Curing the Backpacker Blues in New Zealand
The life of the travelling backpacker can be a profoundly rewarding experience. I have found that it is a great way to connect with other like-minded adventure travelers, and can offer a more rewarding experience than the all inclusive vacation package. There are times however, during my journeys on the road when all I long for is a four star hotel with crisp Egyptian cotton, hot luxury showers and a menu that does not consist of dry noodle soups and peanut butter sandwiches. After months of roughing it in rain sodden tents, and lying on thin lumpy dorm beds while being eaten alive from hungry local parasites, the free-styling dream of the open road turns into a nightmare. This is when as a seasoned backpacker, I know it is time to break the budget rules. I found relief from the backpacker blues while roaming New Zealand’s South island.
I had spent weeks learning how to surf, tramping the countryside and cycling the mountainous terrain of New Zealand's north and south islands. I was tired, my body ached in places I did not know it could, and dorm life wasn't providing me with the re-energizing sleep I so desperately needed. It is safe to say I was feeling down and was unsure where to go or what to do next. At this stage of my journey I was at the top of the South island in a place called Golden Bay, I went to the visitor’s center to see if they had any advice for me. The friendly woman who worked there suggested Hanmer Springs, located approximately 5 hours south of Golden Bay. She said it would be a wonderful place to relax and that they had just built a lovely spa there as well. A spa! I nearly did a cartwheel and would have if my back had not ached so much.
I immediately formulated a plan. I knew a four star hotel was not in my budget, yet many hostels in New Zealand offer a single or double room option at a slightly higher price. I found a hostel located near the hot springs, simply named, Hanmer Backpackers. Hanmer Backpackers had no single rooms, only a double, and I would have to pay the double occupancy fee of $100.00. It was still well below the cost of a hotel room and the thought of a big double bed in a room with no one else in it was too tempting to resist.
After a twisting and turning 5 hour decline from the South island’s mountains, I spotted the hot springs from the bus window. I have to say that I was mildly disappointed. I had envisioned the springs to be natural and raw looking, instead they looked more like swimming pools. Nevertheless, I was still happy to be there and anxious to get to my lodgings. I asked the employee at the visitor’s center where my digs were located and if I could walk there. “Oh yes very close, straight ahead, up Conical Hill Rd.”
Did she say “hill”? I winced at the thought of my lead weight bags on my already aching shoulders while I trudged up another hill. All these years of backpacking and I still have not learned to pack lightly. I ambled slowly toward Conical Hill Rd. and was relieved to spot the backpackers at the base of the actual hill itself. My lodgings reminded me of a cozy ski chalet, burning wood logs crackled in a fireplace that made me long for snow. I was shown to my room and although the bed took up almost all of it, I was grateful it was there and flopped myself upon it with an ecstatic sigh.
In order to avoid the kids and crowds at Hanmer Springs, I chose to visit once the sun had gone down. My $12nz entrance fee gave me access to 9 open air thermal pools, 3 sulphur pools and a 25 meter freshwater heated swimming pool. For an extra $20 I could have access to the sauna and steam rooms. These springs are known to the Maori people as a place to heal and to ease the aches of overland travel which was exactly what I needed.
I started off by diving into the freshwater swimming pool. I managed a couple of half-hearted laps and remembered I was there to relax. Next I dipped my weary bones into the first rock pool I came across, big Flintstone-like boulders surrounded it and shallow slopes disappeared behind well placed greenery. At 32 degrees the warmth immediately relieved my tension. I soaked my bones for awhile then explored the other rock pools, all approximately the same temperature, give or take a few degrees.
It wasn’t until I reached the 41 degree sulphur pools that my aches and pains finally disappeared. Even the rotten egg stench of sulphur did not deter me from soaking there until I became overheated and slightly dizzy. This was no problem though because I could adjust my temperature by cooling down in the lower temp rock pools. And so it went, into one pool and then another. I was in hot spring heaven.
Later that evening I indulged myself at the neighboring Garden House restaurant next to the pools themselves. After weeks of instant noodles and packets of dry biscuits my mouth watered at the thought of a high-end restaurant meal. I savored the braised lamb shank on kumara mash with sundried tomato and mushroom sauce, $17.50nz, and washed it down with a glass of 2004 Cabernet from Waipara Springs, $6nz. Andrew Thomas the London trained chef certainly knew his way around the kitchen and I wasn’t the only one who thought so, the place was packed by the time my meal arrived. By now I was thoroughly sated and ready to snooze on that big double bed.
The following morning I noticed that my skin was glowing and my muscle pain was gone, despite the fact that my mattress was incredibly lumpy. I felt a renewed sense of well being and I was looking forward to the spa treatment I had booked the previous day. The spa was still undergoing renovations when I was there although most of it had been completed. All the usual treatments were on offer with a few unique ones to the spa.
The Alpine Aqua Refresher, a 30 minute facial using products that have been developed from the springs soothing waters at $55nz, was a good value. The aroma from the local products were refreshing and soothing. I could have spent the entire day there if only my wallet would allow it. Unfortunately my time at Hanmer Springs had come to an end. I was back at the bus stop renewed and ready to rough it on the open road once again. With a smile on my face and a skip in my step, I was eager for my next adventure. My Hanmer hot spring extravaganza had successfully kicked the backpacker blues.
I have recently learned that the prices have changed at Hanmer Backpackers. Double rooms also function as singles. An ensuite single is $65nz and a standard single is $55nz.
For more info check: www.hanmersprings.co.nz