“Find me where the wild things are.”

The problem with hidden gems is that they are…..hidden! It’s so difficult to find places in New Zealand that haven’t been colonised by tourists or marred by extortionately priced entry fees. But armed with local knowledge we managed to beat the system several times. This is one of the best parts of work stays.

We have been to beaches, atop cliffs, through jungles, to waterfalls, through caves, up trees, and even snorkelling.

All. For. Free!

Our hosts very graciously leant us their snorkelling kit, took us to hidden paradises in their car and told us of the best areas to explore. My favourite of which was our excursion to Goat Island Marine Reserve. I will admit that there were many people there but once you’re in the water it doesn’t matter much anyway. Now water is not my element at all. It took me over a year to achieve my 10 metre swimming badge when I was a kid and as several patient but exasperated friends have explained to me, – i just don’t float! So I have never even considered snorkelling before. But with the wet suits, fins and masks already loaded up in the car and the promise of an incredible dive site I thought I’d give it a try, because why not? I was out of my comfort zone but determined to see what was possible. I was not leaving until I’d seen a fish!

The sun was blazing, the water was sparkling and the waves gently caressing each and every exposed rock with the loving touch of a holiday romance. It was idyllic apart from one tiny thing. The water temperature was freezing! Even with the wet suit on, every trickle down my back felt like an ice knife slicing straight into my spine. But after an acclimatisation period it was time to re-learn how to breathe. Peter had managed to swim all the way over the island and back already whilst I persuaded myself to fight all those natural urges and relax in the water.

Eventually I managed it and with Peter’s help he guided me out to deeper water so we could try some proper snorkelling. He never let go of my hand and together we ambled through the water looking at an incredible array of fish. The water was lovely and clear and we managed to see some beautiful species. Peter could tell how excited I was as we pointed them out to each other and I felt compelled to wave hello to every new scale wearing friend that we saw. It was such a fantastic experience and all for free too!

We had even learnt about some of the local Maori legends, particularly regarding the native flora. There is an exotic looking plant which appears to resemble a spider plant on steroids. It perches itself precariously on the branches of larger trees and can happily make its home there for years. However the locals call it a “widow maker” because, at any given time the pull of gravity can eventually cause it to succumb to the draw of the earth and fall off it’s branch, often onto the head of an unsuspecting victim. Once I learned this I gave these plants a wide berth!

There is also the most beautiful shrub full of spiky red flowers whose name I could not spell or pronounce if somebody paid me to! The Maori believe it is an omen of the coming season. If the blood red flowers continue to grace the beaches with their presence late on in the summer then the winter will not be so harsh or if they are late in blooming then the summer will not be as fruitful. I loved the Maoris deep connection and appreciation with their naive wildlife.

In other excursions we’d come across trees you could live in or those carved to tell stories. We picked up litter along beaches and played around among oddly shaped rocks, one of which resembled Dracula’s coffin. And we even ventured our way into a cave system armed with nothing but a fading torch and a sense of adventure.

We entered through a gaping rocky hole in the forest and within 20 metres the darkness engulfed us thoroughly. The cooling air was filled with excitement and the humming of an actual choir practicing further in to the cave. We scrambled, clambered, tip toed, waded and swam all the way through it. Peter, in his adventurous state actually found a brand new route which involved him clinging to the side of a cavern, then wading and swimming through deep water with only a head torch to guide him. Long after he went out of sight I started to get rather worried until he emerged at a completely different exit and looped back to tell me of his adventure.

This cave is also famous for one last thing – when you peer up into the murky gloom of the rocky ceiling you can see a galaxy of sparkling diamonds. The cave is inhabited by thousands of glowworms, all twinkling away in the darkness, leaving their silky strands of thread as their calling card. Once all the torches had been switched off it was truly a beautiful sight and could leave you mesmerised for a long time.

Sadly not everything has been free. Travelling on a budget does mean that you certainly make the most of free activities but every now and again we were happy to splash out on an exciting excursion. We decided to go Whale watching. I was so happy to be back on board a Whale watching boat and this time it was so much warmer than when I was working on one in Scotland. We saw some beautiful Common Dolphins bow riding with us and they were even proudly displaying their young calves too. There was also an incredible Brydes Whale who’s snorted breath pierced the anticipated silence like a foghorn. He was absolutely massive and incredible to see. And we even saw a Hammerhead Shark swimming up at the surface which was an unexpected delight! It was a great trip but was slightly mired by the fact that as soon as a Whale was spotted we would actually charge straight towards it, only stopping about 50 metres away – a practice which would have been unheard of at my old place of work in Scotland. We would always let the wildlife come to us. When I challenged the skipper on this he was immediately defensive stating that he had been sailing these waters for 25 years and never hit a Whale and according to him some individuals actually recognised the acoustic signature of the boat. I was a little dubious so instead talked to the researchers about the work they were conducting which was mainly photo I.D. There was no plankton trawls sadly as they used to be a highlight on my old boat.

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Being zoo keepers no trip to a new country is complete without a visit to the zoo so one incredibly rainy day we set out in search of captive Kiwi, playful Kea, chilled out Cheetah, suspiciously friendly Squirrel Monkeys and elegant Elephants. Auckland zoo was absolutely incredible. I wondered round stating how much I would love to work there. The enclosures were fantastic, the vet centre astonishing and the staff all seemed very friendly too. It was pure zoo keeper heaven and immediately felt like home.

We had come to explore all these places using our work stay as a base however now was the time to leave and explore the rest of New Zealand on our own. We loaded up Nessie our beloved van and set off on a road trip, driving to wherever we wanted and freedom camping as much as we could along the way.

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