Today is my final day in New Zealand. Well – it’s my final day in New Zealand FOR NOW. Let’s be honest, I’m absolutely coming back. I’m not sure if it was shortsighted of me to choose such a fabulously breathtaking place as my first main destination – it’s definitely set the bar VERY high – but needless to say, the past month has seen me somersaulting head over heels into a fiery love affair with this country. Hot damn.
Despite the crippling breakup I’m about to endure with this blissful place, I really shouldn’t whine – Melbourne is next up, and I just know I’m going to adore this cultural powerhouse of a city. But I’m getting ahead of myself here – let’s talk about my final days amongst the kiwis.
Queenstown: Adrenal Overload
The ‘adventure capital of the world’ did not fail to deliver. Nestled between the impossibly blue Lake Wakatipu and the impossibly beautiful Southern Alps, Q’Town is a prominent fixture on the bucket lists of any adrenaline junkies worth their salt. The birthplace of bungie jumping and jet boating, the town is also beloved for skiing, snowboarding, rafting, hiking, mountain biking, sky diving, fly fishing, ziplining, and various other activities that attract lunatics and fun junkies from around the world. Beyond that, it’s New Zealand’s party capital, boasting more happy hours and pub crawls than you can begin to count. You can imagine how disappointed I was to arrive here.
I didn’t waste any time diving into everything this epinephrine mecca has to offer. After a particularly intense night of scoping out the local bar scene (I intercepted a bunch of good bus buddies who were leaving the next morning, what was I to do?), I rose early the next morning to allow a couple of strangers to suspend me upside down 360 feet above the beautiful Shotover Canyon, pull a ripcord, and send me plummeting in a terrifying freefall. It was a fun way to shake off the morning’s hangover. Blasé.
Having started my day right, I decided to head to the top of the Queenstown gondola to soak in a half-decent view of the town below, and to live out all of my Mario Kart aspirations by karting down the Skyline Luge, a downhill kart track with an unbelievable backdrop. #notbad.
I finished the evening – and more than a couple of others – watching the sunset with friends by the lake over a few drinks (and a burger from the infamous Ferg Burger). It’s a backpacker tradition, and the open air drinking is legal in Queenstown!
Despite being less than 48 hours removed from the grueling hike up Roy’s Peak in Wanaka that I described in my last post (and still feeling incredibly sore), I’m a glutton for punishment. So naturally, I decided to dedicate the next half-day to Queenstown’s most difficult (and most rewarding) day hike to the peak of Ben Lomond. Given the state of my calves and quads, I may have uttered more than a couple of curses under my breath – but once again I was rewarded with an incredible view in exchange for my 4.5 hours of hiking. In this case, a 360-degree view of the surrounding Remarkables mountain range. Here’s what I saw at the top – and along the way.
Despite beautiful hot weather thus far, the next day brought with it a nasty tropical cyclone that doused Queenstown with relentless rains. Luckily for me, I was headed out of town early, at 7 AM, for a day trip to Milford Sound, New Zealand’s ‘eighth natural wonder of the world’. Technically a fjord, Milford Sound has been called the world’s most beautiful place. It’s also one of the world’s wettest places, and heavy rain at Milford means one thing: hundreds of glorious waterfalls. While the scenic boat tour had a bit more of a gloomy atmospheric tinge than I might have preferred, it was a great place to be as the rains fell.
For my last few days in Queenstown, I spent a bit of time relaxing and knocking out some research and planning for future trip legs before resuming some of the madness again. I rented a bike for free from my awesome hostel (shoutout to the nice folks at Adventure Q2 hostel) and biked along the lakefront and botanic gardens with my friend Iris. I did another, less insane hike – Queenstown Hill. I tried plenty of local fare. Et cetera.
Last but not least, I had a morning wake up call with another close travel companion, Ira, aboard the Shotover Jet, Queenstown’s original jet boat – which is exactly what it sounds like. A boat, equipped with jet engines, careening wildly through the Shotover Canyon (often sideways) at 85+ kph, drifting tail-out and evoking a chorus of screams from passengers as it narrowly avoids canyon walls and rips 360-degree spins in the shallow waters. It was a good laugh.
Of course, all good things must come to an end, and eventually the time did come to bid this nutty town adieu, having emptied my adrenal gland all over its lovely soil – with a few last shakes to ensure I’d gotten it all 😂
Moving on: Mt. Cook and Christchurch
The last few bus legs after Queenstown were as scenic as any other portion of the trip. I know, I couldn’t believe it either. The first stop was Mt. Cook, New Zealand’s highest peak. Here’s a few views from the trip along the way.
Unfortunately, my short visit was plagued by hazy cloud cover and light rains – but that didn’t stop me from enjoying the scenery along the way, nor from tackling the 10km Hooker Valley track once there. It’s a dead-easy walk, but the views are pretty amazing – even despite the pervasive haze. The biggest bummer was missing out on the area’s legendary stargazing, but alas – c’est la vie!
After a quick night’s rest, it was off to Christchurch, where I’m currently writing this post. Christchurch was once one of New Zealand’s most charmingly beautiful towns, dripping with English style and covered with lush gardens. In 2010 and 2011, however, the scenery quickly changed when the city was struck by a series of devastating earthquakes that caused unfathomable damage to the town. In the wake of the destruction, 185 were dead, and the city was forever changed when it was violently torn apart – quite literally.
The public exhibition below, titled ‘185 White Chairs’ commemorates those who lost their lives in the February 2011 quake.
Even 7 years later, the city is still clearly reeling from the damage, both psychologically and physically – the entire city is a giant construction zone. Encouragingly, though, Christchurch has embraced the opportunity for rebirth. On hundreds of damaged facades throughout the city, vibrant street art has been breathing new art into the scarred cityscape. Innovative art projects from an organization called Gap Filler are dotted throughout the town, providing glimpses of hope in what was – not long ago – a very broken city. Makeshift shopping centers erected from colorful shipping containers, ambitious new businesses, fun eateries, and creative little projects are everywhere. Art galleries and museums are bustling.
While certainly not the single most exciting destination of my trip thus far, it’s been pretty cool to see the creative renaissance taking over this town in the wake of the devastation of 2011 – and frankly, it’s been nice having a quiet couple of days to reflect on my last month here in New Zealand. What an incredible month it has been!
As I mentioned earlier in the post, I head to Melbourne, Australia tonight – Southern mecca for street art, coffee, culture, art, and great food. While I’m incredibly excited to head that way – Melbourne is one of the cities I’ve most looked forward to in the world – it’s awfully bittersweet. NZ has quickly risen to the top of my ‘favorite places in the world’ list, and I think it’s easy to see why. All I know is, I’ll be back. Let me know if you want to come with!
Goodbye for now, New Zealand. As for the rest of you – talk soon!