Would you drive 9 hours on a Friday for a weekend trip to a beautiful place? If your answer is no, you’re probably not a college student studying abroad. As both of those qualities happen to apply to me, that question summarizes my trip this weekend. Six of us decided to hop into a van and book it down to Milford Sound and see where the weekend took us. (Okay I might be lying–we didn’t drive 9 hours the first day, but we did on the way home)
New Zealand isn’t a the largest country, but it is big. And I didn’t mistype that. The land seemed expansive, whether out into the horizon or towering up towards the sky. The endless stream of mountains, rolling hills, and green sheep pastures stretching out before us made the driving fly by. But it’s these expansive places that we have to drive around that make the driving so extensive. The roads are winding more often than not and lakes and/or mountains frequently block the fastest way. So driving 9 hours to a destination is entirely worth it in my 21-year-old opinion when you have good views and good company. Plus there’s really no other way to avoid it. Milford Sound wasn’t coming to us.
Since the trip was quite the trek, we left on a Friday after picking up our gorgeous rental van. We rented a Jucy van so people could judge us and curse the tourists the whole way there. Judge they might, but it was a fabulous car with plenty of space for six people, camping gear, sustenance, and copious pillows and blankets.
And driving on the left side of the road?! It wasn’t hard at all. I actually had the problem of drifting too far left, which all the signs remind you to keep left. And just make sure you look the right ways before turning. Right now it feels like it will be weird to come back home and drive on the right.
Back to the trip. We drove south past some incredibly blue lakes and more sheep than I could ever hope to count. As we drove further from Christchurch and the flat farmlands, the mountains began to grow, from lines of the horizon to immediate forces over us. They went from shrubby slopes not unlike places into California to bare-peaked mountains painted with trees. The entire drive there I could imagine Gandalf galloping across the plains or Frodo and the Fellowship marching along. I haven’t gone to any of those filming locations yet, but this is only my second week in Christchurch.
That night we made a pit stop in Queenstown. Maybe because it was a tourist town or a Friday night, but this city was alive. With live music in a patch of grassy steps, barefoot backpackers wandering around with six packs, restaurants packed with well dressed young people, immediately we wanted to stay longer. Christchurch is much quieter in comparison, but that’s not always a bad thing (or we simply haven’t gone to the city on a Friday night.. which we may or may not be guilty of). If these two towns were right next to each other, it would be perfect–I could get my balance of a quiet evening out and a more energetic one.
I will have to interrupt this recap with a brief review of my first fish taco in New Zealand. If you don’t know me, then at least know if I see a fish taco on a menu, I will always get it. And so, despite everyone who’s familiar with New Zealand telling us not to get the Mexican food here, we got Mexican food at a small shop tucked into an alley of storefronts. Maybe it was the bright colors that drew us in. Surprisingly, the restaurant was quite tasty. This is my fish taco:
It wasn’t a street taco, but a solid hunk of fresh fish that really hit the spot. The sauce was some sort of avocado-cream combination and with a little bit of lime… I could go for another right now. Good ratio of fish to stuffing and I give points for creative stuffing other than lettuce.
Enough with that. On with it.
Just kidding, I have to mention the ice cream. It was dusk by the time we ate so we wandered down to the water, where people grouped along the shore of the lake to watch the sunset. Off to the right of that view was a packed ice cream place, which is usually a good sign. And it was. I had some kick-ass fig & pistachio ice cream while watching the silhouettes fade on the horizon. Not a bad way to end the day.
However, we weren’t quite done yet. We had to get to our campsite. The site we were looking for was Moke Lake, around twenty minutes outside of Queenstown. I’m glad we at least had GPS because by this point all the sunlight was gone. In the winding roads leading to the site, we could see nothing beyond the headlights. When the road turned to gravel, it started to feel like we were out in the wops (NZ slang, means the middle of nowhere) and about to make a wrong turn and run into some creepy figures. Eventually, a sign declaring Moke Lake assured us there would be no such events tonight. We paid our dues and proceeded to find a campsite.
The cool thing about the Department of Conservation campsites, is that it’s basically a free for all (at most places). There are no designated spots, numbered campsites, just patches of grass that if you fit you can pitch. That’s what we inferred it to be. We ended up sharing a space with an already sleeping tent after wandering around and trying not to get lost. After we set up and the van sleepers took their leave, the stars put on quite a show for us. Unfortunately I don’t have photo evidence, but the Milky Way hung above us and since we stared long enough, there were plenty of shooting stars to be had. Nature’s lullaby and an introvert’s dream–stargazing and getting lost in thought.
It’s a wonderful feeling waking up the next morning and seeing a new location in daylight for the first time. For anyone who likes the outdoors, it compares (slightly) to Christmas morning. In the morning, I found out we were literally on the edge of the lake with a circle of mountains all around us. Sheep became our alarm clocks and a small airplane made a few circles around us before the sun had risen completely. Other than that, it was that special kind of mountain quiet you can only find when you wake up in a tent. You don’t know what happened in the night, how the land will look in a different light, for a moment you get to sit in your tent and listen and dig a little deeper into your sleeping bag before seeing it with your own eyes. To all you bed lovers, you should really try it sometime.
From Queenstown, we headed to our final destination: Milford Sound. It was another four hours from there, though if you look on a map it doesn’t look nearly as far. Big land, big things to travel through. As we approach Milford, the mountains certainly grew. The Fiordlands live up to their name. So much green, so much water. The day was slightly overcast as we arrived but that gave the area more of a mysterious feeling that only added to the majesty. And the Lord of the Rings vibes. I came to New Zealand for the mountains (and to study) and so far I haven’t been disappointed.
At this point we split up: half the group went on a nature cruise, the other half went on a hike. I opted for a hike. Since there are no actual hikes within Milford Sound itself, we drove back out through the tunnel to find the Lake Marion hike. It was too overcast for the summit hike; might as well see a pretty lake and clouds rather than just clouds.
And green. I wasn’t expecting it but the hike felt like a rain forest–ferns spread everywhere and moss nestled in between every available rock. The river flowing through was icy blue and moving fast. The hike wasn’t flat either; it was a little bit the butt-buster I needed. We climbed through tree roots and rocky paths the majority of the way. At the top, the lake view tied it all together.
In Alexis’ world a good hike equates with a good day. So our second campsite simply made the day that much better. We pulled in, after about an hour of driving, to a wide meadow-type area enclosed by peaks and a creek running on one side. This campsite had fire pits and campers out enjoying their fires in the light of dusk. Obviously, we wanted a fire pit. When we asked the DoC ranger if the campsite was full, she gave us an odd look, laughing and saying it was half empty–it was full when you couldn’t see grass. Satisfied, we claimed a spot near a fire pit and right next to the creek. Dinner was canned soup but I used my backpacking stove for the first time and that was more than enough reason for me to enjoy it (it’s the little things).
We left relatively early the next morning for the long haul home. To be honest, I slept for a solid portion of it. The constant go-go-go of the weekend finally hit me and I needed a second to recharge. Hard to do in a car full of people, so sleep solved that problem. I certainly wasn’t the only napper.
At the end of the day, it was a solid first road trip. Worth every mile.
While in New Zealand, my goal is to accomplish an adventure every weekend. Far, local, doesn’t matter. I want to see something new every weekend, whether it’s a plate of really good food or a new view. I’ve accomplished this so far but I think I’m ready for some local adventures (and so is my wallet. Gas is 2.06/liter currently). I thoroughly enjoyed the trees and the mountains and the company. Needless to say, I’d do it again in a heartbeat. New Zealand has so much to offer and I’m right in the middle of it.
This weekend I’m off again to Lake Wanaka and I’ll end this post with a quote about my favorite creatures of Lord of the Rings.
“The Ents loved the great trees, and the wild woods, and the slopes of the high hills; and they drank of the mountain streams, and ate only such fruit as the trees let fall in their path; and they learned of the Elves and spoke with the Trees.” – J.R.R Tolkien