People tend to toss around a lot of adjectives when describing the South Island of New Zealand, many of which would sound like so much hype to the uninformed listener. However, in just one short visit it become apparent that words—be they adjectives or not—simply cannot convey the surpassing beauty encompassed by this tiny nation that is roughly the size of California.
Located deep in the Southern Hemisphere, New Zealand is remote enough to be off the casual tourist’s beaten path, yet its high standard of living and modern infrastructure make traveling about a breeze. In March of 2005 I had the privilege to do just that, completing a circuitous whirlwind tour in a little over a week. After just five minutes on the ground I realized that a week is far too short a time to really experience a destination so richly blessed with natural beauty and adventure opportunities.
Christchurch to Mt. Cook
Most international travelers arrive via Christchurch, the South Island’s largest city and the only place that can even remotely be phrased as “urban”. Even so, admiring the city’s Scottish architecture and charm nestled along the leafy banks of the Avon River prepares the visitor for the harmony between man and nature that lay just outside the city limits.
From Christchurch my journeys took me south on the well-paved highway that runs the length of the level eastern coast. Not long after passing through the small town of Ashburton my route turned inland, and before long I was staring out at the snow-capped peaks of the Southern Alps that formed the horizon. As I drew near, the road hugged the hilly shorelines of the glacial blue waters of Lakes Tekapo and Pukaki—large inland bodies of water with the jagged outline of the mountains forming the perfect backdrop. The tallest of them all is Mt.Cook, or Aoraki, as it is called in the native Maori tongue. The national park that bears its name offers easily accessible trails that admire the mountain from different vantage points. This was the first time of many that I noticed how difficult it would be to effectively describe the scale of the grandeur this country possesses all within a very small space.
Mt. Cook to Queenstown
Heading south through the small town of Twizel, it was a windy road through central Otago and its hills of grassy tussock dotted with scores of sheep, all the way down to New Zealand’s adventure capital of Queenstown. Here, the visitor can defy death in any number of ways, from bungee jumping, to an exhilarating jet boat ride down the Karawaru or Shotover Rivers, to an alpine slide perched high above the town.
Hugging the northeastern shoreline of Lake Wakitipu, Queenstown is a year-round destination, doubling as a ski resort in the winter months. The modest waterfront offers numerous shopping opportunities for souvenirs and local goods—particularly wool textiles, though the exchange rate and prices now favor European and Japanese visitors far more than their American counterparts. My most pleasant discovery was on a small mountain on the opposite shore called Deer Park Heights. It was here that Peter Jackson filmed many scenes for his Lord of the Rings trilogy and it was very apparent as to why. I noted here, as I did in several other locations, that New Zealand was truly as close to Tolkien’s “Middle Earth” as it gets. There’s sort of a primordial feel about the place that makes it seem ancient yet innocent at the same time. Cinematic fame aside, this quasi-animal park also afforded some spectacular views of the entire Queenstown region, from the lake to the river to the appropriately named Remarkables mountain range.
Queenstown to Milford Sound
It was from my base in Queenstown that I made my first attempt to visit renowned Milford Sound, only to be turned back by the heaviest single day rainfall in nearly a century. Undeterred, I once again made the three and a half hour trip to Milford Sound, the popular attraction located deep inside Fiordland National Park, which is itself part of a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site that is most certainly a worthy entrant. In a land full of superlatives, this place reigns supreme. My jaw began to hurt from repetitive dropping as the road wound past raging boulder-strewn rivers, towering mountains ringed with temperate rain forest, and more waterfalls than I could count. Mind you, this was all just on the periphery. Once through the Homer Tunnel it was a short yet scenic drive to the terminus of Milford Sound—a cluster of buildings housing a visitor’s center, restaurant, and many sales counters for the various boats that ply the waters out to the mouth of the Tasman Sea and back. I boarded one such vessel and was soon admiring the gushing spout of Lady Bowen Falls. Once again the issue of scale came to mind as I watched other boats drift by its base, dwarfed by 4000 foot near-vertical cliffs rising up to glacier-topped peaks. It was then that our captain altered our course to bring us parallel with a pod of bottlenose dolphins arching in and out of the water. Later on the animal encounters continued as we saw an adorable pack of sea lions lounging atop the rocks at the base of yet another waterfall.
When the boat was finally settled into its moorings across from triangular and iconic Mitre Peak, I realized that in all my travels, and they are many, I have never seen another place that could match the natural splendor and grandeur that I witnessed here. And as I returned, tired yet satisfied to my rental car for the long trek back to Queenstown, I couldn’t suppress a smile. After all, leaving paradise behind is not so hard when you know that you still have so much more of it on the road ahead.