regardless it’s pretty bloody long! In fact it’s the longest peninsula in NZ, and ends at cape Reinga, a sacred Maori area where it’s believed spirits of the dead sail off to the motherland (called Hawaiki). Cape Reinga is also the most northern point of New Zealand, there’s literally nothing out from the cape for thousand of miles, and we couldn’t have been much further away from the UK at this point. 

When we got to the cape, there was actually a traditional Maori funeral ceremony being held there. Obviously we didn’t get involved or watch/ film, but it was quite a sight to witness. One thing I love about the Maori culture is its connection to wildlife and nature, and this was even more apparent during the ceremony. 

After an hour or so enjoying the sites of the cape we drove back down the beach to another astonishing site; sand dunes! Now I didn’t expect anything to match the dunes I’ve experienced in the UAE but these were damn impressive, especially when sandwiched between beautiful green mountain ranges and a stunning coastline stretching as far as you can see! This was definitely something that couldn’t be missed. Kelly and I obviously boarded down the dunes (I may have climbed the biggie too and jumped down that at full pelt). What a cracking thing to do, and the sites over the highest dune were something else! To finish up this end of the trip, we drove to another peninsula (Karikari) to ensure we were close to Waitangi for the national celebrations the following day. 



 Waitangi (Waitangi day)


We were really fortunate to be in Waitangi for Waitangi Day, a kiwi national holiday celebrating the birth of New Zealand following the signing of the treaty between the Brits and Maori. We were somewhat warned off experiencing this celebration at Waitangi as (according to locals) it’s rife with protest normally. To be honest if this was classified as protest I’d challenge the locals to go to any major city around the world and see what’s going on right now! Yes there was some obvious resentment to this new era of New Zealand but I’d hardly call anything protest! Overall, the day was filled with brilliant cultural experiences, including traditional song and dance, obviously the haka, and Maori tribes bringing the traditional boats (waka) into the shore. This was a great thing to witness and really gave us an insight into traditional Maori culture. Below are a few videos I captured of the activities. 

To finish off a cracking day out with even better weather, we drove further down the coast to a neighbouring town to experience some more history. We stumbled across the oldest British built stone building and an area that was once a Maori settlement, before settling in for the night ahead of another day of driving. 

Coromandel peninsula 

This peninsula is famous for the ocean drive and its stunning beaches. It certainly didn’t disappoint! We drove pretty much the east and west coast of the peninsula, only just missing the tip due to time constraints. Again the sights experienced on this drive were unforgettable. It was another classic of every turn we took we were blown away once again. 

Along the peninsula is a famous beach called hot water beach. This part of the north island is the start of the geothermal highway, where hot pools and geysers are pretty commonplace. On this beach, if you dig a hole, you’ll quickly burn your feet with super heated water! The common activity here is to dig a jacuzzi sized hole and mix sea water with the hot stuff to make a comfortable pool. Sadly this is only really possible at certain points during the day when the tide is right, and due to turning weather we got it wrong: instead we had to accept a casual burning of our feet in the rain. Regardless it was quite a thing to experience! To finish up a long day of driving we headed to cathedral cove, another must see piece of landscape, hoping to start the following day with a hike along the shore. Sadly, the weather turned on us again, so we got stuck in the camper enduring a thoroughly soggy evening. The weather stayed like this the majority of the following morning so we abandoned plans and got on the road again.  



Hamilton/Waitomo

Kelly had set a must see attraction at our next stop, the glow worm caves in Waitomo. 

En route, we stopped In a tiny city called Hamilton, mainly to get a feel for a generic kiwi city. As I said, this place is Tiny! By English standards it would be a small town, and definitely smaller than my home town of Colchester! Regardless, we had a nice wander around getting a feel for the place, which is soon to host a two week arts festival, something we’d both have loved to have experienced. After killing a couple of hours we drove straight to the caves. 

These historic caves are honestly like looking up at the stars, and are definitely a unique experience! The glow worms illuminate the caves with a wonderful blue/green Hue that covers the whole ceiling and obviously shine beautifully bright when in total darkness. We actually rode through the caves on a small man powered boat in complete silence which really added to the experience. Sadly no photos allowed in the caves but this is what it looked like. 

Cambridge 

Considering we both met, studied, worked and lived in Cambridge, we had to really! Cambridge (NZ) is actually the equine and cycling capital of NZ, and even has its own velodrome! We were here to meet Kelly’s old school friend Becks though, who emigrated a few years back and is now married with two kids. After a night camped by a picturesque lake we ventured back to Cambridge to meet her. 

It was great to find out more about life in NZ and in Cambridge, and to spend time with the wee family. We actually ended up having a night out on the town, enjoying far too many drinks at a cracking craft beer bar. Needless to say my head hurt somewhat the following day. Oh well, more fun to be had! 

Hobbiton

I’M GOING ON AN ADVENTURE!!

Now I’ve got that out my system



Time I got my geek on! Obviously if you’re in the north island you have to stop here. When the Hobbit trilogy was made, the entire set of hobbiton was permanently rebuilt to size. They’ve done such a great job making this set so lifelike, they even employ three full time gardeners to keep the place looking tidy, and growing the monster pumpkins like you see in the initial scenes of the first hobbit movie. 


It’s quite ridiculous that all of this was done just to film for about ten seconds, but I’m glad they did. Visiting hobbiton was definitely a must do on the list, even if it was experienced slightly hungover 😵 


Rotorua 

The land of the geothermal wonders! Rotorua is famous for geothermal activity like acidic pools and geysers, traditional Maori activities, and fun stuff like Zorbing! It should also be famous for being the smelliest place on earth! Sadly we couldn’t afford to do all the fun (story of our life out here) but did we manage to experience the cultural wonders in the town. Bizarrely, an old friend from high school who now lives in Queenstown just happened to be sat at a bar on eat street with her family, so we agreed to do some stuff together the next day. We agreed to head to Te Puia, a sacred Maori site that is made up of geysers and a traditional Maori arts workshops. The stuff that is carved out of wood is pretty spectacular, and it’s great to see the art form kept alive by sites like this. The array of geysers are obviously very impressive too!


As we’ve obviously had far too many days doing far too many strenuous activities 😜 we booked into a geothermal spa just outside the town called Waikite valley (in our defence we only spent a night here as it was only $10 more than a normal paid camp site). What a cool thing to do though! There were 6 different pools all using the naturally heated (and cooled) mineral water. Out of the ground, the water is at boiling point so has to be naturally cooled via waterways etc. We spent a good few hours getting wrinkley the night we arrived and the next morning; bliss! 


The following day we had booked onto a Maori cultural evening with a company called Tamaki. From the moment we got on the bus to the site we were having a great time. Our bus driver was the most entertaining I’ve ever endured and had the whole bus in stitches! The rest of the evening consisted of experiencing a traditional welcome ceremony, learning to do the haka (badly ill admit), learning about traditional Maori dance, and enjoying a feast cooked in a traditional hangi (I am so building one of these when I grow up. Overall it was a brilliant evening that I’d highly recommend to anyone visiting rotorua 

 

Taupo

Sadly our time in Taupo was cut somewhat short thanks to another bout of bad weather. We were hoping to spend a couple of days here but we arrived to wet weather and only had one day of predicted clear skies the following day, so had to change our plans. regardless, taupo is a cool place. Lake Taupo was formed after a volcanic eruption thousands of years ago; its the size of Singapore! Seriously, you can’t fathom the size of this place. Whilst we didn’t really get to enjoy the area properly, it was great to experience the black sand beaches and strangely enough, the black swans and ducks! Bit weird…. en route to taupo we stopped off at a local recommendation, Hukka falls. This rapid area is flodded with hundreds of thousands of litres of water a minute thanks to a dam system further up stream. The water was a beautiful blue Hue and it’s really quite a sight! See for yourself below. 


Tongariro Alpine Crossing 

This is without a doubt the highlight of my time in New Zealand so far, and the reason why we had to abandon taupo. We’ve done some tough hikes to date on this trip, but this won the award for the steepest and generally most impressive! 

This hike was made globally famous (to those not into hiking) from the lord of the rings movies, as mount Doom and mordor scenes were filmed here. After getting agreement from Kelly to spend Valentine’s Day here (seems the perfect way to me) we spent the day hiking across some of the most unique and breathtaking landscapes in New Zealand. This was totally out of this world! At points we felt like we were on the surface of mars, at others we were in Australian bush, then quite simply stomping up an active volcano (or 3)! 14 miles, 1km of elevation, and 6.5 hours later we’d completed this epic hike and felt very proud of ourselves! Again, if you ever visit NZ, you HAVE TO DO THIS! 


Wellington 

After a full day of driving, we hit our final spot on the north island. This is by far the quietest capital city I’ve ever been to! Seriously, we drove in and didn’t even realise it! Regardless, Wellington is a really cool city. We spent an afternoon on the waterfront enjoying the local activities like open air salsa classes and very cool bars and restaurants. To be honest the waterfront itself, let alone the inner city is beautiful in itself and well worth an explore. It all hinted of a quiet waterfront area of London, but maybe 20 years ago. Either way, a very nice place to base ourselves for a couple days. I was lucky enough to meet up with two mates from the UK at different points. It’s such a nice experience; meeting up with people you haven’t seen for years on the other side of the globe. 


The museum in Wellington is another must visit site. I’d go as far as saying it’s probably the best free museum I’ve ever been to! On our first day in the city, we stopped into the ground floor to get a feel for the place, and saw some fantastic exhibitions all about the local and unique wildlife, flora and fauna, geology and landscapes. To top this off they’ve also got a real collossal squid on show, and a full exhibition on how they came to capture it (it was dead before capture, don’t worry). The following day we explored the incredibly harrowing and unique exhibition on the kiwi involvement in world war 1. This included some incredibly detailed models of those who fought that stood well over 10ft tall, alongside all the emotive displays about the atrocities that occurred. The whole museum was absolutely stunning; yet another must see. 

So as you can see, we’ve had a terrible time here so far! In all seriousness, I’m utterly blown away. I have full on caught the kiwi bug and can see why so many others do too! Even when hacking it down this place still seems to be somewhat stunning (I’m sure sun worshiper sweeney would disagree). I can’t wait to see what the South Island brings, as friends who have done it say it raises the bar yet again with natural beauty