We spent our final two weeks in New Zealand on a road trip around the south island. Our route took us west from Marlborough Sounds up to Golden Bay and then down the west coast as far as Te Anau. After seeing Milford Sound, we worked our way north again through Queenstown, Lake Tekapo, Arthur’s Pass and finally Christchurch.
Our first stop was Golden Bay (B). We spent two nights in a hostel Collingwood that had composting toilets, which is essentially a fancy name for an outhouse. Then, on the recommendation of a British guy at our hostel, Caitlin and I did an incredible 3-hour hike along Farewell Spit, up and down sheep hills, through rivers and over barbed wire fences until we ended up at Wharariki Beach (pronounced Far-iki) at high tide. We also saw the sacred Maori Te Waikoropupu Springs (Pupu Springs) which are supposedly the clearest waters in the world. We got lost in some Labyrinth Rocks made of karst rock formations and had a latte at The Naked Possum, the most remote coffeeshop I’ve ever visited.
Westport (C): We then traveled through Abel Tasman National Park before heading south to Westport. We stayed in a beautiful backpackers called the Old Slaughterhouse up in the trees with a beautiful view of the coastline.
Punakaiki: While driving along rocky beaches we stopped to see many blubbery seals and the famous Pancake Rocks. The layers of limestone were formed 30 million years ago by water pressure and then lifted above the surface by seismic forces. Apparently high tide waves splash up through blow holes and spray out of the pillars, but we were there on a calm day so all we saw were more frolicking seals.
Hokitaka Gorge: We stopped at this luminescent blue gorge during our drive along the west coast. The water is a milky bubblegum blue color because of something called Rock Flour. This means that glaciers gouged out the gorge but left little fragments of sediment behind that reflect the sky and make the water a supernatural blue.
D. Franz Josef: There are two glaciers near the town of Franz Josef: Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier. We did short hikes to both of them through glacial valleys with towering walls of rock and rugged paths. Clouds submerged the upper half of the cliffs and the ice was shrouded in a hazy mist, creating a sense of eery gloom. Near Fox Glacier is a reflective pool called Lake Matheson. Early in the morning the glassy waters recreate the image of Mount Cook, but on the days we went the peak was always cloaked in clouds. Later in the day, huge caravans of tour buses pile up at all the famous locations, but if you go early enough you can the places to yourself.
E. Wanaka: We did another epic hike around Diamond Lake and and up Rocky Mountain (not to be confused with the Rockies, of course). We reached the peak long before anyone was around and looked out over Lake Wanaka as dawn warmed the snowcapped mountains around us.
F. Milford Sound: In order to be as close as possible to Milford, we stayed in the tiny town of Te Anau in Fjordland. Milford Sound/Piopiohahi is technically actually a fjord because it was carved by glacial movement and then filled with seawater, whereas sounds are formed by rising sea levels. The Maori name, Piopiotahi, refers to the extinct piopio bird that mourned the death of Maui after he attempted to win immortality for humans. We certainly didn’t feel immortal at 5:30 a.m. when we left our hostel for the two hour journey to Milford Sound. The sloping hills were engulfed in a thick fog and a steady curtain of rain wrapped around our small boat. It was an ominous day to spend out on the water, but it made the landscapes even more dramatic and coaxed wildlife out into the open. We saw a seal colony, “little blue” korora penguins and a playful crowd of Hector’s dolphins. I made the early mistake of standing on the edge of the bow as our boat drifted next to a waterfall and was completely soaked for the rest of the 2-hour trip.
G. Queenstown: The Adventure Capital of New Zealand is located on a beautiful lake squashed between the Southern Alps. As the main tourist destination for bungee jumping, skydiving and parasailing, Queenstown is a gorgeous little town that is bulging with advertisements. It is undeniably beautiful, but the swarming tourists were new for me after months of feeling like we had New Zealand to ourselves. The best part of our two nights in Queenstown was when we met up with our friend Robbie from Auckland and made some new friends, Kevin, Erich, Rika and Joseph. We did a sunset hike across the lake one day and drank some wine as the night grew darker.
H. Lake Tekapo: The one-block town of Lake Tekapo is mostly famous for the Church of the Good Shepherd, a one-room stone building at the edge of the lake. I’m not exactly sure why it is famous since it isn’t even that old (it was built in 1935), but we discovered it is beautiful at sunrise. We also discovered the Astro Cafe up on a huge hill called Mount John that overlooks Lake Pukaki and Mount Cook far in the distance. We had a delicious latte up there with astrological designs in the foam as we admired a 360-degree view of the surrounding mountains. Then we checked out Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park. As we approached the park, the sky grew darker and the rain picked up so that by the time we reached the Visitor Center at the base of Mount Cook we couldn’t any of the mountain. It was disappointing not to even see the destination I was the most excited about, but we did learn all about the hardcore men and women who have climbed its peak. Then we hiked all around some blue pools, Tasman Lake and Tasman Glacier. The water was unsurprisingly ice cold and dotted with random icebergs.
I. Arthur’s Pass: As the trailhead for one of the New Zealand Great Hikes, the town of Arthur’s Pass is not much more than a coffeeshop, Visitor Center and a hostel. Most people just stop there before heading out for 4-5 day trek, but we only had one day left so we did some short hikes and then got a coffee to escape the rain. While sipping long blacks we saw wild New Zealand alpine parrot, called the Kea, flapping around the parking lot, fearlessly perching on cars and scrounging for food. When the army green bird stretched to hop away from tourists the underside of his wings flashed bright red. He was impossible to capture on camera.
J. Christchurch: We spent our last night in New Zealand in the city of Christchurch. Sadly the city is still pretty damaged from back-to-back earthquakes in 2010 and 2011 that decimated much of the historic buildings in the city center. Christchurch is slowly being rebuilt, but there was not a lot of us to see so we spent much of our last day packing and sorting through the items we had carried with us for the last three months. We left a large pile of donated shirts and toiletries at our hostel for the next guests to use, and then we headed out for our last meal in the country. Robbie once again happened to be in the same area so we had dinner together at a Thai restaurant. As the first friend we made in Auckland it was very fitting that he was the last person we saw in New Zealand. He even walked us to the airport and waved as we went through security one last time.