By Kaelyn Lynch
Editor’s note: We absolutely loved this story and all the photos we had to choose from but the imagery was so breathtaking we had to include the full set -SO- images may not correspond exactly with their surrounding text. In any case, enjoy!
An epic 4-month road trip through one of the most diverse countries on earth.
New Zealand is the ideal place for those who can’t make up their mind. Not sure whether you want tropical beaches or rugged coastline, snow-capped mountains or diverse forest, unique wildlife or rich culture on your holiday? New Zealand has it all and more, packed into an area about as big as the U.S. state of Colorado. But don’t underestimate its size—New Zealand is so bursting with adventure that if you’re anything like me, you’ll leave with a long list of things to do “next time.”
My partner Zach and I both suffer from a bad case of indecisiveness, so we set out to see it all. Armed with a tent, a station wagon, and four months of freedom, we had no itinerary beyond a note on my computer, creatively titled, “STUFF TO DO IN NEW ZEALAND.”
The North Island
After acquiring our trusty home-on-wheels, Liam (Neeson, that is), we set out to escape the relative bustle of Auckland, making a beeline for the Kauri Coast. This stretch of rolling hills alternated with dense tropical forest on Northland’s west coast is home to New Zealand’s most famous trees: the kauri.
Kauri are among the mightiest trees in the world, growing 50 meters tall and living for over 2,000 years. As we strolled through Waipoua forest, we compelled to stop and stare up the trunks in wonder, each passing kauri larger than the last, as if building us up for the grand finale. And grand it was—as we rounded the corner to Te Matua Nghere, its 16-meter girth literally stopped us in our tracks (and gave Zach such a shock that he jumped back, sputtering a string of expletives). Known as “Father of the Forest” in Maori, it was a stern and imposing figuring, dwarfing all who stood in its presence; we dared not to speak in more than a whisper.
While Te Matua has stood proudly for thousands of years, others of its kin have not been so lucky. Once covering 1.2 million hectares of land in Northland, logging decimated the kauri population after the arrival of European settlers in the 1700s. While many are now protected in sanctuaries, they face a new threat: kauri dieback disease. Spread in part by visitors’ boots, the fungus-like imposter kills nearly all kauri it infects. The once magnificent trees along our path, blanched white in their final throes of life, were a somber reminder for us to clean our boots before entering and after leaving the forest.
After a few days in the bush, we worked our way up to Cape Reinga, the very tip of the North Island. We spent a night sprawled in the open air beneath a stunning Milky Way at Spirits Bay, and awoke to wild horses grazing at the foot of rocky hills, marking a gateway to an immaculate white sand beach.
In the early morning we arrived at Cape Reinga, considered to be the point where the Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean meet in swirling eddies beyond a sheer rocky cliff face. Beneath the lonely lighthouse, an ancient pohutukawa tree clings perilously to the rocks, defying the waves crashing all around it. The spirits of Maori dead are said to descend on the tree’s roots into the underworld, before travelling on to their ancestral homeland. The most significant Maori spiritual site in New Zealand, I felt a sense of reverence in the calm of the new day, with only the sounds of waves meeting the shore far below disturbing the silence.
With the expansive views atop the cliff, we could just make out towering sand dunes to the west of the cape, a startling white against the impossibly blue sky. Later, we made the arduous climb to the tops while the reflecting sun threatened to bake us alive. We used a boogie board as a sled to propel us back down the steep faces at speeds that seemed much faster than what video evidence later showed.
We drove back down Aupouri Peninsula’s narrow neck and cut our way east to find a tropical paradise awaiting us. From the hundreds of lush green islands nestled in crystal blue in Bay of Islands, to magnificent white-sand beaches tucked away in every crevice of Rawhiti, we took advantage of the perfect weather to explore as many of the tide pools, sea caves, and snorkeling spots as we could. I then completed my diver’s pilgrimage to the Poor Knights Islands, a true masterpiece of nature, with living color splashed across a maze of underwater arches, caves, and tunnels, accented by thick shoals of fish.
Only a few hours removed from the white sands of Northland lay their counterpart—the black sand beaches of West Auckland. Exploring the area around our remote campsite, we chanced upon the ironically named White’s Beach after half-tumbling down the steep sandy slope that kept the crowds away. Tucked in a small cove sandwiched between some of the region’s more popular beaches, this gem boasted sand of such a deep hue it appeared almost purple, rock faces begging to be climbed, and a powerful display of waves crashing against piles of rocks. Despite its size we managed to spend hours exploring, never seeing another person.
We then plunged into the wilderness of the Coromandel peninsula, exploring abandoned mining tunnels by the pale blue light of glowworms clinging to the walls. We rinsed a few days’ worth of grime from our bodies in the icy river beneath our forest campsite and treated ourselves to a meal of smoked fish, given to us by a friendly kiwi camp owner the night before.
Working our way south, we found the tourist hub of Rotorua far too crowded, and retreated to the untamed beauty of the East Cape. Unexpectedly, this area where few tourists opt to venture turned into the highlight of our North Island experience.
In a tiny visitor center in the equally tiny town of Te Araroa, a friendly women name Bridget convinced us to volunteer to help renovate a nearby marae, or Maori community center, tempting us with the promise of delicious food and that we’d be treated as “one of the family.” We soon learned she wasn’t exaggerating.
The community of Awatere Marae welcomed us with overwhelming warmth and hospitality, surprised that a couple of tourists wanted to spend their days covered in paint and sawdust. But what we gained was far more than what we gave.
While painting fences until there was no more light left in the day, or stuffing ourselves with copious amounts of food, we learned about Maori culture and tradition from our exceedingly friendly hosts. One family, the Katipas, even offered us places to stay, on the East Cape and throughout the rest of the North Island. We had no problem volunteering to return the next day.
As it turns out, the renovation was part of a T.V. show called, “D.I.Y. Marae,” essentially the equivalent of “Extreme Home Makeover.” We wound up making a few appearances on camera as we scrambled to complete the finishing touches before the deadline. Afterward, we were treated to a ceremony welcoming the elders back to the marae, followed by a massive feast that covered the length of five or six tables with fresh crayfish, vegetables, and an assortment of meat. Before the celebration ended, we witnessed a powerful performance of a haka, the traditional Maori war dance. Remembering the tourists who pay $150 in Rotorua for tours offering a taste of Maori culture, we felt honored to have had this experience. It was difficult to pry ourselves away from our new friends, but we left with the promise we’d be welcomed as one of the family if we ever returned.
From the Far East, we made our way across the wide stretch of land to the west coast, following the aptly name Forgotten World Highway. We navigated the slippery gravel road, winding between cliffs covered in dense foliage reminiscent of Jurassic Park, and through old gold mining tunnels often half-blocked by rock slips. While we’d had our taste of rough New Zealand roads from traversing Northland, it was here that they got the better of us. Zach skidded out on a turn on the freshly grated gravel, sending us sputtering helplessly into a line of trees that just kept us from plummeting 10 meters into the gorge below.
While miraculously undamaged, the car was well and truly stuck. We hitched a ride with a van coming back from a funeral, receiving some leftover sandwiches from the kind occupants as compensation for our troubles. We wound up in the small country town of Whangamomona, which had declared itself independent of the rest of New Zealand after they didn’t like some redistricting laws. In the pub (which also served as the town’s general store, restaurant, and hotel) we waited for the tow truck to arrive. Five hours and a $600 tow bill later, we had learned two things: don’t hit your breaks when skidding on gravel, and if you’re going to crash you car in New Zealand, best to do so near a city.
Once mobile again, we headed towards the center of the North Island, for a chance to traverse the alpine volcanic landscape of Tongariro National Park. Over 5 days, we hiked past deep red craters that stood like open wounds in the earth, brilliant neon lakes colored by dissolved minerals, and blackened desert that held a somber beauty of its own. We made the near-vertical scramble through the loose rock of Ngauruhoe, the volcano made famous by The Lord of the Rings as Mt. Doom. On the summit we walked along therims of its inner and outer craters, soaking in the endless views and hopping through steam vents that leaked heat from its core. We took heed of signs marking “volcanic hazard zones,” with the knowledge that a crater had erupted as recently as 5 years before. Admittedly, it added an extra layer of excitement to our trek.
After a month and a halfliving mostly out of a car and our backpacks, it was a treat to rest for a few days in Wellington, where we were graciously offered a room and hot meals courtesy of the extended family from the marae. With our bodies and minds replenished, we boarded the ferry across Cook Strait, anxiously awaiting our first views of the South Island.
The South Island
Compared to the North, the South Island seemed almost a different country. Volcanoes transformed into snow-capped mountains, and tropical beaches gave way to rugged coastline. Here, even in the cities, there is an ever-present sense of remoteness; the wilderness seems even more deep and vast.
One of the first things we did was purchase a backcountry hut pass, giving us access to over 950 huts spread throughout the bush, ranging from basic shelters to more luxurious types feature cooking counters and even flush toilets. We planned to use our pass to spend as much time trekking through the South Island’s backcountry as possible, but the weather had other plans.
In a country where it’s known you can experience four seasons in one day, we had apparently picked one of the worst years in recent memory. We spent much of our time chasing small windows of clear days, always prepared to pack up and go if the forecast changed. As if a sign, we arrived in Nelson, known as the “sunniest place in New Zealand,” to three days of rain.
The second we had a clear day, we sped off to Kahurangi National Park for a trek to Mt. Owen. The road to the trailhead was an adventure itself, requiring us to cross a long concrete ford that resembled an overflowing dam. “If you can walk across it and not get swept off,” the owner of the campsite where we had stayed the night before had said, “you can drive across it.” I volunteered for the task, and waded into the fast-flowing water that left me soaked to my knees. The advice proved sound—the car followed me with no issue.
Mt. Owen is an outdoor enthusiast’s playground and a photographer’s dream. We scrambled over unusual karst landscape scoured by glaciers and eroded by water, leaping over fissures that appeared miniature canyons carved in the rock. A cloudless sky allowed spectacular views at the summit. Far beyond where our vision could reach, we were immersed in a sea of mountains, of every size, shape, and color imaginable. Here, we had our first peek at the Southern Alps, the grand, silver-tipped spine that runs the length of the South Island.
In Arthur’s Pass National Park, we had our first chance to see them up close. We tried our hand at boulder hopping through a braided river valley framed by towering mountains capped with glacial ice, and climbed to an old wooden ski lodge that stood against the backdrop of somber mountains peering through the mist.
A born ocean lover, I was starting to feel like a fish out of water, and directed us back towards the coast. In Kaikoura, we found New Zealand fur seals lounging lazily in shallow bays, their pups hopping playfully between rocks. The signs of the 2016 earthquake were still present, most notably so in the jagged sea floor that had been forced out of the water, almost 2 meters high in places.
Kaikoura offered the opportunity to view a stunning diversity of marine life, from seals to pods of dusky dolphins to sperm whales. But, I had my eyes set on Banks, the bulbous volcanic peninsula jutting out from Christchurch. This is the only place to swim with one of the rarest and smallest dolphins in the world.
Averaging only 1.4 meters, the Hector’s dolphin is New Zealand’s only native cetacean. Severely threatened, their populations have begun to bounce back thanks to a marine sanctuary encompassing Banks Peninsula, one of the dolphins’ critical habitats. Ecotourism operators offering tours to view and swim with the dolphins are required to give a percentage of their profits to research and conservation, providing critical funding.
I spent the day with Ecoseaker, a small, family-run business owned by skipper Steve Hamilton. It wasn’t long before we spotted the distinctive “micky mouse” dorsal fins. Quickly zipping up our wetsuits, we slid carefully into the water. Told that the vibrations from singing attracted the dolphins to us, we broke out into a raucous chorus of “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” Before we knew it, we were surrounded by a pod of 8 curious dolphins, bobbing and weaving within touching distance in an attempt to examine the strange creatures before them. Prompted by Steve’s shout, I turned my head just in time to see two leap gracefully high into the air just meters from me. Even after our time in water was up, the dolphins stayed, riding the bow of the boat and zooming alongside it.
From Christchurch, we cut our way back through Arthur’s Pass to Westland. The sign welcoming us had an ominous message: someone had blacked out the “s” to leave “Wetland.” The weather didn’t disappoint, and we trudged some 5 hours through the rain to get a glimpse of Franz Josef glacier. The clouds parted just long enough for us to see its magnificent folds of bright blue ice clinging to the mountainside.
From there, the road wound through Mt. Aspiring National Park, where it skirted the feet of pink-tinged mountains reflecting the colors of early evening. The next day we watched the sunset spread over the great expanse of the Southern Alps from our high seat at Brewster Hut, nestled in the shadow of Brewster glacier just beneath the summit of Mt. Armstrong. The following morning, our climb to the peak rewarded us with views of the bright Tasman Sea on one side, and row upon row of craggy, snow-capped mountains on the other.
It was here that we had our first interaction with kea, the world’s only alpine parrot. One of New Zealand’s rare native birds, the cheeky kea are known to use their charms to steal tramper’s food and any other item that peaks their interest, including wallets and cell phones. We ensured our packs were fully zipped as a group of three unabashedly landed next to us, eyeing us curiously and squawking amongst them—forming a plan of attack, no doubt. They entertained us for 15 minutes before spreading their colorful wings and disappearing into the blue sky above.
After a few days of waiting for a weather window, we managed to squeeze in a 4-day tramp through Gillespie Pass, bringing us through a diverse range of landscapes. High in the mountains, Siberia Valley appeared something out of a fairy tale, shrouded in a rising mist, with the frosted tussock grass sparkling in the morning sun. Another day, we climbed to Crucible Lake, situated in a crater nestled beneath a glacier in a high valley. The steep climb into Gillespie pass brought us impressive views, with the aptly named Mt. Awful dominating the skyline, its looming black face smeared with glacial ice.
The stretch of road through Otago proved to be some of the most impressive in the country. We skirted the edge of lakes in Queenstown and Wanaka where snow covered mountains watched over the bright blue waters, the autumn leaves adding splashes of orange and red to the landscape. In the country, our only traffic came in the form of nonplussed cows who took to feeding their calves in the middle of the road, or seas of sheep driven by farmers and their dogs.
Just when we thought we’d seen all the landscapes New Zealand had to offer, we arrived in Fiordland. Sharp peaks rose straight from the Tasman Sea, forming the distinctive fiords for which the region was named. Just when I thought waterfalls could no longer impress me, powerful streams seemed to materialize from the mist and tumble into the abyss below. We cruised through calm grey waters of Milford Sound, to the bottom of one that was said to bring long life to any who drank in its mist.
We then looped our way south to the Catlins, a strip of untouched, rugged coastline where the forest almost meets the sea. In the failing light of dusk, we watched yellow-eyed penguins navigate the dangerous surf to bring their daily catch back to their chicks on shore. As the days grew darker and the nights colder, we began to look longingly at people in motorhomes and campervans, cursing own decision to forgo comfort for the sake of adventure as we huddled around our camp stove each night. Still, we rued the idea of our trip coming to a close, with one last stop on our itinerary: Mt. Cook, New Zealand’s highest peak.
Just as the first snow of the season dusted the mountains, we found ourselves staring across Lake Pukaki at the crown jewel of the Southern Alps. It’s Maori name, Aoraki, means “cloud piercer,” and that day the peak wore a crown of smooth cloud. With the fresh snow limiting our trekking options, we opted for a day hike to Mueller Hut on Mt. Olliver, the first peak Sir Edmund Hillary climbed. The view was undoubtedly the best yet, providing a panorama encompassing the Southern Alps’ highest peaks, glaciers, and sheer rock faces, all coated in a knee-deep while blanket. Mt. Cook, with its distinctive, jagged peak now in clear view, stood proud and tall above all else. Behind us, we watched chunks of ice lose their battle with gravity, tumbling with a crash down Mt. Sefton in small avalanches.
We chose to spend our remaining few days returning to one of our favorite spots, Lake Camp, a peaceful oasis hidden in the Canterbury countryside. The surrounding mountains reflect perfectly on the lake’s glassy surface in daylight, and the night brings a dazzling array of stars undisturbed by light pollution. Our last night in the wilderness was capped off perfectly when a group of Kiwis invited us to share in their bonfire, regaling us with tales of taking Viggo Mortensen fishing while The Lord of the Rings was filming nearby.
With that, our journey came to an end, but we couldn’t call it complete—to do so would be a disservice to the magnificent places that we missed. We left feeling pleased yet unsatisfied; indeed you could spend an entire lifetime in New Zealand and never finish exploring. For now, the memories of our grand adventure will have to sustain us until we can return.