DEPT: The Good Life
AUTHOR & PHOTOS: Ada Tseng
ISSUE: Summer 2013
“Honeymooning could be full of long walks on the beach and relaxing couples spas — or you could explore the adventurous outdoors in New Zealand’s South Island to see how much excitement you can really take.”
A travel agent had advised us against the campervan. She told us that approximately a third of her American clients who campervan through New Zealand end up crashing into something. You’re driving on the left side of the road, steering from the right side of the car, and operating a vehicle bulky enough to fit a makeshift sofa-bed, kitchen and bathroom inside. She didn’t even mention the windy mountain roads, the absence of street lights outside the tiny towns, and the wonder that is the “one-lane bridge.”
We didn’t listen to her. Other things we ignored: the campervan customer service representative’s concerned look after he saw we were headed toward Arthur’s Pass for our first time left-lane driving; the recommendation we not drive at night (unfortunately at sunset, we were still three hours away from our destination); the red light we accidentally missed that resulted in us driving toward oncoming traffic (the driver was surprisingly understanding when we apologized); and that sign for “Death’s Corner” I drove past that I thought best not to mention to my husband, his eyes closed, dizzy from carsickness in the passenger’s seat.
As I was cruising along in the darkness, I kept repeating to myself some advice I had gotten about driving in New Zealand. Most of the time, there’s no traffic, so you’ll get used to driving on the left side. But if you see another car on the road, just remember: your instinct is always wrong.
If you’re a tourist visiting the gorgeous, wild islands of New Zealand (all in full, jaw-dropping display while you’re driving during the daytime), you’re not there to follow your everyday instincts. You’re there to jump out of a plane, catapult yourself off a bridge, swim with wildlife, kayak for five hours in the pouring rain, ride a high-speed jetboat as it whips around boulders, and hike a slippery glacier with terrain that looks a bit like one of those slot canyons in 127 Hours, where James Franco’s character got trapped and ended up sawing his arm off.
You’re here for adventure. And whatever happens, you’ll have the time of your life. Here are a few recommendations for a trip to South Island.
HIKING FRANZ JOSEF GLACIER
Located on the west side of the South Island, Franz Josef Glacier descends from the Southern Alps into the rainforest of Westland Tai Poutini National Park. You can either walk up from the Franz Josef village to see the glacier or even better, you can take a helicopter to actually hike on the glacier. The latter tour provides you with the requisite clothing and footwear, including crampons to ensure your boots have good grip on the ice, as well as a strapping, young male guide who leads you around the glacier and chips away at the glacier floor with an ice ax to make it less dangerous to climb. Be prepared to crawl under ice caves, shimmy your way through narrow passages, and climb up and down steep cliffs with the help of a rope swing. Afterward, stop by the village’s Glacier Hot Pools for some rest and relaxation.
Located on the northeast coast of the South Island, Kaikoura is popular for whale watching, and visitors come specifically to see the sperm whale, which legend says led Maori ancestor Paikea to New Zealand many centuries ago. Because it’s in the middle of two tectonic plates with high cliffs and ocean currents, Kaikoura is a great place to find marine life in general, including southern fur seals and ocean seabirds such as albatrosses, petrels and shearwaters. But most exciting of all, there are tours where you can go swim with dusky dolphins in their natural environment. So put on your wetsuit, jump in, and resist the urge to ride one into the sunset.
BUNGEE JUMPING AND SKY DIVING
The Kawarau Bungy Centre in Queenstown is regarded as the world’s first commercial bungee, set up in 1988 by pioneer AJ Hackett, who has broken six Guinness records for his bungee stunts. Queenstown also boasts New Zealand’s highest bungee, the Nevis Bungy, set 440 feet above the Nevis River. But if that’s not enough adrenaline for you, New Zealand is also a very popular place to sky dive, as some locals see jumping out of an airplane as a rite of passage.
KAYAKING ON MILFORD SOUND
Milford Sound is New Zealand’s most famous tourist destination (English author Rudyard Kipling called it the Eighth Wonder of the World). Located in the southwest of the South Island, Milford Sound is a fjord, which is an inlet carved by glacial activity, a peaceful bay surrounded by rock cliffs. Visitors can marvel at the breathtaking landscapes on a boat tour that will last one to two hours, or alternately, you can do what we did: kayak on the waters of Milford Sound to get up close to the waterfalls. The half-day tours run from sunrise to sunset, and after five hours in a kayak, you’ll feel like you got a pretty good arm workout.
THE LORD OF THE RINGS TOURS
It’s hard to quantify how much the Lord of the Rings trilogy has done for New Zealand tourism, but there are so many Lord of the Rings tours that it’s a shame to not at least attend one of them. Although the Wellington movie production hub and the sets of Hobbiton are on the North Island, the South Island is filled with memorable landscapes as well. The aforementioned Franz Josef Glacier was used for the lighting of the beacons; Queenstown is where you will recognize locations such as Isengard, Lothlorien and the Ford of Brunein; and you can even book a horseback riding tour to Paradise, where you’ll see Amon Hen, the Wizard’s Vale, and the mighty peak of Methedras. Also, many of the tours will let you play with replicas of LOTR’s costumes and swords, so as a bonus, you can dress up as Gimli, play with Aragorn’s sword, and take the dorkiest photos of your lives.