I don’t do many ‘proper’ travel guides. Most of this blog is about how to live geo-independently, how to achieve eudaemonia and a few poorly made jokes thrown in to keep you awake. As a travel blog, I do very few tourist guides. The reason for this is simple. I’m a nomad, and nomads are not tourists.
But for 18 days, I went on holiday with my parents to New Zealand. We drove all around the south island of New Zealand. Our invented itinerary is, with no false modesty, the perfection of holiday planning. There is no theoretical better route around New Zealand’s south island. I’m about to make a lot of money on this itinerary, but before I do, I give it to you, free of charge, because I love you.
If reading about other people’s holidays bores you to tears (I personally hate it), then feel free to skip on to something more universally interesting. But if you want to discover New Zealand or see me in thrilling terror, look no further!
(I split this post in two because due to its length. This post features the first nine days.)
Day 1: Arrival, i-SITEs and Accommodation
We arrived in Christchurch with nothing booked. Turns out that there was not a single room available in Christchurch, and thus we had to quickly rent a car and begin our road trip immediately, driving to the small town of Methven where we slept the first night.
Don’t be alarmed. For the remainder of the journey, we never had a problem rolling into town and finding a motel immediately. In fact, booking too much of anything in advance is a poor idea as it leaves you inflexible to change your itinerary as you go along. You want to leave yourself free to escape a place early if the pitchforks come out or stay longer if you fall in love with something or someone.
Your first place to visit in Christchurch and every other place you pass by in New Zealand is the local i-SITE. These are tourist information places, and they are indispensable. They help you find the very best each town has to offer, and can help book just about everything from a hotel to a hooker. (OK, maybe not the latter, although I didn’t ask…)
Day 2: Mount Cook, Lakes and the Tasman Glacier
Two things are essential when travelling New Zealand: spare camera batteries and a car. Rent or buy one, but get a car. You want to be able to stop at all the gorgeous scenery as well as some odd museums along the way.
One such museum is the Geraldine Vintage Car and Machinery Museum. If you are into old cars and entrepreneurial machines, this place will be heaven. My highlights were the Harley with a side-mounted hearse and the old gypsy wagon. (I could so see myself living my nomadic life out of that old thing!)
Drive south along the eastern side of New Zealand’s mountain chain. You’ll pass two beautiful mountain lakes. Make a quick stop at the lonely church at Lake Tekapo and the observatory on the hill, then continue past Lake Pukaki (not to be confused with Lake Bukaki, which is in Japan) up to Mount Cook, the tallest mountain in New Zealand. This is also home to the Tasman Glacier, the country’s longest glacier.
A glacier is like a frozen river, slowly flowing down a mountain valley until it melts into a normal river or lake. The Tasman glacier is best viewed from boat going up the glacier lake to the terminal face, the wall of ice where the glacier ends. If you are lucky, parts of the glacier will have fallen off recently and created baby icebergs.
You can also do an easy 20 minutes’ walk to the Mueller Lookout, offering views of two other glaciers, a glacial lake and a cute little bridge.
Day 3: Moeraki Boulders and Dunedin
Your next destination is the town of Dunedin. Along the way, stop by the strange Moeraki Boulders. These large, almost perfectly round, boulders mysteriously litter a beach just past Hampden. They take little time to see and they are worth the extra mile.
Dunedin is the namesake city of Edinburgh and you can sense the town’s Scottish heritage. Notable stuff to see in Dunedin is the beautiful train station, the botanical garden and Baldwin Street, the supposedly steepest street in the world. (San Franciscans claim they have it, but come on! You can’t be as cool as San Francisco and quibble over who has the steepest street. Let poor ol’ Dunedin have it!)
Day 4: The Otago Peninsula, Tragic Castles, Albatrosses and Penguins
Before you leave Dunedin, check out the Otago peninsula. Take the high road out, following a tall ridge and stop by Larnach Castle. What the castle lacks in size it makes up in tragedy. (I know; bum deal.) The owner had several children and wives die on him, and he shot himself after his oldest son had an affair with his last wife. Oh, and the son killed himself too. The castle is small, beautiful and blessed with stunning views of the Otago peninsula from the tower.
Continue to the edge of the peninsula to see the two extremes of New Zealand birds. The albatross is the biggest bird around, spanning 3.5 meters wingspan. There is a rare colony of albatrosses here on the peninsula that you can visit. The blue penguin is the smallest penguin in the world and can of course not fly anywhere. They waddle well, however, and you can see them waddle up from the sea at dusk to tend their chicks.
Day 5: Caitlin’s Coast, A Lost Gypsy Bus and an Ancient Petrified Forest
Hope your car is comfortable because today we drive the Caitlin’s Coastline, moving from the east coast to the west coast via the south coast. Don’t worry, there is plenty of awesome stuff to stop and check out on the way to Te Anau.
The first few stops are nice, but not amazing. The Nugget Lighthouse stands atop some dramatic cliffs. It’s a pleasant walk and worth a look. The Puranakaunui Falls are nice looking falls located a short walk through a rain forest. Again, nothing spectacular, but worth the stops.
The Gypsy Bus is easy to miss. It’s not mentioned in any guidebooks and if it weren’t for a helpful lady at an i-SITE, we would have missed this priceless gem. The gypsy is a mad inventor of ingenious little machines and a true artist. Entering his domain is like walking into a magical world. Most of the little machines are interactive and come alive when you wind their tiny cranks. Pure magic and an unexpected joy! Made me feel like I had sidestepped into Burning Man. Not to be missed!
The petrified tree stumps by Curio Bay is 170 million years old. I hope you gasped when you read that, otherwise go back and re-read it. 170,000,000 years old. Compare that with Christianity, an infant at a mere 2,000 years old. This 0.17 giga-year fossil was created when a volcanic eruption flooded a forest bank with silica mud. Everything below the surface petrified through silification, literally turning tree to stone.
Day 6: Doubtful Sounds and Glow Worms
From Te Anau, there are two cool things to do.
The first is a trip to Doubtful Sound, which is not a sound but a fjord. A fjord is an inlet from the sea into a valley created through glaciation, which is the case here. But who cares how they were created; they are stunningly beautiful in any case.
Doubtful Sound is remote, and the tour there goes across the Manapouri lake and then over a gravel road through mountains and past a hydro plant (which you enter as part of the tour), so despite the boat trip through the sounds taking only three hours, you’ll be gone all day.
In the evening, you can take another boat to a local glow worm cave. I wrote about glow worms before when I visited the Waitomo caves on New Zealand’s north island. There are fewer worms in the Te Anaui cave, but the cave itself is amazing to walk through. It is an ‘active’ cave with lots of water rushing through canals and down waterfalls. In fact, I enjoyed the cave more than the glow worms.
Day 7: Milford Sounds
Another day, another misnamed fjord, this time Milford Sounds.
The road itself to Milford is worth the journey, even without the fjord. It goes through spectacular changing scenery, from fields through forest and up mountain passes. There is even a tunnel.
Milford Sounds is much easier to get onto than Doubtful. Just drive up to the terminal and grab the first best boat. They leave every 15 minute or so. Milford Sounds is a bit narrower, steeper and shorter than Doubtful Sounds. It is much of a muchness which one you see, if you only see one.
You have just enough time in one day to do Milford Sounds from Te Anau and then drive to Queenstown.
Day 8: Queenstown, Jet Boats and Bungee Swings
Queenstown is the adrenaline capital of the world. It was here that bungee jumping was invented, and the craziness has since then spun right out of control. The main thing is still bungee jumping, but I tried two other things.
Want to get into the Queenstown swing of things? The Nevis Swing is the latest Queenstown activity, a new version of the bungee jump. You fall 70 meters into a 0.3km wide arc across a valley. You can do it sitting forward or backwards. I did it hanging upside down. Enough talk. This one is best explained through a video. (Please disregard the incoherent blabbering about the final scene of Batman; I was on an adrenaline high.)
The swing is fun, but it is over quickly. You don’t have time to commit the experience to memory, so consider if you want to spend that kind of money.
Jet boating involves a jet boat (duh) and a narrow river. You zoom along the river and giggle with horror as the ‘captain’ drives inches from the cliff faces lining the river, occasionally throwing the whole boat into reverse and doing a 360-degree pinhead turn. There are three companies doing this, having red, yellow and orange boats. Go with the red one as they ‘own’ the most exciting (see: dangerous) part of the river.
If risking life/sanity is not your thing, there are a few less extreme pleasures to be had in Queenstown. How about a round of Frisbee golf through the botanical garden? Or visit the coolest lady ever buried?
Day 9: Arrowtown, Wanaka, Puzzling World and Wine Views
Arrowtown is a gold rush town with a cosy main street, old buildings and interesting remains of a Chinese settlement from the days of the gold rush.
The road from Arrowtown to Wanaka goes over a mountain and offers spectacular views. Wanaka itself is equally beautiful, mainly due to the lake on which shores the city lies. For truly spectacular views of the lake and the town, drive up to the nearby Rippon winery. Whilst there, try the local wine.
The most fun you’ll have today, you’ll have at Puzzling World. The illusion rooms will twist your senses until you’ll believe anything, and then it is time to challenge yourself to the grand maze. Do you think that mazes are only challenging for children? Good. Go embarrass yourself. I nearly didn’t make it out again. Finally, drag your tattered pride to the bathroom and lift your spirit with the funny mural in there.
Drive on as far north as you have energy then sleep when you can’t drive anymore, probably around Haast. Just remember that restaurants close at about 8pm… (We almost went hungry.)