Road Tripping New Zealand’s South Island

Highlighting the best routes for the ultimate roadside views.

 

Why Road Trip?

It’s just fun. Plus, New Zealand’s tourism industry is modeled around the assumption that most tourists are getting around via car rental. Most attractions are pretty far apart, and buses don’t run very frequently. The country is too small (only 5 million people!) to invest in an extensive and inexpensive transportation system to connect two islands with insanely varying terrain. As such, car rentals are the most reasonable and reliable method of transport. 

New Zealand is world renowned for its breath-taking landscapes and plentiful outdoor recreation opportunities. So we brought camping gear and bookmarked tons of secret spots for camping. (They’re not actually very secret. There’s a great app called CamperMate that shows you all the local camping options on a map.) Having a car just makes it easier for us to explore some of the more remote treasures. Plus, camping helps us save money on accommodation. which in turn helps fund the cost of the car! Full circle!

The Department of Conservation, mainly referred to as DOC (as in, waddup doc!), is absolutely phenomenal here in New Zealand. Most areas have an i-Site and/or DOC visitor centre dedicated to helping tourists plan their visit around the local area. So many pamphlets. So many maps. So much support. 

 

Renting a Car

There are plenty of options to choose from when it comes to rental cars and campervans. JUCY is the most popular - and iconic - choice here in New Zealand. They make a whole line of vehicle options, including the infamous purple and green campercan. A lot of people opt for campervans because they’re well equipped and easy to maintain here in NZ, but being that we already have an outstanding backpacking tent and two mediocre sleeping bags, we chose to downsize to the “el cheapo” option. For 40 days, this little cherry red hyundai would be home.

Unfortunately, you can’t get around the fact that you constantly need to buy gas. It takes 91 unleaded, which isn’t cheap compared to prices in the States, but luckily el cheapo’s are relatively fuel efficient. Much more efficient than a campervan would be.

Also it’s weird, but you pay for gas after you pump it. We learned that the awkward way our first time at the pump. Apparently they “trust people” here. Also it’s called petrol, not gas.

 

Driving on the Other Side of the Road

It’s not actually that weird. It really only takes a day or two to get used to. As always, never drive distracted, and it’s totally fine. At first, turning is the trickiest part. Roundabouts, too. While they’re super efficient for traffic control and emission reduction, they’re definitely less straightforward than a 4-way intersection.

Only complaint: windshield wipers. Every time we go for the blinkers, our wipers start wiping. RIGHT HAND for indicating, not the left. 

 

Our Route

After a quick two weeks in the North Island, we hopped on the Interislander Ferry in Wellington for the beautiful cruise to Picton. It’s a very enjoyable cruise, with lots of available snacks on board and lots of opportunities to see stunning landscapes and maybe even some wildlife - especially going through the Marlborough Sounds when you get closer to Picton. If you’re planning a double-island road trip, make sure you look into prices and timetables for the ferry! It’s always easier to book in advance, especially during the busier months.

Once we landed in Picton, we headed dead south to Blenheim for a weekend of well-deserved wine tasting. Next we darted over to Nelson Lakes National Park for a few days of hiking and camping. After that, we zipped to Kaikoura for a day of whale-watching, and then up into Arthur's Pass for a night. Then we headed down to Tekapo for a night, and onwards to Wanaka for a few days. We ended up doubling back north to spend a night in Mount Cook National Park, and then looped south again to Queenstown. We spent the last week based out of Queenstown, venturing out to Glenorchy for a day, and to the Fiordlands a few times too.

 

Kaikoura

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Unfortunately, we drove this route at night and can’t provide any proof of the pretty views. BUT I’ve driven it before, and if you like winding through mountains and across river valleys, make sure to take SH 76 to Kaikoura. (Depending on when you visit, you might not have a choice… both main access roads to Kaikoura were heavily damaged in a recent earthquake…). Make sure to check road closings before you head out!

 

Arthur’s Pass

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Depending on whether or not you plan on going to the west coast, you can choose to go through Arthur’s Pass, or just into the village and back out. Both are great options, as there are plenty of viewpoints along the way. Just north of the main village, there’s a cool part of the road with a rock slide shelter and aqueduct that’s well worth a quick visit before leaving even if you’re not headed to the west coast!

 

Road to Wanaka

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Another beautiful pass through farmland and rolling hills. We went on a moody day, bringing out the exceptional rustic colors around us.

 

Road to Blue Pools (Haas Pass)

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Haast Pass is aa exceptional drive along the isthmus between Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea. There are plenty of lookouts to stretch your legs and snap a picture, or for the more adventurous, stop along the way for a day hike up to Isthmus Peak for even more incredible views. Continuing towards the west coast, you enter Mount Aspiring National Park with recreational pull-offs every few minutes. Plenty of things to do!

 

Road into Mount Cook National Park

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There’s only one way in, and one way out. The entire approach to the National Park will be one big tease of Mount Cook staring right at you, waiting for you.

 

Paradise Road

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The drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy will put you in a trance, slowly meandering along the east side of long Lake Wakatipu. But, even better, if you continue north after Glenorchy you will find a secret backroad called Paradise

 

Queenstown to Fiordlands

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The first time we followed this road was on a big bus on our way to a Doubtful Sound Cruise. For the first part of the drive, you follow parallel to the Remarkables - which frankly, are quite Remarkable. Once you get into the Fiordlands, it’s all open spaces and distant peaks. Quite peaceful. 

 

Bonus road: Up to the Remarkables

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On the way back from hiking the Key Summit Track, just a few minutes outside of Queenstown, we found a very steep drive up to the Remarkables ski area. Do not do this drive in the winter. If the roads are clear, and you’re confident driving twisty, windy, switchbacks at high elevations - you will be rewarded with absolutely stunning views of the Remarkables and greater Queenstown area. 

 

Interested in the North Island? Check out our other road trip post!

Doubtful Sound: The Most Remote Corner of New Zealand's Wilderness

An absolute must if you’re exploring the Southern Island of New Zealand is stopping for a cruise in the Fiordland National Park. This park is enormous, bigger than Yellowstone and Yosemite combined, and most of its wilderness isn’t accessible by anything other than a helicopter. Cruises are the exception.

The most popular cruise is the famous Milford Sound, which can be done in a day or an overnight trip and is the most accessible of the fiords. Following Milford is Doubtful Sound, which is slightly more remote and nearly double the size. 

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This is the cruise we opted for after some gentle peer pressuring from the travel desk at Base Queenstown. Despite a substantial price difference, we figured doing a longer, more secluded cruise might give us a chance to both wind down and really experience the fiordlands in a more intimate way. MJ had already cruised through Milford and after a couple of nights out in Queenstown we decided the quiet overnight cruise sounded like exactly what we wanted. 

We booked our overnight through a company called Real Journeys. Fun fact about them is that they’re the first tourism company to begin operating in Fiordland National Park. Safe to say, we were in good hands for our journey. We debated Queenstown on a sunny Monday morning for the 2+ hour bus ride that would take us deep into the national park. 

Getting to Doubtful Sound is no piece of cake. After our length bus ride, we hopped on a smaller ferry to cruise across Lake Manapouri, which separates Doubtful Sound from the town of Manapouri. We then boarded a second bus that took us over the Wilmot Pass, an incredible stretch of rain forest that is so dense you can barely see through all the trees. 

What’s amazing about the Fiordland National Park is that there isn’t very strong or deep soil for trees and other vegetation to grow, but it’s absolutely covered in flora. The reason for this is because it rains in the National Park over two thirds of the days in the year. This makes for a seriously outstanding landscape covered in trees, moss, undergrowth, and waterfalls that can last all year or only for a few hours before it rains again. 

So after making our way through this intense forest, we finally arrived in Deep Cove and boarded our home for the night: an old school sailboat called The Navigator. After claiming our two bottom bunks in our otherwise empty room and raiding the brownie tray in the saloon (yeah, they call it a saloon), we set off.  

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Doubtful Sound is enormous. One of the reasons we decided to do the overnight, and why it’s the primary choice for those trying to see this particular area, is because you get to see all of it. 

During our first day, we cruised down Doubtful Sound, down into Crooked Arm, and out into the open sea. We managed to catch a glimpse of at least three Fiordland Crested Penguins and visit the New Zealand Fur Seal colony. Thanks to incredible weather, we were also able to take two of the boats 20+ kayaks out for a paddle on the sound to get up close and personal with the shoreline. It was absolutely fantastic. 

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Dinner was served buffet style in the Main Saloon and it was delicious. We’d been told by our friends over at the Queenstown hostel that it would be but even we were surprised and impressed with the quality. MJ even broke her vegetarian rule to sample some lamb (seconds, please and thank you). We even got our hands on a bottle of wine from Framingham’s, which was one of the wineries we had visited when we were staying in the Marlborough region. 

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After dinner we were treated to a nature presentation from the boat’s resident nature guide. New Zealand’s only native species are birds, and before the Maori arrived there were many more than there are today. Now, conservationists work year round to try and eradicate pests introduced to New Zealand, such as the possum and the rat, in an effort to preserve their amazing bird species, many of which can’t be found anywhere else in the world. 

To learn more about New Zealand’s native species and what’s being done to protect them, check out this link.

The boat anchored in Bradshaw Sound for the night, which is a little off to the right of Doubtful Sound, and we were woken up at 6:30 a.m. for breakfast at 7 in order to explore Hall Arm, the “jewel” of Doubtful Sound, before making it back to Deep Cove by 10 a.m. 

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Hall Arm is everything that it’s talked up to be. We had a fairly misty and rainy morning, which we ended up loving because it gave us a chance to see many of the temporary waterfalls the Fiordland is known for as well as see the park in its most natural state. 

We cruised as far into the arm as we could and finally came to a stop in the final bend. The crew silenced the boat and allowed us ten minutes of complete silence to enjoy the sounds of the waterfalls and the few birds we could hear throughout the surrounding mountains. It was breathtaking. 

After a quick break to go in to a waterfall (like actually in the waterfall) to capture some of that fresh mountain dew (all rights reserved), we headed back to Deep Cove to make our way home to Queenstown. 

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Despite our best efforts, it’s truly impossible to explain with words or pictures the beauty of the Fiordland National Park. It’s something that must be experienced. If you get the chance to visit this area of the world, taking a day or overnight cruise to see this park cannot be missed.

A Day in Paradise

Literally, Paradise Road in Glenorchy.

 

I had to ask him to repeat himself, because I just didn’t understand what he meant by, “want to go to Paradise today?” Turns out, there’s actually a place on the South Island called Paradise - given, it’s actually Paradise Road, but it’s aptly named for it’s idyllic views. I made a new friend in Queenstown, and he suggested spending Sunday exploring an area just 45 minutes away from Queenstown - a place called Glenorchy on the north tip of Lake Wakatipu.

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The town of Glenorchy is slow and sweet, at least in the off-season. There are plenty of coffee shops, all with beautiful views of the surrounding mountains. But if you continue past Glenorchy, you’ll find Paradise.

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The road winds through the valley and across a few rivers, showcasing the best landscapes around Lake Wakatipu. 

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On our way out of Paradise, we stopped at a secret spot upon Henry’s guidance. The sweet little homestead, home of the Paradise Trust, had charming pink buildings and a treehouse out front.

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There’s a small walking look called the Paradise Loop Track, marked by a tree with a pretty straightforward sign. Make sure to check out the welcome board for info about the Paradise Trust and an opportunity to make a donation!

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The path wanders through the forest for a bit, and eventually spits you out in rolling fields smack in between the surrounding mountains. 

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Everywhere direction you look could be a postcard. There’s even a wedding set-up for an even more enchanting vibe.

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Our little adventure was quite unplanned, but a great secret to uncover - thank you Henry for the perfect Sunday in Paradise.

Key Summit Trail

Quality hiking in the Fiordlands.

 

Fiordland National Park is arguably one of the most untouched, wild places left on this earth. With more land than both Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks combined, the Fiordlands encompass rugged mountains, winding fiords, and mystical forests all across the southernmost lands of the South Island. The best way to see these magical landscapes is with a tour company on a cruise through one of the fiords. You can choose from Milford, Doubtful, or Dusky Sound. I previously took a trip to Milford Sound a few years ago, so this time we opted for Doubtful. Either way, any of the fiords is a life-changing experience.

A cruise only peaked our curiosity, so we chose to head back into the park for one more adventure - but this time, it would be on land. There are so many options for hiking in the Fiordlands, from multi-day Great Walks (Kepler, Routeburn, and Milford tracks), boardwalk picnic loops, or half/full day peak baggers. On our way in, we stopped at one of the boardwalk tracks called Mirror Lake. It’s right off SH 94 and it only takes about 10 minutes, but the scenery is spectacular. 

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We continued into the park to find our main adventure for the day. While we wanted to do one of the Great Walks while we’re in New Zealand, the technical details didn’t quite fit into our itinerary. Lucky for us, there’s an award-winning day hike on the first part of the Routeburn Track called the Key Summit Trail. The entire trail, to the top and back, only takes about three hours. Most people agree that if you only have a limited amount of time, this day hike is the only way to see the best of the Fiordlands. We even got lucky and saw the endemic alpine parrot in the parking lot, the mischievous Kea.

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The hike starts by climbing through the mossy forest and past a few trickling waterfalls. If you’re quiet, you can hear tons of birds on your way up.

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So I don’t know if this trail actually won an award, (in fact I’m almost certain that I made that up), but the views from the alpine zone at the top are out of this world. Everywhere you look, mosses and lichen are exploding with color. Mountaintop lakes are shimmering with reflections of the surrounding peaks. You walk on wooded boardwalks as if you’re gliding among giants.

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The Key Summit Trail is so strikingly beautiful that it feels like you’re cheating by only putting in a few hours of hiking. An absolute must-do for the Fiordlands.

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Mount Cook

and the winds of Aoraki.

 

Aotearoa, or New Zealand as many people know it, was created by a fisherman named Māui (yes, sort of like The Rock in Moana). The North Island was pulled out of the sea by Maui’s hook when he was out on a fishing trip with a few of his brothers. Unfortunately, they were caught in a relentless storm that flipped their waka, or war canoe. Luckily, Maui and his brothers climbed atop the overturned boat for safety. Unluckily, the chilly winds of the Pacific froze them to ice, eternalizing the brothers and their canoe into the mountains of the South Island. This is how the land of the long white cloud came to be.

Aoraki, the oldest and biggest brother, is what we know to be the tallest mountain of New Zealand: Mount Cook. The Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park lays just 2 hours north of Wanaka, and is easily accessible via one of the most beautiful roads in New Zealand. It may seem like I say this about every road in the country, but seriously this road is beautiful.

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We decided to backtrack to Mount Cook after having been rained out in Tekapo a few days before. Both destinations are located within the Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve, an area nominated to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its exceptional views of the night sky. But being that our night in Tekapo was unexpectedly cloudy, we saw it fit to come back to the region for a proper night under the stars.

As per usual, we headed straight for the DOC Visitor Centre to plan our short itinerary for 24 hours in the park. The DOC officer let us in on a little secret, “the best spots are past the third block of toilets,” he said. “Go as far as you can, and then all the way out into the field,” he said.

We plopped our party on the farthest patch of grass we could find, with a view of the mountain completely unobstructed by any of the nearby hills or vegetation. The perfect spot. 

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After relaxing in the sunshine for a bit, we headed down the Hooker Valley track, which begins right at the White Horse Hill Campground, only a few hundred feet from where we parked. Only 5 minutes after the trailhead, there’s a beautiful memorial for all the alpine explorers who lost their lives among the peaks of the park.

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The track is an easy, meandering walk through the Hooker Valley, crossing swing bridges over lively rivers, winding through lush grassland flora, and ending at the Tasman glacier. Most of the trail is either gravel or boardwalk, making it extremely accessible to most visitors, so expect crowds.

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At the end, after about one and a half to maybe two hours, you finally reach the Tasman glacier. Sadly, the glacier was just a couple of icy islands amidst a cloudy blue lake. Still, the scene is pretty legendary. 

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We made it back to our campsite just in time for sunset. We ate our dinner listening to the rumbling of avalanches as the snow-melting sun beat down on the far side of the mountain. We even decided to leave the rain fly off our tent for the night so we could watch the mountain beneath the stars.

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We spent some time satisfying our stargazing needs, but quickly snuggled into our sleeping bags to escape the cold. I tried to sleep, laying facedown with my eyes closed for maybe two hours. Come midnight, I decided to drag myself out of the tent and put the fly back on for a bit of extra warmth, as the wind was starting to pick up. Soon enough, the wind was shaking the sides of the tent so hard that it was impossible to sleep - if not for the loudness of it, the sides and ceiling of the tent were literally slapping us in the face. Neither of us slept, for our concern of our tent ripping open kept us awake all night. While we picked a good spot for views, we realized a little too late that we picked a place smack in the middle of a wind tunnel beneath the biggest mountain in New Zealand. Nice job Einsteins. Needless to say, we accepted complete and utter defeat once the rain came for the last few hours before sunrise. That morning was pretty wet and pretty miserable. 

Worth it though.

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Exploring Wanaka

Wanaka is that not-so-hidden “hidden gem” of the South Island. Similar to Queenstown, it’s full of fun-loving young folks hanging out by a beautiful lake. Unlike Queenstown though, it’s not nearly as big, which means it’s not nearly as crowded. Plus, there are plenty of opportunities to go adventuring around Wanaka.

We chose to start with an excursion to the Blue Pools. The rivers are fed by glacial melt, giving them that crisp, icy tint. After spending some time tip-toeing at the edges, we finally bit the bullet and took the plunge.

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Arguably though, the drive to and from the Haas Pass area was more breath-taking than dipping into the freezing cold water. The town of Wanaka is on the southern edge of (you guess it…) Lake Wanaka. Just to the east lays Lake Hawea, and at one very special place on SH 6, the isthmus between the lakes narrows to a point called (you guessed it again…) Isthmus Peak. 

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After 8 km of steep uphill switchbacks across grassy pastureland and around rocky outcrops, you reach the most stunning panorama possible at 1,385 meters high. Every direction lays glistening lake water rimmed by robust, white-frosted giants.

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Even the walk back down will get you giddy with awe. It’s like you’re tightrope walking a very wide (safe) line between sacred pools - almost like you’re not even supposed to be able to float that high above them. 

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The entire hike takes more or less a full day, summit snack included.

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It’s tiring, mostly from the steep decline going back down. Talk about a quad workout. Obviously we spent rest day lounging by the waterfront. It was absolutely lovely. The birds flutter in and out of the trees, and the entire park feels like it’s buzzing with energy. Everyone was out in the sunshine, playing at the waters edge. It’s not the warmest water, but there are docks that some bold souls were jumping off in the middle of the day. Otherwise, for those adverse to cold water, you can opt to stand up paddle board or pedal boat if you still want to get out there! 

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We didn't do nearly as much as Wanaka had to offer - but overall, we had a fantastic time! 

Arthur's Pass

A day of grey between the mountains.

 

Arthur’s Pass lays among the towering giants of the Southern Alps, a mountain range that trails the entire length of the South Island of New Zealand. This unique mountain pass is one of thirteen National Parks in the country, protected for its rugged landscape within the main divide of quite an idyllic mountain range. 

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On the way into the park (coming from the east), we stopped at the Castle Hill Conservation Area, otherwise known as Weathertop from Lord of the Rings. For those of you who need a reminder: the Battle of Weathertop, in the first movie, is when Frodo gets stabbed by the Morgul Blade and gets rescued by Aragorn.

You can’t quite get an idea of what the true lay of the land looks like from the dark, gloomy battle scene, but here’s the actual landscape of where they filmed it:

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It’s a fun stop on the way into the pass! There are a few walking trails through the big boulders, and you really do feel like you’re exploring Middle Earth for a bit - especially during golden hour.

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After our LOTR adventure, we kept on towards the mountains. Unfortunately, our entire time in Arthur’s Pass was a bit hampered by dreary weather. The fog settled in overnight, so we ended up taking the shorter, backup itinerary for the day. We started with the 252 stairs up to Devil’s Punchbowl, a waterfall that cascades down 131 meters from the ridges above the viewing platform. 

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The rain cloud really started to settle in by the time we got back to the car, so we decided to see a few more sites from the dryness of our Hyundai. The Otira Gorge Rock Shelter and Aqueduct are just north of the main village - you would pass it on the way out to the west coast. With the fog, the shelter felt like a magical mountainside passageway, as if we were back in Middle Earth again.

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Luckily on our way back east, we managed to sidestep the storm long enough to climb all over the park sign.

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Kaikoura

Where the mountains meet the sea.

 

Kaikoura is a small coastal town just two hours north of Christchurch on New Zealand’s South Island. Just about any photo can attest to the remarkable beauty of its mountains pressed up against the sea.

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Unfortunately, Kaikoura recently suffered a detrimental 7.8 magnitude earthquake in November of 2016, whose destruction has limited driving access to just SH 76. However, Kaikoura’s beauty and magnificence remains true, and is still worthy of discovery on any trip to the South Island. 

What makes Kaikoura so special not only lies in the lofty peaks on the mountain horizon, but also beneath the surface of the sea. The Hikurangi Trench lays beside the Kaikoura Peninsula, creating unique oceanic conditions immediately offshore. Warm water upwellings in the trench creates the perfect conditions for plentiful amounts of planktons year round, which in turn creates a bountiful home for large marine mammals such as whales and dolphins. Peep the seals in the photo below (little brown blobs on the rocks near the left side and middle of the bottom of the frame)!

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Kaikoura has a ton of not-to-be-missed opportunities to get up close to these amazing creatures. From swimming with wild dolphins, to whale-watching cruises - even to aerial observation from planes or helicopters - there are tons of ways to explore the trench ecosystem. We opted for the third choice.

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The i-Site in town can give you loads of information on all your options, and maybe even hook you up with a deal or two. We booked with Wings Over Whales, which operates out of a small airfield just 10 minutes south of the main town center. They take you up in a 10-person propeller plane and fly over the open water for 30-50 minutes, spotting out whales or dolphins as you go. I was lucky enough to sit co-pilot, as long as I promised not to put any pressure on the pedals at my feet.

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Unfortunately, as is the case with any ecotourism excursion, there are no promises. We can’t control nature. Some days are better than others, and for us, it seemed that we flew at the wrong time. No whales were seen, but the flight was still spectacular. The mountains stood up to our teeny plane, unmoving as the sun slowly set behind their peaks. The views were worth the trip alone.

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There are plenty of other wonders in and around Kaikoura: hiking, swimming, or maybe sleuthing out the secret fur seal colony. Even just a few days in Kaikoura would be a dream.

An Expedition to Angelus Hut

Beware: this is a story of extreme badassery.

 

Nelson Lakes National Park is centrally located on the northern half of the South Island, only an hour or so from the Marlborough region. Many people know it for an iconic postcard shot of the dock on Lake Rotoiti, but I know it as an epic mountain-lovers playground. Last time I was in this country, three good friends of mine came back from our spring break with a harrowing hiking tale of their near-death experience en route to the Angelus Hut.

Here in New Zealand, DOC has over 950 huts dispersed throughout the wild lands of both the North and South Island. They’re a great option for those who want an explorative experience among the stunning landscapes. Many huts have helpful amenities like running water and a wood-burning stove (used for heat, not for cooking). Although, some are just basic shelters and don’t have such amenities, so check online if you’re planning an adventure! Most areas of interest have a DOC information centre in the main town, so you can even check with a professional before heading out into the bush. 

We rolled up to Nelson Lakes on a recommendation from one of those three friends (thank you Alex, my love) but with the explicit instruction to be weary of the wintry conditions - as per the avalanche threat that made their experience so treacherous. Alas, we stopped at the DOC visitor centre in St. Arnaud to approve our plans with an official, and the unnamed officer confirmed that we would be fine without winter gear, and no, we did not need crampons. “The ice broke last week,” he said. “You’ll be fine,” he said.

You can see where this is going.

Day 1 of our “tramp” went exactly according to plan: we rose 1,280m to the Bushline Hut for our first night. The first half of the trail stretched along the flat bank of the Lake Rotoiti before abruptly inclining up through the forest. The serenity of the trail is hard to ignore, and before long you emerge out of the trees to a breathtaking view of Lake Roititi and Lake Rotoroa. The second half of the trail is a string of switchbacks up the bald mountain face, blindly ascending until the very last moment when you crest the last switchback and the hut finally comes into sight.

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The hut was relatively full, as some kiwis from Christchurch chose to have an extended family reunion in the national park that weekend. Note: make sure that if you’re planning on going to a hut, book your bed early to make sure you’ll have a space once you finally get up there! And bring ear plugs… But before then, dinner!

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Using my nifty little MSR Whisperlite International, we heated up some tortellini and tomato soup to enjoy on the mountainside as the misty fog settled among the peaks for the night. Followed by, of course, bedtime tea and BANAGRAMS.

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The next morning we were due for another 4h30 on the trail, south to the Angleus Hut. We headed out mid-morning, just after breakfast, and quickly made it to the trail junction for Robert’s Ridge. We were greeted by warning signs and exclamation marks, but the DOC officer back in town said winter was over and we’d be fine. We expected to be there for a late lunch.

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NOT. EVEN. CLOSE.

We were straight up mountaineering. Tight rope walking ridgelines. Hurdling piles of alpine boulders and rocky junk. Scuttling along scree slopes. Tip toeing icy stretches of “trail” above cliff faces. This was some BAD. ASS. SHIT.

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Our packs were way too heavy, given that we lugged ALL our valuables up into the alpine zone with us. We were wearing Timberland boots, and while our New York selves do love the shoe, they were far from adequate for winter hiking. But we kept our cool (haaaa) and trudged on through the majestic peaks of Robert’s Ridge. For 8 hours. 

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The last stretch of the route — actually, I’m going to use this opportunity to clarify something. APPARENTLY, here in New Zealand, the name of the trail discerns the skill level for the hike. I thought a “route” was just like, you know, the route that you take to get there. Like, as in, a synonym for “trail.” NOT EXPERT LEVEL TERRAIN.

Okay so, the last stretch of the ROUTE was just honestly a sledding hill. There was no way we were going to make it down on our weary little legs - especially not after 8 hours of scrambling along a cold, windy ridgeline. So obviously we took our pack rain covers and sat on our pretty little asses, recklessly flying through the wet snow until we reached the bottom. We hurdled into the hut, simultaneously prying off our wet boots, and introduced ourselves to the only occupant of the hut: our new best friend, David.

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Lucky for us, our new best friend brought extra gear with him and was also planning the same exit route as us. Needless to say, our group of two became a group of three - or rather, his group of one became a group of three. That night, we figuratively slept soundly knowing we would be attempting the exit with our new friend. But in reality, we didn’t sleep at all due to the railing winds pounding on the sides of the hut, whistling through the stove chimney. Kim was certain the windows were going to implode and end our trip right there that night.

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We woke up the next day with no intention of leaving the hut. Surely we would wait until the weather cleared before wandering into winter wonderland again. Plus, between our two 40-pound packs, we had plenty of toys to keep ourselves occupied. We watched the clouds play among the peaks outside the window, and also three episodes of Game of Thrones. David taught us a new card game, and we all re-taught ourselves how to play Gin Rummy. The day flew by.

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Our best friend and fire-tender kept the hut warm all night, and we woke up ready to roll. Kim strapped on David’s extra snow shoes, I was equipped with an ice ax, and it was time to scale the sledding hill. What would’ve taken us maybe three hours in Timberlands only took us one with our friendly guide. Bless.

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We were just about to reach the exit trail junction when the wind whisked away my camera case. I watched the thing sink right over the edge of the ridge. I let the disappointment set in for only a few minutes before the fluffy sac came spiraling back up towards us. Without missing a beat, our Lord and Savior set off to retrieve it. 

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So here I am today, safely on level ground, with my beloved camera case. The rest of the descent went well, if only exhausting. We trekked eight hours along the Speargrass Track through tussocks and snow melt. We succumbed to the rivers and quickly gave up on keeping our boots dry.

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Long story short: we embarked on a journey far more challenging than what we were prepared for, spent an entire day among the towering peaks of Nelson Lakes National Park, and survived the hike out with the help of our guardian angel David. Of course we celebrated with beer and pizza immediately upon returning to town.

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But like, also, we were super badass heroes too.

Napier, New Zealand

Never try to plan your birthday when you’re on the road…

 

I had the perfect plan for my 22nd birthday: 

We would wake up early and spend a full, fabulous Tuesday on the world-famous Tongariro Alpine Crossing. I would finally be able to knock it off my bucket list after leaving it behind last time I was in New Zealand. Sunshine and smiles for year twenty-two.

Except that’s not what the weather forecast was thinking. Not only would my birthday bring rain to Tongariro, but being that it’s still kind of winter, there were also warnings for a dangerous cornice [kor-nes • an overhanging mass of windblown snow or ice usually on a ridge], making the already expert-level adventure too treacherous for us to pursue. Though disappointed, I agreed that we would have to pass on the crossing this time around. If I have made it across the Pacific three times already, what’s a fourth? This just gives me one more reason to come back to the great NZ - to finally do the Tongariro Alpine Crossing once and for all. 

Alas, we suddenly had an extra three days to fill and the world right in front of us!!!!!! So we spent the day in Taupo hashing out the details for a suitable backup plan. How about instead, we plan a road trip and drive the East Coast Road like the nice guy on Mount Maunganui recommended? We could go all the way to Gisborne, and then spend two days hiking one of New Zealand’s Great Walks, Lake Whakaremoana! I’d still be able to wake up on a trail for my birthday - another perfect plan! 

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And yet, our plans were foiled again. We were to hit the trailhead early after spending the night in Gisborne, but against my will, my body had decided to shut down. I woke up with excruciating stomach pains and body aches - thank you jet lag, exhaustion, and dehydration. While my will power told me to do the hike anyway, uncontrollably crying into a cup of tea told me that I would have to take another pass. Time to take a rest day.

We grabbed a “world-famous” pie from Osler’s bakery on our way out of town, and headed straight for Napier. Neither of us knew anything of the place, but it was the nearest city en route to our next destination in Wellington. We arrived midday and splurged for a private room. If we were going to be taking a rest day for my birthday, we were damn sure on getting the optimal amount of rest possible. I literally slept the day away.

So finally, we woke up on my birthday with one last perfect plan. We would take a walk down the beach and spend the day at the National New Zealand Aquarium. How could we go wrong? 

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Needless to say, it went swimmingly.

I love aquariums. They had an interactive seashell display. They had a coloring station (thank you Kim for the beautiful birthday card). They even had a TUNNEL through one of the tanks. A TUNNEL.

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As if the day could even get any better, we went to a killer restaurant for dinner. We got all dressed up - lipstick, heels, and I even straightened my hair. All I have to say is that if I dedicated space to it in my pack, I better be using it.

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Napier is apparently known as an art deco capital of the world, so we made a reservation at Masonic Hotel’s 1930s themed restaurant called The Emporium Eatery & Bar - the only place in New Zealand to have made it on the world’s 100 best bars!

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They make a mean Old Cuban. AND WE EVEN FOUND PIZZA.

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After a delightful birthday dinner, we strolled back to our 2-bed private for dessert: that apple, pineapple, passionfruit pie from the cafe of tears the day before. Kim even got some candles :)

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The next morning, on our way out of town, I found an intriguing brochure. Not just any brochure though, a treasure map to murals around the city. Each mural spoke to a different theme of ocean conservation, featuring larger-than-life paintings of marine creatures crawling around urban community spaces. For more information, click on the following image!

Marine conservation + art + urban community planning = literally the coolest thing ever. 

So of course, I dragged Kim around the city for another two hours while I gawked at paintings of seabirds, turtles, fish, whales, sharks, and even penguins. 

I wouldn’t have been able to come up with a more suitable birthday surprise than an urban treasure hunt for ocean conservation themed murals. Good thing we ended up in Napier.

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