Lost in New Zealand: The South Island

Adventure Travel, Backpacking & Trekking, Car, City Travel, Fitness & Workouts, Food & Wine, Hostels, Lost Girls RTW Adventure, New Zealand, Spa & Beauty — By on May 28, 2007 at 12:25 am

While New Zealand’s North Island plays host to the bulk of its population, many people believe that its Southern sister provides far more in the way of stunning natural settings, atmospheric small towns and brag-worthy adventure activities. Amused by the sibling rivalry and excited to indulge our inner adrenaline junkies, we decided to follow up our travels through the north-Auckland, Rotarua, Tongariro National Park and Wellington-with a two and half-week road trip through the South Island. We’re not saying which of NZ’s two half is the better one-but we’ll let this highlight reel speak for itself!

1.Bottom’s Up at the Top of the Island
Almost as soon as we picked up our rental car (waiting for us in the ferry parking lot with the keys tucked behind the front bumper-how quaint!) we struck out for Marlborough Country, a region world renowned for the Sauvignon Blancs, Gewürztraminers, Reislings and Pinot Noirs, which ripen to utter perfection in its chilly marine environment. I’ve never been much of a vino aficionado-all that swilling and swirling and sniffing seemed far less interesting than the actual sipping part, but after learning that we’d be staying within walking distance of at least 50 wineries, I started to get into a Sideways frame of mind.

The girls and I borrowed bikes from the owners of our B&B (cheaper and more fun than paying $80 to get drunk with old folks on a tour bus) and hit up the first of several wineries. After sampling some of the world’s most exquisite reds and whites, I realized two things—1. The reason I’d never been much of a wine drinker is that I’d been wasting my taste buds on crap like Sutter Home and stuff that comes in a box or jug. 2. I was having an increasingly tough time staying upright on the top of my bike! The girls pulled over long enough for me to grab a sandwich from the local grocery store, and together we wobbled off in to the sunset.

2.Totally ‘WOW’ed by Nelson
One of the best things about road trips is the ability to be completely spontaneous. While Holly, Amanda and I tried to stick to a tight schedule in order to fit in all the main South Island stops, an impromptu detour to the quaint and lovable city of Nelson reminded us that veering off course can sometimes be more fun. Ironically, what landed us in this town of eternal sunshine (seriously, Nelson holds the country’s record for the most clear days), was a sudden case of stormy weather. We had signed up for a 2-day hike/kayak trip in the nearby Abel Tasman National Park, but were greeted by a torrential downpour before we had a chance to step foot on the trail. As inclement conditions were considered rare in these parts, the tour guide suggested we hunker down for the night and try again the next day. Slightly bored by the string of one horse towns that fringed the National Park (or half horse towns as we liked to joke; we’re so funny!), the girls and I decided to make the 45 minute drive to Nelson to experience the lively arts, entertainment and coffee house culture that the city was so well known for. Little did we know just how lively the town’s art really was!

Intrigued by our Lonely Planet’s description of the World of Wearable Art & Collectable Cars Museum, we decided we had to check it out for ourselves. Although tiny in comparison to our favorite hometown art haunts – the Met, Guggenheim and Whitney – this funky, Nelson gallery packed a huge creative punch. Showcasing the highly imaginative, tactile and bizarre designs from New Zealand’s highly acclaimed Wearable Arts Award Show (held each September in Wellington); the WOW section of the museum is a dazzling spectacular of abstract fashion and avant-garde costumes, which included winners of the Bizarre Bra category. Amanda, Holly and I snagged “VIP” seats in front of an illuminated carousel turned catwalk for the collection of artfully adorned mannequins dressed in everything from chain mail lingerie and ball gowns made from boxes to glow in the dark handbags and multi-tiered skirts fashioned from astro-turf). When the fabulous fashion show was over, we headed to the other side of the building to check out the impressive display of vintage cars including a 1959 Pink Cadillac, a 1908 Renault and an E-type Eldorado.

We emerged from the museum feeling culturally satisfied, creatively stimulated and supremely happy that we opted to spend the day in Nelson rather than on a wet and muddy park trail. Plus, we had an entire evening ahead of us to relax, explore the town, grab dinner at a cute local café and maybe even hit up another vineyard or two for some more wine sampling. Just when we thought things couldn’t get better, the grey clouds overhead started to dissipate and the area’s famous sunshine made a surprise celebrity appearance!

3.To Hike Oar Not to Hike
The weather may have took a turn for the worse the day the girls and I signed up for an overnight combo hiking-kayaking trip through Abel Tasman National Park (what’s the point of hiking if you can’t make out the scenery through the fog?), but we saw the bright side the very next day as the sun peaked out through the clouds.

So we set off in a water taxi to a remote part of the park and stopped along the way to watch seals sunning themselves on rocky islands. When we arrived at the drop-off point, we had a picnic on the beach (I’ve never eaten so many peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches in my life as I have this year). Then we walked for over four hours on a path that led past pristine beaches bordering the most emerald green water I’ve ever seen and lush rainforest.

It was dusk before we arrived at a proverbial fork in the road that lead to a communal hut containing bunks for about 30 people. A sign read “Stay right for high tide, left for low tide.” Not knowing where the heck the tide was, we opted to take the left. This, my friends, was one of those times when we should have taken the safe route. As we neared the bottom of a hill on the low-tide path, we discovered that it was completely flooded. And since we didn’t have enough time to retrace our steps before nightfall, we stripped down into our bikinis, carried our packs on our heads and waded through the chilly water. By now we’re accustomed to overcoming obstacles on the road (remember those cockroaches in our beds?), so we weren’t about to let a little water to stop us.]

Since there was no electricity at the hut and nothing to do, we dozed off immediately before waking at sunrise to head down to the beach (which was no longer flooded, f.y.i.). A boat had dropped off the remainder of our tour group so we could kayak the rest of the way back.

It was only two people per kayak, so I teamed up with a guy named Chris from England who was travelling with his two “mates” for a year (fellow Lost Boys!). It took us about five hours to make it back, but we stopped for a picnic lunch on the beach (and to periodically splash water on Jen and Amanda with our oars). High tides and dreary weather aside, I was sad when our trip through Abel Tasman came to an end-its speculator rainforests and azure-wave lapped beaches are Mother Nature’s gift to the world.

4.The Pirate Queens

(Amanda): The Lost Girls love any excuse to get dressed up in wacky costumes, so when our kayaking captain mentioned that the annual Abel Tasman Pirate Bash was going off that night, we decided to crash the party in our swashbuckling best. Here’s what we pulled together, a look inspired by Jack Sparrow’s surly crew and executed entirely with crap pulled from the depths of our backpacks.

5.Freestanding Fruit
I missed my favorite season this year-fall-because I was in Africa. But I still got to experience autumn because the seasons are reversed in the Southern hemisphere. And parts of New Zealand reminded me of Upstate New York-especially since the time was ripe for picking apples there. I bugged Jen to pull the car over as we sailed past orchard after orchard so I could buy apples from some of the help-yourself roadside stands. She reluctantly agreed, but became much more enthusiastic after she tasted the juicy fruit. There’s nothing better than an apple fresh off the tree, and New Zealand’s are especially sweet.

6.Blair Witch Beach
We’ve made some pretty crazy pit stops during our Kiwi road trip-including stopping at the place where the Blair Witch Project was filmed. Just kidding! Seriously though, we pulled over for a bathroom break while driving down the coast to Queenstown and stumbled upon an eerie and beautiful beach. It was adorned with driftwood resembling human bones, the charred remains of bonfires and pale rocks arranged in creepy circular patterns.

There were tee-pee structures made of driftwood decorated with hanging stones tied by reeds. We couldn’t figure out what the heck they were for. Jen speculated that they were some kind of Maori offering. Amanda theorized they were a sacrificial burying ground. We could have stayed there for longer and really let our imaginations get away from us. But with the sun setting fast, we decided not stick around to find out.

7.Frozen Solid
Clawing and pick axing one’s way up, over and through a huge melting mountain of ice may sound like an uncomfortably chilly way to spend an afternoon, but we totally dug our “hard core” climb on the blue tinged, 20,000 year old behemoth known as the Franz Josef Glacier. After getting suited up in a half-dozen layers of clothing (to defend against the elements), strapping crampons to our hiking boots (to prevent slip-sliding over the edge) and getting a crash course in glacier science (it’s blue because tiny air pockets only refract a certain wavelength of light), we trekked a few kilometres to the base of the beast and started our ascent. While it was definitely wet work, we felt pretty bad ass squeezing through the narrow crevasses and making forays through frozen caves such as this one. I loved acting like an ice princess, but my favourite part of the day was warming up with a massive bowl of chilli at the Landing Cafe later that night. Yum!

8.Road Rules
Driving at night in New Zealand requires a certain kind of commitment. First, the “highways” really consist of unlit two-lane roads that careen around cliffs and whip around mountains, the kind that look fabulous in artsy car commercials but require 1000 percent of your attention lest you pull a Thelma and Louise and careen over the guardrail. Then there’s the wildlife: Rabbits and possums like to make their appearance once the sun goes down, and choose the very second that your vehicle is gunning down the road to make a mad dash in front of the tires (we were able to swerve most of the time, but one sickening crunch was enough to put us off our midnight snacks!).

For these reasons, and others I’m sure, Kiwis don’t really drive at night, but we had no idea that they locals actually hate and discriminate against nocturnal travelers until we visited the tiny town of Franz Josef Village. First, the reception desks at every single hostel had closed by 8:00pm, forcing us to pay nearly three times as much to check into the town’s resort hotel. When we tried to leave the next day after our hike, we found the only gas station locked up tight at around 7:30pm-the guy at the nearby service station actually seemed offended that we expected the place to be open. “Well what do you want….its the middle of the night?” Some of us actually like to get up early and get home early.” So, not to be deterred in our midnight trek, we coasted 100 km down the highway (most on fumes) and filled up at the one pump in the entire South Island that actually let you pay for gas by feeding bills into a machine. Apparently, even that pump didn’t like to be woken up from its deep sleep—it ate $20 of our money but spit out enough gas to fuel our ride to Queenstown.

9.Jet (Boat) Setting!
Tours are like a box of chocolates: You never know what you’re going to get. Thankfully, the jet-boat excursion Amanda and I opted to go on in Queenstown was a blast. Our driver, a 21-year-old Kiwi who navigated Lake Wakatipu and the Shotover and Kawarau Rivers, got our feet wet as the boat hit speeds of 50 mph in water sometimes as shallow as four inches. While some passengers couldn’t keep from shrieking as he turned the boat in circles and narrowly missed granite boulders protruding from shore, we were pleasantly surprised by the joy ride. When it comes to speed, we say bring it on!

10.A Ring Around Queenstown
Unless you’re living under a rock, it’s common, pop culture knowledge that Peter Jackson shot the internationally-acclaimed Lord of the Rings trilogy in his home country of New Zealand. But what the average tourist may not realize is that the dozens of stunning locations and natural wonders displayed in the films are being repackaged as ‘must see’ sites and served up as special movie tours by local companies across the North and South Islands. Practically every town in the country has jumped on the Hobbit bandwagon, cashing in on J.R.R. Tolkein’s epic tale through themed hikes, drives, boat cruises and even helicopter flights. And Queenstown was no exception!

Now, Holly, Amanda and I aren’t generally fond of hokey, guided excursions that we could just as easily do on our own, but when we heard about a four-wheel drive adventure tour offered through Nomad Safaris, we thought it’d be a fun way to see the area’s main attractions. As a hard core LOTR fan, I was happy to buy into the whole ‘walk in the footsteps of Hobbits, Elves and Dwarfs’ line, so I insisted that we pick the package that included fun facts and behind the scenes info about the local locations used in the three films. After a breathtaking, four-hour tour that wound up a steep, narrow dirt road to Skipper’s Canyon, ran above the Shotover River, took us off-roading through rushing creeks and provided gorgeous views of the famous Remarkables mountain range, we arrived back into town with a greater appreciation of the region’s natural beauty. Not to mention, a more in-depth knowledge of how and where specific LOTR scenes were shot. In case you’re interested, the accompanying photo of Holly, Amanda and me was taken at the river that Arwen (Liv Tyler) raced across on horseback as she fled the ring wraiths chasing her and Frodo (Elijah Woods).

11.The Queenstown Scene
During our time on the road, Amanda, Holly and I have found that a city is often best defined by its people. And it didn’t take us long to discover that Queenstown’s laid back, extreme action and ‘totally radical dude’ culture cultivates a bad ass, yet carefree and seriously cool breed of residents. So when one of the hostel workers we’d befriended invited us to a house party he and his roommates were throwing, the girls and I happily accepted. Excited to replace the standard backpacker party fare of overcrowded clubs and beer soaked bars with a more authentic local experience, we met up with our new group of buds and headed into their hood. What started as a small get together soon erupted into an MTV Spring Break-worthy bash as neighbors, friends of friends and enthusiastic onlookers piled in to drink and dance the night away! A few hours and hundreds of candid snapshots later, Amanda, Holly and I headed back to our hostel to catch a few hours of sleep before hitting the adventure activities circuit in the morning. Were we worried about making it through the next day after a night of partying? No way! We’re Queenstown-ians now!

12.The Thrillogy
Adrenaline junkies like my dear friend Jen seem to find hurling themselves out of airplanes and off of bridges to be good, harmless fun, so I wasn’t surprised when she told me that she wanted to sign up for AJ Hackett’s “Thrillogy,” three super sized bungee jumps that take place in and around New Zealand’s adventure capital of Queenstown. What did surprise me was the sound of my own voice, volunteering to do this insane thing with her. The night before our scheduled jumped, I was literally quaking between my sheets: when the time came to test both gravity and the strength of the cord tied to my ankle, could I really be counted on to take the leap? The answer-and lots more fun photos of me tweaking out-to be found in the next blog entry. Stay tuned!

13.Christchurch Chillin’
Just like with Auckland, Christchurch was a city that many Kiwis and fellow backpackers told us not to waste too much time visiting. While the girls and I preferred to stay in Queenstown as long as possible, we were booked on a flight out of Christchurch, so it made sense to crash there for at least a night or two prior to our departure. As it turned out, The Lost Girls’ take on the city was a little different from all the ‘naysayers’ that had come before us. Lush botanical gardens, narrow, cobble stone streets, lively buskers, sweeping gothic steeples and colonial-era architecture gave Christchurch a unique and elegant charm that reminded us of Boston. Slightly burnt out from our 3 ½ week race across the country, Holly, Amanda and I greeted Christchurch with open arms. It was the perfect place for us to relax and refuel for a couple days before jetting off to Sydney. Between long jogs in the park, movies nights at the local cinema, a free buffet dinner at the city casino (hey, we had a coupon, alright!), beers at the neighborhood pub and impromptu photo shoots in town square, the girls and I perfected the art of Christchurch Chillin’ and arrived at the airport refreshed and excited to take on our last destination – Australia.

Stay tuned for The Lost Girls’ adventures Down Under!

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  • Sara says:

    Oh my gosh! I cant believe it has been a year already! Im sad for you girls because I know it is going to be hard to seperate, but I am so happy to get you home!!! Holly- you have a week to settle, and then I am becoming your couch buddy!! Congrats ladies, on a year well traveled, the experience of a lifetime!!!!

  • Gary says:

    Wow. I’m in Queenstown right now on my RTW trip.

    How long are you in NZ for? I leave Auckland for Fiji on June 7.



  • Dellie says:

    Pirate Queens; Always choose the safer route to avoid the”high tides” in life.

    Ice Princess’; I hope that your great-grandchildren will have the option of climbing on the Franz Josef Glacier- or any other glacier for that matter.

    Night Drivers;Deer come down in altitude to feed in the evenings here in the US as well. The road surface is warmer Vigilence and slower speeds keep run-ins with wildlife to a minimum.

    You girls look so pretty in your group shots. Keep having a great time and learning as much as you can right up until your journey ends.

  • Two Crabs says:

    So I’m sitting here in Baghdad and who do I see on CNN International but three lovely ladies known as The Lost Girls! Congrats on your worldwide exposure!

  • Kristen says:

    I just saw you guys on CNN Headlines news, looks like fun and an education at the same time, wish I did that when I was younger, I am 38 with an 11 year old son and at the same desk job and employer for almost 15 years. I too have a blog on Blogger but it is no where near as fun and exciting as yours!! Good luck and keep having fun

    Kris in CT

  • sumitkiki says:

    I have heard there are vast variety of rare animals in New Zealand.If you havwe seen them,please post their photo on your blog.

    Hotel Phuket

  • Magz says:

    NZ south island is one of the most beautiful places I have been. If you love the outdoors and nature at its finest go see the south island of NZ.
    I did the Thrillogy last year and it was amazing!! Queenstown is an adrenaline junkie’s wonderland.

  • Amanda says:

    @magz I agree!! We loved the South Island and can’t wait to go back for more adventure. I could totally live there!

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