Everything You Need To Know About New Zealand
After a rough relationship breakup at the beginning of 2016, I went to New Zealand on my own for two weeks in February to take my mind off things and do some exploring. A good friend was able to join me last minute for the second week in the south island. Safe to say that if you want to get out of the country to somewhere that will keep you constantly busy, NZ is one of the best places for it. From beaches to mountains to adventure junkie activities, it literally has everything you could want fit in two pretty small islands. Beware that if you visit in Feb, you will encounter the most tourists, and it will be hard to find things to see on your own without anyone else there. General costs are also quite expensive, as you’ll see later on in this post. I used Couch Surfing to find other travellers while I was there, where I met another Cortney and a girl called Steph. If you are travelling alone and want some company, this is an awesome resource for meeting like minded people.
GETTING AROUND: Depending on how long you plan on staying, I would recommend renting a car to make it easier to get around, although hitchhiking is a pretty common practice there so I don’t think you would have too much trouble getting around if a car rental doesn’t fit in your budget. I went with Apex rentals, which ended up costing me $1100 NZD for a station wagon for 13 days, including the ferry ride for 2 people and the car to and from the South Island. Pickup and drop off was in Auckland as it’s more expensive to do a one way rental. The car wasn’t very new but still did the job. Keep in mind that fuel is quite expensive, some of the more rural places would see it reach $2.50 NZD per litre.
WHERE TO STAY: As I went in February, which is the warmest and driest month of the year, I was able to camp most of the time. The department of conservation has all their campsites listed here. This is one of the easiest places to find campsites that meet your needs. The Wiki Camps app is also really useful especially if you are finding something near your location. Wiki Camps have different apps for several different countries and I have always found it to be the quickest and most useful.
There were a few rainy days, however, in which I ended up booking a cabin last minute on the day. I also split up the camping with some private room Air Bnb’s as well, all of which were very friendly and accommodating. I stayed with Renee on my first time through Wellington (find Renee here) and stayed with Megan on my way back up north, also in Wellington (find Megan here). In Auckland I stayed at the Hotel Grand Chancellor, mainly because I wanted to end the trip with a little bit of luxury, and overall it was pretty nice and in an awesome, central location.
DON’T FORGET: Weather in New Zealand is ridiculously inconsistent and changes very quickly. If you are going on a hike, despite if there is not a cloud in the sky, take a rain jacket! I ended up being caught in a full storm at the top of a mountain on a hike, when 2 hours earlier there was not a cloud in sight. Needless to say I was cold, wet and very miserable in my singlet and bike shorts.
The Coromandel incl. Cathedral Cove, Hot water beach: I wish I spent more than a day here! The coastlines in this area are incredible – beautiful scenery and rock formations along the beach, although the water is pretty chilly. It’s around a 3 hour drive from Auckland. Cathedral cove is about an hour from Coromandel on the other side of the peninsula but you can fit them both in a day. Right near cathedral cove is hot water beach, where you can dig holes in the sand and basically build yourself a small bath on the beach – the water that comes up through the sand is naturally heated by the earth. This place can get very crowded in summer though.
Tongariro National Park: I HIGHLY recommend doing the Tongariro Alpine Crossing hike in this national park. It is by far one of the best hikes I have ever done and is one of the top rated hikes in the world. The variations in scenery you see in one day are incredible – volcanic lakes, mountains and forest views toward the end. Cortney and I hiked this together so we got to know each other pretty well throughout the day. It is certainly a difficult trek; if you haven’t hiked before and plan on doing this I would do some prep work before you go. Check out this website before going so you are fully prepared: http://www.doc.govt.nz/tongariroalpinecrossing Also keep in mind that it is approximately 20km ONE WAY – so make sure you organise a bus from one end to the other.
We started this hike around 6:30am to beat the crowds but we still managed to encounter a lot of other hikers. It was a good starting time as we had ample time to go at our own pace, enjoy the sights and not worry about finishing before dark. There are two optional summits you can do along the way; we did the smaller one which you can see in the third picture below. To get there you literally had to walk through clouds which was a pretty good indication of how high up you are. The views over the crater were surreal, as if I was in an apocalyptic wasteland. The other summit requires a lot of rock scrambling and is much steeper so we decided to skip that one.
Hiking through volcanic areas and seeing the vibrant colours of the rocks and lakes gives such a different feeling of awe than regular mountain hikes. It gives a crazy sensation of being in another world.
Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Tongariro Alpine Crossing
If you are going to camp the night before, there is a campground right near the start of the hike called Mangahuia campsite, but if you plan on staying there try and get there as early as possible the day before because by the time I arrived at 6pm it was packed and I almost couldn’t find a spot.
Rotorua incl. Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland: Rotorua wasn’t one of my favourite places in New Zealand. I mainly went there to see the Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland – it’s a cool park with lots of geothermal springs and lakes, however my view is a bit biased after being to Yellowstone in the US and I felt like this didn’t really compare, especially for the price. If you have never seen geothermal sites, this would be worth seeing. PREPARE for the bad smells though! I felt quite ill after walking through the park due to the foul sulfur smell. Entrance to the park is $35 NZD. Drinking milk can alleviate the effects of inhaling the sulfur.
Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland
Hobbiton Movie Set: Definitely recommend! Even if you aren’t a Lord of the Rings fan, this is still an awesome day tour. You get a full tour of The Shire’s Rest, where they filmed Hobbiton, and everything is still in tact from when they filmed the movies. Entrance is $79 NZD and includes a free beer, and the tour goes for 2 hours. You can book tickets in advance (which I would recommend). I was surprised to hear they actually employ several year round gardeners to keep the gardens looking fresh.
Waitomo Glow Worm Caves: These caves are really beautiful and worth seeing if you haven’t seen a glow worm cave before. The guide I had was a Maori and gave a lot of history about the area. The unfortunate thing is that you can’t take any cameras/photos inside, so if you want to go see this to take photos, you might be disappointed. Entrance is $50 NZD and the tour goes for 45 minutes.
Mount Cook/Aoraki National Park & Lake Pukaki: One of the most scenic spots in the South Island and also home of the International Dark Sky Reserve. The drive to Mount Cook Village runs alongside Lake Pukaki, a beautiful blue lake. Make sure to stop at the lavender farm on Mount Cook highway; they have a little pop up shop there with crafted lavender goods and sweets. I spent a day in Mount Cook and hiked the Hooker Valley track which I highly recommend. There are a few other hikes in the area, The walk is about 13 km return but you don’t have to walk the entire loop to still get incredible views. I had huge blisters on my feet from the Tongariro hike so I only went halfway and back. There is a DOC campsite right at the trailhead of the Hooker Valley track called White Horse Hill Campsite ($13 NZD a night per person) but in peak season get there as early as possible as it was absolutely packed when I arrived at night. The view from the campsite is awesome and the stars are phenomenal, a perfect place for astrophotography.
Mount Cook Highway
Lavender Farm (Mount Cook Highway)
Hooker Valley Track
Lake Tekapo: Picturesque blue lake with lots of purple wildflowers in spring and summer. I shot some astrophotography here and had a very cute and bizarre experience on the outskirts of the lake. I’d taken my camera and tripod about a 500m walk from the campsite on the lake I was staying at and set it up with the lake in front of me facing the milky way. I brought along some Bailey’s in a plastic camping mug which I was sipping while waiting for the photos to take. I put it on the ground along with my camera bag etc. when I was done and I kept hearing this noise of an animal of some sort which was beginning to freak me out. I discovered a small rodent type animal had tipped over my mug and was half buried inside (it must have smelt the sweet bailey’s scent). Clearly it had an effect on him a he wobbled away.
Queenstown: The number one spot for adventure and thrill seeker activities, although they don’t come particularly cheap. The city itself is quite expensive as it is atop a luxurious destination for skiing in New Zealand and they get lots of tourists.
There are tonnes of options for activities including:
Skydiving – Bungee Jumping – Canyon Swing – Zip Lining – White Water Rafting – Canyoning – Paragliding – Hangliding – Jet Boat ride – Luge – Helicopter – Quad Biking
I decided on white water rafting and zip lining, although I regret choosing the zip line for a few reasons. I went with a company called ZipTrek Ecotours as they had amazing reviews on Tripadvisor and it was one of the cheaper activities in comparison to the others ($135 NZD), but it was very tame and the instructors spent more time explaining about the environment than time we actually got on the zipline. The lines are buried in the trees as well so there isn’t much of a view. I have been ziplining in Costa Rica before which was an incredible experience and hence one of the reasons I wanted to do it again in New Zealand, but if you are wanting thrill seeker/adventure style activities, I would steer clear of this one.
White water rafting was really good value for money – ($219 NZD). It lasted a few hours and was overall an enjoyable experience. I was planning on jet boating and canyoning as well but ended up running out of time; they are both on my list for next time I visit NZ as they are also recommended as good value for money activities. Most of the higher thrill activities are upwards of a few hundred dollars, so if you are going on a budget either plan these in advance or give them a miss.
Make sure to check out Fergburger while you are in town, they have delicious burgers of all types; the lines get pretty huge but a good tip from a local said to call up and order, so you can walk straight in when it’s ready and you won’t have to line up. Also make sure you check out the scenic drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy. If you are camping, there is a good spot along this road called Twelve Mile Delta Campsite ($13 NZD a night per person).
Lake Wanaka: There is a very steep but incredible hike overlooking Lake Wanaka called Roy’s Peak, which if you have a full day to spare I would do. It’s around 3-4 hours return and is an open hike the entire way with views all the way to the top. We passed by tonnes of sheep on this hike, and after being caught in a storm with no umbrellas, rain jackets or even regular jackets (literally in singlets and bike shorts) we sprinted a good 1km from the top to back down to a lower point in fear of being struck by lightning. I took shelter about half an hour from the top when the initial heavy rain started, but my friend was determined to reach the top as we were so close. She sprinted up to the top and back in the pouring rain while I sat under this small rock shelter and then we proceeded to run back down the mountain.
Mount Aspiring National Park: I have never seen so many waterfalls along the side of the road in my life! We did a hike to Fox glacier although most of the hike was closed off due to a recent rainstorm and lots of rockfalls. The rapids in the river were also very fast and looked quite dangerous if you were to fall in. The weather was pretty wet when we were here so we didn’t end up seeing as much as we’d liked.
Hike to Fox Glacier
Kaikoura: I passed through here to go swimming with the seals which was a really cool, unique experience. The coastal views around this area are really beautiful as well especially at sunrise as it faces the east. I stayed at a private campground right next to the water called Kaikoura Peketa Beach Holiday Park, which was a few minutes from the town of Kaikoura. It was a little expensive ($40 NZD per night for a basic tent site) but the location, amenities and views were great.
I booked the seal swim through Seal Swim Kaikoura, which was $110 NZD per person. The trip lasted a few hours and was really good value for money. The seals are so playful! They get quite close and swim and dance around you in the water. Our boat operator made sure to take us to the best spots to see the seals where most of them sunbake on the rocks, and he was more than happy to move around to as many spots as possible to get the best experience. We also saw plenty of dolphins along side the boat. WARNING – the water is outrageously cold even in the warmest month. You are provided with a full wetsuit including a piece that goes onto your head, but it was actually so cold that my action camera stopped working for a bit. If you aren’t too fussed by the cold you will be fine, but if you can’t cope with cold water then this trip may not be ideal.
Kaikoura Seal Swim
View from Campsite in Kaikoura
Christchurch: Unluckily enough I ended up arriving here on the day of a 6.3 magnitude earthquake! I only spent an afternoon and a night here, but the beach at Sumner was pretty nice for a chilled out afternoon. I stayed in an Air Bnb for the night, which was great for being on a budget and the host, Ezra, was a really friendly and welcoming guy. Find Ezra’s place on Air Bnb here.
Don’t forget to check out my video on New Zealand here!
On the list for my next NZ visit
Bay of Islands incl. Goat Island
Abel-Tasman National Park
Franz Josef Glacier
Fiordland National Park
Arthur’s Pass National Park
Nelson Lakes National Park