New Zealand / Aotearoa - Part 1 of 2

“Whatungarongaro te tangata toitū te whenua”
("As man disappears from sight, the land remains")

Imagine finding a country lined with rugged coastlines and white sandy beaches, scattered with active volcanoes and alpine tundras, flushed with tropical rainforest, colored by turquoise glacial lakes and massive glaciers, and dotted by modern lively cityscapes. Now imagine all that within a land mass with less square footage than the state of Colorado, stretched out barely over the distance between Pennsylvania to Georgia.

New Zealand (Aotearoa in Maori) really is an enchanted piece of land in the middle of the Southern Pacific ocean. With beautiful views nearly everywhere you turn, around every river bend, and over every hill. Not to mention the rich Maori culture and unbelievably friendly folks.

Since we got married up north in Alaska, it seemed rather properly symmetrical to spend our honeymoon way down south and around the globe in New Zealand. We flew into Auckland, picked up our campervan from MadCampers and we started making our way south right away. We spent around 3-weeks trying to sample as much of the beautiful countryside and national parks as we can, knowing that we’d really only see but a sliver of what this country had to offer.

Mt. Goldsmith, or "Goldie," our moving home in New Zealand

There were so many beautiful and wonderful things that we saw, experienced, and ate that it’d be damn near impossible to write it down on a single blog post. But here is the first half of some of the highlights from our trip...

Glow Worms at McLaren Falls

Our first stop after picking up our Van was McLaren Falls State Park. Just a little over 2-hours from metropolitan Auckland the scenery have completely changed to a lush forested area with rolling hills. While there is a set of waterfalls and heavily flowing river here, we’re really just here for a quick pit stop, with an added bonus of having glow worms at one of the trails in the park.

After fixing up dinner and waiting for night to fall, we started walking down the trail. Didn’t really noticed anything at first because it was so dark, but when we turned off our flashlights that’s when the show really started.

Took me a while to figure out the best way to capture it, which was challenging because it was pitch black, but managed to get one photo that I was decently happy with.

Seeing these little larvae lighting up the overhanging rocks was absolutely mesmerizing... though once you learn more about them, they kind of lose their cuteness factor.  (The part that lights up are the larvae's butt-holes... and those magically lit up stringy things? Yeah... they're mucuses that they suck back up when they catch other bugs to be devoured...)

Alpine Crossing at Tongariro National Park

It was a grueling hike; 12 miles (19.4 kilometers) one-way trail of pure rugged alpine terrain. We started off quite flat, and even on boardwalks on part of the early trails to keep away from the thermal springs. But it quickly rises up to a steep climb, to the saddle between Mount Ngaruhue and Mount Tongariro.

But the scenery is staggering, with dramatic volcanic landscapes. It’s very easy to see how this very mountain inspired the gruesome landforms of Mordor and Mt. Doom. And why this is one of the Te Kahui Tupua, or sacred peaks of the Maori. The hike climaxes at the red craters and the Emerald crater lakes, which is also considered to be a sacred ("tapu") body of water.

It was all downhill from there, and we walked mostly on boarded trails. But the winding trails through a scenic rolling hill felt like it never ended. Plus, we also have to reach the terminus in time for the bus to take us back to our campground, which we nearly missed just by the skin of our teeth.

Backpacking the Coastal Trail at Abel Tasman National Park

After spending a night in Wellington, we crossed over to the South Island and landed at Picton. From there, we drove straight into Abel Tasman National Park to spend the night right outside the park.  

Our campsite was just right outside the entrance to the park and the trailhead, and also just right by the water.  So I wasn't going to miss the opportunity to take a sunrise shot from the shore, especially when it was just a short walk from where we parked our van.

First sunrise shot from the trip at Abel Tasman National Park

After a quick nap, we woke up mid morning to load up our backpacks and started our trek along the Coast Track, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks.

The full track would’ve been a 4-5 day journey, skipping from one of the 18 different campsites (or 4 huts) to the next. But we only did 2 nights, stopping at Bark Bay and ending at Anchorage Bay.

For a backpacking trail, the campgrounds were actually very nice. With very clean toilets, well maintained campsites, drinkable water, cooking areas, and even firewoods were provided. And not to mention the view…

The trail itself is quite moderate, a few hills and descent but nothing treacherous. We also had full view of the coast most of the time, making it very scenic. My only challenge was having to carry all of our backpacking gear, plus camera and tripod, and the drone kit. Which also wouldn’t have been too bad had I know how to properly adjust my 70L backpack...

Since it’s also another one-way hike, we had reserved our boat ride from Anchorage Bay back to the park’s entrance. Conversely, one could very well take the boat (or kayak) out and hike their way back.

West Coast South Island - Haast Pass

From Abel Tasman, we continued on towards the West Coast of the South Island, and the view turned dramatic the instant we turned into the coastal highway. Epic breaking waves, black sand beaches, sheer cliffs, and rolling fogs; all these elements in a single breathtaking view.

We took our time tracing the coastline, spending our nights in several different towns along the way. Our first stop was Punakaiki, famed for the Pancake Rocks, a very accessible and family friendly trail that lead to an overlook of the said rocks. Exposed layers of organic marine material that have been pressed for millennias and carved by the sea, formed these fanciful cliffside.

Next up was Hokitika, a quaint little seaside town. Not much to do here since it was pouring down quite heavily, but we stayed at a state park just south of the town, which had every photographer’s dream…. a picturesque lake with a boat dock. I made sure to wake up before sunrise to try to get a few shots in. Hoping for a bit of fog--which didn’t happen--but having the lake all to myself to take in the morning with just a couple geese quietly floating by was worth the effort already.

Making our way further down the coast, we finally reached Franz Josef Glacier. Just a very short hike took us to the glacier’s terminus. With markers along the way that indicated where the glacier used to end and have retreated to over the very recent decades. A stark reminder of the impact of global warming to these glaciers. It took us just about 40 minutes to reach the viewpoint, but in the future this little hike might be a longer and steeper one as the glacier continues to retreat up the mountains.

Who knows, maybe in the future the only way to reach the glacier is by one of those helicopter trips. Which would be a shame for those who can't afford it...

Even though we had to leave the scenic west coast to head towards Wanaka, the drive there was also enjoyable in its own right. With several waterfalls along the way, and just absolutely stunning view mile after mile.

And it doesn’t let up when we got close to Lake Hawea and Wanaka. In fact it got even more cinematic that it was putting us behind schedule to Wanaka.

By the time we reached Wanaka we were about 2-weeks in to our vacation, and we had just a little over a week left of what have been a wonderful trip thus far. But there were still plenty of things to see and surprises waiting for us...

For more photos check out my portfolio page, or visit my instagram.

You can also find other travel stories here.

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