New Zealand – The Land of Adventure!!

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Ever since we got married, New Zealand had always been our dream travel destination. The variety it offers in terms of rich experiences in stunning natural settings and the fact that so few of our friends and family have been to this place to tell its tale, makes for an enticing holiday destination. You can only travel during summer which is November to March. NZ has 2 main islands – North and South island. Most of the good stuff can be found in the south, so if you are short on time, stick to only the south island. The flights from India are very expensive to begin with, car rental is costly compared to Europe or US, and cost of living is also higher. Doing a meticulous planning before and during the trip can save you loads of money and can be the difference between actually doing the trip vs keeping it in your wish list forever.

Itinerary

This is the high level route we followed. More details on each day’s excursions later in the blog:

Bangalore -> Auckland (1 night) -> Turangi (2 nights) -> Motueka (2 nights) -> Arthur’s pass (1 night) -> Fox Glacier (1 night) -> Wanaka (1 night) -> Te Anau (2 nights) -> Queenstown (2 night) -> Mt. Cook (1 night) -> Oamaru (1 night) -> Christchurch (transit) -> Auckland (transit) -> Bangalore

Flight tickets

Most flights to Auckland from India cost around 70k per person. We managed to get a steal deal on one of the AirAsia’s BIG sales. We booked our flights around May of 2016 for Feb 2017 travel from Chennai. Below are our flight details:

Onward:
AK10 | Chennai (MAA) to Kuala Lumpur (KUL)
D7206 | Kuala Lumpur (KUL) to Auckland (AKL) (Short layover at Gold Coast)

Return:
D7207 | Auckland (AKL) to Kuala Lumpur (KUL) (Short layover at Gold Coast)
AK11 | Kuala Lumpur (KUL) to Chennai (MAA)

The only drawback of choosing AirAsia is you need to get an Australian transit visa prior to your trip due to the layover at Gold Coast. There have been many instances in the past where people have not been allowed to board the plane at Chennai because they didn’t have the Australian transit visa.

For the internal flight from Christchurch to Auckland, we booked Jetstar. They keep running frequent promotions, make sure to book your flights then.

Internal flight:
JQ236 | Christchurch to Auckland

Accommodation

It is expensive to eat out in NZ and also, the country does not have a cuisine of it’s own. So to keep your expenses in check, book something which offers a kitchen. Luckily, most hotels in NZ come with a kitchen (private or common) and you don’t have to rely entirely on Airbnb for it. Below were our bookings with cost (for 2 people):

Place No of Nights Airbnb/Hotel link Cost (NZD)
Auckland 1  Kiwi International Hotel 80
Turangi 2 Turangi Bridge Motel
(twin bedroom)
 344/2 = 172
Motueka 2 Equestrian Lodge Motel
(twin bedroom)
 480/2 = 240
Arthur’s pass 1 The Bealey Hotel
(Large family cabin)
216/2 = 108
Fox Glacier 1 Fox Glacier Top 10 Holiday Park
(twin bedroom)
195/2 = 98
Wanaka 1 Wanaka Hotel
(Lake view room)
144
Te Anau 2 Red Tussock Motel
(twin bedroom)
462/2 = 231
Queenstown 2 Airbnb (twin bedroom) 396/2 = 198
Mt. Cook 1 YHA Aoraki Mt Cook Backpackers
(dorm beds)
76
Oamaru 1 Oamaru Motor Lodge
(twin bedroom)
196/2 = 98

Visa

Processing of NZ visa in India is handled by ‘TT services’ (office at Museum road). There are 2 modes of application – Paper based and Online. Online applications can be made only individually whereas paper based can be made as a family (effectively costing half if you are travelling as a couple). The paper based application is fairly straightforward and it took us about 10 days to get our passports back after the application submission. (Though, they say it can take upto 4 weeks to process it). If you approach a travel agent, they always suggest you to apply online and take a hefty commission on top of it.

For more information, refer to their website here.

If you are travelling on AirAsia, you will need to get a transit visa (subclass 771) from Australian Embassy for the layover at Gold Coast. Even though the visa itself is free, you need to pay around 1000 Rs per person as VFS processing fee. More information can be found here.

Car rental

Best way to experience NZ is by renting a car. Since the population density is not much, the public transport system is not very robust and so, you will struggle to cover all the good places if you don’t drive a car. It is a left side drive and the driving rules are fairly straight forward. There are multiple local car rental companies such as apexrentals, gorentals etc., which offer rentals at reasonable rates. The only drawback being that they offer older cars (>10 yrs). If you are crossing islands, they also offer free ferry ticket. Most of the European/American car companies such as Avis/Hertz are new to the country and their rentals are priced higher (since they offer mostly newer cars). If you can monitor the prices and book well in advance (not to mention some offers such as visa signature), you can get a car from Hertz/Avis at similar prices to local companies. We booked a 4×4 on Hertz, pickup at Auckland (city) and returning at Christchurch (airport) for 14 days. Make sure to play around with city/airport pickup/drop for best prices.

If you do indeed make a reservation on Hertz/Avis, you will not be allowed to take the car across islands on the ferry. You need to drop the car at the rental office at one ferry terminal before picking a new one on the other side. When you pick up the car at the first location, make sure to specify when you will be picking up the car from the other island (so that they can keep your car ready). Also be mindful of whether the rental office at the terminal building will be open or not by the time your ferry reaches the terminal. You should take into consideration all these constraints while booking your ferry.

You can add additional drivers to car rental at no extra cost. Although most rental companies provide collision damage waiver, it comes with an excess of a couple of thousand dollars. You can buy a third party insurance to reduce the excess to zero. We bought one from WorldWideInsure.

Forex

As usual, we bought our forex from http://www.buyforex.in in the form of travel card. Most places in NZ accept cards. We withdrew some cash from the card at the airport once and used up the card first before spending cash.

Misc

  • NZ is notorious for sand flies. Make sure to come prepared. Even though we bought a fly spray in NZ and applied it multiple times when we ventured out, we still had hundreds of fly bites, leaving us with quite an itch!
  • We bought a Vodafone tourist sim at Auckland airport for 49 NZD (3 GB data with 200 mins free calls – local and back home). The network coverage was mostly good with few bad stretches. Make sure you have offline google maps or a GPS device for backup.
  • NZ is highly paranoid about what tourists bring into NZ. Expect long lines after the passport check to screen for bio-security risks. Make sure to adhere to their restrictions (wash your shoes before packing, no wooden items/souvenirs, no fruits or seeds etc.) and declare whatever you bring. If undeclared, you will be fined 400 NZD. More information can be found here.

The North Island Experience

As I mentioned earlier, the North island is less popular among tourists and if you are short on time, you better stick to only the South. The top attractions in the North island are the ‘Tongariro Alpine Crossing’,  ‘Hobbiton’ and ‘Wai-O-Tapu thermal wonderland’. We decided to skip Hobbiton due to lack of time. Tongariro Alpine Crossing is one of the best day hikes in the world and most people visit the North only for this (including us). Unfortunately, by the time we reached NZ, the weather near the Tongariro region was bad with wind speeds close to 100 mph. We had to abandon the plans for the hike and make alternative arrangements. I am listing below our itineraries for the North (both original and what we eventually did):

What we planned initially:

Day 1: Reached Auckland by late evening. Take a taxi to the hotel. Stock up on the Indian groceries, fruits, snacks etc. for the drive. Stay in Auckland.
Day 2: Pick up the rental car in the morning and start the drive to Turangi. Visit Rotorua, Green and Blue lakes, Wai-O-Tapu thermal wonderland, Huka falls, Waireiki Terraces on the way. Stay in Turangi.
Day 3: Drive to Mangatepopo car park – the starting point of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Finish the trek at Ketatahi car park by around 5 PM. Take the shuttle back to Mangatepopo car park and drive back to the hotel. Stay in Turangi.
Day 4: Drive to Wellington to catch the Interislander Ferry. 

What we eventually did:

Day 1: Same as above.
Day 2: We picked up the rental car in the morning and drove to Rotorua. We took a break here for lunch visiting the museum on the way. We then visited Lake Tikitapu (blue) and Lake Rotokakahi (green) before heading to Kaituna for white water rafting. We then drove to Turangi for the night stay.
Day 3: We drove to Wai-O-Tapu thermal wonderland in the morning. After late lunch, we visited Huka Falls before heading back to our stay.
Day 4: Same as above.

Our most memorable experience in the North island was undoubtedly the white water rafting at Kaituna river. With a drop of 21 ft, the world’s highest commercially raftable waterfall, there was no short of adrenaline. Our first rafting experience in life may well turn out to be our best.

RaftingWaterfallDrop  DSC_7044

Wai-O-Tapu thermal wonderland turned out to be a bit of dud. Though the concept of active geothermal area with hot springs, geysers and colourful pools looked very appealing, it proved to be lot more commercialised than we had imagined and definitely overrated for what it offered.

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Huka falls turned out to be a surprising hit. The water was extremely blue, flowing with such majesty and fierceness, reminded us of the Rhine falls of Switzerland.

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Best stretches to drive

Compared to the drives in the south, there isn’t much to write home about in the north. One probable exception could be the drive through the Tongariro National Park.

General info and tips

  1. To reach the hotel from Auckland airport, we took the Discount taxis (55 NZD for 4 people). You can book online or call on their customer care number to avail the cab.
  2. Eating out in NZ is expensive. Since we had access to kitchen, we used to cook breakfast and dinner and eat out for lunch on most occasions.
  3. When you are on the road, make sure to plan your lunch breaks well. Most restaurants close by 3 pm. Some have weird timings such as 12 to 2 pm.  If there is nothing open, there will always be ‘Subway’ to your rescue.
  4. Make sure to pick up some Indian food supplies at Auckland itself since you will not find too many Indian stores elsewhere. (Maggi/other instant noodles, MTR Ready-to-eat curries, Basmati rice, Indian spices, dal). Some of the famous local supermarket chains – Countdown and New World, also keep few Indian stuff of our interest.
  5. You will be asked to show your passport to pick up alcohol at supermarkets (not just one person who is at the billing, but all people who are in the group)
  6. The fuel prices in NZ vary a lot (from 1.9 to 2.3 NZD per litre). Planning your refueling can save you some bucks. Check this website for more information.
  7. You can try the Tongariro Pocket Ranger app for more information on Tongariro track and latest weather information.
  8. Check out the www.backpackerdeals.com and bookme.co.nz for some handy discounts on activities in NZ.
  9. There is no tipping culture in NZ. Once you are finished with the meal, you need to go to the counter to pay your bill.

The South Island Experience

Getting from North to South

You can either fly from north to south or take the ferry. Since there are a lot of good places to see in the north of the south island, ferry would be a good choice. Besides, it also goes through the Cook Strait which has excellent vistas. If you are planning to fly, you can choose to fly to Nelson and drive the car down.

There are 2 companies operating ferries between the 2 islands – Interislander and Bluebridge. We booked the 2:45 pm Interislander ferry from Wellington to Picton (cost: 75 NZD per person).

Our Route Map

SouthIslandDriveMap

Detailed itinerary

Day 3: Reach Picton ferry terminal by late evening. Pick up the rental car and drive to Motueka. Stay at Motueka.
Day 4: Drive to Marahua. Full day Kayaking in the Abel Tasman National Park. Back to Motueka hotel for night stay.
Day 5: Drive to Arthur’s pass via the scenic west coast. Stop at Buller’s George swing bridge, Cape Foulwind Seal colony, Punakaiki rocks, Otira Viaduct. Stay at Arthur’s pass
Day 6: Morning short walks at Arthur’s pass – Bealey valley track & Devil’s Punchbowl Falls. Drive to Fox Glacier with a stop over at Franz Joseph. Franz Joseph Glacier Walk. Stay at Fox Glacier.
Day 7: Visit Lake Matheson. Short walk around the lake. Fox Glacier Walk. Drive to Wanaka. Visit Fantail falls & Blue Pools on the way. Stay at Wanaka.
Day 8: Visit Lake Wanaka/Wakana tree in the morning. Drive to Rob Roy Glacier trek starting point. Drive do Te Anau through the Crown Range route. Stay at Te Anau. 
Day 9: Drive to Milford Sound very early in the morning. Milford Sound Cruise. Drive back to Te Anau. On the way, visit Tutoku Bridge view point, Chasm bridge, Hollyford valley lookout, Cascade Creek, Knobs Flat, Mirror Lake & Te Anau Downs. Visit Glow worm caves by the late evening cruise. Stay at Te Anau.
Day 10: Drive to Queenstown. Visit Coronet peak. Kawarau Bridge Bungy. Stay at Queenstown.
Day 11: Skydiving in the morning. Explore Queenstown for the rest of the day. Stay in Queenstown.
Day 12: Drive to Mt. Cook via Cromwell. On the way, visit Lake Pukaki. Tasman Glacier Valley walks in the evening. Stay at Mt. Cook. 
Day 13: Hooker Valley Trek in the morning. Drive to Oamaru. Visit Bushy beach to spot Yellow Eyed Penguins. Visit Blue Penguin colony by late evening. Stay at Oamaru.
Day 14: Drive to Christchurch. Drop off the rental car at the airport. Fly to Auckland. Fly back to Bangalore by evening flight.

Best stretches to drive

Our top picks are:
1. Queenstown to Mt. Cook, particularly the stretch closer to Mt. Cook passing by Lake Pukaki.
2. Queenstown to Glenorchy
3. Greymouth to Arthur’s pass
4. Wanaka to Queenstown through the Crown Range route.
5. The West coast drive (State highway 6), particularly the stretch from Westport to Punakaiki.
6. Te Anau to Milford sound

Best memories from the South

The South island undoubtedly offers us a wide range of experience worth cherishing for life. I am going to try recollecting a few below:

Kayaking at Abel Tasman National Park

Abel Tasman National Park, located at the north end of the south island, is known for its excellent weather, golden sandy beaches, rich marine life and great walking trails with sea on one side and forest on the other. It is also considered one of the top destinations for kayaking, offering many gorgeous tidal lagoons and small islands where you can get up close and personal with the resident Fur Seals and dolphins (if you are lucky).

One can choose to do one or both of the above experiences. We chose to do kayaking and booked a full day package with R&R kayaks. We started with a water taxi ride from Marahau to Onetahiti, the heart of the the national park. After a brief tutorial on how to use and navigate the kayaks, we were on our way, starting with the Tonga island where we saw the Fur seals bathing in sunshine. We then moved along the coast hopping from one beach to another (not to mention the lagoons), stopping in-between briefly for lunch. By late afternoon, the tide had picked up. After navigating the kayak through long and tiring spells, we were relieved to sail the sea breeze to the Anchorage bay, from where we took the water taxi back to Marahau to end our experience in the sea.

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Blowholes at Punakaiki rocks

Punakaiki is situated on the west coast of the south island, about an hour’s drive from Westport down south. Punakaiki rocks, named so since the rocks resemble pancakes stacked one above the other, is a must visit destination on your journey through the Highway 6. The rock formation has multiple openings at the bottom through which the sea water bursts up during the high tides creating a wonderful splash, dissipating eventually into a spray and forming rainbows as the sunlight hits water droplets. Blowholes add a lot of charm to the place and it is highly recommended to time your visit during high tides(for us, it was 3 pm).

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Lake Matheson

Lake Matheson is one of the most beautiful lakes in the country, situated in Fox Glacier area. The dark waters of the lake, when still, provides a perfect reflection of the Mt. Cook in the background. The trees surrounding the lake offer the necessary cover to keep the water still on most occasions, but it is advised to visit this place very early in the day when you have a higher chance of catching the still water, and also on a day with clear sky. There is a trail which runs around the lake. The first viewpoint for the reflection is just 20 mins walk from the car park, but one should complete the full circuit (1 hr round trip) as they offer multiple opportunities to catch the reflection of mountains at different angles.

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Lone tree at Lake Wanaka

The lone tree at Lake Wanaka is one of the most photographed trees in NZ. This place is kind of a secret to be explored, because you will find it only if you have researched about this place. You will find no road signs to this place and so, it is not bothered by too many tourists. Try visiting this place during sunrise or sunset, when the colours in the sky are at its best. It is indeed a photographer’s delight.

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Milford Sound

Milford sound, situated on the west coast of the south island, is known for its spectacular natural beauty and visual cues. It is one of the top things to do in NZ. Situated in the Fjordland National Park, the cliffs rise high vertically, almost seeming to touch the sky. The waterfalls cascading down these cliffs all through the year, multiply the magnificence of this place. The place gets a lot of rain round the year, and the waterfall seems even more majestic during these rainy times. There are not many stay options at Milford sound. Most people stay at Te Anau or Queenstown and do a day trip to Milford sound, taking the cruise to experience the Sound. One can also do kayaking or trek the world famous Milford Track.

We started from Te Anau very early in the morning to avoid the traffic which can become a serious problem on that route with many tourist buses running on that route. The early morning cruises (around 8:30 to 9 am) are generally priced half, compared to other times and so, its added incentive to leave early. The boat cruise lasts for about a couple of hours which takes you through a visual treat of beautiful mountain cliffs, numerous waterfalls (you will be taken very close the the waterfalls where you can take a shower if you are brave enough :)), sun bathing Fur seals, dolphins (if you are lucky) etc.  If you are hungry, there is a cafe near the ferry (nothing on the route between Te Anau and Milford). Food and beverage is also served on the cruise. You will also not find any fuel stations on that route and so, it is strongly advised to start on full tank of fuel. The route also has numerous attractions and so expect to make multiple stops on your route.

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Glow worm caves

Glow worms are fascinating creatures which emit light from their tails through bioluminescence. In order to see them glow, you need a pitch dark environment and they dwell only in remote caves. They are found in very few parts of the world, NZ being one of them. Glow worms can be seen in many parts of NZ, Waitomo caves in the north island being the most famous. We visited the one in Te Anau run by Real Journeys. The caves are located about half an hour boat ride away from Te Anau town and they take you on a cruise boat.

We visited the caves late in the evening so we also got to enjoy the cruise at sunset. The caves themselves are relatively newer compared to other caves in NZ. They take you on a small boat navigating through the caves in pitch dark setting, giving you a wonderful starry experience. Though, it was quite short lived and we felt it is a little commercialized and overpriced. Nevertheless, a unique experience that you might not get to see in most other places in the world.

Skydive over picturesque Queenstown

Queenstown sits on the shores of Lake Wakatipu, set against the dramatic Southern Alps. If you think views from the land are wonderful, views from the sky are something to die for. This is what we experienced on our first sky diving experience at Queenstown. Queenstown, dubbed as the ‘Adventure capital of the world’ provides for a dramatic setting for diving from a plane. We chose to dive from 12,000 ft with NZone [Another option would be SkydiveParadise]. The 45 seconds of madness of falling freely from the plane is one of the most craziest things we have done till date. Needless to say, that we highly recommend people to experience it themselves when they visit NZ.

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Bungy jump at the birthplace of Bungy

Not only is Queenstown the Adventure Capital of the World, it is also the location of the ‘World Home of Bungy Jumping’- The Kawarau Bridge Bungy! Doing a bungy jump is a must when you visit NZ and where better than at its birth place. It is a 43 m drop from the famous Kuwarau bridge with gorgeous views of the Kawarau gorge. We decided to do a tandem jump to experience this together (also, my wife was not confident of doing this on her own :)). Though the jump itself lasts about a minute, the sudden rush of adrenaline, the fear that hits you when you look down just before you make that jump makes for a very scary experience. If you do show the courage and take the leap of faith, it does not take much time for the fear to turn into pure bliss. Money and time well spent indeed.

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Watching the Milky Way at the Dark Sky Reserve

The Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve at Mt. Cook is the world’s largest gold-rated reserve, meaning the darkness of these night skies is almost unbeatable! With “light pollution” strictly controlled, it is one of the best stargazing sites on earth. On our only night at Mt. Cook, we were lucky to have perfectly a perfectly clear night sky. After our dinner, we ventured out a little distance from our hotel to find the sky filled with thousands of glittering constellations making for a breathtaking visual. Watching the Milky way stretch from end to end was quite awe-inspiring. We also got to see shooting stars almost every other minute. The couple of hours late in the night that we spent photographing the Milky way was one of the highlights of our trip.

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Blue Penguins at Oamaru

Blue Penguins are the world’s smallest penguins and the Blue Penguin Colony at Oamaru is one of the most famous places to see them in NZ. They venture out to sea during the day and come back ashore at sunset to rest for the night. This is one of the preferred times to spot the penguins. Though the paid entry takes you very close to the penguins, it does not allow photographing them. There is a secret entrance which takes you almost as close to them while giving you an opportunity to see and take pics of the penguins, all for free. Sometime after sunset, the penguins began waddling back ashore to their nests. There were about 8 to 10 batches of them coming one after the other, over a span of half an hour. While walking back to our car park, we also found a few of them crossing the roads. Penguins are indeed the most adorable creatures in the world, especially when they are the smallest of the lot. We included a day at Oamaru just to watch them and it turned out to be a wise choice and the best parting gift we could have got on our last night in New Zealand.

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General info and tips

I have covered most of the things in the tips for North Island, which are also applicable to the south. Few things specific to the south:

  1. The west coast road (state highway 6) is sparse in terms of restaurant options. Many of them have weird timings also (12 pm – 2 pm etc.). Make sure to plan your lunch location before you hit the road in the morning.
  2. Make sure you have full tank of fuel before leaving to Milford Sound from Te Anau.
  3. Fuel prices in Te Anau are the cheapest among all the locations we visited in the south.
  4. At the blue penguin seal colony at Oamaru, instead of paying for the penguin watch, you can instead stand on the pier just to the left of this business and watch them for free, and get to take the pics of the penguin also. Albeit your view won’t be quite as good and have to rely on a camera with zoom lens.
  5. Make sure to try real fruit ice cream while in New Zealand. Other thing to try is the Hokey Pokey flavor of icecream.
  6. We found the souveniers to be cheapest at Te Anau, but Queenstown had the largest collection.
  7. Fergburger burger joint in the heart of Queenstown is a very popular place and always crowed. Make sure to try it once.
  8. Sky diving requires a clear sky while you can do Bungy jumping with some rain in the air. So make sure to plan your activities in Queenstown accordingly, especially if the weather is on and off.
  9. Monteith’s is the famous local beer of the south island. Make sure to try out its different flavors. Cider’s are also well priced and to be tried.
  10. The yellow eyed penguins at Oamaru return home from the sea much before sunset, while the blue penguins return past the sunset. So make sure to visit the yellow eyed penguin colony at Bushy Beach first (an hour or two before sunset) and then go to blue penguin colony.

Expenses in INR (for 2 ppl, total 4 travellers)

Total cost: ~2.5L without adventures

Travel
Bangalore to Auckland flights 67k
Domestic flights 5k
Visa 10k
Ferry 7.5k
Car
Rental + insurance 30k
Fuel 17k
Accommodation 70k
Food and Drinks 30k
Adventures and Entrances
Sky diving 50k
Bungy 20k
Rafting 8k
Kayaking 20k
Milford Sound cruise 5k
Wai-O-Tapu thermal wonderland 3k
Glow worm caves 8k

NZ in Pics

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Final thoughts

New Zealand definitely lived up to its billing as a dream destination. Though a bit tiring, the two weeks we spent here was an overdose of visual treat and adventure. It was a trip of many firsts for us – Bungy jumping at the world home of Bungy, Skydiving over the picturesque Queenstown, Rafting down a 21ft waterfall, Kayaking near the beautiful Abel Tasman National Park, watching the majestic Milkyway in the pitch dark sky, watching the glow worms create a virtual starry night experience inside the caves, the Geo-thermal wonderland in the north. Given what is at stake, planning in advance and planning well can save you a lot of money and multiply your experience. I hope I have given enough information to get you started. When are you planning yours? 🙂

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