Category Archives: New Zealand

How I Avoided a Complete Disaster of Traveling With My Non-Traveling Friends

It was bound to happen and I knew it would.

#byefelicia
#byefelicia
I tried my best to prevent it but it was inevitable. A rift formed in my group of New Zealand companions. It was mainly me vs. the other two, with Ryan spectating from the sides.

Traveling with people who travel often is WORLDS different than traveling with people who never or rarely do so. I will always prefer to go about it alone, meeting people along the way. With my intentions to go to New Zealand, I assumed I would once again go solo. It’s been my thing for years and it’s always worked extremely well. Still, I always wished for my friends back home to experience what I experienced, because talking about it and showing them pictures doesn’t express any justice. You just had to be there. The way Chelsey, Ryan, and Mike came about to join me in New Zealand was spur of the moment random and super spontaneous. I’m actually a bit picky about who I will let accompany me because traveling across the world unleashes a never-before-seen side to my American friends that I didn’t want to risk seeing. However, having them join me would test my desire of having my friends getting a taste of the globetrotting life I led. They were joining me on my trip, which they were well aware of. “We are following you Dan,” is what they would tell me, but I knew it wouldn’t turn out that way. This was now our trip. Now that everything is said and done, I can safely say it was an overall success.

Remember how naive and stupid you were when you first began traveling, Daniel. I always kept that in the back of my head.

Here is how I avoided a complete blunder of traveling with my non-traveling friends:

1. Create A Plan So Everyone Is On The Same Page

To avoid most disputes, I was pretty darn careful about our plan for our New Zealand/Fiji trip. The first issue was the actual plan. Those who really know me, know that I don’t really plan ahead for my backpacking trips, I just go with the flow. Take a look at my recent backpacking trip I like to call The Unplanned Plan. I had no idea where the heck I was going! However, I know many people are uncomfortable with the idea of the unknown and so with my non-traveling comrades, I formulated with them a rough draft to keep everyone on the same page which worked well. The only issue I had was that for the most part, my comrades have given little input to the plan I suggested and were basically game for anything. I was happy about this but also worried at the same time that I would fall into the chaperone role. I knew that once we got to New Zealand is when they would begin suggesting things they would want to do.

2. Discuss How Money Will Be Dealt With BEFORE Departure

Money is one of the the biggest issues that cause disagreements while traveling with friends. I’ve had to separate from fellow backpackers because our budgets were just too different. Thankfully with this group, money wasn’t a huge deal. I trusted them enough to offer to put the majority of our group expenses on my foreign transaction-free credit card and then have everyone PayPal what they owed me at the end. This worked very well but it took a lot of effort on my part. I had to retain every receipt we acquired on our trip (food, lodging, splitting gas, etc) in a neat folder to sort out at the end. Then, I created an excel spreadsheet of what everyone owed me once we arrived in Fiji. PayPal made it simple and easy via the apps on our phones. The problem lies in the trust issue. Thankfully, I had the fortune of being able to fully trust my comrades as far as money was concerned and everything worked out great at the end. They all paid me back promptly too!

This is part of the spreadsheet I created to keep tabs on everyone's individual expenses. This worked out so good!
This is part of the spreadsheet I created to keep tabs on everyone’s individual expenses. This worked out so good!

3. Never Make a Decision Without the Approval of Everyone Else in the Group

I was particularly careful about this one. Of course everyone is gonna want to do something different. Like how everyone wished to visit Hobbiton and I didn’t want to at all. There will be times when majority of the group wants to do something the other wants to do and in those cases, majority rules. I was perfectly fine sitting out and catching up on writing. Same goes for food. We all had different appetites, but still I always let them decide what we ate if we couldn’t help it. We couldn’t really separate because we were in the middle of nowhere with one car. No big deal though. Thankfully everything I suggested we do, the others were down with. Same goes for Chelsey suggesting Paihia and Mike suggesting Tongariro. We didn’t really have an issue in this matter. So far so good!

4. Make Time to Separate and Do Your Own Thing

By the time we reached Wellington, my group began to feel suffocated from being around each other 24/7. We’ve been bound at the hip since Auckland and now that we had a few days in Wellington with no plan, we found time to explore at our own accord. Mike was able to get a couple CrossFit sessions in, Chelsey explored the local zoo and museums at her leisure, while Ryan and I practically won a beer pong tournament (it came down to rock-paper-scissors in which we lost) at a local bar. Wellington was very much needed. Wellington was also where I addressed an underlying issue within the group.

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5. Be Open About an Issue Before it Grows into Something Bigger

I always had the mindset to have a group discussion if I noticed things getting sour between the four of us. Well things were getting sour, and so once I had the others attention, I revealed the elephant in the room. I can tell what the issue was without even asking, Mike and Chelsey believe I am too controlling. Why would they think that? Well for one, I wouldn never let them drive and secondly, I would rush them a bit when they were lallygagging. Why wouldn’t I let them drive? There’s good reason. When I rented this car, I picked it up with full coverage added on just in case anything happened to the vehicle, we’re completely covered. However, that full coverage would have been void if anyone else drove besides the driver who signed and picked up the car (me). Mike and Chelsey never drove on the left side of the road before and really wanted to try it which was understandable, after all they did each pay for a quarter of the costs. But I couldn’t risk paying hard earned money for something completely avoidable just because they wanted to try it out. At the end of the day, I let both of them drive when we were on long stretches of road with barely any traffic. Honestly, it was like appeasing the little kid who wanted to ride the big kid ride.

As for being rushy, at times I had to be. We only had two full weeks to explore New Zealand which is nowhere near enough time. I originally wanted to do a month or two but had to cut it down to two weeks once they tagged along. With that in mind, I know there will be plenty of opportunity for me to return on my own and do my own thing, but for them not so much. It was my effort to have them see as much as they could in the most efficient way as possible to get the most out of their trip. During instances when they were loafing or suggesting something that I knew was unfavorable for timing standards, I had to shut them down no question. When I explained it to them, they understood. At the end of the day, we were never late for anything.

I made it clear to them what my intentions were. My intended trip of backpacking New Zealand solo turned into a trip for me to make sure they had an action packed two weeks for as cost effective as possible. I think I succeeded on that note too with everyone remaining under their budgets. I’ve done trips like these a zillion times, so I just needed them to trust me more. Once we were done with our pow wow and everyone said their peace, we all were on great terms for the remainder of the trip.

Crisis averted!

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Onward to Fiji!

In addition to the two week trip in New Zealand, the four of us also planned about four days in Fiji before they go back home to Michigan and I continue on my own. I reserved us dorm beds at the Fiji Beachouse, one of the most highly rated budget accommodations on the main island. Instead of the backpacker infested hostels in Nadi, I thought the Fiji Beachouse, located about three hours away from the hustle and bustle, would fit the vibe more…and it certainly did. This place was amazing!

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As soon as I walked through the premises, I truly felt like my solo trip has begun. I didn’t have to drive anywhere, I didn’t have to split costs with anyone, I didn’t have to do a damn thing but relax my butt off before I move deeper into the country…solo! (Never quite solo, I’m always with people I meet along the way.) The Fiji Beachouse did have its share of backpackers though. A few of them we befriended and ending up on a few small excursions close by the Beachouse.

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I met some locals when my New Zealand crew were on one of those excursions, who invited me over for Kava. The experience was so unique and authentic, that I brought over my crew and a few backpackers the next day to experience it as well.

Would I Travel With Non-Travelers Again?

The day has come for Chelsey, Mike, and Ryan to finally head back to the USA. We’ve been together for nearly three weeks all over the North Island of New Zealand and the Fiji Beachouse with memories that will stick with us forever. Thankfully, I had a solid group with me because I’ve met other travelers on the road who haven’t been so lucky.

When they packed and waited near the bus stand to go to the airport, I actually missed their departure because I was in the middle of eating lunch and the bus came a lot earlier than I expected. When I ran to the bus station to say my goodbyes to them, they were already gone.

Alright, here's a better photo.
Alright, here’s a better photo.
So would I travel with friends from home again? Specifically the Non-Traveling ones? Ummmm, perhaps but maybe one at a time, not three at once. Surprisingly, if I could travel with Chelsey, Mike, and Ryan again, I would do it individually, not as a group. I’ve learned their separate styles and am able to adapt better when one on one. Mike is an adventurer and is super keen on taken the unbeaten path. Chelsey is a wanderlust, which means she is very fond of meeting other travelers and taking their advice to find the next best thing. Ryan is a go-with-the-flow kind of guy. If he’s part of a group, he’s just happy to be along for the ride.  Regardless, I learned a whole lot from the experience. If anything, I found that I would make a fantastic tour guide (something I never want to do as a profession).

With the three away, it was time to begin the rest of my journey on my own accord. And let me tell you, within a couple of days of being in Fiji, I already found myself at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean surrounded by sixteen massive bull sharks. Literally.

Let me explain…

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Crossing Tongariro: Tempting Mount Doom

Mount Doom likes to play games. The abominable, deadly weather kind of games.


After a long drive and a few days spent in the engaging town of Wellington, we decided we would drive back up to Tongariro to attempt the hike up Mount Ngauruhoe, more famously known as Mount Doom. It’s the volcano featured in The Lord of The Rings trilogy that the little keebler elves needed to find to destroy their little magical ring or whatever the heck they were doing. The others filled me in on that by the way. We were warned though, that since it was winter we would need a guide and that ice tools and crampons were necessary for the trek. The weather may seem fine now, but it’s terribly different on the mountain. Still, Mike and I were daring enough to test our fate.

Wellington, New Zealand.
Wellington, New Zealand.

We found a place near Doom called the Tongariro Alpine Lodge, a campsite with outdoor facilities. Perfect for the summer warmth but kinda crap for the winter. Honestly, we just needed a place to stay that was relatively close and on the cheaper end of the spectrum. The winter we were experiencing in New Zealand hasn’t played a huge factor for us yet. It hasn’t felt like any winter we were used to… until we arrived in Tongariro. The nipping, unwanted rain was an omen that welcomed us to our accommodation as we prepared to tempt Doom.

“I’m sorry,” said the woman at the front desk. “There aren’t any treks tomorrow because of the weather. But if you want to schedule for Sunday, the weather is supposed to be very good then.”

We can’t wait for Sunday. It’s Ryans 21st birthday then and we need to get back to Auckland to get him the most wasted he’s ever been in his young life.

There are other trails around Doom that we were able to hike, with Tongariro Crossing being the most popular. Mike and I looked over the map with nearby trails and searched for the one with the most bang that would lead us to at least a viewpoint of Mount Doom in all of her volcanic glory.

Chelsey and Ryan stayed behind while Mike and I geared up for the morning. And when I say geared up, I meant he geared up and I layered up because I didn’t have a proper jacket, pants, nor gloves for a hike of this sort. Everything I had, I retained from Alaska which wasn’t much at all. I also learned from Alaska, that even though I layered up, I was still pretty cold at the end of the day. So this time, I layered up even more.

Courtesy of Mike.
Chelsey dropped us off at the lodging center a few miles down from our accommodation. The center had all the information we needed about the hike towards Doom. The elderly man at the front desk recommended we try one of the smaller hikes because according to him, by the looks of us, we weren’t properly dressed. Don’t underestimate my attire sir. I’ve explored the largest ice caves in the world in gym shorts before.

He recommended Taranaki Falls, a 40 minute jaunt from where we were now. If we were up to it, we could continue on to other more expansive trails that would lead us closer to Doom.

“The weather won’t be good today,” he continued. “It’s not snowing now, but in about an hour it will and you may think the snow is pretty but once that happens, I strongly advise that you turn around and head back.”

Mike and I glanced at each other with a look of, “let’s just do it anyways”.

“The weather will be better tomorrow if you wanted to try that,” the elderly man finished.

This guy was not optimistic in the slightest about our desire to get close to Doom, but still I kept his advice in mind. If it snows, we’ll turn around, but from the looks everything, it didn’t look like it was gonna snow. And so, Mike and I began our hike towards Taranaki Falls and from there we would play it by ear. Out of all the things we wanted to do in New Zealand, this is the thing Mike wanted to do the most. You could tell by how eager he was to capture some incredible footage, which I appreciated. To come across another traveler who’s eager to go above and beyond for some creative photography gets props in my book. They’re hard to find.

The trail was plainly laid out as if it were holding our hands the whole way. It wasn’t so much a “hike” per say as it was a perfectly placed pathway we simply had to trace. But still, everything that surrounded us was totally captivating. The nutrient rich air, the bush, and the snowcapped range in the backdrop gifted us with the reality that we weren’t in Kansas anymore. The pebbled, yet sometimes muddy trail began in acres upon acres of shrubbery painted with rust colored roots and purplish tops that led to a moss deep forest veined with a single river that eventually led to the waterfall we were seeking.

The forest portion of the trek crept through hilly areas as the tree leaves began to chatter from the sudden drizzle. The canopy was dense enough to cover us from it though. We’re just happy it wasn’t snow.

Courtesy of Mike.
I scouted for areas that would make a suitable place to hang my hammock on the way back. Little did I know at the time that this wouldn’t be the same route to get back where we started. The weather was ideal enough to rock a hammock somewhere and eat these sandwiches we made for our lunch. I’d save the hammock and sandwiches for later. I wanted to get to the waterfall and then closer to Doom.

About 40 minutes later, we arrived to the Taranaki Falls and it was beautiful.

We climbed up and around to the very top of the waterfall to get a view from above. We should have been able to see Mount Doom from where we were but the sky was blanketed in a never-ending white. We could see hints of it through the breaks but it was still quite far off. We had ways to go…

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…until it began to snow–just like the elderly man said. And also just like he said, we thought it was a pretty sight.

Mike and I stood around and debated. Should we heed his warning and turn back or should we press forward? Other hikers on our trail stuck around and began to head back. We decided we were both capable of our instincts, if the snow got worse we would turn back. So we continued on towards the Tama Lakes.

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On the way we began to see snow build up as we went on.

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It was cold, but it wasn’t cold cold. As we went further along the path, we saw fewer hikers along the way, with most of them heading towards us, back to the start of the trail. We eventually found two individual boulders–the perfect place to have our lunch. We prepackaged a few peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

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Courtesy of Mike.
We saw another duo nearby, including a guy wearing just a plain old jacket and shorts also eating their lunch. If this guy is pressing on wearing shorts, then surely we have to keep going. We’d look like pansies if we turned around. I didn’t let my mind falter around the fact and so we kept on going, and as we did, the path became less laid out and the wind chill cautiously picked up. The snow from earlier subsided but began to flurry just a tad. The buffs we had helped a great deal in covering our mouths and noses from the wind’s chill. I put my bare hands under my jacket into my sweater’s front pockets to keep warm. Doom’s mountain freeze carefully began to penetrate my layers.

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We still had ways to go. The wind began to whip so wildly that I could only look down at the path to protect my eyes. The exhaling warmth from the breaths my face felt from my buff barrier began to lessen a bit. My pants began to soak from the rain/snow combo that was happening. I was still okay to go forward, Mike even better because he came aptly prepared. For this Quest to the Seven Continents, I didn’t want to overpack. Snow gear would have weighed me down in the long run. If I needed gear, I would rent or borrow from somewhere. However, there was no way I could have expected this.

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Doom was testing us. It began to hailstorm, pelting ice bullets right into our faces. It was plague after plague up here. First a few minutes of drizzle, then some pretty snow, then some cold snow, then some cold snow and rain with some winds, and now all of the above plus ferocious hail. A full on blizzard was happening. Oddly, it was something special to experience. Mike felt the same way. My hands didn’t agree with me though. There was no warm place on my body to keep them safe from the blizzard. I looked at them and saw they were a bright red and barely mobile. The buff on my face began to form ice crystals along the creases as we traversed a stream creeping closer to Doom. At this point, Doom was cloaked in the blizzard. We couldn’t see a dang thing from where we were. I looked behind me to see if the duo was still trailing us. To my surprise they were.

We arrived to an area where we had to cross a small river, via stepping stones, to get to the next overpass. The first of two lakes was just beyond, I could feel it. As Mike hopped the stones to get to the other side, I just stood there. I was arguing with my gut about what to do next. My heart wanted to continue but my gut was telling me, “You’re gonna freeze your ass off if you keep going any further. You can last just a bit longer but remember you have to trek the whole way back, some three hours or so. This weather is unpredictable and it has only gotten worse.”

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Mike stood there on that slope patiently waiting. The duo caught up with me thinking that I was figuring out the best way to cross the river when in reality I was battling with myself on whether to continue on or not. The duo eventually crossed the river and passed Mike up the hill, all while wearing shorts. Way to make me look like a wuss. I got Mike’s attention and gave him the gesture that it wasn’t wise to go further. At the time we could have, but it was a long way back and if this blizzard kept up, it would spell doom for us on Mount Doom. We were nowhere close to the actual Mount Doom by the way. It was still way off in the distance, shrouded in this rampaging wintery hell.

Gladly Mike was okay with stopping and heading back. He was still as able as ever, but my hands were my first indicator that things would have gotten bad. They were practically immobile. Hopefully that other duo fares better, but we’ll never know. We never saw them again after that.

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Courtesy of Mike.

On the way back, the storm continued but this time the winds raged against us, forcing Mike and I to completely cover our faces with our buffs in our to progress. Conveniently, we could see through the buffs as we slumped through the hail fury. Slowly the storm began to lessen and the sun began to peek through the white. A moment of peace.

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We endured another hailstorm and some more rain until we finally made it back to the waterfalls. But instead of going the same way we came, we took an alternate route that led us above the falls into another area of the trail. The high route.

After about another hour we made it back to the starting point, stiff, soaking wet, hungry and ready to go back to the lodge to pass out. What. An. Adventure!

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You just had to be there to understand.

P.S When they tell you to turn around when it snows then TURN AROUND. 

 

Legendary Black Water Rafting and the Glow Worm Caves

I’ve been waiting for this day for years. 

legendary black water rafting waitomo

Blackwater rafting is the reason I came to New Zealand and has been high on my Atlas for a long time. Now the day has finally arrived! We entered the Waitomo region, home to the world-renowned Waitomo Glow Worm Caves to begin a whole days worth of underground adventure courtesy of the Legendary Black Water Rafting Company.

We chose the Black Abyss, the ‘original ultimate adventure’, option packaged with a brief boat ride through the Ruakuri glow-worm caves. The Abyss included abseiling, trekking, black water rafting (tubing), and waterfall climbing–all taking place underneath the earth! The others were happily keen to partake in the day of events but first…I had to endure a detour through Hobbiton.

The Lord of the Hobbits

Ryan, and more specifically Chelsey and Mike are all about the Lord of the Rings/Hobbit fandom. I am not. I’ve never seen any of the movies but it’s a well-known fact that the movies are filmed right here in New Zealand. If I were on my own backpacking, I would have easily skipped the Hobbiton Movie Set tour that takes place in Matamata, a vicinity close to Waitomo. But since I was sharing this trip with the others, I was outnumbered and made the haul to Hobbiton so the others can indulge in their childhood fantasies while I found the time to kick back and catch up on blogging (which I have been doing a horrible job of keeping up. New Zealand is terrifically distracting). Although I wasn’t allowed access into the movie set gates, the scenery surrounding was stunning. Something straight out of a fairy tale. 

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Just a few hours later, the others returned to what they said was a super awesome tour. I was personally glad we got this part out of the way. Maybe if I saw the movies, I would be interested.

Let’s get to Waitomo!

Legendary Black Water Rafting in Waitomo

We spent a night in Hamilton and drove early to Waitomo the next morning, just in time for our tour at the Legendary Black Water Rafting Company. Our tour guide’s name is Tyler aka Teabag (there’s a story to it) and he and his assistant got us suited in wet gear, boots, helmets equipped with torches, and our roping equipment for the day of exploration. In our group was myself, Mike, Chelsey, Ryan, and a sibling duo hailing from Spain. Tyler was glad to have such a small, exploration-eager group. As was I.

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We vanned it about ten minutes uphill to a makeshift training course to prepare us for the abseiling portion of the Black Abyss. Here we learned how to properly attach and detach our hooks and the proper positioning to descend into the cave.

legendary black water rafting waitomo

legendary black water rafting waitomo

The last time I went abseiling was down Table Mountain, so it felt familiar to what I remembered. 

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One by one, each of us lowered our way down the 110 meter descent into the deepest, darkest cave I’ve been in since Semuc Champey. And just like my painful experience in South Africa, this one was just as bothersome. I touch-downed after the Spanish siblings and was instructed to turn off my head torch and wait with the others in total darkness. One by one, my amigos came down at different speeds but upon successful landings–110 meters underneath the Earths surface. Teabag thought it would be funny to pretend everyone fell down into the pits and to nab a photo of it.

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The cave was cool, humid, and had a smell of dirt and black mold. Everywhere our head torch shined, a glimmer appeared along the walls. Everything was damp and silent, minus the few water droplets we could hear in offbeat melodies. We followed Teabag through a few tight nooks and crannies to the zip-lining portion of the Abyss. Ziplining is one of the most boring activities in existence of mankind unless it’s jazzed up someway. This one was interesting because we couldn’t see no more than a couple of meters in front of us, so we hadn’t a clue were the line would take us. Mike was up first and as he sped through the empty void, a huge thud shot through the cave indicating a disruptive break. What was that? Turns out it was just ol’ Teabag messing around with us. He slammed his air-filled bag against the wall just as Mike made his stop. He’s a jokester, that guy.

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After we all lined down to the next portion of the Abyss, we saw that we were on a cliff that stood meters above the blackest water I have ever seen. It felt unnatural, almost sinister. I knew we would eventually be in the water via tubes but first, a quick snack and juice drink sitting upon sinister’s ledge. I’m still not entirely sure what I just ate. It was like a block of Weet-Bix soaked and dried in honey. Not sure.

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Now we jump. Everyone grabbed a tube and prepared for the seven meter leap into the black. We expected Teabag to lead by example, but no. 

“How deep is it?” we asked. 

“You’ll see,” he responded with a grin.

Mike, who has proven to be quite the daredevil, jumped in first with his tube under him. I jumped in next. “Shit its f%*#ing cold!” The wet suit I had on protected me from a rapid shift in temperature, but my hands were naked and were now icicles. I sat in my tube paddling towards the others who have made the leap and they too were in shivers. Granted it was the winter here in New Zealand, Teabag assured us that no matter the season, the internal temperatures of the caves water were always the same. So regardless of when we would challenge the Abyss, the water would always be just as frigid.

Each of us in our tubes followed Teabag down the undisturbed watercourse into the caves voids. It would have been a pitch-black flow if it weren’t for the zillions upon zillions of tiny glow worms scattered among the ceilings. It was the closest thing to a perfect starry night I’ve seen in a while. We got to a point where we could stand and wade the water the rest of the way. Teabag began to slam his tube with a vicious grip onto the surface of the water creating a shockwave that echoed throughout the cave. He indicated that glowworms react to sound and the echos would illuminate the ceiling. I’m honestly not sure if it worked or not because those little worms were already as lit as can be. All I could concentrate on was how cold it was. 

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We got back into our tubes and interlocked our legs onto one another, creating a snake in the water, granted I couldn’t see who was in front or behind me. Thankfully, I didn’t have to use my hands to paddle because Teabag tugged us along as he walked through the water and belted Ed Sheeran tunes to further illuminate the glowworms. He said since we were a small group and moving along in a swift pace, we had the option to take the usual easy, short way back out of the cave or the long, extreme way out. Every single one of us opted for the long, extreme way out, much to my happiness. 

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As we went further down the watercourse, the currents began to pick up, turning into a rushing stream filled with miniature rapids. Everything was still hidden under the gauze of the dark black but so we used our head torches to guide us through the torrents. We literally walked, ran, crawled, swam, and belly-flopped our way to a separate chamber where we began the drier part of the Abyss.

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Teabag let us know that we would have to climb up a few tunnels of mud, and a couple of waterfalls to exit the caves. In between those two waterfalls are long tunnels that lead to separate chambers including a resident bitey eel that inhabits one of the chamber’s pools.

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Legendary Black Water Rafting Waitomo

Along the way, stalagmites and stalactites dominated the first few chambers we came across before we crawled through the aforementioned tunnel of mud. It was kinda like that scene from The Shawshank Redemption where Andy Dufresne crawled through that pipe full of shit. 

The first waterfall was straightforward. Just shimmy up through the crevice as the water beat the heck out of you. Just don’t lose grip of the rocks or your fall is gonna hurt big time. At the top of the first waterfall, we waded through more water that led us to extremely narrow crevices to navigate through. My claustrophobia kicked in when I tried to squeeze through a hole…and so I backed right out of it and took the wider passage.

legendary black water rafting waitomo

legendary black water rafting waitomo

Teabag led us through tunnels and chambers galore before we hit the next waterfall which was a but more immense than the last. A tight grip and steady concentration was all it took to reach the top before we followed a wet trail that led us back to the outside world.

Legendary Black Water Rafting Waitomo

Everything about this cave was AMAZING!

This is the sole reason that led me to New Zealand and it did not disappoint. We got lucky with our guide Teabag because of his enthusiasm to show us as much as he could and then some. I highly, highly, highly, recommend the Black Abyss portion of the Legendary Black Water Rafting Company. And if you do make the greatest decision of your life, ask for Tyler. He really made the trip worth the value.

Legendary Black Water Rafting Waitomo

ATLAS UPDATED!

We still had the Glowworm package that we added on to our trip that would take place about an hour later. All of us regretted that decision because the experience we had with the glowworms was already great. How could it possibly get any better? We met up with about twenty other tourists (yay) at the start of another entrance to the cave where a tour guide met us. We entered a decked out chamber before we got on a small boat that our guide controlled via rope attached along the cave walls. We had to remain quiet as we gazed up at the ceiling to see the glowworms. It wasn’t as fascinating as the first, more in your face, experience. I think this picture sums up how we felt.

We wanted to leave.

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All of us agreed, save for that boat, the Black Abyss was one of the most satisfying excursions we have gone on so far. It exhausted us but still we were ready to move forward. We headed south in the North Island. Where exactly? 

We didn’t quite know.

Māoritanga: Keeping The Māori Culture Alive

There’s no visiting the geologically fascinating land of Rotorua without delving into the historically fascinating world of the Māori culture.

Maori new zealand

What is the Māori Tribe?

Going in blind, all I knew of the Māori culture was their intimidating war chant and the face paint (which I learned later are actual face carvings) the men and women would wear. That’s about it. We were eager to learn a bit more. Who are they? How did they come to be? Are they still prominent today? We were eager to know and there was no leaving Rotorua until we did so.

If I were on my own, living in New Zealand for a while, I would get to investigating through the locals I end up befriending. But since I was on my own, with three friends and limited on time, the best way to learn about the Māori culture is to go through one of their special tours. Now I’m usually not a fan of regular ol’ tours, generally speaking, so we made sure to find one that was the most “in your face” as possible. After speaking to a friendly local in a travel center, he suggested we try out Tamaki Māori Village.

The tour would begin hours later in the day with plenty of hours to spare beforehand. What shall we do before?

“Have you guys gone luging yet?” asked the friendly travel guide.

“Luging?” I mumbled perplexed. “What the heck is that?”

Welcome to RotoVegas!

All it took was a simple gesture of a brochure and a recommendation from a local friend of mine who suggested luging to me briefly prior, to decide that it was the thing to do. There is a hill nearby that hosts an attraction called Skyline Luge Rotorua in the heart of the weirdly named RotoVegas. Why is this place called RotoVegas? It doesn’t resemble the real Vegas even in the slightest, but whatever. I was just glad to luge down a hill—something I’ve never done before. Chelsey, Mike, Ryan, and I each bought a ticket for three downhill runs each. One for the beginner, intermediate, and advance course. A gondola and a ski lift was our ticket to the top of the hill.

 

Helmets waited for us at the top. They were color specific according to head size. I immediately went for the orange one, the biggest one for my watermelon noggin.

The courses were straightforward—linear paths down the mountain with a few light turns here, some banks there, and a couple sharp turns painted with yellow Slow Down warnings. Steering the kart was easy to learn too—push forward to accelerate, pull towards your body to brake, and steer by turning the handles.

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We first went down the beginner course, next the intermediate, and finally the advanced. With each course we gained confidence in our steering and thus our speed increased which meant more fun!

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We took the gondola back down and drove to the Tamaki Māori Village Center our gateway to the Māori.

Enter Tamaki Māori Village

The Tamaki Māori Village Evening Experience, that is what they call it. Compared to other Māori culture tours, this one is completely immersive from start to finish—which is exactly what we wanted. A charter bus whisked us away from the heart of Rotorua into the Tamaki Māori village, huddled in one of the regions many forests. A group of us entered the sacred grounds and greeted fiercely by warriors practicing their ancient ceremony of welcome before entering the main grounds.

maori rotorua

maori rotorua

After the welcoming ceremony, our big group was split into several smaller groups and directed to different parts of the village where we would learn different aspects of the culture. The first area was warrior training where all the men in the group learned a quick series of motions for intimidating the enemy. The poi dance area is the one Chelsey got involved in. Poi dance is the art of swinging spherical weights attached to a small rope in different patterns and circular motions. Of course, Chelsey was a natural.

maori rotorua

maori rotorua

Other areas of the village involved warrior training, games, weaving, and face/body markings (almost like a tattoo).

 

What stuck with me about the markings are that men usually get a permanent face marking called a Ta Mono, carved in a distinct pattern on the skin. The men practically cover their faces while the women mainly get them solely on their chin as not to cover their natural beauty. Captain James Cook, a British explorer who was the first to record a circumnavigation around New Zealand, described the markings as follows:

“The marks in general are spirals drawn with great nicety and even elegance. One side corresponds with the other. The marks on the body resemble foliage in old chased ornaments, convolutions of filigree work, but in these they have such a luxury of forms that of a hundred which at first appeared exactly the same, no two were formed alike on close examination.”

maori rotorua

The markings on the Māori people who hosted us put on a full display when they put on dazzling, yet fearsome performances involving song and dance for the crowd.

maori rotorua

maori rotorua

maori rotorua

The village ended with a giant feast of sorts. Actually, it is called a hangi buffet meal mixed with New Zealand desserts. Since we arrived a little later to the village, we missed the whole process of how our hangi meat has been cooked from beneath the ground. What mattered to me more was eating it rather than learning how it was prepared anyways.

Creating Awareness

The Māori are settlers from Polynesia who arrived by canoes between 1250 and 1300 CE. Today, most of the Māori people live in New Zealand with much lesser populations living in Australia, the U.K, United States, and Canada among others. A popular expression in New Zealand is “kia ora” , which is of a Māori language known as Te Reo, literally means “be well/healthy” or can also be translated as an informal “hello”. We’ve been saying “kia ora” all over the place in New Zealand, which indicates a certain respect for the Māori culture exists to this day. With advancements in human resource and technology, invading age-old systematic, the Māori culture has been in a state of decline involving matters of economy and social sustainability. However, strong recognition in the importance of the Māori culture and it’s relevance to New Zealand as a whole is of value and efforts have taken place to preserve their unique and mythological culture by creating awareness such as the Tamaki Māori tour, which I highly recommend!

maori rotorua

We ended the night with full bellies and an eagerness to explore more of the North Island. We could have stayed a few extra days in the sulphuric odorous region of Rotorua with plenty more to do, but other areas of interests peaked our curiosity. The area that peaked the apex of my curiosity in New Zealand takes place in Waitomo, an area to the west known for its many glowworm caves. Inside those caves is something that I have been hankering to do since 2011 that I’ve heard about from another traveler while in Peru.

Get ready, it’s legendary and it’s item number four on my A.T.L.A.S.

The Smelliest, Muddiest Day of Our Lives: Rotorua, New Zealand

“Alright, who farted?!”

Chelsey uttered suddenly as she covered her nose with the top of her sweater.

To be fair, it could have been any of us guys. We’ve been torturing her during our whole drive in New Zealand so far, but none of us made claim to this particular accusation. If any of us farted, we’d definitely admit it. However minutes later as we drove on, the smell still lingered and soon realized that none of us were the culprit. It was Rotorua in all her sulfuric glory.

Rotorua smells like freakin’ rotten eggs!

Seriously it reeks!

“How come no one warned us about this?” I gagged, mistakenly inhaling a big gulp of air in my mouth.

Even Chelsey, the group appointed New Zealand expert (she’s been happily reading her New Zealand Lonely Planet Guidebook for months), wasn’t aware. Ryan said that this was the worst smell he’s ever smelt in his young life. The smell grew worse once we checked into Four Canoes, our pseudo hostel/hotel hybrid. There were pockets in the vicinity that smelt like absolute death. The people who live here must have noses of steel.



What To Do In Rotorua?

Appropriately nicknamed Sulphur City and less appropriately RotoVegas, Rotorua is the epicenter of volcanic activity in the North Island. What attracted us here were two things: the Maori Culture (which we’ll get to later) and Champagne Lake. What is Champagne Lake? A boiling multi-colored lake hidden somewhere in the region with edges of orange, turquoise, and green fuming with toxic gases. We had to see it for ourselves, but where was it? We researched on google and found that Champagne Lake resides in a place called Wai-O-Tapu National Park.

We had the day all planned out. Wai-O-Tapu–> Kerosene Creek–> Mud Baths, with bits of stuff in between. Since we were booked solid, we departed early in the morning to Wai-O-Tapu–so early that we were the very first to arrive. We parked the car and stepped out into what felt like the set of the original Jurassic Park. I’ve never been in an environment quite like this. We could have swore we heard a Dilophosaurus and a few Velociraptors in the distance. FYI, a Dilophosaurus is that small dinosaur that sprung opened its frills and shot its poisonous gunk into that fat guy’s deserving face. Yup, we heard those. Even the trees felt prehistoric in front of the vaporous backdrop.

Were we at the right place? 

Wai-o-tapu

We walked around as awestruck as we were, to the parks entrance. We were definitely the first ones there which meant complete freedom to explore and take photos without anyone else to stand in our way. What we didn’t fully anticipate to see was how completely unique this park was compared to any other place we’ve been in the world. This place was the primary source of that rotten egg smell, from all the toxic pools and gaseous ponds releasing fumes into the air. None of it felt real.

Wai-o-tapu

Wai-o-tapu

Wai-o-tapu

To complete the entire circuit of the park would take about 75 minutes according to the guide map we received. The length of the trail is about 3km and highlights 25 different hot spots to see. The hot spots were all completely unique but the one that caught my eye first was hot spot number 25: Devil’s Bath, a giant bowl of boiling neon green liquid. The color is the result of excess water from the nearby Champagne Pool mixing with the ferrous salts and sulfur.

Wai-o-tapu, devil's bath

The Champagne Pool is what attracted us to Wai-O-Tapu in the first place and it too also captured my attention.

Wai-o-tapu

It was large and smokey, about 65m in diameter and 62m deep! You could feel the heat from the never-ending spouts of gas erupting from the center of the pool. The edge of the pool is lined with palettes of oranges, reds, yellows, silvers, and browns. The ledges are plates resulting from earthquake activity. There was a silly little rope that blocked park guests from getting too close to the pool. The blockade, if that’s what you want to call it, was so laughable that it was practically asking me to trespass and get as close to the pool as possible. And so I did. We all did.

Wai-o-tapu

No one else was around, except for a couple of tourists who happened to show up and caught us being bad. They were so impressed that they copied what we just did. No harm done though. We just wanted a few cool shots.

We split our time at the park in half. After Champagne Pool, we high tailed it Lady Knox, a nearby geyser that was set to erupt at 10:15am. How can they predict when a geyser will erupt on a daily basis? Turns out all you need is some environmentally friendly soap to break up the surface tension to cause a chemical reaction which results in a giant continuous spout of sudsy liquid! A few of us were sprinkled with speckles of the geysers fury, but thankfully it smelt like soap and not eggs.


We went back to the park to continue our walk through one of the most geologically fascinating places on Earth.

Wai-o-tapu

Hofstetter, one of our dive masters in Paihia, tipped us about a creek nearby we could swim in that produced hot water. It’s called Kerosene Creek and was super close to the park, so we made our way there.

We secured our valuables and walked a few minutes through a muddy forest to find other people in the creek that we were looking for. A small waterfall delivered the warm water we desired as we lolled in the creek for a bit.



We planned on hiking up Rainbow Mountain, but time had other plans for us. We were scheduled to go to Hell’s Gate, a geothermal reserve park, for a proper mud bathing. The place was just a bit north of Four Canoes and time only allotted us to bath in some mud for about 20 minutes.

It was hot to the touch at first. Sinking your feet in the mud Jacuzzi was the hottest part, but once your body settled into the gray ooze, you became one with the mud. Giant clumps were placed in boxes on the rim on the baths that we could use to smother ourselves. It’s said that the mud has age-defying properties ( I feel like every mud spa says that). We put it literally everywhere on our body except above our eyes as we were warned. We were also warned that the smell of the mud would take a couple days to wear off and not to put any mud in our ears. I put mud in my ears before I read that particular warning and suffered dirty consequences the next few days.

Once our 20 minutes were up, we rinsed off the mud and entered a boiling pool of sulphur to relax in. It was definitely soothing but extremely hot and pungent. I still had mud lodged in my nose and crammed deep in my ears, so I got the heck out of there and into the showers after about ten minutes of bathing in the sulphur.

The warning heeds correctly. I soaped and scrubbed my body to the max, yet I still reeked of foul mud. When I woke up the next day, all I could breathe was the smell of mud all over my face, hands, and now my pillow and blanket. Throw in the smell of Rotorua’s ruthless rotten egg stench, I was a stink. But there was nothing I could do about it. Not for the next couple of days since we decided to extend our stay in Rotorua based on how absolutely fun today was. Queenstown may be the adventure capital of the South Island but Rotorua is absolutely the adventure capital of the North, and yet we had so much more to see!

We were beginning to embrace the rotten egg stench of Rotorua that paralleled a world full of unique recreation.