Inspired by a random conversation with a Canadian girl we met in Rotorua, Katy and I decided to skip a weekend on the North Island in Wellington in favour of a coastal hike in the Abel Tasman National Park, our first stop on the South Island. We were woefully underprepared for three days alone in the wilderness (only 20 people a day hike this 65km track in winter) but luckily some local staff booked us a water taxi out to the track a good hour and a half away, and provided us with sleeping bags. We ate cold beans and cereal bars, and had a deeply troubling experience with a rotten apple. We (accidentally) waded through an icy estuary and slept in purpose-built huts with no electricity. By the end, as we waited on the beach for our scheduled boat back to the mainland, I was asleep face down in the sand while Katy sang to no one in particular. It was a valuable experience to be active for a few days, off our phones and outside in the fresh air, climbing above empty beaches that wouldn’t look out of place in Fiji. Our first hot meal of pesto pasta never tasted so good.
The sporty streak continued at our next stop in Westport, where we stayed at Bazil’s Surf Hostel and went out for a surf at 7am. Despite the biting air, the water was fresh, with the strongest current I’ve ever experienced. In this little town, we continued our tradition of meeting questionable locals in ‘Black and Whites’. The name of this dive bar set the tone of a one-sided conversation with the only other customer, a grizzly old man with a fringed leather waistcoat and penchant for hideously racist humour (he also referred to us English girls as “good breeding stock”).
From here, we drove south to Lake Mahinapua, affectionately known as Lake Poo Poo because of its powerful smell. We stayed at the town’s only pub, and were treated to a full roast pork dinner and bacon breakfast (oink). Even better, there was a dog and two cats who didn’t object to me bringing them to bed for a morning cuddle.
From Lake Poo Poo we descended to Franz Josef. This was somewhere we hadn’t heard much of on the backpacking circuit, but it ended up being one of our favourite places. We stayed at the Rainforest Retreat, a gorgeous hostel just a few kilometres from the famous glacier. Katy was adventurous and did a skydive, while I stayed on solid ground and continued the sporty streak, running a beautiful trail through the valley. The next day, we cycled off an unexpected hangover (one quiet pint turned in to a tequila-fuelled 5am pool contest) with the hostel’s free mountain bikes. Then, everything changed.
Why Wanaka? A small town with nothing but a lake. Kiwi recommend a quiet one, to save yourself for the big one in Queenstown. Tired and full, we didn’t want to go out. It was an accident. But, one pool game leads to another, just as one pint leads to multiple bottles of wine on an impromptu bar crawl with the locals. It wasn’t our fault. The next day, Katy and I didn’t manage to speak until about 5pm. We weren’t sporty that day.
When we finally recovered in Queenstown, we celebrated with a ludicrously cheap pizza at Hell’s Kitchen, and a few drinks in the town’s many bars. One, the London, offers free pool, free pizza and $4 drinks. My pool performance is perhaps the strongest indicator of the South Island’s effect – back at the start of the trip, I won a killer pool contest and wore the shark title with pride. Here, I inexplicably clattered the cue to the ground mid-shot. We didn’t win this time.
Our second day in Queenstown was my favourite of the trip. Our food bag got lost checking in, so we were on the search for cheap food. Caribe Kitchen is tiny colourful Cuban hole in the wall with Latin music pumping out (our favourite for pres these days). For $6, we each got ‘Domino’ arepas: seasoned black beans, cheese and salad wrapped in grilled cornmeal bread. Gluten free, spicy and cheap, it set us up for a day of luging.
To get to the luge track, on top of one a steep mountain, you get a gondola up, providing panoramic views (you also sail past a bungee ledge near the top). Luging is essentially easy go-karting on a winding downhill track. It wasn’t sporty, but it qualified for what we call ‘adventure’ fun. That evening, we shared the ultimate NZ delicacy: a Fergburger.
This world-famous burger joint stands out for the typical hour-long queue outside. Debates continuously rage over its standing as NZ’s best burger, but I can safely call the blue cheese burger the juiciest I’ve ever had (no adjectives will do it justice, and I don’t like the word ‘succulent’).
Queenstown was the climactic end of a sensational trip, and every local can’t help but express their love for the place. I reckon that Kiwi Experience is the best and cheapest way for a small group or solo traveller to see New Zealand for the first time. We didn’t do the majority of paid activities offered, and have had an incredible time living on a shoestring and going off the beaten track with things like the Abel Tasman hike. The bus gets you up early and makes the most of every day; this three weeks has felt like double that, and I could happily do it all over again tomorrow.
We’ve gone from North to South, from sporty to sloppy, from (year of) sexy to soft, from poor to poorer. Kyle, our driver, saw us on our last day and pitifully threw a $5 note because we looked like ‘bums’. They say that travelling is the only thing you buy that makes you richer; I guess, for us, that’s true.