Visiting New Zealand has always been at or near the top of my bucket list since I was a kid. I’d day-dream of living in a giant treehouse complete with a garage, elevator and huge open balcony amid the canopy. But it wasn’t until the fall of 2014 that I finally decided to take the plunge and booked a two-week trip to this incredible country.
My flight would take me from Montreal to Toronto to Los Angeles to Auckland. My layover in LA was 11 hours, so I decided to get out of the airport and spend it in Santa Monica (and in a fruitless search for the Hollywood sign).
The flight to NZ itself was amazing – how often do you get to have Smaug transport you to Middle Earth?
The trip was planned out in great detail (too planned out – I’ll know better next time). I would rent a car and drive it from Auckland to Queenstown and try and hit as many interesting places along the way as I could. This would be almost a 3000 km road trip.
I landed in Auckland early morning a full three days after I departed. Picked up the car and made my way to the Sky City Grand Hotel in downtown Auckland.
After a quick clean up, I had lunch at an amazing Korean restaurant (which looked a little sketchy, but the food was incredibly yummy) and took in a matinee of The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies at the IMAX. I thought it was only fitting to watch the final installment of the trilogy in the country it was filmed in. It’s unfortunate that the film let me down. I couldn’t get past Legolas doing yet another Mario Bros impression and Smaug dies in the first five minutes (sorry for the spoiler).
Anyway, that night I met up with a friend from university that I hadn’t seen in almost 20 years. He filled me in on all of the ins and outs of living and working in New Zealand because this was something I was genuinely curious about. After dinner, he suggested that we catch the sunset on Eden Hill – one of the many hills dotting Auckland (each of which was an active volcano at some point in time). It was a beautiful evening and a great way to spend my first day in NZ.
The next day I made the obligatory pilgrimage to Hobbiton. Very cute set – almost expected to see hobbits jump out of their homes and yell at all of the rude tourists tampering with their things. It was also incredibly hot and crowded – I’d never been in a human traffic jam before. Serves me right for visiting the set of a movie that was released less than a month ago.
I then drove on to Waitomo where I’d have an early start the next morning to go caving. I stayed at Rock Retreat B&B. The scenery was breathtaking and the hosts were very friendly. They had two mischievous little girls that were obsessed with cellphones and who graciously offered to share their dinner (some sort of mystery meat). The questionable highlight of the day was visiting The Warehouse in Matamata – New Zealand’s equivalent to Walmart…
My sleep cycle hadn’t quite shifted by that point so I was up super early to catch the sunrise.
Caving was a blast. Aside from the glow worms and abseiling into the cave, I think the best part was that I got to wear super sexy red hot pants and leaky rubber boots.
After caving it was on to Rotorua – the hotbed of geothermal activity (haha) on the North Island and motel capital of the world. Seriously, I swear there were more motels along the main street here then on the Vegas strip. I discovered a grove of California Redwoods just outside of town where I could build my treehouse and visited a couple of lakes around town at sunset. Below is a shot of Mount Tarawera.
If you ever find yourself in Rotorua, check out this cute little pizzeria in town – I highly recommend the veggie pizza
The next day I made my way to Wellington with a couple of quick stops along the way. The first was to the Wai-O-Tapu geothermal pools. Nothing like the smell of sulphur to get you going first thing in the morning.
The next detour was Mordor, Emyn Muil and Mount Doom (aka Tongariro National Park and Mount Ngarouhoe). That’s Mount Doom in the second picture below, tucked behind the orange pile of rocks and shrouded in clouds. These pictures were taken from an adjacent mountain where there’s a ski lift that can take you up most of the way, Mount Ruapehu.
I’ve heard wonderful things about Wellington, but unfortunately I didn’t have the time to explore the city at all. I arrived late and would have to leave at sunrise to catch the ferry to the South Island.
The ferry made port in a small town called Picton on the South Island. Instead of listening to the GPS, I decided to take the “scenic” route along Queen Charlotte Dr. The poor GPS was swinging wildly in all directions trying to keep up with the all of twists and hairpin turns along this road. Easily the windiest road I’d ever been on.
Made it to Westport by the end of the day, in time to check out the seal colony at Cape Foulwind just outside of town. Unfortunately most of the seals were still out at sea hunting, but it was still a beautiful sunset.
Ended the day at Ferry Man’s Cottage. It’s a luxurious two-bedroom cottage set in the beautiful west coast country side. Highly recommended!
The next day I started to make my way down the west coast of the South Island skirting the edge of Paparoa National Park. It reminded me a great deal of the Pacific Coast Highway in California with its rugged coastline. Along the way I visited Truman Track and the Pancake Rocks.
Arrived in Franz Josef and had the worst meal of my life at a so-called high-end restaurant. The next morning made up for it because I managed to sneak in a helicopter trip up to the glacier just before the rain moved in. The scenery was quite dramatic. The glacier itself has receded significantly over the years. You used to be able to walk right on to it from the edge of town, now, you either have to hike up the valley to reach it, or you take a helicopter.
From Franz Josef I made my way down to Queenstown via Wanaka where I got geared up and ready for my overnight kayaking trip to Doubtful Sound the following day.
Before actually heading south to Te Anau, I drove up to Glenorchy a short 30 minute drive northwest of Queenstown, where many scenes from LotR were filmed including Lothlorien and Isengard. It was incredibly picturesque and well worth the time. Below are a few shots taken along the road. The first is in Glenorchy, the second is The Remarkables a chain a mountains just outside Queenstown, the third is along the shores of Lake Wakatipu and the cows were on the way to Te Anau.
Early the next morning I was picked up from the motel in Te Anau and whisked away to Doubtful sound. Two buses and a ferry ride later, I found myself gearing up for an overnight kayak trip into Doubtful Sound.
This is Doubtful Sound. Incredibly beautiful – but full of the most voracious sandflies you’ll ever encounter – it was like living through a horror movie… Maori legend says that the god Tu-te-raki-whanoa had just finished creating the Fiordland, but the landscape was so stunning in beauty that it stopped people from working and instead they just stood around staring in awe. The goddess Hinenuitepo became so angry at these unproductive people that she created the sandfly to bite them and get them moving again. She is one nasty nasty goddess.
Went back to Queenstown and spent the next couple of days recovering from the sandfly bites. Queenstown is known as the adventure capital of the world. So what better place to get over my lifelong fear of heights. I found myself bungy jumping and hang gliding – and tried to skydive – unfortunately the weather didn’t cooperate for the 4 days I tried to book it. I celebrated my victory over fear by getting my first tattoo.
Once the adventure ran dry in Queenstown, I made my way up to Omarama (I love that name!) to do some gliding. What an incredible experience. So peaceful I almost fell asleep up there.
After gliding I headed east to Oamaru and the coast – all I have to say about this town is WTF. I should’ve heeded the warnings to avoid the place. The only redeeming factor of this town was a good Indian restaurant and Subway cookies. The place was a ghost town except for the gambling taverns and kids dealing drugs in the middle of the street. It also smelled like a mixture of sewage and rotting fish. Escaping Oamaru, I drove south along the coast and checked out these nifty little boulders just sitting on the beach (the Maoeraki Boulders).
Made my way to Dunedin and the Otago Pensinsula. I was on the hunt for penguins. It was only upon arriving and talking with the local guides that I learned that the penguins don’t return from sea until after 9pm, so I’d be photographing them in the dark if I saw any at all. In addition to that I still had a 3-4hr drive along one of the most dangerous roads in NZ back to Queenstown that night. So no penguins – maybe next time. At least the scenery was nice!
I spent the last day or so in Queenstown decompressing and letting the trip sink in. This trip was an epic adventure in every sense of the word. But in the end, my fondest memories of New Zealand will be of the many hours spent driving along its winding roads. As I drove, I found myself in a little bubble of solitude where all that mattered in the world was what was inside the car at that moment. Beautiful scenery slipped by, along with any sense of time. It may sound cliché, but I will never forget the sense of freedom, bliss and contentedness of being in the moment while on the open road – and it reminded me that life is truly about the journey and not the destination.
All images except for the Google maps and those of me caving and bungy jumping were taken by myself and are protected by copyright.