Straying into the Deep South of New Zealand!
“These are the good old days.”
I saw this quote illuminated in neon pink lights in a bar in Queenstown, New Zealand surrounded by strangers I just met the night before who I would spend the next seven days with. That quote immediately resonated with me because it’s a feeling I often have while traveling. I knew this group of strangers were going to become my friends and we would create a bond forever forged by our adventures together. I remember sitting at the table looking around at these new faces and that neon pink quote above us and thinking I don’t want this trip to ever end. I often become nostalgic during a trip and saddened that I can never recreate a precise moment with friends. I reminisce for a memory that is still being created. It’s a blessing and a curse to feel nostalgic for a time that hasn’t even finished yet. I’m thankful I realize in the moment that I need to be grateful for the experience and the bond, but then I feel like it’s a curse to recognize that because I can’t just live in the moment. I find myself getting wrapped up in thinking “these are the good old days aren’t they?”
The point to my ramblings is don’t be like me and get wrapped up in reminiscing for the past. Enjoy life always and be present in every aspect of your life. Because every new moment can be the good old days!
So before I get anymore wistful here, let me take you back to “the good old days” on my seven day trip with this incredible group of people that became my friends as we traversed the deep south of New Zealand and created adventures of a lifetime together.
I was very fortunate to be a part of this tour with Stray to explore the South Island, especially this being my first big trip exploring New Zealand. I was travelling with a small group of fellow travel agents and had the best time and learned so much useful information to relay to others and help me out in my own future trips around the islands. This trip with Stray became the foundation for my further travels through New Zealand.
I left Wellington in the afternoon and an hour an a half later I landed in the South Island. Queenstown is known as the adventure capital of New Zealand and it’s a name well earned! Commercial bungee jumping originated in Queenstown by the New Zealander adventurer A.J. Hackett. Not only are there multiple bungee jumps around Queenstown, but there is sky diving, jet boating, zip lining, mountain biking and helicopter tours just to name a few. The town is very compact and you can walk the perimeter of the main drag in 20 minutes probably. Essentially you are a 10 minute walk from anywhere you want to go. A car is not necessary unless you want to venture out further, but even then there are buses and tours to book.
Since I had a few hours until I would meet up with my tour group, I checked into our hostel, Base Queenstown, and then walked the short distance to the Skyline Gondola which takes you 450 meters up to the top of Bob’s Peak and a gorgeous aerial view of Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu. The city was named by miners who arrived in the area and claimed this town fit for a Queen!
Today was all about the adrenaline and I’m not sure I’ve ever been so exhausted by the end! Our group hopped on the bus at 8am to take us to the Shotover Jet. It was about a 20 minute ride outside of Queenstown to the Shotover River which has some crazy narrow canyon walls at some spots! When we arrived at Shotover Jet, our guide led us to the observation deck where we watched one of the jet boats take off. They go crazy fast!
After observing the other boats, we headed down to the docks to get fitted in long rain jackets and life vests. We were also give face masks and scarves to protect from the crisp cool wind. I didn’t know how much those were needed until on the boat! Luckily I was in the middle back of the jet boat which doesn’t get as wet as the sides. The jet boats go so incredibly fast and so close to the sides of the canyon walls its insane! And then the driver would turn the boat a full 360 degrees and that’s when we would get wet! It’s like a roller coaster! The boat ride lasted about 20-25 minute and at some points that wind was freaking cold on the face and I’m glad it wasn’t any longer. We learned that the drivers, train for 120 hours on the Shotover River before they drive their first passengers. After we dried off (the girls bathrooms have blow dryers, genious!) we headed back up to the shop were we got to watch our footage from the boat. The footage is hilarious because since our faces are covered you can’t see any facial reactions and it just looks like we are zombies and having the worst time on the boat haha.
Our next stop was to the Shotover Canyon Swing and Fox. It was about a five minute drive up the canyon to where we then had to hike about 10 minutes to the start of the swing and fox. My group split off to do the Canyon Fox since we would get to do another swing later on in the day. The Canyon Fox is basically a zipline that’s 182 meters high and you can do a run off or cut off to get going. I did the cut off and whew it’s a crazy drop but the views are spectacular! And we were all fitted with GoPro wrist mounts and the footage is awesome! Of course they made me go first in our group which was terrifying but worked out awesome because they tested out the new motion camera on me and I got a unique photo!
At the next zipline you can race someone and Sarah and I raced together. The guides are really funny, well funny if you don’t mind dark humor and sarcasm. The more scared you are the more they will mess with you. After we finished those two runs we got to watch our footage and then take it with us!
Next we headed back into Queenstown for a brief break at our hostel before meeting at the AJ Hackett Station where we got sandwiches and brownies for lunch and got weighed in for the Nevis Bungy and Nevis Swing. I wasn’t really sure if I would ever do a bungy but it felt like a must while in Queenstown! And boy was I going big or going home lol. The Nevis Bungy is the highest bungy in Australiasia and third highest jumping platform in the world at 135 meters! It’s over the Nevis River in a remote canyon about 45 minute outside Queenstown so it’s a unique experience in that no other spectators outside of your group can watch you. They call it joining the dump club since it’s a small group allowed on the jumping platform and no other people around.
I think it helped that I was so tired from the other activities of the day that I wasn’t thinking too much about the bungy but as we got fitted for our harnesses I definitely started to freak out on the inside. And then to make it worse the winds got too strong so we had to wait it out for almost an hour which doesn’t help the nerves at all!
Finally at about 3pm we got the go ahead to jump, so we walked outside and rode this little cart over the canyon to the jumping platform. The whole time I’m trying to remain calm and just not really think about it. And honestly the little car we had to ride over might have been scarier than the bungy itself with the winds still rather strong lol. Once on the platform the whole process was extremely fast, which is probably a good thing because it was even less time to think what I was about to do. The main advice they kept reiterating to us was to not hesitate at all and when the guide says 1, 2, 3 jump, we just have to immediately jump. When they called my name I was led to a chair were I was hooked to the cable and then I was led to the ledge which was so freaking scary!! I kept trying to hold on to the guide as I scooted out onto the platform, but when he said jump I just leapt, no hesitation or thought, and it was insane! The whole way down I was yelling to myself never again haha.
Most bungees are about 3-4 seconds but the Nevis is 8.5 and that feels like forever when you are free falling! I really didn’t know what to expect but the pull is pretty gentle and you get pulled three times and back down before it’s over. On the second pull up you pull this release at your ankle to turn you right side up and that is really hard! Worst case you just get pulled up upside down (which happened to a couple people in our group) but thankfully I was finally able to pull mine on my third attempt. The whole falling was a feeling that I can’t really explain and although it was incredible and the views were amazing I don’t know if I could ever do it again. But once I was pulled up and had time to process what I just did I was so proud of myself and I did enjoy the free falling feeling.
After my jump I immediately headed to the other platform were you do the Nevis Swing. To get there you have to walk over a bridge and it was still pretty windy so that was a scary walk for sure! We had to wait quite awhile in line to do the swing and watching everyone be dropped was starting to psych me out out a bit and for whatever reason, I guess because the drop is so intense and fast, I was more scared of the swing than the bungy. Ignorance is for sure bliss lol. Sarah and I were the last people to swing for the day and they almost didn’t let us go because the winds were so strong. We waited while the guides watched the wind monitor and once they found an opening they hooked us up real quick and sent us out. The limit on wind is 40km, and right before we dropped the winds were at 50-60!
After we finished the swing our group piled into the shuttle that took us back to Queenstown. For dinner that night we walked to The World Bar, which is known for its teapot cocktails. Sarah and I split one called Bloom which tasted like a strawberry milkshake and it was amazing and dangerous haha. That’s probably why they give you shot glasses to drink out of so you don’t drink them too fast haha! After dinner we all crashed after such an adrenaline-filled day.
Today was a 6:30am departure as we made the four hour drive to Milford Sound. Our guide and driver, Seagull, joked it’s only about 80km from Queenstown to Milford…if you could drive in a straight line through the mountains lol. But since you have to go all the way around its about a four to five hour drive.
We stopped around 8am in the tiny town of Mossburn for a toilet break and coffee break. On the drive we passed a lot of sheep and deer farms. About an hour later we arrived in Te Anau, the last town before entering Fiordland National Park and here we loaded up on supplies at the supermarket since there would be no other stops due to the remoteness of Fiordland.
Unfortunately it started to rain as we entered the park but Seagull said it rains 70% of the time here so I supposed that wasn’t unexpected. The sad part is when we stopped at Mirror Lake it wasn’t very mirror-y because of the rain. Still beautiful though. We made another stop shortly after which had a great view of the mountains (though mostly covered in fog lol) and there were also several Kea birds strutting around and being hams for the camera. They are very used to humans so beware of them taking your food or coming into your car! (Kea are New Zealand parrots that are the only parrots that live in the mountains and they have the intelligence of a six year old). Seagull also told us we can drink the water from the stream bed here because it is so pure and clean. I didn’t test it but several people filled up their water bottles and they didn’t seem to get sick so thumbs up on New Zealand’s pure water!
From there we passed through the valley of a thousand waterfalls which was pretty amazing to see! I wish there had been a place to pull over and take some 360 degree video but it’s a windy road down the mountain with no where to stop. Once we arrived at Milford Sound the rain had thankfully ceased. Our Real Journeys boat ride lasted about 1.5 hours and it slowly moved through the sound (or more accurately a fjord as Seagull told us. The English settlers misnamed Milford as a sound when it’s really a fjord. He also said they misspelled fjord with an “I” instead of a “J” lol). Our guides on the boat told us that the waterfalls are fuller when it rains and the time of year we were there are when the waterfalls are their fullest from the melting snow above. Though Milford Sound has become a bit touristy and commercialized in my opinion, it is still a must do in New Zealand for it’s epic waterfalls and scenery.
After Milford Sound we drove back up to Hollyford Valley, first stopping at The Chasm which was so cool to see and totally worth getting drenched for! New Zealand has definitely taught me to not mind being soaked through when venturing outside. In Wellington it’s too windy to ever use an umbrella so you just learn to deal with being wet lol.
For the night we would be staying in Fiordland National Park at Gunn’s Camp. This is a place exclusive to Stray so it was really cool to experience this place. Unfortunately with the rain starting up again we were limited on what to do and were not able to go on the bush walks around the camp. The cabins we stayed in had a main room with a fireplace and sink and then two bed rooms to each side with three beds. These cabins were the old public work homes for the workers that worked in the park in the 1930s. There is a fireplace in each cabin but we were told not to light them until later (we wish we wouldn’t have listened and lit it sooner to allow the bedrooms to warm up). Also the electricity doesn’t turn on until 5:30pm and turns off at 10pm so we all just went to the main cabin (the kitchen and lounge) and hung out by the fire and started drinking lol. What else to do on a rainy and cold night? 😉
After we cleaned up dinner, Seagull led us on a 10 minute walk to go see glowworms. This was my first time seeing them and it was so incredible to see them along a rock wall out in the forest! We had to keep lights to a minimum to fully enjoy the glowworms so it was a nearly pitch black hike. I joked to myself that I would never have just walked around a thick forest back home in Missouri at night, but New Zealand seems to have less critters and bugs than forests in the States. After our walk we headed to the bonfire (thankfully it had stopped raining) and we sat around the fire roasting marshmallows, telling stories and watching the stars. It was a wonderful night.
We got to sleep in a little since we didn’t need to leave Gunn’s Camp until 9am and the sun was out to play today which was awesome! We stopped at Knob’s Flat and took some pictures in the road with the mountains and then in a valley nearby with the mountains behind us! We also stopped again at Mirror Lake because this time we could actually see the reflecting mountains in the water without all the clouds like the day before! So beautiful!!
From there we left Fiordland National Park and stopped again in Te Anau for a coffee and toilet break. Then it was back on the road as we drove south to Bluff where we would catch the ferry to Stewart Island. In Bluff we made a brief stop at Stirling Point that provides a 360 degree view over Bluff as well as Stewart Island and Fiordland National Park! Stirling Point marks the end of State Highway 1 and is the southern tip of New Zealand’s mainland.
Seagull warned us that some of the roughest waters in the world are from the South Island to Stewart Island so I was not looking forward to the hour long ferry ride. Luckily it was a pretty calm day but I still stayed outside (even though it was freezing) on the back of the boat to keep from getting too sea sick. Since our ferry left at 4pm we had beautiful views of the sun starting to set as we approached Stewart Island, which was about to be the farthest south in the world I’ve ever been! Stewart Island is a good sized island but only 3% of it is inhabited with 400 residents. It reminded me a lot of Catalina Island in that way. Upon landing we headed to our hostel, Stewart Island Backpackers, which had a nice large lounge area with a ton of games and movies. After settling in and showering, Sarah and I took a walk exploring the town.
For dinner we ate fish n’ chips from a local and they were really good! They catch all their own fish on Stewart Island daily. After dinner we all headed to the iconic one pub in town, South Sea Hotel, and had beers with the locals.
Today we were able to sleep in again and it was wonderful! The beds were actually really comfy and we had heaters in the room so I slept much better than the night before. At about 10:30am we all walked to the tourist center where we would meet our driver, first stopping at the supermarket to buy lunch and snacks. Our driver/guide is a local Stewart Islander and she knew everything about the families and the island! She took us on all the drive-able roads on the island and we learned so much about the culture. Most of the island is a reserve and sanctuary for birds and most of the beaches do not allow people to protect the wildlife. One of the last stops we made was at the start of the Rakiura Track which is an 11 day hike and one of the nine Great Walks of New Zealand. At the start of the track is a sculpture of a chain that matches one in Bluff. It represents the Maori story of how Stewart Island is the anchor to the canoe (the South Island) and the fish the Maori god caught (the North Island).
I enjoyed my time on Stewart Island, but I do think it is better suited for a summer visit when you can rent kayaks and have better weather for hiking. Though it is awesome to say I’ve been the farthest south you can go in the southern hemisphere before hitting Antarctica! And Stewart Island is a prime location to see the Aurora Australis (the southern lights), so I may have to come back one day.
That afternoon we took the ferry back to Bluff and then back to Queenstown for the night. We went out to several bars in town and ended the night at Fergberger, which is THE place to eat in Queenstown. There is always a wait for the best burgers in New Zealand though so plan accordingly!
Today we were headed to Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park and our first stop was at Lindis Pass which is the highest alpine pass the Stray bus travels on in New Zealand. We got out for a picture op at a lookout point and the rain and fog didn’t make for the best view but still good to stretch the legs.
Our next stop was in Omarama for lunch, and this town is famous for gliding due to it’s prime location nestled in a basin. The third stop of the day was at Peter’s Lookout at Lake Pukaki. The glacier water of Lake Pukaki is so incredibly turquoise! Seagull told us it’s from the minerals in the glacier that provide the cloudy turquoise color of the lake. The color is so vibrant it’s hard to believe it’s natural!
Around 2pm we arrived at our hostel, Mt Cook Lodge, which used to be a hotel so it was our nicest place we’ve stayed so far. The little Mount Cook Village has epic views of the mountains and our hostel had balconies in each room to enjoy those views. Today had turned into an amazing day for our three hour hike on the Hooker Valley Track. Completely clear skies and no clouds obscured Mount Cook. I felt so lucky! It was actually warm enough without a coat but Seagull told us to bring coats because as soon as the sun drops behind the mountains it gets cold. With our unclouded view, we could see the Maori face in Mount Cook only visible on a clear day. It really does look like a face! The walk says it takes 2.5 hours round trip but it took us about 3.5 hours with all the stops we made haha. Every time I saw a beautiful view of Mt. Cook the next round would be even an even better sight! During the hike we crossed over three suspension bridges over that bright blue glacier water. When we made it to the end of the track it was a pretty spectacular sight. There was a lake reflecting Mount Cook. We stayed there about 20 minutes just enjoying the views and we had the area to ourselves most of the time. Actually on most of the walk we didn’t run into too many people which was nice. And on the hike back we saw an avalanche…well first we heard the loud cracking sound and then saw it! What a crazy sight to behold!
After our nearly four hour hike we made it back for dinner at the hostel restaurant. At 8pm some of the group left to go to the observatory and planetarium for stargazing, but the rest of us went stargazing for free on our own just outside the hostel. We walked a short distance through a muddy field to get away from the lights of Mount Cook Village since the night sky was so clear I think this was the most stars I’ve ever seen before! And I learned the constellations are different on the Southern Hemisphere from what I’m used to seeing in North America. This day was my favorite on the trip if I had to pick!
It was tough to leave this hostel hotel with it’s amazing views of the mountains! Plus it was the last day of our trip. 😦
After a couple hours on the road we arrived at Lake Tekapo and visited the Church of the Good Shepherd which is the most photographed church in New Zealand. It looks like an old church and is picturesquely situated along Lake Tekapo. I was excited to visit this place from seeing it on photographers’ Instagrams, but was a little bummed to learn the church was only built in the 1950s and is not as isolated looking as photographers made it seem. It sits on the edge of a parking lot actually haha and with so many tourists it was tough to take a decent photo. But I’m still glad we stopped here. Our next stop was at Tekapo Springs and we basically had the place to ourselves this early in the morning and it was awesome. We took a short tour of the premises, which includes the hot springs with a kids play area, a day spa, ice skating rink and tube park (which is replaced with a water slide in the summer). The sad part is we only had one hour here so we all rushed to the tube park and it was my first time snow tubing! The hill isn’t huge, 150 meters, but you still go pretty fast!
Then we raced to the locker room to change into our swimsuits. We started in the hottest pool which was pretty warm and we only lasted a few minutes in there. Next we went to the kids pool aka the coldest pool which was still warm. It’s so amazing to be sitting in these hot pools with the snow capped views of the mountains! Before we had to leave we hopped in the hottest pool one last time and then reluctantly all of us headed back to the locker rooms to change.
Our trip concluded at Christchurch, which was very moving to see how much the city was still recovering from Christchurch earthquake in 2011 that destroyed the city centre. There were many building still left crumbled or barely standing and tons of empty lots. We did hop off the bus at the Cathedral which lost its steeple and is barely standing. The church is/was the oldest in New Zealand but the cost to fix it is extraordinary which is why five years later it still remains untouched. Seagull said Christchurch used to be the most English city outside England but after the earthquake most of those Victorian and Tudor buildings didn’t survive. It’s so sad that a city not only lost lives but also a lot of its identity. That night we stayed at All Stars Inn, which is a new hostel and very nice. Our group joked that we are glad this was our last hostel and not the first on the trip because we would have been severely disappointed by all the others haha. We had dinner together one last time at the ale house next door and then said our goodbyes for an early bedtime as we all had varying flights the next morning.
You know you had an amazing trip when you can’t stop smiling after arriving home! I had so much fun with Stray and I was not ready for it to end, but that’s what life is about; you have to be happy because it happened and not sad because it’s over; because these are the good old days and I will always carry with me these fond memories and new friends.