April 20, 2018

New Zealand : The Land of the Middle Earth

Movies does inspire a lot of things we do aspire in our life. One such aspiration was to visit New Zealand, started on a small scale with the Bollywood movie Kaho Na Pyar Hai and went to giant proportions with the Lord of the Rings movie which showcased the land of the middle earth on a giant canvas. South island is the one which has all the spectacular lakes, mountains and nature's beauty. North island on the other hand has all the volcanic springs, glowworm caves and Maori culture. Hence making both the islands having their own distinct personality and not repetitive for a traveler. One piece of advice I would give to anyone visiting this nation would be to ditch the cities and head out to the wilderness.

We had a total of 11 days to explore this country. Close to 7 days on the South island and 3 on the North. We landed up in Christchurch, from where we headed south. There was nothing which caught our attention in Christchurch apart from the botanical gardens. We had expected some stunning fall colours, but we were early by atleast 2 weeks. The leaves had just started to change, but it was beautiful place to be. We stayed on the outskirts of the city,  known literally as Lyttleton. This place is nearby to the Christchurch gondola, which is a good thing to do , to get stunning birds eye view of the entire city and surrounding bays. Infact it seemed like all the major cities of New Zealand had their own gondola. We rode the gondola in Christchurch and Queenstown.

Once we had finished the gondola and enjoyed the views it was time to head south towards the southern Alps. The first major stop was lake Tekapo. A stunning glacial lake with aqua-turquoise blue water. There is also a small church by the lake which provides a great backdrop for photography enthusiasts. After Lake Tekapo comes Lake Pukaki on our way to Mt Cook village. This lake is equally stunning as Tekapo if not better. It is very tempting to stop at each of the lookouts to enjoy and absorb the view. The route to Mt Cook village runs the entire length of Lake Pukaki, with the backdrop of snow-caped Mt Cook completing the picture perfection. Mt Cook is the tallest mountain in New Zealand, standing at 3724m. Spending the night at the foot hills of Mt Cook was just a page out of fairy tale book. This region is also one of the most remote areas in NZ, hence making it a perfect place to watch some star studded night sky. Infact the region around Lake Tekapo and Mt Cook village are part of the International Dark Sky reserve because of very little light pollution. Unfortunately the moon played spoilsport with it being an almost full moon.

We initially planned to go on a chopper ride, to take in birds eye view of the mountainous area, but unfortunately due to heavy winds all the rides for the day were cancelled. Hence we decided to go for very highly recommended Hooker Valley Hike, which starts around a km from the village and traverses much further into the wilderness providing some great vistas of the snowcapped mountains and glaciers. The final point of the trek is the Hooker lake and the glacier. The total distance walked was around 12km and took us close to 4.5 hrs at our pace. The next stop for the day was Lake Hawea nearby Wanaka. New Zealand can easily be called as the land of the lakes with numerous lakes dotting the landscape, but having their own distinct character making it not monotonous.

The next day it was raining very heavily. Hence in order to get out of the rain we ended up in a place known as Puzzle World, where we spent couple of hours. It was an average place, with nothing too spectacular. With the rain clearing, lake Wanaka was stunning to say the least. The next stop of the day was Te Anau, via Arrowtown and Lake Hayes. Arrowtown is famous for its fall colors, but we were early again by atleast 3 weeks. Te Anau is a very peaceful town and a good stopover for people visiting the stunning Milford Sounds. Since we were on a self driving trip, the fuel prices started to climb as a moved away from Christchurch. One of the cheapest places for fuel is NPD fuel stations in the South Island which are totally self serve and payment fuel stations. It is advertised everywhere, that Te Anau is the last fuel stop for anyone moving to Milford Sound, a good 120km single direction. But we found a couple of smaller fuel stations enroute , with one in Milford Sound itself.

From Te Anau we left early in the morning for the day trip to Milford Sound. The enroute was just spectacular. Stunning steep mountains in all the directions due to ancient glacial movement. It was scene straight out of Pandora from Avatar movie. It had rained the previous day, hence we were to witness a gazillion small and not so small water falls from the mountains. The Milford Sound was made accessable to the outside world with a road built in year 1952, with a single lane 1.3km tunnel bored into the  mountain. This tunnel still retains its 1950s rustic look with its uneven walls from handcrafted tools of that era. A cruise in Milford sound is a must do activity. Our cruise took us on a 2.5hr ride across the area, giving some fantabulous views of region, taking us through waterfalls, under it, beside it and what not.  Milford sound is without doubt one of the most beautiful places I have ever been to. Apart from the cruise we visited other places such as The Chasm, which has top view of a rapid falls falling from great heights, the mirror lake and Lake Gunn nature walking trail.

After Milford sound the only place in South Island remaining in our itinerary was the adventure capital of the world, "Queenstown". Queenstown is a very picturesome town on the banks of Lake Wakatipu and flanked by the mightly remarkables. We went for gondola ride which provides some great birds eye views of the town, lugging with a view, kayaking in the lake, jet boating, ice bar and so on. Also we went on a drive to Glenorchy, the landscape of which is used in a lot of scenes of the LOTR movies. Apart from adventure we also had some lip smacking food in Queenstown. The first in the list was the Fergburger place, which is famous as the best burger in all of NZ if not the world. We even had a vegetarian option in the form of "Bun Laden", which was just out of the world, after waiting for it in a queue for a while. Another mention would be the Taj Indian Kitchen, which dishes out boutique Indian cuisine.

With Queenstown we had come to an end of the South Island trip and we took a flight to Auckland. As soon as we landed in Auckland we moved towards Rotorua, which is famous for its thermal springs and Maori culture. We booked an afternoon session at Whakarewarawa Maori village. This is an actual maori village wherein they conduct cultural programs and take tourists on a guided tour across the village illustrating their lifestyle and how they have adapted living in an environment filled with hot thermal springs. The most interesting part would be how they cook their food in the thermal springs. It was a very different experience with steam emerging from land across the village like some alien land.

The next day we visited Wai O Tapu thermal land which is famous for its natural colour studded pools. In Rotorua it is very common to get a whiff of sulphur in the air, which smells like sewage water or rotten eggs.  But this place was pretty interesting to explore. From here we visited lake Taopo and Huka falls which is a massive falls in terms of water flow. And one cannot visit Rotorua and not visit one of the thermal spas. We visited one of the most visited and highly rated, the Polynesian Spa on the banks of Lake Rotorua. But be prepared for the cultural shock of people moving around completely naked in the changing rooms, unlike in the subcontinent or even in Australia. We took the option of a private room and the thermal waters was very relaxing to say the least.

The next day on our way back to Auckland we visited the famous Waitamo Glowworm caves. It had a 45 mins guided tour into the caves and frankly even though the glow worms inside the cave were well preserved and stunning, the actual time viewing these glowworms was hardly 10 mins. But still it was worth it. After the caves we visited the Hamilton Gardens which is considered one of the best in the world and it lived to its expectations. This garden is divided into various themes such as Mughal Indian Garden, Japanese, Chinese, Tudor, Italian, Maori and list goes go on. Each of them were very good.

Having experienced all these places, Auckland seemed a tad bit dull. We visited the harbor, which was nothing compared to the Sydney Harbor and finally the One tree hill, which is a volcanic cone dotting around the city providing some great views of the city. One can either walk or drive right up to the top. This was the last place we visited before our trip back home. In total we spent close to 11 days exploring this country and we were so impressed with it , that we decided that we would be back to explore more. No wonder NZ is the favorite holiday destination for an Aussie traveler.

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