The Magic Bus

The Magic Travellers Network, to quote their brochure, "has been designed to meet the needs of the independent adventurous traveller. Our coaches travel on a fixed route around New Zealand, taking in all the major attractions the country has to offer, including many of New Zealand's National Parks and their well known walks." Passengers have the option of getting off the bus whenever they want and getting back on up to six months later. Very convenient for the backpacker with a couple months to spend, or even for the traveller doing a mad dash through the country who wants to catch the highlights.

My sister and I had originally considered renting a car to get around New Zealand, but when we reviewed the Magic Bus itinerary, we decided that since it was going to all the places that we wanted to go anyway, it would be much easier for them to do all the driving. And it was. Not only did we get out of driving, but the drivers took care of arranging for lodging each evening (they passed around a sheet with a list of hostels in the town where we would be staying that evening, you signed up, they called ahead to make a reservation), arranged for many activities (again, sign up, and they called ahead), gave us opportunities to get off the bus and do some short walks, and provided interesting commentary occasionally. In other words, basically all Sonia and I had to do was get on the bus each morning, and everything else was taken care of for us. This was a total win.

Plus, it was fun to meet the other backpackers travelling on the bus. In our group, pictured above, we had Steven and Katharine from England, Ali from Canada, Sonia, Jo from the Channel Islands, Gareth and Keith from England, Olivia from Germany, Martha from Canada and Sinead from Ireland. Most of these folks travelled with us for four days from Auckland through Nelson, and Steven and Katharine travelled eight days straight through to Queenstown with me and Sonia. So we got to meet and hang out with a few people, which was a nice way to keep Sonia and I from being driven nuts by each other :).

One thing that I thought was interesting was that in the buses we rode, and the hostels that we stayed at, Sonia and I were the only Americans we met. There were tons of people from Britain, a bunch from Japan and Korea, some from Europe and Canada, but none from the States. We were also on a much tighter schedule than anybody else. When we told people we were in New Zealand for two weeks, they looked at us like we were nuts, as if to say, why even bother coming? Most of them were in the country for at least a month, if not two, in the midst of travelling for a year around the world (most had already spent a few months in Australia, and were going to be moving on to Southeast Asia or South America afterwards).

It made me think a little bit about the importance that other cultures place on travelling versus the US. I'm not quite sure why that is. Is it because the US is so big that you can do a ton of travelling with a variety of experiences without ever leaving the country? Do Americans not have any curiosity about the rest of the world? It's hard to say. Most of the folks we ran into were either students or just out of college, so they didn't have a ton of money (hence the hostels and backpackers bus) but thought travelling was totally worth it, and I was somewhat envious of the time they had to really explore each country they were visiting.

I think that one other contributing factor is that both Australia and New Zealand were part of the English Commonwealth, so it is relatively easy for British (and Canadian) folks to get work visas there. So a bunch of them were travelling for a couple months, and then settling down to work for a few months to build funds back up to travel some more. Since I like my job, I'll stick with it and use the tiny doses of vacation I do get for mad dash trips like this.

Anyway, I got sidetracked. The backpackers buses are a great idea for travelling around the country. There's a competing service to Magic Bus, called Kiwi Experience (and an associated Oz Experience for Australia), which Sonia and I took up to the Bay of Islands. We weren't so impressed with that one. After asking around, we heard that it was more oriented towards the college kids who were looking to go out drinking and clubbing every night and then collapse onto the bus in the morning. The Magic Bus is oriented towards a slightly older crowd (meaning mid-20s instead of early) who are more interested in doing things. Generalizations, all, though.

I'd love to see more things like the Magic Bus in other countries, but it's hard to think of other countries where it would work as well, where distances are small enough to cover significant ground in a day, and where there are enough hostels and activities and things like that. It should be possible in Europe, but it might be difficult to organize something like that over national boundaries. It's a pity, though - this was a great experience.

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