Why are they hiding this incredible country at the end of the world? The nature is unbelievable with beautiful coastlines, mountain ranges, glaciers, waterfalls and much much more. And the people are unbelievably friendly as well. My only regret is that I could only stay for one month, I would have loved to stay longer.
My journey started in Auckland, which is the largest city in New Zealand with over a million inhabitants. Which is quite a lot considering that all of New Zealand only has a population of 4,5 million. For that reasons many Kiwis don’t really like the city as it is just so much bigger than anything else. But I actually thought it wasn’t all that bad. Aucklands city centre revolves mostly around Queenstreet where all the shops are located and which also leads down to the harbour. The harbour area is actually quite nice with a lot of bars and restaurants but most importantly a great view of the city skyline. Guess where I spent my evening down there.
But it wouldn’t be New Zealand if there wasn’t some nature around even in the city. You can walk up Mt. Eden, the highest of the many volcanoes Auckland is build on. It is a nice short walk and you have great views of the city while being away from all the bustle. That’s a definite recommendation if you have some time to kill in Auckland as there isn’t much else to do.
That’s why I spent one of my days in Auckland in middle earth actually. Hobbiton is just a two hour drive outside of the city. Of course it is overly touristic and way too expensive but come on if you are in New Zealand you have to visit the shire. And in the end I actually liked it. I haven’t even seen all of the Hobbit movies and the last time I watched The Lord of the Rings is also some time ago. But it’s still quite interesting to see how the sets of such a big production actually work. It’s incredible how many small details have to be considered in order to make a movie great. Oh and in the end you will get a free beer and free beer makes every day perfect.
It was then finally time to leave Auckland for the far north and Pahia in the Bay of Islands. It’s a beautiful rough coastline with beaches and rainforests and waterfalls. My first encounter with the New Zealand nature and I’m already in love and want to see a lot more. The Bay carries the name Bay of Islands for good reasons, from my hostel right on the mainstreet of Pahia you could see all the small islands that spread out over the bay and there are a lot of them. Another must see when you are in the country.
Unfortunately the weather wasn’t all that great so instead of exploring the islands by ferry in storm I went and visited the Waitomo Treaty Grounds. This is a place of historical significance where the treaty between the European settlers and the native Maori was signed. Well ok that might not sound all that interesting to look at but what was interesting was the cultural performance. We gathered in the meeting house and a group of Maori explained their culture and performed a number of traditional dances like the Haka. A really cool experience and some great pictures.
Another bad weather recommendation for the area are the glowworm caves. Glowworms are small insects that mostly live in dark caves where they attract their prey with their glowing body. An incredible sight, it looks like thousands of stars in the darkness of the cave. Unfortunately you couldn’t take any pictures so I have nothing to show for. To explore the Bay of Islands I joined a 3-day trip with Haka-Tours which I can highly recommend. We were a small group with an amazing guide. That made for a rather flexible schedule and we could see whatever we wanted.
Since rental-cars are way to expensive in New Zealand to afford on my own I then joined a Stray-Bus to explore the rest of the two islands. While I sometimes wished for a bit more flexibility where I wanted to go and what I wanted to see it was still a great way to see as much as possible in the very limited time I had left. I would have loved to stay longer in the big cities which Stray mostly skips but than again you will see some amazing places in the middle of nowhere you could never find on your own.
The first stop was in Raglan, the surf capital of New Zealand. Here’s where I learned how to surf and by learned I mean I had one lesson. And by surf I meant I spent some time in the ocean with a board. I only managed to stand up once for a fraction of a second. Still it was great fun although very demanding and I know that this is something I really have no talent for. Hey but you never know if you don’t try. I rather stick to my camera and captured the great sunset from the viewpoint of the hostel.
After Raglan it got really interesting as we went to Mourea to learn more about the Maori culture. It was very cool to get a more personal contact and actually learn the Haka. Although it wasn’t as good for photos as it was up in Pahia. All the demonstrations took place in a rather boring looking multipurpose hall as the traditional meeting room was used to house all of the passengers. 40 people in one room, definitely the largest dorm I stayed in during the whole trip.
Now it was time for some action as I went to Rotorua. Here I went caving in the Waitomo Caves. You abseil waterfall up to 18m below ground and squeeze through tiny holes to see some really cool glowworms. A one of a kind experience followed by something even more crazy: Zorbing. A zorb is a big inflatable ball, you get inside of it and they roll you down a mountain. No one knows exactly why they are doing it but it’s completely crazy and great fun.
I stayed longer in Rotorua than normally planned by stray not only to do the crazy action stuff but also to see the geothermal activities in Wai-O-Tapu. That’s where you have all the geysers, hot springs, mud pools and lakes in all sort of crazy colours. The highlight here is the champagne pool, the biggest of the hot springs known for it’s green water and orange lining around it. Oh and all the smoke coming from it of course which makes for great photo but makes everything smell like sulfur for days.
Stray says to bring you further of the beaten path and that’s definitely what happened the next couple of days. First was another cultural experience at Lake Aniwhenua. This time it was more about learning more on modern day Maori...and eating some great food. That evening they prepared a traditional Maori earth oven which basically meant burying the food and hot rocks underneath a layer of dirt and letting it sit for a couple of hours. The meat tastes amazing.
While that was already far off the civilization the next stop, Blue Duck Station, was truly in the middle of nowhere. Blue Duck Station is a farm dedicated to conservation and protection the native wildlife most importantly the blue duck. It’s a bird actually more endangered and scarce than the Kiwi and I managed to see and photograph one. I might look like a rock but that’s their defence against predators. Beside looking at ducks you can also enjoy all other kinds of nature, I went for a kayak-trip on a beautiful river for example. I had a great time at a place I would have never found on my own if I hadn’t chosen to go with stray.
But now it was time for some adventure and not just any kind of adventure, I’m talking about Mordor here. Well at least the location where they filmed lots of if and the actual Mt. Doom from the movies. To see all of this you have to walk the Tongariro Alpine crossing, a 19,4 km hike along one of the most surreal volcanic landscapes I have ever seen. It was a demanding hike but the weather was perfect and the views unbelievable. Unfortunately I didn’t went up Mt. Doom as I’m just not fit enough and I had a fixed pick-up time for the shuttle which meant there wasn’t enough time. But I did went up the summit of Mt. Tongariro which is even cooler for a photographer as you can perfectly see Mt. Doom from here. This hike is something you just have to do while you are in New Zealand. I was never much of a hiker but this was such a great experience. Well except for the last two hours which you just spend walking down a mountain in serpentines and the end just doesn’t seem to come any closer.
Anyways that was a lot of nature so I was kind of happy to be back in a city for a change when we went to Wellington. The surprisingly small capital of New Zealand and a beautiful city by the sea. For a capital city it has a lot of charm to it and I would have loved to stay longer. But my time is very limited and I could just stay for the night before I had to get on the ferry early the next morning to get to the south island.
Everyone always says that while the north island is really beautiful the south island is even better. They are right. And i guess the best way to see this beauty is by jumping out of an airplane at 16.500 feet. At least that’s what I did once I arrived in Abel Tasman. While it was expensive doing a skydive is just something you have to do at least once in your life. I can’t even put in words how incredible the feeling of jumping out of that airplane is. You’re so full of adrenaline while racing towards to earth at incredible speeds, it’s the best.
Besides skydiving Abel Tasman also has fantastic nature to offer. The next day I went for a walk along the coastal trek which takes you from one beautiful beach to another while walking through the rainforest. It’s definitely one of the most beautiful places I have visited on my trip (I know I keep saying that a lot but New Zealand is just so impressive).
Well ok the next stop wasn’t all that impressive. We had to spent the night in Westport on our way to the Franz Josef Glacier. It’s just a normal and rather boring town on the west coast. While the town itself was boring the stops before and after were quite cool. On the way to Westport we stopped at a seal colony and although the weather wasn’t all the great I got some cool photos once I spotted the seals among the rocks.
On the way from Westport to Franz Josef we stopped at the Pancake Rocks. Some rather cool rock formations that actually look like stacked pancakes and some blowholes that look like they are steaming if the waves hit them just right. But then it was finally time for the Franz Josef Glacier. This was one the places in New Zealand I was looking forward to the most.It is actually the most accesible glacier in the world as you can just take a helicopter up to the top where you then go and explore the ice. You can imagine my disappointment when the flight got cancelled due to bad weather. So I couldn’t go up and the only thing left to do was take a walk along the valley to catch some views on the glacier from below. It was nice but not as cool as going up there would have been.
The bad weather continued on to our next stop: Lake Wanaka. A rather nice town right between mountains and a huge lake often called the less touristy version of Queenstown. But the most important sight for my was the Wanaka tree, a small tree standing inside the lake and a holy place for every landscape photographer. I knew I had to photograph it and once I found out it’s just a short walk outside the city centre I was surprised as it always look like it stands in the middle of nowhere but also glad I could easily go there for sunset and sunrise. I got really lucky with the sunset. It look really grey and was even raining for a bit, a lot of the other photographers already left the spot, but then right after sunset the light broke through and turned the sky beautiful. I took of my pants and walked into the lake for what turned out to be one of the best photos I took on this trip.
And now it was finally time for Queenstown, the adventure capital of the world. What’s the best way to celebrate your arrival in the town? That’s right by jumping of a bridge. Not just any bridge but the 43m high bridge where the world’s first commercial bungy was started. The bungy was a lot more impressive than the skydive. You actually see the ground and your whole body knows that something is wrong with jumping down there and that’s what makes it so cool. I never had so much adrenaline in my body, I was pumped for hours to come. So I guess it was the right decision to end the day on a relaxing sunset cruise on the lake. Although it was raining and there was no sunset.
I only spent one night in Queenstown before I had to head further down to see the deep south. This area is widely known for its fjords and the Milford Sound. That’s where mountains sit basically directly in the sea. Well the weather didn’t really play along so I couldn’t see any of the mountains but the Sounds were still rather impressive. You might have less of a view when it’s raining but what you see is even more impressive. Thousands of waterfalls form everywhere along the mountains for a spectacle you can’t really describe. Oh and by the way it wasn’t any surprise that it was raining while I was there as this is the rainiest place in the world.
The night was spent at Gunns Camp, a workers camp from the 1940s which to be honest hasn’t changed all that much since back then. No electricity and the cabin was heated by a wood oven. A great experience I would have never had on my own. We then spent another day along the far south coastline which reminded me a lot of Ireland, except that it’s bigger and a lot emptier. Oh and the sea lions of course. You don’t really have those in Ireland. And we met some Kia birds, native to New Zealand and they like to hang around the car parks hoping for tourists to feed them. So a lot of interesting animals in the deep south.
When we came back into Queenstown after three days the rain was finally gone and the sun was shining. I was so happy after all that time in the rain. But instead of doing another adrenaline fuelled activity I opted for something calmer and most importantly free. I walked up the Queenstown Hill. That’s a small mountain just outside the city which offers great views over the lake and the city itself. With the perfect weather the views were incredible and definitely worth the hike. The most important part happened again in the evening when I went out to the lake with my camera to shoot the sunset. The colors and clouds were really good making for a great picture after all those rather grey shots in the rain.
Now it was time to make our way back up north as I have a flight leaving from Auckland shortly. But first we stopped at my personal favorite place of New Zealand. Mt. Cook, the highest mountain in New Zealand and one of the darkest places in the world. You can’t hike up the mountain as it is rather high but I walked to the Hooker Lake from which you have the best view of the mountain. I already liked those pictures but then the sun set and from down the street from the hostel you actually had a great view of the mountain for a great picture. But wait there’s even more. Mt. Cook National Park is one of the darkest places in the world and the sky was perfectly clear which meant I just had to go out there and shot the stars. It was worth it, the milky-way photo was one of the best I ever took. Being so far off of everything does have its benefits.
This awesome experience was followed by the biggest disappointment in the Stray schedule: Rangitata. It’s not even a town, it’s a rafting place in the middle of nowhere. It might be fun if you take the two hour rafting trip but I didn’t and there was really nothing else to do. All the other places off the beaten path were at least surrounded by incredible nature so you could go for some hikes. But this places there was just nothing and you are forced to stay there. I would have rather stayed at Mt. Cook another night or went straight through into Christchurch which by the way was completely skipped by the bus. It might not be the most interesting city but still it would have been more interesting than a wasted day in Rangitata.
But it got better after we skipped through Christchurch we arrived in Kaikoura, the marine wildlife capital of the world. They’ve got all sorts of wildlife imaginable and most importantly whales and dolphins. I went out on a whale watching trip and it was so worth it. We saw hundreds of dolphins jumping around the boat. It was crazy but not even the highlight of the tour. The highlight was the gigantic male sperm whale we got to see two times. Those whales usual go on deep water fishing trips for about 45min before they have to resurface and that’s when you can trek them. They spend up to 10min on the surface catching their breath before going diving again. It might not be as actionpacked like the fast moving dolphins but just seeing this gigantic animal is amazing. Then the most important part for every photographer happened, he goes down again and shows his tail, that’s the photo everyone wants to get.
Well and that’s basically the end of my New Zealand adventure. We just drove all the way up the coast to the Ferry taking us back to the north island again and then it’s just a long 10 hour drive to Auckland. Well ok we did see some seals along the way so it wasn’t all that boring. After all I had a great time in New Zealand and I really have to come back at some point with more time to see even more of the country. My way of traveling here in the guided bus tour was completely different than how I normally travel and while it was great fun with amazing people I probably wouldn’t do it again. I just prefer to be a bit more independent. But to see as much as possible in a short time this is still the way to go. Here are some more pictures from New Zealand as I leave the country and the continent and move on to Hawaii for some new adventures.