We all have those crazy dreams in the back of our minds. The “what-ifs” and “maybe-somedays.” The things you lay awake at night wishing for.
New Zealand has been that dream for me for as long as I can remember.
Whenever things weren’t going right I used to say to myself, “If only I could run away to New Zealand.” Why New Zealand? I don’t know. In my mind it seemed as far away, perfect, and surreal as a place could get. I couldn’t think of anywhere else I wanted to go more.
I never actually thought I would go though. Too far, too expensive, no one to go with…
But then I did. I bought a plane ticket, took a month off, and magically found myself completely alone on the other side of the world. I had never traveled by myself before, and yet New Zealand welcomed me with open arms – summer air, new friends, and more natural beauty than my eyes have ever seen. It was by far the best month of my entire life.
So here are a few stories and photos from the first part of my trip. It’s only a fraction, but it will have to suffice.
I left Portland, Oregon on February 13th and landed in Queenstown, New Zealand (on the South Island) on February 15th. I did that on purpose so that I could completely skip Valentine’s Day. Queenstown is one of the most gorgeous cities I’ve ever seen. Nestled under rugged mountaints on the edge of massive, turquoise Lake Wanaka, the town is literally jaw-droppingly beautiful. It’s also one of the adventure-sports capitals of the world, so it’s packed with a young, vibrant crowd of people who love to fling themselves off bridges, cliffs, airplanes, waterfalls, you name it. I wasn’t there for that reason though – I mostly just wanted to see the sights in the surrounding areas.
My first 24 hours in New Zealand went a little like this: took a nap, went for a walk, partied at my hostel with strangers, watch them throw a girl in the lake at midnight (as part of tradition – also it was FREEZING cold), went dancing, ate mincemeat pie at around 3am, slept, grocery shopped, and embarked on a 12 km, 8 hour hike up a mountain alone. A little bit crazy. A lot of awesome.
See that mountain in the photo below? The one the path is pointing at? I climbed that. It was possibly one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done. Made it back by dusk. Barely.
After my hike I ate the most delicious burger of my entire life at Fergburger. If you ever find yourself in New Zealand, eat it. You will die happy. I got mine with brie on it. I wish I took a photo but I was too hungry and too excited.
The next day I got up bright and early to do an all day tour – the Dart River Jet Safari. I took a bus to the town of Glenorchy on the opposite side of the lake, then hopped on a jet boat and sped up the braided glacial rivers that lead into a place known as Paradise and Mt. Aspiring National Park. For all you Lord of the Rings fans, Paradise is where they shot Isengard. Once we were deeply in the middle of nowhere, (in an area only accessible by boat, foot, or air) I got off the jet boat and into something called a “funyak,” which is basically an inflatable canoe. Because I was on my own I got to ride with the awesome guide named Tom and I didn’t actually have to paddle! I just brazenly took pictures and birdwatched while going over rapids with a bunch of friendly strangers. We paddled down the river and into a stunning little gorge with insanely blue water before stopping for a picnic lunch on a flat overlooking the epic mountains around us. Could not have been a more awesome day.
After a couple snafus the following day (missing buses, sleeping in a park/on a beach and getting horribly sunburned.. etc etc), I eventually left Queenstown and arrived in the small town of Te Anau. I had one goal and one goal only: to see Milford Sound. So I booked a tour through Trips & Tramps and off I went. The ride to the sound was unbelievable. Dramatic valleys and mirror lakes give way to misty rainforests, glaciers, and peaks that climb so steeply you have to crane your neck to see where they end. And then you think they end, but really they climb several thousand feet higher behind the clouds.
When we arrived in Milford Sound we immediately hopped on a boat and set off toward the Tasman Sea. I could try to explain how awesome this place is, but really it’s easier just to show you.
We spotted some fur seals on the edge of ocean! And a few minutes later I saw my first ever penguin in the wild! He was a Fiordland Crested Penguin and he was hopping over some rocks as fast as his little flippers could carry him. I just about died of happiness. Of course he was too far away to take a decent photo, but you can just imagine how cute penguins are in the wild, especially when they have funny looking feathers on their eyebrows like this one did.
All this time just visualize me freaking out about how gorgeous everything was. I had to pinch myself multiple times to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. I’m pretty sure I was 500% more enthusiastic than anyone else around me, but that’s okay. To add to this, I decided at the last possible second that I wanted to take a helicopter ride over the sound as well. Because… why not? So within minutes of getting off the boat I found myself on a teensy tiny helicopter shakily making my way over the sound, landing briefly on a glacier and then meeting up with my group on the other side of the mountains. I can’t even begin to describe how unreal this experience was. Worth every penny.
After the helicopter ride of lifetime, I went for a nice little jungle hike.
Seriously, that might have been one of the most awesome days of my entire life. I sat by the lake in Te Anau after I got back, and took this picture of myself with my timer while I wrote the whole thing down in my journal.
From there, I took a bus and then a boat to Stewart Island, which is immediately south of the South Island. Getting over to the island isn’t easy, but once there it’s like another universe. There is one town, Oban, and it has a population of around 400 people. The rest of the island is a sanctuary to wildlife. As a complete and utter nerd and birdwatcher, it was like heaven. I got dive bombed by a parrot as I walked up to my hostel. I saw a new species of penguin a few hours after. The next day I saw something like 20 new species of birds in one day, including two kinds of parakeets, another type of penguin and a kiwi. Yes, I saw kiwis in the wild. Yes, it was one of the happiest moments of my life. Yes, they came right up to my feet and yes, they are the cutest animals I have ever seen. No, I did not bring my camera with me that night. Oh well.
This picture is a little blurry since I was on a boat and I was practically jumping up and down with excitement as usual, but here is a photo of a yellow-eyed penguin in the water. Cool right?
I also took a fishing trip out on the open ocean while I was on the island. There’s nothing quite like catching Blue Cod while trying to prevent two different species of albatross from stealing your bait. So fun!
I went for a couple of long hikes on the island, and these two things cracked me up: they actually have signs like this because kiwis are on the roads at night (after watching them in person one evening I can completely understand why the poor things are going extinct). And second, the population of Stewart Island is so small and quirky that someone put flowers in all the traffic cones in this construction zone. Such a funny, ironic thing to see!
After I left Stewart Island (with a great deal of sadness I must say), I spent one night in the rather ugly, industrial town of Invercargill before heading north again to Franz Jospeh Glacier.
This is what Franz Joseph Glacier looked like the night that I arrived. Mountains + glaciers + rainforest + palm trees. Baffling.
The photo below is an accidental long exposure – I was trying to take a photo of some glow worms in the jungle at night, but my camera fell partway through so I just turned it up toward the sky/trees overhead. Cool hmm?
For my first day in Franz Joseph I decided to go on a kayak trip with Glacier Country Kayaks on Lake Mapourika! I’ve never really been kayaking before but it was a blast!
The next day I actually hiked up to the town’s namesake- the Franz Joseph Glacier itself. I couldn’t get that close to the thing because a large chunk came off recently, but it was still weird to be hiking in 80 degree weather and have a glacier right in front of you. New Zealand, I love you, but you don’t make sense.
I spent the rest of the day wandering around town with some new friends, swimming and relaxing in the lake, and doing a photoshoot (which I’ll share later) as the sun was setting. So much beauty.
This is only the first part of the trip – so I’ll share more later in a second post! I’ve still got Punakaiki, Nelson, Abel Tasman, Marlborough, Kaikoura, Wellington, Rotorua, the Bay of Islands, and Auckland to share!