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YOUTH BEAT

No Stopping the Hop-On-Off Bus Biz

April 15, 2001|LUCY IZON

In the past few months, two traditional travel companies have bought the controlling interest in two foreign backpacker transportation companies.

In early November, Tourism Holdings Ltd. of New Zealand acquired the balance of shares in the popular Kiwi and Oz Experience backpacker bus services (New Zealand and Australia, respectively). Several weeks ago, the Travel Corp. Inc. (also owners of the youth travel services Contiki Holidays and Busabout) acquired controlling interest in Radical Travel (Scotland's Haggis Backpacker Bus and Ireland's Shamrocker).

Kiwi Experience, a hop-on-hop-off backpacker bus service created in New Zealand in 1998-and its Australian counterpart, Oz Experience-proved such a successful concept that it became a blueprint for imitators around the world. Young travelers liked that they could go at their own pace and meet other young adventurers from around the world. Not only were they getting transportation to new destinations, but they were also enjoying interesting and fun stops along the way, and the buses would drop them off and pick them up at hostel doors and campgrounds.

Even though owners Neil Geddes, Mike Warren and Graeme Warring have moved on to new adventures, Kiwi and Oz Experience buses will continue to cover New Zealand and Australia.

Kiwi Experience offers 25 passes for exploring the country. Versions are sold through many American student travel services, and you can search out information on the Internet at http://www.kiwiexperience.com.

A Kiwi Experience Kea pass, for example, enables you to travel along a route that links Christchurch to Nelson and Queenstown on the South Island, then Wellington and Auckland on the North Island. It costs about $173, and you need a minimum of 14 days to make the journey.

On this route, besides Queenstown, you would travel through North Island regions known for geothermal and seismic activity. Most of the country's active volcanoes-Ruapehu, Ngauruho and Tongariro-are quiet, but Ruapehu has been showing signs of life since September 1999.

For the most extensive trip, a Whole Kit & Caboodle pass costs about $378. This route takes a minimum of 23 days. It starts in Auckland and goes to Whitianga, Rotorua (experience the Maori culture and bubbling mud pools and geysers), Wellington (the capital, known as the Windy City), Nelson (a popular jumping-off point for explorations of Abel Tasman National Park), Queenstown, Christchurch and back to Auckland.

For details on all the passes visit http://www.kiwiexperience.com or contact Kiwi Experience at 170 Parnell Road, Auckland, New Zealand; telephone 011-64-9-366-9830.

For a similar experience in Australia, visit http://www.ozexperience.com.

And for backpacker bus services in Britain and Ireland, see http://www.radicaltravel.com.

The other popular national backpacker bus service in New Zealand is called Magic Travellers Network. Magic attracts slightly older independent travelers, while Kiwi Experience draws those who are looking for pals and for evening fun.

Remember, the seasons Down Under are reversed. Right now it's early fall, and they are heading toward the winter (June through August) ski season, when many young travelers gravitate to snowboarding, skiing and other winter sports at Queenstown on the South Island.

Queenstown has a host of hostels offering budget beds for backpackers. If you want to line one up before you land in town, you can book the Queenstown YHA online at http://www.yha.org.nz. This is a modern hostel affiliated with the Hostelling International network. There is 24-hour access, ski storage and Internet service. The hostel can accommodate up to 140 travelers. Beds in shared rooms are $8.60. For a twin or double it's $9.90 a person.

Also in the region, you can find a newly refurbished hostel in the center of Te Anau, the town that hikers head for. It's the gateway to many of the popular trails in the region, including Kepler, Routeburn, Hollyford, Greenstone, Caples, Dusky and the five-day Milford Track, which has been called the finest walk in the world.

Te Anau also offers opportunities for sea kayaking, sailing, scuba diving and trout fishing.

*

Lucy Izon is a Toronto-based freelance writer; http://www.izon.com.

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