We review the entire country and culture of New Zealand, one thing at a time. Today, Alex Braae reviews a night spent on the Intercity overnight sleeper bus getting from Wellington to Auckland.
The most important thing to understand about long haul bus travel is that it’s all about getting exactly what you pay for, and nothing more or less. For $88, getting to travel up the length of the North Island and get a night’s worth of accommodation is very reasonable.
What you’re not paying for – nor getting, for that matter – is anything remotely approaching luxury. It’s also arguable whether you’re getting anything approaching more mundane goals, like comfort. But then again, that probably depends on how well-prepared a traveller you are.
Here’s what you do get. The bus leaves and arrives exactly when and where it says it will. You get a bunk bed, of either a plasticky mattress with a disciplinarian firmness or a canvas hammock for the top bunks. You get a pair of seat belts, which bizarrely would only cover a person lying down at their ankles or their necks. You get a power point to plug a phone in, and WiFi which mostly works. You get to go to Tūrangi, even if just for a few minutes.
And that’s pretty much it. You don’t get any bedding. You don’t get a cup of tea or a biscuit. You don’t get the pleasure of watching millions of dollars go up in flames on ostentatious safety videos.
The setup of the beds takes a bit of getting used to. On the lower level, there are two plastic slabs, with some oddly placed metal bars in the middle – it would appear they’re basically converted seats without the armrests. The headroom is low, so if someone is sleeping above you then a nightmare could result in sitting up quickly and headbutting them. There isn’t really anything to do but lie down and try and sleep. It feels a bit like a coffin.
Preparation here is crucial. As a person who never prepares for anything, I’m perhaps ill-suited for this sort of travel. While some passengers were unrolling great foamy sleeping bags, and putting on eye masks and earplugs, I had no such accessories. Fortunately, I was wearing both a coat and a jumper, so the coat could become a makeshift duvet, and by rolling up the body of the jumper I could fashion a pillow, with sleeves free to cover my eyes. I’ve had both more and less comfortable nights.
Some curtains might have been nice. The countryside is gorgeous by night, with ghostly silhouettes of trees looming up towards a blanket of stars. The bright lights of Taupō at 3am are not. It would also help keep out the light from the bunks on the other side of the aisle, and the various eerie blue lights in the interior of the cabin.
It might seem like a lot of this review is focusing on the parts of the journey that involved being awake. That’s because it’s hard to avoid sleep on these buses becoming a jerky, restless daze. The rolling momentum of the bus in motion feels beautiful and calming. Therefore, waking becomes almost inevitable when it stops. I got on the bus exhausted after a long few weeks of flat out work and thought when I first woke up I was getting some great hours of sleep in. Alas, the driver informed us over the intercom that we had only made it as far as Bulls.
But apart from all of that, everything about the Sleeper bus was fine. Not great or lavish or inspiring or thrilling, just adequate and fine. It got me from where I started, to where I needed to be in the time they said it was going to take, for an affordable amount of money. The daytime buses especially are ludicrously cheap, putting even the most savage price wars between Air NZ and Jetstar to shame.
Some have deep conversations on the bus or meet fascinating people. I generally don’t. I ride them quite a bit, and never really talk to anyone. Riding the bus, you really just spend a lot of time with your thoughts, and if you’re okay with that, it’s the perfect form of travel. The most exciting interaction I’ve ever had on a long haul bus was when I looked down at the iPod of the guy sitting next to me and realised we were both listening to Linkin Park’s remix album Reanimation.
There is one conversation I had on the Sleeper that stands out. I ran into some teen climate activists I knew who had been protesting at parliament and were heading back to school. One of them quietly alluded to the lower emissions they’d generate this way compared to flying back. For anyone needing to travel concerned about either their carbon footprint or the state of their finances, getting a bus instead is a hell of a good and easy decision.
But I’m not sure I’d recommend the Sleeper to anyone but the hardiest of travellers. The bus I’d absolutely recommend to anyone is the Intercity Gold, which costs half the price, allows you to sit up with good leg swinging space, and runs during the day. It’s the perfect place to sit at a window and watch this beautiful country go by.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.