After more than a year of planning we finally set off for New Zealand on December 16, a Friday. This is actually a day earlier than planned, but, with a nasty winter storm forecasted for Saturday in Chicago, United has encouraged us to fly to San Francisco a day early to avoid it. We jump on the opportunity and pack up in a rush, but we don’t mind. There’s no way we are going to miss out on our dream trip to Middle Earth for anything. No way. New Zealand or bust!!!
We spend the night in San Francisco near the airport and hang out on Saturday with Matt’s brother and an old family friend before the long journey to Auckland. Our flight does not depart until 10:45 pm, so we have all day to relax and enjoy. We meet up at the Botanic Garden in Golden Gate Park and see a beautiful butterfly and orchid exhibit. In the afternoon, we hike a bit at Land’s End and then grab a tasty vegan meal in the Sunset neighborhood before heading back out to the airport.
Sunday is the day that time forgot as we lose that entire day in flight crossing the international dateline. We arrive in Auckland on the North Island on Monday, and, after clearing customs, we transfer to a short flight to Christchurch on the South Island. A word of warning: NZ is very strict about what can and cannot come into the country. Our tent and hiking gear is thoroughly inspected for any undesirable dirt, vegetation and insects before we are allowed into the country!
Finally in Christchurch, we pick up our Jucy rental car and drive into the city center, where we check into Pomeroy’s, a cute B&B style guesthouse with a lively restaurant/pub/cafe right next door. Eager to stretch our legs after such a long set of flights, we walk into the downtown area to see the ruins of the cathedral that had been destroyed in the earthquake that hit here in 2011. Even after several years, downtown Christchurch is still visibly recovering from the massive damage it suffered from the 6.3 magnitude quake.
Before heading back to Pomeroy’s for dinner, we stop at the local grocery store to pick up provisions for the road and camping. On the flight over, we saw this hilarious film on the plane called Hunt for the Wilderpeople. We can’t recommend this quirky movie by beloved NZ director Taika Waititi enough. Not only does it feature the country’s gorgeous landscapes, but it also gives insight into the wacky nature of Kiwis. Rent it. Stream it. Buy it. We promise you will thank us for it.
On several occasions in the movie, the characters mention Scroggin, which we learn is the New Zealand version of trail mix. We act like total dorks and practically make a scene jumping up and down when we find it for sale in the bulk section of the grocery store. Of course, we have to pick some up for the trail. If you are going tramping in New Zealand, you gotta have some Scroggin. Just saying…
After dinner and a celebratory pint at Pomeroy’s we put our jet-lagged selves to bed, eager to begin exploring the South Island tomorrow.
We wake up early and have a delicious gourmet breakfast at the well-appointed cafe. From there, it’s a 2.5 hour drive to Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park. The distance between major points of interest on the South Island is not especially great, but many of the major roads are single lane, making the going a bit slow. On the other hand, there are only 3 million people on the entire island (less than the city of Chicago), mostly in the main towns, so the roads are pleasantly uncrowded compared to where we are coming from.
As we approach the mountains in the center and west side of the island, the scenery becomes more and more stunning, so we are in no rush. We stop for lunch at stunning Lake Tekapo with its insane blue waters and lupine-lined shores. We also make a quick visit to the Church of the Good Shepherd, which is beautiful but overrun with people the day that we are there.
From there, it is off to Aoraki/Mount Cook. Aoraki is New Zealand’s highest peak at 12,218 feet. We are lucky to have a clear day, and the impressive peak begins to loom ever larger on the horizon as we approach.
We drive into the national park and pick out a pleasant campsite, pitch our tent and decide to stretch our legs with a vigorous climb to get a better view of Aoraki and the valley below it.
The hike up to Sealy Tarns is recommended to us by a friendly ranger who warns us that it is a steep and relentless 2200 steps up, which sounds exactly like what we need to get ourselves in shape for the longer hikes to come. The verticality of this trail has us huffing and puffing in a hurry, but it’s great to finally be doing what we primarily came here to do! Some of the steps are quite sizable, but we are traveling light with daypacks only today. Getting the heart rate up feels good!
Soon we reach Sealy Tarns where we stop to catch reflections of snowy Aoraki in the glassy surface of the water. The sun is going down quickly and starting to cast strong shadows.
The views from here are spectacular, and we pull out the cameras and have some fun shooting all the beautiful scenery before us.
With the second task of warming up the trigger finger on our cameras accomplished, we make our way back down the vertical stairs and head to camp for dinner.
It’s quite windy and on the chilly side, so we are grateful that the camp has an enclosed cooking shelter with picnic tables, running water and gas stoves provided. Soon enough it’s time to climb into the sleeping bags for the evening. Now the adventure is truly under way!
It is super windy overnight, and the tent is blown around quite a bit, even though we have a fairly protected site. We get up early, intent on hiking a bit more in the park before moving on to our next destination, and it’s back to the shelter for breakfast. Turns out camping Kiwi-style is rather civilized, which comes in handy on a windy day like today.
Our big hike for the day is the Hooker Valley Hike which takes us across a vast flattish plane covered with low shrubs. The wind is picking up, so we don’t stop anywhere for long even though the scenery is gorgeous.
We criss cross a glacial river several times as we follow it toward its source. The wind is especially strong as we cross a steel cable suspension bridge, in fact so strong that it blows Matt’s sunglasses off never to be found again!
The trail takes us across the marshy terrain and eventually brings us to an iceberg lagoon where the glacier terminates. We take the opportunity to relax, grab a snack and attempt to find interesting ice formations to photograph. When satisfied and sufficiently rested we turn back to make the return journey.
We figure we have enough time for one more small hike in the park, so we opt for the Governor Bush Walk, a short stroll that takes us out of the valley and up into the forest where we see lusher vegetation and even a few birds, which gives us hope that we’ll see more on our bigger treks.
Rain starts to set in just as we are finishing up, which is our cue to hit the road for Wanaka. We opt to rent a simple room at the Holiday Park rather than set up the tent in the pouring rain. We grab dinner in town near the lake shore and hope that the storm will pass and give us a chance to photograph here in the morning.
Much to our delight we wake up the next day to clear skies, so we head out early to photograph Lake Wanaka in the early morning light while the water is still and there are few people about. Wanaka is an increasingly popular destination in large part due to the Instagram-famous tree located in the water of the lake. It takes us a while to find it but we finally do and manage to grab a few shots of our own of this iconic South Island subject.
We also want to do a hike in the area before moving on to Fjordland. Many of the hikes on our wishlist require a 4-wheel drive vehicle with a high clearance to cross several river beds just to get to the trailhead. We can’t risk that in our tiny 2-wheel drive rental car, especially given all the heavy rain, so we opt for the Diamond Lake/Rocky Hills Loop hike.
This turns out to be a pleasant climb up into the hills outside of Wanaka on a beautiful sunny day. When we reach the top, however, it is still quite windy. We huddle together for shelter while enjoying the view, but it’s not particularly pleasant being so exposed. After a few minutes at the top, we make our way down to find a more sheltered and serene location for lunch.
From there it’s off to Queenstown, the center for all sorts of outdoor activities in the southern third of the South Island. Stay tuned for more!