Peel Forest & Rafting Take 2

Peel Forest would fall under “off the beaten track” and very on brand for Stray. It is a small community in the Canterbury Region of New Zealand close to Christchurch. It is located near the Peel Forest Park Scenic Reserve, the Rangitata River, and part of the Southern Alps. This entire area was used in a lot of the scenery for the Lord of the Rings movies. Flowing from the Alps to the Pacific Ocean the Rangitata River was the main highlight of this one-night stop for us. When we first arrived and checked in we had super sunny weather and headed to the lake. Some people were brave enough to go swimming in the glacial water. I was fine with being their photographer. Only Stray passengers were staying on property so we had the lodge essentially to ourselves. We had a group dinner that night (the last of the trip) and spent the evening playing cards. We were treated to a lazy, sleep in morning as Christchurch was the next stop and only a two-ish hour drive away.

Most of the group drove to Christchurch in the the afternoon, but six of us stayed behind. We were the adventurers and going to take on white water rafting on the Rangitata River! I almost didn’t sign up for this activity as I already had a rafting excursion earlier this trip in Rotorua. One of my friend’s had done this rafting trip a couple of days before I arrived in Peel Forest and the pictures looked amazing. I also had such a great time the first go that I figured I would love it again. And finally, a couple of the people I’ve gotten close with were also doing it so it would be fun rafting with some friends. All of those reasons lead me to try it and I’m so happy that I did.

This rafting was completely different from Rotorua’s. Mainly, the length of the tour, in time and distance, was much longer. The distance covered rafting on this trip was almost 10 times as long. The water was also icy blue and wider than the other rafts. It was also colder given that it comes from a glacier and all the layers we wore were needed (swimsuit, undershirt, thermal, wetsuit, wind breaker jacket, and booties). The other rafting experience leads up to a huge waterfall whereas this didn’t have a waterfall, but massive rapids (ranging from grade 2-5).

I sat upfront on the raft and I absolutely loved it. I was the only one in our boat that had rafted before so it was nice having an idea of what I was doing. Our guide was really knowledgeable and the entire team, and there were a lot of them, was so friendly and professional. After rafting we had the chance to shower and were greeted to a BBQ lunch to enjoy as a group. I really would recommend this excursion, especially if you are bored in Christchurch and want to go out for a day trip.

Accommodation – Rangitata Rafts Lodge

The lodge and the rafting is all in one place/company and they are the only operators out here. I think if you have a big group and you rent out the entire lodge that is the way to go, but if you are traveling solo or with just another person camping or just a day trip out here would suffice.

Stargazing in Tekapo

My mom laughed at me when I said it, but it was a true and accurate descriptions so I’ll say it again, “my day in Tekapo was lovely and the evening was maybe my favorite in New Zealand.” Tekapo was an optional stop on the Stray route and I wouldn’t have hopped off it it wasn’t recommended to me earlier in my travels. I’m so glad I changed my itinerary to include a night here.

The town itself is tiny and there isn’t too much to do here except for another majestic lake (good on ya NZ) and one small strip of restaurants/shops. I even heard the one and only bar burned down a few months back. When you arrive you see why it’s not a dedicated stop on Stray – there’s not enough for the masses to enjoy. The draw of the town is actually not the lake or anything you can do, but it’s actually at night.

Tekapo is part of the Mackenzie area of New Zealand. In 2012, the region was declared an International Dark Sky Reserve. There is very limited light pollution here and this area is the only Dark Sky Reserves in the Southern Hemisphere and one of only eight in the world. So what does this all mean? It means that the night sky here is out of this world (pun totally intended). I’ve never seen more stars and a clearer night, but I’ll get to all that in a moment.

I totally fudged up with coming here. My bus was booked, I was telling people about how excited I was, etc. and then the night before my arrival something tells me to check my hostel booking. Well lo and behold I never booked it! I couldn’t believe it and of course everything was now booked out. I didn’t let myself panic however and calmly searched for other options. I found one hotel that had limited space available and an Airbnb. In the end I went with the hotel in a treat yo’ self moment.

The day we arrived in Tekapo there was a few hour stop for the bus even if they were driving on to the next official stop. I had lunch with my first and longest Stray friend (we had essentially been traveling the entire time together with the exception on Christmas and New Years) at The Greedy Cow. Then we said our goodbyes and I was alone again (but don’t worry not lonely). I checked into my hotel, repacked, chilled out, and so on. Sticking with the treat yo’ self theme I went out the a lovely dinner at Blue Lake Eatery & Bar. After dinner, I watched the sunset and headed back to the hotel. I still had some time to kill…

I was booked into a midnight stargazing tour. This seems super late, but the sun sets at 9:20pm here and for the sky to really darken this was an optimal time. The guided tour was at Tekapo Springs. They arranged transportation to and from the Springs. Upon arrival we had a choice of hot chocolate or green tea as it gets a bit chilly at night and then the tour started. We had great guides, the entire tour was very interesting, and the group was small, around seven people plus the guides. There were lots of opportunities to ask questions and ask for clarifications.

Floating the night away

I had taken an astronomy class at UCF my freshman year and I had forgotten how interested I was with it. This may have sparked a new hobby for me. I’m really not sure how long the actual tour was, but it was meant to be an hour (I have a feeling we went a little longer than that). We were so captivated by what we were learning it seemed to fly by. After the official tour it was hot pools time. We had the hot pools to ourselves and floated around watching for shooting stars and the moon coming up. We finally wrapped up and headed back at 3am. It was late, but so worth it.

I had a 10am checkout and then a couple of ours before the bus pick up. I went for a walk and lunch at Altitude 720 Cafe. Another top thing to do, but I didn’t have the chance to, is to walk up Mount John. This was a perfect overnight stop. I would come back here again in the winter to see the difference in the sky at that time of year. On our way out of town we stopped at the Church of the Good Shepherd for a photo stop. It’s a tiny church with the views of Lake Tekapo and the Southern Alps as the backdrop. If you wanted to get married here it’s about a 6 year waitlist and holds maybe 25 people max.

Accommodation Recommendation

I didn’t get to stay at the YHA as I had originally planned to, but when I go back in the future I really want to check it out. It’s a brand new facility and I was told it may be the best hostel in New Zealand. If you are looking for a hotel I really did like where I stayed, Peppers Blue Water Resort, but it has a lofty price tag.

**Banner photo creds goes to a fellow traveler with an non-iPhone and an awesome long exposure function.

Queenstown Reigns Supreme

Wow, Queenstown was incredible. It’s not necessarily a place or city I would live in, but if I lived in New Zealand this would be my go to vacation spot. This is a hot spot destination to most people visiting NZ.

Actually, side note I haven’t seen a single bachelor or bachelorette party since coming to New Zealand (and actually I don’t think I saw any whilst in Australia either). Are they just not a thing on this side of the hemisphere? If this Queenstown was in the U.S. I think it would overtake Miami/Vegas/Nashville for popularity of bach parties. There was just so much to do here.

Queenstown is known as the adventure capital. It started as the birthplace of modern bungy (NZ spelling) jumping in the late 80s and now has spread to any activity you can think of to get your blood and adrenaline pumping. Of course there are bungys – including the OG bungy site from the 80s and a higher 134 meter one into a canyon (my personal pick); skydiving; jet boating; paragliding, sailing, and hang-gliding; gondola rides; a luge down the mountain; hikes; relaxing cruises; and so so much more. That was just scratching the surface. I think you could just go to Queenstown as a single stop if you were really limited on time for your holiday. 

So besides having a blast activity wise the scenery is gorgeous in Queenstown. The main center of town is positioned on a majestic lake. During the day there are a lot of water activities (although the lake was chilly) and at night you’ll find crowds on the lakefront hanging around drinking, maybe eating Fergburger, and watching the sunset to live music. I’m here during the middle of summer so the sun was setting around 9:30pm nightly so it was a great way to kick off the night.

Be aware of the weather because it’s pretty deceitful. During the middle of the day it was warm and sunny and as soon as the sun starts going down the winds start and it becomes extremely cold. Dress accordingly if you go out and especially if you go and watch the sunsets.

I realized I loved how Queenstown felt because of the low buildings and open sky. You can tell it has an après ski/ski village vibes and I think that was exactly what put Queenstown on the map. You pretty much come here or Wanaka (or both) to ski in the winter. I really cannot wait to go back here.  

The food scene was top notch. The nightlife was constant. I haven’t met more Americans in one spot then I did in Queenstown – they were everywhere. I also stayed in three different hostels whilst here. I thought four nights would be enough time (the longest I stayed at any Stray stop in NZ) and it really wasn’t. I could have easily stayed at least a week, but maybe my wallet is thinking otherwise. Look out for more posts about bungy, the food, and my hostels view on Queenstown. 

This has moved up on my list as #1 place I want to come back to in New Zealand. Ski season, anyone? 

When in Wanaka

I think I’m becoming a lake person or at the very least I can fully appreciate the beauty of lakes after this trip. Lake Wanaka is one of the largest of the Southern Lakes (third largest to be exact). It is 45km (~28 miles) long and home of the highly photographed “lonely tree.” Lake Wanaka has major summer holiday vibes and was filled with tourists and Kiwis alike, but it is also a hot spot during winter for ski season. There were some activities we could pay to do, but nothing that was really grabbing my attention. So I made the decision to just enjoy the town and chill out a bit. We were meant to do a night cruise on the evening we arrived, but there was some miscommunication and it was cancelled.

As a result however, my new Canadian friend and I discovered we were kindred spirits and that we both enjoyed the finer things in life. We treated ourselves to a delicious dinner at Kai Whakapai and as we were walking back to our respective accommodations we stumbled upon a wine tasting. SO of course we made a pitstop. Then we called it a night and made plans to meet for brunch in the AM at Alchemy. Surprisingly for this day and age, it was difficult to find a boozy brunch, but we found a restaurant that serves alcohol in the morning. So we made our own mimosas. Even with our early start somehow the morning flew by and we almost missed the bus! It wouldn’t have been the worst thing in the world because we weren’t ready to leave Wanaka yet.

Wanaka is officially on the running list of places to come back to in New Zealand. 

Accommodation – YHA Purple Cow           

Stray guarantees rooms in certain hostels in the overnight stops. I’m guessing they have contracts with these places and honestly they have overall been good choices thus far. However, were the Stray allocated accommodation choices the best option in the cities we went to? Not always and they never included YHA’s.

The recommendation for Wanaka was definitely not the best. Not only was the rating super low on HostelWorld, but I was specifically told not to stay here. Thankfully, the town isn’t big so a different hostel was still in a reasonable walking distance from the pickup/drop off area. I was told to stay at the YHA by a fellow Stray passenger I had met on the drive from Welly to Auckland. As always I was impressed by the YHA’s top standard. The staff was extremely friendly, there was a large lounge and kitchen area, and the room was clean and spacious. They even had a veggie garden! I was in a four-person dorm with an ensuite bathroom. Based on what I also heard from the other passengers who stayed at different hostels I stand by what was recommended to me and agree that staying at the YHA is the move in Wanaka. 

Franz Josef – Seeing Glaciers

Just when I thought New Zealand couldn’t get cooler I was proven wrong. We went from sailing in the sun to mountains and glaciers in one day’s drive. The township of Franz Josef is in the middle of the rainforest, but it also features a massive glacier. It’s is the weirdest oxymoron. Each year the glacier is “retreating” further, i.e. getting smaller, and they placed plaques throughout the walk so you are able to see how significant of a change has taken place. I’m not sure how anyone can say that climate change isn’t a thing while seeing first hand the drastic change that has occurred in just a few years.

The only way to actually access the glacier is with via helicopter. They had scenic rides available to get a bird’s eye view of the area or you could actually access the glacier and do a heli-hike or heli-climb. I was scheduled to do a heli-hike the morning after we arrived. Unfortunately, the clouds that day were not in our favor and they cancelled all flights for safety reasons. We were told this happens 70% of the time and so I guess the odds were not in our favor. We persisted in trying and went to another company and even a neighboring glacier, Fox Glacier, to do the hike there, but no luck. Although, we were disappointed I was extremely impressed by how careful the companies were – it really wasn’t about the money to them. Not being able to go on to the actually glacier was a bummer, but that day consisted of two hikes/walks and seeing the two glaciers – Franz Josef and Fox. It’s not every day you can say you saw two glaciers. 

So I’m adding Franz Josef to my list of places to revisit. 

Accommodation – Rainforest Retreat 

Possibly one of my favorite accommodation stops to date.  There were great vibes from the second we walked onto the property. We were greeted warmly. We had the option to choosing your own roommates. The first night they had a great pizza party deal – I didn’t partake, but everyone that did enjoyed it. Our second night another Stray bus was coming in, as well as a Contiki tour, so it was going to be a party night. We treated ourselves to dinner at Moonson and then had a couple of drinks to pity ourselves for the heli-hike cancelations that day. It was a great night and the best part was just walking back to our rooms. 

The Rainforest Retreat also had a hot tub and sauna to use. It was a nice getaway spot that I would recommend. They had private little cabins, hotel rooms, and of course the backpacker geared dorm rooms. 

Kia Ora South Island

The South Island of New Zealand is probably what you imagine when you think of NZ. If you have a short amount of time (under two weeks) to travel this is probably where you will go. It has some beaches, although not as breathtaking as the North’s; mountains, major cities, and everything in between. The rolling green hills and volcanic views of the North Island are exchanged for mountains and alpine landscapes on the South Island. 

We took the ferry over from Wellington to Picton. It was about a three-hour scenic ride across the Cook Strait. The ferry reminded me of the one from Ireland to England – even featuring a movie theater. I was reunited with some of my travel buddies at the ferry and met the new group. 

After a couple of pitstops, our final destination for the night was Marahau. On the way there we stopped in Picton and Nelson. Nelson is a beautiful costal town known for its sunshine and chill vibes. If I did the route again I would have stopped by for a night in Nelson. This area is part of the Marlborough vineyard region so naturally we stopped for a wine tasting. For $5 we tried 4-5 wines and then if we bought any there was a $5 discount – so as our driver stated, “it was like making money.” My favorite wine at the tasting was surprisingly for me a Sauvignon Blanc. 

After the wine tasting we continued on to Marahau. This is a remote little town on the edge of Abel Tasman National Park. Marahau was so remote that there was no cell phone reception and really poor Wi-Fi. For the first night’s dinner we cooked as a group and with the lack of cell service everyone was hanging out, playing card games, sitting by the fire, etc. It was a lovely evening and a great way to kick off the South Island adventure. 

The next morning we split off into our activities. There was the option to kayak, canyoning, skydiving, or sailing. I was so close to going canyoning and after hearing everyone’s experience it’s on my list for when I get back to New Zealand. I spent my day sailing through the park on a catamaran and then hiking back. We were told we lucked out on the weather and that the day before was unbearably windy. The crystal clear water and views throughout the cruise were stunning. We even saw some wild seals in their natural habitat. The majority of the passengers on the catamaran were fellow Stray travelers so again it was a fun time getting to know each other. After the cruise our group had lunch on the beach and just hung out for a bit before embarking on the hike back. It was honestly the perfect day. Marahau and/or the surrounding town of would definitely be somewhere I could have spent more time in as well (I’m sensing a pattern here). If we are keeping a running list of where I would stay longer on the South Island so far it includes Nelson and Marahau.

Accommodation – The Barn

We were in a remote area, but the accommodation was really nice. There were a block of cabins with six single beds (no bunks yay), a great kitchen/dining area, outdoor space, and even a movie room. Obviously, the best part was that the property really was steps away from the Abel Tasman and this was as close as you could stay. I highly recommend this stop and would gladly stay here again. 

I randomly bumped into two people I had separated with right before Christmas, which was a pleasant surprise. They had hopped off here because they fell in love with the area and I totally see why.

I was scammed?!

**Well actually a bus full of people were “scammed.” Let me explain, but it is two-sided – one more personal and the other totally unjust. So what exactly is this relating to? This is about the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, which is a 13 mile trek through Tongariro National Park, New Zealand’s oldest national park and a dual World Heritage Site. The crossing includes crossing over Mount Tongariro and also has views of two other mountains, Ngauruhoe (NZ’s youngest and most active volcano) and Ruapehu. If you’re a Lord of the Ring’s fan you may know it as Mount Doom.

Let’s start with my personal woes to get it out of the way. For weeks I had heard how amazing the crossing was and how it was a top thing to do while in NZ: a “must do.” And well my friends that was just completely false. I think it is only a must if you like extreme hiking or if you want to really push yourself. Yes, the views are pretty cool, but honestly I have seen better. It isn’t something that is going to be a top thing I’ve done/seen in my life or even on this trip. And so if you are a normal traveler not looking to push your body to it’s limit I think this is something you can skip. Honestly, apart for the first hour every second of the experience was miserable and I consider myself to be fairly fit/active. It was windy and freezing and I wanted it to be over. So the fact that it was sold to us as something we couldn’t miss was the first injustice I felt. I can’t understand how something so extreme as this could have been pushed onto us so hard. Only two people from the bus opted out and the Stray drivers were basically trying to convince them to change their minds up until 15 minutes before. It just left a bad taste.

Okay now time for the actual “scam.” I think at this point it is well known I am traveling with a hop on/off bus company, Stray. They have an app where you book your travel, follow along the route, book accommodation and activities. The crossing activity on the app was listed at $69 NZ and you know we did question the cost with our driver. We were told that park fees were increased 400% or something wild this year so that was why it was so high. We all took it at face value mostly because we trusted our driver and also because we wanted to do the hike. I’ll review the actual hike at the end, but again I didn’t enjoy it and wanted it to end, especially after the summit. As a result I finished the crossing family quickly, in under 5.5 hours and I was one of the first 5 in our group to finish. Now is where it gets interesting…

We finish the walk and have to shuttle back to Adrift’s base. On the drive back we are asked if we wanted to be dropped off at a bar. Are you insane?! I almost just died (okay being very dramatic), but seriously I can think of a lot of things I want before a drink – shower, bed, food, bathroom, etc. The five of us decline and are dropped off at Adrift where we drop off our rented gear (I had rented gloves for $5 – which someone also made the point that the rentals should have been included with what we were paying). Okay cool so when is our ride coming to drive us to our accommodation? Well it wasn’t easy to get an answer, but when we finally had it clarified it was that it wasn’t coming until 5:15/5:30pm (3 hours waiting around) and that we had to wait for the entire group to finish so they only do one trip. This was just so messed up on so many levels, but the main two being:

#1. We are traveling with a bus company. Why couldn’t our normal driver come to pick us up? I even gave him the benefit of the doubt thinking that maybe today was one of his days off after he dropped us off. Nope it wasn’t so he pretty much wasn’t working after 9am that day, but getting paid for the day. I don’t see why he couldn’t have made at least one trip back.

#2. We all paid $69 and multiplied by 20 that is $1,380. There are no fees to actually hike the crossing and therefore the fees Adrift has to pay are to be a commercial operator at the park – meaning they are listed on the website and can send guides with groups. We didn’t have guides we just had shuttles. So we paid money for transportation when we are traveling with a bus company….logic. And the icing on that is that we are paying for transportation, but they won’t take us when we are ready to go. We had to wait 3 hours outside (oh yes I forgot to mention that after we dropped off our gear they closed down and we were left outside) after hiking in brutal conditions for over 5 hours.

For the amount we were paying compared to the distance Adrift should have at least made two trips back to our accommodation. It was bull, but I have since let it go it is just a solid reminder to be diligent while traveling even when you trust a company like I did with Stray. Honestly, look up different options if you are looking to do the crossing – maybe rent a car with some mates to split the cost and do it on your own time. There are other options don’t feel like what is offered is the only one.

Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Now to the actual crossing… We were given the green light for the next morning at 7pm the night before. The conditions hadn’t been great earlier in the week and safety of the crossing is very weather dependent. When we heard it was on we were all stoked. It was our last night at Blue Duck Station and ended up being very chilled. I think most of the group retired to bed around 9pm. I’ve never been one to go to bed early and as a result inadvertently I stayed up until around midnight. Total error on my part because we were leaving at 5:45am.

It was too early to eat a proper meal, but we knew what was ahead of us so we all tried to fuel up. When we were finally on our way our driver was speeding down the winding roads. I’m really not exaggerating a couple of people were getting car sick, but he kept saying we didn’t have a choice because we were running late. After arriving, checking in, gear check, and briefed we had 45 minutes to wait for the shuttle so there actually wasn’t a need to drive wild.

I just mentioned our gear had to be checked. To do the walk you need to have a minimum three layers, a rain jacket, 2 liters of water, and proper shoes for “all conditions.” I was so concerned about the cold that I totally overdid it on layers. I brought/wore my shirt, lulu sports zip jacket, a big sweater, a lighter sweater, a scarf, and the rain jacket. Then I had 3.5 liters of water. I wore the big, black sweater maybe for the first hour or so, but even though it’s windy and freezing the layers are heavy and you are sweating from the physical exertion. So I was wearing my shirt, lulu jacket, and rain jacket for the majority of the hike the other layers and excess water was just more weight on my back. I am really glad I rented the gloves otherwise my hands would have been totally wrecked. What I really needed was a headband or hat to cover my ears.

The first part of the hike was tough. That was what pushed you physically. The weather was against you and the uphill sections were straight uphill. Even though it was hard I didn’t mind it because it felt like you were working towards something. At 2.5 hours I summited and it was spectacular. We were walking on volcanic debris sans path. At the top is where I should have turned around and went back the way I came. The second part of the crossing was all mentally grueling. At that point you just wanted it to be over and there wasn’t a light at the end of the tunnel. It just kept going and going. Every time you thought you were close to the end you just had to keep walking more and more. And at the very end the signage became so scarce I kept thinking I could possibly be lost. Ugh it was a nightmare, but I did it and I survived and truth be told I would recommend the crossing to others just not to everyone.

Snowy Waters Lodge

For the night we were staying in Raetihi at Snowy Waters Lodge. I’m not sure for how long they have been opened, but it did seem like all the pieces weren’t there. The hospitality was great, but it was a little rundown. The heaters weren’t working in any of the rooms which wasn’t ideal after a crazy, cold hike. All in all it was an okay place to stay, but not a favorite. I think because we were all done with the crossing at 5pm we all would have rathered to keep driving to get a little closer to Wellington. Another bitter discovery was that to get to Tongariro National Park and back to Snowy Waters (so two ways) is advertised at $40 – where we paid $69 for the one-way.

**In full disclosure this situation happened two weeks ago and I’ve honestly gotten over it at this point. I almost didn’t want to post about it at all, but thought it was important to be transparent about the ups and downs of my travels. Also, when we were stranded for the 3 hours waiting for our transport we did look into options like taxi, uber, bus, other shuttle companies, etc. we just were limited because of not booking in advance/not much around.

Off the Grid at Blue Duck Station

Another Stray exclusive stop was Blue Duck Station. It is described as an “outdoor enthusiast’s playground.” It is a private farm with zero cell service so we were literally off the grid for two nights with an abundance of nature around us. Blue Duck’s mission is to “conserve its endangered wildlife, increase the health of native bush and rivers, and preserve the history of the area, while educating visitors about the endangered New Zealand blue duck, other native species, and local history.” Everything they do from the farming to education supports their mission. It is a family run business and the owner came by our campfire the first night to chat.

Our first night we had the option of having a farm to table meal in the main cafe. Goat curry was on the menu. Afterwards, we all hung out by the campfire for hours and eventually moved inside when it started drizzling a bit and spent the rest of the evening playing card games, ping pong, etc. .

We were not lucky with the weather, and our full day at the Station was rainy from early in the morning through mid-afternoon. This prevented some activities like the jet boating to take place, but it was nice to have some down time. In the afternoon the rain stopped just in time for my group to go horse trekking. I was so disappointed in my experience at Rainbow Beach I had told myself I wouldn’t go commercial horse riding again. I was seriously contemplating for a long time whether or not if I should go at Blue Duck. I finally decided to give it a go thinking that since it was a farm it would be a better experience.

I’m so happy I went! The horses were beautiful and the majority of the horses on the farm are rescues. They are also very healthy, happy, and well taken care of. They roam and live outside freely, except for the occasional rides, and even then never working more than 3-4 days a week. After all the rain the conditions were muddy and it was a totally different kind of terrain than I’ve ridden in years. There were also only five of us riding and the guide, it was a great size for the group.

After the ride, I went for a walk on the property to see a waterfall. Upon returning we heard that the Tongariro Alpine Crossing was on for the next day and we would be leaving at 5:45am. It was an early, chill night.

Accommodations

We were sleeping in adorable cabins with two bunks in each (sleeping up to four people). The cabins were built within the last year so they were in great condition. I’ve been getting really lucky with my sleeping arrangements and have been on the bottom bunk…score! Hope this doesn’t jinx it. The bathrooms were in the main campsite building, but it was only a minute walk. There was also a huge kitchen, game room with ping pong table, dining area, and a library/reading room.

Getting Cultured at Lake Aniwhenua

Stray Travel is known to take you “off the beaten track” and it is totally accurate. Lake Aniwhenua was going to be a true cultural experience. I love those kinds of activities so I couldn’t wait for it. We met our Maori guides early in the afternoon and were guided through their tribal lands along a couple of stops. We saw 1,000 year old cravings and the largest man-planted forest, and a beautiful waterfall before driving through a local town and arriving on the property we would be staying on.

The cutest resident of the Lodge –
She fell asleep eating!

Wow the property was gorgeous. There were cute cabins situated all around with a breathtaking lake and mountain views. The best part of the experience was the warm hospitality and love we felt from everyone there. We feasted on a traditional hangi dinner. This is a method of cooking that was used by Maori tribes for special occasions. They essentially create a natural pressure oven underground.

We all played an old school “training” type of lawn game and were treated with fried bread (yep exactly what it sounds like) after a winner was crowned. Then there were optional activities including bracelet weaving and learning traditional hakas. This was of course to pass the 2.5 hours it would take for the food to fully cook underground.

We ate our hangi in traditional
woven baskets

When it was dinnertime we were all more than ready to eat! The food was absolutely fantastic and totally worth the wait. Most, if not all, of us went up for seconds, but there was still plenty to box up and it would be delivered within the community the next day.

We spent the evening learning more about Maori culture and history. When we were retiring to bed we were treated by an insanely beautiful, starry sky.

Part of this experience is going to the Maori school the next day to deliver the food and meet the local kids. We were unable to go into the school because they were already on holiday break.

This was such a special, beautiful experience that really just makes you appreciate what you have and opens your perspective further. You don’t have to be a Stray passenger to visit so if you are looking for an authentic, cultural experience in the North Island this is worth checking out.

Kohutapu Lodge

This isn’t a popular tourist destination and not a rich town so there aren’t any accommodation choices, but the Kohutapu Lodge and everyone there is really lovely and it’s worth the stop. The cabins seemed very well maintained and I thought they were absolutely perfect. Ours had two bunk beds and a lofted double bed area. There were communal lounge, kitchen, and dining areas on the property as well as a shower/toilet facilities all in really close proximity to all the cabins. I really wasn’t ready to leave when we had to head out the next day.

My First Rafting Experience

I think I’ve tried almost all water activities except white water rafting. I’ve always been interested in going, but for some reason I just hadn’t gone. Being in New Zealand, the “adventure capital of the world,” I figured it would be the perfect place to start.

The rafting trip was through Kaitiaki Adventures. We traveled down the Kaituna River through 14 rapids and down three waterfalls. This trip was classified as Grade 5 rafting. One of the waterfalls, Tutee Falls, is classified as the highest commercially rafted waterfall in the world at 7 meters tall. It was pretty sick first time rafting conditions.

We really lucked out on the group in the raft as it was randomly assigned, but it ended up being five early to mid-twenty year old women and our hilarious guide, Cauzo. When we weren’t going down the rapids we had nice chats and the time flew by.

Rafting in general was SO fun! We all survived the big waterfall and didn’t fall out of the raft. I was volunteered by our guide to sit off the front of the raft on one of the falls which was such a cool feeling. The entire experience was fun and made so memorable by Kaitiaki. I highly recommend this experience if you are in the area – my favorite activity to date.