New Zealand is everything they told you, and more
There's simply no words that can describe New Zealand accurately enough.
It's paradise on Earth. It's one of the few places with the Western mindset that looks rather unspoiled and protected. It's Costa Rica, but multiplied by 5. And quite some degrees celsius colder.
One of the first truths I experienced in New Zealand was one of the first nights, parked in a field next to where cows spend the day watching life go by. We were lying down in the back of the camper van, peeking through the moon deck and I realised. Our world is messed up because we stopped being able to see the stars at night. Watching the stars every single night is key to know our place in the world. We forget who we are if we don't.
Another second truth hit me on the road after having a couple very productive hours writing on my mobile phone. The same way a pregnant woman looks stunning not only because she is pregnant, but also because she quits alcohol, coffee and cigarettes, when traveling suddenly inspiration comes in a big rush, not because of the destination, but because suddenly the routine noise is not there.
Here's my voice note about our trip from Kuala Lumpur to Auckland:
I didn't have a mental image of New Zealand. I read The Lord of the Rings trilogy but I never watched the films. So I really was not prepared for what I was about to experience when I landed this late October in Auckland.
We chose spring (which is still low season) and that was a half good decision. Prices for camper van rentals are much lower (we paid 480 NZD including a 100 NZD one-way fee for 2 weeks) and most places we visited were empty. But we had quite some rainy and cloudy days and we could only get in our swimsuits on in one occasion in some very pretty thermal springs inside a river. If I have another opportunity to visit, I'd try to come in January - even if I know the sheer amount of tourists will somehow worsen the experience.
Another big expense was gas: we spent 500€ in 2 weeks and we didn't cover completely both islands. I mean, Cihan drove over 3.400 kilometers in 13 days, and this money covered most of our transportation and accommodation. The ferry from Wellington to Picton to go from the North Island to the South Island was 170€ and we paid for camping places here and there. The supermarket visits were also very frequent and rather expensive - sadly there's no ALDI in New Zealand. What I can tell you is that Countdown is THE supermarket, at least compared to Pack'N'Safe and New World. Not cheaper, but better quality of products and much better organised.
But still, it was money very well spent.
When locals tell you that the South Island makes the North Island look ugly, they are partly right. I find both of them just stunning. The North Island is more convenient and easier to navigate. The South Island is overwhelming in beauty and numbers of road bends you can cope with per minute. The landscape in the South Island is indeed more incredible, there's basically nobody on the roads and fewer buildings - so that makes it somehow much more beautiful.
If you want to visit New Zealand, bring clothes for all kind of weather and don't plan less than 3 weeks. We spent 2 weeks, but we had to sacrifice Milford Sound and rush from highlight to highlight. I consider 5-6 weeks the ideal amount of time. I know that for many of us that's not realistic, but if you love photography and you want to enjoy the experience, then it is what it is. Believe me and those who know better as we tried to do. We followed mostly these amazing resources for our campervan road trip:
- WikiTravel. A must wherever you go. Ditch Lonely Planet already, bitte.
- WikiCamps. A paid app that's absolutely worth your money. It covers everything you need to make your camping trip excellent: free and paid camping spots, non-contained and self-contained facilities, public toilets, ATMs, gas stations, showers... and it has comprehensive filters. You can download all the data to use the app offline.
- CamperMate for iOS and Android: very similar to WikiCamps and free. It has a couple of extra filters that help you a lot, like a rating for paid camps that allows you to find low-budget among them.
In terms of blog posts and online resources, we loved these:
I took 3.000 pictures in New Zealand. Every 10 minutes there's a lookout site worth stopping for a 20-minute photo shooting. And all the videos I recorded basically show me in disbelief struggling to put in words how the landscape was making me feel. Make sure you bring all your photography equipment if you are into pictures and video. I am not a really good photographer, so I wished all the trip to have a better clue so I could take Nez Zealand home with me.
For the hippie campers like us, New Zealand felt like a huge camping site with strategically placed natural paradises. This is my first time going on a road trip in a van so maybe this is the normal, but I was impressed with the amount of clean toilets and perfectly marked tourist directions along the road. So camping friendly!
We were also positively surprised with how much visibility the Maori culture was given everywhere we went. From the very first moment we landed, we were greeted both in English and Maori in the airport displays and in every town in the road. All shields of all highlights had information from the history of each spot before and after the arrival of the Europeans in the islands. Which should be the norm, but having been in Australia previously, I knew it can't be taken for granted.
What broke our hearts was the huge amount of dead animals along the road. This is not a joke: every 2 to 3 kilometers you see a bird, fox, small mammal and impossible to identify rests of meat covered in blood. We didn't understand how that could happen until we killed a black bird that was flying against our front windscreen and we were driving at 90 kilometers per hour. We didn't really speak for half an hour after that.
No picture can show you how beautiful New Zealand really is. But if you need some proof that you need to pay a visit, here are my highlights:
Mount Eden in Auckland. It was the first of many lookout stops we did, but this one was on top of a volcano with its crater covered by grass. More people live in Auckland than in the whole South Island and you don't believe it until you reach the South Island. Seeing now the huge spread out city from above in hindsight in the pictures is fascinating.
Okere and Huka Falls. They are not the Niagara Falls, but still. I wasn't expecting much but they impressed me with their force and the clearest water I had seen by then (that changed by the time we reached Christchurch...). And I have to say, any waterfall in New Zealand will steal your heart - so check any of them when around!
Funniest moment of the North Island trip is when I casually met Alba on the other side of the world: we went to the same University in Barcelona, same building and we had friends in common. Now she is traveling as well and also blogging her trip (in Spanish), check her out at www.darlavueltaalmundo.com.
Wellington. We didn't see much of the city but I kinda liked the vibe. The air was cold and the water was freezing, and still everyone was out in their bikinis sunbathing and into the water. Everything was so clean and the sea so crystal clear, the lady at the swimming pool so nice and the air so fresh, I was tempted to tell Cihan: let's stay. And just when it couldn't get better, we took the ferry to Picton in the South Island and got to see Malborough Sounds. Too good, ey!
Takaka Springs. Zen heaven: in one of the ponds you could see the ducks ducking into the water from the distance, like you could see them inside the water. Just no words.
Pancake Rocks. When I first read the name and the description, I though - ugh, sounds like a tourist trap. I imagine it might be REALLY FULL during high season, but in October it was absolutely fine. The views to the rocks and the coast were just incredible.
Franz Josef Glacier. The glacier is in no way impressive, at least not anymore. What's heartbreaking is to see first hand how the once mighty glacier has lost in size. Glaciers change and move forward and backward BUT I consider it beyond repair. We booked the guided tour since there were signs everywhere warning about how dangerous it is to visit without an expert on your side - and a week before a family had died because they were reckless.
The 75 NZD was the cheapest visit and didn't include any helicopter or walk on the ice. We took it and it gave us the advantage to walk through the rainforest, access the areas that are forbidden for non-guided visitors, a hot chocolate and the entry to thermal swimming pools at the end of the visit. Well, if you don't have time for the spa (and we didn't - we just got in the water 15 minutes and took a shower for the road), then really don't book the tour. The path to the glacier is marked and it is safe if you follow the instructions! Another beautiful part of the visit were the long thin waterfalls on the sides of the glacier.
The road between Franz Josef and Lake Pukaki. That road got me speechless every half an hour... for a whole afternoon and morning the day after.
Lake Pukaki. The most out of this world blue I've ever seen. No picture we took captured the intensity of it, but I'm ok with that now. It's the reason you should go and see it with your own eyes. And I really hope you're there on a clear day and the clouds are nice to you and let you see the Mount Cook in the distance. Thank you, New Zealand - I guess now I can die.
Seals sighting. We went to check for penguins and seals in a windy rainy day and I had a blast even if getting all wet. It was very funny to witness a stand off between a penguin and a seal, and watch seals somehow dancing on the water. And I realised why we shouldn't keep building and maintaining zoos anymore. Either we rebuild the concept or it is just not fine. Let's go for virtual reality, let's fund trips for kids, but let's not put animals in cages anymore. Seals in the wild are SO MUCH BETTER - and scarier...
Akaroa. This would be the place to go for a swim with dolphins if the winds allow. The day we visited the wind was scary, it rained and hailed while we were in the car and there was no possibility to say hi to the dolphins. In any case, the views from the top are breathtaking and the colors of the water keep you mesmerized for hours.
One of my biggest regrets of this trip is to not staying the afternoon in one of the campings. In our quest to not to lose time and be on time for giving back the van in Christchurch, we missed on the opportunity to enjoy the peace and quiet of one of the prettiest coastal towns I've been so far. I should always listen to Cihan!
Burger Fuel. We discovered this gourmet burger chain rather casually checking on Foursquare around Lake Taupō. They serve grass-fed beef and it does make a difference in taste and how your digestion goes afterwards. Not that is fine eating animals, but this is a better way to enjoy meat, in my opinion. Cihan swears it is the best burger he ever ate and I kinda agree! It's just the steaks in Costa Rica were slightly better, so I'm not ready to settle this score yet.
Christchurch. Basically because I had never seen a city in such bad shape - the earthquakes in 2010 and 2011 left the city devastated and you can see the scars everywhere. Coming from a German mindset I was taken aback - it's been 5-6 years now, so what's wrong? But I really lack of background information and it was a good reminder that everything we consider stable, solid and long-lasting is actually not so. If you visit in the next few years, you'll be able to see the aftermath, but I hope in 5 or 10 years the city has recovered.
Scratch that - I wrote it before the earthquakes hit New Zealand and Christchurch 2 days ago. I simply cannot imagine how the city is looking right now. Or how Wellington is! We heard the main highway is really damaged and we are so so so lucky this didn't happen 2 weeks ago when we were there. Blame it on the super moon!
The scenic flight I never took. In Franz Josef Glacier, in Mount Cook, Queenstown to visit Milford Sound and around Lake Pukaki direction Christchurch you'll see plenty of offers for helicopter and plane tours. They are pretty expensive and there's 0 competition between tour operators. Meaning the prices are agreed among them because they are exactly the same for all companies. We decided against it. But when I saw the landscape from our flight from Christchurch to Sydney I deeply regretted my decision: New Zealand is a country to contemplate from above.
I think the most impressive parts of New Zeland are how empty it is, how fast can you travel from beach to mountain, from rainforest to tundra, how green it can get and how smooth everything goes. We had absolutely no troubles everywhere we went. And we only realised how awesome that had been on our first day in Sydney, when suddenly everything was an uphill battle...
Now it is time for you to go on Google Maps and figure out where every spot is. North or South Island? Take it as your first step towards landing in a dream land out of the most amazing fairy tale. Here some help!
Just remember - no matter where you go in New Zealand, you'll have a blast. No matter how long you stay, you'll feel the FOMO every single minute. But guaranteed, you'll have your mouth and eyes wide open most of the time, every bend in their roads will bring new surprises. And you won't regret the time and money spent in paradise.
Here some random kiwi awesomeness if you still didn't get enough:
Since I visited Melbourne in 2007 I keep saying that when I retire, I'll move to that Little Berlin down under with a beach and cozy cafés. But now I might want to just put everything in a motor home and spend my last days on Earth in the most beautiful island in the world. And if that's not possible, in my next life I just want to be a cow roaming my days away in New Zealand.
South Island, wait for me.