The following is the longest post I have written on this blog as it encompasses our 5 weeks of travel on the South Island of New Zealand. Try to stick with it in order to get the gist of New Zealand’s awesomeness.
While driving around the South Island of New Zealand, I noticed the scenery is more akin to the outdoor playground of Tasmania. We rented a car and toured all of the hotspots on the South Island during our allocated 5 weeks and effectively covered the majority of the South Island at a relaxed pace. I can say that nothing beat the liberation of the day to day adventures circling the South Island and simply going with the wind. Next up, is 30 days on the North Island which will have a different landscape and a slightly warmer climate.
Many travelers who come to New Zealand opt for a small self contained motorhome where you can sleep in while roadtripping. This would have enabled us to save on Guesthouses/Airbnb’s but when you factor in the additional cost of a small motorhome and the exorbitant cost of gas to run these gas guzzlers, the savings were non existent. Fuel was 40% pricier than our previous stop in Australia at $5.50 USD per gallon. No bullshit! Somewhere in the centre of the South Island between Queenstown and Greymouth, we passed a gas station where the price boards for gas read, respectively, ARM and LEG. Speaking with some fellow travelers and checking out their motor homes, it looked like good fun but I am sure the novelty would have worn off over time.
We have been travelling around the world for about 18 months now and I can say New Zealand is so much less built up than any other country we have visited. Barbie and I usually prefer tropical climates, but New Zealand is so ridiculously beautiful that it’s hard not to fall in love with it. I’m not exaggerating that it is hands-down the most gorgeous country I have been to. No wonder New Zealand is the best place for filming medieval movies like Lord of the Rings. Being in and constantly being surrounded by nature reminded me how simple life can really be. I can also safely say that very few countries have a higher density of drop-dead gorgeous scenarios. I genuinely feel New Zealand is one of mother nature’s most favorite children.
However, a word of warning from BFD…..a road trip in New Zealand shouldn’t be the first one you go on because it will spoil you rotten. Having driven through pretty much the entirety of the South Island, it offers so much, that any other road trip you might take in the future will just leave you craving for more. I hate being overly positive with my opinions of places we visit and don’t want to come across as a bullshit artist, but writing about our journey thru the South Island has become tricky. Every single place that we visited, lived up to or even surpassed our expectations.
So what’s the downside to New Zealand? Well, the sand flies are annoying as shit. I call them ‘No See-ums’ as you truly cannot not see them and they are constantly on the prowl for some of Big Doug’s sweet blood. We got some Deet spray and that helped (Charlie) ward off some of these pesty little bastards. Also, restaurant food is a big zippo, mostly overpriced and generally sucked. However, we didn’t feel we are missing anything as the freshest beef and lamb can be purchased daily in the supermarket at good prices. As a result of the restaurant food being shit, Flashpacking Barbie who happens to be an ace chef, filled BFD’s belly and cooked mostly lamb and some beef almost every night. We talked with a bunch of locals on our Kepler hike and they told us they purchase an entire lamb from a farm for only $125 and and have it cut up at their local butcher. I thought to myself, “Wow, $125 for a lamb? Not a bad deal considering a hooker could cost 5X that amount.” So basically, you can get the ass of a lamb, the entire racks of the lamb and some trimmings cheaper than getting just some ass off a hooker.
I have talked with other travelers I met along the way and the consensus was that only one place could compete with New Zealand in pure natural beauty and that would be Iceland. I have never been to Iceland but do intend to visit in the future to confirm if this is true. I loved the fact that New Zealanders (aka Kiwi’s) are very appreciative and protective of what they’re blessed with. The entire country is spotlessly clean with no litter anywhere. I loved all the natural beauty during our eight months we spent last year in Southeast Asia. However, in my mind, the Southeast Asian region would shine so much brighter if the people there had a similar mindset as the Kiwis.
I last visited Christchurch in 1996 and it is now unrecognizable. Not because of the growth over the years, but because the massive earthquake that hit this city six (6) years ago basically leveled the entire city centre. More than half of the old colonial architecture buildings in the central business district have since been demolished. New Zealand sits on a major fault line and earthquakes of varying degree are basically a weekly, if not daily occurrence. During our three nights there, Barbie and I both felt our asses shake as a result of an extremely minor tremor. Tourists usually have a negative image of Christchurch due to this earthquake damage and bypass the city. I really admired the effort they are putting in trying to rebuild their city, despite the fact they are probably constantly fearing a new disaster. Just like a death, the people and government have accepted the earthquake disaster and have elected to move on. There’s tons of rebuilding projects going on in the city centre and even though the old colonial architecture has mostly been wiped out, the new modern construction looks great. Just 3 months ago there was another big earthquake in Kaikoura which caused significant damage and has forced us to reroute our South Island roadtrip itinerary as most roads into and around Kaikoura were sealed off.
MOUNT COOK NATIONAL PARK –
The wildest, most pristine, eye opening place was Mount Cook National Park, which is part of the MacKenzie Country. The park offers tons of tramps. Tramps is a terminology used by New Zealanders for hikes. We tramped around these mountain beasts on the Hooker Valley Track but unfortunately, I am sorry to report there was not a sign of Hooker, Tinker or Jack. The Hooker Valley Track has got to be one of the most incredible walks on planet earth. The track meanders over rivers, along glaciers, mountainsides & concludes at Hooker Glacier Lake, where the big visual surprise awaits (check out pix below). Just spectacularly beautiful and one of the things every human MUST do before they die. All I can say is, “Holy Shit!, Goddamn”, to quote the ole Kingpin once again.
LAKE TEKAPO / LAKE PUKAKI –
On the drive from Christchurch, we passed green fields full of grazing deer, lamb, sheep, cows and a salmon farm which happened to have the best salmon sashimi on planet earth…… (Jean-Luc) Salmon is real big over here in New Zealand. Smoked salmon is real cheap and I have been gorging on that as well. I had grown accustomed to only eating smoked salmon at boring post Bar-Mitzvah spreads and usually when sitting Shiva, so it was a slightly more pleasurable eating environment here in NZ. Lake Tekapo/Lake Pukaki was our second destination during our road trip around New Zealand’s South Island, and it also blew me away.
There can’t be that many places in the world that have streams and lakes so clean and clear looking that you can drink directly from them. Well, Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki are two lakes that look like paradise on earth and the snowcapped mountain backdrop made it look like heaven on earth. What sets these lakes apart from the many lakes I have seen is its surreal turquoise blue water. (check out the pix below).
The lakes in this area are fed from the glaciers that we visited (and walked on) and that’s where they get their amazing blue color. Let me learn you something…….this turquoise water comes from “rock flour” where the glaciers grind the rock into fine dust in the water which makes the water look almost a fake color of blue. The color is amplified on a clear, sunny day. The weather is volatile in this neck of the woods, so if you visit, pray for sunny skies to have the most optimal visual experience. Sure, you can look up at the night sky anywhere but the starry skies here at the lakes were so cool. Lake Tekapo is recognized as the second best place to stargaze in the world. (at least, that’s what some backpacking hippy told me). This area is part of a UNESCO protected dark sky reserve as it’s a haven, free from any light pollution. Lake Tepako and Lake Pukaki are special places as evidenced by the swarms of Chinese tourists snapping away on their iPhones trying to get their best selfies with the lake in the background. Dong, where is grampa’s car? In a lake. A big lake! Yes, the Chinese packs are here at the lakes in force but strangely did not spot these swarms elsewhere on the South Island.
DUNEDIN / CATLINS REGION –
Dunedin is a cool university town, home of University of Otago with a vibrant student life.
We spent our few days here checking out the town and taking care of some errands and administrative shit. After our Dunedin stay, we headed south to spend four (4) days in the remote Catlins, an undisturbed piece of paradise. An area that is rarely visited by travelers on the bottom of the South Island. It is one of New Zealand’s best kept secrets as there are very few people here. Mostly sheep, penguins, sea lions, dolphins, cows and us lamb eating Flashpackers. The super green scenery is stunning and the landscape is untouched. Rocky cliffs, harsh rugged surf on isolated wild beaches line the coast and throw in some rainforest waterfalls just off the road as an added bonus. Wildlife is everywhere. (check out the video of the sea lions coming ashore to cool out in the sun at Cannibal Bay). Nugget Point was one of my favorite places on the South Island – just feels like you’re going to fall off the edge of the earth. If you are lucky enough to catch the Nugget Point Lighthouse overlook on a sunny day, you will then have experienced one of the most scenic spots on planet earth……No Bullshit.
And then we made our way to Porpoise Bay (awesome jogging beach) and Curio Bay where the yellow-eyed penguins put on their little show. Just one nature treat after the next with each treat surpassing the previous.
There were several points during the Catlin road trip where I thought I could REALLY drop out of society, buy a little shack here with some sheep in the backyard and survive quite happily. If you are looking to kick back in a magnificently beautiful place, among pure nature, in peace and quiet, then get your ass to the Catlins. But, make sure to arrive in New Zealand’s summer months.
A place is touristy, not for nothing. Queenstown is an adrenaline junkies haven where all the young gun backpackers arrive with their hormones supercharged, ready to hook up, party at night and indulge in the abundance of adventure sports and adrenaline pumping activities on tap during the day. It’s a small, compact, pedestrian-friendly town with a classic ski village vibe. Queenstown is the “thrill” capital of the world with adventurous activities including bungee jumping, canyon swinging, skydiving, jet boating, skiing, extreme mountain biking, white water rafting and other assorted shit an adventure junkie could only dream of. I passed on these ‘thrill’ activities not because I am a wimp, but in my midlife years, I prefer to get my thrills elsewhere instead of potentially pulling a muscle in my lower back bungy jumping off the edge of a bridge. Instead, Barbie and I chose our own thrill and hiked up the bone crushing, muscle burning, ass kicking, Tiki Trail all the way up to Bob’s Peak. You have the option to wimp out and take the gondola up with the Chinese contingent but us Flashpackers manned up (with a bit of Barbie bitching) and trekked up the incredibly steep trail to the top. We were rewarded with sore and shaking muscles along with 360 degree views of Lake Wakatipu and the snow capped Remarkable Mountain Range. (check out pix below of this thing of beauty).
Of course, I must mention we also did a triple header at Ferburger, an institution here in Queenstown where we whoofed down possibly the best burger in the history of mankind. The lineup is long to secure one of these bad boy burgers, but so worth it. This coming from a guy who despises waiting in line for food, says a lot.
FIORDLAND – (MILFORD / DOUBTFUL SOUND / TE ANAU)
Te Anau is the gateway to the magical Fiordland, home to the infamous Milford and Doubtful Sounds. Milford Sound is one of the rainiest places on the planet. It gets two and a half times the annual rainfall of the Amazon (often considered as one of the wettest places in the world), and if there’s been no rain in a week, a drought is declared. Miraculously, it was all clear skies and sunshine the days we visited. What unprecedented luck. Doubtful Sound is the 2nd most famous fiord in New Zealand, behind Milford Sound. Both Milford and Doubtful Sound is raw nature at its finest. One of the big kahuna hikes is the Routeburn Track, a 32km track in Mount Aspiring National Park and completed in 3 days staying overnight in designated backpacker huts along the way. 3 days? No can do for us Flashpackers. Instead, we did the Cliff Notes version by doing a smaller 3 hr section of the Routeburn Track and hiked the Key Summit Trail. Once again, the best way to describe the views on this hike is, “Holy Shit! Goddamn”. (just check out the surreal pix below). We also hiked a portion of The Kepler Trail which ran along Lake Te Anu. The Kepler track was so green, a green that I’ve never seen since my college days.
The landscape is one of the world’s remote wildernesses and the terrain, colors and views were simply, WOW. There’s something really calming, even spiritual about Fiordland. You can’t help but feel as though it was created by a force much greater than Trump himself.
Wanaka is another one of the most scenic spots in New Zealand. The drive from Queenstown along Crown Ridge Rd. was fun to drive with amazing views over the Otago countryside. I am really starting to get tired of writing about how beautiful every place is that we stop off at during our South Island road trip. I feel like I need a thesaurus as there are just not enough adjectives in my vocabulary to describe how serene, yet stimulating, this country is Key Summit, Routeburn. I am trying to dig deep for some average looking places but apparently average is non existent in New Zealand. There are tons of outdoor activities in Wanaka. Skiing is big here during the winter months. The big ‘must do’ hike is to Rob Roy Glacier. There are tons of biking trails with our fav being the dirt track around Lake Wanaka. Another, “Holy Shit, Goddamn”, scenic ride that just put a huge smile on our faces. You can stop off anywhere on the ride for a refreshing dip in one of the cleanest lakes in the world. I must mention that Oprah was in the house here in Wanaka, along with Reese Witherspoon filming a Disney movie called, A Wrinkle in Time. Barbie tried to locate and stalk her idol, Oprah…But, to no avail.
HAAST / FRANZ JOSEF –
We overnighted in Haast to break up the drive and do some tramping in the area. The road to Haast from Wanaka has so many cool WOW waterfalls (Fantail Falls, Thunder Creek Falls and Roaring Billy Falls) and lookouts to check out. My fav is the walk and swim in the refreshing Blue Pools. It was than onto Franz Josef. The big activity here is taking a mother fuckin’ helicopter, to the top of the mother fuckin’ glacier followed by a 3 hr. hike on the towering ice peaked glacier thru ice caves. Being able to see, touch, and experience a glacier is pretty special. There are very few places in the world where you can hike and climb on a glacier without having ice experience, let alone start by flying up on to the ice in a helicopter. We were equipped with spiked boots and ice picks to help navigate around the massive ice glacier. It was quite pricey but, nonetheless we pulled the trigger and opted to splurge. I’m a dangerous man with some money in my pocket! Keep Up! It was a lifetime experience that simply cannot be missed.
An overnight pit stop to break the drive to Nelson and Abel Tasman National Park. The only eventful thing in Greymouth was Flashpacking Barbie suffering her 2nd bout of vomit city and extreme nausea. Strangely, both incidents arising after downing our takeout Fish N Chips. However, I ate the same combo with no issues. I am guessing the probiotics in my daily breakfast regimen of yoghurt/muesli/local honey effectively lined BFD’s stomach. Barbie insists she will be laying off the Fish N Chips but I am betting Flashpacking Barbie will fold her cards as the Fish N Chip temptation is just too great to resist.
NELSON / ABEL TASMAN NATIONAL PARK –
We made our way towards the northern part of the South Island to the cool little town of Nelson. We cooled out here for a few days and then it was off to the stunning nearby Abel Tasman National Park area. We stayed in Moteuka because the sweet beach cove of Kaikerikeri was booked solid.
Abel Tasman National Park simply rocks. It was like setting foot on a tropical island in another country. It is one of New Zealand’s most beautiful and most famous national parks on the top of the South Island. If you are a hiker, the Abel Tasman Track is one of the worlds best tramps. It’s about 32 miles and takes 3-4 days to complete depending on your motivation and level of fitness. However, for the lazy folk, you do have the option to utilize water taxi’s and hike small sections to get a taste. Because of the coastal setting, it’s really different from most of the other mountainous treks in NZ. We opted for the lazy route and set up shop, cooling out on the must visit Anchorage Beach, …. one of the nicest beach coves in the middle of the National Park along with Torrent Bay and Totaranui Bay.
GOLDEN BAY – TATA BEACH, TAKAKA, WHARARIKI BEACH
Following our stint in the Abel Tasman area, we headed even further north to the tip of the South Island to an ‘under the radar’ area known as Golden Bay. The drive up the winding mountainous road was simply stunning with tons of drop dead gorgeous viewpoints and stops (Hawkes Lookout, Te Waikoropupu Springs, Grove Scenic Reserve, Abel Tasman Memorial, Wainui Falls). We made our way to Tekaka for lunch and discovered another small town on our RTW where all the Deadheads migrated to following the death of Jerry Garcia (the others being Nimbin, Australia and Pai, Thailand). We rented a cool Airbnb in Tata Beach. Shhhhh, do not tell anyone about this secluded beach oasis. It’s a little secret place I discovered well off the tourist grid. Being the nice guy that I am, I felt the need to share with any prospective world travelers reading this blog.
And for a the last stop and grand finale of our South Island stay, we were awarded with one of the most spectacular sights on the South Island. A 15 min. hike thru sand dunes will land you on Wharakiki Beach, on Golden Bay. Another Holy Shit! beach. You must go 2 hrs before or after low tide in order to catch the fur seals playing around in the blue pools by the big grassy green rock. An unbelievable sight. When you see it, you will understand.
THRU THE BINOCS –
The best way to experience the magic of the South Island is to rent a campervan (if you want to relive your younger hippy days) or a car for at least four (4) weeks. Simply wander around, stopping and staying when you find a place that you resonate with, and then moving along when you’ve had your fill of a city. (Warning: this island is extremely enchanting, thus you may never move on and you may want to stay forever). Remember, romantic retreats in New Zealand aren’t about the fluff of a five-star resort and eating at overpriced celebrity chef restaurants. The romance is found in the raw beauty of the island. Spend your days hiking in nature, laying on the beaches, checking out the abundant wildlife, swimming in glacier fed lakes, and “sleeping” under the stars with your ladyfriend. Being in and surrounded by New Zealand nature reminded me of how simple life can be. Magical. The time is gone and the song is over here on the South Island. It’s onto the North Island where I’ll have something more to say.