Adventure Guide: Road Tripping the South Island of New Zealand
Over Christmas break of 2015 I traveled to “the land of the long white cloud”, home of Kiwis (which happens to be the national bird and nickname of the natives), The Lord of the Rings universe, and the closest to Antarctica I will probably ever reach. I’m writing this post for a variety of reasons: 1) I want to remember every detail about the most incredible trip of my life, 2) I want to offer any tips or recommendations I can to those who also want to explore this enchanting place, and 3) one of my goals for this year is to become a bona fide travel blogger…Let the initiation begin!
For those of you who don’t know, New Zealand is an island in the South Pacific. It’s about 3 hours from Australia, which, until recently I thought was the size of Texas (don’t judge me…). It turns out that Australia is, in fact, quite ginormous and New Zealand isn’t tiny. When my friends and I began planning this adventure across the world, I was told by multiple sources that the South Island was more spectacular, and was the one to visit if we had to choose. I plan to return and visit the North Island, which is home to Hobbiton, a spot I was more than slightly sad to miss, as well as countless other magnificent places. Just to be clear, the North Island is not the South Island’s dull, homely step-sister; the pop culture equivalent that comes to mind would be meeting the Hemsworth brothers. They both hit the genetic jackpot and you are probably going to go see both of their movies, but if you had to choose Gale or Thor…see what I mean? It felt like an impossible choice, but I can now say that after spending 10 days in the South Island, I am so glad that we didn’t try to cram too much in. If you have several weeks to travel, definitely see both. But if you have less than two weeks like we did, I would suggest hitting up the South Island your first time around!
Why New Zealand?
I am unabashedly a Lord of the Rings fanatic. When the movies first came out I tried to teach myself Elvish, and even researched Elvish colonies (yes, they exist). I’ve read the books and could quote most of the films (and frequently did on this trip, much to the aggravation of my fellow travelers). The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit trilogy were all filmed in various locations in New Zealand. It has always been the number one location on my list, but it always seemed just too far out of reach. It is quite far… approximately 8,000 miles… but then my dear friend Rachel moved to Australia and suddenly it didn’t seem quite so unattainable. In June of 2015, as Rach was preparing to move to Melbourne, she sprung the idea on me. The conversation went something like this:
Rach: “Tay! My adventurous friend… would you want to meet me in New Zealand over Christmas?”
Me: “Let me think…”
(2 milliseconds later)
I am an impulsive person, oftentimes to a fault. I get an idea in my head and I want it to happen. I knew, however, that this was a bit of a different situation with being gone over Christmas (a first for me) and I wanted time to pray about it and talk to my parents. I didn’t need my parents’ permission, per se, but I respect and value their opinion, and I felt like I couldn’t go on the trip without their blessing. They told me it would be strange not having me with everyone at Christmas, but I’m young and free and may not have many more opportunities like this, so I should go for it. Quick clarification: this “go for it” was delivered with the subtext “you are an adult and can make your own decisions, and we’re not super happy you’ll miss Christmas with our family and your new niece, but…bon voyage.” My parents are pretty awesome.
The Dream Stage
You have the time off from work, you know who you’re going with, you know where you want to go, now begins the process of making the dream a reality. If you’re like me, you will begin the research stage at this point. Right after my friend Rachel presented the idea I began pinning articles, blogs, photos, and travel guides to my adventure board. Before I got too carried away I began to compare the cost of flights across several different sites.
If you begin to plan a trip to New Zealand and start with researching the cost of airfare, odds are that you may think that it’s way too expensive, you’ll put it back on the shelf of “bucket list destinations” where it will collect dust and fall behind the stacks of bills, loans, rent, etc. I didn’t want this dream trip to be a dream deferred; I didn’t want it to dry up like a raisin in the sun…we seized the moment and made it happen with the time and resources we had worked for, and all of us who went on the trip would say without hesitation that it was worth every penny.
- My go-to site for booking flights is skyscanner.com
Dream vs. Reality or Dream = Reality
A lot of people ask me how I afford to travel on a teacher’s salary, a question, which, may have been considered presumptuous and intrusive in another time, but is socially acceptable now. I usually laugh and comment on how I’m making the most out of living at home and how I should be saving money for grad school and how I can’t quench the wanderlust in me and then I just yell “YOLO!” and run away. Just kidding, I never say that… Okay perhaps I have once or twice, but give me a break; I spend every day with high schoolers. To be completely transparent, this response is absolutely true, but it sheds light on our American view of travel that I believe could desperately use a shift. Throughout my travels I have observed the differing perspectives of travel in relation to age and culture. Whenever I tell an older family member or friend about an upcoming trip I am met with a smile, head shake, and response that goes something like,
“Do it while you’re young…”
“You couldn’t pay me to be on a flight that long…”
“Didn’t you just go to Hungary or something?”
As I chuckle with a shrug of the shoulders and awkward smile, slowly retreating from the conversation in shame…
They mean well, they do, and any shame is self-induced, but for some reason I think my friends and I have all sensed at some point or another that our adventures are regarded (by some) as overly self-indulgent and perhaps even irresponsible. To be clear, my friends and family have always been incredibly supportive in my endeavors, I’m just commenting on this as a general response. Here’s what I’ve learned in the traveling I have done thus far: travel should not be considered a luxury; it is a necessity. I understand that there are a million details in life that we have to prioritize, but when I first began my traveling lifestyle several years ago I laid it before God and told Him that I never wanted to travel for my sake alone. I wanted travel to change me, to teach me, to grow my heart for the world, and I longed to be captivated by the infinite library of human stories to be told across the world.
I understand that we all have individual financial burdens. I understand that traveling can be something that can’t happen as often as we would like for a variety of reasons. I hope, dear reader, you know that I am promoting and encouraging travel (even if it depletes the bank account for a time) because I believe it is and always will be worth it. I have met many people abroad who tell stories of their “gap year,” a foreign phrase for most Americans, which represents the year after high school or college a young person spends traveling near and far. I love this idea, and wish it was something that was encouraged more here. If you told someone in America that you were going to take a year off before going to college or entering the workforce, you’d probably be met with some quizzical stares and possibly even verbal reprimands. It’s a frightening prospect to diverge from the safe choice; but this is where courage is found and adventure lies. I could write a whole post on this topic (and probably will, at some point), but let’s get back to New Zealand.
- (For further reading on this topic check out this article.)
We booked our flights from L.A. to Fiji and then from Fiji to Christchurch. We flew to L.A. from Denver, so if you include driving, it took us about 25 hours to get to the island. New Zealand is about 17 hours ahead of us, so we left on December 17th and didn’t arrive in New Zealand until the 19th. On the way home we left on the 29th at 2:35 PM and arrived in Denver at 6:45 PM of the same day. BOOM…Time travel. #micdrop
Lauren and I had a pretty lengthy layover in L.A., so we decided to catch an Uber and hit the beach! We caught this sunset, so I’d say it was worth it!
If you’re a more responsible individual who would be afraid of missing their flight and prefer to wander the airport, I applaud you! I get a little bit of cabin fever…But if you’re looking for a great travel read to help pass the long flight, Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins is one of my favorites. If you’re a fan of historical fiction, The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin is also excellent! If you’re more of a non-fiction reader, I really enjoyed Diana Guerrero’s memoir In The Country We Love, as well as Jennie Allen’s life-changing book Restless.
Side Note: While waiting to board our flight from L.A. to Fiji, Lauren and I pretended to take a selfie. Instead, we took a photo of a man we presumed to be Oprah’s significant-other, and sent it to our moms for verification. They agreed that it was Stedman!
We Have Arrived!
Lauren and I arrived in Christchurch and immediately set off to collect our rental car. This is where I should mention that we could not have planned this trip without the help of Matt at PlanitNZ. He helped me plan our itinerary, rent a car at a discounted rate, plan activities, and a hundred tiny details in-between!
We rented with Snap Rentals, and they were incredibly kind and welcoming! Lauren and I couldn’t stop laughing as we adjusted to driving on the other side of the road and car. We explored Christchurch a bit before heading back to the airport to pick up Rachel. It was the sweetest moment seeing her run to us!
We spent our first night in Christchurch at Point Break Backpackers. I booked all of our hostels ahead of time through hostelworld.com just to be safe. Sometimes during peak holiday seasons hostels can fill up quickly! We did private rooms and bathrooms for the most part, but I’ve also stayed in dorms with strangers and it’s no big deal! It’s fun to meet people and hear about their travel adventures, and there was never a time I felt unsafe.
This was one of the best days of the trip, and probably in my entire life! No exaggeration here. We woke up early to drive to Kaikoura, where we were scheduled to go swimming with dolphins. If you’re picturing dolphins in a tank doing tricks and pushing you through the water, think again! We swam in the open ocean, with wild dolphins.
After swimming with the dolphins, we drove two hours to the coastal town of Picton.
We walked around, then hiked along the coast to Bob’s Bay. The walk was even more beautiful than the destination! Afterwards, we sat outside and sipped some wine, then we had pizza and played darts at an awesome Irish pub. We stayed at The Villa Backpackers Lodge, which was one of my all-time favorite accommodations!
At this point in the trip we started keeping count of how many people mentioned The Wizard of Oz or Dorothy when we said we were from Kansas. By day 4, we were up to 4 people.
Today we woke up early and drove to Nelson, which was about 2 hours away. Nelson has a vibrant arts scene, and I’d like to go back someday and explore it more! Our main objective in Nelson was picking up the rest of our crew (Becca, Ashley, Greg, Joe, and Alex), but I loved the experience of driving through the country and seeing the constantly shifting landscapes.
Roadtripping also gives you the opportunity to get lost…
We headed from Nelson to Abel Tasman National Park. We typed it into the GPS, and set off.
Maybe it was the terrifying road, or the lack of people, or what looked to be Fangorn Forest ahead of us (cough…LOTR reference), but we soon realized that we were indeed lost. We ended up at what we think was a campsite, but basically we turned around and drove back the way we came. Once again, I was observing how the journey is far better than the destination.
We drove to Takaka, where we stocked up on some food for the cottage we would be staying at. This place was absolutely adorable. I booked us for one night at Ruru Cottage, and we had the greatest time lounging in our hammocks, playing games, talking, and laughing.
I had read that one of the best views in New Zealand is a spot where the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean. We chatted with our host before heading off to watch the sunset at Wharariki Beach, and she warned us that we should be completely covered, because the wind could be pretty powerful.
Ha! This gal is from Dodge City, Kansas, the windiest place in the world. I can handle WIND!
The humble pie was eaten.
This was one of the craziest and coolest experiences. I can’t adequately express just how windy it was! We couldn’t even seen the ocean, and I’m pretty sure we all had sand in every orifice. Needless to say, we did not see the sunset or the ocean, so we decided to come back the next morning.
It was well worth it.
Today involved A LOT of driving. If you’re considering which mode of transportation for your New Zealand adventure, I highly recommend driving if you like to explore at your own pace. We loved the freedom of having our own vehicle and not having to adhere to a bus/train/plane schedule.
We set off for Punakaiki, home to the “pancake rocks.”
We arrived in Franz Josef and stayed at the YHA Franz Josef Hostel. We had a fun night out dancing and were ready to explore Franz Josef Glacier the next day!
If we would’ve had more time, I would’ve loved to do an excursion ON the glacier, with spiked shoes and all! We needed to hit the road to check in to our next lodging, so pretty soon we were on the road again!
It was about a four hour drive to Lake Hayes, which is located near Arrowtown, the cutest town in the world. It’s a historic mining town in the Otago region of the country. We ate a delicious meal in perfect weather, while listening to Irish music at The Fork and Tap.
When we arrived at the cottage where we would be spending Christmas, we were all pretty dumbfounded. Rachel found this beautiful home on Home Away, and it was absolutely sublime.
Day 7: CHRISTMAS EVE
Our beautiful home was located only 20 minutes from Queenstown, where we boarded a tour bus for a day trip to Milford Sound. My buddy Matt helped us book the tour, since it’s recommended for only experienced NZ drivers to tackle this route.
Once we arrived, we boarded a boat and took a tour of the sound. Milford Sound is a long fiord, dubbed by Rudyard Kipling as “the eighth wonder of the world.” You really feel like you’re at the edge of the world when you’re here, and I would’ve loved to do an overnight cruise or spend some time hiking the area!
Here is where I should mention what a great group of friends I have, and what amazing travel companions they were. I am stubborn to a fault, and even though there were times when we were grumpy or had different ideas of what we wanted to do, every single one of us had the attitude of making the most of every moment given to us. Thank you for putting up with me, my friends! I loved traveling with these people, and I especially love that this trip played a huge part in Greg & Becca’s love story!
Day 8: CHRISTMAS!!!
Even though it was really difficult to be away from my family and precious niece on Christmas, this was truly one of the best days of my life. I was in the most beautiful place with my dear friends, and we spent the day reading in our hammocks, soaking up the sun (have I mentioned it was summer in NZ?), going for walks, kayaking/canoeing (a.k.a. attempting to canoe/kayak and not drift into the trees), and having a simple, perfect meal. We sat around the table and shared what we all loved about each other, and for me it was a picture of The Kingdom. Breaking bread together, soaking up the beauty of life, shedding tears, and affirming one another in love. I’ll cherish this day for as long as I live.
Christmas in New Zealand is much more of a social event than it is here in the states. We like to cozy up with our families, play some games, watch football and eat a big meal, and most of the time all of that takes place within the home. In NZ, everyone was out and about on Christmas. We went into Queenstown during the evening and it was filled with people. Queenstown definitely felt like a Colorado ski town, and we all found ourselves googling living costs after only a few hours spent there.
Today was bittersweet; Becca, Ashley, Greg, Joe, and Alex flew from Queenstown to the North Island, where Greg’s family lives. It was sad to break up our group, but I couldn’t be sad too long, because I had an “appointment” at 1:00 PM that day that was filling me with a mixture of excitement, and a bit of dread. Queenstown is known as the globe’s adventure capital, so I decided to put this label to the test.
I bungy jumped from the Kawarau Bridge, the world’s first bungy site! Check out AJHackettBungyNZ on Facebook or Twitter, and definitely visit them if you find yourself in the Queenstown area. I didn’t literally take the plunge to check it off my bucket list, or because I’m hardcore; in fact, I’ve always been afraid. Of everything. And little by little, I’m karate chopping fear.
Lauren, and Rachel and I drove on to Wanaka, where we hiked to Roys Peak, for stunning views of Lake Wanaka. Apparently we chose the worst time to do the hike; it was in the heat of the afternoon and the trail is completely open. It took us about six hours, and even though the view was beautiful, it was tough! My travel buddies are super fit, and I think they would both say that they were even struggling at times! That night we stayed at the YHA Wanaka Purple Cow Hostel and did a bit of exploring in the town.
This is where the trip gets a little hazy for me…Perhaps it was my mind’s rebellion against our impending departure from this beautiful country, or because we actually went off of the itinerary at this point, but I do know that we set off towards Mt. Cook and Lake Tekapo, both absolutely stunning.
Anyone would be crazy to put a filter on these masterpieces of nature; Lake Tekapo’s crystal-blue water is caused by glaciers, and we were told this is one of the best places in the world to watch the stars. The place was pretty packed with photographers, and the moon was full when we were there, but it was still spectacular. We had intended to hang up our hammocks somewhere and sleep outside, but it was a bit colder than we anticipated, and it was too dark to find a good spot. We ended up booking a hotel right by the lake.
During this last full day, Rachel & Lauren decided to treat their inner cowgirls and go horseback riding. I decided to go on a private fly-fishing excursion. My guide was named Alan, and after briefly talking to him on the phone, we arranged to meet at a gas station in Twizel. Sounds a bit creepy, I know, but we didn’t meet a stranger in this country. People were truly that nice!
Lauren and Rachel pulled up to the gas station, and after meeting Alan for 1.2 seconds, he got right to business and we set off for a fishing license. This man walked faster than any human I’ve ever met. He was chatting with me while power-walking, and we were in and out of the hardware store where I got my license in less than 5 minutes. We jumped back in the car, and immediately set off to his best fly-fishing locations. We were off-roading in no time, and we were sharing stories. This is a glimpse of our drive:
I had no idea where we were headed, but I just went with it! Soon we arrived at a beautiful, wide stream in what appeared to be an open field, with mountains perched in the periphery. The water was relatively shallow, and was a deep, amber color. We got in our waders lickety-split and I chased him through the brush to the riverbed. He tied my fly, and immediately had me start casting. There was no practice; we dove in head-first. I have to admit, he was pretty intimidating, but he was a great coach. He corrected some flaws in my cast, and he told me exactly where to land my cast. “Expert” doesn’t seem to suffice when it comes to describing Alan the fisherman. You could tell that he lived and breathed it. I asked him if he ever kept any of the fish, and he looked at me like I had just grown horns. “I’m an angler,” he replied with an air of incredulity, “not a hunter.”
This wasn’t calm and slow fishing. This was aerobic fishing! We were moving constantly. He would stop and change my fly every six or seven casts. When I got my first trout on, I panicked and cranked my reel, subsequently losing my fish. Alan reprimanded me sternly. “There’s no reason you shouldn’t have landed that fish!” he exclaimed. I hung my head in shame, but got right back out there. I got four more fish, but didn’t land any of them, which was a big disappointment. Even though he was critical, he still assured me that I did a good job, had a fine cast and that this was really tough fishing.
If you want to learn to fly-fish, or if you’re already an angler, go visit my friend Alan. You can e-mail him and set up a time to have the most incredible fishing experience of your life!
The End of the Road
I put off writing this blog post, I think, in part, because I was afraid. Who would want to read what I have to say? But I’m working on this whole “being brave” thing, so here I am. I love planning adventures, and this one was beyond my wildest dreams. It came at just the right time in my life, too, and for that, I thank and praise The Lord.
I’ll leave you with some final tips:
- Document your travels. I use this incredible journal promoted by the lovely lady who inspired me to write about my travels, Brooke Saward. You can find her on Instagram at @worldofwanderlust or visit her website.
- Plan ahead. Book your flights early, ask off from work, and start developing a budget. Plan to pay within the range of $2,500-$3,500 for flights, lodging, transportation, food, excursions, souvenirs, etc.
- Find travel buddies! This summer I’ll be traveling to France by myself to prepare for my new career as a French teacher, so I’ll have more to offer on traveling solo at that time, but what I loved most about this trip was the people I got to share it with.
- Do you research. I can’t tell you how many things I pinned, how many pages I flagged in my travel guide, and how many properties I viewed on Airbnb before this trip. You don’t want to leave feeling like you missed anything!
- Kick the bucket list. This tip kind of goes against #4, but don’t clone someone else’s trip. Take people’s advice, compile a list of things you want to do and see, but don’t be driven by the list. Don’t live for the Instagram pic, or to say you did something. Live in the moment. As Sean O’Connell says in one of my all-time favorite films The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, “If I like a moment, for me, personally, I don’t like to have the distraction of the camera. I just want to stay in it.”
- Be Brave! If you’ve never stayed in a hostel, do it! If you’ve never driven on the other side of the road, do it! If you’re never flown for over 14 hours, do it! This is coming from the girl who used to cry every day of kindergarten. The best way to overcome fear is to face it.
Thanks for reading, and bon voyage! If you’d like to know anything more about my trip, don’t hesitate to contact me!