QF74 (SFO » SYD)
QF143 (SYD » AKL)
JQ237 (AKL » CHC)
JQ220 (ZQN » MEL)
QF93 (MEL » LAX)
AA6013 (LAX » SFO)
New Zealand is a place of wonder. Untouched by humanity until last millennium, the landscapes and nature of this amazing place are matched only by the friendliness of its people, nearly always excited to share their part of this beautiful country with you.
I found myself in New Zealand after the mysteries of airline pricing led to me being charged $200 less for my San Francisco - Melbourne return flight if I also added on stops in Auckland, Christchurch, and Queenstown. That's really quite a hard thing to say no to, and Aotearoa has been at the top of my "countries to go to" list for a couple of years now. I carved out an extra eight days on the front of my trip to PyCon AU, and took this new longer, cheaper and more exciting route to Melbourne.
My itinerary was packed and assembled mostly at the last minute - I had booked flights, cars, and refundable hotels, but left the day-to-day decisions up to factors like the weather and locals' advice. I spent three nights (Wed - Sat) on North Island, based out of Auckland, and five nights (Sat - Thu) on South Island, driving one way from Christchurch (two nights) down to Queenstown (three nights).
Refundable hotel rooms aren't just for cancellations - if you find a really good deal in the days before, they also let you take advantage of that.
Auckland is New Zealand's largest city - though here, large is a relative term, with the population of its metro area clocking in at about 1.5 million people - smaller than Nashville, and about the same size as Newcastle in the UK. It's built around the harbour, and its nickname The City Of Sails is very apt - ships constantly sail between the mainland and the numerous small islands dotted around, while a large container port perhaps boats less sails but does win out by having more straddle carriers.
I stayed in the CBD, in the sort of apartment-hotel that is unusually common both here and Melbourne - but I'm a very happy man when I get a kitchenette in a room, so that worked out well. I had rented a car as I was driving around the North Island a bit, and if you're expecting plenty of parking in the centre of Auckland, be warned - you have to plan ahead!
For such a small city, Auckland has way more traffic than you'd think possible, though the road design was apparently modelled on Los Angeles - which explains a lot. There's buses, a couple of trains, and the aforementioned ferries to the islands, but this is not a place where you should count on getting around by public transport.
That first night, I enjoyed a very tasty burger at Burger Burger, thanks to a recommendation from my friend David, and went back to my room to plan the next two full days. In the end, I decided that the first day would be the road trip - down to Waitomo, across to Orakei Korako, and back up to Auckland via Rotorua, and the second day would be Waiheke Island, with a visit to the Auckland War Memorial Museum and One Tree Hill on the last day before my flight to Christchurch.
Glowworms are not unique to New Zealand, but the underground Waitomo River is a perfect environment both for them to grow and for you to see them, thanks to regular tours featuring an underground boat ride.
Coming in the off-season, it wasn't too busy, but I still booked a day in advance online so I didn't have to wait around once I got there - tours are only every half hour or so. It's about a three hour drive from Auckland to Waitomo, and I set off early in the morning, stopping to grab lunch at a service station before the motorway turned into a dual carriageway, then a single carriageway, and finally into a small rural road, winding through the green hills of North Island until I eventually arrived at Waitomo.
If you see a couple of large tour buses parked, don't panic - buses get their own separate tours, so you won't be crowded out by them on yours. It's about 45 minutes to go through the cave, with your guide talking about the history of the area, how the caves were formed, the lifecycle of glowworms, and finally ending in a spectacular boat ride though the caves, the ceiling dotted with what must be hundreds of thousands of glowworms.
No photography is allowed inside, so be prepared to come away with only memories and maybe a few plush glowworms from the gift shop. There are other cave systems in the area that offer underground rafting and similar activities if you have a bit more time to spend; I, however, was off for a two-hour drive to the east to see some volcanic bits.
There are quite a few geothermal parks on North Island, but Orakei Korako came highly recommended to me and so this is ended up as my second stop on the mini road trip. I've been to a couple before, including Lassen Volcanic National Park in California (which is also worth a visit), but Orakei Korako is probably the most extensive and varied one I've seen.
Upper Sinter Terrace
It's located on an island that you get to via a small ferry - which the ferry captain is very good at drifting backwards into the dock, every time. Once you're there, a walking track of roughly an hour takes you past some amazing sinter terraces, with steam and boiling water bubbling up from the depths below, before you go up the hill and over the back of the island, to an ominous steaming cave and a lovely bush walk amongst some boiling mud pots.
It's a nice place, and you could easily spend a couple of hours here admiring the small glimpses into the power of the volcanic network you're standing on top of. There's also a small cafe, and if you have an RV/camper, they let you stay in the car park overnight as long as you visit on one of the days, which is nice.
Rainbow Springs Nature Park
Most Kiwis - the people, that is, not the birds - have low opinions of the so-called "kiwi houses", that have a few captive birds in an indoor aviary with the day-night cycle reversed (meaning the nocturnal kiwis are awake when the human visitors are). The cliche is that you'll go into a dimly lit room, maybe see a kiwi poking around behind glass, but often as not come away none the wiser.
Rainbow Springs was recommended by my friend Natalie, and it does indeed have the indoor aviary with kiwis - but it also has an outdoor kiwi aviary, a kiwi breeding programme, several other native bird aviaries (including some very friendly kea), and some nice little reptile and fish sections as well.
By the time I got here it was 4pm, and so not only was it late enough that they gave me half-price entry to the (pretty much empty) park, but I got to see both the indoor kiwis and the outdoor kiwis, as the sun set while I was there, meaning the indoor ones went to sleep and the outdoor ones woke up.
Kiwis are odd but very cute birds, and I'm glad a got to see a couple - seeing them in captivity might seem a little less exciting, but seeing them in the wild is extremely difficult. I'm also a big fan of reptile houses and the collection of reptiles they have is pretty decent, including the "ancient" Tuatara.
After a long drive back to Auckland (another three hours), I'd spent twelve hours on my mini road trip, and collapsed into bed via a local fish and chip shop. Tomorrow had a small lie-in, and then a trip across the harbour to Waiheke Island.
I think the spirit of Waiheke is best summed up by the lady who rented me my electric bike for the day - as I asked if it came with a lock, she laughed and told me how, in her years renting them, not a single one had been stolen. "When people come here, they relax and have a good time", she said, followed by flashing the hang loose sign as I saddled up.
A Waiheke ferry
It really is idyllic, and somehow even more laid back than the mainland. Waiheke is an island of hills and beaches, and you're not getting to those beautiful beaches without a trip over those rather steep hills. Several somewhat-questionable local companies will rent you cars for the day, but I decided to split the difference between man and machine and rent an electric-assist bicycle from the aforementioned eCyclesNZ.
The electric assist helps, but even with it, some of those hills are get-off-and-walk type hills (at my fitness level, anyway). It's worth it, though, for the miles of beautiful beaches, and delicious local food and wine, including the wonderful Frenchôt, the best French cafe I've been to outside of France (at a mere 18,000 km away).
While I was here during winter - a fact that was far more obvious when I got to South Island - it was lovely and sunny most of the time, with only a few brief spells of rain to punctuate things. That did help keep it nice and quiet, though, and I barely saw anyone while cycling around, and got great top-deck seats on the ferry there and back, too.
The passenger ferries are very regular, and the walk from the ferry pier into town (where the bike rental was) isn't that long - fifteen minutes at most. Just make sure you bring a sense of adventure, plenty of time, and maybe a raincoat.
Auckland War Memorial Museum
Tamaki Paenga Hira
Don't let the name mislead you - this museum is not just about war, but also has excellent galleries on Māori history and culture, the flora and fauna of New Zealand, design and British colonial history, and the geology that created (and will eventually destroy) this wonderful place.
The ground floor is the most impressive, with an entire Māori meeting house lovingly preserved and restored for you to visit and admire, as well as lots of artifacts, including the impressive ocean-going vessels that the Māori used to get to New Zealand in the first place. You can also go and watch a Māori cultural presentation where a small group of performers discuss their history and culture, along with performing several traditional songs/dances, including the famous Haka.
It's definitely a bit war museum.
The first floor has the aforementioned section on volcanoes - including an eruption/earthquake simulator that rather bleakly tells you how everyone in Auckland will die if they don't evacuate - and plenty of stuffed, extinct, and ridiculous animals in the nature section.
The second floor is the war memorial part, and tells the story that I didn't really hear at school in England - the story of the Australian and New Zealand efforts in World War II, and the soldiers who lost their lives a world away from their homes and families. For me, the pinnacle of this exhibit are the two wonderfully restored planes - a Spitfire and a Zero, one in each wing of the museum, now encased in concrete rooms but pointing forever skyward.
The most sobering aspect for me, though, was the far-too-small gallery detailing the dark side of British colonialism, and the battles fought between the Māori and the Brits before they finally managed to broker peace (and the racism that continued even afterwards). I've always been told that New Zealand had "better" race relations than many British colonies, and this is perhaps true in a relative sense, but it's still one of many blemishes on my country's history. I can't help the actions of my ancestors, but all I can hope for in the modern world is that we try to learn from them and undo the mistakes that persist.
One Tree Hill
Obelisk meets sheep.
My final stop before heading to the airport was One Tree Hill, one of Auckland's most prominent landmarks and an important place in Māori history (the obelisk at the top is a "memorial" to the Māori by Sir John Logan Campbell that has slightly questionable design intentions, but it's still impressive). The titular tree was cut down long ago, sadly, but the public park it's in is expansive and full of alternative trees.
The view over Auckland and islands beyond is really lovely, and it's possible to drive to the top, though the road up there is very small and the car parking is very limited indeed. I would instead recommend parking lower down in One Tree Hill Domain and walking up.
With one last view of Auckland from the hill, surrounded by sheep merrily grazing away, I headed to the airport and my flight down to South Island, and my first stop there, Christchurch.
The Cardboard Cathedral is a permanent structure, but will revert to a normal church once the main cathedral is (eventually) rebuilt.
Christchurch is a place that is unfortunately mostly known internationally for the double tragedy that struck in the form of the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes. The city centre was really hit, and not much of it remains - rebuilding is in progress, but there's not a whole lot to see apart from the "Cardboard Cathedral", the temporary replacement for the city's cathedral that was wrecked in the quakes.
I stayed in a local motel, and was here for two nights - one full day to visit Arthur's Pass National Park, and then to start the long drive down to Queenstown the next day. I walked around the city centre a bit, and stopped in to see the cathedrals and some of the rebuilding, but there's not a whole lot else to do in town unless you're here for the casino or to see friends.
You can find a decent number of places within driving range, however, including some really wonderful bits of coastline that I sadly did not have time to sea. If you're feeling like a lot of driving, you can even drive between here and North Island/Wellington via the ferry that runs between the two islands.
After a long day of museums and travelling from Auckland, I chose to gorge on some local takeaway and stock up at the supermarket in preparation for the long trip to Arthur's Pass the next day.
Arthur's Pass National Park
If I hadn't gone to Milford Sound, Arthur's Pass would be the most spectacular place I visited on my trip. Even against that stiff competition, it's still a wonderful place - beautiful mountain landscapes, well-kept trails, giant waterfalls, and some friendly local kea.
A kea overlooking Otira Viaduct
This national park straddles the Southern Alps, joining Christchurch with the west coast of New Zealand, and boasts a whole heap of trails - from quick half-hour ones, to day-long hikes up past the treeline to the tops of the mountains.
I spent a few hours doing a couple of the shorter trails after consulting with a local ranger, including one that must have had a couple hundred metres of elevation change up and down a mountainside to see the Devils Punchbowl waterfall. It's worth the hike (or as they say in NZ, the tramp) - but remember to take some water, and take it slow if you've not been at altitude in a while!
The drive to Arthur's Pass
The weather was perfect - blue skies and sunshine - and the snow-topped mountains were really the cherry on top. While visiting New Zealand in winter can be a bit risky, as you'll see when I get to Milford Sound, it's worth it for views like these.
The drive is also an attraction by itself - it not only weaves through some gorgeous landscapes and colour combinations, it also goes past a few interesting stops like Castle Hill, which is covered in very odd-looking rocks and, when I was there, lots of locals trying to use the small amount of snow to sled down (and succeeding, only to get muddy at the bottom).
When you've got a long drive, like the few hours it takes from Christchurch, I find it important to stop along the way and soak in the environment around you, and that's very easy to do with surroundings like these. At points I was just pulling off to the side of the road in random places as the views were so spectacular.
I'm not quite sure why I expected Queenstown to be a small, quiet town next to the lake - but it's really not. Instead, Queenstown is your quintessential ski/resort town, full of bright lights, tourists, and people partying the night away.
Don't get me wrong - it's not a bad place, and you really can't argue with that view - but it's not the best place to relax, unless you drive along the lakeshore a bit and find some of the many quiet parking areas you can stop off in and enjoy the view. If you're in search of adventure sports, though, you're in the right place; Queenstown has anything you might want to do, from white water rafting, to ziplining, to bungee jumping (after all, it was invented here!).
I was here for 3 nights, meaning two full days. After looking at the weather and snow forecasts, I chose to go to Milford Sound on the first day, and then to go snowboarding at Cardrona the second.
Now, look. I've been fortunate enough to visit a lot of places on my travels, and I've seen many beautiful parts of this planet, including three of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. I think I agree with Rudyard Kipling that this is the eighth wonder.
I've been to fjords before, back when I went to Tromsø, and they're beautiful, but Milford Sound (and yes, it's not a sound, it's a fjord) is really a spectacular example of one. The sheer scale of the mountains and cliffs either side, the waterfalls cascading down from glaciers and snowmelt, and the spectacular drive there all combine to make it a very special place.
View from Milford Road
In fact, let's start with that drive there. The trip is four hours, one way, from Queenstown - that means eight hours of driving for a day trip. On top of that, there is only one road to Milford Sound, the aptly-named Milford Road, an impressive piece of engineering including a tunnel that's over a kilometre long, all built right in the middle of avalanche country.
There had, in fact, been an avalanche the day before, along with stormy conditions in the sound, so I set out on the four-hour drive through fog and poor weather towards a closed Milford Road, with only the expected opening time to go on (which would get me there fifteen minutes before my tour boat was due to sail). Once I got halfway to Te Anau, the fog gave way to blue skies, and I got to the bottom of the closed section just as it opened, making my boat with five minutes to spare.
A tour boat in the Sound
The Milford Road is not to be underestimated - it's as beautiful as the sound itself, and more varied, going through valleys and reflecting lakes, climbing up along mountainsides and eventually winding along a high-elevation valley floor before disappearing into the 1,200 metre long Homer Tunnel and emerging into a beautiful forest drive down to the coast.
It's also a difficult drive, with alpine conditions and narrow, twisty roads. If you're going to drive it in winter, bring snow chains; if you're going to drive it at all, make sure you're OK with single-lane roads next to large precipices. I passed three or four camper vans on the drive up that couldn't make it for one reason or another.
Cliffs in Milford Sound
You can, of course, just get a coach from Queenstown to the sound and skip all the driving yourself (or, if you're feeling particularly rich, a helicopter or small plane, which I am told has amazing views). The coach does have the downside that you can't stop off at the various places of interest along the Milford Road, or that they'll stop off at places you don't want to see, but it's a lot easier than eight hours of driving. You can also opt to stop on the way and stay overnight in Te Anau, which is a mere two hours (one way) from Milford Sound.
Once you're down at the coastline, there's a small airport (for sightseeing flights), lots of car parking, and a big pier complex where all the tour boats leave from. There's plenty of providers; I went for the slightly smaller and friendlier Cruise Milford, which proved to be a good choice - not only did the captain manage to maneuver the front of the ship under three different waterfalls, he also cracked several jokes at the expense of Australians as well as a set of truly awful puns. We were even lucky enough to get some dolphins greeting our ship back into the harbour!
The real attraction of course is the place, and the weather had gone from stormy the previous day to blue skies and sunshine - the crew were commenting how it was one of the best winter days they'd had yet. Winter is always a gamble for visits like this, but I think it pays off when it works - the snow on top of the mountains, the crisp, clean air, and the lack of sandflies (if you come in summer, bring plenty of DEET!).
After the push to get there on time, I spent more time on the way back, stopping off at the various different lookout spots and letting the exodus of afternoon traffic get way ahead of me. There's nothing quite like spending ten minutes watching birds soar in the valley below you from a small mountain viewpoint, except maybe sailing around one of the world's prettiest fjords, or stopping off near the end of the drive at the Devil's Staircase to see the lights of Queenstown below me and the Milky Way arcing across the sky above.
Cardrona road & clouds below
My last planned activity was to go and do the thing everyone else was seemingly in Queenstown in the winter for - snowsports! Queenstown has four ski resorts close by, and after some random searching of people's opinions and looks at trail maps, I decided on Cardrona as my destination. I rented a snowboard and boots from a local place in town - pretty cheap for just a day - and drove out towards the mountains and the promise of snow.
When I reached the turnoff for Cardrona I was slightly worried, as there was in fact zero snow on the ground, but it turns out that there's over a kilometre of vertical climb along a 13 kilometre winding dirt road, which is certainly not for the faint of heart (but also not too hard to drive on - didn't even need snow chains the day I went). As I drove up the mountain, I passed through the cloud layer and emerged to see the resort base nestled above the clouds, looking over the valley to the sight of mountain tops poking up the other side.
The resort wasn't too busy, either - it helps to be going on a weekday - and I was soon on the slopes, with the decent snow helping me to find out that I had in fact not forgotten how to snowboard since learning it last winter up here in California. A good five hours on the slopes, exploring every chairlift and blue trail, and offsetting any calories burned with some really quite good pizza, and I drove back to Queenstown a happy man. It's always nice to get a chance to play around in snow in August!
Statistically, the bungee jump was the safest thing I did all trip. Milford Road was way more dangerous.
I woke up on my last day in Queenstown with a vague idea of what I wanted to do. My flight was in the late afternoon, and so I had a few hours to kill, and I should obviously do something local. So, why not do something invented right here in Queenstown, and do a bungee jump?
The very thought gives some people shivers, but I have never been one to turn down a challenge. I'm not sure I'd call myself an adrenaline junkie, but I'll try anything once, and so I soon found myself signed up for the Nevis Bungee, the world's third-highest bungee jump and the highest one in New Zealand. Suspended on a highwire platform 134 metres above a river gorge just outside town, it's really quite high, though the inventor apparently goes around jumping from helicopters now.
Jumping from the Nevis platform
Even more interestingly, I turned up at their shop in town to find out I was the only person on that particular timeslot, so I climbed in the front seat of the 4x4 minibus and had a lovely chat with the driver as we wove our way up a steep dirt road to the edge of the gorge. Once you're there, they have you in a harness and on a tiny cable car out to the jump platform before you know it.
I'm not scared of heights, and the glass-bottomed cabin didn't really bother me, but it's when you get to the edge and get ready to jump that the real fear sets in - it's a long way down, and you're about to fling yourself into nothingness. Keeping calm, they counted me down and I jumped off, not really prepared for the feeling of eight seconds of freefall before the bungee goes taut and you know that you're not going to hit the river.
I think the real enjoyment comes from bouncing around and dangling there once you know you've done the jump and the bungee has caught you - there's a release you pull to swivel the right way up after the first few bounces - but I'm not sure I'll ever forget what it feels like to essentially be falling to your death for a short while.
They have a giant swing up there as well that is apparently less terrifying (I'm guessing because you're always attached to a structure), but the whole thing is very well run and the staff are efficient but reassuring. It's expensive, especially if you want the photos, but if you're like me and there for the experience, I think it's worth it.
You can, if you wish, also do the smaller, original jump from a nearby bridge, but as the reviews I read by users said, if you're going to jump, you may as well make it a big one, a policy I wholeheartedly endorse.
One small section here for specific notes on driving in New Zealand, since it's a very rural country and you need to do a lot of it to see anything. They drive on the left (the correct) side of the road, as every rental car agent kept reminding me (I should never have shown them a US driving license!).
That's not that hard to get used to, though, and automatic transmission seems to be plentiful for those who can't drive manual. What is very different is the type of road network - New Zealand is so sparse that most roads are one lane in each direction on the same piece of tarmac (a single carriageway road), and often winding and hilly.
Don't expect to get anywhere fast, and don't expect to be able to overtake a slower car until you get to a nice straight section of road - which can take a while. Similarly, faster cars may come up behind you and sit behind, looking for an opening; just stay calm, and if there's an easy pull-out, take it and let them past. I didn't encounter many aggressive drivers, though there are some. There are also occasional single-lane bridges or road sections; just have a good look and follow the signs, and you'll be fine.
The road conditions are also a little less than perfect, as some of the more rural roads are not fully sealed, and there's often small rocks and gravel lying around. Expect to get small rocks dinging your windscreen, and make sure you have coverage for it; I got a nice big chip out of my windscreen from a passing lorry near Christchurch kicking a small rock towards me.
There's also plenty of pure dirt roads, fords, and similar road features on the even less travelled roads, like those out to trailheads; I'd recommend having some experience on this terrain before you try driving it yourself. Most cities seemed to have guides that would happily drive you to trailheads and walk the trail with you if you didn't want to do it yourself; remember that there's often not great mobile phone signal, too, so calling for help might take a while (or mean flagging down a car to get a ride to where there is signal).
That said, if you've driven anywhere rural before, it's not hard at all - it's just pretty much all rural, apart from a small section around Auckland that's an LA road planner's dream (and has the traffic to match).
My final tip is, if you're planning a one-way rental, try to go south-to-north; most people drive north-to-south, and you can often get much better rates (or sometimes free rental entirely) going against the flow.
Ka kite ano, Aotearoa
Usually, I go somewhere and come back with good memories and inspiration of where to travel to next. With New Zealand, I instead came back with an even longer list of things to do there than I went with, and a small sense of loss, like I'd lived somewhere for a while and had to move away.
It's one of the best trips I've done in a long time - not that I expected to dislike New Zealand, as two of my favourite things are mountains and snow, but there's a real sense of place that comes along with it, and the welcome that was extended to me by everyone I met was incredibly heartwarming. The landscape is so varied, yet all of it has a story to tell and something unique you'll find nowhere else.
For most people, New Zealand is a long way away - but that is, in my eyes, part of its attraction. Humans - and, apart from one species of bat, mammals - have only been here for a millenium, resulting in an ecosystem that's gone in some spectacularly weird directions. Combined with the volcanic and tectonic activity shifting and reshaping the landscape, and you end up with something truly special.
I'm not sure when I'll go back - part of me wants to go while I still live (relatively) close on America's west coast, part of me would even happily move there - but I will almost certainly be back. And maybe, if I can arrange it, with a small plane and a pilot license validation.