Kia Ora! Welcome (in New Zealand’s native Maori) to New Zealand’s South Island. The South Island is home to some of the world’s most impressive natural landscapes, from magnificent mountains, breathtaking coastlines, gorgeous lakes, and enough adrenaline filled activities to keep you occupied for months. With more ground to cover as the larger of New Zealand’s two major islands, we planned to spend double the time on the South Island as we did the North Island.
SWISSGEAR meets van life.
Two people traveling, eating, sleeping, and living in a 24ft x 6ft camper van on New Zealand’s South Island for ten days called for us to be organized. We had plently of suitcases and brought some carry on luggage. Luckily as SWISSGEAR’s 2018 Travel Ambassadors, SWISSGEAR had us covered. SWISSGEAR provides luggage sets for traveling the world and quick getaways. We were able to unpack our Hardside Luggage sets easily by storing our SWISSGEAR 7699 Packing Cubes in the van’s overhead cabinets for easy access. This kept our clothes rolled and folded together nicely even as we took sharp turns on winding roads, which would have otherwise left our clothes jumbled together. The mesh top panels made for easy identification of our contents, so we could effortlessly locate which cube we needed.
Our van had a very small bathroom with a toilet and shower head (the shower head hung over the toilet), although we typically used bathroom facilities at campgrounds and holiday parks. The SWISSGEAR 2363 Dopp Kits were perfect to hold all our toiletries and the built-in hanger hook kept our things from getting wet and dirty on a campground shower floor or bench. It was also easy to hang on our van’s cabinet knobs when we brushed our teeth in the van sink or when I did my makeup.
From the coast to the sound.
We flew into Christchurch, the South Island’s biggest city, grabbed our hard case luggage, and picked up our campervan. Our first stop was Tunnel Beach, just past the southern city of Dunedin. We originally believed Tunnel Beach was named for the tunnel like cove that jets out into the ocean, although we learned otherwise from our personal exploration. While walking down the coastal path, we found a small tunnel at the base of the cliff with a long, dark staircase. Although it looked a little spooky, it was worth the steep descent. Our jaws dropped when we reached the bottom of the stairs at a small rocky beach. Two waterfalls cascaded over the edge of the coast, one crashing onto the beach and the other pouring directly into the sea. Apparently, the waterfalls are only present after it rains, so we were lucky to see them.
Nugget Point Lighthouse.
The following morning, we awoke in the dark to watch the sunrise from Nugget Point Lighthouse. After packing our luggage, and taking a short drive and quick walk from the parking lot, we climbed up the spine of the coastline above the lighthouse, using our hands to crawl up the steep terrain. We secured a spot above the other tourists with tripods to score a view of the lighthouse. As we watched and waited, the clouds turned pink and the sky lit up in an assortment of soft pastel shades. While the buildup was beautiful, I literally gasped as the sun finally appeared on the horizon.
Nugget Point Lighthouse, with sharp rock formations jutting out of the sea around and behind it, made for the perfect sunrise backdrop. A kind man who climbed further above us snapped a few photos of us and sent them to us via Airdrop on our phones. We were grateful for the kind gesture and the photo of us together at sunrise.
Milford Sound was our next destination, so we headed across the South Island from the east coast to the west. The drive was the most scenic we had experienced in the country so far, albeit long, made longer by our frequent stops because the landscape was too beautiful not to pull over and get out! We drove in the shadow of massive snowcapped mountain peaks and along crystal clear rivers and mirrored lakes. While stopping in the magnificent Eglinton Field, we became acquainted with New Zealand’s sandflies. The flies bite and we didn’t have bug spray, so we wrapped ourselves in blankets to take cover.
After driving through a tunnel that appeared to have no end in sight, we reached Milford Sound with the final rays of daylight. We camped at a site just outside the sound, setting up lights outside our van as darkness fell. It wasn’t long before we had visitors – New Zealand’s Kea birds. The large green parrots flocked to our van, seeming unphased by our presence and fascinated by the lights.
The next morning, we awoke to a gloriously sunny day and took a cruise on Milford Sound. Our boat cut through the glassy water in between steep cliffs that boasted rainforest flora and plummeting waterfalls. Despite the sunshine, the temperatures were still cool on the sound and we were thankful to have packed gloves and layers in our Laptop Backpacks. When the sound met the sea, we were mesmerized by how turquoise the water appeared, sparkling in the sun.
At one point, the guide put a tray of glass cups on the front of the boat and the captain steered the ship right under a small waterfall to fill up the glasses. I was the first to grab a glass, eager to try the cool glacial water – it was so refreshing! At a larger waterfall, the guide announced that anyone who wanted to stay dry should head inside the cabin, and everyone else should grab a poncho. I grabbed a poncho while Matt headed inside. The boat was expertly maneuvered right under the raging falls without crashing, soaking several passengers even with ponchos (myself included). Before my jeans got any more drenched, I retreated inside the cabin, to witness only a few brave souls left on the bow submerged in waterfalls. The fiord is home to dolphins, penguins, and fur seal colonies, and we were excited to spot seals on our cruise, swimming behind the boat.
Get your adrenaline pumping in Queenstown.
Queenstown is the tourist epicenter of the South Island, enveloped by mighty mountains and located on the shores of crystal clear Lake Wakatipu. Queenstown is renowned for its seemingly endless offering of adrenaline pumping activities. Skydiving and jet boating are popular in Queenstown, but since I had already done both when I lived in Australia, I wanted to try something new and significant to New Zealand.
New Zealand is the birthplace of commercial bungee jumping and Queenstown is home to three bungee jumps, including the country’s highest jump; the “Nevis Bungy”. I decided to “go big or go home”, and I certainly wasn’t going home, so the Nevis was my selection. On the shuttle to the Nevis Bungy we passed the original bridge and were told that bridge’s height was only one third of what we would jump! I tried not to think about the 440 feet I would be falling within the hour. We were given harnesses and even though Matt wasn’t jumping, he was still clamped in to ride the cable car that took us to the platform in the middle of the canyon.
Before I knew it, I was already shuffling myself out to the ledge. I tried not to look down at the small river that was merely inches deep, barley visible far below me. As the guide started the countdown, I shot out “wait, have you taken the photo?” He replied that he had but asked if I would like another. I said yes, he pointed to a camera and I smiled and gave a nervous thumbs up, and without hesitation he started the countdown again “3-2-1.” As instructed, I didn’t allow myself to think, I just jumped, launching myself off the platform into the gorge. A high-pitched scream escaped from my lungs and I was experiencing the 8.5-second free fall. It was enough time to get over the shock that I had jumped and to realize, OMG, I’m still falling!! The experience was so freeing, albeit terrifying and fun!
Before I knew it, I was already shuffling myself out to the ledge.
The best burger on the planet: Fergburger.
Back safely in Queenstown, it was time to reward my bravery with what CNN and the LA Times have named the best burger on the planet; Fergburger. The long line outside confirmed we were in the right place, with a mixture of languages audible to account for burger’s global appeal. As the queue moved inside the small burger joint, my gaze lingered on the walls, covered with old photos and framed articles with high accolades for Fergburger. We ordered through a friendly cashier from Nashville, eyeing the grill churning out dozens of burgers in an assembly line.
We were surprised to score an open table outside as we sipped on a delicious salted caramel gelato shake. While waiting for our number to be called, I recharged my phone with my SWISSGEAR 5358 Scansmart Backpack through its built in USB, wanting to make sure I had enough battery power to document “the most Instagrammed burger,” another distinction awarded to Fergburger. When our number was called, we were surprised by how massive the burgers were. The ingredients were so fresh and we devoured every bite, only leaving a few fries behind as we were completely stuffed but satisfied.
Majestic mountains and awe-inspiring lakes.
After polishing off the “world’s best burgers” in Queenstown, we headed to Wanaka to check out the world’s most famous tree. We drove through the Crown Range, which left us awestruck at the snowcapped mountain peaks surrounding us and expansive yet colorful valley below us. The sheer beauty and massive scale of everything on the South Island continued to leave us speechless.
We arrived at Wanaka Lake before sunset, home to New Zealand’s famous tree. After parking, we briefly wondered how we would find the tree until we spotted the crowd of people on the rocky beach with numerous tripods set up. Past them in the water, rose the lone Wanaka tree. We managed to find an unobstructed spot (or at least partially unobstructed, as people would arrive and stand in front of our camera to take their own photos with their phones) and patiently played around with photography. While the photos are beautiful and appear very peaceful, the scene behind the tree was anything but. At one point, a little girl throwing rocks in the water decided to throw one directly at Matt (thankfully he wasn’t hurt). The sunset came and went modestly behind clouds without boasting any bright display of colors aside from a momentary burst of purple across the sky.
The next day we ascended Roy’s Peak, which was the hike I was looking forward to most on the South Island. We were gifted with a gorgeous clear day, which offered us beautiful views the whole way up of Lake Wanaka, Mount Aspiring and the other Southern Alps. Sheep grazed along the path until dogs came to herd them elsewhere.
The hike’s incredible beauty came with a price, not in New Zealand dollars but in sweat and labor. The nearly 10-mile round trip hike was unrelenting, gaining over 4,000ft in elevation. It was admitting more difficult than we were anticipating. But the view from the top was worth every grueling step. We enjoyed the trifecta of colors from the top – the yellow of the peak, the green grassy hills, and the blue water and mountains in the distance.
Our next stop was Lake Pukaki. We reached the free campground at the bank of the lake just in time for sunset, soaking in the glorious view of Mount Cook across the water. Mount Cook, also referred to as Aoraki in Maori, is New Zealand’s tallest peak. We thought the sunset was beautiful, but the sunrise the following morning blew it out of the bright blue water. The sky appeared as if it was on fire, we ran out of our van and down to the edge of the water to capture the moment as best as we could.
Shortly after the epic sunrise, we packed up our van and drove to Mount Cook. Even after all the other insanely gorgeous drives we had been on over the past few days, the drive to Mount Cook somehow managed to surpass all others in beauty. We drove along the shockingly blue Lake Pukaki as Mount Cook appeared to grow larger before our eyes. Around each bend the view made our eyes bulge and hearts pound, causing us to lose track of how many times we stopped to take photos. Unfortunately, we must have pulled over a few times too many because when we reached our destination, Hooker Valley Track, Mount Cook was partially covered by clouds. It didn’t clear up as we hoped and only became more masked as we hiked onward. We crossed three large suspension bridges and battled strong winds to reach the viewpoint at Lake Hooker, which is supposed to have an impressive view of Mount Cook, but our view was partially obstructed by the weather. Rain clouds loomed overhead and on our return trip the rain caught up with us. We made it back to our van without getting too soaked and drove away from the clouds, which were gathered around the high mountain peaks.
The final majestic lake on our must-see list was Lake Tekapo, which was just as teal blue as Lake Pukaki. Lake Tekapo is home to an international dark sky reserve and known for world class star gazing. Regrettably, the weather did not grant us a glimpse of the brilliantly bright stars. Thankfully we woke to a beautiful day and were still able to admire nature’s astounding colors and check out the quaint old stone church on the lake’s edge. The Church of the Good Shepherd was built in 1935 and is the sole church in Lake Tekapo.
Wine tasting in Waipara.
Most evenings we shared a local bottle of wine with dinner, purchased with our groceries, but we couldn’t leave the country without a proper New Zealand wine tasting. The Waipara wine region is less than an hour north of Christchurch, where we would be flying home from. Albeit small, Waipara is one of the premium wine producing regions of New Zealand, particularly in Riesling and Pinot Noir. The old Weka Pass railway runs through Waipara, where a vintage train still passes through a few days a month taking tourists on short scenic rides. We parked our campervan at Waipara Sleepers, a unique accommodation where visitors can sleep in vintage train cars that have been outfitted with beds and minimal furniture.
Since we arrived in late afternoon, we headed to the closest winery in walking distance, Torlesse Wines. The owner greeted us and offered generous tastes of every wine we fancied in the tasting room. We especially enjoyed the Reserve Port, which was sweet and nutty, although were told it couldn’t officially be called port due to the region. Matt whipped out his SWISSGEAR Bifold Wallet to purchase a bottle of Port and Chardonnay. We had the room to ourselves, until later when a group of locals arrived, who had spent the day wine tasting in the area and were friends with the owner. The Kiwis assured him they saved the best winery for last. That’s when the best bottles of wine were opened and we shared stories and laughter with the locals. We stayed until closing and walked back to our camper van with our wine as the sunset, stopping at the Glenmark train station. The station was closed but we took a peak in the windows to get a glimpse at another era of travel, as the historic station has been maintained to hold true to its original state.
New Zealand is a breathtaking country where countless adventures await.We are so grateful SWISSGEAR gave us the opportunity to explore New Zealand and hope to return one day.
We can’t wait for our next exciting adventure, follow along to see where we are headed next with SWISSGEAR!