Years ago, HK and I traveled to New Zealand for a month. He was working for a Fortune 500 company that (generously) gave high-performing employees a month-long sabbatical every 4 years. It was our first time to fly first class (on Air New Zealand, a fantastic airline.) We went in February, late summer in New Zealand. Our plan was to rent a car, spend 1 week on the North Island and 3 weeks on the South Island. That was a good choice, however, we could have spent lots more time in the country and still not experienced it all!
Our first adventure was in Waitamo, where we took a “Lost World Epic Tour“, a full day of exploring the cave systems in this area. We began with a 325-foot abseil into a seemingly bottomless ravine to get into the cavern. I was petrified when the guide told me to “just step off and enjoy the view.” The descent takes a full 30 minutes, and after the first 3 or 4 minutes, it was a blast! The next day was even more adrenaline-filled with the Haggas Honking Holes adventure. I highly recommend either (or both) of these day trips to anybody that likes a rush!
Tongariro Alpine Crossing is said to be new Zealand’s most spectacular one-day tramp (hike), and one of the finest in the world. It’s just over 12 miles, but with extremely steep ascents and descents, takes at least 7 hours to complete. Beginning in sub-alpine vegetation, the tramp takes you up the slope of a volcano, to the crater, and down to different-colored emerald green and turquoise blue lakes. HK and I are strong hikers, but I’m grateful that we took hiking poles to take some of the stress off my knees on the long, steep descent.
After taking a ferry to the South Island, we headed to the small town of Kaikoura, on the east (Pacific) coast of the Island. Here we unpacked our bags and settled into a little efficiency apartment for several days. There is so much to do in Kaikoura, including whale-watching, dolphin sighting, hiking, biking and, of course, eating seafood! There are several small local crafts shops in the area-a great way to spend a rainy day. We also enjoyed ourselves at the local cinema. We saw “The Full Monty” and had an absolute blast cutting up with the Kiwi’s in the audience. The theater had a 15-minute intermission for smokes and drinks.
Sperm whales and Dusky dolphins are found in abundance in Kaikoura. We spotted 7 whales, then took a small boat a long way offshore and swam in freezing cold water (with wetsuits) with a huge pod of Dusky dolphins. The captain basically lets the dolphins find the swimmers, and I found myself in a pod of about 30 of them. We were instructed not to touch them, just let them do what they wanted to do. 10 minutes was about all we could handle in the water. Hot chocolate was a nice warm-up.
As a side note, Kaikoura is where we purchased our travel mascot Willy and the Boyz.
The 3-day Abel Tasman adventure combines sea kayaking, water taxi’s and trekking, along with staying in one of the most beautiful little bohemian lodges at Awaroa. Our sea kayaking portion was guided, as the tides in this area can be tricky. In order not to fight the tides at the end of our paddle, we hoisted sail on the kayak and cruised right in to the beach. I swear, I’m going to look into buying one of those little sails for my ‘yak!
When hiking to Awaroa, it is essential to plan your crossing during low tide. The tides in the estuaries rise quickly, and, having missed our water taxi and window of opportunity, we ended up crossing in what quickly became chin-deep water, hoisting our backpacks over our heads! It was worth the effort, though. On arrival at the lodge, I’ll never forget swinging in a hammock listening to Cat Stevens over the speakers. It was HK’s introduction to one of my favorite artists, and to this day, Cat Stevens always reminds us of New Zealand.
We had never heard about white water sledging prior to our trip to NZ. We’re both fans of rafting in big water, though, and we jumped on the opportunity to steer ourselves down a white-water river on, basically, what looked alot like a kneeboard. A company called Frogz was the outfitter, giving us basic guidelines, transfers and equipment before our put in at “The Gorge” for a full day of over-the-top excitement. The “Chinese Dogleg” was the highlight, a Class IV rapid that begged to be surfed. I love this picture of me yelling “Outta my way” as I surfed over the guy in front of me!
Wanaka. Asked where in the world I could live, I have often stated, beyond a doubt, Wanaka. This is an adventurers town with more to do in a small area than anywhere else I have been. At least, it was that way in the 90’s. Sitting on our balcony sipping a beer after a strenuous hike, we watched people rising above the mountainous terrain with a parachute. One look at each other, and we ran down to the lakeshore and signed up. Our Tandem parapenting began with a brief instruction from our respective guides, followed by a cable-assisted lift behind a power boat over Lake Wanaka. (I don’t think they do this anymore.) Amazing views of the surrounding area took my breath away. Then the guide unclipped us from our tether and we were gliding at an altitude of 3000 feet. OMG! I have always claimed to be afraid of heights, but this was not terrifying in the least. I felt like an eagle for the 15 minutes that we soared over mountains. Landing was easy in an open field. (Not so easy for HK, he was captured by a strong gust and landed in the downtown post office parking lot!)
OK, I take that back. The “scared of heights” remark. I was in near-panic mode as we climbed to an altitude of 15,000 feet preparing to jump out of a perfectly good airplane. What were we thinking when we signed up for this following our parapenting experience? I wanted to chicken out, but being a total cheapskate,
HK , I, wasn’t about to blow the $$ we’d pre-paid Skydive Wanaka for the jump. So out I went, heart in throat. The freefall was what I assumed was my last cognizant moment of life, until the cord was pulled and we were just as suddenly floating back down to earth. Euphoria consumed me. Landing was a gentle trot on the ground and then I got to watch HK as he came in for an equally graceful descent. If you’ve never skydived, do it. You will literally be on cloud nine for days, maybe weeks!
Milford Sound is one of the wettest places on earth. And our 3-day Milford Track hike was one of the wettest backpack trips we’ve ever taken. Was it worth it? YES! At only 33 miles, it has been called one of the “finest walks in the world”. We had signed-up for a “guided walk” because a very limited amount of people are allowed on the track at any given time, and since we were on a tight schedule, we played it safe. Hearty meals, warm, clean lodging and drying rooms to dry our boots and clothing made our first “Hut to Hut” walk so much more pleasant. Plus we met some cool people on our trip. I have to admit, though, when we saw the backpackers on the trail, I felt embarrassed about being so pampered, since we are typically in the backpacking sector. Then again, seeing their soggy clothes and the sparse huts that accommodated them, I got over that pretty quick.
They say it always rains in the rainforest, and that just makes for some outstanding waterfall views.
Arriving at Milford Sound, we enjoyed a boat ride on the sound, located just off the Tasman Sea, surrounded by 4000 ft. rainforest and waterfall-clad peaks. Returning to Queenstown by prop plane, we reflected on our journey through this microcosm of landscapes and climates. The diversity of this land of contrasts makes New Zealand one of my all-time favorite destinations.