New Zealand – The great escape of South Island

As one of the most remote countries in the world, New Zealand constitutes a twenty hour flight from London, New York, and Nairobi. It’s one of those places everyone is talking about, but few has experienced. But with distance comes benefits. Something every traveller knows. The greatest reward of all is found on the southern island; a vast land of snowcapped mountains, turquoise lakes, and mysterious fiords. Remarkable uncrowded, it’s one of the world’s great escapes.

Man standing on the shore of Lake Tekapo, Canterbury, New Zealand.

My journey started in Christchurch, the capital city of the south island. It’s a convenient starting point; either if you plan to stay on the island or expand your visit to include the north island. As part of a longer trip, I was about to explore the island in only five days. Declared impossible by some of my more than well traveled friends; I got one advise. Skip the cities and head for the nature.

The roads on New Zealand shift as quick as the weather. It seems to exist only two states; straight and flat or steep and curvy.

Luckily, our 4WD was more than happy to get out of the garage and into some serious driving. It took us three hours to reach Burkes Pass, which, despite its elevation, only was an appetizer of what was about to come. Something we quickly realised on the other side the summit.

Winding road in Mount Cook National Park, New Zealand.

With almost hypnotic names, derived from old Maori words; Lake Tekapo, Pukaki, and Ohau, are without doubt one of the highlights of the south island. The crystal clear turquoise water, created by rock flour from surrounding glaciers, produces an almost fantasy like radiance glowing around the lakes.

In memorial to the pioneers who discovered the lakes, the Church of Good Shepard was built. Situated on the shoreline of Lake Tekapo, the solitary church is one of the most photographed sight in the country. But the lake is best seen at 1,029 meters height, or more precisely, from the Mount John Observatory overlooking the valley and surrounding mountains.

Church of the Good Shepard at Lake Tekapo, Canterbury, New Zealand.
Half way up to Mount John Observatory, Canterbury, New Zealand.

The road on the western bank of Lake Pukaki lead into Mount Cook National Park; a no man’s land were you can wander for hours without seeing a soul. Yellow road signs screamed at us as we winded down the road; short distinct messages from the nature around us. Crest, Creek, and Ford. As if we could forget.

The scenery at Peter’s Lookout, framed by early fall colors and water mirroring mountains, pulled us in for a stop. The view was just too hard to resist. But the real gem is Tasman Lake, a proglacier lake formed by the retreat of the Tasman Glacier and situated just below Mount Cook, the highest mountain in New Zealand.

Couple walking along Lake Pukaki, Canterbury, New Zealand.
One bridge lane, Mount Cook National Park, New Zealand
Tasman glacier lake, Mount Cook National Park, New Zealand.

A couple of days cut-off from the outer world make you long for some civilisation. Queenstown is the self-appointed excursion hub of the south as well as the hometown of all kind of adventure sports. Not surprisingly, it was here the first ever bungy jump was organised in 1986. But most people go to Queenstown for other reasons. With it’s proximity to the Fiordland National Park, it’s also the main gateway to Milford Sound.

The endless miles of flat land was transformed into a treacherous zig-zaggin serpentine as we crossed Lindis Pass on our way to Queenstown.

But a day-trip to Milford Sound is a long drive, ten hours altogether back and forth from Queenstown. A more exciting way to get there is to fly. Let a small turboprop plane take you up in air, cruise over the scenic southern alps, and get you down right next to the fiord in less than 45 minutes. The final approach is a breathtaking experience for sure, as you fly side by side with steep cliff walls before touching down on a thin airstrip. Worth every penny.

A young pilot navigating through the mountains, Milford Sound, New Zealand.
Snowy peaks at the Western Alps, Milford Sound, New Zealand.
Final approach, Milford Sound, New Zealand.

Rudyard Kipling referred to Milford Sound as the eighth wonder of the world. An epithet rejected by most New Zealanders; they hold it as the greatest wonders of all. I can understand why. The 26 kilometer deep fiord, an extension of the Tasman Sea, is framed by Jurassic Park mountains and free falling waterfalls. And the crystal clear water is home to dolphins, fur seals, and penguins, before they move on to the Antarctic. Sounds dreamy? It is.

A boat cruise through the fiords, Milford Sounds, New Zealand.
Into the wild, Milford Sound, New Zealand.
The 151 meter high Stirling Falls, Milford Sound, New Zealand.
Planes lined up at small airfield, Milford Sound, New Zealand.
A plane taking off at Mitre Peak, Milford Sound, New Zealand.

The region north of Queenstown is simply known as the West Coast. A better name would be the Wild West. Stretching roughly between Haast and Charleston, the nature is so lush and green it’s hard to understand you are on the same island.

The variety of the coast is almost overwhelming; from the tranquility of Lake Matheson to the rainforests and beaches at the Great Coast Road. We had to stop halfway just to catch our breath. A barista made espresso and straight-from-the-ocean fish and chips in Hokitika made the job. We were ready to go again.

Barren land trekking, Franz Josef Glacier, New Zealand.
Layers of reflections, Lake Matheson, New Zealand.
Surfer walks on side of the road, West Coast, New Zealand.
Pancake Rocks, West Coast, New Zealand.

The northern tip of the island enjoys the highest number of sunshine hours in New Zealand, something we got happily aware of when we trailed through Tasman National Park on the last day. Not surprisingly, it’s also one of the best spots in New Zealand for stargazing. The absence of light pollution in combination with clear skies makes it a perfect place to see the Milky Way, even with your bare eyes.

After 2,000 kilometers of left-hand driving, three days of trekking, and a bit too many early mornings, it was time to leave the island. The next adventure already awaited us on the other side of Cook Strait on the northern island. But that’s another story.

Crystal clear water at Te Waikoropupu Springs, Tasman National Park, New Zealand.
Riding on a low-water beach, Tasman National Park, New Zealand.
Ferry crossing between South and North island, Cook Strait, New Zealand.
Starry skies, Motueka, New Zealand.

All images © 2019 Erik Ekberger.

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Written by Erik Ekberger

Photographer.