New Zealand - Kirra Tours - Trevor Faulkner
In February and March 2004 I did an 18-day tour of New Zealand's South and North islands with my family. This was essentially a coach tour organised by Kirra Tours, New Zealand, but it included three train journeys and three short cruises, an extra day in Christchurch and, of course, flights from our home city (Brisbane) and back. Our trip was so enjoyable that I felt it deserved mention on this website. As with the article on our 2002 overseas holiday, I will focus on people, organisations, services and value rather than on the spectacular sight-seeing (see photos).
Despite the advertising on Australian TV suggesting that you'll find everything in New Zealand that you can find anywhere else, you cannot visit this country expecting to gather the same kinds of treasure that you would in Europe or Asia. Travelling in the Old World you become enveloped in the distinctive culture and ambiance of each country, the sense of a profound, ancient bond between man and his environment - quaint, historic villages that are part and parcel of the landscape, elaborate old buildings and artworks and longstanding traditions in industry and agriculture. Not so in New Zealand. Here, perhaps more than anywhere else in the world, one feels that man is an invader, his cities of timber shacks suggesting he is only camping here for awhile. Around him lies a landscape at first sight so pristine, so awesome you begin to wonder what right the human race has to be here. Then you become aware of the immense damage he has perpetrated on the environment. One of the grandest and most ancient of trees, the Kauri, has all but disappeared; not a single species of native land mammal remains; European sparrows, blackbirds and Indian mynas are everywhere; millions of Australian possums are chewing their way through what's left of the forest; hawthorn and gorse line the sides of railways and roads; ferrets, stoats, weasels, feral cats and even hedgehogs ravage the native bird species; and, most visibly of all, in many areas the hillsides have been taken over by hordes of sheep and cattle. But let's not get too dismayed with all this. After all, New Zealand has a land area a little larger than that of the UK, but a population of only 4 million as compared to the UK's 60 million. Like Australia, it is a land of wide open spaces, a land that can still be rescued from environmental disaster, and much effort is going into doing just that.
So what can you see in New Zealand? Scenery both wild and lush, fresh flowing rivers and roaring waterfalls, mist-shrouded mountains, glaciers, enchanting rainforest, rolling green hills, some of the most magnificent coastal scenery in the world and, yes, even some attractive, vibrant cities. Then there are the geological oddities like the steaming geysers and mudpools, and a wide range of excitingly different activities, often too scary for sane people to attempt. The residents are warm and welcoming and you get a taste of Maori culture, but, it seems, a culture that has largely died out along with the Kauri forests. There's plenty to see and do and a couple of weeks is hardly enough time to get a feel for the place. As our South Island coach captain, Trev, kept saying right up to the end: "You ain't seen nothin' yet". I left New Zealand with those words ringing in my ears, believing them, and with a strange feeling of having established a bond. One day I would return, perhaps to camp here along with the other invaders - indefinitely.
In these notes, the views expressed are chiefly my own, but I have taken into account the opinions of the other members of my family where they differ from mine or, especially, when I missed out on an activity. I haven't taken much notice of the opinions of our other co-travellers, as the composition of the group changed from time to time. In fact we ended up with only one couple who began the tour with us. My comments and evaluations are relative, in the sense that one expects to get more of a buzz from, say, a famous train journey than from a backstreet cafe in a remote town.
Apart from the Freedom Air flight from Auckland back home, the entire trip was booked through Fairfield Travel, the agency in our local shopping centre at Fairfield Gardens, 5km south of Brisbane city. This agency dealt with everything extremely efficiently and helpfully, as they have on several previous occasions. If they couldn't answer my finicky questions, they phoned the Kirra Tours office for the answers. They negotiated a discount price for us and they booked a Pacific Blue flight to Christchurch over the internet, which I could have done myself. I say "they" did all this, when perhaps I should have said "Tanya Moss", the person who on this occasion handled our bookings so proficiently. But the thing I especially like about the Fairfield Travel crew (all girls) is their spirit of cooperation. If the agent handling your bookings is busy, another takes over, so there's no time wasting. (What a far-cry from the agencies that operate like real estate agencies where every employee jealously guards his client - and his bonus!) The girls communicate with each other so well, they all seem to know what's going on with every customer, and they all go out of their way to ensure everything is covered. Nor do they get upset when you tell them "I've already booked that on the internet", though internet bookings must be biting hard into their trade.
No agency is perfect, however. When I approached Fairfield Travel in 2002 about our more extensive Egypt, Europe and Asia trip, they gave me the cold shoulder, possibly missing out on about $12,000 worth of bookings. The person I approached then simply found the job too complicated. True, they eventually gave it a cursory look, but their proposals fell short of those of one or two other agents. However, I understood the reasons for their reluctance. They were not prepared to spend hours working on my long, messy itinerary only to find that some other agent had undercut them (Flight Centre, for example, guarantees "lowest airfares". Strange, their initial offers are invariably more expensive than anyone else's!) Overall, then, I can thoroughly recommend Fairfield Travel. If they have a weakness, it is probably in the area of knowledge of destinations, but this is common - you can't expect any agent to be a universal Lonely Planet guide.
We took out travel insurance with Worldcare, a Brisbane-based company which I believe offers really good value* for short trips (three weeks or less). For longer trips you could consider Atlas (see our 2002 overseas trip). (* Recently I've come across Onlinetravelinsurance, which is backed by the same companies (Allianz/Mondial) as Worldcare and may provide better value for some trips. Under 65s will probably get the best deal with Columbus Direct. More recently still I've managed to get a combination of bank cards that gives quite adequate cover for a couple or family travelling overseas or within Australia.)
Keeping yourself cashed up is as easy in New Zealand as it is in Australia. There's no need to take in either travellers' cheques or New Zealand currency. Just take a credit card and eftpos card (with the Maestro symbol). Buy goods on credit and get your cash at any ATM from your savings account. This way you'll get the best exchange rate and save on fees. You'll save even more on fees if you're with ANZ or Westpac and use their ATMs, which are everywhere in New Zealand. With other banks you may incur a withdrawal fee of around $4. Before departing, best check with your bank to make sure your pin number will work overseas.
As for the rest - visas, health, security - you don't need to do anything. Australian tourists don't need a visa or vaccinations, health emergencies are covered by your travel insurance and to a limited extent by the (rather dodgy) reciprocal health agreement which Australia has with New Zealand, and security problems are no different to here. Still, don't forget to take any special medications you may need - including headache tablets, slow and fast bowel fixups (you're bound to eat all kinds of unusual stuff) and anti-vomiting tablets - just in case. And always carry your passport in a safe place - it will be a confounded nuisance if you lose it.
First let me repeat my warning about using multiple airline fare-finder sites to find the cheapest flights on the internet. In my experience, these fare-finders often fail to pick out the cheapest option. It's better to go to each airline's site separately.
Pacific Blue (based in Australia) and Freedom Air (formerly based in New Zealand) both provide low-price fares to New Zealand. We flew to Christchurch with the first (a brand new service) and back home from Auckland with the second. Both airlines provided a limited range of snacks and drinks on board for a very reasonable cost. Our Pacific Blue flight was considerably more comfortable than the Freedom Air flight. The Pacific Blue aircraft appeared to be a lot newer and there was more leg room. A few teething problems with the catering service, but these were forgivable. Apart from the somewhat tasteless food they served up (pasta) and the near-midnight arrival time, I had no complaints at all. Freedom Air seats were cramped - definitely not enough legroom for a 190cm person - and the backs of a few seats (including mine) would not stay fully upright. The Freedom Air flight did not depart on time. The worst problem with the Freedom Air flight, however, was the too rapid increase in cabin pressure when descending. My ears are quite sensitive to pressure changes and I've had problems with other flights, but never as bad as this. Three weeks after landing in Brisbane my left ear is still popping, itching and aching. There's absolutely no excuse for an airline physically mistreating its passengers like this, so I'm giving them a black mark and vowing never to fly with them again. (Well, they soon went bust, so I won't get that opportunity!) Other airlines are now entering the cut-price trans-Tasman market, some of them, such as (I think) Royal Brunei, using larger aircraft which provide a greater degree of comfort and rarely have cabin pressure problems.
After the regimentation and annoyances of our 2002 European tour I was apprehensive about doing another coach tour. Am I glad my wife persuaded me to do it this way! And am I glad we chose to do it with Kirra Tours! Consider the benefits - nothing to organise, no driving to do, no baggage to lug, guided tours of all the best locations. Just choose the tour you want, relax and go! The one big disadvantage is that you can't always stop where you want or as long as you want - to take photographs, for example, or to linger longer at an especially appealing spot.
Inevitably anyone touring both islands of New Zealand will feel compelled to make comparisons. Let me say at the start, then, that both islands are well worth visiting. It's just that one could spend longer in the South than in the North, not just because it is in fact larger, but because of the diversity of its attractions. Some people, however, warned that after doing the South Island we would be disappointed with the North. Far from it. I felt this tour did it the right way round, getting stuck into the tempestuous stuff at the start and fading out to the captivating warmth of the far North. A word of advice, here. If you're visiting the North Island whatever you do don't miss out on the northern peninsula (i.e. north of Auckland) - even if it means missing out all the rest of the island. Well, I suppose you have to go to Rotorua to see and smell the world-famous geysers and stuff, but apart from that all the best scenery and trips seem to be in the north. By the same token, if you've only got a few days in NZ, then you might as well spend them all on the South Island (blow the geysers!).
About Kirra Tours the main thing I want to say is this: all you other tour operators, if you want to know how to do it, come and learn from these guys! No, they're not always perfect, but they're far and away the best coach tour hosts I've ever travelled with, and as for you jokers in the northern hemisphere, they leave you for dead. My criticisms of Kirra are going to be mere nitpicking so, Kirra folks, don't be concerned. If I seem overly critical, well, it's only because it's much easier to identify the negatives than the positives.
According to Richard Hubber, Managing Director of Pacific Island Travel, "Kirra Tours is a private New Zealand company owned by our coach suppliers, Newlands Coach Service in Wellington, DeLuxe Travel Line in Blenheim and my own family company". The Kirra Tours website refers to Newlands and DeLuxe Travel as "partner companies", while one of our Coach Captains said he was on the payroll of Ritchies Transport Holdings, New Zealand's largest privately owned transport company and apparently the builder of the coachwork for the coach used by Kirra on the South Island sector of our tour. So the relationship between Kirra and a number of other companies servicing the NZ tourism industry is not too clear. It does seem clear, however, that Kirra Tours is very much a self-sufficient organisation, with offices worldwide, a deeply committed staff and interests in a wide range of tourism products.
I could not fault Kirra's overall organisation, program and efficiency. The tour itself was extremely well designed, with excellent inclusions and options, generally good allocation of time and plenty of variety. Operationally, everything happened smoothly, accurately and usually on time, right from the booking and documentation stage through to the final pick-up for transfer to the airport. We did miss out on one scheduled visit - the glow-worm caves at Waitomo - but this was not Kirra's fault. The caves were closed because of flooding, following some of the worst storms in New Zealand's history. I believe closures of roads and attractions in NZ are quite common, the tourist's curse, especially in winter. Shortly before we arrived, Milford Sound was closed while an oil-slick was being cleaned up, and various roads on the North Island had been closed during the floods. Anyway, the attraction that Kirra substituted for the Waitomo caves, while quite different in kind, was something you'd not want to miss (Kelly Tarlton's Underwater World in Auckland).
Actually the New Zealand Explorer tour was really two tours stuck together, as the South and North Island sectors were quite separate, linked only by the ferry crossing between the islands. I have nothing but applause for every aspect of the South Island sector of the tour. The coach and coach captain were first class and the stop-overs were all terrific value, with the possible exception of the Dunedin accommodation (see below). The itinerary provided some fabulous sight-seeing. Only the weather occasionally tested us, as you might expect in a region with one of the dampest, most unpredictable climates in the world. But this was indeed a tour of two halves. Although, on the other side of the straits, the weather was glorious, it seems that the poorer reputation of the North Island could have been used as an excuse to let the standard of service slip a little. Not that it was bad. On the contrary, dollar for dollar, Kirra Tours still provided far better value than you'd get in Europe. But you'll get my meaning as you read on.
On the South Island the coach was a new Volvo with a 5-star classification, according to Ritchies, the supplier. It had two passenger doors, air conditioning, a reasonable amount of leg-room, video, an onboard convenience and a stepped passageway, so the first three rows of seats were sloped rather as in a theatre. The coach was emblazoned in Kirra Tours colours and it could "kneel down" to make it easier to embark and disembark. The North Island coach, on the other hand, was apparently on hire from Newlands, and would be classified as 4-star by Ritchies. It had less leg-room, only one passenger door, no convenience, a level interior configuration, could not kneel down and it was painted a vivid, almost psychedelic green - a colour apparently favoured by Newlands. It was clearly less powerful than the other coach, struggling on some hills with only a 40% payload (I wondered how much ammunition we were carrying in the luggage compartment!) The PA system was faulty (crackly) on the first day. Still, it was comfortable enough, even for us tall blokes, but this might have been partly because there were empty seats all around (we chose not to travel in the holiday season).
Unlike most European and Asian coach tour providers, Kirra Tours runs each coach with only a single leader, the Coach Captain, who does the job of at least three people on overseas coaches. That is, he drives and cleans the coach (driver), attends to the interests of the passengers, such as issuing directions, arranging options and portering (tour director) and gives a commentary on all the "sights" (guide - on overseas tours, usually separate guides for each sight). He also gives a commentary on a range of topics of general interest (not usually done overseas). Furthermore he does all this without actively seeking additional remuneration (tips). Furthermore he does not pressure you into buying optional extras or anything else (sales - apparently the chief job of the tour director on overseas coaches). From anyone who's been on coach tours in Europe, therefore, a Kirra Tours Coach Captain commands an instant, wholehearted respect. And well does he deserve it. Where else can you find a person doing three responsible jobs concurrently, and doing them well, on a salary that wouldn't keep a monkey in peanuts, let alone match the takings of one of your single-job European tour personnel? The burning question is: is this system safe? There's not much difference between driving while commentating and driving while using a mobile, is there?
Is this why Kirra is able to offer its guests such good value for money? Consider the talent and the responsibility, you New Zealand tour operators! Your Coach Captains are often the difference between a fantastic tour and a flop. Kirra Tours claims to take pride in their captains, and so they should - they're among the very best. One of them, in fact, is so good he's got my personal vote for most outstanding person in the tourist industry - no, not just in New Zealand and not just for this year, but for everywhere and everytime. (I've been travelling within and beween countries since the age of 3, i.e. for over 60 years and have visited at least 25 countries, some of them several times).
Because of my respect for coach captains as a class, inevitably my top tourist industry personality is going to be chosen from this group. Trev (formerly a computer programmer) was a guy whose multiplicity of talents shone. He was a good, careful driver, taking his coach really steadily down steep hills and around dangerous bends. Not only did he carry out all three of his jobs efficiently, he often performed beyond the call of duty, chatting freely with his guests and, back at the hotel (or at the distillery in his home town!), would unexpectedly appear helping behind the bar. He also helped to carry baggage, which may not be an official part of his job either. However, it was especially his commentary that contributed so much toward making the trip so enjoyable. Trev had a good, accurate knowledge of an extraordinarily wide range of subjects, apparently a consequence of, as he put it, "I've been doing a little bit of research ..." His commentary was therefore the absolute antithesis of the single-track stuff you get from, say, most guides in Egypt, who talk only of pharaos, temples and hieroglyphics. He also had a terrific sense of humour and an unassuming, cool, laid-back manner. He spaced his snippets of information well, never preached or engaged in long soliloquies, never said anything unnecessarily and never wasted time by talking while the coach was parked. Best of all, he never once tried to sell us anything! In addition he had the ideal voice for the job and had his PA system set at the right volume. And he always knew what was coming up, so he told us where to look before we got to it, not after it had passed by! In short he was never intrusive, boring or too formal, but always helpful, interesting and frequently amusing. My only doubt is whether non-English speaking tourists would even begin to understand him. I hope he changes his approach when he's got a load of Japanese on board!
Other guides and coach captains could learn a lot from Trev. Maybe Kirra should make him the coach captains coach. I was astonished and ashamed to learn that at one stop-over he did not even get a comfortable bed (the norm for tourism workers in places like India, but in New Zealand ...?!) Surely the guy deserves a good night's rest, for the safety of his passengers if for no other reason. But other reasons there are aplenty.
Since writing this article, I've heard that Trevor has "retired". What a loss to Kirra Tours! After two more years of travel, I definitely have no reason to change my assessment.
Dare I now say anything about the coach captain on the North Island sector? He too was a good driver, efficient, helpful, knowledgable, mostly quite interesting and clear. There the comparison ends, however. On the first day he had the PA volume set much too high, so it became annoying. He turned it lower when asked, but I still found it too loud. He always kept us well informed of stupid drivers, traffic congestion and bad driving conditions, which seemed to irritate him. He came within a hair's breadth of taking out his frustrations on the passengers, but fortunately his outwardly easy-going, pleasant personality saved him. At one stage, a passenger more forgiving than me publicly congratulated him for his patience. Between Wellington and the Flat Hills rest (en route to Rotorua) he gave us a long, loud, complete history of New Zealand, from its geological formation to the present day. One of my sons said "Surely he's not going to keep talking at us like this", but my other son said he found it quite interesting. I thought it was tedious and ear-battering, but nonetheless I learnt a lot (which of course I've now forgotten). This was followed by a video about New Zealand (just for a change). His more normal commentary consisted of a continuous barrage of interjections, often quite trivial (e.g. about the rather insignificant little towns we passed through). Many of his remarks were repetitive or unnecessary. Often by the time he pointed out something along the roadside it was too late to see it. Now that was a bit frustrating. But as for the stop-start traffic in Wellington, it's nothing compared to the congestion in Bankok or Rome, and neither the coach drivers nor the tourists there complain about this inconvenience that you can't do anything about. Kirra Tours do their best to avoid it by getting the coaches off to an early start, so they arrive at the touristy spots before the rest of the madding crowd. Truth is, I think we were unlucky in hitting some unusual traffic conditions. Anyway, I still rate this coach captain quite highly, as these were really quite minor irritants which did not detract from an exceedingly pleasant, relaxing tour, rated by my family as "extra special". My main purpose in saying all this is to underline the fact that I could not think of anything negative to say about Trevor Faulkner. A comparison with one of those wretched UK tour directors or continental guides would have been much more illuminating.
The accommodation arranged by Kirra was mostly of a surprisingly high standard, with just one or two hotels being of a slightly lower quality. All provided a good full breakfast with plenty of choice, although the European travellers in our group missed the cold meats and cheese, which were provided in only one hotel. The minimum fare comprised a selection of cereals, yoghurt, fruit juices, white and brown bread (self-toast), spreads, scrambled egg, bacon, sausages, beans, tomatoes, hashbrowns, tea and coffee. The evening meals available at all the hotels were excellent, whether supplied as a tour inclusion or independently (this is mainly based on reports of other guests, as we usually dined out in the town). All rooms had ensuites (often with a bath, hairdrier etc), tea and coffee making facilities, fridge, TV, radio and phone and usually air conditioning which worked well and was easy to adjust. From memory, none had an in-room safety deposit box or electronic door key. Double rooms usually had comfortable queen-size beds while twin rooms usually had one double and one single bed. Service was always pleasant, wake-up calls were provided unfailingly on time and baggage was handled promptly. (From the moment we stepped outside the airport we never had to handle our heavy baggage, except to place it outside the room door in the mornings).
Christchurch - Pavilions Hotel. An older style hotel 15-20 minutes walk to the city centre. We spent a pre-tour night here in a so-called executive suite, which consisted of several very odd-shaped rooms (an almost impractical main bedroom with not even a mirror). The suite included a comfortable lounge, kitchenette and spa bath. Very good value. For our second night we were moved into accommodation which would be the format for the rest of the tour (two persons per room). These rooms were excellent and the night was spent comfortably apart from the thick lead-in wires of the electric blanket sticking into my back and the sound of dripping water hitting the steel base of the shower (solved by putting a folded hand-towel under the drip). This was the only hotel where we got full table service at breakfast time. Quite good service except that on our first morning we spent some time sharing one teaspoon between the four of us. (See what I mean about being nitpicking?!)
This hotel appeared to be a Kirra Tours base camp, as their office was next door. I had cause to visit the office, where the staff were just as polite and helpful as in the hotel.
Omarama - Heritage Gateway Hotel. Clean, well designed rooms with excellent facilities. Access to some rooms was via an external walkway. No complaints.
Dunedin - Shoreline Hotel. This was not the hotel scheduled either on Kirra's web page or in their Australian brochure. It was too far out of town to allow us to walk to a cafe for our dinner, so we were compelled to take the buffet meal in the hotel. This was good, and quite good value at $NZ22.50/head. Our room was fine apart from the hopeless saggy bed. The one thing you need to get right in a hotel, surely, is the bed. For goodness sake fix it, somebody!
Te Anau Downs - Te Anau Downs Motor Inn. On the edge of the Fiordlands National Park, this motel is in a great situation with lake and mountain views. Clean, basic accommodation - our room was one of the better ones, with quite good views. This place is in no-man's land, so again we were compelled to eat in. We got quite a good 3-course meal with table service for $NZ28/head - a bit overpriced, I thought.
|A section of the view from the balcony of our room at|
Rydges Hotel in Queenstown
|A poor attempt at a composite picture of part of the view from our room at the Beachcomber Inn - made from|
a scan of 2 shots taken with a 135mm camera in dull weather just after dawn
NB: This is not a list of everything worth seeing, but just a few comments, good and bad, from my diary notes, and suggestions what to do and where to eat. Only a few of the Kirra Tours optional extras are mentioned. Helicopter and/or plane flights were available at various places, time permitting.
|Crossing a viaduct in the beautiful Taieri Gorge|
All opinions expressed are mine alone and would-be travellers should make their own enquiries. While to the best of my knowledge the factual information in this article was correct at the time of recording it, I cannot accept responsibility for any inaccuracies.