There’s a reason why New Zealand is nicknamed “God’s Own Land”. If you’ve ever seen the epic trilogy Lord of the Rings, its easy to see why: the three movies were filmed on location in New Zealand and the breathtaking landscape in which the characters interacted sparked admiration and awe in the hearts of millions of viewers around the world.
New Zealand is blessed with some of the most fantastic scenery in the world, ranging from snow clad peaks to bubbling lava pits, and thousands of visitors come every year to experience for themselves the land that was beautiful enough to stand in for Middle Earth.
A drive around New Zealand
Or course, the supremely easy way to enjoy the scenery would be to go online and look at the numerous stunning pictures available. Most people prefer to actually go there and tramp out into the country, hiking or riding miles out to see some of the most pristine and awe-inspiring landscapes the country can offer. Let’s assume however that you’re in Auckland for a bit and want to see the country with as little effort as possible. So how do you go about it?
The first thing you’d need is a car. Any kind of dependable car is good, but what would be even better is a driver to do the serious business of driving while you sit back and take in the scenery. This is particularly necessary in New Zealand, where distances between towns are much longer than they look on the map. It is also important because Kiwi drivers are notorious for having lead feet and not minding the road; which means that at least one person has to keep an eye on the road. It is much easier for you when that eye belongs to someone else, preferably the driver.
Once this crucial matter is settled, there remains the question: where to go? Fortunately, New Zealand has a very good road system and the answer is quite simple: pick a road on the map and drive it. You’ll most likely see some great scenery along the way, even with this haphazard method. North Island is pretty well settled, with innumerable little towns scattered about, so petrol and accommodations are pretty easy to come by. There are the usual hotels, motels and camping grounds available, which means making an unplanned journey isn’t as daring as it would be in most other countries. If you really want to see most of the best sights in the country, you can do a fairly comprehensive tour of both North and South Island, without too much trouble.
Exploring New Zealand’s North Island
From Auckland, you can head south along the Pacific Coast Highway to the Coromandel Peninsula, which is popular with the locals and overlooked by the majority of tourists. You might want to stop in Cormandel Town or the Bay of Plenty for the night or longer, to do justice to the splendid coastline with some picture taking or a seafood meal. A short trip inland will get you to Rotorua, the city famed for the overhanging scent of bad eggs and the hot springs, bubbling mud pots and geysers(pictured right) responsible for the smell. Here you can get intimate with the landscape, soaking in the hot springs while enjoying the view from the steaming waters.
A bit further along is Lake Taupo, which is famed as the biggest caldera lake in the world and a very pleasant sight. Taking part in the various water sports and outdoor activities might be a bit much however, so you can just go for another soak in the hot springs here. Continuing along the way, you’ll eventually get to Hawke’s Bay and here, you can again get personal with the scenery, for this is New Zealand’s premier Wine Country. Award winning wines are easy to find here and there’s no better way to enjoy the country than to savour its best produce! From there, you can make your way south to Wellington, capital city and home to some very pleasant cityscapes. From here, you can make the short trip to South Island, which most people say is home to New Zealand’s most stunning scenery.
Driving around South Island
Heading down to South Island from North Island involves a ferry ride across Cook Straits, which is itself a charming experience, provided the wind is kind enough not to blow too hard. If it does, images of shipwrecks and such disasters tend to come to mind. Once you’re back on solid ground in Picton, things look much brighter. Of course, you could save yourself a bout of seasickness by flying straight down to Christchurch.
The South Island is the rugged sister of the more urban North Island, with more mountains, sweeping vistas and deep forests. This makes for much more varied scenery, but also more challenging driving. Since the country is more rugged, there are fewer towns, which means there are fewer petrol stations as well, so keeping your car gassed up is crucial if you don’t want to break down in the middle of nowhere. Assuming that you didn’t fly straight down to Christchurch and that you want to stick to the more populated areas, then it’s best to follow the State Highway 1, which mostly runs along the east coast of South Island. Along the route, you can see rolling farmlands, beautiful coastal scenery and enjoy the delights of the towns you pass through. You’ll also be able to stop off at Christchurch to take in the pretty churches and gardens, as well as enjoy city entertainments after all that country viewing. Once you’ve ‘done’ Christchurch, then its off to points south.
If you did take the car ferry across the Cook Straits and are feeling really adventurous (and your driver agrees), you can try driving down Route 6, which follows closely along the extreme west coast of South Island. This route is a great way to get up close to the most rugged region of New Zealand, often called Westland in the older guidebooks. It also avoids most of the major settlements on the island, steadily winding its way south until the Lake Wanaka region, where you can reconnect to the rest of the highway system.
Whichever route you decided to take, further south a great place to head for Mt Cook Village and more importantly, its Airport, where you can take a Ski Plane for a scenic flight over the famed peak, the tallest mountain on South Island, as well as its icy companion the Fox Glacier. There’s nothing quite like flying high above a snow-capped mountain and glacier to appreciate the pristine beauty of the alpine landscape (except perhaps a strenuous bout of skiing). Once the flight is over, you can make your way further south to Queenstown, the adventure capital of the country. Fortunately, you can skip the more strenuous attractions like white-water rafting, bungee jumping and skiing, and go for something far more relaxing: a helicopter flight to see the sights. You can forsake the car for just a little while to get a spectacular aerial view of such sights as Lake Wakatipu, The Remarkables mountain range, Coronet Peak, Kawarau Gorge, Shotover River and Skippers Canyon. If you’ve got the funds for it, you can even take longer flights and see more distant sights such as Milford Sound.
To Milford Sound and Stewart Island
From Queenstown, the journey would probably veer off to the west for a bit, but the detour is well worth it. The Fiordland National Park on the west coast has some of the most amazing scenery around and Rudyard Kipling rightly calls it the ‘eighth wonder of the world.’ The park is one of the largest in the world, covering about 1.3 million acres of land, much of it inaccessible except on foot; however the park is home to the magnificent Milford Sound, which is easily accessible to someone without any desire to perspire or pant.
The road down to Milford Sound passes through some beautiful forests which epitomize the word ‘primeval’, and the river which runs beside it is reputed for having the best fly- and trout-fishing in the country. Further along is a one-lane tunnel that is open each way for 25 minutes each hour, after which is seven miles of tight bends plunging down 2, 300 feet. The hazards are evident in the fact it is a non-insurable road to drive; as the passenger however, all you’d have to worry about is enjoying the view of the native flora and fauna along the way. At the end of this nerve-wracking ride, is Milford Sound. If you’re inclined to leave the comfort of your car, then a cruise up the fiord is in order, and allows you a comfortable view of towering, cloud-wreathed mountains, thick forests and possibly even the rare cold-water coral reefs.
Once you’ve left the remote fastness of the park, you can travel further south still to Stewart Island. On maps it appears as a little dot, if it appears at all, but it is still worth a visit. Stewart Island is blessed with abundant forests, lush and vibrant and abundant with native fauna. There are plenty of kaka, parakeets, tui and bellbirds to liven up a slow drive along the road and this is one of the few places where an extremely lucky visitor has even a small chance of catching a glimpse of the shy kiwi in the wild, as they are pretty common around the island. A short stroll along the beach (and there are plenty of secluded coves on the Island) may also turn up glitters of gold among the sands, but unfortunately, its mostly fools gold. Still, the spectacular scenery makes up for the disappointment and seals, dolphins and penguins are charming attractions.
There are plenty of other attractions all along these routes, but then, that’s New Zealand: always something new and interesting a little further on. Most of New Zealand’s really spectacular sights are a bit out of the way, but that doesn’t mean you have to have calves of steel and the lungs of a deep sea diver to enjoy the fantastic scenery, as long as you’ve got some means of getting around. The country is so lovely that even a casual drive will bring breathtaking views and there are plenty of options for those who want to go a bit further afield without collapsing of exhaustion. After all, many Kiwi companies specialize in bringing appreciative visitors around their beautiful country with the maximum of enjoyment and the minimum of effort, and if it means seeing the sights without constant wheezing, well….why not?