I have returned! It doesn’t feel like I’ve been gone for eight days… it seems like I just left yesterday and this whole week happened on Narnia time. Unquestionably one of the best weeks of my entire life. We made a big loop around the middle/bottom of the South Island. This was our basic route (starting at Chch in the top right, going counterclockwise):
View South Island roadtrip in a larger map
Be warned: this is going to be a ridiculously long entry. You may want to go change into comfortable clothing before you begin. Just remember to stay hydrated and pace yourself. Away we go!
Day One – Friday 1 April – Christchurch to Glenorchy
Katharina, Erika, and I got up really early and caught the metro to the airport, which was no picnic while each carrying a week’s worth of stuff. Our rental car was a Nissan Sunny with squeaky brakes and constantly blinking dashboard lights, but we came to love it as one of our own. I was the first driver – the first ten minutes of driving on the left side of the road were really nerve-wracking, but after that I really got used to it and it was pretty fun! It helped that there were very few turns and not much traffic at all; I’m sure driving in a city center would have been a totally different story. Anyway, the drive from Christchurch to Queenstown took a little over seven hours (our longest driving day), but we had a huge bag of trail mix and an incredible roadtrip playlist, so we were all set. We made a couple of quick stops along the way, including one at Lake Wanaka to see the Wanaka Warbirds airshow that happened to be going on. It was really easy to navigate because there aren’t that many roads in New Zealand so there aren’t a million different ways to get somewhere. A lot of the time, we were driving up and down mountains and around some crazy switchbacks, and the views were unbelievable!
When we got to Queenstown, it was only about another hour to Glenorchy, our first destination. Erika has a distant connection (mom’s cousin’s coworker’s sister… that sort of thing) with a woman who owns a ranch in Glenorchy called High Country Horses, and who offered to let us stay with her! We arrived there around dinner time and met the owners, Deana and Dwayne, and their friend Naomi. Dwayne cooked up a delicious barbeque for dinner and we had fun sitting on the back deck and playing with all their animals – pigs, dogs, sheep, you name it. We were pretty tired from a long day of driving, so we spent the evening just relaxing and went to bed early. The ranch was so far out in the country that it was pitch black when the sun went down – you literally couldn’t see a light in any direction. It was so cool!
Day Two – Saturday 3 April – Glenorchy to Queenstown
The next morning, the three of us met Naomi out at the horse stables at 8am to go horse trekking! We groomed all the horses before Naomi and our other guide, Casey, got them saddled and bridled for the ride. There was another couple coming on the trek as well, but they had to pay for the experience, poor suckers. I was riding Little Red, Erika was on Finn, and Katharina rode Noddy. Little Red was so funny – he always wanted to be right up front, the first horse behind the guide. He’d budge the other horses out of the way if they tried to pass us! The weather was sort of overcast and blustery, but it was actually a really cool atmosphere to see the valley in. We rode in and around the Rees riverbed and had an amazing view of Paradise Valley, where Isengard was filmed in Lord of the Rings! At one point the mist let up a bit and the sun started to come out, so we got this spectacular view:
We rode through fields, forests, streams, up and down hills, and even forded a few rushing rivers! It was like the Oregon Trail computer game, but I had much better luck this time as my covered wagon did not flip over and none of my oxen drowned. We also learned to trot and canter (well, our horses did)! Definitely one of the most memorable points of the trek happened when we’d stopped at the top of a hill to take in the panorama and wait for everyone to catch up. I was just relaxing in the saddle and not really holding on to anything, and all of a sudden a shotgun went off somewhere near by. Most of the horses started a little, but Little Red bucked up and just took off like a shot! I managed to kind of grab the reins with one hand, but there was just no saving my balance or the situation, so all I could do was attempt to fall off while sustaining as few broken bones as possible (final count: zero!). It was probably extremely amusing to see, and Casey said I was very graceful as far as falling off a horse goes.
The horse trek was between three and four hours long, and when we got back to HCH, we had a great lunch that Deana had prepared before saying goodbye and piling back in the Sunny. We took a quick drive down the road to the town of Kinloch, and also stopped in the forest that was Lothlorien in LotR! It was so green and surreal; it really seemed like a bunch of elves might walk out from behind the trees and give us some magical cloaks.
When we got back to Queenstown, we checked in to our hostel (Aspen Lodge Backpackers) and set out in the pouring rain to find some dinner. We ate at a really fun place called Pub On Wharf, and tried to last until the live music started at 8:00, but we were just too tired! We went to bed before 9pm and got to “sleep in” until 8:30 the next morning – what a luxury! We were in a 10-bed dorm room and all the beds were occupied – I woke up at one point during the night and there was a legitimate snoring symphony going on. Luckily I was so tired that it didn’t matter.
Day Three – Sunday 4 April – Queenstown to Te Anau
Happy Easter! Erika, Katharina, and I had a nice leisurely breakfast before checking out of Aspen Lodge, and then spent a little while walking around the waterfront. Queenstown is right on Lake Wakatipu, and actually reminded me a lot of Burlington, VT. It also looks a lot like Lake George, except for the giant New Zealand mountains in the background!
We had a really nice big Easter lunch at Dux de Lux – the one and only part of our Easter that was even close to traditional! After a little more time walking around the town, Erika and I got picked up for hang gliding! Katharina came to watch, which was really fun. We drove up to the top of Coronet Peak and got all suited up in our gear – pants, jackets, harnesses, helmets, gloves, and totally sweet shades. I did one practice take-off with my pilot, Matt, and then we were good to go! Matt and I got hooked up to the glider, took two walking steps, and literally ran off the side of the mountain. It was the coolest feeling ever. After we were in the air, we rode the thermals up and down and around… just amazing. We were in the air for 10-15 minutes total, but it felt infinitely shorter and longer at the same time. I guess those sort of things always do! Towards the end we did a bunch of stunts and flips and things, which was cool because you could feel the height a lot more than during smooth gliding. The landing was crazy… we dove straight toward the ground and rolled in on the glider’s wheels, basically skidding in on our stomachs.
After landing, we said goodbye to our awesome pilots and headed back to town for the afternoon. We rewarded ourselves with a delicious dessert from a place called Chocolate Patagonia, and spent a few hours just walking around and doing some souvenir shopping before leaving for Te Anau. The drive was about two and a half hours and there was a beautiful sunset on the way! We checked in to YHA Te Anau and once again were out by 9pm.
N.B. If you’ve made it this far and can still see, now would be a good time for a water break. Meet you back here!
Day Four – Monday 5 April – Milford Sound
One (of many) theme of the roadtrip was getting up early. We left Te Anau at 7:30 on Monday morning to give ourselves plenty of time on the drive along Milford Road. It’s in the top ten craziest drives in the world, and there are a lot of beautiful places to stop at along the way. The drive is indeed crazy: narrow, steep, twisty, tunnel-y, windy (both pronunciations). We stopped at the Mirror Lakes, Cascade Creek, Lake Gunn, and a few random lookout spots. We arrived at Milford and hopped on board the Milford Mariner for our nature cruise. It was a misty-seeky day, which made the sound seem even more impressive and awesome. The top of Mitre Peak was covered in mist and there were so many waterfalls all around the walls – Bowen Falls, Fairy Falls, Stirling Falls, and a bunch more. We sailed the whole length of the sound and went out into the Tasman Sea before turning around. It was REALLY cold, but the Mariner had free coffee so I was all set! Milford Sound was just such an amazing place – I feel like my photos don’t do it justice, but the helicopter in this photo gives you some idea of the scale:
The cliffs are just colossal and they shoot right down vertically to the water. It was like Avatar-world, whatever that’s called. I’m also not quite sure how many times we reenacted “I’m On a Boat” that day, but it was definitely upwards of fifty.
On the drive back from Milford Sound, we’d planned to hike the Key Summit Track (a 3-4 hour tramp), but we were much later returning than we’d expected, so we were a little short on time. Instead, we stopped back at Cascade Creek and did an hour-long nature walk through the rainforest; again, just unreal. We made a few more cool stops, including a place called The Chasm and a really fun bouncy bridge! Erika began her habit of falling into streams, which she continued when we stopped to frolic in a field that turned out to be infested with sandflies (UGH). We got back to YHA, made dinner, and had a few relaxing hours before it got dark and we could go to bed! Some people were watching Flight of the Conchords in the TV lounge… it was funny because FotC reminds me of home and watching it with my family, but it’s really a NZ thing!
Day Five – Tuesday 6 April – Te Anau to Invercargill
We left Te Anau the next morning and continued south. The drive to Invercargill just exemplified one of the things I love most about traveling in NZ. There are so many amazing things to see on the way to anywhere you want to go, and everything is really clearly marked so you can just pull off the road and go see. We stopped at the historic Clifden suspension bridge, a really cool limestone cave, Gemstone Beach, and Monkey Island. We arrived in Invercargill and met up with our friend Caroline from uni. Caroline is from Sweden and going to UC with us now, but she was also an exchange student for a year during high school and lived with a family in Invercargill. She went back to stay with them during break and they invited us to spend the night when we passed through. It was fun to see Carro and also great to get to know another Kiwi family! The Grants (John, Mary, James, and Fergus) live on a really cute farm complete with a greenhouse where they grow their own (UNBELIEVABLY DELICIOUS) grapes, and a bunch of alpacas! We drove to Bluff (the southernmost point of the South Island) and went for a walk that unexpectedly turned into a pretty intense climb.
That evening, we had a really fun meal of homemade pizza with the Grants, and Carro showed us around the town. We walked through Queens Park and went to a really cool café called Zookeepers, which had tons of cycling decorations and played bossa nova covers of classic rock songs. We also walked by the Starbucks in town – the southernmost one in the entire world! Definitely one of my favorite landmarks. I love superlatives. That night, Mary gave us hot water bottles for our beds, which got Erika and I really excited and made Katharina laugh at us. My feet have never been so toasty!
Day Six – Wednesday 7 April – The Catlins
In the morning, we had breakfast with Mary, and she sent us off with a big bucket of grapes! We made a quick stop at Dick Smith (the NZ equivalent of RadioShack) and got a cassette adapter for our iPods, which immediately made driving in the Sunny eight million times better than it had already been – the dinky little computer speakers I’d brought were just not cutting it. Our final destination that evening was Dunedin, but we took the entire day to drive through the Catlins, a really wild mountainous region along the southeast coast of the South Island. First stop was McLean Falls, about a 20-minute hike from the carpark. The falls are way back in the rainforest – really impressive! We spent a while climbing around on the rocks, and then made a stop at the Whistling Frog café before heading on. We had hoped to see Cathedral Caves, but they’re only accessible for two hours before and after low tide, and were actually closed that entire day because of unusually high waters. A little disappointing, but it also meant we could spend more time at the other places. We went to Purakaunui Falls next, which are the most well-known falls in the Catlins, but they were actually kind of anticlimactic! Still really cool, but a lot smaller than the tricksy photographers make them look in pictures.
After the falls, we drove out of the mountains and started following the part of the Catlins that goes right along the coast. We stopped at Surat Bay and walked along the beach… oh, and a gigantic sea lion happened to be sunning itself in the water! It was the coolest thing because we weren’t in a nature reserve or on a tour or anything, yet we could see this awesome wildlife right up close. There were also three or four smaller sea lions and fur seals flipping around in the water and napping on the beach. They were so dozy and didn’t mind us getting right up close as long as we were calm. At another beach along the road, we found a little yellow-eyed penguin just hanging out by the sea!
After our exciting wildlife encounters, we went to Nugget Point, named for the funny-shaped rocks sticking out of the water there. There’s a cool little lighthouse way out on the point, and it was so beautiful and peaceful standing out on the bluff – really felt like the edge of the world (which it kind of is).
When we finally got to Dunedin, we checked into our hostel, Chalet Backpackers, which was way up at the top of High Street (a really steep road on the edge of the city center). It was really cool old three-story building that actually used to be a hospital. The three of us got our own room, with no bunk beds! We had some pasta leftovers for dinner and, as usual, crashed.
Day Seven – Thursday 8 April – Dunedin
I think that night was the best sleep I got on the entire roadtrip, which is saying something because I slept like a dead person almost every night. Poor Erika freaked herself out with the ghost stories and old hospital aspect of the hostel, so we teased her mercilessly and got on with it. That morning we went to Cadbury World and had a tour of the chocolate factory. It was just like Willy Wonka; we even had a tour guide named Dominic who wore purple overalls and is most likely related to an Oompa Loompa. There’s even a five-story chocolate waterfall, which unfortunately was not working that day because the fates decided that our roadtrip was just becoming too awesome to be allowed and had to throw a wrench in the works somehow. We had to wear super dorky/awesome hair nets (luckily we avoided the beard snoods that the men were given), and got tons of free samples!
We drove out on to the Otago Peninsula for the afternoon and visited Larnach Castle, the only castle in the southern hemisphere (again, I love superlatives)! It had really beautiful gardens, and was sort of like a small Versailles in a tropical setting on a hill… if that makes sense.
We also went to Sandfly Bay (fortunately named for flying sand and not sandflies), tried and failed to find the Cape Saunders lighthouse, and had a really nice lunch at a quaint little place in Portobello that was right on the water and played Billie Holiday. Katharina took a tour to see some more yellow-eyed penguins, and Erika and I waited in the car, had an almost-nap, and listened to some sweet tunes.
That night we went to Speight’s Brewery and Restaurant for dinner to celebrate the last night of our roadtrip. I had ham, so obviously it was an amazing meal. Each of the three of us tried a different Speight’s brew so we got to sample three different specialties. Back at Chalet Backpackers, we settled in for our last night in our awesome room, and Erika and I switched beds (because mine was next to a wall and therefore protected from ghosts) in an attempt to help her be slightly less terrified. Success! After a few rounds of the question game and some really excellent sleepy conversation, we went to bed! I think that was the night I had another dream about Roger Federer. It keeps happening lately. I don’t mind.
Day Eight – Friday 9 April – Dunedin to Christchurch
Alas, the last day! We checked out of Chalet and spent a few hours walking around downtown Dunedin. The city center is called the Octagon because the streets are in just that shape, and we visited a really neat cathedral and the old Dunedin railway station – the most photographed building in the southern hemisphere! I think Dunedin was my favorite city that we visited – everything’s cooler on a hill – and I wish we could have had even more time there than we did. Our final stop in town was Baldwin Street – the world’s steepest street! It doesn’t look as steep as it really is in the pictures, but you can kind of tell from the dropoff in the middle. It was a tough climb, even for two Geneseo kids!
Finally, we were homeward bound. We stopped off at Koekohe Beach to see the Moeraki Boulders – definitely one of the coolest and most bizarre things I’ve seen in nature! I still don’t fully understand why they’re like they are, but it’s something to do with limestone and salt water and physics and chemistry. I think.
After the boulders, we went to Oamaru, New Zealand’s only Victorian town, and discovered yet another amazing café where we had scones with cream and jam! We were there too early in the day to see the penguins that the town is known for, but we did get a good photo op by a “penguin crossing” road sign. Another few hours in the good ol’ Sunny, and we were finally back in Christchurch! As awesome as the week was, it was nice to be in my own bed again. It was a nice end to the trip, because there wasn’t the typical letdown of coming home from a great vacation. “Real life” in New Zealand is still not real life.
Well folks, thanks for sticking with me! I’m leaving in two days for my week-long trip around the North Island, so get ready for that entry when I’m back. For you hip and tech-savvy Facebook users, a lot more pictures from the South Island will be up as soon as my hands have recovered from this much typing. Au revoir!