Thursday, 24 May 2012

The Great Kiwi Road Trip: Part II, Episode II*

*And a little bit of Episode I because I was way too busy singing old Elton John songs and pretending to use my magic staff (didn’t I tell you? I’m Gandalf now…) that I did not even mention where we were in New Zealand’s South Island. What kind of travel blog is this??

So before I jump into our most recent adventures let me back up and tell you what we were doing last week when we weren’t watching Lord of the Rings movies.

We flew from Auckland in the North Island to Christchurch in the South Island, where we rented Chunk, our camper van. 

Chunk's roomy interior
We then drove southwest through the central lakes region and by Mt. Cook, which at 12,300 ft (3754 m), is New Zealand’s highest mountain. From there, we headed further south to the area around Queenstown, which is on the massive Lake Wakatipu and is surrounded by several beautiful mountain ranges; one of which is the awesomely-named Remarkables range.

I don’t know why that name tickles me so much, but I just love the idea of naming a mountain range such an awe-struck adjective. They aren’t named for their rockiness, or their smokiness, or after some person or tribe. They are named The Remarkables simply because someone looked at them and that’s the first word that came to their mind. I love that.

From Queenstown, we went to the southern-most region of New Zealand, imaginatively named Southland. Remember our first road trip in the north? That area was called Northland. I guess the Kiwis’ creativity stopped after The Remarkables.

Southland is well-known for its pristine mountains and fjords (the fjord area is called, you guessed it, Fjordland), including Milford Sound, which is New Zealand’s pride and joy: a long inlet of deep blue water from the Tasman Sea that winds through a gorge of snowcapped mountains, green domed hills and tall, cascading waterfalls that crash into the water below from sheer rock faces. 

Taste the Rainbow (and enjoy the dorky raincoat hood)
While actually a fjord, not a sound, Milford Sound is not only beautiful, but is also impressively remote and protected. For the nation’s most frequented tourist site, there is very little there in the way of tourist amenities and the Sound is left blessedly free of the kinds of crowds one would expect at so famous a place.

In fact, the entire South Island is conspicuously free of the hordes of tourists that should be in a country this stunning. As I’ve said again and again, New Zealand is gorgeous. No exaggeration (or at least, no more than usual, coming from me), every single hour of every single day that we’ve spent here on the South Island has brought us one stunning view after another. While I can’t say that New Zealand is the most beautiful country in the world, I can assert without a doubt that it is the most beautiful one I have ever seen.  

A large part of that is of course the natural beauty of the landscape, but another part is that this placed is simply untouched. There are so few people living on the South Island that the vast majority -and I’m talking maybe 80% here- of the island is undeveloped. Sure, a good chunk of that percentage is grazing land for animals (there are 45 million sheep for a population of 4.5 million people), but it’s still green and natural and has not been constructed upon. The rest is just virgin forest, uninhabited mountain ranges, naked coast line. We pass the most picturesque alpine lakes imaginable and no one has built a house on the banks, no one is cutting across them on a jet-ski. Sure, we see lakes like these in Switzerland, but there they are surrounded by mansions and piers, villages and public parks. Here, it feels like we have the entire country to ourselves.

Can you tell I am in love with this place?

After taking in Milford Sound by way of a boat cruise (which was kind of forced upon us: there is no other way to explore the fjord other than on the water) we enjoyed Fjordland a little more by hiking along the famous (well, famous here anyway) Routeburn Track up to Key Summit. I normally don’t bother giving the names of the hikes we do, but this one had such spectacular views from the top that I can’t keep it to myself. Behold:

Beautiful, yes, but coooold!
Also of note is the wildlife we have seen these last few days. While walking in the woods one day in a place we named the Enchanted Forest (shut up, it was enchanted!) we saw a wild parakeet in a bush right next to the path! Our pictures of him are embarrassing, but it was really cool to see a bird that we normally consider to be tropical in a place surrounded by snowy mountain peaks. 

See? Totally enchanted.

But that’s New Zealand: every climate, landscape, flora and fauna imaginable, all smashed together on a tiny island. Sheep on the side of the road one minute, seals the next. It’s insane.

Our other brush with Mother Nature was decidedly less magical: a creepy possum wouldn’t leave us alone one night. We could hear him scratching around outside and stomping back and forth on our roof. I kept telling Vincent, “It’s a possum, it’s a possum, I just know it,” while looking out the window from behind the curtains like a crazy old lady making sure the neighborhood kids don’t ride their bikes on her lawn.

Vincent remained skeptical until finally he decided to grab a flashlight and go look around. We both crept outside into the night, Vincent in front with the flashlight and me cowering behind him (which is perfectly normal- possums are gross). Suddenly, Vincent gasped, “Elissa, look!”

On the ground, in the beam of his flashlight, was a dead bird.

That was proof enough for me that there was a killer possum on the loose, and doing my most dignified version of the Chicken Dance, I ran back to the camper van yelling, “Possumpossumpossum!”

Vincent finally convinced me to venture back out in the darkness and we found the possum, high on a branch in the tree above Chunk.

Watching us.


Creepy-ass possum…

We are now on the west coast, where we will begin our journey north along the Tasman Sea for the next week before looping around back to Christchurch. In the meantime, betcha can’t guess the name of the westernmost region of New Zealand…


  1. Awesome trip! Read about you in Columbia Home. Have fun and be safe!