But the fact is, they had reached the place they needed to reach, for the hand of God always guides those who follow their path with faith. – Paulo Coelho
Remember that poster every school counselor had hanging in their office quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson ‘Life is a journey, not a destination’? Well never has this been more true in my travels than on our 16 day road trip in New Zealand and I was not expecting it.
There are two things you need to know about us that will help you understand why I wasn’t.
1. We generally don’t travel with any real time constraints due to the fact that we tend to quit our jobs and do a runner. Just kidding… kind of. (Priorities: life > work). In the past we have just given ourselves longer time frames, so we had plenty of time to enjoy the journey and the countless destinations without feeling rushed.
2. In the past year of living in Australia our travels have consisted of road trips. Most recently we spent six weeks living out of our Mitsubishi Mirage and a K-Mart tent while traveling the magnificent East Coast. (You can read more about that adventure here.) And with Australia being so gigantic, it really was about the destination. We could spend 6-8 hours a day driving through vast nothingness just to arrive at a half-way point toward our destination.
So I was expecting to spend our 16 days in the South Island of New Zealand driving long hours to take in the highlights one adrenalin pumping adventure after another. I don’t know if it was just my lack of research, but everything about New Zealand’s extreme nature took me a bit by surprise.
Expectation. In the words of Jackie Chan in Rush Hour, “What it is a good for? Absolutely nothing. Huh! Yeah!”
We set out from Christchurch heading southwest toward Mt. Cook and excitedly drove through flat farm land for a few hours before the Southern Alps became visible on the horizon. We ascended into the sheep groomed, exquisitely green foothills and watched the clouds slowly crawl down the hillsides. As we turned onto Bullock Wagon Trail on Lake Pukaki the setting sun cast shades of orange and pink into the sky illuminating the mountains from behind. I never really understood the lyrics ‘purple mountains majesties’ until that moment.
I felt calm and enthralled by the lake that night. We were back on the road; my happy place.
In the morning we opened the door of the van and gawked at the snow-capped peaks and crystal clear blue water. It felt as if we had been transported home to the beautiful Pacific Northwest Washington and awoke at Lake Wenatchee our favorite camp site nestled in the Cascade Mountain Range. A quick dip in the frigid water was exactly what we needed to clear the morning fog from our brains and connect to New Zealand. I couldn’t have been more excited to see what the rest of the island had to offer.
Making our way back to the East Coast was when we realized this road trip would be all about the journey. Every few kilometers we passed signs for scenic lookout points, cliffs, rivers, lakes and gorges. One of my favorite stops was not far from Lake Pukaki we managed to scale gigantic, crumbling clay cliffs and get an expansive view of the farmland that stretches through the valleys.
In one day we made it from ski to sea and on the way explored the quaint Victorian district of Omaru, home of Steampunk HQ and the country’s coolest playground. However, the best part of the day was when we made it to Dunedin and drove 20 kilometers out on the Otago Pennisula. The hillside juts dramatically up into the sky just next to the narrow winding road giving off a feeling of shelter in the harbor. At the end of the peninsula we were blessed to see a Blue Penguin and a Royal Albatross in the WILD!
After Dunedin the Southern Scenic Highway took us through massive rolling hills and along coastline that dipped, curved and stretched as far as the eye could see. There were so many moments when I felt like if I had gotten on a plane and not been told the destination I would have guessed I was in Ireland. Some of the greatest places we stopped were on the coast where cliffs drop steeply into the Pacific Ocean and massive boulders stand tall and strong amongst the crashing waves and forceful wind.
The untouched nature exuded raw power. It felt ancient and I imagine if it were an old man he would sit down, pour you a drink and tell you stories for days.
As we made our way back up north toward Milford Sound from our southern-most stop Invercagill the hills flattened out, except when crossing mountain passes and gold and brown entered the scene along with rainforests. We buzzed right through the base village Te Anau in a quest to get back to snowy mountains and see the rustic western coastline.
The road to Milford is approximately 120 kilometers, but we took two days checking out a majority of the recommended stops and again, it felt like returning home. Surrounded by water at every stop my soul felt at peace as I relished the views of rivers, lakes, rainforest and mountains.
We camped on the road to Milford at Cascade Creek near Lake Gunn. Not only was it cheap, it was the only place we got to have a campfire which helped us make friends with the birds who waited patiently for the bugs to retreat from the flaming wood.
We woke early the next morning to get on one of the first Milford Sound Cruises and were rewarded with clear blue skies and sunshine which is not typical for the area. It’s actually known as the wettest inhabited place in New Zealand! A benefit of all that rainfall is it creates and supplies the waterfalls, some reaching a thousand meters in length. Our boat took us just about as close as it could get without going underneath the waterfall and some boats get close enough for you to fill a cup with and drink the water.
During the 16 kilometer cruise out to the Tasman Sea we spotted a whale which is even more rare than a sunny day. Our boat captain said in the 12 years he has been doing tours in Milford he has only seen 11 whales; the reason being that whales actually don’t intend to go into the fiord, it happens because they get lost. Either way it was absolutely incredible to see.
Milford Sound is actually considered a fiord because it was formed by a glacier rather than rivers and reaches 400 meters deep in certain areas. It’s also New Zealand’s only fiord accessible by road, of course you have to drive through Homer Tunnel which was carved out of the belly of a mountain in order to get there. The tunnel is 1.2 kilometers long, incredibly steep and has had little work done to it since it was built in 1954.
My favorite part about going through the tunnel is seeing the cheeky Kea birds chewing on the plastic and rubber bits on the cars as they wait to pass through. As you can see from the pictures, the birds are quite large in size and are not averse to human interaction.
Heading back toward Te Anau after our cruise we stopped at The Chasm a nature walk that led to a waterfall within a narrow potholed gorge. The snowmelt water rushed violently down the river and down a few waterfalls before leading to peaceful crystal clear swimming holes if you were willing to get off the beaten path. We traversed the slippery track down until Jordan found a ledge to jump off of and the rest is history.
We also stopped at The Divide carpark and hiked up to Key Summit, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks. The hike itself was around three hours round trip and zig zags through dense rainforest before getting above tree level where you cruise steadily up the rocky path and try not to trip as you gaze out at the snowy peaks. At 900+ meters we received panoramic views of Milford Sounds National Park and couldn’t help but take a million photos. It was everything I imagined New Zealand would be.
Considering the abundant wildlife and natural wonders it’s little surprise that Milford Sound is New Zealand’s leading tourist attraction and considered by some to be the eighth wonder of the world. Couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to such a beautiful country.
More posts on the West Coast and North and tips for traveling New Zealand on a budget coming soon! So you don’t miss out, you can sign up to receive email notifications of future posts!