Like many Kiwi’s living abroad, I jumped at the opportunity to escape the madness of COVID-19 just before it peaked (the first time at least). I returned to the relative sanctuary of my homeland just hours before the quarantine enforcement came in. I then watched from a distance for the next few months as the carnage gripped the rest of the world, leaving our isolated Islands to appear more utopian than ever.
We Live in the Most Beautiful Country on Earth – Let’s Explore it!
I left New Zealand 10 years ago – originally with the intention of spending 6 months in Australia. After seven years and many failed attempts at making my fortune, I then made a slightly more culturally shocking move to Germany. Where, almost on a daily basis, I face the question (asked more as an accusation): “Was machts du in Deutschland?!” Germans love New Zealand, and whether they’ve been or not seems to be irrelevant. New Zealand must be paradise. In typical German style, those who have visited Aotearoa make a strict itinerary and methodically tick off every possible natural attraction along the way – making sure it’s an equal balance of fun and education, of course. For many (not just Germans) this is a dream holiday. An absolute once in a lifetime trip to the world’s most stunning country. Yet, we Kiwi’s have access to this natural beauty day in day out, and we fail to appreciate it or, worse, haven’t even explored it.
I was as guilty of this as anyone. A fact that I started to become embarrassed about when explaining to my well-traveled German friends, for example, that I’d never been to Milford Sound. A confession which often caused them to choke on their bratwurst (definitely should have picked a different German food). Faced with the prospect of this trauma for the indefinite future, and after 6 weeks being locked up with my brother and parents, I decided to right this wrong as soon I was legally able to.
New Zealand is Best Discovered by Road
When the drop to level 2 came I was ready with a campervan from Tui Campers, my camera, and drone. It was time to do a South Island road trip and see what all the fuss is about. For the next few weeks, I was on the road. On my own. I didn’t miss a sunset or sunrise, I drove over 4,000km, developed un unhealthy ability to converse with myself, and genuinely had one of the best trips of my life.
I’ve created a Google map highlighting all the best accommodation and photo locations on my trip, check it out below!
I’m from the Bay of Plenty. I like warm weather and beaches. Ok, so I’m from Rotorua, admittedly not famous for its beaches. But, still, when my parents announced they were selling up to move to Christchurch I was less than impressed. So, upon my return to New Zealand for the start of lockdown, I was forced to settle into the spare room at their place. Christchurch is where this trip begins.
Ok, I lied. My parents told me they’d moved to Christchurch, but by the time the horse carriage dropped me off from the airport in Prebbleton, I realised I’d been had. It’s a bit like buying a house in Huntly and telling your family to come visit you in Auckland. One day, before slipping into a Prebblton induced boredom coma, I decided to find the shortest straight line to the coast. That’s how I found my way to Taumutu Beach. This beach is less than 30 mins from Christchurch, but not a single person I met in Christchurch had ever heard of it. During my stay I visited this beach 6 times, one or two of those may have been during lockdown (sorry, Aunty Cindy), and saw another human once. Not counting my brother, who came with me one of those times, but arguably wouldn’t be classed as human anyway.
That’s one difference you become aware of pretty quickly if you’ve ever visited beautiful beaches around the world (particularly Europe); it’s almost impossible to get to the water without stepping on 300 different body parts and receiving insults in more languages than you knew existed. But in New Zealand after an hour you start to fear that the rapture has just taken place and you, as the worst person on earth, are the only one left behind.
Godley Head Track
The Godley Head track is a loop starting from either Taylor’s Mistake Beach or up in the hills at the Godley Head carpark. I started at the top in the hope that I’d find a ride back up. I didn’t. The track takes you around the edge of the cliffs at the inlet to Lyttelton Harbour, past the old WWII defense battery, and descends down along the rocky coastline, past some colourful old fisherman’s baches, and onto Taylor’s Mistake Beach. The full loop is 8km and should take a normal person 2.5-3 hours.
A beautiful secluded beach and Christchurch’s premier surf break – I recently did a week of surf lessons in France, so I speak with some authority on the matter. Actually, I have no idea what I’m talking about, but there were waves and people standing up on them. Plus that’s what the Christchurch City Council website says. Seriously, though, the beach is beautiful. There’s a surf club and even good coffee (at least in summer), plus it’s super close to the city – well worth the extra 5-minute drive from Sumer, in my opinion.
Waimakariri River Mouth
A 30-minute drive to the north of the city, the Waimakariri River mouth at Kairaki is one of the best places in the region to watch the sunrise. Steam rises off the river and mixes with the sea spray from the relentless pounding of the Pacific Ocean. Through the morning haze, you have the Port Hills and Banks Peninsular to your right, and the Kaikoura Ranges off in the distance to your left. Turns out it’s also a popular fishing spot – if you’ve got a 4WD you can drive right up to the waters’ edge and cast a line.
The West Coast
The only time I’d ever been to the West Coast before this trip was when I was 11 and the best memory I have was catching a Salmon in a hatchery in Hokitika. I knew this was going to be hard to top, so I came prepared for disappointment.
I guess 11 year old me paid a little less attention to natural beauty, because this whole region is absolutely stunning, and probably even more memorable than a vacuum-packed Salmon. The Southern Alps rise straight up from the Tasman Sea to over 3,700m in a space of less than 40km. This dramatic rise is what causes the land in between to record some of the highest rainfall levels in the world. I get it. Rainfall isn’t always what you’re looking for on a trip, but this isn’t the kind of place you come for a relaxing beach holiday. What appeals about the West Coast is how wild it is. It is truly an untouched, untamed part of the country, covered in lush, native rainforest and bordered by a wild, unpredictable Tasman Sea.
Wild and Untamed
Just to give you an idea of how sparsely populated this part of the country is: The West Coast region is larger than Israel – admittedly not famous for being large, but the population of Isreal? Nearly 9 million. The population of the West Coast? 32,000! – Even Slovenia, also smaller than the West Coast, and famous for being one of the most forested and least densely populated countries in Europe, has over 2 million people. If you ever need to get away from the world and experience a landscape that has remained largely unchanged for the entire existence of humanity, this is the place.
My suggestion; if you have any interest in photography or nature, get someone else to do the driving. Chances are you’ll drive yourself off a cliff otherwise. Owing to my complete lack of friends, I didn’t have that as an option. So I just stopped every 35 meters to snap off some shots and spent roughly 7 years driving the length of the coast.
Whether you recognize the name or not, you’ve likely seen photos of this incredible lake. It’s world-famous for having perfectly calm water, offering a mirror-reflection of New Zealand’s two highest peaks – Aoraki/ Mount Cook & Mount Tasman. The lake is often so calm because it’s small and well sheltered by hills, and the perfect reflections are due to the brown water (romantic, I know) which is a result of tannins in the runoff from the surrounding native bush.
I’d read reviews about this place being a hot-spot for ‘grammers’ – how they get in the way with their ridiculous poses and ruin the experience, but I was there for sunset and sunrise and saw a total of 6 other people walking the trail. On both occasions, I had the viewing platforms to myself. Cheers, Corona.
The track around the lake is about an hour of easy walking, offering multiple viewpoints and some beautiful native bush. Unfortunately, despite the amazing views, Lake Matheson will always be remembered as the place where my makeshift quick-release strap failed and my camera fell into the water, rendering it almost useless for the remainder of my trip.
Stop here for the best photos.
I’m guessing you’ve never heard of Ship Creek. Neither had I until I pulled into a car park and saw the name on a small signpost. I was looking for a place to stop quickly, and hopefully, catch a view of the sea before heading inland. Instead, I found a disgustingly scenic beach which I had to myself for the afternoon. This is another thing I love about NZ – anywhere else in the world Ship Creek itself would be a tourist attraction, but here it’s signposted as a rest stop on the way to other locations. A place to relieve yourself and get back on the road. Then, as if the view wasn’t enough, Hectors Dolphins started surfing the waves in front of me. You know, just the rarest Dolphins in the world. Apparently not an uncommon occurrence around here. My rest stop turned into a frantic 3-hour photo session and it was dark by the time I hit the road again.
A couple of other recommendations:
Aoraki/ Mount Cook National Park
New Zealand’s highest peak and training ground for the first man to climb Everest, Aoraki dominates the landscape of the Canterbury High Country. This iconic peak doesn’t get the publicity it deserves – I’m pretty confident most people reading this have never been close enough to truly appreciate it. All three of you should be ashamed. Mount Cook Village is located 65km from Twizel. A casual 45 minute drive that takes you along the western edge of Lake Pukaki, providing stunning views the entire way. From the village you have direct access to the walking tracks, Hermitage Hotel and campgrounds. My recommendations:
Hooker Valley Track
The Hooker Valley Track is probably the most well known of the tracks in the area. It’s a 3-hour return track which takes you right to the edge of the Hooker Lake where you can get possibly the best unobstructed view of Mount Cook that exists. The walk is mostly flat and easy, with some vertigo-inducing swing bridge crossings thrown in for good measure.
Sealy Tarns Track (Meuller Hut)
Regarded as the stairway to heaven (emphasis on stairway), this was the highlight of the National Park for me. Though I couldn’t go all the way to Mueller hut because of COVID rules at the time, the walk to the Sealy Tarns viewpoint is still an epic hike with a view that was well worth the effort. It only takes a couple of hours – depending on how many ‘photo’ (breathing) stops you make – but it’s two hours of solid uphill. 2,000 steps apparently, I lost count at 39 – about when I had to start focusing all my attention on breathing. This hike was the first place I ever encountered our elusive native parrot, the Kea! A group of them followed me, making cheeky comments about my slow progress for about half an hour – equal parts embarrassing and thrilling.
Remember, this is an alpine hike, so go prepared and check the forecast. Check out the DOC website for more info and to book the cabin at Meuller Hut.
Tasman Glacier Track
If you’re short on time, or energy, this is the walk for you. The DOC website says the walk to the lake edge is an hour return, but if you’re under 93 it shouldn’t be. It’s an easy walk right up to the lake edge where you can do boat and kayak trips. Or, if you’re like me (poor), take a Bialetti and make a coffee with glacier water then hang around getting scared in the dark while you do some astrophotography and question why you came here alone.
I spent two nights at Glentanner getting hot showers and recharging everything. The facilities were great, and the layout amongst the trees is perfect. Highlight, though, was chatting to an Austrian guy who was trapped here during the lockdown. Although trapped is probably not the right word, he spends 6 months of every year in New Zealand enjoying the peace and natural beauty. For dinner, he caught a trout in Lake Pukaki every day and I doubt there was anywhere else he’d rather have been.
- Fill up on gas before you get to Mount Cook Village. There’s one little petrol pump in the village, but they charge at least one vital organ per litre. You can easily fill up for half the price in Twizel.
- For the famous view you’ve seen on the cover of every AA map since 1972 stop at Peter’s Lookout, about halfway along the road to Mount Cook Village.
Best Freedom Camping Spot in the Country
I’m going to make a bold statement: the Mackenzie region was the highlight of this trip for me. There is surely no place in New Zealand as underrated as the Mackenzie. Home to New Zealand’s highest peak, some of our best day-hikes, world-class stargazing, and the impossibly blue waters of Lake Pukaki. Also, surely the country’s best spot for (legal) freedom camping.
As a photographer maybe it’s the teal and orange colours that appeal to me, but there’s definitely something about the dry, barren landscape, framed by snow-capped peaks and reflected in icy blue water. It’s a photographer’s paradise. Not to mention what happens after the sun goes down. Wait, that doesn’t sound right. I’m talking about the stars. There’s a reason they call the main road here the Starlight Highway. The night sky in the Mackenzie is absolutely next level, and worth a trip all on its own. If I had friends I would have lit a fire, roasted some marshmallows, and spent the night gazing at the stars talking about friend stuff.
I’m gonna throw in a little plug here, too, for Hydro Cafe in Twizel. In a place like this, you could easily get away with Nespresso-style pod coffee and microwave food – there’s not a lot of competition. I had coffee/breakfast here three mornings in a row (under the pretense of ‘supporting local’ – really I just wanted to steal electricity). The food was great, and it was the best flat white I’ve had since returning to NZ (I’ve worked as a barista in Australia and Germany for the past 8 years, so unlike with surfing I do have some knowledge).
Despite my love for the outdoors and photography, hiking isn’t something I’ve done a lot of. Just carrying my own body weight on flat ground is challenging enough for these chicken legs, let alone going uphill with 20kg of camera equipment. Okay, 10kg. Regardless, I was dreading Roy’s peak. Not just because of the 1,000m climb, but because I knew I’d have to get up at 4 am, in the middle of winter, to do it. As a photographer, it’s absolutely pointless to walk up in broad daylight and get shots in the harsh sun of midday. If you’re going to do it, do it properly. Needless to say the 2.5 hour ascent was a dark and painful one. But, wow, was it worth it. Watching the sunrise beyond Lake Wanaka and the Alps, with the fog swirling around me, was an experience I’ll never forget. And, once again, in a place famous for being packed with dickheads taking selfies, I was the only dickhead taking selfies. The solutude was incredible. Just so you know; the famous photo spot isn’t actually the peak of Roy, that’s another 30 mins uphill.
That Wanaka tree
New Zealand’s most photographed tree. This is about as cliche as travel photos in New Zealand get, but it truly is a spectacular and unique view. Also, it’s far more accessible than Roy’s Peak. Literally a 30-second walk from the car park on the edge of the lake. Maybe it doesn’t provide the same sense of accomplishment, but it’s well worth coming down here for sunset. My recommendation would be sunrise though, no matter what the occasion you’ll always have fewer people ruining your serenity early in the morning.
Pro tip: Don’t try to get away with freedom camping in the car parks around Wanaka, my wallet and I can tell you from experience the council here is pretty vigilant.
- If you do climb Roy’s Peak for sunrise, you’ll likely pass a lot of latecomers on your way back down. Between laboured breaths, they’ll ask you how much further – I found it adds to the satisfaction level to lie and tell them all they’re nearly there.
There has never been a better time to visit Queenstown. Why? Think back to your last visit – Beautiful setting, thriving nightlife, adventure around every corner. Amazing, right? But think a little harder. Was there something not quite right? That’s it… Australians! They were everywhere. Well, thanks to COVID-19, that problem has been temporarily solved.
But seriously, If there’s anywhere on this list that shouldn’t require an introduction, it’s Queenstown. Queenstown is the closest thing we have to the kind of ski resort town you’d find in North America or the European Alps, and surely appears on any shortlist for the most beautiful city setting on the planet. Actually, with only 15,000 residents, Queenstown doesn’t even qualify as a city, yet it still contains over 150 bars/ restaurants, 3 world-class ski areas, some of the best and most exclusive hotels in the country, and the surrounding region is home to over 200 wineries. When foreigners ask me if New Zealand really is as beautiful as they say I generally show them a photo of Queenstown with the lake and The Remarkables in the background – “people actually LIVE there?” is a standard response.
Scenic Flight with Glenorchy Air
If there’s one must-do activity, it’s to get up in the air and view this incredible landscape from above. I got a seat on a flight over the Ernslaw Burn with Glenorchy Air – never have I had a stronger desire to be able to rotate my neck 360 degrees. You don’t get a true sense of the scale and beauty of this landscape until you see it from this perspective. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
I was in town a bit early, but of course, skiing or snowboarding should be on everyone’s winter to-do list in Queenstown. What you can do in other seasons, though, is go for a drive up The Remarkables road for a spectacular view over the whole Queenstown area. But don’t stop there. I found out there’s also a hike up to Lake Alta, which was a questionable decision in fading light and blizzard conditions, but well worthwhile – possibly more so in the summer months.
With 200 wineries in the area, there’s no shortage of selection, but it’d be hard to go past the Gibbston Winery for a true insight into the local wine industry. Fun fact: Central Otago is regarded as one fo the top three Pinot Noir regions in the world, and Gibbston is where it all started. The pork belly was some of the best I’ve ever had and the wine cave is well worth checking out. The winery is located in the Gibbston Valley, along the Kawarau River between Queenstown and Cromwell.
For a less typical Queenstown experience, make the drive out to Moke Lake. It’s only about 15 minutes from town along the road to Glenorchy, and another perfect spot for capturing the landscape reflected in the waters of a still lake. The lake is small, secluded, and has some great little walks. Unfortunately, the night-time weather didn’t play ball while I was here, but this is another great place for astrophotography!
Bob’s Peak/ Skyline
For the most famous view of the city, this is the place. There’s a platform right at the top of the gondola which gives you a spectacular panoramic view of the lake, city centre, and the Remarkables. You definitely want to be up here for sunset! Also, if you’re a bit more hard-core, you can use this as the starting point for hiking the Ben Lomond trail – a full day hike that takes you to the 1,748m summit. Click here for more info on that.
I mentioned the Mackenzie was the highlight for me, but that was relative to my expectations. I knew Milford Sound was going to blow my mind. Touted as the 8th wonder of the natural world by British author Rudyard Kipling, Milford is our most famous natural attraction and one that people literally travel from the other side of the world to experience.
Milford Sound is one of the very few places on earth where you (should) hope for terrible weather. Thankfully, terrible weather is another thing this part of the country is famous for. The sounds absolutely come alive in the rain! Waterfalls appear from the sky and the whole backdrop looks like the set of Jurassic Park – and that’s just on the drive in; a winding 2-hour journey from Te Anau that ends with the famous view of Mitre Peak on the Eastern shore of Milford Sound.
Visit Before the Border Reopens
The only problem with being so stunning and popular is that you attract people. A lot of people. I’d heard some nightmare stories about visitors who’d arrived, only to be sent back towards Te Anau because of a complete lack of parking. So, if you’ve been waiting for a perfect time to visit, now is that time! I barely passed another vehicle on the way in – lucky, because I wasn’t exactly watching the road – and when I arrived I had the whole car park to myself (parking was also free at the time, not sure if that’s still the case). I was also able to turn up and get on a boat tour without booking and drive straight into the campground. For a person with a complete absence of organizational skills, it was a dream.
Stay a Few Days
Give yourself at least three days here to experience the Sound in all its changing conditions, and if you want to get the best photographs of Mitre Peak, get your lazy ass out of bed for sunrise! Try to time it with high-tide for some banger reflections. Oh, and take some bug spray – depending on the tides or time of year the sandflies here can be brutal.
- I stayed in the campground at Milford Lodge, which is super close to the mouth of the sound and a good place to charge up the van. There are also some great cooking facilities, or if you’re less poor than me (everyone), some fancy cabins.
- Because of COVID restrictions at the time, a lot of the walking tracks weren’t open so I wasn’t able to do any hikes. But check out the Milford Sound website for some good day hike options.
- You can’t spend any time here without getting on the water. I did a 2-hour cruise with Mitre Peak Cruises which takes you out to the entrance of Milford Sound and back, stopping at the major waterfalls along the way and offering informative commentary.
Not unlike the West Coast – in fact maybe more so – the Catlins is a region noted for its isolation, wild weather, and rugged coastline. The region is home to a measly 1,200 hardy Kiwi’s – New Zealander’s I mean. It’s a safe bet there are actually more of the flightless birds down here.
The Catlins features 500 sq kilometers of dense temperate rainforest, the kind of bush that forms an impenetrable green wall along the many walking trails. I took the path to Mclean Falls, an easy 30-minute walk to an impressive multi-drop waterfall. The walk itself is almost as impressive, with trees bending over the pathway creating a tunnel effect that blocks out almost any light.
The main attraction in the Catlins is the Nugget Point Lighthouse, which stands tall on the edge of a cliff overlooking the rocky islands (nuggets) emerging from the Pacific. The path to the lighthouse is a 20-minute walk along cliff edges, at the bottom of which are permanent seal colonies. The coast is famous for unpredictable weather and huge swells – apparently now popular with big wave surfers. This lighthouse is surely one of the most famous sunrise locations in the country!
- Tip: The famous lighthouse view you’ve seen (as above) is actually taken from private DOC land. To get there requires some commando tactics. Actually, it probably doesn’t, but it was fun trying. Seriously, though, the signs warn of possible death – I’m guessing from falling rather than being shot by a DOC worker, but you never know. Anyway, if you try it, be careful, and if you get caught you didn’t hear about this from me.
- The whole coastline down here is also a popular area to spot the endangered Yellow Eyed Penguin.
- For a true country-Kiwi experience, stop off at one of the local pubs for a brew or some fish ‘n’ chips. A good place is at Kaka Point.
A huge thank you to Tui Campers for hooking me up with the most incredible campervan for this trip. There’s truly no better way to see New Zealand!
If you’d like to have any of the above images on your wall check out my print store!