There’s a reason a trip to New Zealand’s South Island is on many a bucket list. Actually, there are a lot of reasons. My own?

Eye-popping scenery. Natural places unsullied by development, pollution and population pressures. Clean air. Clean water. Outrageous and daunting hiking. Mountain ranges folding into each other as far as you can see. Vast valleys, swift rivers, ocean vistas extending beyond the horizon and a banquet of stars at night, undimmed by light pollution. A place of otherworldly, natural beauty.

My itinerary was pretty simple, if grueling. Fly 10 hours direct from Atlanta to Honolulu, absorbing a 6 hour time change (6pm local = midnight to my brain). Spend the night and catch an early morning direct, 10-hour flight to Auckland, New Zealand, where I’d spend two nights waiting for my flight to Queenstown while adjusting to the 22 hour time difference. Which placed me well into my future.

Time travel can be rather disorienting, to put it mildly. I had crossed the International Date Line for the second time in my life (the first was in 2015, the trip Robin and I took to Tropical North Queensland, Australia

Strangely, this time I adjusted to local time really fast, like in a day. I think because 4:30pm Auckland time was 2:30pm in Honolulu. So the “perceived” difference to my body was “only” 2 hours difference between where I’d been and where I was now. Never mind the fact that WHEN I’d “been” was a day removed. Or something like that.

Anyway, I think that I just ignored the fact that I’d “lost” an entire day somewhere and simply carried on as normal.

This is important because I was coherent and able to thoroughly enjoy meeting my Air BnB Auckland property host Shona when she picked me up at the airport in Auckland. As women of a certain age, we found we had a lot in common, and chatted away during the 30 minute trip to her lovely place in a garden district of suburban homes just outside this major city of 1.7 million people, on the northern coast of New Zealand’s North Island.

In Auckland

A down day in Auckland allowed me to catch the ferry to Tiritiri Matangi island, a wildlife sanctuary for New Zealand birds.

I spent hours on a volunteer-led group hike of the island, where, as the official Dept. of Conservation site states, “… unwanted predators have been eradicated and rare native birds, such as the kōkako and the takahē survive and thrive in restored habitats within regenerating native forest.”

Check out my short takahe video snippet of parents feeding their young at the base of the lighthouse on the island.

The story of this world-renown conservation effort is, well, world-renown! From an ancient virgin forested island filled with birdsong and surrounded by a wealth of fishes, seals and the like, the island passed from tribal Maori hands into those of the European colonists.

The island hosted the first and oldest lighthouse in New Zealand in the 1860s. It still stands today, in excellent repair. Over the next hundred years or so, farming, sheep and cattle ranching and hunting decimated the island’s coastal forests, while rats, possums and other pests virtually wiped out the bird population.

The island became a recreation reserve in 1970. The amazing restoration project got underway in 1984, and the next 10 years saw over 280,000 trees planted by volunteers!

I can attest to the success of the efforts to rebuild the forest across the entire island, repopulate the many species of doomed and almost-extinct birds, and the never-ending vigilance to keep eradicating any pest that dares to crawl onto the island.

Hiking Tiritiri Matangi island, I was surrounded by birds, birdsong, and more birds. Big fat New Zealand pigeons (kereru) almost brushed my head as they buzzed down the forested path, their bright white pudgy underbellies contrasting with the metallic green and purples of their head, back and wings. Bellbirds tinkled their bright, bell-like calls as they flitted about the thick under story.

Throughout my walks, the only sounds I heard were the sea-wind blowing up the rocky sides of cliffs and bird calls ranging from the soft “Kuu” of the pigeons to the rich, sonorous, sustained, organ-like notes of the kokako and the coughs, grunts and wheezes of the boisterous tuis.

To me that place was magical. I felt like a First People person on the quintessential primordial island. How awesome to experience fresh air, crisp skies, a warm day, all this fecund forest growth, the smells of the trees and brush, the sounds of the wind and the birds moving through the landscape. Simply incredible, and a mere taste of what I was to experience throughout the rest of my 16 day stay in this country.

The hiking, the sun and the 90 minute ferry ride to and from the quay in Auckland sure wore me out though, and by the time I’d figured out the bus system and found my way back to Shona’s, I had just enough time for a beer, then repacked my bags and got a great night’s sleep before heading to the airport the next mid-day for a two hour flight down to Queenstown, on the south island.

TRIP PHOTOS HERE

If You Go to Tiritiri Matangi island: Catching the Fuller’s Ferry to the island requires planning, so look up the schedules, choose from two departure points, and read all instructions about the stuff you bring in, including food and your hiking boots! They are very serious about the Pest Free thing. The ferry skipper even watches every passenger scrape their footwear before they get on the boat! BTW the little galley on the boat serves a decent grilled (pressed) ham and cheese melt- that was my dinner.

Queenstown to Te Anau

This was the day I was to meet niece Hannah and her hubby Greg at the QT airport. The months of planning and my high expectations for this Major Bucket Trip of A Lifetime came hurtling at me as the airplane came cruising in between those majestic peaks of the Southern Alps for a smooth touchdown at Queenstown. I actually cried. I was so overwhelmed at really, really BEING HERE on this magical mystery tour of the great New Zealand outdoors.

We three had a lot of catching up chat to cover, as we schlepped bags out to the rental SUV and headed into Queenstown proper.

Negotiating the jammed sidewalks and crazed traffic of downtown Queenstown at the height of summer season was a real contrast to the peace and quiet I’d enjoyed at Shona’s and on Tiritiri Matangi island! Not to mention my getting accustomed to a right-drive vehicle and driving on the “wrong” side of the road. Yeah, we only had two near head-on collisions, which was pretty good, I thought.

Queenstown on Lake Wakatipu, surrounded by mountains.

After a burger at famous Ferburger’s (over-rated, IMHO), we stopped at a warehouse grocery store to stock up and headed on our three hour drive south and west to Fiordland and our Air BnB home in the heart of Te Anau.

The Destinations map reflects our road trippin’, in that we went as far up the west coast as Milford Sound, and as far north as the tiny berg of Haast. We retraced our drive to Milford Sound 2X and of course drove round trip from Queenstown to Te Anau. The Arrowtown to Haast trip was an out and back as well. Then there was the round trip to and from Paradise. Stay Tuned, all is revealed in the post and my Google Images link.

Just an hour or so along our journey, we noticed a wall of rain moving to intersect our path and we just had to stop for a photo op, braving the chilly wind to capture the light as it played across the broad gravel bars of a typical New Zealand braided river, the sun streaking through swift-moving clouds overhead. This drive proved to be just a taste of the spectacular vistas that awaited us over the next two weeks.

Te Anau and a Jaw-Dropping Heli-Hike

Te Anau is the gateway to Fiordland National Park, one of the Southern Hemisphere’s great wilderness regions, achieving World Heritage Status in 1986. The entire Fiordland area boasts around 2,000 permanent residents, most of them within Te Anau. I chose to headquarter our nine day stay in this township because it’s really the only town large enough to offer services ranging from grocery stores to small restaurants.

Our Air BnB was a delightful home, within walking distance of the town center located on the shore of Lake Te Anau.

View from our Te Anau Air BnB.

The area is home to the takahe. Like many of New Zealand’s ground-dwelling birds, these were driven to the edge of extinction, and this is the remaining place on the planet where a handful still exist in the wild.

When this supposedly extinct bird was re-discovered in the nearby mountains, conservation efforts began, which have led to a steady increase in the population, to over 300 birds, including those translocated to predator-free offshore islands and in sanctuaries.

This story of recovery spurred Hannah to take a pic of the (outrageously out sized) takahe statue proudly displayed in the town center, and a reason for us to take a walk along the lake shore over to the Te Anau Bird Sanctuary and try to photograph one of the takahe’s in an enclosure.

Kepler Track Heli-Hike

World-famous treks in the area beckoned, so one of our first adventures would be a helicopter ride up to a mountain peak on the Kepler track, where we would begin our hike back down to the lake, over 3,000 feet below.

This was truly a highlight of our Fiordland stay. At the first heli stop, we perched on the highest peak in the area, in 30 degree, windy conditions.

Couple poses on scenic mountain top, Kepler Track, Fiordland, New Zealand.

Hannah and Greg, Kepler track heli hike.

Check out my short Heli hike Kepler Track New Zealand highlights video.

Another video of the hike and other short snippets are on my YouTube New Zealand Playlist

The heli dropped us off on a nearby ridge at Luxmore Hut at 3,500 ft elevation. Above the tree line, the air temps were in the 40s, with a steady wind blowing and a hot sun baking, reminding me of conditions I’ve experienced before while hiking in the Colorado Rockies.

This trek was everything I’d hoped for, and more. Because we were in Te Anau for over a week, we were able to watch the weather forecast and choose a perfect day for the climb. In our case, our day was sandwiched between snow and wind at elevations for a couple of days, followed by a storm front bringing rain and dangerously high wind gusts.

The light was perfect for shooting and video, the temps were cool, and the scenery was simply out of this world. Our descent took us through an expanse of rocky, rolling tussock grass above the tree line. The sun had us peeling layers like mad, which made our abrupt entry into the tree line a welcome relief.

Here the dark, mossy, cool forest was as wet as a cloud forest in Costa Rica, but the massive rock walls we skirted, the rocky outcrops and the tangled roots tripping us up on the steep trail were all too familiar, reminding me of hiking in the mountains of Georgia near where I live.

While the hike itself was a relentless 3.5 hour downhill descent, we made it in time to catch the boat ride back across Lake Te Anau. It was great to rest up a bit before Hannah whipped up her famous from-scratch pizza! What a treat after an exhilarating day!

Toes on both my feet took a beating with the unrelenting down-hike.

I was, admittedly, in a lot of pain coming off that mountain but I wouldn’t have traded this experience for the four toenails it eventually cost me. They grow back anyway.

MORE TRIP PIX HERE

If You Go on a heli-hike: For people with limited time, who aren’t prepared to commit to multi-day treks, the heli-hike is a terrific alternative. Having studied the elevation profile for the Kepler Track, from Lake Te Anau up to the Luxmore Hut, I readily opted for the the heli-hike! I used Southern Lakes Helicopters, and they were simply fantastic. Very responsive, helpful, professional, and their heli pad and office are right down at the lake near Te Anau town center.

Hidden Gem- the Road to Milford Sound

Staying in Te Anau meant we were within easy driving distance to Milford Sound and the spectacular vistas along the way.

There’s just one road, highway 94, cutting through the mountains and valleys in the untouched Fiordland landscapes between Te Anau and Milford Sound. This alpine highway is described by the Tourism New Zealand website as “… one of the most scenic experiences you can have on four wheels.”

Along this remote 185 km (115 mi) highway, we took short walks beside clear rushing creeks and through a couple of mossy beech forests to waterfalls and cascades.

The mountain and valley view lookouts presented eye-popping scenery, and the azure blue of the icy cold rivers I found to be almost hypnotic.

Rivers, creeks, streams and the lakes were all uniformly clean, clear, and without signs of garbage or trash. This is the primary reason I chose to come to New Zealand- to experience natural spaces on this planet not yet trashed by mankind, pollution, population pressures, plastic trash, etc.

The pristine New Zealand waters surely reminded me of the natural springs where I was raised in Central Florida, home to more first magnitude natural springs than anywhere else on our planet. I grew up swimming, SCUBA diving, paddling, camping and fishing many springs, rivers and lakes, and even had a natural flowing spring in my back yard when I lived out in the Ocala National Forest.

Every spring and river I’ve been on in my home state since the late 1980s has become weed-choked and the clear waters are cloudy with pollution, runoff, and long, green slimy algae tendrils that choke off the bottom grasses. Spring heads (or “boils”) are ringed with plastic trash and other human garbage. The larger springs are so overcrowded in the summertime that the former cool, grassy areas are brown, dead, and stomped down to bare dirt.

Some caverns I SCUBA dived have graffiti scrawled all over the limestone rock. What environmentally conscious diver would ever, ever do that?

Yeah. New Zealand may be one of the cleanest, most natural places I will ever have the pleasure to visit in my remaining lifetime.

More photos of the wonders of this area.

Opens podcast player and show notes page.

LISTEN to my interview for the travel podcast “Experiences You Should Have” about this amazing drive!

If You Go: Be aware, there is no cellular service once you are outside of Te Anau. About half way to Milford Sound is Knob’s Flat, with toilets, water, and camping. And public phones!

Gas up, bring snacks and drinks for the day. Start out very early from Te Anau, or you’ll get caught up in the “morning rush” of buses from Queenstown.

I found this Milford Sound driving map and guide to be invaluable, and was glad I had printed it out  for quick reference. Yeah we had downloaded maps on one of our phones but frankly, I value a wider yet detailed view of a target area, and of course the descriptions of each place and tips on how to get there, etc are helpful. 

Photographers: You may want to scout your desired locations for light angles (we did!) From Te Anau, we found that Te Anau Downs (the lake view looking south), Mirror Lakes and Eglinton Valley were perfectly situated for early morning light. Early afternoon (overhead light not blocked by the towering mountain peaks) is good for the amazing azure color of the Cleddau river (various pullouts north of the tunnel). Be sure to stop at the historic horse bridge (zoom in on Google maps to find it before you go). Late afternoon is best for Mitre Peak and river scenes off the highway at Deer Flat camp site, just south of Knobs Flat. Look for folks fly fishing here!

Eglinton Valley

The Eglinton River flows through this glacial-carved valley of some 18 miles in length. Several areas of the valley were used to create the Misty Mountains in the movie Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Today, visitors like us are inexorably drawn out of our warm vehicles and into this vast, wind-swept terrain of golden tussock grass framed by towering, snow-capped mountains.

To me, the clean, chilly morning air, the blue skies, and the sound of the wind sighing through the tussock grass all added to my immeasurable delight at being away from the hustle and bustle of cities and man-made racket. Here, all was peace and as much solitude as you could take.

The day before, Hannah and I had driven this stretch on our photo safari scout drive. Fortune smiled and led us to this perfectly lit scene in Eglinton valley.

This is my favorite photo from the entire trip. It takes me back to the riverside on a crisp early Fall morning, the clouds scudding overhead throwing racing shadows on the mountainsides, the river and the grasses. The colors, the quality of the “flat” light, the various textures all captured in this single scene are simply yummy.

And of course I shot a Video Panorama New Zealand Fiordland river of the scene, which is pretty darn immersive, if I say so myself.

This sense of being off the beaten path and far from civilization lasted only until we got back out on highway 94, headed to our morning excursion on Milford Sound. We had no choice but to queue up with the tour buses, travel trailers, and camper vans making their way north to Milford Sound.

Our earlier photo scouting trip clued us in to carving out enough time to stop along the way to capture the perfect morning reflection of the mountains in the fresh water at Mirror Lakes.

Mirror Lakes, Milford highway, Fiordland, New Zealand

Even “Beeper”, our steady-steed rental car, got a cameo against the dramatic backdrop of the rugged mountains. We named it for the annoying “lane integrity” alarm that would beep repeatedly as I used the maximum width of those skinny New Zealand highway lanes to negotiate some tight hairpin turns. We never did figure out how to disable this “feature”, so on it beeped, for the more than 1,200 kilometers (760 miles) we drove throughout our 14 day stay in South Island.

Milford Sound Excursion- Losing the Crowds

If any experience is considered signature to South Island New Zealand, it’s a boat excursion on Milford Sound. However, this trip is far from “hidden”. It’s hard to find any info about New Zealand tourism that doesn’t mention Milford Sound.

Hannah photograph- Lynn and Greg.

Milford Sound cruise view, Fiordland, New Zealand

My tourist postcard shot of a Milford Sound cruise departure.

As remote as Fiordland is, over 1 million visitors manage to make their way here every year. Most travel all day in large tourist buses from Queenstown to Milford Sound, with the goal to take a 2-3 hour boat excursion up the fiord (it’s actually not a sound). Then it’s back on the bus to return to Queenstown. That’s a grueling 12-14 hour day, and a significant impact on the Milford Sound area itself, which doesn’t even have a town or hotel or facilities, outside of the cruise ship terminal.

Mitre Peak view at Milford Sound cruise terminal, Fiordland, New Zealand

Hannah strolls the breakwater at Milford Sound Cruise Terminal.

My TRIP PHOTOS capture some of the majesty of this place.

Because I booked us on a small boat, shared with fewer than 25 other passengers, our experience was about as “intimate” as you can get.

Check out my niece Hannah’s video Cruising Milford Sound and Losing the Crowds .

BTW notice our use of the iconic Mitre Peak in each of the shots on this page. Tourism officials would be proud, LOL.

Hidden Gems- Manapouri and an Alpaca Farm Visit

Avoiding the tourist buses and discovering the hidden gems near Te Anau was the primary reason I chose to stay for several days in the region. Being in one place for a week and more allowed us to schedule outdoor activities between the rain and windy, cold days this spot on the planet is famous for. (Rain 200 days/year on average.) Thus, we had ample time to experience shorter hikes and to visit a working alpaca farm in Manapouri, a little-known but amazing berg on the shores of Manapouri Lake, just south of Te Anau.

Manapouri boasts a permanent population of 400 people and a heck of a lot more sheep and alpacas, so Hannah and I set off on a blustery, cold day to visit Kepler Mountain View Alpaca Farm.

Our hostess, Jessica, runs the place, knitting and weaving the hundreds of wonderful products in her Wild Wool Gallery on site. A gentle and smiling guide, Jessica kept us entertained, telling humorous stories of the lives of her alpacas in her signature New Zealand accent.

Check out my short video of the alpaca feeding action as we were surrounded by adult and juvenile alpacas, nudging us for the feed in our little buckets and humming their curious vocalizations.

Jessica said she’d switched from raising sheep to alpacas years ago because alpacas were easier to farm, more entertaining and smarter than sheep, and the finished products from the fine alpaca wool command a much higher price than sheep’s wool.

I was amazed to learn that alpaca babies (called cria) gestate for 11-12 months. and that moms carry their babies up in their chests until the third trimester, when the cria drops to the lower abdomen. This is apparently an evolutionary adaptation for these grazers of open plains, where running is the best defense against predators.

We’ll close this farm visit with a close-up-and-personal alpaca greeting:

Oi, yer not from around here, are ya’?

The view from our digs reflected the many moods that the surrounding Kepler and Murchison mountain ranges affected, and as our days in Te Anau drew to a close, we lucked out with a sunny day to head back to Manapouri to go on one more hike.

Hiking Remote Manapouri

I had deliberately chosen an off-the-beaten-path hike at Lake Manapouri, the deepest in New Zealand, at over 1,200 feet. My trip planning attention was aroused by the striking images of the pristine lake and its 33 small islands, the backdrop of the majestic Cathedral Mountain range, and the sandy beaches and coves. The near isolation I knew we’d find in this remote area was the biggest draw.

The trip started out with a ride in a dingy across the Waiau river, which feeds into Lake Manapouri.

I found the hike steep, with enough dead fall, roots, loose rocks and mud to satisfy any hiker who appreciates scrambling along not-so-well-maintained trails. Throughout our hike, we never saw another hiker.

Near the end of our allotted time, Hannah and Greg took a few minutes out to enjoy a snack at the water’s edge. What a terrific day to be out in nature, in clear clean air, hiking the shores of a lake lacking any signs of plastic or other garbage or trash. With  no development, no planes or boats around, it was a rare time to be outdoors enjoying a serene and untouched environment.

I thought it kinda strange to be on a remote hike in the mountains and to NOT be on the alert for bear sounds and signs, or snakes sunning themselves on the trail, or wasp and hornet nests, or monkeys pissing on me from overhead, or signs of deer night bed areas or scavenging raccoons at the car park. I realized I’ve spent a lifetime hiking, paddling, camping and trekking in sub-tropic or tropical zones, or on remote trails in the USA where bears and such (moose! ‘gators!) are simply more common. It felt very, very strange to not have to be on guard. The most dangerous thing I faced was turning an ankle.

If You Go: Be aware, access to the best Manapouri area walking tracks is only via a boat ride, or you can rent a little boat and row yourself to your destination dock, within sight of the “marina” at Pearl Harbor. Seriously, that’s the name.

You must time your hike to catch the little (motorized) dingy across the arm of the lake, and back again. That basically leaves you with 3 hours or so to complete a steep hike. This time limit took me by surprise, so we were unable to complete the loop of our hike and had to cut it short and return the way we had come. Even so, we almost missed our dingy!

Back to Queenstown- and Thankfully Beyond

All too soon our ninth day in Te Anau dawned, and it was time to head back to the Queenstown area. I’d found us a sweet Air BnB cottage tucked on a hillside in what I think is one of the most scenic valleys in New Zealand. And it was well out of the zoo that Queenstown can become during trekking season or snow skiing season.

What a hidden gem of a place! Jane’s cozy cottage was just around the corner from pretty Lake Hayes, surrounded by lovingly tended orchards, trees and flowers galore, and perched on a hillside with awesome views.

Lake Hayes, outside Queenstown, in a magnificent valley.

The weather here in the interior was so much warmer and dryer than the cold, windy and rainy conditions we’d been working around in Fiordland!

We actually got to wear shorts and I got to grill outside several evenings. This compared to my wearing winter layers and grilling under the carport in Te Anau, getting battered by icy cold wind gusts.

Wish I could insert a pic here of the STARS GALORE, oh my, that we got to see here every night. I would stand out in the yard behind the hedge at like 11pm, barefoot and shivering in my t-shirt on those cold nights (40s), while craning my neck at the Milky Way splashed overhead. That stellar view is one that always gives me goosebumps.

Lots MORE TRIP PHOTOS HERE to delight and inspire!

Charming Arrowtown

I had deliberately placed us far enough away from Queenstown to be out in the countryside, yet near enough to the historic gold mining town of Arrowtown to pop into town for groceries or a restaurant meal. I also knew I’d be attracted to the history and atmosphere of this picturesque settlement.

This charming and quirky village, just 10 minutes drive away from our cottage, surely reminded me of more than one “old west” town I’ve walked around in California and South Dakota, to name a couple of places.

Sure ‘nuf horse hitchin’ post. Arrowtown, New Zealand.

While somewhat touristy, the town is fun to spend a day poking around. The shops are cute and unique, and the historic Chinese miners settlement down by the river is fascinating (and free to walk around).

Restored Chinese miner’s hut, one of many in Arrowtown, New Zealand.

The Lakes District Museum is one of the best small museums I’ve ever visited (this from a hard-core museum nut). It’s chock full of items and displays that reflect the gold rush years this area of New Zealand experienced, very close to the time of the American ’49ers. Parallels abound, with a unique New Zealand twist, of course.

BTW for wine aficionados, this is one of several key South Island wine country regions. Particularly to the north and east, in the Gibbston area, the vineyards go on for miles and miles. I noticed numerous unique Air BnB listings at working wineries; just don’t expect WiFi, as you will be out in the sticks!

Horseback In Paradise

This was the bookend event to our heli-hike; another amazing, one-of-a-kind signature New Zealand experience. How about horseback riding on private land, through areas used as locations in The Lord of the Rings trilogy!

We were headed to the township of Glenorchy and beyond, to a “rural locality” on the eastern side of the Dart River at the head of Lake Wakatipu, called Paradise.

Our route took us an hour or so north and west of our cottage, virtually the only car on the scenic, remote road that skirts the pristine shores of Lake Wakatipu, surrounded by snow-capped mountains.

After wandering down partially paved roads, crossing a wide, dry gravel river bed, and winding down gravel roads between bright green pastures dotted with sheep, we spotted a handful of horses grazing in a field off to the left.

We had arrived at High Country Horses, where, the web site assured us, we would,

Ride in Middle Earth through ancient beech forest and see where Boromir was killed in the “Fellowship” also scenes from Narnia and Wolverine, learn the history while surrounded by Mount Aspiring National Park, one of three world heritage parks in New Zealand.

The images below capture, somewhat, the essence of this magnificent, windswept landscape. A storm in the next valley held off the entire two-plus hours of rocking along on horseback, as our steeds tramped up narrow, twisting trails to top out at first one, then another breathtaking scene.

Hannah & Greg ride through Paradise, New Zealand.

Trio of horseback riders in Paradise, New Zealand.

Lynn back in the saddle after 40 years of abstinence. You never forget how to ride.

Dart River, Fiordland, New Zealand. Scene from Fellowship of the Ring.

More iconic film scene locations, Paradise, New Zealand.

More eye candy shots of this magnificent landscape HERE

Check out my short Horseback Riding in Paradise New Zealand video!

The Other Spectacular New Zealand Drive

Nearing the end of our New Zealand stay, we set aside a full day for a photo safari and discovery drive tour of the Haast Highway.

This 140 km (87 mi) highway between Wanaka  and Haast is right up there with the Pacific Coast Highway and the drive around Cape Breton Island (Canada) for jaw-dropping scenic beauty. In My Humble Opinion.

From Arrowtown, we headed up and up a switch-back road over the Crown Range, enjoying the view of “our” valley far below.

Passing through valleys chock-full of vineyards as far as the eye could see, we came into the town of Wanaka, on the shores of Lake Wanaka. The town is like a smaller, friendlier Queenstown, and serves as a snow ski resort area in the winter.

Interesting story: It seems this lone tree with wet feet, along the shore of the lake and right in town, struck fame with a social media post that went viral. Now people travel from all over the world to get this shot. The place was mobbed on a weekday morning when we visited. So, I guess we had to get the shot, too.

While the crowds jostled along the lake shore for a clear shot of the tree, I discovered a less popular photo op in the shadows of the Poplar trees on a nearby walking trail.

Coming out of Wanaka, we headed north along the Haast Pass Highway, which traced the shore of Lake Hawea, where the morning views of snow capped mountains were simply breathtaking.

The afternoon light of this scene proved to be simply magical. Check out the still shot and my short Lake Hawea video of this stunning place.

The further north we drove through Mt. Aspiring National Park, the higher we climbed, revealing more spectacular vistas. I had printed out a terrific driving map and guide to Haast Highway Walks showing numerous bush walks, waterfalls and lookouts as we negotiated the Haast Pass.

Hannah at Thunder Falls, along the Haast highway, New Zealand.

Our drive had us winding through lush rain forest, tracing the path of the Haast River through a land of deep gorges, waterfalls and tumbling rivers.

Nice shot, but please do NOT make rock cairns in your travels! Rocks keep soil in place and reduce erosion.

As we ventured closer to the Haast Pass, we could see across a massive open valley between mountain passes, right into the heart of Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park. We even caught a glimpse of one of the permanent glaciers in the distant park. We simply didn’t have time to make that arduous drive to and from those glaciers. Yet another reason to return one day!

Glacier in the distant Mount Cook National Park.

Unplanned- A Drive to Moke Lake

One day when Hannah and Greg had a lot of work to do, I took a drive to Moke Lake, located just outside Queenstown.

What appeared to be a short jaunt turned out to be a steep, winding, rough and dusty trek along a gravel road climbing up and down between dry, sere mountains.

I kept Beeper’s AC running full tilt as the sun scorched through the car’s un-tinted windows. Behind me, a thick billow of dust rose in my wake. I felt like I was in the middle of freakin’ nowhere, and I guess I was.

I kept rounding switchbacks, hoping to see the sign of anything damp in my path. I couldn’t fathom how a lake of any size could survive in this arid and desolate landscape.

Oh look! A green pasture with sheep in it. That was a good sign.

And then, there it was- the lake! What a welcome sight. And hardly anyone, or anything, around. Just a tiny bath house for a handful of minimalist camp sites. Across from the parking area was a pasture with a few horses nibbling at the dry grass. I could just see a line of horses with riders headed out of the paddock, getting their mid-day trail ride underway in the unrelenting sun and heat.

Good on them. I was ready to sit in the soft grass at the lake shore, enjoying the cool breeze off the lake and sipping a nice cold drink of water, while idly studying the ducks settling down nearby.

Ducks Moke Lake New Zealand

What a wonderfully serene, isolated and quiet spot this was! I could just imagine camping by this lake, poking at a camp fire and craning my neck around at the phenomenal spread of stars overhead. Yep, Moke Lake was definitely worth the drive, and yet another example of the wisdom of leaving room in any itinerary for unplanned discoveries.

Leavetaking

This part was hard. Hard to leave New Zealand. Hard to say goodbye to Hannah and Greg. Tough to pack efficiently the night before for the jump to Auckland and onward to Honolulu. Tough to stay awake just a bit longer to catch one more view of those magnificent stars overhead.

En route to Queenstown the morning of our departure, we stopped at the Shotover river location for jet boat rides.

The scenery was fantastic, and I was just in time to shoot a very brief video I of a passing Shotover river jet boat

Back in crazed Queenstown, we grabbed a late brekkie and strolled over to a park to watch the tourist hang-gliders as they landed in a town park.

Short Video: Queenstown hang gliders land

Then, onward to the frantic mob in the Queenstown airport, where the lines for food or drink or toilets were outrageous. We said our goodbyes, Hannah and Greg bound for Bali and me bound for home. I was excited for their continuing adventures, even as I sat and waited for my delayed flight to Auckland.

The plane is late. Duh.

Back in Honolulu

My 10 hour flight from Auckland to Honolulu was a grind, but the roomy and comfy New Zealand Air “Premium Economy” seat helped greatly. Unfortunately the guy sitting next to me was flatulent the entire flight. The aroma therapy peppermint oil that Robin had given me, applied liberally under my nose, did the trick.

I stayed in Waikiki again, as I had on my way outbound. The afternoon was cool, and I walked some 5 or 6 miles, visiting my favorite park at Ala Moana and catching a spectacular sunset at the fabled Royal Hawaiian Hotel.

Check out my video snippet of Sunset, Waikiki, with iconic Diamond Head as a backdrop.

A history buff, I’d read many tales of WWII naval personnel who partied like no tomorrow here when the hotel was turned into an R&R center for Navy personnel. Today the hotel is swallowed up in the larger Royal Hawaiian Hotel Center, chock full of shops and restaurants and crowds and noise and traffic and traffic.

By the time I’d flown another nine hours or so back into Atlanta and caught an Uber ride home, I was done with travel. Well, for a little while, at least.

Lynn's New Zealand Travel Tips

PLAN MONTHS AHEAD to secure the best places to stay. Avoid high season. Watch the YouTube videos, read TripAdvisor forums- go beyond the Things To Do and Ping TA experts with specific questions you may have.

NZ is absolutely best experienced via self drive. Driving is a snap. Gas is expensive ($8 gal equivalent as of this post date). Be prepared to be without cell or weak WiFi, even as 4G is available in the cities. Auckland is like any big city- expect rush hours, etc and plan accordingly.

QT airport is not prepared, nor is the country in general for the influx of summer tourists: over 5 million visitors are forecast for the year 2024. (NZ population = 4.8 mil. New York City population = 8.6 mil.) Kiwis express concerns about lack of infrastructure, accommodation costs, damage to the environment, traffic congestion and road safety.  Get there sooner rather than later, just sayin’.

Best NZ weather service is Metservice- get their mobile app.

Believe it: Fiordland has VERY changeable weather- pack layered clothing.

Try to avoid summer high season and consider our experience and the opinion of many of the locals: Queenstown has turned into a zoo. In town, you will want this: https://www.newzealand.com/us/article/some-sneaky-local-tips-for-queenstown/

Pak n Save for best groceries- bring your bags for all shopping, no plastic bags here!

Be prepared to unpack your hikers at Customs: you had better declare those boots and clean them well before you enter NZ, they will be inspected.

The stars at night- simply indescribable.

Speight’s Summit Lime & Citrus Lager called “swilly” beer and I agree, they were delish and easy to find. Jed’s coffee at most grocery stores was sublime.

Pay at counter all restaurants, no table service is common.

A 14-day self drive itinerary for the wilderness seeker is totally do-able, esp flying into NZ via Christchurch and out from QT. Or the other way ’round. 

CODA:

My perfect excuse to actually GO TO NEW ZEALAND (!) presented itself the year I planned to “retire” or at least permanently escape the corporate drone work life. And the real kicker was that my niece Hannah and her hubby Greg invited Robin and me to join them when their digital nomad schedule took them to NZ.

I jumped at the chance. Robin passed on the 40+ hours of plane travel to get there and get back home.

I went to work for four months on a contract gig to earn trip money, and dug into the logistics and planning, which absorbed many, many hours of my time during the ensuing 11 months.

Robin still hasn’t heard all the little stories of my trip. I’m eternally grateful for her enthusiastic and unconditional support. I couldn’t have done it without her. But I really don’t wanna go on any more trips by myself, so she’s just gonna hafta buckle down and suck up the airplane rides, because as much as people tout solo travel, it’s nothing compared to sharing the experiences, and the pain, with a loved one!