New Zealand is all about 30 million sheep, unbelievable panoramas and a warm, welcoming culture. This road trip has been and will be our holy grail holiday for as long as we shall live and every bit of this Middle Earth quest has been special.
The Adventure Starts in the North…
Our adventure begins on the North Island in Auckland, the City of Sails, where we spend a better part of the first day learning the ropes of driving and navigating on the city’s busy roads. The city is home to 1.7 million people but public transport isn’t the best, so hire a car! A visit to the cities iconic Sky Tower, which is open till 10:30pm, shows amazing 360 degree views of the city from its observation deck.
Our exploits kick into high gear the next morning when the 3-hour ride to Paihia, Bay of Islands, becomes a 6-hour one when we ignore our GPS and stop at Orewa, Northland’s luxurious setting on the South Pacific that inspires the good life. We then finally arrive at the perfect seaside town of Paihia which has an illustrious history. Our hotel, The Copthorne, is located right next to the historic Waitangi Treaty Grounds where the first accord was signed between the Māori people and the British crown.
The next morning we’re at the pier at 9 AM sharp to hop on to a freezing ocean cruise looking for whales, but alas, it wasn’t our day. Hungry from the high tides of the South Pacific, we land in the afternoon at the island town of Russel, the once-infamous, lawless whaling station known as the ‘Hellhole of the Pacific’. After a satiating lunch overlooking the picture-perfect wharf, I’m seriously questioning the so-called ‘hellhole’ nature of this town. A walk around the reformed Russell is eye-opening – not only does it possess an innately romantic feel, but it also houses the country’s oldest church, the Christ Church, complete with the original altar. I stand in the cemetery beside the statue of the great Māori chief Tāmati Wāka Nene, who fought against colonial rule in Russell, and I cannot help but revere the stories of bravery and the musket holes in the walls.
Māori Culture at its finest
Which brings us to the Māori culture, a ubiquitous, fascinating spirit that all New Zealanders, natives and otherwise, take great pride in. Rotorua, our next sojourn, is the polestar of this culture and part of the Whakarewarewa geothermal valley. We feast our eyes on the near-threatened Kiwi bird and the 100-ft. tall Pohutu geyser, and get a taste of Māori dance, art and craft forms, and community spirit at Te Puia, the Māori village. What better a way to wash down a busy day than unwind with natural geothermal bathing? That’s what we did at the Polynesian Spa on the sulphur-ridden banks of Lake Rotorua. As the sun sets, we land up, thoroughly refreshed and incredibly hungry, at Eat Streat, Rotorua’s best worst-kept secret where you’ll find all the food in the world under one roof. Need I say more?
The land of the Hobbit..
Our excitement spins out of control the next day when we watch fantasy come to life at the Hobbiton set in Matamata in the verdant Kaimai ranges. 44 hobbit holes, including the famous Bag End, pale in comparison to what we feel when we actually get to stand inside one of them and say ‘Hey, we are hobbits of the Shire!’. After listening to astounding details from our friendly guide-turned-barman, we grab drinks at the Green Dragon Inn and snap pictures with a life-size statue of Gandalf before reluctantly heading out.
The South Island
After a week of touring North Island, the action moves to South Island when we land at Christchurch one windy afternoon. An after-hours-walk in Central Christchurch reveals to us the city’s resilience and spirit of rebuilding its life after having been torn apart by earthquakes. Heading out of Christchurch we move towards wilder alpine vistas as we take the road to the small town of Franz Josef on the islands West Coast. On the way we are taken in by Castle Hill, New Zealand’s stunning answer to Stonehenge and cannot help but stare at the brilliant blue waters of the Haast River. Our greatest find is the site of the former Aylesbury Train Station outside Christchurch which was completly blown away in a storm in 1976. As well as a great history spot, you can experience sweeping, vantage-point views of the great Southern Alps from the site of the station .
Arriving at Franz Josef you see remnants of a gold rush past and citizens who cycle to work. After a laidback two-day stay in Franz Josef where we do nothing but eat, cook and walk around, we are pleasantly surprised when our friendly waitress tells us we’re already 1/15th locals!
The journey to Queenstown is an enthralling ride through Mount Aspiring National Park. We scribble a message on Bruce Bay’s Pile of Rocks, elated to leave behind a little of us in Kiwi country. We fill our bottles up from the river at Fantail Falls, another great off-the-road find, and even build our own rock cairn, sitting pretty amongst hundreds of others. We swat at sandflies while reading about New Zealand’s history at Knight’s Point, where the azure waters of the Tasman Sea are almost unbelievable. Just before we hit Queenstown, we catch the views of a lifetime of the summer Otago countryside from Cardrona Pass.
Queenstown throbs with energy and the promise of thrill is in the air. Adventure activities in the city are like a rite of passage for those visiting New Zealand. Despite being acrophobic and in denial, I skydived from 15,000 ft. over Lake Wakatipu with a hunky instructor strapped to my back and experienced the thrill of jumping over the Kawarau river, the site of the world’s first bungy. Another exhilarating encounter is the Shotover Jet – one boat, 10-cm shallow river waters, narrow, twisted canyons, great speeds, 360-degree turns and a tagline that reads ‘Can you handle the canyons?’.
Things mellow down the next day as we set out to encounter what legend says is a god’s creation – Milford Sound in Fiordland National Park. The moody, rain-obsessed Fiordland National Park envelops our senses entirely with its mirror lakes, cloudy realms, glacier-carved mountains and discerning perpetuity. We fight off sandflies with gusto, encountering fur seals taking a siesta and bottlenose dolphins squealing joyously. On our way out, we even come upon a pair of the impish Kea, the only alpine parrots in the world.
On the way to Mount Cook village, our last leg of the journey, the shadows of the clouds on the turquoise waters of Lakes Pukaki and Tekapo is a sight my senses will never let me forget. Later that rainy night, as I stare at the great Aoraki summit, I feel the natural and the mystical spirit of New Zealand come together. This Kiwi journey, which is certainly not our last one in this country, has indeed been a privilege.