Switzerland; a photo diary

Switzerland; a place of magical landscapes, world-famous trains and copious amounts of chocolate & cheese. SOLD

After planning & booking other peoples amazing Swiss trips for the last few years whilst working at Rail Europe, it had given me a major #SwissEnvy and it was becoming a problem. I began to resent the long itineraries that came through where people were going on the likes of the Glacier Express and heading up to the Jungfraujoch – “is there room for one more?” I would tease. For my own sanity, I needed to experience the trains, the mountains and the towns that I was selling – you know, to better myself for work ;) 

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20 Photos That Will Make You Book Your Flights to New Zealand

New Zealand; the home to absolutely mind-blowing mother freaking nature. 
It's no secret that I have fallen head over heels for this country and have been lucky enough to explore a good chunk of it. Each trip I make, I am delighted by the stunning beauty that I am treated to. 

If you don't have a trip to New Zealand on your bucket list, you're about to.
I want to share some of my favourite photos that I have taken in the last 12 months and if they don't convince you to book a flight to New Zealand then you've lost your goddamn mind. 

1. Lake Matheson; South Island 
This picture is upside down. Or is it? 
You can find this beautiful lake close to Fox Glacier on the wild West Coast. Try to visit in the morning to maximise chances of a perfectly still lake. 

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The Ultimate Sunrise Hike; Roys Peak in Wanaka

A hike up Roy's Peak is quickly becoming a must-do with any visit to New Zealand. With the help of Instagram, this is top of traveller's list when exploring the South Island to try and recreate the stunning scenic photos plastered all over social media. 

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A Guide to Travelling the North Island of New Zealand with Stray

Disclosure; this is quite possibly the longest blog post in the history of blog posts. So settle in, grab yourself a glass bottle of wine, some chip n dip and get ready to add New Zealand's North Island to your travel plans & book yourself a Stray Pass

A roadtrip around New Zealand is probably hot on everyone's bucket lists; whether you hire a car, camper or travel round by coach. 
Because I am behind with the times and haven't caught onto this whole driving trend, I rely on tours or buses or group trips to get about. No fear though; Stray New Zealand are here to save the day. 

Stray are a hop-on-hop-off bus company within New Zealand, or "freestyle" travel as the kids are calling it now. There are SO MANY passes you can choose from; if you want to see just the North, just the South, a bit of both, OR THE WHOLE SHABANG! Stray's got you covered.

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Visit; The Magical Milford Sound

Want your mind blown with ridiculously beautiful scenery? Get yo'self to Milford Sound - stat. 

Located deep in the Fiordland National Park; Milford Sound thrives on it's remoteness. With only one road leading in, it's a surreal journey into the heart of Fiordland and Mother Nature when she's absolutely on point. 

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How to Survive the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in Summer & Winter

If you've not heard of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, where the F have you been? 

Regarded as "one of the worlds best one-day hikes" the Tongariro Crossing is NOT to be missed if you venture to New Zealand. 

I had this on my bucket list for a long time and have been lucky enough to tick this off TWICE this year. First over the Easter weekend in summer, and most recently in October at the end of Winter / start of Spring. 

Because I am organised AF, I had booked my bus and accommodation for Taupo, before I had even booked my flight to New Zealand. I was THAT set on going over Easter! And thank the lord that I did - I had the most PERFECT weather! But honestly; I much preferred the second time round and getting to hike through the snow. It was utterly magical. 

So what is the Tongariro Alpine Crossing? 

....19.5km of absolute out-of-this world ridiculousness. It is not your average hike, so please only embark on this adventure if a. you actually like walking and b. you are relatively fit, its not one to be taken lightly. 
Tongariro National Park is a UNESCO dual World Heritage Area and in 1993 was the first in the world to receive cultural World Heritage status which is pretty cool!

During the hike you get to see some of the most spectacular sites; the dramatic volcanic landscapes of Mt Tongariro and the glory that is MOUNT DOOM from the Lord of the Rings films (or, locally known as Mt Ngauruahoe), the active fumaroles of the Red Crater, to the vivid Emerald Lakes. It really is a surreal experience to walk amongst such contrasting environments - you'd half expect to be on Mars, not in New Zealand. 

Or if you're visiting in Winter, expect to be surrounded by snow-capped mountains and the faint glow of blues and greens underneath the frozen lakes. 

WHERE is the Tongariro Crossing?

Although it looks like something from Mars, the crossing can be found in New Zealand's Central North Island. The Tongariro National Park is south of Lake Taupo with Taupo being one of the most popular towns to stay before doing the hike. 

The track begins at Mangatepopo Hut and ends at Ketetahi Shelter. 

You can choose to self-drive and leave your car at the end, and take a shuttle to the beginning. Or, like me, organise a pick-up from your accommodation and they drive you to the start and pick you up at the end. 
For my summer trip I booked with Tongariro Expeditions and was picked up from my Taupo accommodation. The return shuttle cost me $65NZD. You can book to be picked up from a number of towns surrounding Tongariro National Park - or even just a shuttle from your car to the start. 
You can check out their website directly HERE

During summer you can choose to be picked up at 6:20am or 7:20am - I went with the 6am option and would recommend it! The early wake-up might not be ideal, but you will be glad to get an extra hour of walk in before the sun rises and avoid the heat. 

If you choose to book with a shuttle company, the walk is weather-dependant. 
Due to the extreme climates and exposure to the elements throughout the walk, it is extremely weather dependant. I was lucky to have glorious clear skies and beaming sunshine over the 4-days I was in Taupo so I was not short of days to pick. But this is not always the case - never risk doing the walk in bad weather, it is hard enough as it is, never mind with the added risk of even stronger winds, or torrential rain. 

For the Winter visit I was travelling with Stray; a hop-on-hop-bus tour company (more posts about Stray to come....) We were dropped off at Adrift who sorted us out for the day. 
I would strongly advise getting a guide if you plan to visit in Winter; just to be on the safe side. We got kitted out with our ice axes & extra layers & walking poles and were taken to the Mangatepopo Hut - we didn't start the hike until around 9am and completed the walk at a pretty leisurely pace with guides checking up on us regularly. 

What should you take & do to prepare?

The Crossing is a 7-9 hour hike, so it is very important that you prepare with what you're wearing and taking. 

- Hiking Boots & thick walking socks; make sure whatever footwear you decide on, is comfortable, study and well-worn-in. Do not buy brand-new shoes for this hike and use the walk to break them in. After an hour or so you will be hating your life. 
- Nike cycle shorts with wind-proof walking trousers on top; I wore both layers for the majority of the hike. (Summer)
- Nike leggings with a pair of waterproof trousers as spare (used only for sliding down the snow) (Winter)
- Layers! I had 4-layers on top during the hike, and reduced it to 1/2 once the sun had fully risen. Even on a hot day, the wind is incredible strong and temperatures drop dramatically. (Summer)
- I over-layered for Winter and regretted it. Because what started as 6 layers, ended up as 1-2 very quickly - I then had to carry 4/5 heavy jumpers and coat in my bag the whole trip with no one has time for.  
- Pack some gloves, a cap / wooly hat and a buff. 
- Jacket: waterproof, windproof, lavaproof ... or 3in1 the better! 

Important things to pack in your rucksack: 

- WATER. There is no water along the track, other than what you bring. The natural springs are not suitable for drinking so make sure you bring plenty. I found I didn't actually drink that much but its better to take a good amount. I took 3L of liquids with me the first time, and although it was heavy to carry, I was glad I had the option of plenty to drink, than not enough. I took 2L of Gatorade and 1L of water. The second time round, I think I took 2L total. 
- FOOD. Take plenty of snacks to keep you going and re-fule throughout the hike. Fruit, protein bars, energy-gels, sandwiches, or even your Easter Eggs like me. 
- Toilet Roll. Not something you might think to pack, but trust me you'll need it. There is no toilet paper in the toilets along the track so make sure you pack your own. I learnt the hard way and had to drip-dry. The toilets absolutely stink btw, so maybe pack a nose-peg too. 
- Hand sanitiser 
- Suncream 
- Sunglasses
- Phone & portable battery 
- Camera
- Plasters / First Aid Kit

Are there toilets on the track?
Yes! There are several toilets along the track during summer, at both the start and finish and also every few KMs. During Winter a lot of these are removed so I think there were only 3 possible toilet stops. As mentioned there is no toilet paper so make sure you pack some tissues. I used the toilet once and the smell was so horrendous I vowed not to use one again until I got back to my hostel in Taupo. 

The Walk & What to Expect

...one does not simply walk into Mordor 

Mangatepopo to Soda Springs (45min - 1hour) - Easy 

This is where your adventure begins. Suit & boot-up and get ready for a nice easy first hour to warm you up. There are toilets here, but you may as well just walk 10 minutes down the track to the next set which are likely to be less busy. The track begins at 1120m and takes an easy climb through the Mangatepopo Valley in the first hour to Soda Springs. The walk is a mix of gravel path and boardwalk with the silhouette of the magnificent Mount Ngauruahoe as your backdrop. 
Eventually you will reach a sign-post where you can take a 15/20 minute return trip to visit the Soda Spring before rejoining the main track. 

Soda Springs to South Crater (1 hour) - Hard. Like really fucking hard**

This next part is no fun and games kids, you need to prepare yourself mentally for the challenge ahead. Here you embark on the hell-hole that is the Devil's Staircase. 
This section was a struggle for me - I am someone who hates walking slow, like if you're in front of me on the pavement dawdling, I am literally burning holes in the back of your head finding anyway to power-walk past you.
However when you are walking up long, steep, stairs of death which never seem to end, it is not easy to walk up them quickly. It took me a while to realise there was absolutely no need to rush and give myself a heart-attack. I took my time, I had no choice, I literally could not walk up them any quicker than I did! I stopped for multiple rests and breathers and took off a lot of layers. The views as you look down are so rewarding. The sun is rising up ahead so it's so hard to actually see where the stairs end because the sun is blocking out the path. 
All I can say it keep going, one foot in front of the other and drink plenty of liquids! Even if you are on all hands and knees by the end - KEEP GOING! 

**above was my description from the first time I did it. Dramatic much?
I was dreading having to do the stairs again and was making out they were the worst thing in world to everyone else on my Stray bus who was going to be doing the hike - but they were actually easier this time. I think having a guide made such a big difference - they set the pace and it was so slow, it was so much easier to walk up and not die. 

South Crater to base of Red Crater Ridge (15 minutes) - Easy Peasy 
To be honest, anything would seem easy after the Devis Staircase. But it actually is. Here is just a nice, gentle, FLAT (thank fuck) walk with absolutely no stairs! You walk across the Mars-like landscape inbetween the incredible volcanoes. 
Here is also the POINT OF NO RETURN. If you are having trouble, or the weather has gone to shit, you must turn back here. I'd personally be so angry if I had to turn back, like you've just killed yourself up hundreds of damn stairs for a hour and now you decide to go back? No thanks, whats a bit of lava or a storm between friends? 

Update; In Winter, it takes a little longer than 15 minutes, because snow is not the easiest thing to walk through lets be real. Especially when you put your foot down, and it sinks another foot deeper than expecting - a lot of time was spent pulling my feet out of big holes & falling over. 

Red Crater Ridge (30-45 minutes) - Hard Steep Climb 
This is the most dangerous and difficult part of the track, so just think positive - once its done, its all easy-going the rest of the way! As you head from the South Crater to the Red Crater, be careful, these are steep paths, which sheer-drops either side. Winds can be very strong on this part of the track so keep low and even use your hands on the path if you have to. 
The views here are some of my favourite so don't be in a rush to make it to the summit - stop, sit down and soak in the incredible landscape around you. 

Red Crater Summit to Emerald Lakes (20 minutes) - Easy Slide Down
You've made it to the summit - 1186m high and then its all downhill from here, literally. 
Enjoy the breathtaking panoramic views at the top - on a clear day you can see coast-to-coast. Its a great spot to catch your breath and just embrace where you are. 
As you start the descent you will get your first glimpse of the famous Emerald Lakes. There isn't a "path" down - just a whole lotta loose scree so just take care and slide down if you have to. There are a number of great ledges on the way down to get those Insta-worthy shots of you and the lakes. 

Photo by Mitchel Adams

Emerald Lakes to Blue Lake (20 minutes) - Super Easy 
This is a great spot for lunch, sitting beside the wonderful-smelly-sulphur lakes. Mmm
Explore the paths around the lakes and see the steaming vents and fumaroles at the side of the mountain and get lost in the steam as you walk amongst the lakes. Walk though the Central Crater before having one last mini-climb (sorry I lied, its not all downhill from here!) up to the Blue Lake. 

Blue Lakes to Ketetahi Shelter (1hour) - Easy 
As you round the corner after the Blue Lake you then follow the Rotopaunga Valley down the North face to the Ketetahi Shelter. It is quite daunting because faaaaaaaaaar in the distance you can see the road where the track ends. There is just a shed-load of land inbetween! 

Photo by Maja Damsgaard

Ketetahi Hut to Ketetahi Car Park (2hours)
- Loooooooong Desent
When you reach the hut you're on the home-stretch, just another 2 hours to go HA! 
Rest up, have a snack, re-fuel, empty the tank - do what you gotta do to get those final 2 hours finished! The walk is long, and very zig-zaggy through the valley and then into the forest. I actually hate the downhill bit the most now, even more than the stairs. 

Completing the hike has honestly been one of the most rewarding experiences I have had. It was a physical and mental challenge but the views were so spectacular and special that they made every step and climb worth it. 
It is just you, nature and your thoughts for 7-9 hours and it really gives you time to think, reflect and appreciate where you are. I can't go on a 5-minute walk to the shops without my headphones and getting lost into a song, so having 8 hours of just me and my thoughts and being able to get lost in nature and my surrounds was pretty refreshing. It gave me time to really think, and just appreciate where I was in the world and how lucky I am to be able to experience such a beautiful hike. 

The contrast in summer vs winter was amazing - I 100% preferred the hike in the snow - it was with a great group of people & the views were extra special. 

I hope you have found this guide useful, even if it just reminds you to take toilet paper! 

If you're travelling around New Zealand you might found the below posts useful too:

- My Top 10 Things to do in & around Taupo 

- Guide to Visiting Rangitoto Island 

- A Day Trip to Piha & Kitekite Falls

- My Guide of Things to do in & around Rotorua

Thanks for reading & happy travels 

♡ G

Join me on Instagram @gemwills 

& follow me as I continue my New Zealand Adventure! 
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Why The TranzAlpine Train Should Be On Your New Zealand Bucket List

New Zealand is undeniably one of the most beautiful countries I have been to. 
The South Island is famous for its contrasting landscapes, especially between East & West - with the almighty Southern Alps running the length of the country, creating that significant divide. 
If you want to immerse yourself, and witness the beauty of the journey from East to West, a trip on the TranzAlpine Railway is by far the best way to do it. 

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My Guide of Things To Do in & Around Rotorua

R O T O R U A ; the geothermal wonderland of New Zealand. 

The best way I can describe Rotorua, would be an assault on your senses. If you can get over the constant egg smell, then be prepared to have your other senses blown-away! It is a mix of natural wonders, action and relaxation. But I know what you're thinking .. how can a place so smelly be so cool? Trust me - it is! 

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How to (hopefully) Survive a Long-Haul Flight

If you're ever booking a trip, its kinda essential that you factor in how you're getting there. And if it happens to be on the other side of the world, chances are you going to be on a plane for a long time / multiple flights. 

After nearly 2 years in Australia, I decided to fly back home to Wales over Christmas for a quick visit to see and catch up with family and friends over the festive period. As a backpacker, when booking flights its always the struggle choosing between the quickest or cheapest option - it is very rare that they will be the same. 

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