New Zealand is one of the most spectacular places on earth when it comes to natural scenery (it’s no wonder so many movies have been filmed there). Thankfully for me, it’s only a few hours away and airfares these days are cheaper than ever.
My epic journey through New Zealand’s South Island began on a Friday morning at 5:45am. I found that I was already talking in a Kiwi accent, adding words like “bro” and “ay” after every sentence, yet I was still in the departure lounge of Brisbane airport!
I arrived in Christchurch soon enough, and sorted out my rental car (booked through VroomVroomVroom of course). I scored a red Ford Mondeo which I named “Monty”. It seemed that New Zealand was basically the same as Australia, though some things were slightly different upon closer inspection. Take, for example, the Woolworths in the picture below. It’s called “Countdown” (yet it still uses the W logo from Woolworths). Perhaps they’re counting down to the year 2000; things seem to move much slower on this side of the ditch. Not in a bad way though. More in the way where the butcher knows your name, you don’t need to lock your doors, and everyone is generally friendly.
I was a little disappointed by the lack of sheep in Christchurch. Could the sheep jokes have been false this whole time? It wasn’t long before I saw some though; about 4 or 5 minutes out of town and the landscape abounds with them. I got up early and drove from one side of the country to the other in a day (an easier feat than it sounds). Heading from Christchurch to Fox Glacier I passed through the most amazing mountain scenery, cutting through Arthur’s Pass. Even though it was the middle of summer, you could still see snow-capped peaks in the distance.
I arrived in Fox Glacier about 2 hours later than anticipated, due to all the photo opportunities I couldn’t pass up! It was early to bed, because I wanted to head out and catch the sunrise at Lake Matheson, just a couple of minutes drive from Fox Glacier. I hiked around to the other side of the lake (in the dark) to get a good view, and it didn’t disappoint. This was by far the most magnificent sunrise I’ve ever witnessed (maybe because I like my sleep-ins). At this hour of the morning the lake was completely still, providing a glass-like reflection of the mountains in the distance.
After heading back to the motel and having breakfast it was time to head to the glacier itself… by helicopter! The weather the day before had been a little rainy, so I wasn’t sure if the flight would go ahead. Thankfully the clouds disappeared long enough to get the helicopter up (though the flight after mine was cancelled, as the clouds closed back in).
After a quick safety briefing we were away, landing in the middle of Fox Glacier. Once on the glacier we had to strap some crampons to our boots to avoid slipping over, and were provided with a hefty walking pole. Being so far up on the glacier was great; there were no other tourists to contend with, and our guides knew all the best spots to walk. Our group hiked around for about an hour, and the guides found some ice caves and arches for us to explore (after checking they were safe first).
The Fox Glacier heli-hike was my favourite New Zealand experience, but I had to leave it behind to continue my journey on to Wanaka. On the way I came across an interesting beach on the West Coast that had piles of rocks everywhere. It seems everyone that comes this way stops to make their own rock pile, as a reminder that they were here.
Wanaka was my home for the night; a location surrounded by massive lakes and huge mountains. There’s so much to do around here including taking on the many walking and bike trails, fishing or kayaking, and in the winter months Wanaka turns into a skiing paradise. I left Wanaka and headed up the road to Queenstown where I spent a few nights.
Near Queenstown you’ll find Arrowtown. It’s accessible via a new multi-million dollar bike path, or you can take the lazy option (like me) and just drive there. Arrowtown was established in the 1860s after the discovery of gold in the river. You can still try your luck panning for gold, or just walk around exploring the grand old buildings.
Queenstown itself is a good location to base yourself for a few days. It’s quite large, and there’s plenty to see and do. Queenstown stretches along the shores of Lake Wakatipu and is a place I quickly fell in love with. I could definitely live there for the rest of my life if the right opportunity came along.
Queenstown is home to many adventure sports including bungee jumping, jet boating, skydiving and heli-skiing. One of the best activities to start is to head up to the Skyline Gondola (it’s only a 5 minute walk from the centre of town) to catch some stunning views of Queenstown and surrounds. Your ticket also includes a turn on the downhill luge.
After eating my fill at Fergburger (the most important thing to do in Queenstown), it was off to try horse riding in Paradise. No, really. I had booked into a horse riding tour in Glenorchy, just outside Queenstown. The horse riding took place through a property named “Paradise”, which has featured in many films, TV shows and advertisements. What I didn’t know was that this was a horse riding tour designed for Lord of the Rings fans. The ride took us through some amazing forest and mountain scenery, and the guide kept stopping to point out where various scenes in Lord of the Rings were shot. Many of the horses in our group were film stars themselves, having been used in movies such as Lord of the Rings and Wolverine, though I think the only thing my horse would’ve been suitable for is an ad for flatulence medication.
From Queenstown it was onwards to Te Anau and then Milford Sound for a cruise. On the way to Milford Sound you need to travel through the Homer Tunnel, a 1.2km long dark, wet tunnel through the mountains. The tunnel is quite small and is one-way only, controlled by traffic lights at each end. The wait can be up to 15 minutes, so most people stop and get out for a stretch.
If you do stop here, watch out for the Kea. These cheeky alpine parrots can be found throughout the New Zealand alps, and have been known to steal wallets, pull off windscreen wipers and pick at any rubber seals on your car.
Unfortunately there was a huge amount of low-lying cloud and drizzle around when I went on the cruise at Milford Sound, so I didn’t get the picture postcard view of Mitre Peak. Be prepared to get stuck behind your fair share of campervans and tour buses on your way to and from Milford Sound. It’s not all bad though – there are plenty of nice waterfalls to stop and look at!
From Milford Sound I headed down south, passing by windswept trees along the coast near Invercargill, and then back up to Dunedin, where I spent another couple of days. Dunedin is a but of a uni town, and also has a heavy Scottish influence. It’s also home to a Cadbury factory and the world’s steepest residential street (Baldwin Street). You may think the two don’t have much to do with each other, but each year there is a Jaffa race down the hill. 25,000 Jaffas are rolled down the hill in a fundraising event for charity. Baldwin Street is so steep that the top half had to be resurfaced with concrete, as the bitumen would melt in summer and flow down the hill!
From Dunedin I journeyed up the east coast to see the Moeraki boulders (above) and visited Oamaru, a town where everything has an old-world feel. I’m not just talking about the old buildings; it’s not uncommon to see people riding around on penny farthing bicycles! Next stop was New Zealand’s most famous mountain – Mount Cook. I didn’t climb the mountain; instead I chose to view it from a distance, whilst sipping a latte. The scenery is absolutely gorgeous, and I image it would look even better in winter.
Lake Tekapo was the next stop, and my home for the night. The Church of the Good Shepherd provides a wonderful foreground for photos of the lake. At the right time of year you can find it surrounded by colourful lupin flowers, or if you’re really lucky you might even see the Aurora Australis (southern lights) on a clear night.
Tekapo was the last stop on my journey before heading back to Christchurch and then, sadly, back to reality in Australia. I really fell in love with New Zealand over the two weeks that I was there. The scenery is stunning, the people extremely friendly, and the weather perfect (for me anyway… I like the cold). I think next time I’d do the trip in a campervan, which would provide more flexibility in terms of accommodation, and of course a cheaper price. New Zealand tourism has been hurting since the earthquakes a couple of years ago, though hopefully the release of The Hobbit and their new tourism campaigns will help more people decide to experience the magic of New Zealand for themselves. I highly suggest you add it to your bucket list!