Contest Over. New Zealand is now officially my favorite country. And I didn't even get to see the whole thing; only a fraction of the North Island. Guess it just gives me a reason to go back someday.
So this is the first place I've traveled where I had zero plan. Just landed at the airport, took the bus downtown and got off somewhere on Queen Street. Feel like I made a lot of rookie mistakes that first day but I learned from them so it's all good. First hostel I went to was booked solid so I had to walk all the way back down this massive incline that I had just conquered, with both my bags, to find some more options. Once I confirmed a room at Nomads Fat Camel, which was ok as far as hostels go and definitely served its purpose, I chatted up a couple of my new roommates then went to find food.
I definitely over-paid for my first meal but there was bubble tea involved so it wasn't a total loss. Also forgot my water bottle there and when I realized this, I went back to retrieve it only to learn that they had thrown it away. Also forgot the reusable bag I brought with me from home and I try to avoid plastic bags if at all possible so I had to buy a canvas one at a small market where I bought a weeks worth of groceries to cover my breakfasts & lunches. Then I spent the rest of the evening figuring out what I was gonna do with several days in Auckland.
The following morning after a nearly sleepless night thanks to the raging bar and karaoke bustling downstairs, I walked towards the harbor to catch the hop on, hop off bus. My first stop was the Auckland Museum which I highly recommend. I'm kind of a geek and love art/culture/history museums and this is top of my list. All in all it cost about $50 NZD for about 3 hours of "edutainment" including a guided tour (for which I was the youngest person by far) and a live Maori cultural show. Here are some key words to whet your appetite: Volcanoes, sharks, dinosaurs, local, Maori, haka, WWII, taxonomy, Pacific, Ancient, Asia, Art, WOW. And free wi-fi all day, every day!
Still in the mood for museums, I hit the MOTAT next (Museum of Transportation & Technology). More emphasis on the transportation than technology for sure. Definitely a niche museum and probably not for everyone. The thing I actually found most intriguing was the fully functioning and free to play Apollo 13 themed pinball machine. It was bittersweet because it's been forever and a day since I last played pinball but then again I was like "Holy crap - I'm old enough for things from my childhood to be in a museum." :/ And it's a cruel, cruel joke that a museum supposedly specializing in technology doesn't have wifi anywhere on the premises.
I went to the most incredible vegetarian restaurant called Revive for dinner and bought one of their cookbooks. There were actually 4 different cookbooks all packed with tasty-looking meat-and-mostly-dairy-free recipes and it took all my willpower not to buy all four of them. But then I thought about how much four cookbooks would weigh down my already heavy rucksack and I was once again satisfied with one.
I caught a bus out to the suburbs to the Stardome (yet another museum/planetarium) to see a presentation about constellations in the Southern Hemisphere. I meant to film the whole thing on my gopro but it was dark and I didn't realize I had it on the wrong setting so all I ended up with was a whole bunch of black nothing. Despite the presenter's monotonous voice and feeble attempts at humor, I found the presentation interesting and we even went outside and got to look through actual telescopes.
You figure it would be just as easy to catch the bus back as it had been to get there, right? Wrong! The time table was posted right next to the stop and the first scheduled bus blew right past me and another Chinese girl that were waiting for it and the next bus never even showed up. By this time, a third girl from Belgium named Selene had arrived. I was not wasting any more of my time waiting for this phantom bus and instead approached a couple of middle-aged guys across the street who were wearing matching safety vests and asked if one of them could call a cab for us. One of them, named John, did us one better and offered to drive us back to town. I invited the other two girls stranded on the bus bench as well and Selene seemed relieved to join me while the Chinese girl (she never shared her name) emphatically declined with wide-eyed uncertainty. Turns out John is part of a volunteer search & rescue team and they were just doing a drill - but he ended up rescuing two foreign girls from the suburbs of Auckland for reals that night. He insisted we not pay him for his incredibly kind service but I gave him a rare American $2 bill to give to his young son as a token of my appreciation anyways.
Day Three began with a trip to the Eden Botanical Gardens followed by a solo hike up to the tallest point in the area called Mt. Eden. It's actually an extinct volcano (pretty much all of New Zealand is volcanoes btw) and if you reach the top, you'll encounter a huge crater and panoramic views of the city. It was getting late in the afternoon so my last stop was Kelly Tarleton's Aquarium. It was fascinating! After being pleased with seeing signs saying that they were against the confinement of dolphins and orcas, I was delighted by the penguins that were part of their breeding program. The most amazing part, though, was the 180º aquarium where you could watch sharks and rays and sea turtles swim right over the top of you while you stand on a slow moving walkway. I decided to walk back around the bay to my hostel with my full day pack and hiking boots because it didn't look that far. Three and a half miles later after walking through less than favorable weather and almost getting run over by a cyclist, I decided that was not in fact a good idea. I stumbled into my new dorm room with soggy clothes and sore feet. I desperately needed a shower but I still took a few minutes to meet some of the other girls milling around. Sidenote: My previous dorm was co-ed and was merely acceptable while this all female dorm smelled and felt so much cleaner. Boys are gross.
I decided to do something out of the ordinary and sign up for a pub crawl with two other English girls in the midst of their gap year travels. It was $10 NZD for 4 drinks at 4 bars, starting right downstairs at our hostel. I still hadn't eaten anything since my meager self-packed lunch prior to the hiking and trek around the bay so I ordered a big pile of french fries because I was starving and it just doesn't end well for anyone if I drink on an empty stomach. I thought I was going to make so many friends, smiling and eagerly offering to share my plate of golden goodness, but actually people mostly just thought I was weird. So I finished the fries at a table with my new English girlfriends and choked down a beer. I hate beer, by the way. It didn't take very long for the three of us to acquire a few "satellites", or questionable guys that kind of circle around a group of girls with painfully obvious intentions.
There was a Kiwi guy with a beard who was a zookeeper and obsessed with the show vikings and some kid from Hamburg and a few other uncredited extras. They followed us to the second bar and I convinced them to buy us a round of shots. Mostly because I could and because I lived in Hamburg and this guy was the perfect stereotype that reminded me of the spoiled rich kids that live there so I knew he could afford it. By this time a Canadian guy had started orbiting us as well and quipped after my firm yet polite request "Wow, you ARE American, aren't you, eh?" [Ok, he didn't actually say "eh."] However, I chose to take this as a compliment.
By the time we got to the last bar, the satellites had now become carnivores, stalking easier prey since the three of us were clearly not going to be extending any invitations to our beds or even to come within our personal three feet of space any time soon. I started a conversation with a shaggy, blonde dude with an impressive, traditional-looking half sleeve tat who was emitting pretty strong surfer vibes. Shockingly, I found out he was in fact a surfer. The music was pretty wretched at the point so we left and chatted for a while before calling it a night.
The next morning brought with it one of the biggest adrenaline rushes of my trip. I had previously signed up and paid way too much money to bungee jump off the harbor bridge. I mean, bungee jumping was invented in this country. I couldn't leave until I tried it. I've been skydiving a handful of times so I thought this would be a piece of cake but I was still terrified once I stepped up to that ledge. Even though, a grandmother in her 80's had just jumped before me. I had my gopro strapped to my chest, and a new friend I made that was from San Francisco convinced me to experience the full effect of jumping off a bridge which includes splashing into the water, as opposed to hovering just above it and staying dry. I barely remember what happened because I just closed my eyes and jumped off, confident that I could review my gopro footage later, except that the lens became obscured within a second of me leaping off the bridge so all you see if a yellow strap flapping slightly in front of the lens and all you hear is screaming and a sudden splash. Facepalm.
Still a bit soggy, I met up with my new surfer friend to check out some street art on Karangahape Road. I really liked this area and wouldn't mind living there. We stumbled upon a rather outgoing cafe owner who made us chai lattes, handed me some chalk and invited me to draw on one of the walls covered in chalk paint. I was completely caught off guard but managed to create a decent-looking cheshire cat caricature. Our search for street art was pretty successful and so we celebrated this success with a really incredible vegetarian meal at this eclectic little restaurant. Later, we ended up back on Queen Street to take in some of the free activities that were part of the on-going Auckland Arts Festival. The music selection was all over the place but it was nice to have a place to sit and relax for a while. Then I had to wait around til almost midnight for my sister to arrive with her rental car from the airport so we could check into our hostel and collapse on our bunk beds, thoroughly exhausted.