How to Travel New Zealand on the Kiwi Experience

Which pass should I buy?

I would highly recommend getting a bus pass with the Sheepdog as your core itinerary (any pink pass).

The main reason why is because it starts in Auckland and ends in Christchurch and none of the passes include the $55 NZD inter-island ferry. Most travelers that I met that were traveling on other passes typically flew from either Queenstown or Christchurch back to Auckland to save money (flights were as cheap as $45 NZD) and time. The bus that goes back to Auckland is an “express” route that takes four days, stopping in Nelson, Wellington, and Taupo. Rather than spending money on an extra ferry ticket and four days of accommodation, plan on ending your trip in Christchurch and it’s a win-win.

When to buy?

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The earlier you start planning your trip, the better. Never buy your bus pass for the full retail price. The Kiwi Experience website is constantly having some sort of sale (usually 50% off or better). If you have a specific bus pass in mind, just check the website once a week, and it will most likely be featured sooner or later. Also, you can get a good deal on bus passes from travel agencies such as Peterpans if you’re already in Australia or New Zealand.

What should I do?

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Auckland [2-3 nights recommended]

This is where most passengers start their Kiwi Experience passes and where you will most likely be flying into New Zealand. Auckland is also the hub for the Bay of Islands trip. I would highly recommend starting in Auckland because it is the easiest place to meet other travelers, as everybody is new and they are trying to make new friends too. Auckland is the largest city in New Zealand, so give yourself some time to explore the city before you leave if you don’t have plans to return. Don’t forget to do your research, because the Kiwi buses do not leave out of Auckland every single day (even fewer days in winter) and book your bus departure date as soon as you know when you’ll be in town.

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Hot Water Beach [1 night on minimum time]

I opted out of the overpriced kayak trip to Cathedral Cove and stuck with the free activities instead. A friend that went on the kayak trip said it was spectacular and worth the money. If you’re on a tighter budget, the free activities in Hot Water Beach are a great alternative to save money. You must go to the beach during low tide to dig a hole in the geothermal hot spots and enjoy your own personal spa. The water is absolutely scalding in some places so be careful. After soaking at the beach for an hour or two, go on the Cathedral Cove walk and go through the cave to the other side to explore the beach for yourself.

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Waitomo [1 night on minimum time]

The big activities in this area are centered around the glowworm caves. Since it was winter, the underground river was not very appealing to me. Instead, I went on the general walking tour that ended with a short boat ride to see the glowworms. If you’re “just looking to tick off the boxes” the tour was the cheapest option to see the glowworms firsthand but probably wasn’t as amazing as the Black Abyss and Black Labyrinth tours.

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Rotorua [2 nights recommended] or [1 night on minimum time]

This is the first stop where I would actually spend a few extra days if you had them. By now, if you haven’t met a solid group of friends on the bus, just hop off and try the next one. If the decision comes down between staying an extra night in Rotorua or sticking with a group of friends on minimum time, I’d stick with the group because you will only become closer with every stop.

Any true Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit fans have to go to Hobbiton. The other top rated activity is the Tamaki Maori Village overnight stay. The price is steep at $179 NZD but it is such an immersive experience and probably one of the most fun times I had on the north island. It is possible to do Hobbiton and the Tamaki village in the same day, which makes for a pretty epic day. The overnight stay included afternoon tea/coffee with a legendary fried biscuit and a traditional hangi dinner. The dinner wasn’t all that it was hyped up to be, but I was still stuffed from the biscuits. The best part of the village is the hours after nightfall. Our host shared stories of the ancestors and there are three hot tubs to soak in by the bar.

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Taupo [2 nights on minimum time]

This was the first stop that I opted to stay at a hostel outside of the Kiwi Experience. The Haka Lodge is a solid chain of hostels throughout New Zealand. The bunk beds are built sturdy into the wall so they do not shake while you move around. More importantly, they all offer free wifi that is reliable because it’s not slowed down and stretched between a hundred backpackers. Good, reliable wifi is a Godsend in New Zealand.

As far as activities go, the Tongariro Crossing is supposed to be the best day hike in the world. Unfortunately, the weather was not on our side during our time in Taupo and the hike was cancelled for three days. My friends that went on the hike a few days later said it was beautiful but very physically challenging. The hike is expensive in the winter, takes about 8-9 hours and covers a variety of terrain including ice. Taupo is also one of the best two stops to go skydiving. If you are only choosing one, I’ve heard that the Fox Skydive in Franz Josef is a better dive site but the videos in Taupo are better.

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River Valley [1 night on minimum time]

Awesome accommodation at the River Valley Lodge. The roast dinner is absolutely worth the $16 NZD. It is one of the best meals I had in New Zealand and probably the first serving of vegetables I had in a week. There’s no wifi or phone signal in River Valley so the night is spent in the lodge. Start early during happy hour and stay warm by the fireplace. Stick around for the famous River Valley table challenge for your chance to win free drinks. Summertime would be a great time to go rafting at this stop.

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Wellington [2 nights recommended] or [1 night on minimum time]

This is another stop that I would recommend extra time if you have it. The Kiwi Experience arrives in Wellington at night and leaves early the next morning to catch the inter-island ferry. Wellington is the capital city of New Zealand and has a museum that is meant to be amazing. The ferry to the south island is about three hours long. The boat is big and very clean. It reminded me of a small cruise ship to be honest. The ferry sells food and drinks onboard so you don’t have to worry about bringing your own snacks. The sea can be rough, so prepare for motion sickness accordingly. If you want to sleep, there are recliners in the front of the boat on the lower level by the cafe. You can also pay for premium lounge access or a cabin room if you want to splurge, but I don’t think it’s necessary.

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Abel Tasman/Kaiteriteri [1 night on minimum time]

The Kiwi accommodation is supposed to be good at this stop, but we stayed at the Adventure Inn at the national park. The hostel is owned by an ex-Kiwi Experience driver, Greg, and was an awesome place to stay. He is currently in the middle of building up his bunks so we stayed inside the house for the night. It was so cozy with the wood-burning fireplace and gigantic TV in the living room. Out back, there is an awesome cinema that has a huge list of movies to choose from. Greg has a bunch of pillows and bean bags to lounge on while you watch a movie and if you ask him really nicely, he’ll even bake some massive chocolate chip cookies that are to die for. Do yourself a favor and stay at the Adventure Inn, and be sure to tell him who sent you!

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Westport [1 night on minimum time]

Not very memorable but there were some good picturesque stops along the way. Bazil’s is the accommodation for the night. I opted for a single room this time, which was a good change from dorm bunks. In the summer time, you can go surfing but we spent the night at a local pub to catch the rugby game instead.

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Lake Mahinapua [1 night on minimum time]

Another small accommodation in the middle of nowhere. The Lake Mahinapua Hotel is walking distance from the lake and the beach. The thing to do at this stop is the legendary Mahinapua Pub party. Every party has a different theme, and they all end pretty much the same. With drunken fools.

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Franz Josef [2 nights on minimum time]

Another legendary stop with good accommodation with the Kiwi bus. Weather-permitting, the heli-hike is one of the best things I’ve done on my entire trip. All your equipment, warm jacket, pants, boots, crampons, hat and mittens are all provided by the Franz Josef Guides company. They even have extra layers if you need them. The helicopter ride is unforgettable and the glacier was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me. Definitely budget ahead of time if you’re interested and you will not be disappointed. If you’re on a budget, some friends went on a free hike and saw waterfalls and the Franz Josef Glacier from afar, and they loved it. Franz is also home to an epic skydive over Fox Glacier with not one but two mountains in the background.

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Wanaka [1 night on minimum time]

A beautiful little town on the lakefront with picturesque mountains in the background, Wanaka is a neat little stop on the way to the infamous Queenstown. I stayed at the YHA Purple Cow, which was very clean and low-key. For a good price, I landed a 3-bed dorm with ensuite and was very happy with my night’s accommodation.

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Queenstown [5-7 nights recommended] or [2-3 nights on minimum time]

The adventure capital of the world, there’s no shortage of adrenaline-filled activities in Queenstown. Give yourself as much time in Queenstown as you’d like. If you have extra days in New Zealand, spend them in Queenstown. The town is also on a lakefront with the beautiful Remarkables mountain range in the background. There’s bungy jumps from various heights and platforms, canyon swings, ziplines, jet boating, as well as free walks available. Challenge yourself on the steep trails up Queenstown Hill and you will be rewarded with 360 degrees of epic views.

Queenstown is the hub for the Milford Explorer day trip. Take a day trip to one of the ski/snowboarding peaks around the area. You can take the gondola up the cliffside for a beautiful view overlooking the city and luge down to the bottom or jump off the ledge if you’re feeling brave. You definitely have to try a Fergburger (or four!) and decide for yourself which is better, Ferg or Devil Burger? Queenstown is such a beautiful town, even if you spend the day doing nothing, it’s a great place to recharge.

Accommodation in Queenstown through Kiwi is at Nomads. It’s a good place to spend a few nights with your friends but I left to go to the Haka Lodge. The Haka Lodge in Queenstown does not disappoint. The last two nights, I booked myself into the YHA in central Queenstown, which was also better than Nomads.

For a more in-depth guide to Queenstown, check out my friend, Helen, at thefreshstarttraveller!

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Lake Tekapo [1 night on minimum time]

In the middle of a Dark Sky Reserve, this is an ideal spot to stargaze or see the Southern Lights if you’re lucky. The lakes in the area are a beautiful turquoise due to the high deposits of glacial rock dust. I went to the Tekapo Springs hot pools, which is a series of three outdoor hot pools and also includes a dry and wet sauna. Tekapo Springs is a perfect way to unwind from the past few weeks of backpacking and you will leave feeling completely relaxed.

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Christchurch [1-2 nights recommended]

I would just plan to spend one night in town before your flight back to Auckland or out of New Zealand or an extra night if you plan to go to Kaikora. The city is still recovering from the 2011 earthquake so there’s not much to do here. You can walk around Cathedral Square and explore a few shops at Restart Mall with plenty of time left. I stayed at the Rendezvous Hotel, which is good and affordable.

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Photo from Whale Watch Kaikora, check out whalewatch.co.nz

Kaikora [Not included]

Kaikora is not included in any of the Kiwi Experience bus passes, but it’s meant to be the best place in the world to see sperm whales. Skip the Kiwi Experience option for a day trip transportation and catch an intercity bus from Christchurch instead or hire a car with a group of friends. Buses to Kaikora are currently limited, so be sure to plan accordingly as you may have to book overnight accommodation and take a bus back to Christchurch in the morning. Aside from whale-watching tours, you can also book a tour to swim with dolphins in the wild.

Day 88 – Christchurch, New Zealand

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Last day in Christchurch. Last day in New Zealand. It feels like I’ve been here forever, yet at the same time it feels like I just got here. I woke up at a decent hour this morning but stayed in the room a bit longer to video chat with my family back home. It’s so nice to have some reliable wifi and to have spare time to do whatever you want. When I finally left the hotel, I was pleased to see the sun poking through the clouds and the first blue sky in three days.

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Since it was almost noon, I decided to have lunch at a souvlaki place that one of the local students told me about from the other night. It was actually a little food cart located inside the Container Mall, which is a shopping area built out of recycled shipping containers. Cool concept! Oh man, I am so glad I did because it was one of the best things I’ve had on this entire trip. The pita bread was fresh and perfectly toasted on the grill, wrapped around lettuce, tomato, tzatziki and homemade tomato sauce with big chunks of spiced chicken. It was so good, I went back for seconds before they closed!

After lunch, I needed to make the most of my last day in Christchurch so I walked to The Transitional Cathedral, which is a temporary cathedral built from cardboard and other recycled materials following the 2011 earthquake. This building is a perfect representation of the city’s resilience after the disaster nearly demolished their beautiful cathedral. Part of the original cathedral still stands in Cathedral Square, but there is much debate about whether to rebuild or tear down the remaining structure.

Next, I made the long walk down to the Botanical Gardens and walked around for a bit until I started to get too cold. Personally, I love botanical gardens because they are filled with so many different types of plants, they’re so peaceful and quiet, and most importantly they are usually free! Any veteran backpacker knows that green on a map is gold because green usually means FREE, and every big city has some sort of park or garden for those cheap days when you’re trying to pinch your pennies.

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Souvlaki so good, I had it twice!

I spent the last of my cash on a smoothie and picked up some souvenirs (before I got my second souvlaki) and spent the rest of the afternoon watching Sense 8 in my hotel room. Time flies! Before I knew it, I had watched five episodes of the series, and now I’m addicted. Tomorrow I have a morning flight to Singapore for a few days before my next stop in the Philippines!

Last remarks. I am truly so grateful for everything that New Zealand has had to offer. I have met some of the best people and travel friends that I know I will have for life. The Kiwi Experience has been a gem in my trip and is a huge reason why New Zealand has quickly become one of my favorite countries, if not my favorite. I will definitely be back! The people that I have met in the last four weeks have made this trip everything I dreamed it would be! The sceneries around New Zealand are some of the most beautiful places I have ever seen in my entire life. I am honored to have been invited to learn more about the Maori culture, to have witnessed my first haka firsthand, as well as to have learned so much about New Zealand and the UK through other travelers. Travel has truly opened my eyes to see that the world is a much bigger place than just our backyards and we all could learn a thing or two from someone else.

Day 87 – Christchurch, New Zealand

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Last night was one of the best night’s sleep I’ve had in a long time. It was so nice to have big, warm, comfy bed to myself and a dark, quiet hotel room. I didn’t have to set an alarm to catch a bus or for an activity for once. I decided to walk a mile down the street to the South City Mall for a grocery store stop, had some shitty Chinese food for lunch, and bought season 3 of The Big Bang Theory for my sanity.

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The weather is still gloomy and cold, but I think I would still prefer this winter over the hot and humid summer back home. As the end of New Zealand is quickly drawing near, I need to get some travel errands done before my flight to Singapore. I feel like I’ve got this whole traveling thing down to a formula. Laundry, packing, download Google Maps (so important!), snacks and rehydration. The purpose of my time in Christchurch was pretty much to unwind, reorganize, and prepare for the last leg of my trip back to Southeast Asia.

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As a city, there’s not much to do here. I’d probably only recommend one night in Christchurch for other travelers, but it has a neat sense of hope and redemption throughout the city. In the process of rebuilding, there are hints of modern art and lots of botanic accents amongst the rubble, which is a really beautiful thing to see. I think the idea of recreating a city from scratch is one that doesn’t come very often. If done properly, they could really turn the city into a great place in a couple more years.

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Everywhere you look in Christchurch there is hope. It’s a hard thing to describe but if you came here and saw it firsthand, you would definitely see it in the town and the construction and in the people.

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Day 86 – Christchurch, New Zealand

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It’s snowing! We left Lake Tekapo in the morning and as I gathered my belongings to put inside the bus, I was pleasantly greeted with my first snowfall of the trip. Even though I’ve seen snow a handful of times in my life, there’s nothing like the soft falling of snowflakes that will immediately make you feel like a kid again. I had a permanent smile pressed on my face as I scrambled around the lodge taking pictures.

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After we rolled out of the Lakefront Lodge in Lake Tekapo, we made a quick stop at The Church of the Good Shepherd, which is the most photographed church in New Zealand. Yesterday, the church was so filled with buses of tourists around and inside the church that it was impossible to get an unspoiled picture, however, this morning we had the church all to ourselves except for a handful of others that quickly snapped their photos and moved aside.

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The next stop of the day was in Cromwell for some groceries and a quick lunch. Cromwell is known for their fruit and more importantly is a prime region for growing grapes for the famous NZ pinot noir. Another stop in the small town of Geraldine to buy some cheese! We ran through the last stop and made it to Christchurch around 2pm. Gina dropped us off outside of the YMCA and I walked to the Rendezvous Hotel (no more hostels!) with another passenger from the bus.

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When you get two beds to yourself, your backpack takes up the extra

I was extremely happy to check-in to the hotel, as I have been staying in hostels pretty consistently for the past two months. It’s so nice to have an entire room to myself and to be able to spread my backpack all over the bed without considering others’ space. I spent the day walking around the town, found a smoothie shop, and met some local students and we had a happy little conversation for a bit.

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Wine and cheese night with my leftover ham and salami sandwiches

First Impressions. Christchurch is still a city of rubble. In 2011, the city suffered from an earthquake that is still evident today. The city is currently in the rebuilding phase, but as you walk around you can still see half-standing buildings and lots of empty lots that were once occupied.

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Cathedral Square

Day 85 – Lake Tekapo, New Zealand

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Lake Tekapo is a beautiful glacier blue color d/t the high deposits of glacial rock dust

Aren’t you surprised to not see “Queenstown” up there again? That’s right. I have finally left the beautiful town of Queenstown and have continued onto the last leg of my New Zealand trip. I got picked up outside of my hostel promptly at 0830 by my new bus driver, Gina, and drove through the small fruit haven of Cromwell before finally arriving at our destination in Lake Tekapo.

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Since the weather was really gloomy today, our bus driver put on a movie for our drive. I might add that Gina is also a Lord of the Rings fan, and as we soon found out, we started watching The Fellowship of the Ring. Even though I had my own LOTR marathon at the hostel last night, I still had to watch it. I mean, when in New Zealand, right? It was cool watching the movie on the bus because you could literally look out the window on either side of you and the scenery outside mimicked the background in the movie perfectly. It felt like a real 3D movie.

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Classic Kiwi moment, sheep on the road. #sheepxing

Okay, nerd rant over. We arrived in Lake Tekapo fairly early because the weather was rainy and cloudy and not the ideal for the original “picnic lunch at the lake” plan. After checking-in to the Lakefront Lodge, I chilled at the hostel for a tiny bit then got changed into my swimmers to go to the hot pools!

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Tekapo Springs has a series of three outdoor hot pools, which are essentially large, oversized hot tubs very similar to the glacier pools in Franz Josef but the key difference is that Tekapo Springs overlooks the Two Thumb mountain range. Unfortunately, we were still stuck with the not-so-good weather but that did not stop three of us, plus our driver, Gina, from enjoying ourselves. Even though the rain was cold and the air was chilling, the water was perfectly warm and relaxing. It was the perfect way to end three weeks of backpacking and endless “free walks” from the Kiwi trip. After two hours of soaking (and dry sauna!), we finally left the hot pools and headed back to the hostel. I chugged a third of my water and cooked some pesto with fresh pasta for dinner.

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Lakefront Lodge in Lake Tekapo

Lake Tekapo is within a Dark Sky Reserve, which means it is an ideal spot for stargazing and a chance to see the Southern Lights if you’re lucky. But sadly, the sky has been filled with gray clouds since we left Queenstown, and I don’t think we’ll be seeing any dancing lights tonight. Oh well, all more reason to plan another trip to New Zealand (or Alaska or Iceland!)

Day 84 – Queenstown, New Zealand

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Last night I went to Below Zero Ice Bar with the Stray friends from the hike Queenstown Hill. If you’ve never seen or been to an Ice Bar before, it’s basically a bar that is built completely with sculpted ice. Upon entrance, you are given a parka and gloves before you walk into the large icebox. The bar had lots of ice sculptures, including a castle, an obligatory swan and a kiwi bird. They even had an ice hockey table out and the drinks come in ice mugs.

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This view never gets old. Love you, Queenstown.

It’s officially my last full day in Queenstown. I’m the last of my original Kiwi Experience bus from Auckland. I spent the day taking one last look at the beautiful town, did some last minute shopping and spent the rest of the time watching a LOTR marathon (as one does in New Zealand). Even though I still have four more nights left in New Zealand, I feel like my time in this country is quickly coming to an end.

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Day 83 – Queenstown, New Zealand

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View from the top of Queenstown Hill

I’m tired. Exhausted really. But the good kind of tired. I had a little bit of a sleep in this morning before checking-out of my hostel. I made a short walk down the street to drop off my bags at the YHA since the Haka Lodge didn’t have any availability past tonight.

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After leaving my bags behind, I walked around the corner to Nomads to meet up with Helen and Elise for the last time. They left for the airport this morning, which marks the last of my Auckland squad to leave Queenstown.

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Luckily, Amy is still in town for one more day so she invited me to climb Queenstown Hill with a group of her friends from the Stray bus. I was the only one from the Kiwi bus but everybody was very friendly from the start, which made the long hike uphill more enjoyable. I’ve realized that even when you’re solo traveling, you’re never really alone. I’ve said it time and time again, but you actually do meet a ton of people that are doing the exact same thing as you. You immediately have something in common and it has gotten easier to break the ice. I feel like this trip has really forced me to come out of my shell and talk to people, which is exactly what I wanted.

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Reppin’ my @vagabrothers gear at the top of Queenstown Hill

The hike itself was probably one of the most tiring walks that I have done. It started with a steep walk uphill just outside the main square. We were all huffing and puffing before we had even reached the beginning of the trail. The hike was almost completely steep uphill climbs but the views were amazing. I had to stop several times to catch my breath and chug some water, but when we finally reached the top, the feeling of achievement washed over me.

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Once at the top, we took loads of pictures, marveled at the Remarkables and took in the views. The walk back down wasn’t so bad and we all had one thing on our minds… Fergburger. I decided to pass on another burger and opted for my first chicken, bacon and mushroom pie from Fergbaker and fries with aioli.

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That’s all for now. I’ve got some plans to go out tonight but I think I will leave that for tomorrow’s blog while I’m still buzzing from today’s hike.

Day 82 – Queenstown, New Zealand

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Today was a bit of a recovery day after yesterday’s activities. This morning I took a little walk around Queenstown and got lost in the little side streets that I had not seen before.

I wandered for a bit before deciding on a smoked salmon bagel sandwich from a place called Balls & Bangels. The little shop also sells assorted stuffed donuts that looked delicious but I was still stuffed from last night’s s’mores shake from the infamous Cookie Bar.

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A burger a day #burgerchallenge

I spent the rest of the afternoon finishing the last season of Reign on Netflix before meeting up with Helen, Elise and Nathan at Fergburger (for the third time). Tomorrow will be another gloomy morning because the last of my Kiwi Experience friends will be leaving. It’s been a fun run but it’s definitely not a goodbye, just another see you later. Disclaimer: I do not have a tattoo.

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Make Mates. Moments. Memories. #kiwiexperience

Day 81 – Queenstown, New Zealand

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Winter in June. I’ve been looking forward to snowboarding since I started my trip back in April, mostly because I wanted to be able to say that I went snowboarding in June! How cool! Anyways, I knew Queenstown was going to be the perfect place for it. While everyone else was busy jumping off of stuff, I decided to have a try on the slopes.

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I should preface by saying that the last time I boarded was about fifteen years ago in Lake Tahoe, and that was also the first time. I thought I would opt out of the lessons and give it a go on my own. Apparently I forgot how terrifying snowboarding was because I was so focused on how I was going to jump off the ski lift.

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Amy and I both booked a day trip to Cardrona and we shuffled our way up the beginner slope for our first go. On my first run down the hill, I started to pick up speed before crashing down at the bottom. Even Amy exclaimed, “Wow, you were going really fast.” My immediate response was, “That’s because I forgot how to stop.” The thing with snowboarding is that you have to lean back onto your heels to slow down your momentum, which 9 times out of 10 usually results in me falling on my butt … literally.

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I spent the rest of the day going over skills that I had watched on Youtube the night before and started to get comfortable on the board again. It is definitely way harder and more terrifying than I remembered. At the end of the day, I didn’t quite conquer the mountain BUT I did have fun and that’s the most important thing, right?

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Day 80 – Queenstown, New Zealand

This morning was the day that we have all been dreading. Today was the day that we had to say goodbye to our beloved kiwi bus. While we have lost a few good friends along the way, we all agreed that we were so lucky to have found each other and share our experiences with such a great group of friends.

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Originally, I had planned some extra days in my New Zealand trip to hop off the bus and explore places like Rotorua and Wellington more in depth, but after I made such good friends on the bus, I didn’t want to leave them right away. Most of us met in Auckland only two weeks ago, but it feels like we have known each other for much longer. Even the girls that we picked up on our way to Lake Mahinapua, it feels like they have been traveling with us since the beginning.

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We all shared the same fears before we started our journey on the Kiwi Experience. The company has a reputation as being catered to 18-year-olds and people that want to constantly party. Our bus ranged from ages 18-35+ but I think we all had the same priorities when it came to traveling New Zealand so it worked out perfectly.

After we said goodbye to Melanie, Sarah, and our bus driver, Jared, we walked Alice to her bus stop on her way to the airport. I checked-out of Nomads and left my bags at my next hostel, the beloved Haka Lodge. Luckily, I still have a few days left in Queenstown with a handful of passengers from our original bus before I have to say goodbye again.

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Domino, black bean and cheese arepa from Caribe

The rest of my day was spent dawdling a bit. I booked my snowboarding trip for tomorrow and got fitted for my gear and equipment. I walked around and explored the last day of Winterfest by the lakefront and had an arepa and churros for lunch/dinner. Tomorrow should be a fun day on the slopes, but I am anticipating a lot of falling on my ass.