If you are backpacking New Zealand on a budget, the Stray bus tour is a ton of fun. You can buy a fully flexible pass which allows you hop on and off where you like on the route of your choice. Here’s my experience of the North Island tour.

Arriving in New Zealand

Looking out of the aeroplane window on my way in to Auckland, as we prepared for our descent, I was gifted a glorious view of the velvety green rolling hills, dark mossy trees and mile-long stretches of blonde beach that make up the land here. Having travelled from London via Hong Kong, I then navigated the spaced-out wooziness of jetlag and ‘power naps’ that last 13 hours (whoops). Finally, I was ready to get started. I had booked a bus tour departing the next day, to take me on a multi-stop trip to explore New Zealand.

There’s a great group atmosphere on the Stray New Zealand bus tour with about 30 travellers, aged around 25-35. You’re looked after by a driver full of personality and local knowledge (and sometimes ludicrously bad jokes). They organise all the accommodation and a host of trip and activity options, including scenic stops and even a gumboot throwing competition en route. For a week and a half I explored the North Island. Here are some highlights – and some memorable incidents.

Lazing in a hot water beach at the Coromandel Peninsula

First, we landed on Hot Water Beach, where we took shovels and crafted a carefully engineered wall of sand, acting both as a barricade to the waves and to capture the toe-hoppingly steaming hot water springs that give the beach its name. Our hard work was rewarded as we luxuriously bathed in our warm pool in the sunshine, then we dried off with a stroll to the gorgeous neighbouring Cathedral Cove, named after its natural arches of stone.

Whitewater rafting in Rotorua

This was something I’d always wanted to do, even though I was nervous. As we plummeted down New Zealand’s highest whitewater rafting waterfall, I managed to split open my eyebrow. It bled profusely and I looked like an extra from a horror movie for a while but the Stray driver gave me first aid and made sure I was OK. Now I have a small scar, or life-mark as a barman nicknamed it a few days later. A visible memento of my Kiwi adventures. Despite everything, it was a fun day and I tried whitewater rafting again on the South Island, which you can read about here.

Gazing at glow-worms in the Waitomo Caves

During a guided walk through one of the caves, we were introduced to their famous glow-worm inhabitants and given a little history about the area. On our way to another one we saw the area’s resident – surprisingly huge – long-finned eel, before sailing gently through this cave on a boat, lit only by the blue-hued dots of the glow-worms all around us, which was simply magical. The tour was called Spellbound, and that we were. We all started singing Coldplay songs in the eerie darkness as we waited for the next boat to return, which I’m sure the worms appreciated.

Learning about Maori culture at Lake Aniwhenua

After a typical introduction to Maori culture the evening before, complete with haka and dance demonstrations, we had a less showy cultural insight on our next stop when we met Morris, a Maori tribe elder. He talked about the land our bus was driving through, and showed us 900-year-old ancestral rock carvings. Then we stayed with his welcoming family at their home by the beautiful lake. After a traditional Maori dinner cooked in a hangi dug into the earth and heated by hot rocks, we watched the sunset. Morris sat and told us tales of his tribe’s history – including their penchant for eel hunting and scoffing the brains of their rivals in battle – and kindly answered our questions. A very peaceful and enriching stop on an otherwise fairly hectic tour.

Cycling around Lake Taupo

Here I hopped off the bus to relax for a couple of nights, as a friend had raved about this charming town. The sun was shining as I indulged in a massage to soothe my backpack-carrying muscles, took a Pilates class and cycled round the stunning Lake Taupo, passing young families and dogs playing at the water’s edge.


Hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Despite my initial worries about tiring out halfway through, I comfortably completed the 19.4km Tongariro Alpine Crossing hike. It took us up the steep ‘Devil’s Staircase’, over the 1900 metre high Mount Tongariro and across giant red craters that looked like the surface of Mars. We passed luminous blue lakes and through steaming geo-thermal grassy valleys, forests and streams. 

On the way, we encountered sunshine, hail showers and plenty of fog mysteriously shrouding everything around us. After this epic walk, we welcomed the chocolate and beers being served at the end. It has never tasted so good. A few days after my epic alpine walk, rather disgustingly, both of my big toenails fell off. I am assured that this is normal for long distance hikers and could be partly down to my new hiking boots that I hadn’t worn in yet. Thankfully, my nails grew back pretty quickly.

Wellington

My return visit to New Zealand’s capital really warmed me to the place. It was no doubt to do with the summer weather (give me a bit of blue skies and sunshine and I’m happy) and the new friends I’ve made here. I took some time to enjoy the city’s rich café and bar culture and soak up its alternative, artsy scene.

The most fun way to go backpacking New Zealand on a budget

What a ride! I loved the Stray bus adventures – seeing and doing things I’ve never done before. It’s really a great way to go backpacking New Zealand alone, because you’re joined by fellow passengers who become friends. After all the excitement, I put the rest of the planned itinerary and high octane activities on hold for a while, in favour of relaxing and recuperating in the warm, windy city of Wellington. This is the beauty of the Stray New Zealand passes. There are no obligations and you are free to hop on and hop off as you please as you explore this wonderful country.

Now, read about my Stray adventures on the South Island here.