Aotearoa, The Land of the Long White Cloud. A fertile realm full of birdsong, snow-dusted mountains and emerald pools of glacier water – New Zealand is a country where the landscape does its own PR.
This island nation was forged by Polynesian explorers and tough-as-nails pioneers who brought to this new world stories, culture and a spirit of adventure. Now, the lonely mountains echo with ancient folklore, mud pools bubble with volcanic power and you’ll still hear the bright song of thousands of birds. To take you on a journey you’ll never forget, check out my absolute must-do New Zealand guide, where adrenalin, nature and hobbit holes are equally well represented.
New Zealand is a paradise for walkers – its a wonderland hand crafted by nature to blow your mind. Two hikes that will stay with me forever are Isthmus Peak in Wanaka and Mount Cook National Park. The former was a tough 16km (10-mile) hike to panoramic views of Lake Wanaka – as we reached the summit my legs were jelly, I felt like I was dying and a false peak had shattered my confidence to go on. However, despite glacier wind whipping round my face, I couldn’t stop smiling. The sense of achievement was immense and the views are forever etched into my mind.
Mount Cook was another kettle of fish entirely. This majestic mountain was once a training ground for Sir Edmund Hilary before conquering Everest, so the most we could hope to do was pay our respect to the massif at its lowest point by following the Hooker Valley Track. As well as being the tallest mountain in New Zealand, the ethereal quality of the glacier water, Instagram-friendly swing bridges and turquoise lakes make a hike around this area one of the most picturesque in the whole country.
Smell the Sulphur in Rotorua
Mother Nature has the innate ability to send us into a state of stupefaction – such is the power of its beauty. As a land borne from intense volcanic activity, it’s unsurprising that part of New Zealand was voted ‘One of the 20 Most Surreal Places in the World’ by Trip Advisor. Abundant geothermal activity make the Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland a paradise for geography buffs.
Vivid contrasts are everywhere – snot-green pools like the Devil’s Bath contrast with the Cheeto-dust-rimmed, eternally steaming Champagne Pool. In short, this place is like walking on the moon, but in technicolour. Guard your nose from the perpetual funk, which smells strikingly similar to rotten eggs, but take the time to see it all: bubbling mud pools, geysers and enormous volcanic craters – there’s nowhere else like it on earth.
Glow Worms in Waitomo
Unique to New Zealand, the Arachnocampa luminosa is a fungus gnat – stay with me now – which becomes bioluminescent during its larvae stage and unravels glowing lines to ensnare prey. To find these curious insects you must delve deep underground, where the gloom creates perfect conditions to attract wayward insects.
We decided to visit the glow worms on the original blackwater tubing adventure – the Black Labyrinth – which involves jumping backward off waterfalls and floating along the cave network in rubber tubes. I’ll never forget the moment we switched off our headtorches, lay on our backs and watched a snaking trail of thousands of twinkling glow worms overhead – glimmering like the brightest night sky the world has ever seen.
Kasha and I had a whole month of activities planned in New Zealand, but how can you fit so much into a relatively small amount of time? The answer is the drive your little home everywhere you go. Opting for a cosy, great-value little van we went with Escape Rentals. Complete with a smashing graffiti mural, kitchenette, table and a Queen-sized bed, our beloved motor vehicle allowed us to see parts of the country only possible on four wheels. Driving through the Haast Pass, widely considered one of the greatest road journeys in the world, singing ‘Living on a Prayer’ at the top of our lungs and stopping wherever we damn well pleased – that is the Kiwi explorer dream. Get your wheels, get your independence, and make your own adventure.
Discover Ancient Kauri Trees
Dating back approximately 190 million years, the antecedents of the kauri tree make this one of the oldest types of tree in the world. In Northland, majestic kauri trees soar through the canopy, growing to heights of over 50 metres and with a girth of up to 16 metres – truly they are the kings of the forest in New Zealand.
Although Mauri fires and European logging has done its damage, you can still find protected conservation areas such as the Waipoua Forest, which was saved from destruction because of its remoteness. Here you’ll bear witness to the two largest living kauri trees in the world, Tāne Mahuta, Lord of the Forest, and Te Matua Ngahere, Father of the Forest. Gazing up at the incredible trunks and towering branches of these monsters, you can’t help but wonder how much the world has changed in the thousands of years they have been standing guard over the forest.
Cruising in Milford Sound
The Fiordland National Park is one of the most spectacular places in the world, period. The scale of the landscape here is almost indescribable – deep fjords carved out by enormous glaciers, mighty mountains Edmund Hillary used as training for Everest and avalanches so powerful they need to be triggered by dynamite to protect road users. At around eight hours driving time there and back from Queenstown, if you want to experience Milford Sound I’d recommend you join a tour to avoid a seriously long journey.
Day Trekking through Abel Tasman
If hiking is your thing, there’s nowhere better than Abel Tasman National Park. Untameable vegetation, pristine sand beaches and a legendary coastal trail make this one of the best walks in the world. Such is the popularity of the walk that a thriving water taxi business set up shop ferrying people one-way, which makes day hikes a possibility. We got dropped off at Bark Bay and set off with a challenging 21km walk to return to Marahau that saw us tackle hills, sandy beaches and swing bridges. Make sure to reward yourself with a beer after the journey – it will taste pretty sweet after such a long walk.
Adrenalin Rush in Queenstown
Did you know that it was a Kiwi who first commercialised bungee jumping? Inspired by the feats of land divers from Vanuata, Aucklander A.J Hackett brought a safer, but nonetheless terrifying new sport to the world. Arguably the best place in the world to experience this is the adrenaline junkie capital of New Zealand; Queenstown. Kasha and I had the pleasure of taking on the world’s highest cliff jump, the Shotover Canyon Swing and, perhaps just as pant-wettingly terrifying, the Shotover Canyon Fox. Bungee jumping with these guys is all about the fun, you’ve got heaps of jump styles to choose from including: a 300-style kick off the platform backwards, cycling off the ramp on a tiny tricycle or being pushed of backwards while sitting in a chair. And yes, it’s just as scary as it sounds.
Embracing your Inner Hobbit
When I first read The Hobbit I was on holiday with my family in Scotland, surrounded by gloomy mountains and golf courses. I’ll never forget the effect this novel had on me, the power it had to transport me to another world. Many years later, I’d stand at the Hobbiton Visitors Centre, feeling an overwhelming sense of nostalgia and wonder once more. To fans of The Lord of the Rings saga this is the most holy of pilgrimages. In fact, our guide for the tour grew up with the dream of working in Hobbiton, and left her home half a world away to make this come true – such is the dedication of this fan base.
Somehow Kasha and I had timed our visit to arrive on National Hobbit Day and delightedly sang Bilbo and Frodo happy birthday outside Bag End. Later we snacked on birthday cake at the Green Dragon pub and met resident kitty cat Pickles as she lazed on the armchair next to the roaring fire.
What struck me, besides Hobbiton’s obvious beauty, was its ability to suck you in. Looking across onto the green where Bilbo celebrated his 111th birthday, I could almost hear the cheering and merriment. As we strolled past hobbit holes large and small I almost wanted to look away to not disturb the fictitious residents within. If you grew up watching the LOTR series this place is utterly essential to visit.
Geeking out at the Weta Workshop
The nerd kings of the Weta Workshop are the magicians responsible for bringing movies to life. These are the backstage geniuses making alien guns, orc armour, hobbit swords and every type of fantastical prop you ever dreamed of as a child. Our guide was a metal expert with a serious passion for chainmail. He explained how crazy the process can be, painstakingly attaching individual loops by hand, many thousands for a full-length suit of chainmail – this is just a taste of the bordering on neurotic level of detail these guys have.
We walked past a girl hand painting signs for mysterious glass jars filled with colourful goo and even received a gruff hello from a man sharpening an axe who could easily have passed for an uruk-hai . The air was full of creativity, the passion was palpable and the very workshop felt like the kind of place that magic really did come true, a place where anything could be made possible. Too soon we had to leave, but I would have given anything to be a fly on the wall in this Wellington dream factory.
Drinking in the Wine
New Zealand is one of those places blessed with incredible soil, a by-product of its volcanic origin. Being more beer oriented however, I was amazed when Kasha surprised me with a tour that encompasses both beverages. Hop n’ Grape offers an awesome full-day wine and beer tour in Blenheim, a town in the Marlborough region famed for its top-notch sauvignon blanc. When the bus came to pick us up from our camp, Bob jumped out the car to greet us. His hilarious Alan Partridge-esque mannerisms had us in stitches, starting with the insistence we refer to him as the ‘The Captain’. Bob took us behind the scenes of the wineries, allowing us to taste a batch in production, trace our fingers along resting American oak barrels and gift my taste buds with bold new flavours.
You’ll constantly say that each new wine is your favourite, or that definitely the woody chardonnay in the second place was best, but of course you’ve forgotten the incredible rose you enjoyed with lunch overlooking the vineyards in the Omaka Valley. As if wine tasting wasn’t enough, the day ends with a nod in the direction of hop lovers at the Moa Brewery – my suggestion here is to dive in deep and take home the oak-aged Imperial Stout.
Being a Beach Bum in Coromandel
Soft sands, perfect beaches and rich colours come together to make one of New Zealand’s most stunning regions. Take a hike down to Cathedral Cove, a place quite rightly considered one of the prettiest spots in South Island. Pass by the wakeboarders and selfie-takers to enter a gigantic arched cavern that meets a quiet cove. If you’re not too busy rock pooling, make sure to snap the incredible Sail Rock, a freestanding pillar shaped by the relentless pull of the sea. They say that the Coromandel is good for your soul, but I’d have to disagree; New Zealand is good for the soul.
If New Zealand was a person, they would be that friend of yours who’s always organising cool adventures, always surrounded by friends and has so many fascinating hobbies that you can’t keep up with them. In a month of travel, you can see so much, yet barely scratch the surface of what’s on offer here. It’s hard not to fall in love with New Zealand, all you have to do is go out the door, step onto the road and let your feet sweep you away…
*Pin me to your New Zealand Board!*
Keen for some more Kiwi fun? Check out my other blogs about New Zealand!