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Travel Long Haul: Calm after the human storm

Never mind bungee jumps and sky dives: to enjoy New Zealand you simply wander through the landscape.
Phil jumped out of the bus and pointed up at the summit of the sand dunes. "First one to the top gets a packet of strawberry-flavoured condoms!" My husband and I looked at each other. Did he mean us? "Come on you guys."

With whoops of enthusiasm, 20 people charged up the steep, sandy slope, sliding backwards and playfully tripping each other up.

"I think I'll just take photos from here," I mumbled lamely, feeling like a fat teenager left out of the rounders team.

For a thirtysomething couple with modest savings, travelling in New Zealand meant doing it backpacker-style, travelling on buses, hitching and staying in cheap hostels. This is why we were now crammed into a spray-painted bus with giggling girls, tousle-haired youths and their uncomfortably large surf-boards. Conversation was clearly seen as for squares, with languid Frisbee-throwing acting as the main medium of courtship. Beach barbecues, heavy drinking and hangovers were de rigueur.

As our customised vehicle set off at top speed down Ninety Mile Beach, the driver looked at the sea with some alarm. "Say Phil, is that tide coming in?" "No worries mate, the tide tables can't be wrong." Even so, Dave accelerated, and I tried to enjoy the exhilaration of flying down the seemingly endless sands beside the fierce Tasman Sea, shutting out of my mind fleeting images of being trapped underwater in a metal box.

On the way back to Auckland we detoured to the much-publicised ancient kauri forest. As keen nature-lovers, we were looking forward to our guided forest walk. Phil paused beside an immense trunk. "This is a kauri tree, folks." He patted it and gazed upwards towards the invisible top. "It's a really cool tree, the kauri." He moved to the next trunk. "This is a rimu tree. That's a pretty cool tree, too." Ten minutes later we were back on the bus.

Back in Auckland, we paused for breath and tried to remember everything we had done. It had started with a three-hour drive to the glow-worm caves, where we waded through waist-high water until the low ceiling forced us to crawl. I had got left behind and had spent 20 agonising minutes alone in the dark.

The next entertainment was a cattle market, where the flies were unbelievably vicious. "An authentic Kiwi experience," as Phil described it. Another long drive took us to a rather chilly snorkelling session, a fish and chip shop, and our hostel.

The next day we had touched down briefly at Cape Reinga, nearly the northernmost point of New Zealand, where everyone played Frisbee, before racing down the Quicksand Stream to the Giant Sand Dunes, and back down Ninety Mile Beach. At some point there had been a barbecue, dolphins and a pub stop. It felt like watching one of those kaleidoscopic TV programmes for adolescents with a 10-second attention span, and I was exhausted.

I was also learning about different travel styles within New Zealand. Companies such as Kiwi Experience and the Magic Bus, aimed at young people, offered a way of reaching some remote places. Their flexibility meant that we were able to hop on and off to do our own exploring, and be picked up in the middle of nowhere days later.

It was good to be in a country where it's expected that you will want to stride off into the bush or mountains to commune with nature. Almost every New Zealander we met waxed lyrical about the countryside, even the slick cosmetics salesman who gave us a ride to Tongariro and reminisced about his trout-fishing, possum-shooting childhood, before selling us more hair shampoo than we could carry in our rucksacks.

New Zealand's long-distance walks are wonderfully varied, ranging from thick native bush to barren volcanic landscapes that resemble the surface of the moon. On the North Island (having escaped Phil and the Fun Factory) we walked along deserted beaches piled with paua shell; on the South Island we trekked through luxuriant fern-filled rainforest to the foot of a glacier.

Circling the rim of the crater on Mount Tongariro and having our lunch stolen by kea parrots on the Kepler Trail felt fairly exciting to us, but we soon learnt that this was unadventurous by New Zealand standards. Not content merely to admire the landscape, the young person must jump off it, fly over it or abseil down it. Completing our arduous treks counted for nothing in the hostel kitchens, when the four-packs were opened and the machismo began. In Wellington, my partner was getting nowhere with a blonde Australian backpacker.

"You haven't been white-water rafting?" He shook his head. "What about parapenting? The tandem sky-dive?"

"Um, no."

"You must have done a bungee?"

"I couldn't really see the point..." By now the girl was exchanging glances with her friends.

Whether you've been rap-jumping or merely rambling, a good night's sleep is pretty important, but it isn't always easy to achieve on a low budget. Our worst accommodation was in a cheap hostel in Christchurch, where sagging bunks, sweaty socks and guttural male bonding noises in the crowded dorm made me take my camping-mat out into the corridor.

The best included a luxurious home from home in Picton, with double beds and juggling lessons. Smaller hostels often attracted a wider range of international travellers, with fireside tales that went beyond bungee heroism.

After our trek, we rewarded ourselves with a last lazy week pottering about the hills and lakes of Otago. On our final day we were accosted in the tourist office by a student doing a research project. We answered dozens of questions about where we'd been, what we'd done and hadn't done. "We're putting everyone into categories," she explained "to see what activities we need to provide for visitors."

My curiosity got the better of me. "So what category are we in?" "Oh, you're a Totbee," she said brightly.

"A what-bee?" "A Totbee. Too Old To Bungee," she said briefly, dismissing my youth with a flick of her sun-streaked, surf-tangled hair.

Fact File

DEBORAH GRICE paid pounds 1,230 for a complex round-the-world itinerary booked through Trailfinders (0171-938 3366).

Only Air New Zealand (0181-741 2299) flies direct these days, with daily services from Heathrow to Auckland from December. But a dozen other airlines will fly you there via intermediate points, ranging from Bangkok to Buenos Aires.

In the next few weeks there are some excellent deals. We called a selection of discount agents for fares for a return journey from London to Auckland departing on 20 November for two weeks. Platinum Travel (0171-937 5122) has a fare of pounds 655 on Air New Zealand; on some dates fares are as low as pounds 505. Trailfinders (0171-938 3366) quotes a fare of pounds 665 on Cathay Pacific via Hong Kong, while Thomas Cook Flights Direct (0990 101520) is offering pounds 805 return on Garuda.