It was the half-way point during my 16 day Amplified tour of New Zealand with Haka Tours. We had spent a little over a week exploring New Zealand’s North Island, and now it was time to move onto New Zealand’s South Island.
The air got a little colder, the sites got more beautiful, and all I could wish for was more time. More time to explore this gorgeous place. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t have time to hike, and really delve into the beauty of New Zealand. But, I’ve established that the first thing I do when I go back to New Zealand, is rent a car, drive around and go on hikes everyday. Don’t get me wrong, the places that I went to in New Zealand with Haka Tours were breathtaking, but they left me wanting more.
Pit Stop: Seals and Kaikoura
Kaikoura was a beach town that was quite small, but excellent for dolphin and whale watching. Since I didn’t sign up for either activity, it was a pretty slow day on tour for me (just walking around really, which I love to do, but I didn’t get any good photos). I highly recommend going whale watching or swimming with the dolphins. The two people from our group who went got to see two whales!
If you’re just stopping through Kaikoura, right outside of the little town is Ohau Stream. And this is where seal pups come to play! Seriously, they come from the ocean to this waterfall and stream, to play with each other! It is the cutest thing.
Stop One: Christchurch
Our first stop on the South island was Christchurch, where we picked up 12 more people on our tour. As a group, we didn’t have that much time in Christchurch. Only time for a quick city tour of the main sites. Luckily, I was able to return to Christchurch at the end of the tour, since Christchurch was the ending point. And I would be flying back home from the Christchurch airport.
Several years ago, a major earthquake devastated Christchurch. The bustling city evaporated. The earthquake destroyed homes, demolished buildings, and caused people to flee their homes and communities. Today, Christchurch is experiencing major rebirth, but the signs of the earthquake are still very much evident.
One memorial in Christchurch really exemplified the horror of the earthquake. Right by the road, right where the town church used to stand, are dozens of white chairs. Each chair belongs to a person who was killed in the 2011 earthquake.
To stand there and see dining room chairs, office chairs, even a wheelchair and a baby carriage, puts the loss of life into perspective. It served as a moment to reflect, and to be thankful for all that I have.
But, there are signs of rebirth in the city of Christchurch.
Even though the chair memorial was very sad, there are wonderful signs of life in the community of Christchurch. One such example, being “container city” or “Re:Start”.
Because so many shops were destroyed in the earthquake, container city was a temporary solution to the problem. Made out of old shipping containers, this mall is colorful and quirky, and has some great food, coffee, and souvenirs. There is a vibrant, young energy, and even though container city is only supposed to be temporary, I have a feeling that the containers will be there for a very long time.
But container city isn’t Christchurch’s only attraction. At the other end of the small city, there is Christchurch’s Botanic gardens.
The gardens are peaceful, and quite beautiful. I visited during the winter time, and there was still lots to look at. Right next to the botanic gardens is The Canterbury museum. It’s free and it is quite entertaining.
Overall, Christchurch is a nice place to spend about a day or two. I wouldn’t recommend staying longer than that. New Zealand’s natural beauty is just too amazing to stay in a city too long. Even a cute city like Christchurch.
Stop Two: Lake Tekapo
Lake Tekapo was probably my favorite place in New Zealand. It was one of those places that you try and contain in a photograph. My group and I literally took thousands of photos between us, trying to capture just how beautiful this place is. But, like all magical places, a photograph doesn’t do Lake Tekapo justice.
Lake Tekapo is home to the Church of the Good Shepard. Arguably the most famous church in New Zealand. On a clear night, with the right conditions, you can see the milky way and the Southern Lights right above this church.
The night we were there, the Milky Way was crystal clear, a spattering of cloud and bright stardust spilt across the inky sky. My camera couldn’t quite capture the lights, but standing underneath them was good enough for me.
The photos taken in early evening capture the warm gold tones of Lake Tekapo. The lake holds the mountains reflections, and the sun soaks the scene in a golden brilliance. When visiting, make sure you arrive in time for sunset.
And make sure you have at least a couple of hours to walk around the lake to appreciate it from every single angle.
Disappointed that I could not get pictures of the Milky Way at night, I decided to wake up and hope to catch some more beautiful colors during sunrise.
The sky wasn’t very vibrant, but seeing the lake in the purple morning light was a treat. The ground was covered in frost, I was shivering, but, it was quiet. And it was peaceful. And the air was crisp and clear, it made you feel alive.
Stop 3: Queenstown
Queenstown: The adventure capitol of the world! So, this happened right outside of Queenstown…
If you can’t tell what that is, it is me waving, before I jump off a bridge.
In 1998, the bungee was invented, right here, outside of Queenstown, NZ. It is called The Kawarau Bridge Bungy, and it is where I did my first, and last bungee. I used to be a daredevil, and I still consider myself a very adventurous person, but with age I’ve acquired extreme motion and altitude sickness.
When I watched a few people bungee, I noticed that a lot of people yo-yoed up and down a few times after their initial free fall. And I decided not to do it. But, Kawarau refused to refund me my money, or transfer my jump to another person, even though I explained I would get sick.
So, I decided to jump anyway, knowing I would probably be puking at the bottom. The girl who went right before me froze. She started shaking and crying, and refused to jump after the countdown. The guys working the bungee asked her if she still wanted to jump, and she nodded. “We’re going to help you then,” they said, she nodded again, still sobbing, and they pushed her off, as she screamed. Well, I thought, I can’t jump like that.
The platform was scary, of course. Your toes dangle over the edge, and there is nothing but a river down below. The guys counted down, three, two, one And I dove off the board like I was on a high dive.
The free fall was exhilarating. I loved it.
And at the bottom, I bounced up and down like I knew I would, and barely held in the vomit. Luckily, the two guys who unhooked me were very patient and kind. It took me about five minutes before I could move, and another ten before the next person could bungee, due to safety concerns. I was alternatively laying on my back praying for the nausea to pass, and hanging over the side of the boat waiting to vomit.
Afterwards, my group all huddled around me, telling me how awesome I looked when I jumped with no hesitation, “Like a swan!” they grinned. And they patted me on the back, and hugged me for being so brave. Andy (our tour guide) ran out to the van and brought me a coke to try and settle my stomach. What wonderful people.
When I looked at the photos of my jumping, I looked sick the entire time, my clothes were falling off, and there were no good shots. The only cool part was the start, so I passed on the photos and video.
Even though I got extremely sick, and I’m still a bit mad about the company not refunding me my money, I’m glad I jumped. The people at The Kawarau Bridge Bungy felt bad afterwards. And, it was a once in a lifetime experience. I did it, and I never have to do it again.
After the excitement of the bungee…
I didn’t have a chance to spend that much time in Queenstown, just a simple walk around town.
When we first got into Queenstown, we did do the Luge. The Luge is similar to go carts. Except, you’re racing down a mountain. The views were pretty breathtaking though.
Other than the Luge, Queenstown had lots of shops, and good restaurants. And, if you walked just a bit out of town, you could see some beautiful mountain views. The city itself was bustling, and I enjoyed the very little time I spent there, wandering around and eating good food.
Stop Four: Milford Sound
Milford Sound was one of the main reasons that I wanted to visit New Zealand. It looked like someplace out of an alien world. Gigantic mountains erupting from the water, out of nowhere, to form spectacular mountains was beyond my belief.
In order to see Milford Sound, we had to take a day trip from Queenstown. The bus we took was freezing, and our driver refused to turn on the heat because it would fog up the windows, “and then we will crash'” he informed us. At our first rest stop I bought a hat and gloves, to wear on the bus.
The journey was long, and having learned my lesson from the bungee, I was drugged up on some awesome motion sickness pills and sitting in the very front. But, some of my group members, who decided to sit in the back of the bus (mistake #1) ended up very sick from the twisty journey.
The bus driver did stop at some pretty fantastic places on the way to Milford.
This was a pit stop guys. Not a must-see stop, not a place where people go, just a stop by the side of the road. This is New Zealand’s South island. It’s spectacular.
Even though I was cold, and tired from sitting on a bus, and even though those storm clouds looked pretty scary, I felt so invigorated. Living in Florida the past few years made me forget how awe-inspiring mountain landscapes can be. You feel so small. And the wind and the cold wakes you up.
It’s easy to see why New Zealand’s South island is considered one of the most beautiful places on the planet. It is a nature-lover’s dream.
Milford Sound Boat Tour
Finally, we made it to Milford Sound, where we would jump on a boat for a three hour tour. Any Gilligan’s Island fans out there? Unfortunately for us, the tour did last only three hours. I would have been happy to stay in this place a little bit longer.
Even though the water was a bit choppy, and the skies were gray and whitewashed everything out a little bit, Milford Sound was still pretty amazing. As the boat maneuvered through channels, I just stood on the deck, admiring these mountains on either side of me. And there was even a waterfall to boot!
Although Milford Sound was almost a wonder of the world, I still was slightly disappointed. Maybe because it was so cold and rainy and gray. But, I think it has more so to do with expectations.
I visited New Zealand because of Milford Sound. And when you put so much excitement into a place, I often find you’re disappointed. It’s always the places that are off the beaten track, the ones that it takes awhile to find, that impress me. But it’s hard to find those places on a limited amount of time, and a limited budget.
I reminded myself how lucky I was to be in New Zealand, and see anything at all. Milford sound is a must-see, but I recommend (if you have the funds) flying or taking a helicopter to the sound. It is faster, and you get awesome views from the sky.
Stop Five: Wanaka
I was so excited to visit Wanaka. My favorite travel blogger, Liz from Young Adventuress, lives in Wanaka. Her stories and pictures made me want to visit New Zealand in the first place, so I was stoked to see what she describes as the most beautiful place in New Zealand.
Well, we only had one night in Wanaka, not enough to see any of the beautiful scenery, or do any kind of hiking or walking. Basically, we had enough daylight to walk around the lake, grab some dinner, and go to bed. We did get to see this though.
That Wanaka tree. I mean, yes, of course I wanted to see the famous tree, but I wanted to see more. And once I was there, it seemed a bit silly, honestly. The gray weather continued. The tree, the mountain, and the lake were all nice, but I was a bit sad. That night I lay awake in bed, scrolling through Liz’s website and looking at all of her beautiful posts about Wanaka, sad that I couldn’t see any of those places in real life. Maybe next time.
But hey, I saw the tree.
Stop Six: Franz Josef
I was going to hike a glacier and I was stoked.
But there was one problem. The gray skies from the past few days opened up, and it poured. Literally poured. There was flooding on the roads, and waterfalls forming. Driving in New Zealand is already scary, add waterfalls and pools to the road, and rain so heavy you can barely see out the window, and it’s downright terrifying.
I was thankful we made it made it to Franz Josef at all. Because of all of the rain, the glacier hike was canceled. Which, is actually quite common. Conditions can be dangerous up on the glacier, and they don’t take any chances.
So, I had two days in Franz Josef. On day was spent doing laundry, repacking, and preparing for home (it was rainy, not too much to do). But I also took some time to visit the Westcoast Wildlife center, a place where I would finally see a real life kiwi!
Kiwi’s are nocturnal, so you’re not going to see any during the day. But this center, in an effort to educate, turns day into night so visitors can take a look at these cuties! No photography is allowed, and it is a bit expensive, but they do good work, and if you want to see a kiwi, it’s the perfect thing to do on a rainy day in Franz Josef.
A different kind of Glacier Hike
If you can’t hike Franz Josef glacier, you can take a walk to see a sliver of it.
The walk is quite beautiful, with some amazing mountains to distract you from the fact that you are not on the actual glacier. I’m sure it’s nothing like getting to hike the actual thing, but sometimes there are circumstances beyond your control, and you have to make the most of it.
Obviously it was still a wonderful day in New Zealand. And, I did get to see some of the famous blue ice. Maybe next time the weather will cooperate a little bit better.
On the way to the train station, where we would head back to Christchurch, we stopped at Hokitika. Although we only had a couple of hours in this town, it was well spent. Hokitika is well know for jade. If you want some nice trinkets to bring home for your family, Hokitika is a great spot to buy gifts. Jade from New Zealand’s South island is obviously more expensive, but you can buy jade from a variety of other places for much cheaper. I’m not a huge fan of jade, so I decided to head to the beach.
You can actually find jade on this beach, although I didn’t have any luck. But I did see this little guy, and picked up a few cool stones and shells!
Stop 7:Back to Christchurch
The 16 day amplified New Zealand tour ends with your tour guide putting you on the TransAlpine train back to Christchurch. The journey is fantastic, and it’s a great way to see some more beautiful countryside and hang out with your friends from tour.
My Experience with Haka Tours
I would absolutely, 100%, with no hesitation, highly recommend Haka Tours to anyone who is looking to visit New Zealand. I write about this in my other blog post about New Zealand’s North Island with Haka Tours, but Haka Tours takes care of everything for you: transportation, guide, lodging, and booking your choice of activities. Even if you don’t book a single activity, you’re still going to have an amazing vacation. There are a lot of complimentary attractions included in the tour price, and your guide will show you things that you would only ever see from a local.
If you have any questions about my experience, feel free to leave a comment below, or if you have questions about the tour in general, check out Haka’s website: https://hakatours.com. They have people there waiting to assist you and answer any question that you have!
So much happened on tour that I didn’t write about. There are more pit stops, and funny moments; and dinners together, guys jumping off bridges, long philosophical talks, movie theaters, and so many hot water swimming spots. Every tour is different, depending on your tour leader and tour group. But, don’t worry, you’ll have fun with your new friends.
If you are scared of joining a tour because you will be traveling alone, don’t be. You’ll make friends. I promise. Here are some random moments from tour. The photos aren’t the best (and some of them I stole from our tour leader’s Facebook page), but hopefully you can see what kind of people you’ll be traveling with with Haka. Fun people, people who are open and happy to make friends. And, they will make the trip so amazing for you. Traveling on your own is fantastic, no matter where you go, you will meet people. Don’t be scared!