We all have travel preconceptions; our great expectations and visions as we set off on new grand adventures. Sometimes unrealistic anticipation results in some overwhelmingly let down, forlorn travelers. Yet other times, if we remain open-minded and unassuming, we discover somewhere that far exceeds every expectation; New Zealand deserves all the extra hype and some. Yes, there are a copious number of farm animals, relative to the handful of people occupying the two islands, and you can embark on endless extreme adventures, adrenaline filled blood pumping through your veins. But New Zealand is still more than just this. It’s the unexpected juxtaposition of snow capped, icy alps with luscious green rainforests, that will leave you just marveling at the horizons if you visit Franz Josef or Fox Glacier. It’s the ice blue lakes and rivers, so crystalline and turquoise that you’re almost willing to sacrifice yourself to hypothermia and jump in the 10-12 degree celsius depths below, simply because such aquamarine waters are so hard to find almost anywhere else. From Queenstown’s Lake Wakatipu to Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea, bordering Mount Aspiring National Park- a World Heritage Site given the prehistoric flora resplendent to that found on supercontinent Gondwanaland- the glacial lakes of the South Island will spoil pretty much every other lake you’ll ever visit in the future.
Now for the nitty gritty: logistics. If you haven’t already realized, New Zealand has a few densely populated cities and otherwise consists of open expanses with isolated connecting roads jutting through, the occasional village and town scattered along the way. Pair that with some fierce geography, and you’ll see why figuring out how you’re going to get around should be a priority. My trip was planned pretty much from top to bottom before arrival, including all transportation, which guaranteed our timetable but severely restricted flexibility. If you’re comfortable driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road (attention all Europeans and Americans), I’d suggest hiring a car or a mobile home/camper van. Going along this route provides you with the freedom organized transport simply does not… If you’re not, there are still plenty of other options. At the end of the day, tourism is integral to New Zealand’s economy, so don’t worry, almost all of our varying needs are catered for. The InterCity website is a pretty good place to start, with their bus routes covering much of the North and South Islands. There is the occasional train service you can opt for- at a slight additional expense- including the TranzAlpine from Christchurch to Greymouth (at which point you’ll have to jump on a coach to traverse deeper in to the Southern Alps), however an extensive rail network is not established. Accommodation is the next big point on your checklist you’ll face when planning your trip. Hostels can have a stigma attached to them in certain parts of the world. Whilst affordable, most of New Zealand’s hostels are also clean, centrally located and offer great value for money! You will still have to do some investigative work prior to booking as there’ll always be that disappointing handful just waiting to ruin your trip. The hostels also tend to have private rooms, so if dormitory style isn’t up your alley but splurging on hotel rooms isn’t in your budget, fear not.
For a quick summary of the unmissables, check out the short video on my trip or the list below with a few tips and pointers. My list didn’t cover everything; there are places I didn’t go, things I didn’t see. In hindsight, Milford Sound would definitely have been worth the trek back across the Southern Alps and into the Fiordlands. But time is precious, and as is the case for most travelers, you simply cannot do everything. Had my constraints not been so tight, I would have opted to explore a little further off the tourist trail, venturing out of ‘the’ places to go. That being said, try to remember that it isn’t all about the ‘big’ activities… That’s not to say that I don’t encourage you to go bungy jumping or take a helicopter over the glaciers, but I also encourage you to take a day off to go for a hike or cycle along the Queenstown Trail, dedicate an afternoon to wine tasting, spend an evening gazing at the illuminated night skies thanks to minimal light pollution; be present.
1. Waitomo Glowworm Caves: get adventurous and go cave tubing with the added bonus of floating along underground river ways below. We used Black Water Rafting Co. who offer a variety of different length and intensity trips.
2. Wai-O-Tapu: from active geysers to luminescent Nickelodeon green slime pools, this geothermal hotspot is filled with bubbling muds and waters. Be warned, however, as the sulfurous odor is somewhat overbearing.
Where to base yourself: if you’re planning on exploring the North Island and are heading out of Auckland, ‘the’ place to stay would be Rotorua. Affectionately termed by one local as “the Queenstown of the North: our adventure capital”, this is your best bet if you’re planning on venturing the lands.
1. Bungy Jumping: I can’t not put this on the list, bungy jumping was the highlight for me and my adrenaline junkie self. If you want to go all out (experienced bungy jumper or not a.k.a me), you’ll have to do the 134 meter Nevis. Not for you? Opt for something slightly more low key and check out the other options, including smaller jumps and swings.
2. Franz Josef Glacier: Whether you opt for Franz Josef or nearby Fox (similar thing, apparently just a smaller ‘base-camp’ town), it’s worth going the extra distance and getting up on the ice. After all, how many glaciers have you trekked before?
Where to base yourself: it’s inevitable that you’ll spend at least a few nights in Queenstown, basing yourself here and branching out to visit some of the neighboring attractions. Queenstown has it all; from budget to luxury, relaxation to adrenaline. You’ll definitely notice the heavy international influence, so although a great base, don’t miss out exploring some of the other towns and villages the South Island has to offer.