New Zealand is well-known for its incredible scenery and daredevil activities. When I visited New Zealand’s South Island last year a glacier helicopter adventure was high up on my list of must do’s. Using Franz Josef as a base I headed to a helicopter tour operator hoping there would be a space on a trip. Luckily there was one with spaces for the next day.
The following morning I was a mix of emotions, I was so excited and for some reason slightly nervous at the same time! Waiting by the helipad just over the road from the hostel I was staying at I looked on excitedly and waited as a helicopter landed, dropped people off and then we jumped in! The helicopter doesn’t shut down so you have to keep low as you jump in. I have never actually been so excited in my whole life…and as we took off I felt quite emotional! I fly all the time in my job as cabin crew but this was my first flight in a helicopter. With the ability to be so close to the surroundings with what felt like next to nothing in between the mountains and my feet, was breath-taking.
As we left Franz Josef behind, headsets on, we quickly soared high above the snowy peaks. All of a sudden Franz Josef glacier came into view, Wow! The views were absolutely breathtaking, huge icy blue spears jutted up from the glacier, as it appeared to be rolling down the mountainside, and if that wasn’t enough we also flew over Fox Glacier, Tasman Glacier and Mount Cook. Flying alongside Mount Cook and over mountain ridges was incredible, they felt so close, as if I could almost touch them. It was an out of this world experience and a very surreal one at that. I tried not to take too many photos so I could just enjoy the moment and take it all in, I was completely blown away by the beauty of these natural wonders. The deep turquoise and blues of the glacial ice formations looked stunning in the sunlight, it was hard to grasp their enormity from the air. Whilst buzzing over I spotted people at the top and bright red walkers huts perched right on the edge of the glaciers, everything looked so tiny in perspective to the icy world below.
After soaring above this incredible scenery it was time for our mountain landing. Somewhere up near Mount Cook we came down to land on what felt like the edge of the earth, pure white snow glistening in the sunlight and crunchy underfoot. With a few minutes to explore this vividly bright landscape we stepped out on to untouched snow and took some obligatory selfies in front of the helicopter. After a few minutes it was time to leave this wintry wonderland. Flying back towards Franz Josef, leaving the mountains behind there was a bit more time to take some final photos before landing back on firm ground…If like me you love flying then this awesome experience will be just your thing.
I booked the flight with Glacier Helicopters, it worked out to be about £200, which is a bit on the pricey side but so worth it. Having travelled to the other side of the world it’s not everyday you get to see glaciers! The other trip that looked fantastic was a glacier walk. A helicopter drops you half way up the glacier to walk the rest, you then get picked up again by helicopter from the top. Have you done this trip or a glacier walk? If so I’d love to hear all about it!
I am now back from my adventures, over my jet lag and excited to share all the experiences from my road trip on New Zealand’s South Island.
Matt and I collaborated with campervan hire company Jucy; I’m looking forward to putting up links to my work for them very soon. We had a Jucy Cabana van, it was small and compact with everything we needed, really great to drive and pretty economical too. It came equipped with snow chains, DVD player and a ‘kitchen’ in the boot that consisted of a gas stove, storage space with crockery and cutlery and a small chiller. It also included a duvet, pillows, linen and towels. All ready to go! Our Cabana didn’t have electric hook up so if you are in New Zealand during the winter months my top tip would be to purchase hot water bottles; they were a lifesaver at night!
Hiring a car or campervan is the best way to see this diverse island; it gives you the freedom to see and do what you want and to create your own adventures. We started out from Christchurch and drove towards Lake Tekapo; I have to admit during the first 2 hours of driving we felt quite underwhelmed by our surroundings, fields and fields of sheep and scenery that reminded us of the UK! That all changed though as we got closer to the mountains. Miles of straight road and snow-capped mountains led us to Lake Tekapo…more about this beautiful place coming up. From Lake Tekapo we drove to Queenstown, then to Te Anau, Milford Sound, back to Queenstown and then onto the west coast where we stopped at Hokitika and finally back to Christchurch.
I thought I would write about my favourite experiences on the South Island, so if you are planning a trip yourself make sure you don’t miss these out on your agenda…
Lake Tekapo was the first place we stopped to camp. The campsite, Lake Tekapo Holiday Park was lovely and our pitch had uninterrupted views of the lake and the mountains. I loved waking up to the beautiful scenery and eating porridge outside in the chilly, fresh air. The colour of the lake is worth a mention, a mesmerising soapy blue; this comes from the minerals left in the water from past glaciers. The small town was a short stroll along the lake and had a convenience store, a few nice coffee shops and a handful of bars and restaurants. Our favourite was Mackenzie’s a nice, cosy bar and restaurant and a great place to escape the cold! This was the first time in our trip that we came across Monteith’s craft beer and cider. We tried a tasting paddle, perfect for sampling a few drinks at once! Lake Tekapo Springs just along from the campsite had three hot pools an ice rink and a tube park. We ice-skated and went tubing, which basically consisted of jumping on a round tube and zooming down the 150-metre snow slope! It was brilliant fun and pretty exhilarating!
A lunch stop by Lake Oahu:
There were so many stunning lakes that we came across on our road trip but Lake Oahu stood out for me. Leaving Lake Tekapo behind we drove past Lake Pukaki, Mount Cook National Park where we had fantastic views of Mount Cook from the road and stumbled across a salmon farm. We stopped to have a look around, fed the salmon and bought a salmon and cream cheese bagel and some sashimi all produced from the farm. We wanted to find a nice spot to enjoy our high country ‘catch’ and that’s when we came across Lake Oahu, it was a bit of a mission off the main road but well worth it. We sat on the edge of the lake enjoying our sashimi surrounded by nothing but mountains, lake and silence. The silence was incredible I don’t think I’ve been anywhere before where there was so much stillness. Sometimes it’s the simple things that are the best and this is a really special memory of mine from the trip.
We booked a boat trip on Milford Sound with Jucy Cruize. It was 1 hour 30 in total, we cruised all the way along to the Tasman Sea, past a beautiful waterfall and incredible scenery. Milford gets around 8-10 meters of rainfall a year and is counted as one of the wettest places in the world, we were extremely lucky the day we went as it was sunny and dry. It is also known for sandflies, we were lucky with that too as there weren’t too many of them around!
Te Anau Glowworm trip:
Te Anau is a small town in the Fiordland situated on Lake Te Anau, the largest lake on the South Island. It is a good place to stay the night if you want to break up the journey to Milford Sound. From here Matt and I went on a brilliant trip to the Te Anau glowworm caves, only accessible via a 25 minute boat trip across the lake. Ducking down to enter the cave system we were greeted by the loud sound of rushing water. The cave has 7 km of passages carved out by alpine water, so clean that we got to taste it from the cave! Following the underground stream through 250 metres of the cave past waterfalls we eventually got into a small boat and drifted into the darkness leaving the rush of water behind. All became silent. Floating in the glowworm grotto it became very tranquil and looking up all I could see were the green lights of hundreds of tiny glowworms. No photos were allowed in the caves to allow your eyes to adjust to the darkness and so as not to disturb the glowworms. We booked our trip through Real Journeys who have an office in Te Anau right by the lake. It was a pretty special experience and one I would definitely recommend.
Queenstown is a very cool place indeed. Nestled between all the key ski fields, The Remarkables and Coronet, also relatively nearby are Treble Cone and Cardrona. We unfortunately only got to spend two nights there so didn’t get to do and see everything that we wanted to and there is so much to do! Snowboarding was high on our agenda; we booked a day trip to Cardrona from Queenstown. It was a full day on the snow and lots of fun. In the evenings we enjoyed relaxing in the bars and sampling the local alcohol! My favourite was Monteith’s cider, which I first tried at Lake Tekapo. I love New Zealand’s pub culture it seemed very similar to the UK and very social. One night we ate at The Cow, found on Cow Street. It is slightly hidden away but well worth finding. We stepped inside and were welcomed by a warm cosy atmosphere, and lots of character. An open fire, candlelight and bustling atmosphere made the tiny pub feel very cosy. A tasty simple Italian menu featuring pizza, pasta, one dessert – ice cream sundae and a good wine menu was just what we needed after a day on the snow.
We also ate at Fergburger, which is obligatory if you are in Queenstown and picked up takeaway fish and chips from Aggy’s Shack a small hut by the lake. It has got to be the best fish and chips I’ve had in a long time and that’s coming from a Brit. We also ordered a portion of green-lipped mussels, they were huge! There were all sorts of interesting things to order too such as smoked eel and sea urchin. Definitely worth a visit.
Things we didn’t get time to do in Queenstown included the Skyline Gondola, which goes up to 450 metres above Queenstown to the top of Bob’s Peak. I would loved to have seen the views from there! A jet boat ride on the Shotover River, panning for gold in nearby Arrowtown and wine tasting. With lots of unfinished business we’ll have to go back!
Helicopter trip over the glaciers:
A Helicopter trip over Fox and Franz Josef glacier, past Mount Cook and a snow landing high up on a mountainside was breathtaking! The views of the glaciers from the air were incredible, icy blue in colour and enormous in size. The beauty of these natural wonders blew me away. We flew over mountain ridges and very close to Mount Cook. It was such a surreal experience, I tried not to take too many photos so I could just enjoy the moment and take it all in. I also spotted people at the top of the glacier and walkers huts with red roofs high up on the mountaintops. A helicopter in front of us looked so tiny in perspective to the mountain! We booked this trip with Glacier Helicopters it was 40 minutes in duration, which is the longest one you could do at a cost of around £200 each. Although pricey it was worth every penny!
My Favourite drives:
The Crown Range to Queenstown is an epic route with its zig zagging mountain roads and at 70km above sea level it is the highest route in New Zealand. It must be a pretty hairy drive in the depths of winter! The views of Queenstown, Arrowtown, vineyards, Lake Wakatipu and the mountain ranges are awesome and definitely worth stopping at the various viewpoints for photos.
There is a maximum speed limit on major roads of 100km/h, make sure you stick to this and others as the police are pretty strict at enforcing the speed limits. Always allow yourself longer than planned to get to destinations due to the nature of the roads. For example some have frequent landslides and may only have one lane open, mountain roads can be steep with hairpin bends, or there could be avalanche warnings. Along with factoring in extra time to stop off to take photos and admire views. If there is someone behind you driving a bit faster just pull over, we did this a lot, it made the drives much more enjoyable. But generally the roads are so quiet we often drove for miles and miles and even hours without another car insight.
The drive to Milford Sound is a fantastic one; the road through the Homer tunnel at around 100 kms from Te Anau is pretty interesting; it stretches for 1.2km through the mountain, at a height of 945 meters above sea level. If you are going to visit Milford Sound I really recommend driving yourself, it’s 4.5 hours from Queenstown so a coach trip means a very long day but if you drive yourself you can break the journey up. We drove from Queenstown to Te Anau stayed the night, then got up really early the following morning and drove to Milford Sound. Without stopping it’s 2 hours but allow extra time as there are some spectacular viewpoints and short walks to some beautiful waterfalls. It was worth going there for the epic drive alone! Be sure to fuel up in Te Anau as it is the last place to get fuel on the road to Milford Sound, there is none at Milford either.
Arthur’s Pass was another great drive, we did this last on the way back to Christchurch, stop for a hot drink and cake at Arthur’s Pass village and look out for Kea, these large parrots are very nosy and extremely clever; make sure you watch your food around them as they will do their best to nab anything edible from you!
I had heard so much about the stunning scenery in New Zealand before I went but I was completely blown away by its beauty and ever-changing landscape, from lakes and mountains to coast and tropical rainforest, I just couldn’t stop taking photos! Whatever you choose to do in New Zealand you won’t ever be bored. I did and saw so much on my short trip but there is still so much more I want to see and do out there, I will definitely need to visit again!
If you have already been I’d love to hear about your favourite NZ experiences…
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