The flight from Fiji to Auckland was quite challenging, as there was some fairly extreme weather happening in New Zealand at the time. The flight was fraught with quite serious turbulence, but we eventually landed safely. Customs on the New Zealand side was quite strict as well, and our hiking boots and tent needed to be inspected for and cleaned of foreign pathogens or what have you.
With less than 24 hours in Auckland, we wanted to see as much of it as possible, so we set out for some food and drink. What began as a quiet date night at a cocktail bar called Mo’s in the CBD ended on a rather different note. After a few drinks, we managed to convince ourselves of just one more at the Irish pub downstairs from our hostel. The pub was a lively place, with a band playing hits from the early 2000s. We ended up sharing a table with a local couple, and it was downhill from there. Many rounds of shots were ordered, and we eventually made it home after midnight (which was a far cry from our bed time of 9:30 or so from the islands). Before passing out, we managed to send an email to the car rental agency telling them we’d be a bit late the following morning.
Late we were, but not terribly so. For most of the previous night and present morning it was absolutely pouring rain, but it fortunately held off enough for us to walk to the rental agency. We picked up our car and prepared to hit the road. Driving on the left side of the road proved a bit tricky at first, but we got used to it after a bit of driving, but at this point the rain was coming down as hard as ever, which made city driving a bit more challenging.
Our first stop was Tauranga, where a friend of Ian’s from years ago is originally from (and happened to be for a few weeks, visiting family, at the time of our visit). The rain prevented us from making any stops along the way, and we ended up rolling into Tauranga in the late afternoon. Ian’s friend took us on a walk around “The Mount” nearby. The wind was strong, and the waves were battering the shore, but we spotted a sea lion lolling in the surf.
After our one night stay in Tauranga, we continued south to Lake Taupo, via Rotorua. We made a stop at the redwood forest just outside of Rotorua, and went for a walk in the forest. Being in the presence of such huge trees was humbling, as they continued their centuries-long climb skywards. Some of the trunks were meters thick at the base, and the sunlight struggled to make it to the forest floor through the dense greenery above.
Our next stop for the day was Wai-O-Tapu, and we walked along several kilometers of fairly well-maintained (the least they could do for the NZ$35 ticket per head) paths through the geothermal wonderland. The park is full of craters of bubbling mud and lakes of green or orange water, all very hot, we were assured. There is apparently a geyser, but it only goes off in the morning, so we missed it. Nevertheless, the park was a pretty good way to spend a couple hours, but the price tag was a bit high.
For our final stop on the way to Lake Taupo, we made a visit to the Huka Falls, not far north of the city. The massive amounts of water rushing through a relatively small channel are pretty impressive, and we spent some minutes in simple awe of nature’s power. Totally randomly, Ian ran into a friend from high school who was doing a similar thing. Her and her fiancee were driving from the north to the south, but they (enviably) had a lot longer time with which to do it.
We weren’t sure of our next destination, but we knew it was in the direction of Wellington, the country’s second largest city and capital, on the southern tip of the north island. We weren’t planning on making it all the way to Wellington in one day since it would be a very long trip, so we found a campground some 90km north of it (still a lot closer than we were planning on getting). The trip took us through the lovely little town of Napier, on the north island’s southeast coast. Napier was thoroughly destroyed in an earthquake back in the 1930s, and it was rebuilt entirely in the art deco style, so going into the town is something like traveling back in time. The town is also decked out with vintage stores specializing in early 20th century apparel and trinkets.
We didn’t see much of the area around the campground, but it served for a reasonably good night’s sleep. The following morning we packed up and headed to Wellington. We arrived in good time, and had a few hours to check out Wellington’s (and New Zealand in general’s) famed Te Papa museum. We had high hopes for the museum, as many people had told us of it, but it wasn’t overly impressive to us. It’s a big museum, so seeing the entire thing demands at least half a day. Nevertheless, we enjoyed perusing the bits on Polynesian and Pacific history, and read quite a bit on immigration patterns to and from New Zealand starting with the original human inhabitants. After the museum, we dropped off the car at the agency, and were pleased to learn that they would drop us off at the ferry terminal (about 5km away) at no charge.
The ferry trip was quite beautiful, and fortunately the weather was starting to hold up better. The massive ship made its way through Wellington Harbour, out across the short gap between the north and south islands, and finally through the narrow inlets off the coast of the south island. The latter portion of the trip was the most impressive, and it reminded us of the passageways in the San Juan islands off Washington State’s northwest coast.
We made it to the Picton ferry terminal on the south island a bit behind schedule, but were able to pick up our car from the Omega car rental lot just outside the terminal. The car we booked averaged out to just US$20 per day, and the agency was very trusting, leaving the key behind the license plate, since the pickup was after hours. We made the 3 hour drive to Marahau, just south of Abel Tasman National Park in preparation for our hike the following day.
We arrived at Marahau long after the reception at the holiday park was open, so we set up our tent far too close to another tent, for lack of another option. We woke up early the following morning, and prepared for our hike. We used the Abel Tasman water taxi to get into the park, which turned out to be a great service. We had them drop us off at Anchorage, some 12.5km from the beginning of the park, and we hiked back to our car at Marahau. We took the earliest departure, so we arrived at Anchorage at around 10am, and hiked the 14km all the way back to our car by 1pm.
The trail was pretty popular, and the water taxi seems to be an attractive service for many people wanting to hike a bit in the national park, but lacking the time. Nevertheless, we got some great views of the beautiful golden beaches along the way, and saw some fur seals on the boat trip up.
After we made it back to our car in the early afternoon, we hopped in and steeled ourselves for another long drive, something with which we’d become quite familiar over the coming days. This drive took us down the northwest coast, the scenery near Abel Tasman was quite nice, but it evened out the closer to the coast we got. Our destination that night was a nice little guest house near Greymouth, but we stopped in the town of Greymouth itself for a quick dinner before utterly collapsing from the day’s activities.
We slept in a bit the next morning, reveling in the luxuries we had afforded ourselves, and got ready for another long drive. This drive, clocking in at nearly seven hours, would lead us to Queenstown, the well-known outdoors center in the far south, a common starting point for many trips to Milford Sound and the majestic fjords of the south. This particular stretch of road, leading through Franz Josef Glacier, Fox Glacier, and Haast, was quite spectacular, and even the seven hour drive was rendered quite entertaining by all the things to look at.
We arrived in Queenstown on Friday, March 17th, which we did not realize was St Patrick’s Day in advance. In addition, there was some sort of motorcycle convention going on there, which filled up basically every avenue of accommodation, including camping areas around town. We splurged on a decent hotel, one of the very few with any rooms left, and got some dinner. We were in no mood for a party, but avoiding one on such a day was difficult. Queenstown is an adorable little town, set among some spectacular lakes and mountains, and has a lot in common with the ski towns of the Alps or the Rockies, replete with luxury clothing stores and fancy hotels. We walked the streets a little bit, but left in a hurry as packs of drunkards wandered this way or that, adorned with green hats and shamrock pins, swaying and singing.
We woke up the following morning and headed towards Milford Sound. We got stuck in some terrible traffic in Queenstown on the way out, so we concluded that we would not make it to Milford Sound in time for our boat ride, and called to reschedule for the following day. We gave a ride to a scraggly-looking American kid who was hiking the entirety of the Te Araroa, New Zealand’s pan-island hiking route stretching some 3000km from north to south, on the way to Te Anau. We weren’t really up for 3000km, so we ended up just hiking up to Key Summit, an 8km round trip some 40km from Milford Sound, which was an enjoyable way to spend a few hours. We spent that night at a nearby campground, populated with many other folks planning on going to Milford Sound the following morning, looking to shave a few hours off the trip from Queenstown.
We slept soundly, despite the liveliness of the campground, and headed down the road the next morning. There was a French couple hitchhiking at the entrance to the campground, so we gave them a lift to Milford Sound, which was undoubtedly their destination (although we did ask, just to make sure). We arrived just in time for our boat ride, which seems to be the primary activity of the immediate area around Milford Sound (there’s really not much else to do there, other than be bitten by sand flies). We and several hundred others waited for our respective boats, which left in platoons at most times throughout the day. The boat trip ended up being totally worth it, as the views from the mouth of the sound, where the boats depart from, are not nearly as breathtaking as those from within. The boat took us up to some amazing waterfalls, and we even saw a penguin lounging in the calm waters of the fjord (which apparently it technically is, despite its name, because it was formed by a glacier rather than a river). The fur seals popularly seen off the coasts of New Zealand were a dime a dozen here, and we saw crews of them bathing in the sun on the rocks of Milford Sound.
We finished up our cruise in the early afternoon and again hopped into our vehicle for another long drive. This time we were headed to Lake Pukaki, a somewhat central lake on the south island. The trip was another seven hour one, which at this point felt fairly commonplace. We arrived on the shores of Lake Pukaki, with a stop for a beer at a seedy local bar, complete with surly bartender, in Twizel, a bit after sundown. We camped on the southern shores of the lake, along with several dozen other campers and a few tents. We sought solitude up the hill a little ways, and fell asleep in the entirely still night.
The following morning we were rewarded with beautiful views of Mt Cook, New Zealand’s highest mountain. We had a brief breakfast, and prepared for our longest drive yet, a nine hour slog all the way up to Renwick, deep in New Zealand’s wine-producing region of Marlborough. We took a lunch break in Christchurch along the way, which is actually quite a charming little town. Much of it is being rebuilt after the destruction of the earthquake in 2011, but many of the abandoned buildings are adorned with nice-looking street art.
We had to take the inland route to Renwick through Murchison, as SH1 was still closed to through traffic as a result of a more recent earthquake, and we arrived in Renwick after dark. Our original booking in Renwick, made through booking.com, was canceled by the hotel owner on fairly short notice, but booking.com made up for it by moving us to a nice place and paying the difference. We showed up to Falcon’s Rise Alpaca Farm and were greeted by the lovely owners and showed to our room. The large property has a couple big rooms and a common area that they rent out on a nightly basis, and we couldn’t have hoped for a better experience. We met the alpacas in the morning too, and they were adorable, as predicted. Before leaving, Kim gave us a rundown on the local wineries, and advised on which ones we should visit. We would highly recommend a stay with Kim and Helen if you’re in the region and have a flexible budget. It’s certainly not the cheapest option, but it’s well worth it for the money.
We spent the day hitting up winery after winery, and dabbled extensively in the local product. Marlborough is known for its sauvignon blanc, but they make a number of other great wines these days. We also had a fantastic lunch at Rock Ferry, and practically convinced ourselves that we live normal lives, right up until the point that we visited the post office and shipped half of our belongings (camping gear, cold weather clothes, etc) back home. At that point reality came crashing back to us, but our newly-lightened bags invigorated us for our travels ahead. We made it back to Picton with plenty of time to catch the 7pm ferry back to Wellington. Our flight to French Polynesia left from Wellington at the ungodly hour of 7:15am, so it was basically a requirement to spend one night there on our way out. In retrospect, however, we should have just headed straight to the airport to find a quiet nook to get some sleep in; as it was, we ended up spending $20 a head on dorm beds at a fairly noisy and unimpressive hostel for just four hours of sleep.
We had a very enjoyable time in New Zealand, and if we had known in advance what we know about it now, we would have spent a lot more time there. It was not nearly as expensive as we were expecting. Hearing cautionary tales from other travelers, we prepared ourselves for Hawaii-like prices, but were very pleasantly surprised —especially by the car rental prices, which totaled up to a very small fraction of the price of such a service in Hawaii. Secondarily, New Zealand is a big place. Conceding that this was a bit of a surprise begets our lack of preparation on the matter, and unprepared we truly were. We knew there would be a lot of driving involved, and were generally OK with that, and we were thankfully able to see a considerable amount of the country. However, countless more places beckoned to us along the way, only to be sadly ignored in the name of time-efficient travel. If we were to do it over again, we would dedicate at least two weeks to the south island alone, and another week on top of that for the north, not including stays in the cities like Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch, each of which deserves at least a day or two. New Zealand is full of spectacular sights and activities, and some of them are going to necessarily be ignored by the time-constrained traveler; nevertheless, we’re very happy with what we saw and did in our limited there.