IT TOOK ME THREE DAYS TO FALL IN LOVE WITH THIS COUNTRY
I think New Zealand is the world’s “most wanted” travel destination. Have you ever had someone tell you they DIDN’T want to visit the land of Narnia/Lord Of The Rings? I don’t think so.
Are you ready to hear something heartbreaking? I only had four days in New Zealand. FOUR DAYS. Why did I do that to myself? Le sigh.
In hindsight, those four days were some of the biggest highlights in my travel career. I mean, New Zealand is the pinnacle of every adventure-lovers dreams. It was also a solo-trip. It's been quite some time since I embarked on one of those. And it sure was an adventure from the start.
It all started with a relatively smooth flight from Melbourne when our captain came over the speaker laughing, yes laughing, with the words:
“Uh, yeah, so guys this will be fun. Just letting you know that there are strong winds in the valley of Queenstown. We’re going to try to land. It’ll be entertaining, to say the least. So, uh yeah, let's make sure we're not on the evening news tonight.”
(Make sure you read in a Kiwi accent ^ and also realize at this exact moment puke was being hurled into the bag next to me)
Backstory...Queenstown is in a highly mountainous section of the South Island of New Zealand. It’s known as one of the most adventurous towns in the world. With that being said, it’s in a narrow gully and surrounded by jagged peaks.
Our landing was close, like 500 feet from the runway close, before we were whisked up and floored it back up into the clouds and bouncing past those jagged peaks. After a while, we were informed our flight was being rerouted to Christchurch as no one had landed in Queenstown successfully since our attempt and we were now running out of gas.
We landed at the airport and soon realized that all Queenstown-bound flights were canceled due to conditions and they were shoveling numerous planes worth of people onto coach buses for an eight-hour drive.
EIGHT HOURS?!? MY TIME IS LIMITED HERE, WEATHER. If you could calm your SASS and not do that to me next time, I’d highly appreciate it.
Okay, okay, okay. I might be being a *tad* over-dramatic (shocker). This loop was truthfully a complete blessing-in-disguise. Let me explain
Our bus driver was hilarious, and we basically got a free tour of the entire countryside between Christchurch and Queenstown. Not to mention not a single person complained during the entire process. Not a single person.
I don’t know if it’s just a U.S. thing or what, but usually when things like this happen there’s a great deal of screaming, complaining, and “I better get my money back for this!!!”.
We dropped off a Kiwi couple in a small town on our way through to Queenstown who happened to be the owners of the village supermarket. Although exhausted, they opened their store for our bus at 10:30pm and allowed everyone to come in and buy whatever they needed for the remaining hours of the trip. How cool, right? Kiwi people are the legit best kind of people I ’ve ever met.
We arrived at the Queenstown airport around 1:00am, and me being me, I had planned to sleep at the airport until I could pick up my rental car at 7:30. But then I met another incredible soul, Juan, who was in bright spirits even after adding eight hours onto the end of his trip all the way from Tennessee. His daughter, Victoria, has been living in NZ since October and he was visiting her for the next two weeks. Do you know what they did? They opened their Airbnb to me, let me shower, and fed me eggs in the morning.
In the morning I woke to an absolutely incredible view of Queenstown. I didn’t even mind the delay, in fact, I think it enhanced my trip. Lesson? Just go with it. Sometimes the universe is speaking to you in the weirdest ways.
So now the adventure that was scheduled to start almost 20 hours prior was starting. I happily loaded my bags into the trunk of my rental car and was giddy when I hopped in the driver’s seat.
*Wait. I’m in the passenger's seat. The steering wheel is on the right side of the vehicle. I have to drive on the left side of the road. HELP. SOS. CALL IN THE HELICOPTER.*
What to expect when riding with me in a country that drives on the left side of the road: Unintelligible mumbling/screaming, hitting a reflector pole in the first two minutes on the road, and pulling over 3km down the road to restart your heart after going through bridge construction.
You know, the normal stuff.
After leveling my head and putting on a much-needed extra coat of deodorant, I headed down toward Te Anau, the gateway to Milford Sound, and was more than ready to fully soak in the beauty of #RealMiddleEarth.
I have this thing that in order for me to count that I have been to a location, my bare foot has to touch the soil of that country/state. So the first thing I did was head to Lake Manapouri. I stood on the beach looking at the silhouettes of mountains and fjords in the distance before slowly slipping off my shoe and placing it on the pebble beach. That’s when I think it first hit me. I was here. I was in NEW ZEALAND. And I was going to come back and swim in the lake for sunset (while trying not to think about the fact the lake has the highest population of Longfin Eel in the country).
I can’t describe to you the amount of happiness that the next two days brought me. I DID swim at sunset, I laid in golden fields for hours, I slept in my car like a baby every night, I had traffic jams thanks to fuzzy sheep, I got soaked in hundred foot waterfalls, and I hiked the Gertrude Saddle.
Victoria, who let me crash at her Airbnb, was the one who informed me of the Gertrude Saddle hike in Milford Sound. The summit is known to be one of the best views in New Zealand. It was quite strenuous but made for an absolutely insane view at the edge of a two thousand foot cliff. It’s hard to explain the magnitude of awesomeness, let me share photos:
Milford Sound is a small town located in the heart of Fjordland National Park. Besides a single road which connects Te Anau and Milford Sound through a winding stretch of 130km, there is nothing out there but vast and harsh wilderness. The Gertrude Saddle is a tiny hike compared to the treks that scale mountain ridges for dozens of kilometers. Next time, next time.
After the hike, I traveled to the town of Milford Sound and caught a ferry through the fjords. On this ferry, I met Niko, who was currently biking through the country. He had left his bike back in Te Anau and hitchhiked out to Milford Sound. After trying to hitch back to Te Anau for 45 minutes he gave up and got on a boat tour.
So I gave Niko a ride back, and we stopped many times on the way catching the beautiful scenes New Zealand has to offer. By the time we headed out, there was barely a soul on the road. Sometimes beauty in beautiful places (like Yosemite) is reduced due to high tourism and tour buses stocked full of people pushing to get the same photo, but out here we could pull over and hear nothing for miles surrounding us.
If you’re a lover of steep mountains, incredible countryside's, and the absolute most adorable cafe’s, New Zealand will capture your heart as it did mine. There really are few places in the world where the kindness of people has been equally matched by the incredible natural beauty.
So now I’ve blabbered on about this amazing place for far too long. I wasn’t actually too sad about leaving because I have no doubt in my mind I will return. It was the perfect introduction to a country that offers more than any other place I’ve been. If it wasn’t on the complete opposite side of the world you’d probably see me living there in the next few years.
Most of all, there is something extremely liberating about traveling solo to a country where there isn't another soul within its boundaries who you know. Absolutely no one. In a way, it can be terrifying, but mostly it is an extremely beautiful and peaceful thought.
Soulful adventurer. Probably lost. Definitely eating ice cream.
In her late-teens, Shalee drove out of her small hometown watching the sunset behind her along the two-lane highway. Her ventures began in Michigan, where she taught herself to travel on a budget. Today, Shalee shares her tips and stories to thousands of readers interested in adventure, budget, and outdoor travel. Learn more about her here.