New Zealand hadn’t really been on our radar until we made a random decision to spend three weeks roadtripping the South Island (almost two years ago now).
Once we started looking into going to New Zealand, we realised to our shame that this neighbouring country is closer to us than flying to Hobart. Or Alice Springs. Or even Darwin.
It is well known that the husband cannot be convinced that staying in fixed accommodation could possibly be fun on a holiday so we hired a campervan, yet again.
And the thing is, self-catering is much easier when you have a kitchen with you at all times. Being in a van, of course, also means you’re flexible and can change your plans. Big bonus for two people who seem incapable of doing sufficient research.
New Zealand being the land of all things campervanning, our roadtrip was both fun and not so fun.
TOP 5 IN NEW ZEALAND
1. HIKING THE ROUTEBURN GREAT WALK
If we’d realised sooner how brilliant the hiking trail system is in New Zealand, we’d probably have done all the Great Walks, and not so great walks, by now.
And so the absolute highlight of our three-week trip was, without a doubt, hiking the Routeburn Track.
Initially we wanted to do the iconic Milford Track but that was booked out, the Kepler Track didn’t quite work with our plans, and the Heaphy Track requires a crazy car shuttle. Plus I love alpine areas and the Routeburn takes you through stunning fjord and subalpine scenery.
From beginning to end, the Routeburn is breathtaking. For parts of it, you feel like you’re traipsing through Middle Earth.
We were blessed with incredible weather, and given that only the day before it was bucketting, having dry weather was something to be extremely grateful for.
2. STUFFING MY FACE FULL OF GLUTEN-FREE FISH & CHIPS
One of the first things I google once we’ve decided on a new place is where to get gluten-free food. Supermarkets are my usual choice but it’s also nice to find a local gluten-free bakery or café for a treat.
I think I may have squealed when I found out about Erik’s gluten-free fish & chips in Wanaka (now closed, only open in Queenstown now). Not that fish & chips are particularly healthy but I hadn’t eaten them in years so this place was a definite must on our itinerary.
And what can I say other than that I went completely overboard, ordered so much food that I couldn’t eat for the rest of the day and had to drink chamomile tea for two days to somehow help my digestion deal with the inflicted overload of grease and ‘beigeness’.
It was utterly delicious even if I couldn’t move for hours after and felt like I’d swallowed a rock.
3. REVELLING IN THE BEAUTY OF AORAKI NATIONAL PARK
The Southern Alps are impressive for obvious reasons: they’re a ragged, peaky range dotted with glacial lakes, subalpine meadows, tarns, and a million and one hiking trails.
The area around Mount Cook (Aoraki) is especially stunning and the hikes are beautiful. We’ll have to return as the Hooker Valley Track was still closed after a horrendous weather event earlier that year.
4. CATCHING THE SUNSET ON THE WEST COAST
Living on the east coast of Australia means sunrise over the ocean so being able to watch the sun slowly melt into the ocean is pretty special. We’ve only been able to see this at Mindill Beach in Darwin and a couple of times on the west coast in Canada.
And, of course, on the west coast of New Zealand.
5. CAMPING AT RAKAIA GORGE
Most of the campgrounds we stayed at in New Zealand weren’t so hot but Rakaia Gorge Camping Ground was a definite standout. River-front views, great facilities and the walk to Rakaia Gorge right next door.
Of course, we arrived late in the afternoon, rushed around to do the hike to Rakaia Gorge, and wished we had another night. The all too familiar story of our road trips…
Which also leads me to our lows…
FLOP 5 IN NEW ZEALAND
To be quite honest, it wasn’t love at first sight with New Zealand.
But we did return later the same year to hike the Abel Tasman Coast Track, and I have extremely fond memories now so clearly New Zealand wasn’t that bad. In fact, I can’t wait for New Zealand travel to open up again!
Our highs far outweighed our lows but since this is a tops & flops review, I’ll have to mention the negatives. Except for the first one, they’re all a bit feeble though.
1. NOT FEELING WILD & REMOTE
Tourism marketing in Australia (and plenty of friends) would like us to believe that New Zealand is rugged, wild, remote and “100% pure”. So it’s not really surprising that we came with clear pictures in our heads.
It’s not that New Zealand isn’t wild. It is, in small bits.
But when you finally manage to get a sense of remoteness or wilderness, you then also see plenty of evidence of the human impact.
On Day 2 of our Routeburn hike, we were walking along the mountain ridge, revelling at the insane beauty around us and feeling worlds away. A river valley snaking below us, glimpses of the ocean in the far distance, streams and waterfalls along the track, snow-capped mountain ranges.
But then I wondered what the grey patch down in the valley was, and we realised with some ‘horror’ that it was a carpark and a road. Leading to the trailhead for another multi-day hike.
And so civilisation came crashing back in.
New Zealand places a big emphasis on conservation, and it’s evident. Yet, the South Island feels like there is not a single square foot that isn’t either conservation land, farmland or housing. Of course, if I got dropped in the middle of Fiordland National Park, I might think otherwise but there is also the stark reality that irrigated farmland has increased exponentially in the last 15 years.
New Zealand is beautiful, no argument there, but, to the husband in particular, it felt tamed. And perhaps also because we live in a vast and remote country, and have loved every minute we’ve spent in the truly rugged wilderness of Canada.
Experiencing New Zealand as tame is largely a mismatch of idealised marketing and reality but this also points to the fact that agriculture is big business here.
2. EATING FAKE CREAM DONUTS
Neither of us is a fan of mock cream. In fact, I don’t know anyone who is.
After buying cream-filled donuts and not giving the ‘cream factor’ a second thought, we realised that cream donuts in New Zealand are more of the fake cream variety than not. (From then on, we always asked about the cream!)
My delicious cream-filled gluten-free donut turned out to be … mock cream and meh. Which was a huge disappointment since donuts are my one weakness.
3. MISSING A SENSE OF “OTHERNESS”
New Zealand feels distinctly familiar, at least at first glance.
There are similar (and the same) food items at supermarkets, you can find similar (if not the same) shops, road rules are just about the same, even bakeries look almost the same (minus cream buns).
New Zealand feels like a larger version of Tasmania and a smaller one of Canada, all in one neat little package. Plus sheep.
The relatedness between Australia and New Zealand is obvious and not surprising but our first trip felt distinctly like ‘not overseas’. And I think that was weird; after all we did go through passport control.
That said, we went back later that year and just enjoyed New Zealand for what it is, a beautiful spot.
4. BEING SURPRISED BY DOC CAMPGROUNDS
Hiking in New Zealand is as good as it gets.
But car-based camping. Not so much.
We did stay at some fantastic campgrounds but on the whole, the Department of Conservation (DOC) campgrounds were on the far from impressive side of things. Which really surprised us given the fantastic shape that New Zealand hiking trails are in.
The toilets were usually a bit meh, the ground was mostly sad and uneven gravel, and at most places, we sort of just squished in with a ton of other vans and cars.
All of that would be fine if they hadn’t been as expensive as they were (relative to what you get).
5. THE SIZE OF MILFORD SOUND
I don’t know if this was really a low but I’ve struggled to come up with five so I’ve thrown this one in.
If you see Milford Sound in ads or photos, it always looks grand and vast and spectacular. And it is spectacular. It’s just not that grand. Or vast.
Or it is if you haven’t been to Norway or Canada, and seen their fjords.
We saw Milford Sound on a picture perfect day, of which there are only a few a year. Most people see it clouded in fog and mist, which is apparently very atmospheric (and given our experience on the Inside Passage, I believe that).
But we hit the open ocean much quicker than either of us expected, and then it was back into the fjord to finish our boat excursion.
Milford Sound is definitely worth a visit. It’s worth the overpriced boat trip, and it’s worth the over-touristy nature of the experience. But the fjord is much smaller than you might think.
It’s funny how memories and impressions change after a while. My thoughts on New Zealand are far more positive now than initially when we came back from our first trip.
I think we always romanticise holidays later, unless they were truly awful.
Despite the not-very-delicious donuts we had, the gluten-free fish and chips were outstanding. And even though there are traces of civilisation around (almost) every corner, New Zealand offers incredible natural beauty on such a small land mass. If you’re from Australia, of course, it will feel familiar to an extent but on the flip side, you don’t have to worry about going without Weetbix or Vegemite for even a day, it’s all right there for you.
Go hiking, stay in huts, and there’s little chance you’ll be disappointed!