On a map, New Zealand looks like a small island at the end of the world. When my husband, Darek, and I saw it in real life, it lived up to our expectations. We couldn’t take more than two weeks off, so we decided to focus on exploring the South Island. We hiked around, ate the delicious food, and drove hundreds of kilometers nearly every day.
A lot of people rent an RV because you can camp almost anywhere on the South Island — it’s normal to have your breakfast in a parking lot and dinner at a fancy restaurant. If we could have taken a month or more off, we would have definitely rented an RV. This would have given us some flexibility: Sometimes it would be raining hard when we wanted to hike, so we had to wait for the weather to improve to get on the trails.
But the day we had on the Routeburn Track was picture perfect.
As usual, it was raining in New Zealand the day before our big hike. So you can imagine how grateful we were to wake up the to nice and sunny weather on the day we took on one of “New Zealand’s Great Walks” — the Routeburn Track.
Running 32 km through the Fiordland National Park, it normally takes two to four days to do the whole track. There are shelters all along the way, so hikers can log in a comfortable pace (about 10 km a day) without worrying about not reaching a shelter by nightfall. To do the whole trail, you’ll need to book a shuttle to take you back to where you started. There are also companies that will pick your car up from the parking lot where you start and bring it the lot where you finish. It’s such a smart idea!
We didn’t have time to do the entire track. But Darek had read that the most beautiful part of the hike is from the Routeburn Shelter (one the track’s starting points) to Harris Saddle. A 9-hour walk you can do in a day. So that was our plan.
The trail is very easy and well-maintained. We reached the first hut after 1.5 hours of hiking. We weren’t tired, but we took a break anyways to take in the amazing view. When we got to the next hut at Routeburn Falls, we were surprised by its size: It’s huge. Like a complex of three buildings kind of huge. I imagined how the hut must be packed during the busy summertime (November through January).
From the hut we hiked to Harris Saddle, the halfway point of our trek that day. It took us a while — but only because of the many breaks that we took to snap a picture. During this part of the trail we were above the timberline, which is beautiful but really windy. When we reached the top of the peak, we saw a small shelter where you can sleep, but only in an emergency. We went inside for a while to take a break from the wind. There was a couple there who were from New Zealand, but we discovered that they had visited Poland (where Darek and I are from) years ago! It was nice to hear their stories about the countryside, popular attractions, and the like. It’s always good to hear that others went to Poland and enjoyed their time there.
We waved them goodbye and headed back to the car and off to Queenstown, where we went to Botswana Butchery Restaurant to celebrate Darek’s birthday. Of course, we had lamb and it was amazing. Everything that we ordered was top quality, delicious, and made to perfection. If you ever have chance to visit, I definitely recommend this place.
We spent the next day driving around and wine tasting — the perfect thing to do between hiking New Zealand’s many trails. On the ride, the wineries were every few kilometers. We decided to visit Gibbston Valley.
The wine tasting experience was very similar to ones we’ve had in the US: We paid a few bucks, got many different samples, and learned a lot about each of the wines. Since Darek works in the wine business, we got more samples than the regular person. One of the things that I was surprised to learn was that they hardly use corks to bottle their wines! Most of the wines are twist-off. I asked the winemaker why this was the case and he said that New Zealand is a small market so the best corks go to France, Spain, USA, and Italy. The corks that they used to get weren’t good for the wine, so all (or at least most) winemakers in the New Zealand use twist-off caps.
After dinner, we hit the road again and drove straight to Mt. Cook National Park. The road was lined with beautiful scenery. Once we got there, we discovered that there are not many marked and recommended hiking trails at the park, but you can hike wherever you like even if it’s not marked. It was evening when we got there, so we just took few basic trails.
The next day, we explored the park some more. The trails in the park can range from a light 15-minute walk to a trek that can take a few days! We decided to hike to a nearby Chateau. It was one-day hike, but you can go further and spend few days in the mountains if you’d like. The trail to the hut was crazy. There were 1814 steps leading us up the mountain. Honestly, it helped a lot. We hiked higher and higher, admiring the view, but unfortunately not for long. It began rain so we decided to head down, which was a good idea: Once we reached a lower elevation, it was nice and sunny.
The main takeaway from hiking in New Zealand is that the higher we went, the more clouds there were. Very often, we’d hike to the clouds but then we could hardly see anything. There was almost no way to get above the clouds, so the best views were actually at the lower elevations. Of course when it’s a sunny day (which happens from time to time), it’s a different story.
We took another trail to see a Glacier, which took around 30 minutes. It was pretty easy, we even relaxed and had a beer while admiring the view of Mt. Cook, hearing chunks of ice break off of the nearby glacier, and staring contentedly at the blue lake made out of glacier water. That’s how we spent the day: hanging around, hiking, and enjoying the sights and sounds of the park.
We were excited for our next day, where we planned to see two famous glaciers: Franz Joseph and Fox. From Mt. Cook, they are only 30 kilometers away, as the crow flies. However, in New Zealand there are barely any tunnels, so to get to glaciers we had to drive more than 300 kilometers! We broke up the drive with a break in Wanaka, a city famous for the lake that has the same name. The lake is gorgeous, like most of the things in New Zealand. The town is small but has a nice lake boulevard, some bars and restaurants, and The Puzzling World — a fun and quirky museum. We stayed the night there and continued our journey to the glaciers the next morning.
The Franz Joseph and Fox Glaciers are the two most famous glaciers in the country. They are very accessible — it takes a short two-hour hike to get to either one. But, of course, Darek doesn’t like easy trails, so he found a more challenging one. It got us higher on the mountain and closer to the glacier. The trail is not that difficult, as long as you’re fine with swing bridges. There are five swing bridges, and two of them are more difficult. One is long and very narrow, the other is shorter but much more higher – better to not look down if you’re scared of heights. But since we were fine with swing bridges, we had no problems taking this trail (a good way to avoid the very popular and crowded easier trails).
Once we got there, I have to admit, I was disappointed with the glaciers. They were dirty with mud, we couldn’t get that close, and I thought that the glacier at Mt. Cook was bigger and more beautiful. Oh well, at least the hike was fun.
The next day we went back to Christchurch and then back to the USA. It was an amazing vacation, very intense (as always) but definitely worth the 30-hour plane ride! I loved New Zealand. It has amazing flora, tropical rainforests, cliffs and huge mountains, sea animals, and so much more. As a country – we found New Zealanders to be really nice, friendly, and easy going. The air and the food won the trip — I have never had better ingredients. The meals are simple, very often from the grill. The air is fresh and without pollution. It was like a different world. We returned home refreshed, relaxed, and ready for another adventure.