I was born and bred in Tawa, Wellington, but most of our family holidays were to the Coromandel. We had a little plot of land at the Hahei caravan park that was hired on a yearly basis. Our tent went up in exactly the same place each year till one year we found out they'd sold it and built cabins so we couldn't go back. That was quite sad. When I was a kid I remember loving a travel show called Wild On! so mum took me down to the local bookshop and I bought a map of Europe and drew a route of all the places I wanted to go to.
When I went to the UK on a rugby contract, during the summer months I jumped on a Contiki trip. I went through the brochure and found a tour that went to all the places I'd wanted to go. It was a 32-day camping trip in peak summer and it was hot, no one slept in a tent, we pulled our mattresses out underneath the stars. I become good friends with the South African driver, and he said I should apply to work for Contiki - that I had the right sort of personality.
When I was working for Contiki in Europe, at the end of the summer season, sometimes a big bunch of staff would get together and plan a destination and in 2009 about 30 of us went to Southeast Asia. When you get tour managers and drivers together, out of work, they switch their brains off and become the most stupid travellers in the word, a huge cluster of stupidity. So what we did was, one person took charge each day, they'd plan our train tickets, our hostel, and what activity and that's your day done, because your brain turns to mush.
When you've got 53 people on the bus, the hardest thing is trying to cater to everyone's needs. Everyone comes with expectations. Some people want culture, others want adrenaline and some just want to party - so it's kind of hard, especially at night time, when you're in smaller towns like Waitomo or in the Bay of Islands. It's quite hard when you get a lot of Sydney socialites who get all dolled up to go to the Waitomo pub and the guys there are all in gumboots. But when you get an amazing group it doesn't feel like work, it's like doing a roadie with 53 mates - 99 per cent of groups are like that. If they're having an amazing time, we're having an amazing time, too.
Being a digital age, we had to get Wi-Fi installed in our coaches, which I really hate. People will be going through Arthur's Pass complaining that they're getting no cellphone reception and I'm like, "look out the window, it's beautiful". Or people will be Facebooking from the top to the back of coach, and I'm like "get up, walk down". Everyone is so connected, they do something and - boom! - it's on the internet.
I think because I'm now with a trip-based agency where everything is organised for you, I like to get off the beaten track and do old-school travel where you're not planning too much, just turning up at backpackers and hostels, instead of doing too much research on Tripadvisor. You might get a bit of a surprise, but if it works out it works out, and if not you've got a story. I worked it out the other day, I've been to 59 different countries.
I know it's a cliche, but you do appreciate your own country when you leave it; that's what happened when I went overseas and I realised how stunning New Zealand really is.
Queenstown is definitely my favourite South Island destination, it's what people come to New Zealand for - to throw themselves off bridges, out of planes, to go rafting, to see breath-taking scenery. If someone is sitting in their hotel room watching TV in Queenstown, they should not be travelling.
In the North Island, I love Rotorua. They do a great balance of adrenaline while incorporating the cultural aspects. And I love to showcase how far New Zealand is in front of every other country when it comes to the integration of our indigenous people and culture. How both sides are working together to forge a better nation and to hold on to something truly unique to this part of the world.
Further information: see contiki.com