It’s been exactly one month since I first arrived in Queenstown! As much as I like it here, I’ve been wanting to get out of town for a bit to see more of the New Zealand countryside. So I rented a car for two days and did some road tripping! Queenstown is conveniently located in the heart of the southern South Island, so driving to other amazing locales in the region only takes a few hours. On one day, a friend and I drove to Mount Cook National Park, home to New Zealand’s highest mountain of the same name (also called Aoraki National Park). It’s normally a 3 hour drive from Queenstown, but we stopped at a few places along the way to take pictures and do some geocaching. Somewhere along the way (outside of the town of Twizel) we drove through these big open plains surrounded by distant mountains, which apparently served as the setting for the Battle of the Pelennor Fields when Lord of the Rings was being filmed. We also stopped at beautiful Lake Pukaki, which I had seen before on the bus from Christchurch a month earlier. Getting to Mount Cook actually requires driving up the length of the lake, so we got to see the whole thing up close in all its glory. And yes, the water really is that blue!
Upon arrival at Mount Cook Village, we briefly met up with two other friends from Queenstown who had come the day before. They had to return home but mentioned checking out the nearby Tasman Glacier (New Zealand’s largest glacier), so we went off and did that first. It was a quick drive and hike to the viewpoint, where we would see the glacier a few kilometers away at the end of a big lake with a few icebergs floating about. After that we drove to the Hooker Valley (a name we couldn’t help but chuckle at) and hiked up to the lake that sits right at the base of Mount Cook. It was cloudy for the most part, but we did get a good view of the mountain and a brief glimpse of the summit where the famous Kiwi explorer, Sir Edmund Hillary, began his mountaineering days. It was his training grounds that prepared him to eventually become one of the first two climbers to successfully summit Everest.
After spending the day at Mount Cook, we drove south to Wanaka where I dropped my friend off and I continued onward to Queenstown for the night. Early the next morning I got up and drove out to Milford Sound, one of New Zealand’s iconic natural wonders. As the crow flies it’s only 50 km northwest of Queenstown, but the road to get there requires a drive of almost 300 km around a mountain range. From Te Anau (the last town before Milford Sound), the road winds its way through Fiordland National Park for 118 km and the drive is absolutely stunning. I stopped at a couple nice viewpoints and attractions along the way, including this lake that reflected the surroundings like a giant mirror (properly named “Mirror Lake”). There’s also a 1.2 km long tunnel that travelers must pass through (the Homer Tunnel). Since the tunnel is only one lane, drivers usually have to stop and wait for the oncoming traffic come through. While I was sitting in line, a few kea birds (New Zealand’s infamous mountain parrots) appeared on the side of the road. Oddly, they like to eat the rubber parts of vehicles and sure enough they flew over and started nibbling at the cars waiting in line!
After the tunnel, the road descends into this beautiful valley of dense rain forest all the way to the coast. I’ve seen countless photos of Milford Sound and finally seeing it in person was surreal. Photos just don’t do justice. A photo can’t capture the immensity of massive snow-capped mountains rising majestically out of the ocean, with hundreds of waterfalls cascading down their sides. Seriously, it’s one of those places that should be on everyone’s bucket list. Incredible.
Milford Sound (which is actually a fjord) is known to be the rainiest place in New Zealand, receiving up to 22 feet of rainfall per year. Although it was cloudy, it remained dry the day I went and turned out to be a great day for a visit. I ended up going on a two hour cruise with Mitre Peak Cruises, which was awesome. We got right up to a few of the waterfalls and we saw some penguins and seals! They even took us out to the Tasman Sea at the mouth of the fjord, where the peaceful sea turned into huge swells and we had to turn back a little early since the boat was getting tossed around like a toy in a bathtub. It was good fun though trying to hang on!
Overall, I’m really glad I decided to rent a car rather than taking a tour bus. Driving in New Zealand is a lot of fun with all its curvy roads, hills, long straight roads, and plentiful scenic landscapes everywhere you look. It made me miss the freedom that comes with having a car, so I think I’ll get one once I settle down somewhere and find a proper job. But for now, the plan is to remain in Queenstown for a few more weeks before I started heading north again. There are still lots of other things to see in this beautiful country!