Last Call: New Zealand

Published: October 19th 2015
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South Island Road Trip

With a 4 month vacation and an impending move to The Netherlands coming up we figured we couldn’t leave New Zealand without one last trip to the South Island. Before flying off to Australia we rented a campervan from Juicy in Queenstown for four nights. Our last New Zealand experience. We had to make the best of it.

It’s Nimarta’s birthday when we touch down in Queenstown. She’s a young 31. It’s a beautifully sunny day and we hurry over to Juicy to get our campervan. She still thinks we are spending her birthday eating noodles out of the back of our campervan. After a quick shopping stop at New World I tell her it’s time to head to the hotel. “What!?” she says. “Yes, babe. You think I was gonna let you spend your birthday in a campervan?” I have booked the Millennium downtown. We check into the hotel and I’m immediately happy with my decision. It’s a million times nicer than the Millennium in Rotorua. And the bed is as soft as a baby’s bottom.

We don’t have much time to waste though. We head off to Ferg Burger, her favorite burger place in all of New Zealand. After a delicious lunch we decide to hike to the top of Queenstown Hill. It’s a great day for a hike and the weather is perfect. We attack the trail and we are up at the summit in just over an hour. From here we can see everything. Downtown Queenstown, the Remarkables Range, the snowy mountains in the other direction. It’s a breath-taking scene that reminds us just how beautiful New Zealand is.

After spending a considerable amount of time relaxing – and working out – on the mountain we decide to jog down. We are back at the van in no time and head back to the room to shower and change. There is another surprise, too. I have booked dinner at Sasso, an Italian restaurant near the beach downtown. Nimarta hasn’t taken any heels with her on this trip, but luckily has packed a nice dress she changes into.

After a few selfies on the beach, Nimarta’s favourite past time, and a short argument about how taking selfies slowly destroys your soul, we head to the restaurant. It’s 8:00 but our table is not quite ready so the host tells us to sit at the bar and drinks are on him. What a deal! We take a seat at the bar but before we can even decide what to order the table is ready. He shows us to the table and says he’ll still cover our first drink. I feel like the place must be owned by an American guy, as many places in Queenstown are.

Dinner is fantastic and I get them to put a candle in the desert for the birthday girl. It’s rather early for a Saturday night in Queenstown, and we see the youngsters all dressed up to go to the bars. But we are not so young anymore. So it’s back to the hotel for us, a successful 31st birthday all wrapped up.

Sunday morning, we’re out of the hotel by 10:00. Now campervan living is about to start. No more fancy hotels are booked on this trip. We don’t even know where we will be parking the van for the next three nights. Our plan today is to drive up past Glenorchy to the beginning of the Routeburn Track, one of the “10 Great Walks” in New Zealand. We won’t be doing the whole thing, but the first 10 km is considered one of the best day walks in New Zealand. After a quick lunch of cold-cut meat sandwiches we hit the trail. There are only a few cars in the parking lot and the weather isn’t looking too bad, so we are optimistic for the hike.

The first 6-7 kilometers winds through lowland rain forest, as many hikes in New Zealand do. Views aren’t great, but after a while we find ourselves in a huge open field in the valley, giant snow-capped mountains on all sides. We are in Mount Aspiring National Park, at the south side where it abuts up against Fiordland National Park. We are not too high above sea level, but it reminds me of the dramatic views in the Himalayas.

Now the trail goes up into the mountains. It’s quite steep and our pace slows considerably (and by that I mean Nimarta’s pace :P). But in less than an hour we reach the Routeburn Falls hut. It’s quite a nice hut up in the mountains and I wonder how the hell they built it. Clearly, the materials were brought in by helicopter. There is also a fancy lodge called the Routeburn Lodge. Nimarta tells me people pay upto $3000 for a guided trek of the Routeburn Track that stays at this lodge and other fancy ones like it, which amenities like hot showers, power and good food. But $3000? Seriously? We paid $1300 for 12 days in the Himalayas. A guided trek of this trail is literally throwing your money away.

Technically, this is the end of the day hike, but we decide to keep going up a little more. We see Routeburn Falls, water gushing down the smooth rocks at an intense flow rate. You don’t want to fall into there. Up further, than landscape changes. We are no longer surrounded by trees, but instead by brush and rocks. We are above the tree line now as we reach a plateau, flanked by even larger rocky mountains on both sides. This landscape reminds me a lot of Iceland, and for a while it’s almost like I’m back exploring the volcanoes outside of Reykjavik. We continue a bit further before the wind really starts to bite and we have to turn and start the long hike back to the van.

The weather is not the greatest, but it’s not bad for this region of New Zealand. In fact, we are incredibly lucky to be able to see the tops of all the mountains and sun shined over the valley just when we got to the top. The clouds are high so we have good visibility. It would be nice if there was blue sky behind the mountains, but white clouds are better than grey clouds. We get some really good pictures of the mountains and the valley below. After 4,000 selfies it’s time to go.

The hike back is difficult, but only because we are so damn hungry. We didn’t pack any food and burned a lot of energy getting up there. By the last mile of flat walking through the forest all we can think about is food. Nimarta is too hungry to talk, she says. So we walk in silence. By the time we get back to the parking lot we’ve been gone about 6.5 hours. A good hike for sure! Food tastes amazing, even if it’s just apples and pears. Now we just have to decide where to sleep tonight.

Before the trip I downloaded an app on my phone called NZ Camping, or something like that. It lets you filter by price and amenities. As we have the van we don’t really need any amenities. We really just need a place to legally park the van. Luckily there is a free campsite just south of Glenorchy. We roll in at about 8:00 and there is no one there. It’s just a dirt lot on the lake. Perfect.

After a dinner of soup and a half liter of beer it’s time to make the bed. We’ve stayed in a Juicy campervan before so we know what we’re doing. We manage to fit all the stuff into the front seats and lay the bed out flat. It’s not as comfy as the bed in the Millennium, but it will have to do. We are so exhausted it doesn’t even matter. Nimarta is asleep in a few minutes and I decide to watch a short Vice News documentary on the laptop. I have downloaded a ton of things from youtube to watch on our travels. Lots of random documentaries, as well as a lot of Europe travel videos. We won’t have internet at night so things to watch are essential. I can even charge my laptop in the car with the car charger we bought so we don’t have to worry about the battery. I also have my Dutch lessons to do in the car.

It’s raining when we wake up Monday morning. We saw this in the forecast. The plan today is to drive down to Fiordland and sleep somewhere near Milford Sound. We stop for lunch in Queenstown since Nimarta is craving Indian food then hit New World to reload the honey roasted peanuts we destroyed on the first day. The rain is off and on as we pass Mossburn and Te Anau. Views aren’t great, but we continue along the road to Fiordland.

One thing about Fiordland in the rain is that the mountains turn into thousands of narrow waterfalls. The mountains are so steep and rocky that the rain has nowhere to go but down to the valley floor. So waterfalls form, a ton of them. Nimarta has never been down here on a rainy day before so she is fascinated with all the waterfalls. It’s is quite majestic. I prefer blue skies, but it is cool to see all the water flowing down from the jagged mountains. We stop to take some pictures and a kea jumps on our car. This is the largest of the New Zealand parrot species. These guys are pesky little bastards and like to hang out in parking areas where they know cars will stop. There are signs everywhere that say “do not feed the kea” but I’m sure people ignore them and feed them anyways. We don’t, and the bird tries to eat the van. After a while it finally moves onto another car that has parked in the lot. Silly kea.

Eventually we end up down at Milford Sound. We decide to check out this lodge that has campervan sites. But they say it’s $25 per person to park. To hell with that. We will figure something out. It’s raining pretty hard by the time we get to Milford. We can’t see the tops of any of the mountains, but we see waterfalls galore. There are signs everywhere that say “no overnight parking” so clearly we can’t stay here. Then I realize we can probably just park in the little lot for “The Chasms” about 10 km up the road. We will be up at dawn anyways so no one will see us. And parking is there is free.

One of the hotels is closed for the season and I have the idea to park underneath its entry canopy to cook our dinner. It’s raining and we have to cook out of the back of the van so being covered is essential. It works well and we enjoy noodles and wine free from rain. After dinner the rain finally stops. Nimarta runs off to take some pictures and I watch from the abandoned parking lot of the hotel. The clouds are moving and we can almost see Mitre Peak in its entirety! As the view fades into darkness the clouds return, covering the peaks. The rain has started again. A brief window was all we got but it was beautiful.

After dinner and a bottle of wine we drive back to The Chasms and park the van, eager for some rest. It rains all night and I wake up multiple times to rain drops pelting the roof of the van. But something magical happens between the last time I wake up in the middle of the night and when the alarm goes off at 6 AM. I peak outside the curtains to the morning twilight and it appears to be clear. I can make out the tops of the mountains above. It’s going to be a clear day!

We hurry off to Milford after preparing the van and we are greeted by perfectly clear skies as the sun starts to rise. And there is nobody else here. It’s just the two of us enjoying sunrise at Milford Sound. We couldn’t have asked for a better way to close out our New Zealand experience than a beautiful sunrise at Milford Sound. It’s low tide and we walk as far as we can go into the sounds, battling large tree branches and puddles. It’s chilly and the wind is biting, but the majesty of this place makes us nearly forget about it.

As the sun rises the light starts to shine on the tip of Mitre Peak. It’s like the picture you always see in New Zealand travel books, only better. But as the sun rises the sand flies also come out. These pesky bastards are only active in the daylight hours. If you have any skin exposed they will get you. They have no shame. The view is beautiful but the sand flies are starting to make it unpleasant. We decide to head back and go to the cruise center to see if we can catch the 9:15 cruise. We have rented our campervan with Jucy so we should get a discount on a cruise with them.

We roll into the cruise center just after 8:00 to inquire about the 9:15 cruise. There is plenty of space available and we get one ticket at 50% off. Coupled with the fact that the 9:15 cruise is only $45 to begin with (whereas the ones later in the day are at least $65) we pay a total of only $67.50 for two Milford Sound cruises. What a deal!

The sky is a brilliant blue when we set sail just after 9:15. As we pull away from the dock the mountains behind us shrink and the peaks in front of us take prominence. We see Mitre Peak from a different angle. It’s incredibly steep from the side. It is actually one of the tallest mountains in the world to rise directly from the sea, at over 6000 feet. If you consider that the fjord itself is over 1000 feet deep you’ve got even a higher mountain. The steep rock cliffs of the mountains here continue down below the sea at the same angle. The mountains were all formed by glaciers during the last ice age and it’s this glacial history that forms the beauty of the fjords.

After about 45 minutes we reach the Tasman Sea. The peaks are less rocky and jagged out here and it’s easy to see why Captain Cook missed Milford Sound back in the 1700s. He sailed right by it. It was a Welsh explorer who first discovered Milford nearly 100 years later. Tasmania is off in the distance, but we are not going quite that far. The boat turns around to head back to the dock. We are greeted with similar views on the way back. This is my third cruise on Milford Sound, but by far the best.

Back at the cruise center we decide to say goodbye to Milford Sound and try out a hike on the other side of the tunnel called the Gertrude Saddle hike. It was listed in a book I saw once as one of the top 100 day hikes in New Zealand. And it’s a great afternoon for a day hike. We park the van and have a quick lunch. A hungry kea watches us intently. You can’t feed them though, because if they get dependent on human food they have to be put down. So this guy will just have to watch us for now.

The trail claims to be unmarked but in reality it is pretty well marked. We cross some dried up rocky creeks for a while then casually walk through a flat tussocks field. Then it gets a bit more difficult. After scrambling around some rocks we see the trail goes straight up into the mountain. The path isn’t really much of a path so we just try to follow the pink marker signs every so often. Eventually we decide to make our own path and climb the rocks up to what we presume is the saddle. There are supposed to be good views up there, but alas it is too early in the season. There is just too much snow. We try to climb through some snow but it proves difficult and Nimarta scolds me for nearly killing her (she was fine).

We wander around a bit more on the mountain and find a nice waterfall to sit and relax at for a minute. Then it’s time to head back. The climb down the rocks is difficult but we manage to get down without any injuries or casualties. Our kea friend is waiting for us back at the van. We tell him to scram and hit the road. We waive goodbye to Fiordland and speed on back to Te Anau. We don’t know when we will be back in Fiordland but we vow to come back here one day.

There’s really nowhere to stay in Te Anau that doesn’t charge an arm and a leg to park your campervan so we head off on the road back to Queenstown hoping to find an abandoned parking lot to spend the night. But abandoned lots and rest stops are not abundant in this part of Otago. We find nothing. After passing through Mossburn we see a sign for a holiday park. It’s getting late and we are hungry so we decide to just pay whatever fee it is to sleep here. It turns out to be $32 (funny story it actually only cost us 32 cents, as they charged my card wrong and when I called in the next day to say I had only been charged 32 cents instead of dollars the owner said it was his fault and it was on him). But it has showers and a kitchen and wifi. The shower is what seals it for us, we are kind of gross by now.

In the kitchen making our dinner we meet two friends from the US that have just campervanned around Australia, basically doing the same route we are doing, just in the other direction. Talking to them gets us excited for next week when we head to Australia for a three week road trip through the Outback.

As we head back to the airport the next day we wave goodbye to the South Island. It is truly one of the most beautiful places in the world and I am thankful I got to come down here so many times in my two years in New Zealand. I went to Milford Sound 4 times. I know Kiwis who have never even been once. From Mount Cook to Fox Glacier and Marlborough to Milford, the South Island has it all. Except for the people. The vast majority of Kiwis live on the North Island. And the North Island is plenty beautiful. But there is just something about the South that sets it apart. This won’t be the last time we see you, South Island. We shall return!


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