New Zealand Highlights by Bus

Ask locals to help you find the perfect place to Freedom camp in New Zealand.
Ask locals to help you find the perfect place to Freedom camp in New Zealand.

All Over New Zealand on The Backpacker Bus

By Connie Maria Westergaard

Viaduct Harbor, Auckland New Zealand. photos by Connie Westergaard.
Viaduct Harbor, Auckland New Zealand. photos by Connie Westergaard.

I do not have to travel anymore. I believe I have seen the whole world in one country.

Every imaginable landscape, from glaciers and snowcapped mountains to wastelands, lakes, fiords, waterfalls, sounds, rainforests, beech forests, and rolling green hills, is found in New Zealand. For four weeks we travel from north to south with New Zealand’s famous backpacker bus, the Kiwi Experience.

After a long journey to the end of the world I see the first aerial views of Aotearoa in the horizon. That is the Maori name for New Zealand and means ‘land of the long white cloud’. It seems fitting that Auckland is covered in mist and clouds.

Auckland is the biggest city and airline hub in New Zealand, and you can easily spend a couple of days here.

Downtown is walkable, but if you are short of time, a convenient option is the yellow Auckland Explorer Bus, which will take you around to all the sights in and around the city, like Kelly Tarlton’s Sea Life Aquarium, famous for its exhibition of Antarctic penguins, local sharks, and stingrays.

We spend days exploring the colorful neighborhoods Parnell Village and Ponsonby Road and the evenings down at the waterfront in Viaduct Harbor – bustling with restaurants and nightlife.

A bus full of backpackers

We have four weeks to explore New Zealand. It might sound like a long time for such a small country, but trust me, it is not. In order to save time, worries, and money, we hop on the Kiwi Experience backpacker bus. It is affordable, we get discounts on activities and accommodation, one very knowledgeable driver-guide, and we do not have to think or plan anything, as all is or will be taken care of as we go along. Sweet as! Local slang for: ‘That sounds pretty good!’

Kiwi Experience is an experience. Mostly a great one, but at times we do feel like we are on a school field trip with misbehaved kids in the back, wet clothes and towels, the smell of sweaty feet and lunch boxes with last night’s leftovers.

Ice explorer at Franz Josef village, South Island New Zealand.
Ice explorer at Franz Josef village, South Island New Zealand.

The majority of passengers are in their early twenties, but you will find older, youthful travelers. It is all about attitude, not age, and everybody from 18 years old and up is welcome onboard.

Prepare to be social, because you are never alone. If you are traveling by yourself, you will not be lonesome. Making new friends is a big part of the Kiwi Experience, and by the end of the trip you will not be able to tell who boarded the bus alone and who came together.

Hop-on hop-off

If you are a couple, you might want to hop off the bus and take a break for a couple of days before getting back on. That is the great thing about the Kiwi Experience. Our bus pass is valid for a year, so we can tailor our trip exactly the way we want with the hop-on-hop-off system. Whenever we want to get back on the bus, we just call the Kiwi office.

We do not need to book activities or accommodation in advance either. Our driver-guide books everything for us while on the road. A seat on the bus guarantees you a bed to sleep in on the first night.

Our driver-guide insists on being called B E X. She knows absolutely everything about New Zealand. She has split personalities and will take on the role of professor Bex when explaining about the glaciers. Someone should offer her a job on the radio because she is hilarious in her own sarcastic, no BS, loving fashion.

We love her instantly. She picks us up and drops us off every day, stops for bathroom, supermarket, breakfast and lunch breaks, activities and sights along the way, so we are never on the bus for more than two hours straight, and we never miss a thing.

Tamaki Maori village in Rotorua.
Tamaki Maori Village in Rotorua.

Kia ora, Maori heartland!

Maori is the name for the first settlers in New Zealand, and we find the heartland of Maori culture in Rotorua on North Island. On our first evening in Rotorua, a driver from Tamaki Maori Village picks us up at our hostel.

Kia ora, he says and spends the entire drive translating it to ‘How’re you doing?’ in probably 50 or so languages. Nobody on the bus will ever forget the meaning of those two words.

At the entrance to the fortified Tamaki Maori Village just outside Rotorua, we are met by a local Maori tribe. The village people wear traditional clothes and the characteristic facial tribal tattoos. Before any of us can enter, a welcome ceremony, the Powhiri, is performed.

The warriors sing and dance the Haka, a traditional type of war cry. A chief from each coach has to accept a peace offering, and then we can enter the village. In the forest we walk from hut to hut and explore the different rituals, artwork and ways of life of the ancient Maori people.

Boiling hot

In the center of the village we watch as our hangi ‘feed’ – local slang for a meal – is lifted from the boiling geothermal ground, where it has been cooking. We are then invited to enter the Marae, which is the sacred Maori grounds, and the Wharenui, which is the sacred Maori meeting house, in which the Maoris perform, sing and dance for us.

Then it is time for our feed, before being driven back to our accommodation. Choice! Local slang for Great! Rotorua is boiling hot. The area has a lot of geothermal activity, and it literally stinks! But you have to see it. The area boasts natural wonders such as geysers, mud pools, and hot springs.


At the Polynesian Spa – a wonderland of wellness – by the lakeside in Rotorua you can bathe in 36 – 42 C hot mineral pools from the local Priest Spring and Rachel Spring.

The first one will supposedly provide relief for your tired muscles and the second one will bless you with ageless beauty. Which one did we go for? Ageless beauty of course! Polynesian Spa offers a wealth of spa treatments and has a family spa, private pools, adult pools and a lake spa.

Just slip into the hot healing water while enjoying the views of Lake Rotorua.

Another place from where you can enjoy the views of the lake is from Rotorua Skyline, a short drive from downtown Rotorua. Ride the gondola to the top of the hill, where you can have fun riding the luges and enjoy a delicious buffet dinner in the restaurant while watching the sun go down.

Before leaving Rotorua make sure you stop by New Zealand’s Maori Arts and Crafts Institute TePuia and visit The National Weaving School and The National Carving School, where only a few trainees a year are accepted and educated in the art of Maori carving. We walk around and watch the trainees while they are working.

TePuia valley is also home of several boiling mud pools and geysers, the most famous one being the Pohutu geyser, which erupts once or twice an hour and can reach a height of 30 meters (100 feet). It is spectacular.

In the footsteps of hobbits


Lord of the Rings. Need I say more? Peter Jackson has used almost every inch of New Zealand as a backdrop for filming Tolkien’s famous trilogy. Do yourself a favor and watch the movies before and after you visit New Zealand. It is fun recognizing movie locations as you go along.

One of the best and most complete LOTR movie locations is Hobbiton in Matamata on North Island. You will recognize the rolling green hills of The Shire right away, and you can almost visualize Gandalf coming down the path in his horse cart and Frodo running to greet him. But that is all you have to visualize because everything but the hobbits is actually still here.

The set has been permanently rebuilt for the filming of The Hobbit movies. We meet our movie set tour guide, Sam (and yes, we got to call himSamwiseGamgee) at The Shires Rest Café, and after a short drive up the sheep farm road, he takes us for a tour of The Shire and its Hobbit holes, The Party Tree, the lake, the vegetable gardens, The Mill and The Green Dragon Inn, where we get a taste of the special hobbit brew. Sam lets us in on all the facts and secrets of filming and points out scenes from the movies.

The journey to Mordor and Mount Doom

If you are a real LOTR fan, you need to get a copy of Ian Brodie’s Lord of the Rings Location Guidebook. Buy it online or in any bookshop in New Zealand. One place I would not have missed for the world – LOTR fan or not -is the Tongariro National Park on North Island.

The park is a large, barren and inhospitable area enclosed by beautiful volcanic mountains. To Peter Jackson it was the perfect location for Mordor.

Tongariro Alpine Crossing

The best way to explore the park is to do the famous Tongariro Alpine Crossing, a 20 kilometer one day hike to the saddle between Mount Tongariro and Mount Ngauruhoe – also known as Mount Doom to LOTR fans. In 2012 the Te Mari volcano erupted, and thus it is not possible to go any further than the Red Crater. For the time being you will have to turn around and go back the same way you came.

Skydiving above Queenstown, New Zealand.

A piece of advice is that if you really wish to do this relatively challenging hike, plan to spend a couple of days in the area, in case of bad weather preventing you from doing the hike.

In fact, that goes for all of New Zealand. The weather is completely unpredictable. So if something is important to you, make sure you have a plan B = extra day.

Another and much easier way to get a good view of Mount Doom is from Whakapapa Village at the foot of Mount Ruapehu. From here you can do an easy two-hour hike to Taranaki Falls with beautiful views of both volcanic mountains.

In the middle of Middle Earth

Queenstown on South Island makes my list of favorite places in New Zealand. Many scenes from LOTR were filmed around Queenstown. Tour operator Pure Glenorchy takes us on a Lord of the Rings tour to the Glenorchy area outside Queenstown.

Even if you have never seen a LOTR movie, you will love this incredible area. Our guide drives us to Twelve Mile Delta, Deer Park Heights, The Remarkables, Dart River and Stables, The Routeburn Track and Paradise, where scenes from Amon Hen, Isengaard, the Dead Marshes, Lothlórien and Ithilien were filmed. He knows a lot of details about the trilogy and when we cannot remember the scenes, he has movie set photos to help us recognize the landscape in front of us.

The Adventure Capital of the world

The people of New Zealand are a bunch of adrenalin junkies. Any airplane, bridge, building, cliff or another type of platform you can throw yourself off or out from, most likely they have done it, and probably invented the sport too. And it is quite contagious. Even though you might go to New Zealand with your feet firmly planted on the ground, all of a sudden you find yourself jumping off or walking around Auckland’s Sky Tower – 192 meters above the ground – because everyone else is doing it.

Paddling near Franz Josef glacier, New Zealand.
Paddling near Franz Josef glacier.

Queenstown on South Island is the self-proclaimed adventure capital of the world. Here you will find the world’s first commercial Bungy jump, from Kawarau Bridge. The jump is ‘only’43 meters.

Since Bungy pioneers AJ Hackett and Henry van Asch launched their bungy business in 1988, they have expanded with a much more exhilarating jump, the Nevis, which is the highest Bungy jump in Australasia.

It is… 134 meters high and by far the scariest thing I have ever done. The hardest thing is walking out on the platform. Do not look down, and do not think too much about it. Just do it!

If you think of a Bungy jump as a shot of Tequila, think of a tandem skydive as a cocktail. It is more enjoyable, lasts longer, and I promise you it is less scary. NZONE Skydive in Queenstown is the country’s first commercial tandem skydive operator.

One in five scheduled skydives gets canceled due to bad weather conditions, so if weather permits to skydive, do not wait. Book in advance if you can, as it is a very popular activity. Anyone between 30 and 100 kilos can skydive regardless of age.

NZONE has 22 years of experience and no fatalities. They require all their instructors to have done between 3,000 and 5,000 skydives, despite the fact that the law only requires them to have done 1,000. My instructor Sasa has 25 years of experience. On a normal day he does 10 tandem skydives.

Needless to say I am inexperienced, safe hands. Skydiving is truly amazing, and the scenery in Queenstown is absolutely stunning. Get proof that you embraced the fear, with a video and photo package, so you can relive the moment again and again.

Spectacular Scenery

Beautiful Milford Sound, where it rains nearly 300 days a year.

The scenery in New Zealand is as spectacular as everyone says it is. Once you have seen this place at the end of the world, you will be hard to impress.

Early on our trip the Kiwi Experience makes an overnight stop at River Valley Lodge by Rangitikei River on North Island. In the middle of nowhere I go on the most beautiful horseback ride of my life, and in the evenings we BBQ and swim in the cool river.

In Christchurch we hop on the TranzAlpine Express through Arthur’s Pass to Greymouth on the West Coast and back. The train goes back the same way, so if you can fit it in with your travel plans, one way is enough.

There is a viewing platform at one end of the train, and the staff will tell you over the speakers when to go there and what side to point your camera to. The prettiest stretch is about an hour before arriving at Arthur’s Pass station when you are coming from Christchurch. Moreover the train stops for five minutes at Arthur’s Pass station.

Milford Sound on the South Island

The king of scenic sights is Milford Sound on South Island. You can do a one-day bus trip from Queenstown to the UNESCO world heritage site. The drive through Fiordland National Park is almost better than – or at least just as beautiful as – Milford Sound itself.

Milford Road, Road 94, is amongst the top 10 scenic drives in the world. The park takes our breaths away and is one of the most untouched places I have been to. It is also one of the wettest places in the world, where the rainfall can reach up to 10 inches in just one day. We have heard that it rains here all the time, and the heavy rain creates hundreds of waterfalls. To our surprise the day we visit, the sun shines bright for the first time in three weeks.

At Milford Sound harbor we board a boat and sail out in the sound, which is actually not a sound, but a fiord carved out by glaciers during the last ice age and filled with seawater. The jewel of the fiord is Mitre Peak, which rises up on the horizon.

On the Shoulders of Giants

The NZ scenery below when you’re skydiving is spectacular.

The scenery is not less amazing in Franz Josef Village further north on South Island. Here you enter a different world. Kayaking on Lake Mapourika with a snow-capped mountain backdrop is an unexpectedly terrific experience, and the feeling of accomplishment and relief is big when you get back on shore without having capsized.

Flying in a helicopter – feeling like dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants – over snow, mountains, waterfalls, and massive glaciers, is the best thing I will do in New Zealand.

This is nature at its most impressive and jaw-dropping. We fly over Mount Tasman and Mount Cook, the highest mountain in New Zealand, as well as over Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier, where we do a snow landing.

As soon as we get back on the ground, we go halfway back up on Franz Josef Glacier for an ice explorer hike. With ice spikes on our boots and a glacier guide to pave the way, we walk in and out, down, under and around the magnificent and dangerous pinnacles and experience the awe-inspiring ice in all its shapes, colors and glory. In the evening we soak in the Glacier Hot Pools, free with the glacier hike wristband.

Kiwi Experience stops at all the activities and/or destinations mentioned in this article. Our trip to New Zealand was conducted with the assistance of Tourism New Zealand but the opinions are the author’s own.

What to See and Do

Te Puia in Rotorua Pohutu Geyser
Te Puia in Rotorua.

Kiwi Experience
Auckland Explorer
Kelly Tarlton’sSea Life
Auckland Sky jump
Auckland Sky walk
Tamaki Maori Village
Tongariro Alpine Crossing
River Valley
AJ Hackett
NZone Skydive NZone Skydiving
Pure Glenorchy Scenic LOTR Tours
TranZAlpine Express
Glacier Country Tours and Kayaks
Fox & Franz Josef
Franz Josef Glacier Guides

Where to stay

Sky City Auckland
River Valley Lodge
Kaiteriteri Lodge
Bazil’s Hostels Westport
Rainforest Retreat Franz Josef
Ibis Hotel Christchurch

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2 thoughts on “New Zealand Highlights by Bus

  1. New Zealand, how many memories associated with this place. It was in Queenstown, my husband made me an offer. Romantic place and at the same time a place for real players. Gambling in this country is just going wild. It was in New Zealand that my career as a professional poker player began. I want to say, if you want to seriously play poker, then you have to live this game. I advise everyone to go to New Zealand, perhaps it is here that you will find your love, like I did in my time 🙂

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