Summarizing a tour of New Zealand’s South Island is like describing a first kiss: it’s a bundle of raging emotions that defies words, challenge your senses, and shift your perception of magic, wonder and sensory joy.
After house sitting outside of Wellington on the North Island for a month, we set out in early June to explore the South Island. We traveled more than 2,000 kilometers, zig-zagging from rugged coastlines with pounding surf across soaring, snow-capped mountains and back to sheep-dotted plains that stretch to the horizon. We snaked through narrow roads high in the Southern Alps and probed gravel roads that stretch to desolate, rocky coves. We watched seals bask in the sun in Kaikoura, albatrosses soar over the towering cliffs of Dunedin, and dozens and dozens of hawks glide through the still, cold air in search of food along Arthur’s Pass.
We watched the sun rise over Mt. Cook and set over the Remarkables in Queenstown. We walked to the edge of Franz Josef Glacier, strolled the empty beaches in Okarito, and hiked to waterfalls, blue-watered pools, and visited a salmon fish farm.
All in 10 days. And much of it blissfully alone.
So alone, in fact, that you get the feeling all is peaceful and safe—made evident by our experience at an outdoor café where Gabi forgot her bag. We raced back to the café when she discovered it missing, swerved up to the café and there it was – still hanging on the back of a chair on the street where she’d left it.
New Zealand is a little country with big ideas of what it stands for, and it seems to project a simple message: get out. As in get outside, into the crisp, clean air, and take regular, deep gulps of the rugged beauty only steps away from even the urban dweller. Indeed, every New Zealander we encountered seems a product of the world’s most effective indoctrination program: respect and value your country and its immense physical attributes, celebrate each day with newfound appreciation for being a New Zealander, and take your time as you explore.
It’s clean, pristine, and gorgeous. This place is an outdoor enthusiast’s dream. A casual driver can’t resist frequent stops to gawk and try to capture the beauty in photographs. Amateur “trampers” like us felt as though we’ve landed in hiker heaven. Everywhere are well-marked trails for hiking and mountain biking, and there’s every other activity imaginable for adrenaline junkies (rock climbing, mountaineering, bungy jumping, etc.) For the more sedate, the South Island offers a couple hundred wineries, wonderful locally sourced food, and vista upon vista that will turn an hour’s drive into a jaw-dropping, photo-snapping marathon.
New Zealanders make it easy to enjoy their country, too. They’re friendly, approachable, and eager to help and chat. Roads are great and well sign-posted, everything works and runs on time, and there’s a refreshing, old-school element of trust in the air. We took the Interislander Ferry from Wellington to Picton to the South Island, arriving after the local car rental place had closed for the day. “Not to worry,” advised the helpful Apex Car agent. Simply tap the four-digit code into the lockbox outside our office, retrieve your rental agreement and keys, and pick up your car, which will be waiting unlocked by the side of the curb. We were in the car and on our way 10 minutes after disembarking.
Every day promises something new and exciting, as nature conspires to stun a visitor with her beauty, majesty and pure, relentless loveliness. It was early winter when we visited, and that made road travel somewhat unpredictable, as we learned when we were preparing for a four hour drive from Dunedin to Queenstown.
The winds turned southerly the night before we departed for Queenstown, and our Airbnb host joined weather forecasters with a dire warning: “We can get strong winds through here,” she predicted with profound understatement, as we learned later that night when the windows of our rental cottage shook in the gale force gusts and hailstones and sleet pummeled its roof. “You’ll not stand a chance to make it to Queenstown,” predicted the gas station attention where I stopped to fill up before we tackled the drive. (Actually, that’s not what he said at all, but I write these posts for a family-oriented audience.) His concerns were echoed by a deliveryman who had just come from where we were headed. He told me he had gotten stuck in Lawrence, a particularly hilly and windy part of the drive, and had to wait for a snowplow to pass through and render the road drivable.
But it appears that New Zealanders don’t know snow like New Englanders know snow, and we were struck by the good road conditions and ease of driving after we ignored the warnings and set out. A bit of snow and ice here and there is no reason to cancel schools, but that they did in Queenstown. The warnings also kept most people off the roads, so we had a quiet, unremarkable trip over the slushy, grit-covered routes. It left me wondering wonder how they’d fare in a good old February nor’easter in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, or Vermont.
Fear of a little snow notwithstanding, these affable, welcoming people project rugged constitutions born of outdoor activity, beer and wine consumption that borders on religious fervor, and rugby, which the population celebrates with obsessive dedication. It is impossible to venture far without encountering some reference to the All Blacks – the famous national rugby club – or one of the countless local teams.
New Zealanders celebrate a curious cross-section of cultural traditions. We stumbled upon the regional Haka championships on television one night. These traditional Maori tribal dances have deep meaning and convey specific messages, but to an outsider they seem baffling displays of chest thumping and tongue wagging. I was intrigued by the specter of a couple dozen plump people in scant ceremonial dress performing native rituals on the stage; Gabi – not so much.
Getting to New Zealand requires a commitment. It’s a long flight from everywhere, unless you’re Australian, so people tend to arrive wide-eyed and eager to explore and discover, as we did, the magic, wonder and variety of nature’s very, very best, in a setting that’s as unique, special and rare as you’ll find anywhere.
It’s on the expensive side, too (fuel, food and incidentals are all on par with London and Sydney), but we found it well worth the investment.
And like that first kiss, a visit to New Zealand will leave you with tingling sensations and a warm glow that will keep you company for many years after you’ve moved on, lifted by the experience and dreaming of more.