The Kiwi Experience really packs it in with the activities. I've done at least one thing (usually two) that I've been looking forward to every day.
Just a few highlights have been:
Black water rafting in the Waitomo glowworm caves. I was slightly nervous about these because I don't like being trapped in small places, but I was surprised to find that I really enjoyed it. There was only one bit that was quite tight, where the roof of the cave came down to about two feet above the water, and when you're floating in a rubber tube that doesn't leave much room for your body!
The glowworms were beautiful, and at one point we all turned off our head torches and just watched the small pricks of turquoise light dance along the ceiling high above us. We even jumped backwards off some waterfalls into splash pools, because the two hours underground paddling through ice cold water apparently wasn't exciting enough.
The whole thing was great fun, and I'm no longer worried about going into caves. It just took a while to regain feeling in my fingers...
On Tuesday most of my bus did the famous Tongariro Crossing, a 20km hike over two active volcanoes, also passing Mt Doom. And I can't recommend this enough. It is difficult, especially at this time of year now it's getting to winter. In fact we were told not to attempt Mt Doom, an optional off-shoot of the main path, because we'd need crampons and ice picks. Some people did try it (this is the Kiwi Experience after all) but everyone who did was forced to turn back by the weather.
The weather was mixed, but while it was a gorgeous day with blue skies in the real world, once we reached the top of the Red Crater the weather closed in on us. We were enveloped in swirling clouds and battered by strong winds. The winds can get up to 120km there so it's not for the faint of heart, especially with the sharp drop into misty nothingness that keeps you company for a decent stretch of the ascent.
But the views were incredible. Absolutely worth the 6.5 hour hike. You start off in a dead volcanic plain, with some marshland stretching to the hardened lava flows winding down the steep mountainside. It's proper Mordor territory.
Then you head up the Devil's Staircase and see the stunning Mt Doom from its neighbouring steaming volcano.
From there you keep going up into snow-covered rocky terrain.
Then it gets really good. When the clouds parted we were rewarded with views of the surrounding valleys, Lake Taupo and best of all, the Emerald Lakes at the foot of the mountain.
Claire and I (she was the girl my pace seemed to match so we did it together) had lunch just above the lakes, and it was so worth the gruelling climb and slippery scree-slide to get down.
I don't think any of us were quite prepared for how intense the climb would be, but we all managed it. I think our first clue should have been the sign at the start of the trail saying: "Stop! Are you prepared for this?" and the numerous signs later on warning not to stay in these areas too long due to volcanic activity. So if you do it, which I do recommend, take winter gear, plenty of food, and be ready!
Now the last thing is easily a highlight of my life so far, and it will be difficult to top. This was the afternoon before the Crossing, at Lake Taupo.
I did a skydive. A skydive! Me! Now if you know me, you'll know that I'm not the kind of person you'd expect to do one. But I knew I wouldn't forgive myself if I came to New Zealand, with beautiful blue sky, and didn't throw myself out of a plane.
And because I'd decided I was going to do it, and knew I wouldn't back out, that seemed to blanket me in an unshakeable sense of calm. Even when I was going up to 15,000 feet, watching the ground drop away into a landscape painting, I felt fine. Even when I was sitting at the door of the plane, legs dangling into the wind, with Ricky strapped to my back, I felt fine.
And then we jumped.
I have my face immortalised in the video they took, and it ain't pretty. The first two seconds or so I did not feel fine. I think it was the shock, especially as I'd been so weirdly calm. But then, once I opened my eyes and looked down at the view, I loved it. It didn't feel like falling, and there was no stomach lurching feeling, thank god. It was very windy, and if you look directly down then you can't breathe because of the wind, but the views... Thinking back still makes me smile. Lake Taupo glittering in the sun, the fields and mountains shining green, the volcanoes on the lakeside spurting plumes of white steam into the air far below. Indescribable.
From 15,000 feet the freefall lasts one minute, and from 12,000 it's 45 seconds. It goes incredibly quickly, and then the parachute opens with a crotch-crunching whoosh. I was originally going to go for the 12,000 option, but when they asked me I changed my mind at the last moment. Why not, ey? And it was worth it for the extra time of flying through the air.
And afterwards everyone was still soaring. The feeling is amazing. We all watched each other's videos in the small cinema room at Skydive Taupo HQ, and saw our cheeks flapping in the wind. The most hilarious is when the wind catches your lips and forces them open like a demented duck. Thankfully that didn't happen to me, but my cheeks were going a mile a minute. You can actually choose the music they put over the video from a selection they have, and I chose Sexy and I Know It by LMFAO. Of course. And when they say the line "I'm in a speedo trying to tan my cheeks", the wind catches mine and they wobble like crazy. Well done, video editor.
I think it's because the last few days have been such a whirlwind of new exciting things, but it still doesn't feel like I did a skydive. That was some other insane adrenalin-junkie, not just little old me.
I'm starting to think this is indeed the best time of my life. I'm most certainly in a high period right now.
I'm currently staying with family friends in apocalyptic-wind battered Wellington, and tomorrow morning I rejoin the Kiwi Experience bus on the ferry crossing to the South Island. I've heard very good things about the south, so if it's better than the north I will be the happiest man on earth.