On the 16th February I said goodbye to my lovely Auckland hosts/buddies and flew down to Christchurch. After spending the night in an airport hotel (Jucy Snooze – highly recommended for budget and comfort!), it was time for my second trip on the Stray Bus.
When I came on holiday to New Zealand at the end of 2015, I only had two weeks to cover a lot of ground, and so someone recommended a tour bus company called Kiwi Experience. I did some research and found an alternative company who offered a similar thing, but for for the more ‘discerning’ (read: not 18 anymore and can’t deal with the hangovers) backpacker. The company was Stray Travel.
It was largely down to my experience on Stray in November 2015 that made me decide that two weeks in New Zealand wasn’t nearly enough and that I would most definitely be back. Stray operates a hop on, hop off bus service around pretty much all of New Zealand, depending on which pass you purchase… but this is so much more than just a hop on hop off bus service. And the bus drivers are so much more than just bus drivers. My 2015 driver, Lantern, was pure delight – so much fun was had and it was actually really inspiring to see someone love their job with such sincerity! Very quickly after boarding a Stray bus, you pretty much feel like part of an awesome family, all off on a wonderful adventure together! Stray seems to attract amazing passengers and driver-guides alike. They also have deals with some fantastic backpacker properties, access some really unique destinations and are happy to recommend and book a plethora of activities for you at a discounted rate. And don’t get me wrong, although I have described Stray as a slightly more refined backpacker experience, the drivers and passengers still know how to party when the time is right!
My previous trip focused mainly on the North Island, so this time I bought the ‘Ron’ pass for the South. The first leg of my journey was from Christchurch Airport to Picton. Usually this route would have included a night in Kaikoura, famous for it’s Dusky Dolphins, however following on from the 2016 earthquake, the road was still closed to commercial vehicles.
The drive to Picton was a fairly long one, via a fairly hairy but very beautiful road called the Lewis Pass. As there was no night in Kaikoura, we had two nights in Picton. I had made some friends who were to be my roomies for the next few nights on this bus, and upon arrival we set at deciding how to occupy ourselves for two nights in a town known primarily as the ferry port and gateway to the North Island.
After getting to know each other in a little local’s pub with a bizarre last order time of 9.30pm, we decided to go off hiking the next day. The weather was good to us and really let us appreciate what a spectacular place the Marlborough Sounds are.
Struggling for an evening activity that didn’t involve drinking again, we decided to check out the local cinema. Being a small town, it sort-of makes sense to pool resources and so Picton Cinema is actually located in Picton Aquarium. The entrance to the theatre is just left past the stingray enclosure, and don’t mind the smell of fish!
Before boarding the bus the next day, we made the most of the sunshine and hired some kayaks and enjoyed some beach time on one of the hidden bays. Next stop was Abel Tasman!
Abel Tasman is a national park located between Golden Bay and Tasman Bay at the north end of the South Island and is known for it’s sheer beauty. I usually research the living daylights out of my trips, but with such a frantic departure I didn’t have time. Stray had done me well before and I was confident that they would again, and of course I wasn’t disappointed. There was definitely a bus full of awe as we made our way down to our accommodation.
A friend, also called Caroline, and I went slightly off piste at Abel Tasman with our choice of activity and decided to go horse riding (not offered by Stray). We booked via the property next to out lodge, and having been horse riding with a guide more times that I can count, including the last time I was in New Zealand, I thought that I had a good idea what I should expect…
Horse-Riding in Abel Tasman
Well, Caroline and I made our way to the yard to begin our ride and were given what can politely be described very strange welcome. Our guide, who I assumed was Canadian owing to the gigantic Canadian flag at the end of his driveway, seemed very distrustful of us indeed – as did his horses with their ears pinned back whenever we approached them.
Before asking us anything about ourselves, he begin telling is how many idiotic riders he had had up in the past few weeks, people who did not respect his horses and proceeded to tell us how one of the horses in front of us was an ex-racehorse with some real issues, who doesn’t cope well with people who aren’t good riders. Caroline was then promptly scolded for suggesting that said horse might be stubborn and told to remove that word from her vocabulary. Incidentally, the guy wasn’t Canadian, very much sounded like a kiwi, but in the end had no answer to where he was from…but seemed to know quite a bit about The Gorbals in Glasgow. I still have no idea.
So after this very strange introduction, two guesses for who was told she was riding the 16.2hh ex-racehorse with the ‘issues’? Yup, me! As we warmed the horses up, a third girl came along and was given a similar briefing (although it transpired she rode for a living and so he may have been more confident in her credentials!). Without getting all horsey-technical on you, my horse it turns out was strong and knew how to try his luck, but I figured him out pretty quickly. Well, once we were all out and our guide was happy that we were all competent riders, he was like a new man! Full of chat, happy to take photos for us, and in the end took us on one of best horse rides I’ve ever been on in my life – complete with beach gallop, riding through seawater, along deep rivers and absolutely beautiful woodland. And it’s funny how they say people become like their animals and vice versa, as as soon as he warmed to us, the horses were all over us too. Really strange, but utterly fantastic day!
The next stop on the Stray circuit was a little town on the West Coast called Westport. Last month, the South Island was hit by a weather phenomenon known as a ‘weather bomb’ which basically means lots and lots and lots of rain. With the West Coast known for it’s record breaking rainfall anyway, it seemed that there was no avoiding it. We were only there for a night, but rained a lot in Westport. So we went to the brewery, of course.
West Coast Brewery is one of the activities that can be booked through Stray, it’s only $17 and well worth the money if you’re a beer fan. West Cost Brewery is proper microbrewery with only two members of staff, and only one responsible for the brewing process. Mark, master brewer extraordinaire, was our host for for our beer drinking session. He did a really good job of explaining how the beer was produced and how each one differed as we drank away. It was all very casual and low key, and really just felt like sitting in the pub with someone who knew loads about beer! Some food is also included, and at the end of the session you are invited to purchase some very reasonably priced craft beer.
Franz Josef is a town built up around the tourism generated by the nearby Franz Josef glacier. It’s a pretty little town, and our accommodation here, Rainforest Retreat, was fantastic with an equally fantastic happy hour at the bar! I had been saving my pennies to tick off a major bucket-list item here – heli-hiking on the glacier. I hadn’t raised my hopes too much for this, as we had been told that due to the inclement summer so far, Franz Josef Glacier Guides had only sent flights up on two days since Christmas. I’m very pleased to say that we got very, very lucky!
This was my first trip in a helicopter and that alone was just amazing – very different from flying in a plane. The glacier hike itself was so much fun, complete with crampons and matching dorky glacier ready clothing, we followed our guide, Gethin, around the cracks, over the crevasses and through the ice tunnels as we heard all about the history of the glacier, it’s current activity (it’s moving very quickly in glacial terms) and it’s likely fate. Again it was wonderful to be guided by someone who clearly loves what they do.
I was really looking forward to seeing Wanaka as it was one of the places that I considered stopping to work. The town itself was beautiful, however a combination of tiredness from our previous days, a less than great hostel experience and bad weather meant that we probably didn’t make the most of this pretty little place. Definitely one to return to.
And so this is where I left my bus buddies. It’s always strange the sad little feeling that you get when you say goodbye to people that you’ve bonded with, but known for less than a week. It was particularly sad to say goodbye to our driver, Slim, as not only was he a bloody brilliant driver, but after driving a combination of Kiwi Experience and Stray buses since 1987, this was to be his last ever trip. I’m really grateful to have met him as he was an absolute top bloke with some fantastic (and eye opening!) stories about his time on the road. It’ll be a real blow for Stray to lose him I imagine, but I’m sure that everyone, including me, wishes him all the best in his future ventures.
So this is where this part of the story ends. See you next post!