South Island, New Zealand
View of Aoraki/Mt Cook, New Zealans's highest peak from Hooker Valley Track
I arrived in Christchurch Airport slightly before midnight on a chilly Autumn evening. My sister, L, and SF friend, J, picked me up and we went back to the hotel to get some sleep before our early morning departure the next day.
You see, I've been wanting to visit this island country for many years after hearing wonderful stories from my parents. They "dumped" us a.k.a. their kids with our aunts and embarked on a month long road trip in a RV in the 1990s. Perhaps a delayed but well-deserved honeymoon for them. After seeing pictures from their trip, it had been a deep desire to see this country with my own eyes. I pleaded my friend and twin to join me on this grand adventure... with success! After a few weeks of web-conferencing and emails exchanges, we had our trip itinerary planned and lodging and car rental reserved.
We left Christchurch and drove to the glaciers located in the west coast of the South Island. The drive through Arthur's Pass was gorgeous, passing farm lands, grazing sheep and cows, majestic mountains and deep valleys. We arrived Franz Josef Glacier in the afternoon and walked along the Walk. The trail was well trodden and followed next to the glacial river. After 40+ minutes of walking and stopping to take pictures of pretty cascades along the way, we arrived at the end of the trail that captured a view of the receding glacier. It looked like a massive turquoise-tinted ice block with jagged edges. Occasionally, one could hear passing helicopters ushering tourists who paid for the guided glacier walks. After the hike, we checked in at our hotel and had a great dinner of local delights at the Last Kitchen.
We got up really early the next morning and started for Fox Glacier. The shorter hike was less impressive but more dangerous than Franz Josef due to a potential rock fall weakened by heavy rainfall the night prior. We took obligatory glacier pictures and went on a stroll around Lake Matheson. We then departed for Te Anau, a 6 hours drive, stopping for lunch at Haast, pictures at Knight's Point that overlooks the Tasman Sea, and dinner at Pog Mahones in Queenstown. We rested that evening, with great anticipation that the following day was possibly the highlight of the entire trip.
We ushered in Easter Sunday by waking up bright and early for our 2 hours drive to Milford Sound, located in the gorgeous New Zealand's Fiordland. Thankfully we got an extra hour due to daylight savings as we could refuel gas and explore the harbor before our 9am boat tour with Go Orange! It was worth getting up pre-dawn and enduring the chilly morning because we got to see wildlife bustling about with little human activities and morning fogs lifted from the depths of the valley to the skies as the sun warmed the land. We were blessed to have a pod of dolphins playfully swimming next to our boat as we approached the Tasman Sea, seals toasting themselves in the morning sun, hungry keas crossing the roads, and bursting rainbows!
After the wonderful boat ride, we drove to the trail head of Key Summit Track, entering the impressive 1.2 km man-made Homer Tunnel, dug through the Darran Mountain. The track took us along the Divide and Routeburn Track (part of NZ Great Walk) before we arrived at the summit. The summit offered the most beautiful panoramic views over the Humboldt and Darran Mountains. I could not have asked for a better way to celebrate Easter Sunday! It was truly one of the most spiritual hikes I've ever encountered and felt immensely blessed and grateful to experience the uniqueness and wonderful creation of our God of the universe.
Our hike took us under 3 hours which included stops along the way and a self tour of alpine nature walk. We happily returned to Te Anau, a day filled to my heart's content.
We decided to take it slower on Monday. We made our way to Queenstown, the heart and soul for tourism in the South Island. We lingered and shopped for souvenirs and explored the quaint town situated by Lake Wakatipu. We set off on our next hike along Tiki Trail towards Ben Lemond. Besides walking, the trail is also used by mountain bikers, zip-liners and runners. We reached the Skyline Building where there were a cafe and souvenir shop to rest and enjoy the sights of Lake Wakatipu, the Remarkables and Queenstown. We watched a guy bungee-jumped off a platform, further convincing myself that it was too risky for me to do it.
We bade adieu to Queenstown and traveled to Twizel for an early lunch. Twizel is a tourist town situated in Canterbury Region and served as a good point for Mt Cook national park, water-tourism and astro-tourism ventures.
We set off for my next highly recommended hike, the Hooker Valley track. We started the 3.5 hours hike at White Horse Hill car park that led us up the Hooker Valley, by the glacial Hooker river, and terminated at a massive glacier lake. The amazing views of New Zealand's highest mountain, Aoraki/Mt Cook flanked by glacial waterfalls, rivers and lakes and setting sun were truly breath-taking.
It reminded me of the power yet fragility of Mother Nature. We took our time absorbing the magnificent views before us because really, when would be the next time we get to experience this wondrous moment? We ambled back to our car and made our way back to our hotel for some rest.
The next day, we embarked on our final hikes. We breezed through the Tasman track, which ended at another glacial lake and more views of Mt Cook. Our journey continued to Lake Tekapo, a tourist town that is known for star-gazing, a part of UNESCO Dark Sky Reserve. Knowing that our visit was coming to an end, we celebrated our final hike on Mt John Summit Track. We began near Tekapo Springs complex car park, climbed slowly through larch trees before emerging out into open tussock lands. We arrived at the summit that offered views of Lake Tekapo, Lakes McGregor and Alexandrina, the Mackenzie Basin and across to the Southern Alps. We walked around the Observatory, admiring photographs of starry nights hung on the walls of the cafe before completing the circuit.
I woke up the following morning with a steaming hot bowl of instant ramen breakfast by Lake Tekapo and praising God for giving me this opportunity to fulfill my desire. We packed up our belongings and made our way back to Christchurch, completing our huge road trip.
Seeing Christchurch four years after the devastating earthquake was heart-breaking. The city was still recovering from the disaster and restoration has been slow. At the heart of the city stood the iconic Christchurch Cathedral, which was partly in rubble and partly proudly standing tall. Most of the buildings around the cathedral shared the same fate, many uninhabitable. However, it was amazing to see the people of Christchurch persevered and one could see the local economy bubbling back. Stores that were once housed in brick and mortar now occupied refurbished shipping containers. It was a brilliant sight to behold. We explored the city and its surroundings. Kiwis clearly know how to do a fantastic job preserving nature while keeping abreast with global economic growth.
We shared our last meal at Cook'n' with Gas, a multi-award bistro that survived multiple earthquakes since the 1800s! We chatted with one of its oldest waiters and sampled New Zealand's succulent lamb, venison and beef. After a final toast to our wonderful trip, we tucked in for an early night to catch our early flights the next day.
I could not have asked for a more fantastic first Kiwi visit. The food, journey, hikes, people, cultures, and nature were simply amazing. As mentioned before, I felt this was a spiritual trip that connected deep with my spirit, mind and being. I don't think I have ever experienced something so profound until this trip. In short, I look forward to my next big Kiwi adventure!
Enjoy my lists of must have's, memorable tracks and unique gifts to bring home to your family and friends!
Must have items to bring for an enjoyable NZ trip:
pair of strong water-resistant binoculars
high resolution camera with telescopic lens
comfortable waterproof shoes and wool socks for long hikes and warmth
waterproof outer jacket with hoodie, shirts, pants, backpack, cap and fleece inner jacket
pair of sunglasses
plastic bags for packing food and trash bags
sunscreen (the higher SPF the better it is)
loads of water and high protein snacks
Memorable tracks in descending order:
Key Summit Track on Routeburn Track in Fiordland
Hooker Valley in Mt Cook national park
Tiki Trail towards Ben Lemond
Mt John Summit Track/ loop
Franz Josef Glacier Walk
Fox Glacier Walk
Unique gifts to bring home to your family and friends:
active mānuka honey from the nectar of mānuka tree. It is said to have great antibacterial properties. The higher the active rating (10 or more), the better it is for you
kiwi fruit creams and soaps. Who doesn't like the sweet, green, speckled fruit?
lanolin creams. Many have claimed that Kiwi sheep wool shearers have the softest hands in the world
All Blacks, New Zealand's national men's rugby union team
Last Modified: August 11, 2015
Cook'n' with Gas bistro in Christchurch and its succulent local lamb chop dish