To put it simply, New Zealand delivers. The further south you get the more extraordinary and beautiful New Zealand gets. Snow capped mountains reflecting in lakes, and hillsides dotted with lambs and cows is the common landscape when driving through New Zealand. Nearly all the highways are single lane, and everything feels remote and pristine. When writing this post, I ran out of adjectives to describe the constant visual stimuli of the country. You'll see the words "breathtaking", "beautiful", "amazing", and "gorgeous" several times throughout this post, because, well, there's just not enough words to describe this country! Here's a "typical" highway view in the South Island (tough to see in the picture, but those are sheep on the hillside):
This post picks up from the last one, with each section about one of the stops on the Kiwi Experience tour.
Stop 4: Taupo
Taupo is a small town next to Lake Taupo (or pronounced “toe paw” in the traditional Maori way). The lake is the largest lake by square area, at 500 square kilometers, larger than Singapore and London. The lake was created by a volcano that erupted about 1,800 years ago, and was the largest eruption in the world in the last five thousand years. The area is scenic and there are several ways to enjoy the surroundings, including sky diving and boat tours. I did a boat tour around the lake, which stopped by rock carvings an artist created in the late 1970s, in the style of traditional Maori art.
The lake was beautiful and the ducks liked flying up the the boat and riding the waves.
The bus then took us to the Tongariro National Park, which features 3 volcanoes, including Mount Ngauruhoe, or better known as Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings. We did a scenic hike that included fantastic views of the snowcapped volcanoes, and culminated with a giant waterfall that we hiked up.
Stop 5: River Valley
River Valley is a remote area in the south west of the North Island without any town, and with, you guessed it, a massive valley with a river running through it. Lambs dot the hillsides, and the ebb and flow of the land provides serene views. We stayed at a cozy wooden lodge near the bottom of the valley. Activities in the area include white water rafting, hiking, and horseback riding.
I decided to try my hand at horseback riding. The horseback riding is in a unique style – they do not use a halter around the horse's mouth, there are only stirrups around its neck. The riding included a tutorial on how to control a horse. The first step involved walking next to your horse, then running with it, and then stopping. The exercise also helped create, what the instructor called, a “partnership” between the horse and rider. Following this exercise, we all jumped on our horses and did an hour and a half walk around the surrounding area.
My horse’s name was Honey. Honey did not react to all my commands, and I found myself shouting out “Honey, go left!”, “Honey, stop eating grass!”, “Honey, stop!” I must have sounded like an old married couple.
Stop 6: Wellington
Wellington is the capital of New Zealand, and the southern-most city in the North Island. I stayed in Wellington for one night. This is definitely a city I’d like to explore more. The streets have character, and the museum is supposed to be great. I did a quick night walk around the area, during which I walked down Cuba Street – a popular street in the city. The street is a shopping street open to pedestrian traffic only.
The following morning, we took the 3.5 hour ferry from Wellington to the South Island. The ferry crosses the Cook Sound, which, at its narrowest, is 14 miles apart. The ferry has the look and feel of a mini cruise ship, with a small movie theater and a few restaurants and cafes.
Stop 7: Kaiteriteri
Our first stop in the South Island was Kaiteriteri, which borders the Abel Tasman National Park. The national park features a spectacular, snow-capped mountain range, which is right next to the west coast.
It was a beautiful day, and so I seized the moment, and decided to do my first skydive over the mountain range. A few things about this: I have always been petrified of skydiving. The thought of it makes my palms sweaty, and I previously had no interest in doing it. Why would I want to free-fall towards Earth?
In New Zealand, skydiving is marketed everywhere, and nearly everyone on the Kiwi Bus had done it. People asked me, “why don’t you want to go skydiving?”, and my response basically boiled down to the fact that I was scared, a reason that I never think is valid to not do something.
I analyzed the rationale to skydive:
Top of mind was safety – can I rely on a parachute preventing me from hitting the ground? What I did know was that people of all ages, health, and intelligence skydive all the time. For instance, I remember hearing that George H. W. Bush skydived in his 80s. It seemed like there was enough evidence to believe that the chances of the chute not opening were slim to none.
However, was there a risk at all? Yes, people have died skydiving. But is the presence of extremely low risk a reason alone to not do something? No. I think everything in life has risk, and to live you must optimize risk and return.
Was there a return to the risk I was taking? In other words, was it a purposeful, or worthwhile risk? I reasoned that that is a bit of personal taste, but what I heard is that skydiving gives you the sensation of floating above the Earth, and that sounded like an amazing experience. So, I believed there was a return to the risk.
If the risk was so low, and there was a return to the risk I was taking, why was I scared? I reasoned that it is a risk I am not used to taking, and consequently, that introduced fear. To explain further, there are risks I take all the time that I am not fearful of, yet present much greater danger. For instance, every time I’m in a car, I risk getting injured or dying in a crash. But since I’ve been riding in cars my whole life, I was used to taking that risk, and consequently not fearful. Or another example, when I went mountain biking, I had a much greater chance of injury – mountain biking requires a certain threshold of athletic ability, and traveling at high speeds downhill has a relatively high risk of resulting in a crash with serious injury, yet I was not afraid of mountain biking because I’ve rode bikes since I was a child. So I concluded that my fear was merely a result of taking a risk I was not accustomed to taking.
Can I trust a stranger to open the chute? Well, I fly all the time, and trust the pilots to do their job, so therefore, I should trust a dive master as well, who wants to survive the fall just as much as I do.
Finally, I realized that for the majority of human history, humans have not been able to experience skydiving. We are now at an age when humans have learned how to skydive in a nearly risk-free way, and I am lucky enough to be living during this time.
I also thought skydiving would be a great opportunity to learn how to manage and overcome fear.
So, after all this thinking, I did it, and I’m glad I did. Here’s how the whole process went:
I signed-up for a 13,000 foot dive. First, I put on a blue windbreaker suit and some straps. I met my dive master, whom I’d be attached to while falling. His name was Rod, and I estimate he was in his 50s. I asked how many times he’d done this before, and he said “3 or 4”. I chuckled, and then said, “no really?”, and he continued the joke and said “3 or 4!”. Not comforting! But a guide on a previous tour told me that if a Kiwi guide doesn’t mess with you, he’s not a legitimate guide.
Next, we piled into a small plane, in which the cabin area was probably only 10 feet long by 4 feet wide, by 4 feet tall. There were no seats, just a foam beam in the middle to straddle with your legs. There were 6 passengers to the sky on our flight, which included a guy in his 30s who is a skydiving enthusiast and goes skydiving without a tandem, and his mother, who is probably in her 60s and had never gone skydiving before. Her son had finally convinced her to skydive, and so they were making a mother-son event out of it. I was pretty impressed she was doing it! The other passengers included my dive master, the mother’s dive master, and a cameraman, who the mother had hired.
After we took off, I peppered Rod with a ton of questions, and he just said “you just enjoy this and let me deal with the small shit”. There was no backing out, and no question or answer would change the fact that I was not returning to land in this small plane. So I heeded his command, and just looked out at the breathtaking mountains and coastline. The experienced divers in the fuselage were giving me a fist pound and then doing the hang-loose sign, in which I reciprocated. At one point, Rod pointed to his altimeter, and said, “this is where I’ll open the chute - at 5,000 feet”. Not even halfway to elevation, I thought. Rod was giving me a little site seeing tour, pointing out mountain tops, beaches, etc. I nodded and said some stuff, but didn’t comprehend anything he said. Anticipation was building.
The plane finally stopped accelerating, and the camera man thrust open the door, did the hang-loose sign, and then clung to the outside of the plane. The mother and her diver edged towards the door and then dropped, followed by the camera man. Then, the son did the hang-loose sign, and jumped out. Just me and Rod now, the final divers.
We edged toward the door. I did what Rod previously instructed me to do. I sat on the ledge with my legs dangling, and clipped my heels on the bottom of the plane. Crossed my chest with my arms and looked up at the sky. Any moment we’d be plunging, and there would be no more anticipation, I thought.
Rod, already secured to me, got in position behind me, and pushed both of us off, and we began free-falling. In the first few moments, we accelerated extremely fast, which was quite an intense experience. It was in those initial moments that I fully appreciated that there is absolutely nothing stopping us from falling and nothing to slow us down. This was the scariest part of the whole dive.
Following these initial moments, it felt like we were slowing down. In fact, we were actually accelerating at a lower rate, as air friction increased against my stomach and provided an increasingly strong counter force to our falling bodies. And finally, we hit terminal velocity, a velocity of about 125 MPH, which felt like we stopped falling altogether.
Free-falling at terminal velocity was a surreal and awesome experience. It feels like you are floating on top of a force field above the Earth. You are in solitude, everything is quiet, and the views are spectacular.
My whole free-fall was about 45 seconds. Many people think the free-fall feels short. However, to me, it felt quite long, and I was wondering when the chute would open. All that rationale came down to this moment, I thought. Sure enough, the chute opened, and Rod and I began our slow decent to Earth.
The skydive was an awesome, scary, and surreal experience. And, I had been able to manage my fear and do the dive, a small success. Did I love it? No. Would I do it again? I’m not itching to do it again, but I won’t rule it out. Would I recommend someone else try it? Yes!
Back to Kaiteriteri... There are beautiful coastal walks and beaches in Kaiteriteri, around which there is a neighborhood with houses that overlook the beach. I did one of the coastal walks and then stopped and chatted with some folks on the street that live in the area. I learned that most of the houses are vacation houses, and most of them have fantastic views of the ocean. This would be one awesome place to have a vacation house!
Stop 7: Westport
Westport is a small town on the West Coast. We all stayed at a festive hostel called Basil’s. The hostel had a great bar-b-que area, lounges, a room with a fireplace, and funky paintings. I went to the grocery store with my mate Riley, and we got some stuff to grill. We then met up with a bunch of others from the group, and had a great bar-b-que.
Following the bar-b-que, we walked to the beach. The sky was clear and the stars were spectacular, with the Milky Way revealing itself across the sky. The whole group got together on the beach and made a big bonfire.
Stop 8: Lake Mahinapua
Our next destination was Lake Mahinapua, a lake on the north western coast of the South Island.
On our way to Lake Mahinapua, we stopped off at the Pancake Rocks. These limestone rocks are along the coastline and have several thin layers that give off the impression of a stack of pancakes. Geologists are not sure why the stone formed like this, but the theory is that the limestone was mixed with other materials that eroded quicker, creating the stacked layers we see today. There is a walk around the rocks, which is elevated about 50 feet above the ocean. Waves slam into the rocks, and the rocks are in unique formations as a result of the water eroding the rocks over millions of years. There are also blowholes, where water shoots up through the rocks. It’s a pretty walk and a unique natural formation to see.
Following this walk, we did another coastal walk, which featured a seal colony.
After these coastal walks we stopped for one night at a hotel called The Lake Mahinapua Hotel, better known as the Poo Bar, a bar and hotel that has been around since 1905. At night the group went to the beach to watch the sunset over the Tasman Sea.
Stop 9: Franz Josef
Franz Josef is a small tourist town adjacent to Franz Josef Glacier. named after Franz Joseph I, Emperor of Austria in the latter half of the 1800's. The first day, I did a hike that led to a viewing area of the glacier. The walk goes through the valley that the glacier created, and is where the glacier once was before receding. Leading up to the glacier, there are dozens of waterfalls streaming out of the snow dusted peaks, many of which are temporary falls that are created during seasons when the snow melts. The walk finally leads to a direct view of the glacier. From a distance, the ice has a cool blue look, an effect of the light hitting the ice.
The following day I took a helicopter ride to the glacier. Before the ride, we all put on waterproof windbreakers, hats, boots, and gloves that the tour operator provided. The helicopter ride was an exciting and beautiful flight over the valley in which I took the walk the prior day. The helicopter landed right on the ice of the glacier. We jumped out with our guide, and then put on crampons, which are metal frames with spikes that you put on the bottom of your boots to give you traction on the ice. We then began our adventure around the glacier.
Standing on the glacier feels like standing in a weird ice world, and up close you can see the massive size of the jagged shapes, undulating walls, and deep crevices of the glacial ice. The glacier walk was about a two-hour hike around the glacier. The glacier is constantly melting and changing shapes, and as a result, the hiking path changes every few weeks, and the makeshift steps chiseled in the ice often change throughout the day. Therefore, as our guide led the way, she had a large ice pick she would use to hack at the ice and create steps and walkways for us.
There are also parrots, called keas, that hang out on the glacier. We were told these parrots are actually pretty smart, with the intelligence of a 3 year-old human. They are curious, and because they have no predators, are not afraid of humans. They were interested in our walking tour and got pretty close to us.
The glacier tour was a spectacular and exciting hike. I highly recommend this tour to anyone traveling around New Zealand. It’s also a good deal – I paid $319 NZD for the whole thing, which also included access to the facility’s hot pools for the day.
Stop 10: Wanaka
Wanaka is a laid-back and pretty ski town on the south east coast of the South Island. I did a challenging and scenic mountain bike ride. The trail featured uphill berms, steep downhills with some fun jumps, thick wooded areas, and open fields with views of the Wanaka River and mountains.
The Milford Sound
The Milford Sound is not technically a sound, which is a valley flooded by sea, but a fjord, which is a valley created by a glacier, and then filled with the sea. A fjord has steep sides and cliffs, compared to a sound, which has gradual slopes. The Milford Sound was named by Captain John Grono in 1812 after his homeland in Milford Haven, Wales. The area surrounding the fjord is a national park called Fiordland National Park. Leading up to the Milford Sound, there are many spectacular scenic outlooks.
I then took a boat cruise around the Milford Sound. We saw waterfalls, a seal colony, and more amazing views.
Stop 11: Queenstown
Queenstown is a gorgeous city nestled below The Remarkables mountain range (these mountains get their name because they are one of only two in the world that run exactly north to south), and features beautiful hillside houses and grand views over Lake Wakatipu and the mountains. The city is a tourist city, yet is not tacky like many tourist cities are. It’s quite small, and you can walk around the main area in less than an hour. The down town has a few pedestrian only streets that are lined with restaurants, bars, cafes, and clothing and jewelry stores, and the whole town has a festive feel.
The town is known as the adventure capital of the world, and for good reason – you can do almost any type of adventure and adrenaline sport here, including parasailing, hang gliding, luging, skiing and snowboarding, jet-skiing, sky diving, and bungee jumping. As a matter-of-fact, the first commercial bungee jump is right outside of Queenstown, and is still in use today. AJ Hackett is a company founded by Alan John Hackett, who made the bungee jump famous when he illegally bungeed off the Eiffel Tower in 1987 and then made the first commercial bungee in 1988. The company now operates several bungee jumps and swings, including the world’s third largest bungee, which is 440 feet, and the world’s largest swing, which is 394 feet, both of which are right outside Queenstown.
Overlooking Queenstown is a mountain with an adventure center at the top. The adventure center is the starting point for luging, skiing, paragliding, zip-lining, and one of the bungees. Throughout the day, you can see paragliders floating down from the mountain. I went with a group of friends from the bus and did the luge, which is basically like a downhill go-cart without an engine. This was a total blast and had amazing views of the whole city, lake, and mountains.