The plane ticket is too expensive. I can’t take that much time off from work. I don’t have a travel partner. Stop making excuses, book your flight, and start planning your New Zealand adventure – it is worth the journey. An old high school friend and I explored New Zealand for eighteen days, focusing our travels on the South Island. Here are some ideas to help you get that New Zealand feelin’.
Queenstown has gone through a handful of population surges. Starting with the Green Rush, when the Māori came searching for greenstone. Followed by the Gold Rush, which should be obvious to California folks at least – there’s gold in them thar mountains! Leading to the White Rush, when winter-sport enthusiasts flooded the mountains surrounding town. Now Queenstown is in the midst of the Adrenaline Rush, choose your own heart-pounding adventure.
For starters, take the Skyline Gondola or hike up the mountain right from town. For a Mario Kart-esq adventure hop on the luge. If you really want to get your blood pumping there is bungy jumping or mountain biking. However, the route down the mountain we chose was zipline! The Ziptrek Ecotour was one of my favorite adventures from the trip. Our knowledgeable guides took us through the six-line kea tour with various challenges at each zipline, including cannon ball, trust fall, and zipping upside down! Plus I learned a new punny nature joke – what do you call a baby beech tree?
A son of a beech!
If you really want to test your limits, you can sign up for Canyoning Queenstown. Canyoning is descending a river canyon via a series of steps. How you descend those steps depends on a variety of factors, but the three techniques we used on the Routeburn Explorer were leaping off ledges into pools, sliding down waterfalls, and – the saving grace for me – abseiling down to the next step. If you don’t mind rushing water at 4 degrees Celsius (40 Fahrenheit), then it could be a walk in the park and you’ll have a great time. I, however, enjoy neither of these things and would have rather been road biking. Even with a wet suit to stave off hypothermia, I had to resort to my sweet sweet dance moves to keep warm while waiting at the various steps. I recommend a combination of the windmill (i.e. vigorous arm circles), the sprinkler, and the chicken dance.
I would start by telling you to try a Tim Tam slam, but apparently Tim Tams have already made their way across the ocean to your local store… So instead I’ll recommend wine tasting in Central Otago, specifically in Gibbston at Peregrine for their great wine and Brennan Wines for the bocce ball court with the best view. Insider tip – just buy a bottle at Brennan, because buying two glasses won’t wave the tasting fee. While you’re sampling the local beverages, Mac’s Cider – Cloudy Apple is an absolute cup of sunshine. If anyone is headed to the Southern Hemisphere soon, please bring me back a suitcase full. Thank you in advance.
As for food, Fergburger has a well-earned reputation and a line to go with it; but it’s worth a short wait – be sure to get the fries as well. If you’re in Wanaka, stop by Red Star Burger Bar for a gourmet burger. As for dessert…both Queenstown and Wanaka have Patagonia Chocolates. In Queenstown stop at Mrs Ferg’s for manuka honey gelato or in Wanaka, Black Peak Gelato – I recommend nectarine. Also Whittaker’s Chocolate – yum.
The Milford Highway is full of obvious and hidden gems. The main obvious gem being Milford Sound itself; which is actually a fjord as it was carved by glaciers, where sounds are carved by rivers – fun geology fact! We paddled Rosco’s Milford Kayaks‘ morning glory trip; kayaking is the way to truly take in the sheer volume of the fjord. However, my Fiordland happy place was Lake Marian, a gem of an alpine lake, which deserves its own post soon. We also did a quick hike to a walk wire on Mistake Creek – a great detour to stretch your legs and cross a unique backcountry bridge. A word of warning though, watch out for those cheeky kea. I’ll let you come up with your own kea adjective after a meeting… I had a few choice words after one hopped on our rental and deftly beaked our antenna off and flew away with it while we were stopped at the Homer Tunnel stoplight.
We stayed at two Department of Conservation (DOC) campgrounds in Fiordland, so I’ll add a note here about how the campgrounds work. I was so confused while researching the trip as to the likelihood of finding a site when no reservations were allowed. At both Cascade Creek and Henry Creek, there were actual sites, some with tables and fire rings, but there were also open areas for tent/camper van cities. I can’t speak to the busy summer season, but the Kiwi way seems to be – come on in, we’ll make room!
The Hut System And The Southern Alps
I’m not saying you have to do one of the Great Walks, but they must be great for a reason. We tramped the Kepler Track, through rain and wind, but also made new friends, hiked through gorgeous scenery, and fought off more of those cheeky kea. In Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park we hiked the Hooker Valley Track and then took the stair master to Mueller Hut. Look forward to separate posts on these. Truly it doesn’t have to be a Great Walk, but I recommend tramping to a popular hut to get the true New Zealand hut experience. Did I mention, backpacking is called tramping down there? Wouldn’t want you to get the wrong idea!
Hear a Kiwi
I was realistic in my hopes of seeing a kiwi, New Zealand’s iconic bird – it wasn’t going to happen. They are primarily nocturnal, I didn’t want to pay to see them in a zoo, and I wasn’t going to Stewart Island. However, at Iris Burn Hut along the Kepler Track I heard one! Our hut warden included an uncanny impression of a kiwi in her safety talk and told us to keep an ear out for them in the middle of the night. I scored a bunk next to a window and my eyes shot open at some point in the night to “the ascending whistle” of the male kiwi followed by the female’s “lower horse-like purr call.” Apparently I’m terrible at describing bird calls unless I can equate it to food (my cheeseburger bird call is spot on), so those descriptions are from the DOC signs at the hut. If you can’t make it to New Zealand, hear them for yourself here.
In addition to the endemic bird kiwi, you should also hear the local Kiwi. At a pub in Fox Glacier a local tried explaining cricket to me; while I’m still a bit unclear on how the sport is played, I loved every moment of the explanation.
Simply put, the southern sky is out of this world. (I refuse to apologize for that excellent pun.) I watched the moon turn into a gibbous moon, but the gibbous was on the left and growing! Totally opposite of the Northern Hemisphere’s, “on the right getting bright, on the left getting less,” saying to help know where the moon is in its cycle. I’m not having luck finding a good saying for the Southern Hemisphere, but I’ll keep looking or make one up myself. Plus on a sky tour with Earth & Sky at Lake Tekapo in the heart of Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve, our guide pointed out the Southern Cross (think Polaris of the south), the Jewel Box star cluster, and the Magellanic galaxies all visible to the naked eye. Plus if you time it right, you could see the aurora australis aka the southern lights. I did not time it right…
Sheep For Scale
New Zealand has an absurdly high sheep-to-people ratio and I loved every woolly moment of it! Especially on the hike to Roy’s Peak, which was chock-a-block full of ewes and spring lambs. Some lambs were even so young they still had their tails! Although, it seems Kiwis aren’t as anxious to dock tails as we are here in the states. The 11-16 km (6.84-9.94 miles) round trip had sweeping views of Lake Wanaka and the surrounding mountains, with obliging sheep providing scale. As you can imagine, it’s 1,300 meters (4,266 feet) of quad-burning uphill to get to the peak and all knee-aching downhill back to the car park – but the views and the sheep are worth it!
You can climb on their icy walls, strap on crampons to explore them, glimpse their cascading waterfalls, or kayak their milky-blue lakes. Glaciers dot the Southern Alps and are begging to be explored. My favorite glacier experience was ice climbing Fox Glacier. After a bit of ice climbing we ventured into the frozen waves. On our descent back to the helicopter landing zone our guide set up a repel into a crevasse. Let me tell you, scooting over an ice cliff and swinging your legs into seeming oblivion is a point when you’re thankful for a competent guide and a structurally-sound rope.
The hike to Rob Roy Glacier is a delightful stroll through the woods, even in the rain – as long as your umbrella is in hand! With low clouds, we were only able to see the very foot of the glacier. The myriad of waterfalls cascading off the mountain side made the 10 km (6.21 miles) round trip worth the trek, even if we couldn’t see the full scale of the glacier.
Another option is taking to a terminal lake; we paddled Tasman Glacier Lake with Glacier Kayaking. I had a potentially 500-year-old ice cube from an iceberg!
New Salt Water
With the Tasman Sea to the west and the South Pacific Ocean to the east, I was surrounded by new water. I’ve jumped in every ocean I’ve been to – all two of them – so when we camped at the Tasman Sea, naturally I had to go in. Immediate regret.
With the nonstop jaw-dropping scenery, it’s no wonder New Zealand was chosen as the set for Middle Earth. Most tourist shops have a Lord of the Rings location guidebook or two, we never picked one up, but stumbled on a few locations. On our way to canyoning we drove past Isengard. A short hike led us to Mount Sunday, also known as the Edoras, the capital of Rohan home to King Theoden; complete with a view of Helm’s Deep. I’m not sure if we saw any other official locations, but there were moments I channeled Legolas as I hopped across boulder fields or nervously looked at a rock outcrop overhead waiting for a warg to stalk over the crest. Not sure I’d be as successful as Gandalf with my trekking poles and a high-pitched, “YOU SHALL NOT PASS!”
Castle Hill may look familiar if you’re a fan of Narnia, the epic battle at the end of The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe took place here. The unique limestone boulders have the look of castle ruins. I recommend taking at least an hour to explore and enjoy all of the photo ops.
My last piece of advice – forget the mainstream guidebooks, that information is all over the internet. I highly recommend NZ Frenzy by Scott Cook for an adventurer’s insight to exploring New Zealand. This guidebook helped us find the walk wire, Mount Sunday, Castle Hill, Queenstown Hill, White Bluffs of Tekapo, and more!