A big reason that Brett and I were initially looking forward to coming to New Zealand has also ended up being something that we don’t love: we pretty much know exactly what we are getting. Yeah, of course there have been some surprises: peking duck flavored chips, occasional sheep herd roadblocks, unexpectedly beautiful detours, etc. But for the most part, our time here has felt less like an adventure, and more like a zen retreat. It’s why we’re almost done with our trip, and here I am only writing this first post. What is really worth sharing when most of your days are some variation of the following: sleep until the sun wakes us up, cook breakfast, pack up car, drive, stop off randomly, picnic lunch, hike/bike/swim/occasional other activity, make dinner, do chores (laundry, bills, charging things, booking stuff), watch a movie or play cards and then sleep?? Honestly, after reading that, you’re 70% caught up!
I realize by sharing this I may sound like I’m complaining and how annoying, and “wow, Brittney, can you just appreciate this?” Trust me, I do! I really do. I’m sleeping better than I have in years, and I’m doing it on a double bed made out of car seats. I feel more creative energy and inspiration to just make things and give something to the world than ever. Brett and I have been able to focus on and discuss future plans with clarity. So what I’m saying is that our time here has been insanely valuable, punctuated with truly awesome, story-worthy experiences (like our time with our San Diego friends!). And what this entire paragraph is, is just a long winded way of telling you why the way I’ll be writing about New Zealand may seem different. Less like a story, more like an overview (especially as I get into the camper van days). But my hope is that if anyone wants to visit this beautiful country at some point, you can take our *best of* days, and enjoy them yourself.
April 2-4: Queenstown, New Zealand
One of the first things you need to know about New Zealand is that the entire country is expensive. Brett and I experienced sticker shock before we even made it all the way to Queenstown. During our layover in Auckland, we learned that our hopper plane had luggage weight restrictions that our 40 liter backpacks did not meet (they had to be under 15 lbs, yeah right). We had to pay about $60 USD each to check them through. That night, our private hostel room just outside of downtown was $100, and getting a celebratory beer for making it there was $10 a pop! We did not celebrate that way again.
The second thing you need to know is that despite the fact that almost everywhere has wifi, in many cases they limit you to something like 250 MB. This is the equivalent of streaming 5-10 minutes of HD video, and maybe up to a half hour if it’s just standard quality. You can often pay for more, but when you’re already paying $18 for a cheeseburger and fries, it seems ridiculous.
The reason I bring these two things up is because they both really affected the way Brett and I ended up spending our time throughout the country. Our time in Queenstown taught us the importance of being intimately familiar with the local grocery chains, and to take advantage of connectivity when we had it. The lack of internet also whipped us into even more incredible Euchre and Cribbage players.
Queenstown is all caps MAGNIFICENT, and deserves to be talked about more, but we returned later so I’ll get back to it.
April 4-9: The Southlands
Brett and I booked the Milford Trek in August 2017 (yes, 8 whole months in advanced) for the second to last week it was open during regular season. We had about a week before taking off for that, and we knew we were going to meet up with some friends who were headed north right afterwards. So we rented a car from Apex, and headed on a tour of the South Island’s Southern Scenic Route.
Day 1 included watching bungee jumpers at the famous Kawarau Bridge (which our friend Jenn later did!), picnicking at the Roaring Meg lookout and heading through Central Otago for wine tasting. This drive during early April was so, so incredible; we lucked out and it was sunny and the fall colors were out to play. Central Otago ended up being Brett’s and my favorite of all the major wine regions in New Zealand, so if you’re into that kind of thing, definitely check this area out.
Day 2 we headed to Clyde and rented bikes on the Otago Central Rail Trail. Again, the trees were spectacular and the bike trail between Clyde and Alexandra was easy and beautiful; one direction was flat and through farmland, and the other hilly alongside a river. You can do the entire Rail Trail for several days, and I wish we had had more time to check this out. We spent that night in a dead town called Balclutha in a hotel that felt straight out of a haunted story. I’m 99% sure the rooms had not been changed at all since the 30s. The lobby had a casino and a cashier’s desk doubled as the check-in counter. I’d skip this on a second go.
Day 3 we made our way down along the coast to Curio Bay. This segment of the drive was windy and green, through some of New Zealand’s last standing native bush. There were some awesome stops along the way including Nugget Lighthouse. We got there right after sunrise and the views were spectacular. Curio Bay is supposedly a great place to spot the rare Dusky Dolphin, blue penguin, and yellow eyed penguin. We saw none of these, and weathered a fairly hard downpour during our search. There’s a pretty cool petrified forest in the area, but I think all of these activities probably would have been more fun in the summer.
Day 4 we headed to Tuatapere, stopping in Invercargill, and making our way down to Bluff to try the famous Bluff oysters. We went to 3 places that were sold out before some one had the kindness to tell us that there was absolutely no way we were going to find them, because the weather had been too bad for ships to go out for several days. I can tell you with certainty that there is no reason to go to Bluff, because as it turns out, you can find Bluff oysters pretty much everywhere in New Zealand, so long as the weather has been good enough. We made the most of it and drove up to a 360-degree look out point where the wind was so strong and icy, I thought my face was going to be frozen into one expression forever.
Day 5 we did a 4 hour segment of the Hump Ridge Hike. This hike is on private Maori land, and the entire thing can be completed in 2-3 days. The first bit of the trail is along the beach, sandwiched right up against tropical-looking forests. The trail actually makes its way into Fiordlands national park, but Brett and I turned around once we reached the border. When we ate our lunch on the beach we had our first encounter with the infamous New Zealand sandfly. These tiny, biting gnat-like bugs are EVERYWHERE. I took to munching on my pasta under my poncho just to try to avoid eating them. After the hike we went up to Manapouri. It’s a small, beautiful lakeside town and the gateway to the Doubtful Sound. I’ve never done this tour, but I heard that it’s less touristy than the Milford Sound and equally beautiful. Brett had booked us a very ambiguous place that night called the “Red Shed,” and after several wrong turns, managed to find it tucked away up on a rolling hillside. It’s basically a small AirBnB someone had put on booking.com. It was phenomenal. The views of the hillside were gorgeous and Brett took this stunning photo of the sunrise from the porch. If you end up heading this way, book this place!
Day 6 put us back in Queenstown. We bought some sleeping bags, grabbed some food from the grocery, and checked in to the Jucy Snooze Hotel on their grand-opening night. It was sort of weird to be in a hotel that they were still doing so much construction on, and know that we were the first people to ever sleep in the room. It was obviously very clean, had it’s own bathroom (!!!), and was right downtown. Same price as the hostel we’d stayed in before too!
April 10-12: Te Anau, New Zealand
We had to wake up super early to catch our bus to Te Anau. As Brett and I were waiting for it to arrive, it started snowing! I felt like it did not bode well for our upcoming trek (side note, in New Zealand, they call hiking “tramping”). The bus ride was just a couple of hours, and for an early morning bus, surprisingly full of bus driver narration.
Te Anau is a lot like Manapouri. It feels slightly more built out and there are some really cool things to do nearby. They have a bird sanctuary that is entirely free, and houses some of the world’s last remaining takahe. Takahe are bright blue flightless birds indigenous to the island, and only a few hundred still exist. Te Anau is also the launch point for glow worm caves. I am a very big glow worm fan, so despite the fact that this couple hour tour is very expensive, I love it. One caveat is, if you’re coming to NZ and going up to Waitomo in the North Island as well, I’d recommend saving your money to do those caves. Te Anau’s experience is more intimate, as you sit in a tiny boat in total silence and get up-close-and-personal with glow worms, but there aren’t as many, and the experience isn’t as long.
Despite the fact that it was consistently pouring and in the forties during our two days there, we really enjoyed Te Anau. There is a pie shop called Miles Better Pies that is delicious (and pies feel like the only affordable meal out), and there are small zip lines in the the city’s playground that
are for children we had way too much fun racing each other on.
On April 11th, we started our journey to the Milford Track trailhead, but I’ll go into that bit during **PART TWO** 😀