Sometimes traveling is not so much about seeing new places, but the feelings you get when you are there. The humble feeling of driving through the valleys of ginormous mountain ranges or the joy in laughing with new friends. When I travel, I chase those feelings and never want to forget them.
While traveling New Zealand’s South Island, I was overwhelmed with these memorable feelings. Some of my best memories are just driving with the windows down through the country’s remarkable landscapes.
One of the most memorable drives was to Milford Sound. Milford Sound is the most visited and photographed place in New Zealand. It is a fiord created by a giant glacier, which essentially means it is a large waterway surrounded by breathtaking mountains and waterfalls. There is only one road to get to Milford Sound. The Milford Sound Highway passes through almost every landscape New Zealand has to offer, including farm fields, forests, lakes, mountains, and waterfalls. The last twenty minutes or so of the hour drive is magnificent. Luckily, I caught a ride with Maggie and Oli, so I was spoiled enough to spend the entire ride gazing out my window in awe. There were times that we were completely surrounded by tall mountains with dozens of waterfalls streaming down them.
And just as exciting —but also terrifying —we encountered New Zealand’s keas. Keas are highly intelligent wild parrots that — due to humans feeding them — can be found in touristy areas. One of these areas is at a stop before a one-way tunnel on Milford Sound Hwy. The keas literally come straight for the cars, squawking at the windows begging for food. Maggie and Oli were almost attacked by one the day before while they ate their lunch with the windows open, waiting for the tunnel’s lane to change directions.
The night before we met Caroline, a woman from Utah, at the hostel who tagged along with us to Milford Sound. While Maggie and Oli went on a kayak tour, Caroline and I went on a scenic cruise with Southern Discoveries. Our first stop before our cruise was to take the short boat ride to Bowen falls, the tallest waterfall in the fiord. When I say short boat ride, I mean short. We got on the boat and literally within three minutes were at the dock to see the waterfall. Online it said to budget thirty minutes at the waterfall, but the trail was so short it took five minutes to reach it. The waterfall was beautiful and powerful, but the highlight of the trip was our boat driver, Dennis. Dennis is an old kiwi who is responsible for carting people back and forth to Bowen Falls and he is hysterical. He would not stop cracking jokes and being really sarcastic. We also had the pleasure of being joined by some Milford Sound conservationists, one of which is an expert on New Zealand’s lizards. He even discovered a new species of skink and got to name it, the Mahogany Skink. Another one shared with me that the birds that sing a beautiful song are Bell Birds.
When we were about to return to the ferry dock, Dennis asked his boss on board if he could take us for a little cruise. And so, we got a mini cruise into the fiord from Dennis, as he pointed out the different mountains in the area. He also showed us a giant greenstone he claimed to have found, that has the exact same shape as the tallest mountain in the region. Greenstone is believed to be a powerful stone by the Maori, representing strength, good luck, and safe travel across water.
After our “private cruise”, we boarded the large scenic cruise around the fiord. The weather was perfect. We could see all the mountains surrounding us and the water was a beautiful teal color. In the beginning, the water was so still that we could see a perfect reflection of the mountains. At one point during the cruise, they brought the boat close up to a large waterfall and suggested guests head to the front of the boat for what they like to call a "glacier facial". As we approached the waterfall, its power sent the water spraying towards us. It was quite a refreshing experience.
We then met up with Maggie and Oli to check out some trails along the Milford Sound Hwy. The first stop was a short trail to The Chasm. The walk took us through mystical moss covered trees and looped around to a calm river that turns into a series of powerful waterfalls. The drops are dramatic and the rock surfaces show the wear and tear, creating perfectly smooth edges and slides.
Our last stop was to hike Gertrude Saddle. Gertrude Saddle was one of my favorite hikes I did in all of New Zealand — and we didn't even finish it! The trail takes you in a large valley, surrounded by snow covered mountains. It goes up a waterfall and eventually up the saddle to see even more breathtaking views. However, we did not make it up the entire waterfall due to avalanches. As we walked through the valley, we heard avalanches all around us. Small ones of course, but some were considerably large. One of the large ones was directly on the trail's path, so we obviously decided to end before reaching that danger zone. Regardless, it was a stunning hike and one I'll always remember fondly.
After Milford Sound, I headed to Queenstown, one of the most popular cities in New Zealand. Queenstown is like Wanaka’s outgoing older sibling — larger and more social. It’s also one of the adventure capitals of the world. The town is situated within the Remarkables mountains and along Lake Wakatipu. It’s filled with restaurants, bars, hotels, apartments, and dozens of tourists attractions. Are you interested in bungee jumping off the first bridge to have bungee jumping in the world? No problem. Want to speed down narrow river rapids in a jet boat? Sure! Queenstown has no shortage of adventure activities.
I spent four days in Queenstown either exploring the city, going out with new friends, or completely depleting my supplies of adrenaline. My first night, I checked in quite late as my hostel dorm mates were getting ready to go out. They were a bunch of Australians meeting up for a bachelor party for the weekend and invited me to have a drink with them. We spent the night singing and dancing to a live band covering 80s rock music.
The next day, I explored the city and hiked up Queenstown Hill with Maggie and Oli. They had just bungee jumped that morning and were raving about the experience. Maggie and I had also just signed up to jump out of planes the next morning, so we were hyped up about that as well.
Skydiving was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. There was a moment of panic when my tandem skydive partner scooted me to the edge of the plane’s opening, but as soon as we fell from the plane I was in complete bliss. The high is addicting and if it wasn’t so expensive, I would have done it again in a heartbeat. If you’d like to know more about my experience, read my blog about it here.
Later that day, Maggie, Oli and I went canyoning. Canyoning is the sport of jumping into fast mountain streams and using the natural landscape essentially as a playground. I heard about canyoning back when I was in Interlaken, Switzerland — another adventure capital of the world — but did not realize how terrified I was going to be until I experienced it myself. We ziplined across the canyon, slid down natural slides, jumped off rocks, and scaled the walls of the canyon. I’m not going to sugar coat it, it was dangerous! I was more scared of canyoning than I was skydiving, but the experience was really fun and the adrenaline was definitely pumping. I know what you’re thinking, what the heck are you doing canyoning after skydiving that morning. Yes, I was exhausted, but canyoning was still a blast and the ice-cold water woke me up. And yes, I did absolutely nothing the rest of the evening except lay in bed.
Queenstown was the end of Maggie and Oli's trip, so we parted ways and I headed up the West coast to the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers. The drive was unsurprisingly beautiful, with mountains, snow, and even temperate rainforests. I made a pitstop at the Blue Pools Walk, which is a short walk to this bright blue river of glacier water. I also tried to stop and see the Fox Glacier, but the weather was getting quite overcast and rainy and I could not see the glacier in the distance. The trees along the walk were stunning though, with all sorts of moss formations on them. Eventually, I made my way to my hostel and just hoped that the weather would clear up for my helicopter-hike tour on Franz Josef, a huge glacier in New Zealand.
To kill time the next morning before my flight, I stopped by the Wildlife Centre to finally see kiwis, New Zealand's famous native birds. Kiwi are difficult to see in the wild because they are tiny, flightless, and nocturnal. The two I saw were so adorable, running around sniffing everything in their dark habit. I also got to have a close encounter with Tutatara, New Zealand's largest reptile that only exist on its island and are nearly extinct. They are pretty cool little lizard-like creatures.
Unfortunately, the weather only worsened and my heli-hike was canceled. So I opted to walk the Franz Josef trail in hopes of getting a glimpse of it from a faraway distance. I was able to see it briefly and the hike itself was quite lovely. There were rock formations and deposits from the glacier that were all striped with red, gray, and white colors and covered in moss. There were also clear waterfalls in deep, sharp crevasses in the mountainsides. The river flowing from the glacier was a milky gray, from all the tiny rock debris it picks up along the way.
For the last few days of my trip on the South Island, the weather was cold, cloudy and rainy. Which is a real shame because this trip has confirmed that my entire demeanor changes depending on the weather. I chase the sun. My favorite way to spend the day is getting up with the sun and resting when it sets. When it is overcast during the day, I feel unmotivated and lethargic. The cloudy weather botched my hiking plans for my final days, so I took it as a sign that I need to rest and recharge.
Except I found myself about to spend two nights in the middle of a ghost town in the mountains — more commonly known as Arthur’s Pass, but there was NO ONE THERE and it was one of the creepiest experiences of my life. I'm not even joking, when I first got to my hostel, I was literally the only person there. The receptionist was gone for the day and I hadn’t even paid for the room yet. I was about to leave altogether when a young British couple made an appearance through the back entrance. I decided to stay and woke up the next morning prepared to hike a beautiful mountain peak, only to find clouds surrounding me. So I made a last minute decision to head to Akaroa for one more day of sun. Luckily, the drive led me to the sun and I was able to enjoy the very scenic Arthur's Pass, through fields and mountains.
If you’ve been following along on my trip, you would know that I started my trip on the South Island in Akaroa. It’s a small, French and British town on the east coast, an hour outside of Christchurch. Christchurch was my final destination because my flight leaves to Australia from there. I was beyond excited to learn that the weather would be beautiful there because it was one of my absolute favorite places. I cut my original plans short and drove an extra hour, chasing the sun per usual.
I spent my second to last day basking in the hot sun, taking a boat ride to see the Hector dolphins one more time, and hiking up its golden hills. I even brought my dinner to the pier, watching the sunset behind the mountains and the full moon rise as I ate.
I am definitely sad that my time in New Zealand has come to an end. New Zealand is a beautiful country with more opportunities to immerse myself in nature than I have ever experienced before. I only wish I had planned to have more time there, but I know I will be back!
Watch my video blog from New Zealand's South Island (Part 2):
When In Rome
Two of my most cherished hobbies go hand-in-hand. Writing is my favorite way to reflect after traveling to a new country. I have kept this blog ever since I studied in Rome to share my travels with families and friends. I hope you enjoy learning about my experiences and getting a sense for my writing skills. If you have any questions, please reach out!