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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.