The Enchanting Landscapes of New Zealand’s South Island

As decadent as it may feel given the past one-year-plus of pandemic lockdowns in much of the world, the process of travel planning can be almost as exciting (and certainly less energy draining) than travel itself.

It’s also one of the few stages of any journey when our minds can indulge in the fantasy that almost anything is possible. That is, before budgets, time constraints and even pandemics bring us back to reality.

So, when I began planning a trip to New Zealand almost 20 years ago this month — in those pre-Lord of the Rings film series days — I did more than my share of daydreaming.

I imagined myself hiking steep trails, exploring a whole new world of rare flora and fauna, trying local food and wine, and perhaps even seeing a Kiwi.

In case you don’t already know, besides being a demonym for New Zealanders of the human variety, a Kiwi is an elusive indigenous (and highly endangered) ground-dwelling bird species that, sadly, may become extinct despite great efforts to save it.

This North Island brown kiwi is one of approximately 68,000 kiwis remaining in their indigenous home of New Zealand. It’s been estimated that their population was once as great as 12 million. Despite great efforts to prevent extinction, kiwi numbers are had dropped from around 100,000 in 1998 to fewer than 70,000 by 2008. Photo: Maungatautari Ecological Island Trust

Dashed expectations are often the antidote for our most passionate daydreams, but in retrospect, the emotions stirred by imagining myself immersed in New Zealand’s abundance of nature, were completely insufficient. 

Considering I’d spent the previous 15 years exploring the splendor offered by Mother Nature in the Pacific Northwest region of the USA, I hadn’t expected to be quite so blown away by the natural beauty of New Zealand.

Yet, there I was, craning my neck to get the best possible glimpse of the late afternoon glow on the North Island’s rugged western coastline as my flight from Sydney descended toward Auckland International Airport on the country’s North Island.

Special Places Demand Diligence

Precisely because of its wealth of indigenous plants and wildlife, New Zealand’s government has historically maintained very strict quarantine rules in order to prevent outside influences from further damaging the country’s unique natural environment.

This diligence was on full display at the airport in Auckland as customs officials examined every item in my bags before clearing me to enter the country, even inspecting the soles of my hiking (tramping) boots for grains of foreign soil.

This attention to detail in an effort to protect the country’s rich natural heritage is a clear indication of the deep love New Zealander’s have for the unique landscapes and ecosystems of their progressive homeland.

Despite the fact that Auckland typically ends up near the top of most lists promoting the world’s most livable cities, I hadn’t come this far to spend time in even the most pleasant and culturally diverse of concrete jungles.

I’d spent 17 hours at 35,000 feet en route to this gem of an island nation for one purpose: To have a solo experience with the raw nature and majestic scenery of New Zealand’s South Island.

Auckland to Wellington

After only one evening of city center exploration, I boarded the Northern Explorer Train for the 10-hour journey from Auckland to Wellington, the administrative capital of New Zealand which is located on the southern-most point of the North Island overlooking the Cook Strait.

Once outside Auckland, the train navigated green bush lands before ascending the Raurimu Spiral onto a volcanic plateau passing the majestic volcanoes of Mt. Tongariro, Mt. Ngauruhoe and Mt. Ruapehu, before descending through river gorges to the farmlands and rugged seascapes of the lower North Island.

As I’ve learned over the years, volcanoes can be finicky. Their height and massive scale often create weather conditions unlike the lower regions around them.

And so it was to be on this particular day. As the train gained altitude, the clouds began to thicken until the air became filled with mist.

Even though the trio of volcanoes I had so anticipated seeing were content to sun themselves above the overcast skies, I was out of my seat and outside the train car at every stop along the route, hoping to capture a glimpse of other natural wonders.

Reaching the South Island

Although Wellington is a pleasant city built on green hills that rise up from the harbor, it was merely another one-night stand.

And, while I enjoyed walking its streets and having more good food and local wine that evening, the thoughts that danced in my head were of the natural wonderland that lay on the other side of the Cook Strait.

The next morning, I headed to the departure point for the Interislander Ferry which takes passengers from Wellington to Picton, a small picturesque town on the northeastern tip of the South Island.

The Interislander Ferry navigates several spectacular channels as it makes the 3 hour crossing between New Zealand’s capital, Wellington, on the North Island and the quaint (and toursity) town of Picton on the South Island. Photo: Henry Lewis

The spectacular ferry crossing follows the narrow Tory Channel, one of the Marlborough Sounds, before entering the larger Queen Charlotte Sound and finally arriving at Picton for the final 6-hour leg of the rail journey.

As noted in the photo above, few travelers sit on the ferry’s open viewing deck because remaining nimble is a priority so that none of the gorgeous vistas are missed.

The Coastal Pacific Train from Picton to Christchurch offers grand views of the Blenheim wine growing region as well as the rugged Kaikoura mountain ranges on one side and the Pacific Ocean coastline on the other.

Christchurch to Points South

Christchurch, the largest city on the South Island, has a very British feel with its nice parks, botanic garden and legion of foreign students studying English. At least this was true, pre-pandemic.

I was also fortunate to visit the the city prior to 2011’s devastating earthquake which destroyed the city’s landmark cathedral.

Despite its amiable character, after two nights I was ready to pick up my small 4-wheel drive vehicle and begin the most highly anticipated part of my solo journey along rugged coastlines and through jagged interior mountains.

Passing the Kakanui Range on the east coast road between New Zealand’s South Island towns of Christchurch and Dunedin. I’m reminded of this vista every time I watch the tracking shot of ‘misty mountains’ that opens the first installment of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings series, The Fellowship of the Ring. Photo: Henry Lewis


One of the many scenes that caused my foot to hit the car brake. The primeval feeling I got from seeing this landscape made me wonder if dinosaurs would come bursting through the gnarled trees of this forest set between steep cliffs. Photo: Henry Lewis

My Lonely Planet guide made it clear that I had far more places marked to visit than could be accommodated in a brief 7-day South Island visit, requiring me to trim my list down to a handful.

I’ll admit that I’d anticipated being wowed by the South Island’s snow-capped mountain peaks, but it was the eye-popping beauty of the isolated seascapes that caused my foot to slam on the brakes time after time.

It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.

Bilbo Baggins in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings

Ambling along quiet roads with one-lane bridges where locals would wait patiently and offer a friendly wave, I imagined I’d been transported back in time to a world where stopping to smell the roses was more than just a cliché.

Finding Nature’s Soul

After two nights in the lively college town of Dunedin, which climbs steep hillsides that overlook the bluffs of the wildlife-rich Otago Peninsula, I checked the map and mentally set my compass for one of the southern-most points on the South Island — remote Nugget Point and its lighthouse.

The topography of Nugget Point couldn’t have managed to be any more dramatic or idyllic than the magical view I beheld. 

Nugget Point is a narrow peninsula that extends into the waters of the South Pacific on the SE coast of New Zealand’s South Island. Other than a few rocks, there’s nothing but a seemingly endless sea between this point and Antarctica more than 3,000 miles (5,000 km) away. Photo: Henry Lewis

I savor those travel moments when you feel as if you’re the first human ever to lay eyes on such a spectacular vista.

As I closed the car door and headed down the path that threaded its way along the top of the narrow ridge, I mentally whispered to myself that this was surely one of those moments.

Like a giddy child who had eaten too much sugar, I found myself magnetically drawn to the lighthouse, the seemingly endless vistas and by the sound of breaking waves on the rocks 250 feet below.

Adding to my sensory overload were the reverberating snorts, whistles and  growls of the fur seals which lazily guarded their territories on the rocky beaches at the foot of the cliffs.

At the risk of sounding like Shirley MacLaine writing in one of her new- age novels from the ’90s, I felt as if I was an integral part of nature’s oneness at that moment. 

I lost track of time and I honestly can’t tell you how long I stayed, serenely alone, on Nugget Point.

Suffice it to say, darkness comes early in April in the Southern Hemisphere, and I hadn’t brought along any provisions for camping.

The realization that I had many miles left to go to the next town jolted me out of my tranquil state and I headed back to the car and on to the next town, Te Anau.

Te Anau and Milford Sound

The town of Te Anau might feel special in a less physically beautiful country, but despite its lakeside location with access for boaters, the town mainly serves as a jumping off point for adventures around the Fiordland region.

Regretfully when I visited almost 20 years ago, I wasn’t able to hike on the legendary Milford Track — the most popular of the country’s multi-day Great Walks — because it was necessary to secure a tramping permit well in advance of arrival.

So, early the following morning, I was back in the car and on my way to Fiordland National Park for a day hike and a cruise around Milford Sound.

Milford Sound is a geological wonder with its sheer granite cliffs and abundance of waterfalls. In this photo, one of the boats that provides pleasure cruises appears tiny compared to the spectacular landscape surrounding it. Photo: Henry Lewis

Those who love to travel often discover that getting to a destination is half the fun. And so it was as I drove the 1.2 kilometers through the cave-like Homer Tunnel, which at the time was still single lane, gravel surfaced and unlit except for my headlights.

Upon exiting the tunnel’s west portal, visitors are greeted by a fairy-tale land of polished granite cliffs, dome-like mountains and an abundance of water falls.

I suspect that the otherworldly beauty of Rivendell, the land of the Elves in Lord of the Rings may have been influenced by the magical landscapes of the South Island’s Fiordland National Park.

Milford Sound leads into one of Fiordland’s many namesake narrow waterways, surrounded by sheer granite cliffs. Photo: Henry Lewis


Early the next morning — still high on Fiordland’s natural beauty — I began the 3-hour drive from Te Anau to Queenstown, a well-known resort that nestles along the shore of Lake Wakatipu where I’d be spending my final 2 nights in this extraordinary part of the South Island.

Queenstown lies along the shore of Lake Wakatipu on New Zealand’s South Island and is completely surrounded by jagged mountain peaks. Photo: Henry Lewis

Queenstown is famed for its adrenaline-pumping adventure sports and skiing (during the southern winter), as well as being a gateway to many backcountry adventures.

The first permanent bungy jumping site was established here by New Zealander, A. J. Hackett, who is credited with exporting the adrenaline sport to the rest of the world.

Queenstown’s more recent fame has been associated with its use as a cast and crew base for filming many of the exterior scenes in New Zealand director Peter Jackson’s film trilogy based on J. R. R. Tolkien’s novel Lord of the Rings.

Wanting to spend the least amount of time possible in a car, I set my sights on a hike to the summit of Ben Lomond, one of the most easily accessible mountain trails near town.

The elevation gain of 1438 meters to the summit at 1748 meters was moderately difficult on this hot, sunny day, but the views from both the saddle (3-4 hours return) and the summit (6-8 hours return) were nothing short of spectacular.

1748 meter Ben Lomond rises steeply from Lake Wakatipu and is easily accessible from Queenstown on New Zealand’s South Island. Photo: Henry Lewis

The views of the Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown and the surrounding mountain ranges from the summit of Ben Lomond was nothing short of spectacular. Photo: Henry Lewis

I spent an hour at the summit chatting with two friendly New Zealanders about the state of affairs in their small corner of the world and learned a great deal about environmental mistakes made in the past and their struggle to guard all that remained of their country’s unique biodiversity.

And a Sad Farewell

The following morning as I drove away from the Queenstown–Lake District region and headed on the interior highway back to Christchurch, I felt a profound sadness.

I had only been able to scratch the surface of the South Island’s outdoor offerings in 7 days, and I wondered if I’d ever be able to return to this magical corner of the planet.

The drive back to Christchurch was made slightly less sad by the eye-popping colors of the autumn leaves. This interior region of New Zealand’s South Island is home to many fruit orchards. Photo: Henry Lewis

And, while I wasn’t fortunate enough to see a Kiwi during my visit, I survived being accosted by some cheeky Keas while I stood along a gravel road pondering the dark entrance to the Homer Tunnel.

Final Words and a Cautionary Note

Whatever you do after reading this, please don’t start researching the possibility of moving to this paradise permanently. Otherwise, I might be cut off completely by my Kiwi friends.

You see, this isolated island nation has already absorbed its share of expats looking for an escape from the many problems created by human civilization in other parts of the world.

The influx of foreigners — many of whom arrive with money to burn — has caused property values to rise rapidly, shutting many locals out of the housing market.

And, while still a very friendly and welcoming people, New Zealanders would no doubt prefer we visit and then quietly return back to the homes from whence we came.

As for me, I trust the nature-loving people of New Zealand to preserve the essence of what makes their country so very special.

Travel Note: Even though I was traveling around New Zealand’s South Island during what is typically the driest time of the year, I was still very lucky to enjoy such gorgeous weather. While the southern spring would allow visitors to experience the grandeur of the region’s snow-capped mountain peaks and thundering waterfalls cascading from the area’s many rocky cliffs, visibility would most likely be limited and driving made more tedious. However, if I’m ever fortunate enough to return, I will choose the wetter season of spring.



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  1. An interesting read with great photos!


  2. I would love to go someday. For now, we resort to watching some streaming TV from NZ and Australia. They often highlight the beautiful scenery.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Jim,

      I hope we all have a chance to visit such wonderful places in the future. For now, it seems to be enough just to keep the home fires burning. Enjoy the week ahead.


  3. I’m so happy you had such an amazing time.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Oh my, Henry, what an adventure! The beauty is so breathtaking, even more so in person I imagine. Thank you for this travelogue.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Rebecca,

      Thanks for your kind words. New Zealand was laid-back and very easy to like in almost every way, plus there were no worries with verbal communication. That made it easy to let go totally and just be part of nature. Stay well.

      Liked by 1 person

      • From the photos it looks like what I’ve heard is true that they’ve completely stamped out Covid there. Did they require you to prove your vaccination and take a test before you booked your trip?

        Liked by 1 person

      • Hi Rebecca,

        I think you may have missed the line at the beginning that says this post is based on a trip I took almost 20 years ago. New Zealand has, indeed, had very strict quarantine rules (as has neighboring Australia) in an effort to prevent Covid-19 from gaining a foot hold there. Honestly, I would feel very irresponsible to undertake such a trip at this point in the pandemic, even if it were possible to visit New Zealand — which it isn’t at the moment.

        To a large extent, the country’s effort to keep the virus at bay has been successful with the lives of most New Zealanders being minimally affected. Still, I do have friends who lost English teaching jobs due to foreign students being barred from entering the country. However, such strict measures have worked to keep the number of Covid cases and deaths very low and there’s been very little community spread of the virus.

        Take care and enjoy your Sunday!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Oh, I thought you were saying that you’d gone 20 years ago and recently went again. Glad you’re staying close to your once again home. Beautiful photos.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Henry, thanks for sharing your memorable trip to New Zealand. The landscapes are awe inspiring. Mother Earth, as revealed in regions left mostly untouched by our species, is truly a gift from the gods. How senseless we are in not doing everything in our power to preserve, conserve, and restore our natural world! Yes, the billionaires of the world have already secured their piece of Rivendell.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Rosaliene,

      While flights have always been expensive to NZ, it wasn’t costly to travel around otherwise when I was there in April 2003 — it was certainly less expensive than Western Europe at that time. I hear terrible things about the cost of living from my friends there now. I’m quite happy that the New Zealand government has taken some concrete steps (pun intended) to stop the foreign wealthy from controlling the country, and that does seem to be where it was headed at one point. For the past decade, wealthy Americans and Chinese have been accumulating land there whenever they had an opportunity.

      And yes, it is a country that symbolizes the positive aspects of environmental protection and good governance, in my opinion from afar.
      Take care and enjoy your weekend!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Beautiful country with magnificent natural resources and most importantly, with few humans.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Awe inspired by the beauty and magnificence of nature. I know I won’t be making it to New Zealand so thank you Henry for taking me there. Lucky you to have experienced all this in person.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Marios,

      Yes, I agree, I was lucky to have such opportunities. Still, there’s far less wear and tear on the body 🙂 by remaining an armchair traveler, so both are rewarding.

      New Zealand’s landscapes are truly marvels of nature. Enjoy the upcoming week!


  8. A gorgeous part of the world Henry, and one that is vividly brought to life in this article. I do hope that one day I can see it for myself. Lovely photos and oh my the kiwi is a fascinating creature.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Leighton,

      Thanks so much. I hope you have the opportunity to visit New Zealand. The culture would feel familiar to you, of course, so not as interesting as SE Asia. The landscapes alone on the other hand, are enough to satisfy any nature lover.

      Hope you have a great week ahead!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Having spent three weeks in New Zealand I also came away with the feeling that I had only scratched the surface of its three main islands. And similarly, I didn’t see a kiwi anywhere but the zoo.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much for your comments. I’m jealous that you had 3 weeks in New Zealand, although — like you say — I’d still probably go away with the feeling that I’d only scratched the surface. I’ve read that Stewart Island was (is?) the place with the best possibility of seeing a Kiwi in the wild, and I didn’t make it there. NZ is a very special place indeed.

      Liked by 1 person

      • True, Kiwi still live in the wild on Stewart Island, the third island, but you have to hike several days from Orban to be in their area and they only come out at night. Good luck!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Did you make it to Stewart Island when you visited NZ, and if so, how did you find it — more amazing landscapes, wilder etc?

        Liked by 1 person

      • I spent a couple of nights in Orban, a few houses clustered around the harbour, only a few hundred metres of road and yet a few cars. Then nothing, beaches and forests with no people; with geography in mind, you feel far from everything.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. Henry, I have always wanted to go to New Zealand and have over the years done some research on what to do, how to get around and what to see in this country. Apart from those breathtaking scenery in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, seeing the Maori culture is also one of the strongest reasons for me to go. Maybe it’s the shared language (Indonesian and Maori belong to the same family of languages), maybe it’s the similarities between Maori and many cultures in Indonesia. But watching the All Blacks performing the haka always moves my heart, and I was really happy when one day someone told me that I looked Maori. This post of yours makes me seriously think of going to New Zealand once the pandemic is over.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Bama,

      I wanted to at least mention the Maori culture in this post but realized there was no way to merely introduce it without it becoming the dominant topic, and I don’t feel qualified to write about the Maori. I didn’t have time to immerse myself in their culture when I visited NZ, but I’ve been told some fascinating bits by my Kiwi friends who grew up learning Maori songs and celebrating their country’s indigenous people in a way that, sadly, never happens in the USA. If I ever make it back there, I will fulfill that goal. Take care and enjoy your daily adventures.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Great post! I’m going to keep it in mind in case the pandemic ends in my lifetime, and I can do some serious traveling!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Kim,

      It felt strange putting this post together. The world of Covid has restricted our movements to such a great degree and I don’t see a clear end in sight at the moment. Enjoy your wanderings!


  12. Great post, maybe one day I shall be able to visit, its a long way to go!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Ogden,

      Yes, it is a long trek to New Zealand’s remote corner of the globe, but definitely worth the effort and expense if you can swing it. The world will need to make a lot of progress toward stamping out Covid-19 before NZ will ever be open to tourists once again.

      Enjoy the new week!

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Beautiful pictures. My husband really wants to go there. Both of us loved Lord of the Rings (books and movies). My two children are named after Lord of the Rings characters. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi PPJ,

      I hope you and your husband are able to fulfill that dream of visiting New Zealand some day. I’m also a huge fan of Tolkien’s books as well as Peter Jackson’s trilogy of films based on Lord of the Rings. The Bilbo Baggins’ quote I used matches my view of exploration perfectly.

      Take care and have a great week!


  14. This is a fantastic post, Henry! New Zealand is high on our list of places to visit. Many years ago we knew of a young couple that sailed to NZ and got lucky and found jobs and able to get residency. As you stated it is almost impossible nowadays unless you are a billionaire.

    Have you heard or seen the video about the world’s longest and highest swing? We would give this a try!

    Nugget Point reminded me about the many shipwrecks off the coast of NZ.


    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi John and Susan,

      I hope you can visit New Zealand at some point in the future. It truly is a special place with so many unique features. Thank you for sharing the links. I saw a clip about the bridge you mention in the first link and I’d certainly be game to try it 🙂

      Yes, I would imagine there are many shipwrecks off the coast of those rugged islands. Take care and wishing you both all the best in your neck of the woods!


  15. What an amazing post Henry! Thank you for the tour, the landscape looks fantastic!

    Liked by 1 person

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