In the first part of this two-part blog, entitled “The Far side of the World”, I gave an overview of some planning I did to be able to visit New Zealand, a country I've wanted to see for a very long time. Here I describe some highlights from both holidays I took.
The famed Southern Alps mountain range stretches roughly north to south across South Island and can be seen in many of the backdrops of the LOTR movies. The Transalpine train, which runs between Christchurch in the east and Greymouth on the west-coast, is described as one of the great train journeys in the world and it truly was for me. As the train ascended, we were able to catch glimpses of snowy peaks, barely visible through the cloud cover, and deep gorges carved out by ancient rivers.
Green hills dotted with sheep (sheep farms are known as “sheep stations” there) and abundant flora were visible. When we descended on the other side, the foliage changed from scattered shrubbery and wind-swept hills to dense tropical forest-like growth, because of the warmer Tasman Sea on the west-coast. On the west-coast, you get to see plants and trees that have been growing there for millions of years.
Being a fan of Middle-Earth, I simply had to go on a film location tour. One highly recommended tour is taking one of the Nomad Safari tours in Queenstown, Otagu. You basically go off-roading in Jeeps and visit many locations used for LOTR, The Hobbit and many other film productions. For example, we visited a natural forest where scenes for Lothlorien and Fangorn forests were filmed. Some tidbits shared on tour were the thousands of hand-painted golden leaves (painted by local school children then) that were strewn all over the forest floor, to get the look and feel of the Golden Wood, one of JRR Tolkien's most famous forests.
Queenstown is very special to me and I've visited there twice now. It's seen as the adventure capital of New Zealand. There are ample opportunities to do jet-boating on Wakatipu Lake, take the world's highest bungee jump or go skiing. The town boasts fantastic eateries and restaurants and has great (affordable to expensive) accommodation with breathtaking views all around. Most popular day tours also leave from Queenstown.
Two tours worth taking are Milford and Doubtful Sounds. Mistakenly called “sounds”, these natural wonders are actually fjords. A sound is a mountainous valley carved by rivers through the ages, while fjords are carved by glaciers. Sounds are V-shaped, while fjords are U-shaped. Five of the world's major ice-ages have slowly carved the valleys of these fjords, located in the South-west of New Zealand (also the rainiest place there).
To take a cruise on boat in the fjord in the sunshine is fantastic, but the benefit of having been there in the rain, is that I got to see hundreds of waterfalls. A day-trip to Milford Sound will take you the whole day from Queenstown and back. Lunch is included depending on your ticket.
The views along the way were some of the best I've ever seen. Being October in the southern hemisphere, there was ample snow on the mountains and seeing the glistening pinnacles of the mountains in the distance (and up-close) truly made me feel like I was in another world. I grew up in sunny, warm South Africa, so seeing snow like this was pretty awesome.
One final highlight of South Island was hiking the four-hour Hooker Valley track. The track takes you into the valley itself, and crosses three bridges. At the end of the track, you get an incredible view of Aoraki / Mt Cook, New Zealand's highest mountain, as well as the Hooker river, the terminus of the Hooker Glacier. Needless to say, the views all around were mind-blowing. The sun was out and I couldn't have asked for a better day to do it. The snow still lay heavy on the mountains and sometimes I could hear the distant thunder of an avalanche. The sun was out and the sky was impeccably blue.
You don't need to be super fit to hike the track, as most of the track stays level on the valley floor. However, my ankles and feet were pretty sore afterwards. There are some loose gravel and rocks, so I recommend proper hiking boots and just pacing yourself to enjoy such a special walk. I stayed in the lodge and had great pizza and wine at the Chamois Bar and Grill. I also highly recommend trying the buffet in the hotel (which I did more than once).
Teaching English in China has lead me to some incredible places these last four years, and I definitely count visiting New Zealand twice as an unforgettable highlight. I took a bath in nature every day (as the Japanese would say), whether it was strolling in a forest, walking next to Wakatipu lake, feeling the spray of a waterfall up close, or just admiring snow-covered peaks far away. Maybe you have your place, that special space or country that you discovered while teaching English somewhere in the world. I know for sure I found mine.