Itinerary: Auckland – Waipoua Kauri Forest – Paihia – Bay of Islands – Rotorua – Whakarewarewa Thermal Park – Wai-o-Taipu – Tongariro National Park – Wellington – Marlborough Sounds – Marlborough Wine Region – Abel Tasman National Park – Punakaiki – Westland Tai Poutini National Park – Wanaka – Mount Aspiring National Park – Fiordland National Park – Dunedin – Otago Peninsula – Christchurch
The Maori call it Aotearoa, which means ‘long white cloud’. We know the country as New Zealand, the name it owes to a Dutch explorer. Abel Tasman was on an expedition from India in 1642 when he discovered a large island in the South Pacific. After he stopped his ship off the coast, islanders (Maori) arrived to see who they were dealing with. Tasman, however, thought he was being attacked. A short fight ensued and then Tasman took off. New Zealand thus owes its name to a Dutchman who never set foot there.
New Zealand consists of the North Island (Te Ika a Maui in Maori) and the South Island (Te Waipounamu) and a number of small islands. These islands were formed millions of years ago by the movement of the Earth’s crusts on the boundary of the Pacific and Asian plates. Volcanic eruptions have literally pushed the islands up from the sea. The result are spectacular landscapes of mountains, valleys, volcanoes, glaciers, fjords, forests and geysers. A chain of (mostly no longer active) volcanoes runs almost the entire length of the two islands. They are part of a much larger volcanic area, called the ‘Pacific Ring of Fire’, which for example also includes Hawaii.
New Zealand covers an area of approximately 275,000 square kilometers, making it slightly larger than the United Kingdom and slightly smaller than Norway. The country has only 4.6 million inhabitants (known as “kiwis”), of which 65% are of European descent and 15% are Maori. Most people (63%) live on the smaller North Island, the South Island (20%) is much more sparsely populated. No less than a third of the country is protected nature reserve.
For a long time the islands were uninhabited. About the year 1200, Maori, a Polynesian people, migrated from other islands in the Pacific to present-day New Zealand. They had no writing system (Maori is a solely spoken language) and their history and culture has been passed down orally. In 1769, an expedition led by James Cook arrived in New Zealand. It was the beginning of a period of peaceful cooperation between the Maori and Europeans, who sent scientific expeditions, whalers and missionaries to the islands.
In 1840, the increasingly close cooperation led to the Treaty of Waitangi, which gave the Maori full rights as British citizens, but placed the administration of the country in the hands of the British. However, the English translation of the treaty differed from the Maori version, making it unclear to the Maori that they were in danger of losing their land. In the following decades the population increased enormously; loads of people from the United Kingdom, Scotland and Ireland migrated to New Zealand. This led to numerous armed conflicts between Europeans and Maori. In the end, the Europeans would win the day: in 1916 the British controlled the entire country and the independence of the Maori had come to an end.
Seen from the Netherlands, New Zealand is literally on the other side of the globe. It’s our ‘antipode’: punch a hole right through the center of the earth and you end up close to New Zealand. I litterally cannot go further away from home. The downside of that is that it’s a terribly long flight to get to New Zealand: in my case first fourteen hours to Singapore and then another ten hours to Auckland. You have no choice but to sit it through. But it’s worthwhile: you get something really rewarding in return!
I start my journey in Auckland, located on the North Island. Auckland is New Zealand’s largest city (but not the capital, which is Wellington). As much as a third of New Zealand’s population lives in Auckland.
My arrival in Auckland is very smooth. New Zealand is very strict about what is allowed into the country: you are not allowed to have anything animal or vegetable and no food (not even packaged) with you. If you have any outdoor gear that has been used recently, it will be checked and cleaned if necessary. This way, the country keeps diseases at bay. Despite these strict requirements – and after a quick glance at my hiking boots – I am admitted. It only took twenty minutes. Next, the Skybus takes me to the city center in half an hour. It’s 1 a.m. local time when, after a long journey, I go to bed.
The next morning it’s cloudy and slightly rainy, just like the weather forecast predicted. Like the Netherlands, New Zealand has a maritime climate and the weather here is just as changeable as it is at home. It’s Labor Day and therefore a day off for the kiwis. I start the day with coffee, at a coffee shop a stone’s throw from my hostel. New Zealanders are coffee lovers, so you can get good coffee everywhere. My first stop is the Auckland Museum, not only a fitting place given the weather, but also an appropriate place to start my journey. The Maori wing of the museum is highly recommended and a perfect introduction to New Zealand’s Maori culture.
One of the museum’s highlights is the Ta Toki a Tapiri, a 25-metre long canoe, made in 1836 from one large trunk of the Kauri tree. The canoe, which is richly decorated with wood carvings, can accommodate up to a hundred warriors. The Maori were, and are, masters of woodcarving. Houses, canoes, weapons, everything is decorated with carvings, many of them referring to – and in honor of – ancestors. For Maori, everything revolves around family and origin. All social life is determined by consanguinity. The Maori consider the earth (Papatuanuka, the mother) and the sky (Ranginui, the father) to be the ancestors from which man originated. Because of that connection, according to the Maori, we must treat the world in which we live with respect. The museum also pays attention for Ta Moko, the tattoo art of the Maori. The lines which the Maori draw their on faces and limbs refer to the earthquakes and volcanoes that create lines, ‘scars’, in the landscape. Traditionally, the Maori use primitive instruments to make grooves in their skin, which not only look graceful, but sometimes also downright impressive.
After viewing the impressive collection of the beautiful Auckland Museum, I walk from the Auckland Domain, the large city park where the museum is located, to the Auckland Art Gallery, a free museum with both ancient and modern art, plus a large wing dedicated to contemporary Maori art. Next to the Auckland Art Gallery is Albert Park, a lovely place to relax and enjoy the weather (by now the sun has broken through the clowds). Next to it is the university campus, which includes the Old Government House from 1865, the original seat of the British colonial government, and the striking University Clock Tower from 1926. Via the busy Queen Street and Aotea Square I walk to the Ponsonby district, where many restaurants and cafes are located. That sounds fun, but it turns out a bit disappointing. Few people are there, maybe because it’s Labor Day.
My second day in Auckland starts on High Street, where every third shop is a coffee bar. Auckland is a pleasant city to be, it has a relaxed atmosphere, but it is not really a beautiful city. The center (CDB – Central Business District) is full of ugly buildings. If you look closely, you can still see some historic buildings here and there. The city sits atop an active volcanic area. Because the landscape has been shaped by volcanic eruptions, Auckland is not a flat city: all the streets lead up and down. So I guess it’s no surprise that you hardly see anyone cycling here…
At the end of Queen Street, the long straight street that runs like a main artery through the center, are the Britomart and Wynyard Quarters, which border the water of the Waitemata Harbor. Here you will find piers where the ferries depart. This used to be a commercial port area, but in recent years the neighborhoods have been refurbished and turned into hip neighborhoods with shops, restaurants and cafes and a pedestrian promenade overlooking the water. At Wynyard Quarter, where the marina is also located, you also have a beautiful view of the Auckland skyline. A nice place to relax.
By the end of the morning I walk to the Ferry Building and buy a ticket for the ferry to the Devonport district, across the bay. Not that I really want to go to Devonport, but Auckland is so connected to the water that getting out on the water is a bit of a ‘must’ when you visit the city. Devonport feels like a village, with old wooden houses and a pedestrian promenade, the King Edward Promenade, with small beaches. And across the bay you have a beautiful view of Auckland’s skyline, which is dominated by the Skytower. This 328 meter high tower, the tallest structure in the southern hemisphere, towers above everything. A visit to the Skytower is quite worthwhile. In forty seconds the elevator takes you to the fiftieth floor, where you have a fantastic 360 degree view of the city. Not only all around, but also vertically downwards on the glass floor panels. Which are a bit creepy to be standing on…
Northland & The Bay of Islands
After two days in Auckland, I pick up my rental car. Driving in New Zealand requires your attention, because cars are supposed to drive on the left side of the road. Luckily, I already have quite some experience with that (having driven in Ireland, South Africa and Australia), but I must admit that during my stay in New Zealand I will mistakenly open the door on the left side of the car to get in, while the steering wheel is to be found on the other side. Anyway, via Motorway 1 (one of the few stretches of highway I will encounter) I leave Auckland in a northerly direction. Once you’ve left the city, you’ll enter a landscape with green hills. It reminds me a bit of Ireland, until you come across a sign that warns of kiwis crossing…
I don’t take the shortest route to Paihia, my destination for today, but drive down Highway 12 (which, contrary to what the name suggests, is a two-lane road) to the Kauri Coast. This area used to be completely covered with Kauri trees, which can grow up to sixty meters high and reach a diameter of five meters. At the protected Waipouri Kauri Forest, a trail leads into the forest to some very large and very old kauris. The oldest, called Tane Mahuta, is estimated to be 2,000 (!) years old, making it the oldest living kauri on the planet.
I soon find out that the travel time in New Zealand is always longer than the route planner predicts. There are virtually no highways (only near the big cities), it’s mainly two-lane roads where you can drive up to 100 kilometers per hour, but you’ll often be going slower than that because the roads wind up and down through the hilly and mountainous landscape. Straight stretches of road are a rarity and because the roads are only two lanes, driving is strenuous. And on occasion you come across a ‘one lane bridge’, a bridge with, strangely enough, only one lane, where one side always has right of way. Why they don’t also make those bridges two-lanes wide is beyond me…
At the end of the afternoon I arrive in Paihia, which is like entering another world. Paihia is a small village, beautifully situated on a bay with clear blue water and a crescent-shaped beach. The beautiful sunny weather completes the subtropical picture. In the hostel I have ‘a room with a view’: I look out over the bay and I only have to cross the street to reach the beach. With my flip-flops I walk down the beach and the boulevard of the village for a while and I end the day in a lounge chair on the terrace of one of the restaurants on the water.
The next morning I report to the pier at half past eight for a boat trip to the Bay of Islands. The Bay of Islands (Pewhairangi in Maori) is – as the name suggests – a large bay with about 150 uninhabited islands, on the north side of the North Island. The town of Russell, near Paihia, was the first permanent British settlement in New Zealand in the eighteenth century. I get a spot on the top deck, from where you have a fantastic view. We sail by different islands and stop for a while near a school of dolphins who like to swim around the boat and show us their faces. According to the tour guide, with dolphins family ties, friendships and relationships are intertwined, describing their relationship as “friends with benefits.”
We sail all the way to the end of the bay, to the 148 meter high rock island of Piercy Island (Motukokako in Maori), better known as ‘Hole in the Rock’. The photogenic rock island has a natural opening, through which our boat – if there is not too much swell – just fits. There is a strong wind, which creates quite a few waves, but the skipper carefully navigates the boat under the rock. According to the Maori, sailing under the rock without getting a rock on your head means luck. It’s a beautiful boat trip, well worth it.
Back in Paihia I visit the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, just outside Paihia, on the bay. The Bay of Islands is not only a beautiful setting, but also historically significant as the ‘birthplace of New Zealand’. Here, on February 6, 1840, the treaty between representatives of the British crown and Maori leaders was signed. After lengthy discussions among themselves, more than 500 Maori leaders would eventually sign the treaty. As mentioned, the treaty was the beginning of a lot of misery for the Maori. What is now called the Treaty House was the British residence at the time. Opposite is a Maori meeting house, which was built in 1940 on the occasion of the centenary of the treaty. On the lawn in front of the Treaty House is a large flagpole with the United Maori flag, the British Union flag and the New Zealand flag.
Rotorua, Whakarewarewa and Wai-o-Tapu
On Friday morning I leave Northland and with it the beautiful weather. From Auckland to Hamilton the sky is gray and the rain comes down in large quantities. Fortunately, once I arrive in Rotorua, it’s only drizzling a little. It’s been a long drive of 6.5 hours and for the rest of the afternoon I do not do much. The next day it is drizzly again and only 14 degrees. I don’t need my flip-flops here… With my coat and umbrella I walk to Whakarewarewa, on the south side of Rotorua. Whakarewarewa is an ‘authentic’ Maori village where Maori actually live, but at the same time it has of course been commercialized to attract tourists. Nevertheless a tour of the village gives a nice impression of how these Maori live today. Although the inhabitants have adapted to modern New Zealand society (they have cars and air conditioning and television), they also maintain their traditions.
What makes Whakarewarewa special is that it is located in a geothermal active area, surrounded by geysers, hot springs and boiling mud pools. The earth’s crust here is very thin and everywhere steam rises from the sources and cracks in the ground. The Maori have used the springs for cooking and bathing for hundreds of years. Food is packed and prepared atop a steaming hole in the ground. Although the sulfur smell (which you can smell throughout Rotorua) suggests otherwise, the hot springs are extremely clean and you can even cook vegetables in them. And the minerals in the water are said to be good for you too. On the outskirts of the village, two geysers spew boiling hot water into the air about every hour: the Pohutu geyser and the Prince of Wales geyser. The tour is followed by a half-hour performance by Te Pakiri, a Maori dance group, who perform some traditional Maori songs and of course the famous Haka (war dance). Touristy, sure, but still nice to get a taste of the Maori culture.
I will not waste too many words on the totally uninteresting and un-atmospheric center of Rotorua. On Sunday morning I leave Rotorua and drive to Wai-o-Tapu, about twenty kilometers south. Here, geothermal activity has resulted in an area of deep craters, boiling hot pools, bubbling hot springs and steaming geysers. All around you, hot steam rises from the earth’s surface, heated by the magma below, and minerals in the ground create yellow, green and red effects, giving the already special environment an otherworldly appearance. The most beautiful are the Champagne Pool with its orange-red color and Devil’s Bath, a crater filled with improbably bright green water. It’s not all as big and impressive as Yellowstone National Park in the United States, but very beautiful to see.
After Wai-o-Tapu, I continue south towards Taupo, which sits on a large lake (unsurprisingly called Lake Taupo) formed by a volcanic crater which filled with water after thousands of years of activity. Also close to Taupo are the Huka Falls, where the Waikato River flows with great force down a narrow gorge.
Tongariro National Park
Via Turangi I arrive at the edge of Tongariro National Park in the afternoon. Tongariro is a large mountainous nature reserve, in the middle of the central plateau of the North Island. The heart of this area is formed by three volcanoes: the 2,797 meter high Ruapehu, the 2,287 meter high Ngauruhoe and the 1,967 meter high Tongariro (remarkably, the park is named after the smallest of the three volcanoes). These volcanoes are also the result of the shifting earth crust that literally pushed New Zealand up from the sea millions of years ago, although these volcanoes were formed later, about 300,000 years ago. They are now on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Until well into the last century, these volcanoes were regularly active and Tongariro even erupted as recently as 2012.
As I drive into the area of green-clad mountains, it’s raining and thick gray clouds obscure the mountains. I take a short walk to Rotopounamu Lake, on the north side of the park. The walk runs through the forest, slightly up to the lake, which is serene (it’s dead quiet), but also a bit gray. In the course of the afternoon I arrive at my hostel, on the main road, in the middle of nowhere. I am one of only a few guests.
When I drive into the national park early the next morning, it’s only about ten degrees, but luckily it’s sunny. Yesterday’s thick gray clouds have disappeared and the volcanoes are now visible. The snow-capped peak of the Ruapehu sparkles in the sun, an incredibly beautiful picture. A little further on I see the perfectly conical shape of the Ngauruhoe, a volcano as you would draw a volcano. What a difference from yesterday and what a fantastic view! The weather is great for walking and the walk to Taranaki Falls and Tama Lakes is beautiful. You walk down a well-maintained path and after an hour’s walk you come to the Taranaki Falls, a beautiful, twenty meter high waterfall. A little further on, you’ll cross a bridge with a fantastic view of the snowy peak of Ruapehu, with the Taranaki River in the foreground. Then it’s an hour’s walk to the Tama Lakes. The path goes up and down and some parts are quite tough, but overall it’s doable. The Tama Lakes are crater lakes, just like Lake Taupo flooded volcanic craters. In total, the 15-kilometer walk takes four hours. A beautiful walk!
On Tuesday morning I get up early and in four hours I drive from Tongariro National Park to Wellington. I hand in the rental car, drop off my luggage at my hostel and walk into town. It’s beautiful sunny weather. New Zealand’s capital doesn’t have that many sights, except maybe for the ‘Beehive’, the addition to the parliament building which was constructed in the 1980s, and which, as the name suggests, looks like a beehive. Wellington is New Zealand’s third largest city after Auckland and Christchurch. The city is located on a bay, Wellington Harbour, with a pedestrian promenade that leads to the Te Papa Tongarewa Museum, New Zealand’s free-access national museum. I explore the Maori part, but the Auckland Museum appealed to me more.
In the past century, 100,000 New Zealand soldiers left the port of Wellington to fight in the First World War. An enormous number, considering that New Zealand had only one million inhabitants at the time. So ten percent of the population went to fight – in a war that wasn’t even theirs, on the other side of the world, especially in France and Belgium. Many New Zealanders also fought in the Second World War. I think it’s a piece of history that is not so well known, at least I didn’t know it.
Marlborough Sounds & Wine Region
The next morning I cross the street to the ferry terminal, where at 8 a.m. the ferry to the South Island leaves. Or as they say on the south island: the mainland. In 3.5 hours we sail across the Cook Strait, a relaxed cruise, on a spacious ferry with seats, a bar and a deck to enjoy the view outside. There’s a strong wind blowing, but the water is calm (they say the crossing can be rough for people with a weak stomach).
As we approach the South Island, the most beautiful part of the crossing begins. The north side of the South Island consists of green mountains and countless ‘sounds’. A sound is a river or valley flooded by the adjacent sea due to the sinking of the bottom or the rising of the sea level. This differentiates sounds from fjords, which are also ‘inlets’, but ones that has been carved out by a glacier. Okay, so on the north side of the South Island are the Marlborough Sounds. Via the Tory Channel we sail into the Queen Charlotte Sound (Totaranui in Maori). Surrounded by densely wooded hills that rise directly from the water. A beautiful environment.
Around noon we sail into Picton harbour. Picton is a small village, that comes to life only in the tourist season. It’s spring now, so not that busy yet, except there’s a Holland America Line cruise ship in the harbor. A marina, some restaurants, cafes and souvenir shops, that’s about it. My room in the hostel where I’m staying is a kind of cabin with a veranda in front. A good place to chill.
The next day (Thursday) the weather is nice for walking and that’s convenient, because I’m going to walk along the Queen Charlotte Sound. Along the marina of Picton I walk up the Bob’s Bay Track. A narrow, unpaved path leads past the wooded hills, with occasional glimpses of the water and the equally wooded hills on the other side. Bob’s Bay, where you arrive after half an hour’s walk, is a small bay with an equally small beach. I continue my walk on the Snout Track. The views over the Queen Charlotte Sound are magnificent. In just over an hour you walk to Queen Charlotte View, a high point, where you have an amazing view. You can see almost the entire Queen Charlotte Sound. After sitting down here for half an hour, I start the walk back. In all I walk for more than three hours.
On Friday I’m already halfway through my journey in New Zealand. I have booked a wine tasting tour in the Marlborough Wine Region. It turns out I’m the only one and so I get a private tour. The Marlborough Wine Region roughly covers the Wairau Plain between the Wither Hills and the Richmond Ranges. Three quarters of New Zealand’s wine is made here. New Zealand is a young wine country: the first vineyards were only established here in the 1970s. Back then there were about nine pioneering wineries, today there are more than 150 (!) wineries in the Marlborough Wine Region. The sunny days and cool nights ensure a perfect climate. Sauvignon blanc and pinot noir are main grapes grown here, but also pinot gris, riesling and chardonnay.
We visit five wineries: Saint Clair, Whitehaven, Wairau River, Bladen and Framingham, all small wineries, where quality trumps quantity and the approach is more personal. Here the wines are made with care and attention and you can really taste that. Everywhere I get to taste five wines, except at Framingham, where I get seven. It’s hard work for my taste buds… The brilliant (and award-winning) 2017 Whitehaven Greg Sauvignon Blanc is my favorite of the day. The pinot noirs confirm what I already knew: I’m not a pinot noir fan. All in all it’s a nice afternoon.
Abel Tasman National Park
Saturday morning I pack my things again and pick up a new rental car at the port of Picton. I drive west down Queen Charlotte Drive. First the road winds along the water and later through mountainous area towards the town of Havelock and then to Nelson, on Tasman Bay. I take the exit to Rabbit Island, a nature reserve on Tasman Bay, a beautiful, quiet place, on the water, with mountains in the distance. From here I take the Ruby Coast Scenic Route, the coastal road to Motueka, along the Tasman Bay, with pebble beaches and a view of azure water. At the beginning of the afternoon I arrive in Motueka. The village is not much, everything is concentrated along the main street. Many cafes, some restaurants and shops. Here too it’s clear that it’s still early in the season, there are few tourists.
Motueka is the base for the Abel Tasman National Park, which I visit the next day. This nature reserve is located on the northwest side of the South Island. Dense hills run down to the coast here, steep cliffs rise from the azure sea and idyllic coves with beaches make you think you are in the subtropics. The weather is beautiful (sunny and about nineteen degrees) and that’s convenient, because I’m going to walk fourteen kilometers here, from Torrent Bay to Onetahuti Bay, a four hour hike. Abel Tasman Aqua Taxi takes me from Marahau to the starting point in the morning and picks me up at the end point in the afternoon. But before I’m dropped off at the starting point, we cruise past the Split Apple Rock, a huge rock that was once round like a football, but water seeped into a crack and then froze, splitting the rock into two nearly equal halves. cloven. The Split Apple Rock is very photogenic. We also see seals along the way.
The hike from Torrent Bay to Onetahuti Bay is breathtakingly beautiful. An easy-to-follow trail leads over the densely vegetated hills, with fantastic vistas and views of the idyllic coves below. The azure blue water sparkles in the sun, the beaches look deserted (and inviting). Every now and then I meet other hikers, but otherwise it is serenely quiet (in high season this is one of the most visited places in New Zealand). One moment you’re walking through the forest, high above the sea, the next you’re standing with your feet in the sand at a deserted bay. Just before Bark Bay you cross the Falls River via a narrow suspension bridge. Bark Bay is halfway through the walk and therefore a good time to have lunch on the beach. Then it’s another two hour walk to Onetahuti Bay. The walk is generally doable, only the climb after Bark Bay is really a tough one. It really is a beautiful hike and the highlight of the trip so far.
Westland Tai Poutini National Park
Monday is a long travel day: in six hours I drive from Motueka to Franz Josef Glacier, 460 kilometers to the south. That’s why I leave early. During the first hour of the drive the road goes down the beautiful Motueka River Valley. The road winds through the Tasman Mountains and after a three-hour drive I arrive near Westport on the west coast of the South Island. From there, a spectacular coastal road continues south. The Tasman Sea is a lot rougher here than on the north side of the island. High waves with white foam caps crash on the coast. The west coast of the South Island is dominated by the Southern Alps, the mountain range that runs lengthwise across the island. Near Punakaiki, the interplay of sediment formation and erosion by the waves has resulted in a spectacular rocky coast. The rocks here are layered so that they resemble a stack of pancakes, hence the name Pancake Rocks. Between the limestone rocks that can withstand the surf, the water rages.
During the afternoon I arrive in Franz Josef Glacier, a small village on the edge of the Southern Alps. Franz Josef Glacier (as well as nearby Fox Glacier) is part of the Westland Tai Poutini National Park. The weather is nice and I take advantage of that by eating al fresco in the village.
The next morning I go to the Franz Josef Glacier, just outside the village of the same name. You can see the glacier from Sentinel Rock, but it is much nicer to walk the Glacier River Valley Walk, a one and a half hour walk down the valley down which the Waiho River flows. This entire valley was once covered by the glacier. 20,000 years ago, the glaciers reached as far as the sea, but due to climate change they are now much smaller. If you’ve seen the glaciers in Patagonia in the south of Argentina, the Franz Josef Glacier is a bit disappointing. The glacier, located high on the mountains, does not compete with the enormous masses of ice in Patagonia (most of which you can probably only see from the air), but the hike is definitely recommended! It’s a really beautiful trail, across the riverbed (the river is not that wide this time of year), with the constant murmur of the river in the background, but especially of the many waterfalls. Everywhere (melt) water flows high from the rocks down. At one point I even see seven waterfalls around me. Really beautiful.
It’s a good thing I did the Glacier River Valley Walk in the morning, because in the afternoon the weather changes. The wind starts to blow fiercely and rain poors down and it will continue to do so all afternoon, evening and night. The next morning (Wednesday) I leave Franz Josef Glacier and drive to Lake Matheson, a beautifully situated lake half an hour away. You can follow a one and a half hour trail around the lake. You walk through the forest most of the time, but in a number of places you have views over the lake and – and that’s what it’s all about – in the background the snow-capped mountains of the Southern Alps reflecting in the water of the lake. Magnificent. On a clear day you can even see Mount Cook, the highest mountain in New Zealand, from here, but unfortunately today it’s not that clear.
Mount Aspiring National Park
The road to Haast alternates through forest, down valleys, past grassland with cows and sheep and stretches along the coast. Then, from Haast, follows a long stretch that can only be described in one word: breathtaking! The Haast Pass Highway (the road which only exists since 1965, before then, this area was inaccessible) goes through the northeastern part of Mount Aspiring National Park. The two-lane road winds down the bushy valley, along the Haast River, between snow-capped peaks. At the Haast Pass, the highest point of the route, a hiking trail rises steeply to a lookout point, where you have fantastic views of the mountains.
After the mountains, the road continues down the Makarora River Valley, a wide valley that suddenly opens up before you. Cows and sheep graze on the valley floor, and on both sides of the valley, or rather all around you, wherever you look, snow-capped mountains. After every bend a new panorama – and there are many bends. It’s unbelievably beautiful and it goes on and on, mile after mile. And after the Makaroka River Valley you’re not there yet, because then you come to Lake Wanaka, a huge lake with the mountains as a backdrop. The same applies to Lake Hawea a little further away. It’s such an impressive, wide, beautiful area, there are so many beautiful vistas and pictures waiting to be made… After this long, but beautiful drive I arrive in Wanaka at the end of the afternoon. Wanaka is really beautifully situated on the south side of Lake Wanaka, with the white mountain peaks on the other side of the lake. Yes, here too. What a place!
After watching the most beautiful landscapes pass by for days, from Abel Tasman to Westland Tai Poutini to Mount Aspiring, I notice that I am slowly starting to get an ‘impression overload’. There are too many impressions to process, it’s all too overwhelming, too breathtaking… Therefore I decide to take a rest day. I’m in Wanaka for two full days and the first of these I do absolutely nothing. No new impressions for a while. I have coffee, walk past the shops in the village and do some shopping, that’s all and it feels good.
The next morning I get ready to go hiking in Mount Aspiring National Park. The road to the Rob Roy Glacier Track is partly unpaved and with a normal rental car it’s not really safe to drive, so I have arranged a spot on a shuttle bus. That saves me an hour there and an hour back. At 10 a.m. I start the trail at Raspberry Flat Car Park. The weather is beautiful and it’s about ten degrees (but warmer in the sun) and therefore perfect hiking weather. The Rob Roy Glacier Track is ten kilometers (round trip) and bridges a height difference of four hundred meters. The trail first runs along the Matukituki River, over a suspension bridge and then slowly but surely uphill through the forest into the mountains.
Some parts are quite steep and it’s therefore quite a tough walk. The trail runs down a narrow gorge, past the Rob Roy Stream to the first lookout point. High up in the mountains is the Rob Roy Glacier. Not a long river of ice, but a thick pack of ice on top of a mountain slope. In fact, today you only see the remnants of what must once have been a huge mass of ice. From the first vantage point it’s another half hour walk to the second point. Here you’re even closer to the glacier and you have a view of the wide valley that is located at the end of the gorge. It’s a very beautiful place and a nice reward after the two hour climb up. The walk down is a bit faster than up and at the end of the afternoon I’m back in Wanaka.
Fiordland National Park
On Saturday morning I leave Wanaka and drive about three hours to Te Anau, a small village on the south side of Lake Te Anau, New Zealand’s largest lake and the base for Fiordland National Park. This is where I stop for coffee and do some shopping for the next few days, because the next three nights I’m staying in Te Anau Downs, on the north side of the lake, and there’s nothing there. I also fill the gas tank, because after Te Anau there are no more gas stations. In the lodge where I’m staying I have a room with a view of the lake and the mountains of Fiordland National Park in the background. Rightly ‘a room with a view’!
Fiordland National Park is New Zealand’s largest national park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site of densely forested mountains and glacier-carved fjords. The 119 km long Te Anau – Milford Highway runs right through the park, through forests and valleys, past lakes and mountains and with various lookout points and hiking trails. On my first day in Fiordland National Park, I drive to one of those trails, a 45-minute drive from Te Anau Downs. At The Divide, a trail leads up the mountain, through forest and finally to Key Summit. It is an eight kilometer hike, bridging a height difference of 425 meters. At the top you have a beautiful view of the surrounding mountains. This is an alpine swamp area: swampy ground, all kinds of mosses and small pools left by the glaciers that used to be here.
On the way back down there are two kakas near the path in the forest. The kaka is one of the few parrot species that live in alpine areas. They are not very impressed by my presence. Beautiful. Speaking of birds: Originally, there were no land mammals in New Zealand. Only various birds, flightless bird species such as the kiwi and ostrich-like birds, and sea creatures. You will not find bears, lions, snakes and other wild animals here. The mammals that can be found in New Zealand today were all brought here by Europeans. And those are mainly cows and especially a lot of sheep. I’m in Fiordland National Park for two days and those two days show how changeable it can be here: on Sunday it’s completely cloudy and only ten degrees, the next day the sky is a clear blue and it’s a pleasant 21 degrees…
The Te Anau – Milford Highway gets even more spectacular from The Divide. Impressive massive mountain walls tower over the glacier-carved valleys. Meltwater from the snow on the mountain tops creates countless small waterfalls along the steep slopes. The road winds through this inhospitable landscape and offers new, spectacular panoramas every time. It’s an impressive route, which is rightly called one of the most beautiful roads in the world. The terminus of the road is Milford, the departure point for boat trips in the Milford Sound (Piopiotahi in Maori). Actually, the name ‘sound’ is not correct in this case, because what you’ll find here are fjords. The fjords were once mistakenly given names with the word ‘sound’ in them and they have kept it that way (the name of the national park is therefore correctly Fiordland).
Carved by three different glaciers, Milford Sound is one of New Zealand’s most visited spots and teems with tourists (even now in the preseason). The entire fjord is surrounded by steep cliffs. The beginning of the fjord (or the end, depending on how you look at it) is dominated by Miter Peak, an almost perfectly triangular mountain that rises nearly 1,700 meters above the water’s surface. It’s a beautiful boat trip. Along the way we are surprised by dolphins and we see seals and waterfalls.
On the way back I stop briefly at The Chasm, where centuries of erosion by fast-flowing water in a narrow gorge has carved round potholes in the stone, and at the Mirror Lakes, where the light wind causes just enough ripple in the water to to prevent the mountains from reflecting in it. All in all, Fiordland National Park is very beautiful and well worth a visit.
The east coast
Another long drive is scheduled for Tuesday: from Fiordland National Park on the west coast to Dunedin on the east coast of the South Island. According to the route planner, it’s a four-hour drive. The route follows mostly flat (!) roads – for the first time this trip. Finally no winding mountain roads. As I get further east, the landscape gets more hilly, a bit like before in Northland on the North Island. This part of New Zealand is very sparsely populated, every now and then I pass through a small village and there’s hardly any traffic on the road.
At the beginning of the afternoon I arrive in Dunedin. This college town with Scottish roots is much bigger than I expected and it’s a fun town. A striking number of beautiful old buildings from the second half of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century have been preserved among all the ‘new construction’. The center is formed by the Octagon, an octagonal square with surrounding streets, including the town hall, St Paul’s Cathedral and cafes with terraces. Nearby you will also find the old train station and Speight’s brewery.
The next day I drive north along Highway 1 along the coast. I stop briefly at Shag Point, where seals laze on the rocks off the coast, and at Mouraki, where the Mouraki Boulders are a popular attraction. On a beautiful stretch of beach, spread over about fifty meters, there are huge round boulders. Most are almost perfectly round and have a diameter ranging from 50 centimeters to almost two meters. They are between four and six million years old. At Oamaru I take a look at Bushy Beach, where you can sometimes see rare yellow-eyed penguins, but not when I’m there…
My last destination on this trip is Christchurch. New Zealand’s second-largest city was hit by two major earthquakes in quick succession in September 2010 and February 2011, killing 186 people and leaving much of the city in ruins. It has been seven years, but in 2017 Christchurch is still a construction site. There is construction going on everywhere. Everywhere between the new buildings, you can see empty lots of land, where buildings stood until the earthquakes hit. The ruin of the cathedral, which was badly damaged (the tower completely collapsed), still stands in the heart of the city. Virtually all the old buildings and many newer ones that surrounded the cathedral were destroyed. If you think away the new construction, there is little left. 80% of the buildings in the center were destroyed by the earthquakes. The damage must have been enormous.
What you find today is a heavily scarred city, one that will never be the same, but also a city where the future is in full swing. In fact, the entire downtown area is being redesigned, which also opens up opportunities for modern architecture (such as the brand-new Christchurch Art Gallery, which I pop into), the creation of new parks along the Avon River and pedestrianized shopping areas. The sea containers that were put down after the earthquakes to temporarily house shops and restaurants, now form a trendy place for a snack and drink. But it still feels strange to walk down such a battered city, unlike a ‘normal’ city walk.
On Friday morning I have to go to the airport, a fifteen minute drive from the center. My New Zealand trip is over. The beautiful country has met all of my high expectations. Unfortunately New Zealand is so terribly far away, otherwise I would like to go there much more often. The landscape – or rather all those different landscapes – is simply overwhelmingly beautiful. I have already seen many beautiful places in the world, but from now on New Zealand is in my top 3 destinations!