Driving around New Zealand was a highlight of our adventure and was particularly rewarding in the bottom half of the South Island. Empty, winding roads weaved through golden valleys alongside opaque, turquoise lakes. Bumpy, gravel paths led to world renowned national parks. Breathtaking vistas emerged around every corner.
Since our heli hike on Franz Josef Glacier was cancelled due to rain, and the view of Fox Glacier was obstructed by mist, we sought another glacier experience. I was under the impression that Franz Josef and Fox were the only accessible glaciers, but I quickly discovered that there’s an abundance in the Southern Alps. Tourist companies spend loads of money on marketing those two, making you think that's your only chance at spotting the ancient ice rivers, but a little mining on the web led me to unearth a plethora of options.
An hour West of Wanaka, Mount Aspiring National Park, alone, has 100 glaciers. Our route passed through Wanaka anyway, so we decided to take the excursion. The hike up to Rob Roy Glacier seemed like a perfect day tramp to tackle before settling in at our Airbnb in Queenstown.
The drive from Makarora, past Lake Hawea and Lake Wanaka, was a gorgeous view in itself. I frequently made Matt stop on the side of the road as photo opportunities arose. Though it sounds a bit dramatic, on multiple occasions goosebumps involuntarily sprung up and tears legitimately filled my eyes in reaction to the awe-inspiring sights. We felt quite blessed for these simple encounters with New Zealand’s naturally beautiful landscapes.
In order to reach the start of the track, we drove over an hour on an unsealed road, slowly passing over the shallow fords. Though a hub cap fell off, we were grateful that our rental car tires survived the rocky journey. Flat farmland teeming with sheep, cows, and deer contrasted with the imposing mountains.
Our hike began in the Matukituki Valley. We dodged the freely roaming cattle and crossed over an icy grey stream via a swing bridge before we began our gradual ascent through a mossy rainforest. Sixty minutes of brisk hiking transported us above the tree line to the first sight of Rob Roy peak. We continued through the alpine vegetation to the highest viewing area, which provided a more spacious and impressive perspective. Dainty yellow wildflowers and patches of grass were the only types of plants to survive the cool temperatures. Matt and I enjoyed our lunch on a collection of boulders, watching the cascading waterfalls, and listening for the crackling ice of the glacier. The 10 kilometer walk took about three hours in total, making it an easy, yet rewarding day trip.
Back in Wanaka, we ordered three plates to share at a lakefront cafe called Alchemy. The polenta crusted calamari and the mango salmon were a funky twist to traditionally prepared seafood. If you’ve read any of my other blog posts, you won’t be surprised that my favorite choice was the meat and cheese board. The grilled halloumi and chorizo skewers tasted like pepperoni pizza on a stick and were the highlight of our selection.
Our accommodation that evening was in Queenstown, so we got on our way as the sun began to set. We took the Crown Range, the highest paved road in the country. It zig zagged from the main highway in Wanaka into a series of thin bends, climbing steeply. We reached the summit during the pinnacle of the sunset. Fiery shades of orange and red melted into the earth. We marveled at the lightening bolt shaped Lake Wakatipu and the twinkling lights of Queenstown bustling below. It felt like my iPhone had a special talent of discerning our situation as it randomly selected moving songs, like Coldplay’s Adventure of a Lifetime, heightening the overall experience and mood.
We woke the next morning to sweeping views of Lake Wakatipu from our balcony.
Matt and I strolled around Queenstown and gathered information about all of the adventure activities that the town had to offer. One interesting option was called Shark Attack, a shark-shaped machine that jumps and dives in and out of the water. We were lucky to catch the ride in action and laughed hysterically at the shark jetting around the lake. If we had limitless funds, we definitely would have tested it out.
We beefed up for our long hikes at the infamous Fergburger. Apparently the line is always long. We waited the thirty minutes with grumbling stomachs and naturally way over-ordered. I guessed that the Double Ferg was about the size of a Big Mac and that I could easily smash it. It wound up being at least three times the size of my expected proportions and I could not manage to finish the last few bites… I think that was a first. Matt basically had to roll me home.
That night, we rested up for the Routeburn Track. Since we were short on time, we decided to bust out as many miles as possible in one day, instead of taking the typical route of completing the entire one way hike in three days. The only traffic jam that we faced in New Zealand was on our way to Glenorchy, where you start the track, and it was caused by hundreds of mooing cows.
The Routeburn Track is hiker’s paradise: a dreamland of majestic mountains, alpine lakes, and grassy valleys. Never in my life had I experienced such an adrenaline rush from walking. Multiple swing bridges and thin, slippery rock paths hugging the sides of massive mountains got my heartbeat racing and made me feel completely inferior.
In the beginning, a gentle path took us through beech forests and fern canopies, filled with kea, colorful native parrots. About two hours into the hike, we reached a river valley with lush hills and jagged mountain peaks where the uphill battle began.
The Routeburn Falls hut had glorious views of the snow capped mountains and the Hollyford Valley where we were just resting. The facilities of the hut were impressive. I was surprised to find clean kitchens and flushable toilets at such a high elevation.
As we pushed onwards, it felt as if we were trekking in a Lord of the Rings movie. A rock path with water trickling down it led us through an open plain with freestanding boulders and up the sides of the bluffs. The only space between our bodies and the deep blue Lake Harris was a steep cliff. That hike was undoubtedly a lesson in mindfulness as one faulty step would cause me to tumble down the edge to my demise.
The farther up the mountain we ventured, the more incredible it became - and the more intimidating. We wrapped around the mountainside and emerged at Harris Saddle, our turnaround point, and the highest point on the track. We successfully made it to the clouds. The temperature dropped a solid 40 degrees Fahrenheit and the winds had to be around 25 mph. At this point we were bundled up in hats and windbreakers when we started the hike in shorts and a t-shirt.
As the hours stretched on, I was acutely aware of how far we were. Hiking downwards was extremely tough on my knees and blisters swelled in between my toes. We walked backwards and sideways, tried jogging, skipping, and dancing - anything to make it to the car park. In total, we walked 18 miles, and it felt like it.
I am not a fan of coach buses, but we were glad to take one to Milford Sound the next day. We were already wrecked from the Routeburn Track, so I can’t imagine having to drive ten hours with that level of exhaustion. We chose Mitre Peak, a mid-range tour company that I would definitely recommend. Because of their small boats, they are able to get closer to the fjords. Milford Sound has been deemed the “eighth wonder of the world” and was undeniably one of the most beautiful places I’d ever seen.
Another key benefit of Mitre Peak was their glass-roofed bus, which allowed us to view the passing mountains and glaciers while relaxing in our plush seats. Upon our arrival in Fiordland National Park, we boarded an uncrowded boat for a two hour cruise.
Rainforest covered rock faces rose directly from the sea floor. Graceful, yet mighty waterfalls cascaded down the sides of the crystallized granite. The fjord was eerily quiet, which contributed to it’s majesty.
Blessed with a myriad of natural beauty, New Zealand has officially stolen my heart. The country proves that landscapes beyond the imagination are, in fact, real. It’s magnificence cultivated a sense of wonder that will stay with me forever.