I joined the Kiwi Experience bus from Auckland to Taupo and back again to get a taste of what the hop on hop off bus in New Zealand was all about.
The awesome bus network covers everything anyone would want to see in both the North Island and the South Island. Unfortunately with a week I only had time for the North Island, but what an awesome week it was.
From volcanoes to glaciers to geothermal activity, incredible mountains and awesome beaches it’s obvious why New Zealand is so popular with us backpackers. The Kiwi’s notoriety as being relaxed, friendly and fun adds to the welcoming vibe. From my experience the truth backed up the legend and everyone I met in New Zealand was warm and friendly – keen to teach us travellers about their country.
Starting my Kiwi Experience
So there I was, 8:30am, outside the Oakleys shop in Auckland ready to board the bus Hot Water Beach bound along with 15 or so other travellers. I looked around and my fellow adventurers looked to be 18-25, I was surrounded by backpacks and the conversations were already starting up.
There are many routes available with Kiwi Experience from one day right up to 29. I joined for the following route:
Auckland – Coromandel – Waitomo – Rotorua – Taupo – Auckland
Check out their website at kiwiexperience.com and you can have a look through all their passes to find your perfect one. All of them are flexible, hop on and hop off and plans can be altered every day to suit your mood and surroundings.
Auckland – where the fun began
I stayed at Nomads Hostel Auckland and soaked up the party vibe. The hostel had a sauna, a steam room, massive kitchen on the rooftop and a lounge too. It was right in the centre of the city and just a minute’s walk from where the Kiwi Experience bus drops you off and picks you up.
When I was in town the annual Auckland Chinese Lantern Festival was on so the city was buzzing with energy. I went up to take a look and discovered that lanterns come in more shapes and sizes than I ever could’ve thought.
I checked out the super trendy Britomart, ate some Mexican, did a bit of surf stuff shopping and got some snaps of the Auckland Sky Tower. I sampled some of the local beers down at the marina too and saw where they project the films onto the silos for the silo cinema. You definitely need to factor a few days in Auckland into your trip to soak it up.
Kiwi Experience way of life
So yes, back to 8:30am at the Oakleys shop. I was at the bus stop ready and waiting with some snacks from the New Zealand shop FIX ten minutes early, lingering to see who I’d be sharing the bus with.
Bang on time I met our driver Dylan who soon got us boarded with bags on in the underneath hold. As I was travelling in February – Kiwi Experience’s peak time – the bus was full and as a solo traveller I found a seat buddy in Lucas from Denmark.
There didn’t actually seem to be a typical traveller on the bus though – just a bunch of people who loved travel and wanted to explore New Zealand. There were solos, couples, groups of friends and best mates too. Anything goes.
Our driver Dylan started with an introduction to the Kiwi Experience way of life and told us what was going to happen over the next few days. “It’s all hustle and bustle,” was his favourite saying.
Every day we were asked if we’d like to book accommodation and activities. Dylan went through the options over the bus microphone and sent a clipboard around so you could sign up easily.
Passengers can sign up to the activities on an ad hoc basis just by adding their name to the list. Then, when you arrive at the destination you’ll already be booked on and they’ll be ready and waiting to receive you. Depending on the activity you’ll either add your credit card details to the clipboard, pay on the way by dropping in, or pay when you’re actually about to go and do the activity. The driver makes it clear which one it’ll be.
The same goes for the accommodation. Dylan sent around a clipboard and we could sign up to book into the accommodation for the night. When we arrived the list will have already been pre faxed through and you’ll be assigned a room. All you have to do is pay the discounted Kiwi Experience rate.
Coromandel – kayaking and Hot Water Beach
We made it to the Coromandel Peninsula in three hours and dropped our stuff at the backpackers lodges at the Top 10 Holiday Park. I was in a six-bed dorm with a big shared bathroom and kitchen area. This accommodation was awesome and right next to Hot Water Beach – one of the many free activities to enjoy along the way on the Kiwi Experience bus.
On the beach you can rent spades and dig yourself a spa hole. Dig down and the water that comes up from beneath is absolutely boiling hot. Top tip for you though, don’t underestimate it! I saw one group enjoying a spa bath in one hole where they’d combined the hot water with the cold sea water and then they’d dug a really deep scorching hot hole next to it and were boiling mussels in there. Amazing.
I also joined the kayaking group to make our way out to Cathedral Cove and hear some Maori stories from our guide along the way. This was awesome and the perfect way to stretch my limbs after sitting down on the bus all morning. Our guide made us tea on the beach and we had all the safety gear we could wish for from the Cathedral Cove Sea Kayaking team.
That night I enjoyed fish and chips from the on site restaurant – others cooked up a BBQ from the supermarket we’d visited along the way – and we played cards on the picnic benches by our rooms into the early hours.
The next day we were up and on the bus for 8am to make the most of the day. It’s up to you to be on time, obviously, but Dylan always did a check to make sure we were all there.
Some people decided to stay an extra night – the Kiwi Experience pass is flexible like that, you just need to let the office know your plans.
Waitomo – caving and Hobbiton
In Waitomo I went on the Black Abyss Tour with the Black Rafting Company. It was pretty much one of the most adventurous things I’ve ever done, and you can expect a full write up on gapyear.com very soon. It was all sorted by Kiwi Experience – I just had to sign up on the clipboard and turn up.
The Black Abyss Tour was a five-hour adventure and I spent the rest of the day chilling at the Kiwi Paka Hostel and making my dinner in the kitchen. Some of the guys stayed up watching the Winter Olympics and having a few beers in the bar, but I just wanted to crawl into that comfy bed. No squeaky bunk beds at this hostel!
Another early morning in Waitomo as we were due to go to Hobbiton, the land of Lord of the Rings, along the way. Again, it was all organised by the driver – and we were dropped off and picked up at the front reception, no bother.
Rotorua – backpackers and Maoris
Later that afternoon in Rotorua I had a few hours to explore the lake and take a look at all the activities you could enjoy on there, if you had longer there than me. I stayed at the Crash Palace Rotorua, now this wasn’t actually Kiwi Experience’s preferred hostel but I’d heard good things. While the rest of the busload were dropped at Base Backpackers, I stayed there. And that’s the beauty of the hop on, hop off bus – it’s totally flexible. I always felt safe and cared for, but I could still do whatever I wanted and was never tied in to follow the crowd. This is a great option if you just want some time to yourself after being around everyone all day.
I’d signed up to the Maori Cultural Evening at the Taiki Village on the bus in the day in Rotorua. It was an interesting insight into the history and culture of New Zealand, and we got dinner included, but more on that another day.
Taupo – geysers and skydiving
Even though I was staying at a different hostel the Kiwi Experience bus came to pick me up from nearby the Crash Palace Rotorua to bring me back to the group. There were quite a few different faces today as many people choose to stay two nights in Rotorua as there’s so much to do.
On the way to Taupo we stopped off at the Orakei Korako Geothermal Park and Cave and learnt more about the geothermal activity in New Zealand. I enjoyed a boiled egg cooked in a geyser and there’s the opportunity to see a real live kiwi bird, but he was hiding from us unfortunately.
An hour later and we had a quick stop at Huka Falls to see the crazy water flow. I couldn’t believe people actually rafted down there – although I definitely would’ve done it if I’d had time.
We made it into Taupo a short while later where I did a skydive with Skydive Taupo, again, all organised by the driver and Kiwi Experience after signing up on the bus. You can find out more about that particular adventure in my article What Does it Feel Like to Skydive from 15,000ft?
That night I had a celebratory beer for being so tough and watched one of the most incredible sunsets I’d ever seen over the lake.
The next day it was a 7am start to get back to Auckland and the bus was pretty empty compared to what I’d been used to. It was nice to stretch my legs out and just sit back listening to some music while watching the world unfurl out of my window. We made one stop at Waitopu to see some more geysers and then it was straight on to Auckland.
In total I spent around 20 hours on the Kiwi Experience bus and it was very comfortable. I never felt restless or squashed and we had toilet stops every two hours or so.
You’re allowed to eat on the bus and quite a few people had a cooler food bag that they’d carry around filled with goodies in case they get hungry. Your food bill on the Kiwi Experience can be as little or as much as you like. It’s entirely up to you to manage.
Food on the Kiwi Experience
The drivers will explain the food situation on each day. They’ll always stop at a supermarket and give you enough time in there. Pak n Save is well known as the cheapest and it’s kind of like Aldi or Lidl in the UK. Every hostel that I stayed at during my Kiwi Experience week had a kitchen with all the facilities I could possibly need to cook.
The alternative is to make the most of the food opportunities at the destination. At the Hot Water Beach hostel I enjoyed fish and chips. In Waitomo I’d picked up some peppers and chicken at the supermarket and rustled up a delicious dinner in the hostel. In Rotorua I ate a delicious dinner that had been cooked in a Harangi at the Maori night. And in Taupo I ate with some of the other Kiwi Experiencers at the nearby Irish Pub. Beer, a burger and chips for $12 (£6!).
Kiwi Experience drivers
Both drivers that I had were so passionate about their country it was inspiring. My first driver, Dylan, insisted we all get off at Ruakuri to “stretch our legs” and we followed the free Ruakuri forest walk. He also encouraged us to check out the Karangahake Gorge dropping us off as close as possible to make sure we saw as much as we could in the time available. What a guy.
Another awesome aspect of using Kiwi Experience for a New Zealand adventure is that they guarantee to have the best prices for every activity. The amount of business they bring to every experience means they’ve had a word and sorted out the best price you’ll see. All activities have up to $40 off – not too shabby!
Travelling around by Kiwi Experience gave more meaning to my trip. The driver was also our guide and he gave background to every activity and every town we passed. Facts and information on every activity gave more depth and encouraged a better understanding of what I was seeing.
The year 2014 celebrates 25 years of Kiwi Experience – and you know for a company to have been around since 1989 and still going strong, they must be doing something right.