This blog post is long overdue, but now that I’ve recovered from the jet lag and adjusted back to North Carolina time, I can finally share my last week in New Zealand. I spent my final week exploring New Zealand’s majestic South Island! The South Island is probably one of the most incredible places on Earth, consisting of beautiful beaches, rolling hills, towering mountains, incredible fjords, and lush rainforests.
My first travels to the South Island took me by plane into Queenstown, often considered one of the adventure capitals of the world. Queenstown is an epicenter for thrill-inducing activities, with everything from world-class skiing to paragliding to bungee-jumping. I was lucky enough to be in Queenstown during the annual Queenstown Winter Festival! The Winter Festival is a celebration that draws people from all over New Zealand and the rest of the world to officially kick off the peak of the winter sports season in New Zealand’s Southern Alps. There were musical performances in the town center every night, fireworks out over the lake, and food trucks galore. In a nice surprise, I soon realized that venison is a very popular meat on the South Island – I had pizza with venison pepperoni, a venison burger, and a venison meat pie. New Zealand is one of the world’s largest exporters of venison. Deer are farmed in New Zealand for their meat, much like cattle (except with much higher fences!). Queenstown is a mountain town nestled on the shore of Lake Wakatipu, with hiking trails available for miles and miles. While in Queenstown, I hiked up Queenstown Hill, known for incredible views of Lake Wakatipu and the Remarkables mountain range. Queenstown Hill is a relatively easy hike with awesome rewards – it only takes three to four hours to hike up and back down again.
Queenstown also served as my starting point for a tour of the Fiordland National Park and scenic cruise on Milford Sound. From Queenstown, my tour traveled roughly four hours through farmland to the town of Te Anau on the shores of Lake Tea Anau. Te Anau is the gateway to Fiordland National Park and the beginning of the only road into one of the park’s famous fiords: Milford Sound and the Milford Sound Road. Upon reaching the Sound, we embarked on a two-hour cruise aboard a traditional sailing vessel called the Mariner. Milford Sound is a fiord a little over 9 miles in length bordered by mountains and sheer rock faces nearly 4,000 feet high. The Sound is home to thundering waterfalls, seals, dolphins, penguins, and more. It has been referred to as the “8th Wonder of the World”, and I couldn’t agree more. Milford Sound is the most incredible place I’ve ever had the chance to experience. There’s very little I can put into words that could actually do Milford Sound justice, so hopefully, the pictures will speak for themselves.
Following my time in Queenstown, I traveled 8 hours by bus through the Haast Pass of the Southern Alps to the town of Franz Joseph, home of the Franz Joseph Glacier. Franz Joseph is located on the Western coast of the South Island, a region that is considered a temperate rainforest due to the warm winds coming off of the Tasman Sea and the colossal amounts of rainfall the coast receives. My main goal was to take a helicopter ride to the top of Franz Joseph Glacier and complete a 4-hour glacier hike, however, Mother Nature had slightly different plans. Due to storms approaching from the South, I was unable to venture up onto the glacier. Despite this disappointment, I did have the opportunity to do some amazing hiking in the area. I hiked through the rainforest to the Callery River Gorge (absolutely beautiful) and crossed the suspension bridge there before circling back and hiking to an old mining shaft. The tunnel ran roughly 150 meters deep into the mountain and is home to hundreds of glow worms. I got to see some of these glow worms myself, but taking pictures of them merely resulted in odd streaks of light on an otherwise pitch black background – so I’m afraid there are no photos of the worms to share!
While in Franz Joseph, I also got the chance to explore the actual shore of the West Coast. Massive, braided rivers run from the mountains into the Tasman Sea, carrying ridiculously blue water. The Tasman itself is also magnificent – a deep blue color stretching out in every direction bordered by the beaches and towering mountains of the South Island’s West Coast.
After exploring the West Coast, I traveled back to Queenstown to catch a tour bus to Christchurch early the next morning. On the way from Queenstown to Christchurch was the opportunity to see more of the central part of the South Island. The bus made several amazing stops. First was Lake Wanaka, a beautiful lake surrounded by the Southern Alps that is becoming nearly as popular adventure destination as Lake Wakatipu in Queenstown. Secondly, we traveled to Lake Pukaki and the valley beneath Mount Cook (or Aoraki, the Maori name), New Zealand’s highest peak. Settled in beneath the towering Mount Cook and the other surrounding mountains of the Southern Alps is the Hermitage Hotel, where we had lunch and the chance to take pictures of the mountain.
After leaving the shadow of Mount Cook, the next stop was Lake Tekapo, another amazing lake surrounded by snow-capped mountains, but the main attraction at Lake Tekapo wasn’t just the setting – it was the Church of the Good Sheperd. Built on the shores of Lake Tekapo and framed by the mountains and the lake in the background, the Church of the Good Sheperd is a small chapel built of stone (you’ve probably seen it before on desktop screensavers or magazines). The Church is used for services regularly, but the beauty of the Church and its surroundings make it a must-see stop on any trip to the South Island.
My last days on the South Island were spent in Christchurch. Christchurch is the largest city on the South Island and is still undergoing construction and repair work following the devastating earthquake that hit the city in 2011. Despite the work being done, it was clear to see that Christchurch is an incredible city filled with parks and massive public spaces. Christchurch served as my base for the final tour of my trip: a Lord of the Rings tour to Edoras! Edoras is the fictional capital of the nation of Rohan from the Lord of the Rings, a small city set atop a low mountain standing alone in a valley surrounded by mountains. The tour travels through the central part of the island and the thousands of farms based there to reach the valley where Edoras, known officially as Mount Sunday, can be found. Though none of the original film set remains, merely seeing the filming location is incredible. We entered the valley using specially-made 6-wheel drive vehicles to traverse the rough terrain, crossing streams and small rivers to eventually climb halfway up Mount Sunday itself. As we hiked to the top of Mount Sunday, a storm rolled into the valley, slightly obscuring our views of the surrounding mountains but adding an incredible intensity and greyness (not entirely sure that’s a word) to the experience. Standing atop a small mountain of granite immediately surrounded by rivers, plains, and further mountains during a storm was awe-inspiring. The tour guides brought along pictures and props to make imagining the film set a little more real, so I was able to take some cool pictures with a sword before the rain started pouring down on us and the wind tried to sweep us from the mountainside. My tour group and I hiked back down the mountain, completely soaked by the time we reached the vehicle, but overawed by the experience.
That night, I flew from Christchurch on the South Island to Auckland on the North Island, where I got a room close to the airport and a good night’s rest before the flight home the next day (14 hours of flying in a middle seat was not the ideal thing to look forward to!). Despite the huge amount of time it takes to get to New Zealand, it’s worth it. New Zealand is, by far, the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen. The only way I’ve been able to describe it is by saying you can see all of the amazing places you could imagine: volcanoes, snow-capped mountains, rainforests, beautiful lakes, white & black sand beaches, green pastures stretching for miles, majestic fiords, and more on an island that takes roughly 5 hours to drive from the East Coast to the West Coast. It’s like cramming all the beauty of the United States into a country roughly twice the size of North Carolina. And all the environmental beauty doesn’t even begin to explain the sheer kindness and warmth of the Kiwis (nickname for New Zealanders), or the deliciousness of their coffee. I can say, without a doubt, New Zealand is one of the finest countries in the world. I can’t wait for the opportunity to visit New Zealand again.