Wednesday, April 9, 2014

New Zealand South Island. Adventuring through raw, natural beauty.

Before arriving here, I thought I wouldn't be writing up about it as so many people have already traveled in these tracks...and what was I going to write that was new and exciting!? Oh how I was wrong. Not about walking new tracks or discovering the undiscovered - We pretty much followed a similar route to most travellers in our two weeks here - But wrong I was about thinking I wouldn't write anything. It is just impossible not to. This place really is so beautiful and the impact that this beauty has on you makes you want to tell the world. I may not be telling you anything new, but I sure will try to write up the beauty that my eyes saw and the warmth this beauty created in my heart. 

It has been a dream of mine, for a long time, to come here. I hadn't heard anyone ever say that they didn't enjoy this country so I may have been a tad bit excited, with potentially extremely high expectations! NZ may be on the 'common' backpacking and travellers destinations by now but it still feels special and untouched in many ways. And oh how it deserves the eyes, awes, smiles and ooh la la's of everyone willing to venture out here. There are a number of picturesque places in this world and I am lucky enough to say that I have seen a few, but undoubtedly, this gem of a place deserves to be in the top ranking, and maybe even takes Gold in my books. So I can confidently say that my above-mentioned 'expectations' were quickly matched and also very quickly exceeded. What I seem to have loved the most is the variety of landscapes but also that magical feel that this island gives off…It seems to come with secrets that lie deeper than what meets the eye at the surface. I admit, that may be a Lord of the Rings rub off on me, but I prefer to believe that it is the natural and raw beauty of this place, which gives it that magical shimmer. 

Our two week tour took us through valleys, canyons, mountains, rivers, rainforest, glaciers, coastline, farmlands, winelands, forests, lakes and more lakes. The variety in landscape is endless and every single patch of land we came across, was absolutely spectacular. A few that made the hit list…

Picture a ski town in summer, complete with mountains, a big lake lined with pine trees, rock and log cabins and a town centre comprised of six small streets, lined with boutiques, art galleries, caf├ęs, pubs and restaurants. Cute, petite, SO picturesque and then add atmosphere. Lots of it. It is a vibrant little town with travellers of all ages and certainly all origins. One has to try hard to find a Queenstown local (or Kiwi to tell you the truth) in this town. Irrespective of where people are from though, everyone seems to share the same attitude - a love for life and adventure - and all seem to just radiate happiness. It is a place where the words 'We could live here' easily escape from your mouth...because it's true...we could live here :)

Some of the things that kept us busy:
  • A day trip to Milford Sound - Hard to describe this beautiful experience but I have tried below...
  • River surfing with Serious Fun - We spent half the day floating down a river with up to grade 4 rapids (on a body board) and managed to surf a few sections. Very cool!
  • Hiking the Tiki Trail up to the gondola for sunset drinks - A must when in Queenstown.
  • Strolling through picturesque little Arrowtown - Adorable.
  • Amisfield Winery for lunch and wine tasting - YUM!
  • Trying out the world famous Fernburger for a casual dinner and comparing it the newer Devils Burger - Verdict? Wraps are epic at Devils Burger but the infamous Fernburger takes Gold on burgers. 
  • Fishbone Bar & Grill for a slightly more upmarket dinner - Great seafood.

Milford Sound.
I've always wanted to set my eyes on a fjord and thought that first place would 'obviously' be Norway 'because that is where all the fjords are'. Ding Donglearnt something new today! Fjords hang out  in New Zeland as well (!!) and when I realised that I could explore one right then and there, it was an absolute must. There are about 20 days a year in New Zealand where Milford Sound can be seen without a cloud in the sky. To catch one of these days makes you 'extremely and very very lucky' as the locals say. Must be the honeymoon vibes that gave us the luck because the day that we scored was out of this world! Sunshine, no wind and not a cloud in the sky. Happy days. In terms of getting there, one can self drive to Milford, take a bus or the very fancy choose to fly. We thought we'd splurge on this occasion (la di da) and be ueber fancy. Five-seater plane here we come! I'd never flown on such a small plane before and I must say that it was a truly magical experience! To see the breathtaking landscapes of New Zealand from high above…ridiculously beautiful. The flight took us over the large Lake Wakatipu, over the rolling plains of Paradise and Glenorchy, and into and through a sheer cliff mountain range, all the way to the Tasman Sea coastline where the Milford Sound fjord was deeply tucked away. Our pilot must have been loving the weather conditions as much as we did and took us scarily close to the snow capped mountain peaks; It felt as though we could reach out and touch them! 

Once we landed in Milford Sound, we spent another two relaxing hours slowly cruising along the tranquil and peaceful Sound, spotting dolphins, watching young furry seals play and getting sprayed upon ever so gently by luscious waterfalls. I also learnt that all Fjords were created by glaciers and the glacier which created Milford Sound is still alive and kicking, and was well in our sight. So cool! In the Earth's last ice age, glaciers covered just about everything. Glaciers move very slowly over time, and can greatly alter the landscape once they have moved through an area, which is a process called glaciation. Glaciation carves deep valleys and this is why fjords can be thousands of meters deep. Also very cool. I enjoyed it thoroughly but by the end of the two hours, I secretly couldn't wait to get back on that little plane to soar up high above once again, all the way back to Queenstown. What a top day. 

The drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy is one of the most beautiful lake shore drives I have ever experienced. Breathtakingly beautiful. You follow a narrow, winding road, sandwiched between sparkling turquoise lake water on your left and rolling green grassy hills on your right. Straight ahead are dramatic snow capped mountain peaks whilst yet another mountain ridge (The Remarkables?) creates a sheer wall across the lake to your left. Eventually hundreds of sheep come out to play as well, dotting the landscape like fluffy white balls of cuteness. We drove through Glenorchy, a sleepy little town at the top end of lake Wakatipu (the same lake Queenstown lies on), and headed for The Lake Sylvan walking track, another 20 or so km away. The walk to Lake Sylvan (40min or 1hr20, depending on what route you choose), is epic. You walk trough a forest that could quite possibly be where some of the Lord of the Rings scenes were filmed. Massive trees that look like they are thousands of years old. You almost expect some of the trees to start talking to you, with their squiggly rootes peaking out and big wobbly bark deformations that look like old, scary hands. The entire forest floor is layered with different shades of green moss, which makes it feel like you are walking on a sprung mattress, giving you that extra bit of skip in your step as you wander along. Yes, we may have imitated Gollum a few times, but it's hard not to when you feel as though you are exploring an enchanted forest. Our treasure was Lake Sylvan, a stunningly calm lake at the base of a few big mountains. One day we will come back to do a few long treks over the mountains, like the Routeburn Track or the Milford Sound Track. 

The Haast Pass.
The drive to the West Coast via Haast Pass had us spending quite a few hours in the car but it may have been one of our favourite drives throughout our whole trip. The scenery is breathtakingly beautiful once again as the Haast Pass has you driving through a luscious valley for a few hours, along a river of which I cannot recall the name. The river (which looks more like a creek at many points), is once again bright turquoise in colour for the entirety of its slow descent towards its final destination, the wild and rough Tasman Sea. 

The West Coast. 
Uninhabited, wild and lush. After waking up in an Alpine surrounding that day, it was surreal to arrive on a salt-infused, rough coastline just hours later. The beaches are a charcoal grey, mostly due to their generous coating of perfectly oval pebbles of all sizes, in every shades of grey, some translucent whites, the odd purple and mesmerizing shades of greens. 
The biggest surprise was the endless driftwood perfectly scattered on the kilometer long beaches. I thought the first beach we turned off at was a driftwood phenomenon, but it turns out the whole West coast receives an endless supply of perfect pieces of driftwood. A beautiful touch and major perk for the driftwood collector enthusiasts. My favourite part of the West Coast was the coastal drive through Papoa National Park. It reminded me one of tropical places like Hawaii or Northern Queensland. Ferns, palms, and a constant moist feel to the air. It covers a short stretch of coastline towards the northern end of the west coast. This stretch is one of the more stunning coastal drives I have seen. Somewhat a small version of the Great Ocean Road, with the fauna similar to that of The Napali Coast on Kauai, Hawaii. I couldn't stop hanging out the window and ooh'ing and ahh'ing. I was in love. During my travels, I often find myself wondering what a place may look like 20 years from now. Who knows what tourism does to this island in the years to come but I definitely hope that its west coast stays as sleepy, untouched and wild as it is right now. 

Some our activities on the West Coast:
  • Collecting driftwood and pebbles at any of the many beaches
  • Helicopter flight and hike over Fox Glacier
  • A beautiful walk around Lake Matheson - The Mirror lake. A yummy Cafe and gallery to energise afterwards. 
  • Gillespies Beach for more driftwood and pebble treasures

Marlborough Wine country.
We adore our sav blancs and since the world raves about the Marlborough sav blancs as being the best out there, we had high expectations for this grape-eliacious patch of land. The valley was a tad bit underwhelming at first glance but once you get out there and start exploring, there are many gems to be found. Better yet, rent bicycles in Renwick - of course ones with a spacious saddle pack attached - and cycle yourself silly through endless green vines and juicy sav blanc grapes. Some of our favourites:
  • Vine Village Cafe - The cafe is set amidst a mini complex with a fudge shop, olive oil shop, wine cellar and a few other shops - all offering free tastings. Win! The cafe itself is great and the homemade sticky date scones are awesome. 
  • Eragus wines - Strolled into this wine cellar as it was conveniently placed next to the cafe where we enjoyed a light lunch and were absolutely wow'd! A boutique family winery that makes an excellent Pinot noir (voted amongst top 10 red wines in the world!), some yummy sav blancs and a banging Pinot Gris. Don't miss the delectable dessert wine either. Insanely sweet but so so good. 
  • Wairau River Wines - Hadn't heard of this name beforehand but were pleasantly surprised by their sweet sav blanc and Pinot Gris. Mmmmm...
  • Cloudy Bay - An obvious must. This internationally renown wine has accompanied us for many special occasions in the past. A trendy and stylish set up that will ensure you feel relaxed, pampered and 'happy'. 
  • Hans Herzog Bistro for dinner. We stumbled upon a bit of a treasure with this cute bistro. Set in a gorgeous, petite garden, the decor is simply stunning! With fairy light strung around you and a gently trickling fountain for atmosphere, you sit on the veranda or in the garden, enjoying some of the most delicious food we have had on our entire trip in NZ. A true gem not to be missed!

This destination is known for its vibrant sea life. Whales, including  Orcas (!!), seals, the wandering albatross and most importantly the husky dolphins. This may just be one the best place in the world to swim with dolphins in the wild...and did we ever!? This experience certainly makes it high on to my 'most amazing' list. We swam with not one, two, but dozens of dolphins, or should I rather say that they swam with US. All completely wild. Normally one has the chance to swim for a total of 25 minutes and may have to get back into the boat a few times to change locations in that time. We not only got to stay in the same spot the entire time, but got a whole HOUR in the water with these beautiful and playful creatures. It was so much fun. I often found myself giggling and squeaking into my snorkel out of pure joy, as I was circled by one of the happy fellas. They are curious guys and hung around like friends, wanting to play,  checking us out and probably thinking how silly we look in full wetsuit, flippers, goggles and snorkel. They would react to us making noises and would go absolutely berserk whenever we took a breathe and dove down a bit lower into the water. Possibly the bubbles that one makes by diving down get them excited. It was truly an amazing experience. After playtime was over with these cuties, we watched a few pods congregate in the ocean. There must have been at least 300 husky dolphins, all wildly telling one another stories, some showing off by doing somersaults and back flip after back flip, whilst others simply looked beautiful right next to the boat. What an awesome little adventure in our travels! 

This trip to New Zealand has been one of our most enriching vacations in terms of natural beauty. I will hold on tight to the many mental images from those two weeks of camervan-goodness and already look forward to the next time we get to visit this stunner of an island.


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