After years of thinking about an around the world trip, it is now a reality.
Leading up to this trip, I have been telling people that it doesn’t feel real yet. When we started the serious planning and detailed discussions, the journey was still over 10 months away. Then, we encountered a few delays and numerous itinerary modifications that pushed the trip further back. Sometimes I felt that it would be pushed back indefinitely. However, walking onto the business class flight to New Zealand with all of my camera gear while wearing brand new boba tea socks certainly made it real. All of those frustrating hours with the Singapore Airline’s call center and their useless online planning tools were worth it.
The Flight: LAX-AKL
The flight from LAX to Auckland, New Zealand was around 12.5 hours, but it flew by! (see what I did there?) It was strange not to overlap onto my neighbor. Our fancy seats converted into lay flat beds and had ottomans that also served as a tiny companion seat. We were given noise cancelling headphones and attentive service. Another fizzy water? Yes, please. Would you like to eat with your significant other? Of course! Jyn and I shared a small table for a mid-flight meal at “her place.” For dinner, we had tea, Peter Gordon’s chicken, and delicious vanilla ice cream with chocolate and berries mixed in. Between meals, we watched movies with our legs outstretched. After ~5 hours of enjoying our situation, we converted our seats into beds and went to sleep. My neck didn’t hurt and I didn’t want the flight to end so soon. That is a new phrase for me.
We Have Arrived
Upon landing in Auckland, our priority-tagged bags came out first, and we needed to catch our next flight to get down to the South Island. Unlike the first flight, we had to be mindful of a 7-kg carry-on weight limit (15.4 pounds). That weight limit feels like almost nothing when you’ve packed for a year. My carry on bag was already 12.5 kg. So what does any normal person do when his bag is more then 50% overweight? I stuffed just over 5 kg of camera equipment (3 lenses, batteries, a glass ball, and other gizmos) into my cargo pant pockets and it looked just as ridiculous as you would expect. Even after I filled my clown pockets, Jyn needed to help me 🙂 She pocketed my camera flash. We looked silly together. I enjoy matching.
After landing in Christchurch we needed to pick up our campervan, our home on wheels for ten days. We opted to tour the South Island in a Spaceship model Beta 2S (thats the rental company’s name for our van) instead of hotels. It is slightly more economical, and certainly more fun. Plus, no more packing and unpacking! We walked about a mile from the airport to pick it up with all of our gear. It seems that the trekking started sooner than expected.
South on the South Island
Our first destination was the Moeraki Boulders. They are spherical rocks in the beach and are approximately 5 feet in diameter on average. It was an unusual sight. The next morning, we passed hundreds–or even thousands–of sheep dotting landscape as we drove down to the lighthouse. Fun fact: Sheep outnumber people 9 to 1 in New Zealand. It was cold and rainy (a theme for this New Zealand summer). We walked through the cold wind-blown rain and were lucky enough to see 5 penguins, flocks of seagulls, and a bunch of sea lions.
Next, we drove down to Kaka Point (hahaha) to spend the last few hours of daylight (from 6pm to 930pm) having dinner on the beach, doing some penguin spotting, and checking out the lighthouse again. The penguin spotting was particularly fantastic because we just roll up in our house and walk to the “hide” at the end of the 100m path just as the world’s rarest penguin (yellow-eyed penguin) comes waddling out of the ocean in its snappy tuxedo. A few guys had just left saying that they waited for any hour and saw nothing. Later, we went to the lighthouse for a short 1km hike and some pretty sunset pictures.
The following day we visited Teapot World in Owaka. It’s basically someone’s yard filled with teapots and knickknacks. We returned to the Purakanaui Bay, where we were caught in a windstorm on the beach. The wind was carrying fine sand and blowing at least 30-40 mph. Even the plump sea lions were taking cover near the grass or rocks. We discovered sand in our mouths for the next few hours. The sandstorm was either totally awesome or terrifying depending on which one of us you ask. Leaving the windy bay, we visited Purakanui falls and followed a narrow mountain road back to Nugget Point. That’s right… Our home climbed mountains as well (mild exaggeration). My “only job” was to pay attention to the “ugly road” and none of the surrounding beautiful scenery 🙂
The West Coast
Milford Sound, one of the top places to visit on the South Island, was our next destination. The drive to the Sound just gets increasingly more gorgeous the farther you go. If you hit water, you have gone too far. We stayed at the Milford Sound Lodge as it is the only place to stay within an hour of the Sound. The only downside to the splendor is the sandflies. They look like nasty miniature versions of the house fly that are out for blood and number in the gazillions. Legend says that they were introduced by the goddess of death to prevent people from lingering in a place so divinely beautiful. For the most part, if you are moving, you will avoid the majority of the discomfort. The moment that you stop, you are surrounded. We purchased $7 mosquito netting a month ago and I rigged it to the outside of our van with duct tape (see engineering). The netting, although aesthetically looked like trash, allowed us to have the windows open for fresh air without those evil creatures driving us insane. Us: 1. Little bastards: 0.
We took a cruise through the fjords later that day. It was very cold, but was very worth it. Dolphins played in the wake near the hull of the ship. The fjords tower above you on either side of the waterway and are home to numerous waterfalls cascading down from the clouds. One of the waterfalls, Lady Bowen Falls, is entirely responsible for powering the Milford Sound Lodge.
Traveling can change your perspective. At the end of that day, we learned two things about ourselves… One, we were envious of other people’s elaborately cooked meals, as we only had sandwich-esque food stuffs. And two, we were as happy as homeless people who won the lottery to take an entire box of someone’s donated food contained in a “premium” cardboard box. The next night, we ate at the fancy restaurant attached to the lodge. Note: Tax and tip are generally included in the cost of food here.
After the rain stopped, we decided to see The Chasm and hike to Lake Marian. On the way to the hikes, we encountered the endangered kea, the worlds only mountain parrot. The Chasm was a quick and easy hike to see a torrent of water that cut its way through the rocks. The Lake Marian hike took around four hours to hike, in total, but that’s not counting the time we spent at the lake. It was a moderate hike by New Zealand standards. When New Zealand says that there are some “steep areas with unstable footing” they mean it. The hike was primarily an uphill climb over rocks and through mud. At one point, Jyn formed a human chain with another pair of hikers to cross a muddy section of the trail while balancing on a tree branch. Throughout this hike, we were surrounded by giant lush green ferns and furry bright green moss. It was strange to hike upwards for such a long time to reach a lake. I guess that’s where it got the name “hanging valley.”
Leaving Milford Sound for Queenstown, it was fun to see that the mountains around you are so massive that there can be two distinct climates on either side of the tunnel through them. Before the tunnel, the sky was slighty overcast. After the tunnel, it was rainy and foggy.
Queenstown is well known for extreme activities (bungy jumping, jet boating, giant swings, mountain biking etc…). The town was extremely crowded and we were extremely ready to do our laundry. After the obligatory tasks to get situated, we headed out to try some luging high up on a nearby mountainside. As we rode the gondola to the top, we passed right by wild goats! A luge is a basically the bottom portion of a shopping cart with handlebars to control steering and braking. The downhill course has twists, turns, and steep sections where you are temporarily weightless. It is minimally dangerous, but still very fun. To calm the danger level down a notch, we visited a yarn store (Stitching Post) in nearby Arrowtown. It’s a hamlet with high-end shops, including ones that sell wool and possum products. Note: Possums are New Zealand’s #1 pest and a major threat to the bird population. Buy possum products to support the containment efforts. Speaking of birds, we went to see the most famous bird in New Zealand, the kiwi. Since they are endangered and nocturnal, if you want to see one, you need to find a kiwi house. We went to the Kiwi & Birdlife Park, where they have reversed day and night inside the elaborate kiwi habitats. We were lucky enough to see three adorable little kiwi. They are flightless birds that are unintentionally comical. Imagine a bowling ball sized kiwi fruit that grew legs and a long curved beak. They are hilarious to watch as they run around poking, pecking, and prodding anything soft with their beaks.
Tekapo (Take a poo?)
We left Queenstown to visit Lake Tekapo and its famous church. We arrived 15 minutes before closing time, luckily, and were able to see and enjoy the Church of the Good Shepherd. Due to the church’s popularity, the grounds are fenced off and closed in the evenings. The next morning, we went back and spent more time there. I chatted with a staff member and he mentioned that his favorite spot to view the lake was only ten minutes away. We took his recommendation and visited Mount John’s Observatory for a 360° view of the beautiful area. Pro tip: When you get a local’s recommendation, take it!
The Last Leg
Our time in New Zealand was winding down, but we still had three more destinations. We hopped into our trusty mobile home and dove to Wanaka to see the Wanaka Tree, a lone tree that grows in the lake. We had lunch (Thai chili tuna in pitas), enjoyed the tree, and departed for Hokitika. The drive to Hokitika winds through multiple mountain passes and gets fairly steep. Chinda was not thrilled. I did my one job and we survived. We arrived in Hokitika and immediately drove to see the Hokitika Gorge. It was gorge-ous, but the sandflies were relentless and cut our visit a little short. On the way back to our campsite, we stumbled upon a sign saying “Glow Worm Dell.” What a lucky unplanned find! Around 10pm, we entered the dell. It was magical. The dell is a dark, forested cal-de-sac surrounded by 40-foot tall walls covered with glowworms. It reminded me of looking at the stars on a clear night. A beautiful sight, but a bit gross once you find out that all of those glowing blue spots are hungry fungus gnat maggots secreting juices to attract flying insects. Lovely.
Finally, we returned to Christchurch, had our first boba tea of the year, ate Thai food, cleaned out the campervan, and packed for an early morning flight to Cairns, Australia at our Airbnb with indoor heating and our own private bathroom (luxuries after ten days of campervanning). New Zealand was a rugged adventure where we immersed in sheep, rain, wildlife, and natural beauty. We hope the Australia bushfire situation is improving. We spoke with a woman in NZ who lived in Brisbane for a decade and still has many connections in Australia–she says they really need tourists to return to the area. So off we go! We will stay safe and avoid areas with bad air quality.