I am not a seasoned traveller; of this I presently concede. My most leisurely moments are spent immersed in films and books, wherein I have traversed the full expanse of the lush countryside of England to the treacherous terrains of the American wilderness. My recent expedition to New Zealand, however, represents a cinematic encounter of a different kind. It has proven to be one of the most cathartic and liberating experiences of my life and has consumed me in a vice-like grip of Wanderlust which I have never before acquired.
New Zealand remains one of the most geographically blessed, and yet understated scenic destinations in the world. Against a backdrop of the snow-capped Southern Alps, its rustic plains, pristine lakes and undulating hillsides combine to create cinematic magic at every turn. Please, allow me the liberty of taking you on a pictorial journey – a journey as fondly remembered today as it will be in many years to come…
We commenced our road trip in the most populous city of New Zealand, Auckland, but it is not Auckland which captivated me. As Tolstoy would famously encapsulate: “all happy families are alike”, the aphorism also aptly applies to all towering metropolises.
No, it was not Auckland, but the Hobbiton Movie Set which attracted me to New Zealand’s North Island. Nestled in the 505-hectare Alexander farm ~10km southwest of Matamata in Waikato, Hobbiton Movie Set is a prominent attraction preserved post filming of blockbuster trilogies The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. As a self-proclaimed aficionado of Peter Jackson’s film series, my stroll through The Shire was a keenly anticipated affair and it was not one to disappoint (even on a wintry, rainy day).
Guided tours of the 5.5-hectare movie set commenced in 2002 and continues to draw audiences daily from all around the globe, with the two-hour excursion having to be booked in advance (InterCity, NZ$149 pp). Amongst the sweeping farm landscape, highlights including Bilbo’s Bag End home (complete with the 26-ton artificial oak standing proud above it), the Green Dragon Inn and The Mill left me very much in awe!
Arthur’s Pass & Canterbury Plains
It wasn’t until we commenced our tour of the South Island on Day 6 that I experienced my first true taste of the cinematic appeal of the country. Touching down in Christchurch, we were almost immediately greeted with the luscious Canterbury Plains stretching tirelessly into eternity. As an avid reader, I have often sought to conjure up the scenery as described, however I soon came to the realisation that no amount of description will do justice to what was unfolding before me.
Located ~150km north-west of Christchurch, we came upon our first national park, Arthur’s Pass National Park (there will be four more to come, including Westland National Park, Fiordland National Park, Mt Aspiring National Park and Mt Cook National Park). Rugged and mountainous, Arthur’s Pass straddles the main divide of the Southern Alps and many considers the rail journey from Christchurch to Greymouth via Arthur’s Pass to be one of the most visually tantalising travel escapades.
After spending the night at gemstone town Hokitika, we continued our way south towards Fox Glacier (en route to Wanaka). Located in the Westland National Park, the 13km long Fox Glacier is a natural wonder best viewed from the air. Numerous helicopter tours operate within the area (~NZ$300 pp) and the activity is strongly recommended in light of the Glacier’s significant retreat over the years.
The scenic route to Wanaka via Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers is a well-worn path; flanked by the Tasman Sea to the west and spectacular mountain ranges to the east, easily making it the Great Ocean Road of New Zealand. Lake Wanaka, fourth largest lake in the country and third largest in South Island, takes centre stage in its namesake town. Accompanied by a loved one, watching the sunset over Lake Wakana presents a most tranquil experience not to be missed.
It has been said that one has not travelled in New Zealand until one has paid a visit to Queenstown, a resort town in Otago in the south west. Arguably the most lauded adventure destination in the South Island, we embarked upon the picturesque town on Day 8 of our journey. The town hugs the stunning Lake Wakatipu (third largest lake in the country and second largest in South Island), and viewed from its foot, it bears many of the hallmarks of a charming, European village setting.
Boasting over 200 adrenaline-pumping activities (bungy jumping, jet boating, paragliding, skydiving, amongst others), there is no excuse to idle away one’s time. Millions also flock to its ski fields in the annual ski season, spoilt for choice with the four key sites: Cardrona, Coronet Peak, The Remarkables and Treble Cone. For the relatively faint-hearted amongst us, Nomad Safaris operates an in-depth tour of Queenstown aboard an amphibious Humvee, providing off the beaten track explorations like no other (~NZ$179 pp).
Fresh from the excitement of all that Queenstown has to offer, we arrived at the widely acclaimed, World Heritage-listed Milford Sound on Day 9. With panoramic views aboard the scenic cruise, the sheer majesty of Milford South rivals that of the fjords in the northern hemisphere. Interestingly, with annual rainfall averaging 6m-9m, Milford Sound is recognised as the wettest inhabited place in New Zealand and one of the wettest in the world. Snow avalanches, landslides and even tree avalanches are common occurrences to be heeded in the region. The nearby Milford Track also represents the ultimate hikers’ dream and one that I wish to conquer one day.
I have never been to Utopia, but this is truly as close a comfort. Perhaps everything takes on a certain lustre through mere foreignness and transience… I have taken solace in the country’s understated grandeur, and felt emancipation through its simple way of life.
As much as it was the breathtaking landscape, ultimately our journey was made special by the people with whom we have had the fortune to bond en route. I am humbled by the opportunity to share such majestic experiences with strangers, some of whom I hope to meet again one day, and perhaps under a different setting and different circumstances we could have been firm friends. It takes only a moment to fall in love, but a lifetime to forget…