We departed Sydney, Australia on the morning of January 17th – summer-time down under. Our destination – Queenstown, New Zealand. Flying over the Tasman Sea, we entered New Zealand over the Fiordland National Park. Even though the day was a bit overcast, I had my camera out as the entrance into Queenstown was breathtaking – coming in low over a set of glacial lakes, carved through the majestic mountains. A few feet from touchdown I turned to my travel partner – we were both smiling with anticipation at what was to come in this notoriously beautiful country.
In the next instance we were both thrown backwards into our seat as the plane accelerated quickly and pulled upwards. Everybody looked at each other with a ‘WTF’ stare. No announcement from the pilot. But the map screens on the back of each seat quickly listed ‘Christchurch‘ as our ‘next’ destination – a 40-minute flight away. We later learned the tail wind into Queenstown was so strong we would not have had enough runway to land. So…we had a last-minute addition to our itinerary! Unfortunately we were not able to get off the plane – but it was neat to see a different part of the south island of New Zealand – a channel of lush green geometrical agricultural flat lands with the sea on one side and hills on the other.
Several hours later we finally landed in the magical, remote, rugged Queenstown. The city sits along the shore of the ‘lightening strike’ shape of Lake Wakatipu and at the base of a mountain range aptly called ‘The Remarkables‘ – as it is nothing short of remarkable with its steep, sheer jagged formation. They are also one of only two mountain ranges in the world that run north to south. This range and a hilly area called Deer Park Heights were used for multiple scenes in the Lord of the Rings.
We eventually settled into our room at the QT Hotel, overlooking Lake Wakatipu and watched the 100-year-old TSS Earnslaw steamship chug up and down the waterway from destinations at the far tips of the lake . Our late arrival had us missing our afternoon wine tours so instead we took a walk around the town center to get our shopping out-of-the-way and purchased some of the locally produced wares – wool, jade, wine and beer, anything kiwi, and Manuka honey!
Our first full day in New Zealand was a doozy. We were shuttled to the airport where we boarded a 12-seater fixed-wing plane, and headed out on a 35-minute journey to Milford Sound – one of the most well know fiords in New Zealand with Mitre Peak as it’s major focal point. Our pilot was obviously well experienced and versed and in the trials and tribulations of flying in and out of not only a very mountainous terrain but with sketchy weather conditions. Flights had not been flying in this area for the last several days because of rain storms – and the night before our flight we had been given a 50-50 shot at taking off.
But take off we did – and flew so close to some of the mountains they seemed within reach if I could’ve opened my window – which thank goodness I couldn’t!! Swooping in and out of glacial lake canyons and over the Paradise region where Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies did some of their filming, I was snapping pictures left and right. We landed on a tiny airstrip at the inlet of the 12-km long fiord, followed by a 10-minute hike to board a lightly packed cruise ship for our 2-hour water journey. The boat made its way up one side of the fiord, coasting along sheer cliffs rising hundreds of feet up into the cool misty skies. We came within viewing distant of the Tasman Sea and then back to port along the other side of the fiord. Witnessing some of the most amazing waterfalls – some permanent, others pop-ups thanks to the 10″ of rainfall mother nature bathed the area with in the last 48 hours.
To give you an idea of the beauty of the area I took 400+ pictures in a two-hour time span – I couldn’t stop snapping! It is said the fiords in Alaska or Norway are equally as beautiful and not as hard to get to – but this was worth every long hour spent on the flight to get down under, and the harrowing flight we took to bring us to this amazing natural sanctuary. Rudyard Kipling dubbed the area the ‘8th Wonder of the World.’ We were told we might see dolphins or penguins, but alas they did not make an appearance. We were however graced with the characters of the seas – seals! Of all shapes and sizes and colors.
Our return flight was equally impressive, taking us on different route, with a new pilot who was even more daring than the first – but just as confident in his ability to get close enough to the natural landscape to give us an up close and personal look while still keeping us safe. It is easy to understand why so many movies have been filmed in New Zealand with its natural beauty, much of it untouched by mans wayward hand.
That was enough stimulation to fill a day, but we were only getting started. Next we were whisked off to experience our most extreme, heart pounding, invigorating adventure of the whole trip – a fast paced ride aboard a 16-person jet boat for an excursion on the Shotover River – yet another filming location for LOR and the Hobbit trilogies. This 25-minute adventure placed us in the hands of a diabolical, but thankfully very capable captain who whisked us up and down the tight, shallow (10cm at times) meandering river, at speeds over 60mph, doing 360 degree tight spins. These boats have such quick reactionary abilities we could be heading towards a canyon wall or boulder jutting out of the water at full speed and turn at the last split second, barely missing the end of our life!
After we caught our breath it was time for a little down time to see some of the back country of Queenstown. One of the most renowned spots in New Zealand is set on the Kawarau Bridge, in the rugged region of the Kawarau Gorge the site of the original AJ Hackett Bungy Jump. Having had our share of extreme adventures for the day, we chose to sit this one out and watch several people scream at the top of their lungs, certain they were plunging to their death into the turquoise river waters below – only to be yanked up at the last second by a well secured bungy rope.
We finished our day with a leisurely, albeit steeply vertical Gondola ride up to the top of the ski hill that overlooks Queenstown, to enjoy the panoramic views with a glass of wine to relax our highly activated nerves from a day of extremes.
The next day was a ‘kick back’ kind of day. We were loaded into a LandRover and taken on a half-day voyage through the scenic mountain and forest views of the New Zealand outback, stopping at many exact locations of filming for LOTR and Hobbit trilogies – ie. Isengard, Forest of Lothlorien, the Ithilian Camp, Mt. Earnslaw….we were even given a few swords used in the movie scenes to create our own LOTR photo-op.
That afternoon we were escorted via a private car to some of the local wineries in the Gibbston wine district. New Zealand may not have the history of some other noted wine regions, but it is making its way into an industry that demands a lot of patience and a lot of time to make wines to compete on the world wine stage. And from what we tasted – they are well on their way. Very strong Pinot Noirs and Rose’s.
As much as we were sad to leave the Queenstown area – we could’ve stayed for weeks – it was time to continue on our journey. Which included one more New Zealand stop before heading back to Australia. An early morning flight had us arriving in the ‘City of Sails‘ a/k/a Auckland, which sits on the north end of the north island of New Zealand. We only had a partial day to spend in this expansive city. We started out at the large marina, positioned at the edge of downtown – it was easy to see how the city got its name peering through the multitudes of ship masts, looking across the marina at the Sky Tower, the skyline focal point, looming high above the city and was our next destination. The Sky Tower high-speed elevator whisked us up the 328 meters to the observation deck where we had an amazing 360 degree view of Auckland. We watched with awe several tethered people jump off the balcony of the tower down to a landing spot at street level. No thanks!
Next it was off to experience the black sand beaches just outside of Auckland, that extend 50km north – an amazing sight! Enroute we witnessed the largest Muriwai Gannet bird migration. . The ammonia tainted stench of the birds literally took your breath away, but the visual of thousands of birds on this one outcropping was a sight to see. Auckland also boasts one of New Zealand’s most amazing urban parks, Cornwall Park – where sheep are free to roam, and the high point sits atop one of 48 inactive volcanic cones that dot the landscape in an otherwise fairly flat cityscape.
Thus ends our exhaustive jaw-dropping awe-struck trip to New Zealand. And we can’t wait to go back! We lost track of how many people we came across who said they came to visit and never left. I so get it!! And we barely touched what this amazing country has to offer those open to adventure and the desire to be astounded at every turn.