The word that most accurately describes New Zealand is “beautiful”. My entire time there I was simply floored by the natural beauty – and unlike Australia there are no animals that can kill you.
Before heading to the airport I checked to make sure I had everything and ran to catch the train/skybus. I was ahead of schedule and everything seemed perfect until the teller at the Jetstar counter told me that I needed a print-out of my ticket out of New Zealand or they wouldn’t let me in the country. Fuck. I ran to the Virgin Australia counter (because I booked my ticket out of NZ with them) and there was nobody there for the next 2 hours (no flights). I ran around the airport trying to find a place to print out this damn ticket until I finally found the service desk. Time was ticking (as Jetstar is known to be very firm on their gate closure times) and I had to wait 5 minutes for the clerk to arrive. I jumped on to my e-mail account and printed the page (which cost me 3$ – WTF) and sprinted to the check-in counter at the last minute. Thank God.
I started my trip off in Christchurch at 5 am in the morning. I slept maybe 4 hours on the plane that night and there was a security guard going around the airport and waking anyone who was sleeping. I had to hang out at the airport for 3 hours until my car rental place opened and during that time I befriended a guy from Vancouver who was living in Australia for a while. We drove around town trying to find a breakfast joint and the reality of the devastation from the earthquakes began to settle in. I really didn’t think it was going to be as bad as it was. I walked around the city, talked to some locals, and realized just how horrible those quakes were (and worst of all – they keep happening). There is a cool part of the CBD that they’ve set up, though. It’s called ReStart and it’s basically an open-air mall made out of stylized shipping containers. Really cool vibe going on there. After talking to a bunch of locals and seeing a play in the botanical gardens, I could see how Chch was a very beautiful city before the quakes. My heart goes out to them and I hope they’re able to rebuild what they had without it all falling into the ocean.
I packed my car the next day and headed for Mount Cook – New Zealand’s highest peak. They apparently shot some scenes of Gondor around there, but I couldn’t really pick it out. It started raining while I passed sheep farm after sheep farm but as the altitude raised, the sun began to shine. I passed some beautiful lakes and majestic scenery to finally park at the Mount Cook YHA. The fact that I was traveling alone really set in here because the YHA was a huge place and everyone kept to themselves. The previous night in Chch was a lot of fun and I met some great people, so this was an adjustment. I walked around the village and booked a glacier boat ride for the next day and a southern hemisphere star gazing for that night. I ended up talking with the star gazing guide about various star formations and stuff while the clouds slowly revealed the southern cross and Orion. At about 11pm I headed back to the hostel where some people were watching Lord Of The Rings (EVERY hostel in NZ has one of the 3 movies playing every night. I’m not even kidding). The next morning, I headed to the glacier ride and met Adva, an Israeli who was also traveling on her own. We started chatting while we explored the Tasman glacier and ended up hiking and hanging out for the rest of the day. We talked about her travels to South America (something, apparently, a LOT of israelis do) and hung out at the only pub in the village before heading to sleep.
The next day Adva and I made off for Wanaka where she’d be staying for a couple days. I was heading to Milford Sound and it was on my way, so I offered to give her a ride. Wanaka, she told me, was awesome. They have this Puzzle World “amusement park” where you actually walk through some pretty bizarre things. I’m not gonna lie, I really enjoyed it. From water running uphill, to a room that makes you look super short, it was a quick, entertaining rest before I headed to Milford Sound. Adva and I parted ways and I had a delicious lunch at a place called Soul Food – Quinoa loaf with an orange ginger fruit smoothie. Amazing. The drive to Milford Sound was pretty uneventful. Don’t get me wrong, the scenery was amazing (I drove up a freaking mountain) and I’ve never seen that many sheep in my life, but it wasn’t until I got to Te Anau that I was really blown away by the scenery. I saw a dude juggling out on the highway and trying to hitch a ride. I figured why not offer to help out. Turns out he was Israeli, too! We talked about the mandatory army years and how we each met a girl before we left on our trips. He was a really cool guy and I was blown away that he was hitch hiking and camping for most of his trip. Stretching every penny as far as possible. I was impressed, curious, and slightly jealous. That feels like complete freedom. But then again, having a shit load of money is also a way to complete freedom (if only I had that). Depends what you’re going for, I guess. Anyway, like I said before, the scenery from Te Anau to Milford sound was amazing. It changed so quickly from sheep land to rainforest to long-ass, creepy, one-lane, hand carved tunnel through a mountain (The Homer Tunnel) to towering peaks and driving (slowly) down the side of a mountain while a double rainbow showed us the way. Seriously beautiful stuff. I left the Israeli hitch hiker (forgot his name, unfortunately) at the entrance to the park and made my way to the Milford Lodge where I’d be staying for 2 nights.
Milford Sound is the most beautiful place I’ve ever been so far. I walked around the main road and snapped some pictures and just breathed in the thick rainforest/sea air. There was a mist just above my head that shrouded the mountains in this kind of fairy-tale haze. Unfortunately, Milford Lodge was also quite large and everyone there was traveling with friends or family. I ended up starting Treasure Island because it was the only book on my iPhone’s kindle app that was free and that interested me. I also ended up talking with a French family from Normandie who were super nice and even gave me a bag of green tea. That definitely helped ’cause Milford Sound was NOT the warmest place in New Zealand. The next day I got ready for my boat ride/kayak trip. We rode up to a family of seals and under some waterfalls. It’s important to note that Milford Sound gets about 7 meters of rainfall a year. The temperature can change in the blink of an eye and even Bear Grylls, I’m told, could not master these peaks (something my kayak guide was quite proud of). It was sunny for my ENTIRE full day in the area. WTF. The boat trip was beautiful and the kayaking was pretty relaxed. The guide and I ended up telling horrible jokes while we paddled through some easier waters. I spent the rest of the afternoon hiking along the nearby trails and snapping some pictures before retiring to the pub for a local beer and a couple chapters of Treasure Island (which is pretty damn good, by the way). The final cricket game between South Africa and New Zealand was underway and since I had no idea what was going on, I asked an older local fisherman (who had had a few) to explain me the rules. The combination of his accent, the beer, and my exhaustion from the days exercise made it so I *kind of* understand Cricket now. Just don’t ask me to explain it to you. I ended up walking back to the lodge in the dark and 2 biker women were walking ahead of me and asked if I was an axe murderer. I said “no, I’m Canadian”. They laughed and we ended up chatting until we got back to the lodge. New Zealanders and Canadians have a very similar kind of humour, I learned. I parted ways with them and almost ran into a bush full of fireflies. First time ever seeing those and it was absolutely giddy-fying. I wish I could’ve taken pictures but it was just too damn dark. Not much left to do in Milford Sound after dark, so I read a chapter of Treasure Island, watched Scott Pilgrim on my phone, and went to sleep.
The next day the rain started to come down. I put on my raincoat and made off for some trails. I saw some beautiful waterfalls, some great swinging bridges (that actually scared the crap out of me), and a hilarious “museum” with a very colourful character manning the till.
“What’s in the museum?” I ask.
“Old stuff.” she responds with a grin.
It ended up being a small museum of the pioneers in the area who mapped the region and built the Homer Tunnel. I headed for Queenstown next with not much to report between the two points.
In Queenstown I stayed at the best hostel I’ve seen at so far – Adventure Queenstown. It was in the centre of the city, had balconies overlooking the mountains, and really helpful staff. I ended up booking a canyon swing over the shotover canyon for the next day because the cloud cover didn’t seem to permit a skydive (sadly – that was going to be my main event in Queenstown). the night was decently quiet and I stayed at the hostel and met some lovely folks from the UK (England and Wales) and some Americans (from Boston and Los Angeles). The Bostonian and I noticed how damn similar our accents were because he had been relocated to L.A. and lost his New England accent. He even said “about” and “bag” the same way and told me how much Californians made fun of him! I decided to head to bed early that night because I knew I was going to have a big day. Boy was I right.
I woke up super early to get ready for my canyon swing. I had booked it at 11am, but wanted to see if I could book a mountain bike ride for the afternoon and have a good breakfast. Unfortunately the weather wasn’t exactly stellar for the mountain bike, but the guy recommended me a fantastic breakfast place called “Vudu”. Seriously awesome food and a delicious blueberry earl grey that kicked ass. After breakfast I moseyed over near the canyon swing place where I actually had unlimited Internet access. As I surfed Facebook and Instagram, I notice the sun beginning to poke out of the clouds. The sky was clearing up in a big way. I walked 10 feet to the skydiving place and asked if they were jumping. “We just started now.” said the attractive till girl. “Shit. Yes.” I whispered. I ran over to the canyon swing place and asked if they’d be able to delay my swing ’till the afternoon. She reluctantly worked some magic and I was off to skydive!
In the skydive prep room I met another Canadian from Regina and a French girl from Lyon named Flora. We all hung out together and, oddly enough, I was the calmest of the bunch. I didn’t start feeling nervous until I was in the plane and realized how easily I get airsickness. Luckily they had oxygen on the way up and I was feeling fine, but once we hit 12,000 feet the clouds began to roll in. We climbed to 15,000 feet hoping we’d be able to see the ground but no luck. We’d have to head back down and wait for the clouds to pass. Ugh. Needless to say, I’m not very keen on small planes.
The cloud cover lasted all day and they ended up refunding my money. No skydiving for Justin. No worries! I still had a canyon swing to do (although thankfully it was quite a while later). I walked around town and actually found an amazingly hand knitted NZ wool cardigan with kiwis on it. It was the kind of thing I had been looking for since arriving in New Zealand. With the money I saved on missing out on the skydive, I figured “Shit. Yes.”
The canyon swing was awesome. Basically, you’re strapped to a cable and you jump off a cliff. You have a choice of a bunch of different styles, too. Some you get cut down so you don’t have to force your brain to do something “suicidal”. Others, well, you jump off a cliff. After chatting with one of the attendants I chose the pin drop (which is apparently a favourite). It took a shit load of coaxing (and a hell of a lot of jokes) to get me to jump off that cliff, but once I did it was amazing! 3 seconds felt like 20 but I didn’t scream at all. The pictures and video are freaking hilarious. Totally glad I did that.
After recuperating from those two epic events, I decided to head to the small mountain and climb up instead of taking the gondola. I was told it would take 45 minutes, but when I got to about a quarter of the way I knew it’d be a big hike – in my Adidas street shoes. I was sweating so much at the half way mark, that I was embarrassed when a German dude came up behind me. He hadn’t even broken a sweat, so I let him go ahead. He said “thanks” and started JOGGING UP THE FUCKING MOUNTAIN. Seriously over 45 degree incline. Jesus Christ! There goes any thought I had of being ‘mildly in shape’. The view from the top was well worth it, though. And after a crazy event-filled day in Queenstown, I was very happy with everything I had done on the south island of New Zealand. Oh and before I even got to the top of the mountain, German dude was already jogging down. He said “You’re almost there!” and I managed a “Thanks man.”
That night I ran into Flora – a French girl I met during the skydiving. She was with a huge group of people and invited me out to the World Bar. I met another slew of people and we walked around rainy Queenstown while Emma tried to meet up with her WWOOFing partner she met online. This was my first taste of “random year-long travel” ways of thinking. I really enjoyed this group of people and it was a lovely end to my Queenstown adventure.
I flew to Auckland the next day and decided to rent a car. This let me go straight to Piha beach from the hostel and enjoy some sun and black volcanic sand. It was windy as hell and the surf was intense, but Piha was definitely beautiful. I met some Germans and a guy from Winnipeg back at the hostel and we ended up drinking some wine and shooting the shit. They said that Auckland wasn’t particularly exciting and that they haven’t really explored much. That kind of disappointed me because I had planned to stay 4 days there, but it also gave me a kick in the ass to book a tour of Hobbiton!
Hobbiton was the only Lord of the Rings thing I wanted to do in New Zealand. I didn’t check up on it until I was at the Queenstown airport because I thought it’d be so out of the way. I realized it was on the north island near a town called Matamata – only 2 hours away from Auckland. Nice! I woke up early on the Sunday and drove to Matamata. The north island is completely different than the south. It’s pastures and rolling hills, while the south island is wet and filled with crazy mountains. It just feels different, too and there seems to be a little more of a beach culture going on. Anyway, Hobbiton was totally worth it. It was THE set they used in the movies and it was surreal to walk around it all. Movie magic. Apparently Peter Jackson had just left the week before as they wrapped shooting of The Hobbit. Awesome.
On my drive back from Matamata, I decided to stop by Tauranga and Mount Maunganui. It’s basically a beach resort that was quite beautiful. Bars and surf shops were everywhere, but because it was a Sunday, everything was closing down pretty early. Oh well. I headed back to Auckland and ended up hanging out with the Irish dudes and Kiki at the hostel.
The next day Kiki and I decided to explore Auckland together. This was quite nice ’cause I had been traveling pretty much by myself since I picked up that Israeli hitchhiker in Te Anau. We went to the docks, we went to the Auckland tower, we crashed a University opening week party, we walked all over downtown and finally ran to a ferry to check out Waiheke island. The minute we walked off the ferry, the rain started and we ran to a restaurant to have some wine and food. We talked about life back home and I was blown away how well I got to know someone in a couple hours. I guess that’s what happens when you have nothing else to lose. The chances that I’ll ever see Kiki again are incredibly slim, so why not be completely honest about everything? It was really refreshing. I wish her luck in everything she does.
My last day in Auckland was spent climbing the Mt. Eden extinguished volcano. It gave you a really nice view of the city and every other extinguished volcano in the region. Seriously, New Zealand is just one big volcano. The whole country. I wouldn’t be surprised if the place didn’t either fall into the ocean or explode in one giant bang. I really hope with all my heart that it doesn’t, but I can’t deny that ominous feeling. I headed to the airport pretty early and made sure everything was going well so I wouldn’t miss my flight to Sydney. This little taste of New Zealand made me realize how amazing this country is. I definitely have to go back one day and see everything I missed. 2 weeks is definitely NOT enough.
Until then, stay classy NZ.