New Zealand...two mystical islands tucked away in a corner of the great Pacific, the home of magical creatures come to life from Tolkien’s wild imagination and the mountains and dunes where the ancient Maori people roamed. The Land of the Long White Cloud.
Here I bring to you a guide to taking on the great heights of this enchanting country from someone who dove in headfirst without looking and made it out alright (better than alright actually, this place will change you). If you are seeking a spiritual journey through nature, if you want to conquer a mountain or jump off a bridge attached to a cord or climb a glacier as it slides across the land..grab a friend or five and catch a plane, because there is no place in the world that will change you the way that New Zealand can. I will include the entire itinerary, but unfortunately to hit everything on the lists you will need more than 10 days!
Great Walks: the famous hiking treks of New Zealand
• Lake Waikaremoana Great Walk
• Tongariro Northern Circuit - the second day of the circuit follows the Tongariro AlpineCrossing over volcanic terrain.
• Whanganui Journey — this is actually not a walk but a kayak voyage on NewZealand's longest navigable river. It is however managed under the Great Walks system.
• Abel Tasman Coast Track - the most popular track.
• Heaphy Track - at 82 kilometers the longest of the walking tracks, delivering the
biggest contrast from palm-fringed beaches to sub-alpine tussock grasslands.
• Routeburn Track - at 32 kilometers the shortest of the walking tracks.
• Milford Track - the most famous of the Great Walks.
• Kepler Track
Stewart Island / Rakiura
• Rakiura Track
In the beginning...there was complaining.
For us it all started with a van. My friend Kat and I were griping about class and grades and the hardships of being an international students (woe is me right?), when one of us says...”Why don’t we just sleep in a van and travel around New Zealand for some time, get out of town?” We both took a pause, checked our bank accounts, and bought plane tickets that night before we could think too much about it.
It was a whirlwind of a semester. Between international traveling, road trips, hurricanes, floods, and finals, I barely had a chance to catch my breath for eight weeks straight...but this didn't stop me from climbing onto another plane just hours after I finished my last exam.
The Itinerary: North Island
Things to do:
• Auckland art gallery
• Modern art gallery
• Karangahake Gorge
• Hawks bay market
• Pancake Rocks and Blowholes Walk • Waimangu Volcanic Valley
• Coromandel Region (Hot Water Beach-dig a hole)
• Bay of Islands
• Rotorua (Mountain Biking Capital of NZ)
• Kawhia (NZs Best Kept Secret-less known hot water
• Tongariro National Park
• The crossing- 19.4k
• Three hours south of Auckland
• Ferry Ride from Auckland to Coromandel Town
• The drive from Thames to Coromandel (excellent drive) • Lion’s Den hostel
• Local smoked mussels
• Black Jack Road: prepare yourself for an epic, unpaved, windy road which will drop you off at a beach which may become your favorite in New Zealand: Otama Beach. It’s about 30 minutes off the state highway
• Cathedral Cove
Adventures of the North Island
I replaced my books with my boots and Kat, my adventure partner in crime, and I took off for New Zealand, the Land of the Long White Cloud. We landed in the Auckland and headed straight for the famous Great Walk of the North Island, The Tongariro Crossing. After getting lost on the way and driving two hours through a national park on dirt roads in the dead ofnight, we finally arrived at 3:00 in the morning at Tongariro National Holiday Park. We checked into our backpacker hostel and rose the next morning with the sun (three hours later) to take on the great volcanic trek. The crossing passes over the volcanic terrain of the multi-cratered active volcano Mount Tongariro, passing the base of Mount Ngauruhoe as it carries you to views of turquoise pools and the blue lake. It is 19.4 kilometers of fairytale land. As you travel through fields of moss green and orange and amber flowers you begin to ascend the mountain and find yourself transported into a moonscape. It is beautiful and eerie. Mount Ngauruhoe is famous for being the location of Mt. Doom in lord of the rings, the land of the evil army of Sauron. However, there was no evil here, only breathtaking views and whispers of ancient spirits of the mountains that carried us through the most difficult climbs and over the tops of the jagged landscape.
From Tongariro we headed back into the bustling city of Auckland for big night out on a pub crawl before taking off (with bleary eyes and pounding heads) for the esoteric South Island.
The Spectacular South Island
It was in Christchurch that we picked up our home for the next 10 days, a 15 year old van with a build-a-bed and a burner top in the backseat. As if driving on the opposite road isn’t strange enough, try doing it in a vehicle the size of a small bus with a steering wheel that’s two feet in diameter and a dashboard reminiscent of the Mystery Machine. We picked it up pretty quickly though, I felt more at home than I ever had behind the wheel in that van. We christened our vehicle with the name "Appa" after the flying bison that carries Ang the air bender around the world in the Avatar cartoon series.
Before I go any further, let me just say, The South Island is where it’s at. If you are looking for a great adventure you have come to the perfect place. While the Wifi and service is spotty and nearly non existent, the connection you will find on this island will have you forgetting that your phone ever existed....I would go so far as to say that in some corners of New Zealand, you can forget the modern world exists at all.
The Itinerary: South Island
Start: Christchurch Central (Airport)
• Through Canterbury Plains. Across the Rakaia River at the gorge bridge.
• Detour 10 minutes into Methven, a ski town in winter and a café haven during summer. Head to the top of Mt John for 360 degree panoramic views
End: Lake Tekapo 2 hr 54 min
Start: Lake Tekapo
• Take the short detour to the foot of Aoraki Mount Cook (NZ’s highest mountain & explore the Sir Edmund HIllary Alpine Centre
• Just down the road is the Tasman
• Head south & see Lake Benmore, Lake Aviemore and Lake Waitaki. • Road travels through Waitaki Valley following the Waitaki River.
• The Moeraki Boulders on the way down and just around the corner,
at Katiki Point, fur seals and yellow-eyed penguin colonies resting
on the rocks alongside the Moeraki Lighthouse.
End: Dunedin 3 hr 33 min
We landed in the quaint city of Christchurch, a town in recovery from an earth shattering earthquake that tore it apart just a couple of years ago. It was filled with artsy container towns and a palpable sense of hope. Appa then carried us west through the vast emerald Canterbury Plains. We slept that night at the glowing turquoise Lake Tekapo, nestled just underneath Mt. Cook, the tallest mountain in New Zealand.
From Lake Tekapo we headed down along the east coast past the mystical Moeraki Boulders and through the quaint historical college town of Dunedin where we sipped on South Island ale by a warm fire with a group of kind Kiwis (who thankfully let us have a shower at their home).
*Word of wisdom, any time you are lucky enough to meet the locals, listen to their advice! They know where to send you better than any travel blog or trip advisor ever will. Based on the directions of our Kiwi friends, we woke and drove to the peak ofthe east coast mountains and hiked down the dunes of Sandfly bay where the families of seals play. The southern winds coming from Antarctica nearly blew us (me, Kat, and Appa) all away, but the view was well worth the sand in our ears and the tangles in our hair.
From Dunedin Appa carried us up into the mountains past the adorable village of Wanaka and the through snowy summits into the little mountain city of Queenstown, the adventure capital of the world! We sipped on the best Pinot Noir in the Otago wine country and froze together watching the sunset over the peaks.
From there Kat, Appa, and I winded through past dozens of roaring waterfalls to the rugged west coast rain forest where we stopped to hike from Lake Moeraki to Monro beach searching for rare penguin colonies before ending our drive in Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers. We ventured out in the night to hunt for rare glowworms on the rainforest paths and were met with flickering stars of light shimmering all through the trees and brush.
The Itinerary: South Island
• WINERIES in Otago, Cromwell and Bannockburn
• Alexandra Basin
• Chocolate Factories in Dunedin
• Otago Peninsula
End: Queenstown 3 hr 43 min
• Gondola and luge ride
• Milford Sound
• Nevis Swing
• Karawau Bridge Bungee Jump
• Glenorchy and Arrowtown (free & Lord of the Rings location)
• Discount booking for jet boats, kayaks, etc. (date dependent)
• Underwater Observatory
• The Remarkables Park
Through rain, snow, and shine we dragged Appa through clay cliffs and the jagged Southern Alps. Finally taking him across the impossibly crafted Arthur's pass and back to Christchurch without a minute to spare before flying back to the Gold Coast.
The landscape all across New Zealand was truly something out of a fairy tale. Everywhere we went we just had to stop and marvel at the other-worldliness of our surroundings. The colors seemed to be saturated and the ground rolled like waves. The glowworms that twinkled in the forests at night and the snow that shined on the mountaintops during the day wrapped us up in a sense of childlike wonder.
The freezing sea crashed against cliffs like a great and powerful creature in itself, forming smooth and intricately colored builders and stones that looked as though they were handcrafted by ancient beings. Honestly, I don't think I would have been surprised to look up and see dragons flying above our heads.
The Itinerary: South Island
• The shortest route to Wanaka is over the Crown Range Road.
• Lake Hawea is the first scenic highlight of your journey, followed closely by
the northern end of Lake Wanaka.
• The famous ‘bra fence’
• At the wilderness town of Makarora you can fuel up and refresh before you
take on the dramatic twists and turns of the Haast Pass. Enjoy waterfalls and
river scenery as you arrive in rainforest country.
• Just north of Haast is Lake Moeraki, a peaceful forest lake with good fishing –
a 40 minute walk takes you to the penguin colony at Monro Beach.
• Next is Lake Paringa, where you can enjoy a delicious meal of salmon at the
• Just before Fox Glacier is the western end of the Copland track. In half a day
you can walk to the hot springs at Welcome Flat.
End: Fox Glacier 4hr 9 min
Start: Fox Glacier
• Through Franz Josef during the day- You can walk to the terminal of the glacier in about 10 minutes. Franz Josef township has hot pools filled with heated glacial water.
• See Lake Matheson
• Make way up West Coast, through the old gold mining settlement of Hokitika.
• Then classic west coast river and forest scenery leads you east. Rushing water,
impressive bridges and tiny towns gradually give way to the misty mountains
of the Southern Alps.
End: Arthur’s Pass 3hr
Start: Arthur’s Pass
• The route known as Arthur’s Pass was first used by Maori tribes crossing to the west coast to find pounamu (jade). Today it’s a sophisticated mountain pass, memorable for its scenery as well as its breathtaking civil engineering.
• Road follows the Waimakariri and Bealey Rivers down to the skiing areas of Porter Heights and Craigieburn. Lakes Pearson and Grasmere are photo opportunities along the way. Rural serenity and friendly towns lead you across the Canterbury Plains to Christchurch.
End: Christchurch Central (Airport) 2hr
At night we snuggled up in beanies and fuzzy comforters and climbed on top of Appa to gaze at a sky blanketed with stars. More stars than we had ever seen before, filling up every corner of our vision with dazzling lights of purple and green. As we camped we met fellow travelers from all around the world who joined us in drinking wine and pointing out all the constellations we could see, wishing on the stars that shot across the darkness.
It was cold while we slept and we didn't bring enough layers and our batteries died in our flashlights but we didn't mind, we had never experienced such freedom before in our lives. We have had more than a taste of it now though...and I get this feeling we will be headed back to the Land of the Long White Cloud.