As an independent traveller who had her opinions about tours, Stephanie McCann recently experienced New Zealand with tour company Topdeck. Not only did the trip open up her eyes to this type of experience, but it was the perfect playground for a photographer like herself to capture some amazing shots and experience some breathtaking scenery:
I have just returned from my first escorted tour and was lucky enough to join Topdeck in a tour of the North Island in New Zealand! With a group of 33 we filled our coach and hit the road with our amazing tour leader Danni and fearless bus driver Luke. I’m so glad I was able to experience the North Island with Topdeck; their newly revised itinerary had some amazing highlights and exclusives that made the trip unique and unforgettable. Here are some of the highlights:
Coromandel is a newly added stop on Topdeck’s New Zealand Route, and is a lovely town where the locals themselves getaway. Known for its lush rain forests and long golden beaches, Coromandel is a melting pot of natural beauty.
We had the opportunity to go out on a retired mussel barge and explore the bay and the mussel farms The views as the sun set were stunning; the gulls swooping in to feast on fresh mussels and red snapper. We enjoyed a fabulous dinner at the Pepper Tree in Coromandel Town, (you have to eat here if you’re ever in town, the lamb was delicious).
A five minute drive from our accommodation is the Driving Creek Railway. This is New Zealand’s only narrow gauge mountain railway.
This scenic track zig-zags its way up the mountain, through the forest, traveling through tunnels and across bridges, arriving at the aptly named Eyefull Tower at the summit; offering stunning panoramic views of the gulf. Throughout the journey you can spot pottery works nestled into the woods created by owner, Barry Brickell. The whole ride takes about an hour start to finish.
On our way out of town we made a stop at the Hot Water Beach, a geo thermally active beach
This beautiful expanse of sea and sand breathes relaxation. In one section of the beach a handful of people gather with their shovels and dig holes that release the geo thermally heated water to the surface, perfect for resting tired muscles. To cool off take a quick jump in the refreshing ocean and you could hop back and forth all day.
We spent our second night in Rotorua on a traditional Maori Marae on Lake Rotoiti. A Marae is a communal or sacred place which serves religious and social purposes. This slice of culture was so real and I have never experienced anything like it. I felt honoured to be a part of it. The Marae was a living, breathing, working Marae, so we were ceremoniously welcomed on to the land.
After Danni briefs us on the welcoming process and teaches us a children’s Maori song in record time, the women lead the group in a slow precession through the gate toward the meeting house. We stop at the entrance and allow the spirits we carry with us to remain outside, we will be protected by the spirits of the Marae.
We remove our shoes and walk into the Marae, filling the benches back to front so the men are now in front of the women. We are greeted by the people of the Marae, they sing their song and we sing ours in response. We’ve been accepted! Each of us preforms the hongi with the people of the Marae. This is a traditional Maori greeting where two people touch foreheads and noses sharing knowledge and breath of life. After the ceremony, the welcoming is all finalized by eating in the dining hall as a family. We are no longer visitors; we are part of the land, and we will always be welcome at this Marae.
We slept on mats on the floor of the meeting house, protected by the spirits. Traditional carvings of the gods and ancestors surround us, and beautiful Maori patterns cover the walls and ceiling. This place is so peaceful and even though I shared the room with 32 other people, I think it was the best sleep of the trip.
Tongariro National Park
Tongariro National Park is New Zealand’s oldest National Park and it is recognized by UNESCO as a cultural and natural world heritage site. The park is most famously known for Mt. Ngauruhoe (the more common name is Mount Doom from Lord of the Rings).
The highlight of my trip was the Tongariro Alpine Crossing hike. 17km up an active volcano 1900m above sea level? Yeah I can do that… Tongariro had been cursed with rain and snow the few weeks prior to our arrival making the Alpine Crossing extremely dangerous to hike, however we lucked out when we woke up the morning of the hike to clear skies as far as you can see.
I pack a lunch, lots of snacks and as much water as my roommate and I can carry. The Skotel Alpine Resort was gracious enough to loan us gloves, hats, coats, slush pants and really whatever else we needed in case the weather turned bad. We wolfed down lunch, and head out to our shuttle. Of the 33 people on the tour, only one third of us brave the looming hike.
We arrive at the Mangatepopo Car Park where we will embark on our journey, there is an info hut and 2 toilets, there will only be 2 more sets of toilets on the whole 17km hike, the terrain is vast and there is no cover, (tip: use them!)
The hike begins at a very steady gradient, the landscape is barren, the shrubs and grasses are short and brown, It’s no wonder this was chosen as Mordor; it has a slightly eerie feel to it. Mt Ngauruhoe looms to our right, as we’re entering winter in New Zealand, so the top of the Volcano is adorned with a touch of snow. The path we’re on follows a small creek, and we reach Soda Springs (about a third of the hike) with relative ease.
Ahead I can see our path winding along the slope of Tongariro. The impending hike worries me, but the serene beauty captivates me. Our shuttle driver told us we’d know when we reached the half way mark because we’ll be huffing and puffing as we’ll have just completed the Devils staircase. From afar, the stairs look manageable, but they really do earn their name. The stairs were endless, and when you thought you’d completed them a two minute walk uphill revealed more and more and more. We stopped many times to catch our breaths and regained what little energy we had left. Our leader, Danni, urged us on like sheep. We continued to enjoy clear skies, but in the distance we could see an ominous patch of fog and clouds, so we quickened our pace to beat whatever may come with the clouds. We reach the South Crater where you can choose to summit Tongariro or Ngauruhoe, but we were all content with the mapped hike.
The South Crater was a welcome break to the staircase that we had just completed, it was about two kilometers of flat surface, offering incredible views of Mount Doom. We caught our last glimpses of the volcano as it was swallowed by fog.
The crater’s edge turns upward and we face the final ascent to the Red Crater. The volcano’s red gravel is loose and mixed with ice; it slips under our feet as we pass. The fog engulfs us, the clouds bring a bitter cold and a wind that gusts so quickly it feels as though I might blow away.
In minutes the weather changes again and although its still cool the clouds clear and we’re at the peak, the Red Crater. The view is awe inspiring, the rock that forms the crater is so red its unreal, snow caresses the groves and the peaks.
A little further and we are standing above the Emerald Lakes, the water rich in minerals takes on an unearthly turquoise colour. The view in all directions is the most breathtaking scenery I’ve ever laid eyes on. All the effort it took to get up here was worth it, I would do it over and over to be part of the landscape again. This is half way, we sit by the lakes and have our lunches, and then we begin out descent.
On the way down I can see the hut in the distance, bits of the path wind back and forth in front of it, it looks deceivingly close. As we descend the plants get a little taller, a little thicker. We reach the Ketetahi hut and welcome a place to rest our feet, only about six kilometers remain. A few kilometers from the end it begins to rain just as we enter the shelter of the rainforest. We’re surrounded by tall ferns and the air feels so refreshing to breathe, I didn’t realize the affect the altitude had until I’d come down.
Although I’d just endured the most amazing terrain and witnessed the most stunning landscapes, I was overwhelmed with joy when I saw the car park peek through the trees with our little shuttle waiting.
This trip opened my eyes to escorted touring, I had considered myself an independent traveller, and I had my opinions on tours, but after this experience I realize how incredibly worthwhile it is. I’m already planning my next tour with Topdeck!
Want more information on New Zealand or the Topdeck experience? Stephanie McCann is an International Travel Consultant at our Mic Mac Mall location in Darmouth, Nova Scota and can be reached by E-mail or calling 1-877-461-4212