Two years ago Jen and I visited Australia. While there, someone told us that if we loved Australia so much, we needed to visit New Zealand. Taking them up on their suggestion, we set NZ in our sights. Planning a trip to NZ is difficult because there's so many amazing things to do and several islands to do them on. For this trip we decided to focus all of our time on the South Island with a short trip to Stewart Island.
After arriving in Queenstown Airport, it took us a little bit of time to grab our gear and secure a rental car. But even so, we were a bit too early to check into our hostel so we picked a local brewery along the Shotover river to get some grub and our bearings. We were also introduced to the lovely black sand fly while exploring the river.
We had a couple days to explore downtown Queenstown. And with our hostel being on the hillside overlooking Queenstown, it was an easy 10min walk into the thick of things.
We spent time birding in the parks alongside Lake Wakatipu, molesting giant Moa statues, drinking local beers, and sleeping in sufficiently soft grass. Oh and we visited the National Parks office to get our permits for backpacking on the Routeburn Track.
From Queenstown, the Routeburn Shelter Trailhead is 70.9km or 44mi. Majority of that drive is along the eastern shores of Lake Wakatipu. The drive offers many stopping points with scenic views of both the lake and the surrounding mountains.
Jen and I are going to spend 3 days through hiking the Routeburn Track. We are starting at the Shelter Trailhead and making our way to the other trailhead along the Te Anau-Milford Highway.
The total hike will be roughly 21.3mi and 8,000ft of elevation gain. However, for the first day we only need to cover 4.6mi with 1,500ft of elevation. And for our first day we will be following the Routeburn river and making camp at the Routeburn Flats.
We made it to the flats in three hours. But, we also stopped to play with Robins, observe Riflemen birds for the first time, and have plenty of snacks. Even still, we made it to the flats with no problems and there was plenty of room to set up our tent along the river and take in the beautiful views of Mt Momus.
Day two was going to be completely different from day one. With the main difference being we were going to get dumped on all day with rain. And aside from the very moist conditions, we were going to need to cover 10mi and 4,300ft of elevation gain and 4,700ft of elevation loss.
However, this portion of the track was going to be even more beautiful than the previous day as we will be making our way up Routeburn Falls, passing along the alpine Lake Harris, and hopefully getting a couple views of the surrounding mountain ridges before dropping back down to Lake Mackenzie for the night.
It took us six hours to make it to camp. But once we got our tent set up we were greeted with some very welcome sunshine. This break in the weather gave us a chance to hang our soaking wet gear and take in the beautiful sight of Lake Mackenzie with Ocean and Emily Peak looming above.
It's the third and final day of our Routeburn trip and we are eager to take advantage of the weather window. So with 10mi and 2,220ft of gain between us and the car we break camp at dawn and head out on the trail.
For this final stretch we will hopefully get some sunrise views of the surrounding mountains before making our way under Earland Falls and then taking a lunch break at Lake Howden.
We arrived at Lake Howden rather early, so most of the backpackers who had spent the night there were just getting ready to hit the trails. We took the time to eat second breakfast, but not before putting on copious amounts of bug spray and sunblock.
After we had rested enough we hit the trail for the final stretch. But before descending to the car and calling it a job well done, there was more thing we needed to see, and that was the side hike up to Key Summit to take in views of Mt Christina, Crosscut Mountain and Mt Lyttle.
The last day took us 4.5hrs to complete. But once again there was a lot of stopping, watching and waiting for the clouds to part so we could get better photos.
All things considered, this is a fantastic track even with a lot of rain. There are even huts at various locations so if you don't want to pitch a tent you can book a cot and tramp around with a lot less weight on your back. Just make sure you reserve early because space is limited and it fills up pretty quickly.
After backpacking the Routeburn Track we made way for the closest town, Te Anau. We really didn't have much planned here, just a spot to rest, dry our gear, get some food and check things out.
Durring our time here we ended up hiking around the Rakatu Wetlands along the Waiau River looking for birds. While the birds were plentiful, they were rather far away. But aside from the birds we got the chance to tramp through a sheep paddock. And I got to hold a cute yet invasive hedgehog.
After Te Anau we headed up to Wanaka. But before we could even get settled we had a weather window to head up to Mt Cook/Aoraki National Park and spend a night camping at the famous Mueller Hut.
Aoraki is a few hours drive north of Wanaka so we had to leave at daybreak to get to the Park Rangers office when they opened in order to get a permit to camp. The whole ordeal was a bit stressful, but we made it in time and got the permit. Now all we had to do is ascend 3,900ft in 3.25mi and find a place to camp among the rocks. Oh, and stare at amazing views of Mt. Cook and the surrounding glaciers as we trudged up the mountain.
It took us three and a half hours to get up to the big red hut. Spaces to camp are found on the backside of the hut and along the ridge to the left of the hut. We were early enough that we got first pick of the camp sites and found one large enough to fit our tent. And not only did we get one large enough, our spot came with a pre built rock wall for blocking out the harsh winds.
After we had set up camp and had a look around it was time to make the scramble up Mount Ollivier. The scramble is pretty straight forward and only a few hundred feet above the hut. We had plenty of time to burn so we figured we would see all there is to see.
On the descent I was treated to quite the NZ experience. Perched amongst the boulders was an endangered Kea.
The Kea is the world's only alpine parrot and is thought to be as smart as a four year old child. It's about the size of a large domesticated cat and has a versatile beak that is perfect for lifting large rocks or anything it wants from your unattended camp site. Kea proofing your home in the alpine is not optional. Give these guys an inch and they will take everything they can carry, including your entire food bag.
Back at camp we were treated to another rear spectacle. While sitting on some boulders enjoying the view, a small family of endangered Rock Wrens hopped past us as they fed on flower seeds.
Rock Wrens are the only truly alpine bird in New Zealand. They are also one of the smallest birds in NZ. They live in burrows amongst the rocks and feed mostly on insects and some seeds. While they have almost no tail feathers, they make up for it with oversized feet. An extra large talon on the back toe helps them grip almost any rock's surface.
With all the hiking, birding and dinner out of the way it was time to find a comfortable rock and wait for the greatest show on earth, sunset alpine glow on an amazing mountain.
We were extremely lucky to have such clear weather on this trip. Mt Cook not only lit up for sunset. But the whole area was magnificent for the proceeding sunrise as well. I think the following photos are probably the best images from our entire trip.
With the successful trip to Mt Cook out of the way it was time to head back to Wanaka and make use of the hotel room we had. And by make use I mean drink beer and hang all your hand washed socks up to dry.
After the socks were dry and we ran out of beer, we decided to take a stroll down to Roys Bay on Lake Wanaka and see what there was to see before we ran out of daylight.
Mt Roy sits within a couple miles of Wanaka and the trail up Mt Roy is pretty much visible from most parts of Wanaka. It's a steep hike, roughly 4.7mi and 4,000ft of gain. But even so, it's a very popular hike due to it's "Instagram Point" and its close proximity to Wanaka. Those who make their way up will be given a panoramic view of the surrounding region.
It rained all morning for us, but it looked like the weather was going to make a break so we decided to give Mt Roy a shot. We got there as it was still raining on the summit, so there was ample parking to be found.
Stewart Island is the third largest and most southern island out of the big three. To get there you have to take a ferry ride across the Foveaux Strait, and once there, there is roughly 381 permanent residents located mostly in the town of Oban.
Jen and I stayed in Oban for a few days with the primary goal to see endemic birds and pelagic birds. We took a boat charter to observe albatross and a guided walk on Ulva Is. to see the endemic saddleback. We also had a night cruise out to a kiwi reservation, but turned up empty handed. In between birding we walked around the town and its various nature trails.
Lake Rotoiti is located in the Tasman Region which is the more northern portion of the southern island. It's part of the Nelson Lakes National Park and is popular for water sports and hiking. Rotoiti means "Small" but the lake is rather large with a max depth of 269ft and a length of roughly 5mi.
Jen and I few up to the Nelson region after visiting Stewart Island and had a couple of days to take in the local sights. On one of those days we decided to drive down to Lake Rotoiti and do a little hiking on its shores. Unfortunately, we didn't have a whole lot of time as there is much more you can do here than stroll along and look at the lake.
The Abel Tasman Coast Track is located in the Abel Tasman National Park. It extends from Marahau in the south to Wainui in the north and takes you along the beaches and over the cliffs that line the various coves and bays.
Jen and I allotted four days to make this walk. We started at the trailhead in the South and planned to slowly trek our way up the coast. Our first night was in Tepukatea Bay which is a relatively easy hike of 8.5mi. While you do go up and down a little (1,300ft) there are no water crossings to deal with so you can take your time and enjoy the many beaches you will pass along the way.
Day two was going to be a bit more demanding than day one. Not only is our campsite, Awaroa Hut, 15mi miles away with 2,300ft of gain and equal loss. We also had to plan the tides to make it across Torrent Bay at low tide. And unfortunately for us, low tide was at 6am.
Our third day turned out to be a relatively easy day. Due to the extreme fire conditions at the time, our official campsites were closed. And one of the trails we planned to take was also closed. With that being said, we only had to hike roughly 4.5mi with only 600ft of gain and loss to get to Totaranui where we would spend the last night. This is also where the water taxi will be picking us up from so it made things a bit easier.
The hard thing for us is we had to cross the Awaroa Inlet at low tide. And low tide for us was something like 5am. So we made the crossing in complete darkness with headlamps and rain. Oh yeah, it rained all night long. None of the locals believed it would happen since there hasn't been rain in months. But boy did it decide to come down. Maybe having our trip cut a little short was a good thing.
It was time to pack things up and say goodbye to the stormy beaches. And luckily for us, the storm had subsided enough to allow the water taxis to run. One of the things you tend to not think about when planning transportation are storms. It's kind of hard for a water taxi to pick you up off the beach when the waves are breaking 7ft high.
We were able to board our taxi and on the return trip they gave us a little side tour of one of the secluded coves you can only access at high tide. After the trip they load the boat onto a trailer and drive you down the street for a couple miles. Jen really got a kick out of this.
And back at the motel, it was time to dry everything out one more time.
We had a couple more days in Nelson which we used to explore the surrounding area. There isn't much more than beaches and beers so I didn't spend any time taking photos of the same thing.
After Nelson we flew back to Queenstown where we would spend one more night waiting to catch our plane back to the States.
Our time in New Zealand seemed like it flew right by. When you look back at all the things we did, it amazes us we were able to pack it all in. And even with all the different locations we went to, there is still so much more to see.
New Zealand really hit home for us. The friendliness of the locals. How their country cares for and protects their native wildlife and habitats. Being in touch with the local Maori culture. And the amazingly delicious beer you can find throughout.
Our next year trip is supposed to be going back to Patagonia. But I think we might just end up back in New Zealand trying to cover more of the places we missed out on. We'll see..