New Zealand… Where to begin …
Before we arrived here expectations where incredibly high! We thought of it as “the land that has everything: fjords, mountains, rivers, volcanoes and even some kind of desert”. The land of middle earth and the shire looked so nice we had to see it for ourselves. It was a country high on our preference list and we were looking forward to it. Mathieu, a friend of Céline – whom we met in Myanmar – said: “You liked Nepal most so far. Wait until you have seen New Zealand! It’s amazing!”.
As you can see, the stakes were high. Could NZ fulfil this star image?
After 4 weeks cruising the South island – and by cruising we mean covering nearly the whole island with over 5000 kms on the counter – we can tell a thing or two about it.
Let us just start with the fact that it is an amazingly beautiful country to drive around. That is probably also the reason why you almost see no one but tourists riding the streets with their (rental or bought) car, campervan or minivan.
Did you know?
New Zealand is 268.000 square kilometres in size and has only 4,5M people. This is approx. 17 people per square KM.
To compare: Belgium = 350 people per km2 (+/- 12M on 32.000 km2).
Moreover only 1,5M people live in the South Island which is as much as in Auckland alone! Conclusion: New Zealand is much land for very few Hobbits.
This means even in high season, the amount of people you see is always very acceptable and very different from our experience in Asia.
The route that we did:
WHAT WAS FUN/NICE/A MUST DO?
- First of all, in general, just driving around in the fantastic scenery of the South Island is amazing and so often we said: “Look at that! Whaauw.”, “Imagine living in that house [with that amazing view]”,… .
NZ is really equipped with all facilities to accomodate campers/tourists: Free public toilets everywhere, fresh water taps, visitor centers for information about things to do, viewpoints, picnic and camp places. It’s a country where it’s impossible to get lost while travelling.
Amazing drives: Road to Milford Sound, from Lake Pukaki to Mt Cook national park, Haast pass, Arthur’s pass, every road along the coast and lakes, …
- Lake Pukaki, an incredible blue lake with at the end of it, the views on the Southern Alps & Mt Cook (highest mountain in NZ: over 3700m). It was one of our first camping spots and we’ll remember this one for a long time. The feeling of getting out of your tent and have this immense overview on the 30 KM long lake with the snow-capped mountains in the back, is breath-taking and unforgettable.
- The hike in the Southern Alps to Mueller hut. Hard, steep trekking, but with a very rewarding view at the top. It was windy + bad weather was coming in so we initially planned to only hike to some lakes halfway (3h return walk). The whole way up would take 3 extra hours, but glad we continued more up and faced the fierce elements of the earth in exchange for the vistas (*thundering and scary sounds*)!
- Seeing the wobbling yellow-eyed penguins at the Moeraki lighthouse. We tried in the afternoon but no penguin in sight, only loads of sea lions or fur seals, but after 6PM the penguins returned from fishing and come ashore to sleep. Very cool animals!
Note: They are close to extinction. Only about 200 yellow-eyes penguins are still alive and only live here in New Zealand.
- Not a specific activity or place, but a real must do is camping! Find a nice place next to the river, on the beach, in the forest, in the mountains, put your tent up, cook your own meal, drink a glass of wine and enjoy the place. It is marvellous sometimes (Cleaning up your wet tent after a rainy night is of course less fun :-)!
And if you catch your own meal, it is even better: One some days we gathered our own mussels & clams which tasted even better than if we bought them!
- Fjordland & West Coast is a very nice region to visit with an abundance of huge lakes surrounded by green mountains, waterfalls and rivers. The lakes are nice, the treks are beautiful and the sounds are huge. In this area we especially liked1. The Gertrude Saddle hike: It rewarded us with a very impressive view on Milford sound. A hard, steep track but definitely a must do!
2. Wanaka: A very easy going town at a beautiful lake and views on Mt Aspiring. We went to the cosy cinema Paradiso famous for its sofas & even cars to sit in to watch the movie and of course their home-made cookies!
Not to forget: Very few sandflies in Wanaka. From there we also did a nice hike to Rob Roy glacier. Again, there are worse places to eat your lunch. Stunning!
3. We did a 2-day kayaking trip on Doubtful Sound. A bit more remote (a 40′ ferry trip followed by a 30′ bus ride to a small town with 4 inhabitants) than its smaller brother Milford Sound which is very crowded. On a busy day over 150 helicopter and plane flybys can be counted and on top of that over 6 cruise companies offer hourly boat trips. Needless to say we preferred to kayak in Doubtful Sound between the high forested mountains in the middle of nowhere which gave us an overwhelming feeling of how small we actually are. Super peaceful and super nice!
But … There are millions of sandflies waiting for every living soul to arrive. See sandflies in the “don’ts”-list below.
4. Our first downhill mountain bike adventure in Queenstown: Céline did a “front flip with back landing” in her first round and I did a “tree grind with horizontal cliff edge landing” on the second descent, but all in all we had fun and only superficial bruises and scratches (see video for the tricks).
I’m proud of her because there were not too many girls even trying this type of sport. Regardless her tumble, her downhill skills are for sure better than her disc-golf skills. “I know I have to aim for the basket, but my arm throws it there [other direction].”5. In Kingston we stayed a couple of days at Lakes End lodge with Kimmy & John, well-travelled themselves and now settling to manage their recently opened lodge/hostel. Very cosy and interesting place: homemade beer, a family dinner every evening, millions of free plums (in the season) and very nice hosts & people staying there. We liked the “house”-feeling a lot, cooked in a real kitchen instead of camping stoves, took a bath, … Just relaxing as if being home, and that is exactly the feeling they want to give their guests.
On one evening one of the guests, Julian Yu, a young magician from Sydney, gave a 2 hour card magic performance which was really funny and awesome! The first time that I was this close to magic trics and still don’t see it. Very cool!
6. Hike to Roberts Point: A nice off-track way to a viewing platform on the impressive Franz Josef Glacier. The main attraction there is to take a helicopter landing on the glacier and walk on the glacier between its crevasses. We didn’t do that but counting the numerous helicopters dropping off people, it looks like these companies are making gold (on beautiful days).
- Abel Tasman & Golden Bay: In this area we jumped out of a plane. Oh yeah … That was cool! 16.500ft, packed with 10 people in an old plane and then jumping into thin air … Definitely a must and not a last .
In Abel Tasman National Park we did a 2-day kayak along the coast with stunning secluded beaches. The weather was nice, the beaches were beautiful, the lagoons were like paradise … And the bottlenose dolphins were present!
We saw them first from the water taxi who dropped us and the kayaks off deep in the national park, but it was very exciting when we saw them a second time very close around us while kayaking. Making jumps and playing around (just feeding probably).
Did you know?
Bottlenose dolphins are the flippers that we know from our childhood tv-show (sorry -25yr olds). They are among the largest dolphins and famous for their jumps.
Note: An orca is also a dolphin type. Too bad that we didn’t see them, but if we would, we would prefer not to be in a kayak.
In the north of Golden Bay we also visited the very nice Wharariki beach with amazing rock formations & giant sand dunes. Paradise!
DON’TS/LESS INTERESTING NOR FUN:
- In general the towns are less interesting. Small – bit boring – towns: most often only a very few houses together in one street and that’s it. If there are shops or bars, they will be definitely closed if you pass after 6PM. In the very South there are mainly farms which often even look abandoned/empty. We wonder what this would be like in winter. (Probably also dead, as far as there are different stages in ‘deadness’).
- In the South(-East) you’ll mainly have farmland. So heaps of sheep and cows. But that also means more deforested hills and lots of gigantic self-driving sprinklers that have to keep the grass green for this grazing stock. If it was not for the sprinklers it would look more beige/yellow/brown. So the nature here looks less interesting (according to us of course. A farmer would think otherwise). But the beautiful shoreline and The Catlins make up for a whole lot.
- Easy and short walks/treks are more crowded with tourists but as mentioned before: The amount never disturbed us because everything is so big and you’ll always find your quiet spot to enjoy the views. The views are always still worth to do on these shorter & easier treks. But: We liked the reward and views more when we had to work for it. So definitely take on the more difficult/longer treks!
- Wildlife. What wildlife? The Kiwi (talking about the people) will brag with all their wildlife but actually:
(1) it are mainly birds (not to mention the seals and sea lions sunbathing on every shore). But next to some birds you are able to spot often (like the Kea, NZ falcon, the New Zealand pigeon, gulls, Oystercatchers, black swans and many more), it is nearly impossible to catch a glimpse of their national icon: The kiwi (the bird). If you ask around nobody has seen it in the wild… Does it still exist or is it also one of the many tales?
And (2) if they have other wildlife they call it plague or pest and are trying to exterminate it by all means: wallabies, ferrets, possums, rabbits and even wasps. All imported species which destroy the natural ecosystem of NZ. They shoot, trap or poison them by the millions. The point I want to make here is that NZ is so big and has all types of ecosystems you would expect to find wildlife everywhere: monkeys, crocodiles, bears, snakes, … Everything. The country looks like there is even room for dinosaurs! But no … only birds (although we like the many birds of prey circling the sky).
- Talking about wildlife. On the south island, and especially on the west coast, there is an indigenous species that flourishes by the lack of predators. And we are their meal! SANDFLIES! (*again horror sounds*)
Sandflies are tiny little flies that as soon as you linger around, swarm around you and the female – of course – sandflies suck your blood for your proteins. The legend says god invented them to prevent you from lingering around and stay busy or keep moving. They are to slow to annoy you when you are walking.
This, for us personally, would be a reason not to live in a place where there are many of them. It’s a bit of a pity while the scenery is so nice that you can’t just sit down and enjoy it.
- Bad weather … it’s a cliché, but every place is nicer in the sun. This is also here of course. But we kept in mind that a country can’t be green if it never rains. We were quite lucky with the weather: some clouded days, but only a couple of days with rain during the day. Although it was a shame that we didn’t get any views on the Kepler track (one of NZ’s great walks: 60K in 2 days!). But we can’t have it all .
So what’s the verdict?
As you can see, New Zealand had indeed much to offer and its nature is very diverse and so beautiful. We can’t deny that one. We had heaps of fun and are really looking forward to the North Island, so we’ll keep our favourite for now and see what that one brings
It’s all good!
(finishing with some famous Kiwi quotes)