Forget Lord of the Rings, a trip to New Zealand isn't an epic quest. With the Bay of Islands and the dark caves of Waitomo nearby, a quick Auckland visit can pack in a lot
Where can you wrestle an ostrich for breakfast, shave a bunny for lunch, swim through glow worm caves before dinner, and still have time for sailing, pubbing and caving before the weekend is out?
Try Auckland, a fun destination in its own right, but the real action is just a few hours away in places like the Bay of Islands and Waitomo.
Accommodation alone is an adventure; you can bunk down in a sailing hostel or catch a wink at a self-catering ostrich farm where mini ponies mow the lawn.
And, while bungee jumping might be so passé, you can party in a floating bar boat, try spelunking or watch a woman shave her bunny. There’s a lot to try near Auckland. The real question is - how much can you handle in a weekend?
We decide we can handle it all, and that means we need a car. You can bus it - Stray Backpacker Bus do excellent passes (www.straytravel.com), but a rental car really opens up your options. We use Jucy rentals (www.jucy.co.nz); cheap and cheerful and used to backpackers, they take a lot of the hassle and cost out of getting a car in New Zealand. Their El Cheapo option - where you get an older car - usually comes to less than 30NZD a day.
So, in the car and on to the hostel boat. Based in Paihia in the beautiful Bay of Islands two and half hours north of Auckland, Rock the Boat is a small family-operated overnight cruise that includes (take a deep breath) shooting, sailing, snorkelling, island visits and hiking, local history, nature chats, midnight kayaking, fishing and more.
Don't feel like being energetic? Laze in the bar or sit around the warm open stove and enjoy a beer. The staff are wonderfully friendly and passionate about what they do, and manage to hit the balance between getting you involved and leaving you to relax.
The boat is designed to be a hostel and bar at sea; she's not fast but she is huge and stable, so even the sea-sickness-inclined get a good night's sleep. The trip crams a lot in, and at 178NZD per person, including all meals and a fantastic barbecue dinner, Rock the Boat rocks every one of the twenty two hours onboard.
A protected group of 144 islands, the Bay of Islands has a balmy subtropical climate and plenty to do – I’m particularly taken by swimming with dolphins - but we don't have time to stop. We're off back to Auckland for a quick night's sleep and then on to Waitomo, two and a half hours drive away.
Auckland City YHA is a great base in Auckland; clean and welcoming, and right on top of Karangahape, or K' Road as it's known - Auckland's party street. Around the corner is the Ken Yaki Tori Bar (89 Karangahape Road) where you can watch delicious skewers of Japanese food being cooked in front of you. It's very cheap and you could eat for under a tenner, but with so many delicious things on the menu you may find yourself with eyes bigger than your stomach.
The next day we're off to caving country. Waitomo Caves are renowned both for their spelunking (or caving) and their glow worms. The ideal way to see both is to go blackwater rafting - cave tubing, as it's more accurately called, as it doesn’t involve any rafting. You don't need any experience, just a sense of adventure and the ability not to mind how silly you look in a wetsuit.
We decide to try the ominously named Black Abyss with the Legendary Blackwater Rafting Company, a five-hour tour that starts abseiling and a flying fox ride through the darkness, and then climbing and cave tubing down the river lit only by our helmet torches and the light of the glow worms overhead.
It's cold and wet and exhausting and utterly enthralling. But for those who fancy a slightly less arduous look at the glow worms, Spellbound (www.glowworm.co.nz) do tours that let your stay warm and dry while still seeing the full beauty and mystery of the underground.
After all that activity, a warm night's sleep is much needed and we book into the Big Bird B&B. What's with the name? It's an ostrich farm, where you can look out of your chalet in the morning (very reasonably priced at under 100NZD including a fantastic fresh breakfast) and see the big birds grazing down the grass. The other lawnmowers are mini ponies. According to the owners, visitors of all sizes adore both the free ostrich tour and the mini pony rides but adults have to be disappointed and told they are too big to get on such small horses. As you can see, they're only up to my knees.
Oh, and that big ostrich face photo? That's what one of the birds looks like a moment before it tries to eat your camera. My travelling partner grabs the ostrich by the neck and we get the camera back. We look around guiltily, but it looks like our animal cruelty has gone unnoticed. We figure we can get out of Waitomo and back to Auckland airport without any more acts of aggression against New Zealand's fauna.
We reckon without the bunny-shaving. Passing a building called The Shearing Shed on Waitomo Caves Road, I see a sign that says "Bunnies shaved daily : 12.45". I look at my watch. It's 12.30. That's it, we have to stop.
It turns out that the bunnies in question are Angora rabbits. Here at the Shearing Shed, during a free hour-long demonstration, you can pet the bunnies and find out all about them. They grow those super long white coats as food - hair is full of protein, and they nibble it away through the winter when there is no grass. Boy bunnies are too smelly to shave and wear, but one girl bunny has enough hair to make a child’s hat. The wool from the bunnies, and loads of beautifully-crafted knitwear, are available to buy and the friendly staff could talk forever about their rabbits.
But we have to go. In a weekend, we have gone sailing, spelunking, kayaking and snorkelling, taken a flying fox, wrestled an ostrich and watched a woman shave her bunny. It’s time to call it quits before New Zealand comes up with anything else for us to try – or someone hears what we are up to and calls the RSPCA.