Susan's MoaTrek Travel Diary
Susan Mills is from Adelaide in South Australia and was a recent guest on our Kiwi 12 Day Tour. This was her second visit to New Zealand, her first was in 1976.
She left her husband and grown up kids back in Australia and flew over to New Zealand for a couple of weeks to experience her first small group tour here.
She kept a wonderful diary of all the places, people and experiences which made up her trip, which she has kindly agreed to share with us. We hope you enjoy Susan's account of her trip as much as we did.
Day 1 - Auckland - Karangahake Gorge - Bay of Plenty - Rotorua
The story of the day has to simply be that we are all here. We are couples, friends & solo travellers, all of us strangers yet ready to participate on the trip of a lifetime!
Through breathtaking scenery we made our way to the Karangahake Gorge, our first stop and it is absolutely absolutely stunning. The hour long Window Walk wasn’t too challenging even though there was drizzle around.
After lunch we visited a working Kiwifruit orchard and travelled in a kiwi fruit train, much to the delight of us all. We learnt about the processes involved to bring these fruit to an international market, fascinating.
Gavin, our host, did a great job explaining it all in easy terms and was happy to answer the many questions that were asked. We have a number of current & former teachers with us on tour & they are very inquisitive about all facets of New Zealand. None of us had heard of Gold kiwi fruit & were all pleasantly surprised at its sweet taste.
Sailing on Lake Rotoiti to remote hot springs
The weather had been getting darker as the day wore on & as we departed the orchard for our planned sailing trip on the catamaran at Lake Rotoiti we were all very sceptical as to whether we would be able to sail.
We boarded with the rain falling but were offered the warmest welcome complete with hot tea & coffee & plenty of blankets to snuggle under.
Many of us were unsure about putting our bathers on in the chilly weather only committing to the act as we pulled up to the seclusive thermal pools. I speak for everyone when I say I am so glad I decided to embrace this once in a lifetime experience.
The pools were so warm & refreshing, if a little smelly, & even though some chose to stay clothed everyone still enjoyed the experience together as a group.
Those of us that are completely mad then chose to go down the slide plunging ourselves into the freezing waters of the lake! One of us, who must be the craziest (that would be me), even did it twice!!!
This is travel nirvana, challenging yourself to step outside your comfort zone & embrace that which would seem unimaginable to the person you are at home.
This stunning lake is truly breathtaking & the laughter of the afternoon continued over bubbles on the catamaran as we cruised back along the bush clad shoreline learning more about this geothermal area.
Rotorua was a welcome sight after a fun filled day & we look forward to what tomorrow has in store for us.
Day 2 - Exploring Rotorua
Philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote “To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom”. Thanks to MoaTrek, today I stared my biggest fear in the face & became a high flying philosopher myself!
As part of our full day tour stop in Rotorua some of us chose the optional activity of the Rotorua Canopy Tours, with two of us being particularly terrified of heights.
A personal challenge at Rotorua Canopy tours
It was incredibly difficult to commit to this challenge however we felt determined to get the best out of this once in a lifetime opportunity.
In the lush rainforest we hiked up to the platforms & took the biggest leap of faith imaginable & flew across the most gorgeous green canopy for a bird’s eye view of Mother Nature’s spectacular glory.
It would’ve been so easy on a rainy day to stay indoors & I will be forever grateful that I took this chance, stared down the screaming voices in my head & stepped outside of my comfort zone into world unknown.
It was a lesson in self-belief as well as a lesson in trust that without the encouragement & support of our new tour mates & the awesome zipline guides we could never have achieved.
Māori Culture & History at Te Wairoa Buried Village
After an adrenaline filled morning our tour group attended a lunch at the Buried Village of Te Wairoa.
The Maori culture was so resonate both in the warmth of our welcome & the real community feel we experienced coming together to share a meal & take the opportunity to learn more about our fellow travellers.
Life stories were told & there was plenty of laughter as this diverse group of people, from far flung corners of the globe, bonded in the most ancient way; the breaking of bread & the respect of listening.
Today I conquered my fear, tomorrow my possibilities are endless.
Day 3 - Rotorua - Wai-o-Tapu - Tongariro National Park
Today we travelled through the North Island's geothermal area from Rotorua, around Lake Taupo and onto Tongariro National Park.
It is a day like today the expertise of our guide Paul is truly appreciated. To have the landscape interpreted so well allows you to experience it on a much deeper level.
As we travel the entire group is often laughing as Paul's quick wit comes to the fore yet his knowledge of everything, from the birds in the trees & the New Zealand forestry industry to the geothermal power plants, knows no bounds.
We have all found this accessibility to be one of the biggest highlights so far of this small group tour. No matter where we sit on our coach, we all have the ability to easily ask Paul our questions & be educated about this very special country.
Wai-o-Tapu Geothermal Wonderland
Equally our guide at Wai-o-Tapu Thermal Reserve, a place George Bernard Shaw called the closest thing to Hell that exists on Earth, gave us a fascinating tour of this natural volcanic area. The odorous sulphur smell was a necessary evil to endure in order to see this unique landscape.
Lunch was enjoyed at Taupo then, as we departed for our final destination, our small coach proved valuable once again as we were able to make a slight detour to the shore of Lake Taupo to hunt for the pumice stone washing up on the waves. From there it was upwards to Tongariro National Park for our overnight chateau stay.
Day 4 - Tongariro National Park - Wellington
Wellington is calling us today, so we made the 322km (200 miles) drive south from Tongariro National Park to New Zealand’s capital.
Once again, our guide Paul had the most amazing surprise for us as we journeyed south. Located just outside the town of Ohakune is “The Big Carrot”. As an Australian I am used to “big” things however my traveling companions were beyond delighted to discover this 7.5m vegetable.
Ohakune is known for its high production of carrots & built this roadside tribute in 1984 with the adjacent park being built in 2016. Who knew vegetables could be so much fun & despite the rain outside there was a rush to get off the coach to take in this quirky play area.
The discovery did not end there though as my fellow travellers marvelled at the self-cleaning public toilets in the park. The fact that these cubicles not only talk to you but play music as you make use of them had them laughing with delight all the way to lunch!
Upon our afternoon arrival into Wellington we went straight to Mt Victoria Lookout to take in the panoramic views of Wellington, its harbour & beyond. The city, nestled so snugly between the water & the mountains, is beautiful & we are all looking forward to a free day tomorrow to take in all it has to offer.
Day 5 - Exploring Wellington
Day 5 is a scheduled free day to allow us all to choose what we may wish to experience whilst we are here in Wellington. Our MoaTrek itinerary has done a wonderful job with the insights into the North Island however we are all relishing our free choice day.
We have found ourselves running into each other as we seem to be taking in the same sights just in different order of visit & it’s very nice to stop & chat to compare notes.
Te Papa National Museum
I started my day with a walk along the harbour to Te Papa, Museum of New Zealand. The rain has settled in to stay so it was no problem to spend several hours walking the 4 main floors of the museum learning about the interesting history on a more in-depth level.
The stunning Gallipoli: The Scale of War exhibition on Level 2 was extraordinary.
ANZAC stands for the Australian & New Zealand Army Corps & the soldiers’ exploits during World War One in faraway Europe is a source of great pride to both nations.
With the help of the creative artistry of the WETA Workshop the battlefield story of 8 New Zealanders is told with the realistic 2.4 times human life models. The horror of this war to end all wars is writ large in these figures with their stories of bravery, loss & above all else courage thoughtfully told with adjacent story boards.
It truly is one of the most moving exhibits I have seen.
Lest We Forget.
It has been dark & stormy all day so its back to the wonderful Bolton Hotel for an afternoon siesta & some prayers for clearer weather.
Like all other accommodation provided by MoaTrek, The Bolton is superbly located & luxury at its best. Named after one of the ships that bought the European settlers, it even has a washer/dryer combination in its kitchenette which any traveller will tell you is like winning the lottery!
It is an early start tomorrow as we travel on the Interislander ferry & sail to the South Island.
Day 6 - Wellington - Marlborough - Nelson
It was an early start to our day as we made sail on the Interislander ferry to New Zealand’s South Island. After the inclement day yesterday, it was of great relief to us all to have a clear, smooth 3-hour sail to the port of Picton.
The inlet scenery is spectacular as you glide past dramatic peaks rising out from beautiful blue waters & as an added bonus, we finally have some blue sky to enjoy.
Marlborough Winery Lunch
Our lunch spot today is Forrest Wines a mere 30 minutes from the ferry, where upon arrival we were greeted by Bridget & her team.
We enjoyed a light lunch & tasting sitting under the vines feeling the warmth of the Marlborough sun upon us. A couple of us don’t partake in alcohol so there was some sharing of glasses going on.
Unfortunately for one member of our tour group most of the sharing was done in their direction. There is now a new nickname being bandied about the bus as, they who shall remain nameless, is christened with the moniker “the bus lush”!
In reality though the tastings are just that, a small sample of several of their award-winning wines paired with delicious local produce.
Bridget provided an informative conversation about their own range of wines as well as an understanding of this rich wine region. Whilst some went to the cellar door for more tastings, others enjoyed a wander in the beautiful gardens of the estate.
From there it was 100km (60 miles) to our next stop, the lovely town of Nelson.
Sandy, an experienced traveller from Chicago, & Paul had a bit of a competition to see whose predicted GPS arrival time would be more accurate. My money was on Paul & his excellent driving skills however, there was a delay due to a small landslide which meant they were both wrong.
As for me, its just as well I am here learning so much because as I exclaimed about the large beast sat upon a hill, I declared it to be a “bull cow”!!
Nelson is very picturesque & with our riverside accommodation MoaTrek are once again treating us to the best rooms in town.
We have all decided that we will meet in the bar tonight to enjoy the Australia v England Rugby World Cup game. The Americans have claimed their allegiance is up for grabs & they will accept bribes.
It's these friendships and shared experiences that make travelling in a small group like this so rewarding.
Day 7 - Abel Tasman National Park
It was a weary but happy group of explorers who arrived back in Nelson this evening having spent a long but enjoyable day out in nature at the stunning Abel Tasman.
Cruising the Abel Tasman costline
This morning we made the hour-long journey west along the coast to beachside Kaiteriteri. There we were met by Mark, who is to be our guide as we discover the Abel Tasman National Park.
Firstly, we embarked upon the Sea Shuttle for a 90-minute cruise to Arawoa Bay. The stunning coastline with its golden sandy beaches bordering the translucent turquoise sea & set against the dramatic natural forests of the park is utterly breathtaking.
There is onboard commentary highlighting the features of the landscape as well as the history of the park. We even had a fun explanation for the sand-flies of the area. According to our commentator the Maori created the sand-flies from their warriors & the purpose of them attacking is so no one would decide to live there therefore protecting the land they so dearly love!
Guided day walk in Abel Tasman
There is a choice to stay on the vessel to complete the cruise back to Kaiteriteri or disembark to spend a few hours enjoying a guided 5 km (3 miles) hike with most of us choosing the latter.
The hike across the saddle of the land to Tonga Quarry was briefly steep in parts but well worth the effort for the dramatic views of this pristine example of Mother Nature in her most glorious pose.
We were each provided with a packed lunch this morning & enjoyed a stop at one of the beaches paddling our feet whilst enjoying our meal.
Our guide for the day Mark is obviously very knowledgeable about the park however, like the rest of the group, he was not familiar with our Australian native Drop Bears. There was plenty of bird life to marvel at though.
We are dropped off & collected directly on to the beach thanks to a genius bridge that lifts up from the front of the boat. This was designed by the owner/builder of the vessel & the way it allows for this access makes such a difference to how we were able to experience this day.
We will all sleep like babies tonight, exhausted but fulfilled with our day in the sun.
Day 8 - Nelson - Kaikoura
Bobby, from Long Island USA, said a wonderful thing on our bus today: “They say laughter adds years to your life, going by how much we are laughing this week we’re all going to live to be 100!!”
It really has been such a joy to share this MoaTrek tour with such a wonderful group of people.
The stunning Kaikoura coast & sealife
Today though we are all feeling the weary effects of our exploration day yesterday so it’s a welcome relief to be relaxing on the bus heading south to the coastal town of Kaikoura.
We drive along the sweeping road that hugs the coast directly where the mountains meet the sea. In the distance the stunning Seaward Kaikoura Ranges, with their snow-capped peaks, add to the drama of our panoramic view.
Just prior to our arrival we stopped at Ohau Point to see (& smell) the Fur seal Colony. The seals were relaxing on the rocks & some of the youngsters were frolicking in the ocean alongside the basking adults. We counted 3 of these kiddie pools with the seals playing just like children.
As always when we arrive in a new town Paul takes us on a guided tour to familiarise us with the layout & its highlights and offer us the chance to stretch our legs on the Kaikoura walkway.
Kaikoura is known for its abundant sea life & there were more seals also spotted at Point Keen Viewpoint. One of these was just lying about on the local boardwalk not the least bit bothered by the humans lining up to get a photo.
The optional activities you can choose whilst here are based on the opportunities to see & interact with these animals.
The scenic 45-minute whale watching flight was enjoyed but unfortunately no whales were seen. I had my eye on the sunset kayak tour & getting amongst the seals however the ocean swells made that too unsafe to do. Instead a nice wander around town, a shared meal & early bedtime was the order of the evening for most of us.
Day 9 - Kaikoura - Akaunui Homestead - Mt Cook
On paper today, being our longest drive, seemed to be a transit day. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine it would be the best day on tour so far!!
We got off to a great start when Paul took us to Paris, the bakery in Amberly that is not the city in France.
We enjoyed a most delicious coffee stop with pastries so divine they could’ve been made on the Champs-Elysees. High is spirits, or was that just the sugar rush, we continued to Akaunui Homestead to meet Ian & Di at their typical New Zealand farmhouse for a typical New Zealand lunch.
Home Hosted Country Lunch
Akaunui Farm is a private experience just for MoaTrek guests & we were treated accordingly. Our hosts Ian & Di are genuinely warm people who invited us into their home as if we were family.
Starting with drinks of New Zealand wine in their stunning garden they introduced themselves to us individually then remembering our names throughout the visit.
I am so pleased the rain held off allowing for us to enjoy our wonderful lunch of fresh ham, raised on the farm, at the long table near the blossom tree. Rhubarb cake & the freshest cream I have tasted for dessert had us all wanting to stay there for the rest of the tour.
We ambled around the stunning garden filled with birdsong & spoke about their family history that is lovingly displayed inside their home. As we sadly drove away, we all agreed it was an absolute highlight of our 9 days here in New Zealand.
Lakes Tekapo, Pukaki & Aoraki Mt Cook
A long drive remained to get to our Mt Cook hotel, however the stunning views, like the one of Lake Tekapo as it surprisingly appeared around one of the bends, kept us interested.
Then we made our way around Lake Pukaki. It has been quite wet, we even had some sleet, however just as we rounded the tip of the lake a magnificent rainbow appeared. This vision stayed throughout our drive along the lake & truly finished off our magical day.
A long day for us is a very long day for Paul who once again has been amazing to not only drive us through that awful weather but to still be totally engaged with his good humour & information.
Day 10 - Mt Cook - Queenstown
A simply spectacular way to start the day, spring snow on the ground in Mt Cook.
The one thing you can never control is the weather & we have had a lot of grey skies over the past 10 days.
Yesterday, as we made our way upwards into the Southern Alps, the temperature turned significantly colder. Once night fell, we actually had snow fall & very strong winds.
What that meant for our morning today was a beautiful blanket of white set with the backdrop of a clear blue sky. It was cold, -2C (28F), however the air was so crisp & invigorating most of us decided to have a walk along the track that leads from the hotel. There was of course a brief snowball fight before we set out!
A short walk in Aoraki Mt Cook
This walk was such a great way to start the day. We were the first ones out on the wooden bridges that form part of the track which made it quite slippery in parts. We had Philip up front doing his best to scrape the ice away with Will & Bill taking the rear making sure everyone was safe.
It seemed every turn of the track bought about a view more spectacular than the rest & the clear sky allowed us to see the 3724m (12,200 ft) peak of Mt Cook, New Zealand’s highest mountain.
Sandy & Dana, who walked a slightly different track, saw two avalanches up high on one of the adjoining peaks. When you're staying at Mt Cook village you really feel like you're amongst the mountains and it's so easy to experience the alpine wonderland on just a short walk like we did today.
The South Island High Country and on to Queenstown
Feeling on top of the world from the fresh mountain air & exercise we rolled out of the National Park mid-morning & made our way to Queenstown.
Our route takes us over the dramatic Lindis Pass with its mountain terrain looking as if it has been dusted with sugar.
Then 30km (19 miles) before Queenstown the road snakes it way along the scenic Kawarau Gorge. This gorge is where the first commercial bungy jump took place & this whole area is still known for its adrenaline filled activities.
Although todays drive was much shorter than yesterday Paul still takes us to the best stops along the way.
Today’s highlight came mid-afternoon on this sunny day when we stopped in Tarras. This was home to Shrek the Merino sheep. Shrek was genius at hiding & managed to avoid being caught & shorn for 6 years. Tarras has a small museum in his honour & you can even buy a children’s book about him.
These small towns provide a great snapshot of life in these rural communities & add to what we have been learning about the farming land that we drive thorough.
We all enjoyed an ice cream in the sunshine taking the opportunity to stretch our legs still weary from out trek.
We will stop in Queenstown for a few nights & we are all feeling quite melancholy at the thought of this being our final town of this tour.
We still have a special day on Milford Sound to enjoy tomorrow though followed by a farewell dinner that I’m sure will see a few tears shed.
Day 11 - Milford Sound by land, sea and air
Touring New Zealand with MoaTrek is stunning one day, spectacular the next.
Words will never do justice to the awe-inspiring beauty of Mother Nature & photos can only capture a small window. To immerse yourself into untouched beauty such as we found here in Milford Sound is an experience not to be missed.
The famous Milford road
Welcoming 4 new passengers for the West Coast section this morning it was a very early start to make the drive to this popular destination.
The weather was grey & wet & Paul had some concerns as to whether the road would be open. Thankfully, as we had a coffee stop in Te Anau, we received the green light to go all the way to Milford Sound.
The drive itself is spectacular. The road starts by hugging Lake Wakatipu before traversing Red Tussock Conservation Area.
There were some stops for photos at the most picturesque sights, such as Mirror Lake, before we then started climbing to the Homer Tunnel.
We were all pleased to see a Kea bird, native to this region, as it offered its avian inspection of the vehicles waiting to enter the tunnel. It was then onto the final descent to the Sound. The boys in the back were giving Paul a score out of 10 for each of the hairpin turns, needless to say he scored very highly indeed.
Cruising Milford Sound
Thankfully the weather cleared just in time for us to board our cruise on the Cruise Milford boat.
We enjoyed the spectacular scenery of this carved fiord marvelling at its towering peaks covered in virgin rainforest & cascading waterfalls. The captain places the vessel very close to the larger falls which allows those that wish to get as wet as they want.
Most people tend to run from it, especially on a cold day like today. I however went towards it for how often do you get to take a shower in million-year-old water such as this run off from ancient glaciers?
None of my traveling companions were the least bit surprised by this noting it was entirely “typical”.
Southern Alps scenic flight back to Queenstown
After the cruise we went directly to the airfield for our scenic flight returning us to Queenstown.
We were in two separate propeller driven light planes. I was so thankful to be seated between Sandy & Dana as their amazing get up & go attitude soothed my nervous self immensely.
I will admit to having my eyes closed for most of the 40-minute flight with Sandy acting as my photographer in the air. Despite the nerves of some of us it really was a spectacular way to finish the day.
It is our final farewell dinner tonight as, thanks to MoaTrek, we celebrate friendships formed & a lifetime of memories.
Thank You & Farewell
Here we are, the day after the night before, when our group enjoyed a farewell dinner in Queenstown before scattering to differing corners of the globe.
We all feel so lucky to have been on this MoaTrek tour sharing an amazing experience with like-minded people.
From a nervous departure in Auckland 12 days ago we have travelled south through the Land of the Long White Cloud. We have seen incredible landscapes that vary from bend to turn as we journeyed along the road.
From the Geothermal wonders of the North Island down to the Southern Alps & Milford Sound, each picturesque snapshot has transcended the last.
We have seen rainforests alive with moss & birdsong however some have been saddening in their silence.
We have been warmed in a geothermal pool whilst it rains & had snow fights under clear blue skies. Many of us have even conquered long held fears along the way always with the support of strangers who have fast become friends.
Our amazing tour guide
The glue that has bound us together is Paul, our awesome guide, driver and friend. If you're over 50 and looking for the perfect guided experience, this is the tour for you.
From the moment we drove out of Auckland he set the tone for the next 12 days with his lively spirit & fun sense of humour.
His knowledge on the road is second to none. From forestry & mining, native or introduced flora & fauna, Maori culture & history with everything in between.
No question asked was left unanswered & with 5 retired teachers, not to mention the always inquisitive yours truly, we made sure to keep him on his toes.
Paul also knows THE best stops along the way & there are plenty of them. To a one we will never forget the Orange People, Carrot Park or the tulips of Hamster Jam.
Anyone can visit New Zealand however only MoaTrek has guides like Paul who really immerse you in their beloved country.
I have had an absolute blast these past 12 days. Whether you are reliving your previous tour or contemplating booking (do it!!), I hope those of you reading about our travels have had as much fun as we have.