Ahhh … day number one in our big bright orange bus. Our waka (Maori – canoe, vehicle) – which will carry us many thousands of kilometres through the vastness of Aoteroa and be the platform of our New Zealand experience.
An electric atmosphere always develops in the waka’s cabin on the first morning of a new trip from Auckland. Pregnant with equal parts anticipation and trepidation, it’s a lot like the first day of school. Bright eyes. Strange faces. The exchange of nervous whispers. We’re a bunch of strangers – about to set off to explore lands, have adventures, and share laughs.
Don’t worry, I’ll save you the embarrassment of mummy kissing you goodbye at the schoolgate, and I’ll pick you up from right outside your hostel instead. There you are – trying to look as cool as a cucumber, casually leaning against the fence with your backpack at your feet.
Welcome aboard lovely passengers. My name is Nacho and I will be your driver. As well as your guide; your trip planner; your weatherman; your storyteller; your photographer; your radio deejay; your campfire-builder; your doctor; your fashion adviser; and your wildlife consultant, and general all-knowing fountain of knowledge.
This is no ordinary bus you’ve boarded this morning. It’s a Stray bus, that also transforms into a classroom, a talkshow, a dating service, a dance floor, and much more. Think of the people around you not as strangers, but as friends that you are yet to meet. And me, think of me as your best mate; what we here in Aoteroa would call, your ‘bro’.
Shy whispers turn to animated conversations, in a myriad of different accents from around the world, as we play a light-hearted game to learn a few things about each other. I’m always intrigued by what has brought each person to my Aoteroa, my homeland, and this is one thing I like to find out as everyone repeatedly change seats, meeting friends-that-have-now-just-been-met, as the game progresses.
Thankfully the rules of the game mean the driver’s seat remains exclusively my territory, and as I turn us onto State Highway 2 to Thames, I can barely hear the music on the radio above the excited interactions talking place in the cabin behind me. This is why I love the first day of school.
Today we travel south out of Auckland to an area, popular with Kiwi (the people, not the birds) holiday makers, called the Coromandel Peninsula. Casually paddling away from the beach in kayaks, we say hello to seals and stingrays in Mercury Bay, before stopping in to Cathedral Cove for a secluded hot chocolate on the isolated beach. After long-haul flights into Auckland, a spot of kayaking and sunbathing is a great way to shake off the jetlag and get into Aoteroa’s (the Maori name for New Zealand – literally, Land of the Long White Cloud) relaxed pace of life. Welcome to your Stray holiday.
In the afternoon it’s a short ride to a nearby rustic vineyard that serves up liquor distilled from local fruits, and then onwards to an ocean beach that somehow has cold waves, and HOT water rising up through the ground.
A few glasses of kiwifruit and feijoa (a guava-like fruit very popular in New Zealand) wine later, we find ourselves hurriedly digging an imitation jacuzi into the sands of Hot Water Beach. We’re trying to catch the thermal spring water before the cold tide comes any closer! Whilst this trip’s talented crew (including a software engineer from Italy, a US Navy pilot, a Dutch pastry chef, carpenters, students, accountants and lawyers) work together in our natural sandpit, it becomes obvious that we are lacking one key professional for the evening – a jacuzzi engineer!
Alright class, tonight’s optional homework is to work in a team to prepare and cook a group bbq dinner. Your driver will supervise and assist you as required. Marks will be awarded for using fresh New Zealand produce – try garlic marinated NZ lamb chops and a delicious potato and kumara (Maori sweet potato) salad.