New Zealand Road Trip – Part 8

(This is part of a multi part series – to check out the previous entry, click here!)

There and Back Again

It was going to be hard to top the last day, or any of the days for that matter, but we were bound and determined to make the most of our last full day in New Zealand.

It served us well.

It served us well.

Something I haven’t mentioned so far is what the nights were like in a camper van. First, it was surprisingly comfortable to sleep in and chill out in for the two of us with the only drawback coming from getting out to plug it in or run to take a shower at the campsites. Yes, we had toilet and shower facilities in the van, but seeing as most of the campsites along the way were decked out with all the luxuries of a first rate hostel and it was included with the $30 we paid each night to plug in for power, we didn’t see the need to use our own toilet/shower. Plus, that saved us having to clean it out later and fill up the water – we think ahead!

One of the most magical things though about being there in the winter is all the things you miss out on by travelling in the summer. For one thing, the crowds are minuscule both at the campsites and on the road. This made for some great driving and opportunities to pull over and take pictures. The other great thing about travelling in winter was just how many stars you can see in the sky at night – both because of the lack of light pollution where we were and because winter you’re further away from the sun’s light. Little things like that aren’t the reason you take a vacation but they’re nice bonuses.

The last thing we really did before heading back to Christchurch was stop by Lake Tekapo, which was something on my list of things to see just because I heard a lot about it from other travellers. There’s not much there – just this little church beside a lake, but I kid you not when I say it was one of the highlights of the trip. Something about how simple it all is, set against the mountains, the frozen lake… it was a sight to behold. We could’ve spent all day there if it wasn’t so cold (and the Japanese tourists were kind of taking it over!), but we had to get going so as to get back to Christchurch in decent time.

Can't imagine a better setting...

Can’t imagine a better setting…

A few hours later, we arrived in Christchurch and went back to the same campsite we stayed at the first night we arrived – a strange sense of deja vu. It was hard to imagine that the next day we were heading out, possibly never to return to this amazing land. While it wasn’t the longest trip nor even the most startling experience I’ve ever had travelling, it definitely left it’s mark on me and for that I am eternally grateful.

Next up, the final thoughts.

New Zealand Road Trip – Part 7

(This is part of a multi part series – to check out the previous entry, click here!)

Free Falling 

Skydiving was one of those things I said I wouldn’t mind doing but the opportunity never really presented itself. Finding myself in New Zealand, I was about to find out if I could actually go through with that claim.

The very plane we went up in

The very plane we went up in

Supposedly, SkyDive Lake Wanaka is one of the best places in the world to jump out of a plane because of two reasons – the scenery and the staff. It made it onto a few ‘Must-Do Before You Die’ lists and this seemed to me reason enough to go through with it. Luckily, the campground we were staying on that night was kind enough to call and see if they had any spots for us that morning – sure enough they did – and we were off to throw ourselves out of a plane.

The only problem was… it was super ridiculously cold.

I’m used to pretty chilly temperatures so it wasn’t really that bad on the ground, but it’s another thing from way up in the sky. On the ground it was -10C, so up high it was about -20C, which from what I was told by the staff was the coldest they will fly at because any lower and the instruments in the plane have problems. I mean, I know we were going to be bailing out anyways but in a controlled situation such as that, I’d really prefer not to have the unexpected happen.

Thankfully, nothing bad happened. We jumped out – with me going second (which I’m told is the worst because watching someone fall out of a plane can be a little traumatic!), and had 45 seconds of free fall on the most incredible landscape I have ever seen. Snow capped mountains, picturesque lake, light dusting of snow over everything. What more could you ask for? Oh, aside from your gums virtually flash freezing every time you opened your mouth to yell out. Still totally worth it.

After packing up and getting back into our van, it was crazy to realize it was only 11:30 and we had accomplished so much already! Needless to say, the rest of the day was very difficult to come down off that high – I definitely recommend it to anyone who has the chance to do it! The instructors were awesome, chill dudes who seemed to love their jobs. The one I was strapped to (we could’ve done solo, but you have to take a special course and… I’m not brave enough for that), said he had done over 7000 jumps in his life. Wow. I wonder what the life insurance premium is like on someone like him?

Gotta love the sheep...

Gotta love the sheep…

We headed north and just kinda chilled out for the rest of the day, taking our time driving and reflecting on the scenery and how insane skydiving really is. With all the crosses we passed on the side of the road (25 in total by the end of the trip), it really made us think about our own mortality and how experiences really are all that we have.

Up next, the last leg of our great road trip.

New Zealand Road Trip – Part 6

(This is part of a multi part series – to check out the previous entry, click here!)

Kipling was Right

I don’t think I’ve been as excited for a drive before as I was for the one to Milford Sound and looking back on it, I can’t think of a better drive I’ve taken since then. It’s a place all unto itself and it seems like it shouldn’t be real – there’s a reason Rudyard Kipling called it the 8th Wonder of the World. If only the ancients had made it to New Zealand…

We set out on the drive at 8am because we had to be to the docks by 11am if we were to catch the boat that takes you out into the Tasman Sea. I was a bit worried that I wouldn’t be able to get us there because of the time and because they do recommend booking in advance, but the guy at our campground in Te Anau said it shouldn’t be a problem this time of year because it’s so cold. So that offered some reassurance.

Simply amazing...

Simply amazing…

I won’t even begin to describe the drive to Milford Sound because I simply won’t do it justice. You have to do it for yourself. Sure, you can fly straight to the place and skip the drive but in my opinion, the drive is equal to the actual place. I would like to do it again where I’m the passenger and I can really look at everything, but I’m not complaining about what I did get to experience.

The last 25 km from the exit of the mountain (you have to travel through a mountain tunnel to get out to the sea) takes about an hour in itself, as it is a back and forth trip with a lot of sharp turns likely better suited to a car than a rickety campervan. When we finally made it to the bottom, my buddy jumped out and ran inside to see if we could still get tickets while I parked the van – it was about 10:45 at this point and the lot was packed. Luckily it worked out.

The trip out to the ocean took about 45 minutes and on the way we passed dolphins, seals and some of the craziest cliffs I have ever been that close to. I was able to snap a shot of another boat heading in and everyone I have shown it to cannot believe the sheer scale of the cliffs, for the boat looks more like a child’s toy than a 3 story ferry.

Yes, that is a four storey boat.

Yes, that is a three storey boat.

The only downside was the cold – it was ridiculously frigid. We were out on the open water in the middle of winter after all, so we had to make a few trips back inside to warm up before heading back up on the deck to take more shots.

Mitre Peak is one of those spots that most people may recognize but actually getting there is another thing. I’ve read about bloggers climbing it and while that’s not for me, it still seems like an incredible adventure.

After getting back to shore, we began the drive back to Te Anau and then returned to Wanaka – which sounds like it was just a quick hop over but in reality, it was longer than the day before’s drive. It’s a good thing we got the diesel van, that’s for sure. Arriving at our campground gave us our first opportunity to really unwind and take in what we had seen that day, reviewing the pictures and being blown away by some of the shots. As incredible as that day was, the next day was shaping up to be about as ridiculous as you can get as we were going to see the landscape from an entirely different perspective – hurtling towards it from 12 000 ft!

Up next, Skydiving from the most beautiful place on Earth.

New Zealand Road Trip – Part 5

(This is part of a multi part series – to check out the previous entry, click here!)

A Song of Ice and Tire

At this point in the journey, we had driven a decent amount – maybe 500 km – and it was fair to say we had seen a great deal of the wonders that make up New Zealand’s south island. We had figured out how to manoeuvre the mountain passes without falling over the edge and, crossed more than our fair share of one lane bridges (seriously… it’s ridiculous how many there are!) and seen glaciers and more magnificent vistas than I thought possible to exist in one country – but still we had more to go.

And go we did.

Prettier than Franz Josef, but there wasn't time to gawk!

Prettier than Franz Josef, but there wasn’t time to gawk!

After waking up on the third full day in NZ, we drove to the nearby Fox glacier and took a look at what we could see. We heard from many people that this was the one that photographed the best from up close, but unfortunately a rock slide the day before prevented us from really getting up close and personal with it. Thankfully we had spent a while at Franz Josef so we had a decent glacier fix in.

I took a look at the map and our rough itinerary and realized I had it down for us to tour Milford Sound the next day, catching a boat at 11am. With us being about 800 km away, we really needed to get going if we were to accomplish that feat. Thankfully, the route to Te Anau was pretty tame and the drive times were realistic – which meant we could stop a few places along the way!

As we made our way south through the tiny town of Haast (town might be a stretch, more like a cluster of houses), it was almost as though we entered a new world in Super Mario Bros… the geography completely changed and there wasn’t anything that reminded us of the grey gravel we were so used to seeing up until now. The region reminded us a lot of Rohan in the Two Towers, and for me, this is forever what this area will be known as.

We eventually made our way to Wanaka, but there was no time to stop if we were to get to Te Anau by sundown (it already being 3pm). We had the option to stick to the main motorway or else take the ‘scenic route’ as pointed to by the sign. Of course, we opted for the latter and that is where I got to experience the beauty of Ben Lomand’s land.

For anyone unfamiliar with it, as I was until I stumbled upon it, the drive is like being on top of the world. You’re staring down at these giant hill/mountains, set against beautiful lakes and low hanging clouds and you truly feel as though you’re the only people on the planet. There was this monument and tree that looked particularly windswept and dramatic… it’s still one of my favourite pictures I have ever taken.

Love this place...

Love this place…

After descending the area, we ended up by Queenstown, a place we unfortunately didn’t get a chance to explore… unless you count getting lost in it for 20 minutes as you realize you made a wrong turn. Queenstown looked like a cool spot to chill out – particularly during ski season, as it was now – but it was way too busy and we had other things on the agenda.

Two hours later by about 9pm, we rolled into the Te Anau camper park and settled up for the night. We found out from the owner that the drive to Milford Sound was about two hours one way and to make sure we were gassed up as it was pretty remote – but one of the great drives on the planet. How were we supposed to sleep now?

Next up, Milord Sound

New Zealand Road Trip – Part 4

(This is part of a multi part series – to check out the previous entry, click here!)

Objects May be Further Away Than They Appear

I hope you’ve been enjoying the trip so far. It’s amazing that when you write about something a ways after it happened the kinds of things that stick out in your mind compared to right after it. I kept a log of the trip as it was taking place but hadn’t looked at it in years – I glanced at it just before I started to write this and the things I wrote down reminded me not only of things I forgot but just how much my travel tastes and perspectives have changed since experiencing it. That’s the beauty of travel.

On our second day of the New Zealand road trip we made our way from Greymouth down to the Franz Josef glacier. Before leaving, I made sure to allow for time to check out the ice monsters of this country because I’d never seen that before. Rather than organize a tour of them, I heard that just driving up to them and walking it yourself was still a great way to spend a day.

MUCH further away than it looks

MUCH further away than it looks

Let me tell you the thing about the Franz Josef glacier. From the time you park the car until you reach the face of it, it will take you about two hours. I don’t care what you think as you emerge from the woods and see the glacier, it is a lot further away than it looks. Is the walk worth it? Totally.

Walking the distance gives you an idea of the power of glaciers, how they aren’t just solid ice and how they carve out the landscape and in a way are living things all of their own. The sediment dropped by the glacier can range from pebbles to giant bolders and makes for a rather desolate landscape. One of the reasons I chose Franz Josef to check out instead of the nearby Fox glacier was on appearance alone, with the former resembling a frozen tidal wave hurdling down from the mountains – it’s just incredible to see up close.

So people would know we were here!

So people would know we were here!

By the time we reached the front where the yellow rope keeps people back from the face, the sun was already starting to hide, despite the fact that it was only 2pm. This was because the cliffs were so high that direct sunlight was only present for about four hours a day. Even though it was winter and we were next to a mountain glacier, the weather was surprisingly comfortable and I didn’t wear a jacket. We saw quite a number of people going beyond the rope with a tour group to go inside the glacier – which made us jealous, but we were trying to do this trip as cheaply as possible – so we built an inukshuk out of the rocks and headed back to our campervan.

As we made our way to the campsite for the night after having a burger at a nearby restaurant, we couldn’t help but still be amazed at the incredible stuff we’d seen thus far. What an incredible country and the trip was basically just getting started!

Next up, a very long drive! (go road trips!)

New Zealand Road Trip – Part 3

(This is part of a multi part series – to check out the previous entry, click here!)

Through the Mountains and Off the Rails

Road trips are a beautiful thing and anyone who has ever taken one knows the key to a successful adventure is a majestic destination, good company and a vehicle that works. Well, we had all three (one that occasionally gave us doubt but never let us down!) so it was bound to be a sensational trip.

We headed out of Christchurch for the route through Arthur’s Pass – a road that would wind and bend from the city to the ocean and on a map looked deceptively short. The only issue being the road bends and winds so much (and it was winter), that consistent speeds were not an option. Plus, factor in all the stops to walk around and soak up the surroundings and this was a leg that took us the whole day – not that I’m complaining though!

Let me just say, starting out, I knew it was going to be amazing. There’s just something about heading out onto the open road when mountains are in foreground that just shouts adventure. Coming from a place with relatively flat topography, mountains have always blown my mind and just seeing them makes me feel good. Australia is a fairly boring place as far as landscape goes, so to see this and some snow, was a welcome sight. I never got over seeing people pulled over to the side of the road picking up snow for the first time and throwing it at each other. It’s something I take for granted having grown up in Canada… and something I curse when it gets in the way of a good time!

Nothing boring here!

Nothing boring here!

We drove for a few hours through mind blowing scenery, winding around bends until we made it to the little town in the middle called, appropriately enough, Arthur’s Pass. Stopping to check out the general store and take a few pictures, we decided to hike one of the small trails that said it would take 30-40 minutes. Sure, why not! Granted it was probably better in the summer, it led to a waterfall and was a great way to stretch our legs and see things up close and personal.

Back in the car, we made our way towards Greymouth where we stayed for the night.

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Just mind blowing…

One thing I realized very quickly upon our drive through the mountains was just how dangerous this expedition could be if the weather was bad. The guardrails on the side of the roads were not always in place and traffic was sometimes a bit crazy – for an inexperienced campervan driver such as myself who was prone to stall, this did create a few issues. I felt bad for the drivers behind me but then also for myself, because some of them were driving way too fast. This wasn’t an unwarranted fear but very real, as the many crosses lining the road and billboards advising people to slow down seemed to indicate just how many lives these places had claimed.

Maybe they were staring at the scenery? I was guilty of that many a time… it was spectacular. My travel agent was kidding – it really was a postcard around every turn.

Next up. The Glaciers!

New Zealand Road Trip – Part 2

Arriving – A Bit of a Shock

(This is part of a multi part series – to check out the previous entry, click here!)

It was finally time to head to New Zealand and for me at least (I can’t speak for my buddy, but I’m pretty sure he felt the same way), this was the real beginning of the trip. Sure, in the future I would take vacations where I wished I had cut it in half because cramming too much in became exhausting, but this was not the case for this excursion.

Not really a fan of this place...

Not really a fan of this place…

We left Sydney at 8am, meaning we had to get to the airport around 6am, which meant leaving our hostel around 5am… which meant we didn’t really sleep that night. It was a combination of nerves but also because the lovely establishment we chose to patronize didn’t offer wake up calls and had no outlets in the rooms to plus a clock into. In hindsight, we should’ve brought a battery operated one (something I make sure to pack nowadays!) or at least our iPods, but again, with no plug to charge them after they died, it wasn’t really an option. Needless to say, we were exhausted but so excited.

With a three hour flight and a two hour time difference, we were set to arrive in Christchurch at 1pm and that part of the trip went off without a hitch. It was a nice little airport, not too far from the city and right next door to the car rental places – which removed a lot of the stress on the ‘how am I going to get from here to there’ front. It’s just something you assume will be easy until you take a few trips where it isn’t so much… and then you meticulously plan it out from that point on.

We filled out all the paperwork, inspected the van – a bit of a relic, but it would do (plus it had a shower, toilet, stove and fridge!) – we got the information about which roads we could drive on and how to put the snow chains on if it came to that (thankfully it didn’t) and then we were just about to leave when the girl at the counter asked us if we wanted a GPS. Having never driven in NZ before I was curious as to whether I needed it, so I asked. She got this funny look on her face and said something I will never forget: “Well, you see we only have like one road in New Zealand…”. So that settled that – no GPS.

It was around 5pm and the sun was almost gone, so we decided to find a place to crash for the night and got directions to a campsite not too far from where we were. Hopping in the drivers seat, I set out to get going. There was only one problem.

It was standard.

Now, I have driven standard vehicles before with varying degrees of success, but to say that I am comfortable with them would be a gross understatement. This campervan though was not an easy standard as the shifting was stiff… plus the stick had to be done with my left hand because, well, New Zealand drives on the left side of the road. So imagine me, jet lagged, kind of overwhelmed, driving stick in a different country on the opposite side of the road and just about to head into a roundabout.

Ugggghhhhhhh.

So full of promise - and not bad looking for the winter!

So full of promise – and not bad looking for the winter!

After a few wrong turns, stalling at intersections a half dozen times and some choice words between us (my buddy wouldn’t drive because of the insurance on the van being just for me, but was intent on giving suggestions that weren’t all that helpful), we somehow made it to a grocery store for provisions and then the campsite where we found a spot and plugged in for the night. We were asleep by about 10pm, set to get up at 8am to head out and see the country, hoping this first day was just working out the kinks and not an indicator of how the rest of the trip would go.

Next up, Arthur’s Pass!

New Zealand Road Trip – Part 1

The Planning – Months in the Making 

(This is part of a multi part series – to see the previous entry, click here!)

When I take a trip I do have the habit of working out as many details as I can so I can be sure that there aren’t any unpleasant surprises. Planning for New Zealand was very much the same, as this was somewhere I knew had a lot to offer and more than likely I was going to have limited time.

Also, because I was in school for the entire time leading up to the vacation I was holding onto this as my light at the end of the tunnel.

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Awesome, but not as great as New Zealand…

The timeframe was rather fixed and the budget was lean but with room for expansion. I had four weeks off, one of which I wanted spread out as a kind of buffer to decompress from school and then after getting back from travelling. Some of the time was going to be spent in Sydney and in the Outback at Uluru, which when that was planned out, left me with eight days to spend in New Zealand. Was this enough? Was I making a mistake by trying to cram too much in?

I stopped into the nearest travel agent and discussed the various points of the trip. He suggested to us (I should say at this point that I was travelling with a buddy), that not only was a New Zealand holiday like that possible but he did one very similar just last year at exactly the same time. He suggested instead of renting a car and trying to do the hostel thing that we should rent a campervan and just park at the campsites every night, of which there were an abundance.

This all sounded great but I was concerned there wouldn’t be enough time to see it all, to which he brought over the resident kiwi (he said he had to talk slower when she was around – gotta love the Aussie/New Zealand rivalry) and she said if you only have a week, definitely stick to the South Island as they’re roughly the same size but the South has ¼ of the population and much more rugged. Well she had us sold!

All in all, the trip was going to cost us $600 AUS each and include our campervan and return flights – uhh…. That’s amazing. It was a diesel van as well and because diesel wasn’t taxed in New Zealand, it was great for the long hauls and wasn’t even that much to fill. Sadly, we spent as much in Sydney for four days as we did in our entire time in New Zealand – and while I really loved Sydney, it just couldn’t hold a candle to NZ.

Our humble chariot

Our humble chariot

With the dates figured out, the fees paid and a guidebook firmly in hand, we started to map out how we wanted our trip to look. There were some things that were just off the table, like big hikes or anything too outdoorsy because it was the middle of winter and who knows what the weather would be like the day we got in. The travel agent told us just to drive the entire island and that would be enough… so we charted out a route that would take us out of Christchurch, through the mountains, along the coast to the south and then back up in six days (first day for getting in, last day for getting out).

It was ambitious, hectic and oh so nerve wracking as neither of us had taken a road trip in a foreign country let alone driven a campervan. We had a solid itinerary mapped out that mostly consisted of driving, stopping to stare and driving some more until the sun went down. We knew the margin for error was slim – if a blizzard hit or our vehicle broke down it would cause major problems that we maybe didn’t have room to accommodate. But we weren’t concerned – it was going to be an awesome trip!

What could possibly go wrong?

New Zealand Road Trip – Preface

Was I Ever That Young?

A long time ago, when I was a wee lad of seven or eight years old, I had a classmate who went to New Zealand with his family for a few weeks. Little did I know years later I would find myself there as well (that being said, I really had no idea I would do half the things I would come to do), especially when at that time I wasn’t really clear on where New Zealand was.

New Zealand? It just sounds made up.

New_Zealand_relief_mapI was familiar with Australia from the stories my mom and I used to read together before bed and movies – all the crazy animals, place names, that funny looking building by the water –  but New Zealand was something else entirely. Supposedly it was close by Australia. Maybe it was kind of like Australia but slightly different, like Canada and the USA. Interesting.

Years went by and I learned a bit more about geography, enough so that I knew where New Zealand was on a map but not it’s remarkable history or how very different it is from Australia – not to mention how far away the two really are from each other. To say it was on my list of travel destinations would have been generous as the typical places rounded out the list first – like Italy and Paris. New Zealand would be cool to visit if I got the chance but with it being as far away as it was and I being a lad of very little money, it just never seemed like a possibility.

Then two things happened in my life.

The first was watching Peter Jackson’s 12-hour long New Zealand promotional video, aka The Lord of the Rings. After that, everyone and their cousin had dreams to visit this far away land and have their own Middle Earth adventure. The second thing that happened, which ultimately made such a trip not only possible but insane to pass up, was my decision to study in Australia. While I was now aware that you couldn’t see one from another, I did know that I would probably never be closer to New Zealand than this again in my life.

LOTR

Even though I was that close, I still had reservations about visiting it, namely that taking the three hour flight would likely be more expensive than travelling within Australia itself. I later found out that being stationed in Australia opened up many deals that squashed my fears and made me realize it wasn’t a matter of if I was going to visit New Zealand but when.

And so began the planning…

Why Winter is Great for Travel

Every year as the weather warms up people jump at the chance to get out there and see the world – and why shouldn’t they? If you’ve been stuck inside for what feels like an eternity, getting outside and shaking up the routine can give you a new lease on life. Summer is the time for road trips, barbecues, beach parties, concerts and everything else in between – what isn’t too love?

The only problem is, everyone has the same great idea.

Don’t get me wrong – I love the summer as much as anyone, but after travelling to a few dozen locales during peak season and going through the same habit year after year, I’m ready to try something different. This is why I’m advocating winter as a travel season – and here’s why:

Fewer Crowds

One of the biggest reasons travelling anywhere is irritating is the sheer number of others who are also doing the same thing. As I mentioned before, peak season is that way for a reason and you have to expect that it’s going to be a bit nuts if you travel somewhere in the height of summer. Winter on the other hand, doesn’t have as many travellers. Maybe it’s because of the hazardous weather or maybe it’s because of the various holidays that mar being away from home, but you can be sure others won’t be doing the same things you are!

Hot Food is Amazing

Eating out on a patio is great, but enjoying a hearty warm meal in the cozy indoors is hard to beat too. A lot of destinations have great winter festivals centred around such food as chilli or roast meat because it’s best enjoyed when the temperatures plummet.

Deals to be Had

Most deals for travel come in the off season because there doesn’t need to be an incentive to travel during peak season. Places like New Zealand have great road trip potential through their flight and camper van packages that are far cheaper in the winter than in the summer. Resorts are about the only place that does get a lot of business in the winter, but even they offer deals in the winter months!

It’s Summer Somewhere!

The beauty of living on this planet with it’s tilt and wobble is the seasons we enjoy – meaning it’s never the same everywhere on the planet. If you live in the northern hemisphere and it’s summer, you can get away to a winter locale by visiting the south. Likewise, if it’s winter and you want a summer getaway, just head to the opposite side of the globe. Peak season isn’t universal everywhere as every region has their own set of holidays and favoured activities, giving you no shortage of great travel options.