New Zealand was one of those countries I always dreamt of visiting. It has been on my wishlist for long and finally, in April 2017, I got the opportunity to travel solo to the Land of Mountains, Fjords and Adventure for 2 weeks. The land area of New Zealand is about 268,021 sqr kms and the population is about 4.8 million i.e. around 17 people per sqr km. This in comparison to India is minuscule. The population density of India is around 400 people per sqr km. Having said that, New Zealand is definitely a vast island country and there is so much to do and explore and 2 weeks are hardly sufficient. Nevertheless, I made the best use of my little time there – backpacking around the country and created memories for a lifetime.
New Zealand is basically divided into two major islands – The North Island and South Island. Both these islands have a personality of their own. The North Island is known for its national parks, cosmopolitan cities and volcanic activity. It is more populous and busy in comparison to the South Island. The South Island, on the other hand, is renowned for its glaciers, lakes and mountains. It is also a hub for an array of adventure sports. So if you have limited time in New Zealand, spend more time exploring the South Island.
As a solo backpacker, one is usually overwhelmed with the whole idea of travelling alone to a far off country. When I started out researching on New Zealand, I was surprised that the internet had very limited information to offer. I then reached out to a good friend of mine who had backpacked solo around the country for 3 months, and he had some valuable tips to offer. The Lonely Planet New Zealand travel guide also provided a great amount of detailed information that eased off some burden.
Budget and Food
New Zealand is a pretty expensive country and this can be a slight let down for solo travellers on a budget trip (especially if you are earning in Indian rupees 😛 ). A hostel bed per night costs anywhere between 25-30 NZD. So plan your budget accordingly. Eating out can be quite expensive too. One meal per person costs about 15-18 NZD. You may want to pick up groceries from the supermarket and cook your own meals at the hostel kitchen or feed on fruits and vegetables like I did. Being a vegetarian and a health conscious person, I sometimes find it too hard to find food during my travels abroad. Thus, I’m well equipped with a couple of ready to eat Indian food and Soups. I love fruits and the fruits in New Zealand are super yummy. I thrived on Feijoas, Kiwis, Oranges and Bananas.
Obtaining a Visit Visa
I am adding this section as I am often encountered with this question, especially by Indian passport holders. So, my information on this topic is directed only to Indian passport holders. I obtained an E-visa by applying directly online to the New Zealand Immigration. The website clearly explains the procedure and all the documents that you need to upload along with your visa application. Once you submit your application and pay the fees online, you may be asked to submit your passport for verification at the nearest TT service centre. Your passport will then be sent to the immigration authorities in New Zealand for verification. You will receive your passport via courier in a week’s time to the postal address that you provided. The decision on your visa typically takes about 20-30 days and you will receive a confirmation/rejection via email. Another option is to apply for a visa through a travel agent. The chances of visa rejection are quite less when you go through an agent.
Transportation in New Zealand
It is great if you can rent a car or a camper van and drive around the country. But if you want to experience the real New Zealand while making loads of friends on the way, you should definitely travel by a hop-on-hop-off backpacker bus. There are many such backpacker buses and I chose to travel with Stray. Stray travel is highly flexible and easy to manage. The drivers are a rich source of information about the place, food and culture. The best part is that you meet so many interesting people from different backgrounds and nationalities during your travel that simply amplifies your experience. Within the cities, you can use public buses to travel. Be prepared to walk a lot in New Zealand. I walked nearly 14-15 kms a day during my trip. Hitchhiking is another easy option to travel from one town to other in New Zealand. Hitchhiking is very common and safe in New Zealand. Don’t hesitate to stand on the road and stop a car like a BOSS with a smile 🙂
Stay in New Zealand
There are plenty of stay options in New Zealand. New Zealand tourism is highly evolved and has made life easy for travellers. I chose to stay at Airbnb and hostels, primarily because of budget and flexibility.
Places that I went to and the things that I did!
I had my flight from Bangalore to Auckland via Kuala Lumpur. On arriving at Auckland, I was welcomed by Auckland’s sunny and fantastic weather (21 degrees Celsius) which is quite rare. I hopped on a shuttle bus that took me straight to my Airbnb – The Trafalgar House. This is a beautifully restored 130-year-old mansion run by extremely kind and sweet hosts Kathy and David. Located in the quiet neighbourhood of Onehunga, the bus stop is just 2-mins away from the property where you get frequent buses to the City Centre.
I spent 2 nights in Auckland. If you want to explore the city, you must head to the city centre and get a feel of the busy city life. Auckland’s sky observation tower provides a great view of the city from a height of 220m. There are some cool and “expensive” bars and restaurants around. Cornwall Park is one of the must visit places when in Auckland. It is a refuge for bikers, runners, picnickers and travellers. It is home to a wide variety of vegetation and has a working farm inside the park. The hike to One-tree Hill is rewarding with its picturesque view from the summit.
There are a couple of day trips that you can do from Auckland to some neighbouring islands in the Hauraki Gulf. I took the ferry from Downtown terminal to Rangitoto volcanic island and spent a day tramping through lava fields and forest, a one of its kind experience.
On Anzac Day, a national holiday in New Zealand I spent time at Mission Bay beach and Auckland Botanical Gardens with two amazing women that I met at The Trafalgar House. Mission Bay beach is serene for sunbathing and paddle-boating. We also took a long walk around the Tamaki Drive, the coastal road which follows the contours of the Waitematā Harbour for divine views of the harbour.
With so much more to explore, I had to bid adieu to North island and proceed to the much-awaited South island!
I took a domestic flight from Auckland to Queenstown, to explore the mighty South-Island. One of the best views of the country can be from your plane seat as you come into land at Queenstown Airport. I was left absolutely speechless while flying over the beautiful Southern Alps draped in autumn colours and pristine turquoise coloured lakes. I just didn’t want to land at all.
Surrounded by the majestic Remarkables and framed by the serpentine coves of Lake Wakatipu, it is no surprise that Queenstown is boast-worthy. Although a small town, Queenstown has the vibes and the energy of a big city and beams with pride as the “Global Adventure Capital”.
I had my first bungy experience at the Kawarau Bridge which is the birthplace of Bungy. I was insanely anxious and laughing hysterically out of nervousness standing on the edge of the bridge and before I could blink, I jumped off the bridge screaming with fear and joy. And as I hung there, upside down I was glad that I was still alive to soak in the experience.
That evening I treated myself to a nice lip-smacking ice-cream at Patagonia Chocolates and took a Gondola ride to get a beautiful view of the town in twilight. Crashing at Base Backpackers was a great decision because this hostel is right in the city centre. Clubs, bars, restaurants and shops are easy to reach from here. It is so easy to socialise with other travellers in Queenstown, with everyone sharing their adventure experiences. The weather in Queenstown is unpredictable and it is useful to carry an umbrella or raincoat all the time. The one thing that I missed doing in Queenstown was the gruelling Ben Lomond hike. The weather was unfavourable and with my limited time in NZ, I had to skip this one and proceed to my next destination. When in Queenstown, don’t miss to gorge on the world’s best burger – the Fergburger. Be prepared to wait in a long queue, but the wait for this gastronomical delight is totally worth it!
Wanaka is the quaint sister of Queenstown. It is about a 2-hour drive from Queenstown to Wanaka. I decided to do a tandem skydive at Wanaka in the morning slot and set off early in the morning from Queenstown. The weather was great with clear skies and as I jumped off the plane at 12,000 feet I felt a strange tingling sensation in my stomach during the first 45 seconds of free-fall. Sky-diving is a high-risk activity with at least one fatality occurring every 1000 dives. But once the parachute was open, my heart calmed down and the view from above was beyond description. The mountains, trees and lakes looked mesmerisingly beautiful. At that point, I could not thank God enough for this wonderful world and for this experience. I sailed down slowly with a beaming smile on my face and tears in my eyes.
For the next two hours, I sat by Lake Wanaka to completely embrace the sky-diving experience with visuals playing back in my head over and over again.
Lake Wanaka is the most ravishing lake that I have ever come across. Framed by the stunning Southern Alps, a lonely tree has grown up to spread its wings just off shore at the south end of Lake Wanaka. Known as the “Lone tree of Wanaka”, it is one of the most photographed trees in New Zealand.
I also took a walk around the Eely Point Recreational Reserve amidst New Zealand’s fern trees. The freshness in the air and the golden yellow leaves scattered on the shores made for a walk to remember.
The picturesque town of Te-Anau is a gateway to South Island’s Fiordland national park and Milford Sound. We stopped here on our way to Milford Sound for a quick toilet break and to stock up some food supplies from the supermarkets nearby.
Milford Sound is a fjord in South Island. It’s known for towering Mitre Peak, rainforests and one of the highest waterfalls in New Zealand – the Bowen falls, which plummet down its sheer sides. The fjord is home to penguins, fur seal colonies and dolphins. We were lucky to spot some seals while cruising.
On completing the Milford Sound cruise we spent the night at Gunn’s camp, a historic camp nestled in the Hollyford Valley.
One of the most terrible experiences in New Zealand was the 1-hour ferry ride from Bluff terminal to Stewart Island, the southernmost island in New Zealand. It was raining that evening and the sea was rough, turning the ferry ride to a crazy roller coaster ride making me sea sick. I hoped and prayed to reach Stewart Island in one piece. I was pretty upset with the rainy weather since I was planning on staying only for one night at Stewart Island. Late at night, a few of us went to the playground nearby to spot Kiwis. Kiwis are nocturnal flightless birds, that come out of their burrows at night to feed on insects and worms. They are highly sensitive to human scent and usually refrain from coming out when they smell human flesh. However, the Kiwis in Stewart island are not very shy and the probability of spotting a Kiwi here is quite high. Stewart Island is also one of the best places in the world for star gazing. The people of Maori in New Zealand have a specific name for the Island known as Rakiura which means Glowing Skies. The secluded setting of the Island lays a good foundation for viewing the sky. The fact that it is sparsely populated accounts for its lack of light pollution. I would like to believe that I saw the entire Milky Way galaxy that night along with the seven constellations and billions of other stars. Wow! What an unforgettable night – still so fresh in my mind.
With the Almighty’s grace, I woke up to a pleasant weather the next morning. Considering that it rains for almost 250 days a year at Stewart Island, I was indeed fortunate to have woken up to a rain-free sunny day. I was all set to hike to the Acker’s point and the Observation rock. The hike was fantabulous and the pictures do no justice to what I captured with my eyes.
AORAKI / MOUNT COOK
The resplendent drive from Queenstown to Mt Cook is unforgettable. The scenery keeps changing every few minutes. This is really what sets New Zealand apart from the rest of the countries that I have travelled to. The country is blessed with many natural wonders such as volcanic mountains, snowy Southern Alps, fjords, lakes, glow-worm caves and stunning beaches. Every time you move from one town to another, there is so much more to explore and so many new things to do.
We encountered a funny situation where a flock of hundreds of sheep caused a traffic jam for nearly 15-20 minutes. It was amazing to see these cute looking sheep scampering on the road with a don’t care attitude. We reached Mt Cook village at noon and checked into the Mt Cook Backpacker lodge located in the spectacular Aoraki Mount Cook National Park overlooking the stunning Alps.
Soon after lunch, we headed out for a walk at the Hooker Valley track. This is one of the best day walks that takes about 3-4 hours (return). The walking track starts near the Hermitage Hotel, heads up the Hooker Valley and crosses three swing bridges to the Stocking Stream and the terminus of the Hooker Glacier. Once you cross the first swing bridge, the view of Mt Cook dominates the track and you can also see a lot of icebergs floating on the Hooker river. It was extremely windy and cold during the walk, but we fed off from the stunning landscapes.
Aoraki / Mount Cook is named after English Captain James Cook who surveyed and circumnavigated the islands of New Zealand in 1770. Mount Cook is the highest mountain in New Zealand standing at a height of 3,724 metres (12,218 feet). The summit is sandwiched between the Tasman Glacier and the Hooker Glacier and is a favourite challenge for mountain climbers. At the end of the Hooker Valley track, you can get an up-close view of mighty Mount Cook.
I had to cancel my plans of walking on the Sealy-Tarns track the next day, owing to bad weather and non-stop rainfall. I spent some time at the Hermitage Hotel and also visited the Aoraki Visitor Centre. The Visitor Centre has an excellent display of old photographs, trekking equipment used by summiteers in the 80’s, flora, fauna and history.
On our way to Christchurch from Mt.Cook, we stopped at Lake Tekapo, a picturesque turquoise coloured lake, seated to a backdrop of rolling hills and snow-capped mountains. If you have time, you can definitely plan to stay here and do some amazing hikes in the Tekapo region.
Christchurch – the largest city in South Island was my final destination. An earthquake of magnitude 6.3 struck Christchurch in 2011, causing severe damage to the entire city. Thus, most parts of this city are now under restoration and there is not much to explore here as of now. I spent the evening with my Stray friends, discussing the highlights of the trip and bidding final adieus over dinner and drinks.
In a nutshell…
With 150kms of walking and hiking over 2 weeks, temperatures ranging from -2 to +21 degrees Celsius, mesmerising landscapes draped in autumn colours, bungy jumping, sky-diving and hitchhiking for the very first time and loads of strangers who turned friends – solo backpacking in the land of fern-trees, mountains, kiwis and sheep was one hell of an adventure. I must admit that I am totally in love with this country and is truly the best country, of the 18 countries I have visited so far.
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