When I started to think about this article, a bunch of titles came to mind (for once!). Amongst those were…
“Panoramic Paradise”: This title seemed more than appropriate because, with so many vast spaces and breathtaking vistas in New Zealand, we totally went overboard using the “panorama” function on our camera, loading about a million photos on our memory card every day.
“New Zealand – Canada of the South”: I’m sure I’m not the only one who has come to the conclusion that New Zealand is basically the Canada of the southern hemisphere. Our two countries have so much in common! Both Canadians and Kiwis have a reputation for being some of the friendliest people on Earth. We both have stunninģg mountains to boast about, are accustomed to cold weather (to different degrees) and are used to paying an insane amount of money for groceries. I mean, where else on this planet would you agree to buy a bell pepper for 4$ a piece?
In the end, I settled on “Land of Fire & Ice” because that is what New Zealand is: a land carved and shaped, even today, by these forces of nature. Thousands of years ago, volcanic eruptions and movements in the Earth’s tectonic plates formed what are now known as the islands of New Zealand. During the ice ages, enormous glaciers thousands of meters thick gouged at the terrain to form fjords, valleys and lakes of the utmost beauty. Today, earthquakes occur frequently in New Zealand. Some, like the one that hit Kaikoura in November of 2016 with a magnitude of 7.8, are stronger than others and result in whole sections of land both above and under the water to permanently rise or fall.
We spent a month in New Zealand which was enough for us to explore most of the South Island and see a bit of the North Island. We saw so many beautiful things that I started to run out of superlative adjectives when writing in my diary… everything was stunning, magnificent, extraordinary. That being said, here are a few my favorite places and things seen along the way.
The Southern Alps
These mountains run right down the South Island, from North to South. In many ways, they resemble the Canadian Rockies: giant frosted summits with edges so sharp they could have been carved with a razor blade. At 3,724m, Aoraki/Mt-Cook towers over neighbouring Fox and Franz-Joseph glaciers, ancient remnants of the last ice age who are unfortunately receding fast. At their feet lay stunning lakes, namely Lake Wakatipu whose crystalline waters are reportedly the second cleanest in the world. Standing on a small stony beach at the edge of the lake, it was actually hard to see where the water started, hard to differentiate between those pebbles that were submerged and those that weren’t.
Although I have to say it is really hard to compete with Alberta’s Icefield Parkway, I must admit that the Southern Alps are home to some of the most scenic drives I’ve seen.
Fjorland National Park
Fjordland contains great examples of landscapes carved by ice with an abundance of lakes, valleys and, you guessed it, fjords. Milford Sound is one of those fjords and we were astoundingly lucky to visit it without seeing a drop of rain (this place gets an average of 7m of rain a year!). Unfortunately, our photos don’t render the beauty and magnitude of these sheer rock cliffs, rising hundreds of meters out of the water and covered in cascading water so you’ll just have to go visit it yourself to see exactly what I’m talking about.
Kaikoura is a charming village built on a peninsula overlooking the ocean. It is home to tiny blue penguins, whales, seals and Dusky dolphins. We actually had the chance to swim around with the dolphins which was an amazing experience! For that reason alone, Kaikoura would have made my list of favorite places in New Zealand, but it also happens to have stunning views on both snow capped mountains and the ocean all at the same time, which is rare in the world.
Rotorua & Wai-O-Tapu
These two places are known for their impressive geothermal activity. Boiling hot springs, steam coming out of cracks in the ground, geysers and multicolored pools: the manifestations of the underground volcanic activity are numerous and oh so interesting!
One cannot go to New Zealand without taking an interest in Maori culture. It is a strong and formidable heritage that preaches a profound respect for the environment as well as one’s ancestry. What is beautiful to see is how socially integrated the people from Maori descent are and how important it is to everyone to maintain their art, beliefs and customs alive and intact. I think New Zealand is a good example of coexistence between First Nation and settler descendants.
We visited the small Maori village of Whakarewarewa, where people have learned to live with the benefit and danger of the having constant volcanic activity beneath their feet. The benefits are numerous. Here, food is traditionally steamed in ovens shared by the whole village or quickly boiled in the natural hot springs. The water being extremely rich in minerals is believed to have healing purposes for anyone who bathes in it. The hot water also provides heated floors and a central heating system!
What should have made the list…
Tongariro National Park
Had we had the opportunity to hike through Tongariro, a.k.a. Mordor for the Lord of the Rings fans out there, I’m sure it would have made my highlights list. Unfortunately, we were stuck right in the middle of the worst snow storm the North Island had seen in 10 years. The Tongariro region was paralyzed: roads were closed to circulation and power lines were broken down, causing the power to go out for a couple of days. As a Canadian, I had a hard time conceptualizing how 15cm of snow could cause so much disruption. It was also bizarre to see a snowstorm in the middle of July! Luckily, we happened to be caught somewhere with a fireplace and bacon sandwiches so our snow day was much more comfortable than if we had been stuck in a cold, damp and dark camper van.
All in all, we had an amazing time discovering New Zealand in our campervan. With so much rugged beauty concentrated in a relatively small area and a geologic features so unique it would make anyone want to become an amateur geologist, this destination should be at the top of any nature lover’s bucket list.