New Zealand Oceania

Spontaneous New Zealand Road Trip

When I boarded my flight to Seoul at the beginning of this trip, I wasn’t planning on going to New Zealand. In fact, I had other plans to travel around Australia alone during this time before flying back to Sydney and meeting up with my friend Vicki. But I got invited to join a couple people from the PNG/Vanuatu trips for a couple days of road tripping around the South Island of New Zealand, and I figured I could rebook my original plans any time but this was a more unique opportunity! So I did some rebooking on my phone from our hotel in Luganville, and made my chaotic Oceania trip even more so.

My flight issues getting out of Port Vila meant that I was not able to actually do anything in Wellington. Instead, I got off my flight at 11:30 pm, went through immigration, and headed to my hotel that I’d booked in the airport for a few hours of sleep before my flight to Christchurch the next morning. Fun fact about New Zealand, I had booked everything so last minute that I forgot I needed to fill out the ETA. I filled it out from Lucy’s house on Friday night and then it was just pending for a while. I was worried they weren’t going to let me on the plane, but I googled it and everything online said they don’t actually approve them over the weekend, but you should be able to board as long as you show you’ve applied and it’s pending. Air New Zealand didn’t check when I checked in or boarded, and it wasn’t a problem when I went through immigration. I got the approval a day or so into the trip, and when I announced that I’d gotten that email, Alvaro and Eric were so confused how I had already made it into the country!

Christchurch was quiet but pleasant. We grabbed food there at a little crêpe place, then went to the 2011 earthquake memorial. It’s one of the most well-known events to happen in Christchurch – it was one of the most violent earthquakes to ever hit an urban center (thanks Wikipedia!) and 185 people died in the tremors. The memorial was well done. It reminded me of the Vietnam Memorial in DC, where it’s simple but classy and gives people a place to come and contemplate the loss of life.

From there, we headed over Arthur’s Pass and to the West Coast, where we wound our way down to Wanaka! It was a pretty long driving day, or at least it felt that way given that we had started on the North Island that morning. We had a couple stops along the West Coast as the sun set over the ocean, which was absolutely gorgeous. As it got dark, we realized that we were going to get into Wanaka quite late, so it was a bit of a scramble to try to (a) find a hotel that would let us check in that late and (b) finding a restaurant that would be open so that we could actually get dinner, as we hadn’t eaten much besides the morning’s crêpes and a few snacks that we picked up from a gas station. Luckily, we successfully found both lodging and food and had a nice night.

The next day started with the Wanaka tree! It’s a famous landmark in New Zealand and it looked…. pretty different from how I expected. All the pictures on the internet show it as a tree over a lake. Apparently, the water recedes a bit in the winter, who knew? Also, it was cloudy when we went, so you couldn’t see the mountains that are usually behind the lake. It truly was one of those “….that’s it?” moments, like when you see Stonehenge or the Alamo or Mona Lisa in real life. I guess we just went at low season, but still.

From there, we headed south, stopping in Queenstown for lunch and then continuing on to Milford Sound. They look so absurdly close together on a map as the crow flies, but Milford Sound is actually a four hour drive away because you have to drive around the mountains. It was by far the most beautiful part of the drive! If I was only going to recommend one place in New Zealand, I would recommend Milford Sound. It was definitely a trek to get out there but it was worth it. If your trip is both higher budget and more planned out than mine, I think there’s a way to do a day trip from Queenstown by helicopter, which would probably be an incredible experience.

A brief comment about the birds of New Zealand! I would have loved to see a kiwi while I was there, but they are shy and nocturnal. That said, I did see a couple super cool ones while I was there. The first is the kea, which is an alpine parrot and is super friendly and smart, but with a propensity for theft. We first saw them outside a café that said if the kea steals and eats your food, they will not refund you. The second is a weka, or Maori hen. Weirdly enough, they also like theft. Because we were basically the only people in Milford Sound when we were there, when I crouched down and stayed still, this one came right up to me!

After watching the sunset at Milford Sound, we spent the night in Te Anau. The next morning, we headed back to Queenstown for a more relaxed day! Queenstown reminded me a lot of the ski towns in Colorado and Utah. It probably seemed even more like it because they were having some sort of music festival/ski event, so the downtown was swarming with people with their skis and snowboards.

I enjoyed Queenstown! It had a really cool vibe. We mostly walked around and ate while we were there, although we did also try to drive up into the neighborhoods on the west side to get a good view of the town. The Queenstown Gardens were also really pleasant to walk and talk. Alvaro had an evening flight so we dropped him off at the airport and then Eric and I ended up bar hopping for a bit. It was a nice end to the trip, and I was glad I was able to join!

The next morning, Eric’s flight was earlier than mine, so I got to sleep in a bit and then made my way back to the airport. New Zealand had some of the best views from the plane on takeoff and landing! It had felt like the perfect amount of time to explore a bit of the South Island, and I was off to Sydney to meet up with my friend.

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