As I write this post, I’m tucked up in bed at home in England. It’s currently 5:30am and I’m STILL getting over the jet-lag almost a week after my plane landed in London. I’m feeling full from all the food I’ve eaten over Christmas. I can hear the faint ticking of the water running through the radiators (Oh how I have missed those!) and there is a thick frost covering the fields outside my bedroom window. This is how winter should be!
New Zealand feels a world away now. Was it a dream? It’s hard to believe that this time last week, James and I were driving through Canterbury on NZ’s South Island, relishing the summer sun and trying to savour every last moment in Middle Earth.
Our last week in New Zealand was – of course – a good one. After living and working in NZ for the past 19 months, we were sad to leave, but we couldn’t go without revisiting some of our favourite spots. Our last day of work was Friday 16 December, and we had our flights booked home from Christchurch for the 23 December, giving us six whole days to do something exciting. We decided to fly to Christchurch, booked a rental car with Snap Rentals, and embarked on a final road trip of the South Island, spending most of our time in Canterbury and Otago.
James and I had our flights booked from Wellington to Christchurch for 7am on Saturday morning. Being the overly organised, adventure-hungry person I am, I thought flying at 7am would maximise our time “on holiday”. Early mornings don’t bother us too much.
Unfortunately, I thought it would be a really great idea to drink way too much on Friday night with my workmates, so our flight from Wellington to Christchurch was a lot less fun than it should have been. James was still drunk, and I was clutching the sick bag the entire journey. Thankfully, I don’t think anyone really noticed. Once we had landed, we collected our rental car and drove to the nearest car park to sleep off the hangover…
We weren’t planning on hanging around in Christchurch for long seeing as we visited most of the sites last year when we stayed for a week while we looked for a car to buy. However, we did make a trip to the Re:Start Mall for a DELICIOUS falafel souvlaki pita from Dimitri’s (hangover cure!) and, after picking up some cheap camping equipment from the Warehouse, we set off for the South.
Campsite: Arundel Bridge (free) near Geraldine
Oh how great it is to wake up hangover-free! Our second day was spent mostly in the car driving south. It doesn’t look far on the map, but it takes around 3.5 hours to drive from Geraldine to Wanaka – and it’s a testing drive in places!
Our first stop was Lake Tekapo. Tekapo is most well known for being situated in the International Dark Sky Reserve, meaning it’s one of the best places to stargaze in the entire WORLD. The area is very remote so there is barely any light pollution at all, so the stars seem to shine brighter here than anywhere else. You can take a stargazing tour when you visit which will teach you all about the cosmos. The iconic Church of the Good Shepherd overlooks the lake, which is an astonishing shade of blue due to the rock flour from surrounding glaciers being suspended in the water. The lupins were in full bloom, creating a sea of purple before the blue of the lake. We took a stroll into the town and crossed the new pedestrianised bridge, which wasn’t there this time last year.
About an hour south of Tekapo is Lake Pukaki. We were hoping to get that beautiful view of Mount Cook across the lake, but unfortunately the clouds were covering him. Like Lake Tekapo, Lake Pukaki is a stunning shade of blue for the same reason. Lake Pukaki is fed from the north by the Tasman River, which comes from the Tasman and Hooker Glaciers, situated near Aoraki/Mount Cook. We pulled into one of our favourite campsites (Lake Pukaki Reserve) and had lunch looking at the beautiful view.
Next was the drive through Lindis Pass. Although it doesn’t feel it, this area is quite high up, at 971m above sea level. There is a short walk to a lookout, however the view is much the same as on the road unless you climb to the summit (6 hours return). I’d love to see this area in the snow. It’s still pretty impressive in summer with its endless tussock-clad hills.
Wanaka is a sleepy touristy town, where there isn’t a great deal to do but admiring the lake is enough. At the iSite, we enquired about climbing Mount Isthmus, which was closed until 21st December (our final day of exploring before we needed to drive back to Christchurch). We planned to climb it on that day, and decided to revisit one of our favourite spots the following morning…
Campsite: Albert Town, Wanaka ($10 per person per night).
On Monday morning we watched the sunrise from Mount Roy. I can handle early mornings but our wake up call of 2am was just a little too early for me! Mount Roy is one of the most popular ‘day-hikes’ in Wanaka and it will always be one of my favourite. We did the track last year in the midday heat and I must say that the (very) early morning is a much better time to do it!
Our hike began at 3am, after packing up the tent and driving to the start of the track. The first hour was okay, as I just felt really sick, but during the second hour I began to feel dizzy and my walking pace slowed to that of a snail’s. But I did it! We stopped walking when we got to that iconic viewpoint that is so popular with Instagrammers – it’s about 30 minutes from the summit – and we got there at 5:15am. Normally, the ascent takes 3-4 hours; in November 2015 it took us around 3.5 hours to reach the summit.
We waited for the sun to come up in the freezing cold. Eventually, at around 5:45am, the first rays began to touch the mountains, gradually getting closer until the hillside was basking in the morning warmth. James did a great job of being my personal photographer (as always) and we decided against continuing to the summit simply because we’ve done it before.
After a peanut butter sandwich or two, we began the descent to the car park. I didn’t realise it at the time, but one of my walking boots was laced too tight and I ended up with a bruised ankle. It became quite swollen and I really struggled to walk on it for the next few days. This meant no Mount Isthmus, which I’m still kicking myself about.
After a quick nap in the car by the lake, we stopped by Wanaka Swimming Pool for a shower ($5 per person) and grabbed a veggie pie and chips for lunch. We headed out of town in the early afternoon to Wanaka’s local brewery, Wanaka Beerworks, where we took a tour of the brewery and had 6 tastings – all for $15 each! We’ve only been to one other craft brewery tour while we’ve been in New Zealand – Monteith’s Brewery in Greymouth. Monteith’s is a huge, commercial brewery that exports its beer internationally, so it was interesting to visit a lesser-known brewery that is catered more to what the locals want. The head brewer took us around the brewery and gave us an in-depth talk about the history of the brewery, how beer is made, and their upcoming projects. All I can say is I wish we had discovered this place sooner! A choose-your-own six-pack was a must.
Next, we drove to Queenstown for a quick stroll around the town. I always thought I would love Queenstown but I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed by it when we first visited last year. Sure, it’s a gorgeous town, nestled by the lake with stunning views of the mountains, however I personally find it to be too touristy; everywhere you go you can hear European or Asian voices, and there just doesn’t seem to be much of a vibe in the city apart from tourism and spending money. It’s also too much of a bubble for me – I wouldn’t want to live there. That said, it’s a gorgeous place to stop by, especially if you’re into adrenaline activities, restaurants/bars and shopping – so don’t let my opinions dissuade you!
Campsite: Moke Lake DOC Campsite ($13 per person per night)
We were originally planning to climb Ben Lomond, but with my dodgy ankle we couldn’t so we drove to Glenorchy instead. Glenorchy is a laid back town situated at the northern end of Lake Wakatipu. It’s a small town with only an overpriced shop in terms of amenities, but there are loads of activities you can do from here such as horse riding, jet boating and Lord of the Rings tours. It’s worth a visit if only for the journey; the drive to Glenorchy from Queenstown is possibly my favourite in New Zealand. The road winds through the trees beside the lake, teasing you with glimpses of the snow-capped mountains overlooking the true-blue water. It’s like a painting!
The area around Glenorchy is really gorgeous – huge mountains with green farmland, clusters of trees and a lot of sheep. Some of the scenery in this area was used in Peter Jackson’s films – below is the location used for Isengard!
Our first stop was Lake Diamond, a small lake which is shaped like a diamond (would you believe). It’s en route to Paradise – because yep, there really is a place called Paradise in New Zealand! There isn’t much to do at the lake but it’s a pleasant place to stop for lunch. We walked over to it and I quickly learnt that my trainers aren’t waterproof. The ground was very boggy and my socks got very wet. Sensible shoes advised…
Next we drove to the start of the Routeburn Track, one of NZ’s 9 Great Walks and one of the more popular ones on the South Island. We hiked to the Bridal Falls, about 1 hour 30 mins return, looping back through the Routeburn Nature Walk where you can learn a lot about the history and qualities of the beech forest. We have put the full multi-day hike onto our bucket lists – this one looks amazing and I wish we had done it!
We began the drive back to Wanaka, stopping by Roaring Meg, a turbulent river that drives a hydro-electric power station. We were hoping we could still do Isthmus the following morning…
We decided to camp at a holiday park by Lake Hawea so we could use a plug socket to charge my camera (I really need to buy a spare battery for it!) For the price, I was actually really impressed; it’s located only about 15 mins drive from Wanaka. There was lots of space for tents, a great kitchen, hot showers and 30 mins free wifi. You can also stay in a cabin!
Campsite: Lake Hawea Holiday Park ($18 per person)
Waking up at 5am, we checked the weather and rain was predicted for the afternoon – plus my ankle was still feeling swollen – so we reluctantly but sensibly decided not to climb Mount Isthmus. I’m disappointed because the views are said to rival those of Mount Roy, and you can see both Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea from the top! I’ve put it on the list for when we come back.
Instead, we drove out to a few viewpoints of Lake Hawea before heading north towards Christchurch. We stopped in Geraldine for a coffee and chocolate slice before continuing onto Peel Forest.
Peel Forest is an area of Canterbury I hadn’t given any thought to before this trip but I’m glad we stopped by. There are quite a few day-hikes you can do here, some as long as 3-4 hours return, but as it was already 4pm we opted for the walk to Acland Falls and to the ‘Big Tree’.
Acland Falls are truthfully small and some might say disappointing, but we only saw one other person on the walking track and had the spot to ourselves. We took a few shots trying out the manual setting on my camera.
The ‘Big Tree’ is actually pretty impressive. There are a few tall totara trees en route to the largest, which is 31 metres tall and 8 meters around its trunk – massive!
We camped by Rakaia Gorge, a beautiful blue river that we visited last year.
Campsite: Rakaia Gorge Camp ($8.50 per person which includes hot showers)
Even though it was pouring with rain the following morning, I convinced a begrudging James to drive the long, winding gravel road to Lake Coleridge, a large lake nestled at the foot of the mountains. I wish I could say it was worth it but the weather was just too dull and wet. I’m sure it’s gorgeous on a clear day!
We then drove east to join the West Coast Highway and visited Castle Hill, a reserve where there are enormous limestone boulders that visitors are free to clamber all over. Thankfully the rain stopped when we arrived and we liked this place a lot more than we thought we would!
We drove into Christchurch and got another of Dimitri’s Falafel Souvlaki Pitas for a late lunch (honestly, they are just SO good!) We sold our camping equipment to a fellow backpacker and checked into a guesthouse for the night, where we repacked our suitcases and had a crappy takeaway pizza for dinner.
Guesthouse: Sandy Feet Hotel, New Brighton, $59 for a double room with Balcony
We checked out early and returned our rental car the following morning. And just like that, we found ourselves on the plane to Singapore (thankfully hangover free this time!!)
It was a great last week on New Zealand’s South Island, but it would have definitely been better if we hadn’t spent the first day hungover, if I hadn’t hurt my ankle, and if the weather was gorgeous wherever you went. But where would the fun in that be?
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