New Zealand was somewhere both of us were extremely excited to visit. Anaïs had never been and, while I spent a semester in college studying at Otago University in Dunedin, I didn't explore the north island at all. We were excited to return to a few places I had been and to venture on to places new to us both. Given how expensive travel can be there, we planned to spend only about a month traveling across the country and we needed to make our time count. Arriving from Tahiti, we hopped on a plane to Christchurch, picked up our transportation for the next few weeks (much cheaper for us to rent a car from there than Queenstown), and spent the night.
We woke up the next morning with the plan to drive to Queenstown, a six hour drive along Highway 8. To break up the long day and give ourselves a break from my driving (manual for the first time in 10 years, on the opposite side of the car/road...it wasn't pleasant), we planned a stop at Mount Cook, the tallest peak in Aotearoa.
The turn off towards the mountain is just a bit north of Twizel and after a pit stop or two for some photos of the approach, we reached the car park. There are a number of hikes you can do here, from 30 minutes roundtrip to multi-day affairs. Given our timing and the stress of my driving, we opted for the short Kea Point Walk up to a viewing area that provided great views of Mounts Cook and Sefton. We found a spot to relax and absorbed the incredible views.
Heading back down, we hopped back in the car and a few hours later, we reached Queenstown as the sun was starting to set. Famed for its winter skiing/snowboarding and summer adventure activities, Queenstown is a place where you can do a little bit of everything. With our budget in mind, we skipped out on skydiving, jet boating, or mountain biking. Our first day in town, we explored the city a bit, I got a much-needed haircut and did a bit more shopping, and we spent the afternoon in the Queenstown Gardens, enjoying the beautiful afternoon.
The second day we did a day trip to visit Milford Sound, the place I was most excited to revisit from my time here. Back then, I had a short, exhausted glimpse of the beautiful fiord at the end of the Milford Trek. This time, though, we took an afternoon boat journey with Go Orange that led us all the way out into the fiord, nearly to the Tasman Sea. The drive itself is long and we took 5.5 hours to reach the sound with stops in Te Anau, at Mirror Lake, and a few viewpoints with a packed lunch at one.
The boat voyage itself was really awesome. An area with extremely fickle weather, we were granted a gorgeous, clear day that at times was so sunny, our pictures were washed out. The captain did a great job maneuvering between seal colonies, Mitre Peak, and soaking us under double-rainbow waterfalls while explaining things well. Our sailing included a serving of fish and chips - a nice bonus. After 2 hours aboard, we made it back to shore and made the drive back to Queenstown. A long day, to be sure, but a rewarding one.
Our final day in Queenstown we decided to spend hiking. Since we didn't attempt any of the nearby multi-day Great Walks, we had to do something on foot. So, we decided to climb Ben Lomond, a 1,748 meter peak near town. Advertised as 6-8 hours return to the summit by the Dept. of Conservation, we took 6 hours roundtrip from our hostel. For most of the hike, the going wasn't too hard save the intense sun that beat down upon us. However, once you near the summit, the path becomes very steep and we slowed down considerably. We weren't in peak form that day and we had a rough go, but the views at the top were amazing:
To cap off our hike, we treated ourselves to the ever-popular FergBurger. While very tasty, we didn't think they deserved quite as much praise as they tend to get. Certainly not the best burgers ever, as some claim.
With our first stop in New Zealand coming to an end, it was time to get a good sleep and prepare for the longest day of driving we would face: Queenstown to Kaikoura.
We stayed at Bumbles Backpackers, a place we would recommend. Unique for a hostel, it used to be a motel and has individual chalets that have been converted into dorms and private rooms. It had a large shared kitchen that had tons of utensils, though lacked in storage space. There was also free WiFi that worked most of the time and was best in the kitchen. Free off street parking for those self-driving.
We had a fish and chips lunch special at The Waterfront that was really good. The restaurant also has a pretty good view of Lake Wakatipu and the TSS Earnslaw when it is in port.