I had never been on a proper road trip before. I’d always dreamt of going on a cross-country road trip with my best friend or my brothers or my dog. Last spring, my roommates and I considered the possibility of taking a road trip from our school in Washington, D.C. to Florida for spring break. But sitting in the cramped bench seat of a rented camper van on one of the few highways that run through the South Island of New Zealand I realized, this was my first official road trip, and what a place for it to occur!
On a Friday night, four friends and I took a red-eye flight from Melbourne, Australia, where we are studying, to Christchurch, New Zealand. We arrived in the new country around 5 a.m. We couldn’t pick up our camper van until 2 p.m., so we each claimed a bench in the airport to lay down and catch up on sleep. Once noon rolled around, and we got some much-needed caffeine into our systems, my four friends and travel buddies and I left the airport to pick up our van and hit the road!
When we first started on the road, the blue silhouettes of the Southern Alps graced the distant horizon in their grandeur. My friend and I stared at them in awe. The only word our mouths seemed to be able to form was “…wow.” This would become a keyword for the week. Around each bend in the road, as the mountains grew closer and closer “wow” was the go-to exclamation.
On the first day, we drove from Christchurch on the east of the island to Greymouth, the largest town on the west coast of the South Island. We traveled through Arthur’s Pass where the mountains began to entirely surround us. We had to limit ourselves to the number of times we got out of the van to take pictures, but around each bend were more beautiful views. We arrived in Greymouth that evening and found a campsite where we spent the night. We were all surprised by how well we slept in the crowded van, but our exhaustion from the day certainly helped us fall asleep quickly.
The next morning we were up before the sun to travel north to Punakaiki. On the drive there we watched the sun rise over the mountains and light the sky like a painted Easter egg. It was our first New Zealand sunrise, a perfect introduction to the week ahead of us. Once in Punakaiki, we stopped to see the famous pancake rocks in Paparoa National Park. The rocks were tall, limestone formations which had thin layers carved into them from the elements over the years. The lines etched into the rocks make them look like giant stacks of pancakes, hence their nickname “pancake rocks.”
The next stop on our trip was the small, artsy town of Hokitika. It was a charming little town, with a pretty beach full of gorgeous rocks and driftwood. We walked around the beach and went into several stores that sold beautiful, handmade, New Zealand jade jewelry. We left Hokitika and headed for Franz Josef Glacier where we hiked a trail up to the glacier and watched the sun set behind the mountains. On our walk back in the dark, we spotted what we would later find out were glow worms along the overhangs on the trail’s edge.
Day three was full of incredible sights. First, we went to Lake Matheson and hiked the trail around the water. Lake Matheson is known for its mirror-like reflections of the nearby Fox Glacier. Because of the water’s dark, rich color, on a windless day, it reflects its surroundings perfectly. It certainly lived up to our expectations. Looking at the reflections on the lake felt like staring into an alternate reality. It was almost difficult to distinguish between the reflection and the real landscape.
After the lake, Fox Glacier awaited us. The hike up to this glacier was much steeper and more demanding than the walk to Franz Josef, but sure enough, we made it to the top, out of breath and sweating, but at the top nonetheless. However, it wasn’t any easier to catch our breaths once we stopped walking because the views were even more breathtaking than the trek.
That night, we found a small campground off the side of the road right on the beautiful Lake Wanaka. We sat on the beach and stargazed for a while before bed. We were so mesmerized by the number of stars in the sky. I had never seen so many before. We saw several shooting stars, and I don’t know about the others, but I found it difficult to come up with a wish. I felt like this trip was everything I could wish for.
Early the next morning, I rose to watch the sun come up over the mountains and lake, then we began the long drive to Te Anau. On the way, we quickly stopped in the town of Wanaka for coffee and a quick breakfast. The leaves on the trees beside the lake were just changing to brilliant autumn colors. It was picture perfect. I think our only regret of the whole trip was not having more time to spend in that lovely, little town.
Once we reached Te Anau, we took a boat tour out to the amazing glow worm caves. The caves were completely pitch black inside other than the hundreds of glowworms that clung to the ceilings and walls. The worms lit the cave in a way that resembled the stars in the sky we had been gazing at the night before.
Day five of our road trip took us to the gorgeous Milford Sound for a cruise through the water. It was a foggy, rainy day as it typically is at Milford Sound. We didn’t mind because that’s when everyone says it’s the most beautiful. We saw amazing waterfalls and a herd of seals from the deck of the boat. The water was an amazing blue that was so deep and rich it almost looked black. To this day, I’m still wondering how all the water in New Zealand is such brilliant shades of blue!
The next day, we ended up in Queenstown, the adventure capital of the world! We spent the day walking around the cute town and skipping rocks on the lake. That night, we slept in a campsite about 15 minutes outside of town. We woke up the next morning to the sound of a rooster crowing. I stepped out of the camper to see that we were surrounded by chickens and ducks along with a horse and two alpacas grazing in the pasture beside us.
Of course, we couldn’t be in the adventure capital of the world without doing something insane, so we went back into town to conquer the world’s largest swing and the world’s oldest bungee jump. My roommate and I did the Nevis Canyon Swing while our other friends did the Kawarau bungee jump over the amazing, blue river. The swing was quite intimidating. We weren’t nervous at all until they strapped us in, and we stood on the edge of the platform looking at what we were about to literally fall into. It turned out to be totally exhilarating, and we both decided, if given the chance, we would do it again!
The next day, after having completed our adventures, we left for Twizle. There, we hiked around the incredible Mt. Cook which is the highest mountain in New Zealand. It was probably my favorite hike on the trip. Maybe that’s because it was our last one, but with the sunset reflecting off the icy peak of the mountain, making it look like it was on fire, it was also the most stunning.
It wouldn’t be a proper road trip if we weren’t nearly stranded without gas in the middle of nowhere. That happened that night when we were leaving Mt. Cook to find a campsite. We were all tired and hungry and nervous that we would have to pitch camp on the side of the long, empty road. Luckily, we made it to a station to refill just in time.
The last day on the road, we drove to the town of Tekapo. There, we saw the small, stone, historic Church of the Good Shepherd that sat charmingly by the side of the lake. We then made the final stretch of our journey back to Christchurch, where we said our heartfelt goodbyes to our camper van which had been our trusty and loyal steed through the entire journey. After some tears were shed handing the keys back to the company, we said goodbye to one of our friend’s whose flight home was that day. Then, the rest of us went to our hostel for the night which was in a cool, historic prison.
The next day, we walked around Christchurch for a while, then caught our flight home to Melbourne, Australia. We were all so exhausted, but could hardly bear to leave New Zealand.
It was one of the most amazing trips I have ever been on. It made me so desperate to go on another road trip. From when we first sat down to plan a route around the island, to the moment we handed the keys back to the camper van company, the entire experience was amazing. Being free to travel at our own pace and not having a super strict schedule made it all the better. I’m so grateful I was lucky enough to experience my first road trip in such an incredible place.
New Zealand was such a pure and beautiful country, and if given the opportunity to go back and repeat the whole thing, I would do it in a heartbeat. I encourage everyone to take the time to go on at least one road trip in your lifetime, and if you can do it in a place like New Zealand, all the better! Thank you, New Zealand, for the beautiful memories that I will cherish for the rest of my life … and probably never stop talking about!