Alex and I spent the first two months of 2017 on the other side of the world. We boarded a plane on New Year’s Eve and landed in Melbourne on January 2 where we welcomed summer weather and a much-needed break from American politics. We had been in New Zealand and Australia just two years earlier for a quick road trip through the north and south islands. I still say it was the best two weeks of my life, driving with the windows down in the middle of February, taking in the beauty of New Zealand for the very first time. We always said we’d return, and that when we did, we’d do two things differently: we’d stay much longer and we’d camp.
Somehow, while I was dreaming up a winter trip in the fall, all of the stars aligned and it looked like 2017 was the year to make our dream New Zealand excursion come true. Alex was between jobs, my friend Lauren wanted to take some time off, and the three of us wanted warm weather and to be outside as much as possible. So we settled on five weeks in the land of the long white cloud. And while my first time in NZ still remains two of the best weeks of my life, this more recent trip is so, so special to me — and to all three of us. I got to travel to one of my favorite places in the world with two of my favorite people in the world. We got to camp and hike and laugh and play and be in each other’s company for five whole weeks. Now, every time the three of us talk about this trip, one of us always says, “Can you believe how lucky we are that we got to do that together?” I hope I get to do something like this again with people I love, but even if I don’t, I’m so grateful we got this one. It was nothing short of perfect.
To start our adventure off, Alex and I spent three days in Melbourne eating delicious food and exploring neighborhoods we’d heard Courtney Barnett sing about. We’d always wanted to visit Melbourne and see how it compared to Sydney, and based on what we’d heard from other travelers, we were pretty convinced that it would be our cup of tea. We immediately fell in love on our first day. Melbourne is dynamic and artistic and beautiful. We had the best few days there before our quick flight across the water to New Zealand.
We landed in Christchurch, in New Zealand’s south island, at 5 a.m. and made our way to our hostel where we slept until Lauren burst through the door in our room in the morning, ready to start the adventure. The three of us spent our first day together preparing. We took stock of what we all had brought from the US: cookware, sleeping bags, multiple decks of cards, a giant jar of Skippy peanut butter. We bought a tent and other necessary camping gear first, and then scoured secondhand shops for anything else we might need: bowls and forks, a spatula, some camping chairs. We stocked up on more peanut butter, canned soup, rice, eggs, and other veggies. We searched everywhere for a decently priced cooler (or “chilly bin” as the Kiwis call it), and just when we were ready to give up, the owner of our hostel gifted us with one that had been neglected and forgotten in the backyard. The only thing we had left to do was pick up our little car. Much to our surprise, everything fit when we packed it up for the first time. It was snug, but it was perfect for us.
Christchurch was rainy and dreary, and we were told by a few people that the south island was experiencing an unusually cold and wet summer. We didn’t realize it yet, but we were about to spend most of the next three weeks trying to avoid the cold and the rain. When we were deciding where to head first, we looked at a weather map and picked the one part of the map with sun and decided to drive straight toward it. We took off west and drove most of the day toward Lake Pukaki, an unbelievably blue lake close to Mt. Cook, the tallest peak in NZ. We felt like such amateurs the first time we set up camp in a little forest next to the lake. I was the least experienced camper among us, but Lauren and Alex had both camped extensively in the US. Still, figuring out who should do what, sorting out our tent’s quirks, and organizing, re-organizing, and re-re-organizing our car took some time. But by the end of the trip, we had our routine down so well, that we could set up and break down camp in a fraction of the time it took us that first night. When we finally got the tent up, the car organized, the portable stove started, and dinner cooked and eaten, we were tired, but proud of ourselves. We took a bottle of wine and climbed a little hill to watch the sun set over Lake Pukaki. We met some Germans because, of course, where there’s hiking, there are Germans, and talked about our respective adventures and lives at home. It was a perfect first night. We were so happy to be there.
When we woke up the next morning, we headed to the Hooker Valley Track’s trail head and embarked on one of the best hikes I’ve ever had the pleasure of going on. We crossed gorgeous suspension bridges that you find everywhere in New Zealand, and ate the first of what became far too many peanut butter sandwich lunches in a little cabin with a view. The hike finished at a pool of glacial water with a clear view of Mt. Cook, one that we were lucky to see considering the weather on the rest of the island. We frolicked around and soaked up the sun before making the trek back to our car and on to the next spot.
The drive from Mt. Cook set the stage for the biggest and most difficult decision we had to make during our travels. Where do we go next, and how do we escape the rain and cold that’s closing in from all sides? We drove all the way to the end of the road on the east side of the island. Literally, we came to a fork in the road before hitting the ocean and had to choose: left for north or right for south. We turned right and made our way to rainy Dunedin, a town Alex and I hadn’t been to before and one that we’d been excited to visit. We found a campsite outside of town next to the ocean where we set up our tent and prepared for a cold, windy, rainy night of no sleep.
The next day was the first of many mornings that we would all quietly open our eyes, peek out of our warm sleeping bags, unzip our tent and either a. groan at the sight of clouds or b. scream, “SUNNNN!!!!!” at the sight of clear skies and the sun on the horizon. This day, luckily, was a sun day. We were so happy to see it, and immediately tore down camp and headed toward the Otago Peninsula where we hiked to Sandfly Bay through sand and wildflowers and lush vegetation. When we reached the ocean we were greeted by a group of sea lions sunning themselves on the beach. We watched them and walked along the ocean before making the grueling hike back up the sandy hill we’d come down. We ventured on from the trailhead along some cliffs where we encountered some happy New Zealand sheep and gorgeous views of the peninsula. We finished the day playing cards and drinking wine at our campsite in a hostel’s backyard. We had beat the weather and experienced one of our favorite days. On to the next.
We drove a lot the next day. We headed out from the Otago Peninsula and drove south into the Catlins. It became windier and colder the further south we went, but we still had such an incredible drive that day. Alex and I hadn’t ventured that far south before, so it was fun for both of us to discover something new. We saw a lot of “points” that day, with stops at Nugget Point for some lighthouse and ocean views, and Slope Point, New Zealand’s southernmost point.
When we finally made it to Invercargill, where we’d sleep for the night, it was so windy and cold, that the owners of the farm where we were pitching our tent told us we could sleep in their greenhouse to get away from it all. It felt pretty strange setting up our tent inside, but the weather only worsened throughout the night as the rain came down in sheets, and we were warm and happy in our little greenhouse.
We spent the next day playing cards at a bar in Invercargill and determining what our next moves would be. It was cold. And our cheap tent wasn’t going to hold up if the weather didn’t let up that night. And we were ready to head to the pinnacle of New Zealand sights: Milford Sound. We’d been talking up how magical it is to Lauren for months, and now we were nervous we’d never see it with the crappy weather. We realized we had no choice but to keep moving forward, so we continued on and were greeted with sun as we started driving into Fjordland National Park. We set up camp on Lake Manapouri just in time for the cold and clouds to roll back in.
The following day we started making our way to Milford Sound. The drive from Manapouri is a little over two hours, and there’s a never-ending number of things to see and hikes to hike along the way. We stopped at some old favorites: Lake Mistletoe, Mirror Lake, the Chasm, and Humbolt Waterfall. We espcially loved the fields of pink and purple lupins that followed us the whole way there.
We set up camp that night at Hollyford Camp, which used to be home to the folks building the Hollyford-Okuru Road, the very road we had been driving, in the 1930s. The camp had some adorable Wes Anderson-style cabins and a tiny museum that was filled to the brim with old artifacts and information about the area’s history. We had a great time learning more about NZ, hiking around, and experiencing our first night by the fire with some French travelers. Due to a burn ban in most of the country, building a fire to keep warm wasn’t an option without a fire pit. That night was a cold one, and we were grateful for the warmth.
When our alarm went off at 5 the next morning, we heard rain. We were set for the earliest boat tour at Milford Sound, hoping for good morning light, but we knew we wouldn’t get any. Still, the Sound was magical in a different way that it had been the last time I’d seen it in the sun. It’s one of those places that puts everything in perspective. The world is so vast and so unbelievably beautiful and Milford Sound is one place that’s truly humbling and special.
That afternoon, we drove through the rain and toward Queenstown. We were sure we’d run into more bad weather and braced ourselves for a stay at a hostel or hotel but, to our surprise, we were greeted with sun once we made it to our campground outside of town at Moke Lake. Alex and I had spent a day horse back riding at the lake two years earlier and had really wanted to camp there again when we returned. It’s a hidden gem of a place that would be its own destination if Queenstown wasn’t just down the road, with a bigger, brighter lake, and a near-perfect little town. Our evening and subsequent morning at Moke Lake is so memorable. We soaked up the good weather, chased horses, and scrambled to the top of a hill for a good view. We’re always looking for that.
In Queenstown, we lived large and got a hotel where we basked in the glory of comfortable beds and hot showers for two whole nights. We ate at one of our favorite restaurants, Public House, made friends with ex-pats at some wonderful bars and pubs, and soaked in all the views of that bright blue lake. We headed north next, and spent a day driving along back roads to Glenorchy and Kinloch and “Paradise Point,” which didn’t feel much like Paradise to us, considering the fact that it was pouring rain most of the day. We were so determined to find a good hike that day, and finally settled on a quiet forest walk in the rain. We hugged some trees, appreciated everything for what it was, and made our way to Wanaka.
Wanaka is, according to travelers and guidebooks, a quieter, less touristy version of Queenstown. It boasts a crystal blue lake and some superb hiking. Oh, and “that Wanaka tree” — the now Instagram famous tree that’s perfectly tilted over the water. We spent most of our time in Wanaka outside of the town. It certainly didn’t have the nightlife or the food that Queenstown does, and besides, the sun finally came out and we wanted nothing more than to soak it all in. We finally got a good half-day hike in at Rocky Mountain, which brought us to a peak with views of Lake Wanaka below. We had nearly the whole place to ourselves. In the afternoon, we rode horses in Cardrona Valley and ate maybe the best fried chicken of our lives at the Cardrona Hotel. We still say that day was our favorite of the trip. And that night provided the best sleep.
We drove through the rain all the next day to Franz Josef Glacier, the part of the trip we were looking forward to most. We loved the hike to the glacier so much the last time we were there, and couldn’t wait to camp in Okarito, my favorite spot in New Zealand. But things were not looking good — the weather outlook was rain, rain, and more rain. We showed up in Franz Josef and realized we had no choice but to pay for a crappy, expensive hotel, as every budget place was already booked. We crammed into a hotel and moaned and groaned about the weather while watching the the inauguration in the US unfold on the BBC. Needless to say, it wasn’t a great night for any of us. We figured that the next day, we’d skip the glacier and Okarito and drive as long as we could until we found sun in the northern part of the South Island.
I think every place with fickle weather has adopted the phrase, “Don’t like the weather? Wait a few minutes,” but in New Zealand, it couldn’t be more true. We’d find ourselves being discouraged about the rain and the cloud icons on our weather apps for the next ten days only to be gifted with a few hours of sun or, sometimes, despite all weather outlooks, a full beautiful day. It poured that night in Franz Josef, but when we woke up the next morning, we saw sun peeking through the blinds at our hotel and absolutely could not believe it. We were so worried that we’d miss our brief sun-filled opportunity to hike to Franz Josef Glacier that we packed our things into the car as fast as possible and headed straight there. To our surprise, that day couldn’t have been any better. It was sunny all day long, and we hiked and basked in it every moment we could. That evening we decided to keep pushing our luck and camp in Okarito, where we laid on the beach next to the wild, crashing waves of the Tasman Sea, and watched in awe as the sun set and painted the sky with firey orange and pink hues.
In the morning we embarked on our longest drive of the trip all the way to Nelson, in the northernmost part of the South Island. We spent the next two nights camping next to a little bay and soaking in warm weather that would persist for the rest of the trip as we continued north. In Picton, we celebrated Alex’s 26th birthday with a candle in a lemon bar and a hike with views over looking Picton Bay. This marked the halfway point of our trip, as we’d be making our way via ferry to the North Island the next day. We were ready for the warmth and the sun that we knew the north would bring, but we were also sad to leave the isolated beauty of the South Island.
We took the ferry from Picton to New Zealand’s capital, Wellington. Our Airbnb was situated atop a steep hill, and when we arrived, we were surprised to find that we had to hop into a cable car to get to the front door. The view of the bay from the cable car was nothing short of spectacular. We were greeted by a sweet Kiwi couple who owned the cozy house we were staying at. They were empty nesters who rented out their kids’ old rooms to weary travelers like us, and their hospitality and their cozy home was nothing short of perfect. It had been a while since we’d showered or done our laundry or slept in real beds, and it felt like we were staying at our long lost aunt and uncle’s house. We got to chat about travel and New Zealand, snuggle with their sweet cats, and feel like we were *almost* at home for a few days.
From Wellington, we high-tailed it north. We were so ready for warmer temperatures, and the further north we traveled, the warmer it got. We ate at our favorite kebab spot and climbed Mt. Manapouri in Taraunga, stayed at a quirky campsite on the Coromandel Peninsula, and soaked up the sun at Hahei Beach and Cathedral Cove.
We breezed through Auckland on our way up to the Bay of Islands, one of Alex’s favorite places in NZ. I still hadn’t been there, and was excited to see it and meet up with my friend Johanna, who I had met and traveled with in Vietnam in 2016, and who was living in a town on the bay called Russell. It took us hours to finally get to Russell. We were stuck in roadwork-related traffic, and accidentally took the long way, an extra hour on back roads that were so windy and confusing, that we wondered if we were going to die out there once our peanut butter ran out. Finally, we made it. We set up camp and spent a day swimming and exploring at Elliot Bay, a secret beach that I couldn’t believe was real. Amazingly, we had it all to ourselves. In the evening, we had dinner at the winery where Johanna was working and then experienced Russell’s nightlife, which consists of a single, very fun, bar.
On our final day in Russell, we tore down camp for the last time. We would be spending the next week in Auckland with Kate and Stefan, our friends who lived in a lovely little house in Takapuna, just north of the city. We picked strawberries, revisited places we loved, like our favorite little breakfast spot, Little and Friday, explored some beautiful parks, and went for one last swim in the ocean before it was time to leave. Being with friends and sleeping in a real bed was the best way to finish out such a perfect trip. On the last day, Lauren flew back to the states and Alex and I prepared for the second part of our two-month adventure, a month in a place that is the complete opposite of New Zealand: China. We were sad to leave, but we were ready. We know we’ll be back soon.