I imagine at some point God’s marketing director was thinking about creating a new brochure to show off the best that earth has to offer. Being a good marketer she wanted the very best pictures possible, at which point, God likely said, “leave it to me, I’ll just create the South Island of New Zealand.” It is that incredible. From the rolling agricultural hills around Christchurch, to the mountains and glacial lakes around Queenstown, our 2,000 km drive around the island generated more “wows” from the backseat than I’ve heard in any other place around the world.
Our adventure began in Christchurch, a lovely colonial town that has been absolutely devastated by two huge earthquakes in the past year (more on that below). After our flight in we only spent about 12 hours before we headed out to Queenstown. Before we left, we vowed to return, and we visited the Antarctic expedition center. In addition to the being the second largest city in New Zealand, Christchurch is the forward base for nearly all Antarctic expeditions, so the airport is home to the US Air Force’s operation deep freeze – appropriately named. At the Antarctic Expedition Center we visited with friendly penguins, we went into the ice-room with sub-zero temperatures and a simulated storm – tons of fun in shorts – and we took a ride in a Hagglund tracked vehicle (self-explanatory picture above) to really get the full idea of what a trip to Antarctica would be like.
The drive from ChCh (what the locals call Christchurch) to Queenstown was just an appetizer of things to come. Our first stop was a glacial lake called Lake Tekapo. The color of the water here is so blue, almost Tiffany blue, it’s hard to believe. I kept looking around thinking I was actually living in a postcard. From Lake Tekapo it’s another couple hours through the mountains to Queenstown. And, when I say through the mountains, it’s hard to explain exactly how steep, wonderful and amazing the roads through the passes are. And this was just the first of many… the road to Milford Sound was even more amazing!
Queenstown is accurately described as the adventure capital of the world – and it lives up to that reputation. This is where bungee-jumping originated, in the winter it’s a ski-town, in the summer it’s adventure central. There are jet-boats, para-gliding, hard-core mountain biking, giant mountain swings, mountain and rock climbing, kayaking… pretty much anything you can imagine. If you can dream it up, someone will take your money and help you do it in Queenstown. Wendy threatened to bungee jump at one point, but I think the threat wasn’t that real (although she is quite accomplished at the mountain luge). The one can’t miss attraction in Queenstown is the shot-over jet. I won’t even try to explain it, just go to this website and watch the video. We have our own video of Alex nearly falling out of the boat, but you’ll have to come visit us in Boston to see that one.
The drive from Queenstown to Milford Sound is remote, beautiful and breathtaking. Especially amazing is the last 10km as the road winds through a 1km tunnel with a 15% slope, drops 1,000 meters down the side of the mountain through countless switchbacks in a clear attempt to test the upper limit on my blood-pressure. The four-hour drive culminates in a rain forest glacial fiord so picturesque we had to sign a waiver before our boat-cruise up the sound in case we ended up in a magazine photo shoot (not really, but it was that amazing). Milford Sound gets so much rain in the course of the year, that there is a 20 foot layer of fresh water on top of the salt-water in the sound. The seals and seabirds seem to enjoy the sound's beauty as well. Absolutely breathtaking.
No trip to the Fiordland national forest would be complete without a visit to the glow-worms at Te Anu. I couldn’t find a picture that really does this place justice; imagine you’re in a cave, it’s pitch black and the roof of the cave has so many glowing worms on it that it looks like the night sky on the clearest night you’ve ever seen. The glow worms really don’t do much, but they are remarkable, unique and downright bizarre.
Franz Josef glacier and Fox glacier sit in what is the wettest place in the world (at least that I’ve experienced), and it is an absolute exercise in contrasts. The two small coastal villages are in the heart of the rain forest, BUT, just a couple minutes walking up the mountain and you come to incredible, massive, ancient glaciers. Weird, right. I never would have thought that there would be glaciers near a rain forest, but in this case, the glaciers are actually IN the rain forest. And in less than 30 minutes you’re at the beach. Unfortunately our time in Franz Josef was defined by rain, rain and more rain… it is after all a rain forest. So, we didn’t get a chance to helicopter up to the top if the glacier, but we donned our duck-like rain gear and trudged up the mountain to the face of the glacier. Pretty amazing stuff.
Leaving the wet of Franz Josef behind us it was time to finish our clockwise circle of the South Island and head back to ChCh. On our way we stopped to view the wild and unpredictable Tasman Sea. The boys figured if they started swimming West from that beach, they’d hit Australia eventually… they didn’t try. We had a little more time on our second visit Christchurch and we made sure to stop and look at the South Pacific (two oceans on opposite sides of the island in the course of about three hours). We spent time exploring Christchurch’s beautiful botanical garden including a short cruise (on a Venice style gondola) on the Avon river. It was easy to see why the people are so attached to their city, why they have been so devastated by the earthquakes that have destroyed much of the city in the past year – and why they’re committed to rebuilding better than before. We were able to get close to the “red zone” which is the central part of the city surrounding the cathedral that is cordoned off and remains unstable, but we didn’t go in. Right at the edge of the red zone there is a restaurant where you can look through the window and see the tables set for an elegant lunch, some tables with half-eaten meals and half-full glasses of wine on them, as it was abandoned and never touched again at the time the earthquake hit nearly a year ago – it was pretty eerie, and a bit heartbreaking.
On the last night of our amazing New Zealand adventure we went to sleep in our hotel not knowing that we would learn first-hand how much earthquake activity Christchurch has seen in the past 18 months. In fact since the first major quake in September 2010 there have been 9,907 measurable earthquakes in the Christchurch area (learn more here). In the middle of the night we were shaken awake by an earthquake measuring 5.1 on the Richter scale. As perspective, that’s not nearly as powerful as the 7.1 quake from September 2010 or the 9.0 Fukushima quake, but it was among the 50 +/- most powerful quakes experienced in Christchurch, it was enough to wake us up, and certainly enough to make us all happy we’re back safely on solid Sydney ground with the US in our sights in just under a week.
With the exception of our rumbling exit, New Zealand was a 10/10. Queenstown lives up to all the hype, the mountains are breathtaking, the people are fantastic and it is like nowhere else on earth.
I feel so lucky to have seen God’s brochure.