It has always been a dream to visit New Zealand so when we found a cheap flight during the Kiwi’s shoulder season (November) we jumped at the opportunity! Seattle – Los Angeles – Auckland – Christchurch with a 21 hour time difference. Besides the layover in Auckland our trip would be spent on the South Island what the Māori people call Te Waipounamu. That translates to the place of greenstone but the South Island should also be coined the place of sheep and really friendly people!
We made some ambitious weather dependent plans but spared plenty of room for spontaneity. Driving on the left side of the road was a mental test but it got a bit easier as we left Christchurch. There are a lot of rolling green hills and farmland with countless sheep and cattle. It often looked like the old Windows wallpaper.
Along the sides of road were always yellow broom bushes or our favorite weed, the lupin.
Our first stop after a 3 hour drive was the brilliantly blue Lake Takepo. I’ve seen many bright blue lakes before but this is by far the brightest blue. It was mesmerizing. I swore it would taste like Ice Blue Raspberry Lemonade Kool-Aid but unfortunately it tasted like water. To make up for that the Lupins were out in full display and so were the Southern Alps!
Certainly the prettiest weed I’ve seen just bursting with color.
Rising 3,000ft from the western shore of Lake Tekapo is Mount John. At the top is an incredible observatory in the heart of the 1 million acre Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve. You can also grab a cup of Joe from the aptly named Astro Cafe.
Unbelievable view, great chai tea and a beautiful lady!
Less than an hour away was a strong contender for the bluest glacier fed lake, Lake Pukaki. The best part of this lake is towering 12,218ft above it. You can’t miss New Zealand’s highest peak, Aoraki/Mount Cook when it comes into view. What a beast!
As we drove alongside Lake Pukaki towards Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park the views got bigger and better! The drive was long and winding with roadside Lupins making for great pit stops.
As we got deeper into the Alps the steepness of which the mountains rose from the valley floor was magnified. They were so ruggedly carved up with glaciers draping over top. Here’s Mount Sefton and the Footstool.
In an attempt to catch the sunset we ran up a half mile to the Tasman Glacier View. Aoraki’s Low and Middle Peaks poked out from the South, Tasman Lake stood before us and the Tasman Glacier retreated in the distance.
We saw the last light on two incredible peaks, Mount Biretta and The Nuns Veil.
As we retraced our steps it was hard to comprehend how vast this valley was. No wonder the Lord of the Rings was filmed here.
Blue hour was fantastic!
Aoraki/Mount Cook aka the Cloud Piercer is even more glorious then I envisioned. We could even see it from our communal dorm at the Glentanner Holiday Park.
We woke up to some beautiful lighting although Aoraki took to the clouds. As we headed towards the Aoraki/Mount Cook Village the ominous weather surprised us with a full rainbow!
Mountains, rainbows and sheep. This is what New Zealand does!
We feasted at the Lodge’s buffet for breakfast in preparation for a big day but our plan to hike and stay at the Mueller Hut would swiftly change just as the weather would.
There was little visibility and the forecast was looking bad. Once the Rangers warned us of the dangerous avalanche conditions we knew the hut would have to wait. They were really nice to give us a refund and we still stretched our legs on the Hooker Valley Track. Disclaimer: there were no hookers.
It was quite windy with a slight drizzle but we continued on as did many others some of which looking ill prepared. Loved crossing the huge suspension bridges over the milky white glacier fed Hooker River.
Looking back at Mueller Lake and Mount Ollivier you could see the clouds turning black. We were glad to not be heading up there and excited as part of Aoraki/Mount Cook was visible. After the last suspension bridge the mountains became lost in a blanket of clouds.
We turned back at that point and shortly after winds picked up to easily 50mph with giant rain drops crashing down. Safe to say it was a good decision to change our plans. Climbing in these mountains is no joke. At the start of the trail there is an Alpine Memorial honoring the mountaineers who’ve lost their lives climbing in the Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park.
After paying our respects and drying off we needed to go back to the Glentanner to use our free 30 minutes of wifi to find a place to sleep that night. We quickly found an airbnb in Wanaka then got back in the car. We didn’t realize where we parked so instead of backing up we went forward into a large rock that dented the bumper. No we didn’t get the insurance but Go Rentals only charged us $700 US for the repair when they could have charged us $1700 US. It was just a dent but everyone seemed to notice and either point or ask us about it.
The Airbnb in Wanaka was nice so we relaxed there while it continued to rain. The car was already having a bad day but then it started hailing… Once that stopped we got some fish tacos and checked out the most famous tree in New Zealand.
It’s the Wanaka Tree poking out of Lake Wanaka.
We crashed early and hung out with the host’s dog Gypsy. In the morning we took to the town of Wanaka drinking local beer and watching the rain pour down over the lake. Because we thought we may have to fork up a lot for this bumper we became more frugal and it wasn’t always a bad thing. The cheaper restaurants were still incredibly tasty. I highly recommend the Burrito Craft food truck and the lamb meatballs at the Big Fig. All the food in New Zealand seemed to be fresh and delicious. The menu would be like “This lamb is from Joe’s Farm down the street!”
The weather was still crummy but we enjoyed driving through the Kawarau Gorge on our way to Queenstown. The weather would only get worse so no Roy’s Peak hike but there are conveniently tons of wineries along the Hwy 6 so we checked a few out. The best was the Amisfield Bistro & Cellar Door. I never thought I’d say a Gouda cheese platter tasted like heaven but it did.
In Queenstown our main priority was getting a Fergburger. The burgers were worth the wait and certainly lived up the all the hype. Just as good was Fergbaker next door. We picked up some wraps and flatbreads for our backpacking trip the next day. The rest of the night was another relaxing one. We went to sleep dreaming of clear skies.
Early the next morning our wish was granted! The mountains surrounding Queenstown were impressive.
We had a lovely 3 hour drive passing many farms and rugged snow capped peaks on our way to the Divide to start the Routeburn Track.
We only ran into one traffic jam…
Before we could start we picked up our camping permit at the Fiordland National Park Visitor Center and made a pit stop along the Eglinton River for an explosion of Lupins.
This is Ellie in her happy place!
Once we set foot on the trail we both let out a sigh of relief. This is why we’re here!
The Great Walks of New Zealand are absolutely stunning, properly marked and well maintained. If felt like we were in the jungle.
But then toothy snow capped peaks start popping out behind the moss covered trees.
The Fergs make some great food!
We passed countless waterfalls but it was easy to tell which one was given a name. Earland Falls drops 570ft and provided a refreshing mist as we walked by.
Next the view of the valley opened up and you could see as far as the Milford Sound but the spectacular peaks drew our attention. There was also a little snow. Just enough for a few snow balls!
I loved the 3 peaks below. Ngatimamoe Peak, Flat Top Peak and Pyramid Peak.
We mixed up the length of the trail thinking it was 12.5 miles not kilometers so we arrived early and saw the impressive huts that clearly state that campers are unwelcome. Didn’t matter to us we were happy to be camping. Only one other couple would be camping there so we basically had Lake Mackenzie all to ourselves!
It was a wonderful view to enjoy for the night! Ocean and Emily Peaks are sweet.
As we explored further we found a monster lurking in between Split Rock.
It was a peaceful night and the sleep was great with numerous cascades making the perfect white noise.
Fiordland feels like Olympic National Park in Washington with a touch of the North Cascades.
There wasn’t much of a sunrise but the water was very still and the view was gorgeous.
The walk was truly great and we were excited to visit the world renowned Milford Sound later that day.
The mornings light on the mountains across the valley were spectacular and we could see our destination.
Some clouds started to move in but with it came a rainbow.
Earland Falls was spraying extra hard today and it felt great!
We cruised down the rest of the track and were soon back on the road. At the time I couldn’t remember why but I wrote down to drink from Monkey Creek so I did. Turns out it’s a pure glacier fed spring that tastes delicious.
Further down the road was the single lane Homer Tunnel piercing through the Darran Mountain Range. When you come out the other side a dramatic scene appears with mountains rising over 5,000ft from the valley floor. We stopped at The Chasm for a collection of gushing waterfalls and a conveniently located coffee truck. We’d be staying in a shared bunk space again but the Milford Lodge was really nice with extra clean facilities. As we waited to check in we grabbed a bite at the Pio Pio Cafe. Once the room was ready Ellie took a shower and I went to the Milford Sound Visitor Center picked up some cheap dinner for us and took in the stunning scene.
I got showered with wind as I walked along the foreshore. The scale is impossible to capture as the iconic Mitre Peak rises over a mile above the fiord. There was an unusual sense of magic to this place especially with the way the clouds took hold of the mountain tops.
Everything is New Zealand seems to be super sustainable. Bowen Falls below provides the entire settlement with electricity and drinking water!
Ellie came back out with me for sunset and it was a dream landscape. We were shocked we were the only ones out there until we met the sandflies from hell.
That night there were dueling snorers so sleep was less than ideal. We were up early and excited to take a boat tour of the Milford Sound. We first enjoyed some great eggs benedict and Ellie shared some divine moments with her coffee.
After Pio Pio we ventured back over to the Sound. The morning light was beautiful but we limited our time with the sandflies until our 9am boat tour with Jucy Cruises.
Once we started moving we could enjoy the sights without the sandflies attacking us!
In Glacier National Park in Montana we learned about hanging valleys and this one was really cool. The Peak to the left on the below photo has a very fitting name, the Elephant.
To be be moving and not driving a car made us happy.
Clouds were flying by Stirling Falls making for some unique sights.
As we worked our way out of the northern most fiord in Fiordland National Park we passed countless hanging gardens which were wild.
Our terminus was the Tasman Sea.
We were very pleased but soon after we became ecstatic! There were 3 Crested Penguins getting ready for a morning swim!
Shortly after a group of young sea lions were chilling on some big rocks.
We then took a bath under Stirling Falls for good luck. It must have worked because as we got closer to the shore the clouds moved out and the blue skies took over.
For some scale there’s a plane below the ridgeline on the left side of Mitre Peak below.
What a wonderful country!
We were headed back to Queenstown that night and were excited to get a nice meal to celebrate Thanksgiving. The weather was fantastic during the drive so we made plenty of stops. We had to again stop at the Eglinton River so the Wildflower Queen could watch over her disciples.
This Airbnb in Queenstown had a killer view of the Remarkables. Truly remarkable!
For Thanksgiving we sat lakeside for a family style meal at the Public House. Followed that up with more of our favorite hefe’s and ice cream! We certainly missed spending the holiday with our families but were very thankful for each other and opportunity to travel like this!
The sunset from our porch was excellent and soon after we were lights out.
In the morning we again indulged in eggs benedict then headed back to our favorite little town Wanaka. This time we took the Crown Range route that was covered in snow a few days prior. There were views for miles of mountains and farmland. In Wanaka we again opted out of hiking Roy’s Peak and strolled up Mount Iron instead.
That was probably a good thing as it started to pour right when we finished the hike. The highlight of the rest of the day was another burrito from Burrito Craft and some good music and beer from Rhyme and Reason Brewery. The following day we went back to Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park to hike up to the Mueller Hut or at least Seal Tarns on the way. The hike was almost completely comprised of stairs built into the steep mountain side. It was cold and raining but I was sweating so bad I had to go shirtless. When we arrived at Sealy Tarns we were stuck in a cloud.
We waited it out and eventually we were given a few moments of clarity so we could see the valley floor and the glacier fed lakes but not Aoraki/Mount Cook.
We were still happy to get out and stretch the legs. Before leaving the area we grabbed a beer at the Mountaineers Bar and dreamed about our return. That night we’d stay in the small town of Twizel. We had a delicious dinner at Shawty’s Cafe coupled with of course our favorite hefe. That night would be our cheapest stay of the trip but the people were the friendliest by far. We played with their sweet pup and made great conversation. That night’s sleep was also the best of the trip and in the morning a wonderful breakfast spread was laid out for us.
Our last day would be spent in Christchurch after filling out the accident info with Go Rentals so we could drop the car off before operating hours the next day. We had a second breakfast at Lake Tekapo and said goodbye to some sheep friends before hitting the town.
We went to the coast to touch the Pacific and get blasted by rain and wind on the New Brighton Pier.
The rest of the day was slow. For dinner we went to an awesome food court type place called the Little High Eatery. The food was great and with just about everything we ate was this fantastic hefe! That or the Tuatara Weiz Guy.
New Zealand is a beautiful country and I would recommend it to anyone! We’ll be back to stay at the Mueller Hut, climb Roy’s Peak, Gertrude Saddle and Alex Knob and check out the Te Anau Glow Worm Cave. Also would love to explore the North Island. We’ll be back Middle Earth! Thanks Kiwi’s!