Anyone who’s travelled New Zealand well will tell you that the best way to explore the country is by car or road trip. For those who have a lot of time and want to do self exploration, hiring a car would be the best option.
But for the rising market of solo travellers, those with limited time, or simply would like to leave the driving and paperwork to others and just watch the scenery and have fun, there are a number of tour buses that run up and down the north and south island of New Zealand.
Haka Tours, an award-winning tour company specialising in smaller group tours, promises to give a stress-free, trip of a life time journey in New Zealand.
And did I ever! Read on to see my experience.
Haka Tours invited me to experience one of their adventure tours. An adventure tour! In New Zealand!
Well adventure is my second middle name, and I have not really been to New Zealand (except for a transit to Tahiti which you can’t really consider as a legit trip).
I’ll be completely honest. The moment I checked my schedule, said yes, and chose a tour, I started feeling anxious. I was more than keen to experience the adventure side of New Zealand’s North Island.
But this is a group tour.
I’ve never travelled in a group before, more so a 7-day one. Haka Tours takes a maximum of 16 people in one tour (which is apparently very little), but for me, that is still 13-14 more than the usual number of people that I travel with.
a.) Because I’ve never done group tours before, how will I know if this is indeed not my thing..or who knows, could be my next new thing?
b.) Where’s my sense of adventure if I don’t go outside of my comfort zone?
And so Zombie and I set off to Wellington in February, wide-eyed and excited for a week of adventure.
Day 1 Wellington
Our trip started in Wellington (which, for those who do not know, is the windy capital of New Zealand!). In the morning, we met up with the group , majority of them just finished touring the South Island , and this is the beginning of their North Island trip.
There were also a handful like us who were just starting their New Zealand tour.
Our first agenda in Wellington was Mount Victoria lookout, where you can see a 360 degree view of Wellington and the harbour. It was pretty chilly , but the views were fantastic and clear enough. And then we were driven to a restaurant where we had one of the best breakfasts I ever had (in and Outside of New Zealand) I had a chorizo quesadilla, not your usual breakfast but it had just enough spice to kick start the day.
Also it was during this first breakfast that we got to know the group a little better. Seeing that majority of them already knew each other as they had just finished the South Island tour, I braced myself to get ready for a “new kid/s on the block” syndrome.
But what do you know, we were welcomed ever so warmly by the group, and over breakfast, they told us very excitedly about how the South Island tour went , even showed us photographs and videos. No ‘groups within groups’ here, every body seemed very friendly and the synergy was just very positive.
They also let us in on some ‘insider’ stories and anecdotes about members of the group and stuff that happened to them on the South Island tour, so that we would know who / what they’re talking about and not feel left out. Mind you this was not even instigated by our guide, the people in the group all did this voluntarily.
We’re off to a very good start with this group! 🙂
Discovery: Quesadilla for breakfast is amazing but this group so far is even greater!
Day 2 & 3: Taupo
This was the day we started the drive up north. We stopped by Gravity Canyon on the way for Zombie and I to go on their Giant Swing.
Free-falling 50 metres and suspended just slightly above the ground (or in our case, the river) and swinging like a giant pendulum, this activity is aptly called the Giant Swing, but I don’t think the term fully encompasses the exhilaration (and fear!) it brings 🙂
From here we drove up to Taupo (pronounced like Toe-Paw), a town located at the outlet of Lake Taupo , New Zealand’s largest lake.
It is a touristy place but not overly bustling. We arrived just before sunset and there were lots of restaurants to choose from, most of them overlooking the lake.
The second day in Taupo, majority of the group left before sunrise in order to hike Tongariro Crossing.
As for me– I was up not too early (but early nevertheless) in order to bungy jump!
But first, another go at the giant swing. After all, Taupo Bungy offers an entirely different landscape.
After going on the Extreme Swing (the 2nd time doesn’t make it feel any milder!), it was time to strap on a tighter harness.
I’m so glad that I FINALLY bungy jumped! This has been on my list to do (along with swimming with great whites) and I’m so glad to have done it. It’s one of those things that I’m happy to have do once in a lifetime, along with skydiving.
It took me about 15 minutes to recover from my back-to-back swinging and jumping action. (Recovery consisted of laying in a bean bag, staring at the blue lake below in a drunken stupor)
After that, we set off to explore Huka Falls, as we saw a sign at Taupo Bungy that the falls were just 200 metres away.
We also met up with a couple more people from the group and as we walked together, we later realised that the sign “200 metres to Huka Falls” meant that it was 200 metres to the START of the trek to Huka Falls.
The walk ended up being around 1.5-2 hours each way but when you are surrounded by sceneries that look like an elf or a gnome can just prance out of the woods and start dancing, you don’t really mind the walk/trek.
Also, when you’ve got great company, you also don’t realise how much personal things you’ve divulged and swapped. I blame it on going on a long walk right after bungy jumping AND extreme swinging, (though it’s mostly the amazing company) but I swear, I must have haemorrhaged over 30 years’ worth of stories in 2 hours.
At last we reached Huka Falls, and it was the most piercingly mouthwash-icy-blue waters I’d ever seen in real life.
Discoveries: If I ever am held captive and someone wants top secret information, forget about torture methods. All they need to do is take me out on a beautiful walk, with amazing company. I’m an easy target! Also, I scream like a dinosaur.
Day 4: Rotorua
We hit the road again, and along the way, we stopped by Huka Falls where a handful of people from our group went on a Rapids Jet ride, which looked really fun.
After lunch, we also went to see Waiotapu, an active geothermal area at the southern end of the Okataina Volcanic Centre, just north of the Reporoa caldera, in New Zealand’s Taupo Volcanic Zone.
There were amazing colours , one of the areas were named something like “Painter’s Art Palette” (or similar to), and it is rightly named so. The colours were so vibrant it’s at times hard to believe that all these are natural. The entire place reeked of sulfur and strange as it sounds, I find the smell of it comforting, like a thousand eggs boiling!
On the way up to Rotorua, a couple of people from the group also went inside a Zorb ball. This is where you enter a huge inflated plastic ball and literally roll down the hill. (this can be seen in the video )
When we arrived at Rotorua, we all freshened to get ready for dinner and show at Mitai Maori Village, a family-owned cultural show/dinner attraction where we were treated to a traditional Hangi meal and also a very well-organised tour and presentation showing what Maori culture is all about.
This was easily my favourite evening in the tour. After dinner, we even had a guided bush walk in the dark where we got to see some glow worms in their natural setting.
Discoveries: It was this day that I’m convinced that everywhere you turn to in New Zealand, a screensaver shot is waiting. Everywhere is Middle-Earth material.
Day 5: Waitomo
This is the day I wished we booked things earlier. There are 2 main activities in Waitomo : White water rafting, or a visit to Hobbiton. We can only do one activity and we regrettably hemmed and hawed far too long in choosing which activity we wanted to do (well we ideally wanted to do Both!)
Well both activities are extremely popular because they are the main activities to do in Waitomo! So we tried to book the day before, but alas both activities were already booked.
We ended up hiring a car and heading to Bay of Plenty to do a high ropes course, which was truly enjoyable because the park was amazing! But we didn’t stay long because we had to be back at Waitomo by 12.
My suggestion: Book your activity ( be it Hobbiton or White Water Rafting) early on in advance! When we met up with the others and swapped stories at lunch time, most of them had a grand time.
Discovery: Self-driving in New Zealand is not bad at all, high ropes courses are amazing and I also discovered that you should book activities in advance, especially for the popular ones like Hobbiton and White Water rafting!
Day 6: Coromandel
Today, we woke up to the sound of a big bus revving its engine. When we peered out the window, it was one of those huge tour bus companies that (I think) do a huge hop-on/ hop-off tour around the country.
The size of the bus was massive, and the people in it were probably close to (if not more) a hundred? It was insane. By the time that group left, they made such a big mess in the shared areas of the accommodation we were staying at. They left the kitchen in such a horrid state (and stole some of Haka Tours’ food).
It was this time that I now fully understood that 16 is definitely a SMALL group and I was thankful to be in this group rather than the hurricane that just left.
Anyway, this morning some of us in the group went black water rafting, and we, along with others in the group, went to do the normal Waitomo Caves tour.
Unfortunately, cameras are not allowed inside the Waitomo caves to protect the glow worms. But let me tell you that it was like going under a cathedral roof lit with stars.
This is a professional photo from the Waitomo Caves website itself and it is very similar in real life.
By late afternoon, we reached Coromandel, a peninsula in the North Island of New Zealand extending 85 kilometres.
It is one of New Zealand’s most popular holiday destinations and there are quite a lot of beachfront properties
We also had our last dinner together at a nice pub in Coromandel. It was also during dinner time when we all expressed how thankful we were for the group we are in.
We all acknowledged that our group jived well and we were jokingly (jokes are half-meant, right?) saying we should all get together again, and have a reunion travel.
Discovery: There wasn’t one single annoying person in the group. Truly!
Day 7: Coromandel to Auckland
Our last day together as we all would be going our separate ways when we reach Auckland.
In the morning, we all headed to a bone-carving workshop to create our very own traditional Maori pendants.
It was amazing to see that the pendants we created came from bone marrows (above) and our instructor thoroughly explained how the source the bones, boil them for cleansing and to ready them for carving, and also the traditional way of wearing a Maori Pendant : someone should put the pendant / necklace on you.
It was a rewarding experience (though the sound of bone grinding and sanding grates in my ears) and a very unique souvenir to take home.
After lunch, we went for a long walk to Coromandel Peninsula’s majestic Cathedral Cove.
Again, this was one of those 45-minute walk (each way) that you barely realise because the view was just amazing. If the scenery looks a little bit “Narnian” to you, it’s because one of the Chronicles of Narnia movie was shot here.
I think I remember this scene. The siblings were in the middle of ‘normal life’ in London when they were teleported to Narnia.
We were all sad to arrive in Auckland in the evening because it meant saying goodbye. There were tears (seriously!) but we all had exchanged contacts and our group even has a Facebook page.
*Some of us in the group had an extra day in Auckland. We couldn’t help it. We emailed and sms’d each other and all 5 of us remaining in Auckland met up for a ‘second-last’ dinner*
Discovery: Coromandel is beautiful. So are the friendships that grew out of this tour.
Our guide- Hygi
A former international snowboarding judge, Hygi is the most experienced guide in Haka Tours (in terms of number of years working for the company).
Hygi’s style of guiding is extremely laid-back, and for some reason he seems to know that his group will be fine with vague instructions/directions.
For instance, in Coromandel for lunch, he dropped our group off at a street and said, “Just look for this cafe and tell them you’re with Haka Tours, they will take care of you.” When someone asked what the name of the cafe is he said, “I don’t know, it’s just down the road”. Which sent our group both bursting into laughter and shaking our heads. But lo and behold, we did find the cafe without any dramas!
By the middle of the tour, most of us had been “Hygi-fied” and have also taken a laid back approach to things, which is good for unwinding, and making the tour feel less regimented.
On hindsight, it’s Hygi’s laissez-faire attitude to guiding our group that has set the tone hence our group synergy just jived. He treated everyone equally, and most definitely knows the best restaurant and pub recommendations in each town we stopped at.
Please take the time to watch this clip that we had as much fun editing as actually doing!!!
The people that made up our group were the definite highlight of the tour. Everyone came from different backgrounds, majority were from America, a handful from Europe (Germany, UK, Netherlands, Scotland) and the age range was very broad. Out of 16, only 1 was a student, 1 was doing a Gap year and the rest are all professionals (there’s a huge number of engineers in this group!)
A lot of solo female travellers too, and the couple pairings consisted of 2 best friends, mother and daughter, brother & sister and 2 married couples (including Zombie and myself)
Haka Tours are mainly taken by professionals who like to experience being on the road in New Zealand and also engaging in adventurous activities.
I’m glad that the longest stretch of non-stop drive we had was only 4 hours. Our group filled the exact number of seats and while it was a safe drive, my butt was numb after 2-3 hours.
Accommodation-wise, these are no luxury hotels, and it would be unreasonable and unfair to expect that. The accommodations consisted of various inns and motels, and there’s an optional upgrade to have private ensuite rooms (which we did).
My personal suggestion: it would be fantastic if guests can have the option to upgrade their accommodation (not just the type of room). It will probably create more work logistics-wise but I know many would be happy to upgrade and spend for an upgraded accommodation. The median age of Haka Tours guests are Not of the backpacking age and this will be very handy.
I enjoyed this tour immensely that it was easy to look past the slight discomforts as the pros definitely outweigh the cons in this tour.
Haka Tours are expanding rapidly and I cannot wait to see what other tours/ventures they have in store. It was a pleasure dealing with them, from the booking stage several months before the actual trip, to actually being in the trip. The administration side is very organised and are proactive in sending necessary information and documents.
I’d definitely recommend Haka Tours over the other bigger bus companies because of the size (maximum 16 in every tour), and everyone’s needs / opinions are heard with a smaller group. There’s also more flexibility when you are in a smaller-sized group. The service is more personalised and the group dynamics more intimate hence it is easier to socialise and therefore enjoy your trip more.
I’d love to know, have you been in a group tour before? How was your experience, and have you explored New Zealand?
Disclaimer and Fact Box:
Our flights and trip to New Zealand were hosted by Haka Tours, but as always, the opinions of the tour remain our own. A special thanks to Gravity Canyon and Taupo Bungy for hosting my extreme swings and bungy jump.
The 7-Day North Island Tour costs NZD 1,299.00 (approx AUD 1291.00) per person. We paid an additional NZD 540.00 for the upgrade to private rooms.