The greatest thing about traveling is that it simply does not get old. If seeing the world is your passion, then each new place brings a feeling of awe, of amazement. New Zealand is a place that will take those feelings to a new level. When you send a postcard home to your family you may sometimes look at the picture on the front and think ‘hmmm it doesn’t look that beautiful in reality’. New Zealand makes its postcards look ridiculously average, I guess the attraction of these pacific islands are not only their beauty and their picturesque landscapes but also the feeling of peacefulness that is ever-present in this land.
Our first 12 hours in New Zealand were not exactly brilliant, it must say. Our flight from Brisbane touched down in Christchurch at 1 am. A valuable lesson learned: It’s not like in Asia where you can waltz into a hotel in the middle of the night and pay 10 euro for a cosy room. So we took another step in becoming pro backpackers; we slept on the airport floor. Sleep is a strong word actually, we lay on the floor as the clock ticked ever so slowly. And we were not alone, there must have been at least 100 other travelers in the arrivals hall, but most were equipped with sleeping bags and pillows; now that’s a veteran level of backpacking.
It was a long night, the van rental place wasn’t open until 8 am and when we stepped out to catch a taxi at 7.30 it was freezing cold and raining. We hadn’t worn jeans or jackets in quite a while, it felt wrong. So we collected our beautiful green Jucy van and set off from Christchurch into the unknown. No Sat Nav or Google Maps to help us now, just a map and our instincts. Within a few hours of driving, the clouds started to clear and the landscape began to transform before us; rolling hills and valleys began to appear and the sun shone brightly in the sky.
We stopped to stock up on food and of course beer and took a much needed nap as the tiredness hit us like a train. Our itinerary was somewhat up in the air which suited us very well. We had 11 days to explore the south island and get back to Christchurch for our flight to Bangkok and had researched on where the hot spots were on the island. Lake Tekawa was our first stop and when we arrived, our jaws dropped. We left the van and scurried down to the water’s edge. The beautiful blue lake sparkled like nothing we had seen before. The only sound was that of the breeze and it was a place you could sit for hours without moving a muscle. We did move; just to get beers.
Waking up in the countryside in New Zealand is a brilliant feeling; the cool, fresh air is invigorating. I was a bit annoyed that we had to leave Lake Tekawa that morning but as we set on our way toward Mount Cook, we caught view of another lake, which was possibly more beautiful! We pulled into a rest stop on the side of the road to take a few pictures, one of probably 17 million rest stops in the country, they are much needed in a country where the landscape is so magnificent. Driving up to Mount Cook was equally impressive, it towered above us amongst mountains of snow-capped peaks, white clouds clinging to the jagged edges of the range.
We arrived at the base and took a trek through the glacial valley, admiring the green landscape around us and the perfect stillness in the air. We later took a drive around the Mount Cook area and took a turn onto a road less traveled. The road became a dirt track and we ended up by a stream amongst hills and mountains, not a soul in sight for kilometres around. Our next destination was the city of Dunedin and we set on our way late afternoon. We stopped for the night at a campsite at Lake Aviemore.
The one negative we were realising about New Zealand was that things weren’t as cheap as we were led to believe, particularly campsites. Now, on the plus side there were hundreds of free campsites around the country. This however meant no cooking facilities or showers: we were just a tad too into our little luxuries. The campsite on this night was deserted except for some couple with a bus they’d converted into a house. Diarmo went into the common room area to check the facilities and ran back to me saying ‘go up and look inside there’, ‘why?’ I replied. He insisted he say no more and that I look for myself.
I walked in to find a familiar scene, but not sure from where exactly… Saw? Hostel? The Exorcist? The room was old, eerie, still, it screamed ‘this is a horror film!’. I ran back and the two of us made dinner while looking over our shoulders every 5 seconds. Each evening we would sit out and have few beers while the sun set and temperature dropped, not a care in the whole world.
The following day we made it to Dunedin, which is a nice small city, but to be honest not a whole lot to do or see. We set out to a wildlife park where seals and penguins lived but they charged $50 for a tour. Seriously, in Melbourne they lived down at the beach and they didn’t charge you to see them. So we followed our noses around the coastal area of the city; rising cliffs, crashing waves, a bit like the West of Ireland.
We were continually extremely lucky with the weather, glorious blue skies each and every day. Our next stop was Milford Sound and it was the greatest drive I’ve ever done; in and out of hills, lakes and creeks, taking us to a long and windy mountain pass leading us down to the great fjord of Milford Sound. So we took a cruise out on a lovely boat and it took us to see towering rock faces, great waterfalls, seals lazing on the rocks. It was very Jurassic Park.
In late afternoon we headed on to to Te Anau and found a nice campsite by the lake. We were having a beer sitting out when we heard a woman screaming from one of the chalets across the way. After a few minutes being the brave man I am, I stood up and did what was right, called the police. After a 10 minute conversation with dispatch trying to work out where exactly we were and how to get there, they were able to send someone out. When they arrived, Diarmo and I hid under the covers in the van, with the lights turned out, peaking out at the scene. The cop knocked on the door of the chalet and a big Maori guy answered. ‘We’re dead’, Diarmo said.
The cop talked to them both individually and eventually took the guy away in the car. I went to reception to let them know what happened just as the cop arrived back. He had taken the Maori fella to a hotel and told him to stay there for the night. The receptionist told us they’d been making noise for several nights and that he was certainly treating his girlfriend badly. I told Diarmo the situation and then who arrived back? The Maori lad. We locked the doors, turned out the lights and prayed he wouldn’t suspect us as the rats.
Thankfully we slept safe and sound and left for Queenstown early the next morning. What a picturesque little place. Renowned for its dare devil activities like bungy jumping and sky diving, Queenstown sits on the banks of beautiful blue lake, it is a little bit like Galway and quaint shops, bars and restaurants line its streets.
We had timed our arrival here, it was after all St.Patrick’s day and we wanted to find a party of course. So we stocked up on beer and found a group of Irish people to have a few drinks with and feel at home during the afternoon. Later on back at the campsite, we were having a few drinks and our neighbours, a nice English couple came over and joined us.
As the 4 of us were sitting down having a chat the one-armed security guard came over and told us to ‘keep it down’. So it was 7.30 pm. On a Saturday evening. On Paddy’s day. And having a drink and chat outside in a campsite that cost $20 each a night was not allowed? We ignored him and continued our evening, getting louder as a protest. As we began to make our way down to the town around 10 o clock, the one-armed man came back and said ‘I warned you to keep the bloody noise down!’. Diarmo’s face nearly exploded. We were already on our way out of the campsite anyway and Diarmo made sure to tell him that and also: ‘kick us out, we couldn’t care less…’ and I know it took every ounce of strength he had not to bring up the one arm thing.
Queenstown is a great spot for Paddy’s day. They really go all out for it, the guinness was flowing, plenty of people in the pubs and streets and we were having a great night. But at around 1 am I had to call the police for a 2nd time in 2 days. Some absolutely mental kiwi decided to clock Diarmo out of the blue. It turned out he was fine, nothing I have seen in 18 months on the road has held him back from doing what he wants to do.
So for the first time in New Zealand we needed a day to relax. It’s not ideal to relax when you’re living in a van of course and the following day we were edging to get back to activities. So it was our last day in Queenstown and one of the famous daring things to do there is jet-boating. We went for the most expensive company, if you’re going to do something properly, splash out. It was fantastic, zipping down a narrow river , narrowly avoiding jagged rocks all around us, doing 360 degree turns at high speeds. Now even though we might seem daring, we were the youngest passengers on the boat… by about 30 years.
We rented bikes in the afternoon and cycled around Queenstown, the lake and its surrounding areas. There were brilliant cycling tracks around the water’s edge, nice little jetties to stop at and relax at, once again it was a beautiful day. A house overlooking the lake here would be a dream home and i’ll be back after I win the lotto. The next day we moved onto the magnificent Lake Wanaka. We found the best campsite in New Zealand with a common room similar to a luxurious ski lodge rather than a horror movie.
Diarmo had heard the skydive at Lake Wanaka was the best place to do it in that while falling through the sky, the views of the lake and Mount Cook in the distance were spectacular. He tried to get me to do it with him. I can barely climb trees without being afraid. And so he did it; jumped out of the sky at 10,000 feet. He got a cool DVD of the whole thing and even though it cost him about 400 Chang beers worth of money, he said it was the ‘greatest thing I’ve ever done’. After a drive around the lake, we headed north to the famous glaciers.
We reached the Fox Glacier area early evening and with time to spare before sunset we took a long walk to a ‘mirror lake’, which is as awesome as it sounds. The hills, trees and snow-capped peaks reflected so perfectly in the lake before us and this was the most beautiful thing we had witnessed in New Zealand. This country seemed like it was painted or sculpted.
The following day, it finally rained. We visited both the Fox glacier and the Franz Josef glacier and Diarmo and I agreed the rain and cold misty weather suited the sights we saw. Fox Glacier was particularly impressive; million upon millions of tonnes of ice rolling down the mountainside at a rate of one metre per day. It looked like the greatest slide in the world. It was no surprise to find a wonderful tranquility in the trek up to the tip of the glacier, that’s New Zealand.
In the afternoon we drove north towards Arthur’s pass, the final stretch back to Christchurch. And at last, we decided to stay out in the wilderness, beside Lake Pearson. Now the whole of the South Island will remind you of scenes from Lord of the Rings, but in particular the Arthur’s pass area. So we had one last beer on the water’s edge half expecting an army of Orcs to come charging over the hills opposite us.
We reached Christchurch the following morning and checked into our hotel. I have never been so happy to have my own bed, plug sockets, free wifi, a toilet, it was heaven. So we headed into the city centre but unfortunately Christchurch is a sad, broken city. The whole CBD was cordoned off, buildings still under re-construction after the terrible earthquake the previous year. You can feel in the air of Christchurch that it has lost its soul. I hope to go back there some day when the city has recovered from its awful destruction. So we had an early dinner and spent some time packing and using about 200 GB of the hotel’s wifi.
When people asked me ‘what’s the most beautiful place you’ve seen on your travels?’, I would always hesitate and say ‘it’s too hard to call’. Well not anymore; it’s definitely New Zealand. It’s not just its wonderful landscapes, the air in New Zealand is so pure, its countryside has a feeling of tranquility I have not see anywhere before, this country is invigorating and inspirational. And we’ve only seen the South Island. We will just have to go back for more.