It started ON THE NORTH ISLAND.
We arrived in Auckland before 6am on a Saturday morning. Our local NZ host, Brett Ashley, rose bright and early to meet us at the airport and deliver us to our adorable Airbnb in the Kingsland neighborhood. After checking in, we drove over to the west side of the island, about an hour outside the city, to see the sandy coastline. We arrived at Piha beach, where we hiked up a steep seastack formation for a sweeping view up and down the wide beach, and watched as the sky darkened and a storm rolled in.
Undeterred by the rain, we embarked on a hike to a waterfall in the jungle, which was much more tropical than I had expected. Giant palm leaves, bright flowers, and the smell of wet soil surrounded us.
The next day was hot and sunny, so we drove a different direction to check out another beach. Up north of Auckland, on the east coast this time, we passed rugged cliffs and cute coastal towns until we arrived at our destination: Goat Island Marine Reserve. We rented some wetsuits and snorkel gear and hopped in. We had no idea what to expect, but once we swam away from shore towards the island we started seeing fish... BIG fish. They weren't bothered by us, and swam right underneath our bodies along the coral formations. The sight of enormous fish just beneath us never got old.
Road Tripping the South Island.
Cars in New Zealand drive on the opposite side of the road. Now I’d never be comfortable running a 5 minute-errand in a reversed car, let alone zooming all over the country in an old Toyota Ipsum minivan. Thankfully Dave was up for the challenge. Of the 4 of us on the 4-day road trip, he drove every single kilometer.
We started in Queenstown and followed a twisty highway around giant lakes, beneath rocky peaks, and through emerald fields full of sheep. We drove through the sunset and into a tiny lakeside town called Te Anau (yeah I still don’t think I’m pronouncing that correctly).
Fly Fishing New Zealand
The next day began quite early for us, but nobody minded because it was a day we’d been long anticipating: our guided fly fishing excursion. We had researched Orvis-recommended local guides before our trip and found someone named Dean Whaanga, along with a buddy of his, to take us out. These guys went above and beyond. They spent every minute of daylight with us (plus a few hours before sunrise), making sure we got the most out of our fly fishing experience.
They even invited us back to Dean’s beautiful house after we finished up on the river. His wife fried some fish he’d caught the day before, and prepared a delicious charcuterie board for us to eat as we sat around their dining room table and talked about life in New Zealand. By the time we left, we felt like we’d been initiated into the family.
One of the wettest places on earth is Milford Sound. And it certainly felt that way the day we visited. In one day, the sound can get up to 10 inches of rainfall. When the rain falls this forcefully, it actually becomes even more stunning than on a sunny day. All this water creates dozens of temporary waterfalls that crash down from the steep cliffs on either side of the fiord and run directly into the ocean. It really is spectacular.
We took a 2-hour tour boat cruise (really the only way to see the area) where a naturalist over a sound system explained the wildlife and geology of the fiord. We glimpsed seals and dolphins along our route, and the captain even pulled us close enough to a waterfall that the people on the front of the vessel were soaked by the spray (Dave, Katrina, and Matt were brave enough to go experience the “Glacial Facial,” but I retreated inside for hot tea).
The weather in the area changes drastically and very quickly. Over the course of our morning in Milford, we experienced bright sunlight, rapidly swirling cloud cover, and for a brief moment torrential rainfall. These rotating weather patterns make the fiord feel like a dramatic spot, a place where big things happen. The tops of the peaks surrounding the fiord disappear into the clouds, which is both picturesque and slightly unsettling.
Camping on Lake Te Anau
The drive back south toward Lake Te Anau was full of spectacular scenery. The road takes you through a narrow, dark, soggy tunnel, and then emerges into a high mountain valley. As you descend the road starts to follow the curve of the Eglington River, and hugs a valley framing the mountains you just left behind.
We’d planned to camp that night, and spent the next few hours of the drive pulling into camping spots to find a good one. The ideal spot turned out to be fairly remote; we followed an unmarked dirt road (over some treacherous potholes that had me extremely concerned) for about 20 minutes and ended up in a perfect little lakeside clearing. There was even a firepit built by the last campers! We parked the overworked Ipsum and set up our first camp.
Dinner that night was accompanied by some incredible views. We took our bowls and beers, hiked up our pants, and crossed a shallow stream to get out to a large rocky island in the lake. We talked about everything we’d seen on our trip so far, and watched the sun set behind the mountains across the lake. It was probably the least tasty meal of the trip, but definitely the most memorable.
The next morning we drove back up the island towards Queenstown, but decided to add one more stop to our journey. We climbed a steep, winding road up the mountains north of Queenstown — stopping for lunch at a retro hotel called the Cardrona, with backyard picnic tables and very tasty burgers — and crossed into the lakeside town of Wanaka.
After emerging from the green, glistening, soggy world of Te Anau, this landscape felt radically different. Dry, arid, and even hot. It was such summery weather in Wanaka that I begged the group to go on a paddle boarding adventure. We rented boards at the beach and spent an hour paddling ourselves around and getting a good look at the surrounding peaks (all the lakes on the South Island seem to be surrounded by peaks).
The next two nights in Queenstown were spent with 7 friends (5 Americans, 1 Australian, and a Brit) in a beautiful Airbnb right in the town center. In winter and summer alike, Queenstown is an adventure hub for all kinds of outdoor thrills. Visitors can jetboat the lake, climb or ski the surrounding hills, and bungee jump (Katrina and Dave spent an afternoon bungeeing above a nearby river gorge).
We spent one of our mornings atop the peak that overlooks the town. A gondola ferries passengers up the near-vertical slope to sweeping views of the town, lake, and mountains across. We let loose our inner children and rode a few rounds of go carts down a cement luge track. Definitely worth doing, with kids or just playful adults. To take advantage of our final night in civilization before starting the backpacking portion of our trip, we went out for burgers and beers along the lake in town.
The Routeburn Track
The next day dawned bright and early, as we caught our 6am bus to the starting point on our trek. Almost 8 months earlier, we had decided to book one of New Zealand’s famous “Great Walks.” These multi-day trekking paths through impressive tropical and alpine scenery are one of the biggest draws for outdoors tourists to the country, and their popularity ensures that camping permits book up well in advance. We decided on the Routeburn Track, a 32-km path that overlaps two national parks (Mount Aspiring NP and Fiordland NP). The track would take us 3 days, up to 1,300 meters of elevation, through forests, meadows, and high alpine ridges.
The Southern end point to the track begins in the Southland region, near the top of Lake Te Anau. We started immediately climbing steeply, passing through damp, green, lush vegetation. Every once in a while, the greenery would clear to our left and we’d catch a glimpse of the valley below. Steamy wisps of fog swirled around us as we climbed up through cloud layers. The trail took us past many waterfalls, and eventually we came to an enormous cascade that soaked us with the mist coming off it. The types of trees and bushes began to change as we climbed higher into alpine landscapes. Some reminded me of desert plants, like giant pointed aloe, and some looked like wild jungley trees.
Eventually we came to our camping stop for the night at Lake MacKenzie, a small-ish lake that seemed to glow a glacial turquoise color. As the sun set behind the peaks, a thin mist appeared and covered the greenish lake. We took a twilight stroll around the edge of the lake before cozying up into our sleeping bags for the night.
We awoke to a tent still coated in frost, and forced ourselves out into the brisk morning air. We packed up camp quickly and started our second day of the track: the longest section of the trail.
It began with a steep climb up the peaks on the opposite side of the lake, which quickly yielded some stunning views. Once we reached flatter terrain, the trail curved around the side of a tall peak and revealed the river valley far below us to the left. The scenery seemed to get more and more impressive with each passing kilometer.
One of the most memorable elements of the Routeburn Track was the clarity of the natural water sources along the trail. The water was so crystal clear that we’d fill our water bottles from streams and creeks without any need for a filter. It looked just like glass. Sometimes I’d look into a pool of still water beneath a footbridge and not be able to tell if the depth was two feet or twelve. I’d never seen natural water this clear in my life.
The highest point of the Routeburn Track is the Harris Saddle, which rises to 1300 meters above sea level. The thick forests we passed through earlier in the day were replaced with low grasses and lots of exposed rock faces. Katrina and Dave (our most dedicated adventurers) opted to add the side trip to Conical Hill, another 200 meters of elevation, while the other four of us (aka “Leisure Crew”) carried on over the other side of the pass.
Here’s where the scenery started feeling a lot like the set of Lord of the Rings. We passed a few smaller lakes, crossed over the boulder-strewn site of a 1980s landslide, and followed the path down steep sections of trail aided by manmade gravel stair sets.
Finally a smooth grassy valley came into view below us, the terrain began to flatten out and wind through dense tree cover. We were approaching our campsite for the night, the Routeburn Flats.
The Routeburn Flats turned out to be another picturesque campsite. Our tents perched on a low grassy ledge at the edge of the forest, overlooking a wide green valley and a clear meandering river. Behind the river, a fog wove through the mountains and occasionally revealed the ice fields on the taller sections of the peaks. Matt and Dave spent an hour casting for fish, but no luck here. The group indulged in a true camp happy hour of canned tuna, peanut butter, and whisky brought along in a plastic water bottle.
As we cooked dinner, a park ranger came by to give us a weather forecast. Apparently a massive storm was set to roll in the next day and for campers climbing the track in the opposite direction, it would mean a very wet, very miserable remainder of the trip. But since we were set to finish the next morning, we’d just miss most of the bad weather. We’d barely felt a raindrop the entire trip, and we couldn’t believe that our luck was holding out another day. The night passed in relative peace, besides the tiny mouse incessantly climbing on our tent looking for food.
We awoke to a very slight rain, so we packed quickly and went on our way to try to beat the storm out. The rain followed us throughout the morning, so we donned our waterproof gear. With our hooded raincoats and protective backpack covers, we looked like brightly colored bugs marching through the forest.
The final segment of the trail was almost completely flat, and followed a river through a dense forest. We crossed swinging footbridges, always keeping an eye out for trout in the water below. Finally, around noon, we traversed a final bridge and arrived at our destination.
We’d hiked 20 miles and climbed 2700 vertical feet. We’d passed through mossy forests and traversed high alpine mountain passes. We drank water straight from the source, walked under crashing waterfalls, and almost had rodent roommates in our tents. All in all, the Routeburn Track was nothing but a huge success.