It was New Year’s Eve, and my boyfriend, Jonny and I had just arrived in Hokitika, where we would be bringing in the start of 2019 together. We got settled into our hostel and then went for a walk around the quaint town.
On our walk, we were delighted to find a shop which allowed its visitors to carve New Zealand’s infamous jade, known as “greenstone” or “pounamu” in Māori. This precious stone often deposits from the river Arahura in Hokitika, as well as other parts of the South Island (which is actually known in Māori as “Te Wahi Pounamu”, meaning The Place of Greenstone).
The Māori people started the tradition of carving the protected natural resource, which they considered a treasure, into tools, ornaments and pendants. This continues today and we were really excited to try it for ourselves. Though we arrived too late in the day to get the full two-three hour experience, staff member, Stephan was really friendly and agreed to help us carve our own jade on a faster timescale. Our hour long one-to-one session included a carving demonstration and saw us polishing our own pieces of jade, which were eventually made into beautiful necklaces. Stephan was also very knowledgeable and gave us a history of jade sourcing in the local area. We were made to feel really welcome during our visit and we were even offered beer and snacks, since it was New Year’s Eve! I would highly recommend the experience and we were really happy with our new jade necklaces.
After leaving the carving shop wearing our proud creations, we headed to the beach and saw the well-known Hokitika sign, which began as an entry in their annual Driftwood and Sand Sculpture Festival’s competition in 2015.
We then had our final meal of the year (delicious Indian food), went for a drink and pitifully fell asleep at 10 pm! Luckily, we did hear the countdown and awoke in time to bring in the new year, before falling back to sleep (Jonny blamed his lingering jet lag and I blamed my non-stop travelling for our apparent exhaustion!).
New Year’s Day was now upon us and we were reunited once more with the rest of our Kiwi Experience travellers, as we took our big green bus to Franz Josef on a relaxing drive alongside the Alps and through the rainforest. En route we stopped at a viewpoint over Lake Mapourika, where we tried (and mostly failed on my part) to skim some stones.
We arrived into Franz Josef after around an hour and a half on the road and Jonny and I relaxed in our hostel and watched the film, ‘Bird Box’, having seen rave reviews on social media. It was rather terrifying but a great film and a nice way to spend a lazy New Year’s Day!
The following day, we decided we would be a little less lazy, and we went on a three-hour kayaking excursion on Lake Mapourika. Despite the persistent rain and the dreary-coloured sky, this was a fun trip where we embraced the wet weather in our colourful (but ultimately useless) “waterproof” jackets, and enjoyed the reflective water and natural landscape. Our guide told us that the lake’s surrounding forest was home to the world’s rarest kiwi birds, called Rowi Kiwis. They were previously critically endangered, but the area started running a conservation scheme to increase numbers and there are now 550 of the birds, making them endangered as opposed to critically endangered. Their efforts to increase the numbers are ongoing.
Interestingly, the forest around the lake has not evolved in 160 million years, meaning it had the exact same vegetation when dinosaurs roamed. For that reason, the producers of Jurassic Park asked to film there. However the bad weather (200 days of rain per year) meant that it would take eight years to film, so they used a place in Hawaii instead! The BBC’s nature documentary, ‘Walking With Dinosaurs’ was filmed here though, and they then used CGI to add the dinosaurs.
This was a fun activity, but by the end we were very much ready to go back to our hostel and get warm and dry.
Later that day we joined our Kiwi Experience friend on a short (one and a half hour) hike to see the Franz Josef Glacier. The cloudy weather meant that we didn’t get a great view of it, but I’m pleased we got to glimpse it at all, as Franz Josef is known for its unpredictable and rainy weather.
We then hitchhiked back to town, because Jonny and I had booked a time slot to use the hostel’s hot tub! Disappointingly though, there were no bubbles and it was only lukewarm. Luckily we made up for this with a delicious meal in the centre of town.
We departed Franz Josef the subsequent morning and went for a quick walk to a place where one can normally see views of Mount Cook and Mount Tasman. However, the foggy and cloudy weather meant that these were pretty limited.
Thunder Creek Falls
We then visited Thunder Creek Falls. Here we took fun and silly photos of us drinking the thin and rather tall (28-metre) stream of water.
Once in Wanaka, we checked in to our hostel (it was the first time we were sharing our room with others since Jonny had arrived to join me, and it was really small, and stereotypically hostel-like with multiple bunk beds).
A few of us decided to reconvene to climb Roys Peak, a mountain situated between Wanaka and Glendhu Bay.
Beforehand, we bought an early dinner of Subway sandwiches, which we ate on a bench overlooking Lake Wanaka. We also purchased some snacks to further fuel us for the upcoming hike.
The hike was just under six hours from the bottom to the top and back down again. I was admittedly a little reluctant to climb uphill after completing the eight hour Tongariro Alpine Crossing the previous week, but knew I should persevere for the beautiful views.
And though I was the only one of my hiking buddies to be wearing actual walking boots, I ended up with terrible blisters and didn’t think much of my supposedly good-quality shoes after this!
Nonetheless, the views were absolutely worth the struggle, as we reached the summit of the mountain and saw this:
As evening fell, we saw the sun setting as we careered back down the mountain, trying to stop ourselves from falling forwards on the downward incline.
Darkness came quickly and we took a taxi back to our hostel, unwilling to move our legs very much, and falling into our beds gratefully.
The next day was upon us before we knew it, and we arose achingly and boarded the coach heading for Queenstown.
En route, we visited Puzzling World, a fun attraction which features optical illusions, puzzles of all descriptions, and a complex, multi-level maze outside. This was a really enjoyable start to the day as I always love these kinds of activities (probably because I’m still a big kid at heart!).
Arriving into Queenstown, we checked into the motel we would be staying in for our last three nights together and had some much-needed relaxation time, watching TV while I nursed my blisters and felt sorry for myself after yesterday’s hike!
Eventually, I was ready to resurface and we went for our first activity in Queenstown, known as the ‘Adventure Capital of the World’.
We took a transfer to the Shotover River to ride the ‘World’s Most Exciting Jet Boat Ride’. Owned by the Ngāi Tahu, the Māori people who originated from Queenstown, the jet boat travels through the Shotover River’s narrow canyons at over 85 kilometres per hour.
Jonny and I were sat at opposite ends of the boat and so we asked the guides whether we could go again, as we wanted to enjoy the ride together. Fortunately, they allowed us to do so and we were really pleased that they did, because our second driver made it even more adrenaline-pumping, as we got soaked and thoroughly appreciated the thrill of the ride, as well as his informative facts about the history of the river.
That evening we went on a bar crawl that Kiwi Experience had organised, which included a visit to a bar called ‘The London’.
However, we were informed that the conditions were not good enough to skydive, despite the sky being blue and the weather feeling still. Supposedly it was much windier higher up and we were therefore told to re-book. We were going on an excursion to Milford Sound the following day, so our final chance to skydive together was on the morning of Jonny’s last day in New Zealand. At this point I was really crossing my fingers and toes that we would be able to do it in two days’ time…
To make up for our skydive being postponed, we decided to ride the Skyline Gondola up to the top of Bob’s Peak mountain. It travels 450 metres above Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu and is the steepest cable car lift in the Southern Hemisphere. It was absolutely stunning at the top, and alongside the breathtaking views of Queenstown, we could also see Coronet Peak, The Remarkables, Walter Peak and Cecil Peak mountains.
Once we had absorbed the 220-degree panoramas of the world below, we took the opportunity to ride the thrilling Skyline Luge (which is a type of light toboggan). We travelled via chairlift to the luge area and practised on the easier Blue Track (all riders have to take this route on their first go in order to receive their “Luge Licence”, as it is more of a leisurely ride than the other track). Jonny had tried this activity on his previous trip to New Zealand 10 years ago, so was keen to get onto the steeper and more adventurous Red Track.
Both tracks were exhilarating in my opinion and on the Red Track, Jonny went so fast whilst racing me, that I actually saw him fly into the air when going down one of the ramps! Each time we finished the track we would re-board the chairlift and go back for more. We had to literally jump onto it as it moved so quickly, and this was definitely part of the fun.
Eventually, we were ready to head back down the mountain via the gondola, but not before a quick game of ‘jellybean roulette’ in the Jelly Belly store, that was part of the Skyline gift shop.
The rest of the day was spent in Arrowtown, a charming and historic gold mining town, just a short bus ride away from Queenstown.
Find out more about our afternoon excursion to Arrowtown in the next blog post. And watch this space to hear about my last two days spent with Jonny, and the final part of my New Zealand Adventures!