A Wilderness Safari of New Zealand’s South Island
October 8, 2015
New Zealand is a world away from almost everywhere on the planet. Yet it is precisely this Antipodean remoteness that is responsible for the out-of-this-world natural landscapes, which draw over 3 million visitors a year.
What is particularly striking about New Zealand is the density and diversity of natural beauty. Driving through the South Island over a couple of days, for example, could take you from pristine coasts, through desert-like landscapes, into rainforests and up to rugged mountains and glaciers. I know of no place in the world, which offers the quintessence of such extremities in such close proximity—each with uniquely awe-inspiring qualities.
The diversity and beauty of the landscapes is one of the reasons why, in my opinion, the nation is best explored on the move. With nine days to spare in January and New Zealand’s South Island on the top of my bucket list, I considered the usual holiday options. But given that there was so much to see, I narrowed these down to hotel hopping or a motorhome. Hotel hopping had the comfort, but lacked the total environmental immersion, which makes a trip to New Zealand so compelling. A motorhome on the other hand had the convenience of stopping wherever we wished for the night and exploring the remote areas, but appeared to fall short on the comfort element. It was through persisting not to make a compromise that I stumbled upon Wilderness, a company offering luxury camper vans for private touring throughout the country.
It only took me a single visit to the Wilderness website and a call for me to realise that this was the experience my partner and I were after; one that coupled absolute comfort with the absolute freedom to plot our own itinerary. An itinerary that would take us from Christchurch, along the East Coast beaches, deep into the famous fiords featured in King Kong, through the adventurous Queenstown region and over the rugged mountains, lakes and rivers that set the scene for Lord of the Rings.
Day 1: Cruising to the Coast
Upon arriving at Christchurch Airport, we were chauffeured in a private car to the Wilderness base, only a few minutes away. A welcome board displayed our names and shortly after we saw this, we were welcomed in person by a friendly representative, Mike. Mike introduced us to our camper van, discussed the formalities and then recommended several freedom campsites along the route we wished to take.
The van we chose was the “Freestyle 2” (Fiat Ducato 2.3L Turbo Diesel) suitable for four people, but ideal for a couple. Our Fiat was compact enough to navigate, but was also equipped with all the comforts, including a luxury yacht-like interior with leather seating and push-locks on the cupboards, a double bunk that came down from the roof, large windows in the dining area, storage with hangers for coats, a fridge, deep freeze, gas stove, shower with warm water, TV and DVD player and two mountain bikes with disc brakes. We had the ingredients for an adventure that was almost too comfortable to be called camping.
After we inspected our van and stocked up on local culinary delicacies, we set off for our first destination: Oamaru. The road trip was carefree and by sunset (which is around 9pm in summer in New Zealand), we had eaten our dinner in Bushy Beach Reserve and set up camp in a nearby parking spot, home to yellow-eyed penguins, lion seals and beautiful beaches.
Day 2: From the Seaside to the Lakeside
Both my partner and I were excited to explore the Bushy Bay Reserve and with an apparently spectacular day ahead of us we lost no time. The first item on the agenda was a swim and, with only lion seals to join us, we were promised a private dip. After breakfast overlooking the Pacific Ocean, we made our way to the renowned Moeraki Boulders, which lie scattered along the beach in all their million years of beauty. We then continued our drive to a seaside lunch venue, Fleur’s Place, which I would highly recommend. Only minutes further south, Fleur’s is found in a fisherman’s cottage on a pier, protruding into the sea. Intimate and charming, this venue is a seafood gastronomist’s dream, offering specialities from a delightful bisque soup to extravagant seafood platters.
Eager to get to the exquisite Fiordland National Park as soon as possible, my partner finally convinced me to leave the lunch table and continue our journey. We made it to Te Anau well before dusk and decided to camp in a site five metres by the lake. The camping experience that night was cosy and we both slept exceptionally well, despite the high winds that apparently ravaged outside for most of the night.
Day 3: Exploring the Land of King Kong
Anyone who has travelled throughout the South Island would recommend the rainforests and fiords that make up Milford Sound. Despite the 250 days of rain in the year, Milford still draws between half a million to a million annual tourists. Why? Stepping into the fiord is like entering another world. No wonder Peter Jackson chose this area as the set for the new lush mysterious land where King Kong dwelled. Countless waterfalls stream down rocks for hundreds of metres, like silver threads weaving through the granite, still waters reflect impressive mountains, pink and purple Lupin flowers blanket the riverbanks and exotic birds call out, echoing through the fiords.
My partner and I were eager to immerse ourselves as deeply as possible into the captivating fiordlands and so it was decided to embark upon a kayak tour and a walk on the exceptionally popular Milford Sound trail. The trail itself is usually booked out a year in advance, so if you wish to walk the whole 3-day trail, you’ll need to get in early. A five-hour kayak and walk was adventurous enough for us, but we were also tempted with other options, such as the private helicopter tour over the fiords. However as the rain had set in for the next couple of days, we figured the visibility would be better from the lake itself. Indeed we were right. The kayak tour was simply magnificent – a tranquil paddle with 360-degree views of fiordlands that simply took our breath away. The trail also met our expectations, however walking two hours in heavy rainfall certainly tested our adventurous limits and we were happy to have a warm shower when we returned to our mobile home, followed by a viewing of Lord of the Rings in our soft, warm bed and a peaceful night in the fiords.
Day 4: From the Rainforest to the Mountains
As we set off again, along the Te Anau-Milford Highway (94), we made our way to the Mirror Lakes. These small ponds are stone still and are named for their highly reflective surfaces, which display the beautiful mountain backdrop.
Following our photography session, we stopped by Te Anau once again. Here we visited a highly recommended pie store (Miles Better Pies), which had a queue that was worth waiting in. The venison pie, with local ingredients, was one of the tastiest pies I have eaten and had me coming back for an extra three to take away. The pastry was uniquely thin but crispy, the local venison was exceptionally tender and tasty and the herbs and spices complimented the meat fabulously. After this we continued our drive towards Queenstown, stopping briefly for Manuka Honey tasting along the way.
The drive towards Queenstown along Lake Wakatipu was picturesque. After winding along the lakeside, we soon faced mountains aptly named The Remarkables. These peaks were so uniquely rugged, angled and majestic that I believe the only mountains that could come close in appearance would have to be computer generated. Once we had stopped at almost every viewing point, we finally made our way to a highly recommended campsite a few minutes outside of Queenstown on the banks of Lake Hayes. Here we watched a beautiful sunset, which slipped below the mountains as we had the last mouthfuls of our dinner.
Day 5: Wide Lakes and Small Towns
Waking up to a still morning with the sun reflecting off the lake and the exquisite mountains in the background has remained a highlight of our trip. This was followed by a morning swim in the lake and our first expedition on our mountain bikes, which took us all the way around Lake Hayes.
After having breakfast, we drove towards the site of the oldest bungee jump in the world. We decided against a bungee jump however, choosing something a little more civilised: a trip to nearby Arrowtown; a trendy, charming little town which came into being as a result of the gold rush in New Zealand. This cultured little town is very appealing and we spent the rest of our afternoon there, lunching on local lamb, purchasing Icebreaker Merino products and, for the second time that day, taking a bike ride (this time along a river).
As the sun sunk lower in the sky, we departed Arrowtown and wound our way past Queenstown on a truly extraordinary drive along Lake Wakatipu to Glenorchy. Along the way we had sweeping views from a high elevation of the Remarkables, islands in the lake and pastel skies. Following this drive, we camped on the lakeside of Lake Wakatipu in Glenorchy in an isolated and again highly recommended campsite at the mouth of Rees River.
Day 6: Attacking the Mountains
After largely sightseeing the day before, we decided it was time for some active adventures again. Following an afternoon tea of scones and jam in an enchanting little café, we drove up to the start of the Mount Alfred walk, near the famed Routeburn track. This was a serious 6-hour hike up a very steep incline, but the view from the top was well worth the climb.
Sprawled below us was a 360-degree view of snow-capped mountains, the dry rugged Remarkables and the pristine waters of Lake Wakatipu. We had heard that Taylor Swift recently shot a music video up on this peak and we are eagerly anticipating seeing the results of the shoot (which we discovered was Out of the Woods, later to win Album of the Year at the Grammys). Incidentally, while we were up there we also found two guests arrive by helicopter at the summit, which demonstrated that there were certainly more leisurely ways to capture the views.
After our walk, we went back to one of our favourite campsites—Lake Hayes—stopping briefly in Queenstown for their culinary speciality—burgers. Here we picked up lamb burgers from Devil’s Burger, which is apparently just as good an establishment as Fergburger, but without the queues.
Day 7: From the City to the Starry Skies
By day seven we were fully conscious that our glamping trip was coming to an end, so we made sure to make the most of every moment. Once again after swimming in the pristine waters of Lake Hayes, we set off on our bikes for a full day in Queenstown. This is a town bustling with adventure, with offers from bungee jumps and paragliding to jet boating and white water rafting. Instead, we stuck to our bikes and took a leisurely ride along the lake. We also sampled the regional seafood and acquired further top quality merino garments and outdoor gear.
Having familiarised ourselves with a city again (which was more like a large village, to be accurate), we set off on one of the last legs of our journey: Queenstown to Lake Pukaki. On this drive we passed the rolling dusty hills of Lindis Valley, endless paddocks of sheep and deer, a rather unfortunate town called Twizel (this town I do not recommend entering – the service of the holiday park was particularly unsatisfactory), and the spectacular Lake Pukaki (which boasts views of Mount Cook and a captivating star-studded sky).
Day 8: A Dramatic Breakfast and Peaceful Evening
Once we woke up on our final full day, we realised what an exceptional campsite we had found ourselves in. Perched on the cliff face of Lake Pukaki, our campervan looked over azure glacial waters, which appeared to sweep to the foothills of Mount Cook. Eager to enjoy the view and the crystal clear day a little longer, we deciding to put into practice the idea that one should not compromise on good food when camping, preparing a fabulous breakfast at our site. The menu consisted of Manuka Crunch muesli from Clean Paleo with drizzles of The Collective yoghurt (gold medal NZ champions of cheese awards) and fresh mixed berries along with sourdough rolls from Fergbakery in Queenstown with avocado and a topping of local poached eggs.
Following breakfast, we swam at the lake, which was for me the most beautiful swim on our trip. We then made our way to Lake Tekapo and finally to a campsite at Lake Alexandrina, which was a peaceful scene, well off the beaten track. Our initial plan was to camp at Lake Tekapo itself. Home to one of the world’s famous observatories, this area, is well known for its beauty below as well as above. However, having seen the sky illuminated the night before and with predicted rain, we decided not to book the observatory and rather enjoyed a peaceful night down at the lake.
Day 9: Leaving the Wild and Preparing to Tackle the Urban Jungle
Although we were required to return our van in the early afternoon, we had driven close enough to Christchurch to enjoy a good part of the morning. A short bike ride, a tasty breakfast and a swim at Lake Tekapo was all we needed to gather the courage to say goodbye to our van.
Mike was waiting to greet us on arrival and this time our names were listed under “Arrivals”, quickly shaking us out of our states of denial that this was just another stop on our camping trip.
After sharing some stories with Mike we departed the Wilderness base feeling a deep level of satisfaction that can only arise from an extended adventure in an exquisite natural environment, far away from the artificial lights, sounds and cityscapes that we have all become far too accustomed to.
Wilderness Motorhomes: http://wilderness.co.nz
Fleur’s Place: http://www.fleursplace.com/
Miles Better Pies: http://www.milesbetterpies.co.nz/
Devil’s Burger: http://www.devilburger.com/menu.html
Clean Paleo Muesli: http://www.clean-paleo.com/
The Collective Dairy: http://www.thecollectivedairy.com/
Content: Rob Wetton