Day 78 – Milford Sound, New Zealand

If you think the South Island is beautiful, then you have to drive from Wanaka to Queenstown and to Milford Sound! My first activity was a day trip to Milford on the Kiwi bus and a cruise down to the Tasman Sea.

 

On the drive further south, our driver told us about the history and folk legends around Milford Sound. Milford is actually not a sound but a fiord, which by definition requires a glacier to carve out the edges into a sea or other large body of water. Also, Milford was the last of fourteen fiords to be discovered d/t the entrance being well-hidden by the overlapping cliffs from out at sea.

 

The drive started early in the morning with a few routine stops, and once the sun had come out, we made some photo stops on our way down. The first stop was to view the magnificent Misty Mountains from LOTR. After all the nerds finished taking our pictures, our new driver, took us to the Mirror Lakes since the weather was good enough to see the reflective surface.

 

Like Lake Matheson, the water at the Mirror Lakes reflects the mountains perfectly when there is no rain or wind disturbing the surface. We were lucky with our forecast since it normally rains at Milford 50% of the time.

 


After the lake, we drove through a tunnel, which opened up into a beautiful valley. It felt like we were entering a new world inside the national park. Our last stop was at The Chasm, which is part of the Cleddau River that comes down from the Darran Mountains. The current swirls the river against the huge stones and carves out a unique pattern. It reminded me of the soft edges of Antelope Canyon but with a river.

 

We arrived at the pier around 1pm, just in time to catch our cruise into Milford Sound. We had lunch on the catamaran and sailed down towards the Tasman Sea. From the boat you are just surrounded by steep cliff sides on both sides of you. 



There were some waterfalls that the boat took us up beside before turning around and returning to port. Milford was the perfect combination of crystal blue water, dramatic cliffs, and waterfalls. Needless to say, I was a very happy camper.

Day 77 – Queenstown, New Zealand


Happy Queenstown Day! We left Wanaka in the morning and started our journey to the much-anticipated Queenstown. 


Our first stop was at a place called Puzzling World, which is like the Wonder World in San Marcos. They have an illusion room and a giant 3-D maze outside, but I decided to have breakfast at the café and tackle some of the brain puzzles set out of the table.


After Puzzling World, we made another stop in a little town at a place called Mrs. Jones’ Fruit Shop where I bought a “real fruit ice cream,” which was vanilla soft serve with strawberries blended into a cup. It wasn’t super exciting but it was good and paired with the cold winter weather. We are now sitting in the low 30s (-2 to 0°C).

 

When we arrived in Queenstown, we made our final stop at AJ Hackett Bungy, named after the first man to invent the bungy jump. The office is located on the edge of a cliff and you can watch as people brave up the courage and jump off the bridge in front of you. Two of our passengers were jumping the same day so we watched from the observation desk while the other passengers paid for their various bungies and other extreme sport activities.


Queenstown is known as the Adventure Capital of the World, bungy jumps, canyon swings, sky dives, jet-boating, there is no shortage of adrenaline in this town. The town also sits on a beautiful lake and is surrounded by The Remarkables mountain range. I’m so glad I will be spending a week here, because there is so much to see and do and eat.

Day 76 – Wanaka, New Zealand

Everything is beautiful in the South Island! We left the Rainbow Retreat this morning at 0730 and arrived at Lake Matheson just after sunrise. I took a short walk to see the lake and marveled at the reflection of Mount Cook on the lake’s surface. The water in Lake Matheson is stained a dark brown/black color d/t the the dark tree bark in the area. Behind the lake is a beautiful backdrop of Mount Cook and Mount Tasman, the two tallest mountains in New Zealand.

After our stop at Lake Matheson, we had a quick photo-op of the Fox Glacier, the third largest glacier in New Zealand (even bigger than Franz Josef).

The next stop was a short walk to Thunder Creek Falls. As soon as I stepped off the bus, I immediately felt the temperature difference as it is getting colder. We are now more than halfway down the South Island and winter is becoming more and more apparent.

Our last scenic stop of the day was at Lake Hawea. The lake sits just outside of the town of Wanaka and is surrounded by beautiful mountains in every direction. The landscape around the South Island is probably one of the top reasons why New Zealand is quickly becoming my favorite country. The beauty of New Zealand is unlike anywhere else I’ve seen in the world, mostly because it remains untouched.


When we arrived in Wanaka, I dropped my bags off at the YHA and walked across the park to Lake Wanaka. The town is small but the backdrop is jaw-dropping with mountains and the huge lake just a stone’s throw from the main street.


We are leaving Wanaka tomorrow morning and heading to the much-anticipated, Queenstown, also known as the Adventure Capital of New Zealand. I’ve given myself an entire week to stay in Queenstown so I’m really looking forward to staying in the same place for a bit. However, it is also the point where I part ways with my friends from the Kiwi bus. After traveling with most of them since Auckland, it’s gonna be hard to say goodbye.

Day 75 – Franz Josef, New Zealand

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I feel great! Today was one of the highlights of my entire trip. I have been planning to hike the Franz Josef Glacier since I first saw it on Youtube last year. I even prepaid for my trip when I landed in Auckland, because I was so sure I wanted to do it. Our group consisted of nine of us from the Kiwi bus and another couple that joined us with our guide, Felicity.


We had our free breakfast at the hostel and walked over to the Franz Josef Glacier Guides hub to check-in, fill out our health waivers and suit up into all our gear. We had a quick introduction on how to put our crampons on our hiking boots (spikes for walking on ice) and walked to the helipad.

Part of the reason why I booked the heli-hike was because I have never been in a helicopter before. Flying between mountains and overlooking a glacier seemed like a pretty good place for my first helicopter flight, and it certainly did not disappoint. We had another safety briefing and then loaded up into two separate helicopters.

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If you look closely, you can see the tiny people and gives you a scale of how big the glacier is

Our actual flight to the glacier was short but very scenic. In the past, groups were able to climb directly onto the glacier but in 2012 part of the glacier collapsed so now the only way to access Franz Josef glacier is to fly onto it. This was probably my favorite part of the entire hike and at the end you get to fly back down and marvel at where you just were.

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This rock is as tall as the Eiffel Tower but looks small d/t lack of perspective

Once we landed on the ice, we applied our crampons and started to ascend to higher ground. The bottom of the glacier is mixed with dirt as it is quite active and moves approximately two meters per day. The ice at the top of the glacier is a magnificent blue color and there’s even a waterfall. The guides spend hours every day, chipping new trails into the ice and maintaining steps for their tours. Every day the glacier is changing and our guide, Felicity, was telling us that after a big rainfall the path can look completely different as new ice features emerge.

 

We spent about three hours traversing the glacier, squeezing through ice crevices and ascending and descending the manmade steps into the ice. We were lucky enough to have the best weather, as it was sunny and warm with clear skies for the entire hike. I had so much fun and the hike was not very strenuous at all. It was actually a lot of fun walking with crampons, which made walking way easier.

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After the hike, I got the window seat on the flight down and then we walked back to the hub to return our gear. Half our group left to do other activities and the other half went to a café for lunch. After lunch we went back to the hub to take advantage of our free access to the glacier hot pools, which were basically three huge hot tubs with the hottest one being around 40° C.

I had a nice and relaxing time in the hot pools before winding back down at the hostel. Tonight should be a good night because our hostel pub hosts an all-you-can-eat pizza night for dinner. Also, since we have two nights in Franz Josef, we are meeting up with the bus behind us where we’ll see some familiar faces from our tour that spend an extra night on the North Island.

Day 74 – Franz Josef, New Zealand

We were able to sleep in this morning because our bus wasn’t scheduled to leave Lake Mahinapua until 1130. I had a rough night because of all the alcohol-infused guests that were surrounding me. All in all, we had a good night of fun but a bad night of sleep. Oh well, I got over it.


We didn’t have too much driving today to cover to get to Franz Josef, so we only had one midday stop at a cafe. When we arrived at our next destination, half the bus stopped to attend a short briefing for tomorrow’s activity and then we piled back onto the bus to check-in to our new hostel.


After dropping our stuff in our room, Melanie and I had a very short walk around town (all of two streets) before returning the the hostel kitchen to make lunch. It seemed like everybody in the kitchen was cooking some sort of noodle or instant soup today. During our walk, we were pleasantly surprised to see the most vibrant rainbow in the sky that I’ve ever seen. It was so amazing to see the alpine mountains in the background with their tips covered in snow! Tonight will probably be a quiet night in the hostel for me because tomorrow morning I’ve got something really special planned. Stay tuned to find out!

Day 73 – Lake Mahinapua, New Zealand


It has been getting harder and harder to find some reliable wifi in New Zealand. Some of the places we have been staying at don’t even have cell phone reception. In a way, it’s great because it forces all the backpackers to get together and typically drink, but it’s also extremely inconvenient if you’re trying to maintain a daily blog.


After Abel Tasman, our first stop of the day was a short walk along the West Coast of the South Island to an area where there was a fur seal colony. We spent a few minutes watching the baby seals flop around on the rocks and then walked back to the bus, and I got a hot chocolate.


The other stop we made was in a little town where there was another walk to the Pancake Rocks. The Pancake Rocks are basically a series of rock formations that have been eroded by the ocean to reveal the flat layers of sediment that have been pressed together to look like a stack of pancakes.

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Me, Lin, and Melanie in our ABC-gear at Lake Mahinapua Hotel

We also made a stop in the town of Greymouth to the Warehouse store since the small town of Mahinapua is pretty much in the middle of nowhere between the beach and the lake. We needed to buy supplies for the evening because we planned to have an ABC-themed party at the hotel pub that night. We had a fun night at the Lake Mahinapua Hotel pub or “Poo Pub” for short.

Day 72 – Westport, New Zealand

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We left the Adventure Inn in Marahau this morning and caught up with the Kiwi bus to start our journey along the West Coast of the South Island. Our time in Abel Tasman/Kaitereri was short, so I only had enough time to see the beach for a moment before we left.

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Our next stop was one of my favorite scenic spots in New Zealand. Jared drove us to Lake Rotoiti to have a picnic lunch at the most picturesque lake I have ever seen. The water was freezing cold, but that didn’t stop four of our fellow passengers from jumping into the lake. Neither did the handful of eels swimming near the pier. The water was so crystal clear that you could see straight down to the bottom.

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Most of the group had bread to feed the ducks and black swans, but I had a chicken, cranberry, and brie panini an hour prior so I just watched as a few passengers tried to scoop up the ducks for a photo. The lake was surrounded by beautiful snow-capped mountains. It literally looked like it came straight out of a postcard. New Zealand is filled with beautiful scenery but especially in the South. Sometimes when we are driving on the winding roads, I want to close my eyes and sleep, but I also don’t want to miss the landscapes that we pass.

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Proof that Lake Rotoiti is a real-life place and that I was actually there

We arrived in Westport around 5:30pm and checked-in to our hostel. Since it’s officially winter, the past few towns that we have visited have been pretty quiet. During the summer, businesses are booming with travelers from around the world. But the winter is typically quiet and tends to be cheaper, which helps my budget.

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After dinner, we went to a small pub off the Main Street to watch the rugby match. For those that don’t know, rugby is a sport similar to “American football” minus the helmet and gear. Since most of the passengers on the bus are from England, they typically go for the Lions, who tonight played against the Maori All Blacks. It’s an interesting sport, but my favorite part is still when the NZ team perform the haka in the beginning.

Day 71 – Abel Tasman, New Zealand

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We had to meet the bus at 0730 this morning from Wellington to catch the Interislander ferry to the South Island. The ferry is a ten-story ship, around the same size as a small cruise ship. We spent the entire three-hour journey in the cafe and tried to catch up on some sleep.

When we finally arrived in Picton on the South Island, our driver, Jared, drove us to a winery for a $5 wine tasting. I bought a bottle of Pinot noir to bring to our next hostel for $10. We had another stop in Nelson for a supermarket visit and then continued the drive to Abel Tasman.

Tonight we are staying in the Adventure Inn in Marahau. The hostel is owned by an ex-Kiwi Experience bus driver. We are staying in a small house, and it’s quite nice and home-y. We had a home-cooked dinner and freshly baked cookies for dessert. Behind the house is the community area that is currently being built up but has pool tables, wood-burning fireplace and a cinema.

Day 70 – Wellington, New Zealand

We didn’t arrive in Wellington until after 6pm, but we had a full day of traveling under our belts. We started this morning just before 10am, still sleepy from last night’s fire alarm debacle. We had breakfast at the lodge and then took a short walk along the river to a nearby waterfall.


As we waited for the small groups of rafters and horse trekkers to return, the rest of the passengers stayed in the main area for a bit. After lunch, we loaded up the bus and drove about two hours into town.


On the drive to Wellington, our driver put on 22 Jump Street for us to watch on the bus. When we arrived into the capital city of New Zealand, it was already nighttime and the shops were beginning to close. After we checked-in to our hostel for the evening, we took a not-so-short stroll around the city and made it back in time for the free dinner at the hostel pub. We have an early morning departure to catch the ferry to the South Island tomorrow, so I’m just taking the night to do laundry and organize my stuff in preparation.


The constant action-packed pace of the North Island has come to an end, and I think I will enjoy the beautiful sceneries and long drives in the next bit.

Day 69 – River Valley, New Zealand

This morning we left Taupo and drove south towards River Valley. We made a stop inside Tongariro National Park where I decided to go on the 2-hour walk to Taranaki Falls.


On the trail, I was accompanied by Melanie, a PA from Massachusetts, and we spent a majority of the time referencing LOTR scenes while looking at the beautiful scenery that surrounded us. The walk consisted of wooded areas, open fields, and picturesque glimpses of “Mount Doom” in the background.


It took us the full two hours to complete the trail because we kept wanting to stop and take pictures and really soak in the moments. On the way back, it was getting so cold and I was getting really hungry, as it was past lunchtime. I grabbed a hot panini from the cafe before we left and headed to River Valley.


The road to River Valley was long and winding. I had to pop some ginger tablets to counteract the motion sickness. I also brought some peppermint essential oil that works really well. When we arrived at the River Valley Lodge, we unloaded all the bags from the bus into a van and walked down the hill to our accommodation.


There is no phone signal or wifi at River Valley Lodge, so the thirty or so passengers all spent the evening inside by the fire after the delicious roast dinner. For dinner, they served us roasted vegetables, potatoes, cabbage and cheese and tender beef with gravy. It was also the first time that I’ve tried Yorkshire pudding, which is basically like a light fried biscuit from England.


I went back to my room around 11pm and fell asleep until nearly 4am when the fire alarm went off. The six of us in the room emptied and headed back into the main area to see what was going on. It only took about five minutes to get sorted out and we all immediately climbed back into our warm beds.