First of all, let me acknowledge that I haven’t posted anything for five weeks. This isn’t because I’m too lazy to do so, but because I haven’t really found anything particularly compelling to write about. Everyone I talked to about studying abroad told me I would need about four to five weeks to adjust to the culture, and it turns out they hit the nail on the head—five weeks in and Australia became familiar enough to feel like home.
With that out of the way, let’s talk about this article’s title. For the last two weeks or so, I’ve been on a self-catered tour of New Zealand’s south island with five friends. It was a spectacular experience; I’ve never seen a civilized country with such breathtaking preservation of the natural terrain. The title image of this article, taken in Queenstown, I believe captures much of New Zealand’s appeal. Whether you’re looking for a decidedly urban city, or a rural landscape with gorgeous snow-capped mountains in the distance, you’ll find it in Kiwi Land. The population is also very kind, much like the Australian folks. Every cafe from which I bought lunch (at least seven) greeted me with a warm smile, and one stranger even let two of our group in her house to use her toilet when there were none around. The hospitality I’ve observed in Oceania never ceases to amaze me.
New Zealand is also the most well groomed country I’ve ever seen. There are about 40 million sheep and 5 million cattle on the country’s comparatively small islands, so the landscape around the main highways house many efficient animal landscapers. Additionally, most of the trees (still leafless when I arrived) were trimmed by human landscapers to be of uniform size and height, creating a very clean sight. New Zealand seems to acknowledge its identity as a tourist hotspot and works hard to maintain its popularity in that industry.
My nine-day tour took me through many places in the country, so I’ll list here key locations in the order I encountered them, along with my opinions.
When I flew into Christchurch, the beauty of the country was already evident. For an urban area, the outskirts of the city were well-designed to create a very clean feel to pedestrians. We stayed in a hostel called the Jailhouse, which was renovated from a local prison into a backpacker accommodation within the last century. This was one of my favorite places we stayed, as it had many prisoners’ cells on display, along with historic artifacts and original drawings by prisoners on the walls of the rooms.
Unfortunately, when we went to see the city center the next day, we found it in ruins from the earthquake in February. The entire heart of the city was fenced off, and the surrounding area was littered with signs on every door saying “Building closed until further notice.” Construction equipment worked hard to renovate the damaged area, and cars struggled to navigate the cracked pavements. Christchurch is not a very tourist-friendly city at the moment, but it does bring to mind recognition of the kind of damage a natural disaster can cause. I can only imagine how many local business owners had to shut down due to the event.
This is by far the coldest place we visited, which should be expected, since it houses a glacier. The town itself was a small village with a few houses, several hostels, and overpriced markets (the nearest supermarket was hours away.) We stayed in a hostel called Chateau Franz Josef, which was my least favorite accommodation of the adventure. We got our own cozy little unit behind the main building, but unfortunately the heating systems just weren’t strong enough to overpower the cold, and we froze our asses off (figuratively, of course.)
The next day, we explored the options to tour the local glacier. Since all the options to walk on the actual glacier we over $100 in cost, we decided to take the free hike to the base of the glacier. This was by far my favorite hike in New Zealand. We walked along an ancient river basin, about a kilometer in width (my estimation), lined with slate-gray stones and trickling streams of water, The cliff walls were lined with bright green ivy and decorated with the occasional waterfall. At the end of the 45-minute walk, we were greeted with a close-up very of the path entering a glacier, comprised of a long, snow-covered road caressed by icy mountains. It’s one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen, despite the relatively cloudy day.
Wanaka was my favorite destination. It’s a small town situated on the edge of a beautiful mirror lake and guarded on all sides by towering mountains. We stayed at a hostel called the YHA Purple Cow, which had a clear view of the lake and mountains, making it the perfect sight for a window-side dinner. The hostel provided us with our own self-contained, six-bedroom unit that was warm and comfortable throughout the night. It was my second-favorite hostel. I would highly recommend an overnight stop in Wanaka to anyone visiting New Zealand’s south island.
In the morning, we ventured off to a small attraction park called Puzzling World, home of the Great Maze and several illusion rooms that challenged my definition of reality. I really can’t explain the park in words; it’s something that must be experienced. Definitely one of my favorite activities in New Zealand. After Puzzling World, the Germans in our crew decided we’d take a 30-minute hike to the top of Mt Iron. The view from the top of the mountain was stunning. However, the cold wind and exhausting uphill hike exacerbated an infection that had started to brew within me, and left me mostly bedridden for the next two days. Which brings me to…
Queenstown: the land of thanatos. Every other block, there was some tourist company advertising crazy things to do, like canyon swings, bungy jumping, or skydiving. I had originally planned to dish out $160 to ride the world’s largest canyon swing (about which I blogged on my tumblr earlier), but unfortunately that $160 ended up in a doctor’s hands instead. He told me I was recovering and prescribed me some ibuprofen, so I didn’t really need to see him apparently. Luckily my insurance company will reimburse me. I took it easy the two days we were in Queenstown, avoiding all the death-simulating activities.
I did do one thing, though: I rode a gondola to a mountain “resort”, where I paid $25 to enjoy lunch with a few friends in a restaurant overlooking the town. The view outside the window was gorgeous, as you can see from the title picture. Afterwards, I went to a bird wildlife park at the base of the mountain, where I saw plenty of parrots, ducks, owls, a falcon, and even a few kiwis. Unfortunately, kiwis are nocturnal, so no pictures allowed. I liked Queenstown as a whole; I wish I had the strength to fully enjoy it at the time.
A note about the hostel: Nomads Queenstown. It’s listed in Lonely Planet as one of the best hostels in the world. This is absolutely true on one condition: you have to be a party animal. Nomads is notorious for housing urban party people, and this one is no exception. There’s always something going on, and plenty of free drink vouchers for residents, but unfortunately, not the best place to stay when sick.
Te Anau & Milford Sound
We left Queenstown on the third day, and headed towards Te Anau. By this time, I was all better (but I unfortunately passed my infection to another in our group, which I felt bad about…). I don’t remember much about Te Anau. We only spent one night there, and left at 6:30 A.M. for Milford Sound. We stayed as a YHA in the area. It was okay, but not very memorable.
Milford sound, on the other hand, boasts a variety of scenic boat cruises. We booked a 2-hour cruise for $78 each, and it did have its fair share of beautiful sights. I slept through half of it because I woke up so early (and one of the people in our group was notorious for vehemently snoring throughout the night), but I did catch a few baby seals and a penguin, so I think it was worthwhile. My camera was nearly dead at this point, so I don’t have many pictures.
Catlins Forest Park
This is a very rural area on the southeast coast of New Zealand. It lives up to its name, housing a variety of grassy mountains, oceanic cliffs, and carefully preserved natural landscapes nestled deep within forests, like McLean Falls pictured above.
There were no open hostels in the area, so we stayed at a self-catered beachside house in the middle of nowhere. At first it felt very much like a standard axe-murderer movie scenario, but it actually proved to be my favorite accommodation in New Zealand. The house boasted a log fireplace, where I got to exercise my super awesome Boy Scout fire management skills to keep us nice and toasty. Also, instead of a single dorm room with six beds, there were three separate rooms with two beds each. I chose to sleep with the other sick person (I had already recovered, so I probably wouldn’t catch it again), and the relative lack of snoring that night gave me the best rest I’d had since I arrived.
We spent the next day driving around Catlins, exiting the vehicle to explore McLean Falls and take a stroll along a few ocean-side cliffs. One member of our group insisted on climbing every cliff she came across; we were all convinced we’d have to tell her parents why she didn’t make it through the trip, but luckily she survived. Catlins is the perfect example of a neatly preserved rural landscape, and any fan of nature would be a fool to pass it by.
Owaka & Dunedin
These were our last two stops before returning to Christchurch for our return flight. I don’t have a picture, because my camera was completely dead at this point. We stopped in Owaka because it was getting late after Catlins, and this was the first nearby place with a hostel. It has an eerie “small town in the middle of nowhere” feel about it, but we left alive, so I assume it was okay. The hostel in which we stayed was called Split Level; it was okay, but nothing too memorable. Not much to say about this town really; we left the next morning for Dunedin.
We needed to reach Christchurch by midnight, so we were a bit pressed for time. Nonetheless, Dunedin was an essential stop. It’s one of New Zealand’s few urban areas, equipped with a plethora of restaurants, bars, shopping malls, and a rugby stadium. We picked a good day to arrive in Dunedin; in addition to free Sunday parking, we witnessed the festivities occurring in the city in preparation for the Ireland vs. New Zealand Rugby game in Dunedin that evening. I’ve never seen so many hyped up Irish people in one place.
We spent our three hours in Dunedin exploring the malls and trying a new cafe for lunch. I bought a new shirt for myself and a new skirt for my girlfriend (exchange rates make great discounts!). We walked around the city a bit after that, then returned to our vehicle and headed home.
All-in-all, we travelled about 2,000 kilometers, and I loved every bit of it. The rough cost of $1,000 was definitely worth the experience of being able to tour such a beautiful country. If you ever get the opportunity to go to New Zealand for a few days, I’d highly recommend it. I don’t think I would enjoy staying there for a prolonged time as much as Australia, but it’s the perfect place for a road trip.
I probably won’t be writing again until late October, after I head to Brisbane, so I hope this article will hold you over until then!