Twice we have had the absolute pleasure of visiting New Zealand, or Aotearoa in native Maori meaning the land of the long white cloud. And it is a spectacular place. New Zealand is made up of 2 main islands, the South Island, and the North Island plus around 700 smaller islands. Owing to their remoteness the islands were the last large habitable lands to be settled by humans. Between 1280 and 1350 Polynesians began to settle the islands and developed the distinctive Maori culture. Traditional Maori arts play a big role in New Zealand, including the whakairo (carving of wooden figures), the raranga (weaving), kapa haka (group performance, seen performed at the beginning of every match by the mighty New Zealand rugby team All Blacks), whaikorero (oratory) and the ta moko (tattooing of face and torso).
In 1642 the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman became the first European to sight New Zealand. In 1840, representatives of the United Kingdom and Maori chiefs signed the Treaty of Waitangi, which declared British sovereignty over the islands. The treaty was interpreted very differently between the British and the Maori and this led to the New Zealand wars between the British settlers and the Maori. Lasting from 1845 to 1872. After the war, the British more or less disregarded the treaty and as a result land was lost or simply stolen from the Maori. From the 1950s and onwards Maori increasingly sought the use of the treaty as a platform for claiming additional rights. And it has been a long and hard journey for the whole nation to make right all the wrongs suffered by the Maori. In modern New Zealand the Maori are a part of that whole fascinating tapestry that makes up a nation unlike most others. To visit a Maori traditional village is a must when staying in New Zealand, their culture is unique and fascinating. To be greeted at the village gate by a fierce warrior and to be challenged “are you friend or foe?” is spine tingling.
To say hello in Māori is one of the finest greetings in the world, the traditional Māori greeting, the hongi is performed by two people pressing their noses together; some include, at the same time, the touching of foreheads. In the hongi, the ha (breath of life) is exchanged in a symbolic show of unity.
And as Tanja likes to point out, there are no poisonous animals on the islands, so unlike Australia you can ramble around the bush without worrying about being killed around every corner. There is a small and exceedingly rare exception though, the near mythical Katipo spider. It exists in very small numbers near the beaches of the North Island. It is a shy spider, only the female will bite, and there have been no recorded deaths in at least 100 years. A bigger worry is the Australian Redback spider which has been accidentally imported to New Zealand but still, they only exist in small, localised populations in the North Island.
Our first visit was in 1997 as a part of our first around the world adventure. We had backpacks, tickets for the awesome Kiwi Experience, and it was cool to ride the bus with other budget backpackers and used the bus service to see the highlights of both islands. We stayed at hostels in multi person dormitories and ate pot noodles and spaghetti with ketchup. It was a shoestring budget, but New Zealand is very much a tourist’s paradise and caters in a great way towards everyone from backpackers to VIP glam packers. Our second visit was part of our second around the world trip in 2005. We needed to go back and explore more and have the freedom of our own rental car. Staying in hotels and motels, this trip was a bit more luxury than the first one. We could even afford to eat at restaurants and drink in bars outside happy hour.
It is hard to give exact council on a country we visited more than 15 years ago but we would like to try and convey the feeling of places and why we love New Zealand so much.
The Lord of the Rings is a film series of three epic fantasy adventure films directed by New Zealander Peter Jackson. The movies are based on the novel by J. R. R. Tolkien. The films were shot on location all over New Zealand. The Fellowship of the Ring was released in 2001, The Two Towers in 2002 and The Return of the King in 2003.
There are also two distinct timelines of New Zealand culture and tourism, and that is pre and post Lord Of The Rings. When we visited in 1997 New Zealand was “just” New Zealand with its natural beauty and crisp air as its biggest selling point. When we returned in 2004 it had renamed itself “Middle Earth” and our inflight security video was inhabited by Hobbits! The LOTR movie franchise kickstarted the NZ tourism industry after the release of the first movie in 2001, and after the last movie premiered in 2003 the whole country had jumped the bandwagon. And the release of The Hobbit movie trilogy in 2012 kept the momentum for the country. We did not mind a bit, we love LOTR (and The Hobbit) so we got to see some great locations from the LOTR movies, especially on the North Island. For a comprehensive guide to locations please check out LOTR filming locations.
South Island has a natural loop road, the middle being occupied by towering alpine mountains, home to Aoraki Mt. Cook at 3724 metres above sea level. The mountain range runs along the entire length of the island. In the southwest is Fjordland National Park with steep sided Milford Sound. In the north is Abel Tasman National Park, known for its trails and ocean kayaking. Queenstown is famed for all its adrenaline sports from bungee jumping to paragliding and mountain biking. We started both our trips around New Zealand from Christchurch. It is an incredibly beautiful town, very English, but not English and it deserves all the visitors it gets. We were saddened by the devastation of Christchurch in the earthquake of 2011 and the senseless terrorist attack in 2019. Most people arriving in South Island will land at Christchurch International Airport since this is the only major airport on the island. South Island is a very laidback place, very friendly people, and no stress whatsoever. The South Island boasts stunning Lord of The Rings locations like the Edoras site in the Asburton hills, the Pelennor fields in Mackenzie county (near Twizel) and the River Anduin and Fangorn Forest in the Fjordland area.
In New Zealand you have the major roads called state highways, designated by numbers. For example, state highways 6-9 are the key South Island highways, 2-5 are the Key North Island highways. And the mother road is State Highway 1 that runs from Cape Reinga at the top of the North Island to Bluff at the bottom of the South Island.
From Christchurch we headed down State Highway 8 to Lake Pukaki and then did the small No80 road along the lake, and ended up at Aoraki Mount Cook Village and the start of the Hooker Valley trail. Even if you don’t walk the trail, there are spectacular views of Mount Cook and the glaciers from the village, and if you walk for no more than an hour or so along the trail, the views will go from spectacular to epic. We spent the night in a small cabin in Twizel and had the most fantastic view from our porch of the mountain.
We continued south on highway 8 and then 6 on to Queenstown. Queenstown was visited on both occasions, dubbed “the action sports capital of the world”- you can find the first bungee site on a bridge outside of town, downhill biking and tobogganing can be done by taking the skilift up the mountain by the city centre. Everything that can be hurled down a mountain can be ridden in Queenstown. The location of Queenstown is spectacular nestled among mountains at the shore of lake Wakatipu.
Unfortunately, we never got to see the fabled Fjordlands National Park south of Queenstown, the weather on both occasions not allowing us to go there, it looks beautiful, and we will go there some time. It is one of the “must sees” on the South Island so we were a bit bummed that we never got to see this area of outstanding natural beauty.
From Queenstown highway 6 runs across the island over the magnificent Haast pass to the western coast of the South Island. The west coast is wilder, more rugged, and truly spectacular with its dense green fern forests, rivers, and glaciers. Highlights are the Fox Glacier and the Franz Josef glaciers. There are numerous treks along rivers on the whole coast, we trekked along a few rivers we cannot remember the names of, and it is sometimes great to just get out of the car and do a random walk. Walking the paths along the rivers with lush forests of ferns all around you is something incredibly special, and something very New Zealand for us.
There is a reason why the fern is a national symbol. There is also a rich gold prospecting and mining history in the area, so make sure to visit some of the old sites and learn a bit of history on the way.
Punakaiki Pancake rocks and blowholes are spectacular sights on the edge of Paparoa national park. The Pancake Rocks at Dolomite Point near Punakaiki is a heavily eroded limestone area where the sea bursts through several vertical blowholes. The walk is easy and the sights are amazing!
Further north on the northern tip of the South Island is the magnificent Abel Tasman National Park with its golden beaches and archipelagos great for kayaking and trekking.
If you decide not to take the western road all the way north to Abel Tasman and instead cross over the mountains to the east there are some excellent hot springs along highway 7 over the Lewis pass. A great road and it is dotted with thermal springs and spas along the way. Soaking in the excellent Maruia hot springs or the more family oriented Hanmer springs are both excellent respites along the way. If you are feeling more adventurous and want a trek to deserve a hot pool, there are plenty like for example Cow Stream. Check out the excellent website NZ Hotpools for more info on pools all over New Zealand.
The small town of Kaikoura on the east coast made all our dolphin dreams come true. We had been dreaming about swimming with dolphins for years but never found the right opportunity. On our first visit we were tipped to do dolphin swimming in the Bay of Islands on the North Island but we saw no dolphins there whatsoever. So, on our second visit we made sure to go to the best place in the world for dolphin swimming.
The area and town of Kaikoura is unique since the sea gets very deep a short way offshore on the Kaikoura peninsula south of town. The ocean currents bring an abundance of nutrients from the deep sea into the shallower waters along the coast, and so the waters are abundant with whales, dolphins, fur seals and birds like albatrosses eating and frolicking in the sea. Kaikoura is perhaps the best place in the world to watch sperm whales and to swim with dolphins. The dominant organisation in Kaikōura’s whale watching industry is Whale Watch Kaikōura, which is run as a charitable organisation. There are sperm whales in the area year-round, but the best months to see both sperm whales and migrating humpback whales is June to August. If you want to swim with Dusky dolphins like we did, this is the place to do it. Our experience with Dolphin Encounter was nothing short of awesome. The pods of dolphins inhabiting the waters around Kaikoura are big, we found ourselves surrounded by around 600 playful curious dolphins for our whole experience in the water. There are limitations on how many can be in the water at the same time, so it will never get crowded. Swimming in the cold blue water and suddenly being passed by hundreds of dolphins is a memory of a lifetime. We have never experienced anything like it in our lives. True magic and something we will remember forever!
When ending our South Island adventure, we drove our car up to Picton in the north to take the ferry that runs between the South Island and the town of Wellington on the North Island. You could also drive back to Christchurch and hop on a plane to the North Island. There is also a spectacular coastal train service along the coast from Christchurch to Picton. We think that taking the ferry over the Cook Strait is a great way to leave the South Island and a great way to start the journey on the North Island. There are two ferry companies servicing the Cook Strait, Interislander and Bluebridge.
New Zealand`s South Island is a rugged and wild dream where you can trek the wildest of wildernesses and enjoy everything from hurling yourself into the abyss from a bridge or have a serene swim with the majestic dolphins in the sea. It is a unique place, and we love it.