The New Zealand Experience: From Glaciers to Rain Forests

Kia Ora! (the way the Maori people say hi, the NZ natives) I just got back from New Zealand yesterday, and I have to say that I am impressed with the country. Impressed with the scenery and even more impressed with the amount of money that tourism brings into the country. Overall, I had a great time with some nice experiences. Hopefully I’ll give you a general feel of it here.

I flew from Sydney to Christchurch, a good three hour flight. I was unfortunate not to have a window seat (which it seems I get the window seat every time but this time), so I was only able to catch a flew looks at the scenery while coming into the country. I could just see the vast amount of mountains on both sides of the plane. From the little amount I could see, I knew that I was in a treat as far as scenery.

I landed in Christchurch, and what a nice city to start off the journey. Since it’s the biggest city on the south island, I thought it would be decent sized. (After a quick look on wikipedia, I see that it actually is over 350,000. I would’ve guessed at most 200,000) But it was a quiet city with a strong English feel to it. It is quite clear that it was modeled after some cities in England. The most obvious one is the Avon River that runs through Christchurch. First of all, the River Avon runs through England. Secondly, on the Avon River, you could go on a punting boat. A few friends and I got to punt in Oxford last summer. To remind you, punting is when this boat (called a punt) boat is moved with a long pole by pushing off the bottom of the river. Two of the most famous spots for punting are Oxford and Cambridge in England. This is another obvous reason why Christchurch is modeled after England: the streets that line each side of the river are called Oxford Terrace and Cambridge Terrace. Christchurch also has a massive urban park, called Hagley Park. Supposedly this is the third biggest urban park in the world, behind Hyde Park in London and CentralPark in New York City. Other reasons include the many English style pubs and a nice town square. Many people said that Christchurch is boring, but I really enjoyed seeing the city.

After staying a night in a hostel called the Jailhouse (it actually used to be a jail), I woke up early to head onto the Tranz Alpine Railroad. This is a famous railroad journey that goes from Christchurch in the east all the way to Greymouth on the west coast. It’s a 4 hour ride, but it didn’t disappoint. The various types of landscape in New Zealand is astounding, and the train ride showed that. Outside of Christchurch is some flatlands, then it turns into some big hills, then to the mountains, then finish with rain forests.

I spent a few hours in the viewing train, looking at views and trying not to punch the picture-crazy tourists. This is something that really annoys me. I am not sure if it has always been like this, but maybe digital cameras revolutionized this obsession. People seem to be more worried about taking pictures than actually enjoying the views. It really is amazing to watch some of these people. One lady would stand at one side of the train, and if it didn’t have a nice view she would run to the other side quick with her camera out. If there was a nice view, she’d reach over people to try to get a quick snap (I know she was reaching over because I got hit in the head a few times). She’s run back and forth getting picture after picture. I can’t imagine that a fourth of them turned out good. One thing I have learned is that even when they do turn out good, it’s still never near the quality as the real view. The thing is that most people do this same thing; taking photos seems to be more important than actually taking it all in. And how often do you think these people look at these pictures? Do you really need fifteen pictures of the same thing? I am not sure if it was like this with old film cameras, but if someone would comment and let me know, I’m curious to know.

I arrived in Greymouth and immediately bought a rain jacket, considering it was pouring and I realized that some of my time will be spent on the rainy coast. Greymouth was nothing special, just a small town with some shops. This is where I met up with my tour bus, called the Kiwi Experience. I decided to take a tour bus since I was traveling alone and it seemed like the best way to get around. I was highly disappointed at first with the bus. There were two huge busses (probably 5o people each) and one small bus, and I was put on the small bus (just 14 people). I was happy about this since it’s much more personal. I didn’t really want to take this one, but this was the one that worked out with my schedule. However, I realized right away that this tour was what I had heard it was, a huge party tour. The driver talked about drinking every three minutes and how it was going to be such a great night. I didn’t come to New Zealand to party, so I was quite upset with myself for getting on this tour. I debated whether I should try to get my money refunded and rent a car myself (renting a car was dirty cheap there, about US$12 per day!). But I knew my chances of getting my money back were very slim, so I just went along. The first few days were pretty brutal.

From Greymouth, we drove south to Hokitika, a tiny town without much to do. With this bus tour, they took us to this pub in the middle of nowhere. I quickly realized that my tour company had some kind of deal with the pub. This is another thing I hated about this tour. It seems real shady with the places we stopped, since it seemed more in the interest of the businesses rather than the customers. After talking to one of the bartenders, I found that the Kiwi Experience people were their whole business. Five days a week, a bus (or three) would pull into their parking lot for the night (from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m.). All these 18 year olds would drink the night away as the owner smiled away (and then probably write Kiwi Experience a nice check for commission). I’m sure a lot of the people on the tour liked this stop, but I don’t want to be forced to be places I don’t want to be when I’m on vacation.

The next day we finally got out of there and headed to Franz Josef, a small tourist town popular for its glacier. We stayed for two nights, and it was nice to get away from the bus for a bit. The day we got there, two Canadians and I went on a long hike through the bush and found some nice rivers and bridges along the way. Our hostel had a hot tub, so we took advantage of that at night.

I had some really good and a few bad experiences in hostels on this trip. I’ve never had a lot of experience with hostels (maybe 4 nights), so 7 nights in a row was an experience. Overall, I enjoyed it. They were all very clean and pretty cheap (US$15 per night usually). The good thing about the tour bus is that I got to know some people very well since I traveled the whole time with them. A few of us cooked almost every night, which was a great way to save money. I only ate out three times the time I was there, the most expensive meal I had was US$6. I did really well and paid probably US$50 for food the whole nine days. The hostels always had sufficient kitchens. Around dinner, they would get pretty packed with all the backpackers coming in. That’s one thing I love about hostels, they know that you are concerned about saving money so they cater to that.

The second day in Franz Josef, we took a full day glacier walk. This is definitely one of the highlights of the trip. From a distance, it really doesn’t look that big. On our way to the glacier, our tour guide stopped us and said that we were over a mile and a half away from the glacier. It really looked like we were half that at most. She pointed out a spot about 1/10th of the way up and said that we hoped to get to that point after the full day of walking. From where we were standing, it looked like we could walk the whole thing twice in one day.

We got to the glacier, put on our crampons, and headed up the glacier. It’s definitely hard to get used to the crampons and walking on ice. It took some time to build up my confidence that these crampons will actually keep me from slipping on the nice. It’s amazing to see that much ice. When you’re in the middle of it, all you can really see is the ice and the huge rock walls on the outsides. It’s cool to see the guides create pathways (usually some type of stairs) to let us get through. Usually there was some sort of path which just needed a little work on, but sometimes they would have to create longer paths that took 10 or 15 minutes. The coolest part (and most challenging part) was one where it took the guides probably 30 minutes to set up the pathway. They set up different paths around a small pond of ice water and set up ropes that allowed us to climb up different parts of the ice. It really was a challenge to get up and down some of these, and I have a story to show the difficulty.

Like I said, there was a small pond of ice water which probably reached 5 or 6 feet in depth at the center. To get around the pond, we had to keep close to this edge of the ice. The footpath was hardly begin enough to get our whole boots in there. So on one side is a ledge about 4 feet high that we were straddling to (of course it’s ice, though, so there is no grip). The other side of the ledge is a pond and the risk of falling in with our bags and cameras.  Well I somehow made it all the way to the guide, who was standing at the foot of a 10 foot high ledge we had to climb up. I just had one step to get to her, and I saw a patch of ice near her that I could get to safety. I take the leap without really thinking and quickly find that I made the wrong move. With the help of the guide holding onto the top of my jacket, I managed to only dip my whole right leg in the water. Somehow I didn’t fall all the way in the freezing water, losing my camera and probably ruining the day. I think I managed to get my crampon into the side to help stay above the water, but the guide definitely saved me. I quickly climbed up the wall and away from the water afterwards. My adrenaline was definitely running after this. I was the only one of 11 people who managed to take a dip. It took a while to regain my confidence, but the rest of the day went great. The 8 hour hike was one of my favorites of the week.

The next day we headed to Wanaka, a smaller, less-touristy town. I really like this place. Everything else was tourist-central, so it felt great to come to a quieter place for the night. Like most other places (it seems) in New Zealand, the town was right at the edge of a huge lake with mountains all around. Most of my time in Wanaka was spent hiking. Two of the Canadians and I hiked up Mt. Irons, a mountain just outside of town. The first was for the sunset, and then we woke up early and hiked up for the sunrise. The views from up there blew away most of what I had ever seen. I can’t even attempt to describe it.

After the night in Wanaka, we headed to our final destination of Queenstown, the “adventure capital of the world”. That part probably did live up to its name since you could do anything you wanted there: skydive, bungy jump, white water rafting, jet boat rides, paragliding, etc. There were definitely some cool bungy jumping places, but I’m not really into that. I had 3 nights in Queenstown, so this was the main stop on my tour.

Driving in was pretty cool since we stayed on this road right along the lake (Queenstown is on a huge lake and surrounded by mountains too) with some great views the whole way. The colors in the country were amazing, and that’s not something I would usually notice. The different colors of leaves (ranging from organe to yellow and green) was a great complement to the green grass and blue colored mountains in the background.

The night I got to Queenstown, a friend and I took the gondola up to the top of a mountain there near the city and decided to ride the street luge a few times. I didn’t know what a street luge was before this, but it was definitely a great time. Riding around the corners on top of a mountain on these little go-cart type cars (minus the engine) made me feel 10 years old again. Unlike go-cart places, though, the workers here didn’t care about being physical with the street luge. We would go around corners full speed, spin each other out, do whatever we could without any concerns. As soon as we were at the end, we’d get out of the cars and run to the ski-lift to take us back to the top for another run. I could’ve done this for hours. However, it closed at 6 p.m. So our child-like street luge destruction was over.

Later that night, a good example of “the world is small” occurred. While at a bar, I walked by a guy that looked familiar. After walking by, I wasn’t sure if it was him but I went back and asked if it was him to make sure. It happened to be a guy that lived right next door to me while I was in London. He’s a guy from California, but I am yet to see him in the US yet. He’s studying in Melbourne right now, but I just happen to randomly run into him at a bar in New Zealand. Yes, the world is small. I had already bought my plane ticket to go to Melbourne next weekend, and he invited me to stay with him at his place. It’s really strange to have little connections like that.

I was originally going to take a bus day-tour to go to a place called Milford Sound, but the night before I realized that renting a car with someone would be somewhat cheaper (and about 100 times more fun). The bus tour was $160 and we paid $120 each including the same things. Plus we had the adventure of driving on the left side of the road, car troubles, and the freedom we all enjoy. It was about a 4 1/2 hour drive to get all the way there, so driving was much more exciting than sitting on a huge tour bus again. One of the nicer drives I’ve ever done. A lot of roads right near huge lakes, through flatlands surrounded by mountains, through the forests, through a one lane one-kilometer tunnel, and a 3 mile winding stretch down a mountain. After the 3 miles down, the car started to smell. The guy I was with (a guy from Philadelphia) didn’t know much about cars, and same with me. We weren’t sure what was going on, but we guessed it was the brakes. After a worried 20 minute hike, we came back to the car and it smelled fine. So we continued on our way.

We got to Milford Sound, which is one of New Zealand’s top desinations. Milford Sound is a big inland body fo water that leads to the Tasman Sea, which is the sea between Australia and New Zealand. Milford Sound is a fjord, not a sound, since it was created by glaciers. It was definitely worth the trip. We took a boat cruise which is what almost everyone does there. Huge mountains line the water all the way to the sea. Again, it’s indescribable, so I can’t even begin to do it justice. For some reason, we didn’t think about it being colder on the water, so we had our shorts and t-shirts on. We were freezing the prett much whole time, so we took advantage of the coffee. I need to learn from these mistakes.

The next day, I could feel a cold coming so I just took it easy. I walked around the city, through the gardens, and around the lake a bit. Nice city, but 99% of the people there are tourists. I can see why people like coming through there, but I can’t see why people would want to live there (other than the business owners, who are probably sitting back in retirement at the age of the 30 after all the money they suck out of tourists).

The next day, an 8 hour bus ride took us all the way to Christchurch. I walked around the city again for a bit, had a coffee, went into some stores, and then headed to the airport. I am starting to get good at sleeping in airports. Although it is usually miserable, my plane was at 6:30 a.m. and I get to save $20 without paying for the hostel. Sadly, I am starting to plan my trips around airport stays. Plane tickets are always much cheaper in the early mornings, so it’s a great way to stay an extra night for free. Oh, the life of a finance major. Wait, I thought I was supposed to spend the night in a 5 star resort with spas and massages and first class air and just charge it to the company. I just hope people learn from what’s going on right now.

That concludes my trip to New Zealand. As you can probably tell, I had a great time seeing the country and meeting some new people. Thanks for reading and I’ll talk to you next time.

About Trent

I started Frugal Purpose to share my love of personal finance to assist your pursuit of a more fulfilling life. I am a financial analyst by trade, traveler at heart, and want to share with you the beauty of this world.


One thought on “The New Zealand Experience: From Glaciers to Rain Forests

  1. People and cameras…I agree. I think that the digital age has made many people become shutter bugs, more so than when there was film involved. Although it seems that I have witnessed Asian tourists, over the years, snapping pictures quite frequently. Oh well, to each their own.

    Your blog does a wonderful job in describing your experiences, especially in New Zealand. What a great trip! Hope that it is not too difficult in getting back into the study mode. You only have a short few weeks left and you are all done! It will be good to get you home for a few days before you are forced to join the real world.


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